We have lived a year in the last 4 weeks, and all travel seems like a lifetime ago. (I said seems – I did a lot of travel last year – but living through a pandemic seems like the extreme of “a watched pot never boils” – just waiting to reach a place where it feels like I’m living my life again… I digress…) This year’s travel study program fell apart at the heels of Corona, but last year’s went off with out a hitch. So let’s focus a little bit of energy on the happiest place on earth. Close your eyes. Hear the children laughing, smell the fresh cooked churros in the air, savour the heat on your skin and cool tangy goodness of dole whip melting in your mouth. Okay, now we’re set.
Our trip to Florida was Ray, myself and my best friend Sarah, and 21 students, grade 9 – 12. We spent 9 days in the sun, half of which were in the Disney property, and half of which were not. Today, I want to focus on all things DISNEY. If you aren’t familiar, Walt Disneyworld Resort (also often abbreviated WDW) is made up of 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a golf course, a baseball stadium, a downtown shopping area and 25 official Disney hotels. WDW is 25,000 acres – which is approximately the size of San Francisco (or double the size of Manhattan). It is not just a theme park – it is an experience. We spent our whole stay on the Disney Property at Disney’s All Star Music Resort. This is Disney’s answer to a discount hotel. 2 double beds, a bathroom and an air conditioner. It isn’t fancy, but it is Disney. The benefit of staying on site is twofold. First, you get access to Disney’s Magic Express (bus to and from the airport) and Disney’s transportation network. This means no need for a rental car or parking. Secondly, you get to book your FastPasses 60 days earlier than those not on site – giving you priority access to the best rides. This won’t always be the best option for everyone, but it is definitely something to consider. Oh, and of course there is also the Disney Magic. Who doesn’t love some extra Disney Magic?
We spent one day in each of the 4 parks. Let me share a few highlights of each:
Magic Kingdom is quintessential Disney. With Cinderella’s Castle at the heart of the park, everything else fans out from there. We got to enter the park at 7:15 AM – first ones in for the day. Student’s had a workshop on Newton’s Laws of Motion (yay Physics!) and spent some time before the doors opened to guests learning about how roller coasters work. Part of this was the opportunity to ride Space Mountain – twice. The first time they got to ride it, it was with the lights ON. That’s right. ON. They were able to see how crammed the roller coaster is inside the building (shockingly so!), and the different mechanics that exist, before riding it again with the lights off. They made a series of estimations about heights and speeds. I was surprised by how low the speed on the ride actually is. Everything is about illusion and manipulation – as I tell my students frequently – amusements parks are the Physics of fun! In the afternoon we got to enjoy more of the park. Students work in small groups to learn real collaboration skills (aka: how do we plan the perfect itinerary), and chaperones enjoyed a well earned lunch in the Beast’s castle (try the grey stuff, it’s delicious!) And no matter how many times we visit Walt’s house, I must have a photo taken with Mickey Mouse. This time around, he was rockin’ the dots, in honour of his 90th birthday.
I’m a sucker for the Animal Kingdom – mostly because I love to watch the animals (yah – I know – incredibly unoriginal but there it is). Kilimanjaro Safari is my favourite by far – I usually make sure to ride it at least twice on every visit. Our students did a program on zoological sciences – a program I like to call “behind the scenes of Kilimanjaro.” I have done it twice now. When you go behind the veil of the Disney park, they call it backstage. No photos allowed there – but it’s amazing. Getting to see everything that goes into building the magic, is magic in itself.
On top of the learning and the animals, there were many other highlights, including a visit with a new character (gotta catch ’em all) – Scrooge McDuck! I loved Ducktales as a child, and Ray and I love to watch the reboot together (hooray for David Tennant!) This time around we enjoyed the special desert experience with reserved seating to watch the Rivers of Light show – which I had never seen. Watching the sunset over the water followed by the lighting show was a great way to end the day. I’m not sure I’d say the food was worth the price, but it was worth it for a few minutes of solitude in a busy park.
Animal Kingdom sidenote: One of my favourite moments from this trip (and one of my top character interaction) was a conversation between Sarah and Pocahontas. Pocahontas was admiring Sarah’s necklace – which I made for her a couple Christmas’s ago. It has a series of small charms in it – that connect to Sarah’s life, and a bunch of shared experiences between us as friends. One of them is based on a crazy, and hilarious, and amazing story that sealed our friendship back when we were just getting to know each other (I was 19, she 21). Pocahontas asked about it and Sarah proceeded to tell her the story. It ended with much laughter, and them recreating part of the experience together, and I laughed my ass off. Props to Pocahontas for keeping it together. And no. I’m not going to tell you the story. That’s between me and Sarah, our friend Dan… and Pocahontas.
Pandora was beautiful – a real work of art. But it still annoys me that it’s at the Animal Kingdom. Put it somewhere else! Why can’t we just enjoy the magic of actual nature? Agree? Disagree?
I think EPCOT is my favourite. I mean, where else can you indulge your love for science (science nerd here!) and travel all around the world, in one day? It’s almost like Walt had me in mind when he build the place (he didn’t – I wasn’t alive yet – though it did open the year I was born…that can’t be a coincidence, right?) EPCOT always has amazing festivals. The Food and Wine Festival (in November) is our favourite! Flower and Garden festival run over spring break, and this time we got to see the Festival of the Arts. So many aspects of the world being celebrated here at EPCOT.
The first time we went to Hollywood Studios it was still called MGM and had the giant Mickey Sorcerer hat through the middle of the park. But honestly, Hollywood Studios is not my favourite. It’s a park with an identity crisis. There are many excellent things here – but they all seem randomly placed side by side. They have the Old Hollywood vibe that you find at California Adventure (complete with Tower of Terror – Ray’s least favourite ride, next to the Rock ‘n Rollercoaster, Ray’s most favourite ride). Then there is Pixar Place – with amazing theming and an excellent new roller coaster. Star Wars has joined the party – though it wasn’t open when we were there. The highlight really is Fantastmic, with it’s own stadium seating around the lagoon. We booked a private dessert party for our group. This is basically a lot of nachos, and the best peanut butter cupcakes (legit the best cupcake I’ve ever had). Honestly – I was there for the cupcakes. Mmmmm… cupcakes.
It just turned out that the last full day of our trip also happened to be our 16th wedding anniversary. So while Sarah hung out and dined with the students, Ray and I dined at the California Grill – on the 15th floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Following dinner we were able to watch the fireworks from their outdoor balcony. A pretty special way to celebrate our day.