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What Surprised Me at Disney World

I definitely had some expectations of what Disney World would be like before we traveled there in November. But, like most things in life, not everything turned out the way I thought. So, I hope other first-timers (or even Disney veterans) can appreciate learning about the surprises - good and bad - we experienced.


How big (yet small) it was … Let me explain. First of all, Walt Disney World Resort is massive. HUGE. When I found out it took an average of 20 minutes to get to the Magic Kingdom by bus, I was skeptical … but it really did take 20 minutes! Fortunately, that was our longest bus ride – trips to the other parks were more like 10-15 minutes or less. But still, the parks and resorts are soooo spread out in reality compared to my expectations. 

INSIDE the parks, on the other hand, everything is sooo close together. Shops, shows and rides are nearly on top of each other (or literally on top of each other) in many cases. We’re more used to Cedar Point, where the massive roller coasters force neighboring attractions to leave more wiggle room. (I know comparing Disney World to Cedar Point is apples to oranges, but Cedar Point is my biggest theme park point of reference, OK?) Also, I felt like a lot of walkways/streets at Disney were more narrow, forcing crowds to bottleneck often. I was a little claustrophobic at times, but there were times where I felt like we had some breathing room, too.

A view down crowded Main Street at the Magic Kingdom - MUCH more narrow than Cedar Point's midway. 
How CROWDED it was … We picked the week before Thanksgiving because all those online crowd calendars gave it about a 3 on a scale of 1-10. Sweet, right? Turns out, our first day at the Magic Kingdom was a 10 out of 10 according to TouringPlans, which gave me a bit of a shock right off the bat. Thankfully, that day was an anomaly, as the rest of the week was less crowded … they weren't exactly the “empty” parks I was picturing, but totally manageable (aside from the wall-to-wall crowds at the Osborne Lights (but that’s just because they’re going away after this season and everyone wanted one last look ... or first look in our case!). 

Highlights of the magnificent Osborne Lights ... They put the Toledo Zoo lights to shame ...
A few fantastic dining experiences … When we made our dining reservations, my husband BEGGED me to eat at Biergarten, the authentic German buffet in Epcot. I didn’t think I’d like it at all, but I didn’t want to deny his ONLY request. I’m so glad I listened to him! The food wasn’t as “weird” as I thought it would be – in fact, it wasn’t weird at all! Combined with the German beer, live music and authentic décor, this dining experience was one of the best of our entire trip!

Kyle was pretty much in heaven with all the food at Biergarten. And he kept it all down while dancing with Kenlee!
I say Biergarten was ONE of our best experiences because I think Boma and Sanaa, the two table service offerings we tried at Animal Kingdom Lodge, ranked toward the top as well. We ate at Sanaa for lunch, and the famous bread service – five different flatbreads with nine dipping sauces (or "accompaniments," if you’re feeling fancy) – more than lived up to the hype.

Sanaa's bread service. I would go there again just to eat this. 
At Boma, the brunch buffet had the perfect combination of familiar and exotic foods. My favorites included the French toast bread pudding with praline sauce (O-M-G!), as well as the carved turkey with African mustard. AMAZING. In my opinion, both picky and adventurous eaters can leave here MORE than satisfied.

And I can't leave out this one ... Honorable mention goes to ’50s Prime Time Café for having the best options for simple, “home cooked” comfort food. Kyle had "A Sampling of Mom's Favorite Recipes" and I had "Cousin Ryan's Vegetable Lasagna." We topped it off with dessert - Kyle got apple crisp a la mode, and I had an amazing chocolate milkshake. MMMMmmmm ...
Kyle lunch at '50s Prime Time was the best of three worlds - pot roast, fried chicken and meatloaf! 
Some amazing attractions … Disney is known for its incredibly immersive experiences with special attention to theming and technology. So I definitely knew we see some great attractions, but the ones that stood out for us were sort of unexpected: 
  • Soarin’ – Kyle, Kenlee and I all LOVED this experience. We truly felt like we were hang-gliding over California, and we left amazed at how REAL the flight felt. 
  • Toy Story Midway Mania – To be honest, I thought this ride sounded a little childish before I tried it. Yes, it is childish, but in the best ways possible. The gaming experience, 3-D effects and carnival atmosphere are perfect for kids ages 2 to 102, in my opinion. 
  • Mickey’s Philharmagic – This show was NOT on our must-do list, but when rain ruined most of our plans during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, we needed an indoor experience. At the recommendation of a coworker who raved about it, we decided to duck in the theater. It was Kenlee’s first 3-D show, and she didn't stop giggling the entire time! So. Damn. Cute. 
  • Festival of the Lion King – This show lives up to its fantastic reputation. It combines elements of Broadway, acrobatics, parades, fire twirling, dancing, singing, stilting (is that a word? I’m going to make it a word) and more.
Festival of the Lion King was our FAVORITE live show!
A few disappointments … Not everything was as magical as I thought it would be. The biggest disappointment was actually my biggest anticipation: Cinderella’s Royal Table. It's hard to explain, but here’s the review I left on Disney’s website: 
Left Hungry and Unimpressed  
For being the most expensive meal of our entire visit, this experience left us disappointed. First of all, we did not get enough food. It tasted good, but the portions were tiny and we all left still feeling hungry. Second, we were the first table seated (which seemed like a great thing), but we had to sit and wait 30 minutes after we'd finished eating for all the princesses to come out. My 4-year-old was starting to get bored, and so was I. When the princesses did come out, the announcement on the speakers could NOT be understood, and we also couldn't hear the directions for the wishing ceremony. All that money and you can't get good volume/acoustics figured out? It was nice to say we ate in the castle once, but I won't be going back. It's not worth the price, not to mention the hassle of getting a reservation.
::SIGH:: Live and learn, right? I can’t believe we ate IN CINDERELLA CASTLE and didn’t feel all that magical about it … On the plus side, my daughter met five princesses without waiting in long lines. So that’s priceless, yes? 

Even though I was disappointed with Cinderella's Royal Table, I can't put a price on those smiles!
Two other disappointments? Journey of the Little Mermaid at Hollywood Studios – holy outdated and strange show, Batman! This was like a “Worst Of” effects from the ’90s. And, Kali River Rapids? Too short and too dry. I hate compare Disney to Cedar Point again, but CP's Thunder Canyon is waaaay better. 

How much I miss it … When we returned home, I had to immediately jump into holiday mode, so there was little downtime to let my brain relax. But now? The post-Disney blues are really kicking in. I KNOW we’ll go back someday (the plan is two years), and I KNOW the parks aren’t going anywhere … but sometimes I just can’t help but crave that magic. My mind often wanders to our memories and I can *almost* feel like I'm there again.

Of course, we had our share of stressful moments and letdowns at Disney, but we also experienced an incredible amount of happiness. Our entire family was together – with no other obligations and distractions – and we could ALL enjoy and appreciate the magic around us. 

If it wasn't already clear, I'll go ahead and say it. This trip made me fall even more in love with the magic of Disney. Maybe it's the eternal optimist in me ... maybe it's the nostalgia of it all. Heck, maybe it's the magic of Disney marketing! ... I don't care. All I know is that this trip was just the beginning of something. And I can't wait to see where it takes us next. 

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