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Friday, June 8, 2012

Adventures with Kirk - 2004

This is a re-print of an original post to the ThompsonFamilyWeb site about a trip I took with my friend Kirk to Walt Disney World in January 2004



Kirk Intro

2001 Part 1
2001 Part 2
2001 Part 3

2002 Part 1
2002 Part 2
2002 Part 3
2002 Part 4

2004

2005 Catch-up


January 16 - Intro & arrival

Our plans for this - our third excursion to WDW - were different in a couple of ways. First, technically we did not plan it as a WDW trip. We decided to make Universal Orlando the focus of the trip. Still, we did plan on going to WDW for one of our three days there. Since you can't get a one-day ParkHopper (PH) pass at WDW, we decided that Epcot would be our Park du jour. This decision was made for one reason - the opening of Mission Space (MS), the new headliner attraction in Future World (FW). A wrinkle was added to this plan when another new attraction - Mickey's PhilarMagic (MPM) opened in the Magic Kingdom (MK).
All was made much easier when Kirk told me that he had talked to his cousin Sharon, who works at WDW (at the Port Orleans hotel). As it turns out, not only would she be able to get us in for free, but the tickets she would get for would be - you guessed it - One Day PH passes. So, this meant we could hop between parks (something that Kirk and I are pros at), and we would be able to get to both of the new attractions.
My flight was delayed because of the intense cold weather in New York, and by the time I arrived in Orlando it was 11:00. Kirk picked me up and we drove to our hotel. He had driven down earlier that day and had already checked in. He even had had a chance to use the hotel pool. We had planned to get something to eat as soon as we got to the WDW area, but by the time we got there our choices were limited. We decided on Denny's - as it was one of the few places open. We both ended up having breakfast, Kirk had sausage & eggs, and I had country fried steak & eggs. After our late-night breakfast we went to the hotel - the Sharaton Safari. I left Kirk to pick where to stay and make reservations since he can get Florida residents discounts as well as AAA discounts. We were reserved for 2 nights at the Safari at $49 a night. The hotel was certainly no Grand Floridian, but it was a great bargain at that price. Since we arrived at night I couldn't really see much, but it seemed like a pretty decent place, and the location - about a mile from Downtown Disney (DD) was about as good as you can get unless you go "on property". We finally got to bed about 2:00 AM.
January 17 - WDW - One day, three parks
We had made plans to meet Sharon - Kirk's cousin - at 8:00 the next morning at McDonald's. I got a cup of coffee, but after about 15 minutes Sharon still wasn't there. We called her on my cell phone - it seems she had forgotten to ask her husband to get her up and she overslept. No big deal, we just went for a walk. Kirk showed me where the Reedy Creek Development District building is. We walked back to McDonald's and arrived just as Sharon did. We hopped into Sharon's truck and she drove us to Disney MGM. We arrived right after park opening. Sharon took us up to the gate and we got our passes. I looked at the back of the ticket and, sure enough, it read "1 Day Park Hopper Readmission Ticket". Not something you see every day (unless you work at WDW, I guess).
Kirk and I both were under the impression that Sharon was going to spend the morning with us in the park, but she insisted that we go off as she was going to look around in some of the shops. We couldn't even convince her to join us for breakfast. So we said our good-byes and went off to start our adventures.
Our agenda at MGM as simple - Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (TZToT), Rock 'n Roller Coaster (RnRC) and breakfast at the ABC Commissary. So, off we went down Sunset Blvd. First, we got a Fastpass (FP) for RnRC. Then we rode TZToT. The "drop sequence" for TZTot is programmable and they change it on occasion. On this trip, they actually had 4 different drop sequences programmed. On our first ride the sequence was very "bouncy" - going up and down in somewhat short hops several times. They also added an image of the ghosts beckoning to you. Another major change is that they took out the lap bars and replaced them with seatbelts. So now all seats are seatbelt seats. An improvement, IMO. Overall, an awesome ride as usual, but I have to admit that the "bouncy" ride sequence got me just a touch queasy.
After TZToT we had another 15 minutes or so before we could get a FP for RnRC, so we decided to wait before heading over to the commissary. Finally we were able to get the FP tickets, and then we headed over to the commissary. As we were about to order we were surprised to learn that we just made it before the cutoff time for breakfast - which was 10:30. Now, breakfast at ABC Commissary. It's become something of a tradition for me & Kirk, and we would have been pretty bummed had we missed it. Well, we didn't and we both had the bacon & eggs platter.
We headed back down Sunset and went on RnRC. We then did TZToT again. Now, I don't know if each elevator shaft has it's own program or if they are truly random, but I do know that we went on a different elevator and it had a different drop sequence. If you're interested, only 2 shafts were open and on the first ride we had the far right shaft while we had the far left shaft on the second ride. And that second ride was a deusie! Absolutely the best drop sequence we'd experienced on TZToT.
We then headed out of MGM and headed to Epcot. We both really like the walk from MGM to Epcot, and given the choice that's the way we always go between those two parks. The first thing on our agenda was to get FP for either Mission Space (MS) or Test Track (TT) - whichever had the earlier return time. We expected that to be TT, but the return time for MS was about 1:30 while TT was about 4:45. So, we got MS FP. Since we wanted to get TT FP as well, we figured we should go off and do something else. We ended up doing Imagination!, which I knew had changed but I didn't realize the extent of the changes. My opinion of the attraction is about the same - nothing much, but a fun diversion. Changing it so that Figment is prominently featured is an improvement. After Imagination! our MS FP time was up, so we got TT FP as well. We then left Epcot to return later in the evening.
We hopped the Monorail to the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), where we toyed with taking the ferry to the Magic Kingdom (MK), but we decided on the Monorail again as there was no ferry in sight. It was about 2:00 when we got there and we were both hungry. We thought about stopping at a resort for lunch, but we both like Columbia Harbor House, so we went there instead. We stopped on our way into the park to pay the obligatory homage to my brick at the MK entrance. Now, our FP return time for TT was 5:50, and we were thinking it was a mistake to get the FP because now we couldn't get another until then. While we were eating, however, it dawned on me that, actually, the maximum wait is 2 hours. We're so used to being able to get new FPs when the time is up on whatever FP we have that I forgot about the 2 hour limit. With that, we realized that we would be able to get a FP about the time we were done with lunch. There were 2 we wanted to get - Haunted Mansion (HM) and PhilarMagic (PM). Again, we would get whichever had the earlier time.
As we ate we watched the FP time at HM (which we could see from the window), and it was right around 4:45. After finishing lunch we decided to go check out the FP time at PhilarMagic. I should point out here that the crowds at MGM were moderately light and Epcot was all but empty. MK, however, was packed. As packed as I've ever seen it. We figured that the combination of the holiday weekend and the fact that it was Saturday and, therefore, MK was open late for fireworks made it busy. Anyway, we went around the corner and were faced with total gridlock. The entire walkway was covered with strollers and it was nearly impossible to move. What a mess! We finally made our way through (actually, I lost Kirk and had to wait - a madwoman with a stroller cut him off.) When we got to PhilarMagic we saw that the FP time was bout the same, so we got one there.
Going in the opposite direction of the deadly "stroller corner", we headed to Adventureland and Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC). The wait at PotC was about 15 minutes, and by the time the ride was over our FP time was up so we got Fps for HM as well. As I mentioned, the crowds were pretty intense, so we took a break from the crowds and rode Tomorrowland Transit Authority (TTA). We then headed over to PM. Obviously, neither of us had seen PM before. As we got in the theater we were heading toward a particular row when we were cut off by a group of, I'd say, about 40 who all had linked their arms together so we couldn't get in. As a result, we were more to the side and closer than I would have liked. Still, I was pleased and impressed with how well the 3D worked even from a sub-optimal position. At any rate, the show was an absolute blast. Disney has a real winner with this one. Funny and charming.
One funny thing, the 3D renderings of the cartoon characters looked totally fine to me, yet the more "human like" characters looked very odd in 3D to me. This was particularly true of Aladdin. On the other hand, there was The Little Mermaid, Arial. There was just something about seeing that character in 3D that, I don't know... just made her attire look more - ahem - impressive.
Well, OK then...
After PM we headed over to HM. Before we went on Kirk went into Columbia Harbor House to get some water. I'll mention something here. For health reasons Kirk has given up soda and has been drinking more water. We were both pleased to find that you can get ice water in a cup for free and any of the food stands. It's a good thing to know. Anyway, while he was getting water I went into a little shop that claimed to have kitchen items. Instead, it had all kinds of HM inspired stuff. That's when I noticed that the little cart that used to sell HM stuff at the exit to the ride was gone. So I guess that the HM items were a hit so they felt that they deserved their own store. Anyway, it was very cool with lots of fun stuff. After looking around a bit we rode HM.
The time had come to leave the crowds of MK behind. This time we took the ferry to get to TTC, then we hopped the Monorail to Epcot. First we headed to TT. We didn't want to do MS first as we had heard that it can give you motion sickness and we figured it would be prudent to make the last thing we did. So, we did TT first. I really love this ride, despite it's temperamental nature.
Finally, it came time for the Main Event - Mission Space. Using our FP, the wait was minimal while the standby line said 60 minutes. This attraction is impressive in every way - starting with the building. The preshow, with Gary Sinise, is also well done although I have to admit that all of the warnings did nothing to relieve my apprehension. Finally we boarded. You get into a pod of sorts with 3 other people and you are each assigned a set of simple tasks to perform during your flight. You are also told not to raise your head or look around as that increases the chance that you'll get disoriented. They also tell you not to close your eyes. I really think the ride designers were on to something here as I think that giving you something to focus on really helps decrease the chances of getting motion sickness.
As the ride started I was pretty anxious, but after about 30 seconds I settled in and really enjoyed the ride. And what a ride! MS is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive and convincing theme park experiences I've ever seen. It's not really "thrilling" like TZToT or RnRC, but it is very intense. It truly is like no other theme park attraction. If you are susceptible to motion sickness it probably is a bad idea, but otherwise I highly recommend it.
Kirk and I agreed on one thing - that calls for a drink!
Off we went to Norway for a Reigness (I'm sure I spelled that wrong) for Kirk and a glass of wine for me. We sat and had our drinks while the (very small) crowds gathered for the fireworks. After a second round, we were pretty much finishing up as the fireworks started. When we were done we made our way to the International Gateway via the south end of the World Showcase. We walked to The Boardwalk, where we sat on the porch and had another beer & wine. Kirk had talked about, as much as he likes all of WDW, it's MK where he really feels at "home". He figured it's because of our childhood going to Disneyland. I said that, for me, it's the Crescent Lake/Boardwalk/International Gateway/World Showcase area. In my case, I think it comes from being a DVC member and having stayed there. It feels like "my neighborhood".
After our drinks we headed down to the Boardwalk bus depot where we caught a bus to Downtown Disney (DD). We were pretty hungry again so we went to Planet Hollywood for dinner. Kirk had a spinach/mushroom dip with chips (very good) while I had chicken wings and a Caesar salad. We walked from DD to our hotel, which is located right at the entrance to WDW. We stopped at a grocery store near the hotel to pick up a few things, got to our room and hit the sack around 2:00.
January 18 - Universal Orlando Day One
The night was warm and we had left the hotel room window open. At about 8:00 I was awakened by the sound of rainfall. Well, let me tell you, it was very pleasant lying there listening to the rain falling and, as I didn't see any reason to rush anywhere on such a rainy day, I just rolled over and went right back to sleep. When we finally got going about an hour later, Kirk said he felt exactly the same. So, we took our time getting ready and had a nice, relaxing morning. After checking out we decided to go to IHOP for breakfast, but it looked like half of Lake Buena Vista had the same idea. Not having any desire to wait 45 minutes for breakfast, we decided to just head to our second hotel, The Royal Polynesian. Kirk had purchased an annual pass for Universal Orlando (UO) and was able to get the room at the discounted rate of $99 per night.
Once we checked in, I went and purchased a 2-day/2-park pass. Again, Kirk's annual pass came in handy and I was able to get the ticket at a discounted rate. Our room was available so we took our luggage to the room. We still hadn't had breakfast so we decided to have the breakfast buffet that the hotel offered. If you stay at this hotel and are contemplating the breakfast buffet - stop contemplating and eat! This was, hands down, one of the best buffets I have ever had. The selection was good (but not great), but each item offered was really good. In particular, they had applewood-smoked bacon that I simply couldn't get enough of.
The hotel offered. a shuttle bus and boat launch to the parks, but as the rain had cleared up we decided to walk. The walk from the hotel to the parks is pleasant - although not as nice as you'll find at WDW.
Neither Kirk nor I had ever been to Universal Studios Florida (USF), so we went there first. It was an interesting perspective to visit USF after having already been to Islands of Adventure (IOA), because, unlike WDW, I'd say the "premier" park at UO is not the original park (USF). There's nothing wrong with USF, it's a nice enough park (a bit smaller than the Hollywood counterpart) - I'd say it's about on par with Disney/MGM Studios.
We got to the park at about 1:00, and after consulting with a map it seemed to make sense to move toward the "back" of the park and make our way back. We walked a bit and decided to make Earthquake our first attraction. Earthquake is an attraction like several you'll see at Universal parks (and, with Catastrophe Canyon, at MGM as well) that culminate with some sort of disastrous event. Actually, it reminded me quite a bit of "Kongfrontation" at Universal Studios Hollywood (USH) - which I guess used to have a counterpart at USF but is gone now. Like most of these types of attractions, you are first treated to some sort of pre-show that explains some aspect of the film-making process. In this case, there was a brief presentation about special effects. You are then lead into another room that is meant to look like a BART station in San Francisco. There you board a train and are taken to another station (the effect used to make it appear as though you have traveled some distance is actually fairly convincing.) Once at the second station you are treated to a simulated earthquake. The floors crack, pipes burst, gas explodes and the train heaves back and forth. All the usual stuff. Then the ceiling collapses (which is actually supposed to be the road above) and - wouldn't you know it! - there is a gas tanker truck that comes barreling down toward your train! How unfortunate! Well, with that, the set magically puts itself back together as the train backs out and makes it's way back to the original station. Kirk and I agreed it was a fun diversion.
Well, after all that excitement we figured that a peaceful boat trip was in order and - how convenient - the next attraction on our list was JAWS. Ah yes, nothing like a nice peaceful boat ride. Unfortunately, our boat kept getting attacked by a very large, very rubbery looking shark. How rude! I'm not exactly sure what this gigantic latex fish was trying to prove, but he sure was persistent! Neither Kirk nor I were particularly impressed with this attraction.
Next on our tour was Men In Black (MIB). I should add here that, as guests of the hotel, we were able to use the "Universal Express" (UE) line. Basically, it's very similar to Fastpass at Disney parks. Unlike FP, however, we could basically get into any ride at any time with no time restrictions. However, it is not available to all guests - I think. There were "Express distribution centers", I'm not sure what that was about. Also, I thought I overheard someone talking about buying an express pass. Maybe all 3 are available - you get the pass if you stay in one of their hotels or if you pay an additional fee, and otherwise you get a ticket from one of the distribution centers ala FP. I don't really know. All I know is that, for us, we just went to the UE queue and showed them our hotel keys. One problem with UE - also a problem with FP - is that you often bypass the queue areas which are often an attraction in themselves. The queue area for MIB,as an example, replicates the MIB headquarters from the films and is very impressive.
The ride itself, however, was not. Basically, it's a variation of the "Buzz Lightyear" ride at WDW, but with more elaborate animatronics. I really have 2 issues with the ride. First, like Buzz Lightyear, you end up spending a lot of time trying to shoot at targets and therefore end up missing the sights. I suppose you could just not shoot, but that sort of goes against the idea of the ride. Second, why do ride designers feel it necessary to send you into a radical spin on rides like this? It's not as out of place as it is on, say, Cat in the Hat, but it's still annoying. Does anyone actually enjoy being spun around like that? I guess someone must... but not me. Kirk was more bothered than me - it made him overly dizzy while I just found it annoying. After that ride, both of our reactions were "well, we did that, so we never have to again".
Next came ET. After MIB, ET was a nice respite. I had gone on ET at USH and remembered it as being, well, lame. I have to say, riding it again, I realized that only parts of it are lame. The intro by Steven Speilberg is embarrassing. And the final setpiece is, well, strange. But everything else about the ride is actually very good. The queue area is very detailed and atmospheric. The ride itself - through the forest and culminating with a climactic flight over the city - is terrific. At least, until you get to that silly end setpiece on ET's "home planet". Kirk agreed that the end segment left something to be desired, but he felt that the ride's other charms more than made up for it.
Our final two attractions at USF were the two I was personally most looking forward to - T23D and Twister. T23D is a 3D movie that incorporates live action with the 3D images on the screen. Some 3D movies at theme parks make no bones about being movies - like Captain EO - while others try to make it seem as if they are a "live" show - like "Honey I Shrunk the Audience". T23D, interestingly, does both. The beginning and ending segments have live actors on stage interacting with the screen while the middle section is purely a "movie". All in all I found it to be a thrilling show and one of the highlights of the day. I especially liked the final segment. Kirk liked it but not as much as me.
Finally came Twister. This attraction falls into the same category as Earthquake - a show that reproduces some sort of natural disaster - a tornado in this case. The art direction in the preshow area is very impressive. I wish I could say the same for the introductory film hosted by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. The film is so poorly written as to be laughable."You become convinced that this is no mere storm - but vicious beast bent on your destruction!" Uh... yeah. Anyway, after the preshow you are lead to an enclosure covered with a corrugated steel roof. A violent storm is raging. In the distance - behind a drive-in movie screen - you see a twister headed straight at you. The twister smashes through the movie screen - tearing it apart. A business sign collapses. Power lines fall, setting off sparks and lighting fires. Some sort of machinery flies by. So does a cow. And then, right in front of you, the tornado funnel forms as everything in front of you is blown apart. Finally, the steel roof of your enclosure flies off.
This one is a winner. Kirk and I both agreed that it was one of the day's highlights. If you're visiting USF, don't miss it.
On that high note, we decided to leave USF and head for Islands of Adventure (IoA). On the way we stopped at a dockside bar adjoining Margaritaville and had Tacos for a late lunch. Kirk had much praise for the tacos. Having spent more of my adult life in Southern California than Kirk I think I'm a bit pickier about Mexican food. I thought they were good, maybe even very good, but not great.
After lunch we walked to IoA. We made a brief stop near the park entrance for drinks, then we headed straight to the "back" of the park and toward "Dueling Dragons" (DD). One problem with UE as I mentioned is that you bypass some of the cool queue areas. DD has one of the coolest queue areas ever - right up there with TZToT and Indiana Jones in Disneyland - and by using UE you bypass most of it. If you're at IoA for the first time and the line for DD isn't too bad, I'd suggest bypassing the UE line. Of the two coasters - "Fire" and "Ice" - it is generally agreed that "Ice" is the better and smoother ride. So, we opted for "Ice". Kirk has never done "Fire" and I don't recall for sure, but as I've been on DD several times - including when the line was very small - I'm sure I must have at some point. This was a particularly good ride because we got in the second seat - nearly as good as the first seat IMO and about 1/10th the wait. I don't know whether it was the seat position, or the weather or what, but this was an amazing ride - even better than usual.
After DD we felt up for another coaster, so off we went to Hulk. We used UE again, which I noticed sent us up "the back stairs" - the same place I was sent to on previous trips for the "single rider" line. After Hulk, which was great as usual, we decided to top off our day with a ride on SpiderMan (SM). SM really is an amazing ride. Kirk enjoyed it, however all the spinning and dipping did make him a bit lightheaded. It's funny how different things bother different people. Spinning doesn't bother me - although I do find it annoying when overused. Twisting and looping rollercoasters? Bring 'em on! It's old woody-style coasters that get to me. It's the "bunny hops". All that up-and-down. Even a tame coaster like the Dragon at Rye Playland gets me a bit queasy. Well, it's OK because, in honesty, I've never been a big fan of wooden coasters.
Well, after all that action we decided it was time to relax. That and the fact that it was closing time. Kirk had found a bar near the entrance that had great "happy hour" prices, so we ordered a beer (for Kirk) and a glass of wine (for me), pulled up a table outside, and sat for a while. We actually ended up sitting for long enough to have a couple of drinks. Finally we decided to leave, and on the way out I joked to the CM at the exit that we had "closed the place". It really reminded me of the old days when we were kids - hanging out at Disneyland and staying until the last possible moment, among the last to leave.
So, there we were in the Citywalk. So what else could we do but eat (and drink)? After considering our options, we decided on Margaritaville. I would have loved to go to Emeril's but a) we hadn't made reservations 3 months earlier and b) we didn't much feel like spending $100 each. Margaritaville seemed a likely option. Kirk had corn chowder which he gave good reviews to, I had Jerk chicken which was good but not spicy enough. I don't think anyone outside of the Caribbean makes jerk chicken that's spicy enough. We washed it down with beer (Kirk) and a margarita (me).
After our meal we headed back to the hotel. The night was too young to call it quits, however, so we ordered drinks from the bar in the Chinese restaurant at the hotel and sat outside for a bit. Finally we decided to call it a night. Or at least I did, Kirk was less tired than me so he went out again for a bit while I went to our room and hit the sack. He later told me he wasn't gone long, but I was out cold when he got back
January 19 - USF Day Two, Farewell
The next morning was foggy. Kirk wanted to sleep in a bit more and take his time getting ready, so we agreed to meet later that morning at "Twister". So, I walked to USF by myself. The first thing I wanted to do was Shreck 4D. Kirk does not like "motion" rides, and one of my tasks was to sort of "check it out" for him. As he has an annual pass, he can come back any time to check it out. The day before we noticed how this was one of the most popular attractions, so I figured I'd get to it early. Interestingly, once again I had a problem getting a seat. Basically, I moved down the row until there were no seats left - as you are supposed to - and a little kid sat in the chair that would have been mine. I asked if he could scoot over, and so he got back up and I sat down. Next thing I knew, his dad is yelling at me at the top of his lungs. It took me a minute to realize he was talking to me. I looked at him and asked "what are you yelling about?" He started ranting and raving about how I took his kids seat. Then I realized that his kid stood up, but didn't sit back down. I said "I thought you moved down". He just went off like crazy yelling at me. I just looked at him sort of puzzled and kept asking "why are you yelling". Understand, I never refused to move and had every intention of moving. I just couldn't figure out why he was carrying on so - I guess I was sort of in a state of shock. It later occurred to me that he could have offered up his own seat, or had one of his kids sit on his lap or something, but at the time I was just sort of dumbfounded. There was another seat nearby which I took, and then I just said to him "Man, calm down. You're going to give yourself a heart attack". Very strange.
Anyway, the Shreck attraction is absolutely fantastic. This and PM have some of the best 3D effects I've ever seen (although I will admit to being more impressed with PM in that regard). The film, like the movie it's based on, is very cute and very funny. And the "motion ride" element is very tame - I told Kirk he'd have no problem with it.
After Shreck I did T23D again, then I walked to Twister where Kirk and I had agreed to meet. There is a theme store attached to Twister called "Aftermath" - pretty funny name. I waited for a while because Kirk had run into "commute" problems on his way, but once he showed up we went on Twister again. From there we walked to IoA where we rode Hulk again. We then went to DD again with the intention of riding both Fire and Ice. We wanted to see the queue area and the line was pretty short so we bypassed the UE line. When we reached the spot where you must choose your coaster, however, the line for Ice was much shorter so we did that - thinking we'd come back for Ice.
We had lunch at restaurant across from DD (some sore of mystical theme - can't recall the name) where we shared a BBQ chicken/rib platter. It was quite tasty and plenty for two. By this time a light rain was starting to fall and, after looking at the show schedule, we decided we'd rather do shows than any more coasters or thrill rides - so, no Fire this trip.
The first show on our agenda was "Poseidon's Fury" (PF). Ultimately, it's a pretty silly show, but also inventive in many places. As long as you don't take it seriously you'll enjoy it. Kirk and I were both particularly impressed with the "waterfall" hallway. Very cool. Next up we went to the "8th Voyage of Sinbad" show. This is essentially one of those "stunt spectacular" kind of shows. Fun, but nothing to write home about. If you like this sort of show and/or if you're looking to sit down for a while, then I'd recommend it.
Well, that was it for this trip. After Sinbad it was time for Kirk to take me to the airport so I could catch my plane. All in all, I'd have to say that this was the most fun of our trips to date. We just laughed more on this trip I think. It was just a lot of fun all around. I can't wait until next time.

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