Saturday, January 12, 2013

Disney Review: Testing Fastpass +

I take an trip to Walt Disney World every December to celebrate the end of the semester exams for my son who is a student at Florida Institute of Technology.   We hang in the park for a couple of days then take the auto train from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia and from thence to home for his holiday break.

This year I received in the mail about two weeks before my scheduled departure an invitation to participate in a test of the new Fastpass + system.
I am a Disney Vacation Club member and an Annual Passholder.   I do not know what triggered my being selected to take part in the test.

The first instructions were to visit a website with the reservation number provided.   I could select 4 experiences in the Magic Kingdom on one day and 3 experiences in Disney's Hollywood Studios for another day.   If necessary I could modify the choices "at any time."

When I went to the website I was asked to sign in.   If you have signed in to any Disney website it is the same account.   If you have never signed in to any Disney website you will need to create an account before going any further.
On the next screen I was asked to input my resort reservation number and my birth month, day and year.
The next screen listed our names and asked if anyone in our party had a celebration.
The next screen began the process of selecting our Fastpass + experiences. First we had to choose either the Magic Kingdom or Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Then we had to select the date we wished to do those Fastpass + experiences.   During the test you can only select one day per park and each park must have a different date.
One nice touch is that it lets you know if the park is having Extra Magic Hours on the date you choose.

Then we were given the list of available attractions and shows.   For Disney's Hollywood Studios it was divided into choose 1 from the top list and choose 2 from the bottom list.

All of your selections are the same for all members of your party.   During this part of the sign up process you cannot choose different Fastpass + experiences for different people.

Once we made our choices the next screen gave us four different itinerary options for using Fastpass + that day.
While you can change itineraries you cannot modify the time of an individual attraction within the itineraries.

Once we completed our selections for one park we were given the opportunity to make the selections for the other park.
For the Magic Kingdom we could choose a total of four experiences selecting two from each list.

Once we completed everything we received an email confirmation with a link to view and/or modify our selections.   The email reminded us to bring the Fastpass + cards during the one hour window for each experience and to use it with the special Fastpass + RFID reader at the entrance.

For the initial sign up everyone in your party is signed up for the same Fastpass+ experiences.  This can seem frustrating if you have someone who loves the roller coasters and other person who would rather see a show or reserve a spot for the fireworks and parades.  This is where being able to modify the experiences to fit your actual needs comes in handy.

As an example, for Hollywood Studios I chose The Tower of Terror as it is one of my son's favorite atractions.  You can't drag me on that attraction as I have a deathly fear of dropping sensations.  Initially I planned on giving my son my Fastpass+ and letting him ride it twice.  There is a problem with that as the Fastpass+ is definitely tied only to the person who is registered to use it.  When you tap it at the attraction your name shows up.  My son can't pass as a Diane even if he tried to explain that his parents were fans of Johnny Cash songs.   However, there is an easy solution.   Once you select your preferred itinerary for your Fastpass+ choices the screen will show you your schedule.   On the right hand side is a "Make Changes" button.   Selecting that option gives you the opportunity to change the time of the Fastpass+ for an attraction or to change the actual attraction for one or more members of your party.  I was able to change my Tower of Terror to The Great Movie Ride.

Once we finished making our selections for each park we were ready to go.  You should receive an email from Disney with your Fastpass+ experiences about 24 hours before the day you are using it.  I say should because I did not receive an email for Disney's Hollywood Studios.   Actually I did receive an email, six of them, the day after I used my Fastpass+ in that park.   I did receive a correct email for the Magic Kingdom.

The reason that I received multiple emails for Disney's Hollywood Studios was probably triggered by the fact that I had to make a change in the itinerary once I arrived in the park.  You may do so using one of two methods.  The first utilizing the in the park WiFi and using the link in the email.

Second, if you do not have a smartphone or the wifi is not working well for you, you can also go to certain locations in each park and make changes to your Fastpass+ there.

My son was finishing his exams the morning that we were going to Disney's Hollywood Studios.  Our first Fastpass+ was Star Tours from 12:05 to 1:05.  He wasn't going to make it so I attempted to change the Fastpass+ to a later time.   If I had received the email for my Disney's Hollywood Studios itinerary on time I could have gone to the location and changed it.  What I discovered doing it through the email link was that it was it took multiple steps to keep Star Tours near the original time frame.  Selecting to stay with Star Tours gave me options that were for very late in the afternoon.  We could not do that as we had dining reservations in EPCOT.  However, I could change the attraction and get a time period that was 5 to 15 minutes later.  I chose to do that with Muppetvision 3D.  Then I tried switching back to Star Tours and lo and behold I could get the time frame that I initially wanted.  I had to change it three more times using that method as my son was delayed on his drive from his college.   By the time he got there and tapped the Fastpass+ it recognized that he was scheduled for Star Tours, but that I was scheduled for Muppetvision 3D.  The cast member kindly let me ride Star Tours.

What I suggest if you find yourself in a similar situation is to either make the changes the day before using your computer or smartphone.  If you have to make a change in the park, say you discover that the attraction has a 10 minute stand-by line and you'd like to use your Fastpass+ for something else, go to the locations that can change it with the assistance of a cast member.

Using Fastpass+ is very easy.  You simply touch the Fastpass+ to the glowing Mickey Head.  It will light up green if it is good to go.  When I had my problem at Star Tours it lit up blue.   The cast member will know your name and if you have noted a celebration, so do not be surprised if you greeted by name and a "Happy Birthday" or "Congratulations."

I nice design feature is that the RFID Fastpass+ readers are themed to fit each attraction.  The above is located at Toy Story Midway Mania.

Since I completed this test Disney has announced Magic+  and MagicBands which will use this RFID technology not only for Fastpass+ but as room keys, park admission and to pay for purchases if you link it to a credit card. It will use a wristband which should make it less likely to be lost while out in the parks. There are numerous websites that have the information on the MyMagic+ program.    I recommend visiting, or to learn more about the program.  There are many, many more websites, but these are a few of the Disney and theme park related ones that I find particularly reliable.

Overall, I was pleased with the Fastpass+ test.  There were a few glitches. I did not receive an itinerary email for Disney's Hollywood Studios until the day after I used Fastpass+ in that park.  Trying to make a change in the itinerary while in the park can be difficult and I do recommend going to the location in the park with a cast member to assist you rather than trying to make a change using the email link.   The biggest advantage was being able to book an extremely popular attraction like Toy Story Midway Mania without having to be at Disney's Hollywood Studios and grabbing a Fastpass as soon as the park opens.   Limiting the number of Fastpass+ is a good idea.  You can select a few things that you consider a must-do such as a popular attraction or reserving a spot for fireworks or a parade.   Yet its still flexible enough that it doesn't force you to completely micromanage every aspect of your day in the theme park.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The American Shakespeare Center Announces its 25th Anniversary Season

Artistic Director Jim Warren announced the 2013-2014 season of plays for the American Shakespeare Center prior to the opening night performance of the ninth Actors' Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.  The upcoming season will be the 25th anniversary for the professional classical theater company that began as the touring Shenandoah Shakespeare Express in 1988.   The season features eight plays by William Shakespeare including Timon of Athens, performances of which will complete the cycle of performing all of the plays of Shakespeare by the company for the very first time.

In addition to Shakespeare the season will feature Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Ben Jonson's Epicene (or, The Silent Woman), Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy.  The modern rock-and-roll musical, Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet will make its company debut next summer.

The American Shakespeare Center will also produce the 25th Anniversary World's Mine Oyster Tour which will travel the country performing three of Shakespeare's plays. The popular Holiday season offerings of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, NPR's David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries and ASC actor Ginna Hoben's The Twelve Dates of Christmas will also return to the Blackfriars Playhouse.

The 2013 Summer Season
June 21-September 1, 2013
Romeo and Juliet
Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton
All's Well That Ends Well

The 2013 Fall Season
September 3 - December 1, 2013
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
Troilus and Cressida
Romeo and Juliet
Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton
All's Well That Ends Well

The 2013 Holiday Season
December 3 - December 29, 2013
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Jim Warren
The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello
The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Ginna Hoben
Plus preview performances of the touring
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry IV, Part 1

The 2014 Actors' Renaissance Season
January 3 - April 6, 2014
As You Like It
The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Timon of Athens
Epicene (or, the Silent Woman) by Ben Jonson
The Maid's Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher

The 2013-2014 25th Anniversary World's Mine Oyster Tour
mid-September to mid-November 2013 in the Middle Atlantic and New England
mid-January to early April 2014 in the South and Midwest
The 2014 Spring Season
April 9 - June 15, 2014
Henry IV, Part 1
The Merry Wives of Windsor

Pre-sale of tickets through subscription packages begins in March and single tickets go on sale on April 15, 2013.  Information and tickets are available from the Blackfriars Playhouse box office by phone at 1-877-MUCH-ADO (682-4236), in person at 10 S. Market Street in downtown Staunton or online at  The ASC's 2013/2014 brochure will be available by mail and online at the website beginning in mid-March.   The brochure contains descriptions of all the plays and a full calendar of performances from June 2013 through June 2014.

Julius Caesar at the American Shakespeare Center

Raise your hand if you studied Julius Caesar in high school.

Now, raise your hand if when you studied Julius Caesar in high school you found it mind-numbing and boring.

If ever one of William Shakespeare's plays cried out to be seen on the stage rather than read on the page it's Julius Caesar.   Yes, it contains some of the most beautiful speeches that Shakespeare ever wrote.   The use of rhetoric and phrasing to make political and linguistic points is masterful.    On the page, Julius Caesar can feel stilted with many a Roman character, Publican and Plebeian to keep straight.   The American Shakespeare Center's inaugural production of its ninth Actors' Renaissance Season proves that a dynamic and clear production that emphasizes not only the language but the heart and soul of its characters is the best way to bring Julius Caesar alive for a twenty-first century audience.

For nine seasons now, the American Shakespeare Center has presented a winter season that gives their talented acting troupe the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rehearsal conditions of William Shakespeare's time.   There are no directors or designers.   The actors themselves are responsible for choosing costumes and props from existing stock.  The rehearsal process is reduced to a matter of days.   The result is lively theater that energizes both the actors and the audience.   Julius Caesar becomes a brisk two hours traffic upon the stage that uses the Renaissance staging conditions of the Blackfriar's Playhouse to create a dynamic theatrical experience.

Having the actors choose their own costumes occasionally creates a not quite cohesive stage picture.  Here the audience will find a mixture of contemporary dress with a bit of togas and tunics sprinkled about.   However, there are good choices of color to help the audience keep track of certain groups.   Caesar, his wife and two senators are in white.  Brutus, Cassius and the conspirators in black and grey.   The common folk at Caesar's funeral don workman's denim blue.   Mark Antony wears a military uniform that hints at the revolutionary Che Guevara, man of the common people.

Julius Caesar, drawn from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, is really the tale of three men Brutus, Cassius and Antony.  Julius Caesar, the title character is a larger than life presence whose rise to dictator and subsequent assassination indelibly affects them all.   Benjamin Curns commands the stage as Caesar in his brief scenes.  His Caesar is the consummate politician combined with a bit of mob boss polished off with a touch of rock star for good measure.  When he dies, it is not just Shakespeare's language that keeps Caesar indelibly near the center of the story, but the memory of Mr. Curns' charismatic dictator.

The true central character of the play is the noble Marcus Brutus.  Rene Thornton, Jr.'s Brutus begins as a close ally of Caesar, yet he is clearly troubled by the demise of the Roman Republic.   The play's emotional arc centers on Brutus as he is reluctantly persuaded to take a crucial role in Caesar's assassination.  Mr. Thornton's embrace of Brutus' conflicts as he is first convinced that murdering Caesar is for Rome's greater good and then transitions to confident orator at the funeral attempting to  control the reaction of the ordinary people is quite masterful.   Throughout Brutus' fall from grace Mr. Thornton manages to keep Brutus a sympathetic character, truly worthy of Antony's eulogy as the noblest Roman of them all.

Not so, Sarah Fallon's Caius Cassius.   Her Cassius is the driving force behind the conspiracy from the beginning of the play.   By showing Cassius' troubled thoughts as Caesar solidifies his power makes Cassius somewhat sympathetic.   Ms. Fallon gives Cassius a single-minded focus, the destruction of Caesar for the good of the Republic.   In her capable, fiery hands Cassius never doubts that Caesar's death is the best course for Rome.

Gregory Jon Phelps is rock steady as Mark Antony.  He is Caesar's lieutenant, a right hand man who uses language skillfully to manipulate the reactions of people, whether saving his own life in the wake of Caesar's assassination or convincing Brutus to let him speak at Caesar's funeral, a decision which leads to fatal consequences for the assassination conspirators.  The famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" funeral speech can be bombastic and overblown in the wrong actor's delivery.   Mr. Phelps starts small and uses pointed emphasis rather than rage to win over the Roman mob.  While one might wish for a bit more of a rousing climax to Antony's oratory, Mr. Phelps creates an Antony who is seems a natural rhetorical successor to Caesar and foreshadows the historical problems that Antony's popularity would cause his fellow triumvirs, Octavius Caesar and Aemilius Lepidus.

The American Shakespeare Center's Actors' Renaissance Season is off to a very strong start with a fast-paced lively production of Julius Caesar.   It is well worth making the trip to the Shenandoah Valley for terrific classical theater this winter.

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, William Wycherley's The Country Wife and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country through April 4, 2013.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit