Walt Disney World
July 20-30, 2011
A Walt Disney World trip report and photo highlight from July 23-30, 2011.
Just over a week ago, my girlfriend and I returned from a week-long trip to Walt Disney World. This was her first trip to the Disney theme parks and something like my thousandth. Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration. We both had a great time and can't wait to return to central Florida.
As normal in the middle of the summer, the weather was steamy hot and humid each day with the constant threat of afternoon pop-up thunderstorms. Only one of our days really saw any rain, and one evening in the Magic Kingdom we were treated to an impressive lightning show while waiting for the start of the "Wishes" fireworks show.
And yes, even though I was just there this past February, there were several NEW experiences waiting on this trip.
Let's take a look at each of the parks and see what it was like a couple of weeks ago.
An immediate change in the Magic Kingdom was the way that the entrance turnstyles did not operate until 20-15 minutes prior to park opening. In the old days it was possible to be walking down Main Street USA up to an hour before the park officially opened (not including Extra Magic Hour mornings). Now long lines develop as people arrive early and wait until allowed entry into the park.
In addition to the later entrance opening time, everybody is crammed into the small area between the Main Street USA train station and entrance turnstyles. Nobody is allowed to cross underneath the train tracks and enter the rest of the park until after the new version of the rope drop ceremony. Gone are the days of walking to the Crystal Palace or Plaza Restaurant to stake out a position to make a sprint to Frontierland or Tomorrowland.
The new rope drop ceremony itself is pretty good.
In the ceremony we're greeted by the mayor of Main Street. He bids us a hearty good morning and welcomes us to the Magic Kingdom. He's joined by a bunch of singers and dancers from that time period, and they sing and tell us how much they love the mornings. After that the steam train arrives with many of the Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse. The Mouse also welcomes us to the park, and then we're introduced to the official family of the day. The mayor and family help all of us guests do the official countdown. People yell out the numbers, fireworks scream into the air, and then everybody pushes and shoves each other as they cram into the tunnels under the train station and head to all points beyond.
The Main Street USA train station makes a great stage for the ceremony, and everybody seemed to enjoy seeing the steam train come rolling into the station while carrying a bunch of characters. It's just a pain being jammed into a tight area with everybody else in the morning. Hopefully future versions of the rope drop ceremony will be back on Main Street USA and give us all a little more breathing room.
Cinderella Castle now has a nightly show called The Magic, The Memories and You! Throughout the day Disney photographers take pictures of families, and each night there's a show that places those photos onto the castle. Your image may be displayed along with hundreds of others after Wishes.
Crossing the bridge into Adventureland and you'll probably notice that the bridge itself is new. The classic bridge with the ramps and bumpy crossing is now gone, replaced with a flat and modern looking sign welcoming us to the land.
And, alas, the Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management was still closed despite being listed on the Magic Kingdom park map. Fortunately, word has it that the Tiki Room birds will be back in action again very soon.
The new Tortuga Tavern was open for business. The place looks all right, but I'm still a fan of the older version, El Pirata Y el Perico (The Pirate and the Parrot).
Ambushed by natives while riding the world famous Jungle Cruise!
Pirates of the Caribbean was still one of the busiest rides in the park. As always, if you wish for a quieter, more relaxing ride without people screaming down the short drop, talking out loud, or snapping flash photos along the dark boat ride, ride this one at night before or after Wishes. Most people are too tired to be annoying by that point.
Frontierland is always one of the busiest areas of the park. This past trip proved to be no exception. In the summertime you can really feel the heat while walking the bright streets and fighting the crowds around Splash Mountain.
On the opposite side of the park, Space Mountain was packed with heavy crowds from opening to closing. Those people who didn't grab a FASTPASS by two or three in the afternoon were left staring at the 60-90 minute wait in the stand-by line, debating whether or not to accept their fate and enter the line queue.
The face of determination while scoring an ultra-high number of points on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.
The sign for Carousel of Progress no longer tells us the current year, but the rest of the show is just as entertaining as it has been for years.
Over in Fantasyland, construction is progressing nicely and new the structures are going vertical. 2012 is going to be an exciting year as the new parts of Fantasyland begin opening to the public.
Some clouds over Fantasyland presented an awesome background, while others seemed to be magically erased by upper-level wind.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, one of the best times to enjoy Mickey's Philharmagic is at night between the before and after Wishes. You'll be able to relax in a mostly empty theater.
President Washington has words of wisdom in this super-wide view of The Hall of Presidents.
It was big news a few years ago when the Haunted Mansion went through a lengthy refurbishment that updated the audio system, updated a scene or two, and added a couple of new scenes in the ride. It wasn't promoted like the new version of Pirates of the Caribbean, but the new version of Haunted seemed to be just as well-received with the public like the new version of Pirates.
Fast forward to 2011. Once again parts of the Haunted Mansion were closed for refurbishment, and now that the Mansion is open and fully operational with new goodies, there's virtually no publicity. Strange. One would like to believe that with all of the construction taking place in Fantasyland and the former Mickey's ToonTown Fair, the park would say something like, "Hey, sorry for this big construction mess taking up a big chunk of the park. If you'd like to see something new now, check out the new, interactive line queues in the Haunted Mansion and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."
But it's not just the new haunted cemetery line queue in the Haunted Mansion that's drawing attention. The classic Hitchhiking Ghosts have also been upgraded. The ghosts are now digital animations that mess with your reflection in the mirror, and if you're fortunate, a ghost may switch your head with his.
Epcot will always be one of my favorite parks at Walt Disney World. The park is nowhere nearly as innovating, imaginative or educational as it was during its glory days (mid 1980s through early 1990s), but the current version is still a lot of fun.
Sunny skies and VERY warm temperatures dominated each day in Epcot. At least it's easy to find shade and air conditioning. ;-)
Spaceship Earth has seen its share of changes over the years, but its ride still has plenty of that 'classic' feeling to it. It was noticed that this time around the sculptor was missing in the Renaissance scene.
The dinosaurs in Universe of Energy were fantastic as always, but the rest of the ride needs an upgrade. It's time for Ellen DeGeneres to leave.
The Imagination! pavilion seems to have fewer and fewer crowds per visit. Captain E.O. has been bringing back some crowds and thrilling new audiences, but Journey Into Imagination With Figment (significantly inferior to the original Journey Into Imagination ride) rarely had a line.
Next door in The Land, another of my favorite, classic-feeling rides is the Living With The Land boat ride. Although cast members no long narrate the ride, and the beginning and ending have changed dramatically, a large percentage of the ride still looks and feels like the original version of the ride, especially in the rainforest, American prairie and farmhouse scenes. And of course, the greenhouses are also pretty close to their original versions, too.
And just like that one of the old beaches here in Mexico is now part of a dense jungle. A long time ago flamingos used to live in that part in the theme park.
Norway's Maelstrom boat ride had a long line throughout the afternoon and evening. A change here is that you're no longer required to wait for the post-show movie at the end of the boat ride. Now the theater doors stay open and you can easily bypass the movie. Now if only there was an easy way to bypass those cramped and crowded shops after the ride . . .
The main shop in China was open again, and apparently people like to donate money to one of the statues.
China looked spectacular in the sunshine. If you looked carefully at one of the ponds, you may just happen to see a rather peculiar statue emerge from the water for the briefest of moments. This is just one of many neat little gems hidden around the park and made specifically for Disney's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure.
Italy is still a picturesque yet fairly empty pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase. No shows or rides here. Just two restaurants and a couple of small shops. Oh well. At least it still looks nice.
Japan has a brand new kaki-gori (shaved ice) stand. Around the corner, the koi fish stayed in the back of the pond and didn't venture out to the guests until the evening hours.
And those are many of the photo highlights from Epcot. This trip I only used the camera one day in the park, and on that day I really wasn't focused on taking pictures of the same old stuff. Somebody else had my attention on that trip ;-)
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Ah, the Disney Studios.
Although the Studios looks quite different than its early days back in 1989 and 1990, it has successfully grown into an all-day theme park, meaning that with all of the rides and shows, you'll need all day to see and do everything in the park. Some of the changes have been better than others, but as a whole it's a pretty nice park these days.
I absolutely love the 1930s Hollywood theming throughout the park! The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is certainly a delight both visually and the thrilling ride itself.
The Studio Backlot Tour has changed the most since its original version in 1989. And sadly, it looks like even more change has altered the ride. On both the February and July of 2011 visits, the Water Effects Tank at the start of the ride was no longer seeking any volunteers. And yes, that is Herbie the Love Bug now part of the Backlot Tour again. I haven't seen that car on the tour since the days of riding through Residential Street long before Lights, Motors, Action! was even on the drawing board.
And speaking of Lights, Motors, Action!, be very careful when sitting in the upper deck of the arena as very large support poles will block part of your view. Herbie the Love Bug has been fired and now that segment of the show features a couple of characters from the new Cars 2 animated movie. The new segment was okay at best, but nothing that special. People are there to see the car stunt drivers, not cartoon characters.
Muppet*Vision 3D rarely sees the big crowds these days. This time around parts of the show were actually broken. The penguin orchestra stayed raised the entire show, and the Swedish Chef was nowhere to be found in the projector room. Not at the start of the show or during the gunfire at the end.
Beauty and the Beast - Live on Stage was a fantastic show and overall a great experience. Arrive early for a great seat.
Evening slowly arrives in the theme park. It's nearly time to head to Fantasmic!
Fantasmic! is an incredible nighttime show that uses a clever blend of live action characters, images projected onto water screens, and of course, some fireworks here and there to tell the story of Mickey Mouse and the power of imagination. It's mandatory to arrive early for a good seat. And by early I'm talking about an hour before the start of the show.
Star Tours - The Adventures Continue
Have I mentioned the incredible level of awesomeness in the new version of Star Tours?
The new version of Star Tours is a must-see experience. After thrilling Star Wars fans and thrill ride lovers for over twenty years, Star Tours is back in the spotlight as pretty much a brand new experience. The line queue still has the familiar looking droids, but everything about them is different. The simulator pod now has C-3PO in the cockpit instead of Captain Rex. And just for the fun of making people come back and ride it again and again and again, there are 54 combinations of the events that may happen on the ride.
While the original version of Star Tours took place during the events of A New Hope, this newer version is more of a prequel and takes place between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope. This time we're riding a StarSpeeder 1000 (instead of the StarSpeeder 3000), Captain RX-24 (Rex) is still in a delivery box, and the Death Star is not yet operational. But the technology in the ride has been greatly enhanced and now we're riding in style with improved motions in the simulator, high-definition video, and 3-D effects made visible by our special "flight glasses."
So what kind of events can you experience while on the new version of Star Tours?
After escaping from Imperial stormtroopers (or Darth Vader) in the beginning your first destination may take you to an ongoing battle on Hoth, a pod race on Tatooine, or to the dense jungles on the wookie planet of Kashyyyk (complete with a cameo by Chewbacca). After that first destination you'll receive a help message from Yoda, Princess Leia, or even Admiral Ackbar, asking for us to help deliver the Rebel spy onboard our spaceship to the Rebel Alliance. The final destination may be the planet of Naboo under attack by the Trade Federation (cameo by Jar-Jar Binks). It may be Coruscant during an epic battle of the CIS and the Army of the Republic. Or the final destination may be a Mon Calamari Cruiser after first visiting the Death Star and an asteroid field (cameo by Boba Fett).
My favorite combination is the ride starting with Darth Vader, flying to Hoth, receiving the message from Princess Leia, and then finishing on Naboo.
As it was mentioned earlier, this new version of Star Tours is an outstanding experience. From the visuals to the cameos to the music to the action, this is one great ride. Two thumbs up for this latest collaboration between Disney and George Lucas.
Ride Star Tours and then ride it ten more times that day to experience different versions of it.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Just like the Magic Kingdom, Disney's Animal Kingdom has a brand new rope drop ceremony that takes place about thirty feet away from the turnstyles. Remember the old rope drop ceremony that took place in the middle of the park in front of the Tree of Life? Unfortunately that's in the past now as park guests are crammed together and contained in the very front of the park until the theme park is officially open.
The new rope drop ceremony features Mickey and Minnie Mouse along with Pluto as they prepare to go on a safari. There's not a whole lot to it, and hopefully something better is in the works.
Some of the animals were out on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in Africa. The meerkats and gorillas stole the show and captivated the park guests. Our ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris had some outstanding views of giraffe, hippos, and rhinos.
Over in Asia on the Maharajah Jungle Trek animal trail, the tigers were mostly in the shadows and other hiding spots. Many of the other animals and birds were avoiding digital cameras and the overhead sun.
The first ride on Dinosaur proved to be most disappointing as not only did the ride stop for so long that the maintenance lights lit up the ride, but the rest of the ride was extremely jerky and none of the scenes were in sync with our ride vehicle. Fortunately, a second ride later that day was significantly better with all of the dinosaurs working as expected. Were we given a re-ride pass after that horrible first ride? Nope.
That afternoon the skies grew dark with a very real threat of rain. We were preparing to leave anyway, so the threat of rain just sped up our progress. There's not a whole lot of shelter in that park during thunderstorms.
That'll do it for the Animal Kingdom highlight photos. I already have a million shots of Expedition Everest, the Tree of Life, and Kilimanjaro Safaris, so I wasn't focused on taking photos of them again this time.
After visiting Disney's Animal Kingdom, we spent the remainder of the afternoon and most of the evening at Downtown Disney.
The newest place to explore at Downtown Disney was the newly remodeled LEGO Store in the Marketplace. The inside of the store was too 'modern' and very busy, but the outside had several neat LEGO statues.
And yes, we stopped by T-REX Cafe and "built" a dinosaur.
Another Walt Disney World trip is now in the books.
The late July days were nice and warm, and while we saw quite a few of the pop-up thunderstorms, we really only had one day with rain. At least one of the nights had a great electrical storm in the sky.
The wildlife was surprisingly low through the theme parks, especially in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. The normal flocks of ducks in the grass and hanging out around food stands and eating areas were rarely sighted this time. Same thing for the flocks of heron and other birds that normally hung out in Frontierland. Squirrels and rabbits were rare sightings, though one day we saw about eleven or twelve rabbits throughout Epcot.
Sadly, the rudeness of people continues to grow, especially during the heat and humidity of the summer. Be prepared for lazy people to block doorways and stand in the middle of walkways, and slobs to leave massive piles of garbage behind at tables, on benches, and just wherever they feel is appropriate.
So was it all bad with the heat and morons and lack of local wildlife?
No, certainly not.
As a matter of fact, we had a great time going through all the parks, seeing the nighttime shows, and experiencing about 95% of the shows and attractions. Each morning we were there before the parks opened, and most evenings were in the parks until closing. Some evenings we were back to the condo early enough to take a dip in the swimming pool and let the warm water relax and soothe our bodies.
The summer is still my favorite time to visit the parks with the month of October a close second. I love the heat, and cool air conditioning is never far away. The only annoying part was going from cool air conditioning to the hot and humid outdoors and needing to clean my camera's lens. Otherwise, warm or cold, any weather is fine with me when it comes to visiting the Florida theme parks. It's just lighter packing when you're bringing t-shirts and shorts instead of jackets and jeans.
The new Fantasyland construction in the Magic Kingdom is coming along nicely. I can see a trip back down here next year as parts of it begin to re-open to the public.
For me, the best part of the trip was being there with my girlfriend as she experienced her first trip to the Disney theme parks. I loved guiding her though the parks and helping her see as much of it as possible. Hopefully there will be more Florida trips with her in the future.
In the meantime, it's time to continue working and developing this website.