Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Way an Annual Pass Should Be

Living in Celebration, literally next door to Disney World, it's easy to forget that there are other theme parks in Orlando. My husband and I do tend to venture over to Universal Studios Florida/Islands of Adventure every now and then, but one of the Disney parks usually wins out because of the convenience factor. We have annual passes for both theme park complexes, but when we weigh a short jaunt down World Drive vs. a nerve-racking NASCAR experience on I-4, the Mouse usually wins.

This year, we purchased "two years for the price of one" USF/IOA passes via a special promotion. That was back in September, but we finally got around to activating them this past weekend. Normally, they would get stashed in our wallets and forgotten for a few months, until I decide that I need a ride on Hulk or Spiderman, but my husband chanced across some information on the USF/IOA AP website that ratched them up several notches in my theme park estimation.

Universal has introduced something called a Premier Annual Pass, which includes a very valuable benefit: Express Access to all of the rides and shows at both parks after 4 p.m. every day. Sweeeeeeeet! USF/IOA already offers that perk to guests of their onsite hotels, and those lucky saps get it all day, from park opening to closing. They also sell a one-day Express Access pass, but it's only good once on each ride.

The Premier Pass strikes a perfect balance...while it would be nice to have all-day front-of-the-line access (or nearly so...Express Access waits run anywhere from zero to 10 minutes on average, depending on the crown density), I have no problem with getting to the parks at 4. CityWalk (Universal's answer to Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island) has a plethora of wonderful restaurants, from Bubba Gump's to Margaritaville. Most of them are open early, so I figure hubby and I will enjoy a late lunch/early dinner around 2:30 before heading over to the theme parks. Their hours of operation vary by the season, but even if it's only until 6 or 7, traipsing to the front of all the lines means you can accomplish just as much in a short timeframe as you would all day if you had to wait at least half and hour a pop (and much longer than that in the summer).

For example, on the day that we upgraded our passes to the Premier version, we rode the Mummy roller coaster 8 time, Men in Black, 3 times, saw Twister, and rode Jaws, E.T. and Back to the Future all in the space of three hours. The park was only moderately crowded, with standby waits between 20 and 40 minutes, but it was such a treat to bypass the hoi polloi and traipse through the special entrance, waving our passes like a talisman of privilege. Like Fast Passes at Disney, Universal has two checkpoints for its Express Access entrances where you have to show your hotel key, Premier Pass, or one-per-ride ticket. I was amazed at the number of people who snuck by the first checker and who thought they had it made, only to be turned away just as they reached the inner sanctum.

I don't think many people have the Premier Passes yet because most of the "gatekeepers" gave them a pretty thorough going-over, and one actually said that this was the first time he'd encountered one. I'm surprised...apparently they have been available since September, and I'd think they would have been popular with locals over the insanely busy Christmas season.

During the summer, I avoid the Disney theme parks like the plague, other than an occasional people-watching jaunt. Disney has Fast Pass, which I am quite adept at using to my advantage. But in the peak season, it's virtually impossible to work them in a convenient manner unless you're staying all day. Fast Pass works by assigning you a return time for a particular attraction. For example, let's say it's 9 a.m. and you want to ride Soarin', but the standby line is already an hour. You check out the Fast Pass distribution machines and discover that if you get one, you can return to ride it with a minimal wait between 11 and noon. Kill two hours riding red-haired stepchild attractions that never have a line, then return, buzz through the FP queue in mere minutes (snickering to yourself as you notice that the poor standby saps are now dealing with a posted 120 minute wait time), and enjoy your handglider trip over rivers, mountains, orange groves, and golf courses.

Problem is, you can only hold a Fast Pass for one attraction at a time. No getting another one until you reach the "start time" of your current one. If it's a particularly busy day, all the FPs at the most popular attractions might well be gone by that time.

Also, it takes a lot of coordination and difficult choices. At Disney-MGM, it's pretty easy...the only must-do ride for me is Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, although hubby often begs for Rockin' Roller Coaster. At Animal Kingdom, I usually opt for Kilimanjaro because I can use the single rider line on Everest. At Epcot, it's a no-brainer (Soarin', of course). But at Magic Kingdom, it's always a toss-up: Do I want a FP for Buzz Lightyear? Space Mountain? Jungle Cruise? Big Thunder Mountain? Arrrghhhhh!!! Too many options!

At USF/IOA, I don't have to worry about making any choices. Just arrive in the late afternoon and ride whatever I want, whenever I want, as much as I want. Theme park heaven!

USF has quite a few good rides and shows, but I imagine that I'll focus most of my efforts on The Mummy. The easiest way to describe it is a combination dark ride/roller coaster, but that doesn't do it justice. It has the coolest fire effects ever, plus air time that will have your butt levitating over the seat as you plunge down hills in the darkness. It's was Everest could be if Disney dared to put in a real thrill ride. I won't even compare it to the snore-fest called Rockin' Roller Coaster. Even though it doesn't go upside down, Mummy is what an enclosed roller coaster should be.

Still, it's nice to know that I can ride anything in the park. At Disney, not all of the rides even offer Fast Passes. At USF/IOA, there is an Express Access entrance for every ride, plus the shows too. At USF, I enjoy Men In Black, a souped-up version of Disney's Buzz Lightyear shoot fest, but I can't ride it too often because it tosses in some fairly intense spinning. Unless I have a high blood sugar content, spinning gives me a whanging headache.

I can't take too much of Back to the Future doesn't spin (it's a motion simulator), but for some reason it gets to my head much in the same way that Body Wars at Epcot has always made me queazy. I can ride Star Tours with no ill effects, but Body Wars is a puker for me, and Back to the Future is the same. I like to ride it once...and only once...a day.

I like the E.T. dark ride, even though it's mainly aimed at the kiddies, and Jaws is corny but I still like to give it a go. I love Twister (more of a show than a ride), and the Terminator 3-D show is the best!! I usually check out the animal show, too, and although I haven't seen Fear Factor yet, that will probably enter the rotation. I am neutral on the Shrek 3-D show and the Johnny Neutron simulator...I guess they're worth it if there is no wait, but time wasted on them is time that could be better spent on The Mummy.

At Islands of Adventure, there are two places to concentrate my attention: the Hulk roller coaster and Spiderman, an incredibly innovative combination dark ride/simulator. I've ridden dozens of roller coasters in my day, since I'm married to a coaster enthusiast, and Hulk is among my top three all-time favorites (the others are Magnum at Cedar Point and Batman at Six Flags Great America). The thing that wins me over is the fact that you are blasted up the lift hill and right into a heartline spin before you shoot through a traditional loop. I love being upside down, and Hulk whips me head over heels right from the start of the ride.

Spiderman is great because there is nothing else like it. Normally, I would expect that sort of innovation from Disney, but IOA really has them beat with Spidey. They have some other good rides, like Dueling Dragons (twin suspended coasters), Dr. Doom (a freefall) and Jurassic Park (a water ride), but I know where I will be concentrating my efforts.

The Premier Pass also has some other cool (and occasionally perplexing) benefits, from free valet parking to free Halloween Horror Nights passes to eight free bottles of water (?!). At Usf/IOA, the valet parking is nearly as valuble as the line-cutting. If you're never been there, imagine the length of the walk from the Ticket and Transportation Center parking lot to the Magic Kingdom transportation...and triple it!! Epcot may stand for "Every person comes out tired," but the Universal complex should be called Epcit (Every person comes in tired). Valet shortens the walk by a third.

Usually I dread the coming of Spring Break, with summer hot on its heels, because it means the end of my theme parking. This year, I don't have to worry...sure, the drive might be a little longer, but riding without a wait will make up for the drive time and then some. Now, if they would only sell an Express Pass for I-4, my world would be complete.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Perfect Timing

My Christmas Eve was one of those rare instances of perfect timing, when everything falls into place. It was something I never could have planned; it just turned out that way on its own. I had tried to plan it out as closely as possible...I booked 7:30 p.m. reservations at California Grill, the restaurant on top of Disney's Contemporary Resort. The Magic Kingdom fireworks were scheduled for 9 p.m., so there was a small possibility that we'd be done eating by then; otherwise, we'd have to interrupt our meal to see them. Not the best option, but I'll make the sacrifice of cold food to see Holiday Wishes.

We planned to attend the 11 p.m. service at Community Presbyterian Church, so my mind weighed just how early we'd arrive. It looked like we'd probably have to swing home first because we'd probably be back in Celebration by 10, and I didn't want to sit around the church for an hour. It was a delicate balance, though, as last year the church had been so crowded for the last-night that we barely found a seat in the main sanctuary.

As we trundled off to the Contemporary, the heavens let loose with a vicious rain shower. We decided to use the valet parking that's available for free to Disney Dining Experience members (the DDE card is something you can purchase to receive discounts on Disney World meals). As we zipped down World Drive in the Family Truckster, I watched lightning flash behind the clouds in God's own version of a holiday fireworks show. We dropped the car off with the valet and headed into the very first hotel that I ever stayed on on Disney property.

Because it was my first, the Contemporary holds a special place in my heart. Granted, it's not obviously themed like the other properties, but it still has an ambiance all its own. I feel it the moment I step inside, as the hotel has its own smell. I know that might sound odd, but it really does, and I'd recognize it blindfolded (the Wilderness Lodge does, too). The monorail runs right through the cool is that?! I love the Grand Canyon Concourse, a shopping and dining area; as you browse through the stores, you can hear the monorail rumbling overhead.

The hotel was packed with holiday revelers; we made our way through them like salmon struggling upstream and checked in at the downstairs podium for our California Grill reservations. On the way, I noticed all sorts of neat little holiday touches: Santa on a throne, visiting with the kiddies, a life-size scene from Pinochio carved out of chocolate, a group of carolers, and Christmas trees everwhere.

You are not allowed to go up to the restaurant, which is located on the top floor, unless you have reservations. The common, non-dining hoi polli are banned from its expansive views of the Magic Kingdom and the lake, and they cannot watch the fireworks from its viewing platforms. Thankfully, we were on the list, so we were allowed to descend to the Contemporary's lofty, well-guarded heights.

We requested a window seat (a real treat, given the panoramic view from 15 stories up) and were told it would be 20 to 25 minutes longer. We figured that was fine, since we didn't want to be too early for church. We headed upstairs and found a table and chairs in the lounge where we could relax until our beeper summoned us to a fine dining experience.

To kill time, I requested a copy of the menu. I was given a sheaf of papers containing everything from the main menu to the cheese selection to both the regular and reserve wine lists. I passed the wine offerings over to my husband, as he is the vino enthusiast in the family, and immersed myself in the description of the cheeses. I order the cheese plate at every fine dining establishment we visit at Disney World. I was anxious to indulge in some new offerings, as we hadn't been to California Grill in years.

As we waited, I noticed the odd paradox in the restaurant's ambiance. It's the sort of place that you'd normally expect to be relatively quiet and dignified. The decor reminds me of Palo, the adults-only restaurant on Disney's cruise ships, and with entrees averaging $35, it's a few notches up from the local Dennys. But the atmosphere itself was pure Dennys, with kids running around like crazed, rabid weasels. That's a side effect of any restaurant at Disney World, of course, but it just seemed so out of place in an establishment of the California Grill's stature.

In one example of stellar parenting, the adults plopped their passel of offspring at a lounge table near ours, then proceeded to sit at another table as far away from the fruit of their loins as possible! Perhaps it wasn't a very Christmasy thought, but as I observed the mayhem around me, I suspected that many of the people had dug up their money jars in the yard outside their trailer (ala Randy Quaid in "Vegas Vacation") in order to finance their dinners. Yes, I know that's kind of snotty, but it's hard to find the good in people when one of their little darlings is screaming in your ear while the other has just slammed into your chair for the tenth time because he'd rather squeeze behind it than walk through the gaping aisle mere inches away, and mom and dad are oblivious on the other side of the building.

Soon my mind was drawn from the mayhem by a server who stopped by to see if we wanted to order drinks. Hubby had been pondering a bottle of wine, and the server recommended a somewhat pricey but intriguing vintage from the reserve list. It sounded really good, but hubby was drawn to a different bottle with the eye-catching name "Rocket Science."

We settled in to wait for our wine, which seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time. Finally the server returned and explained that he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that they were all out of "Rocket Science." The good news was that we could have the pinot noir he had recommended at the "Rocket Science" price if we wanted (a great deal, since it lists for $45 more). We took that option, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. I'm not into fine wines myself (I prefer the cheap "fine wine product" at Publix), but I will usually try what my husband is drinking. This vintage was so good that I ended up having a whole glass.

By this time, our table was ready. We settled in and gazed out at the dark lagoon; the Polynesian and Grand Floridian were visible in the distance, and off to the side I could just make out the monorail station at the Magic Kingdom. I watched the lights of the ferryboats as they transported the holiday crowds back and forth between the Ticket and Transportation Center. I'm sure the vast majority were vacationers, and I reminded myself how lucky I am to be "local." What a treat and privilege it is to be able to indulge myself in Disney World ambiance at any time!

I decided to order a plethora of appetizers instead of locking myself into a main course. We decided to split the mission fig flatbread, and then I ordered the cheese selection of five mouth-watering varieties, each paired with an "enhancer" like honeycomb or quince compote. Instead of a main course, I selected duck foie gras, and hubby promised to share a portion of his filet mignon.

As an added treat, the nightly electrical parade on the water was making it way to the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian. I watched in awe as the dancing animals and waving flags lit up on the lake. I've seen that parade countless times, but it still gives me a thrill. It's part of the fun that makes up the overall Disney experience.

In a perfect mesh of timing, the fireworks fell right between the appetizer and main course. At 10 minutes before 9, we finished the first course and trooped outside to the observation platform. The fireworks are always spectacular, but viewing them from 150 feet in the air added a new dimension. We could see the pyrotechnics around the castle, and we even saw Tinkerbell make her descent. The Contemporary pipes in the music, so you get the full effect. While my favorite holiday extravaganza is the holiday finale of Illuminations, Holiday Wishes was a close second.

After the show, we navigated back to our table, and our entrees appeared moments later. I was a bit taken aback by my next course...for some reason, I had thought that foie gras was pate, but I found myself staring at a big ol' duck liver on my plate! I took a cautious nibble, but it was too fatty for me. I adore beef liver, chicken liver, and just about any kind of pate, but this was prepared differently and looked a bit too graphic. My husband at most of it, while I confined myself to the huckleberry side dish and a chunk of his steak.

By dessert time, we were so full that we opted to split the lemon pudding (one of the lightest offerings on the menu). The completion of our meal occurred precisely at 10 p.m. Perfect! By the time we made our way downstairs and retrieved the car, that meant we'd arrive at church right around 10:30.

Back in Celebration, we found a parking spot right across from the church. The sanctuary was somewhat crowded, but not like the wall-to-wall crowd last year. Perhaps it's because Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, so there were multiple services to choose from (including added options at 5 and 7:30). But even though we could have gone before dinner, I never really considered anything other than 11 p.m. There's something about being in church on midnight as Christmas Eve segues into Christmas Day that gives me chills. It just seems so right. Better yet, it's a candlelight service, and I love the sight of the congregation standing in the darkened church, punctuated with dozens of flickering points of light, as we raise our voices in "Silent Night."

After the service, I reflected on what a perfect day we'd had to usher in Christmas Day (which we spent with Celebration friends, indulging in the traditional Chinese meal in honor of "A Christmas Story").

On the flipside, New Years Eve was also a matter of perfect timing, but in a much different way. We attended a house party, and both my husband and I brought our laptops along, since we both had to work. I set mine up on the kitchen table, with the volume turned up, in case a client needed to ring me. When I am in my virtual counseling office at Kasamba, I hear a loud jangle when someone is trying to contact me. There were a couple of regular clients who I knew might be checking in, and I was also available for new clients who might be in immediate need of help. I limited myself to one margarita because online counseling takes a fast mind and faster fingers, since it is conducted in a chatroom, so I didn't want to impair my abilities too greatly.

Sure enough, a new client buzzed me just before midnight. As the rest of the crowd clinked their champagne glasses and rushed outside to shoot off firecrackers, I was harnessed to the keyboard helping someone in crisis. By the time we finished our session, 2007 was already nearly an hour old.

Although it was a bit disappointing not to participate in the 12 a.m. revelry, that was negated by the realization that I played a part in someone else's perfect timing. One of the things I like best about doing online counseling is that anywhere, literally anywhere in the world, can contact me (or any of the other counselors at Kasamba) immediately. If they are in the midst of a crisis, help is as close as their computer. No shuffling through the Yellow Pages and waiting until business hours to make an appointment. They can reach out and make immediate human contact, even if it's the middle of the night...even if it's a holiday.

The internet has brought many conveniences, from email to blogging to the most obscure video clips. While it might feel like a necessity now, people in my age range (and even a little younger) lived for a long time without it. But out of all of the things that the web provides on demand, I think that access to instant help is one of the most important. Perfect timing can be a fun thing, like timing dinner and fireworks just right, but for a person in the middle of an emotional meltdown, it takes on a much more critical meaning...assistance on demand.

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