Within a six month span I have had the good fortune to be able to take my two-year-old to both Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida, and Upper Clements Park in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. And the truth is clear: Upper Clements Park trumps Disney World in almost every category. Now I'm not saying that the Magic Kingdom didn't have its merits- my daughter enjoyed it and sure, it was meaningful to revisit the amusement park of my youth through her eyes. But when you have a child who is too inexperienced for nostalgia or the hype of hammered-in corporate branding, one can look each excursion a little more objectively. Now to be fair, I should of course say that not all experiences are equal, and lots of people enjoy Disney. But I have been to each park more than a few times, and I feel like I'm being fair and evenhanded because this time in particular the conditions were equal. Both visits were in on a week day in peak season, both in similar weather, shortly after a rain.
Here's the top 18 advantages the local toddler tourist trap has over the packed princess palace.
1. It's local.
No six-day road trips.No flights with crying toddlers with ears popping and schedules disrupted. No early morning departures or late night crying jags from still being on route and exhausted. No carry-on luggage or stroller checking or wondering what to do about the car seat. Nope, you just drive there and it's about 2 hours away, which incidentally is about the average length of a toddler nap.
2. You can park right by the gate.
Parking's not a big deal, though, right? I mean, you're going to spend the whole day there. WRONG. Consider this: Anyone with young children knows you never know what you will need to bring. At Upper Clements Park you can just load all your contingency items into the car. If it begins to rain, go get your umbrella. If you don't want to spend money on park food, go back to the car and have a sandwich. Cold? Go get a sweater instead of shelling out thirty bucks at a gift shop. This is one area where Disney is severely lacking. It took us almost two hours, including one tram ride and one ferry, and two lineups, just to get into the Magic Kindgom from our car. If we accidentally left something in the car, forget it man, it's long gone. Even if you are staying at a hotel and using shuttle service at the Magic Kingdom, it will take a minimum of a half hour, maybe even an hour to get to your hotel and back to where you were in the park.
3. No Security Check
Now don't get me wrong, I'm glad they do a bag search at Disney. I didn't feel at all safe there. There were so many people who all seemed to be so stressed out at the epic largeness that is Disney, I felt like anything could happen. Imagine the ire of parents who were told the teacup ride was broken down after they had waited an hour. I'm glad security removed all their guns and crowbars so the worst they could do was shake their fists or throw their plush Tiggers down in a rage.
Upper Clements Park, on the other hand, feels like a happy, safe place, as does most of the Annapolis Valley. And I didn't have to begin our adventure waiting in line for our bags to be rooted though, looking around at faces going "what's that guy so nervous about?"
4. UCP is MUCH MUCH Cheaper.
|Artists' rendition of Disney Offices|
5. Nostalgia means nothing to your toddler
6. There's no need to travel that far to see an actor in a costume.
So you want to go and meet Cinderella? Mickey Mouse? Good luck! I spent months prepping my child to meet Mickey Mouse only to find out that he no longer strolls the grounds for sporadic encounters. You have to get in a looooooong lineup just for a glimpse of some dude in a mouse suit, who will make your kid feel just as special as a pebble on a mountain. It's not like he's the REAL Mickey. Forgive my sacrilege for saying so, but this guy's only real claim to fame is that he might possibly hold the Guinness world record for world's sweatiest jobholder.
Alternatively, for a fraction of the cost of Disney admission, Nova Scotians are now able to access personal visits from Disney-ish princesses though a company called Fairytale Friends. As well, you can book Mickey and Minnie Mouse from a rental company called ARO inflatables. Both will be able to come to a location of your choice and hang out. How cool is that? Much better than a long wait for a high five and a hurried autograph.
|Disney Princesses and Minnie Mouse steal the show at local birthday parties|
7. No 10-hour waits to get on rides.
Upper Clements? I lost track at about 15 rides, and we were only there for 6 hours.
|The actual lineup for "Small World" when it was only 30 minutes.|
The faces of the staff at Upper Clements Park just say it all. It was clear that watching children having fun just brought them all immense joy. They all seemed to have that twinkle- the kind that grandparents get when talking about their grandchildren. At one point I injured my head (thanks to some kid and wayward golf ball), and minutes later the server in the restaurant was applying ice and giving me ibuprofen from her purse. She explained to me that she worked in healthcare the rest of the year and just worked at the park for fun. Later a maintenance man summoned a medic who was very apologetic and helpful about the whole situation, and she came to check on me from time to time while I enjoyed the park.
As for Disney, maybe we just hit Disney on a bad day, but I felt like the staff at Disney must be required to have a background in corralling cows into a barn. Leaving the park was the most challenging part. At one point I almost lost my child in the crowds and ended up being pushed against a soda stand in my effort to retrieve her. Instead of offering to help, a staff member shouted "MA'M! DO YOU INTEND TO PURCHASE A SODA?! NO?! THEN PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE SODA STAND!!!" ....'Happiest place on earth' my BUTT.
|Exiting a Disney Theme Park can be challenging.|
9. Mealtime is more sensible.
I know there is no shortage of food at Disney, but the choices seemed a little overwhelming. For efficiency, each restaurant at Disney offers one or two choices, and a person must herd oneself through the stanchion maze to receive one of thousands of identical factory-perfected plates, military style, only to discover there is nowhere to sit.
Upper Clements Park, I'll admit, has pub grub in their restaurants. But you are permitted to pack a picnic lunch, or you can get a snack from a little stand which sells healthy choices like yogurt or local fruit. Perfect options for little kids. There is plenty of picnic seating, wide open green spaces, and even miniature picnic tables just right for toddlers.
As for mealtime entertainment, at Disney we had to settle for this antique robotic dinosaur which was programmed to tell the same cheesy jokes hour after hour; versus UCP's antique but non-robotic magician who was required to perform the same cheesy magic tricks twice a day. Neither were spectacular in my opinion, but seeing a magic show should be on every kids list of requisite childhood experiences. Ugly mullet-wielding robotic reptilian lounge singers are on nobody's bucket list.
|Sonny Eclipse versus Moon the Magician|
10. Upper Clements Park is Less exhausting
Even with the monorail you walk about a thousand miles at Disney World just getting from A to B. We traveled the perimeter of Upper Clements Park twice, and at the end of the day still had enough energy to go to a playground.
11. No Retail Pressure.
If Disney buildings could talk they would scream at your child, "BUY THIS! BUY THIS! BUY THIS!!!" You find yourself thinking that you really should buy something to commemorate the day. After all, you can't just buy Disney stuff anywhere. Oh... wait.
Upper Clements Park had an unambitious looking folding table with a few generic looking t-shirts. If their walls could talk they would say "If you really want something, well, these didn't fit any of our staff. Maybe you could have one for painting in or wearing to bed."
12. No "Fun-Time" pressure
I can't tell you how many times I heard parents at Disney say something like, "We came ALL THIS WAY and spent ALL THIS MONEY to get here and I'll be damned if I have to waste my time watching you try on hats!" Gaaaahhhh shoot me, please.
Upper Clements park encourages a little downtime. Midway through the park you encounter Clementine's cottage. This is essentially a room with some free craft supplies and some books. So we sat down in the middle of all those rides, relaxed, and coloured pictures. And guess what? We still got to go on all the rides we wanted to, some of them twice.
|Craft supplies in Clementine's Cottage|
13. No closing-time car scramble.
At the end of the day at Disney world there is a fireworks show. Now don't get me wrong, it's something to behold. Fantastic, even. But what follows it is hundreds of thousands of tired, cranky people stampeding to their vehicles like zombies.
Upper Clements park closes without a bang, just before little tots' bedtime.
14. No meltdowns
I didn't see one single child having a tantrum the whole time we were at Upper Clements Park. I'm just sayin'.
15. Many of the kiddie rides are essentially the same.
At Disney I braved the 90-minute lineup to get my toddler onto a 3-minute Dumbo ride. She was impressed with it I guess, and asked to go again but I had to tell her "no freakin' way!" In case you are not familiar, this "can't-miss-it" "once-in-a-lifetime" thrill ride goes around and around, and the child can operate a lever that goes up and down.
For comparison, Upper Clements Park has an airplane ride which, you guessed it, goes around and around, and has a lever that makes it go up and down. The total wait time for this ride was three minutes, and when we were done, my daughter shouted "again!" The operator gave me a thumbs up, and up we went for another ride.
|Which one is Disney? Only SHE knows for sure.|
16. The Disney Princess Castle is an optical illusion.
It was so huge when I was a kid. But I now realize that they scaled down the tops of the towers to make it look taller. In reality, I don't even think it would be tall enough to stir up a kerfuffle if someone wanted to plant one on the Halifax waterfront. And by the way, you can no longer walk through the castle. All that's in there is a restaurant that you have no hope of getting a reservation for unless you are a make-a-wish kid or a millionaire.
|This castle is about as big as my head. BTW, the lady on the left with the mate in the matching shirt looks SO humilated.|
17. Upper Clements Park is NOT a thousand degrees.
I was told by Florida locals that if you go to Disney World in August the crowds aren't bad at all. It's just hotter than liquid hot magma is all.
Upper Clements Park in August was a balmy 25 degrees Celsius, and had nice ocean air coming from the Bay of Fundy.
Walt Disney and his successors have always been extremely cautious about associating their brand with alcohol, and as a result, you won't see a fridge with a lager anywhere in the Magic Kingdom. Although they relaxed their laws slightly in 2012 to make way for expensive imports in their expensive restaurant, it's not the same as having a cold one on a patio while your kid watches a magic show. Ah, simple pleasures.
Before you take my advice, remember, it's directed towards parents of young children who are not yet experienced enough to know the difference between a regular park and a hugely over-branded park. But if you read this and still decide on a trip to the Annapolis Valley please don't put your 10 year old in the car and tell them you're going somewhere better than Disney World. They will hate you. Instead, tell them you're going to tour a pulp and paper mill or shopping for school shoes or something equally awful. I promise you, they'll make memories that last a lifetime, and other such clichés.