Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Disney Experience In The Rear View Mirror
Part 3

Our five days of Disney almost over, we have adjusted to the teaming multitudes here in central Florida striving to enjoy the various parks and attractions of this area. This fall America's population topped 300 million, and at times this week it sure seemed like a sizable portion of them were here. Nonetheless, we have managed to give the kids a good time, and that's all that's important.

I have chuckled these past few days at the irony that my wife and I can provide volumes of advice about obscure places on the planet (e.g., the best places to see Roan antelope around Xakanaka Camp in Botswana's Okavango Swamp, or how to arrange reliable private overland transport from Mandalay to Bagan in Myanmar), but we obviously knew NOTHING about Walt Disney World before we came here!

Contrary to assumptions, we did quite a bit of research. We checked out five books on Disney from the library, bought and read the Birnbaum book on WDW, and checked the Internet. We also asked about a dozen friends who had extensive Disney World experience for advice before we came.

However, none of that prepared us for what we found here during this period. While some of the Internet research warned of the crowds at Christmas, I find it difficult to sort fact from fiction on the Web. So we took the warnings with a grain of salt.

Here's what we as a family have learned from firsthand experience this week about WDW Parks:

1. Go early in the morning, taking advantage of "Extra Magic Hours" 7:00 AM opening wherever possible. This allows the kids to experience popular rides early before the big crowds arrive. Our experience has been that the parks get really saturated by 9:30-10:00 AM.

2. After 10:00 AM do the less popular things that most people don't want to do. For example, we saw a fantastic 12-minute 360 degree movie at the China expo at Epcot which was not crowded even at 1:00 PM.

3. Eat early to avoid long lines. We found 11:00-11:30 AM about the right time to get lunch with no waiting.

4. Use FastPass whenever possible. We mastered the art of going to one popular ride early and getting FastPass tickets and then going to another one without having to wait, and later coming back to the FastPass ride. We even discovered an unpublished trick about FastPass that involved using the "Rider Switch" option that allowed us to avoid waits more than once.

5. Use the theatre-based shows as opportunities to rest up and sit down (e.g., "Honey, I Shrunk The Audience" and "The Lion King Experience").

6. Use quiet corners like the Magic Kingdom Train, the Animal Kingdom Dino kid's park, and Epcot's Innovention halls to rest up and get away from the crowds.

7. Leave early. We left every park by 3:00 PM.

8. When leaving a park, take the first bus going to the Downtown Disney area or to its hotels, even if not the designated one for our Hilton. We could walk from Downtown Disney or a nearby hotel back to the Hilton.

9. Lastly, despite the astonishing crowds, I tip my hat respectfully to the Disney management on two counts: They have hired some of the friendliest people on earth, and they have made their ride management world-class examples of efficiency. These two factors did not negate the effect of over-crowding, but it sure made the crowds easier to take. I wish every company hired people like the Disney "Cast Members."

Learning the things above turned what reader Ed called a "Tragic Kingdom vacation" (thanks, Ed, for that turn of phrase) into a good one for the kids--and that's all that mattered.

And here's what I personally have learned about this experience:

1. No matter how much I know about other parts of the world (and I do), I was sure ignorant and stupid about the Orlando area. My first and only Disney experience prior to this was in 1964, and I remember waiting in lines all day long at Disneyland. That pretty much killed any desire I had to return to such a park, and I only came this time for our kids. Despite doing the research I mentioned above, it obviously wasn't enough.

2. In the last few days on the Internet I have been ridiculed by a lot of good people out there who read my Disney blog entries, Parts 1 and 2, and they have been mostly spot on. I deserved to be laughed at for being so naive about this place. Some people assumed we did no research, which is wrong--we did--but we sure didn't do the RIGHT research.

3. What has surprised me most about the Internet reaction to my blog entries has been, well, just that: the REACTION! Disney provokes a lot of emotion and passion, another revelation for me. The whole central Florida vacation thing is about as interesting to me as watching paint dry, but I seem to be very much in the minority. The vast majority of Americans have strong opinions about Disney and a lot of knowledge, too. Way more than I do (or want to). But then, not everyone wants to go camping in Botswana and have hyenas nudging your tent trying to gnaw on a foot, and we love such thrills. To each his own.

Several people have suggested that I must not really be very knowledgeable about world travel if I don't know about Disney and Orlando. That is not logical, and they are wrong. However, since Orlando is a part of the WORLD--even if its attractions are built on a hot, steamy, mosquito-infested swamp--and since I have proved that I didn't know squat about it, I freely acknowledge my ignorance by amending the bio squib on my blog accordingly, Q.V.

Thank you all who have written comments and sent emails; all were appreciated, and all made good points. Some were strident, but I appreciate the candor. It has been a great learning opportunity for me, and I would have remained in ignorance had it not been for your writing me and the power of the Internet. Again, I sincerely thank you.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Magic Kingdom Meltdown
Part 2

Already Full, Magic Kingdom Closes At 11:30 AM; Other WDW Parks Not Far Behind

So why have I never heard about this before? Does Disney so muffle the media about central Florida doings that nobody will report that this is apparently routine? I am told by virtually everyone working here in the Orlando area whom I have asked that beginning around Christmas and extending until Spring Break, Walt Disney World Parks close frequently due to over-crowding.

"It's chaos from now 'til Easter, and it's like this every year," my Mears bus driver told me as we waited, stopped in a long line of traffic trying to get into Animal Kingdom on our way back to the Hilton, "I never knew about it either until I got down here several years ago. Funny nobody gets the word out."

He had volunteered to take me and my three year old daughter back to the Hilton from the Magic Kingdom Ticket & Transportation Center (TTC) parking lot. We were stranded there because no Mears bus had appeared for 70 minutes, this despite the supposed 30-minute intervals between bus shuttles to the Hilton.

My calls to the Hilton asking where the buses were had been futile, and Disney prevents any free enterprise transport options from having access to the TTC, meaning no taxicabs or limos were available. We were utterly at the mercy of the Hilton shuttles, operated by Mears under contract, and they, like Disney, had suffered a meltdown from the over-crowding.

"Yeah, we have just 12 buses to serve 6 hotels to and from 4 Disney Parks, and, well, they just can't keep up this time of year," my bus driver confided. "We have guests waiting at all 10 locations to go somewhere. You were lucky I came along, I guess."

Meanwhile his radio crackled with reports from other drivers and from the Mears dispatcher about the meltdowns on the various highways and entry roads leading to every Disney Park. Many were asking for directions via alternate routes, but they, too, were reported saturated. Every driver reported "SRO, full to the white line; had to leave folks standing for the next bus."

Which might not be coming any time soon since the Magic Kingdom had already closed by 11:30 AM and Animal Kingdom was almost at capacity. There are a lot of disappointed "guests" out there today, and the majority of them are wide-eyed kids who have looked forward to their big trip to Disney World perhaps second only to a visit from Santa Claus.

I am incensed and outraged that Disney and the travel infrastructure that supports them seem so fixated on making money that they have disassociated their greed from the extreme personal disappointment of the young consumers of their services who come here by calling them "guests" instead of children. For example, when I called the Hilton the first time this morning, the shrewish concierge said she noted my disgruntlement but accused me of being naive. "You can't expect things to work like normal this time of year, sir, and you should have known that before you came," she said, acidly, "The buses cannot get there in this traffic, with all these people. You have to expect big delays."

I am supposed to KNOW THAT? How? I can't expect things to work like normal? Does that mean I am getting a great big discount for shoddy service, lies, and failed promises?

See what I mean? These people have become inured to the meltdowns, and they are insensitive to the heartbreak they cause in young children. This whole place only EXISTS because of the appeal to young children of its magical attractions. This is one of the few vacation places on earth that is built on making children happy, and is certainly the most famous.

And they are failing. The Magic Kingdom is melting down under the crush of crowds it has attracted.

Perhaps it's time for Disney and the entire travel infrastructure to institute some capacity controls. Not the crude one now in effect (i.e., too many people trying to get in? Well, just close it down, and don't let any more enter).

No, I mean like taking reservations for Park entry on certain dates and capping it at capacity. Airlines do it; so do hotels and rental car companies. None of those travel providers sell more than they can can statistically supply. Why shouldn't Disney?

And the others, too, for that matter. Even Sea World shut down yesterday after Disney visitors were turned away when 3 of its 4 WDW Parks closed due to over-crowding and tried to detour to Sea World instead.

This morning my daughter and I had to leave the Magic Kingdom at 9:30 because it was already too crowded to move or to get into the most popular rides and attractions. We had been there for just 2.5 hours, having taken advantage of the "Extra Magic Hours" 7:00 AM opening.

But it took us another 2.5 hours to get back to the Hilton because of the transportation meltdown that ensued from the crowds. It had taken us a mere 20 minutes to get to the Magic Kingdom by bus at 6:15 AM.

My thesis is that Disney doesn't care if it sells more product than it can realistically provide. The tickets we purchased through our local AAA office cost $744, and they expire 14 days after first day of use. Disney doesn't care if you cannot get full use and enjoyment from them.

Which implies that Disney doesn't really care about keeping their promise to the kids who come here from all over the world with their open hearts, keen imaginations, and trusting spirits to experience the magic that Disney so shrewdly markets and advertises. No, Disney is selling the sizzle but not the steak any more, as the demand they have created has far outstripped supply.

Tell everyone you know: Don't come here. They will be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Walt Dismal World
Part 1

Orlando Travel Infrastructure Groans Under The Crush Of Holiday Visitors

Like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disney Vacation Has Its Ups & Downs

Several months ago my wife and I made the fateful decision to treat our two kids, ages 8 and 3, to a Disney World vacation over Christmas break. After doing some research, I found that the Hilton in the Walt Disney World Resort is the only non-Disney property that offers "Extra Magic Hours" to its guests. Translated, this means we could enter the Disney Parks at 7:00 AM most mornings, an hour earlier than the proletariat who are not staying at a Disney "deluxe" resort (read: rip-off, or as no less an authority than Stephen Birnbaum drolly writes in his definitive travel book, WALT DISNEY WORLD, that Disney resorts "do not always rival comparably priced accommodations in the real world").

So I checked with Hilton's Diamond Desk and found rooms available, albeit at 40,000 HHonors points per night. Gulping hard, I booked a six-night stay for an account-depleting 240,000 points.

Next we looked for air transportation--and struck out. Delta and Southwest both offer nonstop Raleigh-Orlando service, but Delta wanted $700 per ticket for the 80-minute nonstop flight (less expensive seats were available for an ATL connection). Southwest was cheaper by far, but still set me back $1200 for four tickets.

Gulping hard again, I ponied up the fare.

Lastly, I checked on Walt Disney World tickets. As every parent on earth but me knows, there are four parks at WDW: Magic Kingdom; Epcot; MGM Studios; and Animal Kingdom. My local AAA agency educated me on the ins and outs of WDW ticket options, and we settled on "Magic Your Way" tickets for two adults and two kids with no "Park Hopper" option (if you don't know, don't ask) for five days.

Total Disney ticket cost: $774. I gulped again and proffered my Amex card to the nice AAA lady.

On Christmas day I was happy to discover that I could print my Southwest boarding passes from home (24 hours before our 4:45 PM departure on the 26th).

Like good seasoned flyers we headed to RDU Airport 2 hours prior to our flight Tuesday afternoon, expecting a holiday crunch. We were not disappointed: the terminal was very crowded. With boarding passes in hand and only carry-on, however, we sailed past the Southwest counter toward the security checkpoint. On a hunch I stopped briefly to look at the departure board. And there saw our flight posted two hours late.

I'll save you the gory details, but we had just spent $40 in cab fare to get to the airport, and going back home to wait the four hours for our late flight was not a viable option. Several discussions ensued with Southwest personnel to see if alternate flights could be arranged (remember, we were on full fare, changeable tickets), but to no avail: all flights full. Our airplane was coming from Philadelphia, and like every plane having to touch base at PHL, it was horribly late.

Sidebar "unofficial" discussions with Southwest staff led to the news that 2-3 hour delays are now common on all flights passing through PHL. Since this has become their everyday norm, they have become insensitive to the interminable delays, and there was no sense of urgency to get all the families with children like us to Orlando.

In fact when I suggested we would go home and return, no matter the taxi expense, Southwest people gave us the threat heard so often but rarely realized: that if we left the boarding area and a substitute aircraft suddenly materialized, Southwest would depart without us.

Lessons learned: (1) Southwest is no better than the Big Six in getting their flights through chronically congested Northeast airports like Philly. (2) Buying full fare tickets doesn't help, either. (3) At least on AA or Delta I would have had a club in which to find solace for my family while waiting the long hours for our delayed flight. (4) Southwest doesn't care any more than any other airline whether they leave you behind if their operations personnel do a sudden switcheroo on aircraft.

In summary, we'd have been better off booking through a connection on a full service carrier than on a low cost carrier like Southwest.

Finally on the much-delayed flight, service was friendly and pleasant, but progress was slow. We arrived very late.

No apologies and no explanations for the delay from Southwest. I was reminded from start to finish in my dismal Southwest experience of my many American and Delta experiences. So why then fly Southwest? Oh yeah, to enjoy their lack of assigned seats and complete absence of special services.

Once on the ground it was well past 9:00 PM in Orlando. Following a $60 cab ride to the Hilton at Disney, the clock was striking 10:00 PM. We left our house in Raleigh at 2:30 PM. After seven and a half hours of wearing waiting and very little actual travel time, finally we were at our destination.

And our room was not ready. Incredibly, for a longtime Diamond HHonors member, our room even at 10PM was not prepared.

And the room was a standard room, not an upgrade. "Sorry, we are sold out," I was told. "Nothing on the Concierge Floor, either." (Diamond members are entitled to Concierge level upgrades.)

After I pitched a tactical nuclear weapon-grade fit, a room was found on the Concierge level after all, and we were given $100 in food credits. We repaired to the restaurant to await our room.

At 10:30 PM we were given keys, and, weary beyond belief, we trudged to our room.

Which was very, very tiny. In fact I thought maybe we had checked into a Marriott in error (Marriott is notoriously stingy in room size). The room was so small that it had two double beds, not the normal two queen beds. When I phoned to see if there had been a mistake, I was told ours was representative of all rooms at this Hilton.

When I used the key to the minibar to extract a free water (and to replace it with a voucher), I discovered the minibar had not been restocked, and in fact a previous guest's water bottle voucher was in the fridge.

Again I phoned, not wanting to be charged for minibar contents we had not consumed, and a rep came up at my request to take inventory as we were trying to get unpacked and ready for bed.

By now it was past 11:00 PM. Before climbing into bed, I closed the curtains on our beautiful view of the incessant highway I-4 traffic streaming by our window and was reminded that central Florida has one of the densest populations in the United States.

Boy, I thought, that 240,000 HHonors points was sure worth it! A tiny room with little double beds after a wait at 10 PM and with a bath sink so cramped they didn't even install a towel rack; a decimated minibar that I would surely have been charged for had I not checked it; and a gorgeous view of Interstate traffic. What more could I want?

In order to take advantage of the afore-mentioned "Extra Magic Hours" at Disney (getting in an hour early at 7:00 AM), one must take a special bus from the Hilton which leaves at 6:00 AM.

Or was it 6:30 AM, or 6:15 AM? The Hilton desk staff could not get their story straight, and two even told us that the extra hours were not available this week at all!

Since no one who worked for the Hilton could tell us definitely what time we had to catch the bus, we set our alarm clocks for 5:00 AM, figuring we'd better be ready for a 6:00 AM departure.

Yet when I awoke, exhausted, at 5:00 the next morning and called downstairs to verify the departure time, I was told the bus would not be going to the Magic Kingdom this morning, only to the Animal Kingdom. It took three more exasperated calls to hotel managers between 5:00 and 5:15 AM to determine that, yes, a bus was going to the Magic Kingdom after all, and it would leave at 6:15 AM. They thought.

You know, all I wanted in spending all this money and points was to provide my family with a magical Disney vacation. So far it was dismal, and becoming more so by the minute. You'd think the staff at a Disney resort Hilton property would know with certainty the answer to the most common question they are asked day after day: details of how to take advantage of their exclusive benefit to get to the damn Disney parks early.

The kids were tired, and so were we, but we waited patiently for the 6:15 bus, which in due time delivered us to the Magic Kingdom. At 7:00 AM we were admitted, and as planned, excitedly rushed to Adventureland to take the Pirates of The Caribbean Cruise (so popular it is not a "FastPass" ride).

And were met by a Disney "Cast Member" who told us the Pirates ride didn't open until 8:00 AM. Which is the time every person on earth can get in. So why did we get there early?

Though many of the attractions were not yet open at 7:00 AM, many more did let us in, and the kids had a great time, and between seven and eight, we did not stand in long lines.

But as the morning wore on, the crowds bore down on Disney. By midday three of the parks were completely full and not accepting more people. Only Epcot was still open.

We can attest to the fullness. By 2:00 PM the streets of the Magic Kingdom were almost at a standstill, so crowded that no one could move. Even the boring "It's A Small World" exhibit was posting a three hour wait time, and "FastPass" rides like "Peter Pan" were asking people to come back after 7:00 PM.

We beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel, thinking to take advantage of the snacks in the Hilton Concierge Lounge and take a nap. But due to a long wait for the bus, it was not so hasty. In fact it took close to an hour.

With my wife trying to nap, I took the kids and moseyed down to the Concierge Lounge for some Sprite and cookies. I was shocked to find the lounge dirty, a complete shambles. Garbage and used plates, cups, and glasses were everywhere.

I asked the twenty-something Concierge lady where I could find lids for the Styrofoam coffee cups to prevent spills by my three year old, and I guess I interrupted her personal cell call. Holding her hand over the mouthpiece, she petulantly informed me that the hotel had run out of lids and did not expect to get any more in. Never ever? I asked. Frowning, she said it wasn't her job to know.

Well, I wondered as I turned away from this unhelpful soul, what on earth IS your job then? Certainly not providing even a smidgen of advice or knowledge about the hotel and the Disney Parks, I guessed.

A later visit to the Lounge proved to be a reprise of the first experience.

So after 24 hours into my first experience getting to, being accommodated in, and living the Disney experience, I am thinking it's more dismal than magical.

And why? Though the Disney World "Cast Members" do a great job of smiling, being chipper and upbeat, and wishing everyone a "magical day," the sheer weight of numbers overwhelms even the great Disney machine. The sold-out stampede of bodies here at the Hilton certainly has shredded their ability to keep up appearances and normal standards.

One long-time Hilton staff member confided to me this evening, when I asked when would be the best time to come to avoid the crowds, that she grew up here and has been to Disney World, many times over the years. And she cannot recall a time when she did not have to wait in long lines everywhere.

This is not my idea of paradise; frankly, it's closer to the opposite end of the spectrum. Though we are committed for these five days, I know already that we will not be back. No more of our dollars will flow here; there is little or no value or enjoyment for the prices paid.

More about the experience in Part 2 next week.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Customer Service Odds & (Year) Ends

As the old year ends, now's the time to ponder what the airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains did for you and me to make our lives more tolerable in 2006. So here's my list below. Feel free to email me at with your observations.


Well, er, not too much, I'm afraid, from a network perspective. Locally, the RDU Admirals Club staff does assiduously reach out to me and other super-elite flyers to warn of flight disruptions and delays, and proactively protects us when things go wrong. Great job, RDU Admirals Club!

In fairness, I have to applaud the folks at AAdvantage, at least for us Exec Platinums. They can't always find seats or upgrades, but they sure give it the old college try every time. And that effort was much appreciated, even when it did not pan out.


Wow, CO is really great from a customer service point of view! Some top-of-mind examples:

1. TripAlert check-in emails are an example of innovative customer service. Now I don't even have to go to the CO website to check-in. Instead, they send me a nice email reminder with a link directly to the check-in page! What a great idea! Simple, too. So why hasn't it been emulated by the other dunderheads?

2. Continental still has free snacks, pillows & blankets, even on RJs. 'Nuff said.

3. Continental Presidents Clubs have complimentary alcohol and, best of all, free wireless internet access. Those things alone are worth the annual fee.


1. Thank goodness for Hertz's NeverLost!

2. Thank goodness for Hertz's President Circle and for Avis's Presidents Club.

What about the other rent-a-car companies? What others?


Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the HHonors program is the best in the industry. First, as an HHonors Diamond Level, I am always treated to an upgraded room (when available). Second, as a Diamond Level HHonors member, I am actually able to use my points almost every time even for hard-to-get properties (examples: Paris, London, Walt Disney World, Manhattan). Kudos to HHonors! I'll be staying at Hilton properties almost exclusively in 2007 as a result.


All I can say is a personal thanks to Tina Umland at Delta! You are a treasure! Thank you for all your help in tight scrapes in 2006, 2005, 2004, and so on.

Delta's flight attendants (mainline, not Comair or ASA or SkyWest) are the best in the business, too. Simply wonderful people. Keeps me coming back.


Love your MSP service and people! Wonder why the rest of the system cannot match their fine attitudes.

The Northwest World Clubs are also great sanctuaries.


It's true that I had a few good flights on your systems in 2006, and I just hope they were indicative of a trend. However, I also had several VERY HORRIBLE experiences which leads me to think I got lucky a time or two.

Merge! Merge! With each other, I mean! Then quietly sink beneath the waves and leave us in peace.


Lastly, is it my imagination, or have the airline clubs really started placing waste cans by the doors of the rest rooms (well, men's rooms, anyway)? Why? Because people like me have become a bit paranoid about touching door handles on public toilets with our bare palms (remember Howard Hughes?). That's because of all the filthy guys I see leaving those toilets without washing their hands.

So I use a paper towel to pull the door open, and having a waste can right by the door is a convenient way to discard the used paper towel as the door closes behind me. Apparently, a lot of people agree with me, because those waste cans by the door are always full.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Internet Booking Anomalies

Trying to book a flight Raleigh/Durham to Mineapolis/St. Paul for a one day meeting Monday, December 18, I naturally wanted a nonstop if possible. Knowing only Northwest flies RDU/MSP nonstop, I shopped first at their website for flights to the Twin Cities leaving Sunday afternoon, December 17, and returning Monday night or Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the cheapest nonstop round trip fare I could come up with at was $1,100 and change--and that was for a center seat in coach. So I went to Orbitz to shop among carriers who would connect through some horribly unreliable hub or another and found that both Delta and American fares (with reasonable schedules) could be purchased for $300-400.

Very reasonable, I thought. But I didn't actually buy a ticket from Orbitz. Why not? Well, because the airlines eschew any rebooking assistance in cases of schedule disruptions to those unlucky souls who have the temerity NOT to book directly through their own website, even if you are a super-duper elite flyer like me.

Having been burned several times holding tickets purchased through Orbitz, Travelocity, or Expedia and not being able to contact one of their agents on a Sunday night during a blizzard when I desperately needed to make alternate plans, I thus obediently went directly to to book my ticket instead of at Orbitz.

But when I got there, the Delta website was showing outrageous fares more than twice those advertised for the same Delta flights on Orbitz. Try as I might to ferret out a $350 fare on, I came up wanting, and had to abandon my effort.

Now peevish and muttering to myself, I navigated over to to give American's website a try. And lucked out: Found just the flights I wanted for $313.20 round trip RDU/MSP. And I bought them.

Lessons to be learned here:

1. Often the monopoly nonstop carrier, if there is one in a market like RDU/MSP, can and will charge a bloody fortune for the convenience of not connecting.

2. Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, and the like can be a dumping ground for unsold inventory for some airlines, like Delta, with fares not available through the direct airline website. That's fine if you don't mind having your tickets issued through those travel distribution portals, BUT:

3. Be prepared to contact the ticket issuer (Orbitz, etc.) if anything goes wrong during your itinerary because the airlines won't proactively help you. And often they won't help you even if you beg them: "Sorry, sir, your ticket was issued through Orbitz, and you'll have to contact them [CLICK]."

Oh how I miss the days when my travel agent took care of everything. Now it takes three or visits to several different websites to ascertain which is the best fare and schedule and finally to purchase one's ticket.