Disney World: It’s a kind of magic

The Thatcher family braves the 16-hour flight from Dubai to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando in search of a magical bonding experience

A shrug of the shoulders. One nonchalant gesture which, to me at least, conveyed so very much more than its intention. To my eight-year-old daughter Aerin, her shrug merely said she was not in the least bit bothered about the prospect of meeting Frozen’s Anna and Elsa on our impending trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. To me, however, it signaled the passing of another stage in the relentless march towards her tweens, and this stage really resonated with me.

I remember Aerin singing ‘Let It Go’ so often I contemplated letting go of my own life to escape it. Now it’s Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ she sings on loop, making me wish I really had let go. No father wants to see his daughter rebound from a love affair with a Disney princess into the tattooed arms of Bieber.

If my wish upon a star was to slow things down in the case of Aerin, it was to expedite them in the case of Pandora, my six year old. She has not so much a comfort zone as a comfort skin, so tight are the boundaries she has set herself. Her timidity has thus far proved a real challenge – it took the best part of a month before she felt brave enough to stroke our fluff ball pet kitten.

The required antidote in both cases was the kind of magic only Disney delivers. Yet the first sprinkling of fairy dust came courtesy of our Florida home for the next eight days, Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. There to greet my girls as we entered our room was a sparkly wand, fluffy crown and star-studded skirt, one for each laid out on the edge of their beds. They were in them within seconds.

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Water slides at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort

If that curried instant favour with the kids, the room did likewise with my wife and I – an expansive Park View Suite, dressed in the understated elegance common to Four Seasons properties and comprising two full marble bathrooms and a full-sized living and dining room, leading off from the grand bedroom. Best of all, a huge terrace runs the length of the suite, from where you have an envious and private view of the nightly fireworks that burst into colour above Disneyworld. A daily wrap for the kids, which betters any bedtime story you can muster.

My previous experience of a Disney hotel, in Paris, wasn’t quite so magical, having been accidentally locked out of our minibar following a 12-hour day in the park. It was a bit like being deprived a seat after finishing a marathon.

There was no chance of such a thing happening here. For a start, this resort is a world away from what your mind’s eye may initially picture when you think of a Disney hotel – but a mere ten-minute coach ride away from Magic Kingdom. This is a sophisticated luxury resort first and foremost, with the Disney magic conjured upon request. That means that you can book your daughter into the outstanding spa, from which she will emerge a Disney princess, replete with a custom dress, hairstyle and crystal tiara. Or reserve a table for the twice-weekly character breakfast, to which Mickey, Minnie and Goofy devote two hours engaging every child in the room.

This is a sophisticated luxury resort first and foremost, with the Disney magic conjured upon request

It was the latter that proved Disney had started to wield the magic I had wished for. Thoughts of Bieber were far from Aerin’s mind as she cuddled Minnie, high-fived Goofy, and posed, her face alight with a wide smile, for pictures with Mickey.

Not long after, the resort’s fairies left another gift in our room: an envelope slipped under our door. I opened it and read its contents aloud, stopping at the words ‘VIP Tour’ to smile broadly. The letter further detailed how, next morning, we would be collected in a private car by our tour guide Maureen, a Disney employee. Maureen would be with us for 12 hours, during which time she would escort us to the Fast Pass line of any ride in any of the four parks we wanted to go on, when we wanted to go on it.

Thoughts of Bieber were far from Aerin’s mind as she cuddled Minnie, high-fived Goofy, and posed for pictures with Mickey

Having Maureen on our side was an advantage akin to adding Lionel Messi to your office five-a-side team. Not for us a place in line alongside Regular Joe and his family at the entrance to the park’s gates, oh no. Maureen’s car pulled into the staff carpark, situated behind the scenes. We would enter the park via the character entrance, secret door like, emerging into the very heart of the action, and yes, feeling rather smug about it.

“Where do you want to go first?” asked Maureen, in that ever-excitable Disney manner. “Avatar, please”, was our unified and equally enthusiastic answer.

One of Disney’s latest attractions, The World of Avatar is based in the Animal Kingdom, where a mini Pandora – spectacular at night – has been created in honour of my youngest daughter, or so we told her so that she’d feel indebted to Disney and try the ride, in spite of her fears. It helped that we did the Na’vi River Journey first, a gentle boat ride through a fluorescent rainforest, so Pandora was just about happy enough to heed our advice and ride the more adventurous Avatar Flight of Passage. Maureen ensured we skipped the two-hour long line so that within five minutes we had mounted our individual motorbike-like seats, which would move to mimic the feel of riding on the back of a banshee as it flies down sheer-drop mountains, through waterfalls, and into combat with another larger, rogue and very angry banshee. It’s an immersive ride, one quick to dupe your brain into thinking you’re really doing the things on screen as your bike tilts and shudders, and it’s absolutely exhilarating.

Once the ride had ended, my immediate thought was to comfort Pandora, whom I assumed to be close to, or in, tears. Still fresh in my mind was last year’s visit to Disneyland in California, where we promised Pandora that she’d love the Indiana Jones ride. She didn’t. Neither did Aerin. Both exited the ride visibly shocked, in tears, and probably emotionally scarred for life.

Not so this time. Not only did Pandora squeal her delight, she asked Maureen to take us straight back to the front of the line so we could do it again, thus saving what was now a three-hour wait in line (did I tell you how much we loved Maureen?)

My shrinking violet had blossomed. Hand in hand with Maureen, our little thrill-seeker then led us onto the big hitters; Splash Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, rides I wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing her on only hours earlier. Only Space Mountain eluded her, and only because I was too scared to join her on it.

As for my little Belieber, Disney’s spell had well and truly been cast in my favour. Maureen ensured Aerin had a meet and greet with any princess she chose (pretty much all of them) and arranged for us to have dinner with The Beast in his castle (not Donald in The White House, I hasten to add), for which prior reservations must be made, sometimes months in advance.

I don’t know how much Maureen cost, but I’d consider no amount of money too much. As she waved her goodbyes and hugged the girls tightly, I wanted to hug her myself. And never let go. I wanted to bring her home to Dubai so she can usher my car to the front of the queue when in rush hour traffic. Imagine having Maureen when you have to register at DEWA, or when fruitlessly searching for a parking space at The Dubai Mall?

I woke next morning unsure if I could face the day without Maureen. What would become of me having to spend the best part of two hours in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to satisfy Pandora’s newfound lust for danger? I decided I needed at least a day to mourn the ending of our relationship, an unforgettable 12-hour fling, which then encouraged us to adopt a policy of spending one day in, one day out of Disneyworld’s parks for our six remaining days.

What would become of me having to spend the best part of two hours in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to satisfy Pandora’s newfound lust for danger?

It worked a treat. Our days off were spent cocooned within the Four Seasons resort, enjoying its myriad attractions Each morning we would slap on our sunblock and head straight to the resort’s lazy river, before taking to its twin water slides down which riders shoot at speed – Pandora loved it. The girls would then head to the kids’ club, where they’d be entertained inside (The Hideout, which houses pinball machines and the very latest in gaming) and out (Explorer Island, home to a splash pad, rock climbing wall and those aforementioned slides). My wife and I would then occasionally bask in the serenity of the adults’ only pool, before we all gathered together again to munch on popcorn while watching a Disney movie, screened alfresco by the family pool.

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Drifters lazy river pool at Four-Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort

Dinner at the Spanish-influenced steakhouse Capa was so good we ate there thrice, enjoying inventive sharing plates that would grace the menu of anywhere you care to mention. It also dishes up a wonderful view of those Disney fireworks from its terrace. All the while you felt the resort was your own to enjoy, a private playground you’d chosen to share with a few other in-the-knows, a feeling heightened by its setting – secluded, aside a natural everglades sanctuary and flanked by woodland. It’s the perfect respite from the unrelenting buzz of Disney’s parks.

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Fireworks, as seen from Capa restaurant

We had been to and enjoyed all of the four parks, which with our park hopper tickets we were free to move between during the day. But for our last day at Disney we decided to do Magic Kingdom only. To help alleviate wait-in-line time you can hold three fast passes, but once all are used you can hold only one at any one time. As if by magic, Pandora opted to use her final pass for a third ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Aerin using hers to meet Anna and Elsa. Both were happy ever after. Thanks Mickey.

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