Disney World's Top 10 Hits and (Free) Surprises

We encountered a few surprises and new favorite attractions during our recent trip to The Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom as part of the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration.

Surprise 1: My 12-year-old is a roller coaster fiend

Who knew? And thanks to those mid-ride photos, we have an absolutely priceless pic of him on his first biggie--Space Mountain. I was behind him on the ride, cursing myself for forgetting how dark and noisy it is, and also getting a bit dizzy from all the sudden twists and fast turns. He later took on Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain and (gulp) Expedition Everest (twice in one day).

Surprise 1.5: Expedition Everest goes backward down the mountain

Thankfully, the girls in line behind my son and I clued us in, so I had some sense of what was ahead. Or behind, as it were. When our coaster-loving son returned to the ride with DH, my boy only told his dad that he was in for a surprise. Yes, careening down a mountain at high speeds in the dark was quite a surprise. I think it took him a few hours to recover.

Surprise 2: The food

I figured we'd be eating burgers, hot dogs and fries all week. Wrong! The food was outstanding at the family dinners that were part of our event. At the two buffet dinners, they provided a variety of tasty vegetarian dishes, as well as equally delicious ones with fish, chicken and beef. They provided special buffet tables sized for the kids with kid friendly foods like grilled cheese, but still offered veggies to complete the meal.

The third family dinner was a fixed meal held in conjunction with the Magic of Healthy Living Weekend. While DH and I enjoyed the unique and healthy menu items like "heirloom tomato water with basil essence" and "fregola, lentils, quinoa and burgundy amaranth" and our kids found enough to eat, not every family at the event fared as well.

As far as the parks go, healthy options abound, even at the quick service spots (there is no fast food at Disney); it was easy to find a salad.

Even better, kids meals at the Disney parks automatically come with sides like carrot sticks and grapes, though parents can default to a less healthy option like fries if they choose. Kudos to Disney!

Surprise 3: The free animation class at Hollywood Studios

Would you like to escape the crowds, the noise and hot sun for a little quiet time with your family in a dark, air-conditioned room? Join this class! We learned about it while waiting in line for The Magic of Disney Animation. After the feature attraction, you have a chance to queue off in another area for this class.

In the space of 20 calm, focused minutes, you will learn to draw a famous Disney character. Even if you're not an artist, the results will amaze you, I promise.

Surprise 4: Epcot is full of free activities for young children

Back in the day, Epcot was a more adult park, but they've made it more kid friendly with a couple of playgrounds, Kidcot activities, and for slightly older children the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventures (best not attempted during peak heat/crowds of the day as we did).

Surprise 5: Star Tours- The Adventure Continues

Alas, this new 3D thrill experience at Hollywood Studios will not open until May 20, 2011, but I'm sure it's going to be stupendous. We were so close to seeing the new ride, yet so far. That said, the Jedi training classes are still running.

Surprise 6: The animals go home to sleep

All those cool wild animals you see on the Kilimanjaro Safari? They are gathered up each night to sleep in pens and dens as you will see if you take the Wildlife Express Train.

The park now offers Wild Africa Trek, a pricey VIP experience that some will argue is priceless. Sadly, I was not among the handful of the bloggers from our the Social Media Moms Celebration invited to participate. But I heard enough exciting details about it to add the Trek to my Life List. (That is, when I finally get around to writing it down.)

A few nights at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is also on my big List, as it's increasingly unlikely I will make it to Africa for a more authentic safari.

Surprise 7: Blizzard Beach was closed

My boys were really looking forward to experiencing the fun at this super cool water park, but it's closed for maintenance. They settled for a fun morning at Typhoon Lagoon.

Surprise 8: Fantasyland is growing

A major expansion of Fantasyland is underway. It's going to double in size and Dumbo rides and there will be a new family roller coaster to replace Goofy's Barnstormer, which was my boys' first thrill ride. The newer elements of Fantasyland wont open until 2012, so we didn't actually get to see anything new. Maybe next year?

Surprise 9: Sunburn

I've long been aware that my arthritis meds make me very sun-sensitive, but I didn't realize just how much until this trip. I got burned through my denim capris; I didn't even know such a thing was possible. Ouch.

Surprise 10: A well-behaved teen

When Maria Bailey, one of the women behind the SM Moms event, introduced me to her teen son, he immediately extended his hand to shake mine and looked me in the eye to greet me properly. How long have I been working on that with my kids? Maybe some day my guys will get it down. If Disney teaches us anything, it's that dreams really do come true. Right?

What are your family's tops hits and favorite Disney surprises?

Disclosure: As a participants in the 2011 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration I was given park passes for my family as well as other perks, including the chance to hear great speakers, attend special parties and I received several gift items.

Prior trips to Disney were subsidized by my parents (1982, 2001, 2003). As a participant in the College Program and employee of the Walt Disney Company, I was able to visit Disney Parks at no cost (Jan - May 1989).

DH and I took a trip to Disney World circa 1991, during which I actually bought my own park pass.
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