Monday, March 21, 2011

Disney 2011 - Day 4: The Magic Kingdom

I forgot to mention a very important part of our Friday in my last post. My father arrived at the hotel about the same time we did Friday night! This is the first year he has joined us for any of the trips with Luke, and I was so looking forward to Saturday. I couldn't wait for Luke to show Papa around. Unfortunately, the day didn't exactly go smoothly, starting with our first errand of the morning.

We had slept late again, actually past 8 AM, and we'd already used 2 days on our tickets without having any idea how many days were left. While we finished getting ready, Mom and Dad graciously volunteered to take the tickets to the concierge desk to have them checked. "I'm sorry, we've upgraded our systems and can only check new tickets. Older tickets must be checked at guest relations." Concierge doesn't qualify as guest relations? Nice. Who decided backwards compatibility wasn't important here? We'll have them checked at the Transportation and Ticketing center.

The lines weren't as long as I feared, and I would like to give a particular thank you to cast member Alex who checked our tickets. He greeted us with a huge smile on his face and was exceptionally friendly and helpful. He happily checked the 6 tickets we had (including two from 2000!) and loaned me a pen so I could right it down. The results were that we had plenty of days and didn't need to purchase any more. "You have a magical day!" He was not the only person to say that to us on this trip, but he is the only person who seemed to genuinely mean it. Thank you, Alex!

With that very pleasant experience, we boarded the ferry just before 10 AM. I knew when we booked the trip that The Magic Kingdom was likely to be busier than we are accustomed to on Saturday, since the park hours showed they were open until 10 PM. (The later they are open, the more people they are expecting!) We usually go when MK closes at 8 or 9, but 10 wasn't too bad. Not quite sure what was causing that (ESPN the Weekend combined with the Flower and Garden Festival, maybe?), but I really didn't think it would be *that* bad. Except that they "happily" announced on the ferry on the way over to the park that they had extended operating hours to Midnight. UGH! That means they were already so busy by 10 AM that they knew they needed an extra 2 hours. NOT good, but it was really too late to do anything about it now. We got through security and immediately headed all the way to the back of the park. I had really wanted to do Tom Sawyer Island with Luke this year, but with it being so late, and all the extra people, and after our recent experience at the Hone I Shrunk The Kids play area, that was now out of the question. Time for Plan B, which ironically was our more typical touring plan: Fantasyland, then Tomorrowland, Frontierland, maybe Liberty Square, and finally Adventureland.

Like Toy Story at the Studios, Peter Pan runs out of FastPasses quickly, so that was our first destination. The sign said the distribution times were for 1:20 to 2:20, which actually worked out pretty well, so I grabbed them. But when the tickets printed out, they said 11:40 to 12:40. Thankfully, we didn't have dining reservations, but that also meant that we couldn't even get in line to wait at any sit down places at 11 or we'd miss our FastPass window. I thought we'd been given a bonus, though, when the machine also spit out additional FastPasses for Mickey's PhilharMagic. That, too, was on our desired destinations, so we did that while we waited. Turns out we didn't even need the FastPasses; there was no wait. We zipped across to "it's a small world" after that, then on to lunch at Pinocchio's Village Haus (pizzas, chicken nuggets, chicken parmesan, and a meatball sub), followed by our Peter Pan FastPasses.

By the time we finished Peter Pan, the lunch places were really filling up. Good! Maybe some of the more popular rides will be less busy while everyone eats? Let's head on over to Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland. I've ridden Buzz Lightyear enough times that I am a pretty good judge of how long the wait is just by looking at the queue. I think it said it was about 50 minutes, which looked was about right. It had some temporary rope queuing set up outside, which is very rare, but the line seemed to be moving okay. We grabbed some FastPasses which were due a bit more than an hour from that moment, so it should be perfect timing to ride twice in a row.

As we waited, though, things started getting out of hand. The FastPass return line got really long. As in, it filled up the internal *and* external queue and started wrapping around the building. Remember, this was the *FastPass* line! Not the regular one. And the regular line had virtually quit moving. The whole point of the Omnimover ride system is that the ride moves continuously, and so should the line. I realize that FastPass does circumvent this process some, but we've had plenty of experience with FastPass rides in general, and Buzz Lightyear in particular, and we've never had much of an issue. Until this year.

We watched the FastPass line move near constantly while the regular line just stopped for minutes at a time. That is NOT how it is supposed to work. It took over an hour for us to get through the line, but it never should have. I'd say over half the people who rode the ride in that hour had FastPasses, which means either they'd given out too many, or somehow, people were hoarding them. Regardless, something was out of whack, and I was not happy. Still, it was Dad's first time on the ride, and Luke had a great time, which is what mattered. We had just a few minutes before our FastPasses were due, so we took a quick ride on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover. There was actually a queue for it. Only about 5 minutes, but still! In 13 years, I don't think I've ever seen a line for the Peoplemover. And yes, it is officially back to being the Peoplemover!

When we got off, it was *just* time for our FastPasses, but the FastPass line seemed more under control now, and the stand by line was quoting 45 minutes. However, I could tell by looking at the line that there were *not* 45 minutes worth of people in it. Our FastPass window was an hour long, so let's wait the 45 minutes, then use the FastPasses to ride twice. That would give us 3 times around on Buzz, which would hopefully satisfy Luke. But not long after we got in line, the FastPass line started stacking up again. By the time we got inside the building, there were literally 6 cast members involved just in managing the FastPass line! Something was seriously wrong, and they decided to punish the people in the stand by line while they tried to fix it.

After several pauses of several minutes, I started timing them. We stood at a stand still, with not a single person from the stand by line being allowed on the ride, for 8 minutes, 4 minutes, and 6 minutes, while the FastPass line moved constantly (except when they stopped it long enough to let 10-15 stand by line folks through before we mutinied). From the time I started watching/counting, which was over 30 minutes, only about 20% of the people who boarded the ride were from the stand by line; the other 80%, literally several hundred, came from the FastPass line. (Best estimates I can find shows Buzz to have an hourly capacity of 900-1200 people.) It was beyond ridiculous!! Where on earth were all these people coming from?! For those 50 minutes, the FastPass functioned as the regular line, while the regular line was the "no, I'd really like to wait *extra* time for this ride" line. I'm not sure who was angrier, me or my dad. I would have been angry about it anyway, based on our previous experiences and knowing full and well that isn't normal, but I'm an industrial engineer. Queuing theory is a major part of what we do, so in my *professional* opinion, something was very very wrong, but no one seemed to be trying to fix it. (Clearly, I'm still a wee bit upset about it. It really put a black mark on the whole trip for me.)

We did finally get on, but I knew it was going to be hard for me to enjoy myself because I was so angry. If we missed our FastPass return window because there was some kind of glitch with their system, I was going to be furious. I had heard rumors that FastPasses don't really expire. Once your "start time" has passed, you can use them any time, even after your one-hour window has passed. But I didn't want to hold my breath and bet on it, since it was only hearsay. Nothing we could do about it at that point, so we'd just have to hope we got off in time and the FastPass return line wasn't suddenly insane again. I decided to try and calm/cheer myself by riding alone (only 2 blasters per car, and we had 5 people) while taking pictures of everyone else having fun. After all, the point of the trip is to have fun, right?

When we got off, we had about 5 minutes left on our FastPasses, so we ran around and got in the now all-but-gone FastPass line. The cast member who decides how to incorporate FastPass riders into the regular line naturally decided to stop the FastPass line right in front of us. Oh come on!! But I kept my cool. "Excuse me," I said, "was there a problem with the FastPasses earlier?" She said she didn't think so. "The FastPass line was really long and moved constantly. We stood there in the stand by line without moving for 8 minutes at one point while the FastPass line kept moving." Well, ma'am, FastPass riders take priority. "At the expense of everyone else in line? It just seems like there were *way* too many of them coming in during that hour." FastPasses don't expire, she said, since they don't want to worry about things like people only being a few minutes late or who missed them for dining reservations. Since it was right after lunch, it was probably everyone who had held on to them for a couple of hours. "So official Disney policy is that FastPasses don't expire? Once the start time is passed, you can use them any time that day, even if it is many hours later?" Yes, ma'am. "So why do they put an end time on there?" That one seemed to stump her, and she let us go through at that point (probably just to get away from me, which is fine, too!).

I actually suspect that they don't advertise the policy for *exactly* the reason that had just happened. Having a one hour window printed on the ticket makes you think you must be back during that window, so people return at a fairly even rate and it keeps both lines moving well. But now that I know for sure, I will be grabbing FastPasses as I can when available on any ride I want to ride later. That way I'll have them "just in case," knowing full and well I can use them whenever I want after the start time passes. If that is the policy, then I'm going to take advantage of it! And I'm going to tell all of my friends (that would be *you*) so they can take advantage of it, too. :-) (Note that you can't just walk around and grab FastPasses for every ride all in one shot. You can get another FastPass either after the start time for the one you have passes, or 2 hours after you obtained your previous one, whichever comes first. If you aren't sure if you can get another one, go ahead and try it. The machine will either give you a FastPass or spit out something that tells you when you can get your next one.)

I do want to stress that all other FastPass rides worked just fine in both the FastPass line and the stand by line without any issues during the entire trip, even at the Magic Kingdom on other rides. And as I mentioned, we've never had this kind of issue before. I'm still baffled as to what went so very wrong at Buzz that day!

Our last time around turned out to be the best. The ride came to a hault for several minutes in the main large room with the volcano and the pop-up monsters. Now, you would expect me to be upset that the ride stopped, right? And I would be, depending on ride. A stopped roller coaster would not be cool! However, on Buzz, it's great, allowing plenty of extra time to take out the targets and rack up points, sometimes allowing multiple hits on the same target. I was riding with Mom that round, Luke was with Dad, and DH was by himself. Seems like Mom scored over 300K, and I was over 600K (mid-200s is more normal for me). Even Luke had over 100K (20-50K is more normal for him). We thought we were hot stuff. Until we got to one of the tunnels (no targets in there) and DH asked me for the camera. Um, okay. I passed it to him in the next car. What, you're up to 700 or 800? He just smirked. When we got off the ride, he showed me this:

Cheater! LOL Amazing what happens when you ride by yourself, so you control the spin and you aren't competing for targets with anyone else in your car. By the time we finished our 3rd ride, it was nearly 3PM. We did zip over to Space Mountain just to check the wait time, but it was showing 90 minutes. Buzz was showing 80 minutes. People were everywhere. Luke, what should we do next? "Thunder Mountain!" I was afraid it was going to have some sort of insane wait time as well; I just hoped there were FastPasses left. Wait, what time is it? 2:54. The fastest way from Tomorrowland to Frontierland is through the hub, but there is also a 3PM parade that starts on Main Street, goes through the hub, and then on through Liberty Square and Frontierland. We *had* to get ahead of it if we had any chance of making it to Big Thunder Mountain in the next hour. RUN!

We were all breathing heavy by the time we got there, and sure enough, the wait time was 90 minutes. *Way* too long, but FastPasses were available. And now that we knew it didn't matter what the end time was, we grabbed them. What to do while we wait? Let's try Pirates of the Caribbean. It moves pretty constantly, and even a 30-45 minute wait is tolerable because it is inside with some theming to look at (unlike Big Thunder).

Nope, Pirates had a 65 minute wait. No thanks! Luke started getting whiny, and I realized it was time for snack. We parked ourselves at the Tortuga Tavern (formerly El Pirata y El Perico), which was actually *open*, another sign of how insanely busy they were. (It's a seasonal restaurant, and in our previous 13 years of visits, I don't ever recall it being open before.) We had worked ourselves pretty hard and had some terrible frustrations. We had also decided to skip nap for a 3rd day in a row while at Disney, which we all knew was a potential disaster waiting to happen. We got some ice cream bites (Nibs, I think?), popcorn, and drinks, and enjoyed the ceiling fans for nearly an hour. Sure, we could have spent that hour in line for Pirates, but we really needed the respite. We talked, laughed, people watched, chased birds (okay, maybe not all of us did that), and relaxed. Aahhh!

And during that hour, the line for Pirates did nothing but grow! To the point that they had nearly filled up the *external* queue. Now, the outside queue was moving quite quickly, but still. We have rarely even seen them *have* outside queue during our March trips. There's a reason we go when we go! If I wanted to be there with the rest of the planet, we'd go at Christmas. I figured most of the influx was from the parade having ended nearby not long before. The wait time was now showing 80 minutes, but I still thought that was an underestimate; it had said that for a while, but the line was longer now than when they changed it. Is there something else in the area that we can do while we wait for it to die down?

Well, The Jungle Cruise is on up around the bend a bit, and it's something Luke has never done. I hadn't done it in years and years; I'm not even positive DH had ever done it. The line is usually way too long, but when we checked, it showed 50 minutes. (It's sad when you're starting to consider 50 minutes reasonable during the first weekend in March!) And the queue is fairly entertaining. There's stuff to see, good old-timey music, and rather amusing announcements coming over the intercom periodically. Let's give it a try. Our skipper was very good, with excellent delivery and timing, and a big smile! Luke wasn't quite sure what to make of the ride, but he seemed to enjoy it, especially the temple. Sadly, most of the photos of Luke didn't turn out very well.

It's been over an hour. Let's try Pirates again. Wait time was showing 75 minutes, and though the line was quite a bit shorter, it was still taking up about half of the outdoor queue. Um, anything else to kill some time with? The Swiss Family Robinson Tree House is right next door, and Luke hasn't done it either. It never has a line, and still didn't! Let's see if that gets us anywhere, and even if not, it should be time for dinner by the time we're done. Luke has never seen the movie, and he wasn't very impressed with the props and stuff. (I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I think I actually like the rethemed one in Disneyland better. They've converted it to Tarzan, which Luke would have loved!) But he did like being up high and having great views of the park.

Pirates was still a no go, so we started considering dinner options. The two closest counter service options, Pecos Bill's and Casey's, didn't have chicken nuggets for Luke. Really the best option was the Starlight Cafe over near the Fantasyland/Tomorrowland border. We trotted back across the hub, and Luke stopped to watch whatever show was going on in front of the castle. Fine, it's probably easier to get food without him anyway. DH stayed with him with instructions to find a table when they finished, while Mom, Dad, and I went to stand in line. Chicken nuggets, rotisserie chicken, and hamburgers were procured, and we enjoyed a nice leisurely dinner (in the room with the animatronic singer, which Luke *hated* last year, but begged to eat in that room this year; go figure). Luke finished first and asked to play with DH's phone, which was fine. I had seen a hat I wanted earlier in the day, so when everyone had finished, we asked if the boys wanted to go check out Buzz Lightyear while we went hat hunting. "No, I want to play with Daddy's phone." We come all the way to Disney, and you'd rather play with something you can do at home than ride a ride? Whatever. Shopping took about 20 minutes, but no joy. By then, we were well past our Thunder Mountain return time, so we met up with the guys and headed out, hoping that what the cast member had told us earlier was correct. We did stop for a quick group picture, though, something I was determined to have with all of us there!

We got on Thunder Mountain with our "expired" FastPasses with no trouble at all. We had considered waiting in the stand by line, but it was still showing 80 minutes, and we were all starting to get tired. Not worth the wait. With 5 FastPasses for 3 people (we used DH's and Dad's tickets to get FastPasses, even though they weren't going to ride), Luke would get to ride twice, and that should be good enough. While we did this:

Dad was doing this:

And we were probably all equally happy! LOL

I was really fading and my feet were killing me (remember the worn out shoes), so I let Mom have the second ride with Luke while Dad and I started walking over to Pirates to see how the wait looked there; DH waited for Mom and Luke to get off the ride. It was nearly 7PM, I knew we'd be racing the parade (again! I swear I hate those things), and I wasn't sure I could keep up without a head start. Turned out to be a good thing, too! I made a quick bathroom stop, and by the time I was done, Mom, Luke, and DH had already caught up with us. Pirates was now showing a 5 minute wait. Now *that's* more like it! We even had a surprise for Luke. Ready, set, glow!

Amazing what a low-light lens camera will get you on Pirates!

Luke had been begging for ice cream all day, and I knew we could use our patented "sneak off through Adventureland and come out near The Crystal Palace so we can exit the park quickly without going through the hub during the fireworks" move, so we said okay. This turned out to be a HUGE mistake, but there was no way to know that at the time. I guess not being able to find anywhere to sit except right next to the smoking section should have been a hint, and even the ice cream tasted funny (though Luke didn't seem to mind, which is all that mattered). The first fireworks for Wishes went off just as we exited Adventureland. I figured we'd be on the ferry before it was done, well ahead of the crowds.

Turns out that the horribly unfunny joke was on us. We had to cross two bridges, one to exit Adventureland, and one to cross in front of the Crystal Palace. Other than the year that they would not let us exit through Adventureland, I had never had any trouble using this exit strategy. Until this year. We got to the end of the first bridge, and no one was moving. At all. We tried veering right and left, but no one was going anywhere. According to Google Maps, the distance from the end of the Adventureland bridge (where we came to a stop) to the bathrooms between Casey's and The Crystal Palace is 300-400 feet (92-122 meters). It took us the *entire* length of Wishes, 15-20 minutes, to go that far. That calculates out to literally 25-ish feet (7.6 meters) per minute, which is as excruciatingly slow as it sounds, even more so when it is you and literally hundreds of other people moving that slowly. (Remember the final subway scene in Crocodile Dundee? It was pretty much just like that, only no one walked on our heads.) No amount of cast members shouting and/or directing helped any at all. We spent most of that time physically standing on the bridge that leads to The Crystal Palace. I would like to thank the structural engineer who overdesigned the heck out of that thing so that it didn't collapse with that much standing weight on it, something I'm sure it was never intended to do. Not only was it slow and miserable, it was truly dangerous. If there had been any sort of real emergency, someone could have been seriously hurt in the literal crush of people.

Once we got past the Crystal Palace, near those restrooms, things seemed to shake out just fine, but by then, we had been separated from my parents. The initial "if we get separated" plan was to just meet at the guard's tables at the security checkpoint. But that was before we had come to a virtual stop for 15 minutes. When I realized it was less dangerous to allow us to get separated if need be, I had made sure they knew where we were parked so we could just all meet up at the car. Once we did finally get out of there, we headed straight for the ferry. I pulled out my phone to see if maybe they were already in line, when I got a text from Mom. "At bag check tables near ferry." Shoot! That ferry was now boarding. We decided to wait, since we hadn't followed through with the original plan, and texted that they should just come on. After all that, actually leaving the park was remarkably uneventful.

This was one of the few years I have actually been grateful that we were leaving Disney. I think everyone enjoyed themselves at least some of the time, but it was a rough trip. Actually, I don't think a trip had gone this badly since our first trip with Luke when he was an infant (and my memories of that trip are probably colored by the fact that I was in the midst of terrible postpartum depression at the time).

We were all just dead dog tired the next morning. A very brief conversation with Luke perfectly encapsulates how we were all feeling:

DH: Luke, do you want cheerios or kix for breakfast?
Luke (looking dazed): Breakfast, please.

Poor baby! We finally got everything packed up around 10:30. We did stop at Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney on the way out for lunch with my parents, especially since that is something Dad has never gotten to do with Luke, then we went our separate ways home. We had dressed for the 80-degree weather (27C) in Orlando, so we were taken by surprise when we stopped for dinner in middle Georgia and it was only 45 degrees (7C)! Luke changed into jeans and I (already in jeans) put on the only long sleeved shirt I had. BRRR! We finally got home around 9PM.

And while we were off having fun, Star was spayed. She wasn't very happy with me when I picked her up. She *hated* having to wear that cone. Morning school bus temps of 32 degrees (0C), a royally angry kitten, 200 new emails in my inbox at work, and it was Monday. Such a harsh return to reality!

Currently feeling: at least we survived

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