Let me put thirty two years into perspective for you, from a nerdy point of view.
The entire run of Transformers, from the original G1 cartoon and toys to the current Robots in Disguise cartoon and Michael Bay directed movies, happen in that time. That time frame started in the second console generation, after the Atari crash of 1983. Every Nintendo console that had ever been released in America came out in that time span. It reaches from the release of the second film by a young director named James Cameron called The Terminator to his creation of both of the highest grossing films of all time. Vince McMahon had not yet conceived of WrestleMania, and Alex Trebek had not yet begun his legendary run as host of Jeopardy!
All of those things happened in the time between when I walked away from the Magic Kingdom’s gates in 1984, to when I stood in front of them in 2016.
And yet, as I caught my first glimpse of the Main Street USA Station, and heard the familiar whistle of the railroad’s engines, I remembered. Even with thirty plus years of changes, with the long security lines and decades of new memories wedged between those moments, I remembered. You might forget years of history or chemistry learned in junior high and high school, lose your keys two minutes after setting them down or struggle to recall the names of people you’ve worked with for years, but dreams are different. Dreams linger below the surface, waiting for just the right stimulus to bring them roaring back to life. And so long as you let it, this “Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh play and learn together” will let you remember all your dreams.
And with my wife by my side, I was ready to make new ones as well.
Arrival and Main Street USA
I set the alarms with some trepidation the night before. After our evening at Trader Sam’s and a long stretch without sleep, there was a lingering fear they might not be loud enough to rouse us. We planned to head down to the Sassagoula Float Works, the beautiful food court of Port Orleans French Quarter, then head to a bus and hopefully reach the park in time for rope drop, the official opening of the park including the Magic Kingdom Welcome Show. From there, we had a few FastPass+ reservations, and I’d conceived the crazy plan of staying from the 9:00 AM opening to the 11:00 PM close via our Extra Magic Hours. But that all hinged on our getting up on time.
It turned out I needn’t have worried, because I woke up a half hour before any alarm went off, and with the energy of a child on Christmas morning. My wife woke up with similar ease, and with a quick check that all my camera gear was in order1, we went down and had a simple breakfast with new Mickey Mouse cartoons playing on the TV behind us, while we reviewed our plans for the day. We had FastPasses to meet Anna and Elsa, as well as ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Jungle Cruise, and a reservation at Tony’s Town Square for lunch. Other than making sure we kept those times, we decided to not follow much of a set plan, and just wander the park at our leisure, since we’d come back one more time before we left for the next leg of our vacation.
As we reaching the bus stop in front of the resort, a bus headed for the Magic Kingdom pulled up just as we were walking down. Little did we know this would start a trend of incredible timing for our entire stay. Between breakfast, the bus trip and the security line, I knew we’d not quite make rope drop, but we’d still have plenty of time in the park.
I heard the whistle first. If you’ve ever set foot in the Magic Kingdom, you know the sound. It pierced the air as we made our way from the bus to the front of the park. The security line, of course, was a new experience, with our only real issue being a question about my monopod, as Disney had recently enacted a ban on selfie sticks and some, um… enterprising guests had used monopods as an alternative. With a quick assurance, we made our way through and stepped foot onto Main Street USA.
The design of Main Street remains timeless, and not just for the beautiful buildings and festive atmosphere. As you walk under the train station, you are guided to the left and right, and eventually merge back down onto the center street. It’s at that moment that you catch your first glimpse of Cinderella Castle, one of the most breath taking reveals in any Disney park. It also means there are lots of people stopping in front of you and taking pictures, but the effect is mitigated by the cast members, or well… residents of Main Street USA, who wave and welcome you into the Magic Kingdom. Adding to the charm were the presence of Mickey pumpkins on many of the light poles, readying the park for the Halloween celebration.
There are no real attractions on Main Street, though there are of course plenty of shops, eateries and the famous shop windows, each of which pays tribute to a Disney Legend. We started our day by looking around in them, As we wandered through one of the shops, a trolley stopped outside, and the Citizens of Main Street stepped out to perform a song and dance number. While there are plenty of people who suggest these are things you can skip during your time in the Magic Kingdom, we really enjoyed it as a nice touch to add to the atmosphere.
Of course, another kind of touch Disney is famous for are the many hidden details that can be found across the entire property, and Main Street USA is no exception. As we stepped out of another shop, I recognized a small alcove, with a sign on the second story window advertising voice, dance and piano lessons. We waited and, after a few minutes, we heard the sounds of a young student taking singing lessons. Again, it’s a little touch, but the sort of thing you can find if you allow a little time to wander and enjoy the details.
After pressing forward into the central hub and snapping off the mandatory photos of the castle and the Partners statue, we looked at the map and decided to head into Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland and Fantasyland
Our first true attraction after setting foot in the Magic Kingdom was the venerable Tomorrowland Transit Authority, a leisurely tour of Tomorrowland. So we naturally followed that up a little later with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
There’s rarely a wait for the TTA, but so many Disney blogs and podcasts I listened to spoke highly of it so I thought it might be a fine way to start. The ride showcases all of the attractions that make up Tomrrowland, from the interactive Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger spin to the venerable Space Mountain(WOO!). The TTA even passed through a section of Space Mountain, letting you listen to the screams of the current riders. But perhaps my favorite part of the attraction was seeing the original EPCOT model, which showcased Walt’s original vision for the Florida Project as a city of the future. We disemarked and wandered Tomorrowland a little more before our FastPass time approached for the Mine Train, and our chance to try out one of Disney World’s newest and most popular attractions.
The Mine Train is the centerpiece of Fantasyland Expansion that began in 2011, and the final piece of it to open. At first, you might find it similar to the popular Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, with its mountain setting and roller coaster track that cuts through the rock. And there are some similarities to Splash Mountain, as midway through your journey you see the Seven Dwarfs working, to the familiar refrain of “Heigh-Ho.” But what sets Mine Train apart from other coasters in the park is the ride vehicle, which sways from side to side on the curves and turns, just as one might expect from a mine cart.
You might think the swaying would make the experience even more harrowing, but the side to side motion has a surprising benefit: It was the smoothest roller coaster I’d ever ridden. The views are spectacular, and the mid-way scene with the Dwarfs is one of the most impressive moments of its kind in an attraction. Our time on the ride zipped by, and only the attraction’s infamously long wait times dissuaded us from a second trip.
Between our wandering and the two attractions, our reservations at Tony’s were coming up soon, so we decided to ride to the restaurant in style… we walked through the Storybook Circus section of Fantasyland, and boarded the Walt Disney World Railroad. We had enough time to ride the entire circuit, then stay on the loop from Fantasyland back to Main Street, and to Tony’s Town Square. There we’d have our lunch and plan our next move, and my plan to surprise my wife with a fireworks cruise almost went up in smoke.
While there are some mixed reviews of Tony’s Town Square, we certainly enjoyed our time there. It wasn’t the most memorable meal during our time on property, but we liked the food and our service was off the charts good. Tony’s was our first experience with our Happily Ever After buttons securing us a free dessert, and our server was incredibly attentive and kind. The location is incredible, and as someone who grew up with Lady and the Tramp as one of my favorite Disney films, it was a nice location to have our first in-park meal.
But I remember it most of all as the scene where my Wishes cruise almost fell apart.
We took a quick break once we got done eating, and I took a moment to check my phone for messages. Among the ones I received was an e-mail confirming our specialty fireworks cruise… which was slated to pick us up at the Polynesian. Before I could even think about trying to fix this latest mistake, my wife appeared and noticed the look of panic on my face.
“Is something wrong?”
I tried to come up with a quick explanation. “I think there might be an issue with one of my credit cards,” I stammered, with all the conviction and assuredness of a six year old with his hand in the cookie jar. “I need to call them.”
“Okay,” Christie replied, in exactly the tone you’d expect.
“If you just want to have a seat and wait for me, it’ll just be a minute.”
I probably couldn’t have been more obvious if I’d been walking the park in bright neon t-shirt that said “I’m planning something for her!” but she was kind enough to just accept this. I walked away and tried to place a call, with the cacophony of a restaurant lobby behind me.
Thankfully, after a few minutes to get me through to the right person, I spoke with a wonderful cast member who reassured me everything was set for the Contemporary, and the auto generated e-mail just hadn’t reflected that. She even laughed when I explained my brief panic and attempts to keep the whole thing secret, though as I hung up the phone I was convinced Christie knew I wasn’t talking to a credit card company.
“It’s all taken care of,” I said quickly. “Want to head to Adventureland?”
If there was one downside to our trip(other than having to go home at the end of it), it was Pirates of the Caribbean being down for refurb.
I knew it going in, but I was determined to not let it get me down. After all, we’d been on the Disneyland version together, a moment when I learned just how loud my wife could scream, courtesy of her either not listening or not taking our warnings about the short drop seriously. Second, we’d be able to go on the Haunted Mansion, the white whale from my 1984 trip, thanks to a FastPass for our second day in the park, And finally, we timed our arrival in Adventureland just in time to step into The Enchanted Tiki Room.
Walt Disney held a great passion for antiques, and on vacation in New Orleans, he made a fateful visit to an antique shop in New Orleans. There he was captivated by an antique mechanical bird that could sing and move. He bought it instantly, then took it back to California and tasked his Imagineers to improve it. The result found its way into the Enchanted Tiki Room in Disneyland, and paved the way for all of Disney’s audio anamatronics to follow.
The Tiki Room itself began life as a restaurant concept, with the birds providing a sort of musical dinner theater. But when the design team took average meal times into consideration, too few guests would be able to see the show. And thus, the Enchanted Tiki Room became a full fledged attraction, and another that I recalled fondly from my childhood. Though the ride had been through two major refurbs since my visit, the latest brought the show back to its former glory2 and I could still remember the words to almost all of the songs. My wife enjoyed it as much as I did… the hosts of that serenade haven’t lost a step even after fifty plus years.
With our Jungle Cruise FastPass quickly approaching, we made another mandatory stop for anyone who sets foot in Adventureland… the line for Dolewhips. As a child, the Dolewhips and pineapple bars that were sold in Walt Disney World hooked me on both for years to come, though a certain other treat made an even bigger impact(we’ll get back to that one later in the trip). As we finished our floats and tried to figure out how to kill more time, we turned a corner and almost walked right into the Festival of Fantasy parade.
We’d seen a video detailing elements of the Festival of Fantasy on the Magical Express the day before, and it didn’t disappoint. We got a chance to see Elsa and Anna prior to our later appointment to visit them, as well as a host of other Disney characters. This was also the first time we got to see the Big Mouse himself, and even as an adult, catching a glimpse of Mickey is a pretty special moment.
But the real highlight of the parade is the massive Sleeping Beauty dragon, a massive beast which looks across the assembled crowd, then turns its head skyward and unleashes a ball of fire! With costumed dancers and Prince Phillip and the good fairies trailing behind, it left a definite impression. As the parade ended and we had a little more time before our scheduled Jungle Cruise, we went to visit another favorite from my first visit so many years ago.
The facade of Pirates of the Caribbean had changed a lot since we were last there, with many of the familiar spots gone, replaced with new shops and activities. Still, as we drew near vivid memories flooded back to me. I remembered the old pirate photo area, where you and your family could get dressed and take a keepsake photo. I loved Pirates, a connection the first movie only made stronger. And as we turned to move onward, a shady looking pirate stepped out on a stage behind us and said we could expect Captain Jack Sparrow shortly.
The pirate training show was one of several times during the trip I really wished I could be a kid again. Watching Captain Jack Sparrow step out and recruit a new crew of scalawags from the children gathered around was fun, and I could only imagine what it would have been like to have that opportunity. As we watched, the ominous gray clouds that gathered overhead started to spit just a little, our first introduction to Florida rain. Little did we know a crash course would be coming soon.
Like so many other attractions, I loved the Jungle Cruise and suspect it’s to blame for a lifelong love of puns and bad jokes. It’s another attraction that, despite its age, held up pretty well in my view. Our skipper was a lot of fun as well, which is good… the skippers can really make the difference between a really fun trip and a lackluster one. This was another attraction we thought about taking a second trip on, but the standby line’s wait time doubled between when we boarded and when we left, so we decided to move elsewhere… time was growing close for our appointment with royalty.
Anna and Elsa
We decided to stop by Frontierland first, and a return visit to Tom Sawyer Island. I remembered it for two reasons, the first being the fort that reminded me very much of the Museum of the Great Plains back in Lawton, and for being terrified when I wandered the tunnels that cut through the island. It was a fun trip, with the fort almost as I remembered it, and the tunnels a lot less scary that I remembered… and a lot smaller.
From Frontierland, we headed to Liberty Square and into the Hall of Presidents, another Disney classic. While the attraction is derided by some as a good place to rest, both my wife and I enjoyed it, and not just because it provided shelter from the sputtering rain. The newest presentation, with Morgan Freeman as narrator and the anamatronic of President Obama, is definitely worth your time. As the show let out, we decided to head back to Fantasyland, for our appointed time with Anna and Elsa.
Naturally, it started to pour.
We’d dressed to combat the Florida heat and humidity, which meant we had no rain gear. I had purchased a rain guard for my camera, so it remained bone dry while we arrived at Fairytale Hall drenched. Not really what we had planned for meeting the Queen and Princess of Arendelle. Though we were still excited(we were even among the first for that FastPass time), the rain dampened our mood(see what I meant about Jungle Cruise puns?).
That changed the second we met Elsa. She greeted us warmly as we entered, and asked what kingdom we had come from.
“Oklahoma,” I replied.
“Is that a tropical kingdom as well?”
Christie and I looked at one another and tried not to laugh.
“No, not at all.”
“Well, you see, I must apologize. Since it is so warm here in the kingdom of Florida, I wanted to make snow to cool everyone down, but it was so warm it came down as rain. I’m so sorry!”
We visited and got a few pictures, and couldn’t quite get the smiles off our faces. But it wouldn’t only get better as we met her younger sister, Anna.
Perhaps I should have established this earlier… I like almost all the Disney films, but I love Frozen, and it’s right up there with my all time favorites.3 I’m really looking forward to the Frozen Ever After attraction, and I’ll probably try to make time to meet the Queen and Princess of Arendelle every time we go… but Anna is my favorite. I really loved her character in the movie, and I think her design is fantastic.
So imagine my surprise when she ran over to us with a huge smile on her face and pointed excitedly at our Happily Ever After buttons. “You have the magic circles! That means you’re love experts!”
And so, in our collection of photos, we have shots of Anna asking Christie and I for love advice and how she could apply it to Kristoff. We walked out of Fairytale Hall beaming and barely even aware we were still soaking wet. Well, at least until we looked outside and saw it was still pouring, at which point we bought a couple of ponchos and made our way through the downpour to Peco Bill’s for dinner. Rain does not deter people who live in Oklahoma!
There’s little to say about the dinner at Peco Bill’s, as this was prior to the menu change and it was a decent hamburger. We decided to see the Memento Mori shop, dedicated to the Haunted Mansion, before trying to find a spot for the three end of the night shows at Walt Disney World, starting with the Main Street Electrical Parade.
It was then, as we were making our way back to Main Street, that I stopped in my tracks. Something about the area we stood in clicked with me. It had changed, with different shops and different colors, but the longer we lingered, the more I knew for certain. We were standing in the spot where that memorable picture of Scotty had been taken.
People talk about following the steps of Walt in Disneyland, and this was one of the most powerful moments during our trip where I realized I was retracing the steps of my family with its newest member. I gave myself a moment to take in the emotion, and closed my eyes. The memories came back, as usual, fragmented but vivid. I’d not realized it until I wrote this, but there was almost no one around when we walked past, allowing for a strange silence to recall those moments.
We’d just walked out of Memento Mori a short time ago, and I could remember how we walked that part of Liberty Square, and saw the signs telling us the Haunted Mansion was closed. As we resumed our trip, I looked to Christie and made a suggestion.
“Once the fireworks are over, let’s go on Haunted Mansion before we leave.”
The skies couldn’t make up their mind about whether or not they wanted to open up on us, and possibly call off the evening’s fireworks, and it caused a palpable tension in the assembled crowds. I felt for the cast members assigned to keep the walkways clear, as they were met with plenty of resistance and far too many rude comments. And then an announcement cut through the murmur of the crowd and it all went away.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! The Magic Kingdom proudly presents our spectacular festival pageant of nighttime magic and imagination… in thousands of sparkling lights, and electro-synthemagnetic musical sounds: the Main Street Electrical Parade!“
That synthesized voice, coupled with the first notes of the iconic musical score, trigger a response in my brain like few things as Disney can. I’m not exaggerating when I say I heard them on a few Disney podcasts and got chills. But hearing them in person, coupled with the unmistakable sights of the Main Street Electrical Parade? Like only a few other things during our time in the Magic Kingdom, it made me feel like I was six years old again. I will never get tired of seeing that parade, even if I move to Florida and get an annual pass.
From there came the newer Celebrate the Magic show, during which projections play on Cinderella’s Castle paying tribute to popular Disney films from the classics to more recent fare like Wreck It Ralph, Frozen and even the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It was an amazing moment, hampered only by the on again, off again rain and the ominous lightning in the distance. By now, Christie and I were Odysseus, forced to choose between the Scylla of getting soaked by the rain or the Charybdis of being cooked like Hot Pockets in the unforgiving ponchos. Like the legendary hero, we opted for getting wet.
Celebrate the Magic is, of course, followed by the Wishes fireworks spectacular, which we enjoyed a great deal, but I’ll talk about a little more in our next installment, as we had a far better seat.
Now, if you’ve ever wondered how salmon feel as they swim upstream to spawn, try getting back into the other lands of the Magic Kingdom after the fireworks end. I served as blocking fullback, trying to make holes we could dash through. With guests both heading toward the exit and stopping for castle photos, we were fighting a losing battle. We finally turned toward Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, and followed the back route toward the Haunted Mansion, and our last attraction of the day.
After 32 Years, the Haunted Mansion
If you know anything about Disney parks, you probably know about the Haunted Mansion. The concept of a haunted house was conceived in the earliest stages of design for Disneyland, and even though the attraction was advertised as early as 1961 with a promised opening date of 1963, a variety of factors kept the attraction from opening until 1969, three years after Walt’s death. The Imagineers debated the approach best suited for the attraction, with concepts ranging from silly to macabre. At one point, it was even conceived as a walk through attraction, until the designers settled on the iconic Doom Buggies.
As I approached the facade of the Haunted Mansion and prepared myself to enter the attraction for the first time after a thirty two year wait, I felt anxious. We’d ridden the Disneyland version of course, but Disney World’s version was longer and boasted some impressive new technology. The storm clouds that marred Celebrate the Magic drew closer, and as we entered the covered queue, real thunder added to the sound effects.
Of all the scenes and iconic sights of the Haunted Mansion, perhaps the most memorable part of the attraction is the unmistakable voice of the Ghost Host. From his first words as you step into the stretching room, you’re transfixed. No ride is more quotable, and no character as vital to the experience as that laughing apparition that sounds so much like Disney Legend
The only complaint I had after such a long wait was that the journey through the Haunted Mansion was too short. That’s not a knock against the attraction, but I love that world so much I want to spend as much time there as possible. While I’m not planning on taking up the Ghost Host on his invitation to join those other happy haunts anytime soon, I’m always going to cherish my visits.
As we stepped out into the exit area, the thunderstorm was now fully overhead, and while there wasn’t much in the way of rain, lightning flashed and thunder boomed over the iconic facade of the Haunted Mansion. It was the perfect way to experience it, and a memory I won’t soon forget.
Now we shared the park with only the other Extra Magic Hour guests, and they’d scattered to various corners of the park. A small lake, just by the entrances to Adventureland and Liberty Square, gave a perfect view of Cinderella’s Castle in its beautiful evening illumination. I took a moment to line up my shot, then put my camera away. One trip to the gift shop later, and we made our way back to the bus stops and French Quarter.
Once back at the resort, we took our time walking back to our room. The storm had largely passed, only the distant rumbles of thunder and handful of small puddles the only signs of its presence. As soft jazz music played, I took my wife’s hand in my own and committed the moment to memory. It might not have been a perfect day, but it was really close.
And we were only just getting started.
Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)
1 – A tip I’d share with anyone who enjoys photography? Consolidate your gear as much as possible, and if you must carry a lot, consider getting a backpack with two shoulder straps. Mine had only one, and my shoulder didn’t feel right for a couple of weeks after. I actually plan to take my Micro 4/3s camera on most park days next time, and will dedicate heavier photography days where I can parkhop. Lockers at the front of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot will be yours friends, as well, unless you’re dying to take your expensive rig on Splash Mountain.
2 – The first major refurb brought the attraction back as The Enchanted Tiki Room – Under New Management, and added Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. According to some insiders, the show played out like the internal debates in Imagineering, with Iago arguing the show was dated, and Zazu arguing for the classic attraction’s merits. The show ended with Uh Oa, the newly invented Tiki goddess of disaster, punishing Iago for his insolence. Ironically, when a fire broke out in the attraction in 2011, rumor has it the Iago anamatronic was badly damaged. Perhaps not wanting to tempt fate(and spurred by the revised attraction’s popularity in California), a slightly shortened version of the original Enchanted Tiki Room returned. Uh Oa would live on as the namesake for one of the most popular drinks in Trader Sam’s, complete with a cameo appearance whenever a guest orders one.
3- Zootopia may well take that top spot, but I don’t want to give it the crown just yet. Robin Hood, Lady and the Tramp, Tangled, Big Hero 6, The Incredibles and the vastly underappreicated Treasure Planet are the ones that leap to mind right now. This might change depending on my mood at the time, which movies I’ve seen recently, the time of day, the barometric pressure and the phases of the moon. There are few Disney animated films I don’t like.