Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ending the day with a bang

The second ride on the TTA is much like the first, except we can tell that the parade has ended at the hub. That means our way out of the park won’t be blocked.

As we approach the loading area for the TTA, the boys ask if they can ride a third time, but it’s 11:15 now and time to head back to the room. They don’t seem to mind too much – it has been a long day!

We make our way back to the hub. A stage show starring the main Disney characters is under way in front of the castle. It’s our first spotting of Mickey! Santa Goofy comes out as we walk past, but we don’t stay for the show.

Main Street passes by in a hurry – it’s still snowing – and we are out of the park. Brandon suggests we take the boat to the Polynesian instead of the monorail. Okay, why not? We follow the sign down to the dock for the boat to the Grand Floridian and Polynesian, and a few minutes later the boat is pulling up.

The skipper of the boat tells us he’s been radioed to tie up, though, because the fireworks are starting soon. Hmm… it is 11:40, and the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks are scheduled for 11:50, but I’m not sure why that would affect a boat on Seven Seas Lagoon.

Oh, well. We walk back up the ramp and head to the resort monorail platform.

One quick monorail ride later and we are exiting at the Polynesian Great House. And then we hear … BOOM. BOOM. BOOM BOOM. The fireworks are going off, but these sound much too close to be coming from the Magic Kingdom.

We hurry to the lagoon-side windows and look outside, and fireworks are exploding practically overhead! As near as I can figure, they are being shot off from the island in the lagoon closest to the Poly. We can see across the lagoon, too, and they are same shells as are being fired off above the Magic Kingdom.

Even though it’s December 30, I’d read on the online attractions schedule that this is the same fireworks show as they’ll have tomorrow to bring in the New Year, so I’m guessing Disney makes the show even bigger by having the fireworks launch over the lagoon as well as the park! Whatever the reason, it’s VERY loud – and “awesome!” as Brandon says!

We head downstairs and into Rarotonga, letting ourselves into our room. Becky is asleep, and hardly stirs at our arrival. The booming stops minutes later, and the lights are out right at midnight.

I’m asleep immediately.

Tomorrowland at night

Okay, the evening is winding down. Brandon had wanted to check out Space Mountain, but the wait is over 60 minutes, and he’s not that interested in riding it. We settle on an aerial tour of Tomorrow on the great Tomorrowland Transit Authority, the magnetically-powered “vehicles of tomorrow.”

The TTA is one of our favorite attractions, always so relaxing, and great for sightseeing.

This is our first voyage at night. As we look out to the hub, we can see the parade going by. The castle looks so cool in its ice lights! We zip through Space Mountain – it’s obligatory for us to yell something to the people actually riding Space, such as “You’re doomed!” Maybe it’s because our eyes are already adjusted to the dark, but the stars and glowing coaster vehicles really stand out in the interior of the mountain.

As we zip along, there is a DJ playing lots of jamming tunes really loud, and there’s a big crowd in the Tomorrowland courtyard dancing. We recognize most of the tunes from Radio Disney and bop along with them in our ride vehicle.

After we glide through the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin building and are nearing the loading area, the boys suddenly start asking, “Can we ride again?” Sure, why not.

We exit down the moving sidewalk and make our way to the loading up-ramp and are back on the TTA almost immediately. Love this ride.

Filling the laugh canister

Wait time for Monster’s Inc.: still 20 minutes. Hey, I could get used to these low late-night wait times. Wonder if it’s the same for Space Mountain?

We enter the queue for the Laugh Floor. Signs nearby tell us how we can text a joke for use during the show. I start to do so once or twice, but in the end decide not to bother. We’re in the queue for about ten minutes, then we move into a preshow holding area for another ten, so the wait time on the sign is accurate.

Finally the doors open and we make our way into the theater. The story behind this attraction stems from the discovery in Monsters Inc. that laughter generates ten times the power for Monstropolis that screams do, so one of the scare floors has been converted to a comedy club. Several monster comedians try out their act on us in hopes of filling a “laugh canister” from our response. Mike Wazowski is our “Monster of Ceremonies.”

As we are filing in, various individuals in the crowd are illuminated and their live video image put up on a screen with humorous captions added, much like the original Saturday Night Live did. I find this out when I am about to sit down, so my rear’s facing the stage, a light comes on me, and there is laughter in the theater. Only after I’m seated and the light goes off do I realize what’s happened, as I watch others get the caption treatment.

I never do find out what caption they put over my backside.

This attraction uses the same technology as Turtle Talk with Crush, in that the characters are animated in real-time and are able to interact with the audience. All in all it’s a really funny show. Some of the jokes are funnier than others, but it’s in the audience interaction that the characters really shine. We especially like the mind-reading monster: “What’s your name?” “Ashley.” “Correct!!!”

One poor guy on the second row is singled out for mistreatment. He’s never interviewed, but every monster on stage works in a cutting reference to “That Guy!” as his picture is displayed on one of the side screens.

In the end, the laugh canister is filled to overflowing, and Mike W. is thrilled to hear from Roz that the one responsible is getting a promotion. “What’s my new title?” Mike asks.

“Not you, Wazowski,” Roz replies. “That Guy!

Great show, fun and funny. I hope we get to bring the others back to see it later on the trip.

Our Great Escape

Up towards Cinderella Castle we go. There are people already lining up for the 10:30 parade!

As we reach the hub, I pause to take a video of the ice lights twinkling. It is a gorgeous sight – but the boys are anxious to ride something, and I can’t say I blame them! We turn towards Tomorrowland.

A short walk later and we are at Stitch’s Great Escape. On our last visit, it was new and we waited almost 45 minutes to see it. Now the sign is showing – 5 minutes??? Sure enough, there’s hardly any line! The previous group is being let into the preshow, and then we are waved into the holding area.

We look across the walkway to see the brand-new Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor. I kind of doubt we’ll be able to get into it, but… is that right? The sign is showing a Standby queue wait time of only 20 minutes! Woohoo!! That’s awesome!

As we wait for the big metal doors to admit us into the SGE preshow, I check the “dedication plaque” mounted at the entrance. The sign is written in the Galactic alphabet, and I could tell pretty quickly that it was English in a wild font, so I snapped a pic of it at the time and then took it home for translation. That full story is on this page of our 2005 report. The big question: Have they corrected the typo on the sign in the two years since? They have not.

We’re soon into Stitch’s Great Escape. I know many fans think the attraction is a step down from the Alien Encounter it replaced. I can’t judge that, since I never saw it myself, but the boys and I are big Stitch fans – Benjamin especially – so we like SGE. The preshow is funny, and the “encounter” itself lasts longer than I recall from 2005. It has awesome effects.

They’ve changed the ending, too, I see. It’s still not the greatest ending, but better than just having Stitch riding the Astro Orbiter.

All in all, we enjoy the show – in fact, Benjamin is thrilled by it! We exit into the gift shop, which is filled with Stitch paraphernalia. This, of course, means it is Shangri-La for my youngest.

The three of us bop from one display to the other, calling out for the other two to see what wacky Stitch plush or other item we’ve found. My favorite is Stitch as a Disney guest, wearing Mouse ears and Mickey t-shirt, and holding a Mickey bar!

Benjamin finds a hat he likes. It has Stitch “breaking through” the front of the hat, complete with fabric fringe that makes it look as if he tore through. The back of the hat has Stitch’s backside sticking into the hat!

We go to check out, but before we can even talk to the CM behind the cash register, Benjamin’s eyes bug out at the mural behind the checkout counter – it’s a painting of Tomorrowland, but full of Stitch’s experiment “cousins”! Benjamin excitedly starts pointing out all of their names.

The CM, spotting a true fan, steps aside so we can see the full mural, and lets us know that Stitch is somewhere in the painting. Hmm, a challenge. Many of the cousins look like Stitch, so we guess wrong a few times, until I spot a spaceship zipping along in the upper right of the mural. It’s “the red one” from the movie. I point to it, and the CM confirms that I’ve found the one and only 626.

Benjamin purchases the hat and then we set out for the Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor. I hope the wait time hasn’t gone up!

Bedtime? Nah!!!

I’ve held back my idea from the boys – knowing what they’d say – and waited to whisper it to Becky first. “I have a crazy idea. What would you think of the boys and I going out to the Magic Kingdom now?”

Her answer: “You go right ahead.”

I interpret her inflection, based upon seventeen years of marriage, to mean “I’m not going to raise any objection, but I agree that you’re crazy, and you’ll be doing it by yourself, because I’m staying here and going to bed!” It’s amazing how those four words can mean so much.

I then ask Brandon and Benjamin if they’d like to take the monorail to the Magic Kingdom and ride something. “Now!?” they say, wide-eyed, looking to their mom instinctively to see if she (the rational parent) is okay with this. She is! And suddenly the two boys are hopping around the room in excitement.

“Stitch’s Great Escape?” Benjamin asks. Sure, we can try – that’s the great thing about going there on our own. We can ride things that the others might not be as interested in.

Once the boys have put their shoes back on, we promise their mom not to be out “too late” (lots of room for interpretation there!) and head out. We cross into the Great House, head upstairs, and out to the monorail platform. Just doing this much at night is fun!

There something extra-special about circling the Seven Seas Lagoon in the dark. It's a vast patch of black outlined by the resorts, TTC, and Magic Kingdom, with various little lights on the many boats moving across its surface. What a beautiful night.

We arrive at the Magic Kingdom at 9:30 and head for the gate. Yay! We’re in!

We walk under the train station and out into Town Square. Oh, wow, this place looks awesome with the holiday decorations, the tree, tinsel, and lights, with Christmas music still playing!

The boys are ready to charge ahead, but I detour them into “Le Chapeau” to check for hats. I’d like to get one as a souvenir, and this is where I found my light-up Mickey “fireworks” hat on the 2003 trip.

All three of us find hats that we are kind-of, sort-of interested in, but not real enthusiastic about, so we put off any purchase at this point. Out to Main Street!

We walk up the street towards Cinderella Castle, which is absolutely gorgeous, completely covered in “ice” lights. I’d seen pictures – as I mentioned yesterday (was it just yesterday we were flying here?), I have a picture of it as the wallpaper on my cell phone – but they pale in comparison to the real thing. The lights slowly pulse and twinkle. It is breathtaking.

Apart from the slightly-out-of-place comfortable air temperature, all we need to make this holiday wonderland feeling complete is… snow!

It is snowing on Main Street. Snowing!

I love Disney.

Beach blast

The boys and I wave goodbye to their mom and grandparents and head out the door to the courtyard. We walk past the bubbling stream flowing down towards the volcano pool. Tiki torches flicker all around us. This place really is awesome at night!

There are a few dozen people already at the beach for the fireworks, and it looks like the beach chairs are all taken. We move a short distance away from the crowd, and I plop down in the sand in front of a palm tree. Could be worse.

The boys ask if they should go look for beach chairs. I really don’t care either way – I’m semi-comfortable already, but they trot off and soon return dragging two lounge chairs. Good kids. I think I’ll keep them.

We’ve barely positioned ourselves on the two chairs when the lights go down on Cinderella Castle. Fireworks time! Unlike in 2003, there is music piped into the area, so we can hear the show as well as see it! The music isn’t too loud, though – certainly not loud enough to distract me from the fact that a lady nearby is on her cell phone for almost the entire show! Come on.

Fortunately she doesn’t raise her voice very much, so it doesn’t spoil the show for me, but I mostly feel sorry for her. If you’re going to be here, be here. If you want to chat on the phone, go somewhere else.

The fireworks are incredible. They have some very innovative pyrotechnics on display. Some burst in the shape of a cube. Others create a smiley face in the sky!

At one point, when the music is “O Christmas Tree,” the Castle is lit in dark green and jets of fireworks are shot up at an angle from each side, meeting above the Castle – making the Castle into a tree! Disney fireworks never fail to dazzle.

Holiday Wishes is great from the beach, but this just whets my appetite for our fireworks cruise tomorrow evening. We’ll have a boat to ourselves, parked near the Magic Kingdom, with the music piped in! Can’t wait.

With the show completed, the boys and I walk back up to the Great House and start looking through the gift shop. Brandon is looking for a Polynesian Resort cap, but doesn’t find one. When he asks a CM, he is told that there aren’t any for guests to buy, just some that the CM’s wear.

Hmm, first a generic free-refill mug, now no resort-specific hat? If this is a trend towards generic merchandise, I don’t like it.

Okay, it’s now getting close to 9:00 and we head back to our room.

As I said, we as a family are generally early to bed, not the types to spend late nights in the parks. On any normal school night, the boys would be headed for bed. On our previous two trips, our evenings would be over by this time.

That’s about to change.

Settling in

Brandon is the first at the ready with his Key to the World card and slides it into the door lock. Green light! I love it when that happens. We bid goodbye for the moment to Bob and Linda as they go into their room, and we enter ours.

I’d heard that the Polynesian Resort had been renovated in recent years. Not having stayed here before, I don’t have anything with which to compare it, but this room is very nice! Done up in warm woods and fabrics in shades of brown with island prints, it perfectly evokes the tropical theming while at the same time being sleek and modern.

Of course Benjamin is immediately drawn to the hi-def flat-screen TV, and the channel with the continuous “Top 7” tour of current Walt Disney World attractions is quickly found!

I get on the phone and call Bell Services. Our luggage arrives within five minutes, and Bob and the boys and I spend some time sorting out which piece goes with which room.

Once the bags have been delivered, I get to work unpacking. I’d resolved that on this trip I wasn’t going to live out of a suitcase, but would actually unpack and be like a semi-civilized person. So… I pull out our hanging clothes and hang them in the closets, then put a handful of my stuff into one of the drawers. And the rest… oh, well. Life’s too short to spend it unpacking.

It’s almost a quarter till eight now, and we’re meeting Bob and Linda for a light snack. I take a quick moment to call “Mousekeeping” for turn-down service and then we’re out the door, headed for Captain Cook’s Snack Company.

We walk about twenty feet, out an automatic door, across a pathway, and through another automatic door, and we’re in the Great Ceremonial House. We are that close. I love our rooms!

Captain Cook’s is a light, mostly self-serve restaurant on the first floor of the Great House. There are hot dishes, that you order using one of three touch-screen ordering stations, but none of us are hungry enough for one of the hot meals. Instead we peruse the baked goods and cold drinks and other light fare.

I spot the unlimited refill mugs, always a great souvenir, but even more worth the cost when I’m so close to Capt. Cook’s and its free refills! Unfortunately, there’s only a generic “Where Dreams Come True” design for the mug, not one specifically for the Polynesian. I ask the cashier nearby, and she confirms that there’s no resort mug. Bummer.

Brandon’s more thirsty than hungry, so he grabs an orange juice. The rest of us try something we’ve not had before – Dole whip! I’d heard of this soft-serve pineapple sorbet online, where Disney fans debated whether this or the Mickey bar is the better frozen treat, but I’d never had one. We’re given a bowl when we pay at the cashier and then go help ourselves. Bob, Linda & Becky share one bowl, while Benjamin & I share the other – and as I expect, Brandon joins in and has some as well. It’s delicious.

Okay, it’s 8:20. Becky and her parents want to hit the gift shop, as does Brandon, but I notice another option: there’s fireworks starting at 8:30 at the Magic Kingdom, and we could watch them from the beach right here at the Polynesian! I offer that option, and Benjamin is immediately on board! Brandon decides to come with Benjamin and me if we can come back by the gift shop later, while the others pass – they know this will be the same show that we see tomorrow night on our cruise.

Off to see some fireworks!

Finding our rooms

We trudge up the long ramps to the Epcot monorail platform. I silently wish that somehow the engineering could be switched, so that on arrival at Epcot, when you’re fresher, you go uphill to exit the station. Then, on departure when you’re tired and sore, you go downhill to get back on the monorail. As it is, it’s all wrong. But we survive.

Actually, I’m doing pretty well right now. Yes, my feet are sore, as they would be any time I spend seven hours in a park. But since our last trip – and especially since joining the Vocal Majority, with hours on our feet in our long rehearsals and shows – I’ve learned that the soreness isn’t fatal or harmful, and I can push through the soreness and “just keep swimming.”

Add to that the lessons learned from the last trip, when I made the mistake of wearing shoes I didn’t normally wear, with an insert I’d not worn at all before. That was dumb! Unlike now, by the end of the first day on that trip I could already tell my feet were developing blisters. I grinned and bore it then, but this time I made sure to wear my walking shoes regularly (and do some walking) in the weeks leading up to this one – and no new inserts!

I’m also keeping hydrated better – another lesson from the last vacation – so all in all I feel great, even though I’m tired and sore. Does that make sense?

Fortunately I don’t have long to think about this as a monorail arrives promptly. We climb aboard and settle in for the ride to the TTC.

Along the way, as we watch the roads and lights in the surrounding World slide by, we discuss whether to switch from this monorail to the resort monorail for the short ride to the Polynesian, or to walk the ten-minute pathway. We decide to walk.

So, off we get at the TTC, down the ramp, across the plaza. There aren’t a lot of signs in the main plaza area directing you to the Polynesian – the better to keep away the masses that don’t belong there, I suppose – but we remember the general direction and are soon rewarded with a small sign indicating the path.

Once away from the TTC, it is dark. I mean, really dark. There are tiki torches burning along the pathways, so we can see the actual paths, but it’s hard to maintain a good sense of direction, especially with the way that the Polynesian pathways twist and turn between the longhouses.

I’m leading the way, but without much success. Let’s take this way – no, that’s the parking lot, okay, back the other direction, and then turn back left. Okay, we’re on our way now. One more turn and we should see the Great House, so then we’ll have our bearings… no, wait, we’re at the parking lot again! Hmm.

The others are losing confidence in my leadership when I call for doubling back again, when we suddenly realize that we are right next to the laundry room – which means that the building to our left is Rarotonga, where our rooms are! We’re here!

We enter into through the automated door at the nearest end of the building and start checking the first-floor room numbers. They are indeed in the 1800’s, like ours – a good sign! We keep walking, and eventually find that our rooms are on the pool side, not the monorail (oh, well), but they are the closest ones on that side to the Great House. Like, we are right next door to the main place we need to be. These rooms are awesome.

I know Disney never guarantees that you’ll get room requests, but it sure helps to know what to ask for, and to ask!

More pictures up!

The pictures from our day at Epcot are now online at this link at Webshots!

Back around the world

Around the World (Showcase) we go on our long walk. We pass by the Italy pavilion. As we approach Germany, I start to feel a few sprinkles on my face. I’m apparently not the only one who has felt the light rain, because Bob and Linda are pulling off to one side of the walkway to get their jackets from their satchel. At last a reason to wear the windbreakers in this otherwise moderate weather!

The place we stop has a fenced-off area with a miniature village and scale trains running. It’s fun to watch. This is how I picture the train setup I would have had as a kid, if we’d ever actually gotten around to building it. (We did have a very large, nice wooden table built by my dad for that purpose taking up one end of our rec room for much of my childhood. It was eventually put to another use by my brother Greg, who created elaborate WWII dioramas on it with the multitude of plastic models he’d built over the years. My mom and aunt had to learn not to dust the table, lest they disturb the tank tread tracks that Greg had meticulously created in the “dirt.” But I digress.)

As soon as Bob has his jacket on, the sprinkles stop.

Onward we go. We pass by China. We know that the Circlevision movie is new since our last vacation, but none of us feels like standing for it.

As we reach Norway, the pavilion looks packed. Brandon and I volunteer to plunge in to check the Maelstrom wait time.

The Standby line is 60 minutes. Not happening.

Onward to Mexico. For variety, we follow the path to the side handicap-accessible entrance into the Mayan pyramid.

The interior of the Mexico pavilion is one of my favorite places, although there’s never much reason to hang around for long unless you’re eating there. Which I never have. There’s too many really good (and much cheaper) Mexican restaurants at home. Still, I love the atmosphere, and the lava flowing down the volcanic mountainside in the distance is one of my favorite effects.

I do want to check the wait time for the boat ride, the new Gran Fiesta tour starring the Three Cabelleros. This pavilion is teeming with people also, and I can’t even make it down to where I can see a Standby time sign. That’s when I realize that the people I’m worming my way around are probably in line for it. Even without a specific number on for the wait time, that’s good enough for us to say “adios.”

So we’re out of the pavilion and headed for Future World. The giant “icon Christmas tree” of Epcot is ahead of us, fully lit. It becomes more impressive the closer we get.

The Lights of Winter are on the Future World side of the tree. They pulse and change with music nearby, but in a much more subdued manner than the videos we’ve seen of the Osborne Lights over at the Studios. I like them – they’re very pretty and elegant.

Spaceship Earth is open (it’s officially in a “soft opening” period since its recent renovation, meaning it can open and close without notice). But… there’s a significant line here, and I think we’re close enough to the exit now that we’re just ready to go find our rooms.

We make our way through the Leave a Legacy slabs and find an exit. We’re out of Epcot just after 7:00, a full seven hours after we arrived. That’s a pretty full day in the park, especially for us.

What next?

The six of us have sat spellbound throughout the Candlelight Processional and thus haven’t said much to each other, but in talking now, waiting for some of the crowd to depart, it’s clear we’ve all had the same reaction – we all think it was absolutely wonderful. And Bob, like me, was mesmerized by the sign language interpreter.

As luck would have it, we spot the man just a short distance away. Both Bob and I go over to him and let him know how much we enjoyed watching him perform.

Okay, with the end of the Processional, all of our scheduled activities for the day are done. We need to call back to the Polynesian and find out our room numbers – and eventually go to them. First, though, Brandon’s spotted a Candlelight Processional pin he’d like to buy, so we head up to the merchandise carts in front of the American Adventure pavilion.

On our way through the mob exiting the theater – and past additional mobs waiting to enter the theater for the next performance – Brandon and I pause to allow a family with one person in an electric scooter to pass. By the time we can move again, we’ve lost sight of the rest of our family in the dark. Hmm. Well, we all knew where we were headed. Hopefully we’ll see each other again soon.

Brandon starts to browse the pins on display, and I step aside to call the Polynesian. I’m given room number 1803 for Bob & Linda and 1802 for the rest of us. That sounds like first floor, but no idea if those will be monorail side or resort side. Either way, though, we’ll at least have a patio. (In Rarotonga, the first-floor rooms have a patio, third-floor rooms have a balcony, and second-floor rooms have neither.)

While I’m on the phone, sitting down (just like so many actual cast members you meet!), I have my second Cast Member Moment. Two college-age girls approach and ask where the “Kwanzaa” presentation is held. Um, this one I don’t know, and I’m on the phone, so I shrug and tell them politely they might want to try asking an actual cast member.

Is it politically incorrect of me to notice that the two girls asking about the “Kwanzaa” presentation are both white?

As I’m finishing the phone call, I spot Bob & Linda, and soon all six of us are back together.

Brandon does not find the specific pin he’s looking for – apparently it’s sold out – but he does purchase an Epcot pin that he likes, a round pin with flags of various nations in Mickey shapes on a movable wheel around the center Epcot logo. A wonderful CM named Linda handles the transaction and trades pins with both Brandon and Benjamin.

CM Linda also tells us many of the parks have had to close their gates due to the crowds over the past several days, and gives us a tip to get into a park early tomorrow (which is New Year’s Eve) and get our hands stamped on the way out. That way, if the parks have to be closed even to resort guests, we’ll still be able to get in as re-admit guests. Nice of her to tell us that!

Well, we’re at the far south end of Epcot, ready to head north and take the monorail back to the Poly, so we have some walking to do. We didn’t make it to the east side of World Showcase on the last trip, so that’s the direction we head. We’re in no hurry at all. Maybe we’ll ride something along the way? I’m curious what the crowds are for Maelstrom or the boat ride in Mexico, whatever its name is now.

Candlelight Processional

Okay, I may be at a loss for words here. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fully describe the Candlelight Processional in any way that will give even the slightest sense how incredible it is... but I’ll try.

Keep in mind that I both come from and have a musical family, and all six of us here have just recently taken part in some pretty amazing Christmas shows ourselves – me with my men’s chorus, the Vocal Majority, and the other five at our churches. Add to that two other factors: first, it’s five days after Christmas, so the desire to be immersed in Christmas cheer has generally run its course; and second, I tend to be pretty hard to impress. I appreciate a performer’s efforts and can enjoy lots of productions, but it takes something pretty spectacular to really blow me away.

I am blown away.

The sun is low in the sky as we approach show time. We start to see hints of the performers gathering. The orchestra is tuning, robed choir members are congregating at the back of the crowd, preparing to process in. To one side, eight trumpeters pose for a picture, which reminds me that this is the final night of this production – always a special time for performers and audience members alike.

At 5:00 sharp, six herald trumpeters march in from each side of the stage, then turn together and step up the risers. All six are in lockstep, a very precisely rehearsed entrance. Already I’m impressed, and they haven’t played a note.

Then the notes begin. Wow, this is one fantastic orchestra.

Choir members process down the aisles, to the stage, and begin filling the risers behind the orchestra, singing a medley of carols as they go. According to the program, the singers are color-coded for our convenience. The vast majority of them, in gold robes, are guest choirs, many from area schools. The center “tree,” with green-robed singers, is made up of Disney cast members from various areas of the company – not necessarily entertainment CM’s, either.

The CM at the top of the “tree” is wearing a pointed gold collar-like piece that extends far above his head. I think the intended effect is that he is a star or other Christmas tree-topper. I feel slightly guilty that all I can think of when I see him is Beldar Conehead.

The final group of singers are in black and red formal wear, and stand at the base of the tree. These are the Voices of Liberty, the outstanding a capella group that entertains crowds waiting to enter the American Adventure show.

Stationed directly in front of us, on stage left, is a gentleman in black interpreting the songs into sign language. I can already tell I am going to enjoy watching him. I have learned some ASL and have always loved the beauty of sign language, but it's more than that. This man is not just an interpreter, but a complete performer, embodying the spirit of the song as much as the words. His whole body is into it, and he never stops moving and communicating, even during instrumental-only portions of the program.

After the choir is in place, our celebrity narrator is introduced – Marlee Matlin, whom most people know from a variety of TV shows or movies dating back to her Academy Award-winning performance in Children of a Lesser God, but so help me all I can picture her as lately is the attorney Joy disparagingly calls her “deaf lawyer” from My Name Is Earl.

Now, I knew that Marlee was to be our narrator, but I didn’t know -- and am delighted to learn -- that she will be signing the narration, assisted by a reverse interpreter to “voice” her narration.

The program is an hour in length, and it is spellbinding. A variety of beautiful, joyful music, performed both well and full of emotion in a way that draws us into the celebration. And as a follower of Jesus I am overwhelmed that the music and narration is centered around a celebration of His birth, something that is becoming harder to find in public events.

In that same vein, I’ll admit that going into this I had a small fear that the production would be too “Disneyfied” in some manner, that it would come across cutesy or over-polished and not really heartfelt. I shouldn’t have worried. Everything is polished to perfection, but the focus of the entire production is a celebration of the Christmas story. Every facet of the show – vocals, instruments, lights, narration, interpretation, everything – is indeed masterfully done, but none of it detracts from the story.

The production has the audience on its feet in a standing ovation several times. I remember early on how to signal applause to a deaf person, twisting both hands above my head, to express my appreciation to Marlee Matlin, who is giving an impassioned performance. There are a couple dozen others in the crowd making the same sign.

At the end of the production, Marlee takes a moment to express her appreciation to the audience and – this being the last night – to the many of her friends and family members who are attending this very performance. She says that this is her seventh year to be a part of the Candlelight Processional, and it has become a highlight of her year.

After her final words, the orchestra begins again, and the choir members process out to another medley of carols. Wow, what an amazing production! As picky as I am when it comes to observing performances, I have one thought at the end of this show:

They got it right.

Land of the Rising Sun

It’s a little past 4:00 now – wow, we spent two hours at dinner! – so we have some time before going to the Candlelight Processional, which is presented in the American Gardens Theater opposite the American Adventure pavilion. We head towards it (although Brandon suggests going to Canada, which is quite a distance in the opposite direction).

We go past Morocco, which we explored on the last trip. A band is playing some driving rock music with an Arabian flavor on a stage in front of the pavilion. I can only assume that this is Mo Rockin’. You don’t see too many bands with their own belly dancer.

We approach to the Japan pavilion. The Matsuriza drummers are pounding away on the pagoda. There’s a point about halfway between the pavilions where the sound the drumming from one direction and the band from the other are about equal – and both very loud. Now there’s a “battle of the bands” I’d like to see.

There’s an ice cream cart nearby. We emphatically decide we are not hungry right now, not even for a Mickey bar!

One thing I have never done, in all of my visits to Epcot, is explore the Japan pavilion. I’ve not been much past the pagoda, in fact. Anyone up for that? Sure. We head towards the deep reaches of the pavilion.

It is, like so many locations in Walt Disney World, deeply immersive. You can almost convince yourself that you are actually in Japan, the farther back you go. Such realism! One thing I’ve heard from many who have traveled to Japan is how Westerners tend to be taller than the locals, and I am finding that to be true here. Of course, I’m 6’5”, so this happens to me just about everywhere. But it helps the illusion!

The very back of the pavilion looks like a Japanese fortress, but actually contains a store. In it are all sorts of imported foods, including many bagged snacks. Some are more exotic than others – shrimp flavored chips, anyone? I suspect that we wouldn’t be buying much here even if we hadn’t just eaten.

We pass out of the store and spot an exhibit hall to one side, advertising a display called “Tin Toy Story.” In it are hundreds and hundreds of metal toys of all shapes and sizes, along with a history of these toys and their popularity in Japan over the years. Many of them are of Disney characters, and were the first exposure many in that country had of Mickey Mouse and our other favorites.

Okay, enough cultural immersion for now. It’s approaching 4:30, so we head to the American Gardens Theater.

We were not given specific instructions about when to be at the Theater, but I am glad we did not wait any longer! A cast member is guarding the entrance and is only letting people through with the reserved seating badges – all of the other seats are already taken for this performance.

As we enter the Theater itself, we see that the place is about 90% full! Okay, then. Fortunately, our passes get us some fairly decent seats, on the right-hand side about a third of the way back from the stage. We settle in for what we’ve heard is a great show.

Les Chefs de France

Les Chefs de France is a very nice restaurant. Bob & Linda recall having eaten here before, and Becky and I did on our honeymoon, but the memories are vague enough that this will seem like a new experience for all of us. This may be the nicest place the boys have been to. The niceness doesn’t stop us from deliberately mispronouncing the restaurant’s name for fun: “LeSS CHefs DEE France” in a nasal twang, instead of “lay shef deh frahnse.”

This we do quietly, to ourselves, to avoid offending the many French CMs nearby.

We’re seated outside to wait for less than ten minutes when we are called inside and escorted to a table for six at the front corner of the restaurant, with windows on two sides. Nice.

As part of the Candlelight Processional Dining Package, we will be paying a flat fee per person and each getting an appetizer, entrée, and dessert! Given that even the youngest among us is an adult by Disney standards (10), it won’t be a cheap meal, but we will not go away hungry.

Although we’re not planning on any further meals today, we’ve talked about going to Beaches & Cream at the Beach Club and splitting a “Kitchen Sink” monster sundae after the program this evening. We’ll see about that, I guess.

For our appetizers, I try a cheese plate, thinking that I really need my appetizer not to be too heavy if I’m going to have an entrée and a dessert to myself. Plus, I figure the cheeses will be good. It is exactly what I needed it to be, small wedges of four different cheeses: brie, camembert, port salut and chevre. Each is tasty in its own right, but I think I like the port salut best.

Bob orders escargot. Becky and Linda each order the lobster bisque, which is very good, but Benjamin’s onion soup beats it, by popular acclaim. (We’re each sampling the other’s choices – except for Bob’s snails.) The real winner, hands down, is Brandon’s tarte de chef alsacienne, a flatbread with onions and bacon, which Benjamin realizes too late is like pizza! There’s plenty to share, though.

The window seats are perfect for people-watching as we enjoy our upscale courses. Before too long, in fact, a couple of performers began roping off a viewing area just outside the window and begin an acrobatic show. We can’t hear their patter, but we can marvel as they stack chairs in a column and balance atop them, climbing higher and higher. Dinner and a show!

For our entrees, Brandon and Linda each try a salmon filet served on a potato pancake with red pepper sauce. I put my seven years (!) of French classes to use and order the noix de Saint Jacques et gambas sautees flan d'epinards, sauce a l'oseille, which is sauteed scallops and black tiger shrimp served with spinach flan and sorrel sauce.

Hey, all I took away from those classes was the ability to pronounce French words correctly. I might as well use it when I can.

Bob and Benjamin each get the filet de boeuf grille, sauce au poivre noir, gratin Dauphinois et haricots verts. Or as they call it, “the beef.”

The entrees are just as delicious as the appetizers.

Between bites we chatter about plans, about the trip so far, and watch people pass by on the nearby pathway. At one point a man with a long white beard, wearing a bright red hooded outfit trimmed in white fur, passes right by our window. This is Pere Noel, Father Christmas, the French Santa Claus. I must say he’s much thinner than our American Santa. Don’t know how he does it with all the rich food and wine he has access to. Pere Noel cheerfully waves to those of us in the restaurant as he walks to his storytelling location.

The acrobats make a second appearance as we eat our entrees.

Dessert time! Bob loves his crème brulee, which he has with a cup of espresso on the side. Brandon and I each get a chocolate tart, layered with banana, served with a praline sauce and a scoop of freshly made chocolate ice cream, that is, the tarte au chocolat, banane et noix de coco, sauce praline. (And with that, I file away my limited French for the foreseeable future, with the exception of a few “mercis” to our servers.)

Linda has the cinnamon apple crepes, while Becky enjoys a puff pastry filled with vanilla ice cream and served in a pool of decadently rich chocolate sauce.

Benjamin really loves his choice, a selection of freshly made sorbets, one scoop each of kiwi, mango, and raspberry!

Okay, now we are full. We knew this would be our one big meal today, and we took that seriously! Consequently, we decide that we will not be going to Beaches & Cream for the “Kitchen Sink” later today.

This was a nice relaxing meal – more gourmet than we are accustomed to (remember Benjamin wanting McDonalds as we landed yesterday?), but a very nice start to the dining part of our vacation.

As the acrobats set up outside the window for a third performance, we know it’s time to go. Our server presents us with stickers to wear for the reserved seats at the Candlelight Processional, and we make our way out of the restaurant with a final merci.

Soaking it in

We leave the Seas – the transition from underwater to land is a bit abrupt without the “hydrolater” gimmick – and start walking towards World Showcase. We enjoy the monorail gliding overhead, the reverse waterfall, the beautiful flowers. It’s so tempting just to stop and look around every few seconds and just, well, soak in the fact that we are here.

This may mark me as odd, but with every visit I become more convinced that just being in the park is worth the cost of admission, even if I never took in an attraction.

As we cross into World Showcase and approach the lagoon, I suggest doing something we’ve not done before – take a “friendship” boat across. They’re not as fast as walking, but it’s something new, and we have the time.

The boat does take a few minutes to arrive, but we spend the time well – just soaking in being here!

I note that the pyro barges for Illuminations are out in the lagoon.

Once the boat docks, we climb onboard and are quickly on our way. As the pilot (captain? driver?) guides us across the lagoon, the other CM gets on the microphone and starts entertaining us with a few jokes, none of which will earn her a spot at the Improv. (Example: “Why does Tigger stay dirty? Because he’s always playing with Pooh.”) (And that was one of the better ones. Seriously.)

We pull alongside the dock at the Morocco pavilion and turn right for France. We arrive at the front entrance of Chefs de France at 2:00 on the nose. Or sur le nez, as we’ll need to say now.

Turtle Talk

So we’re now in Seabase Alpha, er, I mean, The Living Seas… I mean, The Seas with Nemo & Friends. What to do next? I don’t really care to see the diver in the tube for the Nth time. I’d heard Turtle Talk with Crush was moved to a bigger theater, due to its popularity. Yep, there’s the entrance to our left. Turtle Talk was new when we were last here, but our timing didn’t work out to see it.

Given its popularity, we’re not counting on seeing it now. The cast member out front tells us the wait time is about eight minutes. Eight minutes!? Dude! That’s awesome! (Sorry.)

The wait turns out to be closer to twenty minutes, but there’s quite a bit to see in the holding pen – I mean, waiting area. I enjoy watching the little stingrays flit around in their clear-sided tanks.

Finally we’re able to enter the theater. A large wall shows the ocean floor, with various rocks, and such, and shimmering, clear blue water. At the prompting of a CM, Crush the turtle comes swimming up, taps his flipper on the wall, and exclaims, “Look at all the humans in the human tank!”

Turtle Talk is, well, amazing. I thought I knew what to expect. I thought it would be cool, and innovative. I thought the younger members of the audience would enjoy the show part. I guess I really didn’t expect personally to be all that entertained, but I was wrong! It is a very funny show.

A great moment comes when Crush is talking with a young boy from Brazil named Rafael. Crush asks him what his favorite part of the day so far has been. Rafael answers, “Getting autographs.”

Crush looks puzzled. “Dude, you mean to tell me that you came all the way from Brazil, and the best part of your day has been some dudes writing on paper???”

A short time later, Crush is grilling the kid’s dad, asking him to guess how many “offspring” he (Crush) has.

“Five?” the dad guesses.

“Oh, way more than that, dude.”


“A little more.”

The dad comes back with, “200?”

Crushes eyes fly open wide and his jaw drops. “That is NOT a ‘little more,’ dude!!!”

It’s a great show. I come away marveling even more at Disney’s ability to use cutting-edge technology in really entertaining ways.

Okay, that’s what the adult in me says. My inner kid is marveling that it just got to visit with Crush!!

It’s now approaching 1:30, and since we’re still in Future World and our 2:00 meal reservation is in the France pavilion on the other side of World Showcase lagoon, we figure we’d better move on.