From D.C. to Florida, Part Two: Five Days at Disney
A marathon, three-parks-in-one-day visit kicks off week two of Russell's trip to Central Florida.
Written by Russell Meyer
After the first half of our Orlando vacation ended with a wonderful day at Sea World, the Disney portion of our vacation was about to begin. Our first destination on Tuesday evening was our first Disney hotel, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. When we reached the hotel, which is on the far reaches of the Disney property, we were greeted by one of the most amazing atria I have ever seen. Five stories tall with dark warm woods and incredible chandeliers, the lobby of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge is an incredible monument to Disney Imagineering.Tweet
We went to drop our things off in our Savannah side room, and went out for some dinner. We had decided to try one of Disney's newest restaurants, Raglan Road. The restaurant is located at Downtown Disney near Pleasure Island, and specializes in traditional Irish cuisine. Raglan Road also features live entertainment and a fully stocked bar with plenty of delicious beverages- Mmmmm beer!! The bar was actually hand made in Ireland, shipped to Orlando, and assembled on-site. After we were seated, I ordered Kevin's Kudos, the restaurant's signature dish of oven roasted pork loin, and my wife ordered Planxty, a roasted pork shank. I liked my entrée, but my wife wasn't too terribly impressed with hers, and wished she had gotten what I had. Typically when we go to Irish-style restaurants I typically order fish and chips or shepherds pie, so I think I took her a bit by surprise when I wanted the same dish she was considering. Overall, Raglan Road was pretty decent, but nothing really special. The entertainment was pretty good, but if you eating, you really cannot see the stage without getting up from your seat. The prices were a bit high, with our meal of two entrées and two beers eclipsing $50 with tax and tip. I think most people could find better in a local pub or tavern, and those in the U.K. could probably pass on this restaurant.
We made our way back to our hotel and called it a night. I was hoping that there would be some animals mulling outside our balcony during the evening, but did not see anything. However, when I woke up early the next morning, I opened the curtains to be greeted by some real animals, imagine that! I will provide a more thorough review of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in a future report, but after experiencing the hotel, I think it may not be the right hotel for open-to-close theme park junkies like us.
We were set for our first full day in Disney, and our first stop was Epcot. We had scheduled in advance to take the Around the World on a Segway Tour, which turned out to be an amazing experience, one that I will go into further detail about in a later report. After our tour was over, Future World had been open for over an hour, and I was ready for some rides. We chose to FastPass Mission: Space and ride Test Track in the venerable single rider line. We had already ridden Soarin' at Disney's California Adventure, and figured we could FastPass it when we got to the other side of Future World. While Test Track is still a great attraction, it is beginning to show why it is in such desperate need of some rehab time, which it will probably receive early next year. I was surprised to see how short the line for Mission: Space was with a standby time of 15 minutes and a single rider time of 10 minutes. Had this attraction already worn out it's welcome?
I have heard so many things about this ride, and was so psyched to experience Disney's "sickest" attraction. After some babbling by Gary Sinise, we were locked into our pods ready for a mission to Mars. I was impressed with Disney's attention to detail with all of the controls, buttons, switches, and lights. While they are more eye candy than anything else, they really make you feel like you're in a real spacecraft. It was time to launch, and we were pinned against our seats with a startling amount of force. I was beginning to wonder, "If this is toned down, what was this ride like before it officially opened?" If you know that you're in a centrifuge and think about it, you can discern the spinning, but if you let yourself be immersed in the experience, the forces feel very realistic. The "tasks" each crewmember is asked to complete with push the button, "NOW!" cues are pretty dorky, but for whatever reason, I could not prevent myself from being subliminally suggested by Gary Sinise to push the buttons. After you manage to avert disaster upon landing, the ride is over. Overall I was impressed, and could only think of different missions and expansions of this amazing ride concept. After we exited, we went to the post show area, which was surprisingly small. I certainly wouldn't want to picture how crazy this area could get on a busy summer day. One time wasn't enough for me, so we headed right back to ride again, and once again I was impressed. However, I don't think most people could take more than a couple of rides on Mission: Space in quick succession.
After getting our fill of Mission: Space, we went across Future World to grab a FastPass for Soarin'. We weren't in any hurry to ride, so we figured we would get one for whatever time was available, unless the standby line was short. Little did we know the true popularity of this attraction. We reached the entrance of The Land where there was a sign saying that all FastPasses had been distributed for the day for Soarin'. It was a little before noon, and I couldn't believe it, and a walk downstairs to the queue confirmed that the sign was correct and there was also standby time of 75 minutes. I knew people liked the attraction, but I was constantly surprised throughout our time in Epcot how much people wanted to ride Soarin'. It's a cool ride and all, but standing in line for over an hour when Mission: Space and Test Track could both be ridden instead is ridiculous. We took the consolation prize of a FastPass for Living With the Land, and began our tour around the World Showcase.
We had planned our vacation around one of our favorite Disney events, Epcot's Food and Wine Festival, and we had planned in advance to make our meals on this day a sampling of the foods at the various booths around the World Showcase. As part of the Food and Wine Festival, each country of the World Showcase, in addition to a few more, set up booths, which highlight the cuisine, beer, and wine of that country or region. Each item costs somewhere between $2 and $5 (more for alcohol). We also made sure to check out the Samuel Adams beer tasting and the Inbev beer tasting before it was time to head back to use our Living with the Land FastPass. This attraction has not changed much over the years, and is still better as a 20-minute break for your feet than anything else. After Living with the Land, we took a spin on Journey Into Imagination with Figment, who is still the most under-marketed Disney character ever. Figment has always been a favorite of mine, and it's sad to see that not so many visitors to Epcot make it over to this pavilion anymore.
After our ride with Figment and Eric Idle, we got in line for a wine seminar hosted by Etude Wineries. As part of the Food and Wine Festival, Epcot also invites wineries and chefs to do seminars and other special events. Many of the daily seminars, like the one we attended, are free, but there are many other special events that require advance reservations and an admission fee (we attended one special event at this year's Food and Wine Festival). While we were standing in line for the seminar, we watched the Kristos, a Cirque-style balancing troupe, which was composed of two men and two women in some amazing poses and feats of balance and strength. After our seminar we went back to the World Showcase and rode El Rio Del Tiempo and the Maelstrom. We also grabbed a few more tastes of the World Showcase, and slipped into an Australian Shiraz wine tasting before sunset.
Dusk was approaching, and we had decided that we wanted to see Fantasmic on this night, so we put our park hoppers to good use, and drove over to Disney/MGM Studios. We made the critical mistake of taking a ride on Tower of Terror 30 minutes before the start of the show. The last time we were in Disney World during November, the parks were not that crowded, so I had figured we could sneak a ride and still have 15-20 minutes before the start of the show. Tower of Terror was walk-on, and I was thoroughly impressed with the new special effects and seatbelts of "Tower 4." You just never know what to expect from this ride, and if I could have, I would have ridden it all night. However, we needed to get to Fantasmic, so we headed up to the amphitheater only to find that all of the seating areas were full, and only standing room was available. I was upset, but I guess the only person blame was myself. Silly me, thinking I should ride on the awesome Tower of Terror instead of sitting around for a half-hour waiting for a show to start. Well, my fun was replaced by tired feet as we were forced to stand through the entire show. While the standing room section is not the most desirable, it's not an awful view, unless you have small children. This show hadn't changed since our last trip here. I think I had commented after our trip to Disneyland a couple of years ago that I liked MGM's version of Fantasmic better, but now think that I like Disneyland's better. It could have been the standing or knowing that we were going to try to hop to another park before the night was over, but Fantasmic this time around just didn't wow me as much as it did the first time.
For most park-goers, the day would be done (it had started at sunrise for us on this day), but for young whippersnappers like us, we had Wishes beginning in about an hour and 3 evening extra magic hours to tackle at the Magic Kingdom. So, it was back to the car, and a drive over to the Ticketing and Transportation Center to pick up a monorail to the Magic Kingdom. Once we entered the park, we grabbed our special wristbands, which permit Disney hotel guests to experience designated attractions for three hours after the official park closing time. I wanted to experience one of the newer attractions, so we decided on to try Stitch's Great Escape. However, we discovered that Disney has done an excellent job of messing up what was one of the coolest attractions in the park. The attraction, which used to be Alien Encounter, has been defaced by the silly-talking chili-breath Stitch. Surprisingly, I found that Stitch has become one of Disney's most popular characters, so it was natural to create an attraction based around him, but at the cost of destroying Alien Encounter is almost sacrilege. The attraction does have its cute parts, gross parts, and slightly scary parts, but for those who have experienced the original form of this attraction will be sorely disappointed.
Our feet were beginning to tire after a really long day, so we tried to find a spot where we could sit down to view Wishes, and eventually settled on a bench near the Tomorrowland Noodle Station. We had a good view of the castle, and an incredible view of Tinkerbell, who is still a person on a wire in this new nighttime spectacular, but we didn't have the greatest spot to see the fireworks. The show, like just about every Disney fireworks show, is mesmerizing, with a great soundtrack and narration by Jiminy Cricket, Wishes manages to appeal to just about anyone. After the fireworks, we thought the park would clear out a bit, but it almost seemed like the park got more crowded after the show. I was surprised at how many people were still in the park for the evening magic hours on a Wednesday night in November, but it seemed like the occupants of every hotel room on Disney property were packing into the Magic Kingdom. We tried to make the most of it by hitting the newer and more-popular attractions, saving the rest of the park for tomorrow. We watched Mickey's Philharmagic. I was rather impressed with this computer-animated 3-D movie, and felt that the familiar characters looked great with the updated, 21st Century look. The 3-D effects and other special effects were great, and think it's a great addition to Fantasyland.
We also took a "spin" on Buzz Lightyear and Space Mountain before giving into the suffocating crowds. We had gone almost 17 hours without a break, so we gave up on the final magic hour to head back to our hotel for some much-needed rest. We were coming back to the Magic Kingdom the next day, so we weren't pressed to see everything in three hours, but we were a bit surprised to see the park so crowded.
We got up early the next morning, and I took a final walk around Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was time to pack, and move on to our second and final Disney hotel, Disney's Coronado Spring Resort. After dropping off our luggage in our room, we headed straight for the Ticketing and Transportation Center so we could hop on a monorail to the Magic Kingdom. We spent most of the day touring the park, trying to make the best use of FastPass and get to every attraction we wanted to see. Again, the park was more crowded than we had expected, but we were still able to get to just about everything in the park. Sadly, the Haunted Mansion was down for rehab, so we missed one of our favorite Disney attractions, bit we did hit all of the other biggies, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Buzz Lightyear. We even managed to hop on the Carousel of Progress, probably for the last time ever. The only new attraction we experienced on this day in the Magic Kingdom was Cinderellabration. The new show is clearly targeted at young girls, and has all of the pomp, circumstance, and celebrity that you would expect from a royal coronation. There's really not much to the story, and it seemed more like an excuse to roll out every princess in the book to try to sell little girls costumes. The costumes and songs were all very nice, but from an adult male perspective, it just doesn't work.
It was soon time for one of the things I was most anticipating for the whole day, dining at Cinderella's Royal Table. We had made reservations almost two months ago, and we were about to eat in one of the most exclusive restaurants in the Magic Kingdom. Not only that, but while we were waiting in the lobby, we had an opportunity to meet Cinderella herself. Our royal party of two was eventually called up to the dining room, and we had a wonderful dinner.
After a lovely meal inside the castle, we took the monorail over to Epcot to watch Illuminations. Epcot's nightly spectacular is still an amazing sight, and never grows tired because of the infinite angles from which to view the show from. It was also Epcot's day for evening magic hours, so we took the time to ride Spaceship Earth, Mission: Space and TestTrack before heading back to our hotel for the evening.
Friday began with a nice breakfast at the Pepper Market, Coronado Springs' quick-service restaurant. Today began at Disney/MGM Studios. We arrived just before the rope drop, and headed straight for Tower of Terror. We also rode Rock ‘n Roller Coaster before heading to the other side of the park. We made sure to grab a ride on Star Tours. As a huge Star Wars fan, a trip to this park is never complete without this ride, but I can admit that it is in desperate need of an update. We also made sure to see my wife's favorite Disney/MGM Studios attraction, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! We loved playing this game the last time we were here, and also the now defunct Disney's California Adventure version of the attraction. In fact my wife has been in the hot seat of both attractions, and I made it into the hot seat of the California version. However, since our last trip, the game has changed a bit. The rules are the same, but the shorter show time, barely 20 minutes, makes it nearly impossible for an adult to get into the hot seat. In most audiences there are at least one or two kids who manage to pick the right combination of buttons that they press in rapid video-game style. In our show, that's exactly what happened, and the kid actually did a good job of using his lifelines and made a couple of good guesses that exhausted the show time completely. Apparently this has been happening rather frequently, with only one contestant per show. After our disappointing showing at Millionaire, we wanted to see the park's newest attraction, Lights, Motors, Action!
The impressive stunt show from Disney Studios Paris was quite good with some great action and incredible stunt driving. It's not the kind of show I could see over and over again, but for the average visitor frequency to Disney World, it will stay popular for many years to come. My only concern about this attraction is the space that it takes up in an already small park, and the LONG walk it takes to get to and from the seating area.
We had made reservations for a special tour at the Magic Kingdom, and unfortunately our day at MGM was cut a bit short. We made our way back to the Magic Kingdom just in time for our Virtual Magic Kingdom VIP Tour. For those who don't know, Virtual Magic Kingdom, or VMK, is a free online immersive gaming/reality experience. Imagine if you were a character in an online environment, and you could visit a theme park in cyberspace, and that's kind of what VMK is like. The VMK tour addressed some of the aspects of VMK, including future lands and expansions of the game, but was also a tour of the real Magic Kingdom. You can sign up for the tour by completing "quests," and if they are completed correctly, you can sign up for this special tour. What we did not know was that the tour is actually pretty popular, and that we should have scheduled it in advance, which is why we had to come back to the Magic Kingdom on Friday. After our tour, we had dinner reservations at our hotel. We had a wonderful dinner at Maya Grill, and actually had some time to relax in Disney World's largest Jacuzzi tub. It was then time for a good night's rest before another long day.
We had breakfast again at the Pepper Market, but got our meal to go so we could eat it in the car. We then drove over to Disney's Animal Kingdom to take advantage of the early magic hour. We quickly grabbed a FastPass for the Kilimanjaro Safari and decided not to wade through the mass of guests mobbing the standby line. While we waited for our FastPass time, we watched It's Tough to be a Bug. We also rode Dinosaur, which I still think is one of Walt Disney World's best attractions, and took our safari. As we walked around the park, I could not help being taunted by the massive mountain-looking structure to the east that was continuously calling my attention.
Expedition Everest is still not open to the public, but it is evident that it will not be long before it is thrilling guests. Not only is the mountain immensely detailed, but the area around it, including the FastPass distribution and queue area are some of the most intensely themed area I have seen in any park. The theming of the attraction was evident all the way to the bridge where there is a peculiar Buddhist shrine with a small sculpture of a Yeti inside. Disney's Imagineering has gone all out on Expedition Everest, it was just a shame I wasn't able to take it for a spin. I guess I will have a reason to come back.
We made sure to watch Festival of the Lion King and Tarzan Rocks. This was actually the first time I had seen Tarzan Rocks, and was moderately impressed by this roller derby meets Broadway meets rock concert show. For those who haven't had a chance to see it, your time is running out, as the show will be ending its run early next year. We also saw all of the cool animal exhibits, but we were pretty much finished with the park a few hours before closing, proving that Expedition Everest will go a long way into making Animal Kingdom more than a ½ day park. We did skip Kali River Rapids because the only place to store loose articles is in the raft, and I did not want to endanger my camera equipment. After we were done with Animal Kingdom, we drove back to our hotel to get ready for the most anticipated evening of our vacation. We had purchased tickets to the Party for the Senses, and special dinner served every Saturday evening of the Food and Wine Festival. The party features gourmet chefs preparing their most exclusive dishes, wine, and other assorted beverages. The event cost $95 per person, so I had high expectations.
We picked up a bus from our hotel to Epcot. At the end of the evening I was really glad we didn't drive, even though it took a little longer to get back to our hotel. We arrived at the park, and took a spin on Mission: Space before heading over to the World Showcase Events Pavilion. We received our complimentary glasses and special plate, and had an amazing evening. I will detail the entire event in a future report, but for those who are wondering, it was worth every penny. We managed to make it back to our room, but sadly, it was our final evening in Disney World.
We got up early the next morning, packed up our things, and had another nice breakfast at the Pepper Market. We went back to Epcot for our final day since we had lunch reservations. We just could not get enough of Epcot on this trip. With the Food and Wine Festival going on, Epcot is by far the best park in Walt Disney World. We were able to see the opening show, which we had missed on our first day because we were on the Segway Around the World Tour, and headed straight for Soarin'. We had missed out on this attraction every other time we were in the park over the week, and we were not going to be denied. We grabbed a FastPass and waited in the standby line so we could get two rides for the wait of one. I still don't understand why this is the most popular attraction in all of Walt Disney World, but I guess one cannot deny its fantastically simplistic effects and realism. I would take Mission: Space, TestTrack, or the Maelstrom over Soarin' any day of the week, but because of its incredible popularity, you have to plan ahead if you want to experience Epcot's newest attraction. We walked around the World Showcase, and sampled some more tastes of the Food and Wine Festival before we had an excellent lunch at Chefs de France. I was basking in the garlic aroma of my escargot appetizer for hours after our lunch, but alas the time had come for us to wrap up our incredible Orlando vacation.
This was by far the longest my wife and I had ever spent in Orlando, and easily the most we've ever done. We also did a lot of things we have never done before. We stayed in three different on-site hotels, we ate at many different park restaurants, we took tours, and we experienced many new rides and attractions. We are normally very budget-conscious when we go on vacation, and rarely spend more than $1,500 for a domestic vacation, so this 10-day adventure was a real treat. While I don't see us paying for a Savannah-side room at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, I could definitely see us staying at on-site hotels again. The additional cost was actually worth it in my opinion, and being so close to the action, and the luxury of bus service to the parks is hard to pass up. While our technique of ripping through parks at a furious pace may not be most people's style, it's the way my wife and I vacation, so those wondering when we slept, don't be concerned. We always come back from a vacation typically needing another vacation to relax, but we always have a great time, and this was one of the most memorable vacations ever.
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