Monday, April 29, 2013

Disney for Big Kids

Every five-year-old dreams of visiting Mickey’s house. But what happens when mom and dad get a yearning to escape reality? The destination doesn’t have to differ.

Walt Disney World may just be the happiest place on earth for kids of all ages; even those who don’t really expect to act childish. The collection of famous theme parks and resorts that put Orlando, Florida on the map (and every child’s wish list) specializes in removing its visitors, young and old, from the trappings of everyday life. This means deftly balancing equal parts kiddie rides and a full-on indulgence for adults.

If you step back from the princesses and space rangers, a different Disney comes into focus. This is the Disney that understands twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings grew up hooked on classic Disney flicks and hold a special place in their nostalgia bank for Simba, Belle and Buzz.

So being the genius corporation that it is, Disney devised a way to make it all right for adults to visit their theme park (simultaneously creating short-term and life-long customers). All they had to do was weave in some adults-only attractions, sprinkle on some magic pixie dust and poof - big kids come pouring in.

It may not be apparent at first, but Disney World truly is a destination for anyone without children. Foodies can take advantage of some top-notch eating. Relaxation-seekers can indulge in some serious pampering at various spas. For those looking for thrills, Disney has created some surprisingly exciting rides.

If you visit at the right time (I’d suggest May or September, before school ends or after it begins and not during the school vacation or summer swamp-sweat season) and you use your time wisely (take advantage of early park openings, late park closings and snatch up Fast Pass line cutting stubs like they’re being auctioned on eBay) you will avoid lines and frustration.

But the real treats are the ones that aren’t on the billboards and brochures. They’re known, of course, everything here is. However, you won’t see every family of five skipping off to partake. Golf, for example, is one way to escape the castles and pirate ships, unless of course you’re mini-golfing.

But if I’m giving the Mouse my money, here are my five favorite big kid experiences at Walt Disney World. 

  1. EPCOT around the world
How can you grab a margarita in Mexico, sake in Japan, wine in Italy and a frozen cocktail in France all in one night? Walk briskly. EPCOT was built as the community of tomorrow, but while we’re all waiting for the future why not have a drink?

The trick is to start early. This day can go long and get rough, especially if the swamp weather arrives. You’ll know it has if the small of your back starts sweating.

Pick a country, say France since it is easily accessible and right over the bridge from the back entrance. Locate its alcohol dispensary, typically a cart, kiosk, bar or pub, and begin the journey.

France has an orange creamsicle flavored frozen drink that is both refreshing and buzz inducing. It also sells wine from street carts.

Stroll your way around to other countries like Italy, which has a wine bar that specializes in the delicious, highbrow Banfi wine collection. Japan recently opened a new sake bar and almost every adult in Mexico is carrying an oversized frozen margarita. The German beer garden is a rollicking, raucous good time, complete with oompa brass band, long tables and hefty steins of lip-smacking German beer.

Many of these days end in the UK, at the pub. Amongst tired dads who just “ran to the bathroom,” you’ll be clinking your glasses, singing folksongs and prepping to tackle another day in the happiest place on earth.

  1. Rides after dark
If you aren’t lined up on Main Street or around the EPCOT lake just before dark, consider yourself luckier than Aladdin when he found the Genie’s lamp. Why? Because Disney parades are the best thing to happen to adults at Disney World since they started selling alcohol in souvenir cups. No, not because of the twinkling lights and dancing movie characters, but because of the vacuum-like effect the parades have on ride lines.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof tip, but it proves true in many instances and is worth a shot regardless of what time of year you’re visiting. When the parades rev up in a Disney park, head for the big kid rides.

And if the sun has gone down already, well all the better. You haven’t seen Disney until you’ve seen it at twilight from the top of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; or teetering at the pinnacle of Splash Mountain about to plunge into darkness; or screaming around corners of Thunder Mountain while shadows creep over the track. When the masses get distracted and the sun goes down, Disney takes on an even more surreal atmosphere than normal, if that’s possible. Even Space Mountain, which is always inside in the dark, gets eerier at night. And don’t worry, nobody will judge you, that’s what the rides are there for. Unless you’re wearing Mickey ears – in that case, give them to a kid watching the Tinkerbell parade and head for a rollercoaster. 

  1. California Grill & Fireworks
Dining can be hit or miss in Disney World, with generally more hits than misses. I follow a general rule: eat at hotel restaurants over parks, unless absolutely necessary. EPCOT countries aren’t bad, but even there you must choose wisely. Germany and Mexico offer tasty, authentic fare, but China isn’t so lucky.

But perhaps the best dining experience in Disney World is one geared toward mom and dad, not Junior.

After a long day at the Magic Kingdom, take a short walk next door to the Contemporary Resort. Perched atop is the California Grill, a contemporary (obviously) restaurant serving modern takes on west coast dishes, inspired by wine country and everything else that region has to offer. From sushi to steaks, California Grill is a high quality meal in a fantasy setting, with panoramic views all around of Magic Kingdom and the sprawling Disney property. It’s like eating your way through the ride Soarin’.

The real treat, though, comes with a little planning. Time your reservation (and definitely make a reservation) with the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Whether from your table or from California Grill’s outside roof walk, the nightly extravaganza of colors will seem to be exploding just for you.

  1. Stroll along the Boardwalk
Disney’s Boardwalk Resort was designed to resemble the beach boardwalks of old, complete with all the entertaining possibilities. At night, a stroll by the rail may not evoke sea breeze or salty ocean air, but the carnival games with prize hawkers stir up some nostalgia. Food vendors pump tantalizing aromas along the boards and the lighthouse across the lagoon at the Yacht & Beach Club boat dock gives a New England flavor.

Lined with restaurants and shops, it is the perfect place to end an evening in a way that is very rare in Disney World – free. It doesn’t cost anything to stroll up and down the Boardwalk. Downtown Disney offers the same benefits, but the noise and bustle from unending shopping can make that just as exhausting as running around Magic Kingdom.

Boardwalk is a quieter, albeit less active, alternative. But not at all less exciting. Head into Jellyrolls, the dueling piano bar, and you’ll understand why. Two expert musicians battle it out onstage with crowd suggestions while you sit back and sip a well-deserver beer.

  1. Say Aloha 
The Polynesian is world-class by day, but shake your hips on over for an evening of fun and fantastic food. Bring your large group to the authentic luau or just up to the Ohana, the large restaurant that serves food family-style, freshly grilled on skewers just steps away on the massive open-flames.

The food itself is incredible, and how can you not enjoy yourself chowing down at a huge table and laughing with the personable wait staff. Pork tenderloin, steak tenderloin, shrimp skewers, noodles – everything is delicious and perfectly cooked.
But to wash it all down, just go with the Mai Thai. The drinks are served in cups the size of bowling balls, requiring two hands to hold and a steady footing to endure. A lot of alcohol gets packed into these behemoth beverages, but the tangy-sweet taste transports you from mimicked Hawaii to real Polynesia. Even if you aren’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt, you’ll feel like you are; even if you don’t know how to hula, you’ll try to.

All good Disney World experiences remove you from reality, especially the big kid ones. After all, that’s why us adults love visiting just as much as the tykes, even if we won’t admit it. Work doesn’t reach you here, neither does the headline news. The real world can wait because in the happiest place on earth, you’re always just a kid at heart.


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