In February, I visited Walt Disney World for a long weekend with Brendan, who was able to get us some pretty good deals with his Cast Member discounts. I had spent the weekend before that in Las Vegas, which provided an interesting contrast. Even though I woke up sick after the first night and was sick for the duration of the vacation, I really had a good time and look forward to future trips.
We visited four parks: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We also spent an evening in Downtown Disney. Considering the short duration of the trip and the fact that I was sick, we were still able to pack a lot into the agenda, which is good because Disney World is huge. The scale is just incredible: 47 square miles. Manhattan is 34 square miles. Of course not every acre of land is covered with an attraction, but it’s still amazing that you can spend more than a week at the resort without ever leaving Disney property (or the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is controlled by Disney), and not feel confined.
The first park we visited was Epcot, just in time for their IllumiNations fireworks show. I had seen the show shortly after it opened in 1999, and it is still impressive today. Disney sure knows their pyrotechnics. Funny side note: When I was waiting in line at SFO to re-enter the US after a trip to London, someone remarked that it was “like Disney World” as we stood in the queues watching a video about how awesome the US is. Then I realized that the music in the video was the same music played during IllumiNations. Was the US Customs and Border Protection really playing Disney music, or was what I thought of as “Disney music” really a classical piece that I only associated with Disney? It turns out, the CBP was playing Disney music, originally written for IllumiNations.
However, even with explosions synchronized to music fit for the entrance to an entire nation, the undisputed highlight of the first night in WDW was the sight of a teenage girl walking towards us who, for a reason unknown to us, slapped herself in the face, and then yelled “Ow!” with a look of surprise, leading us to believe that she genuinely did not know that it would hurt if she slapped herself. It was awesome.
One exhibit we visited was a virtual roller coaster sponsored by Raytheon. The basic idea is that you sit in an enclosed capsule on a robotic arm, and inside you’re looking at a screen showing imagery synchronized with the motion of the ride. I had actually been on a similar ride years ago at a miniature golf course, but the Raytheon experience was unique in the way you program the ride. To create the ride, we went to a table with an embedded touchscreen display. There, we were able to choose different types of maneuvers, such as a barrel roll. And for each feature, we were able to adjust the speed and angle by placing a dial and ruler on the screen and moving/tilting them. There were some combinations of angle and speed that weren’t allowed due to “physics,” but fortunately it didn’t make us do any real math. As we finalized the design, we were warned that we chose a track that would make us go upside-down multiple times. Before boarding, we had to name our design. There was a list of words to choose from, and Brendan chose “Cloud” because “everything is in the cloud today.” Then we realized that the name had to be two words. I chose “Hawk.” So, our ride became Cloud Hawk. I was sick to my stomach the entire trip, but I entered the capsule anyway, since having a robot swing you around and trying not to vomit is a fun adventure. Adding to the challenge was that there were cameras inside the capsule providing a video feed monitored by the operator as well as the other passenger, so not only did I have to not get sick, I had to avoid making any facial expressions that would indicate discomfort. It actually ended up being a lot of fun, and I got to finally experience a barrel roll.
It was also fun to see that they had done some upgrades to Spaceship Earth, though it still feels a bit dated. The most entertaining part for us was at the end, on the new touchscreen panels on the ride, they asked us a short series of questions (Do you prefer to live in the country or the city? Do you like to make plans in advance?), which was then used to personalize this video:
Animal Kingdom and Disney Trees
Brendan described Animal Kingdom as “the coolest zoo you’ve ever been to,” and I think that’s a fair assessment. This was my first time visiting the park, and we got to see a lot of it thanks to the Wild Africa Trek, a special tour that lets you get closer to the animals than regular guests. This was a lot of fun.
Our trek took us close to a couple of hippopotamuses who were feeding on watermelon. We were able to go to the very edge of the hill above the water where the hippos were, thanks to the safety harnesses we all wore.
Another fun feature of the trek was two rope bridges that went across the crocodile habitat. While I was secure enough with a safety net and harness not to be afraid of the height, I was afraid of adding “special effects” to the attraction due to my upset stomach. Fortunately, I was able to make it across without incident.
We got an up-close look at the crocodiles in the same way we did the hippos, which was pretty cool. I have seen alligators many times in South Carolina, but the crocodiles we saw at Disney were much bigger than I expected.
After the hiking portion of the tour, we got on a safari vehicle to explore the savannah, which, in addition to animals, featured “real Disney trees.” You see even on this tour, the cast members (Disney employees) do not break character, and the whole time we were on the tour they spoke as if we were in Africa. One guest asked if some of the trees (I can’t remember which kind) were real. The guide was able to answer with, “They’re real Disney trees.”
As part of the tour, we got to eat lunch out on the savannah.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at Disney, at the Magic Kingdom we went on the Keys to the Kingdom Tour. Our tour guide, Anibal, explained the incredible attention to detail that Disney has when creating an experience, and explained a bit of the storyline behind some of the aspects of the Magic Kingdom. Starting with the entrance, he noted that you can’t see Cinderella’s Castle until you enter the park, adding to the anticipation. Walking down Main Street USA, the names on the windows represent people who were involved in the creation of the park, so it’s like walking through the opening credits to a movie. There’s even popcorn being sold right before the street starts, as if it’s a theater lobby. We walked into one of the side streets, where he pointed out that if you listened carefully, there was a piano playing upstairs, with the sound coming from a window with a sign advertising piano lessons. He joked that the only people who notice this are those who go on the tour.
As the reveal of the castle shows, Imagineers are very aware of sight lines. Except for the thresholds between the various themed areas, as you look around, there’s typically nothing that would look out of place, whether it’s a building with the wrong theme, or something that looks like it belongs behind the scenes. And, as you walk “backstage,” there are marked lines indicating at which point you’re out of sight from the guest area, and can break character. If you’re in a parade, this marks the point at which you should start or stop dancing.
Once backstage, Disney looks a little more like the real world, with more industrial-looking buildings and exposing the massive support infrastructure required to run a park. We got to see characters… out of character, parade floats in storage, and a large trash vacuum used to bring in trash from around the park via underground pipes. I won’t spoil too many details (and cameras weren’t allowed anyway), but as for one thing you don’t see as a typical guest, take a look at Splash Mountain from the outside and think about all of the stuff you went through while on the ride. Does it look like it would all fit within the mountain that you see?
As you’ve probably heard before, the guest area of the Magic Kingdom is actually the second floor, as the utilidors are underneath, providing hidden infrastructure that allows cast members to move from one area of the park to another without being caught wearing the wrong costume or being stopped by a bunch of guests. We were allowed to visit a utilidor, which had some cool memorabilia on the walls, and plenty of cast members traveling from one place to the next. While downstairs, we watched a video of how costumes are distributed at Disney World. they all have embedded RFID chips, so when cast members check in or check out from the wardrobe department, they just place the costumes on the scanner, which can read multiple RFID tags at once.
And finally, one perk of the tour was that we got to skip the lines on a few rides including the Haunted Mansion and the Jungle Cruise. On the Jungle Cruise, which I had never been on before, Anibal took over as the tour guide and instead of doing the usual Jungle Cruise routine, pointed out some behind-the-scenes aspects of the ride.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The Tower of Terror remains awesome. Here’s a picture of Mickey that I drew in a drawing class:
At Downtown Disney, we had dinner at Earl of Sandwich. Even though I was sick, I still enjoyed my hot ham and swiss sandwich and Earl’s Grey lemonade. After dinner, we picked up some last-minute tickets for really good seats at La Nouba, a Cirque du Soleil show. Like all of their shows, it showcased amazingly talented people. I particularly enjoyed the trampoline act (similar to one in their Elvis show), the diabolos, and the juggler.
It’s very easy for attractions to become dated. I remember from my previous visit to Disney World that Test Track was my favorite ride since part of the fun of it for me was how technically advanced it is. Last month, just about a decade after Test Track opened for the first time, Test Track felt old. Why? It felt old because during the orientation video, my first thought was, “Wow, a CRT monitor. That’s old,” followed by, “Wow, that car that they’re testing in the video does not look new.” When I saw the video for the first time in 1999, everything felt brand-new, and even the monitors were impressive since they were the flat-screen CRTs instead of the convex types. The good news is that orientation video aside, the ride is still impressive, and I’m really looking forward to checking out Radiator Springs Racers, an upcoming Cars-themed attraction which will be based on the Test Track technology. Also impressive is the Tower of Terror, which opened in 1994 but is still technically impressive in all aspects, and one of my favorite attractions.
Even though there are the occasional dated aspects of the parks, Disney does a lot to keep things updated, and there was a lot of construction going on during our visit. Anibal pointed out that when they renovate a building, they first take photos of it, and then they use these life-sized photographs to cover the scaffolding during the renovation. It’s a nice touch. Speaking of updates, it looks like we have to go back, as since our visit the Haunted Mansion has received a pretty cool update.
One more thing
I have an idea for a ride that I want someone to steal, build, and then invite me to the opening of. When I was around 10-12 years old, I came up with a really cool idea for a type of ride, I think after my first trip to Disney World. I never told too many people about it, because I thought that maybe someday I would invent it as an Imagineer. Now that I’ve gone through school without getting an engineering degree and have dedicated my career so far to the Internet, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be in a position in the near future to design a theme park ride. So, I’ll go public with my concept: the breakaway ride.
Here’s the basic idea: You start off the ride in some vehicle, which as I initially imagineered it was a spaceship. At some point in the ride, something goes wrong. The walls around you fly away, piece by piece, as if the ship is falling apart, and you’re left exposed. And then, even the seats separate, and you fly away on your own track, completely alone. It would be so cool. I’m sure I sketched it out at some point, so I hope that still exists somewhere at home. Even when I was younger I thought through practical items such as how the pieces of the ship would travel alongside the passengers and appear to be connected, and the fact that the seats would have to be arranged in such a way that people wouldn’t be able to hold hands, which could be dangerous during the breakaway sequence.