Archive for December, 2011

“it’s a small world” holiday Is Really Awesome

by on December 23, 2011

It starts out innocuously-enough. You approach Disneyland‘s “it’s a small world” mall in the morning hours and see some uniquely decorated wreaths hanging throughout the mall. Nice holiday touch. Then, you approach the attraction and notice a “Happy Holidays” sign affixed to the normal marquee. Cheerful holiday spirit. Then, you head through the queue, and begin hearing a “remix” of the standard “it’s a small world” song, with holiday tracks woven in. Why no Neil Diamond, you wonder in outrage?!

Then, you board your boat and enter the attraction. The holidays begin to inundate your senses. Here is precisely when you realize that “holiday overlay” at Disneyland means something wholly different at Disneyland than it means at Walt Disney World. At the latter, it means adding Santa hats to animals and some chocolate smell to an African-inspired afternoon parade and calling it a day. At Disneyland, it means reimagining an attraction and using the basic infrastructure in place to create an experience that’s almost entirely new.

Explaining the excellence that is “it’s a small world” holiday via text is like trying to demonstrate how delicious filet mignon is by having Jackson Pollock make a painting of the meat. Both are ineffective. I would advise you to view photos or watch a ride-through of “it’s a small world” holiday, but if you’ve never seen the attraction and someday plan on seeing it, you’re far better off experiencing it for the first time in person. That’s what we did and I’m thankful we chose not to spoil it for ourselves by watching video in advance.

In lieu of a better alternative, I’ll offer a bit in the way of prose explanation. The entirety of the inside of the attraction is transformed, with Christmas trees, holiday archways, representations of different Christmases (Elvis even makes an appearance!), New Years, and other winter traditions. Lights abound throughout the inside of the attraction, and every scene gets in the holiday spirit in its own unique way (no simple Santa hat on our friend the hippo here!).

You’ll see Christmas under the sea with Ariel and friends, Christmas on the American frontier, Christmas in Europe (my favorite scene), winter at the North Pole, and even the Chinese New Year! The finale room might be the most impressive, and its focal point is a new-for-2011 giant snowflake-covered snowman who holds a “Happy Holidays” sign.

Obviously, since “it’s a small world” celebrates different customs and traditions throughout the world, this is truly a holiday attraction, and doesn’t just add the neutral holiday tag for politically correct purposes. The attraction really offers something for everyone, and even the most cold-hearted curmudgeon should enjoy it.

Disneyland - "it's a small world" holiday

In addition to the attraction’s veritable feast for the senses, there are holiday scents inside “it’s a small world” holiday that might make you question whether you’re experiencing “it’s a small world” or Soarin’! These scents include pine tree and peppermint in the European scenes. Suffice to say, the overlay is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Speaking of jaw-dropping, it’s worth making a trip over to the “it’s a small world” mall at night. You’ll be blown away as 50,000 C-7 lights in 6 colors, an additional 2,000 clear flashers, and 200,000 mini-lights in the trees, topiaries, and shrubs around the “it’s a small world” mall make the holidays bright. This staggering number of brilliant Christmas lights would make even Tim “Toolman” Taylor blush! In addition to that, a neat multimedia show plays on the facade every 15 minutes, and the Magic, the Memories, and You! includes a nice holiday segment.

Despite all of my gushing over “it’s a small world” holiday, it’s not even the most intricately reimagined holiday overlay at Disneyland. That distinction goes to Haunted Mansion Holiday, and by a large margin. I’m not even a Nightmare Before Christmas fan, so while I was enthused to see a new attraction, I wasn’t jumping up and down at the prospect. That said, Haunted Mansion Holiday absolutely blew me away. Anyone who enjoys fun will absolutely love this overlay of the Haunted Mansion.

"it's a small world" holiday

It might be cliche to say one attraction is “worth the trip alone.” In which case, these two attractions together easily make it worth the trip to Disneyland at Christmas. The upside is that, on top of these two attractions, you’ll also get to see Santa’s Reindeer Round-up, World of Color: Prep & Landing, “Believe… In Holiday Magic” Christmas fireworks, “A Christmas Fantasy” parade, the best Christmas desserts on the planet, and oodles of Christmas decorations throughout Disneyland. (Check out my time-lapse video for a whirlwind tour of Disneyland at Christmas!) Plus, since you probably won’t be booking a spontaneous trip to Disneyland within the next couple of weeks solely on the basis of this blog post (although my words really ought to be that impacting on you!), you’ll also get to see Disney California’s Buena Vista Street all decked out for its first Christmas next year!

…So, have you booked that Disneyland Christmas trip yet?!

Have you experienced “it’s a small world” holiday? What did you think? Is it every bit as amazing as I described, or are you a Grinch? If you haven’t experienced it, are you hoping to take a trip to Disneyland at Christmas so you can do Christmas, Disneyland-style? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

New Features on Computer-Optimized Touring Plans

by on December 22, 2011

Today we’ve released two features to the computer-optimized touring plan software that we described in this post.  The first feature lets you schedule shows and live performances up to six months in advance, even when Disney has not yet released the official show schedule.  We’re using our database of historical show times to make educated estimates for these.

The second feature is that we now display the estimated wait time at each step, along with the time it takes to experience the attraction and walk to the next step.  If there’s free time between your current step and the next step, such as when you finish all steps a few hours prior to Wishes, we’ll also tell you how much free time you have to play with.

To date more than 53,000 touring plans have been optimized using our software.  Thanks very much for your feedback on the plans and the process.  We’re very proud of it and hope to make it even better.

 

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party: Observations from 2011

by on December 22, 2011

The Walt Disney World parties are wrapped up for this year, but in the spirit of “always planning for the next trip,” here are some observations from my 2011 visit to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that may be helpful when 2012 trip planning time rolls around.

  • It’s all about the dwarves. I showed up at the meet and greet area for the seven dwarves at 6:58 p.m. The cast member attending the queue told me that my wait at that time would be, “Well over an hour, probably an hour and a half.” As much as I’ve been wanting that me-with-the-dwarves photo for years, I decided to skip it. I just couldn’t rationalize spending more than 20% of my party time waiting in a line. Next time, I’ll show up at the queue at 5:30 or 6:00 and plan to eat dinner and clean out my email in-box while on line. Santa also had a sizable line, but most other characters could be seen in half an hour or less. Plus, there was no-lines-no-waiting character access at the dance party locations.
  • Snow fall in Florida.

  • The snow makers have upped their game. I’ve been to MVMCP during each of the past five winters. In my previous experience, the “snow” that fell on Main Street was more like a suggestion of snow – a few odd flakes to remind you that there’s a winter wonderland somewhere out there in the universe. This year, the winter wonderland had really and truly taken residence in the Magic Kingdom. Fluffy white stuff was actually accumulating on the sidewalk. I was wondering when they were going to break out the shovels. Well done, magic makers.
  • Disney is making a solid effort to include everyone with their holiday snack options. In addition to the endless supply of snickerdoodles, apples, cocoa and cider, there are gluten-free, sugar-free, and nut-free cookies available, as well as sugar-free cocoa. Just ask at any of the food stations for these alternative items. They’re included with the cost of your ticket.
  • Snickerdoodles and cocoa are yum, but there are plenty of alternatives for those who need them.

  • They’re still making one misstep in the food area. While it’s lovely that guests get a free candy cane after visiting Santa, cast members are offering those candy canes directly to children, without first asking the parents. There are enough kids out there with food issues that I’m sure this poses an occasional problem.
  • Christmas fireworks viewing is no good from the train station. One of my favorite evening spots at the Magic Kingdom is at the raised train station loading area just above the entrance to the park. From here you get a bird’s eye view of the Castle and the entire length of the parade coming down Main Street. This is perfect on a summer evening, or for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, but in November and December the view of the castle is almost entirely blocked by the very beautiful, but nonetheless completely annoying in this context, Christmas tree.
  • Disney is experimenting with their special event merchandising. In the past, hard-ticket party merchandise had only been available at the party. You had to go there to get it – that was part of the allure. This year the special limited edition collectible Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party vinylmation figure was sold via disneystore.com. I’m curious to see whether this is a trend that will continue
  • A personal touch in Tomorrowland.

  • Keep an eye out for personal touches. During my party tour, I encountered several cast member initiated activities that made the Magic Kingdom feel like a small home town, in the very best sense. Of these, my favorite was at Mickey’s Star Traders. Cast members we walking around with narrow strips of paper, asking children what they wished for the holidays. The wish paper is made into a chain encircling the backstage area of Tomorrowland to help cast members in that area personalize their guest interaction. Very sweet.
  • Gingerbread castle!

  • Technology is working its way into the guest party experience. Park maps and signage throughout the parks invited guests to receive party tips via text message on their mobile phones. The messages were mostly generic reminders along the lines of, “Don’t miss the fireworks show starting in 15 minutes.” I’m looking forward to seeing how this concept evolves in future years.
  • The holiday version of “The Magic, the Memories, and You” is all kinds of awesome. I must admit that when this fireworks preshow was announced, I was one of the naysayers. Pictures on MY castle? Never! But when you see the castle dressed up as the world’s most perfect gingerbread house, all that bah-humbug nonsense just melts away. I can’t wait to see it again.

Alrighty peeps, what’s was your take on the 2011 MVMCP offerings? Anything you particularly liked, or anything that you wish they’d bring back from previous years? Let us know in the comments below.

Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort

by on December 22, 2011

Earlier in the month my wife, Cheryl, and I attended the Reunion 2011 event put on by the WDW Today podcast and MEI-Mouse Fan Travel.  While we had booked an event rate stay at Disney’s Pop Century Resort for 4 nights earlier in the year, once all was said and done and fans started tacking on extra meets we decided that we really wanted to be staying an extra night at the front of the trip.  However, we decided this about 5 days before, so we relegated ourselves to finding a deal online.  For this my wife went to what has become a last minute trip fallback for us, BookIt.com.

Like most booking sites, it’s fairly straightforward to use – just input your dates, destination, number of rooms and guests and then search.  Pick an option you’re comfortable with, pay and you’re done.  It is not an auction site like Priceline.com.  For just under $80 +$15 resort fee for the night we ended up choosing the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort – one of the 7 Downtown Disney Resort Area Hotels.  These are a group of hotels that, while operating on Walt Disney World property, are not owned by Disney.

As the last time I’d stayed in this hotel it was still the Grosvenor Resort, I thought this would be an interesting adventure to see how things had changed.  I’d not even set foot inside when it was renovated into the Regal Sun a few years ago, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  This hotel has been around quite some time, dating back to 1972 as the Dutch Inn, and was originally just an exterior room hotel (door’s lead outside not to a hallway) before the center tower was added when it became the Grosevnor.

When we arrived we pulled up to the front of the hotel where we were greeted by a valet.  I stated that we wanted to self park and he handed me a room key and directed me back around the front of the building and to a gated entrance that we had passed on the way in.  It’s sort of nice as the hotel has a front service road, so we didn’t have to go back out to Hotel Plaza Blvd to do this.  We used the key, got in, parked and made our way to the elevator so that we could get to the lobby and check in.

Having pre-paid we had no balance due and were not required to leave a credit card on file.  Having worked extensively with hospitality systems, I much prefer this – I’m not a fan of putting my magnetic card data onto any hotel key.  At all.  Ever.  It might be a convenience, but it’s not wise – in fact, it’s one of the easiest ways for your credit card information to be stolen.  Even if a hotel has my card on file, I ask them not to put it on a room key.

While we didn’t get an indoor room in the tower, we did luck out a bit as our external room was on the same level as the lobby so it was just a matter of walking to it.  No elevators or stairs involved.  Once inside the room, I’d have to say my instant reaction was that there wasn’t much difference between this and a room at the Pop which I’d be staying at the following night.  I’d say the main room was probably a little bigger than at Pop and the bathroom was slightly smaller, but not by much in either case.  Our only real disappointment was that the refrigerator was not emptied out of a prior tenant’s food items – we opted to simply not open it again for the night.

   

The hotel itself has a number of really nice amenities available.  Immediately to the left of the front desk is an area for local tour and attraction assistance, another for WDW theme park tickets, car rental desks, terminals for airline checkins, a small business office and some conference rooms.  On the other side of the lobby, there’s also a very basic bar as well as a food court.  As with most of the Hotel Plaza Blvd hotels, there is also a Disney Store in the lobby.

The one amenity I found most interesting was that a large area of the lobby was set up as a kids play area.  It had a television, books, and toys, as well as seating for parents and their kids.  The entire area is guarded by a Goofy statue.  While I don’t have children, I really appreciate when a hotel or really any business goes the extra mile like this when they don’t have to.  However, the one thing I found most surprising is that 3 times a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m) the Lakeview Restaurant in the hotel is the host to a Disney Character Breakfast.  They are the only hotel of the 7 hotels to offer this.

It’s also important to mention that this hotel is super close to Downtown Disney as you can walk there in less than 5 minutes.  This is not just convenient for going shopping and dining, but it’s also a quick way to get to other Walt Disney World resorts like the Polynesian.  You just walk over and catch a bus to where you want to go.  And if you want to bus to a park (e.g., Magic Kingdom), you have two options.  You could use the transportation system provided by the hotels of Hotel Plaza Blvd.  However, if you were up for a 15 minute walk you could head over to the Congress Park bus stop at Disney’s Saratoga Springs and use the bus system provided by Walt Disney World itself.

Overall, while it wouldn’t be my first choice of hotels, as I mentioned above, I do feel that it is very comparable to the rooms at Pop Century.  However I’ve noticed that it can cost as much as $30 – $40 dollars more per night than Pop.  If you happen to catch the price just right like we did for one night it can work out well.  But otherwise, for the same feel, but with a lot more Disney, you’re probably better off booking a night at Pop.

What about you? Have you stayed at this resort?  In its current incarnation?  Or a prior one?  Would you stay here if you haven’t before?  How about in a pinch?  If so, then enjoy your stay.

Disney and Universal Hint at NextGen and Harry Potter Projects

by on December 22, 2011

Right now there’s a lot of speculation on what could be coming in the future for the central Florida theme park industry. Both Universal and Disney have been very hush-hush on their actual plans leaving much of it open to interpretation. However, those with a knack of digging beneath the surface have revealed some interesting morsels of truth in regards to the matter.

With Disney the hoopla is all about the multi-million dollar NextGen project. Very little has been formally released about the long-in-development project by Disney and most of what we know comes from leaked internal presentations. We do know that the NextGen project has a heavy emphasis on RFID technology being integrated into the park experience though, and likely will be used in a number of interactive queue elements integrated at existing attractions.

The most recent development comes from the intrepid Internet miners over at the Epcot Explorer’s Encyclopedia blog. Digging in the public archives has revealed a bevy of plans for “Queue Modifications” at several of Disney’s existing attractions. Notably, these plans all refer to the project end date as October 1, 2012. The first week of October is important in Disney’s history as it is the time of year the company commonly uses to open theme parks and launch major attractions.

The following attractions are listed as undergoing “Queue Modifications” for the larger project:

  • Spaceship Earth
  • The Seas with Nemo and Friends (entitled “The Living Seas” on the paperwork)
  • The Voyage of the Little Mermaid
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Expedition Everest
  • Toy Story Midway Mania
  • Fantasmic Amphitheater
  • Theater of the Stars (Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage)

Over at Universal, a similar dedication to digging on the Internet has turned up some interesting results in regards to the Jaws and Harry Potter attractions. A bit of explanation to begin – as we know some folks don’t follow Universal as closely as we do: Universal recently announced it would be closing the Jaws attractions in January of 2012. That closes an entire “land” of the Universal Studios Orlando theme park. At the same time, Universal has not commented on any sort of replacement for the attraction/land.

All the while, Universal has been hyping an addition to its Harry Potter theme park attractions (which have done exceptionally well at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park) at Universal Studios Hollywood. During those announcements, Universal confirmed the longstanding rumor that it intended to also expand the offerings in Orlando. Per usual though, very few details were given.

Enter the HHN Rumors website and its own Universal-dedicated data diggers. They’ve uncovered permits from Universal for a “Project 722” which is for the replacement and demolition of an existing attraction with several components. What could that be? It’s pretty obviously the Jaws attractions at Universal as nothing else has even been rumored to be on the chopping block.

Then things begin to get interesting. “Project 722” isn’t very telling as a project name – Universal likes to disguise their inner-workings in coded project names. The original Harry Potter addition was coded “Strongarm.” More digging on the Internet by the HHN Rumors crew has found that a number of Universal’s creative people assigned to the mysterious Project 722 all share an interesting background: either they worked on the original original Harry Potter project or the actual Harry Potter films themselves. The general consensus on the web is that Project 722, which appears to be replacing Jaws, is in fact some sort of Harry Potter related expansion.

Certainly that’s not the full story for either project, but a good bit of Internet research has gotten us all much closer to a clear picture of what’s actually going on behind all those closed doors. Are you looking forward to either of these projects? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Reader Grab Bag – Stars Wars Weekend Edition….and Harry Potter!

by on December 21, 2011

This week the questions were about two subjects I know next to nothing about – Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Let’s learn some new stuff together!

First – “K” from the UK writes:

Your website is awesome! (Note to readers – this tactic works WAY better than “Your web site ruined our vacation! You suck!” Also, thanks, “K!”)

 

Next year we are heading over for the Star Wars Weekends. Our dates are from 14/05/2012 till 28/05/2012 so it will be the first 2 of the Star Wars Weekends. Do you have any specific recommendation how can we see every parade/show (recommended viewing place, how long before start should we go there)? I checked the crowd level it will be 9-10. In this case does it mean long lines for the rides or very very crowded park?  Do you have any advice how should we manage this crowd? We don’t care about the rides during these days … only the Star Wars happenings count.

Touring Plans for Star Wars Weekends? Yes, we have those in the Miscellaneous DHS plans section. Does it mean long lines or a very crowded park? Yes. Crowd level numbers correspond to wait times. AND many people will be there just for the Star Wars events. I have attended two Star Wars Weekends – once as a tourist and last year in the Great TouringPlans.com Star Tours Live Attraction and Cast Member Stalking. As long as you’re mentally prepared, the crowds for SWW can be great fun. People are in costume. The parade is fun. My one piece of advice is that unless there’s some limited edition piece of merchandise you REALLY want, avoid the queues in the sales areas. It’s a huge time waster and not a pleasant experience at all. Know ahead of time what events you want to experience, arrive early or get a FASTPASS for autograph or other celebrity sessions and ENJOY.

Another reader:

This will be our first Star Wars Weekend. I am traveling with a almost 4 yr old and a 9 yr old. They are both fans with me and my husband. My primary goal is to get them signed up for Jedi Academy where is the sign up and how soon before rope drop should I be there. Will the new optimized touring plans work for this weekend?

We have an attraction page for Jedi Training Academy that tells about the sign up process. Since Jedi is your priority, both kids should accompany an adult to the sign up area at park opening. If it were me, I’d send the other adult over to Toy Story Mania to get FASTPASSes for that attraction while the Jedis sign up. We talked about this in last week’s article.

Optimized plans will work, but don’t try to make one now. As we’ve mentioned before, we need show times for the plans to work, and those aren’t out yet for SWW yet.

What else should you know about SWW before TouringPlans.com 2012 coverage starts? Well, last year’s blog articles are a good place to start:

And, finally, the place you really should look – Studios Central’s Star Wars Weekends page.

Who’s planning to go to Star Wars Weekends? Share your tips in the comments!

And the reader who won a three month subscription to Walt Disney World and Disneyland confides:

First of all – thank you so much for all your detailed hard work.

I challenged my 9 yr old with reading the Harry Potter books, and since he is close to completion, I now have to take him to Universal’s Island of Adventure to see the ‘real thing’.  We have a 1 night stay at the Hard Rock prior to going over to Beach Club for the rest of the week.   Essentially we have 1 day in the Universal park(s).   Since I will have the Universal Fast pass is it worth going to just Islands Adventure for the day, or would you suggest trying to go to both parks for a best of tour?   Is there a touring plan for the Best of Universal & IOA, or Islands in one day?

I’m sure many parents are challenged going to Hogwarts these days, we’re just to embarrassed to talk about it.

Readers, you may have noticed that we really don’t cover Universal on our site. It’s an afterthought in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World because it’s covered in depth in the UG’s Beyond Disney publication. While we do have plans to increase our Universal coverage, this is best thrown out to the readers. So help our parent out here. What do you think of IoA? Have you gotten your inner Potter on?  Accio comments!

The TouringPlans.com team will be back in the Magic Kingdom for New Year’s this year. Say hi if you see us! Next article coming in 2012. Send your questions to advice@touringplans.com and we’ll try our best to answer them or let you know when we can’t.

Candlelight Processional Touring Strategies

by on December 21, 2011

For the last several years I’ve made a trip to Walt Disney World in December to take in the sights of the season and meet up with friends.  One of the events I’ve never missed is the Candlelight Processional in Epcot.  This beautiful nightly performance features an orchestra, a choir, including cast members and community singing groups, and a celebrity narrator telling the story of the birth of Christ.  The narrator reads from the Bible between gorgeous arrangements of corresponding songs.  While I am not a particularly musical person I can’t help but marvel at the talent of the musicians and singers each time I get to see the show.   If this doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, I’m not sure what will.

Photo by Betsy Bates

For 2011 the show is performed each night at 5:00, 6:45, and 8:15 from November 25 to December 30 at the America Gardens Theatre in the American Adventure Pavilion.  It will go on rain or shine and most of the seats are not covered so be prepared if you are there on a stormy day.  I recently experienced the show in the pouring rain and it wasn’t the most comfortable experience, but I’m glad I got to see it anyway.  A poncho is a must!

The remainder of this year’s narrators include:

Photo by Don Sullivan

12/19-21: Trace Adkins

12/22-24: Susan Lucci (who made my friends and me cry last year)

12/25-27: Blair Underwood

12/28-30: Marlee Matlin

Seating for the Candlelight Processional is limited so lines form early.  The staff here at TouringPlans.com know a few things about queues so I thought I’d offer up some advice.  If you would like to see the show via the standby queue I recommend arriving well over an hour in advance, especially if the narrator will draw crowds.  This year I got to see Neil Patrick Harris who was very popular with guests; the standby line was huge!  While it may seem like a waste of time, arriving early will be your best bet for getting into your desired show time.  You can always swing by the American Adventure to see if a queue is forming and go hit an attraction before coming back if it doesn’t look so bad.  I’d try to see the Voices of Liberty to put you in the Christmas music mood.

If spending valuable touring time waiting for the Candlelight Processional doesn’t sound appealing to you and your family, you have a couple of options.  The easiest one being standing at the back of the theater.  Visibility will be limited and you’ll have to stand on your tired theme park feet, but it is an easy solution to the waiting problem.  I’ve also grabbed a drink and a snack and sat at a table outside the American Adventure and just listened to the show.  This plan is a very relaxed approach to enjoying the show and I recommend it for folks who have seen it before, but still enjoy the music.

If you would still like to sit to see the performance, your family can bypass the standby queue by reserving a Candlelight Processional Dinner Package which allows access to a special line for participating guests.  While this may sound great, it is very pricey.  For example, it usually costs $32.99 for an adult to eat dinner at Germany’s Biergarten, but the package costs $50.99!  If you throw in a couple of beers (as I tend to do at Biergarten) you are looking at a very expensive meal for a family.  What’s more is that this restaurant offers one of the least expensive package offerings!  Many of the other Epcot restaurants charge $64.99 for an adult who wishes to use the package!  You may opt to eat lunch for a slightly more reasonable range of $32.99-$51.99.

Would I recommend this option?  If you have never seen the Candlelight Processional before and you want to splurge on something during your trip, I say go for it.  Or maybe you plan to use the Disney Dining Plan and have table service credits to burn (the package will cost two credits), then by all means book the package.  I certainly don’t do it every year because of the cost, but every few years I say, what the heck?  You will need to make your arrangements early by calling (407) WDW-DINE.

Photo by Betsy Bates

For me, the Candlelight Processional is a must do holiday activity at Disney World whether I stand at the back of the theater, book the dinner package, or tough it out in the standby queue.  I even listen to a recording of it at home!  It warms my heart in ways I cannot explain and it makes me feel ready for all of the Christmas craziness when I return home from my vacation.  I  can only hope you love it as much as I do and that my tips will help you enjoy it even more!

Happy Holidays to all of our readers no matter what you’re celebrating this season!

 

Holiday D-Lights Tour Review

by on December 21, 2011

Of all the tours currently offered at Walt Disney World, none seems to be of questionable value more so than the seasonal Holiday D-Lights.

The Holiday D-Lights tour allows guests age 16 and older the unique opportunity to see Walt Disney World’s three major holiday events across three parks in one night: Cinderella Castle Lighting at Magic Kingdom, Osborne Lights at Hollywood Studios, and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. In addition, Disney adds in food and visit backstage to create a whirlwind night of holiday magic.

Holiday D-Lights is the most exclusive standard tour offered at Walt Disney World. Available only 9 nights in 2011, there were only 360 guest spaces available on this seasonal tour.

With this in mind, I made sure to book my space as soon as the Candlelight celebrity narrators were announced in June.  Since a Candlelight Processional viewing is part of the tour, I wanted to make sure I got my whole $199 worth. (Note: AAA Diamond Cardholders, Annual Passholders and DVC Members are eligible for a 15% discount. Disney VISA Cardholders receive 20% off when booking with their Disney VISA.)

Since Holiday D-Lights was only offered Monday-Wednesday for the three weeks after Thanksgiving, there weren’t many narrators to choose from. I ended up settling on a “Who’s That” as most of the big names are reserved for weekends.

Disney released an updated celebrity narrator schedule in November. As soon as I noticed my beloved Neil Patrick Harris was performing on a Monday, I called and rescheduled my tour date. (Most Disney tours can be canceled or rescheduled up to two days in advance.) Given the limited number of tour nights, I was surprised there was still availability.

Like all the Disney Institute-lead tours, Holiday D-Lights guests check in outside of Epcot in front of Guest Relations to the far right of the turnstiles. By the time I arrived at 3:45pm for the 4pm tour, the rest of the group had already shown their IDs and received their name tags and wristbands. It is important that everyone in your party brings a government-issued photo ID to check in for the tour.

After one last call for folks to use the restrooms, all 40 of us (a full tour) plus our two guides headed off to board a Disney Cruise Line bus that would serve as our chariot for the evening.

Wilderness Lodge – Whispering Canyon Café

Our first stop was the Wilderness Lodge. This was the first of several changes from previous seasons of Holiday D-Lights. 2011 was the tour’s third year of operation, and the food offering has changed each year. We started our tour off with a family-style all you care to eat meal at the Whispering Canyon.  Our meal included cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, fries, potato wedges, sausage, chicken, barbeque ribs and endless soda or tea. (Note: Guests with dietary concerns should alert the phone agent when booking the tour. Also be sure to remind the tour guides when checking in on the day of so they can make sure alternative food is available when you arrive.)

The food at Whispering Canyon was delicious as always, and I was very glad I was prepared to eat a full meal at 4:30pm that day. In previous years, Holiday D-Lights guests had a light buffet later in the tour. The guide said this year’s meal change was due to guest feedback saying that the buffet food wasn’t filling enough.

Event and Decorating Support

We headed backstage to the Event and Decorating Support warehouse straight after dinner (another schedule change from previous years). This was the first stop where we needed to use the audio headset provided to us earlier. These headsets allowed everyone to hear the guides no matter where we were standing.

Event and Decorating Support teams are responsible for the decorations for over 3,400 events a year. Not only do they handle events in Florida, but they are responsible for Disney events world-wide. They do work for corporations as well as individuals who contact Disney wanting to have Disney decorations for their events. Patrick, part of the Event and Decorating Support team, mentioned that their biggest private client is a grandfather who spends $3.5-4 million a year for his family’s Christmas celebration. That’s just for decorations!

We didn’t get to walk around very much in the warehouse, but they did have a small photo op set up exclusively for the Holiday D-Lights tour. This is noteworthy since photography backstage is an explicit no-no at Disney. On the way out, Patrick gave us all Disney Parks water bottles.

Magic Kingdom – Cinderella’s Holiday Wish Castle Lighting

Outside the Magic Kingdom, we had to stop at a security checkpoint where a guard boarded the bus and checked our bags just like they do when you enter through normal guest entrances. We did this before entering each park’s backstage area.

We entered the Magic Kingdom from a parking lot located to the right side of Main Street, U.S.A. We walked up and stopped at the entrance to the Hub just in time to see the Castle stage show lighting ceremony. (This was a major improvement from previous years, when tour guests viewed the Castle lighting from the Noodle Station near the smoking section.)

After the Castle lighting, we stopped below the 65 foot Town Square Christmas tree. Here the guide gave us a history on the tree as well as some trivia about what it takes to decorate the Magic Kingdom for the holidays. Magic Kingdom’s tree does not go up until after the taping of the Christmas Day parade. If you take Holiday D-Lights the first week it’s offered, the tree will not be in place yet.

As we boarded the bus, we each received a snowman-shaped crisped rice treat for dessert. On our drive over to the Studios, we watched a short video showing the castle lights at 4 of the 5 Disney castles across the globe. Disneyland Tokyo is the only park that does not have castle lights.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

We headed over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights next. Each year, Disney swathes the Streets of America with millions of Christmas lights that “dance” in time with holiday music. The original lights belonged to Jennings Osborne of Little Rock, Arkansas. Once Jennings was court-ordered to take them down, they found their way to Disney.

Nowadays, the original lights have all been replaced with LEDs, but the sheer magnitude of the display remains. This was probably the most informative of the park stops, as the guide spent time explaining the history of the lights and pointing out little details and tributes throughout the display. We even found the famed purple Halloween cat that is hidden in a different place each year.

We stayed long enough to see two cycles of the lights dancing (which happens every 5-7 minutes), before we had to be off to make of final stop. While this tour needed to keep to a strict schedule to fit everything into one night, it never really felt that rushed.

Epcot – Candlelight Processional

Backstage at Epcot, we passed by the tent housing all the choir groups getting ready for Candlelight Processional. Each day, there are three shows generating over 800 choir robes that have to be washed and returned for the next night.

We entered the World Showcase from behind the American Adventure. This was our last stop, so everyone was instructed to take their bags with them. The guides did offer a ride to front of Epcot after Candlelight if anyone needed it, but everyone opted to stay in the park for Illuminations (an added bonus for the tour since we were not using park admission.)

As indicated in reviews from years past, our Holiday D-Lights Candlelight Processional seating left a lot to be desired. We sat to the far left of the stage pretty far back. Unfortunately, a pole blocked the celebrity narrator. I came to see Neil Patrick Harris, darnit!

I was able to scoot around some to take photos, but the pole was definitely a distraction. As far as tour content goes, our seating location is my only gripe about the tour. I see no reason why dining package and standby guests are receiving better seats than the Holiday D-Lights tour participants who paid $199.

After the performance, we all met up in the lobby of the American Adventure. Our guides bid us farewell and handed out commemorative tour pins. The pins for the holiday tours change every year, so the 2011 Holiday D-Lights tour pin was a limited edition run of 360. (At this point, the pin collectors in the group actually started hopping up in down in excitement.)

Our tour dispersed just in time to find a spot to view the 9:30pm Illuminations with the Holiday Tag. A perfect end to (mostly) lovely evening.

Overall, I really enjoyed the tour – but at $199 for 5 hours, I can’t help but question its value.  The only tour more expensive is Backstage Magic, which is $229 for 7.5 hours. Backstage Magic takes you to 5 backstage locations, and Holiday D-Lights only takes you to Event and Decorating Support. Both tours include a meal at Whispering Canyon and don’t require separate park admission.

Unless you’re in town for a short time and want to see all 3 holiday events in one night, you probably already have some form of admission. Even if you’re only in the parks for 2 days, you could feasibly see the Castle Lighting and Osborne Lights in one night and Candlelight Processional on the other. With the money saved skipping the tour, you could even book one of the Candlelight dining packages with reserved seating.

If money is not a concern, Holiday D-Lights is a good time. If you do decide to try out the tour in 2012, here are my top tips:

  1. Book early and keep your eye on the Candlelight Processional celebrity narrator schedule for changes.
  2. When choosing a date, keep in mind that the Magic Kingdom’s Christmas tree will not be installed until after the taping of the Christmas parade (usually around the first weekend in December).
  3. If you have dietary concerns, alert the phone agent when booking.
  4. Be prepared for an early dinner (but bring along a snack just in case the tour changes again for 2012).
  5. Bring adequate clothing/rain gear depending on the weather. Disney won’t cancel the tour for rain or cold, so be prepared or be miserable. Bad weather can make Candlelight Processional the longest hour of your life.
  6. If you’re into photography, bring a telephoto lens for the Candlelight Processional. You’ll need it to get any decent shots of the celebrity narrator from the tour’s seating area.

Have you tried the Holiday D-Lights tour?  Do you plan on trying it out in 2012? Let us know what you think!

New Epcot and Animal Kingdom Podcasts with Jim Hill Available on iTunes

by on December 20, 2011

The third and fourth episodes of our in-park podcasts with Jim Hill are available on iTunes.  Show number 3 goes through the Animal Kingdom (link here) and show number 4 covers Epcot (link here).  As always, your iTunes feedback is appreciated.  While I can’t promise anything, I think Jim would be willing to brave Typhoon Lagoon if enough people wanted to hear it.

January Park Hours Updated at WDW

by on December 19, 2011

Revised hours for the Walt Disney World parks have been released. As usual there are several days for which the hours have been extended. Changes are as follows:

  • January 1
  • January 2
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 12am with two Main Street Electrical Parades
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 9pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 8pm.
  • January 3
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 12am with two Main Street Electrical Parades
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 8pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 8pm.
  • January 4
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 12am
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 8pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 8pm.
  • January 5
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 8pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 8pm.
  • January 6
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 8pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
  • January 7
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 11pm
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 9pm with two performances of Fantasmic!
  • January 8
    • Disney’s Hollywood Studios will now be open until 8pm
  • January 9
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 9pm
  • January 13
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 9pm
  • January 14
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 1am with two Main Street Electrical Parades
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open until 8pm.
  • January 15
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 12am with two Main Street Electrical Parades
    • Disney’s Animal Kingdom will now be open until 8pm.
  • January 16
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 10pm
  • January 17
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 9pm
  • January 20
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 9pm
  • January 21
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 12am
  • January 22
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 9pm
  • January 23
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 10pm
  • January 27
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open until 9pm
  • January 28
    • The Magic Kingdom will now be open from 8am until 12am

 

The Touring Plans website will reflect these changes shortly and the Crowd Calendar will be updated tomorrow.  Due to our new policy of projecting final park hours, we are not expecting major changes to the Crowd Calendar.  If you would like to be kept abreast of all the Crowd Calendar changes, make sure you sign up for our Crowd Tracker.

If you are curious about how and when Disney releases and updates their park hours, you can read about it here.  Thank you for using Touring Plans!