Disney World 2016 - Magic Kingdom

This was the day I’d been waiting for since June. I have nothing against Epcot or Animal Kingdom, and I very much love the Kennedy Space Center. But when it comes to magic, the closest I’ll ever get to witnessing real magic, it’s the looks on children’s faces when they see something wonderful. I had great memories of the Magic Kingdom from when I was a kid, and I wanted to see what it looked like through my own kids’ eyes.

The alarm went off at 6:00. Peeling the girls out of bed wasn’t particularly easy, but by 6:30, they were dressed and ready to tackle the day. Alex ushered us all out the door so she could (wisely) go back to sleep.

We paid little attention to the quality of breakfast, and instead shoveled in food so we’d have enough energy to run the day. Or at least until we could eat lunch, anyway.

We got into the line just after 7:15. The bus would take us to the gate, and we’d have enough time to walk to Cinderella’s castle for the appointment. I could already sense their excitement as we got on. They weren’t bored or listless, nor were they yawning. It was actual excitement. It was what I’d hoped for.

As we passed under the main gate for the Magic Kingdom (which we’d already crossed under twice for our rental car), I felt my own excitement rise. Which, really, was something I never expected. I guess, if anything, it means I’m not as jaded as I thought I was.

You could see Space Mountain and the top of the castle as we rounded the Seven Seas Lagoon, and passed by the Contemporary Resort (where I’d stayed on my first ever visit), and finally turned into the bus stops just in front of the entrance. Bag searched, and MagicBands tapped, we headed up the red path, and passed under the Main Street USA train station, and into Main Street Square.

It was definitely Christmas. The huge tree in the middle of the square, the wreaths at every possible hanging point, present decorations, huge toy soldiers, and lights that were still winking in the rising sun. The buildings ahead blocked the view that my girls were about to see, so I rushed ahead of (which wasn’t easy, they rushed after me) to capture a video of their expressions as they rounded the corner and looked all the way down Main Street towards Cinderella’s castle.

I wish I could show it to you. But, as you’ve noticed, there aren’t any pictures of Monkey or Choo Choo on this blog. They’re not mentioned by name, either. So I can’t show you the video. So allow me to try and describe it.

Where Main Street the Square, it forms a loop, in the centre of which is a small park with a flagpole in the middle (replaced with a Christmas tree when I was there). If you don’t go through the park (which was nigh-impossible due to the decorations), you have to go to one side or another, and are unable to look directly up Main Street.

We went up the east side of the square, passing next to the Confectionery — a candy store. The girls were already in awe of the things they saw: the decorations were expectedly perfect, the candy store was already calling to them, the huge masses of balloons just had to be purchased. I had to get them to come forward: “Come out onto the street.”

At this point, Monkey realized something was up: “Are you filming us?” It was more of an accusation than it was a question.

“Look ahead,” I suggested.

Monkey looked away from the stores and balloons, and followed the line down the road. Her jaw dropped. “Whooooooooooa!” Choo Choo’s mouth hung open, wordlessly. Monkey added another “wow”. The smiles were ear-to-ear.

We were still early, but I didn’t want to miss anything with so few people in the park. It was two days before Christmas, and a Friday to boot. I was expecting a crush.

We bypassed Main Street (being entirely shops, and we weren’t there to go shopping) and headed towards the castle. At the other end of Main Street is another loop, from which roads branch off to other parts of the park. In the centre of that loop is a statue, a monument to a man with a dream, and his creation, who gave birth to a place where you can always feel like a kid, regardless of how old you are.

Walt and Mickey in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Rounding the statue, we headed up the ramp, and through the tunnel into Fantasyland. The Boutique wasn’t open yet, so it gave us a reason to look around a bit first.

To the left of the tunnel exit is a small store, meant primarily for girls who’ve gone through the Boutique. It’s basically Princess Central. We were then drawn to the carousel, a massive monument to mounted motion. We’d missed the Sword in the Stone routine by mere seconds, carried out by no less than Cinderella’s step-sisters, both of whom had hung around to goof off on the carousel.

Anastasia, in particular, was hamming it up, sitting on her horse, whining about why the ride hadn’t started yet. (It takes a while to get a couple of hundred people on and off the thing; it’s five horses deep.)

The carousel in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

She was even hammier once it started moving.

Anastasia on the carousel in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Following the ride, and still having time, we took the chance to get some quick character pictures in before hitting the Boutique. Nearby was a chance to visit with not one, but four princesses: Elena of Avalor (TV series), Cinderella, Tiana (Princess and the Frog), and Rapunzel (who, in the Tangled version of the story, is a princess). The line was short enough for Elena and Cinderella, though in our haste to leave that morning, hadn’t brought the kids’ autograph books.

Meeting Elena in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Meeting Cinderella in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Then it was time to become princesses themselves.

I had first learned of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique from a co-worker, who had taken his kids to Walt Disney World many years earlier. He had actually done a presentation on it afterwards, remarking at the expertise that Disney could execute an experience, and how we (in the marketing agency world) should learn a thing or two. The Boutique was a particular example, which — although not a parent at the time — I resolved that I would one day bring my daughter to, if I ever had one. (Little did I know…)

The Boutique is appropriately located just inside Cinderella’s castle. We arrived a little bit early, though not poorly timed — most of the Fairy Godmothers-in-Training hadn’t yet received their princesses, so we were merely ahead of the game that morning.

The Boutique has three levels of packages for girls (and one for boys, referred to as the “Knight”), ranging from $60 (basically a hairstyle and nail polish) all the way to $200 (hairstyle, nails, dress, crown, wand, makeup). When I’d booked the Boutique back in June, I’d gone with the $100 mid-level package (no dress), thinking that it’d be sufficient, and wouldn’t encourage Alex to kill me.


It was our last full day at Walt Disney World. I was excited. The girls were giddy. And thanks to Cathy for having sorted out my business taxes, we had more than enough to handle an increase. “Go big or go home, right?” I said to the clerk, and the girls were signed up to be full princesses.

The Boutique room is more-or-less a salon, ala Disney. It looks royal. All the cast members are in costume. To stand there and look, you’d have a hard time looking your daughter in the eye and say “no, you can’t be a princess”. I was really glad I’d booked it well in advance.

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

The girls were whisked to the back where they were shown their new dresses. Monkey, unsurprisingly, had chosen Elsa (from Frozen; honestly, we’ve got at least three Elsa costumes). Choo Choo went with Elena (I’d expected Anna, or possibly Tiana). They then were introduced to their Fairy Godmothers-in-Training, who set to work on making them princesses.

I expected to have to leave. For the first (and probably the last) time in my life, I sat in a salon and watched someone in my family get their hair styled.

Monkey’s Godmother, Sterling (a rather unusual name for a woman, I have to say) had the challenge of braiding all of Monkey’s hair to fit the extensions that would turn Monkey into Elsa. But Sterling had it easy compared to Klimmie, Choo Choo’s Godmother.

Choo Choo has … difficult hair. It knots in seconds, regardless of how clean and conditioned it might be. It’s a challenge to keep straight and neat. I apologized to Klimmie at least three times, and each time she smiled and said: “It’s never a problem.” Clearly, Klimmie’s never been in the bathroom when I’m trying to get Choo Choo ready for school in the morning, and the rat’s nest at the back is making me think of just buzzing Choo Choo’s head clean. But she pulled out her special comb, and went at it.

For an hour, I sat there, watching both of my girls slowly transforming. I watched some other girls come and go (presumably with lower-level packages), and watched how the presentation went. None of the girls actually see themselves until it’s all done; their backs are to the mirrors during the entire process.

In the chair at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Every so often, another Godmother would flit in to handle the makeup and nail polish, and then flit off. A PhotoPass photographer constantly circled all the chairs, snapping pre-determined points of the process. The smiles on both the Godmothers never once wavered, the ones on my girls just kept growing.

Getting ready at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Choo Choo finished first. Although her hair had taken considerably longer to comb out (I doubt it’ll ever be as nice ever again), the extension merely needed to be braided in. She was sprinkled with pixie dust (sparkles), and spun to see herself in the mirror. Her reaction was … well, royal. She smiled, but in a way that would look comfortable on Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Monkey’s reveal was decided more emotional. But then, Monkey is much more of a believer than Choo Choo. At nearly 9.5 years of age, she’s an ardent fan of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and magic. Choo Choo is more of a skeptic. So for her, this was the best dress-up she’ll ever have as a kid. Sure, it’s not as magical as I might have hoped, but I think it’ll still be special.

Thanking the Godmothers, we headed out of the Boutique (after paying the bill and making sure that the girls got their pull-string bags with their clothes, and other accoutrements that came with the package), and went to the front of the castle. I wanted a picture of my princesses.

No sooner than we’d stepped into the circle out front, we met a Japanese tourist. She (and her friends) wanted pictures with Monkey and Choo Choo. To North Americans, this is a weird request. It’s a kawaii thing. Thankfully, something I was already very familiar with. I checked with the girls first to make sure they were okay with it. The looks on their faces was first confusion, then curiosity. Then, explaining that the Japanese women wanted pictures with princesses, just like how they’d been taking pictures with Disney princesses, they were quite happy to pose with complete strangers.

Princesses at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

We headed back through the castle, back into Fantasyland. We went right back to the same “Princess Central” store, because I was told there was a photo studio there, and that girls coming out of the Boutique might enjoy it. But the girls wanted to visit with Tiana and Rapunzel. And given how quickly the park was filling, it seemed a good idea to usher them in before the lines got too long.

Alex caught up to us while we were in line. I felt bad that she’d missed out on the morning so far, but I knew that the week was already taking its toll on all of us. Alex had brought the autograph books with her. Tiana was first, and sounded almost exactly like her film counterpart. Rapunzel was a harder sell, given how she was animated, and had decidedly less hair than I would have thought (in her pre-cut point).

Meeting Rapunzel at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

After the princesses was the carousel. Monkey opted not to go, so she and I watched the Sword in the Stone routine while Alex and Choo Choo rode the carousel.

Alex had found her mission for the day: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. The game was played with cards, and each card is head in front of a special area (that looks otherwise utterly ordinary), which (after some interesting optical recognition) plays an animation. You collect (and trade) cards, building up your magical abilities to defeat various Disney villains. It’s by far the most complicated of the missions we’d seen, and Alex was determined to give it a go. She’d started before she’d met up with us, and she’d wanted to give it a whirl while we went off to try other things.

First thing? It’s a Small World. It’s about as quintessential as ride as it gets. If you go to the Magic Kingdom, you just have to ride it. The last time I rode it (in 1991), I remember it being quaint and fun, and my friends and I sang the song (partly out of spite) for most of the day.

My first impression as we approached the entrance was one of mild confusion. In my memory, It’s a Small World was entered from the outside. But the patterned towers with the animated clock were under a roof. (It’s only now I can think that maybe I’m confusing Magic Kingdom‘s version with Disneyland‘s version, which I’ve seen more recently.)

In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t gone on It’s a Small World. It looks very, very dated. I mean, it was adapted from a similar exhibit in the 1964 World’s Fair, it’s definitely not going to feature anything particularly whiz-bang, but … I dunno, maybe I’m too old for it? Maybe I’m expecting too much? Either way, the kids liked it, though it was hard to tell how much they liked it.

Exiting, we still had time until our lunch date with Mommy. So we headed off for the next most classic ride: The Mad Tea Party. Most people know them as “the teacups” or something similar. I had to do it, because it’s the one I’ve done with the girls several times at Calaway Park (where it’s known as the “strawberry ride”). We passed by Winnie the Pooh and Tigger doing their character meet (I would whine all day about not meeting Tigger, in my very best Tigger voice; I’m a bit sore than I never did), and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (which the girls swore up and down they wouldn’t ride).

The line didn’t move as steadily as It’s a Small World, though it went quickly enough. In reasonably short order, we were seated in our cup, and I had my iPhone out to film our little spin.

Of course I filmed it. I was sitting in a spinning tea cup with two princesses. What else do you think I’m going to do?

The girls ran with it, and hauled on the disc in the centre so hard I thought I might actually get nauseous. Then they stopped the cup, and ran the opposite direction. That seemed to help my inkling of nausea, as I wasn’t ill when I got out.

We met up with Alex outside of Ariel’s Grotto for our first FastPass of the day. While FastPasses are most popular with rides, if you want a character encounter, it can certainly help avoid a long line (witness our wait for Elsa and Anna). We zapped in, and whisked our way almost to the front of the line.

Ariel had a room all to herself. Her red hair flowed from her head, her blue flower (anemone?) sprouted from just off to the side, her seashell bikini was held in place on the nude-fabric top that she wore (Disney may be accurate to their costumes, but they ain’t stupid), and her glimmering tail flowed out before her.

Yes, tail. She’s a mermaid, remember? I had to feel a little sorry for the cast member portraying Ariel. Being stuck in that tail costume must be something to endure for hours on end. Choo Choo and Monkey loved the chat with one of their favourites, and it was likely the biggest smile Choo Choo had all day.

Meeting Ariel at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

We exited from Ariel’s Grotto, and went right into Under The Sea – Journey of The Little Mermaid. This was done largely because we still had time before lunch, and the line was quite short. Also, being an Omnimover ride, there was nearly a constant movement.

And again, this is where Disney hit it big, at least with me. We were waiting for this ride, but you never felt like to had to wait. We were looking at a tidal space, where Scuttle (the seagull) was directing little animated crabs (projected on tiny screens) to display “human things” for you to identify. So, of course, the entire area around it was built to look and feel like you were in a tidal space.

The ride — literally a clamshell — took you through an animatronic version of The Little Mermaid, complete with dialog, songs, and scenes. The only thing different was Scuttle’s introduction and conclusion, which weren’t part of the movie.

It really made It’s a Small World look dated. For example, as we passed by Ursula (singing “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”), we saw a life-size version of the sea witch, moving and twitching as if she were living and breathing. It was a little eerie. We passed the key scenes: the loss of Ariel’s voice, Ursula singing, the “Kiss The Girl” scene, the climax, and of course, the wedding. A fairy tail (“tail”, get it?) in about 12 minutes.

Though it was only 11am, it was time for lunch. And that was because I had to make a lunch reservation six months in advance. The choice was Be Our Guest, one of the newest restaurants in the Magic Kingdom, and is just up from Under The Sea.

And there was a lineup. To get a reserved table. I already had a bad feeling. And it got worse the closer we got to the front door. It was as we walked in the door that the truth full hit us: this wasn’t a full service restaurant. The “QSR” in the reservation was revealed to be “Quick Service Restaurant”, which is Disney-speak for “eat and get out”.

Here’s how it works: You’re handed a menu. You review said menu while standing in a line. At the end of the line (10-15 minutes), you get to a touch screen, where you order your lunch. (The menu is to help you decide, so you can order quickly.) You pay in advance at the touch screen, and get a receipt. You’re then ushered out into the dining hall, where you find a table and wait for someone to figure out what you ordered.

Not remotely as magical as I had been led to believe. I’d heard of a restaurant pattern like this, but my understanding was that you had ordered before you even got to the restaurant. Instead, you were directed to a table, and the sensors at the table would detect your MagicBand, and the staff magically found you. I can only assume that the process had its challenges.

We foolishly took the first table we saw, which was pretty much at the front entrance. If we’d been smart (or, preferably, been told to look around), we would have found two wings with more spaces.

At any rate, we were in the ballroom from Beauty and the Beast, replicated down to the stars on the ceiling. The only thing missing were Belle and Beast, whom I later found out only come out for dinner, not lunch. (Disappointment #2 on the restaurant.) Eventually a server appeared, took our receipt, and headed off to get our meals (which presumably were already being prepared). Cutlery, drinks, and napkins were provided at the side, which we had to get ourselves.

At this point, I will declare that my meal was actually quite good. The girls liked their shrimp. And Alex’s Tuna Nicoise was … exactly how Tuna Nicoise should be done. However, that’s not how my wife likes her fish cooked. This started another conversation with our server regarding alterations to the order. The touchscreens offer no such ability; there is no information on what you can do with your meal. I ate her fish, and it took nearly a half hour for cooked tuna to arrive.

After lunch, we went hunting for another princess: Merida. She was outside, though unlike Snow White, Merida seemed to have a dedicated area just east of the castle. I’m fairly certain that the woman playing the Scottish lass wasn’t actually Scottish, though she pulled off a passable brogue. But the girls were happy, even if the experience was a bit rushed.

Alex resumed her mission, agreeing that we’d all meet at the Haunted Mansion for the next FastPass a bit later. The girls and I consulted the Disney app for the best map, and decided to go visit Belle.

Belle’s princess experience is without question one of the best. You don’t just see Belle, you take part in it. You wind through her cottage (and amaze in the details Disney puts in), before you’re asked to enter her father’s workshop. You’re introduced to a magic mirror on the wall that allows her father to talk to Belle whenever he wants. And then, right before your eyes, it grows and forms into a full door.

I actually had to blink. I hadn’t seen it coming, and it’s pulled off so flawlessly that I had trouble trying to figure out how they heck they’d built it. Mind you, we were ushered through the portal fairly quickly, so there wasn’t a lot of time to analyze the Imagineering at work.

The room beyond was made up to be inside Belle’s castle. In the room, Wardrobe, who you don’t notice at first, is looking at you when you come in. After a cast member does a quick introduction, Wardrobe starts talking. It’s animatronic, but so life-like it’s freaky. She told us that we were about to enact a surprise for Belle, and retell of the moment she met Beast for the first time. The characters are played by the children in the room, with a pair of adults playing the stationary (and non-acting) suits of armour. Choo Choo was picked to play Mrs. Potts, while Monkey was Wardrobe.

At Belle’s castle in the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

After the parts were picked, we were moved into another room, which was built to look like Belle’s library. Along one wall was a fireplace, and benches were arranged to face it. The kids were arranged for Belle.

And then Lumiere spoke. He was a … well, a puppet-like thing on the fireplace mantle. His flames twitched like they did in the movie, and his face (a very well-aligned projection) did all the talking. It was trivial to suspend your disbelief and just let him be real for a few minutes.

Belle came in through a door that (thanks to overbearing regulations) was marked “EXIT”, and the pantomime began. I got so caught up in the play that I almost forgot to get pictures of the girls with Belle. (Sadly, there was no autograph time.)

Back outside, we headed back through Fantasyland towards Liberty Square, stopping only briefly to get a picture of the girls in front of Rapunzel’s Tower. We waited near the Haunted Mansion for Alex to appear, not being entirely clear where she was. While we waited, I watched the Mark Twain steamboat ply around the narrow waters around Tom Sawyer’s island, two features at Magic Kingdom that I’d always wanted to do … and things that will have to wait for another time.

Alex arrived, and we jumped into the FastPass line. Even though an Omnimover, the Haunted Mansion does have a bit of an issue with the way it brings people in through two rooms, before putting you into the cars for the rest of the ride. Thankfully, we were inside, where it was cooler, much more quickly than Under the Sea.

Monkey and Choo Choo were suspicious right away. Both repeated “it’s creepy!” many times. In a weird twist, having taken them on DINOSAUR! the day before had given me a baseline to tell them that it wasn’t as scary.

As I sat in the doombuggy with Monkey, I remembered the first time I went on the ride, with my friend Chris in 1991. I was simultaneously reminiscent and excited, as I had a wonderful memory of it. And then I heard the teenagers in front of us, screaming and crying in mock fear of everything. And the thought crossed my mind: Had I been that annoying teenager back then? I couldn’t remember…

It was almost as I’d remembered it, with only a few things that had changed along the way. Monkey was creeped out, but impressed. She worried about seeing zombies, right up until she saw one, and then was pretty keen on seeing more. I actually felt bad about having to leave.

Having some time before our third FastPass, we picked up bottles of water and pop, and went to find a semi-shaded place to sit and drink. The day wasn’t as hot as the day at Epcot, but the girls were starting to look flushed, and I wanted to take any opportunity to keep them hydrated.

Our last FastPass was Pirates of the Caribbean. The first time I went to Magic Kingdom, my dad had tried to take me on the ride. However, being the terrified little kid I was, I chickened out partway along. My dad didn’t try to encourage me to stay, so we left through a door and never came back. To this day, I regret having done that, denying my father the opportunity.

Needless to say, I’d been preparing my girls for the ride for months. They’ve seen the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. I’d played them every version of the song I could find. I even showed them a Youtube video from the Disneyland ride. No surprises, just fun.

I forgot that they’d retooled the line as a result of the movies. Originally, back in the day, it was a pretty straight-forward ride. The movie picked up on a number of the themes from the ride, including the dog “that never moves”. Now, in a rather strange twist, the ride is based on the movies (which were based on the original ride), and features Captain Jack Sparrow rather prominently. Instead of being a variety of vignettes, the ride becomes a short story of Jack trying to discover a new treasure.

It was getting close to the time for the Holiday Parade. And I urged us all to go see it. We wound out of Adventureland, and into Frontierland to find a space along the route. By the time we got there, the sides were already well-packed with people waiting to see the parade, so finding a spot was a bit of a challenge.

We were not disappointed. I’ve seen dozens of parades in my day, but nothing to the level of a Disney parade. Hidden speakers ensure you hear every word of every song. Featured characters have microphones so they can speak to the audience. Costumes are detailed, and judging by the people we saw, also very hot. (I can’t imagine how hot the Beast costume was.)

It started with some of the most classic characters: Pluto, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Donald and Daisy, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, followed by a large float with Minnie and Mickey.

The parade begins at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

After them came a plethora of nearly every Disney (and Pixar) character in various floats, walking on the streets, driving little cars, you name it. And it went on for well over a half hour.

Nothing matched the arrival of Elsa and Anna. Though different cast members than the ones who portrayed them at Epcot, they looked spot-on, and interacted with the audience as they passed by. Usually, it was just waving. But when they saw my kids (and, I assume Monkey especially, since she was standing next to another little girl dressed as Elsa), they stopped. And for a good ten seconds, Anna remarked to her “sister” at how there were miniature versions of them.

Anna and Elsa recognize my princesses at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

That painful bill to turn my daughters into princesses? Paid back in full.

The parade continued with Olaf and Kristoff (who had this look like he was going to take his axe to someone), and then by Vanellope and Wreck-It Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph (appearing in a gingerbread car and house, respectively).

Vanellope von Shweets at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Chip and Dale came along, followed by Goofy riding a suspended bicycle that (I guess) was meant to look like he was driving the float to which it was attached. The Seven Dwarfs preceded Snow White and Prince Charming. Then came Cinderella in a rather beautiful pumpkin-shaped carriage pulled by six (real) miniature white horses. A massive float holding up the remaining contingent of princes and princesses, topped by Fairy Godmother herself followed behind.

The remainder of the parade went decidedly Christmas, with the “cast” of Toy Story, followed by toy soldiers (looking remarkably like the static ones we’d seen in Main Street Square that morning), and then the big man himself: Santa Claus. And I do have to say, the best parade Santa I’ve ever seen.

Right about then, I registered a feeling in the back of my throat. You know the feeling: a thick, goopy kind of tickle that wants to hang there. There was no mistaking it: I was getting sick. I just hoped it wouldn’t hit me until we were home.

The parade route unfolded itself as Santa passed, the crowd quickly dispersing to other areas. As we started to move, we saw some people looking up. A skywriter had taken to writing the word “LOVE”, and had just followed with a “G”. At first, I thought it was a botched “D” (because, of course, one could believe Disney would do such a thing). Then the litter “O” appeared. ‘Goofy?’, I thought. It kind of made a bit of sense, but it seemed odd.

Then the “D” appeared. I hung my head. Bible thumpers. We were in the South, after all, where religion becomes much more in-your-face. The skywriter kept producing the message, even though the initial letters were starting to fade. Most people groaned in realization and moved on.

Sky writing over the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

For the first time that trip, I went off on my own, while Alex took the girls back into Fantasyland. I had a mission to perform, one I’d been meaning to do for a very long time: ride the Walt Disney World Railroad.

There are four steam locomotives at Magic Kingdom, each of them obtained from (of all places) Yucatan in Mexico, where they worked on a sugar plantation. Refurbished, they’ve operated at Magic Kingdom ever since. There’s even a behind-the-scenes experience in the roundhouse, which I desperately looked into, but it was scheduled to be closed while we were there.

So I had to suffice with a train ride. Being closest to the Frontierland station, I wound my way around Splash Mountain and climbed into the station just as a train was finishing boarding. I watched as it chugged off, listening to the sound of real steam. (Remember, the “steam” train in Animal Kingdom was an internal combustion engine.)

About five minutes later, the next train arrived. I could barely see it as it rolled in, so I couldn’t really tell which one it was. I think it was a 2-6-0, but that was looking as the train went around bends. Because of the way that the stations are built, I never got a picture.

Even the train experience is more than just a ride. Between Frontierland and Fantasyland (the longest stretch between two stations), there’s a voiceover talking about what it was like in the Old West, including Native American villages, animated alligators (thankfully, not real ones), deer, and so forth — things you can only see from the train.

We passed by the branch that allowed trains to enter and exit the engine shed, which we could only see at a distance, unclearly, through some carefully-placed bushes. On the other side of the tracks was the backstage of Fantasyland, hidden by even thicker trees. Disney knows the first rule of magic: never let them see how you do it.

The Fantasyland station is probably the most under-used, and (in hindsight) the best place to get a picture of the train as it approaches. From there, we passed into Tomorrowland (the sight of a steam train passing under the bridge into Space Mountain is not lost of most people), then rounded the bend for arrival at Main Street, where I got off.

Dinner was approaching. In my zeal to arrange for meals six months in advance, I’d tried to get a seating as close to our normal dinner time as possible. The only place I could get one was at 1900 Cafe in the Grand Floridian Resort, which was a monorail ride away. We still had about an hour before dinner, which gave me enough time to quickly cycle through a few of the stores, in search of more Disney-fied Hawaiian shirts.

Main Street was jammed. It literally looked like there was nowhere to walk. The sun was setting, and the light on the castle was an orangey-yellow. The lights hadn’t yet started to come on, but it was only a matter of time before they did.

I drew blanks in the stores. However, I was also pointed in the direction of stores in Adventureland, which I’d passed by going to Pirates of the Caribbean. Deciding that there wasn’t time for the journey, I waited for my family to arrive from Fantasyland.

If you look at the Seven Seas Lagoon from above, you can imagine the five stops on the monorail route as points on a clock: Magic Kingdom is 12; Contemporary Resort is 2, the Transportation Center (connecting to buses and the monorail to Epcot) is 5, the Polynesian Resort is 7, and the Grand Floridian is 9. I use the analogy rather specifically: that’s exactly the direction we had to travel. Although there are two tracks that run in opposite directions, the other is an “express” between Magic Kingdom and the Transportation Center.

The sun was setting behind the Grand Floridian as we rounded the bend, casting a brilliant light across the Lagoon. I wished we could have gotten out at Contemporary Resort and walked about a bit. I would have loved to see if the smell matches the one in my memory. We passed through the Transportation Center and Polynesian Resort without many people getting off or on. Oddly, nearly everyone got off in the Grand Floridian.

My jaw hit the ground when we came into the resort’s massive atrium. Although it looks large from the outside, the inside seemed so much larger. A massive Christmas tree dominated the middle of the space. Soft music played. Immediately I wished that we’d stayed there instead of Art of Animation. (There was a reason we didn’t: one night in the Grand Floridian was over eight times more expensive than our room at Art of Animation.)

Grand Floridian atrium at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

We wound to 1900 Cafe, and were quickly seated at our table. Almost immediately, we discovered that our “best” meal opportunity of the day was another QSR: a buffet. Worse still, that meant an even bigger challenge for Alex. Thankfully, though, a chef came out to indicate what items were safe for her, and promised to bring out a gluten-free bun. (It was terrible.)

Alex and I dove into our drinks, partly from exhaustion, and from frustration of finding a decent meal at one of the most expensive hotels in Disney’s portfolio. Then the sound of horns, followed by a quick announcement, and Prince Charming entered the room. He would be followed, at 4-5 minute intervals, Cinderella, her stepsisters, and her stepmother. The character meal was one.

This, I’ll give Disney, is well-done. The cast members are immaculately dressed and perfectly in tune not only with their characters, but seem perfectly capable of improvising to the audience. Prince Charming, looking barely 20, could be formed from plastic. Cinderella was simple stunning, Prince Charming was … well, charming. Both of them were boring compared to the other three.

When Lady Tremaine appeared, she immediately said: “Ah! Avalor and Arrendale, the battle for supremacy!” She then had the girls pose with their wands ready to attack. Alex and I were laughing so hard that we barely got a picture of them. Done like a perfect villain.

Lady Tremaine and the battle for supremacy at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Anastasia was next. We could hear her clearly from across the room. She, like her character, was loud and obnoxious and impatient. If you took too long to take a picture, she’d just repeat (as loudly and obnoxiously as she could, which was a lot) “Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!”. Take a page out of my friend Scott’s book, I took a video instead.

Drizella was last. A bit dopey, she engaged quickly with the girls, signing her name (as had all the others), posing quite overtly, and then pretty much picked a fight with Cinderella, being petty and defensive. Spot on characterization.

Drizella at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Amidst all of that, we managed to eat. The girls went back for dessert three times. Despite being a buffet, the food was well done, and far tastier than the fare at our hotel’s restaurant.

Following dinner, we poked around the Floridian’s atrium, listening to a choir sing the Christmas classics, and perused the ubiquitous Disney store. Finally, after a bit of nagging from myself, we all headed back to the monorail to complete the loop around the Lagoon.

Choo Choo wanted to swim. Alex had been done with Magic Kingdom three hours earlier. I wanted to stay and watch the fireworks. Monkey opted to stay with me. Alex and Choo Choo headed for the bus, Monkey and I went back into the park.

Main Street had come even more alive during our absence. Lights and music and smells of fresh popcorn and caramel were everywhere. Every so often, a firework would shoot off, taunting us for the show that was about to come.

Main Street at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

Monkey and I quickly shot up Main Street until we got the to north loop, and then headed back to Adventureland. Next to Aladdin’s Magic Carpets was a small store, and in that store was my last souvenir of the trip: a rather nice Hawaiian shirt featuring Mickey and Donald at the beach.

Monkey, still in her Elsa costume, wanted to ride Aladdin’s Magic Carpets before we did anything else. The bulk of visitors seemed to be heading towards the square out front of the castle, so it didn’t take us long to get onto the ride. And we had an entire carpet to ourselves. We whizzed about, zipping up and down, laughing and giggling.

Instead of heading back the way we came, we went up into Liberty Square. Not quite deserted, the lights at night were gorgeous. The Haunted Mansion looked oddly less intimidating. We passed into Fantasyland, watching all the lights and sounds in a whole new way. The carousel looked even more impressive.

Monkey asked several times to go on a ride, but each time I urged her forward. We were in search of light-up ears for Tia Nicole (Alex’s sister), and I wanted to see Tomorrowland at night for the first time. Fortunately, both needs were solved in the same place. I desperately wanted to ride the Wedway People Mover, but time was running out. Taking one last glimpse of the barely-seen quarter of Magic Kingdom, we headed into the circular park that stands in front of the castle.

About 50,000 others had the same idea. It was packed so solidly, that we could barely get a few body lengths in before there was no more room. Monkey was standing in a forest of adults unable to see, and I didn’t want to lift her up for fear of either a) tearing her new and expensive dress, or b) tearing myself from trying to lift her (Monkey isn’t as small as she used to be).

Monkey’s costume, combined with her exhaustion, was starting to really get to her. She itched horribly. I scratched her as best I could, trying to take her mind off the discomfort, and keep her from wanting to leave before the show began.

The announcements came, the lights dimmed, the music rose, and the lights in the sky burst to life. A cast member dressed as a glow-in-the-dark Tinkerbell, whom I can only assume is a heck of a daredevil, whipped down a zipline from somewhere high on the castle to somewhere over in Tomorrowland.

For thirty minutes, we witnessed the pinnacle of fireworks artistry, synced with music, and lights on Cinderella’s castle.

Fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, 23 December 2016

A final few bursts, and the show was over. The park wasn’t closed, but Monkey and I were done. One advantage of being so close to the edge of the crowd meant we could leave a bit more quickly. Which we did, going down a normally-closed alley behind the Main Street shops, which emptied us out into the Main Street Square near the exit.

It didn’t hit me then, and I’ll blame my exhaustion as a primary reason, but it was the first time during our stay that we’d seen anything truly behind-the-scenes. If you look at a satellite photo of Magic Kingdom (or, really, any part of Walt Disney World), Disney goes to great lengths to preserve the magic. For example, from the front of the Haunted Mansion, it’s a great old creepy-looking house. You can’t really see the massive soundstage that houses the ride within. You don’t see the access roads behind, the garbage trucks that whisk away the tonnes of refuse guests produce a day. Yet it’s all there — Walt Disney World wouldn’t function without it.

We climbed on the bus, took our seats, and spent the twenty minute drive back to the hotel resting. Monkey fell asleep on me, as she has many times during our travels. A last bit of magic in a magical day.