Friday, September 2, 2011

The Magic of Jedi and the Mouse: Orlando, Part II

Back to our Florida Vacation...

There are four main theme parks at Disney: the Magic Kingdom (home to Mickey Mouse, Cinderella -not that I would know that, as a mother of two boys- and Captain Jack); Hollywood Studios (home to Jedis, Indiana Jones, and all things Pixar like Lightening McQueen and Toy Story); Epcot (home of the World Showcase and Spacey things); and Animal Kingdom (home to, um, animals like Nemo and Simba).

Our first evening at Disney, after checking in, we headed to Epcot to explore and eat dinner. Our room was all of a three minute walk to the World Showcase entrance gate, and we loved how close we were. We ended up eating dinner in Mexico that night, with nachos. They were really quite good, and for the rest of the trip, all we would hear from the boys was how they wanted to go eat in Mexico.

We started our first full day at Hollywood Studios. It rained on and off for most of the day, so when it wasn't raining, we had some fantastic humidity that made us feel as if it were raining.Or wish it were raining, since the rain tended to cool us down slightly.

This was a great theme park, and most importantly for Team Danger, it is home to the newly revamped ride Star Tours and the Jedi Training Academy. When we went to Disneyland 2.5 years ago, Alex was able to participate in Jedi Training, and it was the highlight of his trip. Now Ryan was old enough to do it, too, so this was at the top of our must-do list.

We headed directly to the sign-up spot for Jedi Training when HS opened in the morning, and were given passes to return at 1:30 in the afternoon. So all was great, and despite the rain, we were ready to enjoy our day. First up was a few turns on the new Star Tours ride. Its been updated to add in scenes from the Clone Wars tv show, as well as the prequels. Its also now in 3D, and each time you ride, you get to travel to different key scenes in the Star Wars lore. The boys loved this ride, and I have to admit finding it rather spectacular myself. Carl felt once was enough for him - he really needs to get better at taking those motion sickness pills in the mornings, and not just mid-afternoon!

Disney has you exit every ride through a gift shop - such clever marketing folks - and "Tattooine Traders" was a favorite of Team Danger. They pretty much wanted every toy in the shop. Alex and Ryan had their own Disney Dollars - a combination of money we had paid them over the summer for reading and math work, and their allowance they had saved. All in all, each boy came equipped with fifty Disney Dollars to spend, and I have to say that this worked so much better than I could have imagined. Even though Ryan wanted every thing in Tattooine Traders, for instance, what he had me do was take pictures of what he wanted, so he could think about whether that Star Wars LEGO set was the way to go. We did this several times during the trip, and I'm thrilled he felt that something uniquely Disney, like the Mickey Mouse Pirates of the Caribbean playset sold only at Disney was a better way to spend some of his money than the LEGO set he could buy at any Target.

 Anyways... back to Hollywood Studios. While I had been with the boys signing them up for Jedi Training, Carl had ran to get us Fast Passes for Toy Story Mania. This is a super fun ride, which we first rode at Disneyland. It inspired the wii game, so if you've played that, you know what to expect. We all loved it, but the astronomical waits for it kept us from riding it more than once on the trip. The Fast Passes go very quickly, and the average wait is 60-90 minutes.

We went and saw The Little Mermaid stage show, and soon it was time for lunch. We had reservations for the Sci-Fi F Drive In Theater. I think this might have been our favorite restaurant in all of Disney. The inside is made to look like a drive in movie theater, and instead of sitting at tables, you get to sit in a "car." Old black and white 50s and 60s sci-fi clips play on the screen while you eat (think Alamo Drafthouse pre-show), and they have delicious milk shakes and Diet Cokes and burgers.

 After lunch they played on the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, where everything is larger than life. We had watched this movie recently for the first time as part of our Disney theme nights pre-trip. It wasn't nearly as bad a movie as I thought it would be, and we loved eating our mini-hot dogs (Pigs in a Blanket), mini pizzas (Bagel Bites), mini Cheeseburgers (whose frozen White Castle ones) and mini oreos for dinner that night. But back to our trip.

While the kids played, I realized I didn't know where to report back for Jedi Training. Our passes said 1:30, and to be back 30 minutes prior, but I wasn't sure where the show was being held. So I asked a trust employee, who directed us to the Jedi stage. So we waited. And waited. And I asked one of the Star Tours employees standing right next to the stage if we were in the right place, since no one else was there. He assured me we were. So you can imagine our surprise when 15 little padawans all start marching to the stage in their Jedi robes a few minutes later, and our kids are not among them. Carl and I both discussed the matter until they threatened to remove Carl from the park, but they would not allow Alex and Ryan to participate, claiming we were late and they had given their spots away. Both boys were sobbing, and I was beyond furious. They claimed I was told to report back to where we were given the passes, but I wasn't. This isn't the kind of mistake I would make, given the importance of the Jedi Training. No where on the maps does it tell you where to go. No where on the sign by the stage does it tell you where to go. No where on my passes does it tell you where to go. After I went in search of higher ups to discuss my displeasure, I was offered a conciliatory alternate status for the day of #31 and #32. Gee, thanks, Disney. Suffice it to say, we had to wake up a second time a few days later really, really early to ensure we could get Jedi Training spots. And for the record, when I signed them up that time, NO ONE told me where to report back then, either.

We did some more relaxing at this point, and tried to find a way to make things up to the boys. So we decided to see both of the live action stunt shows, and bypass the Beauty and the Beast stage show I really, really wanted to see. It helped. The boys LOVED seeing Indiana Jones live in action (and with FIRE! Lots of FIRE!) and the Lights! Motors! Extreme Action! Stunt Show which had cars racing backwards, cars jumping over trucks, Lightening McQueen, car chases, FIRE,  and stunt men catching on FIRE.

We also had fun meeting some characters. The Green Army Man from Toy Story was inspired. I can't imagine hanging out in humid Orlando with that stocking over my face, though. The boys also REALLY got into getting the characters autographs. Those little autograph books were ten of the best dollars I spent the whole week.

The big evening show at Hollywood Studios is called Fantasmic. Its basically Mickey Mouse having a nightmare, and all the heroes of Disney lore must defeat the villains, with fireworks, lights, and water action. The theater that shows this only seats 5,000 people, and since on any given summer day there are something like 65,000 people at the park... you do the math. However, if you buy a Fantasmic Package with your dinner, you can get prime, reserved seating. So we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant called Mama Melrose's that night. It was decent, but I don't think I would eat there if you weren't going for the Fantasmic Package.

The show was interesting, even if didn't make much sense, and the boys did great staying up so late (the show began at 9pm, and went until about 9:30). Fortunately, our hotel was just a short boat ride away, so we were home and in bed with light out by 10pm.

The next day was our first Magic Kingdom day, another bright and early start. We were there for the official rope drop for the Early Magic Hour (what Disney calls 8am-9am, which is open only for guests staying on site), and they actually do a very cute ceremony where Mickey and the gang arrive via a train in the front at the Railroad Station. There was singing and dancing, and then the park was officially declared open after 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1! Our cameras were still pretty foggy at this time (blasted humidity) so there aren't a lot of photos.

This was a good morning. I had decided to try out one of the Undercover Tourist Traveling Plans, so following their instructions, we headed directly to Fantasyland without passing go. First, we pulled a fastpass for Peter Pan's Flight. It gave us a Bonus FastPass for Mickey's Philharmonic, so already we were off to a good start. Then we went to ride on Dumbo twice. From there, it was time for Its a Small World. I just love this ride, but the boys were less than thrilled by it. They need more action, it seems. Peter Pan still had no wait, so we rode it twice (still not using our FastPasses, which Carl considered a waste for now, but they later proved valuable). Then it was on to Alice's spinning teacups. I rode it once with the boys, and then since there was no wait, they rode it again. We then noticed a very long line. Since we hadn't had any lines yet, I was surprised. Turns out this was the line to meet Rapunzel, star of Tangled. The line was already estimated at 45 minutes. Carl and the boys passed on meeting her, the first in a long line of Disney Princesses I never got to meet on the trip.

We decided we had had enough of Fantasyland at this point, and at this point, we veered away from our Touring Plan since it had us walk a long ways away, and went to next door Tomorrowland instead. Alex had been so excited about going here, because they have this one ride called Autotopia, where you drive your cars on a track. Its not as cool as it sounds, since you are on a track you can't leave, but you can steer it yourself and you press the gas and brakes yourself. You have to be 54" to drive the car alone, and since he was now officially 54", he was proud as punch to drive alone. However... their "You must be this tall..." sign was not the same as others we encountered on this trip, and he didn't reach the line here. He was upset, and we were upset for him, but he handled this disappointment like a trooper. He didn't ask to ride it a second time, though.

We then went on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. We all loved this ride at Disneyland, it was a favorite in the Magic Kingdom, too. Its like the Toy Story game, although not in 3D, but you get to shoot your Buzz blasters at targets and get points. Nothing like a friendly competition to get the juices flowing. We still had no wait here, but we were eligible for more Fast Passes, so we got them for later. We then decided it was time to try Space Mountain. Alex was iffy about going on this in-the-dark roller coaster, but he finally decided that if his five year old brother was going for it, he would, too. He was nervous, but soon we were all strapped in and flying through space.
 Even I get a bit scared on this one, but when we were done, there were no tears in sight. Both boys loved it! Their first response was "Again!" So we did. At this point, the wait was creeping up to 20 minutes. We ran across some characters, like Stitch and Spacey Chip and Dale, and decided to part ways with Tomorrowland.

It was right about this time that I realized my iphone was no longer in my pocket. My best guess is that it flew out of my pocket during the Space Mountain rides, and that it is lying somewhere at the bottom of a deep, dark abyss of outer space. RIP, Annalynn's iPhone (as iTunes calls it). You served me faithfully these past 2.4 years.

From here we headed to Adventureland. While Carl tried to access my email account and change my password quickly (we figured this was the worse case scenario of having lost my phone - someone could access my email, possibly some accounts, and possibly get passwords changed), the boys and I went for a climb on Swiss Family Robinson's Treehouse. Considering the film is one of the boys favorites, I was surprised they didn't find this more exciting. Maybe my own phone malaise was contagious. Anyways, this was full of whining and fighting and not-so-good memories. We also bypassed a chance to meet Tinkerbell and some Fairies (if they count as princesses, that count total now equals 5) and Aladdin and Jasmine (6).

Finally it was time for Pirates of the Caribbean. We were all excited about this ride. Captain Jack is a BIG DEAL in our house, and we had showed the movie to the boys for the first time right before the trip. As we approached, the wait was only ten minutes and a show was getting ready to start. The show is called Captain Jack Sparrow's Pirate Tutorial, and it starts with a pirate talking about Captain Jack and pirates and before you know it, the Captain himself appears. Not Johnny Depp, alas, but a pretty good impersonator. They then offer to teach the children how to be pirates, and they selected four children from the audience. Much to our delight, Alex was the second child selected. Capt. Jack's crew member then teaches the children the basics of  pirate dueling while the Captain offers commentary. Alex, however, was the last to fight, and he was given an extra special treat. Captain Jack Sparrow decided to fight Alexander himself ("ooohhh... a majestic name," the Captain announced). He was thrilled beyond belief.


After a solid round of applause for our four trainees, the Captain then picked a dozen more children from the audience, Ryan included, to learn the Pirate's Oath. They took a pledge, were given a fancy Pirate certificate,and all sang a rousing rendition of "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life For Me. 

Both boys were in seventh heaven at this point, and on such a high when we went to ride The Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, one must exit through the gift shop, where the boys wanted every single pirate thing there was. Ryan really, really wanted a Mickey Mouse Pirates playset for $19.99, and since it came with four characters that were selling for $8.99 separately, I thought this was a good value. Alex selected a special sword that said Disney World POTC on it, and it came in a nice scabbard so the boys could pretend the scabbard was a sword and fight each other. The Disney Dollars worked great, and both child did a great job evaluating their options and reflecting on what else they had seen and wanted. Ryan wanted Pirate Mickeys more than the Star Wars LEGOs from yesterday (Yay!), and Alex wanted the sword more than Pirate LEGOs. We also picked up a CARS Captain Jack Mater for Connor as a present, and best of all worlds, arranged for them to be delivered to our hotel. We followed up our Pirates adventure with lunch in the nearby Tortuga Tavern, which was Mexican food in a Caribbean/pirate themed restaurant. The best I can say for this place is that it was air conditioned, and there were large Diet Cokes.

It was at this point we made a poor decision. We had roughly four hours until our early dinner reservation at Chef Mickeys, which is located near the Magic Kingdom. The itinerary I'd created for us had us going back to swim and rest at this point, but everyone was on a high so we decided to stay in the Magic Kingdom. Plus, the itinerary was created with a later dinner in mind than Chef Mickey's, or at least that was part of my analysis. regardless, it was a Bad Choice. It was pretty hot at this point, and the next section, Frontierland, is ruthless with the heat. Very little shade. Huge crowds greeted us. We picked up a Fast Pass for Splash Mountain, but we had 1.5 hours to kill. Alex wanted Tom Sawyer Island, a giant, GIANT playground covering an entire island the size of their elementary school. So we took the raft over. But Ryan was hot and didn't want to play. So he and I ended up going back across and caught some rather ridiculous show called the Country Bear Jamboree. I suppose it has its kitsch value for some, and sadly, it all came rushing back in as a horrid memory from thirty years ago. The only thing I can say about the Bears is that it was thirty minutes in an air conditioned auditorium, and it gave Ryan a chance to nap. Not enough of a nap, though, because a cranky Ryan was what woke up when the Bears were done. We went back to meet Alex and Carl (not the easiest when one has no phone or watch), and then we found another mini playground for the kids. After Ryan's meltdown was over, we went ahead and rode Splash Mountain.  We then caught a parade (again, not the best in the humid heat), and we headed back towards Fantasyland to use some of our Fast Passes from earlier in the day, and some more of Buzz Lightyear's ride.

Chef Mickey's is located in the Contemporary Resort. Its a short monorail ride away from MK, and this was the hardest reservation for me. They book up at the 180 day mark when they first open reservations, and your only hope is for a cancellation. Which is how we ended up eating dinner at 5:05 pm. Still, we were all worn out at this point, so relaxing over dinner and then returning for an early night ended up being just what Mickey ordered.

We loved Chef Mickeys! This was our first real character meal, and having the characters come directly to your table while you eat is magical. No lines. No heat. A good heaping of Disney magic, yours for the bargain price of $40.46 per adult, $20.23 per child.

Ryan got to meet his #1 desirable, Mickey Mouse, and since he was the Chef, he was dressed like a cooker. Just like Ryan likes to be at home. Magical, I tell you. When I look at this picture of Ryan hugging his idol, I can *almost* forget how much money we had to spend to make this magic happen. Almost.

Its a buffet, and we learned just how much the kids love buffets this trip. We'll have to seek out more at home. This was especially handy since Alex is going through a growing spurt and eats an obscene amount of food. The child portions just aren't enough for him most days. This was a great dinner, and it wonderfully capped off a fantastic day. See, I'm even able to (mostly) forget about how beastly Ryan was before and after his crash.

We capped off our evening with some fun in our hotel pool. It has a sandy bottom, and a lazy river, in addition to a really amazing water slide coming from the top of a pirate ship. There was also a volleyball game going on, and Alex joined in. He was pretty good!

The next morning, we started off a bit more leisurely before heading to Epcot. Our hotel has its own character meal, called the Cape May Buffet. Its hosted by Goofy, Donald and Minnie. Our theory as to why Mickey wasn't there: the Big Cheese was too busy cooking at his own place, and doesn't appear elsewhere (thus explaining the popularity of Chef Mickeys). Since our hotel was the "Beach Club," they are all dressed up in their swim attire. This was good buffet, and it was nice just walking downstairs for the meal.

We loved our hotel, and highly recommend it to anyone else going to Disney. It had a fantastic location, and great amenities. The pool was beyond amazing, and the boys lived for the Pirate Ship water slide.
 If we ever go back to Disney, I'd love to have a full day where we really didn't do anything but spend time at the hotel. In the evenings they had smores on the beach followed by movies on a big screen, and every afternoon they had a pool party with all sorts of activities like limbo contests, pool volleyball, make your own sundae, and Mickey tie-dye shirts.

My goal is to wrap up the rest of the trip in my next blog post, so stay tuned for more. :)

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