Hello everyone. For those who are used to the normal postings on this blog, this one is going to be a bit different. Of course, if you’re used to the normal postings, you’re also wondering where the heck they went. Well, that’s kind of a long story, but we can safely boil it down to a combination of business and laziness. In the next few months, my website http://www.greatexplorationstours.com/ is getting a complete makeover and one of the things that will be added is a blog. So the posts will start again soon, but will be hosted somewhere else. Don’t worry, I’ll post here when it happens. Of course, you can always repeatedly visit the Great Explorations Tours site and maybe sign up for a fantastic escorted tour our two while you’re there (I know, I know, shameless).
Now on to the point of this post. In early February 2011 my family and I spent a week in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I know there are 1,046 random sites that specialize in Disney (and I read about 934 of them), but I thought I’d post my thoughts and feelings as a relative outsider. I feel that I can give a good perspective for a number of reasons: I am a very experienced travel professional, a huge Disney fan, and the father of a two year old.
Although I am a great follower of all things Disney, it had been over 6 years since my last visit to a Disney park (I visited Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris 6 years ago). This is what I meant above as being a relative outsider. I do not as of this writing work in any manner professionally with Disney so all of my opinions are that of me and me alone and serve no purpose other than information.
So that was a way too lengthy piece of introduction about to be followed by a way, way too lengthy review. I don’t think I’ll have time to write all of this and revisit and edit it, so be aware that this may be a tad sloppy.
*Just as a little family background, I was traveling with my 2 ½ year old daughter and my wife, who was 5 months pregnant at the time of the trip.
Table of Contents (sorry, not click-able)
- Walt Disney World Parks Overview
- Food & Drink
- Hotel (mostly Port Orleans French Quarter, but I have thoughts on lots of them)
Walt Disney World Parks Overview
Here are my general feelings about each of the parks, just to set up the horribly slanted views below.
Magic KingdomI’m not the first one to say this, but the Magic Kingdom is Walt Disney World to most people. The Magic Kingdom was far and away my daughter’s favorite park and definitely contains the vast majority of the fantastical dark rides that made Disney parks famous. I love Magic Kingdom, but I am capable of becoming bored with it, especially when I end up on it’s a small world 5 or 6 times. My biggest problem with Magic Kingdom is that I don’t feel like I can just wander around there for an infinite amount of time like I can some other sections. Of course, the more I learn about all the details the more I enjoy finding them. Perhaps a Keys to the Kingdom tour is in order.
I have a gigantic soft spot for Epcot, even though I have issues with most of its major attractions. I love the technology present at Innoventions as well as some of the minor attractions such as “Journey into Imagination” and “Living with the Land.” Mostly what I love about Epcot is World Showcase. As you would imagine, I love anything travel related. While it is true that I would rather personally visit each country (and have visited, and led tours to, several), the authenticity of each pavilion is what makes me love Disney. I can walk and eat and drink around World Showcase for a little too long.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
I’m not going to have a lot to say about Hollywood Studios because we just plain didn’t spend much time there. It has a few great attractions, but I’m not crazy about the theme and I think it gets muddled in some spots (like Pixar Place). I always find it hard to find enough to do at Hollywood Studios other than see Muppetvision and ride Tower of Terror over and over. The food here stinks too.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Animal Kingdom makes me both very happy and very sad. The theming in the African and Asian villages is some of my favorite in Walt Disney World and I am a huge animal lover. On the flip side, I think Dinoland USA is a nightmare and I find it hard to spend more than one day in the park because there’s only about 6 rides. I can be a great park, but it’s only halfway there.
This one is going to be long…oh, who am I fooling, they’re all going to be long. I’ll try not to mention every attraction at Walt Disney World, but I have opinions on most of them, so this could get ugly. I will skip some of the more popular attractions if I don’t disagree with the general perception.
I’d like to take the time here to say that I tend to be very critical, but it’s only because of the immense potential and genius of Disney. I expect perfection because they deliver it so often.
- Jungle Cruise – I know it’s a classic ride, one of Walt’s originals, but I don’t love it. I like it a lot, and I understand the love that Jungle Cruise does get. I laugh every time at some of the dumb Cast Member jokes, but most of them are pretty dumb. I do Jungle Cruise every trip, but I can usually only handle it once because of the spiel.
The animatronics are a little dated, but I think they still hold up fairly well. I find it to be a little juvenile, but it’s Disney World, so that is forgiven.
- Pirates of the Caribbean – One of my favorites. Everything that is to be loved about Disney: Imagination, technical ability, and wonder. The Captain Jack Sparrow(s) are new since my last visit and they are fantastic, especially the one at the end. The mannerisms are spot on. I love to ride Pirates multiple times because there is just so much to see.
- Country Bear Jamboree – Ugh. I remembered this as being dated, but still cute and amusing. Dated it still was. The songs are not really that funny and in some cases are a little dark. Once you’re past the sight of singing bears (get it, they don’t usually sing…it’s funny), there’s really not much going on. My 2 year old was not amused, we left about 2/3 of the way through.
- Haunted Mansion – My favorite ride for all the reasons I listed for Pirates above. So much going on. I was worried about my daughter since it is so dark and ominous, but she was good with it. It wasn’t her favorite, but she put up with it twice and kept calling it “Daddy’s favorite ride” which is just pretty darn cute.
The MC Escher-ish stairs room and the Attic are both new since my last visit and both are great additions. The attic especially seems to have a ton of detail in it, I need to ride this one about 600 more times.
- Peter Pan’s Flight – I know why this gets long lines by the end of the day (it’s a capacity thing), but I don’t know why people wait 45 plus minutes for it. It’s a decent ride, but I never see anything special. The cartoonish London-scape is neat, but that’s about all. It always feels rushed to me.
- Philharmagic – I can never figure out why I don’t hear more about this attraction. To me, it’s one of the best at the Magic Kingdom and the best of the movie-style shows (Muppetvision is the only one even close). The 3D is well-used, the water spurts aren’t soaking, and nothing “stings” you in the back. The story is cute, funny, and well thought out. They manage to work in great songs and scenes without going too long.
I wasn’t sure how my daughter would react to the large screen and having to wear the glasses, but she absolutely loved this show. We ended up seeing it 3 times.
- Snow White’s Scary Adventures – I’m really only mentioning this because it has recently been announced that it’s going away. I have to say that I won’t miss it. The ride is okay, and my daughter really liked it, but it’s a huge trap. What I mean by trap is that it ends up scaring a lot of little girls half to death because they love Snow White and then get freaked out by the darkness and the witch.
The truth is that it’s very true to the movie, which I’m sure is the point, but try telling that to the 5 year old sitting behind me. There’s not really anything about this ride that I will be sad to see go. Of course, I’m not thrilled about the building becoming another meet and greet instead of a new dark ride, but that’s another rant.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – This was another of my daughter’s favorites. I don’t love the ride, but it’s not exactly aimed at 30+ men either. What I think is that it is an example of a child-friendly dark ride that only Disney seems to be able to do properly. It has a nice mix of technology (I love the part where Pooh faded into his nightmare and then the smoke ring right after that), some parts for the kids (bouncing with Tigger), and a story that is easy to follow.
I do want to mention the new “interactive” queue that recently opened for Pooh…I hate it. I understand why they did it, but unlike the video games in Space Mountain, kids have to move out of the line in order to play in the Pooh queue. I assume the idea is that the parents stay in the proper line why the kids play, but it seems like there is way too much opportunity for parents to have problems with kids. I can easily see kids not wanting to move along in the line, which seems to defeat the purpose.
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin – I hear almost all good things about Buzz’s ride/game, but I’m not as big a fan. It might be because I’m not that competitive, but I find that this ride gets old for me after, well, once. There’s no discernable story and you can’t convince me that those guns are aimed properly, making the “game” part pretty irrelevant.
- Space Mountain – I’ve gone back and forth with Space Mountain in my life because I’m a roller coaster fan. When I was on it 6 years ago, I left very disappointed. I was terribly uncomfortable in the car (I’m 6’3”) and ended up hurting my knee banging it off of the side. In addition, it wasn’t dark enough; I could see the track.
This time I went into the mountain hopeful (due to some revamping that was done last year) but cautious. I have to admit that I was thrilled with the “new” Space Mountain. The cars were noticeably larger and it was very dark, to the point that my stomach was getting a little loopy because of the sudden turns. This is a great example (along with Pirates and Haunted Mansion) of how Disney can refurbish their older rides while staying true to the original vision. If you’re wondering, The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management is the worst example.
- Main Street Electrical Parade – I just wanted to mention this because this trip was the first time I had ever seen MSEP, although I had seen Spectromagic several times. Main St. Electrical Parade was very nice and my daughter absolutely loved it, but I prefer Spectromagic myself. Of course, if it’s still MSEP on my next visit, I’ll happily see it again.
- Toontown – Another item that I only mention because it no longer exists. Two days after our visit, Toontown was closed mostly forever (some will be incorporated into the new Fantasyland). This is another thing I won’t miss. Mickey and Minnie’s houses are sweet and I understand the draw with children, but I don’t think they’re needed. I think I can get away with saying “We’re going to where Mickey and Minnie are” without actually going to their “houses.” The only part of Toontown that I liked (and my daughter’s favorite part) was Goofy’s Barnstormer (my girl’s first coaster), and that’s going to be staying.
- Ellen’s Energy Adventure – Ugh again. I really like the dinosaurs part, but the movie is pretty bad. I don’t find it funny and it’s way too long (I fell asleep on my last visit). We didn’t actually even do this on this trip (nor did we do the next two), I just wanted to rag on it again.
- Mission Space – Did I mention that I get motion sick? Did I mention that my first time on Mission Space I was unaware that it was a centrifuge? Have you figured out what a terrible combination that is?
- Test Track – I don’t get it. There, I said it. The lines get ridiculously long and I don’t see the draw. The “testing” is not nearly as fun as it seems like it should be and the major draw seems to be the speed test. It consists of a car going 60 miles per hour…I go faster on my way to the airport. I just don’t get it.
- The Seas with Nemo and Friends – This seems like it could be really cool, but it’s not quite there. I love the combination of the Nemo characters with the real tanks, but I was under the impression that was the whole ride, when it’s actually just the last few scenes. The rest of it may have well been a movie. It’s also very short. On the bright side, my daughter has watched Finding Nemo about 4 times since we got back. I also love the seagulls out front…mine, mine.
- Soarin’ – Another attraction that I experienced for my first time. I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it is very, very cool, but it seemed a little disjointed. I didn’t like how it was just a collection of scenes from California with no segues whatsoever. I think if they could work some sort of story or at least a beginning and ending it would be even better. The soundtrack and scents are incredible though.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Muppetvision 3D – As I mentioned above, we only spent one evening at Hollywood Studios and it was a Fantasmic night, so the park was quite busy. Because of this, we only managed to do a few attractions and nothing makes me sadder than to say that this wasn’t one of them. I have seen Muppetvision several times before and it’s easily in my top 10, but we didn’t make it this time. I just listed it here because I love the Muppets so much.
- Toy Story Mania – This is another attraction that was sacrificed due to the schedule. I list it here because it would have been obvious in its omission, but I have never ridden it. I don’t think it will really be my thing for the same reasons that Buzz Lightyear isn’t, but I would’ve loved to try it because it is Disney World’s newest ride.
- Rock n’ Roller Coaster – I may actually love the preshow for this more than the ride. Aerosmith in the recording studio is one of the most awkward, unintentionally hilarious videos I’ve ever seen. The first 5 seconds of the ride are awe-inspiring. The remaining seconds of the ride are also pretty good, but 99% of the ride is that takeoff.
- Tower of Terror – Haunted Mansion is my favorite attraction, but I think this is WDW’s best attraction, if that makes sense. The theme, the preshow, the cast members, the elevator, the creepy child singing, the lightning effects, the drops…all fantastically done. I will say that it is noticeable that they changed the drop sequences, I found it to be a much wilder and therefore awesomer (yeah, I know) ride.
- Fantasmic – I was very excited to see this show since it rained very heavily during my last attempt. They still went on with the show in the rain, but it was hard to concentrate. Honestly, I didn’t remember a lot from it, but since I hear such good things, I assumed it was just the rain that made it unmemorable.
It turned out that there are large sections where Fantasmic is unmemorable. I know most will disagree with me, but I think the projection on the water fountains is not that interesting. The technology is impressive, but my wonder only lasts for a few minutes and then I start to wonder when the show will get on. I also found it hard to follow much of the on “stage” action since it is quite far away.
Now, the last 10 minutes make up for a lot with the dragon/fire, the steamboat of characters, and Mickey saving the day, but overall I was not as happy as I wanted to be. I think if they shrunk the show by about 10 minutes it would be tighter and better.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Kiliminjaro Safaris – I love, love, love this attraction. As I said, I am an animal lover and someday I will run, or at least participate in, a real African safari. Until then, this is as close as I’m getting and seeing the animals in a very close approximation of their natural habitats is very cool. I don’t really like the poacher storyline, but it has been toned down some and is not intrusive so it can be forgiven.
- Kali River Rapids – I didn’t ride Kali on this trip because I don’t like it. I just wanted to say that. More details? Fine. It’s too short, the scenery is not as good as advertised, and the burned forest part just depresses me.
- Expedition Everest – I lost my Everest virginity on this trip and couldn’t be happier about it. This has the best in-ride theme I’ve ever seen on a coaster. I could actually follow the story as I was whipping around the track from the ascent to the camp to the Yeti. As is well documented, the “disco” Yeti effect is ridiculous and should be embarrassing for Disney. If I didn’t know to look for the Yeti I wouldn’t even have seen one of the most advanced animatronics ever made. The young woman sitting next to me did, in fact, not see it.
- Dinosaur – Another ride I missed this time and another ride that I missed because I don’t like it. I think it’s too rough, has way too loose a story, and is nothing but noise and lights. Judging by the crowds for this, I think I’m not alone with this opinion.
Food and Drink
I’ll try to keep this one a little briefer (is that a word…the spell checker didn’t stop it). There are many, many places that give in-depth reviews of Walt Disney World restaurants and every one of them gives a different opinion. I am very critical of food because I enjoy cooking myself. I know how easy it is to make good, fresh food so it disappoints me to no end when professionals can’t do it. In general, I think the counter service food at Disney World is terrible. I find it on par with McDonald’s, but with a little less flavor.
What I’m going to use this section for is to point out some of the table service restaurants that we visited as well as a few smaller things such as beer and snacks that I feel need pointing out. Please keep in mind that my scope is limited since I, in most cases, only had one item per restaurant and on one night. It is unfair to review a restaurant based off of such a small sample…but I’m going to do it anyway.
- Cinderella’s Royal Table – It’s hard to speak badly about eating breakfast before the Magic Kingdom is even open inside Cinderella’s Castle with several princesses. My daughter was wearing a tiny little Cinderella dress of her own and it was very magical. She loves the “fur” characters, but is not as into the “face” ones. She got very excited from a distance, but as they got closer, she froze up a bit. Still a great meal, although also one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever eaten (and definitely the most expensive without wine).
- Garden Grill – We decided to do the character dinner here because my daughter loves the well-known characters and this one had Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale. This turned out to be a lovely meal. The food was fresh and relatively tasty, not the best food I’ve ever had, but much better than other places. The character interaction was very good although seemed to be cyclical; there would be all 4 within 5 minutes and then nothing for 15. The restaurant also seemed smaller than some of the others, which was a nice change.
- Biergarten – I love German food and I love German beer even more, so this one was a no brainer. The food was good, but I was a bit disappointed in a few dishes that I love to eat in Germany (their sauerbraten was too thick and dry). The entertainment is fantastic and they serve beer in liter glasses. In short, this place makes me happy.
- Via Napoli – My wife and daughter are pizza fans, but I am less so. Don’t get me wrong, I will eat pizza, but I think many of the popular and common pizzas are junk. When I’m in Italy I eat much more pizza because it is handmade, wood fired, and uses fresh ingredients. Since Via Napoli is supposed to be the same, we had to try it.
It turns out that the pizza here is very, very close to eating pizza in Italy and I’m very happy to say that. I do have a few complaints, but not with the food. For one thing, the pies are way too expensive at around $30. Secondly, in Italy pizza is generally a takeout food, meant to be eaten cheaply and on the go. If Via Napoli would add a small takeout shop where the pizza would be all to go that would go a very long way toward authenticity and popularity.
- Beer, beer, beer – I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic beers available in Epcot. It is entirely possible that I sampled (way too) many of them. In order of preference (I don’t remember all of the brewery names): 1. Guinness (always #1) – 2.German Oktoberfest - 3. Boddington’s from England – 4. Amber in Italy (I was surprised) – 5. Sam Adams Noble Pils from the good ol’ USA – 6. Casa Beer from Morocco (even more surprised) – 7. Kirin Ichiba from Japan – 8. Dos Equis from Mexico (I’ve had this many times, but there had to be something wrong with their taps, this was not good) – 134. Kronenburg 1664 from France (yuck).
Just for reference, I’ve also had many Canadian beers which I like as well as Carlsberg (okay) and Tsing Tao from China (one of my least favorite beers ever)
- Chef Mickey’s – This is another one that we did so my daughter could get closer to the characters. The character interaction was again fantastic. What really surprised me was the food. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good which was much better than I was expecting it to be. This is almost always recommended for kids and I have nothing else to add to that.
- T-Rex Café – I’ve eaten at Rainforest Café and it’s no coincidence that their slogan is “A Great Place to Shop and Eat.” What’s weird about that? If you owned a restaurant, would you put shop first or eat first? Yeah, I thought so. Anyway, I didn’t have high expectations since T-Rex is the same ownership group. It was definitely better, but still not great. What was great was the theme and the realistic nature of the dinosaurs. What was overpriced and nothing special was the food.
We stayed on this trip at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort, so most of this section is about that resort. In addition, I’m going to mention the Caribbean Beach resort, which I have stayed in before, as well as Port Orleans Riverside, which I have visited, but never stayed in.
Port Orleans French Quarter
This was my second stay at Port Orleans French Quarter, although my first was as a teenager, so I was curious to see if I still liked it as much as I remembered. I think I was actually happier with this resort than I expected to be.
The landscaping and the layout are not only beautiful, but they really add to the quaint feeling of the resort. The courtyards and riverbanks allow for some quiet contemplation, which is rare for a Disney vacation (at least for me). I think I took about 100 pictures of all the fountains, trees, and those awesome crocodiles near the pool.
Now, in fairness, I got to explore French Quarter a lot because on all but one day we went back to the hotel for naptime. During nap I usually just wandered around either French Quarter or Riverside (below) and occasionally ended up at a poolside bar. Despite my thorough exploration of French Quarter, I never got bored of walking the cobblestoned streets and listening to the piped in jazz.
All of that is not actually the best thing about French Quarter, the size is the real treat. The resort is so small that no room is far away from anything else, avoiding those long walks that can be a problem at some of the larger resorts. Also due to its size, French Quarter only has one bus stop which is nice.
The only complaint I have is that French Quarter occasionally shares a bus with Port Orleans Riverside, which has 4 stops and many more rooms. This only seems to apply to Epcot and Hollywood Studios, but I still found it to be a pain. The way to those parks took longer due to the extra stops, but that can be forgiven once you know to plan for it. The real problem comes at the end of the day because the line for the joint Port Orleans buses gets very, very long. This means that it takes longer to get on the bus, the buses are more crowded, and everyone starts getting annoyed. Again, there is an advantage to French Quarter since it is the first drop off.
I should probably touch on the actual room, because I’m sure that’s important to some when considering a hotel. We managed to nab a newly refurbished room (about half of the resort has been refurbished so far), and it was obviously new. The beds were bigger (queen) with very nice wood headboards and all new bedding. The appointments were very nice and did a much better job of incorporating the resort theme than the previous decorations. The room would have been a little small if I was working in there, but considering we basically just slept and showered there, the size was no issue for us.
I know this sounded like a paid advertisement, but I really do just love the resort. I didn’t even mention the beignets or the boat to Downtown Disney, but I’ll spare you another 500 words.
Port Orleans Riverside
As I mentioned above, I spent naptime wandering quite a bit. One of the places that is easy to wander to is Port Orleans Riverside as it is just a short walk up the river from French Quarter. I have always heard good things about Riverside so I eagerly sauntered upriver to see it for myself.
Riverside is a little harder to review because it has two different sections. I don’t remember the official names of the sections, so I’ll call them Mansions and Bayou. The mansions are beautiful and really evoke a bygone southern charm. The grounds around them are gorgeous as well. The bayou section is not nearly as impressive looking and the layout seems complicated and confusing. Of course, the rooms on the inside are all the same (and I didn’t see them), so all of this may be unimportant.
My only problem with Riverside is part of what fuels my love for French Quarter…the size. I spent about 3 hours in total walking around Riverside and I felt like I was far from seeing all of it. I managed to find one of the bus stops near the Mansions and timed my walk from there to the food court area. It was about 8 minutes (and I walk fast); if my daughter was there and walking herself, it would have been at least 15. To me, walking that far for my cup of terrible coffee (another rant, I’ll spare you) every morning would just be a pain. I know that from experience (next section).
On my last visit I stayed at Caribbean Beach because it came very highly recommended by some friends. I found it to be a very pretty resort that I will most likely never stay at again. There was nothing wrong with the resort as far as room, landscaping, or service is concerned; it is just too big for me.
We were in the Jamaica section, which is across the lake from the food court area. The room location was near the water, which sounded nice until we realized that meant a 5-10 minute walk to the nearest bus stop as well as a 5-10 minute walk (in the other direction) across the bridge to the food court. It started out as a nice early morning walk for my coffee, but after a few days became a hike.
In addition, Caribbean Beach has multiple bus stops (I don’t remember how many…felt like 7) which means extra time and extra people on every bus. The size of the resort also meant that our bus stop at the parks usually had a very long line, especially at park closing. It was common at park closing to wait at the bus stop for 40 minutes plus as we watched 2 or 3 buses load before we could get on. I’m just glad I didn’t have kids then.
The thing that scares me about staying there again is that our building wasn’t the most awkwardly placed…it could have been worse.
I just want to briefly (yes, brief, I promise) mention a few different bus systems because who doesn’t love a good bus discussion.
- Disney’s Magical Express – This was my first experience with the Magical Express and, in this instance, it worked perfectly. This had as much to do with luck as anything else, and I can see how the system can be wrought with problems, but it was still nice. We didn’t have to wait at baggage claim, we got a free ride to the hotel, and our bags made it to the room while we spent our first day at the park. I would gladly recommend this to anyone who is not planning on renting a car.
- Bus System – I have used the Disney bus system on several trips and have had very few complaints with it. I find it to be as efficient as possible, clean, and easy to understand. Plus, my daughter got a huge kick out of riding the bus.
Traveling with a Toddler
I wasn’t going to go into this, but since I see the argument for/against taking small children to Disney on the message boards all the time, I figured I’d throw my 3 ½ cents in. I think your opinion is directly related to how often you plan on visiting Wald Disney World. If you are like me and plan on visiting at least every couple of years (hopefully more), then I strongly recommend going as soon as the kids are old enough to know what’s going on (probably around 2). If, however, you plan on only taking one trip per generation, then you probably want to wait until they can ride and appreciate everything (around 7ish). I don’t want to start a fight, so I’m going to stop there, but I’ll be glad to elaborate with anyone who would like me to.
I would be happy to answer any questions about Disney, European travel, or anything else. You can contact me by going to http://www.GreatExplorationsTours.com/contact.htm or through Twitter @GreatExTours (professional) or @brian_mcnichols (personal). Of course, and comments can be placed below…I love a good debate. Hopefully it will be much, much less time until my next Disney trip. Thanks for reading and I’m sorry if my English/syntax/grammar/lack of editing (delete as appropriate) was offensive to you. I also have loads more pictures, but blogspot is ever so slow so I couldn't post as many as I wanted. If there's anything specific you'd like to see, let me know.