Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Disney's Beastly Kingdom: What Could Have Been

     Happy New Year! I'm back from my holiday vacation and ready to talk some more Disney World! Today I want to share a bit about a land at Disney's Animal Kingdom. This land, however, was never built. Though Disney broke ground recently on an Avatar themed land at the Animal Kingdom, the original intent of the Imagineers was to build an area of the park that focused on mythical creatures such as dragons, unicorns, and the like. This would have given the park two lands based on real continents (Africa and Asia), and two lands based on Animals you can't see anywhere else (Dinosaurs and mythical creatures). The parallelism here is a nice image.
     In 1998, Animal Kingdom opened with three lands available to the public: Africa, Dinoland U.S.A, and Camp Minnie Mickey. Asia wasn't ready for opening day, and Camp Minnie Mickey was always intended to be a place holder for the soon-to-come "beastly kingdom". In the opening of the park, the dragons and unicorns played as important a role in the signage and suspense for the future as did elephants and tigers. To this day, the Animal Kingdom features a "unicorn" section in its parking lot, a dragon on its insignia, and a few other hints for what was to come.
     The most important remnants from the planned kingdom lie along the banks of the Discovery River, which flows around Discovery Island. Many fans will remember that at one point, guests could ride boats on a tour on this river, and get some beautiful views from the park. One important facet of this tour was a mysterious encounter with a rock formation outside of Camp Minnie Mickey. As the boat floated by the rocks, which seemed to be shaped like a dragon (or is it your imagination?), sounds of monsters could be heard from inside, and fire would be shot out of the mouth of the dragon! This was intended to be a little teaser for the land that was soon to open in the park. If you cross the bride to Camp Minnie-Mickey today, you can still see this rock formation in the distance, though Disney tries to hide it now.
      As the Animal Kingdom grew and aged, the beastly kingdom made less sense. Guests wanted more contact with real animals, and imagineers worried about the impact that fantasy-themed rides would have on the animals. The Festival of the Lion King quickly became the park's most successful show, and was planted firmly in Camp Minnie Mickey. Protesters also made sure Disney heard how much they didn't appreciate comparing real animals to fantasy ones. We will see how people respond to the new Avatar-themed land. For now, it is fun to think about what could have been. We will also see how much of this land ends up coming to fruition with some Avatar attractions as vehicles, rather than Disney-original themes.

Friday, December 19, 2014

5 Tips for Saving While Eating in Walt Disney World

     While there are many many ways to be smart and save money at Walt Disney World, some of the costs are just large. Hotels, in general, are expensive. Park tickets are the base of your spending, and are always expensive. Likewise, eating in Walt Disney World is expensive. The key things to keep in mind while planning how you will eat while on your vacation are as follows:

  • Eat at places that maximize the experience you have, and your value for the dollar spent. Disney World dining is incredible, if you do your homework and spend in the right places. Read before you go!
  • Don't spend extra money on food you can get anywhere, and food that will not give you the truly cherish-able experience that Disney World should be.

My five tips for dining at the World center around these two themes. In general, you have to start by facing the fact that it will cost money to go to Walt Disney World, and that your dining budget is part of the money you save for your experience. Once you have that idea down, here is my advice:
  1. Bring food! There are grocery stores near Walt Disney World. No one is stopping you from taking a quick trip to these places, stocking up on bars and shakes and coffee and even sandwiches. Disney will never remind you of this, but you can and should eat your own food for several of your meals. I recommend one special breakfast brunch for your trip, and then eating your own breakfast in the room for the rest of the time. You could save hundreds of dollars! In addition, Disney does not mind you bringing food into their parks. Replace several of your meals out on adventures with your own food! You will be healthier, thinner, and you don't have to buy all of your meals at Disney prices (which are often interstellar). 
  2. Tables in Wonderland is Disney's dining membership club.... sort of. I say "club" because it is only available to annual passholders, Florida residents, and Disney Vacation Club members. For annual passholders, the card is $100. This card is usable at almost any restaurant on property, and saves you 20% on all dining, including alcohol. So, if you plan on spending $500 on food for your family (which you probably should bet on), you will save money with this card. You could save hundreds of dollars. More details about this card here
  3. Disney Dining Plan... for Free? This one is a littler harder to come by, but could save you hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Most years, around September, Disney offers "free dining" to those staying at select Deluxe Resorts on property. This plan, at its most basic level, allows you to enjoy one snack, one counter service meal, and one sit-down experience per day. If you receive this plan for your stay, you could very very easily purchase no food on your vacation, and dine very well. With your dining points, you can enjoy some of Disney's finest restaurants for free.
  4. Share Your Food. So, assume you have either purchased or received for free the Disney Dining Plan. You now have one "point" per day to use on sit-down eating. One way to truly maximize this plan is to share. You will find that the portions of Disney dining are often... immense. You can go to many restaurants on property, order off of the set menu, and be perfectly satisfied with half of the food you receive. You can order the food for one person, thus only spending one "point". There are a few disclaimers I should put here. While Disney does allow this, they will never encourage it. You will also have to check beforehand to see which places will serve you enough food for two people. Additionally, you cannot use this trick at buffet-style venues, which are often some of the best on property. lastly, I have to say that the Disney dining plan is far too much food for me, and I do not eat lightly!
  5. Spend Little, Experience it all. Fifth and finally, my advice would be to maximize your dollar by buying small amounts of food at the most expensive places. For example, you and your date could go to the California Grill (pictured above), watch the fireworks, and have an unbelievable night, for only the cost of two glasses of wine and a plate of sushi. This could run you as little as $35, and could be an unforgettable night. You could then go back to your hotel, and buy a sandwich in the gift shop, or share a salad next to the pool. You don't have to spend all of your dining money at the restaurant to have the experience. And that experience is really what the dining is about. 
     I hope these are helpful tips! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, and I will do the best I can to answer. 

Thank you sincerely for reading, 


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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Walt Disney World had an on-site Airport!

     Some of my favorite tidbits about Walt Disney World are those that never really happened the way they were supposed to. For example, I've written about a couple of hotels that never quite came to fruition: the Venetian and the Asian (click to read about them). In this post, however, I want to talk about a little historical tidbit that did happen, but only for a short period of time.
     You're taking the monorail from Epcot to the Magic Kingdom on a lovely afternoon . As you approach the Transportation and Ticket Center, you look to the right, and notice a large open area of concrete with trucks and other transport on it, behind the fleeting trees. For just a moment, you just caught a glimpse of a fascinating piece of Disney history: Lake Buena Vista STOL airport. While this air strip is used for parking and transport today, it once served as a functional airstrip. Yes, airplanes could be seen daily flying over and next to Cinderella Castle:


     STOL airport opened in 1971, along with the Walt Disney World resort. It went along with the theme of Walt Disney World: an all-inclusive vacation destination, where guests would stay for many days, and never run out of entertainment and activities. With this airport, guests could fly right in, and not have to worry about their transportation from Orlando. They would just jump off of their long flight, and back onto a short flight direct to the Magic Kingdom! Sounds great, right?
     It was great for a few years. However, as the Kingdom grew in popularity, the flights got more and more frequent, and the airport quickly outgrew its infrastructural capabilities. Pilots began complaining that the air strip was not long enough. The port never really had a hangar, so only four planes could be at the strip at a time. In 1975, with the growth of the World following the end of the oil crisis, the airport became impractical, and was closed until a time when it could be renovated to handle the crowds. However, in 1982, with the construction of the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center to Epcot, the air strip lost any hope of opening again. The rail was simply too close to the air strip to ever allow planes near it again.
     And so, all we are left with is a fun glimpse through the trees to wonder what it must have been like to fly directly into Walt Disney World.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Is Frozen Too Present in Walt Disney World?

     If you have been to Walt Disney World in the last year or so, you will have noticed an ever-growing presence of Disney's most successful movie of all time: Frozen. The film blew away all other cartoons ever made, and outsold by far all other Disney movies to date, even unseating The Lion King. With this huge success, Disney has not hesitated to place Frozen into its Theme Parks in Florida, and at a remarkable pace and volume! I want to take a moment to analyze whether or not Frozen in the parks has gone too far.
     The first casualty to the Frozen obsession was our beloved tempestuous sea-faring adventure. An imminent Frozen ride has closed that beloved attraction in Epcot, and will open in 2016. The termination of Maelstrom led to many devoted fans rioting in the streets... well... mostly the internet. I wrote a brief story about that here. A new fireworks show was added to Hollywood Studios several nights of the week, featuring mostly the left-over fireworks from the other shows. It is fun, but pales miserably in comparison to Wishes and Illuminations, and even Fantasmic!. When Elsa and Anna first came to the World, the lines at the Norway Pavilion in Epcot were immediately up to five hours long. When they moved to be included in the Magic Kingdom, the lines didn't go down much. Summers at Walt Disney World included a party at the Magic Kingdom which was Frozen themed. "A Frozen Holiday Wish" replaced the normal Wishes show at the Magic Kingdom. This year's Very Merry Christmas Party includes and focuses on the Frozen characters.
     So, what to make of this? First, I would like to point out that many, many people are extremely excited (to the point of delirium) about Frozen coming to the Parks. This survey on the Disboards shows that nearly half of people are more excited about the new Frozen ride than they are angry about Maelstrom leaving. I tend to agree with this. Maelstrom was wonderful, and was a part of my childhood. However, it was not the incredible journey or real representation of the people of Norway which it was made out to be. The argument that Disney is putting cartoons into a "real" attraction is bogus. The ride was about trolls, and was sponsored by a Norwegian Oil company. Because of this, I mourn the loss of Maelstrom, but also look forward to the story by Hans Christian Anderson making its way into the pavilion.
     Additionally, Disney World is always bringing in new things to its parks. People seem to be angry this time, because what they are bringing in is replacing many unsuccessful things (people like to root for the underdog). Nostalgics like myself are always tempted to think that the old was better, or how it ought to be. However, Disney World must keep evolving in order to stay open. The incredible shows, the unmatched level of service, and the life-changing messages do not come without Disney selling what it has to the public.
     We must always remember a few things: First, A Frozen Holiday Wish will go away, and will be replaced by a collection of Disney classics nightly in the Magic Kingdom sky. Next, Frozen will soon join the echelon of Disney movies that make up our collective cultural memory, and bring us back to childhood. Lastly, Disney World is not a museum. As the culture of the world changes, the culture of the World changes. Walt Disney World is built to be a reflection of hope back on a world that actually exists. It is part myth, and part optimistic interpretation of reality. Simply sit through Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, and you will know that Disney World is not stuck in the past, or stuck in an unreality of a false world. It is a celebration of real people, and a thus must reflect what real people see as good. Right now, Frozen is a positive message that much of the world wants to see.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Disney's Venetian Resort: What Could Have Been

     Along with the many wonderful ideas for Walt Disney World that became reality, there have been several ideas blocked by inhibiting factors, or supplanted by ideas that were even better. The story of the origins of Walt Disney World hotels is one of failures, learning, and beautiful results. In this post I want to talk about one of the ideas in Walt Disney World that was fully ready for production, and was even under construction, when it unfortunately fell through (literally).
     In the late 1960's, Disney began clearing land on the east side of the Seven Seas Lagoon, across the water bridge from the Contemporary. The Venetian was going to complement the Asian Resort, which was to be built across the lake. Here is the plan for the two resorts on the lake:

     The Venetian was going to be a series of canals and buildings to imitate Venice, Italy. It was going to possess a glass ceiling lobby to let sunlight in. The resort's central figure was to be a replica of the campanile of St. Mark's Square. The transportation boats to take guests to the Magic Kingdom would roll through the canals of the resort and take hotel guests on tours of the replica city. 
     The idea for the resort never came to fruition, for two main reasons. First, the land on that spot was determined far into the project to be unsuitable for supporting buildings. Foundation would be laid and sink into the unstable ground. One will notice that to this day, there is nothing at all built on the land between the Transportation and Ticket Center and the Contemporary Resort. It is one of the few blank spaces visible in Walt Disney World. In addition, the oil crisis of 1973 put a hold on Disney's construction of all kinds, most especially hotel ground-breaking.
     The savvy reader will notice that the idea of a Venice-themed area did not disappear forever. Today's Italy pavilion at Epcot is very close to the idea of the Venetian Resort. Even the idea for canals and boat tours was seriously considered as an attraction for the Italian Pavilion. The boats on the waterfront were originally built to be part of this attraction. As they say, a good idea at Imagineering never truly dies. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My 5 Favorite Holiday Happenings at Walt Disney World

     December is here! Walt Disney World is the perfect place for the Holidays. The quaintness, diversity, and already magical atmosphere lend themselves beautifully to the traditions of Christmas and the Holidays. Come mid-November, Disney's elves are hard at work for just a couple nights, out of sight, to transform Walt Disney World into a celebration for the season. All of the resorts, all theme parks, and every other place in the World puts on a new outfit full of snow and cheer. The music playing in the parks and hotels changes to Christmas music. Disney doesn't just re-theme their lands either; they create and provide unique attractions and shows just for the Holidays. Here are my 5 favorite things to see during the Holidays at Walt Disney World:

  1. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights: sits nestled in the back of Disney's Hollywood Studios. Each year, 20,000 man hours go into the hanging of 40 miles of cable and lights onto the Streets of America. The light display was purchased from a family in Arkansas in the 1990's, and was transplanted to Disney World. Recently, the display was changed to include "dancing" lights, which are timed to music, and put on an inspiring show. The lights include reindeer, a globe, and millions of lights. It is worth park admission by itself. 
  2. Holidays Around the World: happens each December at Epcot's World Showcase. Around the lagoon, actors and speakers from each country represented at Epcot speak several times a day about the Holiday traditions of that country. The American Adventure includes Christmas music from the Voices of Liberty, and many other countries' programs include performances. Many traditions, such as Germany and the U.K., are relatively similar to what we know, but are just different enough to be interesting and informative. 
  3. Fireworks at New Years, Magic Kingdom Style: Each year, Disney goes even bigger with their fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom on New Years. Keep in mind, I mean "at the Magic Kingdom" very loosely. When I most recently saw the show, fireworks were launched from the middle of the Seven Seas Lagoon, as well as from several areas in and out of the Park. I spent my evening at the Grand Floridian, and was still right in the middle of the show. If you want to see Disney pull out the stops, here is your chance. 
  4. Celebratory Edibles: at Disney's resort hotels are present and large, and will fill you with a little bit of childish wonder. At Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, the kitchen works each year to construct a life-size gingerbread house in the lobby. This monument to the holidays is a special treat, and a beautiful example of Disney pushing boundaries. At the Beach Club Resort, a carousel is constructed out of gingerbread. The carousel moves and works, and is surrounded by other food and edible art. It is another must-see. At Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, a miniature African village is made of chocolate and cookies each year. It is always different, and is located right outside of Boma. All of these sights are free to go see, and can be accessed using Disney transportation. Don't hesitate!
  5. "Peace on Earth" Tag to Illuminations: Epcot's nightly fireworks show becomes even more life-changing during the holidays. After the "regular" ending (I cringe calling it that), Walter Cronkite's voice tells of Epcot's message to the world: that of "peace on earth; good will to men". In addition to the touching words, Epcot shoots off more beautiful and loud fireworks into the sky than you dare think possible. An amazing flurry of bright bursts will take your breath away, and lights up the entire park. This is a must-see.
     What is your favorite thing to do at Walt Disney World during the Holidays? Comment below!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Best Rides in Walt Disney World at Night

     After the sun goes down, the air at Walt Disney World takes on a new feel. The warm light accents every corner of the architecture, and the aspects of design and story present in the parks are even more showcased. Colors are brighter, and everything can be seen through a different lens. My favorite time in Walt Disney World is at night. I look forward every day to watching passers by and families enjoy the twinkling magical light. In this post, I want to lend ideas as to which rides are extra special at night. Riding some rides at night completely changes the experience, and can give you a new perspective on the respective theme park. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Expedition Everest: Take a ride to find the Yeti at night, and a few new elements are added. First, the garden at the beginning of the ride is now dimly lit by warm lighting. I wish they could slow down the ride a bit so I could enjoy it! Next, as you make your way up the chain lift, look over at the beautiful Tree of Life. The lights on it at night make the animals pop, and add an intimate feel. However, the intimacy ends when you enter the thrill portion of the ride, as you realize you can't see anything! The hills fly by, and it is hard to tell whether you're inside or out! The end of the ride is extra comforting and welcoming. This one's a real treat. 
  • Splash Mountain: This Disney classic is a great opportunity to dip into some whimsy at night. The hills and drops and canals on the outside of the ride give you little glimpses of the castle, Tomorrowland, the tops of the buildings in Adventureland, and Big Thunder. My favorite part of this ride at night, though, is the dark red glow of the rock work. It is a warm and welcoming color, bidding you enter into the swamp to join the adventure with your favorite Br'er animals.
  • Jungle Cruise: At night, the jungle seems just a little bit more teeming and dank than it usually does. The jokes at night are a little bit more casual, and the people on board a little bit more loosely tempered. This ride is another classic, and riding it at night is a great way to make you feel close to the place we love. 
  • Tower of Terror: The Twilight Zone Tower becomes even more spooky and fun at night. The entrance queue garden stays steamy, and makes it hard to see. If you jump out from some of the concrete to scare your family, I guarantee they will scream. Once you enter the lobby, it no longer feels like an illusion when lightning strikes outside. And best of all, when the door opens for you before your rapid descent at the top of the tower, you can look out and see the living and nostalgic streets of Hollywood Studios down below you. Scream loud so they can hear you down there!
     There are many more rides that are lots of fun at night! What do you think?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Restaurants You Should Feel Free to Skip

     While Walt Disney World provides dining experiences that can and will surprise and delight you with their ambiance, fare, taste, service, and immersive themes, not all of them are perfect. The purpose of this article is not to point out which restaurants at Disney World are bad, but rather which ones you should skip in favor of another truly great and memorable experience. Here are several places you should probably skip over in favor of something better:

  1. Rainforest Cafe: There are two of them on property, and they are both fun and loud and bright. They have fun fish tanks and big colors and talking animals and trees, and your kids may beg to eat there. However, most of you can go down to your local mega-mall and find your own Rainforest Cafe, and it will be just as good as this. First of all, go into any of the theme parks, and you will find animatronic animals that are much more life-like and beautiful than these ones. The food is usually far below average, and WAY below the Disney standard of dining. Children will be screaming, and the intercom will ring with "Johnson Safari of nine, please approach the elephant". My suggestion, use this as a secret entrance to the Animal Kingdom, and nothing else. 
  2. San Angel Inn: This is a tough one for me. The dining area itself is beautiful, and sends you into another world of pyramids and romantic night-time strolls on Mayan shores. However, a couple of things make this place unappealing to me. First, the food is so very expensive. I am always keeping in mind that Disney food is inherently expensive, but this is beyond that. You can easily spend $100 on a few tacos and ice cream for two people here. Please ride the ride, get a margarita at La Cava, and avoid this place. Look and don't eat.
  3. Liberty Tree Tavern: I have complicated feelings here also. I have fond memories eating mashed potatoes and Turkey and rolling back to the Resort. However, I think I have to come clean and say you shouldn't eat here. The food is something you can easily eat at home, and will render you large and rotund. The gravy is usually... solid. The atmosphere is cozy, but it is also fairly boring. It is also insanely expensive to feed your family here. I would say that you will learn more, enjoy more, and have a more Magic Kingdom experience if you walk across the street to the Columbia Harbor House. See this blog post as to why you should go there.
  4. Hollywood and Vine: This restaurant sits, ironically, right next to the 50's Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios. It is a buffet meal, and will sit you at cushy booths with your family in a vaguely themed but mostly green Hollywood... room. Now, you will be spending about $50 per person for as much good food as you can scarf, which is pretty standard fare at an expensive Disney Restaurant. However, you know where you could eat for less money and have a wonderful and memorable experience? Right next door at the Prime Time. You will have more fun, eat less, be happier, and leave smiling.  
  5. Yak and Yeti: Now I must say that I have had a small sample size here, and that this review is intended for the sit-down portion. When I went, I ordered a chicken salad. When I got it, it was canned tangerines on top of lettuce, with no chicken. I sent it back, and the salad I got back was smaller, and the waiter was mad at me. So if I were you, I would head on over to Tusker House in Africa. I must also say that the art and decor here is beautiful. I spent most of my time walking around and looking, because I am a huge dork. Do the same! Just ask if you can walk around. 
     I hope this helps out your dining plans on your next trip! 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Great Movie Ride Updates to Come, and What This Means for Hollywood Studios

     Disney recently announced an agreement with Turner Classic Movies. The movie giant will be airing Disney programming on their television channel on special occasions. These "event programs" will be centered around the history of the Disney company, in an attempt to bring back and reignite the current generation about older Disney films. I am really looking forward to these shows, and will surely be tuning in.
     In addition to these programs, TCM will be sponsoring an update for Disney's Great Movie Ride attraction at Hollywood Studios. Disney has hinted that the changes will come in stages, and will begin with an update to the movie montage at the end of the ride, as well as the one in the waiting queue. The change will also eventually include updated ride scenes, and a new introductory/loading area. This is big news for those of us who have been waiting around for a decade for Disney to do something with this space. However, the implications of this news are wide-spread!
     Some have been wondering if Disney is going to drop the movie-making theme from the Studios park all together. They have been subtly hinting at this idea by closing the Studios Backlot Tour, and the promise of Star Wars Land. This update, however, seems to indicate that Disney is in fact investing in that aspect of the park. It also indicates that while the giant sorcerer's hat is finally leaving, the Chinese Theater will remain there, and will most likely re-establish itself as the focal point of the park. It means that the main stretch of Hollywood Boulevard will still act as the key welcoming feature and as an aesthetic introduction to the rest of the park.
     Looks like The Great Movie Ride is here to stay!