Thursday, June 21, 2012:
Checking into Coronado Springs, Magic Kingdom, The Plaza Restaurant
Our trip started quietly enough with the only the minor aggravation of my first introduction to an airport body scanner, which inexplicably could scan through clothing but not through Kleenex in my pocket. Other than that, our first visit to Atlantic City International Airport went smoothly. My sister and I arrived at the airport parking lot just before 9:00 AM for our inaugural flight on Spirit Airlines. As we were led to believe, the parking lot for the Atlantic City airport was right next to the terminal, and we were at the gate waiting for our flight just over twenty minutes after we parked the car. The evening before I checked in for our flight, printed boarding passes, and paid Spirit’s onerous checked baggage fee, so we were able to use Spirit’s Fast Bag Drop service to bypass most of the check-in counter line then head right to the security line. This was our longest wait, as everyone using the airport’s seven gates goes through a single security line, which has (according to others in line) been recently reconfigured. Thus, most of us were not expecting anything more than a metal detector and I was not fully prepared to remove my belt (that has never set off any airport metal detector) or to completely empty the non-metallic contents of my pockets. Usually when airport procedures change, attendants and signs have made this clear, but this may be a drawback to using a smaller airport with less experienced TSA staff (though I was expecting that security would be more user-friendly here, since they have fewer travelers to deal with).
Once through security and after a short walk to our gate, and Spirit flight 147 was relatively uneventful. We departed twenty minutes late because a mechanic had to fix an empty seat that would not lock in the upright position. This required a technician to make one trip to inspect the seat, leave the plane, then a return a few minutes later with tools (who knew you’d need tools to fix a broken seat?) to sort of fix the problem, by completely preventing it from reclining. Donzi, the expressionless mechanic, who did not acknowledge the round of applause he received after completing his work, then had to fill out quite a bit of paperwork (by hand) before we could leave. I guess having an electronic system for recording repairs to planes is one of the "frills” you sacrifice with a low-cost air carrier.
Another perk that Spirit does not offer is free drinks to their passengers. Even sodas cost a few dollars and forget about free snacks, so we were pretty hungry when we got off the plane at 1:10 PM. Spirit’s baggage claim was quite a ways away from the gate (though it would have been conveniently located if we claimed our baggage and wanted to use Disney’s Magical Express bus service), but our bags appeared shortly after we reached the luggage carousel, then we claimed our rental car and left the airport by 1:50 PM. We reached our resort just before 2:20 PM and had no wait for check in, with the only oddity being a conversation we overhead from the person at the front desk next to us, which included something about returning to the hotel on Monday for gall-bladder surgery. Neither my sister nor I were aware that Disney doctors performed in-room surgeries.
We stayed at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, which is set on a large property surrounding a lake enclosed by thirteen guestroom buildings. We did not have the opportunity to explore the whole property on this trip and the rainy weather kept us away from the pools, so the resort may be better than what I saw, but overall I wasn’t terribly impressed by my first visit to one of Disney’s "moderate" resorts. Our room (7754 in building 7B) was in the Ranchos section in the back of the property near what was supposed to be a "quiet” pool, though we found very little quiet about our stay at Coronado Springs. After settling in the room we headed back to the main building for a snack and started to notice quite a few high school aged children in suits, some of whom wore badges, carried bags, or binders marked with the acronym HOSA. We later found that this was a gathering of young folks wanting to work in health care. To us, it meant a lot of older kids running around the exterior corridors and talking loudly in their rooms throughout the night.
Going into the trip, I heard mixed reviews about Coronado Springs’ buses. Many people shared awful experiences waiting for exorbitant amounts of time to get to their destinations, but the 2012 Unofficial Guide transportation matrix showed the travel times to all of the parks to be reasonable, so we gave the buses a shot, even though we had a rental car available throughout the trip. Our first experience didn't give us much confidence, as we arrived a bus stop #1 (at the main building), which is actually the last of four stops on the hotel loop, around 3:45 PM, then watched buses for Animal Kingdom, Downtown Disney and Typhoon Lagoon, the Studios, Epcot, Downtown Disney again, and Animal Kingdom again, before we finally were on the bus at 4:11. Less than fifteen minutes later we were finally at the Magic Kingdom bus station.
We wanted to see the progress of the Fantasyland expansion and were pleased to see the construction fences moved a little in the two months since my last visit. The water playground area looked like fun for young kids, though after dodging the earlier showers we were happy to stay on the sidelines where it was dry. We were also surprised to see the second Dumbo spinner running. I had heard of some test runs, but we managed to stumble onto the ride’s first day of official operation. Excited to be in the park for a newsworthy event, I shot some video, which is no longer very newsworthy after I’ve waited all this time to actually share it.
We took in a PhilharMagic performance and after watching the show four times in the last four months I think I like it even more. This is one of the most underappreciated attractions in all of Disney World.
We arrived at the Big Thunder FASTPASS area a few minutes too early to get FASTPASSES and after our park tickets yielded a few blanks the machine finally spit out a ticket we could use after dinner. We then headed over to Tomorrowland so we would be nearby The Plaza, where we would be eating dinner. I figured we would have time for one more ride before dinner, but the wait for the Big Thunder FASTPASS took a little longer than I anticipated. We thought we would still have time for the PeopleMover, but found the attraction stopped when we passed by, so we ambled over to dinner a few minutes early.
After dinner, we were left with an hour and fifteen minutes (not that anyone was counting) before Wishes. We wanted to watch the evening fireworks show and I wanted to try photographing the fireworks after having read someone advice on how to take better fireworks pictures [How to Photograph Fireworks from the Disney Photography Blog]. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to put much of this advice to use tonight, since I cleverly forgot to put my tripod in my backpack before leaving the hotel. We did, however, have FASTPASSES to use, so we headed to Big Thunder Mountain. Our Space Mountain FASTPASS was good until 9:40, while our Big Thunder pass expired at 9:30, so we opted to head there first.
We made it to Space Mountain two minutes before our FASTPASS window was set to close (though we still would have had some grace period before we would have needed a "trapped by the parade" sob story (I'm glad we didn't have to find out of that would have worked). Every time I've been on this ride in recent years we've used FASTPASS and this was true again this time, but we got to ride on the other track for a change, and I'm always happy to see an attraction from as many different perspectives as possible. I like the start of the attraction better from the non-FASTPASS side, but once you get going the ride seems the same (to me) from either track. For a while, Space Mountain was one of my favorite rides in Disney World and it still is through the "launch" and through the top of the attraction where you see first see the stars. After that, I've grown increasingly uncomfortable being jostled around coupled with the completely unfounded (though not unprecedented) concern that I'll bang my head on one of the unseen obstructions lurking in the darkness. I haven't figured out whether sitting in different places in the car may make this ride more or less comfortable, as I haven't always felt uneasy on this roller coaster, but the last three rides have all been similar. It's a worrisome trend, but I'm not ready to give up on this signature attraction yet.
Following the fireworks, we took advantage of the late night exodus to ride the PeopleMover, Splash Mountain, and Pirates again, all with no wait. When we visited the parks in March, my sister didn't get to Pirates at all, because the attraction was shut down every time we had the opportunity to ride. I made a point to ride (twice) when I returned in April, and we made sure we got our Pirates fix this trip while we had the chance. By the time we exited the ride, the park was closed (though the gift shop was not). We took a little time in Emporium on our way out, reaching the end of the Main Street shops just in time to see the end of yet another Electrical Parade and head out of the park ahead of everyone who stayed to watch. We waited a short time to catch a bus back to the hotel, which was not a normal Disney bus, but rather a motor coach similar to the Magical Express buses, with the name Empire Coach on the side. The driver seemed a little confused by the Coronado Springs layout, trying to take a shortcut through a parking lot that didn’t connect with where we were trying to go, but twenty minutes after we got on the bus, we were back at our bus stop and in the room a few minutes later. I started uploading pictures to Facebook, showered, and had a drink before finally going to sleep at 1:20 AM. This had been a hectic visit to the Magic Kingdom, but that was our plan and things pretty much worked out as well as we could have hoped. We saw our favorite attractions, ate a pleasant meal, and were tired enough that the loud people walking past our room didn't keep us from sleeping soundly.
Friday, June 22, 2012:
Studios, Epcot, Sunshine Seasons, La Hacienda de San Angel
Growing up, I've never been a "rope drop" person. I've never experienced morning Extra Magic Hours and always valued my rest while on vacation. Couple that with liking to stay up late at night and it meant what many would consider inefficient Disney World touring. However, in recent trips I've been arriving at the parks earlier and earlier, motivated in part by securing FASTPASSES for popular attractions, but also hoping to squeeze in more attractions during visits when the park is busier (which have historically coincided with when I could visit). With all this in mind and hoping to see my first rope drop, I awoke to my cell phone alarm at 7:00 AM and was out of bed by 7:15.
After eating breakfast in the room and showering, I checked the weather online, knowing that a tropical system, possibly a hurricane, was near enough to possibly affect the weather around Disney World. The forecast was for an afternoon thunderstorm, which sounded like a typical Central Florida day, and "evening drizzle", which had the potential to be a little more unpleasant, but we had ponchos and were out the door just after 8:15, ready for our first full day in the parks.
We arrived at our bus stop at 8:20 and were on board by 8:24. So, maybe the Coronado buses aren't so bad after all. This morning, when we were in a bit of a hurry, along came a bus right when we needed it! After a thirteen minute ride, we were off the bus well before the scheduled 9:00 AM opening time for Disney's Hollywood Studios and were through bag check and the turnstiles just before 8:45. Right around that time I saw a man with a camera and other photo gear and realized I had again forgotten the portable tripod I brought along for this trip. Drat. However, there was no time to fret about that, since we had attractions to see.
We left Disney's Hollywood Studios at 12:56 PM, though our egress was delayed slightly when my sister walked into a turnstile. Apparently, she was so excited about seeing Epcot that she forgot how to operate this relatively simple machine, but was quickly able to get her thoughts together and exit the park. As Man with the Golden Gun played in the background, we saw a boat had just left the docks so we started along the path to walk through the Boardwalk and into Epcot's International Gateway entrance when we noticed a bus with an "Epcot" sign. As we approached, we found it was just about ready to leave, so we hopped on board at 1:01 and arrived near the Epcot main entrance (or at least, as near as you get from the Epcot bus stops) twelve minutes later. On the way, the bus driver offered some Disney trivia questions, which I chose not to answer to let the kids on board answer and have all the fun (though I did whisper the answers to my sister, so at least someone would know how brilliant I was). I was stumped by the question about the names of Donald Duck's nieces. We all know Huey, Dewey, and Louie, but I now know some more members of the Duck family and have an easy way to remember those names, thanks to our bus driver John (at least he said that was his name if we liked the ride, while it was Steve if we didn’t… ah, bus driver humor). We also delivered some bad news to some girls looking to ride Test Track, since they didn't know it was closed for refurbishment. I'm pretty sure they hadn't done a lot of prep work for this trip, as we later heard them talking about visiting the Jamaica pavilion.
People were still wearing ponchos as they entered the Mexico pavilion, but one ride one Gran Fiesta Tour was also we could take. We couldn't afford enough tequila to make that ride great, so we headed back outside into a light rain. Wanting to protect my camera bag, I still wore my poncho, though I had somehow managed to unbutton part of it and it took longer to reassemble myself than I really should have, however, after that delay we were on our way back to Future World before dinner.
One benefit to a late meal at Epcot is that your exit from the park is a little less hectic, since a lot of people leave the park right after Illuminations. We left La Hacienda at 9:30, just after the biggest wave of people had already exited the park, and made the long trek to Epcot's bus stop by 9:47. We only waited two minutes for a bus this time and were back in our room at Coronado Springs by 10:11, so we did pretty well with bus service today. The weather went pretty much as it was forecast, with rain in the afternoon continuing throughout the rest of the day, so I studied the predictions for the following day and it looked like things were supposed to be clear until 3:00 PM, which meant we should be able to enjoy a day in the park without getting soaked. I had stepped in a puddle (more like a small lake) walking to dinner, so I was looking forward to giving my shoes time to dry out. I also showered, uploaded pictures to Facebook, and downloaded all the black beans I ate during the day, before going to bed at 11:40. Our neighbors were still making a lot of noise in the outdoor corridors and the "quiet pool" continued to be anything but that, however, after a busy day I had no trouble falling asleep quickly.
Saturday, June 23, 2012:
Animal Kingdom, Flame Tree Barbecue, Magic Kingdom, Tomorrowland Terrace
A decent sleep ended with a 7:15 AM alarm and I was fully awake before two snoozes. Perhaps it was a sign of an aggravating day (not disastrous, but packed with minor nuisances) that the first thing I noticed was that my cell phone charger had unplugged itself at some point during the evening and my phone was only 70% charged. This was not a good sign for someone eager to earn new badges by submitting wait times in his Lines cell phone application. I also must have had some concern for my health, since my notes show that I included an Airborne tablet with breakfast. I knew that I had a bit of a headache the night before, enough that I didn't have any booze with dinner, and didn't have much of an appetite in the morning, but I wasn't really sick and didn't want to miss out of the reasonable weather this morning before more rain came along.
The bright side of our slow travels in the morning is that Animal Kingdom is perhaps the most forgiving park for later arrivals. There's a little rush toward Expedition Everest when the park first opens, but since Everest, Kali Rapids, and the Safaris are the only attractions that require a FASTPASS it's pretty easy to get in everything you want to see with minimal waiting. This worked to our benefit, since our arrival was further delayed by a brief photo shoot with our family lion, Dexter (long story, but he's a well-traveled stuffed animal), followed by the discovery that I misplaced the lens cap for my camera and my fruitless attempt to find a store that would sell me a replacement (In the 90s I bought more than one Disney World lens cap for different cameras, so it was disappointing to see how poorly stocked their camera center is these days). So, let's take a quick count of today's aggravations: cell phone charger unplugged, long wait for packed bus ride, and lost lens cap. This was looking like a day when I needed to remind myself that I was on vacation, so things were still pretty good and I shouldn't complain, but the day was still testing my patience.
Fortunately, I had the foresight to remove my socks before riding the Rapids and had also brought a towel from our hotel room, so after the ride we took a few minutes to dry off and remove belongings (like my sister's mouse ears) that we stowed in my backpack during the ride. The towel was a big help, though it was of no use to my waterlogged shoes. (Mark that in the tally of today's aggravations) Since the Kali Rapids is right next to the Jungle Trek, we spent 15 minutes visiting with the local tigers before doubling back to ride Everest, where we slipped into the FASTPASS line just in front of a large group of people in red shirts that appeared to be part of a band camp. Everest is always a very good ride and never fails to disappoint, unless you go in expecting the Yeti to actually work (I've given up on that dream). So, with three headliner attractions done and having seen tigers we were now having a pretty productive morning.
We were finished the show at 4:00 and were ready to head back to the hotel to regroup for the evening. We were the first people in line for our hotel bus at 4:13, which usually isn't a good sign, since no one in line tends to mean a bus just picked up everyone who had been waiting. This turned out to be a good indicator, as we waited until 4:39 before finally boarding a bus back to Coronado Springs.
During our long wait for the bus from Animal Kingdom, my sister sent some messages back in forth with an acquaintance, the brother of her best friend, who was visiting Disney World with his wife and young sons. We agreed to meet them in the Magic Kingdom and after some deliberation decided a counter service meal would work best for the kids (for a few minutes, we had a reservation at Liberty Tree Tavern). We had an uneventful bus ride to the Magic Kingdom (after briefly considering driving, then thinking we'd still have to take a monorail or boat from the TTC parking lot), exchanged pleasantries on Main Street, while I admired the Muppet Star Wars characters the family had accumulated, then moved on to Tomorrowland Terrace. I decided that I hadn't had a hamburger on this vacation, so now seemed like a good time to get one, so I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, my sister had chicken nuggets, and we split a large Coke. Our table was pretty full when I dropped off the tray and walked away to get napkins. The tray wasn't all that well balanced and my sister didn't seem to notice that when she removed her food only to send my burger toppling onto the ground. After cleaning up the mess, I returned to order another meal and then rejoined the group.
We left Main Street at 10:11 PM, were at the bus stop at 10:16 and waited until 10:23 before a bus arrived, finally returning to our hotel room just after 11:00. Our plan was to visit Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure the next morning, and it looked like it was going to be a very early morning, since I saw the park hours listed an 8:00 AM opening time. With seeing the Harry Potter attractions being our primary reason for visiting that park and having read the Unofficial Guide's touring plan, we knew arriving for park opening would be essential. Still, I showered and uploaded pictures from the evening activities, so I wasn't in bed until 12:40 AM. As was becoming the norm for this trip, I was tired enough that the loud talking, door knocking and slamming, and laughing from the room next door didn't stop me from falling asleep right away.
Sunday, June 24, 2012: Rain, The Wave, Monorail Hotels, Epcot, Teppan Edo, Magic Kingdom, Ice Cream
We thought it would be a good day to visit the Magic Kingdom resorts on the monorail loop, because once we arrived at the first hotel we could stay under cover during our tour. To go along with those plans we made 1:00 PM reservations at The Wave at the Contemporary. We also made dinner reservations for 8:40 PM at Teppan Edo in Epcot. Neither reservation required a credit card, so that meant we wouldn't be charged a cancellation fee if we didn't show up, but we now had a plan for what we wanted to do.
We left the hotel room at 12:15 PM, with the good idea to use our rental car to minimize our time in the rain. There wasn't a downpour when we left, but it was raining hard enough that we wore our ponchos on the short trek to the car. Somewhere along our drive toward the Magic Kingdom we decided to park at the TTC lot, rather than at the Contemporary. I'm not sure what motivated this decision, probably a little bit of familiarity and the desire for an extra monorail ride, but this turned out to be a poor decision in the short run and again later in the day. I knew this was a poor decision in the short run because the rain was now pouring down on us as we again donned our ponchos and summoned the courage to find our way to the monorail. A parking tram pulled out as we were walking across the parking lot, but fortunately another tram immediately took its place. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Disney World parking trams aren't exactly sealed shut. We were able to scoot across the seat toward the side of the car where the rain wasn't coming in (though I'm not sure why we bothered, since we were already soaked), but once the car started moving we only managed to stay a little less wet than had we just walked through the parking lot. The rain seemed to get even worse during the five minute ride toward the monorail, but we weren't going to spend the whole day on the parking tram, so we jumped out and into another wall of water.
The first thing we encountered at the TTC monorail station was an extraordinarily long line for the "Express" monorail to the Magic Kingdom, which we soon found was stuck in the station. We waited less than five minutes for the resort monorail and after we were seated we were soon joined by guests from the Express line, as monorail operators tried to get guests waiting for the stopped train moving. As fans of the monorail, both my sister and I were happy to go the long way around the loop, stopping at all of the other resorts and the Magic Kingdom before arriving at the Contemporary at 1:05 PM. We were finally inside and, at least for the foreseeable future, dry.
By late afternoon, it was still raining, but we had pretty well exhausted our ability to amuse ourselves in the Magic Kingdom resorts, so we headed out to the monorail platform at 4:25 PM. After a short wait for a train, our monorail ride was a little longer than usual and we didn't arrive at the TTC until 4:43. We were happy that the walk to the Epcot monorail was under a canopy, which prolonged the inevitable soaking for a few minutes more. After a short wait, the silver monorail picked us up and delivered us to Epcot at 4:57. Carrying a backpack that contains a camera bag under your poncho makes bag check rather tricky. The guard only gave my belongings a cursory look, but getting everything packed back up and keeping it dry without holding up other guests proved to be a bit of a challenge, but we were soon walking through light rain through Epcot's main gates.
We wandered around Innoventions for a little while afterwards, finding pretty much nothing to hold our interest. I was amused that one of the computer terminals outside the "Vision House" was malfunctioning and even more worried about the house of the future when one of the attendants explained how she sometimes has to pry the exit door open. Still, even on this gloomy day it wasn't worth our time to wait for the next tour of that potential car-wreck of an attraction. On our way across to Mouse Gear (still under cover), we ran into our second excessively chatty person of the day, a cast member named Bobby, who took time away from picking up trash to notice my soccer jersey and explain all of the "problems" with that sport. Many people tend to politely excuse themselves from conversations like this, that can only get more bizarre, but when I'm not in a rush I sometimes enjoy seeing where a colorful character like Bobby may go (I'm not sure my sister shared my amusement) and we moved on to his hockey career (sadly, he was a Montreal Canadians fan; I wish I had run into him in April when I was wearing my Flyers t-shirt as they were eliminating the Penguins from the NHL playoffs), where we found out he was a defenseman until a groin injury put an end to his career. The groin injury was enough for me to push the eject button and announce that we had dinner reservations that we had to get to, omitting the fact that those reservations were almost three hours later.
After thoroughly exploring Mouse Gear, my sister found a new set of ears that she thought would hold her poncho hood on in the wind, and was pleased with the results when we finally went outside again around 6:10 PM. She purchased English-themed mouse ears, in honor of her English-born husband and these proved popular as we made our way to the UK pavilion. After a short time in the shops there, we walked over to France and watch Impressions de France, for the first time in twenty years. I'm not sure the movie has changed much in that time, but I have and I enjoyed the show much more than I did as a teenager. There was still light rain when we emerged from the theater a few minutes after 7:00, but that did not deter us from visiting the frozen drink kiosk outside the French pavilion, though we had to quickly consume our adult beverages before they were too watered down to drink, which led to a disturbingly long and ill-informed (on both of our parts) discussion about "brain freeze" and whether it has any long-term effects on one's cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, stopping for drinks did have one negative effect.
We arrived at The American Adventure shortly before the 7:30 show and I asked the attendant whether there was a restroom inside the theater building. She said no and pointed me to the restroom to the side of the fast food restaurant, so I walked over there while my sister waited in front of the theater. When I returned, still before the scheduled 7:30 start time, we found the entrance to the theater roped off and when the hostess returned she would not let us into the show, even though I pointed out that it was before the scheduled start time and that she just sent me around the corner to the restroom. This was astonishingly un-Disneylike service. Not wanting to create a scene and with the hostess seemingly oblivious to my stares of disbelief we walked away to see if we could eat dinner earlier than our scheduled reservation.
As we put on our ponchos to head back outside we could hear the last blasts of the evening’s performance of Illuminations. I thought we might catch the spectacle if we finished dinner quickly, but the dinner show was worth taking the time to enjoy. Besides, the wet weather would have made for a less enjoyable show and would have prevented any decent photo opportunities. An even bigger concern, however, was that the weather was getting wetter and wetter while walking out of the park. Somewhere around this time I had the marginally good idea that we didn't have to go back to the Epcot Main entrance, but rather could just duck out International Gateway to the Beach Club and catch a bus there. Whether that saved any time for us or not isn't a sure thing, but we avoided the typical end of day rush for the Epcot monorail (I’m not sure whether or not there was one in the inclement weather) and probably stayed slightly drier. We particularly appreciated the towels the Beach Club made available when we walked through their lobby.
Since our car was parked at the TTC and the Magic Kingdom offered Extra Magic Hours this evening, we headed to that park for a few more rides to cap off the day. After waiting at the Beach Club nearly fifteen minutes for a bus we were finally picked up at 9:46 PM and arrived at the Magic Kingdom just a little less than twenty minutes later, just in time to watch Wishes through the bus windows while we pulled into our stop. There wasn't much of a line to enter the park and the bag check stations were all shut down, however, a security guard still checked my backpack, which required me to empty its contents into a puddle. At this point in the trip, most everything was already wet, so that didn't much matter (except I was trying to protect my camera), but did slow us down a little.
One of the few rides we missed in our earlier visits to the Magic Kingdom was Peter Pan, so with lines looking short throughout most of the park, we took a quick flight over England, emerging at 10:41 into what was now, indeed, a torrential rain storm. Those familiar with the exit to this attraction know that there isn't room for much of a crowd to huddle under cover to avoid the rain, so we elected to make a run across the walkway to it's a Small World, figuring that ride was long enough to be a good place to wait out the storm. We were right about that, however, our ponchos were no match for the rain and we arrived soaked enough that we probably could have waded through the attraction and not felt much more wet. On the attraction, I tried to avoid whatever brain damage may occur from three rides on Small World in four months. I'm sure others have higher tolerance for the incessantly optimistic attempt to bring the world together, but I'm pretty much at my limit for this ride without needing medical attention when I get off the boat.
As we peered out from the cover of Small World we saw light rain, which nearly stopped during our walk to The Haunted Mansion, but then picked up when we decided to explore the interactive graveyard queue. We ended up skipping the interactiveness and dashing into the stretch room as quickly as possible. I felt pretty smart as I quickly positioned us next to the exit door so we would be the first in line when the room stretching was complete. When we emerged from this attraction and ditched our hitchhiking ghosts we walked onto Pirates of the Caribbean with no wait, finishing at 11:34 PM.
Shortly afterward, we made our way to the park exit, where we were disappointed to find the monorail to the TTC was no longer running. We were then further disappointed to see that there was no boat running. Since there's no way Disney could strand people at the park, we headed over to the bus loading area to find another way to the TTC. We arrived at stall 18 (the farthest away from the park) at 12:11 AM and waited, and waited, and waited some more, before finally boarding a bus at 12:28 AM, all the while regretting having not parked at the Contemporary when we started the day. It was a minute before 1:00 AM before we returned to our hotel room. After hanging everything I was wearing out to dry and uploading the days pictures to Facebook I was finally in bed for a brief nap at 2:20 AM.
Monday, June 25, 2012:
More Rain, Universal’s Island of Adventure, Mythos, Studios, Pizza Planet
The night before went a little longer than I had hoped, but this was to be our last chance to see the Harry Potter attractions at Islands of Adventure, so even though we woke up with the rain still falling we planned to make our first trip to one of the Universal Studios parks today. Before going to bed the night before I saw that Islands of Adventure was scheduled to open at 8:00 AM, an hour earlier than I was expecting. Having read about the throngs of people visiting the Harry Potter attractions I knew we needed to arrive early, but after the hassles in the rain the day before I wanted to get some rest, so didn’t set an alarm until 6:15 and didn’t get out of bed until 6:25.
When we arrived at Universal Studios at 8:28 AM, the parking garage did not seem terribly crowded, which boded well for being able to see a lot of rides, though it did call into question why so few people were going out today. Despite being unfamiliar with the layout of the Universal Parks we had no trouble following the overhead signs to Islands of Adventure. We also appreciated the covered parking and covered walkway for part of our journey, but we were soon at the mercy of the elements once again while walking through CityWalk. At this point, my sister was being magnetically drawn toward Hogwarts, even though we had not yet reached the park entrance. As I tried to look around at the shops, while hoping for some sign that the rain was letting up she moved steadily with increasing determination toward the turnstiles and before long we were in the park.
I studied the park layout enough beforehand to have a pretty good idea where to go once we arrived. I figured that we would just join the herd heading toward Hogsmeade at park opening, but there was no herd to be found. Actually, there were hardly any people to be found. I was starting to wonder if the attractions were actually open today, but we saw an electronic sign showing wait times for attractions around the park and were pleased to see that everything, including the Harry Potter attractions, had waits of five minutes or less. While we paused here, I decided to remove my already soaked socks in the hopes that my feet might stand a tiny chance of drying out at some point later in the day if they weren't covered in soaked cotton, then we continued to march on through the Dr. Seuss attractions, past Poseidon's Fury and eventually past the Hogwarts Express and into the world of Harry Potter.
I'm not much of a fan of Spiderman, so the gift shop didn't hold much appeal, but the rain was pretty steady after the ride, so we spent a few minutes in the doorway contemplating our next move. I decided to visit the restroom, which required walking outside, while my sister stayed behind and stayed dry. I tried jet-drying my hat, then walked back to the gift shop in what was now just a light drizzle. We decided to ride Spiderman again to take advantage of the relatively light crowds today, though we found a lot more people in line this time, waiting more than twenty minutes to ride this time, which is still a lot better than the wait time on a day when the crowds haven't been thinned by a Tropical Storm.
It was 11:15 when we finished the second Spiderman ride, and we were ready for lunch. We stopped to ride Cat in the Hat, which was a lot like a more intense version of the Winnie the Pooh ride in Disney World's Magic Kingdom. It seems even the kids rides at this park spin you around pretty quickly. We then sat down at Mythos just after 11:35.
We returned to the surface from the catacombs where we encountered Poseidon at 1:00 and returned to Hogsmeade and the Harry Potter attractions. Before leaving the car, we made the decision to leave our bags behind, partly because of the rain and partly because we figured to be on a lot of rides where Universal does not allow bags. We ended up having to try out their lockers, however, because my sister kept her souvenir Butterbeer mug and wasn't allowed to bring it on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. We rode the Chinese Fireball with no wait, and then had to ask for help when our locker wouldn't open after the ride. We skipped the Flight of the Hippogriff, since the rain had stopped for the time being and wait times were listed as 40 minutes (though the line looked to be getting longer). We then looked around the replica village and through some of the shops before my sister decided she wanted to see the wand shop.
Working on a few hours of sleep, several days into the trip I was feeling pretty tired and the rainy day didn't give me any extra energy. Stopping for lunch gave me a little boost, but we saw everything that we really wanted to see and I was ready for a nap, so we started working our way back toward the park entrance after making one last stop in the Harry Potter gift shop at the exit to the Forbidden Journey (this was the shop least packed with people). My sister found a number of items she wanted when we first exited the ride, but was waffling back and forth between whether any or all of the items were worth buying, while also trying to decide which "house" she should join. We weren't in any rush at this point and she eventually resolved this dilemma, leaving with enough merchandise to make her friends back home jealous and the folks at Universal happy.
We left the Universal parking garage at 3:54 PM and were parked at Coronado Springs at 4:18, then in the room a few minutes later. I showered, posted more pictures to Facebook, and hung just about everything that was on my person earlier in the day up to dry, then napped for a half hour until a little after 6:00. We decided to spend the evening at Disney's Hollywood Studios, to take advantage of the Evening Extra Magic Hours.
Having pretty much given up on the Coronado bus service at this point, we drove to the Studios in less than ten minutes (though it was another eleven minutes to walk from our car through the turnstiles and into the park) and got a FASTPASS for the only attraction for which they were still available, Star Tours, and set out in search of dinner. Our first stop was Pizza Planet, where we looked at the menu and I wasn't all that impressed. However, as we were on our way out the door we saw a lot of people with umbrellas and ponchos outside. Having spent enough time getting soaked, we ordered pizzas and found a table across from a bunch of video games. My sister thought her pizza was one of the best counter service meals we ate during the trip, while I thought my slightly larger version of the same food was too greasy and otherwise very average. Our two pizzas (one was a kids size) and a shared Coke cost us $19.04.
Following our meal we used our Star Tours FASTPASSES to visit the ice planet Hoth and the city scenes in Coruscant. We found a lot of attractions in the Studios were closed at night, and those that were open had relatively long wait times (and no available FASTPASSES), so we decided to set out on our version of a Studios bar crawl. From what I could tell from looking at Disney's Mobile Magic cell phone application and from Lines there appeared to be two bars, making this a relatively easily achievable "crawl." Unfortunately, despite several passes through the old backlot area, we were unable to locate the Christmas-themed bar (which we think may have actually just been an outdoor cart), but eased our sorrows with glowing drinks from the Tune-In Lounge. We opted not to sit at the bar to enjoy those drinks in part because the bar was occupied by a baby. I've seen children around bars, but never actually sitting at one, but I guess in Disney World I shouldn't be surprised.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012: Epcot, Tangierine Café, Art of Animation, Landscapes of Flavor, Quality Time in Airport Waiting for Spirit Airlines
Well, the vacation was pretty much over now, with just one last day to walk around the parks. We had already seen everything we really wanted to see, so we weren't in a rush to get started this morning. I didn't get out of bed until 9:10 AM. I showered, packed, and snacked and we said goodbye to our hotel room around 11:10 AM. With the skies clear (or at least, not rainy for the time being) we decided to explore World Showcase, so we parked at the Boardwalk to take advantage of the International Gateway entrance. While entering the park, we struck up a conversation with a couple women and their daughters when they commented on my New Jersey Turnpike t-shirt, during which one of them asked if we were at the Studios last night. They said they recognized us. Odd. I didn't think we were that distinctive looking and my sister wasn't even wearing the same ears.
Our first goal was, if possible, to obtain a Soarin' FASTPASS to use before we left, however that was quickly thwarted when I saw the passes being distributed when we entered the park were for 6:25 PM. Since our flight home was scheduled to depart at 8:50 PM that wasn't going to work out. On top of that, some light rain started to fall as we reached Canada, so we turned around and headed for lunch in Morocco.
Neither my sister nor I had eaten in Morocco, initially because I was a picky eater during our trips while growing up and later on because other members of our traveling party didn't think the food would be any good, so this seemed like the time to finally try it out. We ordered from the Tangierine Café and were seated outside under an umbrella a little before noon. I had a Kefta sandwich and fries, while my sister had a chicken wrap with leeks and couscous, along with a Moroccan beer (I didn't note the brand, but I tried some and it was good). We had a leftover bottle of Coke in the hotel room that I brought with me for lunch, so I also ordered a cup of ice, which seemed like a reasonable idea except that I didn't account for the effect of the hot weather on the previously cooled soda, which bubbled over half the table when I opened the bottle. However, it wasn't long before nature helped clean off whatever soda remained on the table when rain started falling at increasingly rapid rates while we gradually repositioned ourselves under the oversized umbrella to stay relatively dry. Other than the rain, the meal was acceptable, though my fries were cold and my sister's side dishes were relatively bland, but the main courses we ordered were decent. The meal was one of our pricier counter service offerings (partly because of the beer) at $28.73.
When we finally made it inside, I checked messages on my phone after submitting our wait time to Lines and saw my friend Todd was reporting that our flight home was delayed. Our Spaceship Earth ride was also delayed for about five minutes on our descent, providing a relatively comfortable place to rest near the end of our not terribly relaxing vacation.
After dinner we returned to the car, where I retrieved my long pants and shirt that I planned to wear on the plane. I walked back to the main building, where I changed in the restroom, then returned to the car just in time for one last rainstorm that blew in just as I had my suitcase open and other bags removed from the trunk. That just seemed unnecessary. In case we weren't already wet enough, now it had to rain IN my suitcase? It was time to head home.
We left Art of Animation and stopped to gas up the rental car before returning it to Alamo around 7:50 PM. Looking at Spirit's web site, the scheduled departure time for our flight was after midnight, but we didn't want to arrive at the airport too late. Even though we would have enjoyed some more time in the parks, we accomplished our goals and were ready to get moving home. Spirit didn't seem to share our enthusiasm to get moving, however, starting with the half hour wait to check in because they were having some problem checking people in (though the problem only affected people on our flight). Eventually we checked our bags and walked through the very short line for security screening a little before 9:00 PM. We stopped in a few shops, including a Universal store, where a clerk was able to remove the security tag from one of the Harry Potter items that my sister bought on Monday, but didn't notice until we got back to the hotel room. We also perused the Disney store to see if there were any souvenirs we wanted that we didn't already buy (there weren't), where we were delayed briefly when we noticed they locked us inside the store. I guess it was good we looked in the stores now, since it quickly became clear than everything in the airport was closing.
Our flight finally started boarding at 1:08 AM, we were seated at 1:16, and finally left the gate at 1:32 AM (more than 4 hours and 40 minutes after our scheduled departure time). After being admonished by a cranky father who thought I was making fun of his child (for the record, I wasn't), I shut off my reading light shortly after takeoff and slept about as soundly as I ever have on a plane until 3:27 AM. We were on the ground less than fifteen minutes later, off the plane by 3:53, then quickly claimed our baggage and were in our car by 4:06 AM. A little over an hour later, I dropped my sister off at her house and was back to my apartment by 5:35. Our long vacation was over and I was happy to be home. After catching up on some rest I realized how busy we had been and, despite the petty aggravations, what a successful trip it was.