Do Disney right

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2012 - 6:09 PM

Heading to Walt Disney World in Florida? Perk up your mouse ears for these insider tips.

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The entrance to Mission Space, a motion simulator ride at Disney's Epcot theme park.

Photo: Star Tribune, Jim Lileks

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First things first: We go through Epcot security, where they paw through our bags to make sure we don't spoil anyone's day with bombs or pistols, then we juke around the enormous faceted sphere that symbolizes Progress, or something. Straight up toward the fountain, around to the right, and huzzah: free Coke. All you can drink. It's the World of Coke attraction, with flavors from around the globe.

I pour a glass of Beverly, an Italian drink described by most people as a remarkably undrinkable abomination, and give it to my daughter. She refuses it. I drink it off and have another, daring all to marvel: See the man who willingly drinks Beverly.

It's how we start our day at Epcot, a family tradition. How did I know it was there?

Because I've been to Walt Disney World and its four theme parks a few times in my day, and I know a thing or two.

So here you go, friends: insider tips they don't want you to know. Seriously! If you clip it out and take it to Disney World, Goofy will walk over and rip it right out of your hands. Well, no. The people who run the Mouse Nation want you to know little tips and tricks. Some things, however, you need to figure out yourself, such as "How did it come to pass that I am paying six dollars for a Rice Krispie bar?"

We will explain why. Eventually. First, some things to consider:

Where to stay?

Not everyone wants to stay at a Disney-owned resort. We call these people communists. But if you want to go "off-property," as we insiders call it, the enormous Dolphin and Swan hotels are popular; they're also designed by Michael Graves, who did that snappy line of brooms and toilet brushes for Target.

If you stay at a Disney resort, you'll get a 175 percent increase in the amount of Disney-osity your child will experience. The resorts have little to do with the theme parks, so you don't burn out after day one; rather, the Disney-osity comes from the set design and experience management. Choose from a Caribbean theme around a vast fake lake, or a Mexican theme around a vast fake lake, or a 19th-century upstate New York theme around a vast fake lake, and so on.

Prices vary, but they all have one thing in common: free transportation to the parks and water attractions. Buses run constantly until the park closes. By the way, your room's keycard serves as your currency while you're in the Mouse nation. Everything gets charged to the card, which makes it seem as if you're not spending money at all. The downside is a mortifying bill at the end of it, but at least you'll see where everything went.

Dining plan or not?

If you're staying on property, they'll offer the Dining Plan. You get two snacks, two drinks, one stand-up dining, one table-service dining, one sit-down dining, one squat-and-waddle dining, one dessert per person per day. There's a point system. The terminology is not exactly intuitive, and the staff probably wants to scream because they have to explain this over and over and over again to people. But it's worth it, providing you stick to it. Otherwise the process of keeping everyone fed, snacked and hydrated will feel as if you are bleeding money through every orifice on your body. Make sure you get it when you check in, before you see the prices at the snack bar. There are no second chances.

The good restaurants -- a relative term at Disney resorts -- get booked up well in advance; same goes for "character breakfasts," where your child can interact with Mickey, et al. Get on the phone when you finish reading this.

Such things will cost extra, because Walt Disney World is the most remarkable machine for monetary extraction ever conceived by the human mind. The small things add up, so don't fall prey to the small things. By which I mean "your children." Also things like water. Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it from the fountains, which are free. Yes, free. It's Florida. It's hot. They're not sadists.

Souvenir strategy

The parks have ample opportunities for buying licensed merchandise, and the variety will stun you. If you want to get it done in one place, the store at Downtown Disney is the largest. Great, you say: We'll avoid buying anything in the park, then go there on our last day. To which a veteran says, with a rueful smile: You just try that now, and we'll wish you all the luck. What happens is the opposite: You go to Downtown Disney the first night you arrive and pick up more stuffed junk as the trip goes on.

Learn about the FastPass

These are reservations you can place for the most popular rides, like Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, or Soarin' at Epcot. The minute you're in the park, run for the ride with heedless granny-tramplin' speed. Knock over things! Overturn baby carriages! Just shout "FastPass admission" and folks will understand. I'm absolutely serious about this: Plan your FastPass acquisition strategy the day before, and check the map so you know where you're going.

As for the rides, they vary from the thrilling to the mundane. Your correspondent is fond of Test Track, which is the stupidest ride in the world until it speeds your vehicle at a brick wall at 55 miles per hour. Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom is wonderful for snapped necks; the famous Teacups at the Magic Kingdom will bring back memories and bring up breakfast as well.

Not everything is a ride: The Monsters Inc.-themed "Laugh Factory" in Tomorrowland is a stage show of sorts, except the characters are animated, but they're talking to you and making specific references to your shirt, so they can't be animated -- what sorcery is this? Well, there are clever improv comics backstage with sensors attached to their heads, so they can control their characters. The same technology is used at Epcot's undersea exhibit, where kids talk to Crush, the stoner turtle from "Finding Nemo." It's quite remarkable, and the look on your child's face is worth the price of admission.

It is worth the price of admission. It's all worth the price of admission. People think that it's just for kids, but even the most cynical person can find something fascinating at a Disney resort. It's the most elaborate stage set in the world, a play where 98 percent of the cast changes every day, and shows up without knowing their lines. Just studying the way they use music to set the moods in the various regions of the parks could take three days.

But there's more!

Fireworks close each day. The most popular, of course, is the Wishes display that lights up Cinderella's Castle, a sight that makes boomer parents think of sitting in front of the TV on Sunday night, and hence connects with their most cherished and elemental memories. Daddy, why are you crying? I'm just so happy. Look! It's Tinkerbell! And then it's over and, oh my God, you're trapped behind 9 million people.

If you are trapped, you can move through Main Street faster if you duck into a store. Any store. They're all connected. But don't put yourself in this position if you want to get back to the resort for a swim and a beer: Stake out a spot before the fireworks by the main gate. When it's done, turn around, and run for the buses.

One more piece of advice: Don't go for spring break. Wait until the fall, if you can. In October, Epcot has a Food and Wine Festival in the International area -- that's a bunch of foreign-lookin' buildings around a vast fake lake, and one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. Antiseptic ersatz, yes, but it's different, and every building has a surprise, be it a 360-degree theater or a volcano or an army of half-scale terra-cotta warriors, or even robot presidents. Anyway, the food is something unique for a Disney experience: It's really different and it's really good.

You can either get the jump on summer by going for spring break, or extend the summer a little longer and do something for yourself by going in the fall. Whichever you choose, remember: You cannot see it all. Don't even try.

It'll be there for the next time, and by then you'll be an old hand. You'll know why you paid six bucks for a Rice Krispie bar: because it was delicious; because your kids asked nicely; because you'd been saying no and it was time for the occasional yes. And because you bought one last time. It's your tradition now -- and you'll make so many before you're done.

Last tip: You're never done.

By the way, on a recent trip to Italy, I searched in vain for Beverly. In three cities. Never saw it. Asked for it once, and got an odd look: What do you think this is, Disney World?

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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