Like birds, we decided to do what the birds do and head South for Winter. Or at least a few days in December. We plucked the boys out of school a couple of days early (tsk tsk), crammed the boot (trunk) of the car full of suitcases and boxes of Christmas presents, made up a large thermos flask of hot chocolate and set off at stupid o’clock in the morning. On the journey south, we spent a night in South Carolina; on the return journey, we spent a night in North Carolina. Doing so not only made the journey more manageable – just – but also meant that the boys got to collect two new states. I, however, am retreading old ground and did not, therefore, pick up a new state as has been the case for over a decade. The last time I “collected” a new state was 2002. That is something we need to rectify. Finally we reached the holiday villa in Davenport, Florida. My in-laws, who had flown out from England, had arrived a few days before us and had set the house up so that it was all festive. And so we were set for “Eight Queue a lot in Orlando.”
Our first adventure was to the Happiest Place on Earth. And where is this place? According to all the promotional materials, apparently that place is Disney. Such happiness was somewhat lost on our grizzly children as we woke them before 6 in the morning to get washed, dressed and breakfasted in preparation for an early start and a day spent in the Magic Kingdom.
Entire roads lead only to Disney parks. Disney must be one of the biggest landowners in Florida and not just the Orlando area. The site is vast. The car park alone is massive and required us to board a trolley just to get to the monorail that in turn delivered us to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. There, our pass cards rather nattily swiped against a post (emblazoned with the Mickey Mouse head symbol naturally) and turned green to permit our entry. The adults plus our 11 year old had to give our fingerprint as an identifier. It was bizarrely reminiscent of our immigration to America 14 months ago. Now both USCIS and the House of Mouse have my daubs on file. Verified and authenticated, we were permitted to enter the land of Disney.
The first ride we headed for was one based on Buzz Lightyear. We had been on that ride on our day at Disney in California in February 2008. The ride had been a success with our children – though they could barely remember the vacation and one of them had yet to be born – so it seemed like a good place to kick off our day out. The ride involved sitting in a moving cart and firing at laser gun at various moving targets in order to assist Buzz in defeating Zurg. It was cute and the ideal thing about it was that every single one of us could participate in the ride on a pretty much equal footing. Certainly my kids attained a higher score than I did.
Adjacent to the Buzz ride – on the basis that both involve outer space – was a ride based on the movie ‘Lilo and Stitch’. I think most would agree that that particular movie was made during a fallow period in Disney’s lifespan and honestly my kids have seen it maybe twice. Nevertheless, they were all not only adamant but animated about going into the Stitch ride. Indeed, my 7 year old was so obsessed about the character that he spent some of his pocket money on a plush Stitch as a memento of his day at Disney. The ride was a 4D show that seemed to revolve around an alien prison break. At points the room went pitch black so that we could feel our chairs being pushed down on or air blowing on our heads as if Stitch was jumping around on the backs of our seats. Perhaps if I was more familiar with the original movie and its spin-off series I would have engaged with it more but frankly I found it incomprehensible and to my mind it was probably the weakest ride we experienced in the Magic Kingdom.
While not yet an adrenalin junkie or thrill-seeker, our oldest son does enjoy rides that challenge him a little; our 9 year old, on the other hand, is well aware of his limits and therefore gives any scary rides a wide berth; our youngest is fearless, somewhat worryingly so; but our 7 year old thinks that he likes thrill rides when actually he erupts into a little mess of anxiety and has a fear of heights. As happy as he was, therefore, with the idea of the Dumbo ride, the actuality made him turn into a little wibbly jelly. ‘Dumbo’ is a Disney film that left me nonplussed as a child and which I have never warmed to, possibly because the daft wee pachyderm only learns to fly in the closing minutes of the film thus promising a much more exhilarating movie right at the very point when it concludes. Anyway, the ride is one in which the children sit inside Dumbos which rotate and can also rise up and down on the vertical. The fact it was not a scary ride can be confirmed by the fact that none of his brothers found it remotely thrilling, just fun, but for my 7 year old it was too much. So while his brothers all headed off to take a turn on the Goofy Barnstormer (a ride involving some stunt aeroplanes), my Mother-in-Law and I took my 7 year old for a calming ride on Casey Jr, a train that circles through the Magic Kingdom transporting visitors between areas.
Gathered together once more, we headed into the Little Mermaid ride. This was essentially a tour through scenes from the movie, seated in a clamshell. Dioramas filled with colourful models and the great songs from the film filled the air. The most successful sections were the rip-roaring ‘Under the Sea’ segment because it was so chock-full of fun-filled characters, including slugs cutting a rug, and Ariel’s grotto where, looking above us, we could see Ariel defying her father by swimming up towards the surface. We did not, however, queue up to do the adjacent Grotto visit with Ariel.
What we did do next was Disney’s famous It’s A Small World ride. I actually have no idea what the premise of the ride is as it does not appear to be connected to any cartoon or movie characters that I am aware of. Mr Pict’s nostalgic memories for Disney visits past meant he was eager to do the ride. The kids and I had never done it so we were all keen to experience the iconic ride. It is essentially a little boat ride through scenes depicting various continents and nations of the world all set to a tone that burrows into the consciousness like the most pernicious brain worm ever. I think the message is supposed to be one of world peace and friendship that transcends differences and borders. It’s a lovely message and the whole ride is well done and charming in its twee way. However, it is also a cheerful grand tour of xenophobic stereotypes. It is actually very odd indeed but I am glad to have done it because it is one of those keystone Disney creations I had not experienced.
Next up was The Haunted Mansion and our first proper queue of the day, though that queue was still under half an hour. I had done this ride in California so I knew it was worth the wait but the line was also well designed in that it took visitors past witty little details that functioned as an aperitif to the main event. There were cute busts of dearly departed characters, gravestones with amusing inscriptions, tombs, a creepy musical organ and a hearse carriage to keep us entertained as we worked our way closer to the front of the line. We were then ushered into a room to form a claustrophobia inducing mass. The room was darkened and made to seem as if it was descending in a funny and clever way. We were then deposited into little carts which ran past spooky vignettes of ghostly goings on. The optical technology was really very clever indeed conjuring up as it did the spectral head of a chanting medium, dead diners, graveyard frolics and ghosts waltzing in a dusty ballroom. My kids loved it and it was my favourite ride at the Magic Kingdom partly because I am a bit macabre but mostly because there was a lot of bang for our buck with this particular ride.
The modern technology of the Haunted Mansion was juxtaposed with our next Magic Kingdom experience, the decidedly old school Smokey Bear Jamboree. Rather like It’s A Small World, the Smokey Bear Jamboree seems to be a dyed in the wool Disney staple, a survivor from a bygone era. Set in a theatre, various animatronic bears perform country and western music on the stages at the front of the hall. The ditties and hoedowns amuse and there is something quite charming about the old school stylings of the bears, despite their propensity for hillbilly stereotypes. It was also a welcome moment of calm and restful focus in a day of constant movement and sensory overload.
We emerged from the theatre just in time to catch a parade. The Magic Kingdom seems to have parades regularly. Most of them we missed but we decided to stop and watch this particular one not only because the serried lines of people meant we had no choice but also because we thought it would be fun for the kids. They saw Woody and Jessie, Aladdin and Jasmine, Snow White and Prince What’s-His-Name, Santa, reindeer and elves, Goofy and Mickey. A short while later we got caught up in a dance parade. This was mainly composed of random humans in brightly coloured garb and fixed grins but there was the occasional Disney character, such as the Genie and King Louis. My two youngest sons spotted that Stitch was among the grooving figures and stalked him, via a conga line, until they could meet him face-to-face. At which point they went stony faced and silent, stuck dumb by being star struck. It was adorable to behold. And also awkward.
We had thankfully pre-booked a Fast Pass gig for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as its lines were incredibly long. It felt a bit rude to queue jump but that’s how it works. Every day ticket holders can pre-book three rides for entry that bypasses the regular queue. As can be discerned from our decision to Fast Pass the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, it was one we were looking forward to. We had all enjoyed the ride when we did it in California in February 2008. This time it was disappointing. The models were all very well done and the scenes were all fun to look at but there was a lack of detailing. Our “boats” went between a galleon and a fort that were supposedly firing at each other. In the California version, we could feel the swooshing air of the cannon balls whizzing over our heads, experienced the splashes of the cannon balls hitting the water, but in this version there was none of that to add a bit of a thrill. There was also a part where they projected the image of a villain’s face onto pouring water. In the California version, that character had been Davy Jones which made thematic sense, since he was connected so completely to the water in terms of his spectral life force; in the Florida version, they used Blackbeard which not only made less sense but was also a weird choice given that the fourth movie entirely sucked. No amount of “Yo ho ho” malarkey could prevent us from feeling deflated.
The 7 year old was still determined to try a high ride so, while my Father-in-Law and my oldest son went off to the Thunder Mountain rollercoaster, Mr Pict and the other boys went on the Aladdin Magic Carpet ride. Unlike his experience on Dumbo, the 7 year old mastered his fear on the magic carpets because he figured out how to be in control of the height. Therefore, while all the other carpets were flying high, his magic carpet was sailing low. He enjoyed it so much that he went back on the same ride later in the evening. The experience really bolstered his confidence which made the queuing worthwhile.
It was time to meet Mickey Mouse, the star of the show, so we bobbed and weaved through the crowds to reach the Town Square Theatre. We had done the same thing in California where the meet and greet had been swiftly efficient. This time we were given plenty of time with Mickey and he properly interacted with the kids. When it was our turn, he walked over to greet them and gave them each a hug. He then posed with them in various ways, never making us feel rushed or like we needed to move on for the next people to come in. The other thing that was different from our California experience was that the staff in Florida were completely OK with us taking our own photos, even happily taking a photo with my camera so that I could be in a group photo, whereas the staff in California had merely tolerated me doing so. Overall it was just a much more positive experience.
We didn’t eat in the Magic Kingdom. Instead we took packed lunches and left the park to go have our evening meal at a nearby Chilli’s. Replete, we returned to the Magic Kingdom and decided to take the ferry rather than the monorail just for a fun change and to see the vista of the castle and other buildings all lit up in the darkness. Our timing was fortuitous as we arrived in the Main Street area it was clear that some major event was happening as the whole place was thronging with visitors like herring in a barrel. The cause of the commotion then became apparent: the Castle was being “frozen”. Whoever pitched the idea of ‘Frozen’ to the suits at Disney studios must have been patted on the back so much that they are dented. That movie has become Disney’s cash cow for sure. Honestly, as good a movie as I believe it is and as cracking as the soundtrack is, it’s not my favourite of Disney’s recent output. I prefer ‘Tangled’. However, something about ‘Frozen’ has captured the popular imagination so it is all over everything. Of course, that theme works perfectly for the season too. And it was magical. Truly magical. I may even have emitted an audible “wow” as the castle was covered in glowing crystals of white light. Stunning. And then the fireworks went off. Whizz bang right behind the castle. It was a breath-taking display. It was in that moment – watching pretty, sparkling gunpowder explode over a fake castle bedecked in a bajillion light bulbs – that all my Disney cynicism melted away. Yes, paying for tickets to Disney World is extortionate and yes it is all glossy commercialism and plasticated, manufactured fun, and every experience is a merchandising opportunity and yes they sanitise and bowdlerise traditional tales and the gender politics and messages of their movies can be unsatisfactory to say the least but my goodness they do it all with such finesse, polish and aplomb that it is impossible not to be impressed and be carried away by the sheer magnitude of Disney’s achievements.
After that spectacle, the crowds did not magically disperse. It was chaos. Heaving, hectic chaos. Disney employees waving those flashing cones they use on airport runways tried in vain to direct the throng onto certain paths but you cannot impose order on a herd of stampeding wildebeest and nor can you control a mob of people intent on getting to the ride of their choice ahead of the competition. Swimming against that tide was near impossible. We had to gradually work our way towards the edges of the stream so that we could escape the current at the correct location and moment. We wisely decided to head to an area that was less busy. For which read less popular. Everyone comes to Disney World to see the Hall of the Presidents, right? No? Well it was quiet, calm and air-conditioned so it was the perfect choice. The building is actually modelled on Independence Hall on Philadelphia (which I still have not visited – tsk tsk) and we waited for the show inside the rotunda that contained trinkets that had once belonged to various American presidents so we perused those. Our 9 year old is pretty keen on learning about presidents so he engaged with it all to a degree. The others just wanted to rest their legs and play Angry Granny Run on Mr Pict’s iphone.
The doors to the theatre opened and we were ushered in to take a seat. A proper comfy seat in the Magic Kingdom, another rare treat. I seriously do not know why this place was not packed. Essentially it is a showcase about the 44 US Presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, using animatronic models of each esteemed chap. The preceding movie and the presentation were all narrated by Morgan Freeman. I think Freeman must have first refusal on any voiceover gig in America. The animatronic models were very impressive. When robot Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address it was actually quite stirring. It is, of course, a beautifully crafted, rousing, emotive speech but the presentation of it was very effective. What was disappointing was that the vast majority of the other presidents were just glossed over. They were introduced one by one but in such a rush that sometimes I missed identifying the individual before the spotlight moved on to the next one and all they could really do was nod or waft a hand in a wave. Obviously I would not have wanted to sit through all 44 animatronic models having a chinwag with the audience. Not only would it have been bum-numbing but, let’s face it, not all the Presidents are equally as interesting and engaging. More than a handful would have been nice though, especially because the robot model technology was so superb.
Another queueless, quiet and calm “ride” for us to duck into was the Swiss Family Robinson area. This time, I could appreciate why it was abandoned. It was supremely dull, pointless and lacking in focus. My kids have not only never seen the movie of ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ but had never even heard of it. I imagine the same is true of most visitors these days. Even those of us who have seen the movie probably scratch their heads trying to recollect any interesting detail from it. The “ride” is essentially a tour of a treehouse involving stairs winding around tree trunks and rope bridges past various open air rooms. The only good thing about it was that the summit of the treehouse offered us great panoramic views over the Magic Kingdom. Our 11 year old observed that the whole “ride” was pretty much like the queuing system for all of the other rides. Spot on. Honestly, the whole thing needs ripped out and replaced with something more engaging, probably more contemporary or at least based on a more classic movie, one that has stood the test of time and which people maintain a fond connection to.
We had wandered past the Peter Pan’s Flight ride several times but the queue had never dipped below 45 minutes and had often been far over an hour. On our final wander past towards the exit we saw that the line was now 40 minutes. Given that we had barely had to queue for anything all day, we decided to suck it up. At some stage in our queuing, however, it became apparent that the 40 minute estimate was completely incorrect. The line was not moving anywhere fast enough to make that a reality. And the queue was not an entertaining one – such as the Haunted Mansion one – but was just a rat maze lined with artistic depictions of scenes from the film. About half-way through our queuing, the rat maze became housed in what was supposed to represent the Darling children’s nursery bedrooms. This actually just made it feel more claustrophobic.
The Peter Pan ride was also our first real encounter with a grouchy employee. I am sure Disney probably deploys many and varied carrots and sticks to motivate it’s employees to at least appear like the Happiest People on Earth but this chap was not drinking the Kool Aid at all. Not only was he not all smiles, cheer and Disney twinkle but he was crabby and snappy. Earlier in the evening, my 9 year old had been told to get down from a concrete seat he was standing on by another of the Magic Kingdom’s Happiest People but at least on that occasion there was at least a (negligible reason) for being sour-faced and serious. The guy on the Peter Pan ride had no such excuse for being as obnoxious as he was. Had he been authorised to carry a cattle prod, I am sure he would have wielded it at us.
Finally it was our turn to ride. Paired up, we flew, suspended from rails in the ceiling, above scenes of Edwardian London and then off to Neverland. It was actually a very charming ride. The scenes from the movie that were depicted below our gliding chair were well crafted and sweet. The whole ride was well-designed and appealing. It was not, however, appealing enough or long enough to warrant the extensive queuing. The boys all complained bitterly about the experience which was a real pity as I am sure they would have thoroughly enjoyed it had we not had such a tedious prologue to the ride. It felt like a duff note to end on after a really positive, enjoyable day.
But then we emerged to find that the evening fireworks display was underway. We had assumed we had missed it because of the wearisome queue for Peter Pan but we had actually only missed the start. As was probably to be expected, the display was top notch. While our view was partly obscured by the buildings we were wedged between, we still managed to see the spectacle of the sky above the castle being lit up by whiz-bang, brightly coloured, sparkling, fizzing fireworks and there was never a lull. One after the other they filled the sky with colour and sound. And that was a fitting conclusion to our very long day in the Magic Kingdom.