Jan 142008
 

By Bret Caldwell

Opening
Left to right: Laura, Kim, Heather M, Beth, Kara, Brigitta, Mickey, Bret, Darcie, Erin, Beatrice, Heather R, Michelle

In Part 1 of this tale you may recall the story of how a Prince and eleven Princesses won their respective spots on the Moms Panel court. We found out our great news on Wednesday, November 7, and now had a little over four weeks to get ready to prepare for a four-day journey for training at Disney World.

If you didn’t read Part 1, I’ll simply summarize for you that the last article was focused on the Moms Panel contest application process. It was engaging, thoughtful, funny, and extremely well written. Just believe me, no need to confirm.

For Part 2 I’ll try to hit the highlights of pre-training, and our first full day of the Moms Panel training adventure. Yes, that does mean that there will be a “Part 3” for your reading pleasure (Who said torture? I heard that!).

So, regarding the details of what happened for the next few weeks, I’m sure you’d love to hear about my packing lists, plane reservations, what I ate for breakfast each day, and other similarly fascinating details, but in the interest of saving ink (virtual though it may be), I’ll fast forward to my arrival at the Orlando airport.

As the plane approached MCO at approximately 4:30 p.m., outside my window I’m sure I saw a short man on a tower ringing a bell, and shouting “da plane, da plane.” Maybe I was hallucinating, but it would have made complete sense as this was clearly a long-lost episode of Fantasy Island for a huge Disney fan like myself. Four days immersed in the Magic of Disney, with everything planned out for me, training about Disney from expert Cast Members, and no need to call for Advance Dining Reservations 180+10 days in advance. Surely Ricardo Montalban was going to be greeting me at the bottom of the stairs to baggage claim. Surely.

Well, he wasn’t, but I was impressed to find a VIP tour guide Cast Member waiting just for little ol’ me. She was dressed in the signature white dress shirt and plaid skirt, with a Cast Member name tag revealing she was Luiza from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Cool – I’ve been to Brazil many times for work and vacations, so we had no shortage of fun topics for conversation on the drive to Disney. Before I knew it, I arrived at the hotel for check-in.

Now, I decided to come the night before our training began, so I could have some extra time on property, meet up with a group of folks from TourGuideMiKE (including my sister, who was attending MouseFest) to watch Wishes from the Poly, and just enjoy my first experience ever at Disney World by myself. I’m ever so glad I decided to do this, as it gave me some time to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise, and the chance to stay for one evening at All-Star Sports. I picked it mostly because there were no rooms available at the Coronado, where our training was going to be. Also, I wanted another new experience – in this case, a new hotel. The lower price also helped sell the idea to my wife, but I’m definitely not sharing that conversation (I left her with the kids for four days to meet up with 11 women and I wanted to stay an extra day? You can fill in the blanks).

So, I checked in and asked the receptionist if by any chance they have a packet for me. He looked through a pile of envelopes waiting for other guests without finding anything. I mentioned that it might say “Moms Panel,” and he found it right away (hmmm, didn’t think I’d belong to that group, did ya?!). Luiza had offered to wait for me as I checked in, so I headed back out to her and let her know that I need to get to Homerun Building 8. She then gave me a very short lift and dropped me off a few steps away from my room. A nice detail, even if I could have easily walked by myself. I thanked her for the great service, and she was on her way. Not 10 seconds later I started to regret not getting a photo of her. I mean how many times will I be met at MCO by a Cast Member? Really, how many times? Drat!

Mental note to take more pictures, starting now.

I got my stuff to the room, and changed into shorts and short-sleeved shirt as it was unseasonably warm for early December. I also had some strange primal need to take advantage of being far away from Chicago’s bitter cold weather.

That first evening I toured around the Grand Floridian a bit to soak in the Christmas decorations, and then headed to the Poly to see the boat parade and Wishes from the beach while meeting up with all these wonderful TourGuideMiKE people that I had only previously known online. As a very special bonus, I got to meet Michael Hewell, TourGuideMiKE himself, as he was nice enough to show up to our little gathering.


Bret with TourGuideMiKE and Wishes in the background.

I headed back to the All-Star Resort soon after the fireworks ended. I wanted to try to get some sleep, as I had been working very long hours earlier in the week to get ready for being “unplugged” from work for the next four days. Well, as I suspect many of us have found, that first night at the World is not the easiest for sleeping. I was far too excited, and probably even a little nervous about what was to come. As a result I was wide awake at 6:00 a.m. That’s 5:00 a.m. in Chicago. Oh boy.

I re-packed the few items I had taken out, and headed with luggage to the lobby. I grabbed a cinnamon roll and coffee, and ate it on the bus to the Animal Kingdom (technically I don’t think that’s allowed on the bus, but I was really careful not to drop a crumb. I promise). Yes, I was very early, we’re talking “I’m the only one without an early ADR” early, but I enjoyed being there before the masses arrived and I got to have some nice conversations with Cast Members and families on vacation. To some I explained a little about the Moms Panel, but most people didn’t get it. I’m starting to guess that the Moms Panel might never be on the evening news, but that’s OK with me. I’m ecstatic to be on it, and that’s what really matters, right?

I spent the full morning enjoying my favorites. EE, Safari, Dinosaur. Then I decided to enjoy the calmer sides of AK. In fact my favorite part of the day was just doing and seeing stuff I wouldn’t normally have time to enjoy, like Wes Palm and Devine, as well as the Conservation Station. I also became even more interested in Hidden Mickeys than I ever had before. I guess once you find a few on your own, as I did that morning, the addiction grows and grows and grows.


A couple of favorite hidden Mickeys.


Ready to conquer Everest.

Before 2:00 p.m., I left the park. Not only was I headed to a new hotel, I was headed toward a brand-new Disney experience. From the moment I arrived at the Coronado, I could tell that Disney was going to treat us very well. There in the lobby was a single large sign welcoming the Moms Panel. A very nice touch from Disney. Check-in went smoothly, and it seems like this time they were expecting a male “Mom.” I was handed my key, tickets, and then the most important thing: the itinerary.

Welcome Sign
Our welcome sign at Coronado Springs.

Perhaps now is as good a time as any to mention my perspective of what our training trip was all about. If you looked at our itinerary, you’d likely think it was mostly to wine and dine, and have great fun, with a little time set aside for training and for photo/video shooting. And in many ways, that would be true, but it would be a far too superficial interpretation. Now that several weeks have passed and I can look back at the weekend with a broader perspective, by leaps and bounds the most important and valuable part of the experience was to get to know the other panelists better. I recall reading an article a long time ago about the actors on Friends, and how they believed that a key success factor for their show was the fact that they hung out together in real life as well, and truly were friends with each other. Now, I have no false hope that the Moms Panel is anything close to the scale of Friends, but I do believe that the same dynamic is important for our group, and I think this weekend really helped us understand each other better and start to become friends, instead of just 12 people who are independently answering questions on a web site for Disney.

But I digress. I like to do that sometimes. Hope you don’t mind. OK, back to our fairytale adventure…

Our first event on the itinerary was “Meet all the Panelists at the Laguna Lounge bar at 5:00.” After a much-briefer-than-needed nap, I put on my nametag and headed for the hotel’s water-front bar. I was still 50 feet away when I heard someone saying “Bret, we’re over here!”


Leanne greets us with a smile.

It was Leanne, our fearless leader of the Moms Panel project. It was great to finally meet her. She was as bubbly, friendly, and personable as I had imagined she would be. I also got to meet several other folks from Disney as well as 10 of the Panelists who got there before me. It was overwhelming, confusing and comforting to meet everyone in such a short period. For the rest of the evening I was taking mental notes of who was who and trying to figure out how to remember names with faces, and at least something about where they were from or what they did in real life. By the next day, I had most of that worked out much better.


Our group (without Beth).
From left (back row): Beatrice, Brigitta, Kara, Erin, Heather R, Bret
(front row): Darcie, Kim, Michelle, Laura, Heather M


In front of the castle.

At 5:30 p.m. sharp we are headed to the mini-bus and off to MGM. This would be our mode of transport for pretty much the entire stay. It was nice on its own, but the bus had a “special feature” that made it even better…it tended to favor taking us through the back lots to get to the parks. For the next four days, we would go to many of the parks, but never go through a single turnstile.


Riding on our bus.

Anyone who has been in the back lots, knows you shouldn’t share details as it might spoil some magic for others. So, I’ll just skip ahead and say that “magically” we found ourselves passing through a doorway and were suddenly a few feet away from the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Leanne managed to part the sea of people watching the lights. Then suddenly in the midst of the crowd there was a huge empty spot right in the middle of the street. No it wasn’t a random occurrence, but a cleared-out area just for us so we could take a group photo among the magical holiday lights. This was our first encounter with our photographer. It wouldn’t be the last.

Osborne Lights
Twelve panelists and five million lights.
From left: Kara, Beatrice, Heather M, Bret, Michelle, Erin, Darcie, Beth, Kim, Brigitta, Heather R, Laura

After the photo, we had some free time to wander on our own, as long as we were at the Hollywood Brown Derby by 7:15 p.m. Now, the itinerary said this was the scheduled time for us to go on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror. What do you think a group of WDW planners do with an itinerary? They follow it, of course. At least those that don’t mind the thrill rides. So, eight of us navigated our way through the crowd and made it over to the Tower of Terror.

Another thing that WDW planners would normally do would be to get FASTPASSes before going to the headliner rides. Unfortunately that wasn’t an option for us this late in the day, but fortunately it seemed that the vast majority of MGM visitors were either at the Lights or Fantasmic, so both rides were practically walk-ons. We managed to do both rides and get back with time to spare for dinner.

I’d never been to the Brown Derby. In fact, I had never been to most of the restaurants we had planned for the weekend. My family typically opts for the character meals, and this time the picks were much more of the adult fare. Just in case you are reading this, Leanne,and I know you are, thank you for introducing me to so many great dining options that don’t require an autograph book! Cheers to Leanne!

In addition to great food, we also had great company. Several Disney folks related to the Moms Panel joined us, including my “fellow dad” Duncan, who had been my principal telephone interviewer during the selection process. It was awesome to put a face to his name and voice finally. He was as cool as I imagined he would be, and despite the fact that there were 12 panelists he and several others from Disney did a great job moving around and conversing with all of us during the dinner.


Duncan and Leanne.

This was the first meal I have ever had at Disney where I wasn’t looking at my watch and worrying about what we had next on the park-touring agenda. In fact I completely forgot we were at Disney, and instead thoroughly enjoyed the company and the fantastic food and wine. Slowly the restaurant became more and more empty, and before we realized it the park had closed and we were still in the restaurant. We left the restaurant sometime around 10:00 p.m. and headed back to the bus.

Soon we were back at the Coronado, and several of us headed to the gift shop. Some of the Panelists had heard a rumor that we would be going to the Castle Suite the next day, so they thought it would be most appropriate to get tiaras for the occasion. I politely opted out (thanks, but no thanks…really), but had a great time making fun of them (OK, and them of me). I think we were all just absorbing the magic of the moment and the feeling that very likely many more magical things would happen over the next few days.

As I headed back toward my room, I saw one of the Moms on a second-floor balcony. She called out, “Bret, you should go to your room.” At first, I was almost offended. Was she telling me that I need to go to bed? Was she trying to boss me around? What was up with that? But then I realized…oh, she is being nice. I should go to my room…because something might be there waiting for me!

I picked up the pace. I got to the room, opened the door, and found an amazing gift basket waiting for me on the table. It was wrapped in cellophane, so I could immediately see a few things like a watch, and some hats, and everything appeared to have “Moms Panel” labels on it. Before I had a chance to even open it, I got a call on the phone. It was another Mom calling. She wanted to know “is your jacket pink?” I had no idea what she was talking about, but as I could tell that there were several Moms in her room I agreed to come over to their room for “show and tell.”

In case you are wondering, I believe this was the full list of swag bag contents (all in a Mickey-shaped metal basket)…

With “Moms Panel” logo:

  • Blue jacket (pink for the gals)
  • Mousepad
  • Post-it sized notepad
  • Magnet-clip
  • Pen
  • White visor
  • Watch

Without “Moms Panel” logo:

  • Mickey ear hat with “Mom” on the back (mine had “Dad” on it)
  • CD of the Finding Nemo musical
  • Black Pirate Mickey ear hat (Pink “Pirate and Princess” ear hat for the gals)
  • A small keepsake pillow

basket
Surprise #1 – a Basket

We called Leanne, and thanked her over the speaker phone. She laughed, and couldn’t help but ask “What is Bret doing in that room?!” Busted, but fortunately proven innocent by the other Moms in the room with me. Despite the fun and camaraderie, I was pooped and decided to head to bed.

By now it was after midnight, and I did my best to try to get some shut eye. My excitement prevented a perfect sleep, but I managed OK, and before long it was 6:30 a.m. and time to get up for our 7:30 a.m. training session.

Training was at one of the rooms in the Coronado convention center, so thankfully it was a short five-minute walk from my room to the training room. Several other Disney folks joined the breakfast, mostly because they were curious to meet the panel and find out how the process was going so far. I had a great discussion with one of the executives about RideMax.com, the online ride optimization program. It was fun to find out that they, too, loved planning trips to WDW, and had their own tips and tricks about planning vacations at WDW.

The training session lasted a little over three hours and focused on a few topics, including

  • Ice-breaker introductions
  • Background on Disney’s vision for the Moms Panel
  • Introductions of some of the key Moms Panel Cast Members
  • Imagineering presentation about Toy Story Mania

One thing worth mentioning is that they clearly communicated that the Moms Panel was going to be something fairly new and different. The hope is to not only to help families and individuals plan trips to Disney, but to do so without any specific Disney marketing spin or Cast Member point of view. We will all be free to write in our own voice, provide unfiltered opinions, and share our real experiences.

I should mention one other key tidbit Leanne shared during the morning’s training session: she had six additional surprises that weren’t included in our itineraries. The first of which was the gift basket the evening before, and second one would be a special event for the afternoon. Although we had heard the rumor, she now confirmed that we would be given a private tour of the Cinderella Suite after our lunch at Cindy’s Royal Table.

Of course we were thrilled to have a chance to see the suite, but this also got us all thinking…so that means there are at least four more. Hmmm, our minds were racing. Oh what fun this was turning out to be. I can’t say I truly believe in magic, but this was feeling mighty close to the real deal.

What would Cindy’s suite be like? How do you make 12 “Moms” feel like they’re on reality TV? What would the other four surprises be? Stay tuned for the final (I promise!) episode in the next edition of Magically Speaking. Oh, in the meantime, please let me add a shameless plug…won’t you please come and check us out atwww.disneyworldmoms.com? Don’t be shy now.


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