11 October, 2013

Our Latest Disney Trip

So, I’ve just recently returned from my 2nd ever Disney trip, so obviously, I’m something of an expert at this point. I know all there is to know about all things Disney World, or as we experts call it, ‘the Parks’.

This time we stayed in a Savannah view suite at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village. It was a very nice room, especially with as many people as we had traveling with us. It sleeps 9 (we had 6 adults and 2 children), and has 3 full bathrooms, and a nice long balcony overlooking the aforementioned savannah (more on that in a moment). It also boasts a full kitchen (complete with plates, pitchers, roasting pans, utensils, etc…) and a washer and drier in the unit. It is basically a 2 bedroom apartment.

The property has a nice pool area with a spray park and hot tub, a fitness facility, an arcade, and other activities available.  I took advantage of the hot tub one night, but after long days at the parks, when we got back, I didn’t want to walk over to the pool area (which wasn’t that far, but it wasn’t close..), we just wanted to crash..

View from our balcony
From the balcony or from any of the several viewing areas, we could see all sorts of African wildlife. Some of the animals we saw included giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, several types of deer and antelopes and African cows (I don’t remember the actual name for them) and several types of birds. It was cool to see them. One thing I would have liked to see was a card or poster in the room that included pictures of the animals and a little about them. There was no visible fence, but there was a barrier that is difficult to see unless you are looking for it, so it looks like they could come right up to your window.

View from the lobby
We really didn’t spend a lot of daylight hours in the room, so we really didn’t take advantage of the amenities of the hotel. Luckily, it is a short walk to the Disney Transportation bus stop and a quick ride to the parks.

In our last 2 trips, I have ridden on most of the rides in the 4 parks at least once. A couple of the ones that I have missed (well, not missed, just not ridden) include the rides that are regular carnival rides with a Disney twist, the sorts of rides that you can do at your local amusement park (i.e. tea cups, the Dumbo ride, etc…) and the 3 big coasters (Space Mountain, Expedition Everest and the Rocken’ Roller Coaster). I am not a huge fan of roller coasters, so they aren't high on my list of things to do, although, I would like to get on them at least once.

A couple of my favorite rides are the Jungle Cruise, Pirates and Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom, Soarin’ at EPCOT, Toy Story, the Back Lot tour and Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios and The Safari, Kali River Rapids and Tough to be a Bug at Animal Kingdom (probably my favorite of the 4 parks). The first time we went to Hollywood Studios, we got there shortly after opening and went straight to the Toy Story ride to get a FastPass, by the time we got there, the return times for the FastPass was already 4.30p. We had dinner reservations for 5, at a resort, so we didn't get them. An hour or so later, we happened past the ride, and they had already covered up the FastPass machines, and were not issuing more for the day. a couple days later we went back to that park, and it was much slower, so we were able to get on the ride. I now know why the wait is so long. It is a similar ride to the Buzz Lightyear ride in Magic Kingdom, but it is much better.

The advantage of going at the time of year that we went is the crowds are so much smaller. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a ghost town, but wait times are rarely more than 20-30 min for most rides and some rarely have any wait at all. Not sure I would want to go during the peak times.. especially in July or August when in addition to everyone being there, it is 1000 degrees.

Lady and the Tramp fountain
I wasn’t in love with most of the places we ate on this trip. Some were good, others, not so much. The first night we ate at Tony’s Town Square at Magic Kingdom. It is the Italian restaurant from Lady and the Tramp. I really enjoyed it. I got the steak, and it was cooked perfectly. The bread and oil was good and the vanilla gelato was a great way to finish it. The service wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. She didn’t add anything to the experience, but she didn’t detract from it.  I would eat there again.

The next night, we went to Boma, an ‘African’ buffet in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was good, but not great. There wasn’t a huge selection, but what I tried, I mostly liked. Deserts were pretty plain, cookies and cakes.. typical buffet deserts, nothing really to write home about. This place probably wouldn’t be high on my list to return.

Next on the dinner schedule was one of my favorites, Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom. This is a colonial themed restaurant that has a fixed menu that is like thanksgiving dinner, served family style, all you can eat. The meal includes salad and rolls (didn’t love the house made dressing, but it isn’t my taste), then they bring out the dinner. Sides of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, mixed veggies (mostly zucchini), and sautéed green beans, and then the main courses.. roast beef, smoked pork and turkey, with stuffing. Everything is delicious. Just when you can’t eat any more, they bring out desert, a white cake with crasins in it, topped with vanilla ice cream, with a cranberry sauce to top it off. This is definitely a place we would go to again.

Dinner at Chef Mickey
Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary was the next stop on our dinner menu. It is a character dinner buffet that features the ‘Fab 5’, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. I don’t really care about meeting the characters, but it is fun. This was a good buffet. There was plenty of selection, from sushi, to mac and cheese to carved beef and pork. If you couldn’t find something to fill yourself up with, you are too picky. It is in the lobby of the Contemporary hotel, one of the originals at WDW. One of the cool things about the location of Chef Mickey’s is that you can watch the monorails go by as they come in and out of the hotel. This is a good place to eat, and would consider a return trip to eat with the gang.

A Hawaiian themed setting greeted us for our next dinner at Ohana, in the Polynesian resort. This is another set menu served family style. They brought out the bread, (which I didn’t love), then the salad (which I didn’t love) and a couple appetizers, wings and a sort of chow mien.  A little background about my tastes would be good here.. I am not a fan of sweet sauces for meats. I don’t like honey ham, I don’t put cranberries on my turkey and I don’t understand mango chutney. That being said, the food served here wasn’t bad. It is all cooked on skewers over an open fire in the middle of the restaurant, and the servers bring around the skewers until you tell them to stop. They have shrimp, chicken, steak and pork. The pork was very good, the chicken wasn’t bad, but the steak was too sweet. I tried the shrimp it wasn’t bad, but I am normally not a fan of crawling seafood.  The one saving grace of the Ohana was the bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce for desert. That was very good. This is not a place to go for an intimate setting. It is a large open floor plan with servers coming and going with skewers of freshly cooked meats. It is very busy and not quiet. I don’t think it will be on the list for a return visit. The food was quality, just not my taste.  (Although, I would like to stay at the Polynesian on a future stay, and now that they are building DVC Villas, we will be staying there on a future visit.)

Our final dinner was at the Coral Reef at EPCOT. It is in the same building as the Nemo ride, but has a separate entrance.  This is one of the smaller restaurants, but its main feature is that it shares a wall with one of the large aquariums. You can watch all sorts of sea life (including sharks and rays, and the occasional SCUBA diver) swim by as you eat. That was pretty cool. The food is served menu style and is predominately a seafood restaurant, but they have other options like chicken or steak. I opted for the steak. The steak was over cooked, I ordered medium-rare, and it came out more medium-well.

On this trip, we took advantage of the pre-sale of the PhotoPass+. We did the regular PhotoPass last year, which lets you get as many pictures as you want from the PhotoPass photographers around the parks, which you can add boarders to and have a CD of them all for future use. You can also order custom photo themed items such as mugs, tee-shirts, calendars, etc. The difference between the PhotoPass and the PhotoPass+, is the + includes pictures from the rides (Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, Buzz Lightyear, etc..) as well as the photo packages from other events, like dinner at Chef Mickey’s and the Pirate experience. Definitely a cool thing, but not something I would buy every trip, just on the special ones. Pre-ordering it saves you about $50. As a group, we got around 350 pictures, and I’ll be playing with the pictures for a bit to add boarders, stickers, etc.. then order the disk and share the pictures with everyone that went on the trip.

One thing Disney does big, is holidays. Halloween is no exception. On several nights in September and October, they host “Mickey’s not-so-Scary Halloween Party”. It is a separately ticketed event, so it is in addition to the park admissions you have already paid for. It gives you an opportunity to trick-or-treat in the park, in costume. The special ticket is required, so the crowds are a bit low. They have a special Halloween parade (which I didn’t see) and a special version of Wishes, their nightly fireworks display. This was a very good display. You can also take advantage of more and unique PhotoPlus opportunities. You can have your picture taken next to the horseless carriage in front of the Haunted Mansion, they then photo-shop in a ghostly driver. We had more pictures taken, but they have yet to show up on my page, I have emailed their help desk to research it and have it added, but no luck yet.

In the fall, EPCOT hosts the Eat to the Beats Concert series. They bring in bands for a couple days each and they do a couple shows a night. We happened to see Air Supply. I have to say, those old guys still put on a pretty good show they played for about 20 min, 5 songs or so. Other bands this year included Starship, Sugar Ray, The Go-Gos and more.

As part of the basic dining plan we had selected for food. This includes 1 table service meal, 1 quick service meal and 1 snack per person, per night of the stay as well as the souvenir refillable mug. The refillable mug is a cool thing, as long as you don’t have to pay extra for it. It is good at you’re the resort you are staying at for soft drinks. A couple of things to make it better would be to let it be good at a couple of places in the parks, or to make it a little bigger. It is currently about 12oz, if they made them 20-32oz, it would make for a more usable option. In the 2 places we have stayed (AKL this year and Saratoga Springs last year), the walk to where the soda fountains are is a bit of a hike, almost not worth it for such a small serving of soda.

A couple of the notable things we enjoyed on the trip include the cinnamon bun from the new Gaston’s Tavern, literally, the size of a baby’s head. We also got the Dole Whip float, a must have for all trips to the Magic Kingdom. As part of the new expansion of the Fantasy Land in Magic Kingdom, a new restaurant opened up. It is modeled after the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast. It is a hot ticket for dinner, and is completely booked up months in advance. A couple months ago, I tried getting a dinner for our trip in January, there was nothing available. They are, however, a quick service for lunch, and the wait times can be close to 3 hours. We were able to secure a ‘fastpass’ of sorts and were able to jump the line and get in. The food was the standard type of quick service meals around the parks, but it is in the ballrooms that serve as dining rooms for the highly sought after table service dinner. There are 3 different rooms, all right from the movie. One featured the torn paintings and the rose under glass, one was the main dance hall and the other is the main entry way of the castle. Since it is so busy, it is tough to find a table. If you don’t have a MagicBand, they give you a RF pager so they know where you sit, and they bring you your food right to your table.

Since we have established that I am an expert in all things Disney World, I wanted to take a few moments to make suggestions to make a great experience better…

First off, there needs to be huge Ferris wheel at Magic Kingdom. Something similar to the one in Niagara Falls. Something that can get high enough to see a good part of the park from the top of the wheel. I enjoy people watching, and I like seeing things from above. I think that an aerial view of the park at night, or maybe during the Wishes fireworks display would be a cool way to see the park.

My next suggestion would be a couple of additions/tweaks to the rides that have photo-ops. I would add a photo-op to the Haunted Mansion in the part of the ride where the mirror is, that shows the computer generated spooks in the doom-buggy with you. Another suggestion would be to either re-locate the camera, or add an additional camera to that switches based on the time of day to Test Track. As it is now, it is right after you come out of the dark building to the fast part of the ride. When we rode it, it was early morning, and we come out looking straight at the sun. If they add another camera on the back end that they use in the morning, and keep this one and use it in the afternoons, it would avoid everyone who rides the ride in the morning from having to block the sun when the picture is taken.

So now that I am in Disney cool-down, I will begin ramping up for our low-key trip in January shortly. We will be going back to Saratoga for what will probably be our last trip for a year or so. I look forward to seeing if the 7 Dwarves train ride will be open by then (it looked pretty close this trip).