Learning how Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa went about compiling the 760-page “Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2023” is almost more interesting than visiting said theme park.
OK, that point might be debatable, but after talking with Testa, who lives 10 minutes from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida (“I go there hundreds of times a year,” he says), this guide takes on a whole new dimension.
That’s because the collection and sorting of the facts and opinions that comprise the guide, which tells visitors how to get the most for their money in the least amount of time (think the best rides, restaurants and hotels) is a fascinating story in itself.
The former is 43 square miles (slightly smaller than Miami) and includes four theme parks, two water parks, three dozen-plus hotels and a campground, 100-plus restaurants, sports center, a mall/entertainment/hotel complex, six convention centers, four golf courses “and an array of spas, recreation options and other activities” — all kept humming by 77,000 employees.
So, no, you can’t walk from park to park. You’ll use Disney World’s boats, cars, monorails, aerial trams and the third-largest bus system in Florida.
“The biggest challenge for Disney World first-timers is the amount of pre-planning you have to do,” Testa said. “The purpose of the guidebook … is to tell you the hoops you have to jump through to enjoy it.”
Think about this: The average visit at Disney World is five days and costs $4,550, so spending $26.99 for a how-to guide might make sense.
“Most of us wouldn’t think twice about reading Consumer Reports before buying a car or a major appliance,” Testa argued, “and Disney World costs more than a dishwasher.”
So, whether you’re a newbie or a vet (things change, you know) who doesn’t have unlimited time and money, you’ll want to know how others found their experience. Co-author Sehlinger, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and Testa do this with surveys returned by an average of 200,000 Disney World pilgrims who have things to say that you won’t see on the theme park’s website.
The guide, a nearly 2-pound tome, had humble beginnings in 1985 — a mere 225 pages with all the information gathered and computed by hand by Sehlinger. Then in 1997, Testa, a graduate student working on his master’s thesis in computer science, enters.
The focus of his thesis was a well-known conundrum called the Traveling Salesman Problem or TSP. In a nutshell, it asks: How do you travel to a set of cities in the shortest time, starting and ending in the same city?
“It’s a famous mathematical problem, but very difficult,” Testa explained, “but it’s the exact problem you face when you are trying to avoid lines at Disney World. I asked Bob if he knew what the waiting time at Space Mountain at noon on a Thursday was?”
Sehlinger didn’t have that information, but he had gathered a lot of other data, Testa said. “He’d been doing it for 10 years and knew what people wanted.”
For instance, people don’t want to crisscross the entire Magic Kingdom to get from one favorite ride to another.
Long story short: Testa came on as co-author of the guide in 2003.
“All the information we have in the guide is the result of tons of computer analysis (done by) a staff of about a dozen people,” he said. “One thing we’ve done is at the beginning of each chapter, we tell people where to find answers to most common questions, like, ‘I didn’t know it was so big, and can I walk from park to park?’”
The guide staff also works with several colleges whose students do projects related to Disney World visitors. This has produced further information about visitor preferences.
For instance, they learned that girls and boys equally enjoy meeting Disney princesses, and the top three things that visitors like, in order of preference, are meeting characters (Mickey Mouse is No. 1), the parades and the fireworks shows.
“This (information) changed how we approached giving advice to parents,” Testa said.
The authors have sold more than 6 million copies of the guide since 1985.
“One of the big reasons the book is popular is because Disney World is such a complicated vacation destination,” he said. “Nobody buys books to go to Ohio, but they need third-party advice to see Disney World.”
For more travel talk, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.