Disney World Joins 50-Somethings: Grown-Up Attractions - My Family Travels

If you’ve got kids, you probably recall that Disney’s “Happiest Celebration on Earth” was a much publicized company-wide initiative marking the 50th birthday of the original Disneyland. Disney showed us this was one aging Boomer who’s not ready to retire: from several new attractions, to a wall decorated with commemorative tiles created by past visitors, new guest service initiatives, to the opening of a spectacular theme park in Hong Kong, 2006 was a very busy year for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Fortunately, all the innovation made Disney World in Orlando even more fun for parents and grandparents.

Yes, 2006 was Disneyland’s 50th birthday, but this dowager didn’t receive the facelift that the Orlando park did. Instead, Magic Kingdom’s centerpiece Castle received a gilding and a nip n’tuck for the worldwide celebration. The new parade designed for the celebration, Wishes, has since been voted the park’s #1 attraction by visitors, and takes place on Main Street each evening. Other park enhancements have been ongoing too.

Disney World Scales Everest

Disney World Orlando, where there’s more real estate to develop, seized the milestone to open one of its best recent adult attractions, Expedition Everest, a themed coaster ride at Animal Kingdom. Guests are plunged into an engrossing storyline as a climbing team boards a steep mountain railway and comes across an angry Yeti. This mystical hairy-ape-like creature, sacred to the Nepalese and Chinese who believe he protects their “mother” mountain, shadows the entire ride experience, from the detailed Serka Zong village in the Himalayas where park guests join the expedition, to the foothills of Everest, where he…

Designed for guests taller than 44” including active grands, and perfectly suitable for the first ride after lunch, Expedition Everest is a fun, mile-long ride with an 80-foot-drop, dark elements and plot twists. Our group of avid travelers adored the authentic details of the base village and its three-tiered mandir or temple, carved with Yeti images. Landscapers brought in more than 900 bamboo plants, 10 species of trees, and 110 species of shrubs to convincingly transform the 6.2-acre parcel into the Himalayan foothills.

Here’s one ride where you won’t mind the wait, as the snaking queue route is lined with Everest memorabilia, research photographs from Nepal and Tibet, posters for trekking companies, aged woodwork, and pottery seemingly lifted from Namche Bazar (modeled after elements of the Ding Gua Shan monastery in Mustang, Nepal).

According to Joe Rohde, executive designer at Walt Disney Imagineering and the attraction’s passionate creator, “We started with the concept of a big iconic object – with an element of action and a man in conflict with Nature theme – to construct our story.”

Animal Kingdom Attractions

“We typically do a lot of research for all the attractions,” continues Rodhe, “but in this case we also added a conservation element.” In their research, the Imagineering team trekked the Himalayas, looking for source material and partnered with Conservation International to pursue research on the golden monkey, their inspiration for the appearance of the mythical Yeti.

Expedition Everest succeeds in convincing your teens to spend a day at “the zoo” as some have disparaged Animal Kingdom – and that’s a plus because our family considers this to be Disney World’s most intriguing park because it is real-world-oriented and multicultural.

AK has a conservation station where guests can learn about animal rehabilitation, an African village called Harambe where genuine artisans create and display their wares, and myriad opportunities for families to explore regions in Asia and Africa. And while this park usually closes at 6pm to allow its animal denizens to get some rest, one night per week Disney plans to keep it open an extra three hours so park guests can try riding Expedition Everest at night.

The youngest of the parks, AK was also gifted with the “Welcome to the Lion King” show, developed for the Hong Kong theme park. This half-hour musical review may remind some of the Broadway hit developed from Disney’s animated film, and is a worthy introduction to live theatre for your littlest ones. The large, elaborately-costumed cast of singers, giraffe-like stilt-walkers, and monkeying-around acrobats sing along with the film’s popular score and share a few words in Swahili. For any 50-somethings turingthe parks, this show offers an air-conditioned and sophisticated interlude in an otherwise tiring day.

Also check out “Finding Nemo – The Musical,” another review in Orlando’s Animal Kingdom. How do you pull off a half-hour singing fish tale? Leave it to the storytellers of Disney. They hired Peter Brosius, award-winning artistic director of Minneapolis’ acclaimed Children’s Theatre Company, as director. The delightful score comes from the team who did “Avenue Q” on Broadway, and the half-hour performance features 18 entertainers and puppeteers in remarkably expressive costumes.

Adult Fun at other WDW Parks

Among the other fun-for-adult attractions brought to Orlando’s Disney World parks, and straight from les rues de Disneyland Resort Paris, is Lights, Motors, Action, a super-charged stunt car racing show that’s great fun for all ages. Using a French Village backdrop and a film crew on a camera car, an informative cast direct a half-dozen tricked-out Opels, some motorcycles, car haulers with roof ramps, a pair of jetskis and several talented stunt drivers through various car chases.

In addition to watching the exciting and very noisy forwards, backwards, and flying-through-the-air car chases, Learners’ Permit holders and their parents get to see video playback of the stunts with a step-by-step explanation (including a fascinating look inside each customized vehicle) of how it’s done.

Mused one Dad we overheard leaving the theater, “You know son, even I learned something.” You’ll just have to plan a day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) to catch the show for yourselves.

EPCOT’s motion control and G-force simulation Mission Space ride continues to wow park-goers — despite its serious record of injury (Disney World reports 12 hospitalizations and the Orlando Sentinel reported 143 other riders sought medical attention), and death (two of the 11.8 million rides ended tragically). Checked repeatedly after the death of a 4-year-old boy in June 2005 (who was found to have a rare heart ailment) and a 49-year-old woman on April 12, 2006 (preliminary autopsy results indicate a stroke), the ride has been reopened to the public. Disney Spokesperson Vicki Johnson told Travel Weekly, “As with every thrill ride, it’s not appropriate for every guest. That’s why we go to such lengths to make sure they know. There are 13 signs advising them of danger, eight signs specifically about conditions like high blood pressure, neck or back injuries.”

We can corroborate Ms. Johnson’s comments. Those not deterred by the many warning signs are asked to enter a dark chamber, join a space crew, and perform certain button-pushing tasks at the appropriate time. Once strapped into the comfy captain’s chairs, a perception-altering film begins and the seats rise, bump, and jolt in unison to create the adventure. Because this sophisticated ride is more “extreme” than Space Mountain or some of the Disney rides of yesteryear, be extra cautious about family members who may have claustrophobia, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or fear of the dark before you join the admission lines. Disney has since opened another, milder version of the ride without the spinning centrifuge effect, perhaps more suitable for your clan’s elders.

In contrast, the very gentle, multi-generational Soarin’ attraction, a birds-eye view of California’s scenic beauty developed at the California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, has arrived in Florida to give the Sunshine State some competition. The Disney team hoists guests up in comfortable swing seats above an immersive video screen and encourages them to dangle their toes in the clouds, peaks, and splashing surf of the Pacific.

Doesn’t that sound like something about your speed?

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