Along with Camping (which is our favourite summer activity), Disneyworld is our favourite family vacation spot. Even before we had kids we'd been to Disney twice - it was the first place my wife and I went when we got together (both of us had also been when we were kids growing up with our families).
In 2001, when the kids were old enough, we flew down in our first family trip to Disneyworld (and it was a trip of many firsts) and in 2003 we went again, this time staying in our RV at Fort Wilderness. We've gone again numerous times - at least once a year since 2005 - and yup, we're officially Disney addicts. It's a place where we can all "be a kid" and get away from "regularity" .... no cellphones, no IM, just fun. (One could claim we are, as a family, 'stuck with each other for a week' and perhaps that is part of it).
While we liked taking the trailer in May and camping, some of our later trips were in December, and so taking the trailer was somewhat impractical as it would have required dewinterizing the unit in warmer climates and towing through some awful winter weather (namely the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia) to get there. On various trips we've stayed at Pop Century, All Star Movies, Port Orleans Riverside, Port Orleans French Quarter, and in the wilderness cabins at Fort Wilderness: hardly 'roughing it', these cabins feature air conditioning and a dishwasher!
Hover Over an image for commentary on that trip ...
Our first family trip to Disney in 2001. Just before Christmas we took off for 8 days. For the kids it was a trip full of firsts: first airplane flight, first stay in a motel, first time to Disney. Yeah, Mickey in a Christmas hat is a dead giveaway as to the time of year. Funny thing about this trip, 24 hours prior to the trip I was dismantling a keyboard (the _hard_ way) while attempting to get PeopleSoft to do anything useful (a real feat, I might add) ... and a day later I am in 80 degree weather splashing down a raft ride ... interesting contrast.
In April of 2003 we took our second trip to Disney with the kids and my mom who tagged along on this trip. This was a surprise trip for the kids: we told them we were just going camping following a visit to my brother in SC - we forgot to mention we were actually camping at Disneyworld! As we entered Disney we got comments from the kids like _Does this place have a waterpark like Disney ?_ and _Why do the road signs have ears like Disney ?_. After that surprise, the kids got another one a few days later when we arranged to meet my brother and his late wife (seen in this photo) during our stay (they came down later and stayed at a hotel). Were the kids ever surprised when we met them in front of the castle! We stayed at Fort Wilderness Campground in our 21 foot travel trailer which (thankfully) had air conditioning ... required when Florida gets to 91F during the day with 100% humidity! The five of us stayed in the little trailer with my mom on the floor (this prompted us to buy a larger trailer the following year). Along the way we camped at Tomoka State Park in Florida - a beautiful park!
The group of us at Disney in 2005. This trip was our first experience with the dining plan and so enjoyed a number of neat restaurants at the parks - on prior trips we stuck with counter-service burgers and such - now we could enjoy _real_ food eating, for example, at the castle and the crystal palace (I had looked at the place on earlier trips and had always wanted to eat there but was just too darned cheap ;). We also met friends down there as well for the first few days so we took-in a few shows and dinners with them.
In 2007 we went to Disney with my in-laws. Again on the dining plan, we ate too much, errrr, enjoyed a number of fine dining experiences including the best filet at the Canadian pavillion in EPCOT.
In 2009 we went to Disney with my mother again. With one kid in high school, it is not easy anymore to simply take them out for ten days so we did a shorter five-day trip this time spending one day at each park and two at the Magic Kingdom. We missed a few shows (you really need more days to see everything), but had a great time!
Another solid week of Disney with the family, enjoying rides and fine dining. We went off-season again and although the parks were a bit more crowded than a few years ago, they certainly were not excessive. Being on the dining plan, again, we ate at some nice restaurants (including Le Cellier at the Canada pavillion featuring the best filet ever). I've come to enjoy the dining plan with the 'enforced' one to two hour break each day to sit down for a relaxing meal.
... and while you'd think that not much would have changed over the course of the years, as our family has grown-up the nature of our trips has changed from simple amusement (rides, rides, rides = rush, rush, rush) to a more relaxed vacation doing all those _other_ things like taking-in shows and relaxing at dinners. One of the things I particularly enjoy nowadays is to sit down for an hour and a half to enjoy a relaxing dinner in the middle of a hectic day!
So, what makes this place so appealing to us that we'd travel here once a year?
Harbour attack at Disney Studios
Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree, 2001
More Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree
Riding on the Monorail
The Indy Speedway
Disney is a place where memories are made, and since we've been there with the kids over a dozen times we've got plenty of fond memories to share.
On our trip in May of 2009, the entire family was chosen for the 'Harbour Attack' segment of the Backlot tour in Disney Studios. After being given rainsuits, we were 'shot at', 'torpedoed', and drenched with a thousand gallons of water from the dump-buckets seen in this photo. Small segments were filmed of us 'under attack' with lots of water spraying about then these small segments were put together with stock video footage and a soundtrack to resemble a Hollywood-style attack sequence reminiscent of 'Pearl Harbor' showing the crew of a PT boat under attack. It was a one of those 'once in a lifetime' experiences (OK, maybe not just "once" since both kids were chosen again a few years later for the same show).
Speaking of firsts, our first trip with the kids was in 2001 and it was full of "firsts". Both of our kids were chosen to participate in the (now vanished) Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree show - a Wild West show resembling the Hoop-Dee-Doo revue. Described in the photos on the left, Christina helped 'the country-western guitar guy' with his rendition of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Later in the same show Jennifer helped the magician with the 'amazing paper napkin trick'. Kids say the darnest things and Jenny proved that.
Magician: So, what does your daddy do?
Jennifer: He teaches
Magician: So, what does he teach?
Jennifer: His classes, of course!
You just had to be there: we almost died laughing.
Another first was the monorail ride - in the front (years ago, up to four guests at a time were allowed to ride in the front of the monorail. During peak times, the wait was prohibitive but in 2001 it was easy to get on - The park was almost empty ... for Disney at least!). Several times we got to ride in the front of the monorail. My kids, apparently, like trains almost as much as I do.
And every few years I ride the Indy Speedway just for "old times sake". As a kid, on my first trip to DisneyWorld in 1973, I remember this being one of the biggest thrills - being able to drive my own racecar (despite the fact I probably couldn't reach the pedals). It's one of those odd nostalgic things to do while at the Magic Kingdom.
If you're nostalgic like me, you might enjoy a flashback to some long-gone Disneyana ...
Old Disney Guidemap
Old Disney Guidebook, 1976
Journey Into Imagination
And speaking of "Disney Past", here's a scan of an old Disney guidemap. It is undated, but judging from the attractions, and when I was there as a kid, probably dates around 1972-1973. A few neat attractions no longer at the Magic Kingdom include the Main Street Cinema, 20000 Leagues, Flight to the Moon, and the Skyway between Tomorrowland & Fantasyland. Strangely, "If You Had Wings" which opened in 1972 is not shown on the map (although I recall it being there). Carousel of Progress nor Space Mountain are shown on this map as they opened later in 1975, nor are the later Thunder Mountain (1980) and Splash Mountain (1992) attractions.
A few years later, and we took a second trip to Disney staying in my uncle's motor home. This guidebook from 1976 holds a host of good memories! Aside from the guidemap on the last page, showing rides at the time, these pages also list the ticket required for each attraction. At this time, Disney sold coupon books and a ticket, varying in value from "A" through "E" with an "E" ticket being required for the best and most popular rides. I'm sure you'll get a kick out of this one and it will certainly educate you as to the origins of the phrase "An E-Ticket Ride"!
We still collect park maps periodically so we can cherish those great rides we remember like "Journey Into Imagination ...."
... the one ride I sadly miss: the original "Journey into Imagination" with figment which closed in 1998 (I saw it in 1991 and 1992). Recently, on YouTube (search 'Disney', 'Journey', 'Imagination' and look for the original by Martin Smith), I saw a home movie (a very, very professional one, though) of the original and was reminded just how magical that ride was (for me, at least). You can also find the full video on Figment's Imagination. Figment, a mythical little character with...
Two tiny wings, eyes big and yellow.
Horns of a steer, but a loveable fellow.
From head to tail, he's royal purple pigment.
And there--Voila!--you've got a Figment!
... guides us through many possible scenes in our imagination. Our host, Dreamfinder, begins by collecting "sounds, colors, ideas -- anything that sparks the imagination" in the idea bag and from there, we take a flight of fancy. My favourite scene was the tale of monsters where we see figment holding a book closed from which monsters appear to be trying to escape. Watching the movie still gives me the "warm fuzzies" :). I am unsure as to why Disney ever got rid of the ride, only to replace it years later with something considerably less inspired, but I suppose for every ride Disney has ever changed there is a fan out there who laments it.
A dream can be a dream come true,
With just that spark in me and you.
Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular
Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade at Disney
Stage shows are a staple of Disney and they sure do it in style. Take the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios for example. With the audience in a large covered theatre, actors portray scenes like those you'd see in an Indiana Jones movie complete with pyrotechnics. In all of the parks, various attractions are indeed shows like the live-action "Voyage of the Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" stage shows.
A few shows involve audience participation like the Backstage Tour. During the pre-show, four guests are selected to act in "Harbor Attack". Oddly, we've been chosen several times for the experience (guess we look like the type of people who enjoy being bombed with water).
Love a parades? Disney does them in style, too! Speaking as an engineer, from a purely technical perspective these are the most elaboratley synchronized displays I've ever seen. Music preceeding the parades, and background music during the parade, is perfectly synchronized.
Excellent engineering errr PIXIE DUST, yeah, that's it, it's all that Disney magic about.
Now, the timing of many of our trips was no accident: the week before Christmas is probably one of the least busy times at the parks (although it's catching-on and so we've seen significant increase in crowds during this time) and one in which all of the parks are decorated for the holiday season. Close to Christmas, the 'regular' parades give way to the Christmas parades which are particularly elaborate.
Disney's parades always have a catchy tune which seems to linger long after you come home ... here's one that pops into my head now and then:
Find and board a magic carpet ride,
Go soaring, free-wheeling,
A magical feeling,
All you need is right inside,
Just believe and if you imagine,
Just believe and your dreams will come true.
Ahh yes, if you've see the "Disney Dreams Come True" parade you probably recognize that one. At Christmas, though (or at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party) they run a special Christmas parade, "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade". This is one of the best parades I've seen.
I love photography, and night is a particularly magical time at Disney. Here are a few of my favourite night shots ...
Hover over an image to view a larger image with commentary
Pirates of the Carribean
Rock 'n Roller Coaster
There are slow-moving, entertaining rides and there are thrill rides ... I like a blend of both (although Disney lacks any of those "crazy" wile rides, thankfully) so the rides here are just my style. On classics like "Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Carribean" it's pretty much all about entertainment (as in "sit down, keep your eyes open, and enjoy the ride") ... these are the rides for which Disney is famous. And while we like the aforementioned 'traditional' Disney rides and my new personal favourite is Soarin', an IMAX-based hangglider simulator ride which makes you really feel like you're flying over scenic wonders in California and no detail is missed: when flying over an orange grove, for example, orange scent is wafted through the air ... they don't seem to miss a thing.
Hopefully Disney does not forget the kind of entertainment that has made them so popular and unique as opposed to so many other theme parks.
So what makes a true 'Disney' ride? Consider my favourite, Splash Mountain ... at it's heart, it's really a very basic log flume ride but Disney turned it into an entertainment extravaganza! For over eight minutes the rider is slowly taken through the animated tale of Brer Rabbit (which makes a lot more sense if you've seen the movie the ride is based upon, Song of the South, but can be followed regardless). Along the way, you encounter a drop into the briar patch ("the" drop) but that element is by no means the entire focus of the ride as it would be in a 'regular' log flume ride - the show attached to the ride is by far more entertaining than the "mechanical" elements of the ride, namely the drop. Attention to detail is also a Disney hallmark ... in this ride, like most others, no details were spared.
... And that makes this log flume ride special as opposed to the hundreds of other log flume rides in hundreds of other amusement parks anywhere.
Many Disney rides incorporate a pre-show like that: the Tower of Terror attraction (another personal favourite) features a pre-show based on the Twilight Zone series, and the classic Haunted Mansion also features the famous pre-show with the 'stretching room'. It is these elements which make a Disney ride much more than just a regular amusement ride: they are more 'entertainment' than simple 'ride'.
And let's not forget the catchy Disney-tunes which run through your head long after you get home. Ever found yourself humming "It's a Small World"??. Parades, shows, and many rides feature tunes like this one from Splash Mountain:
How do you do? Fine! A friendly greetin'.
How do you do? Say it when you're meetin'.
How do you do? With everyone repeatin':
Pretty good, sure as you're born.
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, one of the 'quintissential' Disney tunes, also came
from Song of the South, on which Splash Mountain is based.
For the more adventurous there is 'Mission Space' but be forewarned that you pull real G's (see below) and this could easily be construed as a 'vomit comet' ... there are air sickness bags right inside the ride and I understand they are frequently used! (I did the 'orange team' _once_ in 2005 when it was still quite vicious - it's been "tamed down" since then). For the less rugged, try the green team for the same experience without the G forces. Rock 'n Roller Coaster is another thrill ride which features a linear launch instead of a drop (in other words: zero to sixty in 2.6 seconds on a flat track).
And yet another breed of ride is Toy Story Mania, an arcade-type ride in which riders shoot at 3-D targets racking-up points in the process (picture Buzz-Lightyear on steroids). The system even has modes built-in so during delays when the ride should be moving you are entertained by practice-rounds.
Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you can't still be a geek ... it's just more fun! I recently built a three-axis recording accelerometer, and the real test was to bring it to Disney World. Outlined on this page
is raw data from the accelerometer as well as analysis, inluding integration of the data to yield both velocity and positional data, for rides such as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Mission Space, and others.
Outside the Canada Pavillion
Dinner at Cinderella's Castle
A large group of us at the revue
Inside the Sci-Fi dine-in restaurant
In earlier trips to Disney we'd always eaten the standard greasy fast-food fare that most people eat - the past few trips involved eating better (LDL numbers may have had a bit to do with that) and with that in mind we did the dining plan and ate at a number of Disney's unique restaurants and saw a few dinner shows. The nice thing about the dining plan (at least the _old_ dining plan ... they changed it for 2008) was not having to worry about a thing - everything was included and there was no need for anything extra. The new plan is not nearly as good a deal, unfortunately. Regardless, the Disney dining experience, to a large extent, turns the trip into a cruise (where the highlight of the day is indeed the dinner). There are a number of very interesting restaurants around the parks but beware, being on the dining plan does take a few hours of each day away (which is not necessarily a bad thing when you're looking for an hour to just unwind).
Some of the restaurants at which we enjoyed eating were the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater in Hollywood Studios, Le Cellier steakhouse in the Canada pavillion at EPCOT, both the Crystal Palace and Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom, and the Grand Floridian Cafe. OK, I might be biased because I am Canadian, but Le Cellier served the most amazing filet and the cheese soup was great with the pretzel bread they serve there! Judging from the fact they book-up solid for reservations months in advance leads me to believe there are a host of others who agree. Funny, too, in 2007 we met a young lady working there who was from Welland. We've also tried a few different restaurants at EPCOT including Les Chefs du France (which we all agreed was the _best_ restaurant we'd been-to in 2006 ... my kids even tried escargot. Unfortunately, the restaurant seems too crowded nowadays with tables wedged into every nook and corner).
For a truly unique experience, we dined in the castle. It was one of those places I've always wanted to see - on earlier trips we'd heard that there was a restaurant inside the castle itself but we'd never been there (probably didn't want to spend the money back then either :). Servers address you as 'My Lady' and 'My Lord' and the entire place carries a medieval theme. The experience now includes a short dinner show and a photo with Cinderella.
Another unique experience is the Hoop-dee-doo revue at Fort Wilderness campground (the same campground we'd stayed at in 2003 and 2008). The Hoop-dee-doo is similar, I think, to the old Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree from over a decade ago in which both of our kids participated (The Diamond Horseshoe is another attraction miss at Disney). Still fun though, especially with a large group.
Like everywhere else, some restaurants have had their ups-and-downs. We found the Coral Reef at EPCOT, for example, disappointing in 2005 but were impressed in 2007 when we tried it again. We've also had a poor experience at Alfredo's in 2006 and haven't gone back. On the whole, though, the food at most of the upscale restaurants was great. Now, my personal favourite is the inexpensive sci-fi dinner theatre in Hollywood Studios to which we've been several times: more for the camp atmosphere of a fifties drive-in theatre showing low-budget horror flicks than anything else. They advertise it as 'eating good food while watching bad movies'. That particular venue was what I consider as a true Disney experience - something you just won't find anywhere else :). p.s. I recommend trying the artichoke and spinach dip with tortilla chips ... tastes _way_ better than it sounds!