October 27th-November 4th – Orlando Florida –  For me the Orlando Theme Parks aren’t about pictures, but rather about absorbing an experience.  So this post will be mostly stories and fewer photos.  I spent several days at Disney and one day at Universal’s two parks.  It certainly got me some much needed exercise.  I have to say that the contrast between the two parks was dramatic, and I came out enjoying Disney more and Universal less than before this visit.

“The Best Day In My Life”

As I walked around Disney I found that everyone was quick to return a smile, especially when their kids did or said something that was perfectly kid like.  So I smiled a lot and took an interest in the cast members and added energy to their day where I could.  But these interactions I could control were nothing compared to what happened just naturally all around me.

It is hard not to hear conversations where kids are almost yelling with overflowing excitement.  One warm night as I was walking back to the bus at Epcot I was walking ahead of a Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, and with two children about six and eight.  The eight-year-old was talking to the Grandma recounting the things that had happened, and then he said.  “This has been the best of day of my entire life!” and the Grandma had a little chuckle and started to say “Oh really?” when the young man interrupted and said “No, the best WEEK of my entire LIFE!”, at the top of his lungs.  This excitement clearly washed over everyone within earshot.

In all I overheard three such conversations where young boy or girl expressed almost the identical thought.  That sort of thing was what made wandering around the park a lot of fun.

Entertainment At Disney

Entertainment comes in a lot of forms, for me some perhaps a little unusual forms.

While I certainly like “attractions” I really like looking behind the scenes and reverse engineering the solutions to consider what the designer considered the primary challenges.  For example, how do you design a set of solid rails for a queue that can be easily made longer and shorter?   Or, how do you give handicapped folks more time to get on or off a ride without bringing the normal flow of the ride to a halt.

I really enjoyed the live shows like “Festival of the Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast”, as well as the 3D shows.  It was a pleasure to see the performances of these cast members who clearly had put in a lot of preparation.

Another thing I like to do is try to estimate how many people can be on a ride at a given time by using only observed data.   How many people per car/train, how long to unload and load, how long the ride takes.  It often leads to me seeing parts of the operation I wouldn’t see if I was just taking in the theming.  Things like mirrors and sensors, rails and fail-safes.  Very interesting, and I can listen to conversations at the same time.

In addition, I went through a lot of Disney attractions that I might not have, just to see what had changed.  In several I found there were new things, or things I missed the first time.  Seeking this out was in itself entertainment.   One of the things I have to give them credit for is the transportation.  When I had ridden the buses before I found that the number of people who needed a ramp was really high and the buses were always behind because of this.  Now given I was visiting off season so there was less of this, but it was better this time around.  I think it is the design of the ramps on the buses which are different from before.  The old ramps were more like elevators.  These new ramps are just that.  The bus suspension “kneels” to reduce the height and then a ramp folds out in one piece quite quickly.  There is still time required for getting the scooter or wheel chair maneuvered into place and secured, but the time spent raising and lowering the ramp seems to have been reduced by as much as half.

Camping at Disney

I parked my trailer at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground and found it to be very nice and quite cost effective given my plans.  At just $57 per night I got water, power, cable and WiFi (well the WiFi was only accessible with my directional antenna aka Range Extender)

Restroom facilities were nicer than most anywhere I’ve been, certainly any campground and many restaurants.  Theme Park parking is included for each day you are registered.  For a car that’s $20, or $22 with the trailer.  That’s each *day* not night.  So before you check in and after you check out, midnight to midnight.  But being off season there were sites open, so arriving at 9:30 am I checked in, found my site, dropped the trailer and set it up, hopped onto a Disney bus to the outpost end of the camp, hopped another Disney bus to the Animal Kingdom, and was early for my Fastpass+ at 11:30 to see the 12:00 Festival of the Lion King show.  No worries about parking somewhere else, and if I had, there is a huge overflow lot where you could park until your site is ready.  Well, that’s the experience off season anyhow.  🙂

My visit included Halloween weekend and the campground was full on Friday and Saturday nights.  I might have gotten a spot if I had reserved earlier.  So I just moved to a local private park for two nights and came back on Sunday.  If I have any regrets it is that I didn’t rent a golf cart while I was there, not that I needed one, but it would have been fun to drive around.  But at $59/day I figured I should enjoy the parks instead.

Harry Potter at Universal

I went to Universal to see the Harry Potter themed part of the parks.  I’m not much for a roller coaster, or a violent motion sort of ride, but that’s pretty much what they serve up.  I rode the “Forbidden Journey” and “Escape from Gringotts” rides and they were fun, but they were action packed thrill rides, not something I would do twice.  The restraint system definitely designed for smaller folks, “Ok, it needs to click one more time, so relax your shoulders.”  Happily, after waiting in the long line it did click and away we went.  But keeping the 3D glasses on as the rides whips around in unpredictable ways seemed challenging.  Great for young folks who want to be shaken around a bit, but once was enough.

Now I was pleasantly surprised with the “Hogwarts Express” train ride between the parks.  I had expected just a train ride, but it turned out to be more than just transport.  You are seated with several other passengers in a period train car compartment with two facing benches, frosted glass door and window on the aisle side and a window whose view is provided by a video screen.  From behind our frosted glass train compartment windows we were eavedropping on familiar conversations from the movies, and the familiar landscapes from the movies passed by “outside” the window.  I am told there is a different experience going each direction but I didn’t have the opportunity for that.

Both Diagon Alley (Universal Side) and Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure side) were well themed.  Although they consisted primarily of shops and more shops, a few beverage shops, some food shops, and some more shops.  For $50 you could buy an “interactive wand” which came with a map of places where you could “cast spells” and interact or affect things.  I had a quick dinner here in one of those food shops, an average but different menu item, shepherd’s pie and a green salad.

Universal: Four Day Ticket, One Day Enough

I arrived at Universal with high hopes.  I wanted to visit Harry Potter stuff in both parks, so a two park pass was important, and I was arriving at about 2:30 so I thought I would really be just wasting my first day’s admission.  So I found a deal through AAA that offered four days for the price of two, and was able to purchase online and pick up the tickets at the gate.  What I didn’t expect is just how much the atmosphere would grate on my sensibilities, how much the fast and wild rides, or “you will get soaking wet” rides would lack appeal for me.  Just comes down to “not my cup of tea”.

Universal felt like it was all about upsell; and everything is for sale.  Not only can you buy your way to the front of the line, but you are encouraged to spend quarters to spray other guests with water as they ride the various wet rides, and if you want to get dried off there’s a dryer you can plug coins into.  Gift shops are everywhere and spill out onto the path.  Then there’s the midway games: “Just swing the hammer and win the toy!  You sir! You look strong and able bodied!”  or “Winner e-ver-y time, just six dollars per player, three players to start a game, step right up”.   Yes, not my cup of tea, not a fantasy model of a world I’d like to immerse myself in.

So I would relate one good experience, one bad experience, and one story that pretty much seemed to sum up the attitude of the average guest.

The good experience was at the Escape from Gringott’s line.  In the confusion of that side of the park closing early I was trying to get some info from the line attendant.  After answering my question she (without explanation) sent me down the Express Pass lane.  So I was one of the people walking past the hour long line, skipping to the front.  Maybe it was because I was polite and pleasant, maybe it was because I was a single rider, but in retrospect I’m not so sure she just didn’t think that maybe I’d get on the ride, and the restraints wouldn’t actually click into place and so I might have waited an hour and not been able to ride.  In either case kudo’s to her for making that choice.  It sort of evened out the experience immediately prior at the Simpson’s ride.

The bad experience, sign says 40 minute wait, but turns out to be twice that.  And hour and twenty minutes waiting to ride “The Simpson’s” ride.  Which now that I look back I must have ridden when it was new a decade ago.  The Express Pass people were flocking to the ride about this time, likely because this park was closing early for one of their Halloween night parties.  The in line “entertainment” here was a bunch of short Simpson’s scenes strung together into a half hour loop, which of course I saw two and a half times.  Just one word… “Canyonaro”.

The story that sums it all up?  At the Simpson’s ride when I finally got to the place where the Express Pass and regular lines merge the wait was another 15 minutes.  The promise of Express Pass is “Skip the normal lines”.   So having been in line now for just over an hour I am waiting for the constant stream of Express Pass folks to walk by.  At this point a couple whom I had seen go ahead of me earlier came back down the ramp.  Yelling across the open space to the attendant they asked indignantly “Are you sure this the Express Pass line?  We’ve been waiting ten minutes up here!”  And that “I’ve spent my money, where is my privilege” is how it felt like everyone was behaving.

Halloween and Christmas

In the run up to Halloween a lot of folks were coming to the Magic Kingdom in costume for “Mickey’s not so scary Halloween Party”, this seemed to run about four or five nights of the week up until Sunday the 1st.  Families in red spandex as the Incredibles, one family dressed in coveralls as the ghost busters.  Lots of little girls in princess dresses.

I was at Hollywood Studios on Sunday November 1st, the day after Halloween.  This is when they turned on the “Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing lights”.  With a strong Christmas theme it certainly felt a little early.  But it was quite pretty, perhaps a little more developed than the last time I had seen it.

It was just too hot to wear a Santa hat myself, although I had toyed with the idea.  But when I interacted with cast members or talked to other guests it wasn’t unusual for the person to say something like “You really would be a great Santa Claus”.

One Final Story

So I am quite accustomed to spreading a smile around, but sometimes a kind gesture back at me is a surprise.  So it was one day at the Magic Kingdom.  I had not eaten yet this day and it was getting towards 4:30 or so, and I was really hungry.  I had planned to find a place for a sit down dinner but that was promising to be many hours away because of available reservations.  I had thus steeled myself to pay $7.49 for a rather average hot dog.  I came to the window, did my usual “how is your day” to the cast member, then ordered just the hot dog.  But when he came back he had a hot dog, a small bag of potato chips and a drink.  I figured, well, okay I guess he didn’t quite hear me, but I am hungry and thirsty.

Before I could do anything he just pushed it all towards me and said “for your energy”.   I thought he was saying the drink and chips were on the house.  So I started to try to pay for the hot dog and he smiled and said, “no, for your energy“.  Now it might help to understand that he was speaking in a bit of an accent, so English probably wasn’t his first language.  So I looked him in the eye again and I could see the smile, and he said “just pay it forward, and thank you for your energy today”.

Well it did in fact pick up my spirits and energy, and I wanted to say “oh, I’m sorry my pleasant dial was set too low, you want to see pleasant let’s just start all over again”.  In retrospect all I did was look him in the eye, maybe interrupt his “what can I get for you” with a “how are you tonight?” and listen.  But apparently this was quite an impact on him, and I hope that Disney honors his decision or just never finds out.  Because I was probably twice as pleasant to everyone I met for the rest of the night.  Apologies if you were one of those people I know I can get a little “bright” sometimes.  🙂