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Things are in high gear around here in Orlando, and it’s getting harder and harder to imagine a week going by with NO news to talk about. Today’s grab bag includesthe potentially gamechanging FastPass Plus starting tests in the MK, a new wine cellar in Epcot, and the awful new netting around the Tree of Life in DAK.

Read what you’re missing...

FastPass Plus

The advance-reservation system called FastPass Plus (formerly xPass) is now in testing at the Magic Kingdom. The only users so far seem to be those staying at Disney hotels and using Disney’s Magical Express (not certain on that last detail), and folks arriving at the airport are met randomly by FPP folks and offered the service. Or you can approach them, as one of my friends did.

They set you up with a menu: choose a few selections from the FIRST menu, and then choose a few selections from the SECOND menu of options. So it’s not a complete free for all. They issue you a yellow card made of hard plastic, with the FastPass logo emblazoned on it with red font. And hand-write your name on it with a sharpie.

Since your selections are made here at the airport (are some folks doing it from home, online?), you don’t make additional selections on the vacation. You just show up during your window, scan your yellow card at the RFID scanners in front of the appropriate attraction, and enter the existing FastPass line. At the “merge” point, you don’t have a ticket to hand them, so you scan your yellow card at a second RFID machine also installed here. In both cases, the scanning results in the Mickey shape on the scanner lighting up green to indicate that you’re here during your return window.

If you forget when your windows are, you can check at one of the enhanced FP machines. There are FP machines equipped with RFID readers and screens at a few locations around the MK for just this purpose (they don’t also “issue” return times; they are only there to remind you when your reservations are). Those FP screens are located at Stitch’s Great Escape, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Splash Mountain, and Jungle Cruise. Each is also staffed with a Guest Relations Cast Member, which increases the cost of this initiative. Those CMs are armed with special iPads for this test. I asked if the iPads allowed access to the entire Guest Relations system like they have available at City Hall, and one CM answered with “I wish! That would make life a lot easier.”

On this first weekend, the usage was scant. When asked about frequency, a few Cast Members volunteered that they had seen perhaps only twelve people so far in their shift using the system. That implies they are being very cautious, and very selective, in how many people get to test the new system. I can certainly understand going slowly and not wanting to overwhelm the system.

We still don’t have clarity about the most pressing concerns for FastPass Plus. It seems clear from various public statements that the existing FastPass system will continue to exist side by side with the new one, but there are lots of operational questions.

Will this be for Disney hotel visitors only, or open to everyone? Will it cost extra? Will it cannibalize the day-of FastPasses, or will the system result in more FastPass tickets per day of a given ride? That last question is the most urgent one, for me. The devil is in THIS last detail. If the old system gave out 8,000 FastPass tickets (to invent a number) per day at Space Mountain, will the new system give out 8,000 same-day FP tickets AND also give out 2,000 advance FP-Plus tickets? If so, that changes the balance of the day, in favor of reservations and away from standby.

Or, it’s also possible that they’ll give out only 6,000 same-day FP tickets and allot the remaining 2,000 tickets to advance reservations. In this latter scenario, the standby line moves at the same speed as it did four years ago. That’s not true in the earlier scenario, if there are more FP tickets sloshing through the system.

We do know they are “adding capacity” by placing rides on the reservation system that weren’t there before, like the Haunted Mansion (which lost its FastPass some years ago, but does have an RFID scanner. Come to think of it, that will doubtless be confusing to some tourists. There are rides with FP, rides without FP, and then rides with Advance-FP-only??)

The added FP capacity is supposed to even-out the demand. To this idea I shrug my shoulders and say simply “we’ll see.” If it DOES work as advertised, all that will mean is that unwitting tourists will book advance FP for things that don’t need it, like Mansion, and they will “lose” over the course of the day by not knowing the full details. Locals and frequent visitors would win in that scenario.

Still, there’s a silver lining to be had here. Infrequent visitors want to know that their particular ride is definitely going to be achieved, so there’s some comfort in knowing ahead of time that the “big six” (whatever their six big choices are) will definitely be seen. Locals may care less about that, but a first-time visitor definitely will.

It’s true that that comes at the cost of demanding forethought and planning. Spontaneity is leaving the parks, though truth be told, it left a long time ago. Restaurant reservations and the existing FastPass system saw to that. Personally, I’d prefer a reservation-free environment, but it’s not up to me. Inexplicably, they passed up the opportunity to make me chairman of the Disney Parks division some time ago!

Tutto Italia

Next something cheerful: a great new addition to Epcot! The Tutto Gusto wine cellar is a separate restaurant in the back of the Italy pavilion, and part of the building that also houses the Tutto Italia (formerly Alfredo di Roma) restaurant. It just opened this past week, and I love both the food items and the quality of the theming.

First, the prices. Yes, it’s expensive, but this is not only a Disney vacation, this is a top-quality place to relax with wine and small food items, so the entire set up kind of feels like a place where you should expect to spend a lot. The external menu hangs in front of the nearby Tutto Italia, rather than directly in front of the wine cellar.

In some ways, Tutto Gusto looks and works like a bar that you might see at Olive Garden, a holding place before the main restaurant (Tutto Italia). But I doubt many patrons are treating it as such, since the wait times can be long here, and the prices high.

You’ll find cheeses and cold cuts on the menu ($8 each, or $14 for a three-item combo), as well as small sandwiches ($12 for two is the better deal). All of the food items have that high-quality fine dining vibe to their presentation as well as gustatory payoff (they certainly TASTE expensive, and fresh, and unusual), so despite the prices you’ll pay for what looks like meager portions, you are not likely to feel ripped off.

The wine list dazzles and amazes. The term “shock and awe” comes to mind for those unprepared for the hefty binder that holds the entire wine list. I’m about the furthest from a oenologist that you can imagine, so I’ll just leave my ignorance out there twisting in the wind and move to the next subject. My wine-knowledgeable friend who came along was delighted, though, in what he saw, and he was happy indeed with the $45 bottle of Merlot he ended up buying.

The mood and atmosphere evokes that of a wine cellar, as the name implies. That’s not meant to sound dismissive. The places reeks of authenticity, and you’d swear it’s been here for a few decades. They spent money on things like brickwork arches, and an impressively intricate ceiling. Yes, it’s cramped inside, but once you’re ensconced in your table, you feel right at home. I know that Gemütlichkeit is a German term, not an Italian one, but the coziness of Tutto Gusto is definitely part of its charm. It’s expensive, but I’ll be visiting here again.

Tree of Life

A little bit more than a week ago, a branch fell off a tree at DAK. Not just any tree; the Tree of Life. The problem isn’t that this tree is the icon of the park. The problem is that this tree is artificial, and it’s not supposed to be falling apart. Certainly not for decades still. It was built to withstand hurricanes, and while it was windy a week ago, it was nothing out of the ordinary at all. And yet a five-pound branch came down and landed smack in the queue for It’s Tough to be a Bug. Fortunately, no one was hurt (I’m not even sure if the park was open at the time).

The park management team closed down the ride for several days while they scoured the tree and tried to figure out what happened. They made no public announcements about the incident or about the closure.

The attraction reopened on May 3 with nets in place over the queue. In fact, visitors now navigate essentially a tunnel of nets as they get close to the tree. Since Disney has made no public announcement, it’s hard to know exactly what this means. Are the nets temporary or permanent? They certainly don’t look assembled TOO quickly, so perhaps they are meant to be permanent.

The nets obviously send a message of caution, but perhaps it’s more than that. Their presence implies they don’t yet know what went wrong with the tree and can’t guarantee it won’t happen again—possibly with a fifty pound branch next time. That kind of weight can kill a person.

So maybe we’re stuck with them for a while (maybe forever?) Only time will tell.

In the meantime, they’ve also placed a big plastic sheet over the waterfall near the tree entrance. Several of the queue and trails in the area are off-limits; there are big green walls to indicate the areas are now out of bounds. It looks like they wanted to route traffic only to those passageways which have net tunnels constructed over them.

When you’re walking through the net tunnels, it feels like a different place. Actually it kind of feels like Islands of Adventure, in the dinosaur playground of Jurassic Park. The vibe has changed.

On our visit on May 6, we were routed directly into the theater from the first cave. Normally, the queue goes through that cave (and under a waterfall), then emerges back out again and winds around a bit before coming to the “main” entrance of the theater, where a giant chimpanzee greets you. All of that was off-limits (possibly they are still building net tunnels?)

I don’t have any answers about an endgame here. Maybe these net tunnels ARE the endgame, and there will be no further changes. That would be unfortunate, especially since the off-limit areas feel so temporary right now.

The best solution, of course, would be for them to figure out how a branch came off in the first place, and engineer a solution so that no other branches come off.

And yes, the joke did cross my mind that perhaps the coming of Avatar has encouraged someone to start mining for Unobtainium under the Tree!!

Pirates Life

Pirates of the Caribbean in Orlando does not hold a candle to the Anaheim version (though for my money, I actually kind of prefer the Paris version, as sacrilegious as that statement will be for many purists). But it’s still a PotC ride, and a great Disney attraction. I’m glad there’s one here. So it’s dismaying when the ride suffers, like it’s apparently been doing for some time now.

The show here has always had its share of problems. This ride isn’t “plussed” as often as Disneyland’s version, nor as often as MK’s Haunted Mansion. The rockwork around the ghost ship, just before the drop, is riddled with small holes, so the lightning flashes allow light leakages that make the entire affair look sloppy and amateurish. The fog waterfall effect at the start of the ride was missing for some weeks recently, and when it returned, still didn’t look very convincing.

That said, there ARE tweaks to this thing from time to time. Recently the key-dog was turned sideways to face the boats, not the jailed pirates. The fort battle scene now includes terrifying water explosions that go way higher in the air than you’re used to. Random boxes have been added to the final jail scene and Jack treasure room, too. And there are rumors of mermaids (mermaid skeletons?) being added to the beach scene at the front.

But as we know, show problems don’t shut down rides, even blatant ones like nonmoving characters on Splash Mountain. So long as the ride mechanism is working, the ride will function. So for Pirates to suffer several hours (six or more, by one count) of downtime on Saturday alone, you’d have to think something big is up. A friend told me he’s tried since Thursday to get on the ride, only to be told each time he checked that the ride was presently not operating. Why all the short uptime and big downtime? It’s disheartening.

By the way, the Soarin closures of the past week (on both coasts) was unrelated to a mechanical breakdown. Seems that a few people were able to slip out of their seatbelts (or unlatched the belts at the last second) and watched the ride from a standing position near the mechanism. This sent OSHA into a tizzy, and the rides were shut down while Operating Guidelines were revised to make sure seatbelts really were not only properly latched, but properly checked.

30x30 and Weekly WDW Meets

As a reminder, I’ve been meeting with a group of locals for some time now on a weekly basis; you are welcome to join our Facebook group here. We love to welcome everyone, locals and out of town visitors alike! Our meets are always on the weekend at 2pm (sometimes Saturday, sometimes Sunday), but the Facebook page will always announce them. Join us for an hour or the rest of the afternoon!

A particular focus for us has been on Epcot, since it’s the 30th anniversary, so we are working our way around the Epcot attractions for 30 weeks, highlighting one attraction per week (but then doing other stuff too after the “destination of the week” is visited). A Facebook Doc on our group page lists the schedule—join us if you can!

Ultimate Orlando

Longtime readers will remember that I used to blog separately at UltimateOrlando.com, but announced some years ago that I was putting that on hold. It turns out that I did keep the blog running at a maintenance level for a while, posting mainly “other Orlando” news and press releases. But I’ve recently re-activated it and am now publishing there daily for the smaller stories, updates, and photos that don’t fit here. Join me if you can: http://ultimateorlando.blogspot.com/

Let’s Discuss!

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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.

© 2012 Kevin Yee

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Readers are invited to join Kevin on Facebook, where he offers regular "Where in Walt Disney World" photo quizzes.

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Kevin’s Disney Books

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

  • Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis 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 Memberprovides the first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
  • 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.

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