Sunday, January 22, 2012

Disney World for Nick's 30th Birthday

Earlier this past Fall Emily received an email from her sister in law Jen who had come up with a crazy plan to surprise Emily’s brother Nick for his 30th birthday with a family trip to their favorite vacation destination, Disney World.  On the email was her parents and her other brother Chris and his wife Julia in Portland, ME.  With nearly all of our vacation time from work over the past few years being used for weddings and family visits back to the East Coast I’m not gonna lie when I say I wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the trip.  After wrecking my knee last year we had to postpone our planned trip to Hawaii, the one trip that would actually be just for the two of us and suddenly this trip was threatening to postpone Hawaii for yet another year and going back to Florida (not a state high on my list of places to visit) just 2 years after being there for Kevin and Alexa’s wedding didn’t make me feel any better.  I have books upon books of vacation destinations around the world I want to explore and here I was headed back to the fattest state in the country.....

Even though I wasn’t too excited about the trip I knew it was very important to Emily that we do this for her brother Nick and after discussing it we both realized that we would have to choose between Christmas with her family or this trip just 4 weeks later.  We were surprised to find tickets to Orlando from Portland to be under $400 while Christmas tickets for a quick 3 day (that’s all the time we could take) home for Christmas were running double that.  It was an easy choice, yet a sucky choice as we were then forced to spend Christmas away from family in town.  But staying in town for Christmas and only planning on missing 3 days for the Disney Trip left us enough time to take 6 days off for a Hawaii Trip later in March.  
So, I was appeased and after really missing family over Christmas I found myself really excited to see her family again.  I wasn’t so excited about going to Disney World though as my perception of running around with Mickey Mouse characters wasn’t really my ideal vacation but work had been so stressful over the holidays that I was up for anything.  Therefore I went into the vacation looking to de-stress from my job but with very low expectations, especially after I found out we would not have time for the rollercoasters at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!  I ended up having a truly fantastic time and my perception of vacationing at Disney World as an adult has completely changed.  Click the link to read on.

Day 1 - Hollywood Studios and The Spirit of Aloha Dinner

Emily and I ended up flying out of Portland on Tuesday afternoon on a redeye flight through LAX to Orlando.  We found out that LAX has the worst designed airport I’ve been to when we were forced to catch a bus and drive all around the tarmac to the next terminal for our flight which we barely made.  Thankfully I had packed some sleeping pills and found that I slept the majority of the flight from LAX to Orlando.  When we got into Orlando we were able to catch the Disney Magical Express bus to the Old Key West resort where we would stay for the entire trip.  Nick and Jen had graciously gotten us a wonderful room for our entire stay with their Disney Vacation Club membership.  The resort was even able to check Emily and I in early in the morning which allowed us to take a nap for a few hours until the rest of her family flew in.

We met up with her parents, Nick and Jen and Jim and Sally (who live in Florida now) just past noon to head to Hollywood Studios for the rest of the day.  We had been hoping that we would all get off the buses and surprise Nick but Jen had told him the full  details on his actual birthday a couple weeks earlier because he was having a pretty stressful and crappy day with Emily’s dad in the hospital for heart surgery and him trying to manage the business alone at the time.  We all agreed that we would have told him as well.  Apparently he was so excited it took him a while to comprehend it all!  It was great to see how excited he was when we all got together to head to our first park of the trip!  Getting around was easy with the free public transportation which took us right from our rooms to each destination.  

Hollywood Studios was amazing.  I didn’t really know what to expect and I kinda thought the rides were going to be more for little kids as it was Disney and not Busch Gardens but I found the rides to be fantastic and the fact that we were there on a Wednesday in January meant that there were hardly any lines for the rides!  We quickly made our way through the park, stopping briefly for some burgers, to the Rockin’ Rollercoaster where we were elated to find a wait of only 10 minutes.  We quickly made our way into the ride where we were greeted with Aerosmith in a mock recording studio and then ushered into the actual rollercoaster in the next room.  I was expecting the coaster to head outside and a I nearly kept my sunglasses on.  Instead the ride rocketed us into a dark room with neon signs that flashed as we zoomed past them upside down and around sharp corners we couldn’t see because it was pitch black, all the sounds of Sweet Emotion blasting into our ears from our headrests.  Despite it not being the biggest, the fastest, or the longest roller coaster I have ridden it was definitely the most well done, in terms of detail, and experience.  I hadn’t ridden a completely dark roller coaster that I can remember and this one blew me away.  Definitely a good start to the day.

We then went on to the Tower of Terror which I had heard about before but never been on.  Again, I was completely blown away by both the ride and the incredible amount of detail put into it.  At any other theme park you wait in lines confined by metal rails but at Disney they provide you with interactive activities in the lines and amazing sets.  The spiderwebs and dust entering the massive hotel built for the ride looked incredibly realistic and the cast members were all in costume and character which definitely made it amazing.  Even the ride itself was designed to change with every ride on it.  The animatronics of the ride (the ghosts, holograms, effects) were so realistic that if I had woken up in this place not realizing I was on a ride I would have been legitimately terrified.  I can’t stress enough how amazed I was at the thought and effort that had gone into the design... and I was only on the 2nd ride of a 4 day trip!  After being dropped, then raised, dropped then raised several times in the tower we came to the end and the scariest part of the ride was when the attendants had trouble opening the exit for us.  Patti cracked everyone up by asking, “wait, they never told us to take our seatbelts off!” then preceding to frantically grab for hers thinking the ride wasn’t really over but yet another trick before a big drop!

Upon leaving the Tower of Terror Nick found himself being dragged to the side of the street by a man in an old fashioned cop uniform!  Next thing we know he is sat down in a chair for a 25 minute dating game between three pretty funny women in outfits from the 50’s.  I taped the whole damn thing but later accidentally erased it!  He randomly chose cards from the host with questions on it and the ladies would give their best answers which usually ended with something like “And if you ever leave me I’ll destroy you!” to the amusement of the audience.  Jen simply sat on a nearby bench watching in amusement as these characters tried to win over her husband.  In the end the audience helped a very nervous Nick pick his favorite which ended up being the sassy woman in pink.

From there we went onto the Star Tours ride which was basically a large room with a projector in front of you that tilted and shook you all around while you watched yourself fly through Star Wars sets with 3D glasses on.  Walking into the set we passed under a giant “walker” from the movies.  Again, the detail and set design was super impressive.  It also turned out to be my favorite 3D ride of the entire trip as we got great seats and with all the rocking and pitching of the room it really felt like we were in a space ship rocketing through space and fighting off enemies with laser guns!  

Our last stop of the day, due to time constraints for dinner was to watch the Extreme Stunt Show.  It had just started to rain and we were worried they would cancel the show as we waited at the entrance gate but thankfully they didn’t and we were able to sit in the covered stands away from the wetness during the show.  The show was basically a portrayal of how they make action movies with stunt cars and motorcycles.  They performed all the stunts and then showed the audience how they were performed with fire-retardent suites, cars with backwards facing drivers etc.  There were jetski’s and people jumping off the buildings of the European-style (think Italian Job) set.  When the stuntman rolled through the fire they actually had to wait a few moments for him to really light up before putting him out.. funny.  The performance concluded with a pretty big jump of the main car through a big explosion which I thought was pretty sweet.

We left the park under dismal looking skies around 5pm to head back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at the Polynesian Resort.  It was actually pretty cool out after the afternoon rain and I was glad to have packed a warm long sleeve shirt and jeans.  We all met up around 7 and took the public bus to the resort for our dinner which I was surprised to find out was the same exact place my parents had taken me when I had last been to Disney at the age of 8.  

A quick look through my phone confirmed it when I found a photo of my father in a Hawaiian shirt with me next to him scarfing down a rib with bbq sauce all over my face!  Instead of my father seated next to me now it was my wonderful Emily!  This time we were there in the evening so I expected there to be less Disney characters running around on the stage but was glad to see that they still had the terrific Hawaiian ribs and sweet bread!

When we entered the dinner we were each given a lei and taken to our long wooden tables in front of the stage.  When we sat down it all came back to me and I vividly remembered being there as a little kid.  I remembered the hula dancers and the disney characters that came out on stage and danced with them but it was during the day time so perhaps this show would be different.  There was salad and the best Hawaiian sweet rolls I’ve ever had to start, followed by amazing bbq ribs, chicken and veggies for the main entree.  Nick ordered a souvenir coconut mixed drink but the rest of the beer and wine were all included in the meal which Jen and Nick treated us all to.  

The performance, called, “The Spirit of Aloha” was started off a little comical with a guy swooning over a female in a grass skirt.  People with recent birthdays were ushered in front of the stage for a Hawaiian birthday song (Chris, Julia, Patti, Nick) which was certainly amusing to see them all dancing and then Nick himself got singled out to go up on stage with a girl and learn how to shake his hips.  This may have been the funniest part as he was incredibly nervous up there and didn’t really do as much shaking as the girl apparently wanted him to!  Ha!  During this part of the show desert was brought out to us in the form of smoking volcanoes which turned out to be chocolate mousse.  

After that silliness the show took a turn towards the more serious with them teaching us various polynesian phrases and traditional dancers came out to perform.  I’m sure the guys in our family were all entertained by the beautiful dark-skinned pacific girls in grass skirts shaking their hips until it looked like they were simply connected at the waist by a loose hinge, while I’m sure the women of our family were thoroughly impressed by the one guy on stage with a skimpy loin cloth and washboard abs dancing around.  To each his own!  

One of the most impressive displays was wen the girls came out with balls on a string in each hand to perform the traditional Maori poi ball dance under black lights on stage which made them all glow.  The show wrapped up with a polynesian warrior coming onto the stage to display his “game face” to the audience which showed he meant business.  I can’t believe a human being could stick their tongue out that far.  So far there had been absolutely no Disney characters on the stage.  This was probably because this was a late night show geared more for adults then the show I saw as a child.  The finale of the show was a polynesian fire dancer that was absolutely incredible.  He came out with a baton with flaming ends that he threw all around the stage.  At one point he even dipped the flaming torch into his mouth and then breathed fire!  It was an incredible performance, and incredible meal and by the time it was over we were all exhausted, full, a little tipsy from the booze and ready for bed after our first full day at Disney.  Despite my earlier beliefs of Disney I was already having a terrific time!
Day 2 - Epcot

On Thursday after a quick breakfast at the Old Key West Resort we headed to the one place I was already really looking forward to visiting, Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).  Kevin (from Florida remember) told me that as a scientist I would love this place the most and boy was he right!  After getting through the gate and snapping a few few photos in front of the iconic geodesic sphere of the resort we picked up a wheelchair for Keith (just had heart surgery remember) and headed into the park.  I noticed as we walked in that there was rows and rows of plaques on walls.  Upon a closer look I discovered that they were actually photos etched onto the plates of earlier visitors to Epcot!  There was thousands and thousands of photos.  Pretty cool way to start the day!

Our first ride of the day was Spaceship Earth which actually circled us up and into the massive geodesic sphere we saw on the way in.  The ride seemed a bit dated to me as we rode it through various time periods from the creation of earth to current human inventions.  There were little screens on the back of the seats in front of us on the slow moving coaster and I couldn’t believe it when I saw our faces appear on the cartoon characters on the screen.  They had taken a photo of us at the start of the ride and somehow, using face recognition technology, had put our faces on the characters that we created a futuristic story out of.  It was a pretty impressive and very creative way to end the ride as we were circled back down to where the ride started again.  The ride got all the way up the current computer age but I believe the next exhibit on the ride will be the mobile computing revolution with a robotic Steve Jobs creating the first iPod, iPhone and iPad... especially with Apple’s close ties to Disney.

From there we headed over to the Test Track ride which was essentially us being put into a fake “test car” as test dummies on a test track.  Waiting in line before the ride we passed by various robotic tests of doors, seat cushions, tire tests etc, meant to portray how real automobiles are tested.  Again some of the set was a little outdated for sure but you couldn’t expect Disney to keep up with current models by wrecking them for the set around the waiting line...  The ride itself started off pretty slow going over bumpy roads and tight turns before almost getting hit by a mock semi and finally approaching a test barrier.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but the test barrier wall opened up at the last second and we found ourselves hurtling onto a test track outside around the building at nearly 70mph around corners which was a lot of fun!  

After getting out of the ride we found ourselves in a massive display room of 2011 model sports cars and electric/hydrogen prototypes.  I take back what I said about it being dated because these cars were obviously fresh off the production line and I would assume are upgraded each year.  Each car was open for us to sit in and take photos.  

On the way out of that room through the gift shop (every ride ended in an exit through a gift shop btw) we were greeted by an employee who asked who Nick was.  Yup, that morning we had all put on our shirts with a photo of Nick plastered to the front of it saying “Nick’s 30th” with each of our names on the back.  Jen had made all of these shirts for us and I can’t tell you how well it worked out throughout the day and the following day as we wore them again.  The employee brought a bunch of us through a back entrance and got us onto the ride again for another test run on the track.  He also provided us with a very useful piece of info.  If we were to say “I just wanna get drunk” to the bartender at the tequila joint in Mexico we would be taken care of... awesome.

From there we went onto a ride called Mission Space which everyone in the group seemed to be weary of.  It was similar to the Star Tours ride we went on at Hollywood Studios but everyone said that this one would definitely make you sick.  There were too choices in the line, a yellow “easy” version and an orange “intense” version.  Of course I immediately grabbed an orange card from the attendant.  In the ride we were told that we were all astronauts on the first mission to Mars and were escorted to our capsules with controls we would need to manage during the trip around the moon to mars.  It was a 3D ride and the enclosures we were in tipped back and forth just like Star Tours but when we took off from the launch pad it actually felt like we were being pulled back into our seats, not just being tilted over.  I have no clue how the ride accomplished that.  It was amusing to go into “hypersleep” for only about two seconds and landing on a mars surface completely covered with snow was a bit skeptical to me but it was a fun ride.  I didn’t think it was anything as good as Star Tours and I certainly didn’t feel sick from it at all.  The set design and thoughtfulness of the ride with the mission control area after was again impressive but I think it was geared more towards a younger crowd obviously.
We headed over to the area called “The Land” where we got lunch.  Apparently nearly all the food we had for lunch was grown on site in the hydroponic gardens we would soon see.  I wasn’t that hungry and was waiting for the various food we would have when we went to the countries of the World Showcase so I only had a hard boiled egg and an iced coffee to hold me over which may have been a poor choice as I’ll describe later.  

After eating we went on the very slow “living with the land” boat tour around all the gardens.  It was absolutely amazing to see how big they had gotten the fruit and melons to grow on hanging systems of water-fed irrigation pipes.  As man of science I thought this ride was fantastic because it showed how Disney is really working towards solving many of the world’s food shortage problems through the creation of innovative agricultural techniques.  

The only issue I thought of was... yeah, these are really creative growing techniques that yield giant produce but do 3rd world countries really have the same means as Disney to create the elaborate hanging systems, automatic electrical water systems and so forth to do all this.... questionable.  

Our next ride was in the same building and was called “Soarin”.  This ride basically picked rows of us up in seats and dangled us over a massive 3D concave screen much like an IMAX theatre for a virtual flight over California.  This was amusing as Emily and I had been to many of the places we flew over but it didn’t really blow my mind and many of the scenes looked a bit dated to me.  We then walked over to Image Works for a short ride with the character “Figment” about how great and wild our imagination could be.  This ride was most definitely built for children.  It was amusing and the imagination area after the ride where we could control music and objects with body movements was neat but I could have passed on that ride.  On the way out an employee offered to take our photos though in a pre-made set which was nice.  Again.. Nick’s t-shirts got us some freebie swag!  Hooray!

Our next stop was a cute ride through an aquarium called “The Seas” with Nemo and friends.  We passed by multiple tanks of various aquatic life as we rode around in our clam shells.  It was very cool how they were able to project the animated fish into the tanks with the other real fish swimming around.  My favorite part of the ride was actually the display in front of the building where they had a bunch of robotic seagulls screaming “mine”, “mine”, “mine”, randomly as people walked by.  

Everything about our pleasant stroll through the theme park changed when we then entered the incredible World Showcase of Epcot.  The fun times and debauchery kicked off when we headed straight to Mexico to the La Cava del Tequila where we had been told earlier we’d be hooked up with tequila drinks!  Yes, we certainly were.  This is where I began my crusade to get a drink at each of the 11 countries in the World Showcase (Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, America, Japan, Morocco, France, the U.K., and Canada).  

I started the night off with a specialty Margarita called the Wild Passion Fruit and after checking into the place with Twitter got us all some free chips.  After hanging out in the joint for a while while others got another drink we then jumped onto the amusing Gran Fiesta boat Tour starring the Three Caballeros (Donald Duck) which took us on a short cruise through a mexican set complete with a smoking volcano and temple.  Cute ride, amusing only after several tequila drinks... :).  

We then exited the enormous aztec temple that contained the Mexican Pavilion and headed to Norway, our next country to ride the Maelstrom there through the history of Norway complete with Norwegian trolls!  Afterwards Julia said we should pick up a Viking Coffee so I bought a round for us at the Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe in Norway before we left to make up for the tequila Chris had bought us in Norway.  They were delicious!  We also stopped in the Norway Pavilion to see cases full of viking swords and other artifacts before we moved on past China (unfortunately this would end up costing me a drink) to Germany.

In Germany the group went into a shop to taste some wines but I instead ran back to China to take some photos since I really like chinese architecture and knew that if we passed it and continued drinking we probably wouldn’t make it back.  I ran through it pretty quick but unfortunately failed to grab a drink as I didn’t see an easy vendor to grab one from.  China had a beautiful pavilion surrounded by a pond.  I didn’t want to lose the group so I then jogged back to Germany and picked up a shot of Rumplemintz German Schnapps to continue my drinking quest.  

Next up was Italy where I got a glass of Placido Chianti from a small vendor outside the pavilion.  The square of Italy was really amazing with a fountain and a large tower in front.  There were flowers everywhere and the boats of venice on the water in front of the country.   By this time I was definitely getting buzzed as I only had a few hard boiled eggs for lunch.  Emily’s mom was also having a good time as when we got to the American Adventure she was swinging around glowing swords from a vendor out front.  I of course picked up a Sam Adams Lager beer from a vendor in America.  

By the time we got Japan we were starving and pretty lit so we all got sushi in the restaurant in the pavilion.  We also got a glass of the cold sake at the outdoor saki bar and it seemed like everyone around me didn’t like it so passed them to me, which unfortunately for me I was actually drunk enough to drink (it was awful).  Emily’s dad was the only one smart enough to get warm saki if I remember right.  

Onward we went to Morocco where Chris, Julia and Emily all had a fun time trying on hats with dreads and beads.  We spent a good bit of time in the gift shop area of Morocco looking at all the traditional moroccan gifts before Chris and I grabbed a drink at the Oasis slushi stand.  I either got a Sultan’s Colada or a Habibi Daiquiri, can’t really remember as the night was starting to get a bit blurry by this point.  

Next up was the Les Vins De France in the French Pavilion where Emily’s dad bought a round of Moet champagne for us all.  Chris and Emily both had a good time trying on Ratatouille chef hats before moving on.  The village square of France was pretty amazing and I read that they often have walking wine tours with tastings in all the little shops in the area.

Thankfully, 9pm had finally come which gave us a drinking break for about half an hour while we watched “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth”, a massive fireworks show over the Showcase Lagoon.  The show apparently depicts the history of the earth and it’s people but I was to lit to really understand any of that.  Thankfully, I was aware enough at that point to wait with Patti on a bridge and get the camera set up with the right settings for the show resulting in some really amazing photographs.  

The show was really fantastic with pyrotechnics being shot from each of the countries of the showcase over the lagoon.  It started off with a massive 350,000 pound earth glob traveling around the circumference of the lagoon and finally opening up to blast of fireworks from its center as well with lasers blasting through the remaining smoke of the show.  

Usually Epcot would close soon after this performance but thanks to a random visit from Obama to the Magic Kingdom which shut it down for the afternoon Disney decided to keep Epcot open till midnight.  Emily's family certainly had a lot to say about this inconvenience but I thought it worked out great as it allowed us to spend a few extra hours in what I later felt was the best park in Disney World.  Therefore Chris and I had a few more hours to accomplish our goal of drinking around the world.  

Our next stop was the United Kingdom where we of course joined Keith for a round of Guinness at the Rose & Crown.  Chris and Emily had a fun time checking out a big old school phone booth here.  At this point in the night Keith was actually pushing others in the wheelchair he was supposed to be in!  

We got to Canada at around 10pm and Emily, her mom and Julia played around with the Native American sets and Totum poles. Inside we also found a bunch of funny moose and racoon hats to play around with.  Here we picked up what would turn out to be our final country beer, a Moosehead Lager... but not the last beer of the night for Chris and I.

By this time Sally and Jim had left a while ago leaving just the Riggott family and I remaining to walk back to the Captain EO show featuring a younger Michael Jackson saving the day in a futuristic space jam of music in 3D.  It was ridiculous to say the least and had to be the oldest show I saw at Disney greatly needing a revamp... or replacement.  But, we were all pretty drunk, the employee at the gate got a kick out of us, and we all got a good laugh at each other in silly glasses watching the ridiculous film.   

After the film let out Chris and I sprinted back around the Showcase towards China to try to fulfill our mission of getting a drink at each country.  Unfortunately, as we go there an employee was shutting the gates.... at 11pm.  Despite our protests that they should still be open and we needed one last drink they shut us down (probably because we were visibly tore up and I was running barefoot...).  

So, disappointed Chris and I headed back to Germany for another beer.  When we got there we found the same stand I had gotten the Rumplemintz at (the employee was strict about his pours).  We ordered two beers and when the left for a second I snatched up the display shot and started chugging the display beer as well... and then we ran onward to the United Kingdom.  There we got a hold of the girls and climbed a statue in the square to wait for them.  

While Chris and I were running amuck around the World Showcase one last time Emily, Juia, Patti and Keith were all with some characters at a photo shoot somewhere else in the park.  Nick and Jen had taken off right after IllumiNations - probably knowing the debauchery that was about to ensue.  They definitely got some funny photos of themselves with Mickey, Pluto, Minnie, Donald and Goofy before the two girls left the parents to find us.  We all got some late night greasy food before wandering back to the entrance to catch one of the last running buses back to the Old Key West resort.
Day 3 - The Magic Kingdom

Emily and I had a very rough time getting up on Friday, so rough that we totally missed the rest of the family who left without us.  Nick was pretty excited for the Magic Kingdom but Emily and I not so much so we didn’t mind, in fact, we needed to sleep in especially after the previous night.  By the time we got to the park it was 11:30 in the morning and both Emily and I were starving for some food so we joined her parents for some pastries in a small shop just inside the gate.  It was cool to see Cinderella’s Castle again after 25 years but there was a big crane behind it which sort of ruined the photos.  

We headed towards Tomorrow Land with her parents after and checked out the Laugh Floor with the characters from Monsters, Inc.  The show characters take jokes texted to them from people waiting in line for the show and use those jokes in the actual performance.  I thought this was pretty neat because the animated characters could adapt their speech and animation on the fly to the jokes that are submitted just before the show.  I’m not sure how they did it but it was pretty cool.  Because we had Nick’s birthday shirts on again we got singled out in the crowd and got a good laugh from everyone as the characters made fun of us for not actually having Nick with us! hehe.  

After the show we caught up with the rest of the group grabbing some lunch where I got a truly awful lobster roll and clam chowder for an absurd price but I was still hungry after only having a fruit tart earlier at the bakery.  From lunch we headed to the Haunted Mansion for a scary ride.  Once again the set and the building itself for the ride was amazingly detailed.  This was a much more laid back ride than the tower of terror of course but the holograms and robotics of the ride were just as impressive.  

After the ride  Chris and Julia stuck around with Patti and Keith to see the Hall of Presidents while Nick, Jen, Sally, Jim, Emily and I headed off for the Jungle Cruise after we found Splash Mountain to be temporarily closed.  Because it was now Saturday at the Magic Kingdom the line for the the Jungle Cruise was 45 minutes long.  This sucked after days of running through empty lines but I kept myself busy with Words with Friends on my iPhone.   The ride was ok with colorful jungle sets, but there were no live animals and it was all robotic and a bit cheesy.  Definitely a ride for younger children, not me.  

After leaving the Jungle ride we made our way up up to the Swiss Family Robinson Tree house.  Although not a ride, and just a walk through I found it very impressive.  The tree was a massive structure of concrete with thousands of individual metal leaves attached to it and honestly it looked very realistic until you got up close.  The tree was fairly tall and stood above the surrounding natural foliage which made me wonder how well it all held up to the Florida hurricane season... 

From the top of the tree we had great views of the rest of Magic Kingdom including Space Mountain which I had received 3 fast pass tickets for from a woman who was leaving the park early and wanted to give them up.  There was also an elaborate water system rigged up that brought pales of water to the top rooms of the tree, one of which actually had a piano in it!  

The rest of the afternoon we spent bustling around the park heading to various rides before the Electrical Parade.  We took the boat ride through Pirates of Caribbean which was just slightly updated it seemed to include Captain Jack Sparrow and some of the other characters from the movie inspired by the ride.  Again, this ride still seemed dated compared to the rides at Epcot with older jerky mechanical characters.  The canon fire was pretty cool though with water splashing us from apparent canon balls hitting the water near us.  

We also rushed over to Space Mountain for Nick, Emily and I to use the fast passes to quickly jump onto the ride.  Again, I didn’t know what to expect from the ride other than I knew it would be in the dark.  As we zoomed around the inside of the building on the very jerky track through the dark I thought it was fun but definitely older and not the quality of the Rockin’ Rollercoaster at Hollywood Studios.  I felt more rattled than thrilled when I got off the ride but it was fun to experience once.  Just a couple hours after we rode it the waiting line went to 2+ hours for it.  No way would I wait that long for it!  

We then went into Fantasy Land and checked out the Mickey’s PhilharMagic 3D show.  This was in a large theater and the screen opened up to well over 100 degree of viewing front of us.  It was basically a tale of Donald stealing Mickey’s sorcerer’s hat and going on an adventure trying to get it back when he lost it only to have Mickey save him and the orchestra at the end.  What I didn’t know what that the seat handles in front of me would be spraying me with water, and scented air blasts coordinated with the show which was pretty cool.  Also, the 3D of the film was really amazing with objects appearing to float directly in front of me.  Why can’t Hollywood do 3D shows this well???   

After the show the whole family headed to “It’s a Small World”.  As we were heading in Emily turned to me and said, “I don’t want to go on this” to which I happily nodded in agreement.  We waited outside for the group to go on the traditional ride and then meet up with us.  In the meantime we had time to check the news on our phones and found out that Corvallis had been flooding due to 2 days of torrential rainfall!  Wow!  Glad we dodged that bullet and glad to hear our apartment was high enough to avoid any damage!

Just as it was getting dark we all met up again as a group and headed to Splash Mountain which had re-opened.  We had to wait in a 40 minute line again for the ride inspired by the film Song of the South.  Despite it only being opened in 1992 I could have sworn I had ridden it before.  Perhaps I just remembered the characters as a child.       The sets were cute but what really impressed me was the length of the ride at over half a mile with 4 drops with the last one zooming under the briar patch in a 52 foot drop to the water below.  Jen and Nick were in the front of the log boat while Emily and I were in the far back.  Jen got absolutely soaked from head to toe while Emily and I thankfully remained dry.  

Chris and I were getting hungry so we decided then was a great time to try out the traditional giant roasted turkey leg in Frontierland while waiting for the Main Street Electrical Parade to pass us.   The $10 massive drumstick was huge and definitely a daunting task to eat as it smeared grease and juices all over our faces as we dug into it.  I was starving so I pretty much tore it apart in less than 10 minutes with Chris taking his time on it and eventually throwing in the towel unable to finish er’ off.  

The parade was as I remembered it as a little kid.  It was colorful with many different characters driving or riding each of the floats as they passed us.  I tried several long exposure shots of them all passing trying to get some cool effects from all the lighting.  I couldn’t believe how many people had lined the streets for the parade with barely any room to stand.  Definitely a Disney tradition that nobody wanted to miss.  

After the parade we made our way quickly back to the front of Cinderella’s Castle for the “Wishes” show that would end the day at the park.  Before the show the castle was illuminated on all sides by amazing projections and lighting transforming every inch of it into a massive movie screen with photos and different animations.  That technology was definitely not around last time I was here!  

The show started off with a few smaller fireworks and then Tinkerbell floated down a zip line from the top tower down to the park.  There was amazing fireworks to the musical show and it concluded with massive display at the end before the lights to the park came on.  The show was great but I think I honestly liked the fireworks at Epcot the night before better.  

What ensued next seemed simply a stampeded of people to me.  I absolutely do not like large crowds and I get very claustrophobic when I am stuck in them so leaving Magic Kingdom was definitely not the best ending of the day as we were funneled out past the shops back to the bus to the resort where Emily and I took an hour to go to the hot tub and pool and relax our tired feet alone for a bit before bed.
Day 4 - Animal Kingdom

I was super excited to visit the Animal Kingdom as I had heard great things about the animals and the rides and I wanted to test out the new 300mm zoom lens Emily had given me for Christmas.  After a good night’s rest we met up with the family for a quick breakfast and headed off to the resort early.  After having to wait in long lines at the Magic Kingdom Nick had done his homework the night before and had come up with a plan for us.  

When we first got in we rushed straight to the base of the massive Tree of Life in the middle of the park to one of the first showings of “It’s Tough to be a Bug” within the base of the tree.  Walking down into the show we were surrounded by amazing carvings into the trunk of the massive tree of various animals as well as fun facts about bugs on all the walls and bug movie posters.  

The show as a 3D movie hosted by Flik the ant who introduced us to all of his various bug friends like a massive spider that blasted air at us, a stink bug that smelled up the whole theater and an acid shooting termite that hit us with water.  Then the evil grasshopper came out of the side of the theater (a big robotic grasshopper) and told the bugs to attack us which sent flying bugs out of the 3D screen at our faces and dropped physical bugs from high up in the trunk of the tree down towards our heads!  Then the grasshopper told the bees to sting us and to my amazement something actually poked me in the back of my seat!  At the end of the show Flik asked us to stay in our seats to let the termites leave first and ripples went through our seats underneath us making Patti jump up!  ha!  Next to Star Tours this was the best 3D show I saw at Disney with all the special effects and stuff thrown into our seats... and our faces!

We then rushed over to the Dinosaur ride where we quickly got on it for a ride back through time to capture a specific dinosaur and bring it back with us.  The ride was super bumpy in our jeep-looking vehicle and the massive robotic dinosaurs that came down at us were really cool looking.  I especially got a kick out of the big carnosaur trying to wolf down a bigger dinosaur that could barely fit in it’s mouth.  The whole thing was shaking in convulsions which made me crack up to the amusement of the rest of the family.  Once again the set leading into the ride with the massive skeleton of a carnosaur was really impressive along with the story line behind our journey.

After Dinosaur we hustled all the way over to the Everest ride which I was really excited about going on.  The ride traveled on what looked like mining carts far up into a snow capped peak where it encountered a yeti and then rocketed backwards back through the mountain to the boarding station again.  Approaching the ride we walked under a ceiling of old crampons, past ice axes, ropes, packs and other climbing gear into a room describing all the various expeditions to Everest.  Some seemed real while others with their tales of the Yeti were obviously crafted just for the ride.  

When we got on the ride and got to the top where the track was ripped out I honestly was expecting to just head back down the same way we had come up but to my surprise we took a totally different and longer route backwards past a yeti shadow apparently tearing up our tracks!  I thought the ride was a lot of fun and ranked right up there with the Rockin’ Rollercoaster.

After checking his Disney smart phone app Nick decided we should head to the Kilimanjaro Safari as it was getting late enough in the morning for most of the animals to be out and about.  The line was about 30 minutes long but well worth the wait as we saw a ton of different animals on the drive including rhinos, alligators, hippos, lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes etc.  

Our guide was super nice but I don’t think she was the best driver as we never really came to a full stop long enough for me really steady the camera.  Therefore I spent the whole ride with my eyes pretty much glued to the camera at full zoom trying to steady it along the bumpy road for good photos.  We even went over a bridge that had hydraulics and threatened to give way which certainly didn't help my shots at all.  

Thankfully the camera and lens were fast enough to compensate for the bumpy ride and I ended up with some amazing photos of the wildlife.  Far too many to post here so you should either check out my Flickr album or my Disney Album on Facebook to see them all.  Near the end of the ride we took a "detour" on a mission to catch some poachers which went along well with the video we saw in line about how poaching in Africa is killing all the species - way to go Disney for being proactive about getting the message out to the thousands of unknowing tourists that flock there! 

We spent the rest of the early afternoon walking through various exhibits and taking tons of photos of the wildlife we saw.  One of the most impressive areas was the tigers in the Asian portion of the park. There were several walking around yawning and putting on quite a display for us all.  Despite not liking cats in general I do find tigers unbelievably beautiful and powerful.

Some of the highlights were seeing massive tigers  yawn showing their enormous teeth, Elds deer with huge antlers, Flying Foxes and other bats, a huge Komodo Dragon, an aviary full of the most colorful tropical birds you could imagine flying all around us, gorilla’s up close and a native Floridian Black Cormorant stealing a fish from the hippo enclosure and eating it right in front of us.  

We also saw a woman completely covered in a costume of leaves who blended in perfectly with the surrounding and when she moved it scared the crap out of any passerby!  We were lucky enough to spot her because she was walking around along the path on what appeared to be stilts as her limbs were extra long.  It was definitely an impressive camouflage display!

The highlight of the day was after we got a quick lunch and went to the Flights of Wonder live bird show.  While waiting in line for the show a great horned owl was brought out for us all to check out and when we got into the show and sat down we were immediately greeted by colorful parrots flying over our heads.  The show was comical about a tour guide who showed up and had FOB (Fear of birds) and then gradually learned to appreciate the birds by the end of the show.  

In the middle of the show a trainer came out with a yellow-naped Amazon Parrot that was obviously trained to interact with the audience and got it to take a dollar bill from Keith’s hand who stood up for the bird.  Later, the bird even brought it back to him which I thought was even more impressive.  They must have clipped the birds nails or something as it didn't appear to hurt Keith at all... or more likely, Keith is just tough!  

They brought out a wide assortment of birds from smaller parrots to a Harris Hawk to the enormous Abyssinian Ground Horn Bill with nearly a 5 foot wingspan that they got to fly directly at a couple audience members sitting on stage with cameras.  Near the end of the show they also brought out a Bald Eagle explaining the amazing comeback the species has made noting that it is now off the endangered species list.  This isn’t new to Emily or I because we see them all the time out here in Oregon but the story of course is nonetheless impressive.

We took a short train trip out to Rafiki’s Conservation Station to check out some reptiles and insects in glass cases and see the conservation efforts being taken at the park.  There was also a petting zoo at the exit but it appeared to be the usual goats and such for little kids so we passed it up.  

Walking out I saw a bunch of people crowded around water looked to be a bird bath with a lizard in it.  I quickly noticed that the lizard was simply metal and thought about going up to it and smashing it with my hand to scare the people but instead I simply said, “you all know that’s not real right”... yup, got some disappointed faces from that one! ha!  Emily of course thought it was a bear.... (inside joke).

Before we left Keith, Nick, Emily and I headed over to Dinoland to take a quick ride on Primeval Whirl while the others stayed to watch Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade.  Dinoland was actually further than we thought and by the time we got there my feet were pretty much done with.  The ride was quick and jerky and I was happy to see that Keith (remember just had surgery) made it through intact.  

The walk out of the park to the buses was pretty painful on my feet.  I hadn’t thought that I would need more than flip flops at the parks but with absolutely no support my heels felt like someone had taken a mallet to them like Kathy Bates.  It would later take me days to sort through all the hundreds of photos I took in the park!

On Saturday night Jen had made us reservations at the very fancy and very expensive Shula’s Steakhouse which was one of her favorites.  Having no idea what to expect I almost fell out of my chair when I saw a steak cost $45 and then you had to buy a side to go with it for another $7-15... This of course is not a normal type place for Emily’s family to visit and I knew it was a special occasion but I still felt very uncomfortable at first being at a place where the same money spent on two meals for Emily and I could literally feed us for a month with food from the nearby Winco in Corvallis.  But, I always wanted to order a fancy cocktail at a restaurant so I amused my self by ordering a glass of Knob Creek bourbon “neat” (without ice for you unsophisticated types...).  When I got it and took a sip I instantly wanted something with it... whoops.. hehe.  Several of the others ordered appetizers of shrimp, rock crab etc but I guessed they were each $20 on top of the other other stuff and my cocktail and thinking that Emily was going to be splitting the bill I opted to not have one myself.  

Then, a few sips later nearing the bottom of my bourbon I noticed it... a small fruit fly in my drink... my chance to mellow out and de-stress at this fancy place.  I got the server’s attention and pointed it out quickly getting another one a few minutes later.  After some more conversation with the family and a few more gulps followed by a chaser of water I noticed it again... another damn bug!  As a former server and bartender at various times over a 10 year period of my life I took it upon myself to visit the bartender and point out how my 2nd drink had not changed anything.  I watched him open up a brand new bottle and casually said, “you’re gonna hook me up right” and watched him pour the rocks glass over halfway full.  I really don’t mind little fruit flies as they are harmless and the bartender’s double mistake now meant that I had drank enough to feel comfortable with the whole “fancy” situation and relax a little.  

Then my 24oz Prime Rib came and when I looked down I thought, “you’ve gotta be kidding me”.  Out of 24 oz I would guess that over 14 oz were pure fat.  I looked up at the server with a shocked and disappointed face saying, “I worked at a steakhouse for 4 years and never have seen a piece of meat look this poor” and he agreed that in his 8 years it was the worst he had seen there as well.  I then sat, sipped on a red wine I had ordered, and watched as the rest of the family enjoyed their great looking steaks only to get mine when they had all finished and it being undercooked.  At that point I just said it was fine and ate it quickly to catch up.  Even the new one wasn’t a $45 steak, but the filets that Jen had told the others to get looked like they were amazing.  
As an argument broke out between Jen and Keith about who would take the bill I got up and walked to find a manager.  I spoke to him about the two glasses of bugs and my 60% fat Prime Rib.  He looked annoyed that I had bothered him which pissed me off and said that he would take off my bourbons and was silent.  I looked at him and said, “And...” to which he responded, “And... half of your porterhouse” which appeased me enough to walk away.  I know that the place was one of Jen’s favorite places to eat and the servers were both really nice but receiving two drinks with bugs in them, a fatty steak (supposed to be the best meat in the country it claimed) and then have the manager appear annoyed with me soured me to the restaurant and also earned it a piss poor review from me on Yelp. At least my lobster mashed potatoes were yummy.  I was full but when I heard what the bill had come to I almost fell over.  I’m glad everyone else enjoyed their meals, I guess I was just the guy to get hosed this time.
Day 5 - Leaving Orlando

The night after Shula’s was rough.  I was up several times throughout the night with an upset stomach, no doubt from the meal.  Emily was also up throughout the night throwing up repeatedly.  My first thought was food poisoning and made me hate Shula’s even more but later I would find out that she, and her dad, had picked up some sort of bug from one of the resorts.  We had to catch the Disney express at 9:45am so we met everyone at Olivia’s for breakfast where Emily had a really rough time throwing up as soon as she saw the bacon on my plate.  
It was really sad to say goodbye to her family and board the bus for the airport.  The lines through security at the airport were terrible and I actually got asked for a 2nd form of ID!  It took forever which really sucked for Emily as she was terribly sick and had to wait for the bathroom after getting through security.  Then our airplane got stuck on the tarmac because of a mechanical issue that then caused us to miss our connecting flight out of LAX.  Thankfully by the time we made it to the Alaskan Airlines terminal they were able to get us on a flight through Seattle for the last flight from there to Portland getting us to PDX at 1am rather than the 7pm we originally had straight from LAX.  Thankfully our one checked bag actually made it to PDX before we did and we were able to grab it.  The drive from PDX back to Corvallis at 1am (4am in my East Coast head though) was through ridiculous fog so thick I could barely see 20 feet ahead of me.  I stopped for coffee to keep me awake but still ended up having to pinch my leg in pain and punch my surgery knee near the end to stay awake back to the house.  Never again will I fly through PDX and I don’t know how many more times I can make that trip that late at night with Emily asleep next to me.  I think we’ll either spend the extra money to get in earlier or just get a hotel room if that happens again because it’s not worth our lives.
So, in summary Disney was not what I expected going into the trip.  It completely blew my mind and I had a fantastic time both at the parks and of course with Emily’s wonderful family.  I love them all.  I can wholeheartedly say without any embarrassment now that adults can have a terrific time at Disney without any kids with them.  Although I’d like to visit Bush Garden’s and Universal if I return I had a great time and rode terrific rides without them this time.  The detail that does into everything Disney created blew my mind and Epcot was definitely my favorite.  I could easily spend several days just at Epcot.  Animal Kingdom was really fun too but I think I saw all I wanted to there.  I could have spent a little more time at Hollywood Studios because we only had the first afternoon there and most of that was taken up by the dating game and the stunt show.  I also think I would skip the Magic Kingdom unless I had Ellie with me the next time I go which I hope to in few more years when she’s getting out of her tantrum stage.  Great trip and although I was physically tired and didn’t have much time to relax I felt relaxed when I got back to work after sleeping in a bit on Monday.  A big thank you so much to Jen and Nick for putting the whole trip together!

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