The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Small Wondersby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Fond memories of special times can create all sorts of emotional attachments. It's not too surprising that nostalgia plays a big role in the attachment many guests feel for the Vacation Kingdom of the World. What is surprising is that it's so strong, even in the very young. While planning our next sojourn to our "laughing place," my six-year-olds were adamant that we revisit attractions that, quite frankly, I thought they might have outgrown.
The following attractions are still on their "must-see" lists, and with good reason. These experiences are entertaining for the whole family.
Disney's Hollywood Studios: Disney Junior – Live on Stage!
Located in the Animation Courtyard area of Disney's Hollywood Studios inside a large building known as Soundstage 5, this puppet show features the stars of popular Disney Junior preschool shows. Audience members sit on the carpeted floor of this theater and are encouraged to sing, clap, and dance along with their friends from The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Sofia the First, Doc McStuffins, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates. While sitting on the floor at a puppet show may not sound very appealing to the grown-ups in your party, the show is appropriately brief for pre-school attention spans, and the benefits of watching the delighted looks on the faces of the kids more than outweighs any uncomfortable seating.
The storyline follows Mickey and his friends as they plan a birthday party for Minnie Mouse, with the help of the Disney Junior characters, a live cast member named Casey, and the audience. Along the way, the Clubhouse friends visit Neverland, Enchancia, and Doc McStuffins' clinic to enlist help for Minnie's big party. Guests sing and dance along with the show as confetti, bubbles, and even gold doubloons fall from the sky.
I foolishly assumed that my kids might want to skip this show this year, but I was wrong. It was right up there with Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular on their lists, and I'm glad that it is still a favorite.
Epcot: The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros
The addition of Donald Duck, Jose Carioca, and Panchito to the original El Rio del Tiempo in 2007 was very controversial. For the first time, Disney characters were incorporated into a World Showcase attraction, setting an unfortunate precedent that continues as Anna and Elsa prepare to take over the Maelstrom in nearby Norway. Nonetheless, we find this relaxing little boat ride pleases everyone in our family. Located inside the pyramid behind the charming marketplace, the original attraction focused on traditional Mexican Indian dances representing historic periods and locations from Mexican history. The present attraction, The Gran Fiesta Tour, added animated scenes of Donald and his fine-feathered friends from South America, Jose Carioca, and Panchito. Accompanied by music from the 1944 film The Three Caballeros, this reimagined version features animation by Eric Goldberg and includes a "Where is Donald Duck?" storyline that can be a little tiresome for grown-ups. For kids, however, it's all fun and laughs.
While the kids laugh at Donald's antics and help Panchito and Jose look for their friend, grown-ups can appreciate the fine hand-drawn animation, the catchy music, and the original attraction's scenery that is pretty much intact. Recommended for guests of all ages, this little boat ride is a must-see for my kids that they have yet to outgrow.
Disney's Animal Kingdom: The Boneyard
I always resented playgrounds built at Walt Disney World Resorts and especially inside its theme parks. After all, didn't Walt's disappointment with kiddie parks, places that offered nothing for parents and children to enjoy together, inspire Disneyland? That attitude existed before I had children of my own.
There's something to be said about places designed for small children to run, climb, jump, and slide. After standing in long lines, patiently waiting at table service restaurants, and enduring many reminders to "walk, not run," children need time to vent their pent-up energy. The Boneyard is one of Walt Disney World's best playgrounds.
Located inside Dinoland U.S.A., the Boneyard is themed to an archeological dig, complete with a large sandy area where kids can dig for dinosaur bones and grown-ups can sit in the shade. There are rope bridges, a plethora of cleverly designed slides, some winding tunnels, and plenty of places to climb. The area is designed with safety in-mind; the ground is covered in a thick, cushy safety mat and there are always many Cast Members around to encourage safe play.
There are some disadvantages to the Boneyard. One is that it gets very hot in the summer months, so come prepared with hats and water. It's also a very large area, and even though some of the slides' entrances are side-by-side, they empty out in far-flung places, often on different levels. Our first visit here was also our first—and thankfully only—moment of separation. Even though the separation only lasted a matter of minutes, and a friendly Cast Member immediately took my lost son's hand, it was scary.
Even though this area is located near my least favorite area of any Disney theme park—Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama—we have found memories of our little ones romping here and plan to stop by and reminisce this year.
Magic Kingdom: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Based on the beloved stories of British author A. A. Milne and the Walt Disney animated films inspired by these stories, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a charming attraction imagined in the long traditional of Disney dark rides. Guests ride large "hunny pots" as they join Winnie the Pooh and his friends on a journey through the Hundred Acre Woods.
This is a perfect first attraction for very small children. Guests enter a storybook world, complete with bigger-than-life pages covered with words and illustrations. Colorful characters abound on our journey through a very Blustery Day; little Roo hangs onto his scarf as he blows about like a kite, words plow off the pages, and Owl's house rocks precariously in the wind. We also get to bounce with Tigger, a section of this attraction that is a favorite scene for most kids.
Soon, the blustery day turns into a stormy night, complete with mild thunderstorm effects and a recreation of Pooh's nightmare about Heffalumps and Woozles. This scene was a little disconcerting for my kids when they were two, but by redirecting them to look for shapes and colors, they made it through with flying colors; they even cried when it was over because they wanted to go again. A happy ending, complete with cake and ice cream, ends our stay in the Hundred Acre Woods.
One highlight of this attraction is the inclusion of songs and underscoring from the original films. These classics written by Richard and Robert Sherman have become such an integral part of our collected childhoods that they evoke strong memories for grown-ups and create new ones for younger visitors.
Longtime Magic Kingdom fans might be surprised that this attraction is included here; after all, it replaced the much-loved Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Personally, I prefer this newer attraction to the original. As much fun as it was careening through the countryside Mr. Toad lacked the charm and whimsy of Winnie the Pooh. Disney fans also mention that the Tokyo version of this attraction is more innovative and complex than the Magic Kingdom version. For most of us, however, this is the version we will experience with our children, and that's okay. It seems no matter how much my sons enjoy the exciting thrills of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, no visit to the Magic Kingdom is complete without a visit with the silly, willy, nilly old bear.
It's easy to assume that as the kids get older, they will be interested only in thrill rides and want to pass on the simpler pleasures of their younger days. I realized this year that I was wrong to assume that. Just as childhood favorites like Peter Pan's Flight and Dumbo continue to enchant adults who remember them fondly from their childhoods, these newer attractions hold special places in the hearts of today's kids, and in the hearts of their parents as well.