Sunday, November 29, 2009

And She Told Me To WALK This WAY

Nope, this doesn't have anything to do with Aerosmith's Rock N Roller Coaster (unless you're using this walkway to get to Hollywood Studios). This is to espouse the virtues of a road less traveled in Walt Disney World: the walkway connecting Epcot to Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Some are saying...huh? A walkway? Between theme parks? That sounds far - is it far? Some have seen it from the Friendship boats that ferry guests between Epcot and Hollywood Studios (and include the Swan/Dolphin, Boardwalk and Yacht & Beach Club stops in between parks) and never even considered attempting the "trek". Others have tried it and may not do it again. And finally, some have tried it, and it's become one of their favorite strolls in The Mouse.

First of all, let's explain where and what we're talking about. Epcot and Hollywood Studios are actually very close in proximity, and essentially have only the Boardwalk area separating them. There are several ways to get from one to the other including by car, by bus, by boat (the Friendship Boats previously mentioned) walking.

Walking can be very advantageous for several reasons: no waiting for boats or buses to arrive; no crowds on said bus or boat; no going all the way out to your car to lose your parking spot and fight traffic on the way; it gives you the opportunity to slow down and see the Mouse at your own pace; and it's very healthy for you (especially important considering you're most likely not eating very healthfully on vacation - activity can help out tremendously in that situation). These are all great reasons to do some extra walking while at WDW.

From first glance, this route indeed looks long. Really long. But it's deceiving; using the route we've drawn up, including the shortcut, it's just about 1.2 miles long - in actuality, a shorter distance than the World Showcase loop (which is about 1.3 miles long). The graphic is from and its purpose is to tell you how far your plotted running course is over a given distance on the map. This is what we used to make the determination for this route. So to keep it simple, we've drawn up the route from the front turnstiles of Hollywood Studios to the International Gateway turnstiles of Epcot.

You start out from DHS, walk along the walkway next to the parking lot, then down a slight slope and you're next to the waterway. This continues on for just under a mile until you reach the Boardwalk Resort and Villas. Across the way, you get a great view of the Swan and Dolphin and the boats that run along the waterway (including the wooden Breathless II and the Friendship boats). Here is where the shortcut comes in - instead of continuing along the path which curves up and around Jellyrolls, cut through the Luna Park pool area of the Boardwalk Inn. This will bring you out by the Muscles & Bustles fitness club and Side Show arcade, and into the courtyard. Continue your walk along the Boardwalk by ESPN Zone, over the bridge, and back out to the International Gateway. This should take about 20 minutes, depending on the speed of the walkers in your group.

By contrast, the Friendship boats take between 20-30 minutes because it does stop at Y&B Clubs, Swan/Dolphin, and Boardwalk before it makes its way to either Epcot or DHS. So you can either take the long boat tour (which has its advantages during the summer), or get some exercise in to combat that turkey leg!

Personally, I'm a huge fan of these scenic Disney walking opportunities. Be it the Boardwalk, the walkway on Downtown Disney's West Side that runs along Lake Buena Vista, or the path between Toontown and Space Mountain, the tranquility and scenery is part of the magic.

So next time you might have a day where you're juggling Epcot and Hollywood Studios, consider this path and don't be afraid to Walk This Way.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Best AND Worst Counter Service Restaurants in WDW

There are some great counter service restaurants in Walt Disney World. And not only are some of them wonderful dining experiences, but their importance can't be overlooked. No offense to California Grill, Jiko, and Crystal Palace, but counter service restaurants are the backbone of the dining experience at WDW. They are counted on to serve the vast majority of the tens of thousands of guests who frequent the parks every single day. And if they didn't hit a certain level of quality, it could most certainly effect the number of visitors (and especially repeat visitors) to The Mouse. Disney takes pride in their restaurants, and many give them good reason to be proud.

Of course, for every great counter service restaurant, there's also an average or even downright awful CS restaurants to make up for it. That is why it's important for us here at Around The Mouse to point out the very best of these so if you have choices to make, perhaps this may help. And at the end of the article, we'll point out a few to avoid at all costs.

We'll take aim at recognizing the top 5 counter service establishments, while explaining why each of these belong in this upper tier. Each one will be judged in Mouse Ears (5 being the best, 1 being the worst) in 5 distinct categories:

1. Variety of the menu
It is always nice to have a choice when at WDW's counter service restaurants. Some have far fewer choices than do others, and it can tie your hands if you are a picky eater or have dietary restrictions of any kind. Variety is the spice of The Mouse.

2. Uniqueness of the menu
Not only is variety important, but it's always nice to have vastly different things to choose from; not only when it comes to the items on that establishment's menu, but how it differentiates from other counter service restaurants. What makes this particular place different from all the others? What does it offer that I can't find at every other CS restaurant?

3. Quality of the food
You can have the most varied and unique menu around, but if the quality of the food itself isn't up to snuff, then it's all for not. Whether it's chicken nuggests, a BBQ pork sandwich, a slice of pizza or a chocolate cake, the quality of the food has to be there before anything else.

4. Cost
One of the main reasons why many people utilize counter service is because is they can't afford to eat at table service restaurants for every single meal. It's Disney's version of fast food: fast, good and affordable. Especially in this day and age, the cost end of a meal plays a bigger and bigger role for most people.

5. Theme
OK, this may not be quite as necessary to some guests as others, but if one understands one of the basic concepts of WDW, impeccable theming plays an enormous role in the bottom line; it's what separates WDW from most other theme parks - leave no stone left unturned and totally immerse the guests into the experience.

So, without further ado, here are our top 5 counter service restaurants in all of WDW:

5. Flame Tree BBQ (Animal Kingdom)
This is a treasure. There aren't too many other BBQ joints on property (outside of the restaurants at Fort Wilderness), and the food quality is very, very good. Grab a seat at a table overlooking the water and enjoy the view.
Menu Variety: 3 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 4 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 4 Mouse Ears
Total Mouse Ears: 19

4. Casey's Corner (Magic Kingdom)
Casey's is a staple of Main Street, USA. I admit the theme of the restaurant gets big, big points from my family and I since we are all huge baseball fans (and I have a special affinity for old-time baseball). The food is decent (what you'd find at the ballpark - good hot dogs, addictive corn dogs, cracker jacks, chili) and it's location is wonderful - if you're lucky, you can grab a table just outside for a great view of Spectro and Wishes. The kids LOVE the bleacher seating in front of the movie screen that shows classic Mickey sports-related cartoons. The toppings bar is also outstanding - as much cheddar cheese sauce and sauerkraut as you could ever want!
Menu Variety: 3
Menu Uniqueness: 4 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 5 Mouse Ears
Total Mouse Ears: 20

3. Tangerine Cafe (Morocco Pavilion, Epcot)
This relatively unknown gem is a place everyone needs to check out - especially if you're not afraid to try something different. Classic Moroccan/Mediterranean fare including hummus, chicken or lamb shawarma sandwiches, tabouleh, couscous and more make for a nice break from most counter service offerings. You can also grab an outside table and take in the surrounding World Showcase and listen to MoRockin when they are scheduled to play.
Menu Variety: 4 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 3 Mouse Ears
Total: 20 Mouse Ears

2. Columbia Harbor House (Magic Kingdom)
Located in Liberty Square on the border of Fantasyland, Columbia's theming is second to none. Gorgeous interior decor (along with a relatively secluded 2nd floor) provides a haven away from the Fantasyland/Liberty Square chaos. The food is also unique and good, including tuna sandwiches, hummus sandwiches and clam chowder. It's also amongst the most healthy choices you can make at WDW, especially at Magic Kingdom.
Menu Variety: 3 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 5 Mouse Ears
Total: 21 Mouse Ears

1. Sunshine Seasons (The Land, Epcot)
Theming takes a back seat here, but the food is outstanding - by far the best selection, variety and quality any counter service restaurant offers in Walt Disney World. From salmon to rotisserie chicken to vegetable panini sandwiches to chicken Caesar salad to Asian fusion dishes, Sunshine Seasons has something for almost everyone. And it has unlimited drink refills.
Menu Variety: 5 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 5 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 2 Mouse Ears
Total: 21 Mouse Ears

The reason why Sunshine's 21 beats Columbia's 21 is because Sunshine's score is compiled almost entirely because of the food itself with very little help from the theming (almost in spite of the theming), while Columbia's score is greatly helped by its incredible theming. Like I mentioned, theming is very important in Disney, but when you're hungry and need decent quality food, theming won't cut it. So Sunshine gets the nod.

Honorable Mention
Earl Of Sandwich (Downtown Disney)
Since The Earl isn't technically a Disney owned and operated restaurant (it is in fact a national chain), I couldn't in good conscience add it to this list, except as an honorable mention. But it is SO very much worth mentioning. Not only is there a quality menu that is varied and unique, but it is cheap (well, relatively speaking - in comparison to most Disney CS restaurants - $6.00 for a sandwich that is about 3/4 the length of a Subway foot-long sub). They also have indoor and outdoor seating and free refills as well. It's a good, cheap option in the middle of The Mouse. Can't beat that.
Menu Variety: 5 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 5 Mouse Ears
Cost: 5 Mouse Ears
Theme: 2 Mouse Ears
Total: 22 Mouse Ears

Now that you know the best, we'll take a quick look at some counter service restaurants that you should absolutely avoid at all costs:
1.Pinocchio's Village Haus (Magic Kingdom)
Pinocchio's used to serve a panini sandwich that was OK. Not great, but OK. And it was something different from most counter service offerings. But then it was removed from the menu. And one of the worst things you can possibly eat (from a health standpoint), the chili cheese fries basket, is still on the menu. Nothing else stands out, and it seems the generic pizza they serve there is somehow worse than everywhere else it's served. Not sure how, but it sure seems that way.
2. ABC Commissary (Hollywood Studios)
This was once a very good counter service restaurant. So the fact that it once was very good underscores its fall from grace. While it never had good theming (the only redeeming aspect is that it continually runs TV promos for its ABC shows - it's where Hope and I first became intrigued with Lost and started watching it religiously ever since), it did have a very, very good Cuban sandwich which was served with plantain chips. But they took it off the menu. Now the menu is awful - stay away from the "Chicken Bleu". Trust me.
3. Yak & Yeti Counter Service (Animal Kingdom)
This was disappointing because the one time we ate at the actual Yak & Yeti table service restaurant, we were very pleased with the experience - GREAT food, incredible theming, good service (but VERY overpriced, however). That is why when we tried the counter service, it blew our minds with how different the quality of the food was. The outdoor theming was still good (not nearly as good as the interior of the actual restaurant though), but the food was worse than most standard take-out Chinese food joints. And WAY overpriced. If you want some decent Chinese-style counter service, try the China pavilion in Epcot. It didn't make our list, but it's close. Yak and Yeti isn't anywhere close.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Mouse Is In The Details: Exposition Hall

We experienced for the first time a hidden jewel in the Magic Kingdom this past weekend; a place that can be an oasis in the middle of the summer heat, or a safe haven from massive shoulder-to-shoulder crowds - Exposition Hall.

Exposition Hall is situated in the Magic Kingdom's
Town Square next to Tony's Restaurant - and even with its location
it's easily overlooked.

In the past I had heard about the "movie theater" in Exposition Hall, but never went to see what it was all about. In fact, I had never been in Exposition Hall before because I never thought I'd have a use for it (in the age of digital cameras, cell phone cameras, Photopass online, etc.). So after we hit the newly refurbed Space Mountain, we decided to check it out, just for the sake of checking it out! And now I wish we did this during the summer heat!

Just to give an overview, the front section of Exposition Hall is a gift shop and photo pick-up. As you make your way back through the store toward the back of the building, they have several themed photo areas where you can have posed photopass pics taken (or just use yourself to take some pics). If you continue on further, tucked away in the back right quadrant of the building is an actual small movie theater. A couple dozen comfy seats face a movie screen that continually plays classic Disney animated shorts - it played Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert while we were there.

Katie and Chance checking out "The Band Concert" on the movie screen...

...and still watching after having moved seats to the front row
in this empty theater (sorry about the blown-out screen..bad camera phone! Bad camera phone!)

Also in this room, several diorama sets are in place that surround the theater; each are themed to a Disney animated feature including 101 Dalmations, Toy Story, Snow White and Steamboat Willie.

Hope's Nielsen ratings are through the roof.

In addition, a great mural graphic adorns the opposite wall from the movie screen that depicts a short history of Walt Disney and his movies (that's because this area used to be the attraction "The Walt Disney Story" - essentially replaced by One Man's Dream in Hollywood Studios).

The man who started it can find him in Exposition Hall.

Overall, this is simply a nice, air conditioned place to get away from the heat and crowds and be entertained at the same time. Or, it could be a place to seek out if you're looking for things you might have never done in The Mouse before.

We found Exposition Hall to be yet another one of the countless hidden nooks in Walt Disney World that turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Nip And Tuck (and some botox) For Space Mountain

Last night the crew at Around The Mouse had the opportunity to ride the refurbished Space Mountain for the first time since soft openings began last week.

Starport 75: One of the many great historical WDW
references made throughout the new Space Mountain.

We arrived at Magic Kingdom at about 5:30 and darted directly to Tomorrowland...only to find Space Mountain was down due to technical difficulties, and had been since 3 pm. Now, we basically made this trip specifically to try out the face lift on this classic attraction. So yeah, that was a bummer.

An army of Tomorrowland CMs were outside with their damage control hats on, trying to keep an excited crowd under control. As per usual when these things happen, they unfortunately didn't have any word on when, or if, the ride was going to come back online. So at about 5:50, we went and took a ride on the TTA.

Brian and Hope on The People Mover - biding our time
in the hope Space Mountain would open up soon.

As we rode the new TTA, we noticed almost immediately that all of a sudden, there was a LINE at Space Mountain - entering the attraction! We couldn't believe it - the ride must have opened up as we were literally loading onto The People Mover! It was torture seeing the line moving...then getting longer and longer...until it wasn't moving any more...all the while knowing we were RIGHT THERE, and if we stayed there, we would have been amongst the first in line. But by the time the ride around Tomorrowland ended, the wait was already 45 minutes, and this was the line:


OK, as for the actual attraction that is the new Space Mountain. Let me start by saying this: I wasn't expecting a Disneyland-ish renovation as they had done to their Space Mountain (down for 2 years to institute massive changes to the ride itself, infusing a music soundtrack into the cars, etc.) since the original here in The Mouse was down for only about seven months or so.

That being said, I was a bit underwhelmed. The changes were indeed very much positive, and they seem about what should be expected for the amount of time it was down (in comparison to Disneyland's refurb). But I was a little disappointed in what was done (or not done) to the actual ride experience though. They did seemingly make enhancements to the take-off tunnel (blue lights are very vibrant - possibly brighter than before?) especially at the end just as you veer off onto the track and begin the actual coaster portion. It's visually stimulating and the sound effects successfully get you excited for what's about to come around the corner.

The launch tunnel looks like something out of
Empire Strikes Back. Which, of course, is cool.

Two other areas during the ride were clearly better than before: the outer space ceiling graphics and the softness of the ride experience. The ceiling graphics are brighter, clearer and crisper; they are impressive and very much add to the aesthetic appeal of the theming. Also, the softness of the ride itself is much improved. Almost everyone knows what we're talking about when we reference the bumpiness of the pre-refurb Space Mountain - the quick turns and sharp dips throw you around the seat into the hard angles of the enclosed space. This could make for a relatively harsh ride and some nice bruises. For the refurb, they did soften things up - but I don't think they did anything to the track itself (if they did, it was minor). The customary bumpy dips and turns were still there, and it still throws you around...but due to the new cushioning along the bottom, back and sides of the seating area, it feels MUCH better going around those sharp corners and quick drops. This was a very welcome change, and probably a cheaper and quicker way to tackle the problem of the track harshness without totally disassembling the entire track to smooth it out.

Hope is in front of me as we descend into the eerie
"red" tunnel toward the end of the ride.

On the negative side, early reports and reviews are talking about how it's almost pitch black inside now. I didn't find that at all. I did find that I was able to basically see the track ahead, at least for a good portion of the ride. I was hoping that the supposed darkness would enhance the "thrill" of the ride by making a relatively small and slow coaster more thrilling because you literally couldn't see where you're going - and that just isn't the case here. It's still the great ride that we all know Space Mountain to be; it's just thrilling enough, and in conjunction with the theming, it's still the typical Disney World ride with its typical high standards of excellence. But I don't think it's what it could have been, considering the technology Disney has on its hands at this point in time.

Also, as has been reported, the major part of the refurb occurred in the queue line area. I was slightly underwhelmed here as well, but it is a definite improvement over the previous queue - which was unmanageably long during those busy days as you waited in line for 60+ minutes with nothing to do and not a whole lot to look at.

They improved the lighting, adding the blue and orange lights along the way to plus the atmosphere of the overall theme. The star maps may or may not be different - however, they looked extremely sharp and bright. They very well may be brand new.

Apparently, there's nowhere the DVC won't go these days.

What everyone has been talking about are the interactive games that begin about halfway up the queue line. These are a great addition, especially in comparison to what had been here before (which was nothing). They are quick, lasting only 60 seconds, and this seems to be a very appropriate time limit for each game. It's enough to play for a while, then move on as the line moves. The game itself was merely decent; entertaining enough to occupy your attention and take your mind off the tedium of the long wait (we were in line for about 50 minutes). I still think this is the next logical step in the new wave of integrating interactive experiences into attractions as a way to eliminate queue boredom (see our November 17 article for more details on this strategy) and further enhance the overall experience.

The interactive games aren't anything to write home about,
but they are a positive attempt at helping tolerate the long lines.

Also, all the changes to the theming of both the queue and ride positively bring the story of Space Mountain together as a complete experience. So while I might have been left wanting a little during the actual coaster portion of Space Mountain, the overall experience is definitely improved over its previous version - without sacrificing the classic feel of the original.

You can go 20,000 Light Years Under The Sea.

Overall, it's a solid upgrade, and it definitely kicks Space Mountain up a few notches in the hierarchy of WDW thrill rides.

It's back on the radar and relevant once again after a quick nip and tuck.

Chance gave it 5 Mouse Ears, but he admitted it gave him a bit of a scare. Which says something considering he's done Tower of Terror
and Expedition Everest a combined 200,000 times (it seems).

Brian: 4 Mouse Ears
Katie: 5 Mouse Ears
Chance: 5 Mouse Ears
Hope: TBD

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exclusive: Interview With A Pirate

Chance has grown up with Walt Disney World. After 3 years of being a passholder, he's a veteran at navigating The Mouse. In this Around The Mouse exclusive, he shares his wisdom about The Happiest Place On Earth in the hope that he can help other pirates get the most out of their trips.

What are your top 4 favorite parks in Walt Disney World?
1. Magic Kingdom
"MK is my favorite because it has rides like Splash starts out with a little drop...then a bigger one...then the biggest one at the end! It also has my favorite restaurant (Casey's Corner)."
2. Hollywood Studios
"It has Tower of Terror - it has the little drops, then BIG go way down, then way up then you do it again! I also love Star Tours because you get hit by a comet! There are so many good rides here."
3. Epcot
"I like when you walk in you can get a drink at Club Cool. You can cool off there. I also love Test Track because it goes really fast outside. I also love the restaurant where you go down by the music band and you can get gold coin candy (Biergarten during Christmas time)."
4. Animal Kingdom
"I like the animals, especially on the Safari ride. I like Everest because it starts up slow and then goes REALLY fast at the end...I like that a lot. It also has my second favorite restaurant (Tusker House) serves wonderful food."

Favorite Disney Water Park: Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach?
"I like Typhoon Lagoon because I love the big tidal waves...I can now stand on my feet because the water doesn't wipe me away and make me fall anymore."

What are your top 5 favorite rides?
1. Expedition Everest
2. Tower of Terror
3. Splash Mountain
4. Star Tours
5. Toy Story Mania

What is your top 3 favorite fireworks shows?
1. Fantasmic
"Because it has Mickey in it."
2. Illuminations
3. Wishes

What is your favorite restaurant?
"Casey's Corner. I like the cheese sauce, the cartoons and the stadium seating! I like their baseball uniforms too!"

What are your 3 favorite ice cream snacks?
1. Kitchen Sink -
"You cool off in here (Beaches & Cream), the big ice cream is REALLY good, it doesn't melt fast, and you get a drink with it."
2. Dole Whip
3. Mickey Head Ice Cream Bar
"I have to bite the chocolate and it falls apart, and melts fast. It's hard to eat."

Favorite Pin?
"I like the Yeti vinylmation pin. It's very cool because it's scary."

Which party did you like more: Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party or the Not So Scary Halloween Party?
"I liked the the Christmas party because it wasn't was cold enough to have hot chocolate and cookies. And I loved the parade."

What is your favorite memory of going to walt disney world?
"I think I liked the first time we went to ride Toy Story Mania (during the passholder preview) with our passes. We rode it again and again with no big lines."

Which was your favorite hotel we stayed at?
Fort Wilderness Campground
"I liked listening to the campfire songs and singing. Got to roast marshmallows too. I also liked staying there in the RV really close to Magic Kingdom."

What is your least favorite ride in WDW?
Magic Carpets of Aladdin
"All you do is go around in a circle. It's boring."

What is the first thing you think of when you think of WDW?
"Hearing the words Walt Disney World makes me feel happy and excited. I think of Downtown Disney...because I think of DisneyQuest and the chocolate squares and Earl of Sandwich."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's The Sum Of All Thrills When Soarin' With Dumbo On SpaceShip Earth If You're Headed To Space Mountain?

The new Space Mountain refurbishment is a very important step for the future of attractions at World Disney World - especially when it comes to the Fantasyland expansion that's going to start up very soon.

First off, the idea behind the refurb of Space Mountain is interesting. Imagineering didn't do a drastic overhaul of the classic ride itself; they tweaked certain things that makes the experience more thrilling and fun.

In Space Mountain, new and improved projection graphics on the ceiling amp up the sense of realism and fun while the much darker interior doesn't allow the rider to see the sudden drops and curves that are coming - making the ride experience much more thrilling. This is a great thing because Space Mountain isn't a fierce coaster - there's a reason why the height requirement is only 44" (Chance is champing at the bit to ride it again - he rode it only once after finally getting tall enough, then it went down for refurb). But when you can't see where you're going, the thrill factor rises tremendously (similar to the sensation of the backward drop in the dark on Expedition Everest). Where the main concentration of changes occur though is in the queue - a new interactive queue.

An interactive queue isn't a new phenomenon, and it won't be the last time we see this idea put into practice, either. The trend of improving the queue from pure eye candy to interactive is the new black in The Mouse - and it's a game-changer for Disney attractions and theme park attractions in general.

We saw the first real example of this in Soarin' a couple of years ago. While the "games" you can play when waiting in the stand-by line at Soarin may not be the most in-depth games around, at least it occupies your attention while waiting. Soarin' desperately needed something like this, because the popularity of the attraction can make the lines intolerable. And there was nothing to this queue at all - just blank walls - so the games were most welcome.

Spaceship Earth didn't throw anything interactive into its pre-ride queue - it's a constantly-loading conveyor belt system that moves pretty quickly. But they did throw an interactive game into the end of the ride itself on the final descent. This was met with some negativity in the Disney fan community, but I personally think this was a positive change (as does my whole family - we have a ball with it). With this addition, Disney is making a long, monotonous part of exiting the ride interactive and fun. It's the same idea as the pre-ride queues, just placed on the back end instead of the front.

The new Sum Of All Thrills attraction in Epcot incorporates interactivity into the pre-ride queue/pre-show as well. You and/or your team design the thrill ride yourself in the Design Lab using a touch-screen monitor and actual design tools before actually sitting on the KUKA robot arm and going for your ride. Once again, interactivity is a key element outside of the ride itself.

And the biggest and potentially best example of Disney's new idea of interactive queues is the new Dumbo attraction that will be part of the Fantasyland expansion/renovation that will open up in 2012. Dumbo's huge pre-ride circus tent area will likely be Imagineering's culmination of creative ideas for interactivity. All of the above (and probably a few more minor examples will pop up over the next couple of years in the different parks) are testing grounds for what they have in store for this circus tent. It will set the bar high - very high - and will redefine what it means to "wait in line" for a ride. They will take your mind off the waiting and focus it on something fun; it will plus the whole experience immeasurably.

Space Mountain's refurb is the latest and greatest example of this new interactivity-driven mindset. In the future, waiting in lines at The Mouse won't ever be the same - the Dumbo attraction will likely change how we think about it forever. I can't wait to see what they have in store.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"I Didn't Even Know That Was There!"

Everyone is familiar with the iconic things in Walt Disney World. We know the "weenies": Cinderella's Castle, SpaceShip Earth, The Tree of Life and The Sorcerer's Hat. We are familiar with the huge attractions: Soarin, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safari, Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania. We all know the huge shows: Wishes, Fantasmic!, Illuminations.

But there are also many attractions that fly under the radar that are definitely worth trying - at least once. Some are attractions that you may not consider doing because of some preconceived notion. Some you simply may not have given a second thought. Some you may not even have known were there.

Well, these are the kinds of attractions that fill out your trip to The Mouse and make it a complete experience. Below are some of our favorite "underrated" or "under appreciated" attractions that we'd be remiss if we didn't recommend them.

One Man's Dream, Hollywood Studios
Yes, it was all started by a mouse, but that mouse exists because of Walter Elias Disney. I've always thought that for anyone who visits Walt Disney World, visiting One Man's Dream should be a requirement before doing anything else (I'm kidding...?). The exhibit is fascinating. It runs chronologically spanning Walt's life from birth to his death and highlights all his major achievements in between. It houses many authentic artifacts from his life and career and is pleasantly detail oriented. It's too bad that it's sort of tucked away in limbo without much fanfare in Hollywood Studios - because it's a very worthy tribute to one of the greatest and most influential individuals of the 20th century and should be considered a can't miss.
Brian: 5 Mouse Ears
Katie: 5 Mouse Ears
Chance: 4 Mouse Ears
Hope: 5 Mouse Ears

Conservation Station, Animal Kingdom
Talk about being tucked away in limbo. The biggest problem with Conservation Station is its location - it's WAY out of the way at Animal Kingdom over past Africa. You have to take a train to reach it. But it is worth it...especially to the kids (as you can see by Katie and Chance's ratings for this attraction). It's very much educational - CM zoologists and animal handlers give presentations of live animals - and usually allow the kids to pet the animal featured in the show (usually a rabbit or small rodent of some kind). Speaking of petting - the outdoor goat petting zoo is always popular with the young ones. As is the vet and research facility. And if you come early enough, you may get to see them working on a tiger, snake or bongo that needs some measure of medical attention.
Brian: 3 Mouse Ears
Katie: 5 Mouse Ears
Chance: 5 Mouse Ears
Hope: 4 Mouse Ears

Behind The Seeds Tour, The Land Pavilion, Epcot
Ok, so this is a tour that isn't included in the price of admission (last I saw, $12 for AP holders, $15 for regular price). But it's a great value for what it is. Basically, it takes you "backstage" of the Living With The Land attraction...but goes into much, much greater depth. And you get to sample fresh hydroponic cucumbers. It's a fascinating look into the inner workings of Epcot - for example they talk about how their greenhouse vegetables supply most of the restaurants in Epcot with the fresh veggies they serve to the guests every single day. We won't rate this one since it's an extra cost above and beyond admission. I'll just say it's definitely worth trying if your looking for something different than the norm.

Turtle Talk With Crush, The Seas Pavilion, Epcot
Crush is a popular attraction, but it can definitely be overlooked. First, it's sort of hidden away in the Seas pavilion...which is sort of tucked away out of sight/out of mind to begin with. Second, the first attraction everyone sees at the Seas is Nemo. So if people have limited time, it's a good chance they'll pick the first thing they see: Nemo. Third, even if you make it inside and have some extra time, Crush is a show that lasts about 20 minutes so it's not a fast-loading attraction with high many times people just blow it off when they see the mass of people waiting. To do that would be a mistake; it's a showcase of some fantastic imagineering technology. Crush "sees" the kids sitting in front of his tank and converses with them. They ask questions, he answers; he asks questions, they answer. And the kids greatly enjoy it. And I greatly enjoy the technology.
Brian: 3 Mickey Ears
Katie: 4 Mickey Ears
Chance: 4 Mickey Ears
Hope: 4 Mickey Ears

Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure
This is a difficult one to rate because there are several different KP Adventures and each vary in quality: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Japan, France and the UK. Not that any are far inferior, but some seem to get a bigger reaction from participants than others. For our kids, they LOVED China. That's because they get a very small gift during the adventure. And the effects in China are the best of the bunch, in my opinion. But they are all very much worth trying as they allow you the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of World Showcase that you might not have ever even noticed before - and it's definitely worth noticing.
Brian: 3
Katie: 5
Chance: 4
Hope: 5 (This is a 5 because it is a gift to parents. It's a great bargaining chip to get more time in the World Showcase - kids love this so they stay busy as the parents get to look around longer!)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why Do You Crave The Mouse?

Everyone loves Walt Disney World's rides. Every loves their shows. Everyone loves their restaurants. But those aren't necessarily what makes it Walt Disney World. Disney World's true appeal comes from the feelings it can evoke...the emotions it can stir up in everyone.

It's not always the big attractions and tangible things that hit the mark, but it's the intangible instead. It's the true reason why everyone craves to return to The Mouse time and again. It's not just the drop on Everest or flying around in circles on Dumbo that does the trick, it's the bombardment on your senses and emotions that you feel when you're there.

It's when a Cast Member at Port Orleans French Quarter resort says, "Welcome home," as you walk into the lobby.

It's finding a Mickey-shaped towel on your bed when you step into your hotel room the first day.

It's finding that very first hidden Mickey...on your own.

It's seeing your daughter's face after drinking Beverly for the very first time.

It's the look on your family's faces as they round the corner onto Main Street and everyone else around you has the same look on their faces too.

It's the random CM on Sunset Blvd. at Hollywood Studios who voluntarily goes out of their way to ask where you're from, what has been your favorite attraction so far, and then suggests what you might want to do next.

It's the autographed picture Mickey and Minnie sign and leave on your desk in your hotel room during your Disneymoon.

It's the big hug Stitch gives your kids and the smile on their faces.

It's the moment toward the end of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth when the bright, white fireworks repeatedly shoot out in time with the soaring score as they sing, "We'll go on!"...and it takes your breath away...every time.

It's the familiar sound of the Main Street ragtime band playing in the you're overtaken by the unmistakable smell of cookies when you walk by the Main Street Bakery...while you see hundreds of Mickey balloons bounding toward Cinderella Castle.

It's feeling the cool evening breeze on your face from the 7 Seas Lagoon when you're on the Admiral Joe Fowler ferry boat heading toward the breathtaking Magic Kingdom.

It's the feeling you get as you stroll around the beautiful and serene World Showcase at night.

It's the feeling you get as you stroll around the beautiful and exciting World Showcase during the day.

It's the crowd going crazy with applause at the end of Fantasmic when Mickey appears in his black tux and says, "Some imagination, huh?"

It's your daughter's reaction when she's given the signed birthday card from all the CMs at Boma.

It's being on one knee and proposing to your front of Cinderella's Castle. And not being able to take your eyes off her smile.

It's the applause you get from the crowd on Main Street after she says Yes.

It's cheering for the Disney Marathon runners as they go by. And one runner is sporting a red skirt with white polka dots. And mouse ears.

It's enjoying the peaceful beauty of the Boardwalk as you ride a surrey bike around Crescent Lake.

It's the unbridled fun in trying to see how many laps you can do in a half hour around Crescent Lake in the surrey bike.

It's laying and swaying on a hammock in the shade of a palm tree at Caribbean Beach Resort.

It's the calming clip-clop of the horse drawn carriage going over a wooden bridge at Port Orleans Riverside.

It's the snow falling down on your heads as you're holding hot chocolate during the Osborne Lights.

It's seeing a Kitchen Sink heading to your table for the first time.

It's the feeling of jogging around the Boardwalk during a beautiful sunrise. And all you can hear are seagulls.

It's giving away fastpasses to Toy Story Mania to a family of 4 when you know they have never been to The Mouse before.

It's holding an Annual Pass for the first time. It's holding an Annual Pass any time.

It's holding your future wife's hand when she goes on Soarin' for the first time...and seeing her jaw drop.

It's the feeling of awe you get as you see the 6-foot wave approaching in the wave pool in Typhoon Lagoon.

It's watching your 6-year-old son look at Darth Vader with awe during the parade at Star Wars Weekends. He believes. And you can see it.

It's watching your 6-year-old son intently listening to Father Christmas in the UK pavilion during Holidays Around The World. He believes. And you can see it.

It's watching your 6-year-old son blush after being kissed on the cheek by Cinderella.

It's the generous CM who gives your children an extra pin while pin trading because the kids said "please" and "thank you".

It's wearing a Mickey Ear Top Hat and Minnie Veil in the parks during your honeymoon.

It's hearing, "Congratulations!" more times than you can count.

It's returning the favor to every newlywed you see in the parks from then on.

It's seeing the expression on your dad's face as he's about to embark on Everest during his Birthday visit.

It's playing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Star Wars Edition at Hollywood Studios next to your brother, sister-in-law and best friend. And not being afraid to be that geeky.

It's hearing some awful yet hilarious karaoke and eating some delicious tempura at Kimonos with them too.

It's watching the Candlelight Processional with your parents and raving about it afterwards.

It's feeling absolute joy at finding air under you as you drop fast and far in Tower Of Terror. And seeing the terror in the eyes of your brother and sister-in-law in the photo afterwards.

It's your 4-year-old son begging to go on Tower Of Terror instead of Playhouse Disney. For the 10th time. In a row. Attaboy.

It's throwing off the mound to see exactly how hard you don't throw at ESPN The Weekend.

It's having your son fall asleep on your shoulders as you make the sad walk out of Magic Kingdom after the Kiss Goodnight. Although he drooled on you.

It's the pit you feel in your stomach as you see the "See Ya Real Soon" sign as you leave...and it makes you want to come right back.

That's why i crave The Mouse. What about you?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tip Of The Tail - Festival Of The Masters

Every November a very special event takes place at Downtown Disney that I believe is rather overlooked. This weekend, The Festival Of The Masters revisits Downtown Disney for 3 days (November 13-15) and it's very much worth seeing.

Festival spans from the very end of Downtown's Westside and sprawls all the way up through Marketplace. Along the way you'll find exhibit booths showcasing the art of hundreds of extremely skilled artists and craftspeople. You can browse and just admire the creations of these talented individuals or you might even find something to purchase and take home. Many times the art is Disney inspired, but many times not - there is truly something here for everyone.

You'll also find all kinds of activities for families and/or kids including the popular Sharpie tents they've had every year (don't know if they'll be back this year or not). The Sharpie tent usually allows kid's creativity and imagination to run wild as they use countless Sharpie markers to color until their fingers fall off! And for those who haven't done the Magic Of Disney Animation (seeOh You'll Love This...Just One More (Free) Thing, Oct. 27), at Hollywood Studios or visited the Create section of DisneyQuest, during Festival they have an outdoor class in front of DisneyQuest that teaches guests to draw along and learn to illustrate Disney characters.

But the most popular aspect of the Festival is the sidewalk chalk art. Hundreds of masterpieces are drawn onto the sidewalks of the Marketplace - many of which are simply jaw-dropping. Be forewarned though - if you're there on Day 1, you won't see too many finished products. The day to be there for that is Sunday (November 15 this year). However, there's a definite charm in seeing the drawings coming together in their early stages of development over Friday and Saturday. So, regardless of the day you see Festival, you'll have lots of eye candy to keep your interest.

An example of the phenomenal sidewalk chalk art
on display at the Marketplace. Image can be found at

It's an amazing event and even those who don't necessarily consider themselves art fans should see Festival Of The Masters at least once. It's worth it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wanna Know Disney's Best Kept Secret? Hint - It's Not The DVC

I am convinced that the DVC is NOT Disney's best-kept secret, regardless of what all the Disney World buses have plastered all over them (and they've been plastered there for as long as I can remember). I believe that distinction belongs to something else on property.

That distinction would belong to Disney's Fort Wilderness Campgrounds.

The bridge that connects the campsites to the Chip N' Dale's
Campfire site. The Fort Wilderness Campgrounds, like nearly
everywhere in Walt Disney World, is incredibly themed.

Now, I think that a lot of people hear/read the words Fort Wilderness Campgrounds and immediately blow it off. Most people aren't "campers". Most people don't like to "rough it". So they don't even consider it an option when planning a trip to The Mouse.

Well, I can tell you that our family isn't necessarily true "campers". And I can also tell you when you stay at Fort Wilderness, you definitely aren't roughing it.

I used to work for a company that rented an RV campsite every year at Fort Wilderness. They provided a parked travel trailer and kept it there for employees to use - a pretty nice perk. Over time, we ended up using it twice. This opened up the Campground to us; otherwise we probably would have blown it off and never even set foot in there, like I feel so many do. That would have been a big mistake.

There are many ways to stay at Fort Wilderness. Of course, there is the incredible The Fort Wilderness Lodge. That's about as far away from roughing it as you can possibly get. It is a gorgeous hotel, and if you stay there you get full use of the Campground (plus, of course, the grounds of the Lodge itself are incredible). There's the Fort Wilderness Villas. There's the Fort Wilderness Cabins. There's the campsites for RVs. And there are campsites for tents (we do have a large tent and camping supplies, so one day we will try Disney's version of "roughing it", I promise!). All of these range in price greatly, and also provide much different experiences. For now, we can speak to staying in an RV.

First off, there are activities galore. Tons of things to keep you busy. Bring a bike (or rent one), and you can ride the trails for hours - they are expansive and beautiful. You can run or walk those same trails. You can rent canoes, kayaks, fishing poles. Play beach volleyball or tennis. The Segway tour gets rave reviews. CM's constantly run games for the kids to play. The pool is rather plain, but large. There's the beach and watercraft rentals at Bay Lake. From the beach you can see the Electric Water Pageant go by every night or view Wishes. You can take the boat to the Magic Kingdom. Some very highly regarded restaurants are housed at Fort Wilderness: Trails End and Hoop De Doo. And I'm sure I'm overlooking quite a few things as well.

Chance and Katie with Dale at the Campfire.
They loved this free activity.

And there is a best-kept secret at this new best-kept secret: The Chip n' Dale's Campfire Sing-A-Long and Movie. Not many people realize this exists - but it is FUN. Nobody in my family are huge fans of Chip and Dale, but Disney hit the nail on the head with this free activity. Every night at the Campgrounds, they have two big campfires going, along with what's essentially a meet and greet with the two chipmunks, and a live music sing-along. The singing is fun and they encourage participation - the kids loved it. You can also bring s'mores to roast at the campfires (I would recommend you bring your own chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers though - I believe the price was $9 for a small "kit" at the campfire site). Afterward, we watched Monster's, Inc. on their large movie screen. The only other thing I'd recommend is to bring bug spray - the mosquitoes were indeed horrible. So beware.

The roasted marshmallows were a huge hit.
But bring your own - unless you want to pay out the
nose for a s'mores kit at the campfire site.

To talk a little about the actual camping, the campsite was large. Big enough for roughly a 35 - 40 foot RV, and our car with plenty of room to spare around the parameter - picnic table and charcoal grill were both just outside. The pool, campfire and convenience store were all within short walking distance. So were the "hospitality houses"; these were large restroom/shower facilities, and they were beautiful.

Also, there is something about the community at the Campground that is unique. The areas of the campsites are like little neighborhoods and everyone just seems...happy. Friendly. Outgoing. Warm and welcoming. More so than any resort hotel we've stayed at (not that those were bad experiences - the opposite, for that matter). But this was different. It's like the camping lifestyle brings people together in this kind of setting. Everyone says "hi" with a smile. Just an interesting observation because it felt really good to be there.

Anyway, if you want another great but different experience at Walt Disney World - something you may never have even considered - we would highly recommend visiting or staying at the Fort Wilderness Campground.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tip Of The Tail: Don't Be A Foolish Mortal - Avoid Long Queue Lines

Everyone loves a parade. Especially Walt Disney World Parades. Spectromagic, Jammin' Jungle Parade and Move It, Shake It all bring something special to the table. But they are good for a lot more than just having the opportunity to sit in wide-eyed wonder at the spectacle as it goes by. It's also good for a lot more than the frustration of having someone try to shoehorn their way in front of (or into!!) your spot, even though you've been standing there for half an hour to make sure you can see.

One other thing they are good for is for lightening up the attraction wait times. For example, this past Saturday night, we were at the Magic Kingdom for our WDW fix. We were walking out of Fantasyland and past Columbia Harbor House when we noticed that the wait time for the Haunted Mansion was only 10 minutes. We also noticed people were lined up in droves along Liberty Square down toward Frontierland in anticipation of the Spectromagic parade that was making its way from Main Street toward our location.

Past experience has told us that hitting attractions during parades and fireworks shows is a good idea because a hefty percentage of the guests in the park will be giving their attention to those shows and not the attractions - meaning much shorter wait times.

We mentioned this in our Tip Of The Tail article on October 25 regarding Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade at the Animal Kingdom (the perfect time to ride Kilimanjaro Safari). Also, the 15 minutes before Illumination: Reflections Of Earth begins at Epcot is a GREAT time to visit Test Track or Soarin. And there's no better time to ride Rock N' Roller Coaster or Tower Of Terror at Hollywood Studios than when Fantasmic is getting ready to start. Wait times are cut WAY down.

This theory was proved out again regarding the Haunted Mansion this past Saturday night. We decided to take advantage of the 10-minute wait time and do this WDW classic. In fact, it wasn't 1o minutes - it was a literal walk-on. After having less than 1-minute out in the queue area with the cemetary, the doors opened, and into Master Gracie's waiting room we went, then on to the Stretching Room, then on to the ride.

After exiting the ride we decided to take in the magnificence that is the exterior of the Haunted Mansion at night - take some photos, wait for the ghosts to walk by the windows and check out the pet cemetary. While relaxing there, we saw the queue line increase. And increase. And increase. Sprecto was coming to an end, and before long, the Haunted Mansion queue line stretched back out past the wait time clock. When we left, it was up to a 45 minute wait.

So the moral of the story is, unless you really want to see the parade or end-of-night fireworks show, you can take advantage of the situation by hitting up your favorite 5-Mouse Ear attractions while everyone else is standing along a curb or sitting in a bleacher seat to see that show. If you're at a Disney park for a day, and you've seen these shows before and/or don't mind missing them, you can utilize Fastpass throughout the day and this strategy to knock down those attractions with minimal wait times - freeing up your time to do other things. Give it a try next time you're at The Mouse.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fitmouse - A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action

Walt Disney World is the vacation kingdom of the world. That means food, glorious food. We all know how great and varied the choices are at The Mouse for calorie intake, but what about calorie expenditure? How can you find a balance and keep it under control while at WDW?

There are many ways, some obvious, and some not so obvious. In our new segment, Fitmouse, we'll uncover ways to stay fit amongst all these temptations. This usually means burning more calories than you take in - and it'll take more than a leisurely stroll around the 1.3 mile World Showcase Lagoon over the course of 4 hours for that to happen.

We also know that when at WDW, you're on vacation. And not everyone wants to pound away on a treadmill for an hour when there's so much to do! So that's why we're glad WDW has made being active at The Mouse easy and fun, and full of options.

One of the best ways we found to be active as a family is the Walt Disney World pedal boats. Now, this ride can as leisurely as you want, or you can make a true workout out of it. We've used the boats at the Caribbean Beach Resort (you can also rent them at Wilderness Lodge, Contemporary Resort, Grand Floridian and several others), and it was a blast! Not only was the scenery wonderful, it was relatively cheap (about $6 per half hour - up to 4 people per boat) and a great workout! If you pedal at a decent clip, you'll get your heart rate up, your legs will feel it and you'll work up a sweat!

Give the pedal boats a try if you want a fun way for the family to stay active!