Family Ties · Long Winding Road

The Big Family Disney Vacation: A Retrospective (part 3)

Also known as The Final Installment! Yesterday, I left off in the Big Family Disney Vacation (BFDV) as we were taking the bus from the cruise ship back to the Walt Disney World compound for our final leg of the trip. We arrived at Animal Kingdom Lodge in the morning, even before their checkout time, so I was anticipating that we might not be able to get rooms right away. My parents and my sister had been able to check in online early – I couldn’t ever get the online check in site to work – and the confirmation pages they had printed showed that we were to get adjoining rooms. Somehow, that was not to be. The staff member behind the desk was amazingly sweet and tried hard to help us, but we stood there for 30 minutes before the situation was sort of resolved. In the end, Dave and I had a room that was ready; my folks had a room 4 or 5 doors down that was NOT ready; and my sister and niece had a room 2 floors beneath us that was also not ready. Kind of a bumpy start, but things smoothed out.

The view from our balcony at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Giraffe!

We were all starving, so we went looking for a place to eat. It took a while – even following the map, we wandered around a bit before we found the quick-service restaurant, the Mara. Then everyone came back to our room to hang out while we waited on their rooms to be ready. We mostly sat out on the balcony, trying to identify the myriad animals we could see from the balcony with our safari view. That was incredibly cool – we could see many varieties of antelope, giraffes, African birds…and they gave us a little guide sheet to help us identify what each animal was and check it off the list. After everyone else finally got to go to their rooms, I think we all took a nap – we were so tired! I also got hooked up to the internet and caught up on some email, and I read a bit. I think we were so over-stimulated, everyone just needed some down time.

For dinner, we went to the buffet-style restaurant, Boma. It was SO. GOOD. An enormous buffet of food inspired by every part of Africa. There was everything from couscous and hummus to meat carving stations with African-spiced meats. There was fresh fruit. There was this utterly amazing bread pudding and a massive number of other tasty desserts. We were impressed. After dinner, we explored the resort a little bit, finally taking in the lobby of the resort, which is undeniably gorgeous, and acquainting ourselves with the gift shop. We also made sure we had tickets to the parks for the next two days. Back in our room, I noted that the room itself was a bit…dated. That was the only room I felt that way about during our entire vacation. The sink area of the bathroom looked updated, but the main part of the room was a bit old looking, and the toilet/tub area of the bathroom was dated and DARK. Really, really dark. We went to bed early to wipe the last exhaustion away before more big adventures the next day.

Tiger at the Animal Kingdom theme park. Love tigers!

We woke up and got cleaned up, then went to the Mara for breakfast before finding our way down to the buses that go to the parks, ready to tackle Animal Kingdom. I had never been there before. It was definitely my very favorite Disney park. Hell, I think it was everyone’s favorite. What can I say? We’re a family of animal lovers! We spent a lot of time looking at animals in all the different places we could. We went on a safari, which was quite the bumpy ride but which put us very up close and personal with lots of animals. We ate in an Asian-themed restaurant (they had Chinese, Japanese, and Indian food, all three). My sister and Dave and I went on Expedition Everest, which was possibly the very coolest roller coaster I’ve ever been on. Then we had to go find the parents and the niece, who had gone in search of the giant Galapagos tortoises. By then we were all ready to head back for the afternoon and jump in the pool. On the way back from the pool, we stopped by the Mara and got a quick-service dinner to bring back up to my folks’ room, eat and relax together.

The next morning, we got up and went for a quick breakfast again before hopping a bus to Hollywood Studios. That particular bus ride was an experience. The driver pulled up to the wrong stop – the one for Animal Kingdom – but his sign said Hollywood Studios and whichever water park he was also going to. Aggravating for two sets of waiting riders, but whatever. Then he took us to the water park, but he never announced that we were there or opened the doors. He stopped for a minute and then took off again, meaning a guy and his kid sitting near us missed their stop. They went to ask him about it, and he said they’d have to ride the whole circuit again to get back there. Ugh. But that meant the rest of us were paying extra attention and pretty much stormed the doors when we got to Hollywood Studios, which he also didn’t announce, but I guess it didn’t matter that time.

All ready to watch the 3-D!

We went straight-away to the Indiana Jones stunt show, which is still cool after all these years. We had a 7-year-old who’d never seen any of the movies who was captivated. She said later that it was her favorite part of the day. We also went to the 3-D Muppet Show, which was pretty cute (and air-conditioned – it was insanely hot!). We were planning to buy FastPasses for Star Tours and the Toy Story ride, but they were actually sold out of FastPasses for the whole day already, and the wait times were longer than 90 minutes each – yikes! We found out later that it was the first Star Wars weekend of the summer, so it was crazy busy with Star Wars fans. We went on a really stupid “ride” for the Chronicles of Narnia – it was basically just an ad/trailer for the next movie. BOOOO. Even the little one was bored by it. At least it was air-conditioned! We went on an inside ride that took you on a tour through famous movies that was kinda cool, though a little scary in places for the niece. She had her head buried in my side for about half of it. And then we tried to go see the stunt driving show – we were certain my dad would really enjoy that one – but it was 3:00, we were all hot and tired and pretty much ready to leave, and the next show wasn’t until 4:30. So we skipped it and went back to jump in the pool again. Score! The Lodge did have a really excellent pool.

My mom at dinner on the last night, with a Tinkerbell toy in her hair. Possibly my favorite picture from the entire trip.

We all got cleaned up and went to Boma again for dinner – it was that good. Then Dave got the niece to sit for a caricature, and we all went browsing through the gift shop again too. Then we went to bed, woke up and had breakfast, and I saw everyone off to the airport. I grabbed a cab to head to downtown Orlando for a conference I was going to attend next. And that was the end of our BFDV. Okay, time for some summaries of impressions.

  • Polynesian Resort: Pricey, but nice. I wish we’d gotten more time to be there. They need better cleaning services in the common areas of the lodges overnight, and better signs marking the way to the different lodges. But it’s gorgeous, and very convenient to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
  • Disney Dream cruise ship: Absolutely lovely. A lot of fun, great food, plenty to do for both kids and adults. And though we didn’t take advantage of it, programs for kids without adults so families can get away from each other for a bit. Some disorganization under the surface, and I felt bad for the crew, who seemed to be working all the time, 18 hours a day for 6 months at a time with no break. But the cruise was just amazing, and we loved it.
  • Animal Kingdom Lodge: The lobby is unbelievably beautiful. I highly recommend springing the extra for a room with a safari view. The food at Boma is fantastic. The pool is awesome. The rooms are fine, though not as up-to-date as the Polynesian. We liked everything about this place except our checking in experience.
  • Animal Kingdom (the theme park): Oh, my. Highly recommended; everyone’s favorite of all four parks. I want to go back and do some of the things we missed, like Dinosaur Land USA. I love seeing the animals, all of them. And I want to ride Expedition Everest over and over and over again.
  • Hollywood Studios: Mmmm. I would like to see Star Tours and do the Toy Story thing and go on the Tower of Terror. We didn’t do any of those because of the insane lines and it was so so so so hot. I understand they’re all worth doing at least once – the Toy Story one seems to be universally adored by kids and adults alike. But while Animal Kingdom won the favorite park award from our group, this definitely won the least favorite park award.
  • Overall: I’m still not a Disney convert, but we did have a really good time. So you won’t find me sporting Mickey ears…probably ever. But I did feel all nostalgic for the Disney movies of my childhood – we watched several on the on-demand TV in our cruise stateroom. And I would not be surprised if some time in the next 10 years or so we were to consider another Disney cruise and maybe a stop at Animal Kingdom after.

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