When You Wish Upon a Star

You may recall that when we spoke a couple of weeks ago we were heading to Disney World in Florida with my parents. Well, we’re back.

In our absence my friend Dan tweeted “The question that has been taking up a disproportionate amount of my mindshare lately: Will @ love or hate Disneyworld?” This is my attempt at an answer.

Truth be told, this was not my first visit to Disney in Florida: in the late 1980s I was courted by a business mogul friend of mine to come and work for him in a Disney-related venture in Toronto. Part of the courting involved flying me down to Orlando to experience a bit of the Disney magic. Which is how I found myself, at age 24, touring the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

And I can tell you that there’s no better way to ensure that you don’t enjoy Disney World at all than to tour it alone in your mid-20s; which is to say that the magic didn’t take, and I returned to Canada chastened and ran as fast as I could away from the aforementioned venture.

So I was going to Disney World both with my communistic family values and my previous experience lending a strong bias against enjoyment of any sort.

To my surprise, I actually had a really good time.


Well, as much as I am an anti-corporate hater of big media, I am also passionate about customer service.

Disney might be big and faceless and populated by very annoying animated characters, but there is no better company in the world at customer service, and as the whole point of customer service is to disappear into the background and create a frictionless experience, that’s exactly what happened: a day that, while utterly devoid of anything real, was executed at such a high level as to be quite a lovely experience.

So, for example, as the day drew to an end we were standing in Liberty Square studying our Magic Kingdom map for a route to the exit. At exactly the right moment a smiling Disney “cast member” appeared before us asking if he could help us. He provided excellent routing advice and signed off with “Have a magical day!” And he said that in a way that was so completely sincere that we were left with the impression that he actually meant what he was saying.

From our arrival first thing in the morning, where we glided into the parking lot and were seamlessly shepherded, along with thousands of others, into the park, to the management of lines and crowds (it was one of the busiest days of the year in the Magic Kingdom, and yet it didn’t feel that way), to the efficiency of the food service, there was not a rough edge to the experience.

So what did we actually do?

  • Rides: My father and I started the day on Splash Mountain, where we were trapped in a line in a tunnel for 30 minutes so baby ducks could be cleared from the way (whether this was true or not I don’t know, but as a “why you are stuck in line” explanation it’s a pretty good one). We got wet (just the right amount of wet), were thrilled (but not too thrilled) and came away happy. Over the course of the day we rode Peter Pan’s Flight (enjoyed by all, especially my mother), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (enjoyable, but probably the least-enjoyed ride of the day), Buzz Lightyear (maximum fun, especially because you could spin your cart around and around and around under your own control), the PeopleMover (my favourite: a simple tram running through Tommorland), the Speedway (tiny go-carts on a track; weird and pleasant in a “reminds me of the 1970s” kind of way). Other than Splash Mountain, which he wouldn’t even consider going near, all of the rides were Oliver-friendly (and Oliver really, really doesn’t like rides in general).
  • Shows: I don’t think of myself as a “shows” kind of guy, but I enjoyed all of the shows we saw: they were well-executed, and had the added bonus of being an air-conditioned place to sit down out of the sun (it was 84 degrees the day we visited). We saw Mickey’s PhilharMagic (3D movie well smell-o-vision), Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor (probably the highlight of the visit: you SMS in jokes while you’re in line and they’re integrated into the show; Oliver’s joke – “why is 6 afraid of 7… because 7 ate 9” – was selected first!), the Carousel of Progress (my favourite, mostly because it represents the pre-Pixar Disney attitude of my youth; I was also pleasantly freaked out by the animatronic actors).
  • Walking Around: There’s a lot to entertain the eyes just by walking around: we toured Tom Sawyer’s Island in Frontierland, got pictures taken with President Mickey Mouse in The Hall of the Presidents, joined in (well, Oliver joined in) a dance show in the courtyard in Tomorrowland, rode the Walt Disney Railroad to Frontierland and walked through Cinderella’s castle on our way out.
  • Ate: My friend Paul, a Disney enthusiast, had one big piece of advice for us: as soon as you arrive at the park, he emailed, call WDW-DINE and make lunch and dinner reservations. Of course we ignored him, and so we ended up eating lunch at a burger place in Frontierland. The food was basic, the service quick, but given the crowds and lines it was hardly relaxing. For supper I reasoned we needed a good break so, 8 hours after I was instructed to, I phoned the WDW-DINE line on my mobile and walked my way through making an automated reservation at the Liberty Tree Tavern, a “family-style” restaurant in Liberty Square made up to like a ye olde American tavern. I was happy I made the reservation when I did because appearances suggested the had I waited a few more minutes we would have been eating at 8:30. The meal was great: excellent service, tasty food (turkey, ham, flank steak, stuffing, all served on a platter for the entire table) accompanied by string beans, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese with apple crisp and ice cream for dessert.
  • Didn’t Shop: While Oliver’s a casual reader of Mickey Mouse comics and is in the heart of his Suite Life of Zack and Cody-viewing years on the Disney Channel, he’s never been a merchandise consumer, and so we didn’t need to buy, or even look at, a single thing in any of the myriad gift shops in the park.

In addition to the “make your lunch and supper reservations” advice that I really do suggest you follow, here are some other pointers we picked up along the way:

  • Derek pointed us to TouringPlans.com, a Disney-specific website full of valuable information on how to tour the parks, what days are busy, etc. It was worth the $10.95-per-year subscription price just to get a third-party lay of the land, and we ended up choosing Wednesday to visit because the site predicted it to be the least-busy day of the week (of course we had no way of knowing whether it worked out this way, but it was a way of narrowing our decision at the very least).
  • The Fastpass system is your friend. Rather than lining up for a ride or attraction, you can insert your park ticket into a machine and get a “Fastpass” that allows you to return later in the day and skip the queue. It’s free, and with a little planning it can save you hours of time in lines. One point that’s worthy of special note: your Fastpass will give you an hour-long window in which you can return, but, in truth, you can use the Fastpass any time after that as well. So if you have a “Return between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.” Fastpass, you can actually use it a 7:00 p.m. too
  • It’s expensive. Our one-day, one-park admission was $82 each (Oliver, being 10, is an adult in Disney’s eyes). Add on lunch and supper and parking, and it was close to a $500 day for the four of us. I’m not complaining, but you need to know that Disney’s not a cheap way to spend the day.

We arrived at the Magic Kingdom at around 9:30 a.m. after a 2-hour drive from St. Petersburg; we left 10 hours later at 8:30 p.m. and that we lasted that long was, I think, a surprise to all of us. We saw a lot of the Magic Kingdom, but not all of it: we missed Adventureland, with its Pirates and Swiss Family Robinson, entirely, and probably hit about half of the attractions and rides we could have if we’d been more manic about it.

On the 2-hour drive back to St. Petersburg I can honestly say we were all happy and content after a day well-spent.