Holidays at Disney, Day 2: Walking with the Animals and a Meal Fit for a King (Animal Kingdom & EPCOT)

Tree of Life

At 5:30am, I rolled out of bed.

One of the perks of staying on a Disney property is that you get early entry into the parks.  Later hours for on property guests are also making a comeback, but are currently limited only to the deluxe resorts, but I digress.

The final week of December is one of the most crowded of the year (a fact I was unaware of when I booked as when I last visited during this time frame in 1994, it was a low-capacity week, but times change).  Though WDW is still capping capacity, the parks do get awfully crowded, but not as bad as I feared.  I’d actually seen much worse on certain event days in the past.  That being said, I was still banking on the early hours to be able to do my favorite rides first thing without having to endure long waits.  Also, because of the heavier crowds, early entry would begin an hour before regular opening instead of 30 minutes.

Currently, you need to make a reservation to visit a park in order to gain entry.  The Park Hopper pass has returned so you can bounce between parks, but you have to start in the one you reserved and you can’t start hopping until 2pm.  OK, enough prefacing.

Today my reservation was for Animal Kingdom which opened at 8am, meaning that early entry was at 7am.  I’m a bit of an early entry veteran so I knew how light the crowds normally were and was counting on that again, especially with such an early opening time.

Dopey me.

I arrived at Animal Kingdom and my eyes went wide at the huge lines already waiting to enter the park.  Fortunately, I had taken a few precautions.

That morning I booked Genie+ through My Disney Experience.  For an extra $15 a day, you can start reserving the Lightning Lane on WDW’s more popular rides. 

Lightning Lane replaces the Fastpass system.  You can reserve an hour’s time frame to return to the ride and get into a special line where you’ll only wait a few minutes before getting to board.  Through experimentation, I found there was a 10-15 minute grace period before and after the time frame you’re given for the most part.  Use of Lightning Lane is unlimited for the day, but the catch is that you can only book a new experience every two hours.  Please note that you can start booking at 7am, but the 2 hour clock doesn’t start ticking until the park officially opens.  So that means I booked a pass for Kali River Rapids at 7am, but wasn’t able to book again until 10am since the park officially opened at 8am.  After that I was able to book every two hours for any park until they closed or until all the Lightning Lanes got used up.  To keep people from cheating you have to pass through two checkpoints with your park ticket card, Magicband, or Magicmobile device in order to utilize the lane.

With Fastpass, it was impossible to have overlapping times with another ride, but you can do that with Lightning Lane.  So with a little strategy, you can stack Lightning Lanes and get a series of line skips. 

My other precaution was that I knew everybody and their uncle would be heading for Avatar:  Rite of Passage.  Due to its mega popularity and relative newness, you can’t get a regular Lightning Lane pass, but you can purchase a special Lightning Lane pass just for that ride.  I did so and would return around 6:30pm to ride it.  As such, I was able to hit all the other rides in Animal Kingdom with minimal waits.

Animal Kingdom is a hybrid of amusement park and zoo and is my least favorite of the four.  Sure, there’s plenty of fun, but you can do it all in a half day, at best. 

I followed the crowds to Pandora since it was new to me and wanted to see what it looked like.  I was blown away by the construction of the world of Pandora which housed the Avatar ride, but while a humongous line formed over there (the wait was already at 2 hours), I moseyed over to Na’vi River Journey which had a wait of zero minutes.

Na’vi River Journey is a pleasant boat ride through the world of Avatar and I was blown away by the advancement in animatronics.  With the use of projected animated faces for expressions and the fluidity of movement, the robots seem like real people.

It was an enjoyable ride, but not enough for me to take a second go so I headed over to Dinoland, USA to ride Dinosaur.

Dinosaur is a dark EMV attraction where you ride a time rover back to the age of the dinosaurs.  The tour is supposed to take you to the early Cretaceous period, but one of the scientists, Dr. Grant Seeker, informs you that he intends to send your group back to the late Cretaceous period in order to save an Iguanodon from extinction and bring it back to the present.  Unfortunately, the late Cretaceous is when the theorized meteor shower that wiped out the dinosaurs struck so you’re racing against the clock.

It’s a bumpy, exciting ride as you see legendary beasts of yore before escaping from the meteor shower with the Iguanodon who then starts wandering about the Institute, but that’s Dr. Seeker’s problem.

Then I made my over to Expedition Everest.  This is a thrilling roller coaster ride where you search for the legendary Yeti, but be wary.  Thanks to this ride’s single rider line, I dashed through it three times in a row.

From there I visited Kali River Rapids and the line was so low that I took a ride on it.  It’s a river raft ride meant to show the dangers of deforestation, though that seems to be a bit more underplayed nowadays.  It’s a fun ride and I got a fair dousing after barreling down a waterfall which was more invigorating than a morning cup of joe.

I wandered through Maharajah Jungle Trek to dry off and view tigers, monkeys, and other animals.  Then I used my pass to get through Kali River Rapids again.

By 10:30, I had done everything I wanted.  Normally, I would have hopped to another park, but since that was out until 2pm, I simply went back to Coronado Springs to rest and use the pool.

Coronado Springs does have multiple pools, but the main one is called the Dig Site.  A towering Mayan pyramid dominates the site and the site has a large heated pool and hot tub.  It also has a pretty fun water slide called the Jaguar Slide, so I enjoyed a pleasant period splashing, sliding, and luxuriating in the hot tub.

The Dig Site

Then I caught up on some reading in the hotel room before making my way back to Epcot.

I did some more exploring before heading to the Canada Pavilion to have a very early dinner at Le Cellier Steakhouse.

Le Cellier Steakhouse

I had been looking forward to this meal for a long, long time.  I had tried to get a reservation on every trip I’d taken to WDW for the last 20 years and was denied each and every time.  Finally, I managed to get that elusive reservation and mark it off the bucket list.

As I was led to my table, I saw why I had so much difficulty snaring a reservation.  If that restaurant could hold more than 150 people, I’d have been amazed.  It’s also one of the most popular restaurants in all of WDW.

I started off with an exquisite bowl of Canadian Cheddar Cheese soup.  It was seasoned just right and had bits of bacon and chives mixed into it.  It was also served with three kinds of rolls (sourdough, pretzel, and multigrain with sunflower seeds).  The main course was a NY strip with cheddar potatoes au gratin, crispy onions, and le poivre (ground black pepper) sauce.  This was the tastiest steak I had ever eaten.  So tender and juicy.  I spent over an hour savoring this meal and sent my compliments to the chef.  My server, Sharee, was perfect.  She checked on me just enough so I could savor my meal and gave me a to go cup so I could sip my soda as I walked around Epcot.

After walking off some of my meal, I dashed back over to Animal Kingdom where I worked my way through the crowd getting ready to watch the closing show at the Tree of Life to make my way to Avatar.  Animal Kingdom closes shortly after sundown due to its lack of artificial light.

Avatar takes full motion technology to the ultimate level.  The theme of the ride is that you’re linked with a Na’Vi avatar to experience the rite of passage of flying on an ikran or mountain banshee.  With the use of 3-D glasses and the motion technology, you fly around the beautiful world of Pandora and actually feel like you’re flying on the ikran.  You can even feel it breathing and its wings flap.  Definitely worth the money I paid for the Lightning Lane.

Speaking of which, I had been stacking them up at Epcot so I returned there to start burning them off.

The two new rides I rode were Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After.

Soarin’ is also an impressive piece of motion technology that simulates taking a hang gliding trip around the world as you sail over pyramids, oceans, deserts, mountains, elephants, and whales.  Frozen Ever Water is the 2nd most popular ride in Epcot and replaced the Maelstrom ride in Norway.  I think it tells an abbreviated version of Frozen, but I’m unfamiliar with the film.  I did marvel at the incredible animatronic technology.

After the ride, I nabbed a peppermint sundae from the Holiday Sweets and Treats kiosk and enjoyed some ice cream before returning to the hotel for the night.

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