Return to Yaya Land

Monday, July 27, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

ORLANDO, Florida—The year was 2002, and yaya history was in the making.  Two little yayas were five years old and one was three—the perfect ages for their first trip to the world Mickey Mouse built.  At 5, Rachel had already proved herself a seasoned traveler, happily straying independently away from home on visits with her grandmothers.  Karoline, age 5, and Whitney, 3, on the other hand, were more accustomed to sticking close by their parents.  So when a scheme was concocted to take these little ones to DisneyWorld, I saw the light and talked their mom Karen into going along. (Pictured above, L to R:  Whitney, Rachel and Karoline in 2002)
It was the first of many yaya trips to come, expanding as new yayas were added to the family but always including only females—girls and their moms and grandmothers (and aunts)—for these were meant as girl bonding adventures.  Fast forward 13 years, and Rachel had just completed her freshman year at the University of Tennessee.  Karoline, with a late birthday, graduated from high school in May, and Whitney recently marked the first anniversary of her driver's license.

At a celebratory dinner in honor of Karoline's graduation, we were reminiscing and laughing about that original yaya journey to Uncle Walt's place.  With these young ladies all going through such milestones, the idea of repeating the trip suddenly asserted itself, and we all welcomed it to the table.  Our organizer extraordinaire, Karoline, performed a masterful bit of negotiation to find dates that worked for the five very busy original cast members, and it was game on.

No child-seats in the SUV this time.  In fact, we decided that the trip would fit best into Rachel's summer work schedule if she flew from Nashville to Orlando.  I ended up making the trip by air also, so we met Karen and her girls at the hotel near Downtown Disney.  After two-bedroom suites proved difficult to find in a Disney resort (except for the ridiculously priced Polynesian bungalows at $2,600 per night), we yielded to nostalgia and booked a suite at the same Doubletree hotel where we stayed in 2002.  Thankfully, it had undergone a renovation in the interim.

L to R:  Rachel, Karoline and Whitney (2015)
On our first night in Orlando back in 2002, both the little girls and the two adults were pretty tired from a long road trip and so many repetitions of "Are we there yet?"  To introduce some calm, we spent the first night in our suite, ordering room service for dinner.  Not this time.  The teenage yayas were ready to rumble.  They prettied up and we headed over to Downtown Disney to pick up some dinner and our 3-day park hopper tickets at the Disney Guest Relations office.

A massive construction project was underway to transform Downtown Disney into "Disney Springs" with many new restaurants and retail offerings.  The normal traffic flow in and out of the area had been logjammed by street closings, so it took us more than half an hour to drive the short distance and find parking.  As we searched Downtown Disney in vain for a place to eat without an hour or more wait for a table, we learned an important lesson.  Reservations are vital at this very busy place.

Before leaving home, Karoline had downloaded the My Disney Experience app on her smartphone, and it proved to be the perfect match for this organization-loving girl.  Once we realized that the only way to maximize our three-day experience was thorough planning, Karoline was on it.  She made sure everyone installed the app so we could all use it to keep up with our itinerary.  Based on Whitney's recent visit to DisneyWorld with friends, the girls selected their top choices for rides and booked Fast Passes (Disney's ticket to the short line) for each of the next three days.

Photo op at Downtown Disney
After a very late, and, because we were so hungry, very delicious dinner at the Earl of Sandwich shop, we strolled our way back to the parking decks and drove back to the hotel.  The next day our agenda centered on Disney's Hollywood Studios park, a particular favorite of the yayas when they were tots.  Miles walked Thursday:  7.1

Friday:  Epcot & Hollywood Studios

After a terrific breakfast at the hotel, including our favorite Mickey Mouse waffles, we hopped on the bus to Epcot, our first stop for the day.  In the cursory bag search at the entrance to the park, Whitney's selfie stick, which she uses for her GoPro camera, was confiscated.  We were told where we could pick it up as we exited the park, but after Whitney reported it was very inexpensive and in poor condition, and we all realized that the same thing would happen when we reached the next park, we abandoned it.

At Epcot, Whitney highly recommended Test Track, where one could design a virtual concept car and take it on a high-octane test drive.  With a limit of three per day, we hadn't booked Fast Passes for this ride, so the girls went to stand in line at Test Track while Karen and I queued up for Soarin', a simulated hang gliding experience she remembered loving when she came to Disney with her family as a kid.

Karoline, Rachel and Whitney at Epcot
Since all of us had cell phones, it was easy for our groups to keep up with each other.  Based on the estimated wait times on the My Disney Experience (MDE) app, we expected that the girls would be done with Test Track and able to join us in line for Soarin'.  But when we texted them that we were near the front of the line, they were in the same position at their ride.  This is when we learned how far Disney is willing to go to please its guests.  When Karen and I reached the front of the line, we told the attendant we would like to wait for the other three in our party.  He allowed us to step to the side and remain there for about 20 minutes before the girls arrived, at which time, a Disney "cast member" at the far end of the line telephoned our agent at the head of the line and they rushed the girls through to where we were waiting.  Wow.

Our list at Epcot complete, we grabbed a bus to Hollywood Studios, renamed from MGM since our last visit.  Upon our arrival, we were surprised to see that the park's iconic 120-foot sorcerer's hat near the entrance—a relatively new addition on our last trip—had been recently removed.  Though the Hollywood park is presently without an icon, that didn't stop us from taking advantage of a few photo ops there.

Abbey Road meets fake San Francisco
Having learned our lesson about Disney restaurants last night, we used the MDE app on our bus ride from Epcot to lock in a 12:50 lunch at Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano at Hollywood Studios.  In what would become a pattern, though we arrived a few minutes early, we were seated right away.  We enjoyed the opportunity to sit and relax for a while, and the food was pretty good, too.  For the afternoon, the yayas had booked Fast Passes for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  We had a bit of time before the first one, so we revisited the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground.  With the giant blades of grass and all the oversized places to explore, this was a favorite of the yayas on our last visit.  And because of all those places to crawl in and out of, Karen and I remembered it as "Honey, I Lost the Kids."

Petting the gigantic dog nose
Just before we finished our photo ops and were about to leave the play set, the rain that had haunted the weather forecast began to fall in earnest.  An almost daily occurrence in Orlando in summer, rain didn't slow down any activities.  On practically every corner, one could purchase rain-resistant equipment, and we did.

We got this!
As the time for the roller coaster Fast Pass approached, Rachel nervously expressed her reluctance to ride a coaster, explaining that she really didn't like them.  But she braved up and joined in, discovering in the process that—yes, she really does like roller coasters, after all—very much, in fact.  I, on the other hand, am old enough to know that I do not do well on coasters, so I wished them a good time as they took off for adventure.

Though I assured her otherwise, Karen was concerned that I would be lonely by myself and hung with me while the yayas did the fun rides.  As they were enjoying the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, we indulged in much tamer events—the Great Movie Ride, a tired excursion through scenes from classic movies, and an Indiana Jones stunt show performance.

Around 5:00, we all met at the park entrance as planned and walked over to the bus stop, where we met an adorable four-year-old boy named Aiden, who seemed to think the yayas were his new best friends.  He helped them feed some almonds to a mallard duck who had wandered over to the bus stop to beg.  Since no good deed goes unpunished, they were eventually swarmed by a couple dozen greedy quackers before the bus arrived.

Hanging at the Crossroads Front Porch
With a 7:30 reservation for dinner at the House of Blues' Crossroads restaurant in Downtown Disney, we had just enough time to freshen up a bit at the hotel.  After the previous night's driving nightmare, we decided to ride the bus to Downtown, an epic decision as the bus stop was just around the corner from the restaurant.  Again, we arrived a little early and were seated right away.  Crossroads' food was the favorite of the trip for all of us.  After our meal we had a bit of time to kill before our 9:00 event nearby, so we hung out on Crossroads' Front Porch and listened to some music.  Despite my country music ignorance, everyone else recognized the performers, who were putting out some good music.

The amazing power track/trampoline act at La Nouba
From our position at the Front Porch, we could watch the doors of the Cirque du Soliel Theater nearby.  When the doors opened to admit the audience for the 9:00 performance of La Nouba ("the party"), we walked over to the tent-like structure and took our seats on the second row.  Karen and her girls had seen a Cirque performance with us in Atlanta when the kids were small, but it was Rachel's first.  And as usual, the Canadian-based theatrical company did not disappoint.  From the recurring clowns to the jugglers, trapeze artists, gymnasts and so much more, we were treated to a solid 90 minutes of nonstop, breathtaking performance.

Though the yayas had stayed up late talking the previous night and Karen and I both had tossed and turned because we were so wound up, no one had difficulty sleeping at the end of this long day.  Miles walked Friday:  7.8

Saturday:  Animal World  

Our second day was consumed with hunting big game—the humane way.  We had not made it to Animal Kingdom on our previous yaya trip, and it opened after Karen's childhood trip, so this was new territory for everyone except Whitney, who tipped us off on the must-sees and the must-rides.  But before we could explore further, we stopped for a photo op at the sculpted Tree of Life, the iconic symbol of Animal Kingdom.  At 145 feet tall and 50 feet wide at its base, the artificial outstretched branches are home to more than 300 carvings of animals great and small.

Yayas with the Tree of Life
We had more than an hour before our first Fast Pass, so Karoline consulted the trusty MDE app and discovered that the Kali River Rapids, a splashy raft ride, had only a 20-minute wait.  Off we went to join the queue.  Having left a similar ride completely drenched when I was at Six Flags with the yayas in 2006, I gratefully declined and found a nice covered area nearby to sit and write in my journal while I happily waited.  Between the girls and me, we finally convinced Karen that she did not need to babysit me as she had the day before but should enjoy whatever rides she wanted to do with the yayas.

Shortly after they got in line, rain began to fall in buckets.  Of course, they had all packed the ponchos they bought on Friday, so a bit of precipitation was no problem.  After they rode the rafts twice, we hooked up and enjoyed some Asian food from the Yak & Yeti Cafe before setting off in search of big game.

The baby giraffes were a big hit.
For the Kilimanjaro Safari, we boarded an open-air bus and rode through a credible replica of an African savanna.  Our driver and narrator Anna was quite animated and enthusiastic, convincingly "amazed" that we were seeing so many animals on our 20-minute trek.

With more than an hour to spare before our next Fast Pass, Karoline again worked the MDE app and pointed us toward the Dinosaur ride, which had a short wait time.  Though I knew better, I let them convince me it wasn't really a roller coaster per se, but my wild and crazy hair told another tale when the ride ended, good for a few laughs for all of us and a lesson learned for me.

While the yayas and Karen rode the Expedition Everest roller coaster a couple of times and the Dinosaur again, I enjoyed a quiet walk on the trails around the Tree of Life.  Everybody was happy.  After our long day Friday and with a very full agenda in the Magic Kingdom ahead on Sunday, we decided to ride the bus back to the hotel and have dinner in the restaurant there.  It worked out very well.  We were able to get a table without waiting, the food was delicious, and we had a quiet, relaxing meal, enjoying each other's company.  Miles walked Saturday:  6.5

Sunday:  Magic Kingdom

According to the yayas' plan, we saved the best for last—the biggest park with the most features and most memories of our 2002 trip.  So much to see and do in the Magic Kingdom with parades running frequently and plenty of characters to meet and greet.  Rachel had told us about a Tennessee friend who was working in the park, portraying various princess characters this summer.  After the friend saw one of Rachel's social media posts and realized Rachel was at DisneyWorld, she contacted Rachel and they made plans to hook up in the Magic Kingdom on Sunday.

These beauties were all so tiny the last time we took this photo!
Like every other visitor, once we entered the park we were drawn like a magnet down Main Street to the iconic Cinderella's castle.  In preparation for another of her popular videos, Whitney was collecting some footage with her trusty GoPro.  Obviously a castle shot was essential to tell this story.

Who needs a selfie stick?
Our three Fast Passes for the day were booked for three coasters—Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain, and the MDE app continued to be an indispensable tool in guiding us to the rides with the shortest wait times in between the Fast Passes.  Before the day was over, the yayas and Karen had ridden every ride they had an interest in riding, some multiple times—the aforementioned roller coasters, Seven Dwarves Mine Train, the Mad Tea Party, and too many others to remember.  Even I joined them on the docile Little Mermaid ride, Haunted Mansion, Prince Charming Carousel, Peter Pan's Flight (after an interminable wait due to malfunctions), and—though I swore I wouldn't get near it—It's a Small World.  (Now that song will haunt me for another two years before I can get it out of my head!)

Piglet shows his timid nature.
With such a full day planned, we booked reservations for both lunch and dinner in the Magic Kingdom.  Lunch was at the Crystal Palace, home of the characters who hail from the Hundred Acre Woods.  The buffet meal was better than anticipated, and we enjoyed the down time, sitting in an air conditioned space for an hour.  Periodically, one of the characters would visit our table for photo ops, and by the time we left, all had come by.

Rachel and her friend "Belle"
Between some of the rides and dinner, we were able to meet Rachel's friend who was performing "Enchanted Tales with Belle" that day.  For those unschooled in the Disney princess lore, Belle is the female character (originally known as Beauty) from Beauty and the Beast.  We all enjoyed watching her excellent portrayal, and Rachel snagged a special photo op.

Late in the day, Karen and the girls were in line for a ride (Seven Dwarves Mine Train, I think) when it malfunctioned.  They waited a while to see what would happen, and when they left, Whitney was carrying a handful of extra Fast Passes that were issued to ease their inconvenience.  This was one more in a series of incidents which convinced us that the House of Mouse really does try to keep its guests happy.

We were hoping that our 9:00 dinner reservation at Tony's Town Square restaurant would have us finishing up our meal just in time for the nightly fireworks show over the castle.  Maybe if we hadn't decided to order that tiramisu for dessert, things would have worked out that way.  But we did, so they didn't.  We were still at our table when we heard the fireworks begin, but we were under the impression that it was a 30-40 minute show, so we weren't in a particular rush.  Wrong.  By the time we exited the restaurant, the ten-minute fireworks were all spent.

But we didn't care.  We still had Fast Passes to burn, so off we went for a few more rides.  But wait.  The lines were really short as most people began exiting the park after the fireworks, so best to ride another one or two.  And hey, it was our last night at Disney World, so we should ride just one more, at least.  Finally, it was midnight, and the park was closing, so our only option was heading for the exit also, only to encounter a series of unfortunate delays.  The monorail was out of service, so we had a choice of bus or ferry to return to the transportation center for a bus to our hotel.  By the time we reached our bus stop, it was almost 1 a.m., and as soon as we sat on the bench to wait, rain began to fall.  Finally able to read the handwriting on the wall, we tracked down a taxi to drive us back to the hotel, where we all slept very well.  Miles walked Sunday:  10.2

Like all good things, our DisneyWorld sojourn had come to an end.  On Monday morning, Karen, Karoline and Whitney packed up their car and drove home to Alabama.  Rachel and I shared a ride to the airport, where we went our separate ways to catch our respective flights home.  It had been a wonderful four days.  The girls had an opportunity to reconnect again in a way they haven't been able to for a number of years, and, as always, our time with family left us with a happy heart and an abundance of precious memories.  Wonder if Disney is ready to accept reservations for 2028?

Obviously, Karen has lost her edge on height.
Whitney meets some characters.
Rachel and Karoline made some friends also.
2002 transportation
Ice cream for breakfast?  Rachel tried it in 2002, but stayed away this time.
New York, Disney style
Whitney, Karen and Karoline
Mother and daughters again
Three good candidates for Prince Charming (He wishes!)
A selfie with Tigger
Three yaya princesses at their castle
Coming down off Splash Mountain
Brave yayas!  Going through Small World hands up (no Cheetos this time)
And to all, a good night.