Day 1 (Saturday, April 22)
From the Suburbs of San Francisco to the Wilds of Africa.
And It Really Is a Small World, After All.
Winging across the country
A relaxing swim
Cocoa with the animals
(Click on any photo to see a larger version. Click on links to see additional information or photos.)
The day had arrived! I had set my alarm for 6:00, but woke up about 4:45. Ugh. Why is it that just when you're trying to get as much sleep as possible before a trip, you always wake up early? Excitement/nervousness/fear of oversleeping, I guess.
My taxi arrived promptly on time, and after the short drive to Mineta San Jose Airport, I arrived right about 7:00, plenty ahead of my 8:30 flight to Dallas. I asked about the possibility of getting an earlier flight from DFW to Orlando than I was currently booked on, and was told I could go on the standby list for the one before it. So I did that. The lady at the American Airlines counter said that my luggage would go on the earlier flight, and if I wasn't able to get on that flight, they'd set it aside until I arrived.
I should mention, by the way, that I had chosen not to take full advantage of Disney's Magical Express service. This service (which is free as I write this report, but will almost certainly become a fee-based service at some point in the future) streamlines Orlando International Airport arrivals and departures for guests staying at Disney's hotels. Not only do you get a free bus ride between the airport and your resort, but you can even check your bags at your departure airport and they'll magically arrive at your WDW hotel. A great idea, since everyone hates schlepping luggage!
However, Disney says it can take up to three hours to get your luggage to your hotel room after you arrive (checked bags are handled separately from passengers), and since I wouldn't be arriving at the hotel until late evening, I wanted to have my luggage with me so I could unpack and go to bed soon thereafter. So I kept the bus vouchers handy for myself, but didn't put the Magical Express tags on my luggage.
Anyway, back to the flight. I wasn't able to see much of California due to clouds, but did get a glimpse of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Arizona was clearer, with views of the Grand Canyon, Sedona, the mountains around Flagstaff, and the Barringer Meteor Crater. There were also some very desolate looking houses scattered widely apart in mid-nowhere; probably part of the Navajo lands in the Four Corners area.
There was only one other seat next to me, and the lady in it was nice, so we chatted quite a bit as the flight progressed. She was headed for a business meeting in Miami. When I mentioned that I was mostly on vacation but might be able to turn the trip into a magazine article because I'm a writer, she said, "I know you! We worked together at Apple."
Sure enough, Kevin and I had both been in the legendary Creative Services group at Apple in the mid-80s, she as a project coordinator and me as a (freelance) writer. We had actually corresponded via email a few times over the years about possible work opportunities for one or the other of us, but we hadn't seen each other in ages, so that's why we hadn't recognized each other earlier. I wonder what the odds are of ending up not only on the same flight, but in the same row as someone you haven't seen for 20 years! And here I thought that "It's a Small World" was just an annoying song! :-)
For my December, 2004 trip to Walt Disney World (see trip report), I had cashed in air miles to fly first class. I didn't have enough miles to do that this time. Besides, the trip had been so last-minute that no frequent flyer seats were available for the times and days I wanted. So I was flying coach on this trip, which these days means no food. However, there's a deli near the American Airlines section of Terminal A at SJC that's run by Max's, one of the best restaurant groups in the Bay Area. So I was able to get a very tasty turkey-on-sliced-sourdough sandwich to take on my trip.
I ate the first half of it about two hours into my first flight, then read for a while. Despite not having gotten enough sleep last night, I didn't want to nap during the day because I wanted to be tired enough to get to sleep when I got to my room at WDW, when my body would still think it was early evening.
Upon my arrival at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I took the Skylink train to the terminal from which the earlier Orlando flight (the one for which I was on the standby list) would be leaving. Luckily, if I didn't get a seat on that one, I'd still have ample time to get back to the other terminal for my scheduled flight. Skylink is a new elevated terminal-to-terminal transportation system at DFW, replacing the old underground Airtrans trains.
When I got to the other terminal, there were no American Airlines personnel at the gate counter yet, so I went off to find a snack and a book to read during my trip. I also took a few minutes to call some friends in Austin just to say, "Hi, I'm in Texas." :-) When the gate agents arrived, I discovered that I was near the top of the standby list, so I was indeed able to get onto the earlier flight.
However, it turned out that this flight wasn't really going to be all that much earlier, because the plane was late arriving from Vancouver. Then U.S. Customs chose it for a random check of all luggage coming in from another country, so the American Airlines folks had to offload all of the luggage--not just the bags of people getting off the plane in Dallas--let the customs folks go through it, and then put the luggage of the continuing passengers back on the plane again. So we were all seated and ready to go a good 10-15 minutes before that process finished.
Because I was flying standby, I ended up literally in the back row, but my seatmates were nice and the time passed fairly quickly. (I did flinch a bit when one of my seatmates said that she was going to watch her niece compete in the finals of a cheerleading competition at WDW the next day. I had visions of the parks being overrun with cheerleaders all week! But most of them must have left after that Sunday, because I only saw a couple of small packs of teenage girls during the following week.)
Because of the delays, we took off about 30-40 minutes late. However, we made up some time and got to MCO only about 25 minutes late, at about 7:30 p.m. local time. But our bags didn't show up until after 8:00! I got checked in with the Magical Express folks, a bus arrived a while later, and I left MCO about 8:50. Finally, I was on the home stretch to my destination! We hit the WDW entrance sign at 9:15, stopped at each of the All Star Resorts, and got to Animal Kingdom Lodge about 9:45 p.m.
There was only one party ahead of me at the registration desk, so check-in went quickly and I was in my room by 10:00. Even in the dark, I could tell that I had hit the jackpot on my room this time! I was on the second floor of the Zebra Trail, overlooking Arusha Savanna, the hotel's central savanna. (As you've probably guessed, this photo was taken the next day.)
During my last visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge, I'd been way out on the Kudu Trail, on the side facing Sunset Savanna. That time, I was very near one of the "people corrals" that are used in case people need to be evacuated from the hotel. Both Sunset and Uzima Savannas have these, and although I understand the need for them, they're not very attractive, and they prevent the animals from coming as close to the hotel as in other areas. Also, for some reason, a lot of the animals on Sunset Savanna tended to stay near the back fence near the barns, rather than up near the hotel. So although I did have some fun animal-watching on that trip (especially the Red River hogs, which had just arrived at AKL a week or two previously), overall I was glad I only paid a heavily discounted AP rate for the room.
This time, despite paying a higher rate, I could immediately tell that I'd be getting my money's worth. As soon as I stepped out onto my balcony, I saw some zebras and elands. (AKL has special lights on the roof that bathe the savannas in simulated moonlight all night. So if you want, you can go out on your balcony even at three in the morning and look for animals.)
I hadn't eaten since finishing the turkey sandwich somewhere east of Texas, so after unpacking, I changed into my swimsuit, put on some casual clothes over it, and headed downstairs to The Mara, AKL's counter-service restaurant. This has got to be one of the best counter-service restaurants at Disney World. Not only does it offer standard American fare such as burgers and pizza, it also has interesting options such as African Stew and Tandoori Chicken Pizza. I got the African Stew (which is served in a bread bowl) and took it out onto the patio to eat.
I then took a leisurely swim in the beautiful Animal Kingdom Lodge pool. After about 20 minutes, I got out of the pool, changed my clothes, and went back to The Mara before it closed at 11:30. I wanted to buy a refillable mug for my stay. (They're good for sodas, coffee, etc.)
I filled my new mug with cocoa and headed back to my room, where I added some amaretto to the cocoa. I have taken to traveling with small bottles of amaretto and Kahlua just for this purpose. :-)
I took my mug of cocoa out to the balcony and sat down to look for animals. It was now about 11:35; so much for getting to bed early after a full day of traveling! A giraffe bent down to drink from the pond, then started nibbling at some nearby trees. Some people at the Arusha Rock overlook were talking loudly, with one woman calling, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty" repeatedly to try to get the giraffe to come closer. Aaargh!
I went to bed about 12:10, but when I was still awake at 1:00 a.m., I crawled to the edge of my bed and pulled the drapes aside to see whether anything interesting was happening on the savanna. I saw that the zebras were now lying down asleep, and shortly afterwards, so was I.