Disney World 2016: Epcot

Our first FastPass was booked for 9:40am, so we had a need to usher ourselves along that morning. Up, shower, dress, eat, and on the bus for 9am. It was a bit hurried, but nothing more dramatic than trying to get the kids up for school.

Arriving at Epcot was unique, in that the first thing we could readily see was Spaceship Earth (colloquially known as “the golf ball”) as we drove around Epcot’s massive parking lot to the bus drop-off. The bus ride was punctuated by a conversation with a rather bright girl from Georgia who seemed very interested in the girls’ first trip to a Disney park.

The first line we hit — a rather large one — was for the bag check. Disney takes security rather seriously, so all bags are checked when you arrive. We’d found this out the day before, so the only bag was mine, as I (very unsurprisingly) had to have my camera. The line moved fairly quickly, save for my accidental bumping into a mobility scooter and receiving my first scolding of “get out of my way”.

Mobility scooters are very popular at Disney. My mom had come to Disney a couple of years earlier with a friend of hers, and both had gotten scooters to get around. At first, I (silently) frowned on the use, about as much as I’d questioned her desire to go to Disney. I will freely admit (and apologize for the thought) that it was a brilliant move on their part. First, Disney is an open experience to anyone at any age, regardless of their ability to walk. And second, the scooters (for them) were a wise idea: we clocked nearly 20,000 steps in Epcot alone. We would repeat the same every day in every park we visited.

That said, scooter drivers are a bit on the arrogant side.

From there, we went to the park gate. In my youth (ahem), the gate was where you got your ticket. Today, it’s where you use your MagicBand to enter. For this, they have stands that are a little over a metre off the ground, with a large rounded front bearing a Mickey outline. You hold up your MagicBand, and place a finger on a fingerprint scanner (Disney claims this is to prevent ticket fraud, which seems a little odd to me), there’s a swirling light animation on the Mickey outline, a magical chime, and in you go.

We walked under Spaceship Earth, for you can do nothing else when you enter, and beelined for The Lands, one of the conceptual spaces at Epcot, for our first FastPass: Soarin’. Alex, wisely, bailed on us so she wouldn’t experience motion illness, and went to scout out other things.

The line for the ride was already at over 70 minutes, according to the Disney Experience app on my iPhone. Anyone visiting a Disney park needs this app, if you have any hope of finding anything, especially how long you’re likely to wait for a ride. It allowed us to make snap decisions, find a toilet, and figure out where to go with extreme ease. For smartphone apps, it’s one of the best I’ve used.

Our MagicBands binged us through into the FastPass line. And we walked for a good two minutes before we caught up to the rest of the FastPassers — that’s how long the line was, and how glad I was that we had a FastPass. You only get to book three in advance, so you need to choose wisely (it’s harder than it seems, trust me), but once used, you can book more. It’s a good idea.

Soarin’ reminded me of a ride my family had been on when I was a kid (either Horizons or World of Motion, I’m not sure). Soarin’ is a simple motion ride: you’re strapped into a chair in a large lifting frame that whisks you off the floor and presses you into a 180-degree projection screen. The frame is synced to the video, so that it tilts, raises and lowers as the film goes on, giving you the sensation of flight. Smells even waft in to accentuate the experience. The girls loved it.

When we found Alex, she’d found her mission: the Epcot passport. Epcot’s main attraction (after Spaceship Earth is the World Showcase: eleven country pavilions ringing the lagoon. The passport asked you to visit each country, and have it “stamped”: a cast member (all of whom were hired from the country in question) would provide a stamp, and then customize a message in it for you. Alex would ring the lagoon; the girls and I would not.

Our first stop was Norway (temporarily skipping Mexico), as we had to do one thing before anything else: we needed to visit Elsa and Anna.

The Royal Sommerhus

Yes, princesses. That’s a requirement when you have little girls. And even though mine aren’t so little anymore, they were adamant about seeing Elsa and Anna.

The sign next to the one that read “Royal Sommerhus”, a little digital display, said it was a half-hour wait. Resigned to the pause, we got in line. And immediately started to notice how Disney makes its magic.

The first time I’d been to Walt Disney World, I was a kid. Everything was magic. The second time, it was 1991 and I was a teenager, so magic was met mostly with “meh”. I’d been to Disneyland in 1998 with my then-girlfriend … a period of my life that is largely a black hole now, and I remember little. This visit came after a decade and a half of agency experience, learning how to tear experiences apart, reverse engineering them, to build new ones. The wait gave my brain plenty of time for deconstruction.

The level of detail outside began to astonish me. Region-appropriate vegetation. Metal railings sculpted to look exactly like they were made from stout branches. I knew from satellite photos (during preplanning) that the buildings here were massive and utilitarian … but all I could see was a Norwegian log house. And those logs? Concrete. But you had to put your hand on them to know. The Imagineers had even replicated a completely believable chatter mark.

Inside was even more dramatic. The line wound through Elsa and Anna’s “house”, complete with paintings, wood carvings, fiddles, furniture, books, everything needed to have a home. All of it looked utterly real.

In Elsa and Anna's "home"

Then the final door opened, and we walked into a photo studio. Each costumed cast member stood at her own “window” overlooking Arendelle’s fjord. We’d seen these characters before, of course, in the Stampede Parade (because, of course), or at Calgary’s New Year’s Eve event (which made a little more sense). Those, as nicely done as they were, were rank beginners compared to Disney’s version.

As hard as it is to replicated an animated character’s appearance in real life, with real people, Disney pulls off an extremely good job. Mannerisms, vocabulary (lines right out of the movie), the ability to improvise in-character, costumes, wigs, makeup, everything. Little details, like Anna’s strip of white hair, aren’t missed. The appearance is as perfect as one might expect. I thought Monkey’s grin might injure her.

Disney provides photographers for key things, such as character meets. This service, called PhotoPass, links through the MagicBand as well. For a fee (nominal, really), you don’t have to bring a camera, either. In fact, with nothing more than a MagicBand, you can experience Disney completely, and not need to worry about food, drinks, souvenirs (they’ll even ship them to you, so you don’t need to carry them around) or a camera.

But hey, it’s me. I took a lot pictures.

After the encounter, you end up in a store. Because, Disney. After a few “can I get this?”s, we moved back to Mexico, and lunch. Despite being a QSR (Disney’s acronym for “Quick Service Restaurant”), the meal was surprisingly good. My only complaint was that my attempts at Spanish were met largely with indifference.

We went into the Mexico pavilion after lunch. Inside was a complete twilight-lit (stereotypical) Mexican town square, with a restaurant, and vendor’s stalls. At the far end was an erupting volcano. It was here that Alex went on her first official Disney ride: Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros. As our agent had suggested, it would be a quick win, as the line moved fast, and few people seemed to know about it.

It echoed my memory of “It’s a Small World” from the Magic Kingdom, but less annoying. And quite well-built.

Afterwards, the girls worked on an art project while Alex soared ahead to China for her passport. We caught up to her, and proceeded to Germany. Spying a sign for a Snow White meet, I kept the girls while Alex headed off to Italy and beyond.

Unlike Elsa and Anna, Snow White appeared in a small corner, next to an old-fashioned water well, complete with bucket. The line formed relatively quickly, but was reasonably short. What was unreasonable was the heat. Our visit to Epcot was our hottest day on the trip, and it had to be in the mid-30s with the humidex (that’s centigrade, by the way). Despite my large iced tea at lunch, I was dying for a drink. And being in Germany, how could I pass up a beer?

My friend Jeremy had told me that it was entirely possible to walk all the way around the lagoon and never not have a beer in your hand. (I did have to clarify that statement with asking if it were “any regular person”, or if it was the way him and I tended to drink.) Finding a beer, as such, was easy. While the girls stayed in the line, I went to a nearby cart to get a (large) cup of Schofferhofer Grapefruit. I had half of it down by the time I got back to the line, not 20 metres away. The beer was gone by the time we got to Snow White herself.

The uncanniness continued: Snow White was as close to the movie version — high-pitched voice, included — as I’d ever thought possible. Like with Elsa and Anna, she signed their autograph books. I can only wonder the training that must go in to sign as well as they do.

Epcot, from Germany

We got some caramel corn from the Germany store, and headed off to Spaceship Earth, where we had a Fastpass waiting for us. Alex would follow, catching up some time later.

The Golf Ball

Now I’m fairly certain that I rode Spaceship Earth on my first visit. But I cannot remember for certain. Nor can I remember what it looked like back then (it’s on its fourth version). Nevertheless, I was still blown away by the animatronics, and the presentation as you rise through time from the dawn of mankind, to the dawn of the home computer, right until you enter the planetarium at the top. You get that amazing tingly feeling at a brilliant reveal.

At the bottom is a view of the future from various technologies, none of which I paid much attention to.

We divided when we left, with Monkey and I going off to visit with Baymax (from Big Hero 6), and possibly Joy and Sadness (from Inside Out) at one of the character meets nearby. Baymax convinced even Monkey that he was real, in how he moved and felt (he was “squishy”). We couldn’t afford the time for Joy and Sadness, though Monkey would have loved that.

We were off to The Seas with Nemo and Friends. We had a FastPass for the Nemo ride, which was to be followed by dinner at the Coral Reef restaurant in the same building. We arrived a bit earlier than our FastPass appointment, so we entertained ourselves with the Finding Nemo seagulls while waiting for Alex to catch up.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

The Finding Nemo ride was another Omnimover, and not really all that impressive, at least until the animated walls gave way to aquarium walls, and the characters — projected via Pepper’s Ghost — became one with the aquarium’s real residents. When we finally got off the ride, we were in the  “base” of the aquarium, complete with several tanks filled with all sorts of creatures, including dolphins in the massive main tank, and manatees in a smaller tank.

While Alex rested a bit (all of us were getting a bit wiped), we watched a demonstration for divers, in how they use a “lockout chamber” for entering an exiting, as well as hand signs for communication. Intensely educational, but the kids were enthralled. If only Disney ran the schools…

Diver Lock-Out Demo

Dinner time finally arrived, and we headed to the Coral Reef restaurant, where we were introduced to our server, Mulan (a regular, ordinary person, I assure you), who had a tenth level black belt in sarcasm. She made the meal interesting to say the least.

The room was tiered, arranged so that all the tables could have a clear view of the aquarium walls along the one side. Being at the top level, we were the furthest away, so it was hard to see what else was in the windows, but it was still nice to see. The meal, thankfully, was tasty. More important was the air-conditioned break.

It was at dinner that we abandoned the plan to see the Candlelight Procession, a show Epcot puts on in the evenings at Christmastime. Ever since I’d heard about it back in June, when I’d made the reservation, I’d been hoping to see it. Every night, there was a celebrity narrator (that night, it was Ming-Na Wen, who had been the voice of … wait for it!… Mulan; what’re the odds, right?), and it promised to be a big show.

However, I was the only one who wanted to see it. And dragging everyone else along seemed nigh-impossible. I had to resign the idea. And though I thought it a minor thing, it would come to weigh on me tremendously as the evening went on.

It was dark when we finally got back outside. The heat was still strong, but the lack of sunshine at least took off a level of harshness. Alex went into overdrive, determined to finish her passport before we left. So back to the World Showcase we went … though I do admit taking a diversion along the way to get some light-filled pictures of the park whenever I could.

Canada was our first stop. The passport was stamped, and we started to head off to the United Kingdom when we got sidetracked by a gift shop in Canada. This was when things got a little bit weird.

First, the store smelled like Canada. I have no idea how the hell you do that. But it literally smelled like home. I suddenly felt the urge to see if there was anything that would make a good shirt to bring home. As I wound through the store, I suddenly heard: “I know a UofC hat when I see it!”

Second weird thing: one of the clerks was from Calgary, and my University of Calgary hat (bearing just a lettermark logo) gave me away immediately. On the bright side, it did offer up a little chat with home-away-from-home (though I think the clerk appreciated it more than we did), and she offered up some pins honouring Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday (which we would be repeated congratulated for during the rest of our stay).

Epcot, from Canada

The United Kingdom was next. The kids needed to use the toilet, so Alex shot off in search of the passport stop. Almost immediately, I was struck with how much the place actually felt like England. I’ve been there four times, and there’s a certain feel to it that’s hard to explain, but somehow Disney nailed it. Walking through the streets, the architecture of the chimneys, even the windows on the pub — all of it felt English. For more than a few moments, I desperately wanted to go back to York.

But we trucked on towards our final destination: France. It took a bit of winding paths to get there, but when we crossed the final bridge, it was hard to not think of my visit to Paris nearly a decade ago. I almost expected to (stereotypically) hear accordions playing as we moved along.

Our stop was in a large shop at the end of an alley. Inside were all kinds of Disney souvenirs in a French flavour (read: lots of Eiffel towers). With the passport done, and all the “can I get this?” suitably shot down for the day, we went off towards “home”.

My mood went off, too. I was too hot, too tired, my underwear had betrayed me and felt like it was trying to invade from behind, and all I wanted to do was watch that Candlelight Procession. The park looked gorgeous with all the lights, and I felt like we were betraying it trying to leave. I moped.

I moped all the way back to Spaceship Earth, where we stopped at a pin store to inspect their wares. All I wanted at that point was to just get on with leaving. I was turning decidedly foul, and probably started to ruin what was otherwise a great day. I pouted and waited, muttering stupid thoughts while Alex and the girls looked at what were probably some really cool pins.

The Golf Ball at night

We headed to our bus for the ride back to the resort. I sat, exhausted, not able to wait until we got back so I could go to bed.

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