Orlando Day 5 – Magic Kingdom (with Disneyland Comparison)

December 21, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

Due to the late night at Hollywood Studios, we opted for a late morning arrival to Magic Kingdom.  It was Extra Magic Hours there the night before so that should make the park relatively less crowded.  I also learned a trick.  I was not aware you could walk to Magic Kingdom from the Contemporary Resort.  It’s about a 12 min walk or you can take the monorail.  Otherwise you have to park in the main parking lot and take the tram (from way back in the parking lot if arriving later), then the monorail or ferry to Magic Kingdom from clear across the bay.  The trick is to make a breakfast, lunch or dinner reservation at one of the Contemporary Resort restaurants so you can tell the guard you are eating there.  The reservation can be easily made and canceled online.  However it turned out to not be necessary at least on that day as the guard never checked the reservation.

If you take the monorail from the Contemporary Resort only take it back from the park, not to the park.  If you take it there, it goes the opposite direction of the park and makes several stops.

I wasn’t that excited this time to go to Magic Kingdom as our previous trip here or trips to Disneyland.  Primarily because there are a few disappointing aspects of Magic Kingdom compared to Disneyland that we discovered our last (first) time visiting.  I’m glad we live on the West Coast close to Disneyland.  At Magic Kingdom there is no New Orleans Square which is my favorite part of Disneyland.  In addition the Pirates of the Caribbean ride pales in comparison to Disneyland.  First there is no swamp with the Blue Bayou restaurant (nor Club 33.)  There is only one small waterfall as opposed to two slightly larger ones.  And the ride at Magic Kingdom is overall shorter with less scenes.  The Haunted Mansion does not look like the Haunted Mansion and they don’t do the Nightmare Before Christmas Overlay like they do at Disneyland which is really cool.  The Space Mountain has not been renovated like the Disneyland one and the walk through and boarding areas is not as good and the ride is not as smooth.  The railroad only has two stops at MK (Frontierland and Toon Town) as opposed to three stops at Disneyland at there is no Grand Canyon diorama.  The Small World ride building is nothing compared to the one at Disneyland.  They don’t have the Pinocchio ride nor Mr. Toad nor the Matterhorn (but the Everest ride at Animal Kingdom is a good substitute.) Also from what I’ve read Toon Town is a lot better at Disneyland (we didn’t spend time there at Magic Kingdom but just walking through I could see the MK Toon Town was a ‘dummied down’ version of the one at Disneyland (no Roger Rabbit ride and some other buildings and surprises) which is strange considering MK is the bigger park (Disneyland has more attractions than MK.)

To Magic Kingdom’s credit, the Swiss Family Treehouse hasn’t been re-themed to Tarzan like they did at Disneyland.  They have Mickey’s Philharmagic at MK and the castle is bigger.  The MK park is overall a larger (107 acres compared to 85) but the difference is mainly felt in the hub area in front of the castle (the castle is over twice as big as the one at Disneyland) but elsewhere in the park it doesn’t feel larger.  And the park’s surroundings is a lot nicer than the cramped Anaheim area with all the cheezy motels.

Our main mission was to get a few fast passes to use on the popular rides in the evening and ride a few of the less popular rides.  It worked out very well.  We got there between 10:30 and 11 if I remember right (I’m writing this 6 days later.)  Because I knew the MK Space Mountain wasn’t all that, instead of getting a FP there, we hopped the train to Frontierland and I got one from the other ride I know usually has long lines – Splash Mountain.  Because it was colder than normal that day (about 60 that morning) the stand-by line was only 30-min and the FP Return was only a couple hours away.  We then walked over to Pirates of the Caribbean but because it was later in the morning, everyone who stampeded to Tomorrowland and Fantasyland that morning was starting to migrate to Adventureland and the line for Pirates was 40  minutes.  Skip for now. We headed over to the next one on the list, The Hall of Presidents.  This is one of those sleeper attractions that a lot of people aren’t aware of or at least interested in.  It was an enjoyable show and the kids like learning about U.S. History.  There was only about a 10 minute wait for the next show.

We had not originally planned to each lunch at MK.  In my opinion the dining selections at MK are some of the weaker ones compared to the other parks.  But since we arrived late, we had no choice.  After reading some reviews at themeparkinsider.com I decided we would try the Columbia Harbor House.  We got there at about 11:45 and I went and grabbed a Fast Pass for Big Thunder Mountain.  There was almost no line.  This place is sort of tucked away by the Haunted Mansion and I think a lot of people don’t know it was there.  The Fish & Chips were so so, pretty greasy (English Batter Style.) We were able to find seating outside.  If I had to do it over again I might have just got a Hot Dog or a Turkey Leg right near where we were sitting outside by the Hall of Presidents.

After lunch we walked over and and used our Splash Mountain Fast Passes and managed to not get very wet.  Splash Mountain is one of my top 5 rides that Disney has made (the others are Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror, and Soarin)  I like the theming though of the Log Ride at Knotts Berry farm a little better. After Splash we hopped the train to Toon Town to get to Fantasyland.  It was negligible if it saved us any time from just walking to Fantasyland.  In Fantasyland, as expected, everything had a long wait with the exception of the attraction we were there for, Mickey’s Philharmagic — an enjoyable short 4D experience.

Next we walked over to Tomorrowland and I got Fast Passes for Space Mountain for that evening.  At about 2 in the afternoon the return time was already past 9 PM.  Note that I opted to get Fast Passes for this instead of Buzz Lightyear because Buzz Lightyear is more of a young kids ride and should be wide open late in the evening when all the little kids have gone back to go to bed.  We road the Transit Authority ride next which had no lines (supposedly never does) which was a fun little tour around Tomorrowland.  Definitely recommended as a good ride to give your feet some rest.

We managed to hit all the objectives (except Pirates) and be out of there by 3 to head back and sit in the Spa and let the kids swim at the Marriott Cypress Harbor.  The kids were really excited to go back and had the map out planning all the rides we were going to see that evening.

We returned at about 9 in the evening (used the same Contemporary Resort trick) and did Pirates, Big Thunder Mountain (Fast Pass), Haunted Mansion (10 min line – all of these rides are better at night in my opinion), Splash Mountain (because there was no line – saw fireworks during the ride), Snow White (Peter Pan line was still 30 min), Small World (waste of time), Space Mountain (no line), and finally Buzz Lightyear at about (had no line at about 11 PM).  Buzz Lightyear (during the day) gets my vote as the most ridiculous line for what you get out of all attractions.  The line can be as crazy as Toy Story Mania but this ride pales in comparison to Toy Story Mania.  In my opinion the hour to two hour waits at this ride is the poster child example of how parents (who didn’t plan ahead) completely lose their minds and wait in the ridiculous line anyway to avoid feeling guilty their kids didn’t get to ride it.  We skipped the parades and fireworks (although you can see the fireworks no matter where you are) as we been there, done that.

We were hungry and decided to get a snack (which turned out to be $30 – ouch) in Tomorrowland at Starlight Cafe which was one of the few places still open. I ordered the chili-cheese fries because they were cheap but they put it in as the chili-cheese dog.  Pretty gross.

This late arrival, late evening itinerary worked out very well for a stress-free, virtual no-wait visit to Magic Kingdom essentially because the park was open until midnight that day and it was a Tuesday, still several days before the peak Christmas/New Years crowds.  The cold weather probably helped cut the crowds down too (was about 50 late that night.)  Nevertheless, we were exhausted by the end of the night.  Theme Park vacations can be hard work – unlike sitting on the beach in Hawaii.

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Orlando Day 4 – Hollywood Studios

December 20, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

After the late arrival at Animal Kingdom the day before I was determined to get to Hollywood Studios early.  This is a park with a lot of popular rides so a late morning arrival would be disastrous unless we were prepared to stay there all day and into the night and not take an afternoon break.

We arrived about 20 min or so after opening — not ideal but better than an hour after opening. My original plan was to head to Rockin Roll Rollercoaster and get a Fast Pass and ride it but someone in an Internet forum had recommended getting the Fast Pass first for the Toy Story Mania ride as it was the most popular ride in the park.  So I rushed over to Toy Story and would meet everyone else at Rockin Rollercoaster.  To my astonishment, there was a HUGE LONG line of people not to get in the ride but to get a Fast Pass.  I estimate it was probably a 20-30 min wait just to get the Fast Pass.  No way I was going to waste time waiting in a line to get a Fast Pass.

We ended up following the original plan riding Rockin and getting a Fast Pass.  The kids loved Rockin Rollercoaster as it was their first time riding a coaster that catapults you.  It is essentially an amped up version of Space Mountain but the ride is shorter than Space Mountain.  Worth about a 30 min wait but not much more.  We had to wait about 10 min.  But by the time we were done the wait for the nearby Tower of Terror grew from a posted 5 min to more closer to 20-30 min.  Had we arrived at the park shortly before opening, we could have done both these rides with virtually no wait.  Rides grow fast, especially during busy season so it is crucial to get there in time for opening if you want to minimize the wait times.

Tower of Terror is one of my top 5 favorite Disney rides and the Florida version is considerably better than the California one in that the elevator goes into the building and there are more drops.  I love the theme of this ride and it is especially cool to go on at night.

Next we headed to The Great Movie ride.  This is a sleeper of a ride that is something most people don’t ride until later in the day when either they’ve done all the more popular rides or they are desperately looking for something that doesn’t have an hour or more wait.  It is pretty cheezy but if you like old movies you will find it enjoyable and in the morning there will be virtually no wait.

After the movie I was able to secure a Fast Pass for Toy Story mania (about 10:45) and the return time was already 7:10 PM!  The wait for Toy Story Mania from early morning started at about an hour and grew to over two hours at its peak.  The ride is essentially a 3D video game.  It just amazes me anyone would wait more than 45 min to ride this ride.  Who in their right mind would wait 90 min or two hours???  I determined the reason is this ride is super popular due to the fact it appeals to ALL age groups.  Kids have as much fun as adults.  Most rides appeal more to one group or the other.  I also think a lot of the rides popular amongst the kids get such long waits because typically families with small children find it difficult getting ready in time to get to a park before opening.  Most arrive a little later and by that time all the good rides have lines and even some groups don’t even know what a Fast Pass is.  Even if they do get a Fast Pass they are stuck trying to figure out what to do until the return time so they either have to ride a lesser ride or wait in line.  Most families realize their kids are going to get hungry and/or eventually tired so their time is limited so they go ahead and wait long waits to try to ride the main rides.  This is why it is so important to get to the parks early and secure as many Fast Passes as possible as quickly as possible for the most popular rides first.

After this we headed to the nearby Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream.  This is a newly renovated attraction about the history of Walt Disney and the parks.  It has a very interesting walk-thru followed by a short biographical film.  True Disney Enthusiasts will really enjoy this attraction and I think anyone that has every enjoyed his movies or parks should do it at least once to learn a little history. It is another ride most people will walk past for most of the day instead of doing it when there is virtually no wait.

After Walt, our Fast Passes for Rockin Rollercoaster were ready to use so we headed over and rode that again with only a 5 min wait walking past all the people waiting an hour to ride it.  We then headed out of the park at about 1 PM for lunch and a nice long afternoon break being able to secure a Fast Pass for Tower of Terror to ride when we come back in the evening.

We returned in the evening around 7:30 after a nice break at the pool.  Instead of going to the late 8 PM show of Fantasmic (have to line up at least half an hour early), we decided to go to the Indiana Jones Stunt Show.  The kids were so young when we saw it last they didn’t remember it.  They really enjoyed it, probably more than the would have enjoyed Fantasmic.

We then headed to Toy Story Mania and used our Fast Passes.  The Stand By Line wait an hour.  The ride is good but not an hour wait good!  I bet Jordan he couldn’t beat my score and he did! 135k! to 138k!  We then headed over to Tower of Terror and there was no wait so we didn’t even need to use our Fast Passes!  We rode it twice.  There was a family on the second ride that never rode it before and had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  It was quite entertaining to watch/hear them.

All in all a very good day.  Did everything worth doing for our group and never waited more than 15 or 20 min.  The only thing we would have done had we had more time was the Car Chase Stunt Show.  Hollywood studios has a lot to do there.

Orlando Day 3 – Animal Kingdom

December 19, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

Everyone was completely beat by the end of Saturday.  The time change combined with all the walking took its toll on us.  We had a great sushi dinner Saturday night but decided Sunday was not going to be an early morning, get there when the park opens day. (Note that my blog entries are aimed at servicing as a resource for people who may be taking future trips to Orlando so they may see a little too detailed or critical at times to the casual reader.)

We arrived inside Animal Kingdom not until around 11 AM.  The place was pretty crowded and I was skeptical we would be able to do even 50% of the items on the original itinerary which was based on getting there at least 20 min before park opening.  The weather was about 55 degrees and all the people from warm climates were wearing thick, heavy parkas which cracked me up.  I had figured it would warm up a bit so only wore a short sleeve shirt and pants as I didn’t want to lug a jacket around if it got into the low-mid 60’s as the weather report forecast.  This would turn out to be a a mistake as it didn’t get above the mid 50’s that day and there was a light breeze but I only got chilled in the late afternoon.

We headed straight for Expedition Everest, one of my top 5 Disney rides.  It is essentially the new version of the Matterhorn. The theming of this ride is typical excellent, creative Disney.  It is a smooth roller coaster very unlike the original Matterhorn which still amazes me it is still in operation virtually unchanged since 1959! The Fast Pass return time was already 4:00 PM in the afternoon.  Considering the park was only opened until 6, we were lucky to get a Fast Pass with a return time prior to when we had to leave to go to dinner at 5.

We then walked over to Dinosaur in Dino Land.  Dino Land is pretty cheezy — probably the least favorite of any of the areas of any Disney theme park.  There aren’t any good rides (except a few for small children) and the actual theming of the ride area does not fit it well with Animal Kingdom.  It looks more like a cheezy Carnival on Disney steroids.  We were lucky the Dinosaur ride wait was only 30 minutes.  We enjoyed the ride, essentially a re-skinning of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.  I’d would not wait more than 30 to 40 minutes max for this ride though.

Next everyone was getting hungry.  We had reservations at the Tusker house restaurant (a table service buffet) but the time was at 11:30 so we missed it.  Three weeks earlier I had tried to get reservations at the only other table serice restaurant in the park, the Yak & Yeti (Asian cuisine) but it was already booked and it was too cold that day to eat outside at its counter service counterpart, Yaki & Yeti Cafe. Disney handles food allergies like no other place in the world.  Every restaurant they record the allergy in the computer and at the sit-down restaurants, the chef comes to personally take the order and prepare the childs meal themselves.

We ended up stumbling upon a counter service restaurant, right next to Dinosaur called Restaurantosaurus.  It was essentially burgers and chicken nuggets.  Even the counter service though handles the allergy well.  We found out the bun in the kids burger had milk.  So Jordan had to just eat a patty, the grapes and carrots that come with it, and I gave him my fries.  Right after we placed the order though we found that the adult burger doesn’t have milk in the bun!  The difference between the childs meal and the adult meal was only $2 and the Adult patty was 3 times larger than the kids meal.  Plus the kids meal doesn’t come with fries (just grapes and carrots) but I still saw lots of plastic pails being filled up with fries so even though it wasn’t on the menu, you must have either been able to order fries separately or ask to substitute the carrots and grapes for fries. (It was refreshing to see Disney is doing their part to encourage people to battle the child obesity problem in this country by defaulting the kids meal to come with fruit and veggies instead of fries.)

This restaurant is also supposedly very environmentally conscious.  The straws are made of paper!  Never seen this before.  And there are no plastic lids for the soft drinks.  However it struck me very contradictory that they still were giving away a cheezy plastic bucket and shovel with the kids meal.  Where do you think that bucket and shovel most likely end up? In the trash!  Very contradictory.  The burger wasn’t bad though, very large and they had an excellent condiment bar.  The way to go at this restaurant would be to either order the kids meal without the bucket or if your kids don’t eat fries and drink pop all the time give them a rare treat and have them split the Adult meal with fries and a fountain drink (kids meal comes with Apple juice.)     In a nutshell, good place for a hungry burger person with lots of seating available but otherwise disappointed with their overall selection and their contradictory environmental practices.

After lunch we walked up to the Kilimanjaro Safari and as I feared all the Fast Passes were already gone.  That probably wouldn’t have helped us anyway as we had to leave the park no later than 5 to go to dinner.  So we decided to do the 50 minute wait.  I’ve always thought this ride was overrated for the wait time but it really depends on what you see (and how long you waited.)  And this time it was worth the wait.  We saw lots of animals: Rhinos, Elephants, Cheetahs, Lions, Ostrich, and lots more and I even barely manged to not freeze my butt off due to the knit black Mickey hat and scarf my wife and Mom loaned me.

By the time we were done with Kilimanjaro, it was time to head over to Everest to use our Fast Passes. As I said before, love this ride.  It is a nice smooth coaster with a twist that I won’t divulge.  Perfect for young children and Adults that typically shy away from more hardcore coaster rides and I love the theming.  This would be the ride in the park that would be worth doing right after opening in the Stand By line and get a Fast Pass also to use later for a second ride.

After Everest it was time to head to dinner.  We were lucky enough to hit the three top/main attractions in a very short afternoon visit.  We missed on on the two exploration trails (Pangani Foest and Maharajah Jungle), the Festival of the Lion King show, and the Kali River Rapids (the other ‘main’ attraction – but we wouldn’t have ridden it anyway – TOO COLD!)

For the Adult Theme Park Enthusiast, Animal Kingdom, on the surface, doesn’t seem to have much to offer.  It is better suited to families with small children in my opinion, but if it is one of those parks where some of the best things may not be their rides (the shows, animals, exploration trails, etc.)  It is like no other Theme Park and that makes it special and interesting.  With good planning though, if you arrived at opening, I think you could do this park and be out of there by 2 or 3 and have seem everything worthwhile.  So it is a 2/3 to 3/4 day park in my opinion if you do it right and stay ahead of ‘the herd.’

We arrived at Sanaa, the restaurant at Kidani Village which it the Disney Timeshare portion of the Animal Kingdom Lodge Property.  We chose this restaurant for two reasons: 1) compared to other high-end Disney Poperty restaurants it was more resonable priced since it was in the Timeshare lobby and not one of the hotels, and 2) the animals roamed right outside the windows!  When we arrived we saw a bunch of animals including several Giraffes.  Here’s a tip: Head outside the restaurant entrance there is a walkway that takes you to a viewing area that can get you right up close to the animals if you are lucky!

Sanaa is Indian-themed cuisine.  The decor of the restaurant is really cool.  All the found was excellent and as I mentioned before, reasonable prices for a Disney restaurant.  We had a really good time and at one point talked about how lucky we were that our family all gets along with each other including the in-laws to the point we can take trips like this together and have fun without any issues or people rubbing each other the wrong way which seems to be so common these days with other extended families.

Now for the highlight of the evening…  Since it was my Mom’s birthday we decided to surprise her with a cruise on a Pontoon boat just for our family to see the Magic Kingdom Wishes fireworks show and the Electric Water Pageant.  The cancellation policy was 48 hours and two days before I was watching the weather report and although it predicted mid-60’s high that day I figured being from Seattle we could handle the cooler evening temps on the boat.  Unfortunately the prediction was almost 10 degrees higher than the actual temps that day.

The boat arrived with a Happy Birthday banner and balloons. We all bundled up with blankets and towels looking like boat full of Arab Shieks.  It was pretty chilly, even for us Northerners – probably mid 40’s with wind chill, around 50 without wind.  After cruising around a bit we watched the Electric Water Pageant which was a bit cheezy but actually a pleasant surprise all things considered.  It is essentially a string of barges with light displays (like Christmas lights) that show animated sea creatures moving to the music.

We then repositioned for the fireworks show where we had a view of the castle also.  The fireworks show is really good.  And we could hear the accompanying music.  That night was Mickey’s Christmas Party which is where in the evening you can only get into the park by paying extra (close to $60 if I recall).  What you get that you don’t otherwise get at any late night in December is they make it snow on Main Street during the parade I think and there is cookied and hot cocoa around the park.  After reading about it several times, and the reports of being insanely crowded it was clear to me for that kind of money it definitely was not worth it, at least for our group.  Supposedly the fireworks are different on these nights so by being on the cruise we still got to enjoy the fireworks show without dealing with the crowds and then conveniently returned to Wilderness Lodge where we launched from for an easy, stress-free exit off the property instead of a packed ferry or monorail ride back from Magic Kingdom.

The Wilderness Lodge was amazing inside, especially with the Christmas Decorations!  All in all it turned out to be an excellent day.  Would I do the fireworks cruise again?  Yes, if the weather was warmer and the bill was being split more ways (it was pricey – but worth it for a special occasion like this coinciding with us being at the park).  But if the weather looked iffy or the group wasn’t large enough to make the costs reasonable, I’d skip it.

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