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May 5, 2011

Theme Park Snapshot - May 4, 2011

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I'm here in Orlando for a few days, spending a little time with some family I haven't seen for a while, so I thought I'd share with you all a quick snapshot of the sights and sounds around the parks. Of course, these impressions of mine are very subjective and limited to just what I've experienced first-hand, but as a Disney-obsessed person, I know that I always like to see a little bit of what's going on in the World when I'm not there -- I hope you do, too!

I left rainy, chilly Washington DC early Wednesday morning. A short two hours later after an uneventful flight, I was in sunny Orlando, where the temperature was already 73, on its way to the sultry 80s! That's what I call WINNING!


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I made my way to my hotel and checked in, but unfortunately, my room wasn't ready yet. So I made a quick change in the restroom, shedding my jeans and sweater for shorts and a t-shirt, then checked my bags and headed to Disney's Hollywood Studios to meet up with my aunt and assorted cousins.


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As I passed through the turnstiles, I found that they were waiting for the start of the Beauty and the Beast show, so I ran down Sunset Boulevard to meet up with them. Along the way, I couldn't help but notice all the Citizens of Hollywood that were out and about, delighting the relatively light crowds.


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I reached the theater and reunited with my family -- so good to see them -- and we watched a lovely performance of the Beauty and the Beast Show. I've seen this show countless times and it just never gets old. The vividness of the costumes, the uplifting music, the fun choreography, and of course the beautiful voices of the cast -- I always feel like I've made a quick trip to Broadway after seeing this special show.


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After the show, everyone was ready for a quick bite, so we strolled over to the Backlot Express. The Jedi Training Academy was in process, so I stopped to watch for a bit, and walked around the still-closed Star Tours attraction. Because it was so-called "Star Wars Day" (May the Fourth -- as in, "May the Force be with you..."), there had been rumors that there might be a soft-opening for the much-anticipated renovated Star Tours, but I didn't see any signs of that. That's not to say there wasn't any activity in the area, however -- I spotted a group of cast members who I believe are Imagineers, making a visual inspection of the attraction's exterior, taking notes on a clipboard. I can't wait until this attraction reopens -- and I'll be down there when it does on May 20!


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In general most of the other attractions we saw that afternoon were walk-ons -- crowds were very manageable. We walked right into Muppet Vision, and waited only about 5 minutes at the Backlot Tour, where things were as Catastrophic as usual.

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My cousins were even able to get a Fastpass at Toy Story Mania around 11 a.m. -- granted their return time was until 6 p.m., but normally Fastpasses are long gone for TSM by 11 a.m. The standby wait time for Toy Story Mania was about 50 minutes when we walked past after lunch -- of course, that's too long, but still, I'm used to seeing it at 70
minutes or more.


Since I still had to check in properly at my hotel, I said goodbye to my cousins around 4 p.m., with plans to meet up with them again Thursday.

But my day was far from over, as I also was meeting my aunt and her fiancee for dinner in Epcot!

I had a little time before meeting up with them, so I wandered around to see the topiaries that hadn't been in place when I was in Epcot back in March at the begining of the Flower and Garden Festival.


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We had dinner at La Hacienda, in the Mexico pavilion, my first time there. The restaurant is beautiful inside, with a lovely view of World Showcase lagoon. We tried a couple of the specialty margaritas -- my aunt really enjoyed her rose-infused "Rosita" -- and thoroughly
enjoyed our meals. I had the roast pork with mole, which I thought was very good.


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After indulging in dessert, we waddled out of there, and my aunt and her fiancee left. I originally planned to stay in the park for IllumiNations, but the long day was catching up with me, so I started the walk back to my hotel. I stopped on the bridge at the Boardwalk and saw most of the aerial fireworks from there, so I didn't learn whether the inferno barge was back in service (I'd heard it had been out earlier in the week).

I returned to the room exhausted, then glanced at my pedometer. Ah, that would explain it. 18,815 steps. For me that's about 8.9 miles. I think I earned my early night.


May 6, 2011

Theme Park Snapshot - May 5, 2011

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Day 2 of my very short trip to Orlando:

Since today was a Magic Kingdom day, I figured it would be a great chance to check out all the new things since my last visit two months ago -- and there have been quite a few.

My first stop was at the new Town Square Theater. It was really beautiful inside, but it was bustling with activity, and I didn't have enough time to wait or actually walk through to see Mickey or the princesses -- next trip, I hope.

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While I was in the Town Square, I asked a cast member about the missing Goofy bench in front of Tony's. She told me that with the recent construction for Town Hall there, they had also put in a new entrance for the restaurant, moved the check-in podium down to the spot where the bench had been. The podium is now blocking the electrical outlet that talking Goofy needed -- so now there's really no place to put the bench unless they do some rewiring in the area. I hope they decide to find a new home for the bench -- it was one of those little surprises that are such fun.

I also noticed that the Confectionery is still under a partial scrim, but they've definitely made progress since I was last there.

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I was excited to see all the detail that's been added to the Beast's castle in the Fantasyland expansion area. Even from a distance, it already looks amazing. I've kept this photo a little larger so you can see for yourself.

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You can also spy quite a bit more of the new construction poking up from behind the wall now -- just enough to tease us!

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It had been a while since I had done many of the Fantasyland attractions, but since I was touring with my cousin who had brought her nearly 4-year-old daughter, that's where we spent a good deal of the morning. I was surprised to discover that the Fastpass machines for The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh were actually over at Mickey's PhilharMagic! It was pointed out to me that they've been there a while, actually -- I probably read about the move some time ago and had forgotten it, as it's been more than a year since I've ridden Pooh. Wish I'd remembered, as it could have saved me a bit of running around!

We stopped in at Pinocchio's Village Haus for a bite to eat, and I found that they're offering a yummy grilled cheese as a kid's meal option -- it's not on the regular menu, just on a sign at the cash register stations. Seemed like it took a little extra time to prepare, but it made one little girl happy.

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Crowds were pretty heavy by the time we rode Winnie-the-Pooh, so it was hard to get any good photos of the interactive queue, but here's a shot of one scene. You can't really tell from this photo, but the "honey" is actually a moving image -- it looks like the honey is oozing down the page. The screen must be heat- or pressure-sensitive, so that when little hands press on it, they leave crazy impressions and interrupt the flow.

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All the new additions to the queue seemed to be doing their job -- kids were having a great time playing with all the new hands-on activities and didn't seem to mind the 50-minute wait at all. (Even with our Fastpasses, we had a 15-minute wait at this attraction, by the way. It's just so slow-loading.)

Speaking of interactive queues -- even though it was a 35-minute wait for the Haunted Mansion, I just HAD to see the new queue elements there, so I waited. They were well worth it! I'm sure you've all seen plenty of photos since the new queue opened, but I have to share at least one. I absolutely loved all this detail, and wish it hadn't been quite so crowded so I could have taken more time to play.

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Finally, this isn't something new, it's just something I love -- daytime fireworks. (I love fireworks at any time, but during the day they're always a surprise!). A storm was brewing, so the dramatic sky heightened the effect -- well, I enjoyed it, anyway.


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Wish I'd had time to do and see more, but I'll be back in the World in a few weeks, so I can catch up on everything I missed!


May 18, 2011

New Art of Animation Resort Details

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I'm here in Walt Disney World this week for the 2011 Resort Showcase, during which Disney will be spotlighting their newest and upcoming resort hotels, as well as new features of older resorts, here in Orlando, California and Hawaii.

At the event's welcome dinner, which was held in the Grand Floridian's grandiose Convention Center, I was drawn to a display showing a series of artist's renderings for the new Art of Animation Resort, due to open May 2012.

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I learned that the Imagineers have been working hard to find ways to bring the guests into the story of this heavily themed resort, which will feature larger-than-life icons, similar to those found at the All-Star Resorts and nearby Pop Century.

One of the ways they will do this is by employing different scales with the figures scattered around the buildings.


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For example, in the Little Mermaid section, guests will view icons such as the giant-sized King Triton, as though they were the size of tiny Sebastian the Crab. Therefore, Triton will be 35 feet high! Similarly, in the Finding Nemo themed area, figures like Crush the sea turtle will be scaled as though their onlookers were the size of the little clownfish Nemo -- Mr. Ray, who's only about 6 feet in the mock-up in the photo above, will also be 35 feet high in the finished resort. In the Cars section, though, the scale will be much closer to 1:1 -- so that you will feel that you could actually get in a vehicle and drive off.

Other elements bring the story to life as well -- in the Finding Nemo bathrooms, for example, your shower curtain will feature the sharks from the film. In the Little Mermaid rooms, the decor will reflect Ariel the mermaid's penchant for collecting her "thingamabobs" and "whatsits".

Here are some official Artists Renderings of the new resort:

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I'm hoping to learn more about the Art of Animation Resort as the week goes on, and the Health and Wellness Suites at the Contemporary. I'm even getting a sneak preview of the recently announced Royal Guest Rooms at Port Orleans tomorrow, so check back with AllEars.Net's Blog Central!



May 19, 2011

New/Renovated Rooms at Port Orleans Resort

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Today was Day 2 of the Walt Disney World 2011 Resort Showcase, during which Disney is shining a spotlight on their newest and upcoming resort hotels, as well as new features of older resorts, here in Orlando, California and Hawaii.

I was most excited today for the tour of Port Orleans scheduled for after lunch -- we were promised a sneak peek at the recently announced "Royal Guest Rooms." These new accommodations continue in the trend of theming rooms to a particular story -- similar to the pirate-themed rooms Disney World introduced at Caribbean Beach Resort in 2009.

Our tour actually began in the reception area of Port Orleans French Quarter, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.


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After touring the main area, we were led over to the pool, and learned about the resort's recreation activities.


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We were finally shown a few of the resort's just-renovated rooms.

One of the biggest changes is that the rooms now feature two queen beds, instead of full beds. Flat panel television sets have been added, and the quality of all the furnishings, like bedspreads and draperies, seems to have been upgraded -- they even have accent pillows on the beds as an added touch.

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In the bathroom area, the pedestal sinks have been replaced with a single, double-bowled vanity, which provides more counter space. All the fixtures, tubs, shower heads, etc., have been replaced as well.


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We were also shown a renovated accessible room. This is one type of the ADA-compliant rooms -- French Quarter has 25 like the one we saw, which feature grip bars in the bathroom area, and special emergency lights to alert hearing impaired guests of an incident.

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French Quarter also has an additional 50 accessible rooms that have wheel-in showers, with hand-held sprays.

The renovation of all of the rooms at French Quarter was completed last month. Renovations will begin on French Quarter's sister resort, Port Orleans Riverside, in June. To learn more about that project, we quickly rode over to Riverside.

When that renovation begins, work will start on the new Royal Guest Rooms -- there will be 512 rooms in the Magnolia Bend area of the resort converted to this new theme. (The remaining rooms in Magnolia Bend will retain their theme, and will be refurbished as well, as will the rooms in the Alligator Bayou section of the resort.)

Imagineer Eric Jacobson greeted us at the model room in Riverside, but admonished us that no photos were allowed -- there may still be some fine-tuning to the concept before the rooms are finalized.

But we were allowed to see the room ourselves and ask as many questions as we wanted.

As they are now, the rooms are based on the following story: Princess Tiana (from the film, Princess and the Frog) has invited her other princess friends for a vacation, and each of the invitees has brought a gift that has a place somewhere in the room. As soon as you enter the room, you'll find a letter from Tiana embedded in the table. Scattered around the room are the gifts -- gold faucets in the bathroom that came from the film Aladdin, a hassock that resembles the dog footstool from the Beauty and the Beast. The bedspreads and draperies are in royal blues and golds and some of the the furniture is gold-trimmed. One of the most impressive aspects of the room are the beds' magical headboards, which light up and feature special effects. You have to see them to appreciate them.

Unfortunately, though, you won't be staying in these rooms until April or May 2012. (Editor's note: Other Disney reps have quoted me a timeframe of January 2012. Keep your eyes open for a definite date, hopefully soon!) You will however, probably be able to start booking the rooms by late September or October of this year. Pricing for the rooms is expected to be somewhat higher than a standard Port Orleans room, but actual rates have yet to be determined.

I have more to tell about the Health and Wellness suites at the Contemporary, and the latest news from Aulani in Hawaii, but that will have to wait -- it's late now and tomorrow is another big day, including my first time doing the new Wild Africa Trek in Animal Kingdom!


May 24, 2011

Health and Wellness Suites at Contemporary Resort

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Several weeks ago, when Walt Disney World announced the coming "Royal Guest Rooms" that will be introduced at the Port Orleans Riverside Resort next year, they also announced the conversion of 23 suites in the Contemporary Resort to special "Health and Wellness Suites." Intrigued at the idea of such an upscale, trendy room type at Disney, I tried to learn as much as I could about these new suites during the Walt Disney World Resort Showcase I was invited to last week.

According to Katie Gallagher, an associate marketing director, these suites, all located on the Contemporary's 14th floor, will feature "eco-friendly decor" -- bamboo flooring, 100-percent organic cotton linens, with non-allergenic wrapped mattresses. Bathrooms will be equipped with rainwater showers and tea tree oils. With panoramic views of Bay Lake and the Magic Kingdom that the Contemporary is well-known for, the suites, which will accommodate up to six, will be spacious and light, with earthy tones and natural textures.


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"The views in these suites are spectacular," Gallagher said. "And when you're at the Contemporary, so close to the Magic Kingdom, you are right at the center of everything."

The resort hotel's prime location is just one reason the Contemporary was chosen for this makeover. The hotel also houses two restaurants, California Grill and The Wave, that emphasize light, healthy, and even organic cuisine, which have added to its reputation as a venue for the modern and, well, contemporary.


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"We think this will offer guests the ultimate balanced Disney vacation," Gallagher asserted. "There's an emphasis today on eating right, and exercising, and many people don't want to give up their fitness routines while they're on vacation. These suites will allow them to do what they would normally do, while visiting the Disney parks -- their experience will be seamless."

I asked Kevin Myers, vice president of Walt Disney World Resort Operations, if the addition of these health and wellness suites represented a shift toward positioning the Disney resort hotels as a destination in and of themselves.

"No," he asserted, "at the end of the day we know that people come here for the theme parks. This is just a way of making sure that our resorts compliment that. We want to focus on both the parks and the resorts, and make the whole vacation experience more immersive."

To this end, the suites will feature in-room cardio equipment and a space for practicing yoga, so that you'll never even have to go to the gym to work out. You'll also have access to a concierge lounge that showcases organic, seasonal and fresh food items. Elsewhere on the 14th floor, a "wellness studio" will offer yoga and spa treatments. And because these units are deluxe suites, after all, you'll receive personalized service in the form of an Itinerary Planning staff, which can help with planning before your arrival, as well as during your stay, much like the attention guests staying club level at other hotels receive.

"If someone requires vegan dining or needs other help with dietary planning," Gallagher explained, "the Itinerary Planning staff will be able to help them, as with all other aspects of their vacation."

Gallagher noted that these new suites could be a five-star product for Disney -- Myers called them "not luxury, but the services begin to get there" -- and they will be priced accordingly, although no definite pricing has been announced as yet. Though she called the conversion of these suites "a test," she added that there were no plans to expand the concept to other Disney accommodations.

The health and wellness suites at Disney's Contemporary Resort should start booking "soon", Gallagher added, for stays starting in November 2011.

Gallagher gives a brief overview of the Health and Wellness Suites in the video below:



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About May 2011

This page contains all entries posted to AllEars® Team Blog in May 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2011 is the previous archive.

June 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.