LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As the three of us emerged in a delighted daze from Expedition to Everest, we felt as though we'd really landed at the happiest place on earth, just as advertised. Over a period of three days last month, my traveling trio realized several moments like that one, when we were deep into pure fun. Although Walt Disney World seems to oversell its promise, our little group came away from its vast domain impressed with all that it delivered.
And that's saying something: My friend Trish was a somewhat skeptical Disney newcomer trying to keep realistic expectations while treating her son to something special, and her 7-year-old, Enzo, arrived assuming that he only wanted to ride the roller coasters. For my part, I'm the WDW veteran who didn't figure on finding anything new to learn on my sixth visit (I'm a very good aunt) to the land of Mickey.
But as always, Disney World revealed wonderful -- dare I say magical? -- things we didn't expect. I came away delighted at the new offerings and reminded of how good it feels to see a child enveloped in joy; Trish was surprised at how much the experience can be tailored to suit different moods and needs; and Enzo, well, he loved the 'coasters but now thinks he'd like grow up to be either an entertainer (loved the musicals!) or one of the friendly, helpful Disney Transport bus drivers.
The key to doing Disney World right lies in being relatively organized and attacking each day with a plan. Having done our share of reading in advance, we prioritized a list of activities and attractions. Of course, it helped that we kept the schedule a bit loose to allow for spontaneous detours.
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Here's how we made the most of three days at the Walt Disney World parks.
Day 1, Friday
Arriving in midafternoon, we took the Monorail from our hotel to Epcot Center, which offers Extra Magic Hours -- staying open until midnight -- on Friday. Just inside the Epcot entrance, Enzo marveled at the 180-foot-tall geodesic sphere called Spaceship Earth. He called it a "giant disco ball" and loved that you can see it from a number of vantage points throughout the park, a feat that becomes more intoxicating when it's lighted and silvery against the night sky.
Near the entrance, we headed into Future World and jumped on The Seas With Nemo and Friends, a musical ride taking us through Nemo's world in clamshell seating and a good way to ease into the offerings. From there, it was a 15-minute hike through the World Showcase, which circles the 40-acre Epcot lagoon with replications of lands including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Italy, Germany, China, Norway and Mexico.
Our destination was Morocco, where we feasted on a pseudo-authentic dinner at Restaurant Marrakesh and where Enzo's eyes widened at the belly-dancer entertainment. During dinner, we used the handy iPhone Walt Disney World attraction app to monitor the wait times at the rides we wanted to try that night. (This tool became addictive as our trip progressed.)
Walking off dinner, we circled back to Future World to get to the rides most interesting to us, starting with Spaceship Earth. This has been newly "reimagined," giving guests a chance to see themselves virtually transported, via photos snapped at the beginning of the ride and adapted to a video minutes later, to a customized setting in the next century. Going inside the giant disco ball delighted Enzo to no end.
Saving the biggest thrill for last, we entered Mission Space late in the evening, when many in the crowd were leaving. Spending merely five minutes in line, we quickly found ourselves in the year 2036, watching Gary Sinese on a monitor, charging us with our duties on an international space station preparing for a mission to Mars. Enzo had some last-minute jitters but gamely stuck with his plan to ride; after the 2-G forces of the simulated space shot, he was in far better shape than I was with my dizzy head.
Adrenaline quickly gave way to exhaustion, and we made our way back to our hotel room, where luggage had safely arrived -- as if by magic, Enzo said.
Day 2, Saturday
Unless you like standing in line, it's good to get an early jump on the day. But we'd been up too late Friday night, so by the time we had breakfast at the hotel and boarded the bus bound for Disney's Hollywood Studios, we found that a crowd had beaten us to the good stuff.
That's why the FastPass may be the greatest Disney World invention yet: The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith ranked at the top of our to-do list, so we scanned our guest cards in the FastPass machine at the roller coaster's entrance, took our tickets, which told us to come back between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and headed off to spend time elsewhere.
Among the diversions that kept us happy were Journey Into Narnia, a 15-minute multimedia experience. And though the Aerosmith 'coaster proved to be a true blast, we could tell the screams were louder next door at the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. That required another FastPass, as the line wait was more than 30 minutes, but the walkabout until time to head up the elevator for the 13-story drop in the Tower was well worth it -- for daredevils like Trish and Enzo, that is.
The Hollywood park's strengths are in the entertainment world, naturally. The Toy Story Midway Mania and the Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show had long lines through the day and just weren't high enough on Enzo's list of priorities. We considered the new American Idol Experience but found an easier choice to be the new High School Musical 3: Senior Year -- Right Here! Right Now!, a lively street show that we could watch from a sidewalk spot.
Midday rest at our hotel gave us a chance to recharge batteries for late afternoon and evening action. Because our hotel was close to the Magic Kingdom, we could bounce in and out of that park quickly for early or late-day visits, knocking off one or two rides at a go, sometimes using the FastPass.
Because Trish and I find food a big attraction, and because Enzo's dad is a chef, we figured one special dinner during our stay was in order. Our pick was Kouzzina, TV-celebrity chef Cat Cora's new place at the Boardwalk resort. Because it is high-profile and opened recently, reservations were a must. Service was uneven and a few dishes were good, but the long haul to the Boardwalk, after a tiring day, made us question the expense in the end. Its saving grace: Next door to the restaurant was a candy store that Enzo adored.
Day 3, Sunday
Hitting the Animal Kingdom at its 9 a.m. opening, we grabbed coffee, muffins and bagels to fortify us for our trek past Discovery Island's magnificent Tree of Life and on to the massive quadrant called Asia.
Our destination was Expedition Everest, the ride we were most excited to encounter. The posted wait time was 15 minutes, and it took only 10 minutes to board the ride. For Trish and me, this was on the quick side, because we found great entertainment in the line's route through a simulated base camp. Intricately conceived and cleverly detailed, the walls were covered with good reading material about historical mountain climbing on Everest, along with humorous "documentation" of the yeti.
The ride itself was a coaster addict's dream come true. Fast, with plenty of tight turns and twists and breathtaking climbs and swoops, it comes with a brilliant element: At the end of one steep incline, the track looks to be broken by a powerful yeti, so the car can only fall backward, slowly at first, then speeding up at a terrifying pace, back, back, back, until it's rerouted to another track.
We three roller-coaster junkies were utterly smitten.
There was a long wait at the especially splashy Kali River Rapids, but FastPass takes care of the problem for restless folks. When we departed from Asia, after watching the swinging monkeys on their ropes and stopping to gawk at a beautifully reproduced, hand-painted bus such as those seen in India, we tackled Africa, finding the 15-minute wait for Kilimanjaro Safari to be easy. The 20-minute ride in an open-air truck, a treat for any age, revealed excellent views of giraffes, cheetahs, rhinos, hippos, elephants, lions, flamingo, kudu, crocodiles, antelope, ibis, warthogs and many more species.
There's an equally easy pace, but on foot, on the Pangani Forest Expedition Trail, a half-hour walk past streams, waterfalls and hills populated by hippos, meerkats, birds and the mighty western lowland gorilla.
Ready to sit for a spell, we timed our arrival at Festival of the Lion King for 10 minutes before showtime. The half-hour musical production got us out of the sun and off our feet, and it amused the three of us with nonstop action.
After another early-afternoon lunch and rest period at our hotel, we returned to the Magic Kingdom to hit a few more rides. A major hit, the refurbished Space Mountain was even better this year. The world's first indoor roller coaster now offers a darker, smoother ride, but it's every bit as exciting as when I was a teenager riding it for the first time. Folks waiting in line find the queue now equipped with sci-fi video games to keep them occupied.
After a relatively quiet dinner at our hotel, during which Enzo recapped his favorite Disney World attractions in drawings, we called it an early night. From our windows, we could watch the fireworks over Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, eliminating the need to return to the park after dark.
Falling asleep to a light show of that sort makes for magical dreams. Just the way Walt intended.