If you have ever been to Walt Disney World in Florida and stayed at a Disney resort, you are familiar with the words “Welcome Home.” This phrase is repeated by everyone from the bus driver, the concierge, the bellhop, the maid and the cashier at the store to the workers at the theme parks.
At first it was a little amusing when I heard this, but after the fifth time or so it became somewhat eerie. I wondered whether or not these Disney people had been drinking some kind of Mickey Kool-Aid and were part of a weird cult. This cynicism slowly faded as I saw the wonder in my five-year-old daughter’s eyes and understood that they were all part of making the magic happen for her (and for her Mommy and me, too).
Disney is all about magic from the moment of arrival. There is a sense of stepping through a looking glass, a sense of wonder that springs from the child we all still have hiding somewhere inside us. It took me a bit of time to adjust to this, but on the way from the airport to the resort, when I saw the road signs with Mickey ears and the billboards announcing various rides at the theme parks, I was hooked as much as my daughter was.
The mat outside each room at Disney Saratoga Springs has the words “Welcome Home” on it, and the room was a comfortable little “villa” with a complete kitchen, a large master suite (with Jacuzzi), a large living room, and a balcony with a lake view. There was a spa, two golf courses, and four pools on the grounds (each with water slides and spraying fountains). Needless to say, though the accommodations were lovely, my daughter’s focus was on getting to the parks (and staying in them for as long as possible).
The first stop on this six-day whirlwind tour was The Magic Kingdom. Since this vacation coincided with our Easter break, we went at a time when seemingly a million other people had the same week and a half off. As we entered the park through the train station and came out onto the sunny Town Square, a parade was in progress and the enormous crowd was enthusiastic. As the floats went around the circle, my daughter caught a glimpse of Cinderella waving to everyone with her Prince at her side. She tugged on my sleeve, gave me a quick thumbs-up, and returned her attention to the parade.
Later as we walked (more like slowly shuffled) down Main Street, U.S.A., pressed in among thousands of other people heading toward the castle at the center of town, I felt like I had made a major mistake coming at this time of year. Once we were standing close to the statue of Walt and Mickey in the circle that opens out to the castle, a musical stage show (Dream Along with Mickey) commenced and my daughter was thrilled to see all her favorite characters dancing, singing, and interacting with the crowd. Her excitement and happiness made me realize that this was what the vacation was about. The crowds, no matter how large, were not going to ruin it.
This was an amazing start to the rest of our journey. Every step (and there were nothing but steps as we walked from attraction to attraction and ride to ride in each park) brought us closer to a kiddy nirvana, a place where dreams collide with reality and make for a memorable experience no matter how old you are. Luckily, for $10 a day you can rent a single or double stroller that is not only good for the little ones’ legs, but is a damn fine place to toss those backpacks heavy with water bottles, sunscreen, and other supplies.
It became surreal standing on line for twenty minutes or more to get on a ride, listening to parents and kids from all over the country (and the world) talking about their exciting experiences at Disney. My wife discovered that we could also get a FASTPASS. This is kind of like cheating because it gives you a time to come back to the ride or exhibit and avoid the lines (although there are usually lines for FASTPASS, too). The most rewarding rides were ones like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mad Tea Party, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. The only “scary” ride my daughter went on was Splash Mountain. She came off a little shaken and wet, but later on said it was her single favorite thing at Magic Kingdom.
After spending the short first day at the resort pool (because it was so hot and we got in late from the airport) and two full days at the Magic Kingdom, it was time to get to the other parks. Animal Kingdom, the newest of the theme parks, was our next stop and it was an amazing place that is part amusement park, part zoo, and something like a journey to the far corners of the earth. The thing my daughter enjoyed most here was Festival of the Lion King, which is a full-blown live spectacle of beasts and humans. Familiar characters from the movie make an appearance and sing and dance while acrobats take to the air.
The different sections of the park include Discovery Island (complete with a huge Tree of Life that is surrounded by animals similar to those found on the Galapagos Islands), Africa (with the best safari anyone is going to find this side of Kenya), Asia (the Kali River Rapids features exciting white-water rafting), and DinoLand U.S.A. (Finding Nemo – The Musical is a must). This park provides quite a contrast after spending time at the Magic Kingdom, and the good news is that it is not as crowded even at the peak time of mid-afternoon.
The next day we went to Epcot, and I must confess this was my favorite place. As you enter the park, you can’t help but be impressed by the huge white sphere (home of the Spaceship Earth presentation) that is as immediately recognizable as Cinderella’s Castle, but represents Walt Disney’s futuristic vision more than anything else. There are great rides to be found here including Mission: SPACE (featuring the more intense and exciting Orange Team and the Green Team for those who want a more sedate experience), Test Track, and Soarin’. By the way, those rides that are a physical challenge are advertised as such, with signs posted outside warning those with various medical conditions not to come aboard.
Despite all the other attractions, the heart of Epcot is the World Showcase, where you can stroll through pavilions featuring realistic representations of places from all over the earth. Each “country” has streets with distinctive shops, restaurants, and attractions that one would find in the real places without having to take the arduous voyage to get there. I particularly enjoyed Maelstrom in the Norway section, a replicated boat voyage that shows what the Viking era was like. The beer is delicious in Germany, the sushi fresh in Japan, and don’t pass up the cappuccino in Italy.
The highlight of this day was a carnival mask (like one found during New Orleans’ celebrations) that my daughter designed in the Italy section (materials, markers, and crayons were provided). We then had to “travel” to every pavilion where she would get an attachment for the mask (representative of that country) and also a stamp. For collecting these items from all eleven countries, her reward was a colorful Disney poster, but the thrill of the chase for these things was more than enough for her.
On the last day we visited the fourth theme park, MGM Studios, and this was another exciting adventure for us all. At the center of it all is a huge wizard’s hat (just like the one worn by Mickey in Fantasia) at Hollywood Junction. Here my daughter reveled in the High School Musical Pep Rally and met some of the characters she had been longing to meet.
One of the most interesting diversions in these parks is seeing children line up to get the “autographs” of their favorite characters. Autograph books and special Mickey pens are sold in all the parks, and it is unbelievable to see children and adults (no chances for a FASTPASS here) waiting in long lines for these ten to fifteen-second encounters. We did get autographs in the other parks, but the most coveted ones were found here (Mickey and Minnie). Even I couldn’t help but jump in a picture with Mick and shake his white-gloved hand (my daughter was not the only one waiting a lifetime to meet this charismatic mouse).
MGM Studios is a delightful place (and features the Brown Derby if you want to treat yourself to one great meal in the parks) that is made to look like old Hollywood, with swaying palm trees, art deco buildings, and bright pink and blue archways that reflect days of the golden age of films. We saw the best shows in this park, with the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular being the most thrilling 30-minute adventure you can imagine. Also, don’t forget to come back at night for Fantasmic, a superb laser and water show that is the best of some very good evening entertainment found in the parks.
While running around the parks and trying to see all the sights, get on the rides, and watch the shows, it isn’t that simple to stop to shop or eat. We packed a brown bag lunch every day for each of us, and this was fortunate because the lines for a sandwich, cup of coffee, or an ice cream could be as time consuming as the ones for the rides. As for shopping, the best thing to do is probably wait until evening and take some time to get away from the parks and visit Downtown Disney.
Downtown Disney is a waterfront stretch of shops, restaurants, pubs, clubs, and entertainment centers that is vibrant and not just for kids. In fact, the area known as Pleasure Island is specifically designed for adult visitors only. The other areas are very kid friendly and most of the restaurants have children’s menus. The stores are packed with everything one might want to bring home as a souvenir or give as a gift, and there are enough toys to please the Jolly Old Elf himself. In fact, Once Upon a Toy is one of the best toy stores I’ve ever visited and is a must for kids of all ages.
When we were sitting on the plane flying home, I was sorry our vacation was over and that the time went so fast. I went to Disney as an unbeliever, but I came away understanding that the words to the song my daughter loves really do apply while visiting there: “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / When you wish upon a star / Your dreams come true.”
As cliché as it may sound, visiting Walt Disney World is very much like having a dream come true, for it is a place where people from all over the world can enjoy unimaginable sights and sounds, but still hear the words “Welcome Home” and feel like they just arrived on their own doorstep.