Monday, January 3, 2011

The Experience of Disney World

by Conroy

I spent three days over New Years at the Walt Disney World Resort (official name) in Orlando. This was my first visit since June 1987 - when I was six - so I was interested to know how my childhood memories would compare to an adult experience. I was pleasantly surprised. Some thoughts (in the form of a travel review):

Immersive Experience
Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom
The Disney World slogan is "Where Dreams Come True", which I think is a little ambitious. What I will endorse is that Disney World is an immersive experience. My girlfriend and I visited all four theme parks over three nights and two days and I was struck at each park by the attention to detail, the direct and indirect references to Disney characters and movies, and the interactive nature of the attractions (they aren't all rides). For instance, on just the first night in the Magic Kingdom we witnessed fireworks, a parade, fake snow falling on Main Street U.S.A., and continuously varying lights on Cinderella's iconic castle. Events that go above simple rides or themes to grab you and pull you more into the "Disney experience". Another good example is the Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, which amounts to a tour through a park zoo, as opposed to outside of concrete moats and fences, with the standard big African mammals (lions, elephants, giraffes, etc.), but includes travel over a rickety bridge that threatens to collapse (pretty effective) and a continuous mission to aid the park warden on hunting down poachers in search of the park elephants. There must also be electric fences or some other invisible features to keep the lions and other animals from mauling the park guests (hopefully anyway, on real African safaris the guides reassuringly carry rifles and shotguns). These touches raise the attractions above typical amusement park rides. (Incidentally my girlfriend worked one summer as a safari driver - that took the suspense out of the bridge collapsing element.)

Spaceship Earth in Epcot
Disney World includes numerous attractions that attempt to recreate actual places, the Asia and Africa sections of Animal Kingdom are a good example as well as the World Showcase in Epcot. In fact Disney World lauds the accuracy and detail of the countries in the World Showcase (France, Morocco, China, to name a few), noting that each was "approved" by representatives from those countries. That may be (and the areas are very cool), but it raises the question of authenticity. Disney World aggressively pushes the Disney image and the commercialism overruns every aspect of the park. One has to ask if there is some crassness in mimicking - and selling - real world places within the Resort. I asked myself this question a few times and each time I came down on the side of Disney. Yes, they sell, sell, and sell, but if anything all of the elements of the park are recreated and used in what appears to be an homage and not an exploitation for cheap profit. But that's my take, I invite you to make yours.

Past and Present
Despite my young age during my first visit and the many years that have past since then, I do have vivid recollection from my earlier vacation. I remember some bad things: heat (the June sun is intense in Central Florida), long lines, some disappointing rides (It's a Small World, Peter Pan's Flight). But more good things: Space Mountain (even though my dad had to coerce me into riding because of my then fear of roller coasters), the Haunted Mansion, Thunder Mountain, and the 3D Captain EO movie, which was impressive to me back then.

The Sorcerer's Hat at Hollywood Studios
Well, this time around I was able to appreciate far more. Excellent attractions (Test Track, Soarin', Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, Tower of Terror, Toy Story Midway Mania, etc.), unique interactive features (Kim Possible), two new theme parks (Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios), multiple enjoyable shows (Fantasmic and Lights, Motors, Action), lots and lots of holiday lights, the intricate and enriching details on all of the attractions (Splash Mountain is both simple and elaborate, a masterpiece of a ride/experience), and something that you will overlook as a child - the genuinely courteous "cast members" (staff).

Generally the food, from the Itzakadoozie popsicles sold by sidewalk vendors to the Japanese dinner at Teppan Edo was really good as well, if a bit overpriced, but I didn't feel gouged. Also, while we're on food, the Disney chefs seemed ultra-sensitive to food allergies, perhaps a symptom of our suddenly hyper-allergic times.

Variety and Scale
I've alluded to this above, but with four separate theme parks, water parks, golf courses, dozens of variously themed hotels/resorts, and ESPN's Wide World of Sports, all spread out over Disney's 40 plus square miles of property southwest of Orlando, Walt Disney World is large enough to captivate. It's almost as big as San Francisco! Such size, variety, and detail can keep you interested for days and it can't all be taken in during a single visit, which surely is the intent of the "imagineers" at Disney, to keep you interested enough to come back for more.

As an example, the Disney creators have hidden hundreds of "Mickeys", images of Mickey Mouse, all over the park from attractions to restaurants, and within the scenery. My girlfriend noted that there are books dedicated to highlighting the Mickeys and many people will go through the parks just to search for them. Another example is the Kim Possible attraction that I listed above. This is a game at Epcot based on the children's cartoon in which you become a "secret agent" following instructions from your hand-held "Kimtroller" to complete numerous tasks to foil the evil intent of various villains. As two adults we enjoyed our mission in the United Kingdom pavilion where we found clues hidden among the streets, store windows, and merchandise. We wished we would have had more time to complete missions in other country pavilions. Surely we must have looked foolish to any bystanders (if anyone was watching us) running from one clue to the next, but the point is that unless you played the game you would never know the clues were even there.

One additional feature that Disney should be given credit for is including various "low-thrill" and educational attractions. The Hall of Presidents in Magic Kingdom, Living with the Land in Epcot and Walt Disney: One Man's Dream in Hollywood Studios are good examples. They provide good history, are entertaining, and you might actually learn something, which should be noted in a park that caters to people of all ages, especially children.

The Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom
There was also the simple pleasure of the Orlando climate during winter, which during our three days included days in the 70s and nights in the 50s and 60s, a far cry from the cold Baltimore weather (especially this year). People overlook the fact that while Florida is lamented as hot and humid in summer, it's not much hotter than the rest of the Eastern Seaboard from Georgia to New York. It's the winters that are the real difference - warm, sunny, and generally pleasant (minus the occasional cold snap) compared to gloom and cold of most of the rest of the country.

Crowds and Composition
Disney World is the largest, most visited resort in the world. It's not surprising to hear voices from lots countries, not to mention all of the various American accents. I found this diversity attractive, I'm glad to see foreigners coming from all over (though it seemed like a lot of Europeans and Latin Americas, and not so many Asians) coming to the U.S. and enjoying what is really a powerful export of American culture - the Disney brand.

It was really crowded because of the holiday, and long lines are a drag, but with the exception of a few particular attractions (especially Soarin'), things moved along okay. I'm told that attending during other times of the year (winter/spring/fall during non-holiday weeks) is far less stressful because the crowds are smaller and lines quite short. That would undoubtedly improve the experience.

Future Visits
So will I go back again? Well, I promised my girlfriend that I would, so I guess the question is answered. Even without that promise, I would go back. I'd like to see the parks with smaller crowds and go back to pick up a lot of the detail that I missed this time. Plus, a lot of the attractions were pretty awesome and why not make the relatively easy trip to Florida to escape the Maryland winter.

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  1. As a huge fan of the Walt Disney World Resort, I enjoyed reading your post. To me, Disney is a place where dreams do come true. I still get the same feeling of wonder and delight that I had as a child when I step onto Main Street U.S.A. and there is no more magical feeling than walking down the Streets of America during the holiday season.

    For many people their trip to "The World" is a once in a lifetime dream. I feel very lucky to live a mere two-hour plane ride away from what is truly the happiest place on Earth for me so that bi-annual visits aren't out of the question.

    And yes, you are right every where you turn Disney is selling something. On every visit, there is always a new fad so that even if you were there within the last few months, the latest Disney merchandise may tickle your fancy and make your wallet a little lighter. That being said, Disney does go to extreme detail in every aspect possible and they can't be faulted for trying to make a buck.

    Some people who aren't such Disney aficionados wonder why I return so often. Even if you have been to Disney hundreds of times, there are always new things to see. Even if I never ride Space Mountain again (which of course, I will ride again) I could never be bored. Whether it's looking for the Hidden Mickeys as you wrote, visiting all the Disney resorts or taking a food tour through The World, it's always a new trip to me. And besides, Disney keeps growing internationally. I still haven't done a Disney cruise and I am hoping to do an overseas Adventures by Disney in the next few years. It gives me something to look forward to during the cold winter!

    By the way, I hate to be stickler for details, but I've played the Kim Possible game and you get instructions through a "Kimmunicator" not a "Kimtroller".

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry I didn't respond sooner, but I appreciate your points. Indeed, I'm not necessarily a person who gets to carried away with "presentation" and I can be skeptical of what some may consider massive self-promotion. But as I think we both noted, Disney is just a lot fun and the experience and the atmosphere within each of the parks (and within Disney property in general) is engaging and enjoyable.

    After I wrote this post, I spoke to a few of my friends. Most had been to Disney World, some very recently, and in general they shared my enthusiasm. One friend noted that she was "not ready" to take a trip, maybe she would wait a few years until she had kids. I laughed because that's probably a view similar to what I held before I was convinced to go by my girlfriend. I told her that she would be pleasantly surprised if and when she decided to go...and I'm pretty confident in that view.

  3. Your experience makes me want to visit Disney World myself. I think your assessment of the park really attests to a traveler's concerns about the basics and would really convince anyone that it is worth the trip.
    Being a child at heart, I am more interested in the imaginiative side of the park. Did you find your experience to bring that side out or was it drowned by the crowds and tourist prices?
    Based on your experience, I am looking forward to visiting Florida for a wonderful, relaxed vacation.

  4. Anonymous,

    My girlfriend will be really pleased to read your comments. She is the one who convinced me to go to Disney World and I'm glad that she did. As an expert, she could also show me around in a way that would maximize my enjoyment.

    I'd be interested to hear about your experience if you do get to Disney World. For that matter, I would be interested to hear about the good and bad that others have experienced.

    To answer your question about imagination. That's what Disney is selling (other than merchandise), so they do the best job I've ever scene of surrounding you on each attraction. Unlike a little kid, I couldn't lose myself completely in my imagination, but the attractions were very effective. The crowds and touristy components didn't affect this part of my experience.