Everything Walt Disney World

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Making Dining Reservations Closer to Travel? Is Your Vacation Ruined?

chefs

Okay, I’m kidding about ruining your vacation, but  a lot of visitors think that unless you make your ADRs (advanced dining reservations in Disney parlance) 180 days out, your trip is forever ruined. I’d like your thoughts.

So here’s a question for you:  When do you make your dining reservations? While most of my clients schedule their trips far in advance, I tend to travel more short notice (for Disney at least), about two months out.  I just put together a quick trip for my family for Thanksgiving and of course, there was nothing available.  Well, at first. Then, a strange thing happened:  Dining reservations were popping up all over the place.  Hard to get reservations like California Grill and Citricos.

This got me thinking about when you really need to make these reservations. Of course, Be Our Guest is still a nightmare to get, even at the 180-day mark.  Same with Le Cellier and certain character meals, like Chef Mickey’s and Cinderella’s Royal Table.  But what about regular dining destinations?  I’m getting just about everything I want a month out. Could it be–cue sinister music–that Disney staggers some of these reservations so that more become available closer to travel?  Or perhaps they  only do this for busy weeks like Thanksgiving?  It makes sense that Disney would want to keep everyone happy, regardless of when they book.  For example, they extend Fastpass+ reservations to offsite guests at the 30 day mark and we know those fastpasses are staggered, so why wouldn’t they do that with dining?

Tell me about how m you travel and how you make your reservations. Are you up–or is your travel agent up–early at 180-days out pecking away at your top choices or do you wing it?  Even though I do this for a living, I’m always up for hearing how you go about things too and what tips you have for getting what you want.  You can tell me in the comments here or on Facebook.

Frozen Summer Fun Coming to Hollywood Studios This Summer!

Princess Fairytale Hall: Anna & Elsa

Can’t get enough “Frozen”?  Well Disney is aware of your plight and they’ve got just the thing:  Frozen Summer Fun, starting July 5th and running through September 1st.  All the experiences are free with your valid theme park admission to Hollywood Studios. Here’s what’s coming:

Olaf on Summer Vacation – Olaf the snowman is having the time of his life on his very first summer vacation! He chimes in throughout the day to keep everyone updated on all his adventures. Plus, you can pick up your very own Take-Along Olaf from locations in the park, so he can join you on your summer vacation. And when you share your photos with Olaf on social media, be sure to tag them with #OlafSummerVacation. They may just get selected to appear in that day’s grand finale!

Anna and Elsa’s Royal Welcome – At 11 a.m. each day, Elsa and Anna arrive in Hollywood as part of their goodwill tour of neighboring kingdoms, making their way down Hollywood Boulevard in a horse-drawn sleigh. Kristoff is along for the fun, too, joined by a flurry of skaters, skiers, ice cutters and more! The entire procession culminates in a special moment at the Sorcerer’s Hat Icon Stage to officially welcome the visiting royalty to this kingdom of Hollywoodland.

For the First Time in Forever: A “Frozen” Sing-Along Celebration – Cool down inside the Premiere Theater, where Anna and Elsa join the Royal Historians of Arendelle for a fun and comedic retelling of the unique history of their Kingdom, filled with delightful, sing-along moments from “Frozen.” Guests will be invited to join in special sing-along moments from the film’s chart-topping soundtrack

Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post & Frozen Funland – Inside Soundstage One, Oaken and his cousins have created a Frozen Funland filled with cold weather activities, unique photo opportunities, and more! There’s a frozen pond with ice skating demonstrations, wintertime fun for kids in the “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” play area, a “big summer blowout” with plenty of “Frozen” merchandise, and special “Frozen”-inspired food and beverage offerings.

“Coolest Summer Ever” Dance Party – Starting at 5:30 p.m. each day, a dance party takes over the area around the Sorcerer’s Hat Icon Stage, with a DJ and live band. The band plays a variety of classic and contemporary summer rock & roll hits, as well as a cool, rocking medley of “Frozen” favorites. It’s going to be hot!

“Frozen” Fireworks Spectacular – Everything wraps up at 9:45 p.m. when Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, and Olaf come together at the Sorcerer’s Hat Icon Stage for a grand finale to the day’s festivities, kicking off an awe-inspiring fireworks display set to the glorious music of “Frozen!”

“Coolest Summer Ever” Dance Party – Starting at 5:30 p.m. each day, a dance party takes over the area around the Sorcerer’s Hat Icon Stage, with a DJ and live band. The band plays a variety of classic and contemporary summer rock & roll hits, as well as a cool, rocking medley of “Frozen” favorites. It’s going to be hot!

“Frozen” Fireworks Spectacular – Everything wraps up at 9:45 p.m. when Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, and Olaf come together at the Sorcerer’s Hat Icon Stage for a grand finale to the day’s festivities, kicking off an awe-inspiring fireworks display set to the glorious music of “Frozen

As a mom whose kids are a little bit obsessed with the movie, I can’t wait. See  you there!

Spicy and Spicy Chicken Waffle at Sleepy Hollow.

Blog-Sandwich

Looking for a tasty sandwich in the Magic Kingdom? The sweet and spicy chicken waffle at Sleepy Hollow at the Magic Kingdom is not exactly a sandwich, but it’s pretty close. And what it’s lacking in its sandwich-ness (yes, that’s a real word), it makes up for in taste.

Located in Liberty Square just over the bridge from the hub, you probably know Sleepy Hollow as a great place to get ice cream sandwiches made with huge chocolate chip cookies or funnel cakes, but you can also get this delicious waffle sandwich. It’s topped with fresh arugula and a creamy coleslaw, but the real star is of course the big hunk of breaded and fried chicken  breast doused with a sweet, Asian inspired sauce.  It’s got some heat, say a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, but it’s quickly offset by the sweetness.    The waffle was cooked to order and tasted delicious as well.

This is my new go-to snack in the Magic Kingdom. It’s big enough for lunch for one person or as a quick snack for two when you’re dining reservation is a few hours away and you need to fuel up.  And at under $10 for it and a drink, it’s a bargain, as far as theme park treats go.  Try it your next time in the park and let me know what you think.

Your First Day at Disney.

MikeB-MKcastle

What should you do your first day at Walt Disney World?  Do you make dining reservations and worry about making it from the airport in time?  Worst still, now that you can schedule your fastpasses 60 days in advance, it’s likely you’ll have rides scheduled shortly after your arrival as well.  So how do you handle that first day? Most visitors fall into one of two categories:  The first group plays it safe, maybe spending a lazy day at the pool, perhaps hanging  out at the Boardwalk or at Downtown Disney. But most people?  They jump right in.  This article is addressed to those who fall into the latter category. Getting from the airport: Getting from the airport to the parks is what really determines your schedule that day.  Conventional wisdom says that you’ll need three hours to get from Orlando International airport to the parks. Instead, opt for four hours and if you’re wrong, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The three hour suggestion assumes that nothing will go wrong:  that you’ll take an hour get from the airport to your resort, another hour to check in and drop off any luggage you may have, and another hour to get to the parks.  Magical Express is very efficient, but if you’re the last bus stop or there’s a long line to check in at the resort, you’ll be glad you gave yourself that extra time. FLE-MediaME What about your luggage? One of the great things about Magical Express is that they deliver your luggage to your room if you put those little yellow tags on your bags at your home airport, allowing you to simply walk from your gate to the bus. This service is offered until 10:00 p.m. every day and generally takes three to four hours from the time your plane arrives in Orlando.  Because there’s a delay, you may want to pack some essentials in a carryon bag, particularly if you have small children who’ll need diapers or a change of clothing or if you have medication you need to take by a certain time. If you’re getting in after 6:00 p.m., you may want to forgo the service altogether if you will be going to bed early. What about dining reservations? I generally don’t like to schedule dining at all my first day, considering that a no-show means a $10 per person penalty. Losing a fastpass time isn’t that big of a deal, of course, but money out of your pocket? That hurts. If you’re going to make a dining reservation, make sure you give yourself at least five hours. This gives you some leeway if your flight is delayed or if you hit obstacles once you’re on the ground.  I wouldn’t schedule a “big night” sort of meal regardless. Keep it simple so that you don’t have to dress up. Tomoorwland-MikeB Finally, Fastpass+. You probably know by now that you can schedule your fastpasses 60 days in advance (30 days for off site guests). In the past, showing up at the park later in the day meant you probably weren’t going to get any fastpasses at all, but with the new system, you can schedule them for hours after your arrival, ensuring that you’ll get the ride the most popular attractions. You really have nothing to lose if you miss a fastpass, but try to schedule them as late as possible just in case. Okay, after all this, I have a confession. In fact, it’s what inspired me to write this post: I am breaking every one of these rules. I’m showing up at 11:40, have a fastpass for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Ride at 1:15, and I’m eating at Victoria and Albert’s at 5:15. Will I make it? I don’t know, but I’m not recommending you try! I’ll fill you in on Facebook next week. As for you, what do you do? Do you plan a lazy day or do you go all out?

Let’s Talk about Free Dining for September.

This time of year, you can’t read a Disney message board without seeing rumors about free dining being released for September. There are even “free dining prognosticators” who are minor celebrities on these boards, people who seem to know when it’s coming out long before anyone else. Whether they have an inside edge or they’re just good at utilizing past data and making predictions, these posters are great at whipping their fellow posters into a frenzy. And you know what? Some of them get it right.  Right now, the vibes, as it were, are really good for free dining. Of course there’s been no real indication from Disney yet. Here’s why I think the rumors are true.

1. September is a slow month. Even adding an extra week to Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival won’t bring in enough guests to counter that. 

2.  Historically, Disney has offered free dining in September for the last decade.

3.  In the last two years, Disney has added two new resorts, Art of Animation and the Disney Vacation Club Villas at the Grand Floridian. This translates to roughly 11,000 pillows that need heads on them every night without also bringing a corresponding number of guests from off property to hotels to on property.  In fact, the number of guests traveling to Orlando each year remains fairly static.  The real goal is to get those off site guests on property–and Disney does that pretty well with promotions like free dining.

4.  Free dining keeps lesser known Disney restaurants running during slow times, ensuring that the staff stays trained and gainfully employed–which includes making tips. 

And here’s the big one:

5.  Competition from Universal Orlando. In the last few years, theme park fans have been the beneficiaries of the competition between Disney and Universal: Universal opens up Harry Potter, Disney opens up the Fantasyland Expansion. And back and forth with minor attractions since then. Disney, of course, is set to debut the much-anticipated (you don’t know the half of it) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride in just a few weeks (perhaps even days), but Universal is opening up an entirely new section of  Harry Potter.

Now, for me, Universal will never beat Disney. The theming isn’t the same and the resorts aren’t as nice (and they’re all pretty uniformly expensive). Really, it just misses that certain something that Disney delivers time and time again. But I’m a diehard Disney fan so I’m quite biased. However, even I can see the allure of heading over to Universal. This new Harry Potter addition is going to be quite impressive.

Given that more theme park dollars are going to be lured over the Universal, Disney is going to have to make staying on property more attraction. And they’re going to do that by offering free dining.

Let me just say this: No one really knows if free dining is coming out for September. That’s my nice way of adding the caveat “please don’t come yelling at me if it’s not offered!”  But I would be really surprised if it didn’t happen, so get ready!  If you’re one of the many who are waiting for free dining, my suggestion is that  you jump on it the first day it’s offered. Last year, the pickings were awfully slim, especially for resorts like Port Orleans, although this was a bigger issue for the October thru December time frame than December.

Good luck!

Want a quote when free dining comes out? I’m only doing holds for free dining this time since the first day is so busy and rooms go quickly. A hold doesn’t commit you to anything, it just ensures that you get your room. For a hold I need the following information:

Everyone’s names plus the kids’ ages
Your travel dates
Resort choice(s)
Type of tickets

We can change everything later as we work out the details, but this at least gets you started with a guaranteed spot. Feel free to contact me prior to the release so I can have all your paperwork ready to go, then I’ll just email you the confirmation on the day of.  Just use the quote request form on the right or email me at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com or call 919-889-5281. As always, most clients qualify for a Disney tote and gift card.


Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival: What I Ate.

It might sound funny to highlight a post about Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival by mentioning food, but trust me, the new food booths are the best thing to hit Flower and Garden since, well, since flowers.  Disney started small last year, with just a few food booths, but they’ve added more this year. Now almost every pavilion has something to offer. Here are a few items you’ll find.

Frushi from Japan.

Frushi, basically fruit sushi, was a big surprise, a delightfully refreshing option with a subtle taste.  A homemade fruit roll takes the place of seaweed, with coconut infused, lightly-sweetened rice and chunks of cool fruit making up the filling. It’s served with a side of whipped cream, but it really doesn’t need it. I have been craving this ever since.

The Piggylicious Cupcake.

You’ll find this cupcake at the Smokehouse Barbeque and Brew kiosk at the American pavilion. This is the one pavilion where we wanted to try everything, and it mostly came through for us.  As for the cupcake, despite the praise I’d seen elsewhere, it didn’t live up to the hype.  A yellow cupcake flavored with bacon and topped with maple icing and crushed pretzels.  A good idea, right? Unfortunately its more smoke than bacon. Everyone in our group agreed it was a “must not do.”

Pork Slider and the Turkey “Rib.”

The pork slider, also at the Smokehouse, was a big surprise. It’s a meaty barbequed pork sandwich with cole slaw on a big bun. It’s a regular size sandwich, not a tiny serving like some of the items you’ll find at these booths, so bring your appetite. I live in North Carolina so I know my barbeque and this definitely passed the test.

The same cannot be said for the turkey “rib,” which is essentially a small turkey leg. Really, the taste is fine, it’s more the idea behind it that doesn’t really work. Well, it might work if you eschew pork and have a hankering for a rib experience. However, you’re probably better off sticking with tofu and passing on this.

Shrimp and Grits.

This was my favorite item both this year and last, making the Florida booth a must-do on everyone’s list. It’s pan-seared shrimp, chorizo, and grits, a traditional shrimper’s breakfast from the Carolinas.  As I said above, I live in North Carolina and if you know Southern food, you’ve probably heard of Bil Neal and Crook’s Corner, which is just a few miles from my house and considered the birthplace of new Southern cooking.  Crook’s Corner is famous for its shrimp and grits but this little tiny food booth blows their recipe out of the water any day of the week! If you’ve never had this dish, give it a try. It’s a real treat that might spoil you for an other rendition of this dish.

Watermelon Salad.

Also from the Florida booth, this watermelon salad was huge surprise. It’s served with greens, goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction. Everything about this dish was perfect, with each ingredient adding to the dish as a whole. The goat cheese was so mild it was like butter! The balsamic reduction was tangy and contrasted nicely with the sweet melon.  Looking back, you could make a delicious meal at the Florida booth–in fact, I think I will next time.

I tried a few other items but the only one that really stands out is the Taco al Pastor in Mexico. This has spicy pork and a pineapple salsa on a corn tortilla. I absolutely loved it. I’d have taken a picture, but I had a small disaster right after I bought it which involved breaking my phone. However, the taco was good! Maybe not worth dropping my phone over though.

As if Flower and Garden wasn’t an enjoyable enough experience, the addition of food booths really puts it over the top, feeding all your senses. Now you can go and enjoy a few noshes and drinks while you get inspiration for your own gardens back home. 

Latest on the Polynesian Disney Vacation Club Construction

I was just over at the Polynesian Resort this past weekend and I wanted to share some pictures with you. Construction is coming right along with four bungalows already framed and what looks like at least a dozen more planned, all the way across to the Ticket and Transportation Center.

 You can see from the picture below where the other bungalows will be.

This will take up a very substantial area of beachfront, as you can see below.

Fortunately, a large portion of the beach will remain undisturbed right off of the pool area.

We stood out in a third floor stairwell to get a better view. From there, we could see what looks like some sort of building, perhaps a restroom next to a smaller pool?  That would make sense given that most DVC resorts have a smaller pool on that portion of the property. In addition, the  main pool at the Polynesian resort is very small.

Here’s a closer view of these two-bedroom bungalows.

We’ve been told these rooms will be for DVC rental only and won’t be released in to cash inventory, which makes sense given how few we expect will be built. Studios, which will presumably sleep for and from floor plans appear to be the largest on property, and one-bedroom units will also be available.

As noted in the previous update and as you can see from the photos, there’s a ton of construction going on here. The main building will be undergoing an extensive refurbishment and the volcano pool will be closing in August for the next six months at a minimum. If you’re planning a stay here (and I am, despite the construction), just be aware of these changes. On a positive note, the Neverland kids club will re-open this month, presumably under the new “Club Disney” moniker, which will change much of the theming.

Fastpass+ Advanced Selections Extended to Offsite Guests

If it seems like there’s a change to Fastpass+ every day, you’re right. This $1.5 system is huge and it’s changing how you tour the parks.  The  newest twist according to the rumor mill? Starting March 31st, offsite guests (also known as “day guests” in Disney speak) will be allowed to make their Fastpass+ selections online up to 30 days in advance, a change from having to make them in the park the day of their visit. This means shorter lines at the Fastpass+ kiosks in the parks, as well as the ability to do more precise planning. Currently, annual pass holders staying offsite are also able to schedule 30 days in advance.

Offsite guests won’t get a MagicBand, but they will be available for purchase. Instead, they’ll use their ticket, which contains an RFID chip, the same way onsite guests use their MagicBands.  No word yet on the price, but if it’s under $10 or so, I can see guests buying these bands–they’re super convenient.

So how does this all work? Starting at 30 days prior to arrival, offsite guests will be able to go to MyDisneyExperience.com and select their fastpasses. They’ll get up to 3 per day (in one park only) and they can link their passes with friends, just like onsite guests.  Then they can make adjustments right up until they use those passes, provided that there are still fastpass times available.  They can also use the app on their smartphone to make adjustments on the go.  For those guests who do not have a smartphone, a limited number of Fastpass+ kiosks will be available for use in the parks.

While this is a step in the direction of giving offsite guests the same privileges as those who stay on site, some have criticized Disney for not limiting the benefits of making fastpass selections in advance to onsite guests, noting that they pay a premium for rooms on Disney property and they should be rewarded in some way for it. I can see some validity to that argument: Disney has chosen to “democratize” the fastpass selection experience, taking away the edge that onsite guests have enjoyed for nearly a year. Not everyone is going to like it.  However, onsite guests still have a 30 day head start on their offsite counterparts.  Of course, those onsite guests who come to the party late and make fastpass selections closer to travel, and to be honest, many of my clients (and I) do this, will have to be more proactive.

How do you feel about these changes? If you’re an offsite guest, will you use the system at 30 days? If you normally stay onsite, do you wish the privilege had been restricted to onsite guests only?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge

The Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge opened last fall in Hollywood Studios and since then, it’s become a popular location to meet up for drinks and snacks. Located right outside the restaurant, the lounge is a cozy spot with just about a dozen tables.  At present, you can’t make dining reservations for this location, but it’s open all day so if it’s crowded when you get there, go on a ride or take in a show and then try again later.  Kids are welcome, of course, but the menu is very grown-up and drinks are served. It’s more of a “bar” than a restaurant, so little ones might be bored.

We arrived at opening and had our pick of the tables.  Service was a bit inattentive to start, but picked up later; nothing we could really complain about. In general, I find that most Disney servers are top notch, and while our server wasn’t the best, she was still perfectly good at her job.

Since we weren’t super hungry, we split two entrees among the three of us.  The menu falls somewhere between a tapas-style menu and full entrees.  Think sliders and cheese plates, but more upscale. For example, the tacos on the menu are not your ordinary tacos, but rather are made with duck confit.  You can also get the Brown Derby’s famous Cobb salad, desserts, and specialty drinks.  We settled on the Derby Sliders and the Artisanal Cheeses and Charcuterie Board for Two

The burgers came in two flavors, a more traditional burger with bacon, mustard aoli, cognac-mustard aioli, smoked gouda cheese, and avocado and another topped with house-made chorizo chipotle mayo, manchego cheese, pickles and crispy onions. I absolutely loved the first burger, with toppings that complimented each other beautifully. There was simply nothing I would change, right down to the brioche bun. The chorizo topped burger, on the other hand, was a bit overpowering and tasted more like a really great sloppy Joe. Honestly, I think that was more a matter of personal taste–to me, a bit of chorizo goes a long way. Others may well love this burger. Even so, I thought both were terrific and I would get them again.

The cheese and charcuterie board came with assorted soft and hard cheeses, as well as salami and a clever little pot of chicken “faux gras” which was absolutely delicious.  Another winner, I would order this again as well.

Hollywood Studios is a park with some really great table-service restaurants, but it’s quick-service locations are lacking. The Brown Derby Lounge fills a much needed space somewhere in between, with sophisticated bites, comfortable seats, and great people watching.  I’m so pleased that Disney made such good use of this small space. It’s bound to become a favorite meeting place in the park.

Villas at the Grand Floridian.

The newest in property in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) collection opened at the Grand Floridian last fall and it’s been at almost full capacity since.  While DVC owners have priority when booking rooms, you can stay here on a cash basis as well if you book well in advance. Since it’s a new property, you won’t find any discounts yet, but you will enjoy the most luxurious accommodations Disney has to offer, just a short walk from the Magic Kingdom monorail and one away stop from that beloved park.

Most DVC properties are attached to a deluxe resort and in this case, it’s the Grand Floridian, Disney’s flagship resort. It’s about a five minute walk from the DVC lobby to the pool and about five more minutes to the Grand Floridian lobby. As a guest, you’ll enjoy the Grand’s pools as well as the resort’s other amenities.

This DVC property has deluxe studios and one, two and three-bedroom villas. Both the studios and the one-bedroom villas sleep five. The two-bedroom villas sleep nine and the three-bedroom villas sleep twelve. You’ll find full kitchens and a washer/dryer set up in the one, two and three- bedroom units.

The kitchens are small, as you might expect, but they have gorgeous cabinets and stainless steel appliances.  I really appreciated the marble counter tops and attention to detail in the backsplash.

The rooms also have a mixture of carpet, wood flooring, and ceramic tile that make it feel more like a comfortable, well-appointed home than a vacation rental.

The bathrooms are gorgeous, with soothing colors, subway tile, and deep tubs. This one comes with air jets.

Disney has learned a lot about what guests want since they started building their own hotels in 1971, and one thing guests want? Lot of storage space.  These little ottomans open up to hide toys or whatever else you may want to secret away when not in use.

These clever twin-sized beds fold out from underneath the television in the living room.

The bathrooms have a nice amount of storage space as well, with roomy counter tops  (I’m looking at you, Bay Lake Tower). 

And that image in the mirror? It’s a television, so you can watch from the bathtub. The studios have a comfy couch that folds out into a double bed.

I’ll admit it, I’ve tried but I can’t find any downsides to this resort other than the price. The location is prime, it looks gorgeous, and the cast members are the same excellent cast members you’ll find anywhere on property.  If you love the Grand Floridian, you owe it to yourself to book a stay at the villas. Yes, it’s pricey. But the accommodations are bucket-list level and worth the cost, if only once.

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