Sometime in summer, I realized that 2017 was looking to be the first year since 2008 when I didn't visit any of the Disney theme parks. I was obviously not pleased with this realization, especially since I kept seeing so many of my friends posting happy theme park photos on social media. However, I tried to be resigned to my fate as I kept reminding myself that I wouldn't trade my amazing adventures in Namibia for any theme park visit I've ever had.
But the itch to visit a Disney park still remained, as much as I tried to quell it. In August, I started toying with the idea of another quick Labor Day weekend visit to Walt Disney World. My initial research was not very promising especially in terms of affordable airfare. But all that changed when I received an email with a $100 American Airlines discount code. Apparently, if I charge a ton of $$$ on one of my credit cards in one year, they send a discount; I'd charged my entire Namibia trip so I'm guessing that must have tipped me over the minimum for the first time ever. I was still wavering until I checked the flight prices again and saw that the set of flights I'd been eyeing had gone down $90 (before applying the discount code). At that point, I succumbed to the realization that fate was pushing me to book a trip to Disney World.
I still went through a day of painful angst trying to decide where to stay. My top choice was one of the relatively newly redecorated princess themed royal rooms at Port Orleans Riverside, but none were available by the time I booked my airfare. Eventually, I found a fabulous rate that was impossible to resist and booked the Dolphin hotel. It's now affiliated with Marriott (through the merger with Starwood) which meant I had instant status there and could (indirectly) earn points. I liked the proximity to Epcot, as well as the fact that the hotel rooms are all in one central building- that can be an important feature during the rainy, humid Florida summers.
The major downside to staying at the Dolphin is that it is not a Disney hotel, so I wouldn't receive be able to charge on my Magic Band or be eligible to ride the free Magic Express bus to and from the airport. I was aware that the lobby was also under renovation but it sounded like there was minimal impact to guests. Initially, I was disappointed to make the booking there instead of a Disney resort, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about staying somewhere new. The positives truly outweighed the negatives, and there was no arguing with the value for the price. (Essentially, I was paying less than I would have paid to stay at a Disney moderate to stay at a hotel on par with a Disney deluxe)
When I started to consider the possibility of a trip, 2 of my friends who would be there at the same time kept urging me to go. One of the strongest influences on my decision was the possibility of spending some time with them, especially since I hadn't seen one of them in 4 years. I was really excited to be able to get together with them in one of my favorite places! I also have some other online Disney friends in the area and thought it would be wonderful if I might be able to meet up with them as well.
In terms of the parks, there were many new experiences to be excited about. Most notably, the fall Epcot Food and Wine festival was starting a few days before my trip. It's stupid early to be initiating a fall event, but I didn't mind since I'd finally be able to attend! It sounded like a fun event where one could sample food and drink from around the world. Staying near Epcot would be super convenient for making at least a couple trips to the festival.
I was also very curious to see the brand new Avatar themed land in Animal Kingdom. I had never seen the movie and am not even interested in it; however, the photos and descriptions I'd seen of the new area were nonetheless intriguing. It sounded like it was a mad house trying to ride the more popular of the 2 new attractions, Flights of Passage, but I was determined to experience it one way or another. Obviously with such a short trip, I knew I wouldn't get to see nearly as much of the resort as I'd like so my top priority was to experience the attractions that would be new to me, along with popping in to some of my favorites.
One of the biggest risks of traveling to Florida in early September is the weather. I had ambitious plans, and I fully realized there was a high likelihood that I would either have to cut them back or be soaked. I figured that as long as my flight down as not canceled, things would work out. After all, it was an unexpected bonus that I was even able to squeeze a Disney trip into an already wonderful year of travel plans. So I would be grateful for whatever joys I encountered... and I vowed to minimize any hassles or inconveniences by reminding myself that the alternative would be to stay at home watching my friends' social media feeds as they chronicled their travel fun and wishing I was there, too.
Typically, my excitement level for a trip grows exponentially as the departure date draws near. However, on Tuesday, I was thrown for a loop when I awoke with a sore throat. I eventually developed a bad cold or sinus infection that compelled me to work from home for most of the week. Except for Thursday, when I'd gotten so little sleep and felt so miserable that I couldn't even imagine spending the day sitting at my computer. The timing of my illness relative to my travel plans was quite unfortunate, especially since I had not needed to take a sick day in almost 3 years.
Fortunately, I bought some Mucinex-D on Thursday and it really helped to alleviate my symptoms. I awoke Friday feeling so much more capable to handle travel than I'd been the previous day. Wow, I had a vacation to go on! It really snuck up on me after having been so focused on just trying to feel better all week.
I'd hoped we'd get out early from work on the Friday before a holiday weekend but no such luck. It didn't matter, though, since I still had plenty of time to make my 8:30pm flight even leaving at 5. There was a little traffic on the highway due to a char broiled car on the shoulder of the road, but I still managed to get to the airport super early- which was fine with me. I'm very grateful to my friend Brian for the ride!
There were no lines for check-in or for security (this was my first trip where I was eligible for TSA pre-check) so I had plenty of time to amuse myself by leisurely wandering around the airport. I generally enjoy airports but it was especially fun to roam after spending 4 days basically confined to my home. Since I'd decided not to take my DSLR, I only had a relatively small purse as my carry on which was quite liberating compared to my usual load of electronics.
Feeling like I needed a snack, I tried to buy a garlic parmesan pretzel from Auntie Ann's but I was told it wasn't possible. So I meandered back to Au Bon Pain and purchased a couple Asiago cheese bagels- one for breakfast the next day. Always a good choice to munch on!
When I finally got to my gate, I was surprised to see that not many people were dressed like they were headed to Disney. Eventually I saw someone in a Star Wars T-shirt and someone else carrying a Disney Dooney bag... but those sightings were few and far between. I realize that not everyone traveling to Orlando is doing so for Disney, but my past airport experiences seemed to include more tourists who were obviously headed to the land of the mouse. I was happily wearing my purple Stitch T-shirt.
As I waited, I began to read quite a few tweets about how oppressively hot it's been at Disney World. Great. I considered turning around and taking an uber home... but not seriously. I could deal. Speaking of social media, I was pleasantly surprised earlier in the day to discover that my friend Sam, with whom I spent a wonderful day at Hong Kong Disneyland, was also headed to Disney World for the holiday weekend.
The flight itself was mostly inconsequential. I doubt anyone who's read my Namibia blog will be shocked that I put on the cast recording of "Come From Away" during the flight; I actually listened to it almost 2 full times because I couldn't decide on anything I'd rather switch to after playing it once. I was glad that I didn't cough during the flight; my medicine seemed to be working.
A tip to my fellow travelers: if you are getting up from your seat, it's preferable to do so without ramming your arm into the head of the person in the seat in front of yours. There are more graceful ways to maintain your balance without being totally annoying. I was disturbed in this manner not once, but twice. On a 2 hr flight.
I could see flashes of light outside below as the aircraft got closer to Florida. It took me a few minutes to realize that we were flying over a storm with lighting. It was oddly fascinating to watch.
As the plane was descending into Orlando, I noticed that my right ear was aching. I attributed this pain to being a result of listening to music with my noise canceling headphones while I had a cold. Whatever the cause, the ear still didn't feel quite right throughout the next day- it seemed a bit stuffed.
After landing, I collected my luggage and had no problem summoning an Uber to take me to my hotel. It was dark out so I didn't really pay much attention to the scenery during the 30 minute or so ride. Except for when we passed under the seemingly magical gate to Walt Disney World- that moment will never get old.
I'd already received my room number in the Starwood Preferred Guest app, but I still needed to check in to the Dolphin front desk because this is not a Disney hotel so a key was required to open the door (instead of being able to use a magic band). My first impressions of the hotel were quite favorable, even though part of the lobby was cordoned off due to being under construction. As I'd anticipated, the renovation was not a big deal and had no impact on my stay.
The spacious room and bed were quite comfortable; I didn't find myself missing the little touches of Disney decorations as much as I thought I would. I arrived after midnight, so I just wanted to get to sleep because I had a big day ahead. (every day at Disney is a potentially big day, especially when dealing with summer heat.) I got my clothes and gear ready for the next morning and curled up in bed to try to get some rest.
Unfortunately, I slept rather fitfully through the night. It was no fault of the bed or pillows, which were both quite comfy. There were some odd noises to get used to since I wasn't at home; typically I sleep with ear plugs at hotels but I was reluctant to do so because my right ear had been feeling stuffed after the plane ride. But mainly, I found it hard to sleep because I kept coughing.
After I woke up with my 7:45am alarm, the first thing I did was to check out the daytime view from my window. It was quite lovely, with the Tower of Terror looming in the distance. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my spare bagel, and was out of my room by 8:15.
My first destination was Epcot. You can take a boat there from the Dolphin but I decided it would be more pleasant to walk. It was quite peaceful to stroll through an almost deserted Board Walk resort area on a picture perfect morning. I entered the park at the International Gateway. Since I arrived about a half hour before the 9am opening time, I took advantage of the opportunity to purchase one of the cute little Food and Wine gift cards that you can wear around your wrist. I figured it would be convenient to use when sampling snacks and drinks- and I'd be able to apply any extra funds to my upcoming Disney cruise.
Once the park opened, I headed to Soarin' which had a posted queue of 15 minutes but which was really almost a walk on. Afterwards, I used the single rider option for Test Track which moved very quickly. I'd had a FP for Mission Space which I'd decided not to use, but I did use the one I'd booked for Spaceship Earth which is always a must do. After rushing through a few rides, I relaxed a bit and posed for some Photopass pictures. Ever since the time I regretted not purchasing a Photopass in 2014, I've been sure to get one. And since I had one, I wanted to make the most of it.
In 2016, I hadn't been able to ride Frozen Ever After because it was too popular to fit into a short trip. So I was excited when I was able to book an excellent time for a FP this year. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Norway pavilion, the ride was closed for technical reasons. I should have received a notification on my Disney World app that I could use the FP at any time for that ride or any other... but that never happened. Anyway, I was already starting to get fatigued from the Florida humidity and I didn't want to overexert myself unnecessarily so I lingered in the nicely Air Conditioned shop at Norway hoping to will the ride to open.
Eventually, I gave up and figured it was time to move on. By then, the crowds had definitely increased around World Showcase (which opens at 11). In a way, the ride being down really skewed the rest of my Epcot time because otherwise I would have been off the ride by 11:30 which would have kept me a bit ahead of the crowds. As I was walking, and particularly when I passed a booth with African food, my heart panged with a yearning for the quiet solitude of a night in Namibia dining under the stars- which was about as far a difference as you could get from the touristy crowds on an Epcot afternoon! But that trip had long been over... I reminded myself that I needed to move on, and stay present.
I headed to the Japan pavilion because anything Japan is sure to make me happy. When I was wandering around the store, I was happy to spot Hello Kitty hairbrushes. After my hair had been whipped by the wind on Test Track, I'd been dismayed to realize I'd left my brush in the hotel room. I'd been trying to smooth my hair with my fingers but it really wasn't having the desired effect. So now I'd be able to properly brush my hair... plus I'd have an adorable brush to take home with me. Win!
I also went to see the exhibit on "Kawaii- Japan's Cute Culture" which was small but fun. I was a bit surprised to see models of the Eva Air Hello Kitty jet since that's a Taiwanese airline, and not Japanese. But I suppose it's at least thematically consistent with the rest of the display. The room was quite pleasant- cool and not very crowded- so I sat down there for awhile to hide from all the people and heat outside.
Eventually, I noticed on the app that Frozen Ever After was open so I semi-reluctantly decided to backtrack to Norway. I really didn't want to walk that stretch of World Showcase again (twice, since I'd have to head back again) but I knew I'd regret throwing away my chance to finally experience the attraction. I thought the ride was really charming, perhaps better than I expected. I still don't think it belongs in Epcot's celebration of world countries, though, since Arendelle is fictitious. But that's an entirely different can of worms.
By the time I was off the ride, I was feeling done with all the people and the heat. There was a lot more left to do in the park- most importantly, I'd been hoping to sample items from Food and Wine- but neither hot foods nor alcohol had much appeal; what I really wanted was some ice cream! So I walked back to the International Gateway and to the Ample Hills Creamery at the Board Walk. My friends have raved about this place and I've enjoyed visiting its NYC location which I'd recently discovered. Ice cream definitely cheered up my mood- I ended up enjoying a cup of Baked/Unbaked (Vanilla Ice Cream with pieces of Housemade Chocolate Chip Cookies and Brown Butter Cookie Dough) and Cotton Candy. Perfectly yummy!
Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at the Board Walk bakery next door and picked up an adorable Mickey themed oreo cupcake to eat later. I was relieved to be back to my hotel room so that I could take a breather from busy theme parks and hopefully steal a nap. My efforts at the latter were thwarted, however, when the maid knocked on the door somewhere around 3pm. I may have managed just a very quick snooze.
Since I was awake, I opened the Disney World app and played around to see if I could score any interesting FP. When I saw one for Rock n Roller Coaster at 4:30, I eagerly snagged it! I hadn't been sure how or if I'd be able to fit a quick jaunt into Hollywood Studios into my schedule so it definitely made sense to seize the moment. I quickly got my stuff together and headed down to the boat dock and soon found myself on a boat headed to the Studios.
After stopping for some PhotoPass photos, it was time for my FP. RnRC is crazy fun- I used to find it scary but now I just scream with joy. After I was done, I managed to score a FP for ToT at 5:30, which was less than an hour away. The standby line was posted with a wait time of 35 minutes so I entered the queue, but then they announced that the ride was running at half capacity and waits would be longer than advertised; they'd made a similar announcement on RnRC last year and it had been no joke. Noticing that the app was now posting a 70 minute wait and realizing I should eat, I decided to get out of line.
I didn't want to stray too far from the ride so I just went over to the counter service area nearby. I was craving pizza but that stand was closed so instead I ordered chicken nuggets and fries which surprisingly really hit the spot!
As I ate, I received a notice that ToT was down so I could use that FP later or for another ride; this was exactly what should have happened with Frozen Ever After. But the ride must have only been offline for a short time because when I was finished eating, it was functional and I entered the queue. Tower of Terror is one of my favorites so I'm really glad I was able to squeeze it into my plans. And, since I saw that the standby queue was well shorter than the advertised 35 minutes, I got in line for a 2nd ride; it was practically a walk on.
I wanted to see the new fireworks show at Magic Kingdom so I bid farewell to the Studios at around 7. It was raining lightly and I was glad that I'd packed my tiny umbrella which I usually leave at home. It was so hot and humid that a poncho would have felt oppressive, although I also had one stashed just in case.
At some point, I got a FP to ride Space Mountain for 9:40 after the fireworks. I really did well with my extra FP that day! When I arrived at Magic Kingdom, it was still a bit rainy and no Photopass photographers were out. The park was crowded, but I knew I could easily take in the Carousel of Progress without a wait. The ride is really showing its age and it's super corny, but bopping around and singing "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow" never fails to put a smile on my face.
After I got off, the rain had stopped and it was about time to stake out a spot for Happily Ever After. I only waited 30 minutes- although it was killer on my already tired legs. But I somehow managed to get a pretty decent viewing location, just behind a curb toward Tomorrowland- so I was ever so slightly elevated. Miraculously, no one put kids on their shoulders or held up big honking iPads right in my direct line of vision; the couple in front of me was streaming the show live on Facebook but that didn't really impede my view.
I'd managed to watch Happily Ever After without being spoiled by any of the numerous YouTube videos or the live stream. I thought it was fabulous, just as everyone had said! The projections on the castle were breathtaking, and the musical selections were wonderful. The combined effect was a beautiful and moving show accented by well timed arrays of colorful pyrotechnics. I missed seeing Tinkerbell fly from the castle but apparently she still does- so either the show was modified for the weather (?) or I was completely oblivious.
After the fireworks ended, I not surprisingly found myself amid a massive human gridlock. There a huge amount of people concentrated at the hub, and they were trying to disperse in every possible direction. I very slowly made my way to Space Mountain which took nearly 15 minutes. I happily used my FP and took a quick, fun spin through space.
My friend Sam had invited me to join him and another friend at Trader Sam's in the Polynesian and I was eager to join them. So I headed directly from Space Mountain to the monorail. Fortunately, Main Street was now clear and there was no queue for the resort monorail.
When I arrived, Sam and Jennifer still were waiting to get into the bar. But after not too long, the buzzer went off and we entered the Tiki like bar. I'd been in the similar joint in Disneyland with friends there so I knew what to expect- it was a fun place, where several special effects go off in the room when people order certain special drinks. I could probably have done without the waiters shooting water guns as part of the atmospheric theming, but it was all fun.
Still not feeling 100% and being entirely conscious of the fact that I was probably dehydrated, the last thing I should have done was to order an alcoholic beverage. But that is exactly what I did. After consulting with the bartender/ waiter, I chose the Krakatoa Punch which is described as "Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Pyrat XO Reserve Rum, Orgeat (Almond), Sam's Gorilla Grog, and Hibiscus Grenadine." It was served in an awesome tiki glass, with a reddish glow inside. As it was delivered, the volcano in the picture window by our table seemed to erupt. I enjoyed my beverage, of course. But don't worry- I made sure to also order water, and got refills only on the H2O.
It was really fun to hang out with Sam and Jennifer, especially since I'd been disappointed not to see either of my other friends who were at Disney World. (one was also at Magic Kingdom when I was there; the other hadn't ventured to the parks that day) We relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere while talking about various things- obviously Disney and travel figured prominently. It was a fun end to what had been a bit of a roller coaster day.
I stayed out probably later than I should have because I was having such a good time. (I left at about 12:30am) Eventually, I took an uber back to my hotel and crashed on the bed in hopes of getting some quality sleep.
Unfortunately, it took forever for me to fall asleep again due to coughing fits. Nothing I could really do about it. I'd thought about packing cough syrup but thanks to the TSA rules on liquids, I would have had to pack it in my checked bag which made me a bit leery.
Still, when my alarm went off at 7:30, I eagerly got myself ready and headed down to the bus stop. Almost as soon as I arrived at 8 am, a bus for Animal Kingdom pulled in. Perfect. Upon arrival at the park, which was scheduled to open at 9, the bag check lines were already open and there were no lines.
Once I entered the gates, I walked until I caught up with the massive amounts of people who were already waiting to enter the newest land- "Pandora- The World of Avatar", which had opened in May. There were possibly more people there than after the Magic Kingdom fireworks the previous night, but at least everyone was headed in the same direction and crowd control was orderly. At the time of my trip, the most popular ride in all of Disney World was Flight of Passage which often has wait times posted of more than 3 hours. I'd read that you needed to get to the park an hour and a half before opening in order to get to the front of the morning lines to ride it without a lengthy queue. When I got back late the previous evening, I knew that the extra early option would not work for me. Fortunately, a few days before my trip, I'd been able to change my Navi River Journey FP to a 10am one for Flight of Passage. (you could not have FP for both of the Avatar rides) Most crowds would be headed to the latter ride and I expected that I arrived in time to be in good shape for the river ride which doesn't accumulate crazy lines as early in the day. As I waited for the park to open, I ate the breakfast bar I'd brought with me.
When the crowd started moving forward, I knew to bear left; as expected, the vast majority headed right toward Flight of Passage. There were not too many people in front of me when I reached Navi River Journey, but all of them were disappointed to see that the ride was closed due to technical problems. By now it was definitely too late to backtrack and try to get into the queue for Flight of Passage so most everyone stood around calmly hoping the ride would soon open. Fortunately, after about 10-15 minutes, we were allowed to enter the queue. I ended up in the 2nd wave of boats for the morning, mostly because there was a party of 22 (!) in front of me... well, mostly in front, but some stragglers were behind me. They crowded into a boat like sardines and just when I thought it was packed, they made the ride operator stop and let 2 more people (one lap child) into the front row.
I need to pause now and reiterate that I basically know nothing about Avatar. I've never seen the movie and only have a minimal interest to do so now that WDW has created a land themed to it. So I approached Pandora with a completely open mind, and I am only able to evaluate it on its own terms without any insight into how it reflects upon its inspiration.
Navi River Journey was a short, calm water ride through an amazingly beautiful, lush environment. At the end, the highlight was an amazing animatronic of a large blue Navi creature sitting in the lotus position. I'm not sure if there was meant to be a story or of any of the symbolism in the scenery, but it was a pleasant little ride. I'd definitely do it again- however, in no way do I think it merits the hour or more wait times I've seen posted.
I was off the ride by 9:10 which gave me an opportunity to wander around the land before my Fastpass for Flight of Passage. In addition to taking advantage of the 3 Photopass opportunities I saw, I roamed around taking my own cell phone photos. This was probably the only time during my trip where I spent any length of time on photography, which makes sense since it was also the only area I visited which was completely new to me. As I was snapping a particularly scenic shot, a handsome security guard seemed to pop out of nowhere to ask if I wanted to be in the photo. He addressed me as "princess", which I totally loved. I didn't actually care if I was in the shot or not since I had the PhotoPass ones, but I was more than happy to allow him to snap a shot of me since he practically made my day.
The small land of Pandora is one of the most beautiful landscapes that Disney has created, with lush overgrown flowers and waterfalls. It contains one gift shop which I visited briefly as well a snack stand and a counter service restaurant. I succumbed to temptation to buy one of the most colorful looking beverages I'd ever seen at the stand, with an eye to staying more hydrated than the previous day. This drink was called the Night Blossom and it is described as "Mixture of Limeade with Apple and Desert Pear flavors topped with Passion Fruit Boba Balls". In addition to being 2 of my favorite colors, it was very refreshing. I would definitely get one again the next time I visit.
At one point in the morning, I went to the restroom and casually approached a stall with a door that was ajar. I almost had a heart attack when I found myself facing a little girl who was sitting on a toilet and smiling at me- I neither expected nor wanted to see that! Fortunately, she seemed totally calm and not freaked out like I was. Parents, I beg you- if you have kids that are really young... please be sure they either know how to latch a restroom door shut, or else stand guard in front of the door.
Soon enough it was time to use my 10am FP to Flight of Passage. Having read many opinions that it's the best ride in all of WDW, I was naturally excited to experience it for myself. The FP queue was curiously deserted for the entire length; I literally saw no one else until I reached the front. Eventually, I was ushered into two different 16 person pre-show areas which described the ride system and provided some background information. The attraction's premise is that each guest is "matched" to an Navi avatar which would allow us to feel like we are riding a banshee, an important rite of passage of the Navi. All I know about the Navi is that they are apparently a race of large bluish humanoid creatures who live in a gorgeous environment and ride banshees. The guy in the pre-show video is obviously supposed to be a socially awkward but I nonetheless found it off putting that he was scripted to interject a number of "umm"s into his speech (these were all subtitled as well).
Eventually I arrived in a room with 8 seats that looked like bicycles. From previous descriptions, I thought they'd be nearly the same as the seats in the Tron coaster in Shanghai, but they really were more different in person. Once seated, a back restraint was engaged a little too tightly for my comfort which made it a bit hard to breathe; another one restrained my legs. I put on my 3D goggles and then a huge screen opened and the simulator made it feel like I was riding a banshee through the land of Pandora; I could even feel the banshee breathe which was kinda cool.
For some reason, I had a tad bit of difficulty with the 3D effects- I've not read of anyone else having a similar experience so I'm assuming my contacts had shifted a bit or something. That aside, there is no denying that Flight of Passive is technically impressive; it is the most immersive simulator ride I've experienced. However, to me, it didn't live up to the hype chiefly because it was devoid of story or characters. You're just riding a banshee through an admittedly amazing environment. There is no narrative, and nothing dangerous happens- you just see a bunch of generic Navi and banshees onscreen. Admittedly, Soarin doesn't have a storyline either but, then again, I wouldn't rank that as one of my favorites either. Give me Splash Mountain, Sindbad, or Mystic Manor any day! All 3 of those rides boast both story lines and adorable characters as well as great music, and are full of heart. Don't get me wrong- I enjoyed the ride and would definitely want to experience it again- but only with a FP or a wait of 30 minutes or less, which is pretty similar to my feelings on Soarin (not withstanding the fact that I ended up waiting an ungodly time for the latter in Shanghai) Basically, I thought it was an impressive attraction- but I think it could easily have been even better.
It was still a bit early when I got off the ride but I was hungry enough for an early lunch. I really wanted to try the Satu'li Canteen counter service restaurant in Pandora because I'd read good things about it. Even though the lines to order were quite short (since it was only around 10:30), I decided to test out the relatively new mobile ordering system which worked out very nicely. Using this system, you place an order online through the app and, once you are at the restaurant, you indicate that you are ready to pick it up. Since I was already there, I completed the 2nd step immediately. Within a couple minutes, I was notified that my order was ready and I proceeded to an empty mobile pickup window and picked up a tray with my food. So easy- and definitely a system that would be even more welcome in more crowded restaurants.
I decided to order one of the bowl meals which are composed by choosing a protein, sauce and base. I selected the panko breaded fish with creamy herb sauce atop a base of red and sweet potato hash. My meal was also accented with Boba Balls (small tapioca like balls that are served as a garnish everywhere in Pandora) but I elected to exclude the vegetable slaw. This was probably one of the best theme park meals I've ever had- so tasty and also unique. I would definitely make a point to eat here again on future trips.
After a leisurely lunch, I left Pandora behind in order to spend a little bit of time exploring more of Animal Kingdom. I was obviously feeling tired from lack of sleep, and the heat made that worse. So I was already looking forward to heading back to the hotel. In spite of my fatigue, I was determined not to completely pass up an opportunity to visit the rest of the park especially since we'd skipped it entirely in 2016.
I walked through Africa and toyed with the idea of going on the safari ride... but I just can't go on there after having been on real safaris in Africa (unless of course I was with other people who wanted to ride). Dinosaur was down, which meant I could use my 11:05 FP for any other ride if I wanted, and I decided to use it for Expedition Everest. The backwards part of that ride has been making me feel a bit motion sick the last few times I've ridden much to my chagrin, but it's still super fun.
By the time I was off, Dinosaur was open and I managed to swap my original Expedition Everest for one on that ride. It was fun as always; I'm not sure why people say it's scary because I don't find it frightening in the least. On my way out of the park, I got in line for a Pocahontas character meet but then exited the queue when informed of the 30 minute wait time. I was really too tired for that. Instead, I got in a really short line to take a PhotoPass photo in front of the iconic Tree of Life. Once I reached the bus stop, I didn't have to wait long as one came at 12:45 and I reveled in its air conditioning.
Once I got back to the hotel, I took some time to wander around inside since the shops had been closed every time I'd previously passed them. I really enjoyed smelling the beautiful soaps in the non-Disney gift shop. Finally, I went up to my room to collapse on the bed. I didn't want a repeat of the previous day with the maid barging in but I couldn't find a Do Not Disturb sign. As I called down to inquire how to get one, I eventually found the desired sign hanging off the mirror by the coffee supplies. Usually they are clearly located right inside hotel room doors, but at least I was able to find one.
Slightly earlier, one of my friends had posted a message in our group Twitter chat asking the other one if she was going to stay at Epcot all night. I'd never mentioned going to Epcot that day so I assumed the question was not meant for me. Neither of them asked how I was or what I had planned so I assumed they had no interest in getting together. In any event, I wasn't up for dealing with a theme park at the moment. While trying to wrestle with the fact that I couldn't fall asleep, I saw a photo of one of them at Epcot with 2 friends I also know from Twitter. I would have loved to have met them in person and I felt a little sad at the missed opportunity... and also a bit left out.
It was bliss to be laying still in air conditioning on my soft bed, even if I didn't get much actual sleep. Eventually, I was hungry and figured I should do something about it. I munched on some of the cupcake I'd bought at Board Walk but obviously that was not enough. I knew a bunch of people at Epcot (including Sam and Jennifer who had invited me to join them drinking around the world, an activity I definitely wasn't up to though I enjoyed following Sam's social media posts) but since none of them seemed actively interested in making plans to get together and since I didn't really feel like dealing with a hectic theme park, I decided to head to Disney Springs.
When I got to the bus stop at around 7, a Disney Springs pulled in right away- which was a miracle! But my mood sunk when I got to my destination and saw that it was even more jam packed than the theme parks. I was craving pizza but the place I was eying had a long line out the door- I had no patience for that. So I walked toward the marketplace section in pursuit of Goofy's Candy Company which fortunately was not particularly crowded. I was happy to purchase some adorable cake pops and marshmallow wands, both of which I find as yummy as they are cute.
I figured that the best plan for my temperament was to go back to the hotel and order room service. On the way, I stopped at the Cherry Tree Lane shop because I'd seen photos online of the beautiful Disney themed dresses that are exclusively sold in this venue. There were a few that really caught my eye but I didn't think that I ought to spend the money even though I'd surely wear them on my cruise since I don't otherwise wear dresses much. In retrospect, I regret not at least trying a few on. Oh well. I also attempted to browse in the huge World of Disney store but it was so jam packed that I immediately turned around and left.
At around 8:30, I arrived at the bus stop for my hotel and once again had amazing luck with a bus arriving promptly. I'd posted something on social media about how if I decided to go to WDW next labor day weekend to please talk me out of it. It wasn't that I was having a bad time but the combination of not enough sleep mixed with crowds and heat but devoid of friendly faces had left me feeling rather cranky. One of my friends messaged that she would have hung out with me and that she'd gone to Epcot just to see me and our other friend (even though I'd never said I'd be at Epcot); that was sweet but such thoughts really hadn't been communicated to me. I'm sure I bear some responsibility for not explicitly saying I wanted to be around other people either but, to be fair, I was the only person who was there totally solo so I felt it should be pretty obvious that I'd enjoy seeing them. In any event, I probably wasn't good company anyway.
Exactly a year earlier, on Labor Day Sunday, I'd wanted to order room service pizza while staying at Pop Century. That plan had been thwarted when no one answered the room service phone line before I gave up after waiting after about 20 minutes. Circumstances were different (another hotel, better weather) but I decided it was time to finally place that order. After only a minute or 2, someone answered and promised my food in 35 minutes. Awesome! I was amazed when it came much sooner than that- in fact, it came in less time than I'd spent on hold the previous year. I knew I'd never be able to finish the whole thing, and also that it would have been cheaper to get a pizza at the counter service downstairs, but it was amazingly satisfying to be able to successfully get a room service delivery.
I'd missed my chance for housekeeping service by having the Do Not Disturb sign out for so long which wasn't a big deal except for the fact that they always left a couple bottles of water. The Dolphin charges a hefty "resort fee" which includes the bottled water which were quite useful so I called Guest Services and asked if they could send some up. Soon after the pizza arrived, someone brought up 4 bottles of water. Unfortunately I wouldn't be able to use all of them but I was extremely pleased with the prompt and courteous service.
After eating my fill of pizza, I took a long luxurious shower and then crawled into bed. I'd felt rather miserable for a lot of the day for reasons previously explained. But, in retrospect, it wasn't such a horrible day. At least I'd been able to explore the new Pandora area of Animal Kingdom and enjoy some of my favorite Disney sweets.
I didn't get the best night of sleep ever, but it was much improved over the previous 2 evenings. I got up with my alarm at 7:30am alarm feeling somewhat refreshed and packed my suitcase, leaving a change of clothes in the front pocket. I'd really like to stay at the Swan/ Dolphin again because I feel like I wasn't able to truly enjoy how comfortable the room was.
At around 8:30 I arrived at the bus stop just as a bus was pulling up with a sign for Hollywood Studios. I guessed my bus luck was finally running out. But it turned out that despite the misleading initial sign, the arriving vehicle was actually headed for Magic Kingdom. Awesome!
I arrived at the park around 9 and took my time walking up Main Street, exploring the shops, and posing for some PhotoPass photos. I made it to Liberty Square just in time for the first performance of the day of "The Muppets Present...Great Moments in American History" which I'd been eager to see. There are 2 relatively new muppet themed history shows which are alternated, and the one I saw was based on signing the Declaration of Independence which naturally led to some Hamilton feels- especially when the town crier held up a sign "No King George." It was really a delightful show with a catchy theme song featuring everyone's favorite patriotic Muppet, Sam the Eagle, and I'm very glad I was able to catch it.
I spent the morning enjoying some of my favorite rides including Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (FP) and It's a Small World. I walked past Splash Mountain, my absolute favorite WDW ride, which was under refurbishment. I'd obviously known it wouldn't be running but it was nonetheless really sad to be confronted with the sight of the drained and unrideable flume. As I sat nearby waiting for my Big Thunder Mountain FP time, I overheard a family discussing their ride options. They said that they'd been told that Splash Mountain was fun; it took them quite a bit of time to realize that the ride under scaffolding right in front of them was Splash.
After taking a spin on the wildest ride in the wilderness (Big Thunder Mountain), I headed to the Be Our Guest restaurant since Sam had kindly invited me to join him and Jennifer for their lunch reservation. When he still hadn't arrived at the appointed time of 11:45am, I texted him, and feared that I was going to be ditched- which was really the last thing I needed. But fortunately they just were running late from Pirates.
Even with reservations, it was a long wait to order and to get our food. But I was fine with that, at least once we got inside, because I was among great company! We all ordered the Croque Monsieur ham and cheese sandwich. Sam and Jennifer also got desserts, but I already had my heart set on trying a cupcake I'd seen earlier at Gaston's Tavern. After spending a day and a morning alone, it felt great to be among a couple friendly faces.
When we finally finished eating, we took a look around all the rooms at the restaurant since Sam had never previously dined there, and then he offered me a warm goodbye. They were headed toward Space Mountain to see if it was back up since they'd received the dreaded emails about their FP ride being down. The thing is- I also had a FP to the same ride. So, in a completely awkward way, I suggested that I could join them- but added that I could go my own way if they really wanted. Sam said he assumed that I had plans and that of course I was welcome to hang out with them some more.
Space Mountain still was closed so we decided to take a ride on the Peoplemover which travels through the ride building to get a closer look at whether an opening seemed imminent. Unfortunately, the lights were still on in the ride which meant that it wasn't close to being operational. Fortunately, the lights were still on which gave us a rare opportunity to get a good look at the track.
None of us had any strong leanings as to where to head, and eventually Sam came up with the idea of using our anytime Fastpasses (which were originally for Space Mountain) to go on the Tomorrowland Speedway since it's not worth waiting for and rumors are that it will be demolished when construction begins on Tron. The speedway is one of those rides where you are "driving" a car on a track and I'm pretty sure I had not ridden since before I got my driver's license. We each got our own car and it was ok until we got to a point where there was a traffic jam and I had to keep stopping.
We were all really hot and ended up buying waters to stay hydrated. I suggested heading to Gaston's Tavern so I could enjoy cupcake I'd been coveting, if they wanted to join me. I think they were fine with any idea as long as it involved being indoors. (at one point, I suggested that the parks needed to create a new ride called Adventures in Air Conditioning) The cupcake I'd been eyeing was an enchanted rose cupcake which was beyond gorgeous in the eyes of a Beauty and the Beast fan like myself. It was also really tasty!
The 3 of us took in the Little Mermaid dark ride as well as the charming Mickey's Philharmagic 3D movie. When Sam and Jennifer decided to head to the Haunted Mansion, I figured it was time to make my leisurely way back to the hotel. But before we parted ways, I suggested taking a selfie together. Although I don't look my best in the photo, I am really glad I'd had that idea. I always regret it when I don't get a photo with friends that I don't see often. I already knew that Sam was fun to be around, and I was really glad to get to meet Jennifer who was also wonderful.
I took a swing through the shops on Main Street and ultimately decided that I didn't need to make any purchases. I arrived at my bus stop at 3:30 just as a bus was pulling out. So alas my bus luck had finally run out since it took another 30 minutes for one to arrive. But I also just missed a huge downpour which started after I was already under cover and dry.
Once I got back to my hotel, I quickly retrieved my suitcase from the bell stand and ordered an uber which arrived within a few minutes. I had plenty of time at the airport to change into long pants and sneakers, stow my sunscreen in my suitcase, check my bag, and take a leisurely walk through all the stores. This was my first trip through Orlando airport when I was eligible for TSA pre check and it was quite a pleasant experience. On the way to the gate, I stopped at Wendy's. I wasn't all that hungry but I knew I'd regret it later if I didn't eat anything when I had the chance.
Sam was flying home around the same time as me and I saw that his gate was 2 away from mine; I looked for him in vain a couple times. Later, when I sent a goodbye text, he told me he got there late. It would have been nice to have had more of a chance to chat but instead I waited patiently alone at the gate. My flight was overbooked because there was a defective seat so they asked for volunteers to fly out the next day. They were only offering a $200 voucher for a future flight so I passed, especially since they didn't mention paying for a hotel room or meals.
We were told that there would be a lot of turbulence as the plane ascended but I didn't notice anything of significance. The 2 other people sitting in my row were very friendly and I enjoyed chatting with them a bit. One had been in Florida to visit her boyfriend and the other to help his parents move. Eventually the flight attendants came by with beverage service and I was pleasantly shocked that they also offered some snacks.
Because my ear had bothered me on the flight down, I decided not to listen to my iPod on the way home which made the flight rather tedious. It turns out that my precaution probably didn't help. This time, my left ear started to feel congested. At one point, it hurt me so fiercely that I almost wanted to jump off the plane! Fortunately, we were close to home by that point. Once we landed, it felt better- though it still felt clogged all night and everything sounded a bit muffled. I went to my doctor a couple days later and she could see the pressure in my ear; she prescribed some medicine and I'm crossing my fingers that I'll never have an experience like that again. I've flown with colds before and never had an issue so hopefully it was just due to a freak sinus infection.
I was relieved when I finally got home to my cats. It hadn't been the best weekend for a number of reasons, though I tried to make the best of being at WDW on a holiday weekend when I was getting over a cold. My biggest disappointments were not meeting up with my friends and also not sampling a single item at the Food and Wine event. But I'm glad that I was able to experience so many new things at the parks (particularly Happily Ever After, Pandora, and the Muppets history show), and thankful for the good luck of my friend Sam being in town. Even though my trip wasn't the best, I am still tremendously grateful that I was able to take it- and the weekend was definitely more interesting than the alternative which would have been spending 3 more days resting at home.