There it was, the sign I had been waiting for all this time. Not a religious awakening or some sort of near death realization of my true destiny in life but just a road sign and an arrow pointing towards something I’d been waiting for for a long time. The bus driver changed lanes and easily steered his vehicle around the wide sweeping turn and then merged with a few other vehicles heading in the same direction. I was oblivious to being on the wrong side of the road, the lack of sleep from the days of flying to get here and the early morning start with a Danish and bottle of coke as my only sustenance. The first sign had simply said “Magic Kingdom” with an arrow to the right and was as mundane and functional as any road sign but it was the first true indication that I was on the right path. The overwhelming mass of advertising and merchandising in the hundreds of souvenir stores lining the roads around my hotel had somehow merged into a blur along with the myriad of fast food restaurants and hotels and became easily, if unconsciously, ignored. That wasn’t the true Disney; that was the reason Walt had decided to build out here in Florida, in an effort to keep the morass of tackiness at a distance and control the approach to his World in a way that he was never able to do in Anaheim. That road sign, in all its workaday simplicity said that it was real and that it existed. I was heading towards Walt Disney World.
I had chosen a seat at the front of the bus so that I could see everything coming and so that I would be the first to see it. I didn’t know if the others that we had picked up from hotels near mine had been here before or if, like me, they were WDW initiates but I knew that they didn’t want to be here as much as I did, they just couldn’t. It just wasn’t possible that they had waited as long or that they had the same smile spreading uncontrollably over their faces as I did over mine as the next sign came into view. This was a massive arch over the 3 inbound lanes of traffic and had a giant Mickey on one side with arms spread wide in greeting and a similar Minnie on the other side. The words “Walt Disney World” in that all too familiar script arced across the road and coloured flags waved above. I was here.
From this point everything took on a surreal Disney feel. Even the road signs became different and had a more colourful look with purples and reds and added Mickey ears. The road itself was cleaner, the grass verges neater and even the trees seemed healthier and happier. Of course that could have been my imagination but it did seem as if there was a real feeling of things being kept up rather than let run down. Buses started to appear, large and white with “Disney” written on the side of them in bright red letters. There seemed to be a lot of them and they all seemed to know where they were going which boded well for trying to find my way around this massive area. A Disney bus driver was later to tell me that the entire resort covered an area equivalent to San Francisco. I had worried about transportation since the shuttle bus I was on from my cheap offsite hotel only dropped off at the Transportation and Ticket Center and from that point I had to find my way to the various parks. I had no doubt that Disney would have figured out the most efficient way of moving large amounts of confused tourists from one place to the other but the sight of those gleaming buses was still reassuring.
The entire resort area may be the size of San Francisco but much of it is still grass and woods and golf courses. It’s only through those road signs and having passed under the welcoming arch that you would truly know you were there. The signs continue to come up for various turnoffs and the names are so familiar that my smile continued. I had decided to spend my first day in the Magic Kingdom as an almost tribute to Walt and as a way of easing myself into the Disney spirit because of the familiarity to my past visits to Disneyland but passing the signs pointing the way to Epcot, Animal Kingdom and even familiar names like the Swan and Dolphin Resort kept the smile on my face. I knew I would be visiting them and I was just glad that no one else could see the idiotic grin. I was here!
I was dropped in the large and virtually empty bus parking lot, told where to be to catch the bus home and then I was left to my own devices. I had my camera safely stowed in its backpack along with extra memory cards and a spare, fully charged, battery. I had no intention of missing out on a shot and didn’t care if I looked like some sort of stereotypical American tourist. As it turned out I had people (including security, but that’s another story) asking me if I was a professional photographer so I must have looked much more, well, professional than I thought. I also had the receipt for a ten day pass, purchased in the hotel lobby, sitting safely in my wallet and my first need was to convert that receipt into a proper ticket at one of the many booths marking the entrance. An easy process as it turned out, there were no lines with an hour till opening time and I was able to wander into the large open space behind the ticket booths that forms a waiting area for the various methods of transport to the Magic Kingdom.
It was late October and the entire place had been decked out for Halloween. The other parks had nothing of this kind of decoration, maybe their own individual themes overrode anything additional but the Magic Kingdom was going all out to see how many pumpkins, pumpkin patches, scarecrows and black silhouettes of scary things they could hang from poles, sit in windows and drape over balconies. The waiting area had a large display and banner advertising “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party”, an afterhours event that didn’t kick off in the park until it got dark. Separate admission was payable and costumes seemed mandatory as I passed those streaming in as I trekked wearily but happily home each evening. Maybe it was the extra cost, maybe it was the fact that I had already spent the entire day there or maybe it was the overt Americanism of the celebration and that I would have felt strangely out of place having neither a small child in tow or a costume but I never went to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Maybe I was just too scared.
Next I had to decide how I was to get to the Magic Kingdom.
When the plans for the resort were laid out, with the opportunity to use the an enormous amount of extra space over what was available in Anaheim, it gave Walt the opportunity to present the Magic Kingdom in a much more theatrical way and to give visitors an entrance that was worthy of the spectacle to come. By placing the car parks on the other side of a lake from the park itself he distanced it from the mundane and gave the guest a chance to separate themselves from the world they were leaving before entering the world he had created. No matter which method you choose, be it a launch from one of the resorts, a ferry across the lake or the monorail, you can only catch glimpses of Cinderella’s castle in the distance which lets you know where you’re going but still keeps the full reveal of the castle until you are inside. Being forced to use a mode of transport that puts you in the company of many other park guests also helps you to get caught up in the building anticipation and even if you have no children of your own you can’t help but be infected by the excitement of those around you. I chose to take the ferry and only shared it with a handful of other people. It may have lacked the excited buzz of a large crowd but it did give me the opportunity to stand at the railing in a prime position at the front of the boat and simply take in the scenery.
It was an overcast morning with patches of blue sky that allowed the sun to illuminate certain features at a time. At one point a burst of sunshine made the Grand Floridian Resort glow with its white walls and red roofed towers while the trees and water around it remained muted. As we passed the island at the park end of the lake the train station came into view and with it the monorail station and the first signs of people waiting at the entrance. Apart from the train station and the upper reaches of the castle the park itself was still unseen. People were milling around in front of the entrance and I quickly made my way towards the turnstiles, pausing only to take a quick photo of a few of the thousands of paving stones inscribed with people’s names. Before I could get to the turnstiles themselves I had to have my bag inspected by security but this only took a second and one of the security guards was even doing Mickey impersonations to amuse the kids waiting impatiently while their parents were searched. From there I moved on to a queue at the turnstiles and first witnessed the phenomena of people waiting until they were at the head of the queue before they started to search for their ticket. I already had mine out and firmly clutched in my hand while I waited for those in front of me to search through pockets and bags, asking others in their group who had the tickets while the rest of us stood patiently waiting. Finally getting to front I inserted my ticket in the machine, placed my index finger on the little blue glowing plate and had the biometric reader register my fingerprint and assign it to my ticket. I have no problem with registering my fingerprint. It must make reissuing lost tickets much easier and it added no more than a second or two to the entrance procedure. There may be issues of privacy with the ticket being linked to your name and possibly credit card number but if you’ve surfed the net for long enough or even paid for a meal in a restaurant then you have undoubtedly given your details to far less reputable people.
Inside the turnstiles people were milling around under the train station waiting for the park to open. At this point it was still about 8.40 and 20 minutes away from the scheduled opening time. The station and the garden in front of it were decorated in full Halloween regalia. Pumpkins were stacked up with “not so scary” faces carved into them and banners of muted oranges and browns hung from every available place. The next thing I knew there was a man standing above us, in front of the station, welcoming us all to the Magic Kingdom and introducing himself as the mayor of Main Street USA. He explained that he was waiting for the train to arrive with Mickey and his special guests to open the park. A few minutes later and the train did pull up and a dapper looking Mickey got off along with a happy looking All-American family who were waving and beaming at all of us below. By now the sky had started to clear of the overcast and the whole scene was bathed in a golden glow that accentuated not only the autumn colours of the decorations but made Mickey in his shiny blue suit fairly pop. Accompanied by a number of singers and dancers who gave us the typical Disney welcoming song the lucky family and Mickey declared the park open. There was a burst of confetti that drifted over the waiting crowd (tiny Mickey head shapes as it turned out) and then a surge as we all headed through the short tunnel under the train tracks and into the park.
Main Street USA was familiar to me but not in the way that Walt had intended. His plan was for it to be a typical turn of the (last) century town that wouldn’t be anywhere specific but just seem familiar to everyone. For me the familiarity came not from the feeling of small town American but the feeling that I was back in Disneyland. In fact the Magic Kingdom often made me think I was in California rather than Florida until some detail or placement brought me back and reminded me I was on the other side of the country. The Magic Kingdom is bigger than Disneyland, some 120 acres as opposed to 80, and the layout, while familiar, is still different enough to set the two parks apart. All the familiar objects were there though with a fire engine already attracting a queue of eager riders and a horse drawn trolley being readied for its first journey of the day. The Town Hall was there, the fire station, barber shop, a town square decorated with even more pumpkins, hay bales and scarecrows and the beginnings of the many stores lining Main Street itself. The red colour of the footpaths was chosen in the planning stages to accentuate the colour of the grass.
As you first enter the park and walk across the square to enter Main Street you cannot see Cinderella’s castle. This is another clever piece of Imagineering that forces you to acclimatise to Main Street before having the full length of the street finally revealed to you with the castle standing framed at the end. The castle is truly the centrepiece of the park and it seems that no matter where you stand and still have a view of it it somehow manages to be framed in such a way as to make a photo mandatory. If there was one feature of all the parks that I have an abundance of photos of it is that castle. Be it sunshine or rain it still draws the eye and tells you like no other piece of architecture that you are truly in a Disney place. My first glimpse of it from inside was from the balcony of the train station. I had climbed the stairs to get an overall view of the square and the masses of people now pouring in. The sky had cleared up considerably by now and the castle stood out and drew my camera towards it. A few quick shots of the square from my vantage and I went back to street level and allowed myself to be drawn along Main Street by the crowd.
I made it to the hub in front of the castle and stood under the statue of Walt. My camera was working overtime and I was trying to soak in every sight and every sound. This had to be the heart of not only the Magic Kingdom but Walt Disney World. Now I had ten days to do nothing but immerse myself in this world…and try not to spend too much money.
Of my ten days at Walt Disney World I spent 3 each at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and 2 each at MGM and Animal Kingdom. Rather than continue this trip report as a timeline type narrative, which would just get too confusing given my hopping from park to park, I will just do a description of each park combining all my visits as if they were one.
I probably should preface this by saying that I am not a wimp. I have done some pretty scary things in my time, climbed mountains, flown airplanes, walked dark streets in strange places, told a woman she did look fat in it, eaten more than my share of odd things and even drunk the water in Mexico. But I do have a fear of heights and refuse to go on rides that get off the ground in any way. It may seem crazy to go to a place that has so many rides and especially any number of rides famous for how far off the ground they get and how fast they go while they are up there but the Disney Parks have more going for them than those others that rely purely on having the latest and greatest attraction designed simply to force changes of underwear. In short, I don’t go on scary rides. Don’t look for in depth reviews although there may be a few photos taken safely from the outside.
That out of the way I can continue.
Standing in front of Cinderella’s castle I knew I was going to be taking a lot of photos of it. It dominates the skyline and acts as the beacon and centre point of the park that Walt envisioned it would. I was lucky enough on my first day to have that brilliant and deeply blue sky that you imagine a place like Florida would have and it formed a naturally vibrant backdrop to the castle. By now the crowds had dispersed, heading out to the different worlds around that famous and oft copied radial layout and I could stand and take several photos looking up at the castle with only a minimal number of people in shot. It quickly became obvious that taking a photo of anything was going to be impossible without getting a few heads and bodies in it and I was probably going to be as guilty of wondering aimlessly into someone’s carefully composed shot as everyone else. Funnily enough, while trying to take one artistic shot that required people walking in front of the camera, to achieve that blurred look while focusing on something behind them, I stood with my eye to the viewfinder and waited…and waited. Looking up I found massed people to either side of me all waiting patiently while I took my shot. I indicated that they could walk past, lifted the camera up for another attempt only to find that they all stopped again. I had a few attempts at capturing the soaring immensity of the castle with the “Partners” statue of Walt and Mickey in the foreground and I was ready to move on. I now had the whole of the Magic Kingdom to explore and for no reason in particular I turned to my right and walked into Tomorrowland.
Crossing the bridge from the statue you have a stretch of water on your right with a topiary Loch Ness monster looping in and out of the grass on its way to the water’s edge. To the left you pass the rose garden, a little bereft of roses at this time of the year but still alive with the colours of other flowers in baskets hanging from the light posts. Across the bridge and you are met with a sign placed by the “Tomorrowland Chamber of Commerce” and adorned with the logos of such community groups as “The Loyal Order Of Little Green Beings”, “The League Of Planets” and “Sleepless Knights Of The Milky Way”. There is also the motto of Tomorrowland, “The future that never was, is finally here”. That is an important motto because it acknowledges that Tomorrowland is less of an attempt at predicting the future but more of an attempt at creating a place that feels futuristic in a familiar and fun way. All of the details on the buildings are mechanical and seemingly of metallic finishes, there are supports on the outside that look like the exposed buttresses in any factory. The palm trees are robotic and used to open and close (apparently they no longer do), trash cans are likely to start following you and wanting to talk. There is a stack of futuristic looking crates adorned with the coke dynamic ribbon logo and a closer inspection shows that they have been delivered by the unfortunately acronymed ‘Standard Transgalactic Delivery’. Look a little closer at the delivery label and the attention to detail even extends to “enjoy ice code’ written in the red coke script under the barcode. Attractions based on the Disney Sci-Fi characters like Buzz Lightyear and Stitch just confirm the fun, warm and fuzzy look at the future and if you are looking for a Bladerunner vision of the future then this is not the place to go. Even the worn and lived in world of Star Wars is missing here, Star Tours having been relocated to Disney/MGM.
In all the days that I visited the parks I never had a queue longer than 20 minutes and that was only once. Mostly it was less than 5 and usually was just a matter of walking up and getting on. Some of the more popular thrill rides may have had longer waits but not most of the ones that I went on. The problem with such a fast entry was missing out on most of the detail that goes into the queue. Walking into the Buzz Lightyear ride I breezed through everything designed to keep you entertained and to build up a sense of expectation while you wait your turn. The whole concept was wasted on me as I just strode to the head of the line and boarded one of the little “spacecraft”. If I’d taken a little more time to look around before boarding I would have had a better idea of what it was I was supposed to do. As it was I just sat there for a few seconds looking around as we moved off into rooms decorated like a fluorescent version of “it’s a small world” (I don’t know what they were on but it must have been good) with a bewildering array of moving objects. The idea is to rotate your spacecraft with the joystick you have in one hand and shoot targets sprinkled around the walls and moving objects with a gun held in your other hand. This is both much more fun and much harder than it sounds. While your craft moves at a steady pace on the belt it and everyone else is attached to, you have the ability to independently control its rotating. Rather than simply facing forward you can turn to both sides in search of juicier targets and even, sometimes much to the shock of the people following, turn completely around and fire backwards. The more targets you hit with your laser beam the more points you earn and there is immense satisfaction in watching the little digital display on the dashboard in front of you go up. You can shoot moving spaceships, aliens of various sizes and even old Zurg himself as you move from room to room. If you have a look around online there are plenty of sites that reveal which targets are worth the most but I just blasted away at anything that caught my eye and the points kept racking up. As you exit the ride there is a board explaining what level your score puts you on which meant that I had to ride it a couple of times before I had a score that I thought was worthy. This idea of earning points compels the competitive among us to ride it again and again, a clever piece of design and, as far as I can think, unique in terms of Disney rides.
The other rides that immediately caught my attention, and ones that I hadn’t seen before, were “Stitch’s Great Escape” and “Monsters Inc Laugh Floor”. The lines being so short I managed to walk pretty much into both of them as well. Laugh Floor I knew nothing about as I entered but I suspected it was something along the lines of a 3D film, another “Honey I shrunk the audience” type of attraction. Happily I was wrong. Luckily I wasn’t singled out. Entering the theatre it has all the trappings of a (well decorated) Disney show attraction with the audience sitting on seats in front of the stage which opens with Mike from Monsters Inc welcoming you to a monsters comedy club. From that point on it takes a left turn into a strange involuntary audience participation experience. Various members of the audience seem to have been selected by unseen cast members and have a live video image of themselves shown on big screens and they become characters in the show, complete with captions explaining exactly who they are. ‘That guy’ gets an especially vigorous workout and becomes the butt of a number of gags, both running and otherwise. Like I said, luckily I wasn’t singled out. The premise of the show is that it is through us, the live, human audience members, that Monsters Inc is able to fill a large tank with the energy of our laughter. As various monsters come onstage to do comedy acts the tank is slowly filled. It’s the interaction, witting or unwitting, that provides the real humour in this show, with some people hamming it up for the camera and others sitting completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else is laughing at them. There is also a section where jokes that have been texted by people waiting in the line outside are used in the show. This came as a bit of a surprise to me since I had arrived just as the doors were opened and must have missed the explanation on what to do and why but it is another update to a concept and shows just how ubiquitous the mobile phone has become.
Just across the way is Stitch. In this attraction you become a first day guard at a galactic prison and have a warm and fuzzy introduction to the low level prisoner you will be in charge of. A robotic sergeant (Richard Kind voiced) takes you through your initial duties and reassures you that nothing exciting ever happens. He even takes a moment to answer a phone call (yes dear, a pint of oil…) before suddenly being forced into action by the arrival of a prisoner of the highest level. Everyone is then rushed into a large chamber and you find yourself in a seat with a shoulder harness exactly like that on a rollercoaster, making me a little worried about exactly what this ride was going to do. As it turns out the ride doesn’t go anywhere but an audioanimatronic Stitch gets loose from his restraints and takes over the chamber. In the resulting darkness he climbs all over you as you sit trapped in your harness, spits at you and even burps a particularly nasty reminder of what he last ate. This is probably the closest you will get to an audioanimatronic figure and it is amazing in its detail and range of movements. The experience is immersive in a way that goes beyond ‘Honey’. One word of advice…if you enter a ride or show and find that the seat is a little wet then it may be an indication that water is going to shoot out at you at some point…or that it’s a really, really exciting ride.
Space Mountain I’m going to leave to some much hardier person to describe but I must admit to being a little disappointed with the theming outside the ride. There may be much more inside but there was little at the entrance to even come close to enticing me in.
The ‘Carousel of Progress’ was great. Call me old fashioned but there is something charming about sitting and watching this candy coated look at America through the ages. Sitting in the audience you find yourself viewing 4 audioanimatronic scenes as you revolve around the hub/stage (or does the stage rotate? You’ll have to visit and find out for yourself), each scene representing a different era and the advance of technology as it relates to an average American family. The 1900s, the 1920’s, the 1940’s and then 2000 show the change from gas lamps to microwaves and a gramophone to high definition TV. There is even a perky and catchy song that carries through all the scenes and that you may find yourself singing later but is in no way as subversive as ‘It’s a small world’. Apparently this was Walt’s favorite attraction and he promised that it would never close, only be updated. For this reason alone it’s probably worth a visit since you can try to imagine that you’re sitting in the same seat that he sat in as he enjoyed the show.
Probably the least advertised act, when it comes to shows in Tomorrowland, is in Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café. On the park map it is nothing but a place to grab some fast food and walking past it that’s all you would think it is but if you venture inside there’s a more than pleasant little surprise. Being on a fairly tight budget I had convinced myself that I was going to avoid the overpriced food in the parks and try to steer away from all the fast food that would be tempting me. As it turned out I became a bit of a connoisseur of the ‘take out’ and tried most of them. It could have been because I found that the prices were not as horrendous as I imagined they would be or it could have been because I was too late or too lazy to make a reservation at the more up market eateries. Either way, I did partake of the fast stuff and that was why I found my way into Cosmic Rays. I’ll probably detail the food a bit later but the thing that really attracted me to Rays was the condiment bar, a large bain-marie that held all of the things possible to add to a burger. Buy the burger at the counter and then add as much to it as you want. Having done that and gathered enough to satisfy even me I wandered around looking for a good place to sit. Being early still the entire was almost empty and I found a seat at a table directly in front of Sonny Eclipse, an intergalactic singer and all round lounge lizard, even if he doesn’t look much like a lizard rather than a…a…something else. Another audioanimatronic figure, Sonny carries on his act like the consummate professional he is. Singing, cracking some of the worst jokes you’ll here this side of the other side and introducing his backing singers, a mysterious bunch of girls who reveal very little. I like the act and despite there being a very sparse audience (me and couple on the other side of the room) Sonny still gave it his all and used his ‘A’ material. All in all a very entertaining place to sit and eat especially if, like me, you are on your own and have no one to talk to. Sonny would probably be worth a visit even if you didn’t want to eat.
To be honest I found Tomorrowland a little sparse. I don’t know if wide open spaces are the vision of the future that the imagineers were going for or if it was just the small crowds that I luckily experienced but I found that it lacked the intimacy that the other lands had. It may even be that so many of the things to see are above your head and sitting in front of the Carousel of Progress gives you a clear view from one side of the land to the other and even on into the next. The Astro Orbiter is up, the Transit Authority is up, even the metal palm trees and oddly shaped topiary trees are up. The other lands seem to have designs that hide the next attraction and encourage you to explore. It’s obviously not sparse in terms of rides and attractions and Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies makes a pretty mean ice cream sundae but I can’t help feeling that more could be accomplished with the entire area between the entrance to the Indy Speedway and the Carousel of Progress and I also can’t help feeling that the Speedway itself could be better utilised, even if I am committing some sort of sacrilege by suggesting a change to a venerated attraction. The street leading into the land, between Stitch and Monsters Inc, gives a much more entrancing and enticing feel, more like a bustling futuristic street on another world with shops and shows to enter and explore.