Monday, September 06, 2010

Magic Kingdom

Let me preface this by stating up front that I'm generally a nay sayer when it comes to Disney World. Basically, I think it's gay. I mean really, it's crazy expensive, the lines are long and it's crazy expensive - all of this to see some sort of mouse? Come on, it doesn't make sense.

I've been to Disney World, Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland before but still I wasn't convinced. It's dumb, it's stupid - it's for kids. And parents with deep pockets.

So it was with a bit more than a little reservation that I jetted down to Orlando for a visit to the Magic Kingdom and the promise of dinner in Cinderella's castle.

Magic Kingdom entrance. Parking fee: $14.

But no matter the reservation. No matter how stupid I thought it was going to be. Or how "gay" I thought the whole thing, I'm not ashamed to admit that anticipation and excitement stirred in me as I approached the entry gate to Magic Kingdom.

Ooooh - Disney!

Forget everything that I said before about it being stupid and dumb and gay. I was excited to be here. I wanted to wear the mouse ears.

Elena and Olivia

Truth be told, it is expensive. $86 per person, per day. Want to jump to another park? Add an additional $54. See that cool squirt bottle with fan to cool you off on this blazingly humid Central Florida day - want one? That'll be $17, please.

Nothing is cheap about a day at Disney, but I'm tempted to say it's well worth it. It was hot. It was humid. We watched dumb shows that the kids loved. I got to be featured in the Monsters, Inc show. I scored well on the Buzz Lightyear ride. We saw Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribbean. And Br'er Bear on Splash Mountain.

My score at Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin: Ranger 1st Class.

We walked. We rode. We ate. We sat. We watched more dumb shows that the kids loved. We watched other people running about on a schedule, determined to do that "must do" thing that meant their trip was a waste if they didn't do it. We didn't understand them.

When Isabella wanted to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for the third time, we did it instead of doing the "sensible and adult" thing and find everyone else.

It was a time for fun. A time in Never Never Land. A time for a little irresponsibility.

With Isabella and Rod on Space Mountain.

Like I said, I've been to three of the Disney parks. This is actually my fourth visit to Magic Kingdom. And it was amazing. So much to see and so much to do, I wondered how people really can fit it all into one day.

My flight landed 20 minutes early, the rental was an easy pickup and I drove straight to the park. I was at Magic Kingdom by 10:30am and we stayed until close. And we still didn't see everything.

I told Gio: "One hundred bucks if you can remove the sword." Hehehe...

Truth is: everything at Disney is off the hook. The attention to detail is amazing. The grounds are immaculate. While I've been quick to dismiss a Disney Vacation as "too expensive" I've casually followed Disney and their methodologies. Everything is clean and polished.

I long wondered about how they keep the paint on the Main Street USA buildings so pristine. Turns out that they're currently refurbishing some of the Main Street facades and have erected scaffolding to do the work. To maintain the magic, they've wrapped the scaffolding with photo realistic images of the buildings themselves. You almost don't notice that they're being worked on.

Main Street USA from Cinderella's Castle.

The fireworks show is easily the most incredible fireworks show I've ever seen. And they do it every night. They build anticipation and when Tinker Bell flies from the top of Cinderella's Castle to Tomorrowland, spilling pixie dust in her wake, you can't help but cheer in excitement.

After leaving, I heard myself telling friends what I thought I'd never say: Time to come back next year!

Fireworks at Cinderella's Castle.

Bob and Gabriel.

Dinner at Cinderella's

Cinderella's Round Table

Several months ago, when the call came through about Bob's 40th Birthday and where we were going to be celebrating it, my response was: "Cinderella's what???"

Did he really just say "Cinderella's Castle"? What is that? Some kind of strip club in New Jersey?

"No dude, Disney."
"Disney as in 'World'???"
, was my reply.
"Yeah, dude. Disney World. In Florida."

When someone says we're going to celebrate someone's 40th Birthday, the last place I had in mind for a party is the Magic Kingdom, much less Cinderella's Castle.

Well, at least there will be Princesses...

Waiting in line for the Cinderella Photo-Op.

I had no idea that Cinderella had a restaurant. Guess she's putting all those years slaving for her Wicked Stepsisters to good use with a handsome prince, glass slippers, major castle, hair salons, entertainment and a restaurant. By any measure, Cinderella is a pretty successful entrepreneur-slash-Royal.

Snow White and the Four Princesses.

Rock Shrimp "Cocktail"

Parents and uncles clamoring for a photo of Sleeping Beauty.

Ariel flirts with Gerry and Walter.

Ah, Belle - my favorite princess!

Fried Cornish Hen, Macaroni and Cheese and Broccolini.

We were given swords to repel invaders.

Happy 40th Birthday, Bob!

Chef's Dessert Trio

Pulling Back The Curtain

Please Note: For those of you who do not want the magic of Disney World peeled back just a little, I suggest that you do not read this.

The 8:35am line for the opening of Epcot.

As an operator I'm continually interested in how other companies operate. Tours of restaurant kitchens, back works, manufacturing lines and all sorts of "this is how we do what we do" tours and visits interest me immensely. So, when I had the opportunity to get behind the scenes at Disney, I was all over it.

The Disney Institute offers a seven hour guided Backstage Magic tour that visits the major parks of Walt Disney World and gives you a flavor of how they do what they do. Spread over 27,000 acres and staffed with over 60,000 cast members, Disney is a fascinating study. I mean, how does Disney find and cultivate 60,000 excited, friendly, welcoming, inviting and accommodating people? From the bus drivers to the custodial staff to the hotel front desk to the ride operators - everyone at Disney is seemingly happy to see you and take care of whatever need is pressing on you at the moment.

Our group of 35 meets at 8:45am on a bright, sunny and intensely humid Central Florida morning in front of the guest services window at Epcot Center. After taking care of all the check-in details (and shoe check) we're handed our Backstage badges and told that cameras are forbidden in all areas backstage.

Disney creates magic and they're interested in defending that magic. They create a world where the guest is ensconced and we're about to break that barrier into the underbelly of Disney - a side of "The Show" that Disney would rather its' guests not see.

And I think that's understandable. While the side you see as a guest is spit-shined and polished, the backstage is anything but. It's utilitarian, spartan and decidedly low brow. There's no doubt your backstage and you even wonder if you're still in Disney World or perhaps some sort of industrial complex, like a power plant instead.

On the guest side, Disney spares no expense. Everything is immaculate. On the backstage side, Disney is a penny-pinching whore. Where you might expect to find lavish suites housing Mickey Mouse there are portable trailers and gravel walkways. This is because Disney himself believed that all money should go where the guest could see it - everything else was secondary.

The trailers also allow Disney to build as necessary without the extra expense of tearing down some cast buildings. Need to add another pavilion? Just move those trailers out of the way and begin building.

The tour starts off with a backstage look at the American Adventure Pavilion in Epcot. We're hustled out onto the street where portions are cordoned off and Disney cast members scurry about in pickup trucks and other vehicles setting things up and getting everything ready for the area opening at 11am. In the distance, I see a hoard of people on Segways on the Around The World At Epcot tour.

Our tour moves inside the pavilion where we get to see the inner workings of the animatronic show The American Adventure. Even this early in the morning, a tech crew is doing a run-through of the show to make sure it doesn't crash and burn. Scene cages filled with the icons of the show move about in computer-controlled order. Three shifts man this attraction around the clock with the first two doing most of the show and the nighttime third shift doing the heavy maintenance.

From there it's back on the bus and out to the Central Shops.

Central Shops is the place where most of the Disney Magic happens. All the Mickey Mouse's around the world are created here. Most of the rides are built here. It's essentially one-stop shopping for all of Walt Disney World's needs. Once upon a time, everything was built here but over the years, Disney has started bidding out it's work contracts and Central Shops competes for the work along with other companies in the region. The only work not bidded out are those considered to be proprietary to Disney, like Mickey Mouse.

As we tour around the shop I fantasize how cool it might be to be a fabrication house that catches Disney contracts. One week it's Splash Mountain cars, the next Space Mountain. Kinda neat, in my mind.

Throughout the day, our tour guides maintain the Disney party line. "Only one Mickey" is the main mantra and while they're upfront about not wanting to, willing to or allowed to divulge certain bits of information, I find our guide Wayne to be right on the edge of sharp with some of the others in the tour group. Wayne's been with disney since the late 80s and seems to be a corporate type by his borderline brashness that skates right along the outer edge of what seems to the the typical Cast Member happiness.

Regardless, Wayne knows his Disney and serves as a knowledgeable tour guide that's curt with the obviously Disney Fan ladies in our section. He was never cautious to display his displeasure anytime they asked a silly question or comment.

Like the rest of Disney, even the tours watch the details. The best detail were the transmitters and earpieces handed out to everyone. At first, I thought it might be a bit silly but as the day wore on, the brilliance was obvious. In any tour, the people towards the back of the group hear less than those in the front. I've always spent my tours jockeying for the front to get the most out of it. Not anymore.

With the earpieces, you're never removed from the action. I can meander along casually and slowly while absorbing other details of the tour while still listening to the chatter of our guide. If the area is noisy, no problem, the voice is still in my ear. It's brilliant and now so obvious.

Next stop: Magic Kingdom and the famous "Utilidors" - the fabled underground tunnels below Disney.

Like most of the parks, what may be a ten minute (or more) walk for the guest between sections of the park, can be a literal hop, skip and a jump away. At Epcot, it takes a guest about ten minutes to walk from Mexico to China. Backstage, Mexico is next door to China and only takes a few paces. In Magic Kingdom, a guest meanders down Main Street USA then hooks a right towards Tomorrowland and Space Mountain. Backstage, one simply crosses a parking lot and Space Mountain is right there.

As we pass through the wall separating The Show from Backstage, it's a funny transformation. As a guest, you almost would never notice these portals to the real world, but once you know they are there, it seems disappointing if you walked there as a guest. The portals are essentially "hidden in plain sight" and the difference between worlds is stark.

On the guest maps, the land to the right of Main Street is all forest. The far wall to the left of Tony's Restaurant looks solid but is really a false passageway. Dare to go beyond it and you're confronted with an asphalt parking lot, vehicles, buildings and cast members milling about or moving from one section of the park to another.

Around the corner from there are a set of glass double doors that lead you to the entrance of the "Utilidors", the underground tunnels that are actually the first floor of a two-floor "building" that is Magic Kingdom.

Down the concrete staircase and the tunnels are, well, unremarkable. They're much narrower than I imagined but about as utilitarian as I expected. In fact, they were nicer than I was expecting. Down here are passageways to most areas of the park, allowing Cast Members in uniform to arrive in their work areas without passing through other areas of the park and breaking the magic.

Evidently, Walt Disney once noticed a Cast Member wearing the uniform of one area, say Tomorrowland, walking through the wilderness of FrontierLand. Well, that looked out of place and didn't strike Walt very well, so when they build Magic Kingdom, he had them build these tunnels to alleviate that problem.

The tunnels stretch all around the park but we only saw the part under Main Street. Nearby are cafeterias and costume shops where the unlucky guest might see a headless Pluto walking around and raging in the most un-Disney-like language. We did not see this, but there would be nothing like seeing a 22 year old girl yelling "Fucking bullshit!!!" wearing Mickey's clothes and holding Mickey's head in her arms.

At least I'd hate for my nieces to see that.

More good reasons why they limit the tours to adults. Our trauma is less severe.

Lining some of the walls are photos of Disney World under construction. Fascinating and generally unavailable to the public. Also down here is the Cast Member Pin Store. Somewhere along the way, a cult of pin collectors has evolved with millions of pins being purchased and traded. Cast Members can obtain free pins here to wear and trade with guests.

Lining the ceilings of the tunnels are the waste tubes. Instead of hauling garbage into dumpsters around the park, where they can collect and start to smell, invading the guest spaces and ruining their experience, the trash is taken to several depots around the park where it is pneumatically blown through the tubes to a central trash station for removal. Every once in a while, there's a big WHOOOSH! as another load of trash is blown across the Magic Kingdom.

Another fascinating thing I discovered years ago about the tunnel system (while reading a Cast Member Handbook I had borrowed) is that during an emergency, the tunnels can accommodate everyone in the park. So, if a tornado or hurricane happens to blow through Magic Kingdom, everyone and their mother can go down into the tunnels for safety. Considering the size of the tunnels, you won't be comfortable, but at least you wouldn't have died at Disney.

Don't have the right shoes? Disney will take care of you.

Entering the backstage of Epcot.

Main Street USA in Magic Kingdom.

The land corporations established to purchase the land for Walt Disney World.

Sausage, ribs, chicken, corn, mashed potatoes and more for lunch.

Peach Cobbler.

Bathroom break at Hollywood Studios.

The Topiaries play.

The parade begins in Animal Kingdom.

"There is only one Mickey."

Holiday Services - 20,000 square feet of Christmas stuff.

Central Shops - Inside here all Mickeys are created worldwide.

Can you guess which ride this is?

Forbidden: the rear entrance to Magic Kingdom.

Rain Kingdom

Olivia, Elena and Isabella in the rain by Cinderella's Castle.

Aw, Shucks!

Parents Rejoice, Children Cry.

The Power of Dreams Always Triumphs

US1121 - Definitely Not United

OJ & A Plane So Old You'd Think You Were On United

BWI Breakfast