In 2002, I took a trip to DisneyWorld. I wrote about it, sent it in to the author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World”, and he published it! Even got him to sign a copy & send it to me. Anyway, the original text is below. He parsed out most of it, mainly focusing on the time-share fiasco. Last time I was in the book store, I was still mentioned briefly as “Mark from Texas.” It’s my 15 seconds of fame, I guess.
These are just some notes on our recent trip to Disney/Orlando in 2002. We left mid-January for 7-day trip. Our plan was to buy 4-day hopper passes for Disney. We figured we’d spend a half-day in Animal Kingdom, then a day in Epcot, and a day in Magic Kingdom. We also wanted to spend one day at Universal, and then return to one of the Disney parks for our last day there.
Travelling with 4 children, ages 1, 2, 11 & 14, was more difficult than I thought it would be. We left Houston around 8am, and driving East on I-10 pulled in to the Howard Jonson in Tallahassee just after midnight. That’s 16 hours for 600 miles or so! Wow. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they would have slept in the car at night, but as soon as evening came, “Waaaah! Waaaah! Me want out! Waaaaaaaah!”. On a dark road, out in the middle of nowhere, tired, and trying to focus on the hypnotic lines in front of me, I couldn’t handle the crying and fussing. My two older kids were fine, though.
Pulling in to Tallahasse, we booked a room using a coupon we had that said “children stay free”. They have those coupon books all over the place. We picked up 3 or 4 at the Florida state line rest area. The best prices were in the one called “Traveller”, which they have for each state. The room was spartan and boring. Typical motel. We had a bathroom, two double beds, and we added a crib for $10. The baby took the crib, my oldest boy slept on the floor, and I tossed & turned all night with the other baby while my wife snored with my daughter in the other bed. How exciting.
There was a continental breakfast the next morning. Complimentary donuts, cereal, apples and toast, if you don’t stand in line next to the Hungry Greedy family. But, we did manage to eat a little something & we were on our way. Note to self: don’t stay at the Howard Johnson next time. There’s gotta be something better than that.
That was Saturday. On Sunday, we travelled to the Disney information center at Ocala, where my 2-year-old got real excited. “That my Mickey!” he exclaimed to the giant figure in front. As far as he knew, this WAS Disneyworld. We could have turned around right then and he would’ve been happy. We checked on specials for hotels inside Disneyworld, but were disappointed at what they had. Best deal for a family of 6 was $150 a night in the Contemporary IF we bought at least one season pass. No thank you. Also asked about the crowds in mid-January. “Not too bad, except for tomorrow being a holiday & all.” “Holiday?” “Yes, its’ Martin Luther King day tomorrow.” Darn! I don’t get that holiday off, so it’s not on my calendar. Note to self: double-check holidays before planning Disney trip.
We paid our $850 or so for four 4-day hopper passes, and walked back to our overloaded Suburban. We were feeling dejected and disappointed. Most of the in-park hotels were full because of a holiday we didn’t know about, and even the ones with rooms available wanted a fortune to stay there. Oh, well. My wife had a whole lap full of coupon books open in no time. We were intent on finding a nice place to stay, and were certain there were several good deals just waiting for us in Orlando. After thinking about it awhile, I was glad we didn’t pay the extra dough to stay inside the park. You still have to drive to the gate, or might as well because it’s quicker to most parks, and since Sept. 11th, there’s no more early entry or staying late. That was the whole advantage of staying IN, so we could be there without the crowds for awhile. No more. Blame it on Bin Laden.
On our way down south, we kept seeing these signs. You can’t miss them. Florida vacations for less! Fifty percent off hotels! Discount tickets! Big, huge signs in red, white & blue. We thought, what the heck, let’s see what they got. We took the exit, saw a humungous sign that said “Right here!” in the same color, and pulled up next to the porch of a trailer which was totally dwarfed by its billboard. My wife went in, and a few minutes later said “They have this good deal for a hotel and tickets, but you have to see a presentation they have on timeshares or something. You want to do it?” “Heck, no! I’d rather lick a lava popsicle!” And I meant it, too. Voluntarily walking in to a den of hungry salesmen was not my idea of a fun vacation experience. We moved on.
Going down the Florida Turnpike, we saw those same type of signs again. Florida welcome center – discount tickets! Best hotel rates! Save 50% or more! Disney packages! Universal packages! Well, we still didn’t have our Universal tickets, so what the heck – let’s give these guys a try. We found the place, no bigger than your average Indian formal eveningwear specialty shop for women, but at least it didn’t have wheels under it. They had a deal we couldn’t pass up. Sounded awesome. Universal tickets for 4 people was $205, or if you take this deal, you can get TWO-day tickets to Universal for $125! And, they have a beautiful 2-bedroom suite, with jacuzzi tub, king-size bed, full kitchen, porch, kid’s room, three TV’s, and 7 heated pools with tennis, boating, fishing, fitness center, beautiful location, on the water, right next to Disney, for $100 a night. (Normal price: $350)
What’s the catch?
You have to listen to a 90-minute sales presentation on timeshares.
I would rather volunteer for severe burn cream testing.
I hate those presentations. Still, I felt compelled. It was at a place called Westlake Resorts, and it was beautiful, and it was in our price range – right on the high limit, but still in the range – and my oldest was already upset about not staying on Disney property, and gee it sure looked good, but I don’t know about that presentation. I hate high pressure salesmen. Oh, no, it’s not like that, they’re very nice, they’ll serve you breakfast & show you around, that’s all, no pressure at all, very nice people. Hmmm. The kids sure would love to stay in a place like that. OK. Yes. I’ll do it. I’ll stay at the mansion and suffer through 90 minutes of torture to get a discound. Sounded like a fair deal to me.
We were pleasantly supprised when we arrived. Beautiful, huge place. I think it must span 3 different time zones. Two bedrooms with all the amenities like the lady said. No problem so far. Even came with dishes. I hated the tile floor everywhere, because the babies would slip on it & get hurt, but couldn’t complain. Oh, and there’s no door between the master suite and the master bathroom, so you have to kick everyone out to take a shower. Still, not bad for the price. Not bad at all. Of course, I still didn’t believe it. I was sure they were going to “get me” somehow. Maybe they’ll say I broke something, or stole something, and put $1000 on my credit card. Oh, well.
Having 6 people in our family, we didn’t make it to Animal Kingdom as early as we wanted to, but it wasn’t crowded at all. We were delighted to see all the Disney characters come out right before the gates opened up, but being behind a couple of hundred people gave me just a sporatic view of Goofy’s ears flopping around. Even more delightful was the box of hissing cockroaches that my 2-year old was shown by a well-meaning park employee. Yech.
We took the book’s advice and went on the safari tour first. Compared to the other rides, it was boring. Compared to 16 hours in a car with screaming babies, it was amazingly tranquil yet thrilling. Kind of like driving around a zoo, but there aren’t any cages. The ride we all liked the best was Dinasaur. My wife laughed through the whole thing. She loves being jostled around while being attacked by prehistoric monsters.
Being the suburbanized idiots that we are, we figured there’d be no problem finding food at a theme park. Our mistake, actually, was not eating at eleven, but waiting until everything was good and crowded before we decided what to do for lunch. Can’t say that I very much enjoyed my grump companions as we spent over an hour in the rainforest cafe waiting on some $10 hamburgers, but hey, they had moving monkeys!
Epcot was terrific. My older kids were complaining alot about the slow (boring) rides at Animal Kingdom, so we were happily anticipating something with a little more pizazz at Epcot. Our first venture was over to Test Track, which was crowded, so we got some fast-passes. Those things are great! You swipe your tickets, pocket these receipts, and when you come back between the times shown, you walk right by a bunch of moody riders that stare at you with that “he’s cheating” look. I would’ve felt guilty if I didn’t enjoy walking through miles of twisting lines so much. We did the normal Epcot stuff, the cranium thing, the land thing, the ball thing, and were very impressed with Test Track. Child swapping is easy, too – just walk up to the line attendant and mutter “child swap – uh, what do I do?” They’re very nice. The just put you on a bench at the exit, and when your kids come out, you make them watch the babies so you can ride again with your wife. No problem.
The next day we spent at the Magic Kingdom. (We were trying to hit the tamest parks first.) This place was more crowded than Animal Kingdom. This was on a Tuesday, after the holiday was over. We still didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes on a ride, except for the little kid rides. There was a long wait for the dumbo ride, it’s a small world & peter pan, but still not too bad; 15-20 minutes tops. The kids enjoyed Space Mountain best (Splash Mountain was down), while the little ones liked the look-and-see rides better (since they could actually ride!). We made another dumb mistake and decided to stay in the park for lunch. Epcot had closed at 9pm, and we left a little before that to avoid the crowds around the lagoon fireworks, but we felt like taking the monorail to the tram to the car to the hotel & back would eat up all our spare time & we only had until 6:30, when the park closed. Thankfully, we caught Mickey out front for a visit and didn’t even venture into tune town.
The next day, we swore we’d take off for lunch and give ourselves a break.
We’re too dumb, I suppose, and can’t see ourselves wasting so much time when the operating hours are so short. We arrived on Wednesday at MGM about 30 minutes before open, got our daily double mammoth stroller rented & hooked it around the park. We hit all the rides on the list, one after another, just like the book says. We skipped walking tours of the back lot from pure exhaustion, and rode the movie ride twice. It was great. Even though the line was 20 minutes long or better, just to be able to sit down and have a place for the babies to run around instead of wiggling out of a seatbelt or lap bar was positively heavenly. My favorite ride at MGM was definitely, without a doubt, the rockin rollercoaster. I just loved the speed, the music, and just the whole idea of racing through the streets of LA to a concert in a fast, fast limo. Cool. Like I said, we stayed there for lunch, eating a really nice (uh, expensive) buffet & character meal. There were so few people there that Goofy made the rounds several times during our glutanous trips down the serving line. Hadn’t eaten a decent meal in several days before that. It kept us in good spirits until late afternoon, when we reached walking zombie stage & resorted to ice cream treats trying to keep the babies happy. We got comments from several people admiring our cute little children. “Have you seen their faces?” “Oh, my God!” Some just snickered and pointed. OK, so the ice cream turned into a kind of face & body wash; so what? They were happy!
By this time, my older kids were making plans for lifelong birth control and wishing they were just a little older or with real people instead of parents. We ended the night at the fantasia fireworks, and that was awesome! Love the way they project stuff onto the water spray like an overhead projector screen. I thought they did a little too much on the evil side. My babies were scared as time and time again, witches or dragons would appear and laugh menacingly, and then occasionally a “good guy” would come out & wave from a boat. Come on, are there really ten times more bad guys than good guys?
The next day was our day off: Thursday. We just had to sit and listen to a short 90-minute sales presentation with a free breakfast, then we’d all order a pizza or something and take a much-needed family nap. No pressure, no problems – a nice easy day!
Note to self: learn to make better decisions so you don’t say NOT! so much.
We sat down with a very nice gentleman, richly dressed and not intimidating at all. We had our youngest with us; we figured our kids could watch the 2-yr old for only 90 minutes in the room. They were just all watching cartoons anyway. So we sat down, made some cordial introductions, and made our way into the buffet line for free cold eggs and raw sausage. (Hey, free food is free food.)
Back at the table, we were pleased to discover that we accidentally ended up with the best timeshare salesman in the whole company, maybe the world! He told us all about how he used to be a professional soccer player, and he’s raising his son by himself, and he works from 7-noon everyday because he’s so successful, and he closes 57% of the deals, and he showed us a certificate he got recently, and how he just won this contest. And, believe it or not, we also found out the resort we were staying at was one of the best in the world! Everyone was going to want to stay in our timeshare, because everyone wants to go to Orlando. The company is debt-free, there’s thousands of resorts all over the world, they’re all 5-star wonderful places like this one (the book actually says it’s a 3-star, which is probably closer to the truth). It was looking like a really good deal. The baby started getting fussy after about the first two hours, but Mr. TimeshareSalesmanOfTheYear was being so pleasant and interesting. He explained all about how if we wanted a vacation home, we’d have to spend $500,000, then find timeshare people to stay there when we weren’t there, then there’s upkeep and taxes, and isn’t this hotel better, and you can trade with anyone and stay in Alaska or Israel or Peru or California no problem, only $129 for a whole week, you build equity, isn’t this better, oh yes, and if you tell someone else about it and they buy one, you get $300, and here’s this lady that’s retiring early and sending her kids through college on referrals, it’s so easy, now let me show you around our property on this nice little golf cart.
We rode on the cart. We walked around. We saw the mickey-mouse shaped pool, and the massage room, and the exercise room, and behold, it was very good. Then we went into a room full of tables, where happy vacationers were sitted with their salesmen, each being interrogated – eh, interviewed – about the wonderful opportunity. So Mr. MakeMoreMoneyThanMe finally shows us the price card.
TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?????!!!!!!!
There’s no way. He wanted a $4900 down payment TODAY, then $450 a month for 10 years! I tried to work those numbers out, and near as I can tell that’s in excess of 20% interrest rate. So, I told him so. No way. There is no way we can squeeze that kind of money out of our budget. Forget it. He looks hurt, but he’s a gentleman and tells us to wait right there and he’ll see what he can do. Then his sister, the manager, sits down and tells us she has one available for $8800! Wow! What a break! I can’t believe it! How lucky can you get?! The best resort, the best salesman, and now the steal of the century! Over half off! Unfortunately, we didn’t travel to Florida with plans of making a real estate purchase, so we didn’t have either the $250 down payment or the $150 a month in our budget. And unfortunately, we had to make a decision that day, no buts about it, can’t go home and think about it or ask your realtor if it’s a good idea. Boo-hoo. So, another lady comes over, named Scooter (no kidding, that’s her real name). We explain to her that it sounds like a good idea, but we need to think it over and maybe we’ll come back with money to put down and we can work a deal that way. OK, she says. We’ll just keep this offer open until next time. So, just give me $250 now, plus $50 a month, and next January you can stay here & buy the time share. No? How about this, you give me just $50 now, then $100 the next month, then $200 the next month…
At this point, 3 hours since our little no-pressure look-see started, the baby was crying and fussing and we were feeling like a hamburger on a grill when you squeeze it down and the juice comes out and catches on fire and the flames totally engulf it and you singe your eyebrows or maybe burn the house down, so my wife finally said, we have to go. We’re worried about the kids, this has been more than 90 minutes, we need to get back, we can’t decide this right now. OK. We finally got through to her. She grabbed the paper away from us, wrote “Refused offer. Refused to come back” on the bottom and told us each to sign it. “Most people don’t travel all the way from Texas with less than $50 to spend.” “So, what does this mean?” “It means you refused the offer and you can’t come back.” And with that, she left, we took the crying baby to the gift shop to pick up our tickets to Universal, and vowed never to ever ever ever ever no way in heck forget it never ever EVER go back to that place again. There’s no way we would get that deal now, after the way they treated us. Yeah, a 90-minute no-pressure sales presentation, followed by another 90-minute high-pressure torture session. And I figured it out when I got some time. In rough terms, for the cheapest timeshare they had, we would be paying $2000 a year for a 1-week stay, or we would be sending all our now-friends soon-to-be-enemies as referrals to pay for our 3-star tourist torture trap.
That set us in a foul mood for the rest of the day. We decided to spend the next day at Universal, then get the heck out of this awful place. We washed some clothes, watched some TV, got some rest; it was nice. And that was our Thursday.
Friday came. We were wiser. We were rested. We did something smart for the first time on our vacation. Instead of all of us going to the park, and the babies getting fussy and tired, and the kids getting bored, and us parents getting exhausted, we split up. I had tickets for Universal’s Island of Adventure, and I went about 30 min before open with my two older kids. It was great! Four people made it into the park before we did. We walked right on to the Hulk, then walked right back on & rode it again. We walked right onto Spiderman. Then we walked right on to the twin towers of fear. Then we went to the other side of the park & rode the twin dragons, sometimes in the front seat, sometimes in the back, about 6 times until I started getting queasy. By this time it was 10am or so, and we decided to watch the Pseidon Adventure, even though there was a line. To tell the truth, it was nice to be still for awhile. Then we headed to the exit, but not before we rode Hulk one more time.
Back at the Hotel de TrickUs, we had lunch, then everybody got in the family meat wagon & headed back to the park. We were refreshed, the kids got the roller coasters out of their system so they didn’t feel jyped, and we could take our time admiring the scenery. I think that was our favorite park. One of my favorite things about it is, all the roller coasters are 4-seaters. We didn’t have to split our group of 3 up to go on any of the rides. And they’re so smooth – they won’t bang your teeth out like the old wooden ones did. Island of Adventure wasn’t too big either – you could walk all the way around the lake without a change of clothes and a 3-day food supply. Our favorite ride there was the twin dragons. It was faster than the Hulk, and it’s so totally cool the way it looks like you’re about to collide with the other coaster. The babies loved Dr. Seuss land. They could ride several things there. Both of the babies loved the Cat in the Hat. And my 2-yr old supprised us by absolutely LOVING the unicorn roller coaster. We rode with him, and were supprised at how extreme it was, for a baby coaster. I was afraid our little rugrat would be scared to death, but he jumped off at the end of the ride and yelled “Ride again!” as he ran back to the line again! And everybody had a fun time at the dinosaur camp. My older kids kept shooting each other with water while the babies explored caves. We had to force them to leave so we could see something else.
We ended up staying there until close, then started the 3-mile journey back to the car. It’s so cool. They have moving sidewalks and music playing all over. They had superhero’s come out on 4-wheelers to the comic-hero area. Everything is decorated and fresh. The only thing I didn’t like was going to & from the parking garage, oh and maybe getting lost & stuck on the turnpike on the way back to the hotel. Took me an hour to figure out how to get back on I-4. But the parking garage is really, really far from the front gate. You feel like you’re going to die by the time you make it to the ticket windows, and I swear I was 3” shorter when I left there with my 30lb son on my shoulder.
Checked out the next day from Villa de Ripoff, and originally intended to head home (Houston), but the kids & wife & I enjoyed Island of Adventure so much, we decided to go ahead and use our other day’s worth of tickets and go back. It was awesome. No pressure to see everything & get our money’s worth, we got there around 10am, it was a Saturday so it was a little crowded, but still didn’t wait more than 10 minutes for any ride. My wife got on some of the coasters and absolutely LOVED them, and the kids re-rode their favorites, and my little boy ran to get on the Unicorn coaster he enjoyed so much. My wife especially liked being jostled around and scared by comic book characters on Spiderman. I hope Disney takes a good long visit over there, and learns how to make a truly enjoyable family-friendly park: not too huge to see everything, 4-seater smooth rides, attention to detail. If it wasn’t for Mickey and some nostalgia about Disney World, we might think about skipping those parks and just spend all our time at Island of Adventure next year.
So here’s my fool-proof 10-step plan for a family of all ages to enjoy a trip to a Florida theme park:
- Go to a theme park in Texas during July or August. Stand next to 8,000 sweaty bodies for 90 minutes waiting to go on a disappointing ride. This just gets you in the mood for your real vacation, which you will enjoy much more now, knowing what you’re missing.
- Book a vacation at one of these timeshare places for the off-season. Brace yourself for the sales onslaught, and promise yourself you’ll retain your dignity. Meditate before your arrival, or repeat 100 times “It’s OK to say no, it’s OK to say no” in the car on the way down.
- Check in to the hotel. Do not feel out of place, even though there are 6 stretch limo’s in the parking lot and more slick-haired salesmen than all of Florida’s car lots. Do not be self-conscious in your shorts, t-shirt & baseball hat.
- Drop the bags off in the hotel room. Do lots of Oooh’s and Aaaah’s. Say “Wow. This is nice.” Forget to tip the guy that showed you where the room was, but remind yourself that you’re not used to fancy places like this.
- Leave the mansion, wave at the security guard on your way out like you’ve been living there for years. Go exploring and find places to eat (preferrably buffet’s) and a plain grocery store. This will prevent you from spending a fortune later on food & dining.
- Get up in the morning & go to your presentation. Be cordial and nice, then say, you know, at first I liked this place, but it’s not as nice as my other vacation home. I was hoping to upgrade, but I guess I’ll just stick with my Maui timeshare and my condo in Aspen. Thanks anyway.
- Go back to the hotel room, pick up the kids, brood about how awful they treated you, how much you hate salesmen, especially realtors, what a ripoff their stuff is, then revel in how little you’re paying for them to have you in their lair, and how proud you are of sayin no and resisting their mind games. Bwoohahaha (sorcerer’s evil laugh). Eat out & go to the grocery store, swim in the mickey-mouse shaped pool, watch the 983” tv, etc. etc. etc.
- The next day, send one adult with the teenagers to the park. Get there early. Ride every ride that might make you throw up, twice.
- Go back to the hotel, eat, pick up the wife & kids, go back to the park but be smart and bring your own stroller so you don’t break your back. Enjoy watching your kids ride little stuff like Cat in the Hat or Its a Small World or a carosell.
- Leave when the park closes, go out to eat again, put the kids to bed and collapse on the couch.
After our short day at Universal, we got in the car and headed back to Houston. This time, we tried a different Talahasse hotel, the Holiday Inn Select. Not much better. I couldn’t sleep there, either. Even resorted to taking a nap in the car, until some noisy partons woke me up in the parking lot. But they did have a nice fitness center, which I used the next day. I drove straight into Houston, arriving at our doorstep at 1am or so. It was a long day of driving, but I couldn’t stay another night in a cramped little hotel made for two. It felt good to be home.
Overall, I’d have to say our vacation was an adventure. We came. We saw. We spent money until the little magnetic strip on our Visa card wore out and everyone had to type the numbers in after trying it a dozen times and looking aggravated. It had its fun moments, it’s times of stress, sleeplessness, disappointment, anger, tension, fatigue, and the occasional terror of being hurled skyward or dropped or spun or yanked this way and that. But isn’t that what vacations are all about…