Archive for April, 2012

10 Often Overlooked Attractions at Disneyland

by on April 20, 2012

When people visit Disneyland or Walt Disney World for that matter, it’s so easy to concentrate only on the headline attractions!  The biggies for me would include rides like Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, California Screamin’, the Tower of Terror, etc.  If you get wrapped up just going from biggie to biggie, however, you will probably overlook some great smaller scale attractions.  I’m not necessarily saying you should skip Indiana Jones for any of these attractions, but I’m saying if you’ve got enough time, or, for that matter, you don’t have time to stand in a long line for Indiana, here are ten excellent alternatives.

1. Toy Story Zoetrope – The Zoetrope is definitely number one!  I love this attraction!  It’s located inside the Animation building in the center of its own room.  It’s very hard to describe but I’ll try!  If you first see the Zoetrope when it’s stationary, you will just see one giant circle full of smaller circles of stationary Toy Story characters.  Each circle has multiple statues of the same character, and each statue is slightly different than the other.  Well, after a minute or so of everything being still, the circles start spinning and strobe lights start flashing.  Think of those books with a slightly different drawing on each page.  If you flip through the pages quickly, the drawings look like they’re moving.  That’s what’s happening!  Suddenly the characters look like they’ve come to life!  They’re all doing their own thing and it’s seamless.  I stood next to a little girl once that kept arguing with her dad and insisting the characters were moving and if you walk up while it’s spinning, it would be hard to believe otherwise. That was a very long description, all to say – don’t miss this Zoetrope!!  Go find it!! It’s easy to overlook because of its location and if you catch it between spins, it may look like there’s nothing of interest there.  But trust me, there is!

2. Turtle Talk with Crush – Located in the same building as the Zoetrope, Crush may be overlooked by adults or older kids.  Don’t do that!  Crush is amazing!  Sure he spends a lot of time with the young kids seated on the floor next to the screen, but it’s thoroughly entertaining for all ages.  When Crush starts interacting with the audience and you realize this isn’t a pre-taped video segment, you will be asking yourself how they do this.  Crush is quick witted!  He must have been a stand up comedian at some point during those 150+ years.

3. Sorcerer’s Workshop – The Sorcerer’s Workshop, also found in the Animation building, is a neat series of interactive walk-through exhibits.  It starts off with several animation displays where you can create your own moving pictures, or make Disney’s pictures come to life.  Next, you’ll enter Beast’s library where you can find out which Disney character you were in another life.  The walk culminates with some Disney karaoke in Ursula’s Grotto!  Who doesn’t enjoy a little Disney karaoke?

4. Animation Academy – A couple of weeks ago, in a blog about the Disney Fantasy, I mentioned my love of the Animation Academy.  Our first visit was with two young children who hadn’t, at that point, shown any overwhelming artistic abilities that I was aware of.  Did I insert enough qualifiers in that last sentence to not emotionally scar my children who may secretly harbor dreams of becoming an artist?  The Animation Academy is taught by a Disney cartoonist who leads you in drawing a beloved Disney character with often surprising results.  You, and your children, may draw a lot better than you think you will!  Plus it’s free souvenir!

5. Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes – The canoes are a hidden gem.  They’re kind of tucked away on a platform much lower than the walkway and you may not even realize they’re there.  It’s a fun and different way to see the Rivers of America.  The canoes aren’t open every day; they seem to only open during more busy times of the year.  They’re a bit of work, let me warn you!  The canoes hold about 20 people and you are actually paddling!  There’s no track here.  In fact, if you happen to be there on a hot day, I’d probably avoid these like the plague!  But on a nice day, they’re super fun!  Some of the guides are excellent and may have missed their calling as Jungle Cruise skippers.  We have laughed our heads off at times.  Admittedly, other times we have just sweated a lot and exhausted ourselves while we took in the scenery.

6. a bug’s land – Yep.  This is a whole land it’s easy to overlook!  The rides in bug’s land were certainly meant to appeal to children first and foremost.  But, there are some awesome details back there in bug’s land!  Even if you don’t want to ride any of the rides, you need to go back there to wander through.  You’ll really feel “bug sized” as you pass giant Chinese takeout cartons and firefly bottoms serving as lamps!  When the holiday decorations are up you’ll even see giant Christmas ornaments.  Of course It’s Tough to Be a Bug is an excellent show and it will draw people part way into the land, but it’s easy to stop there and miss the rest.  Keep going!  Go explore back there.

7. Honda’s AsimoHonda’s Asimo is an incredibly impressive robot located inside Innoventions in Tomorrowland.  Innoventions isn’t always a happening place, so Asimo is easy to miss for that reason alone!  Honda says it’s the world’s most advanced humanoid robot and it’s hard to question that when you see him/her (it?).  Asimo can walk, dance, go up and down stairs and even run!  All by his lonesome!  He has no strings!  It’s a 15 minute show and well worth your time.

8. The Bakery Tour – On one hand, The Bakery Tour in Disney California Adventure is great just because you get free bread.  And yes, it’s true that you can get the bread, watch the first brief movie clip, and then, when the doors open so you can move to the next movie clip, you can just keep on walking right out the door without taking time for the movie.  I admit it, I’ve done that.  But really, at least once, you need to watch the movie.  Your hosts are Rosie O’Donnell, the former talk show host, and Colin Mochrie from Whose Line is it Anyway – man we used to love that show.  They describe how bread is made in a very funny series of clips.  At the same time you can watch actual bakers behind the glass making the bread they sell in the park.

9. Great Moments with Mr. LincolnWhen Splash Mountain is calling your name, it’s very hard to stop for a movie.  Especially one with such an educational sounding title.  But this theater at the beginning of Main Street, U.S.A. really is worth a stop.  When you enter the lobby you start out in a walk through Disneyland’s history.  The memorabilia and nostalgia alone would be enough to make it worth it.  But it doesn’t end there!  After the walk down Disney memory lane, you’re admitted to a large theater where you are treated to a miniature Hall of Presidents with only one, incredibly lifelike animatronic, president.  Lincoln was a personal hero of Walt Disney, and this attraction does justice to Walt’s love of this great American president.

10 – Redwood Creek Challenge Trail – Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is easy to overlook because it boils down to a giant children’s playground.  An immersive, incredibly detailed children’s playground, but a children’s playground nonetheless.  But don’t boil it down!  Soak it in!  When you walk in, you’ll feel like you could have left California Adventure and entered Sequoia National Forest.  Immediately to your right, you can walk through the trunk of a giant sequoia.  Follow the path as it curves around and you’ll see some Jr. guests on zip lines.  Past that you’ll see a multi story climbing area with slides, rope bridges, etc.  There’s a miniature rock climbing wall in the back and now you can earn a Wilderness Explorer Badge with Russell from Up.  Even if you don’t have kids with you, it’s still worth some time to explore.

How about you?  What are some attractions or areas of the park that you think are easy to overlook?

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Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party – 2012 Schedule

by on April 20, 2012

Similar to our recent post about adjusting dates for projected Halloween Parties at the Magic Kingdom, we have made some adjustments for the Christmas Parties based on recently released park hour schedules for November. On days when the Magic Kingdom is set to close at 7:00pm, we assume that a party will be scheduled.

Here is a list of the pending changes to the Crowd Calendar

  • Halloween Party changed from November 1 to November 2
  • Christmas Party changed from November 11 to November 12
  • Christmas Party changed from November 13 to November 15
  • Christmas Party changed from November 28 to November 29
  • The projected dates for the remaining parties remain unchanged (November 6, 7, 9, 16, 25, 27, 30)

We had projected that there would be Christmas Parties early in November as there were in 2011, but the released park hours for November currently do not list a 7:00pm closing early in the month. We suspect this may change. We are therefore still projecting Christmas Parties to be scheduled on November 6 and 7, as well.

 

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Dueling Disneyland: Storybook Land Canal Boats vs. Casey Jr. Circus Train

by on April 19, 2012

Among Disneyland Park’s greatest assets is its overabundance of attractions. With over 45 named rides and shows — more than any other park in the Touring Plans database — it’s inevitable to find some duplication among Disneyland’s lineup.

The existence of several pairs of extremely similar experiences makes crafting an efficient touring plan a little more interesting. A prime example is the pairing of Storybook Land Canal Boats and Casey Jr. Circus Train. Both Fantasyland attractions date back to Disneyland’s earliest days, and traverse the same elaborately manicured real estate.

It stands to reason that one of the two should be expendible on an efficient itinerary. Indeed, we do not include either attraction in our basic adult-oriented one-day touring plan. But we do suggest the inculsion of one or the other on all our kid-focused and multi-day plans. The question is, which trip to take?

The short answer is that our critical rating in the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland is 2½ stars for Casey Jr., and 3 stars for Storybook Land. But not so fast — both rides have their adherents, for good reasons:

Casey Jr. Circus Train

  • With both trains running, Casey Jr. can handle crowds quicker than the canal boats (though neither is a quick loader).
  • The trains’ modest velocity and elevation make it mildly thrilling compared to the sedate boats.
  • The monkey cage train cars, though uncomfortable for adults to ride in, make for a great photo.
  • The prerecorded Casey Jr. theme song is insistently catchy.
  • Unlike the Canal Boats, Casey Jr. doesn’t shut down during the parade.
  • At about under 4 minutes, it’s over quickly if you don’t enjoy it.

Storybook Land Canal Boats

  • Like at the Jungle Cruise, the live narration of the canal boat drivers adds immensely to the experience, especially if you get a clever one.
  • The boats give a much better view of the amazingly detailed fairytale miniatures along the waterways.
  • Though its maximum capacity is lower, Storybook Land can move guests quicker than Casey Jr. does with only one train running.
  • Over 6 minutes of cruising time means this one of the longer rides at Disneyland, making it a great return on your wait time investment.

I personally give the nod to the Canal Boats, but I urge everyone on a relaxed vacation schedule to give both a try, especially if the wait is under 20 minutes. While neither ride ranks among Disneyland’s most popular attractions, I’ve personally had “magical” experiences on both.

During my last visit to Disneyland, my wife and I were in line for the Storybook Land Canal Boats shortly before closing time. I noticed that we were the only people in the queue, and mentioned to my wife that we might get a boat all to ourselves. Just then a large family got in line behind us, and we assumed we would share our trip with them. But a cast member must have overheard us, because they held the group back and let us board alone for a private tour.

On an earlier occasion, we managed to board Casey Jr. just as the fireworks began. We not only got to experience the ride, but also had an exquisite view of the explosions seemingly surrounding us. The best part was getting an eyeful of the acrobatic Tinker Bell and Dumbo used in the Believe seasonal sky show.

On my first ever sailing through Storybook Land, I lucked out by boarding the boat of skipper “Mary Ann.” She split my sides with her sotto voce sunnily snarky side-comments, which I captured on the following video. I still see her regularly operating rides in Fantasyland, and never fail to notice her infectious enthusiasm.

For comparison purposes, here is a video I shot of a daytime ride on Casey Jr. Circus Train.

Which of these two rides do you include on your personal Disneyland touring itinerary? Neither or both? Tell me in the comments below!

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Flying Vs. Driving: Toddler Travel Tips

by on April 19, 2012

The first time I traveled with my now 18-month-old to Disneyland, he was just 4 months old. I remember sitting on the couch—and all the items we needed to bring were spread all over my living room floor…and the couch…and the bedroom…and the kitchen counter. Let’s just say, I wasn’t heeding my own advice of packing light anymore. I had no idea what I was doing. I do have a distinct memory of crying….I was incredibly overwhelmed. (It didn’t help that I had serious new Mommy hormones raging through my body!)

I packed every burp cloth I owned, (what if he spit up 45 times in one day!? It could happen!), almost every item of clothing he owned, including short sleeve and long sleeve onesies (it was January-the weather in Anaheim can go from 75 to 35 in one day!), oh, and not to mention all 20 bottles he had. Since we were feeding him every three hours and I didn’t want to reuse bottles in one day, I thought, “Why not just bring them all?” (We were driving to Anaheim, after all.) I can’t forget the fact that I started him on formula the day we were leaving, so I had no idea how much he would need for a one week trip! You can probably imagine I over-packed. (Did I mention I was traveling to Anaheim, where they do actually have grocery stores?) So I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that I could shop while I was there, I just wanted to be (overly) prepared. Did I mention the crying?

I think I have come a long way since that first trip in relearning how to pack and travel more efficiently, whether it’s for a road trip to Anaheim or a flight to Orlando. This week we will be flying off to Orlando once again, and there are many differences and similarities when traveling via car or plane on how I pack. Here are some tips:

  •  The term travel light does NOT exist in car travel—but is exponentially important for a flight! This is the biggest difference in the two forms of travel. I can’t tell you how many times I have uttered the phrase, “Well, we’re driving, so just throw it in the trunk!” I tend to be much more flexible with what I pack when driving. Whether it is an extra pack of diapers, wipes, another box of cookies-or even the one time I brought two strollers-car travel is always more accommodating! However, my hotel room tends to overflow, and I always end up with more than I need. Flying forces me to be more efficient.
  • Which brings me to my next topic-only pack essentials when flying! Buy diapers, formula, and baby food when you arrive at your destination; only bring enough with you for one day in case of emergencies. This saves space in your suitcase and money! This is a great way to avoid paying for more luggage or for paying for having over 50 pounds of luggage! If you are renting a car, just stop at a grocery store when you arrive. If not, you can have items delivered to your hotel in Orlando from www.goodingsdelivers.com, or certain car services will give you a complimentary thirty-minute stop at a grocery store before they drop you off at your hotel.
  • Buy a new toy you KNOW will hold your child’s interest-but test it first. This is much easier on a plane since your child will have your undivided attention for the entire flight and you can assist him. On our flight this week, our plan is to bring along a few new toy cars (his favorite), and we have uploaded the movies Cars and Cars 2 onto our iPad, along with a few new apps (It’s a Small World and The Monster At the End of The Book). The key to the new toy: test it out first-but not too much so it’s still new and exciting. I played the apps for my son a few times, and he seems interested. We played Cars 2 on the iPad on the floor, and he sat and watched it. On our last flight, we brought an untested new toy, and he didn’t care about it at all-it was just a huge waste of space in our luggage.
  • While driving, make sure the new toy is user friendly since you will have limited access to help your child use it. A movie is easy as long as you have a video player out of reach-especially for toddlers! Otherwise, movies on iPads or other devices should wait until the kids are old enough to use the devices independently. Books are also a good go-to for us. My son really likes to flip through board books and chatter to himself since he can’t read yet.
  • Throw all of your dietary restrictions for your child out the window-car or flight. I am not suggesting you start giving your child sugar if he or she is a diabetic. However, I am suggesting doing what works to make things as easy as possible. Goal: avoid massive meltdowns at all costs! For example, I restrict my son to 24 oz a day of milk normally because he is a little bit of a milkaholic. However, it soothes him like nothing else will, so if he is upset on the flight or in the car-I just keep giving him milk. I also like to give him special snacks-like a sucker, since it helps with the ear popping due to the change in pressure and gives him something to focus on! I would avoid over-sugaring, though-that can make a child SUPER hyper and have the opposite effect (i.e., a major meltdown).
  • Finally, be flexible, flexible, flexible! Traveling with a toddler can be super stressful. Whether you are alone or with family, the immediate need of a toddler who can’t fully communicate combined with the normal stresses of traveling will cause anxiety. However, if you go with the flow and try to laugh about the difficulties, not only will you be happier, but so will everyone else-including the toddler! We’ve all been puked on during take-off and have had to deal with major crying fits during landing-and in those scenarios, you are stuck on that plane and can’t move-so take a deep breath and remember: this too shall pass!
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Shiny New Optimized Touring Plans!

by on April 19, 2012

The new UI for Optimized Touring Plans is here! This new system is a complete overhaul of how you build plans, edit, view and even print them. We’ve also added a ton of new features, including the ability to Evaluate your plan – this new option lets you check out what your predicted wait times would be for the schedule you put together. So if you know you’re going to say, do everything in the Magic Kingdom in clockwise order, just put the steps in the order you want, hit the Evaluate button and find out just how bad an idea that might be…

We’re really excited about this new system! We have some intro videos coming up soon to help you navigate the waters, but until then feel free to check it out and tell us what you think. We have a form just for that – click here to submit a bug report or give us suggestions for the next phase of development. (Two things we’re already working on – the ability to copy and delete plans will be in the next phase, coming up soon.)

WDW Plans: http://touringplans.com/walt-disney-world/touring-plans/personalized

DLR Plans: http://touringplans.com/disneyland-resort/touring-plans/personalized

Update 4/21:  You can now copy premium plans into a personalized plan, where you can edit, optimize, and evaluate.  Also, Rests can now have custom titles.

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The Art of the Disney World Room Request

by on April 18, 2012

You’ve finally decided where to stay. Your resort hotel choice is perfect. Now you’re wondering if there are better or worse places to stay at your chosen resort. Will it matter what room you’re in? And if it matters, how do you go about making that happen? Welcome to the wonderful world of the room request.

Should I be making a room request?

Not necessarily. If you’re only going to be sleeping in your room, it may not make much difference where you are. In this case, making a room request may just be creating unnecessary work for yourself.

Note the "Search for Accessible Rooms" box. Click to enlarge.

What would I want to make a room request?

There are a number of reasons why a guest would want a specific room or specific type of room. Some of these are:

  • Sentimental attachment to a previously visited area.
  • Need for a room with handicapped access.
  • Need for connecting rooms for larger families.
  • Preference for a particular view.
  • Preference for proximity to food or transportation.

I want the BEST room, can I simply request that?

Not really. The “best” room could be entirely different depending your personal needs or preferences.

What do you mean?

Some people prioritize quiet. My husband usually asks for a room on a high floor as far away as possible from the elevators. He doesn’t like to hear people walking past the room. Someone else might have mobility issues and would prioritize closeness to the elevator. What’s best for my husband might be worst for someone else. Before making a room request, think about what you really want.

If I’ve made a request, what are the odds I’m going to get what I ask for?

Disney does NOT guarantee room requests. They just don’t. That being said, if you’ve made your request in advance, then the odds of getting what you ask for are pretty good. Personally, I’ve made requests for either room location or connecting rooms about a dozen times and only not gotten what I asked for once.

Any exceptions to the “no guarantees” thing?

If there are real medical reasons for your request, these are given priority. Specify this while making your reservation.

I’ve decided I want to be near the resort transportation. How do I ask for this?

Note the "Multiple Room Booking" link.

First figure out what you really want. Some resorts have multiple transportation access points. Many of the moderate resorts have multiple bus pick-up points, and some of the deluxe resorts are served by two types of transportation. Specificity is important. Do you want to be near any bus stop at the Caribbean Beach Resort, or only the MAIN bus stop? Similarly, it would be tough to be near both the boat dock and the bus stop at the BoardWalk Inn, as those are on different sides of the building. Be clear about what you prefer.

I really want to be next to my kids in another room. Can I make that happen?

The first step is to make sure you’re asking for the right thing. There is a difference between connecting rooms (with an internal door between them) and adjoining rooms (that are simply next to each other). All the Disney resort hotels have a limited number of rooms that connect, but obviously have many rooms that adjoin.

I have a bunch of kids and would like to have three rooms connecting together. How do I ask for that?

You shouldn’t be asking for this, because it doesn’t exist. Before you make a room request, you should first make sure that what you’re asking for is actually in the realm of possibility. This can be handled by making a quick call to the resort.

I’m staying at the Wilderness Lodge with my family later this year. Our ideal room configuration is a bunk bed room connecting to a standard room, but I wasn’t sure if this particular combination even existed at the resort. Before making a request we called the Lodge directly and asked if they had any rooms with that profile. (They do, yay!)

It pays to do a bit of research on the types of rooms available at each resort. For example, there are no bunk beds at any of the value resorts. Don’t bother asking for something like this.

Click on the room type options to find out more about those options.

Another type of request to avoid is one where your choices contradict each other. For example, don’t ask for a Caribbean Beach Resort pirate room that’s close to the main building and transportation. The pirate rooms are all faaaaar away from the main building. Which factor is most important to you?

If the particular type of room you want does not exist, ask the hotel to suggest alternatives. For example, guests wanting three rooms connecting together might be offered a two or three bedroom villa as a substitute. Or, if you need something very specific that doesn’t exist on Disney property, you may want to expand your search to off-site accommodations.

We’re traveling with another family. Can I request a room near their room?

Yes, this is something you can request. If you’re making a request involving another party with another reservation number, be sure that you both ask for the same thing.

I’m staying at the Contemporary and really want a view of the Castle. Can I request this?

Well, kind of. Some types of rooms are only available for a premium price. So, for example, you can ask for a Castle view, but this would be made as part of your regular reservation, not a special request, as Castle view rooms cost more than standard view rooms.

The description of preferred rooms tells you that these rooms are close to the pool and guest facilities. If you want to be close to the pool, that's the type of room to select. You're going to have to pay more.

I’m staying at the Beach Club. Can I request a view of the lake?

Again, there are some rooms that have premium pricing. In the case of the Beach Club, there are some rooms designated as “water view.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be gazing out your balcony at Crescent Lake. Some water view rooms overlook Stormalong Bay or even the small quiet pool. If you’re selecting a water view room and want the lake, ask for the lake.

OK, I’ve figured out what I want and I know that it exists at my resort. How do I go about making my request?

If you’re reserving while speaking with a person, either at the Disney reservations phone line (407-W-DISNEY) or with a travel agent, simply state what you need, and the agent make a note on your file.

If you’re making your reservation yourself online, keep any eye out for markers in the reservation system that prompt you to note requests. For example, the first reservation screen asks if you want to search for Accessible Rooms. If you want to make a request for a handicapped accessible room, be sure to start your reservation process there.

You’ll also notice on the first reservation page a link that says “multi-room booking?” Clicking this will bring you to an alert that you can make a connecting room request later in the process. Make sure you follow through with this.

What next?

The next page of an online booking shows you what options are available. For example, in the fictional Pop Century booking shown here, there are options for standard view, standard pool view, preferred standard view, and preferred pool view. Not sure what those things mean? Click on the options for more information. Still not sure, call Disney and ask.

Some resorts have special request options. For example, Port Orleans Riverside has an option to select a room with a trundle bed.

Again, look carefully at every page in the booking process. There are many places where you’re asked for preference-type information.

I forgot to make my room request when I booked. What can I do?

Once you have a reservation in place, there’s currently no mechanism in place to add something to it online. Your best bet is to call Disney and ask the reservations agent to amend your reservation. If for some reason you can’t or don’t want to call, you can go to the bottom of the disneyworld.com website and (in the lower right corner) click on “Contact Us.” You can send an email making a room request in the “Questions” box (including the confirmation number), and make sure you select “My Current Walt Disney World Reservation” for the subject line.

I’ve made my reservation and request. Is there anything else I should do?

Although you should make your room request at the time of booking, the actual room assignments are not made until a few days before arrival time. Many guests confirm their room requests directly with the resort 3-5 days prior to their trips. This makes sure that the request is in the system at the time the rooms are being assigned. Previously, guests were told to fax requests to the hotel; if you can fax your request, that’s great, but in an age where fax machines are on the wane, most folks just call.

If you are calling, have the following information on hand: your resort confirmation number, your arrival and departure dates, and the exact nature of your request. Sample requests might be:

  • In the 60s section (for a Pop Century reservation)
  • Two connecting rooms
  • A handicapped accessible room with a view of the lake
  • A room on a high floor
  • A room near the elevator
  • A room in the building closest to the food court
  • A room near the main bus stop

If you have multiple requests, be sure to rank them according to your priorities.

Are there types of requests I shouldn’t make?

Beyond asking for something that doesn’t exist, it can be counterproductive to just ask for a particular room. If that room isn’t available, then the room assigner doesn’t know what to do next. You could say something like, “We stayed in room X last year and loved it, but if that’s not available we prefer a room at the end of the hall.”

Online booking screen to request a room near another party.

Does doing advance online check-in impact the odds of getting my requested room?

In my experience, it doesn’t make a difference if you’ve taken the above steps.

Do you have rooms that you prefer?

Well, I’ve spent MANY nights in Disney hotel rooms, but I’m just one person, so not really a representative sample of what’s going on in the tens of thousands of rooms out there. But lucky for you there’s an entire team of folks at the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World who have done lots of work on this topic. The Unofficial Guide gives recommendations for specific room areas at each WDW hotel. It’s certainly worth checking out if you want to dig further into the topic.

Anything else?

Well, it never hurts to be nice. You are, in a way, asking a favor. If you’re pleasant about it, you’re putting positive karma out there.

What has your experience been with requesting rooms? Have you been lucky or have your requests not been honored. Let us know how you’ve fared in the comments below.

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Navigating Character Dining at Disney World

by on April 18, 2012

Making heads or tails of all of the character dining options at Disney World can be daunting, so I wanted to take this week’s post to give our readers a guide to those experiences. Here you will be able to get a handle on which characters appear at what restaurants and some other basic information about each establishment. Hopefully it will help you and your family decide where you may want to eat and interact with your favorite furry friends on your next trip!

Before we begin our tour of the character dining restaurants, let’s go over some basics of character meals at Disney World. These are very popular with guests of all ages, so reservations are a must. When guests book these experiences, they must provide a credit card number to put a hold on their reservations. You may cancel your reservation at any time up to 24 hours in advance without having your card charged. If your party does not show up for its Advanced Dining Reservation (ADR), you will be charged a “no show fee” of $10 per person.

Please note that character appearances are always subject to change and are never guaranteed.

Magic Kingdom

Cinderella’s Royal Table - Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served as prix fixe meals inside Cinderella Castle. Cinderella and her princess friends (who may include Belle, Aurora, and Snow White) appear during the meal. This is one of the hottest tickets in town, so if your little prince or princess wants to dine in this royal setting, be sure to make an ADR 180 days in advance.

The Crystal Palace - Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served buffet style. Characters who appear here include Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore. You may want to book breakfast here early in the morning to gain access to the park before regular guests. This way you can have a yummy meal, meet Pooh Bear, and take your family’s picture in front of the castle without 1,000 people in the background. I’ve only had breakfast here, but it was a great time!

Epcot

Akershus Royal Banquet Hall - Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served family-style here in the Norway Pavilion. There is also a buffet at lunch and dinner featuring Norwegian favorites.  Cindrella, Ariel, Belle, Aurora, and Snow White are all regulars here at Akershus, and they can’t wait to meet their royal subjects. A special perk at this restaurant is that a professional group photo is included for every four guests in your party.

The Garden Grill - This restaurant only serves a dinner hosted by Chip and Dale and their friends, including Mickey and Pluto in their farmer outfits. The restaurant is within the Land Pavilion, and it slowly rotates to allow guests to have a view of the Living with the Land attraction while they eat their family style dinner.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Hollywood & Vine - A character buffet is served for breakfast and lunch. Disney Junior characters are here to greet guests and pose for pictures. Handy Manny, Special Agent Oso, Jake the Neverland Pirate, and June from the Little Einsteins series are all among the kid favorites who appear here. A dinner buffet is also served, but it does not feature character interaction. This experience caters more to the younger crowd since Disney Junior characters are highlighted.

Animal Kingdom

Tusker House - Characters have appeared at breakfast here for a while, but they have more recently been added at lunch, too! Donald, Daisy, Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy appear in their safari outfits as if they are ready to hop aboard the trucks for a two week journey at the nearby Kilimanjaro Safaris. The African-inspired menu is served buffet-style, but there are plenty of more traditional options for those folks who may not be as adventurous. Tusker House also serves dinner, but without characters.

Resorts

Cape May Cafe - With its location at the Beach Club Resort, you can be sure that this seaside eatery will feature characters in their beach-going best. The breakfast buffet features everyone’s favorite furry friends, but dinner does not, so be sure to book breakfast if you are looking to take some great photos with the likes of Minnie, Goofy, and Donald. This has been one of my favorite character breakfasts I’ve attended!

Chef Mickey’s - Breakfast and dinner are served year round, and lunch is sometimes added during busy seasons. This restaurant always seems to be busy, and its location at the Contemporary Resort makes it easy to get to via the monorail. Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy, Minnie, and Pluto all greet guests as they munch on their buffet goodies. This is another extremely popular location, so be sure to make your ADRs well in advance.

Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque - This party is held on Thursdays and Saturdays from March through December, but be aware that it can be canceled for bad weather. Here, guests can enjoy a buffet full of summertime grill favorites while dancing, playing games, and meeting characters. Since it is held at the Fort Wilderness Campground, the easiest way to get there is to take the boat from the Magic Kingdom. A little escape from the parks for an outdoor picnic with characters sounds like a great time!

1900 Park Fare - Located at the Grand Floridian, this eatery serves breakfast with Mary Poppins, Alice, the Mad Hatter, and other “Wonderland Friends.” Alice and company return in the afternoon for a “Wonderland Tea Party,” where guests get to hear stories, play games, and decorate their own cupcakes! For dinner, Cinderella takes over greeting guests along with Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, Lady Tremaine, and the wicked step sisters. Meals here are served buffet style, and there is sure to be something on the menu to please every palate.

‘Ohana - This fan favorite, located at the Polynesian, is a hit for breakfast! The meal is served family-style and features appearances by Lilo, Stitch, Mickey, and Pluto. Characters only appear at breakfast at this eatery. I have found the characters to be especially playful at ‘Ohana. Guests may also participate in games and have their family portraits taken with their leis.

Garden Grove – This restaurant may be a bit off the beaten path with its location at the Swan. Characters are featured on Saturday and Sunday mornings for breakfast, as well as at dinner each night.  The dinner buffet is themed according to different days of the week, so you will want to double check what will be served before you make a reservation.  We should note the Dining Plan is not accepted at the Garden Grove. You may run into the likes of Goofy, Pluto, Rafiki, and Timon here.

The Garden View Tea Room – During lunch hours kids can meet their favorite princesses during the My Disney Girl’s Perfectly Princess Tea Party. The Tea Room at the Grand Floridian hosts guests with a prix fixe menu where girls are encouraged to dress like their favorite princess to meet their host called Miss Rose Petal, along with Princess Aurora of Sleeping Beauty fame.  Girls will also receive a doll and other goodies as a keepsake for participating in the afternoon tea (boys get a Duffy and Pirate Mickey hat). This experience comes with a hefty price tag of about $250 for one child and an adult companion. There is an additional charge for each added child or adult.

There you have it: a basic guide to all of the character dining locations on Disney World property. Please let me know if you have any questions or tell me all about your favorite places to dine with characters in the comments!

Next week I’ll continue my discussion of character meals with tips to ensure a great experience at one of the character meals!

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Shopping Spotlight: D Street

by on April 17, 2012

You never know where you will find a Vinylmation...

D Street, located on the Westside of Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World, has only been open a year, but it is quickly becoming a favorite shopping stop in my family with its extensive selection of Vinylmations, Disney inspired art, and fun merchandise.

From the moment you walk into the store, you know it isn’t going to be your normal ‘Disney’ shopping experience! The store has really fun, urban, and extremely creative décor. You will definitely find yourself examining the displays as much as the merchandise!!!

The Cars Vinylmation Monorail Set

D Street is the premier location to purchase Vinylmations at Walt Disney World, which means that when there is a product launch or exclusive Vinylmations you will find them at D Street before you will find them anywhere else on property. Recent product premiers have included the limited edition set of the Big Bad Wolf 9” and three 3” Little Pigs Vinylmations, Cars Monorail Vinylmations, and the Robots 2 Series of 3” Vinylmations. If you want to keep up with the latest Vinylmation releases, you may want to visit here! Also, you will want to visit D Street to find the Orange Bird and Mr. Toad Annual Passholder Vinylmations!

Whether you are new to the Vinylmation game or a serious collector, the cast members are really helpful and knowledgeable about collecting and trading.

One of my favorite displays in D Street contains all of the past Vinylmations, and it is really neat to see the evolution of the line!

Zoe designing her own Vinylmation

D Street also offers a selection of custom Vinylmations that have been created by the Disney Design Group. These 3” and 9” figures are always changing and represent icons, attractions, and characters from Disney Parks and movies! They are super fun to look at, but they are pretty pricey!!!

For the children (both young and old) there is a table decorated with tons of 3” Vinylmations where you can sit and design your own Vinylmation!

Just a small portion of the Star Wars merchandise at D Street

If Vinylmation collecting isn’t your thing, D Street is also the place to find fun merchandise with various Disney and Pop-Culture themes!!!

There is an especially large collection of Star Wars, Muppets, and Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise at D Street, but the pop culture items change quite frequently: right now Angry Birds are featured.

You will also find a large selection of D Tech, Bloc28 clothing and accessories, and some of the more edgy and retro Disney shirts at D Street.

One thing to keep in mind is that D Street is a lot like TrenD at the Marketplace in Downtown Disney: when you see something you love…buy it! The merchandise selections change frequently, and a lot of their merchandise sells quickly and is either unique to their store or is hard to find at other locations throughout Walt Disney World.

So next time you are on the Westside of Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World, I would definitely drop in to see what new and fun merchandise you can find at D Street.

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Resort Exploring: Vol 5 – “Wilderness” Area Resorts

by on April 17, 2012

For the purposes of this post, I am going to go ahead and lump the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness campground together. The reason is simple; they both have the word “wilderness” in their names. Okay, they also occupy semi-adjacent spaces on the shores of Bay Lake, and the themes of both resorts are complementary, but it is really because of the names.

Wilderness Lodge

Honestly, before visiting this resort I did not think I would like it. I have been to the American West and seen the great cabin hotels that obviously inspired the Wilderness Lodge. I also grew up in Pennsylvania, in an area in which it is common to find forests, streams, and wildlife. Therefore, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Wilderness Lodge, thinking it to be a second rate version of things I was familiar with. The story of my first visit is a boring one, but that particular tale ends with my now thinking that Wilderness Lodge has my favorite theme of any of the Deluxe Resorts at Walt Disney World.

While Deluxe Resorts, in general, do not lend themselves well to exploration due to their compact nature (with regard to land – the buildings are gigantic), Wilderness Lodge is a little bit different. The area it sits on is still not large, but the building and grounds are incredibly detailed. One could spend hours in the lobby alone looking at the fantastic woodwork and simply enjoying the soaring heights of the space (and the comfy chairs that inevitably have some napping patrons). Stepping outside brings you face to face with even more beauty.

The exterior area of the Wilderness Lodge is absolutely gorgeous. Designed to look like a section of Yellowstone National Park (I’m guessing here, but 97% sure), it contains foliage, huge (fake) rocks, waterfalls, streams, and a sprawling pool. With the log cabin-styled Lodge in the background, there are great vistas all over the area.

Walking out toward the shores of Bay Lake reveals what I feel is one of the coolest add-ons to any Disney resort…geysers. Well okay, they’re man made, but they still bubble and erupt and look just like the real thing. Standing on the path with the pool and Lodge on one side and geysers backed by the lake on the other is something I can do for hours (I haven’t because I’m way too antsy, but I could).

Fort Wilderness

There is no more unique Disney World accommodation experience than Fort Wilderness Resort. I am no camper, preferring hotels and beds to tents and sleeping bags (bugs and I have irreconcilable differences). That said, I have camped many times in both tents and RVs, and my extended family are very fond of their RVs, so I know what a campground looks like. Fort Wilderness is, without question, a campground.

When you are on the grounds of Fort Wilderness you would be hard pressed to even know you are in Walt Disney World (except for the multitude of Disney themed decorations on campsites). There are general stores, ponds, woods, meandering paths, ranches, and lots and lots of space. You can easily get lost at Fort Wilderness (trust me), and finding the right bus routes can be a chore, but the peacefulness and serenity that abound are worth the trouble.

Near the Bay Lake edge of Fort Wilderness are the Tri-Circle-D Ranch & Farm, where horses can be found, and Pioneer Hall, which is home to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (see menu). With the log cabin construction, plethora of rocking chairs, and the view out toward Bay Lake, it is a calm spot in an otherwise hectic vacation.

Speaking of calm, your primary mode of transportation to the Magic Kingdom from either of these resorts is a wonderfully relaxing boat ride (although you may get a little sad seeing Discovery Island in its unused state). Arriving to the park via Seven Seas Lagoon makes a magical place even more special.

It is probably pretty obvious that I am a huge fan of both of these areas. If your vacation is all about getting the optimum time in each of the parks, these may not be the best choice. However, if you want to mix park touring with relaxation and peaceful afternoons, there are few better places (if any) than either the Wilderness Lodge or Fort Wilderness. Either way, I strongly recommend taking a little bit of time to wander and explore both of these fantastic spots.

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New Optimized Plans UI Launching Thursday

by on April 16, 2012

Great news – the new Optimized Touring Plans user interface is launching this Thursday morning! This update includes a new overall look, the ability to evaluate your plan without changing the step order, and more! Check out what we’ve been working on!

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