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Friday, June 8, 2012

Walt Disney World "Daddy/Daughter Jaunt" - October 1998 - Day 1

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

Part 1:

Friday October 2 - Hit the ground running

I was a bit concerned because, as we were only going to be there for 3 days, I knew that any major travel delays would seriously cut into my goal of MDE (that's Maximum Disney Exposure). I figured if all went absolutely perfect we would be at WDW by noon, but that's a pretty big "if".

Our plane touched down at 9:30 AM, a little ahead of schedule. There was also no line at the Dollar Car Rental desk, so we were on the road by 10:00. Pleasant surprises number one and two. As soon as we walked outside one thing was obvious. It was hot and very humid. I would guess the temperature was in the 80s but the humidity made it feel much hotter. And it was still morning. There was no traffic on the drive to WDW (although I did note that the signs, which I followed, take a slightly longer route than the car rental place recommended). So far so good. We got to the front desk at Disney's All Star Music Resort (ASM) by 10:30. No line there either and we were checked in immediately. If that weren't enough, our room was actually ready. Big pleasant surprise there. Not even 11:00 AM and we are there, we have our car, we have out Length of Stay passes, and we have our room. We are on a roll!

Disney's All Start Music is one of two (including All Star Sports) and soon to be three (including All Star Movies, which is opening soon) "budget" resorts at WDW. Each resort has ten buildings, two each with a specific theme related to the overall theme of the resort. In the case of All Star Music the themes are different types of music: Calypso, Jazz, Rock, Broadway and Country. We stayed at the Country Faire because I thought the giant boots looked cool (we had stayed at ASM for one night on our last trip, in Jazz) and that Nat would get a "kick" out of them, and because we are fans of country music. I did this knowing full well that the Country Faire buildings are the farthest from the food court, lobby and bus stop, but I didn't care.

As we drove to a parking space closer to our building, we drove by the All Star Movies Resort, which is under construction. I could see one building styled after "101 Dalmatians" with a giant Pongo on one end and a giant fire hydrant on the other. It looks very cute. I could also make out a "Mighty Ducks" building and another with some sort of car racing theme ("The Love Bug" perhaps?). The buildings themselves looked like they had the same basic structure as the two older "All Stars" resorts.

As we walked to our room (639 - building 6, 1st Floor) I noticed something just a little odd. The grass at the resort looked like it hadn't been cut for about a week. This may sound like a real nit-picky point, but anyone who has stayed at a Disney resort will attest to the level of upkeep they maintain for their grounds. It was far from being messy or ragged looking, it just struck me as a bit surprising.
When I tried to open the door to our room I found that my key didn't work and I was worried that we would have to go back to the lobby. If you've seen the ASM resort you understand how much I didn't want to do this. The lobby is, quite literally, about a quarter mile from the Country Faire buildings. Add to this the fact that I had my 5 year old daughter and one really heavy bag, not to mention the heat, and you can understand why I really did not want to have to go back to the lobby. I looked at our card keys more carefully and realized I was using the wrong card. They gave us two cards - one each for me and Nat - which also serve as our Length of Stay (LOS) passes. Mine, however, was the only one that served as a room key, and I was trying to open the door with Nat's. Once I tried my key the little green light blinked right on. Whew!

We walked into the room and I was immediately hit by three things. First, the AC was blasting and it felt good. Second, the antiseptic "motel room" smell was somewhat overpowering. (Nat said "the room smells good", but I have learned through experience not to trust Nat's judgment on these sorts of things.) Finally, the room was a bit tattered around the edges. It was perfectly acceptable, but far from pristine. The carpet was a bit worn and the quilts were faded. These are really nit-picky quibbles once again, but when you've stayed at Disney resorts you get used to a level of quality that is exceptionally high. If this had been, say, a Best Western (at the same room rate of $80 per night) I wouldn't have even noticed. But then the beds were firm, the pillows were soft and the towels were fluffy, so who am I to complain?
On the drive over I promised Nat that we would go swimming first thing, if we were able to get into our room right away. I warned her, however, that we would probably not get into the room until later. Well, I was wrong, so I made good on my promise. We put on our bathing suits, strolled out into the heat past the giant cowboy boots with Mickey stitched into the design, and jumped into the Piano Pool.

ASM has two pools. The one closest to our building is shaped like a giant piano. At one end of the pool there is a statue of Ariel, Sabastian and Flounder from "The Little Mermaid" playing musical instruments. At the other end of the resort, near the lobby building, is a pool shaped like a giant guitar. It has a statue/fountain with Donald Duck and the two other birds (whose names escape me - Joe Carioca?) from "The Three Caballeros". Disney is known for their pools and even the budget level All Star resorts have great ones. One thing I noticed about the pool at the Wilderness Lodge (where we stayed on our last trip) as well as the Piano Pool is that they are very kid friendly. The pools are large with plenty of shallow areas and very gentle slopes to the deeper parts. I also noticed that the life guards were extremely attentive and appeared to take their job very seriously. Nat is learning how to swim and getting better all the time, and it was nice to feel like I didn't have to stay right next to her all the time while she was in the water.

A few notes here about which building to choose. As I indicated earlier I selected the Country Faire knowing full well that it is in what is considered to be a somewhat less desirable location far from the main building with the lobby, gift store and food court. If you are staying at any of the All Star resorts for any length of time it would probably make sense to opt for one of the front buildings (Calypso & Jazz at ASM). On the other hand, all of the doors open to the outside at All Star resorts and I would imagine that the front buildings are a bit noisier. Additionally, since there are two pools you are never very far from a wet retreat. The laundry facilities are all located at the pools (the one by the Piano Pool looks like a giant radio - I didn't notice the one by the Guitar Pool), so that shouldn't matter either. Overall it's really a question of noise vs. convenience.

Our little pool excursion led to the first (very minor) disagreement between Nat and me. Being a typical 5 year-old who lives pretty much in the moment, when I suggested it was time to leave the pool and make our way to Disney's Animal Kingdom, Nat would have none of it. We ended up staying in the pool for over an hour - longer than I would have liked to - but she simply wouldn't budge on this issue. "I want to stay here" she informed me emphatically. I tried to convince her (not for the last time on this trip) that I really knew what I was doing and she really did want to go to Animal Kingdom. Finally I had to get a little stern with her, something I hated to do, but I knew she'd appreciate it later. Eventually I got her out of the pool. We went back to the room and I gave her a shower lest her blond hair turn green from the chlorine, and off we went to our first park - Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Part 2:

We arrived at Animal Kingdom (AK) by about 1:00 in the afternoon. There were plenty of cars in the parking lot but it was far from full. We parked in the Dino section, boarded the tram (which appeared to be the same type as the new "Tramzilla" used at Disneyland in California) and made our way to the main entrance. We passed the Rainforest Café on the way to the park entrance and Nat was intrigued so we peeked in. Of course she wanted to go in but I told her we would be going there for dinner later and would have plenty of time to walk around. We made first use of our LOS passes at the main entrance and we were in.

First I will dispense with the controversial stuff. AK has been criticized for being a "half day park" and for not being complete. I will sum up my personal impression of AK with two statements: It is the best Disney Theme Park I have seen. It is the worst Disney Theme Park I have seen.

Let me explain.

The park is absolutely gorgeous. Each area is themed perfectly and they blend together into a more cohesive whole than any of their other parks. The park immerses you into its world more thoroughly than any other park. The details are incredible. Everywhere you look there is something new and surprising waiting to be discovered. And it's only going to get better. The "Asia" section of the park is nearly open and there are plans for a "mythical beast" section. As the park ages, the foliage, already impressive in its variety, will fill in more adding to the jungle-like atmosphere. And let's not forget the animals. Beautiful and colorful birds abound, and it seems like every time you turn a corner you find an animal habitat. The way it's laid out you get the distinct feeling you are discovering its details as you wander along.

And then there's the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life (ToL) is the park's centerpiece, much like the castle is the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom. Yet, while the castle acts mostly as a backdrop and a point of reference, the ToL is its own little world, beckoning you to explore. For those who have not seen it or read about it, the Tree of Life is a huge structure, part building, part sculpture and part theater, that stands at the center of AK. Disney artists have sculpted over 300 animals into the bark of the tree. The resulting structure is like a huge puzzle where each piece is its own work of art. The path that winds its way around the base of the tree meanders around and under the tree's roots, which of course also are decorated with likenesses of different members of the animal kingdom. You could easily spend at least two hours just exploring the ToL, taking pictures and pointing out the many creatures you discover. It is a testament to the power and beauty of this structure that even 5 year-old Natalie never tired of looking at it. It is also the single aspect of the trip she has talked about the most since. She even told my wife "I wish you could have seen it".

And now the bad news.

AK has, in my opinion, the worst collection of attractions of any Disney park. One attraction, the Discovery River Cruise, has even been shut down as a result of guest complaints. (Apparently the name misled many guests into thinking there was more to the boat ride around the park.) There is one thrill ride, one movie, a train ride, three live shows and a safari ride. There are also a few minor and/or temporary walk through attractions as well as a kids' play area. I will discuss each of the attractions in more detail at later points in this article, but in summation I will say that some were great, some were good, some were disappointing and at least one was just plain weird.

The layout of the park is similar to the hub-and-spoke design used in the Magic Kingdom. Just inside the park's entrance is the Entrance Plaza which acts as the park's "Main Street". Mostly it has shops and eating establishments, with an in-park entrance to the Rainforest Café at the end near the entrance. Just past the Entrance Plaza is the Oasis. Past the Oasis and over a bridge is the Safari Village which acts as the park's hub and is home to the Tree of Life. Safari Village is surrounded by water, making it more difficult than MK to get from one area to another. Starting to the right of the Entrance Plaza as you are walking in and working clockwise are Camp Minnie Mickey (where children can be greeted by characters), Africa (home to Kilimanjaro Safaris), the yet to be completed Asia section, and Dinoland, USA (home to the thrill ride Countdown to Extinction).

As its name implies, the Oasis is a lush area with meandering walkways full of interesting plants and animals (mostly birds). Once you pass through the Oasis you cross a bridge to the Tree of Life. Crossing over the bridge I noticed a landing that was, I assume, used for the Discover River Cruise. It's a very attractive little structure and I found myself thinking it was a shame that Disney found it necessary to close it down. In reality, on a trip with so little spare time we probably wouldn't have bothered with it anyway.

By now Nat and I were both pretty hungry so I figured it was time for lunch. We made our way to Dinoland and had lunch at Restaurantosaurus. Some of the menu at Restaurantosaurus is provided by McDonald's, most notably the French Fries and Chicken Nuggets. Nat doesn't like McDonald's Nuggets but there was nothing else on the menu she would touch so I got her a Happy Meal and admonished her to eat at least 2 of the Nuggets. I had a Bacon Cheeseburger. The Burger was fine and the fries were typical McDonald's. I don't recall the cost of the meal but it wasn't outrageous so far as I can remember.
Dinoland is themed as an archeological dig site. The story goes that the people in charge of the site tried to turn it into a tourist area, failed, and abandoned it. As is the case with the rest of AK, the theming is carried out beautifully. There is a sense of fun about the place that is very catching. It has a certain quirkiness that reminds me of Toontown, although they have absolutely nothing else in common. It's simply a great place to hang around and take in all the details. Even the music is fun - a collection of rock tunes that somehow tie in to the archeological theme ("It's the End of the World as We Know It", "Can You Dig It", etc.). This is a really fun place.

After lunch we headed over to the Theater in the Wild, which is showing "Journey Into the Jungle Book" (JitJB). The show was to start in a few minutes so we went in. JitJB is a colorful show using live actors and puppets to tell highlights from the classic Disney animated feature. The show was colorful, fun, entertaining and, well, a little odd. Some of the characters (Bagheera, King Louis and most notably Baloo) were actors in full character costume with their faces covered in makeup suggesting the look of the character they were portraying. To me this added a certain level of strangeness to the proceedings. This was especially true during the "Bare Necessities" scene. I don't know how to describe it, but the human face on Baloo lent a certain suggestiveness to the scene where he and Mogli are scratching themselves on trees that I think it otherwise would have lacked. Or maybe it's just me. On the other hand, both Nat and I were particularly impressed with Sher Khan, who was portrayed by a large multi-piece puppet. Very impressive.

We then headed over to The Boneyard, a large play area for kids. The Boneyard is styled after an abandoned archeological dig site. It has lots of stuff to climb on, many intertwining slides and caverns and secret passages carved into the "rock". Nat absolutely loved this place. One note of warning to parents: As is the case with many of these play areas there are lots of opportunities for kids to get lost. In particular many of the slides discharge in unexpected places. Be sure to note exactly where a slide ends up before letting small kids use them.

It was at the Boneyard that Nat and I would have our one and only "scene" of the trip. As I mentioned earlier it was very hot. There is a trickling waterfall spilling off one of the rock formations that looked inviting. Nat was at my side when I took off my hat and dunked my head in the water. When I pulled my head up she was gone. My heart sank into my stomach. I combed the area for her to no avail. Wasting no time I found a group of three Cast Members and told them what happened. "Don't worry" they said and immediately split up, giving Nat's description to every Cast Member they passed. After not more than 5 minutes (but what seemed like an hour) I heard Nat cheerfully calling "Daddy!" She ran up to me all smiles explaining she had climbed one of the structures at the center of the Boneyard. I was so angry and (mostly) scared that I really let her have it. I felt a little guilty later because I yelled at her and she started crying. Nat's a pretty bright kid and usually very good about this sort of thing, so this is just an example of how diligent parents have to be with their kids in a place like this. Within a few minutes all was forgiven and she promised she would never do that again.

We were scheduled to meet some folks who post to a WDW Internet news group at 3:00 and we still had some time to kill so we headed over to Camp Minnie Mickey (CMM). Themed after a summer camp in the woods, CMM is the place to meet Disney Characters at AK. The line wasn't too long so Nat and I opted to meet the Big Cheese himself, as well as his SO (Significant Other, to you net neophytes). Meeting the characters is always a big highlight for Nat and we are careful to allow time for it whenever we go to a Disney park.

After bonding with the Mouse we headed back over to Dinoland for the meeting which was to take place near a fountain in front of Countdown to Extinction (CTX). As we were walking up I saw that there were a few folks already there but Nat said she wanted a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar, so we stole away undetected to fulfill her request. When we returned there were a few more folks there. At its peak the party included Ronnie (with whom I had had quite a bit of correspondence), Deb (the editor of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World web site, easily the most comprehensive guide to WDW on the web), Kenny, Fuxi (from Austria), Bruce, Randy, Marta, Mike, Keith and Tracey and Steve from England. Ronnie gave Nat a miniature stuffed "Lady" key fob (which soon became a permanent accessory to her stroller) and Deb came bearing a bag full of Disney buttons. Nat selected a Hunchback pin while I picked a Hercules New York World Premier pin that matched the T-shirt I had selected for the day. We all chatted for a few minutes and then rode CTX. Since Nat is too small Ronnie kept her company while I rode.

Countdown to Extinction is AK's sole thrill ride. According to the story, you are in a special time-traveling vehicle that looks something like a large flying Jeep on a mission to find and bring back a live dinosaur just before a giant comet hits the Earth. The queue area is themed as some sort of science facility. Compared to the queue areas of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney MGM Studios or many other attractions at Disney parks, the queue area for CTX was unimpressive. As you wait to board you are shown a short film starring the woman who played Bill Cosby's wife (not being a fan of Bill Cosby, I'm not sure of her name) and one of the stars of Veronica's Closet (whose name also escapes me) that explains the story. You then board the "time vehicles" and are off.

The ride technology used for CTX, which includes advanced audio-animatronics and ride vehicles that move independently and enhance the experience much in the same way as a flight simulator, are of the same type used in the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. This naturally leads one to compare IJA to CTX. In my opinion there is no comparison. CTX is not nearly exciting as IJA. The main difference is that with IJA you enter a large chamber with many things going on at once that you navigate, while CTX is essentially a series of short vignettes interrupted by stretches of darkness. The overall impact for me was to make me feel as if the ride is incomplete. It's a good attraction that I recommend, but it could have been much better.

We all gathered at the exit to CTX, some straggling behind because they wanted to check out the photo that is taken of each car during the ride. The picture turned out extremely well and someone (Randy?) decided to buy a copy. Everyone, including myself, looked perfectly posed in the picture. It was really quite funny.

We all then decided to head over to the Tree of Life to catch It's Tough to be a Bug (ITTBAB). ITTBAB is a computer animated 3-D film that uses audio-animatronics and various special effects techniques to create a total experience. The theater for ITTBAB is actually located inside the ToL, so the queue area for the attraction weaves in and out of the roots of the tree. Needless to say the queue area is quite a bit better than that of CTX.

As you enter the lobby of the theater, you are treated with various Hollywood show tunes as sung by insects. The lobby is also decorated with posters of insect versions of famous films (I regret to say that I can't remember a single one now, but they were very cute). The film itself is much like Honey I Shrunk the Audience in its execution, attempting to make the whole thing look like a stage show. Overall I quite enjoyed it, and Nat liked it as well. I had heard that young children get very scared by parts of the show, and Nat did get a bit spooked, but only for a few minutes. I did, however, find that the 3-D effects didn't work too well for me. Overall I enjoyed it, but I think I prefer HISTA and the Muppet 4-D Adventure (at least what I recall, it was about seven years ago when I last saw it).

It was after 5:00 by the time we left ITTBAB, and since Nat and I had 6:00 reservations at the Rainforest Café, we bid adieu to our friends. We would meet up again with many of them on Sunday.
We had a little time to kill before our reservations, so Nat and I strolled around AK for a while longer, taking in the ambiance. There is plenty to take in. Whenever we go on a trip with Nat that includes a lot of shopping, we allow Nat one present per day. We were looking around in a store called Creature Comforts that sells mostly stuffed animals. Nat was lusting after an Animal Kingdom Barbie, but as she has about two dozen Barbies at home (maybe I exaggerate a little) I tried to steer her away from it. Why don't they sell the outfits without the doll? She settled on a stuffed leopard that she would name Leppy (I guess it beats "Leper") which became a permanent fixture in her arms for the rest of the trip. I also picked up a cute dinosaur book for Charlotte. A side note here, there are these extremely realistic articulated dinosaurs that they sell in most of the stores at AK that, if I were about seven years old, I would have been nuts for. I was discussing them with a CM at one of the stores who told me they were a new item. Very cool.

Part 3:

I didn't want to deal with huge crowds leaving Epcot after Illuminations so we drove to the Yacht Club and parked there. We walked along the lake to the Epcot entrance at the International Gateway. It was a beautiful balmy night and the view of the Boardwalk across the lake, all lit up in its neon splendor and reflecting in the still water, was spectacular.

It took us about 10 minutes to walk to the International Gateway entrance at Epcot. We arrived a little before 8:00. With a little time to kill I thought it would be fun to visit the Land pavilion, since we had missed that particular pavilion entirely on our last visit. I especially thought Nat would like The Circle of Life film because it stars characters from The Lion King.

The Land pavilion, like many Epcot Futureworld pavilions, is organized in such a way as to make it natural to experience its attractions in a certain order. As you walk in, the Circle of Life is the first attraction you come to on the right. The show was about to start so we went in and sat down. It's a cute film that uses Simba, Poomba and Timon to tell a story with a conservationist theme. After the film was over Nat got very upset because she thought it was going to be a live show and was disappointed that it was "only a movie". I promised that from then on I would make sure she knew when something was a live show as opposed to "just a movie".

Next came Living with the Land (LwtL), the pavilion's premier attraction. LwtL is a boat ride though Disney's experimental agriculture facility. You board boats much like those used in It's a Small World. After floating past some displays, you enter the main facility and get an opportunity to view experimental growing techniques in use. It's actually much more interesting than it sounds. In fact, Nat wanted to ride again when we were done. Instead, I convinced her to see the pavilion's third attraction, Food Rocks. We had a few minutes before the next show so we decided to get some ice cream. I misjudged the time, however, and we ended up getting to the attraction after the doors were closed. The kindly Cast Member in charge of Food Rocks took pity on us, however, and led us in through the rear entrance. This was especially good because the show we saw was the last for the day.

Food Rocks is a cute but forgettable show with various food items singing the praises of nutrition. Some of the names of the "rock stars" are quite funny (Neil Moussaka) and the voices used are good impressions of the stars they impersonate (they may even be the real voices, I'm not sure). One thing for sure; though it's far from a headliner, Food Rocks is far superior to the awful Kitchen Kabaret which it replaced.

We left the Land pavilion and made our way back to the World Showcase for Illuminations. By the time we got there the show had started. We made our way through the crowd and found a decent viewing spot right on the water between the England and France pavilions. There were trees blocking our view of any aerial fireworks, but most of Illuminations takes place near the water so it wasn't a great loss. This was my third viewing of Illuminations. It is truly a terrific show and one without which no trip to WDW would be complete.

After Illuminations we had to make our way through the crowds back to the International Gateway. As the vast majority of the people were headed for the main gate in the other direction, I felt a bit like we were salmon swimming upstream. Nonetheless, we were at our car in short order and we didn't have to deal with the huge crowds or the tram. If you're staying on site and are only going to Epcotort visit, this is the way to go. Nat was actually still full of pep and wanted to go swimming. I told her that I doubted the pool was still open (it was, as it turned out), and besides, we needed to get to bed. I found it hard to believe that at 5:00 that very morning we were in New Jersey getting ready to fly down to Florida. I felt a world away. The only regret I had was that Andie and Charlotte weren't with us to share the day. But then, the whole idea of this trip was for Nat and I to have some time together, just the two of us, and we certainly were getting that.

Nat was deep asleep by 10:00, I followed suit soon thereafter.

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