Now that Andrew and Brittany have tied the knot, it was time for the celebration to kick-up a notch. The first park our group visited was Disney's Animal Kingdom. This was my first time visiting a Florida theme park with the pandemic going on, and thus I had yet to experience their parks at a lower capacity, or with the requirement of facemasks while visiting. In general, it seemed like people were following along with the protocols Disney was implementing in an effort to keep visitors and Cast Members safe. While I will admit that having the mask on in temperatures in the 80's to low 90's wasn't the most pleasant thing, it wasn't as much of a hinderance as some people may believe it to be, and if you do need a break from it, you could take a seat for a meal or a snack and a drink, or take advantage of the mask-less break areas.
Out of the four Disney World theme parks, this was the park I've been to the least since I moved back to Washington State in 2015, as I had only been back once for a brief period of a day in 2018 with a group of friends as we checked out the two attractions of Pandora, which were the newest attractions at that time, so it was nice to get to spend a full day back in the park.
We kicked off our visit with a Kilimanjaro Safari. One of the parks original attractions, this is an excellent way to see a wide variety of animals, although this was the first time I had been on it since my trip to South Africa where I went on a safari in Kruger National Park. I will say that it wasn't quite the same experience being in a vehicle with over a larger number of passengers as it was riding with about 7 or 8 others, and then on top of that, there was more of an element of surprise with the real safari since the animals actually roam free whereas those here at Animal Kingdom are kept in their respective areas with well hidden barriers.
That's not to say that Kilimanjaro Safari isn't enjoyable, as I do still enjoying getting to see some of the neatest animals on the planet!
Speaking of seeing those animals, there were a lot of them to see on this morning. It's said that going in the morning before the hotter part of the day or just after a thunderstorm are the best times to experience this attraction, and I will say that it felt like it from this ride. I'm pretty sure I hadn't been on this since I moved back to Washington in 2015, but I don't think I recall taking any rides in the morning when I did, and it felt like there were more animals visible than previous times.
As we went on from Kilimanjaro, we made our way to ride Dinosaur, which brought us to the DinoLand USA area. Since the last time I was here only included rides from Pandora, I hadn't been to this section of the park since I lived in Florida and worked for Disney. One of the things that seems to be eminent for this section of the park is the eventual removal of Primeval Whirl, their dual spinning mouse style coasters. It was really bizarre to stand near the ride and not hear the usual sound effects coming from it when it ran, but I will say that if this means a newer attraction in the future, I am ay-okay with it as there are more than plenty of these style coasters out there in the world, and this one doesn't seem to really be a fit with what you'd expect from a Disney park.
As for Dinosaur, I enjoyed getting to ride it for the first time in several years, but I have to admit that after riding the Indiana Jones rides at Disneyland in California and Tokyo DisneySea in Japan, it somehow felt like a more dated attraction to me, even though the California ride is at least a few years older. It might also be that I really enjoyed the appearance of the layout for Indy feeling more complex than Dinosaur, even though they have the same layouts, but with Dinosaur, you don't see other parts of the ride as you go through the course. That's not to say that Dinosaur is a bad ride though, as it is easily one of the park's best attractions.
After a meal break, our group went to Pandora for the Flight of Passage, and attraction that many will say is THE best attraction in the park. What I love about this area with the level of detail they went with in it to create the appearance of being on an alien planet, and the creativity that went into creating the illusion of the floating rocks that are a part of the planet from the Avatar movie. Disney has done an incredible job with some of their newer themed areas at the Florida resort to make them into these immersive worlds that make you feel as if you've gone to a whole new place.
Flight of Passage an the Na'vi River were the only two attractions of the park I had been on when I was here last time in 2018, and much like the section of the park they are located in, they are also incredibly immersive. We didn't ride Na'vi this visit, but we sure did hop on Flight of Passage, which may be the best version of a flying theater that I've been on. The way that they simulate the experience of riding the banshee from the film, and find subtle ways to make it feel more life-like is so cool! Especially when the pace of it's breathing changes based on what's happening with the flight. I also really dig their use of scents to add to the immersion because of their choice of smells that would be common when in a more natural area, almost like those you'd sense when hiking through a forest. The ride vehicles are also really unique, and it makes me hope that perhaps in the future, other ride designers or parks will find additional creative ways to make the flying theater type attractions more immersive as Disney had with this one.
With the pandemic occurring, Disney had to make quite a few changes to their offerings, especially when it came to entertainment as they weren't putting on live shows as they normally do to avoid having large gatherings of people to help with social distancing. They did find a creative way to add to the atmosphere of the park though, by decorating pontoon boats and transporting small percussion bands around the waterways of the park, or by having some of their characters riding around on boats to greet park visitors on the paths alongside and above them.
Looking at these boats, I felt like there was a chance these may have been the same boats we used to rent out at Downtown Disney and Port Orleans in the past during my first year as a Cast Member, but with the decorations on them, I couldn't confirm if they were or not, but it would make sense if they were since they eliminated the renting of boats in that area of the resort with the changeover from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs.
One of the attractions I hadn't been on since living and working in the Sunshine State that I really missed was Expedition Everest. After enjoying a coaster last year that had been in part inspired by this (Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars at Hong Kong Disneyland), I was looking forward to riding this one again, as it's one of my favorites in the whole resort. There is something about the mountain they created for the ride that helps make it feel like an even more massive coaster than it might be in actuality, and the section of the ride that features the drop out of the mountain after the first visualization of the yeti is one of the best of a Disney coaster. The final stretch is also a nice touch as you come into the final encounter with the yeti, as the coaster hits the brakes right after a drop, thus ending on a high note, unlike other coasters which may meander for the last part of the layout.
Under normal circumstances this is a great ride to take advantage of the single-rider line as it can really drastically cut down on your wait time if you don't mind riding without those who you've come to the park with (granted, this wasn't an option for now because of the pandemic, but when things go back to normal, it's a great time-saving tool).
After our lap on Everest, we took some more time for animals, including a walk through the Maharajah Trail, which is something I had never done in any of my prior visits. We seemed to have bad timing though was we came to the area where the tigers were when they weren't quite as visible, either because of being at an odd angle or because they were in an area hidden from visitors. That being said, there are other areas with animals to see throughout the park that are not part of a trail or an attraction, such as exhibits where you see the likes of macaques or other relatives of monkeys.
To end our first day of theme park fun, we went back for one more ride on Flight of Passage just before park closing, and this was the first time I went through the regular queue, as on each of the previous rides I had taken, it was either as part of a group doing a tour, or with a pass of some kind, so I had not been able to appreciate the amount of detail that went into the queue. I remember seeing pictures of the avatar in the tank before, but it was something else to see it in person. There was something surreal about it, as it seemed almost convincing enough to make one believe it could be real if you weren't aware of being in a theme park. It just adds to the evidence that Disney had really done an outstanding job with the theming of Pandora. Taking a second ride on this was an excellent choice for the last attraction of the day!
After we got back to the Airbnb and had a chance to get cleaned up, a few of us went for dinner to a place that had been added since the time I lived in Florida off of US 192 in Kissimmee, Rock & Brews. The atmosphere of the place felt kind of like a more sterile Hard Rock Cafe, lacking the artifacts that hard rock is known for and featuring more posters or artwork based on different bands, but they do offer an excellent selection of beers and ciders to choose from, including many locally made craft options to go along with the wider known national brands. Unfortunately I forgot what I had, and looking back at their menu, the closest thing I can find to what I thought I had was the Floridian Hefewisen from Funky Buddah Brewing, although I don't remember seeing that on the list when we ate there, as I seem to remember this being a blonde ale of some kind (I swear I didn't get drunk!).
Either way, it was a nice beer, and as our group ordered a plate of bacon cheese fries for an appetizer, and I tried their blackend chicken pasta, which was really good, as it had a light but creamy tomato sauce with parmesan cheese and basil. If any of us were on a diet at the time we went, there was no hope of it going well as the server brought out a second plate of the bacon cheese fries as the kitchen had made a second one on accident, so he hooked us up which was really cool of him to do.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed it, and would gladly come back to try more of their offerings. Their location is also fairly convenient to the Disney resort because of it's Highway 192 location heading away from I-4 to the West.
That was just day one of the post-wedding celebration! The party would continue the next day with a return to Hollywood Studios, and the chance to enjoy some of the best attractions of the entire Disney World Resort!