Amusement parks do it. Even Disneyland has done it before. And now Walt Disney World has joined their ranks and taken that first step, too. I’m referring to throwing a bone to a park’s annual passholders in the form of a private party night with “Extended Ride Time” (ERT) for a premium roller-coaster. In this case, it was Expedition Everest, and it took place last Friday evening. And while the event was completely free for annual passholders, it left an odd taste in the mouth, maybe because it wasn’t everything it could have been.

The ostensible reason for the party was to commemorate Everest’s five year anniversary. They kept Expedition Everest open an extra three hours after the normal park closing of 6pm on a Saturday night, and only passholders who had pre-registered could get the bracelets to stick around for this ERT. As a bonus, they also had Dinosaur and TriceraTop Spin open, as well, in addition to a few snack stands, a shop, and a live DJ near Dino-Rama. But it was clearly Everest’s event, since that was the attraction with the birthday.

Nodding to the anniversary was a laudable goal in an of itself, and it would be unfair to sell short the acknowledgement the park’s management deserves for this gesture. First for recognizing the importance of history (hooray! Someone cares!), and second for actually doing something about it. They could have sent out a press release and called it a day. Or crafted a trading pin, as they’ve done for other recent anniversaries. But they resisted the easy answer.

We rode four times that night. How did I manage 13 trips on that opening day five years ago?

While it didn’t cost passholders anything to attend, it most certainly cost the park money. They had to pay quite a lot of people money for working—those extra hours certainly added up. You had security, custodial, shops, restaurants, and of course attractions Cast Members working. It’s extremely hard to guesstimate numbers from the outside, but let’s play just for fun. Assume 100 workers, each tacking on an extra four hours, for a total of 400 man-hours. Back in my day, Disney used a formula to estimate the total labor cost per man hour, factoring in such things as vacation pay, benefits, and so on—a “total cost” number we called the Comp Rate (presumably, short for compensation rate). In the late 90s at New Orleans Restaurants, this was usually around $14 per person, despite the hourly wage of my restaurant workers mostly being around $7 or $8. So is it in the ballpark to assume those 400 man-hours at DAK cost $30 each, for a total of $12,000? I’m probably missing a crucial component here, so someone please chime in if my numbers are way off.

Assuming these calculations are reasonably close, though, we could generously round up to $20,000 (almost doubling my guess), and we’d still have a fairly inexpensive evening. Twenty grand sounds like a lot of money to just “give away”, and of course it is. But then again, they were building goodwill. And it’s not like they can’t afford it. If a mere 40 people decide to renew their annual passes due to this party (when they hypothetically wouldn’t have otherwise), then Disney has recouped its money.

Disneyland had a massive, park-wide private party for its annual passholders in the late 1990s—a kind of ERT on steroids. They even ran Space Mountain with the work lights blazing, to give these hardened (jaded?) visitors something new to chew on. It was a smashing success. These days, Disneyland has too many annual passholders to offer such perks. But WDW doesn’t have that many locals with passes, so perhaps they can get away with smaller parties like this.

The tickets were limited. I did not hear how many were issued, but those three rides were not heavily packed. There was a 12-minute wait for Everest right after 6pm (by the way, that’s how long the line takes, folding in to every pathway, when there is no FastPass running… tells you something about how many seats per train usually go only to FP!) and neither of the Dinoland rides had a wait. By the end of the evening, 9pm, everything was a walk-on. So there couldn’t have been more than a few thousand visitors here.

Even though every walkway was used, the line moved briskly and the wait was minimal.
It was a pleasure to see Disney lines moving so quickly again!

Ordering the tickets a few weeks beforehand was a major ordeal. The website seemed to suffer from overload, and it took many minutes of repeated tries to score those coveted slots. My wife had to try for two hours, hitting refresh every few minutes, before she was successful. I hope that if they continue to offer such in-demand specials, they consider increasing their server capacity.

Once at the event, things ran more smoothly. Nothing broke down. In addition to the rides and the DJ, there was a photo opportunity with Mickey and Goofy, decked out in sherpa gear. But there also wasn’t really a “there” there. The event felt anticlimactic. It began without an announcement, and it ended on an equally awkward note, with the audio feed from the DJ just cutting off to the Everest area at 9pm. It really was just the rides—this was pure ERT, and nothing more.

A PhotoPass photographer was near Sherpa Mickey, of course.

On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that. ERT is a method of rewarding your frequent customers, as a way to thank them for their yearlong patronage. And they got to do something different—ride Everest at nighttime! Usually this park closes at dusk, and it’s not possible to ride this thing at night. I’m here to tell you that the ride is greatly improved at night. It’s a good ride to begin with, mind you, but once all trace of daylight is gone, it takes on a new character. The outdoor sequences at the start and again just before the yeti take place in almost complete darkness, as there are no lights for this part of the ride. It was eerie-cool, and creepy-fun. I want to do it again.

In case you’re wondering, no, the Yeti was not turned on for this special event. It was still switched off into B-mode, where it doesn’t move and is only briefly illuminated at the very end by a strobe light. This is the famed “Disco Yeti” mode.

It struck me that maybe the “goodwill” Disney was building up with this free event had to do with counteracting the fact that the coaster hasn’t really operated with all effects in YEARS. But there’s an inherent irony, perhaps even contradiction, if that was the attempt. You can’t build up goodwill about an attraction when the very sore spot—the Yeti—is still not functioning in your goodwill attempt.

The gathering dusk at 6pm.

What they should have done was take a page out of Disneyland’s book (it wouldn’t be the first time) and let these hardened visitors see something new. Yes, it was new to experience the outdoor scenes in the dark. But why not do something inside the ride too? Turn the lights off all the way, just to have it feel different. Or, turn on the work lights and leave them on. It would be neat to really SEE the yeti for a change. If not at Everest, then maybe at Dinosaur? The crowd would have loved something new and different like that.

Most puzzling of all was the lack of special event merchandise. I’ve seen pins for sale in Frontierland touting the anniversary of minor attractions. You’d think that Everest, as a major attraction, might qualify. Certainly the annual passholder crowd is more likely to buy limited edition merchandise than the general tourist population, too. Add in the fact that it would be limited merch from something they were actually present at, and you’d have an irresistible buying opportunity. But nothing was offered for sale. A pin, a pen, a patch, a Vinylmation, even a t-shirt would have sold well. This is a crowd that likes to wear shirts proclaiming “they were there” at such events.

Nighttime Dino-Rama is equally unusual to experience.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to complain too loudly. Having an event is better than not having one. While it was anticlimactic and it didn’t offer nearly as much oomph as I was expecting, it was nice to experience, and I want to thank the park for offering it for free.

They asked for feedback in a handout at the gate. Well, here are my two cents: do these more often (keeping them free, of course), fix the reservations system, tweak the experience so it’s something *different* than the normal daily operation (beyond the time of day and natural daylight), and offer something for sale. It’s not every day that people are begging you to sell them something. Feed our inner geek by delivering a “new” experience and let us buy an “exclusive” item, and you’ll not only recoup some of your operating costs for this free event, you will create the very goodwill you were seeking. “Normal” rides alone don’t do it, at least not nearly as effectively.

40x40 Meet

The next fan meeting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom will be celebrating Stitch’s Great Escape. As always, we’ll meet first at the Enchanted Grove at 2pm. Join us if you can!

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

2011 Kevin Yee

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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.

History was on my mind as I composed this book. As you might expect, there is a section on additions, another on removals, and a third on events. But I wanted to make sure to include some prices from January 2010 in the book, the better to capture in future years (and future generations?) exactly what it costs to buy admission, parking, a night at each level of hotel, or such food items as a turkey leg. I also wanted to provide a bit more specificity to the unfolding of events, so the various additions and removals, as well as smaller alterations and debuts, are laid out in a timeline broken down month-by-month.

In short, the book is designed to appeal to those folks who are similarly history-minded, as well as those who are hungry to know what changed at Disney World since their last visit. Or perhaps it’s a worthwhile keepsake for anyone who DID visit in 2010—it captures what was new, after all.

Also recently issued...

Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes:

As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted. When a ride closes, sometimes pieces or props from that ride are folded into the replacement attraction (think of the World of Motion car seen in the queue of Test Track). Other times, designers intentionally craft a tribute to the previous ride—an example of that might be the carving of a submarine in the cement tree created for Pooh’s Playful Spot where the 20,000 Leagues subs used to be.

The other kind of homage in the parks concerns not rides, but individuals. The designers, artists, engineers, executives, and people important to Disney’s history often provide the inspiration for names and titles used at the attractions. Sadly, these are almost always unheralded. All of these remnants and tributes are normally left for the truly obsessed to spot piecemeal. They are usually not even discussed in the official Disney books and tours. This book sets out to change that, and catalog all such remnants and tributes in one spot.

The final result is 225 pages of hyper-detailed historical factoids. Broadly speaking this is a “trivia” book, but remember that it’s a particular kind of trivia. You’ve known before that the Walt Disney World theme parks wove a thick tapestry of details and backstory into a seamless (and peerless) experience. But armed with the specifics of homages and tributes, you’ll become aware that the parks are even more alive, and layered with meaning, that you could have ever imagined.

Might this be an ideal present for the Disney fan on your shopping list? If so, please have a look.

Also written by Kevin...

  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdom is a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.