Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios

3rd March 2019

My morning began at a hotel in Tallahassee, about four hours by road from Walt Disney World. The drive was never going to be fun with a sprained toe on my right foot, but adaptive cruise control made things for the most part painless. I reached the outskirts of Orlando a little before noon, and decided on the spur of the moment to grab some fast food before heading into the resort on the grounds that it would cost around one third of what I'd have to pay once inside. The stop also served as a chance to check current wait times at my destination and formulate a battle plan. I'd intended to call in on Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom for the two Avatar rides, but both were showing three hour queues, and with just ten hours to play with something had to give. After some contemplation I settled on a hit-and-run at Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios for the new roller coaster, followed by a relaxed afternoon and evening at Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom.

In recent years the Florida branch of The Mouse has made it possible for each guest to book FastPass access to three different attractions as much as sixty days in advance of a visit. This facility was not available to me, because my ticket (purchased some thirteen years earlier with no expiry date) lacked the required QR code. A cast member replaced it for me on arrival, and suggested that I log into the system on my mobile phone to see if there might be anything left. There wasn't a whole lot to choose from, but I did manage to set up three back to back slots for the evening hours including a night ride on Big Thunder Mountain.

Toy Story Land

It took me a good ten minutes to cover the four hundred metre distance to Toy Story Land from the main entrance to Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios as I had to navigate my way through the hordes. Parked strollers were an expected hazard, but there were also a disproportionately large number of electric mobility scooters. I found myself wondering just how many of them were for actual medical need; it seems likely that many were being used by those who were just too lazy and/or corpulent to stay on their feet all day, something for which I have limited sympathy. Their size was such that it made the midway even more crowded than it should have been, which I'd argue to be the height of selfishness. But I digress.

On reaching my target I decided to spend a few minutes exploring before joining a queue. Trip reports from other enthusiasts have suggested that the new area looks cheap, though this wasn't all that obvious today, perhaps because there were too many guests to get a clear view. The one thing that did jump out was the fact that the designated queuing areas for the major attractions were far too small for demand, which has been a recurring problem at Disney parks over the last few years. The line for the coaster stretched around one hundred metres down the midway despite the fact that it was posted at just (!) ninety minutes for my visit, a good half hour less than the norm for a weekend day. A cast member was holding a sign indicating the start point, which was around the back of a retail outlet.

Slinky Dog Dash (#2582) is a themed family coaster from Mack Rides that was added to the park last year. The layout starts with a right turn and an inclined launch that gives the train just enough of a kick to crest the following apex at minimal speed. The drop and airtime hill that follow prefix a left turning helix and two more gentle airtime bumps with synchronised sound effects that add considerably to the fun. The train comes to a brief halt at the start of a second launch, where it is rolled back a few feet, akin to a wind up toy. The acceleration that follows is gentle, leading to a turnaround and the highlight of the layout: three small bumps one after another, almost as if the designers took the top level of a Wacky Worm and stretched the track vertically by around five hundred percent. A few final turns then bring the train back to a dedicated unload station. The experience is great, and a fantastic addition to the park; I'd have happily ridden it again if the wait had been a little (okay, a lot) shorter.

 

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

3rd March 2019

It was just after 2:30pm when I parked my rental car at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom. The spot I found was virtually adjacent to a tram stop, but I decided to walk rather than wait with the multitudes, and my efforts were rewarded five minutes later when I was one of the first to board a monorail from the Transportation and Ticketing Center to the park. The route brought us through the middle of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, whose selection of restaurants looked every bit as crowded as those in the park that I'd just left. I found myself wondering what percentage of a typical Disney vacation is spent in queues, and whether or not it exceeds the percentage of time spent sleeping. I rather suspect the answer to that question is a variation on "um, duh".

I made it through the gate, only to get stuck a few moments later behind a non-moving crowd. The root cause turned out to be marching bands from two schools who were blasting out approximations of the repertoire of John Philip Sousa as they worked their way down Main Street USA. Sir Thomas Beecham put it best: "Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away." I've since learned that youth groups have to pass an audition process and pay for the privilege of tormenting guests, which is on some levels a shame; personally I'd love the opportunity to take part in a performance of something totally inappropriate at a Disney park.

Tomorrowland

I decided to start my visit with a photo run while the sun was high in the sky. This was always going to give me better pictures than I had in my archive, given that my only previous shots were taken after dark and in poor weather at a time when camera technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. The process was harder than it should have been due to the volume of guests, but I was in no particular hurry, and after an hour or so I'd gotten respectable images of the four roller coasters and a subset of the other attractions.

There was a 125 minute wait posted at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (#2583), and this estimate proved to be fairly accurate despite two short halts to operations caused by protein spillages. The time passed fairly quickly, aided by a number of interactive features in the queue, including adjustable projections on the ceiling, a gem swapping game, and a water spout that played musical notes. Every now and then a cast member would announce the current wait over the PA system, and though it fluctuated slightly the figure remained broadly constant throughout my visit. I found myself wondering whether two hours was a maximum threshold for visitors; it'd be interesting to know whether a second track would result in a shorter wait, or whether it would just increase demand.

The signature feature of the new ride is cars that can rock sideways as they move around corners, an idea first evaluated in the eighties on the Orphan Rocker at Scenic World. That coaster never opened, but Vekoma's implementation has proved rather more successful, to the point that a clone is one of the three coasters at Shanghai Disneyland. Be that as it may, I found the idea to be more of a novelty than something that I'd expect to become popular in the long run; the only place that I noticed the rocking on my lap was on the brake run, and that was only because the people in front of me were making a concert effort to swing their car back and forth.

The layout starts with a drop out of the station, followed by a right turn and a left turn. A short lift hill prefixes approximately twenty seconds worth of momentum-driven coasting, culminating inside a dark ride section featuring animatronic dwarves mining for gems. The train spends about a minute in here, including the time taken to ascend a second lift to the accompaniment of the famous Heigh Ho song. The rest of the layout feels much the same as the first portion, mixing turns and gentle bumps. The brake run is adjacent to a final set of animatronics that round off the experience, including an evil looking witch. The ride was a perfectly adequate family coaster, though a bit too short for my taste and not something that I'd go out of my way to repeat; unlike Slinky Dog Dash I was entirely content with one circuit.

One advantage of the long wait was that I had ample time to analyse the park map and wait times to figure out my next hit. I decided to go with Under the Sea: The Journey of the Little Mermaid, an immersive dark ride that was added to the park in 2012. The wait was advertised as forty-five minutes, and this was spot on. Though I didn't realise it until later it turned out that the experience was a clone of that at Disney California Adventure, which featured Ariel and friends singing their way through various songs from the movie. One thing that struck me today was the fact that everything that could move was moving; I particularly liked a scene with what had to have been at least one hundred rotating starfishes.

Under the sea

After disembarking I made my way into the standby queue for Space Mountain. As ever the number of guests using FastPass was vastly disproportionate to those in the regular line, but I was able to bypass a good chunk of the wait by virtue of being a single rider, and in due course took a seat in the back row of the right hand track (as you face the lift hills). The layout was great, and I really wanted to enjoy my ride, but it was ruined by absolutely brutal tracking; the base of each drop was marked by a terrific thump that did my back no favours, and each corner was negotiated in a manner reminiscent of the worst coaster I've ever ridden. Disney management replaced the equivalent ride in California after twenty-six years with great results; given that this version is even older it would seem that its time has come. (As an aside, the lack of an onboard soundtrack was really noticeable; with luck this will be considered by the powers that be when the ride eventually gets its long overdue refurbishment).

My first FastPass of the day saved me perhaps half an hour at Pirates of the Caribbean, a dark ride with boats and a gentle splashdown element made all the more enjoyable by the lack of any restraints. It was interesting to contrast the experience against the many similar attractions I've experienced over the last few years, not least the late and much lamented Pirates in Batavia at Europa Park that burned to the ground in May 2018. One feature of this installation that I didn't remember from other parks was simulated gunfire, with small splashes emerging from the water in sync with the sound effects. There was a separate disembarkation station at a lower level than the boarding platform, with a upward-sloping moving walkway to bring guests to the exit.

I was able to catch the last few minutes of Happily Ever After, a "dazzling journey of color, light and song that captures the heart, humor and heroism of many favorite Disney animated films". In more mundane language, this was a fireworks display with projection mapping on Cinderella's Castle, and while the latter wasn't visible from my vantage point I had an unobstructed view of the skies. The Mouse was granted patents a few years ago for a compressed air launching system for pyrotechnics, a superb innovation that radically reduces the amount of black powder required for a show, saving costs and the environment at the same time.

When the performance came to an end I made my way to the Haunted Mansion, again with the aid of a FastPass. Disney's take on a haunted house is unusual in that the goal is not to scare, but rather to present ghostly spirits in their natural habitat. Most of the layout is contained within a nondescript 40,000 square foot building located outside the park boundaries that is completely invisible from within. The ride remains a favourite for me, both in its unadulterated form and in the magnificent holiday overlay offered at Tokyo Disneyland.

I had about twenty minutes to kill before my final FastPass window, which I decided to use with a standby ride on It's a small world. With that complete I made my way over to Big Thunder Mountain, which I'd argue to be the perfect mine train coaster; it has three lift hills, superb pacing, fantastic theming, and decent comfort even from the middle row of the back car. The standby queue was still open when I disembarked, and I thought about queuing for a repeat, but decided that it would be better to try to escape from the car park ahead of the multitudes. My cunning plan wasn't completely successful, but the queue for the monorail had quadrupled by the time I managed to board, so I certainly saved myself some time.

Castle