Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Disney Slums

This article is going to tick off some people; I just know it. But I’ve got to call them like I see them, and I am most decidedly not a fan of the Disney Slu -- er, Disney Value Resorts.

For those who are unaware, Disney breaks their resort options into 4 categories: Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Home Away From Home or DVC. The higher the price, the better the location, the more transportation options available, the more recreation and dining options available, and the more spacious and luxurious are the accommodations.

Now, I realize that not everyone can afford to stay at the Grand Floridian. Heck, I’ve never even stayed at the Grand Floridian. But if I’m going to give you my honest opinion, I’m going to tell you to avoid the Value Resorts like the plague.

Do you know the old expression “You get what you pay for”? Disney takes this very seriously. If you want to stay on the monorail loop, you’re not going to be able to do so on a value budget. Your only Disney transportation option available at the Value Resorts (All Star Movies, Sports, and Music and Pop Century) is the Disney buses. And they cram as many people onto those puppies as they possibly can. This is not a very magical experience, trust me.

Are you hungry? I hope you like fast food, because there are no sit-down restaurants at the Value Resorts either, just crowded, noisy food courts. What fun.

Some people actually like the theming at these resorts. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The buildings themselves are large boring rectangles, and Disney decorated them with huge, tacky “larger-than-life” icons. Okay, I’m being a bit of a snob on this one. Let’s move on.

The rooms: they’re small. 260 square feet, to be exact. I stayed in one by myself which wasn’t too bad, but I can’t imagine a family of four being crammed in there for a week. And the size might be the best thing I can say about my room. The mirrors were streaky, the bed linens were scratchy, there were rust stains in the toilet, the carpet looked a little worn, the windows did not open, and the walls were paper thin. There wasn’t even a hair dryer or iron in my room! Again, seriously lacking in the magic department.

Many claim that they don't really care where they stay because they will spend all day in the parks and just come back to their room to crash. My response to that is: "Um, you know you're on vacation, right?" Again, Disney has so much to offer outside the theme parks. Don't limit yourself like that!

In Disney’s higher end resorts, you’ll often encounter cast members (Disney employees) who have been with Disney for a long time. They are very experienced, and are committed to making your stay as wonderful as possible. I’m pretty sure the Value Resorts is where they go to be trained. If WDW were a hospital, the cast members at the Polynesian would be department heads, and those at the Value Resorts would be interns. This translates to longer lines at check-in, slower responses to guest requests, and occasionally some, shall we say, lackluster attitudes towards housekeeping.

I’m not saying that to have a great Disney vacation you need to shell out for the most expensive resorts on property. What I am saying is that when asked my opinion, I highly encourage people to save up for a few extra months, and stay at one of the Moderates instead of a value. The Moderates (Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter, Port Orleans Riverside, Coronado Springs Resort and Caribbean Beach Resort) are themed so much more beautifully, the rooms are larger, and there are more dining and recreation options. Rooms at the Value Resorts start around $82 per night (not including tax and with no discounts), and Moderates start at $149. A $67 per night difference may sound like a lot, but when you look at the total you end up spending on your vacation, this number starts to decrease in importance. Also, discounts Disney occasionally runs can help narrow this price gap. Believe me when I tell you, the upgrade is worth the cost!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Be Careful: Ginger Snaps

Do you know what Walt Disney World was before it became the world’s most magical vacation destination? Florida swampland. Do you know what lives in Florida swamps? Snakes. And alligators, and other things that make me run away screaming and flailing my arms.

Let me debunk one myth right now. There is no way they are more scared of me than I am of them; I can promise you this. There is not a water moccasin out there who is currently working himself into a state of near nausea at the thought of encountering me. A few people might feel that way about me, but the reptilian population of central Florida does not regard me with any amount of fear. Contempt maybe, but not fear.

Myth number two: Walt Disney World is too full of people for reptiles to want to be there. Nice try, but no. I’ve seen them with my own two beady little eyes. And no, I’m not referring to the crocodiles on the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I mean I’ve seen water moccasins charging through the water at Fort Wilderness (Disney’s campground). I’ve seen alligators swimming near the shores of Bay Lake. Heck, they’ve even been seen in the Magic Kingdom, the most crowded place in all of WDW. You see, Disney went to great effort to make Big Thunder Mountain Railroad look really authentic. They did such a good job that several rattlesnakes have been fooled into thinking this would make a nice home.

To Disney’s credit, they attempt to deal with these, er, issues in the most efficient and humane ways possible. They generally capture said critters, and transfer them to The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve. This is a 12,000 acre preserve created by Disney to protect the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem, and is one of the largest off-site wetlands mitigation projects ever undertaken in the United States. This proves that the people of Disney are far better humans than me. For starters, I’m just not generous enough to donate 12,000 acres of land to anybody, much less a bunch of bald eagles, Florida scrub-jays, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises. Also, my idea of pest control would be more along the lines of chasing them with a shotgun while screaming “Die, Die!” in a shrill squeal that would shatter eardrums (if they had any).

This is one of the primary reasons Disney does not allow you to swim in their lakes. They want you to have a good time, and losing an arm generally puts a damper on a vacation. There’s also this lovely little thing called Naegleria. This is a brain-eating amoeba that lives in some fresh water lakes in warmer climates. I am not making this up. The amoeba usually creeps through your nose while you swim in lakes. Once it finds its way up into your brain, there is really no hope. The seizures start, followed by a coma. The parasitic amoeba chews through your brain matter, and since you kind of need your brain to live, that means it is curtains for both you and your hungry little guest.

Then why,” you may ask, “does Disney allow you to boat and parasail on the lakes?” Well, the amoebas actually live in the silt of the lake floor, so if you stay on the surface, you won’t stir them up. And the noise of the boat motors can generally be counted on to scare off the reptilian population, so Disney is relatively secure in your safety. That said, I have seen snake bite kits for sale at Fort Wilderness. You know, just in case.

This post is part of the Disney Blog
, where you can find a variety of Disney articles.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DDP – Heaven or Hell?

The Disney Dining Plan is one of the most hotly debated options available to Walt Disney World resort guests. People seem to either love it or hate it. I’m going to give you a brief run-down on it, as well as my take on its pros and cons to help you decide for yourself.

What it is: The Disney Dining Plan (DDP) s a prepaid Meal Plan available with the purchase of a Magic Your Way Plus Dining Package includes a resort room plus at least a one-day base ticket. Per Disney, everyone in the room must be utilizing the same package and ticket options. Packages and package components, including dining entitlements, are nontransferable. All dining entitlements expire at midnight on day of checkout.

Walt Disney World offers three different dining plans, as outlined below:

The Quick Service Dining Plan (QSDDP) entitles each guest to receive 2 Quick Service or Counter Service (think food courts or cafeteria style) credits and 2 Snack credits per nights stay. This plan also includes one Resort Refillable Mug per person good for unlimited refills of beverages at resorts only for the length of stay. Beverages usually include soft drinks, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.

The Regular Disney Dining Plan (DDP) entitles each guest to receive 1 Table Service (regular sit-down restaurant or buffet) credit, 1 Counter Service (CS) credit, and 1 Snack credit (Mickey Bar, small popcorn, etc.) per night’s stay. This plan does not include a Resort Refillable Mug.

The Deluxe Disney Dining Plan (DXDP) entitles each guest to receive 3 meal credits and 2 snack credits per night’s stay. Deluxe meal credits can be used for either table service or counter service. This plan also includes one Resort Refillable Mug per person good for unlimited refills of beverages at resorts only for the length of stay.

*On each of these plans, adult credits are assigned to guests age 10 and older. Child credits are for guests age 3-9. Children age 2 and under do not receive dining credits. Adult and child credits are not interchangeable. Children must order from a child’s menu at restaurants where one is available. However, generally speaking an adult is allowed to use an adult entitlement to order a children's meal from the child's menu.

*Credits are not limited to your daily allotment, and you may use multiple credits per day (as long as there are enough remaining credits of course). Those on the Regular Dining Plan or Deluxe Dining Plan can even choose to exchange two table service credits for a show or signature dining experience if they desire.
Most of Disney’s higher-end restaurants (Artist Point, California Grill, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Flying Fish Café, Hollywood Brown Derby, Jiko, etc) as well as Disney’s Dinner shows (Disney's Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show, Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, and Mickey's Backyard Barbecue) require that you forfeit two dining service credits for one meal. Many, but not all, restaurants in WDW participate in the DDP.

*The price for the regular Dining Plan (by far the most popular plan) is $41.99-$47.99 per guest 10 years old and over depending on the 'season'. The price for children, 3-9 years old, is $11.99-$12.99. The price for the Quick Service Dining Plan is $31.99 per guest 10 and older and $9.99 per child 3-9 years old. The price for the Deluxe Dining Plan is $71.99 per guest 10 and older and $20.99 per child 3-9 years old. This is the cost per night of stay and is required for each night of your stay. The Dining Plan must be purchased for everyone registered on the reservation. The price of the plan includes tax but does not include gratuities in most cases. You need to tip on the price the food you ordered would have been (Disney provides this on your receipt).

*To qualify to use the dining plan, you must book a package reservation at any Disney resort, or stay at a Disney resort using DVC points. It is not available to guests of the Swan/Dolphin or Shades of Green.

*With the exception of DVC members staying on points and Walt Disney World Annual Pass holders, you must purchase at least a one-day base theme park admission ticket for every person on your reservation age 3 and over, but you do not have to purchase a ticket that matches the number of nights you are staying. Everyone on the reservation must purchase the same type and length of ticket.

*The plans do not include side dishes, appetizers, specialty drinks (smoothies), or alcoholic beverages.

Pros of the plan:

• You can pay for the cost of your meals in advance. A lot of people like knowing this figure going into their vacation, as opposed to making an educated guess what their food budget will be.
• Cost savings. The price is cheaper than if you’d bought the items separately. It basically works out that you’re getting the snacks and desserts for free. If those are things you typically order, then you are saving money. If not, well, I guess you got a free Mickey Bar each day out of the deal.
• It encourages you to try some Disney restaurants you may not have otherwise experienced.

DDP Cons:

• Unless you are a BIG eater, it’s way too much food. You end up either gorging yourself or feel like you are wasting it.
• For many people, the cost of the plan is more than they would have spent. Side note here: my family and I often split meals at WDW. This saves us A LOT more money then the dining plan, and gives us the opportunity to sample some fun foods without gorging ourselves.
• It puts a lot of pressure on you. In order to get your money’s worth out of the plan, you need to make sure that you are getting reservations for all of your table service meals, so that your credits don’t go to waste. Say good-bye to spontaneity in planning your day! You end up working your entire vacation around your dining reservations to make sure you don’t forfeit your credits. I’ve even see it pressure people into ordering foods they don’t want – i.e. they feel they have to order the most expensive item on the menu to get the most out of the plan.
• The popularity of the DDP has made dining reservations throughout WDW much harder to get.
• Many feel that the DDP has caused Disney to “dumb down” their restaurants – offering the same menu items at restaurants across property. How many times in one vacation do you want to eat strip steak and chicken fingers?

What about Free Dining, you ask? Free Dining is a promotion Disney runs during slower times (usually hurricane season) when the DDP can be added can be added to your Magic Your Way package for free. A good deal, yes. But not perfect. To take advantage of this offer, you forgo any other discounts Disney may be offering for that time (room-only, AP discounts, etc). You’ll need to sit down and do the math to see which offer works the best for you.

I’ve actually participated in the DDP three times, all during Free Dining. My thoughts? It was okay as a promo deal, but I would never pay for it. And now that I’m a DVC member and will no longer participate in Free Dining, I’m really looking forward to the spontaneity that being off the DDP will return to my vacations!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hidden Gems

As much as I love the Disney animated films, I think it’s important to remember the contributions the Walt Disney Company has made to the live-action film industry, as well. And I’m not referring to films made by its subsidiary companies like Touchstone or Miramax, either. I mean actual Disney films that you may have never recognized as part of the Disney family. For example:

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier is a 1955 live-action Walt Disney adventure film starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. Due to the immense popularity of the Davy Crockett Disney television series, Disney compiled three of the broadcasts (Davy Crockett Indian Fighter, Davy Crockett Goes to Congress, and Davy Crockett at the Alamo) into a feature film. I think the coonskin caps that were found on the head of nearly every boy under the age of thirteen at the time are the only testament needed to Davy’s immense popularity.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a 1954 film starring Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, James Mason as Captain Nemo, and Peter Lorre as Conseil. It is the first science fiction film produced by Walt Disney Pictures, and is also the first feature length Disney film to be distributed by Buena Vista Distribution. The film has become the most well-known adaptation of the book of the same name by Jules Verne.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is perhaps not as familiar as the previous two. It’s a 1959 Walt Disney Pictures feature film starring Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro, and a relatively unknown newcomer at the time, Sean Connery, in a tale about a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns.

Another actor who got a lot of his early breaks from Disney was Kurt Russell. Even before his series of Disney movies in the ‘60s and 70’s (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and The Strongest Man in the World) where he played Dexter Riley, a student at Medfield College (the same school featured in The Absentminded Professor, by the way), Russell appeared in the Disney films Follow Me Boys (1966) and 1968’s The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band (Goldie Hawn, Russell’s long-time girlfriend, had a bit part in this movie as well).

Moving into the ‘70s, another up and coming actress got her shot through some Disney movies: Jodie Foster appeared in a number of Disney films, including Napoleon and Samantha (1972), One Little Indian (1973), Freaky Friday (1976), and Candleshoe (1977).

Around this time, Disney returned to the realm of science fiction, with such cult classics as The Black Hole, Tron, and Flight of the Navigator. They also started delving into some racier properties, like 1990’s Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna. Yes, Madonna in a Disney film! Of course, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney seemed like tame fare after the provocative and voluptuous Jessica Rabbit from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Even today, many people don’t realize that wonderful films such as Remember the Titans (2000) and Earth (2007) are part of the Disney lexicon, as well. Of course, once Tron: Legacy joins this esteemed group in December, 2010 I’ll be geeking out to see how it stacks up to the original!

Hidden references to many of these lesser-known classics can be found throughout the Walt Disney World Resort. Sometime soon, we’ll take a look around WDW and help you find some of these subtle tributes!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Defending the Disney Princesses

It was the late ‘90s, and a lot of my friends were big fans of the TV show Ally McBeal. It didn’t seem like my cup of tea, but I finally decided to give it a shot. When I turned it on, I kid you not; this is the scene I encountered:

Renée Radick: Snow White. Cinderella. All about gettin' a guy. Being saved by the guy. Today it's the Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas. All about gettin' a guy.
Ally McBeal: So basically we're screwed up because of...
Renée Radick: Disney.

Anybody want to lay odds on how many more episodes of that I watched?

Blaming the Disney Princesses for the low self-esteem of young girls or the screwed-up love lives of women seems to be the P.C. crowd’s favorite topic of late, sort of like this century’s version of Tipper Gore’s war on music lyrics. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from The Nation, Disney teaches young girls that besides nabbing a prince, the Princesses’ “only career ladder leads from baby-faced adolescence to a position as an evil enchantress, stepmother, or witch.” With so many people jumping on this bandwagon, I think it’s time we took a step back and said, “Um, really?”

To quote Walt himself: “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained”. You see, the Disney movies were created to entertain, not to teach children how to climb the corporate ladder. I think that looking to Aurora for career advice makes about as much sense as trying to learn table manners from Groucho Marx. That’s just not why you are watching.

I also think it’s important to consider when these movies were made. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. Women had only had the vote for 17 years. This was even two years before Gone with the Wind was released. That’s a classic movie too, but I would no more look to GWTW for lessons in race relations than I would to Snow White for an education in female empowerment. Movies are a reflection of the society at the time in which they are made. There’s a reason Brokeback Mountain wasn’t made until 2005.

Further, one needs to keep in mind that many of these films were based on classic fairy tales with story lines already familiar to many of the viewers. I mean, although there are variations in the way the Cinderella story is told in different cultures, I think somebody’s going to notice if Cinderella dumps Prince Charming at the altar to join the French Navy.

As a girl who grew up watching the Disney films, I can tell you that I took a lot of lessons from them (besides avoiding spindles, of course). I learned that it is the responsibility of good to fight so that evil can be defeated. I learned that kindness and compassion are important virtues, and that honesty and loyalty bring more rewards than selfishness and scheming.

Finally, people criticize Disney for making their Princesses too pretty. All that I can say is that we as carbon-based life forms are programmed to prefer looking at attractive things. That’s not Disney’s fault. If you don’t believe me, watch a few nature shows. There’s a reason lions have cool manes and birds flaunt their beautiful plumage, and I promise you that it has nothing to do with Princess envy. Did I want to look like Cinderella when I was little? Sure. Of course, I also wanted to fly like Peter Pan, and I knew that wasn’t very likely, either. Are you really telling me that when you watch movies with dancing teapots, singing fish, and talking mice the thing that you find unbelievable is the size of Jasmine’s waist?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Popcorn People

It was a beautiful night in late summer at Epcot. As most folks were settling in to watch Illuminations, my husband Ray, our daughter Kira, and I made our way down a charming path through a breathtaking recreation of Canada’s Butchart Gardens towards Le Cellier, the steakhouse where we had dinner reservations for 9:00, some of the most coveted and difficult reservations to come by in all of Walt Disney World.

Along the path, we encountered another family; I’d say the parents were in their early 40’s, and they had two small children – a girl of perhaps six, and a boy around four. Long before we saw this family however, we heard them.

Father: I told you we would need reservations! I knew we would. But noooo, you’re sooo smart; you know everything. And now it’s late, everyone’s hungry, there’s nothing to eat, and it’s all your fault!

Mother (in a voice any banshee would envy): Fine! Just fine! Everything that goes wrong is my fault! Nothing I do is ever right! I guess we can all just eat popcorn for dinner!

Little Boy (sounding very chipper and hopeful): I like popcorn!

All of this in the Happiest Place on Earth.

My point? As I’ve mentioned before, Walt Disney World is big. To navigate it successfully, you need to plan. Dinner reservations (particularly during peak times or when Free Dining is offered) go fast, often right at Disney’s 180 day mark. Yes, I’m saying that for some spots, you need to decide where you want to eat six months in advance. Or you can eat popcorn for dinner. Fortunately, the internet offers you many tools to help you decide where to book your ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations, Disney’s redundant term for dining reservations). My personal favorites are the menus at and These are a great way to see what each restaurant offers, and how much you can expect to pay.

A quick note here: don’t you dare make ADRs at multiple restaurants for the same time because you aren’t sure where you’ll be. This is extremely rude, and Karma will get you for it; I just know it.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from this story. For some reason, a trip to WDW seems to put a lot of pressure on people. They adopt an attitude of “I’m paying a lot of money for this trip, so you are all going to enjoy yourselves, or else!” Don’t do this to yourself. You are on vacation. Have fun. So you didn’t get to eat at the restaurant everyone raves about. So what? Go have ice cream for dinner. When do you ever get to do that at home? Are your kids (or you) tired? Take a break. Go back to your hotel and hang by the pool. Disney has some fabulous pools; utilize them. Yes, you’re missing out on park time, but are you there to enjoy yourself or to cross every possible attraction you can off of your “to do” list? I have news for you: you are never going to see everything WDW has to offer in one trip, so don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself and your family!

Here’s another news flash: not everyone in your party is going to want to do everything. Even if your four-year-old daughter is tall enough to ride The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, understand that it can be a little intimidating. On the same token, is it really fair to make your 15-year-old son sit and watch while his little sister gets dolled up at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique? (Unless of course, he wants to get “boutiqued” too, in which case please send pictures!) You aren’t the Borg. You don’t have to operate as a collective. Accept the fact that different people in your party are going to have different interests, and factor that into your game plan. Walt Disney World isn’t going anywhere. Enjoy what you can on this trip, and just make note of what you want to experience the next time. As Disney says, “It’s never too early to start planning your next Disney Vacation”!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Space Is Big

Space, Douglas Adams has assured us, is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

Do you know what else is big? You guessed it: Walt Disney World. How big? Over 43 square miles. It used to be close to 47, but they sold off some land (Walt is rolling over in his grave, I just know it). To put that in perspective, that’s twice the size of Manhattan. It’s larger than some countries, including Monaco and San Marino. Why is this important? Because seeing everything WDW has to offer over the course of a week-long vacation is about as feasible as eating everything on a Cheesecake Factory’s menu in one sitting. Sure, it sounds like a good idea at the start, but a quarter of the way in you begin to reevaluate…

Some people associate only the Magic Kingdom with Disney, and forget about the huge complex comprising this magical vacation destination. Too often, I hear someone say something incredibly stupid along the lines of “I didn’t go to Disney, but I went to Epcot”. This makes me want to shove a pencil in my eye (or theirs). To keep me from causing anyone bodily harm, I believe a brief tutorial is in order:

1. Disneyland – this is in California. Remove it from your brain for this conversation.
2. Walt Disney World (WDW) -- not Disney World, not Disney, but Walt Disney World -- is in Florida. Technically, it’s in Lake Buena Vista, not Orlando, but I won’t get that picky. Some of its major components:
a) The Magic Kingdom (MK) opened in 1971, and was considered at the time an East coast version of Disneyland - 107 acres
b) Epcot opened in 1982. Walt originally visualized this as an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” but upon his death it was re-imagined into the park we know today -- nearly 300 acres
c) The Studios – Originally opened as Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, it was renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) in 2008 – 135 acres
d) Disney’s Animal Kingdom (AK) opened in 1998 – over 500 acres
e) Typhoon Lagoon – 61 acre water park themed after a typhoon that wreaked havoc upon a pristine tropical paradise
f) Blizzard Beach – 66 acre water park themed as Florida's first ski resort after a freak snowstorm hit the area, which melted into a water park
g) Downtown Disney – lakeside shopping, dining, and entertainment district
h) Around 2 dozen resorts (and a campground) that are every bit as much a part of Walt Disney World as the aforementioned theme parks

Tying into this, another mistake that people make is to assume that the theme parks are the only things of interest, sort of a "Cedar Point South" with furry characters running around. They show up, wait in long lines, ride some rides and go home wondering what all of the fuss is about. Generally, these are the people that stay in a Motel 6 on I Drive, battle the traffic to get onto WDW property, arrive in the Magic Kingdom at about 11:00 AM, and are standing in front of Cinderella Castle with a map wondering where to go. Now, I'm not saying that people like this can't have a fabulous Disney vacation. Just not as fabulous as mine.

Here's the scoop: the real magic of a Disney vacation isn't in zipping down Splash Mountain or screaming through Expedition Everest. It's about immersing yourself in the Disney magic. In being able to forget the "real world" outside of the Disney gates. As much as I adore Disney attractions, I don't have to ride a single thing to have a fantastic vacation. Just let me pass under that welcome arch and honey, I'm home.

Of course, planning a vacation to a destination this vast does take some research. It boggles my mind that people will spend huge amounts of time researching a $500 dishwasher before buying it (checking Consumers Digest, Epinions, etc.) but will spend $2,500 on a vacation without giving it any more forethought than a trip to the beach. I’ll discuss the dangers of that in my next blog – The Popcorn People.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Red-Headed Stepchildren of Walt Disney World

It’s not all moonlight and magnolias at Walt Disney World. One of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories at WDW involves lawsuits, backdoor deals, and nepotism. It’s the story of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, and it is still generating bad blood in the Land of Magic to this day.

Let’s go back to the early 1980’s. The Disney Corporation was bleeding money, stock prices were falling like a bad soufflé, corporate raiders were land sharks at the door, and the quality of Disney movies and TV shows would make you swear that Goofy was behind the camera. So the pre-Michael Eisner regime (aka Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law) sold the rights to build hotels on WDW property to Tishman Hotel and Realty LP in an effort to raise quick cash. Tishman got a great deal on this and nearly complete control. The original plans for the hotels that are now Swan and Dolphin were enormous black towers built to pack in the hoards like in Vegas (Tishman did a lot of Vegas hotels).

Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney basically staged a coup to oust Miller and bring Eisner onboard (oh, the irony). Roy was assisted in this by other Disney board members, principally the Bass Brothers of Texas. When Eisner looked at the Tishman proposal he said, "No. No style, no substance... Sue me; the lawyers will be at it forever.” After the Bass Brothers wrote a very large check and bailed out Disney to keep the company intact, Eisner thanked them by letting them have the contract to build non-Disney hotels on WDW property (I believe they may have been involved in some Downtown Disney hotels). Tishman got angry and took Disney to court.

Well, all of this is going on in the early days of Epcot, and the new coveted location for hotels was right there in the heart of WDW. In a series of compromises and settlements, Tishman got a long-term lease on the property where the Swan and Dolphin now sit, and had several provisions in the contract on items such as transportation. Tishman figured participation in transportation meant a monorail connection, but Eisner and company extended a drainage ditch and put the Swan and Dolphin on the Disney Transportation System via boat service. Convenient, but not nearly as sexy. Tishman got even more ticked off.

Other compromises were on height and design. Tishman at this point was so irate that he was determined to put up giant all-black monstrosities, but Disney changed the zoning law on the height of buildings (Disney has its own governing body, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is the entity that controls WDW taxes and zoning so that Disney never has to get approval from anyone but themselves). Another compromise was that Michael Graves, then an up-and-coming designer and a friend of Eisner's, would do the hotel design. His whimsical, fantasy-like style helped tie the properties in with their new home.

To this day, Disney and Starwood (the managers of the Swan and Dolphin) are still at odds. Disney is forced to abide by the terms of the contract, but refuse to extend any “new” privileges, like the Dining Plan. Starwood retaliates by offering some of the best deals in the area, right in the heart of Disney.

Is all of this true? Neither Disney nor the Swan/Dolphin will comment, but their poor relationship to this day adds credence to the tale…

And you thought I was all starry eyes and pixie dust!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

DVC – What has Teri Gotten Herself into Now?

You may have seen my increasingly frantic posts over the last two months on Facebook regarding DVC and wondered what has my panties all in a bunch this time. Here’s a brief rundown on why I’ve gotten myself sucked into DVC, and why it may interest you, as well.

Let me start by saying that if you consider a trip to Walt Disney World a one-time parental obligation (rather like a polio vaccine), then Disney Vacation Club is not for you. If, however, you truly believe that it’s never too early to start planning your next Disney vacation, then this may be worth a closer look.

Disney Vacation Club (DVC) is a vacation timeshare owned by The Walt Disney Company. It allows buying real estate interest in a DVC resort. To be a DVC member, one must purchase a one-time real estate interest in one of the Disney Resorts, and thereafter pay annual dues. The memberships have an expiration date of approximately 50 years after the initial offering of the property. Properties include locations at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Hilton Head, Hawaii (in 2011) and more. Ownership amount is based on a flexible number of points per year. Is it a good deal? More on that later.

Why have I been stressing about my purchase? After all, you’d think Disney would be more than happy to take my money. In a nutshell, I didn’t buy directly from Disney. You see, Disney requires that you purchase a minimum of 160 points, and are currently charging (insert choking noise here) $120 per point. That means, excluding taxes, maintenance fees, and closing costs, you are looking at a minimum purchase price of $19,200. Having not won the lottery, that option was not in my budget.

There is, however, a thriving resale market. If you no longer wish to continue in your contract, Disney will allow you to sell it. There are several reputable brokers who specialize in the Disney resale market – The Timeshare Store, DVC by Resale, and Resales DVC to name a few. If you purchase a minimum of 25 points, you get all of the benefits of DVC membership (discounts on theme park tickets, dining, merchandise, etc.) at a fraction of the cost. I’ll divulge the terms of my deal to give you an idea.

We purchased 100 points at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort. This basically means we can stay there for about one week per year in a studio. We can use our points at other DVC resorts as well, based on availability. We paid $68 per point, so our cost was $6800, as opposed to paying $19,200 through Disney. Why is this better than just staying in a hotel, you ask? Well, Disney rack rates (AKA sucker prices, those you would pay if you just booked on Disney’s website or called 407-W-DISNEY) on the room I described would be, including tax, $2323 for the week. We paid $6800 plus about $400 in closing costs. That means that in less than four trips, we will have completely recouped our initial cost. We will pay yearly maintenance fees of around $400, which means from there on out, I’ll stay at WDW for a week, while only paying for about the first night and a half. Eat that, suckers!

So why have I been so frantic? Well, although Disney allows resales to be purchased, they want to make sure the property values stay high. Therefore, they will swoop in and purchase the property themselves if they think the price is too low. This happened to us first. We had bid $82 on 50 points at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, and Disney chose to exercise their Right of First Refusal and purchase that property themselves. At that point, we figured that if we just kept eating Ramen Noodles and toasted cheese sandwiches for another year or so, we may be able to bid on a larger contract, so we bit the bullet and went ahead. This time we got it! Saratoga Springs – the Disney resort featuring “Health, Horses, and History” – it’s very Teri, all the way!

Why Disney

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is “Why do you love Disney so much?” by which people usually mean “Why do you go to Walt Disney World so often?” Believe it or not, this is a difficult question. In the past, I’ve explained it in a number of ways. First, I’ve said that because I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Christmas or birthdays as a child, Disney was my primary source of magic and joy. While true, it doesn’t explain why my brother and sister aren’t equally obsessed. I’ve also explained that I spend all day making my customers at work happy, and all evening taking care of my family, but at Walt Disney World, thousands of cast members focus on taking care of me. Again, accurate, but why then isn’t every working mother on the planet routinely lounging on a hammock on the beach of Disney’s Polynesian Resort watching the fireworks? My current theory therefore is this: The Disney Gene. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.

For the longest time, this was my dirty little secret. People knew I had a lot of Disney trivia stored in my head, but then again I have a ton of useless information filed away up there, so they probably were unaware of the depth of my Disney obsession. And not just about WDW, either. Disney movies, history of the company and Walt himself – I’m fanatical about all of it. How much so? Well, I’ve never believed in love at first sight, but the night I met my DH Ray (at the Office Bar, of course) he was able to quote lines from several Disney movies and could speak knowledgeably about WDW. I knew immediately that he was the man for me!

Of course, he’s not obsessed to the level that I am. I’ve actually noticed that those with the Disney Gene fall into several categories: the movie lovers (this is more Ray’s type), the history buffs, theme park junkies, and the broad spectrum people (me!). I used to think I was alone, at least in the over-10 demographic. Then Ray introduced to the world of podcasts. At first I was skeptical. I wanted to go to WDW, not listen to a bunch of other people brag about their trips. But then I discovered the likes of Lou Mongello, Van from Netcot, the guys at WDW Today, and the wonderful group of the DIS Unplugged. Hallelujah! These people, these adults, are as crazy about WDW as I am!

My aim for this blog is multi-pronged. First, I need an outlet for my passion so that I don’t explode. I’d also like to help feed the beast in other Disney lovers, as the above-mentioned podcasts do for me. For the non-Disneyphiles, I’m hoping that you’ll find some useful information when planning your Disney trips (a.k.a., let me help keep you from screwing up this several thousand dollar vacation, you idiot), as well as a peek into the Wonderful World of Disney. Stay tuned!