Trip report – Saratoga Springs, Holidays and Harry Potter (December 2010)

[This is a trip report from December 2010, being included as a new post as part of the site redesign]

Day 1 – Arrival, Animal Kingdom

This was a larger family trip – my in-laws would be joining us, and we had a 2 bedroom villa booked at Saratoga Springs. Even though this is a holiday time trip, we decided to skip the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party this time, as we felt the crowd levels were far to high from our 2007 trip to warrant the expense, and we instead wanted to spend a day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure to see the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

My father-in-law has difficulty walking around, so there was all sorts of new things for us this trip. First, we rented an ECV from Apple Scooter – their prices were very good and they had a lot of good reviews. I had some concerns whether he’d be able to effectively operate it especially in some situations like getting it on or off the bus. But because the ECV was relatively small and could be easily disassembled and reassembled, it would fit in the back of the car, so on some days some would take the bus and I would drive him over to the parks and we’d use the accessible parking area.

We were also taking different airlines (the in-laws live in a different part of the country), and they would be taking the Magical Express bus to get to the resort while we rented a car. The added expense of a six-person vehicle was pretty high, so we decided to go with a smaller car, and would use a combination of transportation when necessary to get around, especially with the ECV.

Although we planned not to go down so early again, most of direct JetBlue flights from Boston were in the morning – and even though we booked one a little later than before, the schedule changed and we still had a 6am flight. This time, however, we only planned to go to Animal Kingdom, which had Extra Magic Hours which only went until 8pm anyways, so it wouldn’t be a super long day for us. Our flight down was on “A Friend In Blue”, and was uneventful, just a few minutes late.

The in-laws were on a different airline, and amazingly not only did they beat us to Orlando (their flight was scheduled to arrive shortly after ours), but they beat us to the resort as well on the Magical Express bus! We had planned to stop on the way and get some groceries, but I thought there was a chance that the room wouldn’t be ready, and I was right. My DMiL had “checked in” (which itself created confusion as she gave her credit card), and not only wasn’t the room ready but they were in the midst of updating the reservations computer system (code named “Lilo” – at least they call it that, but I think “Stitch” will have proven to be a more appropriate name) and nothing was working. They couldn’t even issue the Key To The World cards, and instead gave us a single “blank” card that would open our room when it was ready. They did at least give us a parking permit so we could park for free at the park. Fortunately we already had our park tickets.

We met up with the in-laws at Artists Palette for some breakfast/lunch. We had arrived just before the changeover from one to the other, so we waited a few minutes and had lunch. DW had a potato and bacon soup with a chicken cordon bleu panini sandwich, and I had a turkey and brie sandwich. All of it was very tasty. We ended up sitting outside the Turf Club, as some sections of AP were being refurbished and there were a lot of people milling about – possibly waiting for rooms.

They had already gotten the ECV from Bell Services, and although there was no manual it was very easy to figure out, although the forward-reverse control could be confusing because it could be used by either hand, but they were the reverse of each other – one hand forward was pull towards you and reverse was push away, and the other hand was backwards. On the few occasions I needed to use it (relocating it, on-off buses, etc.) I’d get it backwards since I couldn’t remember.

I went back over to the check-in desk to try and get some stuff straightened out and find out what was going on, and basically I’d have to get it all fixed later in the day when we got back as they really couldn’t do anything at all. If I had tickets in the package or the Dining Plan I’d have been worried – I don’t know how they were handling those situations, but we had our tickets in hand (I had an AP already from the October trip, and the rest were purchased from Undercover Tourist, and a Give-A-Day free ticket voucher), so we just went over to Animal Kingdom, splitting up as planned. Bell Services helped us figure out how to break down the ECV to put in the car (again, no instructions), and from that I figured out that we could take the battery pack out alone at night to charge it (and it survived two full park days without ever indicating it was weak).

I drove over to the park and used the accessible lot, but it was pretty full – it was a fair distance to walk/ride to the entrance. We met up there, and I went straight to the Guest Relations booth first to get DW her ticket from her GAD voucher and turn it into a 9-day Park Hopper), get a Tables In Wonderland card, and also get a Guest Assistance Card (GAC) for DFiL, as there may be times he’d need extra time transferring to ride vehicles and such. The woman gave us the card and stamped it so we’d all be able to use the handicapped entrance at all attractions that had it – although we never actually had to produce it as no questions were asked (the ECV generally made it obvious).

Side talk: There have been a lot of claims that the GAC is like a “super FASTPASS”, or gives front of the line privileges. This isn’t actually true; it generally alerts Cast Members that the guest may need some special handling. However, from experience in using the handicapped entrance, I can say that with the crowd levels being low at least, we seemed to get onto the attraction slightly faster than if we had gone through the regular line. I believe that if there had been more people in the handicapped lines in front of us, it would have taken longer as they would only take from that line periodically – we just got through relatively quickly because we were often the only ones. Toy Story Mania may have been the biggest exception. Even though we had Fastpasses for it AND used the accessible entrance, they only load from the accessible loading platform every so often – perhaps as little as once per cycle. They actually have a special one-sided car for use with people in wheelchairs, so instead of normally accommodating 8 people in a vehicle it holds 6. The in-laws didn’t go on any of the thrill rides, so I don’t know how it would have worked there, but another difference is that at Haunted Mansion you bypass the stretching room completely, loading at the unload area instead.

After getting everything straightened out, we went into AK and I went to get Fastpasses for Expedition Everest and then met up with everyone to see Finding Nemo. After that we rode Everest and then met up with the in-laws by the Dawa Bar for the parade (and a couple drinks). We had a nice talk with Gene, a CM originally from our area while we waited about random things. He recommended that if the in-laws wanted to see Festival Of The Lion King that they still get there early, as they will fill in the accessible seats with regular guests after giving early seating to those that need them.

After the parade it dawns on me – Extra Magic Hours starts at 5pm – and we don’t have KTTW cards to say that we are staying on site! So fight the crowd to get back to Guest Relations while the in-laws go to see FOTLK and DW and the kids check out the shops and such. I explain the situation to the CM, who hops out back and then comes in with 6 “Extra Magic Hours” tickets – they were actually printed on Dinosaur Fastpass stock, but said that they were good for Extra Magic Hours access. We hadn’t done an evening Extra Magic Hours since they stopped using the wristbands, but the CMs didn’t bat an eye at these – they even had boards with what they’d accept from guests to get access to the rides.

We regrouped for dinner, with some going to Pizzafari and some going to Flame Tree BBQ. It took a while since I needed to be at both locations to get the Tables In Wonderland discount (two of the few non-table service locations that take it), but DFiL and I preferred some BBQ. After that we basically split up for the remainder of the time there, with us riding Expedition Everest twice in a row as near walk-ons, and finally getting the front rows both times! And for the curious, the Yeti was still in “disco” mode, where it is immobile but lit by a strobe to at least give some effect. But I think when it gets darker the effect is lost as the guest’s eyes adjust – you can more plainly see the yeti and that it doesn’t actually move. But the experience in general of Everest in the dark was pretty cool.

We did hear that our room was ready, but nobody wrote down the room number so when we went back I went to the front desk to confirm and also get stuff straightened out about room charging. The new system was up, but the CMs weren’t familiar with it and some of the new features, such as the fact that different KTTW cards can now charge to different credit cards. We set that up although it took a while, got all the KTTW cards, and got to our room. We were in the Grandstand section as requested, but at the extreme end – I wasn’t very familiar with the layout and would have preferred we were closer to the pool end, which was also closer to the main buildings, but it wasn’t terrible. Bell Services helped bring all the luggage to the room.

DW and I plus DD#1 then ran out to get supplies at Publix and also stop at the Crocs Outlet as both DW and DD#1 wanted some new crocs. And then that was the end of our night…

Day 2 – Magic Kingdom, ‘Ohana Dinner, Downtown Disney

Day 2 did not start well. It was an Extra Magic Hour morning (8am) at Magic Kingdom, and we planned to be there at Rope Drop. We got up at 6am despite a messed up alarm clock. Since we had the ECV, to “save time” I figured I would drive DFiL and the ECV over to the TTC and take the monorail over, while the rest took the bus. Unlike the other parks, it would take a little extra time for us, but we wouldn’t have to deal with getting the ECV on and off the bus.

Well, a “little extra time” turned in to well over an hour. And it was VERY cold…

On arrival at the TTC, everything seemed fine…they were only running the Resort Monorail at the time, which I thought was strange (perhaps they don’t get many people at the TTC for an EMH morning), but by “running” I mean “keep the monorail parked at the platform for a while”. The ferries did not appear to be running at all. So we waited on the ramp, about halfway down, while nothing moved. The train did not leave for at least 10 minutes, despite having been loaded already. Then the train finally leaves…and there is no sign of another one.

After a few more minutes, a CM comes up the ramp, and tells everyone that we needed to go to the bus area and take a bus as the monorail was shutting down (never found out why). By this time there were a couple hundred people behind us, who are now in front of us on the way to the buses, plus plenty that passed us. We get there and get in line. They are already loading one bus, but it would likely be 3 or perhaps 4 before we get one. The first bus pulls away, with 3 more in the lot – which don’t move. Despite needing buses, they were just sitting there, perhaps awaiting their orders and no one was giving them orders while we sat in the cold and waited.

A manager spotted the ECV and pulled us to the front behind another ECV, so we’d at least get on bus after the next one. It still took a while to load everyone one plus the ECVs (I understand the frustration people feel when it takes so long to load an ECV, secure it, return the bus to normal orientation, and then load the bus…but remember, you get off a lot sooner too…)

We finally arrived at MK at 8:20am. The rest had to watch the Rope Drop ceremony from outside the turnstiles, because guess who had all the tickets? Lesson learned – partially.

We pretty much split up after entry, and we take off for Space Mountain, which we haven’t been on since the refurbishment and would be DD#2’s first time. We were able to immediately walk on, which means we breezed by the new interactive queue elements, which were basically a bunch of Asteroids-like video games where each person had a left-shoot-right button set.

After we rode, the line was still non-existent, so we walked on again. CAUTION!!! Be careful with your hands when going by the video games. The buttons are set in square metal holders, with VERY SHARP corners! I managed to gash my finger pretty good by running my hand along the railing, and then across the controls when I went by. I meant to speak to a CM afterwards, but forgot about it.

DD#2 loved Space Mountain – I believe it is her favorite attraction now! As for the rehab in general – I think it is smoother. I at least did not notice as much jarring of my back (except on the initial latch up on the lift hill), and it certainly seemed darker. Sadly, it seemed to lose some of the ambiance in the loading area where you could make out the ghostly shadows of the cars as they went around along with the screams. I also noticed plenty of infrared cameras staring back at me at various points. I didn’t care too much for the new audio system. Since it is done by fixed speakers along the track, it just came and faded a lot.

After that we took a quick spin on Astro Orbiter (DD#2’s first time on that as well), and then met up with the grandparents and did Buzz Lightyear (fortunately DFiL didn’t have trouble getting on the vehicle, although it was close) and Carousel of Progress (more people in there than usual, but certainly not nearly full…maybe it was because of the cold that everyone was trying to stay inside?

From there we headed up to Fantasyland. Amazingly, even with the impending doom of Toontown Fair we never went near it. Not entirely sure why, we just had no interest, and even DD#2 didn’t ask about meeting the fairies.

We went on the Winnie the Pooh attraction, getting our first look at the new “play area” queue. It’s a kids play area with various things for them to do, jump on, climb through, etc. while waiting in the line. A great idea to keep the kids occupied (and perhaps burn off some energy). Everything seemed to be generally soft, including the spongy flooring.

We then headed to the Carrousel…while I sat outside (I didn’t feel like spinning around), the rest got in line, and eventually got on. However, I noticed while moving the ECV that there was a woman on her back on the platform of the carrousel, and a CM was called over. They called for medical assistance, and it appeared as if the woman may have somehow hit her head. They told everyone to get off the ride at that point. The woman looked conscious, but I don’t know the extent of her injury. It hopefully was minor.

Instead, we walked in to PhilharMagic since we were right there and another show was starting shortly, followed by a quick lunch at Columbia Harbor House. It was crowded, but thanks to the ECV we were able to get a table in the reserved handicap area. I don’t remember much about the meal – I think most of us had fish and chips, with some clam chowder (which was good).

After that we hopped right over to the Haunted Mansion. We were directed to the exit, where we parked the ECV outside, and we had to wait a bit because there was a Backstage Magic tour that was in the process of leaving. After a few minutes wait we were able to board in the exit area and then travel up to the main loading area. The corridor in between is not seen by many, but it was also unremarkable.

At this point the in-laws went to take the riverboat for a ride while we wandered around Liberty Square and then we went down to Pirates Of The Caribbean, after which the in-laws caught up with us. It was getting closer to dinner time, so we headed out to the Monorail.

Dinner was at ‘Ohana at 5:05pm, and we had plenty of time so we stopped first at the Contemporary Resort to look at all the decorations. After that we reached the Polynesian Resort with plenty of time so we sat and had drinks at the Tambu lounge. Despite sitting right where they handle the people with ADRs for ‘Ohana, I had my back to it. I turned around at around 4:55pm, and there was already a line past the Kona Cafe to the other end of the building, just to check in! So I hopped in line, wondering how long we’d have to wait to be seated. It wasn’t too bad, as we were seated by about 5:10pm.

It was our first time having dinner at ‘OHana, but it was highly recommended by friends. Some of the food is served “family style”, in a big bowl that you all serve yourself from, while the servers bring around the meats on long skewers and serve you directly from them. The honey coriander chicken wings were incredible, as were the pork dumplings. Everything else was good as well, including the dessert – bread pudding with bananas and a caramel sauce…yum!

During dinner, a singer comes out at various times and plays a ukulele and invites the children to come and join where they will do the hula and also travel around the restaurant, so the kids are kept entertained as well.

After dinner we hopped over to the Grand Floridian for more holiday decorations and pictures. From there we split up again…DW, DD#1 and DMiL took a bus over to Downtown Disney for a little shopping, while myself, DD#2 and DFiL were going to drive back to SSR. That itself turned out to be an adventure, as the resort Monorail was quite full, apparently for people heading to the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that night. It was a few trains before we made it on board, and it was a slow ride around back to the TTC.

The other group had a fun bus driver on the way to DTD…she joked around a lot, making the trip better. DD#1 also entered a dance contest and won a free turkey leg – something she really wanted to try. She liked it but couldn’t finish it.

After everyone got back to SSR, we decided to start the first load of laundry…the dryer was LOUD! Too loud, in fact. We never used it late again. I was able to muffle it a bit with some weight applied in the right location.

Day 3 – Universal Islands Of Adventure/Harry Potter, Epcot

Day 3 was unusual for us. The in-laws relaxed and went to Epcot later, but we were heading to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, to spend some time with Harry Potter.

I was there just a couple months before for a special exclusive event put on by the folks at Syfy, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to ourselves with free food and drinks. It would have been hard to top that, but this was the chance for the rest of the family to experience it – and for me to see it in daylight.

We drove up a bit early so we could park and get all the way over to the entrance in time…parking is a distance away, such that they have moving walkways available from the parking structure to the hub. Despite a bathroom break already at the hub, we were still in line at the entrance with about 20 minutes to go – and there were not a ton of people waiting.

While waiting for opening, a cast member approached us, checked that we had our tickets, and then asked if we wanted to be the “opening family” for the day! So we got to get in through the gates early, got a special picture taken at the entrance, and made the announcement to open the park. We then also had a head start on everyone else for getting to WWOHP!

We walked briskly straight to WWOHP, which is in the back right corner of the park from where you enter. There we just a few people about (Universal Resort guests can enter early), and we went straight up to the headline attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. First we stopped to put our stuff in one of the provided lockers, which are free for up to 45 minutes. Just remember your locker number! Then we went through the queue – parts of which I had not seen before as we were able to bypass some of it during the special party. The queue is incredibly detailed, and deserves close inspection. The paintings move, and some even talk…but you’d have a hard time telling that they aren’t really paintings.

The ride is fairly unique. You sit on a bench, four across, which you actually board sideways. The bench is mounted on a ride vehicle by and arm which can lift, tilt, and twist the bench in various directions, and gives you the sensation of flying – similar perhaps to Soarin’, but with a lot more speed and movement. The ride vehicle moves through various areas, some of which are Omnimax-style projections, others are physical sets, as you move from scene to scene, trying to follow Harry on his broom so you can experience what it is like. There are a few scary moments though…it might not be great for young, easily scared children.

Since we managed to get on quickly and still had free time with the locker, we went ahead and rode it again, and again it was a walk-on. Unfortunately, DW seemed to be coming down with something like a motion sickness or migraine headache. Riding a second time did not help. Afterwards I went down to the first aid station in the Lost Continent area to get her some Advil to see if it would help. We grabbed some Butterbeer as well, and then we then took a quick ride on Flight of the Hippogriff, which is basically a large kiddie-coaster.

At this point DW wanted to sit, and DD#2 was too short so I took DD#1 on Dragon Challenge. We rode the “blue” side (the Hungarian Horntail), as I had ridden the “red” (Chinese Firebolt) in October and I heard the blue was a bit better. We walked all the way to the loading area without pause, but we ended up waiting a bit at the loading area as they added new cars to the ride after we got there. The ride itself was fun…although I preferred it at night.

After getting off the ride I was greeted by DW coming up the exit path as she was feeling terrible. We all went back to the first aid station, and the medic recommended she lay down for a while out back where they had some cots. So she went back there for a while, while I took the kids down to the Seuss Landing area, where we rode the High In The Sky Trolley Ride and the Cat In The Hat ride. The former is a pretty simple ride but its up above the guest area providing an interesting view, while the latter was pretty tame and actually fairly boring – there was quite a lot of empty space on walls, etc. that could have been used for more theming.

We sat and ate a couple of pretzels, and then continued over to Super Hero Island. With DD#2 in tow we couldn’t ride The Hulk, so we went to the Spider-Man ride – prior to WWOHP, it was the premiere ride in the park. There was a bit of a wait, so we went through the queue which wrapped through some office space of the Daily Bugle, eventually into a larger room with a projection TV of “breaking news” type stories that are filling the guest in on what is going on. Then we reach the loading area…the ride itself is somewhat similar to Forbidden Journey – your ride vehicle moves and tilts while taking you through several theme rooms. But although the movement isn’t as great, it makes up for it by the 3D effects – all the projected bits are in 3D, and you are wearing 3D glasses – so you get a lot of illusion of movement. Plus some pyrotechnics, moving sets, and more makes it a pretty thrilling ride.

Just as we were exiting, my phone rang – DW was not only feeling better, she was MUCH better and was already catching up to us. We waited for her outside Spider-Man, and we had a quick lunch at Captain America’s Cafe (nothing to write about), and then we rode Spider-Man again with DW this time.

We walked completely through Toon Lagoon (water rides didn’t seem a good idea on a cold day) over to Jurassic Park. We watched people come down the big hill on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and end up completely dry, so we decided we would ride it as well. However, by the time we got to the loading area, there weren’t too many people, and we didn’t have a full boat. No one wanted to sit up front, so we ended up the “front” people in the second row. One thing I remember from the ride – no dinos! I don’t recall seeing a single dinosaur on the ride. Things moved as if there were dinos moving them though…and then it was our turn coming down the big hill. We reached the bottom, splashdown – and a huge wave came back and flooded us! We were VERY soaked! Without the full boat I wonder if the weight distribution was enough to cause the backwash that soaked us, but never happened to the riders we saw.

Fortunately the sun was out, so standing in the sun helped. DW took DD#2 on Pteranodon Flyers (it has a strange height requirement – a tall rider can only ride if there is a rider UNDER a certain height…so DD#1 and I couldn’t ride. It looked like and interesting ride over the park though. Instead I just stood in the sun and dried.

Continuing around brought us back to WWOHP, which was now FAR more crowded. We got in line for Ollivanders, for which the wait wasn’t too long. Inside they pack a lot of people into a small area that does indeed look like Ollivanders from the first movie. Then they do a wand selection with a guest which includes some (unfortunately not spectacular) special effects, after which everyone proceeds into an equally small wand shop where you can’t really move. My advice if you aren’t actually looking for and buying a wand, get out ASAP.

We then got some more butterbeer – it is REALLY good. I prefer the unfrozen myself, but the rest liked the frozen. The topping is what really makes it good. With the crowds we didn’t elect to ride anything again, but we did briefly go through Honeydukes and Zonkos. I’ve said before – they need to make these MUCH bigger. Like Ollivanders, there is no room to move around when it is crowded. We then got some pictures in front of the Hogwarts Express.

With DW with us this time, we went back to Seuss Landing, and she rode the CarouSeussel with the kids. We still had some time, so we went back to Super Hero Island and DD#1 and I rode The Hulk (great ride – we didn’t have to wait too long, and the “lift hill” was deceptive), while DW took DD#2 on Storm Force (just a basic teacups ride).

After that we were pretty much done, so headed back to meet the in-laws at Epcot for an EMH night. We met up with them at Sunshine Seasons and hopped on Living With The Land for a quick boat ride, and then we headed over to the World Showcase to get some recordings of the holiday storytellers and some dinner before Illuminations.

We first stopped at the Rose & Crown to pick up some drinks, and then went to see Father Christmas. DD#2 got selected to ring the bells for him, and received a special bell for her participation.

Our next stop was in Morocco. While I went in to Tangerine Cafe to get myself some food (I wanted a lamb shawarma – was decent although I prefer the Falafel King in Downtown Boston), the others watched Tarji, the Moroccan storyteller.

We then stopped for the girls food at the Liberty Inn, and then found a good handicapped seating area for Illuminations. We all got some hot cocoa as it was getting very cold, while DW went all the way to Mexico to get chicken tacos (and a margarita of course). We then watched Illuminations for the first time in several trips.

Despite it being an EMH night, there was still a huge mass of people exiting the park. I took the in-laws out of the park to the car and back to SSR, while DW kept the kids and hung around for a bit while the crowds subsided before attempting to get to the bus. They tried to go into the new Karamell-Kutche in Germany, but it was pretty crowded. They did manage to buy some of the pre-packaged candies though. They then made their way over to Test Track, but there was a 55 minute wait. Instead they went to Spaceship Earth, which was a walk-on. Then they made their way to the bus and returned to SSR.

Day 4 – Hollywood Studios, Saratoga Springs, Yachtsman Steakhouse

This day started out with our usual splitting up to get to the park – this time, Hollywood Studios and an Extra Magic Hours morning – and the bus group ended up waiting a LONG time for a bus. A cast member checking on things at the bus stop said that there had just been a bus a short time before – but several people who had been waiting for the bus knew otherwise. Eventually we all regrouped, but it was after rope drop again. Not a big deal though – we were NOT doing the Toy Story Mania dash this time, because we were using DD#1’s Give A Day voucher for the Fastpass Exchange Card option!

Instead of heading straight to TSM, we went to Rock’n’roller Coaster, and grabbed the instant Fastpasses and went straight in – even if the standby clock said the wait was short, I don’t trust it – too many times have I watched it increase rapidly before my eyes. It was DD#2’s first time over the height limit, so it was pretty much the last ride at Disney she hasn’t been able to do…and she loved it!

We then did the same thing at Tower Of Terror. I don’t remember what the standby wait length was there either, but I think it was around 30 minutes and we could just walk on with the Fastpass, which we did. TOT had some new programming, which I think put a little more thrill back in. We got through it fast, and the in-laws were off doing something else still, so we rode it again via the standby line, and the wait certainly wasn’t 30 minutes.

By then we met up with the in-laws and went to Toy Story Mania. The wait time was in the vicinity of 90 minutes, and there were ALREADY OUT of Fastpasses! We still had the GAD cards, and all the kiosks were covered (not unusual at TSM – it stops people from trying to get FPs when they are all gone), so we had to ask a Cast Member, who happily took our cards and uncovered a kiosk temporarily to run them through. One group stopped and asked why we were able to get Fastpasses when no one else could – I explained that we had the Give A Day cards for volunteering, and just that seemed enough to satisfy his question.

What I didn’t realize is that we probably didn’t need it. Due to my father-in-law’s ECV, we would have likely entered through the Fastpass entrance anyways, and then get shunted through to the accessible loading area through a door, bypassing the up-and-down stairs to get to the main loading area. And for that, we still had to wait quite a while – it was possible that without the ECV we may have gotten on sooner, as we did have others in front of us waiting to board in that area, and they only periodically bring vehicles over to that side. There is actually a special vehicle that can accommodate a guest in a wheelchair, and there were two groups in front of us that needed it. We just needed a normal vehicle, so we had to wait two full cycles of the ride plus some more.

From there we went through One Man’s Dream – the attraction about Walt Disney, checking out a lot of the new models and other changes they made, and stayed for the movie. If you are interested at all in the man, this is a MUST DO attraction.

We stopped for lunch at Studio Catering, and the girls played in the Honey I Shrunk The Audience playground for a bit – something I don’t think either have ever done before. We then walked the in-laws over to the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, and then we went to Muppetvision 3D to check out the updates. The video is much cleaner now with the digital projectors, but it is pretty much the same show. After which we went back over to Indiana Jones and caught the end of the show.

We found a spot for the in-laws to see the soon-to-be-replaced Block Party Bash parade, while we chose to to head back over to RNRC as DD#2 wanted to ride again and we still had 4 instant Fastpasses to use – unfortunately there were issued with it at the time and they weren’t letting anyone in, so we rode TOT again instead. When we left there, the parade hadn’t finished yet, so we were blocked for a little while. We finally regrouped, did some Photopass shots on the way out, and then headed back to Saratoga Springs.

We got back early and it was one of the warmest days we had, so I took the girls to the Grandstand pool for a little while and the rest went to pick up some food at Artist’s Palette and everyone headed back to the room to rest until DW and I headed for our dinner alone.

We tried to set up the DVD player so the in-laws could keep the kids occupied, but it didn’t work – the TV didn’t seem to allow switching to the “video” channel – and it wasn’t a “user issue” – heck, I used to hook up people’s VCRs for them, sold electronics in a past life, done video production – safe to say I know how to operate a TV and a DVD player. We called maintenance to come check it out, but we set them up with the laptop as a backup just in case. Good thing – they didn’t come for three hours! We also asked for a few more washcloths and toiletries – those came within 30 minutes!

DW and I then headed over for our reservation at Yachtsmans Steakhouse at the Yacht Club Resort. Had to look around for a parking space for a while and had to walk a fair ways to get there. We didn’t have to wait long before being seated. We started with the lobster bisque, which was delicious, and a charcuterie board consisting of smoked duck sausage, venison terrine, beef tartar, some cheeses and a bit of potato salad, all of which were tasty.

We both chose to have the ribeye steak with garlic butter, DW choosing paprika fries with it while I had the duchess potatoes. The steaks were very good, as expected. I did have one disappointment – they were out of the Boston Red Brick beer the server had mentioned. I actually don’t recall what I had to drink instead.

Since this was our anniversary dinner, they gave us a small dessert plate, with two small pieces of gourmet chocolate with a sprinkle of sea salt, and two bites of an apricot candy.

After dinner we walked it off, checking the decorations at the Yacht Club, then around to the Boardwalk. There was a magician/comedian on the Boardwalk that was quite good. We also went into the Boardwalk Inn lobby for the first time to see the decorations there, and back around to the Yacht Club to get back to our car and head back to the resort.

Day 5 – Animal Kingdom, WDW Radio, Hollywood Studios/Osborne Lights

Today was another partial Animal Kingdom day, followed by a return to DHS to see the Osborne Lights, with a special gathering for WDW Radio in between.

No bus problems this morning, getting there in time for the small rope drop ceremony, and then we headed straight for Kilimanjaro Safari to get an early run. Of course we lagged somewhat behind the crowd also heading there due to the ECV, but when we got there we didn’t have to wait for the huge line, instead being shunted off to an accessible loading platform. We did have to wait a bit for a vehicle, however. With the exception of the lions, all the animals seemed to be out in full force, with the giraffes and ostriches particularly close up. One ostrich was sitting by the road just watching us, while another did hold us up a bit.

After that the in-laws took in the Flights of Wonder show, which they had never seen, while we went on to get Fastpasses for Expedition Everest, and then continued on to the Dinoland USA area so the girls could ride Primeval Whirl, which DD#2 hadn’t ridden before, after which we returned to EE and used our Fastpasses (the return window wasn’t far out when we got them). Then it was about time for our reservations at Tusker House for the first lunch sitting. We didn’t notice any significant change in the menu over three years – everything was good and tasty.

Since we had other plans, we slowly made our out of the park, with a little shopping along the way and some pics with Lilo and Stitch, and some pictures at the tree outside the entrance.

Lou Mongello of WDW Radio was having a gathering at the Beach Club to celebrate his 200th show, so we headed there before heading to DHS. The girls all took the bus directly to to the Yacht Club and checked the decorations before heading to BC, while I drove my father-in-law over to DHS, and he rode his ECV and I walked up the pathway to the resort. We met up with the rest at BC, and checked out the chocolate carousel holiday decoration. Teena the BC greeter was on hand, so I chatted with her while DD#1 tried to spot all the hidden Mickeys on the carousel.

Lou’s shindig was a thanks to all the fans who have followed him over all the shows, with various people from the show also being there, including Disney historian Jim Korkis. The party was also broadcast live for the “box people”, and included a fact or fiction challenge for whoever wanted to play, and a lot did…including DW and DD#1 and myself (if you check the 200th show, the very last one asked a question was me…), although I did get the answer wrong (although I’ve listened to every show, my memory of the shows isn’t all that good as I listen at work…)

DD#2 would have been bored, except Lou’s daughter invited her over to a table where they colored pictures and stuff, although when Lou was up thanking everybody and such, she was up there behind him clapping and cheering as well. Although at one point she got upset as everyone else seemed to be getting WDW Radio T shirts and she wasn’t – Lou’s wonderful wife gave her one though! Thanks Lou for the party!

After the party, we went back to DHS via the Friendship boat, which wasn’t too difficult with the ECV. We got there in plenty of time before the lighting of the Osborne lights, so DW tried to go in to the Photopass store to get some photopass cards combined, but there was a LONG wait so she gave up. We then just headed straight towards the Streets of America to catch the lighting of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – when we were here in 2007 we saw them after they were already lit.

We managed to get space right up front prior to the lighting where they have the big switch. The DHS band of Mulch, Sweat ‘n Shears was there, warming up the crowd (and like the rest of the week, needed warming up!), and then just after dusk the lights were turned on. If you’ve never seen them it is simply amazing – not just the lights, but periodically they are set to music and blink and dance. It’s hard to get good pics without a high quality camera though. We just walked through for a few hours, taking in all the details. We took a short pitstop at the Backlot Express for a snack and hot cocoa.

After that, before running back to the resort DW the kids and I headed to Rock’n’roller Coaster to try and get the ride in we didn’t get last time, and it only had a 40 minute wait. DW and DD#1 managed to score the front row as well. Then we met up with the in-laws at the front gate and headed back to the resort. The girls had a good bus driver on their way back as well.

Day 6 – Epcot, Magic Kingdom

This was perhaps the coldest day of the trip. There was a constant breeze which just went through the light clothes we had.

Our day started out in Epcot, where we had lunch reservations for Biergarten as well as needing to get more footage of the storytellers. DW and DD#1 ran ahead at rope drop to grab Fastpasses at Soarin’ while the rest of us caught up. We then rode Soarin’ standby, and had our customary breakfast at Sunshine Seasons. We still had time to kill while the kids ate, so the in-laws went to do Living With The Land while DW ran over to Test Track to get FPs. Then we all rode Soarin’ again.

After that we split up again, with the in-laws looking around while we went to see Captain EO. I saw it last October, but the rest of the family had not. For some reason, the pre-show seemed longer. And now I’ve seen EO twice. Never need to again…

We then went to Test Track to use our Fastpasses. We got in through the line pretty quick, and waited for the pre-show doors to open. And waited…and waited…and they just weren’t opening. Eventually they made the dreaded announcement – that the ride was having a problem, and they told everyone to leave. We had already given them our Fastpasses though, so we asked for them back. At first the CM seemed reluctant, but I don’t understand why, and he did reach for the pile of turned-in Fastpasses and handed us four to use later. We never returned to use them, however.

At that point we went into Mouse Gear to get the girls sweatshirts due to the breeze, and then we moved on to the World Showcase.

We were a bit early for the storyteller in China – the Monkey King, and DD#2 was hanging out in front of the stage alone when a voice spoke out to her, and made her jump and dance and stuff – the Monkey King was on his way out but his microphone was on and he was teasing her from behind. He then took the stage and told his story.

We then had our lunch at the Biergarten, which we haven’t eaten at since a group trip in 1999. The food was good and tasty, although it seemed like whenever you went up, something was out in the buffet. There also wasn’t nearly as many choices as there were at Tusker House. The pretzel rolls were especially delicious – but don’t grab too many! They are really filling. For the beer drinkers, back in 1999 there were too choices – Becks and Becks Dark. The latter was tolerable, the former undrinkable to me. Now there is a selection of several types of beers – alas, I don’t remember what I had – it was decent at least.

After lunch DW ran off to Japan to see the storyteller there, and then met us in Italy for the storyteller there, la Befana, the good witch. We then managed to catch the Voices of America for some holiday carols, followed by the Hanukkah storyteller. The girls sat with several other kids to play dreidel, but we had to leave to head to the Magic Kingdom.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…”

You would think that I would have learned something about the monorail by now – like the fact that we were doomed not to be able to take it. I took my father-in-law by car over to the TTC while the rest did the double monorail hop to get straight to the Magic Kingdom. However, when we arrived, the monorail was shut down yet again. And this time, no buses – we had to take the ferry. Normally, I wouldn’t care – but remember how I told you it was the coldest day? It was a slow, cold ride. I would not take the car to the TTC a third time. The others likewise had to get off the Epcot monorail and take the ferry, and arrived on the next ferry.

After regrouping we entered and got some photopass photos taken along Main St., and then staked our claim on benches by the hub to watch the castle lighting ceremony and the “Move It Shake It Celebrate It Street Party”, which was part parade, part party, with floats surrounding the hub while they played music and everyone danced. But as the sun went down, the temperature did too…and hot cocoa was becoming very scarce as the carts ran out quickly…

After the castle lighting, we moved to a different area to see the return of the Main Street Electrical Parade. On the DISboards (at least the podcast forum), they are known as “Bawb’s Benches”. If you are at the hub, head down the path towards Adventureland, and the benches are immediately on the right. They don’t offer a close-up view of the parade, but you can get a mostly unobstructed view by looking over the grassy area behind the benches towards the other path that leads to Liberty Square – no one can stand in front of you there, and few people will actually be there. The Liberty Square bridge is too narrow for guests to stand along during the parade, so although it is a bit of a distance away you have a clear view. I wish it was closer, but we didn’t have people pushing in front of us, or having to stand in one spot for an hour just for a good spot. It was getting far too cold, so the in-laws took the bus back to the resort…and it was getting to me as well.

Just before the parade began, we noticed Tiana available for pictures nearby, so I quickly brought the kids over there and managed to be the last ones allowed in before she left. We then went back and watched the parade – also for the first time since 1999, since the parade had left for California for many years, replaced with Spectromagic here. A lot of it was familiar, but there were a number of new floats and changes as well.

Immediately after the parade, the cold really was too much for me and we started to head out, but went into the Main Street Emporium and I purchased a light zip-up fleece which really made all the difference for the rest of the trip. I immediately felt warmer. We then managed to catch Wishes from near the entrance of the park, then hopped on the monorail to the TTC and drove back to SSR.

Day 7 – Epcot, Artist Point, Downtown Disney/Earl Of Sandwich

Another day at Epcot today. It was an Extra Magic Hours morning, but since we had already done the “Soarin’ Dash”, we decided to sleep in a bit and didn’t get to the park until 8:45am. We went straight to Spaceship Earth this time for a quick ride (my mother-in-law’s favorite, although this was her first ride since the changes).

We then went and grabbed Fastpasses for Test Track again (with the hopes of better luck), and then checked out the new attraction inside Innoventions called “The Sum Of All Thrills”. This is a make-your-own-ride type of system, where you design a thrill ride using a plane, roller coaster or bobsled as a base, and then design the track. It takes into account various things like gravity, friction, etc. so you have to design the ride so that you can complete your run, AND get the thrill level you want. It is meant to show how mathematics enter in to ride design. The problem is that you aren’t given very long to actually design your ride, so if you are unfamiliar with it you won’t actually get a sense of what will result in an actually thrilling experience. I’d love to spend a few hours with the simulator to try different things.

You design the ride in pairs, and you are given a swipe card you get to keep, with your ride design associated with that card. When a simulator becomes available, you hand over a card and then board the simulator. It looks like a couple chairs from a roller coaster, with over-the-shoulder restraints, except not just the restraints come down, but a whole capsule with video screens to give you a virtual reality image of your ride. The seats are mounted on a Kuka robotic arm system, similar to what is used at Universal for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction, except these are stationary mounts. They can lift, twist and tilt the seats allowing several degrees of motion to simulate the ride you designed. It is actually quite a great system – just don’t be stingy on your design if you want some thrills. A couple run throughs may help you learn how to design better, but the waits can get a bit long at times. You are also supposed to be able to use the codes on your card online to get a ride video, but this never worked for us – all four cards were not recognized. I had contacted someone at Raytheon who was going to look in to it, but they never got back to me.

After that we signed up for the Kim Possible Adventure for later. DW went with her mother to do some shopping, while I took the kids on Mission: SPACE (green side – waiting until DD#2 is a tad older before doing orange), and then DW rejoined us to ride Test Track – without issue this time.

When we were finished we were around the time the next storyteller in Canada would appear, so we headed over there first, then double backed to get our Kimmunicators in Norway and started with the Norway adventure. We then had lunch in China at the Lotus Blossom Cafe, followed by the China adventure, and we did pretty much all the available ones except Japan and UK, as they wre not available on our phone (I believe they may limit the number of active adventurers in a given country to prevent crowding).

After that we regrouped with the in-laws and headed back to the resort before their personal dinner out at Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge. I drove them over, and brought them in, showed them around a bit and showed them to the restaurant, then wandered around briefly myself before heading back. They both had the salmon and said it was delicious, and they found their own way back to SSR later.

The rest of the family and I went to Downtown Disney and decided to grab dinner at Earl Of Sandwich, which we had never eaten at before. It was pretty crowded and we ended up eating outside (which was pretty cold after sunset), but the sandwiches were really, really good. I had a Thanksgiving special sandwich, which was turkey and the fixings (although I skipped the cranberry sauce), while DW had the “Cannonball” meatball sandwich. We liked it so much, we came back the next night!

We had an early morning for our last full day, so we didn’t stay out too late so it was a bit of separate shopping and then back to the resort.

Day 8 – Magic Kingdom, Crystal Palace, Downtown Disney

Our eighth day was something of a blur…we got the Magic Kingdom early for an early breakfast ADR at Crystal Palace, so we were able to get in ahead of the crowds and stroll slowly down a mostly empty Main St. and grab some pictures. The last time we got in early in 2007, there were a number of Photopass photographers out, but not this time.

We took our time at breakfast where the Pooh characters spent plenty of time at the table, and then DW took the kids to Harmony Barber Shop to get their hair done. If your girls want to get their hair dolled up but you don’t want to go for the full expense of Bippity Boppity Boutique, consider this – $7.50 (not including tip) will get gel streaks, sparkles and decorations and it is pretty quick too.

While that was going on, I took the in-laws to it’s a small world, which had recently swapped the entrance and exit queues. I had thought this was so to “mainstream” the line – that is, use the same line for both regular guests and those using wheelchairs and ECVs, but that wasn’t the case…we were directed to the exit, where we took the ECV down the ramp halfway, and had him walk the other half, where we were boarded pretty quickly. The line change just seems to have been to have more of the line inside the building, possibly to save on so many switchbacks at the front of the attraction.

After regrouping with my newly-coiffed children, the family finally managed to ride the carousel, and we also did Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain as we wandered around.

As a bit of tradition, before leaving the Magic Kingdom on our last day there, we take the Magic Kingdom Railroad for a complete loop around the park. This was a little different this time, because of the closure of Mickey’s Toontown Fair for the construction of the expanded Fantasyland. Although Disney is generally pretty good at keeping prying eyes out, but even with the trees you can see a fair amount of the area of construction. Although there were some building walls, nothing was really taking shape yet.

Just before leaving, I spotted Snow White having a small meet and greet outside the under-renovation Exposition Hall, so while the others took care of a few things I took the kids for a few pictures with Snow White, and then we headed back to the resort.

We all decided to go back to Downtown Disney, and this time all six of us ate at Earl Of Sandwich. This time I had the Hawaiian BBQ sandwich, while DW had the “Original 1762”, and DD#1 had the Caribbean Jerk sandwich. I don’t recall what the in-laws had, but it was ALL good. A couple cups of Potato Bacon soup made the rounds as well.

Day 9 – Epcot, Going Home

Our last day started out at Epcot, hitting a few things we failed to do so far and get the last of the storytellers. Again, it was a blur, but we rode Journey Into Imagination with Figment, which as usual was a walk-on. The ride exit area had several sections closed off due to Kodak pulling out as the pavilion sponsor, but a few of the interactive music exhibits were still open, along with the gift shop (big surprise!)

The in-laws had a slightly earlier flight and were taking Magical Express, so they left early and took the bus back to SSR, while we went through the World Showcase again, along with a stop at the less-crowded Karamell-Kutche, where we all opted for the chocolate-covered caramel squares – one milk chocolate, one dark chocolate, and one German chocolate. All were delicious and amazingly soft without being too gooey to eat. We just sat out by the lagoon and enjoyed them.

Finally it was time to leave, so we drove right from Epcot to the airport.

Our trip back was uneventful and on-time, riding aboard “Blue come back now, ya hear?”.