Walt Disney World Trip Report – The Overall

We recently returned from our trip to the most magical place on Earth – Walt Disney World! We were there during the middle two weeks of November, before the Thanksgiving rush (or at least we thought). We spent three days at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure before trekking over to Walt Disney World for 8 nights of Disney goodness. Here is a summary of my overall impressions, and a more detailed look at various aspects of our trip will follow.

First of all, I wanted to thank all of you that have subscribed and followed me on Twitter and Facebook since I reported that I made the Round 2 cut of applicants in the Disney Parks Moms Panel Search! Unfortunately, I did not advance to Round 3, but received the news while AT Walt Disney World, so I suppose if there’s a good place to receive that news, that would be it! I will apply again next year, and wish all 19 of the successful candidates a great year on the Panel. In the meantime, I will continue to give my own advice and share my own Walt Disney World stories right here on this website. In the new year, I will be unveiling a couple exciting new features, and will be migrating the site to a new server to take advantage of WordPress’ customization options. I’m pumped!

Alright – time for some Walt Disney World trip reporting! Our trip coincided with the early part of the Christmas festivities – Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is kicking off, and the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is in full swing. The deluxe resorts were unveiling their decorations in the last couple days of our trip, and the giant Christmas trees had been erected at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (though the Candlelight Processional hadn’t yet commenced at Epcot).

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Essentially, what we discovered were beautifully themed and decorated parks, and who could resist the allure of Christmas music being played consistently at Magic Kingdom? As a Canadian, it WAS a little strange to be in the Christmas spirit while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but the cold weather definitely made itself apparent near the end of our time there. On our second last day in the parks, we experienced a day of 9 degrees Celsius (about 45 Fahrenheit), so that was pretty miserable. About half of our time in Orlando, the weather was perfect – not cold at all, and not too hot either with very little humidity. However, I would have traded the more temperate weather for the smaller crowds you see in the early fall.

Generally speaking, crowd levels in November are supposed to be some of the smallest crowds of the year (until you get to the week of Thanksgiving). Most crowd-tracking sites were predicting crowd levels of 2-3, with Touring Plans predicting at the higher end. While the Lines app from Touring Plans didn’t post higher than a 5 at any point, I feel I had to disagree and would peg them at more like 6-8. In September 2013, we definitely experienced crowd levels of 1 – 5-10 minute posted waits at most for even the more popular rides, and empty restaurants (even during Free Dining). This time, we were waiting 15-20 minutes just to eat at counter service restaurants, and even saw a 30-minute wait for Small World at Magic Kingdom on a Wednesday morning. 7 Dwarfs Mine Train was consistently at 60 minutes or more, Winnie the Pooh was often 25-45 minutes, and Peter Pan never got below 30 minutes, which was a shame because I would have loved to have seen the new interactive queue. We had a full schedule of must-dos, in addition to a few events, and didn’t want to spend so much time in queues. The crowds were definitely unexpected, and I think they were unexpected from Disney’s perspective too – the Times Guide was updated many times to include additional viewings of Fantasmic and an extra run of the Main Street Electrical Parade. The negative impact of the crowds was also exacerbated by the attraction closures at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (consistent 30-minute waits for Great Movie Ride) and restaurant closures at Magic Kingdom (Diamond Horseshoe, Tortuga Tavern) often funneled people into Pecos Bill or Columbia Harbour House – even at “off-peak” times during the day, these restaurants were full. I can only imagine what it’s like at Christmas!

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There were probably numerous reasons for the influx of guests, but one major difference between September and November is the number of kids. I think that while many parents are willing to pull their kids out of school at some point during the year to go to Disney World, they are less willing to do so right at the start of the school year. There were kids everywhere, meaning more strollers and fuller tables at restaurants. I think this might have been the biggest difference in terms of the crowd demographic.

Regardless, we found that we were able to do everything we wanted to do, in addition to doing it all at a relatively slow pace (which my wife appreciated as she got sick partway through our trip with a bad cold). We took in all the shows and parades we wanted to see, went to the Very Merry Christmas Party, spent a whole day meandering around Animal Kingdom, and visited a couple other resorts. As the cherry on top, we slept in almost every day – the new FastPass+ system allows for this if you pick mid-to-late morning fast-passes. A lot of people will advise you to do the opposite, in order to run through your three FP+ selections quickly so you could pick new ones, but I think this is more necessary if you have kids that you don’t want to risk long lines with, or if you have a short amount of time to spend at the parks. We were okay with a later start (and near-empty buses!) after a more restful sleep and less-frenzied morning. We got in all the attractions we wanted to do, usually more than once, and had lots of down-time to unwind as well. While touring was a little tougher because of trying to navigate unexpected crowds, we still took everything in, taking lots of time to experience the smaller and less appreciated aspects of a Disney World trip.

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Like I said above, I will take some time in the next few days to write some more detailed posts about our trip, including our laid-back day at Animal Kingdom (definitely NOT a half-day park!), our experience with the Very Merry Christmas Party, the Keys to the Kingdom Tour (an absolute must-do!) and the new Frozen Sing-along, as well as my thoughts on why World Showcase requires at least a whole day on its own to experience. I look forward to sharing all of these thoughts with you!

Disney’s Hollywood… Adventure?

Before I begin today’s post, I first wanted to apologize for the three weeks between posts – as readers know, I like to post once a week. However, between a variety of other writing projects, there simply hasn’t been the time. But alas, here I am once more!

Secondly, I am delighted to announce that I have been selected to advance to Round Two of the Disney Parks Moms Panel! As far as I can tell there are three rounds, during which thousands of applicants are whittled down to 20 successful applicants that join the panel, so I am very happy to just be deemed good enough to continue in the process. Hopefully, I will have a successful Round 2!

But now, on to the post!

At this rate, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is going to be all construction walls.

The park, which will apparently be renamed once again – this time to Disney’s Hollywood Adventure – has essentially abandoned its original intent of being a working studio with attractions, and will now embrace its destiny as a full-blown theme park. Since the summer, the following attractions have closed: the Sounds Dangerous theatre, American Idol Experience and the Backlot Studio Tour (goodbye, Michael Bay!). Closing in the future will be the Great Movie Ride. While nothing has been confirmed yet, the new attractions that will be taking over these areas of the park will be an expanded Star Wars Land which will include the Mos Eisley Cantina, an immersive Tatooine experience, and several attractions ranging from A-ticket to E-ticket. Going in on the footprint that Backlot Tour currently occupies is rumoured to be an expansion of Pixar Place, and the American Idol  and Sounds Dangerous areas will likely become the permanent homes of the Frozen Sing-Along and potentially the Jedi Training Academy. It’s also been rumoured that the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, originally slated for closure at the end of the year, has been saved from closure.

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There are definitely some exciting changes coming to the park, and I can’t wait to see what Disney is going to bring on board to what has essentially become a half-day theme park for many visitors. The reason is pretty simple – little kids aren’t likely to do Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster or Star Tours, meaning that their day will consist of some combination of Great Movie Ride, Toy Story Midway Mania and the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast shows. Teenagers and adults may eschew the shows, especially if they’ve already experienced them in the past, and DHS doesn’t have the parades, fireworks or restaurants to entice people to stay all day.

Combine this with what I talked about a couple weeks ago – Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley opened in the summer to rave reviews, and construction is under way on the King Kong attraction in Islands of Adventure. Rumours abound that now that the final Hobbit movie is coming to theatres this year, negotiations to bring Lord of the Rings into Islands of Adventure will be going full steam ahead. It may only be a matter of time until DC Comic properties are brought into Universal in the form of Batman and Superman as well. The new Jurassic World movie will mean a large-scale refurbishment of Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure, especially since there’s some buzz that Jurassic World will the first of a new Chris Pratt-helmed Jurassic Park franchise of films. What it all means is that Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are priming themselves to jump in the theme-park-attendance rankings in Orlando – the four Disney theme parks occupy the top 4 slots, while Universal and IoA are 5th and 6th – they are closing the gap. Disney Imagineers recently toured Diagon Alley and came away knowing that Hollywood Studios needs a full-scale makeover in order to stay strong in the standings.

Star Wars Land is going to be an immersive experience; you will walk into the desert planet of Tattooine, where you will find the Mos Eisley Cantina and potentially a pod-racer attraction. Another section will likely be dedicated to Endor, as a land-speeder attraction has been talked about for a long time. The idea will be for Star Wars Land to become the Cars Land of Florida; this will ensure that Disney World and Disneyland are not copies of one another, and will give sufficient reason for people to visit both resorts.

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A building permit was recently filed for the soundstage that sits between Toy Story Midway Mania and Backlot Studio Tour. The rumour is that they’d be adding an extra track to Toy Story, but that makes no sense to me. Why spend money on a pre-existing attraction that is already the most popular attraction in the Disney Parks? I think the permit has something to do with the Pixar Place expansion.

The expanded Pixar Place is a little more blue-sky than anything else right now, but a funny event that apparently happened a few years ago may give us a hint of what may come. According to Jim Hill of Touringplans.com, the internal Cast Member communication intranet contained an email with a preview video of a forthcoming Monsters Inc. “Scream” Coaster – it would be a dark roller coaster designed to emulate the experience of Mike and Sully in the “doors” room. This email was retracted, but a Monsters Inc. attraction would make a lot of sense. The other attraction that would make sense is one based on The Incredibles, especially given the forthcoming sequel. This ride was once supposed to go into Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, and was supposed to use the Kuka robotic arm technology that is used on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. You’d also be able to adjust your individual ride experience to various levels of intensity (Jack-Jack to Mr. Incredible).

The other franchise that potentially requires some presence at Walt Disney World is Cars. Cars 3 is coming out eventually, but opinion is split on whether or not a full-fledged Cars Land should come to WDW. Cars Land, currently existing only at Disney’s California Adventure at Disneyland, is huge, but is it required in Florida? The ride technology used for Radiator Springs Racers is the same that is used in Test Track at Epcot, and the other attractions in Cars Land are B- and C-ticket attractions that are easily emulated with any other franchise, and don’t take up a lot of real estate. My belief is that Disney will want to keep Cars Land in California and will make Star Wars the key concept in Florida.

However, there are a couple other franchises that I am surprised have not received more attention at the parks, though they have been rumoured – Tangled and Brave. How To Train Your Dragon is also a big property, and Disney now has a couple more that they will want to get into the parks in one way or another – Big Hero 6 and Guardians of the Galaxy. While the latter is not a Pixar property, it would allow Disney to get a Marvel property into the parks that Universal doesn’t own the theme park rights to, and could give them a chance to build an attraction similar to Spiderman or Transformers over at Universal.

The only impending closure that makes me sad is Great Movie Ride, but it is an attraction that has gone relatively unchanged for 25 years (despite it being the impetus for the construction of the then-MGM Studios in the first place). Word is, it won’t close until 2017, because you can book weddings and other events in the Wizard of Oz part of the attraction, and they have been booked 3 years out. What is going in is anyone’s guess, but one rumour is that the ride technology from Disneyland Paris’s Ratatouille attraction will be used. I’d love to see a rebuilt Great Movie Ride, where they strip it down to the studs and rebuild using the new technology and new movie scenes, but maybe something a little less straight-forward (what if they built it out and up, and did something a little similar to but on a smaller scale than Spaceship Earth?) Or, maybe they can do something less intense than Dinosaur but with similar technology – you have a nice peaceful ride through a couple calmer movies, but then it gets jacked up while going through a scene from Guardians of the Galaxy. I think that would be neat.

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Anyway, I’m really looking forward to the new attractions coming at DHS and Animal Kingdom. How about you?

D.I.S.N.E.Y. #1 – The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

I hereby bring you a new segment, where I go in-depth on a specific aspect of Walt Disney World, be it an attraction, a resort, a land or an entire park. I’m calling it D.I.S.N.E.Y., and it stands for Discovering Information, Scenes and Nostalgia by Exploring Yesterday. Today, I’m beginning with one of my three favourite attractions in all of the Walt Disney World Resort – The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror!

First, the basics. Tower of Terror can be found at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, at the end of Sunset Boulevard. It is adjacent to Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, the Beauty and the Beast Live stage show, and the Fantasmic theatre.

Tower of Terror is one of Disney World’s most popular attractions, due in large part to two main features – its detail and scale (it can be seen not just in DHS, but from various resort hotels and even from Epcot), and its status as a thrill ride.

What Is It?

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this attraction. You will begin the actual ride sequence in the “boiler room” at the back of the ride building. Your ride vehicle, a large freight elevator in which you are strapped in by a seat belt along with 20 other people, will meander into the the middle of the building along a track after a quick ascent. After another ascent, the elevator moves towards the front of the building; you will encounter some imagery along the way of various artifacts from The Twilight Zone, including the ghosts of the 5 people that went missing from the Hollywood Tower Hotel in 1939. Then, the elevator doors open, and you will be given your view of outside and just how high up you are – 13 stories high, in fact. You get this view for a second before your randomly selected ride sequence kicks in, meaning that you get a different experience each time you ride. Most ride sequences contain 3-4 drops and rises from various heights – actually, “drop” isn’t the right term because you are actually pulled down, faster than the speed of gravity no less, meaning you will come off your seat a little bit for an added thrill. The interesting aspect of this ride mechanism is that because you are being pulled, it allows greater control over the drops, meaning it’s actually safer than if you were actually dropped and stopped.

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Is It Scary?

This is probably the biggest question about this attraction, and the anticipation about the impending drops (in addition to being able to hear people screaming from more than 100 feet above you whenever the elevator doors open) often give people pause before climbing aboard. I was skittish myself, but like I said above, it has become one of my three favourite attractions in all of Walt Disney World. I would argue that the anticipation is the only “scary” part, in part because there’s a lot of it – forget the length of the queue in terms of minutes (you can generally find pretty short wait times at off-peak times of year). You make your way through a winding queue that uses a lot of forced perspective – and the meandering course the exterior queue takes is designed to actually disorient you a little before entering the hotel. Once inside, you wait to enter the library, where all the lights turn off and effects make you believe there is a heavy rainstorm outside (and it’s close to midnight) with lots of thunder and lightning. The TV mysteriously turns on by itself, and you are told that you will be recreating the doomed night of the 5 that went missing in 1939 when the hotel was struck by lightning. From there, you enter another queue, this time in the boiler room, where you will be taking the service elevator. All told, that’s a LOT of anticipation, with generally creepy effects, meaning that kids and adults prone to fear may find these devices too much. Once inside the elevator, you may wish for it to just be over with quickly, but no such luck – the ride is about 5 minutes long, with more creepy/spooky effects (ghosts, floating eyeballs, etc). However, this is where the fear stops. Once those doors to the outside open, this attraction is all about exhilaration,and you’ll likely be laughing and smiling all the way down. At the bottom, you may well wonder what you were so worried about in the first place.

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The History of the Tower of Terror

The Tower of Terror might very well have been an extremely different attraction if Imagineer C. McNair Wilson’s original concept had come to life. With Hollywood Studios (then MGM Studios) still in its infancy, and still operating under the guise of a “working studio” with shows and rides, as opposed to a theme park, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner (the creator of MGM Studios) believed that bringing writer and director Mel Brooks into a relationship with Disney was a perfect marriage – Brooks’ films would be Disney films, and an attraction would be built to celebrate that union. The idea was to build an attraction similar in story to The Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom – namely, scary and funny. The concept of “Castle Young Frankenstein” was born, in which a Bavarian village would have led to the aforementioned castle. This later changed to “Mel Brooks’ Hollywood Horror Hotel”.

Another concept was kicked around at this point – for years, Disney had toyed with the idea of having an actual resort hotel inside one of the theme parks – at one point, Mickey’s Town Square Theatre at Magic Kingdom was supposed to be the site of a hotel for guests to stay. The idea at MGM Studios is that the guest hotel and “hotel” building that would have housed the ride would have been connected (known by Imagineers as Hotel Mel). Eventually though, the plan was scrapped, and a hotel that would have geographically extended from the current Tower of Terror site to the park entrance was not to be.

After Mel Brooks decided to leave the project, Disney Imagineers had to come up with alternate ideas – eventually, they thought of the “moving elevator” track idea. With Brooks gone, they were no longer tied to a concept where parts of the attraction had to be funny, and they settled into simply making it a spooky thrill ride. Knowing that the ride would have more allure if it were based on a movie or TV show, Disney began to look for properties that were available, and came across the Twilight Zone. It became a perfect overlay for the attraction, and on July 22 1994, the attraction opened to the public.

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Technology

A big part of Imagineering is discovering the link between fantasy and reality, and Tower of Terror is certainly that. Having an attraction that would simply rise and fall wouldn’t do; one of the hallmarks of the Twilight Zone is the “fifth” dimension, meaning that ride vehicle would have to “float”, as if in an alternate dimension. The technology used to achieve this effect is the “Autonomous Guided Vehicle”, or AGV. It doesn’t use wires or rails; the AGV is propelled on a pre-programmed path set out by the ride control system. Basically, it’s a self-driving car that that moves in the area between the rear elevator and the front elevator, where you make your initial ascents (and then descents). For safety reasons, it is designed to stop if any thing (falling items for example) come in contact with the floor of the Fifth Dimension area.

Otis, the oldest elevator company in the world, was asked by Disney to help with the design of the ride vehicles and technology, which they found ironic, as they were being asked to simulate what they always try to stop from ever happening. Like all elevators, motors and cables are used to move the ride vehicle in Tower of Terror, and these motors are huge. Rather than dish out a bunch of stats, I will link to this excellent website for you to check out the specifics. What you should know is that you are pulled down at a rate of 39 miles per hour (63 kilometers per hour), which is faster than the rate of gravity. This means that you will get a feeling of weightlessness while you are being pulled down. Oh, and that wind you feel? It’s fake – generated by fans below the ride vehicle.

Additionally, numerous safety features have been built in to ensure that in the rare event of an actual free fall, all passengers will be safe. There are manual brakes and a padded bottom into which the car can fall if that were to happen. Additionally, night-vision cameras are in each car to ensure CMs can keep an eye out to keep everything safe.

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Sequence and Story

You begin your journey into The Twilight Zone outside, in the gardens of the famed Hollywood Tower Hotel. The hotel is in disrepair, having been abandoned after five guests entered the passenger elevator in order to ride up to the Tip Top Club on the 12th floor. The hotel was struck by lightning, and the elevator – along with its unlucky inhabitants – disappeared, being transported into the fifth dimension.

Upon entering the hotel, you will see the level of disrepair into which it was been consumed; cobwebs cover luggage, furniture and light fixtures, dust has taken up permanent residence. A somber bellhop guides you into the library, where Rod Serling appears on a television that mysteriously turns on after the lights have gone out. He tells you have entered The Twilight Zone.

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into…The Twilight Zone.

Hollywood, 1939. Amid the glitz and the glitter of a bustling, young movie town at the height of its golden age, The Hollywood Tower Hotel was a star in its own right; a beacon for the show business elite. Now, something is about to happen that will change all that. The time is now, on an evening very much like the one we have just witnessed.

Tonight’s story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a maintenance service elevator still in operation, waiting for you. We invite you, if you dare, to step aboard because in tonight’s episode, you are the star. And this elevator travels directly to…The Twilight Zone.”

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You step into the boiler room and walk through the machinery to your service elevator, where you will be seated by another hotel employee that hasn’t received the memo of its closure decades ago. The elevator ascends, and you are greeted by the ghosts of the five people that disappeared on Halloween Night of 1939. Serling continues his narration, inviting you deeper.

 “You are the passengers on a most uncommon elevator about to ascend into your very own episode of… The Twilight Zone. One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare.

That door is opening once again, and this time it’s opening for you.”

You will continue to move into the Fifth Dimension, through space and time. You will ascend once more, before the doors of that dimension open. Serling has one more warning for you:

“You are about to discover what lies beyond the fifth dimension, beyond the deepest, darkest corner of the imagination… in the Tower of Terror.”

The drop sequence now begins. Generally, you are shot straight up before being pulled down, but we had a great sequence once where we had a small drop first. Despite the bright Florida sun entering the ride vehicle, make sure you keep your eyes open – the views are spectacular, and you can even see some things you normally don’t get to – service roads and Cast Member buildings, for example.

Your ride ends with another bit of narration from Serling:

“A warm welcome back to those of you who made it and a friendly word of warning; something you won’t find in any guidebook. The next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling. Or you may find yourself a permanent resident of… The Twilight Zone”

And, it being Disney, a little tongue-in-cheek message as you wait for your seat-belt to unlock:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please gather your belongings and watch your head and step as you exit through the elevator doors. We trust your stay at The Hollywood Tower Hotel has been a pleasant one, and please do come back and see us again. Thank you.”

Upon leaving, you’ll get to walk through the excellent Tower Hotel Gifts shop – one of the best on property. While I feel that 95% of items sold at Disney World are static throughout the gift shops, this one is fairly unique – they sell many items you can’t find anywhere else, including the white Hollywood Tower Hotel mug, as well as a really nice HTH keychain. The front-desk bells are also available here, as well as a variety of t-shirts and picture frames and other collectibles. If you’re a fan of Clue, make sure you pick up the Tower of Terror version of the game – it contains pewter pieces and a beautiful board. Well worth the price!

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Tower of Terror Trivia

Here are a few things you may not know about the ride, so impress your fellow travelers with these!

  1. The voice you hear narrating the ride – including in the video – is not actually Rod Serling (the narrator from The Twilight Zone). He was dead for a very long time before the ride opened. While the man in the video is indeed Serling, edited to make him look like he is speaking the words, voice actor Mark Silverman takes on the narrating duties – he was even approved by Serling’s widow for the role.
  2. Cast Members are instructed to be sullen and spooky. They also wear bellhop uniforms that go for over $1000 apiece, making them the most expensive costumes at WDW.
  3. The Tower of Terror is 199 feet tall. If a building in Florida is 200 feet tall, FAA regulations mean it has to have a fixed red light beacon at the top for airplanes.
  4. The front of the hotel has a large black scorch mark, depicting where it was hit by lightning in 1939. At night, this scorch appears in purple, while the letters spelling out “Hollywood Tower Hotel” are an eerie green. (Note: ride this at night, as well!)
  5. While in the fifth dimension, you’ll see a sequence similar to that in a Twilight Zone episode. A field of stars appear, and when they fade, they form a Hidden Mickey.
  6. There are numerous odes to the Twilight Zone throughout the queue and building. Here’s a good list.
  7. Your picture is taken twice on the ride. The first time is right after the doors open and is projected the pupil of the eyeball in the Fifth Dimension scene. The second time is when you are dropping faster than gravity.
  8. The hotel is based on a real hotel/condo in Los Angeles.
  9. During the pre-show, the little girl is holding a Mickey Mouse plush.
  10. Lightning has actually struck the Tower of Terror.
  11. The colour palette and architectural style of the ride building were chosen specifically because you can see Tower of Terror from World Showcase in Epcot; the building blends in perfectly with the buildings that make up the Morocco exhibit.
  12. The first Disney movie based on a WDW attraction is actually the fun and cheesy Tower of Terror movie, starring Steve Gutenberg and Kirsten Dunst. I love the movie. Plus, it was filmed on location at Walt Disney World, at the Tower of Terror!
  13. The ride building is huge, so make sure you take a poke around. You won’t be able to walk terribly far, but you can get unique views of it from the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster queue, as well as the Fantasmic theatre.

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My Tower of Terror Story

When I was 12, in 1994, my family went to Florida. MGM Studios was the only Disney World stop we made, but we got to ride Tower of Terror a month after it opened. At that time, the ride itself was different – instead of individual seat-belts, each row had a lap bar, meaning that if a little kid was sitting next to a fat guy, he had all kinds of space between lap and lap bar. At that time as well, the pre-drop sequence was the same but the drop sequence was not – instead of a randomized sequence, it was just one big 13-story drop.

I was terrified the first time I rode this as an adult, mostly because my wife wanted to ride it right after we finished eating lunch, and I didn’t want to puke on everyone. Apparently, my screaming was a little too guttural, and she was worried that I was in some kind of trouble. “I’m… having… fun!” was my reply, but we only rode it the one time. Last fall, when we had more time to spend at WDW, we rode it five times, including at night, and it was spectacular – became our favourite thrill ride!

How much do you love Tower of Terror? Sound off in the comments section!

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Frozen at Walt Disney World: Past, Present, Future

Time for another PPF feature – Past, Present, Future.

Today, I’m looking at “Frozen” in the Disney Parks, for one very big reason – Maelstrom, a popular boat ride at the Norway Pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, will close forever on October 6, and construction will begin soon thereafter to re-theme it as a Frozen attraction. The news was made official by Disney yesterday (Sept 12, 2014).

The news has certainly been divisive. While most absolutely agree that Disney needs to get Frozen into the theme parks, it seems that the general consensus is that Epcot, particularly World Showcase, is not the right place in which to shoehorn Frozen. My thought is that World Showcase – the spirit of it, anyway – is supposed to be geared towards education and displaying the non-fictional stories of that country – the culture, the people, etc. In the past, Disney has certainly gone both ways on the fictionalizing of World Showcase pavilions. While Mexico is home to the Three Caballeros boat ride, those characters make up a minor part of an attraction with generally low attendance (it should also be noted that this is the one pavilion in World Showcase that Disney does not operate). In the past, Disney has given the red light to a Mary Poppins attraction in the UK pavilion and to an Aladdin attraction in Morocco – in the case of the latter, it granted character meet-and-greets, but it deliberately refused to insert Agrabah into Morocco, because Agrabah is a fictional land. Well, the requirement for a permanent Frozen fixture in the parks won out over the wish to fictionalize World Showcase.

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Of course, there is a cynical reason for this belief – money. While Epcot is the second-highest attended park in Walt Disney World, it’s possible that this might change over the next three years. Large scale refurbishments to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Star Wars Land) and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Avatar/Pandora) to be completed by 2017 may well mean that Epcot could drop precipitously in terms of attendance within the WDW resort, and Disney executives are well aware of the vast improvements being made at Universal Studios (Harry Potter Diagon Alley, new King Kong attraction, new Jurassic Park attractions, potential addition of either Batman/Gotham and Lord of the Rings). Essentially, they need to inject fresh life into a theme park that aside from popular mainstays like Soarin’, Test Track and Spaceship Earth, boasts little else, especially attractions that may interest kids. While Nemo and Friends and Mission Space have their fans among kids, there is admittedly little for them to flock to at Epcot. Attractions like Living with the Land, Captain EO (what kids knows Michael Jackson these days?) and Ellen’s Energy Adventure aren’t enough. But, tell kids that Frozen exists at Epcot? It’ll rival Magic Kingdom for dibs on first-park-visited. Frozen will be the hardest FastPass+ reservation to secure. A gift shop dedicated to Frozen would make money hand-over-fist. It might be cynical, but it’s business.

Past/Present

The past and present of Frozen at the theme parks is roughly the same, as it has only been a few months that Anna and Elsa have graced the theme parks. Their meet-and-greet began at the Norway pavilion at Epcot, but it became apparent that Norway wasn’t big enough to hold it. Anna and Elsa were moved to Princess Fairy-tale Hall at New Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom, and it’s currently the most difficult FP+ reservation to attain – you need to book it 60 days out, no question. When they first arrived in Fantasyland, queues of five hours were reported, and Cast Members had to form a human wall and walk people down Main Street USA slowly in order to control the rope-drop crowds that entered the park and began sprinting and stampeding to be first in line. It’s been a success, in other words. Anna and Elsa could also be seen in the new Festival of Fantasy Parade at Magic Kingdom.

In the summer of 2014, Frozen’s presence was expanded, this time at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: a Sing-Along with Anna, Elsa and other characters, as well as a parade culminating at the Sorcerer Hat. There was also a special merchandise area called Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post, as well as a fun-zone called Oaken’s Frozen Funland, where you could ice-skate and build a snowman.

This year will also mark the first year that Anna and Elsa will be part of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas celebrations, where Cinderella Castle will freeze over, courtesy of Elsa.

Future

We know the immediate future of Frozen, thanks to all the news yesterday – an attraction at Norway, and the “summer” festivities being extended to the end of the year, including the sing-along (I got my FP+ for it!) But, what else might go into theme parks?

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First of all, will changing Maelstrom to become a Frozen attraction be the only part of Norway that goes away in favour of Frozen? It’s generally accepted that Arendelle, fictional as it may be, exists in Norway and that the story takes place in the late 18th century (additionally, Arendelle was inspired by real locales in Norway). This may very well provide Disney with the impetus to re-theme other parts of Norway to fit in with Frozen, like changing the wonderful gift shop into a Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post. Askershus, the popular character restaurant, could very easily become more Frozen-centric as well.

Let’s assume that time and budget are not obstacles here, even though they are. With the Hollywood Studios reimagine, as well as the ongoing construction on Pandora (the projects will likely run in the $1.5-2.0 billion range combined), and the next three years earmarked to the two projects, I can’t believe that Disney has the appetite to go after another major construction project, but I’m going to go ahead and dream big anyway.

DHS Frozen

Let’s go to Hollywood Studios first. Currently, the Streets of America section of the park, nestled between Pixar Place and Muppet Land, contains two relatively unpopular attractions – the Studio Backlot Tour and the Lights Motor Action Extreme Stunt Show. Here’s the deal – Disney has no intention to rip apart Streets of America. During November and December, during the Osborne Family Lights Christmas lights display, Disney makes money hand-over-fist from all of the guests that pack into this back corner of the park. Those two months of extreme profit mean that nuking this corner of the park to do a complete overhaul is generally out of the question – but, what if it was overhauled to accommodate Frozen, it being a “winter” theme and all? You could easily transform the Streets of America into Arendelle, complete with the Castle. Further out, where the Backlot Tour currently runs, they could build Elsa’s Ice Palace, with forest in between (with a giant Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post there). You can have an attraction at the Ice Palace, involving Marshmallow, and it could run the gamut from either big roller coaster to something smaller like a 4D attraction. They can install some some B-ticket attractions as well, like a spinner or small coaster for kids (perhaps one that duplicates Anna and Elsa’s playtime as children where Anna is initially injured), and permanently install Oaken’s Frozen Funland within Arendelle. The unique thing about this set-up would be the ability to then flow seamlessly into Christmas/Osborne Lights, since Arendelle will already have the winter treatment (think Hogsmeade Village at Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure). A project such as this, in this location, may also spell the end of Muppet Vision 3D, which I can’t foresee given that the Muppets are amazing, and Disney loves that they own that property. This construction could squeeze it out though, meaning that either the Muppets find a new home, or Frozen doesn’t fit in here.

The main obstacle to this happening at DHS is that construction would have to begin in 2017 or later, because there’s no way they could put everything except Sunset Boulevard behind construction walls for 3 years. Also, a move like this would pretty much mean Cars Land would never arrive at the Studios, though having Arendelle as a Florida exclusive and Cars as a California exclusive could very well be deemed acceptable by Disney.

Now let’s take that exact same idea from DHS but move it over to Magic Kingdom. My belief, ultimately, is that if given the choice, Frozen would go into Magic Kingdom because it will be considered a classic or legacy property, in the same boat as Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. Tucked in between Frontierland and Liberty Square is the Liberty Square River and Tom Sawyer Island. Without filling in the river, you could easily establish Arendelle on the southern island and the Ice Palace and Forest on the northern island, while expanding the land crossing in between to accommodate guest traffic. Retheming the Liberty Square Riverboat to be some kind of Frozen boat tour could also be an option. This could of course destroy the illusion that Disney has built at Magic Kingdom, where the themed lands are generally separate. However, the space exists at MK to accommodate Frozen. Disney World, as always, I will accept lifetime passes and deluxe resort suites as payment for these ideas :)

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Ultimately, my thought is that Frozen’s addition to the Disney World theme parks will not end with one boat-ride overlay at World Showcase. There have to more attractions coming – I believe an entire “land” is best – and I believe Hollywood Studios or Magic Kingdom would be perfect to house it. What do you think?

 

Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party – Should You Attend?

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Hard-ticket seasonal parties at Walt Disney World are always a point of debate – essentially, are they worth the price of admission? With single-day park tickets for anyone ten or older hovering around the $100 mark, families need to do some serious budgeting to ensure that they can fit any extra events into their vacation. For 2014, tickets for Mickey’s Not-so-Scary Halloween Party, held at Magic Kingdom on select dates from September 1 to October 31, run between $62 and $71 for adults, and about $5 cheaper per day for kids under 10.

What Exactly IS Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party? (MNSSHP)

MNSSHP is a party that celebrates Halloween as only Disney World can celebrate it. While ticket holders can enter the park at 4pm (they don’t need to buy separate park admission for that day just to enter the party; your event ticket is sufficient, but you won’t be able to go to any other parks that day without separate park admission), the party proper kicks off at 7pm. You’ll be given a special wrist band for the event, and anyone not wearing the wrist bands will be ushered out of the park at 7pm (announcements are made in both English and Spanish throughout the park). You will see Magic Kingdom completely decked out – pumpkins, splashes of orange, various characters in costume, and an authentic autumn theme permeate the park entirely. At various locations around the park, you’ll find Trick-or-Treat stations, where costumed Cast Members will dispense – in my opinion – an excellent array of treats. You’ll find some excellent photo opportunities throughout Magic Kingdom during the night, and special and unique character meet-and-greets (for example, Jack Skellington and Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas. Most rides will also be open, and you won’t want to miss either the HalloWishes fireworks show, or the Boo-To-You parade – both are sublime. Finally, everyone – adults included – can dress up in costume for the event (no masks though).

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Tips for Before you Arrive

Timing, to me, is a big deal here. As of today (September 1, 2014), the October 31 party is already sold out. I can understand the allure of attending the Halloween Party ON Halloween, but I don’t believe it’s necessary. Last year, my wife and I attended the very first party of the year, and one of the best things about that particular day is that the park was a ghost-town. We had prime real estate for the HalloWishes (in my opinion, the best fireworks show at Disney World) – right in front of Cinderella Castle – and again had a completely unencumbered view of the Boo To You parade, at the foot of Main Street U.S.A. We only staked out our seats there maybe 30 minutes before the start of the parade. Prior to this (we attended the 2nd of the two parades, the one that ends right at the end of the party), we hit several trick-or-treat spots, were sitting right at the front of the Villains Mix-and-Mingle dance-party meet-and-greet that happens right at the Castle, and we took in a handful of rides too, including must-dos like Big Thunder Mountain and Haunted Mansion. I’m not sure we would have been able to do all of that, or get the front-of-the-line access we had for fireworks and the parade, if we went at a busier time of year. I absolutely loved how quiet Magic Kingdom was that night, and we were able to do everything we wanted, with one caveat – character meet and greets – but we weren’t terribly interested in these anyway.

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A big tip I can give is that if time isn’t a huge concern on your Walt Disney World vacation (as in, you have some to spare), you can do worse than give yourself a break on the day you are attending the party. Since guests with the hard-ticket entry can enter Magic Kingdom at 4pm for the 7pm party, you can take the morning and early afternoon to unwind and relax at your resort, or perhaps have a nice day at Downtown Disney (soon to be Disney Springs), or even go resort-hopping. Disney World is home to a wide range of unique resorts, like Wilderness Lodge, Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Grand Floridian – it’s fun to check them out! Conversely, this day can also be your day to other Disney-related things outside of the parks, like the water parks, DisneyQuest, golfing, etc. You can even hit the nearby outlet malls if you’re so inclined. You’ll save a little bit of money on your complete ticket package, and it may be worthwhile to have a set-in-stone scheduled break during your vacation.

Haunted Mansion and Other Rides

My absolute favourite parts of the evening were the parade, the fireworks and riding the Haunted Mansion. Sure, you can do Haunted Mansion at any time, but during the MNSSHP, Photopass photographers will pose you in front of the Mansion’s horseless carriage for “magic” shots, where you will have hitchhiking ghosts Photoshopped in to your photo. Liberty Square and the Adventureland bridge are also locations for these special photos. Madame Leota is also present, sitting on a bench and speaking to guests just prior to the queue entrance.

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While Haunted Mansion is the only attraction with “special” features during the Halloween party, a few other outdoor rides take on special life at night, perhaps even more so during Halloween. I’m talking about Big Thunder Mountain and Jungle Cruise. Last year, we would have loved to go onto the Liberty Square Riverboat, as I had read that this is a special experience during MNSSHP, but it was sadly closed.

HalloWishes and Boo To You

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Seriously, these two things alone are worth the price of admission to MNSSHP. HalloWishes is the Wishes fireworks show on steroids. Not only are there special nods to Disney villains, like Maleficent and Jafar, but you get to see the Castle bathed in colours that are otherwise not utilized. The parade is also absolutely perfect – there’s the “It’s Good to Be Bad” villains float, as well as floats dedicated to the Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan, as well as the Frontierland crew. The absolute best float though belongs to the Haunted Mansion – the hitchhiking ghosts pull up on a mountain of tombstones, and “dead” bride-and-groom pairs dance and spook on-lookers. The dancing grave-diggers are also a hoot, in perfect synchronization, and creating sparks along the parade route with their shovels. At the end, Goofy cycles up, dishing out candy to guests.

The beginning of the parade is also a lot of fun – guests sitting on the sidewalks will be asked to have their limbs completely off the street so that the Headless Horseman can gallop past. It’s a sight to see – he has no head, and is piloting a horse, quickly, through the streets of the Magic Kingdom!

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Souvenirs

Of course, there are extra souvenirs to be had during MNSSHP too (available at pretty much every shop, and to all guests). I picked up a MNSSHP/Haunted Mansion mug that features Mickey and the gang outside of the Mansion. You can get lots of items for your home too – we picked up a Halloween countdown calendar for a good friend that loves Halloween. Special party t-shirts were everywhere as well.

In Summary…

In a word – go. This event is so much fun and definitely worthwhile. Your kids will love it, especially kids that like the Disney villains – they get their due here. This year, there is a special dessert party at Cinderella’s Castle that is a separate hard-ticket event called the Villains Sinister Soirée. The cost is $99. Check out full details here.

Between being able to do rides for a few hours, as well as get special photos, buy special merchandise, take in unique character meet-and-greets, and witness a spectacular fireworks show and parade, this event is well worth your time and money. Make sure to go during a slower time of year to take it all in!

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Robin Williams, Disney Legend

When I was in university, I borrowed a DVD from a friend of mine called “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway”. Over the last 12 years since that DVD was released, I’ve watched it several times, every time in awe of Robin Williams and his innate abilities to make you roll in the aisles laughing, often with only a flailing of his limbs or a facial contortion. The ease with which he transformed from a Texan to a Frenchman to a Canadian to a Scot is incredible; he was a man of a thousand voices and a thousand identities. He was gifted, and he was always on. But, there was a warmth to his voice and in his face that told you that he didn’t think he was on – it was just Robin being Robin, and he loved every minute of it. It was a shock, and with great sadness, that we heard of his passing last week.

Robin Williams’ ties to Disney are numerous. He has been in Disney films and has also appeared in the Back to Neverland short film that appeared the beginning of the Magic of Disney Animation walking tour at Disney MGM Studios. Of course, his most famous contribution to the Disney universe was as the genie in Aladdin, a role that was as quintessential to his career as any. RobinWilliams ran the gamut in his career; he’s done family-friendly films like Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, the Night at the Museum trilogy and Jumanji (a personal favourite of mine). He’s done serious drama, like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society. Followers of this blog should put their kids to bed before clicking the play button on the Live on Broadway DVD, because it’s crude. Regardless of what he did though, and regardless of the role, Robin Williams was always perfect.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw Aladdin; my parents were pretty liberal when it came to the movies we were allowed to watch, but we always saw the Disney animated features. I always enjoyed Aladdin – Jafar was a fantastic villain, and the idea of genies and magic wishes has always been intriguing to me – but Genie made that film. Not only was he grand, but he was as funny and verbose as the man voicing the character. You could practically see Robin Williams leaping through the screen as Genie; the character was a perfect fit for the actor, and actor a perfect fit for the character. Of course, the bombast and vivacity of Williams was a given, but the sad moments experienced by Genie, and those moments when his heart became even bigger than his persona, were just another slam dunk for the chameleon-like abilities of Williams.

The saddest part about Williams’ death isn’t our loss, though, although the world will never be the same without his off-kilter and manic brand of humour. The saddest part is that Robin Williams was like a magic lamp with a dark genie inside; he could hear the laughter and feel the love perhaps only as an echo, but inside there was something sad and haunting that didn’t allow it to become loud enough to save him. I’ve had several friends and family members that have experienced depression; it’s crippling. It’s one of the worst things that a person can experience, and the love and support and caring and patience of family and friends is vital. Williams’ death is a blow, but hopefully it will carry as its legacy the idea that mental illness and unbalance is a serious issue, and that it isn’t always apparent, and even the ones you least expect can have it. It can’t be wished away, and if I can leave you with one major lesson, it’s this – don’t tell a person that suffers from anxiety or depression “don’t worry about it”, or “it’s okay”, or “just be happy”. Try to understand, and always give them your ear and a shoulder and a hug when they need it.

Robin Williams was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and he’ll be greatly missed. When I re-watched Live on Broadway last night, I laughed and laughed, but with a heavy heart – the idea that no one will hear him discuss the origins of golf in person again is anathema. Let’s make sure his legacy endures by giving the catalyst of his death the respect and attention it deserves.

He’ll be missed.

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