Friday, January 21, 2011

Mousetrapped - a review

Usually when you hear that a book is self-published, it usually means that it is not of high enough quality for a "real" publisher to handle it. At least that is the way it used to be. Today, with the tools available to new authors, self-publishing is a way to get your foot in the door so to speak. (As a former page designer in the traditional publishing industry ... well, that's the topic for another blog entry I suppose.) As a Kindle owner, I often have many self-published books to choose from, and a while ago I came across Mousetrapped: A Year and a Bit in Orlando, Florida by Catherine Ryan Howard.The desciption of the book reads like this on

Three big dreams, two Mouse Ears and one J-1 visa. What could possibly go wrong in the happiest place on earth? When Catherine Ryan Howard decides to swap the grey clouds of Ireland for the clear skies of the Sunshine State, she thinks all of her dreams - working in Walt Disney World, living in the United States, seeing a Space Shuttle launch - are about to come true. Ahead of her she sees weekends at the beach, mornings by the pool and an inexplicably skinnier version of herself skipping around Magic Kingdom. But not long into her first day on Disney soil - and not long after a breakfast of Mickey-shaped pancakes - Catherine's Disney bubble bursts and soon it seems that among Orlando's baked highways, monotonous mall clusters and world famous theme-parks, pixie dust is hard to find and hair is downright impossible to straighten. The only memoir about working in Walt Disney World, Space Shuttle launches, the town that Disney built, religious theme parks, Bruce Willis, humidity-challenged hair and the Ebola virus, MOUSETRAPPED: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida is the hilarious story of what happened when one Irish girl went searching for happiness in the happiest place on earth.

I wondered if this was going to be another hatchet job of Walt Disney World (WDW) by yet another disgruntled former cast member who had her illusions shattered. Working at WDW is after all a job first and foremost, and like any job, eventually becomes routine and "just a job" no matter where you are working. If you get hired to work at WDW you are no longer a guest to be catered to, but a company employee whose job is to cater to those guests.

A few factors conspired to entice me to buy it. It was in Kindle format (as well as physical book format), and would cost me just a couple of dollars, and one phrase in the description; " ... hair is downright impossible to straighten." You see, my daughter is a WDW cast member - has been for 10 years now - and has naturally curly hair ('nuff said?). I bought the book, and proceded to find out how many of Catherine's experiences were similar to my own daughter's.

Catherine's tale starts when she is a 13 year old girl in Ireland and reads a book which makes her decide to be a virologist and battle the Ebola virus. And not just any virologist but one working for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland. There were many obstacles in her path, but she was 13. But liks so many 13 year olds' plans, the work involved to get to her dream invaded her reality and she didn't become a virologist. She did, however find herself working with a travel company in the Netherlands. Like many of us, another one of Catherine's dreamjobs was to work in WDW, and she started investigating that possibility. She discovered the College program (which was how my daughter got her start in WDW) and the International program. However, neither of those would work since she was not in college nor is there an Irish pavilion in EPCOT. (Okay, there is a UK pavilion.) However, she discovered the American Cultural Resort Program which would place her in a US hotel or resort somewhere in the US. She applied and was offered a position at the Swan and Dolphin Resorts in WDW. (For some reason, legal I assume, she has to refer to it as the Duck and Tuna.) She accepts and the adventure begins. (Again the parralel to my daughter's Disney career is evident, as she spent many years on the front desk and the back office at the Caribbean Beach Resort in WDW.)

What happens next to Catherine is the tale of Mousetrapped. She soon learns that the Swan and Dolphin resort, while on the Disney property and right near two of the four theme parks that make up WDW, is not a Disney hotel. So while she is called a cast member, she does not have free access to the parks. (After 10 years, my daughter still hangs out and plays in the parks when not working. A major perk for a cast member.) Soon, all the realities of working, as opposed to playing, in WDW begins to set in. Housing, transportation, money are all factors in her discontent. We find out about her passion for NASA and her desire to see a Shuttle launch. She takes us with her on a visit to The Holy Land theme park. In other words, we see the reality of what this adventure was.

Yet, happily, this is not a negative look at her experience, just an honest one. Nor has it soured her on WDW, in fact she has stated that given the chance (and another j-1 visa) she would happily return and work there again. So despite the opportunity to have been "sour grapes", this is actually a very open and intimate look at her time working in WDW. I know I enjoyed it much more than I originally thought I would and would love to hear more about her time there. (You might also check out her blog at Don't really expect any WDW inside information like some other exposé novels, but rather the personal tale of one cast member and her time in WDW.

I highly reccomend this book (it's one I intend to re-read) to Disney and non-Disney fans alike. (And if you are interested in buying the book or e-book version, please use the link on this page and help support this blog.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

I lost a friend today

I lost a friend today. She lived on the other side of the world - in Australia. I never met her in person, though we chatted by text many times. She was a mom (sorry - mum), a wife and a friend to many. She was down to earth and told you what she thought. She was 34 years old and had 4 children ages 16, 6, 5, and a year old.
 She was  always able to make me laugh and smile.
 She will be missed.
 And yes - online friends are real friends.

3 great DVD's for Disney fans and historians

I recently purchased and watched three DVD's on three different times in the history of the Disney Company. In chronological order they are Walt & El Grupo, The Boys - the Sherman brothers' story, and Waking Sleeping Beauty. Anyone interested in the history of the Disney Company will be well served by one or all of these DVD's.

The first of the three is Walt & El Grupo.

In the years before World War II, The Walt Disney Studios was facing a crisis. Union organizer Herb Sorrell was trying to get Walt's employees to unioninze. Though Walt had agreed to allowing a vote, Sorrell insisted that Disney agree to let his artists sign with him - without a vote - or he would call an immediate strike against the studio. Walt refused, and a strike was indeed called. Walt was dispirited and at a low point in his life. He felt betrayed.

At the same point in time, FDR asked Walt if he would undertake a good-will tour of South America, with the purpose of attempting to swing certain countries who might be leaning towards the Nazis into becoming allies of the U.S. in the war that was certain to come.

At first Walt declined the request, but when the government agreed to sponsor it as research for a film project, and then further subsidize the film, guaranteeing the studio a profit, Walt agreed. He took his wife and a collection of artists from the studio, leaving his brother Roy to oversee the settlement of the strike at the studio. Among the talent he brought with him were a number whom we have come to know today as classic Disney artists. Frank Thomas and Mary Blair are two who come to mind. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Mary Blair style that she came to be known for actually developed during this tour.

While in South America they visited Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In these days before pagers or cell phones, the artists would often sit in the hotel lobby waiting for their assignments for the day. When Walt would call with those assignments, a staff member would go to the lobby and call for "el grupo Disney" which produced the nickname of El Grupo.

The story is told by family members reading from the letters that the members of El Grupo sent home to friends and family, as well as through home movies, Disney produced movie clips, photos, and the sketches made by the artists at the time.

The tour eventually produced two Disney features - Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

In addition to all the usual extras you would expect to find on a DVD of this nature, you also have the original 1943 release of Saludos Amigos.

The next in the trio is The Boys - the Sherman brothers' story.

When you think of Disney music you could think of Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, if you are old enough. If not you may think of Howard Ashman, Alan Menkin, Tim Rice or Phil Collins.

However, the most prolific team when it comes to Disney music is without a doubt The Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard.

The Boys is a DVD about that duo. Sons of Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Al Sherman, they started writing songs when their dad challenged them to make some money by writing and selling their first song. (It was recorded by Gene Autrey.)

This DVD is not only the history of their partnership, but of their stormy personal relationship. Though they created so many wonderful songs, including the totally ubiquitous It's a Small World, their own relationship with each other was never as close as you may have thought. This DVD explores why and where that relationship has gone.

The bonus features on this DVD are as interesting as the main feature, and includes a "jukebox" of some of their songs in which they talk a bit about the creation of each.

It was produced by Greogory and Jeffrey Sherman, each the son of one of the brothers. It is fascinating viewing.

The final DVD is Waking Sleeping Beauty.
This is the story of how the Disney Animation group was in such disregard by the company at the time Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were brought in to run Disney, that they were kicked out of the Animation Building and the Disney Studio itself and banished to Glendale.

This DVD documents the rise and fall of Jeffrey Katzenberg as on his watch, this almost abandoned part of the Walt Disney company regains its footing and re-establishes itself as the once proud production company that it once was under Walt himself.

We see how the studio went from the disaster that was The Black Cauldron to the successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, and the Lion King to regain the prestige that it once had.

But it also shows a bit of the inner workings of the company at the time, and it is not always the nice, sanitized Disney story that we are usually presented.

Anyone interested in Disney history will be well served by this DVD.

All three of these DVD's are available through and can be accessed by clicking the ads which accompany the descriptions. If you decide to purchase any of the DVD's spoken about here, please do so through the above ads and help support this blog.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Isn't NYC Public School teachers' safety important too?

Last night another 8 inches (approximately 20 cm) of snow fell on NYC. This is only a few weeks after we on Staten Island got hit with 30 inches (approximately 76 cm) of snow. While there was a major issue over lack of timely street plowing last time - something that NYC is usually very good at - when I drove my wife to school this morning, the roads had seen a snow plow already.

But the issue was why was I driving my wife to school this morning? Although the roads had been plowed once, there was still a lot of snow on the roadway and a lot of slipping going on, and the temperatures aren't expected to rise above freezing for at least a week (or more) so conditions will only get worse for now. I have over 40 years experience driving in these conditions, but like most would prefer not to - and it's the other driver who doesn't adjust to the conditions that you have to worry about. In addition, it meant that my wife and I were up by 5:00 AM listening for the decision whether to open NYC's public schools or not. Almost every other school and school system in the region had announced last night that their schools would be closed. (Yes, less snow fell than was expected at that time.) But our mayor decided to wait until 5:00 AM for that decision (isn't that the Chancellor's decision?), leaving parents with a potential last minute scramble to either find someone to watch their children who are too young to stay home alone, or take a day off from work themselves. If the decision to open the schools would be made, teachers would have to be up very early to shovel and get their cars ready and able to make the trip. Not every teacher - few in fact - can really take public transportation.

So while our Mayor continues to ask NYers to stay off the roads, at 5:00 AM it is announced that NYC Public Schools (the largest school system in the US) will indeed be open - and on time.

Now let's look at this decision. If the roads are unsafe for motorists, are they any safer for the school buses to carry children to school? And how about the teachers who drive to get to school? Is their safety unimportant?

Now to be honest and fair to Mr. Bloomberg, this is not something that has just been happening under his watch, but in the last 30 years or so, the New York City public school system has only closed for weather a total of 6 times! And it's not that the school calendar doesn't have the necessary days built in to it so that they still reach the required 180 days of instruction. No it's simpler than that.

On days when almost every other school in the tri-state area is closed - and announced as early as the night before - NYC's public school system is used as a babysitting service. Yes, I understand the hardships created by closing the schools on the parents who work. They then have the choice of having to take the day off or finding appropriate care for their child. But don't the parents of children in the other schools have the same issues? And is it any safer for a child to be out and either on a bus to school (school bus or public transit)? And of course there is the question of teacher's safety as well. Not every teacher lives local to the school in which they work. In fact, that is very unusual in 4 out of the 5 boroughs of NYC. (I will admit that it is more likely here on Staten Island, but that is a story for another day.) In fact, many teachers travel quite a distance to get to their school.

The truth of the matter is this - keeping the schools open is not about education. It is about daycare. It is a place where parents can drop their kids off to be watched all day. In fact, many of these children will even get 2 hot meals - breakfast and lunch - free while they are there. In many cases, course work does not get done, and when it is so bad that many teachers simply cannot get there, children spend the day in the auditorium, so that they can be watched by the teachers who are in attendance.

And don't forget ... even for teachers who are "local", it may not be - probably isn't - a safe trip into school.

So is this how New York City views its education system and educators? Unfortunately, yes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

After much consideration ...

I have been saying that I will do this for a long time. Finally I will give voice to the inner dialogues I always am having. (No, I don't mean I am hearing voices - and anyway, they like me better than they like you.)

So here we are, a new year ... 2011. I remember when that was the stuff of science-fiction. Remember the novel 1986? Or how about the TV show, Space: 1999? Yes, I am from the era when TV was black and white, phone calls to another state where expensive and only for emergencies, and telephones had to be attached to the wall by a wire, and a game which gave you the right answer by connecting an electrical circuit was amazing. Computers? They were something that big corporations had that filled a whole room with flashing lights, huge reels of magnetic tape and punch cards. How did we ever survive you ask. But we did.

So I was thinking about what earth shattering and totally captivating topic should I pick for my first blog entry ... my reactions to the horrific events that have taken place in Arizona ... the frightening floods in Australia ... my latest trip to Walt Disney World? And then a friend (in Queensland, Australia - site of the current horrendous flooding) tweeted this, "It's a small world. There is just one moon and one golden sun." and it got me thinking about just how small the world has become thanks to the internet.

For those like me, whose "touchable" world as we were growing up was our immediate block and our neighborhood, imagine the amazing ability all of a sudden to be part of a truly global community.

My first steps into that world - in the days before the internet was available to everyone - was through dial-up BBS's (bulletin board systems). In fact, on the table next to me I still have an old AT clone which I can still turn on and have my own bbs connected to the world. Of course, you still needed to make a phone call and keep the line tied up while you were connected, and long distance, even a short distance away, was relatively expensive, but you could now connect and "meet" a wider circle of people.

And then it happened ... the internet. I first became connected at work, where email - still a new concept then - was common, especially since we dealt with people in all parts of the world. But when I was introduced to Gopher, a non-graphical internet interface, my world changed. I soon discovered CompuServe and others of that ilk that were the main conduit of internet connectivity in those days. And then a new phenomenon - Internet Service Providers (ISP's) began appearing and you could connect directly to the net without subscribing to an information provider as well.

BBS's were replaced with forums (fora?) and soon I was meeting people with similar interests from other parts of the US. At first they were no more than "handles" that preceded text based messages. But then as we traveled, or they traveled, I started meeting some of the "handles" and they now were flesh and blood people who I could talk face to face with. People with whom I share interests online have become people I have met. (Hello to all you RADPers and LPers!)

Soon it was more than people in the US, I started connecting with folks in other countries who I would never have had the ability to have met before this revolution in communications. Imagine "meeting" people who live in Australia - about as far away from where I live as you can get - and becoming friends. And then, in fact, meeting one and sharing the common interest that originally created the friendship? Yes, that has happened.

Yet I have heard people say that online friends aren't "real" friends. I have to disagree, especially now when communication with someone on the other side of the world is easier today (via text, voice, and picture) than calling someone in another state just a few miles away was when I was a kid. And it is free! (What do you think? Are online friends "real" friends? Comment below.)

But now, when tragedy strikes as is currently happening in Australia with the floods, it's not just something I may (or may not) see for a brief moment on the nightly news, but it strikes home as I know so many people who actually not only live in Australia, but in Queensland where the floods are now consuming (yes that is what I meant to say) an area larger than Texas - or France & Germany combined, if you prefer. I now have concern for flesh and blood people who I truly worry about.

(No matter where you live, I urge you to help in any way you can. Here is a good place to start if you would like to help the relief effort. I have.  Queensland Premier's Flood Relief Appeal )

And there you have my first attempt at a brain dump. Expect to hear my thoughts on things as important as the Arizona shootings in the future, but don't be surprised by my showing off and bragging about my grandtwins. I won't promise that there will be an entry every day, though at times there might be, but I do intend to have at least one update a week. Please stop by and share your thoughts with me as well. And, oh yeah, spread the word about this blog - the more the merrier.