One of the things that sometimes surprises my acquaintances is that I love DisneyWorld and visit as often as I can. Some of my friends are surprised because they think of me in the context of sober discussions of lofty topics such as Judaica (although I joke and wink often enough in those to belie the seriousness of many of those discussions). Others just don’t see me as a Disney sort of guy. In a sense that is correct.
If you think of Disney as the Mickey Mouse show, that’s not me. I am old enough to have watched the original, and I didn’t care much for it back then. If you think of me as watching Hannah Montana. Well, I suppose if Shoshana were still young I might watch it with her. Then again, probably not.
So here’s the first part of the secret. It’s the New York Worlds Fair. In 1964, Robert Moses (in moves that were pretty classic for his style) threw caution to wind and scheduled a two-year long international and corporate exhibition in New York. I was twelve years old when it opened, and I was enthralled. There was a monorail and Walt Disney both attended and provided the mechanics of several of the pavilions. Yes, it is true that this was the infamous beginning of “Its a Small Small World.”
At first, I could only go by begging adults to take me–Mary Love was the person who most frequently gave in. But I soon learned that perfect strangers would sneak me in if I just gave them the money for my admission. By the time the second season ended, I had gone through the turnstiles 14 times.
I found a nice Website devoted to that Worlds Fair–if the link holds, you can find it here:
1964 NY Worlds Fair
So what does this have to do with Disney World? Well, if all DW was was the Magic Kingdom, I might never have bothered to go. But as is well documented today, EPCOT (Experimental Prototypical Community Of Tomorrow) was created as a duplication of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It has a corporate section and an international section. It’s much smaller and far less grand, but it has a better monorail and pretty decent food.
Once I realized that EPCOT = Worlds Fair, I understood that this meant that I could simply resume my childhood ways with a season ticket to Disney World. My kids have always enjoyed the Disney stuff, and Terri simply suffers along.
Well, there’s much more to Disney World than just EPCOT. I’m still not a fan of the Magic Kingdom–but I enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House. Depending on who I’m with, a visit to the island can be fun. And I like eating at the Liberty Tree where hosts announce each family by pounding a staff and calling out “The Love family from the great state of Michigan!”. Every day is Thanksgiving at the Liberty Tree.
The Disney Studios (aka MGM) are worth a day-long visit each time. There’s a lot of corny hokum, and Universal has better rides, but I like the Great Movie Ride, the stunt show, the car show, the backlot tour and Fantasmic. The kids love Rock ‘N Roller Coaster and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I don’t mind watching lip-synced musicals such as Beauty and the Beast (at MGM, the characters are live, but the music seems to be canned), and as most of my friends will attest, I’m a sucker for anything Tin Pan Alley.
The newest Disney park is Animal Kingdom, which has confounded naysayers by becoming one of the world’s best and most respected zoos. Well, its a long way from the quality of my home territory (I grew up a short walk from the Bronx Zoo), but it is well worth the visit. I always enjoy the tram ride through the African exhibit and the two vast walks through Africa and Asia. I hear that these can be frustrating during the crowded seasons (which frankly means most of the year), but I try to schedule my visits for the low season, and I’ve never been disappointed here. Long before there was a Disney, zoos tried to captivate families by providing “rides”–my early memories of the Bronx Zoo are filled with recollections of the children’s petting zoo, the cable cars, and the donkey rides. So you can hardly fault Disney for upping the ante with the Kali river raft and Everest roller coasters. The wild bird show is terrific, and I don’t mind spending some time in the Disney-esque theater shows. The music is pleasant enough and it provides a good way to take a half hour rest.
One of my fondest memories of my trips to DisneyWorld is the backstage tour (a significant but worthwhile upcharge) at Animal Kingdom which I scheduled mostly because I thought Terri would be intrigued by the feeding and breeding program explanations. You get to walk through the staging areas with a staff member and meet some of the people who know their stuff about animals. As it turned out, I was no less fascinated than Terri–if you can find the time and the funds, this tour is worth every penny.
OK, back to EPCOT. I can’t say that I’m still interested in seeing Ellen Degeneres’s tour of dinoland, but I can spend the whole day at Epcot just watching the monorails sail by. Test Track is great, as is Soaring–although I have to admit that makes me homesick for California where I spent many of my happiest years. The International section doesn’t change often enough. I’ve been going for twenty years, and there are still the same pavilions. Interestingly enough, many of these are countries that chose not to attend the NY Worlds Fair (you can read about the politics involved at the link above). I never get tired of movies at China and France, corny though they might be. And the food is just fine–yes, you can find better restaurants of each of these countries–sometimes no farther away than Orlando. But Disney provides some unique features. Waiters who are student-aged folks from the represented countries, occasionally more exotic fare than you will find in other restaurants, and furnishings and settings that are truly awesome. I’m reluctant to tell you my favorites because this article may not change very often, but the food quality at Epcot does. When I first started going back in the early 90s, Canada wasn’t worth a visit and Morocco often had the best food. These days, Morocco has fallen a bit and Canada is terrific. So the best advice is to check out a few good Web sites before you go. In the corporate area, the buffet in the Land is good and if you’re a sea food fan, you’ll want to check out the restaurant in Disney’s version of an aquarium, the Living Seas.
Live music at Epcot is always wonderful. The only problem is that the sets are too short. Everything is designed to give you a bit of a taste and then send you to the next merchandising opportunity. Still, not to be missed at Epcot: Off Kilter at Canada (Scottish/Canadian folk music set to a rock/electric beat), the Chinese acrobats, MoRockin (opposite the Morocco pavilion). YouTube seems to have a few snippets of this group. The Japanese drummers are terrific, and so is the garbage can band that struts around the industrial area of Epcot. But my personal favorite continues to be “Voices of Liberty”, an outstanding a capella choir that starts each show at the American Pavilion. Just don’t eat there–burgers, hot dogs and chickent, but who needs that when there are terrific world cuisines all around you? The show at America is what you would expect–Disney animatronic hyper-patriotic cornball. But it has a decidedly anti-racism theme pro-pluralistic viewpoint, so I think it redeems itself.
The food at DisneyWorld is variable from adequate to very good. It is normal to work up a pretty good appetite–I average about 7.5 miles of walking a day and for the past two trips I made it to 15 miles at least one day. The typical resort breakfast isn’t very good–at least at the moderate resorts. There are passably good food court style meals. Most days we eat a “quick meal” at lunch. This is the first point at which you begin to appreciate the Disney food experience. While you can (of course) find the hamburger/hot dog style quick lunch just about anywhere in DisneyWorld, every theme park has very good alternatives. Chicken salads with plenty of chicken, foods with spice, and better quality ethnic foods.
Most theme parks also have sit-down (”table”) restaurants. For us this is usually overkill at lunch time. The exception would be if we have a late dinner or dinner-show scheduled, then we might do a bit more for lunch. But for most of us and most of the time, we’ll save the full restaurant experiences for dinner.
By far my favorite place to have dinner is Epcot. In the industrial side of Epcot you’ll find two fine restaurants–the “Land” featuring all-you-care-to-eat roast beef and turkey, with many of the vegetables grown in the hydroponic gardens of the exhibit and the Living Seas for sea food. On the International side, most of the pavilions feature restaurants with the national cuisine. To Disney’s credit, these restaurants tend to have dishes that are not the staples of most American versions–there is an attempt to bring some unusual dishes to our attention. That’s why the 9 Dragons (China) has always been criticized–although it serves good food, it has been the epitome of ordinary American Chinese fare at considerably higher price. As I write this 9 Dragons is enjoying a renovation, so perhaps the menu will change as well.
My personal favorites at Epcot have been Morocco, Mexico, and Germany. I used to enjoy the smorgasbord at Norway. But a couple of years ago Disney turned this into a themed restaurant featuring “princesses” for the younger set and I haven’t been back. Morocco features some of the more unusual and (to my taste and knowledge) more authentic international cuisines. Mexico serves dinners that will be somewhat familiar, but just a bit more adventurous than American Tex-Mex, and Germany has a pretty good buffet (and the best beer at Epcot).
There are two restaurants outside of the theme parks that I think deserve special mention. In the Animal Kindgom Lodge (the Deluxe hotel nearest that theme park) there is Boma, which is my favorite restaurant in the World (as Disneyphiles tend to call it). I can’t speak to authenticity because I have never visited Africa, but this is a buffet restaurant that features some very unusual foods. If you tell your server that you enjoyed a particular dish, they will take your information and send you both the ingredients and the recipe.
In Downtown Disney you will find Raglan Road. There are two things that distinguish this restaurant–outstanding Irish food and terrific music, often from musicians who have been imported (like most of the building materials) from Ireland. This restaurant is not part of any theme park so the general public is welcome. I suspect that this gives the establishment a powerful incentive to keep the value high.
I must say that the one unforgivable part of the Disney experience is the quality of the coffee. All of the resorts–even the expensive ones, serve the same dreadful variety. There are web sites devoted to the finding a halfway decent cup of coffee in the World. To give you an idea–there is a McDonald’s in Downtown Disney, and this could be your best bet. The Swan and Dolphin (expensive hotels that are not owned by Disney) have non-Disney decent coffee. There are Starbucks located in a few places. But in much of the World, if you are a coffee drinker, you’re just out of luck. I guess it might be a good place to try to kick the habit.
There’s one place this rises to more than an annoyance–it’s downright awful. If you visit France (and the pavilion features one of the nicest movies celebrating a country and culture) there is (of course) a pastry shop. Most of the pastries are pretty good. But at the end of the line you will see a station to order espresso, cappuccino, etc. They’re all made from instant coffee! Do not patronize this scandal! (I’m just referring to the coffee, of course, by all means sample the pastries.) Now, I’ve eaten real French pastries on the Champs-Élysées, and no, the Disney fare can’t compare. But its still good!
Ok, before I continue on this trip, I should acquaint you with a few indispensable resources.
First, if you would like to have a fighting chance of saving some money on your next trip to the World, please visit Mary Waring’s unbelievably wonderful website:
Next, waste no time going to your favorite bookseller and buying a copy of The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger. As I write this the first edition for 2009 is available. It doesn’t make sense to skimp and purchase a used copy of this book–brand new it costs about $14 and is almost a thousand pages long. Bob updates it quarterly, so anything used is also likely to be outdated. While it is true that “Its a Small Small World” isn’t likely to sound any better in 2009 than it did in 2007, nevertheless, you’ll find that Disney World changes frequently enough that having the latest and greatest is worth a few bucks especially when it comes to saving money. Disney changes things up every few months in order to catch unwary “guests” (Disney’s catchword for customers which does sound a bit better than “suckers”) and squeeze a few more dollars, so caveat emptor.
Bob Sehlinger also sponsors a Web site. So far I don’t think it has lit the world on fire, but if he’s true to form, it will get better with each passing quarter, so by the time you read this, it might be worth joining:
Another indispensable resource is Deb Wills’ AllEars.Net site. I subscribe to the weekly newsletter and there is always something of interest. This site is a little too “Rah Rah” Disney for a lot of people, but it has some must have features–”Anita Answer” is column which provides a lot of real world advice (how to find a band aid while waiting in line, the best kind of water bottles, that sort of thing). I suppose I’m a sucker for anything of an historical nature and Deb loves to publish feature length articles on the way things used to be. But along with all that you’ll get bulletins on what’s opened or closed, reasonably good restaurant and accommodation reviews and lots of hints and tips. Here’s the Web site, and while I’m not so sure about using the RSS feed, I do recommend signing up for the weekly newsletter:
Our next Love Family trip to DisneyWorld is around the corner, so I’ll hope to bump into you there!