Four theme parks. Three kids. Two adults. And one seemingly impossible assignment: to visit every Disney World resort on the same day.
I'm not talking about an amusement park toe-touch, either. I mean quality time, taking no fewer than three marquee family rides at each place and with no skipped meals -- in other words, real visits.
At a resort that's sprawled across 25,000 acres of flat Central Florida farmland, is a foursome even possible? "It's not something we really recommend," warned Charles Stovall, a Disney spokesman.
As if that's not enough of a challenge, let me introduce you to my family. Kari and I have three kids: two boys, Aren, 5, and Iden, 3 and a 1-year-old girl, Erysse. Since we live in Orlando, they're no strangers to theme parks. But they're still young kids, with abbreviated attention spans, inflexible nap schedules and an occasional diaper to change.
Disney may not endorse our adventure, but it doesn't exactly stop people like us from trying. Since it opened Animal Kingdom a decade ago, it has all but invited its guests to squeeze a fourth park visit into a day. And that's all the encouragement that time-starved families with only a day to spend in Orlando needed. (Besides, if Disney didn't want us zipping around its resorts like boy scouts on a scavenger hunt, why would it sell a "Park Hopper" pass that allows us to do it?)
Magic Kingdom -- 9:02am
We valet parked our car at Disney's Contemporary Resort and ordered breakfast at the hotel's Concourse Steakhouse. Why spend $10 to valet park? Because it's $1 cheaper than using the main lot and saves you a bundle of time. (Technically, this was a no-no to park at the hotel, I'm told later by a Disney official.) It's just a short monorail ride to the entrance of Disney's signature park, versus a half-hour odyssey on a tram followed by a connection to a boat or monorail when you park the conventional way.
There was no time for a leisurely stroll down Main Street USA -- we walked briskly toward Cinderella Castle and then circled around to Fantasyland. High on our list of rides was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, one of the most popular attractions at the park. I've seen wait times of more than an hour, but this morning, it's less than 10 minutes. From there, we darted over to Peter Pan's Flight, where the line was even shorter.
So far, so good.
We debated the third ride. The boys wanted Pirates of the Caribbean, because, well, it's a boy thing to do. The girls preferred It's a Small World. Small World won because it's closer. But it came at a steep price: the song is still in my head.
As we rolled back to the park entrance, our confidence started to build. As long as we picked three rides but had backups for each one and avoided diversions, we might be able to conquer four parks. The kids were ready for more rides. We boarded a monorail for Epcot.
Epcot -- 10:45am
The line for The Seas with Nemo & Friends was about average, which is to say, it lasted a patience-testing 20 minutes. Worse, the baby's diaper needed to be changed. As we edged closer to Nemo's undersea world in a slow-moving line, we had no choice but to pull what we referred to as a Nowak maneuver, which is to say we changed Erysse without the benefit of a bathroom.
Thanks to the low light, no one noticed. But once the ride ended, the kids started to get fussy. They wanted lunch.
We had a schedule to keep, so we decided to see one more attraction before taking a break. Journey Into Imagination With Figment is one of the most underrated Epcot attractions. It's fast moving and fun but there's never a line. Before any of the kids could protest we were face-to-face with Figment in his laboratory. Then we're off to lunch.
Although we've tried almost every restaurant in Epcot's World Showcase, we're partial to the Lotus Blossom Cafe because it's fast -- and today, fast matters. Within just a few minutes, we were wolfing down vegetable stir-fry and pot stickers. Before catching the Gran Fiesta Tour at the Mexico Pavilion, we grabbed a pretzel from the nearby Norwegian bakery. The kids needed sugar. The adults needed sugar, too. It's a 20-minute bus ride to our next park.
Animal Kingdom -- 2:05pm
The signs in front of It's Tough to be a Bug! warn that the 3-D attraction may frighten young children, but we ignored them. After six rides, we concluded our children had become desensitized to loud noises and special effects. And besides, the wait was a manageable 10 minutes. Only Iden appears shaken by the experience. Afterward, he asked if insects grow to be as big as the 7-foot animatronic grasshopper on stage.
It's a hike to the Festival of the Lion King, and in the afternoon heat, only the promise of ice cream kept the kids moving. Erysse had already fallen asleep. Fortunately, it was cool inside the theater, and the show, which features songs from The Lion King, is a real pick-me-up.
We needed to move quickly when the performance ended to avoid being trapped on the wrong side of an afternoon parade. The TriceraTop Spin offered a convenient third-ride option on the way out. We escaped Animal Kingdom and boarded a bus just as the parade kicked off. The baby woke up in a cranky mood.
Come to think of it, we were all beginning to feel a little cranky.
One park to go.
Hollywood Studios -- 4:15pm
Once inside, we made a beeline to the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, but the attraction was closed for a special event. Uh-oh. So we found our way to Muppet Vision 3-D. While we waited for the show to begin, Aren and Iden curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. Not a good sign.
"Come on, boys," I said. "Only two rides to go. You can do it!"
"Dad," replied Aren. "I'm never going to a theme park again."
"Come on. You don't mean that."
Ride number two was the combination live-action, puppet show Voyage of The Little Mermaid. By now, we were depending on the loud noises and special effects to keep the kids awake. The final attraction of the day -- Playhouse Disney -- was wall-to-wall with dancing preschoolers and featured frenetic puppets and elaborate props. Our preschoolers sat in the darkened theater in a semi-catatonic state, waiting for the end.
We left the park after 7pm, feeling exhausted and a little giddy.
"We won!" Iden said.
"What did we win?" his brother asked.
"I don't know. But we won!" Iden replied.
The children fell asleep in the car and didn't wake up until the next morning.
All told, we spent about 11 hours at Disney World, averaging slightly more than one ride per hour. I learned that hitting four parks in a single day is not impossible, as long as you know which attractions you want to visit, schedule plenty of time for meals and bring a limitless supply of patience.
Who knows, we might try another foursome again soon. Maybe I'll wait until the blisters on my feet have healed.
Surviving Disney in a Day
Want to pull off a four-park marathon? Here's how:
- Plan carefully. Know which rides you want to go on and the order in which you'd like to visit the parks. Have a list of alternate rides in case one of them is closed or has a long line. (Hint: hit the most popular rides in the early morning and late afternoon, when there are fewer riders.)
- Dress the part. Pack at least one change of clothes per child, and plan for all possible weather. Mornings in Orlando can be cool, and afternoons often bring torrential rains. Plus, there's the inevitable accident at lunch to contend with. Dress in layers and don't forget your umbrella.
- Double the food, triple the water. Nothing builds an appetite faster than running around a theme park. Bring twice the food you normally would and extra water. We drained six bottles of water and by the time we reached our last theme park, we had to begin buying it.
- Don't forget to have fun. Remember, it's an amusement park. You should be enjoying yourself, even if the pace is a little faster than you're used to. We stopped to take pictures and rest on several occasions. And with the possible exception of the last stop on our tour, our kids enjoyed the experience. Or so they say.
- Know when to say when. We had several "meltdowns" along the way, when one of our kids decided enough was enough. But they were relatively minor, and could be addressed either with food offerings or a few words of encouragement. A major tantrum would have caused us to rethink our four-park endurance race.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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