It's on the must-see list for most travelers and anyone living with kids outside of North Korea. Disney has been called "The Happiest Place on Earth." At least it's marketed that way by the Walt Disney Corporation. We saw a lot of miserable people there on our last trip, however. My most visceral memory is of a father telling his young son "I spent a lot of money on this. You're damn well going to enjoy it!" We seemed to be the only happy people there then. And, a Disney career seems to pave a sure path to hell for wholesome young actors. What would our experience hold this time at the Walt Disney World resort? We had been to the Florida site before with young children, and later visited Hong Kong Disney with a mix of ages. Now we had teenagers in tow with a six-year-old.
The taxi arrived in our snowy driveway at 2 pm sharp for our pilgrimage. Five minutes from home Stacey realized we'd left our wad of American cash in the kitchen. Not wanting a friend who was checking the house to think this was a generous tip, we made a u-turn. We needed the bills for gratuities and tolls, and we had a tremendous commute buffer--learned from my recent debacle to Detroit--that could withstand a short detour. We were going against the flow of afternoon traffic, and we arrived at Pearson International in good time.
|Magic Kingdom is worth at least one family pilgrimage if you can.|
My Elite 35K status was sufficient to get the whole family into the Air Canada lounge after check-in, so the soup and cold buffet made a bargain meal for five while we waited out a couple hours in an enclosed family room. Our eldest helped himself to a few complimentary colas and was twitching from caffeine by boarding time. "We should fly like this all the time," he said. To be young with no financial sense.
The young flight attendants for Air Canada Rouge wore pin-striped trilby hats at a jaunty angle to show just how much fun our flight would be. Male attendants are apparently spared the tarty-red regulation lipstick. Once the plane got going, hats were off and they were all business. Even the peanuts cost money--good financial preparation for Disney World. But it was similarly efficient.
Monolingual passengers are clearly discriminated against by the Air Canada magazine; bilingual fliers get two crosswords, so I was out of things to do after the first half hour. The others were watching wireless inflight movies on iPods or iPads via a free Air Canada app we downloaded at home. I used the time to inspect my knees, which were unusually close to my face. Rouge packs as many seats in as possible on the Airbus A319-100, and I expected to find the seatbelt for a ticketed passenger in the lavatory. That lucky person would actually have legroom. But we were flying on the cheap, and I can trade three hours of comfort for an upright fetal position and money in the pocket.
I'd just decided my knees were pleasantly nondescript when we landed. We unloaded with the other victims of deep vein thrombosis and staggered for the tram to baggage. It was 27C (81F) in Orlando, an improvement over subzero Toronto. But there was a steady wind, always a harbinger of change at night.
If you stay at a Disney resort exclusively, a car is really not necessary. But we lined up a few other attractions for our holiday that required driving. A babel of peoples waited on a stagnant line at the Alamo desk. We just breezed through the lonely, multilingual self-service kiosk and immediately headed for the rental-car lot to choose our own van. I was dubious that the all-leather Town and Country we picked was in the same price range as a typical Dodge Caravan, expecting an alarm to announce our indiscretion, but I'm a worrier. We brought our own GPS, so there was no concern about navigation. Besides, all roads lead to theme parks in Orlando.
|If you stay at a Disney resort accommodation (and don't plan any external trips) a car is not necessary. The efficient mass transportation system is arguably the best in North America. Service includes to and from Orlando airport.|
The Hawaiian-themed Loew's Royal Pacific resort has the airy feel of an all-inclusive, but late arrival reduced it to no more than a short-term bed and a luggage staging area for one day at Universal Studios.
This left the destination ahead of us. A fan of symmetry in stories, I went into this trip with misgivings on how to document it. More tweet than Twain, Disney is better suited to fleeting impressions over a travelogue, perfectly reflecting our sound bite culture. Rides may be thrilling for a moment, but an endless series of lines punctuated by moments of amusement doesn't make for building literary suspense or laughs. It's like reading a pulse. And, I'm not one to hide a few sound bites between a blizzard of attraction photos you can find elsewhere online, taken by much better photographers. But a world of imagination isn't suitable for a realistic portrait, so a loosely impressionistic painting this is.
Winter followed us from Toronto. The previous night's winds gave way to a cold, penetrating drizzle. I'd rather have -30 degrees and sunny in Minnesota. We dressed in several layers topped by ponchos from the Dollar Store. Luggage checked with the concierge for the day, we took advantage of the hour early opening for on-site hotel guests. Universal's Islands of Adventure is not Disney, but it rides those coat tails and may as well be for the average visitor.
|Universal's Islands of Adventure. It felt like islands; it required careful walking to avoid puddles with all that rain.|
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the main attraction at Universal. That's where everyone heads first. It's quite well done, though I could have done without the fake rooftop snow reminding me of what we'd go home to. It was cold enough already. We enjoyed the rides, particularly Forbidden Journey, a virtual reality-type simulator. The Dragon Challenge coaster was also quite good if you don't mind a few tight loops. But the village is what really captured the movie interpretation of the Potter universe, though butterbeer tastes remarkably like cream soda with a little bit of butterscotch whipped topping. If you're lucky like us, your child will be "chosen" by a wand at Ollivander's wand shop. Our youngest wasn't having any other wand after that, and the staff were happy to lead us to the cash register. We stopped at Honeyduke's candy shop before exiting to the rest of Islands of Adventure. Beware the Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans--your children will quickly determine which are the revolting flavors, and you'll be fed a steady diet of earwax, grass and vomit. Our youngest seemed to almost enjoy the "soap" though. He has the experience of a connoisseur.
We skipped "A Day at the Park With Barney." My middle son solemnly informed us Barney's show was cancelled when he tripped down the stairs and said the F-word on live tv. He heard it from a reliable source of his, so it probably wasn't worth the risk.
The rest of Islands of Adventure is just a pleasant blur. Theme parks are built on a formula that defies timelines. I recall the Dr. Seuss Sneetches ride, and some spine-jolting motion simulators that were essentially the same program with different graphics. It rained steadily all day. We got wetter on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and further soaked on Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges.
Dinner was at a Universal CityWalk site just outside the park, Antojitos. They offered two menus, a more traditional one upstairs and the standard Tex-Mex "fiesta" below. I looked at the formal menu longingly. My wife looked at the budget. "We'll eat downstairs," she said. The chips and salsa were excellent, a must at any Mexican restaurant north of the border, and I liked my carnitas. But I couldn't help but wonder what percentage of my fellow Americans don't realize Mexico's national dish is variations on a sauce, and how many Mexicans wouldn't recognize the menu at a Mexican restaurant.
Someone was stopping by every couple minutes to check on the service; we learned the restaurant was in the midst of its grand opening. After eating, my middle son remembered to mention that his six-year-old brother crawled on his hands and knees from beneath a stall on a pre-dinner restroom break, because he "couldn't get the door open." I asked if he washed his hands. "No," he said. "I didn't get them dirty." I hope we inaugurated that bathroom, but if not he's developing a good immune system.
|An Orlando vacation is hard work. You may have to save the galaxy. Always looking to save some coin, we made a habit of photographing the post-ride video screens. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Disney catches on.|
We traded hotels that night for the Port Orleans Riverside Resort, a mid-range accommodation on Disney property. I was pleased with an assortment of soaps that promised bonus bars if I stowed the extras and conserved. Chilled bodies under extra blankets, our room smelled like a musty gym locker with teenager's wet shoes and socks drying on the room's heater. Housecleaning the next day might have preferred disinfecting after smokers. But we were already on the way to our first Disney park, Hollywood Studios. Disney may arguably have the best mass transit system in North America. We took advantage of the efficient bus network that's included as part of a site resort accommodation, and the car wasn't necessary for the next several days except for Orlando runs.
The last step before entry any Disney Park is the cursory bag search by a non-threatening retiree. Only the most casual of sociopaths could be stopped by this process, and I can't imagine it would thwart anyone with ill intent who hides their tools with the minimum of forward planning. The security process was even more informal at Universal Studios. However, these protocols probably do stop some traffic of glass bottles and personal alcohol at the gate. Some of the guests looked like heavy drinkers, or would be after a sensory-overload day with some of the kids I saw.
Then it was a simple matter of pressing our "magic bands"--bracelets containing ticket, credit card and FastPass+ information--on to a post, then linking the day's ticket to a fingerprint scan, and we were in the park. Then it was a brisk walk for a few popular attractions before the park filled with people. A visit when the gates open and judicious FastPass+ use ensures a couple or few rides on the most popular attractions. The grounds are designed to funnel guests through retail opportunities or concessions, so maneuvering becomes more difficult during peak hours. You can wait twenty minutes for a stroller and scooter jam to unclog at Cinderella's Castle.
|Our personalized Magic Bands--credit card, park entry (with fingerprint), hotel key, FastPass+ all in one|
Personal scooters abound. Disney arguably tips the scales in per capita scooter use over Las Vegas or any given cruise ship population. They almost seem like an extension of the park, and I kind of feel I missed out on an all-day, low-speed ride. Curiously, I heard no dialects besides North American English from the operators.
Preteen princesses are everywhere too. Attired in pageant regalia, they wait in line for hours for Snow White--whose real name is probably Tammy--to sign their autograph book, then rush to the next fairy tale heroine. Quitting time for Cinderella is an opportunity to observe a meltdown on the end of the line that arrived too late. And the list of must-have signatures grows with every new movie. One day many of these girls will trade in their tiaras for the form fitting tights and low-cut tank tops worn by their 13-year-old sisters. Then the autograph book will be permanently filed in the circular cabinet.
The line for Stitch is pretty short, unless you're in Hong Kong, where he's the most popular character.
Many of the teens were in domestic and international dance teams, roving the theme parks in excited packs and spontaneously breaking into team chants. There must have been a dance competition in the area for the week. Several girls made eyes at my fourteen-year-old son. Oblivious, his attention was focused on the next roller coaster or a Dr. Who gift mug.
You can see the world in many ways at Disney, but in the masses of visitors, not the props. Some people might not know what the natural world looks like anymore. I noted several taking pictures of a fake waterfall at the Canada pavilion. Maybe they've never seen a real one, and I wonder if they tried to photograph a yeti on Expedition Everest. Other places Disney captures better; the Venetian set in the Italian pavilion could fool you for a second.
|The Italian pavilion isn't a bad representation of...|
|...the real thing.|
Sable antelope on the Animal Kingdon safari ride. From a few vantage points the park looks reasonably authentic.
Like at Universal, each Disney park has a similarly-patterned format to capture the interest of the majority of demographics. There are always a couple flagship rides--including at least one coaster, a simulator or two, some live shows, and 3D cinema with props. Line waits are minimized if you carefully plan around your scheduled FastPasses and peak hours, but it's amazing how many people still wait in line two hours for Space Mountain. Considering that particular ride seems to break down every few hours, that's a risk. Night is time for fireworks and light parades. Savvy veteran guests can use that time to catch a couple popular rides while most people crane their necks for a glimpse of electric Goofy.
|This is not the way you want to experience Space Mountain, though it's more likely you could see someone's errant purse flying towards your head.|
|Evening hours are a great time to avoid lines for some of the more popular rides while other guests enjoy fireworks, light shows or parades.|
|The Tomorrowland Speedway is an older ride, but is has some of the longest lines at Disney. I've seen peak hour waits of over 90 minutes. We've been to Disney parks three times, and we've never had more than a twenty minute wait.|
Every ride at a Disney park ends in a gift shop. Large, colorful murals at the Toy Story Mania ride picture beloved toy characters in boxes boldly saying "Made in the USA." But when I looked at the actual merchandise at the exit, USA is spelled C-H-I-N-A. I half expected to find a knockoff Rolex, but the local prices are too high for that. We just treated these gauntlets like a costume party--pose with the outfits or souvenirs, take a picture, then move on. That saved us money, and the landfill an early deposit.
A Disney vacation is expensive enough. The concessions take your wallet to a new level of debt. I spent $2.99 for a glass of ice coated with lemonade at the Coral Seas restaurant in Epcot, after asking for light on the ice. Apparently normal is to skip the coating altogether. When I asked for a do-over, the waitress went away muttering "light is half a glass of ice." She came back and specifically mentioned my new glass had five pieces. I promptly borrowed the balance I needed from a son's cup of water. I was amused to note a placard on the table reading, "Quality service is customarily acknowledged with a gratuity of 18-20%." Australians visitors will revolt.
Supply meets the demand for huge portions--there are some big stomachs to fill on Main Street USA. However, mountains of potatoes and white flour are cheap filler, not value for the dollar. But menu options have improved since 2006, when we were interviewed in a Bloomberg News feature on nutrition, and we found a breadth of options this time. The Via Napoli Ristorante at Epcot's Italian pavilion served a Neapolitan-style pizza as good as any I've ever had. Pizza Planet at Hollywood Studios gives you a doughy personal crust with some tomato sauce for $10.
|Everything in moderation. We had to have the standard fare at least once. I can't imagine it three times a day. The selection for those seeking healthier alternatives has improved substantially over the last few years.|
Stacey gently reminded me we could have been spending the week on a sunny beach in the Caribbean rather than a few degrees above freezing in the rain. Our Dollar Store ponchos were more like sieves, patched with countless knots. Fortunately, Disney has rides where masses of people can escape the deluge. In Tomorrowland it was the People Mover. When we visited Hong Kong in 2009, I looped It's a Small World fifteen times with a toddler during a downpour. Spontaneity...you can't buy that kind of fun. Stacey reminded me a few more times about the tropical beach.
(L) Hong Kong Disney in 2009 and (R) Disney World in 2014. Not much has changed.
|If you need to escape a deluge, It's a Small World can be water torture the tenth time around. But like everything else, it has an end.|
One night early on we took a spin to Orlando for supplies. The cost of a gallon or so of gas is easily compensated with what you'll save on park concessions by bringing in your own snacks. When we entered the large supermarket I thought "what better place to get real Florida orange juice than Florida?" We found "50% less sugar" orange juice, tangerine orange juice, reduced pulp orange juice, calcium-fortified orange juice, but no authentic fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Apparently, I needed to stay in a Ontario for that. Then I searched the shelves for authentic Florida oranges. All the fruit came from California or Chile. Later, I checked just to make sure those aren't ironically-named towns in Florida. I felt disillusioned. But I was carded at Target when we bought a bottle of wine. That hadn't happened in 20 years, and I almost forgot the disappointment of the orange juice.
Disney parks are spotless. They must employ an army to polish the grounds every night. I'd strongly consider the five second rule if my turkey leg fell on a bathroom floor in Magic Kingdom. But there are always some abusers. We saw smokers clumsily palm cigarettes when crossing paths with park staff in nonsmoking areas, then use the world as their ashtray. At the Flametree Barbecue, after poisoning themselves with French fries and white bread, patrons kill off the local wildlife in front of signs saying "Don't feed the animals." And, we saw one pair of Neanderthals toss their bottles nonchalantly into a bush--unconcerned with who might see. On second thought I didn't need to go to Florida for any of that. But for a few brilliant minds throughout history, the human race is one catastrophe removed from the Stone Age.
|There are times the stocks could be a convenient dropping off point for the kids. Apparently, this is the most photographed spot at Disney World. This picture actually dates from our much warmer trip in May, 2006.|
On our last afternoon at Disney, my wife took the two older boys shoe shopping in Orlando. Everyone had finally seen enough after a morning at the Animal Kingdom. We finally had a bright sunny day, and I took our youngest to the resort pool. Firm requests were disregarded, so I twice physically extricated oblivious preteens crawling up the bottom of a water slide before they were bowled over by one of the full grown men occasionally barreling down at speed from around a blind corner. I wondered if my rescue effort was diluting the gene pool as I scanned for irate parents leaping to cry "lawsuit" for my handling of their child. But the thought of my own boy or another little one getting hurt overcame my natural scientist's disposition. A word to a lifeguard relieved me of further policing.
That night I watched the Super Bowl in our room. Over the previous days, I informally noted Broncos jerseys outnumbered the Seahawks 5-1, fellow Denver fans without the insecurity. My guarded optimism grew throughout the season until the first moments of game time, then disaster. After the great Meadowlands turkey shoot, Denver apparel won't see the light of day anytime soon. Perhaps Disney truly is the "happiest place in earth," however, because my surroundings and happy family quickly put football misery out of my mind.
Nirvana or the netherworld? Our trip had its ups and it had some downs. Yes, putting a Disney vacation into words is like reading a pulse. But a pulse is life. Even without Epcot, Disney is a microcosm of the world we live in. Your time there is what you make of it.
|Magic lighting in the Magic Kingdom. We missed the fireworks because of low cloud cover, but we made our own magic. Will Disney be the "Happiest Place on Earth" or a tooth extraction? The choice is really up to you.|