We knew even then it wasn’t just a place for kids, thanks to our handful of visits to Disneyland over the years prior. We’d long since revealed and reveled in a plethora of grown up-centric attractions and activities that easily dispelled the myth that Disney was just for kids. Don’t get me wrong, the nostalgia and kid-at-heart moments will often find us on the teacups or a dark ride in Fantasyland – but it might be after a trip to the wine bar.
What we saw in our 2009 visit (and what you can read about in the 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.
This is what I hope you’ll see as I describe this week-long vacation. The eye-opening rediscovery of Disney World is under our belts. We’ve been there, experienced it, and are back for more this time around. There’s no need to dwell on descriptions, but rather I can provide a play by play that more accurately reflects the experience of visiting. Don’t worry, the usual details, tips, and what I hope approaches insight are still there, but in the more natural ‘as it happens’ flow.
The plan was no less involved for this visit (actually, it was a bit more so), but it was considerably less of a shot in the dark. We had a much better sense of the resort, our options, and our capacity to take it all in. With that and our Disney best practices engrained and on display as early as the planning process, we sketched it all out.
First and foremost, our number one key to Disney awesomeness is to go during the offseason. If you’re making your first visit and can’t possibly fathom an iconic attraction or two being closed for maintenance, maybe you’d prefer fighting the summer crowds while getting on every last possible ride. For us, it was an easy tradeoff to accept a few seasonal rehabs in order to enjoy a fraction of the crowds.
We saw no reason not to revisit during the very same week, the second week of January. Most folks are fighting post-holidays depression (and hangovers), and only a crazy person would cash in a week’s worth of vacation right after a long break. That thinking is exactly why it’s one of the best times of the year to make a visit. We’d be doing so again with the official marathon in town, but we found the last thing thousands of marathoners want to do after a race is traipse around a theme park. The day of the race last time was the quietest I’ve ever seen a Disney park.
That was another nice change, a major upgrade in accommodations. Our dollars went plenty far at the Pop Century last time, but my folks were looking for something a little more comfortable. This meant sharing a suite at the Saratoga Springs, my first overnight exposure beyond the Value resort level. Sure, we’d be relegated to the pull-out in the living room, but we considered even that an upgrade. Once they left, we’d be back on our own at the same economy digs, but it would be nice to see how the other half lived for at least a few days.
The last change was partaking in a full-on package. Booked through my parents’ travel agent (yes, they still exist), we were looking at a combo of tickets, room, and meal plans. We did the math, multiple times over, and as long as we took modest advantage of what was essentially pre-purchased food, we’d be coming out ahead. The Saratoga Springs portion provided us a table service meal each day, along with a snack and quick meal, the budget half of the week still had a plan, but it was two quick meals and a snack. Still, it seemed reasonable for the price, even if we had to pay for - but pocket – the latter package’s tickets for a future visit.
Our general itinerary was primarily based on the Extra Magic Hour schedule. I know most guide books and touring plans will tell you to avoid a park on a Magic Hour Day, and with good reason, since it draws resort guests for the day. I look at it as more of an even tradeoff – larger crowds are the cost for extra time in the parks. But the way we see these parks, it never seemed like a huge issue to me. Besides, lighter crowds in the offseason make a lot of the touring plan concerns somewhat moot, and our early mornings and smart use of Fastpass generally leave us with few missed attractions. It all means we’re just happy to get an hour extra here and there during the week. As you’ll see, we rarely encounter waits anyway, so we might as well get a longer day.
We wouldn’t be able to do everything with my parents over their three days, but considering they visit every few years, they were cool hitting the highlights and the few new things. It seemed everyone’s favorite was Epcot, and that they really hadn’t done Animal Kingdom justice, so we’d be giving a full day at each. Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom would have to share a day, but they’ve done both those parks several times over in the last 20-plus years.
Megan and I followed the hours again for our extra three days. It worked out quite well, seeing as we could split a day between Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios to fill in anything we missed, and then have full days at Magic Kingdom and Epcot to finish out the week. Nothing was set in stone, but it did happen to match what we ended up doing over our six days in 2009 – we were looking at two half-days at Hollywood Studios, a full day and a half-day each at Animal and Magic Kingdoms, and two full days at Epcot.
Once the packages were booked, the itinerary sketched out, and the airfare purchased, it was a simple matter of playing the waiting game. Fortunately we had the holidays (and a separate east coast swing for Megan and me) to keep us busy, but we still found ourselves counting down the days. It was a mere nine days back in California after Christmas, and we turned right back around and headed for what we hoped would be yet another Disney trip of a lifetime.
Day 1 – Saturday, January 7th
Our expedition started early, but not bright, with a 3:30am wake up. To be able to enjoy an afternoon and evening on the east coast, you’ve got to be on the first flight out in the morning. The long flight time and loss of three hours takes up much of the day, and we were making a connection to boot. Mom and Dad had a much simpler route, a direct flight from Newark scheduled to arrive an hour or so before us.
The only real concern was connecting through Denver without incident. We’d been checking the weather, and thanks to the mild winter nationwide, there would be no delays. In fact, we spent the entirety of both cross-country legs enjoying the benefit of first class upgrades. Thanks to all the traveling in 2011, we hit the Premier level with United, and lucked out with the undersold early flights. It meant a little more legroom, and little peace and quiet, and an extra boozy start to the vacation.
Getting into Orlando ahead of schedule, we narrowed the gap with my parents. As we touched down, they were getting on the Magical Express bus, so we were right behind them. Greeted by sunshine and palm trees, arriving in Florida is a sigh of relief, but we still had some logistics to deal with.
The Magical Express experience went smoothly enough last time, and somehow, it was even easier this time around. Once we were off the shuttle from the satellite, we eventually found the right floor, and were told to skip the check in desk and go right to the bus queue after showing our passes. It was barely a pause there, and not a minute after directing us to the proper queue, they loaded us onto a bus with a few other folks. Not five minutes later, we were on the road, and were officially headed to Disney World.
Crossing the border onto Disney property some fifteen minutes later, it would be the last of the real world we would see until our ride back to the airport, in almost exactly one week. But leaving was the last thing on our minds, and we marveled at the switch in scenery once we were officially in Walt Disney World. All the while, the Magic Express arrival video manically walked us through logistics and hit the highlights of all the parks. Just as I thought last time, Disney needs to realize that at this point, we’re already sold.
The upside is, that somewhat far-flung location meant a very quick ride from the airport, and we arrived on site just as my folks finished the check-in process. We were the first ones off the bus, eager to start the vacation, and we greeted each other in the courtyard before they even had a chance to check out the room. This was a new resort to all of us, and there was a good bit of disorientation (even with a map), but we eventually found our way to our room, never mind the awkward trip with all our luggage directly through the pool area.
We were in “The Springs” area – it’s a sprawling hotel, more like a series of outbuildings with no guest rooms in the central area. Instead you found the lobby, the cafeteria, a sit-down restaurant, gift shop, the spa, and the impressive pool here at the center. In a handful of areas spread across the large complex were the clusters of guest buildings. Finding ours across the street on the other side of the pool, we were still in one of the closer spots.
The room was quite nice, full kitchen, living room, balcony, and a bedroom with a Jacuzzi tub. Of course Megan and I would be sleeping on the pull out in the living room, but even so it would be a step up from our usual Disney digs. We didn’t take too long to get settled, and quickly we were back out to the shop to pick up a few supplies. We’d definitely be taking advantage of having a fridge and some kitchen appliances, not to mention a corkscrew.
In addition to a couple bottles of wine, we got bagels, fruit, and English muffins for breakfast and some crackers and such for appetizers back in the room. Dinner was intentionally scheduled late to account for any travel difficulties, so the early arrival meant we had some time to relax with a quick bite. The snacks and drinks went fast, and soon my parents were eager to, of all things, do some shopping. Seeing as dinner was at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, we’d need to transfer at Downtown Disney anyway, so they went ahead and we followed behind after a little more relaxing.
This would be our first encounter with how the bus system covered our resort. Given its size, there were a handful of stops spread across the area, as opposed to one central transportation area like at the Pop Century. At check in, they reported that ours was the last stop before heading to the destination. We quickly saw this wasn’t the case for the Downtown Disney bus, as we made stops at all the other areas of Saratoga Springs before making the two minute drive to the Marketplace area.
There was the requisite trip to the Christmas store, and we had our rendezvous at the World of Disney. The massive crowds reminded us that we were visiting at the tail end of the holidays, and made us all the more thankful things would likely be much quieter during the week. We were soon back at the bus stop, and on our way to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, a first visit for all of us.
Eventually making our way downstairs, we passed by Boma, the family-style restaurant, and went around the corner to noticeably more chic Jiko. Not that I haven’t heard rave reviews for Boma as well, but we were going for something a little more upscale. Megan and I had an amazing time at Citircos last time out, and we were doing our best to replicate it.
But our fun was just getting started, and we made our way back to our room. Taking a closer look at the map on my phone, I saw that our building was actually a short walk from the first Downtown Disney stop. Instead of waiting to change, as is required when going from one hotel to another, we decided to walk the half mile, with complete awareness of how unlikely we’d be to hoof it later in the week. Having taken full advantage of our afternoon and evening in Orlando, it was a great start, though we were glad to get some rest after the long day.
Day 2 – Sunday, January 8th
It took a little momentum to get out the door, but we were definitely shy of 9am, and glad to see we were indeed the final stop at the resort, and headed out directly. Our first day in the parks would find us at Hollywood Studios for the morning, and I was definitely eager to get a foursome of Fastpasses for Toy Story. My mother isn’t especially keen on rides that induce motion sickness, so this is one of the few headliners we could enjoy together. The plan, not surprisingly, was to hit all the thrill rides right out of the gate, and then ease it back a bit when we met back up with her for some of other slower-paced attractions.
It would be on Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster that we would start things out, which isn’t especially a favorite, but can get pretty busy later in the day. It looked to be pretty quick to get through at the moment, so we went right for the most intense ride in the entire resort. There was the usual incongruence with the theme of a modern music scene in the golden age of Hollywood section, but that paled in comparison to the dissatisfaction with the selection of Aerosmith as hosts for the attraction.
We were quickly through the queue and preshow, and on the ride. There was a slight concern over roughness, my father’s only real ride issue – and while we knew it wasn’t as violent as Vekoma’s average effort, it did seem to lag behind the Paris version. Then again, those assessments were several years old by this point, so you can never know exactly what to expect. Turns out, it was right there in the middle, not as bad as it could be, but with a little more jostle than we remember from France. The nice launch and entertaining enough ride action were a good way to start things off.
With these two taken care of, and Fastpasses for Toy Story in hand, the only other marquee ride I was remotely concerned about was the updated version of Star Tours. We headed across the entirety of the park, and timed the opening of the second side of the queue perfectly as we walked directly into the loading area. It was a little odd picking up the 3D glasses, but I was optimistic about the improvements to what had become a painfully outdated attraction.
In addition to the 3D, the improved film and sound quality, and the variety of scenes had been generally well received. I wasn’t especially familiar with the combinations of characters and alternatives, so we just went along for the ride. The use of an actual rider as a supposed spy is a nice touch, and while the changes weren’t exactly mind blowing, they have definitely improved the appeal. Had there been no update, I certainly wouldn’t have ridden once, let alone consider a re-ride.
Finally with a chance to visit some of the more passive attractions, we met back up with my mother as a showing of the Muppet Vision 3D was about to start. Thanks to the recently released motion picture, it seems popularity of this had increased, though that only meant the theater was ¾ full instead of ¼. Same film, same gags, I wouldn’t exactly say we “missed” it in Tokyo, but it was worth the non-wait. We’ll probably skip this next time around at Disneyland though.
In the same vein, we cut back across the marathon route and entered the Great Movie Ride. Somehow in all their visits, my parents had never been on this, and it was high time we corrected that. It’s not the most captivating experience, but it’s one of the more unique amusement attractions you’ll come across, and a highlight of the park. There was no wait as we walked into one of the huge vehicles and poked along the circuit past animatronic and scenes recreating some of the more iconic moments in film history. The sets are done nicely, especially the Wizard of Oz set, though it took every last bit of energy to overlook the painfully hokey dialog and performances the guide and villain give. It’s beyond outdated.
Having hit most of the highlights, we settled down for an early lunch back towards the Tower of Terror, with me running ahead and grabbing a set of Fastpasses of course. It was our first use of the meal plan, and we immediately saw the ridiculous amount of food we’d be getting each and every time. I don’t usually get dessert after dinner, let alone lunch, so it was a bit much – but the sandwich I went for was pretty good.
Since we were planning on hitting Magic Kingdom for a few hours before dinner at the nearby Polynesian Resort, we only had time for a few more attractions. First up, we’d cash in the Toy Story Fastpasses. I know this may lack the depth and detail of some Disney rides, but the novelty is undeniable, and it’s literally one the whole family can enjoy. I can’t predict how well it will maintain its popularity in the years to come, but it’s already been out a while and is still one of the most coveted rides. We enjoyed our run, I was pleased with my score in the high 180k’s, and it was great to bypass the hour-plus standby line.
There was about an hour until the early showing of Lights, Motors, Action stunt show, so we were back across the park to use the Fastpasses for Tower of Terror. Lunch and Toy Story had filled up the 40 minute minimum until redemption, though there wasn’t much of a line to pass. Oh well, it’s not like I had gone that far out of my way. Once again we were quickly through the preshow and into the basement for only a couple minutes before taking our plunge. Disney at its best.
Back across the park, we were a foursome again as we queued up for the stunt show. The 5000 seat stadium fills quickly, but there aren’t many bad views. There were plenty of seats, though we had to schlep up the bleachers to get them. We took a load off for the last 15 minutes until the show started, and soon the action was underway. Just like Indiana Jones, you’re watching a supposed film shoot, though you can just ignore that and enjoy the stunts here, too. It’s hard not to be impressed with the performance, even if there are only a few minutes of real action in the entire show. This was another first for my folks, and they seemed pleased.
It was a simple matter of finding a bus to the Ticket and Transportation Center, after a few shots of the Christmas tree of course. The holiday decorations would be dwindling throughout the week, so we enjoyed them while they lasted. With no bus in sight, we saw one waiting at the next stop, which was for the Contemporary. Thanks to our modest familiarity with the resort, we figured it would be at least as efficient to connect here as to connect at the TTC. When we arrived at the Contemporary, it was then I realized that the local monorail heads the wrong direction and would stop at the park last. Alternatively, we took the walking path and were at the entrance after only a few more minutes.
Without question, the priority was Thunder Mountain. We’d have plenty of time at the park over the course of the week, but with the offseason officially starting the next day, today would be the last chance to ride Thunder Mountain before a long rehab. Hey, I was just glad to get it in at all, so the plan was to default to that as our headliner of choice.
It was nice to be on a proper Main Street again, after the odd World Bazaar at Tokyo Disneyland, though the castle they both sport is nothing short of stunning. Call Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s charming and original all you want, this thing is massive. We were up the street, passed the Dapper Dans, and checked the wait time board. Things seemed under control, not exactly empty but a far cry from the holiday hordes of a week prior and totally manageable.
Seeing no reason to abandon the plan, we went right for Thunder Mountain. Not surprisingly, the standby wait was around an hour, though the Fastpass redemption window was only a little more than that, so we grabbed a pair. We’d be sticking by this side of the park anyway. I went next door to Splash Mountain to inquire about a single rider line, but was rebuffed. The line here was almost as long, so I’d have to try again later, probably later in the week, if anything. Still, it was great to see it running after its rehab during our last visit and after Tokyo Disneyland raised their bar with their outstanding version.
Looping back into Adventureland, we walked onto Pirates, and tried not to hold it to the high standard of Disneyland. At about half the ride time, it really is an abridged version, even if it does hit all the high points. It’s not like they took out any of the iconic scenes, though the Blue Bayou and armory scenes are noticeably absent. If nothing else, you don’t have to set aside 15 minutes for the ride.
We were quickly out the doors after wisely sitting opposite the entrance (one of many touring efficiencies we’ve picked up over our years, akin to knowing where the pre-show exits are for Tower of Terror, Haunted Mansion, Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster, etc.), and we found Jungle Cruise still closed. With a glut of opportunities to eat thanks to the meal plan, we cashed in a popcorn (nothing crazily flavored like at the Tokyo parks), and waited nearby to see if things would open up before our Thunder Mountain Fastpass window opened.
It sure didn’t, though it was interesting to see how the cast members dealt with the onslaught of disappointed guests. Not that Jungle Cruise is most people’s favorite, but the sheer number of people they had to turn away was impressive. No one seemed too distraught at least, and they were able to have a little fun with it, which is fitting considering the sardonic ride experience.
Instead we went back to Frontierland, into the Splash/Thunder Mountain madness. We picked up a new pair of Fastpasses and redeemed the ones we had, and were up into the queue house. The experience here is all but indistinguishable from the Tokyo version, and the only marked difference from Disneyland is its lack of winding but short interior queue and throwback references to Rainbow Ridge. It’s still got the dinosaur skeleton splashdown, which is a nice feature, but away from the queue in this version. It was left over from the Nature’s Wonderland at Disneyland for its installation, and brought over when the version was cloned in Florida a year later. It’s a holdover from the original version in the same vein as Haunted Mansion’s stretching room. It’s placement at this park didn’t necessitate an elevator to go under the train tracks, but it was such a popular element, it was rebuilt for the copy. See also, the drops on Pirates of the Caribbean.
The most noticeable difference from our usual Thunder Mountains was how the ride was clearly in pre-rehab mode. Like a senior before graduation, it wasn’t exactly giving its best performance. The wooden rail ties were gone, some of the animatronics weren’t functioning, and it seemed generally in need of some attention. Still, the ride experience was as wild and reckless as we’ve come to love, though not seeing the old man spinning in the bathtub was a bit of a downer. Heck, the water the tub is usually floating in was drained already. Still, we were just glad we had one last day to enjoy it.
It’s hard not to rank this mansion as the highest of the lot. The handful of improvements a few years back were a great example of how Disney can (sometimes) enhance a favorite with a few new tricks without messing with the spirit of the original attraction. Unfortunately Tokyo was in Nightmare Before Christmas mode, and Phantom Manor in Paris is playing a whole different ballgame, but I give this the slight edge as far as the US versions go. The Escher stairs and new interactive hitchhiking ghost scenes need to be brought to California.
With all the Fastpasses allotted thanks to the park technically closing to the public at 8pm (minus the 8pm-11pm Extra Magic Hours), we got a second ride on Thunder Mountain as twilight fell, again avoiding the standby line. Our hopes would be to get a third ride on it after dinner, as well as fill in some of the east side of the park. Really, we’d already made great progress considering we’d been in the park for all of three hours.
The commute to dinner required a trip back down Main Street, where we caught up with my parents and took a local monorail ride to the Polynesian. Unfortunately a boat we hoped to take hit capacity just before us, but I was happy to get my first ride of the visit on the monorail. We were the third stop, and I was finally making my first visit to one of the two original Disney World resorts.
Ohana and the luau definitely get top billing here, so the Kona Café goes somewhat under the radar. But after reading great reviews online, we were happy to use our first table service meal credit. We had a quick wait, so we visited the bar for a round of mai tais before being seated. After we were taken past the dessert area, we were greeted by our enthusiastic server, and figured out our plan of attack. I had the ribeye, and the other orders were for the tuna, mahi, and sole. Dessert was even more decadent, and we were served with noticeable efficiency once we let our server know we were trying to catch the fireworks across the lagoon. He even suggested a great spot for viewing.
It was hard to fight the swelling of Disney magic, as the display was a wonderful capstone to a terrific first day. We knew we were just getting started, so we didn’t take much time to dwell on how well things were going, but it was so nice to spend a few special moments together as a family. Disney sure knows how make a vacation worth all the effort.
Megan and I tried not to yearn for the over-the-top Disneyland fireworks, and enjoyed this more modest display (if you can believe it) for what it was. The pyrotechnics are nice, but the show lacks the personality of the park, and is only a little more than half as long. Still, the setting was stunning, and it was great to take in the show from such a unique angle, and not have to fight the crowds in the hub and on Main Street.
We’d be fighting them soon enough, as we missed another boat, but quickly caught an arriving monorail back out the front of the hotel. It was definitely like we were heading upstream as much of the park was clearing out as we headed in. Wait times were down across the board, but not exactly empty just yet, so we wanted to give it a bit before tackling the headliners.
My parents didn’t want to miss Carousel of Progress during their half-day at the park, but Megan and I would have plenty of time for that later. Instead, we first went for Buzz Lightyear. We skipped this in Japan, mostly because of a solid wait combined with a waning interest. The posted wait said 15, but we were on in less than half that as the line never stopped moving through the queue. Having the guns locked down don’t help this version much, though it is interesting to wind through the former space of Dreamflight. I scored around my average, though Megan had a bit of a debacle that she blamed entirely on this version’s quirkiness. It didn’t help that our vehicle would only spin in one direction. No matter the source, it looked dubious that we would be visiting this attraction again.
Looking for another quick attraction, and one that couldn’t go awry, we took a nice night ride on the People Mover. Being able to ride this clinches Disney World’s Tomorrowland dominance over Disneyland, as if Carousel of Progress hadn’t already made that obvious. Sure, we skip Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, and it’s a travesty that the 20,000 Leagues lagoon is long since filled in, but until Disneyland permanently repurposes its People Mover track, it will be a mark of shame for the entire land.
It’s not exactly a thrill ride, but a great way to take a load off and zip around this part of the park. Getting a peek at a few attractions is nice, and the quick glimpse of the City of Tomorrow is a treat. Mostly it’s fun to think about how optimistic Disney was about this sort of technology, and how it’s now an anachronistic vision of the future.
With about 90 minutes left in the day, we wanted to hit both the mountain coasters. Since I’d be on my own for Splash Mountain, I figured I could wait until after my parents finished their three days. That left the nearby Space Mountain, and we took my dad along for the 30 minute standby wait. It was our first opportunity to experience the upgrades that were mere rumors during our 2009 visit. I wouldn’t say the overhaul went as far as we were hoping, but I was eager to see.
The first change is the interactive queue, which isn’t all that involved as a series of simple video games, but does a nice job of making the wait pass a little easier. It took a few minutes to get oriented, as the loading stations were completely reconfigured. The Fastpass merge and station split used to happen right at the end of the hallway. Now the standby queue actually enters the left station, and the split is at the back, between the stations. I was momentarily agitated to see what I thought was a full station queue for us, and an empty station for Fastpasses, but I soon realized both stations were fed via both queues.
Despite the obsessive queuing theory concerns, we were through the new station gates and onboard the Alpha side after our half hour. The track upgrades never materialized, nor did onboard audio, as music pumped into the ride was apparently all the upgrade we would get. It was noticeable, though not exactly mind-blowing, and we definitely missed the synchronized onboard audio Disneyland sports. What we really missed was its recently rehabbed tracked, as stuck in the last seat of the train, I got absolutely bashed around. It’s rare I wish a ride would end sooner, but I couldn’t wait for this one to be over. I remember this side being the less pleasant of the too, but I forgot how rough it could get in the back. I’d have to be more careful next time.
But that wouldn’t be for a few more days, and in the last hour of our first day, we headed across the park and finally get that ride on the Jungle Cruise. We momentarily lost my dad as he went to meet up with my mom, but he was back with us a few minutes later, not having been able to get in touch with her. The three of us waited for the next boat on the Jungle Cruise, and we were off on a great ride to experience at night. The skipper was great, she was totally deadpan, and her best joke was using the gun to swipe towards the hippos while shouting, “SHOO! SHOO HIPPOS!” She totally committed.
Not thinking he had time for both Thunder Mountain and a dark ride with my mom, he went to join her, and Megan and I got our third and final ride in. Standby said 30, but we knew it wouldn’t be half that. We were definitely cutting it close if we wanted to squeeze in something else after, but this was our priority. Easily the best night ride experience in all of Disney, we zipped among the canyons and the wildlife, not minding at all that half of them weren’t functioning.
Out the exit we found our bus stop and made it back to Saratoga closer to midnight than 11pm. We were the last stop, though at least a few seats had opened up as we wound around the resort. In most cases, I’m not all that thrilled to spend the night on a pull out sofa, but we were rather exhausted, and relished the chance to be horizontal. It was all we needed.