Disney Tours

Yuletide Fantasy Tour Review

by on November 21, 2012

The Yuletide Fantasy Tour is about holiday traditions around the world with a little bit of Disney holiday traditions sprinkled in. It is open to guests age 16 and older and is only available select days in November and December. In 2012 it is offered Monday through Saturday at 9am from November 26 to December 29. There are a few exceptions to this schedule: the tour is not offered on 11/30, 12/1, or 12/25. This review is based on the 2011 tour, so some changes may have occurred for the 2012 season.

Guests on Yuletide Fantasy TourLike the Holiday D-Lights tour, Yuletide Fantasy is a multi-park tour offered by the Disney Institute. Since separate park admission is not required, Disney Institute tours usually have higher prices than single park tours such as Keys to the Kingdom.

At $84 (without discounts or tax) for 3.5 hours, the Yuletide Fantasy tour may look like a losing proposition compared with other tour options. For example, the 4.5-5 hour UnDISCOVERed Future World tour is only $54.

When reviewing tours, I place a lot of emphasis on value: not just the cost of the tour or the use of a ticket day, but what you receive in exchange for forfeiting precious vacation hours. As I set out for my Yuletide Fantasy Tour, I kept that in mind since a 9am tour means giving up valuable early morning park time.

Our group met outside Guest Relations to the far right of Epcot’s turnstiles. By the time 9am rolled around, all 34 folks in my group had arrived, signed in, and received name badges. Then we were off to the tour bus. In addition to providing a welcomed seat between stops, the bus also served as our locker.

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Adventures by Disney, Basic Questions Answered

by on July 18, 2012

As much as I absolutely ADORE the Disney theme parks and the Disney Cruise Line, if I were forced to swear upon a cup of Dole Whip, I might have to confess that my favorite part of the Disney Destinations family is now Adventures by Disney. In 2009, I went to Costa Rica with AbD. In 2010, I sent my parents and oldest daughter to Ireland with AbD. In 2011, I saw several European countries with the combined Barcelona Escape and Mediterranean Magic AbD trips. As you’re reading this, I’m off on the AbD Quest for the West to Yellowstone and environs. Next month, I’ll be on an AbD Germany excursion. And in 2013, I’ll being seeing China and Hong Kong with Adventures by Disney.

Um, can you tell I’m hooked?

The view from my hotel bed in Costa Rica.

To date, Touring Plans has not had much coverage of the Adventures by Disney part of Disney travel. And frankly, we’re not sure if Touring Plans readers are interested, so this is little test post. I’m here to answer some of the basic questions about AbD. If you want more, let us know. Or if this seems too far afield from your regularly scheduled Disney parks planning, let us know that too.

And now, on with the show …

What exactly is Adventures by Disney?

AbD is luxury group touring to destinations around the world, with Disney-trained guides. The key words in that sentence are “luxury,” “group,” and “Disney-trained.” Currently there are trips to destinations North, Central, and South America; Asia; Africa; Australia; and Europe.

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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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