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Disney guidebook grew from couple's 1,400 visits and 400 photos
For travel authors Julie and Mike Neal, the key to creating a comprehensive Walt Disney World guidebook was an act of God.
It was Hurricane Charley, in 2004, that forced the Neals to leave their home in Sanibel Island for a residence in Celebration, practically outside the Disney gates.
"That meant we could be at the parks everyday," says Julie Neal, who estimates that she and her husband have visited Disney almost 1,400 times.
The latest result of that obsession is The Complete Walt Disney World 2009 ($24.95, Coconut Press), the third edition in a series marked by stunning photography and depth of information.
The new edition recently ranked at the top of Disney guidebooks on Amazon.com.
"We keep hearing that the economy is down, but this has been our best year ever," Julie says. "Maybe it's because people are planning more for their trips, so maybe a guidebook is more attractive."
Attractive is a good way to describe the Neal's book. There are roughly 400 of Mike Neal's colorful photographs of park attractions, almost unprecedented access for an outside publisher.
After seeing a copy of the Neal's guidebook on Sanibel Island, Disney contracted with the couple to do their first Disney book in 2007.
"At first, they said we could have 12 photos and they'd have editorial control," Julie says. "We said, 'What we want is 400 photos and we'd have control of it.' When they saw the Sanibel book, they said they would do that."
While Mike Neal does the photography, his wife specializes in researching the details behind the magic. The Neals spend at least a day at each attraction.
How much detail is there?
At Mickey's PhilharMagic in the Magic Kingdom, the lines uttered by Donald Duck all come from classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. Julie Neal put the dialogue into a chart matching the lines to the original cartoons.
Sometimes, it takes much longer to do justice to a beloved ride.
"Haunted Mansion took a month," Julie says. "So did Tower of Terror.
"Sometimes I'd ride it with my eyes closed, just for the sound and music. It's just a strange life." The goal, she says, is to experience the park as a guest, even after so many visits.
"We know that people really love the parks and we want to give them a book that will give them the reasons why."
After so many trips, does the expert have a favorite attraction?
"I like Carousel of Progress just for the history of it," Julie says. "And I love SpectroMagic, the nighttime parade at Magic Kingdom. Magical is an overused term, but it's really magical to me."
Jim Abbott can be reached at jabbott@OrlandoSentinel.com or 407-420-6213.