Sunday, October 21, 2001
Uncle Walt probably never envisioned that his World would come to this.
At Disney World's turnstiles, security guards riffle through fanny packs, purses, camera cases and backpacks. Ride lines are short, benches are empty, parking lots are more concrete than car, and rooms are widely available.
Outside the resort, flashing signs along Interstate 4 bait travelers with $39 rooms and "kids eat free" deals. Rental car lots are overflowing. Restaurants are hurting.
It is, in other words, an ideal time to visit, especially if you prefer your thrills with a minimum of distraction from fellow travelers. Last weekend, I dashed through the Disney quartet (Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios) and Universal Orlando (comprising Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) in a 36-hour whirlwind of ride-hopping. The lesson? While not advised, it is now possible to dash through six Orlando theme parks in 36 hours.
That may not be the case for long. According to Danielle Courtenay of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, "Business is definitely picking up, and attendance at the parks is solid -- especially on weekends. We're really optimistic that people are traveling again."
Hotels, which emptied shortly after Sept. 11, were up to 45 percent occupancy in late September, Courtenay said, but that's still significantly off the seasonal average. To counter the decline, the bureau introduced "Magical Orlando Getaways," in which nearly 100 hotels are offering three nights' lodging for the price of two [see Details below]. At the airport, passenger volume is steadily increasing.
For now, at least, attraction lines are manageable . . . or nonexistent. Waits were less than 15 minutes for just about everything last weekend, and you could walk on to many major attractions. (The exceptions were the rides -- from Dumbo to the Mad Hatter's Teacups -- in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, which was packed with preschoolers and their parents. And while Epcot's newish Test Track had an ugly 35-minute quagmire, a nearby pretzel vendor confided that "it's not worth the trouble.")
Actually, it's doubtful that long lines would have deterred the star-spangled, resolute vacationers who have descended on the parks, since everyone seems determined to have fun in spite of recent events.
Like the Florida frat boys waiting to board the Spiderman ride at Islands, showing off their picture from the Jurassic Park flume, heads bowed in mock prayer as the boat roared down a waterfall.
Or Josh, an Australian transplant who had somehow ended up in Orlando. He was rushing over to guests as they departed Universal Studios, introducing himself, shaking hands and thanking them for coming. He wasn't employed by the park.
Or Margaret Lapton and her mother, Maggie Bentham, who were touring the Magic Kingdom in matching flag T-shirts. Down from the Jacksonville area for three days, they'd never considered staying home. "It's a little more crowded than I expected," said Lapton, "but I don't mind being around people right now."
Then there were the rowdy twentysomethings and tired parents taking advantage of the two-for-one beers and air conditioning in Islands' Alchemy Bar. All eyes were on the pub's TV, which was tuned to the Wisconsin-Ohio State football game. "I've been waiting all week for this game," one Badgers alum declared. "To hell with CNN."