Disney – part 8 (of 13)

WDW operates on 4 rules (in order of importance):

  • safety
  • courtesy
  • show
  • efficiency

Never mind all the safety and warnings and paramedics on standby, or the sickly-sweet politeness of the cast members or the elaborate shows – this place is one well-oiled slick machine. We booked and attended ‘Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party’. Basically, the Magic Kingdom stays open until after 23:00 (even the rides!), there are snow (blown from the rooftops) with free hot chocolate and cookies whenever you see a giant candy cane. Disney loves putting up a show and if there are enough people, then it calls for a parade, so we witnessed also Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade. A very festive affair.

Now if this was South Africa, when you get to the spot, you would have found staff standing about chatting to each other with no hot chocolate in sight and no sense of urgency. You would have had to ask them about it and wait. Not here. They were prepped and the hot chocolate was made already (still piping hot) and neatly lined-up, alongside cookies already wrapped in a serviette.

This is what I call efficiency!

During the parade, they use a lot of confetti and fake snow and right after (actually, I think it is part of the parade procession), are these cute retro looking oversized vacuum cleaners to clear up the mess again.

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Continue reading Disney – part 9 (of 13).

Disney – part 7 (of 13)

OK, so you are in Disney right? They happen to have nowadays 14 princesses … so why not schedule a meal with them? Admittedly, there was an awkward pause from the call centre cast member when we made the bookings and we responded with “no” at the question “and how many princes and princesses will join you in the party?”. This is the happiest place on earth and we did not care if they will label us as sick twisted borderline pedophiles in the process … we wanted to chase the experience. We did Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Castle on our own, but later in the week the whole group of 8 (which did include 2 children (*phew*)) had a meal at the Royal Banquet in Epcot.

Can you name all the princesses?

There are 3 types of queens (/princesses):

  • Queen Regnant, female monarch, equivalent in rank to a king, who reigns in her own right. A living example would be Lizzy from England.
  • Queen Consort, the wife of a reigning king, like what Catherine will be one day, due to William.
  • Queen Regent, is the guardian of a child monarch, reigning temporarily in their stead. Depending on the timeline, Cersei Lannister (from Game of Thrones) would be an example.

Part of the deal is that they must engage with every table (children present or not) Trust me to ask them questions … most of them were pretty and dimwit – they just want to smile-and-wave and world peace and stuff. Cindy wanted to know if we are good dancers as she would love to see us at the ball. Yeah honey, with a bimbo voice like that, you are way too dainty for my taste. Aurora inquired about how many dragons we have slayed thus far for the day. Seriously, I am putting Green Peace onto you. I’ve asked Snow White that if she is here (with us) who is looking after the dwarfs? “They have been playing hide-and-seek all morning. Who knows where they are”. Great marriage material you are. I sense mothering instincts are high on your curriculum vitae?

Jasmine, however, was quick and sharp. Do you have airbags and safety belts on the carpet? “Oh, I do not know what ‘airbags’ are, but up there the clouds are soft and fluffy, we do have ‘safety tassels’”. My faith restored – one with brains!

You have to love Disney’s attention to detail. As we entered the Castle, we were asked to produce our invitation (as oppose to confirmation receipt) – remember this is a royal affair and attendance is strictly by invitation only). The food was really great as well. At $60 per person (excluding tip), this is also a good money spinner for Disney. You have to book and each seating is sold out months in advance.

Just quickly on the topic of attention to detail: Disney’s parks cater for the whole family. There are enough to keep children occupied. The adults can indulge in the crazy amount of detail to be found everywhere. At the entrance to the Pirates of the Caribbean rides are some flags and the pirate one has a bullet hole …

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Continue reading Disney – part 8 (of 13).

Disney – part 6 (of 13)

As with the Magic Bands, Disney constantly keeps pushing innovation and incorporating new technologies into their parks, guest experiences and shows. The latest addition is a set of Mickey Ears, with LED lights. (Check out the various “glow with the show” youtube clips) When you switch it on, it leisurely toggles through a rainbow of colours, but when the show starts Disney takes control of your ears and let it “glow with the show”.

Sadly, despite Disney’s promotional efforts, it never got traction with the public. Average Angelique and slap bang middle class Mike never understood why they need to pay slightly more for LED Ears, nor the incredibly complicated but perfectly executed synchronisation of IT systems in the background. Naturally we bought it.

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As mentioned earlier, the Magic Band with its RF tag, carries all your entrance tickets, reservations and general info. See below how effortless it is to enter a park;

Some of the corny jokes cast members told us:

  • Pirates and Pals: Where did Captain Hook buy his hook? From a 2nd hand shop.
  • Pirates and Pals: Why does Peter Pan fly? Because he can never land.
  • Tower of Terror (as the haunted elevator doors are about to close): ”Scream if you need anything”.
  • Jungle Cruise: Why does Santa Clause like the Amazon River? Because of all the rain, dear.
  • Jungle Cruise: Where does Santa Clause buy all his presents? From Amazon, of course.

Continue reading Disney – part 7 (of 13).

Disney – part 5 (of 13)

At Magic Kingdom – as with all the parks – they constantly monitor crowd movement. If the crowds are moving too fast into the parks, they will stage an impromptu show near the entrance to slow the movement down. If, the crowds are moving too slowly, they will stage a show at Cinderella’s Castle to draw people into the park, and thus creating movement. Gosh, speaking of big brother. But it works. On an average day up to 40 000 people can pass through Magic Kingdom’s gates.

If you’ve flown almost 1/3 around the world, you will want to maximise your experiences. We did just that. Of the 7 nights we stayed at Disney, we only had 1 night free of any reservation or confirmation … we have spent that evening wandering about at Disney Springs. It is a pure commercial zone filled with shops and – get this! – you can smoke anywhere outside. Double standards much??

We did a Pirates and Pals event. There were some snacks beforehand and photo opportunities with Captain Hook and Schmee. Afterwards we divided into 2 teams and went in boats onto the lake opposite Magic Kingdom to watch the Wishes firework show, narrated by Jiminy Cricket. Each boat had a pirate cast member to keep the vibe going. At one stage he ventures into the crowd and asks where the guests are from. He was pleasantly surprised to hear ‘Cape Town, South Africa’ (way too much explaining about Brackenfell … Cape Town is close enough!). He responded by “we do not get South Africans ever”. Which means South Africans are either too cheap to pay extra for an event like this one, or they are just unaware of this alternative way to watch fireworks.

Apart from the military, Disney is the second biggest purchaser of explosives in the United States. At WDW there are 3 firework shows every night of the year; Wishes at Magic Kingdom, Illuminations at Epcot and Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios. We did them all – and Wishes 3 times! (from the boat, in front of the castle, behind the castle) Wishes start with projections on the castle, followed by an insane amount of fireworks … (All photos on this blog will always be taken by us, except otherwise mentioned. Nighttime photography requires patience, practise and a good tripod. The following is taken from a collection received by Disney as part of their PhotoPass Programme.)

Continue reading Disney – part 6 (of 13).

Disney – part 4 (of 13)

Guests at WDW consume annually;

  • 75 million Cokes
  • 13 million bottles of water
  • 10 million hamburgers
  • 6 million hotdogs
  • 9 million pounds of french fries
  • 300 000 pounds of popcorn.

The bulk of the guests are Americans and they are large. No. Large or big-boned is what I am, and I felt thin!  Let me save a 1 000 words and show you …

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I am not convinced that there was a Thyroid Conference held at WDW, during our stay.

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The truly disabled were in specialised or motorised wheelchairs. During our 7 days, we saw less than 10 people who “qualified” (according to me) to ride a scooter. As for the rest: they can really benefit burning a few calories by walking. Over weight is not a disease. I have not heard yet of anyone catching the “fat virus”.

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The most annoying encounters were getting onto buses. The scooter people had to be loaded first. Hydraulically the bus leans towards the pavement and a ramp extends outwards. The scooter heaves its passenger onto the bus, and their groupies (sometimes up to 8 people) enters with them. A miracle healing takes place inside the bus and the person musters enough energy to transfer to a seat without any help or assistance. The bus levels itself again and the ramp retracts. The back doors close and we are allowed to find whatever seats are left. There is only space for 2 scooters per bus, and they need to disembark last. You can easily loose 20 minutes if 2 scooters want to ‘hop’ on.

Disney is very discreet when it came to size. The cast members will direct qualifying people to rows that can accommodate them. At Universal Studios they took a different approach. There is a dummy seat outside the entrance to the ride, with a sign similar to this one:

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The day starts with a calorie-fest and just goes off the chart from there. Check out the mother (in nightie!) harvesting soda fountain for her family.

I only did whale watching whenever I found a smoking section. Man, these Americans are screwed up. You can have another coke (even bottomless), but do not dare smoke outside a designated smoking section. It felt to me like such an achievement every time I found a place that I am legitimately allowed to smoke, that I sometimes rewarded myself with two.

Continue reading Disney – part 5 (of 13).

Disney – part 3 (of 13)

Pension Fund (reference to my partner) warned me that I am not preparing myself sufficiently for the scale of it all. Disney’s All Star Movies Resort have 1 920 rooms spread over 10 3-storey buildings. Each set of 2 buildings have their own theme. We were in the Toy Story section. Our shuttle dropped us at the main building, which consist of; reception, a gift shop, cafeteria and games arcade. This is 11:30 on a Saturday and according to the staff they are not busy now. There are two long queues: combined check-in/check-out and guest services. I desperately want to shower. Luckily the queue is moving along nicely.

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Ahh, the magic bands. It is officially still in “rollout phase” and we almost changed hotels to ensure we get these. Pretty nifty. It contains an RF tag and everything is linked to it: hotel room key, park entrances, special events and you can shop on it too. If you order in advance you can choose your colour and they print your name on it.  This system works so well that you can leave your wallet in the room. There is no need to fiddle. You hold the band to the scanner, punch in your chosen pin and voila, you’ve paid for your food/shopping. Park entry required a fingerprint scan as well. As you do not handle cash, you do not really keep track of your spending … something Disney loves! Remember my earlier comment on merchandise profits?

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Disney is the gold standard on customer service. They are also the pioneers on crowd control (and manipulation – more about this later). They are also – according to this hot-and-bothered soul with the questionable BMI – super efficient with air conditioning. I believe they use this to enhance sales, as they lure you into their many shops with the guaranteed promise of heavenly cooled air. Got me a couple of times. Am here … might as well buy something 😉

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Not only has every shop its own décor, but the cast members’ uniforms are unique as well. It then should come as no surprise that their wardrobe department consist of more than 2 500 different designs, which make up a working wardrobe of more than 1.8 million pieces. Around 13 000 costume pieces are manufactured each year. 31 000 items are dry cleaned daily.

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I think one gets hypnotised on day 1 or 2 at WDW … because for some reason on day three, you think it is cool for a grown man to wear a cartoon character t-shirt.

On average, 250 000 Guests at the Walt Disney World Resort ride the various forms of ‘mass transit’ every day, which include monorails, ferryboats, bus services and water taxis. 270 buses continuously shuttle people between the various hotels and parks, with an average waiting time of +/- 20 minutes between buses – given of course there are no “scooter people”. The system is slick. Outside every hotel/park, there are marked and allocated queues, to destinations where you can travel to. Read the signage, stand in line and in a nick of time there is a handsomely air-conditioned bus to zip you to your destination. Free of charge.

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Continue reading Disney – part 4 (of 13).

Disney – part 2 (of 13)

South African Airways flies “direct” from Cape Town to Orlando, but under cross examination they crumbled and admitted to a re-fueling at the Ivory Coast. We wanted to leave Africa – not explore it. British Airways flies to Heathrow and have a direct flight from Gatwick to Orlando, with a mysterious bus trip between the 2 airports and no one is clear on whether you need a UK visa or not. (Much, much later it turned out that if you hold a valid US visa and you only transit through the UK then you do not need their visa as well. Too late, we cried). We decided to go with Delta Airlines (JHB-Atlanta-Orlando, with a British Airways connection flight on free miles from CPT-JHB). As this is an indulgent holiday, we cashed in all the miles for Business Class on the CPT-JHB flight. It is completely unnecessary but a great treat. We now know why there is a curtain. And no, we are not telling. For the first time on a plane, I felt like a person and not like livestock.

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(Nope, wasn’t expecting to find nuts inside this packet. Was secretly hoping for a pizza.)

Were met on the Delta plane with … how can I describe this politely… VERY experienced cabin crew. In fact, so experienced, we started speculating whether they were issued with the aircraft when it was taken into service decades ago. They were not decorated with long service awards, but rather badges detailing all the body parts that have been replaced and/or rejuvenated. Haha. No really, but they might have been as well. What a bunch of rude, sour and lifeless old bags. With every trolley service, I was expecting a death, as they zombie up and down the isles.

In 17 hours, you can run the Comrades Marathon, or complete 2 working days, or watch the International Space Station pass by 11 times, or fly JHB-Atlanta sentenced to a small seat with hardly any cushioning. Delta does not seem to do comfort.

We do not acquire foreign currency in advance any more. You land on the other side and find an ATM. With a 60 minute lay-over there was no time left after Atlanta immigration dragged their feet, trying to protect unauthorised entry into a country that is almost bankrupt! I was looking forward to the short euphoric dizziness usually associated with a prolong period of non-smoking. It eluded me, as I kept starring at the text message from my bank, casually proclaiming that I have just spent R44 on a tasteless sample-size hot chocolate.

If you stay at any of the 22 resorts/hotels/lodges/villas owned and operated by Disney, then “Disney’s Magical Express” will pick you up from the airport for free! They have after all their own wing at Orlando airport. I am always a bit skeptical about this word … free. Think about it. With just under 25 000 rooms’ worth of accommodation available at WDW, do you really – after how many hours of flying – want to sit in a bus filled with sugar-rushed kids of all ages? Hell no. We pre-booked a private shuttle, thank you. If you must do something, dammit, do it in style.

Continue reading Disney – part 3 (of 13).

Disney – part 1 (of 13)

Our Disney 2013 Project spent 18 months in planning, of which the last 12 months were focused on finance and detail (with loads of research!). During this time – as one naturally do – you speak to friends/family/colleagues and through this I have learned that people in general carry little knowledge on Walt as a person or his various theme parks … let alone the vast multi-national that it is today (in 2012 they have posted net income of $9,964 million, of this $937 million came from merchandise!). Most notably people get confused between the smaller Disney Land in California and the much bigger Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Walter Elias Disney was born on 5 December 1901. He had two failed business enterprises before his bother Roy bought into his vision and started what is known today as the Walt Disney Company.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was in 1927 an instant success for Walt, but he lost the rights to the character to Universal Pictures. He felt the need to develop a new character to replace Oswald, which was based on a mouse he had adopted as a pet earlier. One of the animators reworked the sketches made by Disney to make the character easier to animate, although Mickey’s voice and personality were provided by Walt Disney himself until 1947. Originally named ‘Mortimer’, the mouse was later renamed ‘Mickey’ by Lillian Disney (Walt’s wife), who thought that the name Mortimer did not sound appealing. Mortimer eventually became the name of Mickey’s rival for Minnie. It took 78 years to get back the rights to the Oswald character when in 2006 the Walt Disney Company reacquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal.

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During his lifetime, Disney received 248 awards in total, (including 7 Emmys and 22 Academy Awards). He also has 2 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1 for motion pictures and 1 for his TV work).

Disney Land California opened in 1955. It was successful, but Walt was not happy with the lack of more free land for expansion and the unpleasant weather. He wanted to open another theme park on the East Coast and was doing aerial surveys around Orlando’s forest and swamp lands in the state of Florida. He wanted the park away from the coastline, as to not having to compete with the ocean for tourists. Disney kept his plans quiet and set up dummy corporations to secretly buy the land for his park so that speculators could not run up the price. He was successful. By the time plans for the park were revealed, Disney’s lawyers had purchased 27,400 acres straddling the Orange-Osceola county line at an average price of only $182 per acre. In the mid 60’s there were less than 50 000 people living in central Florida – mostly farmers (oranges and cattle). In comparison Walt Disney World Orlando employs today 64 000 staff …. or ‘cast members’ as they are called. To have the blessing of space Disney paid for the last pockets of land (to take the property up to 30 000 acres) up to $80 000 per acre. Only 1/3 is developed (into parks, resorts, golf courses, etc.), with a 1/3 empty and the last 10 000 acres earmarked for conservation.

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Lake Buena Vista, along with its sister city of Bay Lake, is part of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-governmental entity created by The Walt Disney World Co. The district and the two cities were authorized by the Florida Legislature in May 1967 after the Disney Company presented lawmakers with a set of requests to give it unprecedented administrative jurisdiction over zoning, road construction, utilities, building codes, drainage and environmental protection. Eager for the tourist dollars and jobs that Disney World would bring, the Legislature agreed. Thus, as result Walt Disney World [“WDW”] carries the same status as a city and reports to themselves. WDW is roughly the same size as San Francisco, or two Manhattan Islands.

Sadly, Walt died in 1966 before construction began on WDW, therefore never seeing his dream realised. His brother Roy stepped up, oversaw construction and opened the Magic Kingdom on 1 October 1971. Roy died 3 months later, on 20 December 1971.

Apart from the vast list of business units owned by Disney they also have Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm in their stable. OK, enough with the history lesson!

Continue reading Disney – 2 (of 13).

Thailand – part 9 (of 9)

Our reason for the stopover was not to hang with the locals, but to ride the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi – an hour’s drive away from Dubai. What a treat. A whole theme park dedicated to cars, speed and all things Ferrari, all under one massive air conditioned roof. OK, so I thought it is going to be fast. Maybe like the Cobra and then some little bit more? I was not expecting to be issued with goggles and countless warnings to remove all loose items. The Formula Rossa ride tops out at 240km/h, just before you lose your conscience and your eardrums pop. There is a safety belt and a hydraulic bar keeping you in the car. YouTube “Ferrari World” and see for yourself what the ride does to your face and cheeks. The R500 entrance fee pp well spent. Turns out there are loads of other rides as well. We got kicked out of 2 kiddie rides we wanted to take as well. The staff looked somewhat familiar. What with names like Xola & Werner? We also saw one Eslie (Ashley). 80% of the staff is from SA – we asked. Soooooo, when you stumble upon a proud mother boasting about her child working for Ferrari, just smile and walk off knowing he is actually selling cool drinks in a theme park.

Thailand was great – the humidity is problematic, but luckily most things worthwhile visiting is soothingly air conditioned.

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Starbucks will be sadly missed.

What to learn a bit more about Walt Disney?

Thailand – part 8 (of 9)

We flew with an Airbus A380-800 from Bangkok to Dubai. For such a mammoth plane the take-off and landing was remarkably silky.

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I do not really like Dubai. It has no specific culture and is merely 25 years old, in its current format. Besides, I do not understand the locals’ arrogance. Oil was only discovered about 60 years ago and they’ve pretty much ran out of it already. So this is new money. In the bigger scheme of things, they’ve sat just the other day still in a tent in the desert eating dates.

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It is however a land of plenty and excess. Think of a hobby or something you want to give a try and Dubai will offer it, even (snow) skiing. But they suffer from a bad case of chronic low self-esteem, because everything they do must be the biggest, the tallest, the smallest, the widest, and the shiniest. Like I said, “new money”.

Abu Dhabi is the biggest and richest emirate.

Just before the unveiling of the world’s tallest building (earmarked to be called “Burj Dubai”) the international credit crunch happened and Dubai found its petty cash tin empty. The king of Abu Dhabi (which is also the ruler of the United Arab Emirates), financially bailed them out, but Dubai had to pay with pride, hence why the building is named after him; Burj Khalifa (828m / 160 stories – Table Mountain is only 1 087 above sea level, which means if it was built next to the bottom cable station, it will tower past the top one)

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What a mission to get into Dubai. If you apply for your visa online they want some R2 500, of which you get R1 700 back 4 days after your departure. Stiff, and this just to see a sand heap. If you use a Cape Town agency you pay only R500. Getting off the Emirates plane and taking the non-transfer route, they scan your hand luggage before you get to customs. What is it with custom officials always being miserable and rude? With passport and visa in hand we felt equipped and ready. Nope. After queuing for a bit, to reach the front of the line, the “very friendly” guy who forgot his towel on his head, said we must get a stamp. Pointing vaguely and with a lack of enthusiasm in a general direction. Righty then, I am ready to get on the next plane out of here. One would assume they would be grateful to get visitors to their bankrupt city, but clearly I am the only one with sound logic here. After a brisk hike with choice Afrikaans words exchanged, we reached the “eye scan” section. Another queue. Got to the front. Some slightly friendlier guy (also with towel) didn’t even look at us or our passports, grabbed the visas and stamped the date on it. So much for a free eye scan then. Back then to the first guy. Now he wants to know where we are going to stay. Him tapping vigorously on his keyboard. Got my brother’s address out and showed it to him. [Since the 2009 Indian trip to this one in 2011, my expat brother and family relocated from Chennai to Dubai] More tapping on keyboard. And a contact telephone number. Now he wants a contact telephone number!? Did I not complete a doctoral thesis back in South Africa on your visa application form with everything you ever wish to know of me or my whereabouts? Wasted sarcasm on this one who is trying to clear his throat every time he speaks – should really see a doctor about that. OK. OK, I’ll find it. It’s on my phone. Scratch in bag, find phone and switch it on. I was just about to unlock sim when he handed us our passports back and said we can go. So what was this? Silly little questions just to check my blood pressure? I was ready to hand him a urine sample.

Sweet, we’re through. Now just to get our luggage, smoke and find a taxi. Sounds easy enough. Nope. About 10 metres away from freedom (and a smoke), another guy with a throat problem, pointed at me and said I must have my luggage scanned. At this point, I had no fluent grammar left and just complied without unwanted commentary. Would you have it? 2 suitcases and my hand luggage went through the machine only for me to realize that fat bastard is having a chat with another towel guy and not even looking at the screen. The ways they find to entertain themselves. I had 2 cigarettes and it felt good.

Continue reading Thailand – 9 (of 9).