Archive for December, 2009

Christmas Trip Report I

by on December 16, 2009

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I headed down the Walt Disney World on Sunday.  Apparently I got out of New Jersey at the right time!  My flight left on time and we didn’t have any weather issues, but later in the day the rain/ice came down.  I’m so glad I didn’t have to sit at the airport dealing with that!

Anyway, when I arrived in Florida it was sunny and warm and I had to peel off some of my many layers since it was about 24 degrees at home.  I met my friend Julie at baggage claim (Tom would arrive from the UK later in the evening) and we headed to the Disney’s Magical Express (DME) desk.  The desk seemed pretty crowded in the loading area, but we got through relatively quickly after straightening out our messed up reservation.  Since our group comes from three different airports (one of them international) we usually make the Magical Express cast members’ heads spin.  This time was no different.  It took a while, but eventually we got ourselves all straightened out and we were off to the Boardwalk!

We checked in, but since it was about 11 a.m. our room wasn’t ready yet.  We shuffled some of our stuff around and did some wardrobe change before checking our bags at bell services and heading to Epcot.  I cannot stress how awesome it is to be able to walk to Epcot’s back door!  We strolled World Showcase for a little while before heading to the Land to have lunch with the rest of the crew.  It was so nice to meet some of these folks for the first time.  After chatting with my fellow bloggers and researchers, we all headed to the wdwtoday Sip and Snack event.  The guys behind the wdwtoday podcast have attempted to eat or drink in every country around World Showcase on several occasions.  This time they took their fans to some of their favorite spots to sample some goodies.  I got a chance to meet several Disney fans and made some fast friends.  After the sip and snack was over some of us tried out the new tequila bar in the Mexico pavilion.

Le Cava del Tequila serves a variety of Mexican beers, mixed drinks, shots, and tapas.  Everyone should be able to find something in this cozy spot.  We probably stayed too long and had too many drinks, but we had a blast.  After enjoying this new favorite on my list of places to hang out in Epcot, we hit a few attractions in World Showcase.  Then, my new friends Neil, John, and Danielle joined my old friends Julie and Tom for dinner at Disney’s newest restaurant Kouzzina at the Boardwalk.  This location focuses on celebrity chef Cat Cora’s Greek heritage.  I was a little wearing going in since Greek isn’t always my favorite, but I have to say I really loved my dinner.  Half of the table tried the Fisherman’s Stew (including me) and the other half opted for the Lamb burger.  The stew consisted of several types of fish in a tomato based sauce with a bit of a kick.  The lamb burger was also quite spicy, and everyone seemed to really enjoy them.  And if the tequila bar and dinner weren’t enough fun, we all hit the Bellevue Lounge at the Boardwalk and shut the place down.  Many thanks to old friends and new friends for a great night!

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Having fun at the tequila bar!

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Dinner at Kouzzina!

Monday we decided to sleep in a bit.  Tom was jet lagged since he came across the pond to the UK and Julie and I had quite a day on Sunday.  When we eventually got up we decided to head to Magic Kingdom because they were going to have extra magic hours that evening.  This is usually a no-no for touringplans followers, but there are so many Very Merry Christmas Parties this week, we felt like we had to take advantage of the extra time.  We had a good day hitting some of our favorite attractions!  I was especially excited to hit the newly refurbished Space Mountain and Hall of Presidents; I’m sure I’ll write more about them in future posts.  After running around the park for a while we decided to take a break and visit one of our most loved resorts: the Polynesian.  We hopped on the monorail so we can lounge around and have a snack.  Then it was back to MK for the evening.  We had dinner at Tony’s Town Square where the serve was so-so, but the food was much better than I expected.  We met up with some other friends for extra magic hours and enjoyed the attractions with a good group.  Some folks headed to Raglan Road, but by the time we got there it was closed, and everyone decided to call it a night.

subjects 140On Tuesday it was off to Epcot after a little bit of a sleep in.  We met up our friends Neil and Carolyn, before they had to head home that afternoon.  We rode a few attractions in Future World and tried out the newest addition to Innoventions, Sum of All Thrills.  I’ll definitely write more about this new attraction in the future, but it was a lot of fun.  After some time in Future World it was off to World Showcase for the rest of the day.  We had lunch in the quick service restaurant in China Lotus Blossom, strolled around the pavilions checking out several performers, and had dinner at Biergarten.  I even tackled the liter of beer!  And here’s a tip on the Biergarten: if it takes you a while to finish your liter of beer, your server will give you a to go cup!  After Illuminations we headed back to the Boardwalk for the night.subjects 163

Today we had an early breakfast reservation at Kona Cafe so we actually got out of bed at a decent time.  We took a cab over to the Polynesian for some real coffee and Tonga Toast.  Since we were so close we decided to take the monorail to MK for the morning and early afternoon.  We took in some of the Fantasyland Attractions, toured Toon Town before it is shut down, and braved the mountains.  Next up, we took the boat to the Grand Floridian to check out the gingerbread house.  On our way to the Grand Floridian bus stop we discovered free warm cider and chestnuts!  From there we took the bus to the Animal Kingdom for their extra magic hours.  Evening extra magic hours in the winter months are the only way to see this park in the dark.  Not only is Expedition Everest awesome in the dark, but the whole park is beautifully lit.  We were beat, but decided to head into Epcot after we came back to the Boardwalk just to see Illuminations with the holiday tag.  We put on some more layers and headed to the International Gateway entrance to grab a couple drinks and grab a spot for the show.  As always it was awesome and now I’m trying to stay awake while I write this!

Tomorrow we plan to head to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Big River Bar and Grille, and hopefully Jellyrolls.  There will definitely be a mid afternoon break in our future!

Keep an eye out for more trip reports in the next few days!  And, as always, you can follow my shenanigans on twitter @khelmstetter.  I hope everyone is having a great week because I sure am!

WDW Today Episode 657 – Listener Questions

by on December 16, 2009

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Episode 654 of WDW Today is now available for download here.

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Disney Testing New Queueless Standby Line at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster

by on December 15, 2009 researchers Fred and Henry are in Disney’s Hollywood Studios today. They’re updating the Twitter account (@TouringPlans) with these details. More coverage and photos can be seen on the Attractions Magazine blog here.

WDW Today Episode 656 – What’s In The Bag?

by on December 14, 2009

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Episode 656 of WDW Today is now available for download here.

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Urban Design: Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland

by on December 14, 2009

I have talked about some of the urban design concepts used to create the immersive environments of the Magic Kingdom. You can visit Samland to find many more entries. Today, I will be visiting Fantasyland.

Fantasyland is at the heart of the Magic Kingdom and it represents a chance to visit with some of our favorite Disney characters. To get there you must pass through the gates of Cinderella Castle, which is influenced by French Gothic castles and its’ ornamental style based on French chateaus. The castle is the only fully realized; 4-sided building that is not a spinning ride in Fantasyland. Behind the castle walls you enter a medieval courtyard surrounded by a Gothic village. This village has been decorated for a celebration.

In creating Fantasyland, the Imagineers faced a design dilemma. They wanted to recreate elements from architecture found in the Disney cartoons but they feared chaos as the variety of styles might collide. The solution was to wrap the facades of English Tudor, French Gothic, and other styles with decorative elements from a medieval tournament. These elements include tents, flags, and banners, and supports that look like lances.

In 1972, in a landmark book about architecture entitled Learning from Las Vegas, the authors opined that the use of vernacular architecture and iconography, masking the “ugly and ordinary” structures would satisfy regular people even while it frustrated architects. This idea became known as the “decorated shed” and went on to become the foundation for the Post-Modern architectural style. Fantasyland is perhaps the finest example of the “decorated shed” and the Imagineers were the pioneers in developing this innovation which in turn has had a significant impact on the public realm outside of the parks.’

From guest’s point of view, the courtyard appears to be a collection of small stores and larger attraction queues. In reality, as you can see from an aerial photo, the land is made up of three very large buildings that are wrapped in thematic materials. This concept of wrapping buildings was relatively new at the time the Magic Kingdom was built and has become very common today. The design details along the roofline of the buildings surrounding the courtyard support the design elements of Cinderella Castle and confirm that you are within the walls of the castle.

A lot has changed over the years but the facades have remained relatively the same. Winnie the Pooh took over the lease from Mr. Toad and the audio-animatronic Mickey Mouse Revue kept with the same great idea and morphed into the 3D film Mickey’s Philharmagic. The loss of the lagoon for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarines has greatly weakened the boundaries of the courtyard. The proposed Fantasyland expansion may go a long way in repairing that damage.

WDW Today Episode 655 – Theme Park ABC’s (Epcot)

by on December 12, 2009

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Episode 655 of WDW Today is now available for download here.

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Getting Ready for my Christmas Trip!

by on December 11, 2009

I’ve written about preparing for a trip before, but this time around the circumstances are a little different.  At this time of year the stress levels are a maximum for most people.  So why not throw in 8 days at Walt Disney World for good measure?  I’ve tried to get all of my Christmas preparations finished before I shove off on the 13th.  I’m pretty close, but I’m afraid some tasks will have to wait until I get home on the 20th.  As if the usual holiday hubbub wasn’t enough I was knocked out with the flu for over a week around Thanksgiving.  Getting ready of for this trip is going to be a rush job to say the least!

For example, last time I wrote about packing I was expecting hot May weather, but at this time of year the weather is less predictable.  I have visited in December twice before; once the weather was lovely and last year it was freezing.  Now, I’m a northeasterner so I don’t mind a little chill in the air, but to stand outside for hours in 40 and  50 degree weather gets to me after a while.  So for this trip I’ll be packing lots of layers including short and long sleeve shirts, sweaters, a fleece jacket, and a pair of gloves just in case.  The weather forecast includes some rain so I’ll be sure to pack my poncho as well.  As I’m writing things (on December 11th) I hardly have anything packed.  It’s going to be a whirlwind of packing tomorrow to try to get everything done!  I’m usually much more organized, but this year I’m so behind.  Hopefully I won’t forget anything!  I’ll be making lists and checking them twice!

One of my traveling mates usually creates a spreadsheet with all of the park hours, ADRs, and other important information.  We tease her about her tyrannical spreadsheet all of the time, but its important at least have a list of your dining reservations.  With the holiday madness of December, she didn’t have time to make it up this time.   Luckily we already had a shared Google calender which included all of our important events so we just printed that out for this trip.  We’ll see which version we prefer after some testing.

I’ve arranged with my parents for them to retrieve my car from the Newark Airport parking lot.  My flight to Orlando departs at 7 a.m. and I just can’t ask my dad to get up that early to drop me off by about 5:30.  So our solution is for me to drive myself at that ungodly hour, call and leave a message as to where I’ve parked, and then they will come get my beloved Volkswagen at a time convenient for them.  We’ve done this before and it worked out well.  I’ve just got to make sure to get my tush out of bed at 4:15ish when its still dark and freezing.  I think the excitement of getting to WDW should make getting up so early a little easier to take.

Of course, there are plenty of odds and ends to accomplish between now at early, early Sunday morning.  Writing this entry reminded me to arrange to put a hold on mail delivery so I just checked that off the list.  However, there are plenty of other chores to tackle before the big day so I’d better get going…

Next week keep an eye out live blogging from WDW!  I’ll try to check in as often as possible to report on my trip and you can also follow me on twitter at @khelmstetter to keep up on my adventures.

WDW Today Episode 654 – Listener Questions

by on December 9, 2009

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Episode 654 of WDW Today is now available for download here.

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Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon Water Park Details and Touring Plans Available

by on December 9, 2009

TyphoonLagoonMapOnlyJust in time for the winter holidays! (Yeah, we know that’s what you were thinking.) For those of you already planning a spring or summer 2010 trip to Walt Disney World, we’ve added full coverage of Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks to the site.

We’ve also created touring plans for each park, for adults and for parents with small children (under 48″) who can’t quite yet ride some of the more intense slides. These touring plans are the first to feature full color maps of the parks. And to save on ink when you’re printing these at home, the backgrounds for each page are not colored.

Disney’s water parks are larger and more heavily themed than almost any water park you’ve seen. If your upcoming WDW trip includes a day at either, a subscription to the site will tell you what you need to know to have fun.

Tips For Saving Time, Money, And Your Sanity While Dining in Disney World

by on December 8, 2009

This is a guest post by AJ from the fantastic Disney Food Blog. You can also listen to AJ talk Animal Kingdom on Episode 637 of the WDW Today podcast, as well as follow her on Twitter.

It’s no secret that Disney World can be a busy and confusing place, but with a little preparation, you can sail through unscathed when it comes to your dining choices. In fact, where you choose to eat might even save you a little time, money, and energy during your vacation!

I’ve chosen three of my most important “goals” for my dining experiences and given my favorite tips and tricks for meeting them via some shrewd Disney planning:

Avoiding Crowds:
Pretty sure you don’t want to battle thousands of other hungry Disney fans for a burger and a table? Me too. Here are a couple of rules I like to follow in order to minimize rubbing elbows while I’m chowing down:

  • Eat At “Off” Times: Believe it or not, following this one rule will significantly improve your chances of a pleasant dining experience. We’re somewhat pre-conditioned to eat breakfast between 8AM and 10AM, lunch between 12PM and 2PM, and dinner between 5PM and 8PM. If you’re able to schedule your dining outside those major rushes, you’ll have a better chance of getting reservations, and be more likely to have an enjoyable, crowd-free, relaxed meal. A second benefit to eating at “off” times: you’re riding popular rides at noon while everyone else is standing in line for food!
  • Head Out of the Theme Parks: It’s simple math: everyone’s in the theme parks all day, which means everyone’s eating in the theme parks all day. Consider heading to Downtown Disney or to a Disney World Resort Hotel for a meal; you’ll have plenty of counter service (fast food) and table service (sit-down) choices, and chances are you’ll have a more relaxed meal.

  • Visit a Lesser-Known Restaurant: This tip might take a bit of research, but it’s another one that could save you a lot of headaches. While there are many restaurants in Disney World that are well-known for food and fun-factor, there are still plenty of dark horses that have delicious food yet remain under the radar! You’ll find many of these at Disney’s resort hotels; good options include Olivia’s Cafe at Old Key West, Kona Cafe at the Polynesian, and Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village. While in the theme parks or Downtown Disney, try Tokyo Dining or Marrakesh in Epcot for good ethnic cuisine, The Plaza at the Magic Kingdom for inexpensive sandwiches and great ice cream sundaes, and Paradiso 37 in Downtown Disney for some good Latin American fare!

Saving Time:
If you’ve only got limited time in the World and want to be sure to hit everything without going hungry, here are my favorite time-saving tips:

  • Eat at “Off” Times: Once again, this is going to save you time as well as the crowd headache! If you’re eating while others are playing, that means you can get in and out of both counter-service and table-service restaurants faster. You save a lot of time when you’re shown to your table as soon as you arrive instead of having to sit with a pager for 30 minutes.
  • Create Touring Plans: Appropriate, eh? Seriously, one of the best things you can do to save time in Disney World is have a good plan. When it comes to dining, this includes checking out theme park hours, figuring out which theme parks you’d like to visit on which days, and planning your dining accordingly. For example, if you know you’ll be in the Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, plan on getting an Advanced Dining Reservation for a Magic Kingdom dining location that day. Sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many folks find themselves in the far reaches of Animal Kingdom when they realize they’ve got 15 minutes before they forfeit their dinner reservation in Cinderella Castle!

  • Speaking of ADRs…Make Them! Advanced Dining Reservations in Disney World have become not only “recommended,” but mandatory if you plan on having an enjoyable vacation. I know that everyone has a friend who “never makes ADRs and does just fine,” (for me, those are my parents!), but planning ahead and making reservations never hurts and usually helps. You can even make ADRs online these days, so do think about making a few bookings — especially for the most popular restaurants.
  • Consider Buffets and Counter Service: While I like to have a few table-service meals during my trip, snagging some counter service meals is usually quicker. This is a good tip for very busy days, or days when you can’t eat at “off times.” Also, counter service meals have improved by leaps and bounds in the past dozen years or so; you have many choices outside the standard burger or hot dog these days.When you do choose table service and you’re in a hurry, head to a buffet. Disney has delicious buffet restaurants — many that include character interaction — and because you serve yourself, the timing of your meal is largely up to you. Some popular buffets are Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort and Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. Slightly less popular, but just as delicious, buffets include Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club Resort and Tusker House at the Animal Kingdom.

Saving Money:
Even if budget is your main concern, you can still experience some of the great food Disney has to offer. Try a few of these tips in your planning sessions:

  • Eat Two Meals Per Day: Even if you’re used to eating three meals per day at home, Disney restaurant portions are massive, and most folks can get away easily with two big meals per day instead of three. My favorite tip is to schedule dining so that you’re eating brunch and “linner” (yep — that’s a combo lunch and dinner)! For example, schedule one meal for around 10:00AM (breakfast is usually cheaper than lunch or dinner at Disney World table service restaurants) and the second for around 3:00 or 4:00PM (make sure the restaurant is still serving lunch, as the lunch menu is often less expensive than the dinner menu). If you need a tide-me-over in the morning or evening, consider bringing snacks from home, which will surely be less expensive than those you can purchase on Disney property. We usually have cereal bars for a morning energy kick and cookies, crackers, or fruit for evenings. (Or you can always use the money from the third meal to buy snacks at the park, if you’re like me and need a Dole Whip!)
  • Get Table Service Favorites at Lounges and Counter Service Locations: This is a tip for those of you who just want to sample the famous dishes and not pay for a full meal. Many times, the lounges and counter service locations at Disney’s resort hotels will carry some of the table service restaurant’s most famous dishes. For example: pick up some of Boma’s famous Zebra Domes and roasted red pepper hummus at the Mara at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, or get an order of Kona Cafe’s famous Tonga Toast down at Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian Resort. Have the Artist Point cheese plate at the Territory Lounge instead of in the Artist Point. This is an option more often than you think, and it saves on buying a whole meal and paying a huge tip.

  • Consider the Disney Dining Plans: While Dining Plans won’t offer a savings for everyone (not even when it’s free), depending on your family and your eating style, it might help you to not break the bank on your Disney trip. Note than you can only purchase a dining plan if you’re staying in a Disney resort hotel.
  • Use Dining Discounts: There are actually a myriad of potential dining discounts that you might qualify for in Disney World and the surrounding restaurants.For Florida Residents and Annual/Season Passholders, a Tables in Wonderland membership gives you 20% off of all food and beverages at most Disney World restaurants.And if you’re a member of AAA, a Disney Vacation Club Member, an Annual Passholder, or a Florida Resident, there are other dining discounts available to you. Just check in with each website for details.The bottom line is, there are lots of Disney dining discounts out there; a little bit of research goes a long way!

Here’s hoping these dining tips and tricks will help you to have a wonderful, stress-free Disney World trip!

Thanks for reading!