A family trip to Disney World brought back joyful memories, and created many new ones
One of my earliest childhood memories was flying on a bicycle above the forest with my late mother in Florida.
Fifty years later, I’m flying on the very same ET ride in Universal Studios with my own kids. Their eyes are full of wonder. Mine had a few tears welling up in them, unseen in the darkness of the forest.
Some tormented hipsters turn their avocado toast up at the thought of going to Disney World as a holiday. I’d had the greatest time of my childhood there with my parents, and I wanted to try and give my children the same joy.
Of course, there were some excruciating moments – sugar-rush tantrums times a million from the children, courtesy of endless sweets along the way. But I think my wife and I succeeded in creating a once-in-a-lifetime family holiday for the children. (I feel I should almost apologise for not bringing my offspring on their summer hols harvesting coffee cherries by hand in the Himalayas or milking cows for two weeks in the Swiss Alps.)
Mind you, the children’s often unbridled happiness was not always of our doing. When, on the initial descent into Orlando International Airport, our aeroplane encountered some turbulence, our four-year-old son was craning his young neck to gaze out the window with excitement at the wings bouncing up and down in the clouds.
I was white with fear. When the shaking stopped, he asked the air hostess if she could make the 200-tonne Boeing Airbus bounce through the clouds again.
Two hours later, he and his seven-year-old sister were bouncing with delight, and jumping into the giant outdoor swimming pool at the Art of Animation hotel (disneyworld.co.uk). It’s the biggest pool in all the Disney resorts and the kids swam in the Sunshine State’s late evening heat, until at 10pm the lifeguards told them it was time to go. It’s a pool inspired by the Finding Nemo movie, with life-size figures of Nemo and Crush around the area.
There was even a Disney movie playing on the massive outdoor screen for all the children (and adults) to watch from the warm water.
My inner hipster would probably have wished they were showing an arthouse film by Fellini or Bergman... Until I told myself to cop on and bellyflopped into the pool, like a ginger Homer Simpson with an Irish accent.
One midnight feast of hamburgers later, we all went to sleep in our Finding Nemo-themed room.
The next morning, we boarded the bus to the Magic Kingdom. The kids had made a list of their favourite attractions they wanted to see. We had it all planned. Disney World is all about meticulous planning – or else you’ll go off your head.
But first came breakfast in one of the cutesy American diners. Everything is bigger in Disney World. The pancakes, with ice cream and chocolate, come piled sky high.
After our first sugar rush of the day, we piled into the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a ride inspired by the 1930s’ classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Next up was The Haunted Mansion spookfest aboard our own Doom Buggy.
We noticed a small pet cemetery outside on the left outside the exit. The kids wanted to know if actual cats and dogs were buried in there. Like a lot of things in Disney World, I didn’t know the answer.
This was followed up by the more tranquil It’s a Small World – a boat cruise through all seven continents with little children characters singing. And then the Carousel of Progress at a rotating theatre in Tomorrowland, followed by the Jungle Cruise, a narrated, outdoor boat ride in Adventureland.
The kids were enchanted by everything around them.
You don’t need to be an evolutionary psychologist to see why. Their brains were being engaged non-stop by this enormous and ultra-high tech sensory entertainment system built on a bedrock of fantasy, fairy-tale and storytelling (and, cynics ahoy, of naked consumerism).
That night, my wife and I agreed that we’d never been so exhausted in our lives – even though by then we’d been fortified by lethal-strength cocktails. We were even more exhausted because the kids had to have a swim before bedtime.
The next day we returned to the Magic Kingdom (the biggest of the four-park Walt Disney World resort – the others being Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom) because there was just so much to see and do. Which we did. From 10am to 7pm in the boiling heat.
The highlight for the kids was being photographed with Minnie and Mickey Mouse.
This was run a close second by dinner at the Beauty and The Beast Castle. The Beast himself made an appearance, and the kids almost fainted with fear when he arrived in front of their table. I’d a similar experience when I saw the bill – but it was worth it to see the pure happiness on their faces, eating in a fairy-tale castle.
My wife timed it so just as we left the castle, the nightly fireworks show in front of Cinderella’s Castle was just beginning. And it was spectacular.
We found a good spot beside the Ice Cream Parlour on Casey’s Corner to watch the magic in the sky. And have an un-needed ice cream at 9pm.
The next morning, after breakfast in the hotel’s café (I think I’ll scream if I hear ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’, from the movie Encanto, one more time), we set off for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We bought Genie passes, so the standing in line for hours in 100-degree temperatures was minimised.
The Kilimanjaro Safaris on Harambe Wildlife Reserve, with its 110-acres of forests and open plains, was a must-visit – not least with animals (baboons, buffalo, antelopes, cheetahs, gazelles, hyenas, lions, ostriches, elephants, crocodiles, flamingos, hippos) watching you watching them.
Again, this was fun – like Dublin Zoo times a billion in the sizzling sun.
It was a great day out, made even greater on the way back when we decided to get the bus to Typhoon Lagoon.
The theme here is of a tropical paradise left devastated by a typhoon. Thus upended ships, submarines, and surfboards are dotted all over the island. The gargantuan breakers (80,000 gallons are used for each wave) crash down in one of the biggest wave pools in the world.
Unleashed after a spooky alarm sounds, the giant wave took off our feet, carrying us along at great speed. My son (the turbulence-loving one) went back to do this on his own several times. After all this high-speed whooshing in water, we brought our heartbeats back to normal with a go on the Lazy River, where we could float down Castaway Creek on a tube. There is also a beach you can laze on (though I don’t sunbathe – the sight of a lobster-coloured father might frighten the children).
We enjoyed Typhoon Lagoon so much that we incorporated it into our daily routine. As we did the dinners at Disney Springs every evening, a food and entertainment complex. Live bands played as we ate in the cave-like ambience of the T-Rex restaurant – the menu included Paleo Pizza and dinosaur-shaped Jurassic Chicken Tidbits, and the decor featured woolly mammoths and life-sized T-Rex.
We also ate in the lake-side Boathouse, a sophisticated fish restaurant, and Frontera Cocina, a high-end Mexican restaurant. The point is there are plenty of fancy restaurants that are of the decidedly non-fast-food variety to choose from and to suit every budget.
Disney World doesn’t have to bust the bank if you budget properly and look at the prices on the menu before you go in. There are cheap restaurants as much as there are not-so-cheap ones.
On our sixth or seventh day (we had lost count, in the relentless blur of ice creams and candy canes, parades and fireworks, princesses and rollercoasters), we took the Skyliner Gondola (a sort of cable car) to Epcot.
We went on the Frozen Ever After ride in the Norway Pavilion. It was a boat ride into Arendelle from the Frozen movie, which soaks you with water at the end, when the boat drops dramatically into the water.
There was a hurricane warning on the day we visited, so the boats that ferry you within Epcot from one part of the world to another were grounded. This meant we had to walk all the way from Norway to Italy, for dinner in Tutto Italia – looking out over Venice’s St Mark’s Square.
On our second week – it flew by – we visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios. A 40-foot figure of Sheriff Woody stands at the entrance to Toy Story Land. The two little ones couldn’t contain their excitement.
We were soon on the Slinky Dog Dash – a rollercoaster track that Andy from the Toy Story movie had apparently built in his backyard – and then Toy Story Mania, a 4-D ride where you shoot at moving targets as you fly along.
Next up was Alien Swirling Saucers, a spinning ride also in Toy Story Land. Our heads were still spinning with excitement going to bed that night.
Disney World is not so much a resort as an enchanted post-ironic city of children and adults with unfulfilled childhood fantasies. Not so much a theme park as a parallel universe where everyone has a smile on their face.
Sometimes this smile is because you’ve had so much sugar your face starts to adopt this grin as its default position; other times, you smile because you’ve never had this much fun in your life without alcohol, and it feels so good. It’s like starring in your own reality TV show.
The experience our daughter had most looked forward to seeing didn’t disappoint – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
We took the Hogwarts Express from London to Hogsmeade Station. En route, there were some spooky goings-on (the lights go out when the Dementors appear), as you look out the window into Florida’s pristine English countryside.
We could see and hear the silhouettes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione talking in the next compartment. Once in the Wizarding World, we explored Diagonal Alley, had a nose-about in Ollivanders Wand Shop (a hazel unicorn hair wand will set you back $40), looked up at the hissing, fire-breathing dragon on top of the Gringotts Bank, and enjoyed a peculiar lunch of traditional English grub in the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, sitting at a long wooden table beneath old ceilings and faded walls.
We finished our day at Hogwarts Castle with a short trip on Flight of the Hippogriff rollercoaster, before returning to London on the Hogwarts Express with the silhouettes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
“It was my best day ever,“ said our daughter.
The following day, 60km away at Legoland in Winter Haven, our son had his best day ever.
He is a huge fan of Lego and was in his element at the 150-acre theme park. He was able to race cars and go on boats as well as investigate to his heart’s content the massive recreations of the Kennedy Space Center, Daytona racetrack, Las Vegas, and New York City.
Towards the end of our final week, we decided to spend two nights at America’s most famous beach – Daytona Beach. We chilled out at the fabulous Daytona Grande Oceanfront Hotel on North Atlantic Drive (daytonagrande.com), literally on the beach.
We stayed on the 26th floor looking directly out on the sea. We swam in the warm sea – oblivious to the fact that sharks also swam in these same waters. When I realised this and stupidly mentioned it to the kids, they insisted on swimming in the hotel’s infinity pool instead.
On our final night in Disney World, we returned to the scene of the crime – to the Magic Kingdom.
ice creams in hand, we watched the fireworks explode enchantingly over Cinderella’s Castle for the last time. Ireland seemed like a galaxy far, far away…