Disney Day Thirteen

Our last full day on holiday, and the original plan had been to breeze through the Magic Kingdom. Instead we revisited Typhoon Lagoon for the prospect of lounging around in the water.

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Lady M has become rather sunburned, so opted to wear a t-shirt over her swimsuit, but didn’t let that stop her and Charleesi from grabbing inflatable rafts on the Crush’n’Gusher water slides.

My preference was to lounge in the water and let my feet recover from all the walking we’ve done. According to my pedometer, we’ve been averaging eight to ten miles per day consistently and wow, don’t I know it. Lessons learnt: wear more padded footwear next time.

The Doc Martens saved my feet this time, but they’re not suitable for water rides so I may invest in some Crocs or something next time.

Our last evening meal was special. We’d saved up Dining Plan points and some spare cash to eat at Jiko in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Like Le Cellier, this is proper fine dining, but Jiko specialises in modern South African cuisine and does it very well.

With beautiful decorations and wide views from the window, the restaurant provided us with excellent service and witty banter from the staff that kept us at our ease.

Our appetisers incorporated a range of flavours and spices, and had little notes to add to the staff explanations of what was in front of us. We went for different cuts of steak for our entrées, and each had a range of flavours and textures that were a delight to discover. The deserts were magical and playful all at the same time.

We will definitely return here when we can, it’s that special.

Disney Day Twelve

We’re suddenly very much aware that we’re running out of holidays and that we’ve walked an awfully long distance in the last couple of weeks.

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The upside to this is that we’ve hit pretty much most things we want to try and can now explore, take a more leisurely pace and not feel too bad about wilting in the heat that even native Floridians are calling unseasonal and a bit much…

So today was another Magic Kingdom day, taking in Splash Mountain, the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Pirates of the Caribbean and Winnie the Poo. We also went on the riverboat and did a lot more character meets.

I already knew it was going to be a bit of a strange day as I sat eating my breakfast muffin at the Cheshire Cat Café and watched Alice lead the White Rabbit by the hand to the Tea Cups.

Some unkind comments in my Facebook stream suggested that I needed to check my meds, and that I was actually still sat at home while I hallucinated my holiday. All I can say to that is that if I were hallucinating, my brain wouldn’t be conjuring up this heat..!

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The evening meal was at Teppan Edo in Epcot – a traditional style noodle meal prepared at the table for a group of us. Service was excellent, the atmosphere that curious mix of formal and informal as you might expect at a Disney recreation of Japanese cuisine, and our chef witty and engaging while demonstrating some intricate knife skills.

It was an expensive day, but mostly because we did a fair amount of Christmas gift shopping (mostly) for young relatives… Knowing we only had one full day left made us start to feel the end of holiday blues…

Disney Day Ten

On our first visit to Universal Studios, we deliberately avoided going into the Harry Potter themed areas. Today we took it by storm. Split across both the main park and it’s daughter, The Islands of Adventure, Hogsmeade has this year been expanded to include Diagon Alley (and it’s shadowy counterpart: Knockturn Alley, which is concealed round the back).

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Welcome to Hogsmeade

We got there as early as we could after an alarm clock malfunction, and piled into Platform 9 and three quarters. The illusion of walking through the wall is cleverly done, and the journey, although brief, was entertaining.

The level of immersion presented is frankly jaw dropping. All staff are dressed appropriately and all seem to be huge fans, making the whole experience something like a huge fandom convention on steroids.

Lady M was in her element, excited and positively squealing in joy when the music we used for her wedding march (The Quidditch World Cup themes) was played in The Three Broomsticks while we had lunch.

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The Three Broomsticks

Staff in the restaurant were amazed, and claimed she was the most excited person they’d met, which triggered blushes, more clapping, chattering and bouncing up and down.

We just had to try the drinks. Charleesi had butterbeer, while I went for the frozen version and Lady M had the pumpkin juice. They were incredibly sweet, and I certainly couldn’t have more than one. To be on the safe side I tanked up on water for the rest of our visit.

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Not pictured: the salad

For food, we attempted the Feast, reasoning that three hungry Maidments could polish off a meal for four. We were wrong. Chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, brocolli, carrots, and potatoes with a mountain of salad were duly brought across to us.

It was delicious, though the chicken was just barely a touch on the dry side. The vegetables were perfectly al dente, and the rosemary on the roasted potato was just right. The ribs just melted off the bone and were just sticky enough, while the salad had a light citrus vinagrette that lifted it perfectly.

There was just too much to eat comfortably, so we conceded defeat before rolling back out to continue exploring.

The rides in Hogsmeade are great. We loved trying both the blue and red dragon rides as there were only five minute waits. Our favourite was the swooping blue dragon course.

The flight of the hippogriff ride was fast, along the lines of a runaway train ride, and the 3D immersion of Escaoe from Hogwarts actually had the girls screaming between the spiders and dementors. I’ll admit to shuddering a bit at the dementor attack too.

We browsed the shops a bit to pick out what we might like to get for family presents and then got back on the train to Diagon Alley. Different animations played on the journey back to the Universal Studios end of the track, keeping us distracted as we pointed them out to each other.

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Sunny Old London Town

Then, a quick sidestep left out of the station into a concealed entrance and we were in the newest section. If we’d thought the immersion in Hogsmeade was pervasive then it had been taken up a notch for the Alley. There is no way to see the rest of the park from this area, and at roughly double the width and about one and a half times the length of the street set at the Watford studios, the main street just swallows the crowds.

When you factor in the side streets and the shops, you suddenly realise there’s a huge area associated with it. We’d heard that the queues for the Gringotts ride were still hovering around the three hour mark as a minimum so we’d decided not to try it this year, but then we saw the wait time listed as 75 minutes, so we just went for it.

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Not the happiest of bunnies

A combination of rollercoaster and 3D projection, I just can’t stress how much fun it was. The Hogwarts ride felt longer, but the Gringotts immersion and effects are both superior, down to the animatronic goblins that glower at you while you queue and are very good likenesses of the original actors. Make the time to try this if you can.

Exhaustion was setting in by now, so we decided to call it a day and return tomorrow to finish it off. Frankly, Universal could close the two outer parks and still have enough with the Harry Potter material to keep it a multiday visit attraction.

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Dinner was at the Grand Floridian and was a great close to the day. Or it would have been if we hadn’t got the boat across the lake back to the Magic Kingdom where we were just in time for the Electrical Parade and the closing Sound and Light, and Fireworks displays. A quick side trip for photos and a meet and greet with Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell later, (no points for guessing that Lady M was rather excitable at this point) and we finally collapsed back at our hotel

Disney Day Nine

Very slowly and reluctantly, we got up and started the next day, heading to Disney Hollywood Studios. For some reason some of the reviews we’d seen before coming out here had the place pegged as a half day park.

I’m not entirely sure they visited the same place we did. If they did, they must have done a couple of rides and missed the shows.

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Our absolute favourite was the Aerosmith ride, which features a fast launch into a dark indoor rollercoaster with a loop pretty much the first thing you hit. It’s a great adrenaline ride, possibly the best one there.

The rest of the day we bounced between shows and explored. I’d been on the Paris Star Tours ride about ten years ago, so was curious to finally experience the updated ride. As a piece of immersive fun it ticks all the right boxes for me, and it was fun to go from that to The Muppets for a different kind of immersion.

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You can't fault the set dressing

Then, with the temperatures soaring, we got some more character photos, and debated calling it a day. The one criticism I’ll levy against the park is the irregularity of their air conditioning and use of fans. Hopefully this will get attention soon as it really detracted from the day’s enjoyment.

We only stayed on because we had Fastpass tickets to the car stunt show. Sadly, a thunderstorm swept in just as they had finished their first sequence and the show had to be abandoned.
We stayed in the grandstand to watch the spectacular weather from somewhere covered and grounded, at least until the wind changed to drive the rain horizontally into us.

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Well, I may have geeked out a little

That was the point we took staff advice and sheltered with other guests under the bleachers. As the rain eased off, we went into British tourist mode and walked out again, enjoying the reduced temperatures and decided to substitute our FastPass for a go on the new Toy Story ride instead.

This is well worth tracking down in the Pixar section. Its another shooter on rails ride, using 3D graphics to present animated targets as if you were playing in Andy’s toybox. Great fun, and being the competitive souls we were, it was tightly contested.

Dinner was at Bongos in Downtown Disney. I’ve never had Cuban cuisine before, so tried a taster dish that had highlights and more mundane flavours between the chicken, pork and beef and the dipping sauces. Service was so-so, especially when we didn’t order any alcohol (Lady M has an intolerance to rum that knocks her for six, and I’m limiting my alcohol while my doctor settles my new meds routines.

I don’t think we’ll be going back as the mediocre food and sensory overload detracted hugely from my enjoyment. I’ll try tracking down more Cuban restaurants when I’m back in London as I’m sure this wasn’t a representative experience.

Disney Day Eight

And the WordPress App strikes again..! I’ve just had a local draft overwrite itself due to a failed media upload while travelling, much to my irritation. So here goes with another go at talking about our first day at the Magic Kingdom:

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Entrance to the Magic Kingdom

Lady M has, I think it’s fair to say, been just the tiniest bit excited about coming to Disney. Monthly and then daily countdowns have entertained those of us who know and love her, and confused those working with her for the first time.

In large part it’s because, as she’s the first to tell you, she’s been planning to get here for over thirty years. We’ll draw a discrete veil over the precise number, mainly because to all intents and purposes she’s been reverting into a six year old. So it was always going to be emotional.

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Yes, there was a wobbly lip and tears as we entered Main Street and the castle came into view, but then the adrenaline kicked in and we began our first day of assault (there’s another couple of days planned).

Space Mountain, the People Mover and Buzz Lightyear fell quickly. We took advantage of shade and air conditioning where we could as the temperatures continued to rise into the mid thirties centigrade, but even so it was starting to feel a bit of a slog by the time we’d conquered Thunder Mountain and posed with Chip and Dale.

After a break from lunch we rode the steam train round the park and then jumped on the Barnstormer before using a Fastpass for the new Seven Dwarves ride. It’s a great runaway train ride with humour and nostalgia seasoning the mix and I look forward to riding it again.

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House of Blues, Disney Downtown

A quick stop for some music and we were beginning to wilt, so we headed back to Downtown Disney to eat at the House of Blues. The food was good, and the ambience pleasant enough but the feel of the place was rather like a puppy trying to pretend it was a rattlesnake. Perhaps I’ve known a few low dives over the years for comparison…

Then we caught a late showing of Guardians of the Galaxy because Charleesi hadn’t seen it yet, so it was the very early hours of the morning before we crawled into bed…

Disney Day Six

For the most part we had a lazy day by the pool today. We’d originally thought of going to Seaworld, but couldn’t face it. So after the usual filling breakfast we found loungers in a relatively shaded area and set about making friends and relatives distinctly jealous.

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View from the pool

What’s to say? They have a couple of pools here at the resort, all well staffed, with free towels and a bar. An entertainer is on hand for kids and families, doing quizzes, bingo and dance competitions at a blistering pace that just sweeps you up.

We just alternated between the pool and the shade; reading, writing and watching the world go by. Then it was back to the room to change for the big event.

I’ve been in awe of Cirque du Soleil since seeing an early performance on tv when I was a kid. I can’t remember the show – it was probably Paul Daniels’ Magic Show – but the beautiful fluidity and interweaving threads of performance captured my imagination. I never thought I’d actually get to ever see a live show, but here we were for their performance of La Nouba, which was specially written for Disney as a dream sequence with nods to iconic Disney films.

We got straight in as the doors opened because all the advice we’d read was to get there early. We were glad we did, as the clowns did a great job warming up the audience. I won’t say any more, because Spoilers!

The two hours of trapeze, dance, high wire, bmx tricks, clowning and more swept us up with powerful vocal performances by the operatic singers and the house band and there are no bad seats in the house. If you get a chance to see them, take it, it’s awesome and amazing in the true senses of those words.

And then we walked home across the bridge from Downtown Disney and through the resort, with my daughter nearly losing a shoe in a shortcut. As she said: “It’s not a proper night out on the town unless someone loses a shoe.”

Disney Day Five

The fast pace we’ve adopted is beginning to noticeably affect our ability to wake up in the mornings, so it was a slow start yesterday. Just as well we’d set today to hit the waterparks.

Lady M’s original plan would have seen us try to visit both Disney water parks in one day but we quickly changed that to spending the whole day at Typhoon Lagoon.

Dominated by an artificial mountain with a boat stuck on the top, the park has a large central swimming area that has a six foot tidal wave triggered in it every few minutes. A large beach circles it, as well as a number of water slides and features around the outer reaches, separated by a gently flowing stream in which people are encouraged to float in inflatable tubes.

We’d brought towels but you can rent them, along with lockers, so we quickly stowed them away so we could explore. Shark Reef allowed a brief snorkel with fish, sharks and rays, and then we did a circuit in the river.

Very restful, with scattered water sprays to cool us, there’s a good natured chatter to be had as you drift round bumping into people. The water is shallow enough to stand in, and there are plenty of lifeguards at regular intervals, so even I as a non-swimmer felt safe enough to relax.

There were a number of more energetic slides and tubes that the girls explored, with varying degrees of shrieking, but my highlight was the family raft ride down the mountain.

Yet again the Disney attention to detail shone through. If the lunchtime icecream service became a bit chaotic, well I can forgive that to a degree, but it was a rare sight of organisational confusion at one food outlet rather than anything systemic at the park.

The day just ambled by, and I think we may go back. We’ve all caught the sun, with minor sunburn on most of us, but no one is doing a lobster impression so that’s alright.

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In the evening we ate at Le Cellier in Epcot. It’s one of the Disney Signature Restaurants, which means two dips per person into your Dining Plan, or being prepared to pay well for your meal.

Le Cellier is Canadian and a steakhouse fine dining experience. The staff were attentive, informed, friendly and enthusiastic and the food was simply amazing. I highly recommend dining there and dressing for the occasion. If nothing else the delight on the staff’s faces when greeting people who’d made an effort rather than just slobbing in would make for a wonderful photo montage.

So, a good day all round, hopefully another quiet day to recover and we’ll launch back into the rollercoasters.

Disney Day Two

Epcot is one of those visually iconic locations that no one is quite sure about. Often pegged as the grownups’ park, its brief generally falls into the educational part of Walt Disney’s vision, and the whole main area feels like a set from a scifi film.

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Spaceship Earth dominates the skyline

Perhaps because of that visual distinctiveness, Lady M had an emotional response to arriving. Tears and smiles warred for a while before we settled on grins. She’s always wanted to come here, and so too had her late mother, so emotions were running high before we started.

This isn’t so much of a thrill ride location, though the Test Track and space launch simulators would beg to differ. Instead there’s a mellow spirit of inquisitiveness that makes this place a nerdy, foodie paradise. From the Innoventions sections to the themed food and drink sections around the world, communication and cooperation are the watchwords you encounter over and over again.

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Epcot Finishing Fireworks

After the fast pace of yesterday, it was good to slow down. It feels like a place to browse rather than conquer. Even our evening meal at Coral was chilled out, waving to passing divers in the tanks, and then we headed home after the explosive finishing fireworks to collapse.

Next up: Universal Studios..!

Disney Day One

The flight went well, with only a minimum of irritations, I’m pleased to report. This left only my first attempt at driving an automatic in the US to contend with.

My overwhelming memories are that it was odd being on the wrong side of the car, moreso than any worry about the side of the road, so I had to retrain my lane discipline to stop drifting. Pretty much everything else was “just” a mirror-flip.

I may have startled a couple of buses, and my observation is that despite all the strict warnings about posted speed limits, no one else was observing them. Oh, and I may have nearly run over the gatekeeper to the Saratoga Springs resort (sorry!). Fortunately the English accent seems to make most things forgiveable…

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We spent our first day at Animal Kingdom, and my pedometer says we covered nearly eleven miles. No wonder we’re all footsore this morning. The highlight was definitely the Himalayan Escape – a great runaway train ride which we jumped on a couple of times.

We were also due to eat at Sanaa, the african-indian themed restaurant attached to the park’s resort. Great service, fantastic cooking and a great wind-down to the day.

In retrospect we should have called it quits and gone to bed then, but the bus took us to Downtown Disney and straight into hyperactive families just as we had no reserves to cope. We beat a hasty retreat and had a gentle collapse back in our room.

Lined up for today: Epcot. Let battle commence…

Holidays are nearly here

In a little over a month or so, we’ll be off to the House of Mouse. Lady M is already regressing to be a six year old, while my daughter and I are only just starting to really get excited now that work, study and other distractions like exams have come and gone. After a number of years of not being able to take holidays, it still seems a bit surreal to be in a position to take breaks again. By scrimping and saving we’re managing to organise some amazing experiences. Last year saw us in the Maldives, which I would never have believed was somewhere I would ever get to see. Even with the accident and Lady M’s needing to be in a wheelchair for most of that break, it remains one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

I’ve already sort of joked that we would probably end up with something horrendous happening while we’re out in Florida. It might be a ride breaking down at a crucial moment, or our hotel getting flattened by a hurricane. Neither of these would be particularly surprising. Getting a phone call out of the blue last week to say that Lady M’s back had started to hurt again was rather more frightening. It brought back memories of a few years ago when initially undiagnosed prolapsed discs in the base of her spine kept her out of work. I essentially became her full time carer for a while – at a time when we had very little income and had to contend with the unhelpful and at times positively antagonistic Department of Work and Pensions.

We muddled through that and eventually got ourselves stable again, but hearing that her back was out of commission again was hard to hear. Fortunately it appears that this time around, it really is just a muscular spasm. She’s responding well to the strong pain killers and anti-inflammatories, and her place of work has been happy to let her work from home. Still, she’s exhausted from it all, so this year’s holiday to Disney in Florida has suddenly taken on even more importance than it already had.

It’s the first time any of us have been there. My daughter and I have been to Disneyland Paris a couple of times, a good few years back, and I had initially worried that she might see herself as too old or “too cool” for Disney now that she’s older. I needn’t have worried. The minute we broached the subject, her first response was to check that we really meant “the proper one” and I understand that she may have been driving her mother and other relatives somewhat to distraction by talking about it over the last six or seven months. I’m rather pleased about this breach in her usual cool reserve as it allows me to see the simple giggliness that she normally keeps well hidden.

For Lady M, and to a degree myself, Disney was one of those seemingly impossible locations that we always heard about when we were growing up. She grew up in the North East of England in the shadows of the Pits, while I grew up (largely) in a Vicarage family. Neither of these are places where money flows in abundance, so the dream of Disney was one that was usually handled with a vague “well maybe one day” and generally allowed to fall by the wayside.

Now that long-abandoned option is available again – along with trips to Universal Studios, to NASA and any number of other attractions thanks to some shrewd bargaining and scheduling by my very determined wife. We’ve struggled through spreadsheets and planning advice websites to load up an itinerary through the Disney Experience website that includes FastPass bookings, restaurant bookings, displays, shows and even the occasional lounge by the pool. I feel exhausted just from the planning.

So the holidays are nearly here, and with any luck none of us will burn out before we get there!