When Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Fla., in 1971, my parents wasted no time in taking my sister Nancy and me, and our best friend, Carolyn. We stayed in the Contemporary Resort, took the monorail to the Magic Kingdom, and could not imagine anything better.
Universal Studios Florida debuted in 1990 and I showed up soon after to check it out - this time pushing my own little boys in a stroller, and meeting Carolyn and her son at the gate. We spent a lot of time in Fievel's Playland.
Today, the original versions of the two destinations seem like relics of a distant era. Disney World now has five parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM, Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney) and 22 resort hotels with a total of 25,000 rooms. Universal has three amusement areas (Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Citywalk) and can house 2,400 guests in its three hotels. Carolyn and I have boys in college and my younger son, 16, is past the playground stage, but fortunately I have a 6-year-old daughter - a late addition to the clan - who gave us the perfect excuse to plan a trip and see what's new at the Orlando theme parks.
Here's what we found on our recent visit:
Walt Disney World
From my boring, adult point of view, one of the best updates to Disney World is the 8,500 value-priced rooms, mostly in four resorts: All-Star Music, All-Star Movies, All-Star Sports and Pop Century. With the Magic Your Way program, you can build a week of lodging and park admission for a family of four for less than $1,600.
Though our four-person room in the Pop Century was fine, especially for $79 a night, if I went back I'd spring for one of the new poolside Family Suites at the All-Star Sports Resort (from $169). These sleep six and have microwaves, fridges and flat-screen televisions. Another option is the Disney Vacation Club, time-share condominiums you can take by the night when available. My mother-in-law recently bunked at DVC's Old Key West and raved about it.
Take the money saved on lodging and get ready to blow it.
In addition to all the usual ways to spend a fortune at Disney, there's now a Princess Tea Party where your little sweetheart gets to dine one-on-one with a princess at the elegant Grand Floridian Resort. The not-so-sweet price is $225, but it does include a doll, wand and tiara.
Visitors can't leave without seeing a performance of Cirque du Soleil in the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and nightlife complex. Cirque is the most beautiful and amazing spectacle I've ever witnessed and is definitely worth the $95 ticket. (That's the most expensive price level, but a great view means a lot here.) Next door is DisneyQuest, a vast playground of high-tech amusements that young gamers can disappear into for hours for $36. Parents can park themselves at the House of Blues across the way with an order of Voodoo Shrimp and a cold beer.
In addition to the tea party, my daughter, Jane, loved the Lion King, Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast musical shows. "It's a Small World" won her heart as it did mine in 1971.
Although she thought the new Finding Nemo attractions were pretty cool, she was much more impressed with Soarin' - a simulated aerial ride over California, including vistas of Yosemite National Park and Napa Valley, encounters with hang-gliders and hot-air balloons, and sudden fragrances of pine forest, orange grove and the sea. This attraction, like the other big-kid rides, including Expedition Everest, Tower of Terror and the Aerosmith Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, can have very long lines, so we took advantage of the FastPass option, which gives riders tickets to return at a specific time. FastPass is free and available on most rides. Whew.
Visitors to Disney this year have a chance to participate in the Year of a Million Dreams. The park is selecting 1 million visitors to win a variety of prizes ranging from Mickey Mouse ears to a ride in one of the parades to a night in the fancy new room at Cinderella's Castle. Other "dream" rewards include admission to a special event, such as Epcot's Party for the Senses, a $125-a-ticket wine and food sampling.
Winners are selected at random by their time and location in the park. For example, on Oct. 28 at 11:30 a.m., the winner was whoever sat in a certain seat on the Star Wars ride at MGM. It happened to be Angie Berdar, 26, of Gaithersburg. She was given two tickets for Party for the Senses.
"It was absolutely wonderful," she says. "There were chefs from all over the world, a performance by Cirque du Soleil and great wines." While she and her uncle enjoyed the spread, the others in her group were given FastPasses for the evening.
However, the glass slipper doesn't always fit so nicely. That same day, Tom Beall of Ellicott City was tapped on his way out of the Dumbo ride with his granddaughter. Three Disney employees tried to tell him he was a prize winner, but Beall was sure they were selling him a timeshare.