Holidays at Disney, Day 1: Educational Fun (EPCOT)

Geosphere (also houses Spaceship Earth ride)

Boy, are my dogs barking.  (Notices reader)

Oh, hi there!

I just finished one hectic adventure.  So hectic that I had neither the time nor the energy to do my daily write-ups.  So welcome to Part I of the tale of my final visit to Walt Disney World.

WHAT????  I hear some of you expostulate.  Let me clarify.

Those who know me know of my fondness for the Disney parks.  While I have enjoyed them as a solo visitor, I realize that adventures like this are even more fun when shared.  So, barring unusual circumstances, the next time I visit Disney, it will be with friends and family.

Upon making this decision, I decided to plan a very special finale, especially as my last visit to WDW was ten years ago.  Normally I visit during the summer, but that brutal heat and humidity eat me alive.  Now my love for Christmas is legendary and having done an early family Christmas, a most wonderful idea struck me.

I would visit WDW right after Christmas and fuse my love for the holidays with WDW.

December 27 found me flying a non-stop flight to Orlando via Southwest.  God was looking over me that day as a powerful tail wind brought me to Florida almost 40 minutes early. 

During the pandemic, I finally caught up to the rest of the planet and invested in a smartphone.  So I downloaded the My Disney Experience app and I’d highly recommend it for your visit to Disney parks.  You can plan an itinerary, get tips, order food, make Lightning Lane and restaurant reservations (120 days in advance as opposed to the 60 using the webpage via a computer), and check into your hotel far in advance.  On arrival day, the app will give you your room number and, with MagicMobile, your phone turns into the room key and park passes.  That way you can bypass the front desk, go straight to your room, and have more park time.

But first, you have to get to your hotel.  I made use of Disney’s Magical Express which provides free round trip transportation from airport to hotel for those staying on Disney property.  Once upon a time, the Magical Express also took care of your luggage so you could skip baggage claim, but I learned that particular service was no longer offered when I booked this trip. 

Disney’s Magical Express

Regrettably, you will not be able to make use of this service as Magical Express ended operations as of Dec 31 so I ended up being one of the final people to ever make use of it.  Mears, the company that managed Magical Express, will still work with Disney to provide transportation, but it’s going to cost you.  Standard service will be $32 a head for round trip standard service and an express service will be offered for $250 (for up to 4 people).  I’d stick with standard service as you’ll be on your way within 20 minutes.  Outside of price, the only real difference is that express takes you straight to your resort while you might make a few stops with standard service which was how the Magical Express operated.

As my final solo outing, I decided to book a moderate resort (Disney’s middle tier).  Moderate resorts will have some onsite restaurants and bigger rooms.  I picked Coronado Springs and hit the jackpot.

Coronado Springs

Coronado Springs has been dubbed “the deluxe resort (top tier) priced as a moderate” and I believe it.  It had recently gone through a massive renovation which updated the rooms and added the Gran Destino Tower which is a more luxurious set of rooms.  The property also contains a fitness center and spa and is Disney’s largest property.  It’s like a small town and has multiple bus stops.  Since the price difference was negligible, I booked a preferred room with a king bed.  Preferred rooms guarantee a good view of the property and usually contain a view of the lagoon or swimming pools.

I was notified that my room was ready while I was on the Express so I was delighted that I could go straight to my room without having to store my luggage since I was arriving several hours earlier than the 3pm check in time.

I entered the main lobby at Gran Destino where I was directed to my room.  I felt my Christmas juices flowing as I gazed at the elegantly decorated lobby and couldn’t wait to see what the parks had prepared for Christmas.  I took the elevator to the lower lobby and marveled at the button design as they were on the outside of the elevator.  You press the button for your floor, then get a message saying what elevator will be transporting you.

It was a fair hike to my room at about 10 minutes, but I had a room on the top floor with a lovely view of the courtyard and swimming pool.  A very spacious room awaited me and I put my clothes and toiletries away and immediately headed to Epcot.  For those on property, complimentary bus service is available at all resorts.  Some of the resorts also have alternate modes of transportation.  Depending on where you’re staying, you might be able to travel via boat, monorail, or gondola.

EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) is the park I always do on the first day since I can’t get a full day.  It’s a more adult themed park as it’s very educational and cultural.  While it does boast rides, they’re all very slow paced and perpetual motion based with a few exceptions.

Epcot is also broken into two sections:  Future World and World Showcase.  Future World deals with science and technology (mostly) while World Showcase takes you on a miniature tour of the world.

I started things off in Future World by visiting Test Track.  This is the lone power ride of the park which simulates the testing of a new car.  This ride also boasts a single rider line so solo guests can bypass the main line and just fill in a gap.  Groups can use this line, but you will be split apart.  But I highly suggest using it as you’ll get to ride in about 5 to 10 minutes so you could do it several times over.

From there I also enjoyed rides on Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land, and Journey Into Imagination with Figment. 

Spaceship Earth (pictured at the top of this article) is the ride in Epcot’s famed geosphere (or giant golf ball, as its nicknamed) which takes you on a tour through the history of communication.  It’s also the longest ride in any of the parks at a whopping 16 minutes and is narrated by Dame Judi Dench.  The ride is slated for a massive overhaul which will shut it down for two years, but that project was delayed by the pandemic and has not yet been rescheduled.

Speaking of the pandemic, masks are required on all rides and anywhere indoors.  Now back to the rides.

Living with the Land takes you on a boat ride where you learn about growing foods.  The fruits, spices, and vegetables you see growing in the greenhouses are actually used in Disney restaurants.  Journey Into Imagination with Figment takes you on a tour of the Imagination Institute hosted by Dr. Nigel Channing (played by Monty Python alum, Eric Idle).  Channing’s tour gets taken over by Figment, a talking purple dragon who teaches you how to unleash your imagination.

Then I made a stop at Club Cool which is an exhibit where you can sample Coca-Colas from around the world.  It’s a good place to get free drinks though you can also get free cups of water at most eateries as Florida law mandates that it be available due to the sweltering heat in the summers.

They had actually changed up the flavors from my last visit.  My favorite was Country Mix from the Dominican Republic which has a creamy, fruity flavor.  Beverly, from Italy, is my least favorite and isn’t meant to be enjoyed.  It’s a bitter aperitif meant to activate your taste buds so you can enjoy your meal more.

Then I began meandering around the World Showcase beginning with the giant Christmas tree.  I admit I was surprised at what I considered the lack of Christmas decorations.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were elegant wreaths and lights everywhere, but I was expecting a lot of flash and pizzazz and not the understated beauty I saw.

Epcot is running its Festival of the Holidays so each country in World Showcase is doing little shows explaining how Christmas is celebrated in that particular region.  It also does a Candlelight Processional telling the story of Jesus’ birth each night with a different celebrity reader each week of the holiday season.

Each region also has special food kiosks for the holiday season so you can sample food and drink from different cultures and each sample costs between $5ish to $15ish.  I hadn’t eaten all day so I stopped at L’Chaim where I had a delicious pastrami on rye with a homemade pickle and mustard to tide me over until dinner.

I did walk through all the countries, but stopped at the Mexico Pavilion where I entered the faux Mayan pyramid so I could ride Gran Fiesta Tour, a boat ride that shows you the culture of Mexico under the conceit of Panchito and Jose Carioca of the Three Caballeros searching for Donald Duck so they could perform their concert.

Then it was time for dinner.  Epcot has the best restaurants of the 4 parks so I had dinner there each night.  For the first night, I hit up one of my favorites:  Teppan Edo in the Japan Pavilion.

Teppan Edo

Teppan Edo is teppanyaki dining which means the food is cooked at your table.  A salad course precedes the main entrée and it was served with a ginger peach dressing that blew my socks off.  For my main course, I enjoyed steak, chicken, and shrimp served with vegetables and Udon noodles along with steamed rice and enjoyed some conversation with Dave and Kyla who were seated with me at the table.

With a fine meal under my belt, I enjoyed the Christmas lights as night had fallen and the geosphere had been turned into a mammoth Christmas ornament as it went through a beautiful light show.

I had thought about using my Park Hopper to dash over to Magic Kingdom, but it had been a long day.  So I returned to Coronado Springs to go to bed as I had to get up mighty early the next morning.

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 2-3: Sweltering Shinjuku and Under the Tokyo DisneySea

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Day 2

I slept the sleep of the dead. . . or at least the sleep of the extremely exhausted.

When I awoke the next morning, I had a light breakfast of pancakewich and orange juice and then went downstairs for a bath.

Baths in Japan are an interesting thing.  You actually shower outside of the tub, then get into the tub to soak and relax, if you so choose.  The floor design is arranged so the water falls down a drain in the floor.  As such, the floor gets sopping wet as I learned the hard way.  I had merely tried to take a bath, unaware of this cultural set-up so I left my clothes on the floor while I bathed.  I fetched a fresh set of clothes while I set my first set out to dry.

Our apartment in Shinjuku was small, but comfortable.  On the lower floor were the bathroom, laundry room, a small living room, and a bedroom.  On the upper floor contained a kitchen and 2 more bedrooms.  There was also a toilet with a sink built into the top.  When you flushed the toilet, it turned on the sink, recycling its own water.

With only 1 washroom for 7 people, it took a bit to get everyone bathed and ready for the day.  Once we were we headed over to Sunkus, a local convenience store to pick up some stuff for the others.  While there, I noticed they had my beloved Van Houten Cocoa, so I bought some.

The plan for the day was to wander around Shinjuku, famed for its shopping and restaurants.  Our journey had a bit of a delay as Dave’s niece, Amy, forgot her passport and rail pass, so back we hiked to the apartment to get it.  Then it was back to the train station to get to Shinjuku.

One could spend hours exploring the area, but our explorations were limited to a tiny area due to a thunderstorm that broke out in the area.  Being an island nation, it rains a lot in Japan and a typhoon off the southern edge of the country was triggering more rain than usual as well as sending the humidity right through the roof.

We first visited the Hotel Gracery building which also holds the Godzilla Head and Toho Cinemas.  A new Godzilla movie just opened in Japan (we’re considering going to watch it on a free night) and Toho Cinemas is going all out to celebrate it.  Outside of the movie theater was a picture montage featuring every Godzilla film ever made as well as character designs and fan art.  On the 15th floor of the building was the Godzilla head, built to scale, and it was a pretty cool sight.

While in the building, the rain exploded with a mighty crash, so we ducked into a 7-11 on the bottom floor and bought some umbrellas.  We made a quick stop in Don Quixote’s (similar to a dollar store) and poked around the store.  When the rain didn’t let up, we made a mad dash across the street to Taito Game Station to wait it out.

Japan loves their arcades.  Sadly, even arcades over here are not what they once were as the only new cabinet games they seem to make are fighting and dance games.  But the arcade also had claw machines and a few games outside of the fighting/dance genres.  I played a couple of rounds on Luigi’s Mansion which was quite fun.

By the time the rain let up, we stopped at a restaurant for an extremely late lunch.  But a meal of green tea, pork cutler, rice, miso soup, and cabbage served to restore the inner man.  With our meals tucked away, we headed to Shinjuku Station to pick up Mat’s friend, Andrew, who would be the final member of our little troupe.

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Mauricio suggested we visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Building as it has an observatory on the 45th floor.  I considered this event the highlight of the day as we looked at views of the city just to get an idea of the massiveness of the most populated city on Earth.

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The jet lag and humidity began to take a toll on us and we returned to the apartment to relax and crash.  We were all sound asleep shortly after 9pm.

Day 3

Now this is one of the days I had been looking forward to as we were going to spend the day at Tokyo DisneySea.

For years I was an amusement park junkie and though my tastes have changed a bit over time, I still maintain a soft spot in my heart for Disney parks.  From a financial standpoint, Tokyo DisneySea & Tokyo Disneyland are good deals as the entry fee to each park is less than $100.

Two things worked against us that day.  One, I believe Mat made a minor error by wanting to visit the park on Friday.  He thought the kids would have been in school, leaving the park a bit more open to the grown-ups.  Being Friday, I can’t say I was surprised to see the park pretty full as I imagine parents took the day off to bring their kiddies to the resort.  Also, it was a beautiful day.

The park was a little slow going at first due to the long lines and we only managed to ride 20,000 Leagues  Under the Sea before noon.  We decided to get some lunch to refresh ourselves and ate at a little cantina to try Mexican food done Japanese style.  I had spicy meat tacos which weren’t too bad, though they were not spicy by my standards.  I learned that Japanese people are actually very timid when it comes to spices, so to their tastebuds, this was the equivalent of a four alarm fire.

After lunch, we were able to get on a number of more rides, thanks to Fastpass.  Fastpass is a service that allows you to skip long lines at the more popular attractions.  You get a special ticket to return later in the day and you bypass the main line and get on the ride in about 10 minutes.  You are able to get a new one every two hours.  With this we were able to ride Tower of Terror, Raging Spirits, visit the Magic Lamp Theatre, and voyage with Sindbad.

We finished the Magic Lamp Theatre at slightly after 6pm.  At that point lines for the popular attractions were 90 minutes at a minimum and some were at a mind-blowing 2.5 hours.  I noticed that some people were tired (the humidity was brutal) and I suggested we should head back to Shinjuku. We ended up  hitting every gift shop on the way out.   I would have preferred spending that time waiting for one more ride, but oh, well.

We stopped for dinner at a place called Becker’s which serves burgers and sandwiches.  I had a double bacon BBQ cheeseburger and some fries as I was desperately in need of salt after sweating buckets.

With full stomachs, we returned to the apartment to rest for another night.