Daddy has a unique job. I travel 250 days out of the year as host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Sometimes I’m so far off the grid I can't even call home. After bunking with bushmen in the Kalahari, I need to hunker down with my wife, Rishia, and our son, Noah. Our go-to spot? Disney World. We've visited Orlando a dozen times in four years -- we're pretty much experts. So when Noah and I jetted down for a boys' weekend, we knew exactly what to do.
Friday Afternoon: Check in and get going After sitting on the plane all morning, Noah and I are anxious to stretch our legs. Luckily, Disney's Beach Club Resort (disney.com; Beach Club Resort doubles from $335, Disney property doubles from $82) has a boardwalk that connects to Epcot. Unluckily, it’s raining. By the time we reach the park, we're wet as fish -- which is appropriate, because our first ride is The Seas with Nemo & Friends, one of Noah's favorites. He's thrilled to be back among his underwater pals, Dory and Marlin.
It's still raining when we emerge, but that doesn't stop us from tackling three roller coasters and then, looking to take a break from adrenaline-pumping rides, boarding the 14-minute boat attraction called Living with the Land for a tour of cool greenhouses. One is dedicated to produce oddities: a fluted pumpkin here, a 9-pound lemon there. (The foods are almost -- wait for it! -- bizarre. Had to get that little joke in somewhere.) Another greenhouse grows ingredients for Epcot restaurants -- tomatoes, fennel, rainbow swiss chard. Our stomachs start to rumble.
Hungry quickly morphs into cranky, so it's important to snack between meals. At the Mexico Pavilion's La Cantina de San Angel cart, we grab a taco -- it's more healthful than cotton candy or french fries. (We'll have all that soon enough!) Epcot, in case you don't know, houses 11 “countries,” each with themed rides, shops and eateries.
By the time we finish our snack, we've reached Test Track, a car ride that, at 65 miles per hour, is the fastest ride in the entire park. Noah, a devotee since age 3, happily takes his umpteenth loop. We then take on the Maelstrom at the Norway Pavilion, a first for us. (We aim to try a new ride or activity each day.) There, I teach Noah an important cultural lesson: Those little monsters are called trolls, not “giant, hairy babies.”
Friday Night: Wind down
The New York cool guy inside of me shudders to admit this, but in Orlando we eat dinner at 5:30 p.m., when the restaurants aren't as packed. (Be sure to call for meal reservations a few weeks in advance -- even for early reservations.) Tonight we sit down at Epcot's new southern Italian pizza joint, Via Napoli. We share chicken parmesan and a pizza -- you'll see the cooks throwing the dough up in the air and into one of three huge wood-burning ovens, each named after a volcano in Italy. The food's so good it impresses that same inner New Yorker, who happens to be a big pizza snob.
It's still light out when we leave: Eating early frees up our whole night. And because most other visitors are just now sitting down to dinner, the line at the popular Mission: SPACE exhibit is relatively short, so we pretend we're astronauts and fly our way to Mars. The wait is also manageable for The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, a gentle boat ride at the Mexico Pavilion. Soon enough, it's 8 p.m. One of our cardinal rules: Don't overdo it on the first day. So, hard as it is, we exit the park. Leaving before the fireworks sing their siren song means Noah is asleep early (by Disney standards, anyway), and we're rested and ready for the next day.
Saturday Morning: Beat the crowds
We have a light breakfast in the room (a big time-saver) and hit the park by 9 a.m. It's the only way we're riding Soarin', one of the most exciting attractions at Epcot -- but also the one with the longest line. We hop aboard a chairlift of sorts and, thanks to an IMAX screen, feel as though we're really flying. Approaching an ersatz Palm Springs golf course, we duck as a ball comes sailing over our heads. Glance up at the ball and you'll see a Mickey -- one of more than 10,000 “Hidden Mickeys” emblazoned on various surfaces throughout all six parks. And speaking of all the parks, it's about time we venture past Epcot.
After our shuttle to Disney's Hollywood Studios, I can sense Noah's legs twitching. It's amazing how much energy a 6-year-old can build, and how quickly. In order to burn off that energy, we look for a park. The Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure playground is ideal. Noah is happy to run around, exploring giant caves, climbing the 40-foot bumblebees and playing with kids from all over the world. (Just like Dad, Noah is a multicultural globalist.) There's only one door to the gated park, so I get to sit and relax for half an hour without having to track his every move. After the 100-kid playdate, we run to the can't-miss Toy Story Mania!, a 3-D ride where you take on a series of old-time arcade games (think ring toss), racking up points. Kids love it. So do I -- can you tell?
Saturday Afternoon: Eat up and kick back
We have 12:30 lunch reservations -- yes, you should call ahead even for lunch tables -- at the 50’s Prime Time Café. Servers dish out fried chicken, meatloaf, pot roast -- and watch to make sure you finish your vegetables. Don't and you’ll spend five minutes with your nose against the wall, holding up a napkin. I am 100 percent serious. As a reward for eating all those green beans, Noah and I share the thick PB&J milkshake, and then, right on schedule, head to the next attraction on our list: the hotel.
That's right. Many Disney-goers make the mistake of tromping the parks from dawn till way past dusk. Not us. Chilling out every afternoon is the key to managing our days. Our prime afternoon hours are spent lounging, swimming and, in short, vacationing. It gives Noah a chance to recharge, so he doesn't melt down. The forced relaxation is good for adults, too. Our pool area has a sand beach, a lazy river, a giant tube slide and drink service from your lounge chair. No complaints here.
Saturday Night: Enjoy a civilized evening
We dine at the relatively upscale Hollywood Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios, along with other koodies (that's kid foodies). Raising a child who always asks for the tasting menu has its drawbacks, but I'm glad that Noah loves good food. If your kid is less comfy in fancy restaurants, no worries: This is the perfect place to learn eatery etiquette. My wife and I treasure nights like this. Dressing up for a nice meal makes us feel like it's our vacation, too. By the way, don't leave the Derby without a slice of their sweet-sour grapefruit cake.
At 9 p.m., after a round of rides, we make our way lakeside to see IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, a laserwater show that gives me goose bumps. We huddle up in the crowd, and Noah's eyes widen and his mouth drops open. Despite the later hour, neither of us is in tantrum territory -- thank you, pool time! -- but we head back after the show. All this fun is making me tired!
Sunday Morning: Go Wild
We start the morning early at Disney’s Animal Kingdom: that's when lines are shortest for Kilimanjaro Safaris, where we're just feet from real elephants and giraffes. Afterward we explore trails in the 14-story Tree of Life, and catch a 3D film starring characters from A Bug’s Life. I'm glad to be watching insects rather than eating them. After sitting still for, oh, eight minutes, Noah has to let loose. We hit The Boneyard, an “archaeological dig” playground, full of dinosaur bones. Noah emerges later, covered in red dust. Where might one go to clean up?
Sunday Afternoon: You know the drill
Ah, yes: the pool.
Sunday Night: Last chance to live it up
We get spiffed up for our date with Donald, Goofy and the rest of the gang. Kids love a character meal: Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort is a buffet, consisting mostly of what Noah calls “my kind of food.” (Read: kids' fare. He may be a mini foodie, but he still appreciates a good chicken finger.) The dinner books early -- call a month ahead -- and is fairly expensive (from $38 a person, $19 for kids), but the fierce hug Noah gives Minnie is worth the price. We skip dessert because we’re headed to Magic Kingdom, land of the sweets.
On Main Street U.S.A., we grab an ice cream cone and a bag of gummies before hopping on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, where we’re treated to a bird's-eye view of the park. It's a great spot to reflect on our last few days together. Noah points out his favorite rides and recounts fun moments at each. Priceless.
Back on the ground, we rack up a personal best at the interactive Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin ride. (The trick: Shoot the inside of the robot’s left hand). After all the candy and excitement, we need something low-key, so we wander through The Swiss Family Treehouse and sail with the Pirates of the Caribbean. By the time we loop around It's a Small World, it's already 10 p.m. As we're walking toward the exit, fireworks explode overhead. Noah leans back on my legs and takes in the show, rapt until the last firecracker fizzles through the air.
I pick up 60 pounds of kid and carry him out of the park, not because he needs it but because I do. Holding a sleeping child after a perfect day spent together is what makes my ridiculous life worth living. And there’s nowhere else I’d rather spend a few days with my family.
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