My Day at Walt Disney World Resort: Getting intimate with the mother of our industry

I’ve been wanting to go to Orlando ever since I started Celebrating Life four years ago. Everyone’s telling me I “have to see this” if I want to be in this industry. So I decided this year I would go to the IAAPA Attractions Expo and visit the mother of our industry: Walt Disney World.

It’s Friday 22 November 2013, I am done with the IAAPA expo and I am on a mission to visit all 4 Walt Disney World parks in one day. I am so excited I wait for my 8am shuttle at the wrong location and miss the departure; but I complain (as French people do) and get a free ride in a private car to Epcot.

The first impression is that Epcot looks a lot like Futuroscope. Or maybe is it the other way around? Already I realize what I am going to see today is a lot of evidence that our industry was indeed born here in Orlando!

I am running to get to Soarin first; I heard some IAAPA attendees had to wait for 2-3 hours the day before. But there’s no wait and I am almost first in line. I wanted to experience it since the concept is getting quite popular in Asia with ride manufacturers such as Vekoma now offering turnkey technology. The experience is very much like I had anticipated expect for the fact it made me a bit dizzy. The film production is stunning and provides a real sense of place; however I am not too much into the smell, which flavors where too artificial; I don’t think it’s really needed.

Soarin

So that is a nice start of the day! Next is a bit of nostalgia with Captain EO. I find it very interesting how Disney updated an old attraction – from 1986 – to make it relevant to a certain audience. It’s not your typical Disney ride although the storytelling is very good. Something as simple as a 3D is turned into a unique experience mixing music with nostalgia.

Captain EO

Onto some education now with Living with the Land. In partnership with the US Department of Agriculture, this boat ride is all about raising awareness about environment protection. And it works; with scientists actually working in labs. I have really nothing against the ‘disneyfication’ of things when it serves a cause like this one; well done Disney Imagineering!

Living the Land

My next ride – which was also recommended by some IAAPA attendees – is Test Track, a brilliant example of brand partnership with Chevrolet. A new generation ride where experience is personalized for each visitor: I get to design my own car and throughout the ride my car is compared to other cars designed by other visitors. The finale is really well done with interactive displays and actual Chevrolet cars displayed as if they belonged to the ride. The brand engagement is at its best. Money very well spent for Chevrolet. I wish parks and attractions took better care of their brand partners the way Disney does it here.

Test Track

Test Track

To end my short stay at Epcot, I decide to go on the Mission: SPACE. You get to experience NASA-style training with a simulated space launch. Great storytelling as you follow the instructions of the captain; I even had my own buttons to push, which were different from other riders in the simulator. My favorite line from the captain: “don’t move a muscle”, so good!

Mission: SPACE

On my way out I walk through the World Showcase, which offers some of the best theming I have ever seen before. The quality and diversity of food & beverage outlets is also amazing. So I decide to come back at night for a quick bite. That’s when it gets really packed with people enjoying the nice atmosphere to end a long day at the park(s)!

Germany

Germany

Morocco

Morocco

France

France

Next is Hollywood Studios, which I reach after a very pleasant boat ride unveiling the great extend of Walt Disney World. The Disney grounds are manicured, just themed enough and provide the feeling of being in a nice resort town somewhere in imaginary ‘Americana’.

Slightly more compact that Epcot, Hollywood Studios is much more themed with street action, loads of retail and restaurants outlets and a main street. I rush to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: where the good old drop tower meets the haunted house. What a blast! The storytelling is at its best throughout the queuing area and pre-show: very dark, lots of artifacts that can be touched as if visiting a real house. We’re invited by bellmen to enter an elevator, the door shuts and… one word: scary!

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

After that I see the Rock ‘n’ Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith not too far and get in the queue. This is one of Hollywood Studios most famous rides. It’s a bit like Magic Mountains for adults. Good but maybe a bit déjà vu!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith

Rock ‘n’ Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith

Rock ‘n’ Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith

It’s lunchtime and the extensive food offering is tempting. I am quite surprised by the prices, which I find very reasonable. I guess I am not the only one as everywhere is packed.

Food

Two more attractions to go before leaving Hollywood Studios. The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow: a show-style ride mixing multimedia and special effects, very good for families, and Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular: a great stunt show based on the shooting of an Indiana Jones movie, with a lot of humor and audience participation (something the Americans are very good at).

Animal Kingdom is a bit further and I need to get on the bus. There is an actual bus terminal outside the park with dozens of different lines going to other parks, hotels, etc. Welcome to Disney city!

I am really interested to see how the Disney Imagineering teams deal with theming in a more natural environment, with real animal. And I am very impressed. The quality of the ethnic decors is amazing, especially the Asia ones (Indonesia, Nepal, etc), which I am more familiar with. They go into the smallest details and it feels just like being in the real place.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

I start with Kilimanjaro Safaris, the mother of all safari rides. Think Night Safari in Singapore or Lost Valley at Everland, South Korea. Same immersive experience in the queuing area with props, etc making you feel like you’re in Africa. To be honest the actual ride and what can be seen of the animals is nothing special but what made it for me is the driver and her commentaries. For the time of our ride, this talented young lady was our driver in the heart of Africa! And she slid in a few conservation messages on the way, very effective.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Kilimanjaro Safaris

To keep on the conservation theme I decide to go to Rafiki’s Planet Watch. It’s accessible by a small train, an not your ordinary train – it’s Disney remember – but a rustic locomotive travelling behind the scenes. Once at Rafiki it’s all about conservation with education displays and a small petting farm.

Rafiki’s Planet Watch

Rafiki’s Planet Watch

High above Animal Kingdom and visible from everywhere is Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. This is my favorite Disney coaster so far. I couldn’t help but look at all the details in the queuing area: notes left by hikers, old bicycles, etc and it really felt like being in a guesthouse on the way to Everest Base Camp. Then there is the ride itself, which is fantastic, and breathtaking views over the whole park to top it off.

Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

At this stage I am a bit overwhelmed and I don’t know if I can take much more. But I still decide to go have a look at Magic Kingdom; really because I said I would go to all 4 Disney parks in one day! I figured it would be a lot like other Disney parks I have been to in Paris and Hong Kong, which is the case.

One big difference although is being there at the end of the day in Orlando is quite magical. As soon as I arrive the It’s a Celebration parade starts and everyone in the park gathers in front of the castle. I can think of one word only: happiness. Seeing all these families from around the world watching this beautifully executed parade and the park all lit up for Christmas as if nothing else mattered, all troubles away. There you go, Disney strikes again!

It’s a Celebration

It’s a Celebration

There’s no doubt I loved my day at Walt Disney World! I came as an adult and an ‘industry expert’ and left as a child and a fan! Now it’s the adult part of me taking over. Let me share with you some of my thoughts gathered from this magical day.

1. The mother of our industry

Walt Disney World is definitely the mother of our industry. Just a few examples:

  • Futuroscope in France is a lot like Epcot: architecture, focus on indoor rides, innovative collaborative approach with brands, etc
  • The famous Universal Studios rides (Transformers, Harry Potter) take a lot from Disney’s approach of queuing, theming, etc
  • Soarin started a new trend of suspended scenic rides
  • Closer to home, it feels like Old Hong Kong at Ocean Park could have sought a bit of inspiration from the World Showcase

2. The holiday factor

Because Orlando is not in the suburb of some capital city like Tokyo, Paris or Hong Kong, the feeling is very different. Most visitors are on holidays and therefore much more relaxed. I think it is one of the main reasons I would go back. My question is then why does Disney open in Shanghai? Wouldn’t they be better off with a larger piece of land (for future expansion) somewhere warmer where Chinese families (and international tourists) could go for a real holiday?

3. The family factor

I don’t think I had seen that many strollers and electric vehicles before. This shows Disney is targeting the high potential family market in its true definition, from babies to grand parents. Everything is ‘imagineered’ so that anyone can enjoy, and that’s genius! This is probably where the biggest opportunity lies for Disneyland Shanghai, in a country where the sense of family is a lot stronger than in the US. If Disney can make it the No1 destination for three-generation families to enjoy some time together, it will be a big winner!

4. The education factor

Whether its on environment conservation or animal diversity, Disney takes its education role seriously and provides engaging experiences for its visitors to leave the resort a bit more aware and maybe better citizens.

5. The recipe for success

There are a few recurrent things in the offering of the 4 parks, which I believe help make their success. Here are some examples:

  • The food offering is excellent: variety, theming, service, queue management, and price.
  • Some rides play with nostalgia as a way to bring people to the (better) past: Captain EO, World Showcase, etc
  • The behind-the-scene factor works, as used at Test Track, Living with the Land and Mission: SPACE
  • Partnerships are brilliantly executed e.g. with Chevrolet at Test Track

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