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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

Pal Mickey turns from toy to tour guide

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Around the ol' homestead in Ohio, Pal Mickey looks like any other plush mouse toy with a friendly smile and round ears - although he does manage to tell a lot of corny jokes.

"Why is Captain Hook's ship still sailing? Because it's going to Neverland."

But pack Pal Mickey in a suitcase and let him loose in his native habitat of Walt Disney World, and the stuffed animal makes a transformation into a high-pitched tour guide who rattles off plenty of interesting tips and tidbits meant to help Disney visitors learn more about the theme park's highlights and history.

"Lions can sleep up to 20 hours a day. That's where they get their name, from 'lyin' around. Yuk yuk.' "

Although I've been to Walt Disney World more times than I can count, I recently spent a couple of days exploring the four theme parks with Pal Mickey literally at my side, clipped to my belt as he offered a mouse-eyed view of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, and the Animal Kingdom.

In a more normal setting, a grown man walking around with a Mickey Mouse doll hanging from his belt would get a lot of wide-eyed stares. At Disney World, however, there were a few quizzical glances but the more typical reaction was one of curiosity once Pal Mickey started chatting away with his insider tour tips.

As guests travel through the grounds, the information is beamed to Pal Mickey from strategically and discreetly placed transmitters throughout the parks and resorts.

I saw dozens of Pal Mickeys around Disney World, but most of them weren't hanging on people's belts or backpacks - they were staring out from behind the plastic wrapping in their original packaging, still hoping someone will buy them.

Obviously, most park visitors are not yet aware of Pal Mickey's abilities. A lot of people who caught me listening to the little doll's squeaky voice asked about it, and the next question was what does it cost. The doll sells for about $55, but the miniature tour guide also is available for daily rentals.

One Disney employee caught me off guard when I was headed into the Disney-MGM Studios.

"Take good care of my boss!" she said with a smile, and only a few steps too late did I realize she was talking about Mickey Mouse, my fuzzy little tour guide.

"Did you know Walt Disney brought the very first monorail to America? Yep, he built it back in 1959 at Disneyland in California."

Under the fur, Pal Mickey contains a plastic box wired with four AA batteries, a speaker, a bundle of colored wires, and a package of high-tech electronics. A receiver picks up the radio signals broadcast specifically for Pal Mickey throughout the parks and surrounding Disney resorts.

As you stroll along, Mickey will start vibrating and give a quick little hyuk-yuk-yuk giggle, signaling that you've reached an area where the stuffed animal has a new message to share.

To hear the info, give Pal Mickey's belly a squeeze and listen to him reel off a bit of Disney lore, some helpful advice - or one of his countless cornball jokes.

"Oh boy! Goofy's Barnstormer. Ya know, me and Goofy have been pals since 1932. But back then we called him Dippy Dawg. Now THAT's a goofy name!"

After spending a couple of days hanging out with Mickey, my only complaint is that the volume was often too low to hear clearly unless you held Mickey right next to your ear. I'm guessing the Disney designers didn't want him to be too loud and annoy the other guests in line. So if grown-up Disney visitors don't feel silly enough walking around with a Mickey Mouse doll on their belts, they will feel downright goofy when holding Pal Mickey up to their ear to get the lowdown.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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