Now that we've reached the halfway point of this report, let's recap what has been covered so far...
-On Sunday, September 24th, I arrived in Orlando after an overnight flight from Los Angeles. I spent this day and the following day visiting Kennedy Space Center, Aquatica, and a number of other tourist attractions.
-Tuesday, September 26th was my first theme park day, and I ended up visiting three parks this day. The morning and afternoon was spent at Disney's Hollywood Studios, while the evening was spent at the two Fun Spot America parks.
-Wednesday, September 27th was a full day at Epcot, with plenty of Food and Wine sampling.
-Thursday, September 28th was Disney's Animal Kingdom, including Pandora and the best Disney coaster ever (at least outside of Asia).
-Friday, September 29th was a break from Disney, as I spent the day riding some top notch roller coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa.
When I look back on it, I unintentionally ended up scheduling the less exciting parks for the first half of the trip. While I enjoyed everything in the list above, none leap out at me as an automatic must re-visit on my next trip (well, BGT does if they get a new coaster). The second half, however, was full of time at the Florida parks everyone talks about.
I mentioned previously that I used a Four Day Magic Ticket for Walt Disney World on this trip. These tickets allow four days at the resort over a two week period, with two restrictions: You may only visit each park one time, and all visits had to be complete by Saturday, September 30th. Therefore, we were forced to spend our Saturday at a Disney park, and it had to be the most popular theme park in the world.
Part 6: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
As the title of this report suggests, I live in California, and I have for my entire life so far. More specifically, I live in Orange County, about a 45 minute drive from Disneyland (with typical traffic). So, naturally, I visit the park all the time. Due to costs, I usually follow a two years on, one year off pattern with my annual pass, but when I have one it is rare that I go more than 5 weeks without a visit (barring blockouts). While I don't know that I'd call Disneyland the absolute best theme park I've visited (at least on an objective level), it remains my favorite park, and despite the number of days I've spent there I still enjoy it each and every time. There is just something special about the place, and it is exceptionally difficult to describe to someone who hasn't experienced the park first-hand.
With that in mind, I fully expected Magic Kingdom to be a disappointment. Roughly half of the park's attractions are clones of those found at Disneyland, though according to most reviews the Florida clones are said to be inferior. The remaining attractions are largely either long-gone relics from the Disneyland of the 70s or modern creations that can't hold a candle to the classics. Unlike Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, or Shanghai Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom doesn't have a signature ride that is wholly unique to the park. The closest, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, is little more than a highly themed family coaster, and the rest of the park's E-tickets were built in the 1970s and 1980s. On paper, it didn't look like a particularly compelling park for a Disneyland local.
Like many of the rides at Epcot, however, what something sounds like on paper and the actual experience it provides can be very, very different.
Due to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa the night before, we didn't get back to Andrew's house until after 2 A.M. Magic Kingdom opened the next morning at 8 A.M., and with 16 hours of operation it was going to be a long day on little sleep. However, I insisted upon being at the park for rope drop, so after about 3 hours of sleep we found ourselves arriving at the parking lot at about 7:15 A.M. Like Disneyland, parking is quite a ways from the front gate of the park. Unlike Disneyland, however, arrival is not by a rather pedestrian tram, but by monorail or ferryboat. On this overcast morning, we opted for the monorail. Shortly afterward, we arrived at the gates to the Kingdom and headed inside.
My first impression upon entering the park was the difference in scale between it and Disneyland. The latter is very compact, with a narrow Main Street stretching to a Sleeping Beauty Castle, a small structure (77 ft. tall) just large enough to draw you in.
In Florida, Main Street feels twice as wide (it's actually only slightly wider), and the quaint buildings along its length are dwarfed by the massive Cinderella Castle (189 ft. tall) at the far end. Upon reaching it, a very different hub design presents itself...bridges, rather than direct pathways, connect to the lands within the park. Unlike Disneyland Paris, which feels very much like an alternate reality Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom felt distinct. The themes were familiar, but the design was not.
Unlike the basic rope drop of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom begins each day with a small introductory show. Mickey, Minnie, and a number of other characters come out onto the stage before Cinderella Castle to welcome guests to the park. It's a cute little show that helps to get everyone excited for the day ahead. Afterward, the rope is speed walked into the park. Evan and I decided to head first for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, as we were unable to secure a Fastpass for it. Unfortunately, it was down, along with several other headliners in the park. Therefore, we just started walking toward Frontierland, hoping that attractions would open as we reached them.
It was during this walk that I made a decision I never thought I'd make. I had spent months planning for the Magic Kingdom day. After all it was a Saturday, and I expected the park to be extremely busy. Therefore, I created about a pair of core plans, along with about a dozen contingencies in case something went wrong. However, walking through the Magic Kingdom, I decided I didn't want to be tied to a strict sequence of attractions.
I deleted every single one of them from my phone.
It was a Saturday. We saw 2 hour waits at most of the E-tickets for a majority of the day, and even mid-tier attractions had hour-plus waits for significant periods of time.
We had Fastpasses for Thunder, Space, and Peter Pan. By the time we used those, Small World was the only worthwhile ride that still had Fastpasses.
We had absolutely no plan and just went with the flow, checking the app as needed.
We never waited more than 45 minutes for a ride.
We experienced 31 attractions during the day, including multiple rides on Thunder, Space, Mansion, Pirates, and Jungle Cruise.
Sorry for the blurriness...the overcast weather was playing with my camera a bit on this morning.
Speaking of Jungle Cruise, that ended up being our first stop of the day. Admittedly, I don't remember the ride much at all...I think it was about the same as Disneyland's other than a section inside of a temple. However, I do remember our next ride, because there is no way you forget the wildest ride in the wilderness.
Looming over the western half of the park is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a runaway mine train coaster through the mountains above Frontierland. While the ride itself is very similar to its California cousin, the setup is quite different. In Florida, guests enter an elaborate queue inside the mining operation, with plenty of interactive elements to keep everyone entertained during the typical hour-plus line. Eventually, the queue descends into the mine, where guests board a possessed train for their adventure.
The coaster itself is a mirror image of California's with one exception: prior to the second lift, the trains pass through the flooded town of Tumbleweed, where a fancy trick-track element gives the feeling the trains are about to derail. It is a neat effect that caught me off-guard on my first ride. Overall, I do give the edge to California's version of this ride, as it is smoother and Florida's version lacks the updated effects, but this Thunder Mountain is still an outstanding family coaster.
Next door stands Splash Mountain, the second E-ticket in Frontierland. However, it is nearly impossible to visit Walt Disney World and not miss an E-ticket. For this trip, Splash is the one I'll miss. It's not a huge loss as I can ride it whenever I want in California, but I was interested to see the comparisons. While my family members felt differently, most say this is one ride that is improved in Florida.
At this point, I noticed that Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was open, so we made a beeline for Fantasyland. By the time we arrived, the queue had grown to 45 minutes, but we decided to chance it. 35 minutes later, we were on. Now, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train gets a lot of hate among fans (probably because it essentially remade a classic dark ride), but evaluated on its own the coaster is a really good junior coaster. The ride consists of two short coaster sections with a short dark ride section in the middle, but it is a fun little ride that adds a bit of uniqueness thanks to the swaying cars. It won't make any top ride lists and doesn't deserve the wait times it gets (this is usually the longest line in the park), but it's not a bad ride by any means.
Following our ride, we took some time to explore the rest of Fantasyland. I don't remember the exact order, but I remember doing The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (longer and better themed than Disneyland's version, but still a lower tier dark ride), Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid (very elaborate queue, but the ride itself is 100% identical to DCA's version), and Barnstormer (another junior coaster, identical to Gadget's Go Coaster but themed to Goofy's farm, and far superior due to the ability to operate with two trains).
Saving the rest of Fantasyland for later, we then continued down a long, empty pathway that brought us to Tomorrowland.
All lands in the Magic Kingdom bear some semblance to their counterparts in Walt's original park, but Tomorrowland is probably the most different. While the general layouts are similar, Tomorrowland in Florida has a completely different aesthetic design, coloration more reminiscent of Disneyland's 1967 Tomorrowland, and every attraction in its rightful home. Yes, attractions that have long since left Disneyland continue to entertain guests in Florida, and as a result Tomorrowland still feels (semi-)futuristic and not simply "Space IP Land."
Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland is also the origin of two well-known exports from Walt Disney World. First up is Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. The predecessor to the later Astro Blasters rides, this attraction was repurposed from an old omnimover ride known as Delta Dreamflight. The plot is the same as the others, but the scene design is different to fit with a different track layout and different ride vehicles. Unfortunately, while the dark ride elements are slightly better here, the interactive component is far weaker, with mounted guns that make it difficult to aim and fewer targets to shoot throughout. It's still a fun ride, but not a must do like the later versions.
The most famous export from Walt Disney World, however, is located on the other side of Tomorrowland. Beyond the railroad surrounding the park stands the original Space Mountain, a magnificent white cone housing a thrilling, high speed roller coaster ride in the dark. Or, rather, two of them. Unlike the later installations, Florida's Space Mountain is more like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, with inline seating and two intertwined tracks. The coaster itself features only a single lift hill, but that gives trains enough energy to traverse a wild ride full of quick directional changes, drops, and helices. Effects on this coaster are much more limited, with most of the ride taking place in a dark star field and the only audio coming from speakers mounted to the walls of the building, but the ride is thrilling enough to work without synchronized audio and effects. The one downside of this ride is the technology of the coaster itself...rides built in 1975 just aren't that smooth anymore, and due to the darkness you get jerked around quite a bit on this one. So, which is better, California or Florida? If you're looking at the overall attraction, California's wins due to smoothness and effects, but if you're solely looking at it as a roller coaster, Florida by a significant margin.
Above the walkways of Tomorrowland runs the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, Disney's ultimate relaxation attraction. Long gone in California, the ride is a 10 minute scenic tour of the land, with inside looks at several attractions to complement the outside portions. Unlike the original, this ride is powered using magnetic motors, and due to Florida's frequent rain a covering is built over the entire length of the track. It doesn't look like much, but I actually found this to be one of the more enjoyable attractions at the park, both due to nostalgia and due to the simplicity of the attraction.
One other long lost Disneyland relic of note survives in Tomorrowland. Tucked away in a corner, the Carousel of Progress continues to turn toward a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. While the presentation is quite dated, this is a very unique attraction due to the rotating theater system in use, and like any dark ride it is a good way to escape the heat and humidity for a bit. I've always wondered what this show was like, as it closed in California long before my time, so getting to see it was more fun than I expected.
By the time we finished the main Tomorrowland attractions, we were due to meet Dan for lunch at the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen. Founded by Alberta Falls (the granddaughter of Dr. Albert Falls), the Skipper Canteen ties into the story of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.), with a hidden library where members would gather to conduct business. Service is provided by off-duty skippers, who crack a joke every time they come to your table. The menu contains many interesting options representing cuisine from around the world, many with names that tie into the theme (I opted for the "Tastes Like Chicken"). Of the three full service restaurants I tried at the parks, this was probably my least favorite. That's not to say it was bad...all three of us enjoyed our food, and the theme and staff is great, but it's a tad pricier than some others and the food wasn't quite as good as 50's Prime Time Cafe or Yak and Yeti.
After lunch, it was time to take a look at our itinerary. We managed to complete 10 attractions before lunch, including several high priority rides. We still had Fastpasses for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Peter Pan's Flight, but those weren't good until a bit later. So, with time to kill, we opted to indulge in the part of Magic Kingdom that is underrepresented at Disneyland: Shows.
It has been said that Disneyland guests don't care for shows, and more likely than not there is some truth there. However, while not as popular as the rides, Florida's shows still play to reasonable crowds. This is evidenced best by the Enchanted Tiki Room, one performance that exists at both parks. In California, the show is generally about a 1/3 full, with most viewers simply taking a break from the sun while enjoying a Dole Whip (in Florida, Dole Whips are not allowed in the Tiki Room). Florida's show was probably about 90% full, despite the content of the two shows being nearly identical (there are a couple minor length trims in Florida).
The design of this attraction is another good depiction of the differences between the parks...California's Tiki Room has a wonderful garden with an interesting pre-show featuring the Polynesian gods, then guests enter an intimate cross-shaped room for the performance. Florida instead utilizes a typical holding pen with a much less exciting preshow, then the room is a big rectangle with long rows of seats to maximize loading and unloading efficiency. In contrast to the rest of Florida's Adventureland (which is actually superior to California's, and is probably my favorite area in the park), this attraction just doesn't work quite right.
In neighboring Frontierland, the Country Bear Jamboree continues to perform for guests on a continuous basis. I only have vague memories of the California version of this attraction, as it closed when I was pretty young to be replaced by Poo(h), plus California played the Vacation Hoedown incarnation of the show. In Florida, a heavily abridged version of the original performance plays, sort of like a highlights reel in live-action form.
Truth be told, I enjoyed this a lot more than the California version I remember, which ran on too long for what it was. Despite being similar in concept, this show is more entertaining than the Tiki Room (at least in Florida), and is the perfect way to escape the heat for ten minutes or so.
In nearby Liberty Square, the Hall of Presidents sits closed while Disney decides what to do about our current leader. I was slightly disappointed to miss this, but given the cringe factor that would have accompanied a Trump animatronic, I may be better off. Moving on...
Fantasyland hosts Magic Kingdom's best show: Mickey's PhilharMagic. This show centers on Donald, who borrows Mickey's sorcerer hat and accidentally sends himself on a voyage through famous moments from Disney's animated classics. While I'm not a big fan of 3-D movies, this is probably the best show of that type I've seen, with plenty of effects to accompany the on-screen action and a reasonable story that actually makes sense and isn't just a cheese-fest like MuppetVision. Sure, it's full of obligatory 3-D gags, but that's part of the fun.
The biggest surprise among the shows, however, lies in Tomorrowland. Tucked away behind the Tomorrowland Terrace is Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, an interactive attraction similar to Turtle Talk with Crush but much, much more interactive. Audience members are interrogated by monsters, as well as cast in role-play stories, with predictably hilarious results. While I didn't expect much from this, I was laughing for nearly the entire duration, and I almost went back for a second show (if I'd had a full second day at the park, I would have).
The Swiss Family Treehouse is up there somewhere.
Beyond the shows, Magic Kingdom also offers a handful of walkthrough attractions (with minimal lines) and character greetings (with maximal lines) to entertain guests who need a break from the rides. In addition, the park contains a park-wide interactive game: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Hades has decided to take over the Magic Kingdom, but it is protected by a powerful crystal owned by Merlin. During an attempt to steal the crystal, it is shattered into eight pieces (one per land of the park). To recover the crystal before Hades can, Merlin has recruited Sorcerers to track down the pieces and claim them. The game is played through a series of magic portals scattered around the park, with guests using spell cards to fight villains and solve puzzles. Each land has its own quest, with most taking about a half hour to complete. While not a must-do attraction, the game is a great way to entertain yourself while waiting for a Fastpass reservation, and it is a nice implementation of NextGen technology.
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