Dreams do come true: Impressions of Disney World from a single mom

In early May, my daughter and I took a trip to Disney World. It was my first trip to Disney, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It just seemed like the perfect way to get some quality alone time with my daughter, and celebrate her sixth birthday.

Disney is a lot different than I expected. I take my daughter to many kid oriented venues. Some better than others. Many are very high quality places. They often involve kitschy over the top things, designed to please kids. But in the eyes of a sophisticated adult, native New Yorker, who has traveled overseas, has quite a few high-brow tastes, I wasn’t sure whose opinion I could trust.

I wanted to make a very special get away with just my daughter and I. I decided to do this, no matter what. So when I booked the trip, I let her know this is what we were doing instead of me, buying her a bicycle, or giving her a birthday party. She was thrilled and wanted to go right away. (I booked this trip in February). What I got, was so much more than I expected. I’m glad I was open-minded enough to put whatever ideas I had about Disney on the shelf and give it a try because Disney, is not at all what I expected. It’s a lot better. (And don’t let roaming around a typical Disney store fool you because those stores are a very cheap imitation of the real thing.)

There were a few reasons I chose Disney. First, I had never been there. Second, vacation travel for single parents is a challenge on many levels. Rooms like to charge for double adult occupancy no matter what. So a parent travelling solo gets gauged financially. Since Disney charges by the room, instead of by the head, it becomes a lot more affordable. Also, because Disney is so service oriented, and their bread and butter is catering to children, they really know how to keep them engaged and happy. That makes things a lot easier when you don’t have another adult to relieve you of parenting duties. (Because we great parents NEVER need a moment or ten away from our kids.  )

My trip began when I got on the Magical Express bus to my hotel, Port Orleans French Quarter. The Magical Express is an airport service provided by Disney for all guest at their resort hotels. Just tag your luggage with special stickers they, or in my case, my wonderful travel agent, Kimberly Hill, provided, and walk off the plane. They handle the luggage and bring you to Disney World and leave your luggage in your room. What a great way to start out your vacation, care free. Of course I wasn’t care free because I had forgotten my printed itinerary that I had meticulously planned for weeks. (I had a backup on my iPhone, but that wasn’t the same.) Mouse tales travels really did a great job in helping me plan this trip, and I got a fantastic price. I highly recommend using them for your Disney travel.

The bus ride was on a huge charter. It began with a movie about attractions and must sees and ended with some classic cartoons that I don’t think my daughter ever saw. She was laughing and laughing. The ride from the airport is about 40 minutes.

When we finally arrived at Disney property, I was pretty excited. I looked out the window and it struck my fancy that all the signs had mouse ears on them directing traffic from place to place. It is its own little city. I got a chance to get a view of several resorts before we were dropped off at our destination.

Mint” is the name of an iron-clad structure where there is a Concierge, Guest Services, a small store and a food court. It’s a building made of lots of glass and echos the flavors of New Orleans. I found all of the properties gave you a taste of another place, never pretending to be a substitute for it, and never going over the top either Mardi-gras beads, since that was something they were handing out at our hotel.

The lobby had mini-rocking chairs, a huge crayon box with some things to color, and a TV showing classic movie shorts. My daughter was enchanted and was very happy to spend her time there while I checked in and sorted myself out.

They handed me my room key, which is your standard credit card like thing, which contained my meal plan, was tied to my credit card for other expenses, and served as my tickets for the theme parks. So you practically have no need to carry a wallet at all which is great. I always wanted to live my life with a “smart card”. It makes things so easy… unless of course you lose your card.

I had a great first impression from the very beginning. The staff was so pleasant. They gave us some buttons to wear, “First Visit” and a second button for my daughter, because it was her birthday. Over the course of our entire vacation, she heard from the staff, which they call “Cast members”, “Happy Birthday Princess” over and over. She also received a lot of free cupcakes and ice cream whenever we went to a restaurant. She actually got tired of the attention and by the forth day said to me she didn’t want to wear the button anymore, and, she turned down the free goodies. Imagine that. (This was one time with my daughter that I pretty much let her eat whatever she wanted.)

Disney cast members are called that, because no matter where you go, their uniform is related to the theme of the resort, the theme of the ride etc.

Before I deleted my database on this blog, I had had begun to outlined each day, specifying each and everything we did, cross linking it to photos. I realize how boring it must read and also, how much work it would be to rewrite it. I had only completed Day 2 as well, when I lost all of my data. So I will just continue this post and give my over arching impressions and skip the “play by play”.

Pictures are posted since all of my photos are linked with my facebook account. I didn’t take pictures of everything, because sometimes it was too dark, too fast, too wet, too blurry or just too difficult to take a picture because of the angle where I was standing/sitting. But if you have never been to Disney, or, you know it well, you get a pretty good idea about each park and what a great time we had, just by following the photo timeline. It’s practically a photo blog because I took so many.

Disney World is the cleanest place I have ever seen. I was amazed at the cleanliness and the general upkeep of everything. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to keep a theme park clean with thousands of visitors trekking through it. But honestly, it was very difficult to find any litter. To me, that’s so impressive because it shows a very high attention to quality and detail.

As I stated before, my hotel resort was themed after New Orleans. So everything echoed that theme. The streets were tree-lined, and their was a lot of iron-gates. Our pool area, was simply amazing and we spent a few evenings there after super, super hot days. Who would have thought that it would be 94 degrees on May 10! I picked early May hoping it wouldn’t be too hot. My mistake.

It was hot the entire time we were there and my daughter becomes something out of the Exorcist when she is hot. She exclaimed that she loves Disney World and hates Florida. That was her impression. The pool had this slide that was the tongue of a dragon. It was A LOT of fun and she and I went down it over and over again.

My room was a pretty standard hotel room, but it was spacious and clean. What I liked about it were the small details, the soaps with Mickey mouse on them, the towels fashioned in the shape of a mouse. On our second to last night, the “mouse keeping” staff left a teddy bear, made out off towels. It was adorable and we did take it home with us. One mouse keeper was an exceptional sport when I got sick and threw-up in the tub. (I always get sick when I travel! ) I tipped her well.

We went out the first night we arrived, had the first of many character meals, and ended up at Magic Kingdom for the Main Street Electric Parade and Wishes Nightime Spectacular. What a way to celebrate a first night at Disney! All I can say is WOW, WOW, and SUPER WOW.

Both events were super crowded, and both events were simply, magical. The special effects on Wishes in particular astounded me. I’m a technologist by trade. I don’t impress easily. I am an avid movie lover. I’ve been involved in live theater and have seen how we make that magic happen, both backstage, and how it looks to the audience. I live in NYC and see impressive things all the time. All of this was incredible. Disney makes George Lucas look like an amateur. This is a show you can’t miss.

The rest of our week was jammed packed days. It was tiring and sometimes frenetic, especially the arrival day, and the first full day. But we got to see the highlights for the most part in each theme park. We went on some of the best rides, saw the best attractions, and really got a taste for Disney world. Each park is unique and each worthwhile.

On the first day, which was our Epcot day, we had a character breakfast as Akershus Royal Pavillion in Norway. This was a princess character breakfast. (My daughter met Cinderella and friends the night before at 1900 Park Lane at the Grand Floridian Resort the night before.)

We only spent a half day at Epcot because my daughter had a hair appointment at Bibbiti Boppiti Boutique in Downtown Disney. (And the timing of it was not good for my Epcot visit.) Never the less, we did get to ride some of the best rides at Epcot. The problem with Epcot, compared to the other parks, is that the distances between attractions are much farther. It’s a lot more walking and must harder to get FastPasses when you don’t have a scout (another adult) to run ahead and get them for you. (FastPasses is a system that allows you to reserve a space on line for a little bit later, so you spend less time waiting in lines. Sometimes it is very useful, and other times, it’s better just to wait on line.)

We utilized FastPasses for a many things over the four days and enjoyed TestTrack and Mission Space and Soarin at Epcot. The first two twice because of FastPasses. All are completely worth the wait, even without a FastPass.

There are various configurations for dining plans, and I picked out, 1 snack, 1 quick service and 1 table service meal per day, per person. This is a must have way to save money at Disney, otherwise you will spend a fortune for everything you eat. The only downside to this, is that the quick service dining, for the most part, doesn’t have good food. It’s all fried junk and the salads are marginal.

The best meal quick service meal we had was at Wolfgang Puck’s Express in Downtown Disney, and that was only OK. The table service meals are a lot better, even the Character meal buffets, which are really for kids, and were the majority of our meals. Better dining is of course the table service meals. Unfortunately, I just don’t have an appetite, time or wallet to eat table meals for each and every meal. My eating habits can be erratic. Just yesterday, I was so busy at work, I didn’t eat all day.

Bippidi Boppity Boutique is perfect for little girls of a certain age. They get their hair, nail and face made over complete with glitter and a tiara. I got the deluxe package that included a dress and shoes and photos because I wasn’t sure if and when we’d ever come back to Disney and I wanted the experience to be memorable for my daughter. I have to say, my daughter’s hair was gorgeous, and the stuff they used, was like cement. She was able to wear her hair like that for days, even when swimming in the pool. I didn’t have to touch it. These days, her hair is always a mess. She wants to keep it long, but wear it in a pony tail. The hair simply won’t stay tied back and so she always looks like she’s been through a tornado. She won’t refuses to wear a headband, or barrettes to hold it on place and she won’t budge on this issue. It drive me crazy because I don’t like my kid to look sloppy, like she isn’t well cared for. Kids, will be kids and they have their own minds.

As I said earlier in this post, Disney remembers all the details. Everywhere you go, the theme matches, the heights of sinks and other things were child friendly. It’s difficult to look around a room or an attraction and find some detail that was missed. Since I’m one to stop and gawk and the facades of the older buildings in NYC, you can imagine I spent a lot of time looking at the ceiling, and looking at the ground. There is always something to see.

Attractions, especially the most popular ones, all have something to do, while waiting to get on and off. It occurred to me, why don’t others do it this way? I remember sitting on a Ferris Wheel at Coney Island waiting to come off the ride. It seemed like an eternity as they got to each seat, one by one. My daughter was little and she was crying because it was too scary for her. It really would have been nice to have a distraction from that.

Cast members were everywhere in the park and always friendly and helpful. I enjoyed looking at their name tags because they all revealed the person’s home town. You saw cast members from all walks of life, young and old, and different ethnicities.

We ended our Epcot day with going back to Epcot, (after a brief stop at the hotel) by having dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel. I picked that location because it killed two birds with one stone. Dinner, and Illuminations. Illuminations is a fireworks show on the Lagoon around Epcot. It was a nice show, but I was less impressed by this compared to the others. I’m not saying it is a bad show. It was actually a great show. It is just the others are even better. But perhaps, my perspective was a bit skewed because we viewed this from inside the restaurant and we were both extremely exhausted at this point.

Speaking of exhausted, it was recommended to me that we go back to our room in the middle of the day, and nap for a bit rather than doing a whole day at each park, because it IS exhausting. Well first of all, my daughter is like the energizer bunny. She may get tired, but taking her back to the room just means that we are missing out on stuff, not that she’s taking a nap or even resting. This girl never stops. Me… I never nap in the middle of the day. Why would I? I’m young, healthy, fit and able. It makes no sense and I never understood people who could, unless of course you are ill, or on medication that makes you drowsy. I guess for some people that might work, but between getting to and fro the room and the actual rest time, that’s a several hours wasted not enjoying the glories of Disney. Instead, I tried to build in “rest time” into our itinerary by watching shows, movies, going to places to eat or have a snack. (We rested a lot when we returned from our trip, and I’m ok with that.)

Day 2 was Magic Kingdom and I actually got much loser with my agenda, but still made sure I hit the highlights that I wanted to see. We had a fantastic time, went on many thrill rides. We had a rough spill that day because it was one of the hottest days on record at 94 degrees. But we got through it. We went to the hotel that night and spend the evening swimming in the pool. That was my daughter’s idea of “resting cause she was tired”. There are some really stunning things there. I keep thinking about ‘It’s a small world” which isn’t a thrill ride. It’s a slow boat. But you are brought from room to room looking at these beautiful animated dolls singing in every language, wearing costumes from every country. Again, details, details, details. It was just impressive.

I was also impressed with some of the 3D movies we went to. It’s the first time I ever went to a movie where wind blew my hair, and when water splashing in the movie, got me wet in real life. Way to go for theatrics! I loved Mickey’s Philharmagic. And the thrill rides, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Yes. Yes. Winnie the Pooh was ok, but it had a very cool touch screen on the standby line. (We had a FastPass though).

Day 3 was Hollywood Studios. I think this was the hardest place for me to navigate. The distances between things weren’t bad, (just like Magic Kingdom). It’s just that all the “good stuff” was scheduled theatrical shows. And most of that didn’t start until later in the day. We walked around quite a bit, but ended up seeing numerous shows on how to make explosions happen in the movies. My daughter was impressed and it was entertaining. I really enjoyed the Backlot Tour, The Indiana Jones Epic Stunts,Beauty and the BeastLittle Mermaid. All were great and all were very different. We had dinner at a place,Sci Fi Drive and Dine where it looked like an old fashioned Drive In. It was very charming and my daughter, who was getting crabby at this point was enchanted by it. She even liked the cheesy B horror movies, from before my time. (Ah! But I remember them well on WPIX as a kid!)

Day 4 was Animal Kingdom. I heard the distances were far and I knew my daughter wasn’t going to make my life easy if I made her do any more walking. I rented a stroller and it made all the difference in the world. They were easy to push on the bumpy roads of Animal Kingdom. I think the bumps were there deliberately to add to the overall flavor of the place. I really liked it there, but not really for the exotic animals. I can’t really say why. It just charmed me and it had echos of some of the things I missed at Epcot. The Kali River Rapids was my favorite. Everest was a bit much. Fast flying, really high coaster going frontwards and backwards in pitch black. I got off that ride ready to hurl, but I was also extremely dehydrated.

We ended our day at Boardwalk Resort having dinner at Cat Cora’s Kouzzina. My meal plan was finished that morning after our last character breakfast at Tusker House. I simply wanted to dress nicely, for a more adult oriented, full-service meal for my last night at Disney. The food was very good, and just like all Disney places, they were exceedingly nice to my daughter and tolerant that kids do stuff like crawl under the table.

A word about dress at Disney World. Some people believe that since it is essentially a theme park resort that you don’t need to dress nicely. From what I could see, in every theme park, including Animal Kingdom which is the most casual, women who like to dress well, do. It may be hot, and you may be walking a lot, but they are wearing nice blouses, or very glammed out T-shirts, appropriate for 90 degree weather, with shorts, pretty jewelery, and are simply “put together”. Other than the comfortable shoes, women can still be plopped down in the middle of any metropolitan center and fit right in. Disney, is not “Walmart land”, by any means. So by all means, bring your pretty clothes because you’ll be glad you have them with you.

Anyway, we followed our meal by taking a boat to Hollywood Studios, and seeing Fantasmic. Again, a very, very impressive show of fireworks, live theater, explosions, getting wet. I loved it. (I also recorded it on video since I was less concerned with saving space on my video card. My ex-husband is going to make a movie for me, showing the things I captured on video and photos. I’m sure it will take time to put it together, but I have posted all gazillion of my photos on this blog.)

Throughout our whole trip, we employed various means of transportation. Disney has an extensive bus system that will take you to any park or resort. From my location, most destinations were one ride. Most locations take about 15-20 minutes, once on the bus. The buses always had music, echoing the theme of where you were going. In fact, in fact, there is music everywhere. And come to think about it, after a week at Disney, it starts to become monotonous. (Like I said, not a detail missed). It did set the mood for the trip, and it was a good mood. I just realized, in retrospect, that after a day of non-stop stimulation, I have an appreciation of a quiet room with no noise at all.

We rode on monorails, several kinds of boats, trucks, safaris and trains. I don’t really think there was a type of transportation that we missed. One night, we even took a boat from Downtown Disney, to our hotel. That was a very pleasant experience. Nothing takes long to get to, but you have to plan for an hour, just in case you have to wait for the buses. People who drive their own car are not immune to the Disney transportation system because they too, have to wait for a ride, just to get to their car because the parking lots are vast and far away from the parks. I talked to some folks that tried it both ways. They like the bus system better.

Signs and placards were everywhere, usually saying something super corny but clever. It just added to the charm. So, for example, there was a cross street at my resort, near my room that was called, “Rue da bega” going with the whole New Orleans theme of naming streets, “Rue”. Yup, corny. The signs were also on attractions. My daughter got annoyed with me because “Mommy is always taking pictures of signs”. I just wanted to capture the experience.

All in all, I had a great time at Disney World and would go again. (Not sure I would do it dozens of times like some folk do. This planet is too large and too interesting to box myself in like that.) I highly recommend it for a family vacation. I think it is a very friendly place for a single parent and for family reunions. (Traveling alone with a child can be hard because you are always on duty, without a break, have no one to watch your kid even when you have to use the bathroom etc. Disney eases that.) Disney should be on everyone’s bucket list as a must see once, even if you don’t have kids. It’s just such a special place, not just Epcot, and should not be discounted as merely a place for kids.