Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A frosty end to the day

Mickey’s Philharmagic is still a delight, and has us grinning from ear to ear even though we know what to expect. It’s just such an enchanting way to experience our favorite movies and characters, in a short but fun story.

When we emerge from the theater, it’s 10:55, and close enough to 11:00 that we need to start making our way back to the resort – pausing only for a photo op as Brandon tries to remove the sword from the stone, next to Cinderella’s Golden Carousel.

We take a walkway to find some restrooms that are closer to Tomorrowland than Fantasyland, even though they don’t appear that far on the map. Still, I’m glad we go out of our way there, because on the way back towards Main Street, we find another PhotoPass photographer taking pictures with the castle, from the side, in the background. For some reason, the castle is lit in pink instead of blue.

The photographer is working with a family of four, mom, dad and preteen boy and girl, but no one else is waiting besides us, so the photographer is having some fun with them. He poses them several ways, taking time to get some cute and quality shots. My favorite is the last. He instructs the little girl to hold up her hands by her face and make an expression of shock, then tells the boy to look really disgusted. After a reminder for the kids to hold those poses, he has mom & dad kiss behind them and takes the picture!

It’s our turn next, and we go through a few poses ourselves and then give the guy our PhotoPass card to scan. Great system. I can’t wait to see the pictures.

We turn at the hub and head up Main Street, where it is still snowing – but this time the temperature feels like it matches the snow that we see! It is biting cold. So, as we head out of the gates, what does Brandon want to do again? Take the boat across to the Polynesian.

Kid, that would be one extremely cold ride, with the wind from our motion added to the chilly north wind already blowing hard, with nothing on the open water blocking its full effects. Your mom would probably glare at me a lot for taking the boat when there is a nice, warm monorail available.

Let’s do it!

We walk down to the pier. Even just standing around waiting for the boat is freezing. Eventually two other couples join us – so we’re not the only crazy ones here.

The boat pulls up within minutes, and driver Bill, an older man who looks like he’s been around boats for a good part of his life, looks at us with a perplexed expression and bluntly asks, “Why are you taking the boat on a night like tonight???”

“We’re crazy” is my reflexive response, which gets a derisive snort in return from Bill. “Actually,” I add, “we figure that if you can survive it, then we can.”

“Yes,” Bill replies, “but I get paid to do this!”

He has a point.

We sit on the bench seat at the back of the boat, and soak in the experience. The boat makes a stop at the Grand Floridian dock, where the two couples get off. Bill has to make some tricky maneuvers on the way in and on the way out to keep the wind from slamming the boat into he dock. He makes it look easy in a way that only years of experience can bring.

Once at the Poly, we bid Bill good night with a cheerful, “keep warm!” and head to our room. We are exhausted, but in a good way. Another fun night out with the boys.

I climb into bed without even stopping to update my trip notes.

Fantasyland with little waiting

After the Haunted Mansion, we walk into Fantasyland. The loading area of it’s a small world is almost empty!

Now, this ride is admittedly no one’s favorite, at least not in my group. We don't actively dislike it, it's just not a favorite. But it is so completely identified with the Disney experience that we almost always make time for it. It helps that we’re able to walk on the ride.

The loading area has been completely renovated since we were last here, done up to resemble the iconic original ride at Disneyland, but in dazzling white. I approve.

Our “wait” in line lasts as long as it takes us to walk at full speed down the ramp, and we are put on a boat immediately. As I sit, I can tell that I’m going to have a problem here. I’m a big guy, and I’m always concerned that I’ll be able to fit in a ride. The boats in it's a small world have bench seats, so my width is not a problem, but my height is. There is very little leg room.

I’m forced to sit cross-legged in the seat, and even then my knees are pressed into the back of the seat in front of me. I try readjusting several times during the ride, but never find a comfortable position.

The dolls and singing are saccharine-cute as always – and also renovated, with new paint and a new sound system so the theme song gets stuck more completely in our brains – but I’m never happier to see the “goodbye” signs marking the end of the ride! My knees need a break.

Okay, it’s almost 10:30 now. What next? We go to check out Mickey’s Philharmagic, which was new on our last trip. It was also one of our favorite new attractions. The standby line shows a wait time of 10 minutes, but I don’t think it can be accurate, since the queue is out the door.

Still, we get in line. Becky will probably be irate that we saw this without her, but we’ll be willing to do it again when we’re here tomorrow.

We quickly enter the main queue room, and find that all of the switchbacks there are bypassed, so that the line goes straight through to the preshow holding area! We go straight there and are ready to go in for the very next show!

The Haunted Mansion

In spite of the 30-minute wait time sign, we’re to the front doors of the Haunted Mansion in fifteen minutes.

As I said, I love this attraction, and the updates it’s been given are awesome. One of the first and most obvious comes soon after we board our “doom buggies.” We are transported through a room filled with staircases all around, each oriented in a different direction, just like M.C. Escher’s famous prints. It’s a dazzling effect.

Madame Leota’s crystal ball no longer sits on a table, but rather floats up and down in the dark séance room, as musical instruments in fluorescent colors float above us.

When we reach the attic, we ride past several wedding pictures, each featuring the same bride, but a different husband. The husband disappears from each photo as we pass. At the end of the room the bride herself is standing there, and suddenly a bloody ax appears in her hands.

The ghosts are wonderful as always. We spot the hidden Mickey in the dining room place setting pretty quickly.

Once in the graveyard, the ride comes to a stop, and for several minutes we are amused by a ghoul popping up repeatedly from behind a tombstone. The delay gives us time to appreciate the wealth of detail that goes into each scene.

The ride comes to a typical ghoulish and humorous end, with a ghost hitchhiking along with us.

It seems so appropriate that we exit into darkness. The Mansion is always good, but it’s just substantially creepier at night!

Cool and creepy. And cool.

Once back at the Poly, the boys and I layer up with some warmer clothes and then head out for the Magic Kingdom. Becky makes us promise to start back to the room by 11:00. “But it’s open until midnight!” schedule-master Benjamin informs her.

His mom replies, “For you, it’s closed at 11:00.”

The boys and I walk across to the Great House and then upstairs to the monorail platform. As we wait for the train, I can already tell that this is going to be a chilly experience, even with the additional warm clothing!

We’re into the Magic Kingdom at 9:15. We walk up Main Street, where it is still snowing, and spot a couple of Photopass photographers stationed in the hub. They are taking pictures with both the Partners statue and the castle lit up in ice lights behind it.

We have to have one of these!

After the photographer takes a couple of pictures, we turn towards the attractions – left this time. We want to check out the wait times on the Haunted Mansion and the Fantasyland rides.

One brisk (both means, both fast and chilly) walk later, we are at the queue for the Mansion, which stretches well past the Mansion gates. The sign is showing a standby time of 30 minutes. That’ll do.

We’re really interested in seeing the Haunted Mansion. The original was one of my favorites from my one visit to Disneyland. Then, on my first visit to the Magic Kingdom in 1990 – with Becky on our honeymoon – it was shut down for renovation. We finally got to ride this version in 2003.

Here we are at the start of 2008 (I’m not used to calling it that yet!), and the Magic Kingdom’s Mansion is newly reopened after yet another renovation. I’ve read some about the additions made here, and I’m curious to see them.

The queue goes through several lengthy chained switchbacks under the canopy. I’ve never ridden this after sunset before, and I must say, it is awesome at night. The Mansion is lit in subtle purples and greens, with occasional flashes of lightning around. It is deliciously creepy!

We strike up a conversation with a young couple in line with us. Turns out they are from Charlotte, North Carolina, where we almost passed through on the way here. We have a nice, if brief, chat about the new effects in the Haunted Mansion, as well as favorite eateries. We strongly recommend Le Cellier in Epcot, which they’ve never experienced.

Benjamin suddenly says, “Daddy, hold my hand.” Now, it is creepier here at night, but Benjamin wasn’t all that scared by this attraction back when he was six, and he’s ten now. I suspect an ulterior motive.

Once I grasp his hand my suspicion is confirmed. It’s ice cold from the wind,

“You’re not scared, you just want me to keep your hand warm, right?”

“Well, yeah!” he says, grinning smugly. The pair from Charlotte just laugh.

Bus babies

While we’re walking to the bus at the Studios, we suddenly hear and see the fireworks going off for the finale of Fantasmic! We can even see Sorcerer Mickey on top of the mountain! Wow. I never realized how much of the show can be seen and heard from outside the amphitheater.

So what are our plans? Bob, Linda & Becky are talking about breakfast tomorrow, but guess what? The boys and I make more immediate plans – back to the Magic Kingdom for us, for another late-night outing!

I know the other three think we’re crazy. It’s not just that we’re staying up later again, but the cold front is here in force now. The wind is blowing from the north, and it is very, very chilly.

I love it.

There’s a bit of a line at the Polynesian bus stop, but a bus is loading when we get there, so we should be able to get on the next one. We witness something I’ve heard of from my WDW bus driver friends – young parents griping at the driver because he’s telling them they have to fold their baby stroller to get on board, which would entail getting out their sleeping child.

I am sympathetic with the parents to a degree. Back when our kids were small, we treasured the times they were asleep. (Come to think of it, we still do!) But I also know that (1) it’s a safety issue, and (2) it’s a Federal regulation, so the driver doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

The driver is doing a good job trying to explain this to the parents in a calm tone, but they’re not easily convinced and spend a lot of energy (and volume – like they’re seemingly not really too worried about waking their baby) arguing with him. As it is, while they are arguing other people are getting on the bus, and by the time the parents realize that they’re not changing the driver’s mind, the bus is full. The driver climbs aboard and is gone before they have their baby out.

The baby doesn’t seem to wake up.

Unfortunately our group is the next in line for the bus, so the couple starts griping to us, along the lines of, “Can you believe what he’s making us do?” I put on my best “prosecutor breaking the news to a defendant that they have to pay the fine” sympathy voice and tell them, well, what I just wrote – that while I’d hate to wake the baby if he were my child, it is a DOT regulation and the bus driver was right.

Hearing the same answer as the driver gave, but from a guest, seems to calm them down a bit.

As luck has it, another bus – # 4823 – is not far behind. Like the bus Brandon and I took this afternoon, we’re apparently stopping at the Contemporary first. As we proceed up World Drive past the turnoff for the Polynesian, I tell the kids that we’re about to go underwater!

Brandon gets what I mean pretty quickly, but Benjamin is confused. He knows there’s a trick to what I’m saying, but he can’t figure it out.

Then the roadway dips down and we enter the tunnel under the waterway connecting the Seven Seas Lagoon with Bay Lake. Aha! “Under water” we go.

A Hollywood career cut short

It’s well past 8:00 when the music ends and the lights stop dancing, but they stay on. Somewhere along the way we learn that they’ll be on for an hour after park closing. Ah, so we didn’t have to rush, after all.

We line up to get our pictures taken by a Photopass photographer. When the family in front of us is posed and ready to get their picture taken, the Osborne Lights and music start up again – Trans-Siberian Orchestra this time, a personal favorite – and the photographer has to wait until the dancing stops to take the shots. It’s hard to get a good background when the lights are pulsing on and off!

We enjoy the second light show, and then it’s our turn for pictures.

Afterwards, we’re ready to head out. It feels strange – after all, we just arrived at Disney-MGM Studios about 90 minutes ago, and now we’re leaving. And even more oddly, I’m not sure if we’ll get back here on this trip. We’re planning on spending the day at the Magic Kingdom tomorrow, and then we only have a couple of hours Thursday morning before we have to catch the bus to the port. We’d like to see the new (to us) Lights, Motors, Action stunt show, but it may not happen.

We were excited when we found out about this park’s name change to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, especially since it was initially reported that the change would be official at the start of the new year. Given that we were booked to be at Walt Disney World over the New Year, we thought we might get to witness the transition and be a part of history. Then, later, the transition was announced as officially being on January 7 – next Monday. So, it’s still Disney-MGM while we’re here.

We stop for another PhotoPass picture on Hollywood Boulevard, and then we’re out of the gates.

The Osborne Lights

Just because we’d like to get out of here before park closing doesn’t mean we’re passing up on dessert. The spread of sweets is delectable. There are some chocolate & coconut bars that are as good as any homemade ones I’ve ever tasted.

Even with the selection and quality of desserts, Brandon’s disappointed. He remembers there being a substantial sundae bar with lots of toppings at our 2003 visit here. There’s still ice cream, but “only” two toppings and some sprinkles.

His disappointment doesn’t keep him from getting a huge bowl of ice cream anyway.

We’ve settled up at Hollywood & Vine and are ready to go at 7:50. With the park closing at 8, we have ten minutes to get over to the Streets of America to see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Along the way, Brandon spots that the wait time for Star Tours is showing only 10 minutes, but I urge him to keep moving. For one, he and I, and maybe Benjamin, would be the only ones interested in riding it. And besides that, the line is visible out the door. Even if all the queue switchbacks inside were bypassed, I can’t imagine it being only a ten minute wait.

We round the corner, and… oh my. Wow.

What can be said about the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights? There are lights. Lots of lights. They dance. It is spectacular. (Hence the name!) I’d seen pictures and video, but as I suspected, if you haven’t seen them in person, you won’t get the impact. It’s amazing.

Bob hangs back at the entrance to New York Street, taking pictures, but I want to be surrounded by this. Brandon’s gone ahead a bit and returns almost immediately -- “It’s snowing!!” Sure enough, the flakes are falling all around us as soon as we step into the street.

After we move a short way in, “Feliz Navidad” begins playing and the lights go into action. All around us the curtains and designs of light pulse and flicker in time with the music. We’ve seen individual houses set up to do this, but this is amazing. It is entirely immersive – everywhere you look, 360 degrees around you, and even above you, festive lights dance, music plays, snow falls. It’s Christmas on steroids.

And it has me smiling from ear to ear. I love Christmas, but by New Year’s I’m usually ready to put the merriment away for another year to keep it fresh. This, however, gets me in the spirit all over again.

Timing matters

We pull into the MGM bus stop and make a beeline for the entrance, not stopping to inspect the Christmas tree or have our picture taken by PhotoPass. As we approach the turnstiles, we let the boys know in no uncertain terms that “Hey, I don’t have my Key to the World card” jokes are not funny and will not be tolerated. Maybe after we get some food in us, but not before.

I guide the group partway up Hollywood Boulevard before turning left for Hollywood and Vine. It’s not as far from the park entrance as I was thinking it was, for some reason, but that’s a good thing. We’re hungry.

I approach the CM at the reservation stand and give her our name, ressie number, and apology for being late. Not a problem, we’re told, and just a minute later we are being escorted in to our table. Yay.

Because this is a buffet, we’re able to get eating quickly, thankfully. And it is good stuff. There are many wonderful dishes to choose from, and we sample them all. I’m especially happy with the carved prime rib.

While we eat Benjamin reviews his copy of our itinerary. As in the past, I’ve printed up booklets with our general schedule, travel info, and reservations, and given a copy to everyone in our party. This time, partly because of the extended hours and extra shows of the season, I’ve included on each day a sunrise to midnight schedule with color-coded bars showing the hours at each of the four parks and icons on those bars to indicate parades and fireworks. It makes it easy to tell at a glance what’s going on all over the World and when we specifically want to be somewhere.

And Benjamin, who is our calendar / TV guide / scheduling savant, loves it. That’s the other reason I created the itinerary this way.

And so as Benjamin reviews the itinerary, he notes that it’s now 7:30, we’re only beginning to wind down our meal, and the park closes at 8:00. For real? I know we got here late, but I’m still surprised that I scheduled the meal for so close to park closing.

Oh, yeah, I remember now. I tried to get us into the Fantasmic! Dining Plan so we’d have reserved seats for one of the shows tonight, but the slots were all taken, so I just got what I could for a regular reservation at Hollywood & Vine.

We’re okay not riding anything necessarily, but we really wanted to see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights. With the park closing at 8:00, I guess we’ll have to finish up here pretty soon.

There and back again

We rapidly discuss our options, given that one of our party doesn't have his Key to the World card and can't into the park without it! We end up disembarking at the Grand Floridian, making a quick trip through the lobby and then upstairs to the monorail platform, intending to take the loop back to the Poly for the room key. Benjamin’s not too happy with himself, but it was an honest mistake, and we try to take it in stride. We’ve got a 6:30 reservation for Hollywood & Vine. My one concern is missing that. But, as usual, we have extra time built into our schedule.

We also have three magic words we can interject into any negative situation, and they almost always cheer us up. They worked last night on the bungled fireworks cruise, and they work now: "Walt Disney Suite!" It's always nice to have that reminder of the cruise ship luxury we have ahead of us!

As we step out to the monorail station, we hear an enormous BOOM. It sounds like it came from across the lagoon, maybe on the southeast side near the TTC. None of us can figure out what it could be, since it’s not time for any fireworks. I take a note of the precise time – 5:37 – in case we can ask someone later what it was.

The ride around the lagoon is still relaxing, all the more because of the colors of the sunset reflecting off of the water. It’s gorgeous.

For some reason, our monorail spends a loooooong time at the Contemporary station, over twelve minutes. I can’t help thinking about that loud “boom.” I hope the delay isn’t related to that. But then we’re on our way. I never see any smoke or any indication that anything is out of the ordinary. Hmm.

When we arrive at the Polynesian, Benjamin and I head for our room, while the others go straight back to the bus stop. When we join them, I note that it’s 6:10 – exactly 40 minutes since we were last here. It’s amazing what leaving one little card can do.

I take a picture of the same “palm tree and sunset” picture that I did forty minutes ago, but this time it’s considerably darker!

We have a longer wait this time before bus number 4724 arrives to take us to the Studios at 6:25. One quick stop at the Grand Floridian later and we are finally on our way there. We won’t make our 6:30 ressie, but we won’t be as late as I thought we might be.


So Benjamin’s new Stitch hat disappeared while riding Expedition: Everest. I can’t believe we didn’t think to put the hat in the loose-items pouch, but I don’t remember doing that. Then when we exited the ride Benjamin was distracted by his stomach hurting. None of us noticed that the hat was missing at all.

The realization that the hat was probably lost on Everest understandable upsets Benjamin, but the situation is not completely hopeless. We can report the loss and hopefully they can find the hat. I also know of reports of lost items being replaced by Disney, though I tell Benjamin that there are no guarantees.

On the plus side, Becky tells me, they were able to meet Baloo on the way out of the Animal Kingdom and get his autograph. (Or would that be “paw-tograph”?)

We settle down to rest for now, but I promise Benjamin that we’ll go to the concierge desk to report the loss before we head to Disney-MGM Studios for supper tonight. Maybe at the same time I can add Big Wallaby to our dinner reservation for Ohana tomorrow night.

The rest doesn’t last long – a by-product of staying a Animal Kingdom a bit longer – but it is refreshing. At 5:00 Benjamin and I head over to the Great House. There’s a short line for the concierge desk, but in a matter of minutes a perky CM named Ginger is helping us.

I ask first about reporting the lost hat, and Ginger hands us a small white form to complete. So as not to hold up the line, I go ahead and ask about adding one person onto our reservation for Ohana tomorrow evening. Ginger tries to change the reservation, but it’s booked up and she tells us that she’s not able to add the person in the system. Then she says, “But if you just show up with the additional person, they might be able to add him in then.” Okay, that’s better than nothing.

Benjamin & I step aside to fill out the form so that Ginger can help the next guest. The form asks the usual contact information, both for here at the resort and at home, and then asks for a description of the lost item and the time and place it was lost. Thanks to our photographic record, I am able to provide detailed information on everything.

We hand the completed form back to Ginger and head back to the room. It has gotten progressively cooler during the day, and now it’s bordering on cold. Despite my Texas roots, though, I grew up in Colorado, so I don’t mind a bit.

At 5:30 we gather at the bus stop for a trip to the Studios – we have a reservation to eat at Hollywood & Vine. The sun is setting, and it is just beautiful with all the palm trees around.

A bus arrives rapidly -- #4909. Once on board, we are headed for a stop at the Grand Floridian before continuing to the park, when Benjamin casually says, “I left my Key to the World card in the room. Will I need it?” Um, yes! We’re eating in the theme park, and the card gets you in! Yikes.

Animal Kingdom pictures are up!

The first album of full-sized pictures from Day 4, including the Kona Cafe and the Animal Kingdom, are now online at http://community.webshots.com/user/brwombat!

Stitch escapes?

We exit the Animal Kingdom and head for the buses. Once at our stop, a bus quickly arrives and we climb on board. It is #4834, apparently one of the newer ones, with nice wide floors and side-facing seats.

As soon as we’re seated on the bus, the driver, named Bob, is collecting his things to leave, as new driver Kevin steps on board. We enjoy Kevin’s playful comments as he boards. He first asks Bob, “How did you get my bus so dirty?” and then turns to us and says, “It’s too bad you’ve got me. He’s a much better driver.”

Sadly, once we’re under way, the MIMS automated voice takes over, and we don’t get to hear from Kevin again. I bet he would have been fun to listen to if he’d been allowed to spiel.

The bus stops at Blizzard beach and the Contemporary before the Polynesian, but soon we’re out and walking into Rarotonga. I’m thirsty, so I plan to grab my refillable mug and then go get something to drink at Captain Cook’s.

Once in the room, we find that Benjamin is rather frantic. It seems that he can’t find his brand-new Stitch’s Great Escape hat, the one he bought just two nights ago at the Magic Kingdom.

He and Becky have already searched the room and our backpacks and don’t know what to do next. Benjamin is fearful that he’s lost it during the day at Animal Kingdom. I tell him that if he’ll let me go grab a drink first, I’ll check the pictures on my camera to see if we might find a clue of the hat’s whereabouts.

I hustle over to Captain Cook’s with my mug and fill it with root beer, drink a good portion of it down – ah, refreshing! – then top it off and return to the room.

Back inside, I put the camera in review mode and start browsing through the day’s pictures. I doesn’t take me long to find the last picture where Benjamin is wearing the hat, and it’s not good news.

The last time we see him with the hat is just before boarding Expedition: Everest.


I toss my “honorary bug” eyes in the bin on the way out and try to reorient myself. The exit seems to be on the opposite side of the Tree of Life from the entrance, so I just keep walking around the tree until I find the meeting place Brandon and I have agreed upon.

He’s not there when I arrive. I’m not worried, since it’s only been 30 minutes since we parted. I spot a section of a tree planter that will make a nice bench while I wait, but a young girl beats me to it. Not a problem – there’s a store nearby, so I step it to browse. I can watch the meeting place from the store.

I’d like a new Disney cap, so that’s the part of the store I head for. I find one I like this time, a brown fitted baseball cap with a series of the three-circle Mickey heads, six of them, in colors from yellow to orange to red, with a tangle of similar-colored threads looped in the background. It’s very different from anything I already have. I check out with a friendly cast member who has just opened a new cash register to handle the crowds. She has apparently never handled a Rewards Card from Disney Visa, but she figures it out pretty quickly

After my purchase I step back outside and spot Brandon at our meeting place. He tells me that he’s been there for fifteen minutes or so. Huh? If so, somehow, we missed each other earlier, because I’ve only been in the store about five minutes. He says he was a bit nervous waiting on me to get there, but he doesn’t seem too rattled.

Brandon reports that he was only able to ride Primeval Whirl once, and it wasn’t as fun without someone else with him. I can relate.

I’m ready to exit the park, but Brandon likes my hat, and wants to go shopping himself, so we duck into the store again. “Duck” turns out to be a good choice of words, because Brandon eventually finds a strange stuffed Donald. It’s really more pillow than stuffed animal, because it is spherical, about six inches wide, and filled with the same material as those squishy neck pillows you can get at Walgreens. It’s cute, in a really odd way.

The same friendly cast member is available at the same register, and has no trouble with my Rewards card this time!

Brandon and I set out for the Oasis and head for the park exit. On the way, Brandon spots an ice cream cart, and we each get a treat. We get the reverse of what we had yesterday morning – I get a Mickey ice cream sandwich, and Brandon gets a Mickey bar. Brandon wonders if we’re going to tell the others that we got ice cream. I really don’t think they’ll care either way – odds are they’ve gotten their own snack without us – but it does feel a bit sneaky, getting this by ourselves.

Immediately after getting our ice cream we encounter a PhotoPass photographer and have pictures taken, just the two of us, with the Tree of Life in the background. It’s a fun father-son time. We laugh that there’s no way that we’d be able to hide that we got ice cream now… but maybe we’ll just let everyone else find out when they see the PhotoPass pictures. After the trip.

It’s Tough to Be… alone

The Standby time for It’s Tough to Be a Bug is showing 15 minutes, but the line appears to be backed up all the way around the Tree of Life. I hope it doesn’t take much longer than the time shown – I’d hate for me to be the one late to our meeting place!

Once in the queue, I feel vulnerable. A lot of people are staring at me, or at least it feels that way. Whatever vibe I give off that makes people think I work for Disney is in full effect here, and I no longer have family around me to help show I’m just a guest!

Overall, it just feels strange to be by myself at a Disney park. I’m a pretty independent guy and like being alone every now and then, but I really miss having someone to talk to. I really admire Becky’s dad, Bob, and his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, but I’m not that way. So… I content myself by passing the time writing trip report notes and taking pictures of the incredible carvings in the Tree of Life.

Eventually the stares die down.

The queue moves ahead pretty soon, and I’m inside the loading area for the theater in a little over ten minutes. The one other time I was here, in 2003, we practically walked into the theater, so I didn’t have time to appreciate the bug-themed spoof Broadway show posters hung here. Brandon’s just been to a production of Annie, so I know he’ll like a picture of the poster for “Antie.” I also get photos of “Beauty and the Bees,” “A Cockroach Line,” and “Little Shop of Hoppers”!

The doors open to the theater and I make my way inside. I’ve learned over time that it doesn’t pay to be up close to the doors, since we’re supposed to move all the way across the theater once inside. It stands to reason, then, that the first ones in go all the way across. So, you stand further back from the doors, you get more central seats. Unfortunately, it’s the people with the mentality of wanting the “best” seats that tend to be the ones to push up to the doors to be the first in.

Thankfully that doesn’t seem to be an issue with this crowd, and we slide in. I’m sitting just to the right of center, about halfway back. Perfect.

It’s Tough to Be a Bug still makes me laugh, although I can understand why it freaked Benjamin out back in 2003. It is pretty scary in places, especially with the spiders and the bees.

The “exit” of the bugs at the end is still one of my favorite moments in any of the shows at the parks. It’s such a creepy/funny surprise, and even when I know it’s coming it gives me a big smile.

It just would have been nicer to have someone to share it with.

Freedom and mixed feelings

We set off down the exit ramp and then gather to discuss our next option. I mention that It’s Tough to Be a Bug did not have much of a wait time when I passed it earlier (carrying my lunch). Benjamin is not at all interested in that, still remembering his one viewing in 2003 when, at age six, it really gave him a scare. Brandon wants to ride
Primeval Whirl. Both Bob & I, who rode it with him on the last trip, say no thanks. Once was enough. And Becky, Linda & Benjamin don’t like spinning rides at all.

Most of the gang just wants to head back to the resort to rest a bit. Brandon and I want one more attraction, but we can’t agree on the attraction. What to do? Well, Brandon is thirteen now, and a very responsible thirteen at that.

Time to take a deep breath and loosen the parental strings a bit. Brandon and I will stay in the park while the others head back to our rooms, and we will let him go all by himself to ride Primeval Whirl, while I watch It’s Tough to Be a Bug.

He’s excited at this newly-granted freedom, which of course comes with many caveats – just that one ride, one time, and not if the wait time is longer than 30 minutes, and here’s your mom’s cell phone, call me on mine if there’s a problem. Can he ride it twice, he asks? Okay, only if the wait time is ten minutes or less.

Before we split apart we take a bathroom break, which I don’t normally draw attention to in this journal, but I experience my next CM Moment in the restroom. Thankfully, I’m “done” and just standing aside waiting on the boys. For several moments I’m looking down at my Passporter as I take notes for this journal, and when I look up a guy is standing close, directly in front of me, scrutinizing my pins. No “hello,” no “excuse me.” It’s a little creepy in the bathroom. Personal space, much? My “not a CM” spiel shoos the guy away.

Once back outside we walk towards the front of the park, and then say goodbye to Becky, Benjamin, Bob & Linda as they turn to head out through the Oasis. A short distance later Brandon and I are near the entrance to Bug, and Brandon and I agree on a meeting place. He turns towards Dinoland without looking back.

I watch him walk off until he’s lost in the crowd, knowing that this is one of those bittersweet milestones as a parent. They just grow up too fast, dang it.

I turn towards Bug and try to bury the thought that he’ll be off to college in less than six years.

Year of a Million Dreams, one year later

As our safari truck passes the regular Safari unload area, a female cast member there yells out at us, “You won! Woo hoo! Congratulations!” We are a bit taken aback. It’s clear she’s talking to our family, but I have no idea why. I’m guessing she might be a little stunned at our confused looks.

Then, after we’ve passed her, it dawns on me what she was talking about. Brandon is wearing a set of “dream ears,” the Mouse ear hat with silver ears attached to a blue-sky-with-clouds cap, which is only given out as a prize for the Year of a Million Dreams. We did win them – technically, Becky did – but by sending in a postcard entry early on in the contest. They came by mail over a year ago. “We won” isn’t exactly fresh in our minds!

Now that we think of it, though, we not only haven’t won anything extra on this trip, we haven’t seen any Dream Squad cast members at all. But you know, it’s not a big deal to me at all. We’ve had tons of magic already even without winning any “Dream” giveaways!

Speaking of magic, this Safari ride has been one of our most magical experiences, thanks particularly to Wallaby. As we unload – still not able to chat, sadly – we thank him and I pantomime that I’ll call him later. Hopefully we’ll still be able to get together tomorrow and visit more.

And thus ends the first official meeting of the SGT Marsupial Welcoming Committee.

Kilimanjaro Safari - with Wallaby!

After the previous truckload of guests unload, we are waved forward and take our place on the first regular rows of the truck. They're behind the driver’s cab, but not right next to it. Because this is a wheelchair-accessible truck, there’s a flat loading area for wheelchair-bound guests separating us from the cab.

There are others loading onto this truck, so it’s not a private tour. Not that we expected that, but it does make it a bit awkward, since Wallaby and I can’t really speak freely. We exchange a wave and a quick greeting, but he can’t break character, and I don’t fault him a bit for it.

Wallaby is a consummate professional, welcome guests as they board and talking about the upcoming “two-week” safari. We do manage a bit of public interplay on our marsupial identities. As part of the spiel, Wallaby asks the passengers if there are any particular animals they want to see on this trip. I shout “Wallabies!”

“Wallabies, huh? I don’t know if we’ll see any of those,” he replies, while at the same time holding his hand up and pointing back at himself!

Soon enough we’ve loaded and are headed away on our voyage into the outback, I mean, savannah.

With the weather being so cool, the animals are out in force. It’s amazing – they are everywhere. We even spot a hippo out of the water, which Wallaby confirms is not seen very often. Giraffes are up on a ridge, where I’d never seen them before, and we even spot a baby giraffe back through some trees. Wallaby comments, “I wonder if that’s the same one that tried to lick me last week?”

Above and beyond my knowing the guy, I am extremely impressed with Wallaby as a safari guide. He’s not only knowledgeable about the animals we are seeing (all the more impressive since I know that he hasn’t been at this attraction that long) (or maybe he’s just good at making up stuff convincingly on the fly!), but he makes the trip seem spontaneous and new. For example, when we come to intersections in the road, he often hesitates and lets us in on his thought processes as he “decides” which path to continue on. It’s woven into the story extremely well, and comes very close to making us feel like we’ve gone on an actual African safari!

One simple line he uses cracks us up. When we first break out to where we see the grasslands stretching in front of us, Wallaby sighs, “I love this view. I wish I could see it more often.” You’d think it really had been weeks since he was last here, not thirty minutes!

All in all, even though we’ve never had a bad driver on this ride, Big Wallaby is easily the very best we’ve ever had. Add to that the incredible numbers of animals we saw, and I can’t imagine the Safari ride being any better than this one. It’s perfect.

Soon enough we are through. We pass by the usual unload area – we’ll be returning to Departure 3 so that disabled guests can retrieve their chairs or scooters. Makes sense.

The official first meeting of the Marsupial Welcoming Committee!

We approach the part of the queue where it turns and descends to the loading zones. There’s a cast member here, and I’m not sure who I’m supposed to say the magic phrase to, but I figure it won’t hurt to start early. I tell her, “We were told to ask for Safari 2 at Departure 3.”

The CM points us to another cast member, who is standing behind a section of fence ahead of us, where the queue turns to go down to the load area. We step up to the fence and I repeat the magic phrase.

Her face brightens a bit – “Oh, you know a driver?” She opens section of the fence, which I just now realize is a gate! Ahead of us is a pathway that leads to another covered area. There’s a safari truck already there loading a family with a wheelchair, and several other wheelchairs and electric scooters are parked there.

Ah, so that’s it! “Departure 3” is separate load zone designed for people with special access needs, who can’t descend to the two lower-level load zones in their chairs or scooters. At this platform, they can either transfer to the safari truck or ride on it in their chair if they are unable to transfer. And it clears up why Wallaby would only come to a specific load area – he’s driving a wheelchair-accessible truck! It all makes sense now.

Figuring that we’re at Departure 3 now, I just tell the cast member there that we want truck 2. “Oh, you know the driver?” she says. “Good timing – Truck 2 is the next one in.” Awesome!

So here we stand, off by ourselves in a separate load area, having avoided the lower-level queue-winding of the normal loading zone, waiting on our personal driver.

Life is good.

I’ve never seen a picture of Big Wallaby, but when the next truck approaches, somehow there’s no mistaking him. Maybe it’s just with me being “Wombat” and him being “Wallaby,” we just have some mystic marsupial connection -- I think I would have recognized him even without knowing his truck was the next in to load here. Wallaby spots me, too, flashes a big grin and points right at me in recognition!

The SGT marsupials, famed in song and story (okay, maybe not), are together at last!

Big Wallaby’s a pro, and never stops spieling to the guests currently aboard his truck as he pulls up to the loading platform (“Departure 3” to us insiders!). We wait eagerly for our signal to climb aboard!


We walk briskly through Africa. At the bridge, we admire the view of Forbidden Mountain across the water, and pause to remember the pictures we had from this same vantage point in March of 2005. At that time the mountain was nothing but framework. It had just been “topped off,” so the entire structure was there, but it had no exterior landscaping at all. Completed, it looks awesome.

Upon entering the queue for Kilimanjaro Safaris – wait time 35 minutes – I reply to Wallaby that we’re on our way. I don’t know if he’ll get the message before we arrive, since CM’s can’t use cell phones onstage, but I thought I would reply just in case.

As we wait, the topic of conversation in our group is generally about our “password” – "Safari 2 at Departure 3" – and our amazement at the “secret access” we have. We realize, of course, that to Big Wallaby and other cast members it's probably not that big of a deal, but hey, this is our third time to ride this attraction, and we’ve never had a phrase to use before. Not on any attraction, in fact. And so we feel pretty special, and whisper our secret phrase so as not to upset any of the guests around us who don’t have this inside information!

I do puzzle about what it means. It’s pretty obvious that Safari 2 is the number of the truck, but what is Departure 3? I seem to recall the queue splits into two lines at the loading area, but I can’t recall if there is more than one load zone for each line. And why would a truck go only to one specific load area? Don’t they just pull up to whichever one is ready to load?

It remains a mystery while we wait in line, but I'm able to solve a different mystery. We have Pal Mickey with us, the stuffed Mouse that tells jokes, plays games and, when in the theme parks, gives information about each location and the park in general. Whenever Pal Mickey has something to say, he giggles and shakes, and when you press of his tummy or either hand he tells you the information. We bought him on our last trip, and he is back to be our tour guide on this trip as well.

As we pass one of the video monitors playing the Warden’s welcome to the Harambe Wildlife Preserve (Hi, Wilson! Good to see you again!), Mickey giggles and shakes. While one of the boys listens to the information, I step back and look around. Ah ha! There it is. Mounted at the top of the monitor is a small infrared transmitter. I knew Pal Mickey got the info through an infrared receiver (in his black nose, of all places), but I’d never spotted a transmitter. Until now.