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.