So, after 3 other blog posts and 2 months after the holiday, we finally make it to the big one, Disneyland. Disney is the big one for a few reasons: firstly, that it’s so iconic. Everyone has heard of Disneyland and has a vision of what it is like. The tagline is “the place where dreams come true”, so there’s a lot of pressure to live up to that. Secondly, because the parks are massive. They’re not just about the rides, but also the experience- the theming, the character interactions, so the park needs to be big enough to encompass all of that. Thirdly, because there are so many parks! The one that everyone pictures, with Sleeping Beauty’s castle, is Magic Kingdom- but that’s only one park! There’s also Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios- not to mention the water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Disney also have a number of hotels, but we didn’t stay at them so fortunately I can’t get in to that!
In the past I’ve only been to EuroDisney- my parents judged that we were too old for Disney when my brother and I visited Florida as teenagers, and Steve and I chose not to go in L.A, knowing that we would be coming here. I’ve seen my grandfather’s photos from when he took my Dad and uncles in 1967, but the parks have changed a lot since then and, I must admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for the scale of them!
As there are so many parks, I’m going to start off going through in the order we visited them. However, because of the fast pass system we only really stayed in one park all day, the rest of them we jumped in and out of when we had ride passes and depending on which park was quietest.
So a few general points about Disney before I get into specifics. As Disney has so many visitors each year, they have a very well organised fast pass system to make sure everyone has an equal chance to get on rides. However, you do need to know about it beforehand. Each visiting group needs to create an account before they arrive on my Disney experience. There, each guest is assigned 3 fast passes per day that you have tickets that you can pre-book. They come in hour time slots, and you can only book 1 per hour. You can though, book another pass once you’ve used up your three. So if you’re going to a park all day, you book three passes for three hours in the morning, and then book the rest one at a time after you’ve used the initial three. The only problem is that you can book passes up to 3 months in advance, or 6 months if you’re staying at a Disney hotel, so you have to be very organised. Some rides are more popular than others, and fast passes can sell out for time slots. When we went there were 3 new rides, one of which we weren’t able to get a fast pass for because the hotel guests had already booked up all the slots- and we tried everyday as soon as they were within our range to pre-book! Other than that though, it is a good system, and means you don’t get into the financial advantage problem that you do with places like Alton Towers, where you only don’t have to queue if you can afford it.
Another Disney system that made life easier is the magic band system. You can buy plastic wristbands, but pretty solid ones, that you assign to each member of your group which contains their ticket information, fast passes and will store any photo downloads you take around the parks. It makes it so much easier with kids, not having to fish around for a load of plastic ticket cards all the time- they could just scan themselves in. We did lose one of the band’s at a water park, but they are generally quite resilient. There was also a technical problem with mine that it took them a couple of days to resolve, so they replaced Sam’s lost band and gave us some extra fast passes as compensation.
The other thing to be vaguely aware of is transport in and around the parks. Disneyland has it’s own infrastructure, so there are several interstate exits to take to enter the compound. Once inside you have to pay $20 a day to park, but if you move between parks you only have to pay once. Sometimes if you arrive late in the day they waive the fee, but sometimes they don’t- they don’t have to so it depends who is on the gate! The largest car park is at Magic Kingdom. You can catch a monorail to Epcot from there, and to get into the park you have to either take the boat or the monorail across the lake. All the car parks are so big you have to take a tram to the main entrance, so you need to remember what zone and which row you parked in to get back. At Magic Kingdom you also need to remember whether you are in a hero or a villain zone. After a few days they all blur into one so it is worth writing it down or saving it on your phone or something!
To get into the parks you tap your wristband against an electronic post and scan your fingerprint, and then the fun starts! It’s worth downloading the MyDisneyExperience app onto your phone to take into the parks- there is WiFi so you’ll be able to access it! You can use it to show the ride times around the park you’re in, as well as the others if you want to switch, check show times, access the map if you don’t have a paper copy, and see any photos you take if you have a Disney Photo Pass. We found it really useful to plan our days.
The first park we went to was actually Epcot, which I knew nothing about, but which was home to some of Ryan’s key rollercoasters. You enter the park through a giant silver orb, and pass through Future World, before you come to a huge lake which has different countries of the world around it. Each section is themed according to that country, and has appropriate restaurants, and a few rides mixed in. At New Years Eve they celebrate with fireworks at the time each different time zone reaches midnight- must get confusing but it’s pretty clever.
We didn’t do all the rides at Epcot, but concentrated on the main ones, and then did some of the inside things as the weather was fairly wet in the second half of the day. Future World is split into East and West, and the major rides- or ones that Ryan classed as major, were in these two worlds. Our favourite was probably Test Track- you use the queue time to create your own car in pairs or threes, using a console. You can choose various aspects of the engine and special features as well as the general design and colour of your car. On the ride itself your car is then tested for things like power, efficiency, breaking distance, and the ability to cope with corners and adverse weather. It’s very clever really because you are unlikely to be able to create a car that wins in all areas, so when you have competitive kids, it’s quite easy to keep them civil!
When you’ve created your car you move through to the ride itself. I thought it would be more like a rollercoaster, but you get inside a mock car, and put on a normal seat belt system. The ride then takes your car around the various tests, ranking the models you created as you go around. The final test is acceleration, when the car is accelerated to 70mph very quickly- which is quite an exhilarating ride! The kids would have all been happy to go on again, but the queue for this one- understandably- was fairly long. In the post-ride area there are all sorts of exhibits on some of the newest technology in the world of cars, and some interactive displays like a mini race track, and green-screen photo opportunities with some fairly flashy cars! Keep an eye on your kids here though, there were a few lost children wandering around when we were there!
A significantly calmer ride was Spaceship Earth, which is much more on the informational level. It’s made up of a constantly moving conveyor belt of small carriages, that take you through the history of inventions from fire and the wheel in the Stone Age, to the origins of writing, through the Egyptians and Romans, to the invention of the telephone, mass production of literature, and finally computers, the internet and space travel. It ended up offering you a futuristic scenario for picking your holiday- finally giving you the choice between space and deep underwater. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience, however the conveyor belt did keep stopping so you would be sitting in a room for longer than you were supposed to, listening to the same information on a loop. The problem seemed to clear up though as we got further towards present time- so maybe they were just having technological issues in the past!
At the exit was Project Tomorrow, which is a combination of lots of interactive games based on various aspects of science and innovation. There was loads to do, however, when its busy there are little queues for everything, so you have to pick what you think will be the most interesting or you’ll be there forever! Sam and I ended up playing a game where you had to provide energy to a city, and the better you were at providing the energy, the more the city grew. Energy was created from nuclear power stations, electricity stations and the like, and you had to move the energy symbols from the stations to where it was needed using what looked like a brush on a shuffleboard. It was all digital so it took a while to get the hang of it. You only had about 5 minutes to make the city as big as possible though, so the adrenalin did kick in for the last minute or so. We ended up with a bigger city than the people in front of us so we were happy!
The next ride we did was one that Sam and Katy-Grace were very nervous about, because of the warning signs as we queued for it. Mission Space is a simulated space launch, that’s designed to trick your body into thinking its in zero gravity, and going through a spaceship launch- and crash for that matter. You’re seated in rows of about 4 in each pod, with a full over-shoulder safety harness. When you’re ready to go the row of screens and spaceship controls in front of you moves in towards you- so if you’re claustrophobic this really isn’t a good ride. Once we were strapped in and the simulator started, I found that it actually was impossible to tell which way up I was. You’re advised to keep your eyes open and focus on the screen if you’re finding yourself disorientated so you don’t get sick. I did that, and I still couldn’t work out what was going on! It was very cleverly done, and quite intense, but fortunately not enough to actually make anyone sick. Sam, who is 9, was having a bit of a meltdown before it started and really didn’t want to go on, but Steve persuaded him to, and in the end he did enjoy it. There are two intensities- orange which is stronger, and green which is milder, and you can choose which one you’re going on. We went for the orange, which I think contributed to making Sam nervous, so I can’t comment on whether green was milder or not! Again, at the end of the ride there was an interactive playground, with a future space themed arcade style games, and our favourite thing- which was sending a postcard from space to someone by email. Unfortunately our recipients couldn’t open the attachments, but it’s probably just as well, as they were mainly saying that we have been kidnapped by aliens!
The other main ride in Future World was Soarin’- which is another one that I knew nothing about before going! It was another nice, calm ride though. It’s essentially a simulator, but you all sit in long rows which raise up so your feet are dangling like a ski chair lift- with the idea that you’re supposed to be hang gliding. The 3D cinema around you then takes you on a journey around the world, seeing some really stunning landscapes. It’s clever in that you also experience the associated smells and splashes with what you’re seeing, so it does feel very realistic. If you choose to concentrate on the screen, and not on what you can see in your peripheral vision, then you can get totally lost in what is playing out in front of you.
Apart from the rides, there are another couple of cool things in Future World. Both of which we just stumbled across at various wet points in the day! The first is a character spot where the kids could meet Baymax from Big Hero 6, and Joy and Sadness from Inside Out. I say the kids, I was just as excited about Joy and Sadness, Inside Out is a genius film. The good thing about character spots is that they’re permanent, so the surroundings are made up as part of the film. For Joy and Sadness we were queuing up surrounded by the balls of Riley’s memories. We did end up queuing for about an hour, but the benefit of having 2 adults and older kids is that we could queue in both sides at the same time. As the Big Hero 6 queue was moving quicker, the kids went and had their photos taken there, and then we all went to Inside Out when they had finished. As it’s group photos, it takes the same amount of time for one of us as all of us, so it’s not quite queue-jumping!
The other place we found was the SeaBase, which was brilliant. It’s a huge aquarium with sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and manatees, as well as the smaller octopus and tropical fish. We spent a lot of time wandering around looking at sea animals. There’s also a small ride inside called The Seas with Nemo and Friends, which is a conveyor belt carriage system showing you a bit more inside the aquarium, but with the added incentive of Marlin, Nemo and Dory flitting around to make sure you actually look! It then takes you to the underwater observation deck where you can sit and watch the dolphins. One of the best things about this area though, was a little theatre called Turtle Talk with Crush. We were expecting an animated talk on ecology aimed at small children, but we were so impressed with the reality. That was, essentially, what it was. But somehow, it was interactive. Crush was animated on a large screen made to look like a tank in front of you, but he talked to the children- actual conversations, with the animation matching up perfectly in real time. It clearly wasn’t pre-recorded, as Crush would comment on the kids clothes, address them by name, and respond to what was going on around him, but we just couldn’t figure out how they did it. The kids loved it because it’s Crush, and he’s awesome; and we loved it as the technology was so impressive!
From Future World we moved to the World Showcase, but in actual fact, there was only really one country we went to, and that was Norway. Norway is currently the most popular country around the Epcot world, as it is the home of Ana and Elsa from Frozen. We managed to get Fast passes for the Frozen ride, so ventured out of the safety of Future World to try it out. You’re met in Norway by Vikings wandering around, before you enter the queue zone for Frozen, which, fortunately, is inside. The ride is a boat ride similar to It’s a Small World, but was actually a bit of a disappointment- and I like Disney boat rides! It takes you through some scenes from Frozen, including Olaf singing and Sven getting into mischief. In all fairness, it was quite clever because they’d made the normal models that you find in these things, but managed to animate their faces electronically, so they really did look like the characters from the film. Olaf spends the whole time talking about how Queen Elsa is holding a party in the palace and we’re all invited; you run into her snow monster and its, admittedly very cute, babies, who blows you backwards and sends you spinning into the palace. There are a couple more scenes, but no party. I was confused and mildly disappointed, but there we are. It is a ride for very small children after all.
The final attraction to mention about Epcot is their fireworks display, called IllumiNations- Reflections of Earth. We managed to get Fast pass seating so we were right next to the lake, which the show takes place on. It’s a combination of fireworks, lasers, and fountains, with a giant globe that floats across the lake. The visual effects were very impressive, but I have to admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount holding it together, just random fireworks going off all the time. I think the idea was that the projections on the globe held everything together. I think they were pictures of earth- waterfalls and forests and things, but it really wasn’t close enough to anyone to be able to see that. The voice over at the beginning and song at the end were also a little bit too cheesy for my liking! I think for me that the magic that you expect from the other Disney parks, and the futuristic atmosphere of Epcot just clashed and didn’t come together very well in this show. Of all the Disney shows, this is probably the only one I wouldn’t recommend though.
Hollywood Studios, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Studios has two evening shows- they have to be evening as you need it to be dark enough for things to show up! Fantasmic starts at 9pm, and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular! starts at 9.30pm. You do see people sneaking away from Fantasmic at 9.25 to get across the park in time for Star Wars, but both shows are good enough that it’s worth coming on two different nights to see them both in full. Fantasmic is the main Mickey Mouse show of the Disney parks. It’s based around the Fantasia theme, with Mickey becoming a wizard and ending up on top of the mountain. During the show he has to take on a lot of the villains from various Disney films- mainly the classics like Ursula, Ka, the wicked witch from Snow White, Scar; and included scenes from the Lion King and Pocahontas. There were lots of fireworks, water projections and explosions. There were enough familiar characters to keep any children engaged, and they were the classic Disney characters that parents would recognise, so it kept me happy too! There was a fantastic atmosphere beforehand as we were waiting- come early to get good seats, and you could feel the excitement. The finale saw the majority of Disney princes, princesses and heroes come across the lake on a steamboat, so although the show itself might have been a bit scary, it ended on a happy note!
My favourite show though was the later one- Star Wars. Its shown at the Chinese theatre at Hollywood Studios, and is projected onto three buildings, with fireworks and lasers. The moment the Star Wars theme tune came on I was excited, and it didn’t disappoint. I was happy to find that it includes characters from all the Star Wars films that have been released- not just focusing on one set. It basically took you on a chronological journey through the Star Wars Universe, introducing you to the main characters, with their appropriate theme music, and including you in some of the iconic battle scenes. You get fired at by X-wing fighters, and then find yourself on Hoth surrounded by AT-ATs. It was perfect for any Star Wars geek, but with enough explosions and excitement to keep the attention of someone who has never seen the films! I can’t upload videos onto my site, but if you want to watch the display you can find it here.
The other show that we watched at Hollywood Studios, which is a daytime one and repeated several times throughout the day, was Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. We both had quite high expectations of this one, and even got a Fast pass to make sure we got in, but unfortunately these shows are affected by the weather, as a lot of it is outside. It’s a bit of a weird set-up as it’s not just an Indiana Jones show, but an Indiana Jones movie show, so it keeps switching between the action and the background producers coming in to talk about how the stunts are done. It is interesting, but I think we would have preferred to just watch the stunts! The explosions and fight scenes were very impressive, and it was good for the kids to see the precision that’s involved for a scene with lots of people to come together. They also brought out volunteers from the audience to take part in the scenes, although it did turn out one was planted when he executed a perfect fight sequence first time! As it was raining when we were there, they had to cut the show short and miss a couple of stunts out- presumably because things were slippery or the explosives not safe to work with in those conditions. So if you do go to Hollywood Studios over several days, try and see Indiana Jones when it’s dry!
As it turned out, Hollywood Studios also had a lot of our favourite rides. One of them we were expecting would be quite high up there, as it’s also in EuroDisney, and a favourite there- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith. The younger two had never been on it before but loved it so much that they wanted to go on again. The distinctiveness of this coaster is that it has a very fast acceleration at the beginning, you have a countdown on a screen above you, and also that it’s in the dark, with flashing road signs rushing past you. The idea is that Aerosmith have invited you to their show, but it’s across town and you’re going to be late, so the ride is the limo ride with the driver trying to get you there on time. You end up backstage, with a red carpet to walk up to get you in to their concert. The coaster does go upside down, and has a couple of corkscrew turns, but it goes so fast, and the darkness makes it so disorientating that you hardly notice. It is one that we would ride over and over though.
Another popular ride- although not with me and Sam- was The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Set in a haunted hotel, the ride takes you through the hotel before you enter the elevator- which is where the trouble is. The elevator raises up and is then taken over by ghosts, so that you are dropped to your death. As it’s a drop tower, Sam and I didn’t go on, but Steve, Katy-Grace and Ryan loved it so much they got a second fast pass to go back on it.
While the others were on Tower of Terror, me and Sam got ourselves an extra ride on Star Tours, we had already gone on as a family, but we enjoyed it enough to go back on, and I was really glad we did. Star Tours is a simulator, quite a few rows per transporter, and is one that only needs a lap seat belt as it actually doesn’t move that much. What I discovered though from going on twice, is that there are different stories. The first time we went on it was based more on the newer films, so we started with a bounty hunter looking for a rebel on our ship, and ended up in a pod race. The second time though, we were escaping Darth Vader, and crash landed on Jar Jar Binx’s planet, travelling down to his underwater city, and eventually crashing into a hangar on the shore. The interaction with C-3PO (who is flying the ship), is fantastic in both stories, it has the same witty script that you would expect from a Star Wars film, and the visual effects are fantastic. I’d be interested to find out exactly how many options they had!
There are a couple of smaller and calmer rides in Hollywood Studios as well. Toy Story Mania was a really fun one. It’s a shooting game, of the variety that kids can actually hit the targets! But it was particularly enjoyable because there were four different games included in one ride. You sit in pairs, back to back in a car, with two cars going round together- so if you need to split up then make sure you organise yourself! It’s quite easy to rack up the points as well, so a good one for competitive kids! It ends up being quite a long ride because of the different mini games, so it’s well worth the queue, and does feel like you’re inside the Toy Story World.
You also have The Great Movie Ride, the queue for which is through the Chinese theatre, with props from lots of films all the way through- although there is a lot of queuing outside before you get that far! During the final section of the queue you’re in a cinema screen so there’s things to watch, but quite a lot of them are from older films, so if you’re with a grumpy 9 year old, they might automatically decide it’s boring. The ride itself is quite interesting, taking you through lots of different film sets on a train. It is interactive though so at some point your tour guide will jump out and take part in the scene unfolding around you- and it varies which depending on the tour guide. You end up going through a burning building, a Midwest gun fight, surrounded by gangsters, in the jungle, in a pyramid- you get a lot of variety so there’s something for everyone. Definitely worth keeping little kids on the inside though!
The final attraction at Hollywood Studios is Muppet Vision 3D, which is inside a movie theatre. The 3D actually works really well, and you end up with an annoying cartoon character floating around your head- who was created by Beaker specifically for that purpose! With the Muppets though, chaos soon takes control and there are explosions which actually leave a hole in the wall, someone running away from home, and lots of songs and dancing penguins! Better if you have some knowledge of the Muppets already, but still good if you’re new to the Muppet world.
Near the Muppets is one of the only restaurants that we ate at in the Disney parks, primarily to get ourselves a fast pass to Fantasmic- Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano. We had a set menu, and unfortunately can’t get away with Katy-Grace being a child in Disney, although she would have had plenty to eat with a children’s menu- the portions were huge! That’s probably the overwhelming memory of the meal for the children- how ridiculously large the portions were. The kids ordered garlic bread as a starter and were given a whole pizza. Surprisingly enough, no-one was actually able to finish their meals! There’s always the danger with massive portions that the quality of the food suffers, but it was really good. We all enjoyed our food, and only struggled with having too much. The restaurant was also really well themed and did feel like you were in a family run restaurant in Italy- which is impressive for one of the biggest theme park companies in the world.
The third park was bigger again though, and ended up having my favourite ride, and probably some of my favourite theming- Animal Kingdom. The first thing that stands out about Animal Kingdom is the huge tree that stands in the middle of the park on Discovery Island. It looks like an African tree- one of the ones with a thick trunk and branches that spread out to a relatively flat but thick canopy. However it’s not a real tree but is actually made out of an old oil rig. The closer you get the more impressive it becomes as you can see that the trunk is not smooth like a real tree but engraved with pictures of all sorts of animals. At night it becomes even more impressive as its lit up and the animals come to life, and scenes play out over the surface of the tree. Lights come on in the canopy so it looks like it’s full of fireflies. It really is beautiful.
On one evening we went to an attraction called Its Tough To Be A Bug, which is the only attraction in Discovery Island, apart from the nature trails and restaurants, and in the queue line you get a really good view of the tree from beneath it, it’s worth getting a different perspective if you can. The bug attraction was also quite good though. We mainly went for Sam because he likes bugs, but we didn’t really know what it was. It looks a lot like a theatre, but like the Muppets it’s an interactive one. The story is with the characters from a Bugs Life, and is introducing you to the world of bugs. This is a bit of a problem in an interactive show that you’re not expecting as you get sprayed with venom, poked in the back, feel things tickle across your face and feet, and get some very buggy smells! Ryan and I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but you can probably cope a bit better if you know what’s going to happen in advance.
There were a lot of rides that we really enjoyed though. The kids favourite was probably Exhibition Everest. It’s set in the Himalayas on a hunt for a yeti, and is a fairly simple rollercoaster similar to Big Thunder Mountain. There are a few surprises along the route though. For a start you’re not always going forwards- the yeti didn’t want to leave the track in one piece, there are also a couple of segments in the dark where you can’t tell if you’re going backwards or forwards, or if you ever go upside down. It was a ride we all loved though, and we ended up going on it about 4 times!
Exhibition Everest is in the Asia section of the park, which it’s based on Nepal with prayer flags dotted around, and tigers, gibbons, komodo dragons and macaques in enclosures off the paths or along the Maharajah Jungle Trek. There’s also some nicely themed places to eat in this section, including the Yak and Yeti, and Anandapur ice cream. One of the best water rides is also in Asia- Kali River Rapids. I’ve talked in other parts about how much more impressive water rides are in the U.S. than the U.K., and Kali River is no exception. It has a massive drop that soaks the entire boat, as well as the normal jets of water, waterfalls, and smaller rapids all the way round. The main thing that stood out about this ride over the others was that the scenery around the river was much more impressive. You went through lush forests to burnt out tree stumps to snowy mountain tops, it was very cool.
The other main attraction that you find in Asia is Animal Kingdom’s night time show, Rivers of Light. Compared to Epcot this show was done really well, despite using a lot of the same technology. There were beautiful floating light displays including boats, flowers and animals. They’re not your normal Disney style animals, but actually very artistic and attractive displays. Combined with light projections onto sprays of water, and the show tells of the beauty of nature and the wonder of the natural world, in a magical and wonder-inspiring way. Definitely worth hanging around for.
Next to Asia you find Africa, unsurprisingly. There aren’t any real rides in Africa but there are some good attractions. We did miss out on the Kilimanjaro safari, which looks like it would have been worthwhile. It looks like a real safari, in that you end up seeing elephants, lions, gorillas, giraffes, hippos, monkeys and zebras- most of which you couldn’t see from the regular paths. You have to book on advance though, and we just weren’t quite organised enough.
We were organised enough however, to book our one and only character dining experience at Tusker House restaurant. What we discovered is that while you’re never too old for Disney characters, there is a stage in the middle where you’re too cool to get excited about it. I think that Steve and I were actually much more excited than any of the kids, but Ryan, who is 14, was downright embarrassed. I was chuffed though to meet the Disney classics- Mickey, Donald, Daisy and Goofy. That part of the experience was amazing, although I have to admit the food didn’t quite line up, especially as we had such high expectations after Mama Melrose. It was buffet food, which wasn’t a problem in itself, and there was such a big variety that it wasn’t just the same old kids food. Potentially the problem was that in trying to do so much, they didn’t do anything very well. The kids were happy with it, and they was enough we liked to fill us up, it just wasn’t very satisfying for the price we were paying for it.
The other attraction we managed to catch in Africa, which was worth it, was the Festival of the Lion King. I was sort of expecting something similar to the stage production, but I’m not sure which one actually came first. It was a much more Disney-fied production that that though. A combination of huge animatronic lion king characters, and actors in animal-esque costumes. The actors moved in ways that resembled their animal, which was interesting to watch, especially the actors who were birds, dancing gracefully suspended above the stage. It was a fantastic show for younger kids with the bright colourful costumes, but of a high enough quality to be enjoyed by adults as well.
For the size of the park, there actually aren’t that many rides, with only one or two in each land and the rest taken up by shops and restaurants. This was also the case in Dinoland USA. The whole place looks a bit like a fun fair with a large outdoor playground, carnival games, and small scale roller coasters. One of these is Primeval Whirl, which is very much of the scale you’d expect to find in a local park, and spins in confusing directions all the way round. Fun, but not one to go on after eating!
The main ride in Dinoland is just called Dinosaur, and takes you on a ride through a Jurassic rain forest in a time travelling jeep. We weren’t expecting it to be quite so dramatic though, as you do end up being chased by some large, realistic looking dinosaurs through often dark forest. We enjoyed it far more than we were expecting to, and actually would recommend going on it again.
The final land in Animal Kingdom is the newest, and had only been open a few weeks, but is by far the most impressive. Pandora is the world from the film Avatar, which is a Pocahontas story set on another planet. The land itself is absolutely stunning. Filled with fluorescent plants, floating planets, and other-worldly life forms. It’s even better at night as the plants are disguising UV lights, so the whole place is glowing.
This is shown off best in the first of their two rides- Na’vi River Journey. The Na’vi are the civilization that live in Pandora, and the ride is a slow river journey through their world. You get a closer look at plants that light up when you go past, seeds that hover in the air above your heads, and some of the incredible animals that live on the planet. You even meet a Na’vi elder, whose whole body moves somehow. Sam wasn’t hugely impressed, but the rest of us were marvelling at the imagination and technology that must have gone into it.
However my favourite ride of the whole holiday is Pandora’s other new ride- Flight of Passage. This is the only ride that we just weren’t able to get a fast pass to go on for the whole holiday. We were quite lucky- sort of- in that the second time we visited Pandora the ride had broken down and the queue line emptied, so we gambled on it, and waited about half an hour in the rain (Katy-Grace was reading the whole time), after which time the queue reopened and as we were nearly at the front, we only waited for another half an hour inside. Considering the queue can get up to 5 hours, we were quite impressed! The ride ended up being so good though that we came back and queued for two and a half hours for it.
The basic idea is that you’re flying on the back of a banshee, which is a giant bird that looks a bit like a dragon. The ride itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It looks a lot like a motorbike, with 8 in a row, and you’re strapped in around your stomach and back and your thighs- you’re leaning forward onto what would be the handlebars as if you were riding a real bike. You then have a pair of 3D glasses on and the screen in front of all 8 of you comes away so that you have a panorama view in front of you. The landscape of Pandora is incredible, so having that in 3D in front of you is a good enough reason to go on by itself. But what’s more impressive is the way that motorbike seat is set up. When the banshee stops in a cave to rest you can feel the leg restraints pushing out against you, as if you were actually riding an animal that’s panting beneath you. Combine that with the smell of the forest floor, and the feel of the spray from the sea, and it’s the most engaging and realistic ride I’ve ever been on. It’s no wonder the queue is always so long, as people who have been on it have clearly decided it’s worth waiting that long for. The queue line itself is interesting of course, but the ride itself is completely unforgettable. It was absolutely the highlight of the theme parks for me.
Having said that, I was fairly entranced the first time I went to Magic Kingdom. It is the original Disney park that everyone dreams of, with the fairy tale princesses, enchanted castles, and all the magic that Disney brings. It was so exciting walking down Main Street USA, towards Sleeping Beauty’s castle at the end. It really is how it looks in the adverts- clean, well kept, and everyone smiling at you. You can smell baked goods and popcorn as you walk down, I heard a rumour that the smell is artificially piped in, but I choose not to believe it!
The first day we went we initially turned left and walked through Liberty Square to get to Adventureland and Frontierland, and came across the Muppets having an argument about presidents and civil liberties. I could have stayed to watch them for hours, but unfortunately the others weren’t that interested. It only added to my excitement though.
The first ride we went on was Pirates of the Caribbean. This is one of Disney’s first rides, and was one of my favourites from when I went to Disneyland Paris as a child- it’s in a rare position of having a film based on the ride and not vice versa! It was one of the first rides I went on when I really appreciated the theming in the queue line. I was happy to find that the ride had progressed and changed a bit along with the films. They’d added in an extra pirate ship in the moonlight with Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, however the main town scenes had stayed more or less the same, but with more emphasis on finding Jack Sparrow, who looks a lot more like Johnny Depp now. In fact, Depp had been known to dress up and hide in the ride, and come out to surprise unsuspecting tourists.
Most of the other attractions in Adventureland were aimed at smaller children, so we gave them a miss and headed to Frontierland, which has two of the main rides- Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Splash Mountain is a fantastic log flume ride, which has the added advantage of being able to fit 5 people in a boat- a welcome relief from the constant questioning of who is going to sit with who! It’s one that the kids would have happily gone on again, but we mainly didn’t because it does get you pretty wet.
However we did ride Big Thunder Mountain a few times. It is a rollercoaster, but because it’s aimed slightly younger, it’s not as mind bending. It goes really fast but fortunately doesn’t go upside down. It’s one that you actually could go on several times and enjoy it without the risk of your head going and you feeling sick. It’s a Disneyland classic, but a really fun ride so I hope they keep it for a good few years yet.
They also have a very similar ride in Fantasyland, which is fairly new, called Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, obviously based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This one had a bit more of a story to it in that you’re going to work with the Seven Dwarfs in the mines, so you go through the scenes like in the films. The main rollercoaster bit is in the middle and you finish with Snow White dancing with the dwarfs and the wicked queen about to knock on the door. That was all fine but we were a bit disappointed with the ride overall. It was a lot shorter than we expected, and a lot more tame than Big Thunder Mountain. Probably much better for little kids, but not great for older ones who are more interested in coasters!
There are loads of rides for smaller kids in Fantasyland though. The one that springs most obviously to mind is It’s a Small World. This always brings back memories for me of my mum hating it because the song is so annoying and on a constant loop the whole way around. It really hasn’t changed much though between time and location.It’s a nice gentle boat ride through the world as represented with a stereotyped child from each country. We kind of felt that it had to be done, but was more annoying than anything else.
On the other hand, we did enjoy Peter Pan’s Flight, which is in a slowly flying boat going through the story. You start off in the Darling bedroom, before flying over London rooftops, and then following the third start on the right and straight on till morning to Neverland. It’s all very bright and colourful, and even when you come up against Captain Hook its not at all scary. It did help to be a little bit familiar with the story and the characters, but it’s still a nice fun ride if you’re not.
There are a lot more attractions in Fantasyland, but as they’re mainly aimed at much younger children, we didn’t do them. If you come with small kids and had a few days, there would definitely be enough there to keep you occupied for a lot longer. Of the two remaining lands, Liberty Square definitely had the least inside it. There are a few places to eat, the riverboat and guest services, but the only attraction we were interested in was the Haunted Mansion. I remember this one being absolutely terrifying, so I was happy to find that it wasn’t as scary as I remembered. You do start off walking to hear the story of the mansion, but then you go onto a moving conveyor belt to sit in a 2-3 person car to take you through the mansion itself. There’s the regular tricks of rattling doors and self playing pianos, but also clever use of the mirrors opposite the car to make it look like things were there that actually weren’t. Our kids all coped ok with it, but I think Sam at 9 was probably at the low end. Goodness knows what age I went on to have such a strong memory of it!
The final land is Tomorrowland, where there were 2 rides that we went on. The first was as we expected it to be: Buzz Lightyears Space Ranger Spin. It’s a classic shooting game, much like Men in Black or Toy Story. You’re helping Buzz defend the planet from the evil Emperor Zurg, by shooting all the baddies with red eyes. It’s a really fun, interactive mix between a ride and a game. Sam was convinced his gun wasn’t working, as he came out with a really low score, but I think he may have just not got the hang of shooting. In the photo I’m trying to work out what’s going on!
The final ride that was nothing like we were expecting was Space Mountain. I’ve been used to the Space Mountain in EuroDisney, which is a huge coaster with 4 to a row, and several rows, that starts off by shooting you out of a tunnel before going round a coaster of the scale of Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster. Steve and I got stuck on it before it shoots you out once, and had to be evacuated and walked through the ride. That was exciting. However this ride is completely different. For a start you’re sitting in a little rocket that fits in 3 people, one in front of the other. It’s completely in the dark, so you have no idea what if going on at any point. We were so surprised at how different it was that we spent much of the ride being completely confused. Even though it was so different it was pretty fun, and definitely one I’d like to try again.
The final attraction to mention at Magic Kingdom is one of the highlights of the Disney parks: their night time show, Happily Ever After. Although all the shows at Disney are of a very high quality, this one trumps them all. It’s set at the castle, and well worth getting there really to find a good space where you can see it. People will stake their spot on the pavements good hour before the show starts, but if you hang on, they will eventually fill up the roads as well, so if you’re late you can sneak in there.
The show is primarily fireworks and a light projection onto the castle, accompanied by standard Disney music. But it really is incredible. The projections are absolutely spot on, and make the most of every aspect of the building. They include a huge number of Disney characters, including classics and the newest ones. You can see them very clearly when you’re there but they don’t translate well into photos! I was entranced the whole way through, let alone the kids. If you’re able to go to the park for a few days, you probably wouldn’t get bored watching it more than once, but at the same time it would be a perfect way to end a holiday. The park is open for a bit longer after the fireworks, but for younger kids it would be a good place to end the day.
The final park I want to briefly mention is Typhoon Lagoon, one of Disney’s water parks. They also have Blizzard Beach and Aquatica, but we weren’t able to fit them in with the amount of time they were closed for the weather. We only spent a few hours in Typhoon Lagoon on a quiet afternoon, but we did hardly any of what was there and the kids would have loved to have stayed longer and gone back. We spent quite a lot of time in the wave pool in front of the shipwreck, and went on one of the raft rides- Miss Adventure- which we really enjoyed. There were a lot of single rider water slides, which we missed, and we didn’t really explore the full park. We went quite early on in the holiday when we weren’t used to the heat yet, and on a day when we were quite tired, so it didn’t really work. It was a shame though as I think going on the right day, we would have enjoyed it a lot more.
So that, in four fairly long blog posts, was our Florida holiday. Congratulations if you managed to read all the way through them. I’m torn between trying to write more succinctly, and savouring every detail so that we can read back through to relive the holiday! Let me know what you, as the person actually reading this, would prefer! Please get in touch if you’re going to Florida and I can answer any questions you may have. We had a fantastic holiday, and even though the weather wasn’t ideal, I think the children caught the Florida bug, and definitely the U.S. bug and are all much more enthusiastic about going back than they were about going in the first place. We came back with so many happy memories, and hundreds of photos to prove it! Thank you for reading, enjoy your own holidays!