Thursday, November 08, 2007

(Definitely Not) Definitive Disney

OK, we made it. We overcame adversity and survived. We’re back home now, I’m feeling better. Our digestive systems are slowly coming back on line as we reintroduce formerly familiar materials and substances. And now that we’re through the week, we have license to look back through rose-colored glasses and say it was nothing short of spectacular, a must-do, a birthright for the children of this great nation, and to offer up some hints and suggestions for those who may choose to follow us to the place Where Dreams Come True.

Let’s start with the kids, who absolutely loved it. As I observed the other day, they are the reason we do this, why we spend the money, sacrifice precious vacation time, endure sugar-fueled tantrums, frayed nerves and dog-tired walks out of theme parks after nightfall. The smiles on their faces and light of uniquely Disney-inspired amazement sparkling in their eyes makes it seem eminently reasonable to trade a leisurely week spent somewhere like the Villa d’Este or Four Seasons Nevis for thrill rides, cotton candy, parades, crowds and books filled with crudely scrawled autographs, courtesy of large costumed characters.

We actually began negotiating the timing of a return trip over breakfast yesterday morning, before we even left, during the last of three “character meals” we experienced during our visit. Ava started things off by saying that she wanted to “live” in our hotel, but we convinced her to return home with the rest of us. Madison was seeking a firm commitment we would come back next year, and Gwen (who actually did enjoy basically all elements of the vacation – don’t worry, we’re going to investigate counseling, once we decide which one of us really needs it) supported Madison’s timing. I was comfortable committing to a return within three to five years. We coalesced around the notion of two, which gives me plenty of time to individually lobby the other members of our group behind the scenes, while building alliances and investigating selectively-appealing alternatives.

Let’s start with a few broad points. We stayed in the Beach Club, which is next to the Yacht Club, in a section of the property just steps away from the back entrance of Epcot, and a short ferry ride away from MGM. There are buses to the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, and they were relatively frequent and easy to manage. The key advantages, as far as we could tell, to staying in this area are that the better food (wink, wink) is located in Epcot, and also these hotels are within easy walking distance of the Boardwalk, which features still another hotel and a number of additional dining options, an ice cream and candy shop, ESPN Zone and other attractions.

The best food we had all week, and it really was very good (not winking, not winking), was at a restaurant called the Flying Fish Café on the Boardwalk. We went there on Monday night and it was so good we booked a return engagement the following night. There are cool old-fashioned multi-passenger bicycles for rent on the Boardwalk, and it’s a fun loop, especially for a family after dinner.

The other major benefit of staying at the Beach or Yacht Club is the massive pool complex that the hotels share, which is phenomenal. At least three or four different pools, all very close to each other and sand-bottomed. There’s a lazy river in the mix, too. We hit this spot on the afternoon we arrived and two other times over the course of the week and it was a real highlight of the trip. Even the girls appreciated the opportunity to amp down the sensory overload of the parks and splash around in the water or grab some quiet time on a lounge.

The major downside of this lodging choice is that is it not on the monorail, and as noted above we had to rely on buses to get back and forth to the Magic Kingdom, which was a little bit of a hassle, particularly when returning after late nights in the park. Ava, our 4-year-old, typically fell asleep on these bus rides, and I had to carry her from the hotel bus stop through the lobby and back up to our room. I did not notice an itemized charge on our bill for the crushed vertebrae, but I haven’t seen a final statement yet.

It should come as no surprise that the good people of Disney have really perfected many elements of the park-going and revenue-generating experience. As a child, I remember my parents buying books of different-colored tickets and then using these precious documents to gain admission to individual rides. Later on they moved to a “pay for entrance and ride anything you want” model. Now, with four different parks, they offer a “park hopper” admission that lets visitors wander across all locations for a designated number of days.

A one-day pass is about $75 for an adult (less for kids) and that goes to about $150 for a two-day pass, but at that point the incremental expense of additional park privileges becomes negligible. We bought 5-day park-hoppers, and the cost of adding a sixth day onto our passes would have been something like an extra $2 for each of us. So if you think there is even a remote chance you might want to go back into the park on a travel day, maybe to grab a final ride or two in the morning before the lines kick in, it probably makes sense to pay up front for the option.

The other new money-making scheme nice thing for the kids that Disney has recently added is pin-trading with park employees, who are called “Cast Members.” These little ornamental pins are sold everywhere – in the hotel gift shops, park stores, at little kiosks that line the walkways linking all the rides and attractions. Kids purchase a kind of pin-holding ribbon that they wear around their necks, displaying their current collection, dedicated to specific characters, rides, etc. Cast Member also wear little pin-display cloths, and the legend goes that they cannot refuse any trade request from a visitor, so kids can go up and demand an exchange, offer whatever pin they want and get one in return from a cast member.

Whoever came up with this new revenue stream must be Disney’s employee of the millennium, because the girls did $100 worth of damage at one of these kiosks in about five minutes, then Ava proceeded to trade away her most expensive pin almost immediately, before we were able to assert parental privilege and stop the insanity. I got to feel like Scott Boras for a minute, which was a nice little perk, although I never saw my 10 percent.

Here are some suggestions, based on our experiences.

If you are staying at a hotel on property, or nearby, take advantage of this proximity by getting into the parks early and focusing on the important window from 9 to 11 a.m., before the throng arrives. You can get a whole afternoon’s activity accomplished during these two hours, when it’s not necessary to fight lines or crowds, particularly on the high-demand rides.

“Fast Pass” is another nice option they’ve added in recent years, which essentially gives visitors the option of holding one VIP “no waiting” pass to a single ride, during a defined time period. If there is a particularly long wait for one of the big-ticket rides, which offer Fast Pass, visitors can go to a little kiosk near the admission area, insert their card, and receive a printed pass to return to that ride within a one-hour period (usually at least an hour later) and basically walk right on. You can only hold one Fast Pass at a time, across all of the rides in the park, so it pays to use this option judiciously.

Epcot – in addition to the countries section of Epcot, which allows visitors to experience many of the world’s great nations during a short walk around a manufactured lake in central Florida, the park features a number of rides and attractions.

Soarin’ – great ride, maybe my favorite of the week, and Madison loved it as well. Ava was too young and walked out in tears, terrorized by the notion that one of her new Disney Crocs was going to fall off her feet while she was flying over the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t want to give too much away, or spoil anything for anyone, trust me when I say this is well worth experiencing. And it was even better the second time around, the night before we left, after a couple of glasses of wine at dinner.

The Seas with Nemo & Friends – this was actually our first ride of the trip, and it was a nice gentle landing for the girls, who immediately demanded we go on it again.

Turtle Talk With Crush – the novelty here seems to be that Crush from Finding Nemo (who appears on a screen) can actually see and interact with the real little kids fanned out in front of him. This extended Q&A gets a little tiresome, I’ve never heard the word “dude” so many times in one sitting, but the kids seemed to like it.

Test Track – Ava’s favorite ride of the week, up to six passengers sitting in a car going through various “test track” paces – accelerating, braking, bumpy roads. The ride ends outside, flying around an actual track at speeds in excess of 60 miles-per-hour, another terrific new attraction.

Magic Kingdom
– no real mystery here, all the usual suspects. Some of the old favorites very much reflect their age, others were newer and better. The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was a fun little roller-coaster, probably Ava’s second favorite ride.

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Cinderella's Castle - a highlight of the trip, without question. Madison and Ava picked out dresses and were made up like princesses. Worked out well because we did this in the afternoon before going to Mickey's "Not So Scary" Halloween Parade/Event, and the day before their princess breakfast in Epcot's Norway, so we got additional mileage out of the hair extensions and dresses, which cost more than our flights. I'm not kidding. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, "and that's all I have to say about that."

“it’s a small world” – obligatory, especially with young kids, and the ride feels just as old as it is, going on 40 years now. Ava liked it, before she started making fun of it. She's 4.

Peter Pan’s Flight – see note above relative to a ride feeling as old as it is.

Dumbo the Flying Elephant – kids loved it, another very long line most of the time, but sort of a command performance. Basically a circle of elephants that fly around a central axis, glorified carnival ride. But the kids can control how high they fly using a little joystick in each compartment, which only adds to the madcap fun.

Ariel’s Grotto – get here early, right after the park opens, and meet Ariel for autograph signings and photos before the lines get really unmanageable. This is really the only reliable way to meet this fin-bound character for an autograph and photo, since she can't exactly wander around a breakfast, and Disney has so far resisted the temptation to relegate her to flopping around the floor of a restaurant. We got to this spot very early, right after 9 a.m., and it was the one line of the week that Did Not Move. We almost bailed a number of times but stayed the course and ultimately triumphed in our Little Mermaid quest.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - Ava liked this, particularly the black light effect at the end that made her white sweater glow.

Minnie’s Country House - interesting, crowded, leads to a long line and a character signing/photo opportunity. Mickey's house next door was closed for renovations, prompting Ava, who is still apparently scarred from our own home improvement projects, to ask whether he was getting a new kitchen or basement.

Tomorrowland Indy Speedway - let your kids drive, they can't do much damage here, can't go too fast, although it gets interesting when the ride ends and the cars collide into each other waiting to disembark in the pits.

Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin - fun. Aim at the Zs. We went on this a few times.

Walt Disney World Railroad - the standard, a good way to get around. Nice peaceful respite and it's fun to try to convince your kids that the Indians camped out along one section of the tracks are real.

Animal Kingdom – this is basically a half-day park, which is to say if you get in there when it opens around 9 a.m. and experience everything worth doing you can be out the door and on your way somewhere else by 1 or 2 p.m. The main attraction is the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which is an actual bus ride (you are not in cart, being pulled by a chain) in and around various animal exhibits. Real animals, memorable animals, who are apparently most active in the morning. Get to the park early, dash over to this ride and either board immediately or grab a Fast Pass and you’ve accomplished most of what you need to do here.

It’s Tough to be a Bug! – fun little show, the audience is given 3-D glasses, which make things even more interesting. There are some cool surprises here I don’t want to ruin. We waited about 20 minutes to get into this attraction, and I was glad in the end it wasn't 40, because at that point I might have had a problem with the cost-benefit analysis.

Pagani Forest Exploration Trail - they talk you into this after you exit the safari, in my opinion it was a waste, and was particularly tight and frustrating when pushing a stroller in a crowd. There is a cool Gorilla, though.

Festival of the Lion King – great show, one of the highlights of our morning at Animal Kingdom. Lively and fun and terrific for the kids, who get involved in the action at the end. This was well worth doing.

Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends – another good option for the kids. The girls sat in the front row and were mesmerized by Pocahontas and her talking tree. You can see Ava in her blue hat (Disney branded, thank you) in the front row in this photo.

Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant – we had dinner in here one night, one of those signature eat-in-the-dark Disney dining experiences, but if you can get over not really being able to see your food this was an interesting option. The tables are in cars, and the setting is a drive-in theater showing science fiction movies from the 1950s. The girls got a kick out of it.

Voyage of The Little Mermaid - nice little show, girls enjoyed it.

The Magic of Disney Animation - this was actually a very interesting experience, the visitors get desks and paper and are taught to draw a famous figure of Disney animation. Madison and Ava's class drew Mickey Mouse, and even though he came out looking like a bizarre set of circles, they liked it.

Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage - great show. MGM is show-heavy, and this one was memorable.

Fantasmic! – another terrific performance, worth a visit to MGM in itself. Films projected on spraying water, special effects, lasers, fireworks, Mickey stars in a classic battle of good vs. evil. Guess who wins?

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith – Madison loved this roller coaster, to our great amazement. Ava wasn’t tall enough (48-inch height requirement, vigorously enforced) and was reduced to tears as a result. Gwen soothed her frustrations by getting her some frozen lemonade and a Belle tattoo while Madison and I enjoyed the initial blast-off the ride is famous for, zero to 60 in about two seconds - and the initial flight continues just long enough for riders to wonder whether it's ever going to stop. Nice unsettling little moment, Walt would have been proud.

Yes, it was an active week. Let me close on a photo that Ava took, at our "character dinner" in the Magic Kingdom's Crystal Palace. I think this sums up the week, and the Disney experience, as well as anything. Yes, that's her finger to the upper left. You want a concrete example of the magic of Disney? Here it is, through the eyes of a 4-year-old.


Blogger Sugee Andersyn said...

LMAOOO That last picture is awesome!! hahaha

4:09 PM  

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