Walt Disney World: First Time, Last Time, First Time in a Long Time (2017)
When the man whose name is also the name of your company indicated publicly that the company’s mission included constant growth, change, and progress you tend to be held to that standard. The fact that you’re charging an arm and a leg to visitors at your “Vacation Kingdom” also motivates mixing things up a bit. The Disney parks don’t always live up to this ideal and have certainly come under valid criticism because of it. But when you’ve got a large number of customers who are willing to visit over and over (like me) it indicates one of two things, or maybe a bit of both. A: They have actually provided a huge amount of experiences that stand up to lots of repeat business and have expanded over my lifetime from a single park with a few adjoining resorts to a mega complex with four theme parks, two water parks, close to twenty resort hotels, a huge entertainment and shopping complex, and a wide variety of other vacation options. B. With crowds continuing to be strong and earnings even stronger…maybe it doesn’t matter as much as it should.
Either way, they haven’t made me want to stop going yet. Not yet. We’ll see how that develops in the coming years though. In the meantime, I’m still finding myself capable of enjoying new things every time I visit. The above-pictured Mickey’s Premium Ice Cream Bar is something I haven’t sampled since I was a kid and there was just one theme park on property. Maybe I’ll make a point to remedy that on my newest trip to Walt Disney World which is coming in just two weeks. Let’s take a look at what is new for me and what is tried and true.
Art of Animation
Despite my double digit visits to the vacation capital of the world, I have not yet reached the point where the resort where I stay has become as important as my plans in the parks or the restaurants I’ll be eating in. As a single traveler without spouse or children to consider this has been plenty sustainable for me. As long as I’ve got a clean room with a decent bed and good transportation to the parks, the rest of the amenities are mostly incidental. But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate whatever charms I might glean from the place where I lay my head.
In the past I’ve stayed at the post-war nostalgia engine Pop Century, but this time I decided to make my first stay at its newer sister resort, the Art of Animation. Although most of the resort is made up of very family friendly, but rather expensive suites that can host five or six, there’s one portion of the resort which is more ideal for a traveler of my profile. The standard rooms there are more like what I need (and also more affordable). Though the theming based on the teenaged princess Ariel of The Little Mermaid isn’t particularly masculine, at least it’s a representation of characters which were originally rendered with traditional hand-drawn animation. And anyway, I will be sleeping during most of the time I spend there.
The appeal of the resort for me came down to four factors: 1. The Art of Animation has a dedicated bus service to the parks that doesn’t stop at any of the other resorts. Even some of the deluxe resorts can’t boast this. 2. I’ve had decent reports on the on-site food court in the main building there. That will mostly be breakfasts, but I’ll likely have an opportunity on one of my travel days to take advantage of it for a quick snack. 3. Although the Art of Animation’s standard rooms aren’t as budget-conscious as Disney’s lowest-priced resorts, the “All-Stars,” it’s still far more affordable than most of Walt Disney World’s fancier spots, and 4. well…I’ve never stayed here before. As the title of this series might suggest, that’s a good reason all on its own.
If I’d known how packed with Disney the following 12 months would be I would have gone ahead and purchased this bad boy before my October 2016 long weekend with friends. With the six days I’ll be there starting in two weeks and the four days I’ll likely visit along with family on Labor Day weekend (and heck, Christmas is usually just a little more than an hour down the road) the numbers just make sense. Along with unlimited visits to the parks for a year, the annual pass comes with discounts at many Disney food and retail locations. It also includes Memory Maker, Walt Disney World’s complete photo package, which is otherwise a $169 service. Not something I’d purchase otherwise, but hey, as long as it’s on the table I’ll try to take advantage of it where I can. That means I’ll likely return with some very touristy photos with Disney landmarks and characters and some of those groovy on-ride videos. That ought to supplement my own photography here and there.
For the time being I’ve been advised to wait until the day I arrive on property before actually upgrading to the annual pass. That way I’m told that I’ll be able to retain my scheduled FastPasses, but if I upgraded before then I’d be forced to redo everything, which certainly would be a disadvantage just two weeks out. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but there’s no real benefit to buying early at this point.
As we’ve discussed in previous entries of this series, after a few Walt Disney World trips a huge number of the first time experiences that repeat visitors look forward to are food related. This is partly because there are so many good options in the parks, resorts, and at Disney Springs, but it’s also because most people don’t eat more than three meals a day to begin with and often the parks don’t open in time to accommodate breakfast for early risers. World Showcase in Epcot all by itself features more than twenty table and counter service dining choices. You’d have to go quite often and really focus on eating at new places every time to truly be a completist Disney World diner. Those people do exist, but most of them are locals with annual passes and large wallets. Not a particularly huge group.
Pretty much the first thing I’m going to be doing once I arrive in Epcot on my first day is to try out one of the Italy pavilion’s highly rated restaurants. I had initially grabbed a reservation at Via Napoli, but it seems that pizza is the big draw there, and as a single traveler I’m not the ideal table for a full pizza. Even if I managed to carry the thing back to my resort room I’d be looking at eating it cold for breakfast for the rest of the trip. Not really my preference. So I made the decision to switch over to the other sit down place in the Italy pavilion, Tutto Italia, which has gotten pretty unanimous praise from what I’ve seen. This will be my primary meal of this first day and will likely feature the Chicken scaloppine.
As I mentioned in my planning video, my second day will lean on Disney transportation a lot as I visit Hollywood Studios early in the day, zip over to the Magic Kingdom via bus in the afternoon, and then make use of the monorail to meet family over at the Polynesian resort for dinner at Kona Cafe. Because their Florida resident annual passes have black out dates during Spring break, my Brother’s contingent was unable to join me in the parks this time around, but it will be a nice opportunity to share what should be a good meal. The widely praised Teriyaki Steak is apparently off the menu now, but Kona Cafe gets strong marks for a variety of dishes. It’s one of the preferred spots on Disney property for sushi, and I’m sure I’ll find something appealing among their duck, lamb, pork, and shrimp offerings.
I’m probably going to be trying the Cobb salad for lunch at the Brown Derby and there’s that aforementioned Mickey Premium Bar to consider, so while I’ll certainly have more than enough space for dinner, I might not require something huge. Once my family and I say our goodbyes I’ll be jumping back on the monorail to the Magic Kingdom to be sure I get one last viewing of….
This is the one item on my list here in the “Last time” category. Not too long ago, the folks at Walt Disney World announced that this longtime nighttime fireworks spectacular will be replaced by a new show in May of this year. That means that this will be my final chance to see the show in person and that the new show will be in place when I return for Labor Day weekend. I’m not a huge fireworks guy overall and usually take advantage of the crowds they attract to experience rides with shorter wait times, but it has occurred to me that once Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams (yes, that’s the unwieldy full title of it) is discontinued it will mean a significantly reduced profile in the Florida parks for one of my favorite animated characters, Jiminy Cricket. I really hope they find some way to incorporate him at a higher level elsewhere, because he deserves a place among the “evergreen” personalities of the company. While there has been a little bit of grousing that the thirteen-year-old fireworks show has been in place for too long, predictably, as soon as its cancellation was announced a bunch of fans came out of the woodwork to declare that their Disney vacation would never be the same without it. In response to this burst of preemptive nostalgia, Disney broadcast a live stream of the show on Thursday of this past week during which the primary host of the event accidentally seems to call the little spokesman “Jimmy the Cricket.” Uh-oh.
My third park day this time around will be spent entirely in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a park I typically cut short by visiting it on one of my travel days. I’m breaking that habit this time, though, and hopefully by having more than twelve hours available to me there I’ll be able to fully enjoy its low-key charms. Animal Kingdom is so aesthetically gorgeous that I don’t think jamming in lots of rides is the way to go there. I’ll be giving the Wilderness Explorers self-guided tour a try this time around and put a lot of focus on seeing shows and walking the animal trails. Hopefully the weather will cooperate this day. Being outside is part of the point.
With the Avatar-themed Pandora section of the park set to open in late May, Disney could no longer ignore the pressing need for improved dining and legitimate draws to other parts of the park. The first of these concerns was addressed by the addition of the new signature restaurant Tiffins to the park’s central Discovery Island. Currently it’s located in a lightly traveled dead-end to the left, but once Pandora opens it will be sitting on a major thoroughfare. Reviews have been uniformly positive and I’m really looking forward to experiencing it for lunch. Maybe I’ll try some of the grilled octopus? The plan is currently to fill the busiest and hottest part of the day at Animal Kingdom by first enjoying this meal, then following it with the top-notch indoor musical Finding Nemo show. If the temperature is still high (or if it’s raining) I may then make the short walk to Dinosaur! Otherwise, a stroll through the Maharajah Jungle Trek or a seat at the Flights of Wonder bird show might hit the spot. Outside of a few set in stone plans for the day, my primary goal is to simply enjoy the beauty of the park.
Rivers of Light
Another key part of Disney’s strategy for making Animal Kingdom a full-day park for visitors and to spread those guests out into different areas is the introduction of a new nighttime spectacular. Rivers of Light has been a thorn in their side for a while now, with repeated technical issues, sinking show barges, and tepid response to previews resulting in delay after delay to its opening. I had actually thought rather reasonably that the show might already be available for my October visit (which is why we initially had Animal Kingdom scheduled for our arrival day rather than for our departure day). After some additional work and retooling of the show, it finally opened to guests in February about ten months after its initially announced premiere. Response from adult guests has been strong, and I’ve heard from multiple friends that the show is beautiful, but there is also some rumbling that the show isn’t as appealing to kids and that it might either face major revisions or an outright replacement in order to include cartoon characters. Obviously I’m a huge fan of animation and that includes Disney’s many talking animals, but I find myself hoping that this move proves to be unnecessary. My FastPass for the 8:30 showing will at least let me judge its merits for myself.
We’ve reached the halfway point of my coming trip, but if you look ahead at what’s left to this article it could probably be argued that my novel or highly anticipated experiences this time are front-loaded. Just a couple of new dining experiences remain and a quick look at my created touring plans suggests that the second half of the trip is more focused on enjoying traditional favorite attractions and on investigating a few of the World Showcase pavilions more closely than I have before. This last goal was initially going to be one of the primary focuses of the entire trip, but as the park crowd predictions started to develop over the last couple of months it has become obvious that the people who make it their business to know believe that Spring break crowds will be focusing on Epcot more than the other parks, and that’s certainly not a surprise. I eventually decided that I would probably be better served by redirecting my plans to put me in less crowded parks more often. Of course that doesn’t mean I’ll be avoiding Epcot altogether.
My fourth vacation day will be devoted only to Disney’s second Florida park and dinner will be at the crowd-pleasing Teppan Edo in the Japan pavilion. This is a teppanyaki-style meal which means it is one of those places where you choose what kinds of meats you want in your entrée and the chef cooks it along with those of your table-mates right in front of you. “Teppan” is a Japanese word which means “flat plate,” and refers to the large flat top stove used, while “Edo” refers to the era of Japanese history in which the Shogun ruled and the island nation was strictly isolationist. This is perhaps a curious reference to be attached to a restaurant located in a theme park in Florida. This type of meal is pretty widely available in most American markets, but I’ve always found it to be fun and tasty elsewhere, so I’m betting Disney’s version, staffed entirely by actual Japanese people, will be more than acceptable.
Here’s another relatively new restaurant that I didn’t get to eat in during my October trip, but which hopefully will still retain its full measure of uniqueness when I sit down on the fifth day of my trip for lunch. I typically enjoy visiting the Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland section during daylight hours, and a spin on the Jungle Cruise attraction which Skipper Canteen is themed after will precede my noontime meal there, so we’ll see how seamless the theming is. The Char Sui Pork and falafel have both enjoyed strong word of mouth, but I can’t say that the currently unavailable menu on Disney’s website fills me with confidence. American tourists, especially theme park tourists, have a well-earned reputation for being less than adventurous eaters, and I have to admit that the eccentric offerings at this restaurant when it opened surprised me mildly. I was expecting lightly themed bar food in a jokey atmosphere, but I considered this a pleasant surprise because I enjoy a variety of foods and am usually pretty open to offerings from a variety of locales. Here’s hoping that the creativity of Skipper Canteen’s menu can persist.
Clearly every vacation, Disney or otherwise, will tend to offer surprises, either of the positive or negative variety. The above plans represent what I’m anticipating, but I’m sure there will be some unexpected elements that crop up during my six days visiting Mickey and friends. If my past experiences are any gauge, these will probably err to pleasant surprises. I’ll be reporting on all of it when I return home in three weeks!
Posted on March 25, 2017, in Animal Kingdom, Epcot, food, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, theme parks, travel, Trip Countdown, Walt Disney World and tagged Art of Animation Resort, Kona Cafe, Mickey Premium Bar, Rivers of Light, Skippers Canteen, Teppan Edo, Tiffins, Tutto Italia, Walt Disney World, Wishes. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.