EPCOT, MGM, Animal Kingdom (first time at Disney since 1986)

Associated parks:
None

Saturday, August 5, 2006 10:52 PM
NOTE: The below trip report is an excerpt from a much longer and more inclusive TR I posted on my blog, of a weeklong trip to Mississippi and Florida. So if there is anything that seems out of context, sorry about that. I tried to add in a few notes in parentheses to flesh it out.

Also note that I wrote it for a general audience, so there are descriptions of the rides that enthusiasts probably don't need, but oh well.

If you want to read the rest of it, the link's at the bottom.

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When I was a senior in college, trying to decide what to do with my English degree, I went to the guidance office and read through a pamphlet designed to help people with that very question. The pamphlet noted that if you want to go into journalism, you better like it, because the monetary compensation alone is not going to satisfy you.

Despite that sage advice, I went into journalism anyway, and yes, I had to take a pay cut from the temp job I had in college. Now, eight years later, the pay has risen to a somewhat respectable level, but more importantly, I still enjoy my job. One of the best things about it is the little perks you get from businesses trying to get you to write about them. These range from baskets of cookies, food, CDs and new products sent to the office, all the way to free theme park tickets -- even for non-working visits.

I took full advantage of this before vacation, e-mailing Disney PR and asking for four one-day Parkhopper tickets (which allow you to visit any Disney park in one day). My request was granted. Those tickets have a total face value of $412. Nice perk, eh?

On Wednesday morning, we (me, my wife Rachel, her aunt Roberta, and her aunt and uncle Pam and Jerry) left Arcadia (Flordia, where we were staying with Rachel's grandma) for Orlando about 7 a.m., as it's a two-hour drive. Not much to see on the way there. We stopped at McDonald's in Winter Haven for coffee, and the restaurant is perched on the edge of a beautiful lake - very pretty setting.

Our first indication that we were nearing Disney country was the Mickey-shaped utility pole. Yes, utility pole. We entered the complex and made our way to our first park of the day, EPCOT.

This would be the first time since 1986 that I'd been to Disney, and while I wasn't expecting any serious thrills, I was curious to see how it'd changed. While I often have gone to great lengths to ride roller coasters, and while Orlando is home to several coasters I haven't ridden, I decided that I wasn't going to pursue them, and I was just going to slow down, relax and enjoy the day, and not care if I got to ride them or not. It's a revolutionary attitude for me (considering the fact that I almost cried when I didn't get to ride Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain in 2001).

The EPCOT parking lot looked mostly empty. I got my four free tickets without trouble from Guest Relations (Roberta has a season pass and didn't need a ticket) and we entered under Spaceship Earth (aka giant golf ball) and made our way to the first ride of the day, Soarin'.

I normally hate motion-simulator rides because they never feel real, but Disney apparently knows how to do it right. Soarin' supposedly simulates a hang-gliding experience. You enter a room and sit in one of three rows of ski-lift-style seats. When the ride starts, the seats rise up and thrust forward into a dome-shaped movie screen, so it's impossible to look anywhere and not see the screen.

The feeling of motion is quite intense. Several times I felt my stomach drop, and even more, I felt my back being pressed against the back of the seat as if I was feeling positive G-forces (I assume they tip the chairs back to create this effect). The ride is enhanced by wind and smells (orange, pine and sea, depending on what you're soarin' over). It's the first motion simulator I've ever enjoyed.... amazing.

Now, I kind of wanted to ride Mission: Space next, but I was a little wary of it. I know that it's a centrifuge, and while generally you can't feel the spinning on simulators such as this, I didn't want to ruin my day with nausea either. Since no one else was going to ride with me (though they were perfectly willing to wait), I decided against it.

So we moved on to Test Track, where we took advantage of another perk. Rachel's grandpa worked at GM all his life before retiring in 1974. Because of this, he received a card that allowed him and his family access to a special GM lounge above the ride (GM sponsors Test Track). Even though he died several years ago, the perk continues for his family.

We entered a special back door and took an elevator up to the lounge, where there was free Coke and coffee. There also were windows that allowed us to see inside the ride as it ran, though I didn't look too hard as I didn't want to ruin the surprise. Pam and Jerry, who are looking for a new car, caught a GM executive as he went into a meeting and discussed cars with him for a while while we drank Coke and looked out the front windows at the park.

The best part about the GM lounge is that when you're done lounging, you take a special door that leads you right to the front of the line. No waiting! So we took our seats in one of the cars, with Rachel "driving."

Test Track is an excellent ride, supposedly simulating vehicle design tests. It starts with a "hill climb" test, up a 30% grade, then moves on to shocks (rough roads), handling (swerving through cones), environment (extremely hot and cold chambers), brakes (speeding up and sudden stops), and a series of switchbacks. The final test is the barrier test, where you speed up quickly and nearly crash into a wall - but instead, the wall opens and you speed around outside the building at 70mph on a banked track. I loved it.

Next, we entered the World Showcase section of EPCOT, where most of the attractions hadn't yet opened. Instead, we hopped on the ferry that takes guests to MGM Studios - a 20-minute ride across what looked like a man-made lagoon, surrounded by hotels and a boardwalk.

To enter MGM (and all the parks for that matter), first you insert your ticket into a slot, then you jam two fingers into another slot. When your ticket comes out the other side, you can enter. I have no idea what the finger thing is about, unless it scans your prints.

Our first stop at MGM was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - Play It! This attraction is on its last legs, set to close this month, but I was really looking forward to doing it. We entered the waiting area at just the right time and were offered the "fastest finger seats," which are the front-row seats with built-in monitors that you see on the TV show. This did not increase our chances of winning, however, as every person in the 600-seat audience gets a chance to sit in the "hot seat."

The "studio" looked EXACTLY like the TV show. I was impressed. Even though the show isn't recorded, as far as I know, there are multiple cameras to capture the audience and the contestants.

Now, the reason I was looking forward to this attraction is that I was SURE I could win it. Once you get in the hot seat, though you can't win money, you can win prizes such as a Disney cruise for four. However, I underestimated how difficult it would be.

The first fastest-finger question asked us to put the letters in order of the name of the "little green monster" from Monsters Inc. My brain couldn't recall the name nor make anything out of the letters IKEM, at least not in 2 seconds. Of course it was MIKE, and I didn't have a chance. However, I held out hope - you can play along with the contestant, and the person who answers questions correctly the fastest becomes the next contestant.

The first guy didn't get very far - most of his questions were easy, and I got them all right. Furthermore, I hit the button as soon as it was possible to hit it, so I was confident I'd get in the hot seat. Alas, I didn't even make the top 10. I think some people must have robotic fingers that can hit buttons 100 times faster than normal humans.

The good news is, at the end of the second game, they showed the final top 10 of the crowd, and Rachel made No. 10. We were all proud of her.

We stopped for lunch next. Everyone kept raving about this one restaurant that had amazing chicken fingers, so that's where we went, although Rachel and I got turkey sandwiches instead. The sandwiches were really, really good (turkey, red peppers, cheese and arugula on multigrain bread, served with Wendy's-esque fries), and I was impressed that the restaurant had several somewhat healthful options.

After lunch, we split up, with Jerry and I going toward the thrill rides and the ladies watching the Beauty and the Beast show. Jerry and I headed toward the Rock 'n Roller Coaster, which he said he would ride with me, but he balked at the 50-minute wait. So we moved over to the nearby Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, but the wait there was 60 minutes. Jerry refused to wait, but I was determined to ride at least one thrill ride, so he went off and I joined the line alone.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but the heat outside that day was nearly intolerable. So far, we'd managed to do OK because we were constantly going in and out of shops and attractions. But now I was stuck in line, under the blazing sun and stifling humidity, and it was absolutely miserable. I don't think I've ever felt so disgustingly sweaty. I tried to take my mind off of it by starting a conversation about baseball with a Red Sox-cap-wearing guy, but it just made things worse as he continued to lecture me about the Sox for 20 straight minutes (later I heard him lecturing someone else about the Patriots).

The line was quite neat, actually. The "story" of the ride is, an elevator full of actors disappeared from a Hollywood hotel after a strange electrical disturbance, and the hotel has been abandoned ever since. Therefore, the foliage around the line is all overgrown and "neglected," and the signs and structures appear to be deteriorating.

After about 40 minutes in the heat, the line entered the building for the pre-show, which explained the story (and a bunch of idiots finished Rod Serling's final sentence for him, as if they were clever for knowing he was going to say "The Twilight Zone"). Another 15 minutes in the glorious air conditioning and I was ready to board. I was really impressed with the theming, as the entrance to the ride is just a normally sized, sliding elevator door. Behind the door is a car that holds like 18 people, though you'd never know that from the outside.

The ride starts with a quick ascent, then the doors open to reveal a long hallway with a window at the end. Some ghosts appear, and then the hallway goes black except for the window as a field of stars appears. The window rotates and floats toward you - pretty trippy. Then the elevator doors close and you go up again. The doors open on another hallway, and this time your car actually moves forward into the hallway, where there are some more trippy effects. At the end of the hallway, a set of doors opens to the outside, revealing how high you are, and then a random series of drops and launches begins. I counted five stomach-taking drops, and I could have sworn that the last launch actually went "up and over" the top (i.e. moved forward as well as up), though after reading about the ride, I decided this was in my mind. But what a great ride - worth the wait.

Best thing about it - only a simple car-style lap belt to hold you in. And the ride ops didn't even check it.

I rushed out of the building after my ride and met the rest of my party at a shop. We got some Icees and decided that we were done with MGM and its crowded midways, so we headed back to the ferry to catch a ride back to EPCOT.

On the way to MGM, the ferry had been mostly empty, and the air conditioning had nearly kept up with the body heat. No such luck this time - the boat was packed, and the sweat poured off my forehead and chest like, er, water. We couldn't stand it anymore, so we got off at the second stop (out of four) and hoofed it past the hotels. It was hot outside, too, but at least we could breathe.

Once we entered EPCOT, my favorite part of the day began. I have heard several times that, while Disney as a whole is designed for kids, EPCOT's World Showcase is for adults. It's true. And while I was expecting a patronizing representation of the various countries, I was happy to find out that not only are the country areas designed, maintained and funded by the countries themselves, but all the employees in each section are natives of that country.

We spent a short time in England watching the British Invasion, a Beatles cover band, before sampling the various shops and bakeries in the other countries. I can't remember the exact order right now, but we experienced France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the U.S., Morocco, Mexico, Japan and China, and probably more. In France, we watched the film "Impressions de France," which was dated but had lovely classical music and a neat wrap-around screen. I was hoping to find spumoni ice cream in Italy, but they had gelato instead, so I settled for a gingerbread man in Germany. In Mexico, we took the relaxing boat ride through the history of the country, and listened to a mariachi band for a while. I especially liked the large store in Japan, which had a lot of interesting electronics.

It took some time to walk through the countries, and once we were done, it was nearing 6:00 p.m. Rachel and I were asked: Would you rather go to Animal Kingdom, which closes at 7 p.m., or Magic Kingdom? We decided on Animal Kingdom, for me, mostly because, yes, I really wanted to ride the new coaster, Expedition Everest.

Before we left, we stopped at a pavillion sponsored by Coke, which was actually a big highlight for me. The pavillion had fountains with six or seven soft drinks from other countries, all of which I enjoyed very much. There was an orange-flavored Coke, a ginger drink from Africa, and several others. My favorite was a clear drink from Italy that started out fruity, then left a bitter aftertaste. Everyone else hated it, but I really liked that bitterness. Apparently it's often used to clear the palate between courses in Italy.

So we left EPCOT and jumped in the car for Animal Kingdom (apparently there's no transportation there). As the park was closing in an hour, we were able to get one of the very closest parking spots to the gate, though it was still a hike.

As much as I can judge this new park in an hour, I will say, it's quite pretty, but it doesn't seem like there's enough to do. We made a beeline for Expedition Everest, and though the wait time said 70 minutes, the line was still open, and the rest of my family said they didn't mind waiting for me. I waited a few minutes, and while the line didn't move, the wait time went up to 100 minutes before my eyes. As cool as the ride looked, I decided it wasn't worth holding my family up for that long.

As it turns out, even if I had waited, I probably wouldn't have ridden anyway, as strong thunderstorms moved through the area within an hour. So my quest for coaster No. 100 continues.

With enough time to take in just one attraction, we crossed the park to the Lion King show, which the older people in my party were raving about. I have to say it was impressive for what it was, but I just don't get into these Broadway-style shows. It all seems so contrived. I enjoyed the acrobatics of the "monkeys," but other than that I was pretty much bored. It also struck me as weird that the person who sang Scar's song "Be Prepared" was a strong-voiced hero figure. The lyrics, word choices and tone of the song did not match his previously established personality at all.

Rain and lightning greeted us as we exited the show. Our last stop of the day was a large shop, where we picked up some trinkets for our nieces and nephews and a T-shirt for Rachel. We joined the crowd streaming out of the park and piled in the van for the long ride home. Our only stop on the way home was, again, at the Winter Haven McDonald's for takeout supper, where the sun was setting beautifully over the lake. The McDonald's had self-serve ordering stations, which were completely pointless, because once you ordered, you got a receipt that you had to give to an employee - you still had to stand in line. Hmph.

Well, we had spent the day at DisneyWorld and eaten twice at McDonald's... a fully corporate day, and yet, I had a great time! I even enjoyed my double cheeseburger! What's wrong with me? ;) (NOTE: Readers of my blog know that I strongly dislike both Disney and McDonald's as companies)

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Sunday, August 6, 2006 10:39 PM
Good TR. I liked your take on many of the attractions (Tower, Test Track). My one regret about my brief trip to Disney World 2 years ago is not getting to spend more time in the World Showcase @ EPCOT. (Having kids in our group meant we spent a disproportionate amount of time in the Magic Kingdom.)
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Tuesday, August 8, 2006 3:04 PM
Tower of Terror is by far one of me favorite attractions EVER. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
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