Disneyworld (Take 56)

It was officially the 16 year old’s 56th visit to the happiest place on earth. (He’s catching up with his sister who has been there 57 times.) We also dragged along our former exchange student, Yinan, who is staying with us for a couple of months while she does an internship this summer. (Little did she know what price she had to pay.)
There were a couple of highlights on this trip (and one major lowlight, which is that the 19 year old daughter wasn’t with us). It’s times like these when we’re accustomed to going places together as a family that I miss her the most.

Cinderella’s Castle in Magic Kingdom

one of our favorite rides!

March of the First Order at Hollywood Studios

Nonetheless, it was a fun trip. The newest ride—Flight of Passage—based on the “Avatar” movie in Animal Kingdom remains a highlight. I thought the ride couldn’t possibly live up to my memory of it from October, but it does and then some. It’s a difficult ride to describe—it’s as if Soarin’ and Star Tours had a baby who emerged as a prodigy. Even if you haven’t seen the “Avatar” movie or aren’t a fan, the ride is still mind blowing in its visual impact and ride experience.
Another highlight of the trip was the “giraffic jam” we experienced. We were on the Safari ride at Animal Kingdom when two adolescent giraffes proceeded to bicker (the human term for their behavior) in the middle of the road by swinging their heads at each other, using them as battering rams. It held up the ride for about 20 minutes and was hilarious for each and every minute, especially if you’ve ever had teenage children in the house.
I’ve included a 4 minute video of it, courtesy of the 16 year old son. Bribes of lettuce and orders to move were tried to no avail. One of the park rangers finally convinced the giraffes to move off the road by nudging his truck slowly and carefully closer to them. (The safari ride trucks have to keep their distance.) Knowing the giraffes, I have no doubts that once we were safely by, they would be back at it. Teenagers!

the giraffic jam

We were also guinea pigs for test runs of the “Minnie van.” Get it? The vehicle is painted in Minnie Mouse polka dots and bows and supplied with Minnie Mouse water bottles. Playlists of all four parks and each Disney hotel are available for your listening pleasure. It was traveling in (Disney) style!

the Minnie van!

complete with Minnie water

It was a wonderful opportunity to relax and enjoy the wonders of Disney before the end of school pressure cooker begins. The Disney magic definitely worked itself on us!

Disneyworld Redux (thanks to Hurricane Irma)

Disneyworld!! We have not been since last September. We were planning to go again this September, as a combination birthday/going off to college trip, but Hurricane Irma vetoed that idea. :(. So we rescheduled the trip to last weekend, when Marcus had a 3 day weekend. He brought a friend, Matthew, along for the trip. It was Matthew’s first trip, and it reminded us that there are certain rides we love because of the memories that don’t necessarily appeal as much to a teenage boy going for the very first time (can anyone say “It’s a Small World?”)


Because we had to reschedule the trip, the only place available for us to stay was the Four Seasons (it’s a hardship, but someone had to do it!). The rooms at the Four Seasons are much nicer and roomier than at even the high end Disney resorts, but there is, obviously, much less Disney theming and the system is not as tied in as at the Disney resorts. For example, while you can get Magic Bands at the Disney desk at the hotel, you cannot put park charges on it, and they don’t serve as keys to the room either. All of which makes perfect sense. And it’s a great add for Disney because there are certainly folks who would come and stay at the Four Seasons who would not stay at a Disney hotel. (We are not one of them, as you might have guessed.)
The new Pandora ride—“Flight of Passage”—the more popular of the two Pandora rides—is amazing. It’s a cross between Soarin’ and Star Tours and is an order of magnitude better than either. The premise is that you are flying on a banshee through the world of Pandora, so there’s a big screen like Soarin’, but you are on a contraption that mimics being on a banshee (a kind of giant flying bird). The banshee even breathes as it sits between your legs. It’s pretty mind-boggling and definitely a fantastic addition to the park. (Time to update the Disney tome!)

in the world of Pandora

We also visited Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which we have not been to for years. It, too, has grown and improved and is a nice place to visit in the evenings or whenever you want a little down time from the parks (as difficult a concept as that is to imagine).

Disney Springs

With the older one off to college, it gives the younger one an opportunity to catch up on the number of trips to Disneyworld count. This is Marcus’s 55th trip, so he has only a few more before he ties his sister. (Not that this is a competition or anything!)

Disneyworld and an 18th Birthday

In the category of “How to Make Me Feel Really Old” falls the 18th birthday of our daughter (I assume our son’s 18th birthday will fall into the category of “How to Make Me Feel Really Really Old.”)
Our daughter elected to celebrate this momentous occasion of being able to sign legally binding contracts by spending it in Disneyworld.  Fortunately, her birthday coincided with a school 3 day weekend, which made it perfect.
We managed to spend time in all 4 parks, although Magic Kingdom received the brunt of our attention.  It makes me feel all warm and gushy inside to know that this now 18 year old young woman still loves Disney and still loves the Magic Kingdom.  (She may still turn out to be a serial killer, but at least she’ll be a serial killer who loves Disney.)
We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, so we woke up each morning to the sight of giraffes, zebras, and other wildlife right outside our balcony.
High points of the trip include:
— being at Magic Kingdom when the park opened at 7:00 am

early morning at the Magic Kingdom

early morning at the Magic Kingdom

— getting a how-to-be-a-warrior lesson from Mulan in the China pavilion at Epcot

— being entertained by Dara Vamp at The Brown Derby

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— seeing the parks decorated for Christmas

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Happy 18th birthday, sweetie!!

Movie review: Finding Dory

We were fortunate enough to be able to attend an advance screening of the latest Pixar movie, “Finding Dory.” (Thank you to Disney for donating the item to a Children’s National fundraising event!)

Jim and I are both fans of “Finding Nemo” and actually thought the emotional resonance of that movie was one of its many strengths. (But our son was born with a club foot, so we could definitely relate to Nemo’s bad fin.)

Thirteen years later, “Finding Dory” is Dory’s quest to find her parents. There are a few cameo appearances by Crush and the other sea turtles and a nice introduction/summary of “Finding Nemo” for those who haven’t seen it, but this is definitely Dory’s movie. Marvin and Nemo play strong supporting roles. But Hank, a mimic septupus, steals the movie. Voiced by Ed O’Neill (from “Modern Family” and “Married with Children”), he once again plays the curmudgeonly character with the heart of gold. Even more impressive is the animation that was required to give life to Hank. As the Disney representative explained to us, octopuses have no joints, which makes animation extremely difficult because there’s no joint to hang the motion off of. (They slither more than they move.) It took two years before the animators figured out a way to animate that movement. And each scene where you see Hank with all seven legs took months to animate. As a mimic septupus, Hank has to blend into his surroundings but still be obviously him—a tricky feat at the best of times and an added complexity to the animation.

All of this is fascinating, of course, but has nothing to do with Pixar’s real strength, which is storytelling. I think anyone who knows a parent of or a child with special needs will relate to this movie, as Dory’s parents worry about her future, as Dory copes with her limitations and moves forward despite them, and as Dory’s friends appreciate her very real strengths. The movie ends happily, of course (it is a Pixar movie, after all!) but not without plenty of obstacles, tears, and emotionally fraught moments. It is a worthy member of the Pixar family.

This movie received an enthusiastic thumbs up from all of us, and we are definitely going to go see it again!

P.S. Two notes: the short before the movie, “Piper,” is a definite must-see, so don’t be late when you go see the movie. And, second, the actor who originally voiced Nemo has a cameo role in this movie. (He obviously couldn’t voice Nemo again because in the 13 years between movies, his voice changed!)

Disneyworld & the Osborne Family Lights

We haven’t been to Disneyworld for the Christmas season in years, but when we learned that this would be the last year of the Osborne Family Lights at Hollywood Studios, a visit was a must do and off to Orlando we went on the first weekend of December.

We landed on Friday evening and headed straight for the lights. They were even more spectacular than I had remembered.

Osborne lights

Osborne lights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IMG_1562Saturday morning was the Wild Animal Trek, something we had never done before. (Shock!) It takes place at Animal Kingdom, and half the trek is done with a harness so that you go over bridges and look at hippos and crocodiles up close and personal. The other half of the trek is essentially a VIP version of the Safari ride. The ride was particularly memorable for two reasons: first, there was a baby rhino out and about and feeling particularly frisky, chasing zebras and running around (so adorable!); and two, we had a (successful) proposal in the group when we broke for lunch (also adorable).

baby rhino!

baby rhino!

wild animal trek

wild animal trek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the trek, we resumed our normal Disney activities with multiple rides of various rollercoasters and other rides at the parks. We returned to Hollywood Studios, had dinner, and headed for the lights one last time on Saturday. <sad face>

It was a spectacular trip. We had forgotten how festive Disneyworld is for the holiday season, and it was a good reminder. As our daughter said, “I really wasn’t in the Christmas spirit until I saw the lights again.”

Tokyo and the US-Japan Leadership Program

We traveled to Tokyo in late July to participate in the US-Japan Leadership Program alumni weekend but arrived a few days early so that we could do the important things in Tokyo—Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland. 🙂

(Our son came with us on the trip, but our daughter was doing her community service project and wasn’t able to make it.)

We had never been to DisneySea, and it was a really fabulous experience to visit a Disney park where everything was new. Our favorite rides there were Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Indiana Jones ride (which is based on the horrible Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie). There is a Stormrider ride that is somewhat similar to the Star Tours simulator ride that is also very well done.

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

We had only been to Tokyo Disneyland once before. Once again, the Winnie-the-Pooh ride was our favorite (and it’s the best version of the ride in all of the Disney parks, hands down). We also loved the Buzz Lightyear and Monsters, Inc. rides there. And we are continually fascinated by the different flavors of popcorn available in the Tokyo Disneyland park—honey, chocolate, curry, teriyaki, and regular. Curry popcorn was the Ms’ favorite flavor, but Jim was NOT a fan.

Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland

It was also fun to compare the design and rides with all of the other Disney parks. Yes, I know we are hopeless Disney addicts!

We ate at a one Michelin star teppanyaki restaurant called Ukai-tei. It was an interesting combination of classically trained teppanyaki and classically trained French chefs in one restaurant (and chef). The food was fabulous, and it was a great experience.

The USJLP alumni weekend was a tremendous amount of fun. There were over 70 Fellows who attended, and many more Americans than typical. The nice thing about having a critical mass of Fellows is that you don’t feel as much like you’re intruding on the delegates’ fun and bonding. It was really lovely to see all the Fellows, catch up on their news, and meet the delegates (some of whom I already knew from DC gatherings). There was even a bonding amongst what we hope to be the future generation of USJLP-ers!

future USJLPLers

future USJLPLers

Oh, and I can’t forget that only in Japan can you find square watermelons!

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Movie review: Inside Out

Once again, Pixar hits it out of the ballpark with a movie alternately funny and touching that appeals equally to kids and adults.

The nominal story is about an 11 year old girl, Riley, whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and how she copes with this move. (Without detracting from the trauma of this movie, anyone who is lastingly upset about a move to the most fabulous city in the world is truly bonkers.)

The feelings in her head—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust—all have a role in how Riley copes with the move. Without spoiling the movie (since we all know that Pixar never does happy endings), Joy discovers that as much as Sadness is truly a downer, it is Sadness that allows Riley to reach out for emotional support and cope with her circumstances.

I can’t imagine the pitch for this movie (“Uhh, we’d like to do a movie about what’s going on in an 11 year old girl’s head by animating her 5 main emotions”), but as with all Pixar movies, there is plenty of humor and pathos, triumph and tragedy.   Kids will enjoy this movie immensely, especially those who have gone through the process of uprooting and moving, and adults will enjoy an all-too-brief nostalgic glimpse into their childhood (imaginary friends, anyone?).

Pixar has demonstrated repeatedly that while the animation is important, the secret sauce is in the story. We enthusiastically give this movie a two thumbs up!

Movie Reviews: Big Hero 6 and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Two very different movies, and both equally good in their own ways. “Big Hero 6” is a Disney movie and contains the classic Disney elements: a traumatic event in the first 10 minutes of the movie, a hero in conflict, and a guardian angel (of sorts) to help him. There are strong secondary characters as well with lots of superhero action sequences and comedic scenes to lighten the tension. And, in the end, the hero has to find his own solution and to discover what is truly important to him. It’s a well-done, entertaining, and thoughtful movie in the best Disney tradition.

As with the best Disney movies, this one appeals well to the under 6 crowd, our action film-oriented 13 year old son, and our too-worldly-to-be-believed 16 year old daughter. We (the adults) liked it very much, too. The entire family gives this one two thumbs up.

 

The final installment of “The Hobbit” trilogy brought about some mixed feelings. I absolutely loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and thought Peter Jackson did a fabulous job of getting the spirit of the trilogy right. (I’m not one who expects complete faithfulness to the books—these are movies, after all, and adaptation is necessary for such a different medium. Also, while I am a huge Tolkien fan, I don’t believe heresy was committed in adapting the books to film.) I am more ambivalent about his adaptation of “The Hobbit,” however. The book is a much more light-hearted romp into Middle-earth than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the movies take a more epic and serious tone. The first movie of the trilogy (“The Unexpected Journey”) definitely dragged in parts, but the second (“The Desolation of Smaug”) was much better, and the barrel scene down the river has become one of my all-time favorite action sequences.

This final installment focuses much more on the action sequences than any narrative (which is hardly surprising, given that the book is only 300 pages and is being stretched into three movies).   Richard Armitage does an excellent job as Thorin Oakenshield and his transformation from being noble and kingly to being cursed with dragon-sickness and back again is convincing and heart-breaking. Martin Freeman is a highly underrated actor who is fabulous as Bilbo, a hobbit who keeps his humanity and moral compass when all around him have lost theirs.

And for the Benedict Cumberbatch fans (o daughter mine!), let’s just say that [spoiler alert here!] Smaug gets killed in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Our 13 year old son absolutely loved the movie and can’t wait to see it again. I enjoyed it very much and will probably take him for a repeat viewing. That being said, I suspect that ten years from now, when we are looking back at these movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films will have held up much better and be more highly regarded than The Hobbit trilogy.

Disneyworld…the ultimate Americana experience

We now have a third child (a temporary one, before you all get too excited about the news). Yinan is an exchange student from Beijing going to our kids’ school, and she is staying with us for the school year. She is a lovely person, and my only concern about her is how she could put up with our weird family for so long.

Anyway, we decided to celebrate Marcus’s 13th birthday by—you guessed it!—a weekend at Disneyworld. Naturally, Yinan came along (as well as one of Marcus’s best friends). You can’t get a more quintessential American experience than Disneyworld.

With the help of Disney’s guide service, we managed to get to all four parks—Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom—in two days. Even more impressively, we spent the first day entirely in Magic Kingdom and managed to hit the highlights of three remaining parks all on the second day.

There isn’t much to say about Disneyworld that I haven’t already said, either in previous blog posts or in my travel tome about it. That being said, it was really an even more amazing experience to go with someone who had never gone before. Yinan was a great sport about it—tried every ride and food experience (as you know, with us, it is also about the food).

And Tarl, our guide, was fabulously super. Without him, there would have been no possible way to hit three parks in one day (plus lunch, of course).

Happy birthday, Marcus, and welcome to the United States, Yinan!

on Space Mountain

on Space Mountain

Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

with our guide, Tarl

with our guide, Tarl

Movie review: Saving Mr. Banks

We were predisposed to like this film, as we are huge fans of all things Disney and enthusiastic fans of the movie “Mary Poppins.”  But this film surpassed our expectations.  The basic plot is the story of how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins series of books to let him make a movie from the books.  Clearly, we all know how the story ends, given the enduring popularity of the movie.

But “Saving Mr. Banks” is more than just how a Hollywood movie mogul convinced a children’s author to license the movie rights.  The movie delves into the traumatic childhood of P.L. Travers (her father was an alcoholic) and how she coped with his struggles.  Emma Thompson does a marvelous job creating a curmudgeonly author who is over-protective of her family (her books) and who adamantly opposes her books being made into either a musical or an animated movie.  She is gradually won over, less by Walt Disney, and more by the Sherman brothers and the scriptwriter, at least, until the climax of the movie.

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with a benign touch, although you see glimpses of the iron fist underneath the genial exterior.  But he, too, reveals his complexity of character, combining charm with a touch of manipulation and the revelation of his own difficult childhood.

Be sure and stay through the credits.  The movie plays the actual audiotapes of P.L. Travers discussing the script with the Disney folks.  (I think they do it just to be make sure you know they weren’t exaggerating her cantankerousness.)

“Saving Mr. Banks” is an extraordinarily touching movie about two very different people finding healing and closure in the making of the “Mary Poppins” movie.  The two main characters are well fleshed out and are complex characters.  The secondary characters are well-acted.  I can see why the movie has generated such a buzz.  I do think much of the complexity of the characters and the nuanced relationships between the characters went over the heads of our two kids, so while they liked the movie, it didn’t resonate with them as much as it did with us.  The grownups enthusiastically give the movie two excellent thumbs up, and the kids give the movie two very good thumbs up!