Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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101 Attractions

From snorkelling to African safaris, there's a lot more to Walt Disney World than rides

The two children I'd had to leave behind had done their best: hours of video instruction, experts dragged home from kindergarten, a whole house filled with cryptic, crayoned diagrams. But even they hadn't prepared me for the wake-up call or the giraffe.

It was early morning in Florida and I lay prone in a luxury hotel room after a long night of travel. Then the phone rang and an impossibly shrill but oddly familiar voice came hurtling across the line. "Get up, get up!" it squeaked excitedly like a talking helium balloon. "Up and at 'em, pal! Time to have a magical, magical day!" Oh well, I thought as I looked around the room groggily, at least it's a dream that comes with a big balcony.

And that (as I now explain to my sons nightly) was where I met the giraffe. It had very long, very elegant eyelashes and was standing a mere six metres away munching on a tree top. It certainly looked more real than I felt and suddenly, I was very wide awake. I knew where I was; in fact I knew there was only one spot I could be -- the one place on earth where talking mice make wake-up calls and 200 species of African animals roam across the grounds of a fabulous resort, nodding hello before you've even had breakfast. That's right; Disney World.

And yet, even though good ol' Walt, the founder of everything Disney, liked to remind people that he owed it all to a cartoon mouse, Disney World today is much more than an amusement park for kids. It is a veritable city-state of the spectacular, a Shangri-La of the imagination built on a scale that reduces even the most hardened adult to jaw-dropping stupefaction. Consider this: located at Lake Buena Vista in central Florida, 32 kilometres southwest of Orlando, Walt Disney World Resort is the size of a small city, 121 square kilometres -- that's almost the size of Ottawa's urban core. It has its own water supply, generates its own power, grows the produce served in its 100-plus eateries, and employs 60,000 "cast members" on site. It even has its own real-life town, Celebration, a living civics lesson that has made headlines ever since it was built to Disney's minutely detailed specifications.

More to the point, Disney World is an opulent vacationland featuring four enormous theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom) filled with eye-popping entertainment; three water adventure parks; 27 resort hotels (19 owned by Disney); 99 holes of golf on six courses and two full-service, world-class spas. There's also the Disney Wide World of Sports complex (with spring training facilities for baseball's Florida Marlins); Downtown Disney (a huge entertainment-shopping-dining complex with its own bar-hopping island, off-limits to anyone under 18); as well as the Disney Wedding Pavilion -- not to mention the Disney Cruise Line, which uses Disney World as an embarkation point for cruises from the coast nearby to Disney's private island in the Bahamas.

Skip the rides
If all that isn't enough, there's a multitude of activities which don't involve heart-stopping rides or the occasional lengthy line-up. There are a trillion things to do for kids, ranging from participatory theatre to educational seminars to athletic pursuits. Disney World offers miles of waterways and lakes that are a haven for sports, whether parasailing, waterskiing, or excellent bass fishing and scuba diving. The world's largest rental fleet of watercraft is also at your disposal: cruise on your own pontoon boat, zip around in a "WaterMouse," or alternately head to the Typhoon Lagoon Water Park to surf two-metre waves and snorkel in shark-filled reefs.

Or you can just hang out at grand strands of white-sand beach or at dozens of elaborate pools that dot the 19 resort hotel complexes. If you feel energetic, there are 30 lighted tennis courts as well as hiking, cycling and horseback riding to enjoy in 8000 hectares of undeveloped Floridian wilderness. And if it's sheer unabashed luxury you're after, check out the five-room, $1700-per-night (all prices in US dollars) Walt Disney Suite at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, a lavish six-building hotel designed in high-Victorian style. Its snow white towers, red-shingled roofs and enormous size always make a dramatic first impression, as does the grand lobby that rears up five storeys to a ceiling adorned with illuminated stained-glass domes.

Brainy fun
In short, Disney World has something for any age and everyone. Bringing a gourmand? Try fine dining at the Grand Floridian's Victoria & Albert's Restaurant, a jet-setter haunt and winner of the internationally coveted Five Diamond Award for culinary excellence. Dragging along a snob? Sign them up for a lecture on subjects ranging from animation to zoology at the respected Disney Institute, or let them wander around toting the works of Jean Baudrillard, a noted philosopher who's spent his career dissecting Disney's patented blend of simulation, surreality and the sublime. There are enough activities geared to seniors to test anyone's longevity, and you can point the family renovation buff towards countless architectural extravaganzas -- the Swan & Dolphin Hotel (easily recognizable with its pyramid and gigantic rooftop swans) is an important example of post-modern architecture in the late 1990s. There's also the park at Epcot (an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), a place central to Walt Disney's futurist vision and a magnet for science buffs of every stripe. And lest I forget, there are child-care services galore for those who want a time-out, even if it's only to steal away to Montreal's own Cirque du Soleil.

 

In fact, if there's any downside to Walt Disney World at all, it's the scale of the place: it's nearly impossible to see and do everything, or even adequately describe what's on offer. This entire magazine could be easily filled with lists of attractions, activities, accommodations, amenities and vacation packages.

Stay at Walt's
That said, what are the essentials? What do you really need to know to make your trip as enjoyable and manageable as you can? First off, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth. As a result, Disney worldwide is celebrating "100 Years of Magic," a year-long party replete with special attractions and a variety of discounted vacation options. Check with your travel agent or with Disney (www.disneyworld.com is an easy bet) to see what's currently being offered. It's definitely a good idea to plan your trip in some depth before you go. Consult the many guidebooks on Disney World available at most bookstores and chew over the helpful tips offered here in the information boxes.

Be aware that if you're thinking of staying at Walt Disney World, you have a remarkably large number of options: the 19 Disney-owned resorts and eight other leased hotels contain over 25,000 rooms! Most are doubles with queen-size beds, but the deluxe resorts offer a variety of "villas" or suites. Rooms vary in price according to the three resort categories: deluxe (starting at $189 per night), moderate ($129 per night and up) and value (under $100 per night).

The resorts are variously grouped around the different theme parks, so you can choose the location that suits you best. Each resort also has its own theme, whether it's the deluxe Wilderness Lodge (the Wild West), the moderately priced Coronado Springs (a Mexican theme), or the value All Star Resorts (movies, music and sports).

I stayed across the road from the Disney African Kingdom Park at the newly opened Animal Kingdom Lodge ($204 to $595 nightly), a 83,000-square-metre phantasmagoria in an African motif, complete with thatched roof, indoor stream and six-storey lobby filled with African carvings and statuary. Exotic wildlife including zebras, ostrich, gazelles and my pal the giraffe stroll the grounds immediately adjacent to the hotel.

And although the deluxe hotels offer more frills, all of the hotels are sumptuously outfitted and go out of their way to accommodate guests. I really liked the moderately priced Polynesian Resort (voluptuously lush arboretums and a swimming pool beneath a volcano), but especially relished the value All Star Movie Resort, a place I intend to return to with my impatient sons. Colossal images from animated features like 101 Dalmatians, Toy Story, and Fantasia decorate this wonderfully whimsical hotel's brilliantly coloured surroundings.

As you might expect, it becomes increasingly hard to squelch your own inner child while marvelling at a 12-metre statue of that intrepid space commander, Buzz Lightyear. Even better, Disney is currently accepting Canadian dollars at par in value resorts like the All Star until October 2, 2002. Book for four nights and rates begin at $99 nightly, dropping to a starting rate of $77 per night -- yes, that's $77 Canadian -- the last week of August.

I had never been to Disney World before, and as a working journalist was forced to go without the benefit of kid accompaniment. But I still had fun -- loads of fun well above the call of duty. I arrived home to a hero's welcome and have regaled anyone within earshot since about all the wonders I saw during my too-short stay. I have just one problem: my kids think I'm writing this article for them, which is why I have to stop here and turn my pen to describing how Tigger bounced me out of the Magic Kingdom's Toontown Fair when I snuck in the exit to peek at the assembled Disney characters. And I'm still certain -- well, pretty sure -- that never mind talking mice, that darned giraffe said good morning.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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