LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The kids were crowded around state-of-the art computers, eyes glued to the color monitors. Parents, seeing how much fun the junior programmers were having, couldn't resist showing off some fancy keystrokes themselves, playing the latest virtual reality and high-tech sports games.
Wait a minute. Time for a reality check. This was Disney World, not a science museum. This was the middle of the 25th anniversary celebration with its huge crowds. Where were the lines? Where were the impatient kids and exhausted parents?
Not at Epcot. Traditionally bypassed by families -- including mine -- because the kids would rather ride Space Mountain again or hug one more giant Disney character than (heaven forbid!) learn something, a revved-up and spruced-up Epcot now is working hard to change its stodgy image.
There are designated ``Kid Zones'' that offer hands-on activities to introduce youngsters to foreign cultures at the World Showcase exhibits where they might do a craft or a word game. Epcot has just introduced a Discovery Guide for children to use as they tour Epcot.
If some dino lovers live at your house, they can meet some life-size dinosaurs at Ellen DeGeneres' ``Ellen's Energy Adventure'' in the newly redesigned Universe of Energy Pavilion.
The nightly ``IllumiNATIONS'' (cq) light and laser show is guaranteed to please every kid in the crowd who is still awake. Come next spring, General Motors' Test Track will offer Disney World's longest (nearly a mile) and fastest (65 mph) attraction as riders see firsthand how cars and trucks are tested.
From the looks of things, even without Test Track, the strategy is succeeding. Of course, we all know this technology-crazed generation will go anywhere just to demonstrate to mom and dad how much they (ital) don't (unital) know. Technology fans such as Vice President Al Gore would feel right at home. Techno-nerds like me be forewarned: Get ready to feel really dumb.
The bottom line: Everyone comes to Disney World to suspend reality. Epcot offers a high-tech means to that end.
Take the new 100,000 square-foot Inoventions (cq) pavilion.
Because Mickey Mouse invited me to his big birthday bash, I wandered in to be polite. I didn't expect to be so impressed. I was most surprised by how long families stayed happily engaged here. Instead of waiting on a 40-minute line for a 3-minute attraction, they were doing something -- often together with their kids -- for 40 minutes or more.
``It makes you want to come back again,'' said Dawn Fletcher, who had driven with her family from Kingsport, Tenn.
``It never gets boring,'' agreed Carolyn Dei Dolori, who was touring with her three children and her mother and sister. Where else could they take a virtual reality swim with the sharks, a tour of Egyptian Queen Nefertari's tomb or walk on to Jay Leno's set?
Younger children can try out Disney's latest computer games while their older brothers and sisters head straight for the SEGA area where they can play more than 140 new games, including the hot seller ``Nights'' that brings nightmares to life and others not yet on the market.
IBM's ``Thinkplace'' lets you surf the Net or check out the PGA tour while the kids paint on a big video wall. Nothing is for sale here, though you'll be tempted to head straight for your nearest computer software store after you leave. That's the idea, of course.
When the kids are ready to eat, it's time to stroll through the World Showcase. No bland Disney fare here. Have a taco at Mexico or a bratwurst at Germany, couscous at Morocco or a baguette at France. (If they're begging for hot dogs, point out they can meet the ``Beauty and the Beast'' characters at France and those from ``Aladdin'' at Morocco, among others. Check the weekly guide-map for specific times.)
One tip: Epcot is extremely popular with diners. Eat lunch early or late. (You can get pizza in Future World.) If you plan to have dinner here, book reservations in the morning at the guest relations booth (or at your hotel if you're staying at a Disney property). A good bet for families: The Coral Reef (at the Living Seas exhibit) complete with a 200-foot in diameter aquarium. All Epcot restaurants have children's restaurants.
Certainly the World Showcase restaurants and shops offer a quick 'round-the-world tour. One mom confided she picked up needed materials for her daughter's social studies project. I regretted later not buying a too-expensive, but wonderfully ugly troll from Norway.
These exhibits can be fun, but also tiring for kids. It's also important to explain to them that they offer a decidedly upbeat and sanitized version of their nation. This is Disney World, after all. For example, the otherwise well-done film about China's history omitted the Tiananmen Square uprising.
The kids and you will be a lot happier if you concentrate your time at Epcot sampling the cutting-edge technology.
Don't even try to beat them at a computer game.
INFO BOX: If you're planning a 1997 visit to Disney World, there have never been more choices of places to stay, from the new luxe Boardwalk waterfront village to $69 rooms at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort and $35 campsites at Disney's Fort Wilderness. Call 407-W-Disney or visit Disney's home page at www.disneyworld.com on the Internet. Ask about 1997 value season dates, typically in January, late spring, late summer and fall. Whenever you go, plan on exceeding your budget: Just walking through the gates for a family of four for one day will cost nearly $150.
For those interested in venturing off-site, Call the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-551-0181 and ask for the Official Accommodations Guide. Here are two other good bets:
-- Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort Lake Buena Vista offers KidSuites that provide everything from a separate sleeping area and TV for the kids to video games and a mini kitchen. There are free evening children's activities and kids under 12 eat free from the children's menu. Three-night packages begin at under $375 per suite. There are packages designed for single parents and grandparents taking the grandkids. Call 800-FON-MAXX.
Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress has such great swimming pools that my kids had to be coaxed to go to Disney World. I like Hyatts because families can get a second room for half price. Another bonus: Kids can order anything they like from the adult menu at half price. Check to see what the Camp Hyatt program is offering. Call 800-233-1234.
(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')
(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)
(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate