Friday, June 13, 2014

best vacation ever! (so far)

Better write it down before I forget...

First of all, DH started planning this trip around the beginning of the year some time.  There were many times when I thought he was spending too much time on it, but he always said he was enjoying it and wanted to do it.  I was so swamped during the school year that I was no help at all, but when I was finally finished and got to dive in, I finally understood.

Disney World is about the size of San Francisco -- and growing.  You cannot just show up and wing it when you have 3 teenagers traveling with you who expect to do things like eat and sleep on a regular basis.  If you're traveling without kids, you could probably get away with much less planning, since reservations for 2 for dinner are relatively easy to get, or you could often eat at the bar of the nicer restaurants. You absolutely cannot make a dinner reservation for 5 people at the desirable restaurants during normal dinner hours the same day or the day before, unless you're very lucky.  So we didn't trust to luck, except on the last day, and that's not something I would repeat.

My school year ended a week before the kids', so I had time to shop for things to eat for breakfast in the room (protein bars, beef jerky, half-n-half for the coffee), emergency rain ponchos (less than a dollar at Wal-Mart, much more expensive in FL), and everything else we needed.  Two of the best things we brought were body glide, kind of like wax that you could use on your heels or any place that was chafing to prevent blisters or rashes, and moleskin to help prevent blisters from forming in places where the glide wasn't doing the trick.  One thing we wished we had with us was a decent pair of scissors to cut the moleskin; we ended up borrowing a pair from the concierge desk, and they were adequate but just barely.

One thing I brought that DH and I liked but the kids did not were chill ties.  They look like bandanas, but they are tubes filled with a water-absorbing material.  You wet them in cold water and tie them around your neck, and they keep you cool.  We only ended up using them the first day in Epcot, which was brutally hot and sunny (World No-Shade is my nickname for World Showcase).  They do work, but the kids thought they should work better and so they gave up on them after a while.  I appreciated having it, but on other days went without because it was more overcast and/or I was going on rides where I got wet, so I didn't need it as much.

We stayed at the Port Orleans - Riverside resort.  The grounds were beautiful; I was completely in love with the lush landscaping and all the cypress and magnolia trees.

One of the great things about the resort is it felt quiet even though it was absolutely packed. There was noise by the pool, but we were far enough away that we couldn't hear it.   We had about a 5 minute walk to the lobby and the bus stops, and I enjoyed those walks to and from our rooms as much as anything else.  It was so well-cared for, and all I had to do was enjoy it!

We had a lot of family time, and miraculously, there were no fights or shouting matches.  We wisely booked two rooms or we all would've been ready to kill each other.  There were some rolled eyes and meaningful sighs but for the most part, everyone remained positive.  I warned the kids before we left that a bad attitude was not going to be tolerated. They didn't have to like everything, but they certainly did not have complain about it and ruin everyone else's time.   There were times when they chose to do their own thing, and that was fine, too -- they are all old enough to get around on their own, especially with the Magic Bands.

These are awesome.  They work as your door key, your park ticket, your Fast Pass+,  and you can charge things to your room with them, also.  We had a tiny hiccup the first day when we weren't able to charge things to the room with it, but after that they were reliable, easy to use, and most important, very hard to misplace.  They are not uncomfortable, but if you're not used to wearing something on your wrist they will feel weird at first.

Ah, the parks.  We did two days each at Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios, and 1 day at Animal Kingdom.  The last day, we did Animal Kingdom in the morning first thing, then Epcot for rides and lunch, and then Magic Kingdom after supper!  The boys were too tired but DH, DD and I made it back for one last set of rides before our early flight out the next day.

We did Epcot the first day, and I did something I'd been wanting to do for a while:

I got a henna tattoo in Morocco.  DH told me that it's traditional for brides to get these tattoos for their weddings, and they're not allowed to work until they fade.  The woman who drew mine said it would last from 7-10 days, and that was accurate.  There wasn't much left by the time we got home.

"The Brick", DS2's test track car design.
At Epcot, we all loved Mission Space: Orange (my favorite ride of all) and Test Track, although the latter scared the heck out of me the first time I rode it, since it was at night and dark on the really fast part of the track.  I discovered that I can enjoy fast rides if I can see where I'm going, otherwise I get whipped around too much (since I can't brace myself) and end up hurting my neck (which is why one ride on Space Mountain was enough for me).  We also liked Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land, and of course, Soaring, which is identical to the one in California Adventure and is just awesome.  We had a last look at Captain Eo, describing it to DS2 thus: "Star Wars plus muppets and pop music, with Michael Jackson."  (He agreed that is an accurate assessment after he saw it.) The word is that theater space is going to be re-purposed, so the captain is being permanently retired.  

We also really enjoyed World Showcase, even if we didn't do much shopping.  I think we saw all the movies and did all the rides, but that's probably not true since I didn't even check out Morocco or Italy. We did love the food, though!  DD and I had lunch in France both days we were there, we liked it so much, and we used our extra snack credits at the bakery there to get delicious things to eat on the plane ride home -- I don't think I've ever enjoyed a chocolate almond croissant as much!  We wanted to eat at Norway but the current insane popularity of  Frozen nixed that idea, since every meal there was a character meal with Princesses Anna and Elsa. Lines for hours, no way to make a reservation for a meal that wasn't a character meal -- and thankfully all the kids are way too old for that.

We did see the fireworks at Epcot the first night we were there, after a great dinner at Chef du France with more family!  One of my brothers was there with his wife and son, and one of my nephews was there with his girlfriend, so the 10 of us had a wonderful time.  That was our first day and it made it even more special. 

I loved Animal Kingdom, it's gorgeous just to walk around, but there weren't that many rides there we were interested in.  Expedition Everest is too much for me, but DH and DD loved it.  The boys and I liked the Dinosaur! ride and enjoyed the Finding Nemo show, which had amazing puppetry. It would be nice if they could make the shows just a little longer -- they squish them down to 30 minutes, which means they have to leave a lot out; just an extra 10 or 15 minutes could add some coherence to the narratives so if anyone in the audience didn't know the story (ha!) they could make sense of what was going on.   The first thing we did at Animal Kingdom was the safari ride, which was excellent but I'm not good enough with my phone's camera to do it justice. Here's a baobab tree, looking pretty much exactly the way it did on the Little Prince's planet:

The road was very bumpy and the bus was moving pretty much the entire time.  Not an easy photography shoot for me, anyway!  DH got much better photos.    The cool thing about Animal Kingdom is they have a couple of different walking trails where you can see the animals at a more leisurely pace.  It was feeding time for the meerkats when we got there:

We saw dozens of other animals, most of which I didn't photograph adequately or at all.  Our only disappointment at Animal Kingdom was the Cali River Rapids, which, while fun, seem like less than half as long as the rapids in California Adventure, which is my favorite ride in that park.  We once went on it 4 times in a row, it's such a blast.  The rapids at Animal Kingdom served mostly to get everyone soaked, which was OK because it was very hot out, so being wet helped.  ( I wore a poncho but the hood got pushed back, so a lot of water went down my back - better than the front!)
But we all figured that once was enough for that ride.

At Hollywood Studios,  DH and DD took off to do Tower of Terror and Rock-n-Roller Coaster, neither of which interested the boys or me.  So we did Toy Story Mania and saw the documentary about Walt Disney's vision and the history of the parks, plus we did the backlot tours and watched the stunt shows.  DS2's favorite (it was very well done) was Lights Motor Action!, the stunt car show.  I used the pano feature on my camera for the first time and it worked out pretty well:

Star Tours is at Hollywood Studios in Florida instead of in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland as it is in California.  The changes to the ride mean that your odds of having exactly the same trip twice are very small.  I think we went on it four times and had a good mix of beginnings, middles, and endings, and all of them were really fun, even though none of us got to be the rebel spy. We all really enjoyed the American Idol Experience (we saw the finale show, with four excellent singers) and Fantasmic!, which I confess made me choke up a bit.  We had awesome seats because we had made lunch/show reservations at Mama Melrose's -- we would have preferred dinner, but there were no times available!

Finally, Magic Kingdom, which was the favorite for all of us.  There are just so many great rides - Peter Pan, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean... I will confess that I like California's Magic Kingdom better, but that may be because all the times I was there, it was not under construction, and also because they have both Winnie-the-Pooh and Mr Toad's Wild Ride, which is sadly absent from MK in FL. Also, I really like how Magic Kingdom in laid out in CA, with New Orleans housing Haunted Mansion and Pirates, with Thunder Mountain just on the outskirts.  It seems more compact, while Magic Kingdom in FL seemed very disjointed to me.  We were there when the 7 Dwarves' Mine Train ride opened, but couldn't get anywhere near it.  The lines were never less than 90 minutes (even right at opening, it started with a 30-40 minute line), and the fastpasses were all gone already, so we didn't even try for it.

We did a number of old-time attractions and were fairly stunned by the Country Bear Jamboree, which we hadn't seen before.  What was up with that "blood on the sand" song?!  But we all still loved the Jungle Cruise and I did the Enchanted Tiki Room while everyone else was at Space Mountain (I think).  DD and I made an effort to see the Electric Light Parade and the Wishes show, both of which we enjoyed very much.  The boys weren't interested, so we left them to their own devices.  When we went back the last night, the Electric Light Parade was just starting and DS1 couldn't take it, so he bailed out with his brother and went back to the room.

You may hear talk of a snack called a Dole Whip.  It's basically orange juice or pineapple juice somehow perfectly transmuted into soft serve ice cream.  It's amazing, and I suspect it's nearly dairy-free because I ate it and it didn't make me sick.  Delicious and refreshing and worth waiting in the line for.

Delicious... overall the food we had was excellent.  The two favorites were Flying Fish and Cat Cora's Kouzzina, both on the boardwalk, and so kind of a pain to get to, but yummy.  Flying Fish was 2 dinner credits per person and while it was awesome I'm not convinced it was that awesome, because my whole snapper at Kouzzina was divine:

Now the kids are encouraging me to learn to cook Greek food, at least this dish and pastichio.  Also baclava,but I think if  you buy the phyllo dough that's not too bad.

We had sit-down dinners every day (Mama Melrose's was at lunchtime), and ate at: Chefs du France, Whispering Canyon, Boma Flavors of Africa buffet, Kouzzina, Flying Fish, Raglan Road, and Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe.  The last was the most disappointing, both in terms of service and food, and that was our last night there, so it was sad that we didn't end on a high note.  Everywhere else  the food and the service were excellent.

About Boma: if you're with someone with a food allergy, be very careful at the buffet.  DS1 accidentally ate a pistachio from the nut-crusted salmon which was at the same table as the carving station; he thinks nuts might have fallen into one of the sauces he took.  We ended up spending 4 hours in the emergency room, but the staff at the Animal Kingdom Lodge were wonderful about getting us transportation, and the Celebration Hospital quickly admitted him and got him treatment, to which he responded right away.  His breathing was never compromised but he did have brutal hives everywhere and he did throw up a few the cab on the way to the hospital.  He was mortified, but I tipped the driver basically all the cash I had to try and compensate him for his troubles.  Fortunately he had those floor coverings that 1) catch spills and 2) you can just hose off, but still, it wasn't fun.  

The hospital was beautiful, and I asked the cabdriver who took us back how old it was, expecting him to tell me it was only a year or two old.  He told me it had been there at least 20 years, but it was managed by Disney.  No surprise that it should be so well-appointed and have such excellent staff.

Last but not least, a word for Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine where we attended mass on Sunday evening.  The shrine was built for all the tourists, and the mass was well-attended.  The cantor had a gorgeous voice, and it was a lovely mass.  I don't think the kids have ever been in a real cathedral before.  It's funny, because I hear "shrine" and I automatically think "tiny", but this was an actual cathedral with gorgeous stained glass and other artwork.  We didn't get to see the JPII rosary garden because it was pouring rain, but I got a decent photo of the rose window:

We were home for mass the next Sunday, so only attended once.  Other than the trip to the ER, this was the only time we went "off campus" during the entire trip, but the cabdriver (amazing fonts of information, these Florida cabbies) told us that Disney had donated substantially so it could be built.  Again, no surprise. 

If only our government were as well-managed as Disney... I am in awe of how they continue to scale up, enormously, and yet maintain their standards.  Oh, sure, occasionally you'll see a cast member who isn't cheerful, but for the most part? You don't.  Everyone's on board with the mission, and since the mission is to make sure that the guests are happy, pretty much everything goes well.  I love it especially because it shows that it can be done.  We don't have settle for less-than-adequate, or even merely adequate.  Identify and solve problems before they happen.  Do the work, reap the rewards.

1 comment:

nina said...

I went to Disney World with my girls 20 years ago and had the same reaction -- it's so well run! The resorts shine, the food is incredible, the staff beyond helpful. I also noticed how clean everything was! With so many people eating, munching, hurrying -- no litter! It magically disappeared. Efficient, like clockwork -- just stunning in the execution. We didn't stay as long as you did or do as much, but despite the fact that I'm not really a person who loves rides, it was an incredibly memorable trip!