Friday, March 8, 2013

Disney Brain Dump

We just got back from a fun packed, whirlwind, nine day 5th birthday celebration at Disney World.  And it was a blast.  And EXHAUSTING!  And that was BEFORE the food poisoning...   I seriously need a vacation to recuperate from my vacation! :)
But watching the excitement on the boys' faces and watching them be the ones egging us all on to run faster to catch that one.last.ride makes it all absolutely worth it.

Every time we come back from Disney I swear I am going to do a massive brain dump.  As we have several friends making their first trip I decided this was the time and sat down last night and knocked as much out as could before my eyes started drooping and I started rambling incoherently.  :)

So here it is - Brandi's massive Disney brain dump:
When to visit:
The answer to that actually depends on what you want to see and do. We have been 3 times in the last 6-7 years – once in early October (avoid the Columbus day weekend crowds!), once in early December (first week after Thanksgiving is great), and once end of February. As you can see we shoot for (and I would HIGHLY recommend) the off-season. Crowds are less, prices are lower, and you can get awesome extras like free dining. Each time actually has its own pros and cons.
  • Early October is still generally warm enough to hit the pool, and the water parks (Blizzard Beach & Typhoon Lagoon), and gives you an opportunity to attend a Halloween party night, or just see mickey ear pumpkins. Though beware it can also still be swelteringly hot.
  • Early December brings milder temps, and the parks decked out in their holiday finery. Our particular trip also hit a cold snap that left us with a sad animal less day at Animal Kingdom and turned us all into popsicles.
  • End of February, while at the tail end of renovation season may still see some rides closed for repair or refurbishment (like Splash Mountain on our most recent trip.) Temps generally were great – though we still had a few downright chilly early mornings and late nights. I’d take that any day over 100 degree temps, and 2-3 hour or more waits.
For our money and interests – prices, crowds, and ability to hit the water parks will see our next trip most likely in that October sweet spot. 
How long to stay:
Again, that answer depends on when you go, and what kinds of things you want to see or do, as well as your endurance level – not to mention budget!  In the off-season you can realistically hit 80-100% of the parks in 6-7 full days as long as you arrive early, fast pass wisely (if needed), and stay on property to take advantage of extra magic hours. Extra days give you the luxury to take it a little easier, or hit all your favorite attractions one more time.
  • Magic Kingdom is by far our favorite park and is a minimum 2 day visit in my opinion. 3’s even better. 2 days to see everything and a 3rd to ride all your favorites again, and check out the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game! 
  • Animal Kingdom can be done in a single day with a good plan, and some luck if you are willing to pass on a show or two, or the parade. I for one am not – I consider the shows here some of the best and typically pencil in at least a day and a half each trip to make sure I get it all in. That extra half day is a great break, or an opportunity to hit the Safari, Dinosaur, and Everest again.  It’s also a good place to add a trip to downtown Disney to do some shopping, visit the Lego store, and enjoy dinner at TREX for the dino enthusiast. Particularly as the park tends to close early by comparison.
  • Epcot really depends on what you want to do. You can typically hit all the rides, and catch the fireworks show in a single day + 1 night of extra magic hours. If the world showcase interests you add another day to really do it justice.
  • Hollywood Studios has a number of shows and if you intend to see them all it is a 2 day affair. If you are only here for the rides, Fantasmic, and the Honey I Shrunk the kids (or in our case Honey, I LOST the kids playground), you can squeeze all that in a single day.
It’s also probably worth noting that once you are out in the 7+ day range the difference between 9 days in the park and 10 is next to nothing relatively speaking..
For us we have found that 8 days is really about the right amount of time to hit all the rides, and catch the majority of the shows. Our next trip we’ll probably look at around 9 days and look to add in the water parks for a break and some variety.
Where to stay:
On property:
  • Luxury Resorts – if money is no object how can you pass these up? They are themed to the max, and often located on monorail for quick park access. They also tend to have fantastic on-site restaurants.
  • Moderate Resorts – A balance between theming and value. They tend to be much quieter and less crowded than the Values. We have stayed at Port Orleans Riverside, and most recently Coronado Springs. Both were nice. POR is my hands down favorite of the moderates and the one I would highly recommend if you are interested in this category. Though note it’s a bit of a hike from the bus stop(s) to Riverside.
  • Value Resorts – If you are a Nemo, Lion King, or Cars fan Art of Animation is the place for you (though good luck getting reservations!) We have stayed at All Star Movies once before. And Art of Animation is at the top of my list for a return trip. Note: these resorts tend to be the most packed in the off season which means a fair number of excited energetic boisterous younger children running around. They also tend to have the longest waits at the bus stops and most crowded buses.
Off property:
  • There are a million and one off property hotels. The primary drawback here is no extra magic hours, having to rent a car, pay for parking, and make the hike from the parking lot. On the bright side you leave when you want to and aren’t stuck waiting around at a bus stop. But, you also miss out on the lower rates offered by package deals. We stayed off property when we went to Universal last fall and I was actually thrilled with the deal I scored on Sheraton’s Vistana Villages (a time share property), and didn’t mind the car/parking, but I certainly appreciate the convenience (for the most part) of the Disney transportation.
For us the benefits of staying on property (Magical Express bus & luggage transport, package pricing, free dining deals, and simple convenience) makes it a no brainer. We’ll continue to stay on property for future trips. Most likely at POR, or Art of Animation. Note: during free dining periods POR by default includes the Disney Dining Plan with 1 table service, 1 quick service, and 1 snack daily. The Values include a 2 quick service plan instead, but can be upgraded.
Disney Dining Plan:
 Have you noticed a trend here? I think every answer thus far has included Free Dining in some shape or form. That’s because we love Disney’s FREE dining plan typically offered broadly for visits in the fall and sometimes applicable for Jan/Feb visits. Offers tend to show up both in my mailbox (visit Disney’s site and subscribe!) and on the web in July/August each year – so keep an eye out!
In particular we like the Disney Dining Plan that includes 1 table service meal, 1 quick service and 1 snack. Moderate and up resorts typically include this in their package price. Values only include a Quick service plan and have to be upgraded. I have never looked at logistics to see if it’d be worth if you had to pay for it outright or not. But, it is on my list of things to do… someday…
 The great thing about the plan is that it includes essentially all your meals so there’s no out of pocket spending (aside from gratuity) on lunch, dinner, or snacks if used wisely. Each meal comes with an entrée, drink and dessert and leaves you free to order anything you want on the menu regardless of cost. The table service meals also let you try out some of Disney’s best dining locations without spending an arm and a leg and even include character meals where characters come around to your table while you eat vs. standing in line waiting to see them.
In short - absolutely look for opportunities to pick up a free dining package. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to eat:
This is really a two or three parter, and obviously depends on your tastes and preferences.
General recommendations/tips:
  •  For the most part plan to eat at the park you are visiting or nearby. Don’t plan to spend the day in Magic Kingdom, but make lunch or dinner reservations at Hollywood Studios. It’s just a waste of time.
  • DO make reservations – in fact they are a MUST for all your table service meals! There are many restaurants you can ONLY get into WITH reservations.
  • Reservations can be made as far out as 180 days. And they tend to fill up fast! Make reservations for all your table service meals, and any character dining as soon as you have a plan!
  • Consider lunch reservations for your table service meal as a break in your day, and to make sure you are able to see the night time shows, parades and fireworks.
Brandi’s Top (single credit) Table Service meals in no particular order:
  • Garden Grill (Epcot – the land, character dinner) – Food is served family style is and all you can eat. Has some of the freshest and tastiest food on property – much is grown organically in the farms downstairs, but does tend to vary some depending on what’s in season. Rolls, seasonal salads, steamed broccoli, sweet potatoe fries, Tilapia, Pork tenderloin with cranberry sauce, and turkey and dressing (though the fish and pork were so good I never even touched the turkey). During your meal Mickey, Chip, Dale and Pluto will stop by for a visit and to take pictures.
  • Ohana Dinner Service (Polynesian Hotel – short monorail or boat ride from Magic Kingdom). Another family style all you can eat. Bread, Salad, pork dumplings, chicken wings, bowl of veggies then skewers (a la Brazillian Steak House) of Chicken, Pork, Steak and Shrimp and a to die for bread pudding dessert (and I don’t even LIKE bread pudding!) Also has activities throughout the meal for the kids (learn to hula, coconut races, parade, dance, etc.) Always one of our favorites. Note: it also has a view of the Magic Kingdom castle, and has views of the nightly fireworks out over the lake if you happen to be there at the right time.
  • Akershus (Epcot – Norway, character dinner). We picked this one because it was a princess dinner, but the food was excellent as well. When you first come in you meet and take pictures with Belle (Beauty and the Beast). As part of the package you get a printed 8x10, and 4 4x6’s from your meeting with Belle which will be delivered to your table during the meal. As you first sit down 4 additional princesses will stop by (Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora and Ariel). You get to spend a few minutes talking to each and taking pictures. There’s an appetizer buffet with Salads, cold cuts, and a handful of other things. You also order an entrée from the menu. I don’t recall what I ate (fish? Steak?) It was excellent whatever it was!
  • Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom) – If you can get reservations it’s the hottest ticket in the park! 
  • Mama Melrose (Hollywood Studios). It’s Italian and is a great lunch choice while you are at HS so you are free in the evening to see Fantasmic.
  • TREX (Downtown Disney) – Dino themed restaurant. Food’s typical restaurant fare – go here for the Dinos.
  • Rainforest Café – (Animal Kingdom) typical RC faire. Another go for the atmosphere and on someone else’s tab place.
Note: Some fine dining or dinner shows allow you to visit using DDP credits, but require 2 table service credits.  In general I don't think it's worth it to spend two credits on something like this, but here are the ones we have tried and our opinions of them:
  • Spirit of Aloha Luau (Polynesian).  We did Spirit of Aloha this year for the boy's birthday.  I think we have tried every single restaurant at the Polyneisian and always enjoyed the food.  We were NOT impressed with the food or the service at the show, but did enjoy the luau dancing and in particular the fire dance show. 
  • Cindrella’s table - We hit Cinderella's castle on our first visit and I was particularly fond of the prime rib, but I have to say for the princess experience Akershus wins hands down (and saves you a table service credit to boot... ).  Dine here to enjoy the novelty of eating in THE WDW castle, but better food and princess experiences can be found elsewhere and won't cost you two credits.
  • LeCelliar (Canadian steak house).     LeCelliar is one of my all time favorites from back in the days when it was just a single table service.  And as much as I thought the food was excellent, I am just not willing to give up a 2nd table service to visit when I can have two good steak meals elsewhere.
Quick Service Recommendations:
  • Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom, Fantasyland – LUNCH only!). Worth the wait. EXCELLENT food. And great opportunity to have dinner in Beast’s castle if you can’t get in for dinner.
  • Gaston’s (Magic Kingdom, Fantasyland– Pork shanks. YUMMY!) Note: Not listed as a QS place, but offers the pork shanks as QS.
  • Sunshine Seasons (Epcot, The Land) – good variety. Grill in particular was good. LOVED the cheesey mashed potatoes & berry cheesecake (to die for!)
  • Yorkshire County Fish Shop (Epcot, England?) – English style fish and chips.
  • Flame Tree BBQ (Animal Kingdom) – Ribs & Chicken
  • Restaurantosaurs (dino themeing)
Snack your way across Magic Kingdom.  :)
  • Main street bakery (mainstreet) – cinnamon rolls. Currently closed – visit Gastons!
  • Gastons (Fantasyland) – cinnamon rolls. Huge and yummy. Plan to share.
  • Storybrook Treats (Magic Kingdom Fantasyland) – Strawberry shortcake, Cookie or Brownie Sunday. Big enough to share.
  • Plaza Ice Cream Parlor (Mainstreet) – cookie ice cream sandwiches & Sundaes (with peanut butter sauce instead of fudge) – YUMMY!  Get once of each and share!  :)
  • Aloha Isle (Magic Kingdom) – pineapple dole whip float. I don’t even like pineapple all that much. Or floats. But I won't be making another trip without one.  :)
  • ?? Goofy's Candy co?  (Main street on the right when you first walk in)- Try the marshmallow chocolate straws dipped in Resses or Butterfinger. Very rich, but good. And comes with keepsake Mickey straw!
Brandi’s Top/Must do attractions (in no particular order):
Hollywood Studios:
  • Midway Mania - Fast pass it early!
  • Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground - plan to play for an hour and be okay with losing the littles and guarding the exits!  :)
  • Muppet Vision 3D
  • Voyage of the Little Mermaid
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Tower of Terror - not for the littles, though Ryan really liked the elevator dropping part, just not the pre-show.
  • Fantasmic - great show.  Be warned sitting down in the first few rows you get wet from the mist and can definitely feel the wave of heat from the flames when they erupt
  • Indiana Jones stunt show - Kevin likes this one.  The kids and I could take it or leave it.
  • Starwars show - not for those prone to motion sickness.  :)
  • Car stunt show - Another of Kevin and Ryan's faves.  Now includes Lightning McQueen!
Magic Kingdom:
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - one of our favorite on site Coasters (Connor's absolute favorite!)
  • Splash Mountain - my all time favorite from our last trip.  :)
  • Haunted Mansion - may not be for the littles.  We just told our kids up front none of it was real - it just like when people put up all those decorations for Halloween!  Just tricks - and they enjoyed it.  Ry even rode it at least twice.
  • Enchanted Tales with Belle - LOVED this one.  It's like a play - all the kids get a part.  Ryan decided he didn't want to, so the caster delegated the dog ottomon to Mommy.  I had a lovely bark, had a blast parading with the kids, and was thoroughly admonished by Belle for barking and chewing on the books.  Connor caught the lead role - the Beast with an impressive ROAR with some claws!  He was over the moon to get so much time with Belle up close and personal and have the whole crowd wish him a very special Birthday.
  • Under the Sea Little Mermaid
  • Space Moutain - one of Ryan's favorites.  Though note the majority of the ride is in the dark and may be scary for kiddos afraid of the dark/not being able to see where they are going.
  • Buzz Light Year (except when you get stuck for 45 minutes!  On the bright side I scored 999,999 points.  Connor scored an impressive almost 300,000.  :))
  • Stitch - another good one, but helps to prep the kids for having the lights cut out and the "scary" creatures.
  • Monsters, Inc Comedy show - stand up comedy involving people in the crowd.
  • Tomorrowland speedway - I may never recover from Connor's driving. :)
  • Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - can't say enough how much we LOVED this game.  Connor became a Master Sorcerer (GOLD level).  Tip: Pick up cards every day whether you intend to play or not.
  • Soarin - fast pass early or plan to visit during EMH!
  • Test Track - you can fast pass this one, but FP skips the best part (designing your own car & testing it out!)  Go the full route - during EMH if you have to.
  • The Seas Nemo & Friends - we have a Nemo lover.  LOVE this ride.  Listen to peach at the end.  She says 2-3 different things (so ride more than once and see what she says next time!)
  • Turtle Talk with Crush - kids loved talked to Crush.  Connor got picked right off the bat.  :)
  • Universe of Energy - Great show.  Thought it does take about 45 min.  Hit it after all your faves not to waste precious crowded ride time.
  • Living with the land - interesting to see what they can grow and how.  Kids loved seeing all the fruits and veggies still on the plants.
  • Mexico: Boat ride
  • Norway: Malestrom.
  • Phineas & Ferb Showcase.  Worth visiting Mexico to get the gist.  We preferred the Sources of the Magic Kingdom game hands down.
Animal Kingdom:
  • Kilimanjaro Safari - head straight there when the gates open and either hop on or fast pass.  Keep in mind animals are most active early in the morning!
  • Wildlife train - explore the exhibits, listen to a keeper talk, and if you must visit the petting zoo.  :)
  • It's Tough to be a Bug - Kids totally freaked out at the bugs attacking in 3D and in particular when it ran under them.  Okay for kids, but defiantly prep them for it.  :)
  • Festival of the Lion King show - great show!
  • Kalu River Rapids - though you WILL get WET.  Especially if it's 50 something degrees and you REALLY don't want to.  :)
  • Everest - AWESOME.  One of Ryan's favorites.  Connor did not approve of the going backwards.  :)
  • Boneyard play area - fun place for the kiddos.  Beware the dino dig sand pit across the bridge.  Kids got pretty dirty.
  • Finding Nemo show - cute re-enactment of the movie.
  • Dinosaur - a little bumpy, and may be scary little kids.  Pre-ride prep regarding the Carnitore not being real, and not going to eat you probably helps.  :)
  • Jungle Trek - like the zoo. :)
Park Hopper Option
While it might be a bit of an extravagance, and the budget conscious may choose to forgo it, it’s on my YES list. For two reasons:
  •  First – I try to NEVER make our primary park of the day the one with Extra Magic Hours that day – it’s always more crowded. So we typically visit a non-extra magic hour park during the day to minimize crowds, and only hit EMH parks during their evening EMH. Note: I am not an early riser particularly when we rarely see our room before midnight the night before so we have never actually made it to morning EMH hours.
  • Second – It’s nice to have flexibility. AK in particular tends to close early leaving you 5+ hours of fun at another park if you make the hop over. There are also those days when you only really need a half day to finish off a particular park. And although we try to eat where we are playing certain parks are more stacked in the dining arena than other’s. And it’s okay to bend the rules once in a while to get a must have reservations – even if it means transferring parks. Just make it the exception, not the norm.
Your day at the park:
  • Get there EARLY! The first hour is primo riding time with 0 wait. Use this time in particular to hit things that fill up with longer lines later.
  • HAVE A PLAN!! Make a must do list and try to hit the most popular ones first. Or the area with the most co-located.
  • Don’t run back and forth all over the park. You’ll do enough walking without backtracking.
  • Take a break every 2-3 hours. Have lunch, grab a snack, just recharge and refresh.
  • Consider heading back to the hotel mid day to rest/nap and returning later in the evening when the lines dwindle a bit and you get your second wind.  Though keep in mind the bus trips back and forth eat up time.
  • Read up on how fast passes work and people’s tips on best ways to take advantage of them.
Whew!  Think that's most of it.  Hope it helps!  :)

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