Like other GeekDad contributors, I spent some time at Walt Disney World this summer; in fact, we just returned a few days ago after spending 14 nights at Disney’s Port Orleans resort (if that sounds excessive, it’s hard to justify only a week with a 2,600 mile round trip drive). This was the first time at the Magic Kingdom for my wife and kids, and my first foray since being scarred as a child when my parents took our family in 1976. Mind you, that trip was on July 4, 1976. The American bicentennial. As Canadians, we realize you folks celebrate the Fourth of July, but I suspect my parents underestimated how just big a deal that particular day was. Anyway, up until a few weeks ago, my impression of Disney World was three hour lines for stroller rentals and my toddler brother screaming through the Country Bear Jamboree. This time was much better, despite the heat, and a great way to end the summer. There were a few things I noted during my visit and I’ve listed them below.
1. Monster smoked turkey legs were a popular snack, but it seriously creeped me out having greasy faced, zoned out people bumping into me while tearing away great chunks of flesh from a fistful of bone. All I could think was: zombies. They could put a smoked turkey leg stand inside the Haunted Mansion and with the right lighting, people gnawing on those things would be spookier than any of the animatronics.
2. Hate the rain, love the rain. Our first week at Disney, it was bloody hot and humid. I had to take a shower twice a day and wallow in pools to keep from overheating. The second week, we were frequently subjected to rain showers. Not the fifteen or twenty minute ones you hear about, but several hours at a time, complete with thunder storms that shut down the boats and water taxis. We were prepared, with ponchos and ziplock bags for cameras, but I hate getting wet and the kids would eventually get miserable when caught in protracted periods of downpour. But on the plus side, if you can live with the rain, the wet weather works wonders for clearing out a park. Say good-bye to line-ups.
3. Park Hopper seems like a scam. I’m sure I’ll get called out for criticizing this, but something doesn’t feel right about being required to pay extra to use the theme park passes that I already paid for. For example, because we spent some time in Downtown Disney (which is not a theme park and doesn’t require admission), we had more theme park admission tickets than we needed. So, one day we decided to go to Animal Kingdom in the morning and Epcot in the afternoon. We didn’t care that we would be using up a full day’s admission for five people at each park, but it turns out that’s not allowed. Going to the first park was fine, but even though we were willing to hand over the roughly $400 worth of full-day tickets to enter the second park in the afternoon, Disney wouldn’t allow it unless we upgraded to Park Hopper (which was a $600 or so option for the duration of our stay). To me, Park Hopper implies some unlimited ability to run wild from park to park on a single ticket and refusing entry to a park with a second round of paid tickets in hand is a little shady. But I’m sure it makes a ton of money…
4. Disney World appears to have an uncomfortable relationship with time. Being on vacation, I adopted my vacation uniform, which is sans watch or smart phone. Good luck finding a clock in the theme parks or even the resorts. I think it has something to do with keeping you from leaving because it’s getting late, or to keep you from suspecting the buses aren’t running on time. Which would be fine, except we had reservations at restaurants most days (many of which had to be booked months in advance), and if you don’t show up fifteen minutes before your reservation, you find yourself on an endless waiting list. I found one clock beside the hot tub at our resort’s pool, but that was tucked away and seemed a grudging concession to preventing guests from accidentally cooking themselves.
5. We were bombarded with information about the Disney Institute and its management programs. If it wasn’t ads blaring from every other channel on the TV in our room, it was the groups of participants scurrying around the parks with name tags and clip boards as they observed the Disney experience. I suspect you could identify a company whose executives attended DI by the fact that employees are referred to as “cast members,” while board meetings are sprinkled with references to magic and pixie dust. I was looking it up online only to stumble across a timely story in a Toronto paper about the Premier of Ontario discovering that the Ontario Ministry of Health was paying for Disney Institute services -apparently the Premier was not amused about the optics of the situation, given the provincial budget deficit, and canceled the contract. I have no doubt Disney is the master of marketing, but higher education?
6. Collector pins. They are everywhere. If Disney took all the pin trading stands and converted that square footage to rides instead, I swear they’d have enough room to build another Space Mountain or two. I understand the value of the pin trading system -it not only earns scads of money for Disney (at $40 for a six pin basic starter kit), but trading pins gives the kids something to do while waiting in line. I still couldn’t shake the thought that there was something sinister about it, like there was a separate bus system or premium washroom facilities that ran on pins as currency. But if there was, no-one let me in on the secret.
7. I went on a surprising number of rides for someone with a well documented case of motion sickness, but in most cases, once was enough. Which left me waiting outside many attractions, reading or people watching while my wife and kids got their ride on. I was constantly surprised by the number of times someone would run up to one of the premium attractions at 10am, discover there’s a ten minute wait, then snarl “this is bullsh#$@!” and storm off. Ten minutes? I’m pretty sure those people had a very long and very stressful day at the park.
8. If you can beat the odds and get picked as the VIP Family to open a park, you not only get first shot at the rides (with at least a fifty foot running head start on everyone else), but you also get a collection of Fast Passes, so you don’t have to worry about lineups for the rest of the day. We got hauled out of the opening line-up at Epcot our first day and escorted into the park as the VIP Family, although I have no idea why. I wasn’t even wearing my GeekDad tee-shirt! When the Disney staff approached us, I pretty much brushed them off, assuming they were trying to sell something (a course at the Disney Institute, perhaps). I had to throw a handful of Mickey Mouse glitter confetti in the air and deal with the hordes of people glaring at me from the other side of the fence, but I’d say it was worth it.
9. Given the emphasis on modern technology throughout the Disney empire, why did my resort have wireless Internet only in the main lobby? Having to plug in to the wall in the room is so 2000… Good thing I didn’t bring my no-Ethernet MacBook Air, although I’m sure I could have picked up a Micky dongle for a few hundred bucks. No wireless access at the pool or anywhere on the grounds either. The locals may use 3G, but at the US roaming cost charged by Canadian telcos, I’ll stick with the cat-5, thanks.
10. As a Canadian, I look forward to the euphoric experience of crossing the border to the US and not paying $40 for a case of beer. While in the general store in our resort, I discovered that Disney would be happy to sell me a six-pack of Corona for thirty bucks, or a case for $120 (although I’d have to carry the bottles in Mickey Mouse bags). And if you don’t have a bottle opener, the cheapest Mickey Mouse version will set you back another $10. The one and only time we left the Disney property during the course of our stay was for a beer run.