“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope
Monday November 11, 2013
At last, after months of planning and daydreaming, and one long-and-winding travel adventure, we woke up to our first full day at Walt Disney World.
We had chosen Disney’s Art of Animation Resort (AoA) for our stay, and were in the Little Mermaid wing, on the second floor of the building marked by a five-story statue of Ursula the Sea Witch. Our doorway opened to a view of Hourglass Lake and Disney’s Pop Century Resort. Just around the corner was the open-air elevator lobby, and having it so close boded well for aching feet at the end of the day. The window of the lobby also happened to perfectly frame the billboard-sized derrière of the Ursula statue. Amy pointed it out with characteristic dryness: “Well, there’s Ursula’s butt.”
Our experiences had been great since the airplane landed the day before, but I had misgivings about our destination for the day. We were heading to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS), and I had been ambivalent about it since we first made our plans. The truth is, I was much more excited about Epcot the next day. The memories of our previous visits to DHS were not unpleasant, but were also overshadowed by better ones in other parks.
The chain-lined queues for the bus were crowded, as they had been the night before. We made it aboard the very end of the second bus to arrive. I was now 0 for 3 for open seats, which I found troubling without quite understanding why. Standing on a bus ride was not something that would normally bother me. So, rather than daydreaming about Epcot, I started considering it.
The crowd predictor we like, Touring Plans, had the two weeks we would be at Walt Disney World as a good time to experience Christmas decor in the parks. Most of the days were predicted to be light on crowds, even the weekends. However, our first day was Veterans Day, and any holiday in a Disney theme park draws crowds. We had seen it already: the line for the bus that morning had been longer than any we had waited in on either of our previous Disney World trips.
The Art of Animation resort has a shade fewer than 2,000 rooms (the actual count is 1,984), and I remembered reading the resorts operated at about 85% capacity at that time of year, which came out to around 1,700 rooms full of happy guests. Most of those rooms would have more than two people staying there, as AoA catered to families. I did not want to overestimate, but a multiplier of three-and-a-half per room seemed like it would provide a reasonable estimate. After tapping all of that out on my phone’s calculator, I arrived at 5,950 guests.
I then started calculating* for what little I knew about the relative popularity of each park. I had read that Walt Disney World attracted about 50 million guests per year, and about 10 million – 20% – visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Taking that 20% number – and, yes, being aware the entire mathematical structure I had built was a proverbial house of cards – I arrived at around 1,200 guests just from AoA heading toward DHS that day.
(*It is a rare treat for me to use the word “calculating” and have it actually mean working through a math question – even if it was a poorly conceived one. Typically, I avoid math like a cat avoids water.)
With those back-of-the-envelope numbers in hand, what should have been obvious became clear: more people at the value resorts meant we would always have crowded busses. Amy and I had stayed at either a moderate (Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort) or a deluxe (Disney’s Polynesian Resort) property on each of our previous trips. Those resorts had more bus space for fewer guests, so we didn’t start and finish our days packed like sardines. I suspected the twice-daily illusion that we were some of the only people at WDW had contributed to my fond memories, and were the likely reason why I was irritated by standing for a ten-minute bus ride.
We arrived at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the first thing I started doing – even before disembarking from the bus – was to start evaluating. I did not intend for our vacation to turn into an exercise in comparison, but it seemed inevitable. It didn’t help that DHS was still not moving the needle on my excite-o-meter.
We passed under the Pan Pacific Theater façade and took our first steps onto Hollywood Boulevard. The entrance plaza and first stretch of storefronts made me think of Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure, which I had found brilliant in execution when we visited in 2012. I was comfortable at once. We started walking toward what I imagined as the back of the park, but a quick check of the map – something I never had to do in Disneyland – revealed that our destination was actually in the center of DHS.
Hollywood Boulevard bends left between Keystone Clothiers and The Hollywood Brown Derby, and then the path leads straight to the designated icon of Hollywood Studios, which is a 121-foot tall Sorcerer hat with stylized Mickey Mouse ears. Unfortunately, we found a semi-permanent stage set up directly in front, obscuring most of it. This was a big deal to us, as Rich’s favorite character is Sorcerer Mickey, and we had wanted to take a picture of him with the hat seeming to float above his head, in the spirit of tourists holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We were annoyed, but laughed it off. Hahaha, if that ended up being the worst disappointment of the trip, it would be a wonderful time, indeed, hahaha.
We decided our first attraction would be The Great Movie Ride, as we were headed in that direction, anyway. The posted waiting time was 20 minutes, although we were loading onto the ride vehicles in 10. Did that mean the crowds were not yet as heavy as expected, or was this an attraction that did not get a lot of traffic? None of us were sure, and for not the last time that fortnight, we expressed a combination of frustration and delight that we were not very familiar with the Walt Disney World parks.
The Great Movie Ride was fun, although perhaps not as intended. The concept of a guided tour through movie scenes was intriguing, but the attraction was hobbled by the fact that not one of the animatronics looked like the actor or actress they were meant to portray. Gene Kelly in the “Singin’ In The Rain” display looked like a robot wearing a Gene Kelly mask, which was literally true, but did not help suspend our disbelief. The entire attraction was like being in a surprisingly entertaining alternate reality where robots built humans, instead of vice versa.
After the ride, JaNae suggested we find something to eat. The chatter between Amy and I halted in a comical record-needle-scratching fashion, and we both turned to gape at her. We had been on one ride – and in the park less than an hour – and now a member of our party thought it was already time to eat. This was… perfect. She was a woman after our own hearts.
Nearby on Sunset Boulevard was a collection of quick service locations under the heading: Sunset Ranch Market. I ended up with a serviceable chilidog from Fairfax Fare, while Amy tracked down a pretzel with cheese at Anaheim Produce. Rich, Hydee, and JaNae split chicken nuggets and a turkey sandwich from Rosie’s All-American Café. We called it a snack – intended to hold us over until our big, early dinner – but nobody was fooled: it was a mid-day meal. That meant our ratio, as Hydee pointed out, was 1:1 (one attraction to one meal). It seemed unsustainable to keep that up through the entire vacation, but we were willing to try.
After our not-meal we navigated back toward the Sorcerer hat and on to Mickey Avenue until we reached Pixar Place. Here we had a FastPass+ scheduled for Toy Story Midway Mania! (TSMM), which would be our first in-park interaction with the billion-dollar-behemoth that was the new MyMagic+ system.
We touched our MagicBands to the glowing Mickey head medallion, and the Cast Member standing by smiled and waved us into the TSMM FastPass+ queue. There is a pleasant, self-satisfied frisson that one feels as they rush past the poor schmoes who have shuffled along in line for an hour or more. I sometimes imagine myself as a landed lord or a famous pop star as I rush along: the peasants are fine to toil in the lines, but I will take this path of privilege.
Toy Story Midway Mania! is a ride that brokers competitive gambling and a typical wager for us is winner’s choice of treat, paid for by the losing party/parties. I took the prize with a score of 166,800, and Rich was a very close second with 165,900. Nine hundred points was an incredibly slim margin of victory for TSMM, which I pointed out in the smuggest possible fashion. Amy was a solid third at 158,000.
On our way out of Pixar Place we passed a group of people with beers in hands, which spurred a discussion amongst ourselves about the availability of alcohol in Disney parks. Our group did not drink, so we arguably did not understand the appeal, but most of us leaned toward the “no booze” faction. Rich told a surprising story about seeing guests in the restrooms at Downtown Disney the previous night who were were so drunk as to be nearly incapacitated. He watched, out of the corner of his eye, as they urinated on the floor and rinsed out their keepsake steins in the sinks. It was not the image of adult fun at WDW that the management wants to promote, I suspect.
In contrast, the group we passed in Pixar Place was only remarkable for the beer, which we just noticed because we were used to dry Disneyland (not to mention living in Utah). They were simply having a good time, in other words, and better representatives of the other side of the alcohol debate. The truth is, few people would mind socially conscious alcohol consumption, our group included. But, as is always the case in Disney parks, it is the irresponsible few who ruin things for the many.
The Studio Backlot Tour was just south of Pixar Place. Neither Amy nor I had visited the attraction during previous trips, but the queue area was shaded and we were still getting used to the hot-wet-towel-across-the-face weather. The Studio Backlot Tour is divided into several sections, and the first area was an adequately entertaining reenactment of a torpedo strike on a warship that featured participation from the audience. Afterward, we boarded shuttle vehicles and zipped through some actual production areas, where genuine employees were working on real projects, according to the spiel.* Further along, amid the novelty of used vehicles from actual movies, the bus took us into a canyon where we were confronted with a flash flood and an exploding oil truck.
(*I was a bit suspicious of that claim, considering we were on a regularly scheduled tour vehicle in one of the most carefully engineered tourist destinations in the world. But, the areas did not have the look of show-ready sets. Either they were the genuine article, or some of the most extensive theming I had ever seen.)
The exit directed us through the American Films Institute Showcase, which was the most engaging part of the tour. We studied the Titanic lifeboat and expressed surprise at the comparative heights of Michael Keaton’s rubber Batman suit and Russell Crowe’s Gladiator togs. We goggled at actual Academy Awards, which are arguably the most recognizable and glamorous non-sports trophies in the world. The AFI Showcase was also – whether by coincidence or uncertainty what to do with the items – an axe-heavy display: Gimli’s axe from The Lord of the Rings series, the fireman’s axe from Titanic, and the famous “Here’s Johnny” door-splitter from The Shining.
We exited into a little plaza between the Studio Backlot Tour and the Studio Catering Co. Our next schedule marker was a FastPass+ for Rock’ n’ Rollercoaster (RnR) Starring Aerosmith, which happened to be at the exact opposite end of the park. But, we had plenty of time, so we set off strolling down the nearby Streets of America. The buildings and spaces were crisscrossed with dark, uncountable strands of lights for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. We planned to see them on a later date, but it made for an unusual sight in the daytime.
We had scheduled all of our FastPass+ reservations as a group, but Amy decided not to ride Rock’ n’ Rollercoaster with us. It was nothing against rollercoasters, or Aerosmith, but as someone who suffers from motion sickness, she had to be selective with the attractions. We left her to snap photos and watch people, while the four remaining party members scanned at the MyMagic station and cruised past the hoi polloi.
I like to think of RnR as two separate, but related, attractions. The secondary attraction is a fast, fun rollercoaster that pulls 4.5 Gs going into the first inversion (more than an astronaut experiences during a space shuttle launch) and plays exciting music as you go. The queue has good theming, even if the ride story is a little shaky.*
(*A giant limo that can utilize the Los Angeles freeway system to get a group of guests “all the way across town” in time to make a show? I don’t even live in LA and I know that sounds ridiculous.)
The primary attraction, by my reckoning, is the pre-ride video featuring America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band themselves, in the pre-recorded flesh, along with cameos from actress Illeana Douglas as their manager and actor Ken Marino as a recording engineer. We catch the band at the end of a recording session, as Illeana is hustling them out the door to make a show at The Forum. But wait! Steven Tyler, National Treasure, spots our hopeful faces on the other side of the studio glass. “We can’t leave these people here like this,” he declares. “Come on,” adds American Hero Joe Perry, “you know how we feel about our fans.”
I really enjoy Aerosmith and their music. I have also read a few things about the band, including a handful of interviews, some magazine profiles, and one eyebrow-raising biography. I do, indeed, know how they feel about (some of) their fans. With all that in mind, it is difficult to imagine Disney picking a less likely mainstream American band for their major theme park attraction. I mean… the drugs, the booze, and the debauchery… Steven Tyler actually lit cigars with burning $100 bills to shock their manager… are about as far away from a staid, family-friendly image as one might find. Their very presence in DHS makes me happy, and reassures me that the top brass at Disney Parks and Resorts has not completely lost their senses of humor.
We made it next to the Echo Lake area with a little time to spare before early dinner reservations at the Hollywood & Vine buffet. I happened to find myself standing alone in front of Mickey’s of Hollywood when I saw an old flivver* tootling up the road with Ben Appetit and Dara Vamp of the Citizens of Hollywood astride. I dug out my smartphone to take a photo. As the car passed by, Ben pointed at me and said, in a pitch-perfect Early Hollywood accent: “Now, Dara, that is the fellow who made a shirt out of my tablecloth.” Dara smiled at me and said, in an equally impressive twang: “It works for you.”
(*I later read on the amazing Studios Central website that the car – a replica of a 1900 curved dash Oldsmobile – was one of four electric vehicles commissioned by Walt Disney and designed by Bob Gurr to show VIP guests around Disneyland. Two of these are now at DHS while the other two remain in Disneyland.)
That brief exchange left me with two lasting impressions: first, it was delightful and charming, and as I look back, the tipping point of Disney’s Hollywood Studios for me. The park I had looked past in the morning had won me over by the late afternoon. Second, I have never since put on that shirt without thinking it looks like a tablecloth.
Our reservations at Hollywood & Vine were at the unorthodox time of 3:35, and we were led to our seats in a mostly-empty restaurant. Our waitress was an older woman with great energy and humor, and she took our drink orders and instructed us on where to find the food lines.
I am a bit introverted by nature, although I tend to become more gregarious when on vacation. This can lead to me saying or doing things that are not in keeping with my established temperament. One example: Hydee and JaNae ordered pomegranate lemonade, and Rich tried a sip while they were off dishing their plates. He enjoyed it so much that he asked our waitress to bring him one, in addition to his Diet Coke. She then asked me if I wanted one too, and I replied that I did not, and would just have the Diet Coke. Only, what I actually said was: “No thanks, Diet Coke is my jam.” My heart sank even as the words were spilling out of my mouth. What was wrong with me? I am in my late 30s, and I had never said those words in my life. I think our waitress was forced to rely on her customer service experience to keep from rolling her eyes and knocking me in the head with a ketchup bottle.
The food at Hollywood & Vine – and, again, it was a buffet – was surprising and fantastic. I enjoyed 100% of the food I took, which just doesn’t happen with buffets. There is always something that gets left on the plate when it goes back to the dishwasher. But, I ate every bit of the Citrus Chipotle Chicken, Barbeque Meatballs, and Asiago Ranch Chicken, and even returned to the warming trays for more. Rich and Hydee both praised the Shrimp and Lobster Macaroni and Cheese as the best thing they tried, although I steered clear. If I had to manufacture something critical to say, I suppose I would point out the décor, which was clean and serviceable, but not very exciting.
After dinner we browsed through the Indiana Jones Adventure Outpost and continued around Echo Lake. The sun was setting and the lights were coming on, which is a Magical® time on any Disney property. I looked at the changing shadows and emerging details in the delicate half-light, and considered my impressions of the park from that morning. My brother Jake, who is a heart-on-his-sleeve lover of Disney parks, once suggested to me that DHS is the prettiest and best themed park in WDW. I thought, in that besotted moment, that he might be correct. I knew it was a bold* statement for the first day of 11 in four different theme parks, but it was more beautiful than I had remembered or expected.
The hot and humid weather began dissipating as evening arrived and we worked our way back to Sunset Boulevard. We had been strolling and enjoying our evening, but now our direction had a purpose. We had scheduled dinner at AARP hours for one reason alone: the Fantasmic! Dining Package.
Fantasmic! was introduced in Disneyland, on the Rivers of America, and we had seen it there many times. We had also seen it in DHS on one of our previous trips, as part of a corporate event, where we had stood at another reserved area at the very top of the stadium. The DHS stadium for Fantasmic! sits a considerable distance from the rest of the park. In fact, the top of the mountain where (SPOILER ALERT) Mickey Triumphant appears at the end of the show is about the same distance from Echo Lake as it to the lobby of the Walt Disney World Swan Resort, according to crow-flies calculation on Google Earth.
We arrived 20 minutes before the show to find at least three-quarters of the seats already filled. Two energetic-but-irritating Cast Members galloped around the stadium, preening to the crowd and woohooing over the public address system. Luckily for us, we were Dining Package VIPs, and found a good spot in the reserved section. We plopped onto the hard, ridged aluminum benches to wait.
I write and say this often enough that it could be a personal motto, but I don’t particularly care for the shows at Disney parks. I admire the hard work and talent behind their production, and have no problem with anyone who enjoys watching them,* but I would rather do something else. In most cases, I would rather do anything else.
(*I was with people who were weaned on musicals (Rich and Hydee) and someone who loved a good production (Amy), so it was already determined that I would sit through several shows during our vacation. I was determined to not complain or spoil their experiences. In hindsight, there is a good chance I failed at that.)
So, it worried me when I started feeling strange as the lights in the stadium went out. My chest started to swell as the narrator introduced the show and the music began building. This had never happened before. Was I having an allergic reaction to something I ate? Had I picked up some futuristic disease from the robots in the Great Movie Ride? Then came the big BRAMM and there was our hero, Mickey, in the middle of the stage. Were those… goosebumps? I didn’t know what to do. I told myself that the show was far superior in Disneyland (true) and that I usually did not watch it there, either (also true). But the familiar music had seized me, and it seemed that all I could do was ride along. By the end, through all of the familiar beats, when Sorcerer Mickey popped out at the top of the mountain, I had watery eyes and a raspy throat. I blamed the smoke of the fireworks and the music being too loud. It most certainly was not that it was good to see Fantasmic! again. As I reminded myself again, I don’t like shows.
But, I could not deny the body of evidence, and I came away with one more revelation for the day: maybe I liked Fantasmic! after all.
The stadium exited at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (ToT), in time for our last FastPass+ of the day. As we were walking along the southeast side of the ToT, Amy – who has sharp eyes and great attention to detail – spotted a dark figure in a lit window up near the top of the structure. It was a brilliant bit of theming, and because it was not easy to see, I wondered if the average guest missed it. I certainly did, and I am very average.
Amy engaged in some pin trading while the rest of our group visited the Tower. Our interest in pins had waxed and waned since we first leapt in a dozen years earlier, but we had each brought a bag of “traders,” and were looking forward to hunting pin boards and Cast Member lanyards. By the time we emerged she had tracked down a matching set of pins for me, each featuring one of Donald Duck’s nephews. It was another wonderful surprise in a day full of them. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are some of my favorite characters, as they often serve as the consciences or the irritants to their Uncle Donald (another of my favorites) and/or their Uncle Scrooge McDuck (my all-time favorite).
Disney’s Hollywood Studios was offering Extra Magic Hours that evening, which was the main reason we had chosen it as our inaugural park. The crowds began to thin as we wandered over to the Animation Courtyard and found some Frozen merchandise on display. That particular film would not be released for another two weeks yet, and so the characters were unfamiliar and we had no inkling it would become a game-changing international phenomenon. With a little foresight, we would have purchased everything in the store, resold it on eBay five months later, and then retired to Celebration, FL.
We then went to have a good chuckle at the Voyage of the Little Mermaid, which was just a few steps away.* The easiest way to describe this attraction is to picture a non-HD Little Mermaid video, crossed with a community theater project, crossed with a laser rock show, with a bonus sprinkler system malfunction thrown in (although the sprinklers are technically a part of the production). I burst out laughing at the climactic scene of the show, right after Prince Erik killed Ursula the Sea Witch and we found the live-action Ariel and Erik passed out on a rock. Amy shushed me sharply, embarrassed at her fool of a husband.
(*The auditorium was large, with perhaps only 10% of the seats filled, but that did not stop two mouth-breathing guests from walking in and parking themselves directly in front of Rich, to his irritation.)
At last, it was time to go. It had been a full day and I walked out in a happy haze, soaking up the details of that beautiful park. The bus queues were heavy with people, and I rode back to the hotel standing on tired legs and sore feet. But, for months I had looked past our first day in the theme parks, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and it had surprised me in the best possible way. Besides, I thought, as we passed under Ursula’s… *ahem* shadow, with lighter crowds ahead, there was hope for empty busses in the future.