I haven’t been to Walt Disney World since 1971, the year the park opened, so it was with great anticipation that I headed down to Orlando last week to take part in the media event that kicked off Disney’s 18-month Happiest Celebration on Earth to mark the company’s 50th birthday. Similar events were held at Disneyland in Anaheim and at all the other Disney theme parks around the world. There was lots of news announced to the 5,000 or so print, TV, radio, and other media representatives who came to the Orlando event, but first, the top 10 things that made me smile so much that my face still hurts. (Stick with me until No. 1—it’s what really makes Disney Disney):
10. Turtle Talk with Crush at The Living Seas in Epcot. Not only did I get to commune with manatees, rays, and a disembodied head named Bob who was a crackup in a very strange way (the actor's head was in a glass-encased globe sitting on top of a box filled with gadgets)--the new Turtle Talk attraction was wild. It was another one of those, "How do they do that?" moments to see the animated turtle pick out specific people in the crowd to interact with, make fun of all the meeting industry acronyms, and even take a poke at George Aguel, senior vice president for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. I never saw “Finding Nemo,” which is where the character of Crush comes from, but I think I'll rent it just to see him again.
9. The dedication of Soarin', the latest Walt Disney World attraction. It was, I hate to say it, pretty magical to see the skydivers soar down in huge zigzags, streaming different colors of smoke against the clouds just as the sunset began to paint the sky with colors of its own.
8. The Soarin’ ride itself. You really do feel like you're flying over the various landscapes. And I don't think I imagined the scent of orange in the air as we wafted over some citrus groves. I loved the Test Track ride too, where you get to pretend you're a crash test dummy--we did that one twice. Good speed and G-force at the end.
7. The music! From a rocking Barenaked Ladies concert to Ashanti and Smash Mouth--I boogied ‘til I just couldn’t boogie no more.
6. The stars. There were celebs all over the place. Especially John Corbett, who played Carrie’s ex-flame Aidan on “Sex and the City.” I swear, I think the guy was following us--he was everywhere! I either must be getting old or I need to watch more TV, because I didn't recognize most of the American Idols, pop stars, and other celebs people were spotting, but many autographs were collected by others in my group.
5. The way they carried out a theme. On Wednesday night, the theme was espionage, and it was carried through in everything that happened, from the marquees on the movie theaters to actors dressed is strange outfits and acting even more strangely as they interacted with the crowd.
4. Our visit to the new Veracruz Exhibit Hall at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort. The 86,000 square feet of new exhibit space (which brings the total space at the facility to 220,000 square feet) was about as nice as a big box can be--it actually managed to exude a warm and inviting feel, not the harsh fluorescent atmosphere you get in most exhibit spaces. But what was really cool was the show that was moving in: the Army Aviation Association of America convention. There were huge Huey helicopters in the parking lot, but the coolest was an Apache and a Blackhawk helicopter already inside the exhibit hall, along with one of the drone helicopters like those being used in Iraq.
It was absolutely awe-inspiring to stand next to the missile launchers on the Apache--we heard that the resort actually built one of the loading areas especially for this show so that it would be high enough to accommodate a menacing-looking radar gizmo on top of the blades. Our host told us that now, when people ask him if the loading area can accommodate their large exhibits, he just says, “Is it bigger than an Apache?”
3. The new Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show, which reawoke the latent gearhead in me in a big way. We sat in stadium seats overlooking the set, a small village in the south of France. Then the stunts began. The cars ripped around doing maneuvers that looked amazingly like ballet on wheels. Cars flew through the air, crashed through windows, guys fell off rooftops, and motorcycles crashed through flames--and all the while, the "director" was showing us how a real car-chase scene would be shot and edited, and how they make it all look so real. I don't want to wreck it for others, so suffice to say, it got my motor revving.
2. Our time with The Disney Event Group—these guys gave us an incredible experience. Click here to read about how they knocked our socks off in a huge way.
1. The absolutely best part of our two-day extravaganza: Disney marketing's Terry Brinkoetter and Amie Gorrell, who went so far out of their way to take care of us that they must have gone to Pluto and back several times--and I'm not talking about the cartoon dog, either. My experience over those two days showed me that the place really isn't all about the rides and the spectacular shows, the cool meeting space, and the gorgeous hotels, though it certainly has all that in spades. It's Terry, and Amie, and all the others who went went all the way to make our time there, well, magical. I can only imagine what the Disney "cast members" could do for a meeting.
On to the News
In addition to the new Coronado’s exhibit space, the new Soarin’ attraction, and the stunt car show, Disney will be offering remote airline check-in for domestic flights for meeting and incentive attendees staying at the resort. Called Disney’s Magical Express, the service includes complimentary airport shuttle and luggage delivery to all guests at Disney-owned hotels. It also lets you check in for your flight right from the hotel lobby if you are flying on American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Song, United, orTed.
The Disney Imagineers also have given the Cinderella Castle a makeover, which I hear is something special (we didn’t make it to the Magic Kingdom, alas). Also, the company has introduced an Exhibitor Concierge service, which gives exhibitors a single source for all theirneeds, including technical services, in-booth food and beverage, hospitality suites, and private networking events. Disney also has opened an on-site office at Central Florida’s Orange County Convention Center to help meeting planners and exhibitors bring a Disney experience--including production assistance, exhibitor support, events held at Disney World, educational experiences through the Disney Institute, and access to theme park tickets and shows--to events held at the OCCC.