Before we left for Orlando, I had read a few articles about how Disney is leading the technological revolution that is eventually going to turn the whole world into "Minority Report" -- like how your Disney-issued Magic Band triangulates your location so the parks know where you are at all times, and how you can use an app to figure out which rides nearby have the shortest line.
I remember when the New York City subway transitioned from tokens to MetroCards and many people were all in a froth because The Government could track their every move. I've never been much of an Orwellian alarmist, so in my mind the sooner we get to a system whereby a Diet Coke will appear in my hand at the very moment I enter a caffeine slump, the better. Accordingly, I found the promise of a hyper-personalized family theme park to be quite intriguing.
So when we entered the lobby of the Saratoga Springs: A Disney Vacation Club Resort(TM) (Felicity will have none of the off-brand Kissimmee roadside motels we used to stay in when I was a kid -- farewell, Larson's Lodge; we used your complimentary drinking glasses well after I'd aged out of Disney and into hair bands) and my phone spontaneously started playing a music video, I was quite impressed. Classical music in the lobby, classical music suddenly blaring out of my phone? Whoa! They dive right into the magic, don't they?
But then I realized the two were completely unrelated and I maybe needed to stop throwing my phone in my bag without locking the screen first. It was a bit deflating, I won't lie. But the extremely courteous and helpful front desk staff put some of the wind back in my sails, as did the alcove off the check-in area where they had kid-sized chairs set up in front of a TV that was playing "Snow White." Don't mind if I do! was Felicity's attitude from the get-go, so she settled in to stare slack-jawed at the movie until it was time to drag her out and head to our suite.
Setting Big Brother Walt aside for a moment, one thing I hadn't anticipated was how much nature there would be at the resort. I mean, we weren't staying in a jungle or anything (nor were we at one of the safari-themed lodges), but there was a fair amount of wildlife. Of course, at Disney there is always the chance that it's actually animatronic, but we got pretty close to the lizards, cranes, squirrels, bunnies, and herons that were roaming about the grounds -- Felicity being the consummate animal lover, all forward momentum comes to a screeching halt when she spots anything of the sort -- and I can confirm that these were the real deal. A guy was even fishing in one of the ponds that I had assumed were decorative, what with the fountains and all. So that was a happy thing, to find that even though Disney has paved over roughly 80% of central Florida, some of the local flora and fauna remain.
As I previously mentioned, my mom and brother had spent some months mapping out our itinerary based upon various algorithms predicting which parks would be the least crowded on each day of the week. I had not fully appreciated that we would be expected to be fully functioning and dressed by 7am each day -- earlier if we wanted to experience Extra Magic Hours at whichever park opened early -- so by the first evening, as we went over the schedule for our first park day and I started to contemplate fully the onslaught of crowds, heat, and exhaustion that awaited us, I will admit to feeling a mixture of panic and dread that I usually reserve for non-vacation times.
Flash forward, however, to the next day as we half-sprinted our way across the Animal Kingdom just after it opened, throwing elbows at anyone in our wake, and were among the first to board the safari and suddenly I was no longer pining for a quiet beach. This feeling solidified when we sat in the cool dark of the Lion King show -- no exaggeration, this is nearly a Cirque de Soleil-quality show -- and when we were served cold, delicious adult beverages at the Rainforest Cafe while the kids were entertained by the various decorative elements that occasionally spring to life. And it only got better from there.
We went to each of the four main Disney parks, all of which I'd been to before except Animal Kingdom (which is like an amped-up version of the Bronx Zoo, except with rides and shows and a fake African village, oh and the entire population of New York City visiting all on the same day). Much was as I'd remembered -- Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain are in fact even more awesome than my memory had them, although after riding them on the same day I was actually sore and felt a tad whiplashed (#old); the castle remains as majestic as ever (shut up, it IS), the Tiki Room remains in close proximity to the Polynesian style hut where they sell Dole Whip, aka the best thing ever -- but of course there were many new elements as well as rides that in adulthood seemed to hardly resemble what I'd encased in my mind through the lens of childhood nostalgia.
For example, It's a Small World, which in fact has not changed a bit, wasn't at all as I'd pictured it. The boats were bigger, the ride was longer, and the dolls were much cuter than I had recalled. Felicity was in heaven on that ride, and the delight on her face the first time we went on it will sustain me through every eye roll of her teenage years. "Mama, look! They're so cute! They're just so cute! Oh, look at those cuties over there!" The whole vacation could have been that ride and it would have been worth the money.
Pirates of the Caribbean is one that holds up in that it's preserved in time as it is in my mind, but after having worked on pro bono cases involving human rights, and generally being a functioning person aware of current events, I found it marginally less jolly to watch a bunch of white dudes more or less drunkenly raping and pillaging an island nation, then burning it to the ground. It's ok, I know what a joy-killer I am.
Now I should circle back to my original theme of this post and mention that the FastPass and Magic Band systems are indeed close to miraculous. Getting to skip to a far shorter line on the most popular rides and having our food brought to our table after ordering it at a kiosk was pretty swell. Also never having to bring our wallets anywhere, since you can charge everything via Magic Band -- I am fully hoping this becomes a thing world-wide ASAP. I mean, nothing dropped from the sky right into my hand when I formed a thought about it (many times I would have accepted a Dole Whip via drone, had that been an option), so we're not quite there yet, but it was a massive improvement on the Disney experience of our youth.
To head toward wrapping up, a few highlights/lowlights:
-- We thought the Seven Dwarves Mine Train would be low-key enough for Felicity, and for the first ten seconds or so she was totally game, raising her hands in the air and calling, "Whee!" The moment we went into the first banked turn, however, she clawed at me and screamed, "I'M NOT OKAY!" So we followed that up with the Haunted Mansion, which as I mentioned last time, completely and utterly terrified her. Solid parenting right there.
-- Epcot is a strange blend of extremely 80s-retro decor/lame rides and extremely AWESOME parts like the World Showcase, where you can booze it up and stuff your face in like 15 countries without once needing your passport. It's about one million degrees on the shadeless expanses of concrete surrounding Spaceship Earth, but hop on one of the ferries that crosses the lake and suddenly you're faced with a staggering array of food and beverage choices (still sweating your head off, but never mind), all of which I'm sure are completely authentic, like vodka slushies in England (...) and...whatever it is they eat and drink in Canada (Molson and poutine?).
Plus Epcot has Test Track, a new-ish ride in which you design your own car and then hop into a sort of convertible that goes careering through giant doors out onto a banked track and hurtles around at breakneck speed and MAN IT IS AWESOME. (Felicity demurred on that one too.) Then afterward they have you exit through a Chevy showroom, where we were tempted to purchase an Equinox just to see if we could pay for it with our Magic Bands.
-- Every day we were basically near collapse by dinner time, especially after a couple of hours in the resort pool (where I went down the twisty water slide more than any kid on the premises), but one night we dragged ourselves back to the Magic Kingdom for the light show on the castle, followed by the fireworks (actually, that day we got to ride the Monorail, which was a delight except the inside smelled like a hobo toilet -- un-magical, but maybe they were just trying to make us New Yorkers feel at home).
That show was well worth the hobbling on swollen feet and sitting on a curb for several hours in the sticky evening, well past bedtime, that it required. Felicity absolutely loved it -- her reaction was probably the most enthusiastic of the whole trip, especially when they busted out Let It Go and she almost threw herself off Joe's shoulders with excitement -- and I liked everything except having to see about 80,000 phones and iPads in my field of vision as soon as it started.
I have no neat way to end this and will now think of 50 more things I meant to say (didn't even cover the Princess Breakfast -- argh! In short: do it; we went to Akershus and it was tops, except Snow White was kind of brusque), but I want to throw some photos in this and go to dinner, so here you go. Summary: go to Disney. You won't regret it, even if you're a doubter like I was.