ORLANDO - Four theme parks. Three kids. Two adults. And one seemingly impossible assignment: to visit every Disney World resort on the same day.
I'm not talking about an amusement park toe-touch, either. I mean quality time, taking no fewer than three marquee family rides at each place and not skipping meals - in other words, real visits.
At a resort that's sprawled across 25,000 acres of flat central Florida, is a quadruple play even possible?
"It's not something we really recommend," Disney spokesman Charles Stovall warned.
As if that's not enough of a challenge, let me introduce you to my family. Kari and I have three kids: two boys - Aren, 5, and Iden, 3 - and a 1-year-old girl, Erysse. Since we live in Orlando, they're no strangers to theme parks. But they're still young kids, with abbreviated attention spans, inflexible nap schedules and an occasional diaper to change.
Disney may not endorse our adventure, but that doesn't exactly stop people like us from trying. Since it opened Animal Kingdom a decade ago, it has all but invited its guests to squeeze a fourth park visit into a day. And that's all the encouragement that time-starved families with only a day to spend in Orlando needed. (Besides, if Disney didn't want us zipping around its resorts like Boy Scouts on a scavenger hunt, why would it sell a "Park Hopper" pass that allows us to do it?)
Magic Kingdom - 9:02 a.m.We valet-parked our car at Disney's Contemporary Resort and ordered breakfast at the hotel's Concourse Steakhouse. Why spend $10 to valet park? Because it's $1 cheaper than using the main lot and saves you a bundle of time. (Technically, this was a no-no to park at the hotel, I was told later by a Disney official.) It's just a short monorail ride to the entrance of Disney's signature park, versus a half-hour odyssey on a tram, followed by a connection to a boat or monorail when you park the conventional way.
There was no time for a leisurely stroll down Main Street USA - we walked briskly toward Cinderella Castle and then circled around to Fantasyland. High on our list of rides was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, one of the most popular attractions at the park. I've seen wait times of more than an hour, but this morning, it was less than 10 minutes. From there, we darted over to Peter Pan's Flight, where the line was even shorter.
So far, so good.
We debated the third ride. The boys wanted Pirates of the Caribbean, because, well, it's a boy thing to do. The girls preferred It's a Small World. Small World won because it's closer. But it came at a steep price: The song is still in my head.
As we rolled back to the park entrance, our confidence started to build. As long as we picked three rides, had backups for each one, and avoided diversions, we might be able to conquer four parks. The kids were ready for more rides. We boarded a monorail for Epcot.
Epcot - 10:45 a.m.The line for The Seas With Nemo & Friends was about average, which is to say, it lasted a patience-testing 20 minutes. Worse, the baby's diaper needed to be changed. As we edged closer to Nemo's undersea world in a slow-moving line, we had no choice but to change Erysse without the benefit of a bathroom. Thanks to the low light, no one noticed.
But once the ride ended, the kids started to get fussy. They wanted lunch. We had a schedule to keep, so we decided to see one more attraction before taking a break. Journey Into Imagination With Figment is one of the most underrated Epcot attractions. It's fast-moving and fun, but there's never a line. Before any of the kids could protest, we were face-to-face with Figment in his laboratory. Then we were off to lunch.
Although we've tried almost every restaurant in Epcot's World Showcase, we're partial to China's Lotus Blossom Cafe because it's fast - and today, fast matters. Within a few minutes, we were wolfing down vegetable stir-fry and pot stickers. Before catching the Gran Fiesta Tour at the Mexico Pavilion, we grabbed a pretzel from the nearby Norwegian bakery. The kids needed sugar. The adults needed sugar, too. It's a 20-minute bus ride to our next park.
Animal Kingdom - 2:05 p.m.The signs in front of It's Tough to be a Bug! warn that the 3-D attraction may frighten young children, but we ignored them. After six rides, we concluded that our children had become desensitized to loud noises and special effects. And besides, the wait was a manageable 10 minutes. Only Iden appeared shaken by the experience, asking whether insects grow to be as big as the seven-foot animatronic grasshopper on stage.
It's a hike to the Festival of the Lion King, and in the afternoon heat, only the promise of ice cream kept the kids moving. Erysse had already fallen asleep. Fortunately, it was cool inside the theater, and the show, which features songs from The Lion King, is a real pick-me-up.
When the performance ended, we needed to move quickly to avoid being trapped on the wrong side of an afternoon parade. The TriceraTop Spin offered a convenient third-ride option on the way out. We escaped Animal Kingdom and boarded a bus just as the parade started. The baby woke up in a cranky mood.
Come to think of it, we were all beginning to feel a little cranky.
One park to go.
Hollywood Studios - 4:15 p.m.We made a beeline to the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, but the attraction was closed for a special event. So we found our way to Muppet Vision 3-D. While we waited for the show to begin, Aren and Iden curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. Not a good sign.
"Come on, boys," I said. "Only two rides to go. You can do it!"
"Dad, I'm never going to a theme park again," Aren replied.
"Come on. You don't mean that."
Ride number two was the combination live-action and puppet show Voyage of The Little Mermaid. By now, we were depending on the loud noises and special effects to keep the kids awake. The final attraction of the day - Playhouse Disney - was wall-to-wall with dancing preschoolers and featured frenetic puppets and elaborate props. Our preschoolers sat in the darkened theater in a semi-catatonic state, waiting for the end.
We left the park after 7 p.m., feeling exhausted and a little giddy.
"We won!" Iden said.
"What did we win?" his brother asked.
"I don't know. But we won!" Iden replied.
The children fell asleep in the car and didn't wake up until the next morning.
All told, we spent more than 10 hours at Disney World, averaging slightly more than one ride per hour. I learned that hitting four parks in a single day can be done, as long as you know which attractions you want to visit, schedule plenty of time for meals, and bring a limitless supply of patience.
Who knows, we might try another four-bagger again soon. Maybe I'll wait until the blisters on my feet have healed.
Survival Tips for a Disney Adventure
Want to pull off a four-park marathon? Here's how:
Plan carefully. Know which rides you want to go on and the order in which you'd like to visit the parks. Have a list of alternate rides in case one of them is closed or has a long line. Hit the most popular rides in the early morning and late afternoon, when there are fewer riders.
Dress the part. Pack at least one change of clothes per child, and plan for all possible weather. Mornings can be cool, and afternoons often bring torrential rains. Plus, there's the inevitable accident at lunch to contend with. Dress in layers, and don't forget your umbrella.
Double the food, triple the water. Nothing builds an appetite faster than running around a theme park. Bring twice the food you normally would and extra water. We drained six bottles of water, and by the time we reached our last theme park, we had to begin buying it.
Don't forget to have fun. Remember, it's an amusement park. You should be enjoying yourself, even if the pace is a little faster than you're used to. We stopped several times to take pictures and rest. And except for the last stop on our tour, our kids enjoyed the experience. Or so they say.
Know when to say "when." We had several meltdowns along the way, when one of our children decided enough was enough. But they were relatively minor and could be addressed with food or encouragement. A major tantrum would have caused us to rethink our four-park endurance race.
You can plan your visit and see the rides and attractions by checking a 3D re-creation of the four theme parks and 22 resorts in Google Earth. Go to www.disneyworld.com/3dparks; you'll have to download the software.
Walt Disney World
- Christopher Elliott