Lotsa Lights. And possibly Gandhi.

I only had the 50mm on the cropped sensor camera… so getting the full scope of these lights was a challenge.  The Osbourne family made themselves supremely unpopular with their neighbors for the abundant light displays they put up each holiday season… so Disney brought it down to Hollywood Studios.  And added a few gazillion more lights, just cuz.

The overwhelming exhibit was pretty cool.  Also?  It snows.  Resist the urge to taste it.

But one question.  That last picture.  Who are those figures?  Best we could come up with was Gandhi, providing sage advice to the Power Rangers.

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Walt Disney World 101, The Introduction.

I grew up going to Disney by virtue of having employees of The Mouse in my immediate family, so I have no idea what it is like to not have had the experience of the Walt Disney World parks.  I can imagine that without the foundational knowledge and memories of The World that I would be hesitant to try it out.  For one, it’s expensive.  For another, the ‘classic’ stories irk me a bit (although after seeing “Enchanted,” I now adore Snow White because she is so utterly ridiculous.)  But mostly, I would have guessed that the environment was too perky, that it reflected some strange 1950s family perfection, and was just too American white-bread for me to handle.

Ultimately, this would have be a shame because I would have let my impressions rule my judgment.  I would have missed out on quite a lot.  Disney is a wonderful, amazing experience… even for cranky academic curmudgeons who have suburban allergies and an affinity for bargain travel in lesser-developed countries.

Here’s the deal.  Disney does entertainment – parades, fireworks, attractions, special effects, you name it – better than anyone.  Going to one of the Disney parks isn’t like going to a mid-way carnival or amusement park.  It’s a theme park – and excellently and uniquely themed – so that each and every experience is distinct.  It sounds completely cheesy, so very cheesy that it hurts to say it, but there is a magic to being here.  And with small children?  Well, it’s even more magical.

That said, unless you’ve got money to burn, time to waste, and absolutely no care in the world – you are going to need some help to visit this place.  It’s unfortunate because Walt Disney adored families and envisioned these parks as places that celebrated them.   But the reality is that travel and entertainment are a considerable expense and as a result, can be stressful for families.  Planning is the way to mediate that stress and expense.

I’ve given advice about the parks for years, but will start posting more specifically here.  Please feel free to send questions.  As much as I love the entertainment potential in public melt-downs, we do use some tricks to keep things… like costs, time, and tempers… under control.  Stay tuned.


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New Orleans Inspiration …

… parade, riverboat, friends, food and fun …

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Disney Day Three

Day Three was our last full day in The Land of the Mouse and our last day to visit the parks.  If you’ve been following the Mouse-venture, you’ll remember that we took off Day Two in favor of a less packed and hurried day so that we could enjoy our second and last day to explore the Kingdom. 

There was a great deal of debate about what to do on our last day.  Paul was routing for EPCOT, but knowing how far away the attractions are from each other and understanding that there wasn’t as much that the kids would be interested in seeing, I hesitated.  Ditto for Animal Kingdom, particularly since we live a few blocks away from a spectacular zoo.  The Studios (or, DHS, in the lingo of The World) had a few attractions we wanted to do with the kids… Voyage of the Little Mermaid live stage show, Playhouse Disney show, the Muppets 3D, and (for Will) Star Tours, including the “How to be a Jedi” training outside of the attraction. With that in mind, we started the day bright and early — arriving to park in the very first row of cars right outside the gate at Disney Hollywood Studios.

As we waiting for the park to open, a cameraman and (scary) lady walked through the crowd with a microphone, soliciting auditions. Persons she favored received numbers for the day’s finals in The American Idol experience; winners from each day get special passes to audition first in line for next season’s Idol.  And while that was entertaining in a “Welcome to the Dollhouse” gutwretching sort of way, we couldn’t help but feel that something about the crowd was just…. wrong.  Usually Disney crowds are a mix of everyone.  Europeans with practical shoes and trendy hiking clothes, blue-blooded Americans with expensive strollers and kids way too young, regular family of four folk with sneakers and backpacks, and then your salt-of-the-earth types who decided to forgo this weekend’s Nascar event in favor of a trip to Orlando.

The crowd around us appeared to belong most heavily to that last group.  Sort of like a few hundred Joe the Plumbers.  It wasn’t that we were bothered by it — it was more that it was just strange. I was having a hard time finding high-strung looking parents of whiny young children (our favorite crowd watching past-time.)

FINALLY. The doors open and we go in and right as we swipe our tickets, they are there.  ESPN.  With blaring music and sports fan information sheets.  WHAT?  Apparently, it’s ESPN DAY at the park!


Okay, whatever, we’re here, we’ll deal.  This is what we say and that’s what we start to do.  We go through the dance of getting the Disney stroller and start off towards the few things we’re there to do.  But at the first attraction, we’re pushed aside by The Harlem Globetrotters (maybe this would have been a big moment for someone else, but I couldn’t have cared less) and find that the line to even FASTPASS the Toy Story attraction is 30 minutes long.  And the start times to the other shows we’re there to see?  Not for at least another hour, because ESPN cheerleaders are there.  The crowd is suddenly enormous, swallowing us down in a sea of chewing tobacco and Aqua Net, with horribly mixed AC/DC gunning so loud that Paul can’t even hear me screaming beside him.

Just then, we’re approached by an extra perky MouseLand Team Member.  I’m ready.  Starting with, “I know this isn’t your fault…” I unload on her.  She sends us to Guest Services.

Disney folk are expert at customer service and Crazy Parents are their specialty.

In Guest Services, I explain that my Disney experience is relatively extensive, having had grandparents who worked for The Mouse for two decades (ahem), and with a few mentions of “un-Disneylike” and an expertly placed tear, asked for my morning back.  Not just my day’s ticket, but another entire day.  I wanted to re-do.  As in, a free park day for me and my family so that I could have a chance to restart our visit at a park from opening — on a day that wasn’t overrun with cheerleaders and dull-looking athletes.  (Our argument: we called ahead, there was no notification of the event, and had there been, we would have done something else.)  Yes ma’am, sure and absolutely!  (Apparently, even the employees had been left in the dark.)  Five minutes later we were holding day park-hopper passes for three and exiting Hollywood Studios.

We were inside Animal Kingdom before 10:30.

Animal Kingdom is a beautiful park with “lands.”  In Africa, you go on safari.  No zoom necessary, because the animals are RIGHT THERE.  As in, this baby reticulated giraffe almost ate Will’s hat.

I’d never actually seen a baby elephant that tiny before.

No worries, Mom was right there, too.

Lots of Rhinos.  That’s Will’s head on the left.  I wasn’t kidding about the whole THEY ARE RIGHT THERE thing.

The kids rolled with all the changes and got into character soon.  They LOVED the 3D bug show.  It was actually an interesting test, considering that it’s a bit intense… at one point, spiders and wasps attack the audience (not to give anything away, but it’s really a 4-D experience).  I kind of remembered what was coming and jumped in to cover Kate’s eyes through part.  (Think, spiders falling from the ceiling and smoke and sounds of bugs whizzing by your ears.  It’s pretty cool, or pretty terrifying, depending on your point of view.)  Kate?  The TWO YEAR OLD?  She loved it.  Go figure.

The Tree of Life is the centerpiece of the park.  It’s what Cinderella’s Castle or Spaceship Earth is to Magic Kingdom or EPCOT — the stunning visual that holds everything together.  As you approach it and walk around and through it, you can see hundreds of animals carved into the tree.

We had a nice lunch on the lake (Animal Kingdom has better park food, by virtue of the global cuisine in Africa and Asia), supplemented by our packed drinks and snacks.   Then we saw The Festival of the Lion King, which is a stunning theatre-in-the-round performance.  It’s sort of a combination ‘best of’ Lion King songs and characters with dancers, stilt walkers, singers, animatronics, moving sets, acrobatics, and audience participation.

The kids LOVED it.  Kate was all eyes and dropped jaw for the first 10 minutes and then… got a bit heavy in my arms.  SCORE!  She fell asleep.  We couldn’t have planned it better.

With Kate completely passed out, we decided to leave Animal Kingdom.  (The other thing we wanted to see, the staged “Beauty and the Beast,” wasn’t showing until 2 hours later.)  We figured that it didn’t make sense to go back to the hotel since Kate was already napping.  So, we went over to Magic Kingdom.  Three parks in one day!

We arrived around 2:30 and decided to get a snack on Main Street’s Bakery while an afternoon parade went by.  Along with the sandwich, we bought a frozen latte that Paul and I shared.  I have no idea what was in it, but for the rest of the day, we were ROCKET FUELED.  We literally skipped from attraction to attraction and had another perfect afternoon.

We rode the things we’d missed the first time around, like the Wedgway People Mover, the maintenance of which was my grandfather’s number one job.  It’s just a little tram that jets you around Tommorrowland, letting you see inside Space Mountain and giving great views.  Kate LOVED IT.

In fact, Kate loved it so much that we rode three times in a row while Paul and Will drove the cars in the Motorspeedway.

We also re-rode our favorites… Peter Pan, Pooh, and It’s a Small World.  This time, I played around with the camera.

Yeah, the song can drive you nuts after awhile.  But the kids could have ridden it all day long.  And honestly, I think I’d notice something new every time.

She winked at Will.  Really.

I love the spinning sun in South America.

Not all of the dolls are animatronic, but all are beautifully detailed.

When Paul and I rode this years ago, the ride had some sort of malfunction and we were stuck in this room for 10 minutes.

We decided to stick around for the fireworks, which were beautiful two nights before.  I didn’t have a tripod, so these were rough pictures.  And, I didn’t want to leave the kids in the crowd to get a better picture spot.

The castle changes colors, by the way.

We watched the fireworks and were out with the first throngs of crowd.  No problem!  Wonderful end to a wonderful trip…

Goodbye, MouseVille!

We’re totally ready to go back.  Who’s with us?!?

Mi Familia

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Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, Day Two

Where were we before school madness, the pressure of three projects, summer camps, donor fatigue, and worrying about my Mom?

Right.  Disney.

On Day two of our 3 days in The World and it’s orbiting moons, we took a day off from parks and went to Downtown Disney.  Once Upon A Time, this was simply called Lake Buena Vista.  You could rent paddle boats and feed ducks.  There were a bunch of little specialty shops and tiny boutiques.  Now it’s pretty much Disney oriented, with a performance stage (think: cheesy high school jazz choirs), a few cheap and free kid-oriented attractions, and stores.  It’s actually a nice place to spend the morning.

Kate and I rode the carousel.

By the way, any horse that Kate rides is christened with the name “Lucky” by The Patootie Herself.

Copious amount of cute pictures with Winnie the Pooh.  Paul kept saying that it looked like Pooh’s hand was cut off and oozing.

Paul joined the kids for a photo.  Not that Kate initially approved.

The LEGO store has some fantastic displays.  I love the waves in this pirate display.   (That’s Will, checking it out in the corner of the picture.)  I also like the kid in the background.  I think she’s freaking out about the half-of-a-guy in the water.  Did the nearby shark get the rest?

Outside of the LEGO stores are a good dozen tables for little builders, as well as a racing table for trying out self-made cars.

The windows are portholes to famous cities.  This one is Paris.  Will LOVES to see anything with the Eiffel Tower on it and is quick to point out that “that pictures speaks French.”  Of course it does.

Here’s London.  I told them that Aunt Lee was moving here just as soon as she gets her visa.

One of the toy stores had a huge build-your-own Potato Head table.  We built fairy, mermaid, storm trooper, and Han Solo potato heads.  Then we went to explore more of the store and stumbled into a “Make Your Own Light Saber” table.  Uh-oh.  We broke down and bought the kid a light saber, something that not even Santa Claus was willing to do.  Upside?  He was able to defend Cinderella.

Okay.  Now is where I should spill about the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.  It’s actually happening in the window behind Cinderella.  There is a child in that window whose parents have paid $200 bucks or so to have their kid made up (hair, makeup, glitter, tiara) with full costume (clickity-shoes, dress, prom court sash) to be their favorite princess.  I’m not joking.  It’s very… um… well, it’s very Jon Benet… a cute idea taken to the point where it’s just sorta creepy.  I think I’d be better with it if it went a little further to be more inclusive. If they are “making dreams come true” then why not dress up girls to be pirates, or Minnie Mouse, or spooky ghosts, or astronauts?  Aren’t those dreams, too?  And more inclusive for boys, for that matter (I hear that there is a ‘prince’ package for boys, but I think most parents understand that this would not be worth their child’s future therapy bills.)

Really, though, shouldn’t girls get to imagine being more than just princesses?  And when you get right down to it, consider how downright DULL some of those princesses are.  Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is such a wuss that a tiny prick of blood sends her into a coma… who’d want to be that boring??  Especially when you consider the other female lead in the story, Maleficent, is so bad-ass that she can turn into a dragon and summon up all the powers of hell.  Ask a 4-year old what they’d rather pretend to be — a sleeping lump of boring or a fierce and powerful dragon?  — and it’s no contest.  So seriously Disney.  Re-think the oversexualization of preschoolers boo-tique, please.

Speaking of cool dragons, LEGO has one in Buena Vista Lake.  Notice the change in blocks on it’s neck?  That’s because a hurricane (Charley, maybe?) took off it’s head when it rolled over Orlando.

We learned that tidbit from my friend, Jennae, who works for Disney and met us for dinner.   Jennae has worked for Disney since college and worked in just about every place one can work — including donning those famous ears to be The Boss, himself.  She said that being Mickey is by far the hardest job in the park, as the heartbreak of hearing the stories from parents, children, and just random visitors — and not being able to say anything from inside that costume! — is difficult over time.  There’s a niche job to get with Disney… being the therapist for Mickey actors!

Now Jennae gets paid to accompany families on Disney vacations.  She plays the travel “host” and gets to see the world in Disney four-star luxury.  And gets paid for it.

For dinner, we went to the T-REX restaurant, which is more an entertainment venue than place to eat. It’s filled with impressive robotic dinosaurs… including a roaring T-Rex that meets you at the door. We ate in an ice cave that changed colors, under a HUGE dinosaur skeleton “frozen” in the ice above us. The kids were ga-ga the entire time. It’s was incredibly over-stimulating, but thankfully the kids waited until the after dinner walk to the car to completely melt down. It was our only Disney-related melt-down and completely understandable, considering the stress they had of keeping track of 50 different dinosaurs while they ate. And because they didn’t want to leave Jennae once they learned that if they travel with her, they can stick to places with running, potable water and regular electricity service. The sort of stuff that is not necessarily guaranteed when I am your tour guide.

But back to the Dragon, whose job at Disney is not quite so glamorous.

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We like to move it, move it. Day One.

With the knowledge that we were all fighting off colds, shivering from the dip in temps over the weekend, and likely to miss all Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras Day celebrations if we stayed home… we took off for Disney World. On Monday night we drove 140 miles to Mobile to stay with my parents. Tuesday morning, we left at 9am to travel the remaining 500 miles. Thank goodness we filched my parents’ portable DVD player… the kids were tired enough to zone out to the glow of the screen for most of the trip.

Driving to the park Wednesday morning was fantastic. Our car was filled with the popping sound of exploding heads — each sign, each character, each step was almost too much for them. Paul and I were convinced we were the World’s Best Parents.

Not that it lasted long. A few minutes later, when Will fell against a pole he’d been leaning and dancing around and hit his head for the 8th time in less than 24 hours, Paul and I fell into laughter so hard and long that we were instantly brought back down to our usual status as Parenting Embarrassments. Will, by the way, is fine. And did not need stitches for any of his injuries.

Kate was equally enthralled, but handled her excitement by running a verbal play-by-play of everything we encountered. Under usual circumstances, I would say that 2 is too young for Disney. After all, a 2-year old gets freaked out easily, tires too easily, is not tall enough to enjoy most attractions, and won’t remember it, anyway. Kate roundly provided that each of those points do not apply to her. Further, her running commentary was the stuff of comic genius and kept us laughing all day long.

“Tigger, I’m taking you home. I’ll teach you to say, ‘throw me somethin’ Mister!'”

Here is Kate in Minnie Mouse’s house.

Minnie lives in a cute purple house filled with everything that reinforces gender stereotypes. Actually, this is my biggest and perhaps only complaint about Disney these days: the codification of rigid, insulting, and simply ridiculous gender stereotypes goes beyond annoying to boarder on the grotesque.

Here is a mild example of what I’m talking about.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer my daughter (and son) have heroes whose daily lists involve things like, “attend Swahili language class,” “volunteer at the animal shelter,” “practice cello for next week’s concert,” “help Mickey rewire the junction box,” and “give lecture on brain surgery techniques to new residents.”

Why does Disney think it’s okay for kids to aspire to be love-sick saps who are fixated on dieting?!?!

*deep breaths* *deeeeep breaths*

Refocusing on the situation, Kate can’t read yet, so I’m free to interpret for her.  I’m used to doing this, since I get a lot of practice when I read them anything by Richard Scary.

“This is where Minnie does her math homework.” “This is the window where she uses her telescope to study the stars!”

This chair, by the way, was where Minnie studies medicinal properties of plants to use in curing disease.

I do what I can.

All that aside, the day was spectacular.

Here is our pictorial representation of the Mad Hatter’s tea cup ride. Paul and I didn’t spin the cup, by the way. Will and Kate did.

Paul was so darn awesome all day.  It was amazing to be together, ALL DAY LONG, as a family.  He did get an inordinate amount of phone calls from recruiters and co-workers, but managed to keep most of the calls short.

One of our favorites was Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blaster in Tomorrowland.  The jist is that Buzz has picked up bad activity in Sector 9 and needs help to zap Zurg and his no-good aliens.  Below is Will, studying up on Zurg’s symbol (this is what you’re asked to “zap” during the ride.)

Here is Buzz talking to us while we wait to get on board.  He’s giving us our assignments.  Unfortunately, I had to manipulate the camera to get the picture and Buzz’s face was a bit too lit to show up…

You ride in pairs.  The capsules spin around, which is how I was able to turn and get pictures of Will riding.  He’s using the lazer to zap Zurg’s insignia.

“Hi Mom, I got Zurg!”

Incidentally, Paul out ranked all of us by scoring over 110,000 points during one of our times on the ride.  I topped out at 86,000.  Kate routinely scored in the 400-800 range.  Will?  Well, he never made it past 400 (Kate beat him everytime).  But he WAY made up for it in ethusiasm!

At lunchtime, we exited the park for naps back at the motel.  On the way out, we caught a parade!  The conga line involved the crowd with a chorus of “I LIKE TO MOVE IT MOVE IT.”

Oh, Yes.  I picked up Kate and we danced the line.  Paul grabbed the camera, but missed us shimming with Mickey and Minnie on the other side of the float.  We moved it, moved it!

That’s us, finishing up our crowd-pleasing dance and waving to our celebrity dance partners (or, in this case, pah-ners).

After a great family nap, we arrived back at the park around 3.  A band was playing just past the entrance gates and right as we walked through, they struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  No kidding. 

We took the remaining beads from our bag (having given out a ton throughout the park that morning) and passed them out in the crowd watching the band.  It was a perfect moment that called for nothing less.

We weren’t the only ones throwing through the park, either.  Other folks from the Gret Stet were doing a fantastic job spreading the love, as was clear from all the beads we saw in the park!

Both kids surprised me by taking The Pirates of the Carribean, a wonderful, classic boat ride with some spooky elements… including a 10-15 foot plunge down a waterfall, skeletons, darkness, mist, and ghosts.  Kate asked to go on it again.

Then the kids got some lessons in pirating from this guy:

We took in almost all of the Magic Kingdom that day — including the classic Haunted Mansion (one of the rides my Grandfather worked on), Winnie the Pooh (which Kate LOVED), Peter Pan’s Flight (Kate yelled, “We can Fly!” over and over again for the entire ride, much to our delight), and PhilharMagic, a new 3D movie.  Kate sat in her own seat and wore the 3D glasses like a pro, flinching minimally when champagne corks flew past her head.

We even rode Dumbo when the lines diminished at the end of the day.

Although it’s just a simple hub-and-wheel ride, Dumbo is a perennial favorite of children who force their parents to wait for unbelievably long stretches of time to circle the skies of Fantasyland.  It was beautiful to do the ride at night, watching the castle change colors from up high.

Even with getting caught in the post-firework traffic jam leaving the park, we were back to our car by 9pm and asleep at a reasonable hour… thus ending Disney, Day One.

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Mecca to the Mouse

We’d been discussing it for years, when would be the best time? Should we wait for Kate to be old enough, or just drag her along when Will has reached the right age? Maybe this spring, we said. Or, maybe next fall.

Then we realized that school was closed for all of Mardi Gras week.

And that Kate, not yet 3, would have free admission.

And Paul secretly called my friend, Alex, to see if she would cover our combined teaching responsibilities for the week. She would.

And so, sometime on Monday, we decided to do it. We drove to Mobile Monday night. Early Tuesday morning, I made hotel reservations and we left from my parents house to drive the remaining 500 miles. It was so spontaneous and so very last minute that we didn’t even tell the kids.

My grandparents worked for Disney for almost two decades. The summers of my formative years were spent with them, in their Kissimmee home, visiting Disney on free and reduced tickets, seeing background pieces of the park(s), swimming in their pool, and fishing with my Grandfather.  My brother and I knew the rides in the Magic Kingdom by heart (often recreating them in lavish imagination at home) and can still sing the theme songs to major attractions.  Even with the obnoxious branding and commercialization of the Disney product, I still love The Mouse.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not we would take the kids to The World, it was just a question of when.

I’ll post about the actual visit with more pictures in separate posts.  But here are some key factors that helped us have a fantastic visit:

— Paul and I had 2 unused, no expiration park days from our visit in 2001.

— We only went to the park 2 days and took a day off in-between.

— The only admission ticket we needed to buy was for Will.

— Our expectations were realistic and based on experience.

— We packed snacks and drinks and ate sparingly in the park.

— We made sure to get out of the park(s) for naptime.

— Each child had a stroller.

— We were there during the “value season” when park attendance is low(er).

— The weather was perfect.

— We stayed outside the park in a Quality Inn… free hot breakfast, free internet, heated pool, kids playground, 2 bedrooms and kitchenette… for a total of $388 during our 4 night stay.

— We chose our attractions wisely.

— We consulted The Unofficial Guide.

Details and photographs to follow!


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