Friday, 22 August 2014

Days 495 to 501: Walt Disney World

Did my dreams come true? Read on, dear reader!

My Wonder quest has taken me to some unlikely places. I've ended up in huge, anonymous industrial cities in China, in the backwater of Burma, and being forced to participate in faux-traditional dancing ceremonies on Easter Island. And now, it's taken me to the behemoth of happy endings, Disney. Disney World is not a destination I'd even been particularly inclined towards, at least upon turning 10, but I'll go anywhere in search of a Wonder. It's also not cheap - Disney magic comes at a price. But after much searching online, I found what was at least a vaguely reasonable deal, which gave me two extra days free of visiting the theme parks. A week it was, therefore, in a magical fairytale land entirely removed from reality, a hot and sweaty land full of screaming children, wildly obese adults, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and despite all that - really quite good fun. Let's take a voyage through this world of princesses and pre-teen pleasure. (Hmm, I was just trying to be alliterative, but that sounds unintentionally pervy.)

The Hotel

Danielle and I decided to stay on-site, within the Disney complex, in a Disney hotel. These generally aren't cheap, but there are loads and loads of them, including three under the All-Stars banner. I chose All-Stars Sports, simply because it was the cheapest - less than $80 a night. This is a pretty good deal, especially as there is free transport from the airport to the hotel, and regular free transport between all the theme parks.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with this:

A towel in the form of Mickey Mouse's head. The blighter gets everywhere, I tell you, but then that's mice. We had a mini shampoo bottle formed likewise.

The hotel was a vast complex, with a swimming pool and canteen at the core, then with countless large blocks of rooms - thousands there must have been. Each block had a sporting theme, with the main stairway being elaborately decorated in the form of an American football helmet, or a basketball, or in our more mundane case, a tennis ball capsule. I forgot to take many photos of the hotel, unfortunately, but here's one of the pool area during a sudden rainstorm, and one of the outside at night.


In Disney World, there is no money. Only this:

This is Disney's magic wristband (it surely has a special Disney name like MagicBand but I really can't remember). It does everything. It pays for food, it pays for souvenirs, it gains entry to the theme parks, it gains entry to the rides, it records photos by official Disney photographers, it even opens the door to your hotel room. It's like a vision of the future. Naturally, it all ties back to a credit card, but wow it's (ahem) handy.

After a week of using our magic wristband, going back to normal life and paying for stuff with cash just seemed wrong and weird.

Disney Hollywood Studios

On our first day, we visited the Disney Hollywood Studios theme park. Perhaps it was because it was a pretty miserable and wet day (the only one during our stay) that we didn't particularly take to it. It was fun, of course, but the other parks turned out to be a lot more fun. Probably, it didn't help that I'm not really up on my Disney films.

Nevertheless, it still had lots to do. We began with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, in which you pretend to be in a haunted lift that shoots up and down, and lots of people scream. Most of it is in darkness, except for a brief moment you appear near the top, with a view across the park. This was my first theme park ride in... God, I don't even know. 20 years? Danielle seemed to enjoy the fact it made me a little nervous. She's a cruel woman, you know.

As the theme is films, or movies or whatever you want to call them, there's a film area, with both New York and San Francisco backdrops.

There are lots of live performances, but you need to get your timing right, and neither Danielle or I were dedicated enough to make a timetable. But serendipity helped us see the Indiana Jones one. It was a bit weird, the performance being about film-makers setting up Indiana Jones stunts when all the crowd really wanted to see was a bunch of Indiana Jones stunts. And we caught the mini musical of Beauty and the Beast, which had this kind of thing:

Where Magic Kingdom has the Cinderella Castle, Disney Hollywood Studios had Mickey Mouse's wizard hat. Here's me in front of it.

You see that? "The Coolest". That's me. Though it's a close call between myself and Danielle, I admit.

That's us, "cool as Bono", going in for the Star Wars ride. Disney bought the rights to Star Wars a couple of years ago in a move that made everybody in the world (that's right, every single person, from Chinese infant to decrepit Sudanese great-grandmother) go "Eh?" But then we all realised it made a lot of sense, and it's definitely better out of George Lucas's hands before he turns The Force into a cuddly blue alien or something. They've got a ride now, which gives you 3D glasses and puts you in a space shuttle simulator and takes you on an adventure through the Star Wars world. Good stuff.

Animal Kingdom

Where would we be without animals? In trouble, that's where. We'd have no pork, and no Morepork either. Without sheep to eat grass on hills, the world would be overrun by grass and weeds, and without shrews we'd be... actually, we could probably do without shrews. To celebrate the contribution animals have in today's modern world, Disney has based a theme park on them, and shoved a bunch of real animals inside. It's pretty good fun.

It's also probably the prettiest of all the theme parks because it's filled with trees and green stuff. Disney Hollywood Studios, in wet weather at any rate, feels a little grey and drab, and the Magic Kingdom is like what would happen if you filled 100-plus acres with people and plastic, without room for anything else. But Animal Kingdom marries nature with mankind's insatiable thirst for novelty themed rides, and pulls it off pretty well.

There's an area devoted to dinosaurs. It has plenty of colourful dinosaur attractions, and two different roller-coaster style rides. One is a pretty conventional roller-coaster called Primeval Whirl, with the novelty being that the carriage spins as you fly along the track. I enjoyed this one. The other is called DINOSAUR, in upper case apparently. My full review: it's fine.

Perhaps our favourite ride of all of Disney World was in Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest. You can see it from around the theme park - it's the giant fake mountain.

It creaks upwards for a while and does a short, speedy journey... then stops. It seems the track has broken, oh no! But this is just the beginning - suddenly you go backwards, and the ride really gets into its stride, flinging you all over the place, all the time being backwards. Great stuff.

Ok, ok, very good I hear you say, but where are all the animals? Don't worry, they're around. You just need to go on safari. Kilimanjaro Safari takes up a huge section of the park, and is full of real life exotic animals. It's just like being in Africa, only with heavily-sedated, drugged-up, possibly dead-and-stuffed animals that have absolutely no idea where they are (only joking, Disney don't drug their animals; I'm sure they're happy as Larry).

Away from the safari, and hanging around this old Cambodian-style temple elsewhere in Animal Kingdom were a few monkeys. One of them was in particularly lively mood, swinging around like a maniac, and gathering quite a crowd. Everybody watching commented with delight, saying that he was a cheeky little devil, showing off and loving the attention, whereas in reality he was being aggro because he felt threatened by the scores of people staring at him and his family. It's no life for a public monkey in a fake Cambodian temple in Florida.

Nearby, is the Kali River Rapids, named after the Hindu goddess of time, change, and destruction; a dark, violent force who once sucked the blood from a demon, and danced on the bodies of corpses killed in battle. Perfect Disney fodder. The ride doesn't really focus on this, however, instead putting you in a large circular raft and splashing lots of water on you.

Animal Kingdom's visual centrepiece is the Tree of Life, a huge fake tree, with the images of animals carved onto the bark, as though haunted by their spirits. It's impressive, although sadly the attraction that allows close access to it was being renovated during our visit, so we had to admire it from a distance.

And occasionally it's nice to remember what Disney is all about: creating magic for children. Some characters from the Jungle Book were doing a meet-and-greet, and this little child was in absolute raptures.


Oh my God, what's that?

Ah, it's just Spaceship Earth, or the "giant golf ball", the focal point of Epcot. Depending on your viewpoint, Epcot is the adult theme park, or the boring one, or the science one, or the drunk one. It used to be capitalised - EPCOT - standing for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but Disney uses lower-cases these days because it's shed its roots as a vision of the future, and has simply become a mature theme park.

Very mature.

It looks great, like a city from a slightly old science fiction film, a vintage utopian future.

The rides on Epcot are ok, but didn't personally excite me. There's a kind of hang-glider simulator, in which you fly over famous attractions. It was alright, but I'm glad we arrived before the queues began - I wouldn't have wanted to wait an hour. Test Track allows you to design your own car, then pretend you're test driving it, along a roller-coaster track. Again, alright. Maybe after four days of theme parks, I was after a little more than just going fast round a track for 30 seconds. But can I handle more? Perhaps not. Danielle and I went on a space ship simulator called Mission: SPACE, which simulates the experience of travelling to Mars. It does this by strapping you into a tiny shuttle, then hanging you upside-down and at weird angles for a while, with a screen right in front of your face giving the illusion of space flight. By all accounts, it's a hugely popular attraction, but for both Danielle and I it largely just made us feel queasy. Danielle worse than me, she took well over an hour of rest to begin feeling better. Guess we're not cut out for space travel.

The signature ride of Epcot, Spaceship Earth, is great. It's a gentle drifting through mankind's achievements and progress through the aeons, finishing with a cosmic whoosh as to our potential. I found it positively soothing and meditative.

The future utopian part of Epcot wasn't the highlight for us. Epcot has another attraction: booze. The rest of Epcot is gathered around a large central lake and consists of eleven different areas, each representing a certain country of the world.

There are: Mexico, Norway for some reason, China, Germany, Italy, America (which hardly seems necessary), Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada. Each of these countries' areas are done up in a characteristic national style, and each of them sell booze, usually also related to the country. And so over the years, an unofficial Disney attraction has developed - Drinking Around The World. Starting at either Mexico or Canada, the mission is to have a drink in each country, and see if you're still standing by the end of it. Danielle and I threw ourselves in with gusto.

Mexico first. We meant to get a photo of ourselves with a drink with the name of each country in the background, but we promptly forgot to do so after Mexico. The purist version of this pub crawl woud have involved tequila, but it was 36C and I'd be damned if my first drink of the day would be a shot, so I stuck to a Mexican beer. The Mexican area was pretty cool, featuring an Aztec-style pyramid that could be entered to reveal, Tardis-like, a huge inner area featuring bars, shops, a water ride, and... another Aztec-style pyramid.

Norway next. Who knows how Norway ended up at Epcot. They seem also to have scratched their heads and wondered what to do with their showcase, so they've built a few Nordic houses, and created a very pedestrian water ride called, misleadingly, Maelstrom. I like to imagine two bearded Norwegian men sitting quietly at a table pondering their ride design. One says, "I think we need to promote tourism in Norway during this ride. What can we include?" There is an interminable silence before the other one says, "We should make it exciting. What do we have that's exciting." More silence, then. "Vikings! Let's have some Vikings in it." A pause. "Oh, Sven, don't you think Vikings might be a little scary? We need to show the world about our dynamic modern industry. I was thinking oil rigs." Sven furrows his brow. "Njilsbjand, you are absolutely right. But let's remember, we are in Disney now, so we need to have 'thrills' on our ride. Let's have a few Vikings, a big oil rig, and have the ride on water. It will be a gentle one of course, but at one point let's have a little darkness and then the ride plunge - perhaps by many feet!" "Sven!" Njilsbjand cries, "You are too much! But yes! Let's call this terrifying thrill ride, Maelstrom! But we must remember to promote tourism in Norway, so at the end we should definitely have a very slow-paced old-fashioned video for people to watch, which focuses on Norwegian tradition. Norwegian tradition! Oh, I need a lie down."

The queue for Maelstrom was almost an hour, and we weren't allowed to drink in the queue. So we were relieved when our journey through Norwegian tourism promotion was over, and we could move onto China. China looked great - they had a Temple of Heaven building, and their own promotional video was great, being a circular cinema with 360 degree screens. Danielle missed this though as she was in Germany, getting Snow White's photo.

We took ages in Mexico, Norway, and China and we realised we needed to pick up the pace. We only had three-and-a-half hours left and there were still eight countries to go. We powered through Germany, Italy, and America.

In hindsight, Japan is where it started to go downhill, although I didn't recognise that at the time. After sticking to beer for the previous six countries, I went for a Japanese warm sake, as did Danielle. Warm sake on a roasting hot and humid day isn't necessarily my drink of choice. We were given very large cups of it, and I could feel it swirling about with the beers and the awful, cheap quesadillas we'd eaten earlier. Soon I felt Danielle's sake too, as she didn't want to finish it. At least Japan was awfully pretty.

Morocco was awfully pretty too, although we didn't stay long as it was now a race against time. By now there were suggestions we were becoming drunk.

I'd been looking forward to France as their mock Eiffel Tower is visible all across the World. To my disappointment, it was just background stage setting.

We were definitely drunk by the time we reached the UK, and I entirely forgot to take any photos. And I can barely even remember Canada, although these photos at least provide evidence we were there.

Congratulation us. We achieved... something


Disney World has a new downtown area, for adults who want to shop or eat or drink somewhere much more expensive that most other downtowns around America. We went for an afternoon and evening and it certainly serves a purpose, but I can't say I was enthralled. The crowds became immense. As did the clouds.

It was because of clouds like these, and other more stormy clouds, that the hot-air balloon was out of action, in case lightning struck it and killed everybody. Which was a shame, as it gives views across Disney World and I really quite fancied it.

A Water Park

Disney World has two water parks, and we went to one of them, called Blizzard Beach I think. You can sit about a pool, or queue for half an hour to slide down a really fast slide for three seconds. An afternoon was enough.  In fairness, the water park was great fun, but by now I had become very jaded with all the crowds, and the expensive junk food, and the sheer heat and humidity. Disney World is no doubt a test of endurance, and some people seem to find limitless energy for it. After six days, four theme parks, a downtown, and a water park, I was done. Just like this entry.

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