Friday, January 26, 2007

Suite dreams at Disney

Ever wondered what's in Cinderella's castle at the Magic Kingdom? As of yesterday, there's an elegant guest suite. And it's not for sale; to spend the night there, you have to be the lucky winner of the park's daily random drawing.

And we do mean random. Each day a computer picks how the winner will be chosen. For the first winner, chosen Thursday, the computer dictated that it would be the person sitting in a specific seat on the Disney-MGM Studios Star Tours ride at 9:50 a.m. That turned out to be Brad Fouch, 16, of Dewitt, Ill., who was visiting with his parents Jim and Lisa, and sister Hannah, who was celebrating her 8th birthday.

Media got a quick tour yesterday of the just-finished suite. The 600-square-foot space -- originally designated as a suite for Roy Disney, but used as an office -- has been elegantly appointed with two queen beds decked in royal yellow-and-blue coverings, a fireplace with "magic" (think: simulated) fire, small sitting / TV room with pull-out couch and a luxurious bath with double sinks, hot-tub bath and shower. The overall theme is 17th Century castle, but with all the modern comforts.

There are Disney touches -- a magic slipper in the foyer and in a mosaic floor, stained-glass windows with Disney scenes and a portrait of Cinderella above the mantle that magically morphs into a working television. Designers have added just enough to remind you're at Disney, without detracting from the elegance. The overnight experience comes with breakfast with Cinderella and a 24-hour concierge.

The overnight stays will continue through 2007 as part of Disney's Year of a Million Dreams promotion. And while this might sound like just a clever marketing gimick, there are some pretty neat prizes involved, including a Disney cruise and trip with the new tour company, Disney Adventures.

As for the Cinderella Suite, no word yet on what will happen to it once the Dream Year is finished. It would be a great honeymoon suite....


Images courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Vacation on the outer edge

One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is, What does a travel editor do on vacation?

In my case, the answer is ... travel.

For more than 20 years, I've been spending my personal time and resources to check out places less visited. I'm not sure I can explain it, other than to say that going to the ends of the earth is an antidote to my daily urban life. When I travel to less developed places, I am reminded of all that I have, and that having isn't nearly enough to give a life value.

This year my husband and I were drawn to Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa.

It is said that if you've seen all of Cameroon, you've seen all of Africa. Our 15-day trip was designed to take in wild gorillas, big game viewing and living tribal cultures.

It was one of the hardest trip I've ever taken, a constant toggle between extremes. We ended up passing on the big-game part of the trip due to road conditions and a car breakdown.

On the plus side: Our guides were fabulous, warm and giving people, all with a great sense of humor. We did get to see the Western lowland gorillas in the wild, along with Colobus monkeys and other endangered species. And we experienced unique tribal cultures that have survived since the 1400s ... long before Columbus even pondered a New World.

The big negative: Corruption. Nowhere, nowhere, have I seen it worse.

Roads are a disaster ... because government leaders take the money, we were told, and fatten European bank accounts. Air service within the country is limited and extremely unreliable, for the same reason. Villages that don't support the president end up with limited infrastructure. Government workers often go unpaid, with the result that police, military and airport monitors forever stick their hands out, demanding bribes. At times it was merely annoying, at others it was downright scary.

Our generous Cameroonian caretakers were horrified when airport workers insisted on bribes before allowing us to get to the Air France check-in counter. We didn't dare complain, knowing that a call for a supervisor might well result in not one bribe to be paid, but two.

Bottom line: Cameroon has a lot to offer ... but only for those with endless patience and a strong constitution. For most travelers, it's a country not yet ready for prime time. Which is far less than its people deserve.