Monday, October 01, 2007

Milking the Last of the Offseason

In Chicago, spring and fall were always the shortest seasons. Muggy, humid summer and bitter, frigid winter always seemed to drag on and on. But for a few precious days we'd have beautiful, balmy weather. In spring, the sun would kiss your face and the breezes tickled your hair and teased you with the promise of warmth after an endless winter. It wasn't too hot or too was the kind of day when you could wear short sleeves and bask in the perfect temperature as you romped below blue skies and puffy white clouds right out of a watercolor painting. The flowers were blooming, the robins had returned, and all was right with the world.

Of course, that never lasted, nor did the fall that followed after summer's tyranical reign. Fall was always a bit depressing because it was the harbinger of winter, but how can you hate a season when the smell of wood smoke drifts on the air as nature brushes the leaves with broad strokes from a fiery palatte. Unlike spring, the warmth isn't a welcome harbinger. It's a temporary luxury to be savored because all too soon it will be gone.

We don't have those extremes here in Florida; summer and fall can be pleasant, but they don't have the impact here as they do in climates with temperature extremes. But we do have seasons to be savored: the brief breathers that come between the peak tourist times.

By now, I thought that the off-season would be just about over. My husband and I were hankering to head to the Magic Kingdom, since we hadn't rode Space Mountain in ages and were anxious to see the newly-rehabbed Haunted Mansion. We had hoped to get there closer to Labor Day, but our transatlantic cruise and the ensuing backup of work had put our time at a premium.

The coming of the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot ushers in the next wave of crowds, so we figured that we'd just have to use Fastpasses judiciously. Hubby had worked late on Thursday, so we was able to take Friday morning off. Since it was the first day of the festival, we hoped that some of the crowds would be drawn off to Epcot. Unfortunately, it was also the Little Ones Extra Magic Hour (LOEMH) at the Magic Kingdom, so I had nightmares of being trapped among a higher-than-usual concentration of Stroller Nazis running down hapless pedestrians in their character-seeking frenzy.

LOEMH runs from 8 to 9, so we figured that it might not be so bad if we arrived a little bit after opening. As we approached the toll plaza, there weren't too many cars so I took that as a good sign. We parked the Family Truckster and began the hike of life to the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC), where you have to park to access the Magic Kingdom.

TTC is a vestige of Walt's old desire to not have any "regular" vehicles driving up to the park. When MK first opened, you could only access it via monorail or watercraft. Now a veritable platoon of WDW busses destroys the symmetry that Walt had hoped for, but cars are still verboten. You must park at TTC and choose the monorail or the ferry.

Normally, I choose the water route since the ferry is enormous and therefore has the shortest wait. But hubby is a monorail fan, and we hadn't ridden it in ages, so he convinced me to give it a whirl. There was a train sitting in the station, so he figured the wait wouldn't be too bad. Little did he know!

The waiting train was empty; it sat in the station for several minutes before being dispatched with no riders. We waited at the gates for the next train, which eventually glided in. The crowd pressed in anxiously, ready for the ride to the Magic Kingdom. Alas, we sat there...and sat there...and sat there. Periodically there would be an annoucement that we were holding for "traffic clearance" (later, they said that a train was being taken off the beam). After a good 10 minutes of inertia, we finally headed off to the park, albeit at a snail's pace. By the time they got there (no doubt after two or three ferry-loads of passengers had been disgorged in the meantime), my husband remembered graphically while we usually opt for the boat.

Still, we were in no big hurry; we figured the park would be so crowded that we'd grab a Space Mountain Fastpass, ride the Haunted Mansion, then use our FP and call it a day. Amazingly, as we headed into Tomorrowland, we saw that the waits for virtually everything were minimal to non-existent. We got our Fastpass, but we also rode the coaster in the standby line since it was too tempting not to. We rode Haunted Mansion twice, admiring the awesome new effects (I won't describe them here because I don't want to spoil it for those who have not ridden yet). Then we rode both Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain; on the latter, I was reminded why we usually avoid it, as we both got soaked. There was no wait whatsoever; the man behind us said that the line had been 40 minutes the day before.

We also rode Pirates of the Caribbean and the Wedway People Mover (I refuse to call it the Tomorrowland Transit Authority) before using our Space Mountain Fastpass. The standby line still wasn't all that bad, but sadly we had to leave. Hubby had made lunch reservations at Kona Cafe, and then we both had to work. It was hard to drag ourselves away without doing the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Jungle Cruise, and Carousel of Progress, but alas, making a living has to come first.

We took the monorail to the Polynesian, and since no one else was waiting we were able to ride in the front. A grandmother and granddaughter joined us at the next stop, and the granddaughter excitedly told me all about her trip. Disney World can never get stale or boring for me because when I hear about it through the eyes of a first-timer I'm instantly drawn into their excitement and delight.

We had a delicious lunch at the Poly, then headed back to TTC on the monorail so that hubby would have enough of a fix to last him for a long time. As we drove back to Celebration, the adult part of me knew that it was time to attend to grown-up responsibilities, but the inner child pouted at having to leave and give up such prime park time.

At least we had some amusement on the way back. At the Grand Floridian, a family consisting of mother, father, and two girls embarked. Mom and the girls sat next to hubby and I; since there wasn't enough room for everyone, Dad sat across the aisle. The rest of the people in our car got off at the next stop, so the girls moved over to sit with dad. But even though there was plenty of room on that side, Mom stayed next to hubby. And I mean next to him; even though she had a whole empty seat next to her now, she stayed right up against him.

Their conversation was priceless:

Mom (as they boarded): Where does this thing go?

Dad: I have no idea.

Mom: Okay, we'll take it to MGM.

They were still on board when hubby and I got off at TTC, so goodness only knows where they finally ended up.

On Sunday, we decided to hit Epcot for the Food and Wine festival. We doubted that it would be as dead as the Magic Kingdom had been, but our main goal was to graze at the food stations. We figured we could get a Fastpass for Soarin' and maybe ride Nemo and Test Track, but for the most part we'd focus on the cuisine once World Showcase opened.

We got to the park right at opening time and trooped off to the rope holding eager guests back from the pathway that leads to the Land pavillion. At rope drop time, we all trooped in a massive mob behind the poor CMs, who must have felt like Simba trying to stay ahead of the stampeding wildebeest herd. I kept my eyes on the CMs in Soarin' costumes and followed them all the way into the Land pavillion, downstairs, and into the queue of my all-time favorite Epcot ride (well, existing ride anyway...the original Journey into Imgination will always be number one). Usually we grab a Fastpass, but I gave that up in favor of getting the first ride of the day.

The crowd density was lower than I had expected, so between Fastpasses and the standby line we managed to get in seven rounds on Soarin'. Inbetween waiting for our Fastpass times to come up, we rode Nemo and saw Turtle Talk With Crush. Turtle Talk is truly a gem; creative, amusing, and all-around fun. I'm sure that little kids leave the theater believing that they're really talked to Crush (sometimes I wonder myself!).

Our last Fastpass wasn't good until 3:30 and it was only noonish, so we headed out to World Showcase. The day before, we had printed out the menus and marked down our preferred choices. The food is served in "sampler" sizes, so it's a great way to taste a lot of new offerings.

I managed to consume a lamb slider from New Zealand, native peach buckle from Oklahoma, walnut baklava and iced mint tea from Morocco, honey wine from Poland, spaetzle with mushrooms from Germany, chicken with peanut sauce and a green tea plum wine cooler from China, curried butternut squash soup and rice pudding from India, and pudding with a sugar cookie from Peru. Even with the mini sizes, I was plenty full by the time we had completed our walk around the world.

We hit the singles line of Test Track on the way out, then used our Fastpass for one final Soarin' fling. That made a total of eight rides, my most ever. I'd like to hit the double digits someday, but that's hard on Soarin' since, as a spoiled local, I won't do any standby line more than 20 minutes long.

It had been a busy weekend of theme park fun; the crowds will continue to swell, and our visits will dwindle in number until the next breather between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we've gotten a good "fix" to last us until then; I miss spring and fall in Chicago a little, but the theme park offseason more than makes up for it.

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