“Time always seems long to the child who is waiting – for Christmas, for next summer, for becoming a grownup…”
– Dag Hammarskjöld
T-Minus 13 Months and Counting
There are life lessons to be gleaned – should a person be so inclined – from the animated feature films of the Walt Disney Company. Many of these are Big, Important Themes: love overcoming obstacles, accepting those who are different from you, and being kind to your fellow creatures because you never know when one of them will spring you from the room where your abusive stepmother has locked you in order to keep you away from your true love.
The challenges our heroes and heroines face is an essential element of Disney movies. Although everyone takes pleasure in the happy ending, we require the struggle in order for us to value the happiness. Delaying our gratification is necessary, in other words, so we can better appreciate the conclusion. From that point of view, the under-appreciated value of waiting may be the most important lesson any of us take from Disney movies.
At least, that is what I tried to convince myself as we planned our next Disney resort adventure.
Disneyland, and the Disneyland Resort that surrounds it, is our spiritual Disney home. Our vacations there are pilgrimages, and we try to plan at least one per year. We have owned Disneyland Annual Passports in the past, and by the time our most recent passes expired in early December 2012, we had shoehorned four separate vacations into 365 days, including an epic eight-day stretch. Not too bad for people who live 700 miles away from Anaheim.
We are aware of the existence of other Disney parks, of course. We have been to Walt Disney World twice, most recently in 2009 – a trip that included a quick diversion onto the Disney Cruise Line. So, during the long drive home following our recent trip, we plotted our next Disney adventure*. It was time to return to Walt Disney World.
(*We like to have hotel reservations for the next Disney trip before we end a current one. That’s how crazy we are.)
Our final plan was the most epic Disney trip we had yet attempted: twelve nights on Disney World resort property with ten-day Park Hoppers. Special event tickets to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party would give us an eleventh day in the park. We assembled a traveling crew of our good friends Rich and Hydee (brother and sister), and their mom, JaNae. We spent the next thirteen months planning, reserving, reading, discussing, studying, debating, and daydreaming. We all followed news from the resort with the obsessive zeal of conspiracy theorists pouring over grainy YouTube videos. There were not many days in that year that we did not spend part of our mental energy on Walt Disney World and the upcoming trip.
Mostly, we just waited. For more than a year.
Sunday November 10, 2013
On the morning of the first vacation day, our goal was to be out the door at 7:15 AM. We had finished packing the night before, so all we had to do was get up, shower, get dressed, and slip a few remaining items into our bags. We set our alarms for 6:25, which was plenty of time to accomplish everything, and so we hit the snooze button once. That felt so nice that we then snoozed a second time and then, suddenly, it was 6:45 and we were scrambling out of bed. We packed the car, jumped in, forgot to feed the cats and had to double back, and then finally got started. We were 15 minutes late already.
We zipped through the fast food drive-through and picked up tremendously greasy/inescapably delicious breakfast sandwiches, complete with shuddering arteries. Rich, Hydee, and JaNae were ready, and after loading the bags and doing final window and door checks, we were on our way to the airport. At that point we were half an hour later than we wanted, but the ribbon had been cut, and the vacation commenced.
Our first “ride” of the trip, not counting user-operated vehicles, was a shuttle from a nearby parking lot service to the actual airport. This would not warrant mentioning, except for the fact that we shared the vehicle with a guy who looked almost exactly like scandalous celebrity Robin Thicke. This became a source of amazement for Rich and I. Although we spoke in low voices, I think Faux Robin understood we were looking at him and discussing his grooming – in a small shuttle, how could he not? But, he was the one who decided to dress, cut his hair, and grow a stubble beard to look just like a pop culture figure, so he couldn’t have been surprised.
My mom describes the experience of going through airport security as an ever-accelerating series of events and trials that culminates in you standing in your socks, with your pants falling down, holding all of your personal possessions in your hands, with the piece of luggage you had them packed in trailing impotently in your wake. It is like being hit by a very small tornado, after which you have to try to put your life back together. The best you can hope for is quick, because it is always unpleasant.
The flight from Salt Lake International Airport to Orlando International Airport runs just a shade over four hours, and modern airplane travel is almost always unpleasant. I tried listening to music and reading a book, which helped for two hours. The flight attendants provided service twice and I nursed along one-third of a can of Diet Coke each time. We nibbled on the ginger snaps, jellybeans, and cashews Amy brought along. I squirmed for comfort as much as my overstuffed frame would allow, feeling an aching, pinched nerve sensation that was attributable to a sensitive male body part being squished. I ached to stand up and walk around, but remained in my seat, focused. It was just another challenge in the Disney hero’s journey, or so I told myself. At last, I looked at the clock on my mobile phone and rejoiced to find that we had just 20 minutes left. Amy informed me, summarily, that my phone was already updating for a new time zone, thanks to the WiFi on the plane. We actually had an hour and 20 minutes. It was a classic movie twist: I thought I had killed the bad guy, but he was still alive. My despair was a living, tormenting beast.
The flight lasted longer than some workdays, but all things come to an end. We landed and deplaned, shuffling around like the living dead. I insisted I knew where to go, and relied on four-year-old memories (instead of printed instructions from Disney Travel) to navigate us through the terminals to the lowest level, where we could find the shuttle stop for Disney’s Magical Express. The desk was not where I expected, and we paraded up and down the lowest area until a kind employee asked if we were “looking for Disney*.” We were on the wrong side of the shuttles, and would have to go back up and wind through the main concourse again to come down a different bank of elevators. The rest of the travel group was magnanimous about it, which was kinder than I deserved.
(*The employee’s identification was so effortless that I briefly envisioned us as typical, clueless resort tourists straight out of central casting, complete with vacant expressions, open mouths, and pixie dust trailing in our wake. Pretty accurate, in other words.)
At last, after the dance of stupidity I produced for us, we made it to the check-in for Disney’s Magical Express. Here we were able to strap on our MyMagic+ bands for the first time and utilize the service to check in. A ten-minute wait later we were loading the bus with our resort hotel as the next destination. We were so close now – just a few more steps and the journey we started 13 months ago would be complete.
Not everyone who flies into Orlando travels to the Walt Disney World property via the big, comfortable motor coaches of Disney’s Magical Express. In fact, according to some sources, guest usage of the service is in a significant downward trend, even as attendance at the park increases. Most of the reason for this is the growing popularity of other attractions in the area, including the Wizarding World of Harry Potterat the Universal Orlando Resort. If, on your Disney vacation, you want to spend a day or two at the world-class Islands of Adventure, then you rent a car. Although we elected not to for this trip, it was only after a great deal of consideration.
I remembered Disney’s Magical Express as an under-appreciated gem of my previous Walt Disney World vacations. It was our first and last Disney “ride.” The seats are more comfortable than those on the airplane, and the coach had never been even a quarter full (so I could flop my legs across two seats and lounge). Guests were shown an orientation video, and as an added plus for me, it features a quick cameo from Scrooge McDuck, my all-time favorite Disney character.
As we dropped off our carry-on bag with the driver and climbed the stairs to the coach, I was even a little excited for the experience.
As it turned out, two things would occur to make this unlike any other Disney’s Magical Express trip I had taken yet. First, I watched with some consternation
as the seats filled up rapidly. Amy left the row she had staked out and slipped next to me, as she did not want us to each use a row if there wasn’t ample space. No lazy lounging for me. Second, and the one genuine disappointment of the ride, was discovering that the unique orientation video with the quick shot of Scrooge McDuck paying for his nephews’ vacation with an enormous credit card had been phased out in favor of generic Disney advertising.
Being on Disney property meant that my traditional Disney trip treasure hunt – called the Scrooge Quest – had formally begun.
The Scrooge Quest started in 2002, during my first trip to the Disneyland Resort with Amy. As mentioned earlier, Scrooge McDuck is my favorite character in the Disney universe by a massive margin (more on this in a later report), so when we became interested in pin trading during that trip, I naturally started scanning the racks to find the world’s richest duck. It was more difficult than I expected, and wasn’t until the second-to-last day of the trip that I finally found one, just when it seemed likely that I would not.
Disney’s increasing homogenization of the characters had meant it was not easy to find merchandise with a fringe figure like Scrooge on it, but I also realized that the search for such a pin had been one of the most entertaining aspects of that trip, for me. A couple of years later, on our next trip, I decided to undertake the very same challenge and found it every bit as much fun.
The rules of my nerdy, made-up game have evolved to this: in order to win the Scrooge Quest, I have to find a piece of Scrooge merchandise during a trip to a Disney theme park. It doesn’t have to be anything big; a piece of candy won it for me one trip, and a pressed penny another. But it cannot be anything I have acquired before. It also has to be found on Disney property, meaning the theme parks, hotels, or Downtown Disney.
We had just arrived on our 13th trip to a Disney theme park since I started the Scrooge Quest in 2002, and I was 12-0. I had never failed to complete the Scrooge Quest, although it had been very close at times.
The coach crossed into the expansive property of Walt Disney World and then down streets with which we would become familiar over the next two weeks. At last, we turned into Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, which was about to become our home base for the next 12 nights.
The main building of the Art of Animation opens into a long, curved hall with high walls. One of these walls is covered with reproduced development art for the four animated films that comprise the theme of AofA. There are giant panels of sea monsters that bear a passing resemblance to Ursula from The Little Mermaid and sketched cars with eyeball windshields that were the predecessors of Lightning McQueen. The facing wall was a series of lighted color panels that graduated from green to violet, and curved above the service desks. It was a stunning combination. We were checked-in by an exceptional cast member named Richard, who was helpful and funny, and charming, in particular, to JaNae. Although his name tag indicated he was from Connecticut, his speaking voice had a distinct central European twang. We had the following exchange:
“I am guessing, from your accent, that you are not originally from Connecticut,” I say, deductive/conversational genius that I am. “Are you from Germany?”
“No, no,” Richard replies. “I am not from Connecticut or Germany. I am actually from Texas.” He pronounces it like: “Teek-zus.”
We all laugh. Richard had probably told that joke a dozen times that day, but we were putty in his hands.
He then smiled and said: “Actually, I am from Poland,” and we replied with: “Ah.” The whole exchange was masterful. If we asked where he was from and he replied first with Poland, then that probably halts the conversation. Nothing against Poland, it’s just that most Americans are not capable of summoning an intelligent Poland follow-up (“Oh, huh. Poland? Uh… do you get tired of the jokes?”). But with a clever quip and some personality, he made a memorable experience out of a typically dry process. Richard was the first great cast member we met during our time at Walt Disney World.
Our bags would arrive later, courtesy of Disney’s Magical Express, but we still had carry-ons to negotiate. Our rooms were situated in the Little Mermaid section of the massive resort, which was – rather predictably – the farthest section from the main building. The path from the Ink and Paint Shop to our rooms was just over one-quarter of a mile (if Google Maps is to be believed) and passed through the Lion King section. I was vaguely aware of the world-class Lion King theming, but in reality I was too focused on the bags I had criss-crossed on my shoulders. We had managed to pack a large, yellow duffel to a weight of 135 pounds, by my conservative estimate. At last, and just before my knees gave out, we reached our room and I barged past Amy to drop everything on the bed. I then staggered around the room making the following noises: “Ahhhhhhh. Errrrrrrrgggg. Ahhhhhh.”
The Art of Animation offers low nightly rates, group suites, and exaggerated theming in an effort to draw families with children. Walt Disney World categorizes their numerous hotel properties in three broad categories based on cost and amenities: Deluxe, Moderate, and Value. Not only was AofA the newest resort at WDW, but it was also the standard-bearer for the least expensive properties. This trip completed a trifecta of sorts for us, being our first time at one of the Value options, and having stayed in a Moderate (Coronado Springs, 2007) and a Deluxe (Polynesian Resort, 2009) on our two previous visits.
Our room was compact without seeming small, and light on extras without seeming sparse. We had a single king size bed with a nightstand on either side. At the foot was a dresser/television/mini fridge combo hutch, next to which was a small, round table with two plastic, red chairs. The only seating options in the room were these chairs or the bed. Opposite the door was a big, bright vanity and a half-hidden clothes rack. The toilet and shower were on the other side of separating door. Our first impressions were positive; it was ideal for our needs, especially considering we did not plan on spending much waking time in our rooms.
We had requested connecting rooms with the Olsens, and our friend Richard at the front desk had made it happen. We opened the interior doors and poked our heads in each others spaces. We ran through the “WOW-I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-happening-after-a-year-of-planning-and-saving” routine that had been our primary conversation for the last 48 hours. After a year of planning, we were standing in a resort hotel room at Walt Disney World. The gratification had been delayed long enough.
Yet, in spite of this, neither of us were turning metaphorical cartwheels. We had reached a crucial friction point in our vacation experience.
As evening descended, it was evident that our food intake had been neither sufficient nor nourishing: a greasy fast food breakfast sandwich, a handful of ginger snaps, some cashews, and a smattering of jelly beans. We had both been conscious of being hungry, but now, clear of the hoop-jumping of flights and arrivals, we started to feel the effects.
Our master plan had called for dinner at the Landscape of Flavors in-resort cafeteria. The Olsens had purchased food on the flight (they were smarter than us), but were ready to eat, as well. We headed out, ambling the quarter-mile back to the cafeteria in the main building. Walking into Landscape of Flavors was a shock. I had expected something like the quiet calm of the terrific Pepper Market at Coronado Springs, and instead found hyperactive kids dashing around, inattentive parents with thousand-yard stares, and aggrieved grandparents. I suggested that our chances for a quiet meal would be better if we took a resort bus to Downtown Disney. Given that my track record that day on snap decisions was not good, it was a little surprising that anyone listened to me. That should have been a clue.
The bus queues for the Art of Animation Resort lined up along the northwest stretch of the porte-cochère. We found the placard reading “Downtown Disney” and were met with the first long line of our vacation. The bus was quick to appear, however, and almost everyone waiting packed in. We found a seat for JaNae, but the rest of us rode standing and hanging onto railings, doing our best to keep from bumping body parts against complete strangers. I slipped into old habits (acquired in Disneyland) of evaluating crowd levels based on small, unrealistic sample sizes. I determined, in my deteriorating mood, that this single crowded bus was a bad sign for the weeks ahead.
Like Superman’s* glowing, green kryptonite, Amy has two superhero weaknesses: motion sickness and heat. Either can give her a headache, but it is a fait accompli when the two are combined. The swaying bus and the clot of humanity inside of it had struck, and without energy reserves to draw from, Amy was miserable when we spilled out of the bus at the Downtown Disney area. I was not doing much better, being wobbly on aching feet.
(*Just to keep things in the Disney realm, I searched online for longer than I would care to admit to find a comparable Marvel comic book weakness that translated as easily as kryptonite. But, I came up short.)
Taking the bus to Downtown Disney was the worst idea I’d had all day, which was quite an accomplishment. Rich asked for the wait at the Rainforest Café
desk and was told two hours for five people. The line for the Earl of Sandwich, nearby, wound through the entire restaurant, out the door, and well into the courtyard.
With no better options, we slipped into the back of the line at the Earl of Sandwich, which seemed like the lesser evil. We were all snapping at each other without clear cause. Amy stood with us for a minute, but was feeling worse by the moment, so I suggested, snappishly, that she find a table for us. She agreed and expressed her appreciation, snappishly, that she could go sit and rest. I stared at the floor as the line crawled along, trying to keep Amy’s order straight in my swirling head.
The nadir of the experience came not long after, as we found Amy saving the table. I plopped our food tray down and sunk into a patio furniture seat. What had made us think this – any of this – was a good idea?
But then, we ate. The food was glorious and restorative, and saved both our evening and our first day. Vacations can gather their own unpredictable momentum, and if we had started on a bad note, it could have taken several days before we could correct our course. Amy and I each had a sandwich: I went with the Full Montague (roast beef, turkey, swiss, and cheddar) and Amy the Earl’s Club (turkey, bacon, swiss). Amy also had a decent pasta salad and I ordered tomato soup on an whim, which turned out to be very good. We also split a side of mac and cheese, just to hammer home the calorie count.
Although the food was good at the Earl of Sandwich, like the old saying: “hunger is the best sauce,” our state of exhaustion made it sublime. The five of us ate as fast as we could work our spoons and forks, and then relaxed around the table and gushed about how good it felt to have full stomachs. At one point I even said: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I give that food a 12.” I understood that I was being a little loose with facts. But it was also one of the most memorable meals of the entire vacation.
We felt good enough after our meal to browse the nearby shops in Downtown Disney. I was surprised to see Christmas decorations everywhere, having stumbled past them without noticing in my fugue state. We walked through Mickey’s Pantry (kitchen goods) and Disney’s Days of Christmas, at which point Rich and JaNae decided to return to the hotel. Hydee, Amy, and I contemplated leaving with them, but stopped in Goofy’s Candy Company and the Art of Disney on our way to the bus stop.
In the Art of Disney, while browsing the high-end knick-knacks and art pieces, I successfully completed the Scrooge Streak.
It was such a quick and unprecedented conclusion that I was not quite sure how to process it. I was accustomed to combing every shop in the resort through the entire vacation before being saved by an eleventh hour application of Disney Magic®. Instead, we had scarcely been on Disney property for three and a half hours, total. Searching for twenty minutes for something hardly qualified as a “quest;” that was more of an “errand.”
But, anyway, the streak was completed. Well, it was perhaps more correct to say it would be completed. The Scrooge item I found was an old school DuckTales poster being offered as part of a special merchandise event. I could have purchased it on the spot, but I wavered: the logistics of getting it home in perfect shape seemed daunting. Perhaps it was easier to visit the website for Acme Archives Ltd. and order it online – they could ship it directly to our address.
It seemed like a perfect solution. But, alas: without the Scrooge item in my possession, I wondered if I could legitimately claim to have completed the Scrooge Streak. It did not feel right. I would have to comb the stores in the park just to be sure, and if I didn’t find anything else, then I had the poster to fall back on. Amy listened to every word of this explanation with a patient smile and a minimum of eye-rolling (two things that would have been impossible for her prior to dinner). She said something terribly logical like: “Why don’t you just say you want to keep looking in the parks for Scrooge stuff? Why keep making up new rules?” But I didn’t hear her. I was busy walking away with my fingers in my ears, going: “LALALALALALALALA.”
It was just after 10:00 when we arrived back in our room to find our luggage waiting. We both enjoy unpacking into drawers and hangers on any stay longer than a few days, rather than living out of the suitcase like some kind of animal. While we busied ourselves with our clothes, I turned to ESPN to watch Real Salt Lake (our Major League Soccer team) win the first leg of the Western Conference Final against the Portland Timbers. It was a shellacking for RSL, too, even though they gave up a goal in the final thirty seconds. I set up my laptop, and with my sports nerd interest activated, the evening devolved into something typical for me: writing while watching sports. The television was really just background noise as I engaged in writing my notes for the day. I could be anywhere, really. But I was not. I was in room 7651 of the Art of Animation Resort in Walt Disney World. We had finally made it.