An Empty Epcot – for 15 Minutes

IMG_7886

 

Last Friday, as a belated Mother’s Day gift, we treated Mama Darling to a tour we had all been wanting to do for months now – The UnDISCOVERed Future World. We had an amazing time, and as with all tours we have taken with Disney, our guide was phenomenal. For anyone with a love of Epcot and the rich history behind it, we highly recommend this tour. It also ended up being 5 hours (instead of 4 that the site indicates) and we got to see a lot of cool backstage areas that we did not even know existed. Our fellow tour group mates were wonderful as well and our group of 3 was given the title “Disnerds” because we knew all the answers to the questions the tour guide would ask about the history of Epcot. What can we say – we know our stuff!

The main reason behind this post though is to showcase something we had never experienced before at Epcot. You see, when you are booked for an early morning tour or dining experience before the park opens, you get to enter before everyone else. This isn’t the same as Extra Magic Hours, because once you walk through the ticket kiosk – you literally are the only ones in the park. It was surreal and so much fun! We only wish it would have lasted longer than 15 minutes, but we will take what we can get. Check out our video and pictures below that show just how neat it was to be in an empty Epcot…for 15 minutes!

***Side note: Our tour began at 8:30 and when we arrived inside the park around 8:15 to check in our whole group was already there, so we think we could have gotten in even earlier for more photo opportunities and running around (literally). We will definitely keep this in mind for future tours we plan to take.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Advertisements

Our Spoiler Free Review of Pandora: The World of Avatar

032C0E40-9F71-4A2B-9205-951CD313C439

 

We just got back from experiencing Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We tried really hard to avoid spoilers beforehand, pretty much avoiding Disney related social media once all the Passholder previews started, because we wanted to be surprised. So, this article won’t have many pictures in case you are just like us! Also, now having looked at pictures and videos of the land since having visited, nothing comes close to capturing what it’s really like to be in Pandora. We were a little worried that crowds might be an issue, as there were long waits even just to get into the land when it opened Memorial Day weekend, but walking around the land itself was easy and crowds were not an issue. The attractions did have 1-2 hour waits, but we used fast passes which made it easy to get on the attractions.

We were among the many who questioned this land when it was announced six years ago. Why would Disney be making a land out of a James Cameron film? It didn’t quite make sense. But after seeing some of the presentations at the recent D23 Event, we started understanding the reasoning and getting really excited for this land.

In short, this land is spectacular and fits perfectly within the overall theme of Animal Kingdom. The transition between the areas adjacent to Pandora is perfect. Walking along the pathways to Pandora, you can’t see into it. You are surrounded by greenery and start hearing animal sounds. When you are in Pandora, you feel like you are in another world, and cannot see out into any of the other areas of Animal Kingdom. This is an immersive environment to take in slowly; it is a feast for the senses. This land was described as having all the beauty of nature on Earth, but better. The integration of real flora and fauna along with the imaginative species of Pandora is seamless. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not real. No matter where you are and which direction you look, the views are layered with all sorts of beautiful and interesting scenery. Water features are everywhere you look: giant waterfalls cascading off the floating mountains, streams and smaller water features are found throughout the land. The sound of water is extremely relaxing. At times we would have never guessed we were at one of the largest theme parks in the world. The land isn’t massive, but you could spend hours just exploring and taking it all in. There are so many details we know that we missed, as this land is rich with story, but it just gets you excited to go back and explore.

Our first visit was during the daytime, and everywhere we looked we found ourselves saying, “this is going to be amazing at night.” As Pandora transitions to the bioluminescent forest at night, everything is aglow. The effects are amazing. Everything from the pathways up to the floating mountains is illuminated in various ways. Once we experienced Pandora at night, we went back the next day and felt a greater appreciation for the beauty of it during the day. It definitely must be experienced both in daylight and at night.

Another striking feature of the land is that all along the pathways there is no background music. You just hear the audio of the various creatures of Pandora. And it changes during storms and at night. The soothing background music can be heard in the restrooms (the restrooms are quite wonderful in this new land) and in the gift shop and restaurant. Walt Disney World can be quite a stressful park with all the hustle and bustle, but Pandora is a place where you can relax.

We dined twice at the new quick-service restaurant, Satu’li Canteen, for breakfast and dinner. Both meals were excellent and the Canteen has some really different dining options for the more adventurous palate.

Now, for the attractions. We rode both the Na’vi River Journey and Avatar: Flight of Passage twice with fast passes. We want to come back when there are shorter standby times to experience the regular queues, because they have a lot of interesting details that are missed when you use a fast pass. The views and scenery in the Flight of Passage queue are really neat because you ascend into the floating mountains. We had heard that the best way to describe Flight of Passage is it is like Soarin’ on steroids. How can that be? Well within seconds of the experience beginning, you realize it is just that! Sites, sounds, smells – it truly was a thrilling experience riding on the back of a banshee. The second time around we also were able to notice that the ride is actually just as high up off the ground as Soarin’ is. If you are up to it, feel free to look down and to the right and you’ll realize this. This is easily a new favorite attraction of ours and we can’t wait to ride again!

The Na’vi River Journey is a slow moving boat ride through the bioluminescent forest. One thing that was very important to Walt was that every inch of an attraction be themed, and this attraction lives up to that standard. It is more of a tour of the area rather than an attraction with a story, but that was just fine with us. It is relaxing and enjoyable.

There has always been a discussion within the Disney community as to whether or not Animal Kingdom is a full day or half day park. If you’re exclusively into thrill rides, this is probably still a half day park for you, but if you love exploring immersive environments this is now a multi-day park. On our trip, we spent three days at Animal Kingdom and still didn’t experience all the attractions. Because it had rained one of the evenings, the park at night was empty and we really enjoyed ourselves.

One last thing that we want to note is that you don’t have to have seen the movie Avatar to understand and/or appreciate the land. All in all we give Pandora: The World of Avatar an enthusiastic two thumbs up! Joe Rohde and his team of Imagineers really hit a home run with the design of this land, and we can’t wait to return!

D23 Destination D Review

I just got back from a long weekend at Walt Disney World. Mama Darling and I attended the D23 event called Destination D. D23 is the official Disney fan club and two years ago they began a special event called Destination D at Walt Disney World. That event was amazing, so as soon as this year’s event was announced, I bought tickets. The tickets are expensive, but worth every penny we spent, as we were provided with very unique and exclusive experiences.

The theme of this year’s event was Amazing Adventures, and presentations were focused around this theme. We arrived at the Contemporary Convention Center and checked in on Friday.

img_6968

Here’s what we got in our swag bag:

swag

Attendees were the first people to receive the new Magic Band 2, which is going to be rolled out across the WDW resort very soon. It features a removable puck which can be placed in lanyards, key chains, etc. This new technology is supposed to create more personalization moving into the future. The magic band itself is much more lightweight and flexible, and I found it easier to use on the touch interfaces throughout the resort.

 

We were up bright and early Saturday morning and very excited for the day’s events. The presentations were held in the Fantasia Ballroom, and we were not allowed to take any pictures inside of the presentations. It was nice because everyone had their devices away! First up was a conversation with Bob Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He talked about the focus on guest experience and placing guests in an even bigger Disney bubble. For me, the biggest announcement was that major changes are coming to Epcot. While nothing specific was announced, he said that it will be more “Disney,” more relevant, timeless, more family, and true to the original vision. I’m looking forward to hearing more about these changes as we approach Epcot’s 35th anniversary next year.

Next up was an interesting look back at Disney’s True Life Adventures movies. It was interesting to learn about how the filmmakers lived in the wild for years at a time, how they respected the animals and their habitats, and how they invented different gadgets to help with filming.

We were then treated to a presentation by Disney Legend, Marty Sklar. He talked about the design of Adventureland in Disneyland. I loved when he said that Walt wanted every square inch of the park to be part of the show, immersed in details. This is one of the ways that Disney parks are unique, and it is clear that today’s Imagineers still follow this vision. He shared many details about the landscape and attraction design of the Jungle Cruise. For example, Adventureland was supposed to be on the other side of the park, but they moved it to make use of native eucalyptus trees. They also rescued palm trees that were going to be destroyed by freeway construction and moved them to Adventureland. Marty also said that since the show figures were constructed offsite, it was common to see the animals heading down the freeway towards Disneyland. Marty Sklar has amazing stories to tell and it really is amazing to be able to hear stories from someone who worked directly with Walt!

The next presentation was by several Imagineers including Disney Legend Tony Baxter, and it focused on the Adventurelands around the world. Each park’s Adventureland is based on its culture. For example, the Adventureland in Disneyland Paris is Arabian themed because of their strong interest in Far East fairy tales. My favorite fun fact from this presentation is that the guests at Shanghai Disneyland are obsessed with turkey legs. They wait in line for hours, and the park often sells out of their supply within a few hours each day. This presentation was followed up with “Tales from the Jungle Cruise.” This featured several current Imagineers who began their Disney careers as Jungle Cruise skippers. They had plenty of amusing tales to tell.

Next was a discussion of the Polynesian Resort, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary along with the Magic Kingdom this year. I like how the updates at this resort include a lot of original design work, including Mary Blair textile designs. My favorite fun fact came from this presentation: Greg Brady’s tiki necklace from the Brady Bunch is found at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Polynesian. I definitely need to hunt for it next time I’m there! One of my favorite moments of the weekend was when they brought Auntie Kaui, an original cast member from the Polynesian who has worked there for 45 years, up on stage to teach everyone the hula. She was lovely and looked wonderful at the young age of 86! The day ended with the screenwriter for Moana discussing the upcoming film. That evening, guests were treated to an advanced viewing of the film at the Polynesian Resort, which we did not attend.

Day 2 began with a discussion of the newly released book about Disney maps (that I definitely want to buy). The next presentation was one of my favorites of the weekend. Tom Vazzana, the Imagineer who directed the new holiday show Jingle Bell Jingle Bam at Hollywood Studies, showed us a video of the new show and provided live “director’s cut” commentary. His enthusiasm for the show was infections, and I enjoyed learning all the details you wouldn’t necessarily get watching the show without commentary. We definitely want to return to see the show, which includes references to Mary Blair, the Osborne lights, and the tragedies in Orlando. He was kind enough to come into the audience to meet guests after the presentation.

jingle-bam

Next, Imagineers took us on a nostalgic journey through Walt Disney World adventures of the past, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Fort Wilderness, Discovery Island, If You Had Wings, and the wave machine at the Polynesian.

This was followed by a presentation by Avatar creator James Cameron and Imagineer Joe Rohde about the new Pandora land coming to the Animal Kingdom next year. They told the story of the land as if it was a real place they had been to. Lots of show art was shown and discussed and it looks really incredible!

It was time to take a little break and check out new Disney furniture by Ethan Allen. Totally cute, but really expensive!

 

After the lunch break, we were treated to a presentation about the art of Disney Legend Marc Davis. He worked on classic attractions such as the Jungle Cruise, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which was originally supposed to be a walk-through wax museum. Next up, Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter shared some of the attractions from Shanghai Disneyland, and they are pretty mind blowing.

The rest of the afternoon focused on the Animal Kingdom, with the head of Animal and Science Operations talking about how they have cared for the animals during times of change such as during construction of Pandora and keeping the Animal Kingdom open at night. They have extensive processes of data collection and animal care and welfare is one of the park’s core values.

The grand finale presenter was Imagineer Joe Rohde, who I consider to be the heart and soul of the Animal Kingdom park. A true visionary, he is also painstakingly meticulous about the details. He has such an engaging and intelligent way of telling stories. If anyone is not a fan of the Animal Kingdom, they should listen to Joe speak. The park is more about immersing you in landscape than it is about running around to ride attractions. He spoke about wanting to feed guests imaginations with experiences of the world. The Magic Kingdom is about being in the middle of fantasy and fairy tales. The Animal Kingdom is like being in the middle of a documentary. My favorite story he told was when he was researching in Africa and a member of the Masai tribe asked him where he was from. Joe said, “Disney.” The tribe member replied, “ahhh theme parks.” I can’t think of any better way to end the weekend than with Joe Rohde.

The weekend ended with guests being given free admission to the Magic Kingdom Sunday night with fast passes to the Jingle Cruise. It was cold by Florida standards, and we were exhausted from the weekend’s activities so we skipped it!

All in all it was an incredible weekend. My main takeaway was….Imagineers have dream jobs. They love what they do and it shows. They are inspired by Walt’s core values and continue to create wonderfully immersive environments with meticulous attention to details. People have many reasons they visit the parks and different goals around their adventures. Some are rope droppers and their goal is to cram in as many attractions as possible. Some like to visit to create family memories. For me, it’s about the history and details. I don’t need to ride a single attraction to get the most out of my visit. And I like that there’s something for everyone, including die hard fans like me who love events like Destination D and will keep coming back for more!

 

Beyond Neverland : Relaxing in the Tiki Room?

Trader Sams

One of the things we rarely have time to do on “normal” trips to Disney is tour the resort hotels extensively. After our ride on the Highway in the Sky we decided to transfer monorails to the resort loop and ride on over to one of our favorite hotels on property – Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. There’s something about departing the monorail at the Polynesian and smelling the scent when you walk into the hotel lobby that brings back so many memories. We don’t know what it is, but we hope it never goes away.

 

They recently refurbished the lobby, and while it’s not quite as good as it used to be, it still captures the essence of being whisked away to the Hawaiian Islands.

 

old poly lobby

Old Lobby

IMG_6307

New Lobby

It is also interesting to note that the time was around 3:15pm and people were already lined up for ‘dinner’ at ‘Ohana that begins at 3:30pm. After making our way downstairs and out towards the pool and beach, we looped around and came back in through a side door that just happened to be right by Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and Tiki Bar – a somewhat new establishment at the Poly that opened in 2015, which is based on Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. We knew they only take guests on a first-come first-served basis and the opening time was just 15 minutes away, so we figured why not try it? We placed  our name on a wait list and shortly after opening we were buzzed and were told to select a seat.

At first glance Trader Sam’s really looks like the famous Enchanted Tiki Room located in the Magic Kingdom. It’s a dark room with lots of wood accents and a thatched ceiling, and “windows” provide a view of a tropical landscape.The cozy bar has a limited capacity of 51, and the name of the bar and many of its details are related to the Jungle Cruise. We wish they would give tours of the room outside of operating hours, because there are hundreds of details to examine. The menu offers some Polynesian themed appetizers and the cocktail menu has drinks such as Polynesian Pearl, Shrunken Zombie Head, and Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum, many of which are served in souvenir glasses. While we enjoyed drinks that did not come in souvenir glasses, some people that we met had the Nautilus, and the souvenir glass was pretty impressive!

IMG_6335

Another reason this bar is so unique is the cast members. The bartenders and servers are really friendly and wacky, and when certain drinks are ordered it sets off a chain reaction of events that happen. Here’s a video of some of the antics…

 

It was really cool to kick back in our comfy chairs and relax for as long as we wanted. Even though the bar was tiny, there was no pressure to leave. The AC was very nice considering the heat index was over 100 that day as well. What we enjoy most about our “Beyond Neverland” trips is that we don’t have to plan or stick to a schedule. We just happened to walk by Trader Sam’s right before it opened and decided, why not, let’s check it out! We also met some locals who were doing the same thing as us….riding the resort loop and checking out the different resorts and not going to the parks. We definitely recommend Trader Sam’s, and if you don’t want to have a long wait, then be sure to get there before it opens at 4pm.

Beyond Neverland: Riding the Highway in the Sky

One of the things on the top of our to do list on our recent “Beyond Neverland 2.0” non-parks trip was to ride Disney’s “highway in the sky,” the monorail. With around 14 miles of track, the monorail operates on 3 loops from the Transportation and Ticket Center: the Resort Loop, the Express Loop to the Magic Kingdom, and the Epcot Loop. The Epcot Loop is the longest stretch of monorail and it also allows riders to see inside of Epcot.  For us silly sisters, we thought it would be fun to be inside of Epcot without setting foot in the park. After we met up at the Transportation and Ticket Center, Molly treated herself to an iced coffee from the Joffrey’s kiosk.

Then, we headed up to the ramp to the Epcot. We waited for a few minutes until monorail silver pulled into the station.

It used to be so cool to ride up front in the monorails, and although it’s no longer allowed at Walt Disney World, you can still ride up front at Disneyland in California. We took a relaxing round trip ride to Epcot and back to the TTC. The highlight is when the monorail goes into Epcot where you get a bird’s eye view of Future World and World Showcase. Back during Epcot’s heyday in the ’80s, we used to be so excited when we would get a sneak peek into the fun that was ahead. While it was nice to look inside the park that day, what we could see from the monorail is that the buildings are really showing their age and in need of some serious TLC.

The rumors that are floating around are exciting for some, but for folks like us who loved the Epcot of the ’80s, the rumors are worrisome as it seems they may be moving away from edutainment at Epcot. Overall, the monorail ride was lots of fun, and we took some video of the ride through Epcot, so join along….

After we returned to the TTC, we boarded the Resort Loop monorail and set off on another adventure…..

Beyond Neverland 2.0

It’s time for our Second Annual Beyond Neverland Trip! I can’t believe it’s already been one year since our first. It was a year ago on our trip that we decided to document our travels in this blog.


As usual, we plan on taking it easy, while trying at least one or two new activities. One thing we always say that we’re going to do is play mini golf at either Winter Summerland or Fantasia Gardens. It has become the running joke that we will play mini golf everytime we go, because we always seem to run out of time to play. This year we are staying at Carribbean Beach Resort – a hotel we haven’t stayed at in 26 years. I remember it vividly and look forward to rediscovering the offerings. I am so ready for
our little two night sisters’ getaway. At this time tomorrow, we will be there!

Christmas at the Yacht Club Resort

IMG_5124

To celebrate Christmas in July, I am taking a look at one of my favorite resorts to visit during Christmastime. All of the resorts in the Boardwalk area are beautifully decorated for Christmas, and I really enjoy the way the Yacht Club is decorated with a nautical theme. I adore how the Christmas tree peeks through the glass doors from the Boardwalk entryway.

 

The best part of the lobby is the whimsical train set and Christmas village. I am a huge fan of miniatures and little villages, and I always spend time looking at the train set and all the details of the miniature village at the Germany pavilion in Epcot. The train winds its way through a snowy seaside village that features Disney figurines and buildings (some of which are sold at Department 56) as well as shops and restaurants throughout the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. Some of the displays are a nod to Disney films as well. There is an incredible amount of detail to look at, and the last time I was there during the holiday season, I went back to look at the display a few times. So with only 5 months left until Christmas, I look forward to seeing the Yacht Club decorations real soon. The next time you’re at WDW during the holidays, make sure to check out the Yacht Club!!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.