LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Disney universe is populated by a countless array of heroes and villains. Think Simba and Scar, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Cruella De Vil and the 101 Dalmatians.
They're the stars of screen, stage and page, and it has been in those venues that Disney-philes traditionally have come into contact with the characters they most loved or loved to hate.
But the Mouse House is taking it a step further these days, affording Walt Disney World visitors not only the opportunity to see their favorite characters but to interact with them in new and unique ways.
The latest generation of Disney theme park-goers — young and technologically savvy — wants more than just to be in Disney World.
They want to be in Disney's world.
And Disney in recent years has been more than happy to accommodate that desire.
It introduced a pair of problem-solving contests at Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Epcot parks; added new interactive queues to a number of popular existing attractions, among them "Dumbo the Flying Elephant," ''The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" and the "Haunted Mansion"; began offering the "My Disney Experience" mobile application; and amped up the pin and Vinylmation offerings and trading opportunities throughout the parks.
"The trend is very much to creating a much more interactive experience, because that's what young kids want," said Lou Mongello, a Disney World expert who hosts the weekly "WDW Radio Show" podcast. "They don't want to sit back and watch a show."
"I think we are at the very early stages of a huge shift in guests' experience," Mongello said, standing in Epcot's U.K. pavilion, only steps from where a handful of kids and their families were playing the "Agent P's World Showcase Adventure" game.
Featuring characters from the popular Disney Channel animated series, "Phineas & Ferb," the "Agent P" game transforms participants into secret agents, provides them with a "high-tech secret agent device" — basically a cellphone — and asks them to scour the World Showcase section of the park for clues as they try to help the heroic Agent P defeat his nemesis, the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz.
Like its Epcot counterpart, "Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom" also is part high-tech scavenger hunt, part problem-solving contest.
Participants become apprentice sorcerers and, armed with special spell cards, do battle with some of Disney's most famous animated villains — Jafar from "Aladdin" and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" among them — who show up on LED screens scattered across the park.
"What you're seeing is video-game style immersion and depth, but now applied to" the Disney parks, said Jonathan Ackley, a member of the Walt Disney Imagineering team that developed the games. Ackley joined Disney from LucasArts, where he developed adventure-style video games.
Based in California, Ackley recently made the trip to Florida and walked through the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland section, watching with a big smile as his game was being played.
"What these immersive experiences do is make the guests the hero in the story and allow our guests to play the role that people only usually get to watch in movies or on TV," he said.
Nearby, Patrick Smith, 8, of Metairie, La., readied his cards for battle.
Patrick's father, Mike, said he's a fan of the game simply because his son is.
"We spent an entire day playing this," Mike Smith said. "If it keeps him occupied, that's good by me."
Disney officials were not willing to provide the numbers of or percentage of park visitors who play the two interactive games, which are free with the price of admission, but they say their popularity has exceeded expectations.
The same could be said of pin trading, which began at Disney World in 1999, and, according to merchandising spokesman Steven Miller, was only expected to be a 15- to 18-month program.
"We really had no idea . whether people would be interested in this," he said.
Well, they were, and now, 14 years later, Miller said 19,000 employees, or "cast members" as they're known, trade pins with guests on any given day at Walt Disney World.
Pin trading has become as customary a sight at Disney World as Mickey and Minnie.
The way it works is this: Guests are entitled to any pin on a cast member's lanyard, as long as they present an official Disney pin in trade. It's not uncommon to stroll down Main Street, U.S.A., and witness guests sidling up to Disney employees and scrutinizing their pin-laden lanyards before pointing out the specific piece of metal they want.
Vinylmation trading, meanwhile, is not as prevalent, but has its own rabid following.
The 3-inch collectible figures represent classic characters, attractions or icons inspired by Disney parks and resorts and can be traded at a number of retail stores throughout Disney World.
The introduction of the "Sorcerers" and "Agent P" games, the continued emphasis on pin and Vinylmation trading, the new ride queues, the new app and the like have had the effect of making "the parks much more alive," Mongello said.
"At its most basic level, the mom and the dad and their two-and-a-half kids come here to enjoy the attractions, meet the princesses, enjoy the food, and as you start to peel some of those layers back, there's a lot more detail, a lot more depth, there's a lot more story," he said. "And I think they want that. They want an enhanced, interactive experience."
Disney isn't done adding those experiences.
Next up is another interactive quest, "A Pirate's Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas," which is in testing and takes place not far from the iconic "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction in the Magic Kingdom.
"We're not afraid to try crazy new things," Ackley said, laughing.
Mike Householder can be reached at mhouseholder(at)ap.org and http://twitter.com/mikehouseholder
For The Pool-Sitter:
Though it's theme might not be out of the ordinary (shingle style hotels on Nantucket and the Vineyard), Disney's <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/yacht-club-resort/" target="_hplink">Yacht Club Resort </a>has the coolest pool on property. Stormalong Bay, as it's called, features a sand-bottomed pool that's like being at the beach without all the critters. There's also a lazy river for relaxing and the water slide is one of the tallest of all the WDW resorts'. The pool complex is shared with the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/beach-club-resort/" target="_hplink">Beach Club Resort</a> right next door, so that's a good place to check out too. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Animal Lover:
They don't call it the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/animal-kingdom-lodge/" target="_hplink">Animal Kingdom Lodge</a> for nothing. The hotel is African-inspired, down to the thatched roof, mud fireplace and 16-foot Ijele mask on display in the lobby. Oh, and the savannas outside. Animal-loving types will dig the animals that roam freely on the four savannas on the hotel grounds. Aside from being able to observe them from savanna-view rooms and special glass alcoves situated throughout the hotel, guests can also participate in the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/wanyama-safari-resort-tour/" target="_hplink">Wanyama Safari</a> to get even closer to the action. The safari is only available to guests of the hotel. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Foodie:
One of the biggest perks of the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/grand-floridian-resort-and-spa/" target="_hplink">Grand Floridian Resort & Spa</a> is it's proximity to the Magic Kingdom and location on the monorail loop. It's also home to one of Disney World's biggest culinary draws, AAA Five Diamond award winning <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/victoria-and-alberts/" target="_hplink">Victoria & Albert's</a> restaurant. Each experience at the restaurant is a different one, as unique daily prix-fixe menus are crafted based on what's market-fresh that day. Men, make sure you bring a jacket, as those are required. And, leave the kiddos with the sitter. Children younger than 10 are not permitted. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Honeymooners:
Couldn't decide betweeen Disney World and a beachy getaway? Kill two birds with one stone at the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/polynesian-resort/" target="_hplink">Polynesian Resort</a>. It's also conveniently located on the monorail, but the white sandy beaches and lush tropical foliage give the illusion of seclusion. The luau show is pretty cute, if you don't mind sitting through the kiddie stuff to get to the tribal dancers and fire breathers. If not, fruity cocktails abound, and are perfect when sipped a deux on a waterside hammock. After sundown, the beach becomes the perfect viewing point for the Magic Kingdom fireworks and the nightly Electrical Water Pageant that sails by. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
Ok, so all of Disney's resorts are great for families, but the newly-opened <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/art-of-animation-resort/" target="_hplink">Art of Animation Resort</a> has a little bit of an edge. It's considered a "value" resort by the folks at Disney, so the prices are going to be some of the lowest on property. And, even at those prices, you get a kitchenette (kitchens are otherwise found in deluxe villas, club-level suites and Fort Wilderness cabins) plus a separate master bedroom and two bathrooms. Rooms sleep up to six. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Princess In Training:
We know it's hard to break it to a little girl, but Cinderella's castle does not double as a hotel. Try softening the blow with a few nights in one of the royal guest rooms at <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/port-orleans-resort-riverside/" target="_hplink">Port Orleans - Riverside</a>. There might be no Prince Charming, but there <em>are</em> light-up headboards that put on a fiber optic "fireworks" display. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Sentimentalist
Channeling 1940s Atlantic City, the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/board-walk-inn/" target="_hplink">BoardWalk Inn</a> is a walk (literally) down memory lane for anyone enamored with the good old days. Beneath the hotel is a real boardwalk that features full-service restaurants and food booths hawking snacks like funnel cakes, corn dogs, ice cream cones -- all the fried and sugary goodness one expects to eat at the beach. Performers and two night clubs keep the place lively, and rentable surrey bikes keep people moving at a leisurely pace. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Swashbuckler:
Of course we wouldn't leave out the lads. The <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/caribbean-beach-resort/" target="_hplink">Caribbean Beach Hotel</a>'s name is a dead giveaway as to its theme. But, what it doesn't hint at are the pirate rooms that feature pirate ships for beds as well as other seafaring touches. Photo: The Walt Disney Company
For The Soldier (Or Marine, Or Airman, Or Sailor...):
Did you know that there's a hotel on Disney property that caters exclusively to members of the Armed Forces? <a href="http://www.shadesofgreen.org/" target="_hplink">Shades of Green</a>, which is run by the U.S. Army, is located across from the Grand Floridian and is open to all branches of the military. It features an on-site spa and golf course as well as restaurants. And, a ticket office inside sells discounted tickets to all of the major area attractions (not just Disney.)
For The Mickeyphobe:
For those looking for the convenience of staying on Disney property, but aren't into being bombarded by Disney <em>all</em> day, the<a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/swan-resort/" target="_hplink"> Swan Hotel</a> and the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/dolphin-resort/" target="_hplink">Dolphin Hotel</a> are the best bets. They're actually part of the Starwood family of hotels (bonus for SPG members!) so the design is much like any upscale contemporary hotel. Once inside, it doesn't even feel like being on Disney property anymore, with the exception of the character dining experience offered at the Swan's Garden Grove restaurant.
For The Outdoorsman:
Another unique lodging option at Disney World is one you bring yourself -- in the forms of tents, pop-ups and RVs. There are four different types of campsites available at the <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/campsites-at-fort-wilderness-resort/" target="_hplink">Fort Wilderness Resort</a>, to accommodate all manner of campers, all nestled in a wooded outpost nearby the Magic Kingdom. Rent a golf cart to make navigating the 750 acres easy, especially since the parts of the resort housing the pool, campfire movie, stables and restaurants aren't accessible to cars. Don't have an RV and not into tenting it? Fort Wilderness also has <a href="http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/cabins-at-fort-wilderness-resort/" target="_hplink">cabins </a>that offer the same scenery with less hassle. Photo: The Walt Disney Company