Archive for April, 2011

2011 Unofficial Guide Now on Kindle for $9.99

by on April 12, 2011

Our long national nightmare is over.  The 2011 edition of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is now available on Kindle for $9.99.  Here’s the link.

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Cheap Disneyland Hotels Using BetterBidding.com

by on April 12, 2011

This is a guest post by Nate Parrish, cohost of WEDway Radio, a podcast covering the history of the Disney theme parks and the Disney company, as well as the cohost of Betamouse, a podcast about the convergence of Disney and technology. He vacations to Disneyland regularly with his family.

There’s a great booking trick that my wife has been using for years for getting a hotel near Disneyland. But first, a few disclaimers:

  1. You will have to live with you get. This method uses Priceline and Hotwire. You’ve probably heard of them but you may not know that once your bid has been accepted, it is yours and you will be charged.
  2. This doesn’t work for any of the three Disney Resorts, but there are many hotels within a few miles.

First let me introduce you to the website: Betterbidding.com. This site is a message board that allows travelers to post their recently accepted bids on either Priceline or Hotwire so others can see either what hotels are sold by the two sites. When you go to the site you’ll want to select the state (in this case California). The first post is a list of the hotels being sold. You’ll need to scroll down to your desired region, then you will see all the hotels that have been reported by different bidders.

Also in the message boards you will find:

For Priceline:

  • Bidders post their recent accepted bids along with the booking hotel and dates so others can see what bids have been accepted at specific hotels.

For Hotwire:

  • Bidders post what hotels they were awarded, along with the price, dates, and amenities.

BetterBidding is probably geared better toward the Hotwire crowd rather than the William Shatner (aka Priceline) crowd, simply because it has broken down all of the different hotels that you could possibly get. BetterBidding lists hotel amenities which correlate with the amenities listed by Hotwire. With some but not complete assurance, this allows you to know which hotel you’ve been awarded before receiving your confirmation email.

It might be wise to have two browsers set up on your desktop while going through the bidding process. You can view the different hotels sorted by star rating and amenities while viewing recent bids or looking at what is available on Hotwire or Priceline.

Other ways of categorization that help you with your bidding:

  • Stars: You can bid on a hotel (in this particular region) from two to four stars.
  • Price: Hotwire gives you the price up front.
  • Region: Priceline allows you to select from a certain region (Anaheim, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa).

Have fun saving money!

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Great Cheap Offsite Hotels. No, Really Cheap.

by on April 11, 2011

There are eternal struggles in the world that we are all aware of, and the same is true when planning a Disney trip.  One of the most often things is whether you should stay onsite or offsite when taking a trip to the World.  I’ve done it both ways, and there’s lots to be said for each. 

Front entrance to Best Western Lakeside

But for certain kinds of trips, there’s no consideration of onsite or offsite.  If you’re like me, sometimes you get an opportunity to take a last minute trip or perhaps a trip that has to be as cheap as possible.  Onsite hotels at Disney are not known for last minute flexibility or low prices, so offsite is your only choice.  If I may, I’d like to recommend a couple of extra cheap hotels that have been life savers for me in the past.

The first is the Best Western Lakeside, located on 192 West of the main entrance of Walt Disney World.  The hotel is located about 2 miles from the main gate, and provides easy in and out access.  If you are coming from Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Epcot, it’s about a 10-15 minute drive to the hotel. 

The rooms are spacious, as much so as any rooms at Pop Century or the All Star resorts.  I’ll be honest, though, location and price are the big winners at this hotel.  There are, however, some other fun amenities at the Best Western Lakeside worth mentioning.  There are three pools, an onsite restaurant/food court, a Walgreen’s in the parking lot (who else makes a drugstore run every trip?) and a sports bar.  

View of the Best Western from the side. From the hotel website.

I have stayed there with my family before when we needed to make a quick trip at the last minute.  We got a fantastic rate, and from what it seems, the prices have not gone up that far since our last stay there.  For example, when looking for rooms over Memorial Day weekend, I found rates ranging from $41 (AAA rate) to $52 a night (no discount).  It’s a great rate for a hotel that close, that is clean, and comes with a refrigerator, two double beds and a coffee maker. 

The other hotel is not one I necessarily would recommend for families, but only because I have not taken my family there yet.  However, each of the last two years, I have stayed at the Howard Johnson Maingate East when on a solo trip, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for the price. 

When I have the occasion to take a solo trip, I always look for the lowest price hotel.  After all, I plan to spend most of my time in the parks, and will only sleep in the hotel room, and usually don’t do much of that.  The Howard Johnson Maingate East is perfect for this.  Directly across from the city of Celebration, it’s a hotel for the traveler who doesn’t need a whole lot of amenities. 

For the price I paid last time I stayed there ($19 a night!!!) I was shocked to see a refrigerator, coffee maker and a king bed in my room.  The bed was extremely comfortable, and being the dead of summer, the room having fabulous air conditioning was also great.  I recently stayed in a $300 a night hotel in New York City that didn’t have air conditioning as nice as the Howard Johnson. 

Double room at the Howard Johnson Maingate East. From the hotel website.

The price is again the key feature of this hotel.  I have gotten lucky and managed to get this one for $25 or less a night for two years in a row off of Hotwire.  However, if you aren’t the type who enjoys bidding for travel, you can find a rate on the hotel’s website for around $39 a night.  Trust me, it’s well worth it. 

I would not recommend either of these hotels if you plan to be down at Disney for a longer trip.  I think 3-4 days is the maximum I would spend at either.  However, if you are someone who can take a quick side trip from another destination to spend time at the World or perhaps can make a quick getaway, I would consider either hotel a great choice.

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WDW Today Episode 862 – Top Ten Must Brings

by on April 10, 2011

wdwtoday logoEpisode 862 of WDW Today is now available for download here. Join TouringPlans.com owner Len Testa as co-host for a podcast that features many Walt Disney World travel planning tips!

One-click subscriptions to WDW Today:

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Disney Design with Sam Gennawey

by on April 10, 2011

Looking for some fine Sunday evening reading? The majority of our “land” pages, such as Disneyland’s Adventureland, Animal Kingdom’s Africa, and Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, include a special section called “Disney Design” by urban planner Sam Gennawey. Sam’s work has been featured in the Unofficial Guide: The Color Companion to Walt Disney World and Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World. He also maintains his own blog SamLand’s Disney Adventures and most recently has been a featured contributor to MiceChat.

Here are links to the land pages by park. Once through, click on each land to see the Disney Design!

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Star Tours 2 – Tracking The Popularity Lifespan Of New Attractions

by on April 9, 2011

StarToursLive.com is now up and running and providing all of its followers the latest news and images from Star Tours 2. You can download a free Star Tours 2 app as well that will tell you when the attraction is open before the official launch in Walt Disney World on May 20th, 2011 and Disneyland on June 3rd, 2011.

Since the announcement of Star Tours: The Adventure Continues many readers have asked us for our opinions on the wait times to expect during the days and months after opening. We have always tried to stick to the scientific approach when predicting wait times and crowds but when a new attraction opens we don’t have the luxury of an historical database.

Go visit Star Tours Live to read the rest of this post!

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Walt Disney World’s Top 20 Sit-Down Restaurants for Value

by on April 9, 2011

[Note from Len: We're considering this article for the 2012 edition of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.  We're trying to help families have great sit-down dining experiences and stay within their budget.  Comments and suggestions are welcome. ]

If money is no object, there are several places within Walt Disney World to have a great dining experience.  However, with many theme park restaurant entrees now approaching $25 each, families are having to look a little harder for good value at sit-down restaurants.  Below is a list of the 20 best sit-down restaurants for value, taking in to account food quality, the restaurant’s setting, portion size and price.

Each listing includes the restaurant name, its location, the type of cuisine it serves, and its price per person.  $ — Inexpensive ($15 or less per person); $$ — Moderate ($15-28 per person) and $$$ – Expensive ($28-35 per person).

1. Boatwright’s Dining Hall Port Orleans Riverside      Southern             $$

Hearty supper fare – prime rib, pork chop, Andouille-crusted catfish, pecan pie.  Casual  dining room, friendly staff.

2.  Boma –Flavors of Africa Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge    African   $$$

Consistently voted a top favorite by local diners, fill up at the expansive buffet that’s a mix of traditional tastes with African-inspired stews, chutneys, sauces and sides.  Take an after-dinner stroll and see wild animals on the resort’s savanna.

3.  Cape May Cafe Beach Club    Seafood             $$$

Old-fashioned clambake theming with all you can eat mussels, clams, peel-n-eat-shrimp,  barbecued ribs, roast chicken, corn on the cob and more. A pleasant walk to Epcot.

4.  Crystal Palace Magic Kingdom         American           $$-$$$

Lunch is the best bargain. Plentiful buffet, great service, Disney characters, conveniently located right on Main Street, U.S.A.

5.  ESPN Club BoardWalk    American   $$

Fill ‘er up,  all-American style: nachos for two, hot wings, oversized sandwiches, piles of fries. TVs everywhere for sports fans.   Make all the noise you want.  Great for plate sharing.

6.  Garden Grove Swan  Resort    American                               $$

If Disney characters are a must, breakfast tab is about half the price of other Disney character dining (8-11 a.m. weekends only). All-you-can-eat buffet.  Only two characters at a time, but they make frequent table visits.

7.  House of Blues Downtown Disney West Side        Southern         $-$$

We’re happy with a table of shared (under $12) appetizers or a $6 bowl of turkey-shrimp gumbo.   Stick with appetizers, salads and sandwiches for the best (and most economical) fare. But you can get a grilled rib-eye or New York strip steak for considerably less than Disney restaurants.

8.  Kouzzina by Cat Cora BoardWalk           Greek/Mediterranean       $$$

Delicious, quality dishes – it’s easy to share the Greek-style lasagna, cinnamon-stewed chicken, lamb shank. Or make a meal of appetizers, like a bowl of mussels of crispy calamari. Do save room for the hot, crispy Greek donuts drizzle with honey.

9.  Liberty Tree Tavern Magic Kingdom     American $$-$$$

Best deal at lunch – delicious, filling pot roast, turkey and dressing. Dinner is all-you-can-eat turkey, beef and ham.  Friendly service, great location in Liberty Square.

10.  ‘Ohana Polynesian         Asian       $$$

Request a seat close to the on-stage kitchen for noisy, chaotic fun for kids. Filling fare is great for carnivores – skewers of turkey, beef, pork.  Not the spot for a quiet dinner for two.

11.  Olivia’s Café Old Key West               American           $-$$

Laid-back ambience, a competent kitchen – we love the breakfast Cuban, the generous burgers at lunch and hearty pork chops, coconut-crusted mahi and steaks at dinner.  You’ll spend less here for fresh steaks and seafood than at other Disney steak ‘n seafood hot spots.

12.  Paradiso 37 Downtown Disney Pleasure Island       Central, South, North American      $$

Dine on the waterfront, a variety of “street food” starters under $10 are great for sharing (and 37 kinds of tequila).  Stick with the basics: tacos, chips ‘n salsa, burgers.

13.  Plaza Restaurant Magic Kingdom           American       $

Tucked away at the end of Main Street, U.S.A., this little restaurant is a great spot to cool off and relax with congenial service and plentiful portions. Try the Reuben or the club. Or just go straight for a milkshake or banana split.

14.  Raglan Road Downtown Disney     Irish   $$

Average entrée price up to 20% lower than inside Disney parks. Food gets high mark with creations of noted Irish Chef Kevin Dundon.  Fish and chips, loin of bacon, flourless chocolate cake.

15.  Rose & Crown Epcot United Kingdom pavilion     British   $-$$

Among cheapest eats at Epcot, and the best seats for IllumiNations. Sunday roast, Shepherd’s Pie, fish and chips, corned beef.  Grab your grub in the pub and it’s even cheaper for fish and chips, corned beef, bangers and mash.

16.  Teppan Edo Japan pavilion Epcot        Asian      $$-$$$

Generous servings of quality meats, veggies, udon noodles around a communal teppan grill – no pb&j for the kids, they love the live show with the chefs artfully chopping and tossing.  Different, filling and delicious.    Same menu a few bucks less at lunch.

17.  T-Rex, A Prehistoric Dining Adventure Downtown Disney Marketplace     American   $-$$

Sensory overload for dinosaur-loving kids, en expansive menu that’s affordable if you selectively choose – and share, as portions are huge (like half a roasted chicken with two sides for $20).

18.  Via Napoli Epcot Italy pavilion Italian  $

On a budget  you can’t stray far from the pizza, but feed a family of four with the half-meter cheese pizza (12 slices) for $39 – it’s all relative, this fresh mozzarella pie is delicious. Add a $4 per person house salad and you’ve got a meal.

19.  Whispering Canyon Cafe Wilderness Lodge Resort     American    $$

The all-you-can-eat skillet at lunch and dinner (ribs, pork, chicken, beef brisket) is the best bargain, but even entrées such a trout and pork loin are reasonably priced.  Family friendly – lunch is quiet; dinner, boisterous.

20.  50’s Prime Time Cafe Hollywood Studios        American             $$

Fill up on quality fried chicken, meatloaf and pot roast in a ‘50’s-era kitchen  with “mom.”   Comfort food fuels a day in the park. The servers insist on fun, so be patient.

 

Anna is an author and dining reviewer based in central Florida.

 

 

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Unique Shopping at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort

by on April 9, 2011

“Dream Big.  Live Grand.”  is the catch phrase for the Grand Floridian Resort, and with good reason.  Luxury is the goal, and shopping is how it’s done.  With five upscale stores, the Grand Floridian covers a lot of  merchandise.  Typical resort items such as clothing, trinkets, and toys are available in abundance, but among the standard inventory there are some unique items that are worth seeking out.

Basin White

On the second floor of the Grand Floridian towards the entrance to the monorail station, Basin White is a part of a small chain of bath and spa products found on Disney properties on both coasts.  The one in the Grand Floridian, however, is a premium outlet which means that it’s inventory is made with higher quality ingredients.  It also means that some of their inventory is unique and can’t be found at their other outlets.

The variety of items range from soy candles and shampoo bars to shaving cream and loofah soaps.  But of particular interest are their salt scrubs, which make an excellent souvenir.  For $35.00, you receive a large container of scrub with a base of shea butter or oil.  The salt in the scrub exfoliates your skin while the oil or shea butter moisturizes, leaving your skin feeling like silk.  If you used it just for your hands and feet, this container’s contents could stretch for a year, making it not only an uncommon find but a lasting one.

Another unique find is Basin White’s almond coconut milk bath.  The size of the bottle is decent, and the “bath” has multiple uses such as a moisturizer, body wash and bubble bath.  The silky soap even cleans jewelry somehow.  For $20.00, this is an inexpensive, useful souvenir with the ability to pamper and a bit different than the standard Mickey t-shirt.

An added benefit at Basin White is the expertise and ability of the staff to accommodate the increasingly stringent airline restrictions.  Considering that many of the products in Basin White would be confiscated when trying to fly, all staff have been specifically trained to pinpoint product that would pose a problem, and provide shipping directly to the customer’s home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commander Porter’s

Set up as a men’s store on the 2nd floor of the Grand Floridian, Commander Porter’s gives males a shopping experience geared towards their needs.  With brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Bahama, Bulgari, Oakley and Ray Ban, there is a decent variety of upscale clothing, caps, ties, and watches.  But for a slightly different gift, cigars such as Ashton, Arturo Fuente, and Romeo y Julieta can be bought in this location for anywhere between $8.95 and $20.00.  Once purchased, guests are provided with a cutter so that they can cut their cigar at the counter, or they have the option of purchasing their own high-end cutter for $2.95. It makes for a Disney souvenir that is a bit out of the ordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Lace

The last unique shopping option at the Grand Floridian is a women’s boutique located on the ground floor and towards the back of the lobby.  Most of the items found here are pricey clothing and accessories sporting brand names such as Lily Pulitzer, Polo, Christine Alexander, Guerlain, Dooney and Burke and Burberry.  But there are some items that are more affordable such as merchandise with the Grand Floridian logo and hair accessories.

The ultimate unique find that cannot be obtained anywhere else on Disney property is the Chamilia bracelets and charms that are for sale here.  The bracelets are about $30.00 and come in leather, gold, or sterling silver.  The charms range from $17.00 – $40.00 and come in a variety of designs.  Many of them are Disney icons such as Mickey gloves, Cinderella coaches or Disney characters.  The charms truly make for a purchase that is distinctly Disney and slightly different.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Disney Vacation Club Right For You?

by on April 8, 2011

So What's Your Definition of "Keeping" a "Secret"?

Psst. I want to let you in on a secret. Disney’s Best Kept Secret, actually. What, you’ve heard of it?! I thought those giant billboards, bus advertisements, numerous in-resort and in-park kiosks, dedicated tv station, pins and buttons, stickers, etc., were only directed at me. Apparently the marketing line is a bit of a misnomer.

Given that you probably have heard of Disney’s (Supposed) Best Kept Secret, Disney Vacation Club, I’ll cut right to the chase: is Disney Vacation Club right for you? By asking yourself the questions below, you can get a pretty good idea of whether DVC is right for you.

“Will I have to finance the DVC contract purchase?”

If the answer to that question is yes, and one of the reasons for purchasing DVC is to save money, it’s likely a bad idea to buy into DVC. I could easily write two full articles on the actual economics of Disney Vacation Club, but I’ll keep this brief. Unlike Disney’s claim that DVC will save you 70% off of future resort stays, this is not the case. If it were, do you really think Disney would actually be offering the program–and that it would be wildly profitable for the company? If you have to finance, any potential savings are quickly dissipated by the interest you pay on the purchase. Even if you’re not financing, the time-value of money, which is the principle that money at the present time is worth more than the same amount in the future due to its earning capacity, makes any claim by Disney that you’ll actually save 70% with DVC  highly specious. Now, if you have plenty of cash sitting under your bed that you would only “invest” in lottery tickets, then there certainly are potential savings in DVC. For most people, however, DVC will only offer limited savings, at best.

“In what kind of accommodations would I like to stay?”

Old Key West - Olivia's
This is a tough question to answer, because you need to be able to anticipate your vacationing habits in the future. If you only roll Deluxe, and anticipate demanding posh accommodations in the future, DVC sounds right for you. If you have kids, and are tired of sleeping in the same small quarters with them at a Moderate Resort, DVC is also probably right for you. If you’re an Ultimate Touring Plan-driven bachelor who travels alone, primarily stays at Values now, and stays out until all hours of the night and gets up for rope drop, DVC may not be a good option for you. If you can’t stand the idea of MouseKeeping not coming into your room and fixing up after Hurricane Your Kids, DVC may not be right for you. If you like the idea of being able to do your laundry, prepare a meal in your in-room kitchen, utilize free in-room internet, or enjoy a whole host of other “at-home” amenities, DVC may be right.

“Can I plan my vacations in advance?”

If you can’t regularly plan your vacations 7 months or more in advance, and you’re not wild about Saratoga Springs Resort or Old Key West Resort (the two resorts that are the last to fill up), then DVC may not be right for you. During various times of year, popular DVC resorts fill up quickly. In fact, during the Christmas season, it can be difficult to get even Saratoga and Old Key West inside of 7 months.

“Will I vacation at Walt Disney World or Disneyland at least once every three years for the next 40 years?”

Reasons I Love Walt Disney World:  #2,350
Thanks to the banking and borrowing system, it isn’t necessary to take a Disney vacation every year. However, to make DVC a pragmatic option, you pretty much must visit WDW or DLR once every three years. Using DVC points for non-DVC vacations offers terrible value. Since many DVC contracts expire in 2054, you better hope the Mouse won’t break your heart anytime soon. Although if he does, selling your contract on the resale market is an option, and thanks to Disney’s Right of First Refusal, contracts retain a somewhat inflated value on the resale market.

“Do I like the DVC resorts?”

Much like using DVC points for non-DVC vacations is a bad idea, using DVC points at non-DVC resorts is a bad idea. Do you like the DVC resort choices? With DVC’s explosive growth in the past several years, and new DVC units strongly rumored at the Grand Floridian Resort and Fort Wilderness, resort choices only look to improve in the coming years.

“Are there any other benefits that DVC will offer me?”

DVC members get discounts on Annual Passes and D23 Memberships. There are several Members-Only DVC pins, events, and other offerings throughout the year as well.

“Will DVC increase my quality of life?”

Much like TouringPlans.com, it seems one of DVC’s main goals is to increase world happiness. Well, maybe that’s a bit over-zealous. Perhaps increasing Disney-fans’ happiness is more apt. Will the little things, such as the “Welcome Home” doormats, Disney Files Magazine showing up in your mailbox, and going to bed at night knowing your vacations are partially paid in advance for the next 40-some years make you happier? If so, that might trump everything else here, and you may want to purchase DVC. As they say, you can’t put a price on peace of mind.

Disney's Beach Club Resort at Night
These are the questions we asked ourselves when contemplating a DVC purchase. Ultimately, we decided it was right for us. After doing the math every which way, we determined that buying a small Saratoga Springs Resort contract (one of the most economically-efficient options because of the lower per-point prices for contracts on the resale market, low annual dues, and 2054 expiration date) and banking & borrowing points to use for our 10-day honeymoon would be a good option for us.  In comparison to paying out of pocket for a stay at the BoardWalk for our honeymoon, buying the small DVC contract outright provided a reasonable break even time. Plus, as new Annual Passholders, the DVC membership would save us over $200 per year total for our APs. Staying in DVC accommodations also offered us the ability to purchase the Disney Dining Plan without purchasing park tickets unnecessarily. Granted, our touring style of only staying out late and getting up early doesn’t really necessitate DVC accommodations presently, but we probably won’t keep up this pace forever. When we slow down and have kids, I’m sure the amenities DVC offers will be vital. In the meantime, we still enjoy the nicer room and resort once every three or four trips. The math worked for us, and so too did it increase our happiness. There are few pieces of mail I look forward to more than the Disney Files magazine, and hearing “Welcome Home” from the Cast Member at the front desk of our resort gives me an ear-to-ear grin every time. It may not work for everyone, but it certainly works for us.

What about for you? If you’re a member, has it been a good or bad experience? If you’re not a member, why not?

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WDW Today Episode 861 – Star Tours II

by on April 7, 2011

wdwtoday logoEpisode 861 of WDW Today is now available for download here. Join TouringPlans.com owner Len Testa as co-host for a podcast that features many Walt Disney World travel planning tips!

One-click subscriptions to WDW Today:

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