Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My Big Disney Adventure, Part Two: Are We There Yeti?

Monday morning, you sure look fine. The night before, Brad had looked at me with pleading eyes and begged that we be allowed to sleep in. How I somehow became known as the Fun Nazi is beyond me.

At the leisurely hour of nine, we climbed out of bed, sitting as much as possible before it was time to head out. I finished Barry Ween and Brad started me on PvP, which I’d never really read before. Here’s the weird thing: I didn’t feel hyped or particularly rushed to get there. Normally on mornings before amusement parks, my whole deal is getting there as early as possible and not dawdling and having fun fun fun! This morning, I was pretty much on board with relaxing. I wonder if that means I’m growing as a person. Jeez, I hope not.

After a brief jaunt to the car-repair place so Kay could swap out her rental for her awesome hybrid, we sped toward the two parks we hadn’t had time for yesterday. First stop: Animal Kingdom!

Now, here’s the deal. Animal Kingdom was the park I probably had the least interest in. At least for this trip, I wasn’t all that into the safari, and I’ve never really been much of an animal-watcher. (Plus, I had to wonder if, instead of being divided by “Worlds,” like the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, it would be divided by “Phylums.” When it wasn’t, I was sort of disappointed.) A big part of me also wondered if the park hadn’t sprung whole from The Lion King; where all the other parks seemed to coalesce around a whole Disney theme, this one seemed very much based on one movie and one aesthetic.

That being said, I had a pretty amazing time inside the Animal Kingdom. At the gate, Kay and Brad spotted the Pin Trading Station before I did and rushed right over with me. (I had sort of high hopes for finding the Robin Hood pin here, using the same logic as I had with the UK area of EPCOT: well, Robin Hood’s an animal, right? In fact, the narration specifically mentions the fact that this is the “animal kingdom” version of the legend. So sure! Why not!?) The cool thing about this, started here and reiterated throughout the day, is that Kay and Brad seemed just as interested in helping me find the pin as I was in finding it myself. I’m not sure if it’s that they were sparked on by my charming obsessive nature, or that – despite the fact that this wasn’t their deal – they both understood the nature of collecting, or, and probably most obviously, they’re both just awesome people. In any event, scouring the pin trading stations became an essential backbone to our day at Disneyworld, giving the experience structure and an added level of fun. It was the best day!

The best thing about Animal Kingdom was, of course, the Expedition Everest ride. Almost everyone I talked to about Disney had advice on all other aspects of the park, but because Everest was brand-new, it was a complete unknown. I was going into it blind and I was a little nervous about it. Me and roller coasters, I tell you.

What’s cool about Everest is what’s cool about a lot of Disney: the ride is completely immersive. The line-wait (which actually didn’t take all that long) takes you through the “base camp” station and the Yeti Museum, packed full of Yeti “artifacts” to enhance the realism of the whole ride. The basic truth here holds with the basic truth of all of Disney: if you believe, you’re going to have a lot more fun.

Brad ducked out as Kay and I clambered aboard a train car (me chickening out at the last moment and moving away from the front seat. I like coasters, don’t get me wrong, but the ride has to prove itself to me before I’m willing to brave the front.) One of the best Disney innovations – something that all parks should be equipped with – is small baskets located in every ride car for glasses and hats. How perfect is that idea? We took off from the station and started climbing.

Now, here’s where I usually lose my cool. The coaster experience itself is often super fun for me, but that first climb fucks my shit up. Disney had some fun with that part, having us ride up in the open air for part of it, then ducking into a pagoda-shaped tunnel for awhile before breaking back out into the open.

“Wow,” Kay marveled. “Look out to the right. You can see the whole park!”

“No.” I stopped just short of squeezing my eyes closed, and simply stared ahead.

“Oh, wow, it’s so pretty! You should really…”

“Yeah, no.”

As she cracked up, we crested the rise and proceeded to plummet. We rose again, and in front of us, the tracks had been torn up, and simply ended. Beyond that, all we could see was sky. Oh noes! The Yeti had been here!

Then we sped backward, screeching to a halt, and saw a silhouette-animation of the Yeti tearing more track up. It was actually kind of scary, if you let yourself be scared. Then more plummeting and the train went out of control!

Yes, kids, I loved Expedition Everest so much that I devoted an entire page to talking about it. After the ride, we all headed toward the Kali River Rapids and got super drenched (I had the foresight to take my shirt off and let my pasty-white flab out for all to see); at one point, I nearly lost my glasses and caught them just as they were about to fall over the edge of the boat. Then, right back to Everest! Oo-de-lally!

One last bit about Animal Kingdom: inside, there’s this dinosaur-themed mini-park, which looks very much like a carnival that just swung into town. There are mini-roller coasters and Whack-a-Moles and stuff like that. And this one ride, this Dino-Whirl thing, had no right being as fun as it was. After I got off, I was dizzy but gleeful. And on the search for cotton candy.

The Animal Kingdom thoroughly awesomed out, we headed out to Disney Studios, a park I was very keen on exploring. The Disney “thing” for me – whatever it is – started with the movies. The very first movie I remember seeing, when I was four and going to the theater with my Dad a lot, was The Fox and the Hound. That parlayed into a huge love of movies in general, and going to Disney Studios was going to underline all of that.

Man, was I right on. Everything about Disney Studios – from the movie-lot-looking Main Street to the shops and the restaurants – everything was like being backstage at the movies. More Disney immersion, and I was all for it. Plus, plus: my favorite ride of all of Disneyworld was here. Brad had done the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror once, and for him, once was enough. For me, over the course of the next two days, I would do the ride three times, more than any other. For me, it was the absolute most terrifying ride of the park, but also pretty damn fun, too. I’ve loved The Twilight Zone my entire life, and being inside the Tower of Terror “hotel” was like being inside an episode. How fucking awesome is that? Here’s me, freaking out:

Notice the kid in the back, bored beyond belief at the absolute, bone-rending terror going on. That douchebag is the enemy of fun. Also, notice me clutching Kay. I was just protecting her, is the thing. It wasn’t because I was scared. Nope.

After some brief ride problems, we leapt onto the Aersosmith Rock N Rollercoaster. 1: I had no idea it went upside down. 2. Or started off that fast. 3. Or that “Just Push Play” is actually a pretty awesome song, if you think about it.

We didn’t spend much longer at Disney Studios; only long enough to see a “movie” sequence being played out by a ditzy woman called Babs and a chubby dude being the “director.” Right before we headed out, my hankering for cotton candy was sated, which spelled for a delightfully sugary boat ride to EPCOT.

As soon as we docked, we sped to Norway. There was lunch to be had! (As we sat:

Me: “Hey, Brad?”

Brad: “What?”

I knocked on the table. “Norwegian wood.”

And then we cracked up as Kay looked on.)

Yes, that does say "Princess Storybook Dining." Wow.

What we didn’t know is that it was a “character” meal. What we further didn’t know is that it was a Princess character meal. This made things kind of interesting. See, when Snow White showed up, I apparently, um, couldn’t conceal my excitement. I’m not sure if this is a gay thing or a kid-like thing or a combo of the two, but actually seeing the characters there, in real life … I mean, the Norwegian lunch was already made of awesome. This kind of stratosphered things.

As is evident in these, um, lunatic photos:

The day wound down from there. As night edged closer, we began to pick out seats for viewing IllumiNations. After Brad and Kay had settled, I dashed back to France and picked up a selection of snacks from the patisserie, running back to where we were sitting and proffering my procurements. We leaned against the wall near the waterfront and watched the IllumiNations spectacular explode overhead, brilliant and colorful and simply amazing. Thoroughly worn out, we headed back to the car, tired and stuffed but happy. We would be sleeping well tonight.

One more day in Disney. One more entry in this series. Soon, I would be heading home. But not before one last hurrah!

Monday, May 21, 2007

My Big Disney Adventure, Part One: Not In Nottingham

Here’s the deal about me and Disney: the last time I was there was 1979. I went with my Mom and her sister Marybeth, along with my two uncles, Chris and Freddy … both of whom were just old enough to make a big show out of hating the Happiest Place on Earth. And the fact is that I was four, and far more interested in my Weebles Treehouse Playset than going on rides. This was around the time I was more interested in tomatoes than chocolate, so obviously I was a disturbed toddler.

But it’s been twenty-eight years since then. Disney has gone through a Renaissance or two and so have I. And as Brad and I climbed onto the Monorail and sped toward the Magic Kingdom, I could barely contain my jittery glee. It seems implausible that I could be this choked with nervous anticipation, but there it was.

“Hey,” my friend Brad said. “If you look through those trees, you can see the spires of Cinderella’s Castle.”

I pressed my palms to the window and stared out. And there it was, coming into view. Cinderella’s Castle, smack-dab in the middle of the Magic Kingdom. Oh my God, I thought. Peter Pan was right. I can fly. I can fly!

Then my brain short-circuited for awhile. Maybe that was for the best.

* * *

In the weeks leading up to Disney, I’d made my plans based around a few facts, the main being that Brad would not go on rollercoasters, or rides that went especially high. This worked out just fine, because I had three days there, and rollercoasters could wait until day two, when Kay would join us and go on anything. I had also steeled myself against the probability of long, dull lines. I knew that it was unlikely that I’d ride everything I wanted to ride, and the lists I’d made would have to be held over for my next trip.

So imagine my surprise when we stepped through the gates of the Magic Kingdom and found the park almost entirely

“Empty? Where is everyone?”

Brad shrugged. “Well, it’s Mother’s Day. And Sunday. And, um, nine AM. People are probably at church and stuff. Or still sleeping.”

“Brad, all the lines say there’s a five-minute wait! Is that weird?”

“Actually, yeah. Usually these lines are like a half-hour or more.”

“Oh my God! I’m going to get to do everything!”

It certainly seemed that way. And the cool thing was, the no-rollercoaster thing wasn’t exactly a limit: sure, the less intense rides had a high nostalgia/cheese factor … but that’s why I was at Disneyworld! I was there for the cheese!

So we spent the first part of our day doing the two rides Brad particularly digs: Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. The cool thing about pirates – besides its excessive silliness – is the newer addition of the Captain Jack stuff. A couple of times, I thought the animatronic Johnny Depp was actually an actor who was going to jump out at us and say hi. I had no idea it could look that realistic. And I loved The Haunted Mansion. To give you an idea of the cheese factor, at one point the spooky ghost announcer says, “They’re having a … swinging wake!” It’s like crazy Marc Summers got his creepy on and brought his pauses all the way down to Florida. (Also, there was this exchange: “Hey Brad! Did you know! That Barenaked Ladies did that ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ thing in the Haunted Mansion?” “Ooooh!” It’s real easy to be weary of me.)

Brad also seemed jazzed about jumping into the teacups at the Mad Tea Party. This held a special place in my heart, actually, because it is the only thing I remember from my previous trip to Disney, when I was a Weeble-loving four-year-old. Stepping onto the teacups was like stepping into my past whole: a perfect, pristine version of my past. And I was doing it with one of my best friends. How cool is that?

From there, it was easy to do everything we wanted to do. Some line-wait times said ten minutes and we were in under two. “it’s a small world,” Stitch’s Great Escape, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Tomorrowland Transit Authority … bang bang bang, one after the other. It was becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to have to wait until tomorrow to do my coasters. It wasn’t yet noon and we were nearly done with The Magic Kingdom.

Brad assured me that he had no problem sitting in the shade with some lemonade while I cavorted away on the coasters. In rapid succession, I visited Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the vaguely racist Splash Mountain. (You know, it occurs to me now that Disneyworld is a little obsessed with mountains. I wonder what that means.) I have rarely had this much fun. See, the coasters at Disney aren’t particularly horrifying; I’ve sworn off mega-coasters, and nothing in Disney even comes close to that. I know this is going to sound a little silly, but the coasters here are designed for maximum fun. Sure, they’re thrilling and sometimes your tummy drops a little, but they don’t make you question your religion when you’re on them. It’s the perfect kind of ride in the most perfect kind of place.

Our last stop in the Magic Kingdom was a jaunt into Mickey’s Philharmagic, which I wasn’t all that interested in, but by that point, Brad wasn’t the only one needing a bit of a rest. Only when I got inside did I realize it was going to be the type of 3-D show that the Shrek presentation at Universal was, only this time with Disney stuff. I started to get excited.

Can I just say, right now, that Mickey’s Philharmagic is one of the best places in Disneyworld. I’m not just talking my report up till now, I’m talking the whole park. All it is is a 3-D tour through several musical Disney Classics moments. It reminded me how much I loved The Lion King and Beauty & the Beast. And it was sensory 3-D, too, with smells and water and sounds coming from everywhere. It was perfect, just perfect.

One last note about The Magic Kingdom: my entire original goal of going to Disney World in the first place was to find a Robin Hood Hat. (To reiterate: Robin. Hood. HAT.) Every time I posited this question in any shop in any area of the Magic Kingdom, I was met with everything ranging from incredulity to outright hostility. Disney “Cast Members” are nice to the point of saccharine overload on every other subject, but this one seemed to suspiciously draw their ire.

“What?” one Cast Member asked, a look of disgust on her face. “You mean the cartoon fox? Yeah, no. You’re not gonna find that.” And then her Disney Face came back, filling in the anger lines and making things sweet again. It was horrifying to watch.

With a heavy sigh, I followed Brad back to the monorail. There was some EPCOT to be getting to, and I wasn’t going to let the surly anti-Robin Hood campaign get in the way of my fun! EPCOT AHOY!

* * *

So, wanna hear how completely dumb I am? Until about two months ago, I thought that EPCOT was entirely enclosed in that big shiny geodesic sphere. Like, the sphere was humungous and the park was all inside of it. These are times when I question the validity of those high IQ scores I got in school.

The dome contains exactly one ride, Spaceship Earth, and they are adamant about assuring you that it is a slow-moving ride. Seriously, the guide map states that you’re going to “glide gently though the Audio-Animatronics story of communication.” When you get into the ride-car, a giant red and white sign says, “This is a SLOW-MOVING RIDE.” And as you start to climb up the first gentle hill, a voice comes over the speakers and assures us, “You will be moving very slowly. You’ll start slowly and you’ll end slowly. At one point, your car will turn … quite slowly! And you’ll return very, very slowly.” Oh my God, EPCOT, we GET IT!

Except we didn’t really. Because no matter how slow you think it’s going to be? Yeah, it’s slower.

Which was fine. More cheese factor I could share with Brad. Besides, it actually was kind of interesting, if you’re into learning and stuff. After that, Brad took a breather and I leapt toward Mission: SPACE. (I couldn’t tell if SPACE was an acronym for something, or if EPCOT was just really excited about this mission and went with caps instead of italics.) I went on a lot of rides at Disney. Mission: SPACE is the only one I will not do again. It’s cool and all, but there’s a reason why there are barf bags actually inside the ride. Not even the presence of Gary Sinese could protect me from the ill effects of Mission: SPACE.

My stomach whoopsy and my head boggling, it was deemed time to take a stroll through the World – a part of the park system I had no idea existed until two months prior. Back to that IQ thing.

We made our way into Canada, and my first thought was: it’s like my friend Tracey got so excited that she exploded, and this was what happened. The Canada part of the World Showcase was … very, very Canadian. For whatever reason, perhaps by virtue of temporary insanity, Brad and I decided that it would be a keen idea to visit O Canada!, a film in Circle-Vision 360! The film told us many amazing things about 1980s Canada, like that it has Mounties and cities. And also plains and rivers. And cities. Farms, too! And parts of it are cold. Brrr, cold. Have I mentioned the cities?

“Oh my God,” I muttered to Brad.

“Okay, so it’s not just me.”

“”We can leave, right? They’ll let us just leave, right?”

“They better.”

So, kids, a word of advice: if you want to hate Canada, head on into the Circle-Vision 360 presentation of O Canada! at EPCOT. Jesus Christ.

The day was wearing on and time was running out. My last-ditch gambit for the Robin Hood hat seemed like a good one: “Hey, they’ll probably have something in the United Kingdom area, right? I mean, that’s were Robin Hood takes place, right?”

Brad studied me. “You know, that’s actually not a bad idea. Let’s try it!”

We wandered into the first shop, hopeful but wary. I perused the hats on the wall while Brad looked for a Cast Member to talk to. A moment later: “Hey, Kev?”

I spun, sure I’d see Brad with a hat in his hand. Instead, I saw a thin, smiling Cast Member next to him, whose nametag read Andrew. Beneath, as on all Cast Member name tags, read the place from which he’d originated. Andrew had come from


He grinned. “That’s right. Your friend tells me that you’re looking for Robin Hood stuff.”

I gaped at Andrew. Nottingham. He’s actually from Nottingham? “Yes, that’s right. I’m afraid you’re going to be out of luck. Unfortunately, all we seem to carry right now are the DVD and a single book.” He handed the book to me, but it was about the real Robin Hood, not the cartoon. Andrew felt my disappointment. “I know, it really stinks. I’m that movie’s biggest fan. D’you know, I was actually born in the Sherwood Forest area?”

“You’re serious?”

“Quite. So it actually pains me that there’s not more Robin Hood paraphernalia around. You’d think they’d hype it up, especially in the UK area.”

“You’d think!”

“Well, you’re not going to find a Robin Hood hat, but what you might try to do is locate a Robin Hood pin. There are places throughout all four parks where you can buy pins, and you’ll often see Cast Members walking around with lanyards full of pins. You might find one that way.”

A Robin Hood pin, eh? Maybe not as vitally awesome as a Robin Hood hat, but the idea wasn’t half-bad. No, not half-bad at all.

And as Brad and I popped into France for a couple of end-of-day pastries, the idea took sudden, frightening hold. Okay, I thought, one obsession didn’t work out, but here’s a new one. And this one’s actually possible. Hm. Robin Hood pin, eh? ROBIN HOOD PIN.

It had a ring to it, it did. And I still had two more days to find it.