The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Giving Thanksby Tom Richards, contributing writer
As we approach the end of November and anticipate the arrival of another Thanksgiving Day, I think it appropriate to give thanks for some of the many wonders of Walt Disney World. After all, the Vacation Kingdom of the World brings much joy to countless people. Many of us spend a little time each day reminiscing about previous vacations or planning upcoming visits.
I must admit that I am more than a little sentimental during the holidays. For example, before Thanksgiving dinner I ask family members to each share something for which they are especially thankful. My immediate family willingly accepts my idiosyncrasies and plays along with me. Last year, however, one of my cousins scoffed, reminding me that this "is not an Osmond Family Christmas special." Be that as it may, I persist in my sentimental ways during the holidays.
In much the same way, I am sentimental during visits to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. These places hold great meaning for me, and as a result, I like to savor every minute and make the most of each visit. So—if you will indulge me—I offer several of the wonders of the World for which I am particularly thankful this year.
Walt Disney Resorts
One of the differences between Disneyland and Walt Disney World is, as Walt Disney himself foretold, the "blessing of size." Until relatively recently, Disneyland remained a self-contained destination. Now, of course, Disney has expanded the "Disneyland Resort" to include three resorts, Disney California Adventure, and a Downtown Disney area as well.
At Walt Disney World, however, resorts were part of the initial plan. At Roy Disney's insistence, Walt Disney Productions took control of the resorts—the Polynesian Village, the Contemporary, and the Golf—from U.S. Steel before the opening in 1971. These resorts, with their elaborate theming, their attention to detail, and their incredibly high standard of guest service, became the touchstones for all the resorts that followed. My family and I have had many fortunate opportunities to enjoy resorts throughout the world, some of the finest during work-related convention stays. We have found, however, that no one creates inviting spaces quite like Disney. As a result, the Walt Disney World Resorts deserve their overwhelmingly positive reputation.
The casual elegance of the Grand Floridian never fails to impress, the Polynesian's waterfall and greenery always welcome, the energy of the Contemporary continues to set hearts racing, and the remoteness of the Wilderness Lodge beckons. There's the colorful fun and tropical flair of the Caribbean Beach Resort; the meandering paths around, over, and through Port Orleans create their own special sort of Disney magic. The nostalgia of the Yacht and Beach clubs is cozy, and the once-in-a-lifetime feel of the Animal Kingdom Lodge cannot be matched.
Another one of the marvels of Walt Disney World, and one that puts me instantly in the "Disney zone," is the monorail system. There is nothing like that first monorail sighting as it glides almost soundlessly along its sleek track.
The Walt Disney World monorail system is an assault on the senses. There's the quiet sound of the wheels whirring along the cement rail; the strangely comforting voice of the announcer; the calming warning bells of the automatic doors opening and closing. The smell of the air conditioning unit, the sound of the airlocks releasing the doors, the feel of the cool aluminum handrail, even the feeling of the vinyl seat cushions all signal a return to a Disney created world.
The Walt Disney World monorail system track traverses though and around some of the most wondrous sites of the Walt Disney World property. The Magic Kingdom loop, of course, offers striking views of the glistening spires of Cinderella Castle, the delicate lights lining the Main Street buildings, and the other-worldly presence of Space Mountain. There's also the thrill of stopping at each of the resorts along the way: the lush inviting greens of the Polynesian Resort; the gingerbread woodwork of the Grand Floridian; and the truly unique experience of entering the Contemporize Resort and passing the Mary Blair tile mural that graces the center of this classic Disney vision of the future.
The Epcot loop, on the other hand, offers less to see as it makes its way from the Transportation and Ticket Center to Walt Disney World's second theme park. That is not to say that the ride is unimpressive. In many ways, this loop showcases the extensiveness of the property in the best possible way. There's that thrill of realizing that one man—Walt Disney—acquired this vast amount of land. For first time visitors, the idea that the Walt Disney World property is really this vast can be quite mind-blowing.
As the monorail begins its approach to Epcot, Spaceship Earth hovers in the distance. The loop through Future World is wonderful, especially at night when Disney's knack for atmospheric lighting shines. Even in the bright sun, the pavilions and extensive gardens are quite lovely from the monorail vantage point. World Showcase beckons with the romance and adventure of international travel, and the pavilions are inviting and mysterious from this distance. Then there's the monorail station—the design of which echoes the colors and shapes of nearby Spaceship Earth—offering an appropriately sweeping entrance to a truly unique and inspiring theme park.
While the most recent area of Walt Disney World's first theme park have been greeted with less than enthusiastic reviews, I find much to like about the newest additions to the Magic Kingdom landscape. For starters, there's the literal landscaping. With the possible exception of Adventureland, this new area is the Magic Kingdom's most lush, most shaded, and most inviting area. The inclusion of mature trees enhances the experience immeasurably; the water features and the rolling hills truly transport guests to the "once upon a time" locations of the classic Disney stories. The entire Beauty and the Beast area is lovely, the shops and restaurants a welcome addition, and the interactiveness of Enchanted Tales with Belle an entertaining experience. The Journey of the Little Mermaid area is visually striking, and while the attraction itself is simply a modern take on the classic "dark ride" concept that dates back to Disneyland's opening days, it offers an entertaining and fun retelling of a favorite Walt Disney Feature Animation film with one of the best scores in modern Disney history.
The Storybook Circus also provides ample space for families with small children to explore and enjoy, and no expense was sparred when making this area visually inviting and aesthetically pleasing.
The Main Street Electrical Parade
Nothing new here, I know, but this chestnut seems to grow better with age. This classic experience has evolved somewhat through the years; after all, the current incarnation was imported from Disneyland. As a result, some of the scenes—such as the glorious Peter Pan scene and the somewhat odd Pleasure Island scene—are new to East Coast visitors. The soundtrack has been tweaked a bit, and the introductory narration omits a few things that longtime fans will notice. Nonetheless, when the Main Street lights go off and the music blares from the Magic Kingdom's sound system, a palpable thrill ripples through the lines of spectators. The Main Street Electrical Parade is a timeless classic that continues to delight the young, and the young at heart.
Illuminations: Reflections of Earth
There's a soft spot in my heart for all things Epcot, and the nightly presentation of this classic show pretty much encapsulates the myriad reasons why I love Epcot. The most elemental, pure, Epcot ideal is also one of Disney's most appealing: the universality of human experience. This theme, once so eloquently expressed in classic attractions such as Spaceship Earth, Horizons, and the American Adventure, comes to fruition in the moving spectacle of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.
From the opening narration—"We've gathered here tonight around the fire, as people of all lands have gathered for thousands and thousands of years before us, to share the light and to share a story -- an amazing story, as old as time itself, but still being written. And though each of us has our own individual stories to tell, a true adventure emerges when we bring them all together as one." to the closing lyrics of the song "We Go On"—this epic show leaves guests feeling peaceful, invigorated, connected, and amazed. Never have the combination of pyrotechnics, water, words, music, and lyrics been used in such a meaningful way at Walt Disney World.
As you gather with friends and family this week, may you enjoy the blessings of a warm and meaningful Thanksgiving. Also, please feel free to join the conversation by adding the Walt Disney World experiences for which you are most thankful.
And by the way:"May tomorrow be a perfect day—may you find love and laugher along the way. May God keep you in His tender care, 'till He brings us together again."
"Illuminations: Reflections of Earth" Introduction c1999.
"May Tomorrow Be a Perfect Day" by Alan Osmond, Wayne Osmond, and Merrill Osmond c. 1976