Monday, December 31, 2007

If I lived in it, it'd be devoured in a week

One quick monorail hop later, we are stepping out at the Grand Floridian Resort. Although this is my fifth trip to Walt Disney World, I have never before gone into this spectacular resort. I’ve only seen it from across the lagoon, or looked at it from the monorail.

We enter the grand atrium on the second level. Wow. This place is amazing – high ceilings, chandeliers, gleaming white, with a massive Christmas tree as its centerpiece. A live band is playing Christmas carols, and the atrium is teeming with people. There’s a dance floor laid out on the other side of the tree, and – hey! – three big bags of balloons suspended from the ceiling! It is New Year’s Eve, after all.

We walk around to the elevator, and pause at the rail to look down on the gingerbread house. It looks just like it does on the Food Network, except somehow more impressive. Tastier, I guess.

The elevator seems to be having a problem – a group of people got on before us and can’t get it to move – so we turn and walk down a grand staircase. This resort certainly has me using the word “grand” a lot, but it really does fit!

Once on the first floor, we walk across the dance floor to the gingerbread house. We pause to read the sign about the ingredients that go into making it, and then take our time examining the house up close. It really is spectacular. There is so much detail in its decorations, which I find even more impressive than its size.

We make our way around to the back of the house. We’ve known that there is a shop within the house where they sell gingerbread, including (smaller) gingerbread houses, and our mouths are watering for a late-night snack. And… the shop is closed. On New Year’s Eve? It’s barely 9:30. Bummer.

Walking around to the left side of the house, we spot an amazing Stupid Guest Trick in progress. Close access to the house is limited by greenery in some places and velvet ropes in others, but two kids, a boy and a girl about four or five years old, are inside the ropes at the side of the house, pulling pieces off and eating them!!

Now, I don’t fault the kids at all. They’re young, and edible houses have been enticing to kids since the days of Hansel and Gretel. But the SG (stupid guest) is their mom, who is standing a few feet away, watching them, and completely unconcerned about the sabotage they are doing to this masterpiece.

It only takes a sharp word from Becky’s dad to chase the kids off. They scamper away, probably to find some other work of art to destroy. Mom wanders after them with the vapid look on face unchanged. She’s probably distracted by the wind whistling through her ears.

We’re satisfied with our examination of the house and the other decorations here, so we head back upstairs and pop into the gift shop. A friend of mine, who is in the business of custom clothing, embroidering logos and such (in fact, he did the shirts for our last trip and our windbreakers for this trip), had told me that the Grand Floridian had some of the better quality clothing in there gift shop than other places. Makes sense.

Brandon finds a Grand Floridian pin he wants to buy, and Becky likes a pair of Mickey Mouse sweatpants. After our purchases are completed, we hop back onto the monorail for the nighttime ride around Seven Seas Lagoon, which is always a peaceful and magical trip.

We’re back in our rooms by 10:20, and I’m pretty tired. There will be no late-night Magic Kingdom trip for me this evening!

Mousekeeping has been here for turn-down service, and our stuffed "friends" are arranged on our beds. Heh! "Bari"(our "barbershop bear," named after my voice part) is wearing one of the leis!

While it would be interesting to be awake at midnight and hear New Year’s fireworks simultaneously from the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney-MGM, that’s not going to happen for me either. The only questions I have are (a) how fast will I be asleep after my head hits the pillow? and (b) will the midnight fireworks wake me up?

Electric Water Pageant

Our boat pulls in front of the Polynesian beach and then turns to face north. Several other boats are here also. Soon after we "park" we spot a train of barges arriving from the direction of the Grand Floridian, though they are hard to spot in the darkness. The barges pass from left to right in front of us.

Suddenly there is a fanfare of electronic music, a synthesized score that immediately makes me think of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. The barges of the Electric Water Pageant light up from right to left with simple but colorful designs of sea life: leaping fish and octopus, a dinosaur, a whale, even King Triton.

The music is identifiable to hardcore Disney fans like us, but some of the songs are more easily recognized (like “Under the Sea”) than others (“I Love You, Too” from Pete’s Dragon).

Once each of the barges have had their turn and all are lit up, the entire pageant changes to a red, white, and blue, flag-intensive salute to America, complete with stirring patriotic music.

The whole show lasts about 12 minutes. I’m glad we got to see it. It doesn’t redeem the whole fireworks cruise mix-up, but it was a bonus event we weren’t expecting. And while the display wasn’t the most exciting thing we’ve seen – I’ll be okay if I don’t ever get to see it again – it was cute and fun, and we had a great view of it!

Bob confirms with Alex, our driver, that there were 14 different barges, and it turns out that Alex used to be one of the boat pilots for the Electric Water Pageant, so he knows a lot about it.

There are two strings of seven barges each, he tells us, with a piloted boat at each end of the string in a push-pull configuration. Although it appears that the barges stay in one place during the show, in reality the boats at each end are constantly pulling the strings of barges back and forth to keep them in position. Otherwise they’d be blown out of place by any wind that was present. Interesting.

Alex goes on to tell us that the pageant debuted in 1971 for the opening of the luau at the Polynesian Resort and was only planned to run for a few months, but proved to be so popular that they’ve kept it around, and added appearances at the other waterfront resorts as well.

It’s the most Alex has talked all evening.

We do return to the Polynesian marina after the pageant. I still would have liked a tour of the lagoon, but I’m not going to press the issue. As a group we’re more ready to move on and make happier memories elsewhere.

I exit the boat leaving my Passporter – with all of my cards and notes – behind on the seat. Thankfully the others spot it before I get too far. That would have been a nightmare on top of an already disappointing evening.

So… it’s after 9:00. Are we just going to turn in for the evening now? On New Year’s Eve? With this less-than-perfect fireworks cruise as our last memory of the year?

Even the turn-in-early members of the group don’t want that, so everyone likes my idea (it’s not a night-time plan, just an idea!) of taking the monorail to the Grand Floridian and looking at the huge gingerbread house!

Fireworks cruise (at last!)

Our driver for the fireworks cruise is Alex. He seems nice enough, but doesn’t say a whole lot. Since the rain has let up, we all take seats on the uncovered front of the boat. The seats are covered with towels, a nice touch.

Brandon and Benjamin plop down on the port side of the boat, and Bob, Linda, Becky and I all sit on the starboard side. That’s poor planning, especially since Alex the driver is also on the starboard side. The boat lists noticeably to starboard, as you’d expect with five adults on one side and two kids on the other.

Brandon’s a little worried about that and asks if any of us wants to switch. Normally some of us would have, but (a) we’ve just been standing for an hour and (b) Alex doesn’t seem all that concerned, so no one hops up. Brandon goes to fetch drinks and chips for anyone who wants them from the stash Alex points out, and then takes his seat again.

Because of our late start, we were told that we’d head straight out for the Magic Kingdom, watch the fireworks, and then do the tour of the lagoon afterwards. Alex motors us pretty fast past the Grand Floridian and then turns right. There are already a dozen or so other pontoon boats lining up in the water, facing the ferry dock near the entrance to the Magic Kingdom.

It’s pretty good timing, actually, because the fireworks start just two minutes after Alex kills the engine.

What can I say? The fireworks are every bit as spectacular from the water as we expected. This is the same show the boys and I watched from the Polynesian beach last night, and it is even more amazing from closer in.

The big disappointment is the lack of music. It fades in and out as we drift around some of the boats that have it, but it’s faint and not consistent. Frankly, we could hear it better last night on the beach, and that was pretty quiet. Having just the sound of the shells exploding, along with the serenity of floating on our own private boat, is kind of surreal and peaceful, but it’s just not what we wanted. I stifle a sigh and try to enjoy it.

After the big finish, Alex turns and heads back the way we came. I think he’s going to start talking about the sights we are passing, but he’s not. The Grand Floridian comes and goes again. We’re headed right towards the Polynesian marina.

I’m kind of torn, sad to say. Part of me actually just wants the cruise to be over so we can put the disappointment behind us. But the cheap side of me – which is usually predominant side – want us to get our money’s worth, so I ask the quiet Alex, “Are we just going back?”

“No,” Alex says. “We’re going to watch the Electric Water Pageant.”

Hey, cool! We’ve wanted to see that but never have before, and now we’ll have a front row seat, on the water!

This sudden prospect of having something new and unexpected brightens our mood considerably.

What went wrong?

So Disney's reservations system shows that we're booked on the midnight fireworks cruise, not the one for the 8:30 fireworks? Some people might like a late-night cruise better – and the boys and I could do it if we had to – but for all of us together, staying up another four-plus hours for a boat ride is a non-starter.

In a time like this you always replay in your head what might have happened to cause such a snafu, and I am resolute that it was not my fault. First, when I made the reservation, I was practically reading from a script, and I asked specifically for the early 8:30 cruise. Second, the reservations CM specifically asked if I meant the early fireworks cruise, not the midnight one, and I confirmed that to her. Third, she specifically told us to be at the marina at 7:30, with an 8:00 departure. She wouldn’t have done that for the later cruise. Fourth, she read back to me the details of the cruise we’d booked before I got off the phone with her, and I cross checked it with my notes. And finally, Brandon was with me at the time and heard everything I said. He agrees that I asked for and confirmed the early cruise, not the late one.

How it got changed, I do not know, but it was not our fault.

Well, we are at Disney, and they excel at trying to keep their guests happy. When Chris hears our protests about the cruise we booked and that we are not at all interested in staying up past twelve for the later cruise, even on New Year’s Eve, he says he’ll see what they can do. He does warn us that he thinks all the boats and drivers are out now, and there may not be any way for the early cruise to happen.

He leaves to work on it, and we’re left to stew. I’m steamed, yes, but mostly frustrated and disappointed. And we’ve been standing in one spot for almost 45 minutes – this cruise was supposed to keep us from having to do that! The only thing that could make it worse would be if it started to rain.

It starts to rain.

The recreation hut has an overhang, so we don’t get wet, at least. And shortly before eight, Chris returns. The news this time is a little better. They’ve found another boat and driver to put into service. The bad news is that it is leaving from the Wilderness Lodge and won’t be here for another twenty minutes. And it’s not a premium boat, so we won’t have music piped in. Rats.

The help that Chris (who, it turns out, is in charge of marina recreation at the Poly) is a model of what Disney calls guest recovery – helping to turn a guest’s negative experience into a positive one – at least within the limits of the resources available to him. He’s sympathetic and apologetic, and also only charges us for the cost of an off-season non-premium cruise, so the price is only about a third of what I was quoted when I set this up. That takes some of the sting away, but it’s still frustrating.

We’re sent down to the dock – the rain has stopped, at least – so we can load and go as soon as the boat arrives. Just before 8:15 it pulls in and we climb aboard. I try to let go of the frustration and enjoy myself, but it’s not happening easily.

Once again, we’ve stood around for an hour waiting on fireworks. From now on, I’m restricting my planning to daylight hours!

Where's our boat?

In our excitement about the fireworks cruise, we arrive at the marina ten minutes early, at 7:20. There’s another family there already, and a boat-driving cast member is there also. Two of the pontoon boats are tied up at the dock, so we can see what we’re in for.

We tell the CM why we're there, and she says she’s not our driver – apparently they know when they arrive at the marina which family they are picking up. This is one of many starting points for the Magic Kingdom fireworks cruises. You can also leave from the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, or Fort Wilderness.

The cast member tells us to stand by a hut a short distance away, a hut which, though currently closed, turns out to be the place where you can rent boats and recreation gear during the day. She says our driver will come get us there when he arrives.

We go and stand by the hut. There aren’t any benches close by, unfortunately. We joke lightly about still having to stand around for fireworks!

Another group arrives – turns out they are with the CM we talked to. A second driver arrives soon thereafter and speaks to the family that was here when we arrived. No one has claimed us yet. Um, we were here on time -- where's our driver?

We watch with growing concern as those two boats load up and pull out by 7:40. We haven’t heard anything from our driver, and the marina is now empty. And we don’t like standing.

The boys can still make me crack up, though, by launching into “There’s a restroom in our volcano, Cinderella’s in our pool!”

By 7:45 we’re trying to figure out what to do. A cast member in shorts walks by. We flag him down and let him know we haven’t heard from a driver. He promises he’ll check on it and disappears. Oookay.

Almost ten minutes goes by. I’m starting to pull out my cell phone to call for help when the cast member, Chris, returns. I can tell by his expression that the news he has isn’t good.

Chris tells us that according to the reservations system, our fireworks cruise is scheduled for the late fireworks, the ones that finish at midnight!!

Night plans

Until we were called a few weeks ago about our coming cruise ship upgrade to the Walt Disney Suite, this fireworks cruise was the one thing about the trip we were looking forward to most. And we’re still pretty stoked about it.

A little history here… On our first trip in 2003, I encouraged the group to stay up for Illuminations at Epcot. It started then, like it does most nights still, at nine o’clock, which may not seem that late to most folks. But as I’ve written here, we’re not typically stay-up-late folks, and my in-laws have usually turned in by then. And given that my boys were six and eight at the time, nine was late for them as well.

Illuminations was good that night, but we were all too tired to really enjoy it… plus we had stationed ourselves in front of the Italy pavilion, meaning we had almost the full walk around the World Showcase Lagoon and through Future World to get out of the park afterwards. Add to that a long wait for the bus, and it was not a very pleasant experience.

Flash forward to 2005, when I planned for us to stay up to see the Spectromagic parade at the Magic Kingdom. I picked the wrong spot for us to watch the parade, and we ended up standing for an hour waiting for it to reach us. And when it was over, we were out of place for the best view of the Wishes fireworks show, and then again had a longer walk back to the park entrance than planned. Everyone handled it with good-natured humor, but Bob later commented that “the only way that could have been less pleasant was if I had had a rock in my shoe.” (Which led to our running joke for the rest of the trip – Me: “Bob, there’ll be some great fireworks later if we stand here for a while.” Bob: “Let me find a rock!”)

Suffice to say, after those two experiences, I swore off planning evening activities for the group (and the group swore off letting me!).

But then we heard about the fireworks cruises! These take advance reservations, but for a fee anyone can reserve a pontoon boat which holds up to eight people, and a driver will take you out on an hour cruise that includes sitting on the water just outside the park and watching the fireworks. All of us, but Bob and Linda especially, liked the idea of getting to see the fireworks while sitting down, and without having to fight the park crowds.

The cruises are popular, so you have to call exactly 90 days in advance, preferably when the reservations line first opens in the morning. So three months ago, on October 2nd, Brandon and I rose before six o’clock Central time to start dialing the reservation line, 407-WDW-PLAY, and we managed to snare a fireworks cruise for the 8:30 showing of Holiday Wishes – on New Year’s Eve! We booked a “premium” boat, one that has the music piped in. It costs extra, but the music is an indispensable part of any Disney fireworks show.

Truth be told, the price quoted to me when I made the reservation was twice what I was expecting. Apparently the prices get jacked way up for the holiday. But Becky’s parents were okay with it still, so we kept the reservation and here we are!

The reservations CM told us to be at the Polynesian marina at 7:30, and our boat driver would meet us there and we’d leave by 8:00, take a tour around the lagoon, and then watch the fireworks.

We make our way through the Polynesian towards the marina. This is going to be so cool!

Dinner at Capt. Cook's

Off to Captain Cook’s we go. Bob & Linda are already there – as usual – so we tackle the touch screens ourselves. I order the Aloha Pork Sandwich, which has pulled pork, barbecue sauce, and coleslaw, and a side of “Polynesian Chips.” We’re all curious about those. Brandon orders a “Grown-up Grilled Cheese Sandwich” – that’s actually what it’s called – with a blend of cheeses on multigrain bread. Becky tries a tomato basil flatbread, and Benjamin (who learned from the Chefs de France yesterday that “flatbread” can mean “pizza”) gets a cheese flatbread and fries.

The Polynesian Chips turn out to be a blend of tortilla chips, mixing traditional corn chips with flour tortilla chips and a few seasoned chips. They’re okay, but the pulled pork sandwich is really good. The meal is nothing showy, but everyone is satisfied by it.

I take a moment to call Wallaby. We’ve not met in our two days here, mainly because he works in Animal Kingdom and we’ve been in Epcot, but we’re trying to arrange a meeting. I invite him along on another late-night outing with me and the boys, but he has to work early tomorrow. He’s off on Wednesday, though, so we talk about meeting at a meal. We settle on trying to add him to our lunch reservation at the Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom.

By 6:50 we’ve finished eating and head back to our rooms. I call Disney Dining to see about adding Wallaby. No go – with the holidays things are booked up. I send a text message to him to see if he’d like us to try for the evening meal on Wednesday, when we’ll be eating at Ohana here at the Polynesian.

We’re only in the room a half hour or so, and we’re excited about what’s coming next. It’s New Year’s Eve, and we have a fireworks cruise reserved!!

Relaxing in the afternoon

It feels good to dry off, and the air’s not too chilly once I’m dry. We walk back through the resort to Rarotonga. It feels right to be among palm trees and island theming wearing flip flops and a swimsuit.

Once back in the room, I change and then grab the postcards and start filling them out. Three of them are going to kids of families who are soon traveling to Walt Disney World, “from” Mickey Mouse. When we were first coming here in 2003, our friend Dennis volunteered to send the kids postcards “from Mickey” – wink, wink – and then surprised even me by taking the time out of his vacation to track down the real Mickey and having him sign the postcards. We still have them at home, scrawled in Mickey’s big handwriting, “See you real soon!”

I’m not that adventurous, so I hope Mickey doesn’t mind that I’m signing on his behalf.

Two of the cards are going to Dennis’s granddaughters, and the third is to the four-year-old son of some friends from church, who are going on their first trip to Walt Disney World in a few months. We didn’t tell them we were sending this, so I’m curious to hear their reaction.

I take my time, alternately resting, watching TV, and filling out the postcards. By 5:00 I have them all done and stamped. Brandon is itching to get out on his own and explore the resort – he’s such a teenager all of the sudden! – and he volunteers to take the postcards to be mailed. That’s actually a great solution, because it means I can rest more.

I stretch out on the bed and begin to doze. My cell phone rings, disturbing my slumber. I groggily check the caller ID and see that it’s Big Wallaby, my cast member friend from Stupid Guest Tricks. I’m kind of out of it at the moment so I let it roll to voice mail (sorry, Wallaby!), and shut my eyes again. Becky’s dozing, too, and Benjamin is flipping TV channels quietly. Ah… relaxing in the islands…

At 5:30, Benjamin nudges me awake, as I’d asked him to do. We’re meeting Bob & Linda at Captain Cook’s Snack Company for a light supper at 6. A short while later I rouse Becky, and we get ready for the evening’s activities. It’s dinnertime!

Watery magic

Benjamin returns from the slide, and Brandon and I sing him the song. He picks it up quickly, and soon we’re singing it over and over and over. And over.

There’s a restroom in our volcano!
Cinderella’s in our pool!

It turns out to be one of those tunes that sticks in our brains and we can’t stop singing, no matter how annoying it is to us and those around us.

The Sherman brothers would be proud.

While we’re in the pool it starts raining on and off, but there’s no lightning around. I am getting chilly, though.

In exploring the pool, I’m able to spot another bit of Disney magic. Back when we stayed at the Wilderness Lodge in ’03, I noted that the water flowing from the “hot spring” in the lobby and down through the courtyard doesn’t actually empty into the pool, even though it’s engineered to look as though the pool is part of the stream. The water actually flows under the pool and back out the other side, emerging from under a walkway.

The same illusion is accomplished here. The stream which begins in a spring near the Great House flows under a bridge before emptying into the pool – or so it seems. From the pool I can look under the bridge and tell that the water flowing is pumped up under the bridge, and is not the stream water. In other words, the stream water flows under one side of the bridge, and pool water flows out the other side. Pretty amazing, and yet another example of the extreme efforts Disney will make to create a realistic scene.

Okay, it’s only been about 45 minutes, but I’m getting colder, so after allowing the guys a couple more trips down the slide, we get out and begin to towel off.

Just then Becky and her mom walk up to visit with us and get pictures of us swimming. Oops. Too late. And I’m not getting back in!

A volcano with all the amenities

The chill in the Polynesian volcano pool is keeping the crowds down, I’m guessing, and though I understand it can get crowded here, today we are sharing the pool with a dozen people at most.

The boys head out to try the slide. They can have it today – a cold front is moving in, and the north wind is chilly. I’ll just stay here in the water, dreading the time I’ll eventually have to get out!

While the kids climb to the slide, I swim over to the waterfall. Hey, I hadn’t noticed that – you can get out of the pool behind the waterfall, and there are restrooms back there. I’ve never seen a volcano with restrooms built in.

Brandon and Benjamin splash down at the slide exit and are soon raving to me about the slide, and how it twists and turns through the volcano – passing through orange glowing “lava” from time to time. As I expected, the worst part of the slide is the cold walk in the wind to get to the slide entrance.

Once while Benjamin’s off sliding, Brandon & I are laughing about the restroom-equipped volcano, and before long we’re singing a line about how “There’s a restroom… in my volcano…!”

It needs more lyrics. Pointing out the amazing fact that we can see Cinderella Castle from the water, I add a second line – “Cinderella’s in our pool!” Brandon protests that Cinderella isn’t actually in the pool with us, but it’s too late. The song is too catchy for a re-write, and it’s already stuck in our heads.

There’s a restroom in our volcano!
Cinderella’s in our pool!

Cool pool

Brandon, Benjamin and I change into our swimsuits and head out to the pool, which is just a few steps past the Great House. It’s windy out, and I suspect the water, though heated, will not be terribly warm.

We grab some towels at the poolside storage unit and find a table with an umbrella – rain is still threatening – and put our towels and stuff on the chairs. Brandon is the first to go check out the water. He comes back and reports that it’s cold. Great.

I gingerly step into the water. Okay, it’s not as bad as it could be. It’s not really cold, but it’s not warm, either. It’s the kind of “cool” that I can adjust to once I’m in, and can tolerate for a while, at least, as long as I keep moving.

It takes us different times to get all the way into the pool. Brandon just leaps in, while Benjamin works his way in over the course of several minutes. I split the difference between them, getting in waist-deep and getting used to that first, then finishing the plunge.

Once we’re all in and semi-adjusted to the cool water, I take stock of my surroundings. It dawns on me that this may be the absolutely coolest swimming pool I’ve ever been in. And I’m not talking temperature.

Oh, the pool itself is wonderful. There’s a 20- to 25-foot volcano above us and a waterfall. It’s very pretty, and being surrounded by the palm trees and island theming of the Polynesian Resort adds to the exotic feeling.

But the really cool, really amazing thing to me is the view to the north. That’s the side of the pool facing the Seven Seas Lagoon, and I’m surprised to find that even while in the water I can see the landmarks of the Magic Kingdom! Cinderella Castle and Space Mountain are easily spotted, and then I find Big Thunder Mountain. And of course the Grand Floridian and Contemporary resorts are in view as well.

And so I bob in the pool, with a volcano and waterfall to my left, palm trees to my right, and Cinderella Castle across the lagoon in front of me. Boats flit across the lagoon as monorails circle it. This is absolutely amazing. I can’t imagine any other pool anywhere in the world being half this awesome.

If the water were slightly warmer, I could stay here for hours.

Getting from here to there

On the way out of the park, we are slowed momentarily by another CM Moment -- a guy wants to trade for my pins. It’s amazing how many times I’ve already been mistaken for a cast member, and it is only our second day in the parks. Brandon and Benjamin are getting to where they crack up laughing when it happens, and I’ve already lost count.

A little further on, I note that Spaceship Earth is closed. That’s the downside of the “soft opening” stage before a ride is officially open – it can close at any time. I’m glad we rode it this morning.

We pause to photograph some cute topiaries on the Epcot entrance plaza. Goofy is ice skating, Pluto is wearing a Santa hat, and Donald is trying to untangle some lights.

Once out of the gates, we ask ourselves if we should take the monorail? Nah – we decide to shake things up a bit and take a bus back to the Polynesian, since we haven’t yet ridden a WDW bus. My idea, I’m afraid. I thought there were buses to all the resorts, but apparently the monorail is the only route back to the Poly. Which means we have to go back through the bag check to get back to the ramp to the monorail! Not fun when we’re already tired.

Interestingly, the monorail station seems to be closed!! At least the ramp is roped off, and a security guard is blocking the ramp. I’ve never seen that before. I’m guessing it’s because of the crowds.

So… we have no way back to the resort?

I approach the guard to ask him what we are supposed to do. Before I can open my mouth, though, he spots my KTTW card – I’ve switch from my blue Passholder to the Castaway Club lanyard the DCL reps gave us, so the guard can see my KTTW in the clear cardholder at the end of it – and opens the rope. Ah. The monorail is closed to all but resort guests.

Cool! Our own private monorail!

With no crowds competing for the ride, we’re on the next train that arrives, and quickly whisked back to the TTC. We opt to cross over and take the resort loop to get to the Poly, and are soon exiting into the second floor of the Great House. I snare some postcards in the gift shop, and then we head down to our rooms in Rarotonga.

On the way I note the boys point out the window display of the gift shop. It has a Christmas wreath and tree decorated with stuffed Stitches!!! I love it. It's especially funny to us, since this year we made Brandon's stuffed Stitch into a "Stitch angel" as our tree topper at home!

The postcards get tossed on the bed when we arrive, to be filled out later, because the boys and I have another destination – the volcano pool. We’re going swimming!

Back to terra firma

Fireworks over Disneyland make for a big finish, and we are let down as Soarin’ comes to an end. (In more ways than one – why did this have to end???) As we descend, this room full of people spontaneously breaks into applause and cheering. I join in – in fact, I’d give it a standing ovation, but we’re not quite back to the ground and I’m still strapped in!

Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. Wow wow-wow-wow.

We exit quickly to our right and come out by the fastpass machines. Soarin’ is so immersive, so perfect, that for a moment I’m not sure which world is real, this one or the one we just saw. Then a lady with a thick Spanish accent approaches me to ask about wheelchair access for Soarin’. Ah. So this would be the real world, then.

Can I go back to the other one?

I spot a real cast member just a few steps away and direct the lady over to her. We head up the escalator once again, and are out of the Land pavilion, where we’ve spent much of our day. Yep, this is Florida, not California.

I leave finally understanding why someone would wait three hours to ride an attraction. Soarin’ is extraordinary.


is awesome! Words can't describe it.

After the ride is finished, we exit out to the... what? You want a description? I just said words can't describe it! How could I possibly... oh, okay. I'll try.

Patrick’s voice clears us for “takeoff,” and suddenly our row of seats swings forward and up. The row that had been in front of us is now above us, their feet dangling at the upper edge of our vision. The screen in front of us fills our view from one extreme to the other, and we are flying past cloud tops with a clear blue sky above us. We gently rock with the picture on the screen as a breeze wafts past.

Instantly the “ride” disappears, and it feels absolutely real.

We are soaring!!! Woohoo!!!!

We break through the clouds to see the Golden Gate bridge below us. From there we swoop and soar all over the state of California – chasing hang gliders in Yosemite Valley, buzzing kayakers on a river and surfers at the shore. We fly seemingly inches above the water, and then just barely clear a mountain ridge. The reality of it is so intense that we instinctively lift our feet up so they don’t get drag in the river or hit the mountain!!!

This is one attraction where there is no way to stay silent. Every one of us cheering and yelling with each new sight, each amazing thrill. The adult in me starts to wonder how they possibly accomplished the incredible photography it took to make this attraction, but the kid in me shushes him so I can just enjoy the experience. I AM FLYING!!!

The only things that interfere with that illusion are the abrupt scene changes – even just a quick jump into clouds and out into the new scene would have been better. Still, the feeling is so intense, so real, that I do not ever want it to end. I’ve never felt like this in my life!

Prepare for departure

We all have heard so many good things about this attraction, so we are all excited – all the more so because we didn’t have to wait. (Or, more precisely, we were able to spend our wait doing other stuff.) A cast member directs us to a holding area where we line up in three rows, each of us standing on a wing symbol painted on the floor, indicating the separate seats on each row. We are in the second loading area, and I’m pointed to the middle of the three lines. If I’m guessing correctly, that means we’ll be in the middle section of the middle row of “gliders” – the center of the ride. Awesome.

A monitor above us shows blue skies above and cloud tops below, as names of California cities whoosh by. When we’re done being sorted into rows, we’re greeted on the screen by our “chief flight attendant, Patrick” – Patrick Warburton. I love his deadpan, dry line delivery. The boys are excited to see him – not just because he is the voice of Kronk and does voice work in many cartoons, but also because I’ve gotten them into watching my DVD collection of Newsradio, where he plays evil executive Johnny Johnson.

I’d heard the audio of this preshow before, but the video adds a lot, especially when Patrick is talking about stowing loose items, including “these little beauties,” referring to a set of Mouse ears. The video shows that they are worn by a bald man who is a little embarrassed to remove them.

Our excitement builds as the door opens and we are allowed into the attraction, following the people in the row to our right. The room we enter is cavernous, but we are focused straight ahead at the sections of seats hanging from above. I take a glance up at the large arms that both hold the seats and swing them up to the screen. They are monstrous, much bigger than any video of the ride that I’ve seen suggests – certainly a lot more substantial than the famous erector set model that led to their design!

I get to the last seat of the center section and park myself in it. Brandon and Benjamin are to my immediate left, with Becky, Linda and Bob past them. We buckle in. Bob lays his cane on the floor as he was told. It’ll be right there when we return!

We’re fastened into Soarin’! My heart is pounding. If this lives up to half of the hype, it’s going to be awesome!

Fastpass heaven

By the time we’re exiting the Garden Grill, our table has rotated to the back of the restaurant again, so we have to walk around half of the restaurant to exit. In doing so, we pass Chip, Pluto, and Mickey – in fact, Mickey’s visiting with a young couple, and the guy is taking a picture of Mickey and his wife.

On an impulse I offer to take the picture for him so he can be in it. They both seem surprised and pleased. He hands me the camera and slides into the booth next to Mickey. I take the picture, examine the result, and return the camera, and the couple thanks me graciously. I tell them they’re welcome and give the Mouse a casual wave. “See you 'round, Mickey.”

Wow. That took twenty seconds at most, and it was such a little thing, but it sure felt good to help these two strangers make a memory together. It’s what my CM friends call “making magic,” and they often talk about how it’s their jobs’ greatest reward – certainly more than the pay. I’m starting to understand the feeling.

I may have to do that again.

We exit the restaurant and do the “long way around” bit to get to the down escalator: up and around, exit the pavilion, u-turn back into the pavilion, down the ramp and down the escalator. Whoops, looks like the down escalator is not functioning at the moment, so… down the stairs instead.

The crowds have let up a little since noon, but not too much. We work our way together across the lower level towards Soarin’, tightly clutching our treasured fastpasses. As we approach, we can see that the fastpass machines are shut down, all fastpasses gone – no surprise there – and the standby queue is out the door. The sign is showing a standby time of 180 minutes. Three whole stinkin’ hours!!

It just makes us smile more to work our way across the standby line and to the fastpass entrance!

The CM there scrutinized our passes and waves us through. Yay!!! Now comes one of the most enjoyable times that doesn’t involve actually riding an attraction – walking past the poor schlubs stuck in the standby queue. It’s especially sweet when the line is long, and this line is the longest we’ve ever passed!

We enjoy the theming of the Soarin’ line, like a modern airport terminal, but we enjoying while walking through it nonstop, instead of standing for hours with time to inspect every detail. Above we can hear the audio to the interactive wall video displays installed to help pass the time in the standby queue, but the fastpass return queue is at a lower level so we don’t see the screens.

No time to admire them anyway.

And… in the time it’s taken you to read about our trip through the line, we’ve passed up all 3 hours of the standby line and are being directed to a loading area for Soarin’.

Our kind of place

Bob chats up Arlene the character attendant after Chip leaves. She tells us she’s stationed at the entrance to the restaurant to prevent interlopers from running in to visit with the characters. She says it often happens that people see the characters from the pavilion and want time with them, naturally, but she makes sure that character time is reserved for the ones dining here, who have paid for the experience.

That makes sense, and as one of those guests I’m glad they do that, but I’m guessing that can cause some hurt feelings in a small kid who can see Mickey but can’t understand why he can’t get to Mickey.

Dessert time! Samantha tells us that she will be bringing out skillets of apple crisp with caramel butter – wow, that sounds good – but that’s for the adults. She has a surprise for the kids.

“They get to work in the kitchen?” I ask.

Samantha jumps right in on the joke. “Yes! We have lots of dishes waiting to be washed back there!”

The kids aren’t fooled. They’re experienced enough Disney travelers to know that a surprise here is almost always a good one.

Samantha returns with the skillets of apple crisp, and with do-it-yourself cupcake plates for Brandon and Benjamin! They each have a plain vanilla cupcake, whipped frosting, some M&M’s, Mickey-shaped sprinkles, a gummy worm and a cherry.

The apple crisp is every bit as delicious as I imagined, and frankly, I’m worried that the kids will smell it and we’ll have to share with them. But they're content with the cupcakes, both for decorating and for eating.

We are fully satisfied. What a great meal, and a great experience, too – wonderful, friendly service, Disney friends, and interesting, always-changing views. Bob says, “I liked this better than Chefs de France.”

No one disagrees. Becky chimes in, “I know that it (Les Chefs de France) was upscale and nice…”

I complete the thought: “…but we’re not upscale, nice people?”

We’re done at 1:25 – perfect for our Soarin’ fastpasses!!!

Garden Grill - great food and fun

Samantha returns to finish taking our drink order as soon as Mickey moves on, explaining that sometimes the characters will skip a table if they’re busy with a server, and she didn’t want us to have to wait for Mickey to come around again. Awesome.

The Garden Grill is a family style, fixed price meal, where lots of food comes on large platters. There’s no need to mess with deciding what to order, Samantha explains, since she’ll just bring us everything they serve! She’s adding on chicken tenders and fries, too, in case the kids want any, even though they’re “adults” (10 and up) in the eyes of corporate Disney. She’s wonderful.

The platters of food arrive promptly. There’s flank steak, catfish and turkey with a cranberry relish, some green beans, and a very tasty potato casserole. All yummy.

It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and we have plenty of time to spare, so it’s a lot of fun to eat and chat for a few minutes and then stop to visit with the characters.

Pluto stops by for a visit. Brandon especially wanted to meet Pluto on this trip, since his middle school theater teacher used to work for Disney Cruise Line and was a, um, close friend of Pluto!

I take pics with both my camera and my cell phone, and take a moment to send the cell phone picture in a message to both my parents and Becky’s sister.

Chipmunks! Dale arrives at our table and goes through the picture and autograph routine with the boys. For some reason he doesn’t want to put the shirt on the table to sign it, but wants to hold it in the air on the cardboard, and the boys aren’t sure how he wants them to hold it. Picky chipmunk, that Dale. Fortunately we’ve rotated almost to the front of the restaurant and there’s a character attendant nearby, Arlene, who holds the t-shirt for Dale as he signs.

As we’re almost done visiting with Dale, Chip walks by – and keeps going, waving at us as he goes! I’m sure the thought is that we’ve got a character already, so he’s moving on to the next table. But we need his autograph too! We implore Chip to return and release Dale, which seems to satisfy Chip enough to get him back.

Pictures, signatures. The shirts are starting to look cool even with just four character autographs on them.

Before Chip leaves, he takes the time to blow a kiss to Linda and then to Becky, and then turns to go.

“What, no kiss for me?” I joke.

Chip turns, considers me for a moment, then shakes his head – and holds out his paw.

I go to shake his paw, and Chip pulls it back. Ah, so that’s the way it’s going to be, huh? I drop my hand, and Chip sticks his out again. I go to shake it and it’s pulled back once more. Ornery little chipmunk.

Finally Chip allows our hands to connect and shakes, and then waves goodbye. We’re all laughing as he goes.

A meal and a Mouse

Okay, it’s a few minutes before Noon. We’ve killed enough time to head back to the Land for our 12:20 lunch reservation at Garden Grill.

I laugh at a t-shirt I spot another guest wearing on the way in. It reads, “I’d love to help, but I can’t fix stupid!” Off-duty cast member, perhaps?

We walk up the ramp, into the automatic doors, and… whoa. I thought the pavilion was crowded earlier today, but it is packed now at lunchtime. The right-hand side of the upper level is two-thirds full, packed with a mass of humanity slowly moving around towards the stairs and down escalator.

I make sure our group knows not to follow the flow to the lower lever – the check-in for Garden Grill is… well, it’s on the other side of the upper level, and the way to it is roped off. Crowd control again, the opposite problem of when we were trying to get to Circle of Life. Will we have to go downstairs and back up just to get across to the restaurant entrance?

No, fortunately. There’s a cast member at the rope. We tell her we have a reservation for the Garden Grill and she lets us pass.

Whew. It feels good just be out of that big group of people and into a place with elbow room.

We have only a short wait after our check-in until we are escorted to our table, a booth on the lower, outer level, facing out. It’s currently pointed at the Living with the Land scene with the buffalo, but we can tell the restaurant is slowly rotating.

Our server, a friendly lady named Samantha, is promptly at our table, introducing herself and getting our drink order. And just as promptly, Farmer Mickey is there!

Samantha steps aside to let the Big Cheese visit with us. Our first encounter with Mickey! Never fails to make me feel like a kid.

We’ve taken a tip we read online and created “autograph shirts” for the boys. They have our “Dallas to Disney” snowflake Mickey logo on the front of an otherwise white shirt, and we have multiple colors of Sharpies. (Also important to have on hand – a small hard surface to write on. We have a rectangle of cardboard.) The characters won’t sign clothing that is being worn, but this way the boys can collect signatures on this t-shirt and wear it after the trip.

And the first signature is Mickey’s. Pretty cool!

Spaceship Earth

The weather has turned wet. It’s been cloudy all morning, threatening rain, but a steady sprinkle has finally begun. Fortunately only a small portion of the Spaceship Earth queue is outside the protective “umbrella” of the giant sphere, and before long we are unaffected by the rain.

The queue winds us back and forth, closer and closer, until finally we are pointed up and into Spaceship Earth.

One great thing about this queue is that what you see is what you get. There’s no additional wait inside the building. Once you step into Spaceship Earth, you’re at the loading area!

We step onto the circular moving sidewalk and into our ride vehicles. Brandon and I are together for this one.

As we began our ascent into the sphere, we’re told to look at ourselves in an overhead monitor we pass, and our pictures are taken “for use later” in the attraction.

I don’t have the pre-renovation attraction memorized so I can’t spot all of the changes, but our ride through human history and innovation does indeed look fresh and new. Dame Judy Dench does a very good job as the new narrator. The music, however, is forgettable. It doesn’t have the majesty, especially in the conclusion of the ride, that the previous soundtrack did.

At the early scene where cavemen surround a mastodon, the ride comes to a stop. We’re left staring at the fur-clad dudes threatening to spear the giant beast for several minutes, interrupted frequently by an announcement informing us that the ride has stopped temporarily. Thanks for that.

I don’t know how long we are stopped, but it’s long enough that we eventually start yelling at the cavemen just to kill the stupid mastodon already, instead of just standing around making threats.

That’s the only pause in the ride, thankfully.

Our pictures from the front end of the ride do show up later. In the descent part of the ride, color touch screens come to life in our car, asking us a few questions about ourselves. It then displays a short cartoon about what our preferences may look like in the future. It’s kind of cheesy, but one cool effect is that the cartoon figures have our heads, from the pictures that were taken. (Except mine, for some reason.)

This end cartoon is okay, but not really in character with the first part of the attraction. (And not nearly as cool as that awesome former music with Jeremy Irons’ smooth voice talking inspiringly about the future.)

Siemens, the corporate sponsor, has turned the exit area into a pretty cool technology playground. There are several hands-on games. Each showcases Siemens’ products in some way, of course, but they’re still fun.

The place is packed, but Brandon does manage to get a turn at a spy car driving simulator, where the spy car of the future manages to elude the bad guy using a lot of gadgetry Siemens is working on, such as laser windshield wipers, autodrive technology, and collision avoidance.

Brandon manages a “Super Driver” rating on his first try and smiles at me expectantly. I can tell he thinks this means I’ll be more enthusiastic about his getting a driver’s license in a few years.

Sure, kid. Just as soon as they install the autodrive and collision avoidance on our cars.

Please check your brain at the gate

Brandon & Benjamin want to ride Test Track. I’m curious on this busy day what kind of wait there will be for it, so we walk towards it to investigate. Becky & Linda detour into the Mouse Gear store to shop while we ride, and a few steps further along, Bob decides he’ll sit out riding TT and join them in the store. So, the boys and I walk on together.

On our way, another CM Moment: “How do you get to ‘Space Mission’?” Another golden opportunity for a snippy answer – “It’s Mission: Space, doofus!” – but I somehow manage to smile and point the guest in the right direction without betraying even a hint of a smirk.

At least until the guest is out of earshot and the boys start snickering. It makes sense now. That’s how real CM’s survive the idiocy -- nothing but smiles and pleasantness to the guest, but vent when the guests aren't around. Hence the existence of Stupid Guest Tricks.

I experience a flash of worry over what cast members say about me when I get out of earshot.

We spot the east side electronic message board before we ever get to Test Track, and it is… showing a wait time of 90 minutes. No thanks! We theoretically have the time, but… I think I’d more enjoy just wandering around, people-watching and enjoying the atmosphere than stand in line for that long.

Hey… the newly-refurbished Spaceship Earth is open, and its wait time is only 45 minutes! Hmmm…

The boys and I double back and go into Mouse Gear looking for their mom and grandparents. Would they be interested in riding Spaceship Earth? They would!

We make our way to the central plaza, and cross over to the left side of the big ball. That’s where I recall seeing the end of the Spaceship Earth queue.

I’m wrong, so we end up walking all the way under the ball, past all the people, and up the other side to find the entrance to the line. The queue snakes back and forth over and over underneath the giant sphere of Spaceship Earth, so we find ourselves passing the same people again and again.

At one point a man passing us gestures to me and says to his companions, “See? Even the staff has to wait in line.”


A rendezvous with Beverly

The Circle of Life theater exits onto the lower level, so once again we find ourselves making our way through the crowds to the up escalator – the Fastpass return for Soarin’ is now 11:20 p.m.! – then up around the upper level to the doors. After a quick break to, um, take care of nature, we head under the walkway through Innoventions West to Club Cool.

This “Club” was Ice Station Cool on our last two visits. Today’s weather is much like yesterdays, cloudy and in the 70’s, so we don’t really miss the former “ice cave” cold entrance. On the other hand, gaining access to the place just by walking through a single set of doors is kind of anticlimactic.

We don’t come here for the atmosphere, though, but for the free soda. As before, there are several stations with eight soda dispensers each – and an endless supply of small paper cups – giving us a taste of various Coca-Cola products from around the world.

I go straight for Beverly, the bitter Italian soda with a bad reputation. It’s still not as bad to me as some people find it.

There are a few replacement sodas from our last trip. Vegita Beta is a new one from Japan. To me… ick, but Brandon says he likes it.

There’s a new apple soda from Mexico that I enjoy – in fact, I think I like it better than my previous favorite, the watermelon soda from China, but it’s close. Maybe it just brings back memories of the Aspen apple soda I remember liking from my youth, which only lasted on the market for a year or two.

After we’ve each tried most or all of the drinks – with double or triple helpings of our favorites – we head out the south doors. Or, we start to, at least. Benjamin’s given his mom a cup with an innocent “try this” on the way out. Turns out the cup was filled with Beverly, so we wait while Becky goes back to the dispensers for a cup of watermelon soda to get the bitter taste out of her mouth!

An environmental fable

All in all Living with the Land is still a cool ride, and it’s used up a half hour of our time. So… what next?

There is another attraction in the building, the Circle of Life theater, an “environmental fable” starring Timon & Pumbaa. Why not.

It’s slow going through the crowds just to make it to the up escalator. Just before we reach the escalator, a lady stops me with a question – yet another “CM Moment.”

“What’s Soarin’?”

It’s tempting to answer, “What, have you been living under a rock?” to a guest that seems never to have heard of one of Disney’s most popular and amazing attractions. It never fails to baffle me that people can come to Walt Disney World without taking the time to learn what there is to do here.

But I manage to stifle my sarcastic impulses and describe the attraction to her in glowing terms. Maybe I could do this job for real.

We head up the escalator. We can spy the entrance to the theater a short distance away, but… they roped off the direct route for crowd control. This pavilion wasn’t designed to handle the crowds that Soarin’ is bringing in, so the upper level is one-way all the way around. You come in the front entrance and circle down to the right, to the stairs and down escalator. At the top of the up escalator, on the back left of the pavilion, you can only circle up and out. So we head up the ramp, out the doors of the pavilion, make a U-turn and go right back in, then down the right side and to the Circle of Life theater.

We are able to enter the loading area for the theater immediately, and into the theater itself a few minutes later.

Wow, this is a big, nice theater. I’m trying to recall what used to be in here. Food Rocks, perhaps? I know Timon & Pumbaa weren’t around when Epcot opened.

The Circle of Life movie is cute, but preachy. I could shorten the script quite a bit if they’d let me. “Pollution: bad. Nature: good!”

Living with the Land

Okay, we have lunch ressies at the Garden Grill at 12:20 and Fastpasses for Soarin’ thereafter. Let’s see what we can do until then.

An obvious first choice is the Living with the Land boat ride, since it is close by. The Standby line shows a 20 minute wait. Works for us.

As we are waiting, it strikes me that each and every cast member we’ve encountered has been absolutely delightful. I try to keep track of special moments we have interacting with CMs so I can turn in specific compliments – they deserve so many and get so few – in a letter to Guest Services upon our return, but I can already tell that my letter will be lengthy. On the last trip we caught a few CM’s on an off-day, with a less than “Disney” demeanor, and I was expecting that maybe we’d find more like that at this busiest time of the year. Not so. Without exception, they’ve been cheerful, energetic, helpful and a joy to talk with.

Walt would be proud.

It takes only ten minutes until we load into a boat, not twenty. Yay!

I know I’ve been on this ride before, but it’s been quite a while – at least since my honeymoon, and maybe only in 1986 on my first trip. It’s not flashy or spectacular, but it is interesting and fun. It is pure early Epcot, embodying the idea of “edutainment,” where an attraction can be entertaining and educational at the same time.

Our boat floats past audioanimatronic scenes depicting different ecosystems and agricultural uses. These are pretty cool – and looking up, I can see the Garden Grill above us, looking over these same scenes. We’ll be seeing them again later, then.

The boats then wind through the various greenhouses and agricultural laboratories operated here. There’s traditional agricultural methods on display as well as fish farming, but the most interesting is the large hydroponic arrays. It’s just fascinating, and even cool, to see different fruits and vegetables growing in the air, without soil.

One such rack shows them growing Mickey-shaped pumpkins! The pumpkins have a clear mold placed around them when they are small and grow into the head-and-ears mouse shape. Pretty neat.