Friday, July 27, 2012

A Photo for the Weekend

This week was a work-filled bit of "fun". Here's a quick image of where I'd like to be right now.

Enjoy the weekend, and expect an honest-to-goodness blog next week!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why Animal Kingdom Stumbled (and if I ran the Nahtahzu)

For some reason, I thought I already wrote this blog post up, but apparently it was one of those great ideas I wrote in my head but never got on paper. Thankfully Tom Bricker over at wrote a wonderful blog post that made me want to link to the piece I wrote...that I never actually wrote. Unfortunately, I don't have time to give this subject the treatment today that I would like to (and eventually plan to do), thanks to getting over the last vestiges of some sort germ warfare that my toddler brought home from summer camp, a visit from family for this weekend, and massive work deadlines. Still, something is better than nothing, right?

First things first, I highly encourage you to read Tom's post if you haven't. No worries, I'll wait.

All good? Faboo!

Animal Kingdom opened in 1998. Like all theme parks, you open a park with just enough to get people in the gates to start bringing in cash flow. Then, when you see what works and what doesn't work, you make adjustments and additions (and, in some cases, remove things that simply don't work).

As an example, think of visiting the Magic Kingdom today, but we remove the following attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, the Carousel of Progress, the TTA, and Big Thunder Mountain. These were add-ons post-opening.

Or, another example, picture visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios, but without Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Star Tours, Muppet*Vision 3D, Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and Tower of Terror. Again, add-ons that took some time to show up in the park.

It is expected that within the first five years of operation, you should add a quick succession of new and exciting things to keep a park fresh and relevant and build a fan base by encouraging repeat business. This usually involves tossing money at a park.

Why didn't Animal Kingdom get that infusion of revenue? Two big issues come to mind. First, a LOT of money was being shuffled off to California to finish Disney's California Adventure, which opened in 2001. Although I wasn't in on board meetings, my guess is that the thought was that these two parks would be come financial sister parks. When DCA was done and in its opening year surge, that money would be sent back to Florida to do the phase two attractions for Animal Kingdom. Then, when Animal Kingdom had its surge, that money would go back to DCA. When this method works, it works great. When one of the parks doesn't live up to financial expectations (yeah, I'm looking at you EuroDisney!), then it can really gum up the works.

Two snags came up in this plan in this case. First, DCA wasn't as successful as it had been hoped, largely due (in my view) to a complete misread about "local pride". Californians have a large number of "California" parks that are easily accessible and less expensive than a Disney product. Why would someone spend a lot of money to go to a replica of a Californian boardwalk experience when you could drive a few miles up the road and go to the real thing in Long Beach for a fraction of the price. As a result, DCA wasn't the draw that the bean counters had hoped, and so there wasn't money to put back into the pool.

But far greater an issue was the tragedies of September 11, 2001 and the way that fear (and in some cases logistics and financial issues) kept people from traveling. I had the experience to be living in Orlando on that date, and I don't think I can describe in words just how severe a hit to the tourism industry that one day made. I'm sure there are spreadsheets out there talking about the financial losses in hard numbers, but within 24 hours, everything suddenly stopped. It took several years for things to settle, but when everything finally did return back to normalcy, I have no doubt that every theme park and resort area was put on a big board and put in order of needs to try and assess where the money needed to be spent.

If it took a decade to resolve the eyesore, potential liability juggernaut, and income draining abyss that was the second half of Pop Century (now Art of Animation), then no surprise that Animal Kingdom wasn't getting money. Even if Animal Kingdom wasn't (and isn't) as great as it could be, at least it wasn't a series of abandoned hulls of buildings! And although Animal Kingdom might be near the top of needing a creative infusion on some people's lists, DCA was a much bigger problem. As in a billion dollar problem. So once again, any money that would have been allocated for big expansions in Animal Kingdom went west. To throw a bone to Animal Kingdom, the park was given Everest and Finding Nemo: The Musical.

Then, when things progressed such that money might be available again, a little wizard from England put the pressure on Disney execs to do something to draw people into the Magic Kingdom. So any check that was going to be written to make modifications at Animal Kingdom was passed along for the Fantasyland Expansion.

All in all, whether it is a statement people agree with or not, the higher ups don't see Animal Kingdom as being the worst disaster in the Disney portfolio. With it as the fourth-most visited amusement park in the United States, it is easy to see why they aren't concerned about the rate of feet through the gates.

Nonetheless, when they saw a marketing bonanza to jump on (whether because they saw value in it or simply saw the value in denying it to that other theme park area down the road), they took it, and they needed the space available in Animal Kingdom to make it work. Thus, Avatar coming to Animal Kingdom, whether for good or bad, was born. Like any other theme park decision, it is all about dollars more than sense. ;)

That all being said, I think there's still room for improvement at Animal Kingdom. What would I do to "fix" some of the "problems" with Animal Kingdom? (Yes, this is a case of "If I ran the Nahtahzu"...)

1. Take Dinoland USA and make that the location for "Avatar Land". Put in a new E-ticket ride (although not necessarily a thrill ride!), but then also take Dinosaur and make it into an Avatar-themed experience. What kind of Avatar-themed experience? As I've not seen the movie, I have no idea what would work specifically, but that's why I'm not in charge of that project.

2. Move Camp Minnie Mickey to Rafiki's Planet Watch. Or, specifically, since the only major thing that is there is Festival of the Lion King, move that to a new theater back at Rafiki's Planet Watch. You can also add the character meet and greet trails back there as well, whether you do them outside or do them in an air conditioned facility. I'd also put a kid-centric quick service dining option back there, as well as a water play area. Yes, I'm talking about putting something for the kids to do out of the way, but remember--no Dinoland USA means no Boneyard play area and no Dumbo knock-off, so you need to redirect those kids somewhere to keep the grown ups happy, too.

3. Let the dust settle on those moves, and then really look at the real estate you've got at the current Camp Minnie Mickey. That's a valuable property there--close to the entrance and ready for new development. And who knows...there might be some other big-name project that can be synergized into that slot, for a licensing fee. What I'd love to see? South America--perhaps to tie in with the new theme park that will someday open in South America, maybe connected to the currently furloughed Jungle Cruise movie. There's lots of possibilities with that idea, however.

And that is my quick "gee, I can't believe it is Friday and I have how many deadlines" look at why Animal Kingdom is the way it is and what I think would be an easy way to resolve some of the major issues without breaking the bank.

But in the end...seeing an influx of cash going towards Animal Kingdom would be a nice surprise. After all, it does get the feet in the gate. Why not give them revenue to match those kind of attendance numbers?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Kilimanjaro Club Perks

This week is slipping away with a lot of crazy work deadlines and appointments. Right now, I'm thankful that my husband and daughter and I can vacation at any time of the year (as she's not in "regular school" yet), because if we had to somehow squeeze in vacations during the craziness of the summer, I have no idea how we'd make it happen.

As a result, short blog post today. On a Facebook group about DVC, someone was asking about the benefits of staying at the Kilimanjaro Club at Animal Kingdom Lodge--Jambo House. We were lucky enough to stay there for a short period of time during marathon weekend (January) 2011. Because we were there for the racing festivities, we didn't get to take advantage of all the reasons why someone would stay there, but here's a quick summary of our impressions.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Kilimanjaro Club is the concierge level at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Although there are rooms on the fifth and sixth floors that are technically concierge rooms, in my view, the best rooms are the ones on the sixth floor, since they are on the same level with the lounge.

It is considerably more expensive (either by cash or staying on points like we did), and it is hard to say universally if it is worth it for everyone. Instead, I'll just give a description of what was offered and suggest that everyone make their own decision.

One thing we didn't know when it was time to check in is that the concierge level has its own check-in desk, located to the left of the main check in. Because the lighting there is so dim, we completely missed the sign. Thankfully, the line at regular check-in wasn't long, and they quickly shuffled us off to the appropriate line. We quickly got check-in completed, but like many AKV rooms, ours wasn't ready at 1 PM. We were told that we could certainly make use of the lounge whenever we desired, so up we went with our special gold-colored Key to the World room cards, which provided access to the locked level in the elevator.

The lounge up there is pretty small, but was perfect for us to take a break with a fussy infant. We watched TV and ate some of the snacks that were there at the hour. Part of the reason we had decided to stay concierge for marathon weekend is we knew we'd have odd hours going to races and had hoped that there would be food and drink available 24 hours...sadly this is not the case.

That being said, the food, while not enough to really qualify as a meal, was still incredibly good. Breakfast is a pretty standard continental breakfast fare, and the only offering that could be a realistic meal on its own. Throughout the day, there are snacks and drinks available (my favorite of the snacks being the spiced nuts and the cookie assortment--for whatever reason, I never get cookies at WDW, but if they are all as good as the ones we had on the buffet there, I really need to start!). At the dinner hour, there are some offerings from Boma and Jiko, but served in small tapas-size portions. Not really enough to make a meal, but certainly a nice appetizer on the way to dinner. In the evening, there is a decent assortment of cordials for nightcaps. The one we tried and fell in love with is Amarula, an African creme liqueur. We had never had it before, but decided to try it because we like Baileys...and found that this is far superior in flavor to Baileys.  All the food and drink on the buffet is picked up around 10 PM, so don't expect to be able to do a midnight run for noshes.

The room was slightly larger than other rooms in Jambo House, and the room had bathrobes for our use while there, but aside from that, if you've stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge, you know what to expect. The other item we received in the room were chocolate lollipops shaped like African animals. I've heard other folks mention that it is hit or miss whether these are in the room, so if you don't see them when you get in the room, make sure to ask.

We had a savannah view, but being so high up and under the "leaf" bundles that make the decorative roof, I didn't enjoy the view as much as I do on a lower floor. That being said, it is always a joy to see the animals outside the room, and so the room did not disappoint in that respect.

One perk that I loved was the nightly turndown service. The lovely lady who came in to prepare our bed for us was really wonderful and did great things like taking out the dishes we had accumulated from the lounge, but the real highlight for me was the turndown cards that were left on our bed. These note cards (about the size of an index card) have beautiful artwork and an African proverb on it. I loved them so much that I took the ones we got home and framed them! One other note about the service, unlike staying on points elsewhere, we did receive full room cleaning on a daily basis instead of just trash and towel service near the end of the stay.

Because our focus was on the races we were participating in and cheering for, we did not take advantage of all the perks that come with the room, specifically the ability to do a Sunrise Safari, so I can't comment on how that was. We also didn't have much need for the concierge staff to make last-minute dining reservations or help with tickets or transportation, but there is a dedicated concierge desk next to the lounge that was staffed with very lovely people who always greeted us as we were passing through.

To summarize, would I stay there again? Absolutely. Would I stay there for more than a couple days? Probably not. I think it is a nice add-on for the end of a trip or for a weekend stay, but for me personally (cheapskate that I am), the extra cost in points or cash wouldn't be worth it for a long trip. That being said, being able to experience everything that the level has to offer might change my mind. I guess we'll just have to book another stay to see...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Building a walking path from the Lodge to AK?

This question came up on the WDW Today Facebook group, and I think it is a neat one to look at in depth. The question was about why there is no walking trail to get from Animal Kingdom Lodge to Animal Kingdom park. Certainly, Disney sends mixed messages when it comes to walking from hotels to parks. You can walk from the Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower to the Magic Kingdom, but you can only get to the Ticket and Transportation Center from the other two Magic Kingdom monorail loop resorts (Grand Floridian and Polynesian). You can walk to both Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios from the Yacht and Beach Clubs, Boardwalk, Swan, and Dolphin hotels.

Jambo House and Kidani Village are about a mile to a mile and a half from the front entrance of Animal Kingdom, and would be a viable walk for those inclined. Certainly on a typical trip, we walk 10 miles or more in an average day, so what's one more? There is a walking path between Jambo House and Kidani Village, but no way to walk (safely, that is) between Jambo House and Animal Kingdom.

Looking at an aerial view through Google Maps, the most direct path would be to draw a line from the back of Jambo House to the bus stops at Animal Kingdom. There's a few problems with this, however. The first is that the savannah at the back of Jambo House (the one you see from your room) is in the way of this ideal walking path. If that obstacle was overcome, you would be walking past what appears to be a paddock facility for the animals. (As you are driving into the Lodge, it's that first turnoff from Osceola parkway that so many people take by mistake.) In addition to the stress it might cause the animals that are in need of isolation to have people walking through there, it's isn't the most lovely scenery to see as you walk through.

If you managed to get past that, you now have a large swath of forest to go through. If this is not an outright conservation/protected area, which would mean it couldn't be bulldozed for a sidewalk, it provides a necessary buffer between the theme park and the hotel. Living about the same distance as the crow flies from I-95 with just forest between our home and that busy bit of road, I can tell you that those trees provide a very needed noise barrier. In the summer, when there's leaves on the trees, we can barely hear I-95. In the winter, when the leaves are gone, we hear the traffic with great ease. Even tearing down a small area to put in a sidewalk could contribute to noise issues.

This also becomes a safety issue. You would have a lightly traveled walkway surrounded on both sides by trees, and lots of tourists, presumably carrying cash and electronics, on that path. Perhaps it is just the viewpoint of someone who lives up in a metro area where people are snatched from walking paths and pulled into the woods on a frequent enough basis, but that seems like a place that could be a major safety concern.

Once you get past that, Black Lake is in your way. That would mean rerouting pedestrians onto Black Lake Road, which is a road used by cast members. While many, many cast members are responsible drivers on property, there are some that are not--and this could be a potential safety hazard, especially when you get to the corner of West Savannah Circle and Black Lake Road. Suddenly, you have to make sure those pedestrians are safe when crossing the road. Having watched people suddenly lose their understanding of what a "Don't Walk" sign means when they are on vacation around the Contemporary, there's potential for safety issues there as well. Once they are past that, they would walk around the bus loop and into the park.

The other alternative, which is more realistic, would be to have everyone walk out to the driveway for Jambo House, head down Osceola Parkway (crossing the driveway into the maintenance area at Animal Kingdom Lodge and then crossing Black Lake Road), going in the exit of the parking lot and walking the entire length of the parking lot to get to the front entrance. Watching how people tend to drive on Osceola Parkway, I'm not sure how comfortable people would feel, even on the sidewalk.

Doing a little Google-fu, it apparently costs between $1 million and $2 million per mile of sidewalk to get it installed when you take into account making adjustments for modifying right-of-way and redoing drainage systems to accommodate the sidewalk. It then becomes an issue of whether that money would benefit a large number of people. Although many people at Disney are not opposed to walking, over the years it does seem that fewer people want to walk long distances without a good reason. Without trees put in to provide shade, this would be a very hot walk for large portions of the year, and putting in and maintaining trees would be expensive.

In the end, I'm not so sure this is a case of "If you build it, they will come." Judging by how few people use the very short walk between Kidani and Jambo when they go to or from their dining reservations (and I am guilty of that as well), I'm not sure that a walkway would get sufficient foot traffic to justify the initial cost and maintenance fees. Make no mistake, I'm a huge fan of walking between hotels and theme parks whenever possible--and because of that, if I think that as an avid walker and my husband as a runner would not be likely to use that path, it probably wouldn't get much support from the greater Disney resort guest.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Animal Kingdom, by the numbers

When you crunch the numbers, Animal Kingdom is a pretty impressive park. Here's some quick stats about this park.

At more than 500 acres, it is the largest Disney theme park in the world, although due to the unique nature of the park, a majority of the park is not directly accessible to guests. (For instance, a large swath of land in the park is taken up by Kilimanjaro Safaris.)

In 2010, attendance was approximately 9.7 million guests, which made it the fourth most visited amusement park in the U.S. and seventh most visited in the world.

The park's main icon, the Tree of Life, stands at 14 stories tall and 50 feet wide and was built on the framework of an oil rig.

Although most people thinking of the park as consisting of four "lands" because that's where the bulk of the attractions are located (Camp Minnie-Mickey, Africa, Asia, and Dinoland U.S.A.), there are actually seven areas (the other three being Oasis, Discovery Island, and Rafiki's Planet Watch). Each of these areas has its own unique story, and in many cases, attractions and scenery are tied together through elaborate backstory. (Sadly, there seems to be a push to get away from some of that for the sole purpose of making use of valuable real estate--for instance, neither Tarzan Rocks nor its replacement, Finding Nemo: The Musical fits at all with the Dinoland U.S.A. theme.

As part of its Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) commitment, a number of rare or endangered animals have been born since the park's opening in 1998--six elephant calves and eleven giraffes, for instance! Overall, there have been more than a hundred different species that have reproduced since the park's opening.

According to the Disney World web site (, it takes about three tons of food a day to feed the approximately 1,000 animals at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

For more amazing facts, check out the AllEars page Fun Facts of Animal Kingdom, which can be found here: