Before last year, I’d been to Disney World twice—once when I was too young to remember and again when I was too angsty to enjoy it. The magic of the land had not been imprinted on my soul. Then, last year Neil and I went to Disneyland during our L.A. trip. As the parade at the end of the day wrapped with a song called, “When Can We Come Back?” Neil turned to me and asked, “When can we come back?” The song had flipped on some kind subliminal response deep within him. It’s since become a full-on obsession.
We stopped by Hong Kong Disney on our China trip, and finally went to the motherland, Disney World itself, this February. For those new to Disney, I would say start with Disney World. It’s the flagship for a reason. It is truly the most elaborate, pristine and imagination-sparking of all the Disney parks.
We stayed at the Coronado Springs resort, on Disney premises.
I expected Disney resorts to smell like chlorine and sour gummy trash and be filled with pool slide screams, but I was very wrong. We entered a clean, well-cultivated garden landscape around some kind of dreamy man-made lake. This was the view we walked into. Not a booger or eery abandoned child shoe to be found.
I was also skeptical that the food at Disney World could be good. Memories of deliriously ordering fries and then forgetting to pick them up after a long day of line waiting come to mind. But Neil and some coworkers revealed that, if you’re willing to pay the price, Disney holds some extremely high-end food. He took me to the California Grill to prove it. We watched some fireworks, sipped old fashioneds and enjoyed some ahi tuna and farro risotto. It was indeed, very indicative of some great meals I’ve had in California. And indeed, quite expensive!
Apparently the best way to get food for your room is to use Amazon Prime. We ordered some fruit, granola and fancy popcorn through Whole Foods. You can also order booze through Drizly, for those who want a more adult vacay. Disney lets you bring in your own snacks, so we saved money by eating apples and granola bars instead of buying too many treats.
Our first park destination was Animal Kingdom. To be honest, I didn’t know this park existed until I heard we were going there. It didn’t open until 1998, when I was already 11 and more into Buffy than Disney. When I heard about it, I expected a zoo-like experience with a few rides, but I was, as I would learn, naïve to the elaborate perfectionism of Disney.
The first thing you notice about Animal Kingdom is all the plants. They’re immaculate, and you truly do you feel like you’ve entered another world. The live music in every section furthers this feeling, as does the elaborate theming, which feels less like a blunt caricature of the world, and more detailed, authentic and transformative.
Neil let me know that we had a Fast Pass for a genuine safari. As we looked at lions and tigers and bears, oh my, he pointed out how close they all felt to us. Disney, according to him, specializes in hiding the elaborate safety measures in every attraction, so that you truly feel immersed in the surroundings. All part of the magic.
As we walked, I noticed that people were boozing it up. We enjoyed some Dole Whip with rum once it felt like an appropriate time to drink.
The park’s central attraction is the Tree of Life, which is based on the movie Avatar. You know, it’s the tree the main couple mates on in front of their ancestors. Yeahhhh. We watched the movie before visiting. It’s not great! But the tree itself is gorgeous, and feels quite real. It’s also etched with all kinds of animal patterns in a subtle, artful way.
Once the sun set, we visited Pandora, the area of the park based on Avatar. I was surprised by how cool it was. It truly felt like visiting another planet, one with Dr. Seuss-ian plants and Alice in Wonderland-level psychedelics. As the sun set, it became even cooler.
We had a Fast Pass (thanks to Neil’s ardent Fast Pass booking) to the most famed attraction, Flight of Passage, which apparently cost half a billion dollars to build. I had no idea what to expect, other than that it was based on Avatar. As we mounted little VR bikes and put on special glasses, we entered a fully immersive experience where we were flying on “ikrans” otherwise known as “banshees.” It was like an IMAX theater experience on acid. As I flew through a fictional planet on a colorful beast-bird, I admitted to myself that I would definitely be down to enter a Matrix-like reality in old age. If I’m going to be turning to blubber while doing stuff like this, I’m 100% down.
The Na’vi River ride was equally trippy, but with the classic Disney chill boat ride experience. I left feeling optimistic that the next Avatar movies would be good, because, well, they have to be.
The next day, we visited Neil’s favorite park, Epcot. I had vague memories of visiting it as a child, mostly the World Showcase. As we entered, it seemed a lot older than Animal Kingdom. It was also lacking the live music, nature vibes and animals, but in their place was a futuristic soundtrack that bore right into the center of Neil’s heart. He let me know he often listens to it when he works because it’s so magical to him. He also informed me that Epcot stands for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”
As we took pictures in front of the park’s main character, Figment, in an immaculate stone garden, I had a feeling of deja vu. “If Figment was replaced with Chairman Mao, wouldn’t this feel like Shanghai?” I asked Neil. He agreed that some of the architecture and militant cleanliness felt similar.
We enjoyed a very Chevy-themed car ride, as well as a hilarious Finding Nemo comedy show. The central attraction, Spaceship Earth, gave us a tour through the history of human innovation, which was markedly Euro-centric, but vintage and hokey and charming.
My favorite part was just the beautiful design and creative, interactive water fountains.
After exploring the main area, we toured through the World Showcase. Neil let me know this was the boozing part of Disney World, as every area has its own special drink. We enjoyed a huge, very expensive pizza in the Italy area. Apparently, every section is staffed only with people who are actually from that country, which gives Disney some authenticity points. We chatted with some students from Italy, who were excited at the chance to live and work in the U.S. for the summer.
We watched a gymnastics show in the China area, and an extremely charming pseudo-IMAX film about France called “Impressions de France” in the France area. Neil had a plum wine and I had some green tea ice cream in Japan, and we toasted some very legit boozy margaritas in Mexico. It seemed like these areas had gotten less stereotypical and more studied since I visited last, but I was five so really what do I know?
We finished out the day with the fireworks show, called IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Everything at Disney parks has an elaborately considered theme and concept, which was something I hadn’t fully appreciated before. Neil let me know that they don’t call their rides “rides”—they call them “attractions” because they are so much more than cheap thrills. This all seemed quite charming. I saw why people fall in love with Disney World. A lot of work goes into the break from reality you get when you’re in a park so pristine, safe, imaginative and immersive.
If I had gone several times as a kid, I’d probably be obsessed, too. But there’s plenty for adults to do, kids or no. It gives you a fair share of warm fuzzies for every dollar you spend, but maybe that was the margaritas talking.