Despite the fact that I’ve lived in Florida for more than two years, I still hadn’t been to Walt Disney World. Last week, however, I seized the opportunity to rectify this when my sister called from Illinois to say her daughter’s choral group would be performing at the park. Not only did I have the time, I now had the perfect excuse to visit what I have always considered to be one of America’s greatest theme parks.
Unfortunately, what began as an eager enterprise soon became mired in frustration. First, I found the Disney website to be virtually unnavigable and lacking in the most basic information. When I finally drilled down to the page where I could book tickets, it hung and refused to go anywhere. Even when I called the toll-free number, I could not reach a customer service representative who was able to adequately explain how the myriad “park passes” worked and was forced to buy the one I thought might work the best, given that my niece’s numerous performances were scheduled in several areas of the park over three days.
Next, I needed to determine the driving distance from Sarasota to the Magic Kingdom so that I could arrange to meet my family at a specific time the following day. After at least 30 minutes of searching through Disney’s various websites, I finally discovered a page with driving directions, but it said only: “Drive east on I-4 until you get to the signs for Walt Disney World.” Not at all helpful. I know the park is in the Orlando area, but where in the Orlando area? I resorted to mapquest, but it would not work using “Walt Disney World” as an address, so I returned to the Disney website and was stunned to discover that there is no address or town name to be found anywhere on the site.
Still not sure of the exact location of the Magic Kingdom, I set out early the next morning, and it is a good thing I did. Upon arriving I caught the tram to the transport center, picked up my tickets at will call, and hopped aboard a ferry to the main entrance, reaching it just as the turnstile computers broke down. Entry requires not only scanning of the barcode on each ticket, but also fingerprint scanning; lacking this, a guest could potentially use a two-day pass for three days. No one was being allowed through until the computers came back on line. People groused and grumbled as we cooled our jets for half an hour while park employees tried to rectify the problem. Finally, everyone was allowed to enter, even though the computers were still not working.
Once inside the park, I fought my way down a crowded Main Street during the midday parade and finally located my family – thank goodness for the orange T-shirts they all wore! The kids headed off on their own for a few hours and I joined the adult chaperones to explore the park. I wish I had better things to say about the rest of the day, but unfortunately the rides were lame and seemed designed solely to expose us to stores full of Disney merchandise. Aside from the two parades, where Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and the other Disney characters appeared in several incarnations, I never saw a character in the park the entire day. Frankly, the only really enjoyable event was the 9 p.m. fireworks show at the castle – it was truly spectacular – but the overwhelming experience was one of crass, in-your-face commercialism.
My second day at Epcot was a much different experience. I was fortunate to arrive during the annual International Flower and Garden Festival, which features dozens of intricate topiaries. Beginning with Cinderella’s grand coronation and her court, which frames Epcot’s iconic silver globe at the main entrance, each of the Disney characters were crafted from plants and blooming flowers and scattered throughout the park.
Epcot’s grounds are stunning and the rides in Future World are educational and interesting, however the most fascinating part of this park lies in its World Showcase. Built around a circular lake, each of its eleven Pavilions showcase a different country. Walking into the Mexico Pavilion is like being transported instantly to the central plaza of a Mexican village. The biergarten is the main attraction in Germany and at the United Kingdom Pavilion visitors can relax in a town square and munch on authentic fish and chips. The absolute best part of the day was attending the 360 degree Circle-Vision travelogue films presented by China, Canada, and France, although munching my way through a smorgasbord of international food all day was great fun as well.
With one bad Disney experience and one good experience behind me, it seemed that my visit to Downtown Disney on day three would be the tie-breaker. Comprised of three sections – West Side, Marketplace, and Pleasure Island – Downtown Disney is nothing more than one long shopping center built on the shore of a large man-made lake. The development seemed out of place and neglected; in fact, all the nightclubs in Pleasure Island were closed in September of 2008 in preparation for a “transformation,” although there was no apparent work underway.
Disney advertises the center as: “an appealing place to take a break from Disney Theme Parks and Water Parks—especially if you’re in search of Disney merchandise. Check out the largest Disney character store in the world.” Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Even though I have already been subjected to endless displays of merchandise at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, Disney suggests that I “take a break” and immerse myself in the relaxing experience of shopping at the largest Disney character store in the world at Downtown Disney. Puh-lease!
Fortunately, I was not there to shop. I was there to hear my niece perform. Grabbing a ringside seat in the lakeside open air amphitheater, I thoroughly enjoyed the choir’s program of big band, renaissance, and patriotic numbers. Now that was an appealing break. It’s also the only reason I’d ever return to Downtown Disney.
I was more than disappointed with my visit to Walt Disney World and, with the exception of Epcot, would not return. Although I could have stayed longer and checked out some of the other attractions like Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom, I was convinced that they would be more of the same, so I headed home. For me the only saving grace was that as a Florida resident, I could purchase a two-day pass for $99, but I pity the folks that fork out the full price of admission.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels