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Friday, June 8, 2012

Thanksgiving trip to Walt Disney World - November 1997 - Day 1

Day 1 - Wednesday, November 26
MGM Early Entry, Wilderness Lodge check-in, Illuminations

Mickey dutifully called at 6:00 to wake us up. Everybody felt a bit groggy, but soon the excitement of our first "real" day at WDW set in.

I walked to the Intermission Food Court for breakfast. I got 2 coffees in those re-usable mugs, some fruit, bagels and muffins. The bill came to $18. I thought this seemed extremely pricey and was glad that I thought to request a refrigerator for room at the Wilderness Lodge so we could stock it up with food from the local market. It turns out I was wrong. Nearly all of the bill was for the coffee mugs and the rest of the food was reasonably priced. I learned that by stocking up from the market you waste a lot of food, spend almost as much (if not as much or more), and it's a hassle. On our next trip I will definitely get the re-usable mugs (a good deal, plus they look cool and make great keepsakes) and I will also get fruit, bagels and the like from the food courts.

T-shirt for the day: As our main plan for the day was to visit Disney MGM Studios, I thought a movie-themed T was in order. So on this day I wore my New York City Hercules World Premier T-Shirt.

We drove to Disney MGM studios. A word here about renting cars. If you have small children, if you're on a tight schedule, or if you're not staying at one of the hotels on the monorail, I think you should seriously consider renting a car. All three were true for us so it was a no-brainer. That was a decision I would not regret.

We got to MGM a little after 7:30. I was immediately struck by how crowded it seemed for so early in the morning. I soon realized that it was more because the park, or at least the part open for walking, is rather small.

The first thing on my agenda was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Of all the attractions at all of the parks, this was my number-one can't miss. Andie isn't much of a thrill-ride person, and the kids are both too small, so they waited on a bench in the plaza while I went and got terrorized.

The wait (until entering the elevator) was about 20 minutes. Not bad. With the possible exception of Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, TZToT has the coolest queuing area I've seen. The attention to detail, from the overgrowth in the garden to the dust in the lobby and the grime in the boiler room is amazing. Like IJA, I almost found myself wishing that the line moved more slowly so I could take it all in. The ride itself, of course, is awesome beyond words. I won't go into a detailed description as that can easily be found elsewhere. But I will mention two things. First, I was amazed at how smooth the ride is. It's thrilling, for sure, but is doesn't jerk you around like so many other thrill rides do. Second, I know that the ride is programmable and can change at the whim of the Imaginears, but I thought I new *somewhat* what to expect. But no! The first drop took me *completely* by surprise.

After leaving I toyed with the idea of riding again - especially if the line had gotten any shorter - but by then the line looked to be at least an hour. Oh well, next time.

I regrouped with Andie and the kids and we went to our next stop, The Great Movie Ride. Once again, the line was about 20 minutes. This ride was going to be something of a test for Nat. On our last trip to Disneyland in January, Nat did 2 "dark" rides (Peter Pan and Snow White), got scared, and wouldn't go on any more. I knew that if she got scared on GMR we wouldn't be able to do any more "dark" rides (and there goes most of Epcot). I was especially concerned how she would react to the Alien. That in mind, I forewarned her in great detail what to expect. I also explained to her that it wasn't all real, and that it was all built by Mickey Mouse and that Mickey wouldn't do anything that would hurt her. I don't know whether it was my preparation or there was never anything to worry about, but she loved GMR and she would love all the "dark" rides we would go on during this trip.

I was hoping we would make the first showing of Voyage of the Little Mermaid, but it was not to be. It was now about 10:00 and the park was starting to fill up. We got in line a VotLM and were informed that the wait would be about 40 minutes. This was to be our only visit to MGM on this trip, and we thought Nat would really enjoy the show, so we decided to stick it out. It was a decision we would not regret, as it was a wonderful show that we all found quite enchanting. It seemed to be one of the highlights of the trip for Nat. Charlie slept. The consensus in our family was that the best effect was the use of green lasers and mist to make it look like you are "under the sea". Very cool.

By the time we got out of VotLM it was time for our 11:30 seating at the Sci-Fi Dine In restaurant. I had made all of our meal reservations well in advance and my original intention was to make lunch reservations elsewhere (perhaps Mama Melrose or the Brown Derby) and then go to the Sci-Fi for a snack just before leaving MGM. The reason for this plan was because, although I thought that the Sci-Fi would be a kick and we really wanted to go there, I had heard that the food wasn't very good. Also, this was one place that Andie and I tried to get to during our first trip together but it was booked (we switched to 50's Prime Time and had a terrific time). Unfortunately, all the afternoon slots at Sci-Fi were blocked off for some reason (I never found out why) when I called to make ressies, and I called 60 days in advance. So, we ended up there for lunch.

This place is strange. The restaurant is made to look like a drive in movie theater. You sit in these tables that look like little cars. All the seats face a giant screen showing clips and trailers from 50's "B" Sci-Fi flicks. The first thing I was hit with as we walked in was how eerily quiet the restaurant is. Everyone is watching the movie clips, and the seats don't face each other so it isn't exactly conducive for conversation. The CMs, talking in a normal tone of voice, sound like they're practically yelling. It made it easy for Charlie to sleep through the whole thing.

Andie ordered "The Big Dipper" (soup) and "Little Green Men" (salad). Nat had "Junior Red Planet" (pasta with tomato sauce) and I had "The Beast from Beyond" (roast beef sandwich & fries). I also had a chocolate Milky Way-out Milk Shake. The shake was pretty good, but no $5.00 shake as John Travolta would say. The rest of the food was mediocre at best. Andie didn't finish her soup, and Nat had one bite of her pasta and proclaimed it to be "yucky". My sandwich was strictly diner faire. All in all it was an experience I was happy to have had, and will be equally happy to never have again. The atmosphere is fun, but more in its uniqueness than anything else. If I had to decide between the Sci-Fi and the 50's Prime Time, I'd opt for the 50's Prime Time every time.

When we returned to the outside world it was painfully obvious that the park had become quite crowded. I had hoped we could see the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular and the Hunchback of Notre Dame Stage Show, but we wouldn't have time for both as we had to get to Wilderness Lodge to check in. So I did what any good dad would do - I asked my daughter. Nat voted for the Hunchback (no big surprise there). We had some time to kill before the show started, so Andie found a bench to sit at with Charlie while I took Nat to explore a little. We happened upon the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" Movie Set Adventure, and I was surprised to see (given what I had heard) that it wasn't incredibly crowded. Nat and I stayed there for about 15 minutes, then we left to meet up with Andie and Charlie (as anyone noticed yet that all the women in my life have boy's nicknames?)

We got good seats on the aisle for the 1:15 Hunchback show. Although I wasn't surprised by the shows level of professionalism and entertainment quality, I was somewhat surprised by it's originality. A band of gypsy street performers tell the story and are used as a dramatic device to keep the story moving quickly. The shows opening, with the gypsy's telling the story using puppets and building, along with the music, to an image of swirling capes at last revealing Quasimodo being pulled 15 feet into the air by the rope of a bell sent shivers down my spine. "Cool", I murmured under my breath. All in all a quite enjoyable show and one I would rate as "not to be missed". Natalie loved it. Charlotte slept.

The show was over just in time for the Hercules "Zero to Hero" parade. Andie took Charlie and found a spot where they could park the stroller and still see the parade. Nat and I vied for a good position. The parade, though short, was the typical combination of imaginatively designed floats, dancers and blaring music. I tried to capture as much of it as I could on videotape while Nat, perched on my shoulders, bopped to the beat of "Zero to Hero". Charlie slept.

We bid adieu to Disney MGM Studios at about 2:30. This would be out only visit for this trip. On both of our trips Andie and I spent less time at MGM than any other park. This makes sense, of course, because it *is* the smallest of the parks, but some day I would like to spend a good deal more time there. I understand a massive expansion of MGM is being considered, and I think this would be a good thing as the little park feels much more crowded than the others.

We drove to our new hotel, the Wilderness Lodge. It's sort of interesting how we chose the WL. As you may have guessed, I did all the planning for this trip. I did, however, want Andie's input, but I didn't want to force the issue with her (I'm the Disney nut in our house, not Andie). You see, if I had my way we'd make fairly frequent trips to WDW whereas Andie wouldn't be upset if we didn't go at all (it's not that she doesn't like it, she can just take it or leave it). So, I had an ulterior motive of "converting" her. Well, I sent away for the WDW planning video. Nat and I were watching it, and Andie walked into the room as they showed an aerial shot of Wilderness Lodge. "Wow" said Andie, "that place looks great!" That decided it. We would stay at Wilderness Lodge.

To get to the Wilderness Lodge you must first pass through the main gate for the Magic Kingdom. Surprisingly, this made getting to MK from WL something of a hassle (more on that later). You then drive a separate road to get to WL. I had heard that the Imaginears had attempted to give WL the feeling of being secluded, and in this they succeeded. If it weren't for the signs, you would think you had made a wrong turn.

At last you round a bend and suddenly there it is. It is truly a spectacular sight. I have no doubt that the Imaginears who designed WL had this in mind when they built the approach to the lodge.

We drove up to the entrance and I dropped Andie and the kids off. I then self-parked and walked back to the main entrance. The attention to detail, even in the parking lot and the approach to the entrance, is amazing. Whether it's the sounds of forest animals in the distance, the smell of woodsmoke or the animal "tracks" in the sidewalk, there is always something new to discover here.

As for the lobby, all I can say is that you have to see it. Words can not describe, and no picture can do justice to it's sheer scope and splendor. Whether it's the huge fireplace, the massive log totem poles or those funky Native American themed chandeliers, everything in the lobby comes together to make it seem massive and cozy at the same time. The multiple rows of wooden rocking chairs in front of the fireplace add much to this coziness. Andie would later say that it was the most beautiful hotel she had ever stayed in.

We had an uneventful check-in and made our way to our room on the seventh (and top) floor. Our room was nicely appointed, larger than the room at ASM (and *much* more subtly decorated) but still a bit on the small side. We didn't really care, though. Give me a smallish room in a hotel with wonderful amenities and a beautiful lobby over a huge suite in a hotel with no services any day. One small problem was the location of our room. WL is shaped like a squared off "U" and our room was in one of the corners facing the other corner. Not a great location. In hindsight I probably should have requested we be moved, but it was no big deal. If we stay there again (which we probably won't - no reflection on WL, Andie and I just happen to prefer new experiences) I would request a room at the "bottom" of the "U". Much better views.

The property, with it multiple levels, waterfall and bubbling brook that empties into the grotto-like pool, many wooden foot bridges and even it's own geyser is, needless to say, spectacular.

I drove to Goodings market and bought a bottle of wine, some fruit, muffins and cookies. As I mentioned earlier, this concept of "stocking up" which (judging by what I read in guidebooks and the Internet) is frequently used is, in my opinion, not a good idea. We never opened the wine, the fruit wasn't very good, the muffins got squished and the cookies well, crumbled. If you have a much larger family, you're staying in a family suite with a full kitchen or your stay is much longer it might make sense. For us it turned out to be a waste.

We rested up for a bit, gave the kids baths, and left for Epcot around 7:00. The main goal at Epcot was to get good seats for Illuminations. We had 8:00 ressies at Rose & Crown in the England Pavilion, but I thought we might try the San Angel Cantina just outside of the Mexico Pavilion first. When we arrived there were plenty of seats at San Angel. We ordered a couple of Margaritas and some chips and salsa, as well as some milk for Nat. The Margaritas were surprisingly good, and the Mickey-shaped chips tasted (even more surprisingly) fresh. After our drinks we decided that the Cantina was not a great place to spend an hour and a half waiting for Illuminations to start, so we decided to risk it by giving up our well-positioned seats and take a chance on the Rose & Crown. Besides, I had the feeling that the Cantina would fill up with people standing once Illuminations started, and Andie and I had seen Illuminations from the Rose & Crown on our first trip and it was one of our fondest memories from that trip.

It was a decision that we would nearly regret. When we got to the Rose & Crown and made our request, the CM (who I assume was the manager) made it sound like our chances of getting an outdoor table were pretty much nil. He was very helpful, however, and at his suggestion we kept our reservation. If there was nothing outside by around 8:30 he would seat us inside, and he assured us that they could hold our meal during Illuminations so we could walk outside for the show. We were given one of these funny light-up paging gizmos with the warning that they would only work while in or close to the England Pavilion. This turned out not to be a problem as the England Pavilion has, in my opinion, among the best shopping at Epcot. First Andie took Nat to get Nat her one item for the day (she was allowed one thing per day) while I waited at a bench with Charlie. They soon returned, Nat the proud owner of a very cute little umbrella with miniature stuffed Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eyeore. It was then my turn. I really hadno intention of buying anything, but then I saw a teal green T-shirt the a Rose & Crown logo embroidered over the left breast. It was love at first sight.

I returned to our bench, the proud owner of one very cool T. We sat and chatted about our day for a bit. We watched some very drunk English guests flirt mercilessly with one of the Rose & Crown CMs. They had obviously been there before as they all seemed to know each other. I also noticed that the drunken brits were all wearing the same T-shirt I had just bought. I mused for a few minutes on what a different place Epcot was at night, and how different it was from the Magic Kingdom at night. One of the main reasons for this difference, I think, is the prevalent drinking at Epcot. I'm not passing judgement here and I don't necessarily think one is better than the other, it's just an observation. It gives them different personalities.

Around 8:30, as promised, a Cast Member came to inform us that our table was ready. They didn't bother with the flashing light gizmo as they knew where we were sitting. We were very pleasantly surprised when we were lead to a table outside with a perfect view of the lagoon. Once again, Disney Cast members doing their best to make the guests stay a magical one. I made a mental note to take the time to thank the manager/CM personally.

Andie ordered a glass of wine, I ordered a Black & Tan, and Nat got a glass of milk. We also ordered a plate of English style Fruit and Cheese. For dinner Nat and I both ordered Fish & Chips, Andie ordered the Chef Selection, grilled lamb. The food was a sight better than Sci-Fi Dine In, but still not great. But what a dinner show! Illuminations was every bit as wonderful as I had remembered. Definitely worth making special plans to see. Nat was enchanted and enthralled. Charlie slept.

Our food arrived after Illuminations, and by the time Andie and I were finished and had had another drink, the kids were both out cold. One nice thing about eating so late was that we avoided the mad post-Illuminations rush for the exit. We were able to leisurely stroll out of the park. We drove to our hotel and slept like babies.

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