Spending a Week in the “House of Mouse” Part Three: The Debriefing

WDW

After every major operation in the United States Marine Corps, the troops go through what is called a “debriefing.” The purpose of the exercise is to pass along as much information about what occurred during the operation in question to be able to make a future operation run smoother than the one just concluded. Although you may not think so, taking on the challenge of Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, is very much like a military maneuver in that it takes an extreme amount of planning to have the best time possible.

What we’re going to cover in this last part of my family vacation to the “House of Mouse” (hereafter referred to as “WDW”) are various miscellaneous things that you might not have picked up in the first two parts. Trust me, I could probably go on for a few more installments about WDW to help your trip, but I have to leave something for you to have an adventure yourself!

Dining

Arguably the best thing about the WDW resort – if you’re not into the rides, the Disney characters or other items around the amusement parks – is the choices for dining on the properties. Each of the amusement parks are replete with dining options and some of them are quite outstanding. But you have to be able to schedule these well in advance – our family did it three MONTHS in advance of our trip – otherwise you might be sitting in line waiting for a meal that will never come.

The dining options can be as simple as cafeteria style dining at some of the Disney hotels on the property to buffet style options that feature Disney characters (Chef Mickey’s is a very popular option in this category) to scrumptious meals featuring cuisine from several foreign lands (perhaps the best example our family found of this was Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, excellent Indian and African fare). You have to be careful, however, as the meals with the Disney characters can be quite pricey; for the buffet you’re having, you might be better off waiting until you’re inside one of the parks where you can meet the Disney characters and choose a less pricey option.

There is also the issue of traveling to some of restaurants at other Disney hotels or even in the theme parks themselves. Sometimes you can do as instructed by the Disney staff – take a Disney Transport to one of the parks and catch another bus to the resort you have reservations at – and it will take you at least an hour to travel to and from a meal alone. This is one instance where a rental car comes in handy – especially if you have reservations at something like Olivia’s Café or the Grand Floridian Café – as you can drive directly to the resort, have your meal, and drive back to your hotel without the hassle of having to take the Disney Transport.

If you are going to a theme park restaurant (usually you would do this for dinner) you have to be careful not to languish too long over those after-dinner drinks. Disney Transport runs from the theme parks up to an hour after they close (around 8PM this time of year). If you have a late dinner reservation and repose in satisfaction following the meal, you might find yourself having to take a cab because Disney Transport has shut down for the evening.

There is another thing that you won’t see much of at WDW. Alcohol wasn’t served at the Magic Kingdom and the other two parks (Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios) until 2012 and even then it was on a very limited basis (such as restaurants). EPCOT is the only theme park where there are several varieties of alcohol sold around the park, including craft beers, wines from different countries and other spirits. So if you want to get your drink on, EPCOT is the place to be.

Miscellaneous

If you’re going to WDW, do not expect the trip to be an easy one, especially on your feet. You are going to be walking anywhere between five and ten miles a day (depending on how long you spend at the theme parks), so comfortable, well broken in shoes are a necessity. If you are planning on wearing a new pair of sneakers or breaking in those darling ankle boots you just got at Macy’s, you are only setting yourself up for a world of hurt and blistered feet. Don’t forget about comfortable socks, either; thin socks will be chewed up by the end of the day at WDW.

If you have young kids with you, it is quite advisable to pack a bag, like a beach bag, with some snacks and water for them to partake of during the day’s adventure. WDW personnel (they like to call them “cast members” whether they are performing in the shows or letting people through the gates) are pretty good about not hassling people over bringing in food and water into the theme park. These items will come in handy for the kids to rejuvenate themselves and even the adults might like a bottle of water to stem their thirst.

Of course, do not bring weapons into WDW and its theme parks. Even though Florida is a concealed carry state where people can normally carry a concealed weapon such as a handgun, the grounds of WDW are strictly a no-concealed carry area. There are plenty of stories online about people who challenged this law – stating that the WDW ban doesn’t have “force of law” (validity) – but have ended up being banned from the park because they didn’t want to give up their weapon. In fact, if a guest is to bring one to a WDW resort or hotel, the resort requires that the weapon be locked up at the front desk in a safe deposit box. According to WDW representatives, only on-duty law enforcement officers who have jurisdiction at WDW may carry weapons around the property.

There was something else that was a bit of a surprise that cannot be brought into the WDW properties. Selfie sticks – those devices used by many to get a “hands free” look to their cellphone photographs – are also banned by WDW. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask why this was the case (I am figuring two reasons – they can be quite obnoxious if someone is trying to walk around you and you whip this out in their path and, hey, they can be used as a weapon), but my wife and I found out first-hand what happens when you try to get one through the entrance. If you want to retrieve your property, you have to take it to Guest Relations, where it is appropriately tagged and you are given a receipt to be able to retrieve it. You can also voluntarily give it up, but I didn’t notice anyone doing that.

A Final Remembrance

There are a litany of things that I would like to do in my meager existence on this mortal coil – run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain and experience New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Times Square are two such examples – but with my age, those things have long since passed me by. Going to one of the Walt Disney theme parks – be it Disney Land, WDW or one of the parks in Paris or Japan – may not seem like much, but it is a pretty special experience, especially when you share it through the eyes of a son and share it with your wife and mother-in-law. It was a special time and, even though there were some things that were on the schedule that had to be bypassed, it was still a great time.

If I were to rank the four theme parks in order, it would go something like this:

EPCOT
Magic Kingdom
Animal Kingdom
Hollywood Studios

While they were all outstanding attractions, I was particularly drawn to EPCOT and would have loved to have had a chance to take a more in-depth look at some of the non-ride attractions around the park. The Magic Kingdom is what you would expect – a non-stop day of rides for all ages – and the Animal Kingdom was enjoyable for the most part. The only thing that seemed out of place in the mix was Hollywood Studios (and I thought I would really like it, to be honest); it seemed there was a purpose for all the other theme parks but Hollywood Studios seemed to be forced just a bit. Still, given a day to thoroughly look over Hollywood Studios, that opinion may have been changed.

If you’re planning on going to WDW anytime soon, you are in for the trip of a lifetime. If you haven’t been for several years, it might be time to take another look. As for me and my family, it could be something we plan on doing more frequently before our son gets to be “too cool” (read:  too old) to go to a “kiddie park.” Then again, the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL is, as its creator wanted, a place where kids and adults can equally have fun.

Spending a Week in the “House of Mouse” Part Two: Taking the High Ground

EPCOT

While having been in the United States Marine Corps isn’t a prerequisite for taking on the challenge of Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, it is an advisable course of action. Without the intricate planning and the physical training of military maneuvers, many will end up as one of the pretty landscaping efforts around the “House of Mouse.” If you remember Part One and have put its exercises into use, you’re off to a good start. If you can make it to the end of this training course, you’ll be able to take the high ground in any of the resorts’ (hereafter referred to as “WDW”) and make an enjoyable effort out of the battle.

Day Three

After a great breakfast to prime ourselves for the day, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was on the agenda for our family. Animal Kingdom is actually the newest of the four theme parks that make up the WDW entourage, opened in 1998, and is the second largest theme park in the world behind only Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ. What sets apart this particular theme park – according to what is told to the visitors – is that the main reason for this park is to promote animal conservation.

This is where I have a bit of a problem with Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I am not one of those “animal rights” activists that foam at the mouth if someone ruins the habitat of the Galapagos Island tree frog (hell, if there is such an animal, let me know). I also, however, am not for their abuse in circuses, zoos, rodeos or water parks, either; just try to tell me about how much a polar bear likes walking around on concrete in the middle of a Southern summer. My son, however, is quite interested in animals and, as he has not yet had the opportunity to form an opinion on this subject, I have decided to allow for his youthful curiosity with the creatures that join human beings on this planet.

From the appearances of the park, there is a premium placed on the animals and their well-being, maintaining as natural a habitat as possible for them and allowing them the freedom of movement that would come in their surroundings (the “Tree of Life” that dominates the center of the park is something to see). That was somewhat reassuring and, once we went on the special “Kilimanjaro Safari” that is one of the major attractions of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we could see that the animals seemed to think that they were in their natural habitats. You could literally almost touch the animals as you drove past – they are free range in that they can go wherever they wanted to go – but you were discouraged from doing so. Of particular fun was one giraffe who thought it would be a hoot to block the road; our driver waited – and the drivers of another half dozen or so safari trucks behind us waited – until the giraffe had been adequately amused and moved off the road.

It was when we traveled between the different animal compounds on the safari trail that you could see some issues, however. I was quick to notice that the entrances/exits from one compound to another had electronic gratings on the ground across the roads and there were the traditional fencing in the woods or brush that you would see in a normal zoo. Were these in place to discourage the animals from mingling among each other as they would naturally do in the wild? I would have liked to have asked someone on the safari (especially about the grates on the ground) but not wanting to look like a killjoy to a couple of dozen people, I decided to keep my trap shut for a change.

Other than the zoo atmosphere that permeated my mindset, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was quite lovely. Lush trees and bamboo stalks provided shade for a particularly hot day in October and there were plenty of areas to take a load off and rest. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do much else outside of the Kilimanjaro Safari (the family took a ride on the Kali River Rapids, which sounds just like its name indicates and was quite enjoyable) as our son was getting tired, but that proved to be a good thing as it was the one day we had some afternoon rain that would have put a damper on things (this is also something to remember about Florida…at any moment, despite what the weather forecast was the night before, “pop-up” showers or thunderstorms can and often do occur throughout the day).

Overall, if you’re visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there is plenty to see there that would take a good day to get through, if not more. It also is quite beautiful, if you can get by the fact that it is still a zoo.

Day Four

By this point in the trip, we were getting to be old hats at the “wake up early, get a good breakfast” routine. We also were struck with one of the maladies that pops up when you are on a vacation – illness. Perhaps because he wanted to touch everything that was around him – as children are wont to do – our son started to come down with the “sniffles.” It seemed like nothing – just a little bit of a runny nose – that turned into a full blown cold within about twelve hours of the first appearance of the “snots.” This would have an impact on the remainder of the trip and may have been the cause of one of the stranger cases of the trip.

After breakfast, the plan was to attack Disney’s Hollywood Studios and its myriad of attractions. Opened in 1989, it was originally known as Disney-MGM Studios but, after years of infighting between Disney and MGM Studios over its operational aspects (MGM objected to a full studio and film lab being on the property, Disney objected to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas opening a theme park of their own on The Strip), the name was changed to Hollywood Studios and more of an emphasis on the “early days” of the movie and entertainment industries were emphasized.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios are probably the most difficult of the four theme parks to get around simply because there is so much built in and upon itself. There are six different “performance areas,” including Hollywood Boulevard, Pixar Place and Streets of America, that morph into each other so seamlessly that you can easily get lost. This is problematic if you are trying to find your way out of the park and you are on one of the more “remote” areas of Hollywood Studios (this is something that isn’t going to get easier, either; a Star Wars themed area and something called Toy Story Land are supposed to be constructed on the grounds with an unspecified completion date).

In a change from the previous two parks we had visited, virtually all of the amusement rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios were indoor affairs instead of outside. This became a problem for our son, surprisingly, as he hadn’t ever shown any problem with being “in the dark” or being scared of, well, anything (he had recently ridden a “spooky” funhouse ride at a county fair with another little friend; the little friend came out of the ride crying uncontrollably while our son was cool, calm and collected). Even something as simple as “The Great Movie Ride,” which captured the iconic history of movies on an indoor ride with sets, live actors and movie clips, caused him to become almost uncontrollable because of the darkness at some moments of the ride.

With this situation presenting itself, we decided to cut the trip short to Hollywood Studios. While it was something that looked interesting (especially the Tower of Terror that we were supposed to ride), it wasn’t worth permanently scarring a young lad on his first major theme park adventure. From what we did do, however, it more than has enough entertainment to cover a day’s activities.

Day Five

Coming into the final full day of action was at once a thrill (as we were heading to an area that I had wanted to see) and a bit sad (leaving the next day). After some medication, our son was a bit better (but still not interested in even taking a look at any ride that was even inside), so we headed off to EPCOT.

If you recall from Part One of our story, EPCOT was what Walt Disney originally envisioned the Florida property would become…an experimental community where innovation and technological feats were to be tested out. Following Disney’s death in 1966, that was scrapped and the Magic Kingdom was instead built in 1971. EPCOT, after it was built and opened in 1982, became more of an amusement park – Disney officials thought of it as more of a “permanent World’s Fair” – but still had some elements of technological wonder and scientific appeal. It is now the third most visited theme park in the United States and sixth most visited in the world.

Unlike Disney’s Hollywood Studio’s, EPCOT was very neatly laid out and has a wide array of attractions that would capture pretty much anyone’s attention. If you’re interested in space, there were attractions for that (Spaceship:  Earth and Mission:  Space). Technology was covered in the Innovations arenas on each side of the park (East and West) and, if you’re wondering what Disney did with the late Michael Jackson’s 3D film Captain EO, it can be found on the EPCOT property.

Unfortunately, our son’s sudden apprehension at indoor rides nearly kept us from what would be one of the better rides of the trip. After we took him home for a nap, my lovely wife and I returned to EPCOT to take on Soarin’, a ride that took you through the skies like a bird as you flew over California (with actor Patrick Warburton appearing as your head flight attendant). Staring at a concave screen as you dangled in a seat watching the terrain race by underneath you, you almost felt as if you could fly; I commented to my wife afterwards that, while flying over ocean surf, about the only thing that would make it better was if there had been a way to have a “sea spray” hit you in the face. It also almost felt as if my toes were touching the treetops as we whizzed past.

While the ride was a great one, I’ve recently learned that it will be replaced soon. Instead of the version that was shown while I was there at EPCOT, a new version called Soarin’ Around the World will take over the screens come 2016. This, as you might expect, will do just what Soarin’ did but amp it up to a world stage instead of just California. When that comes around, that will be worth seeing as even the abbreviated trip was a blast.

With that, our trip through the theme parks was complete. We haven’t finished our review of WDW yet, however. In PART THREE, I’ll offer some tips that you might overlook in planning a trip to WDW and ask a few questions, including one that might anger some people.

Spending a Week in the “House of Mouse” Part One: Surviving the Incursion

WaltDisneyWorld

Yes, I haven’t been around in about a week. The mission I undertook was one that tested every bit of training that I received in the United States Marine Corps. It pushed every fiber of my being to get through it and…oh, the hell with it. The last week was family time as we took a vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL.

Reportedly – with the reporter being my mother – I had already been to a Disney property, the California location known as Disneyland. Since I was nine months old when I allegedly did this, however, I can pretty confidently say that it wasn’t a part of my decade’s long consciousness. As such, it was safe to say that this would be my first visit to a Disney property, as it was for my son, and the first time my wife had visited the park since she became of drinking age.

You’ve got to hand it to the namesake of the property, he was a visionary. Walt Disney – yes, the man who created Mickey Mouse and his cohorts – wasn’t simply satisfied with dominating the world of cartoons and children’s films. After visiting amusement parks with his daughters in the 30s and 40s, Disney decided that he could do better and set about showing he could.

He would build Disneyland in just over a year, opening the gates to the premises in 1955 on another innovative venue – television – but it reportedly wasn’t well received. Perhaps because of the rush of getting the park opened, several bugs were apparent at the grand premiere, including asphalt that hadn’t sealed yet (and allowed women’s high heels to sink into in the 100 degree heat), non-operating water fountains (given the option of water fountains or operating toilets, I think Disney made the right choice) and traffic delays around the park.

Still, the new attraction in California would become a landmark in the United States. Reportedly Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted to visit the park when he came to the United States in 1959; he was denied due to security concerns. As of today, it has welcomed over 650 million visitors, young and old, fulfilling Walt Disney’s dream of a place where children and adults could equally have the time of their lives.

While many may think the original in the Golden State is the main attraction for the Disney organization, it is actually the Walt Disney World Resort – also called Walt Disney World or simply Disney World – that is the “flagship” of the Disney Empire. Opened in 1971, it is reportedly the most visited vacation resort in the world, with total attendance over 52 million people per year. Originally, however, it wasn’t supposed to be a huge resort and amusement park like its predecessor.

Disney’s original thoughts for the Florida property was one of discovery and experimentation. It was to include a planned community called the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (remember this, there will be a test later) where new creations and innovations in city living might be tested. Alas, after Disney passed away in 1966, the organization instead moved towards creating an East Coast version of what already existed on the West Coast.

And here I had been able to avoid it for most of my life…

When you have children, you sometimes make those sacrifices. Who hasn’t let their kid occasionally beat them at something, just once, so they don’t get discouraged? Who hasn’t done something that they really didn’t want to do just to make their tot happy? Hey, let’s be honest, if going to Walt Disney World is the toughest thing I have to do to make my little son happy, then I’ll do it every day and twice on Sunday. What you don’t realize is just how difficult it is to make the trek around the grounds of the “House of Mouse” (hereafter referred to as “WDW”) and emerge on the other side unscathed.

Day One

After landing at the Orlando International Airport – one of the nicer airports I’ve been in, honestly – you think you’re on your way to WDW. There are several ways to get there, however, and it is dependent on how you’ve created your trip to how you get out of the airport itself. There are taxis and hotel shuttles for those “off property” hotels around WDW and you can go through the burdensome task of the rental car, but most who have booked their trips through WDW will be dependent on the “Disney’s Magical Express” for their transportation to WDW.

“Disney’s Magical Express” is NOT operated by WDW, however. This is an outside contractor, Mears Transportation, who also seems to have a pretty good lock on the taxi market for the entirety of the WDW complex. The reason I bring this up is that, while efficient, they aren’t exactly looking out for the customers that are traveling via their buses. Personally, my wife and I left our son’s stroller on the bus once we arrived at our hotel; while we didn’t have it for the entirety of our trip, it “magically” appeared in the hotel’s lost and found the day we were to leave WDW. If you get on one of these buses, make DAMN sure that you grab everything upon debarking, otherwise you might not see your property again.

It isn’t a short trip from the airport to WDW, either. Be prepared, depending on which hotel you are staying in on the WDW Resort compound, for up to a 45 minute trip. For example, our bus had to make stops at four different properties on the WDW grounds. As the second stop, we took approximately 30 minutes until we were situated in our hotel room, ready to begin the grand adventure.

But what do you do when it is late in the afternoon? The best bet for Day One was to head to Disney Springs, or “Downtown Disney,” where many restaurants and shops are located. If there is anything that you want to buy, you can probably find it here. There was the Ghirardelli chocolate shops located right next to the Starbucks located right next to a jewelry store located right next to the Disney Store. After a very good dinner at the Rainforest Grill at Disney Springs our family, which had now been joined by my son’s maternal grandmother (or “Noona”), decided to get some rest before the real fun began.

Day Two

First off, write this in your memory bank:  there is NO WAY you will be able to visit the four different parks that make up the WDW compound in one day (the total size of the WDW property is 43 square miles, about the same area as San Francisco). Besides the original Magic Kingdom built in 1971, there are Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT (remember the original plan of Walt Disney?). None of these properties are particularly close together and you must depend on Disney Transport, the in-house bus system for the sprawling park, to get around. About the closest thing that Disney Transport has to a schedule is that “a bus will be around about every 20 minutes” so you never know when you’ll be picked up unless you happen to luck into catching one when it is in the depot.

From a planning aspect, my lovely wife did an outstanding job. I don’t think General George Patton could have put together a better plan of attack for his Sherman tank divisions than what she scheduled for our family. If you don’t think this type of preparation is necessary, it is, otherwise you won’t be able to enjoy each park AND be able to squeeze moments of sustenance around the fun.

For the first day, we attacked the Magic Kingdom as my wife admitted it was her favorite from her visits as a child. And it is easy to see why this, even after more than 40 years, is still the star attraction for WDW. The outdoor rides are pretty much all located at this park, including the popular Space Mountain and other attractions, and there are five different segments of the park that we could probably have a day spent in them alone.

For those that claim that cities such as New York, London, Paris or Munich are the “Crossroads of the World,” these people have obviously never been to WDW and, in particular, the Magic Kingdom. Languages from around the world – Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French, German…you get the idea – fluttered in the air of the Magic Kingdom and mingled like an exquisite jambalaya. There is a bonhomie amongst the visitors to the Magic Kingdom (and across WDW) that transcends simple nationalities, making everyone a true member of the world community, at least for their stay at WDW. It was a bit refreshing in this day and age of hyper-nationalism and the xenophobia we sometimes see in the world.

As to the rides, there is something for everyone. With a young boy who is a burgeoning daredevil, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was the first stop and it was a blast (he thought so too). Next on the agenda was Splash Mountain, a water flume ride that was adequate (a bit slow for my tastes and our son “got his butt wet” as he laughed) and a few other rides that were all outdoors. This is important, as you’ll learn later in our program.

If you have a young child and don’t have a stroller, you’re going to have to cut your visits short for each day you are at WDW. Our son required a nap each afternoon from the excitement and the walking (up to eight miles per day, in some cases) and it wasn’t a bad idea for the parents either. We normally were out of the park by 2PM (the hottest part of the day and a good time to take that break) and back at the hotel within a short time.

With two days down and three to go, everyone was in bed by 10PM the second night. You definitely had to be rested up for the daily workout and, as was to be expected, the excitement that would come in the future.

IN PART TWO:  Why outdoor rides are important, dining around WDW and some questions need to be asked.