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March 12, 2018

Disney Vacation Club's Moonlight Magic


Gary Fisher
AllEars® Guest Blogger

How often have you wished that you could have the Magic Kingdom all to yourself with no lines? Moonlight Magic is a complimentary, after-hours event offered to Disney Vacation Club Members that comes close to doing just that.

We participated in Moonlight Magic at the Magic Kingdom on February 6. The event lasted from 9 p.m. until midnight, but Members and their guests could enter the Magic Kingdom as early as 6 p.m. without a regular ticket, and were given a special arm band like for some other after-hours events. These are distributed at the main gate, at DVC resorts, and at one of more locations inside the park for those guests who are already inside. The full party must be present and a photo ID and DVC Membership Card must be presented. A guide map is provided that lists attractions that are open, special activities, and locations for food and refreshments.

Most popular attractions were open with very short or no lines. They actually started letting people with arm bands enter attractions when the park officially closed at 8 p.m. We rode Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan (no wait!), Voyage of the Little Mermaid, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (also no wait!). Splash Mountain was the only major attraction that was not open.

DVC provided free refreshments at several locations, including hot dogs, chicken nuggets, snacks, beverages, and Mickey ice cream bars. We enjoyed a quick meal at Columbia Harbour House, and then later got a Mickey bar at Storybook Circus.

One unique feature of Moonlight Madness is an abundance of photos with characters, found at 15 stations around the Magic Kingdom. The photos are taken by Disney's PhotoPass photographers, which for anyone with a Gold or better Annual Pass means free photo downloads.


What's great is not just that there are so many photo stations, but that they include characters that are rarely seen, such as Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed from The Lion King; Esmeralda and Clopin from The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and Little John from Robin Hood; the Big Bad Wolf and Three Little Pigs; and many others. We saw long lines for Moana and Oogie Boogie (from The Nightmare Before Christmas), and I am sure others were as popular, but the lines we waited in were reasonable.

All of the characters were very personable and took plenty of time to interact with each guest, listening to comments and responding with gestures. Watching the Hippos and Ostriches from Fantasia interact with guests was a comedy show all by itself. We had photos with Baloo & King Louie, Mickey and Minnie, and Marie. Marie’s cat gestures magically brought back memories of the affection from our own beloved cats from many years ago.

The climax of the evening was at 11:30 p.m. -- an exclusive and spectacular fireworks show that was as good as any we have seen at Disney World over the last 45 years. The mix of music and fireworks was perfect, with impressive aerial choreography. We watched from New Fantasyland, which allowed a great view of those fireworks above Cinderella Castle as well as the high ones from behind Fantasyland. Although you don't get the combined view like you do from Main Street USA, one advantage to this location is that you are almost directly beneath the biggest fireworks.


DVC has been presenting Moonlight Magic for about two years now. These events have been held at a specific park over a few nights only once a year and have capacity limits, so snagging a reservation is difficult. DVC opens up reservations a few months before an event, and allows for up to the number of guests on a resort reservation, or six total people if not staying on property. Those with confirmed DVC resort reservations get priority before the event is opened to other Members, and the events always fill to capacity quickly. Only Members who are fully eligible for DVC Perks can make a reservation, and must be present to enter the event.

We are fortunate to have also attended Moonlight Magic at Animal Kingdom (September 2016) and Epcot (December 2017) during prior trips, so we have seen it develop and become better each time. Each event included the most popular attractions, some food and refreshments, music performances, a dance party, character photos, and a chance to meet DVC executives. The food offerings have improved each time we have attended, with the Magic Kingdom having the best options yet, including some vegetarian selections.

The Animal Kingdom Moonlight Magic was the most laid back, which fit the setting of that park. Our highlight that night was a nighttime Kilimanjaro Safari. The Epcot evening included most attractions in Future World, plus Mexico and Norway, and also had custom fireworks at 11:45 p.m. The fireworks were not as good as those we saw in Magic Kingdom, but they were still "ours." Epcot's event went until 1 a.m., so it was really surreal to wander an almost empty Future World at that time of night. Our most interesting experience that evening was viewing the Pixar Shorts right at 1 a.m. with fewer than 10 people.

We will do any of these Moonlight Magic events again if we get an opportunity. Like the Disney parks, it is hard to say which one is "best," but the Magic Kingdom was our best yet, with Epcot a close second.

If you are a DVC Member, check out the upcoming events on the DVC Member pages. If you are not a DVC Member, find one who will invite you to tag along!

Read about the Moonlight Magic experience at Animal Kingdom!

March 5, 2018

Ben Rossi brought the Wild West to Walt Disney World's Frontierland


Performers flip and tumble on the rooftops in Frontierland during a live action show in the early 1980s. [Courtesy of Ben Rossi]

Return with us to Walt Disney World, circa 1980.

The Magic Kingdom has been up and running for nine-plus years and is living up to its "vacation kingdom of the world" nickname. Indeed, the idea of a destination vacation to central Florida has really caught on and plans are moving forward for a second theme park on the vast property, this one loosely based on Walt Disney's idea for an experimental prototype community of tomorrow.

Inside the Magic Kingdom, change has been a constant.

Several new, cutting-edge attractions have been added since opening day in 1971, enhancing the park's already strong appeal.

In 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean debuted in Adventureland, and suddenly, everyone was singing "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me."

In 1975, the much-anticipated Space Mountain was launched, giving Tomorrowland guests the heart-pounding experience of speeding through the universe on a roller coaster in the dark.

And in 1980, a classic runaway train adventure was added to the park when Big Thunder Mountain began thrilling guests on the outskirts of Frontierland.

Frontierland is a section of the Magic Kingdom that celebrates the rootin', tootin' days of America's Wild West. The building fronts were designed to make you feel as if you were walking through a western town, with names like Pecos Bill and Texas John Slaughter featured on storefronts.

During the 1980s, Frontierland also was a place where live shows were staged, using the roofs of the buildings and those Western-themed building fronts as a realistic backdrop.


Former Walt Disney World show producer Ben Rossi. [Courtesy of Mike Virgintino]

Back then, live entertainment was featured throughout certain areas of the park, not just in front of Cinderella Castle or up and down Main Street. And there was one producer who saw to it that those shows were entertaining and enjoyable. His name is Ben Rossi.

It's safe to say that when a young man or woman applies for a job as an entertainer at Walt Disney World, they would have a background that includes singing and dancing lessons. They might have taken acting classes as well. Their resume likely features stage performances in high school, college or community theater.

It's also safe to say that their backgrounds don't include trick roping at the tender age of 5, or being a trick horse rider or a circus acrobat at the advanced age of 7.

The name Ben Rossi may not ring a bell among Walt Disney World fans, but it should. Rossi's talents — both as a performer and as a show producer — touched literally millions of park guests during two tours of duty with WDW entertainment in the 1980s.

Rossi earned his stripes at an early age, performing at carnivals, fairs, bazaars or traveling circuses, first as a 5-year-old trick roper, then as a trick rider and circus acrobat at 7.

As he got older, the tricks got more difficult and the venues got bigger until he found himself working at Freedomland, a Disneyland-style theme park that was located in the New York City borough of the Bronx, in 1961. He started out as a member of the "Colossus" show in the park, playing — appropriately enough — an American cowboy.

"The show, which was produced by Sandy Howard [who also produced A Man Called Horse and a number of early Tarzan movies] included Roman chariot races, the Three Musketeers and a segment called The Greatest Horsemen in History, which I took part in," Rossi said.

"They made me the American cowboy, but I also did Roman stunt work during the show." That stunt work included a variety of daring acrobatic moves, vaults, cartwheels and shoulder stands — all while riding atop his trusty palomino.

"'Colossus' didn't return, nor did I, in 1962. I went to Hollywood with my wife."

But Rossi would return to Freedomland a year later. "Art Moss, who at the time was in charge of publicity and shows, asked me to come back, so I returned to Freedomland in 1963 and 1964 when the park was unwinding." He spent those two years as a park performer and show producer.


Members of the Frontierland Stunt Show pose for a photo near the entrance of the Walt Disney World land devoted to the Wild West. [Courtesy of Ben Rossi]

After Freedomland closed in 1964, Rossi appeared in or directed action scenes and stunt sequences for several television commercials, TV series and feature films.

Rossi then headed south, where he served as the entertainment director at a number of smaller amusement parks in Florida. He was Corporate Director of Live Shows for the National Recreation Service before landing a position at Walt Disney World in 1978.

"I started at Disney as Area Stage Manager and then ended up being General Manager of Resort Entertainment," he said.

"I produced a number of shows, which I wrote myself, including 'The Red, White and Blue Showboat Revue,' different Halloween shows ['Ghosts, Goblins and Ghouls Revue' was one of them] and a Christmas special called 'The Marvelous Magical Christmas Tree' ... there were quite a number of them."

As General Manager of Resort Entertainment, Rossi also had a hand in nightly shows at the Disney Village, the Village Lounge, Disney's Golf Resort, the Contemporary Hotel and several other venues around WDW property.

Rossi left Disney in 1984 to form his own company, Benros Worldwide Entertainment, but he returned to WDW to produce the popular live action cowboy shows which appeared daily in Frontierland.

"I was asked by [legendary talent booker] Sonny Anderson from Walt Disney World to come back and produce a show in the Frontierland section for the next nine years under my own company's banner," Rossi said.

One of the bad guys walks through Frontierland during a live action show in the early 1980s. [Courtesy of Ben Rossi]

Those Disney guests with long memories may recall strolling past the Country Bear Jamboree when seemingly out of nowhere, a cowboy shoot-out would erupt right in front of you ... and the often wise-cracking bantering bandits would try to escape the long arm of the law — as well as the sheriff's trusty six-shooter — by running away on the rooftops of the Frontierland buildings, near the sign that reads Frontier Mercantile.

To the relief of all those in attendance, the bad guys would be captured and the man in the white hat would always win out in the end.

According to park brochures at the time, the performances were called the "Frontierland Stunt Show," where "Heroic good guys pursue nasty bad guys over the rooftops."

Those Rossi-produced live-action shows [and many similar ones in other sections of the park] were a staple in the Magic Kingdom for many years.

After leaving WDW, Rossi produced similar shows at Six Flags in Texas and Marine World in California, as well as shows at amusement parks in Germany and Taiwan.

"We were pretty busy for the next 20 years" after leaving WDW, he said.

Of all the parks his worked with — and there have been many around the world — Rossi has a special affinity for both Walt Disney World and Freedomland.

"I'd rate Walt Disney World No. 1," he said, "but for its period in time, I'd rank Freedomland No. 2."

February 25, 2018

Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park is going to celebrate its 20th birthday on Earth Day, April 22, 2018 and Carol and I are planning to be there to join in the festivities.

As Carol started making plans for the trip I spent a few minutes reflecting on our first visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was in November 1999, about a year and a half after the park opened. Carol and I were both very excited to see the new theme park we had read so much about. We are both animal lovers and we were mesmerized by all we had read about the Tree of Life and those amazing animal carvings.

It was also our very first trip to Walt Disney World with each other. Carol was a seasoned Disney veteran; she had been to Walt Disney World fourteen times before we went together. I was a mere rookie with only four previous trips under my belt.

The brochures describing the new park really piqued our interest. The Tree of Life, the safari ride, the exotic lands, it all sounded so interesting! Here are a few panels I pulled from that old brochure; click on the image to see a larger version.

Brochure Highlites

From the time we first passed through the entrance gate we were captivated. Nothing disappointed us; Disney’s Animal Kingdom was everything we expected and more.

Carol and the Tree of Life

Joe Rohde, the Imagineer who was in charge of the design and construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, had done an amazing job!

Yes, back in those early years we heard all of the negative comments:

“It’s just a zoo; we have one of those at home. Why would I waste a day at Disney by going to a zoo?”

“It’s a half-day park; there’s not much there.”

I suppose that if your idea of enjoying a theme park is rushing from one thrill ride to the next . . . well maybe you’re right. There wasn’t much there for you in the earliest days.

But it was never like that for Carol and I. It became my ‘second-favourite’ park almost immediately. The Magic Kingdom will always hold the number one ranking for me, just because it was my first Disney Park, but Animal Kingdom is next in line. For Carol it’s different – Animal Kingdom is number one for her.

We love wandering the side trails on Discovery Island to spot the animals there.

Saddle Billed Stork

Kangaroo and deer on a Side Trail

It’s a treat when we can get a close-up view of the animal carvings on the Tree of Life.

Tree of Life 1999

Animal Carving

Animal Carving

If those otters across from Pizzafari are out playing I just lean on the railing and wait . . . Carol can watch those critters for hours!

“Miss our FastPass for Kilimanjaro Safaris? I don’t care, I’m watching otters!”

Did you notice the title of this blog? “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom”

That’s what the park was called throughout the design process and during construction. The original logo design looked like this.

Wild Animal Kingdom Logo

Shortly before the park opened ‘Wild’ was dropped from the name and the newly adopted logo was the one still in use today.

Animal Kingdom Logo

Hey . . . what the heck is that dragon doing in the logo?

At the official park opening ceremony on April 22nd 1998 Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner said, “Welcome to a kingdom of animals . . . real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.”
Dragons again . . . Hmmm?

Let’s look back to an article from the Winter 1995 issue of The Magic Years Newsletter. Click on the image to see a larger version that you can read.

Magic Years Newsletter Winter 1995

When this article was published the Animal Kingdom Park had been under construction for several years and it was still referred to as ‘Wild Animal Kingdom’.

The description of the park talks about the Tree of Life as well as three ‘major sections’ dealing with real animals, mythical animals and extinct animals. The ‘real animals’ are the ones we see today all through the park and the ‘extinct animals’ are the ones we see in Dinoland, USA. Look back to the two logos . . . the triceratops represents the extinct animals.

The dragon in the logos was intended to represent Beastly Kingdom, a land which would pay tribute to ‘mythical animals’ such as dragons, unicorns and griffins. One of the planned attractions was a roller coaster named Dragon Tower and another was called Quest of the Unicorn, but alas, Beastly Kingdom was never built.

When the park opened in 1998 a hastily-built Camp Minnie-Mickey occupied the space which had been set aside for Beastly Kingdom and construction of the area devoted to ‘mythical animals’ was rumored to be part of an expansion planned for 2003.

Of course since Camp Minnie-Mickey has now been transformed into Pandora, it is unlikely we’ll ever see a Beastly Kingdom.

Here is the park map from our first trip in 1999. Click on the image to see a larger version.

1999 Animal Kingdom Map

Did you notice that the island where the Tree of Life stands was still called ‘Safari Village’ in 1999?

As I mentioned earlier, Carol and I were instant fans of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but for many others that wasn’t the case. Attendance didn’t meet the company’s forecasts or expectations and it wasn’t long before năhtăzū began to appear in ads for the park.


This series of terrific television adds was designed to convince Disney guests that Animal Kingdom was năhtăzū (Not A Zoo) but that it was much, much more than a zoo.

In our minds it was certainly more than a zoo! Carol and I enjoyed the animals . . . the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, the Pangani Forest Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek. But there was so much more than animals for us . . . the Festival of the Lion King Show, the Conservation Station, Tarzan Rocks, and the chance to see and hear about African and Asian cultures.

For Carol and I it was definitely năhtăzū!

Over the years a few new attractions were added and attendance slowly began to climb.

Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade made it’s debut October 1, 2001 as part of the 100 Years of Magic Celebration and ran until May 31, 2014 when it closed to make way for construction of Pandora and many new Avatar themed attractions.

Jammin Jungle Parade

Jammin Jungle Parade

Jammin' Jungle Parade

Expedition Everest officially opened on April 7, 2006. This thrilling roller coaster takes guests on a high speed trip through Disney’s tallest mountain, which of course is a replica of the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest.

Expedition Everest 2013

Expedition Everest

For some reason I cannot fathom, Carol loves Expedition Everest. She claims that she doesn’t like roller coasters and will not ride Rock ‘N Roller Coaster or Space Mountain. She does ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train but ‘Everest’ is her favorite!

Expedition Everest

She can only handle it once, so I usually ride with her, then take a second ride using the single rider line. It moves very quickly!

The Yak & Yeti Restaurant opened in Anandapur on November 14, 2007.

Yak and Yeti Exterior

2007 Yak and Yeti

It’s a terrific place for lunch or dinner. Carol and I often stop for lunch at Yak & Yeti’s quick service counter.

Egg Rolls

We each order egg rolls and share an order of fried rice. It’s just the right amount for the two of us and there’s always a shaded table available in the outdoor seating area behind the restaurant.

By 2016 plenty of folks had decided that Disney’s Animal Kingdom was more than a half-day park. Over 10 million guests visited during the year.

Carol and I took part in the 10th Anniversary Celebration on Earth Day, April 22, 2008. Stay tuned for a future blog where I’ll talk about those 10th Anniversary Celebrations and some of the newest attractions that have been added.

February 19, 2018

Through the decades, the Magic Kingdom has remained true to Walt Disney's vision


The fabled photo of Walt Disney World's cast members in front of Cinderella Castle, taken a few weeks before opening day in 1971. [Life Magazine/Yale Joel]

Remember the first time you visited Walt Disney World?

I certainly do. It was in November of 1972 during the Thanksgiving break, a little more than a year after the resort opened.

Things were decidedly different at the Vacation Kingdom of the World 45-plus years ago. At that time, Walt Disney World consisted of one park, the Magic Kingdom, two on-site luxury resorts [the Contemporary and the Polynesian] and a sprawling campground for the more outdoorsy types.

My wife, her younger brother and I flew into Orlando Jetport at McCoy, a former military air base that was in the early stages of transitioning into Orlando International Airport. We flew Eastern Airlines, then the official airline of Walt Disney World. After arriving and picking up our luggage, we rented a car just outside the airport and made the half-hour drive past cattle pastures and citrus groves to our hotel, located off a rather desolate stretch of highway known as International Drive. It would take several more years before the roadway would become the bustling thoroughfare it is today, rimmed with many more hotels, chain restaurants, convention centers and a variety of shopping venues.

The next morning, we got up early and joined the throngs of cars on Route 4, all seemingly headed to Walt Disney World. The toll booths were backed up, but after 15 minutes or so, we ponied up our 50 cents, received a ticket stub with a map of the sprawling parking lot on the back and followed the long line into the lot, which was divided into six sections named for Disney characters: Chip, Dale, Happy, Dopey, Goofy and Grumpy. We ended up parking in the Dopey lot.

We exited our car and walked to a tram pickup area. A few short minutes later, the tram pulled up and scores of anxious park guests quickly boarded for the open-air ride to the Transportation and Ticket Center [TTC]. As we pulled away from the stop, a cast member came over the loudspeaker to remind us to make note of where we had parked. "All you Dopey people will get off at this stop when you return," he said with a straight face.

The Walt Disney World information guide map available to guests in 1972.

The tram made its way to the TTC, deftly navigating sharp turns along the way. We all disembarked and headed to the back of a long line of folks who were purchasing their tickets. In 1972, you needed to buy a general admission ticket, as well as books with individual tickets marked A, B, C, D and E, to enjoy the variety and attractions and adventures offered in the park.

An A ticket allowed you to experience a placid ride, while E tickets were reserved for the most exciting. You were told that there were kiosks located throughout the park should you want to purchase more tickets.

With an A coupon, which cost 10 cents to buy individually, you could ride the Main Street vehicles [omnibus, horse-drawn cars, horseless carriage and fire engine] and Cinderella's Golden Carousel.

Moving up the ticket ladder, a B coupon [25 cents] allowed you to experience the Main Street Cinema, Frontierland Shootin' Gallery, Mike Fink Keelboats, Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the Mad Tea Party.

C tickets cost 50 cents and got you on the Swiss Family Treehouse, Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, Snow White's Adventures, Peter Pan's Flight, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and the Grand Prix Raceway.

Those holding D tickets [75 cents] could experience the Walt Disney World Railroad, Tropical Serenade, the Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat, the Mickey Mouse Revue, the Skyway [from either Tomorrowland or Fantasyland] and Flight to the Moon.

Finally, for all the adventurous folks in your party, there were the fabled E tickets, which cost a whopping 90 cents. Those attractions, deemed the park's "most exciting" at the time, included the Jungle Cruise, the Country Bear Jamboree, the Hall of Presidents, the Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and It's a Small World.

There were several free attractions, including the Diamond Horseshoe Revue, If You Had Wings and a Circle-Vision film called "America the Beautiful."

The entrance area for the If You Had Wings attraction in Tomorrowland.

Once you made it through the arduous process of purchasing your tickets, it was on to another line outside the TTC, for either an Osceola boat ride across Seven Seas Lagoon or a far more exciting journey on a sleek, futuristic-looking monorail, both bound for the Magic Kingdom entrance. Needless to say, most guests opted for the monorail simply because just about everyone had ridden on a boat. A monorail? Now that would be something really different!

As we pulled out of the station and rode quietly along a concrete beam, a variety of large topiaries came into view below us, all carved into the shape of Disney characters.

Up ahead, the imposing A-framed Contemporary Hotel beckoned. Incredibly, the beam we were riding on would lead us right into the building! We slowed somewhat before gliding right into the Grand Canyon Concourse, where people were milling around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a large transportation conveyance was passing through just a few feet above them ... with little noise and no harmful exhaust fumes.

Once through the Contemporary, it was on to our much-anticipated final destination: The Magic Kingdom ... but not before passing within view of the giant Mickey head made out of flowers in front of the train station.

An aerial view of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. Note the bottom of the photo. The area now occupied by Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain is just barren land. [Life Magazine/Yale Joel]

What strikes me most about the Magic Kingdom of 1972 and the Magic Kingdom of today is that in 1972, it took several days to see and experience everything in the park. And there wasn't nearly as much to see back then as there is now. There was no Space Mountain. No Big Thunder Mountain. No Splash Mountain. No Tom Sawyer Island. No Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. No Pirates of the Caribbean.

There was a charming Main Street, reminiscent of Walt Disney's Midwestern hometown; a whimsical, fairytale-like castle, and a series of themed lands that pointed guests to a broad range of experiences.

Frontierland was probably the least developed area in the park in 1972, with just the Country Bear Jamboree and the Shootin' Gallery to hang its hat on. Overhead photos of the Magic Kingdom at the time show a barren wasteland where Big Thunder and Splash Mountain would take up residence years later. Even though the Walt Disney Railroad's tracks ran through the area, it was still pretty desolate.

That, of course, would change. The creative minds behind all of the park's new attractions are constantly dreaming up new and exciting adventures, giving park veterans an excuse [as if we needed one] to return again and again.

An Osceola boat pulls into the dock outside the Magic Kingdom a few months after the park opened. [Walt Disney World]

Over the years, the Osceola boats would be replaced by larger, more efficient Staten Island-style ferries ... A bus depot outside the park now enables guests to a transported to a myriad of on-property resorts ... Tomorrowland would be updated to a retro vision of the future that never was ... Fantasyland also would see significant changes in both style and substance ... Beloved attractions would fade into Disney lore, with newer, more imaginative rides taking their place. Three new parks would be added to the WDW experience, along with a massive shopping/dining/entertainment district and two themed water parks.

Through it all, Walt Disney World in general, and the Magic Kingdom in particular, has remained true to Walt Disney's original vision for Disneyland: That it would be a place where parents and children could have fun. Together.

February 18, 2018

Do Hippos Like Country Music?

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In November 2003 Carol and I were exploring one of the little side trails that surround the Tree of Life on Discovery Island when we spotted a cast member tossing fish to one of the saddle-billed storks. Every time the stork stepped onto a small square of plywood on the ground inside the fence he was rewarded with a tasty herring.

Saddle-Billed Stork

As we watched, the keeper explained that this was a technique that made the stork comfortable with the plywood. Once a month, when it’s time to weigh the bird, they just place a scale under the board and stand by with some herring! Easy for the keeper and non-threatening for the stork!

Just a few days later we went on a Backstage Safari Tour. Our vehicle stopped briefly beside one of the elephant barns; as we watched an elephant play in the big outdoor enclosure beside the barn one of our guides explained how the animal experts use a similar reward and inducement process to train young elephants to lift their legs and push their feet through the fence so that the keepers could examine their soles. Elephants are big beasts and they are tough, but they are prone to foot problems so their feet are checked regularly. It's also a very good area to draw blood in case the veterinary staff need to run tests. Elephants are trained at an early age to present their feet so that regular examinations can be completed using behaviors which seem ‘natural’ to the animals. Sorry, I don’t have a picture, no photos are allowed when you’re backstage!

We heard plenty of other interesting stories as we toured the veterinary building. We watched as they x-rayed the wing of a fruit bat; they held the sedated bat and extended the wings . . . wow! Those bats are huge!

We visited the food preparation area where all of the meals are prepared for each animal, big or small. Cast members have binders full of menus, each page in the binder is the menu for one of the animals, and they carefully pack each item on the menu into a plastic container, or a bucket, or a box. There was an amazing variety of food being packed into those containers, grasses, meats, fish, worms, insects . . . we even watched as they prepared a bucket full of herring which would soon be lunch for that saddle-billed stork.

The guides told us some very interesting stories about the animals, and described a few little tricks they use to keep the animals out in areas where guests in the park can see them. Have you ever wondered why the lions spend so much time on top of those rocks they call the kopje?

Lioness on kopje rock

According to our guide there are two reasons, first there are a couple of ‘climate-controlled’ rocks to make the lions comfortable. If the weather is hot the rocks are cooled, if it’s a cool day the rocks are heated.

The second reason they stay on top – behind one of the rocks, where it cannot be seen by guests, there is a steel post driven into the ground. A frozen treat is chained to the post; as the treat melts the lions can wander over and enjoy a snack. I don’t know exactly what they use as a treat, but our guide referred to it as a ‘bunny-sicle’.

When we returned home after that trip the Winter 2003 issue of Disney Magazine was waiting in the mail. I was really surprised to read an article titled “All Creatures Great and Small” by Lisa Stiepack. I couldn’t believe the coincidental timing of the article, so soon after our tour! Lisa described her experiences as she spent an entire day with Disney Animal Behavior Specialist Chris Breder. The two ladies toured the entire park, interacting with the animals and their keepers and handlers. A lot of the ‘inside stories’ and animal behavior facts we heard on our tour are included in Lisa Stiepack’s article.

Let’s take a closer look. Click on each picture to see a larger version which you can read.

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 36

Who would have guessed that the Okapi like their yams cooked with allspice?

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 37

Gorillas like oranges so they are used to help train the animals. When the gorilla goes to a designated spot the trainer tosses him an orange.

Don’t try this at home kids! Please don’t throw things at the gorillas!

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 38

The elephant handler, Bruce, refers to the elephant’s food as browse. I had never heard browse used in that context so I checked the dictionary . . . sure enough . . . NOUN: tender shoots or twigs of shrubs and trees as food for cattle, deer,etc.

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 39

Did you know that the Nile Monitor Lizard is named Barney and he loves to play in the waterfall?

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 40

There’s that saddle-billed stork standing on his board while Kim tosses him his lunch. We saw those two just a few days ago!

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 41

“What do you do for a living?” “I brush monkey’s teeth at Walt Disney World.” Yes, that really is a thing!

And the tigers . . . when they curl their lips and stick their tongues out in a very exaggerated fashion they are saying, “I really love your cheap perfume.”

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 42

That cute and cuddly Marabou Stork is named Wallace.

Disney Magazine Winter 2003-04 pg 43

Giraffes don’t like paper clips. I did not know that!

Carol and I have taken many Disney tours over the years and we’ve never been disappointed. They always put a little bit of ‘extra magic’ in our vacations.

I’m not sure the Backstage Safari tour is still offered, I can’t find any reference to it on the Disney web site, but there are plenty of other tours available. Check online or stop at the Curiosity Animal Tours booth near the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris and book whatever tour appeals to you!

Curiosity Animal Tours

Oh yes . . . I almost forgot to answer that question. Do hippos like country music? I don’t know for sure, and I’ve never seen one at the Grand Ole Opry, but Jay, who manages Disney’s rhino and hippo barns, says definitively that they do. That’s good enough for me!

February 13, 2018

Mission: Anniversary Gift Autographs


by J. Scott Lopes
AllEars® Guest Blogger

My parents are huge Disney fans and since we were going to be in Walt Disney World during their anniversary I decided to surprise them with a gift of an autographed card. My mission: to get as many character signatures as possible.

To start the process prior to the trip, I started by getting a very large anniversary card, which I left blank on the inside to allow for plenty of room for signatures. I also made sure to bring along some click-style markers, as the characters seem to prefer them over markers with pull-off caps.

During my journey I made many stops along the way, starting with the Character Spot at Epcot…

Epcot Character Spot

The Character Spot was a fun place to start with as they had many characters all in one area, such as Mickey and Minnie, Pluto, Baymax, Joy, and Sadness.

I then moved on to the countries in World Showcase making stops in the United Kingdom for Alice...


... in France for Belle...


... and in Germany for Snow White.


Switching parks, I was able to pick up a few more signatures from Buzz and Woody over at Disney's Hollywood Studios.


I even was entertained by a few Green Army Men while they were securing the line!


Overall, I was able to get 18 signatures, and would have even gone for more but I was running out of space!

Mission Accomplished!


After all my efforts, I thought I'd share a few tips I picked up:

-- As I said above, use a click-style marker. It's easier for the characters to use as there is no cap to remove.

-- Keep your markers accessible. On the day I knew I was going to get most of my signatures, I wore a shirt with a pen pocket on the sleeve, which was so convenient. I always had a few markers at the ready.

-- Try to get to places like the Character Spot at Epcot first thing in the morning, at park opening. There seemed to be no lines then, so it was very easy to get through.

-- For other characters that appear on a schedule, pick up a Times Guide in advance to see where they will be and at what time they will be there. Be sure to arrive at the location before the scheduled time so you can be close to the front of the line.

-- Don't be discouraged if the line for a character seems really long. It actually moves much quicker than you think it will. Besides, the wait time gives you a chance to chat with fellow guests. For example, I was able to have a really nice chat with a couple from England while I was waiting for Belle.

You can find other autograph-collecting ideas and tips HERE.

J. Scott Lopes is a long-time Disney fan who first went to Walt Disney World as a child in 1989 and has enjoyed traveling to Orlando ever since. He is interested in all things related to Disney Parks. He is especially interested in the Walt Disney Imagineering division and all of the work and detail that the Imagineers put into everything that they engineer.

February 5, 2018

The stories behind Disney's Animal Kingdom, which turns 20 in April


The entrance to Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. [Walt Disney World]

Around this time last year, I was searching for an idea for my next blog. With the opening of Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom looming in the spring, I figured it might be a good idea to write something on the history of the park.

I've always had a special affection for Animal Kingdom. I was in attendance when the park opened on April 22, 1998, and over the years, I've come to truly appreciate its impact on guests, as well as its powerful message of conservation.

And then it hit me. Animal Kingdom will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018. Suddenly, the idea of writing a just blog on the park didn't seem enough. As I began going through the literature I had acquired during the opening-day festivities, the idea of writing a book on Animal Kingdom began to take shape.

As I'd often do whenever I embarked on a project of this magnitude, I contacted my go-to Disney guy, Marty Sklar. He was thrilled that I was taking on the project and then, as usual, he went the extra mile for me, providing contact information on a dozen or so folks who were involved in the planning, development and design of the park.

I spent the rest of the spring and summer interviewing most of the people Marty had suggested ... fascinating people with equally fascinating stories to tell. One of the last interviews I conducted for the book was with Marty himself, in early July, just a few weeks before he died.

When we spoke, Marty was truly excited that I was able to contact his former colleagues, like Kevin Rafferty, Paul Comstock, Rick Barongi and Zofia Kostyrko, all of whom had made significant contributions to the design of the park. Zofia proved to be especially helpful during the process, offering rare insight into a project that helped shape her career. She also was extremely gracious in providing a foreword. And there was, of course, Joe Rohde, whom I've met on a number of occasions during the various expansions seen at the park over the past two decades.

Paul Comstock, right, Animal Kingdom's lead landscape architect, poses with Disney Legend Marty Sklar during the park's opening day, April 22, 1998. [Courtesy of Paul Comstock]

The book, titled Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History, was released by Theme Park Press on Jan. 21.

In putting the book together, I learned some pretty amazing things about Animal Kingdom's journey from concept to completion.

For instance, I found out from Paul Comstock, Animal Kingdom's lead landscape architect, that the site selected for the park was not the company's first choice.

"There were a couple of options of the table for corporate," Comstock said. "One of them was a piece of property that was south of Osceola Parkway, which is now the city of Celebration. I remember being totally enamored with the huge oaks that were on the Celebration site, but it really had some de-watering problems, in terms of the amount of water that was on the site that would come to the surface of the ground."

When they visited the barren field that would eventually become Animal Kingdom, Comstock felt as if they had struck gold ... or at least sand.

"When we saw that open cow pasture while riding in a four-wheel drive Suburban and got stuck in pure white Florida sugar sand, I said, 'This land will support a park. If we can sterilize the native plants so we have a clean palette, we'll be able to grow anything we want to in here.' The dry sand means there's drainage, the key to building any landscape."

The site also afforded proper "sun orientation" for the park.

A rhino walks freely through the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction. [Ginny Osborne]

The Celebration site, according to Comstock, "is facing the wrong way. When you'd be driving on the Osceola Parkway, you'd be driving into the sunlight. The way that Animal Kingdom is oriented, you enter and the sun arc is behind your back, so it illuminates the trees, the structures, the Tree of Life, all the waterfalls.

"All those things are positioned in the right way for the sun arc. If you look at all the other Disney parks, except for Hong Kong, they're all positioned where the light shines on the castle as you walk down Main Street. The sun rises in the East and either goes behind you or overhead. It's never in total shadow, so that you always have that Kodak moment."

Among his many contributions to the park, Comstock helped design Kilimanjaro Safaris' stunning savannah. "Disney was the first to 'build' a realistic savannah," he said. "We put four million plants out there representing 3,000 species."

While Comstock concentrated on the foliage, it was Rick Barongi who was largely responsible for acquiring all of the animals who live and roam freely throughout the 500-plus acre property. Barongi also worked closely with Comstock and his fellow landscapers in making the savannah as animal-friendly as possible.

In a roundabout way, Barongi also was responsible for the placement of one particular animal on the park's spectacular icon, the Tree of Life.

"I knew [renowned primatologist] Jane Goodall very well and I invited her out to see the Tree of Life when it was still under construction," Barongi told me. The two climbed up onto the scaffolding surrounding the tree and walked around it several times, viewing the hundreds of carved animals on the massive trunk.

Rick Barongi, Director of Animal Project Development, stands next to the carved figure of David Greybeard, at the base of the Tree of Life. [Courtesy of Rick Barongi]

"This is wonderful, Rick. Really amazing," she said. "But there's no chimp."

The next day, Barongi contacted the Tree of Life's lead sculptor, Zsolt Hormay, and asked him if there was still enough time to add another animal to the trunk. "Sure. Which one?" was the response. The next day, Barongi gave Hormay a photo of Jane Goodall's favorite chimp, David Greybeard.

A month later, Barongi returned to the Tree of Life for a stunning surprise.

"At the entrance to the theater, at the base of the tree, is this huge figure of David Greybeard, bigger than life, with his hand stretched out," Barongi said. With that as inspiration, "we did a plaque dedicating it to Jane Goodall. The day we opened, Michael Eisner presented it to her and it just blew her away. That story to me is so special ... there's one animal on that Tree of Life that's based on a real animal. It was all because of Zsolt. So I made sure Jane got to meet Zsolt on opening day."

When Michael Eisner gave the OK to build Animal Kingdom in early 1980, a small group of Disney Imagineers met in what became known as "the funky trailer" in the Disney Studios' parking lot to hash out ideas and concepts. One of those designers was Zofia Kostyrko, who had previously worked with Joe Rohde on The Adventurers Club in Pleasure Island.

Zofia Kostykro poses for a photo with Marty Sklar during the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom. [Courtesy of Zofia Kostyrko]

One of the most important tasks for the design team was to embark on a series of boots-on-the-ground research trips around the world, trips that spanned nearly a decade, and gave the Imagineers incredible insight into a world they were hoping to replicate.

"The research trips were essential for the sake of authenticity because when you design any space, you need to design a kind of kinetic feel of it and you also need to understand the texture of it, the smell of it, the light of it, all of these things to make it look authentic," Zofia said.

"We went first locally to zoos across America, and everybody thought that it was a joke that Disney was stepping into the world of animals, because nobody believed that we were going to take it seriously. But we knew that animals are not just entertainment, they are very emotional to a lot of people."

The trips became broader in scope, to Canada and then to Europe. Finally, the group traveled to Africa.

"The first really big trip we took was to Kenya," Zofia said. "And it was an absolutely insane adventure with all kinds of stuff going on. It was really rugged. There was one flight, I think it was to Tanzania, the plane was so small I had to sit on someone's lap. And I don't think we were able to take all the luggage. There was a place in Tanzania that became inspiration for the baobob tree in the African queue."

Zofia, who was one of the lead designers for Conservation Station, also told me a little secret about the park. Inside the small temple that's located near the entrance of Asia [near the Rivers of Light amphitheater], the original design team placed a time capsule, filled with sketches and other memorabilia from their years of work in shaping Animal Kingdom.

Roy E. Disney, left, observes as a team of Animal Kingdom veterinarians performs surgery on an animal. [Courtesy of Dave Bossert]

These and other equally compelling stories can be found in Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History. One of the many interesting things I learned was the influence Roy E. Disney had in kick-starting the park project. It was Roy E., of course, who first made his mark in his uncle's company by producing many of the True-Life Adventure films made in the 1940s and 1950s, films that ultimately fueled Disney's decades-old commitment to protecting and preserving our precious environment.

In speaking to the Imagineers who worked on the park, as well as many family members and friends who have enjoyed it for the last 20 years, it was obvious that Animal Kingdom holds a special place in most everyone's heart.

To that end, the final chapter of the book contains comments, observations and recollections by a broad spectrum of folks [including AllEars' Deb Wills!] who truly believe that Animal Kingdom is a special place, with unique experiences around just about every bend ... an environment where young and old alike can both learn, be entertained, and ultimately be inspired to be better stewards of the land and the creatures who inhabit it.

February 4, 2018

The Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular Dessert Party


by Joan L. Feder
AllEars® Staff Writer

I recently attended the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular Dessert Party at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It is a premium event, which means that there is an extra charge for it above and beyond the price of park admission for the day. The party includes a variety of all-you-care-to-eat foods as well as specialty drinks (including alcoholic beverage options). Party-goers also get access to a reserved viewing area to see both the Disney Movie Magic and the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular shows. Each person receives a Star Wars novelty as a souvenir. Here is my take on this stellar experience.

Check-in took place at the podium in the Animation Courtyard in front of the Launch Bay, where the party is held. We checked in about 15 minutes before the start time and were given lanyards to wear, which allowed us to enter the party and come and go from the Launch Bay as we pleased.

The party itself is in a roped off area down the stairs by the Chewbacca and Kylo Ren meet and greets. There were several buffet tables set up with food and beverages, surrounded by dining tables for the guests. Most of the tables were high tops, with lower ones reserved as accessible seating for people with disabilities. All were covered in black tablecloths and held red glowing candles bearing the symbol of the Galactic Republic.


Tables were not assigned, but there was no trouble getting one. On the down side, there were no chairs, though the party is wheelchair and ECV accessible. The rest of the Launch Bay remains open to Studio guests as well as partygoers. Crowds were low when we were there, so we were able get in to see both BB8 and Kylo Ren with little to no wait. Security was provided by a couple of Storm Troopers who patrolled the party.


The food is, for the most part, Star Wars themed, and there is a lot of it. The savory choices were more varied than other dessert parties that I have attended. There were green olive and cheddar “sabers” as well as some made with tomato and provolone cheese. Fruit skewers with either grapes or watermelon were a nice touch. There were also two dips served with smoked sea-salted flatbread. The black bean dip with sriracha sauce was delicious, and not overly spicy. I skipped the roasted red pepper hummus, which was also available; I was saving space, and I am glad I did.




There was a wide variety of desserts, and most of these did not disappoint. One of the most unique offerings was the flash-frozen Nutella truffle. It is scooped into liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outer layer, leaving the center chilled but creamy. Nutella is not something that I normally enjoy, but this version was truly (forgive me) out of this world. It was accompanied by a choice of raspberry or chocolate sauce; I was glad that I followed the cast member’s suggestion and got both.


The cookies shaped like Darth Vader (chocolate) and Storm Troopers (vanilla) were simple but good, especially with ice cream.


The warm bread pudding was chock full of everything from M&Ms to pretzels and marshmallows.


There was also a choice of toppings that could be added to the bread pudding or used to make sundaes. Despite my voracious sweet tooth, some of the options were too cloying for me. This was true of two of the three types of cupcakes. The R2D2 was vanilla and the BB8 was very lightly lemon flavored, but they were both extremely sweet. For my money, the peanut butter and chocolate Darth Vader cupcake won hands down. On the other hand, I did not enjoy the blue milk panna cottta, which was rather bland. Brownies, a variety of mini cakes and rice crispy treats were also available.





Beverages included coffee, tea, bottled water, canned Coke products and several specialty drinks. There were two nonalcoholic choices, Jettison Juice, which was mango syrup mixed with passion orange guava juice, and Lunar Lemonade, a watermelon-flavored lemonade. Both of these drinks also had alcoholic versions, Galactic Punch added coconut and spice rums to the tropical juice mix. The Cosmic Citrus Twist was the watermelon lemonade spiked with citrus vodka. There were two other alcoholic choices, the Light Speed Margarita (a blend of tequila, blood orange syrup, sour mix and lime juice) and Swamp Milk -- vodka, melon liquor, and vanilla syrup along with half-and-half. Of the four, I enjoyed the Citrus Twist the most. One thing to note was that the bartenders did accept tips even though the event price "includes gratuities."


About 15 minutes before the Disney Movie Magic show, cast members gathered us at the foot of the stairs. On the way out, each guest got a Tie Fighter popcorn bucket as a keepsake. These were fairly large, and could be hard to pack, (the souvenir may vary -- at earlier parties, Chewbacca mugs were the gift). We were then escorted out to the viewing area by the Storm Troopers. It is a great location to the left of center in front of the Chinese Theater. The show is a compilation of Disney films that are projected across the facade of the Chinese Theater. It was 10 minutes long, and included clips from Disney’s greatest hits, including Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

This was followed almost immediately by Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. Even if you have seen Star Wars fireworks at Hollywood Studios over the years, you have to experience this show. The original version was much shorter and only shown for special events such as Star Wars Days and Star Wars Weekends. It was then expanded and in December 2015 became a nightly show called Symphony in the Stars: a Galactic Spectacular. It focused on fireworks and the musical score from the films. It was replaced on June 17, 2016, with the current show. This version includes fireworks as well as Star Wars film clips, which are projected onto the Chinese Theater and surrounding structures on Hollywood Boulevard. Additionally, there are special effects including flames, fog, lasers and searchlights. It was an impressive and entertaining experience, which lasted around 15 minutes.

Star Wars Galactic Spectacular

Star Wars Galactic Spectacular

(You can see more photos of the fireworks HERE.)

The Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular Dessert Party costs $79 for adults, and $39 per child (ages 3 to 9), including tax and gratuities. Disney Dining Plan credits can not be used for this experience. Reservations can be made by phone or online, and are highly recommended, as this event often sells out. While most dining can be booked 180 days in advance, this experience is usually not available until later than that; you just have to keep on checking. Reservations did not open up for us until about 90 days before our party date.

Is this party worth the extra cost? To be fair, we are long time Star Wars and Disney nerds, but I think this is a terrific event even for the non-fanatic. It was well organized, and the cast members were great. The food and drinks were good, and there were plenty of choices. In fact, we were fine skipping dinner and eating here instead. Also, we have had problems finding a good spot for these shows in the past, even when the park wasn’t that busy. The Dessert Party’s reserved area afforded us a great view of both shows. We got to experience all of the projections, fireworks and special effects, without wasting park time to stake out a location. Overall, it was a lot of fun. Not only would I recommend it, I plan on doing it again!

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you've attended the Star Wars Dessert Party, or any of the other dessert parties around the parks, be sure to leave your thoughts in our Rate and Review section HERE.

January 22, 2018

Marty Sklar had 'the write stuff' on many different Disney projects


Walt Disney is seen during the recording of The Epcot Film. The script for the film was written by Marty Sklar. [The Walt Disney Company]

Disney Legend Marty Sklar will always be remembered for his contributions to the company as the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. It was his skill as a writer, however, that first got him in the door at Disney and which quickly endeared him to Walt Disney himself.

After impressing his boss with the creation of The Disneyland News just weeks before the park opened in 1955, Walt tapped Marty to write his personal speeches and messages. Marty also wrote presentations to would-be sponsors, annual reports, publicity and marketing materials for the Disneyland public relations department at a time when "Disneyland still wasn't a slam dunk," as Marty put it.

Even after Walt pulled Marty away from Disneyland and reassigned him to WED Enterprises [the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering] in the all-hands-on-deck effort for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, Marty continued to write.

He wrote the scripts for two shows at the Fair – the narrative for the Ford Magic Skyway attraction and the storyline for The Parrot and Toucan show presented inside the General Electric Progressland Pavilion, which featured the iconic Carousel of Progress attraction and, of all things, the first demonstration of controlled thermo-nuclear fusion.

The Parrot and Toucan show was easily Marty's least-favorite work. "Oh god, I hated it," he said with obvious anger in his voice decades after the fact. "The show was about a parrot and a toucan talking about atomic energy," Marty said. "I remember writing nine different scripts and I finally said to the guy at GE I was working with: 'Who am I writing this for?' and he said it was for his bosses, not for anyone else. And I said, 'Not for the public?' and he said, "My four bosses like it.'"

The World's Fair was closed over the winter months between its 1964 and 1965 seasons, and during this time, Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II decided he wanted to tweak the Magic Skyway attraction by having Walt Disney recite the narration. Marty Sklar had written the original script, which was read by veteran television announcer Dick Wesson during the first year of the Fair's run in 1964.

The Disney-created Ford Magic Skyway attraction, as pictured in a 1964-1965 New York World's Fair brochure.

Guests who rode the Magic Skyway were seated in brand new Ford Motor Company cars, which took them on a journey through time, from the dawn of man, into the prehistoric era of dinosaurs, right on through to the far-off future. During the trip, a narrator's voice could be heard through each of the car's radio speakers. Paired with background music composed by George Bruns, the show was dramatic, informative and entertaining ... as well as extremely popular.

In the weeks leading up to the Fair's opening, Marty could be found inside the Ford pavilion, meticulously marking the spots where speakers should be placed, thus ensuring the music and the sounds of the grunting dinosaurs and cavemen were in sync with the narration and the movement of the vehicles. Just days before the attraction opened, Marty was back inside, remarking those same spots because painters had unwittingly covered over his original marks!

When Walt found out about Ford's desire to have him re-record the narration, he was hesitant, but finally acquiesced.

Marty remembers the actual recording session and how difficult it was for his boss. "We recorded Walt early in the morning in early 1965 at the Disney Studios," Marty said. "He had a terrible cough and kept blowing the lines."

At the beginning of the session, every time Walt tripped up, he was apologetic. "Pardon me," he said at one point after fumbling a line. But as the day wore on, Walt got frustrated. "He'd say, 'Marty, are you sure these dinosaurs are spelled correctly?' Yes, Walt, I got the spellings right out of the dictionary", I'd tell him."

The more frustrated he got, the testier he became.

"When he blew the lines, the language was not what you'd expect. He said, 'Marty, you're going to cut out all this shit before you send it back to Ford, right?' It took a long time, but we finally got a great take."

There were several not-so-subtle hints at the World's Fair that Walt Disney's fertile imagination was looking beyond the 1960s and deep into the future. In the General Electric pavilion, after guests experienced the Carousel of Progress, they could take a look at Walt Disney's thoughts on what the future could look like.

A concept painting of Epcot's transportation hub, as painted by Disney Legend Herb Ryman. [The Walt Disney Company]

"You went into the General Electric exhibit and there were a whole bunch of things in there regarding community development," Marty said. Years later, when Carousel of Progress was moved to Disneyland, a model, called Progress City, was put on display for guests to view after the attraction.

"The audiences moved up a ramp to the second floor in Tomorrowland at Disneyland," Marty said, "and there was Act 5, the so-called Progress City model. It was developed from the Herb Ryman illustration of Epcot that we used for many of the publications we did about Walt's Epcot.

"What Walt had decided was that we should do a model of this concept called Epcot, and we built this big model that was upstairs on the second floor in the Carousel pavilion. That model fascinated Disneyland guests for five years. It was basically a depiction of the Epcot community that is represented in Walt's Epcot Film."

In November of 1965, Walt and his brother Roy sat with Florida Gov. Haydon Burns at a press conference to announce the Walt Disney Company's intentions to move to central Florida. The conference was short in details, other than the fact that the new entertainment venture would be located in Orange and Osceola counties and that it would not be called Disneyland.

At a press conference in November, 1965, Walt Disney, Florida Gov. Haydon Burns and Roy O. Disney, left to right, announce plans for the Walt Disney Company's move to central Florida.

Walt spoke in vague terms, saying the new project would be "fresh and unique" and that there would be two incorporated communities, one named Yesterday and the other Tomorrow. He had been dropping hints about a City of Tomorrow for years, but he admitted that such a city might be outdated before construction could be completed.

In the months following the press conference, the company forged ahead and began firming up plans for what was now known as Epcot ... an experimental prototype community of tomorrow.

The Epcot Film, which outlined in exact detail the concept for that Utopian city of tomorrow, would become a signature moment of Marty Sklar's career. As Walt's go-to wordsmith, Marty was tasked with writing the script for what is arguably the most significant presentation of Walt Disney's life.

"We wanted a way to show what Walt had in mind, and so I got the assignment [of writing the script], working with two great people — Ham Luske, who was a great animator in the '30s, and Mac Stewart. [The two had a long history with Disney and, in fact, Hamilton Luske and McLaren Stewart were both listed in the credits for the TV show Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair]. They got the assignment to be the director and producer of this short film, 24 minutes long, and I got the assignment to write it," Marty said.

During late summer of 1966, Marty spent considerable time in Walt Disney's office in Burbank, Calif., feverishly taking notes as Walt fine-tuned his concept for Epcot, in preparation for making the definitive film about Disney's still-secretive plans for Florida.

"I had several meetings with Walt. He made it so easy for me to write because I could go back to those notes and say, 'OK, this goes here and this goes here in the script, etc., etc.'

"Of course, we had no idea that he was dying."

By early in October, Marty finished the script and Walt gave his approval. "I've got his handwriting on the original script, which gave Ham Luske and Mac Stewart the go-ahead to make the rest of the film," Marty said.

Filming took place in late October of 1966. "That was one of the gems of my experience, spending a whole day on the set with Walt Disney while he did so many different pieces of this film. His part took a full day, because there were so many changes that had to be made and shot, in front of all the artwork. We shot close-ups and shot stuff related specifically to the Epcot community." Walt's deteriorating health also contributed to the long day: He needed to take breaks between takes to be administered oxygen.

"The first part [of the film] was establishing Disney coming to Florida, talking about Disneyland and what he had accomplished at Disneyland," Marty said. "And then the big thing was he wanted two endings for the film. He wanted one which would go to the Florida legislation so they could see exactly what he was doing."

Walt Disney poses for a promotional photo after The Epcot Film was completed. [The Walt Disney Company]

The other ending was for corporate America. "He always emphasized that no one company could do this by themselves, and so he wanted me to write a second ending to the film, which was directed at American industry, so we had two endings that could be used depending on who the audience was.

"The big audience was the state of Florida, so the Florida legislature got the ending that said, 'It's really up to you whether we do this project at all,' that's exactly what he said."

Ultimately, the Reedy Creek Improvement District was approved by the state of Florida, giving Disney near autonomous control of development of the property, and the project moved forward. An opening date of Oct. 1, 1971, was set for Phase I, the Magic Kingdom theme park.

The Florida film "was not finished until almost the end of October and it actually was the last thing [Walt] ever did on film before he went into the hospital," Marty said.

Walt Disney died less than two months later and Epcot would be put on a back burner. His brother, Roy O. Disney, took over the reins of the company and made sure that Disney World – which he insisted on renaming Walt Disney World, thus ensuring that his brother's name would live on in perpetuity – would open on time.

Marty Sklar poses next to his Disney Legends plaque. [The Walt Disney Company]

Marty Sklar would rise up the ranks of WED Enterprises and Imagineering and would become a key player when new Disney CEO Card Walker decided to dust off the Epcot project and bring it life in the 1980s. Throughout the next few decades, Marty oversaw development of Disney's parks in Japan and Hong Kong in Asia, as well as two outside of Paris, France, two additional parks in Walt Disney World and one alongside his beloved Disneyland.

When he retired on 2009, he was rightly named a Disney Legend and took up a new challenge after being named an ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering: Giving talks and presentations to large groups of appreciative audiences around the world in hopes of inspiring would-be Imagineers.

In 2013, he returned to writing with the release of his memoir, Dream It! Do It! That book was followed up by One Little Spark!, which gave his readers a look into what it takes to become an Imagineer. And we eagerly await the release of his last book, which he was working on before his death on July 27, 2017.

January 21, 2018

Caring For Giants At Disney's Animal Kingdom

Gary Cruise banner

Last August Carol took her annual ‘solo’ trip to Walt Disney World to attend the yearly EPCOT Pin Event. When she got home she couldn’t stop raving about the backstage tour that she and her friend Carrie had taken. They signed up for the “Caring For Giants” tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and spent an hour getting up-close-and-personal with Disney’s elephant herd!

When she showed me the pictures I thought, “I can’t wait to do that myself.”

The Booking Desk

Carol and Carrie stopped at the booking desk pictured above to book their tour. It’s in Harambe Village, on the left as you approach the stand-by entrance for Kilimanjaro Safaris. The tour costs $30.00 but there are discounts for Annual Passholders and DVC Members. There may be other discounts available, be sure to ask when you book your tour.

The Booking Desk

List of tours available

At the appointed time everyone booked for the tour assembled beside the booking desk to begin their adventure. There was no one there but Carol and Carrie. The group is always small, fewer than a dozen people, but on that particular tour there were only two! Carol and Carrie had a private tour!

Carol's Name Badge

A host from the booking desk escorted the ladies through the gate next to Kilimanjaro Safaris and into a ‘backstage’ area. About a hundred yards away was a small passenger van where they were introduced to the driver who transported them through some backstage areas of the Animal Kingdom, along Perimeter Road. Sorry, no pictures were allowed while ‘backstage’.

As the driver took them to the elephant area the host explained the functions of all the buildings and facilities they passed. They enjoyed a quick glance at some of the animal care buildings and the barns many of the animals call home.

Have you ever taken a safari ride late in the afternoon and seen that magnificent sunset out on the savanna? On this backstage tour the driver took them very very close to the sun! Spoilerthat sunset is 100% Disney magic!

Soon they pulled over and parked. The driver and host introduced them to their guide, Ashley, who is a full-time Disney Animal Specialist. The Animal Specialists work with the animals on a daily basis and take turns acting as interpretive guides for the backstage tour.

Ashley escorted Carol and Carrie up a short flight of steps into their private viewing area. The area has been used by animal care workers for almost 20 years because it’s a great spot to observe the elephants. That was the sole purpose for the viewing area until the Caring For Giants tours began in March 2017.

WOW! What a view! It’s a small area but there were spots where the elephants were no more than 80 to 100 feet away. Amazing!




As Carol and Carrie watched and snapped pictures Ashley called all the elephants by name and talked about their unique personality traits.



Carol, Ashley and Carrie

The newest baby elephant, Stella, arrived with her mom and was immediately the centre of attention.

Baby Stella

Stella with her Mom




Stella with her Mom

Stella with her Mom

After a few minutes an African Cultural Representative joined the small group and talked about conservation in his native country.

Cultural Representative

These African employees rotate in and spend a year working at Disney as part of the Disney Cultural Representative Program. It’s a program designed for adult employees, but it’s similar to the Disney College Program that brings so many students to the International Pavilions at EPCOT.

Carol and Carrie listened to the Cultural Representative as they snapped pictures. He told how African nations are working together to fight poaching and restore natural habitat to help save endangered species. He described innovative programs which are helping to strengthen elephant herds, along with many other species that are threatened as we humans continue to expand our cities and reduce wildlife habitat.

Did you know that elephants are afraid of bees? African farmers used to trap or even shoot elephants to keep them away from valuable crops. There days those farmers have established bee hives which are a natural way to keep the giant beasts away. As an added bonus, the farmers now have some honey to sell!

Part of the fee that you pay for your Caring For Giants tour is contributed to the Disney Conservation Fund and helps support those conservation efforts in Africa!

This is Rafiki, the matriarch of the Disney elephant herd.

While the Animal Specialist and the African Culture Representative provided all that colourful background information Carol and Carrie were able to wander from one end of the viewing area to the other and follow the elephants as they moved.


It’s a much better venue for pictures than that bouncy old safari truck!

Carol and Carrie

All too soon the hour was up! The ladies headed back down that short flight of steps to the waiting van, which whisked them back to Harambe Village.

Needless to say, when Carol and I were back to Walt Disney World together, just a few months later, one of the first things we did was book another Caring For Giants tour.

We shared our backstage ride in the van with a family of four who had just noticed the tour as they walked past and booked it at the last minute.


Stella with her Mom
The people in the safari truck couldn't see Stella but we had a great view!

I have to say, I was as blown away by the tour as Carol had been. What a great way to spend an hour! It’s true Disney ‘edu-tainment’ . . . learning and having fun at the same time!


Elephants on parade

Our Animal Specialist, Amber, and our Cultural Representative, Denise were both excellent. They provided plenty of information about the elephants we were observing as we wandered the viewing area from end to end following the giants.


Denise was just beginning her year-long term in the Disney Cultural Representative Program. She was enjoying her time abroad but admitted that she was a bit homesick and was missing her family in Harare, Zimbabwe.


From our vantage point we could see some things which aren’t quite so evident from the safari trucks. One of those things we could see clearly was an area where the pachyderms pack away their dinner! There are a couple of areas where hay is spread out on the ground, behind trees and rocks so it is normally out of sight from the trucks.

Elephant and safari truck

Stella with her Mom

Two elephants

Amber told us that the elephants have to eat a lot of hay, grass and other vegetation every day because their digestive system is not very efficient. Elephant poop is filled with undigested hay, making it very fibrous. She proved her point by passing around a great big chunk of genuine elephant poop. Yes, you read that right – I got to hoist an enormous hunk of elephant poop!

Elephant poop

Naturally Carol wanted nothing to do with it!

That was when Amber asked Carol to pull her name-tag out of the plastic sleeve that was hanging around her neck.

“Turn it over and read the back.” Amber said.


Yup, like it or not, Carol was holding elephant poop!

About that time baby Stella came back to entertain us again. There were plenty of tree branches scattered about following an October hurricane and little Stella thought those branches made terrific toys.

Stella with a stick

She kept us entertained for several minutes as she carried one around and even tossed it a few times.


Stella with her Mom.jpg



As with all good things, our tour had to end so we boarded the van and were soon back in Harambe Village, just in time for our FastPass at Kilimanjaro Safaris.

As we stood in line I told Carol, “Once is not enough. I need to do that tour again.” She grinned and nodded. Twice was not enough for her either.

It’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be repeating the Caring For Giants tour when we’re back at Walt Disney World in March 2018.

If you’re an elephant fan, if you’re looking for a change of pace, if you want to add a new wrinkle to your Disney vacation or if you just have an overwhelming urge to fondle a chunk of elephant poop, this is the tour for you!

You can find more information about Caring For Giants HERE

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