A few weeks ago, I finally did the long awaited family trip to Disney. It was the longest and most involved family trip we have taken it was quite memorable. Looking back on the experience, I find that I have a few things/observations I want to make about the trip. Rather than write an essay, I figure I will share a few of them in random order:
1. The last time I went to Disney was in the late 80s and I felt that it had changed and remained the same. I did not remember the Magic Kingdom being as big as it was and I seemed to recall Epcot being larger. That being said, I had several Déjà vu moments with the most powerful being standing in the line at Space Mountain. For some reason, I really remembered the white walls and funky lighting.
2. My favorite park remains Epcot followed closely by the Magic Kingdom. I enjoyed Animal Kingdom though given bad weather was coming in, we kind of short-changed it. Hollywood Studios was my least favorite park – I very much enjoyed the Star Wars attraction but it felt incongruous, as if it was a pretend Disney Park and frankly, I don’t plan on spending much time there on the next trip.
3. The one thing we didn’t do which I wished we had spent more time at were the country pavilions at Epcot. The kids were really gung-ho about rides and the Magic Kingdom so we shorted that part of Epcot – which is a shame because as a kid, the country pavilions were my favorite thing. They are at the top of my list of things to do next time.
4. This trip was all about the rides and though the roller coasters were more thrilling at Busch Gardens, nothing beats going on rides at Disney. I think our favorites were Space Mountain, Soarin’, Mission Mars and Mount Everest. Honestly, the only ride which we were disappointed in was the Rocking ‘Aerosmith’ Rollercoaster at Hollywood Studios. Impossibly cheesy setup and like a 60 second roller coaster.
5. On the subject of rides, Soarin’ is really something to see. You need to get a Fast Pass – it was the one major ride we didn’t get a Fast Pass for and we ended up waiting for an hour to get on – but it was an exceptionally well done ride. It did actually feel like you were flying.
6. Fast Passes and Magic Bands are the way to go – learn the system. You are given a couple of ‘free’ Fast passes a day per park. Once you expend them, you can go to one of the Fast Pass kiosks located at various places in the park and sign up one at a time. The Fast Pass for a ride is a difference maker – during the peak times during the day, it is the difference between an hour(+) wait and a 10-15 minute for a ride.
7. On the subject of waiting in lines – it is really hard to figure out which rides will take a long time to get on. For example, the more popular rides (Space Mountain, Mount Everest, etc.) actually seemed to go quicker line-wise than some of the mid-grade attractions. The most insane lines always seemed to be the older rides – the Peter Pan and the Seven Dwarves rides (both old original rides) consistently had crazy 90 minute lines. I think it is because they were older with slow throughput.
8. We stayed at the Park resorts (really no real reason not to in my opinion) – The Caribbean resort was awesome and was reasonably priced. I was told that a few years ago, the Caribbean was one of the worst resorts in the park with old antiquated rooms but they recently had gone through a renovation and frankly, I was amazed at what we got for our money. We would like to stay there again the next time we go.
9. The price range of the resorts seemed to be in the low-end ($79-$199), mid-range ($200-$399) and luxury ($400-$800). The Caribbean was in the middle of the mid-range pricing and I can’t see why anyone would need to go higher. All of the hotels seemed to be extremely nice and the only real difference beyond room size really was proximity to the park – the luxury hotels were right next to the Magic Kingdom. Given the efficiency of the Disney Bus system, I am not sure that the increased price is really worth it.
10. Disney Wi-Fi is awesome – everywhere in the park, you had great signal and very responsive.
11. The single most impressive thing about Disney to me was just how efficient EVERYTHING was. As a military professional, I couldn’t help to be awed at how clean everything was, how all stations were manned – often with multilingual personnel and literature, the buses at every stop were like clockwork at 20mins apart whether it was middle of the day or 2 in the morning, and how professional everyone conducted themselves. I have been in military unit/operations which were not half as wired tight as Disney was the entire trip.
12. Food was an interesting subject – the Disney Meal-Plan is great. It allows for a multiple meals and snacks a day and it is very easy to check your balance. We didn’t miss a single meal and we still had some credit left over – it does take some prior planning though because spots for character meals and the like do fill up. On the other hand, I can honestly say that I only had a couple really good meals there. I was underwhelmed by the quality of the food in most of the places we ate. None of it was bad, it was just average I suppose. The 50s Diner at Hollywood Studios and the African Restraint at the Safari Resort were notable exceptions. If memory serves, some of the better restaurants were in the Epcot Country Pavilions which we did not go.
13. One of the best things about staying at the Resorts vice driving in is MAGIC HOURS! Disney during the day is a zoo – you can mitigate your wait times by Fast Passes and prior planning but you can’t get around the fact that there are millions of people and you are going to have to wait on things. The parks close for the general public at 9PM (EPCOT) and 11PM (Magic Kingdom) – but for resort guests, you can stay till 11PM at Epcot and 3AM(!?!?) on Friday/Saturdays for Magic Kingdom (1AM on other nights – my understanding is that during the Summer, they open up Magic Hours even more). I can’t describe how amazing this is. Almost everything remains open (some of the food outlets and shops close but rides and main shops stay open) and the crowds are not even a quarter of what they were during the days. Me and Emily stayed to 3AM one night and the whole family did 1AM on another – we were able to just walk onto rides that previously had 90minute waits. The crowds are little rowdier (primarily teenagers) but whatever, if your family can hang – this is the way to do Disney.
14. The ride I personally enjoyed the most was the Haunted Mansion. My eldest daughter Emily is turned into a lover of horror everything and we went on this multiple time together. If I had to make a recommendation, don’t do this one during the day. Do it at night, it is so much better. It is Disney-scary so it is age appropriate for all kids. On a separate note, on the Saturday 3AM magic hours I did with Emily – the crew of kids working the ride went all out with the creepiness. Some of the crews managing the ride were all about getting people through as efficiently as possible. The college kids working on that particular night were vamping out with the makeup and costumes and really made that particular iteration of the ride memorable.
15. The creepiest thing I saw at Disney was the Tiki Room. The Tiki Room is an old animatronic show – my wife remembers going to it as a kid and it has been around for decades before that even. If futures a bunch of birds singing some safari/Polynesian inspired show tunes straight out of the 40s musical. Me and Emily did it at 1AM in the morning and that particular part of the Magic Kingdom is dimly lit – a rarity at the Magic Kingdom. There were only a few of us in the show and while technically it was very well done – there was something otherworldly and just a shade creepy about the whole thing. If there was one place which I think I would not want to be after hours, it is probably that room. Recommend seeing it – but once again, I think it would be a much different experience if you did it during the day with a crowd of people vice how me and Emily saw it.
16. Space Mountain – if I ever want to do a live action Alien Cosplay role playing game – this would be the place I would do it. Imagining it without the people in the corridors, you can set up a creepy and ultimately kick-ass game in it.
17. We went down on a 4 day park hopper pass (don’t bother buying anything other than a Park Hopper pass). We got there on a Thursday afternoon and scoped out the place and got our first dinner. We did two days at the parks (Friday-Saturday), took a day of rest (Sunday – we spent it at the pool and did Downtown Disney that night which is considered open admission), and then finished with two more days and returned home Weds. If your schedule allows, I highly recommend the rest day in the middle. Disney is an endurance fest with kids and they were smoked by the 2nd day.
18. Just as an aside, Walt Disney was a really interesting guy and I think learning something about the guy before you go to the parks is important. He had a life-long love of children, austere background, and impeccable work ethic. He was turned away from the Army due to his age in WWI, he volunteered and served overseas as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. During WWII, put his animation department at the service of the War Department and not a commonly known fact, designed over 1200 insignias for various units (some still in service today) and several instructional films. Wasn’t completely without blemishes – testified during the Red Scare and fingered several people as communist sympathizers – a particularly disgraceful act as it turned out. He was also dogged by anti-Semitism and racist charges throughout his life though after his death, a number of people vehemently defended him – particularly from the racist charges. Honestly, I do think he is an iconic American and though representative of the times he lived in (warts and all), was a legitimately good person. He is definitely worth taking a look into.
19. In the end, I would say this was the best family trip we ever took. I have to admit I approached the whole affair with a lot less excitement than my wife and kids – I was happy to go and looking forward to it, but I wasn’t as excited as they were and approached it with a somewhat cynical/jaded air. But early on I realized that ‘taking your kids to Disney’ is a parental rite – it transcends generations and it is something that is a uniquely American experience. Not to mention the fact that it really is a magical place. Have to say that I believer once again. I went into this thinking that it was going to be a one and done box check – now, I can pretty much promise that we are going back in the next 2-3 years.