By Grayson Kamm
First Coast News
WALT DISNEY WORLD -- Our Hidden Places series takes you high above Disney's Magic Kingdom, into a secret suite meant for a princess. No amount of money on earth will buy you a stay at the magical castle -- you just have to be a lucky winner.
This hidden place may be the most exclusive one we've taken you to all week. The hotel just opened in January and has only one room. It takes no reservations. The only way to stay there -- the only way to see it at all without the help of First Coast News -- is to win a night's stay in Cinderella's Castle.
It's a magical place where the clock never strikes midnight, and your dreams always come true.
"While they're here in the suite, no request is too extreme," said Jeff Allen, a concierge at the most exclusive hotel in the world.
"Literally, my favorite job I've ever had is just opening the door for the guests and watching them for the first time, just run in there -- it has been amazing. I love being a part of this," Allen said as he guided us through the extraordinarily lush luxury of the Cinderella Castle Suite.
"Right when you open the door, it's just boom! Magic all over the place," he said. "Guests are like -- Wow!"
Lavish. Extravagant. Those are good words to start with. Only six guests a night can sleep here among tapestries and stonework that look like they've been right here for hundreds of years. The details will drop your jaw.
"Over here, you're going to see Cinderella's glass slipper. That is her glass slipper, and the one that she wore, made famous in the movie," Allen said, gesturing to a life-size glass slipper crafted by Steuben Glass that's on display in the suite's foyer.
Inside, a trio of handmade mosaics enriched by 18 karat gold. A writing desk made a hundred years before America was born. A faux fireplace where the magical embers become soaring fireworks.
In keeping with the magic, Cinderella Castle is actually supposed to be in France in the 1700's. So, above the fireplace you'll find a straightforward portrait of your hostess, Cinderella. But press a button on a remote control and Tinkerbell appears, fluttering inside the painting. The fairy flies across the screen, spreading pixie dust, and the portrait is transformed. The portrait is a TV screen. Guests can watch TV or any selection from a stack of Disney DVDs already waiting for you in the room.
As concierge, Jeff Allen's role is to make this suite seem like it's always been here. "Just like you would have a guest room in your home, well, Cinderella has a guest room in her castle," he said.
But this guest room just opened in January. And just as amazing as the traditional touches -- are the technological ones.
"A mirror, you would find in Cinderella Castle, but what you wouldn't find would be another television," Allen said, tapping a button and turning the parlor's framed mirror into a framed TV set with full surround sound.
Here, the grandfather clock never strikes midnight -- but you'll still be up on time. "Behind the 18th-century style sewing box over there is their CD-alarm clock-radio," he said.
Only Cinderella's guests can use her royal stationery. And the logo matches a modern keycard that guests can take home.
All through the suite, modern meets magical. A writing desk in one corner is actually 350 years old. Disney has made only a few minor modifications. Inside the desk, they've added power outlets and internet ports where you can plug in your laptop.
In the bathroom, wash your hands in exquisite sinks. Dry them off with carefully embroidered linens. Or use the towels that have been artfully formed into a glass slipper and pillow.
Tapping a few buttons on a small light switch panel, Allen showed off the bathroom's centerpiece. "If you want to take the most romantic, slash relaxing, bath in your life, the first thing that you want to do is turn on the stars," he said, while above him a field of fiber-optic pinpoints of light twinkled on the ceiling.
"Spotlight the mosaics," he went on, as lights shone on three intricate works of cut glass and stone.
"Turn off everything else. And then, turn on the tub," he said, as gentle blue lights illuminated the bathtub below.
The suite's parlor offers an amazing treat every night through two sets of stained glass windows. "The fireworks that are on the sides of the castle would be coming from there and there, making you feel like you're a part of the show," Allen said.
Just switch the parlor's hidden TV to the "Wishes" channel and the music from the nightly fireworks show is pumped into the room. "They can watch the fireworks through the Jacques and Gus Gus window, making this a truly VIP experience," Allen explained.
Whew. Why would you ever leave? Well, every family gets a VIP tour guide and instant access to any attraction in any park.
"We looked at some of the exquisite castles of the period of our castle here and said, 'What were those details and what were those fine things that people had?' But we also wanted that little bit of Disney magic," said Faron Kelley, the Disney dream director who guided the magic and manpower that created the super-exclusive suite.
The space was originally planned as an apartment for Walt Disney's family. But Walt died before the park was built. "When the park opened, it was actually a room for telephone operators. It's been used for dressing rooms, and storage rooms and all sorts of things," Kelley said.
Late last year, the six-month transformation began.
"We finally had that opportunity to really create what I think really belongs there, and that is this exquisite suite for Cinderella's very special guests," he said.
Imagineers blended sawdust with pixie dust to create a night of wonders for one lucky family every day. "We tried to do our best to make it look like just how Cinderella and Walt would want it," Kelley said.
And so they decided Walt would want the extraordinary stay here to be -- free.
"There is no price tag on dreams," Allen cheerily explained.
Kelley's team made the decision not to charge for the night of a lifetime. "It's really great to make it something that money can't buy," he said.
"The only way to get in here is to win it as a prize in the Year of a Million Dreams. To be at a random Disney theme park at a random time at a random location, and be our lucky winner," Allen said.
To pick that lucky winner, Disney created an unusual computer program based on a map of the entire Walt Disney World property.
Kelley explained, "throughout our parks, there's spots where only one guest can be at any one time. It might be a seat in one of our theaters, it might be a seat on one of our attractions, it might be a seat on a park bench."
A computer randomly picks one of those places from thousands of possibilities, and randomly picks a time. Then the Dream Squad delivers the news.
"They get tapped on the shoulder, and told that you know what -- guess what -- tonight, you're going to spend the night inside Cinderella castle," Kelley said.
To give you an idea of how it works, we'll use a handy example: the Rosen family from Jacksonville. The Rosens won a magical night in the suite just this past Monday.
The Dream Squad is a group of Disney cast members who hand out prizes. Each day, the computer gives the squad a new random place and time to find the lucky winner. On Monday, the person who would be offered the chance to stay in the castle that night would be in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom sitting in a particular seat on board Dumbo the Flying Elephant in car number 14 at 10:19 a.m.
It just so happens that Brad Rosen -- the dad -- was in the lucky seat at the lucky time, sitting next to his daughter Lila. The Dream Squad went over to him and told him he had just won a night's stay in Cinderella Castle for himself, his wife Kasey, and his twin two-year-old daughters Addy and Lila.
Guests are given silver Mickey Mouse ears and then taken in a special shuttle back to their hotel, which isn't always a Disney resort. They pack an overnight bag and the shuttle carries them to the Magic Kingdom. In the early afternoon, they check into their exclusive suite and take a professional photo in front of the castle. At 3 p.m., it's showtime. The family members become the grand marshals of the afternoon parade.
That night, the family dines at Cinderella's Royal Table, the restaurant inside the castle. For up to two hours after the park closes, the family's VIP tour guide can give them special versions of the behind-the-scenes tours that are typically offered to guests for an extra charge.
Chocolates and other treats welcome the family back to their room that night. A concierge stays close at hand downstairs all through the night in case the family needs anything. The next morning, the guests check out of their royal suite to make way for another lucky family.
"It's like a dream -- just out of the blue -- comes true for them. It's something they totally didn't expect, and it is truly Disney magic," Kelley said.
First Coast News