Tahlequah Daily Press

Checking It Out

October 22, 2010

Walt Disney World, Part 3

FLORIDA — When it comes to travel, I count myself extremely lucky. For one thing, I have family in a few ultimate vacation spots, and they’re always happy to put up with me for a couple of days.

And for another thing, I have friends who are enthusiastic about sharing information on the best things to do once I reach my destination. I try to be that kind of friend, too, because every time I return from a jaunt, folks ask me what I did while I was there, and whether I enjoyed myself.

I can usually answer in the affirmative, provided I don’t have other, unrelated worries sapping my energy. But whatever the case, I always jot down a few things to pass on to readers.

Walt Disney World offers literally hundreds of activities for families, couples, and folks of all ages. But since most guests these days only have a few days at a time to invest in leisure, they need to get a handle on their don’t-miss opportunities. Disney parks are not like your typical Six Flags or other “amusement” parks. The interactivity, sophisticated robotics and animatronics, plus the engaging entertainment available during the actual wait in line for many attractions, put Disney parks at least 10 cuts above the rest. Even for a wordsmith, it’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

I’ve done this before regarding WDW, but here it is again – my favorite attractions at the four theme parks, and my favorite restaurants. Bear in mind that for Disney, “rides” and “shows” are all called “attractions.” And, as you will quickly learn, most rides are shows in themselves, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. Also, it’s important to understand that not all rides are suitable for very young children. Always check for height limitations.

Probably a key element to remember – especially if you have a limited time to spend in the parks (like my friend Suzy Boling and her compatriot band parents from Fort Gibson!) is the “Fast Pass.” This will let you return at an appointed time and get into or onto the attraction in minimal time (usually 10 minutes or less). Go into the park early, grab a Fast Pass for your most coveted attraction, and then get another one as soon as you can. It’s usually about an hour or two before you can get another one. I’m not sure of the formula; sometimes it’s after you’ve used the first pass, but sometimes you can get another one (or even two) well before your appointed time. Fast Passes are extremely limited in number, so on some attractions (Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios comes to mind), you simply cannot drag your feet. Get it quick!

One more caveat: Before you book your trip, you should check WDW’s website, http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/, to make sure your most cherished attractions aren’t scheduled to be down for regular maintenance at that time. WDW has a preventive maintenance program my husband (a maintenance guy at NSU) finds enviable, and they get around to servicing everything sooner or later, rather than simply letting it break before they fix it. The restaurants I recommend are going to be good anytime, but most of them do change their menus seasonally, so you can check the latest menus at sites like www.allears.net if you want to plan accordingly.

I’m presenting my top attractions in each park, not necessarily in order. But there are plenty of other things to do as well.

Magic Kingdom

The flagship park for WDW doesn’t have much in the way of great restaurants, but it is teeming with terrific attractions, especially if you have young children. I should have mentioned this earlier, but I always recommend the Park Hopper ticket option, because it will let you go from one of the four parks to the others on any given day, and if you’re going to WDW for the restaurants, this can be important.

At the moment, Disney is doing some renovations to the “kiddie” area, and part of the part of the park known as “Fantasyland” (among the other areas are Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland), so soon there will be (from my understanding) a Little Mermaid-esque feature. My husband wanted to ride Dumbo just to get a peek over the construction walls, but we didn’t get around to it.

1. Splash Mountain (ride). The is one of those “you-may-get-wet” attractions, the kind we generically call a “log ride.” But other rides of this nature pale by comparison. Based on the beloved “Wind in the Willows” classic, it tells a story as you float along, featuring Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, Brer Fox and the rest of the crew, plus a showboat with singing critters at the end, right after the big plunge.

2. Space Mountain (ride). This is probably my favorite at Magic Kingdom, and it’s an indoor roller coaster, in the dark, like a madcap trip through space. Thanks to last year’s refitting, there’s now a good soundtrack to go with it, and some interactive modules for playing games while you wait in line. (We didn’t use those because we always had Fast Passes.) While it’s not quite as wild as many other coasters, it might be a little disconcerting for very young children, but for anyone else, it’s a blast!

3. Carousel of Progress (show). Although in some ways this attraction may be a bit dated, in other ways it’s more relevant than ever. Originally designed for a World Fair, this is a moving rotunda that takes you through various eras of life in the U.S. focusing on a particular family that evolves and changes (but doesn’t age much!) with the times. The animatronics are simply unbelievable for anyone who hasn’t visited Disney before.

4. Transit Authority PeopleMover (ride). This ride, which was way ahead of its time back in the ‘70s, was taken out at Disneyland (a cast member there said because of earthquakes), but it’s still alive and well in Florida. It’s a brisk tour through Tomorrowland that should be done for tradition’s sake, if for no other reason.

5. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (ride/interactive). A fun blast-’em’-up ride, using lasers, and featuring all the little green men as you roll through on one of Disney’s perpetual conveyor-belt-style attractions. My husband always wins.

6. Astro Orbiter (ride). In Disneyland, they moved these from their customary base atop a restaurant, but they’re still in place at the Magic Kingdom. They go up and down, around and around – one my husband won’t bypass in Florida but usually snubs at Disneyland. Their height is a bit disconcerting for me, but I suck it up and do it, anyway.

7. Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor (show). Based on the movie, this show is designed to collect laughs to turn into energy. Audience participation is part of the deal, and believe me, you’ll laugh.

8. Pirates of the Caribbean (ride/show). In the wake of the first movie, the attraction – which places you in a boat and takes you through several raucous pirate scenes – was retrofitted to include Johnny Depp animatrons. Normally I don’t give away the punch lines for certain attractions, but nearly everyone knows about this now, anyway. Newbies are amazed at the sophistication of these animatronics.

9. The Haunted Mansion (ride/show). All the seats are on a perpetual purveyor in this Disney classic, which slowly cruises through various rooms in the mansion, where you’ll witness spooky apparitions and scary sounds (plus the crystal ball with the inexplicably encased woman’s head) before traveling on through the eerie cemetery. An upgrade a few years ago got rid of the “beating heart” faceless bride, which I found a bit disturbing anyway, and replaced it with a more black-humored “actual” bride who seems to have trouble keeping her husbands. Get ready for a ghost to follow you home!

10. Jungle Cruise (ride). My husband always insists this ride be on the “to-do” list, and so it was this time. Your launch (complete with jokesy captain) will take you through three of the world’s major rivers, all in one fell swoop, where you’ll witness a number of animated wonders. This time around, there was no shooting at the menacing hippos.

Epcot

Walt Disney’s concept of the “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow” may not have evolved quite as he hoped, but it’s still the manifestation of a dream that could one day come true. A couple of the pavilions are now closed due to the departure of their sponsors (my sister’s former company, Met Life, is one of the culprits), but a number of other modern features have taken their place.

Epcot was one a place for learning, looking and shopping. Now it also boasts a number of thrilling attractions. If you have two days to spend at WDW, one of them should definitely be spent here, for that’s the only way you can truly understand the man behind the concept. He believed people from all countries could cooperate in community, and the various pavilions – Canada, United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Norway, Mexico, and of course, the U.S. – stand testament to that notion.

Most of the best restaurants at WDW are clustered in Epcot, though some of the resorts also have top-notch dining establishments.

1. Captain EO starring Michael Jackson. In the wake of the death of the King of Pop, Disney revived this crowd-pleasing 3D music video experience made in the 1986, thanks to the teamup of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Reminiscent of the days of “Thriller” and the heyday of “Star Wars,” it will take folks of my generation back to headier days.

2. Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy will take you (in your moving theater seats!) from the time of the Big Band, through the dinosaur era and beyond, to educate you on energy sources and their future. It’s both funny and educational, and one of the favorites of my two young nephews. It’s long, though – 37 minutes or so – which means, go to the bathroom first!

3. Journey Into Imagination with Figment. The was my son’s favorite as a small child, probably because the main character is a little purple dinosaur-type creature (NOT like Barney, mind you!). He and Dr. Nigel Channing (Eric Idle of Monty Python fame) take you through a sensory world of taste, smell, sight, sound and touch that will have you rolling with laughter.

4. Mission: SPACE. There are now two options with this attraction: one for those who can’t stand G-force, the other for those who like it. You’ll have the sensation of being launched into space through an actual rocket, whereupon you’ll go into “hypersleep,” and eventually touch down on Mars. Actor Gary Sinise is your trainer. You won’t find this sensation anywhere else, unless you’re in astronaut training.

5. Soarin’. This is one of the top five attractions in the entire WDW complex, and should be the first thing you make a beeline to do. Located in the Living With the Land Pavilion, this multisensory extravaganza lifts you high over the vistas of California with the sensation of hang-gliding. You’ll feel the wind on your face, while smelling orange groves and pine trees and listening to a beautifully moving soundtrack. When this attraction was brand-new, at the end, the guests burst into spontaneous applause and whoops of joy, and they often still do. Don’t miss this one.

6. Spaceship Earth. It’s another perpetually moving conveyor cruise, twisting upward and then back down, this one through what many people lovingly call “the golf ball.” The theme is human connection and communication, and you’ll move through the era of cave drawings, well past today and into a hoped-for future, where you can design your own mode of living on the screen in your transport vehicle. This is another ride with fantastic animatronics and a stirring message to impart, so it’s 15-minutes-plus of educational fun for the kids.

7. Test Track. Take on the part of the crash dummy in this entertaining series of deliberate mishaps. Your “car” will run into walls, navigate through bumps, and pick up incredible speed, as well as move through extreme hot and cold. This is probably the second most popular attraction at Epcot, so another Fast Pass is advisable.

8. Maelstrom. If you like trolls, take a boat trip in the Norway Pavilion, and take a gander at Norse myths. Then view a brief film afterward with breathtaking vistas of the host country, fjords and all.

9. Impressions de France. This is a film in the France Pavilion, and after you see it, you’ll want to haul stakes and move, even if you are one of the cynics who munched on “freedom fries” a few years ago. The soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous, starting with a Debussy flute solo, pulled from "Syrinx," I believe. (They don’t sell it there; another man and I both asked, but they did provide us with a list of the pieces cobbled together for the soundtrack).

10. O Canada! Another splendid film, from our neighbors to the north, touting their breathtaking landscapes. This tour through the provinces may remove some misconceptions, especially those being spread around by certain U.S. politicians.

Hollywood Studios

This park boasts four of my top 10 WDW attractions, which would make it a must-visit even if I had only one day at WDW. But guests who have never been to a Disney park before should nevertheless prioritize Magic Kingdom and Epcot, because they carry the roots of Walt Disney’s original dream.

As its name suggests, Hollywood Studios aims for a silver screen theme, and many of the rides and attractions have been designed accordingly. Two of the rides are among the five most intense in all WDW properties and thus aren’t for small kids, but they’re guaranteed fun for anyone else. There are a couple of good restaurants, some fun shows, and soon, there will be a completely revamped “Star Wars” section for the kids. Personally, I hate to see the old virtual reality ride (featuring the star tour to Endor) go, but the Skywalker speeder (from the first movie in the second trilogy to be released) should also prove to be fun.

1. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. With Rod Serling intriguingly incorporated into this attraction, it’s guaranteed to be good. It starts with a stroll through the eerily-deserted grounds of a Hollywood heyday hotel (including its cracked and dry fountain), then into the dusty lobby where suitcases have been haplessly abandoned; then into the spooky library, and finally down through the bowels of the building, where your freight elevator to hell awaits. The entire ride is a story in itself, but for those who haven’t experienced it before, I won’t give all the details, but I will say that the mute dummy tossed carelessly into the “closet” at the end is a fitting finale. (And I’ll also say the Florida version is far better than the California one.)

2. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. It’s a madcap roller coaster ride through downtown Los Angeles, at night (so it’s indoors), with inversions, dips, and music blasting into your head through speakers on your headrest. It all starts with a rocket-shot forward, zero to 60 mph in under 3 seconds. Not for the faint-hearted; definitely for Tyler fans.

3. Muppet*Vision 3D. One of the cutest shows at WDW. The cast includes all the usual Muppet suspects, including the grumpy old men in the box seats.

4. Toy Story Mania. Another of my top five, this one will require a Fast Pass or up to a two-hour wait in line. It’s like a carnival where you shoot darts, water balloons, and other fun stuff at targets, while you rack up the points. Then you move on to the next screen. All the “Toy Story” characters are in evidence, including the little green aliens that go “Wooooaaaaaaahhh!” The “guns” have pull strings, so it’s perfect for the kids. I can actually beat my husband at this one because of my quick reflexes. Don’t miss it.

5. The Great Movie Ride. The ride takes you through the sets of the biggest blockbusters of our times (and earlier times, too), with the usual incomparable animatrons. It even has my personal favorite, “Alien,” so watch out!

6. Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Think of the original Indiana Jones movie, and you’ll have the gist of this thrilling stage adventure. Includes the huge rolling boulder!

7. Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. I’ve seen a TV special on these little stunt cars and how they operate, and it’s quite fascinating. Lots of flames, explosions and jaw-dropping feats, it’s worth seeing at least once (and for Monte Carlo fans, perhaps more!).

8. Star Tours. Although it’s currently under renovation, be the first one back in line when this virtual reality attraction takes flight again, this time in 3D. New interstellar routes are promised. Apparently the reopening is set for mid-May 2011.

Animal Kingdom

Up until recently, Animal Kingdom – thought the largest of the four WDW theme parks – didn’t have much in the way of attractions. But that’s all changed, and there’s plenty to occupy your party for at least a day. There are a couple of great restaurants here, too, as well as a menagerie of well-treated wild animals that children will love to get a glimpse of.

1. Expedition Everest. It’s a roller coaster, but a unique one, and its most thrilling feature (other than the glimpse of the giant yeti at the end, is a backward swoop in a dark cave. Other than the animatronics and the unique scenery, it’s more of a classic coaster than anything else at WDW. Though it’s a candidate for Fast Past, the tour through the “Yeti Museum,” replete with authentic relics (!), is worth at least one wait through the regular line.

2. DINOSAUR. Viewers of “The Cosby Show” and “CSI: Las Vegas” will recognize the cast members in this rough ride in a jeep-like contraption, back through time to the end of the Cretaceous era. There’s an educational prologue while you wait in line, so it’s a great attraction for dinosaur aficionados (like my son, as most of you know).

3. It’s Tough to Be a Bug! This adorable 3D show, staged beneath a gigantic oil rig fashioned into the “tree of life” that serves as the park centerpiece, should be on every list. Anyone who’s seen “A Bug’s Life” will recognize the cast of characters.

4. Kali River Rapids. Oh yeah, you’ll get wet. So ride it right before park closing, or bring an extra top and pair of shorts. It’s got the biggest plunge I’ve ever seen on a river raft ride, anywhere.

5. Kilimanjaro Safaris. You won’t have a more authentic experience unless you go to Africa. Zebras, giraffes, lions, elephants (including five babies of various ages), a variety of deer-related beasts and tons of other fauna await you, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see them all.

6. Maharajah Jungle Trek. This is a walk-through, where you’ll encounter animals from the Asian continent, including some magnificent tigers, Komodo dragons, and my personal favorites, the fruit bats.

7. Pangani Forest Exploration. Here you’ll get to see gorillas, hippos, meerkats and other delightful creatures. It’s also self-guided.

8. Primeval Whirl. This is one of those “Wild Mouse” style rides, and unfortunately, it had a breakdown just as we were about to get on. It’s a fun diversion when you’re in the “dinosaur” part of the park.

9. Flights of Wonder. Don’t miss this show featuring several different types of birds, trained to inspire awe in the audience. A preshow this time featured a great-horned owl (the kind of critter, as I can attest, enjoys small critters for snacks).

Next up: Some restaurant ideas.

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