Day 4 – Animal Kingdom

Friday 17th August 2018

Last night, just as we were snuggling up in bed, Sandy had a bit of an idea. No, it wasn’t to have sex. It isn’t my birthday until March. She figured it would be very busy at the Magic Kingdom being a Friday. There’s a really useful website that tracks how crowded each of the parks is expected to be on a given day and it did indeed indicate that the Magic Kingdom would be an especially busy day, but that Animal Kingdom would be reasonable. After a bit of arm-twisting, Sandy convinced me to change the plans. Of course, that did mean upsetting the precariously balanced series of fastpass bookings I had been painstakingly setting up over the past few weeks, but such is life. When she wants my opinion on something…she gives it to me and I live with it. I sent a quick message to Andy and Kirsty, who were planning on visiting the Magic Kingdom tomorrow, so they would know not to expect to meet up with us after all. We’ll see them for three days on the trot in a couple of days’ time anyway. With that, we went back to bed…and no, still no sex.

Everyone was up early this morning. This being our first theme park day (indeed the first of many to come), we organised our backpacks for the day with a theme park configuration in mind. We packed a few bottles of frozen water, a couple of extra battery packs for the kids’ phones, a spare change of clothes as a contingency and so on. Since we had a character meal booked for breakfast, we were on a time limit. Despite me having to push a little to get us all out of the door and into the car by a specific time, we were all organised and on our way with relatively little stress. Winning.

Just before we left, I had been chatting online with Jamie, my business partner from New Jersey. She, her husband and a friend of hers are all coming down to Florida for a few days to meet us. We chatted briefly about dining plans for this evening. Since it’s already a challenge for us to find dining options that would suit Joey, and since Jamie and her contingent are apparently happy to go with the flow, I looked around for some options and said I’d book us something. After some exploration of the various options with Sandy, we eventually landed on Ruby Tuesday’s on Hwy 192, which isn’t hard for us or them to get to. The restaurant didn’t open for bookings until 11am so the plan was that I would call after that time to book for seven of us.

The drive to Animal kingdom was a short one at around fifteen minutes. Before we left Australia, I had an eye test to renew my prescription for driving and I had the foresight (see what I did there?) to get a pair of prescription sunnies (that’s Australian for sun glasses) as well. I’m really finding them to work well for me here. I’ve actually never worn sun glasses before, but I must admit they are really helping me – especially with driving.

Since I had the magic band that Andy had arranged for me, we rocked up (that’s Australian for arrived) to the Animal Kingdom car park where a nice man scanned the magic band and sent us through. That was $22 for the privilege or parking the car saved. By the time we’re through with our Disney theme park visits here, we’ll have saved close to $200 in parking fees as a result of having this magic band linked to Kirsty and Andy’s hotel reservation. Winning.

Luck continued to be on our side as the particular queue of cars we joined, after first snaking through the parking lot, allowed us to park just a few car slots from where the tram collected everyone. Still winning. The tram was even sitting there already waiting for us. Along with a heard of sheeple, we climbed aboard and were soon whisked to the park’s main entrance.

The security checks at the main entrance were swift (hardly worth the effort really). We were then into the main queue to get into the park itself when I remembered we needed to go to Guest Services to organise the DAS (Disability Access Service pass) for Joey. We walked over to where it said guest relations but were duly sent back to the main queue again and told to head to a particular spot inside the park instead. This earned me a bit of a scathing look from Sandy, but we were soon inside. We reached the particular spot we were directed to by Guest Services, where I expected to find a building. Instead, there was just a table with a couple of cast members and a tablet. I said we needed to organise a DAS pass. We had in fact brought with us a letter from Joey’s psychologist just for this particular moment. Alas, I forgot to bring it, although I did explain that I had a photo of the letter. The young lady said she didn’t need to see it and that she wasn’t medically trained anyway. With very little fuss or fanfare, she duly issued us with the DAS pass. It does still seem like the system is open to abuse. In our case, we really do have a child that genuinely struggles with waiting in queues, but even if we didn’t, I can’t see how we wouldn’t still be able to get issued with a DAS just because we asked for it. Instead of a physical card, as was the case the previous times we’ve visited Orlando with the kids, it was all electronic and linked to our tickets. With the DAS, it’s like a virtual queueing system. You arrive at the attraction you want to experience and go to the fastpass line. They then issue you with a time to return that’s equivalent to the current wait time. If the current wait time, for example, is 90 minutes, they give you a time that’s 90 minutes from now to return to the fastpass line where you can then enter. The only thing is that you can only have a single DAS return time active at any one time. You have to use it (or allow the return time to elapse) before you can get a new return time for another attraction. This does limit the number of attractions you can use the DAS for over the course of the day – particular if the attractions all have long queues. Still, it’s allowed to be used in parallel with the regular fastpasses that we get with our particular theme park tickets. We’re allowed to book up to three of those a day, albeit those times also cannot overlap with each other.

Armed with our DAS passes linked to our tickets, we moved into the park to explore. Dotted around the park in various ‘photo op’ locations are Disney photographers. Our theme park tickets included the Disney Photo Pass, so any time a photographer snaps a shot of us, those photos appear almost instantly on our account, which we can see via the Disney smartphone app. As such, we tried to take advantage of these each time we spotted a photographer somewhere.

Although it was cooler than yesterday, the sun was out in force and it was still blisteringly hot today. We had a facepalm moment when it became clear we’d left the specially bought spray-on sun screen at the house. Fortunately, they sold them at a kiosk close to where we were at the time, so that problem was quickly remedied. It did take us a while to get Joey to allow us to put it on, but Sandy has become quite good at managing this and got him covered with the spray eventually.

A completely new (to us) section of Animal Kingdom is the Pandora area, which is all about the movie Avatar. It’s done amazingly well, with floating islands that rise seemingly impossibly into the sky and lots of weird and wonderful plant life themed amazingly throughout. The big ride in Pandora is the Flight of Passage, which is reputedly one of the very best, if not THE very best, ride anywhere in Orlando – possibly the world. For the past few weeks, I’ve had zero success in booking a fastpass time slot for it due to its overwhelming popularity. The wait for it this morning was already two hours and climbing. Since we had a booking for the character breakfast at Tusker House in Africa this morning, we had just enough time to visit Pandora and use our DAS pass to request a return time that would hopefully be sufficient to allow us to have a good breakfast and then come out ready to experience the ride. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. We got our return time slot, which gave us a good hour to have breakfast and return in time.

The breakfast at Tusker House was amazing. The buffet was awesome. The food was very good and plentiful. And the best part was that the kids both really enjoyed the characters coming to the table to have their photos taken. Alas, we didn’t see Goofy at our table, as we weren’t there long enough to cycle through all of the characters and the timing just didn’t work out. We did get to have photos with Safari Mickey, Donald and Daisy, so that was great.

Since both kids are over nine, I did have to pay four adult prices at $35 each (plus tip). Between the character meal and what the kids took away from the park in the form of toys and souvenirs, the wallet pounding continued unabated today. If we keep up this rate of spend, I’ll start to get concerned in a week or two. For now, I’m doing my utmost to restrain my concern from showing through, which would do little more than spoil the enjoyment for Sandy and the kids.

After breakfast, we hobbled out into the open air and the full force of the Florida climate. Between the heat, humidity and the size of the park, lethargy and irritation increased steadily throughout the day. I think it was partly the lethargy and difficulty concentrating that allowed me to give in so quickly when each of the kids wanted to get something special for themselves at different points of the day. We’re trying to manage this as best we can by giving each child a $10/day budget to spend on toys or whatever. They can cumulate this and spend more on subsequent days if they don’t spend any or all of their daily budget. The thing is that they each have some spending money they have accumulated from various sources over the past few weeks and I’ve long since lost track of it all. This makes it really hard to refuse any request for them to spend some money. Oh well. Money is transient. You can’t take it with you to the grave, I suppose.

We pushed our way through the heat and made it back to Pandora. Invoking our DAS return time, we took our place in the fastpass return time queue and were into the attraction pre-entertainment section within a few minutes. The ride itself is everything the hype has made it out to be. You are strapped onto what looks like a motor cycle contraption. You are then ‘linked’ to your avatar, who flies a Banshee through the world of Pandora. With the aid of some 3D glasses, this flight takes place virtually in front of a huge screen. As the Banshee you’re sitting on moves in various directions in synchrony with the IMAX sized 3D screen, it provides the illusion of actually being in flight atop the majestic bird like creature. You soar around the world of Pandora, over cliffs, water and through the forests. The ride is truly exhilarating and really quite intense. We all loved it to pieces. It was perhaps a little too intense for Joey, who came out of it all somewhat shell-shocked for a few minutes and needing some climb down time to recover. We exited the ride into the gift shop, where both kids spent some of ‘their’ money. Or was it mine? I really have no clue any more.

After our time in Pandora was through, we headed over to the Dinoland area, where the kids spent a little time on the play equipment there and we did a few small rides. Our bodies had heated up to the point that volcanic rock melts by the time we got there. Joey was not handling it very well at all. We wanted to do the small rollercoaster there and pleaded with the attendant to let us through the fastpass line on account of our DAS pass. Alas, after coming out of the Flight of Passage ride, we obtained return times for the Navi River Journey attraction there and we weren’t allowed another DAS return time until that one had been fulfilled. All the signs indicated Joey was teetering on the precipice of a full-blown meltdown. Sandy had to take him to a quiet and cool place, so he could calm down and recuperate. Jennifer and I did the rollercoaster in the meantime.

One of the fastpass time slots I had previously booked for today was the Expedition Everest yeti ride in Asia. There was no way Joey was going to handle this so Sandy and I agreed I would take Jennifer over there while Sandy continued to help bring Joey down to a manageable frame of mind. It was a gruelling walk there and back in the blistering heat, but the ride is a good one and it was worth the effort.

We agreed to all meet up back in Pandora again for our time slot for the Navi River Journey ride. It’s a slow-moving river ride that’s indoors, so it was something that Joey would be able to tolerate. The boat meanders slowly through a series of caves themed to look like the forests of Pandora from the Avatar movie. It was quite good, albeit it lasted only a few minutes.

Our last fastpass booking for the day was to be a character photo shoot. Since the heat had taken a bit of a toll on us all and given that we had dinner plans tonight to meet up with my business partner and her husband and friend, Sandy and I decided we would quit while the going was good, head home so that Joey could have some much-needed climb-down time and we could all freshen up before dinner. We have another day scheduled to come back to Animal Kingdom, so it seemed unnecessary to squeeze every last minute of the day from it on this visit. A three-quarter day was really quite enough, and we felt it was a good balance.

We made our way back to the park exit, via a stop at the shops near the main entrance, where Sandy picked up a magic band for Jennifer. I already had the one that Andy gave me. Sandy had bought one for her and Joey a little earlier in the day. All of our magic bands are now linked to our tickets, so we’ll have no further use for the physical tickets going forward. From now on, whenever we need to enter a park, use a fastpass or DAS return time, we just wave our wrist bands in front of the reader and we’re through.

We took the already waiting tram back to our car park and drove the short distance (about fifteen minutes) back to the house. A shower and some relaxation time were just what the doctor ordered. I even managed another one of my very nice afternoon naps.

Tonight was a big night for me. I was to meet Jamie, my publishing company business partner in crime for the very first time. We speak almost every day and have done since before we started Dragon Realm Press in January of 2017. In fact, Jamie and I speak to each other oftentimes more than Sandy and I do. Jokingly, Sandy refers to Jamie sometimes for the kids’ benefit as ‘Daddy’s girlfriend’. Jamie was good enough (or naive enough) to leave the decision about where to meet for dinner to me. Still chasing that elusive restaurant that served Garlic bread, Sandy suggested Ruby Tuesday’s, so I found one that I thought was a reasonable distance from where we and where Jamie and her party were based. I completely overlooked the fact that they had flown down from New Jersey and were without transport. The restaurant turned out to be much father from where they were than I would have liked. In the event, they took an Uber and it didn’t turn out to be too expensive after all.

We met at the restaurant, although we were a little late getting there. Somewhat predictably, Joey had re-established his ‘bubble’ of assurance around him and was reluctant to leave the house again. It took a little bit of managing to get him across that threshold. The softly-softly approach is so much less stressful and more effective but it can take a little more time. We arrived at the restaurant about fifteen minutes late, but we met up with them all and had a thoroughly good time. It was wonderful to be able to put an actual face to the name and IM chat sessions I’ve experienced for the past couple of years. Fortunately, we got on really well with each other. They were all really nice people. At the end of the meal, the waiter (we think) neglected to add the kids’ orders to the menu and the entire bill for all seven of us was very much less than I expected. Winning.

Since we have a seven-seater minivan, we drove the three of them back to their resort, which just happens to be on Hwy 192 – a few minutes up the road from where we’re staying and right in the middle of a hundred or so restaurants I could (should) have chosen for the evening instead. We’ve agreed that we will collect them first thing in the morning and we’re all headed to EPCOT for the day, which will be nice.

Back home, we slipped back into the shutting down routine and I wrote up the events of the day. It was a good day.