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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 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.

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

January 15, 2018

Touring Walt Disney’s Hollywood

Gary Cruise banner

Last month, just before Christmas, Carol and I were in California enjoying ourselves at Disneyland. When the weekend rolled around we knew the parks would be very busy . . . much busier than we like! What else could we do Saturday and Sunday?

We had tickets for a D23 event at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank on Sunday so we decided to spend Saturday driving around the Los Angeles area looking at some of the places that would have been familiar to Walt Disney. Places where he worked, places where he lived, places where he played! We made a list of places we knew Walt would have seen, plotted them in our GPS and away we went!

Our first stop was only about two miles southwest of Disneyland; the Stanley Ranch Museum and Historical Village at 12174 Euclid Street. This historical village is operated by the Garden Grove Historical Society and is the home of Walt Disney's first animation studio. When Walt and Roy arrived in Los Angeles in 1923 cash was very tight! They roomed with their uncle, Robert Disney, at 4406 Kingswell Avenue and set up their tiny animation studio in his garage. In 1984 that historic old garage was donated to the Garden Grove Historical Society and moved from Kingswell Avenue to the village on Euclid Street.

The society does not have a web site, but when I did an Internet search the night before, told me that they opened at 9:00 a.m. We arrived at about 9:15 a.m., eager to kick off our 'Disney day'.

Stanley Ranch Museum

As we walked from the small parking area toward the entrance of the historical village we were stopped by a lady who was stretching a flag-draped rope across the entrance to block access to the village

"Are you here for a tour?" she asked.

"No," I replied, "we're looking for Robert Disney's garage."

"I don't know a Robert Drimbley." she said rather gruffly.

"No, Robert Disney, he was Walt Disney's uncle and Walt had his first animation studio in his uncle's garage."

"We're closed right now." she snapped, "This is private property you know! You'll have to book a tour and come back on the first or third Sunday of the month."

I quickly surmised that this lady must be either a volunteer or a highly skilled rope stretcher; she had certainly not been hired because of her people skills!

After her less-than-cheery greeting we slunk back to our car . . . hoping for a warmer reception at our next stop!

We drove north about 30 miles, through Los Angeles, to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. We were trying to track down Walt's grave site near the Court of Freedom.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Forest Lawn is a huge cemetery, about 300 acres, and the receptionist who greeted us at the entrance gate was very helpful. She highlighted our route on a map of the grounds and gave us some very useful driving hints.

Within a few minutes we arrived at the Court of Freedom and began our brief search for Walt’s final resting place.

Court of Freedom

For a man who had such a profound impact on so many people, who left such a rich legacy behind, we were surprised at the humble family plot tucked off in a quiet corner.

The Disney family plot

Walt's headstone

We spent a few minutes paying our respects to this incredible man, then carried on to our next stop.

A quick 7 mile drive took us to Burbank, the current home of the Walt Disney Studios complex. It was a just a reconnaissance mission, we wanted to get the lay of the land before coming back the following day for a D23 event.

Walt Disney Studios

The complex houses the Disney Animation Building, the Team Disney Building, many of the movie studio stages, ABC Television Studios and Carol's favourite - the Walt Disney Studio Store.

Walt Disney Studios

After a quick peek at the Disney Studios property we took a 2 mile jaunt on the Ventura Freeway to Griffith Park. If you're a Disney fan you've probably seen that film clip of Walt, where he reminisces about sitting on a park bench dreaming of a park where parents could have fun along with their children.

That park bench, in Griffith Park, was where Walt was originally inspired to build Disneyland.

Today Griffith Park is the home of Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn. The barn was originally in Walt's backyard at 355 Carolwood Drive. Walt had a lavish model railroad in his yard; he named it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad and in 1998 when the Disney family sold the Holmby Hills estate the barn was dismantled and reconstructed as part of the Railroad Museum maintained in Griffith Park by the Los Angeles Live Steamers club.

Los Angeles Live Steamers

Like our stop at Walt Disney Studios, this was an investigative foray only. We knew that the museum is only open to the public on Sundays and that Walt's barn is only open on the third Sunday of each month. We planned to visit again tomorrow and, since it wasn't the third Sunday, we knew we would likely only be able to see Walt's barn from a distance.

Los Angeles Live Steamers

A quick 5-mile drive took us to our next stop at 2695 Lyric Avenue where we found the house Walt Disney built in 1926.

Walt's house

In fact, Walt and his brother Roy built identical homes side-by-side on Lyric Avenue.

Roy's house

Roy's home at 2697 Lyric was a mirror image of Walt's!

On our way to our next stop, about three miles from Walt's first house, we had a terrific view of the famous Hollywood sign.

Hollywood Sign

That's no co-incidence since our next destination was the stone gates built in 1923 to mark the entrance to the new real estate development known as Hollywoodland.

The sign originally read Hollywoodland, but it deteriorated over the years, and when it was refurbished in 1949 the last four letters were dropped, creating the iconic Hollywood sign we know today.

Do you see the bus in the picture above? It's the same bus as the one in the picture below. It's parked at a bus stop right beside the 1923 stone gates we were looking for.

Stone gates at Hollywoodland

Look carefully at the picture above. Do the gates look familiar?

Close your eyes and imaging that you're at Walt Disney World and you're approaching the Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios. On your left you should be imagining a stone building that used to house the FastPass dispensing machines. On the right you should be picturing a stone tower that houses restrooms.

Stone gates at Hollywoodland

That's right, those buildings in Florida are replicas of these old 1923 structures in Hollywood.

Next time you're at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida look around and you might just find a replica of this brass plaque that has marked the Hollywoodland entrance in California for almost a century!

Hollywoodland plaque

Our next stop was only two miles away at 1660 North Highland Avenue, just around the corner from Hollywood Boulevard. It is only steps from Disney's El Capitan Theatre, Disney's Soda Fountain, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards.

Max Factor building

The building pictured above, at 1660 North Highland Ave., was purchased in 1928 by Max Factor who was the most sought-after cosmetologist in tinsel town! The building was totally transformed in Art Deco style and re-opened in 1935 as the Max Factor Makeup Studio. Today the taller portion, on the left, houses the Hollywood Museum and the shorter portion, on the right, is home to Mel's Drive-In Restaurant.

Does the building seem familiar to you? Next time you're at Disney's Hollywood Studios look very carefully at the buildings along Hollywood Boulevard as you walk toward Grauman's Theatre. In the midst of all those Art Deco facades on the left you will find a replica of the Max Factor building.

Around the corner from Max Factor was the stop Carol had been looking forward to!

El Capitan theatre

Disney's Soda Fountain, beside the El Capitan Theatre, has recently been renovated and is now operated under license by Ghirardelli's. We had stopped at the soda fountain several times before and always enjoyed their unique ice cream sundaes, and the special Disney pin that came with each sundae. They always had special Limited Edition pins that weren't available anywhere else. Carol was a big fan of the Soda Fountain pins and she really enjoys Ghirardelli chocolates . . . it sounded like a marriage made in heaven.

Unfortunately, the 'new and improved' soda fountain was a big disappointment. It had lost all of the 'Disney feel' and now it's just another chocolate shop. They didn't have any pins with their sundaes and Carol couldn't find a single pin she wanted to buy. She was done shopping very quickly . . . surprisingly quickly.

It's too bad that new is not always synonymous with improved!

We spent a few minutes walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard looking at the stars along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. These Disney-related stars are all within a block of the El Capitan Theatre and the Soda Fountain.

Disneyland's star

Tinker Bell's star

Donald Duck's star

Annette Funicello's star

Roy Disney's star

John Lasseter's star

Snow White's star

Sherman Brothers' star

Mickey Mouse's star

Directly across the street from the El Capitan Theatre is the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, and beside the Dolby Theatre is the familiar building pictured below.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Grauman's Chinese Theatre has been a Hollywood landmark since it opened May 18, 1927. The handprints, footprints and autographs of nearly 200 Hollywood celebrities are pressed into the concrete of the theatre's forecourt.

The replica of Grauman's Theatre in Disney's Hollywood Studios has housed the Great Movie Ride since the park opened in 1989 but it closed in 2017 and is scheduled to re-open as Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway.

By early afternoon the colds Carol and I had been fighting for the last few days were really getting us down, so we decided to cut our tour short and pick up the bit we missed when we were back in the same area on Sunday.

On our way back to our hotel we did a quick drive-by at 5370 Wilshire Boulevard and Carol snapped the picture below as we slowly cruised past 'The Darkroom'.

The Darkroom

The building's facade features a 9-foot tall replica of a Minolta Camera and it has been a Hollywood landmark since it opened as a camera store in 1938. Today the building houses a restaurant, but if you want to see how it looked back in 1938 look for the replica at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's a remarkably good reproduction!

We felt a bit better when we got underway again at about noon on Sunday. Our first stop was the one we skipped the day before, at 6671 West Sunset Boulevard, the Crossroads of the World.

The Crossroads of the World

This one should look familiar to every Disney fan. This is the first thing you see after you enter Disney's Hollywood Studios. The only difference is that the Florida version is a bit taller and Mickey Mouse stands on top of the globe.

The Crossroads opened in 1936 as a shopping mall and office complex. Today it is mostly offices, many of them associated with the entertainment industry.

From the Crossroads we drove around the western side of Griffith Park to visit the Los Angeles Live Steamers Club and see Walt's Carolwood Barn.

Live Steamers

As I mentioned earlier, we knew that we wouldn't be able to get close to the barn or see inside, but we were hoping to see it from a distance. As we walked through the entrance gate there were other guests buying $3.00 tickets for a ride through the property on one of the model trains.

Live Steamers model train

The picture shown above, from the Steamers web site, shows a model train similar to the one we rode.

We asked the two people in the ticket office if we would be able to get a glimpse of Walt's barn from the train ride, and they said that we would see it twice, once from the front and then again from the rear.

As we bought our tickets we explained that we were visiting from Canada and wouldn't be around to see the barn when it was open on the third Sunday but we'd be happy if we could get even a glimpse of the barn from a distance.

A few minutes later, as we waited in line to board the next train, the lady who sold us the tickets called to us through the ticket window. I went back, and as I leaned down to listen, she said, "If you go to the back of the office my partner Jack will walk with you back to Walt's barn."

Holy Cow! Yes, even though it wasn't open to the public we were going to get close to Walt's barn! We were flabbergasted! I don't know how many times we said thank you . . . but it was a lot!

I couldn't help but contrast our greeting today with the reception we got the day before at the Garden Grove Historical Society. The 'train folks' are sure a lot friendlier than those 'historical village folks’!

As we walked toward the barn our guide Jack, who is a fairly new member of the Steamers, explained about the trains and artifacts we passed by. He told us about Walt's barn. It's registered as an official museum and designated as an historic site so it will be preserved for eternity. The barn is administered by a special sub-group within the Steamers organization, sort of a 'club within a club'.

Carol and Jack at Walt's barn

We spent about 15 minutes with Jack, walking around Walt's barn, and taking in the sights and sounds of the surrounding area.

Plaque at Walt's barn

(Don't tell anyone, but Carol and I actually touched the barn!)

We even had the chance to talk to a few of the other railroad buffs who were busy tinkering with their trains. As we gazed around we got a sense of what a dedicated bunch they are.

The props and detailed scenery around their track network is wonderfully done. There are a lot of man-hours, no doubt all volunteer, wrapped up in the scenes alongside those tracks!

After thanking Jack for the fortieth or fiftieth time we lined up once again for our train ride. I think the circuit took us for three complete loops around the property which contains about 4 ½ miles of track in two different gauges.

A happy railroader!

The lady in that fuzzy picture above (shot from our moving train) had just finished decorating her train for Christmas and was taking it out for a joyride. Doesn't she look happy?

Our train had an 'engineer' up front operating the locomotive and a 'conductor' at the rear who explained the sights and exhibits as we passed them.

Walt's barn
Walt's barn, as seen from the train.

A ghost town

A tunnel

There were bridges, tunnels, trestles, turntables, water towers, ghost towns and so much more . . . all built by dedicated train fanatics.

Burma Shave

Approaching a trestle

If you have a few hours to spare in Los Angeles some Sunday afternoon, take a trip to Griffith Park and enjoy a train ride. We had a blast!

Oh yeah - Jack, thanks again!

From Griffith Park we took a short drive to Walt Disney Studios at 500 South Buena Vista Street in Burbank.

Team Disney Building

Walt Disney Studios

It was time to 'Light Up The Season' with some other members of D23 so our tour of ‘Walt’s Hollywood’ was over.

Our mission to "walk in Walt's footsteps" was certainly time well spent. We had a great time and I’m sure we only scratched the surface. There's so much more to see!

I think the next time we visit Disneyland we’ll try to find a few new spots to visit. Perhaps we can time it so that we’re there for the third weekend of the month. That way we can see Walt’s barn in Griffith Park while it’s open and maybe that rope-stretching lady in Garden Grove will allow us to see Uncle Robert’s garage!

January 8, 2018

Soarin' Around the World ... and behind the scenes


The entrance to Soarin' Around the World at Disney's California Adventure.

Prior to a recent trip to California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, my wife Janet signed us up to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Soarin' Around the World attraction. The one-hour tour is offered to members of the Disney Vacation Club.

Soarin' Around the World is located in the Grizzly Peak section of the park, just a short walk from the Grand Californian Resort. We arrived for the tour early, grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Starbucks-sponsored Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe, then met up with the other members of the tour just outside the entrance to Soarin'.

Our tour guide led us to the entrance of the attraction, then we veered right to a "cast members only" door and were escorted to an open lot to the side of the main building. Here, our guide talked about how he was proud of the fact that he was a member of the attraction's opening day team [California Adventure's Soarin' Over California opened on Feb. 1, 2001].

He explained the reasoning behind keeping the Soarin' building just one story tall. "The designers felt that having a multi-story tall building in California Adventure would be too distracting. They had to work around the fact that the attraction's screens are 85 feet tall, so they buried the building 25 feet into the ground.

"Then, three years after we opened," he added, "they built the Tower of Terror" ... the ultimate tall, distracting building.

Guests take their seats as they board their "flight" on Soarin' Around the World.

We then re-entered the building and walked down a flight of stairs to the main boarding area of the attraction. As we exited the staircase, I noticed several animal cages in a corner off to my left. Ever curious, I asked a cast member standing nearby what the cages were for. "When guests with service animals ride the attraction," she said, "we put the animals in these cages until the guests return."

Prior to the pre-show, our guide talked about Soarin's host, Patrick Warburton. Warburton has a history with Disney, having played Kronk in The Emperor's New Grove and Steve Barkin in Kim Possible. It turns out that Warburton wasn't the first choice for the Soarin' assignment: Action film star Steven Segal was.

After the pre-show, our guide asked if anyone wanted to skip the ride for whatever reason. That was my cue to join him off to the side, where another cast member sat in front of a battery of computer monitors.

My wife and I were among the first guests to ride Soarin' in Epcot when it opened in 2005. Initially, I embraced Soarin' and even encouraged friends to ride it. I have been less than enthusiastic about it over the last few years.

For as long as I can remember, heights have been an issue with me. I get queasy sitting in the upper decks in baseball or football stadiums. The one and only time I made it to the observation deck of the World Trade Center, I had all I could do to keep from high-tailing it down the stairs. If we stay in a hotel room that's above the third floor, I tend to avoid the balcony.

After about five trips on Soarin', I started to experience waves of panic every time I approached The Land pavilion where Soarin' is housed.

When I did muster enough nerve to ride Soarin', I found myself gripping way-too-tight onto the handle bars. I even started to wear sunglasses to keep people from noticing that I had my eyes closed for most of the ride. When I did open my eyes, I'd spend more time glancing up than at the screen.

It just wasn't fun anymore. To me, it was downright terrifying sitting 40, 50 or 60 feet in the air near the rafters, your feet dangling, with just a seat belt restraining you. Worse, I worried that if the ride somehow malfunctioned and we get stuck up there for longer than 4 and a half minutes, I'd probably lose it.

It's silly, I know. The ride is totally safe. Hundreds of thousands of people have gone on it and raved about it. But I do know that there are countless people like me who have issues with heights. These days, I'm quite comfortable sitting on the sidelines, feet planted firmly on the ground.

Imagineering's Mark Sumner stands with his Erector set model of the Soarin' ride system he developed.

Sitting off to the side of the Soarin' screen gave me a totally new perspective on the attraction. For one thing, the IMAX screen is massive. It's concave and made out of metal and mesh ... metal, so that it won't be damaged by anything falling onto it, and mesh so that sound is able to pass through it.

For another, the three rows of seats go way, WAY, WAY! up into the air. "The top row is between 60 and 65 feet up," our guide said. It looks higher than that from ground level. And it's amazing how every rider dangles his or her feet during the show.

At the end of the show, our guide gathered the group and took us truly behind the scenes ... and behind the screen. From here, we could hear the beautiful score, view the projections on the screen and see the rows of seats as they were raised at the start of the show and dropped down at the conclusion.

Again, our guide was a wealth of information. There are 56 speakers positioned throughout the theater. In addition, there are scent canisters placed above the seats, which release a variety of smells to enhance the attraction. "The canisters dissolve very slowly," our guide said. "They have to be refilled about once a month."

The final leg of the tour took us into a corridor, where photos of the attraction, as well as scenes from the film, were on the walls. There also was a model of the erector set that Imagineer Mark Sumner used to come up with the cantilever ride system.

Another interesting aspect of the tour came when our guide talked about the thinking behind the updated version of the attraction. Indeed, there was a rhyme and reason behind the filming of each new scene.

For instance, the inclusion of the Great Wall of China sequence is a reference to Disney's Mulan. The Great Pyramids are an homage to Indiana Jones; the Taj Mahal [Alladdin]; Fiji [Moana]; Argentina [Paradise Falls in Up]; the Eiffel Tower [Disneyland Paris and Ratatouille]. He went to explain that there's even a Hidden Mickey located during the beach scene while soarin' over Fiji.

During filming a sequence in Africa, the guide added, the helicopter used for shooting the footage was called into service when an elephant became separated from its group. "The helicopter was used in the search-and-rescue mission," the guide said. "They found the elephant and it was nursed back to health. We were happy to help ... it was worth the delay in production."

According to Ryan March, editor of DVC's Disney Files Magazine, "There's a Soarin' tour for DVC members at Epcot. It takes place most Wednesdays at 8 a.m."

Here's a link to details on our website:

January 7, 2018

Follow the Dots: Getting around the World in a Minnie Van


by J. Scott Lopes
AllEars Guest Blogger

Over the last several months, Disney has been offering a new transportation method that guests can use to travel around Walt Disney World. Using the Lyft app (a ride-share service that is similar to Uber), guests can order a private ride in a brand-new Minnie Mouse-style polka-dotted vehicle. According to the Disney Parks Blog, “with [the] Minnie Van service, Disney cast members will then whisk you away to wherever you want to be at Walt Disney World Resort”.


This "Minnie Van" service, which started on July 31, 2017, currently has 25 leased vehicles and 70 cast members. Under this program, you can only be dropped off at any Disney location, but not at some of the independently operated properties. Pricing for this service is a flat fee of $20, regardless of origin or destination. This can be a little more expensive than a regular Lyft economy car, but is a good deal for the convenience of a larger vehicle and other amenities.

To start using the service, you will first need to stop by the concierge desk at a Disney resort, where they will send you a text message with a special link to enable the Minnie Van service on your Lyft account. (I recommend signing up for a Lyft account and installing the app ahead of your visit to save time.)


Once you receive the text, open the link which will then open the Lyft app to enable the Minnie Van car type.



From there, you can then request a ride by selecting your vehicle type...


.. and then the pickup and drop-off location…


..and then requesting the pickup and paying for the ride.


After payment, a driver is contacted and once assigned an ETA is displayed along with the vehicle number and license plate.


Once the vehicle arrives, you will also receive a text to confirm the vehicle information, so there is no need to keep the app open.


Once inside the vehicle, there are charging cables in case you need to charge up your phone, and they also have Disney music playing on the radio.


Tipping is not required, but if you do I was informed that they have a process in place to cross-reference the vehicle to the driver and shift in order to get the tip to the correct driver.

One of the nice things with this service, according to my driver, is that you are able to go directly to the Magic Kingdom front gate, bypassing the Ticket and Transportation center. If choosing this as a pickup location, the app will instruct you to get on the monorail to go to the TTC. My driver said to ignore this because that would be for regular Lyft vehicles. Minnie Vans pick up at bus stop 11 at the Magic Kingdom bus depot.

Another plus is that the vans keep two car seats on hand to accommodate younger passengers. I was told by a new mom in my group that they are a top-of-the-line car seat, which is usually not offered in a Lyft economy car.

According to my driver, the Minnie Van program has been so successful that Disney plans to expand it, purchasing 60 additional 2018 model-year vehicles.

I hope he's right! I thought this service was great and highly recommend that you take a ride in a Minnie Van on your next visit to Walt Disney World!

About the Author:

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.

December 18, 2017

Omnimover and PeopleMover: A look at two Disney-designed ride conveyances


Bob Gurr sits behind the wheel of a car as he tests the ride system that would be used on the Ford Magic Skyway attraction during the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. Note the individual drive wheels embedded in the track. [The Walt Disney Company]

From the time when Disneyland was in the planning stages right up until today, the creative team at the Walt Disney Company has been at the forefront of developing innovative, wildly imaginative park attractions.

They've also been leaders in designing new and imaginative ways for guests to enjoy those attractions.

Ride systems are as crucial to the success of an attraction as are the story lines of the shows themselves.

The 1964-1964 New York World's Fair introduced many innovative ride conveyances, among them the water jet system that propelled the boats used on the "it's a small world" attraction, as well as the rotating theaters guests sat in during the Carousel of Progress. The system used by "it's a small world" was so successful, that the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, in development in California at the time, was switched from a walk-through to the now legendary boat ride.

And then there were two ride systems that were in the planning stages during the Fair that transformed attraction conveyances and are still being used to this day.

The Omnimover and the PeopleMover.

The Ford Magic Skyway was one of the most popular shows at the Fair, in large part because Disney's creative staff was able to devise a system that propelled actual Ford vehicles throughout the attraction. Of course, the realistic-looking dinosaurs featured during the attraction also added to the ride's appeal.

The brains behind the Magic Skyway ride system was Imagineering legend Bob Gurr, who came to Disney as a "car guy," but who branched out and quickly became the designer of just about anything that rode on wheels in Disneyland.

Walt Disney, left, takes a ride on the Ford Magic Skyway attraction at the New York World's Fair. With him are Henry Ford II and Robert Moses.

One of Gurr's breakthrough concepts came during the design of the Matterhorn Mountain attraction, which debuted in 1959. "We used track-mounted wheels to control the speeds of the bobsleds," he said. Working in conjunction with Arrow Development, they dubbed the track-mounted wheels "booster brakes," meaning the bobsleds could be sped up or slowed down during their trek through the fabled mountain, allowing more than one bobsled to be on the Matterhorn track at the same time, an industry first.

When Walt Disney signed a contract with the Ford Motor Company to create the Ford Magic Skyway attraction in the early 1960s, he nonchalantly told Ford chairman Henry Ford II that they would use the booster brake system on the planned attraction. Walt returned to California and sought out Gurr, telling him: "OK, Bobby, you're gonna work on the Ford ride. I told them you're gonna use the booster brakes, so get started."

"The booster brakes were a logical system," Gurr said. "It was individual vehicles propelled on a track." It also was the forerunner of the PeopleMover system. The Ford system had a series of propulsion wheels embedded in the track throughout the attraction. Each was driven by, as Gurr said, "ordinary squirrel cage type motors."

The cars above, stripped down to their body shell, had flat panels attached to their chassis. The motorized wheels on the track would spin, propelling each car when the wheels came in contact with the flat panel, called a platen. The cars used for the attraction were stripped-down Lincolns, Mercurys, Falcons, Comets and a new sports car that was soon to capture car lovers' imaginations: The Mustang.

"I worked continuously from July 1961 to April 1964 to get this monster to work," Gurr said. "It eventually took almost twice as long to develop as it took to build all of Disneyland!"

Gurr would take his experience with the Ford Magic Skyway system and translate it into the creation of the PeopleMover attraction, which debuted in 1967 as part of the Tomorrowland redesign at Disneyland. Disney mechanical engineer Bill Watkins "developed a track-mounted, drive-wheel propulsion system based on my successful Magic Skyway drive system, itself stolen from Arrow Development's booster-brake track wheel invention" for Matterhorn Mountain, Gurr said.

The Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner Space in Disneyland was the first attraction to employ the Omnimover ride system. [Disneyland]

The PeopleMover, first introduced as the WEDway PeopleMover, is still in use today in Walt Disney World, giving guests a relaxing tour of Tomorrowland.

There are key differences between the PeopleMover and the Omnimover systems.

"The Omnimover is a connected endless chain of vehicles," Gurr said. "The Haunted Mansion is an Omnimover."

On the Omnimover system, the ride vehicles have the ability to twist and turn and go up and down inclines; on a PeopleMover system, the vehicles travel straight ahead, with the ability to negotiate turns.

Gurr worked with Disney Legend John Hench on the Omnimover design and is even credited with coming up with the name for the ride conveyance. The design came about when Gurr picked up a candied apple on a stick from Hench's desk and began twirling it. From that very basic concept came the final design, featuring a welded two-pipe rail track, drive fin, squeezer drive nuts, gears and linkages.

The first Omnimover system was used on the Monsanto Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction, which debuted in 1967. "We had very little developmental problems with it," Gurr remembers. "We did, however, improve the drive unit over the years on future attractions."

There are several Disney park attractions that are similar in concept to the Omnimover ... but are not, technically, Omnimovers.

The fabled "doom buggies" in the Haunted Mansion are propelled by the Omnimover system.

Many people believe Spaceship Earth in Epcot employs an Omnimover system. They're wrong.

"Spaceship Earth is not an Omnimover, but a one-of-a-kind vehicle conveyor totally unlike and sharing no parts with an Omnimover," Gurr said.

"I disagreed so strongly with the Spaceship Earth design that I was moved to other projects — thankfully. It has had a number of redesign attempts over the years to try to reduce the high maintenance required."

Some of the newer adaptations of the Omnimover system include Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, the Seas with Nemo and Friends and Journey into Imagination. World of Motion and Horizons used Omnimover systems, as did the If You Had Wings/Delta Dreamflight attraction, which now features the Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.

Related Videos

Disney Legends Bob Gurr and Marty Sklar discuss Disney's contributions to the NY Worlds Fair:

Jack Spence discusses the origin of the People Mover

November 27, 2017

'Ink & Paint' is a celebration of the women who toiled behind the scenes at Walt Disney Animation


A painter carefully places color onto a celluloid sheet as she works on a scene from "Pinocchio." [The Walt Disney Company]

The next time you have the opportunity to watch a classic Disney movie, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Bambi or Pinocchio, make sure to read the opening credits.

Some of the most famous animators to have ever put pencil to paper for the Walt Disney Animation Studios will be listed. You'll see names like Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Woolie Reitherman, Ollie Johnston and Marc Davis.

Giants of animation, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is, their success wouldn't have been complete without the contributions of the scores of women who turned their sketches into camera-ready cels.

The names Ruthie Tompson, Marge Champion or Arlene Ludwig probably don't ring a bell. The same likely holds true for Hazel Sewell, Mary Weiser or Lillian Bounds.

But for every well-known artist in the Disney fold during the Golden Age of Disney animated films, there were 10 women working behind the scenes, most toiling as inkers and painters. Their job was to transform the artists' rough pencil sketches into sharp, colorful works of art on celluloid sheets that ultimately would become a full-length animated motion picture.

These women, whose anonymity belied their vitally important contributions and their talent, are the subject of a new Disney Editions book, Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation, by Mindy Johnson. More than a deep dive into the history of Disney animation, Ink & Paint is a celebration of the women who not only received little credit for their artwork, but often had to endure difficult working conditions to make each film the success it became.

"I had always been fascinated with the [Ink & Paint] department," Ms. Johnson said in a recent interview. "I would find myself walking through the hallways and peering in on all those extraordinary colors. When I pitched the idea to my editor, we both thought it would be a charming little volume on tea cakes and tea time, paint smocks and the tunnel of love.

"Everybody underestimated what was going on there."

It took five years to put together Ink & Paint, which Ms. Johnson called "a journey, but a labor of love."

"When I started, not much had been written about the subject. There was this myth of pretty girls tracing color and that was kind of all that anybody knew about it."

The cover of "Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation," by Mindy Johnson and published by Disney Editions. [Disney Editions]

Ms. Johnson interviewed scores of women for the book, some surviving inkers or painters, as well as many of the offspring of the women whose story has been waiting to be told for decades.

"It was a very eye-opening experience," Ms. Johnson said. "In terms of what existed on women's roles in ink and paint, there was hardly anything at all. So we had to sort of think peripherally, and re-approach how we could use [the Disney Archives]. It took a different approach, a different way, a different thought process.

"We found some real gems during the research. Meeting members of family, retracing experiences, really opened things up quite a bit. We went through closets and under beds. We saw a lot of private collections."

Ink & Paint measures a hefty 10" x 13" and is 384 pages in total. It is brimming with Ms. Johnson's easy-to-read, yet thorough reporting, beautiful photos [many borrowed from willing interviewees] and wonderful archival illustrations. "As you can see by the out-of-control bibliography, I conducted an extensive amount of interviews and, quite frankly, with the number of ladies who were working at the Studio at the time, I just scratched the surface" on the women who were completely unsung and whose story was totally overdue.

Author Mindy Johnson, who devoted five years in researching and writing the story of the women of Walt Disney's animation in "Ink & Paint."

I asked Ms. Johnson if there were any women still living who had worked on Disney's earliest animated shorts and she was quick to respond. "Yes, we have one [although there may well be other ladies out there]: The amazing Ruthie Tompson."

Ms. Tompson turned 107 back in July. As a young girl growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, she'd often walk past the Disney Brothers Studios and peak through a window to watch the small team of artists at work. One day, Walt Disney himself invited her inside for a quick tour of the office. A few weeks later, Walt asked Ruthie and a few of her neighborhood pals to appear as extras in the latest Alice comedy they were working on.

"Going into the animation lab was a wonderful experience," Ruthie told Ms. Johnson, "watching the drawings being made ... What kid wouldn't be fascinated? I'd sit there all day. Roy [Disney, Walt's brother] would finally say, 'Don't you think it's time for you to go home for dinner?'" Ruthie would go on to become one of the most respected members of the Ink and Paint Department.

Earlier this year, Ms. Johnson presented an event at the Motion Picture Academy, writing, creating and shaping it, which celebrated the trailblazing women of animation, both at Disney and at other animation studios. Ruthie Tompson was in attendance, as was Marge Champion [the fabled dancer who served as a model for the artists working on Snow White] and famed publicist Arlene Ludwig.

"With Ruthie in the room and with a handful of women in animation over the years up until today, we had at least one women who had worked on every Disney animated film ever created," Ms. Johnson said. "A few weeks ago, it was my deep honor to present Ruthie with a copy of my book. We sat for a couple of hours and poured over it and talked about everything. It was sort of a yearbook to her."

Walt Disney holds some swatches of color as he visits the Ink & Paint Department in the 1960s. [The Walt Disney Company]

Ink & Paint is filled with many fascinating stories and a host of intricate details. For instance, everyone knows about Walt's love of trains; but did you know that he had a soda fountain installed in his home so that his daughters, Sharon and Diane, could entertain their friends?

The book begins with an essay about women, titled "What I Know About Girls," which was written by Walt himself. It appeared in Parents magazine in January of 1949. "That was something I came across quite a while ago and felt that if it wasn't the introduction, at least it needed to be part of the book," Ms. Johnson said.

There also are a number of sidebars sprinkled throughout the book, called Feminine First, which offer an in-depth look into some of the lesser-known figures in Disney animation and animation in general. "It became apparent that a number of women needed to be highlighted and featured," Ms. Johnson said. "Women were really breaking ground in some pretty amazing areas. It was important to me that you heard as much of these ladies' stories and their voices as possible."

Ms. Johnson also delves into the working conditions the inkers and painters endured during those early days, even though "in the 1930s, the country was in the height of the Great Depression, so having a job at all, particularly at Disney, was like, as one of the ladies put it, 'You won the lottery!'

"So there was a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of pure gusto and moxie going on among everyone." Ms. Johnson also pointed out that at the time, members of the Ink & Paint Department made more money -- 15 dollars a week -- than a school teacher.

It also was a time when the concept of air-conditioning didn't exist.

"In trying to keep things cool, they experimented with a few things," Ms. Johnson said, "but always it was about retaining the clarity and pristine state of the cels. So dust and other things were an issue. when they had to institute smocks and hairnets and visors, it did get a little stuffy." Heat and humidity not only made working conditions uncomfortable, they also played havoc with the integrity of the paint, often causing it to run or flake.

"If it was too hot, they would shut down and they'd come in during the evenings and early mornings. They [Disney] weren't slave drivers in that regard, but they had to meet deadlines for the films. George The Ice Cream Man did a bang-up job during those hot summer months!"

Still, the hours were long and the work was tedious for the members of Ink & Paint.

It was the inkers' job to trace over the artists' sketches onto celluloid, using black ink. The desired qualities for an inker were accuracy to the pencil drawing; consistency of the pen line, and the ability to improve on the drawing. Inkers used pen points that ranged from fine to super heavy. According to Ms. Johnson, "Drawings were far more than 'traced' or 'transferred;' they were translated. Each pen stroke required interpreting the animator's intent while keeping specific touches of individuality and style intact." To achieve a sure line, Ms. Johnson added, "many inkers controlled their breathing between lines." To maintain a steady hand, inkers would refrain from smoking or drinking coffee.

Once the cels dried, they were checked for uniformity and completion. If a cel didn't measure up, it was sent back to be re-inked. Once each cel passed muster, it was sent to the painting department, where painters would begin the equally arduous task of adding color to the reverse side of the cel. A painter would use one color at a time on cel, put it aside to let the ink dry [about three hours] and then move on to another cel. Depending on the scene, a cel might require dozens of color applications.

"For the most part, they were young, they were excited and they loved what they were doing," Ms. Johnson said. "There was a camaraderie, because they could see the end result. Their work ethic, too, was important. And their work was valued and appreciated."

Some of the women as shown at work in Disney Animation's Ink & Paint Department. [The Walt Disney Company]

The inkers and painters were talented artists in their own right who were subjected to regular performance evaluations. Prospective new hires were given portfolio reviews every Tuesday. It was a grueling process. "Sometimes, even a woman's signature or how they filled out their application forms" would be scrutinized. "Even though they came in with a high level of talent, they still had to go through an extensive training program." If 40 women initially took part in a training session, perhaps three would make the cut and become either inkers or painters.

In reality, the level of talent and artistry in Ink & Paint was extraordinary. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hazel Sewell, the older sister of Lillian Bounds, one of the company's original inkers and painters who would go on the marry the boss, was in charge of the Ink & Paint Department and was the person who championed an escalation of caliber and talent within the ranks.

"Hazel was the first to institute an all-female department," Ms. Johnson said. "She was the first to say that women were better ... that they would get the work done faster and they're harder workers."

There was another woman, Mary Weiser, who single-handedly transformed inking and painting. In the 1930s, after Walt built a then-state-of-the-art facility designed specifically for the inkers and painters, Ms. Weiser developed the first and only paint lab for animation.

"At one point, when they began working on the color for Flowers and Trees in 1934, there were about 80 colors on the shelves," Ms. Johnson said. "Transitioning from then to the early work on Snow White, they went from 80 shades of color to 1,500 shades, many of which were developed and cultivated ... translucent solutions and adhesives and sprays and inks. They even found a formula for hand lotion. They needed something that wasn't going to leave a greasy residue on the cels, and yet the hands of the artists needed to be supple."

In her research, Ms. Johnson found a memo from the company's production managers to the men in the in-between department [in-betweens are the drawings which create the illusion of motion]. "Walt was always mindful of the women's working conditions," Ms. Johnson said. "The memo to the in-betweeners said, 'Watch your language. Walt wants this to be a comfortable place for the women to be working.'"

Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation is the story of the ladies who not only pioneered animation in the early days, it carries on to the women who helped develop the CAP computer-generated technology. "I felt like it was a more natural ending to bring you up to the CAP era. Who the women were and who was at the forefront of that technology, to sort of book-end it."

Ms. Johnson, the author of Tinker Bell: An Evolution, is currently doing book signings and presentations at book stores and colleges in support of Ink & Paint. She's hoping to turn her book into a college course. "It's important not to let the title sway you," she adds. "The book goes far beyond the women of Ink & Paint, but also tracks where women progressed and advanced into animation, editing, backgrounds, writing ... virtually, every discipline of the animation process."

"I've pitched this as a class," she said, "and there are a couple of places already considering it." She's also in the early stages of developing a documentary.

Overall, "It’s been great fun. It was a real delight to meet some of these ladies and the children and the grandchildren. It was powerful. I can’t tell you how many came to me with boxes or portfolios or love letters. A whole bag of wonderful art and materials … often with tears in their eyes in jubilation.

"Many of their responses were: ‘Finally, they’re going to get their stories told.’"

November 15, 2017

The Mousy Mindboggler



As you know if you subscribe to the AllEars® Weekly Newsletter, each month our friend James Dezern (known as "dzneynut" around several Disney discussion forums) supplies us with a puzzle of his own design.

Every month, James has also Shared the Magic in another way -- by posting an all-new puzzle in this AllEars.Net Guest Blog. Sadly, last month's puzzle was the last puzzle for the Guest Blog, but we did want to tie up the loose ends and give you that solution. And fear not! We will continue to post a monthly crossword in the AllEars® newsletter -- keep reading for more info.

We received 29 responses from readers, with everyone knowing that the only other country flag that can be found in the Magic Kingdom is a part of the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction, where you can also hear some Swisskapolka music playing in the background. As a side note, the first country flag that can found in the Magic Kingdom is of course the U.S. flag. But did you know that there is only one true flag in the park, and that is the one that is lowered during the flag retreat ceremony every afternoon in Town Square? All of the other flags that you see around the park are just banners, so they don’t have to be lowered or lit after dark, which is customary.

The winner of a Disney collectible pin was Theresa W. of Staten Island, NY. Congrats!

As we said above, this is our last crossword puzzle entry in the Guest Blog. If you still want the challenge and fun of these puzzles, not to mention the chance to win a Disney collectible pin, be sure to sign up for the AllEars® weekly newsletter, delivered FREE every Tuesday to your inbox.

I am in the process of going through the inventory of animated feature films. Our most recent newsletter puzzle spotlights the film "Lilo & Stitch." You can find it HERE.

As always, any feedback on the puzzle format or topics would be appreciated! Drop me a line at

Thanks for playing, everyone!

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