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


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

    Walt Disney World 2012 Part One
    Florida equals Disney vacation
    review and guide) was all about re-learning Disney World. There was so much to re-experience and revisit through older (and maybe even wiser) sets of eyes that I felt it really needed to be captured as such. I considered it a catalog of the Disney World experience, if you will. But this time around, we knew much more about what we were getting into.
    Tokyo Disneyland - eerily similar, awesomely different
    We were also making this visit with a more complete Disney resume. A summertime visit of a lifetime to Japan gave us three days at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort. Check out the details of that experience
    We enjoyed a magical day among the French
    Disneyland Paris in 2008
    Definitely fancier than we were used to
    Even more opulent
    Fine dining with Disney's simulated authenticity
    This "entrance" is strangely halfway into the park
    Some of the more elaborate themeing on this side of the park
    It lures you in with its creepiness
    We enjoyed the Christmas crap it while it lasted
    Back from beyond the grave, but in a good way
    Still lots of nice scenery on the express route
    Always fun to see old things in a new way
    So much more majestic without toddlers hanging all over it
    Looks like someone was lazy about taking down their Christmas lights
    Last edited by sarki7; 02-29-2012, 04:19 PM. <- Go there, it's good!

  • #2
    Re: Walt Disney World Trip Report, with photos! (Part 1 - Jan 7th &amp; 8th)


    Day 3 – Monday, January 9th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Day 4 – Tuesday, January 10th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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