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Skipper Canteen: A Review

We interrupt this series on vacationing in Iceland (with children) to bring you this breaking news! Thanks to a surprise trip to Walt Disney World from the Wife, we at Blog of the Dad managed to eat lunch at the brand new Skipper Canteen restaurant during its “soft opening” and have been burning the midnight oil at both ends to bring this review to you.

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Located in the Adventureland area of the Magic Kingdom across from the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Skipper Canteen is a table service restaurant that continues the theme from the Jungle Cruise ride. The idea is that the fictional owner of the Jungle Cruise, Alberta Falls, also owns the Canteen — part of her attempt to diversify the “shipping cargo to and from exotic locales” business her late father built, I suppose. (Yes, I bother to read the backstory to Disney rides. They’re getting made into blockbuster movies these days, so why not?) IMG_2878

The decor really feels like it was put together with trinkets and supplies from the jungle trading company. The cast members were wearing uniforms identical to those over at the ride (indeed, our server said he had been piloting one of the boats that morning). Also, the cast members employ the same deadpan delivery of terrible puns that is the hallmark of the Jungle Cruise. You’ve been warned!

Below, you’ll find some pictures I took of the interior, in my unique “I hope the Stasi doesn’t catch me using this miniature camera” style.

A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn't have a chance to pry them open.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn’t have a chance to pry them open.
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant's "biggest fan."
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant’s “biggest fan.”

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A restaurant review isn't complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.
A restaurant review isn’t complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.

The cuisine is similarly based on the far-flung regions visited by the Jungle Cruise. While the meats are still cow, pig, and chicken (no “you’ve seen these exotic animals on the ride, now eat them in the restaurant” here, unless you consider lamb and shrimp exotic) but served in a vaguely African, Brazilian, or Eastern style.

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The Wife ordered the Punch Line Punch and we started with the arepas appetizer. The server also brought us some Ethiopian bread with a sort of spiced honey to dip it in. The Wife and I both thought the drink was yummy and refreshing, even though we both dislike mango (a key ingredient in it). The slow-cooked beef portion of the appetizer was fantastic, perhaps the best thing I ate there. While the beef was very flavorful, the rest of what made up the arepas was fairly bland by comparison. (The Wife points out — no doubt correctly — that the cornmeal cakes and tostones are meant to just be a delivery system for getting the meat and beans into your mouth. They are supposed to add texture, not flavor. Well, mission accomplished!) I liked the Ambasha bread, and the honey did wonders for the little cornmeal cakes that came in the appetizer, too.

The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
House-Made Arepas. "Because making them on the boat was too hard."
House-Made Arepas. “Because making them on the boat was too hard.”
Bread and honey
Bread and honey

The Wife and I split the Char Siu Pork, which was delicious. I failed to take any pictures of it because I was too busy cramming all the yumminess into my face. The bright red pork was tender and full of flavor. The rice was just a tad too al dente.

Sadly, we did not get dessert.

All in all, the food was great. The Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd.’s Skipper Canteen offers flavors different from anywhere else in the park. In addition to that, the cast members’ awful puns add perhaps a little more entertainment value than you get in other restaurants in the Magic Kingdom — though a few bits were recycled from the Jungle Cruise script. I enjoyed the 1930s explorers theme (which made me yearn for an attraction or eating spot based on Tale Spin) and I have to admit that I find it kinda cool that they’ve expanded on the narrative behind the Jungle Cruise. According to our server, Trebor, we ate there on the last day they were accepting the Tables in Wonderland discount card. That’s too bad, because the Wife and I will likely make this a frequent lunch or dinner spot whenever we have time for a sit-down meal while in the park.

At least, we will until the jokes get stale.

The Jungle Navigation Co., Ltd. Skipper Canteen opens today (!) in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Five Hidden Gems at Walt Disney World

I’ve talked about traveling to Walt Disney World before and had promised further tips. Here are five neat things at the Magic Kingdom that are easy to overlook amidst the flashier attractions.

Sleepy Hollow Refreshments – Just over the bridge towards Liberty Square from the castle lies this quick service stand. It serves waffles (with fruit or nutella), funnel cakes, coffee, and ice cream floats — great late-night desserts. Until 5 o’clock, it also has two savory waffle sandwiches, which are unlike anything you’ll get elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom. I recommend the sweet and spicy chicken.

It has outdoor seating, some of which lies behind the stand under an overhang. You’ll have to keep an eye on the ducks and birds that lurk nearby waiting for your scraps, but the location is the other reason why this spot is a hidden gem. While it’s a terrible place to view the castle and the fireworks shows, this refreshment stand sits right alongside the parade route. Get there early to grab a good viewing spot and have a funnel cake while you wait.

(You can read someone else’s more in-depth review here. Holy cow, someone has a whole blog devoted to reviewing food at Disney parks! Why didn’t I give myself that job?)

PeopleMover – It doesn’t seem like much of a ride, does it? You take a slow-moving tour of the other attractions in the Tomorrowland section of the park. There aren’t any dips or twists or surprises or animatronics. However, I’ll take it over Stitch’s Great Escape any day.

The PeopleMover’s charm is that it’s relaxing. The ride is much longer than a roller coaster, plus it’s shaded the whole time. It’s high up, so you get a good view of that part of the park. If you have great timing, you can enjoy an awesome view of the castle during the fireworks show as you ride by. Best of all, the line is usually short. It’s a great way to take a break and get off your feet for a few minutes.

Dumbo’s queue – This is brilliant. Disney should do this with every ride they can. Let’s say your kid wants to ride Dumbo. There’s a 30 minute wait, and as hot as it is, the Storybook Circus area of the park always seems to feel hotter still. But once the line gets inside the big tent, it leads to a circus themed indoor playground. You are handed a pager and get to sit down in the air-conditioning while your child climbs around. After your pager goes off, you can resume standing in line. But that break where you are out of the heat and your kid can play? Priceless.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom – This gem only pretends to be hidden, but that’s part of the charm. When you first go into the park, you may spot a sign saying, “Sorcerers Wanted” and asking such fell magic wielders to report to the Main Street USA Firehouse. There, you are given a brief run-down of the “secret” Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game and a handful of cards, each depicting a Disney character and their game stats. A map you are given shows you where to find the spots where the game is played.

Finding those spots can be a fun little hunt in and of itself. They are disguised as mirrors, shop windows, or posters but once your magic key activates them, you are treated to a brief animated segment featuring a Disney villain and their lackeys, who you will “fight” by holding up a card and using the power of the associated character. Then you will be told which “portal” you will need to access next to play the next part of the game. It’s really neat, and great fun for those who enjoy geocaching, scavenger hunts, or collectable card games.

(Here’s a good place for more in-depth information — though figuring it out yourself is, I think, part of the fun.)

Cast Members not dressed as Disney characters – Not that Mickey, the princesses, and all the other recognizable characters don’t do a great job. I can’t imagine maintaining my poise in the Florida heat wearing one of those costumes, let alone while trying to be magical for an unending parade of children. However, as a park goer you’re not going to spend more than five minutes in the company of any one of those characters and the interaction is bound to be rushed.

On the other hand, any other Cast Member at the park is just as devoted to being wonderful and magical as Mickey himself, but doesn’t have a queue to wait in and can actually be helpful if you need assistance. When I started writing this entry, I only had in mind the performers who stroll around Main Street, and their ilk. The Wife and I have gotten our pictures with Main Street’s Mayor and had a lovely chat with him and his wife. They are “in-character” enough to be fun but aren’t so constrained that they can’t have a conversation. However, even the cast members who aren’t playing a role at all can be fun to talk to, especially if you are a people person like the Wife. Plus, they sometimes have FastPasses or stickers in their pockets.

Honorable mentions

Push, the talking trash can – This little guy was unfortunately retired just a year or two ago, but was the perfect example of those little, extra-special touches that makes Disney more than just another amusement park. This robot looked exactly like the trash cans that inhabit Tomorrowland. Every now and then, you’d see it scooting around but it would usually just lurk someplace, waiting until you tried to throw something away in it. Then — surprise! — it’s a moving, talking robot.

Tom Sawyer’s Island – Easy to miss because you have to get there by ferry, Tom Sawyer’s Island gives kids a place to do something they actually don’t have much opportunity for at Walt Disney World: run around and play. I’m only giving this an honorable mention because it’s been years since I’ve set foot there. However, as I recall, it has many nooks and crannies to explore. The big feature, though, is the fort — it’s got toy guns and cannons you can’t help but train on the Liberty Square Riverboat! Between that, the mill, the caves, the whole place is an enormous stage for play-acting outdoor adventures. If your kids need a place to stretch their legs (you know, after all that walking and standing in line) and just play for a while without leaving the park, this is the spot.

Triple Crown, Part Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Two

Thanks for returning, Dear Reader, after I spent all of the last post venting my spleen when I should have been reviewing the new, live-action Cinderella movie. So let’s get to that without delay.

My verdict: it’s quite good!

This adaptation takes the Disney animated version of the Cinderella story and plays it refreshingly straight. It doesn’t make the story darker or more adult. It doesn’t add any inventive twists that make us see it in a new light. It doesn’t try to make the characters “fresh” and “hip.” Instead, this film takes the story you already know and just does it well.

Except for the songs, everything from the classic animated film is there. Even Cinderella’s mouse companions are included, rendered not-too realistically in CGI. They don’t talk or wear clothes, but they appear just cartoony enough that when they listen to her and give her aid it doesn’t feel like something out of Willard.

The only real change is that we actually see our heroine in her pre-cinder days having an idyllic childhood with her parents before her mom dies and her dad remarries (and then dies). Yes, they give Cinderella an origin story. Perhaps it’s the influence of all the popular superhero stuff these days. I would say that this bit wasn’t needed except that, just like Peter Parker, she’s given words to live by that become the core of her character. Rather than “with great power comes great responsibility,” Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind.” It’s a small thing that has a big (though subtle) impact. On a number of levels, it might be hard for modern audiences to accept a heroine who is so subservient to her stepmother and takes the cruel barbs from her stepsisters without so much as a snarky comeback. But with the simple addition of this phrase — “have courage and be kind — we can now view Cinderella as a strong character who stays true to herself and doesn’t let her vicious antagonists tear her down. It is her courage and kindness in the face of a long, hopeless life of toil that is rewarded by her fairy godmother.

As a parent who keeps a close eye on the messages his kids are exposed to, I find Cinderella’s “have courage and be kind” refreshing and even laudable.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s experience with adapting Shakespeare to the big screen must have been a real boon when it came to maintaining the traditional story. I imagine that when most of your career is spent working on productions where you don’t allow yourself the leeway to even change a single line of dialogue you get pretty good at focusing on how to bring out the best of what’s already there. Branagh’s Shakespearean background also probably has something to do with the nuanced, multi-dimensional performances he coaxes from the actors.

Okay, not that it’s difficult to get fine acting from the likes of Cate Blanchett or Derek Jacobi. But remember how my biggest complaint about Maleficent was that no one besides the protagonist seemed to be a real, fleshed-out person who had reasons for doing whatever they did? Well, in Cinderella, everyone down to the lizard-turned-coachman feels fully-realized.

The king (played by Jacobi) doesn’t want his son to marry a peasant girl but comes off as a good, likable person even as he stands in our protagonists’ way. The king’s advisor is a schemer (and clearly is taking kickbacks to arrange a particular marriage with the prince) but his efforts to keep the prince from Cinderella are professional, not personal, since he’s acting on the king’s wishes. Cinderella’s father dotes on her and was deeply in love with her mother, but after years of being a widower is desperate to grab a little happiness for himself. Cinderella’s stepsisters are… well, they’re pretty shallow, but it’s not surprising considering who raised them (and you can tell that even their own mother doesn’t like them).

That brings us to the Stepmother. She’s a catty, jealous, mean-souled harpy who cares only about making a secure future for herself and her terrible daughters. Yet, despite the hints that she only married Cinderella’s father for his modest estate, Blanchett’s performance suggests that, like him, she still carries the wounds from losing her first spouse. There’s an interesting bit when Cinderella is having a heart-to-heart with her dad before he leaves on a trip and the Stepmother, spying on them for a moment, looks hurt. Now, it takes a very small, petty, self-centered person to be jealous of a father’s bond with his daughter… But, given that, why would she be hurt if she didn’t care on some level? We never really see why Cinderella’s father falls for this woman shrew but it’s possible that there really was some spark between them. At any rate, the film is full of little touches like that which, when added up, create an antagonist who is utterly despicable yet pitiably human. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Stepmother was, ultimately, someone who was not able to hold on to her courage or kindness and let life transform her into a grasping wad of insecurities who would take pleasure in trying to do the same to an innocent girl.

Another major success for Cinderella is the chemistry between our heroine and her love interest. She has a chance encounter with Prince Charming — not realizing that he’s the King In Training — and the actors really sell the instant attraction. Lily James looks as though she’s just on the verge of leaning in and kissing the Prince throughout the whole conversation. In a later scene at the palace, Richard Madden’s expression shows us just how smitten Prince Charming is when he is able to drop the “have courage and be kind” line in conversation.

So, yes, it’s good, but how is it for the kids? Well, given that it adheres so closely to the source material, it’s just as appropriate for young audiences as the animated Cinderella. My girls paid attention but seemed a little bored at times. This may have been because it was during their sleepy time of day. As I recall, though, they weren’t exactly riveted by the original version, either (sorry, Walt).

By way of justifying my previous post, I will say that Cinderella is as well done as Maleficent was poorly done. It may not be a movie that we will feel the need to own or re-watch often but it’s absolutely one I will hold up as a model of how any future such live-action adaptations should be handled.

 

Triple Crown: A Review of Three Princess Movies

We recently saw the new Cinderella movie. This is the third of Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features. The first being Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the second being Maleficent. You can be forgiven for thinking that one of the two Snow White movies released back in 2012 was a Disney film. I had assumed that Mirror Mirror was, and it wasn’t until I double-checked things for this post that I found out any different. However, I did see it and I didn’t see Alice in Wonderland, so I’m gonna stick with my plan of reviewing it alongside the other two “princess” films.

Not that I have a whole lot to say about Mirror Mirror. I went in expecting it to be just okay, and it was a bit more enjoyable than that. Like, maybe a 6 out of 10 rather than the 5 I was anticipating. In particular, I couldn’t help enjoying the dwarfs* — their bickering group dynamic was as amusing as their teamwork in action was fun to watch. Otherwise, I don’t remember much. It wasn’t too dark. It felt like there was an actual relationship between Snow White and the Queen, at least as people who had to put up with one another prior to the start of the film. I can’t comment on how good it is for kids beyond pointing out it’s PG rating; RU would have been, maybe, 18 months old or so when we saw it.

I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, especially when I have so much more damning to do. So let’s move on.

Disney’s live-action version of their Sleeping Beauty story is Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as the villainous evil fairy from the animated film. In this movie, however, the focus is on Maleficent herself. We’re shown her backstory, her relationship with King Stephan (Sleeping Beauty’s father), and a new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale (which, here, is just one piece of a larger story).

Now, I don’t think I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty (the animated classic) since I was very young, and I may not have ever seen it more than once. I don’t remember most of the film at all but have a fairly vivid recollection of a few snippets — mostly from the end when Prince Phillip battles the evil Maleficent. At the time, I found it quite frightening. When she calls upon all the powers of Hell (and it really stuck out to me that she said “Hell” — have never forgotten that for some reason) and turns into that dragon I figured Prince Philip was up Crap Creek without a canoe. Or even a paddle. Those bits really stuck with me and, probably as a result, I’ve always found Maleficent to be the most powerfully evil and terrifying of all the Disney villains (even topping Chernobog — and congratulations if you can name the Disney film he’s in without looking it up).

When I saw the trailers for Maleficent, I thought it looked pretty good. Maybe it even had the potential to be very good. Angelina Jolie seems like she’d excel in the role, even getting her voice’s modulation just right. The idea of flipping the story around to focus more on the villain is interesting and has been done well in the past. The Wife and I were cautiously optimistic when we went to see it in the theater (without the kids, fortunately). So what did we think?

Maleficent sucks. Don’t let anyone you love waste 98 minutes of their life watching it when there might be some dental surgery they’ve been putting off that they could get around to instead. If there’s a bright center of the universe, this movie plays at the theater it’s farthest from. Seriously, I can’t malign this film enough.

The whole thing is like bad Angelina Jolie fan fiction. The title character manages to be both the hero and the villain. And I don’t mean that she’s some complicated anti-hero. No, she’s the goodliest good guy and the baddest bad guy in the story, it just depends which scene you’re currently watching. When she shows up at Aurora’s christening to lay her curse on an innocent baby, she’s as wicked as it gets**. Her antagonist — who is primarily King Stephan — is just malignant and vain, and can’t match the depths of Maleficent’s darkness. In fact, in the entire world presented by the movie, no one is as interesting or dynamic as Maleficent. To put it another way, the film is full of bland, one-dimensional characters, except for one great big Mary Sue.

The biggest failure of Maleficent is that no one is given any real motives for anything they do, other than Maleficent herself. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make this apparently evil character more sympathetic and complex by showing, through her history, that she has reasons for what she does. But they forgot to do that with all the other characters.

Shall we consider King Stephan? He meets Maleficent when they are both children and he’s wandered into the fairy (faery?) realm from the adjacent human kingdom. He’s in trouble because he’s been caught attempting to steal a gem that was just lying around on the ground. It’s forbidden to remove anything from the fairy land — it belongs to them — even though fantastic jewels are just left to litter the ground like burger wrappers behind the McDonald’s. I think this incident was supposed to establish that the orphaned, rag-wearing, filthy Stephan is greedy. At no point does the film attempt to show his side of things or give him a justification. He doesn’t say, “Well no one seems to actually own this and if I take it back where I’m from and sell it, I won’t have to eat cold garbage and sleep in the sewage ditch anymore. I don’t suppose you could give me a hot meal and a warm blanket?” Nope, he has no motivations, just character flaws.

I was prepared to go on about the movie’s malfeasance in grinding detail. About how the good fairies who raise Aurora (the sleeping beauty herself) and are charged with her safety are portrayed as quarreling idiots who ignore a crying baby. Or how Prince Phillip is treated as merely a pretty boy toy whose kiss [SPOILER ALERT] can’t awaken Aurora because only Maleficent’s maternal love can be powerful enough for that (which makes it kind of creepy, or at least shallow, that Phillip and Aurora are still paired up at the end). I was going to lay out all the unexplainable idiocy that drives the story whenever Stephan shows up, warping the plot like a black hole bends light. (If he’s so concerned about Aurora’s well-being that he puts her in a fairy-run witness protection program why doesn’t he give a crap about her when she comes back to him on the day the curse is supposed to trigger? Oh, right, because Maleficent has also shown up and she’s so much more interesting.) However, if I were to delve into that level of detail about all the ways Maleficent sucks, I’d pretty much be writing about that full-time and would have to change the name of this blog to www.maleficentsucks.com. (Which, it turns out, hasn’t been registered yet, so I’ll leave that on the table for one of you to pick up and run with.) Instead, let me just discuss one more malfunction that I found especially irritating.

King Stephan is just the premiere example of what all the other people in the human kingdom (which is probably named something like Surly or Crapland) are like. Everyone is a festering boil of pettiness and vice wearing drab earth-tones. Stephan’s soldiers are cowards and/or mindless thugs. The sons of the previous king were drooling over which one of them would inherit the crown upon his death. At one point the kingdom goes to war with the fairies next door. Why? We’re never told, but we’re left to assume it is either due to an irrational hatred of the magical creatures or a lust for the resources their land has an overabundance of. I like to imagine it’s because the fairy creatures have been nipping over the border to steal human children but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a deleted scene where the king finds out his polling numbers are low and decides a war is the best way get the public’s support again. The only positive example of a human being (besides Prince Phillip, who I think was from some other country, so he doesn’t count) is Aurora, who is both pretty and nice — though that’s probably just because she was practically raised by Maleficent.

What chaps my hide so much, though, is how this combines with the opening narration of the film. We’re told at the very beginning that this story takes place in a human kingdom inhabited by “people just like you”. That’s right, you can relate to these despicable, small-minded people because they’re just like you. You big jerk.

Okay, enough of that. I’m sure none of you wanted to spend so long reading about how passionately I regret wasting two hours of childcare on Maleficent. I sat down to write this because I wanted to talk about Cinderella.

But it’s real late now, so stay tuned and I’ll post about that next time.

*Dwarves or dwarfs? I know that contrary to what years of reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me about spelling, in the Disney version the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarfs.” Mirror Mirror is clearly a take not on the original Snow White fairy tale itself but on the version of it we all know from the 1937 animated feature, so I will continue to use “dwarfs” for it. Even though it should be “dwarves.”

**This is the best scene of the film, which isn’t surprising since it’s the only one that is actually from Sleeping Beauty and it’s played pretty close to the original. As you might guess, Jolie provides an excellent performance here, oozing sinister power while delighting in her own maliciousness. Even the backstory you’ve suffered through to get to this point finally works as context to add another layer to the scene. It’s a shame the rest of the movie isn’t as good, and it is not worth watching just for this one bit.

RU Sings “Frozen”

My girls love Frozen. Despite the fact that we don’t own the movie or soundtrack, only took them to see it in the theater once, and have fought a losing battle against having any related merchandise in the house they spend a full 15% of their day running around and belting out “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs. They sing it at home, in the car, at the grocery, while any adult nearby is on the phone, and if they start singing it in their sleep, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The thing is, they don’t really know the lyrics. RU had to decipher the words to the song before she had the tubes put in her ears. So whether it was lack of understanding, difficulty hearing, misremembering, or what, the version she pieced together (and refined over many months) deviates from anything you’ll hear from Idina Menzel.

I have attempted to record RU’s lyrics to the best of my ability. In a couple of places, I’m sure I’ve tried to turn pure gibberish into words. But that last line is absolutely what comes out of their mouths.

Here, then, are RU’s lyrics to “Let It Go” (or “Frozen,” as she sometimes calls it; MeToo sometimes calls it “Cin’erella”):

Strange consolation
And everything you want.
It shows me, can’t get to me at alllll.
Time to see what I can do,
Test the wish come true.
Hoda (?) meeeee and brie!
Let it goooo, let it go!
The perfect girl inside;
And I don’t caaaare what they’re going to saaaaay.
The ho never bothered me anyway.

Disney-cation Roundup

Despite the tone of my previous post — and the tone of everyone’s voices on the last day of our drive home — we had a great time on our trip.

Except for RU’s baby Mickey doll, who I think must have had a role in the kids playing “Jack Bauer Interrogates A Suspect At The Off-Books Black Site.”

"No, Mr. Mouse, I expect you to die."
“No, Mr. Mouse, I expect you to die.”

 

We rode the new Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Car roller coaster for the first time, including RU. The Wife and I liked it — I’m a wimp when it comes to roller coasters and this one was easy enough for me to enjoy. RU said she did not like it, although (as she pointed out) she didn’t scream. She felt she will like it when she gets bigger.

MeToo seems to have completely grown out of the “terrified of characters in costume” phase that kids go through. She gave high-fives to nearly every one she saw.

Best thing on t-shirt spotted while at the park: “Six out of seven dwarfs are not Happy.”

Although I had come to the conclusion she probably wouldn’t like it, we offered RU the chance to ride Star Tours and she took it. She had a great time, riding first with Mommy and then with me. I told her the ride was based on some movies we’d watch with her sometime. Her mom said she could stay up late to see them; I think she’ll dig it.

Disney Tips for Beginners

The Wife and I went to Disney World for our honeymoon and we’ve gone every year since we started having children. I’m sure that over the course of this blog, I’ll end up trying to pass along tips we’ve gleaned from our experiences. For now, while I’m thinking of it, let me throw out some basic tips for anyone who hasn’t been in a while or hasn’t taken children before.

MAGIC BANDS. If you haven’t been to the land of the Mouse in the past five years or so, then you probably have never heard of Magic Bands or FastPass+. Learning about them is essential, as these bracelets can serve as your admission ticket, act as your room key if staying at a Disney resort, and replace the Photopass cards. They’re keyed to your fingerprint so you can’t swap them around, and the RFID chips in them are used to track everyone’s movements inside the parks to help Disney’s number crunchers calculate wait times and traffic patterns. Most importantly to you, they are connected to your FastPasses.

The way it used to be, many of the rides offered “fast passes” in the form of a kiosk that printed out tickets. The tickets were good for an hour window sometime later that day and let you go through the Fast Pass line, which was shorter than the regular line. It kept the lines shorter and let people plan their experience a little. We liked being able to look around and say, “Hey, the wait for Peter Pan is an hour, but It’s A Small World across the way is only a 15-minute wait. We can get Peter Pan fast passes for a couple of hours from now, ride Small World, grab a bite, and then go through the short line for Peter Pan.”

That has all been replaced by FP+, which demands that you get online and schedule your three daily fast passes in advance. That information is stored on your Magic Band, which gets scanned (twice!) to let you in the Fast Pass line. In theory, you can use Disney’s app to schedule or re-schedule your passes that day, in the park. In practice, the app can be frustratingly buggy at times, and you’ll find wi-fi and cell reception are quite poor inside the parks. Even if everything worked for you, you’d find all the good rides had been booked up by people who planned their vacations nine months ago. We liked to be a little more spontaneous than that, but setting up your fast passes ahead of time is just how it works now. Give yourself some room between your scheduled rides for potty breaks and doing other things through the “stand-by” line.

All of the above, you can glean from readily available sources, such as Disney itself. My tip is this: the Magic Bands are not just good for one trip only. They’ll give you new ones every trip, but the old ones continue to work. So hang on to them if you think you’ll need spares in the future (maybe because your kids like to play with them or take them off and on or are otherwise likely to lose some). Also, if you want to be paranoid, keep in mind that the RFID chip inside could be storing all of the personal information you gave Disney, right down to your fingerprint.

RIDER SWAP. Let’s say you and your spouse both want to ride Space Mountain, but your six-month-old obviously can’t go along. What do you do? You could take turns, with one of you staying behind with junior while the other rides. The stand-by line has a wait time of 30 minutes — not too bad for a popular ride, but your dinner reservation (or your next Fast Pass window, or junior’s nap time, or whatever) is in an hour and a half, so if that line gets any longer, the second person may not be able to go. You could be a gentleman and let your wife go first, or try to bargain and see if she’ll do that “only on your birthday” thing if you don’t get your turn, or you can say to the attendant, “We need a rider swap.”

Presenting your too-small-for-the-ride child while saying those magic words gets you a ticket that let’s the second rider go through the Fast Pass line, without being restricted to a specific time. They used to be good for the rest of the day. The ones we’ve gotten on this trip, though, are saying they’re good for the rest of the month!

They work for rides you already have a Fast Pass for, too. If you’re lucky, all parties can get on the ride within the Fast Pass window and you’ll have the rider swap ticket to use again later. This is not taking advantage of the system; leveraging your rider swaps is what makes enjoying the rides even possible when you have an infant along. Savvy practitioners will note that you don’t have to make all your party’s Fast Passes for the same thing — if you get a Fast Pass for ride A, your partner can get one for ride B, and with rider swaps the two of you can go on both rides.

It’s not unusual for us to have rider-swap passes left over at the end of the day. If they’re still valid, we try to give them to strangers (once we make sure they will actually be able to use them) and throw a little Disney magic their way.

ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS. When the Wife and I went to Disney World for our honeymoon, we were able to go everywhere and do everything, all at our own pace. Going with small children, on the other hand, limits what you’ll be able to handle and the key to not being frustrated is to understand that from the outset. I could devote a whole post just to this, but for now I’ll keep it short. With a single infant in a stroller, you only have to factor in time to feed and change the baby. We’ve found that a good, full day at a park, without making ourselves miserable, means that we can expect to make our Fast Pass selections, and maybe do one other thing, which might be a ride with a short line, but could also be a parade or fireworks show. Even so, on this trip, with two toddlers and a newborn, we had several days where we would get to the park late in the morning, see one show or do one ride, eat lunch, and then need to leave for a nap; we probably could have rushed back for an evening fireworks show but usually decided not to push ourselves.

GO IN THE OFF-SEASON. If Sun Tzu were writing a Disney planning guide, this would be his advice for winning the battle before it’s even fought. If you’re able to, plan your vacation for the slow times in the winter, when there aren’t big holidays or events. Of course, Disney has been hard at work making sure there is no “off-season” by manufacturing events for themselves. So check to make sure there’s not a marathon, food and wine festival, Star Wars weekend, or other such hootenanny going on if you’re looking for low crowd numbers. In general, though, winter means fewer people, which means shorter lines for everything. Also, Florida is hot as balls, even in the spring and autumn; it’ll still be warm enough in December and January to go swimming.