I won't coat this in Tinkerbell dust for you: My family and I aren't really Disney people. My children (Lids, 6, and Cece, 3) can barely sit through a movie—any movie, Disney or not—and vehemently avoid anything involving "bad guys." A year ago, Lids dragged me out of a revival-showing of Finding Nemo the minute Bruce the seemingly sinister shark showed up. As a result, all they know is Frozen, Moana and the aforementioned Nemo (after giving it another shot). They're pretty much illiterate when it comes to the Disney canon.
Lo and behold, though, after Lids' preschool friends recently returned from a family vacation to the Magic Kingdom, she asked to go to Disney World. I told her we had to wait until her younger sister stopped napping, which bought me a year (though the 3-year-old actually kicked her nap when she was two). To be honest, the mere thought of all the tactical planning it takes to conquer a Disney vacation sent shivers down my spine, and not in an Idina-Menzel-belting-out-"Let It Go"-amid-a-frosty-wonderland sort of way. It just did not seem fun to me. At all. (Like I said, we aren't really Disney people.)
We are, however, Chevy people. My husband owns two huge Chevy work trucks. (Seriously, one of them is a dump truck.) So when Chevy invited us to drive their redesigned 2018 Chevy Traverse during a four-day Disney World vacation, I jumped on it. GM (Chevy's parent company) and Disney have a partnership that goes back decades. So I told my daughters to pack up their best princess dresses (of course, Lids chose a Barbie one—oyyyyy) and we flew down to Orlando.
When we arrived at the airport we made our way to the Traverse that Chevy had waiting for us, and that's when we were hit in the face by the chicken-noodle-soup humidity of the Sunshine State. So we do what anyone would: jack up the AC, turn on the ventilated seats (ooooh!), take a family selfie and navigate to the Grand Floridian, a Magic Kingdom hotel that is just beyond. (Rooms start at $574/night, which I admit would normally be just beyond my budget). Set up like a Victorian-era Palm Beach resort, everything is clean and white—and many of the staff wear bloomers and call me "young lady."
We are melting from the heat (90 degrees in October? Get it together, Florida!), so we take a swim in one of the hotel pools. But there's a Princess Promenade I've heard about that happens in the hotel's main lobby, so soon we're scooping up the girls to experience the wonder of Cinderella dancing with Prince Charming to a live orchestra. There my girls stand, still dripping, while a parade of small children in candy-colored gowns gracefully accompany Cinderella down the grand staircase to the main floor. My kids shrug. We go back to the pool.
That evening, Chevy invites us to EPCOT to see Test Track, a ride sponsored by Chevy since 2012 that lets guests design their own simulation cars and then take them for a spin in a virtual, high-octane "race." Disney Imagineer Diego Parras, Chevy Design Manager Jeff Mylenek and David Hardiman, Show Design & Product Manager for Disney Imagineering, speak with us about how the Disney and Chevy creative teams came together to design the ride, which took 18 months of daily between the two teams. Lids and my husband, Andy, climb on in to a car, while I comfort Cece about not quite making the height requirement. They come off the ride flushed with excitement at hitting over 60 miles per hour in the car we designed.
After the ride, Chevy surprises us with dessert (ice cream sundaes!) and a visit from Mickey and Minnie. Cece high-fives and hugs them while Lids literally cowers in a corner. No amount of coa could get her in front of the world's most famous mice, so we scoop up the kids and say our goodbyes.
When we get back to the hotel, we manage to catch the Electrical Water Pageant, a weird, wonky little performance of light-up, sea-creature floats on the a lagoon. Lids exclaims, "This is the best show ever!" and begins singing along to "You're a Grand Old Flag." That's when it sinks in how much the next few days are going to blow my kids' minds. Because no objective person would call that toot-toot holdover from 1971 the best ever. It's cute. It's nostalgic. But best ever? No.
Right after my kids settle into the comfiest beds in the entire world, the Magic Kingdom fireworks show starts up and it feels like we are under siege. Still, I will never complain about being comped a super-fancy hotel room, even when it feels like the fireworks are being launched from the foot of my bed.
On Saturday, we are greeted with another eleventy-billion-degree day. Seriously, Florida! How am I supposed to get a cute family photo when your weather is conspiring against us? Every picture we snap, we all look sweaty and insane and there is no amount of product that will contain this frizz situation.
Anyway, we plan to take the Traverse to the "Space Coast" and tour the Kennedy Space Center. My husband, a big NASA geek, is excited. My girls are only interested in the playground.
Luckily, the hour-plus drive to and from the Space Center is awesome, thanks to the Traverse. Some background: It's in the mid-SUV D segment. People who buy this type of SUV are loyalists—over half don't consider another vehicle. And we immediately understand why. It's roomy, yet easy to drive and not so huge that you can't manage to park it. It's also equipped with some really nice "family car" amenities. There's hidden storage behind the radio screen that you can password-protect to hide, um, anything you don't want anyone to easily access. But you know what's super easy to access? The back row, even with a car seat installed, because of the Smart Slide design. There's Internet (you can connect up to 7 devices for just $20/month) and USB ports basically everywhere. My favorite, though, is the hands-free liftgate. If you've got your arms full of bags, children, whatever, and your car key's in your pocket, a little Chevy symbol will light up on the ground. Kick at it, and the liftgate opens. Now that's magic. My kingdom for such magic! (See what I did there?)
On the way back to the hotel, I use the car's data connection to plan our afternoon. (Don't worry, Andy's driving!). I log on to the My Disney Experience app and snag us Fast Passes for EPCOT. Technology has vastly improved the guest experience at the park. Each of the three daily allotted Fast Passes lets you basically jump a ride's line so long as you arrive within your reservation window (no more hours-long waits!) while the tracking device-like Magic Band allows you to unlock your Disney-hotel room door, enter the park, charge things onto your credit card and use those Fast Passes. The last time we went to Disney about a decade ago, my wallet was stolen. With the Magic Band, there's virtually no need to even bring your wallet into the park. I tuck mine in the hotel dresser drawer for safekeeping.
In EPCOT, we walk right onto The Seas with Nemo and Friends. The ending opens into an aquarium, and my kids even allow us to take a photo in dreaded Bruce's mouth. Are they starting to get Disney? Is it possible?
We also get the first of our "squishy pennies." Before we left, I joined a Facebook group of Disney-obsessed local parents. Their intense discussions weighing the merits of dining plans and stroller strategy immediately overwhelmed me, but they took pity on me and offered helpful top-level advice, like bring lots of quarters and shiny pennies for the squishy-penny machines that are dotted around the parks. This tip proved to be genius because my girls loved to hunt for them, and the 51-cent souvenirs are probably the best value in the whole place.
We are starving, so my husband suggests we hop over to Germany for a beer. Being complete noobs, we don't realize that Germany is one of the farthest countries or that we will be fighting the hoards of weekend Food and Wine Festival attendees on a day where the weather feels like we are walking on the surface of the sun. (The Food and Wine Festival looks awesome and is definitely something I would have done either 10 years ago or 20 years from now. But not with two hot, sweaty, whiny children in tow who don't understand why we didn't rent the double stroller for $31/day like the local Facebook group told us to.) When we finally get to Germany, we order what must be the world's largest pretzel, a hot dog, some cold potato salad and two delicious beers. It is restorative and prepares us for our journey back to the giant golf ball, excuse me geodesic sphere, to ride the Spaceship Earth.
That night, we hit the sack early since we're getting up at 6 to get to Animal Kingdom before it opens. As I drift off to sleep, BOOM BOOM BOOM goes the fireworks show. I bury my head under the pillow while Cece kicks me in the back in her sleep.
Dawn breaks on another 90-degree day. We arrive at the Animal Kingdom theme park and enter "backstage" (anything the public sees is "onstage") to meet with Diego and Matt Beiler, Show Producer for Walt Disney World, who walk us through the complete immersive experience of Pandora—The World of Avatar, an "all-new land that celebrates the magic of nature." They point out the lack of signage (all the better to immerse yourself in said immersive experience) and use of totems custom-built by artisans in Indonesia, Sumatra and Java. I nod a lot, following along as best I can. I have never seen the movie Avatar and I'm sketchy on the details: Blue people? Flying creatures? That sort of thing? (Have I mentioned we're not really Disney people?) But I can easily appreciate how gorgeous it is and how much thought and love the designers put into it. We ride Na'vi River Journey, which leads us through re-creations of a bioluminescent environment. It contains Disney's most advanced Audio-Anamatronic figure, the Shaman of Songs, which took 5 to 6 years to develop. (At least I think that's what they said. Being expected to retain information in this heat while also being responsible for the well-being of two small children is just too much.) Lids whispers to me, "That's just pretend, right?" And I assure her it is, though I'm not actually sure myself. The whole ride is so pleasant and calming that as we exit, one of the other parents jokes that they should rent the place out for nap time.
Next up, the Avatar Flight of Passage. Wait times are insane, so the chance to get right on is really special. The lead-up and storytelling on the way to the actual ride is still quite long and intense, and there's a blue creature thingy (an Avatar?) suspended in a giant tank that freaks Lids out. When they "decontaminate" us by blowing air around the chamber we're standing in, she loses it. We never make it onto the ride, which involves sitting on a motorcycle-shaped seat and getting a 3D flight experience because Lids drags me toward the emergency exit. As we leave, the wait time for the ride is 180 minutes, with a line stretching through the park. Oh well, I guess I'll never experience riding a Na'vi—or as we call them, banshee. (I'm just mimicking what I heard here. I have no idea what that actually means.)
After Lids dries her tears and takes a few deep breaths, we head on over to breakfast at Tiffins (they normally only serve lunch and dinner, FYI), where she eats the face off of a Mickey waffle and declares the meal over.
Luckily, our VIP tour guide shows up so we're ready to roll. Now, Molly is a Disney maven. She came to the park for years as a kid, works one of the attractions in Hollywood Studios and is also a tour guide. These guides do not come cheap ($425 to $600 an hour). She is basically an unlimited human Fast Pass who can turn your dreams into reality. You want to hit every ride in the park? She can do that for you. You want to jump among parks all day? She can do that for you (with your valid park hopper tickets, of course). You need a meal reservation when no more exist? She can do that for you. Molly hopes to move up within Disney's management ranks, which is quite a long process. She's calm, confident, and if Disney knows what's good for them, she'll go far.
We have a loose plan of doing the Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, then transferring over to Magic Kingdom for 6 hours of pure magic. We mention to her that we'll need to rent a double stroller once we get there (lesson learned from the EPCOT Food and Whine festival debacle).
The safari is very, very cool. You ride in a giant truck that can drive through water and see a lot of animals (elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras!) in the 15-20 minutes the safari takes. Lids takes photos the whole time. Molly then brings us backstage so we can drive over (in a Chevy, of course) to Magic Kingdom. I ask if there was debate about taking tour guests backstage because it breaks the magic, and she confirms there was. But I think it's worth it. Plus, it was super cool to see some of the true behind-the-scenes stuff, like the massive horticulture center where they grow the plants for the Disney properties and events, including the flower show. Molly also points out that they take a sample of the walls from each of the experiences and leave them in a spot backstage. When it's weathered to the point of needing to be repainted, they know they need to repaint the whole experience. It really reinforces Disney's level of attention to detail.
We arrive at Magic Kingdom backstage where a team of 3 of Molly's coworkers pop out of a Chevy and offer us snacks, cold drinks and A DOUBLE STROLLER. When you wish upon a star, you can have unlimited use of one of Disney's well-designed double strollers. This saves our day. There is no whining when both kids can easily jump in for a ride from activity to activity. Our focus is on rides of the not-too-scary variety, and we spend the next several hours just blasting through them. We hit: Dumbo, The Barnstormer, Cinderella's Castle, It's a Small World (twice), Jungle Cruise, Mad Tea Party (though after my first go-round, I quickly decide the teacups are not my cup of tea and I let the rest of the family spin themselves silly without me), The Many Adventure of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan's Flight (twice), Mickey's PhilarMagic, Prince Charming Regal Carousel, Under the Sea Journey of the Little Mermaid and Pirates of the Caribbean (last ride of the day, too scary!). We did all of that, plus had lunch at one of the fast-casual restaurants and saw the parade from the VIP area, which is mercifully in the shade.
Watching Cece's face light up every time a character waves back at her during the Festival of Fantasy Parade makes my heart swell. All of us are loving every minute of it: the singing, dancing, pageantry. Could it be that we are starting to become Disney people? Or are the Mickey-shaped ice cream bars here laced with Disney magic?
Snuggled into bed, the fireworks show begins again. Groundhog day. But this time, I slip out of bed and sneak outside to watch it. The glow of the display illuminates a woman in front of me who is wearing Minnie ears (Minnie headbands are the modern version of the classic Mouseketeer hat). My kids would love this if their bedtime wasn't 8 p.m. and they weren't total monsters if we pushed them too far beyond that, and I imagine their joy one day when they get to experience it.
It's our last day. We do a half-day at Hollywood Studios. The weather mercifully breaks and it's only 85 degrees out. Cool. And here's a hot tip from Molly, our tour guide: Get to Hollywood Studios at rope drop and head straight for Toy Story Mania! There aren't any 9 a.m.fast passes, so the line will be relatively short. Then hit the Frozen Singalong Celebration (my kids freaked over seeing Elsa and Anna IN PERSON and it "snows" in the theatre).
There are also tons of character interactions in the park. A couple of Storm Troopers keep marching around like they own the place, which makes me nervous. Lids has finally warmed up and happily meets Sofia the First and Doc McStuffins.
At 11:30, we catch the first seating at Hollywood & Vine, which guarantees character interactions. We meet Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Minnie, filling my kids' autograph books with A+ signatures. The early seating is really clutch because it wasn't crowded so we didn't feel rushed when meeting the characters or eating. By 12:15, when we were ready to leave, the place has filled up.
We take the bus back to the hotel, decompress a bit and then head to the airport. Just as we leave Disney property and are about halfway to the airport, I realize that I have left my wallet in the dresser drawer. (The wallet again!) We floor the Traverse, get back to the hotel in record time, grab the wallet thanks to the gold-star Chevy staff and then race back to the airport (the car was super responsive as we gunned it, so bonus points for that), arriving at our gate just as they begin to board.
We may never be the family wearing matching custom T-shirts or Minnie ears, but as we have learned on this trip, there are all kinds of Disney people. And Disney has orchestrated it so you have the experience you want—from food and wine to princess paradise. My kids cried as we waved goodbye to our vacation. They didn't want to leave, and Andy and I are already considering our next trip back.
I guess we are Disney people after all.