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Dale Jensen -- February 2005 - Walt Disney World (PCR)


Participants:

  • Me: Dale Jensen, 42 year old single father. I've been to Disney World about a dozen times in the last decade.
  • Kiersten: my daughter, age 13. She's been with me on all but about three trips
  • The Bartaks: Justin, Melissa and Jordan - They've never been to Disneyworld, or Florida at all.

Introduction
This is the third or fourth trip report that I've done of vacations that invariably end up in Florida; probably our favorite state, and certainly a top vacation destination. Unlike previous trips I've written up, though, this is unique for a couple of reasons. First, we didn't drive (much,) but flew instead. Second, it was a winter holiday, rather than going when school let out in summer. Finally, we traveled with friends of ours.

Hope that you enjoy it! Other reports and stuff can be found at my travel page.

Prelude / Preparation
I'm not sure exactly where the idea originated, probably just me saying "we should go to Florida" one cold North Dakota morning, but we decided to make a trip to Disney World back in December, along with our friends the Bartaks - Justin, Melissa and Jordan. Justin and I work together at Aatrix and we've become very good friends over the years (along with Sheila, who, sadly, couldn't get away with us.) Jordan is 12, so I figured he and Kiersten (who is 13 now) would get along fine.

The time frame for the trip was settled upon because Melissa, who started working at Lowes in October, had to take some vacation days before the end of February, but not before a certain date (which I don't remember.) In addition, the last full week of February was a partial week at school for the kids, the Grand Forks schools closing 1/2 days Thursday and Friday. Although both Kiersten and Jordan are "A" students, we agreed the less time out of school, the better.

Now, one thing that plays in here, time wise, is that Justin refuses to fly. Well, he's flown twice (once with me to San Francisco) but wasn't happy either time. I think the door fell off the plane or something on the second trip and after 9/11, flat out refuses to get on a plane. So the plan was to drive to Florida on Friday/Saturday/Sunday. Stay at Disney Monday - Saturday and then turn around and do the three day drive again, getting back here on Monday, February 28.

With the dates in hand, we went to the local AAA travel agency to see what they could do for us. We worked with Bonnie, and, while she was helpful, I probably knew more about Disney World than she did, and Justin and I agreed after everything was said and done (foreshadowing: some problems with AAA will reveal themselves as the story unfolds!) we could probably have done as well by booking it ourselves over the Internet.

However, we went with AAA (one key benefit we couldn't get by booking it ourselves is the AAA Diamond Parking perk, very nice) and Bonnie booked us into Disney's Pop Century Resort with a Dream Maker (park tickets) package from Monday through Saturday (Feb 21-26). We paid a $200 deposit; then went back a week or two later to pay up the rest ($1,200 in my case.).

Okay, here comes the first problem, although I blame myself. When the paperwork came in, detailing what we'd booked, I tossed it on the kitchen counter to look at later. A couple of days after we paid the full balance, Justin and I agreed that we'd push the driving and arrive in Orlando early enough on Sunday to merit staying on site that night and have a partial day at the parks. So I rang up Bonnie and asked her if she could add on Sunday, 20 February. She called Disney and said "sure", but wondered why we were adding Sunday when we weren't supposed to be there until Wednesday.

Hello? Wednesday? Sure enough, we'd booked Wednesday through Monday. Thinking about it later, I think I gave her the correct days, but the dates from 2004. She said that she'd figure it all out, and call me back. A short time later, she called back to say that she could do it, but Disney had, in the couple of days since paying for the package, changed their ticketing to something called "Magic Your Way" and the Dream Maker package was no longer available. But, because of that change, we could add another day, with tickets, for the same price. Actually, it would be $64 less for me, but there was a cancellation charge of $60. Actually-actually, they ended up refunding me the whole $64, so who knows what happened to the cancellation fee.

Okay, booking done, let's skip ahead to Monday, 14 February. I'm looking at the weather and driving reports for the weekend, and I'm feeling less and less comfortable about driving. I'm also having a heck of a time finding a hotel in Ocala or Orlando for Saturday night. The driving plan had evolved to leaving Thursday night, driving to Minneapolis, and then driving all day Friday and Saturday, to make a very short day on Sunday so we wouldn't be exhausted for the first day in the park.

Out of desperation, I sign onto Priceline.com to see if they have any blocked out hotel rooms. While there, I saw the "cheap air fares" link and thought "what the heck, I’ll see what tickets are." Of course, flying out of Grand Forks came back as $1,650 / ticket. But then I thought I'd try Minneapolis, and found a fare on AirTrans (the old ValuJet,) connecting in Atlanta, leaving Saturday and coming back the next Saturday, for $350 / ticket. Sounded great, so I called Bonnie at AAA to see if she could add on Saturday night at Pop Century.

Well, she called me back a short time later to tell me that no, Pop Century was sold out. So were the other Disney hotels. So was every other hotel she checked in Orlando. I asked her to check Ocala as well, and she reported that they were sold out as well. Wow, not good. It was looking like we'd have to stop somewhere pretty far north and drive a good distance Sunday morning. However, Bonnie suggested I see if I could get a flight out on Sunday morning as an alternative.

I didn't think my chances were too good, but I plugged it in, and viola! Sun Country would fly us from Minneapolis direct to Orlando for about $370 / ticket on Sunday and return on Saturday night. Perfect, but Justin wasn't interested. I felt bad about leaving him to drive alone, but it would mean two less days of missed school for Kiersten, 4,000 less miles on my car, and the price was about the same as driving, figuring in gas, hotels, meals and depreciation. So I bought the tickets, went to Tiffany Town Cars and reserved a limo for the ride from the airport, and we were set.

Getting there
Justin kept checking the weather reports through the week, and decided that my suggested route, southeast through MN, WI and IL, would have snow and ice, so he opted to go straight south from Grand Forks to Kansas City, across to St. Louis, then into Kentucky and southeast. In addition, he decided to hit the road on Thursday about noon, so after a final lunch with Sheila, he picked up Jordan from school, Melissa from home, and they took off.

Both Sheila and I tried calling him on Friday without success, but I finally reached him about 5pm, to find that they were already in Macon, GA, hunkered in until Sunday morning. Turned out that they'd just driven straight through, so not having me tag along was probably just as well, as I'd have had to quit driving Thursday night.

So, with my friends pretty much there, it was our turn. Kiersten and I headed out Saturday morning for a five hour drive to Minneapolis. We got there about 4pm, had dinner with my parents, and turned it quite early, as 5am would arrive all too soon.

I had been looking at the weather forecasts online, and it was clear that the Twin Cities were due for some snow. Sure enough, when my Dad woke me up, he reported that there were a few new inches of the white stuff. We got ready, and were out the door by 5:45am. The roads to the airport were pretty clear, until we got near the terminal (Sun Country uses a different terminal than the main one,) where they hadn't been plowed.

Regardless, we got to the curbside check-in on time, said bye to Dad, and dropped the bags off. As we were there, a huge limo pulled up, and three older guys and their blonde bombshell trophy brides got out. I commented to Kiersten on the paradox of taking a limo to check-in at a discount airline and I think she got the joke. I'd checked in online the previous morning in Grand Forks, so we already had our boarding passes and seat assignments and headed into the terminal.

We played pinball in the video arcade while waiting for the plane, then sat in the waiting area listening to our iPods. I bought a truly awful sausage and egg biscuit in the carry out restaurant in the terminal, but neither K nor I was particularly interested in eating it. Ironically, once on the plane, we were given sausage and egg biscuits (far better!) for the meal service.

Kiersten and I both agreed that this terminal was better than the main one (food service aside) and the Sun Country flight attendants were a lot nicer than their Northwest counterparts, but the flight didn't start out too well. For reasons unexplained, we were about ten minutes late in boarding, and because of the snow, we had to sit on the taxi way and wait to be de-iced, and then wait in a long line to take off. All told, we were an hour late in getting off the ground.

The flight was a little bumpy, but uneventful. We listened to music on the iPods, spelled out words with the letter pretzels they gave us (my best -- "I am doomed", Kiersten contributed "meow") and read. We got into Orlando about 12:15pm. We were kind of looking forward to the limo guy at the stairs holding a "Jensen" sign, but when we got to baggage claim, he was nowhere in sight. I left Kiersten with the carry on bags and went to collect the other two. They were pretty much the last two (although to be fair, I was looking for K's "black bag," which turned out to be blue, so it might have been going around for a while,) and when I got back to where I'd deposited her, the driver had also turned up.

A word about Tiffany... I checked prices, and Mears was $60, a taxi "about" $80, and Tiffany $90 (all prices round trip, without tip) and I had a $5 off coupon for Tiffany that I got off their web site. We've taken Mears before, and the downside of that is that you don't go right to your hotel. The taxi was a little "iffy," since you don't know exactly what it will be, and Tiffany had generally good reviews online. I would recommend them, although it wasn't all that special, and they seemed intent on ignoring what I told them the pick-up time was supposed to be.

Anyhoo, we paid him (for the full round trip) and we were on our way. I asked him what was up with Florida being so busy (he'd commented that the hotels were 90% full, and there were no rental cars available) and it turned out to be the Daytona 500 weekend, as well as President's Day (which we already knew, of course,) and there was also a convention in town. That explained it.

Sunday, 20 February
I'd called Justin right after we got off the plane, and he reported that they were in Orlando and heading towards Disney. Sure enough, once we walked into Pop Century, Melissa and Jordan came up to greet us. Justin was checking in, and I walked up to do the same. When the cast member called me over I said, "Arriving guest, Arthur Jensen". (Just like I've done at a million hotels around the US) He gave me a big smile, said "My name's Timmy, nice to meet you" shook my hand, and stood there. Oh yeah, we're at Disney! I started over, a little less formal and a little clearer, and we were underway.

Okay, AAA problem two... they'd put my reservation under Justin's name, not a big deal, except that they had the wrong address (his) and couldn't change it. Who cares. Oh, and Timmy can't give you any park tickets because the guy checking Justin in is having problems and you have to talk to him about the tickets. Everything else is okay, so I grab my keys and pile of paperwork and wander down the counter to where Justin is looking flustered.

Turns out that AAA had messed up the ticket part of the package. I never got the full story, but it had something to do with us still having the Dream Maker bit on there, as well as the Magic Your Way tickets. I know that, when I checked out, there were a couple of lines on the bill showing various charges and credits as they tried to sort it out.

That fiasco settled, we walked to the food court, Everything Pop, and bought four "free refill" mugs for $12 each. It's a combination souvenir/money saver, as you can refill it as much as you want (on that particular stay, although I don't know how they'd enforce that,) with sodas, coffee and hot chocolate for free. Kiersten and I walked over to our room, #6164 in the 1970s "A" building.

Justin, Melissa and Jordan were in #6165, and once they were settled, we got in the car and drove over to Epcot. It took me until Friday or so to realize it, but you really have to be paying attention to the road signs all of the time at WDW. They do a good job of putting signs up telling you how to get places, but they're not huge, and it's usually only one, so if you miss it, you might get lost. Which we quickly did, but I suggested an alternative route near Coronado Springs, and we got to the Epcot lot soon enough.

Unfortunately, we didn't think to say anything about the AAA Diamond Parking pass until we were already in the lot. The attendant told us that we had to leave the lot and try again, following the "green line" this time. So, we found the exit, took the "idiot loop" that they had in place for just this sort of thing, went through the toll booths again, and found the green line. It took us to a second row in the east parking lot (which doesn't get used, except for RVs, which get the front row). Excellent parking location.

We got through the turnstiles, having provided the room keys/tickets and having our fingers scanned, something new since the last trip -- now your tickets are bound to your biometric finger scan, so no one else can use the tickets. As per usual, we headed to Spaceship Earth; traditionally Kiersten and my first and last attraction each trip.

Okay, major aside here. Melissa is a total risk taker. When she was in Las Vegas for a business trip, she rode that crazy roller coaster on the top of a skyscraper. She wants to bungee jump. Justin is totally the opposite. He doesn't like heights and has motion sickness, so when we were talking about taking this trip, he took the tack that, like in the past at other parks, he'd skip the rides and just take pictures and people watch.

I’d pretty much convinced him that Disney attractions aren't the same sort of thing that you'd find at Six Flags or Valleyfair; and that I wouldn't lead him into anything that he wouldn't like, so he was willing to try some stuff out. Unfortunately, Jordan wasn't convinced that Disney was any different, and he was nervous about the whole ride idea, so when we headed toward Spaceship Earth (which is huge from the ground,) he put on the brakes and said he wouldn't go on it.

Somehow, Justin convinced him to go, and, although I was a little worried that they wouldn't like it and things wouldn't start out too well, all three of them really enjoyed it. The ATT Communicore (or whatever it was called) was closed down, so we walked to Innoventions East and wandered through. Stopped at the House of Tomorrow (against Kiersten's wishes) and, sure enough, nothing had changed since we saw it in 2003. Interesting displays though.

After that, I figured the Universe of Energy would be a good next thing to go on, but when we got there, there was a rope stretched across the walkway and the cast members said that it was temporarily closed.

The newest major attraction at Epcot (until May, when Soarin' opens in The Land,) is Mission: Space, which we missed by a couple of months on our last visit. I told Justin that he should sit this one out, so he and Jordan cooled their heels while Melissa, Kiersten and I hopped in the 15 minute line. Kiersten was real iffy about sticking it out and, in the end, opted for the chicken exit right before getting in the simulator.

I have to say (Gary Sinise’s introduction aside) this is the coolest thing at Epcot. You really, really feel like you're going into space. Definitely not something for those with sensitive stomachs, but if you can manage it, I highly recommend it. It starts on the launching pad, then (guessing here) your capsule turns to the side and the centrifuge starts spinning as you "take off" and you really feel the G-Force. For a brief moment, you feel weightless, then it spins up again as you head for a slingshot around the moon. You "sleep" for a couple of seconds, then hit an asteroid swarm around Mars, head down, nearly crash, etc. I love messing around with all the controls and fighting the force of gravity to try and move your arms around heavy acceleration. For our first flight, Melissa was the engineer and was supposed to put us into "hypersleep" but was laughing as she did it and I chastised her for giggling in her sleep.

Exiting the ride and picking up the non-riders, we walked next door to Test Track, but a prohibitively long line (about 40 minutes) encouraged us to move on to The World Showcase. We walked through the old Odyssey restaurant area over to the Mexican Pavilion and onto the "El Rio del Tiempo" boat ride, which everyone was okay with, but not too excited about. Kiersten kicked off "shopping mode" by wanting to look through the offerings in the pyramid, and inadvertently set me off on "weird hat mode" by pointing out a huge sombrero which I put on and had Justin snap a picture of. For the next couple of days, every time I found a silly hat, I put it on and got a picture.

We headed over to the Norway Pavilion and continued shopping -- I bought Sheila an authentic Norse Troll for her collection of odd statues. We contemplated riding Maelstrom, but our dinner time was too close to dare the line. Instead, we opted for the Chinese Pavilion, and the tail end of a performance by the Dragon Legend Acrobats. All we managed to see was four girls climbing on top of each other, and two guys, dressed as chefs, spinning about forty plates on a row of tables.

More shopping ensued in both China and the African pseudo-pavilion just south of China, then ended in Germany, where we had a 6:15pm Priority Seating at the Biergarten. We went to the restaurant podium about six o'clock and were seated pretty quickly.

I thought that the food was excellent; particularly the salads, the roast beef and the pork. Melissa and Justin thought the environment far superior to the food. We spent about an hour in the restaurant and left well-sated. We waddled over to the Japanese Pavilion, which Justin had been salivating over since we first started talking about the World. At least an hour was spent shopping in the department store, although in the end, I'm not sure that a whole lot was bought. I purchased some candy and a couple of ceramic bowls, Kiersten got a couple minor things and bugged me again for an obi, but I declined. Not a lot, but it's always a fun store to browse through.

We headed back over to Norway and convinced Jordan to give Maelstrom a try. Once it was all over, he shouted "pathetic!" although whether that was directed at the ride or himself, I never sorted out. Regardless, he insisted that we ride it again right away, which we did. It was then about 8:45pm, so we headed out to the bridge just south of China to watch IllumiNations.

Having seen it several times before, I knew what to expect (except I don't remember all that fire,) but it was fun to see Justin, Melissa and Jordan mesmerized by the display, which is pretty stunning. After the fireworks, we the fountain in Future World wasn't running (well, it was going, but not dancing.)

We drove back to Pop Century and everyone but Kiersten opted to head over to the 90's "Computer Pool" for a pre-bed dip. The pool was super warm and when we got out after about 1/2 an hour, the air was freezing cold! It didn't help that I'd forgotten to bring a towel. All of us were shivering on the long hike back to the rooms. K and I were asleep by about 11pm, exhausted by all the day's activities.

Monday, 21 February
In my 2003 trip report, I commented that, contrary to previous trips, both Kiersten and I enjoyed Disney-MGM Studios quite a lot. Today was our day for that park, and we intended to get there early to hit Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster without a long wait. I was helped along with getting going by my ex-wife calling at 2am and 6am (I had to give her the hotel's phone number according to our divorce decree.) After the second call, I said to heck with sleeping and got up.

After showering and getting ready, I walked over to Everything Pop and filled Kiersten's and my mugs with coffee, went back to the room and wrote up notes on the previous days' activities. Around 8am I woke up K and once she was ready we met the Bartaks back at Everything Pop. I had a crumb coffee cake (excellent, I ended up eating one almost every morning) and Kiersten had a cinnamon roll.

We drove over to MGM, parked in the AAA Diamond row (Stage-Mickey lot) and rode the tram over to the entrance. We got there shortly after opening and we were held up a bit because the biometric reader didn't like Kiersten's fingers any more. That turned out to be a recurring problem -- every reader except for Epcot's refused her entrance and the CM had to override it.

Turnstiles behind us, we quickly headed up Sunset Boulevard and grabbed FastPasses for the Tower of Terror and then all five of us went in, although Justin and Jordan opted out at the "chicken exit." They've changed the ride yet again, now it serves up random sequences. The upside of that is that you don't really know what to expect, the downside is that a few of times that we rode it, the sequence wasn't as fun (lots of little ups and downs is less interesting than a few big drops.)

After that, we met back up with Justin and Jordan and walked next door to the Aerosmith coaster. As I've stated many times in the past, I'm not a fan of roller coasters, so I welcomed Melissa's presence to accompany Kiersten on the ride. The wait was about 20 minutes, so the three boys hung out in the court until the brave girls returned. They both were ecstatic about the ride, but it was time to head back to Tower of Terror, which we rode while J & J waited at the exit.

We then headed over to the Voyage of the Little Mermaid, where I intended to pick up FastPasses, but the passes were due in about 20 minutes, so we opted to skip it for the time being. The big attraction for Justin at MGM was Star Tours, as he's the biggest Star Wars fan I've ever known in my life. He was a little concerned about the motion sickness factor, but had bought and taken Dramamine at the resort before leaving. So we hit the ride, and he loved it, as did Jordan and Melissa.

While the rest of the group spent time and money in the Star Wars shop, I collected tickets and got FastPasses to ride again. We then walked over to Muppet Vision 3-D, unfortunately about two minutes too late for the show, so we had to wait through the entire pre-show before getting in. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and then went back for another Star Tour, using the FastPasses.

We had buffet dinner plans, so counter service was a good choice for lunch. The nearest place was the ABC Commissary, so we dropped in. Kiersten had a cheeseburger with fries; I had a Cuban sandwich, which was very good. However, when I ordered it, the CM asked if I wanted fries or "chips," and I didn't look close enough at the menu to see what these chips were, and they weren't potato. I have no idea what they were, but they were awful. I have no idea why they even were an option. Justin ordered some sort of stir fry that he has since declared to be the worst thing he's ever eaten.

Following that fiasco, I suggested we see what the status of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was, but once we were there, we could see that the current show was already in progress. So, we picked up FastPasses for the next show, and walked over to "Sounds Dangerous," which we'd never done before. Following the sound effects extravaganza starring Drew Carey (who Kiersten loves,) we headed over to the Great Movie Ride, which everyone liked much more than Sounds Dangerous, particularly the Alien set (which was better than I remembered it from the last time I'd seen it.) I always get a kick out of the CM reciting the line about loving the Busby Berkeley Follies, particularly when they look like they're a hard core rap fan.

Well, the FastPasses said that it was past time to get over to Indy, so we headed that direction. Melissa and Kiersten scored last row seats, but Justin, Jordan and I were left to stand. I haven't seen the show for a while (it was washed out during our 2003 visit,) but it's always fun, providing you don't see it too often. Justin, Melissa and Jordan liked it as well.

Although parades have never been a big thing with us in the past, Justin wanted to check them out, so we found a nice front row spot near Indy about 3pm for the 3:30 parade.

We followed the parade through the park until we got back to the Little Mermaid area, but bypassed that again, as our dinner reservation for 4:40pm would conflict with the next available showing. We walked back to the Studios Backlot Tour, but a 20 minute queue turned us away. We took pictures with Sorcerer Mickey, spent a little time at "Walt Disney - One Man's Dream" and then headed over to Hollywood and Vine for dinner.

Annoyingly (even though we checked in at 4:40) we weren't seated until after 5pm. I really dislike Disney's Priority Seating, as it seems like they're always overbooking places. Biergarten the night before was the exception to a rule I've found over and over through the years -- rarely do you get in when you're supposed to.

To add insult to injury, the food was pretty marginal. At the buffet the best thing that I found was BBQ meatballs on the kids' buffet (had to bend down to pick them up). There was enough to fill us up, and the real point of the whole exercise was to get a Fantasmic! Pass. If you call up 407-WDW-DINE a month or two before your selected date, you can get a dinner/pass package for no additional charge. The pass gets you in to a reserved seating section of Fantasmic! - basically ensuring that you get a seat or standing location without having to go in there two hours ahead of time.

Pass in hand, we spent a short time shopping on Hollywood Boulevard before heading through the "secret entrance" behind Oscar's Super Service, and hiking a good distance through the back stage area before coming out on the side of the huge amphitheatre. This was the first time we'd seen the show -- it hadn't been running for most of our previous trips and was rained out during 2003. It wasn't really what I thought it would be. It’s mostly video footage and not a lot of fireworks, but it was a fun show and I liked the characters on the boat at the end. It's not necessarily worth a two hour wait, nor really worth suffering an expensive and less than stellar meal, but I'm glad that we did it this time.

It was probably around 8:30pm by the time we traipsed back to the car via the back-stage path and we decided to check out Disney’s West Side. The first thing that we did was inquire at Cirque du Soleil for tickets later in the week. Justin had expressed interest in the show earlier, but we didn't look into it before. Well, we found that we could get "obscured view" seats (e.g.: behind a pillar or something) on Thursday for $55 a seat, or nose bleed seats on Friday for $80 a seat. With that in mind, we said "thanks, but no thanks" and moved on.

Justin had his watch stop after the previous night's swimming excursion, so Melissa encouraged him to shop for a new one, and spent a good chunk of the Cirque du Soleil ticket price on an Oakley watch that is really cool. We walked through the rest of the West Side, but I noted that Kiersten was tired and acting really sad, so I suggested that we call it a night. We headed back to Pop Century and (after some prodding) Kiersten said that she missed one of her friends. I suggested that she call him and say hi, which cheered her up. I went up the food court while she made her call (he didn't answer, but the mood had passed) and we went to bed shortly after that.

Tuesday, 22 February
Up at 7am, Kiersten was moving by 8am. We met up with our friends at Everything Pop again, and had the same food as the previous day (although Justin and Melissa shared a waffle.) We were running a little late and got to Animal Kingdom at 10am, an hour after park opening. The AAA lot was full, but we were directed to a lot that was only a little further away (as we walked by the Diamond Parking lot, we noted that there were maybe 30 spaces.)

Well, that was the first sign that we were in for some significant crowds. The second was the mob we ran into in the Oasis, the area of the park you first walk into. We walked back to Africa and picked up FastPasses for the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, then Timon and Pumba.

After fighting our way through that, we walked over to Camp Minnie-Mickey for the first showing of the Festival of the Lion King. The line for it was pretty big and, as it turned out, this was the last part of the line, and the theatre was already mostly full. We ended up in the rafters of the Giraffe section (as an aside, I've now been in every section except Warthog). We all enjoyed the show, which hasn't changed one iota since I first saw it, but remains fun.

Our FastPasses for the Safari were now due, so we hiked back to Africa for the wicked coaster.

After that healthy trek, we went around Discovery Island to have lunch at Pizzafari, where I had an Italian Deli Sandwich (pretty good) and Kiersten had a personal pepperoni pizza (pretty passable) for about $17. We then walked back across the island to the entry for "It's Tough to be a Bug," a 3-D movie that I'm not a big fan of (it loses a lot once you've seen it once or twice). But everyone else enjoyed it - aside from the "hornet sting" and "bugs on you" effects, which are a little unnerving.

Following the bug scare, we rode the Kali River Rapids, which we all enjoyed. I explained to Justin that whoever was facing backwards when the raft went over the falls would get extra drenched. And sure enough, he and I were in that position at just the wrong time. However, on the brink of wet disaster, the raft took one last spin, and some poor unfortunate soul across from us was doused instead.

A couple minor points from the ride -- as we were getting to the point that the FastPass lane merged in with the stand-by riders, some old man was seriously complaining about how long he had to wait in the stand-by line. I mean, he was really giving it to the CM that was controlling access, to the point where the CM brought over a supervisor, who was then read the riot act. Of course, my attitude was "if you don't want to wait, try getting a FastPass, you dope."

Secondly, one of the guys in our raft was carrying this huge backpack that he tried to cram in the "stay dry" area in the centre of the raft. Of course, it didn't fit, leaving the area cover flopping around. I was concerned that our stuff, which was on the other side, would get drenched, but when we got off the ride, I saw that there are actually two separate compartments, so that, while the dude's backpack was sopping, our goods remained dry.

The third major attraction (shows aside) in Animal Kingdom is "Dinosaur," which was "Countdown to Extinction" the first time we rode it, but was renamed to tie in to the forgettable Disney film (along with, I suspect, changing the target Dino to an Iguanodon). I'm not a huge fan of the ride, being a combination roller coaster (sort of,) simulator (that tosses you around) and a "dark ride" where stuff pops out to startle you. I was also wondering how Justin would fare, but when we got out of the building, both he and Jordan expressed a desire to get right back on it.

However, it was about time for the "characters and walkers with elaborate costumes” parade. No animals, though.

Once the parade had run its course, everyone wanted to go back to Dinosaur for another spin. I opted out and just sat at the exit by myself while everyone else rode. Once they'd come out, we decided that we'd seen about all we needed to see and headed for the exit.

Back at the hotel around 5pm, Kiersten and Jordan went swimming while Melissa and I looked after them. After a bit of that, we cleaned up and headed for Downtown Disney, where we had 7:30 reservations at Benihana's in the Hilton Hotel. Although we were on time, we waited and waited and waited to be seated. I think it was pushing 8:15 by the time we got a table. To occupy the crowds waiting for their reservations to be fulfilled, the restaurant has a "wall of fame" with pictures of famous people who ate there. I managed to name all of them (for some reason, they still have a picture of Michael Jackson up there) with the exception of Tom Hanks, who looked really Chinese in his photo, which really threw me off.

Our waitress / server was an old lady who was pretty brusk, but our chef, a huge guy named Masa, was hilarious and fun to watch. Perhaps not as acrobatic as some table chefs, but his personality more than made up for it. Kiersten had chicken and shrimp, I had steak and chicken, and the bill came to about $60.

We were scheduled to use one of our "plus features" to go to Pleasure Island tonight, so after dinner, we headed over to the clubs. We spent maybe fifteen minutes in 8-Trax, then headed up to the Comedy Warehouse for about 45 minutes of improv-comedy that was very good. But the long days were rather wearing, and no one seemed interested in making too late of a night of it, so we headed back to the hotel and were in bed by midnight.

Wednesday, 23 February
Well, this would be the day to end all days at the parks. When Disney first published park hours for the week that we were here, I noted with some dismay that the Magic Kingdom would be open until midnight for most of the week, a good sign that they expected it to be packed. But late nights at the park also means two parades, fireworks, and a reasonably less crowded last couple of hours. Well, it got a bit extreme when Disney announced the "extra evening hours" program, and we found out that tonight, the Magic Kingdom would be open until 3am, and we planned to stick it out as late as possible.

In spite of the long day ahead of us, it's foolish to not be at the Magic Kingdom when it opens, so I was up at 7am, and we got together at Everything Pop at 8. This would be the only time we took Disney transportation, as (with the exception of the MK) driving to the park is way faster than taking a bus. However, if you drive, you have to park and then take the Monorail or Ferry from the Ticket and Transportation Center to get to the MK while the bus drops you off right at the park-entrance. So it made sense to bus it.

We were at the park by about 8:30AM and stood around waiting to get in. Disney no longer (apparently) opens up Main Street early. We stood outside the turnstiles for a bit, then were waved through, only to be blocked about ten feet in. We waited here while Mayor McCheese (or whoever) welcomed us from the train platform, there was a bit of characters, and we were let in.

Once inside, we walked up Main Street, only to be blocked yet again by a rope and Cast Members at the bridge into Adventureland. That held us for about five minutes and then we had to follow the CMs (at a brisk walk, at least,) through Adventureland. We took the secret crossover into Frontierland ahead of the CMs leading other patrons from the hub; unfortunately, there was another armada of them blocking our way. Drat. Eventually, we made it to “The drop”!

A running gag with Kiersten and I is that whenever we're on a ride, when the picture is taken (typically, at a stressful moment,) I usually look bored instead of tense. So, I've taken to "posing" for some of these, Splash Mountain in particular. The first time down, I brought along a park map and pretended to be reading it as we went over the five story plunge. As it was Justin's only trip down, when we got to Splashdown Photos, I bought two framed copies of the picture, one for us, one for Justin and Melissa.

After buying the photos (and arranging to have them sent to our hotel), we went next door to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which Melissa, Kiersten and I rode with no wait. Melissa and Kiersten then rode it one more time without a wait, and we headed back to Splash Mountain where everyone but Justin rode it stand-by with a five minute wait and then again with our FastPasses. They've monkeyed around with the FastPass line, you now merge with the regular line further back, but it moved fast enough.

It was now about 10:30 and we decided to have lunch at Pecos Bill's, where K and I both had 1/4 pound hamburgers, fitted out from the toppings bar which included sautéed mushrooms and onions, among more standard fare. It ran the usual $16 for the two of us.

Having made a morning of five rides on the two Mountains on the west side of the park, the only remaining long wait was for the Jungle Cruise. After lunch we picked up FastPasses for it and then wandered back to the Pirates of the Caribbean (always a favorite). True to form, everyone liked it. In the gift shop at the exit, I bought two Pirates shirts for K and myself, sending them along to the hotel. Outside the gift shop, we ran into a couple of pirates.

Following Pirates, we headed across to the Haunted Mansion, which we saw with very little delay. Of course, once you know how the entrance rooms are set up, it helps to know where to stand for maximum speed. However, the queuing area to actually get on the Doom Buggies is pretty inefficient, funneling a crowd down to a single line, rather than having a true queue area which is a little more orderly. Those issues aside, the Mansion is one of my faves in the MK. Kiersten isn't a big fan but everyone else loved it.

Time now for the Jungle Cruise with our FastPasses, which led us past a 30 minute line and right onto the ride. The skipper was pretty good, handling both his lines and a few situational improvs (like Justin hitting his head on one of the speakers) with natural aplomb. After getting off the boat, we went over to the Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management) and waited about five minutes for the show to start. I liked it, but it was one of the few things we saw that Justin said he didn't care for.

It being a warm day, I had suggested earlier getting Dole Whips. For some reason, I remember them being a smoothie kind of thing rather than ice cream. So when we went over to Aloha Isle, we picked up floats (pineapple whip over pineapple juice) that were very good and refreshing. As we were getting those down, we stumbled across Timon and Rafiki by the bridge into Adventureland and snapped a few pictures. I miss the old days of chance encounters with characters like that. It seems so structured and scheduled now.

We headed over to Tomorrowland, swinging by the Castle on the way -- there is a bunch of construction going on in the central hub, so you're forced to go around. I had noted that Timekeeper was open (for the first time, since I’ve been there, in about five years) but wouldn't be open in the evening, so we took it in. I love the show, really miss it, and I have no idea why it isn't open more often (it must take two or three people to run it.)

The others also liked it, so I figured I'd press my luck and get them on the Carousel of Progress, which was also open in the "high season." Amazingly enough, they all liked that as well. I'm particularly fond of it, partially because it was something that Walt himself had a hand in.

After that, we headed out of the park and found our way to the Pop Century bus stop, thoughtfully located at the extreme far end of the bus park (dang near in the Contemporary parking lot!) As we walked up, I saw that there was no one waiting, which meant a healthy wait, and it was, indeed, 20 minutes before the bus pulled up. It was a pretty short ride back to the hotel, though. We got back to the room to find that the housekeeping staff had been having some fun.

It was about 3pm, and we were open until the 7:30 dinner reservation at the Polynesian Resort, so Justin and I took naps, Kiersten, Melissa and Jordan went swimming (K apparently came back to the room after about 30 minutes and took a nap, too -- news to me, I was dead to the world.) I woke up about six and got ready for a long night.

Because we were going to close down the Magic Kingdom, which, with a public closing of midnight, combined with Evening Extra Magic Hours, meant that we'd potentially be there until 3am, I suggested driving instead of taking the bus. When we got to the MK parking lot, we were able to park in the AAA Diamond Lot again (a good sign), then walked over to the TTC and along the walkway to Disney's Polynesian Resort.

The Poly is one of my favorite places in the world, and the evening walk reinforced that notion... soft tropical music, flickering Tiki torches, swaying palms...too bad I don't have a girlfriend. We walked through the grounds and looked over the place before getting to the Great Ceremonial House about 7:10. I checked in at the 'Ohana desk and the guy assured me that we'd be seated by our 7:30 Priority Seating time.

We went over to the connecting Tambu Lounge to wait for the buzzer to start going off, but some really selfish people (three groups) swiped all of the chairs in the joint, so only Kiersten was able to sit down in the lounge area (Melissa and Jordan had to sit at the bar.) Justin and I stood around and eventually walked around the second floor. I was disappointed to see that they'd really whacked up the plants in the lobby and the parrots were nowhere to be seen.

Back at the lounge, chairs were still in short supply, and there wasn't much to do other than watch a waitress named Shelly pour drinks and deal with the mob in the area. Finally, about 7:45, the pager went off and we headed back to the podium. We were walked to our table by the server, who picked up pineapple bread (delicious!) along the way.

Appetizers were next -- salad (I thought it was okay, Justin really seemed to like it), fried won-tons (very good), rice and green beans (so-so) and Honey Coriander Chicken Wings (excellent, and Melissa loved them). Because we had five people, we got extra bowls of everything, and by the end of the meal, had polished off everything but the rice and green beans.

Okay, the point of ‘Ohana is the skewers of meat roasted over the open flame. I'd talked up the place to Justin for months, he was totally psyched for the food, and it was probably the most anticipated meal of the trip. So much the disappointment, then… It started with beef, which was sorely undercooked. Justin and Jordan like their steaks well done, and this stuff was barely even cooked. So that was a dud.

Next up, turkey, excellent as usual. Then shrimp, "Grilled Tiger Shrimp," which Justin, Jordan and I skipped, but Kiersten and Melissa tried and reported being spicy but good.

Next up? Well, nothing. The server pretty much vanished at that point. I don't know if she went on break, got called away for an emergency, or realized that she'd kind of blown her tip already, but we didn't see her for about twenty minutes. Finally, some other guy wandered by, noticed that we were sitting there without food, and offered some steak off his skewers. Eventually, our server showed up again, asked if we wanted to get seconds of anything, and I commented that we'd never even received firsts on the pork, so she went off to find some.

Eventually, another guy came by with the pineapple chunks and caramel dipping sauce, which was excellent, and our server was quick enough with the checks. We got out of the Ceremonial House to see the fireworks on the beach with minutes to spare. Unbeknownst to us, it had rained while we were eating, and all of the beach chairs were soggy, so we just stood on the sand to watch the "Wishes" fireworks show over the Magic Kingdom (Kiersten went far enough to take her shoes and socks off and waded in the Seven Seas Lagoon.) I could have sworn that they piped the music in down there in the past, but nothing could be heard.

We all enjoyed the fireworks display (it was a little disjointed when viewed from that far away,) and watched a bit of the Electric Water Pageant, which starts up right after the fireworks ends. I've always been kind of fascinated by the water pageant, which is simply colored lights on floating barges making pictures while MIDI synthesizer music plays; I think it's because it's one of the few things at WDW that are a) free and b) relatively unchanged through the years.

Once we’d had enough of that, Kiersten rinsed off, and we headed for the Poly Monorail station. It wasn't particularly crowded, and the park didn't seem too bad either. We walked to the end of side streets.

I enjoyed 14

Since we'd pretty much run the gamut of the west side attractions earlier that day, we started off the evening festivities by walking over to Space Mountain, but a long wait time sent us over to the Tomorrowland Transit Authority instead. I later realized that we might have skipped Space Mountain unnecessarily, but there was no knowing at that time.

Like the Carousel of Progress, the TTA holds a special place in my heart. However, as I said to Justin, it's more of a sense of what it could have been than what it actually is. See, Walt believed that EPCOT (the experimental city, not the theme park) would use the TTA vehicles as public transit, and riding on it, particularly at night, evokes images of riding it home after a day of work in the experimental city. Kind of sad, really.

While on the TTA, we got the preview of Space Mountain, to which Jordan said "no way," and things still appeared to be pretty busy, so we walked up to Fantasyland under the belief that it would be less full, given that most little kiddies would long since be in bed. We stopped for a quick "spin" on the tea cups, Kiersten and I in one cup, Melissa and Jordan in another. Justin later said he got sick just watching K and me, as I was whipping it around at a pretty good clip. (Helpful note here: spin the cup until you're about to get sick then stop the spin and make it go the other way. You'll feel better.)

Trekking across Fantasyland, we popped into Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which Justin thought was pretty cool. Then we did Mickey's PhilharMagic 3-D show, which was great, but I am a little tired of getting sprayed with water on these sorts of things. Disney has one 3-D show in each park, and every one of them feels the need to wet you down a little.

Melissa and Jordan wanted to ride Cinderella's Golden Carrousel, Kiersten wanted to sit on a bench, and Justin and I went in search of someone, anyone, selling drinks. The downside to the late night touring is that most everything other than attractions and gift shops is closed. We finally found a drink cart in Frontierland that had soda. We hiked back to the Carrousel and met up with everyone, and headed back to Liberty Square.

Haunted Mansion was next, a total walk on, and we hit the doors right at the stroke of midnight. Aside from the queue area (which we spent no time in,) the experience is the same as during the day, although Jordan said one of the Cast Members was "stalking" him, asking him if he really wanted to be there, etc, and he talked about that for a while. Typical Disney magic!

We headed back to Frontierland, where we walked on Splash Mountain with no wait. Well, there was a slight wait, as we were about to get in our log when the doors stayed closed and three Cast Members got in the log from the other side. We referred to them as "executives," although they were probably just regular CMs, and they probably had something to do with the two five minute waits we endured during that ride. At Splashdown Photos, we saw that the "executives" were huddled behind towels on the drop, which generated some level of derision on our part.

A quick walk next door; where Kiersten, Melissa and I rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (which is a much different experience in the dark). I like it much better than the daytime. Next was Splash Mountain again, which Melissa and I were a bit tired of, so only Kiersten and Jordan rode (getting the 4th row.)

We walked back through Fantasyland, intending to go to Tomorrowland, but pick up stuff along the way. The wait-time for Peter Pan’s Flight said 20 minutes, so we passed that by. However, when we got to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, I could see that the sign said 20 minutes, but there was no one at all in line. Okay, I guess they don't bother updating the signs after some point. We walked on and rode, I was a little concerned that Justin might get sick with the "Tigger Bouncing" bit, but he was fine and said he enjoyed it.

Back to Tomorrowland, we sent Justin and Jordan off to the TTA, while the three of us went to Space Mountain -- ignoring the 30 minute wait sign, we hustled in, walked through the queue area (one of my favorites, they really did great themeing in there) and waited maybe five minutes in the loading area. The ride was the usual jostling around in the dark that I'm not a big fan of, but at least I was in the middle, which is the least jarring spot.

We rejoined Justin and Jordan, and walked onto Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. Kiersten apparently hit something cool really quick, because I looked over after the first room, and she was already over 200,000 points. I ended up with about 84,000 and everyone enjoyed it, but no one but Jordan wanted to go on it again. Ignoring his request, we headed back across the park, where I wanted to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, as we could safely ignore the wait signs.

On the way, Jordan and Melissa decided for another spin on the Tea Cups, so we held up there. Loading took a bit of time because a rather large lady trying to exit got stuck in the door of the cup. Literally stuck, couldn't go forward or back. The Cast Member just stood off to the side, watching her struggle -- I don't know if he didn't know what to do, was following a policy that said not to help stuck people, or what, but it seemed kind of un-Disney-like. Finally, she worked it out, her friends got out, and the CM started up the ride again.

Sure enough, there was no queue at all for Peter Pan, in spite of the reported 20 minute wait time posted. I love the sentimentality of the ride; everyone else seemed to like it as well.

As we walked out, I turned to Kiersten and asked if she'd do me a favor. "What?" she asked. I explained that one of the first things that she and I had ridden the first time at the Magic Kingdom when she was four was Dumbo, and would she ride it with me again? It had been probably eight years since we last went on it. She said "sure" and off we went. Jordan and Melissa rode as well. It was fun to ride with K again, although, like before, she raised the sucker up as high as it would go, and wouldn't go down until the ride forced us to.

Per Justin's request, we went back to Peter Pan’s Flight for one last ride. It was getting on towards 2:30am, so we walked through the Castle, heading for the exit. On the way, we stopped to take pictures of me with Chip & Dale. There were characters all over the Castle Forecourt, but no one else seemed too interested in stopping.

We finally got out of the park at 2:55am, but the silver Monorail had broken down on the Resort Line (the Express Line had probably been taken out of service around 1am), something about the doors not opening, and we had to wait until they got that off the track and brought in the red one. Combined with a stop at the Contemporary before getting to the TTC, it took about 15 minutes to get out of the park. We walked over to the car, only to realize about 50 feet from the car that the tram also runs over to the AAA Diamond Lot. Oh well, live and learn.

Back to the hotel and into bed by about 3:45am.

Thursday, 24 February
True to form, I wasn't able to sleep in too late -- I was up by 9:30am. Leaving Kiersten in slumberland, I headed up to Everything Pop with the intent of hanging out as long as I could stand it to let everyone sleep in. I bought a copy of the Orlando Sentinel (which they don't give you for free, like they used to in the Deluxe resorts,) filled the mug with coffee (oh, seven or eight times) and just sat around. About 11, I went into the gift shop and picked up the photos and t-shirts that I’d bought the previous morning, and headed back to the room.

Kiersten was up and ready to move by noon, but the other room was still sacked out for a bit, and we didn't leave the hotel until just before 2pm. Originally, this was slated to be an "open" day, with the water park Blizzard Beach a suggested activity. Unfortunately, although it had been quite warm earlier in the week (80-84 during the day,) Thursday was not shaping up to be a similar day -- it was overcast and cooler, in the 60s. So we opted for a return visit to Epcot instead.

Once past the gates (Kiersten's fingers finally worked in the reader this time,) we headed up to Spaceship Earth, which had a short waiting time. After Spaceship Earth we bypassed Innoventions, and got in line for the Universe of Energy, which had already started a show shortly before we arrived, and we had about a ten minute wait for the next one. Again, it helps to know what the deal with the doors and such is -- we walked into the pre-show area, scored benches on the far side of the room, and towards the end of the Ellen / Bill Nye bit, sidled up to the doors on the left side of the room, which managed to get us into front row seats in the centre vehicles.

Although the show and ride holds a little less interest the more times that you experience it, there's still enough detail in the dinosaur section to make it enjoyable, and everyone else seemed to like it. After that, we went over to the Wonders of Life pavilion and watched Cranium Command, always a pretty fun, although dated (how many people remember who Hans and Franz are now?) diversion. We skipped Body Wars, for its sickness inducing factor. We then headed next door and everyone but Justin rode Mission: Space. Jordan raved about it and Kiersten thought it was cool but a little unsettling.

While we had been on the Monorail the night before, Justin commented that he'd like to check out the Contemporary Resort in a little more detail, so while I was waiting this the morning, I went to the Pop Century Guest Services desk and made Priority Seating arrangements for 5:50pm at the Concourse Steakhouse. It being about that time, we walked out of Epcot, took the Monorail over to the TTC and transferred to the Resort Monorail and rode to the Contemporary. On the way, I actually saw two people walking on that long path that goes west from the Magic Kingdom to nowhere. I hope they realized that the path ended after a lengthy hike and didn't go through to the Grand Floridian.

We arrived at the Contemporary resort and did a bit of shopping before dinner (they have a nice pin trading stand), where Melissa bought a shirt for her Dad.

Back to the TTC via Monorail; then back to Epcot. We picked up "Extra Magic Evening" wristbands at the entrance, and walked through to the Imagination pavilion. We went into "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" (HISTA), but I saw that it was 17 minutes before the next show, so we ducked back out and rode the "Journey Into Imagination With Figment" ride. I've seen a number of different iterations of this ride, and I like them all. Simple, pleasant and innocent. Real Disney, if you ask me.

Back to HISTA, the wait was now down to 3 minutes and we pretty much headed right into the theatre. This was the last 3-D attraction to experience, and it is a lot of fun, but I keep my feet off the floor and in front of the water sprayer! Everyone else was a little creeped out by some of the effects, but found it amusing nonetheless.

Twas getting closer and closer to IllumiNations time so we bade farewell to Future World and crossed into World Showcase. We barely glanced around at the Canada or UK Pavilions, but I wanted to show Melissa the pastry shop in France. Sadly, there was a huge line just to get into the place, so I made do with a chocolate crepe from an outside vendor, while the others marched on to the American pavilion to pick up funnel cakes.

We carried the sweets back over to the Japanese Pavilion, where we had a pretty good view for the fireworks show starting a couple of minutes later. Although the sculpture out in the lake blocked a little bit of the view, it was much less restricted view than the one we'd had from the bridge Sunday night. The globe float took off from a dock quite near our spot, which was pretty cool.

Once the show ended, the park was only open for resort guests under the Evening Extra Magic Hours dealie, but it remained pretty busy. We waited about ten minutes to get on Maelstrom and then headed over to Test Track, the only "biggie" that was still on our to-do list.

The line for Test Track was pretty hefty, stretching outside quite a ways, and the sign said it was a 20 minute wait. Recalling the previous night's misadventures with the wait times, I went over to a Cast Member and asked how accurate that was, and she said it was about right. However, she said, the line would move pretty quickly because there were no FastPasses, so the stand-by line was it, aside from the singles line.

Not more than two minutes later, they opened up the FastPass distribution machines. I have no idea what prompted that, but I ducked out of line and grabbed passes to return at 10:40pm, then rejoined the others. True to form, it was indeed about 20 minutes before we got in our little cars. Justin didn't much care for the ride, so he sat and waited while we used our passes to ride it again. They'd shut down the pass distribution already at that point.

Over to Mission: Space, where Melissa, Jordan and I rode it by ourselves. Literally -- there was no one in any of the other capsules. In the briefing room, we danced around, 'cause there was no one but Gary Sinise paying attention. Last ride of the night, I liked it as much as before, although Melissa later admitted that she was a bit queasy after it. Justin and Kiersten were waiting in the shop for us. More shopping ensued. Outside, there was some poor girl getting very sick into a trash bin. Justin commented that he'd seen an awful lot of that during his waits.

We headed out before midnight and were back in the room and in bed by 12:30am.

Friday, 25 February
Well, you might recall way back there, I mentioned three problems with the AAA package we got, but only listed two. Here's the third. Thursday night before bed, I was reading some literature the Disney guys had given us when we checked in, and included was a description of the "Magic Your Way" passes. It noted that with seven day passes (which is what AAA was supposed to have obtained for us,) you got five "plus" passes (passes to water parks, Pleasure Island, etc,) and with six day passes, you only got four.

For some reason, the "four" stuck out in my mind, so I went up to Guest Services and asked how many days we had left on the park passes. Sure enough, the answer was "one." AAA had not "exactly" replaced the "length of stay" passes for us when they switched to MYW from Dream Maker. I broke the news to Justin and Melissa, and they decided that they'd leave right away in the morning on Saturday, so it wouldn't matter a whole lot to them. How Kiersten and I got by, well, you'll have to read Saturday's entry to find out.

So, it was our last day at the parks as a group, and I asked the others where they wanted to go, and the consensus was MGM, so we headed out and were there by about 10am. First sign of a problem were three packed school buses entering the park about the same time as we were. The second sign was some sort of "bass fishing demonstration" by the lake near the entrance. The third was mobs and mobs of people at the entrance, which was decked out with signs that said "ESPN Weekend."

Sure enough, Disney had scheduled some sort of major event at this already busy time of the year. Dad could watch the ESPN celebrities yak with sports guys while Mom and the kids packed the rides.

Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound... we headed over to Tower of Terror and, noting the line, simply picked up FastPasses and headed next door to the (shorter than it has been in the past) Beauty and the Beast show. Not up to the par of the Broadway version I saw in New York in 1999, but still well worth the time.

Back to the Tower of Terror, we picked up new FastPasses and used the previous ones to ride (with about a five minute wait). Everyone but Justin got on, and Jordan proclaimed the ride excellent. Really glad that he overcame his apprehensions and experienced most everything Disney had to offer. To underscore the point - he, Melissa and Kiersten went next door to the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and waited in the stand-by line for a ride.

During the 1/2 hour or so that they were doing that, Justin and I walked around Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, talked to the guy in the Disney Vacation Club booth (I'd be more interested in that if Kiersten were younger,) and saw some sort of "mini-parade" with some NBA caliber basketball players... I'd never heard of them, but I'm no fan of basketball, so aside from Shaq and Jordan, don't really know any of them.

Back to pick up the coaster riders, we shopped a bit in the Aerosmith store, where Jordan picked up a pin to commemorate his ride. We returned to the Tower of Terror; Melissa kept Justin company while I rode with the kids.

For lunch, I stopped at the PS reservations center and asked about the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater or the 50's Prime Time Café, but for a party of our size, all they could manage was two tables a couple of hours in the future, so we hiked over to the Backstage Restaurant where we had burgers and fries for about $18. It's next to the Star Tours attraction -- had I known it was there, we could have done that on Monday, rather than the ABC Commissary, which Justin still says was the worst meal ever.

On Monday, we'd missed almost everything in the Mickey Avenue area, so after eating, we headed back there. Picked up FastPasses for the Voyage of The Little Mermaid, contemplated "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It!" but it was retooled for the ESPN thing to be an all sports show, which I know nothing about, so it was passed by. On the way down the road, we happened upon a character greeting area with an interesting attraction.

There's some sort of stunt show coming in May, and they were rehearsing for that. The car drivers looked pretty "with it," but a couple of guys riding motorcycles looked like they were having a hard enough time just riding normally, much less doing any stunts. We killed a little time in the “picture by the Empire State Building" area, then worked our way back to the Voyage of the Little Mermaid, which, once again, seemed a lot shorter than I remembered it to be.

One last ride, we crossed the park for a final trip on Star Tours, which had about a ten minute wait. On the way over, we passed the ESPN stage in the center of the park, where they were doing some sort of live broadcast interview, and we got in the shot -- waving and making faces like every idiot you see in the background of such things. We left the park and walked out to the car, skipping the tram, which was not a great idea. In the morning, we'd kind of followed the tram route (skipping waiting for it because we wanted to beat all those people on the buses). But in the afternoon we tried to go directly, which wasn't as easy, due to a concrete barrier. We were back to the hotel about 6pm.

The last night was planned to spend at Downtown Disney, and we started out in the Marketplace, where much time (and money!) was spent in the World of Disney store. Bought a bunch of stuff for the house, including Mickey Mouse salt and pepper shakers -- I wanted stainless steel ones, but all I could find were ceramic, so I made do.

We continued walking through the outdoor mall, stopping in at stores that looked interesting. I'd read online about a store that sold every DVD published by Disney and kept looking in vain for it before finally asking someone and finding out it was "Once Upon a Toy," which we were right in front of. The selection was, to say the least, rather limited, but I asked a CM about it, and she showed me a catalogue of stuff that they had "in the back room." I asked if they had some sort of DVD burner set up back there, and she seemed rather put off by the suggestion, but I still think that's how they did it. In the end, however, neither the selection nor the prices were particularly attractive, and I got nothing.

There aren't a whole lot of dining options in the Marketplace, and we ended up at a new spot, the Earl of Sandwich, which is some sort of British fast food place. The sandwiches, however, were excellent, and the prices ($18 for dinner, a new low!) divine. After the meal, we walked back to about where the car was parked, but overshot the lot by a bit and had to wander around until we spotted the vehicle. Unlike the theme parks, while the Downtown Disney lots are very large and spread out, there are no "Dopey", "Space", "Stage" or other such demarcations to navigate by.

We drove over to the West Side and parked near Disney Quest, our last activity together. Kiersten and I had been to a DQ once before, in Chicago, and I wasn't really impressed at the time. This go around (which used one of our "plus" features,) we did the Virtual Jungle Cruise (without Melissa, who was playing with a Rubik's Cube that Jordan had bought) and Pirates of the Caribbean (yours truly piloted,) where we got the second highest ranking.

Kiersten and Jordan sequestered themselves in the second floor "Create Zone" while Justin, Melissa and I went up to the Cheesecake Factory Express on the fourth floor and had a snack. They had Internet terminals up there (with ultra lame keyboards) and we checked the following days' weather and road reports. We headed out (after yet another trip through a gift shop) and back at Pop Century shortly after 11pm.

Saturday, 26 February
Well, last day, and the usual morning procedures followed, except that we had the additional duties of packing up and putting everything that wouldn't fit in the suitcases into a couple of bags for Justin and Melissa to drive back to North Dakota for us. They came by about 8:30 to pick up the stuff and say goodbye. Kiersten was in the shower but shouted a "bye and drive safe" to them, while I chose the somewhat more personal approach of walking them out to their car.

It had been a pretty long week, and with the ticket issue, I was willing to forego one last day in the parks for an early return to Minneapolis. After talking it over with Kiersten, I rang up Sun Country to see if we could get an earlier flight. Alas, the numbers of people fleeing the ESPN Weekend must have been pretty high, as I was told that all flights that day were sold out. So, we'd have to tough it out with one more day of fun.

Okay, as to tickets, when we were here in 2003, I'd bought 7-day Park Hopper passes online and there were a couple of days' access still on them, but they had vanished shortly after returning to Grand Forks. I had mentioned that to Justin before we came down to Florida, so when I found them in the camera case the first day at Epcot, I made a point to comment on it. As things turned out with the AAA ticket botch-up, it saved us $100 or so (although, in truth, had we not had the old passes, I'd have opted for a non-park day, either going to the water parks or, more likely, Disney Quest.)

There is no longer any checkout process at Disney -- they hang a bill on your door the morning you leave and (unless you have any issues) that's it, you're done. We dragged the luggage over to the check-stand in Classic Hall (it's in the front of the building, just to the right of the front door), and went to the bus stop for the Magic Kingdom. There was a bus already there, but also a hefty line and it turned out that the bus had broken down. Another one showed up a short time later, along with a service vehicle, but the line was long enough to fill the new arrival before we could board, and we had to wait again, about ten minutes.

We got to the park at 10am, and the huge lines at the entrance didn't bode too well for us, but we got in quickly enough, without the "Mayor" holding things up again. Our old passes were accepted without question, I'm not even sure that they were re-registered with the finger biometrics. We quickly headed over to Frontierland and did the old "FastPass Splash w/FastPasses" bit.

While in the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (which had a healthy line, about 25 minutes,) we met up with about 15 high school boys who were pretty boisterous and loud. They kept making chants about their school ("Columbus," I guess) which was kind of fun, but got annoying in a hurry. They ended up getting the whole train that we exited (probably no one else would ride with them!)

We had lunch at Pecos Bill's again, this time they had nacho cheese on the topping bar, which made the french fries a bit more tasty. Unfortunately, even though it was only about 11am, the place was stuffed to the gills with more high schoolers, these all wearing red "America Sings" t-shirts. We stumbled into those guys throughout the day at the MK.

After eating, Kiersten stopped at a ring carver and placed an order for a silver ring with "Kierie" carved in the top, for about $28. The guy said that it would be ready about 2pm. While waiting, we rode Pirates of the Caribbean with a 20 minute wait, in line behind an old guy, his young(er) wife and their two impatient kids, and ahead of four really irritating South Americans. One of them had a t-shirt that insulted the United States, and they all were talking so loud that it was uber-annoying.

We then picked up the last Adventureland attraction of interest, the Swiss Family Treehouse. One of our traditions is to watch "Swiss Family Robinson" before heading to Florida, which we did the week before leaving. The Treehouse is much more interesting if you've recently seen the film -- I don't know that I'd even recommend the climb if you haven't. This go-round, the thing was plenty full of people, but we got through it at a reasonable pace.

Kiersten requested another Timekeeper. We walked into the hall just as the doors for the previous show were closing.

While we waited, I talked with the CM running the show, and he said he was a big fan of it, too, and didn't know why Disney doesn't keep it open more often. He said that it takes two CMs to run it, as opposed to "Stitch's Great Escape," which requires 15, and Space Mountain, which needs 50 people to operate!

As we were sitting on the floor, a little girl (maybe 5 or 6) came up to me and asked if I would trade pins with her. I said "sure" and asked her what she wanted. She pointed to the big "Chip and Dale 2005" pin that Melissa had found for me and asked what I wanted. I said I just like Chip and Dale or Donald Duck and she showed that she had a "Donald Duck in the Wise Little Hen" pin. So I gave her the Chip and Dale, and she started to walk off without giving me the Donald back. But she remembered and gave over the pin. Kiersten said that she kept asking her Mom if she could come over and trade with me again, but her Mom kept saying "no" (which was good, 'cause I didn't want to give up anything else!)

Finally, we got in to the show, which was excellent, as always. After it was over, I went up and asked the CM (same guy as before) why the LED hadn't been updated to 2005. He said that was because of the scene in New York, where you can still see the World Trade Centre, so it will always say 2000. I guess that, when we were there in 2001 and the LED read 2001 (as I recall,) we were one of the last to see that. Amazing all the little changes an event like that cascades over to.

The afternoon parade was getting ready to start, so we stuck to the east side of Main Street and made it to the exit with little delay. Well, there was a short delay when we stopped in the Main Street bakery and bought snacks which we ate in the store.

For fun, I decided to time how long it takes to get from the MK to Epcot. We went through the turnstiles promptly at 3pm, and two Monorail rides later, were walking in the Epcot gates at 3:25pm. On the way, an old man (about 75) challenged Kiersten to a race up the Monorail ramp and beat her handily. He razzed her about that for a bit, and I helped, but his companions kept saying "yeah, but he'll be sore tonight!"

At Epcot, we walked onto water.

We stopped by a pin store between the two Innoventions buildings, where I was skunked on my Meeko search yet again. I looked him up in the computer they had there, he wasn't even listed, so I figured it was a lost cause. I did pick up a replacement for my Chip and Dale pin, though, along with a limited edition "President's Day 2005" pin, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we were there during the holiday.

One last spin on Spaceship Earth (yet another tradition) and we headed for the exit. We waited about 15 minutes for the bus back to Pop Century, amusing ourselves with watching the buses and a semi attempt to negotiate the parking lot. Back at the resort, we saw that they had some sort of "Pin Trading Night" going. There was a "kids only" section and I sent Kiersten in to see if there was a Meeko pin (the CMs have a big board with probably 150 pins that the kids can choose from, one at a time, five trade maximum.) No Meeko, but she got herself a "James and the Giant Peach North Dakota" pin that we both agreed was pretty cool.

I got our bags back from the luggage guys and we dragged them into Everything Pop to kill the last hour. Kiersten went up and got breaded chicken pasta that she said was "ok" and I got a chili dog. As I was paying for it, the CM asked if I had participated in "the Hustle" dance that had just happened, and when I said no, she said "well, come back tomorrow at 6pm to do it," to which I said I'd be in North Dakota the next day at six, and she said "sorry." There was nothing more to say to that...

After she finished her meal, I sent K over to the "Pin Trading Fan Boy" section (no other name fits,) which was full of people which huge binders stuffed with pins. She wanted to know whether a couple of the weird ones she'd found were worth anything, and I said if anyone would know they would. I also suggested that she keep an eye out for a Meeko pin. She came back a few minutes later to say that there was a guy who had a Meeko and would trade for it. I went with her, and when the guy asked to see my pins, he said the only one he didn't have was the "Donald Duck Wise Little Hen" pin the little girl at Timekeeper had given me earlier that day. So I guess all things have a purpose.

We finished our meal and at about 7pm we dragged the luggage out to the loading area where, although we'd specifically told Tiffany to pick us up at 7:20pm, our driver awaited. During the drive to the airport, I called Melissa, who reported that they were in Chattanooga, TN, and would be stopping before too long (later found out that they made it to Paducah, KY.)

At the airport, everything was smooth sailing, Kiersten even noted how much more friendly the TSA people were in Florida, as opposed to Minneapolis. While going through my pockets, I came across a "free coke" bottle cap the Disney vendors had refused to honor, and which would be worthless in North Dakota, so I gave it to one of the TSA guys. Hope he didn't think I was trying to bribe him or something.

After we took the Monorail to the correct terminal, I found a Wi-Fi hotspot, so I let Kiersten mess around on the Internet while we waited. Sadly, I felt the need to get nearer the gate as the departure time neared, so off we went, only to learn that the incoming flight was 40 minutes late and we sat around for a long time.

The flight back wasn't a load of fun -- I can't sleep on a plane, so in spite of being exhausted and having an outbreak of that itchy skin I sometimes get, I just sat there for three hours. We landed about 12:15am, found Dad in the pick-up area, and, after getting the luggage from the flakey carousel (Kiersten figured out what was wrong, but I told her not to monkey with it, and we had to wait for airport technicians to come push the button.) We were in bed by 1am.

Sunday, 27 February
Not much to report, aside from the trip back to Grand Forks being fine until we got to Moorhead, when the roads suddenly turned sour and it was slow and slippery the rest of the way. Justin and Melissa got back here on Monday about 5pm, and reported the way all-clear.

Summary

Sun Country Airlines
Well, they've got a 0% on-time record with me, but putting that aside for the moment, Kiersten and I both agreed that the personnel were far better than Northwest staff, and using the Humphrey Terminal in Minneapolis rather than the big Lindbergh one was a great improvement. Couple that with picking up tickets on short notice (five days) for about $350 a ticket, and I'm one happy customer. Just wish they'd learn to get their planes off the ground on time.

Tiffany Town Cars
Again, they came though on short notice, but I'm not sure that it was worth the cost. Counting the tips, it was $120 for a round trip from the airport. And, in spite of several requests, the guy still showed up at 7PM rather than 7:20 (which was fine, but indicates a possible problem.) I think that in the future, assuming that Disney gets their Magical Express bit going, I'll opt for that.

Disney's Pop Century Resort
Okay, now I've stayed off-site, and on-site in Deluxe, Moderate and Value resorts. On the whole, I prefer staying on-site -- the surroundings and how you're treated overcomes the shortcomings.

That said - I'm not so sure that Pop Century will be on my list of resorts to stay at in the future. The lack of basic amenities like towels at the pool, facial tissues that cost more than two cents a pound, and a decent sized room, combined with a resort that's so large it overwhelms its facilities like the pools and food court, makes the value a bit less so.

My biggest complaint was with the food court, which was noisy, crowded and messy most of the times that I went in there. The drink stations were covered with spills and garbage, even in the middle of the afternoon. Not to say that that was a quieter time, since the place was still packed. Of course, the food was pretty mediocre, although the four different food stands gave you plenty of choices (it was kind of confusing, though, as they had "featured items", and then "additional items" that you could opt for, assuming that you noticed them.)

All told, I think it would be worth the extra $50 a night to go for the moderate resort if you expect to spend much time at the resort or will be eating more than a quick meal here and there. In an instance like this, where we basically only came to the place to pass out at the end of a long day, it worked out fine.

Disney at a busy time
I've been to WDW at a variety of times during the year, and this would have to rate up there as one of the busiest. There's a trade-off in touring that you get with crowd levels -- when there aren't a lot of people, the parks close early; conversely, when the parks are busy, they stay open later. However, that's not true at Epcot or Animal Kingdom, which keep to the same hours all the time, regardless of crowd level (Evening Extra Magic Hours notwithstanding.)

On the whole, I'll take the crowded time with longer hours, I think. It enables you to leave the park mid-day and come back later, and ensures that the nighttime activities (like the MK fireworks and parade, or Fantasmic) will be running while you're there. The only caveat is the Evening Extra Magic Hours (see below) -- if that's year round, and they do have the nighttime stuff, I'd think the low time would be fine.

Evening Extra Magic Hours
Based on our two experiences (MK - 12am to 3am; Epcot 9pm to midnight,) I'd have to say that we had mixed results. The MK night was fantastic -- we rode tons of stuff with little or no wait. The Epcot night was quite the opposite -- even at closing the park felt mobbed, and we only rode four things, two of which (Maelstrom and Mission: Space) weren't all that busy even during the day.

My observation would be that the morning hour is better because it requires people to actually get up and get to the park -- in the evening, they can just continue hanging out until they get tired or bored. Although more attractions are open during the evening, I think that the sheer numbers of people who are still in the park can overwhelm that. Only in the instance of the ultra late MK evening did the numbers diminish significantly because, let's face it, you have to be pretty hard core (and without little kids) to hang in the park after midnight.

So I guess that the jury's still out on this.

As an aside, I would have to say that if I skipped a bunch of attractions in the Magic Kingdom that night because the signs were reporting a long wait where none existed, I would be pretty ticked off. I don't know if it was intentional (although, given the fact that ALL signs were wrong, I would suspect that it is) but it's really not a nice thing to do.

Thanks...
Special thanks to Sheila, Kevin and Steve for keeping an eye on the cats while we were gone. And extra special thanks to Justin, Melissa and Jordan for sharing the adventure! We all had a great time!

Dale Jensen
adjensen@aatrix.com

 


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