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The Joys of Orlando in the Off-Season
I’m not sure when the feeling started. It could have been that first night, when the kids ignored a steady, chilling rain to gleefully clamber next to a bronze statue of Mickey Mouse to pose for photos in front of Cinderella’s Castle.
Or it could have been when three different cast members helped me look for an outlet to charge my phone during the Hoop-de-Doo at Fort Wilderness. It could even have been when I was standing in my winter coat, slurping hot chocolate in between bites of churro on a very convincing streetscape set, watching other people use whatever tools they had at their disposal — blankets, slankets, beach towels — to stave off those unexpected 40-degree January days.
But by the time I was midway through a 55-minute wait for the Tower of Terror, there was no getting around it. Somehow, some way, I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Waiting almost an hour for a four-minute thrill ride, I was enjoying myself at Disney World.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a hater; I am just familiar with my idiosyncrasies — like aversions to crowds, long lines and having to overpay for something because it’s the only game in town. Check, check and check. That said, this Orlando vacation wasn’t for me — it was for my 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. The deadline for taking a vacation with them while they would still voluntarily spend time with their parents was fast approaching, so I swallowed hard and made the reservations, happy to take them to the Happiest Place on Earth thanks to eight years’ worth of accumulated points from a Disney Visa card and finally filling up our “Disney Jar” (the $251.05, or an average of $50 a year in loose change, contained within, paid for all of their souvenirs).
So what happened? Why did I become that dad, comparing notes with their mom on future trips, timeshares vs. airBnB? How did I go from treating the trip like a campaign, marshaling resources and checklists to make sure each child’s wish list was fulfilled in the most cost- and time-effective way, to simply enjoying the ride?
I don’t know. Honestly. Although it is impossible not to get swept up in the joie de Mickey — everyone, from the toddler girls parading down Main Street USA in their best Disney Princess costumes to the honeymooning couples to indulgent grandparents — is happy to be there. On the monorail between the parks in the morning, people are smiling. Watching the glassblowers create crystalline Donald Ducks, people are smiling. Settling into a prime viewing spot for the nightly fireworks at EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, although one witty cast member interpreted it as Everyone Mostly Comes Out Tired), people are … you get the idea.
And why wouldn’t they be? Disney World does exactly what people expect it to do. No, it actually does more. This place — comprised of The Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT and Animal Kingdom — is immaculate, with perfectly manicured flora, freshly painted everything and constantly improving hardware. The cast members — no one is referred to as an employee; everyone is literally performing a role to make sure you are enjoying Disney the way you dreamed you would — are the engine that take this experience to the next level. To a person, they are smiling (of course), knowledgeable and completely focused on the person they are engaged with, no matter how many people are waiting in line to ask their own questions.
About those lines — they are unavoidable at some point. If you want to go on the most popular rides and see the shows you’ve heard so much about, rest assured that everyone else wants to do the same. Even though we went in mid-January — the consensus is that the best times to visit are between mid-January and mid-February, as well as the first three weeks of May, late August and all of September — there were hour-plus waits for Toy Story Mania, Aerosmith’s Rock-and-Rollercoaster and Mission: Space. It could have been worse — we could have been there during Christmas week, when Magic Kingdom got so crowded they turned visitors away.
If you have read this far, you know that I did my research. I can sum up the best strategy for Disney World in one word: Fastpass. This free, timed ticketing system is made possible by the amazingly accurate crowd control algorithms they use. The Fastpass is basically your placeholder — when you first get to a park, head straight for the rides and attractions you most want to do. You will see screens telling you how long the current line is, as well as Fastpass availability, which is a one-hour window a few hours away. For example, if you get to EPCOT at 10 a.m. and discover that the line for Test Track (where you build and race your own virtual car) is 75 minutes, grab yourself a Fastpass good for entry between, say 2 to 3 p.m. and then spend the next few hours checking out everything else there is to do, like the fascinating and educational Living with the Land, a boat ride through the different agricultural climes around the world and a glimpse into new farming technologies. Yes, I realize how boring that sounds — just trust me. You can also take a spin through Spaceship Earth, the instantly recognizable geodesic sphere (not a dome) visible from everywhere at EPCOT.
Even if you have to wait sometimes, as we did for Mission: Space, it’s worth it for the experience. Strapped and locked into a virtual-reality spaceship, this ride is as close as I want to get to zero gravity. I didn’t hyperventilate, but let’s just say there was a lot of deep, cleansing breathing going on during this manned flight to Mars, complete with crash landing. Definitely do not eat before trying this one — it was the first ride to ever come equipped with air-sickness bags.
When you do decide to eat at Disney, make it count. Some of the best opportunities to meet characters are during mealtime. Cinderella’s Royal Table is the ne plus ultra for meeting the princesses, and books up six months in advance. We had a great time with Hawaiian Mickey, Lilo and Stitch — and a pretty terrific all-you-can-eat breakfast served tableside — at Ohana in the Polynesian Resort. In fact, we didn’t have a bad meal the entire visit, and the prices were much more reasonable than I expected, especially since visitors are basically a captive audience (you are allowed to bring in your own food and beverages as long as they’re not in a hard cooler).
The best dining experience we had during the trip, though, was a huge platter of nachos sent to our room by the staff at the Ritz Kids Program at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, located 15 minutes from Disney. Why didn’t we stay at a Disney hotel? It was an easy decision. Even though there are numerous benefits to staying on-site, like reduced-rate meal plans, extended park hours and the supercharged line-beating option of Fastpass+, I wanted a change of environment for the downtime, especially since we would already be spending close to 12 hours a day at the parks. Well, that and the thought that it would be nice to be taken care of in a hotel consistently ranked as one of the best in the country and the world by Travel + Leisure, among other publications.
When we were leaving Ritz Kids, we mentioned we were going to cheer on the Eagles in their playoff game against the Saints. By the time the game started, room service was knocking on the door. Unfortunately, that is the only positive memory I have of the game. The attention to family-friendly detail didn’t stop there. It started when we opened the door to our room to find the In-Room Camping Experience: a two-person tent, complete with feather bed, miniature LED Coleman lanterns, Charlie and Lola books and Gund alligators.
The tent set the tone for the unusual dedication to environmental awareness evident everywhere at the 500-acre property. The hotel engages in active water management, and it operates an organic garden that provides produce for its foodservice operations, including Primo, the sister restaurant of the acclaimed Primo in Rockland, Maine. Melissa Kelly, the chef/owner of the restaurant, began the garden based on the full-circle farm-to-tale experience she created in Maine.
The most visible aspect of the hotel’s relationship with its central Florida environs is also its most hidden. Running through the Greg Norman-designed golf course is Shingle Creek, the northernmost headwaters for the Everglades. Named for the cypress trees lining its shores that were long used to make roof shingles, the pristine waters offer mildly intrepid guests like us the chance to take early-morning guided canoe tours, paddling through a silence that doesn’t seem possible just yards from the busy sprawl of Orlando. It was too cold for gators, but we did catch a distant glimpse of an otter, and our guide pointed out numerous types of birds waiting for a breakfast of fish and insects.
All of that paddling and walking meant only one thing: for me to continue functioning at peak ability, I would need to check out the spa. No big deal, it’s just a 40,000-square foot haven that has been ranked one of the top 100 resort spas in the United States by Condé Nast Traveler for the past six years.
Despite its size, the spa achieves an intimate feel, with secluded and sound-insulated treatment rooms and a rooftop eco-garden where you can indulge in the Hammock Experience. You are ensconced in a hammock, surrounded by plants while being attended to by one of the spa’s massage specialists. I wasn’t that daring, although I can report that when they list “deep tissue” on the massage menu, it’s like Han Dynasty mentioning that a dish is very spicy. As an added bonus, anyone receiving a spa treatment gets to use the facilities for the day, including a sauna so powerful that I stumbled over someone while trying to find the bench. No harm, though — we were both wearing towels. I think.
As much as the adults in our party enjoyed the Ritz-Carlton, the kids enjoyed it even more. How much more? On our last full day, they told us — after only four hours at Hollywood Studios — that they wanted to spend the rest of the day by the pool and in the tent.
After so many years of looking askance at friends and family as they chose to spend vacation after vacation at Disney World, I finally understand. It is that rarest of experiences: You know exactly what you’re going to get, they know exactly what you want, and there will always be something new to experience. It’s too soon to say there is definitely a return trip in the future, but for some reason, I still haven’t canceled the credit card I swore I would cut up the moment I cashed in those points.
Know Before You Go
Plan: If I haven’t mentioned this already, and you haven’t heard it ad nauseum from everyone else you have asked: do your homework! The most popular restaurants at Disney book up six months in advance, so start there.
Download: There are numerous apps for your phone, including the essential My Disney Experience, which can assist you with everything from restaurant reservations to finding out which characters are appearing where and what the wait times are park-wide.
Read: The best book I read is also the one recommended by Disney: Birnbaum Guides’ Walt Disney World. It is exhaustive and offers excellent advice on planning your visit. The best unofficial website I found is mousesavers.com — lots of spot-on information on what to pack, the most affordable dining options and tips and tricks for getting the most out of each park.
There’s no reason not to go to the source, of course: disneyworld.disney.go.com; 407-939-5277
Save: There is no way to do this on the cheap. Prices range from $142 for a one-day Parkhopper ticket — unless you know you are only going to one park, this is the way to go — to $440 for a 10-day Parkhopper ticket. Unless you are bringing your own food in, figure on at least $50 per day per person for dining, more if you decide to try some of the better restaurants like La Hacienda de San Angel, the Mexican restaurant at EPCOT that offers amazing views of the nightly fireworks.
Room rates at the Ritz-Carlton vary; the best way to find the best price is to call. Be sure to ask about their Walt Disney World Theme Park Package. www.ritzcarlton.com; 1-800-542-8680
Greg Salisbury is feeling goofy. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication. Photos courtesy of Walt Disney World and the Ritz-Carlton.