Florida’s Walt Disney World expansion wins over theme park doubter

Mickey Mouse, smiley-happy people before 10 a.m. and “cast members” who coo “have a nice day” all day long convert cynics


 

My oldest friend—an unsentimental, wickedly funny woman named Lisa who has travelled around Europe and lived for many years in Central America—is a Walt Disney World fanatic. Not only have Lisa and her family been to the Orlando resort six times in as many years, but she spends an extraordinary amount of time trolling a blog called DISboards. Here, she can read about the snowglobe collections of fellow Disney-obsessives, receive updates on “news” items such as the repainting of Disney Transport buses and scroll through random comments from strangers such as: “I love watching Disney videos on YouTube because it helps me feel the good feelings of the park when I can’t physically be there.”

Lisa’s addiction has always perplexed my husband and me—so much so, that we’ve referred to her favourite website as DISbored. How could Lisa expend so much of her immense energy and limited travel budget at Disney World, a place that, to us, seemed far too obvious, too easy, too Goofy for our sophisticated friend?

For years, I smugly kept a list of all the places we would take our future children, none of which involved promises of dreams coming true. Indeed, we imagined our precocious offspring yearning for educational adventures around the globe—preschoolers who would beg to tour Turkey’s ancient Ephesus “just one more time!” and gleefully clean monkey cages at an animal rescue in Costa Rica. There would be no “commodified fantasy” trips for us, as my husband and I pejoratively referred to all that we thought Walt Disney World had to offer.

And then our actual children arrived. Two of them—one of whom, at four years old, finds infinite pleasure in the Pixar/Disney movie Cars and its related merchandising. To boot, he recently began to express a great deal of interest in “that castle” that appears on the screen before his movie begins. Where was that castle?, he wondered. Was it real? Could we go there? We attempted to thwart his interest at every turn, as though he’d asked where babies come from (please God, and the spirit of Walt Disney, help us when we get to that stage). My son sensed our fear; the questions became more urgent.

I wonder now if he placed a secret call to his grandfather in Montreal because, one day last December, my father-in-law invited us to join him and his wife on a Florida vacation. For the kids’ sake, we agreed to four days at Walt Disney World. Lisa was thrilled when I sheepishly told her the news and, in the true spirit of Disney, her joy was untainted by feelings of vindication. She spent the next two weeks planning our Disney World itinerary.

Where can this story go except the way of fairy tales? Of course, we were transformed. All six of us, who ranged in age from two to 70, had a magical time. My husband fell in love with Epcot’s Mission: SPACE (he later regretted his single-minded obsession made him miss the new, souped-up, Chevrolet-sponsored Test Track nearby); my two-year-old was a fan of old favourites such as the spinning teacups at the Magic Kingdom’s Mad Tea Party; my father-in-law loved bantering with the chef at Epcot’s Teppan Edo restaurant; and I loved the fact nobody was bored or complained for four entire days.

We stayed at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, a “value” property completed last summer as a long-awaited addition to the Pop Century Resort. With its 1,120 family suites and 864 rooms, this resort isn’t fancy in the vein of the stunning, very grown-up Animal Kingdom Lodge where we went just to gape at the lobby one evening, but it’s comfortable and appears to have been designed by genius, Pixar-loving four-year-olds. Each of the four sections riff on movie themes from The Lion King, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid and, our choice, Cars. Our room was right out of Radiator Springs, complete with a Cars character shower curtain—a detail, to our son, as marvellous as the whole Disney netherworld, itself.

Initially overwhelmed by the size and scope of the nearly 40-sq.-miles of four theme parks, two water parks, 35 resort hotels, five golf courses, and more on offer, we found ourselves clinging to Lisa’s moment-by-moment itinerary, marvelling at her helpful, exacting notes. On her suggestion, our first day started at 9:10 a.m. when she recommended we arrive at Magic Kingdom and immediately secure FASTPASSES for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (FASTPASSES are free and allow visitors a chance to book a ride in advance, thus bypassing lineups). At 10:14 a.m., we followed instructions to board one of two Dumbo, The Flying Elephant rides (where lineups get long after lunch). She suggested we arrive at Mickey’s PhilharMagic at 4:43 p.m., which was, as promised “cute and funny, and it’ll be nice to sit down in AC at this point.” Lisa also recommended the “character breakfast” at Animal Kingdom’s Tusker House—something I balked at, but was so happy we did. At US$29.99 per adult and US$15 for kids, the buffet wasn’t cheap, but the food was varied and excellent and it gave us a chance to get photo ops with Donald and friends out of the way, rather than have our kids beg to queue up throughout the park.

Unbelievably, we also saw a part of Disney World that Lisa hadn’t seen: the new Fantasyland, the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history, nearly doubling the section’s acreage. The Enchanted Forest section includes the Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid ride, as well as Ariel’s Grotto (where my husband disappeared for an inordinate amount of time to get his photo taken with a lovely redheaded mermaid), three new dining rooms in the Beast’s castle and an Enchanted Tales with Belle, a new kind of storytelling experience. The whole area feels like a lush little Bavaria with cobblestone streets, multiple castles and a roaring waterfall.

Perhaps the high watermark of the trip—the moment I knew my cynical husband had truly drunk the Disney Kool-Aid (or, rather, the park’s Pineapple Dole Whip)—was when, during the spectacular Festival of the Lion King music-theatre show at Animal Kingdom, I saw his eyes well up with tears. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he and Lisa exchange news on DISboards.com from time to time. And it wouldn’t bother me a bit.

Fantasyland Tips

684 Photo by David Roark.

  • The French-inspired dining room at the Be Our Guest Restaurant inside the Beast’s castle books up months in advance for dinner. Alternatively, line up for a first-come, first-serve midday meal—it’s lunchtime somewhere in the world at 10 a.m. Florida-time, right?
  • Arrive early in the day for the intimate, interactive Enchanted Tales with Belle; sit up front if your kids are keen to participate onstage.
  • The new doubled-up, Dumbo, The Flying Elephant attraction, part of the Fantasyland expansion, offers a circus-themed play area where families can have fun while waiting to get on the ride; ask for a pager to notify you when it’s your turn to board the aerial carousel.
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