Holidays at Disney, Day 4: Woah, Oh, Oh, it’s Magic Kingdom

Cinderella Castle

And so the final day had come and I had saved the best for last for today would be Magic Kingdom day.

I was able to rest up a little bit longer as early entry would be at 8am.  Tonight the park would be open until 1am, but I also ordered Genie+ again as I didn’t want to have to wait late into the night to hit my favorite rides.  I also bought a Lightning Lane for Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train, Magic Kingdom’s newest roller coaster.

As I expected, the place was a zoo prior to rope drop.  But I figured everyone would head to the Mine Train, leaving me free to visit Liberty Square and Frontierland where my favorite rides were located.  To my shock, only Tomorrowland and Fantasyland were opened up at early entry.  I thought that to be a poor business decision and a puzzling one.  Every other park opened in its entirety so I couldn’t understand why only part of the Kingdom would open. 

As my favorite sections wouldn’t open until 9am, I went ahead and rode one of the WDW originals:  It’s a Small World.

This is a slow-moving boat ride that takes you through the countries of the world where scads of animatronic children sing the titular song.  It’s syrupy sweet and shares a message about world peace since “it’s a small world after all”.  I was really struck by how much animatronics had evolved since this ride.  The robots are pretty primitive and seem more like oversized toys, but, at the time, this was undoubtedly cutting-edge technology and would lead to much greater advances.

Eventually, the rest of the park opened and I headed off to Frontierland to visit one of my two favorite rides:  Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain was inspired by the Brer Rabbit sequences from the controversial 1946 movie, “Song of the South”.  It, too, will eventually be shut down so it can be overhauled into “The Princess and the Frog” so this was likely my last go round in its original incarnation.

Splash Mountain and Haunted Mansion are my two favorite rides in all of WDW and I could spend a day just flipping between the two and consider it a day well spent.  I enjoyed the leisurely float as I watched Brer Rabbit outsmart his nemeses, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, time and again before plunging down the 50 foot drop into the Briar Patch just in time to see Brer Rabbit’s neighbors welcome him home with “Zip a Dee Doo Dah”.

Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train

From Splash Mountain it was back to Fantasyland to enjoy the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train.  It wasn’t that bad of a coaster, but it wasn’t spectacular.  Though it was amusing to watch the Dwarfs work their mine before heading home to dance with Snow White.

After the Dwarfs, it was off to the Hundred Acre Wood to experience The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  Hop on a honey pot and experience the stories of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too.  It’s a quick ride, but an entertaining one for the young ones.

Under the Sean–Journey of the Little Mermaid

Then it was off to Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid which tells an abridged version of “The Little Mermaid”, but leaves out the darker moments to keep from spooking the children.

From there, I moved right along to Tomorrowland where I took a break by riding The Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover.  This is a slow moving cart ride that transports you around the Magic Kingdom, gives you a little history of the park, slips you inside Space Mountain, and is just an all around good way to people watch.

Space Mountain

Then I went to over to Space Mountain.  It’s an oldie, but a goodie as you ride a single car into space and enjoy a rollicking roller coaster ride in pitch darkness.  I’ve heard the coaster only moves at a top rate of 25mph, but feels faster due to your not being able to see anything.  It’d be interesting to ride it with the lights on and put that to the test.

I then started making my way over to Adventureland, pausing in front of Cinderella Castle (pictured at the top of this article).  If the castle looks familiar to you history buffs, it’s because it was patterned after Neuchwanstein Castle, one of the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.  Fun fact:  each Disney park in the world has its own unique castle.

I wandered past Jungle Cruise, astounded at its popularity.  Waits never seemed to get lower than 90 minutes.  I imagine the new movie has something to do with it plus a friend of mine told me that some Christmas stuff was added to the ride for the holidays.  For myself, I consider it a meh ride at best and one I would have ridden only if the line were short.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Instead, I bypassed that and went to Pirates of the Caribbean.  Yes, it’s the ride that gave the world Captain Jack Sparrow and launched a lucrative franchise.  I floated around and watched a battle on the high seas and watched pirates loot a town that was going down in flames.  Captain Jack popped in from time to time and even warbled “A Pirate’s Life for Me” as you exit the ride.

Then I was off to my other favorite ride:  Haunted Mansion.

Haunted Mansion

Enter the home of Master Gracey for a chilling (albeit Disneyfied) ride through a haunted house.  I’ve always been amazed at the depth of detail in this ride.  It begins in the foyer of the mansion where a picture of Master Gracey ages from a young man to a skeleton in front of your eyes.

From there you enter the stretching room where you see the untimely ends of some of the mansion’s past residents.  After escaping you get on your doom buggy to ride through the mansion where creepy events unfold around you.  One of my favorite moments is the séance where the disembodied head of Madame Leota (voiced by Eleanor Audley, the voice of Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” and the stepmother in “Cinderella”) summons the spirits.

Soon you ride past a ballroom where the ghosts whoop it up in a party except for the two engaging in a duel.  Eventually you make your way through a graveyard before picking up a hitchhiking ghost as you exit.  For some extra fun be sure to ask a cast member about the legend of Master Gracey.

Eventually I made my way over to Epcot for another early dinner at the San Angel Inn in the Mexico Pavilion. 

San Angel Inn is another intime dining experience.  I started with a bowl of Sopa Azteca which was a spicy red soup with tortilla chips and followed it up with a main course of Enchiladas con Pollo.  Very satisfying meal.

Then I took a ride on the monorail over to the Grand Floridian.  This is Disney’s most luxurious hotel and the last thing on my Disney bucket list is to stay one night at this hotel.  Brenda had tipped me off that the Floridian goes all out for Christmas and indeed it does.

The decorations here are what I expected to see all over WDW and its centerpiece was an authentic gingerbread house.

After enjoying a quick blast of Christmas cheer, I returned to the Magic Kingdom to enjoy Disney at night.  The Kingdom was getting ready to do the first of two fireworks shows and I maneuvered through the crowd to enjoy Pirates and 3 straight runs on Splash Mountain (where I also enjoyed watching the fireworks).  From there it was off to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as I roared through the mountains on a train coaster.

Disney was hosting an early New Year’s party so the crowds weren’t really dissipating much.  In terms of endurance, I had the juice to go all the way to closing, but my poor feet were throbbing.   Small surprise after being on my feet from before sunup to well after sundown and walking an estimated 60 miles over 4 days with little downtime except for sleep.

I took one final ride at Pirates and decided to call an end to the day.  I caught the bus back to Coronado Springs.  When I got back to my room, I slipped off my shoes and peeled off my socks and just knuckled my tired feet and it felt fabulous.  Soon after my lights were out.

The next morning I packed up, boarded the Magical Express, and began the trek home.

It was a grand adventure and I look forward to my next adventure in WDW.

Holidays at Disney, Day 3: Breakdowns & Reunions (Disney Hollywood Studios)

Disney Hollywood Studios

I got to sleep in an extra half hour today as I would be starting things off at Disney Hollywood Studios and early entry would begin at 7:30am.

I opted against purchasing a Genie+ for the day as Hollywood Studios doesn’t have a lot of rides.  Instead, much of its focus is experiencing the world of Hollywood from backstage lots to lavish productions to walking down a replica from Hollywood and Vine.  Oh, and a little thing called Star Wars:  Galaxy’s Edge.

I knew the crowd would immediately make a beeline to Galaxy’s Edge in order to ride Star Wars:  Rise of the Resistance so I purchased a special Lightning Lane pass to ride it at 1:35pm and immediately veered towards Hollywood & Vine to ride two of my favorite rides:  Twilight Zone:  Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.

The Tower of Terror is a truly unique experience.  You’ll be thrust into a Twilight Zone story that tells the story of the Hollywood Tower Hotel which catered to the rich and famous of the 1930s.  One night a bellhop and 4 guests were riding the elevator when it was struck by a bolt of lightning and they were vaporized.  Now their ghosts haunt the abandoned hotel and you’ll be exploring it.

It’s a genuinely eerie ride as strange phenomena take place and the ghosts beckon you towards them.  The highlight of the ride is the famed drop.  Originally, the ride took you to the 13th floor where the doors opened, gave you a view of the park, then dropped you 13 stories.  Now it’s a random experience where you could rise and fall up to 5 times.  It’s never the same ride twice.  And I should know for I rode it twice.

Rock n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith

I then made my way towards Rock n Roller Coaster only to find it was down and they didn’t know when, or if, it would come up (it never did).  This would set a distressing note for my time at Hollywood Studios.

I decided to explore Galaxy’s Edge myself and was extremely impressed by its attention to detail.  I genuinely felt like I was in a Star Wars movie.  I walked by the Millennium Falcon and noted it was the entrance to the Millennium Falcon:  Smuggler’s Run ride.  Even better, I noticed a single rider line.

I went through the special queue and became part of the crew of the Falcon as I took part in a smuggling mission as an engineer along with two pilots, two gunners, and another engineer.  It’s an interactive full motion ride and your team is actually scored.  You get a share of the profits minus the cost of any repairs required for the Falcon.  As an engineer, it was my duty to repair the Falcon, if damaged, as well as launch the grappling hook to snare the item we were trying to swipe.  Whenever buttons and switches flashed on my panel, I’d press them and flip them to fix the Falcon.  I only missed one repair on the first go round and was perfect on the second mission.

Then I walked past the famed Rise of the Resistance and saw a swarm of people exiting the attraction.  It had gone down.

Muppetvision 3D

I made my way over to Muppetvision 3D.  Now this is a really fun attraction that puts you right in the middle of a The Muppet Show performance.  You walk into a perfect replica of the Muppet Theatre, complete with Statler and Waldorf up in the balcony heckling the Muppets as you experience Muppet Labs latest invention:  Muppetvision 3D. 

Now this is truly impressive 3D as the images really do seem to pop right off the screen and you think you could really interact with them.  As is wont to happen, things go to pieces when Sam the Eagle’s “Tribute to all Countries, but mostly America” number goes haywire resulting in the destruction of the theatre.  It truly is the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational time.

I wandered back to the front of the park where I saw an electronic billboard and paused to look at ride wait times.  All of the big ones were down with the exception of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad.  With that being the only working ride, the line was long and the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular wasn’t set to start until noon.

I didn’t feel like twiddling my thumbs for an hour so I left the park and took some rides of a different sort.

Disney Skyliner

First, I hopped on the Disney Skyliner.  This gondola system connects Hollywood Studios and Epcot with some of the resorts.  I was meeting a friend at Epcot at 2pm and wanted to do a dry run to see how long it would take to ride the gondola as I figured it would be more efficient than waiting for a bus.  It was a gentle experience and gave me a good view of the parks and resorts.  Total time was 20 minutes.  That seemed like it would work, provided Resistance came back up.

Then I got a boat which ultimately took me back to Hollywood Studios where I caught a bus back to Coronado Springs and I rested for a bit.

At 12:45pm, I checked My Disney Experience and saw that Rise of the Resistance was back up so off I went to Hollywood Studios.  To be safe, I sent a message to my friend letting her know that we should make the meet-up time 2:15pm and she replied that we should make it 3pm as she was stuck in traffic on I-4.  Plenty of time to do the ride and then meet up. . .or so I thought.

When I arrived at Hollywood Studios, my eyes popped when I saw the wait time for Rise of the Resistance.  245 minutes!!  And people were truly waiting for 4 hours to ride.  Thank goodness for my Lightning Lane.

Then again, maybe not.

The catch with Lightning Lane is that if the ride goes down during the period you were supposed to ride it, your pass is still good.  I made my way to Lightning Lane and found the wait was an hour!!  Clearly the ride had only recently gone up.  I couldn’t wait that long as I had to meet my friend so I opted to eat the cost of Lightning Lane.

Then I boarded Skyliner to get to Epcot.  About halfway through the ride, I felt the gondola slow down and then it stopped.  And it stayed stopped. . .for 45 minutes.  While I was just hanging around, I spoke with the older couple sharing my gondola to pass the time.  Slowly, but surely, we finally reached solid ground.  To my surprise, a Disney rep was waiting with a $25 gift card to make up for being trapped.  This covered my cost for Lightning Lane and then some.

Luckily, I managed to arrive at just the same time that my friend, Brenda Elze, was arriving at Epcot.

I’ve known Brenda for nearly 30 years where we were part of the Papillion-LaVista High School band (Go Monarchs!).  We met on a band ski trip where, ironically, we got stuck on a stalled ski lift and I was talking to her to keep her mind off the cold and we’ve been friends ever since.

We spent our day hitting up some rides and noshing our way around the world from the various kiosks.  We snacked on poutine, smoked salmon potato latkes, cheese fondue, and a chocolate peppermint stout.

We closed the night having dinner at the Rose and Garden in the UK Pavilion.  We both had the Shepherd’s Pie.  It was tasty, but not quite as good as the one I enjoyed in Ireland. 

The day started off rough, but my time with Brenda ended it spectacularly.  After sharing a long hug we said our good-byes and I returned to Coronado Springs.

One day left.

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.

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.

Christmas Lights it Up: Fargo Mansion Inn & Lake Mills, WI

The Fargo Mansion Inn

Today the road has brought me to Lake Mills, WI.

Yes, sir, it’s time once again for my favorite event and, I hope, yours.  It’s the annual Christmas B & B review.

This year’s review brought me to Lake Mills and The Fargo Mansion Inn owned and operated by Tom Boycks and Barry Luce. 

Fargo Mansion Inn is an 1881 Queen Anne mansion which had been bought by E.J. Fargo, son of the founder of Wells Fargo, in 1883.  Fargo was also a bit of an inventor as he created the central vacuuming system still used in homes today.  He lived in the mansion until his death in 1921 and his third wife continued to live there before moving to a nearby nursing home where she passed away at the age of 67.  At that point, the mansion was transformed into apartments for years before falling into disrepair and condemnation.

Boycks and Luce bought the mansion in 1985 and spent two years restoring it and were actually one of, if not the first, B & B proprietors in Wisconsin.  In fact, the partners are the founding members of the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association.  If the inn and the association don’t keep them busy enough, Boycks and Luce also have several other business interests in the community.

Unlike a great deal of my outings, I was only going to have one day to enjoy the inn and community so I had to hit the ground running.  Once I spotted the mansion, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

One of the inn’s calling cards is that the owners like to decorate it according to a 19th century Victorian Christmas and I felt my Christmas juices flowing when I saw the Christmas tree and pine strings decorating the outside of the inn along with cutouts of toy soldiers.

Tom opened the door before I even had a chance to ring the bell and welcomed me into the home where I also met Barry.  Tom gave me the quarter tour of the home and I marveled at the decorations and period antiques in the common areas.  He then led me to the Enoch J Fargo Suite which was my room for the night.

This is Fargo Mansion’s largest room and dubbed the honeymoon suite containing a queen-sized bed, English writing desk, and a secret.  Don’t worry, I won’t keep you in the dark.  The bathroom has a secret entrance behind one of the bookshelves and is the closest I’ve come to seeing a true secret passage.

Once I got settled, I returned to the commons where I took a really good look around and enjoyed the fresh, piney smell of a real Christmas tree and took a close look at the intricate Christmas decorations and enjoyed some photos of the mansion back in its original heyday.

Before I knew it, it was time to go to church.  I visited St Francis Xavier and this was a mighty small chapel; about on par with my visit to Our Lady of Victory in Limon, CO over the summer.  Father Bob conducted the service and he was a gregarious and entertaining pastor.  This was the third Sunday of Advent known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday and is represented by the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath.  Rejoice was the key word of the service as Father’s sermon centered around rejoicing that our Savior was coming and our Savior was here and with us.  It was definitely a good one to feel the Spirit moving and I left worship with a flutter in my heart and a rumble in my stomach.

It was indeed dinnertime and I headed over to the nearby town of Johnson Creek to eat at Crawfish Junction.

Crawfish Junction

Crawfish Junction is a bar/restaurant known for its Cajun fare.  Surprisingly it does not seem to serve gumbo (unless it pops up as a soup of the day), but does serve an excellent plate of jambalaya to which I added some delectable shrimp and forewent the hush puppies for homemade mashed potatoes and gravy.  The gravy had a great taste, but was much too thin, but the potatoes were right on the mark.

Satiated, I then headed to Janesville, WI to enjoy one of the region’s premier holiday events:  the Holiday Light Show at the Rotary Botanical Gardens.

I had read of the event prior to my arrival, but, thanks to Sandy, whom I met in my previous review, I learned that the tickets had to be bought in advance and would not be sold at the door.  So keep that in mind if you want to visit.

This truly is a popular event as there was a large line of people still waiting to get into the gardens, but it is well worth it.  A million lights transform the gardens into a Christmas wonderland where you get to see flowers, Christmas trees, old-fashioned lampposts, sea serpents, Old Glory, and many other colorful surprises guaranteed to make your eyes pop.

I could have spent hours there, but had to settle for 40 minutes as plummeting temperatures were turning me into a Chrisicle.  Afterwards, I returned to Fargo Mansion for some article prep and then sunk under the thick quilt for the night.

I wish I could sleep like that all the time.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them it was nearly 6am.  I had some time to write and ablute and then went down to breakfast.

Tom served up some lemon bread with a granola/yogurt/fruit dish and a main course of cheesy scrambled eggs, orange slices, and sausage links.  Tom is easily one of the best conversationalists I’ve had as a host and he may be the future version of myself as we seem to share similar senses of humor and personality traits.  But he is truly a master at the art of hospitality as we talked about the B & B industry and the events of the day.

Alas, I had to start heading the preparations for my drive home.  But if you’re in Lake Mills, especially around Christmas, stay at Fargo Mansion.  You’ll have an excellent pair of hosts, a wonderful mansion to relax in, and a fine feed in the morning. 

And that wraps up this review, join me in about two weeks when I close out the year with a special holiday series when I travel to Orlando, FL to experience Walt Disney World for the holidays.  It’ll be a grand adventure.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

I Went to Disneyland!!

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Sleeping Beauty Castle

I finally got to fulfill an adventure I’d had in my mind for a while now.

Back when I was a lad I really loved the amusement parks.  Some of my best childhood memories were from trips taken to Adventureland, Six Flags, or Worlds of Fun.  When I was between my junior and senior year of high school, my band performed in Orlando, FL at Universal Studios and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  For my park lovin’ heart, Walt Disney World was the pinnacle of amusement parks due to sheer scope and variety.  I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been back several times over the years.  My love for amusement parks has waned considerably over the years, mostly due to my distaste of waiting in lines, but I still retain an enjoyment of Disney parks.

As a Disney aficionado, I’d long had a hankering to visit the park that started it all:  Disneyland.  However, I really didn’t want to visit it on my own as fun is always better when it’s multiplied by others.  Luckily my old friend, Mat O’Donnell, and his wife, Carolyn Langlois (also a Disney park nut), lived in nearby Tempe, AZ.  I asked Mat if he and Carolyn wanted to join me in Disneyland and it ended up becoming a weeklong visit/road trip.

On Feb 24, I hopped on an American Airlines flight which was delayed a half hour due to deicing the plane.  Eventually we got underway and I soon found myself in Phoenix.  So happy was I to escape the cold and ice of Omaha that I would have hugged a cactus if I’d seen one.

Mat met me at the airport and we drove to his house.  I set my bag and laptop in my room and noted that our mutual friend, John Velasquez, tried to turn a practical joke against me.  John and I had a mock argument about the guest bedroom as each of us “claimed” it as his own.  John visited Mat a few weeks prior so Mat helped me arrange a photo of myself to greet John with a sign that said, “Christopher Elston proudly welcomes you to his room.  Daily rates apply.”  John had added the title of Slumlord to my name.  Well played, John.  Well played.

Shortly afterwards, Mat took me to a little Greek joint called Mika’s where I had a Mediterranean Gyro for dinner.  Mat and I had a long conversation over dinner and then we headed back to his place where we watched a little anime, talked, then went to bed.

The next day, Mat took me to worship services at Our Lady of Mt Carmel and then we had breakfast over at Denny’s.  We had decided to just take it easy since there would be a lot of travel starting the next day.  During his last visit to Omaha, Mat had borrowed Resident Evil 7 from our friend, Jeff Bevirt, so we decided to play through it.

For those of you interested in that particular game series, I found it a return to form and probably the third best in the series.  The series returns to its survival horror roots and I genuinely jumped at several points.  The story was the most tragic of the series and the nearly lifelike graphics (aided by Mat’s 4K TV) were stunning.  The game could have used some more puzzles and it was one of the shortest of the series, especially in this era of epic length games.

Carolyn, who had been on a camping trip, returned in the afternoon and it was gaming and conversation until bedtime.

The next day Mat and I completed Resident Evil and had lunch at Del Taco.  Carolyn came back early from work, packed, and we loaded up Mat’s car before beginning the drive to Thousand Palms, CA.

Mat’s dad, Barry, winters in this desert community so the decision was made to stay overnight at his place and we would continue on to Anaheim the next evening.  This would allow us to hit Disneyland first thing on Wednesday morning.

It was a really pleasant drive and we arrived at Barry’s home at about 7:45pm.  Barry had picked up some excellent brisket sandwiches from a nearby BBQ joint.  This was the best brisket I had ever tasted.  I’m not a particular fan of coleslaw, but the slaw used on these sandwiches was excellent.  A small side of chili filled in the chinks nicely.

We were weary after the drive, not to mention our body clocks were off due to the time zone change (2 in my case), so we called it a night.  I borrowed a box fan for some white noise and collapsed on the air bed in my room.  Such a restful night’s sleep.  The window in the room was darkened so not a trace of light could peek into the room and the bed was so comfy.

Our little group puttered around in the morning before stopping at a pizza joint called Billy Q’s for some lunch.  I give this place a hearty recommendation.  Billy Q’s is famed for a nice thin crust with lots of toppings or a thicker sourdough crust.  I had asked for a personal Cristen’s (taco) pizza and our server arranged for it to be on a sourdough crust despite the fact that the personal is traditionally served on original crust.  Barry had ordered a small Works pizza for himself while Mat and Carolyn were supposed to share a small half Mac N Cheese/Reuben pizza.  Unfortunately they goofed and made the Reuben side a Cristen’s.  To make up for it, they brought out a personal Reuben.  Too many leftovers and not enough time to eat them.

 

 

About 5pm, we said our good-byes to Barry and began driving towards Anaheim.  Anaheim is part of the Los Angeles metro area which is the 2nd largest city in the country.  Six lanes of traffic and we caught a bit of the last of rush hour.  I’m truly glad Mat is an excellent driver because he handled it like a pro.  Things got far more peaceful once we got off the interstate and into Anaheim.

Carolyn had booked a room for us at Portofino Inn and Suites.  This is one of many Good Neighbor hotels for Disneyland.  This means that shuttle service is available and you can buy park tickets at the hotel.  The inn itself is a bit incongruous to its neighbors as it is only about three floors while its fellow hotels are imposing giants.

The walls are a little thin, but the room was comfortable and a bit suiteish as I had my own private sleeping area which also allowed privacy for Mat and Carolyn.

 

 

It was still early so we decided to hit up a mini-golf course nearby called Golfland Camelot.  It touts itself as the biggest mini-golf course in the country though I can’t make a judgment on that as two of its four courses were closed.  On the courses we played, emphasis was placed more on length than obstacles.  These were long holes.  Carolyn claimed not to be a good putter but slaughtered Mat and myself on the second round.  Luckily Mat and I had played solidly on the first round which led to him squeaking out a one stroke victory over me.  When the game was done, we headed back to the hotel.

Mat and Carolyn went out for a late dinner at Subway while I ran out and bought some batteries for my camera.  I went back to the hotel and caught a shower before retiring for the night.

We were up bright and early the next day.  It was a cool day that would top out only at 61 degrees so I found myself wearing a jacket to a Disney park.  We stopped for breakfast at IHOP, then walked to the shuttle area and were zipped to Disneyland.

So there I was at the original.  Disneyland is pretty much the Magic Kingdom at WDW, but a bit bigger with some extra rides.  It was a little strange as the park is so similar to Magic Kingdom, but has its own unique identity.  We walked up Main Street USA and saw the park’s centerpiece, Sleeping Beauty Castle.  I took a moment to soak up the ambiance and then we started exploring.

 

 

We picked a perfect day to visit the park.  The last week of February is, historically, the lowest in park attendance and that proved to be the case as there were not very many people at the park.  This allowed us to hit all of the good rides multiple times and we never waited in line for longer than 30 minutes.  We were also aided by Carolyn’s use of Fastpass Plus.  This meant she was able to use her phone to get our Fastpasses instead of us running all over creation to get them.  Her Disneyland app also let us check wait times on rides so we could plan appropriately.

What an amazing day!!  We enjoyed the classics such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Star Tours, Haunted Mansion (a personal favorite and I especially loved the Southern plantation motif) along with new rides such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye and the Matterhorn (incredibly awesome at night).  I even indulged my inner child and rode on It’s a Small World and Snow White’s Scary Adventures.  We even watched a performance from the Straw Hatters and Carolyn and Mat took a photo with Goofy.  What’s better is that the rides that exist in both Disneyland and WDW are still different enough to have their own identities.

 

 

We closed the night with an amazing dinner at Café Orleans where I had chicken gumbo and shrimp and grits and followed that with Disneyland’s closing show, Fantasmic.  Thirteen straight hours of fun and 10 plus miles walked.

The next day we visited the other park, Disney California Adventure.  Again, we arrived right at opening.  Over a third of the park was closed for refurbishment, but even at full strength, this would be a half day park at best.  It does possess a few classic rides.

The centerpiece of the park has to be Guardians of the Galaxy:  Mission Breakout which used to be the Tower of Terror.  Originally, the ride had a Twilight Zone theme, but has been altered to be a story where the riders help the Guardians escape from the clutches of The Collector.  The ride has 6 different drop patterns based on the song playing from Star Lord’s mix tape.  I loved the Twilight Zone version, but Guardians has a delightful sense of comedy and fun that makes it a must experience ride.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout

My other favorite ride was Grizzly Rapids.  Being a cool day, the ride never had a long wait though I imagine it can get quite lengthy on hot day.  Admittedly I scoffed at the sign that said “You will get wet.  You may get soaked.”  That is a hallmark of any raft ride and usually isn’t the case.  Well, we did get wet and did get soaked.  Towards the end of the ride, a geyser erupted in front of us and drowned us like rats.  A reconstruction of the event can be seen below.  On the plus side, it woke us up.

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SPLISH!!!

 

 

About 2:30pm, we left the park and began the drive back to Thousand Palms to pick up Mat and Carolyn’s dog, Jojo, before heading back to Tempe.  Having finally experienced Disneyland, I can honestly say it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t plan an entire trip around it as the two parks can be done in 2 days tops.

It was hard to believe that the trip was nearly done, but there was still fun to be had.  The next day was a gorgeous 75 degree day in Phoenix so Mat and I played mini-golf where he creamed me with a nearly perfect final round.  Wait, I mean the rat jerk cheated beyond belief in order to best me.  Foul!  Foul!  I call a foul!

In the evening, we had dinner at the Angry Crab Shack where Mat supped on steamed king crab legs and vegetables and Carolyn and I had shrimp po’boys.  Then we headed off to Mesa to experience an escape room.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, escape rooms have become extremely popular in recent years.  You and your group get locked in a group for about an hour and need to solve a series of puzzles to escape from the room.

I picked Jack’s Cabin.  The story was that Uncle Jack had been sending you strange messages so you go to his cabin to check up on things.  As Mat, Carolyn, and I searched the room, we found that Jack had become a werewolf and set up a means to stop him in one of his more lucid moments.  His desk had seven locks on it and we had to figure out the combinations to them all.  It was a tough case and we needed to burn all of our clues to solve the puzzles.  But we managed to put a rifle together and located a secret compartment with a silver bullet to escape from the room with less than seven minutes to spare.

For a first escape room, I had a good time especially with the sense of impending doom as precious time ticked away.  Carolyn said it was the weakest she had visited due to the focus simply being on locks.  She shared tales of amazing rooms with secret passages and creative challenges and said we would visit a proper room on my next visit.

The next day it was back to Omaha for me, though the airport was an absolute zoo.  I had never seen so many people for one airline.  It took me nearly 45 minutes to check in.  Thankfully, the security line was low, but I got to my gate just as boarding began.

It was a grand adventure and I look forward to my next visit to Tempe for another classic series of adventures.