The noonday sun on the Serengeti is so blinding, it takes a moment to adjust to the improbable view. There, right in front of us, are two magnificent lions, the Brad and Angelina of their species, nuzzling each other atop a windswept rock.
“Seeing large cats out like this in the middle of the day is very unusual,” the guide tells the passengers of the Kilimanjaro Safari. We ignore the ostrich standing two feet away to capture this rare celebrity sighting. I pull my first grader onto my lap to get a better view while my dad sighs a contented “I’ll be darned.” It’s a near-perfect multigenerational moment that might only have been improved by a full-throated gospel choir singing “The Circle of Life” in the background.
That’s when it dawns on me: is this real, or is this just Orlando?
After all, the stagecraft in this high-traffic corner of Florida is so convincing that it can be hard to tell fact from fairy dust. Here at Animal Kingdom, the largest of Walt Disney World’s four Orlando theme parks, we’ve seen giant bugs crawl under our theater seats, we’ve had our roller coaster tracks ripped apart by a yeti, and we’ve just driven past the most magnificent baobab trees, which don’t really grow in Florida. I looked it up.
“Oh, what’s wrong with a little magic?” my mother sighs each time I pull out my iPhone to fact-check the ways Disney may be messing with my head.
Just to be clear, coming to the most-visited tourist destination in the country during the year’s busiest school holiday might not have been my first choice. My mom’s driving the bus on this one. She started collecting Disney films for future grandchildren before I was out of college, and she has spent the past decade of winters in the Sunshine State, accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge of every new family attraction from Legoland to SeaWorld.
She waited patiently for me and Prince Charming to assemble our own stable of dwarves. But when the youngest grew to a height of 42 inches—the official latitude required to get the most bang out of our Orlando-entertainment buck—we knew there was no denying it. We were going to Disney World.
“Don’t think of it as a vacation,” the orthodontist told me. “Treat it like a job and be there by quarter to eight every day, no excuses.” “Study and memorize the tour plans,” my cousin insisted, passing on her copy of the Orlando tourist’s bible, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World of 2012. “Don’t buy T-shirts on the property,” advised a bargain-hunting Florida friend. “The Target in Kissimmee is the only place to go.”
Last year, Orlando became the first American destination to surpass more than 50 million tourist visits, so tips like these can be critical to outsmarting the crowds. On our first day at Magic Kingdom, we dutifully ignored the Cinderella Castle and speed-walked straight to Space Mountain, where all the insider’s guides instruct you to go first. I found 9 am a little early for so many blaring sirens and vertebrae-straining roller coaster turns, and it proved far too much for my fourth grader, who freaked before launch, jumped the turnstile, and ran for daylight. Lesson learned: build your children’s intestinal fortitude by starting at the iconic Dumbo ride in the new and improved Fantasyland and then working your way up the thrill chart.
Traveling as a pack, as most Disney guests do, can be unwieldy, but you can make it work by sending some of your party off to collect Fastpasses to the big attractions such as Splash Mountain. Meanwhile, the rest of you can take less-traveled paths, encountering animatronic elephants along the Jungle Cruise or climbing to the top of the wonderful Swiss Family Treehouse. Though our three boys were immune to the charm of most Disney characters “Why’s that weird dog trying to hug me?” the first grader asked about Goofy) and appalled by princess makeovers (“They look like stupid brides, if you ask me,” said the second grader), they did allow themselves to be recruited as potential pirates by a Jack Sparrow character that my mother and I agreed was even better looking than Johnny Depp. As we admired the cut of his jib, and the kids learned a little swordplay, it was clear—Disney really does have something for every member of the family.
Having notched Orlando’s mecca, we let the kids pick the next stop: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure. Since the $265 million Hogwarts re-creation opened in 2010, the very small acreage between the looming Hogwarts castle ride and the commercial hub of Hogsmeade village has joined Orlando’s Grand Tour. Here you can visit Ollivander’s Wand Shop, stop at Honeydukes for a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, and sample a butterbeer slushy. (Eww.) You’ll need the sustenance because the lines here are long, and the only way to jump ahead is to pony up for the Express Plus Pass, which cost more than $85 a person the day we were there—nearly $600 for our clan. (Stupefy!)
While the kids enjoyed an acrobatic act pitting the wizards from Durmstrang against the winsome witches of Beaux Batons, my dad and I made fast work riding the Hungarian Horntail of the Dragon Challenge, an inverted steel coaster with a Goblet of Fire–inspired set design. Rumors of a Harry Potter expansion are all over the Internet, so if you’re listening Universal, we’d like to see the basement at Gringotts, the Weasley brothers’ magic shop, and a clever spell to keep the Muggles moving at all times.
Speaking of spells, my husband wondered if I had been ensorcelled at Animal Kingdom on a day when the crowds were so thick that several theme parks were forced to stop admission. In normal life, four hours at the State Fair means I’ll need four days of recovery in a dark room. But here, navigating streets as crowded as Calcutta, I was in unusually high spirits, admiring the prayer flags fluttering around Expedition Everest, the marvelous African and Asian animal exhibits, and the Yggdrasil-sized Tree of Life rooted at the center of the park.
“Wow, just look at all these good-looking families,” I was actually heard to say out loud. “Just imagine what a boring place the world would be if Walt Disney had never been born.”
I rode every roller coaster twice, sang along when the parade rolled by, and high-fived a total stranger. (She did look sort of like my mom . . .) An engineer we met in line repeated a rumor that on days like this Disney doses the crowds with pure oxygen, but I don’t buy it. I’d rather believe in fairies. Clap. Clap. Clap.
The mood was definitely more downbeat at the Kennedy Space Center, about an hour east of Orlando, on Cape Canaveral. This was home to the space shuttle program, which touched down for good on July 2011, a short-sighted decision that this country will live to regret, according to our tour bus driver who recited the many NASA-invented comforts we now take for granted. (Invisible braces, cordless tools, and ear thermometers are the few I remember.) It was worth enduring the lecture to see the awe-inspiring Saturn V rocket, an eerie hall of historic space suits, and a stirring film about the moon landing.
Before you head back to town, stop for a few hours to bodysurf at Cocoa Beach. You are in Florida, after all. Not that it’s easy to tell from Epcot’s World Showcase, where you can immerse yourself in virtual versions of 11 countries, from a Japanese pagoda to a Moroccan minaret to the Doge’s Palace in Venice—all without updating your passport.
Those who “do Disney” regularly say this is the most adult attraction, and not just because you can get a beer to go with your fish and chips. Epcot also gives you a great reason to stay out late with its nightly performance of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, a fireworks display that comes close to being a religious experience. Before it was even over, my first grader turned to me and clutched my hand to his pounding chest.
“Can we come here again?” he asked.
“You bet,” I said.
Next time, I’ll be the one driving the bus.