Our Top Ten Magical Moments at Disney World

>> Thursday, December 31, 2009

Disney promises magic. The flagship theme park is the Magic Kingdom, after all. Too many times though, the magic feels forced, like the smiles on the dancers in the twice-daily parades. But there is real magic to be found anywhere, even a theme park. Some magic exists independently, lurking in places where you'd least expect it, and some magic you bring with you, if only you're in the mood to make it. We found both kinds of magic at Disney World, and for most of them, no guide book could have told us how to find them.


1) Animal Kingdom in the morning

We got to Animal Kingdom early for the park's "Extra Magic Hour," which allows people staying at Disney Resorts extra time in the park with a few thousand fewer people. And there, indeed, was extra magic. A heavy fog had rolled in to the parks that morning, and Animal Kingdom proved the right place to be. The massive Tree of Life was shrouded in mist, as was the mountain at Expedition Everest. All the meticulous theming in the Asia section came to spectacular life, as it really felt like you were high in among the clouds on a mountaintop. It was magic we could never have planned for.


2) Surprised by the Fireworks in Fantasyland

This is probably one a careful reading of our guidebook would have told us about, but it was made all the more magical by its seeming spontaneity. On select nights, the Magic Kingdom sets off fireworks. The best place to see them is on the front side of the castle--they're meant to be the last thing you do before you leave for the night, if you're not able to stay for the "Extra Magic Hours" offered to resort guests. We found ourselves between the fireworks--some are shot off from the rooftops of Fantasyland, meant to be right behind the castle, while others are fired from somewhere outside the park ground. The latter are the big boomers, the ones that go very high and explode into wide shapes. We were in between rides when the fireworks started, and we hopped up on a nearby wall to watch. For perhaps twenty minutes, we were treated to spectacular fireworks, and not a single person came around to tell us to hop down or to move along. It was a beautiful pause in our otherwise hectic dashing from ride to ride.


3) Mission: Space - "Daddy, press the button!"

This magic moment--as well as the three others that follow--is definitely of the "make your own magic" variety. First, a bit of introduction to the Mission: Space ride at Epcot. Mission: Space is a flight simulator, meant to mimic a futuristic trip from Earth to Mars. The simulator has four seats, and each seat is given a different role on the ship: Commander, Pilot, Navigator, or Engineer. During the flight, each role is responsible for hitting a couple of buttons that initiate different stages. It's not really essential to press the buttons. If you don't press anything the simulator still goes through all the motions. So nothing you do really matters--unless you are a seven-year-old girl who takes it all very seriously, including saluting Gary Sinise, who introduces the ride and declares us to be proper astronauts in training. Jo was so earnest that she obsessed over hitting the buttons at just the right moment--and screamed "Daddy, press the button!" like our very lives depended upon it when I was a little late in performing my duty. Wendi and I had a hearty laugh at that--but in private, because Jo doesn't like to be laughed at. But we didn't tell Jo the buttons didn't matter, which, unknown to us, would set up one our later magic moments...


4) Mission: Space - "Don't...move...a muscle."

Before we get to that magic moment, there was another worthy of our list from our first trip on the Mission: Space flight simulator. At the very end of the ride, the simulation takes a preposterous twist, caroming off the landing pad and hurtling out of control over the icy (um, icy?) surface of Mars. As the shuttle finally comes to a stop, the ice (um, ice? on Mars?) crumbles away, and the motion simulator tips you down, as though you and your shuttle are hanging off the edge of a precipice. Gary Sinise, your man in Mission Control, tells you, "Don't...move...a muscle." At which point, being the smart-ass that I am, I began waving my arms around my head like a fool and yelling, "I'm moving a muscle! I'm moving a muscle!" This got big laughs from Jo (who, I confess, I was performing for), and as soon as we got off the ride she was begging to go back on--all to have me reproduce the joke. (This is the curse of being funny for a child younger than ten. You are then begged to "Do it again, Daddy!" ad nauseam.)


5) Mission: Space - Disney Brand Barf Bags

Jo begged to go back on Mission: Space, and we're all about repeat gratification (particularly while on vacation), so after we tired of Innoventions and Imageworks we trucked back over to the ride. We were to ride Mission: Space perhaps four (maybe five?) times over the course of a day and a half spent at Epcot, and not once did we wait more than five minutes to board the ride. For a six-year-old ride, which reportedly cost $100 million to build, that's pretty criminal. But we did choose to go at the slowest time of the year (on purpose) and we also always chose the chicken line, which moves shorter than the manly-man line.

To explain: to achieve the sensation of added Gs during take-off, the simulator is built on a huge centrifuge. Essentially, the ride is a motion simulator on a tilt-a-whirl. Not surprisingly (to everyone but Disney, apparently) this proved to be a recipe for much barfitude, and three years after the ride was introduced they turned half of the centrifuge machines off and began offering a non-spinning version of the ride, alongside the original hurl-a-rama. Being a family which doesn't enjoy being forcibly spun until we vomit, we always took the "less intense" line, choosing to find our fun in less dizzying ways. But all of the capsules, even on the less intense version, come equipped with barf bags. They're simple white paper things with nothing written on them, which I felt was particularly disappointing. You can't wipe your bum in Disney without finding a Mickey Mouse logo on your toilet paper, so why wasn't there Disney branding on the barf bags?

Thanks to the pen I always carry in my pocket, I fixed that. On each I wrote "Disney Brand Barf Bag," and drew a little picture of a sick mouse. (On some, I even had time to write, "Sponsored by HP.") Once again, a hit with Jo. She and I were laughing so hard we almost forgot to press the buttons--but of course Jo wouldn't let me forget. Until...


6) Mission: Space - "The Test"

Some time after our third ride on Mission: Space, while we were walking from one pavilion to another, Jo told us she wanted to do Mission: Space again. But this time, she was going to test something. "Oh yes?" we asked. "What's that?" "I want to see what happens when you don't push the buttons." Oho! Not push the buttons? Wendi and I played it straight-faced, again, already sure that the sim would play itself without anyone there to push the buttons or not. At first, we thought Jo was suspicious, in a "Daddy, are you Santa Claus?" kind of way. (This year, as a test, sh left oatmeal cookies for Santa instead of chocolate chip cookies, explaining that if Santa ate them, she would know Daddy wasn't Santa, because Daddy doesn't like oatmeal cookies.)

But as we waited to board the simulation, we learned that Jo wasn't playing mythbuster. She expected new and different things to happen. The ship might go off course, for example, and never even reach Mars. As we walked to the cockpit, she grew a little concerned about perils her test might bring. "Maybe we should just hit the button for the shields in the asteroid field," she worried. But Wendi and I assured her that the ride would be safe no matter what turn it took, still not telling her the truth. As we sat and strapped ourselves in, we all made solemn vows not to push any of the buttons, and then we were off. My button flashed--it was time to initiate the second stage! "I'm not pressing the button! I'm not pressing the button!" I assured Jo.

And the simulator, as Wendi and I knew it would, did the exact same thing it always does, initiating the next stage. Jo's reaction was priceless. "It did the same thing!" she cried. Of all the possible outcomes she had imagined, the simulation doing exactly what it always does had never crossed her mind. She was dumbfounded. Each and every time we didn't press the buttons and the sim did the same old thing, she would say, "It did the same thing!" just as incredulously as the last time. Absolutely delicious. But perhaps the best part came later, when Jo asked to ride again. "But this time," she said, "let's push the buttons. I know they don't do anything, but it's more fun." And now, grasshopper, you understand.


7) Soarin' for the first time

We've already waxed ecstatic about how good Soarin' is as a ride, but no rave about it in a guidebook can really prepare you for how awesome it is. At the end of our first ride, we were giddy with excitement, and already planning our next trip. Although it was always awesome, the first time was the best time by far, as there was still that wonderful feeling of surprise and unexpected delight. In fact, Soarin' was the only attraction we rode all week where riders spontaneously applauded at the end of the ride--every single time.


8) Experiencing Toy Story Midway Mania for the first time

This is another one where the guidebooks just couldn't capture for us how absolutely giddy we'd be at ride's end. All three of us were talking over each other as we exited, asking if we had seen this, or done that, or plotting how we could get a better score the next time--and simultaneously working out how we could use our Fast Passes to ride as many times as possible before the park closed. On both this and Soarin', Disney made the magic, and we were more than happy to experience it again and again. (And again.)


9) Making friends at The Voyage of the Little Mermaid

Jo has never had a problem making friends. At playgrounds, she will run up to other kids and announce, "My name's Jo" as a prelude to becoming their best friend in the world for an hour. Disney World was no exception. Wendi and I had seen The Voyage of the Little Mermaid during our last, sans Jo, visit, and we knew it was worth the wait. During the wait--in a large room with no seats where we sat on the floor to rest our weary legs--Jo made BFFs with two little girls her age, and within minutes they were playing sticks and planning who would sit next to whom in the theater. At show's end we had to go our separate ways, but for a brief time Jo had brought the magic all by herself.


10) A mid-day ferry ride across the Seven Seas Lagoon

Only on our last day were we able to finally work a ferry ride into our transportation arrangements, and it proved--again, without planning--to be one of the more magical moments. Perhaps because it was our last day, and perhaps because we had had enough of canned music and crowded avenues, the ferry ride proved magical in its quietude. Being the middle of the day--not the mad crush coming or going in the morning or evening--there were only a dozen or so other souls with us on a ferry built for hundreds, and the breezy, peaceful trip across the lagoon from the Magic Kingdom to the Transportation Center was a much needed moment of Zen for all of us. Jo stood at the rail, watching the water go buy, and Wendi and I sat quietly and enjoyed the silence and restfulness, not daring to break the spell by talking about it until after we were off the boat and on to another crowded, standing-room only bus bound for Hollywood Studios.

Next up: Our Top Ten Pictures from Five Days at Disney World!


tanita davis December 31, 2009 at 5:12 PM  

Oh, it's so fun to read these. I am dork enough to be an amusement park aficinado on my own, but it was so fun to drag my sibs when they were really little. Now my little sister is thirteen - not quite the same. Fortunately, the nephews are two and 8 mos. - coming along nicely. By the time the Harry Potter theme park has the kinks worked out, they'll be ready.

No buttons to press there, though. Maybe wands?

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