Playing the Tour-ist

by Debra Martin Koma, ALL EARS® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the October 4, Issue #315 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

I realize that I get bored easily -- I've even been accused of having a short attention span. That's why I could never even imagine taking the Backstage Magic Tour that's offered at Walt Disney World. Spend more than seven hours walking around the parks with a group of strangers? Why, that's a WHOLE DAY! Think of how many different rides I could ride during that time. Even the Keys to the Kingdom Tour takes four and a half hours -- a half-day of precious time that I could use flitting from show to show! And ...

Wait a minute what were we talking about?

Only kidding. I'm not that unfocused.

What I was going to say is that recently I've looked into a few things at Walt Disney World that could even hold MY short attention -- tours that don't eat up the whole day, or even half of it, and a brief introduction to the Segway Human Transporter, for example.

Here are a few ideas for tours or experiences that will entertain, yet still leave you with plenty of time to flit around the shows and attractions and other distractions in the World:

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Mickey's Magical Milestones
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This two-hour tour is only about a year old -- the Magic Kingdom began offering it in 2004 to focus on the main Mouse and the Magic Kingdom.

My son and I took the tour at the end of August, on a typical Orlando-sultry morning. We'd been told to arrive at the Magic Kingdom no later than 8:45 for the 9 a.m. start time, but we got there even earlier, entering through the specially designated tour/character breakfast turnstiles. We checked in at City Hall and got our paper Mickey head name tags, then browsed in the Emporium and walked around the lower part of Main Street USA, marveling at how wonderful it was to have the Magic Kingdom almost completely to ourselves for nearly a half hour.

Shortly before 9 a.m., we gathered in front of City Hall and met up with our tour guide, Gregg, and the other "tour-ists." To our surprise, there were a few small children -- although most Disney tours require participants to be at least 16, this tour is one of the few that permits children 10 and up. Still, these little ones were barely 6 or 7.

But I digress. Our tour started with Gregg taking us outside the park to stand in front of the Mickey head flowerbed that graces the entrance. At subsequent points throughout the tour, Gregg explained to us the connection that Mickey had to that part of the park, as well as how Walt Disney's ideas influenced that connection. He also peppered his dialogue with mentions of Hidden Mickeys -- those strategically placed representations of Mickey Mouse -- throughout the parts of the park we were touring.

The tour progressed with stops in Exposition Hall and the Main Street Railroad Station, where we learned about Walt Disney's abiding affection for trains. We then boarded the train to Mickey's Toontown Fair. En route, Gregg challenged us to draw our own Mickey Mouse, to illustrate that Walt Disney had created Mickey while aboard a train himself.

By the time we reached Toontown, it still wasn't quite 10 a.m., which is when this section of Magic Kingdom opens. This afforded us the chance to have a private tour of Mickey's Country House, which was capped off with a surprise visit from the Big Cheese, who posed for photographs and played with the youngsters on the tour.

We continued our trip down Mickey's Memory Lane by making several stops around Fantasyland, with our tour guide pointing out how the various films represented by different attractions had affected the development of the Disney story. Our tour included a quick ride on Snow White's Scary Adventure, followed by a visit to Pinocchio's Village Haus (where Gregg pointed out a Hidden Mickey carved into one of the chairs) and Sir Mickey's, the shop that features the beanstalk and giant from the animated classic "Mickey and the Beanstalk."

To my surprise, Gregg ended our trip in Fantasyland by "back-dooring" us into Mickey's PhilharMagic -- that is, we were able to bypass the wait and go straight into the theater. I didn't realize we would be treated to one, let alone two, attractions, so this was a most pleasant advantage of the tour.

The tour concluded with a stop in a quiet spot behind Liberty Square. A mystery guest met us there, bringing each participant a small gift (but I won't spoil the surprise).

Mickey's Magical Milestones was a pleasant way to spend a hot morning in the Magic Kingdom, and to also be able to experience a few attractions along the way. I don't think dedicated, long-time Disney fans will learn much that's new in this tour, but it was enjoyable and, best of all, only two hours long.

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Simply Segway
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Ever since I first saw Disney Cast Members zipping around Epcot on the two-wheeled, upright vehicles known as Segway Human Transporters, I've wanted to try one, so when Disney introduced its "Around the World on a Segway" tour a few years ago, I thought it was for me. Unfortunately, the two-hour, $80 experience never quite fit into my time or monetary budget.

Then I heard about the Simply Segway Experience, a one-hour beginner class on using the Segway that started May 1 of this year. I toyed with the idea of signing up for it, but never quite got around to it until one Sunday in Epcot when I ran into a Cast Member friend of mine. She was actually on a Segway. Doing donuts. Turns out that Ronnie is now one of the instructors of the Simply Segway Experience, and she enthusiastically encouraged me to go in to Epcot's Guest Relations and sign up for her 1:45 p.m. class. Well, OK, twist my arm sign up I did.

Tour participants meet up with the instructor for the class about 15 minutes beforehand at Guest Relations, then are escorted over to the private Segway training room in Innoventions West. You're first shown a video on Segways and their uses, and then you must pick out and put on a safety helmet. As our co-instructor Larry illustrated, it wasn't just in case we fell, but in the case of low branches when we went outside! Oooh! I didn't realize we were going to have any "outside time."

We each chose a Segway from those propped up against the wall. I was surprised at how easily the things rolled around -- for some reason I had imagined they'd be much more difficult to maneuver.

After showing us how to step up onto the Segways (like you're stepping straight up onto a step ladder), Ronnie taught us the rest of the basics -- turning the machine on, balancing, and shutting the Segway down. We also got to experience the vibrating Segway alarm, which would basically go off if we did anything really wrong -- like crash into the wall and fall off the Segway. (Which, I might add, each of the participants of my group did at one point or another during our class, and which, Ronnie added, is perfectly typical.)

As we stood on the Segways, trying to feel our balance, and then practiced stepping on and off the platforms, Larry and Ronnie stood in front of us to prevent any falls. As predicted, we each went through a few moments of the "Segway salsa" as we tried to find our balance, but we all were able to adjust amazingly quickly.

After repeatedly mounting and dismounting on our own for a few moments, we moved on to acquiring our next set of skills -- crossing the room, turning around, and crossing back. The Segway is turned to the left or right using a twist of the hand controls -- a twist forward moves you clockwise, backward counter-clockwise. The further you twist the control, the further and faster you turn -- and you quickly learn that the Segways have such a tight turning radius that you can rotate 180 or even 360 degrees in a very small space. I had to try to do those donuts like I'd seen Ronnie doing. We were then instructed to travel around the room single-file, first traveling in a circle in one direction, then reversing and going the other way. The Segway is propelled by the position of your body -- if you lean forward slightly, the Segway moves forward to stay underneath you. As you lean backward, the Segway slows, and eventually stops. Don't lean too far back, though -- you'll not only fall off, but you might set off that vibrating alarm again.

As it became clear that we were comfortable on our new "horses," Ronnie set up orange cones for us to zigzag around as we moved about the room. "Pretend the cones are little puppies," Ronnie joked. "Don't run over the puppies!" Sad to say, there were more than a few injured "pups" by the time we were through, and I, too, was among the reckless drivers. Eventually, though, the daredevils among us, and there were a few, increased their speed and really mastered the nuances of Segwaying. The more cautious among us (including yours truly) took their time, especially when Larry added the element of holding a broomstick overhead to simulate a low-hanging branch.

While we practiced our bob and weave technique, Ronnie took first one half of the group, then the other, to give participants a chance to practice going up and down a fairly steep ramp, periodically forcing us to make sudden hard stops by leaning back. This was tough to get the hang of, but finally we all seemed to get it.

At last it was time to go outside! We sped up the ramp and out of the room, into a cordoned-off side garden next to the Innoventions building. The brick path in the garden was looped around trees and plantings with a slight incline, but since we had fairly well mastered all the techniques we needed to get around, Ronnie let us cruise out there for a good 15 minutes, even after a light drizzle started. Adding to the fun was noticing the jealous stares of onlookers as they walked by while we elite Segwayers had all the fun. The only downside of the whole experience was the slight cramping I felt in my feet and legs after a while -- after all, you are standing the entire time, tensing your muscles in pretty much one position to hold yourself in balance. Shifting your weight now and then helps, though.

After some photos and lots of laughs, Ronnie finally herded us all back in to the building, where we were able to zip up and down the nearly abandoned hallway for several minutes. This level carpeted area encouraged even the cowards like me to increase our speed -- I couldn't help but giggle at how much fun it was.

All too soon the hour was up and we reluctantly headed back into the training room for our final lap around the room. I might actually be convinced to take the longer Segway class at some point down the road -- it was that much fun.

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Virtual Magic Kingdom
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In the summer of 2005, Disney introduced the "Virtual Magic Kingdom," a free online multi-player game that lets you experience Disney Theme Parks from home. Players can create their own environments, control an online character, and interact with other players from around the globe. Players who also visit a real Disney Theme Park have the chance to earn virtual prizes by going on in-park "quests," which are trivia scavenger hunts. There is also the chance to win real merchandise and prizes, including a two-hour Virtual Magic Kingdom Tour, which is free to eligible players. To read more about the VMK, see Josh Olive's report at http://allears.net/btp/virtualmk.htm

Meli Emmons writes about her experience with the new Virtual Magic Kingdom Tour:

I knew about Virtual Magic Kingdom from various friends and Disney emails, but I hadn't virtually wandered over to the website (vmk.com) to check it out.

One of my rules for visiting Walt Disney World in the summer is "walk in the stores whenever possible" (to be inside, away from the heat, and in the nice air-conditioning). So, one day we wandered through the Main Street Cinema and discovered that it's set up with VMK stuff. They have three brochures (for lack of a better word) -- one each for Fantasyland, Frontierland and Adventureland -- with multiple-choice trivia questions in them. You go on a sort of scavenger hunt to answer the questions. Some we knew off the bat (like what animals take over the camp in Jungle Cruise) -- some we had to search out.

We answered all the questions, which took us several hours (including riding Pirates to answer one question), and brought our brochures back to the cinema, where they were graded. We got the answers all right, so they gave us a bunch of cards with virtual prizes you can use in the VMK. We also got a rubber glow-in-the-dark bracelet -- bright green, with "Unleash the Magic" on it. (Apparently "Unleash the Magic" was supposed to be the original name of VMK, but it was decided that this didn't say "Disney" quite enough.) We also were told that we were eligible for a free Haunted Mansion Virtual Tour, for which we had to sign up at City Hall. It was offered at a variety of times, so we chose Monday at 1 p.m.

It was NOT what I expected it to be -- I thought it was going to be a backstage tour of the Haunted Mansion.

There were five of us plus a guide (one of the hostesses, who wears the riding hat, plaid skirt and white knee-highs). We were two married couples and a local older gentleman. It was a two-hour-or-so walking tour with a little bit of Magic Kingdom trivia, a lot about the VMK, and how the real Magic Kingdom and the VMK intertwine. It was pretty interesting and fun, and I highly recommend it. We were "back-doored" (that is, we didn't have to wait in line) into the Jungle Cruise, and we had our own boat, with our tour guide talking, not the skipper doing his spiel. We were also allowed to skip the lines at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the Haunted Mansion. We were given another brochure/quest exclusively about the Haunted Mansion, as well as quite a few more of the VMK cards to be used online.

Even if you're not interested in playing Virtual Magic Kingdom, the quests and the tour are something new and different to those of us who have stopped counting the number of trips we've made to the World.

You can only take the tour once every 30 days (to prevent local residents from getting too many prizes, which, even though they are free and virtual, are still of value online).

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Related Info:

Mickey's Magical Milestones is a two-hour tour in the Magic Kingdom. Tour-goers age 10 and up visit attractions and special locations that retrace Mickey Mouse's fabled career. The tour, which costs $25 per person, is held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m., starting at the Guided Tour Garden adjacent to City Hall (just inside the Magic Kingdom main entrance). There is a 15 percent discount available for DVC Members and Annual Passholders, and a 20 percent discount for Disney Visa cardholders. Arrive at least 15 minutes before tour start time. Theme park admission is NOT included in tour price.

Simply Segway is a one-hour beginner class on how to ride the Segway Human Transporter. The class includes some training and mostly indoor riding -- there may be some limited outdoor riding time. The Simply Segway Experience is offered daily Wednesday - Monday (not available on Tuesdays) at various times and can accommodate up to 10 participants. The experience is now $30 per person (just reduced from $45!), and discounts are available for Disney Vacation Club members, as well as Disney Visa cardholders and Annual Passholders. You must be at least 16 years old and weigh at least 100 lbs. to participate. Maximum weight for participants is 250 pounds, and expectant mothers and persons with special needs may not participate due to safety concerns. Arrive at Epcot Guest Relations at least 15 minutes before tour start time. Theme park admission is NOT included in tour price.

Virtual Magic Kingdom Tours are offered as prizes to eligible players who correctly complete all three in-park Virtual Magic Kingdom "quests."

Other two-hour or under experiences:

Tour: Around the World at Epcot
Location: Epcot
When: Daily
Duration: 2 hours
Ages: 16 & up
Cost: $80
Details: Guests "test drive" the Segway Human Transporter;
weight maximum 250 lbs.; Epcot admission required (extra).

Tour: Disney's Family Magic Tour
Location: Magic Kingdom
When: Daily
Duration: 2 hours
Ages: All ages
Cost: $25
Details: Magic Kingdom admission required (extra); this is a primer for first-time visitors with children, a skip (literally) through the magical lands.

Tour: Behind the Seeds
Location: Epcot
When: Daily
Duration: 1 hour
Ages: All ages
Cost: $12/per adult and $10/per child (3-9). Reservations can be made up to one year in advance.
Details: Epcot admission required (extra). One-hour walking tour of The Land pavilion's greenhouses and labs led by a member of the Epcot Science Team. Flash photography and videotaping allowed. Same day tour sign-up downstairs at The Land pavilion, near the entrance to Soarin'.

No photography is permitted in any backstage areas. Photo IDs are required at check-in for all tours.

To book a tour, call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687).

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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.