Jan 012007

Compiled by Erica Colmenares

Michael Hewell, aka TourGuideMiKE, is a big name in Disney planning. His online vacation planning service has been used by nearly 25,000 families, guests who are often repeat customers for Michael’s TourGuideMiKE service on return trips to The World. Magically Speaking staff solicited questions for TourGuideMiKE from TheMouseForLess yahoogroups list, and Michael was happy to answer.

Michael Hewell, aka TourGuideMiKE

Q. I was wondering, how do you know when the best times are to ride some of the more popular rides? (Submitted by Debbie Slaughter)

A. Debbie, the crowd patterns at most of Disney World’s popular rides actually haven’t changed much over the years, so my knowledge comes from years of experience and actively observing them while hosting my VIP Tour families. It may seem silly to say, but the crowds can’t be everywhere at once, so … where are they and where are they not? I learn the former and maximize the latter.

What is more challenging to learn is how other attractions are affected by the opening of a new popular attraction nearby. This happened last year in the Animal Kingdom when Disney opened its newest coaster, Expedition Everest. How would this affect the lines of the other attractions in Asia? In Dinoland? Would “they” [the crowds] be in this section of the park earlier in the day? If so, which attractions would they most likely go to next, and what about after that?

The only way to answer those important questions was to visit the park day after day until I figured out the optimal order of the attractions, and I had to do so both for families with young children and those with older kids who enjoyed the more thrilling choices. I went in with my predictions based on experience, but then had to check them to ensure my logic passed the test of avoiding lines all day in the park from arrival until departure.

And what happens if I am wrong about something, or question anything at all? My only option is to return the next morning and do it all over again, and again if necessary, until I get it right. Why? Because I only have one chance per day to observe the masses as they enter the park in exponential numbers. And after I have all that figured out, I revisit the park during various travel seasons of the year to observe any differences that might exist on peak season days vs. slow or moderate days.

I learn how to have the most possible fun somewhere by making crowd pattern predictions, experiencing and testing my theories, and then sharing it with my guests through either our VIP Tours or TourGuideMiKE.com. I want to do all the work so that they don’t have to!

Q. I’ve been thinking about TourGuideMiKE, but with all the information out there on TheMouseForLess, AllEars, etc., I’m not sure what TGM will give me that I can’t glean by myself. I know that I highly recommend TGM for all my “casual” Disney friends but for someone that lives it like the folks on TheMouseForLess group do, please tell me what specific benefit we’ll get (so that I can justify the expense to my dear hubby.) (Submitted by Hypermommy)

A. Hypermommy, my response may surprise you!

I didn’t actually develop the Automated Vacation Planner (AVP) with the “Disney Enthusiasts” market in mind. The model user in my head while designing and writing everything was a mom who lived in Michigan with two children and a husband who always left all of the family’s vacation planning to her. They were coming for Spring Break and had never been here before, and she was completely overwhelmed by all the planning resources out there. How could she know who to trust with the important details? How could she separate opinions from genuine experience? And how could she actually put the myriad of options together into a fun vacation for her family? When I reviewed all of the available resources in late 1999, both in print and on the Internet, I felt there wasn’t enough written about the actual “day to day itinerary planning” process and how to tour the parks once you passed through the turnstile. (And what I did find, I often disagreed with.)

I teach my AVP guests ‘how’ I plan vacations for our wealthy VIP Tour guests who expect nothing but the very best experience. I share everything I think about while touring the parks with these families at a $120 per hour so that AVP guests can pretty much have the same experience at a fraction of the cost. It’s both personally and spiritually rewarding, and I’m pretty darn good at it! :>)

The important question, Hypermommy, is do YOU feel prepared for your vacation? Do you know about everything going on, when these options will be, and how you should plan them into your day to day plans? Do you know how to maximize the FASTPASS? Do you know when to be where to minimize your exposure to lines and crowds? Do you promise to “see the best of the best and forget the rest” and plan in enough rest? Have you taken the time to learn about all of the attractions and shows instead of just thinking of them as a list of amusement rides? Not just ‘what’ they are, but how to best experience each one? If your answer is “Yep!” to everything, you don’t need no stinkin’ TourGuideMiKE or anyone else to have a memorable, magical, stress-free time at Walt Disney World! :>) See, I told you that you might be surprised by my response . . .

Q. During the Holiday Peak Season I have heard rumors that some of the parks get so full they shut their doors to guests staying offsite. What would happen if we were staying offsite and went to the park early a.m., then left for an afternoon break? Would we be able to get back into that park? Thanks so much! (Submitted by Jenny)

A. Hi, Jenny! It’s a common misconception that this only happens to guests who are staying off site. When Disney advertises to their Resort hotel guests that they are guaranteed to get into a theme park on the busiest national holidays, the phrase “your park of choice” is not there. Guests who are staying at an official Disney hotel are just as likely to be shut out of a park once its gates are closed due to maximum capacity, but this NEVER happens to all four theme parks on the same day. If the Magic Kingdom and Epcot are closed, for example, ALL guests, regardless of their hotel choice, will be directed to one of the other two.

For the record, there are four phases of park closures, and that’s where there IS a difference between who’s on and who’s off property. Phase 1 is the closing of parking lots when they fill. If you’re not using a car to get to a park, you’re fine. This happens a lot at the Magic Kingdom on these super busy dates. When it does, the incoming cars are simply redirected to Epcot’s parking lot and the guests take the Monorail over to reach the Magic Kingdom.

Phase 2 begins the exclusion of outside transportation options like off property buses and taxis. The approved third-party bus companies are advised over the phone, and only those who have already departed with guests will be allowed to drop them off. If this were to happen, this may be when you are personally affected unless you have another way to reach the parks.

Phase 3 is most often quite brief and quickly leads to Phase 4. Phase 3 is the closure of all ticket selling locations at the affected park and anywhere else at Walt Disney World for it (including the Disney hotels), so if you don’t already have a valid ticket for entry or reentry, you will not be allowed in — even if you have already arrived at the park’s entrance (!). Cast members at the Disney hotels will begin screening the guests as they enter the Resort buses and they will have to show their tickets before boarding. Can you see how the trickle of incoming guests is being dammed off phase by phase? Phase 4 is the complete closure of the theme park, no matter if you have valid tickets or not. You will not be allowed to enter until a sufficient number of guests inside have exited.

I explain all of this so that 1) you don’t feel like you are being discriminated against for staying off site, and 2) so that you fully understand ‘why’ you will be blocked if applicable. As a former Magic Kingdom Guest Relations host who often worked at the exterior windows, I often countered an angry guest with, “This park is so full that Disney is turning away guests for their personal safety. If it’s that bad inside, do you REALLY want to be here with your kids? Trust me, you don’t. I wouldn’t! Let me tell you where you can have a lot more fun instead.”

An important part of your day to day itinerary planning is learning where the thickest crowds will be and avoiding them for each morning and evening. Every park is great if you’re there first thing when they open, but by a certain hour it will be more about battling crowds to get from Point A to Point B than about avoiding lines. At that point it doesn’t matter how many FASTPASSes you have! I present this information in my AVP date-specific Least Crowded Park charts for each month of the year so that my guests know ‘where’ to be ‘when,’ and so that being blocked from a too crowded theme park is not something they ever have to worry about. I would never advise them to go to that park in the first place. And because I share all of the “why’s” behind my advice, they clearly understand how to avoid the crowds at every opportunity. Again, do you REALLY want to reenter a park that’s closed because there are too many guests inside? That’s soooo far from my idea of a fun time! ;>)

Q. What was it like to work at Walt Disney World? Was it as great as I imagine? (Submitted by Jaque C.)

A. I truly enjoyed most of my five years as a WDW cast member. The vast majority of guests who enter the park each day are there to have a fun time, and I enjoyed being a part of that. I have many, many wonderful memories of my various ‘roles’ over the years, and I also enjoyed working with my fellow cast members. I wouldn’t be where I am now without going down that life path, so I can honestly say that there’s nothing I regret about the time I invested there.

I only wish that the company took better care of its cast members, especially when one considers how important they are to the Resort’s continued success, and that they paid them a lot better. They deserve much better lives away from WDW in return for what they give. I’ll step down from my soapbox now.

Q. I know you are an expert on WDW, but have you ever visited Disneyland, and if so, what’s your personal favorite thing to do there? (Submitted by Kristina B. Valcarce)

A. I have only been there once, Kristina, and it was with several Marines while stationed at Camp Pendleton, about 90 minutes south of Anaheim. Sadly, I only remember a couple of the attractions we visited that day, and it’s with anything but fond memories.

I was the driver and encountered an extremely rude Disneyland cast member in the parking lot. I don’t even remember the specifics because it was nearly 20 years ago, but I do know it was something silly like pulling into the wrong row or something. I had been distracted and it was a simple mistake that was easily corrected. Anyhoo, after looking forward to visiting Disneyland for weeks because I had never been there, I was now being screamed at by some dufus who was so angry that his face was actually contorted. All this over a wrong parking space that I didn’t even mean to pull into.

I was furious all day. My buddies tried to cheer me up but I couldn’t let it go. Trust me, I DID try. My only memories are of standing in a 2-hour wait to see the newly opened Star Tours, an attraction that was then ‘revolutionary’ with all new sensory effects (I liked it), and the outside of the Haunted Mansion, mostly because it was so different from Florida’s. That’s it.

Several years later, I trained new cast members at the Magic Kingdom both as an operations host (attractions) and as a Guest Relations host. Every person I ever trained heard this Disneyland story as a testimony of how important each cast member is who encounters guests. They can either a) do their job in a friendly manner that doesn’t distract from guest enjoyment of the park, b) go the extra mile to such a degree that they actually become a vacation highlight, or c) behave so horribly that they ruin someone’s entire day. The goal had to be that 100% of the time scenario “c” was never allowed to happen.

Q. I am a fairly new TGM subscriber – and I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information available. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the site (although I would LOVE to.) What items are the most important and how do you suggest organizing the information for use during our trip? Thanks. (Submitted by Melissa in VA)

A. Thanks for sharing your experience, Melissa, and I’m sorry to read that you feel overwhelmed. It’s certainly the last thing I want any of my guests to experience. My goal is for them NOT to feel that way!

Yes, I have A LOT of content in the TourGuideMiKE AVP. I kind of have to though don’t I? WDW is the largest Resort on the planet with literally hundreds of itinerary options, and I have guests visiting there every week and month of the year. I like to point out that there are actually 12 or more “Walt Disney Worlds” depending on when you visit the place. A June vacation is totally different from a December vacation and so on.

Anyone who buys the AVP should review my AVP Overview before they begin planning anything. Even if their time is limited, it only requires a few minutes, literally, and shares where everything is and how the web site’s features work. They should then go straight to their month’s Express Planner and read it from top to bottom without clicking a single link away. It’s only one page, and shares everything they need to know for their specific travel dates: crowd projections, holiday dates, special events, the weather forecast (very important), and the links to their park hours, entertainment scheduling, etc.

I then share my “TourGuideMiKE’s Seven Planning Steps” and the most essential articles I have written behind each one. You first have to have a place to stay, so that’s Step 1. And while the theme park choices are obvious, there’s maybe some seasonal special events and other fun activities you won’t want to miss, so reviewing your options is Step 2. After that you’re ready to begin planning your day to day plans for each morning and evening, so that’s Planning Step 3: My Itinerary. After that you can decide where you want to eat, hopefully matching restaurant locations to your itinerary for the most convenient experience, Planning Step 4, and choosing your appropriate ticket to match the itinerary will be an obvious choice in Planning Step 5.

Those are the only steps you really need to ‘plan’ before you arrive, so what’s left? How are you going to have fun once you’re here and entering the turnstiles on your first day? I share my Sample Park Tours in Planning Step 6 so you tour from attraction to attraction like I do while hosting VIP Tours. And lastly, Planning Step 7 is kind of the catch-all category for things like toddler tips, planning for young children, reviewing your romantic opportunities, and learning the easiest way to get around the Resort.

Now, really, is that overwhelming? It’s not 10 Steps, or 15, or 20 … It’s only 7. ;>)

Nearly a quarter of our AVP sales are to guests who are visiting with less than a week before they depart. (The collective gasps from my MFL friends are heard throughout the land!) They use their monthly Express Planner to learn what I want them to concentrate on, step by step, and then write glowing reviews of their vacation when they return.

So Melissa, please login, scroll down just a little to the blue box with the 12 months of the year links, click your month, review that one page from top to bottom, learn what I think is important for you to learn about, and what you don’t already know will naturally pop out. Do you have your hotel reservation made? Skip Step 1 and review your special event or activity options. Take the planning, and the content, step by step.

Any questions? Publish your itinerary plans in the AVP Forums and ask for feedback. Concerned about any of the attractions? Ask about them there as well. There’s an entire community of really helpful folks there who actually enjoy helping others plan their vacation. Planning their own single vacation is never enough! :>)

I hope this helps, Melissa!

Q. With all the guide books and services available, is this skewing crowd patterns at WDW? In other words, I’m curious as to whether or not so many people are catching on to crowd beating tips that they’re becoming less effective. (Submitted by Kristina B. Valcarce)

A. Hi Kristina. I understand your concern. I’m guessing that you, like most of my TourGuideMiKE members, are a planner. I’m smart like that. (Picture a wink emoticon here.) So I know how hard it is to accept that there are millions of people who travel to Walt Disney World to vacation each year, plunk down thousands of their hard-earned dollars, and don’t plan single thing. “We want to see Cinderella’s Castle!” is pretty much about it.

Unfortunately (for them), there are! So even though there are books, and email lists, and internet fan sites, and TourGuideMiKE, it’s not enough to counter those who flock to WDW with little to no advance preparation. And as sad as that is for “them,” it’s a wonderful opportunity for you to have a fantastic time. As my readers already know, one of my favorite mantras (although a little sad) is, “Pity them; don’t be them!”

Yes, I have definitely observed the effects of the increasing number of guests who wisely read up about WDW before they arrive. They’re there to see if you look. But the reality is that the combined impact of these small changes are not enough to hurt our ability to have a lot of fun, and I don’t see that changing any time soon do to basic human nature qualities.

Q. Do the guides from Michael’s VIPs give you data from the parks for TourGuideMiKE? I also would love to know how to apply for a job as a VIP tour guide! (Submitted by Becky in FL)

A. After being selected through our interview process, a new guide’s first assignment is to review my content in the TourGuideMiKE planner. Again, I really do practice what I preach there, and so do my VIP Private Guides.

We then go to the theme parks multiple times until we have covered every possible scenario they need to learn about. That varies from individual to individual because I consider their attitude ten times more important than their past experiences in the parks. I actually don’t really care about the latter. Some of my very best Private Guides knew very little about the Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld parks before being hired. I can train someone how to be a tour guide; I can’t teach them how to be a good host.

One of the points I always make to any new Private Guide is that if I can train a mom or dad who’s never been here before how to tour the parks during Christmas Week without waiting in any long lines, it can’t be all that difficult then can it?

It’s really not that challenging when you know “when” to be “where.” That’s the easiest part of our jobs. I actually spend more time reviewing my standards of service, how to maximize the opportunities for going the extra mile, how to think about every possible detail ahead of time before a guest even thinks to ask about it, where and when they can provide ‘magical moments,’ etc. than I do about the specific touring tips.

If VIP guides notice something that’s different from my advice, or if they observe a new trend here or there, they certainly let me know as we talk about most of their tours when they return to the office. For the most part, however, I’m considered the one who figures out the optimal plans, described above, and that’s what they go by.

As far as applying to be a VIP guide, if you live nearby and are physically fit — a must because of the intense physical demands of this role — and believe that you share my attitude towards exceeding the expectations of others at every opportunity, another must, I invite you to contact us via the “Contact Us” link at http://www.michaelsvips.com.

Q. I’m a long-time TourGuideMiKE subscriber, and have seen versions 1.0 and 2.0. Any word on your next version and what it holds for future TourGuideMiKE subscribers? (Submitted by Phil C.)

A. Hmmm … me thinks someone’s been noticing a few of my posts here and there in the private AVP Forums … TGM 3.0, or “TourGuideMiKE’s V.I.P. — the Vacation Itinerary Planner to Walt Disney World” is scheduled to debut during the first quarter of 2007, and all of my current planners will be switched to the completely new version at that time.

My advice will not be changing, as the basic philosophies behind what I advise carry on from year to year, but the “way” I present everything will be completely different through a 100% clean slate redesign. Our MICHAEL’S VIPS VIP Tour Coordinator and I only need about 10 to 15 minutes to plan an entire 4 or 5-day vacation for one of our clients. I will not be satisfied with the TourGuideMiKE online service until someone can purchase access and have their entire vacation planned in under an hour.

The amount of personalization that’s now available through more advanced web site processing is truly incredible, and we’re taking full advantage of every possibility. That’s enough for now. Just know that this next version is truly going to be what I first imagined up in my head when I came up with the TourGuideMiKE concept in 2000!

For the complete scoop on Walt Disney World with day-to-day itinerary and park touring advice, detailed sample park tours, and so much more, visit http://www.tourguidemike.com. Our Magically Speaking subscribers receive a $3 discount by using code A82E8-2AH.

For more information on Michael’s VIPs: Private Guided VIP Tours of Walt Disney World and Central Florida, visit: http://www.michaelsvips.com/

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