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April 15, 2018

Disney Magic Can Sometimes Span The Globe

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A few months ago I heard my computer sound a ding! When I looked to see what had caused the alert I discovered that a stranger from Brazil was trying to contact me on Facebook Messenger. “Hmm,” I thought, “I wonder what this is all about.”

Then I remembered a nice Brazilian couple Carol and I met at The Magic Kingdom November 6, 2016. It was about 9:30 in the evening; Carol and I were sitting at a table in front of Casey’s Corner waiting for the nightly “Wishes” fireworks which would begin at 10:00.

I noticed a young couple standing not far away – they were obviously looking for seats. I raised my arm, got the fellow’s attention, held up two fingers and then pointed at the two empty chairs at our table. They both had beaming smiles when they joined us.

Over the next half hour, in spite of their halting ability to speak English and our total inability to communicate in Portuguese, they told us about their amazing Disney romance. He proposed to her in 2012, in front of Cinderella Castle; they honeymooned at Walt Disney World in 2015 and were back celebrating their first anniversary in 2016. A real fairy book tale!

We enjoyed a delightful time with some complete strangers that night . . . so I wondered if they were the ones trying to connect on Facebook. I clicked on ‘Yes’ and accepted the friend request.

Nope, turned out it wasn’t them; it was an electrical engineer from Rio de Janeiro; his name is Victor. He attached the picture below and said, “Hello Gary, do you recognize this?”

Cast Appreciation Card

It was a ‘cast appreciation card’. Carol and I used to carry them with us at the parks and hand them to cast members who had gone above and beyond to give us special service or a taste of Disney magic.

So that simple picture told me that Victor and I had shared something special in the past . . . but I had no clue what it was.

When I asked Victor to elaborate he was quick to respond. Victor was a college student and had been working at Walt Disney World, as part of the Disney College Program, when our paths crossed briefly. Ten years after he went home from his year-long adventure at Walt Disney World he pulled out what he calls his ‘memory box’ and he found that cast appreciation card inside.

The story he told me took me back a full decade to Wednesday December 12, 2007. That was the day when Victor and I sang a duet in Casey’s Corner restaurant at the Magic Kingdom. Yes, you read that correctly, we sang a duet!

Casey's Statue

It’s one of those things that I remember very vaguely. I remember that it happened but, for the life of me, I cannot remember the details.

So, the version I’m about to describe is how I see it occurring in my minds eye . . . and it may bear very little resemblance to what actually happened!

That Wednesday was a bittersweet day for Carol and I. It was the last day of a 12-day stay at Walt Disney World; we were heading home the following morning. It had become a tradition for us to spend the last morning of our vacation at the Magic Kingdom, then head back to Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground to pack up the motor home for the 1,400 mile drive home. We had a great morning, we rode The Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan, Snow White, Space Mountain and visited the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, then it was time to go.

We stopped at Casey’s Corner for a hot dog, one of our favorite lunches at the Magic Kingdom.

Casey' Scoreboard

Carol waited at a table out in front while I went in to order our food. We’re always a bit blue when we leave the Magic Kingdom that last time, so I suppose that I was probably just overcome with emotion when I walked through Casey’s door.

I spontaneously burst into song and started belting out a stirring rendition of ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’. After a couple of bars Victor joined me and our voices combined in a melodious harmony that held all the other hungry vacationers in spellbound rapture.

By the time we got to ♫♪One, Two, Three strikes you’re out!♪♫ we had added choreography and we finished our performance with a flourish, ♫♪At the old BALL GAME!♫♪

As you might expect, in the version of the story that I choose to remember, the crowd went wild and gave Victor and I a resounding ovation!

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That's Victor on the left.

What do you suppose actually happened to cause a curmudgeonly old Canadian to join in song with a Brazilian college student and sing an American sports anthem?

I don’t think it really matters why it happened. What’s important is that it did happen and it was magical.

When our song was over Victor gave me a complimentary bag of Cracker Jacks and I handed him that little card which he later tucked away in his memory box. We both carried on, unaware that our lives would briefly connect again ten years later.

Thank you Victor for reaching out across 5,000 miles, between continents, to remind me of that brief moment of Disney magic we shared years ago.

Thanks for showing us all that Disney magic really can span the globe!







April 2, 2018

Jack Lindquist graduated from marketing guru to one of Disneyland's greatest cheerleaders

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Disney Legend Jack Lindquist made significant contributions to solidify the success of Disneyland. [The Walt Disney Company]


During the first few years of Disneyland's existence, although hopes and expectations were very high, "the success of the park wasn't a slam dunk," according to Marty Sklar, the Disney Legend and former head of Walt Disney Imagineering who began his storied career as an intern a few weeks before the park opened in 1955.

Think about that for a minute: Disneyland, which regularly draws millions of guests each year, will be celebrating its 63rd anniversary in July and is widely regarded as the center of the Disney universe, wasn't a sure thing. In fact, during those early years, the park was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, in part to cut costs.

According to Jack Lindquist, who was hired to head up the park's marketing department in 1955: "It wasn't until 1958 that everyone started to feel this [Disneyland] is going to stay ... that this is going to work. And it's something special," he said during an interview with me in 2015.

It was Jack and Marty, along with Ed Ettinger, Milt Albright, Eddie Meck, Eleanor Heldt, Carl Frith, Phil Bauer, Dorothy Manes, Charlie Nichols and Lee Cake, who were chiefly responsible for promoting the park, making sure that their strategies would lure guests to The Happiest Place on Earth in Anaheim, Calif.

And it was Jack Lindquist who was responsible for dreaming up some of the most successful park promotions ... thus assuring that Disneyland would, indeed, be the slam dunk everyone had hoped it would be.

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The Disneyland publicity department in 1956. That's Jack Lindquist, top row, second from the left, and Marty Sklar, seated, center. [The Walt Disney Company]

Jack was on the outside looking in when Disneyland was being built in 1954. He worked for a marketing firm in Los Angeles and among his accounts was the Kelvinator appliance line. Kelvinator was one of dozens of Disneyland's corporate sponsors, so Jack was allowed to tour the park weeks before it opened. He was very impressed when he left the hectic construction site.

Jack was among the thousands of invited guests on hand for Disneyland's opening day, July 17, 1955. Like everyone else in the park for the momentous occasion, he saw first-hand the chaos and confusion that punctuated the day.

But that didn't deter him a few weeks later when a Disneyland representative called his office and asked him if he could recommend someone for the top marketing position at Disneyland.

"The job sounded pretty good, so I recommended myself!" he said.

Jack hit the ground running and was in the thick of many successful promotional campaigns, most of which helped solidify Disneyland's long-term success. Jack had a hand, along with Marty Sklar and Milt Albright, in the creation of the hugely successful Magic Kingdom Club, Disney Dollars and Grad Nites.

But there were many other ideas which sprang out of Jack's fertile imagination ... ideas that were ahead of their time and radically altered marketing strategies throughout the entertainment industry.

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The Spring 1957 edition of Disneyland Holiday magazine, which was developed by Jack Lindquist and Marty Sklar. The name was changed to Vacationland Magazine when the publishers of Holiday Magazine became upset.

The first was Vacationland Magazine.

"When Marty and I created Vacationland Magazine, we wanted to use the same theory [as the Magic Kingdom Club] of reaching people with something different," Jack said. The magazine was published from the mid- to late 1950s.

"Most of the hotels and motels throughout California used to have racks in their lobbies. On these racks, all of the attractions throughout the state were featured in pamphlets. Again, we didn't want to do the same old thing. So Marty and I developed the magazine concept; Marty was the editor and I did the marketing."

Originally, the magazine was called Disneyland Holiday. "But the people at Holiday Magazine were not happy with us using that name," Jack said.

Still, "the magazine was a tremendous tool for Disney, very unique. It had all the info on the park, but it also had all the things happening in the area, not just Disneyland ... Knott's Berry Farm, Catalina Island and so on. At its height, in California, Nevada and Arizona, I think we distributed 300,000 magazines four times a year."

As far as getting the product to the public, "we hired two guys [Bill Schwenn and Frank Forsyth] who delivered all the magazines," Jack said. "They were on the road most of the time and they built a tremendous rapport throughout the area. Everyone got to know them and like them.

"It was one of those ideas that worked beyond our wildest dreams."

Another successful idea was the concept of selling tickets in advance for special events. In 1957, it was decided that Disneyland would open its gates to celebrate New Year's Eve, Disney-style. Jack thought it would be a great idea to make the night a special ticketed event, but 5,000 tickets needed to be sold just to break even. So, tickets were sold in advance at a variety of businesses in Hollywood, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The night was a big success and the idea of advance-sale tickets caught on. "In those days, nobody sold advance tickets," Jack said. "If you wanted a ticket, you went to the venue the day of the event."

When Disneyland turned 10, it was Jack who dreamed up with the term Tencennial and it was his idea to come up with a variety of tie-ins and promotional events all linked to the year-long celebration.

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Disney Legend Rolly Crump, left, shows off his latest project to Disneyland Ambassador Julie Riehm and Walt Disney. [The Walt Disney Company]

Coinciding with the Tencennial was Jack's Disneyland Ambassador Program. "A young lady would be selected from among all the employees and she would represent Disneyland in the park and around the country," Jack said.

"They would host VIPs and heads of state in the park when Walt wasn't able to meet with them."

I asked Jack to describe the process of introducing an idea or a promotion and then getting it approved by Walt. His answer was a bit surprising.

"In those early days, we presented ideas to Ed Ettinger, who would take them to the Disneyland park operating committee, then on to the studio. In those days, Milt, Marty and I didn't have much direct contact with Walt."

When Jack came up with the ambassador program concept, "I wrote a memo, sent it to Ed Ettinger, who sent it to the studio. Two weeks later, Ed called me into his office. On the original memo was written: 'Let's do it.' It was signed by Walt himself."

Julie Riehm [now Julie Casaletto] was Disneyland's first Ambassador; she was named a Disney Legend in 2015 on the occasion of Disneyland's 60th anniversary.

In 1966, it's a small world opened in Disneyland after a successful run at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. It was Jack's idea to enhance the opening ceremonies by having a children's choir pour water collected from around the world into the boat ride's flume. Jugs of water -- 77 in total, from places like the Amazon, the Seine and the Danube rivers -- made for a truly memorable experience.

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A ticket for the inaugural Disneyland Grad Nites event in 1961.

Jack would go on to become the first president of Disneyland before retiring in 1993 on Mickey Mouse's 65th birthday. He was named a Disney Legend in 1994. His window on City Hall refers to him as "The honorary mayor of Disneyland." A few years ago, he published his memoir, In Service to the Mouse.

He also played a key role in setting up the marketing strategy for Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. In addition, he had a hand in signing up several countries to join the World Showcase lineup at Epcot. During that period of time, Jack was reunited with his old buddy from their Disneyland PR days ... Marty Sklar.

The creation of Grad Nites gave Disney the opportunity to work closely with the Anaheim-area community to come up with a popular program that was, in reality, born of tragedy.

"Grad Nites were started when Bill Schwenn and I went to a meeting in the San Gabriel Valley," Jack said. "We got a call from a group or parents who wanted to talk about having a graduation thing in the park. I think it was a group of four parents. The year before, there had been a tragic accident.

"The San Gabriel parents wanted to find a safe place for their kids on graduation night. We asked them how many kids they were talking about and it was a class of 190. If the entire class went with a date, that was about 400 people, which wasn't feasible."

But Jack was intrigued by the thought of opening the park to high school grads.

"Eventually, we went back and started talking to people, like the chief of police in Anaheim, the sheriff of Orange County, the Los Angeles police chief. They all said we were out of our minds, taking high school seniors and their dates and putting them in Disneyland. They said 'they'll probably burn the place down.'"

Jack and his team started visiting different high schools in the San Fernando Valley to gauge interest. First and foremost, Jack told the schools' reps that there would be a strict set of rules.

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Students stream into Disneyland for the Grad Nite event in 1966.

"If you wanted to go to Grad Nite," Jack said, "the boys must wear coats and ties, no school IDs or anything that identified their school would be allowed. Girls would wear party dresses."

Moreover, participants would arrive at the park by 11 p.m. and stay through 5 in the morning. They would arrive by bus and leave by bus. Each school was required to supply one adult chaperone for every 20 students. Disney would supply coffee and refreshments.

"The parents said, 'OK, let's give it a try.' We ended up with 9,000 kids that first night [in 1961] from probably 30 high schools. They paid 6 dollars a ticket. It was a huge financial success for Disneyland and a great experience for millions of graduating seniors over the years."

Grad Nites are still going strong at Disneyland, although things have changed drastically since that inaugural event some 57 years ago. For one thing, they are now held at Disney's California Adventure and they run from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. For another, they will be held on select nights 18 times this May and June.

And the prices and options have risen dramatically. If you want to attend the party, a ticket costs $79. If you want to spend time in California Adventure beforehand, it'll cost $99. And if you want to experience the party, California Adventure and Disneyland, it'll cost $139.

Still, Jack Lindquist's concept of promoting the park in an enjoyable way has endured, cementing his position as one of Disneyland's all-time greatest cheerleaders.

Related Link:
Jack Lindquist: A rich legacy and a fun-filled career with the Walt Disney Company

March 19, 2018

Disney Cruise Line sails into its 20th year with major expansion on the horizon

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A rendering shows one of the three new ships that are scheduled to join the Disney Cruise Line fleet in 2021, 2022 and 2023. [The Walt Disney Company]

Disney Cruise Line turns 20 years old this year with the anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Disney Magic on July 30, 1998.

The seeds for Disney Cruise Line were actually sewn in 1985, when Disney partnered with Premier Cruises to offer what were known then as land-and-sea vacation packages – guests would spend several days at Walt Disney World before heading over to Port Canaveral on the East Coast of Florida. There, they'd board one of Premier's Big Red Boats for a cruise through the Caribbean.

The Premier/Disney cruises were billed as "America's No. 1 Family Cruise Vacation," and for several years, the association between Disney and Premier flourished. The Big Red Boats' primary port of call was Nassau in the Bahamas. The boats stayed in port long enough for guests to enjoy tours of the island, swimming and boating by day, as well as nightclub and gambling options during the evening.

During the course of the cruise, the Big Red Boats would make a stop at a private island in the Bahamas, where guests could take a tender from the ship and disembark onto a small dock. Guests visiting the island were told that what made this island so special was the fact that it was used for some scenes for the TV show Gilligan's Island. In fact, many people went so far as to actually call the spit of land Gilligan's Island.

One Big Red Boat guest remembers a rather harrowing experience after visiting Premier's island in 1986.

"This was my second cruise ever. Jerry Van Dyke [Disney Legend Dick Van Dyke's brother] was the featured entertainer for the cruise. On the way back from 'Gilligan's Island,' the waves became heavy. They had to turn the ship to block the wind so we could cross the gang plank. It was a little frightening. We crawled across. People on deck cheered as each group made their way across. Also, the wind blew off my hat, and everyone cheered that as well. I believe that was the last time they anchored the ship at sea and tendered people to the island. The next year, they tendered us from Nassau and left the ship docked."

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Premier Cruise Line's Big Red Boat II is seen docked in Nassau, the Bahamas, in January of 2002. [Kelly Castellano]

Not exactly the kind of magical experience Disney was hoping for. After a few years, the Disney hierarchy realized that the 10-year licensing agreement it had with Premier was troubling. For one thing, Premier's ships, built decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, were not handicapped-accessible.

For another, Disney was concerned that it didn't have complete control over what was being offered on the ships, mainly in the areas of guest service, cleanliness, food and entertainment. And lastly, newer, much larger and decidedly more upscale ocean liners were now plying the world's oceans, part of an industry-wide resurgence by all the major cruise lines, and would-be cruisers were flocking in droves to these opulent "floating cities" and all they had to offer.

Premier's Big Red Boats I, II and III floundered after losing their Disney partnership in 1994. For a time, Premier hooked up with Universal, Walt Disney World's chief competitor for theme park guests in central Florida, in an attempt to keep families with kids interested in cruising. They even offered characters from their own animation properties in an attempt to replicate what Disney had done.

But it wasn't to be. The end came swiftly for Premier. In one memorable week in September of 2000, U.S. marshals seized all seven Premier cruise ships around the world, including The Big Red Boat II, which ended up being escorted to the Stapleton Navy home port on the New York City borough of Staten Island, having unloaded its unsuspecting passengers in Manhattan the day before.

It turns out the Big Red Boats, as well as their sister ships tied to Premier, were drowning in a sea of red ink. At the time, a recorded message on Premier's phone line said: "We regret to inform you that Premier Cruise Lines was forced to suspend operations of all our vessels indefinitely. Our lender has taken possession of the ships pursuant to the ships' mortgages."

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Two Premier Cruise Line crew members from Canada talk about their plight after the Big Red Boat II was seized by U.S. marshals in 2000. The ship sat for weeks at the Stapleton Home Port on Staten Island while the courts decided the cruise line's fate. [Staten Island Advance]

A total of 492 of Big Red Boat II's crew members were left stranded on Staten Island for several weeks as lawyers sorted out the financial quagmire.

Of the three Big Red Boats which took part in the Disney/Premier association, only the Oceanic (Big Red Boat I) enjoyed a longer run than its sister ships. One by one, the boats met the inevitable fate of aging cruise liners – they were sold for scrap metal.

In an ironic twist, the rusting hulk of the Big Red Boat II was seen docked in Nassau in the Bahamas during a port call by the Disney Wonder in January of 2002. The ship still had a distinctive, if fading, P on its funnel.

In 2012, Big Red Boat I joined the other Premier liners on the scrap heap, closing the chapter on the Big Red Boats.

Several years before the Disney-Premier partnership ran out in 1994, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner began exploring the possibility of keeping a Disney presence in the cruise industry. Thus began a years-long process, trying to figure out just what course to take when it came to the Walt Disney Company's seaworthiness.

For most of 1992, Disney explored three options: Partnerships with two major cruise lines were on the table, as was the possibility of taking the bold move of starting its own cruise line. The final option – letting the Premier partnership run out and leaving the cruise business altogether – was a third possibility.

Eisner gathered some his top executives in November of 1992 to tackle the cruise dilemma. In a meeting room in Glendale, Calif., were Eisner, Frank Wells, Al Weiss and Frank Ioppolo. Larry Murphy, then the company's Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer, gave a comprehensive presentation on why Disney should go full speed ahead and commit to becoming a major player in the cruise industry. The executives loved the idea and the Disney Cruise Line was born.

It turns out that green-lighting a Disney cruise ship operation was the easy part. Critical decisions had to be made before the first passengers would step aboard more than five years later. First and foremost: What would a Disney ship look like?

Eisner was an experienced cruiser who had very distinct ideas on what type of emotions any Disney ships should convey. "I want our ships to bring back a feeling of great times," he said. He told his designers to "out-tradition tradition."

Walt Disney Imagineering's Wing Chao hired architect Mike Reminger to lead the effort to translate Eisner's vision of "a modern classic" into an actual cruise ship.

While Eisner remembered seeing his grandparents sail off on the Queen Mary and he himself being on board a number of classic ocean liners, Chao and Reminger were cruise neophytes, having more experience watching "Love Boat" episodes than being on board actual cruises.

Reminger was nonplussed, however. Disney hired Art Rodney, formerly of Princess Cruise Lines, who brought a wealth of cruise experience to the table, particularly in the fields of business start-ups and ship construction. Reminger then brought on board Jon Rusten, formerly of Norwegian Cruise Line, whose strengths included ship design and construction.

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The bow of the Disney Magic is seen under construction at Fincantieri's Ancona shipyard. [The Walt Disney Company]

Together, they sought out ship-building architectural firms in hopes that one of them could come up with Eisner's desired "modern classic" design.

The early concepts for a Disney cruise ship ranged from whimsical to futuristic to downright eccentric. Of all the world's leading naval architects working on the project, Hartmut Esslinger of Frogdesign came up with the version that most closely resembled what would eventually become DCL's first ship, the Disney Magic.

Esslinger's concept called for the use of two classically-designed funnels [modern ocean liners only need one functioning funnel, so the other is there just for esthetic reasons], a bridge area that fans out over the sides of the ship, and an elongated bowline. His concept also called for a black hull, with red, white and yellow accent colors ... the colors sported by none other than Mickey Mouse. In short, the design best captured Eisner's vision of a "modern classic."

Once the design was settled on, the next big challenge was selecting a shipyard to build the ship. Cantieri Navali Italiani S.p.A., which also is known by the acronym Fincantieri, was chosen. To speed up construction, it was decided to build the ship in two parts, with the bow being built in the company's Ancona shipyard and the stern 100 miles north in Marghera.

In April of 1997, the arduous, days-long task of marrying the bow to the stern began; the two parts were joined a few days later. While construction continued in Italy, interior design elements and philosophical decisions were made back in the United States. The ship would feature industry-first rotational dining, where guests and their servers would rotate among three signature restaurants each night. There would be expansive areas devoted to children, as well as night spots dedicated to adults. And Disney-branded, Broadway-quality entertainment in the elegant Walt Disney Theater would be a top priority. It also was decided to acquire an island in the Bahamas, renamed Castaway Cay, where DCL guests could spend a day romping and relaxing in on the idyllic Caribbean hideaway.

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The Disney Wonder is guided through the Panama Canal. [Orlando Sentinel]

After construction was completed, the Disney Magic made its first trans-Atlantic trip to the United States and was christened in Port Canaveral, Fla., in 1998. A year later, the Magic's sister ship, the Disney Wonder [also built by Fincantieri, but in one piece] set sail in August of 1999. Both ships carry 2,700 passengers. In recent years, the Wonder has been positioned on the West Coast of the United States, making port calls as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Mexico and Panama. Meanwhile, the Magic has spent several seasons sailing the waters of the Mediterranean, as well as ports from New York to New Brunswick, Canada.

With the unquestioned success of the Magic and Wonder, Disney decided to expand its fleet with the addition of two larger, more technologically advanced ships. Both the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy feature similar characteristics as the Magic and Wonder, but both are 40% larger and can carry up to 4,000 guests. And both the Dream, which debuted in 2011, and the Fantasy [which was christened in New York City in 2012] were built in the Meyer Werft Shipyards in Papenburg, Germany.

On the horizon for Disney Cruise Line are the additions of three new ships, currently being built at the Meyer Werft facility. The yet-to-be-named ships are due to be launched in 2021, 2022 and 2023. In keeping with Disney's philosophy of being kind to the environment, the new ships will be powered by cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas.

As you might expect, the ships will be state-of-the-art, but will still evoke the "modern classic" feel first featured on the soon-to-be 20-year-old Disney Magic.

March 12, 2018

Disney Vacation Club's Moonlight Magic

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by
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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Otters
“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.

Nahtazu

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

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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

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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...

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... in France for Belle...

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... and in Germany for Snow White.

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

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

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

Mission Accomplished!

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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

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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 AllEars.net 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Zofia Kostyrko 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.

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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.

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