Auntie Tip: Emotional Highs and Lows

Up, down, and watch out signs in Alice's Curious Labyrinth in Disneyland ParisWalt Disney World is the most magical place on earth. You and your family will make some of your most precious memories there. There will be smiles and laughter, but there will also be tears, and sometimes tantrums. And I’m not just talking about the kids.

You see, the magic comes with a price. A financial price certainly, but also the toll that comes with abandoning routine. Your meals, sleep patterns, and miles walked in a day may vary dramatically from your everyday life. You may be spending a lot more time with friends and family members than usual, which can be wonderful, but can also diminish any sense of privacy you usually have. Add in issues like sickness or bad weather and your trip can quickly go off the rails.

On the same wonderful trip during which my nephew celebrated his first birthday, I have a memory of the terror on my 18-month-old niece’s face when meeting the characters for the first time. We’ve seen the kids wake up Tinker Bell, get first haircuts, and ride their favorite attractions over and over, but we’ve also strapped screaming children into strollers and had more bathroom accidents than I could count. (Not to mention the trip when one of the kids was terrified of automatic flushing toilets.) It’s times like those when you wonder, “Why do people take kids to these places?”

It’s not just the kids, though. We adults have certainly had our share of crabby moments, exacerbated by sick kids, hunger, cold weather, conflicting priorities, and lack of alone time. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it.

But it is. I wouldn’t give up all those wonderful memories for anything, and I’m still eager for more, even knowing that some emotional lows will accompany them. This November the whole clan is heading to Disneyland, and we adults will be evenly matched for the first time: seven adults and seven kids aged seven and under (totally violating my preferred adult-child ratio). It’s going to be insane, but there are things we can do to reduce (although never eliminate) the challenges.

I know I’m going to need to take some breaks from the family and go off on my own for a little while. I’m an introvert; this is necessary for my mental health. We’ll consider things like nap times and try to not completely obliterate the kids’ sleeping schedule. That means although it’s less than ideal for park touring, we might not be there at opening every single morning. (The ideal thing is to be there at opening, leave around lunch for naps, and then come back late afternoon, but we never have the discipline to make ourselves leave the park.) We will pack for a wide range of weather possibilities, because being too cold (or paying $60 for a sweatshirt) never put anyone in a good mood. We will take time for some of the simple things, like playgrounds, because sometimes the kids need to run around and make their own fun rather than experience a preprogrammed activity. We will take regular bathroom breaks (it’s shocking how easy it is to forget this). Your family may have additional preventative measures you can take to keep the emotional lows to a minimum.

So while I could easily make a list of our top 10 worst moments in Walt Disney World, I could just as easily make a list of our top 100 best moments. And that’s why I still love Walt Disney World.

7 Things to Do in Walt Disney World If You Love Dragons

The Year of the Dragon began on January 23, and to celebrate, the official Disney fan club, D23, published a list of “Disney’s villainous, friendly, and little-known winged characters.” The list includes dragon characters from early animated shorts all the way up through Nessie from The Ballad of Nessie, the short that was shown in theaters before Winnie the Pooh. Many of these characters exist only in film, but some have made their way into the parks, so that’s what I’ll cover today.

Here are seven things to do in Walt Disney World if you love dragons.

1. Journey Into Imagination With Figment

I have to start with my favorite dragon, Figment. Although the current attraction in Epcot is not as good as the original, I still love seeing Figment and his upside-down house.

Figment's upside-down bathroom in Journey Into Imagination with Figment in Epcot in Walt Disney World

He’s one of the few Disney characters that originated in a theme park rather than the movies, and for that reason I hope he never leaves Epcot.

2. Elliott in the Main Street Electrical Parade

I am a huge SpectroMagic fan, but I like the Main Street Electrical Parade as well. My favorite part is when Elliott, better known as Pete’s dragon, demonstrates his ability to disappear.

3. Mushu in The Magic of Disney Animation

Mushu, the little dragon from Mulan, is not found, as you might expect, in the China pavilion in Epcot but in The Magic of Disney Animation in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He’s the representative animated character who, along with a Disney artist, explains how animation works.

4. Maleficent in Dragon-Form in Fantasmic!

In contrast to Figment, Elliott, and Mushu, Maleficent as a dragon isn’t quite so friendly. She makes a scary appearance in Audio-Animatronic form in Fantasmic! at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

5. Dragons in Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney's Animal Kingdom sign at park entrance in Walt Disney WorldThe original plan for Disney’s Animal Kingdom was that it would be a place for all animals, real and mythical. That’s why if you look at the center of the park logo, you’ll see a dragon. Unfortunately the mythical creatures (other than the Yeti) never made it into the park in any official capacity, but you still see traces here and there. In addition to the dragon in the logo, a dragon head adorns one of the ticket booths at the entrance. There’s also supposed to be a dragon-shaped fountain near Camp Minnie-Mickey, although I cannot find a photo in my archives or online. (If you find one online, please let me know in the comments.) Also, if you want to see a “real” dragon, there’s a Komodo Dragon on the Maharajah Jungle Trek.

6. Dragon Slayer Statue in Germany Pavilion

St. George Dragon Slayer Statue in Germany Pavilion in Epcot in Walt Disney WorldNow, if you love dragons, you might not like this one, but I feel like I should include it for the sake of completeness. In the courtyard of the Germany pavilion is this statue of St. George slaying a dragon. It’s OK; he wasn’t a very nice dragon, I’m sure.

7. Nine Dragons Restaurant

Finally we find ourselves in the China pavilion in Epcot. Nine Dragons Restaurant is full of dragon depictions, including a glass mural of two dragons chasing a pearl and a dragon on the ceiling in the waiting area. I’ve never eaten there, so I can’t comment on the food, but if you love dragons, there’s no better place to eat.

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I have to throw in one honorable mention here. It’s not in Disney World but in Disneyland Paris, and it’s just so cool I have to share:

This is the dragon under Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle), so naturally it’s Maleficent. I saw it last summer, and I have to say it’s one of the coolest things at Disneyland Paris.

Now, for your dragon-themed day in Walt Disney World, you’re going to have one challenge: the Main Street Electrical Parade and Fantasmic! are both evening events, so it will be difficult, if not impossible, to do both, depending on the exact show times. If Fantasmic! is having an early show, say 6:30 or 7, you could go to that first and then get back to Magic Kingdom for a 9 or 11 p.m. performance of the Main Street Electrical Parade. If that’s the plan, you’ll probably want to start in Animal Kingdom. You can take photos of all the dragon references you find. Head to Epcot next. You can have lunch at Nine Dragons, ride Journey Into Imagination With Figment, and take photos of the statue in the Germany pavilion. Then head to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for The Magic of Disney Animation and Fantasmic! Finally, hop over to Magic Kingdom for the Main Street Electrical Parade to say hello (and goodbye and hello again) to Elliott.

Who’s your favorite Disney dragon?

Auntie Tip: There Is No Best Restaurant in Walt Disney World

I follow a lot of Disney-related podcasts and blogs, and whenever the hosts answer listener or reader questions, someone almost always asks, “What’s the best restaurant in Walt Disney World?” or “Which restaurant should I choose for my birthday/anniversary/proposal/celebration meal?” Although the hosts helpfully offer suggestions, I think these are questions without good answers, because so much depends on you.

What food do you like or dislike? Do you want to feel like you’re in Walt Disney World or somewhere else entirely? Does a fancy atmosphere make you feel pampered or intimidated? Do you like interacting with characters or do they annoy you? Do you like shows or other entertainment during your meal, or does that distract you from the real star: the food? What’s your budget? How long do you want your meal to take?

There is no definitive best restaurant in Walt Disney World, but there might be a few that are best for you. To find out which those are, use the resources available to you online and in guidebooks. AllEars.Net has menus with prices from every restaurant in Walt Disney World, so you can make sure the food selections and costs meet your preferences. If there’s a particular food item you’re looking for, you can use the tool on the DIS dining page. You can get a sense of the ambiance by looking at restaurant photos on sites like AllEars.Net or using Google Images. Restaurant reviews are available on many sites, including AllEars.Net, DIS Boards, and The Disney Food Blog.

Vacationearing is all about engineering your vacation around what’s important to you, and that goes for restaurant decisions too.

P.S. This is what’s important to me:

Dessert sampler from Tony's Town Square in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney WorldChocolate dessert at Coral Reef Restaurant in Epcot Future World, Walt Disney World

Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Bailey's Irish Cream Ganache from Ireland booth at Epcot Food & Wine Festival 2010, Walt Disney WorldChocolate mousse from Le Cellier Steakhouse in Canada pavilion, Epcot, Walt Disney World


6 Things to Do in Walt Disney World If You Love Cinema

Oscar season has just begun, and although I’m sad that there’s no Disney-Pixar feature to root for this year, it’s a great time to be a cinephile. Now, when it comes to loving movies and Walt Disney World, there’s a bit of challenge. In the past, when Disney’s Hollywood Studios was actually a working studio, it was a great place for movie lovers to visit, especially if they couldn’t make a trip out to California. Now, while it’s still great to have a park devoted to cinema and Hollywood, it’s a little sad to go on the Studio Backlot Tour and know that nothing’s really happening there anymore. Still, I have hope for new and exciting things will eventually come back to the Studios; we just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, here are six things to do in Walt Disney World if you love cinema.

1. Disney’s Hollywood Studios

We’ll start off with the obvious place that I’ve already mentioned: Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS), a park “dedicated to Hollywood—not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic” (from Michael Eisner’s dedication speech in 1989). While it’s not what it used to be, it’s still wonderful to wander around, finding film references everywhere.

Crate addressed to Scarlett O'Hara seen at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World

I’m cheating a little by counting a whole park as one item on this list, but this list would be way too long if I tried to mention everything cinema-related in DHS. Of course, you’ll want to experience The Great Movie Ride and the Studio Backlot Tour. After the Backlot Tour, talk your time enjoying The American Film Institute Showcase, which I mentioned in my post on villains. If you’re an animation fan, visit The Magic of Disney Animation and don’t miss Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream.

For cinema-themed dining in DHS, try Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, which, as I mentioned in my post on cars, recreates the drive-in movie experience. You sit at car-like tables and enjoy ’50s and ’60s sci-fi and monster movies while you eat.

2. Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort

Woody figure at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort, Walt Disney WorldIf you love movies, it’s clear which resort is for you: All-Star Movies! If your cinematic tastes tend toward classic Hollywood, there’s not much for you here, except for the celebrities’ wall of fame. However, if you like 1960s live action like Love Bug or Disney’s animated features, or you happened to be growing up when Mighty Ducks was popular, you’ll love this hotel. Have fun posing with the giant characters and props!

3. Outdoor Movies at the Hotels

All of the hotels in Walt Disney World regularly show movies outdoors, usually in the pool or beach area. The only one I’ve actually experienced is at Fort Wilderness, where Chip and Dale host a campfire and sing-along and then screen a movie afterwards, and it was a lot of fun. You can go see the movies at any resort; you don’t have to be staying there. A schedule is available at Build a Better Mouse Trip, so you can decide which flick you want to see.

4. Planet Hollywood

Planet Hollywood at Downtown Disney in Walt Disney WorldOK, I know Planet Hollywood isn’t unique to Disney, but it is a place where you can see movie props and memorabilia. The restaurant is located at Downtown Disney West Side, so there’s no theme park admission required to eat there. It’s easy to combine a meal there with a trip to…

5. The Art of Disney

If you love animation and would like to see (and possibly purchase!) Disney animation cels, The Art of Disney in Downtown Disney is the destination for you. There are also Art of Disney stores in Epcot and Magic Kingdom (at Main Street Cinema), but the store in Downtown Disney is the largest. I love wandering around in there, although I’ve never bought anything.

Portrait of Orlando Bloom from Pirates of the Caribbean at The Art of Disney Store, Walt Disney World

I did stare at this for a while, though, and snap a photo so I can keep it for always. Drool...

Another destination in Downtown Disney to consider is…

6. AMC Downtown Disney 24

If a can’t-miss new release is coming out while you’re in Disney World, you can catch it at the AMC in Downtown Disney. Last year they added Fork & Screen service, which has an extensive menu and seat-side service, as well as fancy seats. I’ve never done it, but the guys on DIS Unplugged seemed quite impressed with it (scroll down to the June 23, 2011 show).

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To have a cinema-themed day in Walt Disney World, you’ll want to spend most of your time at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Downtown Disney. To extend the theming 24/7, you’ll want to stay at All-Star Movies as well. I’d suggest starting the day in DHS and taking as long as you’d like to explore and enjoy the atmosphere, especially on Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. Have lunch at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, and then head to Downtown Disney in the afternoon. Enjoy The Art of Disney, and then have an early dinner at Planet Hollywood. Then, head to the resort of your choice for an outdoor movie. When that’s done, you can come back to Downtown Disney and catch a late flick at AMC.

Enjoy your magical journey into the movies!

10 Things to Do in Walt Disney World If You Love Boat Rides

Last Thursday, I covered boating-related activities outside of the theme parks in Walt Disney World. Today, I’m going to talk about all the boat ride attractions, and assuming I didn’t miss any, there are ten of them spread between three parks. By the way, I’m not counting any attractions at the water parks, because they’re not exactly boats, but if you love water slides in addition to boating, you should definitely spend a day or two at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

So, here are ten things to do in Walt Disney World if you love boat rides:

1. Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney WorldI’m starting with one of my favorites: Splash Mountain. If you haven’t ridden this attraction, you probably just associate it with the big drop at the end, which can be seen from outside. But before you get there, you go through several scenes filled with singing critters, plus a couple fake-out drops. Trust me, when you’re getting to the big drop, you’ll know it. I wish someone had told us this the first time I rode when I was a kid. I had glasses and we were a bit paranoid that I would lose them, so I was supposed to take them off before the drop. But we didn’t know when the drop would be, so I took them off at the beginning and ended up riding the whole attraction blind, with all the cute animals as fuzzy blobs of color. In the future, we knew that I could wait to take them off until the steep incline at the end, when the vultures taunt you with “Time to be turning around, if only you could” and “If you’ve finally found your laughing place, how come you aren’t laughing?”

2. it’s a small world

"Welcome to the happiest cruise that ever sailed" sign at it's a small world, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney WorldThis boat ride is “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” The theme song may have a bad reputation, but as I mentioned in my post on vintage Magic Kingdom, it’s really a heartfelt wish for peace. The kids love it too, even the babies. There’s so much to look at, and there’s nothing scary. It really is a perfect family attraction.

3. Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise loading area, showing Senegal Sal boat, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney WorldLike it’s a small world, Jungle Cruise is an opening day attraction, so it’s full of vintage charm. Also, cute elephants.

4. Liberty Square Riverboat

I talked about the Liberty Square Riverboat in my post on Mark Twain. What’s a little confusing is that the attraction is named Liberty Square Riverboat, but the ship itself is called the Liberty Belle. Either way, it’s a boat, and you can ride it.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean

Sign outside of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney WorldAnother classic Disney attraction, this boat ride through pirate-infested waters is one of the many ways to encounter pirates in Magic Kingdom. If you can’t get enough of pirates, be sure to check out my recent post on pirates outside Magic Kingdom as well.

6. Raft to Tom Sawyer Island

This is a true boating experience, because the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island are not on a track or guiderail. They take actual skill to pilot. Robert Niles, a former pilot says that “driving a TSI raft is, without a doubt, the most pleasurable and satisfying job in the Disney parks.” You can read more of Robert’s thoughts on being a raft pilot on his Tom Sawyer’s Island Appreciation Page.

7. Living with the Land

Now, we move over to Epcot. While the theme of Living with the Land is, you know, land, it is still a boat ride. This attraction is underrated but charming in its own way. Keep an eye out for the Mickey-shaped pumpkins!

8. Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros

Donald Duck pinata in Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros in Mexico pavilion, Epcot, Walt Disney WorldI’m not sure why, but it was just a few years ago that I figured out that there was a boat ride inside the Mexico pavilion. Gran Fiesta Tour replaced the original attraction, El Rio del Tiempo, in 2007, but I have no memories of that one either. If you like Donald Duck, this attraction is a must-see. It’s fairly simple, and like it’s a small world, there’s nothing scary, so it’s good for the little ones.

9. Maelstrom

Now, this one I definitely have childhood memories of. I remember the “back, back, over the falls” scene feeling much more dramatic than it does now. This attraction has popped up on a surprising number of lists on this site already: bears, snow, rain, and Halloween. It’s unique one, to be sure.

10. Kali River Rapids

Our list concludes with the one boat ride in Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Kali River Rapids. You’re going to get wet on this one, likely more wet than you got on Splash Mountain. Just make sure your valuables are in a plastic bag and you should be good to go!

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I do have to throw in one honorable mention here: Peter Pan’s Flight. Although you’re not in water, you are technically riding in a boat: a pirate galleon… that just happens to be flying. You can decide whether or not to include this attraction in your day of boat rides, which will be long enough as it is.

You’ll need to hit three parks, so getting started as early as possible in the morning is important. Begin at Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom, whichever opens earlier. Epcot is excluded from being the first park because even if Epcot opens early, World Showcase won’t be open yet, so you won’t be able to ride Maelstrom or Gran Fiesta Tour. Today, for example, Epcot opens at 9 a.m., but Future World doesn’t open until 11 a.m. Magic Kingdom open at 9 a.m. So does Animal Kingdom, but it also has Extra Magic Hours starting at 8 a.m., so that would be the place to start (assuming you’re staying on property, which entitles you to Extra Magic Hours).

You also want to consider the closing times. Today, Animal Kingdom closes at 5 p.m., Epcot at 9 p.m., and Magic Kingdom at 10 p.m. So, in this example, it would be good to end at Magic Kingdom.

Also consider that you’re going to be getting wet on Splash Mountain and Kali River Rapids. If it’s cool outside, try to do these in the middle of the day when the sun is the warmest. (Or be a wimp and wear a poncho.)

What’s your favorite boat ride on this list?