The Disney resorts seem to have a strange sort of crossover appeal to geeks and non-geeks alike, and I happily count my family firmly in the Disneyphile camp. Indeed, not unlike the success of Apple, the way people fall in love with Disney resorts and theme parks shows that people will pay for a quality experience with excellent customer service.
Which is why we decided to make our major family summer trip to Walt Disney World (WDW) this year. This was the first trip to the WDW resorts for our boys (being in California, we frequent Disneyland), and in effect for my wife and me as well, since neither of us had been there for something like 20 years (yikes!). So, being a good geek and blogger, I’d like to share a few observations that will hopefully help other families considering their first trip to WDW make the best of it.
First thing to know is, especially compared to Disneyland, WDW is HUGE. There are four primary theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), and 18 primary resort hotels (too many to list) serving a wide range of prices and themes. These do not include the ancillary water parks, ESPN Zone, golf courses, Downtown Disney, and more entertainment, nor the Villas, Campground, or nearby non-Disney hotels to stay in. At Disneyland, we are used to being able to step out of our hotel and be in a park inside of a 10-minute walk. Not at WDW. Expect a 15- to 50-minute bus, monorail, or boat ride to get from any given hotel to any given venue. This makes the idea of a Park Hopper pass slightly less important, since going between parks on a single day is a more travel-intensive process, so planning your trip with a day for each park you want to visit is probably the most relaxed way to go (though not the only, of course).
We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (Jambo House), which we highly recommend, with caveats. It’s a beautiful hotel – we equate it with the Grand Californian at Disneyland, but with an African motif. Most exciting is that most of the grounds of the hotel are a wildlife park, and if you book a Savannah-view room, you can expect sights like this off your balcony.
The food at the hotels two restaurants is delightful as well. Jiko “The Cooking Place” is the fancy full-service restaurant, with a delicious mix of African and Mediterranean dishes on the menu, and a nice selection of South African wines (that we haven’t been able to find since we got home, alas!). Boma is the big family buffet restaurant, like most of the Disney hotels have where they hold character breakfasts (though there were none that we saw at Boma). Again, the food has an exotic flair, but of course both restaurants had kid-friendly dishes as well. Interestingly, Jiko is the better value. Boma is a flat rate, $36 per person for adults (12 and up) for dinner, which gets pricey quick, where Jiko has many less expensive dishes, and you can even split dishes to save cost and calories.
There is also a third, cafeteria-style restaurant called Mora downstairs by the pool, with more traditional fare. But this raises one more important caveat: the food choices can get a bit constrained, especially for kids on a longer stay, necessitating bus rides to the parks or Downtown Disney to find anything different.
As for the parks, every member of the family says their favorite thing was the Animal Kingdom park, Disney’s combination theme park and animal preserve. Of course, the park has the usual Disney immersive design – there are two primary areas, one for Asia and one for Africa. Asia is anchored by the major ride at the park, Expedition Everest, which is like an updated version of the Matterhorn at Disneyland (remind me why there’s a Yeti on the Matterhorn, since the mountain and the ride theme is Alpine?), with an extended backwards-riding sequence that’s quite thrilling. There’s also a good restaurant there, called The Yak & Yeti, serving tasty Asian food.
But for us, the magic happened in the Africa area. As our one special treat for the trip, we signed up to take the Wild Africa Trek, a special three-hour guided tour by foot and truck through the animal areas of the park. From the website description:
Adventurers are fitted with an expedition harness that attaches to an overhead track. Once your group reaches the riverbank, get a stunning look at the hippos, just 10 feet below. After a seemingly precarious trek across a rope bridge dangling over a throng of enormous crocodiles, experience another unbelievable view as you hang over the crocs’ riverbed lair!
The tour started with meeting the guides, in our case Chapin, Lauren, and Mandy. There were about sixteen people on our tour. Each got outfitted with a safety harness for tying off on the rope bridges, and then smartly sent over a small test bridge to make sure everyone was okay with both the harnesses, and the heights. Then everyone was off to hike through part of the park, seeing animals, crossing bridges over crocs and hippos, and having an amazing time seeing and learning about the animals.
Halfway through, we were all picked up by a tour truck, and brought out to a station in the middle of the park, looking out on everything. There we were fed a delectable boxed lunch, and allowed to relax, feeling like we really were out in the African wilderness.
Finally, it was back onto a truck for a custom drive all through the park. There are regular truck tours running through all the time, but ours could pull over and stop to take pictures and talk about the animals, and could take some special roads not available to the other trucks.
Perhaps the nicest feature of the trek is that all the guides are outfitted with nice DSLRs, and are snapping pictures of everything for the entire trip, both animals and trek participants, and send you a custom photo CD from your trek afterwards. We were especially blown away that, while they promised the CD in three to six weeks, ours showed up the day after we returned from our vacation, only one week after the trek.
As for the rest of the parks, here are some things to think about when choosing which ones to attend:
Magic Kingdom: It is, of course, magical, and the purest Disney experience. It’s bigger than the Disneyland park, and there are interesting differences, such as Liberty Square rather than New Orleans Square; no Indiana Jones ride (there’s an Indy stunt show at Disney Hollywood Studios); no Star Tours (it’s at Hollywood Studios); the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse is still there (no Tarzan conversion). Overall, it’s the best place to take young kids looking for a magical day.
Epcot: In some ways, Epcot is a confused place. First, there’s the half that’s all about inventions and the future, with some nice hands-on science play, and a couple rides. Mission to Space is a great experience, and don’t be afraid of doing the orange-team ride; Soarin’ is the same ride as Soarin’ over California Adventure, and great for young and old; Sadly, Test Track was closed for the summer. Then there’s the other half that’s all World Showcase, basically little pieces of the world recreated in Florida. This might be a harder sell for younger kids to keep interested in. Each country usually has one experience of cultural interest – either a movie, or a ride; then a restaurant, and a store with native products. There’s only so much food you can eat (though it’s all very good), and kids will get tired of shopping quickly. And some of the rides/experiences are clunky and a bit long in the tooth; the Norway boat ride could really stand to be updated or replaced.
However, something fun to keep the kids involved is the Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure, where families check out a media-enabled device and follow clues all over the park to solve mysteries and stop various villains. There are interactive elements hidden all over the World Showcases, often right out in plain sight, and even cast members working in shops will support the adventures in some cases.
One way to approach Epcot, if you’ve got a park hopper pass, would be to spend a half day there doing the technology side of the park, and then return a few times just for dinners at the various Showcases. This also makes sense because the food is better than most of what you’ll find at Downtown Disney.
Hollywood Studios: Honestly, we were underwhelmed here. While some of the elements are fun – Muppetvision 3D, Star Tours, Hollywood Tower of Terror – the whole park is the least Disney-ish of the four. If you do go, avoid the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, especially on hot days. It has the worst managed line and loading system of any Disney ride, making for a long, painful wait. The ride itself is not bad; basically an attempt to do a Space Mountain in-the-dark ride with a more traditional loops and rolls roller coaster. But it suffers in comparison to Space Mountain. And some parents might find it a bit incongruous to be at a Disney park, waiting in line for a ride, listening to the rather sexually-suggestive lyrics of Aerosmith songs like Rag Doll.
If you go to Downtown Disney planning on dinner, it’s best to make reservations ahead of time if you’re there in high season, because drop-in wait times can be long. Of all the restaurants we tried there, the Raglan Road Irish Pub has the best food. Places like Planet Hollywood, T-Rex, and Rainforest Cafe sacrifice food quality for spectacle and high-volume.
If you’re flying into Orlando, it’s nice to know that you can actually get the Disney’s Magical Express bus service to pick up your checked luggage for you, and get it taken straight to your room when you get to your hotel. Also, you can do your check-in for many airlines in the lobby of your hotel before you leave, making the trip back smoother.
Walt Disney World is an amazing place, no doubt about it. As a family trip, without a strict focus, I can imagine it being quite overwhelming. The best suggestion is not to try to do everything in one trip. Simply pick and choose the experiences you want to have, and leave the rest for future trips. There will be plenty left for many happy returns.