It had been almost two years since we last visited Walt Disney World…on Oct. 1st, 2021, to be exact.
If that date sounds familiar, that’s because Oct. 1st, 2021, was the 50th anniversary of the opening of The Vacation Kingdom of the World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
We were in the Magic Kingdom on the big day in 2021 when the line of humanity to get into the Emporium to buy brand new 50th anniversary merchandise stretched from one end of Main Street to the other.
We saw other lines at least a quarter of a mile long, with folks queueing up to purchase 50th anniversary popcorn buckets.
And we were there when a huge throng of people started camping out — actually, they were mostly sitting, knees crossed, on the pavement — right down the middle of Main Street, U.S.A., a full four hours before the debut of the 50th anniversary fireworks show.
We’ve been to other Disney parks since Oct. 1st, 2021 — Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and Disneyland Paris in Marne la Vallee, France, to be specific. And we did make it to Disney Springs for a few hours before and after a Disney cruise last November.
To be honest, after the nearly two-year hiatus, I was looking forward to returning to the four theme parks and everything else that Walt Disney World has to offer.
We discovered that much has changed over the past two years … and much, thankfully, has remained the same.
To begin with, Magical Express, that free service where Disney would transport its resort guests and their luggage to and from Orlando International Airport is no more. Your options from MCO include renting a car, having a friend or relative pick you up, paying for a Mears shuttle bus, taking a taxi, or hiring a ride share service.
We chose the latter, if only because the ride share driver will take you right to your resort, whereas Mears, like Magical Express, makes numerous stops.
The bag check “experience” has been streamlined outside all four parks: In most cases, guests simply walk through a scanner and head off to the main gate. No more overly thorough cast members rifling through your bag.
However, if you’re pushing a stroller or wheelchair or if they find something amiss while you’re going through the scanner, you’ll be subject to additional screening.
We also got to experience the “new” EPCOT, which is now subdivided into World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase.
Falling into “the more things change, the more they remain the same” category, there’s still a large swath of the World Celebration area that’s still under construction.
And we saw something new at the Magic Kingdom…or more accurately, at the MK ferry dock, near the Main Gate. There are now huge adjustable walkways that stretch out from the dock to the second deck, which accommodate either one or two boats after they’ve docked.
“Those ramps are used for loading and unloading guests quicker onto and from the second deck,” said retired Disney supervisor Ted Kellogg, who was in charge of WDW’s boats when the park opened in 1971. The ramps are usually in use during busier times of the day.
We also noticed that Disney cast members have changed their greetings when they interact with guests. It’s now “Hello, friend” or “How may I help you, friend?” Gives off a more, shall we say, friendly vibe.
For our five-night visit, we stayed at Saratoga Springs Resort, which is within walking distance of the Disney Springs shopping/dining/entertainment district. After arriving at Saratoga in the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 3, we walked over to Disney Springs to do a little shopping and have dinner.
We were actually glad to see security has been beefed up as you enter Disney Springs: As with the parks, you have to walk through a scanner before you can head inside.
On Monday morning, it was off to Animal Kingdom.
Just a few years ago, Animal Kingdom had undergone significant upgrades, in particular, the introduction of Pandora – The World of Avatar, as well as a commitment to making the park more of an all-day experience.
Sad to say, while Pandora – featuring the spectacular Avatar Flight of Passage and the bioluminescently brilliant Na’vi River Journey – remains extremely popular, the rest of the park is now in a state of flux.
Dinoland U.S.A. has transitioned into Demolitionland U.S.A., with the dismantling of one of its featured attractions, Primeval Whirl. Indeed, if the Disney execs at the recent D23 convention are to be believed, Dinoland U.S.A. will soon become extinct, making way for a major overhaul.
And it’s sad to see the 5,000-seat seating area around Discovery River sit idle. The arena once housed the ambitious, if ill-fated Rivers of Light Show and, more recently, the underwhelming Disney KiteTails presentation.
During our visit, we rode the always-thrilling Expedition Everest and got soaked on Kali River Rapids in the Asia section of the park, as well as experiencing the aforementioned Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey in Pandora before breaking for lunch at Pizzafari.
Finally, we rode the bumpy truck through Kilimanjaro Safaris and saw a new addition to the animal experience: An area on the reserve that’s reserved for goats.
When all was said and done, we did exactly what most guests do when it comes to Animal Kingdom: We spent five hours in the park, did as much as we could, and then left.
We headed back to Saratoga to regroup and swim before hopping on a bus to EPCOT.
We had dinner reservations at the Garden Grill Restaurant in The Land pavilion, where we had a great time interacting with Chip, Dale, Pluto, and Mickey Mouse, all while enjoying a tasty, family-style meal.
With a little time to kill before dinner, we hopped on Spaceship Earth, which is still enjoyable…but sorely in need of an upgrade.
Our main goal at EPCOT was to experience the park’s two newest attractions – Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. Since our virtual queue return time for Guardians wasn’t until 10 p.m., we figured we’d get on as many rides as possible until then.
First, we went downstairs to take flight on Soarin’ Around The World.
Then, from The Land, we headed over to World Showcase and the expanded France pavilion, home to the Ratatouille attraction.
The walkway leading to the ride entrance – known as Allée des Marchands (Alley of the Merchants) was beautifully designed, reminiscent of Paris’ famed Champs-Elysee. And the fountain in front of Gusteau’s gushes with what appears to be champagne bubbling out of bottles.
If you really want to spend time perusing the area, check out Chef Skinner’s scooter and Chef Colette’s motorbike, where you can pose for photos. Or look down at the pavement, where Remy’s footprints have been etched into the concrete … more evidence of Disney Imagineering’s quest for exquisite detail and authenticity.
The ride itself is quite similar to the Walt Disney Studios’ version in Paris, although enough changes have been made to give it its own unique flavor.
With several hours still left before our Guardians queue time, we walked around World Showcase to the Frozen Ever After attraction in Norway, and then rode on Test Track in what is now known as World Discovery.
As we walked, we marveled at Spaceship Earth at night; the veritable painter’s palate of colors splashed on the giant ball is a true joy, something that guests often take for granted.
At long last, our time for Guardians of the Galaxy had arrived. I decided to sit this one out, in no small part because of some negative reviews I had heard from friends. Indeed, while waiting near the exit, the range of comments I heard ran from guests getting off the ride were: “That was awesome!” to “I don’t feel as sick as I did the first time I went on it.” My family’s reaction? “That was sooooo great!” They’d go on it again a few nights later.
The next day, I passed on a trip to Typhoon Lagoon. After walking nine-plus miles the day before on an injured knee, I decided it was best to rest. When the gang returned later that day, we headed over to the Polynesian for dinner at Kona Café.
Wednesday was Magic Kingdom Day … and our first time on TRON Lightcycle / Run.
With the Main Street area decked out in all its Halloween finery, we decided to “warm up” for TRON with a trip on the always-fun Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The younger members of our group also did Goofy’s Barnstormer … twice, thanks to no line.
Our virtual queue number for TRON was fairly early, so we joined the large group of folks waiting to be called in the large, elevated area near the ride’s entrance. It was nice to see a restroom conveniently located nearby.
As we waited, we were able to watch as lightcycle train after lightcycle train, carrying up to 14 riders each, whizzed by right above us. It looked exciting!
It always seemed odd to me that an attraction based on a movie released in 1982 was placed in the Tomorrowland section of the Magic Kingdom, but at least the technology is hyper-modern.
Once our number was called, we joined a switchback line for several minutes before entering the actual show building.
During the pre-show, we learned how to store our belongings in numbered lockers and how to correctly climb aboard our lightcycle and get the various restraints in place.
The ride starts slowly before accelerating onto the outdoor track section. A few quick loops put us back indoors, in the dark, where the ride picked up intensity. Although there are no inversions, the lightcyles do go through some pretty serious side-to-side, up-and-down motions.
To be honest, this was the first time I felt that perhaps I should have heeded the standard warnings posted outside every high-speed Disney attraction, particularly the warnings that say: “For safety, you should be free from … back and neck problems.”
With four dislocated vertebrae in my neck, I fall into that category. Because you’re seated hunched forward, with your head raised, the ride puts your neck in some rather precarious positions.
My neck was sore, both during TRON: Lightcycle/Run and for several hours afterward. Despite that, it was a fun experience … the kind that coaster aficionados will surely love.
After TRON, we exited the park and took a boat to the magnificent Wilderness Lodge, where we had lunch at the always entertaining Whispering Canyon [when one of us asked for ketchup, we suddenly found ourselves with 12 bottles, courtesy of our “friendly” hosts and hostesses].
Then it was back to the hotel to cool off and gear up for a return to the Magic Kingdom.
When we got back, we experienced several MK staples … it’s a small world [even though this attraction opened with the rest of the MK in 1971, I found its colors even more vibrant than I remembered], Peter Pan’s Flight, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
On Thursday, we headed over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where the ride gremlins were waiting.
First, we got in the queue for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, but after waiting for about a half hour, the ride broke down and we were advised to exit the building.
Nonplussed, we made our way over to Slinky Dog Dash in Toy Story Land … where that ride also malfunctioned and shut down.
We did manage to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – an attraction known for its breakdowns – without a glitch.
After lunch at Pizza Rizzo’s, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror beckoned … but not before a quick trip through several of the park’s souvenir shops.
The next morning – our last before heading home – saw us head over to Olivia’s Restaurant at Old Key West Resort for a delicious breakfast … putting an exclamation point on a very enjoyable return to the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist and retired Disney cast member who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his On the Disney Beat and The Beat Goes On for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.