Travel: To Orlando and beyond! New Toy Story Land in Florida's Disney World
Damon Smith encourages his inner child to enjoy the sugar rush of Toy Story Land at Walt Disney World in Orlando
THE door to my blissfully air-conditioned room in Animal Kingdom Lodge closes behind me with a soft, contented sigh and, without warning, I begin to cry. At first, it's a single, fat, salty tear of joy snaking down my cheek.
Then, as I stare outside at the sun-rippled savannah – a moving tableau of Thomson's gazelles, zebras, white-bearded wildebeest and elegant giraffes – more than 30 years of pent-up excitement spills out of me in glorious, gushing sobs. At 44 years young, I have finally answered the siren song of Walt Disney World in Florida.
The tsunami of euphoria with an undercurrent of jet lag takes me by surprise and I laugh at myself to nonchalant glances from guinea fowl foraging in parched grass beneath my balcony. The birds have clearly witnessed this middle-aged delirium before.
My tears dry quickly in the sizzle of the Orlando summer, but waves of primal, boyish wonder continue to crest and gleefully crash as I play big in the newly opened Toy Story Land at nearby Disney's Hollywood Studios. This whimsical 11-acre playground is the largest expansion in the theme park's 29-year history and has been designed with unfettered imaginations to reduce visitors to the size of action figures in a child's backyard.
Towers of colourful wooden blocks are scattered throughout a landscape of playset trees and toy shrubs, along with dominoes, board-game pieces, crayons, playing cards and Scrabble letter tiles. Benches are bolted together with building set joints in the shadow of a 10-foot tall rubber ball.
Platoons of green plastic soldiers proudly patrol – ten-hut! – to the percussive rhythm of their drums while cowboy Woody, Jessie and Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story films meet and greet with an energy that defies the choking humidity.
The centrepiece is Slinky Dog Dash, an 18-passenger roller coaster constructed in eye-catching red, blue, yellow and orange, which slaloms at surprising speed around precarious stacks of Jenga tiles, one topped by Rex the dinosaur nervously stringing up a garland of twinkling fairy lights.
It is Disney's first ride with a second launch at its midpoint, slingshotting us over camelback humps and around a whoop-inducing final turn before a farewell serenade of You've Got A Friend In Me from Wheezy the penguin, who swings as he sings atop a wireless radio-controlled car box.
Designers' obsessive attention to detail is jaw-dropping – a fading $19.95 price sticker from Al's Toy Barn on Rex's cardboard box, alphabet blocks spelling out F-U-N, the seemingly random 231986 1011971 bar code on a Dash & Dodge Mega Coaster Kit box as we exit the ride, which represents the dates that Toy Story creator Pixar Animation Studios was founded and Walt Disney World opened its pearly gates to a wide-eyed public.
Nearby, the Alien Swirling Saucers attraction – the creative love child of tea cups and waltzers – ushers us through an entrance flanked by robot guards and into rocket ships piloted by cute, green extra-terrestrials with three googly eyes. The 22 craft spin and whirl with increasing velocity, altering orbits on circular tracks beneath an omnipotent Claw to an energetic soundtrack of Toy Story jingles.
Ride queues in Toy Story Land can be long, so take advantage of the Fastpass+ system to pre-book timed one-hour slots up to 60 days in advance of your arrival in Florida, if you're staying at a Disney Resort hotel.
The newly launched Play Disney Parks mobile app, which is free to download, sweetens the bitter pill of inevitable waits in blazing sunshine. Location-based games activate with the swipe of a sweaty finger, or you can listen to music and answer Disney trivia. Wi-Fi coverage is impressive, so you shouldn't incur roaming charges.
The interactive 4D dark ride Toy Story Mania! – which opened in 2008 and draws sizeable crowds – has been expanded and now boasts a candy-striped marquee entrance in Toy Story Land. Weaving through a waiting area festooned with View-Master discs, crayon drawings and childhood ephemera, we tug furiously on the pull-string of our spring-action guns to compete in a raucous eight minutes of digital carnival mayhem.
My jaw hurts from grinning almost as much as my wrist aches from repeatedly firing virtual hardboiled eggs at beleaguered barnyard critters. No animals were harmed in the making of this article...
Bursts of physical activity rouse my slumbering appetite and we saunter to Woody's Lunch Box walk-up window restaurant, which is flanked by a vintage Thermos flask. My mouth waters with tears of joy at a menu laden with calorific comfort food; a toasted sandwich of gooey, molten Cheddar and provolone cheese, a flaky chocolate-hazelnut pop tart slathered with icing and caramelised bacon, and an ice cream soda float.
Fruit and vegetables are strangers to the menu, except for a banana split yogurt parfait and a Grown Up's Lemonade, which hits the sweet spot with cherry vodka and a generous dash of black cherry puree.
It's a reminder that Toy Story Land has been lovingly crafted to encourage visitors big and small to leave their real-world stresses at the front gates, cast off their inhibitions and gorge to giddy excess on pure, unadulterated pleasure.
FIVE PLACES TO PLAY BIG OUTSIDE OF TOY STORY LAND
Pandora – The World Of Avatar
A scene from the Flight Of Passage 4D simulator in Pandora – World Of Avatar in Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida (Disney)Unveiled in May 2017 at Animal Kingdom, this 14-acre wilderness inspired by James Cameron's blockbuster films incorporates two unmissable experiences: the soothing Na'vi River Journey boat ride through a bioluminescent jungle, and the exhilarating Flight Of Passage 4D augmented reality simulator, where we swoop over Pandora astride a fast-breathing dragon-like Mountain Banshee.
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
A short walk from Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios, this turbo-charged ride features cars resembling a stretched limousine. The initial acceleration of zero to 60mph in just under three seconds is a 4.5 G-force sucker punch before loop-the-loop inversions as Steve Tyler belts out the band's hits.
Expedition Everest – Legend Of The Forbidden Mountain
Expedition Everest – Legend Of The Forbidden Mountain in Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida (Disney)Also in Animal Kingdom, the Expedition Everest steel roller coaster rises majestically to just under 200 feet. Our runaway train of 36 riders gradually ascends, then hurtles down hairpin turns before a brief encounter with a rampaging Yeti propels the cars backwards through pulse-quickening darkness.
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy go off to work with a melodic heigh-ho on a family-friendly roller coaster inspired by the animation Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. The ride swings side-to-side as it careens through jewel-encrusted mines and slows for animatronic sequences.
Accelerating to a top speed of 64.9mph, Test Track is the fastest thrill ride at Walt Disney World and revs up long queues in its Epcot theme park. Touchscreens invite us to design a concept vehicle, and the ride tests each prototype before we emerge from the factory into blinding sunlight for one high-octane circuit around a 50-degree banked curve.
Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.com; 0344 557 3859) offers seven nights in Walt Disney World in Florida, including flights from London Gatwick with room-only accommodation at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge from £4,485 for a family of two adults and two children. Price includes park tickets and car hire.