We have just emerged from Disneyland East--four nights, three violent rainstorms, 100% humidity, at least 10 million people and a mixed bag of reactions at what is called, with disarming candor, Walt Disney World. That it is.
I picked up my wife and the 11-year-old kid in my household at the airport in Miami. They flew; I drove. After spending two days with relatives in Miami--a fairly dreadful city--we drove to Orlando for the centerpiece of our trip--four days with Uncle Walt Disney. We arrived shortly after noon and spent the first afternoon and evening at the just-opened Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. The next three days were divided between Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom Park, which is Florida-ese for what is known in Anaheim as Disneyland. My most vivid recollection of Disney-MGM is that sometime during our 45-minute wait to get on "The Great Movie Ride," which starts in a pale replica of Hollywood's Mann's Chinese Theatre, it occurred to me that in the same amount of time at home I could drive in to see the real thing. Oh, well. I must say that I found Disney's version of Hollywood Boulevard--a gauzy, Midwestern fantasy rendering--a lot more pleasant than the one in California.
The two major attractions at MGM-Disney are "The Great Movie Ride" and the "Backstage Studio Tour." The former makes use of remarkably well-crafted robotic figures of Hollywood luminaries to dramatize a history of the movies. I found it interesting and ingenious. The "Backstage Tour" seems to me modeled rather shamelessly on the Universal Tour in Los Angeles and not as good. Probably the high spot of MGM-Disney was dinner in a restaurant called the 50s Prime Time Cafe where a TV set at your table plays excerpts from old sitcoms (the tape is much too short, repeating itself several times during dinner), while the menu favors the Disney conception of Mom's old favorites. It works pretty well.
The Magic Kingdom--with a few not particularly notable exceptions--is a clone of Disneyland. The biggest difference lies in the surroundings. Where the compactness of Disneyland is accentuated by the parking lots and jungle of motels that surround it, Florida's Magic Kingdom--built on exactly the same scale--gives the impression of spaciousness because it is surrounded by spacious grounds and water. A ferry boat has to deliver you from the parking lot to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.
Once you are inside the park, the contrast with Disneyland is minimal. The Magic Kingdom has Liberty Square in place of the New Orleans portion of Disneyland, and there are several rides that are different. Otherwise, you could just as well be at Disneyland. Our principal adventure there was a violent rainstorm that hyped the sale of Disney-packaged ponchos ($3.50 for adults, $3 for kids) and soaked us quite thoroughly. The rain was persistent enough to cancel the fireworks and electrical parade and send us back to our hotel squeezing water out of our shoes at every step.
The cultural centerpiece of Walt Disney World is Epcot Center, and we spent the bulk of our time there. More than anything else, Epcot reminded me of a rather constricted copy of some of the world fairs I've attended. It is divided into two distinct parts: the World Showcase and Future World. The former consists of 11 national pavilions (including the United States) showcasing the glories and the foodstuffs of each country. The latter is a series of gee-whiz natural and technological marvels of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
In general, I found the technological exhibit, including the Journey Through Imagination, surprisingly unimaginative, and the national pavilions surprisingly superficial--architectural facades that front mostly for shops and frequently good restaurants. (We had our best meal at the French pavilion.) But Epcot is so pleasantly spacious that you seldom feel the press of humanity except in the omnipresent lines for Future World rides.
A few random notes jotted down at Epcot:
--The best ride is General Electric's Horizons, and the most disappointing is General Motors' Motion, which starts out smashingly and then degenerates into a GM commercial.
--In the U.S. pavilion, the choice of Americans quoted in large block letters on the wall is fascinating. They include Ayn Rand, Charles Lindbergh, Sam Walter Foss, Wendell Willkie, Althea Gibson and Walter Elias Disney.
--The rides finally fuzz into an amorphous whole to the point where we were saying, "Well, we can check that one off; now what's next?"
A word should be said about prices. We were amply forewarned that Disney World would be outrageously expensive. It isn't--at least to those accustomed to Orange County, Calif., prices--if you exercise a little judgment about where and how you eat. The theme parks are expensive, especially if you buy a single day's admission. Four- or five-day passes are the best way to go (Disney no longer sells a three-day pass since the Studio park opened). The four-day pass costs $97 for adults and $77 for kids. But the biggest expense--at least for Californians--is getting there.
If all this sounds a bit jaundiced, I must admit I was often overpowered by the almost oppressive commercialism of the place from the 50 cents we were charged in our hotel for each credit card call to the plastic ponchos with the Disney label to the hundreds of stores and stands relentlessly pushing Disney artifacts. The spaciousness and beauty of the place and the variety of things to do is attractive, but I feel strongly that I've made my lifetime trip to Walt Disney World.
The 11-year-old kid, suspecting I would take such an approach, would like to enter a demurrer. He was enchanted, rushing from ride to ride with the dedication and energy and unquestioned acceptance of fantasy--even badly done--endemic to youth. He wants the readers of this column to know that Walt Disney World is a wonderfully exciting place. And it seems right and proper that he should have the last word.