"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2012

I was vaguely aware of some disagreement in the Disney fan community over the Unofficial Guide. Reading some message boards, it seemed that some saw it as too "anti-Disney" while others swore by the book as an honest guide to handling the massive Walt Disney World properties. I bought a copy to see what all the fuss was about, and hoping that it might bring me up to speed on anything that had changed since our last visit in October of 2010. After wading through almost all of the book's 854 pages, I can see both sides of the argument. A friend asked me about the book as a way to get excited about a future trip to Disney World and that made me think about just how I would recommend it. In short, I think anyone headed to Walt Disney World will find some very useful information in the Unofficial Guide, but I wouldn't want it to be a first time visitor's only resource to prepare for a trip.

The Unofficial Guide is two things first and foremost -- it is thorough and it is honest. The authors, Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa, know the parks inside and out and make use of a whole team of researchers as well as comments from past editions' readers. The reader comments are featured in blue italics and offer some of the most entertaining reading you'll find anywhere. The authors have done a great job of offering a variety of opinions, and on many Disney subjects, opinions vary wildly. It's not only the huge variety of offerings inside Disney's property that are covered in this book, also covered are outside accommodations (including rental homes),  area restaurants and also Universal Studios and Sea World (although not in as  much detail). Inside Walt Disney World Resort, every attraction, lodging, restaurant and golf course is reviewed. The book is very much an instruction manual for getting the most for your time and money. It has no photographs, but does have maps (46 to be exact) and charts.

Oh boy, do Len and Bob love them some charts! Want to know which rides scare which age of child, based on survey results? There's a chart. Want to know which resorts have what amenities and room sizes? How long it will take you from any resort to the entrance of any park by car or Disney transportation, with and without heavy traffic? Ticket pricing? Price of an average day? Crowd levels? Wait times? Climate? Len and Bob have a chart for you. They like charts and maps. They like a plan. Actually, their website is called http://touringplans.com/. They have used surveys, personal experience and mathematical crowd tracking algorithms (for real) to figure out how to see the most attractions in each park in the least amount of time. According to readers, they work, although they require a lot of discipline and a willingness to trek back and forth across the park quite a bit.

This is where my reluctance to recommend this book to first timers comes into play. If you look at a Disney vacation as a mathematical exercise, trying to wring the most experience and least cost out of every minute, you will miss the magic. Walt Disney World is the unique destination it is because it is an immersive experience. Disney is more than a collection of rides and shows and restaurants and hotels. I'm sure you could save money staying off-property and driving in every day, or leaving each afternoon to eat in Orlando or Kissimmee, but you'd be missing out on the reason for going to Disney in the first place. For me and my family, and others who "get it", Disney offers escape from the hassles of the real world. It's worth it to us to spend more to not have to leave the magic while we are there, it's ok if we have to wait in a line. We even like the buses. I think a first time visitor would gain useful knowledge from the Unofficial Guide, but should also keep an open mind about what to allow themselves to experience.

With that said, I'm going to address a few common "debates" concerning a Disney vacation in my next few posts. I'll cover staying on-site vs. off, using your own car vs. Disney transportation and the Dining Plan vs. no Dining Plan. My answers won't fit everyone, but I think they may at least give you food for thought.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Remembering Fort Wlderness

A friend today joked about "subjecting" me and the family, "1970s style," to slides of her family's fast-approaching Disney vacation when she returned. Maybe we are nuts, but my family would quite enjoy that, especially with our own Disney trip approaching. I was also reminded that I inherited the family slide reels, yes, from the 1970s primarily, when my parents moved. Although I also got the screen and a perfectly working projector, I decided to scan a bunch of slides into the computer, including some of the pictures from my family's 1976 trip to Disney World. We had driven down from Pennsylvania via Delaware with the Esterly's, who we took a vacation with every summer, in our yellow Volvo and stayed in one of the trailers that Fort Wilderness rented out before they brought in the Wilderness Cabins.

I have always loved Fort Wilderness. It's like a park inside the park. On our last trip to Disney for our son's birthday, we took in the Hoop-De-Doo Revue dinner show which plays at Fort Wilderness. We were staying at Port Orleans French Quarter but took the boat across from the Magic Kingdom because we like boats. Stepping off the launch and walking around the campground before our show started brought back a ton of memories. I had almost forgotten how much I really loved Fort Wilderness. That was where the idea began to camp there on our next week-long trip, and that's exactly what we have planned for September.

I thought it might be fun to post some of those old pictures now, knowing we will have plenty of new ones when we return from our trip in September. A lot hasn't changed at the Fort over the last 35 years, that's the charm of the place, but these pictures capture a few of the things that have.

The first stop on our trip was Wilmington, Delaware to pick up the Esterly's. We rode with dads in the front, moms in the back seat and almost 6-yr-old Matt and I in the very back. Seat belts? Who needs seat belts? As you can see, all our belongings are safely encased in some sort of plastic on the roof. And yes, that's a green Vega station wagon in the next spot. Does it get more 70's? 

We made it safe to Fort Wilderness! This is the trailer we rented from Disney at the campground. I believe they were fairly permanent fixtures on the site. I don't remember it at all, but I'm imagining all six of us fit inside. That is unless Matt and I were booted outside to sleep in a tent, which would have been likely now that I think about it.

I love this one. This is the truck that used to drive around the campground in the morning selling all sorts of groceries and such. You could wake up and soon enough the truck would roll by and you could buy your milk and cereal and fruit to start your day. Sort of like the ice cream man without the ice cream.

This is one thing that hasn't changed, you can still rent canoes at the Fort. I will make a point to find where they rent them and take a picture when we are down. Something tells me it won't be as much an informal affair as this looks.

This is the old swimming area and beach that would become River Country. I'm not sure what the area is being used for now that River Country is closed, but that's another thing I'll check on and photograph on our trip. My mom will be THRILLED I posted this online! :-)

Back in 1976, "pool hopping" from resort to resort was just fine. The Polynesian had the coolest pool at the time because of these awesome water slides.

Here's the beach at the Polynesian with rental catamarans just off-shore. You can just make out Space Mountain in the background. It was pretty new at the time and one of the highlights of this trip.

This is Cinderella's Carousel, I believe. It's been refurbished several times since this was taken and is now named after Prince Charming. Whatever ;-)

I wish I had more pictures from the park scanned in, but I really enjoyed finding these. I can't wait to try to get present-day shots of the same places and compare.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Little Things

I just secured vacation time for our September Disney trip. This makes me extremely happy, especially when combined with the new vacation planning dvd we just received in the mail. It's the small things :-)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sorcerers Of The Magic Kingdom

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is a new game being play-tested right now in the Magic Kingdom. Similar to a Kim Possible adventure available in Epcot, this game will allow park guests to assume the role of Sorcerers defending the Magic Kingdom from Disney villains. There is a great description of the game by a couple that were part of play-testing last week over at MouseSteps, including lots of pictures (such as the one at left) and a couple of videos of the game in action.

It appears players will sign up at the Fire Station on Main Street, then proceed to one of the other lands to play. Completing the mission in one land lets you continue on to the next. Play is accomplished by finding special locations on a map, waving a playing card over a key symbol, then interacting with a video that pops up. You use your cards, each player is given five, to cast spells and defeat the villain.

I'm personally really excited to try this. Our family loves a good adventure, we (well especially me) love us some maps and we are regular Geocachers, so this game is right up our alley. On your first trip to Disney, there are probably other things you should do instead. This game is meant, I think, for those of us returning to the parks after multiple trips. It looks like it will let us enjoy the Magic Kingdom in a new way and find parts of it that maybe we had missed on previous trips. That's what I'm hoping for in any case.

Our good friends and fellow Disney Geeks are heading to the Dis in a couple weeks. Our fingers are all crossed hoping that Sorcerers is up and running when they arrive. If they get to play, the lovely and talented Jenny has agreed to write a guest blog for me about her experience. Expect to hear reports from their trip here in any case. One of the best things about Disney friends is reliving their trips vicariously, and I find myself really excited for them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This Looks Really Tasty

The Main Street Gazette blog reports on some tasty new offerings in the Magic Kingdom. Sleepy Hollow Refreshments, found in Liberty Square near the Hall of Presidents, has started serving waffle-sandwiches. They come in three varieties, fruit and nutella (pictured at left), ham prosciutto and swiss, and sweet and spicy chicken. The post at the above link describes all three sandwiches with pictures.

Getting the Ball Rolling

A Disney vacation is a big deal. No matter if it's your first or your twentieth, a trip to Walt Disney World is an experience that you want to be as perfect as possible. It is a very expensive proposition and expectations are high. So you don't want to just book any old room at the first price the web site or the booking agent on the phone quotes you. But exactly how do you best start the planning process?

A trip to the Walt Disney World web site (http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/) is a great place to start.  Not only is there plenty of information available there, it can start to save you some money, possibly. After creating an account with Disney online, the first thing you want to do is to scroll down to the bottom of the page and look for the FREE Vacation Planning DVD link. Order one. Even if you aren't planning to go this year, order one. Not only is the DVD hours of fun to watch (really, it is), but you will be giving Disney your contact info and this apparently puts Disney on notice that you plan to vacation there. Disney is the king of targeted marketing. The more info about you they have, the more specific info they will get to you, including notice of discounts and special offers.

Another good idea (Thanks Jen!) is to try out the "Price Your Vacation" section of the site, conveniently located at the top left of the page. Again, even if you aren't planning to go this year, try planning something for about the same time this year. Go all the way through the process up until actually booking the trip, then save the trip. Do this a few times, maybe shifting the dates around or using different combinations of resorts and ticket packages. This will put Disney on notice that you are an even better target for their marketing. I used this several times to look at the differences between several combos of resorts and dining packages and this week Disney sent me an email announcing a 10% discount on rooms in September of 2012 (the first I'd heard of that) and suggesting some seasonal things to do that we weren't even aware were running at that time,such as Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. By keeping up with the "fake" planning, you are likely to get Disney more and more anxious to attract you to the resort. There are plenty of sites to find Disney discounts, but it's a lot more fun to have Disney emailing them to you as soon as they announce them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Two Cool Videos

Disney posted two very cool videos today, and I thought I'd share. One features the newest Disney Cruise Line ship, the Disney Fantasy, leaving dry dock.   And the other is a pretty good introduction to the newest Walt Disney World hotel, The Art of Animation Resort. 


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Disney Dreamin'

While we are actually planning a for real trip to Walt Disney World later this year, and I got a new HUGE guide book to geek out over (thanks Heather and Chris), last night we were dreaming of a Disney Cruise. Disney, being a huge and diversified entertainment company, produces it's own DVDs to promote their parks and resorts and cruise line. I ordered the cruise DVD just for fun and it showed up last week, so last night we all three piled onto the couch to check it out. We popped popcorn, fixed adult (and a non-adult) beverages and clicked through all two-plus hours of what is, to be perfectly honest, a big commercial. But, as I said to a friend recently, Disney even manages to make their commercials fun. We laughed and "ooh"ed and "ahh"ed and our son shared his expertise on the subject of cruises with his two parents who've never been on one. It was a great night of family time brought to us by blatant commercialism.

As I've said, we love Disney. But we aren't naive about it. We know, even our son, that Disney is a huge mega-corporation created for the purpose of making money for its shareholders. The difference between us and those who despise The Walt "Biz"ney Company is that we are capitalists ourselves. We don't see the profit motive as a bad thing. I've worked in commissioned route sales for over 15 years. I have a very realistic and practical view of marketing. I've seen grand plans come and go, fail and succeed, but I've never seen anyone do what they do as well as the Walt Disney Company. I respect them as a business, and I love them as a consumer, and to me there is no contradiction there. When the characters from Wall-e and Up show up to help switch between scenes on the cruise line DVD, I smile, both because it is a great corporate tie-in and because it is honestly very cute and fun.

Disney is the success it is not because they take advantage of the basest elements of our culture and "trick" stupid people into throwing their money away at theme parks and cruise lines and movie theatres. Disney is the success it is because they deliver what they promise, magic. I can think of no better name for a 12-year old and his two parents happily sitting together to watch a two hour commercial. If that's not magic, nothing is.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pooh Sticks

"Pooh had just come to the bridge; and not looking where he was going, he tripped over something, and the fir-cone jerked out of his paw into the river. 'Bother,' said Pooh, as it floated slowly under the bridge, and he went back to get another fir-cone which had a rhyme to it. But then he thought that he would just look at the river instead, because it was a peaceful sort of day, so he lay down and looked at it, and it slipped slowly away beneath him, and suddenly, there was his fir-cone slipping away too.
'That's funny,' said Pooh. 'I dropped it on the other side,' said Pooh, 'and it came out on this side! I wonder if it would do it again?' And he went back for some more fir-cones. It did. It kept on doing it. Then he dropped two in at once, and leant over the bridge to see which of them would come out first; and one of them did; but as they were both the same size, he didn't know if it was the one which he wanted to win, or the other one. So the next time he dropped one big one and one little one, and the big one came out first, which was what he had said it would do, and the little one came out last, which was what he had said it would do, so he had won twice ... and when he went home for tea, he had won thirty-six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was - that he had - well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that's what he was. Instead of the other way round."
                                                                               --A.A. Milne in The House at Pooh Corner

That, friends, is Pooh Sticks, simple fun for young and old, boy and girl, man and woman. As a small boy, I loved Pooh Sticks. Our family was always out and about somewhere on the weekends (thanks Mom and Dad) and often in a park or other outdoorsy space, these being generally free. Whenever we crossed a bridge over moving water, we'd have to play Pooh Sticks.

As I got older, my friends and I would play in streams and creeks, building dams and bridges and such. I'd always suggest a "stick race" and it was always fun. Calling it Pooh Sticks then would have been very uncool, but that's what it was, and I knew it.

In high school, when I started spending a lot of time with a certain girl, Lisa, who would become my wife, we would always be going off somewhere, often in the outdoors, it being generally free. Once, when  crossing a bridge, I asked Lisa to play Pooh Sticks. I didn't think about it at the time, but it didn't occur to me to call it anything but Pooh Sticks, because Lisa was Lisa and would understand. She did understand, and we played Pooh Sticks together for years and then brought our own little boy into the world.

Today that little boy is 12, a "tween" as he is fond of reminding us, and he too enjoys Pooh Sticks, often asking to play on our way across the canal to the beach on the little slice of paradise on which we were blessed enough to settle. And every time we play, I smile, inside and out.

I have to thank Walt Disney for a lot of that smile. I didn't pick up on Pooh Sticks from the books, though I'm sure my mom read them to me. I fell in love with Pooh Sticks, and the Hundred Acre Wood, through Disney's cartoons. I can't read anything of Pooh without hearing the cartoon voice (which made watching his voice come from Kaa the snake in Jungle Book a bit disturbing) and seeing his chubby wubby self waddling down the path. It's a little piece of that Disney magic that's been with me and a part of me since my earliest memories. And it's that magic that made me want to write this blog.

We are planning a trip to Walt Disney World this fall and I wanted to record my rather obessive planning for my own sake as much as thinking anyone else would be interested. But I got to thinking about the reason we love our trips to "The Dis" as much as we do. Our good friends are going  in less than a month and I know they are hoping for the total escape that only the magic of Disney can offer. Disney, for those of us who love it, can truly make all the stress and bad and worries of the real world go totally away. It's a haven, a sanctuary, one of the last truly magical places left. I was thinking how great it would be to carry at least a bit of that feeling with us even when we were stuck here in the real world. So that, too, is what I plan to write about, living a happy and magic-filled life no matter where we are and what is happening around us.