Sunday, July 1, 2007

Disney IllumiNations newspaper article featuring ME!

A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting group of guests for my job at Disney driving the boat for the Epcot fireworks. There were ten of them (max capacity for the boat), none of them were related, and they were local. Add to those three circumstances that it became apparent that they all worked together but not all of them were friends, and I was curious.

When I asked where they worked, this one lovely lady said in a perfectly deadpan tone, "If we told you that, we would have to kill you."

I laughed, but dude, it was weird!

Turns out there was a reason for the weird.

A fellow cruise driver e-mailed me, more of our fellow cruise drivers, and a couple managers a message about a "GREAT Article about the IllumiNations Cruise" with a link to the local newspaper. As I read the article, I realized it was written by one of my guests, and I was the driver they were writing about.

A secret way to savor Epcot's nightly fires

Dewayne Bevil | Sentinel Staff Writer

June 29, 2007

Forget Norway and Morocco. Here's a way to see Epcot's "IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth" from a duck's-eye view.

Walt Disney World offers boating excursions that bring folks to the edge of the lagoon for this nightly fireworks-set-to-music show. The trip is a bit rock star crossed with double-secret executive privilege, but it's available to average Joe Tourist and us Floridians.

Our group gathers at the Yacht & Beach Club marina to launch. We range from a newcomer who has never set foot on Disney soil to an aficionado who sings along with "IllumiNations." He is told to stop it.

The modest pontoon is small enough that no one mentions a three-hour tour. We eye a nearby vessel with a decorations upgrade: a Happy Birthday banner and balloons. Someone smells cake.

We also eye the sky, which has been spitting rain for hours. Most of us forgot to think tourist/think poncho. The show always goes on, our captain says, even during a tropical storm last year.

Setting sail on a wet evening

The seats are toweled off, and off we go, slowly. First, it's a tour of nearby environs -- Disney's BoardWalk, the Swan and Dolphin hotels.

We encounter so-called Friendship boats. They are way larger than our boat and take up way more waterway. Their glass enclosures look smoked.

Can a boat scowl?

We also pass the Happy Birthday pontoon and wave. They are our people, after all. Maybe they'll share that cake.

Our captain/host is versed yet not scripted. She happily fields questions from our hard-boiled crew. How much training do you have? Do Disney workers park far away? What was your worst day on the job? She tells a story about rescuing a kid's toy from the drink, and it's a brilliant cast-member maneuver. That's right, her worst day on the job involves helping a child.

These outings could be considered hidden gems. They're tucked away on the company Web site (disney under "more magic" and "specialty cruises."

"They don't advertise it," says Barbara Autry, who is visiting from Boston for 10 days with family and friends. She found it via the Internet and a few guide books. "We wanted to try something different," says her husband, Bill. Their group also went on a similar cruise that watches the "Wishes" fireworks of the Magic Kingdom.

Proper proximity

We travel up a canal toward the intensely aqua gates of Disney-MGM Studios before backtracking toward Epcot, which is close to our starting point.

Spaceship Earth, that Epcot icon, pops up. We approach the World Showcase Lagoon via a tributary that runs between the pavilions of France and the United Kingdom. Soggy, slickered folks on the bridge look down with disdain.

Our boat is flanked by two pontoons, one with the Happy Birthday people. We are roped together, side by side.

Out come the snacks. Everyone receives a drink (nonalcoholic, sailors) and a bag of chips. It's all you can eat/carry home, and it's included in the price.

In my imagination, we would be docked in the lagoon, but a little more thought reveals that we wouldn't want to be that close to explosives or directly under the fire in the sky. Still, there are landlubbers nearer the action.

"Shouldn't we be closer?" asks our Orlando native. But when an IllumiNations barge blazes, we feel the heat, big-time. "OK, this is good," she decides.

Everything sounds muffled. We are settled between two banks and a bridge, so there's reverberation. Then heat, fireworks, ooohs, aahhhs. As the soundtrack shifts from spoken word to music, sound issues dissipate.

On the plus side, it's an uninterrupted view of the show. From most spots along Epcot's shores, there are trees or other obstacles blocking the line of sight. But when the pavilions' buildings light up, we cannot see the entire circle. We are out of the loop.

The giant globe glides into position -- it has a driver, and it's not on an underwater rail, our captain reports -- and the slower, moodier music begins. Images of nature appear on Earth, but our first-timers have difficulty making them out from that distance.

Weighing pluses, minuses

The world keeps spinning, and my mind wanders. Time for math in my head. Let's see, $275 (tax included) for a party of 10 would be $27.50 a head. We didn't pay Epcot admission, we didn't pay for parking, plus a stack of snacks was provided.

The pricing is flat. A group of 10 pays the same as a solitary couple, which might be romantic if you can get your pilot to be discreet. I'm thinking elaborate proposal or special anniversary.

But I'm not thinking this is the way to introduce newbies to the joys of IllumiNations. They should be in the theme park, on the ground, to buy into the "We Are the World Showcase" community. Even walking out to the music by Gavin Greenaway is a uniting experience. But when the brilliant finale of white, screaming lights arrives, we boat people have no one on the opposite shore to spy.

For old hands, the excursion is a new angle, down here among the unfazed water fowl. Plus there's bragging rights: Been there, floated that.

A rib-jarring pop ends the show but begins a mini-adventure. Turning our boat around entails an ever-so-slight glide into the lagoon proper. It's sensory overload as lights are brighter, torches are higher, tourists are teeming, and the wind is breezier in this semi-forbidden territory.

'Loved it, loved it'

A pontoon carrying Pete Campbell and four family members returns to the Yacht & Beach Club dock. The Bostonians cry "loved it, loved it" in near unison. They heard of the feature from Campbell's wife, Donna, a travel agent.

"If they'd let us go back out right now, we'd do it," Pete says.

There's only one presentation of "IllumiNations" per night, so that's impossible. Our captain says she has had passengers beg her to stay aboard and to cruise to the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Magic Kingdom.

That, too, is impossible. They aren't connected. It may be a magical place, but even Disney World has its limits.

Dbevil@Orlandosentinel.Com. Dewayne Bevil can be reached at 407-420-5477.

I feel super cool. Just to explain that anecdote they mention about my worst night at work - there are certain docks where we cannot tie up the boat. So me docking is me hopping out of the boat and literally holding onto it. One night, a child dropped his R2D2 toy into the water between the dock and the boat. For safety reasons, I couldn't let the family go fishing after it OR hold onto the boat, so I held onto the boat with my right hand, got down on my knees, and stretched my left all the way down until I could grab the toy out of the water.  It worked out, the boy was happy and I didn't lose the boat.  Go me!

Anyway, yay :)