Disney, April 2000

What a place! Even the year 2000 has been seized by Uncle Walt and transformed thus: 2oOo, so that it is reborn in the image of the Mouse and becomes the property of the Corporation.But I sound churlish – I am not complaining one bit about Uncle Walt, because he has truly created magic where there once were swamps.

I suppose I was more pumped up than the kids – Madeleine though it uncool to appear enthusiastic about anything and Toni didn’t really know what to expect. Louise has been worrying about the crowds and how they could spoil the experience and wondering how she got talked into going. We took a taxi out to Kennedy at crack of dawn on Saturday, April 15th, having bought several books on how to beat the other tourists to the best rides. The flight, on TWA, that I booked in February, had us in four totally separated seats – actually, the last available seats on the plane – but we were able to trade so that we were all sitting together. There were lots of kids on the plane and the pilot even made some comment about enjoying DisneyWorld, so we knew that these were the very people whose eyes we would soon be gouging out in order to secure for ourselves the best seats on Space Mountain. The flight went smoothly, we got our rental car and were soon ensconced at our hotel, the Embassy Suites at Buena Vista Lake. (No sign of any lake, however.)

For Saturday afternoon, we just putzed around, practicing our moves – the elbow to the ribs to discourage cutting in, the wallet draw in under 1 second, and so on. We relaxed at the pool, planned our first day, ate at the hotel and turned in early.

Sunday, we began in earnest. Up at 06:00, followed by breakfast in the hotel, backpack checklist and away to Epcot. The day was cool to start with and quite foggy, so Mickey’s great golf ball would occasionally loom out the fog and then disappear. First stop was guest relations to make dinner reservations. Then Test Track, sponsored by GM, which was starting to get mobbed, but still didn’t have a serious line to it. You listen to some stuff about how many things are done to test GM’s cars, then you hop into a Caddie-like vehicle and go through the various tests – rumbling over rough pavement, doing the cones with and without ABS switched on, exposure to intense heat, cold and corrosive environments, and then, finally, the acceleration test. This is the real thrill part of the ride – they shoot you as if out of a cannon, up to 60+ mph towards a wall, banking and swerving at the last minute, so you are pulling many Gs, and then back to the beginning again. Cool!

Toni and the golfball The parade

Then we did Body Wars, which I had remembered as the best ride in the park – a motion simulator in which you imagine you are miniaturized and injected into a patient’s bloodstream. Likewise cool! Then Cranium Command – cute and fun! – then Honey I shrunk the audience – very cool 3D movie, although spoiled for me by defective glasses. Then Imagination ride – not bad. Then Innoventions – a series of relatively lame science-related exhibits. By now, the fog had cleared off and the weather had turned sunny and warm. We headed for the international part of the park – Mexico (shopping, a nice restaurant and a soothing boat ride), Norway (lame ride, good pastries), China (prepubescent acrobats – fantastic!), France, which we didn’t really visit, but they had a living statue you could have your picture taken by, and then back to Morocco for dinner. Food was pretty good and the belly dancer was quite notable. When we got out, it turned out it had rained while we were in there. We browsed the shops and sank a few bucks – Madeleine bought a caftan which looked great on her and which caused the Moroccan salesman (about 20 years old) to sink to his knees and propose marriage. (He was also looking for a way to extend his stay in the US.) We decided not to stay for the fireworks, and headed back to the parking lot after about 12 hours at the park. Overall, the crowds were not bad at all and we all had a very fine time.

Monday was MGM studios. Again, true to our guide book, we were at the park long before it opened, limbering up and snarling at the other tourists. The headline attractions here are the Tower of Terror and the Rock and Roller Coaster. We headed directly for the Tower of Terror – it is a decayed 30ies era Hollywood hotel where the elevators are prone to all kinds of misbehavior. Rod Serling provided the intro on an antiquated TV, we got into the elevator and it did its thing, abruptly falling, catching itself, zooming up again, falling again.  The detail in the hotel itself was stunning. Cool!

Star Tours The Tower of Terror

Then back across the park to Star Tours – a Star Wars derived ride in a motion simulator. Very well done – better even than Body Wars – and no wait. Then Muppets 4D – a 3D movie, side-splitting in a Muppetish way. Then to Rock and Roller Coaster to use Fast Pass to reserve a ride for after lunch, a new way of getting a jump on the other tourists. Then back to lunch. Then back to Rock and Roller Coaster, which unfortunately had broken down by then, so we shopped for another hour until it was back in operation. This was the crème de la crème of thrill rides – after a totally lame intro, you get into a car, wait for the countdown, and then you are shot off into total blackness at terrific acceleration. It’s all indoors, and you just see snatches of scenery (including the Hollywood sign where you go through the ‘O’) as you twist and turn through it. Doesn’t last long, but you do several complete loops and twists. Awesome!

Exhausted but exhilarated, we dragged ourselves back to the car and off to the hotel.

Tuesday was Magic Kingdom – we expected the worst. The book says to start with Alien Encounter, a somewhat controversial scare ride. Supposedly, grown men are seen leaving screaming in terror, children reduced to catatonic states, seniors puking in the corner. You are strapped into seats into an auditorium to witness a teleportation that goes wrong. Instead of the corporate president of XS-Tech, the machine picks up a rogue carnivorous monster which bursts out of its containment tube, turns out the lights, eats several technicians on the catwalks above your head and walks around on the backs of the seats drooling on everyone. But, to our disappointment, there was no puking or anything – everyone seemed to have a fine time.

Castle Tigger at the Crystal Palace

On to Space Mountain. There was over an hour wait, so we did the Fast Pass thing and then went back to do Buzz Lightyear’s spin. You ride a little car outfitted with a laser canon at each seat and a control to rotate the car. The evil Zurg’s minions are conveniently outfitted with targets that you shoot at to win points. It made me realize that the interactive element is going to be a big step forward in theme park fun – on most existing rides, you are basically just too passive, so the ride designers have to rely on oversaturating your senses with violent moves and loud noises. But Buzz was much funner. Then The Timekeeper – Robin Williams narrating a Circlorama show on time travel. Excellent! Then back to Space Mountain. This time, Fast Pass worked flawlessly and we walked right on. We zipped and whizzed – not quite as thrilling as the Rock and Roller Coaster, but still a truly outstanding ride. The only problem – Toni’s hat flew off at some point and was never seen again.

We had made reservations for lunch at the Crystal Palace. It turned out to be a multi-course buffet – excellent food in a delightful, restful atmosphere. Piglet, Pooh, Tigger and Eyore came around to the tables to give autographs and pose with the kids. We were there for an hour or more, ate magnificently and when the bill came, it was a mere $50!Fantastic!

In the afternoon, we checked out Splash Mountain, a log ride down a flume, but the Fast Pass return time wasn’t till 6 o’clock, so we bagged it and settled for the Pirates of the Caribbean – which was quite enjoyable. After that, we went on back to the hotel to putz at the pool. I had been getting over a cold when we left New York and I had hoped that the sunshine would bake it out of me but I think that going into the pool on Monday had made it worse and I had slept poorly Monday night. As a result, I had been feeling somewhat crummy all day, so I took advantage of our retreat to take a nap and conserve my fading strength. Since we had all lunched so magnificently, we decided to bag dinner and just sat by the pool and ate popcorn.

Wednesday was the day off – a questionable procedure in the eyes of the book. But it was right for us. We got up late, went down to breakfast after 9 and were astounded to see huge numbers of other guests mobbing the tables – we had always been out of there by 08:00 before and had got in the habit of seeing only a few fellow guests, so we were outraged at having to wait for a table. We putzed once more around the pool, ate lunch by the pool and, exhausted, returned to our room for a little nap. Then at 4 o’clock, we all went to Downtown Disney, which is a kind of super shopping mall designed for those few tourists who had not already parted with all of their money at the parks. We shopped a bit and ended up dining at the Fulton Crab House, which is quite expensive, although the food was pretty decent. And so to bed.

Thursday was the last of the four major Disney parks – Animal Kingdom. Its official opening time was 8:00, so we were there by 7:30 and walked right in. The safari adventure was wonderful – we bagged no end of real (i.e. not animatronic) animals quite close to the trail the truck took through the area, including lion, cheetah, elephant, rhino and so on. Supposedly Disney bribes the animals by offering water and air-conditioned rocks in strategic spots – works for me. But the park seemed much more crowded than any of the others – Louise wondered if it was because of the coming Easter weekend, but was told that it had been like that all week. The walks are a little too narrow, the park is still not really finished, so it is smaller than it will eventually be, and it is the most recently built, so it is still attracting an unusual number of first-time visitors. We shopped a bit and used Fast Pass to reserve a ride at Countdown to Extinction, a motion simulator adventure about the end of the dinosaurs, and the went off to the Rainforest Café to have an early lunch at 11:00. It was fun and the food was quite good, although it was very pricey. Afterwards, our energy level picked up a bit but we decided we would rather go back to the hotel than claim our ride, so we headed back to the parking lot and were home by 2:00.

Giraffes Mombassa

Thursday evening was our other big event – La Nouba, the resident Cirque du Soleil show. They have a big permanent theater in Downtown Disney. We had tickets in the second row and the show was sensational, although a number of the acts were variants of those we had seen in New York.

Friday – the final Disney mop-up operation. We made an early start and headed over to the Magic Kingdom to pacify the areas we had missed on our first invasion. Zip! – over to Splash Mountain to register for Fast Pass. Bam! – over to Thunder Mountain Railroad, which we got on after little or no wait. This is a fast, well-banked roller coaster, kind of like Space Mountain only in the open air. Cool! Then back to Splash Mountain – a jolly log-boat ride with singing frogs, bre’er rabbit and friends, culminating in a death defying plunge down a flume into the briar patch. Then the Haunted Mansion – no wait, lots of fun.

We had by now completed all of our major objectives, so we were able to take it easy, so we slowed to a trot. Peter Pan’s flight was broken, so we did Small World (which the girls pronounced terminally lame), ran over to book a final ride on Space Mountain via Fast Pass, grabbed a bite to eat and checked out Walt’s Carousel of Progress (a particularly old-fashioned attraction about how great technical progress has been over the last century.)

We then still had an hour to wait for our time to come up at Space Mountain and all of the other rides we wanted to do had long waits, so we decided to bag Space Mountain and return to base for R&R.

Splash Mountain from the bottom Splash Mountain at the top Looking down

By 5:00, we were off again, this time to finish up Epcot. I decided to take a short cut to the park, so instead of the usual 10-minute drive, it ended up taking about 35 minutes. Our main objectives were to spend more time in the World Showcase part of the park. We did look into the possibility of doing a quick Test Track on the way, but the wait was too long. We had reservations at Restaurant Akerschuss in Norway – it was authentic Norwegian food, very well prepared. Then we strolled around some more, looking at exhibits in China, Japan, Germany and Italy. Our goal was to see the fireworks that they put on at the end of every day, supposedly at the cost of $14,000 a night. We found a good spot up high on a balcony on the Japanese pavilion and the show was indeed great, accompanied by loud inspiring music. It didn’t end till 10:30, so we (and several thousand other people) headed for the exit, tired but contented.

Saturday was the day of our return flight, but I had booked it for 7:45 p.m., so we basically had a whole day to spend seeing other delights of Orlando. We decided to check out Sea World – quite close by and on the way to the airport.  The weather was particularly spectacular – dry, cloudless and warm, in the high 70ies. After the dolphin show (actually false killer whales), we had a quick bite and then split up – Louise and Toni to “le Cirque de la Mer”, and Madeleine and I to stand in line for an hour to ride Atlantis. We definitely got the better part of the deal – Louise renamed her show “le Cirque de la Merde”. Atlantis was another log-flume ride, kinda like Splash Mountain, but bigger, better and wetter. “You will get soaked” the signs say as you get in, and, sure enough, you do. The best part is after you do the death defying plunge down the flume, apparently headed for the exit, a sepulchral voice says “Leaving so soon? I think not…” and you find yourself climbing back up and racing around an indoor roller coaster track to the final conclusion. Spectacular! We then reunited for the sea lion show (excellent!) and, of course, Shamu and his killer whale friends.

Shamu Atlantis

All good things come to an end and we continued on to the airport to fly back to New York. We felt silly putting on long pants and a jacket in the tropical weather, but it had been raining all week and the temperature in New York was in the 40ies, so it seemed prudent. The flight went smoothly, we taxied home and walked in the door just before midnight.

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