Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Love and Fireworks: My Disney history, and a trip report

Every time I come home from a Disney trip, I think my excitement for the parks will die down for a bit.

Every time, it gets more intense.

This time, it got way more intense.

My love for the Disney parks is in my blood. My parents' first visit to Disneyland together came in the 1970s before my birth. I would join them a few years later for trips during my infancy that burrowed deep inside my subconscious; I felt like I was a Disneyland expert as a preschooler even though I had barely been alive when I visited the place.

Our family's love for Disney has always been notorious — my mother's friend once joked that I had been conceived aboard Pirates of the Caribbean. After my first coherent trip in 1988, the Birnbaum guide became my Bible. Subsequent visits to Walt Disney World in 1989, '90 and '94 made me fall in love with EPCOT Center and Disney/MGM Studios.

And then high school and college happened, and then young adulthood, and then, in 2004, my first visit to what had been unofficially branded as "Disneyland for Adults," Las Vegas. My enthusiasm for Disney animation and films never wavered, but the parks became a distant memory from a childish time. Who needs The Enchanted Tiki Room when you have craps tables, Coyote Ugly and free beer? My parents kept going to Orlando twice a year, but why? Haven't they seen it all by now? Aren't there more exciting things to do?

That phase didn't last long.

Fate brought me back to Disneyland in January 2007, and the DisMadness was reignited like never before. I went straight to Indiana Jones Adventure on the first morning of that trip. I screamed and applauded when we narrowly dodged the boulder, and I was hooked all over again.

The blue caverns of POTC. Fireworks exploding over Big Thunder's second lift hill. Floating over a tiny London. Jumping to lightspeed with Captain Rex. Sipping on pineapple juice while the birds sing words and the flowers croon.

It felt like coming home.

I would return to Disneyland in December 2007, August 2011, February 2012 and March 2014. I visited WDW in November 2008, October 2010, February 2013 and, most recently, April 2015. That's nine trips in just over eight years, eight years full of people asking the question we're all too familiar with: "You're going again?!?"

Yep. And I'll go again and again. A Twitter friend asked her feed recently what it is about the Disney parks that instills such fervor in their fans, and the answer I gave had the illusion of being intellectual: "I am a huge fan of films and filmmaking, and being at Disney makes me feel like I am inside one."

That's of course true, but it's an attempt to church up the simple, emotional truth: I want to live inside a fantasyland with my loved ones, having fun and eating ice cream, all accompanied by a musical score and fireworks. (I mean, who wouldn't?)

In 2011, I met a young lady on OK Cupid who actually recognized me from my Twitter account as that guy from the newspaper who wrote a blog about "LOST." We went to see a late show of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II" on an unbearably hot summer night and, afterward, wound up kissing on her back porch until 4 a.m. We took out first Disney trip together in 2012, and were convinced we were having more fun than everyone else in Anaheim.

Three years and two months later on Saturday, April 18, I returned to WDW for a week with Lisa. At 1:45 a.m. Sunday morning, in one of the new fountain parks in the Magic Kingdom hub, she became my fiancee. Applause erupted from a group sitting at the Plaza on Main Street as I placed the blue diamond ring on her finger.
Yep, I went to Jared! I got the buttons Sunday afternoon at Epcot's guest relations counter.

Lisa and I took some unofficial engagement selfies in the
Port Orleans: French Quarter lobby on Tuesday.
Three days later, my parents arrived at Port Orleans: French Quarter for a weeklong stay of their own. Just under a year earlier, while sitting together at U.S. Cellular Field watching the White Sox lose to the Minnesota Twins, my father told me a November 2014 trip would be their very last.

Out of nowhere in early 2014, my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and would begin his three-days-a-week regimen of dialysis treatments. He has no desire to take a kidney from one of his children, nor does he want to be put on a waitlist to get a kidney that his body might ultimately reject. He left work that spring and is now, for all intents and purposes, retired.

My mother has struggled with multiple sclerosis for at least a decade. Some days, she feels perfectly fine. Some days, she walks with a cane. And some days, her legs feel like they're on fire and she can barely get out of bed. She is, for all intents and purposes, retired.

Part of me completely understood why my dad was saying they'd never take another WDW trip, and part of me couldn't believe what I was hearing. WDW and Disneyland are the No. 1 topic of conversation for the Stangland family. It's no contest. "How many days?," I'll ask my dad. And he'll know, because he's always counting down. We're always dreaming of the next trip, talking about the latest announcements, and generally being giant nerds. We are a Disney Parks family, through and through.

So though I really couldn't swing it financially, I decided Lisa and I were going in November, too, even if it was only for four days and we had to stay at All-Star Sports. But fate had other plans for us, and I had to push our trip to April. Great, on one hand, because that gave me enough time to pay off a longer, better trip with a stay at a moderate resort. Not so great, on the other, because my dad said November would be their last trip. Ever.

He never told my mother this, apparently, because she went and booked an April trip anyway. And wouldn't you know it, she came home from that trip and already booked another one for October.

Are their trips different now? Yes. Dad has to take a cab from French Quarter to a clinic in Orlando for dialysis every other day. They rent ECVs to navigate Epcot's wide open spaces and take turns pushing each other in the wheelchair in the confines of Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. They don't move very quickly. (Well, my dad does in the ECV. Look out, citizens of Future World!)

But while being on vacation is more difficult than it used to be, you know what they don't do while they're at Disney World? Deal with insurance companies, crazy neighbors, and car troubles, or worry about an upcoming doctor's visit. They do smile. A lot.

Bonnie and Glenn have been to the parks so many times and can take pleasure in the simplest things, like sharing a post-parks dessert at Sassagoula Floatworks or basking in the view of Future World's flowers from the World Showcase promenade. And on this trip, they got to share a Garden Grill character dinner, Citrus Swirl smiles and PhilharMagic feels with their son and their future daughter-in-law.

Our server snaps a shot of us at Epcot's Garden Grill on Wednesday.
You can see a blurry Farmer Mickey photobombing us in the background.

We live in a cynical world. (Settle down, Jerry Maguire.) It's easy to see the Disney parks as cynical places, where people plunk down thousands of dollars to "let the memories begin" at "the happiest place on Earth," a place "where dreams come true." But for some of us, the magic is absolutely real, and we want to experience it again and again. I hope we will continue to do just that.

• • •

Whew, that was a long, emotional way to introduce a trip report, wasn't it? Don't worry, this isn't going to be a day-by-day, blow-by-blow rundown. We'll call it a happy highlight reel of our five days at the Disney parks, one day at Universal Orlando, and eight days altogether in Florida. (Maybe there will be just a few lowlights, too.) So let's dive in:

The highlight reel

We made a last-minute reservation
for Crystal Palace on Friday. Lisa
desperately needed some Eeyore time.
The Magic Bands worked. Every single time, from check-in at Magical Express, to opening the door to our standard room at French Quarter, to validating our FastPass+ selections. We did not tie credit cards to our bands for various reasons, so we cannot attest to the functionality of using them as payment, but they never once failed to do anything else. A year and a half of horror stories from regular visitors, tweeps and message board users prepared me for the worst, and it never came.

Awesome meet-and-greet experiences. It became clear early on that Lisa wanted to meet a lot of characters on this trip. That's typically not my favorite activity, but how can I argue with the look of sheer joy on her face when it's her turn to hug Eeyore? Our first M&G stop was Princess Fairytale Hall on Saturday night to meet those sisters from you-know-what, and I was amazed by the amount of work and care put into the queue, the environments and the interactions. The Anna face character was flat-out incredible; she embodied the role better than any FC I've seen outside of the Gaston we met in 2013. A few days later, we met all four variant characters at Pete's Silly Sideshow and I was knocked out all over again. (Aside from the water play area, that whole Storybook Circus section of the park is a beautiful, somewhat hidden gem.) Obviously, M&Gs are not everyone's cup of tea, but you can't help but be impressed by what Magic Kingdom is doing with them. Lisa certainly was. Click here to see a gallery of all 41 characters that she met on our trip.

Best face character or bestest face character?
The surprise hits of the trip. Three things we skipped in 2013 ended up being standouts on this trip. I had a sneaking suspicion that Lisa would enjoy the much-maligned Stitch's Great Escape, and I was right. Considerable flaws aside, the former Alien Encounter still boasts impressive Audio-Animatronics characters and a unique theatrical presentation that is downright thrilling — until that chili dog gets burped in your face. What I didn't expect is that we would both love Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. We laughed from start to finish, and so did everyone in the room. I've seen that show twice and it seems to be a can't-miss crowd-pleaser, yet no one ever talks about it. (And if they do, they complain that it doesn't belong in Tomorrowland. They're right, of course, but it's hard to care about that when you're enjoying it so much.) The third big winner was Great Movie Ride at DHS, which I hadn't seen since at least 2010. Back then, it showed its age badly and failed to connect. This time, it seemed to have regained some of its sparkle, and the cast members won the crowd. Lisa really enjoys AA-heavy attractions, and GMR is certainly that.

"This one's on Mickey." I've encountered my share of great cast members at the parks, but I had never heard that line before. On our first night, we went to Sunshine Tree Terrace to get our beloved Citrus Swirls. There was either a problem with the machine, a shortage of ingredients or both, so we were told we'd have to wait 10 minutes or so. I had no problem with that; a Citrus Swirl is worth waiting for. We watched tired customer after tired customer get aggravated with the overheated, overworked CMs as we patiently waited off to the side, smiles on our faces. When the Swirls finally arrived, I thanked the CM and pulled out my wallet — and that's when I heard her say those four words. (And mind you, we weren't wearing our Just Engaged buttons yet!)

Our spot for Wishes on Thursday right next to the Be Our Guest Restaurant entrance.

My new favorite spot for fireworks. I know New Fantasyland (or Fantasyland Forest, or whatever the hell we're calling it now) has been cited as a great alternative to Main Street for viewing Wishes, but I had no idea I'd end up loving it so much. We exited PhilharMagic around 9:15 Thursday night and decided not to fight our way to the front for the 10 p.m. Wishes, so I suggested we try a spot near Ariel. We walked past the castle walls and saw that no one — and I mean no one — was camping out near Belle's Enchanted Tales or Be Our Guest Restaurant, and I spotted a flat rock right near the BOG sign that looked like a fine place for Lisa to sit while I leaned against the rockwork next to it. I grabbed a LeFou's Brew and some grab-and-go apples, and soon we were watching fireworks explode over both Cinderella's Castle and Beast's Castle. Yes, you have to keep turning your head back and forth to see it all, but you are so close to the fireworks that the experience is overwhelming. We missed seeing the castle projections, but we sure didn't miss the crowded hub.

A man ahead of us in line for the Simpsons family
M&G won a ton of plushes at the carnival games
and offered Lisa his extra Lisa — and he didn't even
know her name was Lisa.
Springfield won the day at Universal. I love "The Simpsons." Who doesn't love "The Simpsons"? But when I saw pictures of the Springfield expansion at Universal Studios Florida, I thought it looked terrible and tacky. I had been on the Simpsons Ride in 2010, and I remember liking the queue more than the ride itself. That's still true, and now I can add the entirety of the Springfield area to it. Truth be told, we didn't have a whole lot of fun at Universal that Monday, and Springfield cheered us up in a hurry. There are jokes to read and hear at every turn, and while static, plastic characters aren't ideal, they do afford you plenty of fun photo opportunities. (An aside about photos: We saw 25-30 people with selfie sticks in our 6 hours at UOR. We saw maybe 5 people with them in five days at the Disney parks.) Lisa thought she would spend untold fortunes on merchandise at Wizarding World and Diagon Alley, but instead spent all of her Universal souvenir dollars at the Kwik-E-Mart.

British Revolution is Epcot's biggest hit. After our dinner at Le Cellier Sunday night (more on that ... a little later) we lined up for the Pooh & Tigger M&G at the U.K. pavilion and walked out just as British Revolution began their set. They quickly attracted a large, diverse crowd of all ages, and every single person had a huge smile on his or her face. Moms sang their favorite songs to their babies. Elderly women who didn't think they were going to see a rock concert at Disney World were dancing to "Won't Get Fooled Again." Lisa freaked out when she heard the bassline from "Another One Bites the Dust."

Joe from Brooklyn. Joe is a security guard at MK bag check, and Joe loves his job. He had a big damn smile on his face and greeted every single person with a genuine, positive attitude. "Good morning, Princess! You excited to meet Cinderella today?" When it was our turn to meet Joe, he congratulated us on the engagement and asked where we're from. "Chicago? Can't be," he said, as he rummaged through my backpack. "I don't see no Lou Malnati's pizza in there!" I wish I had taken a picture of Joe.

Our top attractions

Dinosaur. Lisa loved this ride in 2013, and she loves it even more now. She likes it far more than Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, which uses the same ride vehicle and track layout. She screams in terror every time, even when it's the third ride-through in a row at 8:30 a.m. We were the first people in line at the Dino Institute that morning, and had the Time Rover to ourselves for ride No. 2. The CM at exit told us to undo our seat belts and then plug them right back in, and away we went on ride No. 3. I know this ride is often slammed for missing or half-working effects, and I suspect I know what those effects are, but I cannot deny that I love every second of it anyway.

Spaceship Earth. Still the king of all WDW attractions, in my opinion, but some of the bloom has come off the rose in the era of MyMagic+. Until Friday, there were minimal crowds during our trip — but that didn't stop SSE from having a 30-minute wait at all times, thanks to the completely unnecessary FastPass+ line. In 2013, we took four trips through time with Dame Judi Dench. This year, we took one, courtesy of the FP+ I booked in February. I would have waited 30 minutes for at least one more go-round, but we ultimately decided against it. The ride itself is still stunning, and we even like the goofy thing at the end with the virtual bobbleheads.

Haunted Mansion. I suppose this is a big "duh" of an entry, but it's worth saying that we think MK's version of this attraction is superior to the Disneyland original. I like the piano-player gag better here, I like the M.C. Escher staircase room, I like the new Hitchhiking Ghosts gag at the end, and I even like the cemetery queue. (Blasphemy, I know.) Of course, my opinion may change when I meet the Hatbox Ghost in Anaheim next year...

Lisa got a little frisky with King
Triton across from the Ariel ride.
Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid. We love this attraction. My parents love this attraction. Seeing the look on my dad's face when the clamshells enter the "Under the Sea" room was just about worth the whole trip. I was very happy to see the new lighting package throughout the ride, and the show building and queue just knock me out. On Saturday night, a CM sent us through a second time because "literally no one else is on the ride," and I briefly considered pulling out the engagement ring during the "Kiss the Girl" sequence — can you imagine if I had dropped it on the track?! I think waiting until later was the correct choice.

Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black: Alien Attack. Unquestionably our favorite rides at Universal Orlando. Lisa totally fell for the fake-exit gag near the end of ROTM, and gushed over the Animatronics and practical sets at MiB. A competitive shooter attraction, MiB stands tall over Magic Kingdom's version of the Buzz Lightyear ride, which lacks two fairly basic features they have at Disneyland: targets that light up when you hit them, and guns that you can actually remove from the ride vehicle.



Tasty foodstuffs

Pooh's Breakfast Lasagna. Drool.
Pooh's Breakfast Lasagna at Crystal Palace. This is basically the tastiest torture device ever. Here are the key ingredients from the recipe I found online: custard, pound cake, pancakes, waffles and pastry cream. I didn't care for the chaotic atmosphere at this character breakfast, nor do I care for most breakfast food (a Mickey waffle is about as complex as it gets for me), but I would consider returning just to have another bowl of this evil concoction. (Characters: Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore)

The Riverside Mill. My dad insists that the $10 turkey dinner at Port Orleans: Riverside's food court carving station is one of the best meals on Disney property, and damn it, he's right. (And it's a great value, too.) Throw in a Yuengling tallboy and you got yourself a rainy-day treat.

Garden Grill. Our whole party had dinner at this "all-you-care-to-enjoy" restaurant overlooking Living With the Land on Wednesday night, and I can't imagine an easier, more efficient character dining experience. The circular layout means every table faces the walkway used by the waitstaff and the characters, and you can't really see the neighboring tables. So everybody patiently waits their turn for the characters, the waitstaff brings food as you need it, and the atmosphere is bright, quiet and inviting. The food is simple fare done well: chicken, beef, tilapia, potatoes, rice, dessert. I would definitely come back. (Characters: Farmer Mickey, Pluto, Chip & Dale)

Citrus Swirl. Sunshine Tree Terrace and Aloha Isle swapped places at MK, and nothing was lost in translation.

Frosted Rice Krispies treats. These are available just about everywhere at WDW, and we bought them just about everywhere. A treat bearing Olaf's smiling face from the Space Mountain gift shop was our gateway drug.


Lisa loved her filet with mushroom risotto from Le Cellier.
I was too busy trying to escape Searing Gas Pain Land.
Le Cellier. More like Le Salty-ier, huh? HUH?!? But seriously, the restaurant is gorgeous. The staff was great that Sunday night. I love the selection of Unibroue beers. I love the beer-cheese soup. (Who doesn't?) The ribeye was decent, not great, but most of all it was unfathomably huge. The cumulative effect of all this indulgence left me in agony for the rest of the night, which was mostly spent sitting on the waterfront between France and International Gateway and waiting for IllumiNations to begin.

it's a small world. This and Maelstrom were the two attractions in dire need of TLC when we last visited in 2013, and iasw still needs it. Cracked paint, dust, grime ... Mary Blair's work deserves better.

Most of Universal Orlando. We are apparently too old and lame to enjoy Universal's roster of turbulent 3-D extravaganzas. Our morning began with Escape to Gringotts and continued with Forbidden Journey after a ride on the Hogwarts Express. By the time we boarded Spider-Man around 9:30 a.m., I was ready to puke. When a ride sprayed water on us for the third time that morning, Lisa turned to me and said, "Every ride is the same." I was shocked by how much Lisa paid to get us into the park with Express Pass, appalled that they wanted to sell us a $9 lanyard to carry said passes, and infuriated when approached in a theme park by Team Members trying to get us to watch a Fall TV preview. When we cough up nearly $500 for one day's entry, I don't expect to dodge hucksters in polo shirts like I'm at the mall. Then the rain started. Then four chefs from Vivo Italian Kitchen sat next to us at Breadbox and treated the staff there like absolute crap. (Breadbox, FWIW, is very tasty. And very pricey!) We were at UOR for six hours, and we're not exactly clamoring to go back. Was our short, disappointing day representative of everyone's experience? Nope. But it was our experience.

Test Track. We saw the revamped pavilion in 2013 and enjoyed it, but now we can't help but compare the experience to Radiator Springs Racers at Disneyland, an all-time classic attraction that shares a ride system with Test Track and virtually nothing else. My favorite part of this now is designing the car, which ultimately has no bearing on the ride itself.

Let's close this out with some photos

New to us on this trip: the Terra Cotta warriors at the China pavilion.
We could sit and watch Dumbo all night long.
Gettin' #drunj with Barney at Moe's

We camped out by Hall of Presidents both times we watched the Electrical Parade. A perfect, mostly empty spot.
PO:FQ is, overall, my favorite of the WDW resorts I've stayed at.
Festival of Fantasy Parade, seen here at MK, and Soundsational at Disneyland
have proven that I, too, can enjoy daytime parades.
I've been to Cosmic Ray's on almost every trip but somehow never even saw Sonny Eclipse until this time around.

I could go on and on, but I've said quite enough for one blog post, haven't I? Thanks for reading this, friends. I had a lot of fun writing it!