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Christ-mouse Day
by Asa Butcher
2006-10-02 10:47:19
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Today is the 35th anniversary of the opening of Magic Kingdom, the main part of the world's most famous theme park Walt Disney World. The Magic Kingdom attracted 16.2 million visitors in 2005, making the theme park the most visited in the world. I have been three times myself, the first two times were with my family in 1995 and 1997, and the third was on my honeymoon in 2002. I wrote a travel piece following my second trip and I thought it appropriate to dust it off in honour of the park's 35th birthday.

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An ear-splitting sound is coming from the alarm clock and my brain is telling me to ignore it but the vicious shake from Mum has forced me out of bed. To my total horror the clock face reads 5.30am and a mad panic has filled the room. Dad rushes through from the other room and shouts at me: “Get ready right now or get left behind, oh and Merry Christmas.”

ovi_3_400After years of spending the festive season at home with relatives, Santa Claus and The Great Escape, we have decided to travel 3,000 miles and experience Christmas in Florida. The Americans certainly know how to commercially celebrate the birth of Jesus with thousands of lights entwined around the numerous palm trees, 30-foot Christmas trees solidly decorated from top to bottom and free coupon books offering discounts on everything festive.

The whole experience is not proving fun this early in the morning and the festive cheer has still not made an appearance among my family but we have a 30-minute drive along I-4 to reach our destination. Deciding how to spend December 25th in Florida is a very simple choice and people across the world all know exactly where to go: Disney’s Magic Kingdom - the only mantrap made by a mouse.

In 1964, Disney Productions anonymously purchased a huge chunk of central Florida, about the size of San Francisco, and began transforming it into the world’s most magnetic tourist attraction, Walt Disney World. After opening on October 1st 1971, it was visited by more twice as many foreigners who had holidayed in the United States that year.

The statistics all become believable as you drive on to the 12,000-space car park and realise what Hyde Park would look like if somebody concreted over it. Signs are posted everywhere urging you to take note of the section (each has a Disney character) you have parked in or you will probably be searching until next Christmas for your car. After leaving the car in Donald Duck 4 we join the hoards of walking dead and their children, who seem to have been fed Prozac for breakfast, heading towards the entrance.

Our spirits are lifted when we arrive and discover the relatively short queues and a four-piece brass band playing traditional Christmas carols to the rapidly forming lines of people at 6.45 in the morning. Unfortunately, the majority of the people are choosing to ignore them, probably waiting for their Christmas spirit to arrive with the first cup of coffee.

A pathetic cheer is heard when the gates punctually open and we slowly begin to shuffle in. The amount of people has swelled in a very short period and they are now all trying to fight their way on to either the monorail or ferryboat that takes you to Disney's jewel, the Magic Kingdom. After some underhand tactics, we managed to board the noiseless, elevated, air-conditioned and computerised monorail but soon began to envy the room a battery hen gets.

Travelling takes about five minutes and a polite and informative voice keeps everyone interested throughout the journey. The voice suggests arranging a meeting point for those who decide to get lost among the six-foot cartoon characters and huge crowds.

Eventually, the monorail pulls up at the Magic Kingdom station and the eagerness to get off matches that of getting on. The magic of Disney and Christmas cheer are still nowhere to be seen as people from around the world battle their way past the huge Mickey Mouse face grown in flowers towards the gates to paradise. At 7.11 am, we entered and proceeded to plan our next course of action, breakfast and coffee.

Acting on information from an informed friend, we made our way to the centrepiece of the park - Cinderella's Castle. The fairytale architecture is a mixture of the European castles Fontainbleu and Versailles, but, more importantly, inside is King Stefan's Banquet Hall where they allegedly do breakfast, so feeling lucky we casually ask for a table and were told that the last table has gone to us. So, there I was, drinking coffee on Christmas Day in Cinderella's Castle talking to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, then suddenly the magic of Disney and festive spirit filtered into my soul!

Instilled with a new sense of fun, my brother Tony and I set off to conquer the six themed lands and 100,000 people who had filled the park. Quickly scanning our guidebook, we agreed upon Tomorrowland.

Our first decision of the day seemed to have been made by quite a few other people as well, undeterred we joined the queue for ExtraTERRORestial Alien Encounter, the newest ride at the park. Many people say that waiting in line is all part of the experience but I do not understand how moving forward one-step at a time, getting annoyed when somebody does not fill a small gap, following a route that twists and turns all the way and dealing with stupid queue jumpers, is fun.

Following 50-minutes of this hell, we are strapped into a seat looking at a huge glass container that holds a very dangerous alien. Obviously, it escapes and the lights then go out but what ensues is an evil combination of warm breath on your neck, slime on your face and bone crunching sounds. The earlier caffeine and my imagination ignite a harmless ride into a nightmare. Once outside everybody claims that they were not scared but it was definitely more fun than charades with Grandma.

We battled our way to one of the well-known rides, Space Mountain, which obviously has a coiled line the length of three football pitches. While waiting you automatically read the signs warning expectant mothers, people with back or neck trouble, heart conditions and fears of the dark or enclosed spaces not to go on this ride and you begin to wish more people suffered; then perhaps the lines would be shorter.

Learning to wait in line is essential but Disney usually provide its customers with a special themed video to watch that accompanies the ride and this does help the time fly by until you realise it has begun its third cycle. When the decisive moment arrives, that is getting to the front, the feeling is indescribable but it soon vanishes when you know waiting an hour for a three-minute rollercoaster in the dark was plain dumb.

The unfolding of the map and deciding 'where next' becomes second nature, so another quick discussion, an anti-clockwise route around the park which takes us into Fantasyland, mainly for those under-seven.

Although this land is full of attractions, the only choice is the infamous It's A Small World ride, the guide book describes it as a musical tour with children of the world but once it begins you realise there is a much more sinister element at work, the music! It begins innocently and then repeats innocently, then repeatedly for almost three-minutes the song plays in every language, non-stop.

I overheard the couple talking behind us and they were saying that someone had got half way through the ride and then just went mad, creating complete chaos forcing Disney to shut the ride. After my own experience, we decided to say 'goodbye' to Fantasyland carrying only that tune in our heads for the rest of the day.

When we finally slowed our pace, we had found ourselves in Liberty Square, a small area dedicated to America and its glorious history, especially against the British. Feeling that there was very little of interest, we only looked at the main attraction, the Hall of Presidents. We sat in a huge theatre with a 120-degree screen which began to show a 15-minute movie of the awe-inspiring, spirit lifting censored history of the United States.

The show finale was impressive when every former President appeared, courtesy of Audio-Animatronics; they talked, moved and even yawned creating the illusion of life.

Feeling Americanised, I wanted to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy while eating a large portion of Mom's apple pie, instead we left Liberty Square and manoeuvred through the huge crowds of bodies towards the next ride into Frontierland where we were going to get wet, very wet.

Splash Mountain, next on our list, had a sign that read: Two hours from this point. We were at that point and had to deal with the increasing problem of creating interesting conversation, along with the fact that the heavens had decided to open. Suddenly a sea of bright yellow Mickey Mouse ponchos appeared and I found this quite strange considering that they were all waiting to get on to a ride that soaks you to the skin. After the two-hour shuffle, we finally climbed into our boat, sat back and made our way to the 50-foot drop. The route is lined with large moving colourful displays of Brer Rabbit and culminates in a steep climb to the 'laughing place' then whoosh, scream, splash, tick - another ride done.

As we squelched our way towards the last major ride, our plan was to dry out riding upon the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disney's fast-moving runaway train. Trying to find activities to do while waiting was getting difficult, I-Spy was suggested but quickly dismissed. The carriages seemed to be racing around the track and the experience looked very appealing, but once the train began moving it felt like the hand brake was on and the girls sat behind us screamed anyway.

Retreating to from Frontierland with only a mild case of tinnitus, we moved into the last area, Adventure1and. Checking my watch I realised we only had time for a short ride or show, so we picked the Enchanted Tiki Birds "Tropical Serenade." A lack of queue should have been a warning sign but we carelessly entered and sat in one of the many available seats. The lights went down, Hawaiian music faded up and an attraction worse than a Punch and Judy show started before our eyes, some people actually walked out but I just sat stunned listening to Hula while my brother stared at the lame mechanical birds opening and shutting their beaks.

It was now early evening and it was time to make the first family decision of the day, where do we eat Christmas dinner? Cinderella's Castle was out and all the decent restaurants were full to capacity, the only viable option left was a fast food establishment, so we settled in Pinocchio's Village Haus. In place of roast turkey, Christmas pudding and beer we had a double bacon cheeseburger, large fries and a large coke – well, it was Christmas.

Walt Disney World comes alive at night with thousands of lights, decorations, traditional carols and a 40-foot artificial tree. Due to queuing, we had missed the earlier parade but now the most astounding procession began, Spectromagic. Every single Disney character and float is covered in fairy lights probably giving Disney one hell of a headache if a bulb blows.

Once Mickey Mouse had disappeared into the distance, leaving only smiles behind him everybody turned their attention to the last event of the day, Sorcerer in the Sky firework display. For over 15 minutes, the sky is awash with smoke and colour, music from Walt Disney productions is pumped out of the speakers and more gunpowder than Guy Fawkes could dream about.

When the final firework exploded into another shower of gold and silver, the festive crowd gave its last 'ooh’ and ‘ahh' then began to shuffle back to the entrance. The enthusiasm to board the monorails and ferryboat had not diminished since the morning but people were a little more educated. Eventually the monorail arrived back at the station and we began to make our way to the car park, it was then Dad turned to me and said: “Where did we leave the car?”

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NOTE: Since 1998, the ExtraTERRORestial Alien Encounter has been replaced, a couple of new presidents have been added to the Hall of Presidents, the Enchanted Tiki Birds "Tropical Serenade" has been completely overhauled, the fireworks are now launched with compressed air instead of gunpowder and I still want to go for a fourth visit.

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