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December 27, 2003

Magic Kingdom tips

First, don't go Thanksgiving week. Or Christmas week. Those are, respectively, the second- and first-busiest weeks at the Magic Kingdom. When Sophie was 3 (and not yet in school), we went the first week in December, and crowds were fairly light, so we thought it might be the same this time. No such luck.

I had a very good guide this time -- The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2004, by Bob Sehlinger. Unfortunately I picked it up on the Thursday before we left (on Saturday), or I would have known about the busiest weeks of the year.

The author points out that some percentage of what he writes will be out of date before the book gets into print, and for us, it was ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, widely reviewed as the scariest ride ever at a Disney theme park, which closed down October 11 to make way for "Stitch's Great Escape", scheduled for sometime in 2004.

We took full advantage of Disney's newish FastPass system to minimize time in line. Disney has set up separate areas near the entrance to popular rides where you can run your admission ticket through a machine and get a time-stamped return ticket that lets you jump right to the head of the line. Disney controls how frequently you can get a FastPass; in some cases, we could immediately get another one at a different ride, while at other times, we had to wait until just before our scheduled return time to get another. On heavy days, very popular rides may distribute their full allotment of FastPasses by noon.

The only ride that I really wanted to ride and didn't was the new Rock N Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios. New rides for me: Tower of Terror (which had just opened when we went last time), Mission: Space, Test Track, Splash Mountain, and Kali River Rapids.

Mission: Space deserves the glowing reviews it's been getting. It's a junior vomit comet, using simulator technology and your own body weight to simulate high-G activities like a shuttle takeoff.

Tower of Terror has added a few twists. Originally, riders were taken to the 13th floor, where their elevator wandered down the hall. When it reached the end, a window opened, and the car and riders plunged 13 stories at faster than free fall. Now, the car drops, then returns to the 13th floor and drops again a random number of times.

One thing Disney was trying out at Disney/MGM Studios was setting up a FastPass system for character photos and autographs, which are a much bigger part of the park than they were even 5 years ago, when we first took Sophie. There are dedicated character areas at Epcot (Aladdin and Jasmine in Morocco, Belle in France, etc.), and a Disney Characters on Holiday bus (below) that occasionally discharges a dozen or so characters for 30 minutes of intensive autographs and photographs. (As always, click through for larger images).

A good tip from the guide was to find out when the bus visit at Epcot was scheduled and get there 10-15 minutes before. By the time word has spread that the characters are there, you can have 4 or 5 pictures and autographs.

    Clever things we did:
  • Also buying a copy of Birnbaum's Walt Disney World for Kids, By Kids 2004 for Sophie. This a) kept her somewhat busy on the drive south, and b) gave her some ideas for things that she either wanted to do or absolutely didn't want to do.

  • We stayed on the park premises at the Swan, the Michael Graves-designed companion to the Dolphin. The location was terrific, since we could walk to or from Disney-MGM and Epcot (a major advantage after the evening fireworks or light shows), but there was nothing that great about the hotel itself. The Dolphin seemed to have more kid-friendly features. The Swan DOES now offer free high-speed internet access through the same proxy-based service as Sheratons (Sheraton manages the Swan).

    I can argue either side of the on-site or off-site lodging argument. We got a pretty good rate at the Swan, so we decided to go with it for the better convenience, but then you find yourself eating in the resort restaurants, with their airport (heck, in some cases, stadium) pricing.

    Another advantage of on-site hotels is that most of them now do character meals, where Disney characters wander from table to table while you eat.

  • Renting a stroller. A double stroller was $15/day (which covers all the parks; show your MGM receipt at Animal Kingdom for a new stroller), and made all the difference a few times, when the kids started to wilt.

Pal Mickey

One thing I kind of wanted to try out was Disney's new Pal Mickey, an interactive plush Mickey Mouse doll that offers location and time-sensitive advice for kids in the park ("The parade is starting in about an hour. You might want to find a place to watch!").

Pal Mickey is $60 to buy, or $8/day to rent. If you choose to rent one, the $60 is charged as a deposit, and the difference is refunded when you turn the unit in. Many of the Disney World hotel gift shops carry Pal Mickey, as does the store right at the front of Disney-MGM, and the shop next to the stroller rental at the International entrance at Epcot.

Sophie loved Pal Mickey. In addition to providing park info, he tells horrible, 8-year-old friendly jokes. When you first rent him, a Disney employee uploads the latest info through a Compaq/HP iPaq, so that event times and attraction information are up to date. I believe (based on his opaque nose) that Pal Mickey currently gets location information through infrared; this is backed up by their recommendation that children hold him face-out, or attach him to a belt.

I'm sure that in a lab somewhere, they're working on the adult version of Pal Mickey. WIth a small LCD screen and 802.11 connectivity, it could include the current menus for restaurants throughout Walt Disney World, including hotels and resorts, park traffic reports (allowing Disney to do some real-time traffic management), and could even allow communication between multiple groups (say you've split up for the morning). Wouldn't it be cool if you were standing in a 45-minute line at the Magic Kingdom, and discovered that nothing in MGM Studios was more than a 15-minute wait?

It could offer not only time and event pointers, but special offers on food, lodging, or souvenirs. If a particular restaurant or section of the park is having trouble holding its own, Disney could try targeted promotions aimed at the family decision makers.

Listening to Merry Christmas Baby from the album "The Chess Box, Disc 2, 1958 - 1964" by Chuck Berry.

December 27, 2003 in Family | Permalink


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Which would your recommend most for young children, MGM or Animal Kingdom? We are leaving in a day and a half. We will only be visiting two parks and MUST visit Magic Kingdom. Now we have to choose a second park. Any advise?


Posted by: Jennifer at Jun 28, 2006 11:00:39 PM

I think Animal Kingdom has more for kids -- we were there again in February, and besides the Kilimanjaro Safari, the Kali River Rapids, and the carnival-like Dinotopia, they've opened a roller coaster in Animal Kingdom. “Expedition Everest,” which was a blast, is one of the best rides in any of the Disney parks. Our 5-year-old was tall enough to ride Expedition Everest, but not to ride MGM's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.

MGM seems to me like the Disney park for grown-ups; there are a lot of “behind the scenes” shows, classic movies, etc. There would be more character sighting opportunities at MGM; they have character signings and parades, the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast shows, and my favorite night-time lights/fireworks show, “Fantasmic.”

Posted by: Frank at Jun 28, 2006 11:25:02 PM

Use the resort monarails, not the express monarail. The resort monarails have stops, but the lines are ussualy shorter.

Posted by: Jessie at May 26, 2008 11:03:58 AM