According to the independent-minded authors of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" (which we heartily recommend; Macmillan, $15.95), attendance at the four parks at WDW is at its lowest during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (around 15,000 souls per day), making it a very smart time to visit. Attendance peaks the week between Christmas and New Year's (70,000 humans per day), making that a not very smart time to visit.
As a public service, we had staff members visit during each of these times around the holiday season just past. John Deiner visited in early December. Call him Happy. Craig Stoltz visited Christmas week. Call him Grumpy. Their reports follow.
It's a Small World. Now Get out of My Way
When and How: The week beginning Christmas Eve 1998. Our party: Dad, Mom and two boys, 8 and 7. Our trip marks every family member's first encounter with the Dreaded Mouse.
Planning: First mistake: We don't start planning until the first week of October, when we realize that our three US Airways round-trip tickets (earned via voluntary bump) would expire in January. The best flight US Airways phone staff can find with three free seats (which--potential bumpees please note--are viciously restricted) and one seat available for purchase lands in . . . Gainesville, Fla., about 2 1/2 hours away. And we have to go to the US Airways' K Street office within 24 hours to pick up the three bumpee tickets. But that's okay, 'cause we're going to Disney World!
For Disney accommodations, we call Disney Vacations directly and learn that lower-priced on-campus rooms for Christmas week are sold out. Working with our two requirements (a heated outdoor pool, and costs as low as possible), the agent finds quarters at Coronado Springs Resort, near Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios, for $139 per night. We sign up for two nights, are told to buy "park-hopper" passes when we check in.
Best-Laid Plans, Etc.: Snow cancels our US Airways leg to Charlotte. The next flight available for our foursome: two days later (but direct to Orlando). An hour-plus of phone work later, all Disney plans have been miraculously duplicated for two days hence, plus the Gainesville rental car has been shifted to Orlando. So, we'll still have to fly back out of Gainesville. So, we lose two days vacation. That's okay, 'cause we're going to . . . oh, you know.
Lodging: At $139 per night, the Coronado Springs Resort is probably our best hotel value ever. Comfortable, amenity-rich room with two double beds, all newish, clean and decorated in nearly tasteful Southwestern-Caribbean-Central American theme. There's a massive (heated, outdoor) pool and playground, featuring a towering faux Aztec pyramid whose summit is the launching point for a wicked water slide. Impeccable service, in that Disney manner. Night illumination of resort theatrically beautiful, in that Disney manner. Only complaint: Huge resort divided by big lake requires long walks to restaurant and resort hub, often with catatonic charges. Celebrity sighting: Howie Mandel in a clownish denim get-up with bouffant sleeves.
Food: Far better than we feared, more expensive than we imagined. Resort's Maya Grille (kids eat "free," adult entrees are $20 to $25) served an inspired "Pan-Latin" anniversary- or birthday-dinner-quality meal: pumpkin-seed-coated Gulf snapper with mole sauce, architectural chocolate desserts, smart selection of (moderately priced) Chilean and Argentine wines. Dinner at Epcot's Mexican pavilion is fairly authentic in a charming (faux volcano backdrop) but hectic atmosphere. Animal Kingdom's Rainforest Cafe (not a Disney business) pales near Disney-produced environments and food. MGM Studios Deli serves enormous, tasty sandwiches. Boy, food costs add up.
MGM: Oh, the humanity! We fail to abide the guidebooks (which advise early arrival and targeting of must-dos) and wind up among the masses wandering past hellish lines and settling for marginal attractions. Crowds prevent access to vaunted "Indiana Jones" stunt show, and the Tower of Terror line is 50 minutes-plus (and likely too intense for our charges, anyway). The MuppetVision 3-D show is nearly worth the 30-minute wait, the Great Movie Ride (15 minutes in line) interesting to kids and grown-ups, thanks partly to funny, crafty shootout between driver and another character. Animation Studios tour line resembles a queue at a Calcutta free clinic. Highlight for children: The "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" playground. Retired early, pink and bothered, for a healing session at the resort pool.
Epcot: We arrive at night for the Christmas concert; our dramatic reader is the incumbent Miss America. Though the program features every Christmas chestnut imaginable, the Disney choral/orchestral production is unexpectedly energetic and original, with theatrical touches like herald trumpeters, fake snowflakes cascading overhead and a flockette of white doves racing overhead at the grand finale. We absorb some well-scrubbed north African culture, in the form of a be-fezzed quartet and a dancer, at the Morocco pavilion; some futuristic agronomy (soil-less farming! aquaculture!) during a boat ride at the Land pavilion; and some delightful family techno-fun at "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience." Our troops are too weary for the celebrated evening IllumiNations show, but while exiting we are captivated by the operatic fountain display.
Animal Kingdom: Oh, the humanity! Once again we fail to arrive with the smart set; cheerful attendants at the entrance announce that the vaunted Kilimanjaro Safari is closed, thanks to the crowds, until 1 p.m. Once again we're left to wander the crush, sampling the discards. Discovery River boat ride (hour-long wait) essentially overviews all the attractions you'd rather be doing. Preview of Asian area's Maharaja Jungle Trek (opening in March) is a zoo in a meticulous re-creation of an Indian (or is it Thai?) jungle-edge village (highlights: tigers enclosed between a hillside and a faux decrepit temple; mega-bats dangling in a faux ruin). We see the magnificently carved Tree of Life only from the outside, but it's still a knockout. The kids enjoy (pattern here?) the Boneyard paleontology playground. Finally, an intense rain partially clears the park, permitting a rare opportunity to visit the massively popular Countdown to Extinction ride with only a 20-minute wait. The narrative is mushy--something about having to save the last dinosaur, traveling through time, etc. The ride is instead an elaborate excuse to serve up a neck-snapping, butt-shaking scare-a-thon. The ride snaps a photo of each group at the moment of peak fright, which is previewed on a video screen mounted at the exit. You can buy a copy for $10. More evidence that Disney continues to perfect the dark art of cash extraction, but we bought it. The picture's a scream.
In Conclusion: I finally understand the Disney mystique, and confess to being impressed with the theatrical flourishes, sharp production and doting personnel that distinguish Disney from mos t entertainment enterprises. Still, I'd never visit during such a busy time again. Anyone who dares to try should plan their time more strictly and should not expect access to the most popular attractions. Disney is frankly mean for permitting such overcrowding at its parks; it should require park reservations during peak periods. By capitulating to its own greed, it desecrates the very magic it works so hard to create.
Mickey Math: Two adults, two kids. Accommodations (two nights), $310. Park admissions (three-day length-of-stay passes), $492. Food and extras, $300. Disney total: $1,102, or $367 per day. Air fares: four at $239, or $956.
In Low Season, They're all Zippity Do Dah Days
When and How: The Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday after Thanksgiving 1998. Our party: My wife and I are joined the first two days by my brother- and sister-in-law and their three children (3, 9 and 12). The last day, it's just us against the World.
Planning: Most details are set by late January '98--10 months in advance. Plane tickets ($178 round trip on US Airways' MetroJet service, with a multitude of seats/flights available) are snatched up on the Web. The same day, a reservations agent at Disney Vacations gives me the ol' good news/bad news routine: Rooms are available in every hotel--except the one where the in-laws are staying. We settle for Port Orleans, the resort next door, and grudgingly accept the $119 a night tariff.
Best-Laid Plans, Etc.: We are willing bumpees at BWI. At first, gate agents try to lure us onto a later flight using free MetroJet tickets as bait. Then, shortly before takeoff, the ante is upped--round-trip tickets on any US Airways flight in the continental U.S. or Canada and first-class passage to Orlando on the next plane south. Hmmmm . . . US Airways pays for lunch and the sedan that takes us to Reagan National, where the next flight departs. We arrive in Orlando, pampered in first-class (limitless food and booze and a wall between us and the screaming hordes to the rear), a mere two hours later than planned.
Lodging: At $119 a night, Port Orleans (officially labeled a "moderate resort") still seems like Disney's equivalent of a Motel 6. The claustrophobic grounds feature lots of faux Dixiana--wrought-iron railings and lampposts, big grassy squares, narrow brick-lined streets--and a pool that sports a sea serpent with a tongue doubling as a waterslide. Our room is smallish and cheaply decorated, though we like the double basins outside the bathroom. On the other hand, the grounds of nearby Dixie Landings, where the in-laws are perched (in a nearly identical room, it should be noted), is less cluttered and features large trees and labyrinthine waterways. Maybe too labyrinthine: The first night, we get lost traversing the paths between the two resorts.
Food: Agreeable and easily obtainable. Though most meals are from vending carts (the pretzels are about $3 but huge) and fast-food counters, we celebrate a birthday with the in-laws at Epcot's China pavilion. We have reservations, but when we arrive at the appointed time, the dining room is empty--save for a nearby pod of four women whose nonstop stares almost prompt me to break into magic tricks and show tunes. The food is decent and costly, the service impeccable and friendly. Breakfast at Bonfamille's Cafe at Port Orleans is a standout--the place is nearly vacant, and our server, delayed by a departing group of 16 who demand separate checks, makes up by delivering a gratis bowl of fruit and a heaping plate of beignets to our table. Apology devoured.
MGM: We arrive on Saturday night, the last gasp for the Thanksgiving throngs, to find the park heaving with humans. Still, we wait only 10 minutes to board the tired "Star Tours." A backlot street, decorated with 4 million Christmas lights, is breathtakingly tacky and highly recommended. We search for the in-laws, who arrived in Orlando three days earlier, but finally must call them on our cell phone. They are standing 50 yards away. We head for "Fantasmic!," the park's new fireworks-and-lasers spectacular, but the grumbling masses on the 90-minute line provide more fireworks than the show. On Wednesday afternoon, we return sans in-laws and walk on to every attraction. Top thrill: Taking the deservedly popular Tower of Terror ride twice in 10 minutes. Days earlier, the posted queue time was 45 minutes.
Epcot: The seven of us arrive shortly before 9 on Sunday morning and find the park tumbleweed-in-the-streets deserted. We proceed to hop (run, actually) from one attraction to another. Smiles and "Good mornings" abound from the well-scrubbed Disney team. We hit "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience," a funny 3-D show, and squirm while the emcee goes through his script for a meager audience. And so it goes--small crowds, game employees going through the motions. One surprise: Despite the lack of lines, the kids are zombies by the time we arrive at the World Showcase, which is usually more of a sedative than Future World. Instead, the three come alive, helped in no small part by their father aceing the Germany pavilion's yodeling contest (remember, he's an in-law). The troll-filled "Maelstrom" boat road in Norway is a hoot, perhaps because we're still nursing our Margaritas from nearby Mexico. We cap the day by attending Epcot's lovely Christmas concert--offered throughout the season and narrated by a Has-Been Du Jour (ours was Phylicia Rashad)--and IllumiNations, its, yes, fireworks-and-lasers spectacular.
Animal Kingdom: It's a jungle in there, and we actually get to see it. Disney's newest big-ticket attraction has been wildly successful, and our biggest fear is that no matter when we arrive, it's going to be packed. We visit on Wednesday morning, again sans in-laws, and find the crowd large but manageable. Prompted by a Disney employee stationed near the front gate, we stroll right onto the raucous "Countdown to Extinction" dinosaurs-in-peril ride (I love it; the kid next to me bursts into tears when the final something-osaurus jumps out of a shrub). Next up: a 10-minute wait for the Kilimanjaro Safari, the park's star attraction. Guests board fakey safari vehicles for a ride into fakey African bush to see fakey--no, wait, they're real!--animals. It's a winner, despite Disney's insatiable urge to cheese things up (a pair of elephants only feet from the vehicle, for example, are scared away by one of the safari's skimpy special effects). Our favorite attraction, however, is 100 percent fake: the intricately carved Tree of Life and its beguiling, hilarious 3-D movie, "It's Tough to Be a Bug!" Again, no line, but if there had been, we wouldn't have felt cheated. We cover the whole park in four hours, missing only the "Lion King" stage show.
In Conclusion: Disney on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, good. Disney on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, bad. We left Orlando exhausted but happy. We'll never stay in the Port Orleans/Dixie Landings complex again; instead, we'd opt to upgrade our Disney accommodations or stay outside the park gates at a hotel where the walk to our car is under 10 minutes. And we'd arrive on that post-Thanksgiving Sunday. Otherwise, we wouldn't change a thing.
Mickey Math: Two adults. Accommodations (two nights), $265. Park admissions (one four-day Park Hopper pass--which I can use for one more day if I go back--at full price and one discounted three-day pass purchased in advance by my travel-agent wife), $277. Food and extras, $200. Total: $742, or $247 per day. Air fares: two at $178, or $356.
-- John Deiner
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