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On Leap Day tens of thousands of Disnerds flooded Magic Kingdom parks, open 24 hours for the first time ever

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Pop quiz: A quadrennial chrono-logical quirk extends February by a day. What do you do with your bonus time?

For tens of thousands of theme park fans, the answer was “One More Disney Day.” That was the moniker the Mouse House applied to last Wednesday’s shameless – and shockingly successful – Leap Day bid for social-media buzz. For the first time, Magic Kingdom parks in Florida and California stayed open from 6 a.m. Feb. 29 until 6 a.m. March 1, granting die-hard Disnerds the chance to spend 24 solid hours in fantasyland.

After an initial rush of early birds who lined up pre-dawn, attendance through mid-afternoon appeared typical for an off-season weekday. But by early evening, guests began arriving in force, snarling traffic to the ticket center. When I arrived around 11 p.m. the masses were still streaming in, leading to Christmas week-style gridlock on Main Street USA. Crowds at Walt Disney World remained thick through the wee hours; when I left around 5 a.m., there were thousands (including a stunning number of school-age children) still going strong. And as crowded as Florida’s park was, it was nothing compared to the 106,000 fans who descended on Disneyland Resort (as reported by MiceAge’s Al Lutz), halting ticket sales and snarling traffic for miles along Anaheim’s interstate.

So, what do you do for 24 hours at Disney? For some, the attractions were the attraction: At 2 a.m., wait times exceeded an hour for popular rides like Space Mountain. I actually queued for Tomorrowland’s PeopleMover, a ride famous for never having a wait, even in peak season. (The reviled Stitch’s Great Escape show still had no takers, though.) Others were into meeting rarely seen versions of their favorite furry friends, with a 100-minute wait at 4 a.m. to see Mickey and Minnie in their pajamas.

I found the social aspect most alluring; though I only planned to stay an hour, I ended up spending six because I kept finding friends from the fan community. At midnight, I ate BabyCakes NYC brownies with Len Testa (co-author of my Disneyland guidebook) and about five dozen followers of his TouringPlans.com website. At 2 a.m., I invaded the Haunted Mansion with 50 others, led by “Inside the Magic” podcaster Ricky Brigante. In between, I attended a raucous performance of the Country Bear Jamboree alongside Robb Alvey and his punch-drunk Theme Park Review crew.

The newest attraction available that night was Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, an interactive game recently installed throughout the park. When I arrived, a line of guests stretched from the Main Street’s firehouse nearly to city hall, all waiting to register and receive their free (yes, free at Disney!) pack of cards. Similar to Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering, Disney’s “magic spell” cards each depict a different cartoon character, along with attributes like “attack” or “shield.” Your objective is to find video portals hidden in windows and facades around the park, which spring to life with the wave of a card. Villains appear onscreen, and you vanquish them by holding one or more of your spell cards up to an image-recognition camera. Depending on your card, the baddie is blasted by an animated army of Fantasia brooms, Dalmatian pupsor Pumba farts (!), and you are directed toward another portal to repeat.

SotMK (as it’s already been dubbed) has unfulfilled potential. The image-recognition technology is nifty, the portals are cleverly integrated with existing decor, and some of the onscreen artwork is good, though the animation is Saturday-morning stiff. But unlike Epcot’s similar Kim Possible game, you are led by the nose from location to location with no real storyline, puzzle-solving or exploration involved. Worst, the portals attract substantial slow-moving lines, so guests ahead of you will spoil any surprises.

Despite my misgivings, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom seems well-received, unlike Epcot’s recently shuttered Habit Heroes.Ostensibly an educational exhibit encouraging exercise, the Blue Cross-sponsored attraction closed only days after its debut. It got blasted for anti-fat prejudice, since the cartoon villains players battled using Kinect-style video games were all morbidly obese. Size-ism aside, I was more offended by the attraction’s attempt to combat kids’ addictions to “screens” (iPhones, TVs) with … bigger, fancier screens. I go to Disney for immersive environments and animatronics, not to play glorified Wii games. When asked to sequelize his hit Three Little Pigs, Walt refused, saying, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” Today, I’d add, “You can’t beat screens with screens.”

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