Thursday, December 29, 2011

The New XPass: What Does It Mean for You and Me? By Bob Angelo.

Recently, the online Disney community has been aflutter with rumors that XPass may be introduced at the Walt Disney Parks as early as 2012 (see Kevin Yee's excellent article here). No, it's not part of the new Fantasyland Expansion, but it may be as big a story. What exactly is it, and why should you care?


XPass is a next generation technology; a sort of enhanced Fastpass system that guests would pay for, and would allow them to plan out their entire Walt Disney World vacation; from what rides and attractions they want to experience, to character greetings, weeks or months before they even set foot in a Disney park. Once they arrive and get to a park, the guest would then just follow the specific plan they created, show up to an attraction, waive the XPass and bypass the other guests waiting on line. Guests utilizing the system would also be given special seating/viewing areas for parades, fireworks, and nighttime entertainment such as “Fantasmic.”

A project that is near and dear to Disney CEO Bob Iger's heart, the idea gained more attention earlier this year when Chairman of the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Tom Staggs, commented that the company was working on a version of Fastpass for a guest's entire Disney vacation. To further muddy the waters a little, Jim Hill Media has reported that XPass would not be available for purchase by all guests; instead, only those guests who book a deluxe resort would be afforded the opportunity to partake.

Assuming this project is real, and these rumors are true (and I should stress again that all of this is just a rumor at this point, and nothing has been officially announced) I think it raises a number of concerns. First, since XPass guests would presumably be using the Fastpass entrance at attractions, in order to keep the flow of traffic moving, it's reasonable to assume that Disney will reduce the total number of Fastpasses available to other guests on any given day. I also have concerns about how Disney will handle guests using XPass at attractions or experiences that don't normally have them, such as at character greetings. Will guests be split into two separate lines? Will "normal" guests have to wait longer each time a guest with the pass decides they want to meet Mickey? And exactly how does Disney intend to respond to the backlash that is certain to occur from guests who don't have XPass or are not familiar with it, and don't like the idea of people “cutting” in front of them? After all, more than 10 years after its introduction, there are still people who don't understand the Fastpass system, and get upset when people walk by them and directly onto attractions.

Second, I don't like the idea of a caste system at Disney(or any theme park for that matter). It's bad enough that people who are willing to spend more money would get to seemingly have an easier, more enjoyable vacation, but to limit the purchase of the XPass only to those guests staying in Deluxe resorts isn't fair at all. Whether intentional or not, it sends the message that by staying in a deluxe resort, you are somehow better than everyone else, which simply isn't true. I have talked to many clients who could easily afford to stay in a deluxe resort, but for a variety of reasons, do not - they tour all day and aren't at the resort enough to enjoy it; they have young children who enjoy the theme of the value resorts better, or they like the fact that staying at a value gives them the option to stay for a longer period of time than staying at a deluxe would. And what about guests who choose for one reason or another to stay off-site? What about locals who have no reason to stay on or off property? If people's money isn't good just because they choose not to stay in a deluxe resort, maybe they start spending that money elsewhere.

Lastly, this just isn't the Disney way. To be fair, this whole idea isn't new; a certain other park just up the road from Walt Disney World where a famous boy wizard hangs out has (and has had for years) a similar system in place for on-site hotel guests and those willing to fork over extra cash on top of the base ticket price for the chance to bypass the lines at many of the popular attractions. And our friend Jim Hill, of the aforementioned Jim Hill Media, would remind me that if I said such a thing to Disney's board members, I would be quickly told “Well, maybe that wasn't Walt's way, but Walt's not around anymore, and this is how we do things now.” But when Disneyland first opened, it opened with the idea that it was a place where all families could go and have a good time together. Believe it or not, in its early days, there was even the idea in place that a guest should leave with money in their pocket at the end of the day because it would build brand loyalty. Clearly we aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

That doesn't change the fact that Disney ISN'T that park with the boy wizard, and the Disney parks are STILL a place meant for families of any shape and size to go and have a good time. The minute Disney starts putting in place systems that reward people with specialized attraction access, priority character meet and greets, and VIP viewing spots for parades and fireworks if they spend more money, they lose that. The minute guests are essentially categorized based on where they choose to put down their head at night, they risk isolating a segment of those same guests. Where Disney has always excelled is in the fact that they were different; there is no place you can go that is quite like Walt Disney World -not even Disneyland. What has always made it special for me is that no matter how many times I visit the parks, I can always find the magic somewhere, and all around me, I can see guests finding that same magic. I'd hate to see a system put in place where the level of magic you can find is dictated by your credit limit. Say it ain't so, Disney. Say it ain't so.

Thanks to Bob for his thoughts on this issue.  What do you think? 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saying Good-Bye to Disney at the End of Your Trip by Bob Angelo.



Say Goodbye...Say Goodbye to Hollywood (Studios)
*with apologies to Billy Joel for ruining his song lyrics


It's something every visitor who comes to Walt Disney World eventually must face.  No, not the turkey legs, though those are everywhere too.  I'm talking about dealing with the end of your vacation. If you're anything like I was before I moved to Florida and became a theme park junkie, about halfway into the trip it dawns on you that soon your visit to the place where dreams come true will be over. Soon you'll have to return home to the real world; back to a place where wearing mouse ears on your head is largely frowned upon. This is especially true if you happen to work in a law office - just trust me on this one. While leaving is hard, here are some ways to make saying goodbye easier.

 1.  Take lots of pictures. I know, this one seems like a no-brainer, but I'm surprised by the amount of people in the parks who never seem to take a single one! I've been to the parks hundreds of times now, and it's rare that my wife and I are there without a camera. For many, I think there is this mindset that “I've been there once before, why do I need to take pictures,” but the beauty of Disney World is that there is always something different to see and capture, and having photographs to look back on is a great way to re-live memories of your trip. You could even start a new tradition, say, a family photo of everyone on your first day, and then on your last on every trip.

2.  Experience a character meal. Some guests shrug off the idea of dining with the characters, feeling it silly to eat in the presence of cast members wearing costumes. To those people, I say “What costumes?” Seriously though, whether you stand in line to meet all the characters when at the parks or knock them out of the way as you rush towards It's a Small World for another thrilling ride (it's so much better these days now that they've added that 50 foot drop at the end, anyway), character meals are a lot of fun, and a great way to say goodbye and remember your trip. Depending on your schedule, you can do a dinner the night before, or a breakfast the morning of your departure. For most people, the go-to character meal is going to be Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort, but if you can't get in there, or have a fear of monorails (hey, watch it, it's a real thing), then I also recommend Tusker House at Animal Kingdom or Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom. Since these last two places are in the parks themselves, park admission is obviously required, so you may have to plan on doing your farewell meal earlier in your visit.

3.  Do some last minute shopping. This is probably easier for those folks who have a later flight out or those driving, so if that's you, before you leave, head to Downtown Disney and pick up some souvenirs for yourself, and for family who didn't get to go with you because there was just no way you were going to spend an entire week with them in a tiny hotel room. After all, nothing says “I missed you while I was having fun at Disney World” like a coffee mug shaped like a duck's butt. If that's a little too weird for you, there's also one shaped like Mickey's shorts. Personally, both of them make me uncomfortable, but I still sell a ton of them to people on Ebay. Don't forget to pick up some goodies for the trip home, too, especially if you have unused snack credits. My suggestion would be to get one of those giant rice crispy treats. They're so packed with butter and so dense that eating one can take hours – but hey, it's still better than airline food. If you can't make it to DTD before you leave, but you're flying out of Orlando International Airport, never fear, travelers, Disney has two stores at the airport that are filled with stuff to buy and that will gladly take whatever money you have left before you head home.

4.  On your last day, do your favorite park and attractions. Again, depending on your departure schedule, your last day might be the morning of departure or the day before. Whenever it is, your last day in the parks on your visit should be spent in your favorite park(s) experiencing the attractions and shows that you enjoyed most. Want to try and beat your high score on Buzz Lightyear Spaceranger Spin? Go for it! Want to ride Space Mountain until you puke? Good for you! Do you want to experience the beauty of California one last time at Soarin? Then do it. Don't spend your last full day, or your last few hours of your trip doing something you won't enjoy; leave with happy memories of a great vacation and excited about what you will do when you return.

If none of these suggestions work for you, you could always adopt Chris's tradition. On her last full day in the parks at Walt Disney World, she spends the entire day at the Magic Kingdom, taking in the attractions, the parades, the fireworks, and the food. At the end of the night, as the park starts to empty out, she stands on Main Street and just stares at the castle. And she continues to stand there, in fact, until she is the only one left in the park, and two cast members have to drag her out while she is kicking and screaming “No, I'm not ready to leave yet, you can't make me!” I only wish I was joking about this last paragraph. At least Disney finally caved and let her have an annual pass, and now she gets to visit any time she wants.  (Editor's note:  That's kind of true. -Chris)

Bob is a Disney travel agent and Central Florida local. You can follow his exploits here and on Facebook.  Email him at Bob@PixieVacations.com for free concierge-level help in planning your next Disney vacation.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Opening Dates for the New Art of Animation Suites.

Proposed Cars secion of the resort.

Thinking of booking a vacation at Disney's Art of Animation Suites?  You can book these rooms, which will open in sections on the grounds of what was the proposed Golden Years section at the Pop Century Resort, starting on the following dates.

  • Nemo Suites: Opening May 31, 2012.
  • Cars suites:  August 31, 3012.
  • The Lion King Suites:  September 30, 2012.
  • The Little Mermaid rooms: Sometimes in December.
I checked the travel agent side of the Disney site today and the Little Mermaid rooms aren't showing up yet for us to book. I'll let you know when I hear of a more solid date.  

Suites will sleep six and have a refrigerator and microwave. The Little Mermaid rooms will sleep four and be similar and size and amenities(in other words, no fridge without paying a $10 nightly fee) to the rooms at other value resorts.  The resort will feature an 11,859-square-foot pool, the largest of any of Disney resort.


Thanks to Suzy B. for your question regarding the Little Mermaid section.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New Year's Eve at Walt Disney World



Please welcome my good friend and fellow podcaster Bob Angelo. Bob is a travel agent with Pixie Vacations, a huge Disney fan, and, as you can see here, pretty funny. I hope this post amuses you and helps you if you're planning on spending New Year Eve at Walt Disney World.

Many past guests (and even some first timers) to Walt Disney World have the dream of spending New Year's Eve at one of the Disney parks and ringing in the new year with Mickey and Minnie. Despite being a local to the parks and a Disney annual passholder for a number of years, I never had this dream. Sure, I've had fleeting moments where I thought it could be fun, and then I remember I'd forgotten to take my medication that morning and the voices in my head that make me do crazy impulsive things were starting to return.


This year, however, my mother-in-law, is celebrating a major milestone birthday on December 31st, (and because I genuinely like my mother-in-law, and she still likes me, I'm not going to tell you exactly what that milestone is) and she wanted to do something "exciting" and "different" to celebrate. I'm not quite sure what came over me, but before I knew it, I heard myself saying "Well, why don't we go to Disney World for your birthday and ring it in with style?" If you're going to be one of the people braving Disney World on New Year's Eve this year (or you're thinking of going in the future) here's some things you need to know before you go.

First, only the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios will stay open for midnight fireworks and festivities. I don't think I need to explain why Animal Kingdom doesn't shoot off fireworks, but just in case, it's because it really upsets the animals (yes, Virginia, they're really real, and I'm so tired of hearing people on the safari attraction say otherwise -but I digress!), and no one wants to deal with ticked off lions and tigers and...rhinos.

Fireworks at Hollywood Studios are sort of a big deal, because the park only shoots them off only twice year now, on July 4th and December 31st. Similar to what they do for the 4th of July, the Magic Kingdom will show its New Year's Eve fireworks on both December 30th and 31st, so you could catch them a day early there, and then spend New Year's Eve at a different park. Epcot will present a special version of its fireworks show, Illuminations, twice -once earlier in the evening, and once later to coincide with the actual countdown.

Second, it will be crowded. Very crowded. New Year's Eve is among one of the most crowded, if not THE most crowded day at the parks. I've heard people joke (half seriously) "You can fall down and not ever touch the ground, such are the crowds." Expect to be shoulder to shoulder and long waits for everything from attractions to restrooms. This is not the time for you to plan your first ever visit to the parks. A good touring plan is a must, and even then, keep your expectations reasonable. Try to hit your "must do attractions", and get to the parks early, to maximize the amount of time you have before the parks really start to fill up.

Third, heavy crowds means park closures. Walt Disney World is unique in that it shuts down its parks in stages. Here's how those stages work:

Stage 1: In this first phase the parking lot is closed and you will only be admitted using Disney transportation.

Stage 2: The ticket windows are closed (including automatic Ticket Vending Machines) so in this phase, if you don’t already have a ticket for that park, you will not get in. Guests who are re-entering the same park on the same day will be admitted, as will Disney resort guests, annual passholders, and guests already holding park hoppers.

Stage 3: Only those who are Disney resort guests or Annual Passholders will be admitted.

Stage 4: The park is closed to all incoming guests. There is no incoming transportation of any kind.

What does this mean for you? If you are staying offsite, plan on getting to a park early. Even if you have an annual pass, that's not going to matter if you are staying offsite and the parking lot to the park you want to get to is closed, after all. Having a dining reservation isn't going to help you either:  If the park is closed, you still will not be allowed to enter. Lastly, many resort guests believe that staying onsite guarantees them entrance to whatever park they choose. That would be wrong. If staying onsite, and a park reaches a Stage 4 closure, you will given admission into a park, just not necessarily one of your choosing.

It's a good bet that the Magic Kingdom is going to close to capacity first, and close early. In years past, Stage 4 closure has happened around 10:30-11:00 a.m., so plan ahead. The park will likely open up later in the afternoon/early evening as crowds lessen a bit, but if the Magic Kingdom is your must do park to ring in the new year, then you want to make sure you are inside those gates early, and stay all day.

Remember that if you arrive at a park and then choose to leave, it's not a guarantee that you will get back in. If Hollywood Studios or Epcot were to close, I would expect them both to happen later in the afternoon/evening, if at all.   All reports indicate that guests have been able to get into Hollywood Studios even at 5 or 6 p.m. with no problems, and Epcot, due to its size, has not closed, though World Showcase can be a log jam of people, with people grabbing spots to watch the fireworks 3-5 hours in advance. Animal Kingdom won't close to capacity, but it won't be open past 8 p.m., either.

Celebrating a major holiday at one of the Disney parks can be exciting, and create happy memories to last a lifetime. You just have to remember to have realistic expectations about what you will be able to accomplish that day, and bring your patience. Regardless of which park you decide to ring in 2012 in, just keep repeating this mantra - "I am here for the experience, not the attractions."

Have you spent New Year's Eve at Disney before, or will you be this year? Share your stories with us in the comments!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Upgrading Your Disney Park Tickets to An Annual Pass.

Just a quick note to let you know about some changes in upgrading your Magic Your Way tickets to an annual pass. In the past, you could upgrade most Disney park tickets to an annual pass as long as you did it within fourteen days from the first day of use, even if there were no days left on the ticket. At one point, you could even upgrade when you got home as long as you still had the ticket and you did it within the same month.

Here are the new rules:

  • Tickets must be upgraded within the first seven days of use.  That means if you first use the ticket on a Monday, you'll need to upgrade it by the close of business on Sunday.
  • Tickets must have at least one day remaining on them.
  • Tickets must be upgraded in person.
While you can buy a new annual pass at your resort's concierge desk, you'll need to go to a ticket booth or Guest Relations in the park or Downtown Disney to upgrade your Magic Your Way tickets to an annual pass. I just did this at the will-call booth in the Magic Kingdom a couple of days ago and it took all of five minutes. Make sure you have your photo ID with you.  You AP start date will be the date you first started using the Magic Your Way ticket, not the day you upgraded to an AP.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top 5 Walt Disney World Guide Books

We have a special guest post for you. George, from Imaginerding has written a post about the top five travel books related to Walt Disney World. Make sure to head over to Imaginerding and check out all of the other nerdy Disney stuff that George writes about. And tell him that Chris sent ya!




Looking for a travel guide to Walt Disney World?

I want to share my five favorite Walt Disney World travel guides. In no particular order, of course.


1. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa. 

Considered by many to be the mother of all travel guides, this perennial favorite is longer than most Harry Potter books and packs more information per square inch. This is a great guide for people who have visited more than once and are looking to optimize their vacation dollars, time and enjoyment. No one reviews as many hotels nor offers the amazing touring plans (if you buy the book, you get a discount to TouringPlans.com). Although there is plenty for first-timers to learn by reading this book, it can be very overwhelming. Many people I have discussed the guide with confess to buying it every year and using it to research their upcoming trip--you are not required to read the whole book every year.




2. Birnbaum's Guides Walt Disney World: Expert Advice from the Inside Source.

For many years, Birnbaum's Guides were the only Walt Disney World travel books with pictures. Of course, they were black and white, which really didn't count. The current editions do offer color photos and they have always offered a colorful and very pleasing format. This is the book that I recommend to first-time visitors since the information is presented in such an easy-to-use format. The attempt is to give the reader an overview without offering too much information that could confuse or confound. The maps are very similar to what you pick up at the parks so you can familiarize yourself before you head down. This is a great planning tool for families to use together.




3. The Complete Walt Disney World by Julie Neal and Mile Neal.

First published in 2007, the Neal's guide took the Walt Disney World travel guide market by storm and won many awards. It was the very first non-Disney publication to feature photographs. The book is fairly comprehensive and does a great job of straddling the Unofficial and Official Guides. The book has a great layout and they spend a majority of the pages describing and rating the attractions and shows. They do cover everything else, like the resorts, restaurants and recreation, and they do it well. This is a good book for first-timers but it is still geared more towards the veteran Walt Disney World visitor. The Neals also include a lot of hidden Mickeys and oft-missed details.




4. PassPorter's Walt Disney World: The Unique Travel Guide, Planner, Organizer, Journal, and Keepsake! by Jennifer Marx, Dave Marx and Allison Cerel Marx.

The Passporter guides have always done a great job of offering a resource for the people with an obvious eye for planning and details. The guide is spiral bound and offers pockets for holding planning documents and souvenirs. One of the great options presented by Passporter is the resort detail. Resort maps, room layouts and color photographs are included. In addition to offering space for your planning needs, the Passporter guide also includes spaces for journaling. Imagine being able to see what you, your kids or other party members wrote about that once-in-a-lifetime trip.




5. The Imagineering Filed Guides to... Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios by Alex Wright.

Written by Imagineer Alex Wright, this series of field guides are an excellent source for learning the details, designs and decisions behind the attractions, shows and architecture of the Walt Disney World theme parks. These books are perfect for accomplished Walt Disney World travelers. Not to say that first-timers won't love them, but the books were born out of a love for the parks and the desire to share some of the insider secrets. These books should be a requisite for the plane ride to Orlando. They are a sure-fire way to impress your travel partners with your insider knowledge. Also, the books are a fun read after your trip; they are a great way to relive your trip and read about the things you may have overlooked (to help you plan for your next trip).

George runs ImagiNERDing, one of the geekier sites about Disney. He has a fetish for books about Disney and it shows. George is also a travel agent with Pixie Vacations. He would love to help you plan your NERDiest vacation ever--send him an email at george@pixievacations.com to get a price quote or just talk Disney.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Latest Fantasyland Expansion Updates.


You know the old joke about the Disney World bus driver telling a guest that Disney is building a 5th park? Well, I didn't get this information from a bus driver and in fact, the source seems pretty reliable. When I was in the Magic Kingdom on Sunday morning, there was a cast member doing an informal presentation front of one of the Fantasyland construction walls (above) about the projected opening dates of the expansion. I talked to him a bit more after he finished and here's what he had to say:

  • The Little Mermaid attraction is finished inside and cast members have already ridden it. He described it as "slightly longer and a lot better" than the one in Disneyland. 
  • The Little Mermaid attraction, officially known as Ariel's Undersea Adventure, will open this summer.
  • The rest of the Fantasyland expansion will be completed by the end of 2012. Because Disney usually likes to test out attractions during the slower months, I would expect soft openings as far out as November so that they can iron out all the kinks before the Thanksgiving and Christmas crowds flood the parks.
  • Cast members have not been given any projected opening date for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride, which he referred to as "a big hole in the ground at this time."
Obviously, I'm not certain that this information is 100% accurate since we've seen various dates all over the place, but I'm inclined to think that this information is solid because no sane cast member would speak to a crowd in the Magic Kingdom about "Disney business" without prior authorization.  Most of us suspected that the bulk of the expansion would be completed by the end of 2012, but I think the big news is that the Little Mermaid attraction should be open for summer. A nice surprise for those who are visiting then.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Going to Walt Disney World.

We're staying here! I can't wait.

I thought for certain I would write this week.   I really wanted to talk about how I'm second-guessing all my choices for this rather big trip. Instead, I had a ton of work and lots to do to get ready, so it will have to wait.  I hope to blog some while I'm in WDW since I'll have time at night.

At this point, I'm doing my best Ed Grimley impression and counting down the hours until we go!  Just substitute Christmas for Disney World.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

We're Giving Away a Trip!


This is a big one, folks. We're giving away a trip! 

Announcing the Create Magical Memories Sweepstakes.

Pixie Vacations is giving away a 4-day/3-night Disney Resort stay at Walt Disney World with tickets for up to four adults.  All you have to do is register here:  http://pixievacations.com/index.php/2011/06/26/disney-world-2/

No fuss, no muss. No need to purchase anything.

The sweepstakes starts today (December 1) and ends on Feb 29, 2012.  You can read the official rules at the link above also.