Disney And Universal – Yes You Can Go Back

It’s been about two decades since I last visited Disneyworld. Back then I went with my family for a traditional Disney escape. This visit was for a different purpose, my company’s version of an executive retreat, including a scuba diving excursion into the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium at Epcot. There would be four of us descending upon Orlando for a five day, four night excursion with an expansive list of activities including theme parks, tennis, workouts, pool time and golf. Interspersed amongst these activities would be ongoing business meetings including a yearend review, strategy meetings, new product concepts, and sales, marketing and delivery plans for the upcoming year.

Lodging was selected on location, business needs including high speed internet, recreational activities and budget. We wanted something close to the theme parks, with tennis, golf, fitness center, pools, and a full kitchen. We liked to cook our own breakfasts and enjoyed a tradition of making one “home-made” dinner on every trip. We found a three bedroom condo at the Marriott Grande Vista, a centrally located Marriott Vacation Club property which met all of our requirements.

We arrived on a Wednesday originating from Providence, Albany and Las Vegas, checked in, assisted one of our clients with a web seminar and then easily navigated our way to the Magic Kingdom water wave wig. Why were four adults heading to the Magic Kingdom? The group voted and opted to revisit their childhood thrills on Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain. We anticipated shorter lines as it was a slower time of the year, sans vacations, and prior to the great northeast winter exodus.

The weather was beautiful, sunny and about 80 degrees, but to our surprise, the Magic Kingdom was very busy. Once in the park, we made our way to Space Mountain. It was still great ride, just as much fun as we remembered, black as night with quick twists and turns, sort of a roller coaster version of some futuristic sight deprivation tank. Thunder Mountain seemed much tamer today than during our more youthful runs, but still a fun ride. And even at our advancing ages, Pirates of the Caribbean remains an expansive and entertaining ride. Queues for these popular rides ranged from about 35 minutes to an hour. Disney does offer a FASTPASS system, which theoretically cuts down on the time spent standing in lines. But you can only reserve one ride at a time, so you spend time waiting in other ride lines until the FASTPASS time slot is available. In our case, we waited 45 minutes for the 3 minute, 35 mile per hour Thunder Mountain Ride. When we finished the Thunder Mountain ride, we used our FASTPASS for Space Mountain, and within just a few minutes were promptly seated for the two and a half minute 27 mile per hour ride. Overall, we had a fun day, but would have enjoyed it much more without the lengthy queues.

Our evening was highlighted with a trip to Fogo de Chão, an outstanding Brazilian steakhouse on bustling International Drive in Orlando. A hearty appetite is a necessity for this restaurant, as servers proffer unlimited amounts of skewered meats including filet, sirloin, rib eye, sausage, lamb, pork and ribs, to mention a few of the tasty cuts we enjoyed. The Brazilian meats are complimented by a huge salad bar, guaranteeing no diner ever departs hungry.

Thursday’s itinerary was more to my liking, as we were headed to EPCOT, and a dive in the EPCOT aquarium. EPCOT’s DiveQuest website claims they offer, “A scuba experience with guaranteed calm seas, no current, unlimited visibility, and incredible marine life and coral.” Though the coral is artificial, I found the other claims to be completely true. Sharks patrolled territory with their fearsome grins and menacing teeth, just a couple of feet from my head. Though these are “passive” sand sharks, this diver was still hopeful none were having a bad day. The tank is 203 feet wide and 27 feet deep, and divers could wander anywhere in the tank other than the dolphin pen. In addition to sharks, there were rays, turtles and an abundance of reef fish. One of the highlights of the dive is the surreal fishbowl experience, where the diver becomes the fish, looking out of the bowl at the diners in the Coral Reef restaurant and the visitor viewing areas adjacent to the aquarium. Divers wave at the diners and many of the diners, in fact it seemed the entire restaurant, would wave back as the divers swam by the large restaurant windows. Children in the viewing area were delighted as divers pointed at them and waved, allowing cursory communication with divers separated by a few inches of glass. This dive is a truly unique experience, available to any PADI or comparably certified diver, willing to pay $175 for the dive and brief tour of the facilities.

After the dive I met my colleagues for “Tokyo Dining” where Disney says diners are “transported into a true cultural experience through the harmony of traditional Japanese food and hospitality.” From our perspective, if someone wants to enjoy a true cultural experience, they need to visit the actual country, that said, wet did find the service to be prompt and the sushi to be well prepared. We thought it was a good choice if you wanted to stay in the park for dinner.

Our Friday began with a breakfast strategy meeting and a few client meetings. By 11am we were out the door and on our way to Universal Studios. Some of our party have been to Universal in California, none had been to the Orlando counterpart. We would only be here on day, so we wanted to see both parks and opted to pay a premium for a “Park-to-Park with Unlimited Express Ticket including admission and unlimited Universal Express Access to both Universal Studios Florida® and Islands of Adventure®”. This ticketing cost about $200 per person, a hefty fee for our one day adventure. Our youngest colleague, a roller coaster fanatic, was in his prime, and stated empathically that this was his favorite day of the trip. He rode every coaster and ride, always in the first row. The Express Access does a great job bypassing lines, no doubt an annoyance to those already paying theme park prices. We ate lunch at The Burger Digs in Jurassic Park. This was without question, the worst meal of the trip, actually one of the worst meals I can remember, as the burgers were so dry and poorly prepared, they did in fact taste as if they were from the Jurassic era.

Our great weather streak continued on Saturday, as we opted for workouts, tennis, pool time and an afternoon strategy session with an al fresco lunch by the pool. There are a multitude of pools at the Grande Vista, an excellent fitness center, nicely maintained tennis courts and a golf course. They also have expansive grounds, kayak rentals for their pond and an assortment of family activities. That evening, we prepared our version of a “home-made” dinner, raviolis in a Bolognese sauce. Home-made is somewhat of a stretch, as we purchased the best non-frozen packaged raviolis we could find, a jar of sauce, and added salt, pepper and red wine. We created an impromptu salad, from a bag of salad and a few handpicked vegetables, and subsequently declared it an excellent meal. We always enjoy doing this, and the kitchen and dining area was more than adequate for our needs.

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