In case you've never read a word of this blog before, let me just fill you in: I loves me some Walt Disney World. It is easily my favorite spot in the entire world for so many reasons I could never list them all. Earlier this month, we were there for a week to have a good ol' fashioned family vacation. We hadn't been to WDW since June 2009, which is like 70 years in Disney Years! So, it was exciting to go and of course we did all kinds of neat things, eat wonderful food, rode incredible rides and met favorite characters from beloved movies. I'd go on for days telling you about every cool thing we did (and I will if you want me too!) but for here I thought I'd share six highlights from our trip...
#7) Staying at the new Disney's Art Of Animation Resort. The value resorts at Disney are, in my opinion, the most "Disney" hotels to stay at. They aren't fancy, they are just overflowing with colorful fun and excitement. As always, Disney has taken their own game to the next level with the Art of Animation resort - which just opened earlier this summer. The new hotel immerses you in the environments of four favorite Disney films. You can almost literally swim with Nemo, explore the jungle with Simba and walk a stretch of highway with Lightning McQueen and Mater. We opted for the fourth and final option - hanging out with The Little Mermaid herself, Ariel.
It's no secret that 1989's The Little Mermaid is my very favorite Disney film, not to mention at the top of my list of all-time favorite movies in general. I was thrilled when I found out Disney chose this slightly older film to include in their new hotel. The other three sections of the new resort are made up of suites for 5 or more guests, while The Little Mermaid buildings house rooms designed for families of four or less. So, it worked out for me that The Little Mermaid was out best option money wise.
The buildings are decorated with images of fish, clams and other neighbors and friends of Ariel's. Around the grounds of the Little Mermaid wing you will find Prince Eric's statue (direct for Ariel's Grotto,) a salute to Dinglehoppers and Snarfblats as well as four story tributes to Ariel, King Triton and Ursula. There is a Flippin' Fins pool which is way less crowded than Nemo's Big Blue Pool, and it plays music from not only The Little Mermaid film soundtrack but also the Broadway Cast Recording and several Ariel and Sebastian albums that Disney had released back in the day.
In the Landscape of Flavors food court, you can dine surrounded by background and concept art from the film while dining under a huge light fixture that looks like Ariel's grotto from beneath and appears to be above the sea when viewed from the side. The guest rooms are decorated in great detail with my favorite being the shower. The shower curtain features a full sized image of Ariel, but when you pull the curtain aside you reveal Ariel's Grotto in great detail surrounding the shower. It was a very cool touch. Sebastian's sheet music for "Under The Sea" embedded in our coffee table was a nice touch too.
The newness of the resort made for some very crowded experiences at the food court, but overall the Art of Animation is a really cool place to hang out between parks especially if Cars/Finding Nemo/The Lion King or The Little Mermaid happens to be one of your favorite movies.
#6) Buying $7.00 Binoculars at Animal Kingdom You don't have to talk me into buying anything in Walt Disney World. If it has a picture of a character, or mentions anything about Disney World - I'll easily buy it. I love to buy stuff for the kids without their asking. While we were waiting for our Fast Pass time for Kilimanjaro Safari, I surprised the kids each with a cheapo pair of toy binoculars. They said Disney's Animal Kingdom on them, and had a picture of Mickey Mouse in a safari outfit holding a pair of binoculars. I mean, how was I supposed to NOT buy them? So, the kids loved them and they took them on the safari ride and they just elevated the ride to a whole new experience. The kids were so into looking at the animals through their binoculars and hunting around for more animals than were out in plain sight. It was adorable to watch the kids see the safari though their "new eyes". I must have snapped two dozen pictures of the kids looking at animals. After the ride, the kids were so excited to continue using their new binoculars. They stopped at any chance to see animals and get an up close look at them. The binoculars experience, coupled with a great meal at Rainforest Cafe, meeting Pocahontas (one of the kids' favorites) and the incredible Finding Nemo The Musical show - made for what was easily the most enjoyable day we've ever had at Disney's Animal Kingdom! The binoculars even made several trips with us to other parks.
#5) Elias Conquers the Extended Mountain Range Elias, now 9, had been on Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain before when he was much younger - and had no idea what was going on. He had sat out riding both the last couple of times we've visited Disney World. After 300 rides on the wooden roller coaster at our local amusement park, he was ready to take on the Disney Mountain range at full force. He had no problem getting on Splash and Big Thunder. I give credit to any kid who gets on Space Mountain. You can't see anything of that ride before you get on it. It's a complete mystery. He was a bit nervous, but not at all intimidated to ride. We got to the park early one morning and walked right up to the ride platform and got on with no wait. Elias LOVED the ride! We got back on and did it a second time. Some new tweaks that Disney has done to the attraction even brought new surprises to me. It was great to see Elias enjoy the ride so much. He liked it so much that he decided he was ready for the much bigger Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom. He wasn't too sure about getting on it, but he did without delay and he also enjoyed the heck out of that ride too. He was proud of himself for doing it, and it was certainly the biggest coaster he has ever been on. I almost got him on the Rock and Roller Coaster the following night, but after consideration he felt he had enough thrills for one trip. It's all good, there's always next time.
#4) My Kids & Stitch My boys have this thing where they latch on to something that has already expired in the mass Pop Culture world because I think they like the thrill of the hunt finding things at yard sales or thrift shops. One of their biggest, most recent out-of-date obsessions is Lilo & Stitch. Luckily, Disney has made many attempts to keep Stitch a relevant character in Walt Disney World long after the movie has faded from the public conscience. We had breakfast at Disney's Polynesian Resort with Mickey, Pluto, Lilo & Stitch. To the kids, this was just like meeting a real big-time celebrity. Decked out in their Stitch ball caps and t shirts, not to mention the Stitch plush Tanner carried around for most of the trip, the boys were stoked to get to meet Stitch. The presence of Lilo & Stitch even prompted the kids to join in the morning breakfast parade around the restaurant. Participation in such things is generally avoided by both my children.
Then there is the attraction, Stitch's Great Escape. If you ask me, it's one of the few bad attractions in all of Disney World. It's not a ride, it's more like a show - which is a watered down version of a really scary show they used to have in the same space. The new show, which has Stitch getting loose and running around a room in the dark with you, makes little sense and feels a bit dated. Nonetheless, the entire duration of the show brought nothing but huge smiles and giggles from both Elias and Tanner. They ate it all up and wanted to go back for seconds....which we did. Then later...thirds...which we did! I experienced that attraction more times in one trip than I have in all other visits to the Magic Kingdom combined. However, after the first show we noted where Stitch spits into the audience and claimed those seats for performances two and three so that Elias could receive a face full of alien spit smack dab in the middle of his face. He loved it. Again, he was proud. The joy and happiness in my two little buddies made one of the least enjoyable attractions at the park one of the most enjoyable.
The kids also got some personal one-on-one time with Stitch at Club 626, a show where Stitch dances out in the audience with everybody. Stitch stole Tanner's Stitch hat and made off with it, later giving it back in exchange for plenty of hugs. Tanner was out of this world excited!
#3) Getting to Preview New Fantasyland We booked our trip around a four day weekend the kids had in their school schedule, so I didn't really pay attention to much else than that when booking. Then shortly after paying off the trip I realized that we were going to miss all the new Fantasyland expansion goodies by just a few weeks. So, going down not thinking we were going to do all that stuff made it all the more thrilling when it turned out that we got to experience a handful of the new attractions before they are open to the public!
I had read online that Disney was doing some previews of their new walk-through attraction Enchanted Tales With Belle. I dragged the family by the area of the new attraction every time we walked through Fantasyland. One one such go-round, I noticed a little bit of extra foot traffic in the area, so we quickly made our way over to what appeared to be just a row of shrubs. There, a single cast member was standing and I asked her about the Beauty and the Beast attraction. She invited us behind the greenery and told us if we didn't mind taking up 45 minutes of our day we could have a chance to experience to new show. Of course we did, making it one of only a few lines we waited in our whole trip.
The new attraction is a walk-through experience which can best be described as taking the Princess Meeting to a whole new level. You enter through Belle's house and see all her father's inventions. A magic mirror the Beast's castle hangs on the wall and soon enough the mirror expands and you walk through the mirror and end up standing inside the castle! There is an audio animatronic of the Wardrobe from the movie which is just about the most amazing piece of technology you've ever seen until you enter the Beast's Library and see a Lumiere animatronic which is even more amazing! The event is very audience participation and several people get GREAT photos with Belle which I don't see how anyone could pass up not spending several hundred dollars on prints of the event.
Surrounding the Belle attraction is the entire village from Beauty and the Beast and nearby sits scenes from The Little Mermaid which were all behind ropes and/or construction walls. I joked with a cast member about letting me on the new Little Mermaid ride to which she responded she hadn't even seen it yet.
So, of course I was beside myself with excitement when we were at the Magic Kingdom later that week and found New Fantasyland open for a Dress Rehearsal. The new Little Mermaid ride, which is very similar to the one at Disney's California Adventure Park, is awesome! You ride in a Clammobile under the sea and ride through all the songs from the movie. I'd by lying if I didn't say I was so excited that I didn't even comprehend everything that was going on around me!
The Beauty and the Beast village was open too. We got to see Gaston's Tavern which is done in great detail. There is a new B&B gift shop as well as a full service restaurant which is not yet open for service but we got to see the interior. They even have a popcorn cart outside which looks like it was built by Belle's father.
New Fantasyland also features Storybook Circus which holds the new double capacity Dumbo ride, a rethemed Goofy roller coaster, the East Coast debut of Casey, Jr. in the form of a splash playground and some other neat circus themed shopping and character greets.
#2) Meeting Ariel But the icing on the cake to the whole New Fantasyland experience was the Ariel Meet and Greet after the Little Mermaid ride. Now, I've been a huge Little Mermaid fan since the movie came out in 1989. You've been able to meet Ariel for years but I've never done it before. My family was very gracious to go along with it and we waited in line for maybe 15 minutes. You have to wind your way through some tunnels in the rock work around Prince Eric's castle to get to Ariel. She's kind of hidden back there. Now, let me set this scene....
One of the things I love about Walt Disney World is how it can bring out the kid in adults. I'll never forget the first time I took my wife to Disney World and she was so excited to see Pooh. I've seen it in my friends that I've visited with too. I don't really experience that first hand because I wear my childhood on my sleeve. I'm excited about everything in Disney World and I'm all over the place with wide eyed excitement and wonder. But....when it was our turn to go up to Ariel's big shell and she invited me to sit down with her....I just turned into a 6 year old kid. I bought into the whole thing hook, line and sinker (no fish pun intended) and was totally mesmerized by the whole experience. Both my wife and the Disney PhotoPass photographer snapped great pictures of me and Ariel talking like the rest of the dry world didn't exist. I was honestly, on a complete Disney High for several hours afterwards. It was the last day of our trip, so it was the perfect way to end our week of Disney Awesomeness.
#1) Spending Time With My Family No matter how many big shiny rides you build, no matter how many different foods they can make in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head, no matter how many ways you can shove The Little Mermaid in my face...there is nothing better on the face of the Earth than spending quality fun time with the people I love the most: My wife and my kids! We didn't have my stepson Joey with us on this trip, and we missed him. Joey and I would often squeeze in a few more hours while everybody else went back to the hotel. Elias stepped into that role nicely but we all just had so much fun. Seeing the expressions on the kids faces, their excitement over things to come and passing on experiences that I had as kid to my kids. Good times!
It was an exhausting, bank breaking week - Can't wait to do it again!