Disney Tours

Free Tour Series: African-Inspired, Disney-Designed

by on May 15, 2012

Animal Kingdom Villas LobbyTo wrap up our Free Tour Series, we’re back at the Animal Kingdom Villas. That’s right, Kidani Village is home to two free tours! In addition to the Sanaa Cultural Tour, they also offer African-Inspired, Disney-Designed.

The afternoon I took the African-Inspired, Disney-Designed tour, it was just me and a family of four. However, we had three Cultural Representatives leading the tour. The primary Cultural Representative, a young man from South Africa, was training two new tour guides from other areas of the resort. The combination of multiple tour guides, new trainees and fairly strong accents made it very difficult for me to hear/understand all of the information presented on the tour. I’m confident that a normal tour with one guide would be easier to follow, but I still recommend standing as close to the guide as possible to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Kidani Village Quote

Each quote painted throughout the resort is accompanied by bronze butterflies.

We all meet in front of a tour sign outside Johari Treasures, the gift shop inside the Kidani Village lobby.  “Johari” means jewel in Swahili. The tall, arched lobby windows overlooking the savanna form the center jewel of Kidani, which is Swahili for necklace. For those paying attention, the meaning of Kidani was also discussed on the Sanaa Cultural Tour. These two tours have a fair amount of overlapping information.

After quick introductions, we headed outside to the Animal Kingdom Villas lobby entrance, which serves as the beginning of the resort’s story. If you have ever visited Kidani Village, you may have noticed the various proverbs painted on the walls. Outside the lobby, is the opening proverb from Ghana, “Proverbs are like butterflies, some are caught, some fly away.” This quote explains why all of the proverbs throughout the resort are accompanied by little bronze butterflies.

Lost-wax cast bronze clock

Lost-wax cast bronze clock

From there, we reentered the lobby to continue the story. Just like Animal Kingdom Lodge, Animal Kingdom Villas is inspired by many different African cultures. The lost-wax cast Asante Clock that greets guests in the lobby was made in Cameroon. Our Cultural Representatives pointed out several other pieces of art and thematic details in the lobby before we moved on to the library.

The Kidani library features several more African artifacts, including photographs of Cameroon architecture. The signature piece, however, is not actually African. Next to the fireplace, hangs two large robe tapestries embroidered with the names of the Animal Kingdom Villas Founding DVC Members. It is a nice tribute to all those families who bought into the resort before it opened in 2009. These Founding Members also received personal plaques with a framed beaded necklace, paying homage to the name Kidani.

Next, we traveled downstairs to visit the resort’s only restaurant, Sanaa. This portion of the tour was essentially an abbreviated version of the Sanaa Cultural Tour without at any food. I would think there are enough to details in Sanaa that the two tours wouldn’t need to repeat, but I guess most guests don’t take the time to do both. If you are interested in both tours, I will mention that it is not really possible to do them back to back on the same day. While the Sanaa Cultural Tour starts at 4 p.m., you would probably have to skip out on the bread sampler at the end (the best part!) to catch the African-Inspired, Disney-Designed tour up in the lobby at 4:30 p.m.

Kidani Village Lobby

Kidani Village Lobby

After Sanaa, the tour wrapped up with a trip out to the savanna. The outdoor savanna overlook area at Kidani Village is much smaller than the one at Jambo House. However, you are on the same level as the animals and the it feels more intimate than over at the Lodge. Plus, they lure the animals towards the overlook right around the time the tour ends, so they can be viewed by dinner guests when Sanaa opens. Every time I’ve been on the overlook around 4-5pm, there have been plenty of zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and various birds close by.

Despite the difficulties in hearing the guides on the day of my tour, African-Inspired, Disney-Designed is a fun tour for folks interested in Disney themeing. The Animal Kingdom resorts are my favorite with their combination of beautiful design and African wildlife. If I had to pick just one of the Kidani Village tours, I would recommend the Sanaa Cultural Tour simply because you get to sample some of the cuisine. However, if you already have plans to dine at Sanaa, taking the African-Inspired tour beforehand would make for a lovely evening.

Animal Kingdom Villas SavannaThe African-Inspired, Disney-Designed tour is currently offered at 4:30 p.m. daily. No reservations are accepted, and all you need to do to attend is show up at tour sign outside the Johari Treasures gift shop in the Kidani Village lobby .  The tour is open to all ages and lasts 20 minutes.   As resort activities can change monthly, check the Resort Activites Calendar or call (407) 938-3000 to confirm the tour schedule.

Missed the first four installments of the Free Tour Series? You can check them out here.

Have you tried the African-Inspired, Disney-Designed Tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Gardens of the World Tour Review

by on April 2, 2012

Festival BloomsThis year’s Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is in full swing, and the park has never looked more gorgeous. What better way could there be to explore all the amazing displays and learn what it takes to put on this signature event than with a tour? Thankfully, the Gardens of the World Tour lets guests do just that!

Offered only during the Festival, Gardens of the World offers guests a unique opportunity to explore Epcot along with members of Disney’s Horticulture group. As the team responsible for bringing Epcot into bloom, the Horticulture tour guides are the perfect folks to share the ins and outs of maintaining the park’s landscaping during the Festival and throughout the year.

Periwinkle Fairy

Periwinkle Fairy, from the upcoming The Secret of the Wings, debuts as a topiary at the 2012 Flower and Garden Festival.

While I attended last year’s Flower & Garden Festival, this was my first time taking the two tours offered. The previously reviewed English Tea Garden Tour was a fun, free way to enjoy the Festival’s offerings. However, that quick tour is no match for the amount of information and access provided on Gardens of the World.

To start, tour guests met outside Epcot at Guest Relations at 9am. If you take this or any other tour, make sure you are early. For the first time in almost 20 tours, I was late. Somehow after arriving one minute late, it took over 15 minutes to finally catch up with the group. If you are ever late for a tour, immediately go to Guest Relations. Provided your tour allows late arrivals (some don’t), Guest Relations will find a Cast Member to escort you to meet up with the group.

By the time we found my group, they had already received name tags, pins, discussed the main entrance Fantasia topiaries, and made their way behind Spaceship Earth. Things were moving fast. I was handed a name tag and a headset. Almost all the paid tours use headsets to allow guests to hear despite their proximity to the guide and the volume of the crowds in the park. My tour had 21 guests, so I was very glad I could still keep up with what was being said despite trailing the group.

Bambi's Butterfly House

Guests can interact with butterflies and view cocoons in Bambi's Butterfly House.

At the point I joined, the group was learning about how the giant peacock topiary behind Spaceship Earth had to be lowered earlier that week because it didn’t flow with the surrounding flower beds, which are supposed to represent the bird’s tail feathers. This was one of the examples of how Disney is constantly evaluating and updating displays throughout the Festival. Another example was the sand sculpture highlighting the new Chimpanzee nature film, which will be completely rebuilt several times throughout the festival as the sand is eroded.

From there we made our way through Future World East into the For The Birds and Pixie Hollow gardens. Much of our tour was spent learning about the details in to the special displays throughout the park. Even though I had visited Epcot during Flower & Garden before, I never realized just how many displays there are. I counted at least seven on the tour, not including the country-specific landscaping throughout World Showcase. This tour did a fantastic job of encouraging us to really explore all the beauty the Festival has to offer.

Cars 2 synergy in the Japan PavilionNext, we learned about the creation of the flower berms and floating baskets in the waterway leading up to World Showcase. We also visited Bambi’s Butterfly Garden, my favorite Flower & Garden Festival staple. Then we walked by the rose gardens and the sand sculpture before making our way into World Showcase.

While there was plenty to see in Future World, World Showcase took up the bulk of this 3 hour tour. Starting from Mexico, we visited each and every pavilion. We even got to enter the Showcase before it opened to regular guests. I’m a big proponent of taking early tours that allow for a private park experience. I spent as much time taking photos of empty pavilions as I did learning about horticulture.

Prince Philip and Princess Aurora

Prince Philip and Princess Aurora waltz outside the France Pavilion.

One thing I didn’t realize until this tour, is that many of the flowers and displays for the festival are donated from outside parties, as well as other departments within Disney. Mexico’s orchids are provided by Animal Kingdom, which features orchids in its Oasis area. Many of the Mexico orchids are kept in pots and will go back to Animal Kingdom at the end of the Festival. The orchids that have been sewn into the palm trees will stay and may bloom a few more times before being removed.

Similarly, the Japan pavilion features a gorgeous display of bonsai trees. Each has been donated by a private owner to Disney. Our guide indicated that due to the delicate nature of bonsais, making sure these were returned in great condition is one of the most stressful tasks for the horticulture team.

Our group also learned about the process of creating topiaries for the festival versus building permanent topiaries elsewhere on property. If you have visited Topiary Production on the Backstage Magic tour, this part of the tour will be very redundant. I spent this part of the tour searching for the even the smallest sliver of shade. Fortunately, the headset let me stand far off without missing out on what the guides were saying.

Commemorative Gardens of the World Tour Pin

Commemorative Gardens of the World Tour Pin

Which reminds me: WEAR SUNSCREEN!!! I wore SPF 75 and still ended up with a terrible sunburn from this tour. Three hours of standing in direct sun is no joke. I spent much of the tour standing at a distance to be in the shade and even walked off at one point to get water. As a native Floridian, this was my first time getting a serious sunburn at Disney. If I were taking this tour again, I’d carry an umbrella to block the sun. Bringing a water bottle would be a wise idea as well. If it’s this bad in March, May is going to be brutal.

In the France Pavilion, we learned about how Disney constructs the hanging plant baskets. One of our guides works on the indoor plants at Magic Kingdom, including the hanging baskets in Crystal Palace. It never occurred to me how much work goes into choosing and maintaining the arrangements. Did you know that each of Epcot’s hanging baskets weighs up to 60 pounds? The larger the arrangement, the less likely it will dry out between daily waterings.

2012 Epcot Flower & Garden Festival Poster

2012 Epcot Flower & Garden Festival Poster

We wrapped up in Canada. After learning about the irrigation system used for the trees on Canada’s “mountain”, we got to go backstage to view the pavilion from the other side. While this backstage portion of the tour was very short, it was fantastic to see how the mountain is constructed with deep planters and a pipe-system for the water. Here we each received a copy of the 2012 Flower & Garden Festival poster in a large tube. These posters cost $19.95 at the Festival Center, so it was really a nice surprise for tour guests.

Aside from being preoccupied with potential dehydration and sun-poisoning, I learned a lot from this tour. Most of the guests were avid gardeners, many taking notes on the specific plants used throughout Epcot. We each received a card with contact information for the Horticulture group should we have any follow up questions. Both of our guides were excellent and clearly passionate about their jobs.

If you are even the slightest bit inclined to learn more about gardening techniques and the process for pulling off the Flower & Garden Festival, I definitely recommend this tour for you. Bring some water, wear sunscreen and walking shoes, carry an umbrella, and you’ll have a good time.

If listening to questions about mulching techniques isn’t up your alley, you might want to reconsider. I’m not a gardener, and (sun aside) I had a reasonably good time. However, if I were facing time or budget constraints, I would skip the tour and just enjoy the beauty of the festival on my own. If you want to experience more Epcot but aren’t into plants, the UnDISCOVERed Future World tour is a good alternative. If you want to focus on Flower & Garden but want less of a commitment, try the English Garden Tea Tour. Just be sure to go late in the day to avoid heat exhaustion!

The Gardens of the World tour is currently offered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 9am through May 20, 2012. It costs $60 and requires separate park admission. Guests must be at least 16 years old to take the tour. A 15% discount is offered for AAA Members, Annual Passholders, and DVC Members. Disney VISA Cardholders are eligible for a 20% discount when booking with their Disney VISA. To book, call (407) WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687).

Have you tried the Gardens of the World tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Free Tour Series: Sanaa Cultural Tour

by on March 24, 2012

Sanaa Podium

Sanaa Podium

Our forth installment of the Free Tour Series takes us back into the resorts and into yet another restaurant. Thanks to the Sanaa Cultural Tour, I recently discovered what is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to dine on property. This quick 20 minute tour takes guests through the lone table service restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Villas and ends with a tasty treat. (That’s right, more free food!)

First, if you’re not familiar with the Animal Kingdom Lodge and Animal Kingdom Villas area, it’s important to note that each go by a different name. The Lodge building is called Jambo House, whereas the Villas reside at Kidani Village. Whether you are driving or using Disney transportation to get to the resort, you will want to stop at Kidani Village for this tour.

Sanaa Dining Area

Sanaa Dining Area

If you drive and choose to self-park, it can be a very long walk from where the parking lot elevator takes you to the central lobby area. Fortunately, you’re walking indoors with glimpses out on to Kidani’s savannas, but make sure you remember which elevator you used so you can find your car again. I won’t say that I lost my car when I did this tour, but I will say that I took the scenic route to find it.

Sanaa is located below the check-in area in the center of Kidani Village. When I checked in at the podium for the 4pm tour, I was the only only guest. The Cultural Representative leading the tour, a young woman from Botswana, waited 10 more minutes to see if anyone else would be joining us. No one did, and the woman seemed a bit surprised that I was there. I guess not many folks take advantage of the tour.

Window overlooking the savanna

Window overlooking the savanna

Since I had a private tour, the Cultural Representative took her time and was very patient with my taking photos. If you haven’t been, Sanaa is gorgeous. Aesthetically, it is my favorite restaurant on property. “Sanaa” means artwork in Swahili, and the place is covered with a diverse collection of beautiful pieces. The walls are adorned with a items from various African cultures so as to evoke a trading market atmosphere. Beads and necklaces are prominently featured and are a nod to the word “Kidani”, which is Swahili for necklace.

The Representative led me around the intimate dining area explaining the cultural significance of each of the African pieces. She even pointed out a Hidden Mickey as well as Sanaa’s own Pride Rock. Given the small size of the restaurant, I was amazed at how many different design elements had been incorporated. Everything was beautiful, though I did question the logic of displaying beaded loin cloths directly behind the heads of eating guests. My guide laughed, and said she often thought the same thing.

Sanaa Boat Room

The canopy is made from ship sails in this boat-inspired room.

We finished up in the bar area, which is now on my lists of places to return. Even at 4 in the afternoon, the bar was cozy and inviting. Here the Cultural Representative turned me over to one of Sanaa’s chefs. The chef came out and explained how they use tandoori ovens to make naan bread as well as slow cook their meats. He also brought out a sample of their Indian-style Bread Service appetizer, including fresh naan and three different dipping sauces. Since it was only me on the tour, I had the whole thing to myself. Fortunately, I quickly made friends with two ladies at the bar who were more than happy to help me polish off the food.

If you order this appetizer in the restaurant, you get to choose from a selection of nine sauces. On the day of my tour, they gave me the cucumber raita, mango chutney and something green that I still don’t know what it was. I happened to come back for dinner with a group, and we had two orders of the bread service. Rather than having us pick six sauces, the waiter brought us all nine options. This was fabulous, and I highly recommend doing the same if you find yourself with enough people to share.

Indian Style Bread Service Appetizer

Indian Style Bread Service Appetizer

Overall, the tour was short and sweet. Even taking my time time to eat and chat with my new friends, I was out of there in 30 minutes. I’m sure with a larger tour group asking questions, it could take longer. If you do go, I highly recommend asking your Cultural Representative about their home country and experiences. My guide was a busy handling a guest conundrum at the end of my tour, so we didn’t talk much. However, I have chatted up the Cultural Representatives over at Jambo House, and they all were very happy to share.

The Sanaa Cultural Tour is a great respite away from the parks. If you are staying over in the Animal Kingdom area or just want an excuse to come check out the gorgeous resort and savanna, a free tour is just the ticket. A great trip would be following this tour with a drink at the bar or an early dinner at Sanaa. Either way, be sure to check out the animals on the savanna viewable through the windows before the sun goes down.

Tribal Drums

Tribal Drums

On the other hand, if you want to see Jambo House, try the previously reviewed Culinary Tour of Boma and Jiko. That tour offers a glimpse into two restaurants, but I don’t consider either half as beautiful as Sanaa. Then again, you get double the samples – so it’s a toss up! You really can’t go wrong with either tour.

The Sanaa Cultural Tour is currently offered at 4 p.m. daily. No reservations are accepted, and all you need to do to attend is show up at the Sanaa podium in the Animal Kingdom Villas.  The tour is open to all ages and lasts 20 minutes.   As resort activities can change monthly, check the Resort Activites Calendar or call (407) 938-3000 to confirm the tour schedule.

 

Have you tried the Animal Kingdom Villas Sanaa Cultural Tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Free Tour Series: Twinings Tea Garden Tour at Epcot

by on March 15, 2012

The Tea Caddy Shop

The Tea Caddy Shop

For the third installment of our Free Tour Series, we’re heading out of the resorts and into the parks. The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival brings us two seasonal tours each spring – and one of them is *gasp* free! (The other is the popular Gardens of the World tour, which we will be reviewing soon.)

Now through the end of the festival on May 20, guests can embark on free 20-minute English Tea Garden Tour hosted by Twinings in the United Kingdom Pavilion. Having missed this tour during previous years, I was antsy to check it out the first week of this year’s festival.

First off, thank goodness I tried for the first tour time of the day. When I arrived Saturday just before the start of the 2pm tour, I was very dismayed to learn that it was already full. Full! I’ve never had this issue for the free resort tours, but this one has a lot more press and traffic thanks to the popularity of the Flower & Garden Festival.

Entrance to the English Tea Garden

Entrance to the English Tea Garden

Tip One: If you really want to catch the English Tea Garden Tour, sign up early! Tour sign up is inside The Tea Caddy shop in the UK Pavilion just across from the Yorkshire County Fish Shop. You must be signed up in advance to participate, and guests can only sign up for that day’s tours. There are 20 spaces per tour, and you can sign up as soon as World Showcase opens at 11am. Your whole party doesn’t need to be there to sign up.

Fortunately, I was able to snag one of the last spaces available for the 4pm tour. The Tea Caddy Cast Member took down my name and handed me a small laminated ticket for the 4pm tour. This ticket does not come back into play until the end of your tour, so hold on tight!

Left with 2 hours of free time, but too dang hot to walk anywhere, I decided to hang out in the Tea Garden anyway and take photos. As I hung during the early tour group, I noticed two things. One, it was really too bright for photos. And two, the folks in the tour group looked miserable and visibly sweaty. Which brings me to….

English Tea Garden Tour Group

English Tea Garden Tour Group

Tip Two: Don’t take the 2pm tour! It is just too hot! Unless you happen to visit Epcot on an unseasonably cool day, opt for the 4pm or 6:30pm tours. By 4pm the Garden was shady and perfectly comfortable. Come late April or May however, you might want to stick with the 6:30pm tour. The 2pm tour is only offered Friday-Sunday anyways to accommodate weekend crowds.

Once 4pm came around, I checked in with the tour guide on the backside of The Tea Caddy shop in the English Tea Garden. All 20 guests were there, which makes for a crowded tour in such a small area. Many non-ticketed guests wandered by and were dishearten to find out the tour required prior sign up. The guide did nothing to shoo away these hangers-on, but most left when they realized how crowded it was.

Our tour began with an introduction to the Twinings of London tea company, which sponsors both the tour and The Tea Caddy shop. The tour is a bit like an extended commercial for Twinings, which was disappointing at first. However, I quickly gained new respect for the company and the tour when I learned that it had been in business for 306 years and made many unique contributions to how we enjoy tea today. For instance, Thomas Twining created my personal favorite, Earl Grey Tea, for Charles Grey, the Second Earl Grey.

Earl Grey Tea Cup

Earl Grey Tea Cup

The rest tour of consisted of working our way around the garden, stopping in front of each of the giant tea cup planters. The first planter had Camellia Sinensis, the plant which most teas are made from. Black, white, green, and oolong teas all come from this one plant. The remaining 12 planters on the tour were each designed to showcase a different tea blend offered by Twinings.  If you’ve already visited in previous years, it’s worth noting that 5 of the tea blends featured are new to the garden in 2012.

At the end of the tour, we handed the guide our laminated tickets in exchange for a couple of tea packets. Cast Members also offered us fresh-made samples of two of their cold brew teas. These samples were made available to anyone in the shop after the tour ended, so I got to try all four varieties by hanging around for the 2pm & 4pm tours. I was very tempted to purchase some of the Lady Grey variety, which was super refreshing after standing I’d been standing in the sun all afternoon.

Overall, it was cute tour that gave me an opportunity to experience the Flower & Garden Festival beyond the landscaping.  I wouldn’t recommend it for first time guests or for those with limited time at Epcot. Since you need to go early to sign up and then come back later for the tour, it can definitely be a bit of a time suck if you were not already planning to be in that area. Also, it may not be the best choice for kids who may get bored standing around listening to the history of tea.

China Oolong Tea Cup

China Oolong Tea Cup

However, if you are looking for something new to experience at this year’s festival, the English Garden Tea Tour is a great choice. Not only is it free, but it gives you a new appreciation for one of the world’s most popular beverages. And if you’re a fan of British accents, this is a sure way get your fill since the tour is lead by international Cast Members. Just be sure to sign up early for one of the later tour slots and stay in the shade!

The Twinings Tea Garden Tour is only offered only during the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival (this year’s dates are March 7 to May 20, 2012). Monday through Thursday, tours are held at 4pm and 6:30pm. Friday through Sunday, tours are held at 2pm, 4pm and 6:30pm. You must register in advance on the day of your tour in The Tea Caddy shop in the UK Pavilion. The tour is open to all ages and lasts 20-30 minutes.

Have you tried the Twinings Tea Garden Tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Free Tour Series: Culinary Tour at Animal Kingdom Lodge

by on February 27, 2012

Boma Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

Boma Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

For the second installment of our Free Tour Series, I want to share with you my experiences on the Culinary Tour at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Like the Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour, the Lodge’s Culinary Tour is a true hidden gem.  While this free tour is short on time and trivia, it involves food samples from both of the resort’s table service restaurants, Boma and Jiko. You heard me – free food! (Now, do I have your attention?)

Animal Kingdom Lodge and Animal Kingdom Villas have what I consider to be the best Activity Calendar of all Disney’s resorts. The Culinary Tour is just one of the many free activities available to guests, but is by far the most delicious.

The Culinary Tour is a 30-minute tour of the Boma and Jiko restaurants with a few food samples thrown in. You do not need to be a resort guest to enjoy this tour, all guests are welcome. I have done this tour twice as a non-resort guest. Most recently, I did the tour solo just to make sure it was still up to snuff. And by “up to snuff”, I mean I wanted to make sure they were still handing out free food. (Priorities.)

Boma Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

Buffet at Boma

My tour group consisted of five other adults, several of whom had not yet dined at either restaurant. One of Boma’s Cultural Representatives greeted us at the restaurant podium right at 4pm.  Cultural Representatives are Cast Members who’ve come from Africa to work at Walt Disney World for a year.   The play a variety of roles at the resort, including working in the restaurants, serving as Savanna Guides or leading the many available resort activities.

Our Boma Cultural Representative was a young woman from South Africa.  She took us on a short tour of the dining area, explaining the story behind the decor. Boma is Swahili for “enclosure,” which is represented by the wooden walls used to section out the seating area and set the tone for the restaurant. Even though I had taken the tour before, I learned new things by taking it with a different Cultural Representative.

Zebra Dome at Boma

Zebra Dome at Boma

During the tour, the Boma staff are getting ready for the buffet to open at 4:30pm. Our Cultural Representative led us through the buffet line explaining the African influences of the various dishes. For anyone who is hesitant to try out Boma because it’s “too exotic,” I highly recommend taking this tour just to see first hand what they have to offer. Even the wilder sounding dishes turn out to be made of common ingredients in American cuisine. For example, the previously labeled “Zanzibar Katoga Soup” has been changed to “Zanzibar Crab Soup” since I took the tour in May 2011. Same soup, clearer label. (I’m sure those suffering from shellfish allergies are thankful.)

Speaking of the Zanzibar Whatever Soup, one of my Boma favorites, I got to try some on the tour! For our first sample, we choose one of the four soups that had been set out for dinner. The soup options depend on what is ready at the time of the tour, but we had the choice of the Zanzibar Crab, Chicken Corn Porridge, Lentil and Sausage, or Butternut Squash (which is sweet like pumpkin pie filling). The first time I took this tour, we ended up staying for an impromptu dinner at Boma just because of the soup samples. I channel the voice of Len Testa when I say “fabulous!

Jiko Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

Jiko Restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge

To wrap up the Boma portion, we each received one of the famous Zebra Domes from the dessert station. If you’re not familiar, Zebra Domes consist of an Amarula cream filling sitting on a thin chocolate cake base.  It is coated in white chocolate ganache, the bottom covered in tiny chocolate squares, and the top striped with dark chocolate.  Amarula, an African fruit liqueur, gives it a vauge alcoholic coffee taste.  I’m not a fan of anything with liqueur, but they certainly have a cult following.

Next, we met a Jiko Cultural Representative from Zimbabwe. She gave us a quick tour of the bar and main dining area, pointing out a Hidden Mickeys as well as the tributes to African culture. The Jiko portion of the tour was considerably shorter because we did not spend anytime discussing the food options since guests can read a menu, unlike for the buffet-style Boma.

Jiko, The Cooking Place, gets it’s name from the open view cooking area in the middle of the restaurant. Here, the six of us split two orders of the Tastes of Africa appetizer. This consisted of a trio of breads (papadum, whole wheat lavosh & flaxseed naan) and four hummus-style spreads of varying spiciness. While we ate, the Cultural Representative answered guests’ questions about the restaurant and her experiences working so far from home. I never felt rushed, but we were all done by the time they started seating dinner guests at 4:30pm.

Jiko Hidden Mickey

Jiko is home to one of the largest Hidden Mickeys on property.

All in all, I definitely recommend the Culinary Tour at Animal Kingdom Lodge.  It is a great opportunity to add a low key activity your day.  If you are staying elsewhere and looking to resort hop, I’d recommend paring the tour with an early meal at Jiko or Boma.  If you don’t mind eating early, you could probably get away without having an Advanced Dining Reservation and waiting to pick your restaurant based on the tour. Both will normally have space available right when they open at 4:30pm. You can also check out The Mara, the resort’s quick service option which has a few unique flatbreads and African inspired dishes in addition to standard quick service fare.

While you’re over at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, make sure to also check out the variety of African animals on the savannas outside the lobby.  Savanna guides are out there most of the time to answer guests’ questions about the wildlife.   Plus, if you linger long enough, they offer night vision animal viewing each evening at after dark past the pool on the far end of the resort.

Taste of Africa

Taste of Africa Appetizer at Jiko

However, I would not recommend going out of your way for this tour – particularly if you are relying on Disney transportation.  As fun as I thought it was, it is not worth dragging your kids out of the park and taking a bus over to taste soup.  Your kids may very well enjoy the tour, but the only children I’ve seen on it had to be taken away after 10 minutes because they were bored. Like most tours, the Culinary Tour is best for folks who have been to Disney a lot and are looking for a new experience. For those guests staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge or Animal Kingdom Villas, it is a good way to make the most of your visit.

The Culinary Tour is currently offered at 4 p.m. daily. No reservations are accepted, and all you need to do to attend is show up at the Boma podium in Animal Kingdom Lodge.  The tour is open to all ages and lasts 30 minutes.   As resort activities can change monthly, check the Resort Activites Calendar or call (407) 938-3000 to confirm the tour schedule.

Have you tried the Animal Kingdom Lodge Culinary Tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Free Tour Series: Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge

by on February 17, 2012

Wilderness Lodge Lobby

Beetle-eaten (already dead) wood is used throughout the resort.

There are over 20 tours available at Walt Disney World, and many of them come with hefty price tags (such as the $199 Holiday D-Lights tour). However, what many guests don’t realize is that there are also several free tours on property. I’m going to spend my next few reviews focusing on these complimentary tours, starting with my all-time favorite – Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge.

Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge is a free, 1-hour tour which helps guests learn about the design and backstory of the Wilderness Lodge Resort and the neighboring Wilderness Lodge Villas. You do not need to be a guest of the resort to take the tour; everyone is welcome.

One of the major differentiators between Disney resorts and offsite hotels is theming – those special Imagineering touches that help immerse guests in their home away from home. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is one of (if not the) most heavily themed resorts in Disney’s collection worldwide, making it the perfect setting for a tour.

The morning of my recent Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour, my friend and I showed up thinking we were old pros. We’d both done the tour before, but I wanted to experience it again to make sure it was still worth recommending. After standing in the wrong place for 10 minutes, we quickly discovered a re-review was certainly warranted – times they are a-changin’! Apparently, tour guests now meet in front of the Grand Canyon Fireplace in the Lodge’s Lobby at 9am.

Carolwood Pacific Room

The Wilderness Lodge Villas were inspired by the railroad hotels built out west during the 1940s Gold Rush.

Our tour group consisted of only us and one other lady who left halfway through, leaving us with a private tour. I’ve found this to be par for the course for the free resort tours, since mosts guests aren’t aware they exist. I personally love small groups because it gives me more opportunity to ask questions.

We were lucky enough to have the main tour guide, Jack, who returned to leading the tour in Spring 2011 after spending several years working on the Concierge Floor. Jack is one of the two Cast Members who lead the tour. He was trained by the late, great Ranger Stan, who led the tour before retiring in 2010.

We started off with a brief history of the Lodge and how it was inspired by Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and other National Park lodges. From the lobby, we headed over to the Wilderness Lodge Villas to visit the Carolwood Pacific Room. This room is dedicated to Walt’s fascination with steam trains. (If you want to know more about Walt Disney and trains, I highly recommend the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour at Magic Kingdom.)

Carolwood Pacific Room

Next, we walked back to the Wilderness Lodge lobby to the Territory Lounge. The Territory Lounge is home to one of my favorite items on display in Disney World – a U.S. flag from 1861. President Abraham Lincoln was the only president to serve under this 34-star flag.

We also went into the Artist Point restaurant – which doesn’t open until much later in the day. The restaurant overlooks the Lodge’s outdoor waterfall as well as Bay Lake. Here we learned about the restaurant’s furnishings and the large mural set above the main dining area, which includes a Hidden Mickey.

To wrap up, we made our way up to the 5th floor to get an aerial view of both the main lobby and the pool. Our tour ended promptly at 10am with a viewing of a Fire Rock Geyser eruption, which can be seen throughout the day, on the hour, near the shore of Bay Lake.

Grand Canyon Fireplace

This fireplace's stone is designed to reflect the strata of the Grand Canyon.

While a bit out of the way, I truly believe all Disney World visitors should take the time to experience this tour for themselves. The Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour’s content rivals that of any of the paid tours, and it manages to do so within an hour and for free. Free! This just might be the best deal on property. You don’t even need a park ticket!

At first, I was a bit hesitant about this tour because I knew the resort’s theme was strongly tied to American history, which I find painfully boring. However, it does a wonderful job of appealing to a wide variety of people. This tour is great for anyone interested in learning more about the Wilderness Lodge, Imagineering, architecture, or the history of the American West.

This tour is also a perfect way to spend a quiet morning away from the hustle and bustle of the parks. I love following it up with a late breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe, but you could also take a boat or hike over to Fort Wilderness for an early lunch at Trail’s End. Walt Disney World is so much more than the parks; little experiences like the Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge make it a truly unique vacation destination worth visiting over and over.

While this tour is open to all ages, I would not recommend it for children. You don’t walk very far, but there is a good bit of standing still and listening to facts. If your kids fall asleep in the American Adventure – they’re not going to appreciate having to stand for an hour-long history lesson without even seeing any smoking audio-animatronics. (Every time I take this tour, I have flashbacks to the American Adventure. Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir both came up in our discussion.)

Territory Lounge Light Box

The Territory Lounge is lined with light boxes, including this one representing Teddy Roosevelt.

Have you already tried the tour? Try it again! I’ve been on this tour twice with the same guide and learned at least 60% new information the second time around. I didn’t even think that was possible. We didn’t mention we had done the tour before, but the guide knows so much about the resort – there is always something new. However, it is worth noting that if you go during the holidays, the tour does not discuss the seasonal decorations at either the Lodge or the Villas.

Overall, I can’t recommend this tour enough. It is definitely worth the time and effort to get to the Wilderness Lodge, which is worthy of a visit even without the tour. I took my non-Disney fan sister on the tour a few months ago, and even she agreed that it was one of the best tours we’ve done to date.

The Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour is currently offered at 9 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the lobby.  No reservations are accepted, guests need only to show up to attend. The tour is open to all ages and lasts 1 hour. As resort activities can change monthly, check the Wilderness Lodge Resort Activites Calendar or call (407) 824-3200 to confirm the tour schedule.

Have you tried the Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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Sunrise Safari Tour Review

by on February 6, 2012

Recently I had the pleasure of embarking on the Sunrise Safari Breakfast Adventure in Animal Kingdom. The Sunrise Safari is an exclusive tour offering guests an extended 45-60 minute ride on the Kilimanjaro Safaris prior to park opening followed by a private breakfast buffet at Pizzafari.

Why is it so exclusive? Because this tour is available only to Concierge Level guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Furthermore, it’s only offered two days a week: Thursdays and Sundays at 7am. (Despite its name, the Sunrise Safari operates independently of the sunrise schedule.)

Unlike most Walt Disney World tours, this one is open to all ages. Current prices, including tax, are as follows, and no discounts are available:

  • Adults ages 10+: $65
  • Children ages 3-9: $32.50
  • Children under 3: Free

Native birds flock to eat food intended for the Kilimanjaro Safari animals

Tour guests must check in at the Kilimanjaro Club (the concierge lounge in Jambo House) between 6:30-7am the morning of the tour. Tour check in was hands down the worst part of our Sunrise Safari. Not only was it at an unholy hour, but the check in process turned into a bit of a mess.

The morning of our tour, there was a line filling the small space between the concierge desk and the elevators. The 57 people on our tour were all milling about trying to get tour wristbands and coffee and read the paper and sneak breakfast before the start of the tour. You get the picture. Since the Sunrise Safari is open to all ages, there were also plenty of parents trying to navigate double strollers through the tiny lounge.

Pro Tip: Send one member of your party to check in at 6:30am. That one person just needs to bring all the ticket media for everyone in your group, since separate park admission is required for the tour. One person can have your party’s tickets scanned and collect all the wristbands. There is no reason for everyone to go to the lounge.

What about concierge breakfast you say? Kilimanjaro Club breakfast does not start until 7am. At 7am, you should be down in the main lobby with your wristbands on. Fortunately, the Pizzafari breakfast buffet is worth the wait, I promise.

Once everyone was wristbanded and in the lobby, the guides led us out to a pair of resort transportation buses waiting to whisk us away to Animal Kingdom.

Our guides were the curator and a keeper from the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Erich, the keeper, was on our bus and kept us entertained on the quick trip backstage. We learned all about the four savannas shared between Jambo House and Kidani Village. The animals at the resort keep a different schedule than those in the park. Animals in the park are called to their pens at sundown and let out again in the morning in time for park opening. On the other hand, animals at the resort aren’t rounded up until 5:30am. They are fed and then released around noon, so guests can see savannas full of animals from check-in until well past bedtime.

As we drove backstage at Animal Kingdom, Erich pointed out various areas and shared fun facts about park operations. I’ve already been backstage at Animal Kingdom on both the Backstage Safari and Backstage Magic tours, but everything we heard on the Sunrise Safari was new information.

Even though we drove backstage, the Sunrise Safari is not really a backstage tour. Those tours are usually limited to guests ages 16+ and involve stops backstage. As soon as we disembarked the buses, we walked out onstage to the standard Kilimanjaro Safari entrance.

We stayed in our two bus groups and boarded the 2nd and 3rd safari vehicles of the day. Cast Members ran one vehicle through to check the path earlier that morning, but we were the first guests.

The draw of the Sunrise Safari is that there is no rush. A normal ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris takes about 20 minutes. On the Sunrise Safari, we took a good 45 minutes to slowly work our way through the savannas. Our driver turned off the normal Warden Wilson spiel and let the guide  do all the talking.

We made our way through the normal safari route, stopping at length wherever the animals were. While stopped, guests could stand up to get a better view and take pictures. The guide shared information about all the different species we saw, as well as answered guests’ questions. The information was more detailed than anything you could get onstage, but the guide was very mindful of his wording when talking about sensitive topics (e.g., death, reproduction) due to the little ears on our tour.

When the safari was over, we all made our way to Pizzafari for a private breakfast buffet. The chef even came out to introduce the breakfast offerings before we all dug in. By this time, the park was open to the general public, so all were free to eat and leave on their own schedules. This tour ends in the park, so guests have to use regular resort transportation to go to other parks or back to the Lodge.

The breakfast buffet had a good variety of hot and cold offerings, and we were able to take our time without feeling rushed. All the food was different from what is available on the standard Pizzafari breakfast menu, and our favorite item was the fritter-like banana french toast. Several guests had special dietary concerns and were provided turkey bacon and other offerings direct from the kitchen. We were also able to order sodas from the back instead of juice, tea, or coffee.

A flock of greater flamingos head flagging as part of their hilarious mating ritual

Was it worth it?

Definitelyif you already plan on staying Club Level at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If I ever find myself living the good life again, I would make sure my stay was timed so I could do the Sunrise Safari. Several of the guests in our group had done the tour before. The breakfast alone was worth half the price.

What if you weren’t planning on staying Club Level?

If you’re already considering Animal Kingdom Lodge, and for some miraculous reason it doesn’t cost more than $20 per person to upgrade to Club Level  - do it! I was able to snag a Club Level room mid-January for less than a Standard Savanna View room in October using the same discount.

Otherwise, consider taking the Backstage Safari tour offered to all guests ages 16 and older. It is currently priced at $72 (without tax or discounts) and is a great alternative Animal Kingdom tour experience. The Backstage Safari takes guests to several backstage locations and also includes a private (albeit shorter) Kilimanjaro Safari ride during normal park hours.

Breakfast buffet spread at Pizzafari

If you do decide to try the Sunrise Safari, make sure you plan ahead. It is advisable to book early as the tour routinely fills to its capacity of 64 guests. Guests with an existing Animal Kingdom Lodge Club Level reservation can book the Sunrise Safari up to 180 days in advance by calling the Itinerary Planning Office at (407) 938-4755 (9am-6pm ET). If you have any mobility or dietary concerns, be sure to mention them when booking and when checking in for your resort stay.

I really can’t express how pleased we both were with our tour. It was most certainly up the caliber of other Walt Disney World tour offerings and presented a good value for those already planning to stay Club Level. I truly hope I have the opportunity to take the Sunrise Safari again in the future.

Have you tried the Sunrise Safari?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

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An Exotic Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway

by on February 3, 2012

This article comes to us from Unofficial Guide researcher Darcie Vance. Darcie has contributed to the Unofficial Guide for seven years.

January marked the opening of the new Exotic Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway. I have to admit my love of fast and expensive cars comes from watching years of the UK show “Top Gear”. After booking my experience I jumped around my room yelling “Power,” and practiced other fun things to say that would make Jeremy Clarkson proud! However other Top Gear fans should note: no cars are harmed in the Exotic Driving Experience.

The experience allows guests to drive some of the most expensive luxury cars on the market today. Drivers can choose from five different supercars: Ferrari 458 Italia ($389), Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera ($339), Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 ($299), Audi R8 ($269), or Porsche 997 S ($199). Two laps inside one of the cars as a passenger can also be purchased for $99. Annual Pass holders and DVC members are currently eligible for discounts on the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

The new track that these expensive machines go around is a combination of a straightaway and fast right and left hand turns. The course is designed to allow drivers to accelerate to high speeds and also test the cars braking and handling abilities. Each driver will be driving a total of six miles in the car. Keep this in mind before booking! Personally six miles was not enough time to fully enjoy or get used to driving my Ferrari for the day.

I was also surprised to learn that around 30 people are scheduled to drive the cars during the same reservation time. This means up to five people will be using the same car during your experience. There is no guarantee you will be the first to drive the car you picked. Each person will spend around 12 minutes in the car actually driving, so if you are in the first group of people to drive then your experience is over first without all the waiting around. For some reason I had delusions of grandeur thinking I would be the only one driving my car at the time of my appointment. Luckily I was the first in my Ferrari so I did not have to wait around before I could drive.

Before you jump inside the car of your dreams you are shown a short video and given a few safety instructions. For those who do not know how to drive a stick shift do not worry! Each car shifts without a clutch and uses a gear shifter on the steering wheel, or as Jeremy would say “flappy panel gear box”. The car can also be turned into automatic mode and a driver can navigate without using the steering wheel shifter. I decided to drive in automatic so it was one less thing to worry about while putting the pedal to the metal.

The video also warns that the speedometers in the car have been covered so drivers are not focused on how fast they are going, but how the car feels and reacts to their actions. This is the part of the training session where most of the audience will sigh and be unhappy. (I figured it was impossible to drive a fast car and not know and be proud of how fast you are going!)

After the video and pep talk are over it is time to walk out to the track and hear the lineup of who is driving first. Once it is your turn to get into your exotic car they fit you with a helmet and escort you to the car. While inside the car you will have a driving instructor in the front seat at all times to help you navigate both the car and the course. The car is also equipped with a video device that will record your every move while you drive, so be sure to smile and say things your mother would approve of…. You are on Disney property after all! (But feel free to yell “Power” each time you give the car gas…it is fun and the driving instructors seem to really like it!)

While driving there is no racing the other people or cars that are on the track. The experience makes you feel like you have the whole track to yourself. There are track officials who monitor the track and make sure each car is a safe distance away from each other. This is for the safety of the drivers as well as those beautiful cars.

The hardest part of the course was when my instructor told me to veer off the course and go back to park the car! Once the 12 minutes of fun are over you are invited to see your ride video inside. This high tech ride video will show you the course, your driving video and a diagram of how fast you were going at all times. The video can be purchased for an extra $89 for a CD or $99 for a gig stick. The video is the only way for a driver to find out the exact speed and how fast they went around the track. The experience is just that, an experience with no proof of what you have done unless you are willing to buy the video or pictures.

Also note that the pictures or video must be purchased within the two hours of your driving experience. All pictures and videos are deleted after each session is over. So make 100% sure you have bought everything you might want before you walk out the door, there is no changing your mind once things are deleted.

When I brag to people and tell them I was able to drive a Ferrari they always ask, “Was it worth the price.” I always answer with a yes and a no. The car is something that I would never be able to afford to own so on that note it was cheaper to pay $389 to drive it for 12 minutes. However I felt I did not have enough time in the car. Because I was worried about how to handle all of the turns and curves on the track I was just getting used to the course and how to drive the car when it was over. If there were a few more laps involved and I got to spend at least 30 min in the car…I would say YES it was worth the money. I also did not like the fact that if you want to drive more than one car you must pay full rate for each car driven. I wish there was some discount available to those that are already paying hundreds of dollars for six miles of fun. The staff was top notch and very helpful. My driving instructor was calm and let me do all the driving without much interruption. They have a great set up going over there; I just wish it was either a longer experience, or a little less to pay.

I also learned that The Walt Disney World speedway is open to the public and free to enter during business hours (which vary). Once inside you can ask questions or watch others enjoy their Exotic Experience. The speedway also allows each driver to bring spectators along free of charge. The spectators are allowed to take pictures and their own videos as their driver is going around the track. There is a special viewing area where spectators can watch the cars handle the hairpin turns. This is a great way to get free pictures and have someone to talk to if you have to wait for other people to drive your car first.

Each driver must be 18 years of age and have a valid driver’s license to participate. For more information or to book an Experience visit ExoticDriving.com or call 1-855-822-0149.

The speedway can answer questions but is not able to book driving experiences. Call 407-939-0130 for questions of when the racetrack is open for spectators.

The Walt Disney World Speedway is located near the Polynesian Resort and the Ticket and Transportation Center. Follow the signs to the Magic Kingdom and let the theme park toll attendant know you are there for the Richard Petty Driving Experience to avoid the charge for Magic Kingdom parking. Signs will direct you to the speedway, which has its own designated parking. Participants should arrive at least 30 minutes before their scheduled experience.

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Epcot Flower & Garden Festival Preview

by on February 1, 2012

It’s almost time to stop and smell the roses at Walt Disney World. The Epcot Flower & Garden Festival is taking root at the park from March 7 to May 20, 2012. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this will be the best Festival ever.

BIG Plants

My most vivid childhood memory of Disney is seeing a giant topiary hippo and wondering, “How do they DO that?” I still find these larger-than-life living sculptures endlessly fascinating. More than 100 topiaries are scheduled to be on display this year, including plants representing characters from Toy Story (strawberry-scented Lotso!) and Cars.

HGTV Presenters

HGTV is again sponsoring the festival, lending many of its TV personalities to the proceedings. Here’s who you’ll be able to see:

  • John Gidding, HGTV’s Curb Appeal: The Block—presenting March 9 – 11
  • Sabrina Soto, HGTV’s The High/Low Project—presenting March 16 – 18
  • Jason Cameron, DIY Network’s Desperate Landscapes and Man Caves—presenting March 23 – 25
  • Camille Styles, HGTV.com Entertainment contributor—presenting March 30 – April 1
  • Dan Faires, HGTV.com’s DanMade, Fan Favorite HGTV Design Star Season 5—presenting April 6 – 8
  • Brandon Johnson, host of HGTV’s My Yard Goes Disney—presenting April 13 – 15
  • Meg Caswell, HGTV’s Meg’s Great Rooms—presenting April 20 – 22
  • Monica Pedersen, HGTV Dream Home Tour 2012 and Designed to Sell—presenting April 27 – 29
  • Antonio Ballatore, HGTV’s The Antonio Treatment—presenting May 4 – 6
  • Genevieve Gorder, HGTV’s Dear Genevieve and HGTV Design Star—presenting May 18 – 20

The only repeat presenters this year are Gorder and Gidding, so there should be lots of new material for annual guests.

Flower Power

Also keeping to tradition is the return of the Flower Power concert series, with artists that will make you nostalgic and your kids confused. During the Festival you can hear:

  • March 9 to 11, Jose Feliciano, Light My Fire
  • March 16 to 18, Starship Starring Mickey Thomas, We Built This City
  • March 23 to 25, The Guess Who, American Woman
  • March 30 to April 1, The Spinners, Cupid
  • April 6 to 8, Chubby Checker & The Wildcats, The Twist
  • April 13 to 15, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Good Thing
  • April 20 to 22, The Turtles Featuring Flo & Eddie, Happy Together
  • April 27 to 29, Chuck Negron Formerly of Three Dog Night, Black & White
  • May 4 to 6, The Orchestra Starring Former Members of ELO, Don’t Bring Me Down
  • May 11 to 13, Herman’s Hermits Starring Peter Noone, I’m Henry VIII, I Am
  • May 18 to 20, Davy Jones, I’m a Believer

The new performers this year are Three Dog Night and ELO. Personally, I’m always most excited to see Davy Jones because it takes me back to the days when I wished I was Marcia Brady. Sigh.

Shows are on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 5:15 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. in the America Gardens Theatre.

Bushels of Gardening Information

In addition to the HGTV presenters, there will be gardening experts making scheduled appearances each day at the Greenhouse Stage in Festival Headquarters in Future World. Many of these presenters will be representatives from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. Along with planned lectures and demonstrations, experts will be available from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day to chat and take individual guest questions. This is a great opportunity to get your children interested in gardening; they will have a chance to have an adult expert take time with them.

The standard gardening talks will be supplemented by weekends dedicated to special topics:

  • Art in the Garden Weekend: See nature through the eyes of “plein air” artists and behold one-of-a-kind works of art. At World Showcase from March 23 through 25, 2012.
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Specialists: Meet the experts and learn about incredible indigenous insects that are part of our world. At the Festival Center from April 13 through 15, 2012.
  • Florida Federation of Garden Clubs: See amazing arrangements that defy description. At the Festival Center from April 27 through 29, 2012.
  • Fresh from Florida Weekend: Discover the bounty of Florida—from Apalachicola to Zellwood! At the Festival Center from May 4 through 6, 2012.

Special, Fun, and Everything Else Under the Sun

Among the other offerings at Epcot during the Festival are:

  • Bambi’s Butterfly House, presented by HGTV: Experience hundreds of native butterflies and see some of your favorite characters from Bambi, presented in topiary. Located at Imagination Walkway.
  • Sustainable Beauty, presented by HGTV: This unique garden showcases sustainable gardening ideas that you can try at home.
  • English Tea Garden, presented by Twinings of London Tea: Discover the art and history of tea blending during a 20-minute tour of this elegant English Tea Garden, featuring classic tea blends and new herbal teas for 2012. Tours are held Monday through Thursday at 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., and Friday through Sunday at 2:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Register for your guided tour at The Tea Caddy. Located at the United Kingdom Pavilion.
  • Bonsai Collection—located at the Japan Pavilion.
  • Festival Blooms, Presented by Syngenta—located at Future World East and West Lake.
  • Children’s Garden, Presented by Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association
  • Orchids—located at the Mexico Pavilion.
  • Spice and Herb Garden—located at the Morocco Pavilion.
  • Let’s Get Moving: Unique play structures for ages 2 through 5. Located at Imagination Walkway.
  • Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden: Explore the garden world of Pixie Hollow and find some of your favorite fairy characters presented in topiary. Play structures are designed for ages 2 to 5. Located at Test Track Walkway.
  • Sounds of Nature, Presented by Nature Conservancy: Relax as you listen to the soothing sounds of nature. Located next to Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden at Test Track Walkway.

The Dirt

Access to the Flower & Garden exhibits and activities is included with your regular Epcot park admission ticket. There is a supplemental Epcot Gardens of the World Tour available in which a Disney horticulturist hosts a 3-hour, guided tour designed especially for garden enthusiasts. The Gardens of the World Tour is available Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Register at Guest Relations or call (407) WDW-TOUR. Cost is $60.00, including tax, and theme park admission is required. The tour is available to Guests ages 16 and up only.

So folks, are you blooming with excitement about the Festival? Did you visit the Festival last year? Do you think Disney rose to the occasion? Do you like the offerings this year, or do you think they’re yucca? Do you carrot all? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks to Tom Bricker for many of the brilliant photos of last year’s festivities.

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Holiday D-Lights Tour Review

by on December 21, 2011

Of all the tours currently offered at Walt Disney World, none seems to be of questionable value more so than the seasonal Holiday D-Lights.

The Holiday D-Lights tour allows guests age 16 and older the unique opportunity to see Walt Disney World’s three major holiday events across three parks in one night: Cinderella Castle Lighting at Magic Kingdom, Osborne Lights at Hollywood Studios, and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. In addition, Disney adds in food and visit backstage to create a whirlwind night of holiday magic.

Holiday D-Lights is the most exclusive standard tour offered at Walt Disney World. Available only 9 nights in 2011, there were only 360 guest spaces available on this seasonal tour.

With this in mind, I made sure to book my space as soon as the Candlelight celebrity narrators were announced in June.  Since a Candlelight Processional viewing is part of the tour, I wanted to make sure I got my whole $199 worth. (Note: AAA Diamond Cardholders, Annual Passholders and DVC Members are eligible for a 15% discount. Disney VISA Cardholders receive 20% off when booking with their Disney VISA.)

Since Holiday D-Lights was only offered Monday-Wednesday for the three weeks after Thanksgiving, there weren’t many narrators to choose from. I ended up settling on a “Who’s That” as most of the big names are reserved for weekends.

Disney released an updated celebrity narrator schedule in November. As soon as I noticed my beloved Neil Patrick Harris was performing on a Monday, I called and rescheduled my tour date. (Most Disney tours can be canceled or rescheduled up to two days in advance.) Given the limited number of tour nights, I was surprised there was still availability.

Like all the Disney Institute-lead tours, Holiday D-Lights guests check in outside of Epcot in front of Guest Relations to the far right of the turnstiles. By the time I arrived at 3:45pm for the 4pm tour, the rest of the group had already shown their IDs and received their name tags and wristbands. It is important that everyone in your party brings a government-issued photo ID to check in for the tour.

After one last call for folks to use the restrooms, all 40 of us (a full tour) plus our two guides headed off to board a Disney Cruise Line bus that would serve as our chariot for the evening.

Wilderness Lodge – Whispering Canyon Café

Our first stop was the Wilderness Lodge. This was the first of several changes from previous seasons of Holiday D-Lights. 2011 was the tour’s third year of operation, and the food offering has changed each year. We started our tour off with a family-style all you care to eat meal at the Whispering Canyon.  Our meal included cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, fries, potato wedges, sausage, chicken, barbeque ribs and endless soda or tea. (Note: Guests with dietary concerns should alert the phone agent when booking the tour. Also be sure to remind the tour guides when checking in on the day of so they can make sure alternative food is available when you arrive.)

The food at Whispering Canyon was delicious as always, and I was very glad I was prepared to eat a full meal at 4:30pm that day. In previous years, Holiday D-Lights guests had a light buffet later in the tour. The guide said this year’s meal change was due to guest feedback saying that the buffet food wasn’t filling enough.

Event and Decorating Support

We headed backstage to the Event and Decorating Support warehouse straight after dinner (another schedule change from previous years). This was the first stop where we needed to use the audio headset provided to us earlier. These headsets allowed everyone to hear the guides no matter where we were standing.

Event and Decorating Support teams are responsible for the decorations for over 3,400 events a year. Not only do they handle events in Florida, but they are responsible for Disney events world-wide. They do work for corporations as well as individuals who contact Disney wanting to have Disney decorations for their events. Patrick, part of the Event and Decorating Support team, mentioned that their biggest private client is a grandfather who spends $3.5-4 million a year for his family’s Christmas celebration. That’s just for decorations!

We didn’t get to walk around very much in the warehouse, but they did have a small photo op set up exclusively for the Holiday D-Lights tour. This is noteworthy since photography backstage is an explicit no-no at Disney. On the way out, Patrick gave us all Disney Parks water bottles.

Magic Kingdom – Cinderella’s Holiday Wish Castle Lighting

Outside the Magic Kingdom, we had to stop at a security checkpoint where a guard boarded the bus and checked our bags just like they do when you enter through normal guest entrances. We did this before entering each park’s backstage area.

We entered the Magic Kingdom from a parking lot located to the right side of Main Street, U.S.A. We walked up and stopped at the entrance to the Hub just in time to see the Castle stage show lighting ceremony. (This was a major improvement from previous years, when tour guests viewed the Castle lighting from the Noodle Station near the smoking section.)

After the Castle lighting, we stopped below the 65 foot Town Square Christmas tree. Here the guide gave us a history on the tree as well as some trivia about what it takes to decorate the Magic Kingdom for the holidays. Magic Kingdom’s tree does not go up until after the taping of the Christmas Day parade. If you take Holiday D-Lights the first week it’s offered, the tree will not be in place yet.

As we boarded the bus, we each received a snowman-shaped crisped rice treat for dessert. On our drive over to the Studios, we watched a short video showing the castle lights at 4 of the 5 Disney castles across the globe. Disneyland Tokyo is the only park that does not have castle lights.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

We headed over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights next. Each year, Disney swathes the Streets of America with millions of Christmas lights that “dance” in time with holiday music. The original lights belonged to Jennings Osborne of Little Rock, Arkansas. Once Jennings was court-ordered to take them down, they found their way to Disney.

Nowadays, the original lights have all been replaced with LEDs, but the sheer magnitude of the display remains. This was probably the most informative of the park stops, as the guide spent time explaining the history of the lights and pointing out little details and tributes throughout the display. We even found the famed purple Halloween cat that is hidden in a different place each year.

We stayed long enough to see two cycles of the lights dancing (which happens every 5-7 minutes), before we had to be off to make of final stop. While this tour needed to keep to a strict schedule to fit everything into one night, it never really felt that rushed.

Epcot – Candlelight Processional

Backstage at Epcot, we passed by the tent housing all the choir groups getting ready for Candlelight Processional. Each day, there are three shows generating over 800 choir robes that have to be washed and returned for the next night.

We entered the World Showcase from behind the American Adventure. This was our last stop, so everyone was instructed to take their bags with them. The guides did offer a ride to front of Epcot after Candlelight if anyone needed it, but everyone opted to stay in the park for Illuminations (an added bonus for the tour since we were not using park admission.)

As indicated in reviews from years past, our Holiday D-Lights Candlelight Processional seating left a lot to be desired. We sat to the far left of the stage pretty far back. Unfortunately, a pole blocked the celebrity narrator. I came to see Neil Patrick Harris, darnit!

I was able to scoot around some to take photos, but the pole was definitely a distraction. As far as tour content goes, our seating location is my only gripe about the tour. I see no reason why dining package and standby guests are receiving better seats than the Holiday D-Lights tour participants who paid $199.

After the performance, we all met up in the lobby of the American Adventure. Our guides bid us farewell and handed out commemorative tour pins. The pins for the holiday tours change every year, so the 2011 Holiday D-Lights tour pin was a limited edition run of 360. (At this point, the pin collectors in the group actually started hopping up in down in excitement.)

Our tour dispersed just in time to find a spot to view the 9:30pm Illuminations with the Holiday Tag. A perfect end to (mostly) lovely evening.

Overall, I really enjoyed the tour – but at $199 for 5 hours, I can’t help but question its value.  The only tour more expensive is Backstage Magic, which is $229 for 7.5 hours. Backstage Magic takes you to 5 backstage locations, and Holiday D-Lights only takes you to Event and Decorating Support. Both tours include a meal at Whispering Canyon and don’t require separate park admission.

Unless you’re in town for a short time and want to see all 3 holiday events in one night, you probably already have some form of admission. Even if you’re only in the parks for 2 days, you could feasibly see the Castle Lighting and Osborne Lights in one night and Candlelight Processional on the other. With the money saved skipping the tour, you could even book one of the Candlelight dining packages with reserved seating.

If money is not a concern, Holiday D-Lights is a good time. If you do decide to try out the tour in 2012, here are my top tips:

  1. Book early and keep your eye on the Candlelight Processional celebrity narrator schedule for changes.
  2. When choosing a date, keep in mind that the Magic Kingdom’s Christmas tree will not be installed until after the taping of the Christmas parade (usually around the first weekend in December).
  3. If you have dietary concerns, alert the phone agent when booking.
  4. Be prepared for an early dinner (but bring along a snack just in case the tour changes again for 2012).
  5. Bring adequate clothing/rain gear depending on the weather. Disney won’t cancel the tour for rain or cold, so be prepared or be miserable. Bad weather can make Candlelight Processional the longest hour of your life.
  6. If you’re into photography, bring a telephoto lens for the Candlelight Processional. You’ll need it to get any decent shots of the celebrity narrator from the tour’s seating area.

Have you tried the Holiday D-Lights tour?  Do you plan on trying it out in 2012? Let us know what you think!

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