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Walt Disney World Segment 1 (1/19-2/7) Segment 2 (2/7-2/25) Segment 3 (2/25-3/18) Segment 4 (3/18-4/14) Segment 5 (4/14-5/3) 2003 Summary

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Walt Disney World Pre-Cruise – January 5 to January 18, 2003

sunday, january 5th – fly from los angeles, california, usa to orlando, florida – disney’s grand floridian resort & spa 

monday, january 6th – walt disney world-epcot  

tuesday, january 7th – walt disney world-magic kingdom 

wednesday, january 8th – walt disney world-animal kingdom & epcot 

thursday, january 9th – walt disney world-Disney/mgm studios  

friday, january 10th – walt disney world - epcot world showcase 

saturday, january 11th – walt disney world - resort hopping & epcot  

sunday, january 12th – walt disney world - monorail resorts & epcot  

monday, january 13th – walt disney world - disney/mgm studios & epcot  

tuesday, january 14th – walt disney world - magic kingdom  

wednesday, january 15th – walt disney world - epcot  

thursday, january 16th – walt disney world - animal kingdom & studios  

friday, january 17th – walt disney world -summary 

The Original Photo Blanket       American Greetings Free Trial

sunday, january 5th – fly from los angeles, california, usa to orlando, florida
 disney’s grand floridian resort & spa

Promptly at 10:00 AM, we were picked up by the limo driver and driven to LAX for our United Airlines flight to Orlando departing at 1:35 PM.  The ride was uneventful, there was no traffic at all, and we arrived at LAX within an hour. 

We were a bit taken aback as we passed Terminal 1 as the line for baggage screening was snaking along the sidewalk the entire length of the terminal.  Luckily, the United terminal wasn’t quite as chaotic.  Not outside anyway.  There were lines for skycaps on the sidewalk, but we couldn’t quite discern what they were doing.  After going inside and seeing the ridiculous crowds, we went back out to the skycap line.  We did briefly look for a First Class check-in, but it was a distance away, so we gave the skycap a shot.

Here came the first snafu.  Crystal Cruises had booked flight reservations through to Miami, but we only had tickets to Orlando.  Since we aren’t flying to Miami, today or ever, we shouldn’t have had a reservation or a ticket.  However, this raised a red flag and the skycap had to call a supervisor.  We insisted he make the luggage tag only to Orlando, but he couldn’t do it with the reservation we had.  So, he took us to the First Class check-in line and told us that we would have to work it out there.  He was pleasant and trying to be helpful, but we never did see the point of their services even with a proper reservation.  Our advice is to skip the skycaps, and the tip that goes along with them, and go directly to the ticket counter as long as security is as tight as it was at this time.

The ticket agent fixed our reservation and climbed across the scale to give our bags to the screener who was in front of the First Class counters.  The screener was very careful and helpful, even locking our luggage when he was finished.  What the point of all of this is, we have no idea.  He did open the bags, then ran a bomb-sniffing wand around the inside edge, closed it up, and stuck a big red sticker on it.  We weren’t allowed to touch the bag again, so the ticket agent had to climb across the scale, retrieve the bags, and put them through to be checked.  All of this took place within five feet of the counter.  The whole process didn’t take all that long, but it obviously needs some work.

We ran into Daniel, the head wine steward from Crystal Harmony, on his way home.  We had observed a busload of people arrive with a Crystal sign in the window, but it didn’t dawn on us it was from Crystal Harmony.  Daniel recognized us before we saw him, which is amazing in itself.  We could understand if he was expecting to see us, but this was totally out of the blue.  We don’t even know if he knows we live in California.  Is it a small world or what?

Since we realized Crystal thought we were flying to Miami at some point, we began to worry that we might not have a car to pick us up when we arrive in Orlando.  So, we called both numbers they had given us to verify our reservation.  Neither company had a reservation for us today, so we made our own arrangements through the same company we used to get to the airport today.

By this time, we only had about 20 minutes to wait until boarding time.  They called First Class to board and the entire room rushed the gate agent.  Of course, he allowed everyone to board, so the advantage of priority boarding was pointless.  There are only 12 seats in First Class, so it was obvious all 100 of these people should not be in this line.  None of this makes any difference to us, but why offer priority boarding if you aren't going to enforce it?

Dave’s carry-on ended up stored in the closet because it wouldn’t fit under the seat.  At least they didn’t make him check it.  The departure was delayed because some dip checked a diaper bag containing all of their baby’s formula and such.  However, the same person brought on a giant carry-on bag.  She ultimately decided she wanted to swap bags and get the baby’s bag back.  This was literally seconds before the door was to be closed.  At first they weren’t going to look for the bag, but someone on the ramp decided to do it and did eventually find it and bring it on board. 

The flight was uneventful except they ran out of the chicken selection for lunch after asking only two people.  Everyone else ended up with a choice between a bone-dry cheeseburger (which is what we had) and a pasta dish.  They really shouldn’t have even offered a choice on a flight like this, but at least they served a meal.

We both fell asleep at various times, so the time went by really quickly.  It was clear almost the entire trip, so there was actually a view to look at, even after dark.

Arrival was just a few minutes late, no big deal.  When we got to the baggage claim, there were three drivers holding up our name.  Oops!  None of them had ever heard of Crystal Cruises, so we didn’t know which one we had booked and would ultimately be charged for, and which Crystal was paying for.  All of them were willing to give us up and just let us choose one.  We finally figured out which one we thought we had booked this afternoon, so we let her go.  The other two were from Crystal, one for the luggage only and the other for us.  However, we shipped our huge stash of luggage and didn’t need a separate van.  So we ended up taking just the van with everything. 

The driver was very friendly, as is usual in this part of the world.  This area has grown so much that it is unrecognizable from the last time Dave was here 25 years ago.  However, from the moment we arrived until the time we got to our room, we probably didn’t see more than 10 people.  The roads are empty, the hotel is empty, etc.

The desk clerk had a bit of a problem getting our information correct because we arrived just after the concierge floor attendants had gone home.  She wisely decided it would be prudent to start over rather than try to figure out what they had done ahead of time.  When she found out we had worked at Disneyland, she told us all sorts of things she shouldn’t.  For example, they are at below 70% occupancy this week, which is practically empty by Disney standards.  We asked if we needed Priority Seating for the restaurants, but she didn’t think we would this week at all.  Our recommendation would be to make Priority Seating arrangements for any restaurants you can't live without, even in the slow season, just in case.  

After giving us a packet of helpful maps and other information, she sent us off with a bellman who had no clue where he was going.  Not only didn’t he know where he was going, but he couldn’t see where he was going, literally.  He was very pleasant, but he took us first to the wrong floor, then in the wrong direction.  In his defense, however, we have to say that Disney uses the most incoherent numbering system ever for its rooms.  We are in room 4305, which one would naturally assume is on the fourth floor.  Wrong, it is on the third floor.  The first number means it is in building #4, which is the main building.  However, nobody ever explained any of this to us or the bellman.  When we arrived in front of the room we had to stop the bellman from passing it by, but we did eventually make it.

We weren’t sure what kind of room we would end up with since the desk clerk didn’t say anything about it except it is on a concierge floor.  Our reservation said we wanted a non-smoking, king bed, with a water view.  A Magic Kingdom view had been requested, but this is never guaranteed.  We didn’t care what bed configuration we had, which is a good thing because we have two queen beds.  The room doesn’t say it is non-smoking, but there are no ashtrays.  The best part is that we have a dead-on view of Cinderella Castle from our balcony.  This is the most sought after view there is and we have probably the best there is of it. 

The room decor is very nice with a Victorian theme as throughout the hotel.  The bedspreads have various Disney fairies in the pattern, the sofa pillows have teacups featuring characters from Alice in Wonderland, and topiary wallpaper in the foyer and bathroom shows some of the topiaries carved into Disney characters.  There is also a Mickey Mouse lamp on the dresser.  Very cute.  For a hotel in this price range ($600+ per night), the room isn't really anything special, although it is comfortable enough.

Today was the last day for the Christmas decorations, so there is still a 5-story Christmas tree in the lobby and all sorts of lighted garlands and such everywhere.  It’s nice that we got a chance to see some of it before it disappears.

Since we had almost nothing to eat all day, we went down to the 24-hour Gasparilla Grill and Games which is located directly below our room on the ground floor.  There is a convenient elevator just down the hall that serves the pool in the same area, so we don’t have to walk all the way to the lobby to get downstairs.

Although nicely themed, the grill was somewhat grimy and worn.  The service was friendly, but rather inept.   For example, the cashier had no clue how to do a room charge, although two people ahead of us did the same thing.  Rather than ring it up on the computerized register in front of him, he wrote everything down, added it up from prices on a printed list with a calculator, and then hand wrote a charge slip for a signature. 

Our meal of two orders of very tasty chicken strips, fresh melon salad, two giant cookies, a brownie, and two drinks, cost about $35. We hate to see how much a table service meal is around here.  No wonder they serve food on the concierge floors!  Too bad we arrived too late or we could have had that instead and for free, too.

After eating our food and saving some for the morning, we started catching up on the computer and getting ready for bed.  We plan to just wake up whenever we feel like it and will probably head out to Epcot because it is open until 9:00 PM every night.  Everything else is closed by 7:00 PM or earlier.  By the looks of things, they roll up the sidewalks after 10:00 PM anyway.  There was absolutely nobody in sight at 10:30 PM.


monday, january 6th – walt disney world-epcot

There were a couple of things we neglected to mention yesterday.  First was an observation we’re not sure is company policy or not, but after the front desk clerk wiped her nose with a tissue, she immediately took out a hand sanitizer to use before touching anything.  If that was her own idea, it’s a good one, and very considerate.  The other item isn’t quite as good.  We found someone’s underwear hanging on a hook in our closet when we first arrived.  Then tonight we discovered leftover sliced meat in our mini bar refrigerator.  What happened to noticing the details?  And this is the slow season.

Back to today.  We had planned to sleep in today, which we did, but much later than we intended.  It was a bit difficult to sleep because of a constant fog horn sound from outside.  It’s something we are sure we will get used to, but it was somewhat disruptive last night.  Then, at around 7:00 AM and thereafter, we could clearly hear the theme music from the grounds, the train whistle from the Magic Kingdom and the ferry’s whistle.  We’re not complaining, just making observations and excuses for not getting out of the room until 1:30 PM.   Here is the daytime view from our balcony.

We ate the fruit we bought yesterday and set off for Epcot via the monorail. On the way past the concierge desks on our floor, we encountered a group of at least ten of them, none of whom stopped talking among themselves when we approached. Had we actually wanted something, it would have been necessary to interrupt them, which is, in our opinion, unacceptable.  At least one of them should have immediately stopped talking on the off chance an approaching guest needs something.

 It is a beautiful day in the low 70’s, clear and sunny.  It took about 45 minutes to complete the ride to Epcot because of the stops at the Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort.  An unexpected stop along the track provided this view of the Grand FloridianWe then had to transfer to the Epcot monorail at the Transportation and Ticket Center.  There were no crowds at all anywhere, so lines were a non-issue.

We had vouchers to exchange for Annual Passes that will allow us to park hop as often as we like.  There is a bit of a savings if they are purchased ahead, but we don’t know how much.  We do know we saved about $5.00 because the tax rate had changed.  The ticket seller said, “Mickey will pay the difference.”  Our answer to that was, “He can afford it.”  That prompted him to say, “No kidding.”  The ticket seller was extraordinarily  helpful and friendly.  He whipped out a pre-marked map he had made of his favorite spots for attractions, food, etc.  There were no other guests at the ticket booths and none in front of us to enter Epcot.

The entry plaza in front of Spaceship Earth sports huge granite monuments called “Leave a Legacy” where guests may purchase a small spot on a metal plaque for their photo to remain “forever.”  In our opinion, these monuments are an eyesore.  Disney now has photographers, similar to those one would find on a cruise ship, available to take photos of guests in front of major icons.  They aren’t pushy and we think this is a great idea.  We had our photo taken in front of Spaceship Earth, then heard about the photographer’s son who had just returned from Afghanistan.  This tangent caused him to neglect to inform us where to go to collect the photo.  After we prompted him, he gave us a receipt to retrieve the photo when we are ready at the Camera Shop under Spaceship Earth.

The posted wait time for Spaceship Earth was “0” and we walked right on to this signature attraction.  It is a slow-moving audio-animatronic ride through an abbreviated history of mankind that spirals up inside the geodesic sphere that houses the ride.  This is a classic Disney attraction complete with dramatic music and story line, but it is time for an update.  We hear there may be a drastic change in the works for this original attraction.  Although we love these somewhat kitschy Disney attractions, we can see why they are planning to change it. 

One thing that struck us upon entering Epcot is that it is much smaller than we expected.  That isn’t to say it is small, but we had the impression that the pavilions are farther apart than they are.  In fact, some are just a few feet apart.  That’s probably a good thing, or the walking would be ridiculous.

There are many interesting touches that only Disney would do.  For example, even the directional signposts are interesting.  Some are mobiles, others light up, while others spin. There are fiber optic lights embedded in the walkways that were the hit of the party with adults and kids alike.

We didn’t take time today to wander through Innoventions and instead walked past the huge dancing fountain in the central plaza and toward Test Track to get a FastPass for later today.  We stopped for another photo opportunity with the fountain in the background.  There really are no crowds to speak of, but we had read on various websites that even on slow days it is a good idea to use FastPass for this attraction.  The posted stand-by wait time was only 45 minutes and the FastPass return was about an hour away (5:15 – 6:15 PM), but we got a pass anyway.  Then we headed off toward the Universe of Energy.

On the way we passed the nearly completed Mission: Space.  If the attraction inside is anywhere near as interesting as the building itself, it should be great.  We skipped Wonders of Life and went directly to view Ellen’s Energy Adventure.   This was the longest wait we had all day, five minutes, and that was only because it wasn’t quite time for the next show to begin.

The line began moving promptly and we were inside within seconds.  The first part is a pre-show where Ellen introduces the concept of the attraction.  Bill Nye the Science Guy also stars in the attraction.  The premise is that Ellen falls asleep watching Jeopardy, begins to dream and becomes a contestant against her college roommate, a stuck-up know-it-all played by Jamie Lee Curtis.  Since Ellen knows nothing about where energy came from, she is taken back to prehistoric times by Bill Nye to learn about it.  Guests enter a theater to watch another brief wide-screen movie that continues the story. 

After the film, the theater breaks up into six sections and the guests move in their huge traveling theater sections past what is essentially a souped up version of Primeval World at Disneyland.  The animatronic part is rather short and we end up in another wide-screen theater for another film on energy sources.  From there we travel back to the original theater where Ellen promptly beats her rival at Jeopardy with her new-found knowledge.  It was cute, but too heavy on films with not enough action.

Epcot is divided into two sections, Future World and World Showcase.  World Showcase stays open until 9:00 PM, so we thought it would be better to see a few more attractions in Future World (closes at 7:00 PM) before our FastPass return for Test Track.

We wandered to the other side of Future World, stopping to watch the musical show put on by the fountain in the plaza.  There were some impressive antics by the waterworks, then we moved on to take some pictures of the front of The Living Seas, The Land, and finally Journey Into Your Imagination.  This attraction was recently revamped after an unsuccessful attempt to update the original show. Apparently, that resulted in numerous complaints that it was too odd and too short.  This latest version is still short, but it restores the popular Figment character and cleans up the story somewhat.  Guests board short trains of cars that stop briefly for each scene.  The premise is that the Imagination Institute is hosting an open house to show off its latest developments.  Of course, Figment gets in the way and everything goes awry.  So, we end up on a weird journey through our imagination.  The ride is amusing and typical Disney.  We would gladly ride this again.  This attraction was also a walk-on with no wait whatsoever.

Also part of the Imagination pavilion is Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, a 3D presentation.  The story here is that we are attending the Inventor of the Year Awards and “something goes terribly wrong.”  The audience ends up being shrunk and menaced by mice, a giant snake, and then sneezed on, complete with water effect, by a giant dog.  The 3D effects were outstanding, but the film is showing its age and needs a new print.  This was also a fun attraction.  There was no wait for this either.

At this point it was time to return for our Test Track ride, stopping briefly along the way to take some nighttime shots of the fountains in front of Imagination.  Most of the Christmas lights are still up, including the tree and an every-changing archway of lights that leads to World Showcase.  We’re glad we had the chance to see at least some of the décor.

The stand-by wait time for Test Track was only about 30 minutes, but the FastPass line was maybe 10 minutes, if that.  Guests enter what appears to be an automobile testing facility, attend a briefing about how they test new models, and then board vehicles that are used to conduct the road tests.  This is a mild thrill ride with speeds up to 60 miles an hour on the outside track that circles the building.  It was fun, but only because we had virtually no wait.  Ordinarily the wait is several hours and there is no way this ride is worth that much of a wait.  It is a good premise for a GM sponsored attraction.

We took a few more nighttime photos and went back toward Spaceship Earth to see if we want to purchase the photos taken earlier.  At first glance, the system seemed to work fine, but we ran into several more inept cast members, continuing today's trend.  Everyone is pleasant and friendly, but either their training is lacking or they simply don’t care.  A cast member helped us view our photos on a computer screen, cropped them and made some adjustments.  Then he gave us a receipt and told us to pay the cashier.  It was easier to charge the purchase to our room than it was at the hotel itself, but having the package sent to the hotel, which is supposedly a common thing, was a time-consuming nightmare.  First we were handed a form to fill out.  No problem, except the man next to us, who had been waiting for his photos to print for quite a while, asked why his pictures hadn’t printed.  The woman who was helping us went to poke at the printers.  The cast member standing directly in front of us did nothing for several minutes until Dave asked her if there was something else they needed.  Then she tried to fill out the form, but didn’t know the location number where she works.  No one else there knew either.  If we ever get the pictures, we’ll be amazed.  We were going to ask how long it  takes for delivery, but decided to cut our losses and leave.  We’ll figure that out later.

By now it was nearly 7:00 PM, so we started walking around World Showcase looking for some food.  There aren’t a lot of choices unless one wants a full, sit-down meal and has Priority Seating for it.  Even with the low attendance, there were lines at most restaurants with no apparent rhyme or reason to them.  We didn’t want anything more than take-out anyway, so we kept walking toward the Yakitori House in Japan.  World Showcase is beautiful and very well themed, but it is quite dark at night.  They really could use more light on the walkways to help guests dodge strollers and such.  We didn’t stop at any of the countries along the way, but we do plan to come back another day to shop and attend the attractions.

We found the Yakitori House in the Japan pavilion with little trouble.  Since it was quite chilly out by now, everyone was inside the small space. Bill went to claim a table while Dave went up to the window to order two Kushi-Yaki combinations.  It would have been easier if the cast member at the counter had looked up or acknowledged his presence, but after moving to the other line he was able to place the order.  When someone walked up to the comatose woman who didn’t serve Dave, she did wait on him, so her line was open.  Guess she didn’t like Dave's looks or something.  There really is an oddly poor sense of service so far everywhere we have been.  Our two orders of food consisted of a skewer each of shrimp, chicken and beef, accompanied by steamed broccoli and sticky rice.  We also got two large Cokes.  Charging to our room was easy and hassle free.  The total for this order was slightly over $20.00.  We were satisfied with the food and the quantity received.

Next door to Japan is the American Adventure, so we wandered there with the intention of viewing the 30-minute show.  While we were approaching the building, the Tapestry of Dreams parade began, so we stood along the empty route to watch this interesting cavalcade.  It consists of giants puppet contraptions and huge rotating drums that is sort of like The Lion King concept on Broadway.  The performers were enthusiastic and did a good job interacting with the sparse crowd.  There was plenty of space along the route, even arriving at the last second.

At this point is was 8:10 PM, so we went into the American Adventure for the 8:15 PM show.  In the huge lobby there is a display of a flag saved from the rubble of the World Trade Center, plus huge paintings depicting scenes in American history. 

We were ushered through a large doorway, up an escalator and into the enormous American Adventure Theater for the multi-media presentation.  It is difficult to describe this extravaganza, but it is basically a wide screen movie used as a backdrop for some of the most life-like audio-animatronics one will ever see.  The story is narrated by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, the latter complete with a smoking cigar.  They are joined by great people in American history in a variety of scenes.  The presentation ends with a moving montage of historic figures and scenes of American life shown to the strains of the inspiring, “Golden Dreams.”  This is Disney showmanship at its best and should not be missed.  If there is an epitome of audio-animatronic presentations, this is it.

The show let out just ten minutes before the beginning of Illuminations, a spectacular presentation in the World Showcase Lagoon.  Dave knew that a good viewing spot was between Italy and Germany, so we headed in that direction.  Our point was proven about the darkness of the walkways when Dave tripped and fell on the steps of a bridge.  He wasn’t seriously injured, but did find out later he had skinned his knees.  Considering how diligent we are about watching where we are walking, we would think many people would trip in the dark.

We didn’t know it until the show began, but we found a perfect, unobstructed view of the presentation.  It begins with a burst of fireworks in the center of the lagoon where a huge fireball dances to the music.  It is at least 100’ across the water, but we could feel the heat from this fire.  There are also fountain and laser effects.  An enormous rotating Earth with video screens making up the continents, floats out to the enter of the lagoon and becomes the centerpiece of the remainder of the show.  Lights outline the World Showcase pavilions at various times during the program and some spectacular laser effects add to the excitement.  This is a show not to be missed.  It ends as the Earth opens like the petals of a flower and an enormous torch lights up the center of the lagoon, joined  by the flaming cauldrons that ring the lagoon.  Beware of the direction the wind is blowing.  We were rained on several times by ashes from the fireworks.

Epcot closes as this presentation begins, so everyone leaves at the same time after the show.  We think at least a few refreshment stands should be open to serve the crowds as they leave, but it didn’t really bother us.  Just seems like Disney is missing a few extra bucks.

We followed the crowd through Future World and out to the monorail to the TTC.  We were able to get on the first train that came in, but we had to stand for the short ride.  Almost no one transferred at the TTC to the resort monorail, so that portion of the journey was fast and easy.  When the monorail cast members stopped talking among themselves long enough, they kicked some guests out of one section of the train to admit someone in a wheelchair.  It was clearly marked that the specific train was designated for handicapped guests, but the woman who was asked to move had to make a scene over it.

Upon arrival back at the Grand Floridian, we made our way to the concierge floor and past the two concierges engaged in conversation between them to the point they didn’t even see us come out of the elevator and walk directly in front of them.  Let’s face it, we’re hard to miss, so there is no excuse.  They should have stopped talking the moment the elevator doors opened on the off chance there might be a guest who needs something.

We arrived too late for the complimentary food in the lounge, so we ate our leftover cookie and brownie from last night and basically called it a night.  The maid had folded a washcloth into a toothbrush holder and the beds were turned down.  Unfortunately, there was also a huge pile of dirty linen piled outside our door so large that we had to push it aside to open the door.  None of this stuff bothers us, we’re just commenting in case it might bother someone reading this who would be annoyed by such bad show.  Slipshod service like this is generally not something one would experience in a hotel of this caliber in the real world.  We do think a lot of things we experienced today should have been handled better, but our guess from the looks of some of the cast members is that Disney is desperate and hires just about anyone who applies these days. 

Here are some photos of our room, in case you are interested:  Room Photo 1, Room Photo 2.


tuesday, january 7th – walt disney world-magic kingdom

Anyone who is a light sleeper or who wishes to sleep later than 6:00 AM, should choose a different resort than the Grand Floridian.  Besides the constant fog horn sound we have mentioned previously, the theme music from the grounds begins at 6:00 AM, the soundproofing between rooms is minimal, and the maids seem to be having a party in the hallway most of the morning.  We have never actually seen a maid in the hallway, but they certainly are noisy early on.

Something we didn’t mention yesterday is the overall maintenance condition we have witnessed.  Honestly, we didn’t mention it because we saw nothing of the poor upkeep we had read about.  Epcot in general and all of the attractions we visited were in like-new condition.  Pathways were clean, landscaping tidy, etc.  The only areas we saw that maybe needed a paint touch up were in queues where one would expect it would be difficult to keep things looking perfect.  Otherwise, we thought it looked great.  If you think we are mentioning this as a prelude to what we experienced today in the Magic Kingdom, you guessed correctly.

We visited the concierge lounge in search of food, but found only a basket of cookies and some cheese spread.  No kidding, that’s it.  In addition to coffee and tea, they had two kinds of lemonade and a pitcher of iced tea, plus a tray of bottled water.  No ice was in sight.  Maybe this is due to the slow season, but there is no way enough food is provided to get by without restaurant visits as we had been led to believe by reading various reviews of the hotel. We are in the main building, by the way.

The weather today is a bit cooler, but still clear and sunny.  A jacket was necessary all day, but it wasn’t unpleasant.  We didn’t exactly rush to the Magic Kingdom and so arrived via monorail at around 1:00 PM.  We found it a bit busier than Epcot was yesterday, but certainly not crowded.  With the exception of Tomorrowland, which we will discuss shortly, the exterior maintenance in the Magic Kingdom is rather good.  We saw no evidence of peeling paint or neglect, however, it is painfully obvious that the most attention is lavished on the shops and not the attractions in this regard.

There were no delays in passing through the cursory bag check by security and we found ourselves in front of the famous floral Mickey embellished by the 100 Years logo and a topiary of Mickey Mouse.  Main Street looks as it always has, with Cinderella’s Castle looming in the distance.  Our focus, based on information from various websites, was to stop by Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin to pick up a FastPass.  We stopped on the bridge leading into Tomorrowland for another photo of the castle, then continued on toward our destination.

The posted stand by wait time for Buzz being only 5 minutes, we jumped in line.  The wait was just a couple of minutes and we were off defending the universe.  This is a cute ride, but we wouldn’t wait hours for it.  Timekeeper and Carousel of Progress were “Closed Temporarily” with no signs out front informing guests of this fact.  They just looked abandoned.

The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland makeover is far more appealing than Disneyland’s dismal failure.  We thought the atmosphere was interesting and a good concept.  Unfortunately, the land is in dire need of a thorough cleaning and a paint job.  It simply looks terrible.  More on this later.

Next stop was Space Mountain, also with a stand by wait time of only 5 minutes.  No need for a FastPass, so we got in line.  This version of the ride is much rougher than Disneyland’s incarnation, but nonetheless enjoyable.  We much prefer the side-by-side seating Disneyland offers, plus the added soundtrack.

We thought a serene trip around Tomorrowland was in order, so we boarded the Tomorrowland Transit Authority with no wait at all.  The condition of the station was abysmal!  Paint was peeling, ledges were filthy, trash was piled up in areas not easily reached by sweepers.  All in all, really disgusting.  How hard can it be to bring out a hose and rinse it off once in a while?  The ride itself was enjoyable and made us long for the good old Peoplemover at Disneyland.  Judging by the number of guests riding this attraction, it does appear that it appeals to many of them.  None of the trains were empty in spite of the light crowds.

From here we went directly to Alien Encounter, again with no wait.  The pre-show area was in dire need of a good dusting, but everything was functional.  We enjoyed this attraction, but a young child behind us was absolutely terrorized.  We’d hate to be her parents dealing with the inevitable nightmares. 

We continued on toward Fantasyland to pick up FastPasses for Winnie the Pooh.  The posted wait time was 45 minutes with a FastPass return a little over an hour away.  FastPass in hand, we took a ride on It’s A Small World.  The condition of this signature attraction was appalling.  The queue area was so dusty that the dirt was hanging in tendrils from the edges of the exit ramp.  The colors of the banners above were dull and they were coated with dust.  Railings were completely rusted through and the boats were so faded and stained it was impossible to discern the original color.  There also seemed to be something amiss with the belts that propel the boats through the loading area.  The ride was so bumpy that it actually made one of us bite our lip.  The interior of the ride was in reasonably good condition though.  We would give Disneyland’s version the edge on this one.

The stand by wait time for Peter Pan was 60 minutes, so we skipped it.  Snow White had a posted time of 15 minutes, but the line seemed to be far longer than that, so we bypassed it also in favor of a stop for food at Pinocchio Village Haus.  We ordered two ¼ lb. Cheeseburgers, fries, and Cokes.  Cost was about $16.00.  The food was edible, but that’s about all we can say for it.

We still had some time to kill before our Pooh return time opened up, so we wandered over to the Haunted Mansion.  The posted wait time was 5 minutes, FastPass was not available or necessary.  This is a classic attraction, not to be missed.  Everything was properly maintained and functional.  We would give this version a slight edge over Disneyland’s original.

Next up was a viewing of the Hall of Presidents.  There was about a 20 minute wait for the next show, which was less than one-quarter full, if that.  The latest incarnation of this show is quite impressive and should be seen by more people.

Time for our return for a ride on Pooh, so we walked back across the park to Fantasyland.  With FastPass there was no wait at all.  We thought this was a cute attraction, but would not want to wait hours for it.  It’s a good enough replacement for Mr. Toad.

It was about 4:00 PM by now and we had covered most of the E-ticket attractions with time to spare.  Next destination, Frontierland to check the wait time for Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Railroad.  Splash’s wait time was only 5 minutes with no FastPass offered, so we picked up FastPass for Big Thunder, which had a wait time of 45 minutes posted.

Maintenance at Splash Mountain was really lacking.  From the beginning of the queue, the entire ride smelled strongly of mildew and rot.  The paint was faded and chipped, the logs were water stained and dull.  All of the animatronics and effects seemed to be in working order, so we do think they are continuing to keep up maintenance on the mechanical aspect of things.  However, the mildew was in evidence on many of the show scenes.  Quite of few of the characters’ clothing was stained with mildew as well.  The ride itself was fun.  We would give the track layout on this version the advantage over Disneyland’s, but we think the animatronics in the original are superior.

We still had some time to kill before our return window for Big Thunder, so we walked over to Pirates of the Caribbean and boarded with no wait whatsoever.  Maintenance on the interior of this attraction was also poor and way overdue.  Time for a complete makeover as they did at Disneyland.  We prefer Disneyland’s version to this one, but it was enjoyable.

Time for a ride on Big Thunder, so we redeemed our FastPass and joined the line.  The 45-minute wait for stand by was manufactured by cutting down on trains and using only one side of the loading dock.  Even with FastPass the wait was about fifteen minutes. Again, we found the lack of upkeep disappointing.  The paint was so faded on the trains that the original color was long gone.  The ride itself was enjoyable, but again, we would give Disneyland’s version the advantage.

Our main purpose in coming to the Magic Kingdom today was to view SpectroMagic at 6:15 PM.  This time of year it runs only on Tuesday and Saturday, so we thought it best to get it done today rather than on a busy Saturday.  With a few minutes to kill and nobody waiting along the street to speak of, we headed over for the last show at the Enchanted Tiki Room - Under New Management at 6:00 PM.  Only about 15 others were in attendance.  We rather liked this updated version for what it is.  Better than ripping it out entirely if that’s the alternative.  Honestly, we didn’t expect to like it, but we thought it was fine as long as the original exists somewhere.

It was 6:15 PM at this point, so we wandered over to Frontierland to find a spot to watch the parade.  No need to worry about finding a place because 75% of the space along the ropes was completely empty.  We found some benches to wait on until just before the parade arrived, at which point we moved up to the rope with no problem.  Even after the parade began there was plenty of room right up front for anyone who came up.  We thoroughly enjoyed the parade and long for the days when something similar appears at Disneyland again.  SpectroMagic Photos:  Fanfare, Peacock, Garden, Ursula, Fantasia, Finale.

The park closes with fireworks at 7:00 PM, so we moved closer to the castle for a view. We weren’t in the best location, but we did have a perfect view of Tinkerbell’s flight and the changing colors of the castle.  They really need to update the fireworks show with something similar to that of Disneyland or Disneyland Paris.  Had we not seen those, we would have thought this was fine, but it pales in comparison.

We hung back a bit for the “crowd” to dissipate, then started slowly making our way out of the park.  We did stop briefly to look in the Disney Gallery shop near the end of Main Street, but didn’t find anything we couldn’t live without.

There was a huge line for the express monorail to the parking lot, but the resort monorail was somewhat more manageable.  The trains arrived almost continuously, so we were on board in less than ten minutes.  They really do have this down to a science.  We were back at the Grand Floridian within 45 minutes of the park’s closing.

We were both extremely tired from lack of sleep and walking all day, but we went in search of food.  We weren’t in the mood for anything fancy, so we had hoped to find something in the concierge lounge.  Sorry, nothing at all at 8:15 PM.  We went down to Gasparilla Grill and picked up an individual cheese pizza, roast beef sandwiches, two small salads, a chocolate shake, two fruit bowls for tomorrow morning, three muffins for tomorrow, a milk and an orange juice.  This set us back about $45.00.  Service was a bit more organized than it was yesterday.

We brought the food up to our room to eat.  By this time, they had set out some desserts in the lounge, so we added a few to our dinner.  Again, we wouldn’t consider what was offered to be sufficient for a meal.  In the ten minutes the food had been set out since the last time we looked, the entire supply of finger sandwiches had been wiped out.

The Electrical Water Pageant sort of went by our room, so we had a nice view during our meal, after which we promptly crashed.

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wednesday, january 8th – walt disney world - animal kingdom & epcot

After filling ourselves with the fruit bowls and muffins we purchased last night, which were very good, we headed down to the bus stop for transport to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  The weather today is the same as yesterday, breezy, cool, and sunny.

A word about Disney transportation…while both the busses and monorail transportation are well organized, clean, and efficient, it is rather time consuming to use them.  We have often waited 20 minutes or more for a bus.  That combined with the actual driving time usually means it takes at least 45 minutes to get from one point to another.  We are here long enough that this isn’t really an issue, but anyone who is trying to squeeze in several theme parks into a limited stay might want to consider taxis or a rental car.

We waited about 20 minutes for a bus to arrive going to Animal Kingdom, which is about a ten-minute drive away.  Disney really should add a monorail link to this park if they expect to build attendance because it is rather isolated.  Once on board the very clean bus, we traveled down the main entrance road toward the park.  We had planned to visit Animal Kingdom Lodge, but we somehow forgot to get off at that stop, so it will have to wait for another day.

The entrance to Disney’s Animal Kingdom is rather unassuming and hidden in the forest.  Once inside the gates, guests choose various winding pathways through the lush vegetation.  The landscaping alone is almost worth the price of admission.  Even the light poles sprout tropical plants.  There are animals in small habitats along the trails, but there were very few animals visible.  We doubt many guests even notice them because the signs are very small and inconspicuous.

Once through the Oasis, we crossed a bridge over the Discovery River to reach the core of Animal Kingdom, Discovery Island and it’s icon, The Tree of Life.  The tree is intricately carved with hundreds of animal figures cleverly entwined in its gnarled roots.  They need to do something about the obviously fake green color of the plastic leaves because the whole thing sticks out like a sore thumb.  Maybe that’s the point, but the tree is so tall that it would hardly be lost in the forest.

Although the walkways look crowded in the photos, the longest posted wait time for anything was 5 minutes.  No FastPass stations were operating as there was no need for it.  The walkways appear crowded in our photos because of the narrow design.  We would hate to try to negotiate this park on a hot, crowded summer day.  They do have misting fans strategically located along the paths, but we would guess they are of limited effectiveness in such a large park.

Our first stop was It’s Tough to be a Bug, a 3D attraction housed under the Tree of Life.  The queue winds its way through the roots of the tree and eventually underground to a bug’s world.  The walk to the entrance took longer than the actual wait, which was about 5 minutes until the next show started.  In addition to the charming 3D movie featuring characters from A Bug’s Life, the attraction features a few audio-animatronic characters, scents, and sensory experiences we won’t spoil for those who have not seen this show.  We enjoyed the show, as did the audience.

We worked our way back toward the first “land”, Dinoland, USA.  The various sections of Animal Kingdom radiate out from Discovery Island.  They have no internal connections to other lands, so a visit here requires a lot of backtracking and walking.  The signage is adequate and we only had to consult a map once.  Entering Dinoland, guests pass under a skeleton of a huge dinosaur that houses a play area.  To the left is the new Chester and Hester’s Dinorama, a recreation of a tacky roadside carnival, complete with midway games and typical rides.  While we agree with critics that this area is rather incongruous, the themeing in itself is quite detailed, right down to the cracked asphalt roadway and rusted old cars parked in the lot.  We didn’t partake in any of the attractions here, but it was fun to look at and note the interesting details.  We do think Disney needs to concentrate more on designing attractions rather than pretty eye candy, but we have to admit this area looks great.

We veered to the right to visit Dinosaur, one of the park’s few major attractions.  It utilizes the same technology as the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland.  Guests enter a natural history museum, pass 50’s style exhibits and then venture into a new wing where the curators have devised a way to send guests back in time.  Of course, “something goes terribly wrong” and we are sent careening through a meteor shower while encountering ferocious creatures along the way.  This is a fun attraction, but many of the effects are rather stiff and cheesy.  Half of the attraction is so dark there really isn’t anything to see.  In our opinion, this is a bit of a waste of the expensive technology employed.  However, we did enjoy the ride.

After Dinosaur, we wandered through Dinorama and into the newest land, Asia.  Guests cross an authentically themed bridge over the Discovery River.  The themeing in this park is absolutely incredible.  Perhaps it is lost on guests who haven’t traveled to these exotic locales, but take it from us, they have hit all of them right on the head.  Wires dangle every which was from telephone poles, the streets are rutted, weeds sprout from the tops of ramshackle buildings, etc.  The attention to detail here is outstanding.

Animal habitats resemble temples under restoration.  They need to do a better job of labeling these exhibits because no one seemed to realize they were anything except more elaborate themeing.  Along the riverbanks, they have even placed laundry on the stone steps.  Nothing is overlooked in the details.  One could spend hours just examining the amazing scenery.

Asia is the location of another major attraction, Kali River Rapids.  Guests get soaked on this ride, so we opted not to ride.  We don’t mind getting splashed, but soaked is another thing entirely.  The rafts have a covered section in the center for guests to store items they wish to keep dry.  We walked around to the exit of the attraction, passing more elaborately themed structures, but viewing the exit and the guests wringing out their clothing only convinced us we had done the right thing by passing this up.

Adjacent to Asia is Africa, which consists of a ramshackle village authentic down to the last detail.  Well, maybe not all of the details because the bathrooms are clean and nobody grabs at you to sell trinkets.

This area is home to the Kilimanjaro Safari, an amazingly accurate recreation of a safari trek through the savannah.  There is a story line centering around poaching and trying to prevent it, but we thought that it was a bit out of place among the real live animals on display.  Guests board large safari trucks with a live guide who drives them through the various scenes.  The roadway looks like a rutted mud path, but is really a concrete recreation.  Since it is cool out today, we saw many animals up close and personal:  Giraffes, Rhinos, Flamingos, Elephants, and more.  The habitats for the animals are the most realistic we have ever seen.  Zoos with far less money than Disney must be green with envy.  You all know we are hard to impress, but we were IMPRESSED.

At the exit of this attraction is an exploration trail where guests view Bengal Tigers and Gorillas, again in outstanding natural displays.  The tigers are housed in what appears to be an authentic temple ruin.  Along the way are various animals in the most natural habitat possible.  Cast members provide brief explanations and answer questions.  There are several of these exploration trails throughout the park, but we have lost track of exactly where they are located or what we saw.

We didn’t attend either of the live shows.  One is an exotic bird show, the other is Tarzan Rocks, a jungle rock concert concept.  We also skipped the train to Rafiki’s Conservation Station where various ideas regarding conservation are presented.

We’re not sure exactly when we arrived at this park, but it was likely around 11:30 AM.  It is now 1:30 PM and we have seen all of the major attractions and walked the entire property.  While the park is certainly beautiful, Disney needs to get snappy and add attractions to this park pronto.  We realize this elaborate décor costs money, but we doubt many guests on a budget are willing to pay the high admission cost just for pretty scenery.  Since we have annual passes, we don’t care, but for a day visitor the price is simply too high.

We stopped for some fruit smoothies ($3.50 for about 10 ounces) and sat on a rustic concrete bench to watch the guests and take in the scenery.  Have we mentioned enough how authentic the scenery is?  Even the restroom building is themed to resemble a private residence with shops below.

After reviving with our drinks, we browsed the shops.  The merchandise selection in every shop at Walt Disney World is generally the same.  It doesn’t seem to matter what the underlying theme is. For example, in a shop in the most ramshackle section of Africa, one will find Disney Princess paraphernalia.  Can we say sore thumb?  Otherwise, the shops are full of t-shirts, plush, hats, and the usual Disney merchandise.  To be fair, there is usually a token section of whatever the theme happens to be, but by far the vast majority of the items are exactly the same from shop to shop.

We did find a couple of items to purchase.  The cast member offered to send the items to the hotel, which we did.  No inept service in this park.  Everyone is uniformly enthusiastic, friendly, efficient and knowledgeable about whatever it is they do.  Every sales person asked if we wanted our purchases delivered to the hotel, which is a first.  We have always had to bring up the subject on our own.

With nothing else of interest to us, we took another ride on Dinosaur and It’s Tough to be a Bug, with no wait.  The wait time on Dinosaur at 3:00 PM was down to zero minutes.  After this we worked our way back toward the entrance to the park.  The animal-theme Christmas tree still stands out front where they have also installed a shop attempting to unload holiday decorations and ornaments.  Unlike everywhere else on the planet, nothing was on sale.

After finding our way to the bus stop, we waited alone for more than 20 minutes for a bus to Epcot.  Several busses came and went for the Disney/MGM Studios and the TTC, but we’re assuming that is because they are in closer proximity to Animal Kingdom.

Epcot is about a fifteen minute ride away with no traffic whatsoever.  There were quite a few people arriving at Epcot at this time, but it was by no means crowded.  It was, if it’s possible, even less crowded inside than a few days ago.

Our goal was to attend some of the attractions we had skipped last time and then have dinner.  Walking all day and a lack of enough sleep had taken its toll on us by this time, but we pressed on anyway.  First stop was The Living Seas pavilion.

Guests enter a round foyer with a sort of circlevision screen upon which is projected an image of water.  There was, however, no preshow here, just a choice of going to directly to Seabase Alpha via the Hydrolators or viewing a 7-minute movie about the seas.  Guests went either way split about 50/50.  We viewed the movie since we had never been here before.  We don’t remember anything about it other than it was about how the seas were formed and how important they are.  The ceiling of the theater was severely stained with mildew, but otherwise this pavilion is in the same immaculate condition as everything else at Epcot.

After the movie, guests board small “elevators” called Hydrolators that give the illusion of diving to the depths of the ocean to access an undersea research station.  The effect is convincing enough, but could be better.  Once in the station, there are various rooms containing display cylinders of marine life, again in immaculate condition.  Apparently, there used to be a ride that took guests beneath the large tank in the center of the attraction, but this has been walled off and is no longer mentioned.

Honestly, this attraction pales in comparison to some of the newer aquariums in the U.S. and around the world.  They keep pointing out how big the main tank is, but it just isn’t very impressive.  Perhaps it was 20 years ago, but it isn’t all that interesting now.  Our opinion is that this pavilion is rather dated and needs to be revamped.

Hunger called us to the Coral Reef Restaurant that we had heard good things about.  We arrived at 4:20 PM, so we had to wait until the dinner hour of 4:30 PM to be seated.  We did not have priority seating arrangements, but they would not have been necessary even for a later arrival.  We were seated directly in front of the huge glass panels into the main tank.  During our meal a dive session with guests included was in progress.  The leader brought the guests to the windows to wave at the diners.

Our very friendly and efficient server informed us of the day’s special and told us of her favorite items. We ordered some blended drinks, which were outstanding.  A party including four children and about five adults arrived and proceeded to order cheese pizzas for everyone.  Mind you, this is a fish restaurant and none of those items were on the menu.  They were accommodated however.

At our server’s suggestion, we both ordered the Seared Ahi Tuna and one order of the Crab Fritter appetizer.  The appetizer was satisfactory, but nothing special.  The Ahi was outstanding and some of the best we have ever tasted.  It was beautifully presented atop pureed ginger carrots that had a spicy tang.  For dessert we had a sampler of three sorbets and a cheesecake that sounded like an odd flavor, but was very tasty.  The sorbet came with an elaborate display of green “kelp” and a macadamia nut encrusted cookie in the shape of a seahorse.  The server quizzed Dave on what the three flavors of sorbet were.  He knew right away that one was apple, the other strawberry, but couldn’t place the third one.  He finally guessed pineapple, which was correct.  She said no one ever figures out all three of them.  This was by far the best service we have received at Walt Disney World to date.  It is also the most expensive, $96.00 before tip.

Next stop was The Land. We left the Circle of Life film for another day and continued down the ramp to Living with the Land, a boat ride through the greenhouses and a diorama of mildly educational scenes about how we utilize and abuse the land.  This attraction has FastPass, but from what we could see this is simply a way to save manpower and cut down on the number of boats.  We waited about fifteen minutes, during which no boats at all came in to the station.  The interior of the pavilion looks pretty much like a food court from the 80’s.  It is in very good condition, but again, this pavilion is in desperate need of a revamp.  Living with the Land was enjoyable for what it is, but we wouldn’t kill to see it again.

At the exit to Living with the Land is the entrance to Food Rocks, an audio-animatronic show presented by various healthy food items resembling famous rock stars.  Up until the show actually started, we were the only two guests in attendance.  It was almost 7:00 PM, but it appears that the configuration of the entrance causes guests to bypass it without even seeing it.  The show was, well, it’s hard to say.  It wasn’t bad, but looked like it was done on a budget and the story tried too hard to get the point across.  Plus, we’re not quite sure what healthy eating has to do with The Land.  We wouldn’t return to this attraction either.

It was dark by now, but we headed over to ride Journey Into Imagination with Figment again.  There were only four other guests in the immediate vicinity and on the ride itself.  We really enjoyed this attraction.  Although we never saw the original incarnation, this must be a big improvement over the version without Figment because he seems to be the major entertainment factor in the show.  We highly recommend this ride.

The large Christmas tree at the entrance to World Showcase had been removed and the planter re-done with new annuals since our previous visit a few days ago.

Although we were quite tired of walking by this point, we decided to do a couple of World Showcase pavilions.  We started with Mexico’s El Rio de Tiempo, a sort of Mexican version of It’s a Small World combined with rear-projected movie scenes like the old If You Had Wings attraction that used to be in Tomorrowland.  Boy, does this ride need an update or what?  Talk about stereotyping.  The fireworks effect in the final scene was good though.  This is the only World Showcase pavilion that is completely inside.  The boats travel past a Mexican restaurant ala Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.  The center of the pavilion resembles a village square selling every manner of Mexican crafts and souvenirs.  We checked the price on a brightly painted ceramic sun that we had seen in Mexico for $2.00.  It was $15.00 here.

Next to Mexico is the Norway pavilion and it’s attraction, Maelstrom.  This ride has FastPass, but it was not operational and there was no wait.  By the way, we don’t have any photos of World Showcase yet because we have always visited at night.  We promise we’ll get there during the day and bring you come pictures!  Maelstrom is a boat ride through Norwegian tales of trolls and such.  When we invade a troll’s forest, he sends us backwards over a waterfall.  A very short waterfall, however.  Other than the interesting way the boats are turned backwards, there isn’t much excitement here and the ride is very short.  Again, an update should be in the works or we can’t imagine why FastPass will be necessary in the future.  The ride ends with a 5-minute movie about the Spirit of Norway, which 80% of the guests walked right through as soon as the doors opened.  We viewed the film and found it mildly interesting.

After this we decided to beat the crowds and head toward the main entrance.  We stopped to shop along the way for all sorts of stuff we don’t need, will never use, and probably won’t be able to imagine what the heck we were thinking when we bought it.  However, the service was friendly and everyone offered the hotel delivery service.  Again, all of the shops sell basically the same plush, t-shirts and such.  We always buy something we can turn into a Christmas ornament, assuming there isn’t a ready-made version.  We found some ornaments to buy with the 100 Years logo, but we still wanted something with the Epcot logo alone.  We searched all of the shops and found nothing.  Everything is either 100 Years or WDW generic.  Finally we asked someone working in Mouse Gear, a huge character merchandise shop in the center of Future World.  She immediately found keychains that would suffice for the purpose.  However, the entire stock of Epcot logo merchandise consisted of two kinds of keychain and a sweatshirt.  Let’s get back to the park-specific merchandise and ditch some of the generic plush, OK?

Some advice if you visit Epcot, leave before the end of Illuminations!  We exited the park at around 8:45 PM and found virtually no one waiting for the monorail to the TTC.  The same was true when we transferred from the Epcot monorail to the resort monorail at the TTC.  No wait at all.  Just fifteen minutes later and the wait would be at least 30 minutes just to board.

Back at the Grand Floridian we dragged ourselves to the elevator to the third floor.  There, we found a concierge standing directly in front of the elevator doors.  He said nothing to us and did nothing to acknowledge our presence, in spite of the fact that we were less than 2 feet away from him.  Another young man stood behind his desk looking like a deer caught in headlights. He also said nothing as we passed him.  When we turned around to go up the stairs to check the food selection, we found that the concierge at the elevator had returned to picking his face in the shiny brass plate on the wall.  Charming.

We did find the dessert selection to be much improved tonight.  There were several trays of mini fruit tarts, fancy individual pastries, cupcakes, a basket of cookies and pitchers of milk.  This was a reasonable amount of food, but since it is rather inconsistent it really isn’t something that should be relied upon.

Immediately after snacking, we went to bed and promptly crashed.  The maid had formed our washcloth into a cute animal.

 Birthday in a Box

thursday, january 9th – walt disney world - disney/mgm studios

Although we woke up early, as usual, we didn’t venture out until around 11:30 AM.  All we had for breakfast were the two bananas we got from the concierge lounge last night, but we wanted to get started with our day.  It is warmer today than it has been this week, but it is no where near being hot.  No jackets necessary today though.

We arrived at the bus stop at the same time a bus to the Studios did, so no time was wasted in transit today.  The drive took about fifteen minutes and we were at the gate.  There were only about eight other guests on the bus.  So far, every bus we have taken to a theme park has gone there directly with no stops.

The scene is set at the Studios with a main gate resembling the façade of the Pan Pacific Auditorium.  Immediately inside the gate is the “Crossroads of the World” monument topped by Mickey Mouse.  The themeing here is incredible in its recreation of old Hollywood.  Anyone familiar with Los Angeles or Hollywood will recognize most of the buildings along Hollywood Boulevard.  Shops are housed in buildings such as an old gas station, a craftsman bungalow, art deco office buildings, etc.  There are “Streetmosphere” performers along the road to provide another touch of authenticity.  Although Sunset Boulevard, the route to the Tower of Terror attraction, looks crowded in the photo, the park was no more crowded than any have been this week. 

We headed directly for the Tower of Terror to pick up a FastPass, but upon arrival we discovered this wasn’t necessary.  The posted wait time was 13 minutes all day.  The details of this derelict hotel and its overgrown grounds are astonishing.  The queue winds through the gardens, past a ruined fountain, and into the dust and cobweb covered lobby.  The scene is set as though the people in the lobby just vanished and left their belongings behind.  Guests are ushered into a cobweb filled library for the pre-show introduced by Rod Serling himself on a black and white TV in the corner.  Cast members wear old bellhop costumes and attempt to adhere to the theme with their attitude.  Most of them really seem to get into it.

From the library, we proceed in to the basement boiler room to board freight elevators.  These elevators take us up to view the ghostly apparitions of five guests who vanished when the hotel was struck by lighting.  After the guests disappear, the hallway transforms into a very convincing star field with a window at the end.  The window starts to rotate and float toward us when it suddenly shatters and we move up another few floors.  At this point, the doors open and we are transported into the Twilight Zone.  The elevator car rolls into complete darkness and begins to drop suddenly.  A variety of spooky scenes appear and the car rises and falls several times.  All the while, the elevator doors open onto the section of the hotel that is missing to reveal that we are 12 floors above the ground.  The attraction was recently reprogrammed so that each ride includes a random pattern of drops and special effects.  We rode the attraction three times and never experienced the same drop sequence or effects.  We expected this would be a fun attraction, but it was far better than we anticipated.  This is a not to be missed attraction.

After our second ride later in the day, we stopped to purchase some ride-specific merchandise.  The manager serving us told us that the version coming to California Adventure will be a full-fledge, state of the art update and not a stripped-down budget attraction.  We’ll believe it when we see it, but it would be nice.

We can’t quite recall the exact order we experienced all of the attractions today, but we were able to see everything we wanted to except the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular.  After the first ride on Tower of Terror, we rode the Rock ‘n Roller Coaster with no wait at all.  This ride was fun, but nothing special. 

Lunch was at the authentically recreated Hollywood Brown Derby.  We were seated without a wait and no Priority Seating.  We found the food and service to be outstanding.  We had the cobb salad, a BBQ chicken Caesar salad, a chicken quesadilla, and the famous Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake.  Everything was fine.  Price for all of this was about $47.00 with no alcoholic beverages.  We were amused by the casting of the crotchety old maitre ‘d and the old lady as the hostess.  We don’t know if they do it on purpose, but they certainly were authentic. When we walked by this establishment at 6:30 PM, the line was out the door.

We strolled past the Farmer’s Market food court and back to the center of the Studios where a giant sorcerer’s hat (and shop, of course) obscures the view of the former park icon, the Chinese Theater.  The theater façade and lobby are faithful reproductions of the original.  The Great Movie Ride is housed here.  This ride is in dire need of a technology update.  If guests are going to be that up close and personal with audio-animatronic figures, they need to look more lifelike than these do.  The ride recreates famous scenes from the movies.  Along the way the large vehicles are accosted by either a gangster (this is the scene we got) or cowboy bandits.  Live actors interact with the animatronics to somewhat limited success.  We really didn’t see much point to any of the live action.  The “grand finale” is a movie montage that is a total letdown.  There are certainly some who love this attraction, but we really do think it is time for a major revamping.  The concept is good, it just needs some tweaking.  This was the longest wait of the day, fifteen minutes.

Next we wandered in the wrong direction in search of another attraction.  The layout of this park is very confusing with many dead ends and areas that look like they should house shops or attractions, but do not.  We had difficulty figuring out the correct route even after consulting the map.  We ended up on New York Street which is billed as a movie set.  The area was nearly devoid of guests and looked as though we shouldn’t really be there.  At the end of the street is Washington Square, behind which is Residential Street.  This area is used for the Osborne Lights display, but it had ended on the 5th.

We also viewed “Beauty and the Beast Live” just because the timing was right.  It was OK for a theme park show, but we wouldn’t attend if time was limited.  We felt the same way about the Backstage Studio Tour.  This tour consists of a walking tour and water effects show involving some members of the audience, then a tram tour through the expected studio workshops and a section called Catastrophe Canyon where “something goes terribly wrong” and we are nearly drowned.  This tour was a complete waste of time and could be presented in a much more entertaining way.  The wait was only 5 minutes, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Muppet Vision 3D was a walk-on and very entertaining.  The show includes some funny gags and special effects.  We would visit this attraction again.  We also walked through the 100-year attraction, One Man’s Dream to view models, photos and memorabilia from Walt Disney’s life.  This attraction concludes with a movie biography of Walt Disney that was informative and interesting.

We rode the Tower of Terror two more times.  The first had a wait time of about 20 minutes due to some technical difficulties.  However, we exited and walked right back on with no wait whatsoever.

It appeared that the entire attendance was flowing toward the showing of Fantasmic at 6:00 PM.  The performance is at 7:00 PM, so get there early if you are interested in seeing it.  We didn’t care since we have seen the Disneyland version, so we stopped in a few shops and bought more stuff we don’t need.  The service at this park is uniformly friendly and efficient.

Just a general comment that the upkeep at the Studios is outstanding.  No peeling paint or dusty attractions here.  It is a shame that the attractions in the Magic Kingdom have been allowed to deteriorate so badly because it really does make a difference when rides are clean and like-new.

We beat the crowd by about a half hour and rode the bus back to the Grand Floridian.  We stopped briefly at the Contemporary and the Polynesian, but no one got on for the ride back to the Studios.

Completely worn out after walking all day, we stopped by the room briefly to clean up before going to Narcoosee’s Restaurant overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon.  We had to wait for about ten minutes, which was acceptable.  We didn’t have Priority Seating arrangements.

The service and food were outstanding and couldn’t be better.  Every employee we encountered during our meal went out of their way to be pleasant.  Service was so  prompt we couldn’t believe it, especially since the restaurant was full.  We had the mixed garden greens salad (satisfactory, but nothing special), and the Grilled Pork Loin, which was outstanding.  We didn’t order dessert.  Price tag for this meal was $67 before tip.

On the way up to the room, we stopped by the concierge lounge to pick up some dessert.  The selection was as bountiful as it was last night, so we were able to stock up a bit.  We also stopped at Gasparilla Grill for some muffins for breakfast tomorrow.

Back at the room we basically sat around watching TV.  At around 11:00 PM there were fireworks over the Magic Kingdom in full view of our room.  We assume the park was open for a private party since there is a large convention group staying at the hotel.

Our various packages from Animal Kingdom and Epcot were delivered and waiting in our room.  We forgot to mention yesterday that the four pieces of luggage we shipped with VirtualBellhop.com arrived safe and sound.  They were waiting in our room when we returned yesterday.

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friday, january 10th – walt disney world - epcot world showcase

Today is cloudy and threatening rain, but it is warmer than it has been.  Not hot, mind you, but warm enough that a jacket isn’t necessary.  Here is today's view from our balcony.  Our plan for today was to finish up our tour of World Showcase and get some pictures during the day of that area.  We took the monorail to the TTC and from there to Epcot.  This process takes about 45 minutes. 

On the way into Epcot we took another trip through time on Spaceship Earth with no wait at all.

The various countries of World Showcase surround the picturesque World Showcase Lagoon.  We began our trek in a counterclockwise direction from World Showcase Plaza, which is the connection point to Future World.  We arrived at around noon.  World Showcase opens at 11:00 AM daily and closes at 9:00 PM.  Most of Future World opens at 9:00 AM and closes at 7:00 PM, with the exception of Imagination, Innoventions, Test Track and sometimes The Living Seas, which close at 9:00 PM.  It was slightly busier today, but all of the wait times on the information board were shown as “No Wait” except Living With the Land at 10 minutes and Test Track at 45 minutes.

The first represented country to the right from the plaza is Canada.  There is a scaled down representation of Victoria Gardens, the Hotel Fontenac, and some giant totem poles.  At the rear of the pavilion in the bottom of a faux canyon is the CircleVision presentation of “O Canada”.  There was no wait for the film except for the next show to begin.  This film uses every gimmick of CircleVision, but it was interesting enough for what it is.  We didn’t find anything objectionable about it, but it is probably due for an update.  There is a stage at one end of the showcase, but there was nothing scheduled to perform here this week.  In this area is the extremely popular Le Cellier Steakhouse.

Next is a recreation of an old English village and castle in the United Kingdom section.  This showcase houses shops selling goods from various parts of the U.K.  A very popular restaurant, the Rose and Crown Pub, serves fish and chips plus other hearty pub fare overlooking the World Showcase Lagoon.  At the back of the village is a small stage where a band imitates the music of the Beetles.  We didn’t see any of their performances, but we heard they are very good.

After passing the International Gateway, a back entrance from the Epcot Resorts, we crossed a bridge into France.  This area houses several very authentic recreations, including a popular French restaurant and shops.  We have seen comedic acrobats performing several times here.  At the rear of the area is a copy of the Eiffel Tower in forced perspective over the entrance to the wide-screen movie presentation, “Impressions de France”.  This movie is a sort of travelogue of France with classical music by French composers.  It was worth viewing and quite beautiful.

Adjacent to France is the Kingdom of Morocco with its faithful reproduction of a Moroccan town complete with market stalls and narrow, winding streets.  This area houses Restaurant Marrakech, which seemed to be having a bit of trouble attracting business with a podium set up on the street.  There is also a counter-service restaurant here.  Otherwise, the offerings consist of shops. 

Just a comment here that World Showcase is not heavy on attractions per se.  The pavilions themselves are intricately detailed and beautiful to look at.  Young people from the representative countries are brought in to work in the pavilions and to add an authentic touch.  We felt that several of the pavilions looked like the were designed to front an attraction that was never built.  Disney could probably add some attractions to this area to enhance attendance without sacrificing the original purpose.  Maintenance in all of Epcot is nearly perfect, as it is everywhere except in the attractions inside the Magic Kingdom.

Next up is the large Japan pavilion with a pagoda, torii gate overlooking the lagoon, a large castle that houses a small museum, and a huge department store/restaurant.  There is also a counter-service restaurant surrounded by a Japanese garden.  This is one of the pavilions that really looks as though it was meant to house an attraction.

The centerpiece of World Showcase is the American Pavilion that houses the incredible audio-animatronic show, “The American Adventure”.  We stopped to view this presentation for the second time and were once again in awe of the technology involved in this production.  This is a not to be missed attraction.

Beyond the U.S.A. lies Italy and a faithful reproduction of many icons of Venice.  Striped poles and bridges sprout from World Showcase lagoon.  This area features shops selling Italian fashions, wine, etc., plus an Italian table service restaurant.  Much of the rear portion of the showcase was being renovated and was walled off.

Our next country is Germany where one can shop for German crystal, clothing, wine and more.  There is a restaurant here, as well.  The showcase recreates a German village.

We neglected to mention before that the area that housed a temporary façade for Spain has been walled off.  Up until today, the buildings still stood, but we noticed now that they have been dismantled.

After Germany is an area called the Outpost that resembles an African village.  This is basically a collection of shops and a fast-food refreshment stand, although it is thoroughly themed and staffed by people form various African countries.  There is also a small performance area where a group of African musicians entertain on a regular basis.

We paused here for a slush from the refreshment stand.  While sitting here, they raised the drawbridge to bring out the gigantic Earth for tonight’s showing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.  The piece doesn’t look nearly as impressive as it does in all its glory during the show, but the mechanics are truly amazing.

The China showcase is one of the largest and most elaborate.  A colorfully painted gate welcomes visitors. The area houses a huge shop full of Chinese handicrafts at very fair prices for Walt Disney World.  There is also a restaurant and another CircleVision film housed in a recreation of the Temple of Heaven.  Chinese acrobats were performing here prior to the show, “The Wonders of China”.  This film uses the same CircleVision gimmicks as “O Canada” which wouldn’t really be a problem except we’re sure most people view both of these on the same visit.  Although we enjoy these films, we do think Epcot is a bit heavy on movie-based attractions and most are in serious need of an update.

We journeyed on to Norway where they have reproduced a wooden stave house at the front of the village.  The area recreates a sort of Norwegian village with a waterfall at the back where you will also find the entrance to Maelstrom, a boat ride we have described previously.  Of course, one may sample Norwegian food at the restaurant here.

Finally, we reached the pyramid of Mexico.  As described previously, this building houses the attraction “El Rio de Tiempo”, a very dated trip through Mexico ala It’s a Small World.  A character caravan came by in a double-decker bus.  There is also a counter-service Cantina fronting the lagoon.

We walked completely around World Showcase Lagoon three times today either looking for a restaurant without a huge line, or avoiding the parade crowd.  By this time it was 7:00 PM and time for some food.  We decided to try the Red Dragon Restaurant in the China showcase to see for ourselves if it is as bad as the critics say it is.  We arrived without Priority Seating arrangements and were seated immediately.  We overheard someone ask if she could make a reservation for 7:30 PM and the hostess replied, “Just come back at 7:30 PM.”  The restaurant wasn’t empty, but it didn’t have the huge line many of the others do.

We ordered the Red Dragon Sampler for two which consists of two appetizers, two entrees (stir fried shrimp and vegetables plus honey sesame chicken), steamed rice, a fortune cookie and ice cream for about $45.00 for two before tip.  This was the cheapest meal so far this trip and also one of the best.  Everything we had was outstanding.  We’re not sure if maybe the criticism comes more from a lack of knowledge about Chinese food than a true representation of the quality of the food.  This was some of the finest Chinese food we have ever had and we have had a lot.  The service was quite speedy, although a touch on the surly side.  But, that is authentic, too, if you have ever been to China!

With some time to kill before Illuminations, we browsed the shops for a while, then looked for a place to watch.  We thought we had seen some good places earlier, but ended up walking all the way around the Lagoon to the same spot we had last time between Italy and Germany.  There was again no one there and we had a perfect, unobstructed view directly in front of one of the fountains.  We were able to get a few fairly good pictures of the beginning of the show and the Earth floating out for its big number.

After the fireworks we shuffled out with thousands of others to the monorail.  The line was quite short and we were able to get on the first monorail.  It takes longer to walk up all the ramps than it does for the whole trip. Well, not quite, but it seems like it sometimes.  We were back at the Grand Floridian within 30 minutes of the end of the show, which is a record so far.

We went directly to Gasparilla Grill to pick up breakfast foods for tomorrow morning.  We have found it is easier for us to have the food already in the room rather than to spend time looking for something we want in the morning or waiting in line at a restaurant.  The timing and selection of foods in the concierge lounge is too risky to rely upon, so we don’t give that a thought anymore.

One thing we vowed not to do this trip was to make Priority Seating arrangements.  Unfortunately, if one expects to avoid waiting for quite a while during prime time they are necessary even during slow periods.  A significant drawback to the Grand Floridian is that the casual Grand Floridian Café no longer serves dinner.  This forces guests to one of the expensive dinner restaurants on site, Citrico’s, Narcoosee’s, or the extremely expensive Victoria & Albert’s.  We don’t have any problem with the hotel having several expensive restaurants, but we do think they should offer a less fancy (and less expensive) alternative, especially for those with children who will find the menus at these restaurants unappealing.

A letter was waiting in our room upon our return informing us that due to the marathon on Sunday, the resort is offering complimentary valet parking for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to alleviate some congestion.  This doesn't affect us at all, but we think it's a nice gesture.  There are also instructions for a detour of sorts to get out of Walt Disney World while the main roads are blocked.

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saturday, january 11th – Walt disney world- resort hopping & epcot

Being the Saturday before the Walt Disney World Marathon, we thought it best to stay as far away from the theme parks as possible today.  So, we’re off to explore some of the other Disney resorts.  We’re starting with the resorts that are outside of the Magic Kingdom area because they are a bit more time consuming to get to.  The weather is cool and sunny again today.

In order to travel from one resort to another, it is necessary to first take a bus to a theme park and transfer to a resort-specific bus.  This wastes a considerable about of time, so this probably isn’t something the average visitor should attempt.

After breakfast is the room, we strolled down to the Grand Floridian bus stop where we immediately took a bus to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  From there, we boarded a bus to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge which is visible from the entry road to Animal Kingdom.  Technically, it is within walking distance, but it is apparent that Disney does not want guests walking to their destination because there are no sidewalks in this area.

Animal Kingdom Lodge looks as though it is set in the African savannah.  The themeing here is breathtaking.  The entry has an elaborately layered thatched roof held aloft by faux logs.  Every lighting fixture is themed perfectly, even at the bus stop.  Obviously, no expense was spared creating this themed environment.

Stepping into the lobby onto brightly polished black lacquered wood floors, one is awestruck by its magnificence.  Everything is carved to perfection.  The railings above resemble native wood carvings.  The ceiling is supported by what appear to be wood poles holding up a woven material.  At the far end of the lobby is a huge floor to ceiling window with an overlay of tree branches.  This window overlooks the wide open savannah complete with wild animals grazing nearby.

Down a flight of stairs is the huge buffet restaurant Boma.  Beyond that is access to the large pool area surrounded by lush tropical landscaping.  Even the concrete walkways are themed to resemble mud pathways.  Spas are located in secluded alcoves among the plantings.  The pool area was quite busy today even with the mild temperatures.

Immediately adjacent to the pool are several animal viewing areas.  There is a flamingo pool that is literally within reach.  Beyond that is the savannah where the animals had just been fed.  This prompted several of them to come out of hiding in the bushes for a snack and then a stroll directly in front of us.  A guide from Zimbabwe approached us and offered explanations of the animals.  Actually, he had followed us from the lobby and made a point to talk to us in spite of many other guests in the vicinity.  He wanted to talk about the cruise when he found out we were going directly to the ship from here.

We made our way back into the lobby to take a closer look at some magnificent ostrich lamps near the huge windows.  It is obvious this hotel cost a fortune and by the looks of things it is a success.  This resort is off the beaten path, so it might not be the best choice for those who want to visit the entire WDW resort.

Back to the bus stop and the short trip to Animal Kingdom.  We decided we would get on whichever resort bus was there waiting, so that took us to the All Star Resorts.  These are Disney’s version of budget accommodations and they seem to succeed in that purpose.  From what we saw, they are extremely popular with families.  The three-story buildings resemble typical roadside motels, but have an overlay of whatever the theme happens to be.  There are three All Star Resorts:  Sports, Music, and Movies, with several variations on the theme.  We disembarked at the first stop, the All Star Sports Resort. 

The various themes are as expected, football, baseball, etc.  Giant football helmets adorn the stairwells and cleverly designed railings appear to be crowds in the stands.  The baseball pool is surrounded by buildings that look like a baseball stadium.  These resorts do not have full service restaurants, but there is a noisy food court in each one.

We walked to the adjacent All Star Music Resort, passing the Calypso and Jazz sections.  The central walkway to the main lobby is attractive and lined with tall palm trees.  The lobby buildings of all of these resorts are essentially the same.

Next we wandered over to All Star Movies and inspected the Fantasia area, Fantasia Pool, 101 Dalmatians building complete with giant fire hydrant stairwells.  The rooms at these resorts are roughly half the size of the deluxe properties, but they serve the purpose and would be a good choice for anyone on a budget.  We’re not sure of the price, but we believe they start at around $89.00.

We boarded a bus to Downtown Disney which is about 15 minutes away at the edge of the Disney property.  This is adjacent to the Hotel Plaza where non-Disney hotels are located.  If we were on a budget, we would probably choose one of these hotels rather than the All Star Resorts simply because they are so close to Downtown Disney and all of its shopping and entertainment options.

The bus driver made a point of announcing that in order to get to any theme park from Downtown Disney, it is necessary to take a bus to a resort and transfer there.  One would think that offering a direct bus to the TTC for a monorail connection would make more sense.

Our intention was to simply change busses here for another resort, but we took a few minutes to browse the Marketplace and buy more things we don’t need at Disney’s Day of Christmas.  The merchandise here is much more varied than it is at any of the theme parks.  We checked out the Marina area that is fronted by the enormous World of Disney store and a Rainforest Café.  We will return here another day to shop the many interesting stores.

Back to the bus stop and a trip to the Epcot Resorts.  We disembarked at the Walt Disney World Swan, which is on Disney property, but not operated by Disney.  Its sister property, the Walt Disney World Dolphin is just across a bridge between the two.  Both resorts sport enormous swans or dolphins and are monolithic in proportion.  While the architecture is interesting, we found the hotels overwhelming, dark and, frankly, not very inviting.  Obviously, these hotels are geared toward conventioneers and look more like a typical Hyatt in any big city…minus the giant swan or dolphin on the roof, of course.

Just over a bridge is Disney’s Boardwalk Resort.  This resort fronts a small lake shared with Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.  The Boardwalk recreates an Atlantic boardwalk of old in a reasonably authentic manner complete with midway games.  It takes a second glance to realize that the upper floors of the shops and restaurants along the boardwalk are hotel rooms.  About 1/3 of this hotel was under renovation and covered with scaffolding.

We took one of the Friendship Boats to the International Gateway entrance to Epcot.  It was approaching 5:00 PM at this point and we were mainly interested in finding a meal.  A huge group was literally being herded into World Showcase and into the convention venue just inside. We assume these were marathon participants.

Our first stop was Le Cellier Steakhouse, but the hostess informed us that they were booked up until 8:30 PM tonight.  It is only 5:15 PM at this point.  Undaunted, we decided to try the food at the Mexico showcase.  There was no wait there. 

The service was friendly, but inept.  We waited about fifteen minutes to be acknowledged after being seated.  We both ordered the Sopa Azteca, which we never received, plus different entrees.  Both entrees were outstanding and far from the typical tacos and enchiladas one would ordinarily find in a theme park Mexican restaurant.  Both of us were extremely satisfied with the meal.  We didn’t order dessert.  When the check came we had been charged for the soup we didn’t get and we had to ask to have it removed from the bill.  This created a stir requiring the manager's approval.  We weren’t involved in any of this, but it took longer than necessary.  The cost of the meal before tip was about $47.00.

We didn’t want to bother waiting for a spot for Illuminations since it was more crowded than it has been.  That’s not to say it was ridiculous since the posted wait times for everything except Living with the Land and Test Track were “No Wait”.

Since we had skipped the Circle of Life movie at The Land last time, we wandered over there to see it.  It was 6:30 PM by now and Future World was virtually empty.  There were only six other guests in the show.  No offense, but the host for the show was so old he forgot what he was saying three times during his brief introduction of the movie and gave incorrect closing times for his own attraction twice.

Imagination stays open until 9:00 PM, but you’d never know it.  The place was deserted.  So, we took another ride on the revamped Journey Into Imagination.  This is really a peppy attraction and we thoroughly enjoyed it once again.  We finally remembered to snap some pictures of Figment in a couple of scenes for anyone who might be interested.

Next stop was to stroll through Innoventions.  What a waste of time this is.  The place was a ghost town and we really felt sorry for the CM’s who must pretend to be enthusiastic about products that are readily available at any Circuit City outlet.  The big thrill was supposed to be the Segway transporter, but they use these at WDW for outdoor vending during parades.  Not very cutting edge, is it?  We took in a short show pushing Motorola wireless communications and took a tour through a Whirlpool model home.  Again, all of the products shown are readily available and three of the ones using voice recognition took several tries to work properly, much to the embarrassment of the CM doing the presentation.  There were a couple of empty sections, but there was no indication of what had been there or that anything new was coming.

We beat the crowds to the monorail to the TTC and then to the Grand Floridian.  We made our usual stop at Gasparilla Grill for breakfast foods, plus a detour through the concierge lounge for some desserts.  The concierge at the desk actually looked up and said, “Good evening,” which is a first.


sunday, january 12th – walt disney world – monorail resorts & downtown disney

Another cool, sunny day, perfect for exploring the Monorail Resorts.  We started by walking around the grounds of the Grand Floridian to check out the original courtyard pool and the new beach pool.  There is a nice, white sand beach adjacent to the new pool area.  It seems a little small for the size of the resort, but in the off season it is a pleasant, quiet place to relax.  There are great views of the Magic Kingdom from the waterfront and the dock where boats to other resorts arrive.  Here are more photos of the Grand Floridian:  Lobby, Lobby Decor, Buildings, Main Building.

We started off with the intention of walking to the Polynesian Resort, but found the walkway closed at the Wedding Pavilion.  It would have been nice if they had put the sign at the beginning of the walkway instead of near the end.  There isn’t a convenient route to walk other than the closed walkway, so we took the advice on the sign and went back to the monorail station.

Riding the monorail changed our plans because the Contemporary Resort is the next stop.  So, we disembarked there for a brief tour of this original WDW hotel.  Generally, the hotel is in reasonable condition, but it looks pretty much the same as it did 25 years ago.  In other words, it really needs to be remodeled.  Carpets are new for the most part, but there are signs of deferred maintenance in the lobby and near the monorail station.  There was a huge line at the check-in desk, the only line we have seen at any resort.  This hotel seems more suited to conventioneers than vacationers.

The famous tower contains the original brightly colored tile murals on the elevator tower in the center.  The monorail travels through the hotel lobby, making it very convenient to ride.  Also on the concourse level are shops and restaurants.  The shops appear to the essentially the same as they were years ago, but the restaurants have changed to include character meals.

A new pool adds capacity to the limited size of the original pool that seems to float in Bay Lake.  The grounds have been updated nicely with stainless steel sculptures, topiaries and such.  The hotel looks better on the outside than it does on the inside.  Most of the rooms are in the North and South wings.  From the outside, these wings look like they are in desperate need of a rehab with rust running down the walls in places.  We would assume the rooms themselves are in fine shape as they are at other Disney hotels.

We took a boat to Wilderness Lodge, the next stop on our resort hopping tour.  Technically this isn’t a monorail resort, but it is easy to get to it from the Contemporary so we included it today.  Wilderness Lodge is much closer to the Contemporary than it appears to be due to cleaver screening by tall trees.  It seems to be completely alone in the wilderness. 

Wilderness Lodge is based on the old hotels located in national parks such as Yosemite.  The attention to detail here is astonishing.  The stone and log construction is authentic to the smallest detail.  Following a winding boardwalk through the swamp that fronts the hotel, we arrive at a geyser that erupts a few minutes after each hour.  In this area is the large pool, waterfalls, etc.  All of this is overlooked by the towering lobby and guest rooms.

As it is at all of the newer Disney properties, the lobby is magnificent.  A huge stone fireplace with an intricate iron screen makes a restful stop for weary travelers.  The stone and wood inlay floors are quite beautiful.  The structure is supported by log columns adorned with carved animal heads and gigantic totem poles.  Even simple corridors to shops are authentically detailed.  This resort appears to be a restful and appealing place to stay.

Back to the boat for the short ride back to the Contemporary.  We passed the derelict Discovery Island, long closed, and River Country, the original water park, also closed.  There was a brief stop at the Fort Wilderness Campground before continuing on to the Contemporary.  A ride on the boat provides some great views of the hotel and the Magic Kingdom beyond.

We jumped on the monorail for the ride to the Polynesian Resort.  This hotel also looks basically the same as it did when originally constructed in the 70’s when it opened with the rest of WDW.  The lushly planted atrium is complete with waterfalls and tropical birds.  One big improvement is the remodeling of the casual restaurant into the Kona Café, which is now open to the lobby and much larger than the original.  Ohana is also a new configuration from the original restaurant it replaced.

On the grounds a new volcano pool is the centerpiece of the property, complete with steaming crater at the top and a slide into the pool.  In spite of the cool weather, this was a popular spot for guests to relax.  The resort sports beautiful white sand beaches along the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon.

Guest rooms are in three story longhouses.  A refurbishing project was underway, so one of the buildings was surrounded by a wall and was being painted and fitted with new furnishings.  The general look of this resort is not as elaborate of some of the newer properties, but it has a relaxed, inviting feel to it that makes it seem smaller than it really is.  There is a marina where guests can rent small boats and such, about $26 for 30 minutes.  More photos:  Great Ceremonial House (lobby), and tropical plantings.

After our tour of the Polynesian we returned to the Grand Floridian to pick up jackets and take a bus to Downtown Disney.  The ride to Downtown Disney takes about 20 minutes from here and the buses are less frequent than those to the theme parks during the day.  We stopped at the Concierge desk to obtain a copy of our bill so far to be sure we had enough spending power left to charge purchases today.  No worry about that as they had already charged over $1,200 to our credit card, plus the entire cost of the room for the length of our stay (about $8,600).  Most hotels do not actually charge credit cards until the end of the stay, so apparently Disney follows their own rules on this, too.

We arrived at the Marketplace end of Downtown Disney, which is the original part of the complex.  For us, this section is still the most appealing and has a number of interesting shops run primarily by Disney.  Too bad they don’t sell this type of merchandise in the theme parks.  At least we know they do make nice Disney things.  We shopped around for a while, but didn’t find anything we can’t live without.  We strolled around the marina stopping briefly to look at the large kaleidoscope tower.  Next is the enormous World of Disney store that sells just about everything Disney and was doing a booming business.

Beyond this area is Fulton’s Crab House that is located in a paddlewheel boat that originally housed a fancy Disney restaurant.  Also here is Portobello Yacht Club, an Italian restaurant.

Next up is Pleasure Island that houses a variety of nightclubs.  During the say the island is open free of charge, but there is really nothing open during the day.  We can’t vouch for the atmosphere at night, but it looked a bit sleazy to us.  If you are desperate for something to do at night when the theme parks close, this is the place to go. 

Beyond Pleasure Island is a huge Planet Hollywood and the West Side of Downtown Disney.  This area was somewhat garish and houses non-Disney shops and restaurants, an AMC theater, Disney Quest, and Cirque du Soleil.  We spent only a few minutes here before walking back to the Portobello Yacht Club for an early dinner.

There was no wait to be seated and we were served promptly.  The food was above average, but about the same price level as the far superior Disney operated restaurants we have visited.  Dinner for two without drinks came to about $76.00.

We decided to call it an early night and began walking back through the Marketplace to the bus stop.  The Art of Disney called us and we were compelled to buy a poster.  We waited for about 20 minutes for a bus back to the hotel where we picked up breakfast foods at Gasparilla Grill for tomorrow.

monday, january 13th – walt disney world - disney/mgm studios & epcot

It is very cloudy, cold and windy today with the weather report calling for rain later.  All we have on our agenda for today is another visit to the Studios to see a couple of things we missed last time.  Although we were up early due to the screaming children next door, we didn’t roll out of the room until noon.  We only waited a few minutes for the bus to the Studios.

If it is possible, it’s even less crowded today than it was last week.  We went directly to the Tower of Terror and rode it twice with no wait at all.  This is a great ride!  It sure does show what Disney can do when they are willing to spend the money.

We wanted to see the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular at 2:30 PM, so we had over an hour to kill before that.  A stroll around the lake with its resident dinosaur and recreated California buildings, brought us around to the general vicinity of Star Tours, so we took a ride, again with no wait.  Every wait time so far has been posted at 15 minutes, but everything is a walk on.  It started to sprinkle as we entered the attraction, but it had stopped by the time we came out.

We reluctantly decided to waste some time in the Sound Studio attraction featuring Drew Carey.  We’ll never get those 12 minutes back.  What a waste of time that was.

Finally, it was close enough to the beginning of the stunt show that we could enter the theater and be seated.  By the time the show was ready to start it was less than half full.  Even so, they kept asking everyone to slide together and fill in all of the space.  The show was acceptable, but we don’t like contrived situations like this.  In this case, they pretend they are actually filming a stunt, which is obviously not the case.  Members of the audience are recruited to play extras.  There is no purpose to this except to insert a shill into one of the scenes.  The stunts and effects were worth looking at, but we wouldn’t knock anyone down to get into this show.

After we exited, we realized the Disney Stars and Motor Cars parade was about to start, so we waited for that.  This is a cute parade and the woman who walked around the street to announce the various “stars” did an outstanding job playing the part of a ditsy Hollywood starlet.

Once the parade ended, we went back to Tower of Terror and rode two more times, with no wait.  It was so empty one time that the elevator operator just said, “Sit wherever you want,” rather than going through the load sequence.

It was getting to be around 4:30 PM at this point and we were done with the Studios.  We wandered past the Great Movie Ride, but the wait was 45 minutes with the line outside the doors.  We would ride this attraction only with a minimal wait, so we decided it was time to leave and head to Epcot for an early dinner.

We caught the Friendship Boat outside the entrance and took the short ride via the Swan, Dolphin, Yacht Club, and Boardwalk Resorts.  Epcot was even less busy than the Studios, so it was easy to get a table at Le Cellier Steakhouse in the Canada showcase. 

Our waitress was extremely personable and did a great job.  The atmosphere and service were exceptional, as was the food.  They automatically offer the recipe for their famous Cheddar Cheese Soup, which was very good.  Cost for two with soup, entrée, one glass of wine and dessert was $76.00 before tip.

We debated briefly about whether to stay and do something else, but it was so cold and windy that we decided to make it an early evening and beat the crowd to the monorail.  The monorail to the TTC was nearly empty, but the Magic Kingdom had just closed.  The first monorail that left the TTC to the resorts was standing room only, but the next one was back to normal and we got a seat with no problem. 

Upon arrival at the Grand Floridian, we went directly to Gasparilla Grill for our breakfast supplies and then to the concierge lounge for some hot tea.  Exciting, huh?


tuesday, january 14th – walt disney world - magic kingdom

As usual, noisy neighbors, fog horn sounds from the walls, and squawking seagulls on the balcony awakened us earlier than we would like.  Actually, the neighbors aren’t any noisier than anyone else, but the poor sound proofing makes even the slightest conversation seem like screaming.

It is cool, but sunny, around 60 outside.  We bundled up and headed off to the Magic Kingdom around noon to finish the attractions we skipped last time and re-ride a few of our favorites.  We arrived at 12:30 PM and went directly to Adventureland to ride the Jungle Cruise.  We boarded with no wait and had a fun ride with a very amusing guide.  Unfortunately, this ride suffers from the same neglect we have seen on all other attractions in the Magic Kingdom.  The elephants trunks were cracked, paint was worn off, etc.  We’re not sure first time visitors would notice, but the contrast between the upkeep to the attractions in the Magic Kingdom compared to the other WDW theme parks is notable.  Why are they neglecting their flagship theme park?  To be honest, the grounds and exterior of the buildings look great.  It is only inside the attractions themselves that the neglect is so prominent.

We took another ride on Pirates of the Caribbean.  The walk through the queue took longer than the wait, which was nothing. Next, we braved the attack of the deadly seagulls to ride Mildew Mountain.  OK, the real name is Splash Mountain, but we calls ‘em as we sees ‘em.  The water splash was working today as the logs plummet into the briar patch.  The wait was posted at five minutes with no FastPasses offered today.  The actual wait was zero minutes.  As mentioned previously, this ride is in appalling condition.  The mechanical aspects seem fine, but the appearance is awful with everything covered with mildew and the paint faded and stained.  Still, this is a fun ride.  Everyone was soaked though.  We don’t recall getting this wet on Disneyland’s version.  We were splashed by the jets from the Briar Patch as we passed, by two drops, including the big one, and again when the logs backed up at the end while passing a waterfall.  Everyone was completely soaked. Luckily, we were still wearing our jackets, so our clothing was reasonably dry.

Next stop was the neighboring Big Thunder Mountain Railroad where the posted stand-by wait time was fifteen minutes.  FastPasses were available, but we decided to join the stand-by line since we aren’t in any hurry today.  The wait was probably a bit less than fifteen minutes and the line moved quickly.  This ride is also in poor condition.  It may not be evident in the photo, but even the rocks of the mountain are faded and beginning to show raw concrete.  The fifteen minute wait was being manufactured by running just one train to create a need for FastPass.

The park did seem to be a bit busier than it was the same day last week, but the wait times were shorter and FastPasses offered only on Big Thunder and Peter Pan’s Flight.

We visited the Country Bear Jamboree that had just reopened after removal of the Christmas show.  It reminded us of what a shame it is that this show was removed from Disneyland for the generic Winnie the Pooh darkride.  It was a full house here.

It was approaching the start time for the Share a Dream Come True Parade that starts at 3:00 PM.  We easily found a place to watch in Frontierland just a few minutes before it began.  This parade features floats with Disney characters riding in what are supposed to be giant snow globes.  The swirling “snow” no longer works, so the parade looks sort of odd.  Of course, replicas of the floats complete with real snow globes are available for purchase in the shops.  Although the floats are showing their age, this is a cute parade featuring Mickey Mouse, Disney Villains, Princesses, and a double-decker globe with the castle for the finale.  The parade stops now and then so they can drag little kids out to frolic with the characters.  These stops are brief, so they don’t cause much of a delay and most of the kids seem to delight in it.

Once the crowd dissipated a bit, we wandered over to the Haunted Mansion for another ride.  The wait was posted at fifteen minutes, but it was no more than five.  Next stop was another visit to the Hall of Presidents, which seemed to be in comparatively good condition.  This is an inspiring attraction and we were glad to see that it was fairly popular in spite of the low attendance.

It was around 4:30 PM by now and time for some food, so we stopped at Columbia Harbor House for some chicken strips, fries, clam chowder in a bread bowl and two drinks for $16.00.  The food was good for fast food, except the fries were so salty they were almost inedible.  Another guest was at the counter complaining about them, but we didn’t really want them anyway (they were included with the chicken), so we didn’t say anything.

From Frontierland we strolled through Fantasyland.  The posted wait time for Peter Pan’s Flight was only 25 minutes, down from 60 minutes last week at this time of day.  We didn’t care enough to wait, so we skipped it again.  Our intention was to get a FastPass for Winnie the Pooh, but the posted wait time was only fifteen minutes, so we joined the line.  While we were waiting, they came out and closed the FastPass machines.  The wait was really only about ten minutes, if that.  Even this attraction is in need of a good cleaning.  Piglet had cobwebs stretching from his ears to his tail in one scene and the pages of the book over the first doorway were peeling from the backing.  Otherwise, this is an enjoyable attraction for a simple dark ride.

We detoured to Mickey’s Toontown Fair just too look at it.  Disneyland definitely got the better version of this land.  The Magic Kingdom’s incarnation looks like a tacked on afterthought, which, of course, it is.

Back in Tomorrowland, we took another ride on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and racked up twice as many points as last time.  The wait here was five minutes, no Fast Passes offered.  After this we took another ride on Alien Encounter.  We really got a good spray when the alien exploded at the end.  This sure is a heavy attraction for a Disney theme park, but we did enjoy it.

By this time, it was approaching 6:00 PM and we wanted to find a spot for SpectroMagic that starts at 6:15 PM.  Main Street was lined with people about five deep, so we walked around to Liberty Square and found a place with just one row of guests sitting in front of us.  This is a very entertaining parade and we enjoyed it again.  We did notice that the Bald Mountain float did not transform into the monster for the second time.  This time, the lighting effects and the fog worked, but the wings didn’t unfold.  Last time it was just dark.

We made our way to the middle of Main Street for a great view of the fireworks with the castle in the foreground.  It’s a nice touch to have the castle change colors during the show, but they really need to update the fireworks to either the Disneyland or Disneyland Paris version.

The end of the fireworks signals the closing time of the Magic Kingdom, so everyone pretty much leaves at once.  A nice touch we hadn’t noticed before is the addition of Mickey Mouse standing on the outer balcony of the train station thanking people for visiting him, etc.  We’re not sure all that many people even noticed him, but we thought it was a really cute thing to do.

The monorail was standing room only until we reached the TTC when most guests disembarked.  Upon arrival at the Grand Floridian we did our usual thing of going directly to Gasparilla Grill to pick up four muffins, orange juice and milk for breakfast.  We also ordered two individual cheese pizzas for our dinner since we were tired and not in the mood for a fancy meal.  All this set us back exactly $32.00.

Back in the room we found the TV turned to the storytelling channel.  This hasn’t been done before this, but it’s a nice idea for guests with children.  

wednesday, january 15th – walt disney world - epcot

Today’s weather is the same as yesterday, cool and clear.  We took off on the monorail for Epcot around 12:30 PM to catch the few attractions we had missed.

Attendance at Epcot today was the lowest we have witnessed so far.  The stand by wait time for Test Track at 1:00 PM was five minutes.  We started with a visit to the Wonders of Life pavilion, which we had always seemed to bypass on the way to something else.  This is one of Epcot’s original pavilions and has the same need for an update as The Living Seas and The Land.  That’s not to say it is run down at all, just that the attractions are dated and the décor more like a food court at a mall than a Disney attraction.

The Wonders of Life houses three attractions under its dome, plus some interactive kiosks and food locations.  One section that appeared to be devoted to sports was closed with no apparent replacement in sight.  We started off with a ride on Body Wars, a motion simulator like Star Tours.  In fact, the cabin appears to be exactly the same design.  In this case, the premise is that we are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a living body to do some sort of research.  Of course, “something goes terribly wrong” and we end up on a thrilling journey through the human body.  The simulator in this ride is more nausea-inducing than Star Tours, but the ride itself isn’t all that inspired.  There was no wait for this attraction.

Adjacent to Body Wars is a cute show called Cranium Command where we tag along with a young recruit to run a teenager’s brain.  We see out through his eyes and such.  This attraction is in desperate need of new films, but the premise is viable.

The other “attraction” included in this pavilion is a movie entitled, “The Making of Me,” which is supposed to explain conception and birth.  As you can imagine, it does neither very thoroughly, but what do you expect from a theme park.  This movie is also very dated.  It stars Martin Short who looks to be about 25.  How old is he now?  Fifty?

The dome itself looks fine and there is a huge kinetic mobile in the center that is attractive.  Otherwise, the interior looks like the inside of a shopping mall.

Universe of Energy was broken down when we arrived, but it was operating when we exited the Wonders of Life, so we took another ride on “Ellen’s Energy Adventure”.  Ellen does a reasonably entertaining job with the premise.  We enjoyed this attraction more the second time around although we still think the 45 minutes it takes to complete the show is too heavy on movies and the audio-animatronic dinosaur section is too short.

After this we strolled over to the adjacent Test Track to find the posted wait time at five minutes.  We have never seen the line so short since we have been here.  Well, line is too strong a word.  We walked all the way up to the loading area for the briefing room without stopping.  We still think this ride is a disappointment, but riding in the front seat did make it a little more exciting.  We agreed that we would never wait more than fifteen minutes for this attraction.

As we were walking across Innoventions Plaza, we noticed that the fountain was playing different music and doing a much livelier routine than it was last week.  The sprays of water were shooting up higher than the rooftops and doing all sorts of variations on the theme.  After this brief interlude, we continued over to Journey Into Imagination for another ride with Figment.  The posted wait time for this attraction was zero minutes and they weren’t kidding.  We’ve ridden this attraction several times now and we agree it is quite fun.  Bringing back the catchy theme that runs through the entire ride was a good idea and ties everything together.  We played around with the machine that lets guests send free photos by email.  Here is the scary photo we took of us!  Obviously, the machine doesn't give you much warning when it's about to snap the photo.

We noticed that the archway of lights had been removed from the bridge connecting Future World to World Showcase.  They did all of this in one day.  It took us several looks to figure out exactly what was missing.  They had done such a thorough job there was no sign of the enormous structure.  Even the annuals in the planters had been replaced.

With nothing in particular on our agenda, we started walking around World Showcase.  It was about 5:00 PM at this point, so we thought maybe we could get into the Rose and Crown Pub without Priority Seating.  When we arrived we noticed that a large convention group was milling around outside and waiting to be seated, so we bypassed it in favor of Le Chefs de France across the way.

We were seated without delay in the half-empty restaurant.  Our server told us they had almost no Priority Seatings on the books for tonight and they didn’t expect much business.  The server was a very pleasant, motherly sort.  She said she had been working there for 20 years, but she was certainly no worse for wear.  She was quite kind and friendly.  We each had a soup…French Onion and Leek/Potato, both outstanding; Chicken Cordon Bleu, which was just OK; and Crème Brulee and Raspberry topped Cheesecake, both were outstanding.  The bill for this meal was about $78.00 before tip.  There was also a glass of wine in there.

After dinner, time now was 6:30 PM, we wandered toward The American Adventure to check for the next show time.  This attraction is normally presented on the hour and half hour, but the next show wasn’t until 7:30 PM, so we kept walking.  Eventually, we arrived at Norway and took another ride on the odd Maelstrom boat ride where we are thrown backwards down a waterfall by evil trolls.  Yawn.  The wait was posted at zero here, too.  Why this attraction offers FastPass we have no clue.

It was close enough to show time at The American Adventure, so we walked back in that direction, arriving at 7:10 PM.  Since it was freezing outside at this point, we went inside to sit and wait for the 7:30 PM showing.  We watched people in wheelchairs rudely dismiss the CM who was attempting to offer them elevator access to the theater.  If we had been that CM we would have let them find out the hard way there is no other way for them to get upstairs (guests take an escalator), but she persisted until they finally understood the point.

Why do people insist on hauling small children and babies into 30 minute dramatic presentations?  Do they think sitting in a theater with 500 other people will shut the kids up, or what?  Luckily, we chose our seats wisely and were no where near the commotion.  This presentation is outstanding, as we have raved before.  The technology is incredible and probably not appreciated by 99% of the guests.

We had some time to kill before the 9:00 PM showing of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, so we walked all the way back to Mexico to take a journey down El Rio de Tiempo.  Why?  We have no idea.  Well, OK, we wanted to make fun of it again.  Boy, does this show need an update.

After this ride we found our usual spot between Italy and Germany to watch the incredible Illuminations.  We won’t rave on and on again, but this show is not to be missed.  Every guest we overheard on the way out said they had never seen anything better in their life.  For once we agree with the masses.

With the light crowds today, traveling back to the hotel on the monorail was fast and easy, although we did have to stand for the trip from Epcot to the TTC.  We made our usual stop at Gasparilla Grill for breakfast food. There we spoke briefly to a man from Melbourne, Australia, who told us that the weather when we will arrive there is nearly perfect.  Right now it is 110!  Yikes.

thursday, january 16th – walt disney world - animal kingdom & studios

Today’s weather was just about as perfect as it gets…around 73, clear, and breezy.  We have covered almost everything we are interested in for this trip, so our plan for today was to briefly visit Animal Kingdom and the Studios for a recap.  We didn’t really get started until after noon, so we only had a few hours at Animal Kingdom since it closes at 5:00 PM.

We arrived around 1:30 PM and wandered through the trails to the center of the park.  It appeared that attendance was as it has been, nothing.  Every attraction had a posted wait time of five minutes or zero minutes and no FastPass machines were operating.  We took another ride on Dinosaur with little wait even though it was posted at fifteen minutes.  This ride isn’t terrible, but it could be so much better than it is.  It’s worth riding if the wait is short.

After the ride we wandered through some shops, all of which sell the exact same merchandise regardless of the particular theme.  We did manage to buy a couple more items for their cuteness value, but that’s about it.  Disney’s delivery service to the hotels sure is convenient.  It costs nothing and saves lugging packages around all day.  Guests not staying at a Disney hotel can have their packages delivered to the front gate for pick up on the way out.

We just strolled around the trails looking at the incredibly detailed themeing.  The Africa section is complete with dangling electric wires.  The bridge into Asia is particularly accurate with well worn bricks and realistic cracks.  All of this is manufactured, of course, but they did a great job.  The landscaping must have cost a fortune because all of the trees are full size and the variety is incredible.

It dawned on us that we hadn’t hung around long enough last time to see Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade, so we found a shady place and waited about twenty minutes for it to begin.  There was plenty of space along the parade route.  This is a colorful, cute parade with lots of character interaction.  Several performers came over to high-five us.  Pluto made Dave rub his nose, which was cute.  Parade photos:  Parade 1, Parade 2, Parade 3, Parade 4, Parade 5, Parade 6, Parade 7.

After the parade passed, we waited for the crowd to dissipate and then headed for the exit.  Although this park is beautiful to look and there isn’t much to do.  Disney’s local TV commercials advertise the fact that this isn’t a zoo.  OK then, what is it?  A botanical garden?

We worked our way slowly to the exit and caught a bus to the Disney/MGM Studios for a last ride on the Tower of Terror and to purchase a couple of items we saw last time, but didn’t stop to buy.  This park seemed busier than it has since we arrived, but most of the crowd was headed for the 7:00 PM showing of Fantasmic, not attending attractions.  The wait time for Tower of Terror was posted at twenty minutes, but in reality is was less than five minutes.  No FastPasses were being offered, but it was about 5:30 PM at this point.

For the first time, we ended up in the front row of the elevator car, which makes the ride even more thrilling than it usually is.  We experienced the fourth random sequence we have done so far.  Have we said enough how great this attraction is?  Since we were in the front, we purchased the on-ride photo from a very friendly cast member.

We didn’t feel like sitting around for an hour to wait for Fantasmic, so we went back out front and caught a bus back to the Grand Floridian to clean up a bit before dinner.  We were back at the hotel by 6:15 PM and ready to head for the Polynesian Resort by 6:30 PM.  Although that hotel is next door to the Grand Floridian, the walkway is blocked, so in order to get there one must take the monorail all the way around the lagoon.  We don’t mind doing this since riding the monorail is fun in itself.

Our intention was to eat at Ohana, which we have heard good things about.  We didn’t have Priority Seating, so we had to wait about thirty minutes for a table.  It was comfortable sitting in the lounge and we could clearly see the Magic Kingdom fireworks without moving, so the time passed quickly.

The hostesses has a spiel to recite to guests who haven’t been to this restaurant before.  She takes guests down a corridor that leads to a display of the desserts available while explaining how the dining experience works.  We stopped at the display kitchen where she picked up some Hawaiian bread and continued on to our table.  Oops, someone was already at the table.  Back to the drawing board while we waited for her to return.  No problem, we were seated elsewhere.

Everyone receives the same “Ohana Feast” that costs $25.99 per person.  They bring out a huge amount of appetizers…bowls of salad with a refreshing dressing, shrimp and vegetable fried wontons, fried rice, chicken wings and three kinds of sauce.  Then a server arrives with huge skewers of flame broiled turkey breast, pork, beef and marinated shrimp.  First they give you a sample of everything, then they return with whatever is your favorite.  This is all you can eat for the set price, so it’s a fairly good value.  The shrimp was outstanding, but it was messy to eat because it still had the shells on.  They do provide moist towels, but it’s really a mess to eat.  The turkey was the next best, with the beef and pork next in line. All of the food was excellent.  We could have lived without the gimmick of calling everyone "cousin" whatever, but that’s a small issue.  There was also a noisy coconut race and a hula hoop contest for children, but it was across the room and we couldn’t see any of it, thank God.  We could have passed on dessert because they serve fresh pineapple with a warm caramel sauce for dipping that was very good.  We did order the mandarin orange cake, but it wasn’t a highlight of the meal.  The total bill for all of this including one tropical drink was $68.00 before tip.

We wandered around on the grounds for a few minutes before heading back to the Grand Floridian via monorail.  Of course, we had to stop at the Gasparilla Grill for our breakfast foods and to chat with the cashier about her upcoming trip to Hong Kong.  She wanted to ask about a certain tour and whether it was worth booking. Dave told her it was.

The rest of the night was spent relaxing in the room and watching TV.  Everyone is talking about the freezing weather that is supposed to be arriving tomorrow afternoon.  We’ll see!

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friday, january 17th – walt disney world - summary

This was a day for us to just relax, get our luggage together, and figure out what to do with the purchases we had collected during the past two weeks.  The weather wasn’t nearly as bad as had been predicted.  It is cold, but no worse than it has been.  The sun is out and there is only a slight breeze.  Both of us have a cold, so we’re glad we are finished with our running around for now.  We could do something if we were in the mood, but we’ve done everything we really care about.

We waited for noon to go downstairs to the Grand Floridian Café for lunch.  At last we were able to use our Annual Passholder discount to save 10% off the check.  We both had the chicken noodle soup, which tasted homemade, a BBQ chicken sandwich and a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, both of which were very good.  The total bill with the discount was $38.00 before tip.

The front desk informed us that we can bring our bags of goodies to them and they will ship them home for us.  They provided forms for us to fill out, so we went back up to the room to make our list and sort through the piles of bags.  We were able to condense everything into two big shopping bags and haul them back down to the front desk.  We’re not sure yet of the cost, but they do everything for you.  The guest just has to bring the bags to the desk and they are sent to the warehouse to be packed and shipped.  Strangely enough, even though FedEx is the official shipper of WDW, they only offer the packing service if you use UPS, which we were also told is significantly less expensive.  Now let’s hope we eventually receive everything.  [Note:  We did receive our packages, beautifully packed and in perfect condition.]

We sat around waiting for the maid until 3:30 PM when she finally came.  She said she had seen the “Please make up my room” sign, but had to do the rooms of departing guests first.  While she was cleaning we went to the concierge lounge for some tea and sat listening to the piano in the lobby below.  After that we declared ourselves done for the day.

Now that we have nearly completed our Walt Disney World vacation, it’s time to summarize our thoughts.

This has been an easy and very enjoyable vacation for us.  Disney has thought of everything as far as transportation to make a rental car unnecessary.  Of course, this also keeps guests on the property, but we hadn’t intended to go anywhere else anyway.  We weren’t under any time constraints, but for guests who have limited time here using the Disney transportation is a bit time consuming, although it is as efficient as it could be to cover such a large resort.

Cast members throughout were kind, helpful and good natured.  We didn’t encounter any guests acting rudely or doing anything untoward, but the lack of heat and crowds probably helped in that regard.  This is a great time of year to visit.  The temperatures were mild, it didn’t rain the entire two weeks, and the longest wait we had for anything was fifteen minutes.  Most attractions had less than a five minute wait.  You can’t ask for more than that.  Strangely enough, there were no attractions in the theme parks closed for rehabilitation.  Unfortunately, the Magic Kingdom attractions are showing this neglect in maintenance, but all of the other parks look great.  The grounds everywhere are beautiful and well maintained.

Would we stay at the Grand Floridian again?  Probably not, and definitely not on the concierge floors.  The concierge service we encountered was indifferent and sometimes downright snippy.  For example, we knew that the guest laundry was located on the second floor of the main building, but we couldn’t find it in a logical place.  When we politely asked a concierge to direct us to it, she acted as though we were complete idiots and said, no kidding, “You know that secondary lobby you walk through every day to get here?  It’s behind the door marked ‘Guest Laundry’.”  First off, that’s incorrect, secondly, her reply was needlessly rude.  She then said there is a laundry on every floor.  We replied that we were told there was one only on the second floor and could she please look it up.  She looked in her computer and determined that there was indeed only one and on the second floor.  Not only that, it was not off the secondary lobby.   Service such as this is unacceptable at a hotel in this price range.  Fortunately, this was not indicative of all of the cast members here.  Everyone else was friendly, helpful and went out of their way to be cheerful. 

One other issue to keep in mind about the main building is that the rooms have little sound insulation.  We could clearly hear the screaming children on both sides, in the hallway, and outside.  The theme music from outside began at 6:00 AM.  None of this made a big difference to us, but it would probably bother a light sleeper.  We never did figure out what caused the odd fog horn sound in the walls.

The food offered in the concierge lounge was minimal.  This might have something to do with the time of year, so your mileage may vary.  We found the food pointless and rarely bothered looking at it after the first few days.  It was nice to have hot beverages available, but they are gone by 10:00 PM.  The hotel is beautiful and themed throughout.  Our room was comfortably furnished, attractive and spacious.  Plus, we had a dead-on view of Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom.  Housekeeping was inconsistent, but acceptable.  Our conclusion about the Grand Floridian is that it is way overpriced and not worth the extra cost.  We would definitely stay at one of Disney’s deluxe resorts the next time, but not this one.

We spent more time at Epcot than at any of the other theme parks.  That probably has more to do with the fact that we hadn’t visited it before more than anything else, but we did find it interesting and beautiful to look at.  The visit to the Magic Kingdom were marred by the abominable condition of the attractions, otherwise it was fine.  Disney-MGM Studios was well-themed, but we found too few attractions of interest to keep us there long.  If it hadn’t been for the Tower of Terror, we probably would not have gone back after the first day.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a half-day park at best.  There just isn’t enough there to keep guests there all day.  Hence the reason it closes two hours earlier than any other park.

We purchased Premium Annual Passes for the parks before we left home based on advice from various websites.  This was a huge savings for us even though we didn’t find many opportunities to use the merchandise and food discounts.  The passes made it easy to park hop on a daily basis.  

Our day ended with dinner from room service that was average at best.  But, the evening was redeemed by the unobstructed view we have of the Magic Kingdom fireworks from our balcony.  We expect to be picked up here tomorrow and transported to Miami by car provided by Crystal Cruises.  Here are some photos of tonight’s fireworks as seen from our balcony.  Note how the castle changes colors to match the fireworks.  Fireworks photos:  One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten.


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