Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A Farewell to Wallaby

The four of us exit the theater. It was a fun show, but it does feel good to be up and moving again. The Studios are closed now, so it’s straight out to the buses for us. Since the Fantasmic! crowd was small and the park has otherwise been closed for thirty minutes, we don’t have a long wait for our bus.

The bus we get is one in the 2000 series, which Big Wallaby confirms is one of the older buses, due to be replaced soon. He admits that while they are not as nice as the newer buses, they have one redeeming feature – they are not fitted with the automated announcements, so the driver is free to talk to his or her passengers. Even so, our driver doesn’t say much.

We take seats at the back of the bus, although Wallaby opts to stand. As we chat openly about the ins and outs of the buses, MIMS, and features of Walt Disney World that we are passing, the guests on the bus around us clue in that Wallaby is a cast member, and they start joining the conversation and asking questions.

Wallaby lights up at the opportunity to chat with all of the different guests around him. He is such a natural at talking with people. It’s fun to watch, especially since I am not that way by nature.

When we reach the Contemporary, Wallaby confirms that once we get back to the Polynesian our evening is over. Yep, I’ve gotta pack – Walt Disney Suite tomorrow, you know. He tells me to take lots of pictures, and then returns my jacket and says he’s going to get off here and visit another friend.

We say our goodbyes – I ask him to say “hi” to the gang online and tell them I’ll be back on in a few days – and the boys and I give Wallaby our thanks for a fun and unique evening. Of all my many trips to Walt Disney World, this was my first time ever to hang out with a cast member, and it was a great experience. Thanks, Big Wallaby!

The ride to the Poly is uneventful, and we head back to our room. Our outing was fun, but it is very nice to be in a heated room! We get cleaned up and pack most of our bags, knowing we’ll have to have them ready to go by 8:00 tomorrow morning for transfer to the ship. I’m in bed by 11:15.

Did I mention that we’ll be in the Walt Disney Suite tomorrow???

Windy, chilly Fantasmic!

We pass the time before the show chatting about life in general – Wallaby and I seem to have a lot in common – and also trying to figure out which Disney characters are on the flags marking each section of seating. The ones up close are easy to identify, but the far sections to the left and right are giving us problems.

As we’re straining to see, the family seated to my right gets my attention and asks me a question – about which characters are on the far flags! They’re doing the same thing as us.

Eventually we figure out all of the characters, and it’s time for the show to start.

What a show! Fantasmic! is amazing, and is still going to be one of my favorites, I can tell. I love the story with Mickey at its center, and all of the nods to Disney romance, action, and even villainy. The water, fire, and fireworks are awesome, and it’s one of those shows that has you cheering at the top of your lungs at the finale.

Sitting close to the center is wonderful, too. There’s really not a bad seat in the amphitheater, but that doesn’t mean that some aren’t better than others. Give me center stage if at all possible! And the show is scarier than I recall. Maybe that’s a function of being seated in the middle and having it fill my sight?

The cold wind is blowing pretty hard – hard enough that there's no way I'm getting out my camera and risking frostbite in the process. Besides its making us very cold as we sit here, the wind is blowing the water screens that the animation is projected upon into a fine mist. So instead of a flat projection surface, the projected images fan out into a thick three-dimensional block of moving color. It’s actually pretty cool.

The Indians paddling their canoes during the Pocahontas sequence are having trouble keeping their torches lit in the wind. I’ve worked a lot of tech crews behind the scenes in various shows, so I tend to notice a lot of production details, and the Fantasmic! tech guys are on their toes, bringing up lights on the “moat” to show the otherwise unlit canoes. But I’m guessing there’s not much they can do to get Pocahontas herself any warmer, dressed as she is!

There are a couple of concessions to the wind that I notice. For one, the snake? It doesn’t move. I’m guessing the different sections of the snake are of a lightweight material, so the performers underneath them get in a snakelike position and then just hold them down as best as possible. The snake’s head turns from side to side, but it doesn’t chase Mickey at all. It’s actually kind of funny watching Mickey running back and forth trying to appear threatened by the immobile snake.

The only other change in the show due to the wind comes when the steamboat appears – no pinwheel fireworks announce its presence. I miss them, but I’m not shocked. After all, from the direction the wind is blowing, the sparks would blow right back onto the boat and onto the multitude of characters. And no one wants to risk a Disney character inferno.

The strong wind makes me worry about the finale. I can’t imagine what the end of Fantasmic! would be like if Sorcerer Mickey does not appear at the top of the mountain. At the same time, the wind is fierce, and I’m afraid Sorcerer Mickey will blow off of the mountain! But right on queue, the music swells, the lights hit the top of the mountain, and there he is!! Yay!!

I know you’re magical, Mickey, but do hold on, please!!!

Big fireworks, lots of lasers, fountains, lights, and the best closing line in the universe, “Some imagination, huh?!” What an awesome, awesome show.

Into the Cast Member entrance

In response to Wallaby’s concern about multiple Mickeys, I make an obscure Doctor Who reference in response – it’s just how my brain works – commenting that perhaps Disney could explain it away like the makers of Doctor Who explain the multitude of actors who have played the Doctor and used his “Tardis” time machine. Sort of a “TarDisney.” Wallaby not only gets the reference, but it turns out his wife is big fan of both Doctor Who and Disney, and he thinks I’ve just stumbled into creating his wife’s perfect screen name. He’s so excited about this, he calls her on the spot to tell her.

PhotoPass time! There’s a photographer in front of the Studios Christmas tree, so we have him take a few snaps to commemorate our marsupial night out. I’m glad we do, because it’s so bone-chillingly cold out, I don’t know that I’ll be taking many more pictures. Even with my gloves on, I’m mostly keeping my hand in my pockets. (Note: Cartoon wallaby head added to the image here to protect the innocent.)

Big Wallaby leads the way as we approach the Studios entrance, and he heads to a specific gate marked for Cast Members. Makes sense. The boys and I have our KTTW cards at the ready as always, but Wallaby has his cast member I.D. out. The CM at the entrance takes a look at it and waves Wallaby through the gate. Ah, the dream perk of so many of us Disney park lovers from around the world, and the one thing that draws many people to work for Disney in spite of the low pay – unlimited access to the parks!

Wallaby allows me and the boys a look at his official I.D. card, little knowing that I’m picturing my own name on it. Sigh. Maybe someday.

We’ve got only about twenty minutes until Fantasmic! begins. Normally I wouldn’t think about trying to get a seat in the show this late, but we hopefully have a few factors working in our favor. First, this is the second showing of the evening, the first having begun at 6:30. Typically the crowds for later showings are lower. Second, did I mention the cold? It is bitterly cold out, so maybe that will keep some of the remaining potential audience away from this outdoor show.

We turn down Sunset Boulevard and then turn right into the entrance pathway for the amphitheater. That we’re able to do this is good news, since it would be roped off if the theater were already full.

This is actually my first time to walk down this main entrance. On our only other viewing of Fantasmic! we did the dinner package, which took us to a gate near the park entrance, and a different, “backstage” pathway to the reserved seating area. And we left the theater down the same path, so we’ve never seen the “regular” way of getting to the show.

The boys and I are fans of a lot of the in-park music that is available for listening through the internet, and we smile in recognition of some of the upbeat arrangements of classic Disney tunes used as preshow music along this walkway.

The pathway empties into the theater to the right of the center sections, and… wow. There are people here, but not many. It’s maybe one-third full!

We head to the left, and wind up just one section to the left of center. Wow!! This is going to be a great view. We go just a couple rows down from the top. No sense in giving ourselves more of a climb than necessary on the way out. From this high up we’ll be able to take everything in – and we won’t have any risk of being splashed by the water in the show!! That would be way cold!

A marsupial night out

We note that there is a showing of Fantasmic at Disney-MGM Studios at 8:00. Our family saw that spectacular show on our first trip, in 2003, and it remains our all-time favorite of any of the live productions here at Walt Disney World.

Becky, Bob, and Linda want to do a bit more shopping, and then go back into the room to pack. They are not at all enthused about getting back out to the parks, particularly since the sun has gone done and it’s much chillier again. So, no Fantasmic! for them. The boys and I are good to go, and Wallaby’s enthusiastic about joining us. Cool! We’ll have a marsupial adventure to the Studios.

Before we part ways, though – and while we have an extra set of hands – we have another try at getting a decent picture of our family with the Polynesian lobby greenery behind us. Wallaby does a good job with the camera, but the nighttime lighting and the fact that we’re on the second floor and farther away from the greenery means the background doesn’t show up as nicely. Oh, well.

Wallaby admits that he hasn’t brought a coat for the cold. Fortunately I have a spare Mickey jacket that I’m not using. We bid goodbye to Becky, Bob & Linda, and then stop by the room and grab the jacket for Wallaby on the way out to the buses.

Having Wallaby with us is like having our own personal tour guide. Since he drove a bus at Walt Disney World for some time, he knows every part of the property, including the parts that are screened from guest view. We chuckle as he points out certain non-descript roads and describes where they lead, including one to the sewage treatment facilities.

I perk up when he points the way to the south vehicle maintenance facility, known in driver-speak as “VM South.” That abbreviation caught my attention when I first heard it, since the chorus I’m in is also known as VM. (Ask us if we know how to repair a bus, and we’ll ask you to hum a few bars!)

Wallaby grimaces at the MIMS automated announcements. He seems to agree with my take on them, that they can be better than a driver who doesn’t speak, but the Disney ideal is a driver who loves interacting with guests and who makes each bus ride a magical experience. That doesn’t seem to be what Disney is currently going for, though.

As we turn into the MGM entrance, Wallaby volunteers that there’s one thing in particular that really makes him dislike MIMS, but he doesn’t want to tell us on a crowded bus where others might overhear. This certainly piques my curiosity.

We have to wait until we’re off the bus and walking toward the entrance to the Studios before he’ll quietly tell us, making sure no really young ears are around. It turns out that the automated announcements could very well spoil the magic if you’re being attentive – the announcement on the way to the Magic Kingdom says that Mickey “can always be found at Mickey’s Country House,” while the bus to MGM says that Mickey “can always be found on Soundstage One.” If you happen to take both buses in one day – how can Mickey Mouse “always be” in both of those places?

I see Wallaby’s point. And I love how passionate he is about making magic for the guests here.

My Dinner with Wallaby

The table where we’re seated is really close to the entrance to 'Ohana, so it’s far from an immersive experience. We’re not anywhere close to the fire pit, or the windows overlooking the Polynesian’s courtyard, but… we’re here, we’re hungry, and we’ve got a cast member friend joining us for dinner!

Big Wallaby is a delight from start to finish. All of us, but especially Brandon, Bob, and I, pepper him with questions about life as a cast member, but Wallaby doesn’t seem to mind. He’s completely at ease talking with us. And it makes for a refreshing change from conversation with just the six of us, where we talk just about what we’ve done and what we’d like to do next. At one point, Wallaby tells us that we were the first people he knew from StupidGuestTricks to ride his truck on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Cool!

The food is the usual 'Ohana brand of wonderful. Wallaby and Bob and I especially like the barbecue wings that come as an appetizer. It would be very easy to fill up on the bread, salad, and appetizers here alone, but then the meats start coming – steak, turkey, pork, and shrimp on long skewers, with different sauces for dipping.

Of course I have to try some of everything.

The dinner conversation briefly turns to the gruesome. When Wallaby was training to be a driver for the Kilimanjaro Safari Ride, he mentioned something online that was a bit chilling, and I passed it on to my family. He wrote that despite the Disney-safe tailoring of the ride, many of the animals we see are not to be trifled with, and if a stupid guest were to jump off of the truck and fall into the crocodile pit, his instructions are to gun the engine and get the truck out of there – so that the other guests onboard won’t be disturbed by the screams. True? Brandon wants to know. Wallaby confirms it. It’s true.

I’ll be staying firmly seated on that ride, thank you very much.

Our server for the evening is a friendly lady with an unusual name – Gunilla. As it turns out, she is from Sweden. She seems closer in age to Bob and Linda, and they strike up an animated conversation. Soon she learns that Wallaby is a cast member and they have a cheerful exchange. We’re soon joined by another CM, Lipoa from Hawaii.

The party’s definitely at our table.

Dessert time comes. When we were last here in ’03, any big dessert was an add-on, but we were content with the fresh pineapple and caramel sauce. Now, no fresh pineapple – bummer – but a more substantial dessert is included, a bread pudding with banana sauce. Yum! It is delicious, and reminds me quite a lot of Boma’s Banana Bread Pudding, which I’ve made on my own since our last trip.

All in all, a wonderful meal, with great food and great company.

It’s almost 7:00, and while we have to pack for our transition to the ship tomorrow, I’d be game for a little more activity. So now what?

Six, plus one

I settle in to catch up on the day’s trip notes. We’ve got a little more than an hour to rest before we meet Wallaby in front of 'Ohana. Which reminds me, I’d better check my cell phone for messages in case I’ve missed any.

There’s one, a text message from Wallaby sent just before noon. Wallaby asks where we’re going to be today and adds, “If you are getting souvenirs I suggest using your CM friend on his day off.” Wow! He’s offering to let us use his cast member discount! Except… we just bought our souvenirs. Oh, well. That timing could have been better.

Becky’s the only one of us really trying to nap. Benjamin’s in a chair and Brandon’s sprawled on the bed, while I’m sitting up in bed writing my notes. At one point I look over at the kids’ bed and see a long, Brandon-shaped lump under the covers, but with feet on the pillow instead of a head. Kids.

Our rest time passes pretty quickly, and before I know it it’s 5:00 and time to head to 'Ohana.

I’m excited about having Big Wallaby join us for supper, but I have to admit, I’m also a bit uneasy. I mean, apart from chatting with the guy through StupidGuestTricks – and riding on his truck at Kilimanjaro Safaris yesterday – I really don’t know the guy. All of our time at Walt Disney World is limited and special, and besides, 'Ohana is a favorite for us. If the guy turns out to be completely wacko, or just doesn’t fit in with the family, I’ll feel responsible for messing up everyone’s time. (Although it is possible to be a complete wacko and still fit in with my family!)

We climb the stairs of the Great House and cross the second floor lobby, and… hey, there’s our safari driver! This is a bit surreal.

Wallaby smiles and approaches us, and we have our first real meeting, where we’re all able to talk with each other. A photograph quickly follows – the first picture of the Marsupial Welcoming Committee together!

Any uneasiness I felt disappears quickly. Wallaby is relaxed and friendly and fits right in with my crew. We’re all chatting and laughing like old friends in no time.

One last hurdle to clear. I approach the 'Ohana check-in desk, give them my name and reservation info, and say (as suggested by the concierge yesterday), “We’ve had an additional person join our group. Could we squeeze him in with us?”

The check-in cast member scowls at me – literally scowls – but without saying anything to me she passes our group info to another CM who seats us all immediately at a table for seven.

I could have done without the scowl, but at least we’re able to have Wallaby for dinner!

Back to the Polynesian

The parade is over and the crowds, such as they were, are dispersed when we get back to the hub. We pass by another PhotoPass photographer and… okay, what the heck. We’re tired and not really feeling photogenic, but we’ll stop and pose again anyway. It doesn’t cost anything, and just adds to the value of the all-included Photo CD we’ll be purchasing after the trip.

As we make our way through Town Square and under the train tracks, Brandon asks if we can take the boat back to the Polynesian. Um, no thanks.

We exit the park and make our way up to the monorail station. While we wait for the train to arrive, I enjoy the sun glinting off of the water near the Grand Floridian and take stock of the trip so far.

Energy-wise, we’re running down, but that’s as it should be. The whole point of our four days in the parks / three days on the cruise combo is that we can exhaust ourselves running around Walt Disney World, and then take it easy when we get on board the ship. (Walt Disney Suite tomorrow! Yay!!) Physically, though, I’m miles ahead of the last trip. Early blisters and a lack of preparation had me hurting from the end of our first day at the World in 2005. This time I’m sore, yes, tired, yes, but not in pain and able to endure a lot more.

Sure, I’m not able to match my kids’ supply of energy, but hey, I’ve always figured they sapped their energy straight from their mom and me anyway.

Monorail Pink arrives before long and we get on board for the trip around the lagoon.

It’s uneventful, and soon enough we pull into the Polynesian station and head into the Great House. We’re ready to rest, but we figure we should knock out some souvenir shopping first.

We explore the gift shop and find some wonderful Polynesian picture frames – with one featuring Lilo & Stitch. Perfect for us, and the other one can go to my parents with a picture from our trip, as a small “thank you” for the matching windbreakers they gave us.

After checkout – and a bit of additional pin trading by Brandon with the cashier – we finally head back to our room to rest. We return to our room at 3:37 in the afternoon, where I am able to retrieve my PassPorter and resume my detailed note-taking. (Yes, I wrote this already once.)

Tomorrowland tour

Becky and the boys and I stroll from the hub towards Tomorrowland. We’re getting tired – at least we parents are – so we tell the guys that we’re up for one more attraction, as long as there isn’t much of a wait.

We approach the Laugh Floor and see that it is showing a wait time of 50 minutes. That constitutes “much of a wait” to us, so we keep walking. I’d like for Becky to see it still, but it’ll have to be another time.

On the positive side, the boys and I have been restraining ourselves from telling her much about our experience of it from last night, so now we start yapping away about all the goofiness we saw.

Our backup is our old favorite the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, which Brandon and Benjamin and I rode twice in a row on Sunday night. It's just a nice, relaxing ride that covers a lot of territory and gives a glimpse into several Tomorrowland attractions.

There’s always a great guest flow on this ride, and given that it’s not one of the newest or most thrilling, demand is low. This means we can almost always walk up the loading ramp and load with no waiting. That’s another reason this is one of our favorite rides.

There are a few other people riding today, but still no wait. Once we’re seating in our vehicle, it’s nice to be off of our feet as we’re whisked around on our tour of Tomorrowland. It’s a different experience altogether from Sunday night, though. For one, it’s daylight. Second, there’s no deejay in the courtyard below blaring Radio Disney tunes at maximum volume while a big crowd dances. Third, it’s much colder today, and we feel the effects of the cool breeze during some of our exposed straight-aways.

On the approach to Space Mountain, which is one of the faster sections of the attraction, the TTA vehicle coming towards us on the outbound track has a few teens onboard who are laughing and having a good time. One of them holds out his hand as if to high-five us as we go in the opposite direction. Okay, I’m game – I hold my right hand up and we connect with a loud smack.

It only stings a little, but it was fun.

My auto-tint eyeglasses don’t adjust to the dark fast enough for me to see much on the inside of Space Mountain. We do still yell “You’re doomed!” to the riders “blasting off,” but it’s harder for me to make out the vehicles traveling the main part of the ride.

Soon we’re accelerating back out of Space Mountain. There’s another vehicle full of guests coming our way. I hold up my hand and get a high-five from one of them. Gotta keep it going, you know.

Once our tour is over, we head down the moving sidewalk and turn back towards the hub. Brandon and Benjamin are asking for a repeat ride, but with the cold weather and long morning (following several late nights), both Becky and I are ready for a break.

Philharmagic and beyond

We make our way across the theater and wind up in the back, on the second to the last row, but in the middle. Good seats, as it turns out.

Mickey’s Philharmagic is still, well, magical, even on repeated viewings. It just hasn’t gotten old. Even though I’ve gotten used to the sequence of the story, I still spot new details on every viewing.

Donald hits the wall just above and behind us at the end of the show – and suddenly our back-row seats have a front-row view of Donald’s wiggling feet as he squawks and jiggles and eventually falls into the hole. Too funny.

All in all, a great show, and still a favorite for each of us.

We step back into the sunlight. The temperature is probably into the lower 50’s now, so there’s still a chill, but it’s not bad when we’re in direct sunlight.

Bob and Linda want to head to their character meet at Epcot now, while the boys and I want to go to Tomorrowland, to show Becky the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor if the wait isn’t too long.

We walk together through Cinderella Castle towards the hub. I turn back to snap a picture of the castle with the clear, deep blue sky behind it.

Hmm. It looks like there’s some sort of parade lined up around the hub. Oh, I know what this is – one of the Magic Kingdom’s newer events, the "Family Fun Day" Parade or something like that. It’s not a big parade like the Disney Dreams Come True parade or Spectromagic, with the big floats. Instead, it’s kind of an “informal” parade, and they enlist several families to take part in it, waving flags and such and marching down Main Street with a marching band and several characters. It’s just kind of a fun thing for the families involved and those they wave to.

I can’t tell if the parade is just forming up or finishing, and I’m not really concerned enough to find out.

As we say our goodbyes to Becky’s parents, the band starts playing and the parade sets out around the hub. Ah, so it’s just starting. We turn towards Tomorrowland, and Bob and Linda wait for the parade to pass. I guess they’ll be following it down Main Street.

Mickey's Bagelmagic

What next? Bob and Linda know of a character meet and greet with a free picture offer from Disney Visa that they’d like to experience. Since we’re cardholders, too, we could probably take advantage of the same thing, but the photo op is back at Epcot, and we’d rather stay at Magic Kingdom for the time being. So it looks like a group split-up is in the works.

One thing entices them to stick with us just a while longer – we are heading for Mickey’s Philharmagic! This was one of everyone’s favorite attractions back when it was new on our 2005 trip – in fact, it saved an otherwise unpleasant rainy day at the Magic Kingdom for us. Bob, Linda, and Becky would all like to experience it if the wait isn’t too long, and the boys and I are game, too, even though we just saw it last night.

We walk through Fantasyland around to the Philharmagic entrance. The Standby wait time is 25 minutes, but the line looks shorter today than it did last night. I’m guessing that we’ll have to pass through some of the switchbacks in the queue room this time.

I’m right. Once we get inside, we do have to switch back and forth a bit.

The wait time is accurate, and after about a twenty minute wait we enter the pre-show holding room. As mentioned previously, we know not to get right up by the theater doors, since being the first in would send us all the way across the theater.

There's a large family nearby, with three or four adults and five kids. The kids seem to all be around age eight and younger. Minnie's voice announces that the doors will be opening soon, so... what better time for the adults to break out bagels and start coating them in peanut butter and jelly???

You’ve got to be kidding me. The six of us look at each other and then back to this family, as if to ask, “Are we really seeing this?” But yes, this family is standing here in the Mickey’s Philharmagic preshow, right by the soon-opening doors, preparing PB&J bagels!

Naturally, the bagels are ready to go just as the doors open. The adults look a bit startled that this didn't turn out to be the ideal time and place for a leisurely snack, and shove the bagel halves toward the kids and say, "Everyone take one bite!"

I guess I should be grateful that they weren't prepping the snack to eat during the show, but still.

Liberty Tree Tavern

We are escorted to a back table on the west end of the restaurant. Our server is a friendly young lady named Cheryl Lynn.

This is one of those restaurants where everything on the menu looks pretty tasty – especially when we’re hungry – and it’s hard to narrow down our choices. At the same time, we have an early reservation for Ohana tonight, and we can stuff ourselves silly there, so we don’t want to overdo things. So… we decide to split most of what we get.

Bob and I end up going in together – convenient since we’re sitting across from each other – sharing a bowl of chili as an appetizer and then splitting a “Tri-Corner Sandwich,” which is roast beef and swiss cheese with slaw and a horseradish cream on a focaccia bread, served with fries. The rest of the crew shuffle dishes between them. For an appetizer, Becky orders a bowl of clam chowder, while Linda has the Maryland crab cake, and the boys share an order of fried cheese. Brandon and Becky then share a cheeseburger, while Linda and Benjamin have a chicken and pasta dish.

To drink, I order hot tea, which wonderfully warms my throat.

The food comes out pre-split, which works great for all of us. Bob and I are very, very impressed with the chili, particularly being native Texans and thus having naturally strong opinions about what makes good chili. And this is very good chili! (It’s also perfect on a cold day like today!) All of the food turns out to be just as good as it sounded, and we all end up exchanging bites, so everyone has at least a taste of just about everything on the table. Cheryl Lynn is also very attentive and fun to talk to, so it’s a great dining experience all around.

We’ll have to come back here again someday.

When we’re finishing the meal, the boys clamor for dessert. And indeed the dessert menu is very tempting, with offerings such as a three-chocolate brownie and an “Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake.” But to the disappointment of Brandon and Benjamin, we pass on dessert given our early dinner tonight.

It’s past one o’clock when we exit, but it doesn’t seem like that much time has gone by. That’s the sign of a good, relaxing meal.

All the fun of a cast member, with only slightly less pay

Okay, so I find myself waiting for my family at the exit to Small World. I take a few pictures of the load area, and zoom in as best as I can on my group in the midst of the crowd in the queue below. That takes a couple of minutes. Given the predicted wait time plus the ride time, I probably still have at least 15-20 minutes to kill.

As I’m waiting at the exit area, a family comes up the exit ramp pushing an elderly relative in a wheelchair. The exit has both a turnstile and a gate for chairs, so I hold the gate open for the family as they exit, for which they are grateful.

I keep track of my family’s progress down the loading ramp, but now I’m also watching out for people in chairs exiting the ride. It’s a small way (heh) to pass the time, but at least I’m doing good for someone in the process. Still, I’m a bit self-conscious all the while – I don’t want to appear to be actually pretending to be a cast member. I’m just a guy waiting for my family and holding open the exit gate when needed.

Just to break up the monotony, I step out of the covered exitway briefly to catch some sunshine. And in rapid succession, two people approach me, one with a question, another wanting to see my pins. Sigh. I slink back into the shadows.

After what seems like an extended wait, but in reality is little longer than expected, I see my gang disembarking from their small world boat and coming up the ramp.

I’m glad to be back together with them.

It’s 11:30 and time for lunch – and given that my few bites of Benjamin’s Tonga Toast are far behind me, I’m ready for it. We set out for the Liberty Tree Tavern.

None of us have ever eaten here before. This was Bob’s main dining request as we planned our vacation – he saw it featured on a Travel Channel show and thought it sounded good.

Beyond it being “colonial,” none of us really know what to expect.

There’s a short line to check in, and while we’re waiting we soak in the early American theming, which is completely immersive, both in the details of the restaurant itself and the costumes the cast members wear. It’s pretty cool, especially with the added holiday greenery. And we quickly discover an added feature – when the parties are called, they are announced both by family name and by their home state (or country, as the case may be).

It’s only five minutes or so before we hear a call for the “Randall Family from Texas!” We’re ready to eat!

Loose in Liberty Square

Okay, so we’ve been on the one attraction we definitely wanted to ride today, and it’s only 10:30. That leaves us with an awful lot of freedom! We have an hour until our Liberty Tree Tavern lunch reservation, so… time to hit some area favorites.

We stroll along the walkways lining the Rivers of America. It really is a gorgeous day – have I mentioned that? The Liberty Belle riverboat is paddling its way past us, the sun is streaming through the trees, and we’re not shoulder to shoulder with mobs of people. We can handle the chill any day if the rest of the experience is like this!

We’re headed for the Haunted Mansion, but we spot the stockades along the way, just waiting for Brandon and Benjamin to stick their heads and hands in for a photograph.

The Haunted Mansion is showing a wait time of 10 minutes, but... the line is stretching out further into the Square than last night, when the wait time was 20 minutes. So, I’m skeptical.

We get in line, and as we go under the awning, I can see for the first time that there are no switchbacks in use, so we’re pretty much going straight in! Love the low crowds.

The Mansion is much less ominous at night.

The boys and I enjoy our repeat ride on the Haunted Mansion and Becky and her parents enjoy their first. Still great effects. I think I could see more detail in the ride last night, though – maybe that’s a function of my eyes already being adjusted to the dark before I came in (or my adjustable-tint eyeglass lenses doing the same).

Okay, it’s not yet 11:00. What next? We walk towards Fantasyland, thinking of perhaps experiencing Mickey’s Philharmagic, but we see that it’s a small world is showing a wait time of 20 minutes. That should work out fine with our lunch reservation, and everyone is gung-ho for riding it. Everyone, that is, but me. Not that I would mind the song or the singing dolls again, but I do not want to subject my knees to another painful ride in those cramped boats.

So the family heads into the entrance without me. Unlike last night, the queue ramps are filled with people, so the twenty minutes showing on the Standby wait time is probably accurate. I walk towards the small world exit to get some pictures of them in line.

Immediately after I’m on my own, a mom with a couple of kids in tow comes up to me and asks for directions to Snow White’s Scary Adventures. I’m in a Mickey sweatshirt today, but I’m apparently still exuding that mystical aura that makes some people think I know things. I two-finger point her past Cinderella’s Golden Carousel.

As soon as she’s gone, I go exploring around the corner of Peter Pan’s Flight to confirm my memory that there is a restroom there. Yep, there is. I figure that if I’m going to be standing around on my own, sooner or later someone will ask me where the nearest bathroom is, and I need to be ready.

Moments after returning to small world, a lady with a toddler comes up to me and asks where the nearest bathroom is.

Big Thunder Mountain

We turn towards Frontierland. Jessie from Toy Story 2 is out greeting guests. The boys aren’t sure they want to stop and visit, but we coax them in that direction, if only for the autographs… and Jessie turns to go on a break. Oh well. At least it made the choice for us.

Splash Mountain is showing a wait time of only five minutes. Splash Mountain. Five minutes! Of course, that’s likely because no one wants to get soaking wet in 30-degree weather! I have to say it’s still tempting (mainly for me and the boys), but we take the wiser course of action and keep walking.

Big Thunder Mountain’s wait time is 20 minutes. That’s just fine with us.

Becky’s a little uncertain about doing Big Thunder, since she isn’t fond of roller coasters. I remind her that we rode it together on our honeymoon and she liked it just fine. (It dawns on me that she could have been putting on a brave face for her new hubby, but I really think she liked it.)

We enter the queue and spend most of our time walking straight through it to reach the “crowds.” Our wait is closer to five minutes than to twenty!! I love low-crowd days.

Becky is still wanting reassurance that this isn’t too wild for her, and like with Brandon on Expedition: Everest, I alternate reassuring her with ominous hints of things to come, just to play on her nerves a bit, but I try not to push it too far. I really do think she’ll like it. I would tell her if I thought otherwise.

Once loaded on our train, we start up the first hill and out on our twisty-turning out-of-control train ride. It’s a great ride! Although I cut my teeth on big hairy wooden roller coasters, I think in my “old age” I’m coming to enjoy and appreciate more Disney’s vision of slightly gentler yet themed to the hilt attractions. They’re still a blast, still thrilling, but you don’t feel bruised or disjointed when you finish them.

That doesn’t mean that Becky walks away loving it. She’s okay, but it’s just not her thing.

On the way out, I stop to take a picture “of the last ride I was able to talk her on to.” I get one of these pictures on just about every trip.

Waitless Pirates

We turn left at the hub and encounter a PhotoPass photographer on the way to Adventureland. He’s taking pictures with the castle (from the side, more or less) in the background. And, since we decided in advance that we were going to get the all-inclusive CD-ROM of all of our PhotoPass pictures, we stop to have him get us.

(Another advantage of buying the PhotoPass CD-ROM – they include a copyright release so that you own the pictures and can post them to, say, a trip report!)

The photographer poses us as a group, and then takes shots of me and Becky with the boys, and then just Bob and Linda together. Is it awkward to say your in-laws still make a cute couple?

We have reservations for the Liberty Tree Tavern for lunch at 11:30. Before that, our one goal is to ride Big Thunder Mountain. It’s been on our must-do list on both of our previous family trips, but it never quite worked into our schedule either time. This actually should be a good day to ride it.

Still, we’re open to other opportunities as we head back into the park, and we spot that the Pirates of the Caribbean Standby wait time is… non-existent? There is no number showing at all. Does that mean “zero,” we hope? This is another attraction that has had recent additions, including Captain Jack Sparrow audio-animatronics, and we like the ride anyway, so off we go.

When we step through the doors, the queue stretches before us, and it looks like quite a substantial wait. But… hang on… just as we step in, a cast member is opening a line to the right which leads to a second boarding area. Maybe this is normally the FastPass side of the line? We are able to turn into this second, completely empty queue and walk past everyone else waiting directly to the load zone!

Wait time zero. So the sign was accurate, at least for us!

Pirates is awesome as always, and the added effects are great. We are especially awed by the “waterfall” we sail under that has Davy Jones projected onto it. It’s spooky and cool. We spot all three Jack Sparrow additions, as well as Captain Barbossa on board the ship (which, sadly, is neither the Flying Dutchman nor the Black Pearl, for copyright reasons as I recall).

An incredible attraction, improved by the additional characters, and made even better by the fact that we didn’t have to wait to ride it!


I’m arriving at the Magic Kingdom without my PassPorter, which has been my constant companion on these trips. Without it, I can’t take notes, and without my notes, I lose a lot of details for the trip report.

So… we, um, go to the Magic Kingdom, and, um, we… ride some things… and then some other things happen… oh yeah, I think we ate something while we were there… and then we left and went back to the Polynesian.

We return to our room at 3:37 in the afternoon, where I am able to retrieve my PassPorter and resume my detailed note-taking.

Just kidding.

Fortunately, my digital camera has a voice notes feature, so I use it to record information that I’ll want to remember for later. Between these voice notes and the pictures we take, I should be able to keep track of all the details.

We enter the park around 9:30. First order of business is, well, business. Bob & Linda want to add some points to their Disney Visa Rewards card, so we head to City Hall. I’m itching to get back to the attractions, but I do my best to be patient. Especially with Becky shushing my heavy-sighing and watch-checking.

The business doesn’t take too long, and we go explore Town Square a bit. The statue of Minnie Mouse & Roy Disney seated on a park bench is directly in front of the Magic Kingdom’s icon Christmas tree, and makes for a great photo opportunity.

I’m in the middle of reading a very detailed and well-researched biography of Walt Disney right now, and it and many other things I’ve read of the Disney Company’s history give me great admiration for Roy. Walt was the visionary and the public face of the company, but Roy was just as necessary for their success. Walt dreamed the dreams and pushed everyone to produce the best, but Roy got it accomplished and paid for. I admire him even more that he did what he did without all of the public acclaim and recognition that Walt received. Roy and Walt are destined to go down in history as one of the all-time great teams, in business, entertainment, or any field.

We saunter down Main Street, admiring the decorations. It’s an odd feeling for me and the boys. After all, while Becky and her parents haven’t been in the Magic Kingdom before on this trip, this is the third stroll up Main Street for me and Brandon and Benjamin.

It’s just our first in daylight.

And what daylight! Yes, it’s chilly – though not as much as last night – but it is such a beautiful, clear, sunny day! The crowds are not at all heavy, and we’re able to soak in the experience of being here. Cinderella Castle is amazing at night, especially with the new ice lights, but there’s nothing that compares to seeing its spires gleaming in the sun!

On a clear day...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008. The alarm goes off at 6:00 – for Becky, not for me. I’m sleeping in this morning. Let the others drag themselves up for breakfast, but extra rest will do me better this morning.

I hear the alarm sound again at 6:09 – Becky snoozed it once – and I turn on the TV and find the Weather Channel. They are talking about the cold snap that has hit Florida. Heh, no kidding. I can still feel the chill from last night’s late boat ride. I fade back to sleep…

…and awaken once more to Brandon’s voice, urgently saying, “Mom, it’s 7:30!!!”

Becky says she’d kept snoozing the alarm – not that I heard it – but it must’ve had a limit and stopped sounding after an hour. The way I see it, we must’ve needed the sleep. Everyone gets up and starts preparing for the day, me at a slower pace.

Becky and the boys head out to Captain Cook’s by 8 o’clock. I follow about twenty minutes later with my mug and fill it with a mix of hot chocolate and coffee. It’s a good way to start a chilly day.

Everyone is finishing up breakfast when I get to the table. Benjamin’s ordered Tonga Toast again and isn’t able to finish it, so I have a few bites. Yum. I’ll have to send off for the recipe for this when I get back home.

After breakfast, we head back to the room and layer up with warm clothes again. Packing for this trip was a bit of a challenge, since we saw the advanced forecasts that predicted both upper 70-degree weather in our early days here and this cold snap with freezing temperatures at night. There’s only so much you can pack! Fortunately we know that layers of lighter clothes work just as well as heavier coats and such. We meet Bob & Linda in the hallway outside our rooms just after 9:00 and start for the monorail.

The boys ask if we can take the boat across to the Magic Kingdom, and are met with a resounding “No!”

It’s cold enough just standing on the shaded monorail platform waiting for the next train, but fortunately the wait is not long. We hop onto the monorail and settle in for the ride around the lagoon.

The cold front dropped the temperature, yes, but it also brought in beautiful, clear skies. The sun is gleaming off of the water of Seven Seas Lagoon, and it is just a gorgeous day. As long as we can stay warm, we should be in for a great time in the Magic Kingdom.

The monorail is at the Magic Kingdom station at about 9:20. I go to get my stuff and find that I do not have my PassPorter with me. Oops. Did I even take it onto the monorail? I have my doubts, but I think I left it in the room! This means I won’t have the park maps with me, but that’s not as big a deal since we know our way around. But I don’t have my note paper!