Archive for June, 2011

Magic Kingdom Welcome Ceremony

by on June 30, 2011

One of the best parts of waking up in the morning when you’re at Walt Disney World is the excitement of it.  There you are just moments away from the fun.  Of course, you’ve got to get up, get dressed, maybe eat.  Coffee?  And then somehow you make your way to the park.  If you’re using a Touring Plan, and it’s not designed for a late arrival, then you’re on your way to the park before it opens.

Now, if that park happens to be the Magic Kingdom, then you’re in for a treat.  Every day at the Magic Kingdom is designed around the park’s motto of being “The Most Magical Place On Earth”.  And you get that warm (okay I get it, it’s Florida), happy feeling right from the very start of your day there with the Magic Kingdom Welcome Show.

No matter how you get there (boat, bus, walking, monorail), when you arrive at the Magic Kingdom, just proceed right through the turnstiles as soon as possible.  The show can be seen anywhere from the boat docs to the train station, but past the turnstiles is prime viewing.  It will also allow for you to make your way into the park swiftly after the show is over and “rope drop” occurs.  Find a spot you like, but generally I prefer to either be right in front of the train station or off to the right so that the sun is at my back and not dulling my vision.

At about 10 minutes before the park opens (e.g., 8:50 AM on a day when the park opens at 9:00 AM) the festivities will start.  The show starts with an introduction to Magic Kingdom by the Citizens of Main Street, U.S.A. My favorite is the Mayor, who is truly one of the most genuine and nice people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking with.  I’ve also seen it introduced by the First Lady of Main Street, as well as other castmembers, and even once by one of the dancing couples.

Oh yes, did I mention there was dancing?  Once the introduction is complete, a cadre of the Citizens come out and start singing and dancing to the song “Good Morning” from the 1939 Busby Berkeley film musical Babes in Arms (later revived in 1952 for Singin’ in the Rain).  This song is just one of those toe tapping rhythms that you can’t help but hum along and dance to.  It really is the perfect way to get you pumped for a day in the Magic Kingdom. (note: independent testers have confirmed that even this number is incapable of overcoming “it’s a small world“)

But, that’s not all.  As the song winds down, another one begins with the sound of the Walt Disney World Railroad’s whistle.  We’re then regaled with the famous lyrics of the “Casey Junior” from the movie Dumbo as the Railroad pulls into the Main Street U.S.A. Station.  On board you’ll find a cast of Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse and some of the Princesses, as well as the “Family of the Day”.  This is a family that is often hand picked by castmembers from some of the earliest arrivals to the park, but can also be pre-chosen for various reasons.

Once the train has pulled to a halt and everyone has gotten disembarked to the to the tune of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the movie Song of the South.  When the music completes, the family is introduced to both Mickey Mouse and the audience.  Then it’s time to do what everyone has been waiting for: open Magic Kingdom.  The Citizen who introduced the Magic Kingdom to us earlier will, along with Mickey and the “Family of the Day”, lead us in a countdown from 10 down to 0.  There will be some brief fireworks and the “Family of the Day” will launch some streamers down into the audience – in the past this was various forms of “Pixie Dust”.  The castmembers will then let people enter Main Street and start their day at the Magic Kingdom.

The last time I saw the Welcome Ceremony was with my very good friend Amy and her family.  And she summed up why it’s such a great way to start the day over in her blog post about it.  It’s a point where everyone is at their best for Magic Kingdom.  People’s attitudes are fresh, and folks are generally cheery because they’ve not yet hit the crankiness that tends to creep in in the afternoon.  As she put it, “just miles of smiles”.  I can’t agree more, the excitement created by this ceremony is palpable and completely enjoyable.  And a must see.

What about you? Have you seen the Welcome Ceremony?  Do you like it?  Hate it?  Avoid it?  Must see it every day you’re there?  Good morning, everybody!

Flame Tree Barbecue

by on June 29, 2011

When you are touring Walt Disney World on a budget one of the easiest ways to keep your wallet in check is to skip table service dining experiences for meals at counter service restaurants.  But even if I’m not pinching my pennies, I usually find my way to Flame Tree Barbecue during my trip for an awesome lunch while touring Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This restaurant has to be my favorite quick service eatery in all of WDW so I thought I’d share a bit about it with the readers.

As I mentioned, Flame Tree is located in the Animal Kingdom.  Guests can find it tucked in along the main walking paths of Discovery Island.  The smell of the barbecue smoke entices guests to step up to the counter and order some smoked meat goodness. The ribs, chicken, and pulled pork are all seasoned with a dry rub and then smoked for hours to create a tasty treat for diners.   There are a few other selections on the menu, but the main event is really the smoked meat offerings.  For those of you who don’t eat meat, I’d give the fresh fruit plate a go.  It always looks really nice, but I always wind up skipping it to enjoy my old favorites.  Vegetarians  can also opt for the barbecue chicken salad without the chicken.  I usually go for the ribs or the pulled pork sandwich here.  The ribs are delicious, but messy and huge so brace yourself if you order them.  When I’m feeling a little less hungry I opt for the sandwich.  I’m no barbecue expert, but this stuff is awesome.  I can also highly recommend the onion rings to go along side whatever entree you select.

Prices at Flame Tree Barbecue may seem a bit steep, but it is way above average counter service fare.  It is also still much cheaper than dining at a table service restaurant elsewhere in the park.  Some meals may even be large enough to split among your friends or family, which would help cut down your cost.  Kids meal are comparable to other kids meals around property, but they do not offer any of the unique flavors of the featured menu.  If your kids are adventurous eaters, definitely consider sharing half a chicken or ribs with them rather than getting them their own meal.

According to the Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom the eating area was designed based on a a traditional Balinese water garden.  There are several pavilions dotted around this area with groups of tables where guests can dine and relax.  Each structure has been decorated with a pair of animals, representing predator and prey.  Even the tables and chairs carry on this “Circle of Life” theme.  You see, the tables have the prey animals and the tables are made to look like the prey animals.  I really love the bright colors and carvings adorning the pavilions.  The only negative thing about the set up is that is easy to lose your party since everything is so spread out.  Make sure to stick together or use cell phones to fine each other should you get separated.

I love to head here when I’m not in a hurry.  The queue can be a bit long, but it is worth the wait.  With the sprawling pavilions housing tables, I prefer to head to one close to the water.  They are further from the counter, so they are often quieter and you get an amazing view of Expedition Everest and the beautiful scenery Disney’s Animal Kingdom has to offer.  I like to take a bit of time to enjoy my lunch or dinner and linger with friends while we enjoy our surroundings and chat about our adventures that day.  I highly recommend stopping into to Flame Tree Barbecue for a satisfying meal and fun setting.  93% of Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World readers agree, giving it a thumbs up!

Here we are after another yummy meal at Flame Tree. Photo by Doug Uhlig

How about you?  What do you think of Flame Tree Barbecue?  Let me know how much you love it or hate in the comments!

Do I Really Need To Avoid A Park If The Crowd Level Is Low?

by on June 27, 2011

[The] logic for DHS with Fantasmic! now every night seems to be a bit off. With the change of showing Fantasmic! every night through Sept, the recommendations for my trip changed (obviously). The problem, though, is that now no day is good for DHS.  If you look at the overall resort crowd compared to the DHS crowd, it just doesn’t fit.  The only think I could think of is that your code still has a restriction in place where nights with Fantasmic! are automatically weighted heavier than others and now that every night has the show, they’re all weighted too heavily.

Or do you really think that in the first full week of Sept, DHS will have a crowd level every day of ~4 and above?

Tricia, TouringPlans subscriber

We always assume that if something looks a bit off, we have probably made a mistake. That comes from years of experience, humility and a little self-doubt. However, we usually find all the “t”s crossed and the “i”s dotted which leads us to the real explanation.

Our park recommendations are based on several factors including the individual crowd rankings for each park. We force ourselves to label at least one park as “best” and one park as “avoid” every day on the calendar, even during slow times of the year such as September.

What Tricia is seeing from our recent update is that the slight crowd bump that the Studios is experiencing from the new Fantasmic! schedule and the new Star Tours attraction is enough to push its index to be the highest of the four parks a little more often than usual. It is important to note that although the Studios is listed as “avoid”, a crowd level of 4 is a fantastic day! Frankly, if we were touring in September, we would not hesitate to visit the Studios on a day with a crowd level 4. One could argue that with all four parks under a level 5, no park really needs to be avoided.

The best way to use the park recommendations is in conjunction with the other information about a particular day. Take a look at the park schedules, park hours and crowd levels then if needed, let the park recommendations help you decide what will work best for your group.

Disney Playing The Hotwire Lottery Game With PIN Codes?!

by on June 24, 2011

Two of my favorite things are Disney and discounts. (Yep, I live a life of non-stop thrills and excitement!) It should thus be no surprise that, when emails land in my inbox with subject lines advertising a, “Special Offer for the Bricker Family,” they move to the top of my email queue and are immediately opened. I’ve written about these targeted offers here before, which are known as Pin Codes in the Disney vernacular. However, when I saw a new type of offer for the Fall off-peak season yesterday, I was especially intrigued.

He's a Tramp

Here are the details of this offer:

Lower Price: Stay at our choice of a Disney Value or a select Disney Moderate Resort hotel for just $67* per night, plus tax!

With this special low rate:
• We choose the hotel and room type and you’ll find out what it is after booking and paying in full
• Full payment is required at time of booking and payment is nonrefundable
• No cancellations or modifications are allowed after payment

Based upon the above, it appears that Disney is trying its hand at a or style room lottery system, where you receive a greater discount by offering greater flexibility in where you’re willing to stay and by paying up-front without the ability to cancel. Especially intriguing is that Disney is employing A/B testing with this deal, offering slight variants of the deal (such as removing the possibility of receiving a Moderate from one variation of the deal). This is undoubtedly being done to test whether such a “room lottery” appeals to past Disney guests, and whether it might be successful with the general public.

Given that the current Pin Code room-only discount for a Value Resort is $91/night, even if guests are to get “stuck” with a Value Resort through this offer, they’re still getting a fairly good deal. Although I doubt $91/night will be the top discount for Value Resorts during this period, $67/night is not bad, and falls in line with Fall Value Resort discounts from past years. Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that $67/night is a fair room-only rate for a Value Resort during this time period, you are essentially trading the pre-paid and non-refundable elements of the discount for the possibility of snagging one of those elusive Moderate Resorts!

Tranquil Pool at Disney's Pop Century Resort

Thus, the question becomes, is there sufficient upside to that trade-off? For myself, and for most people reading this blog (read: Disney Nuts), I think there is. Obviously there is the attendant risk in having to pay up-front and not being able to take the trip for whatever reason, but many of us take this risk frequently with those other booking engines, anyway. Additionally, for the obsessive planners among us who want total control over their vacations, and I’m guessing a lot of readers here are like that given the nature of this site, this offer may simply force us to sacrifice too much planning control to Disney. The great benefit, though, is that stated above: we get a deeper discount and the possibility of landing a higher tier room for the discounted price of a Value!

That said, I could see some issues with this deal were it released to the general public. I think this untrodden soil onto which Disney is stepping might be dangerous for it from the perspective that it cheapens its product (as if the constant barrage of deep discounts haven’t already done that–okay, maybe this isn’t much of an issue at all). More importantly, I think it might create expectations in the minds of guests that Disney is unable to satisfy. While Disney clearly indicates that the room will be in either a Value or Moderate Resort, at Disney’s election, I have little doubt that many guests will be disappointed when they find out that Disney has chosen a Value Resort for them. A great portion of Disney’s success is predicated upon the general public’s incredible guest satisfaction numbers, and if Disney disappoints guests at the outset by informing them that they’re getting the “lesser” resort, that could set the tone for their vacation. This does not jive with Disney’s mantra of exceeding expectations, as it would create the opportunity for Disney to easily fail to meet guest expectations.

A Midsummer Night's Polynesian Dream

Conversely, Disney has the opportunity to use this system to increase guest satisfaction with the general public by moving as many guests to Moderate Resorts as possible, thereby starting their vacation out with a ‘bang’ as they find themselves landing a resort in which they might not otherwise stay, for over 67% off the normal rack rate! If Disney ends up using the discount in this manner, to fill the moderates as close to capacity as possible, this discount could be a huge victory for guest satisfaction. I’m not a hospitality management expert, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I think this might also be good for Disney in that it could close down portions of certain resorts during slow booking seasons to save on expenses (or for refurbishments). I have no clue if this is actually feasible or would result in a savings, so I won’t file this as one of the “official” benefits of the discount. (Oh yes, by virtue of being in this blog post, it becomes official!)

As I always geek out when contemplating the psychology of discounting, I found this new offer really fascinating as it could be a huge victory for Disney and guests alike if executed carefully. If you didn’t like this post, and you wondered how I just rambled on for over 1,000 words about a three sentence discount, I apologize (although in my defense, it’s not like I pretended at the outset that the article was going to be about Concierge Level at the Polynesian or something else more “interesting”!).

For those of you who do find this new type of discount fascinating, what do you think? Is this something you would or would not book if you had the opportunity? Do you think Disney is heading into dangerous territory playing the resort “lotto” game, or is this a great new discount that guests will embrace like they’ve embraced Priceline and Hotwire? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!

Hotel Room Sleep Strategies at Walt Disney World

by on June 23, 2011

One of my most vivid memories was the first night of an impromptu family trip to Walt Disney World. It was about 9:00 p.m. After a full day of park touring we were exhausted and ready to snuggle in for a night of rest in our room at the Contemporary Resort. Hubby and I were winding down, reading the newspaper on one bed. My then 6-year-old twins were cuddled in the other bed. And their nine-year-old sister was camped out on the daybed. I was overcome by a feeling of peace and warmth. We were a family. Together. Safe and sound and peaceful.

Needless to say, this moment of zen was short-lived. Hubby started complaining that he wanted to sleep and my light was bothering him. The twins, not used to sharing a bed, began kicking each other and making cover-hog accusations. My older daughter screamed that she wanted the noise to stop. After several rounds of musical beds, trips to the bathroom, a call to housekeeping for extra blankets, and many threats of no-Space-Mountain-tomorrow-if-you-don’t-quiet-down-RIGHT-NOW, I think we finally settled down around 11:00 p.m. So much for togetherness.

Although our room was lovely, it wasn’t the best set-up for us getting the rest we needed. Disney may say that a particular hotel room sleeps four or five (or more) people, but how do you make sure that many people can actually, well, sleep in that room?

Get the Right Size Room

When choosing a Walt Disney World hotel, most people consider price, location, and room capacity to be the key data points. However, beyond simply the number of people allowed to stay in the room, you should also consider how many separate sleep surfaces are there. For example, there are rooms sized for four people at the Wilderness Lodge which are furnished with two queen-size beds. Other rooms at the same hotel have a queen-sized bed plus two bunk beds – three distinct sleep surfaces instead of two. For a family with children of different genders, or a blended family, the extra sleep surface could greatly improve the quality of their vacation. Additional sleep surfaces may also be important for unrelated adults or multigenerational families traveling together. Make sure you reserve the version that works for you.

Standard rooms at the Grand Floridian sleep five, on three surfaces

A family of five (two adults plus three children), could have each of the kids on a separate sleep surface at the Fort Wilderness cabins or the All Star Music Family Suites. The same result could be achieved by getting two rooms with a connecting door. Connecting rooms are available at all WDW hotels (this must be requested in advance). In my family of five, we can technically stay in one room at the deluxe resorts, many of which are equipped with two queen-sized beds plus a single daybed, but we’ve learned through hard experience that we’ll all be better rested if each of the three kids has her own sleep area. Maximizing sleep surfaces cost effectively may mean making concessions in other amenities. For example, getting two rooms at a value resort (four sleep surfaces) may be comparable in cost to one room at a deluxe resort (with three sleep surfaces). You’re trading monorail access and water slides for better sleep and access to two bathrooms. Different families will find each of these options more or less appealing.

Before booking your trip, take an honest assessment of your family’s sleep needs. Does one child go to sleep much earlier than the other? Do the parents want a door between them and the sleeping children? Can siblings share a bed without fighting? Do different family members have vastly different sleep environment needs for noise, light, or temperature level? Each of these factors may influence your room requirements.

For those with nonstandard needs, there are a number of unique room types at Walt Disney World: rooms with trundle beds at Port Orleans Riverside, junior and deluxe suites at many of the hotels, units with substantial outdoor space, and multi-room villas. It can be a challenge to figure out the exact configuration of each room type on the Walt Disney World website, sometimes picking up the phone and speaking with a reservationist be a quicker route to booking for guests with specific needs. Rooms can be booked by calling 407-W-DISNEY or through a travel agent.

Modify Your Space

You may sleep easier if you make some minor modifications to your room. All Walt Disney World hotel rooms contain at least one table and two chairs. During your stay, it may make sense to rearrange these items. For example, when my kids were small, they often had difficulty falling asleep if they could see me and tell that I was still awake. If this is your situation, try positioning a chair to block you child’s sight line to you. You can also move a chair into the bathroom for similar effect. I’ve done many a crossword puzzle on a chair in a hotel bathroom while I waited for a child to fall asleep. At the value and moderate resorts, it is also possible to move a chair just outside your room door to sit there while your children are dozing. In this situation, remember to keep your room key with you at all times and be courteous to guests in neighboring rooms.

Call housekeeping if you need extra blankets or pillows

Disney does not advertise the availability of rollaway beds, but there are a very limited number of them for use in rooms that are large enough to accommodate their size. This means that you won’t be able to get a rollaway in a value resort room – there simply isn’t enough square footage – but if you need one in a deluxe room, this might be possible. While you shouldn’t count on having a rollaway, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

If a room with an extra bed isn’t available or isn’t in the budget, it may make sense to bring your own “furniture” in the form of a sleeping bag. My oldest daughter would much rather sleep on the floor than with either of her squirmy sisters. Most airlines will allow you bring an extra bag for less than $25. This fee is substantially less than any room upgrade would be. Just be sure to straighten up in the morning so that housekeeping can do their work. Also, safety dictates that you not use items such as sleeping bags to circumvent the fire code maximum number of persons per room.

Even the most minor of room modifications can help. Disney housekeeping is happy to provide extra pillows or blankets for your room. When my children have shared a bed, we’ve made good use of this service by creating a pillow “wall” between the kids and giving them each their own blanket. We’ve had more success getting them to sleep in a timely manner when they don’t have to struggle for control over the covers.

Ask for the Right Room Location and Configuration

I’ve often been asked which is the best room location at various WDW hotels. The answer to this varies greatly depending on your goals. If you want to save walk time, then being close to the food court, bus stop or pool may make sense. If you want to sleep soundly, then you may have more luck being away from the hotel’s amenities. My husband always requests a room far away from the elevator banks so that we are not disturbed by other guests speaking in the halls on their way to the parks.

You can sit right outside your hotel room door while baby falls asleep. Bring a monitor.

If you are traveling in warmer months, try asking for a room on the first floor with patio space or on an upper floor with a balcony. These outdoor areas can serve as a parental retreat while the children settle down for the evening.

Special Considerations for Babies

All Walt Disney World resort hotels allow an additional guest in each room if that guest is a child under the age of three sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play crib. Disney provides these cribs and associated bedding free of charge. However, my experience is that the younger the child, the more sensitive he or she is to variation in the sleep environment. Bringing a familiar crib sheet and blanket from home may provide an extra measure of comfort for a little one.

Many guests with crib-age children find that they can create a makeshift private room for baby in the moderate resorts. Many rooms at this price level have a feature which allows the vanity area near the bath to be enclosed via a sliding door or curtain. Setting up the crib behind the curtain may prevent the baby from being awakened by light or noise in the rest of the room. This can be especially helpful when attempting to get children to nap during the day.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

There are a number of small electronics that may improve your sleep experience in any hotel room:

  • Nightlight: Children who are wary of unfamiliar surroundings or afraid of the dark may sleep better with a nightlight on.
  • Booklight: Allows adults to stay up and read while children are falling asleep.
  • Baby monitor: If you’re planning to sit on your room’s patio or balcony while your children fall asleep, a baby monitor can keep you fully apprised of their activity level.
  • iPad, iPod, or other smart device: Download a noise machine app (I like Ambiance) to muffle ambient room sounds. Watching a stored movie on the iPad keeps the room light level lower than turning on the TV.

Explore Off-Site Alternatives

I am a strong proponent of staying inside the Disney bubble when on vacation. However, families with complicated sleep needs will likely find more varied room configurations offsite. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World includes extensive reviews of and recommendations for offsite hotels.

What’s Your Best Tip?

Is your family always able to sleep well together in one hotel room? What strategies have you used to make everyone’s nighttime routine more relaxing? Let me know in the comments below.

Expedition Everest Challenge Retrospective

by on June 23, 2011

It’s no great secret that I’m training for the 2012 Walt Disney World Half Marathon, and in a prior blog post I covered my very first Disney World race, the Beauty and the Beast Royal Family 5K.  I had a complete blast doing this race, and it only reinforced my decision to do the Half.  From that moment on though I knew that I need to have a plan for training, and that would involve running some more Disney races.  I knew they’d have to be milestones to get me past certain points – moving me closer to the goal.

Next on the list was the Expedition Everest Challenge.  This race I picked for a few simple reasons: it was a team event, and it was at night.  In my regular training I run in the morning just after sunrise, so I’m used to running in daylight.  I absolutely needed to know how night time running (read as: “in the dark”) affected the comfort zone I’d developed.  From my experience spectating, the Half Marathon will start pre-dawn and be partly run in the dark.  Also my only other milestone before the Half will be running the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Relay with AJ from the Disney Food Blog as my partner.  This is also a night time race.

For starters the Challenge is part race and part scavenger hunt.  In effect, it’s not just a physical challenge its a mental one too.  Also, as far as I can tell its the only Disney race with a backstory.  The general idea is that you’ve not signed up for a race, but rather as part of an expedition team to find the legendary Yeti.  Your expedition is lead led by “world famous” Yeti hunter Gary Ericson.

With the help of my wife, Cheryl, our friend Shalon and I registered for the Everest Challenge as a team.  She was one of the people I ran the Royal Family 5K with.  In addition to the race and scavenger hunt, each person is also registered to participate in the “Great Proclamation Party”.  This is an after party event where, in Animal Kingdom, Dinoland, USA and Expedition Everest are opened to attendees to ride as often as they like.  While not registering for the race, Cheryl also bought a ticket for the after party, plus 2 commemorative pins.  The price breakdown was as follows:

2 Person Team – $180
2 Pins – $23.44 ($11.72 each)
1 Party Ticket – $39.00
Processing Fee – $12.20
Total Cost – $254.64

And not long after the race we got our first “communique” (email) from Mr. Ericson himself.  He claimed to be transmitting to us from coordinates 27°41’N 86°43’E from the Sagarmatha Zone of northeastern Nepal.  That’s the strong backstory kicking in, as this is the region of the Himalayas where the real Mount Everest actually is.  I only ever received one more email and it contained a recorded message about the after party.  The email also contained information about checking in to the race for packet pickup, final race instructions, etc. Most importantly it gave us a taste of what the trivia challenges would be like.  The actual race questions were this level of difficulty (I’ve highlighted the answer):

When choosing a password, it’s important to pack light.


Early on race day Shalon, Cheryl, and I met at the “Base Camp”.  This is supposed to be the coordinates given above, but is actually at ESPN Wide World of Sports.  This helped a lot.  It was the first time I’d seen a course map, and they gave us another test question.  This one was much harder than any question in the actual race (I’ll leave this one for you to grok out).  And after signing the sign in board, we headed to the Turf Club to meet our friend Cliff for an early dinner as we didn’t want to race on a full stomach.

After dinner we dropped Shalon’s car off at Animal Kingdom, and then headed to our hotel to change for the race.  Having some extra time we decided to to a quick flyby of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and play a quick round of Toy Story Mania before heading over to Animal Kingdom for the race.  It was really good that we had commandeered a plane to get us around so quickly.  Once there we met up with some friends in the pre-race area.

The race course is interesting.  A 5K is just over 3 miles, and fully 1 mile of this race is complete from just running around the entire parking lot of Animal Kingdom – before you even set foot in the park.  Your running time is about 50% in the park and about 50% backstage – and backstage running is lots of fun.  You spend 1 mile running to Conservation Station, and then the last mile running back out to the finish line.  There’s not a lot of complexity to the course, but there are fun little bits along the way to remind you of being on the trail of the Yeti.

The biggest question is always about the obstacles.  And going in to the race, I really had no idea what to expect.  I’d heard of a prior year where it rained and participants were crawling through mud wading through water.  I was hoping that it wouldn’t be that harsh.  And guess what it wasn’t.  However, if you’re not comfortable with them, the physical challenges can be skipped.  I will tell you that there are 3 challenges, one near the end of each mile.  The first was hurdling over hay bales, the second was speed training with tires, and the 3rd you had a choice: you could either crawl under a rope net or over a rope wall.

Never having done the tires before ever, I did miss and fall once, but was back on my feet quickly. Shalon and I blessed our Otterbox iPhone cases (I was carrying both phones at the time) before moving on.  And we chose to go over the rope wall at the end.  The rope wall was honestly the most dangerous of the three as the crowd was not well managed or courteous – someone actually tried to push Shalon down the wall once she got to the top.  But more dangerous than any of the challenges was the sand at the points where we had to run over grass – bad footing can equal a sprained ankle.  At each of the obstacles there was a first aid station with castmembers on hand to assist.

As soon as you pass the finish line for the race, you are handed your first puzzle and a marker. The puzzles come on a card and indicate where you should go to turn them in once you’ve solved it.  When you turn it in you’ll get your next puzzle.  Keep in mind that at this point you’re still being timed.  The challenge has three times: the race, the scavenger hunt, and a total time.  There were four puzzles, and their answers, when combined, provided you the answer to the final master puzzle. Once solved, you can cross the final finish line where you can get some food and rehydrate before joining the Great Proclamation Party.

I can’t recommend this race enough – it’s got the best medal ever.  And it challenges both your body and your mind, and was a lot of fun.  It’s one of the races I get asked about the most, which is why I love to talk about it.  If I wear my Expedition Everest Challenge shirt I get stopped in stores by people who have heard about it and are curious – I spent 15 minutes talking about it with strangers in a drugstore one day.  Castmembers ask a lot of questions about it too.  It is important to stress the fun of this event.  5K is a basic run, and you are given plenty of time to finish it even if you’re walking. Most importantly I learned not to fear the night.  Or the Yeti.

What about you? Have you run a 5K?  Done the Everest Challenge?  Want to do either?  Planning to run another Disney race?  Think you can take down the Yeti?  Come on over, he’s at my place all the time playing pinochle with DisneyDoggie because he doesn’t work.

More Park Schedule Updates For July Through December

by on June 23, 2011

A week of steady changes to park hours and park schedules for Walt Disney World continues. After updating the crowd calendar for the last round of changes, the schedules were updated once again. Our crowd calendar now reflects the most recent update of park hours and park schedules but we would not be surprised if further updates are on their way.

January park hours and schedules were officially released but most of the information provided is bare-bones and certinaly not close to what the acutal hours of operation will be come the new year. Once the information includes all the appropriate schedule information (Fantasmic!, Magic Kingdom parades and fireworks, park hours) we will update January 2012 as well.


The Magic of Taking a Break

by on June 22, 2011

Here at and the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World we are constantly touting the benefits of taking a midday break form the parks.   Most of our Touring Plans have breaks built into them, encouraging guests to get a respite from the hustle and bustle of the parks.   A day of hitting attractions can be an exhausting undertaking so anything you can do to ease your pain is worthwhile!

You may be saying to yourself but why waste all that valuable park time when you’ve paid for your admission.  A couple hours out of the heat will do wonders for your groups’ morale.  Would you rather have a child who’s had a nap staying up past their normal bedtime to catch the fireworks, or one who’s had to tough it out all day?  I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I know how cranky my nieces and nephew get when they are wiped out.  That’s not to say we adults don’t need a rest from time to time as well!  It is amazing how rejuvenating a little rest and relaxation provides when I escape the parks (especially during the hot and busy mid-day hours).  A quick nap and my whole body feels better and I’m ready for the evening’s festivities!

A nap isn’t the only option, though.  How about a swim at your resort pool?   A few weeks ago I wrote about

Photo by Deanna Simmons

some of my favorites, and I’m sure you would find them to be a great getaway from the typical pace of a day at Disney World.  If you aren’t inclined to getting wet, how about lounging poolside for a while?  Maybe with a good book or your kindle and a cocktail.  Spending some time back at your resort no matter what your activity is a great way to take a breather.

To make taking a break back at your resort less time consuming, I recommend using your own car or a rental car to get around Walt Disney World.  This way, you won’t have to wait in like for a bus multiple times or stop at other resorts which can really eat away at your relaxation time.   If you have your own wheels you can create your own schedule and not have to rely on anyone else to get you from one point to another in a timely fashion.  You will also have more time to actually relax during your break too.  Of course, you can still use Disney transportation to move around WDW without a problem, you will just spend a bit more time doing so.

If you don’t want to haul all the way back to your resort there are plenty of restful options.  If you are at the Magic Kingdom or Epcot why not take a few laps on the monorail?  If they are not too crowded you should be able to sit comfortably in air conditioning for a while until you are ready to journey back into the parks.  The boat transportation offered at both of these parks as well as Disney’s Hollywood Studios would also provide a great place to sit down for a while.  I am partial to boats and being on the water puts me at ease, so this sounds like a great plan to me!

Perhaps you’d like to visit a nearby resort.  Guests can explore the lobbies and scenery at various resorts to escape the parks for a while.  May you’ve never been to the Polynesian before, well there’s no time like the present to check it out!  There is plenty of indoor air conditioned seating as well as chairs along the beach where you can watch the world go by.  The Boardwalk Inn’s lobby is another favorite of mine with its seaside theme I find very relaxing.  All of the resorts also have their own stores for guests to browse.  Some of these retail outlets offer unique items you won’t find elsewhere.  When all else fails you can head to the resort bar to hang out for a while.  My friends and I will often hop on the monorail from the Magic Kingdom to grab a drink from one of the surrounding hotels in the late afternoon.  It has been a great way to create our own little happy hour, especially since alcohol is not served in the Magic Kingdom.

Photo Provided by the Disney Food Blog

Heading to a resort for a leisurely lunch break is also a great idea.  Your party can wander around the resort of a few minutes before sitting down for a nice, quiet meal.  The restaurants in the resorts are often less crowded, making it easier for the cast members to accommodate your group.  Advanced dining reservations are more readily available at these eateries and sometimes you can even walk up without prior arrangements and be seated.  You will also not feel as rushed to clear the table and get back to the park if you’ve made the journey to a hotel restaurant. If you would rather stay in the park, there are obviously a ton of lunch choices.  I really recommend taking the time to have a table service meal midday if your plan is to stay in the park all day.  You will still get an hour or so of rest before heading back out into the heat and crowds.

These are just a few examples of ways to escape the often frantic pace of touring one of the WDW theme parks.  After a break you and your family will feel refreshed and ready to take on more attractions!  You could be the family who is genuinely smiling for photos late in the day, or you could be the family who is too exhausted to enjoy themselves.  It is amazing what a few hours out of that busy and often overwhelming can do!  What about you?  What are your favorite things to do during a mid-day break from the parks?  Let me hear your suggestions in the comments!




Touring Plans and Breakfast – You Can Do Both

by on June 20, 2011

A few weeks back, I wrote about my diverging interests in early morning touring and the desire to have a fulfilling breakfast while on vacation.  At Walt Disney World, those two things tend to work in opposition to each other, which makes grabbing breakfast very difficult.  So, on a recent trip, I took a look at ways to meld the two, specifically at the Studios. 

Where's the coffee?

The Studios is, in my opinion, the park that it is most essential to arrive at early.  With Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror and Rock N’ Roller Coaster all among the rides that can fill up quickly, the first few moments at the Studios can be crucial.  Now add the all new Star Tours to the mix, and the Studios becomes an early morning madhouse.  

The Studios touring plans confirm this.  The majority of plans that presume you want to ride all attractions have guests start at Toy Story Mania for Fastpasses, then over to Rock N’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror before moving over into the Echo Lake area for Star Tours, with either the Great Movie Ride or Voyage of the Little Mermaid in between.  So how do you meld that with your desire to have a quick breakfast? 

The menu at Fairfax Fare for breakfast

Let’s start at the beginning.  The touring plans  will call for an arrival at the Studios 30 minutes before the park opens, which will typically be around 8:30 a.m.  On most days the Studios will allow guests into the park and hold them at the end of Hollywood Boulevard.  If that happens, one option is to grab something just inside the gates, next to Oscar’s Service Station.  The stand is so new that it doesn’t have a name yet, but look for the “Ice Cool” signs and you’ll find coffee, pastries and more. 

The first step on the touring plan is to head to Toy Story Mania for Fastpasses.  There’s nothing really in Pixar Place that is going to help you out if you’re hungry.  However, the next step is to head down Sunset Boulevard.  There you have a couple of options.  Fairfax Fare offers breakfast, including egg sandwiches on an English muffin.  They’re nothing special, but if you’re looking for protein, that’s your best option.  Also, outside of the Tower of Terror exit, there is a stand featuring coffee and pastries.  

Coffee stand at the exit of Tower of Terror

But let’s say you did have an early breakfast at your hotel, maybe some cereal or something, and you get hungry after all of this.  If you want to grab a mid-morning coffee and snack, your best bet is one of two options that will keep you on the touring plan.  As you leave Sunset Boulevard, Starring Rolls is directly on your right.  There you can get all kinds of pastries or even a cupcake.  

If you’re headed over to Voyage of the Little Mermaid next, take the time to go to the end of Mickey Avenue, and grab something from the Writer’s Stop.  I could write a whole review of that place, but they have real coffee, short lines and a comfortable seating area.   You could grab what you need and head on back to the queue line for Mermaid without too much fuss. 

Pastries on display at Writer's Stop

So, you can see that there is a way to combine your breakfast nosh with a commando touring plan.  I must admit, I wasn’t sure if that was possible.  However, on my recent trip, I did this by having a sandwich from Fairfax Fare then a late morning snack from Starring Rolls.  I have to note as well that all of the places listed except for Fairfax Fare serve real coffee, not Nescafe as most other Disney quick service stands do. 

What about you?  How would you combine a touring plan morning with the need to grab breakfast?

New Winnie The Pooh Meet & Greet

by on June 19, 2011

Winnie the Pooh is one of a few characters in the Disney pantheon that is older than Mickey Mouse himself. Created by author A. A. Milne, he debuted in the book “Winnie-the-Pooh” on October 14, 1926 (my birthday!).  Pooh himself along with the other characters were inspired by his son, the real life Christopher Robin, and his son’s stuffed toys.  These original stuffed toys can be found in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library.  Though the name may seem odd, it is actually a combination of two names: a bear named “Winnie” who had been the mascot for the Winnipeg regiment of the Canadian Army, and a swan the family had met while on vacation named “Pooh”.

It wasn’t until 1961 that Walt Disney Productions licensed both the film rights and several other rights from both Steven Slesinger, Inc. – who had purchased some rights to the character in 1930 – and the Estate of A. A. Milne.  And though there have been several legal issues resulting, from this moment forward Winnie the Pooh and friends have been a part of the Disney family of characters.  Over the course of the next few years, Disney made several cartoons and featurettes including my personal favorite “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” which is featured in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction (named after the 1977 movie) at Magic Kingdom along with others.

Now, after 50 years of Winnie the Pooh and friends being a part of the Disney family, they are starring in an all new movie simply named after the cuddly old bear himself, “Winnie the Pooh“.  If you’ve followed the movies and featurettes over the years you’re likely familiar with the fact that the stories in these are drawn from the original works of Milne and strung together into a combined story.  Pooh is out of honey.  Eeeyore has lost his tail, home, or whatever.  Owl has poor reading comprehension.  The best laid plans backfire.  But, everything works out in the end.  Everyone remains friends.  Always.  And somehow we all feel a little wiser and warmer on the inside.  Espeically our tummies.  These are the core themes of every Winnie the Pooh adventure.

To celebrate this release, Disney has decided to showcase Winnie the Pooh himself at a Meet & Greet in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  Replacing Lotso – the crazed, evil bear from the Pixar movie “Toy Story 3” – you can find him inside The Magic of Disney Animation building.  While several characters have been in this location previously, recently they’ve gone to what seems to be great lengths to theme this area strongly for the showcased characters.  This time around they’ve done a fantastic job.

When you enter the queue you pass by the spine of a book titled “Winnie The Pooh” because you’re supposed to be climbing into the story book itself in order to meet with the character.  Like the classic novel, this book starts with a map of the Hundred Acre Wood, the place where Pooh and his friends live.  On it you’ll find the homes of Pooh, Eeeyore, Owl, and Rabbit as well as the places they visit.

If you look around the walls you’ll immediately see that you’re walking along the pages of the book itself (not the entire book, just a few key pages).  You’ll see Eeeyore and read about his lost tail, and Kanga’s attempt to replace it.  You’ll see the pit that Pooh and his friends get trapped in and the clever manner in which they escape.  You’ll also see pictures of Pooh’s dreams about honey, and screens that draw characters like Rabbit, Kanga, and Christopher Robin.

Then after waiting, you come out to be face-to-face with Winnie the Pooh himself.  You’ll find yourself standing in front of his home as indicated by the “Mr. Sanders” sign above the door – a remnant left behind by the previous tenant.  If you look around the theming goes just a bit beyond the painted cardboard facade – there are layers to it and some pieces are not flat.  A portion of the carpet has been replaced to feel like the grass and leave covered floor of the woods themselves.

If you look around you’ll also notice two somewhat “animated” portions of the meet and greet.  First, you’ll notice that Pooh is not alone.  His best friend Piglet has come by to visit, but somehow poor Piglet has gotten himself stuck inside a beehive.  Occasionally he will shake in order to try and escape and even shout to Pooh for help.  The other is a pot of “Hunny” that is designed to appear to be floating around by a single red balloon, but is actually controlled by a system of pulleys.  You will notice a blackboard with the word “TAEL” on it, and object under it that may be another replacement for Eeyore’s missing tail.

Disney could have simply stuck Pooh next to a cardboard tree and called it a day, but instead they went the extra mile.  Taking the time to theme the meet & greet the way they did shows their love and dedication toward the characters created by Milne, and what he was trying to represent with them.  And I can’t thank them enough for this.

What about you? Are you a fan of Winnie the Pooh?  Are you looking forward to meeting with him?  Have you yet?  At this meeting or another?  Are you looking forward to the new movie?  Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?