Disney Around the World: Tower of Terror

Today, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror celebrates its 20th anniversary at Walt Disney World. As I believe this is a seminal Disney attraction that showcases Walt Disney Imagineering at its peak, and since there are a few very different incarnations of the Tower of Terror, I thought it’d be fun to look at how they vary around the world.

While I normally am not a huge fan of cloning attractions, Tower of Terror is an exception, right there with Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. There are two reasons for this. First, all of these attractions are so good that they are deserving of homes in every park in the world (you dropped the ball, Hong Kong!). Second, there are enough differences among the various versions that, as a fan of these attractions, it’s actually a joy to see a ‘new’ take on a familiar concept when in the other parks.

My fandom of the Tower of Terror stems from two things: the queue to post-show detail and brilliance of the Tower of Terror, and the way it weaves in the Twilight Zone (one of my all-time favorite television shows) universe into most versions of the attraction.

With that, we invite you if you dare, to join us in a most uncommon elevator, about to take a strange journey. Your destination…the worldwide Disney theme parks… (more…)

Nikon D810 Review


This real-world Nikon D810 review features photos I’ve taken with the new camera, comparison photos to the Nikon D600, and my thoughts after using the camera in the field. Note that this review covers an “off the shelf” production model of the Nikon D810 that I purchased and have actually used to take photos, not a pre-production model that a rep let me hold for like 5 minutes. Most “reviews” I read prior to pulling the trigger to order the camera were of the latter variety, so I thought I’d mention that this is a real review of the real camera. I’ve actually used the Nikon D810 and have edited a number of its RAW files in Adobe Photoshop CC thanks to the new ACR 8.6 release candidate.

If you’re reading a Nikon D810 review, chances are that you’re already read like 57 other pre-release articles and could recite the spec sheet in your sleep (I know spec sheets are the stuff of my dreams!), but in case you haven’t, here’s some perfunctory spec information. The Nikon D810 is a 36.3MP DSLR with no AA filter and an EXPEED 4 engine that makes image processing faster and improves autofocus speed and accuracy. The camera features native ISO of 64 to 12800 (expandable to ISO 32-51200), 51-point autofocus with Group Area AF mode, electronic front-curtain shutter and redesigned mirror mechanism to reduce camera shake, an increased buffer size, sRAW capability, 5 FPS in full frame mode and up to 7 FPS in DX mode, higher resolution LCD screen, split screen zoom in live view for leveling, and a variety of new video features (albeit no 4K). These are the big new things for the D810…but you probably already knew all of that.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll get something else out of the way up front: if you’re reading Nikon D810 reviews because you’re on the fence and are half-hoping for a reason not to purchase the new DSLR, you’ve come to the wrong place. The Nikon D810 is the stuff dreams are made of. It’s the camera I’ve wanted since the Nikon D4, D800, and D600 were all announced within months of one another in 2012.

As you’ll read in this review, I think the Nikon D810 is basically the perfect camera, at least for my purposes as a landscape photographer… (more…)

Walt Disney World Memorial Day Trip Report – Part 6


On the last day of our Walt Disney World Memorial Day trip, we elected to go to Animal Kingdom. I had wanted to go there earlier in the trip, as the park was open until 8 pm over the weekend, which meant potential night photography there. That didn’t work out, so we were left with a half day in the park. We were both hoping for more time there, but it seems Animal Kingdom is often the park that draws the short straw from us, even if that isn’t our intention.

As you may know, I had a change of mind about Disney’s Animal Kingdom after spending more time than normal there last year, which I wrote about in the article “I Was Wrong About Disney’s Animal Kingdom.” That post was surprisingly popular (I think you all just like it when I’m wrong, but as Sarah will tell you, that’s fairly often) and I spoke more to the topic on the Animal Kingdom-centric podcast, Radio Harambe. While I no longer view Animal Kingdom as a half day park, it feels incomplete for me, and it’s missing that special something that I can just do over and over again to kill time.

Something like the PeopleMover, Country Bear Jamboree, or Carousel of Progress in Magic Kingdom, and American Adventure, Living with the Land, or Impressions de France in Epcot. About the closest thing Animal Kingdom has is eating Flame Tree BBQ ribs at the spot that overlooks Expedition Everest. This is probably largely because I haven’t spent enough time in Animal Kingdom to really feel an emotional attachment to anything in the park. It shouldn’t feel bad (assuming theme parks have feelings), as Disney’s Hollywood Studios is about the same for me. Although there I guess the Great Movie Ride sort of occupies that role. Sort of.

I am really hopeful that the boat ride that’s coming to AVATAR Land will fill that void. I remain in the approximately .5% of Disney fans who are actually optimistic about AVATAR Land. I’m by no means a fan of the movie (I thought it was mediocre at best), but it did have some truly beautiful environments that I think will transfer well to a theme park. This is why I’m looking forward to AVATAR Land. Like I’ve written countless times, I think ultimate quality transcends source material. Meaning, if the attractions are compelling and the land is beautiful, no one will care that AVATAR doesn’t really have a fanbase or wasn’t really that good of a movie. I’m not a fan of Cars, but I love Cars Land because the environment and main attraction are great. That’s not the best example because others love Cars, which could explain why the land is a hit. A better example is Splash Mountain. I wonder what percentage of guests have the slightest idea what the source material for it is, let alone how many have actually seen it. But I digress–I know I’m not going to change any minds with any of this, as AVATAR Land is one of those topics where you’re either ‘with us or are the enemy’.

We only had limited time in Animal Kingdom that morning and early afternoon, and that time included lunch at Yak & Yeti. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made FastPass+ reservations, so we jumped into the standby line for Kilimanjaro Safaris first thing. The posted wait was only 10 minutes…although that turned out to be more like 25. Oh well, it’s worth it. (more…)

How I Became A Duffy Fan: The Duffy Phenomenon


Duffy the Disney Bear is a divisive character in the United States. Actually, not so much divisive as unpopular or unnoticed by a majority of Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans, but also having a small and loyal following. For the group with whom he’s an unpopular character, I think it’s largely because Duffy is representative of the complaint that Disney now is driven by consumer products and marketing divisions, with great efforts made to manufacture success if that success means more merchandise sales. To be fair, it’s not exactly as if Disney hasn’t always strived for this to a degree. Even in Walt Disney’s era, there was an effort made for synergy (even if that word was never used) between areas of Disneyland and things like Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures. As is the case with anything, impressions of the bygone-era of Disney are remembered more optimistically and ‘unblemished’ than perhaps they actually were.

By any standard, the case of Duffy in the United States Disney theme parks is an extreme example of trying to manufacture a successful vehicle for merchandise sales. He seems to be less a meaningful theme park character and more a new attempt to find the next version of pin trading–a lucrative merchandise line that lends itself to repeat sales and special editions. (Where Duffy has failed in this regard, Vinylmation and custom MagicBands seem to be the merchandising spiritual successors to pin trading.) Instead of having a thoughtful presence in the theme parks, he strikes me as a cute meet & greet character randomly interjected places to sell plushes and clothing for them. Because he’s a thinly veiled merchandising ploy, I think Duffy has largely been rejected by United States audiences. I have not been a fan of him here.

My opinion of Duffy changed when we visited Tokyo DisneySea for the first time. I love Duffy in Tokyo DisneySea (and Tokyo Disneyland, but his home there is DisneySea). Before I get into the why and the how of what changed my mind, here’s a bit of background on how Duffy came to be. Or, at least my understanding of what happened. In the early 2000s, Duffy was developed as an ancillary toy–not even a standalone character–Mickey’s teddy bear. He was presented, essentially, in the background and available in some merchandise capacities in the United States parks, but he was never viewed or treated as a prominent character. A few years later, Disney and the Oriental Land Company fleshed out his backstory and made him into a spotlight character, introducing him as “Duffy” in 2005, at which time he was an immediate smash hit with guests. In 2010, this version of the Duffy, the Disney Bear was reintroduced in the United States parks as a prominent character. He has subsequently appeared at every Disney theme park complex in the world. Since his refresh, Duffy has since been given a few friends: Shellie May, his girlfriend; Tippy Blue, his mail-bird; and Gelatoni, his artist-cat friend. (more…)

Chef Mickey’s Review


Chef Mickey’s is a character buffet with Mickey Mouse and friends in Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. This Chef Mickey’s review covers dinner at the restaurant. Dinner at Chef Mickey’s varies in price depending upon season, but it’s always pricey–typically in excess of $40 per adult. The menu at Chef Mickey’s is basically just a variety of American comfort foods, almost all of which is standard fare that will appeal to picky eaters. It’s also one of the most popular restaurants at Walt Disney World, with Advance Dining Reservations absolute necessary (you’ll want to secure them 100+ days in advance). Chef Mickey’s participates in the Disney Dining Plan, and accepts Tables in Wonderland for a 20% discount. Due to its high price, it’s a good use of a Disney Dining Plan table service credit if you’re trying to maximize your value on the Disney Dining Plan. It’s also one of the Best Value Character Meals on the Disney Dining Plan.

Mickey Mouse is the original rodent restaurateur. The story of Remy in Ratatouille is nice, but it’s quite clear he saw the success Mickey was having and decided to rip off the idea. The only difference is that Remy can actually cook. Mickey spends all of his time out meeting guests, and as a result of his slacking, what the kitchen produces suffers. The Mouse just doesn’t seem to care. His restaurant remains popular and difficult to book despite the cuisine, so why bother? Well, because he’s a cheerful rodent dedicated to happiness, and not a ruthless businessperson, but I digress…

Chef Mickey’s is insanely popular and difficult to book. It’s a restaurant with a ton of fans, and I suspect this review won’t sit well with those fans. So, before we continue any further, I ask the fans out there to give serious though to why they like Chef Mickey’s. I’m guessing there are a few reasons: 1) nostalgia, 2) the setting, 3) the characters, and 4) the food.

I think the first three reasons are all very valid. I’m betting many guests who visit Chef Mickey’s regularly do so because they have fond memories of it being their kids’ first character meal, maybe even the first time meeting Mickey Mouse. Among serious Disney fans, Chef Mickey’s has almost become a rite of passage character meal. Many guests form great memories during this rite of passage experience and want to return as a result. Nothing wrong with that. We all want to go back to the places where we made great memories.

The setting is also pretty cool. There’s something to be said for dining in the Grand Canyon Concourse of the Contemporary with monorails passing overhead. Same goes for the characters. You have all of the Fab Five at Chef Mickey’s (in cool outfits, no less), making it one of the best experiences for character dining. (more…)

10 Reasons Tokyo DisneySea Is Disney’s Best Park

Tokyo DisneySea is Disney’s best theme park anywhere in the world. It’s rare for me to make an unqualified statement when calling something the best, but this park is so good that I’m confident in that statement without any sort of hedging my bets. The other day, I encountered a conversation in which Disneyland fans were debating whether Tokyo DisneySea or Disneyland is the best theme park in the world. I’ve had similar conversations in person on a couple other occasions, so I thought it would be a fun topic to discuss.

My take is that Tokyo DisneySea is superior to Disneyland (and every other Disney theme park) when viewed in terms of an objective (or as close to objective as humanly possible) analysis of which is the “better” theme park. I think Disneyland is brought up in the “best theme park in the world” conversation primarily for two reasons: nostalgia and its pioneering status.

In terms of nostalgia, many Disneyland and Walt Disney World fans grew up on those parks, and a big part of their love for the parks is steeped in idealized memories of the past. Heck, I’ve readily admitted that those influenced by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia even includes me! I see nothing wrong with nostalgia and wanting to embrace fond memories of the past (to a degree), but nostalgia has no place in a conversation about “the best.” Nostalgia is judgment-clouding and, more importantly, personal to the individual.

As for its pioneering status in the world of theme parks, that makes Disneyland more historically significant and important than Tokyo DisneySea, but it does not make it better. The fact that Walt Disney actually walked down Main Street USA in Disneyland is a ‘bragging right’ that Disneyland fans will always have over fans of every other theme park, but again, that’s about history not current quality. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that the Apple-1 is better than the MacBook Pro Retina because Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually worked on the former, and it seems odd to me that theme park fans would argue that an entire theme park is better because Walt Disney once was involved in a version of the park that is radically different from what exists there today.

Other reasons crop up concerning attraction count and the number of “classic” attractions as trump cards for Disneyland, but these arguments are usually made by those who haven’t actually been to Tokyo DisneySea, and thus they haven’t realized it’s at least a 2-day park that performs better in the flesh than it does on paper. To me, Tokyo DisneySea is a fully realized conceptual park, closely akin to the original EPCOT Center, but with a more balanced execution.

As for why Tokyo DisneySea is the best Disney theme park in the world? Here are 10 (of many) reasons why… (more…)

Little Red Wagon Review


Little Red Wagon is the world’s first food truck, bringing delicious street food to guests of Main Street USA in Disneyland since Walt Disney first conceived of this revolutionary concept while sitting at a pub in Griffith Park and yearning for a place where kids and adults could enjoy corn dogs together. He then came up with the idea of a “theme park” as an afterthought, because he didn’t want to pay permit fees and other expenses of operating his Little Red Wagon corn dog food truck on public streets. Or something like that. While that history is absolutely inaccurate, Little Red Wagon is basically the greatest thing ever.

In actuality, Little Red Wagon was not conceived of by Walt Disney (it’s a far more recent addition to Disneyland than that), but I think it embodies his vision for Disneyland. (As everyone on the internet says in an attempt to add validity to their own opinion, “it’s what Walt would have wanted.”) His dream for Disneyland being a place for the young and young-at-heart is realized for me personally to a slight extent with Little Red Wagon. I would never even consider eating a corn dog in the real world, but in Disneyland some sort of carefree, youthful attitude takes hold of me, and I often find myself running to Little Red Wagon with glee.

So, how are the corn dogs at Little Red Wagon? Well, I think I’ve pretty much already answered that by calling Little Red Wagon “basically the greatest thing ever,” but since I try to write reviews that are more than 250 words, I’ll throw in some fluff and ridiculousness to beef up the word count here. Continue reading to find out more, but don’t say you haven’t been warned. (more…)

Disney World Hotel Reviews (+GIVEAWAY)

Thinking about staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, but not sure which is right for you? In our Disney hotel reviews, we share the strengths and weaknesses of each hotel, give our opinion as to whether they are worth the money, and offer an idea of what type of guests (families, honeymooners, commando tourists, etc.) will like or dislike each hotel.

Each full Walt Disney World hotel review contains photos from the hotels, including room photos and photos of main areas of the hotel, to give you an idea of whether the decor of the rooms and the theme of the hotel will appeal to you. In addition to this, the reviews offer Walt Disney World resort hotel tips, information about amenities, and dining recommendations at the hotels.

We have stayed at every on-site hotel at Walt Disney World, so unlike many hotel review sites that crowdsource or aggregate information from other sources leading to inconsistent ratings or uninformed “opinions”, our reviews are all first-hand accounts of our personal stays at each of the hotels at Walt Disney World. You may totally disagree with our opinions, but at least you’re getting the actual opinions of the same two people who have stayed at each of the hotels.

We are missing full reviews for a couple of Walt Disney World hotels because we either forgot to take room photos of the hotel or last stayed at the hotel before we started taking room photos (hey, how many of you take hotel room photos?!). Additionally, Disney has been aggressively refreshing its hotel rooms in the last year or so, and we haven’t yet had a chance to stay in every new room and update the photos. Our goal is to have this completed by early 2015.

Off-site and third party hotels at Walt Disney World like the Swan & Dolphin, Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Four Seasons Resort Orlando, Downtown Disney Resort Area Hotels, and other similar hotels are next on our list of places to start staying at and reviewing, so check back regularly and stay tuned for those reviews! To kick off our coverage of these hotels, we’re doing a giveaway of a 3-night hotel stay at the Downtown Disney Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, so scroll below the hotel synopses and reviews to enter the giveaway!

Below we have blurbs with quick-hit pros and cons of each Walt Disney World hotel if you just want basic information. If you want to know more about each hotel and see Walt Disney World hotel photos, click the name of the hotel to go to its full review! (more…)