Annual Passes make you do strange things. Or at least they make us do strange things. Melissa and I travel often but do it with a budget in mind. A few months before our trip we knew that we’d only be able to go to either Disneyland or Walt Disney World for a long weekend to enjoy the Christmas decorations this year. Living in the northwest, Disneyland made the most sense. But the days on that Disney World annual pass were waning and we knew we wouldn’t be back to WDW in 2020. Once we factored in that our friends would be in Florida and were going to California Grill, one of our favorite places, the decision was easy enough. Flying 6 hours each way for a long weekend!
We took a red eye flight from Seattle on Wednesday, arriving at Disney World early Thursday morning. I’m terrible at sleeping on planes so the constant decisions (made by me) to book red eyes is curious. Sure enough, I didn’t sleep at all but Melissa got a few hours. The Magical Express was quick to leave the airport and before long we were checked-in to Coronado Springs. Thanks to online check-in (make sure to put in your estimated arrival time) our room was ready by the time we got there around 7 AM. We grabbed some breakfast, Melissa got set up to work remotely and I napped for a few hours. Do you want to read about the parks or just the boring details of our travel logistics? What a great lead to this trip report.
Around lunch time we were up and around, heading to Hollywood Studios. Less than four hours of sleep for each of us wasn’t a big deal at this point. We were both hungry so we went straight back to Galaxy’s Edge and ate lunch at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo. Maybe we were just really hungry but we both liked our meal far more than the Disneyland counterpart. I think it had more to do with what we ordered than anything as both the chicken and pot roast were very good.
Our plans for the trip centered around seeing Christmas decorations at all of the parks. I wanted to complete our guide and needed a few more pictures throughout the parks. Galaxy’s Edge did not have any decorations, a smart move. We moved on to Toy Story Land, thanks to a Toy Story Midway Mania FastPass, shortly after lunch. I love the giant Hamm Christmas cookie above. Toy Story Land has some decent decor and cute touches.
We moved along to our other FastPasses in the early afternoon, riding Muppet Vision and Star Tours. Muppet Vision is in that weird zone right now where you never know if this will be your last time seeing the film. It certainly needs a refresh but I’d hate to see it go completely. The preshow is still one of the best in any Disney Park and parts of the movie are great.
After Star Tours, we walked around Echo Lake for a while. The vibe is better at night but this is one of the best Disney World areas at Christmas time. Santa Gertie (that dino above) leads the way and the tree on the lake is beautiful. It all fits into the California Crazy style of architecture in the area really well, bordering on tacky but ending up just shy of that.
We had good luck grabbing day-of FastPasses throughout that afternoon, starting with Tower of Terror. That’s likely due to the change in tier system at Hollywood Studios. I’m not a huge fan of the change overall but using the app on the day you’re there will be rewarding.
We moved on to Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy after I nearly dropped to my death on a broken/haunted elevator shaft. It was our first time seeing the show and we both liked it fairly well. I wouldn’t call it a must-do, unless you have kids, but the show flows well and there’s not much of a line. The Lightning McQueen animatronic looks fantastic and is worth going to see the show on its own. There were also some enthusiastic cast members, making me both enjoy the show more and feel sorry for them that they’ve seen the same thing thousands upon thousands of times.
Melissa did some shopping on Hollywood Boulevard while I took some pictures in the area. Well, I tried to take some photos but just ended up haunted by those things pictured above. How does a guy come back from that? They just plop those in a window down the main Hollywood Studios street and think that’s okay? Alright, let’s get back on track with some Christmas decorations that I actually like.
Another FastPass came through this time in the way of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Truly an absurd ride as it gets older and older. Usually, if we go on it, we ride via single-rider line so it was nice to have someone I knew by me instead of a stranger hearing my whimpering. Then again, strangers don’t usually make fun of me being scared for my life.
The rest of the night was a bit of a blur as the less than four hours of sleep were setting in. I have pictures to go by though and my creativity gets a little strange at this point. Here’s an example of setting my camera on a bench and taking a long exposure shot of some bushes with lights in them. Do I like the results? Yeah, kind of. Am I wondering why I did this? Absolutely.
At that point it was time for dinner so we walked over to the Brown Derby Lounge, sharing a Cobb Salad and Sliders. The lounge is one of the best in Disney World and an easy place to pop into without a reservation. The prices are pretty equal to a counter-service restaurant (unless you order one of the Brown Derby entrees) and the food quality is much higher. If you don’t mind eating late, grab a seat here and watch one of the nighttime shows at the Chinese Theater.
After dinner, we strode over to Sunset Boulevard and watched the vignettes that play on Tower of Terror. Naturally, I’m partial to the Muppets one but they’re all pretty fun and look good. I could do without the fake snow but that’s a weird personal preference. Don’t judge me.
Our last FastPass of the night was for Alien Swirling Saucers. For those keeping track at home (why?) that amounts to 6 rides we did via FastPass at Hollywood Studios over the course of 7 hours. Obviously, that’s easier with 2 people instead of a whole family, but suffice to say there will be day-of FastPasses available. We ended up doing all of the rides or short movies at Hollywood Studios outside of Slinky Dog Dash and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run (this was before Rise of the Resistance opened). We could have fit those in with single-rider at the Falcon and getting in line at Slinky right before closing. It’s a strange alternate touring plan, and would miss Rise of the Resistance currently, but might be a way to go if you want to miss the chaos of a Hollywood Studios morning.
After Alien Swirling Saucers (it always takes a lot for me to resist putting the ride’s acronym down), we went back to Galaxy’s Edge and walked around. There are very few differences in this land and Disneyland’s version but it’s fun to try to find them.* We spent some time in Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, which is one of the best spots in the entire land. Here’s a few photos from that evening in Galaxy’s Edge.
*If you are a strange theme park nut who enjoys really detailed looks at things that others would consider boring.
Hollywood Studios was nearing closing time and we had no interest in watching Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! so we slowly made our way out of the park with a few stops for some rainy photos on the way.
We went back to Coronado Springs, enjoyed a warm up in the massive hot tub and then turned in for the night. The next morning saw us up and about, getting to Animal Kingdom near park opening. Our friends (and podcast co-hosts) met us there that morning and we started the day off with a ride on Everest, the first of the day’s FastPasses.
There was some time before our next FastPass at Festival of the Lion King so we walked through Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. The gorillas were very active that morning, with two of the smaller ones wrestling. Here’s a bunch of photos of gorillas with captions that you should probably just skip over.
This gorilla looks very lonely but his companions were sitting nearby. I think he was just annoyed.
“My friend is annoyed with me, I’m ashamed!”
Have you seen that fairly recent Planet of the Apes movie where the gorilla rides the horse? This gorilla should be riding a horse, trying to overtake us all.
None of them seemed particularly happy to see me.
Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail isn’t as strong of a trail as Maharajah Jungle Trek but when all of the gorillas are active it’s one of the more captivating parts of the park. The waterfalls and habitats are beautiful.
We traveled back into Harambe, looking at some of the subtle Christmas decor and watching some of the entertainment. One bonus of going to the parks more than your friends is that you know parts that will embarrass them. Mackenzie was wearing a birthday button and I’d seen this certain entertainer call people up and sing a Harambe-style birthday song to them. I stood there and hoped that would happen, hoping for my friend’s embarrassment more than, you know, her enjoyment. Sure enough it worked out!
Joking aside, Harambe feels so personal because of touches like this. Not only does the land feel like a lived in place but it feels like the villagers are inviting you in and celebrating with you.
Before long, it was time for our Festival of the Lion King FastPass. The cast was different than the last several times we’d seen the show but it was as wonderful as ever. Small changes in choreography and casting have kept the show fresh and Walt Disney World’s best through all of these years.
I’m not sure any park rewards frequent visitors quite like Animal Kingdom. While I’ve always loved it, I understand the divisiveness of the park. If you’re trying to see it all in one day and are an attraction-focused person then it could be slightly underwhelming, although it has improved in that regard over the years. But for guests who get to go often, or even a few times during a trip, then the park has more character and beauty than any other theme park in the U.S. To make a perfect theme park, there needs to be some balance between being inviting to first-time guests while rewarding repeat viewers so in that way Animal Kingdom can fall short. But for those of us who are lucky enough to see it often, the park shows off constantly.
This sign near those pink flowers cracked me up.
We walked over to Pandora for lunch at Satu’li Canteen but were first met by this guy.
I wouldn’t want him coming down my chimney! Animal Kingdom takes a different approach to Christmas decorations than the other three Disney World parks. Sticking with what makes the park unique, nearly all of the decor fits into a story. In this case, the humans who inhabit Pandora decorate parts of their camp to remind them of Christmas back home. I don’t often care about overwrought backstories but fitting seasonal decor into story is uniquely Animal Kingdom.
After our lunch, we headed back to Africa for a safari. I didn’t have specific memories attached to this ride through but looking at the pictures, we were able to get a good view of the cheetah, the youngest elephant and the sleeping lion.
Melissa and I headed back to the hotel for a short break, as she had some work to do and I went back to take a few photos before heading back to AK that night. That’s where we’ll pick up in part 2!
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