My Disney Top 5 - Observations From My Most Recent Trip to Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
I've always hated saying goodbye to summer. As I sit here and type away in my sunroom, there are only a few more official days of summer left. It's still plenty warm here in New York, but the days are getting shorter, school's back in session and there are mums and pumpkins for sale everywhere. As I bid the summer of 2018 farewell, I'm left with many fond memories, the biggest of which, as you might imagine, was my big trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday this past July. I gathered 27 of my closest friends and family down at Disney's Yacht Club Resort for 8 days of magic and silliness and we all had an amazing time for sure.
On this particular trip, we had many Disney first-timers along for the ride. They ranged in age from my cousin's 3-year-old boy Leslie, to two of my 19-year-old daughter's best friends, Syd and Julie to, perhaps most significantly, my 58-year-old brother Michael, who was finally convinced to come down to Orlando to see what all the fuss was about. Watching Walt Disney World unfold for little Les was wonderful and reminded me of seeing my own kids experience Disney for the first time so many years ago. It was even more fun, however, to watch my brother slowly develop that silly "I'm at Disney" grin on his face after, at long last, spending some time tooling around the most magical place on Earth with his little brother. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.
Typically, after a big trip to Walt Disney World, what I like to do here on MousePlanet is list some of the things that were new or have changed since my last visit in an attempt to keep you readers both entertained and informed by my observations. This trip was no different. I was down there twice in 2018, the big trip over the summer and a short trip in March as a school chaperone. But, we actually skipped Disney in 2017, so there were things that I finally got around to experiencing on this past summer trip, things that I deeply miss from just a few short years ago that aren't there anynore and things that were brand new and thrilling to see for the first time. I could fill several lists with observations from this summer, but as always, I have to narrow it down to just a few. So that said, let's take a look at my Top 5 observations from my most recent trip to Walt Disney World.
5 - Minnie Vans Can Save the Day
A few years back, after an exhaustingly fun day storming the Disney parks, we were back at the Yacht Club taking a nighttime swim in the quiet pool with one of our favorite Disney companions, Laura, and she made the following observation, "I'm surprised that Disney doesn't have a more personal transportation option for people who are willing to pay a little extra for that kind of service." We all agreed that sometimes at Disney, you just want or need to get someplace a little bit quicker than you can when you are using the Disney Transportation System. It's a shame she couldn't have patented that idea because not too long afterwards Disney rolled out a fleet of polka dot covered SUV's called Minnie Vans and started doing just that. I used them just once in this past trip and it was hands down, one of the best $20 I've spent on Disney property.
My brother only had 3 nights to spend with us on this, his first trip to Walt Disney World. Imagine trying to cram in all there is to see in 4 days and 3 nights. Not too easy a task. I crafted a plan that would show him as much as he could see and made sure that he saw things that I knew he would get a kick out of. The two of us are both huge Star Wars fans, so I knew he had to see the Star Wars Galactic Spectacular over at Hollywood Studios. We planned to see it on his final night, but we also had plans to spend that same day over at Animal Kingdom. We could only get FastPasses for Avatar: Flight of Passage around 6:00 PM that evening. So, our plan was to, hopefully, be blown away by Avatar, get something to eat and then head over to the studios in time for the big show. Long story short, after about 10 different things happened and got in our way, we found ourselves back at The Yacht Club with less than 30 minutes to go until showtime. Running over on the path wasn't an option considering the sticky July swelter not to mention my bad knee. The Friendship Boats were the other option, but in reality, by the time we got down to the dock, waited for the boat, made the other stop, got through security and made our way down Hollywood Boulevard, we were pretty confident we'd walk in mid show at best. So, I quickly took out my phone, booked a Minnie Van on the Lyft app and in less than two minutes our driver arrived. In less than 15 minutes my brother and my twin boys and I were stationed just off to the right of the Chinese Theater waiting to have our collective Star Wars minds blown away by this incredible show. If not for the Minnie Vans, which can get you closer than the standard, albeit cheaper Lyft or Uber, we would not have had that awesome moment together.
We're big fans of Disney Transportation. What they do down there ferrying the thousands of guests around the massive property is pretty unbelievable. We use it all the time. I have no interest in ever renting a vehicle down there and driving myself around, not while I'm on vacation and Disney will do it for me. But sometimes, as we all said around the pool that night, you just need to get somewhere faster. I can't see myself doing it that frequently, but using the Minnie Van service that night was, once again, completely worth every penny. It's good to know it's there as an option.
4 - Wishes vs. Happily Ever After
I have to say that in all the years of writing about Walt Disney World, I rarely, if ever, go negative. Along with Disney, I pay attention to two other online fan communities, those dedicated to Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead. I'm always shocked at just how much bashing the fans of these three legendary entities dole out once they log on to a computer. Seriously, I consider myself blessed that after all these years I'm still able to see Bruce and members of the Dead play music live. It's still as good as it ever has been for me. The same goes for Disney. Who am I to pick apart every move the Walt Disney Company makes? I'd much rather just thank them for all the magic they've given me over the decades and continue to give me on a daily basis. That said, the next two entries on my list are a little negative, especially for me. But this is an observation based Top 5 and these are the things that stuck with me most on this past trip so they must be said. And what must be said is, from my point of view, I'm not 100% sold on Happily Ever After being the replacement to Wishes as the nighttime fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom.
Let's start by saying that Happily Ever After is pretty impressive. The projection and the fireworks are stunning and the inclusion of such "forgotten" Disney classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules are two extremely well deserved additions. I think the problem for me is that we had such a personal connection to Wishes. Several years ago, my wife Diane and I renewed our wedding vows in the rose garden in front of Cinderella Castle just as Wishes began to explode overhead. It's hard to get more personal than that. But, yet, it can and it does. Years before that we lost our best friend Robert. Robert loved Disney and going to Walt Disney World. But most significantly, he loved Jiminy Cricket. The first time we saw Wishes after Robert's death and we heard Jiminy's voice...well...I don't have to tell you what it meant to us. So, I guess the loss of Wishes is a real blow to us on a very personal level.
But, pushing those extremely personal feelings aside, after talking about it with my daughter afterwards, we both agreed on one thing. There was a consistent feeling to Wishes that seemed to grab us right out of the gate and it didn't let go until it was over, and we felt this way long before Diane and I renewed our vows and Robert passed away. We agreed there were definite peaks during Happily Ever After - the stunning beauty of the Tangled lanterns projected on the castle, the inclusion of Quasimodo "climbing" the castle to the deeply moving song Out There are two lump in your throat moments for sure. But we also thought there were more valleys, where we all thought that Wishes just held us the entire time. It could be us, I suppose. But a few other Disney veterans in our crowd felt the same way. Don't miss it if you go. It'll be a highlight of your trip. But those of us that adored Wishes, feel like Happily Ever After is just sort of missing a little something.
3 - The New vs. the Old Magic Kingdom Welcome Ceremony
While the Wishes/Happily Ever After debate is a tough one, this to me is a no brainer. We all agreed that we deeply miss the previous welcome ceremony that used to take place out in front of the Main Street Train Station. For years, it was probably my number one tip to people visiting the heart of Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom - get to the park early and don't miss the welcome ceremony. This was truly one of my favorite experiences of any trip back then. It was Disney magic at its best.
For those of you that are unaware, the Magic Kingdom used to do a very different welcome ceremony just inside the entrance. It was never on any times schedule, nor was it ever listed on the park map as an attarction or a show. Yet every morning, the Walt Disney World Railroad pulled into the station loaded with Disney characters, led by Mickey Mouse of course and a special family of the day along for the ride to officially open the park, all of this to the tune of the classic Disney song, Casey Jr. It was quintessential Disney. It was corny and old-fashioned in the most heart-warming of ways. Considering the fact that Walt Disney himself was a big train buff, having the welcome ceremony in front of the train station using the railroad was very - well, it was very Walt.
The new ceremony, Let the Magic Begin, takes place on the Castle Forecourt Stage directly in front of Cinderella Castle, so you're technically already in the park, deep into the park actually. You can't get into the lands that branch off the hub area, but you are allowed onto Main Street U.S.A. and into Starbucks, of course, for your morning coffee. And that to me is the big problem - you're already inside.
Part of the charm of the older ceremony was the pure anticipation that was built. You were in, but you weren't in - not yet. You heard the opening song, Good Morning, and got a healthy dose of that good time, old fashioned goodness that sets Disney apart. After that, you heard the railroad whistle blow and the anticipation built evern further, especially with my kids. "Mommy, Daddy, which characters are gonna be on the train?!?" It was really as good as it gets. And to be blunt, there's just nothing that special about the new one. To this group of Disney vets, it kinda laid flat. So, this one's definitely a loss. I'm pretty sure that, considering the security based world we unfortunately live in, they needed to get people out of that entrance area and into the park instead of backing up into the bag search zone. I'm also sure it doesn't hurt their bottom line to have people inside spending money an hour before the park opens either. If it had to be done, it had to be done, but, to be perfectly honest, they could have done the old one justice by making the new one better.
2 - Slinky Dog Dash is a Total Blast!
How often do you get to step inside a totally new land in a Disney park? It took me almost a year to finally get into Pandora over at Animal Kingdom. I guess the newest land before that was New Fantasyland all the way back in 2012! So, I was pretty excited that this past trip would put me into Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios less than a month after it opened on June 30th. That's pretty darned new. And it was pretty darned packed just about the whole time we were there. We did catch it late on an Extra Magic Evening Hours one night right before the park closed at 11:30 with less crowds. It looks wonderful at night. I enjoyed the details throughout the land. There's nothing more I can say about Toy Story Mania. It's always been a favorite. However, my biggest and happiest surprise was the new coaster, Slinky Dog Dash. When I first saw the concept art, I kept thinking, "Hmmm...looks like a kid coaster. Kind of a Toy Story version of Goofy's Barnstormer." I think we all felt that way. Much to our surprise and delight, we were completely wrong. Slinky Dog Dash is a total hoot! Don't get me wrong. It's certainly not Everest, but it 's a perfect mid level coaster. Not too crazy, but just crazy enough to be a ton of fun.
We were about to board and it started pouring. This gave us quite a significant rain delay, almost two hours. We had nowhere else to go in the pouring rain, so we patiently waited under the roof and stayed nice and dry. Once we finally boarded, they gave us a universal FastPass for our troubles, good for anything in the park. Slinky was so much fun, we got right off and instantly reboarded using our free FastPass. It was 100% worth it. Slinky Dog Dash is a brand new, must do Disney coaster. Don't miss it on your next trip.
1 - Fireworks on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
This is one of those great Disney things that I can't believe I've never done before. It's no big Disney secret that if you have no interest in the fireworks shows, or if you've already seen them on another night that this is probably the best time to get onto some of the major attractions with minimal wait times. We've known that for years and it always works like a charm. The lines could be 45 minutes or longer for rides like Pooh, Peter Pan or Space Mountain half an hour before the fireworks show. You can then get onto them with a 10-20 minute wait once everyone is front of the castle watching the show. For some reason though, we must've never gone over to Big Thunder Mountain at this time because never in all the years we've been going, have we experienced the awesomeness that we exprienced this past summer.
We managed to time things perfectly because each time we emerged from inside one of Big Thunder's tunnels we were greeted by a beautiful explosion of fireworks as if on cue just for us. It was just incredible! It semed like they were literally filling our entire frame of view at some points. They literally. seemed close-up. You wouldn't think that geographically, but trust me, it's like they made the show for the people on this ride just as much as the people in front of the castle. As if Big Thunder wasn't already a ton of fun. Believe me, this added a whole new level to it. Kudos to my daughter and her crew of friends who stumbled upon this a few nights before and came back and told us, "Oh my God, you have to head to Big Thunder during the fireworks. It's amazing! I can't believe we've never done this before!" Truer words have never been spoken. Just when you thought you've done everything at Walt Disney World, you stumble upon yet another hidden gem!
I have to give a special slot and an honorable mention to something that wasn't really new but yet still it was definitley a first and it made for a very emotional experience and simultaneously some of the most fun I've ever had at Walt Disney World. On the night before my 50th birthday, I booked the entire crew of people at Biergarten in Epcot's Germany pavilion. We've been there several times before. It's always a great time. The German band is a blast. The food is real good and, of course, they serve delicious German beer in giant glass steins, so that's a win win really. But this night was a bit different. Germany has always been a favorite stop for my family. My wife is 100% German. To say her family is German is kind of like saying the sky is blue. It's an understatement. If you could look up German Family in the dictionary you'd probably see a family portrait of my wife and her family.
Sadly, my wife's mom passed away last year after several long battles with several illnesses. It's been a tough year dealing with the loss and Epcot was really going to be the first time that my wife was being hit over the head with her German culture since her mom passed. Sure, there are German things in her parent's home and ours, but it's not quite the same as the Germany pavilion in all its Bavarian glory. On our first night as we simply made our way around World Showcase headed to a Frozen FastPass, she had a terribly difficult time just approaching Germany and could barely walk through it. Going into the big dinner the next night, she was quite sure that she wasn't even going to be able to handle walking that far into the pavilion let alone dining there. My daughter and I both offered to go elsewhere with her, but she decided to persevere, push onward and treat the night as a tribute to her mom. She fought her way through the sadness and honored her German heritage in spite of this tremendous loss. I've never been so proud of her strength and considering her history of carrying twins, running her own company, and being a marathon runner that's saying something. So, dining that night at Biergarten was definitley an emotional moment for us. So, where did the most fun I've ever had come into play?
Well, pretty much as soon as the band, Oktoberfest Musikanten, began to play, I was dragged up onto the dance floor by my daughter and her friend's and of course, my German wife who grew up with all of these songs. Now, I don't dance. Not at weddings. Not at parties. And I've certainly never danced at Disney. But, considering the fact that I was turning 50 in a few hours and emotions were running high, I slugged down some more Schofferhofer Weizen out of my enormous mug, gave in to the moment, and felt free to head out and look ridiculous on the dance floor. I can honestly say that it was probably the most fun Disney evening I've ever had. Sure, we've been in the Germany pavilion many times and dined at the Biergarten before. We've enjoyed listening to the music before. But, this night was quite a bit different and I'll never forget it.
So, we did some new things. We lamented the loss of some old things. We cried. We laughed. We honored the people who could no longer be with us and we cherished the moments that we were spending with the ones surrounding us. We introduced the magic of Disney to a bunch of new people. (I don't know if he'll admit it just yet, but when Galaxy's Edge opens, my brother will be headed back down there with me. You can bank on that.) We acted like little kids again, just like we're supposed to when we're there. And we even danced with reckless abandon to a German oompah band. One of us even turned 50. All of us had a magical time. To quote my cousin Tara, "Have another 50th Chris, so we can do it again!!" I can't promise that. But all 27 of them and all of you reading out there know I'll be back as soon as I can!
As always, I'd like to hear your thoughts. Click on the link below, let me hear what you have to say about this list, let me hear some of your observations from your last visit o Walt Disney World and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5