Vacay.ca occasionally features content outside of Canada if the destination or article is of keen interest to our audience. In this case, a Canadian child’s first visit to Disney World in Orlando, Florida is documented by Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi.
When I travel, I crave authentic experiences. Immersive, real, sensory, and emotional connections to people and places. They tend to be imperfect encounters but are satisfying because the stark genuineness of them deepens your understanding of a particular culture or activity.
Disney is the antithesis of that pursuit. It sells fantasy, a kind of rosiness that we admire — and cultivate — in children, knowing too well that eventually each of them will have innocence pulled away by the disappointments of reality, whether through awareness of global calamities or intimate crises. So unusual, then, that Disney — with its steadfast artificialness — would deliver one of the most genuine and heartening experiences of my life.
I entered Disney World as a father. It is a different existence than my previous two visits — as a mesmerized 8-year-old and much later as an easily cajoled but not fully engaged uncle. This time, I learned that the Magic Kingdom galvanizes in a few intensely adorable and unforgettable moments what the giving nature of fatherhood is meant to deliver: A sense of completion — returning to childhood to see your offspring relive an experience of absolute awe and, most importantly, enjoying it to maximum fulfilment only because you are there, next to them, providing the total attention they covet from you and checking in on you now and then to make sure you’re still enjoying yourself and that they should be too.
My 4-year-old, Gabriel, awoke to the giddiness of Disney on the Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride, a gentle circuit that empowers kids to take control in an innocuous way — a consistent trait of the theme park. By sitting in front of the four-seat carpet, Gabriel could toggle our vehicle direction with a knob. The carriage is tethered to a sturdy steel pole with a genie lamp on top. As the riders circle, the genie lamp spouts water and the kids giggle. Using the toggle, the kids can manoeuvre the carriage up or down to avoid the water — or ride right into it if they desire.
After the approximately 90-second spin, we exited and before we could decide on the next adventure, Gabriel squealed, “Can we do it again?”
As if there were a psychic connection, I felt the excited thrum of his heart and remembered the jolt of pleasure from when I was a child and the wind teasing back my hair and tenderly brushing at my skin on a carousel horse. I knew I wanted to bottle the feeling for him, to give him every bit of sweet thrill he could seize from the day. We did the Aladdin ride a second time, moved on to the Pirates of the Caribbean, a dark ride through water with some pirate skulls that scared Gabriel though he insisted it didn’t — another Magic Kingdom characteristic: To push the frightfulness of the storytelling only to the point of a merry-go-round-ish sensation; never too much for a toddler sitting hip to hip with one or more parent.
The Dumbo circuit ride, the Little Mermaid’s Under the Sea experience, and the eternally cute It’s a Small World sailing all awed Gabriel and gifted me with the realization that his wonderment could spark conversations with meaning and education. I can begin answering several of his “Whys?” with, “Remember at Disney World …”. Such as, “Why do cars go fast?”, to which the response is, “Because, if you remember when you drove the Tomorrowland Speedway car, you were steering and I was pressing the ‘gas’ pedal, which tells the car we want it to go forward.”
“Were we going fast?”
“As fast as we could go.”
“Did I do a good job driving?”
“Yes, Gabriel, you’re a very good driver.”
And the validation of his accomplishment — as untruthful as this one might be — gave him a bit more confidence that he could do a task similar to a “big boy” and I understood his need for that sense of achievement.
Disney, I finally, after five decades of life, found was a catalyst for family engagement, togetherness, and growth. Until this trip I likely aligned with those many consumers who chafe at corporations and view an entity like Disney as indicative of greed, but I came to appreciate that Disney delivers on its promise. In some ways it’s we who ask too much of a corporation, particularly when it comes to kids, and we’re also slow to admit that we applaud Disney for its attempt to do what we know we can’t: Keep our children young.
A powerful scene at the end of “The Florida Project”, a 2017 film starring Willem Dafoe, captures accurately and sadly what Disney means to too many children. Two young Orlando girls — each from distraught circumstances at home — must find sanctuary from the grief and trauma of the stressed lives caused by adults. They take each other’s hand and head to the place they feel is hopeful and safe: Cinderella’s Castle, the towering monument to a vision of forever childhood that has stood strong despite all the cynicism and friction the adult world throws at the idea of a happy make-believe land.
The girls in the film need a miracle to change their fate. So they flee to the only place they can imagine something positive manifesting. Whether the Magic Kingdom should be seen as a kind of church for pre-teens shouldn’t be a question. It, of course, shouldn’t be asked to do more than entertain, empower, and inspire future generations.
And it has shown it can do those things exceptionally well. The task of parents who leave Disney World is to nurture the sense of togetherness that the theme parks bolster. As with most things, the magic arrives into our real-world lives through our own efforts and the depth of our own caring.
What to Expect at Disney World
The Orlando area has six Disney theme parks or water parks (and several more not affiliated with Disney). For toddlers, there’s really only two theme parks that make sense: Magic Kingdom and, to a much lesser extent, Disney Hollywood Studios — home to the massive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge section that includes kid-friendly activities and attractions.
Likely, the first thing you will notice — and what will make a lasting impression during your stay — is the quality of the guest experience. The customer relations program at the Disney parks is the gold standard for family attractions. Disney’s workers are helpful, kind, and cheerful; quick with polite words and knowledgeable of the park to provide accurate directions and information.
On our February visit, the lineups for most rides at Magic Kingdom were manageable (it was an unusually cold day so that may have played a role because the park didn’t feel crowded for a Friday afternoon). Wait times were about 15 minutes for the Magic Carpets and Dumbo, and park-goers can skip the queues with the purchase of the fast-track option called Lightning Lane. At Hollywood Studios, it was a completely different situation, with hours-long waits for the Star Wars rides, even with the fast-track option.
Both Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios have multiple sections to explore that are dedicated to a specific theme or genre (like Star Wars and Tomorrowland), so you can navigate your way through the park based on the most convenient way to explore it on the map or the timing of your desired rides. You’ll want to visit each park on separate days and you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) schedule your trips on back-to-back days. Give yourself a day or two between theme parks for both physical relief and, most importantly, to allow you and your child a chance to reflect on the visit you just enjoyed.
Technology Adds to the Magic of Disney
Once you purchase your Disney tickets, you’ll want to download the Disney app. It will show your tickets, the wait times for rides and on-site restaurants, and also display your accommodations info, if you’ve booked a stay at a Disney resort.
The app includes the My Genie tool that allows you to purchase Lightning Lane while you’re at a park ($15 at Magic Kingdom and $18 at Hollywood Studios per ticket-holder). I found Lightning Lane useful at Magic Kingdom because there were a number of rides that were appropriate for Gabriel’s age and a few of them — the Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomorrowland Speedway — had queues lasting more than 30 minutes. Lightning Lane cut that wait time to 10 minutes or less per ride.
Once purchased, the Lightning Lane option instantly appears on your mobile phone. You use it to schedule a one-hour window for going to a ride. When you arrive at the entrance of the ride, you scan your digital ticket and enter. Once you’ve completed the ride, you can schedule a time for another attraction. The catch is if a desired ride is extremely popular (like the Star Wars ones), Lightning Lane can only move you to the nearest available time slot — which may be hours in advance. And Lightning Lane’s purchase rules state that you can’t book another ride until you have either completed your next scheduled ride or two hours have passed since you booked that ride.
In our case, we booked the Millennium Falcon Smuggler’s Run ride — where you can play a role (such as a pilot or an engineer) in navigating through an intergalactic obstacle course — for as soon as we could possibly get in upon our arrival at the park. The wait turned out to be four hours and we couldn’t use Lightning Lane again until two hours had passed. So with all the Star Wars rides being booked and Gabriel having little interest in others, we meandered in and out of the Galaxy’s Edge section of Hollywood Studios.
Fortunately, we were able to get into Oga’s Cantina, the bar that’s made to resemble the drinking hole where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo first met. There’s a droid DJ and cocktail options that include the Jedi Mind Trick ($17, with Ketel One Grapefruit and Rose vodka, falernum, Blue Curaçao, white grape juice, and lime) and the Dagobah Slug Slinger ($18, with tequila, Blue Curaçao, citrus juices, ginger, and herbs).
If you don’t have a reservation (we didn’t), you may have to wait about a half hour to enter and once you do you get 45 minutes to spend in the bar. The bartenders role play in garb better suited to Tatooine than the Milky Way and the drinks are excellent, making it an enjoyable stop and a fun place to get further immersed in the Star Wars theme.
Ride the Disney Skyliner
The Disney Skyliner is a relatively new addition to the Orlando experience. It debuted on September 29, 2019, and connects four Disney resort hotels (Riviera, Caribbean Beach, Pop Century, and Art of Animation) to Hollywood Studios and EPCOT Center.
If you’re at one of those resorts that has access to Skyliner, it’s a great alternative to driving to the theme park. The Skyliner is a cable ride that brings Disney-goers on a leisurely gondola journey from their hotel to the entrances of those connected parks and attractions. It’s a stunning ride that passes over lakes and shows the massive expanse of the Disney footprint.
The Disney Skyliner station at International Gateway at EPCOT is a short stroll from Disney’s BoardWalk entertainment district and three more Disney resorts: Yacht Club, Beach Club, and BoardWalk Inn.
Staying at a Disney World Resort
We stayed at the Art of Animation Resort, which is the most toddler-friendly and budget-friendly of the Disney hotel properties. The accommodations are essentially Disney-fied motel rooms that are adorned with images of the characters from films such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Cars”. There are big pool areas and playgrounds with familiar apparatuses. Room rates start at about $159 per night, depending on the season and size of bed.
There are a plethora of other Disney resort attractions, including the stunning Four Seasons property in Buena Vista.
Dining Fails at Disney World
Where Disney disappoints is an area it should excel: dining. The food at Magic Kingdom and the Disney’s Art of Animation Resort is awful. The bread on the lobster roll ($16.99) was stale, my son’s chicken fingers ($10.49) were cardboard in flavour, the fruit cups were coated with a syrup that was inedibly sweet ($5), the donuts (about $4 each) tasted as if they’d been cooked in oil that had been reused for too many months. Worse, some items cost significantly more than similar (and better tasting) options at competing Universal Studios.
When asked about plans to improve the food options, a Disney public relations representative wrote: “While there are no currently announced plans for upgraded dining options, Walt Disney World is continually adapting to improve the guest experience. Walt Disney World recently announced Roundup Rodeo BBQ, a new dining experience combining Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney Pixar Animation Studios, and Walt Disney World Food & Beverage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”
While I did have a slightly better dining experience at Hollywood Studios, it was still nowhere near what the Disney standard should represent. And, really, with the amount of chef-driven collaborations happening in the hospitality world there is no reason for a corporation of the stature of Disney to not have already reimagined its menus. (The nearby LEGOLAND Hotel has a far superior and more creative menu.) The dining experience at these parks and the budget-friendly resort is really the one area where Disney does fail kids and their parents.
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Note: Disney provided Adrian Brijbassi and his family with tickets to Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios; all other costs were paid for by the author.