Comparison is the death of joy.
– Mark Twain
Wednesday November 13, 2013
Our ambitious Walt Disney World vacation was about to get real.
Magic Kingdom was almost instinctively familiar to us, being the East Coast version of our home park, Disneyland. Day four would be our first visit this trip, and we could not have been more excited about it. Our touring group was Amy and I, with our friends: siblings Hydee and Rich, and their mom, JaNae.
A swirling breeze and low, 50-degree Fahrenheit temperatures greeted us as we left our rooms, which was a change from the warm, wet blanket of air from the previous mornings. I was still in the shadow of the towering, Callipygian Ursula when I wondered if I should double back and grab my coat. But, no, I would manage. I was confident that my decision would not come back to haunt me at the end of the day.
The bus was packed, although we found a seat for JaNae next to some very nice people from Poughkeepsie, NY on the bus. True to her engaging and outgoing nature, JaNae made friends with them at once. Our conversation buzzed with talk of today being the “true” and “genuine” start of our trip – unfounded and unfair though it was to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot.
There is a school of thought that Magic Kingdom is what Disneyland might have been if Walt Disney had begun with unlimited space and budget*. This is a compelling argument, and I thought of it as we walked through the berm with a gasping combination of recognition and awe. The Magic Kingdom felt like home.
(*One example: Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom towers majestically over the Hub at 189 feet tall. By comparison, Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland is a mere 75 feet tall, and even forced perspective can’t keep it from looking a bit undersized.)
We were also happy to find that Magic Kingdom’s renowned Christmas decorations were already at full volume, with exactly six weeks to the holiday. It was the only park at Walt Disney World that went all out for the Holiday season, or so we had read. We were dazzled from the moment we walked past Flower Bed Mickey.
We paused at the Main Street, USA train station to use the restrooms before adventuring further into the park. I took note that these were located in an open, cavernous space underneath the station itself, and that was different from Disneyland. I had been on the property for five minutes, and was already comparing the two parks. So far, so good.
As we walked past the shoeshine station on our way to the toilets, I saw a dad bent at the waist and hovering over a wailing little girl in a stroller. He was shouting in an increasingly frantic voice: “Stop crying! Stop CRYING! HOW CAN YOU BE CRYING?! THIS IS DISNEY WORLD STOP CRYING RIGHT NOW OR WE ARE GOING HOME!!” Amy and I don’t have children, and so neither of us fully understands the stress that accompanies raising small, devious people. Plus, a Disney park vacation can be stressful on its own, for a lot of reasons. All the same, I considered stepping in with a friendly-but-firm hand on the guy’s shoulder and just saying, you know, 10:45 seems a little early to be losing your cool.
Back out in Town Square I finally zeroed in on the atmospheric Christmas music, which I had failed to do during our eventful first few minutes.
Amy and I have visited Disneyland several times during the Holiday promotional season, and we always pay special attention to the music. The loop on Main Street, USA is a particular favorite. It is a chime-y mix of holiday standards that sound like they came straight out of a December cocktail party at Walt and Lillian’s house. Most of the songs are recognizable versions of standards, like “Jingle Bells” and “The First Noel.” But a few years ago I took special note of one song in particular, which was unfamiliar at the time. It had a grand, meditative sound, which managed to capture both the happiness I felt in being there and a bit of the melancholy of our inevitable departure. I listened for it every time we were on Main Street, USA, and caught myself humming the tune at all hours of the day.
Once we got back home, a Google search revealed the loop lineup*, and as expected, the list was heavy on ‘60s era orchestral musical acts like Lawrence Welk, Felix Slatkin, and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. The song in question – the one that had become a personal favorite – turned out to be a recording of “Petit Papa Noël” by Raymond Lefevre.
(*The great Al Lutz did the work tracking this all down and posting it for the benefit of Disney fans.)
I had never heard of the song before (in spite of the 1946 original being the best-selling single of all time in France), but that December I put it in rotation on my Christmas playlist. Subsequent trips to Disneyland to enjoy the Holiday decorations did nothing to still my enjoyment of the song. If anything, “Petit Papa Noël” was an easy way to summon brilliant memories from one of my favorite places.
I had wondered if my enjoyment of the Holiday decorations would diminish if Magic Kingdom had a different playlist from Disneyland on Main Street, USA. But as I started listening, I recognized the song that was playing as David Rose’s version of “The Christmas Song,” which came from the familiar loop. It was a good sign.
Our group angled from the restrooms toward the Emporium to see the Christmas window displays, which were also a highlight of the seasonal decorations. We stepped up to the first window of the Emporium and I found myself looking into Scrooge’s Counting House from “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” A miniature Scrooge stood behind a desk full of tiny gold coins, peering peevishly over his glasses at Donald bearing a Christmas wreath.
I could scarcely believe my eyes. Scrooge McDuck is my very favorite Disney character, by far. I have a silly personal tradition I call the Scrooge Quest, and I have detailed the history of this ritual in other places, but in general terms: it is a “treasure hunt” where I try to find a new item featuring Scrooge McDuck. This is almost always a challenge, as Scrooge is rarely used in merchandise.
On this trip, though, I had completed the Scrooge Quest on the day we arrived, before we set foot in any of the parks. I usually had to search like a bloodhound to find one small Scrooge item in the parks, and here were five showcase window displays with my very favorite character in each one.
The vignettes were snapshots of Scrooge’s journey through the famous Charles Dickens story that is his namesake. I moved from window to window at a turtle crawl, no doubt irritating the rest of our touring group and the other guests trying to look at them. I took dozens of photos, trying to capture it all.
As I stepped in front of the final window in the series, the now-familiar refrain of “Petit Papa Noël” began to drift through Main Street, USA.
This was the redemptive final scene where Scrooge finally understands the message of the Spirits, and becomes the hero of the story. Scrooge sat at the home of Bob and Emily Cratchit (Mickey and Minnie), having just changed the fortunes of the Cratchit family, surrounded by their children, and bouncing Tiny Tim on his knee.
I run a little hot, emotionally speaking, and so for a few moments I was helpless to do anything but look and listen, and feel. I had a hard time explaining to Amy why I was so choked up by it all, but fortunately I didn’t need to. We had been together long enough that she knew all too well what a weirdo I am.
Leaving Main Street, USA behind, we walked through the Hub to Liberty Square, where we had our first FastPass+ reservation of the day for the Haunted Mansion. Although I was set on comparing Disneyland and Magic Kingdom during my touring day, I was still anxious to enjoy those attractions that did not quite measure up to the Anaheim original. As it turned out, I need not have worried, as we started with one that is clearly superior in Florida.
Walt Disney wanted to have a haunted house attraction in his park from the very beginning, back when his park was just an idea he kicked around while spending time with his daughters. The Haunted Mansion in Disneyland opened after his death, but Walt’s touch permeates the attraction. The image of the white antebellum mansion in New Orleans Square is iconic and representative, and not just for Disneyland fans.
All the same, the imposing red brick edifice in Magic Kingdom simply provides a more immersive and engaging experience. Everything in the first phase of the attraction, from the front gate to the doom buggy loading station, is equal or better in comparison. The ride experience is largely the same, although there are a few differences, like the stairway scene heading toward the hallway. The exit area is much more extensive in Florida, which includes their version of the pet cemetery, heavy with pine straw and featuring a J. Thaddeus Toad funerary art marker tucked into the back.
This is not to say that Anaheim’s Haunted Mansion is poor in comparison. It is still one of the finest attractions at the Disneyland Resort, and the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay is an inspired seasonal offering. But translated in Orlando with their oft-vaunted “blessing of size,” and it might be the best attraction in Magic Kingdom.
From the exit of the Haunted Mansion we walked to Rapunzel’s tower, which was a part of the new Fantasyland expansion, and marked the location of the Rapunzel-themed rest area, affectionately called the “Tangled Toilets” in parts of the fan community. It was a bit discombobulating from a theming point of view to see a tall fantasy tower next to a gothic crypt deep in Colonial America*. Our quick tour of the toilets revealed inventive atmosphere and visual references, including pre-bitten apples and a handful of chameleons scattered about.
(*Although, it was no stranger than seeing an alpine Matterhorn from a Polynesian tiki hut, I suppose.)
We strolled deeper into Fantasyland, where we could see other elements of the expansion in the distance. Prior to reaching that point, though, we found ourselves passing Mickey’s PhilharMagic. We had anticipated diminishing crowds following the Veterans Day weekend, and so far that had held true. There was no line to speak of, and so we decided to jump in.
For anyone who has ever visited the Magic Kingdom but not given Mickey’s PhilharMagic a try (hey, there may be a few), do yourself a favor: ignore the ridiculous name and see it. The show is an absorbing 3D tour of the greatest musical moments from Disney Renaissance-era films, and features Donald Duck as the guide. It is entertaining in the same fashion as one of those late-night infomercials for compilation albums*, where you hear snippets of catchy ‘70s pop songs with video footage from the bands. Only with Disney movies and Donald Duck, instead of the Bee Gees and David Soul.
(*I make this association without irony – your mileage may vary.)
If there is an irritation with Mickey’s PhilharMagic, it comes from the behavior of the guests, which should not surprise anyone. At the moment the doors to the auditorium open, cast members are on hand to remind the people filing in to move all the way to the end of the row instead of stopping in the middle. These instructions are repeated often. This happened to us as a family plopped in the middle of our loading row and looked aghast at the guests who climbed past them to the empty seats beyond. What made people behave in such a fashion, we wondered? Was it ignorance of simple instructions? Pigheaded refusal to accept the existence of others? It remains a mystery that I doubt will ever be solved.
After watching Mickey’s PhilharMagic from one of the wings of the theater, we continued deeper still into Fantasyland. Before long we arrived in Belle’s village from “Beauty and the Beast,” which was a charming collection of retail locations and restrooms. In the middle of the square was a statue of Gaston and LeFou, and nearby Gaston himself was stationed, meeting guests.
Our plan was to walk through the area later, but we could not help but pause for a few moments on that first trip. The design and the theming were extraordinary, and too compelling for us to skip past. I stood at a bridge overlooking the causeway to the Be Our Guest restaurant, which stood over a forested stream. As I considered the view, it dawned on me that I could no longer hear the atmospheric music, but instead was listening to the sounds of a forest, complete with babbling brook and chirping birds.
I could hardly believe it. Stepping away from the overlook, it was only the area music, at full presentation volume. Then, back again, and the music gave way to the forest. Within two paces the sound engineering made it seem like being alone in a forest.
This auditory curiosity is not something I have ever seen mentioned on an official website or fan blog, and perhaps because it is such a small thing. It is a detail that the Imagineers created for guests to discover on their own, which are the very best details of any at Disney parks.
Lunch was next, and we decided to eat at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café. This Tomorrowland counter-service dining location has a high Q score in the Disney fan community, offering both a broader menu than the typical burger stand, and the musical styling of Sonny Eclipse. Cosmic Ray’s also handles a lot of dining traffic while producing fair- to- good quality food. I went with the bacon cheeseburger and, on an impulse, chili cheese fries.
The sandwich at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café was improved by liberal application of toppings from the legendary toppings bar. The chili cheese fries became a new favorite item, and one of the best things I ate that entire trip. It took me a few minutes to warm up to Sonny Eclipse, who is, in simple terms, a robot that tells sterilized jokes. But I was applauding by the end of the meal.
After lunch we doubled back into Fantasyland and walked a circuit of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which appeared to be about three-quarters finished with the exterior construction. I liked seeing that the park management had left a few “holes” in the fence (covered in protective Plexiglas) so curious visitors could peek in and watch the builders at work. Work zones are usually obscured as far as possible in Disney parks, but this tacit nod to the unfolding drama of a new roller-coaster style ride was appealing.
We ended up in the Storybook Circus area and walked all the way to the back where we could access what Amy and I referred to as the “secret pathway” to Tomorrowland. This was a nameless track along the train curve we had spotted on the map during our previous trips. It was really nothing more than a convenient walkway, and not a secret at all – tens of thousands of people walked it every day. But it was another detail left for our discovery, and as such, the sort of thing that speaks to our fan hearts. No doubt our friends thought we were as nutty as trail mix for how much we gushed about this “secret pathway,” but they remained polite in their comments.
The crowds were still light in Tomorrowland, enough so that Rich, Hydee, and I rode Space Mountain twice. Amy and JaNae passed so as to avoid motion sickness. This was another ride with a counterpart in Anaheim, and fan opinion was split, but it seemed that the Disneyland version had a slight edge. I was not so sure. The queue and the overall ride experience with side-by-side cars might be better in Disneyland. But, on our second trip through, I sat in the front of our small capsule and had an absolute blast rocketing through Space Mountain. It was the most fun I have had on any version of that ride, at least since I was a teenager. My verdict is unclear.
Our next stop, though, was the clearest victory for Magic Kingdom in any attraction head-to-head contest. It was something that did not even run in Disneyland any more, and was so deceptively fun that the sight of the unused track in Anaheim always makes us melancholy. The ride in question, of course, is the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover. Intended as an example of low-impact mass transit of the future, the PeopleMover is an unhurried tour of Tomorrowland highlights, including a model of Walt Disney’s original Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The relaxed pace and great scenery reminded us why it never should have left Disneyland in the first place.
The Magic Kingdom was faring well in comparison to Disneyland so far, with attractions that were either as good or better (Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain) or not even featured in Anaheim (Mickey’s PhilharMagic and PeopleMover). We decided to change that by riding Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.
Perhaps the best way I can sum up my experience on this attraction is this: I have a small-but-significant “No Ride List.” These are attractions that I have personally blacklisted for a variety of reasons. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin almost makes this list every time I ride it.
The problem, and the reason I don’t include it on my list, is that I love the Disneyland version*. Even now, as I am writing this (over a year later – sorry, everyone!), I have already convinced myself that Space Ranger Spin is not that bad. But the bottom line is this: there are plenty of similarities between the two, but the Magic Kingdom version has the laser guns attached to the ride vehicles and on the Disneyland version they are in-hand, and only connected by a cord. That detail may not seem so significant in abstract, but the dynamic action of swinging around to find targets is part of what makes the Anaheim version so good.
(*Which even had a different name – Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters – as if to somehow distance itself by title from it’s underachieving cousin.)
There has been some rumor that my dislike for the ride stems from the fact that Amy thrashed me on our visit. She scored well in advance of a million – her counter stopped at 999,999 early in the ride, which dwarfed the 340,000 I managed – and for her efforts, she won her choice of treat in any park (our standard wager). But to address this rumor directly let me declare the following: I did not dislike this ride because I lost so badly to my wife, Amy. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the Disney fans (American people). Thank you.
At that point, Amy and I elected to visit the PeopleMover again so she could take photos with the early evening sky and I could catch up on my notes. Rich, Hydee, and JaNae decided to jump in line for Stitch’s Great Escape!, which nobody in the group had tried before, and the entrance of which was nearby. We agreed on a rendezvous point and parted ways.
We were also stalling. Amy and I had been sitting on a big surprise, which was that our group was about to grow. My brother and sister-in-law, Josh and Stacie, co-adventurers on many of our Disney tours and close friends with our entire travel group, were joining us. Stacie had actually traveled to Orlando with us for a work conference, and Josh flew in that day*. Amy had been in surreptitious text contact with Stacie for most of the day, and they were just checking into their hotel.
(*And boy, were his arms tired. Badum-ching!)
As the PeopleMover dallied along the track, we had a bird’s eye view of an early evening Holiday dance party that had sprung up in the middle of Tomorrowland, complete with a tall, glittering arch and costumed characters. The DJ was playing hyper-popular gimmick songs like “The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?),” and “Cha Cha Slide” while kids and parents had fun flapping around to the music. I had just begun to say something about the charming scene of adults and kids playing together, when the section of “Cha Cha Slide” began where DJ Casper says: “every-body clap your hands clapclapclapclapclapclapclapclapclapclapclapclap.” There was a shout of excitement and an adult woman and a little girl ran for an open space in the middle of the floor, where they launched into a matching, coordinated, booty-shaking routine synchronized to the claps. We burst out laughing, and I could no longer say that “charming” was the first word that came to mind.
We met back up with our friends and learned that their experience had not been as entertaining as ours. Rich summed up his review of Stitch’s Great Escape! thus: “That was the best thing I have done all day; except for the fact it was a huge waste of time.” We nodded sagely, as we had all heard as much from other fans. But we also understood their impulse to find out for themselves, which was the true spirit of Disney park exploring.
We left Tomorrowland and walked back through Fantasyland on our way back to Liberty Square. Amy and Stacie had been scheming via text, and word arrived at last that they were waiting for us at our intended dinner destination: Columbia Harbor House. Amy and I were all innocence as we walked into the restaurant behind Rich, Hydee, and JaNae, where they found Josh and Stacie, grinning and waiting. A delightful, happy gathering ensued.
The Columbia Harbor House is a nautical-themed counter service restaurant, with a menu of about 50% seafood, depending on how you define tuna salad. Amy and I ordered chicken fingers while everyone else got the fish and chips. Through a fulfillment mix-up our table ended up with an extra serving of fish, and although my platform is pretty firmly anti-seafood, I decided to give it a try. It was mild, according to our group, and deep fried, which is always a good sign. I took a bite with a dollop of tartar sauce, but succeeded in only reinforcing my dislike for it. The chicken strips were nothing special, either. In fact, the best part of the meal was the conversation between gathered friends, combined with the great theming of Columbia Harbor House. If any fast food proprietor served the same meal, they would find themselves closing doors before long.
After dinner and a quick return to the Haunted Mansion, we could see the glowing lights of Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade running through Liberty Square. Our group streamed to it like moths to a flame. The unmistakable “Baroque Hoedown” music is a ‘70s synthesizer fever dream, and fewer pieces of music will take me back to my childhood with more reckless abandon. Disneyland has not run the MSEP for almost two decades, although it featured in Disney’s California Adventure for several years. Since leaving Disneyland, versions of the parade have also appeared in Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, and knowing that it lives on for other families to discover is satisfying evidence that the Disney corporate empire has not entirely forgotten their past.
The overall experience of Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade has not mellowed with age. I have never taken any kind of psychotropic drug, whether recreationally or otherwise, but I imagine the experience is not unlike watching the MSEP. There are complex and bizarre symbols throughout the marching lights, although we tend to look past them because our brains subconsciously discredit paradox to keep our minds from snapping and driving us insane. A short list of things I saw in the parade: angry chess pieces, twinkling princesses, pirate scows, smoking green dragon, spirit coyote, Mayor McCheese.
The crowds thinned even more after the parade, to the point where it became scattered. The combination of Holiday lights and empty pathways was so intensely pleasant that I decided to suspend all comparison activities for a future day and simply enjoy the evening.
We had intended to use our FastPass+ reservations for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but the crowds were so light that the riders (me, Rich, Hydee, Josh, and Stacie) elected to jump into the standby line so we could all go together. Big Thunder Mountain is one of the signature roller-coaster style attractions of Disney’s theme parks, and a version of it exists in four of the five resorts worldwide*. I started to compare some of the differences between the versions in Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, but stopped myself in time. Big Thunder Mountain might be my favorite attraction in both parks, and that deserved more time and attention.
(*Hong Kong Disneyland is the fifth resort that does not include Big Thunder Mountain, although they do have a ride named “Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars,” which is a roller coaster themed as a mine train through a Wild West mountain setting. So, you know… totally different.)
We strolled through the nearby retail locations and into Adventureland, where, of course, we decided to jump in the queue for Pirates of the Caribbean for another test of my non-comparison resolve. We walked through the amazing queue until we found the end of the small line. As we waited, Amy and I were privy to a conversation between the father and son standing right ahead of us.
The boy, looking eager, grabbed his father’s arm. “Dad,” he said, excited, “when do I get another quarter?”
“Pretty soon,” came the reply.
The boy noticed Amy and looked up at her to explain. “Every hour I am good, I get a quarter!”
Amy smiled at his excitement. “Cool! How many quarters have you gotten today?”
The boy – and it was tough to determine whether he was proud or stoic about this accomplishment – held up two fingers. We swallowed our laughter.
We split up after Pirates of the Caribbean, with Josh and Stacie going one way and the rest of us walking to the entrance of the Jungle Cruise. We had ten minutes left before the park closed, and understanding that the ride may not be running so late, decided to take a gamble. But, we walked straight to the front of the line and practically got our own boat.
Magic Kingdom had decided that year to introduce an overlay to the classic attraction, and rename it the Jingle Cruise for the Holiday season. Our skipper even had an arsenal of new holiday jokes, which she combined with the venerable old “backside of water” material. It even made us laugh a couple of times. It was also yet another ride that begged comparison to Disneyland’s version, but I remained strong.
After that we wandered into the hub to wait for The Kiss Goodnight, which none of us could remember seeing before, and we had discovered through the excellent work of other Disney bloggers (thanks Tom Bricker!). By this point I was shaking with cold, having been in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt since that morning, and so paying the price for my morning overconfidence. We had about twenty minutes until the expected Kiss, and so I marched around in circles for Amy’s amusement, as she had encouraged me to just grab the jacket when I had the chance. At last, the music and lights of The Kiss Goodnight swelled, and we watched in rapt appreciation. In case it was unclear by this point: we are a pretty easy group to please when it comes to hidden details in Disney parks.
We walked down Main Street, USA with the rest of the devotees who were delaying their exit as long as possible. I took a last, lingering pass at the Scrooge scenes in the Emporium windows. Across the street in the Main Street Confectionary I then ran into Josh and Stacie, who were making a few final purchases before they headed to their own hotel. We were discussing our plans for the next day when a cast member walked over to us. She was dressed in the uniform of a Magic Kingdom candy maker, and her clothes were stained with the glorious remnants of her fine work.
“Let me ask you a question,” she announced, sliding in our conversation. She held up a racquetball-sized chunk of crispy rice treat. “Which one of you wants this the most?”
The three of us exchange glances for a brief second before Stacie piped up: “I do!”
A quick flash of relief crossed the cast member’s face. She had leapt into a conversational triangle without being invited, and it might have been met with irritation. “I just finished making this,” she said, “and we had one extra.”
She made as if to throw it in the air for us to squabble over, like seagulls. Then, she laughed and handed it to Stacie.
“Thanks! I came in here just for these,” Stacie said, which was absolutely true. “I used to get them in Disneyland, but now they just use the pre-made stuff. You still make them here.”
“Yep!” The cast member showed us the palms of her gloves, which were shiny from butter. “Here is the proof. I just made these,” she repeated, a bit unnecessarily, but to hammer the point home.
Stacie told her she had made her night, which was probably also true, and the cast member went off to her other duties. She was smiling when she left. We were smiling, too, and not just Stacie. We knew that an encounter with a dedicated cast member could makes fans out of casual visitors, and although we hardly needed the incentive, we loved it even more.
We were some of the last guests to leave, meaning that there were plenty of seats on the bus. The trip back was quiet, and we poured ourselves into bed. I started wondering if it was the most tired I had been that trip, but then remembered that my comparisons were over for the day. It was sufficient to note that the day had lived up to the hope.