Walt Disney World Trip Report: Animal Kingdom

When we knew we were doing three days of park tickets, it took us a long time to decide whether that third day would be Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios.  Because of the number of closures that happened at Hollywood Studios throughout the year, though, we finally felt confident in skipping it and committing to a day with the animals.

We arrived at rope drop after the longest bus stop wait we experienced during the whole trip (45 minutes), then made our way over to DinoLand while the crowd headed, I'm guessing, to Expedition Everest.  We figured we'd do Triceratop Spin and poke around in this part of the park until the Boneyard opened up a bit later, but Matt wasn't having it.  Since he so quickly vetoed Dumbo, his anxiety about Triceratop Spin wasn't unexpected, but we wanted to give him another shot at a ride geared more toward little ones.  This was not at all wasted time, even though we didn't ride anything, because the theming here, like everywhere else in the park, was excellent.

We worked our way back toward the Tree of Life, and Matt decided he was up for It's Tough to be a Bug.  Having read that it's a pretty intense attraction despite being inspired by a kids' movie, I had reservations, but he thoroughly enjoyed it.  He's establishing a pattern, I think: intense storytelling, yes; heights and speed, not so much.

After the show, we walked over to Harambe Market and grabbed a little snack at Zuri's Sweets Shop.  I have to say, I was a little bummed back when the animal poop treats were discontinued so quickly.  I think Matt was their target audience and would have loved the concept.

We were in no rush to get anywhere in particular, so we walked across to the seating area to share our snack.  This was actually one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.  The area was completely empty at this time of day, and we were able to hang out, have a quiet moment as a family and really take in all of the details of the market.

I loved everything about this place: the color, the signage pasted on poles and walls, the lived-in feel even though it's a relatively new spot, the pieced-together-from-what-we-have nature of the structures, the luggage and odds and ends piled up on the Wilderness Express Train cars as they rumble by.  Pretty much perfect.  And it was equally awesome, albeit very different, when lunch time livened it up with a bit of a crowd and the smells of cooking meat.

We had a bit more time before our FastPass for Kilimanjaro Safaris, so we took a stroll through the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.  I was basically ready to move in at this point.

After our trek on the trail, we queued up for our safari.  Matt let out a spirited "Roll Tide!" when the guide pointed out the elephants, and we saw tons of other animals along the way.

For lunch, we boogied on back to Harambe and tried the sausage fried in curried corn batter.  We enjoyed our corndogs, but an unexpected surprise for me was the roasted broccoli and tomato salad served on the side.  I had written it off as filler on the plate, but it added some brightness and contrast to the fried meat stick.

Our next stop was Festival of the Lion King.  I'll be honest here and say that The Lion King was never really my thing, but I was unprepared for my emotional state during this show.  I was feeling just a little bit like this:

We wrapped up our time in the park with a walk through the Maharajah Jungle Trek, where I was once again completely in love with the theming.

After a little rest back at the hotel, we hopped on the bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner at Boma.  Our favorites from the buffet of African-inspired dishes included the watermelon rind salad, fufu, pap and chakalaka, and all of the soups (so good!).  Boma was a fun way to try a few new foods - particularly for Matt - and a tasty way to end our Animal Kingdom visit.

See the links below to read about the first few days of our trip:
Planning & Arrival Day
The Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Epcot

We began our day at Epcot in Future World, arriving before park open.  Cast members let guests in through the front gates, but areas of the park weren't open yet, so we hung out with the crowd until everything officially kicked off, then headed to Test Track.  So did everyone else.

We ultimately decided to skip Test Track and made a u-turn, heading instead for the Character Spot, where Matt got to spend a little more time with Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.  These character interactions were excellent - another thing that was not in the plans but turned out to be awesome.  Going in with a plan but being prepared to chuck it from time to time in favor of something that fit us a little better served us well throughout this trip.

Next we made our way to The Seas with Nemo and Friends.  There was zero line here, presumably because everyone else in the park was at Test Track.  We hopped in a clamshell and toured through a mix of animated fish (Nemo, Marlin, Dory, Bruce, et al) and real ones.  Who's ready for Finding Dory?  I am, for sure!

After that, we checked out the rest of the Seas, which included some big tanks with sharks, turtles, fish, rays, and a dolphin.  Also, a giant, climb-in-able Bruce-type thing that is both hilarious and a little bit terrifying.  Moving on...

We had a FastPass for Turtle Talk with Crush for 9:40, but there was no standby line, so we skipped the FastPass and went straight in.  It was similar to Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor in that animated characters interacted with the audience in realtime.  The kids sat on the floor up front, and Crush talked to them.

While we waited for the show to start, I changed our Turtle Talk FastPass.  The only real option was Journey into Imagination with Figment, but we didn't need the FastPass here either.  After we rode it, I understood the lack of demand for this attraction.

Next up, we headed to the Land pavilion.  We had some time before our Soarin' FastPass window, so we did Living with the Land.  The standby line was short and moved quickly, and Matt really liked getting to see inside the greenhouse.

Once it was over, we walked a few steps over to the Soarin' entrance.  The FastPass line seemed crazy long, but we started moving quickly.  The standby line was 60 minutes at that point.  We had a little wait, but it was so worth it.  Soarin' is awesome!  We wanted to ride it again immediately, but that was definitely not an option given the long standby line.  I cannot wait to go back and do Soarin' Around the World once it switches over.   

We grabbed some lunch at Sunshine Seasons next, then made our way over to Spaceship Earth, our last FastPass for the day.  When we first walked into the park, Matt seemed really anxious about the giant golf ball and did not want to go in, but he professed the ride's awesomeness as soon as it came to a stop and was very pleased with himself for going into the park's icon.  

After Spaceship Earth, we stopped in MouseGear, where Matt got his sorcerer's hat Mickey ears, then we caught the bus back to the hotel to rest up before returning to spend some time in the World Showcase.

Our plan for the evening was to enjoy the holiday goodness in each pavilion, grabbing a few small bites for dinner along the way.

We began in Mexico but not before grabbing a device to participate in Agent P's World Showcase Adventure.  We weren't quite prepared for how time-consuming it would be, but we loved how the mission was integrated into the Mexico pavilion, and Matt was thrilled to send Doofenshmirtz packing.

Over in Norway, we stopped in to share some school bread.  This sweet pastry filled with custard and topped with coconut lived up to the hype in our opinion.  Definitely worth the snack credit.

In China, we watched some acrobats perform and hung out with a friendly dragon.

And in Germany we listened as Helga shared Christmas stories.  She and her nutcracker friend chatted with Matt for a few minutes after storytime.

As we made our way out of Germany and into Italy, it was starting to get dark, and we didn't accomplish a whole lot more after that.  We listened to La Befana tell her story for a few minutes in Italy, ignored the America bit, blitzed our way through Mitsukoshi in Japan, and ultimately decided to sit down for a bite to eat at Tangierine Cafe in Morocco, which was an absolutely tasty decision.  Erik and I both got shawarma platters - he got the lamb, and Matt and I shared the chicken.  Both included hummus, pita, tabouleh (more green than grain - yay!), and couscous.

Truth be told, after dinner we skated through France, the UK, and Canada without doing much more than window shopping.  Next time, I'd love to start early and spend more time exploring the World Showcase in the daylight.

Worn out from our around-the-world adventure, we made our way back to the hotel via several hops:  Epcot monorail to the Ticket and Transportation Center (our one and only monorail ride of the trip), then ferry to the Magic Kingdom (for our first glimpse of the park lit up at night), and boat back to Wilderness Lodge.

Stay tuned for my Animal Kingdom write-up next!
Other posts in this trip report: Planning & Arrival and Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World Trip Report: The Magic Kingdom

To continue the rundown of our holiday trip to Disney World, here's what we got up to on our first day at the Magic Kingdom.

Matt was wide awake around 5:30, and we wanted to get to the park in time for the opening ceremony, so we had breakfast in the room, achieved a reasonable level of caffeination, then headed to the bus stop.  It was 7am.

At this point, I wasn't sure about the timing of Disney transportation, so the goal was to have plenty of cushion.  The bus arrived at 7:23, and we pulled up at the Magic Kingdom at 7:30.  The park opened at 9.  Needless to say, we had cushion to spare.  The good news is that there was plenty of people watching to do before park opening, including some awesome DisneyBounding.

One of the things I was looking most forward to was the Magic Kingdom opening.  In the months that led up to our trip, I couldn't manage to watch it on YouTube without crying.  You know how emotional reactions often diminish with repeated exposure?  Not so for me and Disney, it seems.

Here are a couple of clips from the show.  You'll notice that the crowd MOVES pretty much as soon as Mickey stops talking.

And we were off, heading into the park, down Main Street, and into Fantasyland.  We started at Peter Pan's Flight and walked right on.  The interactive queue was fun - Matt recognized characters from the movie and chatted about them the entire way through, and Erik's shadow experienced some trouble with a lantern.  When it was our turn, Matt was nervous about the flying boats, but he felt secure knowing that we were all able to sit in a boat together.  The ride tells the story of the animated movie.  It's super quick, but I love how the boats fly you over both London and Neverland.

Next up was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  There was a short, quick-moving line here that didn't feel at all like a wait.  My favorite bit was that the queue showcases one of the best parts of the Winnie the Pooh movies - the interaction within the pages of the stories themselves.  Into a hunny pot we went and through the story of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  Matt wasn't wild about the heffalumps and woozles dream sequence, but he loved the part where the track is designed so you feel like you're bouncing along with Tigger.

Back from the Hundred Acre Wood, we strolled over to Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid.  The best part here was the way the cars and visuals create the feeling of going under the water; you ramp down and backwards as sea foam is projected onto the ceiling.  Scuttle's commentary bookends were cute, too.

Even though we had a FastPass for Enchanted Tales with Belle for later in the day, there was no wait time when we walked by.  It felt as though we were making really good progress, so we decided change our FastPass and  visit Belle while we were right there.  Belle has always been my favorite Disney princess.  She's odd and always has her nose stuck in a book; that's pretty much my jam.  So I got a little dust in my eye when the mirror transported our group to the day Belle and the Beast fell in love.  Anyone who wants one gets a part in the show, and all three of us ended up participating.  Matt volunteered to be Philippe the horse, Erik got picked to be a suit of armor, and I was picked to be the wardrobe.

I was thrilled that all the planning with the intention of avoiding lines and long waits was actually all working.  But my enthusiasm was starting to read like "LET'S CHECK ALL THE THINGS OFF THE LIST!"  so we stopped in at Gaston's Tavern for a little break.  We ordered a LeFou's Brew and a cinnamon roll the size of my head to share and found a cozy spot amid the antler decor.  LeFou's Brew is slushy apple juice with toasted marshmallow flavoring and passion fruit-mango foam on top.  The drink was intensely sweet.  I'm glad we gave it a shot, but I'm certain it won't become a must-have for us on future trips.

Attitude adjusted, we headed to Storybook Circus.  However, after a brief inspection, Matt was decidedly not down for Dumbo, so we skipped it.  He expressed interest in meeting characters, so we walked a few steps over to Pete's Silly Sideshow and hopped in the line for Minnie and Daisy.  The wait was long, though, so Matt decided fairly quickly that he wanted to do something else.

After a chat outside, we decided to  do the Barnstormer.  I'm still trying to understand the logic that went into Matt's giving Dumbo a thumbs down and yet being cool with the Barnstormer, but I was super proud of him for giving it a try.  It was the little dude's first roller coaster! Super cool!

On our way to Columbia Harbor House for lunch, we stopped in at Mickey's Philharmagic.  It wasn't on our list, but it was a fun little show, and I'm very glad we did it.  Matt developed an immediate interest in the sorceror's hat, and when he got one with mouse ears later he took great pleasure in pretending that it was mischievous and in need of a proper chase.

Lunch was yummy.  I was excited to try the lobster roll because I'd never had one before.  I still feel like I really haven't, but it was a pretty tasty seafood salad sandwich.  If you visit, definitely find a table upstairs away from the hustle and bustle.

We made our way to Adventureland after lunch.  By this time, lines were starting to get long, so I was really happy to have our 12:15 FastPass for Pirates of the Caribbean.  I'd made a note not to sit in the first two rows since people have been getting soaked on the ride since the refurb, but we ended up being put in row 2.  Fortunately, there was just a little splash, and we were in good shape.

The afternoon's plans, it seems, led us to do a bit more crisscrossing than I'd recommend.  Our next FastPass was Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, so we headed over to Tomorrowland.  We had lots of time to spare before our FastPass window opened up, so we did Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor.  Erik was onscreen a lot as Sully, and he played the part very well.  Very funny and unexpected - another one I'm definitely glad we did.  By the time we were done, we could head over to Buzz Lightyear.  Although Matt didn't seem wild about it at all, he repeatedly said later that Buzz was his favorite part of the day. 

We decided that our FastPass for the Jungle Cruise would be our last thing in the park for the day, so we walked back over to Adventureland with lots of time to kill.  We stopped by the hub briefly to take a few pictures of the castle and the Partners statue, then decided to get a Dole Whip from Aloha Isle.  This treat has a cult following, and, like the LeFou's Brew, I'm glad we tried it, but I don't know that I'll need to grab one again.

Since we still had time to spare, we checked out the Enchanted Tiki Room.  I'm honestly not sure what to say about it.  We all sort of wandered out of there with "what just happened?" expressions.  Birds, man.  It was so weird, I think we're going to have to do it every trip.

Tiki shenanigans complete, we took a trip through the Swiss Family Treehouse, and then it was time for the Jungle Cruise, or Jingle Cruise since it was wearing its holiday gear.  Our skipper was funny and punny, and I'm so glad that's how we ended our day in the park.  I can't wait to go back to try out the Skipper Canteen restaurant, which opened shortly after our trip.

We walked back through the park to the Wilderness Lodge boat, catching a bit of  a parade on our way down Main Street, and ended the day with a reservation at Whispering Canyon Cafe.  Matt still occasionally bellows for the ketchup at dinnertime.

Next up: Epcot!
In case you missed it: Planning and Arrival Day

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Planning and Arrival Day

Ask me a few years ago if I would ever plan a family trip to Walt Disney World, and the response would have been a resounding NOPE, not gonna happen.

Although I grew up quoting Disney movies and wearing out the Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid soundtrack cassettes in my parents' car stereos, I had a vague yet overwhelmingly unattractive idea of what a Disney trip entailed: oppressive heat; seas of sweaty, stressed people; overpriced everything; and a pre-travel planning process that looked something akin to another full-time job.  Couple that with my husband's social anxiety, which can make sprawling, crowded, unfamiliar places the stuff of nightmares, and it was a clear no-go for us.

The more Matt began to connect to Disney, though, and the more we saw the stories Disney weaves from a little one's perspective again, the more that definite no began to shift until it became a full-fledged member of the maybe list.  And for me, even a maybe warrants extensive research, itinerary drafting, and general playing around to sort out whether it's doable.

Early on in that research process, I came across Shannon Albert's WDW Prep School, a website dedicated to helping people plan Disney World trips.  I pored over each post and listened to her podcast WDW Prep To Go every time I was in the car or flying solo in my kitchen.  Shannon's infectious enthusiasm for Disney and her six-step planning process led me, quite unexpectedly, to fall in love with Disney World and to feel confident in booking our family's trip for December of this year.

We decided on a December trip because we wanted to experience Christmas in the parks.  However, we selected dates that would get us there in between the heaviest crowds around Thanksgiving and the Christmas-to-New Year's surge.  Our final plan included five nights at the Wilderness Lodge with three park days, plus tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on our final night.

On Monday, December 7, after a year of planning, Erik, Matt, and I walked into the Wilderness Lodge for the first time.  From the very first cast member's "Welcome home," we truly felt it.  We'd found a second home.  It's not an exaggeration to say that this trip changed our lives.

Our arrival night was low-key.  We settled into our room and tried to assess how the hotel's DVC expansion might affect our trip (short answer - other than a not-great view and a sweet little treat from the hotel management, it didn't), then we headed to dinner.

We had a 6:40 dinner reservation at Chef Mickey's, so once we were all set in the room, we headed down to the boat dock for a ride over to the Contemporary.

On this first ride, we swung by Fort Wilderness first and got to watch the sun set over Bay Lake.  I hadn't anticipated using the boats as much as we did throughout the trip, but we did come to rely on them pretty heavily, and they were absolutely a highlight of our Disney routine.

Chef Mickey's was, for us, a great first meal.  Matt has an affinity for the main Disney gang and had received both a surprise invitation letter from Mickey the night before our trip and a welcome box of goodies in our room, so getting to begin with The Mouse himself, as well as Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, was perfect.  It didn't hurt that, the rowdy dining room filled with families helped to mask his post-car-ride squirreliness, too.

Well-fed and grinning from ear to ear, we headed back to the Wilderness Lodge for the night.

This is Part 1 of our trip report.  As I continue the write-up, I'll add links here to each day's post.  Next up: The Magic Kingdom.  Stay tuned!