Disney from 30,000 Feet

Howdy from 30,000 feet in the blue sky on a Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to Austin.

Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to Austin.
I know this is supposed to be a photography blog, and Texas wildflowers are (hopefully) coming soon, but I’m going to deviate from that formula for this installment. Instead of writing about recent photographic adventures or tips, I’m going to share my review of my family’s holiday at Disney World. If you don’t want to read further, I understand. My next blog will be, most likely, a bluebonnet and wildflower update for the hill county.

I’ll start with an overall assessment. After that, if you’re bored or curious, I’ll recount the details of the adventure… Keep in mind I’m writing with the perspective of having 2 girls, ages 11 and 9.

A few general thoughts…
* Four years ago when we first visited Disney World in Orlando, I did not have high expectations, but I really did enjoy my time there. Yes, then and now, the crowds begin to wear on me, and we’ve never been when it is really crowded (only in February all three times). Part of the appeal is how much fun my girls have. That, and I’m basically responsibility-free for the time we’re there. No car, no worry about food, the entertainment is provided, and a lot of unique experiences can be had by all.
* If you don’t have a good time at Disney (apart from the crowds), that’s on you. There is something for everyone. And some planning goes a long way. It seems each time we go, we uncover layers of the park we hadn’t discovered in a previous trip.
* Customer service is better than anywhere I’ve experienced. The employees of Disney go out of their way to help with any need. The parks are clean, too. Maybe we should have the Disney Corp. take over the government. I imagine things would run smoother, be much more efficient, and not so wasteful or dishonest.
* Disney is extremely efficient at moving people. With the mass of folks that visit, even during the slow time of February, the entrances, security, lines, etc., all move along pretty smoothly.
* There are still jerks that visit the park, too. Folks try to cut in line and not wait their turn. I can’t worry about them.
* The Mouse is really good at taking your money. He’ll have his hand in your pockets wherever you go. The whole system makes it easy to spend money without too much thought.
* My family had a great time. Yes, it is expensive, but you really do get what you pay for. We visited Sea World in San Antonio a few years ago and spent nearly a thousand dollars for one day (passes, food, hotel, and a meet-the-dolphins behind the scenes tour that really wasn’t as advertised.) Sea World and Disney can’t even be compared when talking about customer service, cleanliness, ease of getting around, friendliness, efficiency, and the overall experience. We’d never return to Sea World, but we’ll probably go back to Disney again when our girls are older.

This holiday found my two girls, ages 11 and 9, and my wife flying from Austin to Orlando on SWA, landing in MCO, and taking the Disney bus from the airport to our on-site hotel, the Coronado Springs Resort. This is, admittedly, our third trip to the Magic Mouse’s headquarters, and he’s better than ever at finding ways to take your money. For this stay, we splurged a little and had a room with “Club Access.” I didn’t really know what to expect, but when we arrived about 11:00pm at the hotel’s front desk and the attendant noticed we were “club level,” she immediately said she’d get the manager who would give us a tour of the 15th floor amenities. However, it was late and we were exhausted, so we made our way to our 14th floor room, found our television had a nice, personalized greeting for our family, and noticed our window looked across at Hollywood Studios and Galaxy’s Edge – “Star Wars Land” (our destination for the next morning).
I should note here we had purchased a meal plan with two quick-service meals and two snacks per person per day. This plan also came with a “complementary” Disney refillable mug (those mugs are $20 each). Did I mention the Mouse knows how to take your money? We did obtain our mugs that first night and filled them up with lemonade and made our way to the room. That would be the last time we’d use these mugs during the trip. Club Level, we soon found out, had its privileges.
Our alarm that first morning went off at 6am. Everyone rolled out of bed, excited for the day’s prospects. The concierge had told us to meet the bus at 7:00am in order to be at Hollywood Studios (one of the Disney Theme Parks) and, most importantly, inside the park, by 8:00am. At precisely 8:00am, we’d learned, the boarding passes are doled out via online registration for the current most popular ride – Rise of the Resistance (the newest 18 minute “experience” in Star Wars land).
At 6:55am, my clan waited at the bus stop. Looking around, we sized up the few other early risers and the competition to snag a coveted boarding pass. But with only 4 other folks waiting, the plan was falling into place. Twenty-minutes passed. Busses came and went, transporting folks to Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and the Magic Kingdom. But not for Hollywood. Finally, around 7:30am, a bus pulled up – no sign nor notification – but the driver announced “Hollywood.” By this time, the crowd had grown considerably. I was getting a little nervous because we still had to go through security, wait in the line to enter, and then, after our party of four was accounted for inside the park, we could press the buttons on our phone fanatically along with everyone else hoping to snag a coveted boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance.
And that’s when everything halted. A poor soul in a wheel chair needed to enter the bus, as well, so we waiting at least 5 more excruciating minutes for the bus ramp to lower, allow the mobile-challenged person to enter, then raise the ramp. By the time everyone loaded the bus after this, it was standing room only. We were dumped off at the park about 7:49am, ran to the security line like a heard of lemmings heading towards a cliff, waited for admissions, and at last entered the park at 7:59. Amazing. As soon as my youngest had magic-banded her way inside, both my wife and I started pushing the boarding pass button. Shockingly, I accessed the system within 30 seconds and we secured Boarding Pass 29. Whew. Stand down! We’d accomplished task #1 for the day.
The other ride in Galaxy’s Edge is called Smuggler’s Run, a recreation of the Millennium Falcon where each rider is assigned a task. We waited in line for slightly under an hour (the longest we’d wait during our time at Disney). I won’t go into details here because if you haven’t ridden this ride but plan to, I don’t want to take away from the experience. I will say all four of us were disappointed. I have friends that really loved it, but we came way not wanting to return to this particular attraction.

Stormtroopers standing gaurd.
Stormtrooper keeping the people in line.

We had some time to do other things before our Boarding Pass for RotR was called, and we had Fastpassed Star Tours, another Star Wars 3D experience. So off we went to enjoy this simulation of Star Wars action. But not before a visit to Starbucks. One thing I learned before our trip is that out meal plan included two snacks per person per night, so that meant we each had eight snacks to use. And those snacks could be used at Starbucks – for pastries or drinks -even the largest sizes! My girls were in heaven. I’m usually a naysayer about spending so much money for a drink, and they are told no for Starbucks more times than I can count. However, here, these indulgences were already paid for, so drink up!
Ok… back to the ride… We’d last ridden Star Tours two years ago, and at the time this ride had six different experiences. This year’s ride had been updated to show the latest movies, in particular The Rise of Skywalker. The five-minute simulation did not disappoint, but we were to find out after two more rides on the same attraction that there was only one experience (not six like last time). Still, it was good.
After this, we had time to grab lunch with the use of our meal plan We settled for burgers at The Backlot in Hollywood Studios. The burgers were ok, but by the end of our trip, and taking into account past trips, the food at Disney just isn’t outstanding. Serviceable, yes, but not great. However, some of the pricier sit-down restaurants offer some good selections. One of the nice things about this burger place was that you could refill your drinks. That’s always a plus.
And soon after we finished, my phone vibrated that our boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance was up and we hurried to the long-awaited adventure. Again, I’ll not share details, but this was an experience that lasted 18 minutes. Some parts we stood, some we rode. We oo’d and awed and had a great time.
We explored Galaxy’s Edge a little more, then zipped around on the kid-friendly “Alien Saucers” then made our way back to the hotel. After dropping our backpacks in the room, we decided to check out our Club Access. We’d heard there were snacks. So we rode up to the 15th floor, magic-banded our way through the golden doors, and found ourselves living the good life at the Chronos Club. All sorts of goodies awaited, from prosciutto and cheese to artichoke quesadillas and fruit to several kinds of fresh, hot cookies. Alongside these offerings were an endless supply of drinks – juice, carbonated drinks, coffee, tea, and a lot of alcohol. And my daughters were pleased with the goldfish, pretzels, and more kid-centered snacks (even crustless PBJs.)
We had planned on going out again, but swimming at the pool and enjoying the waterslide took longer than expected. So what to do? We went back to our hood in the Club and ate a little more. We then discovered, thanks to two of the amazingly nice hospitality folks, Mary Kay and Daniel, that the Club could hook us up with extra Fastpasses – and we did not need reservations for the rides… just show up and go! We also learned that desserts were served nightly, along with beer and wine, at 8:00pm. This coincided with the 8:00pm fireworks show at Hollywood Studios which could be seen outside the Club’s vast bay windows. Yes, we could get used to this!
After falling asleep back in our room – exhausted and with bellies full – we awoke the next morning and enjoyed some of our favorites at Epcot Center – Frozen and Soarin. But I need to tell a story that will stay with us for a while. My little family of four was sitting on the bus riding to Epcot that morning. Across the aisle and slight to my left sat a family of three – a mother with a child on her lap and the father to her left (my right). The mom was directly across from the bus doors (the bus had two entrances and exits – one in the front and one in the middle). Anyway, the baby girl on the mom’s lap was playing with the mom’s phone. Suddenly, the toddler chunked the phone towards the bus exit. It landed against the door. Immediately, the mom yelled in a very harsh tone, “Get it, Kyle!” Everyone around us gasped and waited to see what the husband (obviously Kyle) would do. He’d been given a direct and forceful order. And it was clear he did not appreciate being called out so loudly in public. He hesitated. We all waited to see his next move. He never made eye-contact with his wife, but did mumble something about the phone not going anywhere. Reluctantly, slowly, he rose, stooped down, grabbed the phone and handed it back to the wife all the while avoiding eye contact. The impatient wife snatched it from his hands with nary a thank you. Carl, I imagine, was embarrassed. So, from this point on in our trip, whenever one of my clan needed something, we’d say “Get it, Kyle!” and laughed. Poor Kyle. Hey Buddy, if you’re reading this, we feel for you. I hope your trip was ok.
Now, back to Epcot… One ride we hadn’t been on – Spaceship Earth – was somewhat entertaining, if only to sit down and rest our feet a bit, and made for some good filler until lunch. For food that day, we dined in Morocco (in Epcot) on lamb and chicken. Good, but not great.
Back at the hotel, we met our new friend and hospitality worker again at the Club, Daniel, who was nice as could be. He asked us about our morning, and then hooked us up with more Fastpasses – this time for the Magic Kingdom. I’d already made Fastpasses for the afternoon at MK – securing short waits for Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and The Seven Dwarfs Runaway Mine Train. With the extra passes, we walked into the Haunted Mansion (not great), flew with Peter Pan (my girls liked it – especially after the Haunted Mansion), and rode the Runaway Mine Train twice back to back.
Fun on the 7 Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
We were feeling pretty special being able to walk up to any line and go right into the Fastpass lane – even without reservations.
We finished that night getting fat and happy at the dessert bar while watching fireworks again. Life was good.
Our last morning was spent riding the familiar Na’vi River Journey, Kili Safaris, and Dinosaur, all crowd favorites. During our float along the Na’vi River, my 24-hour check-in window for the next morning’s flight came up, and I ended up having to do the online check-in during the middle of our ride. Not ideal, but we got “A” boarding passes, so all was not lost. Later, while riding on the Safari through the Savannah, we had a Masai Giraffe walking along the road in front of the truck and stop. So we waited for at least 10 minutes while the tour trucks behind us stacked up. Finally, it took a park staff truck to come by and offer the giraffe some treats before he/she decided to move. Our last ride at Animal Kingdom was our favorite – Flight of the Avatar – a 3D simulation ride on the back of a banshee This experience was our favorite during the last trip and this one as well. When we entered the Fastpass line, the wait for the commoners was 3 hours 45 minutes. Just wow. We were riding the banshee within 10 minutes. We were fortunate.
One funny thing happened that day as we were walking through Africa in the Animal Kingdom. There was a cultural street dance going on. One of the entertainers was an African man on stilts. He was reaching out to the crowd for volunteers to come dance. He saw my wife, who is extremely shy, and motioned to her. She back-peddled faster than Michael Jackson doing his moonwalk. The African man on stilts did not acquiesce easily, and my wife ended up trying to blend into the crowd. He made some sad faces at her, but not before we all had a good laugh, yes, at her expense.
Lunch at the Animal Kingdom was spent at the Yak and Yeti. My teriyaki beef bowl was good, and I’d get it again.
Departing the Animal Kingdom, we rode the bus over to Hollywood again for one last activity: the Droid Depot. My girls had been looking forward to this activity for a month. The inconspicuous door in Galaxy’s Edge leads to a hub of noise, machinery, parts, and lots of people building droids. As usual, the workers are outfitted as real Star Wars folks. My girls picked their droids, grabbed the necessities for the droid construction from the revolving carousel of parts, and commenced building a BB8 and an R2D2. Of course, you still need to purchase a “personality chip” ($13) so your droid will make noises, and the R2D2 unit needed colorful stickers (another $7). Even in a galaxy far, far away, the Mouse still knows how to take your money. But my girls had a great experience, and we walked out after spending just short of $250. Ouch. Thank goodness the grandparents had frontloaded my girls with some extra spending money.
Back to the hotel for one last dessert hour and fireworks, then it was time to pack our bags for our flight out the next morning.

Finally, here are a few of our personal ratings of the rides we’ve done:
Best – Flight of the Avatar – and it isn’t really close
Upper Tier – Rise of the Resistance, Runaway Mine Train, Space Mountain
Middle Upper Tier – Star Tours, Thunder Mountain Railroad
Fun for little ones – Alien Saucers, Barnstormer
Probably overrated – Smugglers Run
Wouldn’t do again – Haunted Mansion, Mission Mars, Living with the Land, Journey into the Imagination with Figment, Frozen Sing-along (we love Frozen, but did not like this sarcastic show).

Next up, Texas bluebonnet and wildflowers season is just around the corner – only a month or so away. I’m not sure how great the bluebonnets will be. Our lack of rain in the fall may diminish the returns for bluebonnets. But we’ve had more rain this January and February, so maybe the wildflowers such as Indian blankets, coreopsis, and other varieties will put on a show.

Bluebonnets, wildflowers, poppies, prickly poppies, sunset, evening, pastel colors, backroads, rural, dirt road, focus stacking
Bluebonnet Sunset in April 414-1 : Prints Available

Sometimes everything works out – the bluebonnets were beautiful, the winds calm, and the sky eased into night with pastel shades of pink and orange and blue. This evening along a quiet backroad in the Texas Hill Country was just about perfect. Somewhere around four miles off a paved road, several miles of bluebonnets and white prickly poppies covered the fields and stretched to the rolling hills in the distance. For three hours, a friend and I explored the incredibly colorful views this dirt road offered, and we did not see another car nor person for the duration of the trip. In the distance, the sounds of cattle mooing could be heard, as well as the call of wild turkeys as they roamed the area.

It was a long drive back to my home and family in the hill country, but the nearly 2-hour commute each way was worth it for the beauty we found on this night.

Happy Travels,

Rob
Images from Texas

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