Wishes And Pixie Dust

Follow the journey of a Wisconsin family of 4 who relocated to the Walt Disney World area in July 2011


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A Walk in the Park With Phil Holmes

This past Wednesday I was able to participate in a Disney Parks Blog Limited Time Magic opportunity; a walk through the Magic Kingdom with Phil Holmes, the VP of the Magic Kingdom (MK).  I wanted to share this tour with you. We started outside the main gate at 7:45am with Phil telling us that this tour came out of the Park walk-throughs that he asks his new leaders to do as they join his team.  This is done so that the leadership can gauge what the frontline Cast Members (CMs) see and hear during their days.  This lets Disney provide the best experiences for the Guests and it is those top flight experiences that in turn drive the Disney ‘machine’.  By providing the best for the Guests, Disney takes care of the financial line without worrying about the bottom line as most companies do, the bottom line takes care of itself.

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Our first stop was at the Roy Disney/Minnie Mouse bench in Town Square.  Phil shared his story of working construction for Disney World before it opened and how he saw how differently Roy acted in comparison to how he thought a company leader would, particularly in seeing Roy bus away his own tray as well as others’ after lunches in the construction cafeteria.

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We walked down Main Street taking in the view of a near empty Park (some early ADR Guests were in by this time) and Cinderella Castle.  We stopped in front of the Castle to view a card showing the many different ‘variations’ the Castle has had over the years.  Phil did quip that the comment he most hears about the Castle is how bad the 25th Anniversary ‘Birthday Cake Castle’ was and that it shouldn’t be done again (personal thought here – I agree).  His story here was simple, that Walt’s vision for Disneyland and Disney World was that they weren’t built to be museums, static and never-changing.  They were meant to change and evolve and to always bring new experiences.  To exemplify this he told how the current colour of the Castle isn’t the same as it was back on Opening Day.  A few years back the designer of the Castle in Paris came to him and Meg Crofton and suggested that the colouring schemes used there would also fit the MK Castle as well.  And so, with confidence (and the thought that if it didn’t work they could always re-paint it) the Castle was re-painted…and it looks wonderful.
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From here we walked up to the Castle’s main entrance and behind the Castle Stage.  We could see back up a now empty Main Street and into the Hub.  Phil told us here what he had said back during the 40th Anniversary Celebration (which we had attended 2 years ago) and reminisced on his time as a CM at the Haunted Mansion on opening day; a job he got after impressing his boss while working construction and being offered a job “inside in the air conditioning”.

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We then walked through “the hardest working Castle in the world” and into Fantasyland; the ‘heart’ of the Magic Kingdom.  Here we saw photos of Fantasyland as it was opening day and how it has changed over the years.  Phil explained why the decision was made to replace Snow White’s Scary Adventure with Princess Fairytale Hall.  This was because on Opening Day and for years you met the Princesses in Fantasyland but they had since moved to places they just didn’t belong, Mickey’s Toontown Fair and then Town Square; and that the fairy tale Princesses belonged in Fantasyland in the Castle.  Since there was no room in the Castle, they picked the next thing, the show building next to it.  He told of how he questioned the Imagineers on the need for Castle Walls being added as part of the New Fantasyland expansion; agreeing once it was explained that the walls ‘close off’ the Castle Courtyard and transition you into the Villages and Enchanted Forest of New Fantasyland.  He also told us here that we’ll never see the true classic attractions close; mentioning “it’s a small world”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Haunted Mansion” and “Peter Pan’s Flight”.  We’ll see them change and evolve, using the addition of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow to Pirates as an example, but not closed.

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We walked into New Fantasyland first stopping at the Be Our Guest Restaurant.  Here we heard how the designers wanted to feature a restaurant as the centerpiece of the expansion in order to provide a new experience not available in the Park before and in a way to make it accessible to all; counter service for lunch and sit-down service for dinner while encompassing the Guests into the Beauty and the Beast story.  We walked into Belle’s Village where we learned that having Gaston meet here was an important piece as he was highly requested and seldom appeared outside of Epcot and that his Meet and Greet has become a very popular and interactive experience.  We visited Bonjour Gifts where Phil posed with the portrait of “his ancestor” that hangs there.  I asked him here what the ‘story’ is behind the ‘little door’ behind the Shoppe.  He had no real answer, saying that it was a great way to theme a utility hatch, but if Guests wanted a story, he’d have to ask the Imagineers to create one; perhaps a door for Mrs. Potts to use to visit the Shoppe.  Last we visited “Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid”.  Here we learned how the Imagineers learn all the time how to apply new technology and methods even to older attractions.  In this case it is the grass.  The grass covering the outside of this attraction is so realistic that many do believe it is real.  This can now be applied to other attractions that feature grassy areas, specifically mentioning Splash Mountain, to make them more realistic.  We also learned that the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster is on schedule to open pre-summer of 2014 as planned.  This coaster was designed with families in mind, following Walt’s vision that the rides should always be ones that the whole family can enjoy together, including rollercoasters; and this will be one that all can ride and not just the 75% that ride many other Disney coasters like Space Mountain.

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From here we ventured into Storybook Circus.  Here were learned that the vision of Storybook Circus came from designs that Walt Disney had drawn up himself for a never built Circusland at Disneyland.  We also learned that research had shown that for almost all Guests, a stay at Disney World couldn’t end without riding Dumbo, so over the years Dumbo was redesigned to add arms and elephant cars but that it still wasn’t enough.  Building Storybook Circus allowed for an increased capacity by adding the second Dumbo; but it also allowed for a centerpiece to be built for the area, the wait area that allows for children to play and burn energy while parents enjoy a rest in the air conditioning. Now came our big surprise as we walked down to the Fantasyland Train Station.  We boarded the train and were told that we were going to help be part of the Magic Kingdom Welcome Show…wow!  After we boarded we had a Q&A time with Phil where we learned things such as Limited Time Magic will end 12/31/13 but may come back in future years, there are no plans for ‘Dapper Danielles’ but there were also no plans in the past for female train engineers or other positions so ‘never say never’, the Frozen Princesses will be around for Meets ‘forever’ but not at the Magic Kingdom, Phil’s granddaughters were Batman and Robin for Halloween and more trinkets.  Now it was time for the characters to board; Mary Poppins, Stitch, Lady Tremaine, Pluto, Minnie and Mickey (and more).  The train circled around to the Main Street Station and hearing the noise build as we got closer and closer was just electric.  Waving to the waiting crowd and being a part of a show that opens the Park to all each day brought a lump to my throat…it was just pure joy and I was a little boy again.

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After the show we each had a photo taken with Phil and received a special gift, a Legacy of Leadership pin featuring a photo of Walt in front of a Florida map.  A treasure I’ll cherish forever!

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A huge thank you to the Walt Disney Company, the Disney Parks Blog and to Mr. Phil Holmes for providing this opportunity to all of those who have had a chance to enjoy this thrilling time.


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Limited Time Magic: Animal Kingdom Backstage Tour

I was selected to participate in a special opportunity through the Disney Parks Blog- to view the animal care facilities behind the scenes.  I am thrilled to have been able to take part, and I wanted to share my experience here.    We were informed that this tour was not the same as the Backstage Safari Tour that guests can reserve through Disney, but offered a one-of-a-kind encounter with cast members who were directly involved with the care and training of animals.

There were nineteen people present; we were divided into two groups, and driven by van to the backstage area.   The Disney geek in me was just excited to be riding in a Walt Disney World van!  We passed the area where the new Festival of the Lion King Theater was being constructed, but in true Disney fashion it was under wraps and we weren’t able to view a lot from the road.   We had two different opportunities:  to view the lion housing area and to tour the veterinary hospital.   My group was able to view the lion housing area first.  As this was a backstage area, no pictures were allowed.

There were two lionesses and one lion in the holding area:  the lionesses were pacing back and forth upon seeing us, but the lion just continued his afternoon nap, on his back, showing his tummy!   These lions were approximately five years old, and have been with Disney for approximately two years.  The lions out on the safari were seventeen years old, so quite a bit older.  The two sets of lions are on a three day rotation:  every three days the backstage lions get to go out on the safari, and the safari lions then spend their time in the holding area.  At no time are the two male lions allowed contact with each other; there is an empty pen kept between the young lions and the older lions.

All food given to the animals are dead, because of the hazard a live animal could potentially give to the animal consuming it.   The safety and well being of the animals is of utmost concern for Disney, and we were given the example of giving a live rat to a snake who was not hungry, and having that rat bite the snake and causing injury.

One of the challenges the animal staff encounters is training the lions to do a voluntary blood draw.  There is a special cage where the lions are encouraged to enter, and a small side panel drops down to allow their tail to swish out.  The bigger an animal’s tail, the more blood vessels it contains, so access to a lion’s tail allows the staff to safely do a blood draw, to order to monitor the health of the lion.  As I mentioned before, this is all voluntary on the part of the animal, and at no time does Disney force the issue.  All desired behaviors are encouraged using positive reinforcements, such as favorite foods.   The five year old lionesses are still in the training stage, even after two years.

There are ten veterinarians on staff at Disney, to care for approximately 2,000 thousand animal at Animal Kingdom, 300 animals located at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and 3,000 animals at the Seas with Nemo and Friends.   There are times the animals at Animal Kingdom Lodge are moved to Animal Kingdom, and vice versa.    It all depends on where an animal thrives best.   At night the animals on safari are called into their holding areas with a special sound unique to their species.  However it was noted that during the summertime some of the animals would prefer to stay out, and they are not forced inside.  It typically does not take long for new animals to learn the sound and follow the path into their holding areas.   There is also a different, emergency signal that the animals learn, to come in during the day if necessary.   This is practiced once a month.   In the case of the lions, a special treat of rabbit is presented to them upon return to the holding areas.    This special signal would be enforced if bad weather was approaching, or if something came inside their pen that could be potentially harmful to the animals there.

This was the end of our tour of the lion holding area; we went back to the van and were then transported to the veterinary hospital, where we were greeted by Dr. Scott, chief operating veterinary doctor.  We were told it was a special treat to have him as our tour guide.  We were given a pin that he said could not be found anywhere else on Disney property, so if we were going to trade it, we should trade it for something big!    Here is a picture of the pin:

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We were led into the x-ray room- on the picture below the table you see supports animal weight of up to 1,000 pounds.

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The cart in the picture below is unique in that Disney is the only animal care facility that has one, mainly because it is cost prohibitive to other animal facilities and they cannot justify the expense.   The cart contains everything pictured in this room, so that it can be transported directly out to the animal.    In the past, x-rays would be taken on a sedated animal in the field, an intern would come back to this room to develop the pictures, and then more likely than not, the image would be blurry because an animal had moved at the last minute.   So then the intern would need to return to the animal, retake the x-ray again, and hope this time it provided a clear image.  Each additional x-ray that needed to be taken required the animal to be sedated for a longer period of time.     Dr. Scott stated that Disney purchased the cart, not because they’re Disney and need to have the best equipment there is, but because it provided a significant increase in the quality of care that the animals received.

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The grappling hooks in the next picture are used to support gorillas during a chest x-ray.    Older gorillas tend to have a high incidence of heart disease, and in fact, two gorillas on Disney property do have the condition.  This, of course, needs to be monitored, and one way is through chest x-rays.  Because the gorillas need to be standing up during the x-ray, and because it is impossible to support the gorillas in an upright stance while they are sedated, it is necessary to support them through the use of these hooks.

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This is a picture of a mammogram machine that is used to provide care to the animals:   not in the way humans use the machine, but on any area that requires a closer inspection.

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We were then led into the main operating room, which as you can tell from the photo is observable to park guests from inside Conservation Station.    This is where 90% of all the procedures take place; Dr. Scott stated that they do not pick and choose which animal gets treated.  It just depends on what animal needs care on a particular day.   If they strongly suspect a particular animal will not survive the procedure, then they may perform the operation in an inner room.  He stated that life and death happens in this room, and there are times when staff members need to go outside the room afterwards and talk to guests about what happened.  All procedures are performed in the morning, and the best time to be there is 10am if you wish to witness it!

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We were then taken into an inner room to view a “patient”, a turtle who had been hit by a car which cracked its shell.  We were informed that the turtle was 98% healed, but because Florida is entering cooler weather, with cooler water temperatures, they felt it better not to release her until the spring.  No pictures were allowed at this point.

Overall, it was definitely a magical experience!  A huge shout-out to Walt Disney World for allowing a few guests to see the inner magic of Disney.  As dedicated as Walt Disney World is to the safety and enjoyment of their guests, this also applies to their animal residents, and it was a privilege to be able to witness how dedicated the veterinary and animal team are to their residents.

–Jen