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Pal Val’s #2 – The Haunted Mansion (During the Not-So-Scary Halloween Party)

Everyone thinks that it is strange that the Haunted Mansion is my favorite ride at Walt Disney World. I do not like scary movies, horror nights, nor had I participated in Halloween for most of my life. My favorite season of the year is fall – I love the weather, decorations, and the colors. But, as for the terror aspects of this time of year – I have stayed away from them.

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I think it partially has to do with a traumatic experience in a haunted house (that was really the basement boiler room of my elementary school) at a fall festival when I was in third grade. I won’t go into the details, but when you are running for your life to get out of a haunted house and your long hair gets tangled in the rubber bats hanging from a fake vampire’s wrist, it sticks with you for about forty-three years. And if you are wondering, yes, this was a public school sponsored activity…my teacher was the vampire! Ah… the good old days.

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My participation in Halloween changed when we started to go to WDW and I found the Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. When you mix Halloween with Disney you get the beautiful colors, the fun fall decorations, candy, and people dressed up in spooky fun – not terrifying or gross – costumes. Our church had a Trunk or Treat the next year, and we found a way to share our love for Disney with kids during Halloween!

I am not going to go into detail about the Not-So-Scary Halloween Party right now, stay tuned for that later in the list…but I do want to talk about my favorite ride, all year long – The Haunted Mansion.

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There are so many reasons that it is my favorite ride, but it basically comes down to how this attraction is so incredibly detailed and complex. The Imagineers were brilliant and outdid themselves on this one. The special effects are amazing, especially when you realize that many of them were created in the late 1960’s. Kids may ride it now and think the ballroom ghosts are just digital imagery, when in reality it is a fascinating effect called “Pepper’s Ghost”.

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The theme song is catchy, and the spiel is a classic. Even with all the times I have ridden it, there are still things I am trying to figure out. (I cannot seem to decipher all the Bride’s late husbands’ names – and no I don’t want to look them up on Wikipedia!) Every room is meticulously designed, and there are several Hidden Mickeys…even the queue has riddles, puzzles, and a murder mystery game…it is just an all-around iconic ride.

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Because this is my favorite ride, I am going to save more details and trivia for future posts (one of my favorite Disney moments with our daughter was on this ride). But I do want to share why I especially love riding The Haunted Mansion at the Not-So-Scary Party. Due to the obvious tie in with the theme of the night, during the party, the Haunted Mansion usually has some extra special touches that you can’t see any other time of the year…

  • There is fog and lighting effects that make the Mansion area look extra spooky for the evening.
  • All the Maid and Butler cast members wear special, creepy, make-up during the party.
  • A wonderful woman by the name of Carlotta sits outside the Mansion, on the hill above the haunted carriage, and interacts with the guests waiting in the queue – she has delightful stories.
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  • There are some unique Haunted Mansion themed PhotoPass opportunities during the party that you do not normally see throughout the year. (Yay Annual Passholder PhotoPass Perk!)

Whether you are in the park during the Not-So-Scary Party or there on a regular day – a ride on the Haunted Mansion is compulsory – they are just dying to meet you! (I had to!)

Blogs

Pal Val’s #3 – Slinky Dog Dash

I almost do not even know how to start this post, I want to say – hey, just go ride this coaster now! And if you are in Hollywood Studios right now, you can go get in line, and read our entire series of blogs, and get a good start on a Tale of Two Cities while you wait. It is a very new ride, so a very long line comes with it.

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We were so very excited the new Toy Story Land had opened a few weeks before we went to WDW in July with our kids. Our oldest granddaughter loves any kind of coaster (she has no fear) – and although our youngest was saying she would not be riding anything – I was hoping Slinky Dog might talk her into it. (Our first day at Magic Kingdom reconverted her a little bit on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, so when we got to Hollywood Studios on the second day she was ready to ride most anything and everything she was tall enough to get on.)

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By some miracle, we were able to get Fast Passes for Slinky Dog Dash, but they were not until 9:00 pm. We knew we couldn’t wait all day, so we got up as early as we could to make it to rope drop. The news of opening day four hour wait times made us nervous enough to get there early. I am so glad we did – we were able to get to Slinky Dog quickly and began riding with very little wait. We were able to ride three times before the line grew to over two hours.

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I have already talked about the Toy Story Land theming in an earlier post, so I won’t go into it here – but I will repeat that I absolutely love the atmosphere and the Slinky Dog queue fits in perfectly. The queue looks absolutely awesome. It is however, an outdoor queue, which during a very hot day offers little relief. So, make sure you have water, sunscreen, a hat, and perhaps a sled full of ice – you will need them.

There are so many details, things about the queue that are unique, because Andy built the coaster with his toys and their boxes. My favorite detail while waiting to board the coaster…check out the price tag on Rex’s box.

While we waited in the queue, we tried out the new Play Disney app. The games for Slinky Dog were fun – we were almost sad the wait was so short (almost). These were definitely the most fun games on the app that we tried during our vacation.

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The coaster itself is just an absolutely amazing design. It is a family coaster, so no inversions and really no excessively high inclines. I was able to ride it several times in a row with no noticeable problem with my vertigo. (I cannot say that for the one time I rode Alien Swirling Saucers – I get a little dizzy typing the name of that attraction!)

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Alien Swirling Saucers is no go for my vertigo!

But the thing I loved most about the ride is that it has two launches. The ride starts off quickly, and at about the halfway point it slows down, stops, and slowly moves backward for a moment. Some really fun sounds and effects happen, and you take off again. To top off a truly great ride, there is a surprise ending – as you pull into the platform to unload – that is just perfect.

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Because we had late night Fast Passes, and it was such a full day, the kids decided they wanted to skip the Star Wars Fireworks. But we didn’t miss them entirely. Our fast passes coincided with the fireworks, and they were going off as we had our last ride on Slinky Dog Dash. Fireworks were going off on both sides of the track! It could not have been a better ending to our day! Our daughter said it was just about her favorite moment on the trip.

There is a part of me that wonders if I loved this coaster so much just because it is new – and will it stand the test of time? But, right now, I am truly looking forward to riding it again even more by just talking about it. Serious, if you can, just go ride it…now!

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Pal Val’s #4 – The Tower of Terror

After you have been to Walt Disney World as many times as we have, you know the major attractions well. You recognize the ones you love to ride, the ones you ride because they are classics, and the rides that you just don’t enjoy enough to suffer though (often because of the way they make you feel – insert my vertigo here). There is another category that a lot of people have –rides they are too afraid to ride (have you seen the outside of this thing, starts spooky here, gets more spooky inside)!?!

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I have friends that do not enjoy rides at all. When they go to Disney they just hang out at the resort or walk around the park. They may ride ‘It’s a Small World’ (which did not make either of our lists even if we do ride it occasionally) – but you would never get them on any type of a coaster – some won’t even ride Haunted Mansion. There was one ride at Hollywood Studios I said you would never get me on – The Tower of Terror. Just looking at it scared me to death. My stomach would flip when I saw those big doors open and hear the (recorded?) screams. My husband and daughter often tried to get me to ride but to no avail. This was an attraction I was glad to just see by walking through the queue.

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One of the great things about Disney, they are happy for you to walk through the queue of an attraction and not actually ride it. All you must do is tell the Cast Member at loading you are not going to ride (or cluck at them), and they will direct you to the location where you can wait for your party. There are a couple of reasons to walk through Disney queues, even if you are not going to ride. First, why sit somewhere in the heat by yourself when you can be hanging out in a queue with your friends and family. But most importantly, Disney attractions are excessively themed – the detail is amazing – you should enjoy the work they have put into it!!

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The first time I walked through the Tower of Terror queue, we arrived at the doors to the ride vehicles – obviously they look like large elevator doors. The Cast Members are dressed like bellhops and they are masters at keeping a straight, scary face – and monotone voice – while they are directing you to your seat. I explained that I would not be riding, the bellhop motioned me to another bellhop that would take me down another way. He walked me to a large set of elevator doors…I looked at him for a moment and asked if he knew that I would not be riding today. (At this time, I had never seen the interior of the ride vehicle.) He stayed silent, pointed at the doors, and pushed the button. Again, I said that I wanted to make sure he knew I wasn’t riding…he continued to stare at me. The elevator doors open, and it was just a regular elevator. But as I stepped in – just for a moment – I knew it was going to plummet me to my death.

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What finally changed my mind? Why did I decide to start riding it? A couple of things. First, peer pressure. I wanted to experience the attraction with my family – they loved it so much and egged me on. But what finally convinced me was a backstage tour of the park (not the love of my family, who was clearly trying to get me killed). During the tour, the guide gave us some history of the Tower of Terror and explained how the ride worked. Understanding how the ride functioned helped me to see that it was not really quite as terrifying as it looked. So, I decided to give it a try, totally worth it!

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Tower of Terror is the one ride in all of Walt Disney World that still truly scares me – before I get on it and while I am on it. I question my life choices every time I buckle the seat belt. But it is also an incredibly fun attraction that I enjoy doing and try to ride it every time I visit Hollywood Studios. Does it mess with my vertigo? Maybe just a little – but it is totally worth it!!

 

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Pal Val’s #5 – The Magic Kingdom Mountains

The mountains are calling! As much as my husband and I love to travel through the Smoky Mountains, there are three mountains in our Happy Place that call to us even more…Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain. They are not new attractions, and one of them is not exactly one of my favorite rides, but there is a reason they made my list – and why they made it as a group.

Since these are not new attractions, I am not going to take the time to describe the rides themselves – most everyone knows that generally, at the very least, they are two family style coasters – and a log flume type ride. But I do want to explain why they are awesome, give you some tips, and special things to look for when you ride.

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Let’s start with my least favorite – Space Mountain. I know, my husband may edit this paragraph extensively because it is his favorite ride in the Magic Kingdom (ed: considered it). My distain for it has nothing to do with the theming, which is completely awesome – or the concept – it is a really fun ride. Other than the Mad Tea Party, there are no other rides in the Magic Kingdom that mess with my vertigo as much as Space Mountain. The coaster is designed with many short, sharp drops, and quick short turns – which makes it fun (the drops surprise me every time) but also slightly painful. Even with the way it makes me feel, I try to ride Space Mountain at least once every visit. It was the first roller coaster I ever rode as a child and because it is one of my husband’s favorite (it is no Expedition Everest, naturally), I love to ride it with him and hear him laugh!

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If you love Space Mountain, make sure you ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover (TTA). It goes through Space Mountain and it gives you a great view of the ride – especially if the ride happens to be down and you get to see Space Mountain in all it’s glory with the lights on! (Just hope you don’t have to ride SM with the lights on. Last trip, near the end of the night, it was bright enough to see all the infrastructure of the ride, and it was terrifying!)

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Big Thunder Mountain is a family coaster designed as a runaway train. This ride is just plain fun. The theming is awesome, and you get great views of the Haunted Mansion. This is another example of Imagineering detail that gives you so much, you often notice new things when you ride. I try each time to see the animatronics inside the saloon and listen for what they are saying as we fly by. The sounds the ride itself makes are a great effect, even if they make me feel nervous. They make it sound dilapidated, almost like we should not even be on the track!! You will know you are going to have a wild time when you hear the awesome, recorded safety spiel – “this here’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!”

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Finally, Splash Mountain is one of my favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom. This is Disney Imagineering detail on steroids, in a very long ride (over 10 minutes long!) I didn’t ride this the first few visits to WDW, our daughter was terrified of the drop and refused to ride it – and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it myself. When she finally became brave enough – I told her I would ride it with her and I realized that the drop is not nearly as scary as it looks when you are viewing it from the bridge. You may get wet on this ride, but honestly, it is not enough to ruin your day – in the Florida weather, even in the winter, you will dry very quickly.

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This is not where the Hidden Mickey Is!

There is a storyline on this ride and it is beautifully designed. The animatronics are great and there is an unusual Hidden Mickey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Mickey). While most Hidden Mickey’s are the shape of Mickey Mouse, sometimes Imagineers place hidden symbols or message in their attractions that are not classic Mickey shapes. In this ride, after you pass through the section with the turtles shooting water at each other, immediately past that turn you can look above you to see a gopher pop out of a hole. He yells out a special cheer – see if you can hear it (and feel free to boo if you aren’t a fan of what he says)!

Beyond just being a lot of fun, Splash Mountain is a great ride during firework shows. If you have already seen ‘Happily Ever After’), head to Frontierland and get in line – which are a little shorter for both Splash and Big Thunder at this time usually – you can see the fireworks from either ride, but I think it is best to see them from the top of the big drop of Splash!!

As if all of this isn’t reason enough for the mountains to make my list, I also didn’t get to ride Splash or Big Thunder on our trip with the kids in July. Our youngest granddaughter had been such a trooper all day and she just decided to find a bench and take a long nap. I volunteered to stay with her and then one of her parents was going to come relieve me, so I could ride the next round…but we didn’t realize that they were going to close them during the evening extra magic hours.

So now, all three mountains are calling me – they are must-dos on the upcoming trip, and all future ones too!!

 

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Pal Val’s #6 – Flights of Passage

Getting higher in the list, another obvious pick, this being the newest ride at Animal Kingdom- big surprise. But I am going to be brutally honest on this one – after I rode this attraction for the first time I did not know if I was ever going to go on it again. (And for once, this had nothing to do with my vertigo…)

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Flights of Passage is a 3-D flight simulator in the new Pandora area of Animal Kingdom. It has been loosely compared to Soarin’ Around the World in its design. The flight simulates riding on a banshee over the Valley of Mo’ara in Pandora. The ride vehicle is similar to a motorcycle in design and there are seating restraints that come up against your back to secure you onto the “Banshee”. You are wearing glasses and the vehicle is lifted as you are lowered to an angle so that you can fully see the screen in front of you. If you don’t look to your left or right, you are totally immersed (look left or right and you can see several stories of people wearing goofy glasses)! The visuals are amazing, and the effects make you feel like you are really riding an animal – you can even feel the ‘Banshee’ breathing on your legs, in the way you might if riding a horse.

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I was really nervous going in for the first time. I had heard that many people were getting sick on this one and I did not relish the thought of being dizzy for the rest of the day. I did not have a fast pass – my first mistake – and there was about a two and a half hour wait. Yes, I said over two hours, and this can be a short wait for this ride. I was just not going to do it.  My husband, (who was unable to ride due to size restrictions that he has since conquered), made the point that it was a new ride, I would want to see the queue, I would be hanging around for that long somewhere, I have video on my phone to watch. And so, I caved to the pressure – my second mistake – and jumped into the line.

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The queue is remarkable, beautiful landscape outside, incredible detail throughout, leading to total immersion. But as I moved through, I started to think that this must be the absolute longest queue in the history of the world. I really never thought it was going to end. You start out in some amazing caves, wander through until you reach a military style bunker, then you are kind of going in and out of Pandora at night, and then through a laboratory with a super cool animatronic of an Avatar in suspension. But did I mention that I thought it was never going to end. The majority of the queue is in caves and a bunker, so you have the feeling of being far underground. Even though I am not claustrophobic, I was getting that way by the time I reached the end of the queue. Every time we went around a corner I thought we were going to be at the end of the line…but it just kept going.

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When I did finally reach the boarding area, I was very tired and ready to be done. The linking up to an avatar was really cool, lots of interaction with the video screen. But when I experienced the ride, quite honestly, I was not incredibly impressed. The visuals were beautiful, but I didn’t understand why everyone thought the ride was so amazing. I met up with my husband and said I didn’t really care if I ever ventured to the Valley of Mo’ara ever again.

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After we arrived home, I was reading some things about the attraction (I did not want spoilers and had not seen too much ahead of our trip) and started thinking – I wonder if something could have been wrong with my ride vehicle. I didn’t feel the affects as much as people were describing in the reviews.

This past July we were at Animal Kingdom with the kids and we did have Fast Passes for the ride. I had promised our girls that I would be riding. It was a completely different experience. Not only was it more fun to experience with other people – but the ride seemed so much better. We were able to pretty much walk straight on to the boarding area. This time, I could experience all the effects – and when your ride vehicle is moving in the way it is designed – it changes the ride tremendously!! It was incredibly fun and although I won’t be able to ride multiple times in a row (this last time, it did make me just the slightest bit dizzy after one ride) I will be riding it every trip from now on (when we have acquired Fast Passes, of course.)