Touring Disney World the unconventional way

First on a Segway and then with an official escort, I got to visit some of the best that Disney's Florida resort has to offer, often with no lines.

At Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., I joined a Segway tour of the park. But before we could head out, we had to undergo about 30 minutes of training to make sure no one endangered themselves or anyone else. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

EPCOT CENTER, Fla.--Ah, lawyers.

I was sitting inside a small dome, antsy to get going on the special Segway tour of this famous theme park that I had arranged. But before they would let me or any of the others on the tour head out and ride around on our gyroscopic human transporters, we had to sit through more than half an hour of tedious, but entirely practical, training.

As our instructors told us how to get on and how to get off, how to speed up and how to slow down and so many other crucial things, I could detect the work of people in suits at a firm somewhere that probably had an ampersand in its name.

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After all, when you're Disney, you want to make sure you cover all your bases when it comes to liability.

Well, fair enough. Finally, we finished up, and led by a genial woman named Carole, we headed out into Epcot for a leisurely and decidedly untaxing tour around the World Showcase, the park's collection of small scale model representations of some of the famous buildings, stores, towers and so forth from countries like France, Japan, China, Italy, Morocco, and others.

Truthfully, the tour wasn't that informative. We got maybe 30 seconds of information about each of the countries we stopped in and then we moved quickly on. I think the real point was to give us enough fodder to make us want to return later when we were on our feet.

We were instructed, by the way, not to carry anything in our hands while we rode the Segways. But what is a reporter to do? So I tried to surreptitiously carry my Nokia smartphone in my hand so I could shoot Qik video (see below) of the ride. I only got caught once.

Riding the Segways was one of the suggestions I got from readers when I asked last week what I should do at Disney World when I visited as part of Road Trip 2008, my journey around the South. And I have to say, it was a great idea. I love Segways, first of all, and secondly, how great is it to glide around effortlessly on a hot day when everyone else is working up a sweat just strolling from point A to point B.

After we returned to our starting point--no Epcot patrons were harmed in this experiment--I was met by a member of Disney World's public relations team who kindly escorted me to a van stashed conveniently nearby in staff parking, and we set off for Disney's Hollywood Studios for a whirlwind tour of the not new ride there, "Toy Story Mania."

The ride, which opened last month at Disney World and is set to open later this month at Disneyland, is a super fast-paced cacophony of an adventure based on the story line from Pixar's Toy Story films.

The idea is that you find yourself plopped down into a huge model of the little boy's room from the films and are tasked with battling a whole series of different nemeses.

So you hop into a small car, which races off into a tunnel--very Disney-esque, of course--and one by one, you have to shoot at these villains, who appear on a screen on the wall in front of you.

Being a modern ride, this attraction is full of little tricks. For example, what you see on the screen is in 3D, so you have to wear 3D glasses to see the targets properly. Also, you are firing at them with a gun mounted on your car, and you are shooting digital bullets at them which splat satisfyingly on the screen. Well, at least they seem to. They're digital, after all.

For me, the trick was both to enjoy the ride and to try to take pictures and shoot video. At first, I couldn't figure out why the pictures were coming out fuzzy, but then I realized it was the fact that the camera had no idea what to do with the 3D images.

Until I put the glasses in front of the lens, that is. Both for my camera, and then for the Nokia phone (see video below).

As you fire away, you accumulate points as you hit targets. As I understand it, the ride offers up a lot of "easter eggs," or hidden surprises. But I was too wrapped up in trying to document it to shoot much. I ended up with a rather pathetic score, especially when measured against the impressive total racked up by my escort.

We had taken a back entrance into the ride so that we didn't have to wait in the extremely long line, but after finishing we went back into the main area so that we could see some of the cool details the designers had added.

They included a large set of dominoes and a huge View-Master reel hanging from the ceiling, as well as a giant Tinker-Toy structure that all the cars have to drive through.

There were also little details that only the careful eye would catch, such as some child's books painted on the wall, the author of one of which was named Lasseter. For the Pixar fans among us, that's an obvious reference to Toy Story director and current Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter.

While riding the 'Toy Story Mania' ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios, I figured out that if I put my 3D glasses in front of my camera, I could take pictures of the target screens without them coming out blurry. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Afterward, we got back in my escort's van and zipped back over to Epcot. I still wanted a chance to go on two more of the popular rides there: "Test Track" and "Soarin'." And I figured why wait in hour-plus lines for them if I could take advantage of the secret entrances my escort could lead me to.

Sure enough, we wandered straight to the front of the "Test Track" line. This is a pretty cool ride that puts guests in the front seat of a car that is then rushed through Disney scale representations of 10 different tests that General Motors cars go through before they can hit the road.

These included going uphill fast, braking without and then with antilock brakes, accelerating (up to 65 miles an hour) on a straight-away, going over some rough road and going slowly through both a very hot and a very cold room.

Fun stuff, actually, and another attraction you, my beloved readers, had suggested I try.

Unfortunately, though, we couldn't work out a way to expedite entry to "Soarin'," so I decided to try my luck at getting one of Disney World's FastPasses--which allow you to get a ticket guaranteeing quick entry much later in the day--for the ride.

Sure enough, I was one of the very last people to get one of the tickets, but my time wasn't for about six hours. So I went back to my hotel, did some work, and then finally returned, right on time.

A view from above of Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"Soarin'" is actually pretty sweet: it puts you in the seat of what is meant to be something along the lines of a hang-glider and then whisks you, with your seat seeming to rush into the wind, diving or climbing with what you see on screen, up, down and over things like the Golden Gate Bridge, a ski slope, a Napa vineyard, the ocean, a river, a desert, and more.

It was pretty exhilarating. In parts, at least. The realistic effects of the seats rocking back and forth definitely helped, as did the huge screen and the larger-than life video on it.

Finished with "Soarin'," my day was pretty much over. A long day, to be sure, but one with plenty of thrills.

Even if some lawyers got in the way of all my fun on my Segway.

 

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