I almost titled this “our near-perfect vacation”, but that might give it an unnecessarily negative tone, and it was perhaps only “near-perfect” because of a few minor things, listed below as “Nits”;-)We drove to Orlando last Sunday, stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and spent a day at each of the four theme parks before we returned home on Friday. We are a family of four, with two preteens.The Animal Kingdom LodgeWhile making plans for our vacation, I'd initially thought that we'd just stay on property (because of the bus system) as cheaply as we could. We had stayed previously at the All-Star Movies Resort. Though we enjoyed that, and it met our needs at the time, our kids have grown since then (4 years ago) and the time we spent at the Coronado Springs Resort (2 years before that) was more memorable. So, I decided to splurge at another of the Deluxe facilities, and there was a “good deal” (relative term;-) at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL). I can say now, in retrospect, that it was worth every penny (er, many dollars) more!Why? Well, from the moment we got there, the kids were excited about staying at a zoo ... the AKL is every bit of that and more. Not only are there three viewing areas from which to see grass eating animals (giraffes, deer, zebras, gazelles, cattle, etc.) and birds, but there are helpful guides at each of these such that one could learn about them as well. Plus, the pool is gi-normous (that's “kidspeak” for gigantic, enormous). It's a walk-in pool, graduated like at the beach, and there's a water slide too. Not only that, it's open 24 hours a day, as are the two hot tubs (I think, we didn't find out).Though we didn't experience the AKL's award winning cuisine, which would have been wasted on my kids anyway, we found the Mara to be an adequate source for dinner on a couple of the evenings, and a good place to buy supplies (bananas, juices, pop tarts, etc.) to fill our room's refrigerator for breakfast and/or snacks.Highlights- Even though this past week marked the beginning of the peak season (and higher prices) due to Presidents' Day, our wait times for the attractions were manageable, due to our regular use of the FastPass system and the fact that we always “went to the left” at the start of each park's 9:00 AM opening. I think the longest we waited in line for any attraction was 20 minutes, and we probably only had to do that a couple of times each day. So, we experienced almost every ride we wanted to (even some we didn't) and saw nearly every show also.- The weather was fantastic! Sunny Orlando, Florida was 70+ degrees each day.- Our children didn't want to leave, asking if we could stay for a couple of extra days (to ride their favorite attractions again) and promising to get all their homework done on Monday if we'd let them stay home from school that day;-)Our AdventureWe arrived on Sunday at approximately 3 PM, which just so happens to be check-in time such that our room was ready. As requested, we got a non-smoking room with a queen and a bunk bed. Another reason I think the AKL was worth the extra coin was the fact that our queen bed was one of the most comfortable hotel beds I've ever slept in, and that includes 10+ years of extensive business and vacation travel in some of the best hotels domestically (and it wasn't just because I was exhausted at the end of each day;-) Though we didn't stay in a room facing the African savannahs, we were able to glimpse them each time we walked to and from our room on the way to the elevators. From the fifth floor hallway windows, we were always able to see some animals, even at night. We spent that first late afternoon at the ground level viewing areas and swimming in the pool, before we cleaned up and took a bus to Downtown Disney for dinner.Downtown DisneyMy kids are preteens, so we didn't venture to Pleasure Island (or even the West side of the complex). Plus, we wanted to get a good night's sleep before our first theme park day, so we only spent time in the area around where the bus dropped us, near the Rainforest Café. We decided to eat fast and inexpensively (another relative term;-) at the new Earl of Sandwich. The kids enjoyed the “Once Upon a Toy”, the new Disney Tails (souvenirs for your pet), and World of Disney stores.Animal KingdomExcited about what they'd seen at the AKL, and given its proximity, we decided to spend our first day at Animal Kingdom (AK), even though we could have gotten in to Epcot an hour early. In fact, we bucked the trend all week - we didn't utilize the extra Magic hours that Disney provides its resort guests (perhaps that's why we had such good luck with the lines?). Monday was Presidents' Day, so we didn't know what kind of crowd to expect. The first indications were the crowds at the bag check stations and the main gate. It never ceases to amaze me how some people can see lines of people, yet think themselves too special to stand in them, so they exploit the meekness of those not willing to prevent them from cutting in front to gain a few minutes earlier entry. Though the lines seemed long, and we were behind the ticket booths when the gates opened at 9, we entered the park fairly quickly.Owing to something I read in a guidebook a long time ago (Birnbaum's, I believe), we went to the left at the beginning of each day, which at AK meant going to the back of the park to see the Kilimanjaro Safaris. FastPass wasn't active or necessary as we walked right in and waited maybe 5 minutes in line. We were the last to board our particular vehicle, and my oldest child was selected to be the “spotter” (a Magical Moment on the first ride of our vacation!) by our guide-driver, who handed her a pair of binoculars to use. This was fun for her even though he forgot her name and called her by another for most of our journey. Afterwards, we were delayed slightly as they tried to find, and then filled out, the recognition card for the occasion.We then walked through the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail on which we saw an Okapi (my eldest's favorite, it's a cross between a giraffe and a zebra), some sleeping hippos, playful meerkats, and a trio of silver back (male) gorillas. Even though our Atlanta Zoo has an award winning gorilla exhibit, we liked AK's just as well. Since we had an 11 AM (the only time available the night before) priority seating reservation at AK's Rainforest Café, we moseyed back through the Discovery Island Trails & Oasis Exhibits before arriving in time for lunch.For anyone who's never eaten at a Rainforest Café, I have to recommend it, especially if you have preteen children. We've made it a habit every time we've visited WDW. It's decorated like its name suggests and there are animatronic animals throughout which come to life regularly during your meal. The one mistake we made was ordering the special smoothies for our kids before realizing they cost more than their meals. We should have known, since its price was left off the menu. Lunch cost $74!After lunch, we made our way to DinoLand U.S.A. and got our first FastPass for DINOSAUR, a roller coaster of sorts back through time with a lurching carnotaurus (T-Rex like) and all. We spent our 40 minute wait riding the (new, to us) TriceraTop Spin, a Dumbo-like ride, and exploring the Boneyard fossils and playground slides. We also ran into the first of five families (19 people) we know from our community here in Georgia. Evidently, a large number of us decided to take advantage of the new mid-Winter break that was built into this year's school calendar. After DINOSAUR (the ride camera captured one of my kids with hands over mouth, the other with hands over ears and eyes), we got a FastPass for another new to us ride called Primeval Whirl, which is a spinning roller coaster with sharp turns that's pretty fun. While waiting our turn for that one, we saw Tarzan Rocks!We got ice cream on our way to Asia where we decided to stand in line for the Kali River Rapids ride because the FastPass time was almost 3 hours away and the standby wait was estimated to be 30 minutes, but turned out to be only 20. Although I love the FastPass system, this would be a recurring event for us throughout our vacation - we'd get to a particular FP attraction and find the next ticket time to be 2-4 hours away. Fortunately, in nearly every case, our “stand in line” time was 20 minutes or less when we decided to stay instead of move on, OR we were able to find other attractions in the area to pass the time. The river ride itself is hardly worth the wait, given how short it is, and each of expressed a questioning “is it over already?” when it was, even as we were getting sprayed with water waiting to exit our “boats”. We walked through the Maharajah Jungle Trek after that, and enjoyed seeing awake tigers (and Komodo dragon) in lieu of the asleep fruit bats and tapirs.Since this was our first day, and the time was approaching 4 PM with the kids dragging a bit, we decided not to push it. We did experience the It's Tough to be a Bug! attraction, even though one of our kids remembered being frightened by it during a previous visit, and saw most of the parade before we departed for the AKL. Yes, we skipped the Lion King show (which is great, but we'd seen it) and spent no time, this day or any other, getting autographs of the characters. The kids weren't interested and the time savings, compared to the last time we visited, was invaluable (e.g. allowing us to see more attractions). Of course, once back to our temporary home, the kids were energized again insisting that we spend an hour or more at the gi-normous pool, which we did before picking up some food at the Mara and then resting for our next big day. I should mention that not only are there Disney bedtime stories offered each evening on the room's cable TV, but there is also a nightly animated movie (more appropriate for our older children) on the provided Toon D channel. One night, we even watched a good portion of the Princess Diaries.Magic KingdomWe got to the park just before 9 AM and in time to see the opening of the gates, which is magical in that it's preceded by a train arriving with all the characters who greet and welcome the guests. Again, once inside, we headed left towards Adventureland and walked right up and through the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which was great except for the fact that its water system wasn't running yet. Noticing that the Jungle Cruise didn't open until 10 AM, we proceeded directly into and onto the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. After that, we ventured into Frontierland where we walked right onto the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (a roller coaster), followed by Splash Mountain, and then on to Liberty Square and the Haunted Mansion. No lines meant it was barely 10:20 AM, so we headed back to Adventureland to get a FastPass for the Jungle Cruise. During our wait, we ate the gorp snacks we'd brought and saw the Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management show (I can just barely tolerate Iago;-) After the Jungle Cruise, we went back through Liberty Square to Fantasyland where we were disappointed to find out that “it's a small world” was under renovation. But, we got a FastPass to Mickey's PhilharMagic (which replaced the Lion King live action puppet show) because it had been recommended by a cast member at the AKL marketplace and Peter Pan's Flight required a much longer wait. In fact, we never got to ride Peter Pan (our only regret?) because of the 3+ hour difference between realtime and FastPass time and the fact that the standby estimate was never less than 55 minutes. We also didn't get to experience the Dumbo ride, whose queuing area was full with the line extended out and wrapping around the attraction every time we passed it. We did ride Cinderella's Golden Carrousel, Snow White's Scary Adventure, and spend time in Cinderella's castle and gift shop before returning to see Mickey's PhilharMagic, which is a wonderful show which we'd all highly recommend. It's a magical (using this adjective a bit much?) 3-D movie trip through several scenes from some of the best Disney animated feature films, led by their wonderful characters.Now that it was past noon, we decided to get lunch and found a place to sit down outside of Casey's Corner on Main Street. So, we had hot dogs, french fries and Cokes in the shade while we watched other patrons ignore the “do not feed the birds” signs. After lunch, we went directly to Tomorrowland where at approximately 12:45 PM we got a FastPass for Space Mountain at 4:20 (or thereabouts). So, we stood in line for the new Stitch's Great Escape! with an estimated standby time of 30 minutes, it took only about 15. What an awful waste of time! Let me repeat, skip Stitch's Great Escape! if ever you have the chance. If I'd had remembered that it replaced the Alien Encounter attraction, we probably wouldn't have made the mistake of sitting through what was essentially the same lame “ride” with Stitch in the place of the monster. At least with the alien, there was an element of fright, thus suspense, to what may happen ... though nothing did nor does. Disappointed and exhausted from walking & standing, we went and sat on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority people-mover, and a kind cast member let us remain on it for two consecutive, and much needed round-trips.We then headed to Mickey's Toontown Fair because the kids had pleasant memories of the Barnstormer at Goofy's Wiseacre Farm. The line was relatively short and in 15 minutes time we rode that roller coaster. Then the kids played in the water fun of Donald's Boat before we decided to take the Walt Disney World Railroad around the entire park. When we got back to the Fair, we walked through Mickey's and then Minnie's Country Houses before we went back to Tomorrowland for Auntie Gravity's Galactic Goodies (soft serve ice cream with sprinkles!). After that, we went to one of my old favorites from Disneyland and the 1964 World's Fair, Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, which has changed quite a bit since I last saw it. Then it was time to experience Space Mountain, which the kids decided then (and are sticking to it now) that it was the best ride in DisneyWorld. It's a roller coaster in the dark that literally jerks one back and forth through quick turns and over perilous drop offs. It also feels like it's one of the longer rides in any of the theme parks, making it worth waiting in line for, if you must;-)Our day was not over yet! With renewed energy, we took the WDW Railroad back around to Frontierland where we got a FastPass for 40 minutes later (or about 5:45 PM) to ride the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad one last time. It was sure to be different, now that it was dark, and we walked over to check on the standby time for Peter Pan's Flight in the meantime. Unfortunately, it's wait was still pegged at 55 minutes and the time it took us to walk there drained what little adrenaline we gained from Space Mountain. Fortunately though, we were near an attraction we wanted to see which would allow us to rest our feet until our FastPass was ready - The Hall of Presidents. It was there that we met cast member James from Raleigh, N.C. who impressed us ever so much with his enthusiasm and vast knowledge of the 43 men who have held our nation's highest office. It's a pretty good show too! After that, we watched a portion of the character show in front of Cinderella's castle before our last roller coaster ride. We then took the WDW Railroad once again to the front entrance where we were tempted by the smell of fresh popcorn (which served as our dinner) but not enough to stay another 30 minutes for the 8 PM parade. So, we headed for the AKL and, after taking much needed showers, collapsed into our beds.Disney-MGM StudiosAt the Studios, you actually get let in the front gates early. Well, sort of;-) At 8:50 AM or so, they let you come half way up Hollywood Boulevard to visit the few shops which are open, buy film, or use the restrooms. At 9 AM, we had to move aside a little to keep from being trampled by some over eager Boston Red Sox fans, which we saw in large numbers throughout our trip and especially at this particular park. Again we went left, past the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (which doesn't open until later) to the Star Tours attraction, which gives the “riders” the feeling of flying in the (Star Wars (1977)) movie. My only complaint is that, since there were only about a dozen of us, we should have been able to sit in the middle seats of the middle rows, where the sensation of flight is best, instead of in the first rows all the way to one side. We found ourselves completely by ourselves on the Streets of America, which is built like a New York City set complete with a forced perspective “mural” filled with skyscrapers. Since the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure was not yet open, we picked our way around the closed off, under renovation areas to eventually find the Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tour.I volunteered to be one of the extras on the Tour ride, which meant we went to the front of the line. And then I got to have 1,000 gallons of water dumped on me during the filming of a naval battle scene which, along with three others also in the scene, was edited together into a short film for the benefit of the audience, which included our families. Unfortunately, the extras are unable to see the finished product themselves. However, I did receive a Magical Moment certificate of my own;-) The Tour through the backlot itself was a real letdown, particularly when one compares it to others like the one at Universal Studios. Even though we experienced an earthquake with fire and then a flood, the props we saw were few and far between (except for the AFI villains exhibit at the end) and from more recent, below average films or TV shows than from classic Disney or MGM features. We went back to the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground where the kids got to climb all over and explore an enlarged backyard environment constructed to make them feel as if they were the size of insects.When we then waited 20 minutes to take the Great Movie Ride, it seemed like less than that because the line winds through a movie theater where they show clips from the films featured inside. The attraction itself takes the audience (on electric trams) “into the movies”, popular Disney & MGM sets and scenes from various successful films released or distributed by the two studios. Unfortunately the Alien set (actually a 20th Century Fox production) and film clips made a nightmare inducing impression on my sensitive 9 year old. After we exited this ride, we were thrilled to discover something we'd never experienced before - Walt Disney: One Man's Dream, which includes an historical walkthrough complete with artifacts from the great man's life & his company's evolution followed by a most informative film about him, narrated by Michael Eisner. This is a must-see exhibit for anyone interested in how the magic of Disney started and grew from a simple artist to a multi-billion dollar entertainment behemoth including the first feature length animated films, television shows, and then theme parks.Now it was time for lunch, so we endured another meal including fries and Coca Cola at Rosie's All-American Café on Sunset Boulevard. The kids then tried to decide whether they had the courage to try either the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith or the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (which was pretty hairy, even for me, 4 years ago). They opted for the former, but the FastPass we got meant we'd have to spend more than 2 ½ hours finding something else to do. So, we saw the Beauty and the Beast-Live on Stage show, played some more on the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground, and thoroughly enjoyed the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! while we waited. The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is indoors; it's fast, loud & mostly in the dark and, except for my 9 year old (who was a bit scared by it; the camera captured mouth wide open), was probably our second favorite WDW theme park ride (after Space Mountain). This time we bought candy at the Beverly Sunset before watching the parade and exiting the park at around 4 PM. *We spent the late afternoon resting at the pool and viewing the AKL's animals ** again before we cleaned up and finally took advantage of the park hopping privileges, for which we paid extra, to dine at Epcot. Unfortunately we were unable to get a priority seating reservation at Le Cellier Steakhouse in Canada, though they could offer us a 4 PM time the next day, so we made a 7:20 PM time at Restaurant Akershus in Norway. *** This turned out to be an unexpected surprise; the kids were thrilled that they could eat all they wanted from the cold buffet and order as many of the entrees that they wanted to try from their menu as well under the fixed price arrangement. Dessert (which we were talked into by our Nordic blonde waitress), however, was not included and at $90, this was easily our most expensive meal. We had a little bit of time to walk through some of the different countries' shops before we watched the highly recommended IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth laser and fireworks show at 9 PM, which closes the park and ended our day.* Sending DW and the kids back to the AKL, with their “tickets” in my pocket, I did try to go to the Magic Kingdom to get FastPasses for Space Mountain, intending that we'd dine at that park that night as well. Unfortunately, unless one's card is used to enter that park that day, it doesn't work in the FastPass machines therein.** Amusing side note: while talking with one of the cast members (from Namibia) helping us to identify the AKL's animals, I noticed that she was fascinated by a particular bird's call. I said I recognized it as a common bird which pecks on one of our windows back home in Georgia. When she spied the bird which she'd never seen before, I confirmed that it was a red male cardinal;-)*** We didn't make our WDW dining priority seating reservations before we needed them, e.g. before we left Atlanta (even though one has 90 days to do so in advance). Having done this in the past, I didn't want us to be fixed to a specific schedule before we even got there. I decided that flexibility would be better than eating at a specific place and, other than the fact that it would have been nice to have eaten at Le Cellier, I don't regret the decision.EPCOTInitially, we had thought that we may only end up staying at Epcot until 2 or 3 PM at which time we'd park hop to Magic Kingdom for Space Mountain and the evening. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Epcot filled our day with wonder and entertaining educational attractions such that we spent the day there and didn't end up returning to the AKL until about 6:30 PM. Going left at 9 AM in Epcot meant that we had the Wonders of Life exhibit almost completely to ourselves. We enjoyed Body Wars, which is identical to the Studios' Star Tours ride except that it's set inside the human body like Fantastic Voyage (1966). And, we got a kick out of the cute Making of Me film hosted by Martin Short about how babies are made, as well as the Cranium Command show about the workings of a 12 year old (the age of my eldest) boy's brain, featuring a plethora of recognizable actors and comedians. There are also a lot of hands on exhibits which challenge one's five senses that occupied us such that it was 10:20 AM before we left this attraction for Mission: Space. Since the standby line was moving quickly and estimated to be only 15 minutes, we stood in line for this “ride” which allowed our family of four to work as a team (pushing buttons) in order to travel to Mars and land on it successfully. It begins with a Space Shuttle like launch experience!At this point, I probably should have gotten us FastPasses for the nearby Test Track, but I didn't because we were anxious to see the other exhibit we had anticipated seeing before the trip which was across Future World from where we were. So we walked to the Land only to find that it was under renovation, a big disappointment especially since the maps we obtained at the AKL failed to mention it (though the one we got inside the park did). However, we did enjoy the Living Seas exhibit, especially watching the dolphins play (though only from the underwater viewing windows - the above water area is a special, by reservation only area). It's a pretty good aquarium attraction, which has been updated with the Finding Nemo characters. On our way to lunch at the Electric Umbrella, I ran over to the Test Track and got FastPasses for 5:10 PM, even though I was sure we'd never use them ... at least there were a couple of non-hamburger sandwich & non-fries side options to eat;-)After lunch, we walked right onto Spaceship Earth, which a kind cast member let us sit through twice without having to get off. He even told my kids about a hidden Mickey on the monk's table, without knowing that they'd been tallying these throughout the parks each day. We then headed for the World Showcase where my 12 year old had heard about a ride in Norway (which we'd somehow failed to explore the night before). With an estimated 35 minute wait time, we decided to skip it and headed back to Mexico where we sailed the cheaply done “River of Time” attraction. However, when we walked back past Maelstrom, the Norway boat ride, we saw a much shorter line and estimate (we only waited about 15 minutes), so we rode it. It's a pretty short ride in a Viking ship, but it does go down two waterfalls, one backwards and one forwards. We passed China and the Outpost on our way to the shops in Germany, which are fun to explore even though we couldn't find anything we wanted to buy. After passing Italy, we enjoyed some ice cream before we arrived just in time to see the American Adventure show in the U.S.A. at 3:45 PM. It's a great show though DW noted that, while it emphasizes the struggles of others for equal rights, it gives little time to the women's equality movements.We then passed Japan, Morocco, and France on our way to the United Kingdom, where we walked through its shops and saw Mary Poppins. On our last legs, we stopped in Canada to see the pretty Victoria Gardens & waterfalls and to experience O Canada!, a 360 degree Circle-Vision film about this beautiful country. Amazingly, it was now time to use our FastPass for the Test Track, an automobile based ride over bumps, around quick turns, through hot & cold conditions, and finally around a track with banked turns at high speed. Even though there is an additional 5 minute or more line inside the Test Track attraction, everyone enjoyed this one too, though it would be nice if it went around the track outside twice. The kids then decided that they'd rather return to the AKL for night swimming than go to the Magic Kingdom for dinner and one last Space Mountain ride.Friday morning, it was raining. But, we didn't mind because we were driving home that day. So, we packed up the car and headed for Atlanta. I should mention that the kids did great on what was by far their longest driving trip (about 8 hours each way, including stops), though this could be due to the fact that I'd bought a dual screen portable DVD player which allowed them to watch their favorite movies the whole time;-)Exceptional Customer ServiceLet me begin by saying that Disney is known for their excellent customer service, so anything I've included above (e.g. specific cast member references) were truly outstanding. However, I think that one tends to take Disney's normal customer focus for granted, so I'd like to mention a few things that I noticed which others may not or wouldn't ordinarily point out. For instance, every time I was thirsty, there was a drinking fountain nearby. Every time one of us needed to use a restroom, one was easily found and, except for one instance, available with enough “stalls” for the crowd at hand. And, our maid at the AKL made a little character out of a washcloth to greet our kids when we returned from the AK that first day.Nits- Cost, not really a small thing, I guess. Going to DisneyWorld is more expensive than going skiing! It exceeded $600 per day for our family of four.- On at least two occasions, there were no towels at the AKL pool by the time we got there. And, though we reported this fact, the towel bins were not refilled before the next day (presumably;-)- One of our tickets got caught in the FastPass machine at MGM's Aerosmith ride, and it took me several minutes of “shouting” before I was acknowledged and told to “wait a minute” by the cast member in attendance.- On the night we went to Epcot, we waited more than 20 minutes at the AKL for a bus, which then detoured to the AK to pick up passengers before proceeding to Epcot, meaning we were late for our priority seating reservation.- the FastPass limitation listed above (*) was compounded by the fact that one has to travel to the Magic Kingdom transportation center in lieu of directly to the park when one tries to go from (e.g.) MGM to the Magic Kingdom. This delay was again compounded by the fact that the Contemporary Resort's monorail route is being renovated such that one has to take the slower ferry boats, or take the monorail through two stops (the Polynesian and Grand Floridian Resorts), to get to the park.- Though it was clearly our choice, we paid $140 for the park hopping capability we only used once for a less than two hour evening visit to Epcot. It would be nice if there was a way to buy this privilege for 1-2 days on a 4-5 day pass, or receive a credit if it's relatively unused.- There was a dirty towel and bedspread wrapped up and on the floor of our room by the door when we first entered it last Sunday.If you are still reading this post at this point, and didn't just skip to the end to read the “Nits”, CONGRATULATIONS! I thank you and hope you enjoyed it!
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