A few days ago, inspired by this post on Alex in Wanderland (one of my favorite travel bloggers!), I took a quiz to learn “the key to my best life.” The very first question was simple: which of the following makes you feel most fulfilled? Categories included things like travel, success, the outdoors, music, and spirituality. As a travel blogger, the answer should have been simple, right? I mean, just look at my blog name. Clearly the answer should be either travel or adventure…right?
And yet when it came down to it, I chose family. The most important thing in the entire world (for me, anyway) is not conquering the world’s longest glass-bottomed bridge or getting blissfully lost while hiking through Italy. Those things are exciting and fun and make me feel alive, but nothing fulfills me like knowing I am loved by a whole family of crazy adventure-seekers!
So when travel and family intersect, you know it’s going to be good. Some of my favorite travel memories involve family members. Hiking Mt. Si with Michelle in 2012, getting lost on the trail with Jennifer back in 2007, taking a spin on cheesy amusement park rides on family trips to Canada. And of course, who could forget Paris? For all the aching feet, rushing to catch trains, and sights seen only in passing, the trip remains one of the highlights of my entire life…and I have my family to thank for that!
If I can’t travel to my family, I’m always pestering them to come to me instead, and my pleading paid off over the summer when my sister Michelle came to visit. On her first full day in town, we toured Universal Orlando and got a glimpse of the new Diagon Alley. Butterbeer, anyone?
But I was much more excited for this day. We woke early on a Wednesday morning, ate breakfast at home, and hopped into Dan’s car for the short drive to Walt Disney World. Cue internal squealing! I visit Disney World at least once a week, and I very rarely tire of it.
For those who have not visited the resort, there are four full theme parks, two water parks, a shopping and dining complex (recently renamed Disney Springs), a slew of hotels, and so much more. I won’t even try to list all the extras, because even after living in Orlando for eight years, I haven’t sampled half of what Disney has to offer.
We were just visiting the four basic parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We had two full days to spend at the Disney parks, which meant fitting two parks into each day. Michelle deferred all the planning specifics to me, since I “know better,” and I chose to start our Disney adventure at Animal Kingdom. I love this park, because it makes me feel less like I’m at a theme park, and more like I’ve stumbled into some exotic corner of the world. Disney has something similar to Universal’s Express system. It’s called Fast Pass Plus (and there will be more details on it in an upcoming post). It’s free, but it also requires some advance thought and planning. Guests can select “return times” for three rides in their chosen park, and wait in a shorter Fast Pass line when their time comes. When their three passes have been used, they can select a new pass.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom doesn’t have many rides, especially when compared to the famous Magic Kingdom. What they do have are plenty of shows and opportunities to see wildlife up-close. I think of it as a zoo/theme park hybrid. The obvious downside to this is when everyone flocks to the few available rides, the lines can get pretty long. I figured if we arrived early, we could catch our favorite attractions before the wait times started to get crazy, and it worked out pretty well! We planned our Fast Passes for Magic Kingdom, which we would visit later in the afternoon, and headed straight to Expedition Everest, a themed roller coaster through the Himalayas.
Michelle used to be terrified of roller coasters. On family trips to the amusement park, my siblings and I used to bribe her into coming with us on the big kid rides, and she would ride in white-knuckled terror for a bucket of popcorn or a licorice rope. All that coercing finally worked, and she now seeks out thrill rides on her own.
Expedition Everest was a natural first choice, and despite waiting for twenty minutes in Orlando’s horrible wet heat to reach the coaster, she loved the ride!
We went for a bumpy ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris, where we saw elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and even cheetahs, then strolled through the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail to stare at gorillas, hippos, meerkats, and all kinds of smaller wildlife.
We rode Dinosaur, a thrill ride modeled after Disney’s 2000 movie of the same name, and joined Flik and his friends at It’s Tough to be a Bug, a cute 3D show housed within the Tree of Life…you know, that gigantic tree carved with all kinds of animals, the one with the vivid green leaves and the photo ops around every corner…that one.
Our initial plans included an early viewing of my favorite show in Orlando, the Festival of the Lion King, and maybe a visit to one or two more animal trails. I insisted that Michelle choose only the things she wanted to do. After all, I can come back to the park any time I please! She was more interested in conquering as many rides as possible, so we skipped the animal viewing and shows and headed for the exit.
We wound up leaving a couple of hours ahead of schedule. It was barely noon, and our afternoon Fast Passes didn’t even start until almost 4 PM. Rather than face the long lines and afternoon sun at Magic Kingdom, we went home for a short break. We ate, napped, showered, and returned to the resort much later in the day, refreshed from our little break. Suddenly I understand the magic of onsite hotels.
By the time we got to Magic Kingdom, it was pouring! The rain I’d anticipated for yesterday’s Universal adventures had finally arrived, and it rained off and on for the rest of the night. After a day and a half of trudging through sticky, smelly theme park crowds, the rain was invigorating. Plenty of people returned to their dry hotel rooms, leaving the park free for us. It made for a different, but no less fun, evening in the Magic Kingdom!
I have so many fun memories from that day, and as I look through my trip photos now, I’m appalled to see that we really didn’t take very many pictures! I guess rain is a pretty good motivator to put away the camera and just live in the moment.
We made a mad dash to Space Mountain (my favorite ride in the park!), sought cover as we rode the Tomorrowland Transportation Authority around Tomorrowland, and took shelter in various stores before speed-walking through the rain to our next destination.
One of my favorite parts of this trip was seeing The Country Bear Jamboree. I know. I can’t believe I just said that. Dan is an Orlando native, and grew up loving the show. Me…not so much.
However, Michelle and I did grow up with A Goofy Movie, which pokes fun at the Country Bears in one memorable scene. I assured Michelle she would enjoy the show just for that reference…and I was right! The normally-empty theater filled up as more people sought shelter from the rain, and it gave the show a whole new energy. I’ve never been in a Country Bears show so full of laughter and energy, and it really warmed my heart to see Dan and Michelle bonding over it.
We rode guest-favorites The Jungle Cruise, The Haunted Mansion, and of course, Big Thunder Mountain. We did use our Fast Passes for three rides, but with so few people left in the park, we were able to get a lot more done than we had originally anticipated.
We ended the night on a high note: watching Wishes in front of Cinderella Castle, stuffing our faces with Nutella and fruit waffles, and rushing to meet Anna and Elsa just ten minutes before the line closed. We told the photographer we were taking the photo for our younger sister Rachel, who has Down’s Syndrome and absolutely adores all things Frozen. That’s technically true. But in reality, I’ve been dying to meet the duo ever since the meet and greet was introduced last year, and the line was always too long to bother. I was just as excited as Rachel to finally see two of my favorite animated characters!
Well. It was kind of a letdown, and if I’m being completely honest, I wish this long-anticipated meet and greet didn’t occur when I looked like a drowned rat and my shoes squished with every step…but that’s life!
We left the park as the clock neared midnight, and took our time strolling down the beautiful, brightly-lit Main Street before saying goodbye to the Magic Kingdom. We were exhausted as we drove back to our warm beds and cozy kitten, but it was all worth it. We had just one more day planned at Disney World, and despite my soggy shoes and tired body, I was still looking forward to it!
Next up: Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and my favorite of the bunch, Epcot! Read part two here.