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PAL MICKEY

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The new tour guide at Walt Disney World does not wear a plaid vest. He may only be nine inches tall, but Pal Mickey reaches new heights for the WDW visitor.


Pal Mickey is available for sale or rental at the parks and resort hotels.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Pal Mickey reminds you about parade and show times, tells you where you can meet his character friends, and entertains you with trivia, games and really, really corny jokes as you wait in line. He's a new talking toy available for rent or sale at the parks and resort hotels at Walt Disney World. We purchased the toy on a trip to WDW in May, and put him through his paces in all four parks during trips in May and June.


The toy is soft outside, hi-tech inside.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The one-pound plush character is wired with touch sensors in his hands and tummy, and a speaker box inside the head. An infrared receptor in his hard plastic nose detects and reads transmitters strategically located in the four parks. There are over 300 transmitters in the Magic Kingdom alone; some are in plain sight, while others are very well-hidden. We spent most of our first day with Pal Mickey trying to spot every transmitter he reacted to.


A new Pal Mickey gets it's first upload.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

When you first purchase or rent Pal Mickey, a cast member activates and updates his memory. He also receives an update each time he passes through a main gate turnstile. The updates tell Pal Mickey where he is, and provide him with the day's entertainment notes for that park. Pal Mickey can sense where he is going, so the infrared sensor can read the transmitters.

Although Pal Mickey comes with a belt clip, we discovered that he's really hard to hear when clipped to a belt. A new backpack purchased at the Emporium provided the perfect solution — it had a D-ring on each shoulder strap where we could comfortably clip him. It was much easier to hear him from this position, and we were not constantly moving him from our belts. Other Pal Mickey owners complained that the clip on their toy broke or lost its grip after several days use.

Pal Mickey has three main operating modes: Information, jokes, and games. When Pal Mickey detects a transmitter, he shakes and giggles. You squeeze his hands or tummy within 15 seconds to hear what he has to tell you — usually a factoid or trivia about something nearby. For example, as you walk onto Main Street U.S.A., Mickey might tell you about the names on the windows. Passing an exhibit at Animal Kingdom, he might encourage you to head down a particular trail to meet a distant relative of his. Strolling through the MGM backlot, he'll tell you if a character is signing autographs nearby. Mickey repeats each message up to five times on request, which is great if you are in a noisy area.


Pal Mickey receives signals from these transmitters, placed strategically around the theme parks.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

One of Mickey's jobs is to warn you of height limits as you approach a ride. As we walked through Tomorrowland, he said, "Say pal, if you're 42 inches or taller, we can ride on Space Mountain," then offered an alternative of the Rocket Jets for children who are too small for Space Mountain.

He has a strong sense of self-preservation, and reminds you to put him someplace safe when you get near water play areas, or on wet rides.

Mickey often has a comment after a ride. For example, he asks you to make sure he didn't lose an ear to Emperor Zurg's laser after you ride Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.

Pal Mickey is supposed to alert you to especially short wait times for popular attractions, however, although we visited on several fairly quiet days, we only experienced that particular feature once. As we were walking to our car from MGM, Mickey told us about a short line for Star Tours. We noticed one afternoon that the stand-by line for the popular Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin was just 10 minutes, but Mickey never uttered a peep.


Pal Mickey might encourage you to pull on this rope near the Indiana Jones stunt show entrance.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Pal Mickey reminds you of upcoming parades and larger shows, and even suggests ideal viewing areas. Some of these responses are triggered by nearby transmitters. As you walk around the World Showcase, Mickey points out several good spots to catch Illuminations. Of course, if Pal Mickey is recommending a spot for viewing Illuminations to you, he is probably recommending the same spot to everyone else who has him. This could cause congestion and traffic issues in these areas.

Other comments seem to be set by a timer, and do not even require you to be in the park. Fellow passengers were greatly amused when Mickey reminded us that the parade was about to start, as we were sitting at Orlando International Airport waiting to board our flight home. On our first trip, Pal Mickey was fairly selective about what shows he told us about. He told us about parades, but smaller acts — like the taiko drummers in the Japan pavilion — slipped his attention. Since this is a toy for children, we assumed that it really focused on princesses and character appearances. On our second trip around Epcot a month later, Mickey chattered all day about various entertainment offerings, including the taiko drummers.

Occasionally, Mickey just giggles because he wants to tell you a joke. You can also prompt him to do so by squeezing a hand or his tummy. When you're in a theme park, the jokes are area-specific. The jokes in Tomorrowland or Epcot's Future World are often about astronauts and spaceships, while the jokes in Animal Kingdom tend to be about animals and insects. When he is not in a park, Mickey randomly chooses from his 200-joke memory. These jokes were apparently written with 7-year olds in mind. For example: “Why did Dumbo leave the circus? Because they made him work for peanuts.” They don't get much better — you have been warned.


When the toy speaks up in a store, it's usually just to point out something interesting in the decor.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

When you squeeze both hands at the same time, Pal Mickey offers you a choice of three games. In "That's Not Here," Mickey lists 20 shows and attractions, and you squeeze his hands to indicate if that show or attraction is in the specified park or not. Again, when you are in a park, the game relates to that park. Otherwise, Mickey randomly selects a park for the game.

“Mickey Says” is a variation on Simon Says, where you squeeze Pal Mickey's hands and tummy according to the spoken directions. During “Fast Friends,” Mickey names certain characters, and there are specified responses for each. For example, Pal Mickey may tell you to squeeze his tummy whenever he says “Goofy,” and squeeze his right hand whenever he names a character that can fly.

You can purchase Pal Mickey for about $50, or rent him for around $9 a day. Each resort hotel and theme park has a designated store equipped to handle sales, rentals, returns and the occasional minor repair. If your Mickey has “forgotten” where he is, or doesn't appear to have been updated that day, you can take him in for a quick download. You can also return a rented Pal Mickey to any of these stores — no need to go back to the location where you rented him.


The toy needs to see where it's going, so you are encouraged to wear it on your belt. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

When we first heard about Pal Mickey, the obvious image of horror-movie dolls came to mind. At the very least, we expected Pal Mickey to remind us that we had not purchased a churro in several hours, and beg us to find him some nicer clothing at the nearby gift shop. [Cast members report that Pal Mickey owners have already asked for pin lanyards and T-shirts to personalize their doll, with rain ponchos being the most-requested item.]

Indeed, one of the first things Pal Mickey told us about at MGM was the giant figure of Gertie the Dinosaur, which just so happened to double as an ice cream stand. After we completed our ride through The Land, Mickey invited us to learn more about the greenhouses by taking an $8 guided tour. Fortunately, Mickey really wasn't programmed as a sales mouse. Never once did the words “pin trading” escape his plush lips, and he pretty much ignores the shops. When he does pipe up inside a store, it's simply to point out something interesting in the décor.

There are still a few problems with Pal Mickey. One cast member said, “There are still a few Flicks and Attas in the system, if you know what I mean.” The bugs are minor, and some of the things that users report as problems are actually intentional. For example, Pal Mickey does not react to the same information transmitter twice, with a few exceptions.

If you switch him off, you can reset his memory so he “forgets” where he has been. He also resets after several hours in a park, when you visit a new park, or when he experiences certain attractions. Because his jokes are tied to a specific part of each park, he tends to tell the same ones over and over again until you move to a new section of the park. The same five jokes get really stale during a 90-minute wait for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.


Take the mouse's advice - the behind-the-scenes tour at Epcot's The Land is pretty interesting. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

Some attractions use infrared technology that can disrupt Pal Mickey's operation. After riding Test Track for the first time, Pal Mickey refused to function at all — he couldn't receive signals, tell jokes, or play games. Fearing that he was somehow damaged, we turned him off and on again, removed his batteries, and finally took him to the Pal Mickey doctors. They gave him a new upload, and he was fine for the rest of the day. When we rode Test Track the next day, Mickey needed almost 20 minutes before he could speak again, and he did not know what park he was in until we passed a transmitter.

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority (People Mover) also affects the toy, but for a much shorter duration. On our return trip, Pal Micky not only worked perfectly as we exited Test Track, but he even had a parting comments after the ride.

Pal Mickey is not supposed to function on some rides, which might explain his refusal to speak while on the People Mover. Yet he has no problem telling jokes or announcing show times during rides like Ellen's Energy Adventure or Alien Encounter. Pal Mickey also reacts to something inside the American Adventure show — several owners have compained that their toy was malfunctioning during the show. When we visited, Pal Mickey giggled so much through the last 10 minutes of the show that we finally turned him off.

Mickey can miss a transmission or even catch the wrong signal because of some odd placement of transmitters. For example, while we walked through Epcot's England pavilion, Mickey told us all about a statue in the Germany pavillion, and then invited us to join Aladdin and Jasmine in Morocco for storytelling. Mickey did not receive his update as we entered Animal Kingdom, and did not know what park we were in until we reached the Harambe section. Cast members said that Animal Kingdom is one of the more challenging parks, and has several known problems.

The daily upload provides Mickey with current showtimes, so he won't inadvertently tell you about Fantasmic on a day when the show is not performing, but he seem not to know about attraction closures. As we walked through Fantasyland, Pal Mickey told us all about the Heffalumps and Woozels inside the Many Adventure of Winnie the Pooh ride, which was closed for rehab.


If Pal Mickey loses his memory, you can take him for a quick upload.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

In the near future, Pal Mickey will be able to remind you of your Priority Seating times. Guest Relations will be able to download your schedule to the toy, and he will know how much warning to give you based on where you currently are in the resort. Cast members said that Pal Mickey may soon remind you of your Fastpass return times, alert you when you can get another one, suggest things to do while you wait, and could even become your Fastpass ticket: Just wave his nose at the ride entrance, and away you go.

Mickey is currently learning foreign languages, and a Spanish-speaking version should be available in about six months. By this time next year, Pal Minnie and Pal Goofy should join Pal Mickey on store shelves. Expansion plans for the transmitter network includes the monorail and the resort hotels, and even the Disney cruise ships. If the program is successful in Florida, it can eventually expand to Disneyland and the other Disney resorts.

Although Pal Mickey is designed for children, a great many of the people purchasing the toy are adults without children in their household. Some buy the unit for grandchildren, but most are just playing with it themselves. In the first few days after the toy was made available at the theme parks, we saw dozens of couples carting around the plush, but only a handful had children.

We were frequently stopped and questioned about the toy by park visitors. The most common question was, “Does it get boring after a while?” Honestly, we never reached a point where we wanted to stuff Mickey back into his box. Even as Disney park regulars, Pal Mickey had enough interesting material to keep us entertained during our week with him. We did, however, start to ignore him on our third trip up Main Street. [Yes Mickey, we know all about the Roy and Minnie statue…]


We discovered that Mickey is easier to carry and hear when clipped to the strap of a backpack. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

After a few days, we began taking less-traveled paths through the parks, trying to find a new transmitter, or something Mickey had yet to tell us about. It seems that the toy's designers worked to avoid Mickey from getting too stale too fast. If you were to play all of the prerecorded statements in a Pal Mickey end to end, it would add up to over 2.5 hours of talking, without repeating once.

Cast members say that Pal Mickey can also learn new messages via the transmitters and through the update process in the stores. Mickey even tells follow-up jokes, something that really surprised us when we encountered one. And for a child's toy, Pal Mickey has a surprising sense of humor. Llisten to him grouse about not having his name on a Main Street window, or about daylight saving's time.

Almost everyone we spoke with wanted to know if we thought the toy was worth it. In a word, yes. We spent a little over $100 for Pal Mickey and related accoutrements: $50 for the toy, $40 for the backpack to clip him onto, and $16 for those guided tour tickets, and we still found him worth the investment. If you are touring the parks with children, Pal Mickey can probably keep them entertained through the longest line, although you may want to cringe at the jokes.

Disney employees, many of whom had only just learned about Pal Mickey from their daily briefings, were anxious to see the toy in action. The trainers on the Pal Mickey implementation team had been instructed to solicit feedback from everyone they saw carrying the toy. We were approached at every park, and most CMs made detailed notes of our comments.


Stacks of Pal Mickeys wait for their new owners.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

The biggest drawback to Pal Mickey is that he only provides one-way communication. He is a true tour guide, and you are on his schedule. You cannot ask Mickey where the nearest restroom is, or what the wait time for Splash Mountain looks like, or if there will be fireworks tomorrow night. For that, you still need a park map and a quick trip to the information board. We want an adult version of Pal Mickey that will provide a truly interactive information source.

When you rent or buy Pal Mickey, you join a small club of mouse-wearing fans. Owners nod as they pass one another in the park, and compare notes about what the toy can do. Some people brag about Pal Mickey like they do their grandchildren. One woman swore that, after her third trip on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, her Mickey announced “I really don't want to go on that again!”

In fact, my Mickey did something that no cast member could explain. Walking through the Morocco pavilion, I passed a Guest Relations cast member who was carrying a Pal Mickey. I noticed that the cast member's name badge said he was from Paris, France. I smiled at him as I walked past, and he squeezed his Mickey's hand. My Mickey giggled and shook, and then told me how to say “hello” — in French. Surprised, I turned around and asked the cast member if my Mickey was reacting to his.He just smiled and walked away.

Disney magic, or a poorly aimed transmitted from the France pavilion? We may never know.


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