Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Teeming Holiday Masses

The teeming holiday masses have arrived!

They're a little early this year, although I suspect that the crowd might thin out next week. Maybe there are still some leftovers from Thanksgiving who rolled the long holiday weekend into an extended vacation. Usually the first two weeks of December are relatively slow at Disney, but last night the Magic Kingdom was packed wall-to-wall with revelers.

We've been to Disney-MGM to see the Osborne lights already, but hubby was itching to visit Mickey on his home turf: the venerable Magic Kingdom. His Christmas is never complete without seeing the decorations on Main Street and oogling at the giant tree. We decided to go on Saturday, since the park was open till 11 p.m. (during this season, it often closes early to make way for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, a separate, ticketed event).

Hubby was hoping for a ride or two; at the very least, he figured we could grab a Fast Pass and walk around until the appointed time. He wanted to ride one of the roller coasters; my preference was Space Mountain, as I like rocketing around in the darkness. But I wasn't very hopeful, as I suspected that the crowd density was going to be much higher than he thought.

With Annual Passes in hand, we headed down World Drive towards the toll gate. Once you turn off Celebration Blvd., it's a straight shot to Mickey Land...only eight miles from our front door. I love driving under the ornate red- and purple-lit archway that announces my arrival at Disney World. As I head towards the toll gate, I always notice the Epcot monorail track that parallels my journey. Often, a sleek monorail train will whoosh by overhead. It's an ambiance that I'll never get tired of.

It was after 7 p.m., so I was surprised by the number of cars ahead of us at the toll plaza, and the parking lot was still jam-packed with cars. That didn't bode well for the crowd density.

Once you have parked, you can get to the Magic Kingdom by boat or monorail. We opted for "Disney's highway in the sky," which turned out to be a time-consuming prospect. For some reason, the train before the one we boarded sat in the station for an interminable amount of time. In my mind, I could hear "Jeopardy" music as I waited for the darned thing to go on its way. Finally it left, and another train glided up a few minutes later. We packed in like Japanese subway riders and pulled out of the station...only to come to a stop. Sigh! Another wait.

I knew we'd reach our destination eventually, but between my sweatshirt and the mass of bodies, I was ready to die of heat prostration. Finally we resumed our journey and pulled into the Magic Kingdom station.

I've always loved the monorails. On my old computer, the shut-down sound was "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas." If you don't know that that is, you've never spent any time on the Disney transit system. After a week's vacation zipping around on the monorail trains, you'll be hearing that phrase in your sleep.

We joined the cattle herd tromping towards the park, and I (a master of stating the obvious) said, "Hmmmm, I don't think we're going to be riding Space Mountain." I'm also a master of understatement; a more accurate observation would have been, "I don't think we're going to be doing much of anything." With such a mass of humanity, even moving a few feet without being bowled over by a stroller piloted by a vacation-stormtrooper parent was questionable.

As we maneuvered down Main Street, we noticed people staking out parade spots. Hubby consulted his time guide and discovered that the parade didn't start until 9 p.m. It was only 7:30! I'm sorry, but no parade is worth killing an hour and a half risking hemorrhoids sitting on the cold cement and warding off potential spot-stealers with the zeal of a rabid pit bull.

We were quite disappointed to see that the Christmas tree had been moved. Overall, the park decorations were much more sparse than in years past. I guess we should have been prepared, since we'd already discovered the absence of the train at Disney-MGM, but the Magic Kingdom is the Crown Jewel Park. Even if there are cutbacks elsewhere, we had hoped that at least one park would still be decorated to the standard of years past.

My husband said he just wanted to make a round of the park. I'm always game for people-watching, so I agreed. We headed for Tomorrowland, where the Fast Passes were all gone and the wait for Space Mountain was nearly an hour. We did manage to sneak in a ride on the Wedway People Mover (it has some other god-awful name now, but it will always be Wedway to me).

The PeopleMover rarely has a line because it's a slow-moving, scenic attraction that doesn't appeal to the ADHD Instant Gratification Adrenaline Junkie culture. It takes you on an overhead tour of Tomorrowland, with suitably corny narration along the way. Its tame appearance belies its true viciousness...between Disneyland and Disney World, multiple people have met their gory end on Wedway. Of course, they were jumping out of the moving cars at the time, so it's hard to muster much sympathy.

My favorite part of the ride is the journey through Space Mountain. You can see the roller coaster cars maneuvering around the track in the darkness. When you're on them, it feels like you're moving fast, but watching them reveals that it's really a low-speed ride (28 m.p.h., just three miles faster than Celebration's speed limit).

The PeopleMover also takes you past a lighted model of Walt Disney's vision of the perfect community of the future. No, it doesn't look anything like Celebration; I often wonder just what old Uncle Walt would think of our New Urbanism-turned-Old-Suburban town.

I surpressed my urge to jump from car to car in mid-ride, and we managed to survive the Death Ride intact. We headed off towards Fantasyland, pausing along the way to buy necklaces with multi-colored flashing lights. They are very bright and have a replaceable battery, so they'll be perfect for night biking. Better yet, they were only $5 each. That's a real bargain for a Disney World souvenir.

We were hoping to hop onto Small World, but no such luck. Due to its obnoxious, brain-melting song, it often has no line. Unfortunately, the queue line was jam-packed with holiday park-goers. We passed it by, knowing that after Christmas it would be back to its normal walk-on status.

We headed into Frontierland and circled into Adventureland, which took us back to Main Street. Sadly, the Christmas decorations were few and far between. We always used to visit Disney World for the holidays, and the twinkling lights and wreaths and garland that thickly covered the parks always put me into a festive mood. Now, once we got past Main Street, I had to strain to see the sparse decorations. Celebration's Market Street is decidely more festive than the Mouse House.

Another thing I miss is the red and green lights at the Contemporary. All of the balconies have white lights, and at Christmas time, they used to be changed to red and green. Now, the white bulbs remain, and another special "Disney touch" is lost to the ages.

By this time, we had worked up a healthy appetite, but the sit-down restaurants in the park were fully reserved and not taking walk-ups. We popped in to Guest Services to see if we could eat at one of the Magic Kingdom area hotels.

Our first choice was Ohana, and the Guest Services agent couldn't help but snicker at our wide-eyed optimism. Sure, Ohana might have an opening...and I might find a lump of gold in the cats' litterbox too. Both restaurants at the Poly were fully booked, but we managed to snag an opening at Artists Point in the Wilderness Lodge.

We decided to take a boat to the hotel. After our meal, we could sail back across the lake to the Magic Kingdom and then hop a monorail to the car. It was a beautiful night, with just the mildest hint of a chill...perfect for boating on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon. In the darkness, our strobing necklaces had turned into epilepsy-inducing annoyances, so we turned them off before they triggered a group seizure in the tight quarters of the nautical conveyance.

The Wilderness Lodge is one of my favorite Disney resorts. It was the first one that hubby and I stayed at together, many years ago. I originally wanted to book the Contemporary, but it was full. The Lodge had just opened, and the cast member at CRO sang its praises in glowing terms. He said he had stayed there during a cast preview, and he described the rustic hewn logs, the enormous fireplace, and the shooting geyser. I acquiesced to his suggestion, and boy was I glad that I did! When my husband and I arrived, our jaws dropped as we stood in the lobby and gaped at the beauty of the National Park lodge replica. It was exquisite! We stayed there many more times, and now that we live in Celebration, we return frequently to partake of the godly mushroom soup at Artists Point. I never get enough, since they unfortunately don't sell it by the vat.

The restaurant was sparsely populated...a welcome relief from the sea of humanity that we'd left back at the Magic Kingdom. We indulged in mushroom soup, along with buffalo steak (hubby) and pan-seared scallops (me), with seasonal sorbet for dessert. We hiked back to the boat dock, moving slowly in deference to our full tummies, which were trying to redirect the bloodflow from our legs and brains.

It was past park closing time, so the crowd had slimmed down considerably. We trooped up the monorail ramp, where we only had to wait for a couple of trains to pass before we reached the front of the line. Unfortunately, we were stuck behind a blockage of strollers whose pilots gaped in mute awe, apparently unable to comprehend the simple task of either a) boarding; or b) getting the ^!%@# out of the way to let others do so. We couldn't get past them to enter the boarding chutes.

Finally, we managed to pass the gapers, but the chute gates were starting to swing closed. Being from Chicago, I pulled a Rachel Barton (for those unfamiliar with the Windy City's famous lawsuit, Rachel was a concert violinst who was boarding a commuter train as the door was closing. It closed with her on the outside and her violin inside. Rather than simply let go, she clung doggedly to the expensive instrument and lost a limb...but she did win the What's Personal Responsibility? Lottery, receiving a mega-million-dollar settlement for her lack of common sense). Both hubby and I slipped through the closing gates without losing any important appendages, and soon we were on our way to the parking lot.

The ride home was more exciting than a roller coaster. At park closing time, World Drive resembles the world's largest open-air bumper car course, with vehicles whipping wildly across the lanes or braking abruptly for no apparent reason other than to cause a crash. The excitement dimishes proportionally as you pass I-4 and get closer to Celebration, but it doesn't disappear. There are always one or two lost souls who make it all the way to Celebration Boulevard. Sure enough, we had a pair in front of us that managed to reach Water Street before realizing their mistake and suddenly U-turning in the middle of the road.

Our park visit wasn't quite what we had planned, but it was still a fun evening. Next up is Epcot, where I hope that the decorations at World Showcase will be up to traditional Disney standards. If not, the special holiday Illuminations finale will be worth it. We saw it last year and gaped in awe as the sky lit up bright as daytime and the ground shook from the mass explosion of fireworks that rivaled the Big Bang. This year, we can hear it each night from our house, and the distant explosions assure me that it's going to be just as good this time around.

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