Monday, November 29, 2010


Epcot, Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was the 2nd park built in Disney World, first opening its doors to the public in October 1981.  In 2009, Epcot hosted ~11 million guests, making it the 6th most visited park in the world. It was envisioned by Walt Disney himself to be a "utopian city of the future" which would be home to 20,000 residents.  Walt died before the Magic Kingdom opened and the Disney company decided it did not want to be in the business of running a city.  The Epcot as we know it today is comprised of two distinct areas: Future World and the World Showcase.

Let me start with a review of Future World.  It is comprised of a variety of pavilions.  They've changed over the years, but currently there are eight: (1) Spaceship Earth, (2) Innoventions, (3) Universe of Energy, (4) Mission: SPACE, (5) Test Track, (6) The Seas with Nemo and Friends, (7) The Land and (8) Imagination!

Spaceship Earth is definitely an icon within Disney World.  The attraction within the 18-story geodesic sphere has been refreshed over the years, but still takes guests on a ride through time.  It highlights many advancements in technology that have shaped the world as we know it today.  In 2007, the ride was renovated and added an interactive feature that allows the guests to build a vision for their own future.
Group Shot, 2010
My cousins in Spaceship Earth, 2008
The Innoventions pavilion houses various exhibits that focus technological advances and their impact on every day life.  Innoventions East currently has six exhibits.  The one that sticks out the most for me is called StormStruck, which takes the audience through an extreme storm and what may happen to your home as a result. Innoventions West has seven exhibits.  In 2008 with my family, I waited in line for Segway Central and got to ride a Segway through a short course.
Pretty cool right? Lol.
Universe of Energy is a pavilion that Ellen's Energy Adventure calls home.  It stars Ellen DiGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I've skipped it the last two times I've been to Epcot, but I remember that it's a movie that focuses on the history of energy, current energy production as well as the search for new energy.

Mission: SPACE simulates what it may feel like aboard a rocket to Mars.  The g-force it puts you under to simulate take-off is something else.  It also slingshots you around the moon for a "gravity-assisted boost", puts you into hypersleep and then actually lands on Mars (following a few landing hiccups).  This is a more intense ride, so people with motion sickness really should avoid this one.  Our group loved this ride, particularly the boys.  It is definitely a "must-do" for those that enjoy a good thrill.
Test Track takes you through the various testing procedures that General Motors uses to evaluate its vehicles.  The ending is the best part, as you are taken outdoors for a high-speed drive around the building.  It gets up to 65 mph on a banked curve, making it the fasted Disney ride ever.  A "must-do" for sure.

The Seas with Nemo and Friends has guests board their own "clamobile" and moves you along to help find Nemo.  Towards the end of the ride, they are able to make the animated fish appear to be swimming along with the real aquatic life.  As you exit, you are able to explore a series of exhibits, including dolphins, manatees and a huge tank featuring many species of fish as well as a few sharks.
The Land pavilion has a few different attractions.  Living with the Land is a slow-moving boat ride that takes its passengers through agriculture scenes and an actual greenhouse. Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable is a movie featuring Simba, Timon and Pumba that provides guidance on how we should treat the land. Living with the Land and Circle of Life are only okay, so I'd only advise making time for them if there are no lines. On the other hand, Soarin' is a "must-do" and has definitely taken on the title of flagship ride in this pavilion.  It first opened in 2005, so many of my companions on this trip had not had a chance to ride it before.  It is a essentially a "simulated hang glider tour" of California. Since your vehicle is moved to the center of a huge IMAX screen, it enables you to feel like you are actually in flight.  It is an extremely cool ride.  My tip to readers is to go and get your Fast Pass for this ride as soon as you arrive.  Many guests are thwarted by waiting too long and finding that the Fast Pass distribution is done for the day.
Living with the Land in 2008 (cousin Bill and my Aunt Carol and Uncle Norman)
Imagination! is a pavilion featuring Journey into Imagination with Figment, ImageWorks and Captain EO Tribute.  Journey into Imagination used to be one of my favorites as a kid but has since been redone and is currently yawn worthy  in my view. While on your way out of the ride, you walk through ImageWorks where you can play around with various sound exhibits.  Captain EO was brought back after the death of Michael Jackson, replacing Honey I Shrunk the Audience.  It is sort of laughable but it felt like the right thing to do in order to pay homage to MJ.  Don't expect any classic MJ songs, this is really just sort of a funny, Star Wars-like movie that features MJ "saving" a planet with his music.
Tuck having some fun in ImageWorks' Stepping Tones
Switching gears back to the other half of Epcot, the World Showcase.  I looooove this part of the park.  It was only enhanced after I turned 21 and figured out the joys of being able to eat and drink myself "around the world".  The "world" at Epcot is comprised of 11 pavilions, each representing a country: (1) Mexico, (2) Norway, (3) China, (4) Germany, (5) Italy, (6) American Adventure, (7) Japan, (8) Morocco, (9) France, (10) United Kingdom and (11) Canada.  These pavilions are arranged around a fairly good sized lake, which provides a multitude of great photo ops.  You also have a nice view of Spaceship Earth in the background.
Me back in 2008
It just so happens that we were visiting Epcot during the 15th Annual International Food & Wine Festival.  Daisy was thrilled and, as she put it, she died and went "to theme park-foodie-wino heaven". Please be sure to visit Indulge Inspire Imbibe to get her take.  She always does the best job in describing just how delectable food and drink can be :)
During the Food & Wine Fest, the number of countries represented is increased to 25.  The additions include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Puerto Rico, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea and Spain.  It truly is fantastic to walk around at whatever pace you enjoy while taking in the architecture and aromas from each country.  Also and importantly, the prices are very reasonable, ranging from $3-$7 for each plate/glass. Let me give you a little flavor from the countries I frequented over my current trip as well as the one with my family in 2008:

Mexico was our first stop in the World Showcase.  Daisy and I checked out the menu, which was prominently displayed outside all food & beverage kiosks, and decided on the Taco de Chilorio ($3.75) and a 12oz Dos Equis ($4.50).
We ate on the steps of the Mexican "pyramid".  I looked across the way and noticed the Cantina de San Angel, which reminded me of the last time I was there enjoying a tasty margarita in 2008.

Cantina de San Angel, 2008
Inside the pyramid, visitors can dine at San Angel Inn which overlooks an indoor lagoon.  There is also slow-moving boat ride through Mexico, called El Rio del Tiempo (River of Time).

After Mexico, Daisy and I wandered over to Argentina where we ordered a Grilled Beef Skewer with Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Puree ($4.75), and I continued to sip on my Dos Equis beer.
While some of the crew enjoyed food from New Zealand (Seared Scallops - $3.75) and Chile (Shrimp Chevice - $4.75), I headed over to Ireland with Dave and Mike who had their sights set on Guinness.  Dave has always loved Guinness, so he was thrilled that we got to enjoy a complimentary Guinness at their brewery in Dublin in 2007. I'll have to detail that trip for you all in the future.  He was all smiles with his Guinness stache' in this picture so it must have been a pretty good draft.
Next up was France, a favorite of mine in the World Showcase.  Here I enjoyed a glass of Sparkling Pomegranate Kir ($6.50) and Creme Brulee au Chocolate au Lait ($3.75).  Here in France you can also take in a short film that features the French countryside called Impressions de France. The shopping is good here too, but would you expect anything different from France?
Mmm :)
Street performers on the sidewalks of France
In France with Karen and my Aunt Carol, 2008
From Belgium, Dave ordered Steamed Mussels with Roasted Garlic Cream.  Although I didn’t capture a picture, Dave said they were really good.  Daisy and Adam ordered some beverages from Morocco.  Specifically, they ordered a Tangerine Mimosa Royale ($6.00) and a glass of Sangria ($4.00).  The rest of wandered around and took in the Moroccan scenery.
My next order was from Japan.  They were out of the Spicy Tuna Roll, so I settled for the California Roll ($3.50) and a cold Kirin draft ($7.00). 
Uncle Norman and Aunt Carol in Japan, 2008
Later on in the evening (after bouncing around Future World), I had a cup of Asopao de Pollo ($2.50) from Puerto Rico.  Very tasty and the warmth was welcomed at this point since it was much chillier once the sun went down.

Others ordered kielbasa from Poland, while I scooted over to South Korea (new this year) for Barbeque Short Rib with Steamed Rice and Cucumber Kimchi ($4.25).  I was so cold at this point that I barely took out my camera, so apologies for not having pictures.

Maura and Daisy ordered Seared Beef Tenderloin with Sweet Potato Puree ($4.75) from South Africa. Maura had had her eye on this dish all day long.  It looked very good but I was holding out for Italy.

Once we arrived to Italy, I quickly made my choices: a glass of Chianti ($4.50) and Baked Cheese Ravioli with Creamy Bolognese Sauce and Melted Mozzarella ($4.50).
Although I skipped Norway this year, it is one of my favorites to visit.  They have a delightful bakery that my family and I tend to stop at each year.  This country also has the Maelstrom, an indoor boat ride featuring knomes, trolls and other Norwegian folklore.
Kringla Bakeri og Kafe, 2008

Aboard the Maelstrom, 2008
Germany is also one of my favorites.  I typically get a nice,cold draft beer and their signature pretzel.
Me and Bill amidst Germany's Biergarten, 2008
After being sufficiently stuffed from our world tour, we called the eating and drinking portion of the night quits.  We stuck around for the IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth end-of-the-night-show at the World Showcase.  It premiered in 1999 and continues to be a guest favorite.  Displayed over the center lake, the show includes fireworks, pyrotechnics, laser lights and fountains. If it wasn't so d*mn cold at this point, I would have enjoyed it more this year.  Regardless, it is a "must-do" in my opinion.

Next up is a review Hollywood Studios, which will wrap up our Disney World experience this year.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Animal Kingdom

Despite our long day at the Magic Kingdom the day before, we were up bright and early to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours at Disney's Animal Kingdom.  Entering at 8am as opposed to 9am for non-resort guests, we took full advantage of a pretty empty park.
Park Entrance
Opened in April 1998, Animal Kingdom is the single largest Disney park in the world sitting at ~500 acres.  In 2009, 9.6 million guests entered its gates, making it the 8th most visited theme park in the world. I remember being very excited to experience this park when it first opened, but felt a bit disappointed after realizing that attractions were few and far between.  When they added the Expedition Everest roller coaster in April 2006, this park's excitement value went through the roof.

Similar to Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom is organized into seven themed lands.  Expedition Everest is located within Asia.  It really cannot be missed as you walk through the park, since it is the tallest "mountain-like" attraction at Disney World.
Mike and Adam entering Asia on our walk to Everest
The Everest coaster takes you through what is supposed to be the Himalayas, home to the yeti.  As you wait in line, you walk through a small Asian town that has a museum dedicated to the tales of the yeti.  The line loops around to the outside as you await your turn to board the mountain train.  I had first experienced this ride in 2008 and had told everyone how great it was, so we were all pretty excited
My first ride on Everest in 2008, accompanied by my Uncle Norman and cousin Karen
The ride begins by taking the passengers up to the mountain's peak.  It provides a great photo op as you can literally see all the way to Epcot.  Can you spy Spaceship Earth below?
On the way up, you see a ransacked site that has murals of the yeti.  Eventually, you arrive to the top of the peak only to discover that the yeti has torn up the tracks.  This unfortunate circumstance actually leads to the best part of the ride, as the track switches and the train now moves backward whipping you down and around the dark cavernous mountain at a really high speed.  There is at least one other yeti sighting throughout the ride (I won't spoil it completely) and there is one good, long drop that I quite enjoy.  Everyone loved it so much that we rode it twice more.  Gotta love those Extra Magic Hours because the line was non-existant!
Round Two
Round Three, Dave and Maura got first row!
Asia also offers a few other attractions, such as the Kali River Rapids and Maharajah Jungle Trek.  There is also a live bird show called Flights of Wonder. It was a brisk 58 degrees or so this early in the morning, so Kali was out of the question.  You really do get soaked.  If you are at the park on a nice, hot day, it is definitely worth a go.  The Trek is a self-guided walk through a few animal habitats such as the Komodo dragon and bengal tiger. Since we had ambitions of a nice full day at Epcot, we didn't stick around Asia to walk the Trek or explore any further.  We did, however, leave time for a group shot in front of the mountain. SUCH a good ride!
Our next destination was DinoLand U.S.A. Honestly, this entire land is a bit of a kiddy area.  It has TriceraTop Spin, a mini-coaster and carnival games.  The best ride for adults is DINOSAUR, which takes passengers on a bumpy, off road trip through the Late Cretaceous period.  Back in 2004, Dave, Mike and I were at Animal Kingdom and it seemed fitting to recreate this shot on our way out of DinoLand U.S.A.  Looks like he's been repainted. Lol.
We did end up riding Everest one more time before we left the park for the day, but we consciously chose to skip quite a bit in order to get over to Epcot earlier.  Here are a few highlights of the rest of the park:

Oasis is the area near the park entrance, featuring a number of animal habitats such as muntjacs, spoonbills, ducks, wallabies and anteaters.

Discovery Island is essentially the center of the park and features the Tree of Life as it focal point.  It also has animal habitats for kangaroos, cranes and lemurs.  Inside the Tree of Life is a comedic, 4-D attraction called It's Tough to be a Bug! from Disney's A Bug's Life.  Discovery Island also has two of the park's largest restaurants as well as gift shops.

Camp Minnie-Mickey is essentially an area to meet Disney characters.  It also houses Festival of the Lion King, a life-stage show with dancers, acrobats and music from the movie.

Africa is home to the Kilimanjaro Safari.  Guests are in an open vehicle that drives through a large animal preserve.  The animals include giraffes, hippos, lions and elephants.  The Safari can be really cool, but it is hit or miss.  Last few times I've been on it, the animals were far away or out of sight.  Because we were afraid of the "miss", we passed this time.

Rafiki's Planet Watch is connected to Africa by a short train ride.  It provides guests with a behind the scenes look into Disney's animal care as well as an overview of Disney's animal conservation efforts.  There is also a petting zoo featuring goats, sheep, etc.

All in all, don't skip Animal Kingdom...Everest is reason enough to make some time for this park.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Magic Kingdom

On our first park day, we decided to hit up the Magic Kingdom.  This first Disney World park has been bringing happiness to millions and millions of children ever since it first opened its doors in October 1971.  In fact, in 2009, 17.2 million people visited the Magic Kingdom, making it the most visited theme park in the world.

To give those of you who may not be familiar with Disney and its parks, the Magic Kingdom has just under 50 attractions and features seven "lands".  The center of the park is home to Cinderella's castle.
Source: Kingdom Travel
As we walked through the front gates and up Main Street USA, we of course recognized the importance of the castle photo op and snapped a few pictures.

First up for our crew was Tomorrowland, whose headline attraction is Space Mountain.  We were pleased to see that the wait was only 30 minutes.  As a parkgoer, it's good to know your options when it comes to waiting in line at attractions.  The first is to just suck it up and wait and, second, you can use a Fast Pass.  If you decide to use your Fast Pass, you go to the Distribution podiums and you receive a paper ticket that tells you a time that you can return (usually 45 minutes - 3 hours later).  Upon your return, you can enter the Fast Pass Return line which pretty much guarantees you minimal wait time.  I know you must be thinking why wouldn't you use your Fast Pass every time.  Unfortunately, it isn't that simple....if you have one Fast Pass outstanding you typically cannot get another one until after you redeem your current pass or the time expires.  If you happen to get a Fast Pass that has you waiting over a number of hours before you can return to your ride, there is a time printed at the bottom which tells you when you can get another pass.  With all that said, we decided to just wait out the 30 minutes and save our Fast Pass for later.  It ended up being a good choice because we definitely didn't have to wait the full 30 minutes.  We were all so excited to be there anyway, that we found ourselves taking pictures to pass the time.

Case in point....pure Space Mountain excitement:
Now, Space Mountain isn't exactly a new roller coaster. There are definitely other coasters around the world that have surely eclipsed Space Mountain in terms of thrill worthy moments, but that doesn't really matter much to me.  This is a classic ride.  I remember being a mere 39" tall and standing slightly on the balls of my feet just ITCHING to pass the height test to get on this ride.  It has never disappointed me since.  Being in the dark definitely adds to the thrill and I think that it's also a good length of time.  Some new coasters are awesome but they only last 30 seconds. Not cool.  We ended up riding Space Mountain three times this day.  Cant wait until next time!
Before we left Tomorrowland, we hit up a few more rides.  Next up was Buzz Lightyear.  It is an attraction that pairs you up and sends you through a series of rooms with aliens and other Toy Story paraphernalia.  The object is to use your "laser gun" to shoot the Emperor Zurg symbols ("Z") that are fixed to various moving targets.  You tally up points as you go, which makes for a bit of competition between you and your "partner" that is sharing your cart.  I was paired with Daisy, who kicked my butt. 
Next up in Tomorrowland was grub.  We were hungry.  We hit up the "Lunching Pad" for specialty hot dogs.  I got the Taco Dog and Dave got the Philly Cheesesteak Dog.  Sorry, but the wind was whipping about and it was still freezing at this point so I never got the camera out to take a picture.  After lunch, we decided to hit up the Wedway People Mover, which really isn't a ride per se but rather a way to relax and "rest your dogs" in a moving cart.  It takes you through various parts of Tomorrowland (some inside and some outside).  Before moving on, we went to Stitch's Great Escape but it was so underwhelming that I won't even bother reviewing it.  

From Tomorrowland, we wandered over to Fantasyland.  Adam was about to jump out of his shoes from excitement at the thought of reliving his childhood favorites, namely Peter Pan and Snow White, but the little kids outnumber all in this land causing ridiculous wait times.  I wasn't about to wait 70 minutes for the silly Peter Pan "baby ride" (as I so jokingly teased him), so we decided to wait until later.  Little kids have to go to bed sometime right?  We can outlast them.

We wandered over to Liberty Square next and decided to wait in line for the Haunted Mansion.  Definitely a classic, I remember being terrified of this ride when I was young.  
We left the ghosts and goblins behind and headed for Frontierland.  Despite the strange chilly weather, we couldn't pass up Splash Mountain.  Water didn't scare us, or at least not Adam.
In the end, the water did get the best of us, as many of left soaked or at least pretty damp.  Always fun though regardless!  Still in Frontierland, we checked out the wait at Big Thunder Mountain.  It was 50 minutes so that seemed like a Fast Pass opportunity.  We passed the time, by wandering over to Adventureland.  
Best attraction here is Pirates of the Caribbean.  It has been Captain Jack Sparrow-ized, but I think it's a welcomed addition.  Who doesn't like those movies even if only just a little?  Here we are waiting to catch our ship...argh!
Through the course of the next few hours, we hit up pretty much every ride at the park, with the exception of Mickey's Toontown Fair.  By the way, this will be demolished to make room for a Fantasyland expansion in 2013.  From the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square, to Big Thunder Mountain, to Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse, to Fantasyland yet again -- we pretty much did it all.  

At 9pm, we lined up to see the Electrical Parade.  This parade was a favorite of mine as a kid but it had been in a hiatus for a long while.  It was so pleased to see that they brought it back.  The whole parade takes about 20 minutes, as characters ride along in brightly lit floats. 
Once the parade wrapped up, it was almost time for the nightly fireworks show over the castle.  Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams, which first debuted in 2003, is "hosted" by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy.  By "hosted", I mean you hear their voices only.  Right in the beginning, a women dressed as Tinker Bell zip lines all the way from the highest point of the castle to some point way off to the right of Main Street.  Talk about the best ride in Magic Kingdom!! I want to try!  Anyway, back to the review....the castle changes colors throughout which is incredibly visually pleasing.
Throughout the show, various Disney characters talk about their wishes.  The characters typically are speaking over some of the most memorable Disney songs. Featured prominently are Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Peter Pan and Ariel.  At some point, the show turns to the infamous Disney villains.  By the end, the good characters "defeat" the evil and Wishes turns to more joyous instrumentals and big firework displays.  The show ends with "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinnochio.  It really is so well done.  I wish I could watch Wishes every night from my joke ;)
We had the luxury of having Extra Magic Hours this night.  In other words, the park closed to non-resort guests at 11pm, but we had the option of running about until 2am.  Some of us were too beat or too cold to take advantage, but a few of us stayed.  It is a nice option to have because the park really clears out.  After about 1am, we all decided to call it quits.  Between waking up at 5:30am in Sanibel, driving to Orlando and then carousing the park all day, I was done for.  

All in all, I enjoyed my time at good ol' MK.  It is really nostalgic for most people since they remember being so in love with all the rides as kids.  It is only fair to point out that this is the only "dry" park at Disney.  I guess that comes with the territory when you're trying specifically to appeal to the youngin's.  It looks like we still had fun though sans booze right?