In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Bye bye menagerie: Culling my theme park winnings

b1If you’re one of my regular readers, you know I’m addicted to the theme parks. What you probably don’t know is that I’m also addicted to theme park games, particularly the goblet toss.

Back when I lived in Chicago, I had a huge collection of giant stuffed animals because I could win the quarter toss and hula hoop pitch. Combine that with a season pass to Six Flags Great America, which had both of those games, and space in my house dwindled fast. I gave a lot of my prizes away before I left the park, but enough made it home to entice the “Hoarders” crew to hover around my block, just waiting for things to tip over into crazytown territory.

I got rid of them all when I moved to Florida, but several of the parks around here have games, too. While the quarter toss and hula hoop games are nowhere to be found, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom all have goblet tosses, and Universal Studios used to have one before Diagon Alley took it over. I can’t win it 100 percent of the time, but I have enough skill to tilt the odds in my favor and win quite a bit.

Most of the time, I give my prizes away to kids, and sometimes even adults. It’s so much fun to see a little kid’s eyes light up with delight as he grabs a toy that’s nearly as big as he is. The adults make for some interesting memories, too. I’ve had foreign tourists tell me they’re going to take out all the stuffing to take a toy I’ve given them on the plane, then restuff it when they get home. One giant SeaWorld polar bear even went back to England on a cruise ship with the wife of one of the officers, who took it for her grandchild.

b2Sometimes, though, I don’t run into anyone who feels like hauling a giant critter home, or I’m only at the park for a short time and don’t have time to give a prize away. Thus, enough Florida winnings made it home to rival my former collection in Chicago. Some had great memories attached, like winning a big Scooby Doo and then riding Jaws with him just days before it closed down for good or taking my giant Cookie Monster with me through the haunted houses at HowlOScream, where the scareactors were quite merciless.

But things finally reached the point where it was time for them to go in the name of spring cleaning and downsizing. Despite the fact that some of the stuffed animals make it home, and that I have a huge comedy/tragedy mask collection, I can’t wrap my head around the hoarder mentality. That’s probably because my mom was a bona-fide, certified, flea market and rummage sale-frequenting hoarder, which gave me a hatred for clutter. She passed away many years ago, but I often wonder what she’d think now that hoarding has gone mainstream and is all over TV. I try to imagine surprising her with the “Hoarders” crew, but I know that wouldn’t have ended well.

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Thus, to avoid following in her footsteps (and to make more room in the house and garage), I gave the collection away. You can see some of my prizes in the photos accompanying this article. Almost all were won on the goblet toss, although Radioactive Man is the result of uncanny luck on the Universal ring toss. The room where they were once stored looks rather empty now, but I’m not worried. The tiny little hoarder part of me that’s buried deep inside knows that there are many more days ahead at theme parks to hit that yellow spot and rack up more goblet winnings.

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Locals’ Secret

b6This isn’t really a locals’ secret so much as my own tip for winning the goblet toss. Little kids love to throw the balls willy nilly, and sometimes they score because there’s a big element of luck in the game. But if you want to increase your chances, stand in a direct line with the winning cup. There’s usually only one, and it’s usually yellow or red and positioned at the center of the board, although that varies by theme park. Roll the ball so it goes directly down the line, over the winning cup, and to the back wall so it rolls back toward the winning spot. That doesn’t always work because the cups or slots can easily veer it off course, but if you play as much as I do, you get a feel for each park’s goblet board, so that ups your odds.

When you choose your spot to stand, select the spot with the highest concentration of colored cups near the far wall. In addition to the grand prize color, most games have goblets in two other colors that score you a small or medium prize. If you miss the grand prize, your odds of hitting one of the other colors is increased when you choose a good spot. If you win three small or medium prizes, most games let you trade up to a larger prize. I’ve won more than a few giant critters when I couldn’t hit the center spot but was on a roll with hitting small and medium.

The rollback doesn’t work with certain types of goblet boards, like the big one at Busch Gardens, so just roll the ball in a straight line toward the winning spot and hope for the best. You won’t win 100 percent of the time, but as these photos show, you’ll at least tip the odds in your favor.

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Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Join me this week for a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train review from Walt Disney World

stickyWhen the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens at the Magic Kingdom, it will mark the completion of the New Fantasyland expansion. The area already has attractions like a Little Mermaid ride in Eric’s castle, Enchanted Tales With Belle, and the impressive Beast’s castle, which houses the Be Our Guest Restaurant. While Snow White’s Scary Adventure is history, the new ride will bring part her story back to the Magic Kingdom.

Although it’s a family coaster, meaning the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will be suitable for everyone from Junior up to Grandma, it will still have a unique feature: trains that sway on the track. So what’s it like to ride this new attraction? I can’t tell you yet, but watch for my full report this weekend. I’m lucky enough to be attending a special media event that includes a preview of the brand-new coaster. I’ve got my “ticket to ride,” as you can see in the photo accompanying this article.

I’ll experience the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train for the first time ever on Thursday. I’ll have a video to share shortly thereafter, but in the meantime, enjoy these five videos that were recently posted in the Disney Parks Blog to whet everyone’s appetite for the new ride.

First, here’s one on the design:

Next, here’s a visit to the construction site. It sure looks a lot different now, with the ride just about ready to roll:

Here’s an early ride-through rendering:

Now take a peek inside at the dwarfs and mine:

Finally, here’s a CGI ride to get you excited for the real thing:

Watch for a full report on my Disney adventures, which start on Wednesday. In addition to riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, I’ll also be trying out MyMagic+ and learning about all the good stuff coming up at the Disney parks.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

FastPass+ must dos at the four Disney parks: Grab these attractions

Now that FastPass+ is a thing, what rides should you grab when your booking window opens? As an annual pass holder, I’m at a disadvantage as I can only make ride and attraction reservations 30 days out. However, if you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can do it a full 60 days before you check in, as the Walt Disney World website explains. Either way, here are my suggestions for the FastPass+ ressies to grab at each of the four parks:

b7Magic Kingdom

Two words: Elsa and Anna. If you don’t want a multi-hour wait to meet everyone’s favorite princesses, this is the FastPass+ reservation to snap up as soon as it becomes available. Otherwise you’ll wait two hours, three hours, or possibly even more, depending on the crowd level. The second best option is a viewing spot for the Festival of Fantasy parade. Yes, you could go for a major ride like one of the mountains, but both Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain have interactive queue lines that give you something to do while you’re waiting, and most of the Space Mountain wait is indoors, in air conditioning. Waiting in those lines is preferable to standing out in the sun for an hour or more to stake out a good parade spot.

Epcot

Soarin’ is the main attraction here, although Test Track can get some pretty wicked wait times in the summer. Still, Test Track has a single riders line if your family is willing to be split up in separate cars. I’d rather get a Soarin’ FastPass and do Test Track as a single.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Mania or Fantasmic. Toy Story Mania has obnoxious lines during the peak season, and Fantasmic attracts huge crowds that become something of a mob scene. Granted, the Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster are also popular, but their wait time rarely approaches Toy Story Mania. Better yet, Rock n Roller Coaster has a single riders line, so use the heck out of that if others in your party are amendable to the idea.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

b6Kilimanjaro Safaris or Kali River Rapids in the summer. The safari is the signature ride here; you can usually get on with little to no wait if you rush to it early in the morning. Otherwise, just grab a FastPass and rush over to Expedition Everest instead. Yes, Expedition Everest offers FastPasses, too, but it has a single riders line, so that’s a wiser option if you don’t want to waste your precious FastPass allotment. However, if you’re visiting in the dead of summer, opt for Kali River Rapids instead. The line gets very long as people seek a good soaking to cool down in the vicious Florida heat.

Those are my personal suggestions. Sure, there are many, many other options, so work your FastPass+ selections around your own family’s tastes. Yes, it might be hard to plan something as detailed as your ride and show preferences that far in advance, but there’s also a big plus side. Once you make your reservation, you know for sure that you’ll be able to do the things that matter the most to you, even if the park is packed to capacity.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

MyMagic+ gets better on April 28: Park hop and make more FastPass+ reservations

temp31FastPass+ is the next generation of Disney’s venerable FastPass system, which savvy mouse fans have used for years to slash their wait times. With MyMagic+ and Magic Bands, guests have been able to book their FastPasses for rides. shows, parades, and even character greetings before they even reach Walt Disney World. Why wait three hours to meet Anna and Elsa or waste an hour staking out a spot for the Festival of Fantasy parade (pictured at right) when you can make a handy dandy reservation?

Only problem is, in the old days of FastPass, you could keep getting more all day. Once you hit the time frame for one, you could get another as long as there were still times available. Not so with FastPass+, which capped you at three and forced you to get them all for a single park. That kept you from the freedom of park hopping if you preferred to split your day between multiple parks.

Today company chairman Tom Staggs announced on the Disney Parks Blog that, starting on April 28, the three FastPass limitation will disappear like the Cheshire cat. You have to start out with just three FastPasses, but once you use them, you’re free to get another…and another…and another…until you don’t want any more or until they’re all handed out for the day, whichever happens first.

As an annual pass holder, I love the fact that FastPass+ is now pretty much in line with the old system. In fact, it’s even better because you can grab three rides or attractions in advance without worrying that you’ll get to the parks, hoping for an early time on Soarin’ or Toy Story Mania, only to get caught behind a tour guide getting FastPasses for his group of 200 via one of the old machines.

Better yet, you can park hop under the new system. Let’s say I want to grab three rides at the Magic Kingdom, then pop over to one of the other parks. As long as there are still times left for Soarin’ or Kilimanjaro Safari or the Tower of Terror, I can head over to Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or Disney’s Hollywood Studios and extend my fun.

The only potential downside to the new system is that if you get one of your first three FastPasses for a late attraction, you probably won’t have much of a selection when its time to get your fourth. For example, if you book reserved viewing for the Festival of Fantasy parade, you’re tied up until 3 p.m. If your kids (or you) really, really want to see Anna and Elsa and the only available time is 5 p.m., you’re in the same boat.

As a local, I’m not too worried about those limitations, since I don’t have to fit everything into a compressed time period. If you’re a tourist, it will take a little planning, but you’re much better off having access to the additional FastPasses. Grab the first ones for early times if you can so you have the most possible freedom for the rest of your day.

Staggs says more MyMagic+ enhancements are coming, so stay tuned for future ways in which that cute little MagicBand can give you a smoother Walt Disney World experience.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Don’t torture your kids at Disney World: 3 ways parents ruin vacations

The other day I wrote about things tourists do to annoy the locals, as well as their fellow tourists who have better manners. Today, I thought I’d shift over to the things parents do to torture their kids at Walt Disney World and the other Orlando theme parks. A trip to Disney is supposed to be fun, right? It’s supposed to make the kind of happy memories that your whole family will cherish for years to come. Unfortunately, sometimes it becomes the stuff of nightmares as the kids remember how Mom or Dad forced them onto Mission Space and yelled at them for puking afterward or forced them to stay at Epcot Illuminations even though they slept most of the way through it, in between sobbing, “I’m sick of all this fun. I want to go to bed!”

tempssHere are three ways I’ve witnessed parents torturing their kids on what should be a fun, happy, and carefree trip. They paid their money and, by God, they’re going to force the whole family to enjoy every single minute. If you’re tempted to try these things yourself, remember: someday those kids are going to choose your nursing home.

1) Keeping the kids up too late and running them ragged. Little kids are bundles of energy, but it burns out fast. They can be running at full speed one minute, then drop like a box of rocks the next. Fortunately, they tend to recharge pretty fast. Still, I see plenty of parents at the Disney parks who aren’t willing to give them that recharge time. They paid for a park ticket, and their family is going to enjoy every stinking minute possible at that park, from rope drop right down to the moment they’re forced out at closing time, with no breaks in between. I cringe at the cranky and crying kids begging to go back to the hotel while their steely eyes parents tell them to shut up and enjoy themselves, dammit! A good parent recognizes when the kids have had enough and takes them back to the hotel for a nap or bed. Yes, you might want to see Illuminations, but as stunning as it is, it’s just a musical fireworks, laser, and water show. Is it really worth spoiling your poor, exhausted kid’s trip?

2) Forcing the kids onto rides they’re not ready for. This happens at Walt Disney World, but I see it more frequently at Universal and Busch Gardens, simply because they have more terrifying rides like my favorite coaster, SheiKra, that towers at 200 feet. All but the most timid youngsters and those with the queasiest stomachs can handle most of the Disney rides. Still, I see parents forcing crying kidlets onto the likes of Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Expedition Everest and the like. The child is begging, “No! I don’t want to ride it!” and the parents are fluffing it off with, “Shut up and get on. You’ll love it once you do it.” Yes, that might be true, but it also might be a terrifying experience that spoils the poor kid’s day.

temprr3) Forcing the kids to see the characters. This one isn’t relevant to a lot of families because their kids absolutely adore seeing Mickey Mouse. However, there are plenty of little ones who are terrified at the sight of Mickey and his friends towering over them in real life, even if they love ‘em on the TV or movie screen.

But do their parents respect that? Nope, they want a magical moment on the camera, so they force the crying child to confront what, to him or her, no doubt looks like a nightmare creature. If your kid’s not down with the whole character thing, don’t force the issue. There are plenty of other great photo ops that don’t require terrorizing a toddler. There are lots of “face characters,” too, like the princesses, and they’re usually a lot less scary to the younger set.

The character thing applies to older kids, too. I get it, you want your tweens and teens in the family photos, but some of them really don’t want to spend three hours waiting for Anna and Elsa when they could be doing something more exciting. Don’t force them to waste precious time for the sake of a photo in which they’ll be rolling their eyes and putting on their most cynical faces anyway. If you have younger kids who want to see the characters, let the older ones do something else in the meantime. If you’ve only got teens and tweens, give them a break. Get a photo or two with the characters, but don’t force them to pose with the entire Disney movie catalog if they’re really not down with it.

Family friction makes great movie fodder, as anyone who’s ever seen the classic “National Lampoon’s Vacation” can attest. But in real life, when you visit Walt Disney World you’re making memories that will last a lifetime. Before you force your kids into something that induces tears, ask yourself if you really want that to be their standout memory of the “dream vacation.”

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

SeaWorld San Diego and the slippery slope

On Tuesday, SeaWorld will argue its case to California lawmakers in a bid to stop a bill that would ban its orca shows and captive breeding program. That law would only apply to California, but it would obviously deal a staggering blow to the way things are done in San Diego and have a ripple effect on the other SeaWorld parks.

tempssI see this proposed law as a chilling step toward a slippery slope that could affect any theme park or zoo that keeps animals. After all, if orca shows are banned in California, why stop there? Animals like elephants are very intelligent and have a complex social structure. Maybe they shouldn’t be kept in zoos. Gorillas, monkeys, and the like are also extremely smart, to the point where some, like the famous Koko, have even learned to speak in sign language. Get them out of captivity too. And what about birds? African grays have been proven to understand language, and many other species are extremely intelligent too. Let’s get them of zoos and, while we’re at it, out of households that keep them captive as pets.

There are plenty of places in California that could come under attack with similar laws, like the world-renown San Diego Zoo. Like SeaWorld, they do a lot for education and conservation, and that’s all in jeopardy if that first anti-captivity law gets passed. Meanwhile, here in Orlando, we have our own SeaWorld park, and Disney keeps dolphins at Epcot. Why should dolphins be excluded from the law if orcas are protected? Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens Tampa all have a multitude of creatures, including the aforementioned gorillas, monkeys, and birds. If a marine mammal protection anti-captivity law passes here, it’s not a stretch to imagine that other animals in those theme park collections will be targeted next.

Is shutting down zoos a bad thing? Quite frankly, I’ve been to some zoos that should, indeed, be shuttered because of their tiny habitats and terrible conditions for the animals. Thankfully, the big theme parks here have excellent habitats and enrichment programs that keep their animals happy and healthy. Even smaller places, like Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, do a great job with their limited space, and places like Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee are as close as most people will ever come to an African safari out on the savannah.

tempttIn a perfect world, there would be no captivity. I wish all animals could be born free and live happy lives in their natural habitats. Unfortunately, we’ve screwed things up to the point that zoos and captive breeding programs are necessary to keep certain species from going extinct. For example, you can see the scimitar oryx in zoos and animal parks, yet its wild population is completely wiped out. Cheetahs are in grave peril, and places like Busch Gardens Tampa, which is owned by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, are not only safeguarding them in captivity but also funneling money to Africa to help save them in the wild.

I wish that the horrific orca hunts didn’t happen in the 1980s, even though that means we probably wouldn’t have orcas in captivity now. I’d never support catching wild orcas, or any other marine mammals, for entertainment, but we’ve got a captive population now, so I focus my attention on making sure they’re well cared for. SeaWorld sets the standard for killer whale care, and most of its current orcas were born in captivity, so they don’t miss something they never knew.

Sure, SeaWorld trains its orcas and puts them on display doing tricks. I don’t have an issue with that because I know the training and performing is enriching for the animals, and they don’t have to work if they don’t want to. I have a platinum pass, and I’ve seen enough shows interrupted because they just didn’t feel like going along with the program on a particular day. I also support the shows because the revenue they generate supports SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation work. Yes, I know it’s just a small part of their overall revenue, but guess what? They don’t have to spend a single penny on helping animals. They do it by choice, and I’ve seen their wonderful work firsthand. Check out the video below of one of their manatee releases, which I personally attended:

Are some zoos and animal parks bad? Should they be closed down? Absolutely. Is passing sweeping laws to ban captivity the way to accomplish this? Personally, I don’t think so. Maybe it’s a little selfish of me to love being able to see those magnificent orcas up close and get a chill of excitement when I interact with Trua in the underwater viewing area or when I ride Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney World and stare in awe at the elephants playing in their pool or when I watch the elegant cheetahs sunning themselves at Busch Gardens Tampa. I’ll admit it, I love living near so many animal parks and being able to see such lovely creatures pretty much any time I wish.

But I know how seeing those animals up close makes me appreciate them more than any video or website ever could and spurs me to want to help conserve them. I suspect there are many people who feel the same way, and I’d hate to see the source for that inspiration disappear all because of knee jerk laws rushed into play due to a one-sided movie that pays no heed to the positive side of letting people see the majesty of nature firsthand.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.