July 16, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Four - Magic Kingdom

As a Disney theme park fan, if you don't have a soft spot in your heart for Disneyland and/or the Magic Kingdom, I'd have to doubt if you have a heart at all! Here was our first big day at the core of Walt Disney World, and all six of us were thrilled to be here. (Just to recap, the group of the "six of us" is made up of my wife and I, our youngest daughter and her husband, and their two kids ages 6 and 4 years. We've already had one day at Animal Kingdom and two days at Epcot.) This post will be the longest trip report of the whole vacation for reasons that will become obvious by the end.

Coming to the Magic Kingdom via bus was not the most magical of ways to arrive, but it was the fastest. In the old days, taking the boats across the lagoon or the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center signaled I was not at Disneyland. 

As Walt Disney himself said about Florida, they had, "The blessing of size" there. It is clearly evident. This was well used in the early years. After quite a distance of road to be traveled, day guests finally arrived at Walt Disney World after seeing nothing but trees. It's a very impressive "WOW!" moment to see Cinderella Castle from across the lagoon. Regardless of how you travelled to get to the entrance of the park, it was used to build anticipation. In 2018, the trip to the front of the Main Street Railroad Station wasn't nearly as dramatic, but for us, that didn't mean we weren't just as excited to be there.

Walking under the station evokes memories
and anticipates new ones!

Walking through the tunnels under the station, I was just as much impacted by the view of the castle as I am every time I do the same at Disneyland. The Anaheim park will always be my "home" park, but I have just as much a sense of coming home in Florida. How can this be? Easy. I was just a kid when I first visited Disneyland. As a grown man with his own wife and family, Walt Disney World is a very special place with all its wonderful memories for my own family. Now as a grandfather, it takes on even more special meaning which will never be replaced. May be hard to believe, but trust me, it is 100% the truth. Due to that, if for no other reason, I can't wait for my next trip to the Florida swamplands. OK, onto the trip report itself.

The Crystal Palace is one of my favorite Walt Disney World landmarks.

Holding an early morning Splash Mountain Fast Pass meant we had to depart Saratoga Springs very early in the day. Once we made it through the turnstiles, I walked in wide eyed wonder as we traveled down Main Street. The sense of anticipation was high and so were the wide smiles on everyone's face as we got our first glimpse of the castle. I looked around at the Plaza. Yes, many trees are gone, and I missed the lushness, but I do understand what the suits cleared the way for more fireworks viewing areas. AstroTurf aside, they really did a pretty nice job of it. Such is the price paid for astronomical growth in visitor numbers almost 50 years later.

Turning left toward Adventureland, I just had to stop and photograph the gorgeous Crystal Palace. Used to eat there, but now, it's a place for an overpriced character meal. Elegantly situated alongside the (unused) waterway- once home of the beautiful Plaza Swan Boats- it's a stunning piece of British Colonial architecture and a perfect visual segue from 1890's America to the wilds of Adventureland. 

I could see Liberty Square as we walked, and I was excited to be able to go to that part of the park. As the one unique land to the Magic Kingdom, walking through it always reminded me of how proud Walt Disney was of our country- something I think that is sorely lost these days as we angrily argue and debate each other instead of working together.


... turns to delight!

As we entered the jungle, we turned into the arcade that led us to Frontierland. We made such good time that we still had time to jump in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a family favorite. It was my sweet little granddaughter's first ride, and you can tell by the look on her face that she had some apprehension. Rest assured, she ended up loving it, easily going on it the next day! 

My grandson, older and taller than his sister, had already ventured on the "Wildest Ride in the Wilderness" two years earlier, and he couldn't wait to get on it again. You could see the sense of pride he had while encouraging his sister as well as his steady calmness about getting on that train once more.

LOVE Big Thunder Mountain Railroad!

Speaking of pride, we just happened to be at this park during Disney's unofficial annual Gay Days. Guests participating in the event were supposedly marked by wearing red shirts. Some observations: First, all the participants were very well behaved. Secondly, at least this year, they were small in number. Very small. It continues to amaze me how such a small group of people could carry such heavy weight and influence in our country. Make of that what you will, but it is a statement to the power of democracy and to the power of the press.

This thrill ride has it all.
Great story, wonderful music, 
and it's long enough to really get immersed in it.

After Big Thunder, we were ready to enjoy Splash Mountain and our ability to bypass the standby line. In minutes, we were aboard. I was surprised how humid it already was so early in the morning! The blast of the cool air conditioning as we entered one of the caves in the queue was refreshing- and sorely needed. 

The blessing of size. 
Land as far as the eye can see!

While Big Thunder seemed flawless in its upkeep, this was not the case with the Magic Kingdom's watery attraction. Some of the Audio-Animatronics needed work, paint in various areas was faded or even chipped, and the sound quality seemed muddled (especially when I compared it to what I found at the attraction a little more than a month later at Disneyland). That said, it remains a family favorite and is still great fun! And who can beat the view from the top of Chickapin Hill? 

Please Disney, do not "correct" any political incorrectness due to the source material from which this attraction was born. 

This jungle is LUSH!

Our next Fast Pass was for Enchanted Tales with Belle, but we had just enough time to grab a coffee and take a short wait in line for the Jungle Cruise. Gotta love that Touring Plans app! But I don't love how wait times propel you to jump from one attraction to another at the expense of soaking in all the details and atmosphere a particular land has to offer. 

Lost family and missed opportunity.

Perfect example- after our cruise, we had to walk past the Swiss Family Treehouse to get to Belle on time. I thought we'd always have enough time to get back to it, but it never happened.  

Our cruise was highlighted by the great thick jungle the Florida weather has allowed. After almost 50 years of growth, the landscapes of this original Kingdom attraction really support the adventure, and the cruise maintains its spot as a must-do. 

It may not be as authentic or as real as Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom, but it's still a bit of silly fun and well worth a ride. The fact this attraction even remains as popular as ever is a testament to the abilities and craftsmanship of the original Walt Disney era Imagineers. These carefully designed experiences stand as a current reminder there are vitally important aspects to Disney theme parks far beyond the now popular and easy two-minute thrill ride. Do you think those now in charge of the parks even recognize the fact that this attraction along with Pirates of the Caribbean, It's A Small World and the Haunted Mansion are still popular for a reason? It's not nostalgia, although I'm sure that holds true for some people. 

In my mind, the reason for their continued popularity is that these attractions are lavish in scope and scale, lengthy in presentation, have great attention to detail, and are chock full of atmosphere. These emotionally and physically take you somewhere. You're not watching a screen, you're living an adventure in full color. This is particularly true in the case of Pirates and Mansion, where guests are swept into the story, taken out of the everyday life and thrust into a world that is not duplicated in a Six Flags type park. There are times the Imagineer in me gets very frustrated with the lack of care and respect for the history (and future) of the parks by those in charge of them. (Case in point is Pixar Pier- but that's a story for my post about my day at Disneyland and California Adventure.)

Charming- and thankfully, unique.

Rant over. Let's move onto Enchanted Tales with Belle. Some debate- Is it an attraction or is it a meet and greet? As an adult, I'd say it's an elaborate meet and greet, but there are enough elements of it that feel like an attraction. Waiting in a chain lined queue to meet a princess is not my idea of how to spend time. Yet, for those with small children who happen to love a particular movie, an experience like this is worth the wait. My granddaughter loves Belle, and I love my granddaughter. That makes it enough of a reason to get in line. All said, I found Enchanted Tales to be sweet and charming. 

For the record, this was our only intentional character experience. Due the kids wanted to bypass meeting characters in order to ride more rides. Smart kids! I did want to see all of New Fantasyland, however, so our visit to see Belle also made sense. Some fan appreciation here: Our Disney Belle was extremely gracious and gentle with each young visitor, even those who were not chosen to be in the play. This cast member was particularly kind and patient with my granddaughter, never forgetting how magical these moments are for the little ones. Kudos to her!

The intended audience.

Would I jump at the chance for a full blown, fully realized "E Ticket" Beauty and the Beast attraction? Absolutely. Count me in. But a few of these detailed character encounter locations definitely have their place. The problem is at the Magic Kingdom, they seem to have their place at the loss of my beloved dark rides. Not a win. What about that blessing of size? No doubt in my mind that Fantasyland needs more. More rides, more places to sit down and eat in a covered location, and more flowers and trees. 

Will this turn into a meet and greet location later?

As beautiful as the New Fantasyland is at first glance, the truth is it falls short in design and execution in too many ways. With regards to the mini-Belle land, Gaston's Tavern is small but effectively sets the mood. The shop next door is adequate. The fountain is cute. The drawbridge to the restaurant should be the entrance to a landmark attraction as well. We did eat dinner at Be Our Guest, but I'll share my thoughts on that later.

A real bait and switch for unsuspecting tourists-
and lovers of Disney's 1989 comeback film.

I'll sidestep the order of our touring day to say The Little Mermaid's adventure is hosted in an "E Ticket" building in a prime location, with a very beautiful queue, but it delivers a less than satisfying experience. The exterior promises something memorable, but in truth, it offers up a ride that leaves you thinking "What was that?" or even worse, "Was this the best the Imagineers could do?"

Why repeat the space constricted version of the attraction at California Adventure when you could do so much more? It's truly quite disappointing, and in fact, most of our group rated Frozen Ever After a much better ride. (Not me.) If Ariel, Belle, Elsa, and the other princesses (as featured in Wreck It Ralph 2) were really honest, they'd scream "Why are the Disney theme park rides devoted to my film so lame?" Especially poor Rapunzel, whose story has been relegated to a set of restrooms! Guess hard core fans wanting more have to travel to Tokyo Disney Resort to experience what should be found at Disney's supposedly flagship resort. (Don't believe me? Look what Rapunzel is getting here, and see what Belle and Beast truly deserve here.)

It's most unfortunate that the two major redeeming factors in the stunning to look at New Fantasyland seem to be the additions that are most difficult ones for guests to experience: The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Be Our Guest restaurant. The former one requires much patience if you don't have a Fast Pass, and the latter requires much money in addition to patience if you're finally able to get a reservation. And trust me here- you'd better get them on line 60 days out. 

The end result is a mixed-bag experience.

Back to the trip report. For the first time during our trip, our group had to split up for the next attraction. Space Mountain's limitations made it impossible for our sweet little girl to ride, but our grandson was finally tall enough to venture into outer space. Grandma joined her for a Mad Tea Party spin while Grandpa went with the parents and their son.

Rite of Passage.
Flight of Passage would come two days later.

He was thrilled. As for me, I was jerked around like never before. The ride is just plain rough. The only other Disney ride that comes this close to hurting the guests in this manner can be found at Disneyland, and it's the classic, Walt era, Matterhorn Bobsleds. I would not be unhappy to see Florida's epic Space Mountain and California's Swiss mountain adventure totally rebuilt with a brand new track. There's enough major rides in both parks to handle these being retooled. Especially once Tron Lightcycle Run is finally open in Florida and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in California. 

Have I mentioned I still love this ride?

By this point in time, it was hot. I mean hot. Not visiting in the summer for quite a few years, I was still surprised by the heat, even after several days of being there. We had some time before our early afternoon lunch at the Liberty Tree Tavern (my son-in-law's pick.) Off to It's a Small World we went.

If you bought a collectible doll when they were available, 
hold onto them. This granddaughter owns one of these.
Her Mom loved the Parisian dancers when she was little.

Despite there being more sophisticated rides built in later years, Small World holds a special place in my heart. It's gentle, very charming, and reminds me of a simpler time when we were innocent. I loved the change to the queue area, now bringing the famous clock to Florida. 

The iconic music in the attraction seemed different than on the West Coast compared to what I remembered. It wasn't nearly as pronounced. I loved spotting the differences between the two attractions. (Does anyone else geek out on stuff like that?) Of course, the kids were enjoying it all, including seeing the animated characters. I'll spare you the multitude of photos I took, as you've probably seen hundreds of them by now. 

How to break a Grandfather's heart in half.
Photo not representative.

That childhood innocence can be wrapped in an absolutely deadly question at times. Sometime along the day, I'm standing in line for a ride with my grandson, and he drops a bomb of a question, "Grandpa, when I'm an adult, will you still be alive?" For a split second, I was just numb, overwhelmed with the question as I was in the midst of having a great time with him. Tears were quickly welling up, so I decided to ask the Lord to give me wisdom as to how to respond. You see, my sweet grandson had recently lost his Great Grandfather just a few months ago, a man he knew and visited in the hospital, so I wanted to give this sensitive and kind boy a truly honest answer but one that wouldn't bring him further concern. I gently put my arm around him, composed myself, and looked him in the eyes (which about damn near killed me). "Well, when I'm 100 years old and you're an adult, I'm sure I'll be in Heaven with Jesus. The good thing is, because we both love Him and have made a decision to follow Him, one day we'll all be together in Heaven." He smiled warmly, taking it all in, melting my heart again. I just love this fine young man and would love as many years with him as possible. 

View from the (restroom) loft.

We had just a great lunch at the Tavern! In hindsight, it was really wise for us to stop regularly in the heat of the day to rest indoors, reflect on the day, and enjoy ourselves as we talk about our in park adventures. Each of us counted this meal as one that was very good and well worth the cost. If you love a good plate of fish and chips, don't overlook this Kingdom oldie but goodie.

Great signage that sets up the visitors
for a creepy and mysterious adventure.

After lunch, were decided to split up boys and girls. Just for a bit. The girls took off for Starbucks and a short shopping time, but the guys decided to head toward the realm of hitch-hiking ghosts. 

Newer additions to the attraction queue.
A mistake that minimizes the forthcoming fear factor
involved for younger guests.

This was perhaps, our one mistake of the day. I so wanted to see the Haunted Mansion in its non- Nightmare Before Christmas mode. The last several visits to California have been during the Fall, so it had been years since I've been able to experience it in its original incarnation. Why was this a mistake? Our young explorer was clearly scared, closing his eyes, and we talked him through the ride.  Even the standard explanation of "It's all make believe" didn't cut it. He understands the spiritual world is absolutely real. I'm glad it was Dad's decision, and not mine- even though I supported it. 

Meant to go in, but I totally forgot!

From a fan perspective, what did I find? The Dorian Gray portrait still worked, even if guests were escorted into the stretching room earlier than they should be, while the doors to the outside were open. That part bothers me, and it happened in California as well. It might push the crowd in, but it eliminates some of the overall experience. 

Once on the doombuggy, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover that first three rooms of the tour did not exist on the West Coast, and they had much more detail than I expected. There's a couple of strengths to Anaheim's mansion over Orlando's, but if I had to pick, I'd say the version in Liberty Square is the stronger of the two. Chalk that up to a more menacing exterior and those extra rooms.

Yo ho! The great exterior to a truncated attraction.

Once the ladies returned from shopping on Main Street, cruising in search of Captain Jack Sparrow was the next order of the day. In sharp contrast to the previous attraction, as much as I really like the fortress set up for the ride, Florida's Pirates of the Caribbean pales in comparison to the first incarnation and even that of Disneyland Paris. Please don't misunderstand. It's a great attraction on it's own, but when making comparisons, it just doesn't hold up as well. For Disney park fans who have never visited the original Kingdom, it may well be the reason they should. 

Good "starter" coaster for the little guys. 
 Who says you can't have fun in the rain?

The Touring Plans app and the official one together pointed us to Dumbo for a quick ten minute wait. By the time we walked there, the rain was coming down and that wait dissipated to less than two minutes. The play land inside the tent was very well done, and I can imagine it to be a very useful diversion for little flyers when the crowds are thick. It was sweet and colorful and surprisingly charming.

A well-themed but out of place mini-land.

By and large, the new Storybook Circus was cute and incredibly well themed, but it just seemed strangely out of place, it's prime location creating a jarring transition between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. I particularly liked the look and detail of the train station. Following our flight, Barnstormer was next (which I'd never ridden before) and then we discovered another surprise: a ten minute wait for the Speedway. Ten minutes! Unheard of. Just minutes behind us joining the queue, it seemed as if every other parent realized the line was short and jumped in. 

I'll be very interesting to see if route of the classic Tomorrowland Speedway is in fact altered in order to meet the unique design and construction needs of the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland transplant, the Tron Lightcycles Run. The acreage used for the raceway is really quite large, and unlike Disneyland's Autopia, it is not part of a complex network of attractions that would require major work to make more space available for expansion. If they had to, those creative Imagineers could come up with a way to make it work- even in Disneyland. Check out this proposed but never built attraction, the Atlantis Expedition.

Mom and Dad get a "mini-date" and ride alone.

If there was ever a classic Disneyland attraction still found in Florida that should finally return to Anaheim, it's the iconic Tomorrowland WEDway Peoplemover / Transit Authority PeopleMover. I love this ride! It's an old school favorite, full of atmosphere, refreshingly different from everything else in the Magic Kingdom, and it is just plain fun. 

Unlike at Disneyland, it's still a world on the move here.

In many ways, the Retro Disneyland Tomorrowland feel is found in Florida now. Carousel of Progress is still around, the striking Rocket/Star/Astro Jets are still circling high above the land, and the atmosphere and feel of the place is cool and clean, vintage 1967 New Tomorrowland

All that's missing is the classic Adventure Through Inner Space. And I'd easily give up Buzz Lightyear's attraction for a trip through the Mighty Microscope on the Atommobile! It's as fun as I remembered it to be, and the kids loved it, but to bring back one classic attraction not powered by an animated character would be a good thing. To sum it up, Florida's Tomorrowland easily bests that of the land of the future in California.

The area surrounding Ariel's Undersea Adventure 
reminded me of the former 20k Leagues Under the Sea.
Coincidence or not?

Early evening was settling in, and we were getting close to the last activity of the day, our meal at Be Our Guest. With some time left for a few more attractions, we chose a handful of Fantasyland classics: a spin on the Carousel, a Mad Tea Party "competition" (ladies in one cup, gentlemen in another), and a happy journey with Winnie the Pooh- to go along with our ride with Ariel. 

The Classics are there for good reason.

I can still hear her giggle-
as Grandpa got sick to his stomach across the way.

Finally it was about time to check in for our dinner reservation. As I mentioned earlier, each of the four adults chose one restaurant as their "must dine" location. Be Our Guest was my choice, and aside from one aspect, I was not disappointed. 

A terrific way to end a terrific day.

It's with good reason that just about every review of the Magic Kingdom's beautiful New Fantasyland includes a glowing review of the park's hard to get into restaurant. Ultimately, Be Our Guest is not just a restaurant. It is also a walk through attraction and an exclusive character meet and greet. From the initial bridge at the check in desk to the farthest corner of the restaurant, detail is piled upon detail, making this eatery a necessary experience for anyone who loves the Beauty and the Beast animated film. The only piece missing was that extravagant "E Ticket" next door- with a dinner guest only line to the front of the attraction.

Of our four different adult meal choices, three were considered very good and one good. We dined in the West Wing, much to my pleasure. I wanted that location but didn't want to scare the kids, so I did not request it. We took our chances, ended up in the dark dining room, and everyone did well. Wine was an added bonus. We took time to relax and to explore each of the rooms. It was close to a two hour experience. (Had The Little Mermaid ride had this level of attention to detail, it would have resulted in an attraction the classic film deserves.)

I would easily eat there again except for the fact the new dining plan now makes it about $55 per person not including a glass of wine. I'm sorry, but there is no restaurant at any theme park worth that price. It's now an unfortunate "one and done".

Last look, last time.

As we exited the park, our timing couldn't have been worse. With the evening crowd for the fireworks, it took us awhile to get of out the Magic Kingdom, but we did have a chance to use the bypass. Thankfully, we reached our resort bus right as the last firework burst, and we were soon on our way home.

Post trip all four of us voted this first Magic Kingdom day our favorite day of the trip.  We tallied sixteen attractions in all and two (needed) sit down meals. We'd return the next day to catch some favorites and a few other attractions. For now, we needed a good night's sleep.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

July 14, 2018

Cruising Down PCH

Was a nice day to be in California with the top down and my favorite singer on the sound system! On my way to the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway. Thanks to my wonderful wife for this memorable time.

July 12, 2018

Castle Redux

Hardened cop with a painful past meets charismatic creative, and they partner to fight crime in the big city. Sound familiar? It should. The writers of Castle have concocted a new show, Take Two. This time, roles are reversed. The cop is a man, the sidekick is an actress. Eddie Cibrian and Rachel Bilson star in place of Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. Will lightning strike twice? After watching three episodes, it's hard to tell. 

Little Visitor on the Way

We are so very excited to see this little guy again!

July 11, 2018

Disney's Unbuilt Mystery House

This piece of concept art isn't another variation of the exterior for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion nor is it an alternative for Paris' equally thrilling Phantom Manor. It's something totally unique. A brand new attraction, and it's one I'd never even heard of! 

FoxxFur over at the excellent Passport to Dreams Old & New provides all the details on this unbuilt attraction designed by Imagineer Marc Davis for a slice of land at Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness. Named Adventure House, it seems like a fun and inviting way to spend some time. Check out the great article and all the art here. Just one more piece of investigation from an incredible blog...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 10, 2018

We Interrupt This Trip Report...

... to bring you the news that the Insights and Sounds blog will also be posting a Disneyland and California Adventure trip report from July 5! 

Due to an incredible birthday gift from my wife, I was able to visit the Disneyland Resort on that day. Two parks in one day, 26 attractions in all- including the new-ish Pixar Pier

I'm still working on the Magic Kingdom Day One trip report form our recent Walt Disney World vacation. I've never experienced both US Disney resorts in one summer before and less than one month apart. Amazing- but it's given me a fresh look at what makes each one different and unique. Both with strengths and weaknesses. Be watching for them!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

July 9, 2018

Incredible Family!

What an Incredible family! Yes, the Parrs are quite the crew, but in actuality, I'm speaking of my family. 

In thinking about my youngest daughter's birthday today and how amazing she is, I got to thinking that I've been blessed with an entire family of incredible people. From my wife on, each of my kids and their spouses (and their kids) are just amazing... and so are yours! I often express thanks for each member of my family as I pray for them, but truthfully, not as often as I should. Be better than I am, would you?

(Art copyright Disney/Pixar.)

July 6, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Our Trip So Far

It was to be expected. My trip report for our first day at the Magic Kingdom is very long- and filled with photos and insights of how it felt to be there after almost ten years away. Make no mistake, Walt Disney World has changed!

For now, here's where you can find the first three days as we visited Animal Kingdom and Epcot:

Stay tuned for the Magic Kingdom...

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

July 4, 2018

Can We Please Be Unified and Thankful?

Today is American Independence Day. As we approach our 250th year in the next ten years or so, and given the current state of division and divisiveness in our country, I think it's time to stop and reflect on how good we actually have it. 

I travel all over the world for my work, and trust me- there is no country on earth where we are as free as we are in the United States of America! You can complain all you want about our government and our politicians. That's one of the great things about our country. You cannot do that everywhere. We have the wisdom of the founding fathers to thank for this, and we have the sacrifice of our military veterans to thank for keeping those liberties. 

To tie it all back to Disney, Imagineering great Herb Ryman created this incredible rendering for the American Adventure.  Back in 1979, EPCOT Center was coming to be realized, and the Disney suits needed pieces of concept art such as this one to excite the potential guests and to inspire corporations the world over to invest in the project.  As with all of Mr. Ryman's work, this piece brings out the dignity of the nation. 

So, today, July 4th, let us thank God Almighty for shedding His Grace on us!

(I wrote this last year, and it seems worth repeating...)

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 1, 2018

Undone- A Church Ruined for the Ordinary

Ready to hear about a different kind of Christian? Here's one of the best sermons I've heard in awhile. Keeps the truth in the scripture and challenges believers to be what God intends. From Pastor Andy Knuth from Undone Church speaking at Calvary Chapel Aurora. 

Undone: A Church Ruined for the Ordinary - Pastor Andy Knuth from Calvary Aurora on Vimeo.

June 30, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Three - Epcot

Our second (and last day) at Epcot occurred on the third day of our trip. The kid's favorite park, the Magic Kingdom, would comprise the next to come. Therefore the photograph seen above is from the day before, a clear misrepresentation of our activities. But it's a darn nice photo with a story all it's own. More on that later.

With an early morning Fast Pass of 8:30am the next day for the Magic Kingdom's arguably most popular attraction, Splash Mountain, we'd have to plan our last Epcot day really well in order to be rested for the morning. With two little kids, the whole game plan changes. No complaints here, though. We love being with them! All four of them.

The only way to travel to Epcot.

In my mind, there's only one great way to get to Epcot, and that's via the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center. Love, love, love seeing the park from that elevation. The problem is, unless you're staying at the hotels on that circuit, you've got to do a little work to get there. But it was worth it. The lagoon sparkles from that high, the countries seem inviting, and guests riding the "Highway in the Sky" get a great idea of the vastness of the park. 

We arrived in the park a bit later than we planned, making me wonder if we could still use our first Fast Pass of the day. We were almost thirty minutes late to the hard to get Test Track, and I'd heard some horror stories compared to showing up late at Disneyland for your reserved spot. Turned out, it wasn't a problem, and our second ride was just as much fun as the first.

A nice perk in Future World.

Gotta admit here- I needed a cup of Joe, and I wasn't the only one. Off to both Club Cool (for all of us), and then a stop at Starbucks (for the adults). I find Club Cool very fun. Really fun, actually, and certainly worth ten or fifteen minutes or more to look around and taste some strange and incredible flavors of Coke products all over the world- and all for free. I expect this to go away by the time Future World gets its makeover.

My son-in-law was particularly excited to drink Inca Cola (I think that was the name) as he'd first had it while serving the people of Peru during a mission trip. I enjoyed all the melon flavors, and even the infamous Beverly from Italy was better than I remembered. I'm a gin and tonic guy, so maybe my taste buds have moved to move bitter flavors as I've gotten older. The kids loved the whole experience as they're always game for trying something new.

Still needed my coffee, and I really did not want to wait in that line, but we did. Another surprise of excellent and speedy service. 

Take note of this- after a couple of days in the parks, today was the first time I purchased something for myself. An Epcot Starbucks "You are Here" mug. Too cool to pass up as I have the original one already, a gift from my daughter after their first trip. Where was all the really great and unique stuff to buy? In days past, I had no problem finding souvenirs that had to come home with me. Not this trip.

With all the changes, I was glad to see this original park mural.

Now that we had some hot liquid in us, it was time for something to eat, but that Fast Pass thing meant a delay to ride Spaceship Earth first before the time limit expired. The grand old gal still holds up well- no, not Judi Dench, the attraction. Pretty sure it would have been a disastrous decision to replace this with the once proposed Time Racers roller coaster. (Really, don't believe me, look here for some concept art of a transformed Future World. Don't forget to enlarge the image.) But then again, the Universe of Energy is (misguidedly) becoming a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster, so what do I know? 

Guttenberg's printing press changed the world,
bring God's Word, the Bible, to all.

The experience into the sphere is just classic EPCOT Center. Great Imagineering of old. Thankfully, the suits have some respect left for those who came before them, mostly choosing to leave the iconic attraction alone. Yes, the descent is truly horrid. Really bad and just uninspired. Hopefully that will change done day soon. Yet, nothing in all of Future World is as epic to me as this landmark ride. Is it fast? No. Is it cutting edge? No longer. Is is great? Yeah!

Hopefully the Ratatouille expansion will mean 
more terrific places to grab a bite.

Time for a bit of food, and France won the draw- easily. Wasn't breakfast, and it was way too early for lunch, but we truly needed a snack to hold us over until our 3pm reservations. Again, crowded but fast, and delicious food! My daughter's Quiche Lorraine was a standout, easily matching the delicate and distinct flavors of Paris. (She really knows what to order in a restaurant!) The cast members were friendly and even a bit talkative, taking time to engage the kids at their level. Again, very old school Disney. The grandkids themselves are quite relaxed speaking to adults, and politely and sweetly responded, keeping the conversation going. 

Being in World Showcase already, I was thrilled for a bit of time there. Of course, we weren't the kids, and although they didn't complain, we realized at their ages, there really isn't a lot for them. There were the Kidcot Fun Stop stations, where coloring pages were the order of the day. We didn't do these. We did keep exploring, pointing out the interesting things to look at all around. There's really only a few rides, so I certainly understand the need for some in theme attractions on the side of the lagoon in the U.K. and France. There's the two boat cruises so close to each other in Mexico and Norway, and then not another ride to be found in World Showcase. (Attractions, shows and character greetings, yes. Rides no.)

Were additional rides planned? Yes. Germany's Rhine River cruise, rumors of gondolas for Italy, a Mt. Fuji thrill ride (inspired by Disneyland's Matterhorn) and Meet the World theater show for Japan were all once on the docket but never built. Instead the suits let the park wilt away, preferring to rely on the Food and Wine Festival and other events to draw in the crowds. Bad move, and with the successful competition of Harry Potter attractions at Universal, they've finally seen the error of this mindset- even if it is only the financial loss they took.  Finally, new attractions are coming to this side of the park. (Thank you, Universal! Keep the pressure on.)

Since the suits have recently committed to Ratatouille, that will help bring some variety. I'm not thrilled about the cartoon invasion of Epcot, but I do understand it to some degree. (The suits did not ask for or take my bold suggestions on how to save Epcot. I wish they had.) As of this date in time, the Rat film is my favorite of the Pixar movies, and I am happy I'll find a trackless adventure with Remy to enjoy. Honestly, though, I wish they had let the gifted Imagineers go through with those non-character rides and saved the characters for the Magic Kingdom. Since this is the chosen direction, at least Ratatouille fits its location.  

More Italy- at least more pizza- but no gondolas.

Admittedly, I am really looking forward to a charming, music filled dark ride of Mary Poppins in the U.K. pavilion. It's about time she's honored with an attraction. After all, it's one of Disney's landmark films and one of the most loved. (More details about Imagineer Tony Baxter's original concept can be found here.) It's what will come next that concerns. If the announced Future World additions are any indication, eventually only the settings for the attractions will differenciate this park from the Magic Kingdom. (Post trip, I found myself thinking about how I would build Epcot, particularly World Showcase. I thought about sharing it as part of my trip report. However, instead I'll save it for a separate post. No doubt I'd have been great Imagineer!)

The lightest crowd we saw all day.

We spent a good part of our day exploring the World. The crowds were heavier than our first day visit, and the weather much hotter, so we tried to get inside a few more shops as we toured. The bazaar in Morocco was fun, and the candy shop in Germany was packed with people anxious to buy sweets.

One of our great plans was to let our daughter and son-in-law have a date while we took the kids. (Or was it us who wanted the date with our grandkids?) They chose an Epcot day and a chance for a meal in one of the restaurants in World Showcase. After much deliberation, they chose Canada's Le Cellier. (An excellent choice in my mind.) We decided for our date, a meal inside the German Biergarten with a live band sounded like fun.

Afternoon heat brings cute rosy faces ready for the AC!

We all opted for a late afternoon meal, and went our separate ways, but planned to meet up later in the evening. It had been much more than a couple of decades since we ate at the Biergarten, and I had heard mixed reviews on the food. The fun aspect of it all was the deciding factor.

"Date night" with Grandma and Grandpa.

Gladly, there was nothing to be concerned about! My meal was just first class! I tried the schnitzel, the meatballs, the ham, the salads and the vegetables. All absolutely delicious. (So were the desserts!)

My good friend Len Yokoyama told me it has been years since he photographed this location. I tried my best to get some good shots for him, but in this area, I failed miserably. Sorry, Len. Rest assured not much has changed from what I can tell. When you do get there again, I know you'll get much better shots than I did.

Do not miss this meal and show!

The restaurant was less than a third full it seemed, but it didn't stop the band from going all out. What a great show it was! The band put their hearts into it, making it fun for both adults and children. We discovered from talking to some of the staff that many of these performers were part of the original team that came from Germany to serve in Florida back at the park's opening year. Wow!

Who is having more fun?

We also discovered that you can stay on beyond the meal and enjoy as many shows- and all the beer you want- for as long as you want. That is something not widely known. 

Nothing could match the opportunity to dance a bit with our little dates.

Beyond the wonderful time together, it was smart to get out of the heat and blaring sun. The rest did us well, and we were ready to get back to the outside world for some additional adventures. I did once again notice that indoor locations and inexpensive places to eat were all too often not synonymous. Is it greed on the part of the Company, poor planning, or has no one thought of that? On this note, I will tend to believe it is, unfortunately, the first option. 

You might think of me as cynical, but you must remember, I have been following Disney park trends for years, and I've seen the move away from the Company offering the guests the best of experiences into viewing the popular theme parks (especially the four in Florida) as purely money-printing machines. 

Frozen- and lines- Ever After.

Checking our Touring Plans app and the official Walt Disney World Parks app, we discovered Frozen Ever After had a 40 minute wait. The kids were certainly willing to wait that long for one last ride on it. They knew we weren't coming back to this park, so off we went. Due to a variety of reasons including poor planning on the part of the suits who took the cheaper way out, it actually took over well over an hour to ride. About 75 minutes actually. But we all looked past the wait and enjoyed the cruise for what it was. Yes, the snowgies remained the big hit.

Onward we went. Mission: Space showed a 15 minute wait, so that would be our next and final destination. Of course, we just couldn't pass by China without a look. The film was starting in 5 minutes. I just had to see it.

Home of Mulan. Is that the future?

Surprisingly, the kids paid close attention to the film. At one point at the beginning of the film, my granddaughter said to me, "This is where Mulan lives!" Who said Epcot is no longer educational? This is certainly the wave of the future I believe- a place where Disney's well-known international characters live. 

We ventured into the display on Shanghai Disneyland. I took some photos of concept art I hadn't seen, but I'll save those for later. I was looking for the Terra Cotta Warriors, but I finally realized they were replaced by this promotion of the new Asian Magic Kingdom. 

Always a favorite view!

One more unexpected stop. The kids saw the Mexico pavilion, so we asked about another cruise with Donald. Of course, they said yes- they love the duck- so we jumped into a ten minute line. It really was ten minutes too, as it was close to meal time, just after 5:30pm or so. Diners were filling the available spots at San Angel

Shades of Coco.

The tropical moonlit night next to the indoor pyramid does make for quite an enchanting location to dine. I've always loved the smoking volcano seemingly just beyond that thatched hut. Those Imagineers let no small detail go unfinished if it meant a better attraction or restaurant. For those of you that haven't seen the place, just think of it as Epcot's Blue Bayou.

Cramming them in.

Waiters were much busier than I had seen them before in previous trips. It was certainly noisier! The whole place seemed less relaxed and more hectic. Then I realized why. The tables of the restaurant were pushed much closer together than the last trip to the World, squeezing in maybe 50 or 60 more diners to an already crowded location. Such a shame. 

Will the Three Caballeros head to Brazil next?

Finally making it to Mission: Space, the journey was a great amount more fun the second time for our granddaughter as she knew what was coming. Then the unexpected happed. We got a text from our daughter and son-in-law. Their expensive but excellent dinner was over, and they were heading back to the hotel. It was after 6pm, so we thought about it and decided to join them after a short stop or two.

He is the cutest- not Mickey!

While I purchased some Mickey pretzels, the kids had a short break and enjoyed the water pad. It was still hotter than Hell, (well not really I guess), and this made for a refreshing break. My wife sat with them for a moment so I could enter the Mouse Gears shop, and look for a souvenir or two. After looking around, I left with one Epcot 35th Anniversary mug complete with the original Future World pavilion logos, a couple of key chains for the kids, and a small compass magnet. Nothing else captured my eye. Wow, things had changed. 

Maybe another trip one day-
and maybe even an improved Journey with Figment!

Time for us to go. We headed toward Spaceship Earth and the exit, knowing I would not be returning to Epcot this trip. I gave that some thought and realized we'd been on all the attractions except viewing the Canadian travelogue. In what was a first for me, I had not seen Illuminations on this visit, nor had I spent any time in World Showcase at night. Do you remember that top photo? That was as close as I'd get to my beloved World Showcase at night this trip. No matter. I'll do it next vacation here if there was one to come. 

As a Grandpa, my main desire was to hang out with the kids. I happily did so, looking out for them to make sure they were well rested for their first day at the Magic Kingdom. They are sweet and patient kids, not over-indulged at all, and very appreciative of all they got to do. I wanted them to have a blast the next day! That day was the most important vacation day to them, so it was important to me as well. This was my priority more than anything else I could do. The incredible blessing of doing this trip with them was more than enough. (Special thanks to my daughter and son-in-law.) Guess I've grown up a bit.

Tomorrow, I'd return to the Florida Kingdom after almost a decade. Couldn't wait to see the charming New Fantasyland and to eat dinner at Be Our Guest. Most of all, I couldn't wait to experience those classic Disney attractions with my grandkids, and see their faces. That is the real magic.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)