Walt Disney World: First Time, Last Time, First Time in a Long Time (Fall 2017)
Yes, I was just there less than five months ago, but believe it or not, there are still more than enough Walt Disney World experiences that fit the bill here in my typical trip preview article. If you paid any attention to this year’s Disney convention, called D23, you’re probably pretty aware that the whole Walt Disney World complex is in massive flux. After constant expansion between 1982 (Epcot opened) and 1998 (Animal Kingdom opened), the complex fell into a bit of stagnation for a while. Despite this, you’ll notice that I’ve been able to fill this article pretty well each time I’ve written it over the last few years, and as long as I keep showing up in Orlando over the next five years, I’ll continue to be able to do so. Preparations in hopes of having Walt Disney World in a beautiful and exciting state when the place turns 50 years old in 2021 will see to it.
First off comes a quick bit of housekeeping associated with my last two installments of “First Time, Last Time, First Time in a Long Time.” Prior to my October trip, I mentioned that I might be riding Disney Hollywood Studios’ central attraction The Great Movie Ride for the last time. An article by Lebeau based on a pretty good source had alerted me to the possibility. Another big rumor at the time which had not yet been fully dismissed was that the Tower of Terror might be re-skinned with a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, so I mentioned that both rides could be gone on my next visit. As it turned out, only one of those was true, but I actually got the chance to ride each one again on my April trip (when I failed to mention them because I wasn’t so sure anymore). I also thankfully managed to experience Ellen’s Energy Adventure one last time in April, because that was the attraction that ended up being identified for a Guardians of the Galaxy re-theme instead of the Tower of Terror. Both of these animatronic-heavy dark rides with long running times closed down just a few weeks prior to this coming trip, however. Drat. Based on this, I find it hard to know exactly what I might be seeing for the last time in September.
All-Star Movies Resort
It could be pointed out that another first time experience I’ll be indulging in this time around is what’s called a “split stay.” What this means is that I won’t be spending every night of the trip in the same Walt Disney World resort. My Brother and his family are members of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC), and have generously offered to host me at their home resort for a couple of nights. But since I’m greedy when it comes to my Disney parks trips I decided to fly out of North Carolina early on Friday instead of on Saturday so I could give a large portion of a day to each of the four theme parks on property. This meant paying for a single night on my own Friday night prior to my Brother and his wife arriving first thing Saturday morning.
If you’re looking to stay on property (I am, because a holiday with driving is a little less of a holiday in my mind) and wanting to spend as little as possible, then one of the All-Star resorts is likely to be your choice. Although I tend to stay at value resorts on my solo trips, this has typically meant either Pop Century or Art of Animation because they each have their own dedicated bus transportation, which has been a priority. This time my priority leaned towards saving a buck, so I decided to try one of these All-Star resorts for the first time. While I fully expect the All-Star Movies resort to be more than satisfactory overall, I have read reviews which suggest that it might be a little less brand new sparkling and a little noisier. I’ve got one night’s stay to judge it for myself.
Polynesian Village Resort
When I transfer my things the next day, it will be to one of the more iconic pieces of the original 1971 version of Disney’s “vacation kingdom.” Ask around the Disney fan community and the Poly will be identified as one of the most beloved pieces of property at any of their complexes worldwide. Though I’ve never stayed there in any of my previous trips, I have visited the main building there for meals and it’s pretty clear why the place ranks so highly with people who value what a trip to Disney parks is. The entire resort is themed beautifully, with its buildings and landscaping all made to resemble pacific style imagery. An appreciation for tiki culture was brought stateside by Americans who had spent the Second World War in the Pacific theater, and was still popular when Disney was planning its vacation kingdom, complete with dedicated resort hotels back in the late 1960s.
Despite the addition of many more resorts over the following forty-six years, very few have even come close to matching the beauty and thematic individuality of the Polynesian Village resort. While my stay there will be pretty short, I’ll try to gather what I can and report back on the key elements of the experience. For one thing, we have reservations for dinner at the very popular table service restaurant, ‘Ohana. I can’t imagine I’ll get out of there without trying out one of the other dining options in the Poly as well, whether it be Captain Cook’s or Trader Sam’s.
Biergarten is a dining experience I’ve been scheduling and un-scheduling for myself over each of my last few visits. I always ended up making another decision in the end. There have been a few different reasons for this. One key reason for me is that I’m a little worried that it won’t measure up to my expectations. Having done a good bit of my growing up in Virginia, the Festhaus in Busch Gardens Williamsburg was always a really fun and traditional part of any visit to that theme park. By the time Epcot opened in 1982 I had already eaten at Busch Gardens’ Festhaus a few times, and what I see (such as in the photo above) seems to be a pretty close approximation of that experience. Sausages, breads, slaw, potato, and beer. A traditional “oom-pah” stage show. An indoor-outdoor setting. Shared tables in rows. It’s almost as if somebody from Disney went to Busch Gardens and came back insisting this was the way to do a German restaurant.
We had initially planned on eating at Biergarten on our October 2016 trip, but we reconsidered because we decided we would rather sample foods from a variety of booths associated with the Food and Wine festival going on at the time. I ended up “snacking around the world” and keeping my belly full that way. Back in 2014 I swapped my Biergarten reservation for a seat at Kouzzina when I realized that restaurant was set to close soon and actually offered better value for the dining plan credits I was using. Mixed reports have also been a motivating factor in putting Biergarten off in the past, with just as many voices proclaiming the fare to be mediocre as singing its praises. This time I’ve promised my self not to waver. For better or worse, I’m eating at Biergarten.
Mission: Space (update)
Mission: Space has been a mild disappointment to Disney practically since before it opened to replace the fan favorite Horizons. I only got to ride that “choose-your-own-adventure” style attraction once back in the mid 1980s, but I can see why some fans would have found Mission: Space underwhelming by comparison, especially if thrills were not their priority. Some guests simply have not been able to stomach the high-intensity spinning the ride apparatus uses to approximate the experience of rocketing into space. So much so, that the folks at Epcot started making barf bags available at hand for the visitors who need them. In addition, the film portion of the ride has been behind the times for most of its life. Not only were the computer animations used pretty low-grade, but the performance of respected actor Gary Sinise was unfortunately uncharacteristically stiff and unnatural (one explanation goes that he had cosmetic surgery not long before the shoot which resulted in limiting his expressiveness).
Only recently, his filmed performance has been replaced by that of the actress Gina Torres, who is perhaps best known from her role as Zoe on the short-lived but well-loved science fiction show “Firefly,” and the computer animations helping to depict the space flight have been improved. In addition, the lower impact “green” mission which has been suggested in the past for guests with a tendency toward motion sickness has been replaced with a mission which depicts a gentle circumnavigation of the globe which allows riders to see the well-known shapes of the continents, seas, and oceans. This experience has been informally called “Soarin’ Above the Earth” and is the one I am more interested in seeing this time around if I am forced to make just a single choice due to time constraints. Either way, this will likely be the first time I entered Mission: Space in any form since December of 2012.
Disney Movie Magic
A couple of friends of mine were actually sitting in the amphitheater waiting on a showing of the nighttime spectacular “Fantasmic!” on May 26th of this year when they got news of a brand new projection show that was set to debut just minutes later. They leapt up from their seats and quickly made their way out to in front of the reproduction of the famous Chinese theater and were treated to the new nighttime show. It is a ten minute presentation which precedes the similar Star Wars show and focuses on a wide range of mostly live action feature films which have been associated with the Disney company over the years. Movies such as Mary Poppins, Tron, Pirates of the Caribbean, this year’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast, and Guardians of the Galaxy are included along with many others through high definition map projection and with a synchronized soundtrack.
Presently my plan is to leave my early dinner at Biergarten in Epcot, exit through the International Gateway, and travel over to Disney Hollywood Studios either by foot or boat to catch this show. This method of hopping from Epcot to DHS would be another first for me. Since the show is just 10 minutes long and I’ve already seen the Star Wars show which follows it, I may attempt to eject from the crowd gathered in front of the Chinese Theater in order to catch a couple of rides before returning to my resort room that first night.
Here’s another of those Walt Disney World experiences that is widely considered to be indispensable by many, while being proclaimed as utterly overrated by a large portion of the rest of the fan community. While I am suspicious that it is this latter group of people who I will end up agreeing with, I can’t really honestly make this determination without experiencing it for myself. I’m guessing that the experience is more ideal for families with small children, but I have seen accounts, both written and filmed, of adult individuals adoring the place all on their own. We’ll be there for breakfast very early on Saturday morning, where we’ll feast on typical Disney breakfast fare, including those popular Micky waffles, and receive audiences with members of the above-pictured “Fab Five” characters from the Disney animated shorts.
When combined with my planned dinner at Biergarten the previous evening and our reservations at ‘Ohana Saturday night, it occurred to me that this could be one of those few cases in which making use of the Disney Dining Plan might actually be advisable. So I checked it out. By crowding these three relatively expensive table service meals around my one night spent at the All-Star Movies resort, I found that purchasing the Deluxe Dining Plan actually promised to save me a little money. The deluxe plan cost me $106, but each of these planned meals is a prix fix at around $40. It shouldn’t take a math whiz to figure out that the numbers work out in my favor this time (heck, that math doesn’t even include the snack credits and refillable mug I’ll also have available to me). Could I save even more money by planning different meals and paying out of pocket? Of course I could. I generally did just that on my April trip and it worked out very well. In this case, the plans were made before I realized that the dining plan could end up helping me financially. These are very specific circumstances, so I can’t imagine repeating this approach often in the future.
Pandora: World of Avatar
This land based on James Cameron’s huge box office hit has been in the middle of construction during each of my last few Disney parks trips. I was never a fan of the first movie, finding the characters two-dimensional and the story rather paint-by-numbers. When the action began in earnest late in the film I realized that I didn’t care at all whether any of the people in the movie lived or died. That’s a pretty serious fault for any film. Of course, what really did stand out as interesting were the visuals and creativity of the plants and animals populating the world Cameron and crew introduced us into. When Disney announced that they were pairing with Cameron to bring Pandora to Animal Kingdom, it was only this last point that gave me any hope that I might be engaged by the project. I’m certainly not that interested in any of the sequels that have only recently gone into production.
Pandora opened back in May to huge crowds and largely glowing reviews, so I’m obviously going to give it more than its fair shake to enthrall me on this trip. I don’t think I necessarily have to like the movies in order to enjoy the land based on them. Theme park fans have already begun pronouncing that the new E-ticket attraction Flights of Passage is now their very favorite ride in all of Walt Disney World. I go in feeling both skeptical of such claims and open to their honesty. Pandora will have to prove itself to me. Maybe a couple of those cheeseburger pods I’ve heard about might help…but I’m not coming back with one of those sixty dollar banshees on my shoulder.
Happily Ever After
We’re not quite sure exactly when and how we’re going to be viewing Walt Disney World’s new Magic Kingdom fireworks spectacular on this trip. Our reservation at ‘Ohana is for ten after eight in the evening on a night that the show is running across the lagoon. Perhaps if we get a fortuitously located table and stretch out our meal we’ll get a good look at it from there. To be honest, I’m not holding my breath. The one experience I’ve had with watching the fireworks from ‘Ohana didn’t leave me feeling like I’ll be able to really see and appreciate its heavy use of projected animations from that vantage point.
Unfortunately, if that is true, then it means we’d have to devote our Sunday evening to seeing the show from inside the Magic Kingdom. That would require leaving Animal Kingdom prior to dark, and I’m not sure it would be fair to judge Pandora without seeing its bioluminescence during evening hours. Also, the very ’80s band The Hooters is playing as a part of the Eat to the Beat concert series at Epcot that night. As I demonstrated to myself back in April, having plenty of days available to do all of the things you want to do can be a big advantage. With just three evenings on our schedule we’re going to have to make some tough choices between us. In general, the early returns on Happily Ever After are calling it the greatest fireworks show Walt Disney World has ever seen. Decisions, decisions.
Okay, so there wasn’t really much to be found here in the categories of “Last Time” or “First Time in a Long Time.” Walt Disney World has shuttered a lot of stuff over the last few years, and most of those goodbyes are said for the time being. Right now it looks like it’s going to be mostly about making additions to the parks. This is the fun part. Just feast your eyes on what’s to come!
Posted on August 24, 2017, in Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, theme parks, travel, Walt Disney World and tagged 'Ohana, All-Star Movies resort, Avatar, Biergarten, Chef Mickey's, Disney Dining Plan, Disney Movie Magic, Gary Sinise, Happily Ever After, Mission: Space, Pandora, Polynesian Village resort. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.