We’ve said it many times before, but the theme park community is blessed by an abundance of great photographers. While we don’t like to toss around the word “hero” lightly, these talented men and women covering the parks we love are Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to the debut of new hotels, rides, and maybe most importantly – cupcakes. A theme park photographer is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. (Well, at least here in Florida. Out in California they are more on banker’s hours and don’t even think about asking them to work weekends.)
One photographer who stands out – even among this elite crowd – is @bioreconstruct. Taking pictures both on the ground and 3,000 feet in the air, Bio is quite possibly more machine than man. Bio covers all the parks in Central Florida on a seemingly daily basis, while also making frequent trips out to California for Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood updates. Bio is also THE guy you want to be following for amazing updates during any runDisney race. His photos have been seen on websites across the globe (including Croatia) because they give such a unique perspective on the parks we love.
For years I have been trying to get Bio to do an article on his favorite aerial photos. I have my favorites (with the overhead view of the entire Disneyland Resort being tops in my book), but what are his favorites? Unfortunately, he politely declined after every request. In fact, he declined so many times that I just stopped asking. Then, out of nowhere, I get a message from Bio. Sent you the article on my favorite aerials. That is Bio in a nutshell.
BIO: Derek Burgan here at TouringPlans asked if I had favorite aerial photos, and if I would share six of them in an article. You may know me as one of Derek’s photo minions. I was reluctant to write an article at first. There are so many good photos to choose from! I also try to stay behind the camera on Twitter. Just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man here. A web slinger, sharing photos with friends. It’s hard for my friends — the real bloggers, like Derek — to be everywhere at all times. So I try to catch stories and changes they would otherwise not be able to report as well.
I’ve had a long time interest in aerial and satellite photographs. I’d buy books on the subject and devour them. I would paw through the various online maps. I would study any aerial photo I came across very intensely. Also, anytime a helicopter tour was available – Hoover Dam for example – I would take flight to get my own aerial photos to study.
Every so often I would take a helicopter tour of Orlando area attractions. It started back in 1994 when I flew over Disney to make a course overview video for the very first Walt Disney World Marathon. A few years ago a flight over the Volcano Bay construction was especially good, and I began to fly that route regularly. I gradually flew more and more, practically weekly in 2018.
It was a lot tougher making the choices than I thought it would be, but here are my six favorite aerial photos and their stories.
# 6 – Opening Day of VOLCANO BAY
I rarely have a plan for flights. It’s very arbitrary, based on weather and hunches that I might see something significant. Volcano Bay had a lot of last minute construction, and I began to fly weekly to see the final changes. Team Member testing of the operating procedures was just days before opening. I flew during the testing, and it was exciting to see people in the water. They were working, but they were also having fun. I was keen on getting opening day photos with actual guests in the water, but also wanted to be in the park on opening day. It was going to be an anything can happen day, with rain a possible factor.
How Volcano Bay operated was brand new to everyone. There was no soft opening for guests. Everything about a guest visit is based on the Tapu Tapu electronic wristband, and that itself brought a lot of questions. If I rented a locker, it was tied to my Tapu Tapu, but I wanted to leave the park after the grand opening ceremonies and return later, after the flight. However, Tapu Tapu are returned upon exiting. If I exited the park, what would happen to my locker? Would it be considered open and released to the next person renting? Or would my locker be available to me with a new Tapu Tapu on my return? The park had also reached capacity, was I even going to be allowed to re-enter?
Chatted with many Team Members, who assured me the locker was actually tied to my annual pass. Even so, I had doubts that this system was going to work. I left minimal items in the locker, and left the park. I looked at the locker content as some insurance to be able to re-enter while the park was at capacity, as I could just tell the Team Members that I had a need to retrieve personal property.
To minimize time away, I traveled by Uber to the helicopter operator. Uber from the CityWalk bus loop eliminated the time walking to/from parking, as well as time needed to get back through the toll plaza and being directed to a spot in the parking garages.
Flew the helicopter tour, and got opening day photos. Hopped into another Uber back to CityWalk. While the Uber was in transit I quickly chose some photos to post on Twitter. (DEREK NOTE: Always remember one of the key tenets to theme park blogging is the ability to multi-task. Another tenet is being able to eat enough sugar in one sitting that would generally kill a large mammal, but we will get to that in another article.)
Returned to the park. I had stepped out about 90 minutes. Sure enough, the locker was tied to my new Tapu Tapu. Enjoyed the rest of the day at Volcano Bay, and finished sharing photos afterward.
It was a spectacular sunny day on Volcano Bay’s opening. This photo captures the sunshine and the first guests enjoying the park. Look to the lower left of this photo and you can see the opening day stage on the beach.
# 5 – Guitar Building, Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida
A college friend sent a photo he took from a flight at the Ft Lauderdale airport. It showed the guitar shaped room tower under construction at Seminole Hard Rock Casino Hollywood Florida, near the airport. The building was huge, way above the tree line, and very identifiable as a guitar. I needed to see this in person, from the air. Arranged a charter flight.
Weather turned out to be worrisome. Luckily, the flight was between waves of a set of coastal storm fronts.
Helicopter flight path between the operator and the Casino crossed — guess what — the flight paths of runways at the Ft Lauderdale airport. Yes! Of course. I knew this well, from the photo sent by my friend. So both ways the helicopter needed to orbit in a holding pattern before the Air Traffic Controller gave permission to cross. Well, that’s an experience, crossing in front of runways of a major airport.
The guitar structure is almost complete in this photo. It’s an incredible design. The flight circled it twice. On landing I quickly chose some photos and tweeted them minutes before heavy rain plowed through the area.
The exterior has since been completed. Grand opening is October 24.
# 4 – Porsches in the Universal Studios Hollywood Backlot
I’ve visited Universal Studios Hollywood countless times. I used to work several weeks at a time in LA, and used to visit USH and other parks every weekend.
USH had its first 5K this year. I thought it would be fun to get same day aerial photos to compare what was seen during the race a few hours earlier.
Negotiated a route with a charter helicopter operator. Plan was also fly over Walt Disney Imagineering, Dreamworks Animation, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers Studios. When I got the contract I was surprised and thrilled it was going to be a doorless flight. Quickly bought a harness for the camera. That is, a strap connecting the camera at the tripod mount to a chest harness. A harness for flight safety. The reason for a doorless flight is there is no window curvature blurring things; also no reflections. Charter companies there fly for movies and TV all the time. Doorless flying is just routine.
The flight was perfect. Nice sunny day, just a few clouds with light shadows adding drama to the lighting.
Last location of my charter was Universal Studios Hollywood. I hoped to catch some production. It was a Saturday, who knows? The pilot and I spotted the large number of vehicles in the back lot. Oboy! Production. First thing we thought was it must be some sort of chase scene. However, there were cars throughout the back lot. The city streets. The Western streets. The Little Europe streets. This was odd.
We’re flying by fast, no lingering, so we don’t notice details like you can see here. Do you see tour buses? People in lines? Some cars parking, while other cars are arranged for display?
It turned out to be a one-day, very large, Porsche enthusiast event. Luftgekuhlt 6. All of these cars seen are Porsche.
Wow! This photo and others caught a very unique perspective of a very unique day in the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot. Looking at this photo just makes me smile. I love the tram tour, and know all these facades well.
Another thing to spot in this photo is Hill Valley town square from the Back to the Future movies.
# 3 – All of Epcot
You’ve probably seen concept artwork published while Epcot was being built. An overview of all of Epcot. A beautiful painting of Spaceship Earth in foreground, and World Showcase on the horizon around the Lagoon.
This photo doesn’t have the same angle as the artwork, but it captures all of Epcot and some of the surrounding resort area. Huge additions over the decades.
This photo also has changes in progress, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy coaster, new tram loops, and the upcoming replacement for IllumiNations. Also seen is Riviera Resort along with the Disney Skyliner station located there. At lower right is a recently added water management canal, a new bridge, and a mystery clearing.
There’s a lot to spot in this photo. I like this photo because it’s something like aerial photos seen in some of the Imagineering history books. A moment in the history of Walt Disney World.
# 2 – Millennium Falcon at Disneyland. The Fence!
There’s so much story about this photo of the Millennium Falcon at Disneyland, just weeks before Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opened.
Best story of all, is that this photo was the very first published showing a fence around the Millennium Falcon. It surprised us all! (DEREK NOTE: Read more about the Smuggler’s Run fence in the official Do’s and Don’ts of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.)
This was a complicated flight to arrange, not to mention being the most expensive helicopter flight I’ve ever done. It almost didn’t happen, too.
I had arranged a charter flight. Plan was I would land in LA, get to the operator, fly over Disneyland, then enjoy a day at the park.
Los Angeles sometimes has marine layers. Low clouds that come off the cool Pacific, collide with the surrounding mountains, and linger. I was disappointed as the flight from Orlando changed from clear skies over Palm Springs change to solid clouds over the Los Angeles area. As the jet descended to the airport I could see the cloud layer was thin, and hoped the ceiling was 4,000 feet. 3,000 feet is needed to fly over Disneyland.
Arrived at the helicopter operator and chatted options. Clouds right at 3,000 feet, can’t fly over Disneyland with that ceiling. Good chance the marine layer would burn away. I then sat in the lobby and watched the sky for hours. Sometimes there would be a break in the clouds, blue sky. However, the ceiling was still too low. The only person who knew I was planning to fly over Disneyland was Derek Burgan, he was following this wait via my Direct Messages in Twitter.
Eventually the ceiling raised enough to fly.
They started the helicopter, and then I was escorted to board. It was very confusing. They were seating me in back. I normally sit up front where I can aim the camera both to the side and directly ahead. I raised concern, and they pointed out that my door in back had been removed. A doorless flight!
You may have read in this article earlier that I bought a harness for a Universal Studios Hollywood flight. This Disneyland flight was 4 days before that flight.
I told the escort: I have a harness! Can I get it? We quickly returned to the office, I rummaged through my bag, and wore the harness.
I had ridden doorless before. Multiple times on the Bat Copter at the Florida State Fair. (The actual Bat Copter from the 1960’s Batman movie.) However, doorless at 3,000 feet was something! I’m not afraid of heights. However, a few times during the flight I got wide-eyed. I couldn’t believe I was 3,000 feet, open air, above Disneyland. Wow. It also was very windy. Very cold and windy. I had been instructed not to hold my camera outside the door. Really, it wasn’t possible due to the force of the wind from the rotating blades. The downward air velocity made a solid invisible wall the lens would bounce off of.
We could see people milling near the ship. A quick guess is it was a cast preview. It turned out that marketing production was in progress. The people milling around are actors. When you see stock video of guests at the Millennium Falcon, and it’s not crowded, and the sky is white, chances are someone you know from this article was taking a photo of the scene 3,000 feet above.
As soon as I landed I made quick choices for photos to tweet. Got an Uber to the hotel. Darted to Disneyland. A few hours later began tweeting more from the flight.
# 1 – Parade at Magic Kingdom
My most favorite aerial, from early this year. It’s as good as any aerial photo published by Walt Disney World.
I’m very pleased with this photo. It captures the entire parade, from castle hub to Town Square.
I wish I had a story to tell here. It’s just a lucky shot from a charter flight. Sometimes photos just stand beautifully on their own.
HONORABLE MENTION – Epcot at Night
It wouldn’t be a SATURDAY SIX unless there was a bonus in the article, so we’ll include this fan favorite.
In fact, this nighttime Epcot aerial is one of the most popular photos I’ve taken this year. The backstory behind it begins at top of the new Gran Destino tower in Coronado Springs. The upper floors at Destino have some splendid views of Walt Disney World, and it was surprising how bright the construction lighting was in the nearby Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Now, nighttime flights are incredibly tough to shoot. Focus is much harder in low light, and the aircraft is always moving. However, SW:GE was so brightly lit I figured it would be worth giving it the old college try…and I’m glad I did.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was so exciting to see at night! All the cranes and workers made it seem like a busy spaceport. Seen above is the Millennium Falcon with construction lighting. The flight also passed by Epcot, so I tweeted some shots and they were immediately some of the most popular aerials I’ve ever posted.
In several ways, the Epcot at night aerial is actually a farewell photo. Major changes start in September for the Innoventions area, and Epcot won’t look like this for much longer.
Derek here. Talk about some great shots! I want to thank @bioreconstruct again for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this fascinating insight into his world. I say that knowing full well that many years from now I’m going to be informed that Bio never actually existed, and instead was a construct that my brain created which combined the best parts of a dozen bloggers and photographers.
So there you have it: @bioreconstruct’s favorite aerials! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2019 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it?That’s right, ANOTHER NEW ONE EXCLUSIVE TO THIS EDITION!Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!