Sunday, May 15, 2005

Famous Last Words

Famous last words: "Let's just go to Epcot for lunch."

I had cabin fever this week, as the weather has been absolutely gorgeous...lots of sunshine and warmth, with low humidity. We did have some thunderstorms on Wednesday, but overall this week we're been blessed with clear, blue, sun-kissed skies and nary a raindrop. I guess the rain clouds exhausted themselves last week.

My husband is in the Midwest this week, so I've been trying to be a good girl, working during the day and trying to make some headway with house cleaning at night (a losing battle when you own three cats and a bird). But this afternoon, I just couldn't help it. I had to get to the theme parks. I decided to knock off work early, as I can make up the hours over the weekend. I'd been lusting for a beet and goat cheese salad ever since I saw it in the new Land food court on my last visit. I figured that would make a tasty lunch, and with any luck I could Fast Pass Soarin' too.

My next door neighbors are fellow Disney fanatics, so I stopped by to see if they'd had lunch yet. I had the best of intentions; a quick trip to Epcot, where we would et our Fast Passes, eat, ride and run. That way, I could get in a couple more hours of work and maybe wash my filthy downstairs floor, too. I remember how I used to wonder why most people in Florida have tile instead of carpet in their main floor living areas. Believe me, now I know, as I constantly track mulch and mud into the family room and front foyer.

They hadn't eaten yet, and they'd actually been considering going to Disney World themselves. Our houses are very close rogether, so perhaps their psychic "Go to the theme park" vibes were beaming into my brain through the family room wall. Soon we had all piled into Canyonero and headed off to Epcot.

Thankfully, I have an AAA Diamond parking pass, a handy dandy little item that allows you to park in a special area, near the handicapped parking. You get it if you book a vacation package through AAA, and I was fortunate to "inherit" one from someone who was done with it. You can often find them on Ebay in the $20 to $30 range, and if you visit the theme parks a lot, they are well worth every penny. They are good for one calendar year, so you wouldn't want to purchase one in November or December, but they're great if you can get one early enough.

The parking lot was pretty full, but we found a great spot in the AAA area. Actually, I don't mind a long walk from the parking lot, but I do mind riding the trams. At busy times, getting a tram seat in akin in difficulty level to getting the latest fad toy at Christmas. Unless you have a cattle prod that you can flail with the finesse of a Jedi Knight weilding his light saber, you're probably going to be in for a long wait.

I'm from Chicago, so I know how to be extremely assetive (i.e. rude and pushy) when it's called for. But I don't like to subject myself to unneeded stress in a place that I've come to have fun, so I avoid the whole parking tram cattle call whenever possible.

In our AAA spot, it was only a short walk to the front gate. Since it was already around 2 p.m., there weren't too many people entering the park. Our bags were searched and we headed in, anxious to make our way to the Land pavillion for a good lunch and a great ride.

We got our Soarin' Fast Passes and headed to the food court, which was jam packed as though Wolfgang Puck himself, or perhaps Emeril, was personally doing the cooking. We all ended up getting soup and salad; I stuck with my original choice of beet and goat cheese salad, liberally sprinkled with sugar-coated nuts. The soup was a harder option, as they had the cheese and beer soup from Canada, but also a curried pea soup. The curry was very tempting, but my innate obsession with cheese finally won.

We had to wander a bit to find a table, but finally we managed to stake out our own little corner of the food court. The salad was just as delicious as its description had implied, and the cheese soup was as wonderful as always. When we were done eating, we still had a bit of time so we headed over to the "Living With The Land" boat ride. Sure, it's corny, but I always enjoy the greenhouses. This time, it was much better than usual because our "skipper" was apparently a refugee from the Jungle Cruise who kept up a humorous patter the whole way.

Next, it was back to "Soarin'," and before we got in line, we grabbed another Fast Pass. Yes, I know we had only come for lunch, but who knows...we might decide to stay a little longer. If not, we could always give the passes to someone.

I am an old hand at "Soarin'," but it was a brand new experience for my neighbors. We settled into the "hang glider" and were swept up for our ariel tour of the California landscape. It's an ADHD version, that rapidly cycles from the pine forests to the rivers to a golf course, orange groves, snowy mountains and even to Disneyland. I was pleased to note by the rapt expressions on their faces that they were enjoying it just as much as I was.

After our quick trip to the Left Coast, we decided to grab a ride on "Test Track," then visit with Crush the turtle at the Living Seas pavillion. Unless Epcot is extremely crowded, you can usually get on within 10 minutes you're willing to use the Single Riders Line. Your party will be split up, but that's a fair exchange for lopping at least half an hour off your waiting time. Actually, two of us ended up in the same car anyway.

My husband describes "Test Track" as a giant slot car set, and that's not too far from the truth. I can just picture some giant kid running his playset through its paces. For a long time, "Test Track" was "The Ride That Will Never Open." It ran many. many long months over its targeted opening date and far over budget. Even now, random breakdowns are not uncommon, and they shut it down at the slightest hint of rain. But it's a cute ride, and I love the exhilerating finale where you zoom around the outside track, supposedly at 64.8 m.p.h. (or so the digital "speedometer" always proclaims). I suspect that it's much slower, but it feels really fast.

Once, in the ride's early days, it shut down just as my husband and I were rocketing through that part. I am amazed at just how quickly we went from travelling full blast to a dead stop. You could literally smell the melted rubber. It must not have been a catastrophic failure, as they got us moving again before too long. But since that time, all of my rides on the giant slot cars have been flawless.

On the way to "Test Track," we stopped at one of the lesser-known Epcot attractions: Ice Station Cool. Unbelievably, my neighbors had never been in there! I love Ice Station Cool, which features samples of Coke products from around the world. Some, like Vegibeta and Smart Watermelon, are delicious, although your teeth will chatter from the sugar. Others, such as Beverly, should only be inflicted on your worst enemy.

Next on the agenda was Crush; I had heard that his new show was a technological marvel in which he literally talks to the audience. Not a pre-recorded spiel, but a real-time dialogue. We headed into the "hydrolaters" and wandered around the newly revamped displays. There is a heavy Nemo theme, will all sorts of aquatic critters from the movie. I saw rays, jellies, seahorses, Dories, Nemos, and even a Gil. Then we joined the crowd waiting to enter the theater and meeting the famous 150 year old sea turtle dude himself.

The show was just as amazing as I'd heard. It's an absolute gem of technology! A computer-animated Crush swims out and interacts with the audience, calling on specific people and answering their questions spontaneously. His mouth, and even his facial expressions, move in appropriate sync with the conversation. As the little children sat raptly, no doubt believing that they were conversing with a sea turtle, my mind was racing to figure out the mechanics behind the magic. Someone has to be able to see the audience, and the animation software has to be synced in real-time to the spoken responses. And of course, there must be someone performing as Crush, and he has to be a fast thinker in order to respond appropriately (and humorously). I'm sure that most audiences ask the same sorts of questions, but every now and then there is probably someone who throws in a doozy.

By now, it had been a long time since the lunch that had been the original purpose of our visit. My neighbors suggested that we check out the new incarnation of the Garden Grill. That's the spinning restaurant that rotates through several "Living With the Land" scenes as you dine with Mickey and is friends. I didn't think we'd be able to get in without a priority seating reservation, but it never hurts to ask.

Turns out, our timing was perfect; we were seated within five minutes. The restaurant's rotation was on the blink, but the characters were all present and accounted for: throughout our meal, we spotted Mickey, Chip, Dale, and Pluto visiting the tables. I cringe when I see people wasting valuable theme park time waiting in line for character photos. If I had little ones, I'd spend my park time on rides and book character meals to get my pictures in a leisurely, stress-free environment. Mickey and the gang come right to everyone's table and allow plenty of time for hugs and photos. You can choose your characters, too: for example, there are princess breakfasts and a Winnie the Pooh character dining experience at Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. There used to be a villians dinner, but sadly I don't think it's offered anymore.

Garden Grill used to be an all-you-can-eat restaurant with a fixed menu (I loved their catfish and beef brisket). Now, it's pay-one-price ($21.99 for adults), but you don't get to stuff your face until you burst. You get bread with three dipping sauces, salad, and your choice of entree from a variety of options. You also get a non-alcoholic beverage, and the meal is topped off with chocolate fondue with various sweets for dipping (marshmallows, chocolate cake, vanilla cake, strawberries, pineapples, and gummi worms).

We each chose a different entree. I had portabello mushroom-stuffed ravioli with vegetables, which was quite delicious. I tasted my neighbor's red snapper, and that was a good option too. Even though it wasn't all-you-can-eat, we couldn't make it all the way through the fondue before we had to throw in the towel.

By now, it was time for our second round of "Soarin'." We hopped into the Fast Pass line and awaited the best ride at Epcot. There was some sort of family configuration in front of us (two adult females and a gaggle of children), and one of the women kept trying to butt into our conversation. Since she was apparently only hearing part of it because she was also intermittently yelling at the kids, her comments were out of context. For example, we were talking about "Mission: Space," which I refuse to do because I just don't get along with spinning rides. I can ride a roller coaster all day long with no ill effects, but put me through one round on the teacups and I'm dizzy for the rest of the day.

My husband likes "Mission: Space," so I've spent a lot of time waiting at the exit. I was telling my neighbors about all of the people who I've seen puking their guts, and I jokingly said, "If I rode that thing, I'd be one of them." The stranger-butter-inner said loudly, "Oooo, I hope that I get to sit behind you." We ignored her, and the other woman with her pointed out that we were not talking about "Soarin'."

Throughout our wait, she made some other inane comments, and we studiously ignored her. I have a doctorate in psychology, but I still have no idea what compel some people to interject their questionable wisdom into other people's conversations. It's not like she was by herself and, therefore, lonely or bored. She didn't seem to be an expert in any of the fields we were discussing, so it's not like her comments were particularly enlightening. With the kids running amok, she wasn't even able to devote her full attention in order to make intelligent, relative comments.

Soon enough, we were herded into the simulator room. The first time around, we had been in row one, i.e. the highest once the contraption gets going. This time, we were assigned to row three, the lowest. You can't really tell how high you are once the show begins, but unless you're on the top, you'll be distracted by all the dangling fit at the top of your visual field. I pointed this out to my neighbors, and the verbose stranger, who was strapped in next to me, favored me with this pearl of wisdom: "You should wear a baseball hat." Then, mercifully, we were suddenly swept up and away, and the sound track drowned out any further inanities.

"Soarin'" was as great as always. It's hard to explain the exhilirating feeling, except that it reminds me of how I feel when I see "Illuminations." It's much more a show than a thrill ride, but it's something I could do again and again. Even the soundtrack is on a par with "Illuminations" or the music from the old Millenium parade.

By now, it 8 p.m. Lunchtime was long past, and dusk was painting over the daytime sky. Somehow, many hours had slipped away since we began our "short" visit. We weren't quite to leave yet, so we headed toward "Ellen's Energy Adventure." No trip to Epcot is complete without getting sneezed on or drooled on by the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, our need to see prehistoric beasts would have to remain unrequited, as the ride had closed at 7.

Reluctantly, we decided to bring our lunchtime jaunt to a close. As we headed to the parking lot, I reflected on my Famous Last Words, uttered back when the day was still new. Can anyone really visit a Disney Park "just for lunch" without overstaying their intended timeframe and sneaking in at least one ride or show? I know that I can't; I'm the first person to admit that my willpower is weak when it comes to resisting a theme park's siren song. I'm just glad that my neighbors are as bad as me; that's why Celebration is such a cool place to live.

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