Plus: what's new in area amusement parks
My adult son Donald and I work as a team - I help with those areas where his mild mental retardation limits him and he helps with those areas where my rheumatoid arthritis limits me. We love traveling together and Disney World is one of our favorite destinations. And then we started editing. On previous visits, we approached Disney World the way most people approach an all-you-can-eat buffet, overindulging to the point of discomfort. Not this time. Our focus this time would be on quality, not quantity. By paring everything from our lists except the best of the best, we would walk away from the Disney World "buffet" satisfied instead of stuffed.
The plan worked. We did less this time than on any of our previous five visits, but enjoyed ourselves much more. If you"re headed for Orlando this summer, I suggest you try the same approach.
At Disney World, the theme for 2002 is "100 Years of Magic," marking the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney"s birth on Dec. 5, 1901. The celebration is centered at the Disney-MGM Studios, in honor of Walt"s contributions to show business. Not far past the new icon, an eye-popping 12-story tall sorcerer"s hat, the premier new attraction is Walt Disney: One Man"s Dream, a fascinating collection of priceless artifacts, rare audio clips, interactive exhibits and a dandy new film about Walt Disney that suffers only from being too short.
Other related additions include parades at all four parks, and new attractions and shows such as The Magic Carpets of Aladdin in the Magic Kingdom, Chester & Hester"s Dino-rama!, featuring TriceraTop Spin and Primeval Whirl (whew!) in Disney"s Animal Kingdom and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Play It! at Disney-MGM. In addition, all four parks have computerized kiosks, called "Discover the Stories behind the Magic," that allow guests to learn about the history of Disney.
Our plan to make sure the vacation was a pleasure and not an endurance test was helped immeasurably by FASTPASS, possibly Disney"s all-time best innovation. FASTPASS, which debuted in 1999, is a computerized system that allows guests to avoid standing in lines for the most popular rides and attractions. The system is free and simple - go to your favorite ride, locate the FASTPASS machine and insert your ticket. The machine makes a return appointment for you and prints a pass with a one-hour window (for example, 2:20-3:20 p.m.). Take off and enjoy other parts of the park until your designated time frame, then return to the area, present your pass and proceed directly onto the ride.
What amazed me most about FASTPASS was how many people weren"t using it. Repeatedly, Donald and I presented our passes and strolled past long lines of people waiting and waiting and waiting. At one point, I heard a young man standing in line with his friends say, "Look at those people. It isn"t fair that some people should be able to pay extra and cut ahead of everybody else." I walked over to him and explained that the system was free and that anybody in the park could use it. He looked surprised, said, "Thanks, dude, this is cool," and then continued to stand in line.
Donald blurted out, "Why don"t you go get one now?"
The guy responded, "Oh, we"ve stood in line this long, we may as well finish." Go figure.
The "do less, enjoy more" plan worked well for Donald and me. We visited our all-time favorite rides and attractions and sampled the most intriguing new stuff. We slept as late as we wanted, enjoyed leisurely meals at some remarkable restaurants and, when all was said and done, we came home feeling refreshed.
At the Magic Kingdom, we used FASTPASS to visit our four favorite attractions, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the Haunted Mansion. In between our "appointments," we poked around, rode the Riverboat and caught the "Share a Dream Come True" parade. While I generally have little patience for parades, this one was a corker, featuring 100 Disney characters. The opening unit stars Mickey Mouse, of course, and the finale is a "crystal" castle with nine faux snow globes and the illusion of floating through clouds. Incidentally, each of the globes, which contain Disney vignettes, is made from approximately 400 pounds of acrylic material, the same type used for jet fighter windshields.
At Epcot, we sat by the World Showcase Lake and had fish and chips at the United Kingdom Pavilion"s Rose and Crown Pub, then lingered to chat with several members of the young wait staff. After visiting Ellen Degeneres, Bill Nye, the Science Guy and a lot of dinosaurs at Future World"s Universe of Energy, we FASTPASSed our way onto Test Track, a new attraction that proved to be Donald"s favorite. Test Track combines a motion simulator with a real track. Visitors get to try out a new-model car by going through hairpin turns, climbing up and down steep hills, bumping over rough terrain and racing down the straightway at 65 mph.
In the evening, we ventured back to the World Showcase for IllumiNations, the nightly spectacular that closes the park. Presented over the lake, the production combines music, fireworks, laser lights and neon for a dazzling display. The show has been redone since our last visit and this version is considerably more elegant and dramatic. FYI: Crowds gather early for IllumiNations and it becomes hard to find a clear vantage point. However, if you go to the second-floor (restaurant level) of the Mitsukoshi Building in the Japan Pavilion, the covered deck will give you an unobstructed view of both IllumiNations and the "Tapestry of Life" parade that precedes it.
After visiting the Walt Disney: One Man"s Dream attraction at Disney-MGM studios, Donald and I took our first, and apparently only, trip on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The ride was out of service on our only other visit since its opening and I was chomping at the bit to try it out. Donald was leery, but I talked fast while edging us forward and he grudgingly stuck with me. The attraction takes visitors into the library of a once-opulent, now decrepit Hollywood hotel where the image of Rod Serling signals the start of some extreme weirdness. The ride vehicle, a hotel "service elevator" takes guests upwards, past a wonderful array of spooky special effects. At the 13th floor, the elevator cable snaps and visitors plunge down, then get jerked back up, only to drop rapidly down again (five times total, I think).
Unfortunately, Donald, a seasoned roller coaster rider, did not find the experience the least bit fun. He left the ride with wobbly legs and an ashen face, pausing just long enough to say, "Don"t you ever even try to get me on anything like that again!" After apologizing profusely (many, many times), I suggested we retreat to the Hollywood Brown Derby, a replica of the original Brown Derby in California, complete with duplicates of celebrity caricatures adorning the walls. The service is phenomenal and the food outstanding. If you eat there, be sure to have the Cobb Salad. Created at the Brown Derby for Bob Cobb, this is the genuine article, the only true Cobb Salad, with a bed of diced greens topped with rows of avocado, watercress, tomatoes, chicken, eggs, chives, blue cheese, bacon and French dressing. Because the salad is so large, share it with the rest of your group, so that you"ll have room for one of the outstanding entrÈes.
After dinner, we headed for Fantasmic!, the most extravagant multimedia show in Disney World. Staged each evening (with two shows per night during peak periods), the show takes place on a specially-created lagoon and island opposite a 6,900-seat amphitheater (which can also accommodate 3,000 more standing guests, for a total of nearly 10,000). Mickey Mouse stars, recreating his role as the sorcerer"s apprentice from Fantasia, in a jaw-dropping show with costumed performers, a full-sized ship, music, lasers, images projected on shrouds of mist, fireworks, lighting effects and fire on water. You will never see anything like this, but be sure and get to the amphitheater early, because despite the massive capacity, people are turned away almost every night.
This trip was our first since the opening of Disney"s Animal Kingdom, but Donald and I stuck to our no-rush policy and sampled only a few of the park"s attractions. We used the FASTPASS system to take a ride on the Kilimanjaro Safari without waiting. Guests board open-air vehicles and are taken on the Disney version of an African photo safari. Get there as early in the day as possible, when the animals are most active, and you can see zebras, wildebeests, impalas, Thomson"s gazelle, giraffe, rhinos, lions and more.
We also took in the Festival of the Lion King, a terrific theater-in-the-round stage show. Guests sit in bleachers and get to witness a wonderful mixture of singing, dancing and acrobatics by performers in wildly colorful costumes. After exploring the shops at length, we caught "Mickey"s Jammin" Jungle Parade," reminiscent of the street parades common in island communities. The huge, abstract animal puppets were particularly impressive.
While Disney"s Animal Kingdom features one of the popular Rainforest CafÈs, I suggest you skip it and head over to Jiko - the Cooking Place at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The large restaurant features stylized white birds overhead and two large wood-burning ovens in the center of the room. House specialties include brick-oven flatbreads, banana-leaf steamed sea bass, horseradish-crusted salmon, a variety of beef dishes and exotic desserts.
Those interested in fine dining should not confine themselves to the parks, as the various resorts contain some great places to eat. We stayed at the Contemporary Resort, which features the nationally renowned California Grill. The menu, driven by market-fresh ingredients, changes often, so, rather than describe what we had, I"ll simply suggest you add it to your must-do list.
The Contemporary Resort also houses the Concourse Steakhouse, which serves the best hamburgers in all of Disney World, and Chef Mickey"s, an all-you-can-eat breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet featuring table by table visits from Disney characters. Something quite special happened there. My son Donald can"t stand it when people react to his mental retardation by talking to him as if he is a child. Accordingly, he avoids anything he considers even the least bit childlike, so as not to reinforce the old stereotype about retarded people being "eternal children."
That all changed, however, when Minnie Mouse approached our table. Donald looked at her with wonder, gently shaking her hand and leaping up to pull out a chair so that Minnie could rest for a bit. He chatted with her softly and, when she indicated it was time for her to move on, once again helped her with her chair.
Afterwards, I said, "Donnie, I have never seen you be such a gentleman."
"It"s only right," he replied. "She"s a lady."
Moments like that are why we keep going to Disney World.
Cirque du Soleil
One of the most amazing destinations at Disney World does not belong to Disney. Downtown Disney"s West Side, a 70-acre shopping, restaurant and nightlife complex situated near Pleasure Island, houses a 1,671-seat theater that is the first freestanding permanent structure ever built for Cirque du Soleil, the circus-as-theater experience.
Circus-as-theater is such an inadequate way to describe Cirque du Soleil, but it"s the best I can do. Quoting from The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World: "It combines Classical Greek theater, mime, the English morality play, Dali surrealism, Fellini characterization and Chaplin comedy."
And then some.
You will see dazzling aerobatics, stylized clowns that are actually funny, haunting mini-dramas and clever skits. You will leave the building with a dopey grin on your face, and you will grope for words when you try to describe it to your friends at home.
Founded in Quebec in 1984, Cirque du Soleil productions have played to more than 20 million people around the world. The highlight of this year"s Oscar ceremonies was a performance by several members of the Orlando troupe.
If you wish to experience Cirque du Soleil during your Disney World visit, make your reservations early, as the shows often sell out. And set aside some money. Cirque du Soleil is as expensive as a hit Broadway show and worth every cent. For more information, go to www.cirquedusoleil.com.
Area amusement parks: What's new for 2002
Holiday World and
Santa Claus, Ind., Phone: (877) 463-2645 (toll free) or (812) 937-4401, www.holidayworld.com
New for 2002: Southern Indiana"s cozy, ultra family-friendly park (with unlimited free soft drinks!) presents ZOOMbabwe: The World"s Largest Enclosed Waterslide! Each raft in ZOOMbabwe (pronounced zoom-BOB-way) will hold four to five persons. Climb on board, hold your breath and say good-bye to the sunlight! The tunnel may be bright purple on the outside, but inside it"s as black as night! Hang on as your raft twists and turns then climbs high on the side of the tunnel. Go ahead and scream when you hit the sudden drops - where exactly did your stomach go? Nearly 900 feet long and over 10 stories tall!
Monticello, Ind., (219) 583-4141,
New for 2002: Lost Coaster of Superstition Mountain. Indiana Beach"s fifth roller coaster is a wood-tracked, gravity-driven mine train built on the steel structure of the old Mountain ride. Since no room was available for a traditional chain-driven lift, a vertically designed elevator system has been installed to raise the two-car trains to the top of the ride. Elements inside the mountain vary from tight turns to steep drops to bunny hops and other surprises. A unique feature of the ride is passengers in each car will face each other, giving riders the choice of experiencing the attraction riding forward or backward.
Paramount"s Kings Island
Kings Island, Ohio, Phone: (800) 288-0808 (toll free) or (513) 754-5600, www.pki.com
New for 2002: Tomb Raider: The Ride, inspired by Paramount Pictures" Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie. Descend into the ancient tomb of the illuminati guarded by the Warrior Goddess Durga, just as the planets align - and become enmeshed in an epic test of fire and ice! Hurtling through the darkness, you"ll come face-to-face with glistening, razor-sharp stalactites and roiling, red-hot lava pits, twisting and turning as you struggle against the fury of nature"s polar opposites in a desperate effort to escape!
Sandusky, Ohio, Phone: (419) 627-2350,
New for 2002: Wicked Twister, the tallest and fastest double-twisting impulse roller coaster in the world. This 215-foot-tall, 72 mph steel stunner will be Cedar Point"s 15th scream machine, breaking the park"s own record for having more coasters than anywhere else on earth. Using the revolutionary linear induction motor (LIM) propulsion system, Wicked Twister will blast riders out of its station reaching a top speed of 72 mph in a mere 2.5 seconds - propelling forward and backward and up and down a U-shaped track while spiraling 450-degree corkscrews atop each vertical 215-foot-tall tower. This twisted coaster will be launched out of the station five times - three forward and two back.
Six Flags St. Louis
Eureka, Mo., (636) 938-4800,
New for 2002: Scooby-Doo! Ghostblasters - the Mystery of the Scary Swamp. Join Scooby-Doo and the rest of the Mystery, Inc. gang in this scary swamp adventure! Board a boat complete with a special "Fright Light" which shoots an invisible laser-beam at targets gathering Scooby Snacks and banishing as many creepy things as possible! Scooby-Doo Ghostblasters is an interactive family ride you won"t want to miss!
Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom
Louisville, Ky., (502) 366-2231,
No new rides this year, but the park will host a series of concerts and shows including The Temptations Review with Dennis Edwards (May 27), Ohio Valley Wrestling and the Super Stars of the WWF (May 31, June 14 and 28, July 12 and 26), Celebration! 2002 with Jars of Clay and Jennifer Knapp, Gospel Music Celebration Day with Kirk Franklin (June 22), The Charlie Daniels Band (July 7), the Kentucky State Fair (Aug. 15-25) and Willie Nelson (Sept. 29).