Celebrating EPCOT 35

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We recently were at Walt Disney World to celebrate Epcot’s 35th anniversary. While we were very excited to be at Epcot on October 1st, we were equally excited to attend the RetroWDW Podcast’s special event. I have been listening to this podcast since it began about 3 years ago, and they produce excellent content “taking you back to the vacation kingdom of the world; the way it was and the way it is in your memories.” I am a major Disney history nerd, so this podcast is a favorite. When the podcast announced they were holding an event around EPCOT 35, Emily and I were in, and since Mama Darling was buying our tickets (they went on sale while Em and I were at WDW this summer), she decided to buy one for herself too!

The event was held Saturday evening at the Living Seas lounge at Epcot. We checked in, got our wristbands, and were ready to go.

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We had recently visited the Living Seas lounge when we took the UnDISCOVERed Future World Tour, so we knew what to expect. It was really neat seeing how a function operated in this space. We entered the space right near this retro Living Seas logo.

 

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We are really obsessed with the few remaining old school Epcot logos.

Shortly before the doors opened, a little less than 200 of us crammed into a tiny holding room. You could feel the anticipation build from everyone around us. Finally, we were allowed up the stairs and into the function space. What immediately caught our attention was a replica cake of Epcot’s 15th anniversary  cake, which was made for this event.

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The event was a lot less formal than official Disney events I’ve attended, but I really liked that. People mingled about the space, ate soft pretzels (yes, our ticket price included pretzels…with 3 different types of mustard!) and cake, gazed out the windows into the giant aquarium and casually hobnobbed with Disney legends.

There were some more formal presentations including an intro video based on the original Living Seas video with the original voice actor, a discussion with Corrine Cook, an actor from the Horizons attraction at Epcot, and Disney Legends Tom Nabbe and Bob Gurr. Tom Nabbe has a really interesting story about how he was hired by Walt Disney to play Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer island in Disneyland. He worked his way up the ranks and eventually moved to Florida while WDW was being constructed. He oversaw the construction of the monorail beams and stations and later supervised logistics for WDW’s giant warehouses.

Bob Gurr is one of my favorite Disney Legends because he designed many ride vehicles at Disneyland (the Monorail, Autopia Cars, the Doom Buggies of Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas Submarines, and Matterhorn Bobsleds). He has said, “If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it.” Bob was actually a surprise guest, and I spotted him mingling among guests before his presentation. My heart nearly stopped because meeting him was at the top of my Disney bucket list. I have seen him give presentations at Disney events and have watched him in videos, and not only is he a legend, he is hilarious, personable, and seems to love young people. I watched him have the cutest interaction with a little girl near the cake. I’m not the type of person to go up and start talking to a legend, but he was very close to me and I thought, this may be my only chance. He was extremely gracious, friendly, and humble and meeting him is something I will never forget.

I had a chance to meet Tom Nabbe as well and have him autograph his book. It just was incredible to be able to be up close and personal with these guys. People who worked with Walt hold a special place in my heart, and I feel like the world has less and less of them as time goes on. Also in attendance, which I thought was incredibly cool was Dave Ensign aka Hoot Gibson, who was one of the duo who ran the Mesa Verde Times website that I discussed in a previous post.

We also had a meet and greet with a retro Viking Goofy. He did such a nice job with the guests, and he was super entertaining to watch while we waited in line.

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While the event in itself was worth the price of admission, the guys at RetroWDW organized and orchestrated the greatest gift any old school retro Epcot Disnerd would love. When they showed the video that built up to the surprise, people were losing their minds…..they resurrected (with Disney’s permission) the old entrance fountain prism sculpture at the park entrance. It lights up and changes color!

 

The guys at RetroWDW Podcast threw one heck of an event, and I can’t wait to see what they put together next. If you are interested in checking out their podcast, they can be found here.

 

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D23 Destination D Review

I just got back from a long weekend at Walt Disney World. Mama Darling and I attended the D23 event called Destination D. D23 is the official Disney fan club and two years ago they began a special event called Destination D at Walt Disney World. That event was amazing, so as soon as this year’s event was announced, I bought tickets. The tickets are expensive, but worth every penny we spent, as we were provided with very unique and exclusive experiences.

The theme of this year’s event was Amazing Adventures, and presentations were focused around this theme. We arrived at the Contemporary Convention Center and checked in on Friday.

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Here’s what we got in our swag bag:

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Attendees were the first people to receive the new Magic Band 2, which is going to be rolled out across the WDW resort very soon. It features a removable puck which can be placed in lanyards, key chains, etc. This new technology is supposed to create more personalization moving into the future. The magic band itself is much more lightweight and flexible, and I found it easier to use on the touch interfaces throughout the resort.

 

We were up bright and early Saturday morning and very excited for the day’s events. The presentations were held in the Fantasia Ballroom, and we were not allowed to take any pictures inside of the presentations. It was nice because everyone had their devices away! First up was a conversation with Bob Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He talked about the focus on guest experience and placing guests in an even bigger Disney bubble. For me, the biggest announcement was that major changes are coming to Epcot. While nothing specific was announced, he said that it will be more “Disney,” more relevant, timeless, more family, and true to the original vision. I’m looking forward to hearing more about these changes as we approach Epcot’s 35th anniversary next year.

Next up was an interesting look back at Disney’s True Life Adventures movies. It was interesting to learn about how the filmmakers lived in the wild for years at a time, how they respected the animals and their habitats, and how they invented different gadgets to help with filming.

We were then treated to a presentation by Disney Legend, Marty Sklar. He talked about the design of Adventureland in Disneyland. I loved when he said that Walt wanted every square inch of the park to be part of the show, immersed in details. This is one of the ways that Disney parks are unique, and it is clear that today’s Imagineers still follow this vision. He shared many details about the landscape and attraction design of the Jungle Cruise. For example, Adventureland was supposed to be on the other side of the park, but they moved it to make use of native eucalyptus trees. They also rescued palm trees that were going to be destroyed by freeway construction and moved them to Adventureland. Marty also said that since the show figures were constructed offsite, it was common to see the animals heading down the freeway towards Disneyland. Marty Sklar has amazing stories to tell and it really is amazing to be able to hear stories from someone who worked directly with Walt!

The next presentation was by several Imagineers including Disney Legend Tony Baxter, and it focused on the Adventurelands around the world. Each park’s Adventureland is based on its culture. For example, the Adventureland in Disneyland Paris is Arabian themed because of their strong interest in Far East fairy tales. My favorite fun fact from this presentation is that the guests at Shanghai Disneyland are obsessed with turkey legs. They wait in line for hours, and the park often sells out of their supply within a few hours each day. This presentation was followed up with “Tales from the Jungle Cruise.” This featured several current Imagineers who began their Disney careers as Jungle Cruise skippers. They had plenty of amusing tales to tell.

Next was a discussion of the Polynesian Resort, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary along with the Magic Kingdom this year. I like how the updates at this resort include a lot of original design work, including Mary Blair textile designs. My favorite fun fact came from this presentation: Greg Brady’s tiki necklace from the Brady Bunch is found at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Polynesian. I definitely need to hunt for it next time I’m there! One of my favorite moments of the weekend was when they brought Auntie Kaui, an original cast member from the Polynesian who has worked there for 45 years, up on stage to teach everyone the hula. She was lovely and looked wonderful at the young age of 86! The day ended with the screenwriter for Moana discussing the upcoming film. That evening, guests were treated to an advanced viewing of the film at the Polynesian Resort, which we did not attend.

Day 2 began with a discussion of the newly released book about Disney maps (that I definitely want to buy). The next presentation was one of my favorites of the weekend. Tom Vazzana, the Imagineer who directed the new holiday show Jingle Bell Jingle Bam at Hollywood Studies, showed us a video of the new show and provided live “director’s cut” commentary. His enthusiasm for the show was infections, and I enjoyed learning all the details you wouldn’t necessarily get watching the show without commentary. We definitely want to return to see the show, which includes references to Mary Blair, the Osborne lights, and the tragedies in Orlando. He was kind enough to come into the audience to meet guests after the presentation.

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Next, Imagineers took us on a nostalgic journey through Walt Disney World adventures of the past, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Fort Wilderness, Discovery Island, If You Had Wings, and the wave machine at the Polynesian.

This was followed by a presentation by Avatar creator James Cameron and Imagineer Joe Rohde about the new Pandora land coming to the Animal Kingdom next year. They told the story of the land as if it was a real place they had been to. Lots of show art was shown and discussed and it looks really incredible!

It was time to take a little break and check out new Disney furniture by Ethan Allen. Totally cute, but really expensive!

 

After the lunch break, we were treated to a presentation about the art of Disney Legend Marc Davis. He worked on classic attractions such as the Jungle Cruise, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which was originally supposed to be a walk-through wax museum. Next up, Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter shared some of the attractions from Shanghai Disneyland, and they are pretty mind blowing.

The rest of the afternoon focused on the Animal Kingdom, with the head of Animal and Science Operations talking about how they have cared for the animals during times of change such as during construction of Pandora and keeping the Animal Kingdom open at night. They have extensive processes of data collection and animal care and welfare is one of the park’s core values.

The grand finale presenter was Imagineer Joe Rohde, who I consider to be the heart and soul of the Animal Kingdom park. A true visionary, he is also painstakingly meticulous about the details. He has such an engaging and intelligent way of telling stories. If anyone is not a fan of the Animal Kingdom, they should listen to Joe speak. The park is more about immersing you in landscape than it is about running around to ride attractions. He spoke about wanting to feed guests imaginations with experiences of the world. The Magic Kingdom is about being in the middle of fantasy and fairy tales. The Animal Kingdom is like being in the middle of a documentary. My favorite story he told was when he was researching in Africa and a member of the Masai tribe asked him where he was from. Joe said, “Disney.” The tribe member replied, “ahhh theme parks.” I can’t think of any better way to end the weekend than with Joe Rohde.

The weekend ended with guests being given free admission to the Magic Kingdom Sunday night with fast passes to the Jingle Cruise. It was cold by Florida standards, and we were exhausted from the weekend’s activities so we skipped it!

All in all it was an incredible weekend. My main takeaway was….Imagineers have dream jobs. They love what they do and it shows. They are inspired by Walt’s core values and continue to create wonderfully immersive environments with meticulous attention to details. People have many reasons they visit the parks and different goals around their adventures. Some are rope droppers and their goal is to cram in as many attractions as possible. Some like to visit to create family memories. For me, it’s about the history and details. I don’t need to ride a single attraction to get the most out of my visit. And I like that there’s something for everyone, including die hard fans like me who love events like Destination D and will keep coming back for more!

 

Christmas at the Yacht Club Resort

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To celebrate Christmas in July, I am taking a look at one of my favorite resorts to visit during Christmastime. All of the resorts in the Boardwalk area are beautifully decorated for Christmas, and I really enjoy the way the Yacht Club is decorated with a nautical theme. I adore how the Christmas tree peeks through the glass doors from the Boardwalk entryway.

 

The best part of the lobby is the whimsical train set and Christmas village. I am a huge fan of miniatures and little villages, and I always spend time looking at the train set and all the details of the miniature village at the Germany pavilion in Epcot. The train winds its way through a snowy seaside village that features Disney figurines and buildings (some of which are sold at Department 56) as well as shops and restaurants throughout the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. Some of the displays are a nod to Disney films as well. There is an incredible amount of detail to look at, and the last time I was there during the holiday season, I went back to look at the display a few times. So with only 5 months left until Christmas, I look forward to seeing the Yacht Club decorations real soon. The next time you’re at WDW during the holidays, make sure to check out the Yacht Club!!

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Exploring Disney Springs

The whole family visited Walt Disney World last weekend, and exploring the newly opened Town Center at Disney Springs was on the top of our to-do list. The last time I was at what was formerly called Downtown Disney was last August. The orange parking garage had just opened. When we peered over the side of the garage into the area that used to be the old parking lot it was under heavy construction and looked like a war zone. There were construction walls everywhere, and some areas were unpleasant to navigate. It’s hard to believe that just 9 months later the Town Center is nearly complete and has now opened to the public.

We parked in the lime garage, which also just opened, because that brings you right out into the Town Center area. This garage is more centrally located than the orange garage, which is at the West Side area. Only at Disney would I get excited about a parking garage. They are both aesthetically pleasing and use smart technology, so that you know how many spots there are on each level when you enter. When you approach a row, signs tell you how many spots are available in that row. As you drive down the row, lights hang over each parking spot and ones that are illuminated green indicate open spots.

 

As I said, you exit the lime garage right into the Town Center. The area just opened up and it is impeccable. The typical Disney attention to detail is everywhere. I wasn’t that thrilled with all the chain stores that were going into Disney Springs, but honestly, you don’t even have to go in the stores to enjoy the area. We decided to go on a Sunday morning, in the hopes to avoid crowds and heat. It was a very laid back atmosphere. We drank some Joffrey’s coffee from the new pastry shop Amorette’s and enjoyed the ambiance of the area. I mainly went in my favorite shops on the Marketplace side, as the high end shops aren’t really my thing. My personal favorite is the Co-op Marketplace. I always end up spending a gift card in there! Emily’s husband did get a great deal on clothing at the new skating store, Volcom.

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There are plenty of spots to sit and relax at the Town Center, but we discovered the best spot to relax–at Guest Relations! The building is equipped with all sorts of comfy chairs and couches and they even have a bunch of rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. If you need to speak to someone in guest relations, they take your name and then you can be seated. When it’s your turn they come and get you, so no waiting in lines! Even though we actually didn’t need to speak to anyone in guest relations, we spent quite a while sitting and enjoying the A/C. They also have free ice water inside.

When the Town Center opened, guests were finally able to see the actual springs that make up Disney Springs, and they are lovely. There are some restaurants still in construction that look like they will have seating areas overlooking the springs, and some more stores that will be opening. All in all, I’m impressed with what Disney has rolled out so far, and can’t wait to go back to see it when it is all complete!

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Exploring the Darker Side of Disney

I have to admit it. I am not a pixie duster (someone who believes Disney can do no wrong). While I truly love the magic of Disney parks, there is also have a dark side to my Disney fandom. My experience began with childhood visits to WDW every 1-2 years. Back then it was entirely magical.

Just about the time when I became an adult is when we started having, albeit very archaic, access to the internet. Up until that point, my knowledge of Disney parks came from the Birnbaum guide books and some books I had bought as souvenirs. I remember searching for info on Walt Disney World and finding this very basic website that had tons of secrets about it. The site was just a huge bulleted list of info, mainly about the Magic Kingdom, and this was the first time I learned about the utilidors, hidden Mickeys and dozens of fascinating secrets about the park and its attractions. While I still enjoyed the magic of the parks, I started seeing them with more critical eyes, and wanting to know what was going on behind the scenes. Those perky cast members couldn’t be that way 24/7, right?

I remember I printed out that list from the website and took it with me on a trip so I could see these things with my own eyes. Emily and I also became fascinated with seeing “backstage” areas that Disney didn’t necessarily want you to see, but also didn’t completely cover up. For example, on the People Mover, there used to be a couple circular windows, and if you looked through them you could see a parking lot. When a cast member would open a door from backstage, we would see if we could see anything on the other side. On an occasional crowded night at the Magic Kingdom, you would exit from Tomorrowland behind Main Street USA. It is all done up nice back there nowadays, so it doesn’t lose the magic, but back then it was not very appealing to the eyes. Our favorite way to observe backstage areas and show buildings that you might not otherwise notice was to take the Skyway ride. It provided a great perspective on the park.

Some years later, I discovered the Mesa Verde Times website, and learned about two guys who had jumped out of the Horizons ride (arguably one of the best rides at Epcot) vehicles and spent hours recording and photographing their antics. I also read about Shane Perez’s illegal exploration of a then-abandoned Discovery Island at night. While I would never consider doing anything that would get me banned from the parks, the fact that others did this really intrigued me. When Leonard Kinsey wrote his book, “The Dark Side of Disney” in 2011, I picked up a copy and enjoyed reading about all his adventures and hacks. He also has some neat videos up on YouTube of his off limits explorations.

The documentary based on the book, Dark Side of Disney, was recently released and I have been looking forward to it for a while.  I was hoping that this documentary would be what I thought the train wreck of a movie “Escape from Tomorrow” might be. Indeed it was an offbeat look at how adults enjoy the parks in a variety of unconventional ways. You get to view Disney fans’ darker sides, but they all still are Disney lovers at heart. I don’t want to give too much away in case you want to check it out. This movie definitely isn’t for kids, but if you are interested in less traditional ways that people enjoy the parks, then definitely check it out. And, by the way, I totally want to join a Disneyland gang!

Here’s a preview of the film!

Yet Another Off Property Resort…My Review of Hilton Bonnet Creek

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After all our years of staying at Walt Disney World without ever staying off property, the past few months have brought us to several off property resorts. We’ve stayed at and reviewed The Dolphin Resort, the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, and I recently had the opportunity to check out the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort.  My best friend from home, Sara, had a conference which was held at the convention center at Hilton Bonnet Creek. Always looking for an excuse to head to WDW, I not only was excited to see Sara, but I was also interested in checking out yet another off property resort. The entrance to the three Bonnet Creek resorts is on Disney property, but as you wind down Chelonia Parkway towards the resorts, there is a tiny piece of land that is not owned by Disney. This is where the Wyndham Bonnet Creek, Waldorf Astoria, and Hilton are located. I was always a little intrigued by the Bonnet Creek resort area, as there is that tiny sign for it as you drive down Buena Vista Drive, so that was my chance to check it out.

When I arrived, I pulled up for luggage service and check in. Valet was an option, but I opted to self-park in the attached garage. As I walked into to the lobby, I felt very disoriented…the way that we have felt each time when checking in to a non-Disney resort. It was also extremely loud because the conference was letting out for the day and there were hundreds of professionally dressed folks streaming out of the conference. I think the acoustics of the entryway are not good, because even when there were less people, it always seemed loud. I joked to the person at check in that I felt very under dressed, as I was the only person in a shorts/tee and not in business attire.

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I found my room, luggage was promptly delivered and I started to explore the resort. I definitely did not feel like I was at Walt Disney World. The resort is a concrete high rise with modern flair, but has none of the theming that I am used to when staying on property at WDW. Once I checked out the view from our room, I felt more at home, as I could see the bowling pins from Pop Century, some of the Caribbean Beach Resort, the Tower of Terror, and the Swan and Dolphin Resorts peeking up above the trees.  The room itself was modern, spacious and clean.

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The most impressive feature of the Hilton Bonnet Creek was its pool area. It’s a very large area, with a tropical feel, situated next to the Waldorf Astoria golf course. There were plenty of lounge chairs set up, and we never felt like there was a huge crowd at the pool. There was also a nice sized poolside bar and wait staff provided food and beverage service to the entire pool area. We enjoyed lounging by the pool, and took a few whirls around the lazy river on some tubes. One evening, a movie was shown poolside and folks were just hanging in the pool, watching the movie, and we practically had the lazy river to ourselves.

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I think the biggest perk of our room was the fact that we had an amazing view of the Star Wars Fireworks at Hollywood Studios. Judging from our location in relation to the Tower of Terror, I had an idea that we would be able to see fireworks, but it was so exciting to have a perfect view of the spectacular show.

The last thing that I enjoyed about the resort was the parking garage that was attached. It was really easy to get to my car any time we wanted to go out. I have found that at some of the resorts at WDW, especially the deluxe resorts, it is quite a hike to get to your car. Last year, we were stuck in our room at the Yacht Club due to an intense thunderstorm, and couldn’t make it to our dinner reservation on time. With the parking garage, you can quickly and easily get from your room to your car without getting rained on.

There are definitely some downsides to staying at this resort. Guests are charged a resort fee of $25, which is common for off property WDW hotels, and garage parking is $20 a day. I hear rumors that Disney is exploring adding a resort fee, and I hope it doesn’t happen. I would rather know up front the total price for a room, rather than having different fees added on. I also think that the Hilton jacks up the room prices for conferences. I checked pricing on a random weekend in May and the pricing was half of what was charged during the conference. Also, the food was really expensive.  A light lunch or breakfast will cost you much more than you would pay for Disney counter service food. The resort does offer a shuttle to the theme parks, and posts a schedule, but guests are not entitled to perks like extra magic hours, magic bands, free theme park parking, and Disney transportation. Being an annual passholder with a car, none of these are an issue for me.

All in all, I enjoyed my experience there and exploring the resort. The fireworks view and pool area were the highlights. I’m not sure if I would go out of my way to stay there again, but if an opportunity presented itself, I would return. You can follow along on our adventures in upcoming blog posts!

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Dining at Captain’s Grille

 

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Because we tend to plan our trips last minute, we often don’t get the chance to dine at the signature restaurants that require booking 6 months in advance. This gives us the opportunity to dine at the resort restaurants that don’t tend to fill up way in advance. There are some really great dining options at Walt Disney World resorts, including one of my new favorites, The Captain’s Grille, at the Yacht Club Resort. We discovered this restaurant last summer when we stayed at the Yacht Club. During busier times you definitely need an advanced dining reservation (even for breakfast), but it is a restaurant you can typically book same-day.

The atmosphere is casual with nautical theming. It feels like you are dining on a ship. Most of the times we have dined there it has been quiet, which I appreciate.

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The menu offers surf and turf, with vegetarian options. The food does not disappoint. As with all Disney restaurants, they are eager to assist with any dietary modifications. Here are some pictures of the delicious meals we have enjoyed at Captain’s Grille:

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Cabernet-braised short rib with corn risotto

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New york strip with creme fraiche whipped potatoes

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Lemon ricotta ravioli with peas and asparagus

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Rosemary brined pork tenderloin with brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes

While we don’t have any pictures, we also enjoyed eating breakfast here as well. I reccommend you check out Captain’s Grille if you are looking for a casual, tasty, easy to book alternative to something like the Yachtsman Steakhouse. As an added bonus, you can park at the resort and walk over to Epcot after dinner.