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SATURDAY SIX: Six Surprises of Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort

by on April 5, 2014

SS_dayThis week’s SATURDAY SIX covers Six Surprises of Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. When Universal broke ground in January of 2013 for its first ever value resort, not too much was known about what guests would get. There were pieces of concept art, but in the theme park world those have to be taken with a grain of salt as they can often be more of an artistic interpretation than reality. For example, I’m relatively confident the Disney Springs we end up getting won’t exactly look like the one we were promised. However, at a fan meet for the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast last year I was in the audience for a presentation by Russ Dagon, the project director for Cabana Bay. Russ talked about the new things Cabana Bay would be bringing to the Universal family of hotels (including a lower price point and the first ever family suites) but stressed that the concept art we were looking at was pretty much photo realistic. Turns out he was right. Everything in the concept art was there when I walked into Cabana Bay on its grand opening (Monday, March 31, 2014): the outrageously large lobby area, the gigantic representation of an old style diving platform (which houses a water slide in the pool area), and even the ’50s and ’60s era cars outside the front of the resort for photo ops. After walking around Cabana Bay, it became apparent there were a lot of things this resort brought with it that we weren’t told about ahead of time. Today we present six of these surprises…

# 6 – Sonic Fill

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Walt Disney World took a lot of criticism last year when it replaced its old refillable mug program with Rapid Fill. Using an RFID chip inside the mug (or paper cup), Rapid Fill only dispenses soda on days that guests have paid for. Universal hotels have never had a refillable mug program, so it was definitely a surprise to see the debut of Sonic Fill at Cabana Bay. Sonic Fill works exactly like Rapid Fill: you pay for the amount of time you want (from $8.99 for one day up to $17.99 for length of stay), and you can use the mug to fill up at any drink station in Bayliner Diner. The great surprise is that not only does Cabana Bay have the regular Coke soda stations we are used to seeing at Disney resorts, but it has 8 Coke Freestyle machines in the Bayliner Diner and 2 more upstairs at Galaxy Bowl. These Coke Freestyle machines can be used with Sonic Fill and promise over 100 drink choices.

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In the Parks with Morgan: Festival of Fantasy

by on March 20, 2014

For the first time in more than a decade, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World has a new parade. Festival of Fantasy debuted on Sunday, March 9, 2014, and I have a ton of great photos for you from the parade, as well as a little background, some viewing tips, and my impressions of the newest addition to the Kingdom’s entertainment.

First, some general information. Festival of Fantasy begins at 3:00 p.m. in Frontierland and travels in front of the castle and down Main Street, U.S.A. This parade will be highly susceptible to rainy days because of the elaborate costumes and mechanics, so expect that if it’s raining at all, Festival of Fantasy will be cancelled. The FastPass+ viewing area for this parade is in front of Cinderella Castle in the inner ring of the hub. It’s a great place to watch from, but not the best place to photograph from as it puts you very close to the floats and makes it hard to get them in their entirety. Guests who have attended the parade in the FastPass+ area have reported that they were pleased with the number of people they watched with and didn’t feel crowded. Anna and Elsa are on a spinning platform with Tiana and Naveen. If the platform is still for the parade, which it has been both times I’ve watched, Anna and Elsa will only be visible from the Country Bears side of the street in Frontierland and the Emporium side on Main Street, U.S.A.  The Tangled float has a lot going on, but it’s easiest to see the acrobatics taking place on the float from the Tom Sawyer Island side of the street in Frontierland and the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor side of Main Street, U.S.A. While the parade is very large, guests are allowed to sit on the curbs with their feet tucked under them.

And now we’re going float-by-float, so let’s get started!

First up? The Princess Garden float. This float is actually inspired by a Tokyo Disneyland float of the same name. Our version features Beauty and the beast, Tiana and Naveen, and as a special surprise, Anna and Elsa and Olaf.

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The Princess Garden float and accompanying dancers.

Portions of the float rotate to reveal the sets of characters. Most popular according to guest reaction? You guessed it: Anna and Elsa and Olaf. Anna appears in her coronation dress on this float, the only place you can see her in this dress at Walt Disney World right now.

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Anna, Elsa, and Olaf on the Princess Garden float

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Our Pop Century Resort Page Gets A New Look

by on March 4, 2014

We’ve added more coverage of Disney’s Pop Century Resort to the site, including new photos and these sections:Pop Century Icon

  • How Pop compares to Disney’s All-Star and Art of Animation resorts
  • What’s in a room (and what’s not in a room), including photos
  • Handicap-accessible room options
  • The difference between a Standard and Preferred room, and Standard and Pool views
  • Where to check in, purchase tickets, and make dining reservations
  • Photos and details on Pop’s pools and playgrounds, including handicap accessibility
  • Dining and Restaurants, from the Everything Pop food court menus, to refillable mugs, to in-room pizza delivery
  • Your transportation options, including Magical Express, Disney’s typical bus schedule to the theme parks, when to drive your own car, and getting to Universal
  • Shopping and recreation choices, including Pop’s 1.28-mile jogging trail route
  • Babysitting and in-room child care options and prices
  • Extensive comments from readers who have stayed at Pop Century

We’ve also greatly expanded the Good Rooms and Not So Good Rooms section, with photos and recommendations on the best rooms (and their views!) from each building.

Take a look at the new page, and leave comments and suggestions below. Thanks!

 

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SATURDAY SIX: Six Reasons To Check Out Universal’s Mardi Gras 2014

by on February 22, 2014

This week’s SATURDAY SIX covers Six Reasons To Check Out Universal’s Mardi Gras Grand Celebration. The Universal Orlando Resort knows how to throw a party and Mardi Gras is their wildest celebration of the year. Universal’s Mardi Gras brings in big name musical acts, authentic New Orleans food, and a party atmosphere like no other and on top of it all the price is included in the price of regular admission.  If you need more reasons than that to attend, here are an additional six.

Please remember to click on any picture to see the full size version.

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Daughtry (photo courtesy of Chad Evetts)

# 6 – The Concerts

The music acts that Universal books for the Mardi Gras Grand Celebration are second-to-none in the theme park concert world.  While the Epcot Flower Power series of concerts will be featuring acts like Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Village People and Chubby Checker – people  you may have literally heard a thousand times before – this year’s Mardi Gras concert lineup includes a mix of classic and contemporary artists. Daughtry, Barenaked Ladies, Weezer and The Roots are just a few of the musical acts that will be headlining this year’s event. There’s also country stars like Gavin Degraw, classic rock groups like Foreigner and Lynyrd Skynryd, and even a Christian rock band with Skillet. Whether it’s Nelly, Collective Soul, or Huey Lewis and the News, you can pretty much count on Universal delivering an act you want to see perform.

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SATURDAY SIX: Six Reasons We Love Be Our Guest Restaurant

by on February 15, 2014

DSC_1118This week’s SATURDAY SIX looks at Six Reasons We Love Be Our Guest Restaurant. With the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train inching towards completion later this year, today we’re going to look at what can be considered the “E-Ticket” of New Fantasyland, Be Our Guest Restaurant. While the Magic Kingdom is the gold standard of the theme park world for meet and greets, dark rides, parades, night time spectaculars and even themed bathrooms,  one area that we all agree needs some improvement is the quality dining. Be Our Guest not only starts to fill that void, but you could make a strong case that it is the best themed restaurant inside any theme park. The Beast’s castle “weenie” can be seen from far away and the closer you get the more impressive everything becomes.

Today we’re going to look at six reasons we love Be Our Guest and why it’s our favorite restaurant experience in WDW. We should add that this article represents the dinner experience, as the lunch experience can be quite different. Some would argue you can get much better value with the lunch menu, but we’ll save that debate for another day.

Please remember to click on any picture to see the full size version.

# 6 – The Beast

Our host for the evening is Beast himself, and throughout the night he does a walkthrough of the three dining rooms (always to a round of applause), and is afterward available for pictures at his study when you’re done with your meal. The design work on this character is impressive and watching him walk through the restaurant is fun. The photo-op at the end of the meal is a nice cherry on top of the sundae and like many of the recent Disney meet n’ greets, the setting for the picture is gorgeous.

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The View from Every Disney Hotel Room: Yacht and Beach Club Resorts

by on January 10, 2014

Late last year we launched Hotel Room Views, a new part of TouringPlans.com that shows the view you’ll see at every hotel room in Walt Disney World (more than 30,000 photos). Today we’ve added Disney’s Yacht Club and Beach Club Resorts.

The first page shows you a map of the entire resort. On the left side is a set of filter options you can use to find exactly the room you want:

  • Room Type Includes Disney’s description of the view, and the bed type in the room (if we know it). Yacht and Beach have a wide variety of bed and view options.Yacht Club Map View
  • Walking Distance to Lobby Useful for cutting down on walking time
  • Walking Distance to Transportation Allows you to find rooms near bus stops and boats
  • Floors If you prefer ground or upper-floor rooms, you can specify that here
  • Sound Level Helps find the quiet rooms at the resort
  • Accessibility Identifies ADA-accessible rooms by feature, including roll-in showers and more
  • Our Picks Shows only the rooms which the Unofficial Guide has determined to be the best at the resort.
  • Prices You can also filter by price by entering the date you’re checking in.

Choose any of these options and click “Show Matching Rooms.” The map will highlight in red all of the buildings which have rooms matching your options.

Click on one of the highlighted buildings and you’ll see a map of all of the rooms in that building. Rooms which match your filter options will be highlighted in red:

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The Most Highly-Coveted, Heavily Sought-After Disney Awards: TouringPlans’ 2013 Planies!

by on January 5, 2014

Last year’s “Planies” were riddled with controversy, with approximately .01% of readers agreeing with the awards. It was like that year that the Academy awarded How Green Was My Valley Best Picture, snubbing King of the Zombies (and some other film) in the process. Still, a Disney executive excitedly collected these Planies, even if doing so under great protest and scrutiny from fans. Yessir, Mr. Eisner is now proudly displaying them all on the mantel of his Colorado home!

This year, venerable dude Guy will be joining in to assist in the selection of the Planies. Guy has an extensive knowledge of dining, the Omnibus, and Captain EO, which are basically the key credentials necessary here at TouringPlans for selecting any awards.

Although anyone who disagrees with the picks here is obviously wrong, it’s worth noting that these aren’t “official” picks of the TouringPlans staff. So if anyone on the staff or any of you readers want to disagree (and be wrong) as to the winner of any of these awards, feel free to share your winners in the comments.

Now, with the winners! (Insert drumroll.)

Best New AttractionMystic Manor, Hong Kong Disneyland

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When Radiator Springs Racers won this award last year, I said that there was no competition. That’s true again this year, as Mystic Manor sets the new standard for Disney attractions. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe this attraction (that bears little resemblance to the Haunted Mansion attractions to which it’s often erroneously compared). Its exterior is beautiful, the queue sets the tone for what’s to come, the pre-show introduces the attraction’s memorable characters (Planie Tip: including an adorable monkey in anything is sure to score you big points), and then the main ride itself blows guests away with a combination of ride technology, an engaging story, details, and wonderful music. Videos and photos don’t even begin to do this incredible sensory experience justice.

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Observations from Epcot: December 2

by on December 6, 2013

Date: December 2, 2013

Weather: High 73, low 61. 64 degrees at around 7 p.m.

Crowd Level: 3

Epcot’s holiday season is fully geared up this week and I decided to take a few hours last night to check out the park’s evening offerings at Holidays Around the World in World Showcase.

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Though World Showcase has a whole lot of holiday, Future World is right in the mix with Fab 5 and Bambi-themed Christmas topiaries at the entrance and in the central walkway, a holiday soundtrack for the Fountain of Nations, and a gingerbread village at the Land Pavilion. Because I arrived in the early evening and wanted to get to the Candlelight Processional quickly, I bypassed the Land Pavilion. But I’ll be back. I did take a few minutes to snap some topiary pictures.

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While I arrived at the park at about 4:30, a little hiccup with my Annual Pass put me through the gates at about 5:15. Candlelight Processional Shows are nightly at 5, 6:45, and 8:15 p.m., so I knew I’d missed the first one. I did a little shop wandering and finally saw the gift cards with special edition pins that the Parks Blog has been promoting for weeks but that have actually just been put out. The cards are $75 each and there are four pins to “collect”. Here are the Minnie and Mickey. These were available at the Pin Spot just in front of the Fountain of Nations.

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Just inside World Showcase, I picked up my Holiday Passport. There may come a day when I don’t get a thrill out of picking these up and getting them stamped, but today is not that day. I only got one stamp this time around, but it’s pretty cute.

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The passport has all kinds of great information including showtimes, merchandise offerings and locations, and food and beverage selections for each country. You can also find a shorter offerings summary in the guide brochure available all around the park and here.

Epcot Holidays Around The World Map 2013 5.38.01 PM

I was working my way around the Showcase toward the America Pavilion because I figured I had time to kill. I went left when I reached entrance to World Showcase and walked past Mexico, the Outpost, and Norway. As I neared Germany, I noticed a line. A really, really long line. The end of the line was somewhere mid-Italy while as far as I could tell, the beginning was at the America Gardens Theatre. A kind guest near the end of the line confirmed it was the standby line for the 6:45 p.m. showing of Candlelight Processional.

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Candlelight Processional has three showtimes each night at 5 p.m., 6:45 p.m., and 8:15 p.m. I knew that if the standby line was so massive at 5:40 p.m. when the first show hadn’t even ended, it was unlikely that I’d be getting a seat in second show, and possibly in the third. I found out that the likelihood of my seeing the show from the benches was even less when I walked to the America Pavilion and found that guests who had guaranteed seats because they’d purchased a dining package were lined up on the other side of the pavilion in an equally lengthy queue. While those purchasing dining packages do have the right to seats before those in standby, they must line up and wait as well. This differs from shows like Fantasmic where dining packages score you seats at specific shows in specific areas.

Because the narrator was Neil Patrick Harris (likely the reason for the massive crowds for the show – some narrators are much more popular than others), I really wanted to catch at least part of the show. I worked through my problem by going to the Christmas marketplace in the America Pavilion and obtaining a Cocoa Candy Cane (hot chocolate with Peppermint Schnapps) and a gingerbread man.

Epcot Treats American Pavilion

Here comes a treat tangent. This is the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It’s rich, it’s creamy, it’s pepperminty, and it packs a little extra warmth on the tail end that makes everyone’s holiday merrier and brighter. This is, hands down, the best $6.50 (or in my case $13.00) you’ll spend in the parks this season. It’s that good. Mr. Gingerbread was nothing to scoff at either with his surprisingly soft ginger goodness, though I did find myself wondering how many Cocoa Candy Canes his decorator had before picking up the icing bag.

Back to the problem at hand. On the suggestion of a good friend, we huddled into the space behind the theatre ropes at about 6 p.m. to watch the show from there. No, we wouldn’t be sitting down, but according to Twitter the standby line had taken over Norway at that point, so we weren’t going to be sitting anyway. I was a little miffed at first because the view wasn’t so great, but as the show progressed, I thought it was actually a really neat place to watch from because the choir filed in all around us, making for a pretty awesome experience. I took lots of pictures but the show’s lighting and my lack of a bigger lens means they didn’t turn out so hot.

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Our view with my friend the inconveniently-placed tree.

The show was wonderful and I would recommend either getting to the venue very early for the first show or getting a dining package around 3 p.m. and lining up around 4 p.m. if the narrator you want to see is wildly popular (Whoopi Goldberg, Trace Adkins, etc.). In any event, maybe swing by the lineup areas just to check before having dinner or getting a Cocoa Candy Cane.

After the show, I moseyed around to the France Pavilion to try the Chocolate Yule Log from the bakery. France has added some festive peppermint and snowflake decorations this year that are kitschy but nonetheless fun.

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The Chocolate Christmas Log is offered in France’s bakery, Les Halles Boulangerie & Patisserie (pictured above). Because yule logs are pretty standard (cake plus some kind of cream rolled up and thusly named “log”) I was expecting a pretty tasty snack break in France. I was sadly disappointed when I was handed a box with what I like to term the “Christmas Brick”.

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I’m not really a foodie given my mostly pedestrian palate, but I know this: yule logs should have neither mirengue poofy things, nor chocolate fins. They should be moist and sweet and, in this log’s case, chocolatey. The Yule Brick was none of these things. Pretty? Yes. Tasty? No. My friend ate one fork full, tossed the fork and declared, “I’m out.”  I suggest skipping the Chocolate Christmas Log in France and subbing in another tasty treat.

Fear not – the night did not end on such a sad note. My Chocolate Christmas Log disappointment was lifted as I walked back to Future World via the main pathway and its fun snowflake topiaries. Nothing can be bad when twinkle lights abound.

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I will be back soon to try the other treats and get a glimpse of the Future World gingerbread village. Until then, keep it magical.

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runDisney’s On The Road To Disney Parks – Atlanta Edition

by on December 1, 2013

On The Road To Disney Parks - Atlanta A few weeks ago, Disney announced via the Disney Parks Blog that its was going to start a new runDisney program called On The Road To Disney Parks and that their first stop would be my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia! I immediately signed up my husband (he is the runner in our family…me…I tend to only run if someone’s chasing me.)

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought I should sign up, too. I only had to run 2 miles, and I knew it would be an experience I would not forget. (I have actually previously done two other runDisney races: the Disney Halloween 5k in 2011 and the Castaway Cay 5k this past July.) So, I signed myself up and a few hours later, saw both mine and my husband’s name listed. Which meant I had to get out there and do a little bit of training.

In the couple of weeks leading up to the event, I went out most days to “practice” running and enhance my skills. By the time the event came around, I was more or less ready.

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SATURDAY SIX: Top Six Reasons We Loved The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

by on November 16, 2013

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The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

This week’s SATURDAY SIX looks at the Top Six Reasons We Loved The Osborne Family’s Spectacle of Dancing Lights. The Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are always among the highlights of our theme park year. Sure, we have a great time at the Food and Wine Festival, Star Wars Weekends and Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights – just to name a few of Orlando’s best events – but walking through the lights at DHS every year never fails to take our breath away.

Returning favorites and new surprises made this year’s edition shine bright once again, and today we’re going to look at the top six reasons we can’t get enough.

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