Posts Tagged ‘disney tours’

Free Tour Series: Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge

by on February 17, 2012

Wilderness Lodge Lobby

Beetle-eaten (already dead) wood is used throughout the resort.

There are over 20 tours available at Walt Disney World, and many of them come with hefty price tags (such as the $199 Holiday D-Lights tour). However, what many guests don’t realize is that there are also several free tours on property. I’m going to spend my next few reviews focusing on these complimentary tours, starting with my all-time favorite – Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge.

Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge is a free, 1-hour tour which helps guests learn about the design and backstory of the Wilderness Lodge Resort and the neighboring Wilderness Lodge Villas. You do not need to be a guest of the resort to take the tour; everyone is welcome.

One of the major differentiators between Disney resorts and offsite hotels is theming – those special Imagineering touches that help immerse guests in their home away from home. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is one of (if not the) most heavily themed resorts in Disney’s collection worldwide, making it the perfect setting for a tour.

The morning of my recent Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour, my friend and I showed up thinking we were old pros. We’d both done the tour before, but I wanted to experience it again to make sure it was still worth recommending. After standing in the wrong place for 10 minutes, we quickly discovered a re-review was certainly warranted – times they are a-changin’! Apparently, tour guests now meet in front of the Grand Canyon Fireplace in the Lodge’s Lobby at 9am.

Carolwood Pacific Room

The Wilderness Lodge Villas were inspired by the railroad hotels built out west during the 1940s Gold Rush.

Our tour group consisted of only us and one other lady who left halfway through, leaving us with a private tour. I’ve found this to be par for the course for the free resort tours, since mosts guests aren’t aware they exist. I personally love small groups because it gives me more opportunity to ask questions.

We were lucky enough to have the main tour guide, Jack, who returned to leading the tour in Spring 2011 after spending several years working on the Concierge Floor. Jack is one of the two Cast Members who lead the tour. He was trained by the late, great Ranger Stan, who led the tour before retiring in 2010.

We started off with a brief history of the Lodge and how it was inspired by Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and other National Park lodges. From the lobby, we headed over to the Wilderness Lodge Villas to visit the Carolwood Pacific Room. This room is dedicated to Walt’s fascination with steam trains. (If you want to know more about Walt Disney and trains, I highly recommend the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour at Magic Kingdom.)

Carolwood Pacific Room

Next, we walked back to the Wilderness Lodge lobby to the Territory Lounge. The Territory Lounge is home to one of my favorite items on display in Disney World – a U.S. flag from 1861. President Abraham Lincoln was the only president to serve under this 34-star flag.

We also went into the Artist Point restaurant – which doesn’t open until much later in the day. The restaurant overlooks the Lodge’s outdoor waterfall as well as Bay Lake. Here we learned about the restaurant’s furnishings and the large mural set above the main dining area, which includes a Hidden Mickey.

To wrap up, we made our way up to the 5th floor to get an aerial view of both the main lobby and the pool. Our tour ended promptly at 10am with a viewing of a Fire Rock Geyser eruption, which can be seen throughout the day, on the hour, near the shore of Bay Lake.

Grand Canyon Fireplace

This fireplace's stone is designed to reflect the strata of the Grand Canyon.

While a bit out of the way, I truly believe all Disney World visitors should take the time to experience this tour for themselves. The Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour’s content rivals that of any of the paid tours, and it manages to do so within an hour and for free. Free! This just might be the best deal on property. You don’t even need a park ticket!

At first, I was a bit hesitant about this tour because I knew the resort’s theme was strongly tied to American history, which I find painfully boring. However, it does a wonderful job of appealing to a wide variety of people. This tour is great for anyone interested in learning more about the Wilderness Lodge, Imagineering, architecture, or the history of the American West.

This tour is also a perfect way to spend a quiet morning away from the hustle and bustle of the parks. I love following it up with a late breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe, but you could also take a boat or hike over to Fort Wilderness for an early lunch at Trail’s End. Walt Disney World is so much more than the parks; little experiences like the Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge make it a truly unique vacation destination worth visiting over and over.

While this tour is open to all ages, I would not recommend it for children. You don’t walk very far, but there is a good bit of standing still and listening to facts. If your kids fall asleep in the American Adventure – they’re not going to appreciate having to stand for an hour-long history lesson without even seeing any smoking audio-animatronics. (Every time I take this tour, I have flashbacks to the American Adventure. Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir both came up in our discussion.)

Territory Lounge Light Box

The Territory Lounge is lined with light boxes, including this one representing Teddy Roosevelt.

Have you already tried the tour? Try it again! I’ve been on this tour twice with the same guide and learned at least 60% new information the second time around. I didn’t even think that was possible. We didn’t mention we had done the tour before, but the guide knows so much about the resort – there is always something new. However, it is worth noting that if you go during the holidays, the tour does not discuss the seasonal decorations at either the Lodge or the Villas.

Overall, I can’t recommend this tour enough. It is definitely worth the time and effort to get to the Wilderness Lodge, which is worthy of a visit even without the tour. I took my non-Disney fan sister on the tour a few months ago, and even she agreed that it was one of the best tours we’ve done to date.

The Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour is currently offered at 9 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the lobby.  No reservations are accepted, guests need only to show up to attend. The tour is open to all ages and lasts 1 hour. As resort activities can change monthly, check the Wilderness Lodge Resort Activites Calendar or call (407) 824-3200 to confirm the tour schedule.

Have you tried the Wonders of the Wilderness Lodge tour?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

Sunrise Safari Tour Review

by on February 6, 2012

Recently I had the pleasure of embarking on the Sunrise Safari Breakfast Adventure in Animal Kingdom. The Sunrise Safari is an exclusive tour offering guests an extended 45-60 minute ride on the Kilimanjaro Safaris prior to park opening followed by a private breakfast buffet at Pizzafari.

Why is it so exclusive? Because this tour is available only to Concierge Level guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Furthermore, it’s only offered two days a week: Thursdays and Sundays at 7am. (Despite its name, the Sunrise Safari operates independently of the sunrise schedule.)

Unlike most Walt Disney World tours, this one is open to all ages. Current prices, including tax, are as follows, and no discounts are available:

  • Adults ages 10+: $65
  • Children ages 3-9: $32.50
  • Children under 3: Free

Native birds flock to eat food intended for the Kilimanjaro Safari animals

Tour guests must check in at the Kilimanjaro Club (the concierge lounge in Jambo House) between 6:30-7am the morning of the tour. Tour check in was hands down the worst part of our Sunrise Safari. Not only was it at an unholy hour, but the check in process turned into a bit of a mess.

The morning of our tour, there was a line filling the small space between the concierge desk and the elevators. The 57 people on our tour were all milling about trying to get tour wristbands and coffee and read the paper and sneak breakfast before the start of the tour. You get the picture. Since the Sunrise Safari is open to all ages, there were also plenty of parents trying to navigate double strollers through the tiny lounge.

Pro Tip: Send one member of your party to check in at 6:30am. That one person just needs to bring all the ticket media for everyone in your group, since separate park admission is required for the tour. One person can have your party’s tickets scanned and collect all the wristbands. There is no reason for everyone to go to the lounge.

What about concierge breakfast you say? Kilimanjaro Club breakfast does not start until 7am. At 7am, you should be down in the main lobby with your wristbands on. Fortunately, the Pizzafari breakfast buffet is worth the wait, I promise.

Once everyone was wristbanded and in the lobby, the guides led us out to a pair of resort transportation buses waiting to whisk us away to Animal Kingdom.

Our guides were the curator and a keeper from the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Erich, the keeper, was on our bus and kept us entertained on the quick trip backstage. We learned all about the four savannas shared between Jambo House and Kidani Village. The animals at the resort keep a different schedule than those in the park. Animals in the park are called to their pens at sundown and let out again in the morning in time for park opening. On the other hand, animals at the resort aren’t rounded up until 5:30am. They are fed and then released around noon, so guests can see savannas full of animals from check-in until well past bedtime.

As we drove backstage at Animal Kingdom, Erich pointed out various areas and shared fun facts about park operations. I’ve already been backstage at Animal Kingdom on both the Backstage Safari and Backstage Magic tours, but everything we heard on the Sunrise Safari was new information.

Even though we drove backstage, the Sunrise Safari is not really a backstage tour. Those tours are usually limited to guests ages 16+ and involve stops backstage. As soon as we disembarked the buses, we walked out onstage to the standard Kilimanjaro Safari entrance.

We stayed in our two bus groups and boarded the 2nd and 3rd safari vehicles of the day. Cast Members ran one vehicle through to check the path earlier that morning, but we were the first guests.

The draw of the Sunrise Safari is that there is no rush. A normal ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris takes about 20 minutes. On the Sunrise Safari, we took a good 45 minutes to slowly work our way through the savannas. Our driver turned off the normal Warden Wilson spiel and let the guide  do all the talking.

We made our way through the normal safari route, stopping at length wherever the animals were. While stopped, guests could stand up to get a better view and take pictures. The guide shared information about all the different species we saw, as well as answered guests’ questions. The information was more detailed than anything you could get onstage, but the guide was very mindful of his wording when talking about sensitive topics (e.g., death, reproduction) due to the little ears on our tour.

When the safari was over, we all made our way to Pizzafari for a private breakfast buffet. The chef even came out to introduce the breakfast offerings before we all dug in. By this time, the park was open to the general public, so all were free to eat and leave on their own schedules. This tour ends in the park, so guests have to use regular resort transportation to go to other parks or back to the Lodge.

The breakfast buffet had a good variety of hot and cold offerings, and we were able to take our time without feeling rushed. All the food was different from what is available on the standard Pizzafari breakfast menu, and our favorite item was the fritter-like banana french toast. Several guests had special dietary concerns and were provided turkey bacon and other offerings direct from the kitchen. We were also able to order sodas from the back instead of juice, tea, or coffee.

A flock of greater flamingos head flagging as part of their hilarious mating ritual

Was it worth it?

Definitelyif you already plan on staying Club Level at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If I ever find myself living the good life again, I would make sure my stay was timed so I could do the Sunrise Safari. Several of the guests in our group had done the tour before. The breakfast alone was worth half the price.

What if you weren’t planning on staying Club Level?

If you’re already considering Animal Kingdom Lodge, and for some miraculous reason it doesn’t cost more than $20 per person to upgrade to Club Level  – do it! I was able to snag a Club Level room mid-January for less than a Standard Savanna View room in October using the same discount.

Otherwise, consider taking the Backstage Safari tour offered to all guests ages 16 and older. It is currently priced at $72 (without tax or discounts) and is a great alternative Animal Kingdom tour experience. The Backstage Safari takes guests to several backstage locations and also includes a private (albeit shorter) Kilimanjaro Safari ride during normal park hours.

Breakfast buffet spread at Pizzafari

If you do decide to try the Sunrise Safari, make sure you plan ahead. It is advisable to book early as the tour routinely fills to its capacity of 64 guests. Guests with an existing Animal Kingdom Lodge Club Level reservation can book the Sunrise Safari up to 180 days in advance by calling the Itinerary Planning Office at (407) 938-4755 (9am-6pm ET). If you have any mobility or dietary concerns, be sure to mention them when booking and when checking in for your resort stay.

I really can’t express how pleased we both were with our tour. It was most certainly up the caliber of other Walt Disney World tour offerings and presented a good value for those already planning to stay Club Level. I truly hope I have the opportunity to take the Sunrise Safari again in the future.

Have you tried the Sunrise Safari?  Do you plan on trying it out on your next trip? Let us know what you think!

Holiday D-Lights Tour Review

by on December 21, 2011

Of all the tours currently offered at Walt Disney World, none seems to be of questionable value more so than the seasonal Holiday D-Lights.

The Holiday D-Lights tour allows guests age 16 and older the unique opportunity to see Walt Disney World’s three major holiday events across three parks in one night: Cinderella Castle Lighting at Magic Kingdom, Osborne Lights at Hollywood Studios, and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. In addition, Disney adds in food and visit backstage to create a whirlwind night of holiday magic.

Holiday D-Lights is the most exclusive standard tour offered at Walt Disney World. Available only 9 nights in 2011, there were only 360 guest spaces available on this seasonal tour.

With this in mind, I made sure to book my space as soon as the Candlelight celebrity narrators were announced in June.  Since a Candlelight Processional viewing is part of the tour, I wanted to make sure I got my whole $199 worth. (Note: AAA Diamond Cardholders, Annual Passholders and DVC Members are eligible for a 15% discount. Disney VISA Cardholders receive 20% off when booking with their Disney VISA.)

Since Holiday D-Lights was only offered Monday-Wednesday for the three weeks after Thanksgiving, there weren’t many narrators to choose from. I ended up settling on a “Who’s That” as most of the big names are reserved for weekends.

Disney released an updated celebrity narrator schedule in November. As soon as I noticed my beloved Neil Patrick Harris was performing on a Monday, I called and rescheduled my tour date. (Most Disney tours can be canceled or rescheduled up to two days in advance.) Given the limited number of tour nights, I was surprised there was still availability.

Like all the Disney Institute-lead tours, Holiday D-Lights guests check in outside of Epcot in front of Guest Relations to the far right of the turnstiles. By the time I arrived at 3:45pm for the 4pm tour, the rest of the group had already shown their IDs and received their name tags and wristbands. It is important that everyone in your party brings a government-issued photo ID to check in for the tour.

After one last call for folks to use the restrooms, all 40 of us (a full tour) plus our two guides headed off to board a Disney Cruise Line bus that would serve as our chariot for the evening.

Wilderness Lodge – Whispering Canyon Café

Our first stop was the Wilderness Lodge. This was the first of several changes from previous seasons of Holiday D-Lights. 2011 was the tour’s third year of operation, and the food offering has changed each year. We started our tour off with a family-style all you care to eat meal at the Whispering Canyon.  Our meal included cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, fries, potato wedges, sausage, chicken, barbeque ribs and endless soda or tea. (Note: Guests with dietary concerns should alert the phone agent when booking the tour. Also be sure to remind the tour guides when checking in on the day of so they can make sure alternative food is available when you arrive.)

The food at Whispering Canyon was delicious as always, and I was very glad I was prepared to eat a full meal at 4:30pm that day. In previous years, Holiday D-Lights guests had a light buffet later in the tour. The guide said this year’s meal change was due to guest feedback saying that the buffet food wasn’t filling enough.

Event and Decorating Support

We headed backstage to the Event and Decorating Support warehouse straight after dinner (another schedule change from previous years). This was the first stop where we needed to use the audio headset provided to us earlier. These headsets allowed everyone to hear the guides no matter where we were standing.

Event and Decorating Support teams are responsible for the decorations for over 3,400 events a year. Not only do they handle events in Florida, but they are responsible for Disney events world-wide. They do work for corporations as well as individuals who contact Disney wanting to have Disney decorations for their events. Patrick, part of the Event and Decorating Support team, mentioned that their biggest private client is a grandfather who spends $3.5-4 million a year for his family’s Christmas celebration. That’s just for decorations!

We didn’t get to walk around very much in the warehouse, but they did have a small photo op set up exclusively for the Holiday D-Lights tour. This is noteworthy since photography backstage is an explicit no-no at Disney. On the way out, Patrick gave us all Disney Parks water bottles.

Magic Kingdom – Cinderella’s Holiday Wish Castle Lighting

Outside the Magic Kingdom, we had to stop at a security checkpoint where a guard boarded the bus and checked our bags just like they do when you enter through normal guest entrances. We did this before entering each park’s backstage area.

We entered the Magic Kingdom from a parking lot located to the right side of Main Street, U.S.A. We walked up and stopped at the entrance to the Hub just in time to see the Castle stage show lighting ceremony. (This was a major improvement from previous years, when tour guests viewed the Castle lighting from the Noodle Station near the smoking section.)

After the Castle lighting, we stopped below the 65 foot Town Square Christmas tree. Here the guide gave us a history on the tree as well as some trivia about what it takes to decorate the Magic Kingdom for the holidays. Magic Kingdom’s tree does not go up until after the taping of the Christmas Day parade. If you take Holiday D-Lights the first week it’s offered, the tree will not be in place yet.

As we boarded the bus, we each received a snowman-shaped crisped rice treat for dessert. On our drive over to the Studios, we watched a short video showing the castle lights at 4 of the 5 Disney castles across the globe. Disneyland Tokyo is the only park that does not have castle lights.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios – The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

We headed over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights next. Each year, Disney swathes the Streets of America with millions of Christmas lights that “dance” in time with holiday music. The original lights belonged to Jennings Osborne of Little Rock, Arkansas. Once Jennings was court-ordered to take them down, they found their way to Disney.

Nowadays, the original lights have all been replaced with LEDs, but the sheer magnitude of the display remains. This was probably the most informative of the park stops, as the guide spent time explaining the history of the lights and pointing out little details and tributes throughout the display. We even found the famed purple Halloween cat that is hidden in a different place each year.

We stayed long enough to see two cycles of the lights dancing (which happens every 5-7 minutes), before we had to be off to make of final stop. While this tour needed to keep to a strict schedule to fit everything into one night, it never really felt that rushed.

Epcot – Candlelight Processional

Backstage at Epcot, we passed by the tent housing all the choir groups getting ready for Candlelight Processional. Each day, there are three shows generating over 800 choir robes that have to be washed and returned for the next night.

We entered the World Showcase from behind the American Adventure. This was our last stop, so everyone was instructed to take their bags with them. The guides did offer a ride to front of Epcot after Candlelight if anyone needed it, but everyone opted to stay in the park for Illuminations (an added bonus for the tour since we were not using park admission.)

As indicated in reviews from years past, our Holiday D-Lights Candlelight Processional seating left a lot to be desired. We sat to the far left of the stage pretty far back. Unfortunately, a pole blocked the celebrity narrator. I came to see Neil Patrick Harris, darnit!

I was able to scoot around some to take photos, but the pole was definitely a distraction. As far as tour content goes, our seating location is my only gripe about the tour. I see no reason why dining package and standby guests are receiving better seats than the Holiday D-Lights tour participants who paid $199.

After the performance, we all met up in the lobby of the American Adventure. Our guides bid us farewell and handed out commemorative tour pins. The pins for the holiday tours change every year, so the 2011 Holiday D-Lights tour pin was a limited edition run of 360. (At this point, the pin collectors in the group actually started hopping up in down in excitement.)

Our tour dispersed just in time to find a spot to view the 9:30pm Illuminations with the Holiday Tag. A perfect end to (mostly) lovely evening.

Overall, I really enjoyed the tour – but at $199 for 5 hours, I can’t help but question its value.  The only tour more expensive is Backstage Magic, which is $229 for 7.5 hours. Backstage Magic takes you to 5 backstage locations, and Holiday D-Lights only takes you to Event and Decorating Support. Both tours include a meal at Whispering Canyon and don’t require separate park admission.

Unless you’re in town for a short time and want to see all 3 holiday events in one night, you probably already have some form of admission. Even if you’re only in the parks for 2 days, you could feasibly see the Castle Lighting and Osborne Lights in one night and Candlelight Processional on the other. With the money saved skipping the tour, you could even book one of the Candlelight dining packages with reserved seating.

If money is not a concern, Holiday D-Lights is a good time. If you do decide to try out the tour in 2012, here are my top tips:

  1. Book early and keep your eye on the Candlelight Processional celebrity narrator schedule for changes.
  2. When choosing a date, keep in mind that the Magic Kingdom’s Christmas tree will not be installed until after the taping of the Christmas parade (usually around the first weekend in December).
  3. If you have dietary concerns, alert the phone agent when booking.
  4. Be prepared for an early dinner (but bring along a snack just in case the tour changes again for 2012).
  5. Bring adequate clothing/rain gear depending on the weather. Disney won’t cancel the tour for rain or cold, so be prepared or be miserable. Bad weather can make Candlelight Processional the longest hour of your life.
  6. If you’re into photography, bring a telephoto lens for the Candlelight Processional. You’ll need it to get any decent shots of the celebrity narrator from the tour’s seating area.

Have you tried the Holiday D-Lights tour?  Do you plan on trying it out in 2012? Let us know what you think!