I am not, as far as I can tell, in Walt Disney World’s target demographic. I’m not four. I’m not a family man. I’m not Brazilian. I’m not even a fan of animated movies. But to drive through Central Florida after seeing a shuttle launch and pass up the parks? To miss out on a quintessentially American summertime diversion? To skip a chance to meet the one and only Mickey Mouse? I’m not nuts.
My plan was a whirlwind tour of all four of Disney’s parks, trying my best to try what attractions had been added since my last visit, in 2007. Then, I was in town for the opening of Expedition Everest, a ride that challenged my poor tolerance for roller coasters and impressed me with its ability to make visitors feel like they were hiking the Himalayas, even in the heat of Central Florida.
This time, the big draw was the Wild Africa Trek, a new behind-the-scenes tour of the Animal Kingdom that takes visitors behind the fences, out to Disney’s “savanna” and ends with a killer lunch on an African safari-inspired wildlife watching pavilion far from the crowds. To amp up the excitement, trekkers cross a crocodile enclosure on rope bridges, distressed to look rickety even if they were reinforced by steel cables. Anyone who’s seen “Temple of Doom,” though, can’t get past their primal fear of a rope bridge collapse.
I survived, obviously, to see Epcot and its world pavilions. There’s something hilarious about visiting “France,” “Ireland,” “Italy” and “Mexico” when you’re a travel writer. In every one of the miniature countries, I was studying the architecture, comparing it to my memories, figuring out what it is we remember about the places we visit – and wondering why we forget the things we forget. Is that really what the Eiffel Tower looks like, I asked myself, cocking my head, as I couldn’t clearly remember the original’s shape.
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I tested the limits of my stomach with a ride on the Star Tours simulator, a 3-D ride set in the Star Wars universe, in which C-3PO is an accidental tour guide and passengers fly through the galaxy. A visit to the American Idol Experience impressed not just for its slick production values – from where I was sitting, it could’ve been the real TV show – but also for the talent of the contestants on stage.
I ended my tour at the Magic Kingdom, the park that to me, a person visiting without my kids, seemed the least interesting. But the polish here was the most fine, the smiles on singers the most gleaming, the lawn edging the most precise, the background music the most bubbly. The good news, thanks perhaps to some friends inside Disney: I did manage to meet Mickey. I even put on a set of ears.