Walt Disney World
November 10-15, 2009
A trip report and photo highlight from a short visit to the Walt Disney World Resort from November 10-15, 2009.
The Fall is a traditional slow time of the year for visitors going to Walt Disney World, and the slowest (a.k.a. quietest) part of the year is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most people are busy enough getting ready for the holidays and finishing projects in school to even think about a trip to the theme parks. With that being said, for those who can travel to central Florida during that time of year, they can often find good discounts at the hotels and extremely short wait times for the rides and in the restaurants. The only downside is that the weather can get cool and the park usually aren't open late, with Epcot commonly staying open the latest at 9 pm.
The past few days in Florida were a mixture of everything, from heavy crowds at times to cold and rainy weather for the first couple of days. Those weren't major issues, and the visit to the theme parks still went rather well. At least this time the weather started out being cold and rainy for the first two days, and very nice and sunny for the last couple of days. The weird thing was that the visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom turned out to be the opposite of what was expected. I'll get into that in a bit.
Clear skies prevailed for the last couple of days.
Let's start out the trip report with one of my favorite things at Walt Disney World --- the monorail!
I'm a sucker for the monorail. I've always been that way, and I don't see that trend or fascination ending anytime soon. All visits to central Florida need at least one ride on the monorail whether you're actually going in to the parks or not.
Back in July of 2009, there was an unfortunate accident with monorails pink and purple late at night at the TTC, and one worker was killed in the resulting crash. Since it was a fatal accident, monorails pink and purple have both been permanently retired from service, or rather, the colors have been retired from service.
Monorail Teal (light blue with white hashes like Monorail Lime and Monorail Coral) is the latest monorail to join the fleet of trains at Walt Disney World. Monorail Teal is essentially the combination of the still working parts of monorails pink and purple. It was a relatively quick construction project to make a new working train out of the two that crashed, and the new monorail recently began making test rounds and accepting passengers just a week or two ago.
On this trip I was on the constant lookout for the new monorail, and I only saw it twice. The first time was at night on Friday as my dad and I were going on foot (powercart for him) from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary. The Magic Kingdom monorail station (both Resort and Express) were jammed along with the ferryboat, so we killed time by making the slow journey to the neighboring hotel and letting the majority of the crowds leave before we hopped on the monorail to continue to the TTC. As it turned out, Monorail Teal was on the Express line. But with it being dark outside, pictures of it were going to be nearly impossible. Luck was with me two days later as Monorail Teal was one of the two monorails on the Epcot line.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
In the past, visits to Disney's Animal Kingdom in the winter or periods of sudden, cool weather have proven to be more favorible when it comes to viewing the wildlife. Many of the critters don't care for the intense heat of the Florida sunshine, but in the early and late hours, and when it gets cool outside, the animals tend to be more active and actually more around in the open and do whatever it is that they do to amuse themselves as opposed to always laying low in the shade and acting uninterested.
For the visit on this past trip, the opposite happened as far as cooler weather and animal activity. Central Florida experienced cloudy and cool weather from a cold front, and at Disney's Animal Kingdom it was cloudy, windy and fairly chilly. The animals, for the most part, were hard to find. Between going on the trails in Africa and Asia, and taking a ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris, it was a fairly lame day at the theme park.
One neat thing was that on a trail on Discovery Island, the porcupines were actually out of their hole in the wall and actually moving around in their little habitat. I've never seen them that active before, so this was a neat little treat.
As mentioned earlier, Kilimanjaro Safaris was fairly quiet for most of the ride. Animals were hiding amongst the trees or laying low in many of the enclosures.
Perhaps the strangest part of being in Animal Kingdom that day was that the park itself was packed! The trails in Africa and Asia were jammed with people, and other areas of the park were wall-to-wall with people. Being a Wednesday morning and mid-day in the off season (and this was without DAK being an early opening or late closing Extra Magic Hours park that day), this took us by surprise. We just concluded that the extra people were there as part of the golf tournament that was taking place on Disney property from Thursday through Sunday. The key thing was that a lot of the people weren't going on rides but rather just walking around and enjoying the park. Kali River Rapids and Dinosaur only had less than a five-minute wait, and Kilimanjaro Safaris and Everest were reasonable, staying around the 30-45 minute mark most of the time.
We didn't stay long in the park. After making a couple of laps and seeing what we wanted, we left and went over to the Studios for a few hours and finished the day at Downtown Disney. The unusually heavy crowds were also found in the Studios (again, not really going on the rides but rather just being there in the park), but Downtown Disney was quiet at night. We saw that a bunch of temporary tents were being set up in parts of the Marketplace and throughout all of the West Side, and those were there for the Festival of the Masters event taking place that weekend.
It was still too windy for the impressive Characters in Flight balloon.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Both visits to Disney's Hollywood Studios were pleasant. It was cold and cloudy on the first day, but the second day (Saturday) had outstanding weather with sunny skies and a high in the low 70s. Crowd-wise, the busier of the two days was on the previous Wednesday. On Saturday (Extra Magic Hour morning for the park) it was significantly less crowded than earlier during the week. Again, I believe that the true off season was showing itself on Saturday as the Wednesday crowds were most likely occupied with the final round of golf that was taking place on Saturday and Sunday. These spikes in traffic are known to happen as special events and conventions take place during the slow periods.
Toy Story Midway Mania and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster had the biggest lines (as expected), while Tower of Terror, Star Tours and The Great Movie Ride were all walk right on. We also noticed the lack of crowds for the Tower when we were down there this past March also during the off season. That's good since we can ride the Tower at any time without a significant wait, but it's sad seeing the lack of attention for one of Disney Imagineering's greatest and most innovating and well-themed rides in the park. Don't get me wrong. RnRC and Toy Story are great rides, but the Tower is simply an outstanding ride and it seems like its time in the spotlight is fading. Perhaps a fifth version of the ride would bring back the crowds in greater numbers.
Anyway, the Christmas decorations were up throughout the park, from the giant Christmas tree outside of the gates to the annual Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in the Streets of America. The park was ready for the holidays even if Thanksgiving is still over a week away.
Christmas decorations lined the streets down Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, and of course, there were also decorations outside of MuppetVision 3D. Speaking of the Muppets, it would be great if there was a special Christmas version of the show like the Country Bears. The outside and inside of the building would have crazy holiday decorations that only the Muppets would love, and the show itself would take us on a 3D adventure with the holiday spirit. Changing out the decorations and switching film rolls wouldn't be nearly as complicated or time consuming as switching the Country Bears and Haunted Mansion (Disneyland only) attractions for their Christmas versions. The only hard part would be making the new film. Something like that would certainly help drive up the park's attendance and bring new life back into the 3D show as it approaches its twentieth anniversary.
Meanwhile, in the Animation Courtyard, banners were up promoting the new Disney animated film, The Princess and the Frog. The film itself is a milestone as it goes back to the traditional hand-drawn style of animation as well as having several new songs, like the hit Disney films of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. As far as this movie being good or not, we'll know soon as it hits the theaters on December 11, 2009. This story looks intriguing as it's an American fairy tale and it takes place in the city and swamps around New Orleans, Louisiana.
Decorating the Streets of America section of the park like it has for the past few years, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights once again lights up the streets in a brilliant array of Christmas lights that not only look good, but they're also choreographed to several songs that play about once every ten minutes. The lights are just as impressive as they were last year, and I don't know if it was just me, but even the same songs as last year were being played in the new version, including that annoying version of "Jingle Bells."
Personally, I liked the lights better when they were on Residential Street in the Backlot. The lights looked better on the houses and it had a better flow to it as opposed to lining the city streets. Sadly, those days are gone forever as the massive Lights! Motors! Action! car arena now sits on that land, and Residential Street is gone for good. The current version of the lights is still good and a huge draw for the people, with the heaviest crowds being there just after sunset.
Epcot will always be one of my favorite parks. The current version has some great rides (such as Soarin' and Test Track), but in my opinion the park has not peaked what it was in the early 1990s before the slow transformation to what we have today. Rides such as Horizons, World of Motion, Journey into Imagination (with the real version of the Image Works upstairs in the pyramid), and even things like CommuniCore and Kitchen Kabaret were simply outstanding and still missed by many of the older Disney fans. Today's Epcot is still a great park, but the classic EPCOT Center was simply outstanding.
This brings to light an interesting conversation that my dad and I had with what appeared to be a manager this past Sunday. Pin trading turned into a discussion about the good and bad aspects of the park. What was frustrating was that this person (a woman who claimed to have over five years experience working at Disney) was virtually clueless on the past attractions in Epcot. Earlier we were speaking with very polite Chinese workers who had less than three months experience and were eager to learn more about the past Epcot rides and shows. This manager (I believe she was a manager since she was in plain clothes and acted like she was in charge) showed no interest in learning about the past and clearly had no idea about what we were talking about. In addition to that, when addressing our concerns about the park, her common answer was to give us a little smile and say "just wait five years." Her reasoning was that Epcot was constantly changing and evolving, and anything could happen in the future. She never answered anything directly, had no knowledge of her park's history, and only said "just wait five years" over and over. These weren't rumors as she herself didn't even know that Space Mountain was officially going to open in about a week. She was under the assumption that the ride was still going to have a soundtrack like in California and that the coaster wouldn't be open until next Spring.
Okay, how hard would it be for Disney to have the theme park workers watch a short video and/or read a small brochure or something telling about the past rides and shows? Many of them may have never enjoyed them in person, but simply knowing about them would make them better people and easier to communicate with the park guests who do talk about the past. Plus, it may give the workers better ideas to pass on to their supervisors about improving the park and giving the guests what they really want. Having somebody in a leadership position who knew nothing about Epcot's history was simply amazing, especially since we're talking about the removal and conversions of major attractions.
Anyway, most of the Christmas decorations were up throughout the park. The Christmas tree was in place at the edge of Future World, but the lighted arches that the monorail passes through were not there. I don't know if they're being omitted this season of if they just haven't been installed yet. Most of the countries in World Showcase had their Christmas decorations in place (notable exceptions being China, Japan and Morocco, but those countries don't exactly have the Christmas spirit), but the Holidays Around the World is not supposed to start for another week or so.
This time in Epcot we were there before it officially opened (we usually get there around park opening, but rarely these days before the opening time), and I will admit that the current rope drop ceremony in Epcot is pretty neat. The kids love having the main characters come out of Innoventions and saying hello to them. It's also great how cast members lead the mob of people straight to Soarin', avoiding people running there and possibly getting injured. This newer way keeps it organized all the way to the ride's entrance and FastPass machines.
The Epcot Christmas tree still looks great, and of course, people love posing by it.
The interior of Mexico was looking rather festive.
The same with the courtyard in Norway.
The Christmas tree was out in front of the U.S.A. pavilion. As of last Sunday, there was no train track going around the base of it like there was last year. That would be something easy to add overnight, so it's possible that the train will still be added soon. Inside of the Liberty Inn counter-service restaurant was the massive gingerbread house.
In the back of the Japan pavilion, a new museum recently opened. This is back by the rear entrance of the store inside of the fortress, and for the past few years it held a museum of tin toys that were once popular in the country. The new version of the museum has a Zen-like rock garden and a variety of photos from around the country. Honestly, this is small, boring, and most likely to go unnoticed by a lot of people, gathering even less interest than the tin toy museum. I'll be surprised if this new museum survives for more than a year.
On the first day in Epcot, the skies were gloomy and threatened to start raining. Did it rain? Yes, but not much. Thankfully there are a lot of covered areas inside of Epcot and it's easy to sit and wait out a passing storm.
World Showcase is best enjoyed just after 11 am as it tends to get really busy in the mid to late afternoons. It's also great at that time for those on assignment from Kim Possible's crew.
Cars passing each other on the high-speed part of Test Track.
And finally, we have the brand new Sum of All Thrills exhibit (not to be confused with The Sum of All Fears, an excellent novel by Tom Clancy) in Innoventions. In this exhibit, people get to design their own virtual roller coaster (where have I heard that before?) and then take it on a test run while riding the fancy new Robocoaster-type contraption. Each arm holds two riders, and there are a total of four arms in this exhibit. Word has it we'll be seeing and experiencing this new technology just up I-4 in the new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride being installed in Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park. Remember that this is just an exhibit while the Universal version will be a full-blown ride.
The range of motion in the arm is impressive, and I'm sure that this exhibit will be attracting large crowds in Innoventions. The concept reminds me of Disney's own CyberSpace Mountain in DisneyQuest, but this version is free of charge and right here in Epcot.
The Magic Kingdom was as fun as always, with the extra benefits being the newly re-opened Tomorrowland Transit Authority, the temporary addition of Tiana's Steamboat Jubilee! show on the Rivers of America, seeing small parts of this year's Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, and of course, being there for when the new version of Space Mountain was re-opened for the briefest of times.
As far as the crowds, the park really wasn't busy for the two times that we were there. Granted, those were both nights of the Christmas Party and the park was packed starting around 6 pm, but during the day it wasn't too bad. The line for Splash Mountain was extremely short, while the Fantasyland rides were still seeing a lot of attention.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had a long line at times.
But as busy as it was in some spots, Disney still roped off areas so they could film a new TV commercial for Verizon. We saw them filming the next day in Epcot, and one of the cast members said that this commercial involved over a dozen different locations from throughout the Walt Disney World theme parks. It'll be interesting to see the final version of the TV commercial when it aires.
"it's a small world" was Stroller Central. The normal stroller parking lot by the old Fantasyland Skyway station was being kept clear for an unknown reason.
Cinderella Castle was once again covered with thousands of lights to create the "ice castle" effect at night. The beauty with the Christmas version of the castle is that it still looks normal during the day. You have to stand close to it to see the strands of lights hanging from the turrets and windows. I like the ice castle at night, but seeing the castle look "normal" during the day is an extra bonus.
At around 6:30 pm on the nights of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, Cinderella Castle was transformed from its normal night mode into the ice castle by the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella.
The start of the season for this year's running of Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Take note that the normal versions of Wishes and SpectroMagic do not take place during the nights of the Christmas party. Instead, a different parade and fireworks show are used for the party guests.
The Magic Kingdom had most of its Christmas decorations in place except for the Christmas tree. The tree normally goes in the middle of town square right behind the Main Street train station, but as of last Friday it was still missing.
In the back of Fantasyland was the Christmas themed meet-and-greet area for Donald Duck. This spot looks pretty cool at night as the lights appear to dance to music, and as an added bonus, Uncle Scrooge was also seen in this spot. Now that's a classic character who needs more face time in the theme parks.
Tiana's Showboat Jubilee!
One of the newest (temporary) additions to the Magic Kingdom is the new Tiana's Showboat Jubilee! show that takes place on the Riverboat. This show is straight out of the newest Disney animated film to hit the theaters (The Princess and the Frog), and it features several musical numbers. The show takes place a few times each day, and each time the boat is closed to the normal park guests.
Personally, I like how this show uses an existing attraction as a stage. In a way, this is a nod to Disneyland and how that park uses its Riverboat as part of the original version of Fantasmic!, while the Florida version of the show uses an outdoor theater and much smaller riverboat for the finale. Tiana's Showboat Jubilee! is a great use for the Riverboat despite the fact that the theming in Liberty Square and Frontierland isn't quite the same as the swamps as New Orleans. It's close enough to work for the show. The height of the boat allows people on the opposite side of the pathway to easily see the show, and as a result, generates that much more interest. I don't know if the movie will be any good, but this show in the Magic Kingdom is pretty good.
Like Main Street and ToonTown Fair, part of Tomorrowland was also in the Christmas spirit. Nothing happened on the new Tomorrowland stage during the day, but a special show supposedly takes place at night during Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.
The new version of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (TTA) is certainly a blast to the past. The voice itself sounds like something similar we used to hear a long time ago on the ride, and the narrator even refers to the ride as the "peoplemover" several times. Is Disney looking to its past as inspiration towards future versions of attractions? The only issues with the new version of TTA are that A) at several points the volume of the voice is way too low and hard to hear, and B) there's almost nothing to see in the new version of Space Mountain. The inside of the mountain is very dark. Perhaps more special effects are still going to be added in the near future.
And last, but certainly not least, we have Space Mountain. For the first day and most of the second day in the Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain was still closed for its lengthy refurbishment. The cast members standing outside would not give any indication as to whether or not the mountain would open earlier than its November 22, 2009 grand re-opening date. We were told that there would be no soft opening period. We knew most of this information before the trip, so it wasn't a big deal that the ride still wasn't open. As long as it opened before our annual passes expired at the end of December, then everything would be fine.
The exterior of the ride itself looked like everything was ready to go. The old Tomorrowland Skyway station had been demolished, but the restrooms were still there and open again. A new spot with trees and benches now sits where the old waterfall and Skyway station used to sit. The new version of the Space Mountain sign is now green, and the exterior of the entrance also has a new green trim and color pattern. It looks like Disney is looking at an alien green color pattern for the mountain. To me, the green almost hints at something sinister inside of the building, much like the old attraction sign for Alien Encounter.
So I'm sure you could imagine the surprise I had when I was taking pictures over by Carousel of Progress, and a manager walked up to me and said, "They just opened Space Mountain." For about an hour on the afternoon of Friday, November 13, 2009, Space Mountain was once again accepting riders.
The actual line queue is a combination of new elements and a bunch of the old scenes. The entry way has a new sign welcoming us to Space Port Seven-Five (a reference to 1975 when Space Mountain first opened) with the logo for Space Mountain. The same music from before was also being played. The main part of the line queue is now a lot brighter than before, but unlike some rumors, there is not a partition blocking the view of the FastPass people from those waiting in the stand-by line. It's the same rail system as before. The big difference this time is that there are a bunch of new monitors, and the part of the line queue after crossing under the train tracks now has an interactive game. There were controls mounted on the railing, but it looked like the game itself wasn't quite operational yet. A bunch of professional Disney workers (most of them looked like managers or technicians) were standing in the FastPass line and chatting with the people, getting their opinions of the new additions.
As it was reported on other websites, the new version of the final part of the line queue and loading station is completely enclosed. It has a blue neon look to it, and overhead are pieces of scenery that look like windows to outer space. Air gates have been added to the loading platform. I'm surprised that it took this long to have them since the air gates were finally added to Thunder Mountain a few years ago. The biggest plus for the new version of the line queue is that it looks like there's more of a barrier between the two loading stations after exiting the tunnel, hopefully allowing for the entire stand-by line queue to be filled and to keep that many fewer people from having to stand in the slow moving tunnel or out under the hot Florida sun.
The actual ride is very similar to the previous version of Space Mountain. The trains appeared to have a slightly altered look to them, but unfortunately, there was no soundtrack added to the ride as many people were hoping. The final rumors said that there would be no soundtrack, and this experience confirmed it. The biggest difference between the old and new versions of the ride (apart from the technical stuff in the background) is the blue tunnel with flashing lights at the beginning of the ride. New lights and effects have been added to the end of the tunnel, and new sounds are played. The end of the tunnel with the sharp curve has a bright flash (on-ride photo?), and then we make the turn and go up the lift hill. The ride through the mountain is significantly darker and better because of the now enclosed loading station area, but I didn't notice a whole lot, if any, of new special effects. The re-entry through the atmosphere part was the same as before, and the what others call "boring" stretch of track to the unloading station is also the same as the old version.
The ride's unloading station has a new look and feel thanks to the new theming throughout the ride. It looks and feels fresh and futuristic. As far as the exit ramp, the new version is just plain awesome! The same general scenes are still there, but of course the theming has been changed. It's hard to describe the new scenes, but I was shooting video of them. I will say that I immediately thought of Horizons as were we presented visions of under the sea, in a city (complete with a robot waiter), and out in space. Perhaps Disney has got the message that enough of us loved the old versions of the rides from the 1980s and early 1990s. The new version of TTA has a similar retro feeling to it, complete with the narrator referring to the ride as the "peoplemover" a couple of times.
Perhaps we can look forward to more subtle references to the past in the future. Or as they say in the preshow for Dinosaur, "The future is truly in the past."
That's it for this trip report!
Thanks for reading it!