There are so many different classifications one can sort a theme park restaurant into – best themed, best ambiance, best location, best food, best price. But what of the best overall venue, the one that most successfully manages to not only balance all of these different considerations, but to also be more than just the sum of its parts? That would surely be a difficult feat to pull off, and the eatery would probably be jam-packed full of people day in and day out.
Image © Universal
With Universal Orlando Resort’s best all-around full-service restaurant, Mama Della’s Ristorante, this is most certainly not the case. Maybe it’s because it’s located at Portofino Bay Hotel, which is tucked away in the corner of the resort. Maybe it’s because it’s overshadowed by a (growing) number of other eateries at the theme parks, from Harry Potter’s wondrous digs to the tasty fast food offerings of Springfield, USA. Maybe it’s just because it’s not Mythos, which has long been considered the best theme park restaurant in the world.
Whatever the reason, Mama Della’s is typically devoid of the long lines and online buzz that is associated with much of the rest of Universal’s lineup, making it a superlative dining experience in nearly every sense – terrific food, atmospherics, and wait times.
Read the rest of this entry »
Where to stay during your Disney World vacation is a long debated topic with no right or wrong answer. Before moving here I was a 100% Disney purist, horrified at even the thought of stepping foot off Disney property. But after moving to Orlando and working in the travel industry I realized there are some excellent options if you are brave enough to venture off property. Today I’m outlining some things to think about before choosing to stay off property on your next trip.
Beware “scheduled” transportation: Many properties in Kissimmee and throughout Lake Buena Vista offer what they call scheduled shuttles to the parks. What they don’t tell you is that this is often a single shuttle in the morning and evening to each park, meaning that you likely will have to arrive late or leave early to make this one shuttle. The shuttle is also commonly shared with other hotels and crammed, packed full. Be sure that you understand the shuttle service offered prior to booking if you’ll need transportation to the parks.
Believe me – you don’t want to walk from here!
You cannot walk: I know this seems pretty obvious but I can tell you from working in hotels that it’s common for guests to think they can just walk to Disney from offsite hotels. This is because hotels advertise their distance to “Disney’s Maingate”. By definition a maingate is the arch that you drive under to enter Disney property… which can be miles from an actual Disney park! There is not a single non-Disney hotel where you can walk to a park.
Renting a car: Personally, I can’t imagine staying off property without renting a car (or using your personal car if you’re driving to get here). The shuttles offered by offsite hotels have never worked for me and I need the freedom to come and go as I please. The cost of renting this car should be weighed with the cost of an onsite room at Disney. Also, remember that if you don’t have an annual pass you will have to pay for parking when staying off Disney property. That really adds up at a minimum of $15 a day!
Read the rest of this entry »
A while back, I wrote about all the useful things you’ll find in your Walt Disney World hotel room. After a recent spate of non-Disney and semi-Disney travel (sacrilege, I know), I’ve realized that there are also a number of things that many travelers might expect to see in their Disney hotel rooms, but won’t be found there. Please be aware that some of the items on this list can be found at a select few WDW hotels, but not all of them. Be sure to consult with your own resort directly if you have concerns.
You’ll find a refrigerator in your Disney hotel room, but there’s no mini bar.
A Magnifying Mirror
My mother pointed this out to me after she joined me for a stay at Disney’s Bay Lake Tower earlier this year. Her aging eyes had trouble doing her makeup without the magnifying mirror she was accustomed to finding in hotels. Since she mentioned this, I’ve stayed in about a dozen non-Disney hotels and sure enough mom was right, all but one of the non-Disney hotels was equipped with a magnifying mirror in the bathroom, while the vast majority of Disney hotels do not. If your eyes are on the downswing or you routinely use a magnifying mirror for personal maintenance, they you’ll want to bring your own from home.
I spent part of this past summer on the Adventures by Disney excursion to China. This was an incredible experience. A small part of that was due to insanely over-the-top awesome hotels we visited (Ah, Peninsula Shanghai, I miss you so!). One of the countless details which made the hotels seamlessly efficient and luxurious was that in addition to the usual soaps and shampoos, the bathrooms were all stocked with teeny tubes of Colgate. So great, right?! While toothpaste is certainly available for purchase in the WDW gift shops, you’ll no doubt note here that toothpaste is almost never found in US hotel rooms. (You can read more about this in a Slate article that hotel geek me found fascinating.) So, if you’re an international guest expecting toothpaste to be a standard feature, you’re out of luck.
Read the rest of this entry »
So far I’ve explored the wonderful resorts of Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans, and Pop Century. You may notice that none of those are in the deluxe category. The reason is that some of the deluxe resorts just don’t lend themselves to exploring. Sure, they are beautiful, luxurious, and wonderful to spend time at, but they don’t always have the meandering pathways or hidden spots that the more spread out resorts have.
I debated with myself for a while on how to overcome this problem (and yes, I often argue with myself…and win). I had a breakthrough when I thought about walking through a favorite resort of mine; Beach Club. You see, when I spend time at that particular resort, I don’t just walk around the Beach Club but instead I wander through all of the bordering Epcot area resorts.
So that’s how I’m treating this, as a walk through the Epcot resorts; Beach Club, Yacht Club, Dolphin, Swan, and the Boardwalk Inn. Please remember that combining them is an artistic choice and not laziness (an important, if indiscernible, designation).
Beach and Yacht Clubs
I am further combining these two because they share so much in common (still not laziness). Both are designed with a seaside feel, although the Yacht Club has a more stately and formal feel to it. These are both beautiful resorts with many decorative nautical items, but with very little in the way of “hidden” areas.
I am in no way saying that there aren’t lovely spots to sit, stand, or walk (I’ll take sit if you please), but most of these areas are along the well-trafficked pathway that abuts Crescent Lake. Yes it is beautiful, photogenic, and peaceful, but it is also very often full of people, which makes it feel less “private” and more “ugh…people are loud.”
C'mon, who doesn't love this view?
If you are an early riser like I am you can still stake out your spot, and there are a few very lovely spots. The pool is a free-flowing, meandering behemoth with rockwork, waterfalls, and plenty of trees. There is also a fantastic pier that juts out into the lake complete with a wonderful lighthouse. The primo spot however, is a seat on the beach (a beach? At the Beach Club? Ludicrous!).
From your vantage point on the sand you look out across the lake with vistas of the lighthouse and the exceptionally cool wreckage of a pirate ship (says the 13 year old boy that I mentally am). I suggest, rather than exploring per se, parking your rump on the beach and enjoying the relative peace of the spot.
Dolphin and Swan
As you meander further away from Epcot (This is a special case. Normally I don’t recommend walking away from World Showcase) the next resorts you come to are the Dolphin and Swan. I have combined these two again due to the shared amenities (okay, maybe now I’m getting lazy). Comparing what I described above, I’m not sure you can find resorts that are more different than the Swan/Dolphin and Beach/Yacht. The Swan and Dolphin are…uh…well, just different.
Rather than quaint and relaxing, the Swan and Dolphin are modern and angular. They are still beautiful, at least in spots, but I would consider neither of them relaxing. Luckily, the exterior areas are just as well done as you would expect at Disney deluxe resorts.
This picture breaks my personal record of "most non-living swans in one shot."
Walking the circuitous route between the two hotel buildings brings you upon the pool, beach, and several small, tree-lined spots that definitely qualify as relaxing (and many qualify as smoking areas…thanks for that Disney). Enjoying the views looking out onto the water of the beach and palm trees is always time well spent, even if there are strangely shaped modernist hotels in the way.
The final resort that you come upon on the path is the Boardwalk Inn. Aesthetically speaking, the hotel itself is not my favorite. It is a very pleasant resort in a great location and has that mix of seaside charm and high-class elegance that we all associate with the New Jersey shore (cough…moving on). Mostly what I don’t like is that super creepy clown face slide that makes it look like a spaced-out clown is spitting children into the pool.
Wow, what a nice pool and...AHH, what in Walt's name is that thing!
The main exterior area of the Boardwalk Inn is the boardwalk itself which is a great place for a stroll at any time. When it’s empty it is serene and peaceful and has a lot of benches for looking out over Crescent Lake.
When it’s busy there is so much hustle there (and even a bit of bustle) that it’s one of the best spots to people watch. With face painters, entertainers, and surrey bikes galore I could spend all day just wandering the boardwalk and making fun of people (Oops I mean…uh…yeah, making fun of. I can’t sugarcoat it).
That completes my wandering around the Epcot resorts, now I’m going to jump aboard the Friendship Boat and head to World Showcase for a beverage. How do you like the Epcot resorts and do you ever take time to wander around during your stay? I’d love to hear about all the nooks and crannies that I missed.
Thanks for reading!