Up until October 2012 I'd been to Disney World five times, never with kids. This week that all changed as my wife and I took the kids on our first-ever destination vacation to Disney World.
It was a hell of a trip. We went for five days and six nights, staying at the Port Orleans - Riverside resort on the Disney property. Sue and I had last been to Disney World 16 years ago for our honeymoon, but hadn't returned since. Most of our vacations are very different from this -- we've spend 5-9 days on Butler Island on Lake Champlain, where we wake up when we feel like it and do what we want when we want. We've spent time visiting family in New Hampshire and Idaho, with a similar kind of laid-back schedule.
With Disney though, we had a plan. In fact, I think going to Disney World demands a plan -- it's so big, with so much to do, that if you don't have a plan you find yourself spending hours waiting in line or running from park to park trying to make dining reservations. The kids though, were not ready for the plan, which required them to get up between 7 and 7:30 every day after going to bed at close to 11 p.m. It was exhausting for all of us, and there was some whining from the 9 and under crowd, but once we made it to the parks that whining gave way to cries of "That was awesome!"
We went to Disney's four core parks -- Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studies, and Animal Kingdom -- and saw most of the major attractions in each.
Since we got to the hotel at 6 p.m. on our first night, we decided not to go into the DIsney Parks, but to instead go to Downtown Disney, which is basically a Disney-themed outdoor mall. It was raining, no one had rain jackets except for me (I'd shoved mine into my backpack for the plane trip down; the others put theirs in our checked luggage), and we were tired. But we had something in our favor: LEGOs. The kids have been obsessed with the little plastic bricks, and they knew that Downtown Disney had a big LEGO store. After grabbing some dinner we made our way through the rain and occasional bouts of lightning to the LEGO store, where the kids were stunned by the towering LEGO statues of a knight fighting a dragon, and then happily spent an hour building their own mini figurines. We also stopped by the Pin Trading Store (see Part 3 for details on pin trading) and meandered through a bunch of Disney-themed stores. We then took a shuttle boat back to our hotel.
The kids loved it. Absolutely loved it. In fact, we could have ended our vacation right there and they would have gone home happy. Naturally, we didn't...
The next day we started with Epcot, simply because the park hours fit our schedule the best.
In Epcot the kids loved Soarin', the hang-gliding adventure that took you flying over California locales, blasting you with wind the entire way, and Spaceship Earth, with its time-travelling storyline. StarGirl (age 9) loved the various countries of the World Showcase, particularly our dinner in Germany. Though they were exhausted by the time it started, the kids loved the Illuminations show in Epcot; the combination of flames, lasers and fireworks awed them, though not nearly as much as the Electric Parade and Wishes fireworks show in the Magic Kingdom.
NeutronLad (age 6) loved the low-impact version of the Mission: Space ride, which takes you on a quick simulated journey from Earth to Mars. StarGirl hated the ride; it was too dark and claustrophobic for her. NeutronLad also loved the Agent P investigation in World Showcase; this required you to sign up for a special cell phone that you could then use to help Phineas and Ferb's Perry the Platypus thwart his nemesis Doctor Hans Duffenshmirtz.
It was fun, particularly for NeutronLad, but time consuming -- we used it in Mexico, and the phone took us to a half-dozen locations scattered around the complex. NeutronLad loved finding the hidden locales and then triggering the special effects -- a talking bird, musical instruments that played themselves -- but Sue and I found it distracting, particularly when all StarGirl wanted to do was explore the cultural aspects of Mexico.
We felt it would be a lot better if it was our second or third visit and we'd already seen most of World Showcase; as is we only made it about halfway through the showcase exhibits
Another big hit was the The Sea. When we first went to Epcot we went there and wandered in awe amongst the giant aquariums, watching sharks cruise, dolphins play, and mantees eat. We then went to Turtle Time with Crush, the surfer-dude talking turtle from Finding Nemo. It's a cool show; it has a computer generated turtle who responds to questions from kids in real-time, using cameras to allow "Crush" to see his audience. Later in the week we returned to eat lunch at the Sea. The experience was every bit as cool as when we had dinner there on our honeymoon: we were seated next to the thick glass walls of the aquarium, and saw small fish, sea turtles, rays, and sharks swim by while we ate.
The last time Sue and I were at Disney World, Hollywood Studios was called "Disney/MGM Studios" and the park was a working film set. Since then MGM and Disney split, and much of the film making and animation work has been pulled from the park. Still, there's a lot left to see.
The kids favorite attraction there was easily Star Tours and the Jedi Training Academy. The last time Sue and I went on Star Tours the prequels hadn't been released in it was a standard screen. This time around it had scenes from across the galaxy, including Coruscant and Tatooine, and was done in 3D. After the ride ride the kids built their own lightsabers (NeutronLad blue, StarGirl purple). We also watched the Jedi Training Academy show, in which kid volunteers learned how to use the Force and battled against Darth Vader. The kids initially wanted volunteer, but once they saw the show they developed a serious case of shyness.
The Muppet Show in 3D was a big hit. We've been indoctrinating our kids in the classic Muppet Show for years, including Seasons 1-3 of the original series and the recent The Muppets movie so they were fully prepared for the multidimensional chaos of the show. The act makes you feel like you're really in the Muppet theatre, complete with atmospheric effects that take the 3D images and send them smashing into the walls.
My favorite show remains the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, which was funny, well done, and more or less lost on my kids, who've never seen the Indiana Jones movies. The same was true of the Primetime Cafe, where we had lunch. The 1950s decor and the old-school "no elbows on the table" warnings of the wait staff went over my kids heads. Most of the park was like that; it really requires more cultural knowledge than my 9 and 6 year old children have.