Friday, December 30, 2016

The World As Your Oyster: A New Orleanian's Guide to Disney, Part 2 -The Magic Kingdom

I live in a magic kingdom. Sure we seem normal at times: we worship Saints on Sunday and manage to fry all things edible and sometimes inedible, but the truth is in New Orleans things are different. There are moments that transcend reality and down here they happen more often than you think. From the hours spent waiting for Endymion at the spot you've waited since you were in diapers to the palpable, visceral joy of dancing to your favorite artist at Jazzfest in a mud-caked thunderstorm New Orleanians have managed to make fantasy an almost everyday occurrence with the help of a mystical city, unique storytelling, and of course endless humidity. 

It is no secret that Walt Disney loved New Orleans. Disney was named an honorary citizen of the city by then-mayor Victor Schiro shortly before his death in 1966. The themed area of New Orleans Square in Disneyland, a stylized representation of the French Quarter; and the Port Orleans Resort in Disney World are two tributes to Walt's love for the mysticism and authenticity of a city we call home daily. 

This mindset makes planning trips for us a little different. The world is our oyster, but no oysters can compare to the ones we shuck down here. It would be different if we were from a place where culture is delivered out of box store, but our box stores ain't dere no more. So how can we quantify the collision of culture that is a Louisianian travelling to Disney World, a place that is the amalgam of every other culture on the planet and even appropriates a bit of our own? That is what this guide aims to reconcile so hopefully the next time you travel to Walt's Magic Kingdom you can understand the stories that tie Mardi Gras and the Mouse together. 

Part 2: Magic Kingdom and Seven Seas Lagoon Resort Areas

Walt Disney World is divided into four theme parks, two water parks, and various resorts and entertainment areas. This article will focus on the flagship theme park, the Magic Kingdom, and its surrounding resorts. A map of the area is provided below:

As you can see this area is centered around the large man-made Seven Seas lagoon. Magic Kingdom (MK) is the only park that cannot be accessed directly by car. You must either board a monorail or boat at the Transportation and Ticket Center (the gray building located to the right of Disney's Polynesian Resort, also known as the TTC). There are three monorail lines: a resort line which will make stops at the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary Resorts; an express line that will stop only at the Magic Kingdom; and an Epcot line which will take you to the Epcot theme park. Travel times vary based on park hours and crowds but during MK opening and closing you can expect to spend 30-60 minutes waiting for a monorail while during the day the wait can vary from 0-15 minutes. Travel time on the monorail is about 5 minutes on the express line and 10 minutes on the resort line. There is also one large steamboat which will travel from the TTC to MK and takes about ten minutes from dock to dock. While the trip is pleasant, the wait for loading and unloading can add anywhere from 15-30 minutes and may not be the best use of your time. Use the express monorail if possible.

When you arrive at the gates of the Magic Kingdom you will have to pass through a security cordon where all bags will be searched and random guests will have to pass through a metal detector. I highly recommend bringing a small daypack or drawstring bag with essentials (water bottle, medicine, phone battery, change of clothes, sunscreen). This will lengthen your time at the cordon but will be very helpful, especially if you're spending the whole day in the parks. Guests without bags can use an express line. After passing through the security line you will be able to proceed to the turnstiles and enter the park using your MagicBand or card (see Part 1, Essentials). You're in the Magic Kingdom!

One of my favorite moments is walking into the MK and feeling the bustle of Main Street USA (MSUSA). Many guests rush to their favorite rides and treat Main Street as a conduit in and out of the park. For me it's probably my favorite park of the MK. Modeled on Walt's hometown of Marceline, Missouri, Main Street USA is meant to evoke the purest expression of the American Dream: a turn of the century Midwestern town. It's a slice of perfect Americana we don't get to experience much outside of the movies and the realest representation that things in our country are actually pretty okay. MSUSA also has everything you would find on a real main street, and here in the MK they all serve a purpose:

Town Hall (12) - located on the left side of the roundabout this is where you go for problems related to your tickets, FastPasses, logisitics, etc.
Shopping - the Emporium (13) is the largest gift store in MK and a popular stop for guests on their way out (shop early and they'll hold your packages at the Town Hall Chamber of Commerce!)
First Aid - located next door to the Crystal Palace (11), this is a free service for anyone who needs prompt medical attention

The only Starbucks in MK is also located on MSUSA in the Main Street Bakery (7). As it is one of the few places in MK to get your caffeine fix, prepare for a wait. As we walk down MSUSA and into the center of the park the obvious focal point is Cinderella's Castle (61/69). It's gorgeous, spectacular, and has a few tricks up its sleeve (more on that later). As you stand in the middle of the park and wonder what to do next, let me fill you in on the themed areas in MK:

Adventureland  - Themed after the fictional island of Tortuga, Adventureland is home to popular rides including Pirates of the Caribbean (19) and the Jungle Cruise (17). During peak times you can expect a 15-30 minute wait for these rides which is acceptable and absolutely worth it. An interesting New Orleans-related note about Adventureland lies in the Enchanted Tiki Room (18). The birds in this attraction were reverse engineered by Imagineers based on a model Walt found while strolling through the French Quarter one day. Food options in Adventureland are few and far between, but be sure to try the Cheeseburger Eggrolls at the food cart by the Swiss Family Treehouse (15), the eponymous Dole Whip (and alcoholic variants) at Aloha Isle (23), and the Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen (22) if you are in the mood for a sit down meal (ADR recommended).

Frontierland - A Wild West-themed area, Frontierland is home to two of the most popular rides in MK: Splash Mountain (26) and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (28). Big Thunder is probably my favorite ride in MK but I would recommend using a FastPass on Splash Mountain as it will have the longest lines. Food is scarce in the Wild West, but the Golden Oak Outpost's (31) waffle fry poutine is incredible when it's open and OH MY GOD THERE IS A TURKEY LEG CART (34). Ahem, I'll try to stay more composed as we continue.

Liberty Square - Playing off the theme of MSUSA, Liberty Square is a colonial-themed walkthrough area connecting Frontierland to Fantasyland. The major attraction here is the Haunted Mansion (38), though this iteration of the Haunted Mansion is themed after New England to fit into Liberty Square instead of being New Orleans-themed like the ride at Disneyland in California. It is worth a FastPass but the line will hover between 20-45 minutes, making it wait-worthy. The Hall of Presidents (36) is also located in Liberty Square and given our current political climate, that is all I will say about that. Food is the major draw in Liberty Square. The waffles at Sleepy Hollow (41), lobster roll at Columbia Harbour House (43), and all-you-care-to-eat Thanksgiving buffet o'wonders at Liberty Tree Tavern (40) are worth your while (ADR recommended for Liberty Tree Tavern).

Fantasyland - Your childhood has come to life in Fantasyland. Built to resemble the town around Cinderella's castle Fantasyland is what we think of when we think Walt Disney World. The park's most iconic ride, It's A Small World (47), is located in Fantasyland along with what I think is the most underrated ride in MK, Peter Pan's Flight (46). There are so many attractions that draw in Fantasyland that it is usually one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the park. In order of FastPass importance these attractions include: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (59, FastPass mandatory), Peter Pan (see above), Princess Fairytale Hall (60, if necessary), Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (58), Under The Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid (49), Dumbo the Flying Elephant (55), and the Mad Tea Party (56). I would highly recommend using a FastPass on Seven Dwarfs and Peter Pan as those lines grow almost exponentially throughout the day. Of the attractions that do not require a FastPass, the one you cannot miss is Mickey's Philharmagic. A 10 minute theatre show, it is the perfect way to start your day at the MK as it hearkens back to the most iconic Disney movies of the 1990s in a special 4D presentation. Often overlooked by guests, it is too good not to skip.

Food in Fantasyland is also too good not to skip. The signature restaurant in MK is Cinderella's Royal Table (61). A buffet-style meal in Cinderella's castle with a castle-sized bill to boot (get it, boot? Hey I thought it was funny), Royal Table is worthy of special celebrations but it is not even the best or most popular castle-related meal in MK. That honor would belong to Be Our Guest (63), located in Belle's Castle at the back of Fantasyland. An ADR is required for Be Our Guest, and this is one you must book as soon as your window for ADRs open. I would recommend going for lunch as the ambiance remains the same but the prices are much lower. Also recommended in Fantasyland is a cup of LeFou's Brew (frozen apple juice and marshmallow) and a cinnamon roll from Gaston's Tavern (64), flatbread from Pinocchio Village Haus (62), TURKEY LEGS (sorry) from Prince Eric's Village Market (65), and the macaroni and cheese from The Friar's Nook (68).

Tomorrowland - Did you know that each land in MK is themed to reflect a resort in the MK area? Main Street USA resembles the Grand Floridian, Adventureland resembles the Grand Polynesian, and Tomorrowland is meant to evoke the (now faux) futuristic theming of Disney's Contemporary Resort. Modeled after a time when the year 2000 still meant flying cars and Moon bases (sigh...) Tomorrowland is also home to the other iconic ride at MK: Space Mountain (74). The only ride in Tomorrowland worth a FastPass, it is a ride I am intimately familiar with as I have ridden it enough times that I'm basically an astronaut, because that's how astronaut training works I'm fairly certain. Two other attractions in Tomorrowland that will draw long wait times and may be worth a FastPass are the Tomorrowland Speedway (73) and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (78). If you need a break from the heat, crowds, children, or all of the above there are three great rides that keep you stationary for a while: the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (71), TTA PeopleMover (76), and the Carousel of Progress (77). The Carousel of Progress, while factually incorrect, is the purest look into Walt Disney's vision for the future and in my mind the most important attraction in MK. Food in Tomorrowland is to be avoided as apparently food in the "future" means chicken tenders and hamburgers. Still, if you have a picky child or tired spouse (I've dealt with both) the rotisserie chicken at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe (79) is actually quite good.

So that's the Magic Kingdom in a nutshell! To review, here are some quick shortcuts that will help you make the most of your time in MK:

FastPass Priorities:
1. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
2. Space Mountain
3a. Splash Mountain (Spring/Summer)
3b. Peter Pan's Flight (Fall/Winter)

Extra FastPasses
4. Big Thunder Mountain
5. Winnie The Pooh
6. Haunted Mansion

Recommended Touring Plan: MSUSA => Tomorrowland (FP at Space Mountain) => Fantasyland (FP at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, lunch at Be Our Guest) => Liberty Square => Frontierland (FP at Splash Mountain) =>Adventureland => Extra FPs and Snacks

Non-attraction highlights of MK- This begins and ends with Wishes. There is nothing more magical than watching Cinderella's castle light up with fireworks while holding the most perfect approximation of happiness on earth, a churro. Or five, like I did during my last trip to WDW. I'm not ashamed of this. God's manna is a fried stick of dough rolled in cinnamon sugar. It's not really open to interpretation...where was I? Right, Wishes. It starts at 10 PM most nights so be sure to grab a spot on the bridge to Tomorrowland or in the garden in front of Crystal Palace with churros in hand by about 9:15. There will be congestion and there will be lots of traffic in front of the castle so this is a great time to take a seat, charge your phones, and relax until the show starts. Parts of the park are also cordoned off by Cast Members so if you are planning to make an ADR or FastPass at this time be sure to be near it before 9 PM rolls around. Otherwise take a seat and be prepared to cry, eat churros, cry into your churros, and smile when you know you can get a churro after the show. In case you didn't know I really like churros.

Can you do everything at MK in a day? Yes, yes you can. But it will be tough. Be prepared to walk about 10 miles and be completely spent by the time Wishes rolls around. If you are bent on completing this feat, I would recommend snacking or sharing food every few hours instead of having a large table service meal. Also, snacks and energy gels are allowed in your daypack so plan accordingly if you want to use Extra Magic Hours to your advantage.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Rainbow Connection

"So we've been told
And some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me."

It is said that Noah saw a rainbow after the flood. A rainbow that was a promise that never again would a flood come to destroy all life. A reminder of a covenant between God and His people. 

In the midst of the devastating flooding that occurred in Louisiana a week ago something as ethereal as a promise rings hollow. Countless hours have already been dedicated to tearing down homes and throwing away memories and countless more will be spent searching for ways to rebuild and capture the normalcy which has evaded us in a time where normalcy is all we should have known. Fall is a time of familiarity, of regimented school schedules and creeping nostalgia; and for many the upcoming holidays will be spent in a hotel room or at a relative's house. Gone is the chance to prepare a house for family or welcome old friends to tailgates, stolen by a thousand-year event that seems all too familiar nowadays. And the questions this fall, usually centered around pumpkin spice and Tiger quarterbacks, will be more subdued. People asking where, why, how, and most importantly:

What do we do now? 

Except that question has already been answered by the people of Louisiana: we rebuild. No matter whether you are a native or transplant, the true test of being a Louisianan is whether or not you help your neighbor. Over three hundred years of fighting to survive disease, wars, and bureaucrats have encoded within our souls a first instinct to help one another. We found out very quickly we could not and would not be reliant on outsiders for help. And help us they did not. The French ceded this land to the Spanish who ceded it back to Frace and the two powers played a game of continental back and forth until the Americans bought us for a song. The Union and Confederacy did not do much better. More recently, the protesters came and went as far as their Twitter mentions would carry them. Our metrics don't inspire faith just as much as our climate does not inspire celebration. Yet somehow we are experts in both. Our strength is in our connection. Our Rainbow Connection. 

Kermit the Frog was not far off when he sang of a connection that he has yet to find. Something that exists within all of us and manifests itself when we choose to believe. It truly exists here in the citizenry of this state. It's a promise we have made to each other. A silent covenant that bonds us across lines of age, race, and economy. We are Louisiana. We help each other. And we will continue to do so. 

Look what it's done so far.  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Growing Up

On the end of a street lived a little girl who loved to smile. Everywhere she went the world shone brighter and she was happy. But one day her parents, who were very serious adults, decided it was time she grew up. "No more smiling," they said. "Reasonable adults do not smile. They are serious individuals with serious matters to tend to." The little girl was heartbroken and she began to cry. As she cried, the skies opened up outside and a torrent of rain doused the end of the street. The little girl walked out on her porch and thought she would never be happy again.

The little girl cried for the longest time but as her sobs began to subside the clouds lifted. The sun peeked through the storm clouds and a little boy on a yellow bicycle pulled up to the curb. He walked up to the little girl and asked her what was wrong. She replied that her parents had told her she could never smile again, because adults are serious individuals with serious matters to tend to and they wanted so bad for her to become an adult. A wry smile crept over the boy's face and he asked her to walk to the edge of the street with her. 

"Adults understand nothing," he began to say. "The serious matters they speak of are matters of money and circumstance, things which are inconsequential to a smile. A smile is the simplest form of currency. It cannot be bought or sold, but it can be exchanged for the two most valuable things in the world: love and happiness." He then motioned for the little girl to turn around.

As the little girl turned around, she saw the dour garden which had framed her house had been transformed into a beautiful oasis of color. "While you were crying, the sun which surrounded your world grew dim and gave way to the rain. But, as with everything worth having, the most beautiful things in life will always require a little bit of joy and a little bit of suffering. It is only then that you can truly appreciate the gifts which we are given and the responsibilities which are required of us."

Then the little girl understood. A true adult knows how to be serious, for being serious requires the sacrifice of childhood. But that sacrifice is done in the hopes that the next day brings childlike joy for others, and a smile. It is in this balance we find what makes us happy. Growing up is never a sentence to be serious, but a chance to remember the joy of a child and bring it further into the world.

The End.