This time last week, I was already many hours into my day at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. A 4 a.m. wakeup call startled me out of bed, and by 5 a.m. I was outside the park with thousands of guests, counting down to the 6 a.m. early opening. In celebration of the start of a self-proclaimed "Monstrous Summer," Disney kept the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure open for 24 hours straight, while promoting the release of its new movie, Monsters University. I was on-site – first in Orlando, then in Anaheim – for some live reporting.
As I discovered, spending 24 hours in three Disney parks between two states is a unique adventure. How often do guests make their way down World Drive to the Magic Kingdom before the sun rises? How many people have experienced Disney California Adventure in the middle of the night, devoid of people, light and sound?
I was given an inside look at the Magic Kingdom by a Disney tour guide who joined the company 18 years ago, fresh out of high school. I ventured solo through a packed Disneyland at 1 a.m., soaking in the excitement on Main Street, USA. And, I spoke to some of the craziest, most enthusiastic Disneyphiles of all ages, who really were going to stay until 6 a.m. the next morning.
What did I learn from of it all? A lot, including these 24 facts and (hopefully) helpful travel tips for your next Disney adventure.
24 Things I Learned in (Almost) 24 Straight Hours at Disney
I rode the Magical Express bus from the Orlando airport to my hotel on the Disney property. The original plan was to check in, change into nicer clothes and meet some folks for dinner. If you use the Magical Express luggage service, as I did, beware -- your luggage will show up 3 to 4 hours after you do, and you won't be able to change into those nicer clothes before dinner.
Lines at popular attractions can mean wait times of 30 minutes or more. I remember getting bored waiting in line as a kid at Disney World. Now, that's changing. Dumbo The Flying Elephant in Magic Kingdom has added a playground in the middle of the queue, so kids can "wait in line" by playing for 30 minutes. Other rides, like Space Mountain and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, have smaller interactive experiences that still appeared to be of great interest to kids in line.
Orlando gets humid during the day, and one place I (surprisingly) found relief was... outside. Air conditioning is being added to some outdoor queues in the Orlando parks. It's a welcome relief.
I remember the more typical cheeseburgers and chicken tenders from my trips as a child. Barbecue, quiche and pork loin are among the new quick dining options.
I was fascinated at the integration of newer technologies throughout the parks. Be Our Guest restaurant, for example, is a quick-service restaurant where you order and bring a fake red rose to your table. Your food is delivered by wait staff. How do they know where you're sitting? Simple. The rose is GPS-enabled.
After a long day in Disneyland, my guide insisted that we stay through the park's closing to see World Of Color -- a show that combines water, colored lighting, fire, music and scenes from various Disney movies projected onto the "mist." It was a really powerful show, and I'd consider it a must-see if you visit the California parks.
The variety of smells throughout the parks is a nice touch. Different rides have smells pumped in. Soarin', for example, takes on a slight tang as you fly over California's orange groves. The smells coming from the parks' bakeries and confectionaries will stop you in your tracks.
Disneyland is small compared to Disney World. The entirety of Disneyland (parks, hotels and Downtown Disney) could fit in the parking lot of Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and there would be room to park 500 cars around it all. (Disney World is 25,000 acres. Disneyland is 510.)
The GMC trucks that take you through the Kilimanjaro Safari ride at Animal Kingdom have been converted to run on liquid propane, instead of traditional diesel fuel or gasoline. Liquid propane is a cleaner-burning fuel for these big trucks (there's no smell or belches of black smoke from the tailpipe), and the animals throughout the safari likely appreciate that.
Take note of the roofs in Animal Kingdom. African craftsmen were flown in to thatch the roofs in the park before it opened in the late 1990s.
When riding (or watching) the C.K. Holiday train at Disneyland, check out the color of the caboose. Green cabooses are common and open for guests to ride. The red caboose, also known as the Lilly Belle, was built in 1955, restored in 1974, and is only open to executives, Club 33 members, and other VIPs.
Although the parks can become eerily quiet and still at night (this photo was shot at 4 a.m. as I left for the airport), an entire staff is hard at work through the night. Decorative elements in the parks are moved overnight to keep the distraction of construction at a minimum. This even applies to large (presumably fake) trees firmly planted in concrete.
Although this was the second ever early-opening in Disney World's history, it has shut down early four times since 1971 -- three times for hurricanes, and on September 11, 2001. The parks do not close entirely for thunderstorms that frequent the Orlando area -- only outdoor rides close for the duration of the storm if necessary.
The 12-minute "IllumiNations" show at Epcot takes place every evening at 9 p.m. -- and takes cast members about 5 hours to set up each afternoon. Given the short length of the show and its relative simplicity (it came across as a fireworks show with a spinning, illuminated globe to me), I was surprised by the lengthy setup time.
If you're willing to spend the cash, you can sign up for VIP Tour Services and be driven right up to back entrances of attractions, skip the lines and have the best seats for shows. Get ready, though -- it's $315 an hour for a minimum of six hours.
There's a one-mile racetrack next to the Magic Kingdom's parking lot. Originally constructed for the Indy 200 race, it's now used almost exclusively for the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the Exotic Driving Experience -- which allow guests to drive NASCAR racecars or high-end supercars. As a pace car driver for a regional racing group, I would have loved to add the Walt Disney World Speedway to my list of driven tracks. Next time!
Although there is a Tower Of Terror ride at both Disneyland and Disney World, the Disney World version is far more elaborate, with a longer story line. I only had time to ride at Disneyland, so I missed the elevator car traveling through the hotel -- I only got a short story and the random drops that the ride is known for.
New to Magic Kingdom, "Enchanted Tales With Belle" is an interactive experience that allows kids to re-enact how Belle met the Beast. The "magic mirror" that every guest walks through is fascinating -- it changes from a typical 2 ft by 3 ft mirror to a complete, adult-sized doorway in a matter of seconds.
I couldn't miss the construction on the edge of New Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom. A peek through the Plexiglas windows showed what will soon be a new roller coaster, tentatively called "The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train." The coaster is slated to open in spring of 2014.
I don't usually go for sit-down "shows" in theme parks. I'd rather ride the rides. But my guide talked up Mickey's PhilharMagic in Magic Kingdom, so I figured I would stop in and watch the show. It's a 3-D experience that incorporates elements in the theater, so Disney calls it "4-D." The show features the largest seamless 3-D movie screen in the world at 150 ft wide, and the "4th-dimension" elements of the show caught me by (pleasant) surprise.
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