February 25, 2009

An Epcot Adventure

About a year ago, my wife and I renewed our contract with T-Mobile and were rewarded with four free airline tickets. We used one set to go to South Carolina, where we went to Charleston and Hilton Head, including the Disney Vacation Club there. (See my blog report for lots of pictures and details.) With two tickets left to use before March 1 and a very limited and mostly unappealing choice of locations, we chose to head off to Walt Disney World for four days sans kids. We booked our getaway in October. This was to be our first visit alone in two decades. (Not knowing we would be in California for Christmas - and at the Disneyland Resort at the time of booking.)

Having saved for a couple of years, we decided to splurge a bit and stay at one of the moderate resorts. After much discussion, we chose Port Orleans Riverside. Our last visit staying on the property was at All Star Sports in 2007- a great choice since we had our youngest son with us. Previously, we had stayed at the Caribbean Beach in 1989 when the price was an unbelievable $59 per night!

Mid-February was a new time of the year for a visit. We really didn't know what to expect aside from the fact we planned to take it easy, sleep in, eat at some nice restaurants, go swimming and enjoy the parks. What a great opportunity to get out of a Colorado winter and see some green landscape.

Arriving at 11:55pm into Orlando, of course we were glad to be making use of Magical Express to get to our hotel. The trip would end of taking two hours- arrival at 2am! We thankfully chose to carry on our luggage and felt quite bad for other folks who hadn't, as they wouldn't see their bags until morning.

After a quick check in and a glance around the lobby, we strolled through the silent gardens of the resort passing the tree lined grounds by moonlight. Very romantic! Onto the Alligator Bayou section, we found building 28 and our room rather quickly.
(Later in the week, I would discover this to be a perfect location- close to the pool and the West bus stop but far enough away from all the activity when we chose to sleep in. Easy access to what we needed while still feeling remote and uncrowded.)

Opening the door, we were pleasantly surprised by a nice sized, well appointed room. As I sat my bag down on my side of the bed, I discovered a little treasure just for me: a previously unseen piece of concept art by Herb Ryman for Disneyland's Blue Bayou restaurant. Although we were thrilled with our choice and anxious for our first day at our favorite Florida park, we were exhausted and collapsed into our luxuriously soft king sized bed.

Awaking at 9:30am, we settled into a schedule that would truly be a blessing: staying out late playing, then sleeping in the next day. There was no real agenda that drove us to early arrival at the parks, so we took each day as it came. Quite a different approach compared to when we would visit with our kids! If you are looking for a lot of action, this trip report may not be what you're looking for.

It was quite a treat to leave dry and brown Denver and wake up to a green and warm Orlando. Epcot was up first. Since our initial visit to this park in 1983, it was instantly and has remained our favored destination on the property. Beginning with Spaceship Earth, there is an air of elegance and sophistication here that appeals to us, a unique element that is not found in the other parks. Yes, we really enjoy each of the four themed playgrounds, but Epcot stands tallest. Admittedly, it is not the park it once was, however, there continues to be much to enjoy.

Our mid-morning arrival at 10:30am was unprecedented. So was our choice for breakfast- tasty Strawberry Shortcake and delicate Orange Creme Brule from the Land's food court. Dessert for breakfast! One of the benefits of traveling without children is breaking the rules just because you can! In years past, we'd head off to the Land Grille Room (or The Good Turn, if you are old enough to remember the revolving restaurant in its earliest incarnation) for a relaxing and unique way to start the day, but now in the time of Disney's cost-cutting, this is no longer possible as the location only serves meals beginning with dinner!

Just looking around this park fills the senses with a bit of wonder and enchantment that doesn't rely on characters to deliver it. Although the buildings of Future World mostly seem a bit dated and the landscaping is now more natural than manicured, the quiet beauty of the place is still breathtaking. There is a spaciousness found here that is lacking in California's Disneyland. The scope and scale of the parks and the resort as a whole is very different - it is a different setting, different place with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Certainly, any observant guest knows they are in Disney World versus Land.

Our first attraction of the day was aboard a clamshell through the seas of little Nemo. In December, we had just journeyed through the renewed Submarine adventure in California. I must say, we both prefer Epcot's voyage by a wide margin. Instead of the overblown build up to the fairly overated experience created at Disneyland, we found the simple intimacy of the Florida version adds to the storytelling, all the while keeping expectations in line with the end result. We decided to leave the rest of the pavilion for later but in fact, we never returned.

Living with the Land remains one of our must do Epcot experiences. It reminds us of days gone by when a healthy and interesting dose of "edutainment" came with each experience. It is at once old school and simple- a refreshing change from the recent Future World move toward thrill rides and film-based attractions. Must say, we miss the gentle theme song that played for years as you cruised by the ending scenes.

Grabbing Fastpasses for Soarin', we headed to Test Track. What a rush! Although this replaced a much loved attraction that I wish was still around, here is my new favorite attraction at Epcot. Neither the sickness inducing Mission:Space nor the lengthy but boring Ellen's Energy Adventure nearby can compare. The queue is detailed and interesting, the pre-show amusing without being saccharine, and the ride itself thrilling but not over the top. It took awhile, but eventually I was able to photograph some vehicles on the outdoor portion of track upon exiting the building.

What to do next? Well, Energy was closed as was the now defunct Wonders of Life. Mission:Space was a walk-on, but with lunch coming up, we passed. Besides, this version of a flight simulator doesn't excite me in the least and leaves me longing for the Space pavilion that should have been.

After a short stop at Mouse Gear to look around- and buy none of the fairly generic merchandise to be found all over the resort- we decided to checkout the new Kim Possible attraction. We were to begin in Norway right after our lunch at Canada's Le Cellier. It was close to our reservation time, so off to Canada we walked.

Victoria Gardens looked much like we remembered Butchart Gardens. It was spotless and beautiful, as was the rest of the park. As we walked into the restaurant, our greeter took our information, welcomed us, and began to play a question and answer game on Canadian trivia. It is also the people interactions in Epcot's World Showcase that make the park interesting visit after visit. We were not the winners, but we didn't bomb all the questions either.

Le Cellier was a brand new and glorious experience. The Maple Barbecue Chicken was unique and tasty and the warm pretzel bread a winner. My wife said her steak and salad was her favorite meal on our visit (and that included a very pricey one at the Contemporary Resort's California Grill later in the week). Although I loved my selection and agreed we would now come back on each subsequent visit, it was the other guests that helped make this a memorable experience.

Two tables away sat Phil Stacey of American Idol. Cool but not earth shattering. It was the diners at the table behind me, however, that made me slightly giddy. Walking right past me was Imagineer Eric Jacobsen. He was joining a table of five other Disney executives or Imagineers that I did not recognize, but Eric was one face I knew from his many appearances in Walt Disney World cable television specials. If only I could have leaned backward to listen to the conversation without being too obvious...

Moving beyond my fanboy experience, we decided it was time to check out the Martin Short version of O Canada. Walked into the mine past a waterfall that was turned off. Poor show. As for the new film, it is certainly a friendly one but it trades dignity and grace for humor that will age poorly. The scenery is stunning but the treatment of the subject diminishes the art. Shades of The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management. This direction was an unfortunate decision, and don't even get me started on what they did to Mexico's El Rio del Tiempo! We left satisfied for seeing the film but even more perplexed that the upper levels of the showcase were closed to guests. More cost-cutting measures?

Our half an hour solving the Kim Possible mystery was a do-only-once experience. It will make World Showcase more interesting for tweens and kids, much like pin trading or those Kidcot stops, but for an adult, it won't hold much interest. One nice touch: an interaction with a hostess in the China showcase and a very flavorful clue-infused fortune cookie.

Picking up where we left off, we journeyed to the U.K. and enjoyed the scenery and some music by British Invasion. Although we wish there were more World Showcase attractions, the people, streetscapes, entertainment, shopping and dining make this our favorite slice of Walt Disney World acreage. For folks like us whom traveling is an extravagance, this is a sweet reminder of trips past or hoped for.

Stopping at the International Gateway, we decided to take a short break and cruise over to the Boardwalk area for a change of scenery. Surprisingly, the trip was very short! We had never done this before and were stunned by how close Epcot was to the area. After a short stroll down the Boardwalk, we walked back to the park when my eye caught sight of the Eiffel Tower from a whole new angle.

Without question, the France showcase continues to be one of our most appreciated. Impressions de France is a lovely film that sorely needs to be updated. The print is of poor quality after 25 years, and the theater in which it is presented needs repair. After what was done to the centerpiece attractions of the Mexico and Canada pavilions, however, I am cautiously suggesting this. Please don't lose the gorgeous soundtrack or insert inane jokes or out of place characters! We exited the film, took a brief look around, and realized our Faspasses for Soarin' were due. No worries. We knew we would return here.

Immediately after our wonderful flight, we encountered a five minute wait for Spaceship Earth. Here was the EPCOT Center of our younger days, and the park's premier attraction was back in top form. Everything looked, sounded, and smelled terrific. Bravo to the Imagineers who updated this without losing what made it so special to begin with. There has been much criticism of the ending of the attraction, yet we found it to be a fun touch. In fact, we enjoyed our journey so much that we immediately got back into line for another one.

After a short stop for a Mickey Ice Cream bar (a family tradition), we walked by Imagination on our way back to France. No stopping this time, as this once wonderful series of attractions has been reduced to a disheartening reminder of what once was there. Whether ride, film or exhibit area, what each has become is just painful to see. (This includes the awful paint job on the building!) The rumored updates to this place cannot happen soon enough- and it needs to be done right this time.

Back to France to continue our World tour. We spent some time inside the shops and savored a small taste of a country we have loved visiting. Exiting our final one, dusk began to appear, and the true magic of Epcot was about to begin.

Daytime in the park is a very pleasant experience, but it is at night when the beauty of Epcot becomes most evident. The park quiets as guests begin to settle into their chosen dining locations and lighting begins to accentuate the gardens and architecture. It is a wonderful time for a leisurely and romantic stroll through each nation represented and a great time for photographs.

We made our way slowly around the lagoon, stopping near China (with Margaritas in hand from the nearby stand in Mexico) just in time for Illuminations. The music is inspiring and the fireworks stunning, the ultimate Epcot experience. There is nothing else quite like viewing this show and watching the countries light up at the finale- or so I thought, but that is a story for another day's report.

As folks started streaming out of the park, we moved toward the Japan showcase for our evening dinner. Although we had made reservations at Tokyo Dining, we decided that a large meal was not appealing to us. In its place, we settled for a small snack from the tea house back in the gardens. What a great idea! Sitting on the patio with two very quiet parties, we enjoyed the warm evening under the stars. Eventually, we were the only ones left. The small latterns illuminated just enough to be enchanting and the bubbling stream provided a sweet serenade. I was instantly brought back to our first anniversary trip many years ago when we searched out the hidden gems of the park while others rushed off for the next attraction.

Our conversation turned sweet and sentimental. My wife and I were accutely aware that many years had passed but also extremely thankful to the Lord that after all our married years, we were still very much in love and still prefered each other's company. In our minds, "soul mates" is something that is built by years of staying together, choosing to serve and trust each other through life's joys and difficulties. The rush of new romance is fun, but it is only a taste of what can be ahead.

Slowly, we circled the lagoon and enjoyed the environments of each country. Every glance across the water reminded me how beautiful this park is and why it remains our favorite. Eventually reaching Norway, the Maelstrom was a brief two minute wait, so we hopped on. The ride's in bad shape, plain and simple- and the short film wasn't even running.

It was time to leave the park as we wanted to head back to our resort ahead of the crowds. Spaceship Earth practically sparkled in the night sky. Turning around for one last look, I snapped a few more photos, then we quickly boarded the resort bus. It was a perfect day to start our trip, and we hated to see it end.

(All photos copyright Mark Taft.)


CFPhilfan said...

If this appears as the second post, I apologize. I don't see my first one at the time of posting this. You can keep the first one and delete the second one. I got your blog in a Google alert for Phil Stacey. I would have probably freaked out, and mustered the courage to go up to him and said hi, lol. He is my favorite season 6 American Idol contestant. I hope to meet him some day. Your pictures are beautiful. I hope to make it back to the Magic Kingdom. I don't live very far, but it has been hard financially to go there.

Eric Scales said...

The only thing I got for renewing my contract with T-Mobile was 2 more years of T-Mobile service.