Trip Report

Walt Disney World & Universal Orlando

March 7-12, 2009

A trip report and photo highlight of my latest trip to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando from March 7-12, 2009.

Last week, I had the opportunity of visiting Central Florida during the off-season and early Spring season.  We were very fortunate with the weather as each day saw high temperatures in the low 80's with not a cloud in the sky until the last day.  In other words, it was nearly perfect.  Shorts could easily be worn in the day and at night, and it was easy to dry out in the sun after getting soaked on a water ride.

The reason for such consistently nice weather was a region of high pressure that was sitting right over the middle of the state.  The descending air prevented the development of any major clouds and it also kept an approaching cold front at bay.  This didn't help the dry fire conditions throughout the state and the wildfires in nearby Titusville, FL (home to the Kennedy Space Center), but for vacationers, it was outstanding.  The flowers and plants were in full bloom and looked excellent with their brilliant color displays.

In addition to the outstanding weather and Spring-like conditions with the plants and flowers, the parks felt like they were nearly empty at times.  It was a night and day difference with the crowds and wait times between the New Year's Eve trip and this early March visit.  My last true off-season visit to WDW was many years ago back when I was in elementary school and my parents got to pull my brother and I out of class to go on a week-long vacation (my classmates hated me for that :) ), and I had forgotten about just how nice it was in the parks at those slower times of the year.  Otherwise, all of my other visits from high school to college to beyond all took place either during Spring Break, the summer, or between Christmas and New Years.  In other words, vacationing along with everybody else in the country.

NOTE - This trip report consists of ninety-five (95) photo highlights showing off the latest construction projects, attraction highlights, and the general feeling of being in the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks from March 7-12, 2009.  All of the thumbnail pictures open to larger sizes.  The table of contents for this trip report uses the following abbreviations:  DAK (Disney's Animal Kingdom), DS (Disney's Hollywood Studios), EP (Epcot), MK (Magic Kingdom), IOA (Islands of Adventure) and USF (Universal Studios Florida).

Saturday, March 7, 2009 - The drive and Disney's Hollywood Studios

Living in the Atlanta metro area, it's not exactly a short hop to go from here to everybody's favorite Central Florida vacation destinations.  Our usual method involves leaving home around 6 in the morning and cruising straight down to Florida while keeping the stops to a minimum.  We always stop at the same gas station near the Georgia-Florida line to refuel, and our other stop is at a service plaza on the Florida Turnpike.  After that, the final stop is either checking in early to our hotel and then grabbing lunch at the Checker's on 192, or vice versa.  By the time we're finished with lunch and have dropped off our stuff at the hotel, it's time to head into a Disney park for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

For this visit, we arrived at Disney's Hollywood Studios around 2:30 or so on Saturday.  I was expecting rather heavy crowds from the locals since it was a Saturday and the weather was exceptional.  What we encountered was the opposite.

That day Toy Story Midway Mania was having some technical problems and had a bit of a wait.  The FastPass for that was also sold out, but that was expected.  We headed down Sunset Boulevard and grabbed some passes for Tower of Terror, and my brother and I went through the single rider line at Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.  The main stand-by line for the coaster was only about thirty minutes long.  The unusual thing was that our Tower FastPasses only took about an hour before they went active.  What took us completely by surprise is that when we went through the FastPass line at Tower, we saw that the stand-by line was empty to the preshow while the FastPass line was lined up outside of the lobby!

Disney Studios - Animation Courtyard - 01

Banners are already in place for the latest Disney-Pixar film, Up.

Disney Studios - Animation Courtyard - 02

Promotions for Up and Bolt at The Magic of Disney Animation.

Disney Studios - Sounds Dangerous

There weren't any showing of Sounds Dangerous today.

Disney Studios - The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror was looking good in its new blue illumination.  The previous versions of the Tower had a dark purple with a mixture of green lettering for its night display, but here we can see the new blue building with white lettering.  It doesn't look as sinister and ominous as before, but the blue still looks pretty good.  The other major (or minor to those who don't pay attention to details) addition to the Tower is a set of spooky sounds including thunder down in the final line queue in the boiler room.  It adds more to the experience even though there are usually clear skies for most of the Tower visitors.

We saved a trip through the stand-by line for Toy Story Midway Mania as one of our last rides of the day in the park.  The line was stretched out to the street, but without the extra FastPass riders merging into the line, the main line moved quite well.  When we split off for the handicap line queue we were the next ones in line at that station and only had to wait for a moment before a car was sent in our direction.  That was just lucky timing on our part since many groups of handicap people were in line behind us, and those of you who have experienced waiting in that separate line queue know just how frustratingly slowly it moves.  It's almost as frustrating as watching the people with no apparent disability problems easily going through that line queue, but that's a different story.

As a whole, the emptiness of the Disney Studios was a pleasant surprise.  The longest wait we had was in the single rider line for the coaster.  Otherwise, Tower of Terror, Great Movie Ride, Star Tours, and MuppetVision 3D were all walk right on, and the wait for Toy Story Midway Mania was less than ten minutes.

Downtown Disney, on the other hand, was quite busy.  Lots of local people like to go there on the weekend, and with the free parking and excellent food at Earl of Sandwich, I don't blame them.  We had a bit of a hard time finding an open parking spot at the Marketplace and an even harder time securing a table inside of Earl's.  But the sandwich was excellent as usual, people (predictably) abused the drink station by filling their free water cups with soda while the workers stood by and did absolutely nothing to stop them, and there was a 35% off sale for almost all of the toys throughout Walt Disney World, including at all of the stores (except for Lego) in Downtown Disney (no idea if that sale is still occurring or how long it is lasting).

Not bad for the first day of the trip.


 

Sunday, March 8, 2009 - Disney's Animal Kingdom and Epcot

Sunday started out with a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom in the morning and a visit to Epcot for the afternoon and evening.

The first half of the day was very quiet in Animal Kingdom.  My brother and I were able to go through the single rider line at Everest with only about a ten minute wait, had no wait for Dinosaur, and waited about twenty-five minutes for Primeval Whirl.  The FastPass was not being used for Whirl and they were only using the left side of the ride.  Nonetheless, the line moved slowly and we were on the spinning coaster without any issues.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Kilimanjaro Safaris

Kilimanjaro Safaris is always a popular ride, so it was useful that we grabbed FastPasses for it when we first got into the park.  The separate handicap loading station was empty and a vehicle was there waiting for us, so our wait was kept for a minimum.  This trip on the safari was pretty good and quite a few of the animals were out and about.  The next trip later on the trip would prove to be better (with photographic evidence).

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Restaurantosaurus - closed

Restaurantosaurus in DinoLand was closed both days we were in the park.  This didn't really effect us as our main eating location in Disney's Animal Kingdom is at Pizzafari over in Discovery Island.  The line at that place went out on the main sidewalk during the peak rush hour, so not quite everything had a short line on a Sunday in the off-season.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Kali River Rapids - line queue

The two longest lines in the park were for Kali River Rapids and Expedition Everest.  The Kali line was long but moved fairly well since they were not using FastPass there, either, just like at Primeval Whirl.  For the record, It's Tough to be a Bug was also not using the FastPass system during the week.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Celebrate Today!

The Celebrate Today theme uses special banners for each park similar to the new attraction banners used during the celebration for Disneyland's 50th Anniversary celebration.  Balloons are a big part of the theming as they also appear on the monorails and some of the Disney buses.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - symbol

n the parking lot we noticed this symbol on the ground for Disney's Animal Kingdom.  I don't remember seeing it before, but that doesn't mean that it was recently added to the park.  I also got a photo of the parking lot logo for Epcot (check the last day of this report for that picture).

Epcot - Celebrate Today!

Like at Animal Kingdom, Epcot felt like it was empty.  After arriving at the park at around 2:30 pm, there were still FastPasses available for Soarin' (went active at 6:45 pm, significantly better than having the FastPass sold out by 11 am during New Year's Eve).  All of the rides except for Test Track and Soarin' were walk right on.  It was great.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 01

The Brussels sprouts (also known as "alien life pods" and thought as being from Mars or Venus by some people) were growing just fine in Living with the Land.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 02

The outer wall in the second greenhouse on the Living with the Land boat ride was hidden behind a wall.  This is part of the pathway that was used for the Land's walking tour.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 03

And after having this aquaculture scene added to the Land boat ride months ago, there is still no mention of it on the automated spiel.

Epcot - Innoventions - Fountain of Nations refurbishment - 01 Epcot - Innoventions - Fountain of Nations refurbishment - 02

The massive Fountain of Nations in the middle of Innoventions Plaza was hidden behind the big blue wall for some refurbishment.  It didn't feel right walking through this area and not hearing the usual show music and being sprayed by a fine mist of water.

Spring in Epcot.

Springtime in Epcot.  The outstanding weather and blooming flowers and trees made it an almost perfect day.

Epcot - Mission: SPACE - 01

No big crowds outside of Mission SPACE today.  Both orange and green team lines had no wait.  My brother and I were inside of one of the capsules and waiting for lift-off when the ride had a malfunction and we had to leave and come back later.  We were given a FastPass for a free re-ride, but on a zero-wait day it was a useless gesture.  We came back later and rode it without any problems.

Epcot - Mission: SPACE - 02

All of those rows were empty during the first preshow for Mission: SPACE.  Since we had an electric power cart we were in row 10.  Later in the trip the cast members enforced the non-power cart policy and we had to transfer to a normal wheelchair like on previous trips.

Epcot - China

A nearly full moon is seen rising over the Temple of Heaven in China.

We went on Test Track at the end of the day.  The elevator used to help get wheelchairs over the loading station was not working, so they had our small group of three enter through the exit.  Otherwise, we were ready to wait in the stand-by line queue which was only about twenty minutes long or so.  The cast members were helpful and gave us a little extra help getting in and out of the car.  The high-speed loop around the building at dusk was awesome.  Like Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom, Test Track is best at dusk and night.


 

Monday, March 9, 2009 - Magic Kingdom

Today was an all-day trip to the Magic Kingdom, which was something that my brother and I haven't done in ages.  Except for our all-day stay in Epcot for New Year's Eve, staying all day in one theme park is unheard of for us as we're avid park hoppers.  We normally schedule our lunches for different resorts depending on which parks we're visiting that day.  But with the shorter hours and lighter crowds, the three of us brought extra batteries for my dad's electric power chair and planned on staying all day inside of the Magic Kingdom.

Outside of the park we had a difficult encounter with one of the Disney security guards at the checkpoint.  An older worker gave us a hard time and was being a bully by throwing his "do you want me to get my supervisor?" weight at us, and even holding a camera bag hostage when we questioned his pointless motives.  Why do some of the security guards make it a point of searching through the smallest of pockets in your gear when you can easily hide so much more in your shorts, cargo pants, and jacket pockets?  Clothing is never searched at the Disney and Universal security checkpoints.

Anyway, be warned that if you point out this flaw in their security, then the "security" guards get upset.  As always, when it comes to real security at Disney and Universal, it's what you don't see that makes the biggest impact on guest safety, and not those (mostly) useless "security" guards at the checkpoints.

Magic Kingdom - Cinderella Castle

Apart from the jerk security guard, it was a near-perfect day at the Magic Kingdom.  The air was clear and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Magic Kingdom - Splash Mountain

The park was already open for almost two hours, but Splash Mountain still had only about a twenty-minute wait.  The FastPass line didn't even open until 11 am.

Magic Kingdom - Diamond Horsehoe resurbishment

The Diamond Horseshoe was closed for refurbishment and hidden behind the construction wall.

Magic Kingdom - Hall of the Presidents refurbishment - 01 Magic Kingdom - Hall of the Presidents refurbishment - 02

Like Diamond Horseshoe, The Hall of Presidents is also closed for a refurbishment.  Presidents has been down since November and isn't scheduled to be open again until July of 2009 as they make the necessary changes to the show along with the addition of President Barack Hussein Obama II.

Magic Kingdom - Disney Dreams Come True Parade - 01

Looking across the hub at the start of the new Disney Dreams Come True Parade as it crosses in front of Cinderella Castle.

Magic Kingdom - Disney Dreams Come True Parade - 02 Magic Kingdom - Disney Dreams Come True Parade - 03

Looking down Main Street as the Disney Dreams Come True Parade moves to the front of the park.

Magic Kingdom - Main Street USA train station

How can this be?  Nobody is posing in front of the Main Street Train Station even as the train arrives in the station.  This is insane!

Magic Kingdom - Tomorrowland construction

There is construction in Tomorrowland as work continues on the new stage.  Sadly, there will be more construction as Space Mountain goes down for an extensive refurbishment starting next month in April.

Magic Kingdom - Tomorrowland

A quiet and peaceful day in this part of Tomorrowland.

Magic Kingdom - Celebrate Today! - 01

The new Celebrate Today banner in the Magic Kingdom.  Unlike in the other parks, the Magic Kingdom just has a generic theme to it without a special balloon for the park.

Magic Kingdom - Celebrate Today! - 02

It may not have a separate balloon symbol, but the Magic Kingdom does have a special birthday party confetti banner not seen in the other parks.  I'm sure that will thrill the park guests and just fill them with magical glee.  Or maybe not.

Spring in the Magic Kingdom.

Springtime in the Magic Kingdom.  Could you have asked for a better day in the theme park?

Magic Kingdom - Splash Mountain

Racing down the main drop on Splash Mountain later in the day.  Like before, the wait was extremely short.

Magic Kingdom - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Good times for all on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  The stand-by wait was a whopping five minutes long.

Magic Kingdom - Space Mountain

A scene like this makes me wonder what it would be like if our Florida Space Mountain was like the "From the Earth to the Moon" version of Space Mountain in Disneyland Paris.

Magic Kingdom - Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin

The evil Emperor Zurg on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.  Both of my guns were locked in a test pattern and would not fire, so I took the opportunity to take pictures instead.


 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 - Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida

After seeing the lack of heavy crowds in the Disney parks, we weren't expecting any major lines in either of the Universal theme parks.

We arrived at the parking plaza about a half hour before the parks opened, and it was practically deserted.  There were workers waiting in the toll booths as a couple of cars approached to pay for parking.  The special handicap parking lot was a little bit busy considering the lack of cars arriving at the parking structure, but that wasn't a problem.  We made it to Universal's Islands of Adventure and were inside of that park in no time.

Taking advantage of the lack of crowds, my brother and I went on the Pteranodon Flyers twice with no wait, and then went through the Dueling Dragons castle and rode the Ice and Fire dragon coasters also with no wait.  The no-wait trend continued as we went to Seuss Landing and went on The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride and The Cat in the Hat, both with no waiting in line.  Awesome.

Islands of Adventure - One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

There was also no line for One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.  In the distance you can see the construction of the new Hollywood Rip, Ride, RockIt coaster over at Universal Studios Florida.

Islands of Adventure - Incredible Hulk Coaster

At one point early in the day the Incredible Hulk Coaster had a twenty-five minute wait.  Marvel Super Hero Island was the busiest area of the park though the crowds soon spread back to the rest of the rides.  That long wait for the Hulk coaster didn't last for too long.

Islands of Adventure - Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges

Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls also had no wait, and that was during the middle of the day.  It's funny watching people try to duck to avoid the water despite the fact that they intentionally got on one of the wettest and best raft rides in the world, a ride that virtually guarantees that you will be soaked.

After enjoying Toon Lagoon and taking a trip along the Jurassic Park River Adventure (also with no wait), we headed out of the park and went next door to Universal Studios Florida.

Universal Studios Florida - Hollywood Rip, Ride, RockIt construction

The new Hollywood Rip, Ride, RockIt roller coaster looks great from outside the park.  I cannot wait until this one opens!

Universal Studios Florida - Mardi Gras celebration

Universal was still celebrating Mardi Gras, and the decorations were still up along the streets in the Production Central, Hollywood and New York sections of the park.

Universal Studios Florida - construction

The new stage area between Jimmy Neutron and Twister looks outstanding, and this will be a perfect spot to watch the trains as they race by on the new roller coaster.

Universal Studios Florida - Mardi Gras decorations - 01 Universal Studios Florida - Mardi Gras decorations - 02

Some of the Mardi Gras theming in the New York section of the park.  This area stayed quiet while we were in the park that day.

My brother and I went through the Revenge of the Mummy single-rider line and were on the ride within a few moments.  The main stand-by line had about a twenty of so minute wait to it.  It wasn't anything extreme, but it tends to move very slowly depending on the number of people using the Universal Express system.

Universal Studios Florida - Jaws shark display

We actually didn't notice this until our second pass through the park, but the shark on display in front of Jaws was missing.

Universal Studios Florida - Jaws line queue Universal Studios Florida - Jaws ride - 01 Universal Studios Florida - Jaws ride - 02

Jaws had about a ten-minute wait.  The actual line wasn't that long, but it seemed like they were loading and dispatching the boats slowly.  The ride itself was fun as always.

Universal Studios Florida - Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster

Along with the neighboring E.T. Adventure, Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster also had no wait.  What was mysterious were the people still using the Universal Express line-skipping system even when you could see that there wasn't a single person in the entire stand-by line queue.  Why use that system when it's clearly not needed?  The world may never know.

Universal Studios Florida - Fievel's Playland

There are only three children in sight in Fievel's Playland.  This area is normally packed during the busier seasons.

Universal Studios Florida - 8th Avenue

Standing by Mel's Diner, we can see that 8th Avenue is nearly completely empty of people.  This area is a good shortcut for going across the park and usually isn't that crowded during busier days, allowing for a brief escape from the crowds.

Universal Studios Florida - Hollywood

And of course, the Hollywood section is also relatively empty.

Universal Studios Florida - Men in Black: Alien Attack

A few minutes after park closing showed that absolutely nobody was back by the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride.  The park was very quiet back there.

Universal Studios Florida - Woody Woodpecker's KidZone

The same is true for Woody Woodpecker's KidZone.  This was taken just a few minutes after the park officially closed, and you can see that this area of the park was deserted. The busy times would still have people collecting their children and strolling around in this area.

Universal Studios globe

It's cruel to close the park at 6 pm while the sun is still high in the sky, but that's the off-season for you.  The shortened hours really aren't that bad considering the significantly shorter wait times for the rides.  You can actually accomplish more in a shorter amount of time with a lot fewer people in the park.

Universal CityWalk

And new to Universal CityWalk is an upstairs food court complete with a brand new Whopper Bar for Burger King.  We went upstairs and took a look at everything, and while the seating area was a little bit small, the fast food stands looked as good as they normally do outside of Universal.  The sad thing was that this day was actually the grand opening of the Whopper Bar, but you wouldn't have known it upstairs in the food court.  There weren't any grand opening signs or anything.  There was only a group of people (upper level workers) in casual business clothing off to one side and having a meeting.  There weren't any special promotions, sales, or anything!  We didn't learn of the grand opening of the Whopper Bar until watching the local news later that night on TV.


 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 - Disney's Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom

Today was another day of park hopping at the Disney theme parks, starting at Disney's Animal Kingdom and then finishing at the Magic Kingdom.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Expedition Everest - 01 Disney's Animal Kingdom - Expedition Everest - 02 Disney's Animal Kingdom - Expedition Everest - 03

The views from on top of Expedition Everest were excellent.  It was a clear day with good visibility considering the usual summertime haze that plagues Central Florida.  In the last picture you can clearly see Spaceship Earth on the left, the Swan and Dolphin hotels near the middle, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror on the right.  Between Everest and the Swan & Dolphin lies Disney's Coronado Springs Resort.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Primeval Whirl - 01

Going up the lift hill on the left side of Primeval Whirl.  The line queue was only about a fifteen minute wait this time, though this trip would end up being very fateful for me.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - DinoLand USA

Looking down at DinoLand USA and TriceraTop Spin from the top of Primeval Whirl.  This part of the park looks completely empty from up here.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Primeval Whirl - 02

And yes, this is the last picture I took before I lost my hat on Primeval Whirl!

I'm a hat guy and can usually wear my hat on fast rides such as this one, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and even Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  As long as I don't have a headrest behind me then I'm fine.  By turning the hat around backwards it allows for smoother airflow over the top and it should remain in place as long as it has a decent grip on the person's head.  But none of that matters when the car suddenly pitches forward into a steep dive, the headrest hits the bill of the hat and lifts the lid and a huge rush of air fills the hat and yanks it right off of your head.

It was a cheap hat and I can easily get another one, so that part isn't a big deal.  It fell in an inaccessible part of the ride and wouldn't have been turned in to lost and found until the end of the day.  Since we were leaving to go home the next day, it wasn't worth it to go back to Animal Kingdom with the hope of chasing down a cheap $5 hat.  The point is that somebody as experienced as me on these rides shouldn't have ever had something like this occur.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - howler monkeys

The howler monkeys were out hanging around at the front of the Asia section of the park.  They were very quiet here and didn't do any of their loud howling until we were across the park.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Kilimanjaro Safaris - 01

The Savannah area was empty of wildlife near the middle of the day on Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Kilimanjaro Safaris - 02

But the elephants were out and lined up while eating a snack and taking a drink of water.

After lunch the park was noticeably busier.  Discovery Island felt like it had a huge mob of people, and it was quite crowded and uncomfortable.  The reasoning behind the surge in people was that this day was an extended Magic Hours day in the park.  The resort guests could stay in the park a little bit longer and keep going on the rides.

Again, I don't quite understand the reasoning behind this traffic pattern at this time of the year.  One of the biggest reasons for visiting the parks in the off-season is to get away from the major crowds in the Summer and during the Christmas and New Year holidays.  So why would you want to get crowded with other resort guests in the off-season of all times when you could have just gone to the park a day sooner or later and experienced much shorter lines?  The surge in traffic alone is one of the main reasons why I avoid the parks doing the extra Magic Hours, even when I'm a resort guest and staying on Disney property.

After leaving Disney's Animal Kingdom we drove over to the Magic Kingdom parking lot at the TTC.  We hopped on the Express monorail (the first monorail ride of the trip, another strange occurrence for it to happen this late in the trip) and headed around to the Magic Kingdom.

Disney's Contemporary Resort - Bay Lake Tower construction - 01 Disney's Contemporary Resort - Bay Lake Tower construction - 02

The new Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort is looking more impressive than ever.  It looks like the major construction on the outside is complete except for the landscaping and new parking lot.

express monorail

Again, it wasn't that busy heading into the park.  We had an entire cab on the Express monorail to ourselves.  Here you can see the new Mickey-shaped balloons on the windows of the monorail.

Magic Kingdom

A distinct lack of people in the front entrance area of the Magic Kingdom.  Like the last visit, the wait times throughout the park were very low for most of the attractions.

Magic Kingdom - Main Street USA

There's no love for Goofy over here on the park bench.  The cast members standing patiently behind him seem to be bored and looking for something to do.  It's nearly impossible to get this picture with nobody in it at any other time of the year.

Magic Kingdom - Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse statue

The famous Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse "Partners" statue in the hub in front of Cinderella Castle.  I love it when people see you standing there with a camera and waiting for them to move out of the way, but they instead keep standing in the way and move into an even worse spot (not even posing for a picture or anything) until you make gestures for them to get out of the way.

Like the other days in the other parks, the theme of the day was the general lack of crowds and easiness of getting on most of the attractions with a very little wait.  At the end of the day we took the monorail around to the Grand Floridian Resort for a special reason.
And what was that reason?

Why, it was to have an excellent spot to view the upcoming night launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.  When we were in Florida, one of the shuttle launches was scheduled for 9:45 pm or so on Wednesday the 11th.  We've seen a daytime launch of a space shuttle from Epcot before (you can see a small black dot cruising up to space with an orange flame and a massive cloud of white smoke behind it; much more intense than an airliner making a contrail), and we've heard several shuttle landings from inside the parks.  As the shuttle races overhead you can easily heard a loud double bang sound as it cruises at supersonic speeds to the Kennedy Space Center.

The night launch was going to be a new experience for us and we wanted to be in an open area to try to see it.  So what better open spot was there than being on the docks at the Grand Floridian looking eastward across Seven Seas Lagoon to the Contemporary?  If the exhaust was bright enough, that could have been a really cool motion blur picture with the Contemporary Resort and night sky in the background.  The skies were clear and there was a full moon.

Disney's Polynesian Resort - night

Alas, the shuttle launch was canceled because of a hydrogen leak, and the shuttle wasn't launched until the following Sunday.  We didn't find out about it until we were already in the Grand Floridian and just wasting time until the scheduled launch.  After hearing about the cancellation, we headed back to the TTC on a long walking tour past the Wedding Pavilion, throughout the Polynesian Resort and Great Ceremonial House, and to the TTC and its massive parking lot.


 

Thursday, March 12, 2009 - Epcot and the drive home

Our last day on the trip was planned to be another day at Epcot.  We would be there in the morning this time and take an hour or so later in the afternoon to do a lap around the lagoon and Epcot resorts.  Time was rather short considering that we still had a fun-filled seven-hour drive ahead of us, so we did not see any of the major shows like American Adventure, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, or even the France movie.  The Universe of Energy was down for a refurbishment.  We entered the park just after nine in the morning, headed past Spaceship Earth, and went straight to The Land.

Epcot - The Land - 01 Epcot - The Land - 02

At park opening, the main traffic patterns have most of the guests heading to either Test Track or Soarin' first thing upon arrival.  That's still true in the off-season, but as you can see, it wasn't exactly a huge mob of people like during New Year's Eve.  You could actually walk to Soarin' at a comfortable pace, grab a FastPass, ride it in the stand-by line, and then easily head across the park to Test Track and do that stand-by line with only a short wait.  Our pattern was a little bit different because of our shortened schedule and it's not that easy moving around some of the buildings and dealing with elevators with an electric scooter.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 01

The coconuts were plentiful in the first greenhouse on the Living with the Land boat ride.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 02

The plants on top were harvested a day or so ago, so there's plenty of room for new growth.  That strange symbol in the lower plants looks vaguely familiar.

Epcot - Living with the Land - 03

But what's this?  Are the cast members dismantling the NASA display?  Are they going to move the Brussels sprouts over here to grow in their "natural" (or rather simulated) Martian soil for use on future space missions?

Epcot - The Seas with Nemo and Friends

The park was so empty . . .  How empty was it?  It was so empty that you could easily get a picture of this display with the fish from Finding Nemo without people and other children constantly getting in the way.  This picture was taken over an hour after the park opened.

Epcot - Innoventions Plaza

Epcot was just nice and peaceful.  It was a breeze walking through Innoventions Plaza and crossing Future World.

Epcot - Test Track

So what do you do when the lines for the major rides are short?  Why Test Track, of course!  It was a beautiful day for a 65 mile-per-hour pass by the front of the building.

monorail coral - Celebrate Today!

Here you can see the new Celebrate Today! balloon decorations on the outside of monorail coral as it passes through Epcot.  Luckily, those balloons are on all of the monorails and many of the WDW buses.

At this point in the day we had already been on Soarin', Living with the Land, Seas with Nemo and Friends, Journey into Your Imagination with Figment, Mission: SPACE, and Test Track, so we made our way out to World Showcase for a nice tour through the countries.  Naturally, we went on the Mexico and Norway boat rides while we were there.

Epcot - China - Year of the Ox

A small tribute to the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Ox in the China pavilion in World Showcase.  I don't remember seeing such displays for previous Chinese New Year animals, but if you're not looking for details like this, then it's rather easy to walk right past without even noticing it.

Epcot - World Showcase lagoon

These clouds were the worst bit of weather that we say during our entire stay in Orlando, FL.  They managed to mess up a few of my World Showcase pictures, but the clouds didn't stick around for that long.

Epcot - Japan

The main pagoda in Japan was being refurbished.  I don't know if this is just a routine refurbishment or if they were making some additions for the upcoming International Flower & Garden Festival.

Epcot - Morocco

Those are actually real tangerines on the trees in Morocco.  This was verified when a tangerine on the ground by a tree was accidentally stepped on by my brother, and it broke apart.  Not too long ago they used to have real pineapple plants growing in the back part of the Morocco pavilion.

Epcot - spider flower display

The famous spider flower display and the Dolphin hotel.  This was when we took a trip out through the International Gateway and visited a few of the Epcot resorts.

Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts - 01 Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts - 02

A nearly perfect day at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.

The Stormalong Bay mini-water park for the Yacht & Beach Club Resorts had a lot of people swimming and enjoying the water.  I wasn't expecting to see that many people in the pool since it was the off-season and the park hours were a bit shorter, but it was hot outside and the people were enjoying themselves.

Disney's Boardwalk - 01 Disney's Boardwalk - 02

But Disney's Boardwalk was empty.  The places that needed to see people spending their money the most saw the least amount of attention during the day.

Disney's Beach Club Resort

The path leading back to Disney's Beach Club and Epcot's International Gateway was deserted.  This was great for the couple of walkers and joggers going around the lake and getting some extra exercise.

Epcot - Spaceship Earth

It's still such a nice relief to be able to see this side of Spaceship Earth without the Mickey wand in the way.  With as much change that has occurred inside of the park, this is one of the few views where you can look at it and almost see how Epcot looked back in the early 1980's.  I miss those times very much, like many other people out there still do.  And of course, the I also miss the classic rides such as Horizons, World of Motion, the old CommuniCore, and the original Journey into Imagination ride and Image Works play area upstairs in the glass pyramids. That's not to say that many of the new rides and shows are just as entertaining as the original ones.  It's just that the original ones were outstanding, didn't need any height or special medical restrictions, could be enjoyed by everybody, and gave EPCOT Center a true sense of class.

We were planning on taking a last ride on Spaceship Earth until we realized how late in the day it was and we really needed to hit the road.  The main line queue was walk right on, but those of us traveling with a wheelchair or electric scooter have to go through a different line queue at the end of the ride.  Depending on the people waiting in that line and the competence of the cast members (we've had several issues with them there for some reason), it may take a half-hour or longer to go through Spaceship Earth.  We did go on it earlier in the trip and it's a ride that we usually go on each time we visit the park, so it wasn't a major loss to skip it on the way out.  We'll definitely go on it again on future trips.

Epcot - parking lot tram

An empty parking lot tram heading back to the front of Epcot.  The park was a little bit busy by some areas and Soarin' and Test Track had decent lines, but there weren't a whole lot of guests flowing in and out of the park in the mid-afternoon.

Epcot symbol

The parking lot symbol for Epcot.  Again, we don't know if these logos are new or if we've just never noticed them before.  We left the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios parks at night and didn't notice if they had similar logos in the parking lots.

And that was it for our trip to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

At 4:30 in the afternoon we headed out through Western Way by Disney's Coronado Springs, and took that to the 429 toll road which connected to the Florida Turnpike.  The cops were out in force along Interstate 75 in several spots, and we didn't arrive back here in the northern part of metro Atlanta, GA until just after midnight.

Conclusion

If you haven't already guessed it, there were two main positive statements about this recent off-season trip to Orlando, Florida.

1) The lack of heavy crowds.

2) The absolutely outstanding weather.

I know that the nearly perfect weather was just a stroke of luck on our part.  Spring in Central Florida is usually fairly warm with cool evenings, and what we experienced were hot days and warm nights.  The daylight savings time change also had an effect on the warmer evenings by making us feel the 6 pm weather when it was 7 pm.

I have several rather unpleasant memories of having bitter cold nights while on Spring break trips to WDW.  The days would be pretty nice but at night the wind would blow and people would be huddle in shops and inside of buildings trying to stay warm.  Sweatshirt, blanket, and jacket sales would also spike during those cold outbreaks.  We've also encountered freezing cold weather one year and very warm weather the next.  It's nearly impossible to plan an early Spring trip and planning on it being nice and hot in Florida (unless you're from Alaska or Montana where 60ºF seems like a hot day).  The best thing to do is to watch the weather forecasts just before a Spring trip and bring along the appropriate clothes.

In this case it was a suitcase full of shorts and shirts and a light jacket and pair of jeans just in case there was a cold spot.

The heavy crowds, on the other hand, could be avoided with proper planning.

If you really want to experience the theme parks without the heavy crowds and with most of the rides and shows operating, I cannot say enough about going during the off-season such as early Spring or during most times in the Fall.  Early March and the first half of November are some of the slowest times in Central Florida.  Room rates are significantly cheaper, the lines are much shorter, and in a way you don't feel as tired and worn out because of the earlier park closing times.  The shorter lines still allow you to see and experience everything, and without huge mobs of people taking all of the FastPasses you can maximize your visits to the parks even more.

When traveling to Disney with children, it's worth it to try an off-season vacation at least once.  It's much easier going on all of the rides, and the lack of the intense Summer heat and humidity makes it a more pleasurable experience.  This isn't a luxury for all of the Florida travelers, but if you can do it, you should try this type of a trip at least once.

Traveling with an electric wheelchair was significantly easier in the off-season.

As far as my next trip to Orlando, depending on how things go it will probably be around the opening of the new Hollywood Rip, Ride, RockIt roller coaster in Universal Studios Florida.  I can see doing a long weekend trip for that ride.

Thanks for making it through this trip report!