Ten Tips for Surviving Walt Disney World with Young Children

I’ve slightly irritated myself before I’ve even started this post by putting ‘surviving’ in the headline. To be honest, I’ve done it to pander to the kinds of ways I see people talking about this (ergo, perhaps, searching for it). Let me reassure you, there is no survival involved, although you might occasionally get a bit shirty with one another. It is, genuinely, meant to be fun. Sure, there’ll be at least one moment where you’ll threaten to sell your kids to Mickey for a Dole Whip and five minutes’ peace, but come on. You’re in Walt Disney World. You are not suffering. That happens when you get home.

So, that said, there are certainly ways to make the process smoother and ensure that more of the family gets to tick off the things on the wish list without too many rows. Continue reading →

A brief personal history of Walt Disney World, with pictures

No-one who knows me IRL can fail to have heard about my family’s upcoming trip to Walt Disney World. It’s going to include quite a few members of my extended family, all packing our noisy selves into a villa barely seven miles from the Epcot parking lot.


Now, I could write a whole lot of actually useful stuff about using My Disney Experience (excellent customer service when something weird – not Disney’s fault – went wrong with the tickets), booking FP+, making our Advance Dining Reservations including a date night at Le Cellier… but, you know, the world is already heaving with places to find that information. I’m totally happy to answer questions and share tips, but there are people who devote their entire lives to WDW holiday planning (not least the Disney Parks Moms Panel) – more people than you can shake a stick at, frankly. And instead, I just want to share my excitement through photos.

Don’t get me wrong, I know things have changed. Obviously things have changed. I mean, my Dad labelled one of the photos below as “E.P.C.O.T. Center” (yes, with the unnecessary dots and yes, he can still tell you what it stands for). There are attractions that are never coming back (we don’t have to name The One; come to think of it, maybe we all have a different One). There are attractions that are changed beyond recognition, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The place that I fell in love with when I was four is not the same place that my daughter, aged four, will now fall in love with. There’s a part of me that’s a little sad about that, but it’s a mistake to ever try to recreate your experience in your child; you are not the same people. It is not the same time. And, as for yourself – well, you can never really go back. I’ve made my peace with that.

But I’m also aware – and, honestly, grateful – that I will carry with me the rose-tinted specs of 1984 and see things through that lens. The new memories I create will be drawn on the top of the ones that are already inked on me, a hundred hidden Mickeys stamped all over, invisible but indelible, each layer smudged, blurred but never wiped out over time.

This week, I found these photos from my first visit. They are the set which went with this one.  They make me very, very happy. I cannot wait to have the uniquely wonderful experience of seeing it all unfold through R’s eyes; I got a hint of it at Disneyland Paris, but this is it – the Mother Ship!

And no, I will not be wearing short shorts.




Snow White and the Huntsman… and her Scary Adventures

It’s been a very Snow White week.

On the 31st of May, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom saw the permanent closure of one of its classics, Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Based on the very first of Walt’s feature-length animated films the ride – which over the years was the subject of the most complaints about Disney to the Unoffficial Guide because of its witch-heavy visuals which saw a tamer reworking in the 90s – is lamented by many Disney fans. Although it remains in its original home at Disneyland, at WDW its footprint will eventually be occupied by a princess-y meet and greet, and there will soon be a very different Snow White themed ride in the form of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train family-friendly coaster.

Personally, I’m really not sorry to see the back of her. I do appreciate the sentiments of those who feel the announcement was not one of Disney’s finest moments, and failed to build momentum and excitement around the coaster to come. I also know some children will inevitably be heartbroken. But Snow White… scared the bejeezus out of me as a four-year-old even though to this day the Haunted Mansion is a beloved favourite; I remember clearly, at my mother’s suggestion, ducking under the safety bar and actually hiding in the front of the cart until Mum told me the coast was clear of deranged old ladies proffering poisoned apples. More to the point, the attraction was crumbling. There’s nothing wrong with the classic ghost-train style dark ride, but it lacked the essential charm of neighbour Peter Pan’s Flight or even the psychedelic lunacy of It’s a Small World (seriously – it’s quite bizarre when you ride it as an adult).  It needed a complete rebuild, or scrapping. What with Fantasyland due a huge renovation, scrapping was the order of the day.

There were some touching moments as I watched the Disney community online lay Snow White to rest – this time without a glass coffin or chance of romantic resurrection. A young boy called Ben, who has an autistic spectrum condition, held SWSA in such esteem that he’d ridden it thousands of times. Reports on Twitter quickly circulated saying that Disney Parks cast members had ensured that he got on the ride with Snow White herself, and that his family were among those on the last ever ride.

As someone who is next to return to WDW (whenever that happens) with a young child, I’m delighted that there is finally a focus on the younger element in Fantasyland, the land that most needed it. It surprises people when I say that Magic Kingdom actually does suffer from a lack of really exciting toddler entertainment – at least, for those of us who can’t pop back there regularly for short visits. Apparently, Disneyland Paris does it very well, and I hope we’ll go back some time not too far away to find out.

In the meantime, I had a rather different Snow White experience by going to see Snow White and the Huntsman. That I unenthusiastically tweeted ‘meh out of ten’ right after seeing it really says a lot about how the film left me feeling.

It wasn’t without its positive elements: the concept was essentially good, as were the attempts to flesh out the characters and give depth to the struggle between the evil queen and her step-daughter beyond a bit of petty jealousy. I actually appreciated the ending for not being entirely obvious, and not just for bringing the overlong story to a close. The visuals, which owed a good deal to Lord of the Rings, were stunning, but felt like a smokescreen to conceal the agonisingly dull performances from both Stewart and Theron. The latter did put her back into it, but the spasmodic changes of tone from cool threatening to incandescent rage merely came across as talking very slowly, as if to a tourist, and then going predictably Basil Fawlty. Chris Hemsworth was fine, but bland; a younger Sean Bean he ain’t.

There were also several cringeworthy moments: at one point, the titular huntsman rips Snow White’s skirts from her in order to stop her impeding their progress through the gnarly woods; she is taken aback, understandably, and he sneers “don’t flatter yourself”. Because, evidently, Snow White should find people ripping her clothes off without asking her a compliment, as indeed is all sexual assault.* Plus, as my sister pointed out, he then left said clothes behind as a clear indication of their progress, thus also being a crap huntsman. Then there was the failure to actually bother to cast anyone of restricted height as a dwarf, instead projecting fairytale dwarfism onto some familiar faces.

It wasn’t unwatchable, and there were some deft moments, but with a bit of life, some judicious editing and a snappier pace, it would have been considerably better. I was left wondering if the production rivalry with the apparently very different Mirror, Mirror (which I haven’t seen), forced Snow White and the Huntsman to take itself too seriously, and ruined the dark romp it could have been.

Still, if anyone wants to have a crack at the dark side of The Little Mermaid, I’m all for it.

*Withering sarcasm, in case it wasn’t obvious.

Review: The Epcot Explorer’s Encyclopedia – R. A. Pedersen

It seems that now I’ve started blogging more, I can’t stop.  And since I’ve just read a book I really enjoyed, for a number of reasons, I feel the need to share this with you.

It’s no shock to anyone that I’m a big Disney parks fan, and anyone who’s ever asked knows my favourite park is Epcot. Since I first visited a mere two years after it opened, it’s always been the park I’ve looked forward to the most. Being a bit techy, a bit foodie, a bit of a traveller, a bit of a geek, it’s the best possible theme park in the world (or World) for me. And knowing that it started life intending to be the model of a future city is just insanely appealing. But I’m an Epcot fan, not an Epcot history buff; I live too far away and visit, by financial necessity, too infrequently to spot every update or track every plan for the space.

Pedersen, a former Unofficial Guide researcher, has taken all that insane appeal and married it to an Epcot (and EPCOT Center) geekery that is truly admirable and a little scary – in a good way. This is not a guide book but a history; it describes the evolution of every single attraction in the park, from Mission: SPACE to the Mexico pavillion and back again. Drawing on planning permits, information released by Imagineers, decades of Walt Disney World promotional literature and much more, it balances scene-by-scene detail with little forays into fun fact territory.

Picking apart an attraction might sound negative, but it’s actually fascinating. Far from destroying the magic, it heightens it; in the case of lost and lamented Horizons, it’s practically the only way those of us who can’t make it to a WED Convention might hope to relive it and share it with those who never got a chance to experience it. The encyclopaedia* layout also means it’s easy to skip over parts that are less personally interesting; I admit the development of Innoventions etc. is not half as interesting to me as the growth of the World Showcase pavillions, so I more-or-less skim read the list of stalls and stands.

I was not tempted to skim elsewhere, however, because the writing style is full of wit, lightheartedness, self-awareness and passion. It made me laugh out loud a couple of times, and smirk a few times more. It could do with a little tidying because annoying language fascists like me might be a little distracted by the odd typo, but given the overall eloquence I feel I’m nitpicking. (Now you know how much I liked it; when have I ever been that laissez-faire about language before?!)

Really my only criticism is that there isn’t more of it. The abrupt ending after the last bit of World Showcase miscellany has been thrown in made me feel a little bereft, especially as there was an engaging introduction. Admittedly I’m unsure what else there was to cover, but I was sorry to see it end and somehow wasn’t expecting it. Perhaps that’s the curse of the Kindle.

The UK edition is currently available from Amazon for Kindle, but a paper copy is forthcoming. You can also follow the author, @EPCOTNRG, on Twitter and visit his website, devoted to the ‘flora, fauna and fun of the world’s greatest theme park’.

*US spelling in the title, UK spelling in the review. So there.

End of holiday post: Recovering at home

The Happiest Place I Know

The Happiest Place I Know

Well, it was a pretty spectacular holiday – actually, belated honeymoon. Everything was in our favour: good weather, fun times, well-organised and, best of all, good health all round. We went for a morning swim (I miss that already!), ate loads, walked loads, soaked up the sun and were entertained almost to the point of feeling guilty. I was left with a slight feeling of dread, even; after all that goodness surely something must go wrong?! But even the flights were good. And I’m planning a fear of flying course in the summer to stop me having any more travel-related meltdowns. I don’t want it holding me back. Plans are afoot to book our next trip once the coffers have been replenished. This time to Toronto. I’ve never been to Canada – any recommendations / tips?

My favourite moments are many, so I won’t list them all. But anyone who sets foot within 100 miles of Epcot should get over there are ride Soarin’ (one of the few we rode twice, so brilliant is its gentle, awe-inspiring hang gliding simulation). As mid-price restaurants go, Redrock Canyon Grill is lovely and does the best steak and mashed potato on International Drive by miles. Tarpon Springs is apparently a great place to walk your dog. But if you want to know more about my travels, just check out my Flickr feed, where I shall eventually put the photos.

I really want to talk books. I read three and a half while travelling: Anthony Flew’s There Is a God, a fascinating and highly intelligently written discourse on how the famous atheist found faith; Mark Gatiss’s second Lucifer Box novel, The Devil in Amber (slightly disappointing compared to the first as Box has become a little tiresome, but still amusing enough) and Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table were the completed ones. The last was relentlessly depressing. I had wondered how Burroughs could make an entire career – spanning some six or seven books – out of a dysfunctional childhood, but I had reckoned without the truly terrifying entity his sociopathic father turned out to be. Read this only if you have a good grip on your emotions; it is highly distressing and uncomfortable, not to mention frightening. There’s even guinea pig death. You were warned.

I’m still picking through Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is far better than its title. His spare, evocative writing, which I loved so much in Wicked, is put to excellent use once more in a plotline slightly reminiscent of Girl With a Peal Earring (though it might have been published before – I forget). It was totally worth loading up my Sony Reader, even with all the irksome issues I had with Waterstones before we left.

Tomorrow, we begin repainting the living room. I’ve been gently immersing myself back in social media – I relinquished all but my crutch, Twitter, while I was away, mainly to see if I even COULD – and I’ve missed my old friend. Tuesday will herald business as usual: baking, blogging, and dreaming of the next time I’ll have the time and cash to visit WDW.

Holiday Post: Disney Days

Well, I promised to greet you from the Disney side…

We landed around 3pm on Thursday and have so far packed in a trip to Sarasota to see my auntie and visit St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Bradenton for a Good Friday service, an evening stroll around the Magic Kingdom taking in Pirates, Small World (Ash’s insistence) and Snow White,  a hot air balloon ride, a day at Epcot and a trip to Tarpon Springs followed by an evening at Downtown Disney.

My feet really hurt.

Ash has done all the driving. I’m generally a good and confident driver and enjoy being on the road but when we rented an “intermediate” SUV we forgot that size is different on this side of the Atlantic. The monster Jeep Patriot Dollar handed us scares the living daylights out of me; while I’m not a typical woman in many ways, sadly I fit right in the lousy stereotype category when it comes to spatial awareness. I’m used to a Toyoto Yaris – I ain’t getting behind the wheel of the gargantuan tank in the car park.

The weather has been pleasantly sunny – I have a hint of a burn from the day at Epcot – but we’re due thunderstorms the next couple of days so we’ll probably spend tomorrow indoors trawling the malls, and maybe try Hollywood Studios or hitting Magic Kingdom properly on Tuesday if it starts to get warmer. Then Wednesday we have a fun day planned at Kennedy Space Centre. I haven’t been to Cape Canaveral since I was about 8.

Highlights so far:

  • Soarin’ @ Epcot – absolutely fantastic gliding simulator. Wish it was longer, but the queues are long enough already!
  • Test Track and Mission: SPACE are just as good as I remembered too, although the More Intense Training route of the latter does your head in for quite a long time afterwards if you’re even slightly sensitive to motion (Ash doesn’t get motion sickness and felt thoroughly weird for ages).
  • Lovely lunch at Plaka in Tarpon Springs.

Alarming moments so far:

  • The ‘venomous snakes’ sign at the rest stop on I4 East (see Flickr).

Anyway, it’s late(ish), I’m tired, and a warm shower and an episode of Family Guy are calling.

Ten Days of Disney: Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

Gotta love songs from The Simpsons. And you’ve gotta love the feeling of getting in that monorail and zooming towards the best fun you’ll ever have in an organised way ever, ever, ever. And that’s it – that’s ten days of things I love about Disney: the parks, the people and the topiary.

Disorganised blogging from me today. I’m too skittish and flight-nervous to link back to all the previous days (use the tag, though, or scroll down)…

I shall greet you from the Disney side!

Ten Days of Disney: Fast Pass

Now, though the fella behind @TheDisneyBlog hated Fast Pass (and I have yet to get round to asking him why, although I’m very curious), I found it a thoroughly useful and excellent invention in 2004 when I first used it at WDW.

The concept is brilliantly simple: the queue is too long right now, so you get an hour-long slot (for rides) or performance time (for shows) to come back for, leaving you with a very short wait compared to the standby lines.

In practice most of the Fast Pass tickets are gone by 11am, but if you plan your park visit carefully – it does require a certain amount of military precision although there’s still arguably room for spontaneity – you’ll get hold of ones for the rides you most want to go on. For me the key Fast Passes to bag will be for Splash Mountain, Mission Space and Soarin’, I reckon (if they all do FP, which I believe they do).

No system is perfect, but as a way of helping you plan your day around the park without having to account for very long queues, it’s very helpful.

Day One: Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

Day Two: EPCOT

Day Three: Landscaping

Day Four: Pixar

Day Five: Disney for Good

Day Six, Seven & Eight: Adult Entertainment, Phil Harris & Sterling Holloway, Fireworks

Ten Days of Disney: EPCOT

Now, I appreciate that the Magic Kingdom is the symbol of Disney in every sense. Not only was it the original theme park from which I have pictures of a four-year-old slack-jawed Alex watching a parade in absolute, blissful awe, but the image of Cinderella Castle – particularly with fireworks breaking in the sky above – is absolutely synonymous with everything from film idents to promotional materials.

But it’s not my favourite park. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Pirates of the Caribbean and the newly-refitted Haunted Mansion are totally on my “don’t leave without seeing” list (It’s a Small World not so much but then I’m no longer a small person). But as much as the Lands of Fantasy, Frontier and more delight me and fill me with excitement and joy, it’s EPCOT that I really look forward to visiting.

The giant silver golf ball that marks the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow makes my heart race when it hoves into view from the monorail. I was always, always a techy, geeky kid. Fascinated by computers, the first one to figure out how to programme the VCR to record. I took after my mother – she was the one setting timers and changing plugs in our house, and she’s taught herself HTML in her 60s just because she felt like it, really. So heading into a whole world of beeps and whistles, a supercharged collection of the most fun science museum stands, was tremendously exciting. EPCOT, with its Spaceship Earth based around communication, is really an inevitable choice for a social media and online communications bod, isn’t it?

More than that, though, there was the World Showcase. A brilliantly multi-cultural idea from a company who could at times seem a bit sterile and white, it’s also by far the best place to eat in the whole of WDW (especially Morocco). Oh, and the best vantage point to watch the gorgeous Illuminations light and firework show over the lake.

This year is my first visit to Animal Kingdom. It was open when I last went in 2004 but I was only there for a week and chose to revisit old friends rather than trying to spend time getting to know a new park. I imagine it will be a great experience, but my first priority will be introducing my complete Disnewbie of a husband to EPCOT.

Ten Days of Disney Day One: Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

Ten Days of Disney: Alan Menken & Howard Ashman

I’m on the countdown to my holiday  – well, belated honeymoon – to Walt Disney World and thus everything else has disappeared from my mind. Actually, that’s not at all true. I still intend to blog about a whole host of things since I’ve made a little progress on the Grown Up Monster Book and there are some exciting things happening in the world world of social media.

But, in the meantime, forgive me if pick a different thing every day for ten days that I love about Disney. It’ll take my mind off how much I freakin’ hate flying, to use some US terminology that seems appropriate.

So, day one, obviously: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

When I was a child, The Aristocats was my favourite film. It’s still one of my favourite films; I was walking down Shaftesbury Avenue the other day with Ashley and could be overheard explaining “no, it’s Abraham DeLacey…”. Still, despite that fondness and regular viewings of Snow White, 101 Dalmatians and The Fox and the Hound, I was still a middling fan of the films in my early youth. From my first visits at four and five years old, I was a major obsessive when it came to the parks but the films were a bit hit and miss for my liking.

And then there was The Little Mermaid. As it transpired in later life I would go on to love some of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s other work – namely Little Shop of Horrors – too. But somehow, coupled with a new Disney zeal for making not just pretty and child-friendly but once again groundbreaking animation (though in fairness I didn’t realise that as a nine-year-old), it made me into a Mouse evangelist overnight.

The Little Mermaid marked a post-Oliver and Company new dawn of Disney animation. The films became more complex and adult-friendly. They took on the feel of Broadway musicals again in a way that seemed to have been lost after complete joy that is The Jungle Book and the heyday of the simply magical Sherman brothers. The journey that would lead to the adoption of Pixar and animated movies that are now just good films that also raise the bar for hand-drawn and digital artistry had begun.

The music was a huge part of that. My friend Lizzie and I, giggling pre-teens, would sing the songs from The Little Mermaid all day long if we had the chance. She’s now throwing a Little Mermaid-themed hen do for another friend, and it’s definitely the theme of the film, not just the story. The lyrics were witty, the tunes relentlessly hummable and, occasionally, heartbreaking. At university, I attended an audition for a musical to support a friend and the first thing she pounced on in the whole list of possible audition songs was Part of Your World.

Things actually improved from there, impossible as it seemed. Beauty and the Beast was an extraodinary achievement, and the music was a huge and very prominent part of that. The powerhouse continued on to Aladdin before Ashman finally succumbed to illness, leaving Menken to complete the music with famous Lloyd-Webber lyricist Tim Rice. Ashman was, to me, a huge loss. When I heard what had happened I found myself crying over a man I’d never met and didn’t know simply because I was so impressed by his work – surely the way an artist wants to be mourned? Despite Rice’s immense talent and Menken’s continuing brilliance, it’s all too easy to tell which songs were primarily Ashman’s work (A Friend Like Me, Arabian Nights) and which mostly Rice (A Whole New World, which leaves me rather cold).

Since then, Disney’s taken a typically inventive attitude to soundtracks, with a combination of using old favourites like Menken and partnerships with pop stars like Phil Collins (Tarzan). No matter how good, I don’t believe they’ll ever sound as good as the glory days to me, but with my DVDs at my disposal, what does that matter?