Enjoy Disney without standing in long lines
ORLANDO, Fla. -- "The parade's in a half-hour," says Pal Mickey, a cuddly hand-held doll that, you guessed it, has the familiar squeaky voice of the famous cartoon rodent.
I look at my watch, and it says 2:30 p.m., indeed 30 minutes before the big shindig at Disney World's Magic Kingdom, where well-known princesses and animals greet thousands of their fans. "There's lots of places to see it from. I prefer Main Street," the foot-tall Mickey adds.
Available since May, Pal Mickey is the latest gadget created by Disney to help inform and accommodate visitors. Following such successful programs as Fastpass and VIP Tours, Pal Mickey hopes to add to the pleasure of the Disney experience by engaging 5- to 10-year-olds.
My wife and I were skeptical of this toy, thinking it another marketing ploy that parents would feel pressured to buy ($50) or rent ($8 daily) once their kids saw other children in the park playing with him. But our skepticism faded once we saw that Pal Mickey does help slow down children who otherwise might be sprinting from ride to ride, dragging their harried parents along.
Embedded with computer chips triggered by concealed electronic beacons through the park, Pal Mickey vibrates when he has something to say. Push his tummy near the Norway pavilion at Epcot, for instance, and he talks about the history of the Vikings. If he's not vibrating, a push in the tummy yields a kid-sized joke: "What did Pluto say when he sat on a piece of sandpaper? Rough, rough."
While kids are focusing on their new tour guide, parents can slip admission tickets into the free Fastpass machines at the 23 most popular rides around the parks. Since lines are the biggest concern of most families visiting theme parks, Fastpass has been a revolutionary device since its debut in June 1999, helping to significantly cut down on wait time.
"We were basically told to break the mold and come up with any device that would help minimize people's dissatisfaction with waiting in line," says Dale Stafford, vice president of the Global Fastpass Service. At first, the team of 15 staff members from all areas of Disney design thought of passing out pagers, but quickly scrapped that idea. Within three months, they had patented a process whereby a ticket's bar code could be scanned into a machine, which would churn out paper receipts that stated what time to return. At attractions where Fastpass is available, there are two lines: the long regular one, and the Fastpass one, which lets you walk right up to the ride.
Nonetheless, 30 percent of visitors do not use the machines. "We have been told by some families that they actually like to wait in lines," says Stafford. "It's a way to finally have their children's undivided attention."
At peak times like spring break, even Fastpass can do little to offset large crowds. Standing with Stafford in front of the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at MGM Studios, I noticed that people using Fastpass were being given tickets telling them to return for the ride five hours later. Once you get a return time, the machine also tells you when you can use Fastpass again to get tickets to another ride; if everyone used Fastpass all day, they would overwhelm the system. These times can also be lengthy when the parks are packed.
That's when VIP Services comes into play. If you really want to de-stress at Disney (a striking concept), you can -- for an additional $80 an hour for a minimum of five hours. What you get in return is an escort like John Constantin, who not only knows every nook and cranny of every Disney World park, but knows which rides to visit at any given hour that are least likely to have long lines.
Constantin picked up our family of four at our hotel at 8:45 a.m. and drove us to a back lot at Magic Kingdom. The gates opened, and we were quickly escorted to Fantasyland. Considering our children's ages, 4 and 6, his first choice was the Dumbo ride, which has no Fastpass yet, resulting in lines that often reach two hours long by noon. We walked right up, since the doors had just opened. While we were on Dumbo and the neighboring "It's a Small World" cruise, Constantin zipped over to the Fastpass machines at Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan so that we could return to these attractions effortlessly -- in both cases, within a half-hour.
Next up was Adventureland, just left of the main entrance. If you choose attractions by going either clockwise or counterclockwise around Magic Kingdom, it is usually the first or last stop of the day. Few folks check out the "Pirates of the Caribbean" around lunchtime, which is exactly the reason Constantin guided us there and exactly why we had only a 5-minute wait. The park was quickly filling up, so while we sang along with those crusty salty dogs, Constantin was ahead of us in Tomorrowland getting tickets for the Buzz Lightyear ride. He knew from experience that a zigzag route leads to more rides in the day than the more common circular route.
Constantin also earned his money by getting us into the more popular restaurants, which had been booked months in advance. Like Mickey Mouse using his wand in "Fantasia," he made several calls on his cellphone and tables magically opened at the Coral Reef Restaurant in Epcot and the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, a country-and-western vaudeville-style show at the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground.
Those using VIP Tours also get their own VIP seating at many of the shows. We had front-row seats for the Playhouse Disney show at MGM Studios and prime waterfront viewing for Illuminations, the nightly fireworks spectacle at Epcot. There was even a VIP section for the daily parade at the Magic Kingdom. Instead of taking Pal Mickey's suggestion and getting a spot on the hot and crowded sidewalks of Main Street, we sat on benches reserved for VIP guests at the front of the parade, under a shaded magnolia tree. Now that's what I call a vacation.
Newton-based writer Steve Jermanok writes about family travel for FamilyFun, Travel & Leisure Family, and Outside Magazine's Family Vacation Guide.