I think most people who have not been to a Disney park assume it is similar to most other theme parks, and that's the disconnect. I don't particularly care for most theme parks, but Disney is in a category of its own.
My parents and I went to California when I was 11. We drove the desert southwest to reach California, visiting Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert on the way. (Also awesome sights, but not my point here.) And while in California, we spent a day at Disneyland. I think my parents were almost as excited to go to Disneyland as I was. (My mother later wrote she didn't know who was happier; me or the "two lost children who never got to go.")
The whole family loved the park. I think my mother was most surprised by how clean and beautifully maintained the whole park was, which is nothing like the usual theme park experience. (And Disneyland opened in 1955.) It was beautiful, with a loving attention to detail throughout the park.
We made another trip to California, and finally made it to Disney World in Florida when I was 14. A colleague recently remarked that she loved Epcot now, but "no child really wants to go to Epcot." I did. I think I was more sold on this park than the Magic Kingdom. Epcot had opened a little after our first Disneyland trip, and I was practically drooling. I remember seeing spreads in magazines and television specials about the new park. It sounded so incredibly cool--and it was. I pored over the official guide before we got to Florida, getting ready for the trip. We first entered Epcot in an early afternoon just after a rainstorm, while the walkways were wet but the sun was coming out again.
The first attraction I saw at Epcot was "Horizons", and it was everything I could have imagined and more. I drank in all the visions of the future, all the wild animatronics and special effects, and the giant projection screens that made me feel like our pod was "flying" across landscapes. (I still miss Horizons; I'm sad it's gone, although I understand the need for Disney to create new attractions. I really wish I could go back and see it again, 'though, and I wish I could take my partner with me. I understand the nostalgia people get for long-gone attractions at Disneyland, even if I might like what replaced them.) I loved the whole park, but my first memories stand out most.
Did I mention I'm a complete roller-coaster weenie? (I even hate small drops, like on a standard flume ride. That's the degree of weenie we're talking about here.) I think that's part of why I'm such a Disney park fan: there is so much more than thrill rides in any Disney park. When I was 16, my high school band went to a contest at AstroWorld in Houston. The trip included a day at the park. It was sort of disappointing to me, even given that I knew not to expect a Disney park. It was mostly thrill rides (which I avoided), and the theming seemed so minimal. It wasn't a bad way to spend a day with friends, but I wouldn't have paid to do it. (Of course, if you're one of those people who actually like roller-coasters and the associated "oh-my-gawd-I'm-gonna-die" sensation, I guess I can see the appeal.)
So while I've never felt much urge to go back to standard theme parks, I'm a Disney junkie. But there are those in my life, who, through no fault of their own, are as yet Unbelievers. My partner fell into this category. Although I regaled him with tales of The Mouse, he remained an inveterate skeptic.
But finally, after years of gentle nudging and not-so-subtle hinting, I got my partner bundled into my car and on the road to Orlando after my summer classes were finally over. I think he was just humoring me, actually, but after talking with other Disney fans, I finally went with the theory "If I get him there, he will have fun."
We spent part of the trip down going over descriptions of parks in the unofficial Guide (my favorite) to decide what to do, and we passed a bit of a watershed at some point: By the time we arrived, I think he was finally actively interested and not just humoring me.
We spent a day in the Animal Kingdom (new for me too, since it was built since I last visited), took one day off, then went to Epcot for a day. We took between us about 1,200 digital pictures (I'm not exaggerating), ate a ton of great food (small exaggeration), and generally had an absolute blast. We also got lost a lot; I'm apparently not quite up to navigating Orlando roads.
Current highlights and reviews:
- Animal Kingdom is very neat, but different from most Disney parks. There's more to walk through and look at, including a lot of cool animal habitats; in this respect, maybe it's a bit like the World Showcase in Epcot.
- The new Animal Kingdom Lodge is magnificent. It's African themed, and houses some neat African art and artifacts. It's almost like a new World Showcase pavilion. The attached restaurant (Boma) is amazing, and a lot of fun. (We stayed outside of The World to save money, but we did try the restaurant.) It was a lot of fun in that I'm a fairly adventurous eater, and there was a lot there that I'd never had, or in some cases, never heard of. Like watermelon rind salad, or a carrot-ginger soup.
- Although I stand by my earlier statement that I am a roller-coaster weenie, I tried a few rides that I had reservations about, and had fairly postive experiences.
- "Dinosaur" at Animal Kingdom was not bad at all, but it really fakes you out. There were many times I was afraid that I was about to experience something euphemistically described as "thrilling", but it was fine.
- Test Track at Epcot was a little more intense, but survivable. There are some sudden accelerations and a "braking test" that was a little over the top for me. (My partner calmer than I; while I was going through his pictures later, I discovered he has some from inside the ride, including one of me which, if you look closely, reveals that I have a death-grip on the bar in front of me.)
- Tried "Soarin'" (a sort of hang-glider simulation) for the second time (the first was in California a few years ago), and found myself actively enjoying it, to my greater surprise.
- I sat out "Mission Space" at Epcot because I started to feel nauseous standing in line. (Since it's rumored to be Disney's most nausea inducing ride, I thought I should probably skip it.) I was probably feeling over-stimulated from just coming out of Test Track. (My partner said "Mission: Space" was fun but intense. On the other hand, he also saw an ad and wants to go on the "Tower of Terror" at Disney-MGM on our next trip. Buddy, you're on your own for that one.)