Dreams come true for adults with Disney
DEEP IN the darkest mid-1970s a programme appeared on our family’s big-as-a-car Bush TV set. It was for a place – Orlando – that I’d never heard of. A far-off town with a new, and magical, land called Walt Disney World.
I decided, at the grown-up age of five, to save up my 50p weekly pocket money, ditch the Beano and Dandy and visit this place.
Almost 40 years later, I finally made it.
But would Mickey Mouse and his friends hold the same attraction for a middle-aged man? With my young Disney-mad niece in tow, I found the answer was a definite yes.
Waking up on the first full day, the first of the Disney magic sparkles to life. Our hotel, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, had a few surprises. Open the curtains and there’s a pair of giraffes outside my room.
Having been on safari in the past, memories came flooding back. The only difference being that east Africa doesn’t have rollercoaster parks beside the Masai Mara.
Time to explore. Walt Disney World, in the heart of Florida, is staggering in its scale, and fills an area the size of San Francisco.
But big doesn’t mean overwhelming – all the parks, separate and manageable, are easily accessed by shuttle bus, monorail or even by boat.
First stop, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It does what it says on the tin, with plenty of animals just waiting to be spotted on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Elephants, rhinos, a thrilling rickety bridge – there’s plenty to see, and lots of good information on conservation.
The attention to detail is stunning: the full-size Harambe village is scarily like the trading towns of eastern Kenya and a nice place for parents to potter around in if they don’t want to ride a rollercoaster.
Mickey Mouse and the gang at Disney
Africa turns into the Himalayas – all in the same park – at Expedition Everest, the first of our thrill rides (see panel).
Nearby is Epcot, with the giant golf ball (called Spaceship Earth) that fuelled my imagination as a young boy. Dedicated to science and futuristic attractions, Epcot was my trip highlight. Mission: SPACE was a not-so-gentle introduction to the world of tomorrow. There’s two versions: high G force (me) and low G force (wimps and girls).
Entering our capsule (with an elderly couple and a young kid from Dublin) we had our mission ranks. The kid was commander, I got engineer. Mimicking real-life rocket flight, your face is pulled every which way by the G force of the simulator before you head into deep space and land (awkwardly) on Mars.
Touchdown. Mission accomplished. I broke into applause after a perilous trip. The rest of the team joined in. God, that was amazing.
But even the ‘gentler’ rides have their attractions at Epcot. Soarin’ is a wonder of technology, where you’re strapped into rows of seats in front of a giant screen and you soar over the coast of California, swooping over the wine country of Napa Valley, the freeways of LA and the bridges of San Francisco.
Even by American standards of service, Walt Disney World is truly exceptional. It bills itself as the happiest place on earth, but it’s also one of the friendliest, and great for all ages, so don’t let the youngsters have all the fun. A case in point is the Grand Floridian Resort, a swanky spot for lunch or dinner. It’s also the casting-off point for an adrenaline-filled afternoon on a Sea Raycer.
Basically a pint-sized speedboat, take off around Lake Buena Vista. The clue is in the Buena Vista name – the views of the Magic Kingdom, and trademark Disney fairytale castle – are superb, as is the wildlife watching. Who says Disney’s just for kids?
Another day, another park – this time in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s home to some of the best thrill rides, including the now iconic Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Like many of the rides, it’s different to the one in Disneyland Paris, with your lift running through corridors before a terrifying plunge. And then another plunge...
Nearby is the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, which is breathtaking in its speed, while smaller children will adore Toy Story Midway Mania, where they get to challenge their parents to a carnival-style shootout on wheels.
Star Tours, again, is different to Paris, with dozens of variations as you’re strapped in to your space simulator and blasted off in an interstellar adventure. The smallest kids in your family will probably flock to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure, a playground where the insects and slides are big and you’re suddenly very, very small.
The Magic Kingdom park is the stuff of the dreams we all grew up with. Peter Pan’s Flight brings out the child in us all – it’s retro and cute as you fly over old London town.
Big Thunder Mountain is a hit with everyone, as you cling on to your runaway train around a mountain, while the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train might look cute, but there’s a sting in the tail as you hurtle around on a rollercoaster.
A week is a must if you’re visiting – I didn’t even have time to visit Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon. But what’s nice is seeing everyone in families enjoying themselves.
If you want a couple’s experience, stay, or have dinner, in the romantic Grand Floridian Resort, with Caribbean-style beach out the front. Grandparents will love Epcot, with 12 miles – yes, 12 miles – of a showcase of nations, and even better, foods – from around the globe. And kids? That’s a no-brainer – they’ll love everything.
A special moment for me was sitting in a boat in Lake Buena Vista as a brilliant fireworks display lit up the central Florida sky.
With the castle illuminated by lights and smoke, the words of When You Wish Upon A Star filled the warm night air.
“This an annual event?” I asked the people from Disney. “No, every night,” the replied – with another display in Epcot too. The Disney folk are, not surprisingly, the biggest consumers of fireworks in the US.
As as kid I dreamed that dream of Walt Disney to make magic, no matter what the cost. His dream lives on. Forty years was worth the wait to share it.
Even more magic
Disney’s MagicBand is a smart way of making your holiday even more relaxing. From opening your hotel door to paying for drinks or souvenirs, it’s a clever idea.
And you don’t have to worry about capturing all those memories. If you sign up the Disney PhotoPass Service any pictures will be uploaded to your band, and you can sign in to your phone or tablet later in the day to see all the things you’ve been up to. Dad can get into the pic too – and let someone else do the hard work of family snaps. You can download what you want for $14.95 each or as a whole if you buy Memory Maker in advance for $169.
Tops for thrillseekers
SEA RAYCERS: Go all James Bond in your own speedboat (and they provide a bump or two on the fast turns). At the Grand Floridian Resort.
SEVEN DWARFS MINE TRAIN: Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to scream we go – that’s me, arms aloft, right. Muppet Show Beaker hat not essential. At the Magic Kingdom.
TEST TRACK PRESENTED BY CHEVROLET: Fast and Furious, this is the car (right) you’d love to drive back home, if it wasn’t for speed limits and penalty points. At Epcot
EXPEDITION EVEREST: This manmade Himalayan-style mountain is big, the highest in central Florida in fact. And you’re going down it – frontways and backwards. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom
We STAYED at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and flew via London Gatwick on Virgin Atlantic, which was a top-notch experience with loads of films to keep us going.
And you can visit too, as the Walt Disney Travel Company, Disney’s official holiday specialist, is now in Ireland.
A week at the lodge (yes, those are giraffes outside the rooms), costs from €1040pp, including direct flights with Aer Lingus from Dublin, plus transfers.
And keep an eye on the website, www.disneyholidays.ie or call 1800 812 676, to check out all the latest offers to the Magic Kingdom.
The hotel is perfect for adults as well as children, with a beautiful tropical pool area plus mouthwatering African and American food in the Jiko restaurant.
Other great dining experiences can be had at Citricos at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. It’s high-end but very family-friendly, and possibly the most romantic of all the Disney venues. And check out Via Napoli, surrounded by a Disney Venice, in Epcot, and the fabulously 1930s-style Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
My tip: get an autograph book when you’re there as the characters are all around. I met Mickey, Minnie, Dug the dog, the Frozen princesses as well as Goofy and all the gang.
If you’re staying in a Disney hotel, you get the MagicBand included, and that features Fastpass+, which means you can book the rides you fancy in advance.