Since my grandfather lived in Anaheim, California, where Disneyland first opened in 1955, it was only natural that my parents would take my sister and I there during our first visit to this state in the 1960’s. As a kid, I was overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing all of my favorite Disney characters come to life, and for years, I still remembered that famous boat ride song, “It’s A Small World.”
But after growing up, and having no kids of my own, I never did make it down to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, since its first theme park “The Magic Kingdom” opened in 1971. Over the years I’d heard stories from many families, as three more theme parks were added, as well as two water parks, 22 themed resorts and numerous restaurant, shopping and entertainment areas. I really didn’t think Disney World would be for me, until my friends Don and Astrid, of Long Island, bought a home in “Celebration,” a paradise-sort of town located on the Disney property, and they kept inviting me down. “You mean you live in the middle of Disney World?” I asked them, surprised. It seemed so surreal and, in a way, such a cool escape from the “real world.”
I was curious to try it and let them tour me around Disney World, especially in the throes of these unrelenting winter snowstorms. After landing at Orlando’s airport, Don and Astrid whisked me away into the balmy night air, and a half-hour away to their quaint town of Celebration. This tiny town of small man-made lakes and canals, beautiful mansion-style homes and a historic-looking main street, is a great place to visit. It is only a 15-minute drive to the Disney World parks and Disney’s Hollywood Studio.
We started with The Magic Kingdom, the most well known of the properties. We took a monorail to get there from the huge parking lot. Soon we were immersed in a stunning main street, which Walt Disney designed to look like “Anywhere U.S.A.” It had numerous shops and restaurants in pastel colors, with crowds of people swarming to shop, eat and watch the many musicians, dancers and balloon salesmen along the street. But the key sight to behold was catching a glimpse of the giant Cinderella castle rising into the sky at the very end of the street. It was a fairy tale come true, that literally took my breath away, even as an adult. I could not imagine how a child must feel gazing up at it, getting closer and closer to this dream-like image.
As we approached, we could see a tall bronze statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, known throughout the world as the “Partners Statue.” Around it were smaller bronze statues of Donald Duck, the White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland” and many others.
Walking around the famous castle to the lakes and green grass, we ate lunch at the well-known Crystal Palace restaurant, a lively, gorgeous place with outdoor patio seating. I enjoyed taking in Orlando’s warm sunshine while watching the children eat hot dogs and fries. Nearby, a vendor sold giant clear balloons with colorful Mickey Mouse-shaped balloons inside them. We passed a huge carousel with kids riding the horses and other animals and we kept on walking through the gateway to Fantasyland, the largest expansion in the Magic Kingdom’s 41-year history. Fantasyland, which opened at the end of 2012, is a $425 million project. It includes the new “Under the Sea Journey of the Little Mermaid” ride, the “Enchanted Tales with Belle” (an interaction with the lead female character from “Beauty and the Beast”). It’s “Be Our Guest” French restaurant,” will be the first Magic Kingdom outlet to offer beer and wine.
Plans are underway for a “Seven Dwarfs Mini Train Roller Coaster” to open in 2014, as Fantasyland continues to expand in stages. But there are still the old Fantasyland attractions, including, “It’s a Small World,” “Peter Pan’s Flight,” and “Mad Tea Party” among others.
We stopped by Gaston’s Tavern (which interestingly offers no alcohol) in “Belle’s Village,” for a snack and a man dressed as Gaston himself was posing for photos with fans outside. Nearby was a tall bronze statue of Gaston. We also visited the “Little Mermaid” boat ride with a hand-carved figurehead of the famous mermaid on the bow. Walking through the park, watching all the children eating big chocolate ice creams on a stick, in the shape of Mickey Mouse, made be want to try one.
As the day grew longer, we strolled over to Liberty Square, in the Magic Kingdom, to the “Hall of Presidents,” located in a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. This features an amazing multi-media presentation and stage show of audio-animatronic figures of the presidents, and is an educational highlight in the park.
We also took a lazy, wonderful ride on a Mississippi River boat, along a winding river. But by the time the sun set, we made it back to the Cinderella Castle for the amazing light show—one of Disney World’s best attractions. This castle glowed with an array of brilliant colors—from pink, to blue, yellow, red and rainbow shades, as crowds of people looked on for a half hour, including a spectacular fireworks show.
The next day, we ventured over to Epcot Theme Park, (formerly Epcot Center), where we took a ride through all the transitions of history and technology in “Spaceship Earth,” in the big geodesic sphere at the entrance to the park. One of my other my favorite experiences at Epcot were at “Mission Space,” where we actually got to go through “astronaut training” inside a “space shuttle.” I felt the pressure as I lifted off, zoomed up to space and experienced weightlessness! This is the closest you can get to astronaut training without being at a NASA facility.
I also loved the “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” ride, narrated by Ellen DeGeneres, at the Universe of Energy. She and Bill Nye, the science guy, take you on a dark ride through the stages of earth and the dinosaur era, with wonderful films and special effects.
We then spent many hours walking around Epcot’s beautiful lake, where you can visit sections of many different countries. There was the perfume shop and street cafe in France, the German beer garden with a huge Octoberfest feast, the Moroccan section featuring colorful tiles, merchandise and huge walls, a Chinese section with replicas of terracotta warriors, a Japanese section with elegant temples and a Norwegian section with a Viking boat ride along a canal.
The next day we toured the largest park, the 500-acre Animal Kingdom, complete with wonderful safari rides that make you feel like you’re in Africa. Here you get up close with all kinds of wildlife and game in their natural habitats– lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, gorillas, rhinos, hippos, flamingos and all kinds of other birds. This conservation-friendly park, accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is represented by the magnificent 145-foot by 50-foot artificial tree, called the “Tree of Life.” There is also an Asian section in Animal Kingdom, with scenic, tranquil sections on China and Tibet, and an amazing replica of Mt. Everest, complete with a scary roller coaster, which runs in the dark inside the mountain.
Each night, I hated to leave Disney World, especially after the magnificent fireworks over Epcot, the light show at Cinderella castle and taking in the excitement of all the kids. What was most exciting though, was having a chance to recapture that child-like wonder for myself. Disney is also for adults!
For more information on Walt Disney World in Orlando, call (407) 824-4321, or visit www.disneyworld.com
By Debbie Tuma