FantasmicAs good as any plan can be, the better plan is sometimes the one you didn’t plan.

The catalyst

Our first time at The Yachtsman was more than just a sublime meal with excellent service: We were seated in the “round room,” at the window, enjoying our second round of martinis, when we were treated unexpectedly to a view of the Illuminations fireworks display. Afterwards, and seeing our awe and delight, our gem of a waiter, Oscar, confided how much he and his sons enjoyed Fantasmic, to the extent that they all had tears in their eyes when it was over.

We knew the power of such experiences under the Disney stars, which gave us pause. When we’d seen the show in our “home park,” Disneyland, we vowed never to do it again unless the free-for-all, standing-room-only viewing arrangement got upgraded to something a little more… structured. After spending hours stationed at our fourth-row-centerish splotch of asphalt with Mark’s parents, our view was completely obliterated at the show’s start by the sudden uprising of six-foot-tall dads all sporting toddlers on their shoulders. We all looked at each other helplessly. “No way am I putting Mom on my shoulders,” Mark declared under his breath, fearing his mother would ask.

The Fantasmic show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, however, had amphitheatre seating, Mark pointed out (for somehow he always managed to know these things), which prompted serious consideration.

A plan was hatched

Upon returning to the hotel, sated with fine drink and aged beef, Mark moved forward with Phase One of our brilliantly conceived plan to choreograph dinner and a show with minimal effort and advance planning: He made a reservation at Kouzzina (Celebrity Chef Cat Cora’s restaurant on the Boardwalk, [now Trattoria al Forno]) the following night so as to facilitate a walk to the Studios afterwards and catch the Fantasmic show.

It was a good plan. Mostly.

A 6:30 dinner reservation was the latest we could get on such short notice, but okay, we could eat early. It was doable given our objective. Plus, we could walk off dinner and then have plenty of room for soft ice cream and more drinking.

Best-laid may have been half-baked

There’s a bigger problem with a 6:30 dinner reservation than how much it cuts into the cocktail hour, and it never crossed our mind: families. It’s obvious, now, but when we were chasing the high of our Fantasmic vision, all we were thinking was how much fun it was to spontaneously change course. Kouzzina hadn’t been among our Boardwalk plans and it may have been an act of fate that we were unexpectedly trying it for the first time. We were excited about being surprised.

Our culinary adventure started out on a positive note with a nice table for two between the illuminated wall of olive oil bottles and the open kitchen. We ordered cocktails and appetizers from our South American waitress whose familiarity with Chef Cora’s take on “southern Greek” cuisine hadn’t quite kicked in.

The cocktails arrived promptly, which was nice, but then, only one appetizer was delivered, and it was delivered by the manager, because our server was too busy busing the table of 10 behind us, which looked like a circus had rolled over it. Understandable, given the average age at that table was 6, but still, it seemed wrong that a bus-person wasn’t charged with that task so that the wait staff could tend to the needs of the diners, particularly at the height of the family hour. Mark had to inform the manager that we’d ordered two appetizers, and, when Amy’s was finally delivered, too many minutes later, the manager blamed the oversight on the Greek chef for reading the order tickets from the bottom up. It was lucky we hadn’t placed our order all at once, Amy commented, as we might have been served our dessert as the first course. So much for the good start.

So the 6:30 reservation did not cast a flattering light on Kouzzina, and we left without ever ordering wine with dinner—it was easier to just point at our empty cocktail glasses and sign language that we wanted two more. At the end, we were just happy to be leaving, and hoped that they were just short of staff or were in the process of restructuring their organization. [It didn’t come as a big surprise when it closed.]

Why walk when there’s a perfectly docked boat

We thought life was compensating us for the unpleasantness of dinner by delivering unto us convenient transportation ready and waiting to take us to our intended destination. How perfect is that, one of us voiced, and there it was decided: transportation trumps the walk, no discussion necessary.

There was no way to tell from the outside that the “Friendship” boat was filled to capacity, but on two martinis, we were fine just boarding the craft and standing for the duration of the journey. Only, the young couple seated to our right was adamant that there was plenty of room for us to share, and despite our polite refusal, their insistent courtesy trumped ours. The lights went off in the cabin and the boat backed out of port. As we took to sail, a paper-bag-enshrouded bottle was thrust before us, the guy reaching across his girlfriend. “Sake?” Another “nice” offer we politely refused, only to be convinced, once again, to the contrary. After all, it was explained, they bought it in Epcot’s Japan pavilion, so it was authentic Japanese sake, and more importantly, it shouldn’t go to waste. We each took a swig from their warm open bottle and immediately entered Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as we were regaled with stories of minivans and mattresses and the surfing lifestyle that was somehow just assumed we all had in common. Sure, why not. We were on a dark, crowded boat, sharing sake with strangers on the way to the Hollywood Studios, which was the one thing we knew we shared in common: a love of the Disney experience.

As the shores of the Studios neared, we became strangely aware that despite how full and loud the boat was, we were managing to be the loudest. We disembarked laughing—and holding the bottle—which we promptly disposed of after separating into the crowded night.

Now that we were here

In fact, the park was incredibly crowded, and any hope of seeing Fantasmic was instantly scrapped when we discovered that the crowd of people blocking our way to get to Fantasmic was in fact the line for Fantasmic.

Pause for irony. 

But okay, we regrouped and made a mad dash for Rockin’ Rollercoaster, where we got incredibly lucky to find a doable wait (thanks, Fantasmic). Somehow, riding Rockin’ at night made it feel even more like a rock concert venue. The couple in front of us looked liked they’d just come from a Vegas casino, circa 1976: the man dressed in a white denim vest with serious gold chains; and the woman, at least a head taller, in red lacquer stilettos, heavy-metal hair and a Playboy body clothed in pinstripe Spandex. We nudged each other, enjoying the show, and all the more for the Aerosmith essence. It didn’t take long before we were bonding with the “fun” couple, and the woman—we’ll call her “Valerie”—made it very clear that she’d been talked into doing this by her companion, whom we’ll call “Frankie.” We assured her it was worth it, even if it did wind up scarring her for life. No doubt they’d had as much to drink as we had, maybe more—and maybe more than drink—but by time we saw them off, the laughter had overtaken the fear and we wished we could’ve been seated behind them.

Naturally, we had to follow Rockin’ Rollercoaster with a visit to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, whose wait time was doubled due to technical difficulties. Yet we weren’t to be discouraged, and eventually we made it to the loading zone. As we stood waiting, we  suddenly became aware of frantic waving and raucous laughter from the elevator. Our Vegas friends had spotted us and were having a rip-roaring time getting our attention just as the doors slid closed. It appeared Valerie had hurdled her fear of thrill rides.

When to say when

For a Monday night in September, the park was unbelievably packed and we decided it was better to leave than to try to accomplish anything more. Unfortunately, we missed the boat by seconds, and rather than wait another 15 minutes (which, at the time, was inconceivable), we made the fateful decision to walk back to our hotel.

The high of the night and the adrenaline from the rides carried us effortlessly for the first leg of the journey, which was pleasant and peaceful and replete with clusters of sleeping ducks. But then the fatigue started to creep in. We picked up the pace so as not to slow to a droopy crawl, and Amy knew how hard she was working because it would’ve taken too much energy to complain.

It was really only about a four-block walk back to the Yacht Club, but it seemed like miles, and it felt longer still when Mark insisted we could take a shortcut through a side door that only required a minor detour. Amy had warned that the door would be locked, having made that discovery on a prior trip, but Mark was convinced. In fact, the door was locked and Amy wanted to say, “Told ya so,” but she could barely breathe. Luckily, the detour resulted in the discovery of bunnies, which managed to justify the painful extra steps.

Back at the hotel

Amy was so cooked from the walk that Mark had to finish her nightcap—underscore “had to.” But having put to rest the day, the evening, and the night, and with all said and done, it was the unchartedness of the adventure that made even the adversities translate to fun. Though not an experience we’d want to repeat, it’s one we’ll look back on for years to come with laughter, pride and a cinematic flair.