Walt Disney World
We drove down with Royal's parents and sister from Atlanta to Orlando, and we had two and half days in Orlando to see three parks.
At the end of a long day, we arrived in Orlando and had dinner at Landry's Seafood not far from our hotel. I got the shrimp embrochette, which consisted of stuffed shrimp with pepper jack cheese, seafood stuffing, wrapped in bacon, with a slightly sweet tomatillo sauce. This was served over dirty rice and green beans. Delicious.
Disney World Animal Kingdom
We wanted to see some of the new stuff in Pandora so we ran over there and did the Na'vi River Journey (A+ ride!) before the lines got really bad. Christmas to New Years is a terrible time to be at the parks. Avoid if possible! It is shockingly crowded and the lines are pretty painfully long. But Animal Kingdom is full of cute live animal exhibits and plenty of beautiful architecture that does not require waiting in lines, so that was some solace.
We met up with everyone for It's Tough To Be a Bug, beneath the Tree of Life, in the roots. We had our picture with Donald and we did the TriceraTop Spin then we split and saw the Tree of Life up close together and had pics with Flick. A few years ago, we watched a documentary about the building of Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life (and we liked the fact that you can walk up to it and walk around it without having to wait in a line) so we were excited to see the enormous, organic shapes of the Tree of Life. We were blown away by how big and beautiful it was.
We went to the Nemo Musical puppet show together and simply could not believe how beautiful and interesting it was. We got falafel and fries and frozen yogurt in Asia, then saw the Flights of Wonder live bird show and then did the Maharajah Jungle Trek with live animals and an awesome aviary.
We went to Rafiki Conservation Station by train and the Affection Section (petting zoo) with the angry alpaca. We grabbed a dinner of curry corn dog and yummy beef and and gyro on flatbread in Africa.
As you might expect, the magic of the architecture and decoration (especially Africa and Asia) is that the teams designing them chose specific lived-in places in Asia and Africa (perhaps inspired Bhutan/Nepal/Tibet, in the Himalayas and Kenya?). They brought a modern, scrappy, resourceful, yet beautiful melange to life with specific details that create a believable aesthetic. It is not so clean and perfect as you might think (picture Magic Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Duloc, in Shrek), but more aged, distressed, and human, with its own rugged beauty. Clearly the teams did their research and based it on real places and the feeling just sinks into every inch of that place.
We met up for the amazing, live Lion King Musical since we had fast passes. Then it was standing room only for Rivers of Light. On the way out of the park, we saw Pandora lit up at night with bioluminescent light (fiber optic and ultraviolet effects).
Disney World Magic Kingdom
We took the ferry to Magic Kingdom and then did It's a Small World first since the line was short and other lines were long and we missed the early 7am bus which Royal's family caught.
About five years ago, Royal and I each got the most inexpensive annual pass for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure (the one where they black out days where there would be annoying long lines anyway), so we were very familiar with the classic rides of Magic Kingdom and we tried to see as much new or different stuff at Disney World Magic Kingdom as we could.
We were blown away by the mosaics in the breezeway of Cinderella's Castle (and the castle itself, with its majestic height). Something so beautiful and simple really caught our attention. We were disappointed that one cannot go up into the castle, as one can in Disneyland at Aurora's Castle.
We saw Haunted Mansion together with the whole gang using our Fast Passes. We took the Liberty Belle steam boat on the Rivers of America which is utterly charming, as usual. Next we saw the Country Bear Jamboree with 22 animatronic characters.
We climbed the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, which is unique to this park. We used our Fast Pass for the 4-D film Mickey's PhilharMagic starring Donald Duck and were pretty underwhelmed.
We split up and found food which took way too long because the good stuff requires reservations in the busy season (the sitdown restaurants). Again a good reason not to go between Christmas and New Years. We enjoyed LeFou's Brew (frozen apple juice with passion foam and toasted marshmallow flavor to sort of make it taste like ale?) at Gaston's Tavern. We also had BBQ chicken macaroni and cheese and a large cinnamon roll. We got a photo in Gaston's chair in his tavern and I happened to be wearing a matching outfit!
We waited ages in line at Jingle Cruise and Royal disliked it (not Christmas-y enough and Royal did not think our guide was funny) but it was as I expected. The Enchanted Tiki Room had no wait and was good as always, and of course we got a Dole Whip. We had some busts in terms of opportunities to ride rides (too long of lines) and then took the railroad back to Fantasy Land.
We learned how they measure the wait times and updated the sign while waiting in line at Belle's cottage. They use a special NFC (near field communications) lanyard the cast member gave me when we entered the line, which I gave to the person at the front of the line. I was chosen as one of the two suits of armor in the audience participation Enchanted Tales with Belle. The entrance to the room, where the window turns into a door before your eyes is truly magical.
Next we saw Laugh Floor (Monster's Inc.) then met up with the family for Peter Pan. We did the Ariel's Grotto ride immediately after because of the short lines at the end of the day.
Disney World Epcot
We all checked out of the hotel in the morning and drove a few miles to Epcot. In the early morning, before everyone has arrived, the lines are the shortest they will be for the day. So if you do not have a fast pass for a given ride, that is the time to hustle and get to your favorite ride so that you can wait in the shortest line possible.
We were excited to see the Frozen Ever After ride in Norway because it is a new ride. We got in early enough that we only had to wait thirty minutes and the ride was well worth it (the wait was two hours, later in the day). The ride is an example of Disney Imagineering Magic at its best: blending everything together to make something far more than the sum of its parts. For example, there is a place on the ride where you are only a few meters away from Olaf and he is walking around with his feet only touching the ground one at a time because they have hidden the armature behind a small embankment to give the impression that he is light on his feet. When you see Elsa singing her song and shooting special effects onto the ceiling, the animation is so smooth and elegant even if you know it is a robot it is still hard to believe, given how graceful the motions of her fingers and arms are. At that point in the ride the boat is sliding sideways and all the dazzling effect distract you from this weird boat motion so the boat is ready to send you downhill backwards through a puff of special effects smoke, which is all in service of the story and timed perfectly with the music and the moment. Animatronics blend with projected animation faces and eyes, sound, music, fog, motion, water splashing on you, etc. Disney at the top of its game.
We used our Fast Pass for Spaceship Earth, a ride which takes up the entire inside of the iconic golf ball structure, a geodesic dome designed in 1982 to look like the geodesic dome designed in 1967 by Buckminster Fuller. Some of the technology at the end hasn't aged as well since the refresh a decade ago (and the advent of the modern smartphone), but the ride narrative and scenes are pretty good and show how technology has developed over time and how humanity has moved forward toward the creation of the personal computer, showing a guy in his garage in the late 1970s who looks suspiciously like a young Steve Wozniak.
Next we used our fast pass to do The Seas with Nemo and Friends and were disappointed with how obvious a lot of the video screens were and how there wasn't much purpose to the ride because it was mostly a rehash of the movie until the end when they had actual aquariums with actual fish. This was also disappointing because Disney Imagineering had set the bar so high with recent rides like Frozen and Na'vi River Journey and Nemo is fairly recent.
We waited in the line for The Land, a ride about how people have been growing food on the land and how technology has changed and what the current state of the art is in the twenty-first century. The waiting line was super disappointing because—compared to everything else in all of the Disney parks, which is designed to have a façade to transfer you to another place and time—the space that they built consisted of what looked like an indoor shopping mall or a popcorn-ceiling covered inexpensively-built generic office building. They tried to cover it up with some lovely murals with some inspiring quotations, but again Disney has set a high bar and when they themselves fall short it is really obvious and embarrassing.
The ride for The Land itself was pretty cool because you go through several green houses where they grow a lot of edible plants and show you different things you did not know were edible and a lot of new growing techniques. For example brussel sprouts growing on a rope far above the ground, or interesting vertical metal spiral structures where greens can grow with very little soil space.
Other members of our party waited in line and did the Test Track ride which is like the Cars ride in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, and they did Soarin', similar to you a ride that we have done at the California Adventure but with an updated video that goes around the world instead of staying within California.
While they did those two rides, we proceeded to walk around the lake clockwise and saw the World Showcase, which was set up for the last day of the Holiday Festival where you can learn about different traditions and foods from each of eleven countries. Without listing all of them we will just say that we really enjoyed all of the architecture and the different shops and languages and foreign nationals filling them with their wonderful accents.
Notable was the architecture of Morocco where we were lost in the streets of Marrakesh. We also got two desserts in France, a wonderful bouche de noel, a tiny chocolate log with a chocolate orange mousse, a chocolate sponge, a crunchy chocolate praline on the bottom, and glazed with hazelnut chocolate ganache and topped with a little mushroom made of meringue like a macaron. Next we got a pumpkin spice macaron ice cream sandwich which was delicious.
We met up with our party at the end near Mexico and then worked our way all the way back around the lake a second time so they at least had a bit of time to see everything, if briefly.
We really enjoyed the architectural elements, although our wide lens froze up on the spot (and needs servicing) and we had to use our other longer prime lens. That ended up working out fine since a wide lens would have just capture the egregious crowds of not-so-photogenic people.
In the afternoon, around 3pm or so, we started our drive back to Atlanta and stopped in Valdosta, Georgia to eat at The Smok'n Pig, a real Southern barbecue joint. We arrived in Atlanta exhausted and stuffed full of food about midnight.
Over those three days we did about 60,000 steps or 30 miles of walking.