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    Walt Disney World Trip Report, with photos! (Parts 1&2 - Jan 7th - 10th)

    Walt Disney World 2012 Part One
    Florida equals Disney vacation
    It’s been a few years since we’ve been to Walt Disney World; three, as a matter of fact. While that’s not exactly the blink of an eye, it’s a fraction of the decade between my two most previous visits, and even longer for Megan. Last time around, it was a world of discovery - new attractions, new restaurants, (new parks for her), and a whole new set of interests given our jump from adolescence to what passes for adulthood. Not only was the resort different, we had changed a quite a bit too, and we were finally on our own to uncover what it meant to be adults at Disney World. We knew even then it wasn’t just a place for kids, thanks to our handful of visits to Disneyland over the years prior. We’d long since revealed and reveled in a plethora of grown up-centric attractions and activities that easily dispelled the myth that Disney was just for kids. Don’t get me wrong, the nostalgia and kid-at-heart moments will often find us on the teacups or a dark ride in Fantasyland – but it might be after a trip to the wine bar. What we saw in our 2009 visit (and what you can read about in the review and guide) was all about re-learning Disney World. There was so much to re-experience and revisit through older (and maybe even wiser) sets of eyes that I felt it really needed to be captured as such. I considered it a catalog of the Disney World experience, if you will. But this time around, we knew much more about what we were getting into.
    Tokyo Disneyland - eerily similar, awesomely different
    We were also making this visit with a more complete Disney resume. A summertime visit of a lifetime to Japan gave us three days at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort. Check out the details of that experience (and see the parks for yourself!) and you’ll see why we feel like we’ve got a reliable Disney acumen, at least a little more than the last time we were in Orlando anyway. Throw in three Disneyland visits over the last three years, and we had a lot of updated comparisons to make. This is what I hope you’ll see as I describe this week-long vacation. The eye-opening rediscovery of Disney World is under our belts. We’ve been there, experienced it, and are back for more this time around. There’s no need to dwell on descriptions, but rather I can provide a play by play that more accurately reflects the experience of visiting. Don’t worry, the usual details, tips, and what I hope approaches insight are still there, but in the more natural ‘as it happens’ flow. The plan was no less involved for this visit (actually, it was a bit more so), but it was considerably less of a shot in the dark. We had a much better sense of the resort, our options, and our capacity to take it all in. With that and our Disney best practices engrained and on display as early as the planning process, we sketched it all out. First and foremost, our number one key to Disney awesomeness is to go during the offseason. If you’re making your first visit and can’t possibly fathom an iconic attraction or two being closed for maintenance, maybe you’d prefer fighting the summer crowds while getting on every last possible ride. For us, it was an easy tradeoff to accept a few seasonal rehabs in order to enjoy a fraction of the crowds. We saw no reason not to revisit during the very same week, the second week of January. Most folks are fighting post-holidays depression (and hangovers), and only a crazy person would cash in a week’s worth of vacation right after a long break. That thinking is exactly why it’s one of the best times of the year to make a visit. We’d be doing so again with the official marathon in town, but we found the last thing thousands of marathoners want to do after a race is traipse around a theme park. The day of the race last time was the quietest I’ve ever seen a Disney park.
    We enjoyed a magical day among the French
    Pretty much everywhere else, we were doing things a little differently. We’d be spending half the week as an official family vacation, with my parents flying down from New York. We’d even made a prior Disney visit, a single day at Disneyland Paris in 2008. Things went mostly smoothly as we knew better than to synchronize our park time. Let’s just say they have a different (i.e., less-manic) approach to touring. Regardless, we’d be able to do a good number of rides, all the major meals, and even go in on lodging together. That was another nice change, a major upgrade in accommodations. Our dollars went plenty far at the Pop Century last time, but my folks were looking for something a little more comfortable. This meant sharing a suite at the Saratoga Springs, my first overnight exposure beyond the Value resort level. Sure, we’d be relegated to the pull-out in the living room, but we considered even that an upgrade. Once they left, we’d be back on our own at the same economy digs, but it would be nice to see how the other half lived for at least a few days. The last change was partaking in a full-on package. Booked through my parents’ travel agent (yes, they still exist), we were looking at a combo of tickets, room, and meal plans. We did the math, multiple times over, and as long as we took modest advantage of what was essentially pre-purchased food, we’d be coming out ahead. The Saratoga Springs portion provided us a table service meal each day, along with a snack and quick meal, the budget half of the week still had a plan, but it was two quick meals and a snack. Still, it seemed reasonable for the price, even if we had to pay for - but pocket – the latter package’s tickets for a future visit. Our general itinerary was primarily based on the Extra Magic Hour schedule. I know most guide books and touring plans will tell you to avoid a park on a Magic Hour Day, and with good reason, since it draws resort guests for the day. I look at it as more of an even tradeoff – larger crowds are the cost for extra time in the parks. But the way we see these parks, it never seemed like a huge issue to me. Besides, lighter crowds in the offseason make a lot of the touring plan concerns somewhat moot, and our early mornings and smart use of Fastpass generally leave us with few missed attractions. It all means we’re just happy to get an hour extra here and there during the week. As you’ll see, we rarely encounter waits anyway, so we might as well get a longer day. We wouldn’t be able to do everything with my parents over their three days, but considering they visit every few years, they were cool hitting the highlights and the few new things. It seemed everyone’s favorite was Epcot, and that they really hadn’t done Animal Kingdom justice, so we’d be giving a full day at each. Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom would have to share a day, but they’ve done both those parks several times over in the last 20-plus years. Megan and I followed the hours again for our extra three days. It worked out quite well, seeing as we could split a day between Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios to fill in anything we missed, and then have full days at Magic Kingdom and Epcot to finish out the week. Nothing was set in stone, but it did happen to match what we ended up doing over our six days in 2009 – we were looking at two half-days at Hollywood Studios, a full day and a half-day each at Animal and Magic Kingdoms, and two full days at Epcot. Once the packages were booked, the itinerary sketched out, and the airfare purchased, it was a simple matter of playing the waiting game. Fortunately we had the holidays (and a separate east coast swing for Megan and me) to keep us busy, but we still found ourselves counting down the days. It was a mere nine days back in California after Christmas, and we turned right back around and headed for what we hoped would be yet another Disney trip of a lifetime. Day 1 – Saturday, January 7th Our expedition started early, but not bright, with a 3:30am wake up. To be able to enjoy an afternoon and evening on the east coast, you’ve got to be on the first flight out in the morning. The long flight time and loss of three hours takes up much of the day, and we were making a connection to boot. Mom and Dad had a much simpler route, a direct flight from Newark scheduled to arrive an hour or so before us. The only real concern was connecting through Denver without incident. We’d been checking the weather, and thanks to the mild winter nationwide, there would be no delays. In fact, we spent the entirety of both cross-country legs enjoying the benefit of first class upgrades. Thanks to all the traveling in 2011, we hit the Premier level with United, and lucked out with the undersold early flights. It meant a little more legroom, and little peace and quiet, and an extra boozy start to the vacation. Getting into Orlando ahead of schedule, we narrowed the gap with my parents. As we touched down, they were getting on the Magical Express bus, so we were right behind them. Greeted by sunshine and palm trees, arriving in Florida is a sigh of relief, but we still had some logistics to deal with. The Magical Express experience went smoothly enough last time, and somehow, it was even easier this time around. Once we were off the shuttle from the satellite, we eventually found the right floor, and were told to skip the check in desk and go right to the bus queue after showing our passes. It was barely a pause there, and not a minute after directing us to the proper queue, they loaded us onto a bus with a few other folks. Not five minutes later, we were on the road, and were officially headed to Disney World. Crossing the border onto Disney property some fifteen minutes later, it would be the last of the real world we would see until our ride back to the airport, in almost exactly one week. But leaving was the last thing on our minds, and we marveled at the switch in scenery once we were officially in Walt Disney World. All the while, the Magic Express arrival video manically walked us through logistics and hit the highlights of all the parks. Just as I thought last time, Disney needs to realize that at this point, we’re already sold.
    Definitely fancier than we were used to
    Heading to a new hotel, I didn’t exactly recognize our route, but we were headed to the extreme eastern end of the resort. Not that Pop Century was centrally located, but it seemed like this new place was barely on property. Having checked the hotel-to-park travel times in the guidebook for our Saratoga Springs Resort, we were definitely on the outskirts of Disney’s expansive acreage. The upside is, that somewhat far-flung location meant a very quick ride from the airport, and we arrived on site just as my folks finished the check-in process. We were the first ones off the bus, eager to start the vacation, and we greeted each other in the courtyard before they even had a chance to check out the room. This was a new resort to all of us, and there was a good bit of disorientation (even with a map), but we eventually found our way to our room, never mind the awkward trip with all our luggage directly through the pool area. We were in “The Springs” area – it’s a sprawling hotel, more like a series of outbuildings with no guest rooms in the central area. Instead you found the lobby, the cafeteria, a sit-down restaurant, gift shop, the spa, and the impressive pool here at the center. In a handful of areas spread across the large complex were the clusters of guest buildings. Finding ours across the street on the other side of the pool, we were still in one of the closer spots. The room was quite nice, full kitchen, living room, balcony, and a bedroom with a Jacuzzi tub. Of course Megan and I would be sleeping on the pull out in the living room, but even so it would be a step up from our usual Disney digs. We didn’t take too long to get settled, and quickly we were back out to the shop to pick up a few supplies. We’d definitely be taking advantage of having a fridge and some kitchen appliances, not to mention a corkscrew. In addition to a couple bottles of wine, we got bagels, fruit, and English muffins for breakfast and some crackers and such for appetizers back in the room. Dinner was intentionally scheduled late to account for any travel difficulties, so the early arrival meant we had some time to relax with a quick bite. The snacks and drinks went fast, and soon my parents were eager to, of all things, do some shopping. Seeing as dinner was at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, we’d need to transfer at Downtown Disney anyway, so they went ahead and we followed behind after a little more relaxing. This would be our first encounter with how the bus system covered our resort. Given its size, there were a handful of stops spread across the area, as opposed to one central transportation area like at the Pop Century. At check in, they reported that ours was the last stop before heading to the destination. We quickly saw this wasn’t the case for the Downtown Disney bus, as we made stops at all the other areas of Saratoga Springs before making the two minute drive to the Marketplace area. There was the requisite trip to the Christmas store, and we had our rendezvous at the World of Disney. The massive crowds reminded us that we were visiting at the tail end of the holidays, and made us all the more thankful things would likely be much quieter during the week. We were soon back at the bus stop, and on our way to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, a first visit for all of us.
    Even more opulent
    It was hard not to be impressed with the lobby of this deluxe hotel. Akin to the Wilderness Lodge or the Grand California at Disneyland, the atrium soars, and the interior is richly adorned with the styling and detail Disney has become renowned for. We passed an interactive drum performance as we tried to track down the exact location of our restaurant. We’d be dining tonight at Jiko, one of two highly regarded dining options at this hotel. Eventually making our way downstairs, we passed by Boma, the family-style restaurant, and went around the corner to noticeably more chic Jiko. Not that I haven’t heard rave reviews for Boma as well, but we were going for something a little more upscale. Megan and I had an amazing time at Citircos last time out, and we were doing our best to replicate it.
    Fine dining with Disney's simulated authenticity
    We were seated in the wine room, and began to peruse the African-inflected menu. It was easy to follow our server’s recommendations, and we started with some traditional flatbread, and a series of local dips with lavosh, naan, and pappadum. Of course there was wine, and she recommended a nice South African Pinotage, a varietal you don’t see a lot of much, which matched our entrees well. We went with the duck breast, chicken, grouper, and filet. All were exquisite, and it was another outstanding Disney dining experience that we won’t soon forget. But our fun was just getting started, and we made our way back to our room. Taking a closer look at the map on my phone, I saw that our building was actually a short walk from the first Downtown Disney stop. Instead of waiting to change, as is required when going from one hotel to another, we decided to walk the half mile, with complete awareness of how unlikely we’d be to hoof it later in the week. Having taken full advantage of our afternoon and evening in Orlando, it was a great start, though we were glad to get some rest after the long day. Day 2 – Sunday, January 8th
    This "entrance" is strangely halfway into the park
    Although our park of choice didn’t open until 9am (actually, all the parks opened at 9am), we were up at 7am to “check in”. Technically, our package didn’t start until Sunday, so while we didn’t need to change rooms or get new keys, we did need to stop by the front desk. There, we were able to activate our meals plans and tickets, and I upgraded our passes from three to six days. It cost a miniscule $57 for the both of us to do so, in an obvious indication by Disney of how eager they are to get you to stay on property for as long as possible. It took a little momentum to get out the door, but we were definitely shy of 9am, and glad to see we were indeed the final stop at the resort, and headed out directly. Our first day in the parks would find us at Hollywood Studios for the morning, and I was definitely eager to get a foursome of Fastpasses for Toy Story. My mother isn’t especially keen on rides that induce motion sickness, so this is one of the few headliners we could enjoy together. The plan, not surprisingly, was to hit all the thrill rides right out of the gate, and then ease it back a bit when we met back up with her for some of other slower-paced attractions.
    Some of the more elaborate themeing on this side of the park
    Through the front gates, I collected everyone’s tickets and darted to the Pixar area. The wait at Toy Story balloons quickly, so I knew time would be better spent elsewhere. The Disney World Marathon course running through the park made it a bit tricky to get around, as we would see all day, but I’d rather the throngs of runners passing through the park and not taking up space in queues. Even so, I had little difficulty getting our Fastpasses once across the course, and was able to stay on that side of it to get to our first ride. It would be on Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster that we would start things out, which isn’t especially a favorite, but can get pretty busy later in the day. It looked to be pretty quick to get through at the moment, so we went right for the most intense ride in the entire resort. There was the usual incongruence with the theme of a modern music scene in the golden age of Hollywood section, but that paled in comparison to the dissatisfaction with the selection of Aerosmith as hosts for the attraction. We were quickly through the queue and preshow, and on the ride. There was a slight concern over roughness, my father’s only real ride issue – and while we knew it wasn’t as violent as Vekoma’s average effort, it did seem to lag behind the Paris version. Then again, those assessments were several years old by this point, so you can never know exactly what to expect. Turns out, it was right there in the middle, not as bad as it could be, but with a little more jostle than we remember from France. The nice launch and entertaining enough ride action were a good way to start things off.
    It lures you in with its creepiness
    Of course, the real headliner of the park is next door, and we were still ahead of the rush as we walked through the courtyard and into the lobby. There’s no doubt this is one of the Orlando versions I’m most eager to experience, thanks to the extended dark ride scene. Versions in Paris, Anaheim, and even Tokyo are fun, but lack the quirky extra dimension. It’s also got the randomized drop sequence up its sleeve, something the other installations would greatly benefit from. There was hardly a pause in the basement, and we were on and up and out and down just a few minutes later. With these two taken care of, and Fastpasses for Toy Story in hand, the only other marquee ride I was remotely concerned about was the updated version of Star Tours. We headed across the entirety of the park, and timed the opening of the second side of the queue perfectly as we walked directly into the loading area. It was a little odd picking up the 3D glasses, but I was optimistic about the improvements to what had become a painfully outdated attraction. In addition to the 3D, the improved film and sound quality, and the variety of scenes had been generally well received. I wasn’t especially familiar with the combinations of characters and alternatives, so we just went along for the ride. The use of an actual rider as a supposed spy is a nice touch, and while the changes weren’t exactly mind blowing, they have definitely improved the appeal. Had there been no update, I certainly wouldn’t have ridden once, let alone consider a re-ride. Finally with a chance to visit some of the more passive attractions, we met back up with my mother as a showing of the Muppet Vision 3D was about to start. Thanks to the recently released motion picture, it seems popularity of this had increased, though that only meant the theater was ¾ full instead of ¼. Same film, same gags, I wouldn’t exactly say we “missed” it in Tokyo, but it was worth the non-wait. We’ll probably skip this next time around at Disneyland though. In the same vein, we cut back across the marathon route and entered the Great Movie Ride. Somehow in all their visits, my parents had never been on this, and it was high time we corrected that. It’s not the most captivating experience, but it’s one of the more unique amusement attractions you’ll come across, and a highlight of the park. There was no wait as we walked into one of the huge vehicles and poked along the circuit past animatronic and scenes recreating some of the more iconic moments in film history. The sets are done nicely, especially the Wizard of Oz set, though it took every last bit of energy to overlook the painfully hokey dialog and performances the guide and villain give. It’s beyond outdated. Having hit most of the highlights, we settled down for an early lunch back towards the Tower of Terror, with me running ahead and grabbing a set of Fastpasses of course. It was our first use of the meal plan, and we immediately saw the ridiculous amount of food we’d be getting each and every time. I don’t usually get dessert after dinner, let alone lunch, so it was a bit much – but the sandwich I went for was pretty good. Since we were planning on hitting Magic Kingdom for a few hours before dinner at the nearby Polynesian Resort, we only had time for a few more attractions. First up, we’d cash in the Toy Story Fastpasses. I know this may lack the depth and detail of some Disney rides, but the novelty is undeniable, and it’s literally one the whole family can enjoy. I can’t predict how well it will maintain its popularity in the years to come, but it’s already been out a while and is still one of the most coveted rides. We enjoyed our run, I was pleased with my score in the high 180k’s, and it was great to bypass the hour-plus standby line. There was about an hour until the early showing of Lights, Motors, Action stunt show, so we were back across the park to use the Fastpasses for Tower of Terror. Lunch and Toy Story had filled up the 40 minute minimum until redemption, though there wasn’t much of a line to pass. Oh well, it’s not like I had gone that far out of my way. Once again we were quickly through the preshow and into the basement for only a couple minutes before taking our plunge. Disney at its best. Back across the park, we were a foursome again as we queued up for the stunt show. The 5000 seat stadium fills quickly, but there aren’t many bad views. There were plenty of seats, though had to schlep up the bleachers to get them. We took a load off for the last 15 minutes until the show started, and soon the action was underway. Just like Indiana Jones, you’re watching a supposed film shoot, though you can just ignore that and enjoy the stunts here, too. It’s hard not to be impressed with the performance, even if there are only a few minutes of real action in the entire show. This was another first for my folks, and they seemed pleased.
    We enjoyed the Christmas crap it while it lasted
    We’d put a good half day in, and while there were a few more things we’d want to check off our list, we were eager to get to the Magic Kingdom and visit some of the classics. Besides, with the last Fantasmic! showing before a few weeks of downtime scheduled for later in the evening, the park hopping crowd would be inundating Hollywood Studios shortly. We weren’t going out of our way specifically to avoid seeing the nighttime spectacular, but check out my review to see my true thoughts. Besides, after seeing Tokyo DisneySeas jaw-dropping interpretation, we didn’t want to see Disney World embarrass itself. Mom and dad went back to the hotel for a midday break. It was a simple matter of finding a bus to the Ticket and Transportation Center, after a few shots of the Christmas tree of course. The holiday decorations would be dwindling throughout the week, so we enjoyed them while they lasted. With no bus in sight, we saw one waiting at the next stop, which was for the Contemporary. Thanks to our modest familiarity with the resort, we figured it would be at least as efficient to connect here as to connect at the TTC. When we arrived at the Contemporary, it was then I realized that the local monorail heads the wrong direction and would stop at the park last. Alternatively, we took the walking path and were at the entrance after only a few more minutes. Without question, the priority was Thunder Mountain. We’d have plenty of time at the park over the course of the week, but with the offseason officially starting the next day, today would be the last chance to ride Thunder Mountain before a long rehab. Hey, I was just glad to get it in at all, so the plan was to default to that as our headliner of choice. It was nice to be on a proper Main Street again, after the odd World Bazaar at Tokyo Disneyland, though the castle they both sport is nothing short of stunning. Call Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s charming and original all you want, this thing is massive. We were up the street, passed the Dapper Dans, and checked the wait time board. Things seemed under control, not exactly empty but a far cry from the holiday hordes of a week prior and totally manageable. Seeing no reason to abandon the plan, we went right for Thunder Mountain. Not surprisingly, the standby wait was around an hour, though the Fastpass redemption window was only a little more than that, so we grabbed a pair. We’d be sticking by this side of the park anyway. I went next door to Splash Mountain to inquire about a single rider line, but was rebuffed. The line here was almost as long, so I’d have to try again later, probably later in the week, if anything. Still, it was great to see it running after its rehab during our last visit and after Tokyo Disneyland raised their bar with their outstanding version. Looping back into Adventureland, we walked onto Pirates, and tried not to hold it to the high standard of Disneyland. At about half the ride time, it really is an abridged version, even if it does hit all the high points. It’s not like they took out any of the iconic scenes, though the Blue Bayou and armory scenes are noticeable absent. If nothing else, you don’t have to set aside 15 minutes for the ride.
    Back from beyond the grave, but in a good way
    Continuing down, we found Jungle Cruise closed, so we went directly across to experience the newly backdated Tiki Room. We did miss half the pre-show, but timed it well for the main event. It was great to see a good crowd, as the theater was mostly full. The obnoxious Iago/Gilbert Gottfried update was mercifully gone, and the show had returned to the original version that still plays today in Disneyland, though a song or two seem to have been cut. We were quickly out the doors after wisely sitting opposite the entrance (one of many touring efficiencies we’ve picked up over our years, akin to knowing where the pre-show exits are for Tower of Terror, Haunted Mansion, Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster, etc.), and we found Jungle Cruise still closed. With a glut of opportunities to eat thanks to the meal plan, we cashed in a popcorn (nothing crazily flavored like at the Tokyo parks), and waited nearby to see if things would open up before our Thunder Mountain Fastpass window opened. It sure didn’t, though it was interesting to see how the cast members dealt with the onslaught of disappointed guests. Not that Jungle Cruise is most people’s favorite, but the sheer number of people they had to turn away was impressive. No one seemed too distraught at least, and they were able to have a little fun with it, which is fitting considering the sardonic ride experience. Instead we went back to Frontierland, into the Splash/Thunder Mountain madness. We picked up a new pair of Fastpasses and redeemed the ones we had, and were up into the queue house. The experience here is all but indistinguishable from the Tokyo version, and the only marked difference from Disneyland is its lack of winding but short interior queue and throwback references to Rainbow Ridge. It’s still got the dinosaur skeleton splashdown, which is a nice feature, but away from the queue in this version. It was left over from the Nature’s Wonderland at Disneyland for its installation, and brought over when the version was cloned in Florida a year later. It’s a holdover from the original version in the same vein as Haunted Mansion’s stretching room. It’s placement at this park didn’t necessitate an elevator to go under the train tracks, but it was such a popular element, it was rebuilt for the copy. See also, the drops on Pirates of the Caribbean. The most noticeable difference from our usual Thunder Mountains was how the ride was clearly in pre-rehab mode. Like a senior before graduation, it wasn’t exactly giving its best performance. The wooden rail ties were gone, some of the animatronics weren’t functioning, and it seemed generally in need of some attention. Still, the ride experience was as wild and reckless as we’ve come to love, though not seeing the old man spinning in the bathtub was a bit of a downer. Heck, the water the tub is usually floating in was drained already. Still, we were just glad we had one last day to enjoy it.
    Still lots of nice scenery on the express route
    Not wanting to stray too far, as our next Fastpasses timed well with a final ride before dinner, we passed a still-closed Jungle cruise once again, and cut over to Haunted Mansion. The wait was posted at 30 minutes, so we were looking at our first wait of the visit. In reality, most of the 30 minutes was spent by guests passing through the new interactive queue. With the shortcut that goes directly to the ride, we waited no more than 10 minutes. Nevermind the dozen people who cut in front of us after the two queues rejoined thanks to the one person in their party who had gotten ahead. And we had gone all day without encountering these sorts of fools. (Not really) It’s hard not to rank this mansion as the highest of the lot. The handful of improvements a few years back were a great example of how Disney can (sometimes) enhance a favorite with a few new tricks without messing with the spirit of the original attraction. Unfortunately Tokyo was in Nightmare Before Christmas mode, and Phantom Manor in Paris is playing a whole different ballgame, but I give this the slight edge as far as the US versions go. The Escher stairs and new interactive hitchhiking ghost scenes need to be brought to California. With all the Fastpasses allotted thanks to the park technically closing to the public at 8pm (minus the 8pm-11pm Extra Magic Hours), we got a second ride on Thunder Mountain as twilight fell, again avoiding the standby line. Our hopes would be to get a third ride on it after dinner, as well as fill in some of the east side of the park. Really, we’d already made great progress considering we’d been in the park for all of three hours. The commute to dinner required a trip back down Main Street, where we caught up with my parents and took a local monorail ride to the Polynesian. Unfortunately a boat we hoped to take hit capacity just before us, but I was happy to get my first ride of the visit on the monorail. We were the third stop, and I was finally making my first visit to one of the two original Disney World resorts. Ohana and the luau definitely get topping billing here, so the Kona Café goes somewhat under the radar. But after reading great reviews online, we were happy to use our first table service meal credit. We had a quick wait, so we visited the bar for a round of mai tais before being seated. After we were taken past the dessert area, we were greeted by our enthusiastic server, and figured out our plan of attack. I had the ribeye, and the other orders were for the tuna, mahi, and sole. Dessert was even more decadent, and we were served with noticeable efficiency once we let our server know we were trying to catch the fireworks across the lagoon. He even suggested a great spot for viewing.
    Always fun to see old things in a new way
    With just a few minutes before the nightly viewing of Wishes, we were down the stairs and out the back of the lobby. We crossed the pool area, and took a seat on the walkway just at the edge of the sand. A beachside showing of Finding Nemo on an inflatable screen was paused, and the theme music began playing right at 8pm. Just watching the pyrotechnics would have been great, but Disney did even better by playing the synchronized music all over the lagoon. It was hard to fight the swelling of Disney magic, as the display was a wonderful capstone to a terrific first day. We knew we were just getting started, so we didn’t take much time to dwell on how well things were going, but it was so nice to spend a few special moments together as a family. Disney sure knows how make a vacation worth all the effort. Megan and I tried not to yearn for the over-the-top Disneyland fireworks, and enjoyed this more modest display (if you can believe it) for what it was. The pyrotechnics are nice, but the show lacks the personality of the park, and is only a little more than half as long. Still, the setting was stunning, and it was great to take in the show from such a unique angle, and not have to fight the crowds in the hub and on Main Street. We’d be fighting them soon enough, as we missed another boat, but quickly caught an arriving monorail back out the front of the hotel. It was definitely like we were heading upstream as much of the park was clearing out as we headed in. Wait times were down across the board, but not exactly empty just yet, so we wanted to give it a bit before tackling the headliners. My parents didn’t want to miss Carousel of Progress during their half-day at the park, but Megan and I would have plenty of time for that later. Instead, we first went for Buzz Lightyear. We skipped this in Japan, mostly because of a solid wait combined with a waning interest. The posted wait said 15, but we were on in less than half that as the line never stopped moving through the queue. Having the guns locked down don’t help this version much, though it is interesting to wind through the former space of Dreamflight. I scored around my average, though Megan had a bit of a debacle that she blamed entirely on this version’s quirkiness. It didn’t help that our vehicle would only spin in one direction. No matter the source, it looked dubious that we would be visiting this attraction again. Looking for another quick attraction, and one that couldn’t go awry, we took a nice night ride on the People Mover. Being able to ride this clinches Disney World’s Tomorrowland dominance over Disneyland, as if Carousel of Progress hadn’t already made that obvious. Sure, we skip Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, and it’s a travesty that the 20,000 Leagues lagoon is long since filled in, but until Disneyland permanently repurposes its People Mover track, it will be a mark of shame for the entire land. It’s not exactly a thrill ride, but a great way to take a load off and zip around this part of the park. Getting a peek at a few attractions is nice, and the quick glimpse of the City of Tomorrow is a treat. Mostly it’s fun to think about how optimistic Disney was about this sort of technology, and how it’s now an anachronistic vision of the future. With about 90 minutes left in the day, we wanted to hit both the mountain coasters. Since I’d be on my own for Splash Mountain, I figured I could wait until after my parents finished their three days. That left the nearby Space Mountain, and we took my dad along for the 30 minute standby wait. It was our first opportunity to experience the upgrades that were mere rumors during our 2009 visit. I wouldn’t say the overhaul went as far as we were hoping, but I was eager to see. The first change is the interactive queue, which isn’t all that involved as a series of simple video games, but does a nice job of making the wait pass a litter easier. It took a few minutes to get oriented, as the loading stations were completely reconfigured. The Fastpass merge and station split used to happen right at the end of the hallway. Now the standby queue actually enters the left station, and the split is at the back, between the stations. I was momentarily agitated to see what I thought was a full station queue for us, and an empty station for Fastpasses, but I soon realized both stations were fed via both queues. Despite the obsessive queuing theory concerns, we were through the new station gates and onboard the Alpha side after our half hour. The track upgrades never materialized, nor did onboard audio, as music pumped into the ride was apparently all the upgrade we would get. It was noticeable, though not exactly mind-blowing, and we definitely missed the synchronized onboard audio Disneyland sports. What we really missed was its recently rehabbed tracked, as stuck in the last seat of the train, I got absolutely bashed around. It’s rare I wish a ride would end sooner, but I couldn’t wait for this one to be over. I remember this side being the less pleasant of the too, but I forgot how rough it could get in the back. I’d have to be more careful next time. But that wouldn’t be for a few more days, and in the last hour of our first day, we headed across the park and finally get that ride on the Jungle Cruise. We momentarily lost my dad has he went to meet up with my mom, but he was back with us a few minutes later, not having been able to get in touch with her. The three of us waited for the next boat on the Jungle Cruise, and we were off on a great ride to experience at night. The skipper was great, she was totally deadpan, and her best joke was using the gun to swipe towards the hippos while shouting, “SHOO! SHOO HIPPOS!” She totally committed. Not thinking he had time for both Thunder Mountain and a dark ride with my mom, he went to join her, and Megan and I got our third and final ride in. Standby said 30, but we knew it wouldn’t be half that. We were definitely cutting it close if we wanted to squeeze in something else after, but this was our priority. Easily the best night ride experience in all of Disney, we zipped among the canyons and the wildlife, not minding at all that half of them weren’t functioning.
    So much more majestic without toddlers hanging all over it
    Turns out my parent’s target, Haunted Mansion, was closed when they tried, so they headed for Main Street. It was open when we passed it, but with a mere five minutes left before the queues would close, we joined a dwindling but still modest wait for Peter Pan. We had avoided Fantasyland by design, and now the madness had finally ceased to a level we were willing to brave. We were in the queue for a few minutes when they closed down the entrance, and we only had a few minutes more before we got our ride. This version is very similar to the others out there, though the continuous loading is an efficiency boon that Disneyland really lacks. They don’t even bother offering Fastpasses there.
    Looks like someone was lazy about taking down their Christmas lights
    We were through London, over Never Neverland and had vanquished Captain Hook in a manner of minutes, and as we departed, the last few guests who joined the queue were boarding. Having put in a solid effort all day, and we took our time passing under the castle, taking pictures through the hub, and enjoying the diminishing chaos on Main Street. There’s something bittersweet about the end-of-the-night walk down towards the front of the park. There’s certainly some sadness that the day is over, but it’s often matched by a strong sense of satisfaction of having had a wonderful day, with a dash of relief that the inescapable Disney madness was done, at least temporarily. Our only obligation was to get back to our hotel, and get some sleep. We’d be doing it all over again the next day. And the next. And then three more days after that. As you could imagine, we weren’t really all that sad actually. Out the exit we found our bus stop and made it back to Saratoga closer to midnight than 11pm. We were the last stop, though at least a few seats had opened up as we wound around the resort. In most cases, I’m not all that thrilled to spend the night on a pull out sofa, but we were rather exhausted, and relished the chance to be horizontal. It was all we needed.
    Last edited by sarki7; 02-29-2012 at 05:19 PM.
    www.gregscoasterphotos.com <- Go there, it's good!

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    Re: Walt Disney World Trip Report, with photos! (Part 1 - Jan 7th & 8th)

    PART TWO

    Day 3 – Monday, January 9th

    The forboding world of nature
    Looking at a morning Extra Magic Hour at Animal Kingdom, the alarm was again set for 7am, and we were out the door and on the bus still before the top of the next hour. We weren’t exactly getting the “waiting at the front gates” early starts we’ve been known to, but it’s considerably more effort to commute around this resort than Disneyland. It was just a few minutes past 8am as we exited the bus, and we were through the bag check and the turnstiles a few minutes after that.

    Mom stayed behind for a spa session, so we were free to run amok at Animal Kingdom, partaking in the few thrill rides without feeling like we were leaving her behind. She certainly was on tap to have a more relaxing day than we would, but that’s not why I come to Disney World. Instead we were headed directly for Everest, which is a big reason we come to Disney World.

    They're not saying "Eee!", they're saying "Yetiiii!"
    We took the route through Asia, and with no rope drop to slow us down, made it to the back of the park in quick order. I snagged a set of Fastpasses and met up with Dad and Megan at the standby entrance. We snaked through the queue and were thrilled to find a very quiet station. This would be my father’s first chance to tackle Everest, so we didn’t want to spoil the surprise – who knows what he was expecting.

    It’s well documented by now, so I’ll just leave it at this: Everest is a triumph. Yes, the Yeti is still in its sad, stoic state, and the flashing strobe is an insult to its unreached potential, but the rest of the experience is executed perfectly and matches Disney’s best at setting, story, and thrill. Someday Disney will take the super headliner offline and address the mal-designed animatronic, but there’s no question we were glad that today was not this day. I’d rather be guaranteed a ride in this current state than risk missing out for an entire visit. Hopefully they’ll get right on it next week.

    Since nothing was slowing us down, we were out the annoying gift shop exit, and back into the queue, still not encountering a wait until we were at the station gates. There’s no question Disney made capacity a priority here, and it churns through riders with little effort for all but the most extreme crowds.

    Pretty OK with how far away this guy was
    We knew we wouldn’t be facing anything even close to that today, but we moved on anyway. Another highlight of the park is the Kilimanjaro Safaris, so we made our way to Africa before the crowd picked up. Through the town of Harambe, we found it to be still walk on, and we were in our jeep and into the wilderness astoundingly quickly. This attraction is all about animal encounters, and while often hit and miss, the odds were good since it was early in the morning. Not surprisingly, I was consigned to the center, as my shutterbug father and wife got their unobstructed views for the coming photo safari.

    It was the usual cavalcade of exotic African wildlife: rhinos, crocs, elephants, ostriches, giraffes, lions, hippos, and no shortage of gazelle, antelope and wildebeest. Some were easier to see than others, but you’re pretty much guaranteed a close encounter with something or other, especially once on the simulated savannah. I could skip the hokey "poacher chasing", and the rickety bridge is pretty underwhelming; just getting to see these amazing creatures in a pretty impressive environment is fantastic, and not something that needs to be dressed up or excessively themed.

    Thinking we might like another photo shoot, we got some Fastpasses, and moved on to the last marquee ride. It was across the park in Dinoland where we found Dinosaur, though I’ll always think of it as the more descriptive and ominous “Countdown to Extinction”. Several holdover references to CTE can even be found throughout the queue. We’d have needed a sharp eye to spot them, because we walked straight through into the pre-show room, which had thankfully already started.

    Separated at birth from its infrastructural twins Indiana Jones at both Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, it noticeably lacks the beloved pre-ride theme and ornate queue. Still, the ride itself executes the story well enough, and the eerie darkness and blatant scare tactics going in an interestingly different direction. The dinos are as realistic as any paleontologist could hope for, and I find the whole experienced to be a bit underappreciated, though not by me.

    Not wanting to backtrack across this expansive park too much, we timed it well and joined the newly forming queue for the Finding Nemo show. It was about 30 minutes to show time, and we were let into the theater soon after joining the queue. It was nice to get our first real respite after a busy morning, and we got a great spot front and center of the upper section.

    Without having seen the movie, I’m not sure how much my father followed the plot, as it does match as closely as any of the shows. Then again, it’s not exactly a hard storyline to follow. The puppets are imaginative and expertly performed, and the performers are beyond enthusiastic. The songs are nice if a bit simple, but one couldn’t really hope for a better live performance at a theme park than this. Definitely worth checking out, and it’s something we’ll keep coming back to.

    Just like a housecat, except probably not a spoiled brat
    It was an easy walk to Everest, though we tried to stay ahead of the emptying theater crowd. We re-upped our Fastpasses and skipped the line again as we redeemed the earlier set. The standby hadn’t exactly gotten out of hand, but I’m always happy to skip 30+ minutes in line. It was another miniscule wait followed by a top notch thrill, and we were soon off and looking for a bite.

    We had had success at the Yak and Yeti counter service last time around, and it was a pretty convenient option located between Africa and Asia. It was covered by our meal plan, so we once again ordered the ridiculous amount allotted, and found a table around the corner by the water fountain. The Asian food is nice, though the presence of some very brave ducks was at least as memorable. Best not to feed the wildlife, though.

    Aiming for animals a bit more on the exotic side, we bypassed Kali River Rapids – a fun raft ride through the jungles of Asia, but nothing anyone was willing to get soaked for – and found the Maharaja Jungle Trek. All sorts of animals can be found here: a couple species of bats, an aviary, meerkats, and the highlight is definitely the tigers. Some are more active than others, but the views are impressive and the enclosures are simply stunning. If you ask me, anyone who says Animal Kingdom isn’t a full day park must not be fascinated by these amazing creatures.

    In a rare shot across the park, we timed it well for a viewing of the Festival of the Lion King. We were again arriving the recommended 30 minutes before the show, and had no trouble getting a great seat. What the show lacks in a cohesive plot it makes up for in pageantry, energy, and the skill of the performers, including trapeze artists, acrobats, and my personal favorite, the fire dancer. It’s about as high energy as you’ll find, and the best tracks from the movies are performed adeptly. Once again, it’s a show we’ll be attending every time we make a trip to Disney World.

    Creating havoc on the savannah freeway
    Back into the center of the park, we made a token stop at It’s Tough to be a Bug. The 3D film is entertaining enough, though much of our interest is in winding underneath the Tree of Life and exploring all the animal carvings. I was sure to point out the carving of Jane Goodall’s beloved ape just outside the lobby entrance. The show itself was fine, though the Hopper animatronic character was disappointingly absent, and I stupidly lost my sunglasses somewhere in the dark theater. I realized this as the theater was emptying, gave the operators a heads up as I went back in, but ultimately came up empty-handed. It wouldn’t be a trip to Disney World without a visit to the Lost and Found, but more on that later.

    We made a quick visit to Asia to ride Everest again, of course retrieving and redeeming Fastpasses, and then we were back into Africa for a second visit to the Kilimanjaro Safaris. Our Fastpasses were now souvenirs as the queue was as empty as it was first thing in the morning, and we walked right on. The route through the savannah was the same, though it’s always a different set of encounters with the animals. The giraffes got in our way with their trademarked by enjoyable jaywalking.

    As stealthy as anything that weights 3000 pounds can be
    In the mood for one more wildlife engagement, we exited the safari and walked into the Pagani Forest Trail. Similar to the jungle trek, it’s a freeform walking trail past some amazing habitats and exotic animals. Here we saw hippos, a handful of four-legged savannah dwellers, and the majestic gorillas. I know not everyone takes the time for these excursions, but they’re really missing out. It’s amazing how close you can get. Unfortunately the loop was closed thanks to some bridge construction, so we headed back the way we came, sure to not so much as glance at any of the animals we had already observed.

    I think we all know who's in charge here
    There was all of 30 minutes before the normal, but still ridiculously early 5pm closing, so we took a load off at the Dawa Bar before our last circuit on Everest. I ordered us a round of authentic African beer, and we enjoyed the break as the Jungle Jammin’ Parade finished its frenzied route. Enjoying a drink here once again seems to have officially become a tradition; even it was a few minutes before the official start of cocktail hour.

    We had done quite well during the day. The only area we had missed was the train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, but that’s more of a diversion than anything else. Besides, there was no reason to subject my father to 20 minutes of Megan petting farm animals. (We’d get around to that eventually, don’t worry.) To be able to get a fifth ride on Everest was the icing on the cake. It was only a modest surprise that the standby entrance was using the Fastpass queue, as the ride was walk-on once again. This place had been empty all day. We had another set of souvenir Fastpasses, and we were on and off just after the top of the hour. I think we missed the closing of the queue by a matter of seconds.

    Looking at the positive, the absurd early closing time meant a very relaxing evening, so we weren’t in a huge rush to get over to dinner, though we were meeting my mother there. Reservations were for 7pm at Kouzzina, a new Greek restaurant imagined by Cat Cora, located at the Boardwalk. We slowly worked our way out of the park, taking in the dense foliage and a few animal exhibits on the way. I made a quick but unsuccessful stop at Guest Relations to retrieve my shades, and then we took some pictures outside the entrance.

    We’d be taking a bus to the Boardwalk resort, and we found it quite easily and it as ready to board as we joined the line. Along the ride we chatted with a family from Raleigh, who had twin nine-month-old girls in tow. And I thought our visits were exhausting. It’s an easy walk from the drop off point up towards the lobby, and down the stairs to the actual boardwalk. Knowing our restaurant had replaced Spoodles, we followed my father’s directions to the right and walked along the pier for just a minute.

    I also love animals in this form
    We arrived seeing the pager already in my mother’s hand, so it was just a few minutes before we were seated. The dining area is nice and open – though apparently not all that different from how it was set up for Spoodles. Either way, there were good views of the kitchen, and the occasional flash of a flame with shouts of “opa!” coming from the staff. I’d say it’s a pretty American-ized version of Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, but everything seemed authentic enough. I went with the fisherman’s stew, and the rest of our orders included the Kouzzina trio, lasagna, and, of course, the lamb shank. All were good, and went well with a terrific bottle of a dry white wine blend.

    Somehow starting our evening early didn’t mean it would be all that early of a night. Despite the 5pm park closing, it was now a bit after 9pm, and while we momentarily considered a more thorough tour of the somewhat overlooked area (possibly to catch the second half of the college football national championship), no one seemed to object to heading back to our hotel.

    Since we were coming from a hotel stop, we knew we had to connect to get back to our room. I wasn’t sure what parks were still running buses, but considering how close our final destination is to Downtown Disney, it’s certainly the most direct option. Thankfully a bus headed there came right as we got to the stop. We avoided the walk from Downtown Disney this time, and again timing was on our side as our second bus was waiting for us when we arrived for the change. As we had suspected (and were hoping) we were the first stop on this route, and we able to get in and get to bed at a much more modest hour after this relatively short day.


    Day 4 – Tuesday, January 10th

    We’d need every extra hour of sleep, as it was another 8am Extra Magic Hour session, this time over at Epcot. Like the day before, we’d be spending the entire day in the park, so we’d be able to take advantage of all the Fastpasses we could. Our departure wasn’t quite as punctual as one might hope, and we saw the other park buses go by multiple times before ours. Still, we were on one to Epcot right around the time the park opened.

    Oh, hey absurdly recognizable park icon
    Definitely behind the initial surge, but we weren’t too worried about the impact it would have in our day. There was no trouble getting through the bag check, past the crazy golf ball, and into The Land to get our Soarin’ Fastpasses. It was just the three of us, so that’s all we could get. Figuring the standby wait hadn’t ballooned too badly, and knowing the Fastpass redemption was essentially zero some 15 minutes after opening, we hoped in the queue. It ended up a manageable 15 minute wait, and we were sent gracefully skyward over all the awesomeness that is California.

    Things were getting crazy here behind us, so we made our way to the other side of Future World to get the other headliners while everyone was still clamoring for Soarin’. Seeing a still quiet five minute wait for the single rider line of Test Track, we ended up walking through the elaborate queue, right past the pre-show, and directly into the station. I like this ride well enough, but it’s not something I feel the need to experience with my entire group by my side – not enough to wait in what was still probably only a 10 or 15 minute standby line.

    We separately zipped through the obstacle course, and soon shot out backstage and hit some speed. The inside scenes are losing some of their novelty, though the high-speed outside course is still a nice little rush that had been otherwise missing from this park. Rumor has this ride getting a thematic overhaul, so hopefully that’ll freshen some of the dark ride elements, but for now it’s the same thing we’d been riding for over a decade.

    Fitting under the column of obsessive Fastpass hoarding, I shot back across to Soarin’ to get another set. Again, I could only get three, but that would leave us with six in hand, and a chance for my late-arriving mother to join us for a spin even though she will have just gotten to the park. For now, I was meeting up with Megan and dad at Mission Space, and we joined the very quiet queue with orange boarding cards in hand.

    I remember quite clearly the anticipation and trepidation with which I waited for this a few years ago, and much of that was sadly gone. After a few rides, the story gets somewhat stripped away, and all I’m left to really savor are the impressive physical forces the ride creates. Not that I don’t appreciate a brief Gary Sinise encounter, but things do get hyped up a bit too much for my taste. Still, it’s about as unique a thrill ride as you’ll come across, and provides some fun and unusual intensity.

    Not at all outdated
    With our entire group back together, it was again time to ease back on the thrill level. The nearby energy pavilion couldn’t be further from thrilling, and I would be making a visit to an attraction I couldn’t for the life of me remember ever experiencing. I have plenty of memories from visits in the 90s, and even a few flashes of what was around here in the 80s (original Journey Into Imagination, original Captain EO, Food Rocks, etc.) – but this might as well have been brand new.

    While not new, it had been redone a few years back, and now features Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye. I wasn’t expecting much more than mildly nostalgic info-tainment, and I didn’t even get that. As I said, I have no recollection of what the former show was like, but what exists today is awkwardly shoehorned into the pavilion, and is not so much boring as it is bewildering.

    I’m fine with the sloppy premise – Ellen doesn’t know or care about energy, and she randomly finds cause to learn about it. How Jeopardy was chosen as the litmus test for one’s knowledge is beyond me, perhaps some ABC tie-in? The execution of the ride is painfully outdated. The first and final thirds of the show take place statically on large movie screens. The middle portion is a slow crawl through a gratuitous, pre-historic, dino-laden diorama. It’s only marginally more realistic than the original World’s Fair sets from the 1960s, and here in 2012, they’re downright embarrassing.

    But I could get past all that. Disney has gotten some heat for messing with classic Epcot attractions (a-hem, Figment), and Carousel of Progress’ entire charm is its nostalgia, and I personally had none here. What really irks me is an obviously skewed view of energy policy. I realize it’s a touchy subject where politics determine opinion, but the entire lecture is carried on as though it was still sponsored by oil companies. Nuclear power is controversial, but deep sea drilling is A-OK? Hydroelectric dams can impact their environment but coal mining is safe and reliable? No source of energy is without its tradeoffs, but this film is so clearly pro status quo it’s embarrassing. I can only imagine how well this film went over while the Deep Sea Horizon was spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Disney should be ashamed.

    Teddy Roosevelt as an Egyptian priest (No, really)
    Up next was another Epcot classic, and another that has been redone since its original days, but is much less politically charged – Spaceship Earth. Still somewhat early in the day, folks were mindlessly flocking to it, being ride closest to the front of the park. We had made our loop already, but didn’t want to miss out, since our afternoon would find us circling World Showcase. That said, it was a manageable 10 minute wait and we were up into the geodesic sphere, taken along millennia of history with Judi Dench. The animatronics aren’t the most modern, but the number and diversity of the scenes are impressive, and it’s easy to see why no visit to Epcot is complete without a visit here. The only downside was that the ridiculous faces we made somehow didn’t get captured for the on-ride video. Don’t worry, we were planning on coming back anyway.

    With six Soarin’ Fastpasses available for four people, Megan and I used the extra two while Mom and Dad went to visit Figment. We avoided a growing standby line, though in an indication of the light crowds, it was hovering right around an hour. Our table service meal of the day was at the Coral Reef, so we met back up for the Living Seas with Nemo, and waited through a 20 minute queue that seemed to break down more than it ran.

    My original expectations of this attraction were way higher than what it offers. I expected the scenes to be elaborate and enveloping, in a way that the port hole on Disneyland's version and coaster speeds at Disney Studios in Paris couldn’t match. Sure, everything looked nice enough, and the ride has a couple thoughtful moments, but the vehicles themselves are what handicap this attraction. The clam-mobiles are a clever touch, but sorely lack the unique immersion (no pun intended) provided by the submarines and the spinning turtle shell car in Anaheim and Paris respectively.

    I like zombies
    As our 1pm lunch reservation came and went, we exited the ride, realized the restaurant isn’t actually in the pavilion, and hustled around the corner to check in for the meal. We didn’t even have to blame our tardiness on the balky ride (and not our disorientation); we were seated in just a few minutes. This is a favorite of my parents, but my first visit. I skipped the seafood and went with roasted chicken, but everyone else had salmon, trout, and crab cakes. Once again, the meal was great, the paired wine matched well, and the desserts were entirely over the top. Sitting just a few feet away from the busy aquarium tank was a treat as well, and there was no need to feel bad for having rushed into and out of the pavilion.

    Please save your applause for the end of the ride
    Needing to ease back into touring after the sizable lunch, we went next door to the Land, and walked onto Living with the Land. This was always a favorite of mine as a kid, and the dark ride scenes take me right back to the 1980s. There’s something oddly comforting about the farmhouse scene. The rest of the tour through the greenhouses is interesting, especially if you have a green thumb, though you may fight a yawn or two. But, hey, nine pound lemons. Wow.

    With the rest of the Soarin’ Fastpasses now eligible, we squeezed through the madness that the entrance area always sees, and zipped passed the standby queue and into the theater hallway. It was nice to get on a headliner as a foursome, and thankfully the mild movement wasn’t an issue for my mother. I guess they could liven things up a bit for my tastes, and that might weed out some of the less adventurous, but the calm swaying, dramatic vistas, and entrancing score are nothing short of captivating.

    Yeah, yeah, culture, great. Where's the booze?
    It seemed we had done a nice job in Future World to this point, so it was time to make the migration to World Showcase. As is custom, we looked to start things over in Mexico – beginning in Canada just seems wrong to me – so we cut across the expansive and unadorned transition area, and were within earshot of mariachis in a matter of minutes. Thinking ahead, I went up to Norway to get Fastpasses for Maelstrom, but met back up with the group for our tour of Mexico.

    After the requisite browsing of the shops inside the pavilion, we queued up for the Gran Fiesta Tour. I appreciate this ride mostly for its restaurant adjacent placement, a la Pirates through the Blue Bayou, as most of the scenes are anticlimactic after passing the temple and volcano. The cartoon storyline is marginally entertaining, but it’s still a scenic ride and a good way to pass the time while you wait for your Maelstrom Fastpass window to start.

    Without a doubt, the real highlight of the Mexican pavilion is the margaritas, which start out the unofficial drinking tour quite festively. Many of the countries only offer beer, so it’s a good kick to get started with something a little stronger. I did notice that one of the stands was actually selling bottles of tequila, which were almost certainly cheaper per unit of booze, but I insist the sole point of the effort isn’t just to get smashed. It’s more about appreciating culture diversity, though with a pretty good buzz.

    We took a quick load off since the brain-freeze-inducing frozen drink cannot be rushed, but finished up right as it was time to hit Maelstrom. Usually we just go standby here, it’s normally between 15 and 30 minutes, but with the minimum 40 minutes to wait to use the Fastpass, and all of Mexico to enjoy, I see no reason not to pull this trick again in the future. It was a straight shot into the loading area. You only have a few moments to enjoy the impressive mural, but it’s smart to avoid the otherwise unadorned standby queue.

    Not being the first to pass this way, nor the last, we enjoyed the ride regardless. It’s a nice collecting of dark ride scenes, and manages to set itself apart from most everything else that Disney does. The drops are even smaller than I remember, hardly more intimidating than what Pirates of the Caribbean sports, though the backwards portion may be disconcerting to some.

    As we arrived into the unloading station, a pang of hurry came over me when I saw the courtyard empty and the theater doors wide open. I wasn’t too keen on having to wait to see the film. After we were off the boat, I realized that the film was already running, and the doors were staying open. What a nice policy change, assuming that’s what it is. I feel bad for the moviegoers whose view was obscured by exiting riders, but at least no one has to wait anymore. It seemed to near the beginning, so we took a seat.

    Out the exit, we considered our drink options in the nearby café. There is the requisite beer, but also a rarer selection, Aquavit. Not wanting to push our luck with this timeless but potent spirit, we had some Carlsberg, actively ignoring the fact that this brew comes from Denmark, and not Norway.

    We'd be back for beer and brats shortly
    There were still several hours before the 9pm showing of Illuminations, but my parents opted to skip the films. We knew we could catch them during our second visit later in the week, but we didn’t want to skip any of the drinks. Plum wine was the choice in China, and I went with a Pinot Grigio in Italy, and we were almost halfway around the world. Those paying attention will notice we skipped Germany, but we’d be back there for dinner.

    First we fit in a viewing of the American Adventure animatronic show. I had only seen this performance once before, during the ’09 visit, and we didn’t see if after our behind the scenes tour – so I was excited to revisit it knowing the secrets of its inner workings. I suppose the rolling trolley of mechanical scenes isn’t a secret per se, but I definitely had a deeper appreciation for the complexity of it. Sometimes knowing the truth is far more impressive than the supposed magic you’d otherwise assume Disney has employed. The show was its usual explosion of patriotism.

    We'd focus on Japan later, for now the view sufficed
    Back over to dinner, we went with the counter service at Sommerfest, and eventually secured a table in the small, crowded courtyard. We went with the usual sausages and pretzels and apple crisps, and a couple pilsners to filling in the drinking gap. After the meal, we worked our way around through Japan and France with a little window shopping, and eventually settled in Canada for an IllumiNations viewing spot.

    We weren’t up against the railing, but we were the second row, surely having a great view and not needing to stake out a spot an hour in advance. As showtime got closer, we stood up and claimed our spots, only having to reposition a couple times to make sure everyone could see.

    Classical music and pyrotechnics bring us all together
    Of course IllumiNations worked its over the top magic. To be honest, after DisneySea’s Fantasmic, California Adventure’s World of Color, and Disneylands Remember Dreams Come True fireworks, it’s hard not to be a little underwhelmed, a la Wishes at the Magic Kingdom. The fire barge is cool, but not a very artistic element (i.e., a cheap thrill), the globe is small, and ends up rather difficult to see its images as it feels so far away. The water effects are minimal and distant as well. The saving graces are the impressive low altitude fireworks, which do seem frighteningly close, as well as the theme music, which really gets going about halfway in.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely worth watching, and a fitting capstone to a day at Epcot. My personal take is that Disney has outdone this multiple times over, but can somewhat rest on its laurels since Disney World doesn’t get nearly the number of repeat visitors, and there’s not much else here that noticeably tops it. In fact, that’s my general impression of a lot of what Disney World does, specifically with respect to Fantasmic!, Wishes, and even some of the park attractions themselves (ahem, Yeti). But realistically, there is significantly less need for the place to have to reinvent itself, a la Disneyland, so it’s hard to hold it against the place. It’s just one of the handful of things that crosses my mind anyone starts the standard ‘Disney World is the biggest and therefore the best’ conversation. It’s hardly that black or white.

    It was hard to believe, but that would do it for my parents’ visit. They did a good job of splitting time in the four parks over three days, and didn’t miss anything they hadn’t seen several times over already. If anything, it demonstrates why I’m glad Disneyland is close and Disney World is across the country. We can get away with three days at Disneyland and have left no stone unturned. If we’re traveling from coast to coast, we’ll already have set aside a week of vacation. A long weekend in Orlando from New York is as low impact as going from San Jose to Anaheim, but I feel like you get to do more in less time on our coast. I’m just glad I don’t suffer from a ‘grass is greener’ complex, though I wouldn’t complain if the Paris and Tokyo resorts were a couple thousand miles closer.

    There was no way to avoid the mass exodus, since the show started at closing time we were along for the ride. Megan and I ended up ahead of my parents, though they were back at the room not too long after us. The two of us had another early morning with an 8am Extra Magic Hour at Animal Kingdom, but knowing the vacation was over for my folks certainly kept us from complaining. We saved our goodbyes for the morning, and enjoyed one final night enjoying the luxury of the accommodations.
    www.gregscoasterphotos.com <- Go there, it's good!

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