On the Fast Track with Richard Petty at Walt Disney World

I’m very interested in loud cars that go really fast, even if I still don’t understand NASCAR. Earlier this summer, I drove my road trip ride around the speedway in Watkins Glen. As much fun as it was–lots!–I was itching to get a vehicle up to triple-digit speeds. Near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, I had that chance at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

Traveling the American Road – Driving with Richard Petty

It works like this: After plunking down $449, fellow drivers and I got a fairly serious driving class, complete with info on how to operate our 600-horsepower stock cars, what to do in the unlikely event of a fire and why drivers should stay on the line that racers in front of you are following. (Hint: It keeps you from crashing into the wall.)

Considering what a war zone Central Florida’s highways have become, it was easy to believe my instructor’s reassurance that this driving, even strapped in to a super-powered race car, would be the safest I’d do all day. Nevertheless, the more warnings my fellow racers and I received, the more nervous I became. What if I forgot to throw my car into fourth gear? What if I followed the car in front of me too closely? What if I started skidding toward the wall at 120 mph? Putting on a helmet and HANS device to protect the base of my skull in the event of a catastrophic accident sadly did not make me more comfortable.

The upside to the experience is that you’re guided through the eight laps by a faceless but presumably over-qualified “instructor,” who you never meet and whose movements you follow on the track. The more precisely you handle your car, the faster he or she will drive in front of you–meaning you’ll go faster too. I would’ve liked to meet my lead driver, but instead, I was being buckled into a five-point harness inside the rumbling number 11 car, helmet on, HANS on, and GoPro camera mounted to the dash. A crewman gave the sign, and we were off, jerking forward, as I figured out the clutch on the way out of pit road.

The first lap was ragged, a chance to get a feel for the car–which does not handle like my Ford Explorer–learn the racing line and get used to the deafening noise of the engine at track speed. Stock cars don’t have speedometers, only tachometers, but I later learned I averaged 78 mph on the first go-round. A good start.

As I loosened up, I learned to trust the car and its fat, sticky tires. My instructor sped up. I started to smile around lap four. By lap six, I was tearing into turns, letting off the throttle at the last possible moment to keep distance from the car in front of me and revving back up on the turn exit to burn through the straights. The banked turns seemed to flatten as we accelerated. My tunnel vision expanded just in time to see the flag signaling the end of my eight laps.

I watched more drivers take their turns, soaking up the sounds and vibrations in the pits. Data from a USB stick plugged into my car was downloaded. My top speed was 122.38. Not bad, but I’d like to go faster.

Disney begins construction on a new ship in Pappenburg Germany

At a ceremony in Pappenburg, Germany this week, Disney Cruise Lines marked another milestone in the expansion of it’s fleet of magical cruise ships.

Assisted by Karl Holz, President of Disney Cruise Line, Minnie Mouse presided over the keel laying ceremony at they Meyer-Werft shipyard where new Disney Fantasy, twin to recently launched Disney Dream will be constructed.

The keel laying ceremony is a significant milestone in the ship building process when the first block, or section of the ship, is lowered into the building dock and a coin is placed under the keel for good fortune.

Not to be a twin sister to Disney Dream, new Fantasy will have many of the same features but also some new design elements and guest experiences that will give the ship a unique identity all her own. Different from Disney Dream sailing 3 and 4-night sailings, the new Disney Fantasy will sail week-long itineraries. Both will sail from Florida’s Port Canaveral where guests can easily add on a stay at Walt Disney World either before or after sailing.

“Disney begins construction on a new ship in Pappenburg Germany” is not the only news about Disney. The company that represents quality family entertainment world-wide is also embracing social media as we see in this video.

Disney World debuts new castle projection show

Walt Disney World’s marketing push for 2011 is all about making memories, and the theme park behemoth put more than 500 of them on display on its most famous icon, Cinderella Castle, Tuesday night.

A new nighttime show, called “The Magic, The Memories and You” was previewed for media at the Magic Kingdom near Orlando, Florida.

The show features images captured daily by Disney’s PhotoPass photographers – those guys and gals who ask you to stop so they can take your picture – and projected on to Cinderella Castle in a show set to music. At least, that’s what I was expecting. What I saw was way more elaborate than that.

Through the use of animation from 16 different projectors, the castle’s turrets spin, vines wind up its walls, and flames engulf it, all while photos dance across the facade. It’s visually stunning, dramatic, and, well, a bit trippy. One guest at the media preview said the show reminded him of performances of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”“It’s a heck of a lot more than a slideshow on a castle,” said Alan Bruun, associate creative director for Walt Disney World Entertainment.

The 10-minute show features familiar Disney tunes threaded around a new song named, aptly, “Let the Memories Begin.”

Show producers started by digitally mapping the castle, to ensure a truly 3D projection on its facade. The castle projection show was then storyboarded as if it were a short film, Bruun said. Animators made the story boards come to life, creating slots for 500 photos from that day in the park.

The 500 photos are hand-selected and cropped, but a computer ultimately decides which photo goes into which slot in the show.

“It’s an amazing and complex process,” Bruun said. “But it involves just as much high-touch as it does high-tech, as individuals select those photograhs before the computer populates the castle with them.”

While there are some large projections, many of the photos are used in photo-mosaic images, and are on the small side. So, you may not be able to pick yours out as they move quickly by. And if you’re worried about photo privacy at Disney, you can opt out and keep your photo from being considered for the show.

“The Magic, The Memories and You” will be projected onto Cinderella Castle each night, twice a night when the park stays open late.

A similar projection show will debut at Disneyland in California on Jan. 27. It will be projected onto the facade of the It’s a Small World ride.

Troubled baby gorilla at Disney World being treated like a kid

Visitors to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park often spot a tiny baby gorilla along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. What most of them don’t know is that she’s much tinier than she should be. Lilly was born last year at Walt Disney World, one of only 10 to 15 gorilla births each year in the United States. And she’s not growing and developing the way she should.

Lilly depends on her mother for many things that a gorilla of her age should be doing independently, and her left side seems to be weaker than her right.

Disney World scrambled for months to solve the mystery of what is wrong with Lilly, according to the Orlando Sentinel. She’s even been seen by doctors who specialize in treating human kids, and gone to a local hospital for an MRI. But, while they have ruled out many serious things that could have been ailing the baby gorilla, her caretakers haven’t found the problem.

So Disney has innovated and switched the focus from diagnosing Lilly to treating her. An occupational therapist who usually works with autistic kids comes to treat the baby gorilla once a week, and she gets therapy sessions twice daily from her trainers.

Everyone involved with Lilly attests that she’s making progress. She remains along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, where you can probably see her on your next visit to Orlando. Here’s video from the Orlando Sentinel of Lilly and the progress she’s making:

New Pixar Pals parade disappoints many Disney World fans

Walt Disney World debuted a new parade – Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun! – at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Sunday. The new parade features characters from Pixar films Up! and Ratatouille that have never appeared in a Disney parade before.

New stuff at Disney is frequently met with breathless wonder by the many fans of all things Disney out there. But when it comes to this parade, reaction from Disney World fans, including many locals who turned out to see the parade’s debut, has not been good.

In the comments sections of blogs and YouTube videos about the Pixar Pals parade, Disney fans are describing the parade as “low budget,” “horrible” and “disappointing.”

Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun! replaces the Block Party Bash, a street party-parade hybrid that moved through the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and stopped at certain points to bring the audience out to dance with characters from popular movies including Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life.

The main beefs with the parade seem to fall into two categories: First, that the parade is not different enough from its predecessor Block Party Bash, and second, that the parade is too short.As for the charge that the Pixar Pals parade is too similar to Block Party Bash, well, it is pretty similar. Many of the floats are the same; the rest are simply repainted. Cast members’ costumes and props are also unchanged.

“All of the floats are recycled from Block Party Bash, merely repainted and slightly re-themed and the music isn’t original. Overall, it comes as a disappointment to many who had high hopes for the new production,” writes a blogger at easyWDW.com.

And is the parade, which has a soundtrack made up largely of Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day,” too short? At less than 8 minutes in length, it is shorter than other Disney Parks parades, which typically clock in closer to the 15-minute mark.

Shelley Caran of OnTheGoinMCO.com describes Pixar Pals as a “lack luster eight minute blink and you missed it.”

About the only positive reaction we could find in the blogosphere comes from Ricky Brigante of Inside the Magic.net, who was a vocal opponent of the way the Block Party Bash stopped in the theme park’s walkways each day: “At least it doesn’t hog the streets for extended periods of time like Block Party Bash once did.”

So, while kids may enjoy catching a glimpse of their favorite movie characters, the overall consensus from the grown-ups seems to be that Disney’s previous afternoon “parade,” Block Party Bash, was superior.

StudiosCentral.com, a blog devoted to the Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park where the new parade debuted, writes: “The previous two daytime parades at the Studios, Block Party Bash and Stars & Motor Cars Parade, were far superior displays and much more of an engaging experience. … For those that have enjoyed quality Disney World parades over the years, you may find yourself disappointed and underwhelmed.”

Now that you’ve seen the video, what do you think?