June 11, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day One - Animal Kingdom

As promised, I want to give all the Insights readers reflections on my first trip to Walt Disney World in almost ten years. Certainly for a Disney blogger and particularly a lover of the theme parks (and all their corresponding concept art), this gap of a decade must seem like a serious crime punishable by certain death. Perhaps after reading a few posts / trip reports, you'll pardon me. I hope so! 

My good friend Len Yokoyama is a much better photographer as you already know, but I'll include some photographs to go along with my thoughts. After the first day and doing some experimenting, I discovered my new phone actually took much better photographs than my old camera! Certainly a new experience for this traveler.

More than just using a cel phone camera, this trip was full of "firsts".

Full confession: This trip was my first one as a grandfather! My wife and I tagged along (by invitation) with our youngest daughter, her husband, and their two adorable kids- a son six years old and a daughter four years old. This was their second trip as a young family with each of the kids now old enough to ride a few "Big Kid" rides at each park. 

Each trip to Disney is unique, and this one is no exception. My daughter and son-in-law are also "foodies", which meant it took a bit of extra planning and saving to enable us all to eat in some very special locations. My wife and I would normally dine at one or two locations for a special meal, but we have never eaten at so many waiter service spots as we did during this trip. It was great fun- and quite expensive compared to our normal way of traveling. With four adults, we each picked one restaurant that we wanted to dine at, with a couple of last minute or unexpected choices added in along the way. Fortunately, our sweet grandchildren are extremely well behaved and handled themselves better than some adults during each one and a half to two hour meal. Chalk that up to good parenting! 

This was our first time using My Disney Experience with Fast Pass +, Magic Bands, and all that goes with it. My daughter did all the planning for the Fast Pass reservations as we were out of the country for work on the first day everything opened up for us. She did an amazing job getting us all we wanted to see and do.


The Winner's Circle at Saratoga Springs.

Saratoga Springs was our home base as we used a Disney Vacation Club reseller. Another first. It was also our first vacation to the property during the busy Summer season. Certainly, this added its own list of pros and cons. Being that we picked dates after school got out, we also overlapped with Gay Days. Each of these "first time" experiences should give this series of posts a unique perspective. Plus, with this being our first visit in nine and a half years, my experience felt brand new yet familiar in many ways. I'm sure my take on all this will surprise some, delight a few, and make others raise their eyebrows. Such is the life of a blogger.  

With all these caveats in mind, let me begin!

Due to a short delay in our Frontier airlines flight but a very major computer glitch with Magical Express, we arrived at Saratoga Springs at 3:30am! It was not at all the way any of us expected to begin our week at the resort. This did mean quite a big change in our first day schedule. Unfortunately, our original plan meant a 10:00am breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe, then continuing on with a late -morning Fast Pass for Na'vi River Journey at Disney's beautiful but seriously undeveloped Animal Kingdom. Given two relatively strong edicts from Disney (1- Financial Penalties for cancelling a meal reservation within 24 hours, and 2- Difficulty in gaining Fast Passes for prime attractions), we decided to soldier on and stick with our original times. 


He walked most all of each day, 
but we were happy to give the guy a break when he needed it!

The way our grandchildren handled the lack of sleep should have been our first clue how they would go with the flow with any other changes. They were tired, as we all were, but never uttered a complaint beyond the initial muttering of waking up. The lure of breakfast at the Wilderness Lodge was enough to get them smiling. Neither child is a wall flower, and both have strong personalities and firm opinions. Yet, they are sweet and kind children with exceptional interpersonal skills for their ages. (Lest you think it's just a grandfather bragging, you'd have to see them in action to get it.) 

Given we all wanted to sleep in as much as we could but not give up these very hard to get reservations, we decided to splurge on a Minnie Van. It was one of the best decisions we made. When you spend as much as you do on a Disney park vacation, you don't complain about $25 if it means getting six people to their destination on time under the atrocious circumstances. 

I loved that my daughter and son-in-law now had their own Disney trip tradition by starting with their first meal at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. (We had taken our kids to the Good Turn restaurant on day one of each trip. It's now called the Garden Grill Room.) 


Where have all the cowboys gone?
Nice details in a now sedate restaurant.

By now, you've probably read about all the changes to the restaurant and the experience. Unfortunately, they are all true. The team tried to make it a fun experience, but the end result was a tasty meal in a very quiet atmosphere. One not worth a future visit.


Good food but no longer high on the fun factor.

No games, no ketchup shenanigans, no races, no spontaneity. The only hint of fun came from one very wonderful staff member who, when we asked for a dollop more whipped cream for our grandson's pancakes, proceeded to cover his entire plate with the fluffy stuff, piling it on as big as the smile he saw in return. 

Once we had walked the outside of the lodge, we traveled via resort bus to Animal Kingdom. It was already hot and humid- of course it was this time of year- and the crowds were thick (ditto). Security measures made it take longer than I had ever experienced, but we were able to get into the park in about ten minutes once we reached the gates.

Honestly, I had forgotten what a gorgeous park it was. And I'd forgotten how few attractions were there as well. The first sight of the Tree of Life was just breathtaking. I was finally in Walt Disney World! 


Grandpa and sweet girl. First ride together.

With only about 40 minutes until our Fast Pass time for the boat ride had ended- and this would become a common guessing game of "Could we fit in _____ attraction in time?"- we decided to go to Dinoland U.S.A. to begin with Triceratop Spin, a favorite of my granddaughter. She was delighted, and I was thrilled to be riding with her. As much as these cheap carnival rides are something I hate being added to this park, riding them did help me see the park through a young child's eyes. Something that would be very easy to forget as an adult. The joy and delight on her face was priceless.

The sense of euphoria passed once we traveled toward Pandora to get a ride on the Na'vi River Journey. There's no other way to say it than it was a proverbial mob scene, and this was for the family friendly boat ride and not the main attraction. Had we not had a Fast Pass, it would have been a ninety minute wait for a four minute "D Ticket"(at best) boat ride. Thankfully, we reached our line in time, quickly boarded a reed boat, and off we went.  

The Imagineers clearly noticed guests love the caverns of Pirates of the Caribbean, and they used a newer version of them with lots of water effects to begin the Na'vi cruise. An inviting beginning that quickly removed us from the outside world! The artist's lavish attention to detail was quite incredible. From the male Na'vi watching us at the beginning of the cruise to the cute little creatures jumping from huge suspended lily pad to lily pad, we were happily immersed almost immediately into this environment.  

Without a narration, it was difficult to explain the ride to the little guys, especially when they saw creatures that looked scary. To the adults, it was a clever use of layers of screens and film, but to them, it was menacing. Who was the big blue guy at the beginning and the very weird giant lady at the end? As with many things at the Disney parks, the easy explanation was "It's all make believe". A four and six year old would not understand the nuance of the storyline and its Gaia focused spiritual worldview even if it is a fantasy based story. Make no mistake, it's a pretty obvious, and not always subtle, teaching aspect central to this park. 


Impressive Audio-Animatronic!

From an Imagineering standpoint, I would have appreciated some Audio-Animatronic animals to go with the shaman and even a hunter or two to bring some depth to it all. What was there was incredibly beautiful to look at. Strikingly gorgeous, really! It just got a bit repetitive after the first minute or so. Let's say you can tell where the budget was cut. It should have been more than it was, but given the excellence of the star attraction, as I would discover on our second day at the park, I can give it more of a pass than if it were billed as a major attraction. Looking at the line for the ride, you certainly would think it was one!

I must ask though: What is it about Disney building a new land that is huge but only adding two very short duration attractions to it? There needs to be one more attraction here that is family friendly, somewhat lengthy, and with a high capacity to round it out. At least the similarly sized Cars Land in California Adventure has three attractions to spread out the crowds and other alternatives to the main event. Hopefully, the next few films will be a huge success, and Disney will build additional attractions here. And I hope Disney learns some lessons after the crush of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. 


You have to see if in person to really appreciate it.
The hype is only matched by the actual delivery.

Visually, Pandora itself is a wonder! I found myself staring at those floating mountains just as much as I still do at the Tree of Life! An incredible work of art. Even though Disney really excels at theme park rock work, the star of it all is what is found on the ground. The lovely water features, the plants, the hidden winding paths. It was all here. Everything but wildlife and Na'vi. Everywhere you look, it seems the Imagineers deliver yet another great photo opportunity at every turn and more areas calling to be explored. I could have easily spent a couple of hours here if it was not so crowded.


Layers of depth in design!

Special kudos to the landscape architects and their success in integrating real live plants with those of an alien planet. Many smaller details may have gone unnoticed due to our time constraints, but one seemingly minor aspect I did appreciate was that stroller parking areas were positioned in very carefully selected spots to not destroy the overall show. This made a huge impact. Thoughtful Imagineering at its best. 

The Canteen offered fairly priced and delicious food. The main shop was well designed even though it was jam packed. Let me just say I thought the Banshees were overpriced for what they were. On the other hand, T shirts seemed to be a hot item to purchase, but only a few people seemed to even look at the "turn your image into a Na'vi" Barbie dolls. This was one aspect where I thought the need to outdo Harry Potter seemed very obvious. 

We'd return later that night for an evening look, but next was the Finding Nemo Musical, a journey on Kilimanjaro Safaris, and a ride on my favorite Walt Disney World attraction, Expedition: Everest- or so we thought. 


Beautiful details abound here.

Animal Kingdom's gorgeous design includes wide walkways and layers of detail. The park is just huge! (Walking it amounted to just over 8 miles and approximately 20, 000 footsteps on the first day alone.) The lushly themed jungle has only gotten denser and more beautiful than last time I saw it a decade ago. There's one big difference that I believe the Imagineers weren't prepared for: the unexpected abundance of mobility scooters and some extremely large strollers. 

Now, I am in no way a slight person. In fact, by medical standards, I am considered overweight as is a good portion of my extended family. That said, I could not believe the number of extremely large people in the parks- people much, much larger than we are. The difference a mere decade has made in the general health of the population was difficult to realize. And it's not just Americans or those of a particular race. Nor is it just the elderly or those with special needs you could see. We could not believe the number of young people, some not even teenagers but still so large that they were the only person seated in a ride vehicle meant for two or more. Am I making fun of the heavy set or saying they are not wonderful humans? Absolutely not! We are created in the image of God Himself. Yet, my eyes alone tell me our country is in serious trouble if this trend continues. 

From a guest flow standpoint, all this means ride capacity decreases and crowds feel even more dense as fewer people than ever could comfortably inhabit a walking path. Add all this to the beginning of Summer 2018, the flaws inherent with Fast Pass +, and Disney's lack of serious investment in new attractions in the last decade or so, and you can safely say it was not a relaxing week to tour. 

But there was a problem on the Disney side that made all of it seem even worse than ever.

My wife used to work at Disneyland, and unprompted by me, she also noticed something quite alarming: Many times ride vehicles would go out with multitudes of empty seats. At times three and four in a row and not just single rider spots. Although the Disney cast members were very friendly- and a handful outright excellent- we also noticed many of them had a somewhat disjointed approach at serving park visitors, particularly those who worked at ride loading points. All too often, they were busy speaking to each other about personal issues and not really paying attention to getting guests on the attraction. 


Safari expedition.

Of course, the cast was meticulously "in tune" for the two Pandora attractions, but the first location we noticed the problem was on the still enjoyable and very popular Kilimanjaro Safaris. By the time we reached Africa from Na'vi River Journey, it early afternoon. The area around the new walkway between the two lands was very nicely themed. I loved seeing the Lion King show where it belongs. The crowds were beyond thick, the weather as sweltering as expected, and anticipation was high as we entered the line for the safari. As we got within view of the boarding area, it seemed vehicle after vehicle went out with a large number of empty seats. Bad show and even worse customer service.

In a park with so few attractions and even fewer ones that everyone can ride, your company had better be on the top of its game to keep guests happy. Even with multiple day passes, Disney parks are expensive to visit even for a local.  For those traveling from out of state, expenses stack up faster than the pancakes at Whispering Canyon Cafe. We, the paying customer, have every right to expect a world class, top notch experience. Yet, in this manner, Disney fell short in each of the four parks. (The worst was being seated in a Star Tours vehicle with seven empty seats divided between two rows directly behind me- and the standby line was already beyond reasonable. This was an added insult in a park with only four rides- all less than a couple of minutes at best- and a handful of very outdated theater shows. Sorry, but character meet and greets are not a replacement for attractions, and neither are shows.)

Back to our time at Animal Kingdom. The daytime Safari itself was great, although I miss the original cast members from various African countries. "Joe from Brooklyn" just can't create the same experience and feeling of authenticity. This was followed by the sweet and impressive Finding Nemo the Musical, It's Tough to Be a Bug (now playing only at this park) and then a vain attempt to ride Expedition: Everest

As I said, we ate a late lunch at the air conditioned Pandora canteen and walked back by Everest (no luck). It remained down the rest of the day. 


The queue of Kali River Rapids.

Later on, after checking Everest once again, we settled on a ride down the Kali River Rapids. The queue is more beautiful than the ride itself. It was a fun but scary experience for our four year old granddaughter, and it was over all too quickly for the rest of us. 




The adults and our grandson rode Dinosaur- still a much lesser name than Countdown to Extinction - but a great attraction. Our cute granddaughter was tall enough to go back in time, but she wisely backed out.  Other than the beginning of time travel needing some help and a few minor effects seeming to be out of service, the ride is as thrilling and outright scary as ever! The attraction earned a tentative thumbs up from my grandson. 

Does the ride need Indiana Jones? Probably not, but the resort does! What the land does need is a sweet simple dark ride showing dinosaurs to younger kids without the extreme thrill factor. Think Disneyland's Primeval World without the constant menace. Kids of all ages love dinos, and to not have realistic looking ones available for them is a big mistake on the part of the Company. 

While my daughter, son-in-law and their kids went home, my wife and I decided to stay and see Pandora at night right after taking an early evening safari. We skipped Rivers of Light to make this happen, but we were not in the least bit disappointed. 


Again, photos do not do the place justice.

If AvatarPandora is impressive during the day, it is even more so once the sun sets! We easily spent 30 minutes or so taking more photographs and just walking around exploring the new land. I thought the subtle lighting actually worked well, playing off the entire mystery of the land and seemed to make the sound effects hidden just beyond the vegetation all the more enticing. The place just screams atmosphere! 


"It's a New World" - sing along now!

We were rewarded with a 15 minute wait for our second ride on the river journey, which my wife correctly dubbed "The New Age It's a Small World". It was still a beautiful if slightly short experience, and walking off the ride into the Pandora evening made for a visually stunning and effortless transition back into the "real" world of the film come to life. 


Majestic!

Given we had arrived at the Walt Disney World resort at 3:30am, we chose to depart shortly after our second boat ride in Pandora. We were happily exhausted. I mean, c'mon, we're at Disney World! It was a good first day. Everyone seemed pleased with it overall, and in spite of the obstacles, we all kept cool heads and grateful hearts. 

End of the night  celebration.

We had lots of adventures ahead. The next day would be one I was especially waiting for. A day at Epcot - my favorite parkand I couldn't wait. 

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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