ORLANDO, Fla. —During the last 10 years, I have written about some of the vacations my husband, our three children and I have taken to Ireland, Italy, Paris, Germany, the Netherlands and London. The response has been mixed. Many found inspiration in our tales; others thought my husband and I were crazy for "dragging" our children on trips that were too expensive and arduous for families with young ones.
We have recently returned from a five-day visit to Walt Disney World, and I'm here to tell you that a trip to Paris, London or Tuscany would be a breeze for anyone who has planned, paid for and survived a trip to those 39 square miles of drained Orlando, Fla., swamp with its time-sucking cycle of buses, endless lines and relentless commitment to merchandise.
Also much cheaper.
To be clear, I don't object to Disney on moral grounds. I love Disneyland and have been a season passholder for years. We even spent last Mother's Day at the Disneyland Hotel. That may be part of the reason my family and I were so disappointed by Disney World: We're spoiled. We live in Southern California with theme parks, world-class zoos, Seaworld and even a wild animal park all within driving distance. And certainly the encyclopedic travel guides and websites devoted to Disney World are proof enough that people are besotted with the place.
Which is why, when I was sent to Orlando to review the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort, I figured we might as well see what all the fuss was about at that other park.
Thinking back, I should have seen all those guides and sites as red flags. When hundreds of people have devoted thousands of hours to meticulously listing tips and warnings about how to have a successful trip to a resort that's supposed to be the most magical place on Earth, you know something is off.
After hours trying to navigate the website, with its uncountable number of resort and package choices, I was a mess. And I began with more parameters than most people. We are a family of five and didn't want to pay for two rooms, which narrowed the field considerably. (Only a few of the moderately priced resorts have suites.) We also didn't want to eat every meal out, because the cheapest meal plan was $45 a person a day and seemed to involve making reservations months in advance.
The only resort that worked for us was the Cabins at Disney's Fort Wilderness. Done. Then the park package had to be assembled — basic or Park Hopper (basic), water parks or not (water parks), extra baskets or treats in the room (nope), you're sure you don't want the meal plan (yes), please fill in all the names, ages and serial numbers of your party, not to mention all your credit card and flight info.
Then when I hit the "submit" button, the computer told me it couldn't accept the package, so I should call a representative. Who asked me for all the info again.
I hadn't even packed a bag and I was exhausted.
But I did not yet know the meaning of the word exhausted. The Pentagon needs to figure out some strategic use for the Florida summer. It saps the strength of even the perkiest child, the most inveterate traveler. Still, with the misters and the air conditioning, with the spray bottles we brought (on advice from a Disney World website), we had a lovely time at Universal Orlando. Not only was the Wizarding World fantastic, but both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios had many more and better rides than our local version does. The hotels are a five-minute boat ride away, and the room key acts as an Express Pass to many rides.
Disney World was another story. It's just so big, and everything is so spread out. The cabins at Fort Wilderness were nice and the setting was beautiful, a lovely lake with a sandy beach and piney woods bedecked by Spanish moss. But to get anywhere, we had to take a resort bus to the Outpost depot, where we took another bus to whichever theme park we had chosen for the day. In the end, we spent more time riding the bus than riding the rides.
Because there just aren't that many rides at Disney World.
Now granted, with just four full days, we decided to give the Magic Kingdom a pass because it is exactly like Disneyland, so that must be taken into account. But at the other parks — Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom — there are, essentially, two or three big rides and a handful of smaller ones.
As at Disneyland, extended hours are offered to those staying in resort hotels. But because nearly everyone at Disney World is staying on-site, this means nothing. We checked into our cabin midday and decided to relax for an hour or so and take advantage of the extra nighttime hours at Hollywood Studios.
Because it was open until midnight, we arrived at 6 p.m. only to discover that many of the shows closed at 7 and there were no Fastpasses left for the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, which had lines two hours long. While waiting, I learned from a Disney veteran that you must show up at the park the minute it opens, hang out long enough to collect a few Fastpasses (you can get only one an hour) and return in the evening.
If I had that kind of strategic mind, I would have gone to West Point. I thought I was on vacation, and the fact that the three grand I paid for four days would buy me a certain amount of ease. I had a much easier time getting us into the Louvre, the London Eye and the Vatican. The Vatican!
The next few days were a blur of very early mornings — we decided to take advantage of the 8 a.m. openings, which meant we had to be at the Outpost by 7:15, which meant we were up at 6 — and sprints to various Fastpass kiosks. Not surprisingly, the need for speed, the heat and the anxiety of time management made it impossible to enjoy the landscaping at the various parks or to keep track of various show times. And it wasn't just me. All around me, I saw hot and frenzied parents hustling their kids along so they could get to one ride or another before the line became prohibitive.
The water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, were the high points of the trip. There were long lines for these big slides, but the lazy rivers were open to everyone, and the little kids' sections were great for our 3-year-old — and Animal Kingdom is a wonderful place with its mini-safari and terrific Expedition Everest roller coaster. But there were so many paths to travel, so many buses to catch and it all cost so much that we felt fiscally obligated to walk and ride until we dropped.
For those people who don't live within spitting distance of Disneyland, no doubt Disney World is a revelation. For every hot, frustrated visitor, there were two others who seemed to be having a great time. But even to them, I would say: If you enjoy the faux worlds of Epcot, the mini-Eiffel tower, the fake Mexican pyramid, don't forget to see the real ones. Yes, the airfare is higher, but the day rate is nowhere near as expensive.
"Next summer," my 12-year-old son, Danny, said, laying his hot and weary head against the hard plastic of the tram seat, "let's go to Ireland. It's so much easier."