I have never been a great fan of the Disney amusement parks. DisneyLand in California and DisneyWorld in Florida seemed to me to be meccas for children and restless parents, but as a destination for grown adults, the idea of taking a ride in a teacup with TinkerBell flitting about did not appeal to me at all. Not to mention, Disney has received a lot of press in recent years as to its social inclusiveness and open acceptance of various alternative lifestyles which to me smacked too much of political correctness. In short, Disney was a place for kids. Throughout the years of our children growing up, we lived the majority of the time in Wyoming, many miles away from the Disney havens and not quite under the influence of Disney’s powerful advertising arm which has gained considerable reach in the last couple of decades.
Several years ago, however, my children, Bobby and Kimberly, as they reached adulthood and began to explore on their own, fell, as many unsuspecting souls have, under the influence of Disney. Bobby, wife Shanna, and grandkids have now made pilgrimages to DisneyWorld regularly scheduled events to the point of owning property with Disney Vacation Club. Our grandson, Ryan, having escaped the bonds of college and graduated, is now a “cast member” with DisneyWorld, Orlando, having moved there in September and now plays the part of a seasoned veteran of the Disney machine. Granddaughter Brooke is probably not too far behind. Currently a student at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, she is studying all things artsy with a major in prop design and creation...with an eye toward using her new-found skills and talents in entertainment productions with Disney in a couple of years. Naturally, with two kids now generally living on the east coast of the United States, Bobby and Shanna have kept the airlines busy scheduling trips to check on their kids. And once Brooke makes The Big Leap from student at UNCSA to production designer at Disney...can Mom and Dad migrating to Orlando be far behind? I fear not.
Our daughter Kimberly has not been immune to this Disney fever, either, and, though she is fairly grounded in her work with Memorial Hermann Hospital System in Houston, has also been captured by the spirit of Disney and has made several trips with Bobby and family to DisneyWorld in Orlando and (with some of the Wyoming Creel clan) to DisneyLand in Los Angeles. Apparently Disney mania is a contagious disease.
Which brings me to a more (to me) affecting reality. My lovely children have managed to sweep even my beloved wife into the smothering influence of Disney, and now she, too, has made several trips with the kids to Disney. I have resisted an incredible amount of family pressure to accompany everyone to their favorite Disney destination primarily because I just didn’t feel it would appeal to me. Forgive me for admitting this, but I don’t spend money for something I don’t think I’ll enjoy unless it’s required by law or financial obligation. Show me a cool car and give me a good price, and I’ll crumble like a stack of cards, but a trip to Disney? No thanks.
Until now. I guess because I’m getting up there in years and therefore putting an (even) greater value on family relationships and times spent together, when the moment came around this year for the family to schedule a December trip to Disney, I, in a moment of extreme weakness, agreed to tag along. Once the looks of shock faded from family members’ faces, all assured me that I would “enjoy it to the max." I showed some enthusiasm for the sake of my family, but I was mostly just resigned to the task rather than excited about it. So preparations began.
The family had been gearing up for the trip for several months, and one way of preparing for Disney was giving each other Disney Gift Cards for birthdays and whatever other day that required some sort of gift. Strangely enough, I had been receiving gift cards on my birthday, also, even though I had not yet committed to go. This was apparently due to the expectation that I would crumble under the pressure to go. It worked. So, on December 1, in the wee hours of the morning, Shirley, Kim, and I aimed the car for Houston Intercontinental to catch the 7:30 a.m. flight to Orlando. We were scheduled to meet Bobby and Shanna in Orlando where they had arrived a day or so earlier.
One has only to take one flight in a present-day commercial aircraft to see how much discomfort a human is willing endure just to get from one place to another in the shortest possible time. There is a definite similarity to cattle being led through a pen to slaughter and people being led down a path to board an aircraft. The de-humanization process begins with the lack of human contact, what with all ticketing and luggage checking being done by computer. Next comes the personal invasion via x-ray, the ray gun metal detector and inevitable pat-down....and only if you pass those checks will you avoid the dreaded strip search.
I have a metal hip, so I always ring the bell through the metal detector, but with an explanation, I usually can skate on through. This time I forgot one thing. I usually carry a small, cloth money bag around my neck in which I carry my cash and credit cards. I’ve carried this bag since our first trip to Hawaii in 1998 with never a problem. This time, however, I placed my cards in one of those metallic envelopes which allegedly protect your cards from these electronic scanners that bad guys can use sometimes to get your personal data. The metallic envelope tripped the sensor and I was set aside for further examination. The examiner pointed at the tell-tale envelope on the x-ray screen and asked, “What’s that?” I explained. He asked to be shown. I showed. I had to unbutton my shirt and reach inside to get the bag, and I could tell he thought I was reaching for a 45 or something. He asked what was inside the bag. I opened the bag...nothing but money and cards. He waved me on.
At the same time, I suddenly realized that I may have lost my wife, since when they check her bag, they found a knife! The guy held it up like it was a grenade, and Shirley started muttering, “I didn’t know that was in there.” Anyway, the weapon was confiscated, she was x-rayed. Apparently deemed harmless, she was allowed to pass.
We made our way to the gate to await boarding. We were flying Spirit Airline, which is a no-frills, bottom dollar, we-promise-to-get-you-there-alive-but hungry airline. As a result, we didn’t expect much, and we weren’t disappointed. Modern aircraft have squeezed personal space down to the bare minimum to haul as many people as possible. Even the seats are molded plastic with padding about a half inch thick and custom designed to be as uncomfortable as possible.
However, off we went into the wild blue yonder right on schedule and a couple of uneventful hours later after only a couple of leg cramps, we landed in Orlando. The process began in reverse at that point with disembarking, trekking to baggage claim to wait for our luggage, and finding our ride. Fortunately, Bobby and Shanna were there, and we loaded up in their rented Chrysler van and off we went.
Our condo was not available until 4:00 p.m., so we made a quick stop at a place called Five Guys Restaurant...apparently famous for their hamburgers. Their hamburgers were good, but they are not in the league of Whataburger. Not that I would know...I ordered a veggie-burger which was crammed with assorted... vegetables. Pretty tasty. Apparently, they are famous for their loads of French fries, also, but their delivery and presentation left a lot to be desired. The big bucket of fries was dumped upside down with the burgers in a brown paper bag which became soaked with grease from the fries. I’m not a fan of McDonald’s, but Five Guys needs to check out McDonald’s fries.
Anyway, it was the Grand Beach Resort that was to be our new home for the next week or so, and we were finally able to get moved in about 4:00. Shirley and I also picked up our electric scooters at the resort where they had been delivered for us to use for the week. I was a little embarrassed about getting on a scooter (Ain’t nothing wrong with me!), but after a week’s use, I can tell you it was the best investment we made on our trip; we could not have done Disney without them...to walk 7-10 miles per day is not uncommon at Disney.
After unpacking and settling in, of course, it was straight to our new playland. We wound up at the Polynesian Village where we listened to Hawai’ian music by a guy with a ukulele and a nice voice; he surprisingly actually sang a couple of songs in Hawai’ian. It was not long thereafter that the evening fireworks began, and we all marveled at the colorful explosions and thundering sounds.
Sunday, December 2. My kids believe in getting the full Disney experience, so it was up early and to the park by opening bell. Today we wandered around Epcot, which is heavy into nature preserving and ecology. We toured the aquarium and discovered the magic of the seas and “Living with the Land,” a display of sophisticated crop and plant growing methods which conserve water and the land. It was interesting that tons of plants which are used in food preparation throughout the park are grown on site through these ecologically sound principles. “Finding Nemo” was an entertaining human presentation of the famous cartoon movie, but it was the presentation “Soaring” which was fascinating a well as amazing. Placed in a hang glider styled seat with a 180-degree screen in from of us, we were transported to the African savanna and flew over a herd of elephants, to the Arctic to sail over polar bears, and to Paris, France, to sail around the Eiffel Tower. It was an incredible visual experience.
Compared to “Soaring,” “Mission Space” was a visceral, challenging flight on a new shuttle spacecraft as we experienced a rocket launch with all the accompanying g-forces, then the near-weightlessness sensation of space travel as we crossed continents in mere seconds, and then the simulated landing with a malfunctioning spacecraft which we had to manually “land.” It was most exciting....and it was the “less stressful ride.” We will take a flight to Mars later in the week which is promised to be “more stressful.”
Monday, December 3. To the Animal Kingdom today with an early stop at The Wave, a breakfast buffet with every breakfast item known to man plus a few extra. Buffets are not for the diet conscious, but I had already resigned myself to the policy of “eat, drink, and be merry” for this trip, so I loaded up with all the requirements for a heavy breakfast. A few minutes later was wishing I had not eaten so much as we boarded “Expedition Everest,” a wild roller coaster ride allegedly down the face of Mt. Everest. Supposedly, we experience several g’s of force as we hurtled around corners. It was a wild, fun ride.
We wobbled away from the roller coasters to a more sedate tour...a Kilimanjaro Safari adventure where we were loaded onto safari-styled trucks and driven into the African hinterland to see all the great large animals in their natural habitat. Rhinos, giraffes, lions, wildebeests, ostriches, every wild creature was there practically for the touching. It was quite impressive and much more realistic than seeing the creatures in a zoo.
Next was fanciful fantasy as we entered the world of “Pandora-The World of the Avatar” ...the blue dude who had a movie made about him. One neat characteristic that Avatars have is they can ride on the backs of banshees, a sort of archaeopteryx, the prehistoric dinosaur which could allegedly fly. Sure enough, we threw our legs over these banshees and off we went in the air, making all sorts of dips, dives, loop-de-loops, and swoops, all the while holding on for dear life. We could even feel the banshees breathing between our legs as they exhaled and inhaled. Fantastically realistic.
By dark, we were ready for food, so barbecue was as good as any...although it wasn’t Texas BBQ. Then we decided to waddle over to Ghirardelli’s for some ice cream and there the skies opened up just as we were sitting down with our loads of ice cream. We were under an outside umbrella and table which offered no protection because it was REALLY raining and blowing. As a result, we were soaked and decided it was time to head to the barn. Not to mention the temperature had dropped to the lower fifties, and it was quite cool. It was a damp, miserable ride home.... but still a good day.
Tuesday, December 4. The Magic Kingdom beckoned today, and Cinderella’s castle is the dominate sight as one enters the park. As one approaches Cinderella’s castle, one gets to walk down Main Street, U.S.A., which apparently is a re-creation of what Walt Disney envisioned his childhood home to be. Like all things Disney, it was extremely authentic and a throwback to the times when men wore straw hats and women long dresses. Very becoming and nostalgic.
Magic Kingdom has two roller coaster rides, “Space Mountain” and “Big Thunder.” We rode “Space Mountain” today and enjoyed every wild, totally-in-the-dark minute of it. Following, we took Buzz Lightyear’s advice and took a few laser shots at various alien targets. I am not yet an expert with
a laser. Splash Mountain is what it sounds like...a wet ride inside a log-styled boat on a roller coaster styled waterway. We were then mesmerized by “Br’er Rabbit’s Song of the South”...which we understand now is somewhat politically incorrect. But then...what isn't?
a laser. Splash Mountain is what it sounds like...a wet ride inside a log-styled boat on a roller coaster styled waterway. We were then mesmerized by “Br’er Rabbit’s Song of the South”...which we understand now is somewhat politically incorrect. But then...what isn't?
The evening was spent at the Yachtsman’s Restaurant in the upscale Yacht Club. Splendid food, splendid service. If you have to ask what it cost, you probably can’t afford it (we couldn't, and still went). I can give you a clue: the tip was $90.00. And that was after we had been blessed in that with Ryan being a Disney employee, we got a hefty discount. Anyway, Denny's it was not. Interesting side note here: our waiter was a mature gentleman who in passing conversation stated he had been with Disney for 29 years. He had been chatting with Ryan and learned of Ryan's recent employment with Disney. He said he came to Disney under the same circumstances: fresh out of college with great ambitions but found a home with Disney and never left. It seemed to encourage Ryan and maybe even Mom and Dad. Who knows what the future will hold for our grandson? We also wandered through the Beach Club where we saw a beautiful carousel of fanciful horses...all of which was made up of white and black chocolate and gingerbread.
We still had time to go by Beaches and Cream, the place where Ryan works. We were able to meet a fellow employee of Ryan’s named Janet who apparently has taken Ryan under her motherly wing to the point of inviting him to her family’s Thanksgiving Day dinner at her home. Apparently, she has a son who is in school in Texas. She hit it off with Bobby and Shanna and seemed a very pleasant type person.
Wednesday, December 5. Today it was the Epcot Center...the shiny, futuristic ball in the middle of the park. We went into the innards of this contemporary building to experience “Spaceship Earth,” where we saw the technological evolution of us human creatures from the Stone Age to our contemporary time. Very entertaining.
One of the more entertaining experiences for me was the “Test Track, Presented by Chevrolet.” You were able to create your own custom vehicle on a computer by designing its performance, handling, and efficiency characteristics, and then getting into a car which performed on a track based on the characteristics you designed into it. The neat part was the performance of your car was compared to the performance of all the other people’s designed cars as we all raced around the track. My car won, hands down. On the track my ride literally accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, and my time around the track was the quickest. Basically, all I did was design a 2018 Corvette, so it wasn’t any creative genius on my part.
Having taken the allegedly intense “Mission Space-Shuttle Flight” on Monday, we opted to take the more intense simulated “Mission Space-Mars Landing” today. It is incredible how the sensations of acceleration, weightlessness, and maneuvering can be duplicated in an electronic setting to the point it was amazingly realistic. You’ll be glad to know we landed on Mars with no problems, although we did have the obligatory autopilot failure and were forced to control the landing manually.
Around Epcot are areas that are dedicated to ten different countries. Why these particular countries were chosen, I do not know, but in each area, the country is recreated in architecture, sounds, and even people. Grandson Ryan told us that in each of the areas, students from each area home country are exchanged to the United States for a period of eighteen month to work in the park. Our trip this afternoon was to France, and standing along the main street, you would swear you were in Paris, France. The sights, sounds, smells were decidedly French...to the point of looking up and seeing the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We ate at the Chefs de France, and the waitstaff was all decidedly French; the menu was in French, and the food was beautifully French. In “The American Adventure” area we were able to hear The Voices of Liberty, a ten person ensemble dressed as Dickens Carolers sing the traditional Christmas carols of the season. They sang a cappella with beautiful harmony.
One of the most impressive events took place next...the “Candlelight Processional.” This was a Christmas Cantata which could have been presented in any Pentecostal church in America...except our churches now reject anything tradition and instead choose shallow, contemporary spiritual musicals. Excuse me, I digressed. A 50-piece orchestra and a huge choir sang the beautiful and timeless songs of Christmas along with a narrator who told the Christmas story from the New Testament. It was beautiful and very moving.
Thursday, December 6. Back to the Animal Kingdom today to again ride “Expedition Everest,” the wild roller coaster down the sides of Mt. Everest all the while trying to avoid the clutches of the dreaded Yeti. A really great ride. Fortunately, the Kilimanjaro Safari, which we took on Monday, was nearby, and we took that ride again, also. It is really a quite impressive display of wild animals in their natural habitats. Next, the “Na’vi River Expedition” was a river cruise into a bioluminescent rain forest in search of the Na’vi Shaman of Song. Very mystical and impressive. On a lighter side, “The Festival of the Lion King” was a musical extravaganza of pageantry and puppetry. Little kids loved it. We closed out the day at the Dolphin Hotel in the Don Shula Steakhouse, owned by the famous Miami Dolphin coach whose NFL team went undefeated in 1972 while winning the Super Bowl. Naturally, being rebellious, we had seafood extraordinaire. As we sat down at our table, there was a regulation NFL football on a kicking tee in the middle of the table. I was hoping it was a free sample, but it was soon whisked away by the waiter.
Friday, December 7. Back to the Magic Kingdom this morning for coffee and pastries. We decided to do the Buzz Lightyear laser ride again. I thought I had figured out the way to aim my laser gun, but apparently, I’m not cut out to be a space cadet. My partner, Grandson Ryan, maxed out his score about halfway through the ride while I was still trying to see where I was aiming. Next was the “Carousel of Progress,” a show of changing vignettes displaying the progress of technology within the American home. “Space Mountain” was a repeat of our Tuesday ride, whereas "Monsters, Inc." was a laugh a minute as the creatures of Monsters, Inc. interacted with the audience. "Under the Sea—Journey of the Little Mermaid" was a splashy underwater musical.
The incredible technology of modern animatronics was on full display in The Hall of Presidents, where we saw every president of the United States from Washington to Trump standing before us in life-like poses. We heard Abraham Lincoln recite the Gettysburg Address, and John Kennedy give his famous “Ask Not” speech. Several other presidents spoke to the audience in lifelike presentations. At the end, our current president, Donald Trump, spoke with amazing realism and eloquence about the American spirit and tradition. Though it sounded and looked like The Donald, I knew immediately it was fake… Donald Trump does not do eloquent speeches without a teleprompter.
The highlight of the afternoon was the Disney character parade down Main Street, U.S.A. The we saw Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Cinderella, et al in their radiant glory in fairy-tale boats waving to us common creatures. It was magical (swoon). The last ride of the day was “It’s a Small World,” a boat tour around the globe.
Saturday, December 8. Moved out of our Grand beach Resort unit this morning. Shirley and I abandoned our scooters there for the scooter company to pick up, so we were reduced to walking like normal folks. Fortunately, the day’s schedule was less grueling so we managed. To the Fort Wilderness Lodge and their Trail’s End Restaurant for breakfast. Again, the menu was unlimited, and you could eat until you couldn’t. Disney is not a place for light eaters to visit. There we ran into another waiter similar to the previous 29-year veteran at The Yachtsman Restaurant, except this fellow had been at Disney for forty years. Apparently, Disney has very loyal employees. The restaurant is on the banks of Bay Lake, one of the large lakes on Disney property. There are shuttle boats which carry visitors around to the various resorts, so we decided to take a lake tour and just make the round, coming back to the place where we boarded. It was a pleasant boat ride, the weather was mild, and the ride was smooth.
Time to check into our new lodge, this time the Kidani Village section of the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The lodge, located on the edge of a wildlife sanctuary, is a very unique place…where else can you sit on your deck and watch giraffes, warthogs, exotic birds, wildebeests, various African species of deer and other unknown creatures wander by? After the sun goes down and while sitting in the darkness on the balcony, one can hear the sounds of the jungle and imagine being on an exotic safari in some far-off place. Our dinner was at the Mara, a restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Sandwiches and the like…good food, good atmosphere, good family, good times.
Sunday, December 9. It was a short stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge since we were flying back home this afternoon. We went to the Boma, a restaurant at the Jambo House for breakfast. Afterward, we decided to just chill in a lounge area there overlooking the wildlife preserve, watching the exotica as they foraged for food in the preserve. Suddenly Shanna comes up and excitedly says, “Mickey’s here!” Around Disney there’s only one “Mickey,” so we all rushed out to a foyer area, and, sure enough, there was Mickey Mouse…and Donald Duck! How grown, seventy-five-year-old adults can get excited about seeing cartoon characters in the flesh (sort of) is hard to fathom, but it was kind of cool. They were hugging little kids and being photographed, and we all got in line and had our family photo taken with our childhood heroes. I’m not sure if it was the high point of our trip, but it was memorable, anyway. After high fives and hugs (I even hugged the rat…I mean mouse), we said our goodbyes and Mickey and Donald went on their merry ways, leaving happiness and memories in their wakes.
We said our final goodbyes to the creatures of the wildlife preserve and drove to the Contemporary Resort for a bit of last-minute shopping. Several of the family are into collecting Disney pins, and there they shopped for pins and exchanged a few. Eventually, it was time to head for the Orlando International Airport for our evening flight home. The flight home was crowded, but uneventful. I’ve already described what flying is like these days, so I won’t repeat the experience. We landed in Houston shortly after 10:00 p.m. A quick ride to our car, and a short drive home.
This being my first trip, I mentioned in the beginning that I was a little skeptical of visiting Disney, but now having seen the place first hand I have a few observations:
· Considering that Disney has thirty million visitors per year, I was impressed with the cleanliness and neatness of the place. There is not a blade of grass out of place and only very seldom do you see a speck of trash on the ground. Everything from restrooms to restaurants is spotlessly clean.
· The technology at Disney is incredible. With wristbands which allowed you to enter the park, open your hotel door, add photos, make purchases, and access FastPass selections, you wonder how the place operated before computers. Along with your smart phone, everything was done instantly and easily. The rides, be it a trip to Mars or a runaway rollercoaster down Mount Everest, or a hang glider flight over the African savanna were so realistic you felt you were experiencing the real event.
· We were at Disney during the height of the Christmas/Holiday season, and I was very favorably impressed with the Christmas music that was played or sung in every area of the park…it was actually Christian Christmas music with the traditional carols we have sung for decades. There was no avoidance of the words associated with the Christmas story in the New Testament. I mentioned earlier of the narrator at the Candlelight Processional telling the Christmas story straight out of Matthew and Luke. I expected Disney to be more politically correct and innocuous in its holiday music choices. I was pleasantly surprised.
· Disney’s primary market is middle-class to upper class white America. In eight days of wandering around Disney, I would venture that 95% of the people I crossed paths with were white, with the next most populous group Asian. I heard many languages spoken, and it was clear that there were many international visitors, but the dominate ethnicity was Caucasian.
· Speaking of people, be prepared to work your way through hordes of people whenever you are within the park (remember, 30,000,000 visitors per year.) You NEVER get away from the crowds, whether waiting in line, walking down a path, or eating at a restaurant…it is crowded everywhere. Shirley and I learned how to whip through the crowd riding our scooters, but even then, we had those other crazy scooter drivers to watch out for.
· Disney is not the tourist destination for the budget conscious. EVERYTHING is horrendously priced…from $15.00 milkshakes to a 24 ounce porterhouse steak ($132.50). I realize that I am probably showing my age when I gripe about prices, but when I consider the price of daily Disney park tickets and the prices for everything within the park, it seems strange that they still charge you $25-$50 per day just to park your car so you can come inside the park and spend the rest of your money. The high pricing also spills out to the surrounding facilities outside the park. If you decide to beat the system and stay at Motel 6, be prepared to pay $100 per night for the room that Tom Boudette says rents for $49 anywhere else in the country. But again, it may be a generational problem. I just haven’t adjusted to current entertainment pricing.
In conclusion, I have this recommendation: everyone needs to visit Walt Disney World at least once in his/her lifetime. It is a totally unique place: forty square miles of technologically advanced, highly entertaining, ecologically responsible, Earth friendly, environmentally safe, family friendly, unforgettable experiences. I am glad I was able to share the experience with my beloved family. When’s the next trip, kids?