A Day in the Life of a Guidebook Researcher

by Guest Columnist Len Testa
Researcher for Bob Sehlinger's
"Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World"

Feature Article

This article appeared in the October 8, 2002, Issue #159 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

People pay attention when you hand them a bottle of painkillers with their name already written on it. Until she saw the bottle of Aleve with "Linda" scrawled across the side, I think my twin sister believed this trip to Walt Disney World would be similar to her previous 30. But this was no ordinary vacation; this was her first field research trip for the "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World." Linda looked around the room. Although it was just past 6 a.m., four other researchers were already busy applying duct-tape on the bottom of their feet to prevent blisters during the 20-plus miles of walking they'd be doing.

Linda looked nervous. As a veteran of five such trips, I gave her a little pep talk. "Yes, there'll be a lot of walking," I said. "And your feet will hurt. But we've all done it. But if you don't think you can do it, let us know now." Like almost everyone on the team, Linda is a classic Type-A personality, and this gets her motivated. I opened the hotel room door. The sun was already up and it was almost 80 degrees. Some team members wouldn't be back in the hotel until midnight. We said our goodbyes and stepped out into the humid Florida air.

Being a researcher for the Unofficial Guide must rank near "Chocolate Candy Taste Tester" as the job title most likely to invoke awe and envy from both children and adults. It is a wonderful job. After more than 40 trips to Walt Disney World, I still get excited every time I enter a park. Sure, researchers don't get to go on as many attractions as we'd like. We may spend more time considering the utility of smoked turkey legs than most people (most people outside of rec.arts.disney.parks newsgroup, anyway - those folks are a national treasure). But we know that a Disney vacation is a significant investment for most families, both financially and emotionally, and it's gratifying to be able to help them get the most out of it.

It's almost opening time at the Magic Kingdom, and I'm going over last minute details with Guy, a relentlessly cheerful teenager on his first research trip. Guy's job, like that of everyone else on this team, is to record wait times at each ride, show and restaurant every half-hour. Two people are usually assigned to each park, with each person covering roughly half the attractions. In the Magic Kingdom, Guy is responsible for covering Tomorrowland, Toontown and half of Fantasyland. In less than 30 minutes, he'll walk through each land, check every attraction and walk back to Tomorrowland to rest before beginning again. After four hours he'll switch sides and take Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square and the rest of Fantasyland. He'll continue that pattern for the next 14 hours, and tomorrow he'll wake up and do it again.

I walk a couple of loops with Guy to make sure he has the hang of it. Aside from the walking, collecting data in the parks is usually pretty relaxing. There's no pressure to go on as many attractions as possible, the background music is lively, and the scenery changes constantly. After a day or so, making the rounds is like visiting old friends: "Let's see how the Pirates are doing this morning." "I wonder what Pooh's up to now?" Guy and I switch to the Adventureland loop at 1 p.m. I'm showing him how to eat a Dole Whip and walk at the same time when my cell phone rings. It's Linda, in Epcot, and there's a problem with the route I'd mapped out for her. Her route, which starts at Spaceship Earth and covers the entire west side of Epcot up to the American Adventure, is taking twenty-eight minutes to complete. That leaves two minutes for Linda to make it from the American Adventure to Spaceship Earth. She's jogging it in five minutes, she says, but hasn't had a break since World Showcase opened over two hours ago.

There's no way anyone can do this, I think, and immediately leave the Magic Kingdom for Epcot. On the way I call Rob, an ex-Army Ranger and the other researcher now in Epcot. Rob helped plan the Epcot route, in part by studying satellite imagery of the park. In our dry run through Epcot yesterday, we were completing the route in twenty-two minutes. Rob confirms what Linda said; he's also jogging back. I ask what's taking so long, and Rob says that walking into the attractions (which we didn't do during our test run) takes up more time than we thought.

I ask him how crowded the American Adventure is, and Rob says it isn't very busy yet. Neither is Impressions de France. If everyone's getting into the next show at these attractions right now, Linda and Rob can skip everything past Norway on the east side of World Showcase and Canada on the West (it's rare for the film in China to play to a capacity crowd). I tell them to cut their route short until I can get there. In a series of back-and-forth phone calls, we devise an alternate plan, re-dividing the park into three segments: Future World East, Future World West, and World Showcase.

By the time I get through the new security checkpoint, almost an hour has passed since Linda's first call. I catch up with her outside Wonders of Life. She's limping, not a good sign, but says she'll be okay once she gets some rest and takes care of her feet. We go over the new schedule for Epcot, and I ask her if she wants to keep going. She waves me away, and I head for World Showcase.

Twenty-seven minutes after it began, I finish my first full loop of World Showcase. It's quite a hike, too, and I am angry with myself for not doing a better job planning. I should have scheduled three people to start with, knowing Epcot was twice the size of the Magic Kingdom, and World Showcase lacks the hub-and-spoke, shortcut-friendly layout of other parks. Those should have been two obvious clues. But this is only the first day to collect data for this park, and we'll be better prepared tomorrow.

Later in the afternoon, Mike, who's covering Disney-MGM Studios, calls in to report that Star Tours' FASTPASS machines have not worked all day. This will distort the measurements of the standby queue, but there's nothing we can do about it. He notes the problem next to the data for future reference.

I take a break during my loop of Future World West to call Christine at the Animal Kingdom. On her fourth research trip for the Guide, Christine is the senior data collector on my team. She says everything is going well except for her feet. The uneven ground at the Animal Kingdom, designed to look like rugged trails, seems to put more strain on one's heels and ankles when walking. Christine has lost toenails while walking the parks, so I ask her how bad this problem is. Not that bad, she said, but she suggests switching Linda from Animal Kingdom to the Studios on tomorrow's schedule.

The rest of the day at Epcot goes smoothly. Most days that we collect data, we like to end with a nice sit-down dinner and go over the day's events. I get the last seating at the San Angel Inn in Mexico. Christine comes over from Animal Kingdom to meet Rob, Linda and me. We quickly ride El Rio del Tiempo before our Priority Seating time. After being seated in the boat, we instinctively write "8:45 p.m., Walk On" in our notebooks.

Dinner is relaxing -- the beer is cold, and our table has a perfect view of the water. Linda's feet are swollen and blistered, but she'll make it through the next three days. We're so tired that when the food comes, no one remembers what they ordered. We pass the plates around and eat family-style. After dinner, Rob, Linda and I head back to the hotel for showers and a few hours of sleep. Christine takes a bus to Pleasure Island. Less than eight hours from now, she'll be awake, perky and ready for 13 hours in Epcot. Like the rest of us, she's happy to be at Disney and wants to make the most of it.

Back at the hotel, I wait up for Guy and Mike, and collect their notebooks. They give me a quick recap of the day's events before going to order room service and watch ESPN. I bid the youngsters goodnight. Stumbling through a shower, I take one more Aleve before heading off to bed, visions of Fantasyland and strollers dancing in my head.


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.