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Holiday Events at Epcot

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If you like Christmas, this really is the most wonderful time of the year in Walt Disney World. Though the Magic Kingdom and the beautiful life-sized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian usually gets the most attention, there’s plenty to do at Epcot. Here’s a list of our favorite (Epcot holiday) things to enjoy this time of the year:

Walk around the World Showcase and enjoy the cooler weather while you visit Holidays Around the World,  highlighting traditions from 11 countries. Kids love the story of Santa Claus in Germany but there’s plenty music, food and fun in each country. Schedules for these events are available when you enter the park.

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You can snack around the world on holiday specialties starting on November 25 from locations in the World Showcase.  Here’s just a sample of what you’ll find:

  • Prost! in Germany (artisan cheese plate or sauerbraten with red cabbage and spätzle)
  • American Holiday Table in American Adventure Pavilion (slow-roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce)
  • Alpine Haus between France and Morocco (cheese fondue in a bread bowl with fresh steamed vegetables)
  • Seasonal Southern Delights near World Showcase Plaza (blackened catfish with white cheddar grits with okra)
  • Feast of Three Kings Feast near World Showcase Plaza (Three Kings Bread)

Personally, I’m all about the bread and cheese fondue.

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Of course, the big draw is the Candlelight Processional, which also begins November 25, a retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, complete with a mass choir, a 50-piece orchestra, and a celebrity narrator. This years schedule has a few surprises as well as some old favorites:

  • Nov. 25-27 – Steven Curtis Chapman
  • Nov. 28-Dec. 1 – Neil Patrick Harris
  • Dec. 2-3 – Whoopi Goldberg
  • Dec. 4*-6 – Edward James Olmos
  • Dec. 7-9 – TBA
  • Dec. 10-12 – Robby Benson
  • Dec. 13-15 – Meredith Vieira
  • Dec. 16-18 – Jim Caviezel
  • Dec. 19-21 – Joe Morton
  • Dec. 22-24 – Ming-Na Wen – NEW!
  • Dec. 25-27 – Jodi Benson
  • Dec. 28-30 – Cal Ripken, Jr. – NEW!

The processional is performed three times per night (5:00, 6:45 and 8:15 p.m.) during the holiday season at the American Gardens Theater. You’ll need to line up early for seating or you can book a dining package which will guarantee you a spot. Make sure you book as early as possible since availability is limited.

Finally, take time to enjoy  Epcot’s beautiful holiday decorations that reflect the culture and traditions of each World Showcase country. These backdrops make for great holiday photos.

D-Luxe Burger in Disney Springs

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D-Luxe Burger, which I visited in Disney Springs two days after it opened, is a case study in why you don’t go to any restaurant when it first opens.  That first week, there was still a line out the door as hungry guests waited for this new dining option. Would it be any good? Was it worth the price? I couldn’t wait to find out, especially since a friend had gone there on opening day and raved over the ground chicken burger and fries she ordered.

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Like many of the newer buildings in Disney Springs, D-Luxe Burger is  themed to showcase the unique “Florida cracker” aesthetic. I love that look, with sloped tin roofs, big porches, and large, airy rooms.

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As you can imagine, the pace in the restaurant those first few days was still pretty frenzied as cast members worked to get a handle on how best to handle crowds. While we waiting in line, a manager was handing out ice water and attempting to provide shade with portable umbrellas.  A nice touch that you see often at Walt Disney World. We were able to order in about twenty minutes, not bad considering that the line snaked out the door and around the porch. I chose the classic cheeseburger for $9.99 and a small order of fries for $4.99.  Adding a drink brought my total to around $20, fairly expensive for a burger but only slightly more pricey than your standard theme park burger, fries and drink.  Hopefully, the quality would live up to the price, right?

Our order took a while–it was, after all, packed–with items arriving sporadically at our table of seven. This wasn’t an issue nor a surprise, given that most of us had ordered separately. After about 20 more minutes, my burger arrived looking absolutely delicious.

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I mean, look at that. First of all, it’s huge. Secondly, the brioche bun is a higher quality than your average hamburger bun.  I took the first bite and . . . it was raw. There’s no other way around it. The kitchen says they cook the burgers to medium but my burger was positively hemorrhaging blood. That red stuff you see in the picture above? That’s not ketchup. And this wasn’t, unfortunately, an anomaly.  Everyone at the table received a burger in the same state. One member of our party sent her burger back and when the second one arrived, well after the rest of us had finished our meal, you could smell how raw the meat was when she cut into it.

Now, I don’t mind a rare steak. That’s fine. But I really don’t care for a bleeding hamburger. Despite this, I could tell one thing: If cooked properly, this would be an excellent, flavorful burger.

In addition to regular beef burgers in as many incarnations as you can imagine, you can get veggie burgers and chicken burgers.  The kids menu is essentially a smaller version than the adult menu, so if you have kids that don’t like hamburgers, you might want to skip it.  Hard “sodas” and milk shakes as well as the usual coke products you’ll find everywhere on Disney property are also available. But the real star are the French fries, which come with a myriad of dipping sauces. Honestly, I would go to D-Luxe Burger just for the fries, however at $5 for a small portion and nearly $8 for a large, the price is pretty questionable.

Despite my initial disappointment during my first visit, I was able to try D-Luxe Burger again recently and it’s definitely gotten past its initial growing pains. My burger was, as before, massive. Really, it’s so more than you need, but it’s Disney so why not? This time it was cooked perfectly medium well. That’s about as “raw” as I want a burger to be, frankly, but if you’d like yours a bit more bloody, you can ask the kitchen to cook yours a little more rare.

My burger was delicious this time. Okay, it’s not In-N-Out Burger, which secretly fantasized would come to Disney Springs instead, but honestly, it’s better. This is a really large, satisfying hamburger and the fries, while pricey, are fantastic.  Again, at nearly $20 per person it’s steep, but using a quick-service credit on the Disney Dining plan definitely makes it more palatable.

D-Luxe Burger, despite a few bumps in the beginning, is a welcome addition to Disney Springs. Check it out on your next visit.

5 Essential Rules for Pokemon Go! At Disney World – The Parkémon Experience

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Apply these Rules for Pokémon Go! and learn where all the best Pokémon reside at Disney World

While our family is anticipating our yearly pilgrimage to Walt Disney World, there is a new subject abuzz aside from the normal discussion on which pins they’re bringing to trade away or how much Tonga Toast my kids plan to consume. My husband is weighing whether or not a Pikachu nests can be found near the Cinderella’s Castle, and if the crowds at the newly refurbished Planet Hollywood will yield more Horsea.

Pokémon Go! is the theme of our upcoming trip, and I’ve got a crop of Magic Bands labeled ‘Weedle’, ‘Squirtle’, and ‘JigglyPuf’ (that’s me!) to prove it. But we’re going to be smart about our ‘Parkémon’ experience, taking the consideration of everyone’s hard-earned vacations into account.

The following are our rules for Pokémon Go! while in the parks:

  1. Absolutely no Pokémon Go! while walking through the parks. ‘Catch and release’ happens only while waiting in line.
  2. If in line playing Pokémon Go! and your brother talks to you, look away from the phone and have a conversation.
  3. No Pokémon Go! during meals unless all parties consent during a counter-service meal. Hey, there are some great spots where everyone can sit and eat while at a lure and the kids get excited together at their finds. Counter-Service at Be Our Guest is an exception to this rule. (You are in a castle, man!)
  4. No Pokémon Go! while on the monorail, but buses and the ferries are fair game. The monorail is a ride that is over before you know it and way too special not to breathe it all in.
  5. This one should go without saying. No Pokémon Go! while on the rides! There is rumored to be a PokéStops on Pirates of the Caribbean. If the blood pressure I experienced while a lady took flash pictures on The Little Mermaid is any indication, my children will be in the water if they attempt to gather Jack Sparrow’s treasure.

Now that we have the rules out of the way, I’d like to show you where all the best Pokémon are in the parks. The following is my Guide to Pokémon Go! at Walt Disney World for LocalPOV.com:

This Guide to Pokémon Go! at Walt Disney World Covers the Following Locations:

How to Save an Extra 5% on Every Disney Vacation. UPDATED

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I get so many questions from clients about this, I decided to write a quick post to give all of you the details.  Its easy to save an extra 5% on your next Disney vacation, whether it’s Disney World, Disneyland, or Disney Cruise Lines.  Here’s what you do:

Sign up for a Target Red Card. This is basically a debit card that’s attached to your financial institution and if you shop at Target already (and honestly, do you know someone in North America who doesn’t?), you should have one. Why? Because you’ll save 5% on just about everything you buy in the store and that includes Disney gift cards.  I tell my clients to buy one every time they go to Target and just stash them away and make payments when they’re ready.  Five percent off of a $3500 trip is a nice chunk of cash back to you.

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Blaze Pizza Opens in Disney Springs

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Looking for an inexpensive, quick-service alternative to burgers and fries? Last week the Disney Springs branch of the beloved Blaze Pizza chain opened and did not disappoint. Advertising “Blazing hot oven + dedicated pizzasmith + 180 seconds = fast-fire’d, perfectly crisp perfection,” Blaze Pizza allows the guest to pick from a huge variety of crusts, sauces, cheeses and meat and veggie toppings. The whole process takes around seven minutes from start to finish, with three of those minutes, 180 seconds, taking place in the oven.

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How Important is An Upgraded View in Your Disney World Resort Room?

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How important is an upgraded room view at your resort? It really depends on where you stay, but I’m of the belief that if you’re stayng at a resort that doesn’t have a balcony, it’s a complete waste of money. Here are the ins and outs of room views and why you might want to upgrade–and why you may not.

Value and Moderate Resorts:

I’m a huge fan of Disney’s value resorts, where you get all the benefits of staying at a deluxe resort without the high price: extra magic hours, package delivery, use of the dining plan if you choose, great transportation, and free parking.  Oh, and let’s not forget, the ability to make dining reservations and fastpass reservations before off-site guests.  However, the fact is, you don’t need to pay $15 more a night to get a “view” of the pool as you walk out of your room.

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The Worst Meal in the World!

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Well, Walt Disney World, that is.

I’m one of those people who think that food is a big part of your Disney vacation. In fact, I truly believe food can make or break the trip, even if you’re not a “foodie.”  Think about it: Eat the wrong thing and you feel sluggish. Spend your expensive dining credits at the wrong restaurant and you’ve wasted your hard-earned money and will probably end up spending money out of pocket elsewhere.  Miss out on that all-important character meal and . .. well, okay it’s not the end of the world but it’s sort of a right of passage for kids (and adults too).

I eat at a lot of Disney restaurants because of my job as a travel agent and because I live fairly close to the Mouse. Fortunately, most everything on property is good.  Some of it is even great. Occasionally however, you run into a meal (I’m looking at you, Chef Mickey’s) that’s just so-so, but that’s not the norm by any means.  And for Disney to be able to consistently turn out satisfying food, even in a theme park, is impressive. But, there are the exceptions.

The Diamond Horseshoe in the Magic Kingdom is one of those exceptions. Here’s all you really need to know: I’ve eaten in an Army mess hall set up in a tent in the Honduran jungle and the food was better. That’s right, I said in a tent. And while it would be tempting to think that Army cooks are just that good, the truth is, The Diamond Horseshoe is just that bad!

Guests 10  and up will pay $35 for the pleasure of eating at the Diamond Horseshoe; kids ages 3 to 9 are a mere $21 and those under 3 are free.  In other words, this isn’t a cheap meal. You can get a lower priced entree at the California Grill for less or an entire meal at Via Napoli, for around $30 and that meal will have you thinking about it for days!

Your meal is served family style, starting with a wilted, over-dressed salad composed of some sad iceberg lettuce interspersed with the occasional shred of carrot and maybe a spinach leaf. Now, if you’re spending $15 at the Golden Corral with grandpa on Sunday after church, you kind of expect that, but you’re spending $35 here and at the very least, the salad should actually contain, you know, something that seems like a salad! You’ll also be served cornbread. This was actually okay. In fact, it was the best part of the meal, although that’s not saying much.

Next up, the entrees.  The macaroni and cheese, pictured above, looked like someone had plated it and then sat on it before serving it to us. It was dry and tasteless. You’re also given a meat plate with beans, sliced beef and gravy, turkey, and sausage links.

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The beef was tasteless and stringy and the gravy was a gelatinous mess; you could almost taste the cornstarch they used to thicken in. The turkey was the same turkey they serve at Liberty Tree Tavern, although it was drier. This was fine. Not $35 per person fine. But it was edible at least. Finally, the sausage. Well that was just plain awful, dried out and tasteless. No one took more than a bite.

Let’s not forget dessert. This is a campfire brownie.

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Marshmallow fluff and a blowtorch do not equal dessert, my friends.

There’s actually no entertainment at the Diamond Horseshoe, unless your dining companions enjoy complaining Statler and Waldorf-style about the food (which we do), but there is a stage. I’m not sure entertainment would have improved the food.

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The room is also pretty and airy.

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Finally, it must be said that the service was excellent. This is not the case where the manager wasn’t present and the staff didn’t know what they were doing. In fact, the manager was pitching in with the wait staff, picking things up, running around from table to table; she was good and we felt sorry for her because she could only do so much to make up for the food. Kudos to the cast members here for living up to Disney’s high standards and having some of the best wait staff anywhere.

Bottom line, this food isn’t up to Disney’s high standards. Skip it. You’ll be better off eating at Cosmic Ray’s or anywhere, really. Even an Army mess tent in the middle of the jungle.

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Did you try to get free dining today and fail? Maybe you got it–congrats. But if you’re a travel agent and you’re fortunate enough to have dozens of clients whose reservations you’re hoping to turn over, you probably had a pretty rough day.  Here’s what I think is happening, using the example of Pop Century.

First, there are very few discounted rooms available at Pop Century for September under free dining, which is HIGHLY unusual, in part because this is a massive resort. This isn’t because people jumped on at 4:30 in the morning (which is when I was up) and booked it all–it’s because it wasn’t released. We saw this happen last year, which I’ll come back to later. What is available is an offer called “Back to School Savings” (or something similar–there are a couple out there).  From what I’ve seen with my clients, it gives you about 40% of the savings you’ll get from free dining. Not bad, but certainly not the savings we’re used to during the fall.

Now personally, I have never seen Pop full in September even with free dining. This leads me to believe two things:  One, that Disney is truly trying to wean people off free dining. We already know this is true and they’d be crazy not to, but over the last couple years, finding a discounted room has become more and more difficult.  Could this be the year? Possibly, but I like this next option better. It’s a bit more nefarious and also more fun to speculate about.

Disney is a business, let’s not forget that, and what Disney wants is for you, for example, to book a room in February for a  September stay. They want you to book all your dining and Fastpasses. And then they want you to happily wait for your trip, go to Disney World, and have a great time. What they do not want you to do is realize that there’s a big fat discount available for your travel dates and have you book under that. Because that’s just bad business, right? And while Uncle Walt may have wanted nothing more than for you to skip happily through the park eating that free Mickey bar, Bob Iger wants you to pay for that Mickey bar because he has to answer to his shareholders and Shanghai Disney just happens to be a big blight on his legacy.  He needs the money, in other words.

But wait. While “forgetting” to apply a discount might work for some guests, it doesn’t work for all of them. You’re a smart consumer. You’ve followed all the blogs and online message boards. Maybe you have a travel agent. Whatever the case, you’re on the ball. So discounts are released and there’s no free dining for your dates. What do you do? Well, you’re lucky, because there are a couple of other discounts out that meet your needs and you book those.  And while it’s less than half of what you’re used to getting, you’re happy to just get something and you go on your merry way.

But does that fill up a resort like Pop Century during the slowest month of the year? Probably not.  But by this point most consumers have forgotten about free dining. They’ve got a discount. It’s as good as they’re getting. I  mean, you were fine with marrying the prom queen’s sister–why complain about this? It’s almost as good!  And that’s when more rooms are released. Because, and you know this, free dining really works best when it brings new bookings not when discounts are applied to existing bookings. I mean, those people are probably going anyway, right?  What they want, understandably, is to bring in new guests. And you can’t do that during many parts of the fall without a discount. So the spur of the moment guest–that’s the one who gets the discount. Not the guy who booked back in February and just saved $200 off a $5000 package.

Last year we saw rooms being released over a period of 2 to 3 weeks after the initial free dining discount was released. Now, some of those were probably rooms that went back into inventory after holds fell off. Last fall, that was 7 days after they were made. But that doesn’t account for discounted inventory that popped up 2 weeks after the initial discount was released. Last fall I couldn’t get free dining for a number of clients on day 1. By day 14, I had free dining for all of them. So did most agents at the agency where I work–we have 75 or so, a number which provides a pretty good sample of what’s going on as far as booking trends and availability are concerned.

Okay, of course all of this is conjecture. I could be completely wrong.  Also, I love a good conspiracy theory, so there’s that. But what do you think?  I’d be happy to hear in the comments.

Disney Early Morning Magic to Debut in the Magic Kingdom

 

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If you’ve ever gone to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas party, you know how great it can be to experience a less-crowded park full of extras like special meet and greets and shows.  Disney’s newest option for guests plays off this idea, but with a twist:  While there are no additional shows or experiences, you will get breakfast at Pinocchio Village Haus and have access to three favorite attractions in Fantasyland: Peter Pan’s Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and of course the real draw, Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, all for $69 per adult and $59 for children ages 3 to 9, roughly the same price as one of the parties.  Is it worth it? I think it depends on your perspective–and wallet.

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Five Things Your Travel Agent Wants You to Know.

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I’m a travel agent. Okay, I’m also a blogger and a podcaster, but my job description is simply this: travel agent. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what we do as well as some things that travel agents wish their clients–or perspective clients–knew about them and their job.  In fact, if you sat in a room with 100 travel agents, there’s a pretty good chance we’d all say some variation of this theme:

  1.  We don’t get (most) trips for free. Yes, it’s true.  We pay for most of what you see us do. Now, the fact is some of it’s tax deductable (oh god, please let it be, because if not, well . . . ), but it’s still coming out of our own pocket. But a good agent needs to  know her product well and has experienced it herself. This is especially true when it comes to Disney, which changes frequently and is truly one of the most massive products an agent can sell.  You need to be in the middle of it.
  2.  Referrals are one of the most important parts of our business. When you call an anonymous phone line and book a trip, that agent has one goal in mind: To make sure you buy the most expensive vacation possible. They’re never going to see you again, so “upselling” isn’t going to come back to haunt them. But for me, I need to make sure you’re happy.   If I sell you a park hopper and you have two-year old twins, you might think I don’t know my job because that hopper will probably end up gathering dust. And then you don’t come back and you don’t refer your friends. It’s as simple as that. I would rather earn your trust than make a big commission and never see you again.
  3. If you don’t travel, we don’t get paid. That’s a risk we take and it happens often enough that most of us don’t even blink an eye.  And really, it’s okay. Cancellations happen. A good agent isn’t going to berate you or make you feel bad because you aren’t traveling.
  4. Our job is hard. Many of my clients tell me they wish they had my job and I’m not going to lie: it’s fun, a lot of the time. Especially when it comes to Disney, a travel agent gets a real opportunity to make magic.  I’ve been privileged to be a part of big family gatherings, of honeymoons, and those bittersweet trips people take to celebrate being free of something big that’s been effecting their lives, like sickness. But it’s also 6:00 o’clock mornings making dining reservations and missed dinners because your client has a tight schedule and needs a 6:30 call with you. And it’s worth it. I could do another job, no question,  but I do this because I truly love it. But it’s still work.
  5. Okay, do you want to hear our number one beef? It’s this: We understand shopping around for the best price. We also understand working with someone and deciding they just aren’t the agent for you. But please know that when I put work into a quote and we exchange emails back and forth and then you tell me you just booked on your own, when I’ve been providing you service all along, that kind of hurts. Because you’ve just taken time away from my clients who need me. Or my family. Or heck, even sleep. Sleep is nice.  Of course you are under no obligation to book. But if you’re going to book on your own after we’ve helped you, for goodness sakes, don’t tell us!

Okay, here’s one more and it’s probably the most important. When you book with a travel agent from an agency like mine, you are helping a small business. The money that Disney or another vendor gives to me and other agents isn’t staying in the Mouse’s pocket (and the cost isn’t being passed onto you either), it’s going back into your community and helping people rather than a huge corporation. Now, it’s pretty obvious, I happen to love that huge corporation probably as much as you do, but still, I kind of like to help the little guy. That’s why I’d rather go to a locally owned Italian place rather than Olive Garden.  So when you’re looking to book a Disney trip, or any other trip, think about that.

Thanks for reading. I love my job. It’s a rare day that I don’t think to myself how lucky I am to have it.  I just want to share a bit of insight.

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