Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Is Walt Disney World Going Gondola?

I love frequenting the boards at The fans are (by and large) well-informed and engaged, and some of them have valuable contacts that are well-placed inside the Walt Disney Company.

On January 18, 2017, user danlb_2000 posted that a permit had been filed that day with the South Florida Water Management District for Project 88 at the Caribbean Beach Resort (CBR). Work was scheduled to begin this year (and be completed in 2019) on seven new buildings at CBR. These buildings, however, don't all seem to be well suited for guest lodging or hotel operations. Here is a map he provided with the proposed buildings circled in red:

CBR has long been rumored as a possible location for a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) expansion, and the largest building seems to be suited for that possibility. But this raises a couple of questions:

  1. Why would anyone want DVC at a moderate resort with such limited dining and transportation options?
  2. What's with all the small additional buildings on this plan?

Speculation on new transportation choices at CBR has been rampant since DVC was mentioned as a possibility at that resort. There are seven bus stops at the resort, and any bus heading to the theme parks stops at each and every one of them before heading to the parks. For a resort that is actually pretty centrally located, getting anywhere seems to take forever. But there are a couple of solutions to that issue that have always seemed liker no-brainers. If you look at a map, walkways or canals providing boat transportation to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios seem like easy fixes:

Then the always well-informed (though often cryptic so as to protect his sources) marni1971 chimed in, saying, “Connection options are being pursued. I'd doubt it'll be walking.” He also seems to be hesitant to commit to this being a DVC project. Other sources, however, appear to be pretty sure.

The boats have issues, as well. Some sources are claiming that getting the waterways to connect for boat travel could be more trouble than it's worth.

And let's not forget, what's with the little buildings?

On Monday February 13th, danlb_2000 (this guy is on top of things!) posted that two new small buildings were going in: one near the entrance to DHS (green circle), and the other by the Boardwalk parking lot (red circle):

As the structure near DHS was right next to the bus stops, many posters agreed that it could be related to transportation. TiggerDad noted that while it did not align with the park entrance, it lined up perfectly with a “construction road” east of the parking lot. Dandlb_2000 took it one step further and realized both of those things lined up with one of the unidentified new buildings at CBR!

Now the speculation really kicked into gear. A tram path? Bathrooms? Cable cars? An overhead walkway? Road expansions? A trebuchet? People were starting to loose interest, but good old marni1971 (the guy with the inside connections) kept posting cryptic comments. Really cryptic; sometimes just, “Hmmm...” Then danlb_2000 put all of the maps together, including a proposed structure at Disney's Pop Century/Art of Animation Resorts:

The word “gondola” started floating around. A lot. Poster monothingie noted that some of the buildings looked perfectly designed as gondola hubs for changing direction:

At 2:01 AM EST today, marni1971 confirmed: “It is indeed a gondola transportation system that's being planned. A little odd I know given the central Florida climate and it's a shame it's not a WEDway but it is a real thing.” And folks, let me tell ya: if marni says it, you can take it to the bank.

So, gondolas may be coming to WDW as a bona fide transportation option! I say may, because Disney plans often change. But if construction hasn't begun already it at least appears imminent, so I like our odds.

Now, let's be clear here: I'm not talking the tiny four-seat, open-aired models that used to be in the parks. I think this would be more similar to the Emirates Air Line cable cars in London – enclosed, air-conditioned, multi-passenger cars. London's have a maximum capacity of 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction. Even at low speeds, the constant-cycle loading and unloading could prove to be much less time consuming than bus transportation, and better for the environment. My fingers are officially crossed! 

How do you feel?  Please let me know at!  

*Photo credits to Google, users on the WDWMagic boards, and 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Disney in Depth – Country Bear Jamboree

Guilty pleasures – we all have them. Some might think my Disney obsession alone would qualify, but that doesn't even scratch the surface for me. And of my Disney guilty pleasures, my love for the Country Bear Jamboree has to be towards the top of the list. Therefore, I thought it would be fun to take an in-depth look at this classic attraction.

♪ Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. ♪ (I think we all know that's not the last time I'll be singing in this article. You've been warned.) The Country Bear Jamboree (CBJ) got its start long before Walt Disney World was brought into existence. “Of course,” you're thinking, “it must have premiered at Disneyland.” Wrong! CBJ was first conceived as a dinner show for Disney's Mineral King Ski Resort which Walt Disney was trying to build in the mid 1960s. Walt wanted to make sure that after guests spent their days skiing and hiking, they still had a reason to remain at the resort for the evening. According to the book Disneyland: the Nickel Tour (by Bruce Gordon and David Mumford):

 So Walt commissioned [Imagineer] Marc Davis to come up with shows that would keep those folks (and their money) right there at Mineral King. “Walt thought maybe we should have a show that had something to do with bears,” Marc recalled. “Lots and lots of bears.”

Davis, together with Al Bertino, began developing the concept. One day, Davis was working on drawings of the characters in his office. Walt walked in and saw the drawings and laughed because he loved the characters. That was the last time Davis saw Disney, who died a few days later on December 15, 1966. CBJ has therefore become affectionately known as “Walt's Last Laugh”.

Although the Mineral King project was eventually scrapped, the Bears lived on. When it became clear that the resort would not be built in the foreseeable future, the Disney Company decided to move the attraction to the soon to be opened Walt Disney World. The attraction debuted as the Country Bear Jamboree with the rest of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971.

Located in Frontierland, Grizzly Hall is the longtime venue for my beloved Bears. As you wait in the front room for entrance into the theater proper, make note of the “claw marks” in the floor. This is one of my favorite Disney touches.

Inside the theater, your first introduction to this wonderful cast of characters are three fellows that have just been “hanging around” to meet you. (Sorry; I couldn't resist.) Melvin the Moose (voiced by Bill Lee), Buff the buffalo (aka Disney Legend Thurl Ravenscroft, who is also heard in a few places you might know – the Haunted Mansion, Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean, for starters), and Max the stag (Pete Renaday) join you in waiting (with varying degrees of patience) for the show to begin.

The show. Here's where I start to get a little sad. You see, when the show first opened in 1971 (sponsored by Pepsi and Frito Lay, no less), it ran for about fifteen glorious, fun-filled, knee-slapping minutes. In 2012, Disney closed the show briefly for a refurbishment, and reopened with a bastardized truncated version. I'm still bitter.

That wasn't the first time the show had been changed. In 1984 the attraction was given a new show during the holiday season called the “Country Bear Christmas Special”. The show would return annually around Christmastime until 2005. And in 1986, Disney decided to create a new show for the attraction, "The Country Bear Vacation Hoedown". Vacation Hoedown featured the bears in their vacation outfits, singing new songs such as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “On the Road Again”. Due to attendance struggles, however, the new show only lasted for six years and the original thankfully returned. (Until the 2012 travesty, that is.)

Here's a lovely introduction to the show as it appears in my 1972 “Original Sound Track, a magnificent full-color illustrated book and long-playing record”:

And now, allow me to introduce you to my favorite ursine entertainers:

Henry- The host of the show, Henry is a large, friendly brown bear sporting a grey top hat, starched shirt, and a string tie. Voiced by Pete Renaday (who also provided voices for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Hall of Presidents, and the WEDWay PeopleMover/Tomorrowland Transit Authority), Henry plays the guitar and sings. He is featured on the songs: "The Bear Band Serenade", "The Ballad of Davy Crockett", "Come Again", and prior to the 2012 refurbishment of the attraction, "Fractured Folk Song". Henry is joined in the final three songs by Sammy, his raccoon pal who cuddles around Henry's top hat, acting like a coonskin cap.

Gomer- Gomer is a tall bear who wears a collar and tie. He's the resident piano player/accompanist, and according to his bio is highly regarded by the other musicians because he can play in a key other than C.

The Five Bear Rugs- The Five Bear Rugs are the Country Bear Jamboree's main/house band. They appear on center stage and perform, "Bear Band Serenade" and "Ole Slew-Foot". Prior to the 2012 refurbishment of the attraction the Five Bear Rugs also performed "Pretty Little Devilish Mary". The band consists of:
  • Zeke- The Five Bear Rugs lead singer, Zeke plays a banjo and taps on the dishpan with "a real ol' country beat". He is a grey bear with glasses who wears a tan top hat. He was voiced by Dallas McKennon from October 1971 until July 1975, when Randy Sparks rerecorded his vocals.
  • Zeb- Zeb is the band's fiddler, a brown bear with a light brown stomach. He wears a hat and a bandanna, and is voiced by a member of the Stoneman family.
  • Ted- Ted is a tall, skinny bear who blows on the corn jug and plays the washboard. His fur is brown, and he wears a white vest with a brown hat. 
  • Fred- The biggest of the five bears, Fred plays mouth harp (he plays it kinda sad). He is a brown bear with blue jeans held up by suspenders as well as a striped red and white tie.
  • Tennessee- Tennessee plays the One String "Thang", which sounds just like a guitar but only has one string. He is brown and wears a red bandanna around his neck.
  • Baby Oscar- Unlike the other bears in the Five Bear Rugs, Baby Oscar plays no instrument. He does carry a teddy bear, however, which he squeaks from time to time. According to my aforementioned record set, he's Zeb's son (Oscar's mom is off modeling fur coats somewhere).

Wendell- Wendell is a buck-toothed golden brown bear who plays the mandolin. He wears a blue bandanna and a hat. Voiced by Bill Cole, Wendell sings "Mamma, Don't Whip Little Buford" with Henry as well as joining the bears to sing the finale, "Ole Slew-Foot". Prior to 2012 Wendell performed "Fractured Folk Song" with Henry.

Liver Lips McGrowl- A big bear who gets his name from his large lips, Liver Lips plays the guitar. He is voiced by Jimmy Stoneman and sings "My Woman Ain't Pretty (But She Don't Swear None)" and joins the bears in the finale, "Ole Slew-Foot". As a side note, he always reminded me a little bit of Elvis.

Trixie- Voiced by Cheryl Poole, Trixie is a large brown bear who appears in a blue bow and tutu, holding a blue handkerchief and wine glass (which never spills!). Trixie is one of the few bears that does not appear in the finale of the show, however she does sing one of my favorites, "Tears Will Be the Chaser For Your Wine".

Terrance (aka Shaker)- Terrance is a tall bear with tan fur and a bit of a snaggletooth who plays the guitar while wearing a cap and yellow vest. He is voiced by Van Stoneman and sings "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone” as well as appearing in the finale.

The Sun Bonnet Trio- Those little Sun Bonnets from the Sunshine State, Bunny (Jackie Ward), Bubbles (Loulie Jean Norman), and Beulah (Peggy Clark) sport identical blue bonnets and dresses. The sisters appear on center stage and sing "All The Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down".

Ernest- Ernest is a brown bear who plays the fiddle while wearing a brown hat, a white collar and a red polka dot tie. Ernest was also voiced by Van Stoneman from October 1971 until July 1975 when Randy Sparks took over his vocals on “If You Can’t Bite Don’t Growl”.

Teddi Barra- Teddi knows how to make an entrance. She comes down from the ceiling on her pink rose-studded swing, fabulously decked out in a pink hat and long pink feather boa. She is voiced by Roni Stoneman and sings "Heart We Did All That We Could".

Big Al- Big Al is a big grey bear who wears a burgundy vest and hat and plays an out-of-tune guitar. He sings "Blood on the Saddle" and his insistence on interrupting Henry and Sammy with an unsolicited encore leads to the grand finale of the show. Big Al is voiced by Tex Ritter (father of comedy legend John Ritter) and is modeled after Imagineer Al Bertino.

Fun Facts:
  1. According to a plaque located above the Country Bear Jamboree’s main stage, the Jamboree was founded by Ursus H. Bear who lived from 1848 until 1928. In the attraction's backstory, "after a restful hibernation, (Ursus) rounded up his musically inclined kinfolk and friends to put on a down-home celebration".
  2. Grizzly Hall claims to have been built in 1898.
  3. Initially, Five Bear Rugs’ member Tennessee was going to be named Lemonade.
  4. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon wisecracks in response to Penny's awe over Wolowitz's mechanical robot arm, "At best, it’s a modest leap forward from the basic technology that gave us Country Bear Jamboree" (Season 4 Episode 01 – The Robotic Manipulation).
  5. A Goofy Movie contains a parody of the show known as "Lester's Possum Park."
  6. We don't mention the 2002 movie around these parts. Move along; nothing to see here.

And now for your viewing pleasure, here's a video of the original show I've shamelessly stolen from YouTube. Enjoy!

♪ We hope that you'll be coming back again.
That you'll drop in to see us now and then.
We've had such fun, we're going to cry.
We just can't "bear" to say goodbye.
We hope that you'll be coming back again. ♪

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Blame Game

I spent most of Tuesday night crying, constantly refreshing my news feed, hoping that the news trickling in wasn't true – that it was a hoax, a mistake, a case of internet sensationalism. Unfortunately, it was all too real.

A little after 9:00 PM Tuesday June 14, 2016, two-year-old Lane Graves was snatched by an alligator outside of Walt Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and dragged into Seven Seas Lagoon.

The mainstream news wasn't reporting it yet, so I was getting the details and news updates from a few Disney fan forums, posted by locals and guests who were on-site as events unfolded. As I read through the posts, tears streaming down my face and my mind constantly picturing the nightmarish events like a clip from a horror movie that was playing its own hellish loop in my brain, I realized that perhaps even more than news updates or expressions of fear, hope, or condolence, I was seeing one overwhelming theme: blame.

Blame the parents: Why weren't they watching their child? Who lets their baby play in alligator-infested waters? What was a child that young doing out of bed at that time of night, anyway?

Blame Disney: Why are there alligators on Disney property? Why weren't there warning signs of the danger?

Now that more of the facts are in, I think it's time to review what really happened. I'm going to try to be as fair and unbiased as I possibly can, but spoiler alert: There is a party I find somewhat culpable in this tragedy.

From what I understand, here's how the situation unfolded: Matt and Melissa Graves from Elkhorn, NE had taken their children (four-year-old Ella and two-year-old Lane) down to the beach of the Grand Floridian to watch Zootopia, that night's complimentary outdoor movie screening. Lane was a little restless, so Matt took him for a stroll. The were walking together near the water's edge (Lane was maybe a foot in the water, where it's about three to four inches deep) when an alligator sprang from the water and clamped its jaws around the boy. Matt Graves tried to rescue his son, but was not able to. He received minor injuries as he wrestled with the seven-foot alligator that had his son in its jaws. Melissa also dived in to help, but to no avail. In a few seconds, their son was gone forever.

So, to review, the parents were right there. The child was not unattended. It was just a fight the gator was destined to win. Further, it was not irresponsible parenting that had them on the beach at night; they were there to watch a Disney-sponsored event, surrounded by other families with young children.

Here's the stickiest point, and the one where fingers seem to be pointed in every direction: Why was the child splashing in an alligator-infested lagoon? Should the parents have been more aware of their surroundings, or should Disney have done a better job of warning them?

For the record, there are “No Swimming” signs on that beach:

Is this an adequate warning of the potential dangers? Well, when it comes to alligator attacks, courts in Florida have held that a swimmer's disregard of "No Swimming" and other warning signs were the sole cause of the serious injuries, thereby relieving the property holder of responsibility. There's also the ferae naturae doctrine, in which wild animals are presumed to be owned by no one specifically but by the people generally. Simply put: Under the law, wild animals are unpredictable and uncontrollable, and a property owner is not responsible for their actions (unless they are being kept as pets). And in Florida, the law does not require a landowner to anticipate the presence of or guard a guest against harm from wild animals.

Is this enough? Could the parents have known that “No Swimming” means “stay away from the water entirely”? Most people from Florida with whom I have spoken think so. The old adage in Florida is that if it's bigger than a puddle, it's undoubtedly home to gators. They're ubiquitous. (And not just gators; be aware of snakes and brain-eating amoeba. Yes; I'm serious.) But could parents from Nebraska be expected to know this? I'm from Ohio, so when I see “No Swimming”, I assume it's either because of boat activity in the area or lack of a lifeguard. (Or because pollution may be so bad that the body of water may catch fire, but that's another story entirely.) Do we Northerners know there are snakes and alligators in Florida? Of course. Do we expect to encounter them in as heavily populated and traversed an area as Walt Disney World? That's a tougher question. I do, but I'm a Walt Disney World and Florida nut. I'm also a big believer in knowing my enemy and trust me: Snakes and alligators are high on my enemy list. And I've seen snakes and gators with my own beady little eyes at Walt Disney World. I'm aware and I'm scared appropriately cautious. But I'm sure many people happily ensconced in the “Disney bubble” prefer not to ponder these possibilities.

Should Disney have done more to make guests aware of the issue? As I mentioned before, Florida courts have previously been satisfied with the “No Swimming” signs. It's also worth noting that in its 45-year existence, no other WDW guests have been killed by alligators. The only other reported alligator attack I've been able to find was 30 years ago. (There have been some snake attacks, but I'm trying not to think about those – particularly because one of the most frequent spots where snakes are spotted is near the Treehouse Villas at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa, where I'll be staying on my next trip.)

It's worth noting that Disney is taking steps to try to keep this from happening again. They are putting up small fences along the beaches (designed to keep guests out of the water, obviously not made to be gator barriers):

They're also erecting more explicit signs:

And as for keeping alligators (and snakes) off Disney property? Simply put, it can't be done. Disney does work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove any alligators over four feet that are spotted, but Florida is one big swamp and there's simply no way to keep them out. If you choose to visit Florida, snakes and alligators were there first, and they aren't leaving.

Why do we look to blame anyone? I think it's fear. I believe that deep down we think that if someone brought this upon themselves, we can find a way to make sure it doesn't happen to us. But I don't think it was the Graves' fault, and I don't think it was Disney's fault. 

There is a group that I think may have some culpability, however: other Disney guests.

I've seen it more times than I can count: guests thinking it's cute to feed the wildlife around WDW. They're told not to:

But they don't listen. Further, it's illegal. According to Florida Statute 372.667, feeding a wild alligator is a misdemeanor of the second degree. 

According to Disney Cast Members, some of the most egregious violators of this law are the well-heeled guests staying in the Bora Bora Bungalows on the water at Disney's Polynesian Villas & Bungalows. One told The Wrap Wednesday that several CMs have become concerned about guests feeding alligators over the past fourteen months. Guests who stay in the bungalows have access to the wildlife at the Seven Seas Lagoon and apparently frequently feed the alligators that swim there.

Another common saying in Florida: “A fed gator is a dead gator.” You see, once an alligator starts to associate humans with food, all bets are off. It's going to lose its natural reticence to interaction with humans, and a tragedy is bound to occur. At that point, the gator will have to be caught and killed. So even if you don't get attacked by the gator you fed, you may be setting up a chain reaction that will lead to tragedy.

I was going to posts videos and pictures of alligators and snakes at Walt Disney World along with some stories of snake attacks, but this article is too long already. Please Google the subject if you're interested. Suffice it to say, there's plenty of examples out there.

And please, don't blame the Graves. And don't blame Disney. Just be aware, be safe, and don't feed the wildlife!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Letter to the Walt Disney Company

Sometimes friends have to be honest with each other, and when you're doing something stupid a real friend will point it out.

It was in that spirit that I sent the following letter to several Disney executives:

February 25, 2016
Dear *******,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I must confess, I'm rather at a loss on how best to word this message. I'm not out to attack you personally, and I'm certainly not angling to score any Disney “freebies”. I am rather concerned about trends I've seen develop within the Walt Disney Company over the last several years, and I thought it may be of value to you to let you know how decisions are being viewed by consumers.

Let's start with ticket prices. According to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015 (and I'll trust Len Testa's math skills over mine every day of the week), the cost of a Disney vacation has increased roughly three times faster than US workers' median wages (6.2% vs. 1.9%) since 2005. To put that in perspective, it took the average worker 3.8 hours to earn enough money for a 1-Day Base Ticket in 2005. In 2015 it was 4.9 hours. If this trend continues, it will be 8 hours in a decade. According to my math, that means a person in 2025 would have to work an entire 40 hour week just to get his family of 5 into a theme park for a day. I really hope they're not hungry.

But I'm not kidding myself; the median US worker isn't exactly your target market, is it? It now costs more than an entire year's travel budget for 80% of US households to take a trip to Walt Disney World. If you're one of the 230 million Americans making less than $100,000 annually, then a yearly Disney trip just isn't in the cards.

So you're targeting the top 20%, once-in-a-lifetime visitors, and foreign tourists. You know what? I get that. I don't love it, but I understand it. If revenue is up (which it is; I pay attention to the annual reports), then the market can obviously bear this strategy, at least for now. (Once you're only bringing in the top 15% instead of the top 20% I think you could be in trouble, but that's a conversation for another time.) And let's face it; the parks are busy – crowded, even. Lines are long and guest satisfaction is down. Now, here is where I have an issue.

I've seen Disney using lower guest satisfaction due to long waits as an excuse for raising prices, as so many Disneyland AP holders will attest. But that's not the whole story, is it? Not when reports have surfaced that across-the-board cuts are coming to all domestic parks and resorts. Numbers of Cast Members are being reduced wherever possible. Fewer CMs will be at registers in shops, operating resort front desks, handling bags at the resorts, and running attractions. Overtime is being suspended wherever possible, and when Cast Members leave, they are not being replaced. And all of this despite record numbers of tourists and profits being reported. Shorter park hours and fewer Cast Members mean longer waits, and less things to see and do: Meet and Greets have been cut; rooms taken out of inventory at the resorts; reduced park hours; reduced operating hours of attractions, shops, and restaurants; and lower levels of customer service. And sadly, the Disney standards have slipped so far already. I can't count the number of times I’ve encountered filthy – indeed swampy – restrooms at places as varied as Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, and the Beach Club Resort. It's a sad, sorry decline from the days when top Disney executives would dive to pick up stray pieces of garbage.

And why are guests being treated to a sub-par experience? It's not like 2001, when guests were staying away in droves. No, the general perception is that these cuts are because of issues in Paris and Shanghai, and perhaps some lingering fallout from the boondoggle that was MM+/FP+. So once again, the geese that lay the golden eggs (the domestic theme parks) are being starved and deprived to cover ineptitude in other facets of the company. I have to feel that under those conditions, the production of golden eggs won't continue forever.

I obviously don't know your personal feelings or attitudes towards the Disney fan community. But I can tell you that the general perception among many Disney fans is that you view us as unintelligent, unsophisticated rubes that you can continue to milk shamelessly, and we'll continue to smile vacantly and thank you for the honor. How else to explain the outrageous increases in price combined with the egregious decline in service? Or that we continue to subsidize other aspects of the company, when there hasn't been a new country added to Epcot's World Showcase since 1988, and one of only two rides there has been out of service for a makeover since October 5, 2014? And don't even get me started on the Graveyard that was Formerly Known as Disney's Hollywood Studios. Don't you feel the least bit embarrassed about charging for a full day's admission there right now? Of course, I'm very interested in what may eventually come to that park, but if DAK's Avatar is any indication, I have to wonder if it will actually open before I'm in a nursing home.

I suppose now is the time when I should threaten to pull all of my business and never visit again, but the fact that I care enough to send this letter tells us both that's not very likely. I can tell you that even as a DVC member, I won't be visiting in 2016. 2017? Time will tell, I guess. More than anything, I'm just disappointed. I've always considered the Walt Disney Company as the gold standard for customer service, and modeled myself after you professionally. I'm truly sad to say that I believe I now provide a higher level of service to my customers than you do to yours.

If you would like any clarification to what I've said or to discuss this with me directly, please feel free to email me at ************ or call me at (***) ***-****. Thank you very much for taking the time to read and consider what I had to say.

Teri ********

In case you'd like to contact Disney executives as well, here are some useful email addresses:

Robert Iger

Tom Staggs
Chief Operating Officer

George Kalogridis
President of Walt Disney World

Jim MacPhee
Senior Vice President of Next Generation Experiences and Walt Disney World Parks

Phil Holmes
Vice President of Hollywood Studios, Former Vice President of Magic Kingdom

Sam Lau
Former Vice President of Epcot

Trish Vega
Assistant to Tom Staggs

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Disney Trip Planning 101 – When to Go

Tact has never been my strong suit. I'm not being unfair to myself; anyone who knows me will tell you the same. I'm more of a “steam-roller over all objections because I know best” sort of person. It's not that I want to be rude; it's just that more often than not, I'm right. Never is this more true than when it comes to planning a Disney vacation.

A lot of people come to me for Disney trip planning advice. Unfortunately, although I can give people advice, I can't force them to utilize it. By putting it into a written, easily accessed format, however, I'm hoping that it can be a useful reference for those who choose to heed it.

The advice I'm about to give is not for the frequent or experienced Disney guest. If you visit often or know you'll be back soon, much of what I'm going to say you either already know or can tailor to fit your personal taste. But if you're a once-every-five-years visitor or a once-in-a-lifetime person, you really can't afford to ignore what I'm going to say. I've been there a couple of dozen times; I know what I'm talking about. So let's dive in! Today we tackle when to go.

Are you just starting to plan but intend to visit within the next six months? Then stop and start over. Many Disney experiences need to be booked at least six months in advance. Were you planning on having breakfast with the Disney Princesses inside Cinderella Castle or having dinner at Be Our Guest? That's not going to happen if you don't book those reservations 180 days in advance. So if it's September and you're just starting to plan your December trip, you're screwing up before you even get started. Go back to the beginning and start again, this time targeting a time that is more than six months away.

The big issue people discuss when deciding when to go to WDW (Walt Disney World) is whether or not to take children out of school. The math here is simple: everyone wants to go when school is out of session, so that's when the parks are the most crowded, and Disney charges the highest rates. Let me give you an example:

A trip for a family of three (two adults, one ten-year-old child) staying in a standard room at Disney's Port Orleans – French Quarter Resort from September 11-17, 2016 with seven-day Park Hopper tickets and the standard Disney Dining Plan will get a rack-rate (non-discounted) quote of $3698.32. That exact same trip will cost $4187.58 if taken from December 25-31, 2016. That's an extra $81.54 per night, just based on the time of year. And the odds are good that in September, you can get some great discounts – 20-30% off your room or Free Dining are two common examples. How good are those deals? If you took that same September trip but scored a Free Dining package, your cost would be around $2585.20. That's $1602.38 less than the December trip.

Crowds are another factor on deciding when to go. I mean, if you like not being able to move or breathe and want to wait in two hour lines for It's a Small World, be my guest. I'm personally not waiting more than 20 minutes for pretty much anything.

I realize that for some people, going while school is in session is simply not an option. Maybe your child absolutely cannot miss school, or perhaps there's a teacher in the family. In that case, there are still times that are better than others. To avoid high prices and insane crowds, do not go during Christmas Week, Spring Break, or July 4th. I'm serious; don't do it. Try the last two weeks in August or the first week of June. These aren't ideal, but they're probably your best bets.

There are some disadvantages to off-season touring, however. Park hours tend to be shorter and rides may be more likely to be closed for refurbishment.

Weather is something else to consider. Those non-peak weeks I recommended in August? Just think about it: Florida in August. Unless you're a mosquito, that kind of heat and humidity may not be your cup of tea. Weather is (as always) unpredictable, but you can count on plenty of heat and rain June – September and chilly temperatures December though February. Fall is nice, as is the spring – just in time for the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival!

(Shameless segue) In addition to the way traditional holidays and calendar events can effect WDW crowds, Disney has their own annual events that can factor into your planning. My absolutely favorite time to visit is in the fall during Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival. Forget Christmas; this is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Although actually, Christmas is pretty nice, too. Not Christmas Week of course – have you been paying attention?! But Disney starts putting their Christmas decorations up in November, so the first two weeks of December are traditionally festive times to visit.

Have we discussed construction? The good news is, Disney is (finally) making a push to bring a significant number of new experiences to WDW. While this means wonderful things for the future, in the short term it can mean most of the photos of your “once-in-a-lifetime trip” are of construction walls instead of castles. Here are the estimated completion dates of some upcoming projects that you may want to keep in mind:

Disney Springs – The Downtown Disney area is wrapping up its extensive transition into Disney Springs with new shops, restaurants, and more. This project began in April of 2013 and should be completed by mid-late 2016.

Magic Kingdom – Work is nearing completion on the hub area in front of Cinderella Castle, and that area should be completely open and construction-free any day, now.

Epcot – The Frozen: Ever After replacement of Norway's Maelstrom is scheduled for Spring 2016, and the revamped and expanded Soarin' Around the World is slated for a 2016 opening, as well.

Animal KingdomThe Rivers of Light Nighttime Show should debut in March, 2016 and Pandora: The World of Avatar has an estimated opening of Summer 2017.

Disney's Hollywood Studios – This is the big one. An estimated 2.8 billion dollar makeover is underway for this park, and it's going to be significantly revamped. When it's completed, it's going to be fantastic. In the meantime, it's going to be a mess. This 135 acre park is about to see more than 25 of those acres completely re-imagined. This means that many current attractions are going the way of the dodo, and construction will be the norm for quite a time to come. But eventually (I'm guessing 3-5 years from now) we're going to have Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land, so I for one am willing to be patient. (P.S. In addition to the park getting a new name, I really hope they come up with some cooler names for those new lands, as well.)

One final thought: Pick a time when you can devote a significant number of days to your trip. I simply do not understand the people who go all the way to WDW, and then spend one day there. WDW is over 43 square miles – twice the size of Manhattan. I've been there dozens of times and still haven't done everything Disney has to offer. What do you think you're going to accomplish in a day or two? Further, buying a one day pass is just bad math. Disney tries to entice you to stay longer by making subsequent days more affordable. For example, a one day pass to visit the Magic Kingdom is $111.83 (including tax), while a seven day ticket for all parks is $356.78 – that's $50.97 per day. So commit to giving Disney a large chunk of your time and money, settle in, and have fun!

Have you decided when you want to take your magical WDW vacation? Great! Up next we'll discuss where you should stay.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Winter is Coming

(That's right; a Game of Thrones reference in a Disney blog. I'm a geek through and through; accept it and move on.)

I'm sure that you've heard the same rumors I have, to wit: Epcot's Maelstrom will be shutting down this fall to either be completely redone as a new Frozen attraction or (far more likely) to receive a Frozen overlay.

Fan reaction to this (admittedly completely unconfirmed but highly likely) rumor has, of course, been mixed. (Poor Disney; for being arguably the most beloved brand on the planet, they must feel like somebody is always complaining.) When I discussed it with my stylist (young mother of two elementary-school-aged daughters), I swear that I saw tears of joy in her eyes. On the other hand, Disney fanboys across the internet have lit their torches and are sharpening their pitchforks. I'm going to try to take an objective look at both sides (admittedly not one of my strengths), and then give you my opinion (okay; that I'm good at).

Frozen fans – they are aplenty. I mean holy crap, these people are obsessed. And hey, I write a Disney blog, so I know a little about Disney obsessions. But I'm probably not the best person to comment on this. I mean, I liked the movie a lot, but I don't understand the mania that has swept the nation. I guess I'm fortunate that my daughter is nineteen, not nine. And while I love Idina Menzel and the collective works of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, I certainly don't get the whole “Let it Go” craze. Of course that's probably because I'm from Ohio, where it's miserably cold about nine months out of the year. The phrase “The cold never bothered me anyway” would pass my lips exactly never.

And let's face it: World Showcase doesn't currently have a lot to offer small kids. I'll admit it: when Epcot first opened, I thought it was boring. There were few rides, no characters, and to be honest, I had been expecting Magic Kingdom: Part Two. Epcot, in my considered prepubescent opinion, left a lot to be desired. And even though it's come a long way, I can see why it wouldn't have the same appeal for someone without a credit card or a valid ID that it now has for, well, me.

Also, there's the “change is good and new is better” philosophy. Some people have done Maelstrom repeatedly and are ready for an update. And when you add to that the “let's not have a repeat of The Little Mermaid” fear, where it took Disney around twenty years to get around to making a ride featuring a very popular character – well, you can see why Disney might not want to let the grass grow under their feet on this one.

In the other corner we have the Disney Purists: Epcot is supposed to be educational, characters (The Three Caballeros aside) don't belong in World Showcase, it's an insult to the people of Norway to replace the attraction designed to represent their culture with characters from a fictional film, and this is an attraction that belongs in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, not in World Showcase.

I think the fanboys have some valid points, as well. But my objections actually stem for a different source.

Let's look at Epcot as a whole. What would you say the two most popular attractions in Future World are? My money would be on Test Track and Soarin'. Test Track got an update in 2012, and Soarin' is rumored to be getting one soon as well. And to what end, I ask? To make them even more popular? Meanwhile, the Wonders of Life Pavilion idly languishes for the bulk of the year, and the Imagination Pavilion is just sad. And now Maelstrom, arguably the most popular attraction in World Showcase (certainly the one with the longest lines) and one of only two rides in WS, is slated for a refurb. My point? Look at the park as if it were a smile. Instead of replacing the teeth in the smile that are broken (Imagination) or missing entirely (Wonders of Life, all of the countries that could/should be in WS), Disney keeps polishing the teeth in the smile that are already pretty. How does that make any sense? If Fastpass+ is allegedly redistributing guests throughout the park with the goal of making wait times more equitable, couldn't this be done far more efficiently and with a far better overall guest experience by “plussing” attractions that really, you know, need it?

(Sigh) Of course, WDW management has a history of this “polishing the pretty teeth” practice. After all, how many updates do The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean really need, while their poor little stepbrothers Tom Sawyer Island and the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway get ignored? But that's a discussion for another day.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What Spaceship Earth Should Be

Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time; and for a brief moment we have been among its passengers.”

Grand, inspiring words – that have almost no connection to the attraction that follows.

Don't get me wrong; I really enjoy Spaceship Earth. I've been on every version since it opened and loved them all. But in my opinion, the actual attraction really doesn't tie in well with its name or stated theme. It's the story of how humans communicate. That's a nice story, but I don't think it has a scope that deserves either its appellation or its location as your gateway into Future World.

So what should be there?

Over the past month, I have fallen completely in love with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It's everything Epcot's Future World should be: engaging, enlightening, entertaining, educational, enthralling. And its theme is perfect for Spaceship Earth: it explores how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. Here we board the "Ship of the Imagination" (how Epcot-y is that?), the show's narrative device to explore the universe's past, present, and future. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson shows us where the Earth sits in the scope of the known universe, defining the Earth's "address" within it. He explains how humanity has not always seen the universe in this manner, and describes the hardships and persecution of scientists and free-thinkers as they've helped humanity move forward into new ages of discovery. Episode by episode, we are introduced to awe-inspiring concepts in a way that's easy to understand without being condescending. It does a far better job explaining our role as passengers on “this, our Spaceship Earth” than the attraction ever has.

And just think, we could end that ongoing debate over which narrator of  Spaceship Earth was superior, because the obvious choice for this improved version would be Tyson himself. His passion for the material shines through in every episode of Cosmos, and would give the attraction far more life than any of the hosts have thus far. Further, we'd then have both Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy in Future World attractions – and if the goal of Future World (as stated on its dedication plaque) is to “entertain, inform and inspire, and above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere" – isn't that just how it should be?