March 4, 2009

Magic in This Kingdom

I was surprised by our later than normal arrival at Epcot, our favorite park in Florida. (See my earlier trip report.)Returning to Port Orleans Riverside that evening, we settled into our cozy bed and decided to sleep in the next morning. We awoke refreshed and ready to go. A great cup of in room coffee started our day with a smile. (Note to management: This coffee was better than anything available for purchase on the property.)

Today we decided to visit Florida’s first Disney playground. Our brief walk to the bus station was late morning, yet without a shred of humidity. That lasted all day and into the night. A very pleasant surprise for a warm and sunny 75 degree day. Perfect! The bus to Epcot showed up first, and I thought it would be great fun to ride the monorail to the Transportation and Ticket Center, then take a ferry to the Magic Kingdom. We hopped on.

Although we loved riding the monorail in, we were shocked by the lines waiting for the monorail and the ferry once we arrived there! Both were lengthy, but it did afford some time for a few photos. We walked into the Magic Kingdom at 12:30pm, that detour costing us an extra hour of time versus taking the bus right to the park.

Our close up view of the Walt Disney World Railroad Train Station was an instant statement of how large this place was, how the scale seemed to be a full 100% versus the charming but smaller graduated sizes of the buildings in California. This is not to say the younger Kingdom doesn't have its own unique charms, it just just an instant reminder how grand this park is! Despite any differences, what remained the same was the rush of emotion I felt walking through the turnstiles.

The crowds were thick, and the beautiful and very tall castle beckoned ahead. The shops on Main Street U.S.A. were gleaming in the sun, very maintained, and elegant. In fact, each of the four parks was immaculately kept, swept, and shined. Music of an era gone by filled the air while balloon vendors offered their fare to small kids. Hearing the sounds of the station, I turned to see the train pull in.

Since we had just been to Walt’s original kingdom in Anaheim, we decided to slow our pace. Only three items were on my must-do list: The newly refreshed Haunted Mansion, a reunion with some country bears, and the much aligned Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club. Everything else was gravy.
Having not eaten breakfast, my wife and I wandered into the Tomorrowland Noodle Station. Choosing one of our favorites, Orange Chicken, we grabbed our tray and headed for a patio area overlooking the canals of the now defunct Plaza Swan Boats. I remember my first visit in 1975, watching these elegant little vessels cruise past the absolutely breathtaking Crystal Palace restaurant. Although the boats are now gone, the restaurant remains as beautiful as ever.
I looked around and took in the view. Expansive and filled with greenery, swarms of people rushing to Fantasyland and the other realms of the kingdom. To my right, I watched the trains of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority whisk by- and how I missed seeing those in California! That attraction now had to be added to my list.

We spent almost an hour sitting there people watching and enjoying the early afternoon sun. We talked about days and attractions gone by, including an old favorite If You Had (... had wings, had wings, had wings...) and even Visionarium and Alien Encounter. Just as I was about to lament to “tooning” of Tomorrowland, my wife asked me where I wanted to head first. Liberty Square and the Haunted Mansion.
We strolled past the Crystal Palace, stopping for a few minutes both inside and out to look and take pictures, before continuing along the connecting bridge between Adventureland and Liberty Square. Even with the Winnie the Pooh character lunch in full swing, the atmosphere inside was restrained, subdued, a bit more reserved and elegant than I had expected. A nice surprise more akin to earlier years when the park was not always so full of people, when a leisurely stroll through the Magic Kingdom was possible without a multitude of strollers and electric vehicles (but not wheelchairs) demanding space on the walkways. The number of adults needing or using special transport vehicles seemed like a scene straight out of Wall-E! It took some getting used to.

Entering Liberty Square was another pleasant reminder that we were in Florida and not California. Both my wife and I always loved this distinct little piece of the Magic Kingdom, especially when the shops offered unique and period appropriate merchandise and the Fife and Drum Corps entertained. A bit of old Philadelphia in Orlando! The "boxing" of the Hall of Presidents meant we couldn't enjoy the attraction this visit, but I had an encounter with Happy Haunts on my mind.
It was a solid 30 minute wait in line to enter the Mansion. This afforded some great time catching detail, observing similarities and differences between the three attractions we had seen with the same general theme (California, Orlando, and Paris).

In my mind, all are unique experiences with strengths and weaknesses, leaving me without a clear favorite. Additionally, we had just ridden the Holiday version of the attraction in California, so the obvious question: Which is better? The answer: It depends on my mood!

As we entered into the house, we were quickly ushered into the stretching room. I can now say as 100% fact that the ceiling moves up instead of the room being an elevator that moves the guests down. Why? The attraction hostess left the doors open to the main foyer the entire time the portraits stretched! Not only did this somewhat ruin the power of the storyline, it destroyed any sense of mystery.

One of the pleasures of this attraction versus California's is the fact the audience does not recite the Ghost Host's narration here! What a noticeable difference this makes by letting guests enjoy the audio as it was meant to be experienced. The refurbishment of the attraction seemed to freshen everything I saw. I loved passing through the library as usual, and enjoyed the Escher "staircase" room and attic, but it was the smallest touch- the blinking eyes on the wallpaper- that made me go "Wow!" Just goes to show that attention to detail brings strength to the overall show. (One day, just once, I'd love for our Doombuggy to stop right in front of the ballroom scene. There's enough detail there in that single room to keep me interested for at least an hour...)

By the time we exited the mansion, the line had grown quite a bit and the wait time was almost an hour. Hiking back into Frontierland, I was thrilled to get to see those old Country Bears once again! I had forgotten there was ony one theater, but still, we had a brief ten minute wait. The music sounded fresh, and the theater was packed with mostly families who were clapping along and laughing. To my eye, Henry, looked a little Chuck E Cheese like but the rest of the crew seemed just as I remembered. It was great fun and a throwback to my youth. Too bad at least one theater wasn't left in California!

At one point, I remembered that the Florida Magic Kingdom had four animatronic theater shows at opening, and one soon after: Enchanted Tiki Birds, Country Bear Jamboree, The Hall of Presidents, and The Mickey Mouse Revue. Soon after came Carousel of Progress. Wow- that's alot of the same type of show.

From this point forward, lines in the park would be quite lengthy and using Fastpass would be a necessity for making good use of time. That said, we had to choose between Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain for a golden ticket. Deciding on Splash so we would get wetter earlier in the day rather than later, we braved the mess that is the path towards and then between the two.

I have very mixed feelings about this area. It does hold an enormous amount of people, and Disney very wisely moved the standby line for Splash to the other side of train station and the railroad tracks. (Here's a hint: If you visit and want to ride the trains of the railroad, board here. It was practically a walk on! )
This area is also highly detailed. This surprised me as Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is often and sometimes justly criticized for being low on detail with an emphasis instead on size. While folks patiently waited the 130 minutes for a journey with Brer Rabbit, there was a lot to see. A large number of buildings surrounded a boardwalk around the area. Large trees, some with lanterns strung, were in the middle, forming a pretty nifty courtyard. With the trains passing by overhead as well, this was a cool and shady queue. There is even a small children's play area. While I'm not a big fan of these, it did seem to make sense to have one nearby an attraction that tells a childhood story but has adult aged height restrictions.
The line to get a Fastpass for Splash was lengthy as well and that queue spilled into the main thoroughfare. A mere number of yards down this lane was the entry to Big Thunder and another Fastpass line, holding another massive amount of guests. Beyond that, a dead end. Unforunately, this creates quite the bottleneck, bigger than any other area of the park, including Fantasyland.

Grabbing our Fastpass, we hopped onto the trains for a grand circle trip around the kingdom. The stop in Mickey's Toontown reminded me of how much better that California version is than Florida's. Loved seeing the Contemporary Resort as we passed Tomorrowland. Last minute, we opted to get off at Main Street.

Thought we'd grab a sit down treat at Tony's Town Square Cafe. It was not to be. They were booked solid until almost 5pm. The Disney Dining Plan really makes it difficult to be spontaneous. I certainly understand the advantages- mostly to the company, I believe- but on busier days, the disadvantages become extremely clear. In my opinion, this plan necessitates more roadside stands. (But then, I have issues with Fastpass keeping the pathways clogged with people, too.) We were willing to spend $25 or so for a couple of ice cream sundaes in a nice sit down restaurant, but due to the crowds, Disney had to settle for getting $8 for iced lattes on the go, later on in Adventureland.

As we window shopped back up Main Street, we thought we'd jump into line in Tomorrowland to check out the highly debated Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club. Instead we opted for the always wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean first.

Is it just me or is Captain Jack Sparrow just a bit better than in California? Especially our last sight of Jack. It's just a better set-up, the treasure room and all. Now, the rest of the attraction pales in comparision, but not the end.
Although Adventureland is a mixed bag of styles, I am happy to see Swiss Family Robinson still resides in the Treehouse. It is iconic. Caribbean Plaza is a very pretty area. Agrabah is not, although there are some nice details. It's just too sandwiched into the South Seas. No matter, after we set sail with the pirates, it was time to to hit Splash Mountain.
When the characters in Splash Mountain are truly maintained, this is the better American version of Tony Baxter's masterpiece. This trip, the figures needed new tar and feathers (or fur) and the atmosphere a new coat of paint. It is still on the must-do list, especially for a first-timer. The drop still thrills and now provides a great view of the DVC units at the Contemporary Resort as well as the castle. We exited fairly wet, obtained another Fastpass- this time for Big Thunder at 8:15pm, and headed off for what once was the land of the future.
The "tooning" of Tomorrowland continues to disappoint me. It is now Fantasyland 2.0! Buzz is a fun little attraction, although I hate that it ultimately replaced If You Had Wings (... had wings, had wings, had wings...) and its successors. Alien Encounter was a groundbreaking attraction. Stitch Encounter should be also. It's so bad, people should be stampeding for the door. I feel much the same about Monsters replacing the beautiful Visionarium. Aside from not belonging in the area and being totally out of theme, it is not a great show. My wife was picked to interact with the characters, so that bit was fun. Yet, overall, the attraction left me with an empty feeling- like living on candy for a week. In execution, Epcot's Turtle Talk with Crush is a much better use of this technology. Monsters makes it easy to see you are watching a screened film; Crush's aquarium set up is more effective in suspending disbelief. Ultimately, the attraction ranks like Stitch- I did it once and don't expect to repeat it again. Many of Tomorowland's attractions now fall into this category.
The Tomorrowland Transit Authority is not one of them, however. We could ride this all day. After all these years, it remains a great way to tour the land, rest your feet, and enjoy the technology. I so appreciated the insider tour of Space Mountain, especially since the standby line was over two hours by this point in time, with Fastpass available at 11:00pm. Never did ride before the refurbishment, so I'll just have to do it on my next trip. I chose to bypass Carousel of Progress. I love the old shows, but we had seen it last time. It pains me to say it, but it is time for it to go.
We sat in Tomorrowland and called Disney Dining to attempt a last minute reservation on the property. As it was Valentine's Day, we'd take just about anything. Only the Downtown Disney locations were taking walk-ins. Everyone else was full. We settled on a fast meal while being entertained by Sonny Eclipse. It was actually pretty good, our chicken and burger was fresh, hot, and tasty. We spent some time just talking and reflecting on the current state of the park versus our first visit together in 1982 and my first visit in 1975.
It was now dusk. The castle lighting turned on, the sky became a beautiful orange rose color, and we stopped in awe of the view around us. Rounding the bend, we went into the castle from Tomorrowland, choosing to watch Mickey's Philharmagic.

Philharmagic is our favorite 3D show on the property- and a fine replacement for the Audio Animatronic character show once held in the spot. My prediction is this show will wear better and longer than any other 3D film in the parks. The reason? The magic of the Disney music and charcters included in it. Flying with Peter Pan? Check. Under the Sea with Ariel? Check. Mickey? Check. The list goes on and on. The story is fun and the animation terrific. Nice job.
I'll make one other prediction for the area. Snow White will vacate her property soon. While Pooh and his adventures packed in the folks and nearby Peter Pan needs Fastpass as well, even on a busy day, Snow White had a ten minute wait. The carousel had a longer line as did Ariel's Grotto. Again, just a prediction, but wait and watch. We quickly walked through Toon Town and confirmed our earlier thoughts on the place.
The crowds were now thick as SpectroMagic and the fireworks were coming up. We walked past It's a Small World, which I love, and into Liberty Square on the way to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We paused at the riverboat station and watched the parade from afar. I noticed the Mansion was darkly lit but the rest of the square looked elegant and refined after dark. It was odd to see the parade in the historic side of the park. Yet I had to remember that Fantasmic at Disneyland is on the same side as well. Both placings seem odd to me.
The crush of people post-parade was amazing, but we eventually made it to the mountain. What a blast! In California, Big Thunder never gets you too far from something lit up. Here, it seemed we were way out from civilization- a very nice and sometimes scary touch. The effects seemed more dramatic and convincing. The additional scenes that were also viewed from the railroad added to the story. In all, it is a superb experience to ride this at night. We left exhilarated- and decided to end our day at the Magic Kingdom on this high note.
We made our way through the park as the fireworks began. I turned and looked one last time (or so I thought) at the castle, the gorgeous Crystal Palace, and then at the train station. The day was over. We jumped on our bus and within minutes, we were back at Port Orleans Riverside, enjoying the night air and then an evening swim.

It was a terrific day! The Magic Kingdom still sparkles. Yes, recent "tooning" has been unfortunate, and I hope that trend ends, but I think it is too late. Yes, there needs to be a new "E" ticket attraction. However, we found much to love here with many experiences unique to Florida. Those westcoasters who write off this kindgom when comparing it Font sizeto the attraction and detail filled original one, should think twice before doing so. It is two different parks and two very different experiences. Both wonderful, both magical.
Disney's Animal Kingdom was next- and our visit included some amazing and unexpected discoveries.
(All photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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