The Big Cheese in the Big Apple

by Stephanie Wien, contributing writer

With its iconic landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Central Park, New York City is one of the most visited cities in the world. But what is there to see if you're a Disney fan? As it turns out, there's quite a bit to see in the City That Never Sleeps. Disney's ties to Broadway shows, historical landmarks, and shopping provide activities that should be of interest to almost every member of the family.

Our tour starts in the heart of Manhattan in Times Square. If you aren't staying within walking distance of Times Square, the best way to reach it is via the subway. You can take the 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, N, Q, R, or W train to the Times Square station. Currently, the Walt Disney Company has three musicals on Broadway: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Tarzan. These three are soon to be joined by a fourth featuring everyone's favorite nanny, Mary Poppins.

Disney's first foray into the world of musical theater, Beauty and the Beast, is now the sixth-longest-running Broadway show in history. It opened at the Palace Theatre in 1994, and moved to its current home, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, at 205 West 46th Street, in late 1999. The show features elaborate, Tony Award-winning costumes and has starred many well-known actors in its cast over the years. Donny Osmond is scheduled to join the cast on September 19, 2006, playing the narcissistic Gaston. The show will celebrate an impressive landmark when it marks its 5,000 performance on June 20, 2006.

The Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street is currently home to the Disney musical Tarzan. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

Just across the street and slightly down the block from the Lunt-Fontanne, the Richard Rodgers Theatre hosts Disney's newest show, Tarzan, which opened in May 2006. The show has received mixed reviews from critics, however the technical achievements of the production make it a must-see for fans of Disney theatrical productions. Elaborate rigging simulates the vines that Tarzan uses to travel through the jungle, allowing the actors to swing above the stage and out over the audience. This expansion of the musical into vertical space necessitated the addition of choreography beyond the norm; Pichon Baldinu, co-founder of the aerial group De La Guarda (link), is the aerial designer for the production. Fans of the Tarzan film score will be pleased to learn that Phil Collins composed the production's theatrical score, building on his score from the film version.

Located between Seventh and Eighth Avenues at 214 West 42nd Street, the New Amsterdam Theatre is one of Broadway's oldest surviving theaters. Commissioned in 1902, the theater was built in the beaux-arts style and is a visual delight. The New Amsterdam fell into disrepair for many years, and was restored by the Walt Disney Company in the late 1990s, becoming the home of the musical The Lion King in 1998.

The New Amsterdam Theatre, home of The Lion King for almost nine years, will soon host the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

The Lion King musical is a truly magical production, and was the recipient of six Tony Awards in 1998, including Best Musical, Best Director, Best Costume Designer and Best Choreographer. The innovative use of masks and puppets allows the actors to portray the lions, hyenas and other animals of the savannah while still being able to see the actors' facial expressions and clearly hear their voices. The opening sequence of the musical is one of the most emotionally moving pieces of musical theater you will likely ever see.

Now as The Lion King prepares to celebrate its ninth anniversary on Broadway, it's moving down the street to the Minskoff Theatre (at 1515 Broadway), to make way for Mary Poppins, Disney's next arrival to Broadway. Based on the stories by P.L. Travers as well as the Walt Disney film, the musical version of Mary Poppins has been showing in London, where the extremely popular musical will continue in addition to the new production on this side of the Atlantic. The New York production begins previews on October 14 and premieres on November 16, 2006.

Tickets for all of the Disney Broadway productions can be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster links at the Disney on Broadway Web site (link) or by calling the Disney on Broadway hotline at (212) 307-4747 or toll-free (800) 755-4000 (outside New York, New Jersey, Connecticut). You can purchase tickets for all showsat the New Amsterdam box office, avoiding any Ticketmaster fees, or at each individual theater's box office.

All Disney shows are for a general audience and recommended for children 6 and up; every person, regardless of age, must have a ticket to attend. The shows run approximately two and a half hours, including intermission.

Ticket prices (without fees) range from $110 for orchestra seats to $51.25 for rear balcony seats. Standing-room tickets are sold on the day of the performance if it sells out, and are priced at around $25, but only one ticket per person is allowed. The same rule holds true for cancellation tickets; the line for cancellation tickets begins two hours before a performance at the theater box office.

Same-day discounted tickets for some shows may be purchased from TKTS (link), which has two locations: In Times Square, and at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. Available shows are listed on an electronic board, along with the percent discount. Payment at these locations is by cash or travelers check only. If you aren't able to get tickets ahead and don't want to wait in line at TKTS, check out the Times Square Alliance Web site (link), which provides information on other ways to purchase tickets to Broadway shows.

The electronic TKTS information board shows currently available shows along with the applicable discount. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

Although currently on hiatus as the theater changes over for the upcoming production of Mary Poppins, the New Amsterdam hosts tours everyday except Wednesday at 10 a.m., with the addition of an 11 a.m. tour between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The tour covers the long history of the theater and highlights its amazing restoration, as well as providing a backstage view of the current production. Although they are subject to change when the tour resumes, costs are $14 for adults and $7 for children under 12. For up-to-date information on the tour, including current costs and times, call the New Amsterdam Tour hotline at (212) 282-2952.

In addition to the Broadway musicals, the home of ABC's Good Morning America is located in Times Square. The studio is at the intersection where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue, and is hard to miss with its large video screens and scrolling news ticker. For those early-risers with a strong desire to get their faces on television, you can call (212) 580-5176 to make a reservation for the studio audience, or fill out the email form at the GMA Web site (link). The show airs from 7 to 9 a.m. every weekday (there is no studio audience for the weekend edition). If you aren't able to get a reservation, you can still show up at the studio and stand on the sidewalk outside. If the show has an exterior segment, you might get lucky and still have a chance to wave at the camera.

The giant screens above Good Morning America's Times Square studio highlight Disney-Pixar's latest release, Cars. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

Now we head uptown to a piece of Disney cinematic history. You can either walk up Broadway from Times Square, or take the subway to one of several stations nearby. To get to the closest stop, walk one block west from Times Square on 42nd Street to the A, C, E train stop and take the E train to the 53rd Street station at 53rd and Seventh Avenue. From there walk one block west on 53rd Street to Broadway.

Currently host to the stage version of The Color Purple, the Broadway Theater (1681 Broadway at 53rd Street) has a place in Disney history. Originally known as the Colony Theater, it hosted the world premiere of "Steamboat Willie," on November 28, 1928, the first-ever Mickey Mouse cartoon and the first-ever cartoon with synchronized sound. Twelve years later, after it had been renamed the Broadway Theater, it hosted the world premiere of Fantasia on November 13, 1940. The theater is also right next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where The Late Show with David Letterman is filmed.

Once host to two noteworthy Disney premieres, the Broadway Theater currently houses the musical The Color Purple. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

Heading east, cross-town on 53rd Street to Fifth Avenue, past the Museum of Modern Art (recent host to a Pixar 20-Year Retrospective exhibit), and uptown two blocks to 55th Street, our next stop is the World of Disney store. If you've been to one of the other World of Disney stores at Downtown Disney in Orlando or Anaheim, you'll know what to expect here. If you haven't been to one of those other locations, you're in for a treat; this store is a whole lot more than your neighborhood Disney Store. There are three floors of merchandise, including clothing for men, women and children, toys, plush and audiovisual media. In addition to the usual Disney items, the New York City store has exclusive, New York-related merchandise, including clothing, pins and plush. Fans of the build your own Mr. Potato Head toys can also find different accessories here, including a New York City World of Disney shopping bag, New York City subway map, Statue of Liberty headpiece and torch and New York City police hat (see Tony Phoenix's photo tour from the first month after the store opened here).

The facade of the New York City World of Disney store features statues of Mickey, Minnie and Pluto. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

For those interested in art pieces or collectibles, the store features the Art of Disney Gallery up on the third floor. Also on the third floor are kiosks where you can book a Disney vacation and enjoy character meet-and-greets. You don't have to go all the way to Florida or California to say hello to some of your favorite Disney characters. On my most recent visit, Geppetto and Pinocchio were available for photos. The World of Disney Web site (link) maintains a list of characters who will be available on certain dates. The store is also hosting its own "Pirates in the Big Apple" event in July that includes the ability to purchase exclusive merchandise and view the premiere of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Mr. Potato Head fans can get New York exclusive accessories at the World of Disney store. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

The store is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The store also has restrooms and a coat check area in the basement for those planning to stay a while. Clearly more than just a retail location, the World of Disney store is worth a visit, and may take up a few hours of your time if you're not careful!

Finally, for those who are fans of the Eloise at the Plaza movies, adapted by Disney from Hilary Knight's books, the Plaza Hotel is a short four-block walk up Fifth Avenue from the World of Disney store, at the southeast corner of Central Park. Unfortunately, the hotel is no longer open to the public, as it is currently undergoing renovations to become upscale private residences. The hotel was used for some of the filming of the Disney television movies, and was once home to a charming Eloise gift shop. An original oil painting by Hilary Knight of the titular character hung opposite the Palm Court, however it is unclear if this area will be accessible to the public when the Plaza reopens. There is a plaque on the northeast corner of the building, placed there in 1998, designating the Plaza as a literary landmark and commemorating it as the home of Eloise.

With its restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre serving as the catalyst for the revitalization of Times Square, the Walt Disney Company now holds a prominent place in the landscape of New York City. In 2006, there will be four Disney-produced musicals on Broadway, providing a wide range of entertainment opportunities for Disney fans. The addition of landmarks in Disney history, as well as a unique shopping opportunity on one of the most famous shopping streets in the world provide a wealth of possibilities to fit Disney-related activities into your next trip to the Big Apple.

Useful Information: for up-to-date news and information on buying tickets to Disney's Broadway shows

Disney On Broadway Hotline: (212) 307-4747 or (800) 755-4000 outside of NY, NJ, CT

Beauty and the Beast
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th St. (between Broadway and 8th Ave.)

The Lion King
Minskoff Theatre: 1515 Broadway (between Broadway & 45th St.), (212) 869-0550

Richard Rodgers Theatre: 226 West 46th St., between Broadway & 8th Ave. (map), (212) 307-4747

Mary Poppins (opening November, 2006)
New Amsterdam Theatre: 214 W. 42nd St. (between 7th & 8th Ave.), (212) 282-9200
Tour hotline: (212) 282-2952

Good Morning America studios. 1500 Broadway (between 43rd and 44th St.), (212) 580-5176

Broadway Theater
1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.), (212) 239-6200

World of Disney Store
711 Fifth Ave. (at 5th and 55th), (212) 702-0702

Plaza Hotel
768 5th Ave (between 58th St. and Central Park South)