Disney for Adults
Fen's birthday is approaching fast so I'm determined to come up with a fun place for a celebration. Though he's generally more favorably interested in Woodstock-type events than romantic weekend getaways, I go out on a limb and suggest Disney World. He's turning 42, after all, something which gets me to thinking that it's time for him to feel like a kid again. Or maybe it's all his agonizing over the "meaning of life" birthday that prompts me to go overboard. No matter -- I tell my boy that Disney is a hotbed of activity for adults, everything from radical rollercoasters to cush hotels and late-night revelry. I'm sure he'll love it.
"Huh?" Fen says.
"Yes, there are lots of rollercoasters," I assure him, knowing that this will probably do the trick.
We wind up on the red-eye to Disney, eager to prove my premise true.
Arriving at dawn, we are transported to our hotel, Disney's Yacht Club Resort. This is where Michael Eisner stays when he's at Disney, so if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for us. The charming front desk person (umm, make that "cast member") takes care of the paperwork and presents us with two purple, credit-card-like cards.
"These are your room keys," she tells us, "and they also function as resort credit cards. You can charge anything at any of the Disney properties while you're here and it will appear on your hotel bill."
Fen and I look at each other in amazement. Not only is this convenient, it is downright dangerous. Everything from coffee to sodas to gifts galore can go on our shiny purple Disney credit card. No wonder Mickey Mouse is smiling on the front of the card.
Quickly dropping off our bags, we make a beeline for the Magic Kingdom. One of the advantages to staying at a Disney-owned property is that you are entitled to early admission at a different theme park every day. On this day, it's the Magic Kingdom, the oldest of Disney's theme parks in the Orlando Mouseplex. With only two days at Disney World (yes, this is a blitz tour), we decide to do half-days at each of the four parks. We stroll through the gates, then quickly pick up the pace in the direction of Space Mountain, Disney's rollercoaster-in-the-dark. Fen has never ridden it but I have, and we're both equally eager. As we approach the ride, we notice no lines, which surprises us. There are, however, two cast members standing sentinel near the entrance.
"What's up?" I ask.
"Well, there's a bird stuck inside Space Mountain and we can't open the ride until we get him out."
I'm flabbergasted. A bird has brought Space Mountain to a halt? It's a tough break, all right, yet it feels worse since we've come to the park early and there are no crowds. The chagrined cast member tells us it could be just a few minutes but he really doesn’t know. We decide to head elsewhere and check back later.
Fantasyland is right next to Space Mountain's home, Tomorrowland, so we head over there. We don't have a choice, really, since these are the only two "lands" which are open early. Fantasyland is not exactly what we had in mind, since it's the land of rides for junior mouseketeers. I do, however, see "It's a Small World," a cloyingly cute ride which originated at New York's World's Fair in the mid-60s. Both Fen and I visited this ride as kids. Fen had hoped to never return. I, on the other hand, am dying to go back and see all the cute, colorful dolls, dancing and singing their unforgettable ditty.
"No, no," says Fen. "No way. If I hear that song again, I'll never be able to get it out of my head."
"Well, what are the alternatives?" I ask. "Dumbo the Flying Elephant? The Mad Tea Party? Peter Pan's Flight?"
Fen winces and decides to humor me. We go into "It's a Small World" and sway to the beat. We even smile. The ride is as cute as ever.
Since the entire park is now open, we head over to Frontierland for Splash Mountain, a log-flume-type ride that qualifies as an aquatic rollercoaster. We don't snag the preferred front row in our log-car but are close to the front anyway. I admit to Fen that I've never ridden a rollercoaster with my hands in the air, something which appears to stun him. I vow to try it on Splash Mountain. The ride twists and turns and loops to the inevitable climax, a long drop that makes you feel airborne. I suck it up and put my hands in the air, although I do lean next to Fen's strong body for extra support. Splash! We both get wet, which is the whole point at Splash Mountain. But it doesn't stop there. The folks at Splash have cleverly placed a camera near the end of their ride so they can snap away as folks come down the final flume. This gives Disney's photogs the opportunity to catch you in mid-scream -- and to sell you the proof. As we exit the ride, we see our picture on an overhead screen. We're screaming all right, and my hands are up in the air. We charge the photo on our Disney credit card and have it delivered to our room.
Next up is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a wild-west-style rollercoaster. Bre'r Rabbit is being chased through Thunder Mountain by a wily coyote, and the rest of us are simply along for the ride. A wild ride it is, and Fen and I exit smiling. All of this activity has made us hungry, so we stop for some lunch even though it's only 10:30 in the morning. A Mickey Mouse ice-cream sandwich catches my eye as we leave our table and I decide I must have it. I eat the ears and give Fen the face. We stroll around Adventureland a bit and pop into a couple of stores. Mickey merchandise is everywhere, and it's all irresistible. Fen points to a Mickey serving tray.
"We could probably use one of those," Fen notes. "We've been wanting a breakfast tray, you know."
I pull him by the arm and point him toward Space Mountain for a bird update. Upon arriving, we hear that the bird has been apprehended and the ride is now open. We line up since the sign says it's a fifteen-minute wait. It turns out to be thirty, but Disney somehow manages to make waiting enjoyable. Space Mountain turns out to be a blast, exactly as I'd remembered. Even though I've been on this ride before, I wind up shrieking the whole way. Even Fen shrieks.
It's now time for me to start maneuvering for Fen's birthday surprise. I've told him that something special was going to happen at 1 PM, but he has no idea what. We jump on the monorail and head for the Grand Floridian, Disney's most luxurious property. The Grand Floridian was modeled after the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, a Victorian edifice that resembles a white wedding cake topped with red umbrellas. Think red turrets and you've got the picture. We walk through the hotel's sumptuous lobby and past a white-sand beach and proceed to the Grand Floridian Spa, where I've arranged for Fen and I to have hour-long aromatherapy massages. My birthday boy is totally surprised -- and delighted. We get our rubdowns in couples' room and then repart to our separate locker rooms for a soothing steam. This two-hour break proves to be the perfect antidote to our red-eye flight.
We board the monorail and head for EPCOT, our afternoon park. Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (that's EPCOT to you and me) is both future-forward and culturally correct. Half of EPCOT is labeled Future World and is a series of pavilions illustrating how we citizens of the universe can safeguard our environment in the next millenium. The other half is the World Showcase, where eleven pavilions highlight the cultures of various foreign lands. We begin at Future World.
"What ride do you want to do first?" Fen asks.
"Ice cream," I reply, which seems to me to be the only reasonable response in the blazing Florida sun. A cone is what I crave, and Fen finds one for me at The Land. This pavilion has a huge food court alongside various interactive exhibits and an informational ride. Everyone in this pavilion seems to be at the food court, eating something or other. We take our double dips to a table and sit next to a fellow eating barbecued ribs. His son is eating French fries. Everything smells delicious. You can't help but eat at Disney, and the richer, the better.
Our next stop is The Living Seas, a retrospective about the oceans and what we can do to protect this valuable resource. Nifty elevators called hydrolators transport the masses to an "underwater" observation station. We observe the fish and other species (a few divers are feeding our finned friends) and then head back to the hydrolators for a ride to home base. Since no one is in our hydrolator on the way back up, Fen and I seize the opportunity to make out. Ah yes, Disney for adults!
Leaving the seas, we wander over to the Universe of Energy, the main attraction here being a ride with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye "The Science Guy." Ellen is playing a spirited game of Jeopardy where all the categories are about energy. The Science Guy is coach and Alex Trebek plays host. Ellen is hopelessly dense about energy until the Science Guy finally gets it through her thick skull that she'll trash the planet unless she wises up. The comedienne rallies and saves the day. No one, however, tells us if she goes on to be a five-day winner.
Test Track, the newest ride at Future World, is up next. Fen has been dying to try this ride since I've told him there are cars in it which go over sixty miles an hour. The fine folks at GM have put together this showpiece, a full-on simulation of what it would be like to be a test-track driver. When we get to the ride, a smiling cast member tells us that it's closed for some technical tweaking and might reopen later in the day. We ask about lines and are told that they are usually about seventy minutes long but that EPCOT is the early-opening park tomorrow and we could get in at 7:30 AM without much of a wait. Cool! Fen and I high-five each other and decide we'll be here at the opening, something which perplexes us both since we'd never dream of getting up this early back home. Feeling amply futuristic, we head over to World Showcase for a dash of culture.
"The food's great here!" Fen proclaims upon our arrival, recalling a visit he made to EPCOT several years earlier. We're both hungry again, even though it seems as if we've been eating all day long.
I decide we should do a multi-cultural food tour of the World Showcase, stopping for a light bite at as many of the pavilions as we can handle. First up is Norway, where we share a light-as-air waffle filled with strawberry preserves. Fen and I discreetly fight over our modest portion. Next in line is Germany, where we order bratwurst topped with sauerkraut and hot mustard. This portion is slightly larger and I pretty much let Fen gobble it up. We skirt by France, stopping to study the menus, and then pop into Morocco to ogle the wares. I try on a fez as Fen snaps my pic. At this point, Fen is frantically trying to remember where in the World he had a pint with his dad. As we approach the United Kingdom, he's got it: the Rose & Crown pub. Fen is eager for a beer, but he also wants to return to the Magic Kingdom before closing to check out the Haunted Mansion. Since we've got Park-Hopper passes, we can shift between any of the four theme parks in a single day. The Haunted Mansion wins out so we head for the monorail.
The Magic Kingdom is winding down at this point, what with the setting sun and kids that are plum tuckered out. We're pooped, too. We use what little energy we have left and drag ourselves to Liberty Square, where the Hall of Presidents attraction is about to begin. It appears there will be enough time for us to feel patriotic and get scared, so we enter the air-conditioned theatre. The audio-animatronics used on our 41 presidents seem better than ever, with Honest Abe and Randy Andy and the rest of the gang bobbing their heads in agreement with everything that narrator Maya Angelou says. The best part, however, is Bubba Bill Clinton sounding as sincere as can be (and it is his actual voice we hear). I swear I see him biting his lip. Patriotism complete, we head for the Haunted Mansion, which is one of Fen's favorite rides. The ghosts and goblins are still a hoot, and the chill we feel on this ride further enhances the experience. Scared silly, we exit to a nighttime sky and return to the Yacht Club, where I've decided to surprise Fen with dinner at the resort's Yachtsman Steakhouse.
I expect dinner at this Disney restaurant to be reliably good in that Disney sort of way, so I'm totally unprepared for the feast which awaits us at the Yacht Club's steakhouse. The dining room is elegant yet unpretentious, white-napped tables set with simple glassware juxtaposed against the tuxedoed waiters. Our server is knowledgeable and polite and patiently explains to Fen the various cuts of meat. The birthday boy settles for a Porterhouse while I order the filet, and we both choose appetizers. A tuxedoed fellow brings over a basket of piping-hot popovers with butter and cloves of roasted garlic alongside. The bread and garlic melt in our mouths. My spinach salad is the best I've ever had, and Fen's crab cakes would make the folks in Maryland proud. Our steaks, the piece de resistance, are perfectly-cooked, mouth-watering slabs of meat which are unbelievably good. Fen and I look at each other in amazement, stunned at our great good fortune in getting such a fabulous meal in the land of Mick. The only false note is our dessert, which is good but not great. We finish our coffee (which is wonderful) and return to our room well past midnight. We marvel at the fact that we spent thirteen hours at the theme parks and enjoyed every single minute. Last order of business before we fall asleep is requesting a 7 AM wake-up call -- we have a date with the Test Track early tomorrow morning.
* * * * *
We awake to the sound of birds chirping on our balcony while sunlight pours into our room.
"Are those real birds or is that Disney?" Fen asks. It's a good question, since it gets to be rather difficult to separate fact from fantasy at this fanciful place. We conclude that the birds are real and get ready for Test Track.
EPCOT is about a five-minute walk from the Yacht Club, so we decide to hoof it. We arrive shortly after 7:30 and are one of the few people in the park. Even so, Fen and I race toward Test Track, living in fear of the 70-minute line. Our worries are for naught, since we breeze right into the ride and are soon in our test vehicle, a life-sized car where we get to sit up front. The test track at Test Track is realistic enough, seeing as how our car cruises over Belgian blocks and German blocks, hits the anti-lock brakes and passes through heat, cold and corrosion chambers. The best part, however, is the straightaway, where an overhead sign shows us how quickly our car is picking up speed. 30, 40, 50, 60…64.7 MPH! It sure feels fast. Disney's definitely got a winner on its hands with Test Track.
The best news, however, comes as we get ready to step out of our car. A smiling cast member looks down at us and asks if we want to go again. Huh? No one ever gets to ride the good rides at Disney twice in a row! As luck would have it, it's so early that no one is here yet so we get to do it all again. Ride #2 has our car reaching a speed of 64.8 MPH. Crossing our fingers, we pray for a third straight ride. No luck, though, since the crowds are starting to mass en masse. We exit, smiling, and make our way over to Disney's newest theme park, Animal Kingdom.
The hottest ride at Animal Kingdom is the Kilimanjaro Safari, an open-vehicle foray into Disney's savannah of animals. We had heard that the best time to get here was first thing in the morning, but since we had to be kamikaze drivers we're a bit late. The line is indeed long when we arrive, to the tune of 50 minutes. We tough it out anyway. Once on our way, we delight in the variety of animals in what appears to be a fairly natural setting. Gazelles, lions and elephants roam the land, with ample separation to keep everyone happy. The alligators are long and brooding and completely freak me out. A "poacher" provides a bit of intrigue, but he's soon captured by Disney's finest. We exit the safari and pronounce it well worth the wait.
Although it's barely 10 AM, we stop for lunch at the Flame Tree Barbecue. We choose a table near the water and are soon greeted by even more water in the form of a flash thunderstorm that is pounding away on the roof overhead. The rain stops almost as quickly as it started and, as if by magic, an army of Disney personnel start to squeegee every table and chair which wasn't sheltered from the rain. They then pull out towels and pat the furniture dry. Such service.
Seeking more of the wet stuff, we head over to Asia (our safari was in Africa) and queue up for the Kali River Rapids run, a voyage down a wild 'n woolly river in an inflatable raft. There are eight of us in our vessel, and most of the passengers take turns telling the rest of us how wet they got on this ride the time before. We all get doused. Fen and I also get hungry, so we stop for ice cream floats on our way out of the river. In order to dry off, we decide to do some window-shopping. At Island Mercantile, we encounter stuffed dolls of Mickey and all his pals in safari gear. There's even a safari Barbie. I safeguard our Disney credit card and point Fen in the direction of the Tree of Life, the centerpiece of Disney's Animal Kingdom. This "tree" has over 300 members of the animal kingdom carved in its roots, trunk and branches. Everyone is madly taking pictures of the tree. Inside the tree is its Tough to be a Bug! one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Animal Kingdom. Based on the characters in "It's a Bug's Life," Disney's hit movie, the Bug show is a 3-D extravaganza that has to be seen to be believed. I exit bug-eyed and report to the restroom for the 54th time. This gets me to thinking: how many tons of ice cream are consumed at Disney World every day? How many times do people ask "where's the nearest restroom?" If nothing else, the patrons of Walt Disney World must be extremely predictable. Or maybe they've made us that way.
Last stop on our theme park extravaganza is Disney-MGM Studios, where we are dying to visit the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. We've heard that this ride features a thirteen-story "elevator drop" inside a "seedy Hollywood hotel." The lines at the Tower of Terror appear short until you step inside. Disney's knack for trompe l'oeil is once again in evidence, and we quickly find ourselves weaving through an underground "boiler room" which is boiling hot and terribly claustrophobic. I imagine the ride can't be any worse than this. When we finally do get on our elevator, we experience a combination of Twilight Zone (complete with a netherworld Rod Serling) and twisty zone in preparation for the inevitable drop. When it comes, it really does leave your stomach in your throat. We survive, however, and go shopping. Six Mickey Mouse cocktail glasses later, we depart the park and head back to the Yacht Club for a nap.
A stroll around the Yacht Club beckons as we arise from our slumber. Before we leave our room, Fen scavenges through the mini-bar. Among the things in our well-stocked pleasure box are a gaggle of drinks, a portable camera and Pez dispensers in the shape of Goofy and Mick. Oreos, too. We pass, knowing that ice cream can't be far away. At Stormalong Bay, the Yacht Club's pool complex, we notice that the bottom of the pool is lined with soft white sand. The Ship Shape Health Club is filled with gleaming machines but we pass them over in favor of the Beaches and Cream Soda Shop, the resort's ice cream parlor. Our two hot fudge sundaes hit the spot.
Later that night, we attend a performance of "La Nouba," the Cirque du Soleil spectacular at Downtown Disney. The Mouse House has built a special theater for the Canadian acrobats on their property, and the stage alone is worth the price of admission. In true Cirque form, the troupe performs more tumbles, leaps and death-defying feats than the law should allow. It's all great fun and we exit the theater smiling, delighted after another very long Disney day.
* * * * *
We wake up to a sunny Saturday morning -- hungry. Since we're leaving in a couple of hours, we opt for breakfast in bed, although we move our repast to the airy balcony in a fit of brilliance. Over eggs Benedict and coffee, we reflect on two jam-packed days at Disney World, just the two of us.
"When I think about it, the rides I enjoyed the most were at Animal Kingdom," Fen notes. "The safari, the river ride and the bug movie. The Tower of Terror wasn't even that terrifying. And I like that the Animal Kingdom doesn't feel so Magic Kingdom."
I conclude that Test Track was my favorite ride, although Animal Kingdom was my favorite park. We both agree that Disney World is truly over the top, but in a seamless sort of way. It all works and the sum total is that you can't help but have a terrific time.
The writer and the rollercoaster rider smile all the way home.
Reservations at Disney's Yacht Club, or any other Walt Disney World property, can be made by calling (407) W-DISNEY (934-7639). Rates at the Yacht Club are on the high side, but it's an unbeatable choice. Thankfully, there are Disney resorts for every budget.
© 1999 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
May 21, 1999
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