Friday, March 27, 2015

A (Last?) Look at Echo Lake

As rumors persist that Echo Lake in Disney's Hollywood Studios may not last much longer I made a point to take a long, maybe last, look at that part of the park this past March. (A WDW News Today article a month before my trip articulates the most recent rumor before my visit.)

Will Echo lake meet the same fate as Gertie's dinosaur brethren?

Before we say goodbye, let's have a look at one of the roles Echo Lake played in the history of Disney's Hollywood Studios (and Disney-MGM Studios). Here's a look at a park map from 1989. Take a look at the giant hidden Mickey in the middle. Echo Lake formed one of his ears.

Here's an artist rendering of the Disney-MGM Studios from an early publication, Disney-MGM Studios: A Pictorial Souvenir. The Indiana Jones stunt show and Echo Lake are in the foreground.

Not sure who Dinosaur Gertie is? Well that's explained here

Min and Bill's is a conveniently located and often under-appreciated counter service location that will be missed if Echo Lake goes away. So will views like this.

Disney will be giving up this source of income, but suspect Star Wars Land will make up for that

So, how much longer before Echo Lake is also extinct?

Even if it isn't clear exactly what the future holds for Disney's Hollywood Studios (or, even what the new name of the park will be), it is apparent that some big plans are in the works. It will be exciting to see what is new, but always sad to lose a part of  a park's history. That is the nature of a theme park that seeks to remain relevant in a changing world, but doesn't mean we shouldn't stop to appreciate details that may be lost.
Do you think Echo Lake will be filled in to become the road to Tatooine? Would you rather Star Wars Land go somewhere else in the park? What if it meant losing the Osborne Lights and MuppetVision?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Warming Up to the New Magic Kingdom Hub

When reports started to filter out that the Hub in Disney World's Magic Kingdom was set to be remodeled I reacted with mixed emotions, or perhaps more precisely, a mix and emotion and logic. Logically, I understood the need to move more people more quickly through that area of the park, but emotionally I immediately feared the loss of some of the most scenic vistas in the park. Disney is eager to explain that they prioritize "Show" over "Efficiency" when they talk about the Keys to success of their theme parks, but they recognize both are important and at some point efficiency can no longer be ignored. Those who have been stuck in a mass of humanity during a Disney parade or fireworks show, or just trying to get out of the park at closing time, recognized the need to address crowd movement in the Magic Kingdom. Sadly, the Swan Boats were never destined to return, so we would have to accept some changing views in the central hub of the park. (Those not familiar with the Hub reconstruction project may wish to view this video Disney posted when the construction project was announced last year)

While some construction remains closer to Cinderella Castle I saw most of the newly remodeled Hub unveiled in early March, 2015. I also watched Wishes and Celebrate the Magic from the new FastPass+ fireworks viewing area, near Casey's Corner, so I got a pretty good look and feel of how the new area works. We'll know more when larger summer crowds start to offer a better stress test, but for now I like the look better than I thought I would. You can see for yourself with these images.

This is the sort of image that we'll never see again with the new Hub, as the old docks/load/unload areas for the Swan Boats are gone.

Seeing a view like this made me feel a little better that there are still attractive water vistas to be found

One benefit of the new construction is a larger seating area outside the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor

A look into the new fireworks FastPass+ viewing area

A similar fenced in area to what is currently being used for FastPass+ viewing is also present on the opposite side of Main Street (near the Plaza Restaurant), though at the time of my visit it was not being used for FastPass+ fireworks viewing

New fountains have appeared

The mini statues that used to surround Partners have been moved (out of arms length)

Walt is still around to watch over the park

The fireworks viewing area drew crowds, but not nearly as densely packed as those elsewhere in the park. On the night I attended, most guest chose to sit on the fake grass (I setup my tripod in front of a tree, so as not to block anyone's view of the show).

I saw more of Celebrate the Magic than I ever have farther back on Main Street, managing to find a spot with no heads blocking my view

Wishes looked good, too, though I'll note there are quite a few lighting fixtures blocking many of the views in the FastPass+ viewing area. I arrived early and made a point to station myself somewhere that offered an unobstructed view of Cinderella Castle

This should give guests an idea what the expect next time you visit the new Magic Kingdom Hub, but let me know if you have any questions.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista - Room 1110

I spent three nights at the Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista from March 7 - 10, 2015. I will share my experiences from that stay and pictures of the hotel room below.

8442 Palm Parkway
Lake Buena Vista, USA 32836

I booked my room just over a month before trip using a Priceline Express Deal. When booking Express Deals, you do not know the hotel where you will be staying until after you book and pre-pay for the reservation, but I did know the hotel location would be on or very close to the Disney property. I paid $196.29 for three nights, including all taxes and fees.

The property is a short way from Fl-535 (Apopka Vineland Road), not far from Downtown Disney, on a road the runs parallel to I-4. The driveway to the hotel doesn't stand out very well among other shopping centers and hotels on Palm Parkway, but I had previewed the drive using Google Maps, so I didn't have any trouble finding the entrance. I was stopped at a guard shack and directed to the lobby, where there was plenty of room for check-in parking.

Once inside the lobby, there was no line to check in when I arrived just after 10:20 PM, which was good, since there was only one person at the front desk. Another guest arrived shortly after I did and another clerk appeared then began to assist her with the check-in process, but that employee soon disappeared to "the back" and still hadn't returned when I finished checking in. After I had my room key I had another strange experience, after a friendly greeter in a wheelchair suggested the person at the hotel attractions desk give me a "Welcome Packet". I soon realized this was some sort of Wyndham timeshare scam and had to quickly figured out how to extricate myself from the situation. Before I left I was offered free tickets (though I'm not sure what they were for) and then $100 in food (I didn't ask where) after I said I had an annual pass. If you stay here, I suggest declining the "Welcome Packet."

I'm not sure if the map I was given to find my hotel room was peculiarly designed or just the arrows to my room were poorly drawn, but it took longer to find my room than it should have. The signage around the hotel isn't very clear either, but once I found the room I had no problems getting back to it again. The hotel has outdoor corridors, so check-in is the only time you pass through the lobby area.

I was mostly happy with my room, as it was clean and the bed was comfortable, with the biggest problem being noise reduction. The room offered many amenities, including a large (by hotel room standards) refrigerator, a microwave oven, hair drier, iron, and coffee maker (unlike Disney "value" rooms, which leave out the coffee maker). The room was on the small side, but no worse than a Disney value room. Counter/desk space was comparable to a Disney value resort, though a little easier to access, because it didn't require storing things on top of the television. Speaking of the television, I was pleasantly surprised to find Stacey's Disney Must Do's available at this resort.

The air conditioning worked well, but lighting was a little below par. Not disturbingly dim, but not as bright as I would have liked. Keeping light out (and passers-by from looking in) was difficult for the first night, until I discovered the curtains were backward compared with most hotel rooms I've stayed in (with the heavy curtain hiding behind the lighter liner). Internet access was mostly functional, though slower than I've experienced in recent years at Disney resorts, but on a par with what I've experienced in midrange hotel rooms in other parts of the country.

The bathroom was tiny, similar to what you would find in a Disney value resort. A separate room for the toilet and shower, with the sink outside, is helpful when sharing the room with others, as was a sliding door that provides a changing area after you've showered. This is also similar to Disney resorts, though there was more counter space at the Clarion than you find in Disney value resorts. My biggest concern with the bathroom facilities was widely varying water temperature, which was only warm enough for my first shower when I turned the heat up full blast, and barely lukewarm for my second shower (on Sunday morning around 6:30 AM). After those two showers, I had no trouble with water temperature. Water pressure was also sufficient and the resort offered four sets of towels, which was an ample supply for my stay.

Noise reduction was the only area where this room performed poorly, as I would rate this somewhere between poor and horrendous. It doesn't help that the hotel is located just across a small lake from an Interstate Highway (I-4), but it doesn't have to sound like you're sleeping in the middle of the road. Additionally, I heard every suitcase that rolled past or any conversation taking place outside the room as if people were right next to my bed. My travel plans meant that I was exhausted enough to be able to sleep after the first night and I woke up early enough each morning that rush hour hadn't begun (on the highway or outside my room), but if you're planning a restful vacation with a lot of time in the hotel room, then request a room facing away from the highway or consider staying elsewhere.

The resort also featured two swimming pools and a children's play area. I did not try any of these features, but the pools seemed sufficient to accommodate the guests on site, never appearing overcrowded when I returned to the property for afternoon breaks.

Parking wasn't ideal, but not terrible. When I arrived, I found a spot several rows away from where I thought my room was, since there were no spaces available near the hotel building. In the middle of the afternoon the lot was nearly empty, but finding a spot near the hotel was difficult when returning from the parks in the evening. However, even when parked in the farthest remote location in the hotel's lot, I was still closer to my room than I would have been in most Disney resorts.

I had to drive to the Magic Kingdom one day. In the morning, I was planning to arrive for rope drop and ended up parking about four rows from the TTC, then had almost no wait for a monorail, so I ended up arriving at the Magic Kingdom entrance 33 minutes after I left the hotel. That's not far out of line with my average travel time taking buses from Disney resorts to the Magic Kingdom (29 minutes 40 seconds, over 18 trips since 2010). In the early evening, I drove to the the TTC again, and the whole trip from hotel to turnstiles took only 26 minutes. My other car trips from the Clarion included twice driving to Epcot, taking 14 and 12 minutes (compared with an average of 11 minutes 14 seconds driving time when staying on-site) and one trip to Animal Kingdom, which at 22 minutes was considerably longer than my average travel time staying on site (12 minutes 35 seconds), though my frequency of stays at the All-Star Resorts and their proximity to Animal Kingdom affect that number.

The map below shows the location of the hotel in relation to the Disney theme parks, with a route to the TTC highlighted (click on the map to see a larger version of the image).

I believe there was a shuttle bus available to the Disney parks, but I did not use that service, so I can't offer any comment on how efficient or on-time it was.