Friday, April 11, 2014

Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival: What I Ate.

It might sound funny to highlight a post about Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival by mentioning food, but trust me, the new food booths are the best thing to hit Flower and Garden since, well, since flowers.  Disney started small last year, with just a few food booths, but they've added more this year. Now almost every pavilion has something to offer. Here are a few items you'll find.

Frushi from Japan.

Frushi, basically fruit sushi, was a big surprise, a delightfully refreshing option with a subtle taste.  A homemade fruit roll takes the place of seaweed, with coconut infused, lightly-sweetened rice and chunks of cool fruit making up the filling. It's served with a side of whipped cream, but it really doesn't need it. I have been craving this ever since.

The Piggylicious Cupcake.

You'll find this cupcake at the Smokehouse Barbeque and Brew kiosk at the American pavilion. This is the one pavilion where we wanted to try everything, and it mostly came through for us.  As for the cupcake, despite the praise I'd seen elsewhere, it didn't live up to the hype.  A yellow cupcake flavored with bacon and topped with maple icing and crushed pretzels.  A good idea, right? Unfortunately its more smoke than bacon. Everyone in our group agreed it was a "must not do."

Pork Slider and the Turkey "Rib."

The pork slider, also at the Smokehouse, was a big surprise. It's a meaty barbequed pork sandwich with cole slaw on a big bun. It's a regular size sandwich, not a tiny serving like some of the items you'll find at these booths, so bring your appetite. I live in North Carolina so I know my barbeque and this definitely passed the test.

The same cannot be said for the turkey "rib," which is essentially a small turkey leg. Really, the taste is fine, it's more the idea behind it that doesn't really work. Well, it might work if you eschew pork and have a hankering for a rib experience. However, you're probably better off sticking with tofu and passing on this.

Shrimp and Grits.

This was my favorite item both this year and last, making the Florida booth a must-do on everyone's list. It's pan-seared shrimp, chorizo, and grits, a traditional shrimper's breakfast from the Carolinas.  As I said above, I live in North Carolina and if you know Southern food, you've probably heard of Bil Neal and Crook's Corner, which is just a few miles from my house and considered the birthplace of new Southern cooking.  Crook's Corner is famous for its shrimp and grits but this little tiny food booth blows their recipe out of the water any day of the week! If you've never had this dish, give it a try. It's a real treat that might spoil you for an other rendition of this dish.

Watermelon Salad.

Also from the Florida booth, this watermelon salad was huge surprise. It's served with greens, goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction. Everything about this dish was perfect, with each ingredient adding to the dish as a whole. The goat cheese was so mild it was like butter! The balsamic reduction was tangy and contrasted nicely with the sweet melon.  Looking back, you could make a delicious meal at the Florida booth--in fact, I think I will next time.

I tried a few other items but the only one that really stands out is the Taco al Pastor in Mexico. This has spicy pork and a pineapple salsa on a corn tortilla. I absolutely loved it. I'd have taken a picture, but I had a small disaster right after I bought it which involved breaking my phone. However, the taco was good! Maybe not worth dropping my phone over though.

As if Flower and Garden wasn't an enjoyable enough experience, the addition of food booths really puts it over the top, feeding all your senses. Now you can go and enjoy a few noshes and drinks while you get inspiration for your own gardens back home. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Latest on the Polynesian Disney Vacation Club Construction

I was just over at the Polynesian Resort this past weekend and I wanted to share some pictures with you. Construction is coming right along with four bungalows already framed and what looks like at least a dozen more planned, all the way across to the Ticket and Transportation Center.

 You can see from the picture below where the other bungalows will be.

This will take up a very substantial area of beachfront, as you can see below.

Fortunately, a large portion of the beach will remain undisturbed right off of the pool area.

We stood out in a third floor stairwell to get a better view. From there, we could see what looks like some sort of building, perhaps a restroom next to a smaller pool?  That would make sense given that most DVC resorts have a smaller pool on that portion of the property. In addition, the  main pool at the Polynesian resort is very small.

Here's a closer view of these two-bedroom bungalows.

We've been told these rooms will be for DVC rental only and won't be released in to cash inventory, which makes sense given how few we expect will be built. Studios, which will presumably sleep for and from floor plans appear to be the largest on property, and one-bedroom units will also be available.

As noted in the previous update and as you can see from the photos, there's a ton of construction going on here. The main building will be undergoing an extensive refurbishment and the volcano pool will be closing in August for the next six months at a minimum. If you're planning a stay here (and I am, despite the construction), just be aware of these changes. On a positive note, the Neverland kids club will re-open this month, presumably under the new "Club Disney" moniker, which will change much of the theming.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fastpass+ Advanced Selections Extended to Offsite Guests

If it seems like there's a change to Fastpass+ every day, you're right. This $1.5 system is huge and it's changing how you tour the parks.  The  newest twist according to the rumor mill? Starting March 31st, offsite guests (also known as "day guests" in Disney speak) will be allowed to make their Fastpass+ selections online up to 30 days in advance, a change from having to make them in the park the day of their visit. This means shorter lines at the Fastpass+ kiosks in the parks, as well as the ability to do more precise planning. Currently, annual pass holders staying offsite are also able to schedule 30 days in advance.

Offsite guests won't get a MagicBand, but they will be available for purchase. Instead, they'll use their ticket, which contains an RFID chip, the same way onsite guests use their MagicBands.  No word yet on the price, but if it's under $10 or so, I can see guests buying these bands--they're super convenient.

So how does this all work? Starting at 30 days prior to arrival, offsite guests will be able to go to and select their fastpasses. They'll get up to 3 per day (in one park only) and they can link their passes with friends, just like onsite guests.  Then they can make adjustments right up until they use those passes, provided that there are still fastpass times available.  They can also use the app on their smartphone to make adjustments on the go.  For those guests who do not have a smartphone, a limited number of Fastpass+ kiosks will be available for use in the parks.

While this is a step in the direction of giving offsite guests the same privileges as those who stay on site, some have criticized Disney for not limiting the benefits of making fastpass selections in advance to onsite guests, noting that they pay a premium for rooms on Disney property and they should be rewarded in some way for it. I can see some validity to that argument: Disney has chosen to "democratize" the fastpass selection experience, taking away the edge that onsite guests have enjoyed for nearly a year. Not everyone is going to like it.  However, onsite guests still have a 30 day head start on their offsite counterparts.  Of course, those onsite guests who come to the party late and make fastpass selections closer to travel, and to be honest, many of my clients (and I) do this, will have to be more proactive.

How do you feel about these changes? If you're an offsite guest, will you use the system at 30 days? If you normally stay onsite, do you wish the privilege had been restricted to onsite guests only?  I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge

The Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge opened last fall in Hollywood Studios and since then, it's become a popular location to meet up for drinks and snacks. Located right outside the restaurant, the lounge is a cozy spot with just about a dozen tables.  At present, you can't make dining reservations for this location, but it's open all day so if it's crowded when you get there, go on a ride or take in a show and then try again later.  Kids are welcome, of course, but the menu is very grown-up and drinks are served. It's more of a "bar" than a restaurant, so little ones might be bored.

We arrived at opening and had our pick of the tables.  Service was a bit inattentive to start, but picked up later; nothing we could really complain about. In general, I find that most Disney servers are top notch, and while our server wasn't the best, she was still perfectly good at her job.

Since we weren't super hungry, we split two entrees among the three of us.  The menu falls somewhere between a tapas-style menu and full entrees.  Think sliders and cheese plates, but more upscale. For example, the tacos on the menu are not your ordinary tacos, but rather are made with duck confit.  You can also get the Brown Derby's famous Cobb salad, desserts, and specialty drinks.  We settled on the Derby Sliders and the Artisanal Cheeses and Charcuterie Board for Two

The burgers came in two flavors, a more traditional burger with bacon, mustard aoli, cognac-mustard aioli, smoked gouda cheese, and avocado and another topped with house-made chorizo chipotle mayo, manchego cheese, pickles and crispy onions. I absolutely loved the first burger, with toppings that complimented each other beautifully. There was simply nothing I would change, right down to the brioche bun. The chorizo topped burger, on the other hand, was a bit overpowering and tasted more like a really great sloppy Joe. Honestly, I think that was more a matter of personal taste--to me, a bit of chorizo goes a long way. Others may well love this burger. Even so, I thought both were terrific and I would get them again.

The cheese and charcuterie board came with assorted soft and hard cheeses, as well as salami and a clever little pot of chicken "faux gras" which was absolutely delicious.  Another winner, I would order this again as well.

Hollywood Studios is a park with some really great table-service restaurants, but it's quick-service locations are lacking. The Brown Derby Lounge fills a much needed space somewhere in between, with sophisticated bites, comfortable seats, and great people watching.  I'm so pleased that Disney made such good use of this small space. It's bound to become a favorite meeting place in the park.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Villas at the Grand Floridian.

The newest in property in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) collection opened at the Grand Floridian last fall and it's been at almost full capacity since.  While DVC owners have priority when booking rooms, you can stay here on a cash basis as well if you book well in advance. Since it's a new property, you won't find any discounts yet, but you will enjoy the most luxurious accommodations Disney has to offer, just a short walk from the Magic Kingdom monorail and one away stop from that beloved park.

Most DVC properties are attached to a deluxe resort and in this case, it's the Grand Floridian, Disney's flagship resort. It's about a five minute walk from the DVC lobby to the pool and about five more minutes to the Grand Floridian lobby. As a guest, you'll enjoy the Grand's pools as well as the resort's other amenities.

This DVC property has deluxe studios and one, two and three-bedroom villas. Both the studios and the one-bedroom villas sleep five. The two-bedroom villas sleep nine and the three-bedroom villas sleep twelve. You'll find full kitchens and a washer/dryer set up in the one, two and three- bedroom units.

The kitchens are small, as you might expect, but they have gorgeous cabinets and stainless steel appliances.  I really appreciated the marble counter tops and attention to detail in the backsplash.

The rooms also have a mixture of carpet, wood flooring, and ceramic tile that make it feel more like a comfortable, well-appointed home than a vacation rental.

The bathrooms are gorgeous, with soothing colors, subway tile, and deep tubs. This one comes with air jets.

Disney has learned a lot about what guests want since they started building their own hotels in 1971, and one thing guests want? Lot of storage space.  These little ottomans open up to hide toys or whatever else you may want to secret away when not in use.

These clever twin-sized beds fold out from underneath the television in the living room.

The bathrooms have a nice amount of storage space as well, with roomy counter tops  (I'm looking at you, Bay Lake Tower). 

And that image in the mirror? It's a television, so you can watch from the bathtub. The studios have a comfy couch that folds out into a double bed.

I'll admit it, I've tried but I can't find any downsides to this resort other than the price. The location is prime, it looks gorgeous, and the cast members are the same excellent cast members you'll find anywhere on property.  If you love the Grand Floridian, you owe it to yourself to book a stay at the villas. Yes, it's pricey. But the accommodations are bucket-list level and worth the cost, if only once.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

New Disney Room Discount for Summer 2014 and Free Gift Card Offer.

Starting March 17, Disney will once again be offering a round of room discounts to the general public. Here are the details:

  • Save up to 30% when you stay up to 5 nights.
  • Save  up to 35% when you stay 6 nights or longer.
  • Add 6 day or more tickets to your Magic Your Way package and you'll receive an additional discount.
  • Travel dates are June 15th through August 26th.
  • You must book this discount between March 12-June 6, 2014.
To sweeten the deal, book with me and receive the following:

  • All trips worth $2000 to $3000 will receive a $25 gift card and a monogrammed Disney tote.
  • Trips worth $3001 to $4000 will receive a $50 Disney gift card and a monogrammed tote.
  • Trips worth $4501 and up will receive a $75 Disney gift card and tote.
  • Trip totals do not include airfare or insurance and are based on the FINAL amount at the time of travel. 
  • All trip totals with tickets must include at least a 3-day ticket. Room only totals need only meed the above requirements to qualify for a gift card and tote. 
  • All trips worth over $1000 will receive a monogrammed Disney tote.

 Remember, my services are free! To request a no-obligation quote, please call 919-889-5281 or email me at ChrisW@PixieVacations. I'll need to know the following:

  • Your resort choice(s)
  • Number in your party, including children's ages
  • Travel dates
  • Whether you want tickets and/or the dining plan

You may also click on the quote form on the right.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Does Fastpass+ Make Staying On Property a Better Deal?

It used to be, when a potential client called about booking an off site room, I had to try pretty hard to put them into a hotel on Disney property. The reason for this is pretty obvious to anyone who's ever booked a hotel room in Orlando: Disney rooms are, for the most part, more expensive per square foot than off-site hotels. Sure, you can talk about tangible benefits, like transportation and extra park hours, as well as intangibles like "being in the magic," but I've found that if a visitor is intent on paying a set amount for a certain type of room, it's next to impossible to talk him into staying on property.

Until now.

What's changed? Fastpass+ and the MagicBands. And much as I've fussed about having to pick my own fastpasses 60 days in advance, the truth is that the MagicBands have become a huge selling point for guests. Briefly, off site guests are currently required to make their fastpass selections when they enter the park. Often, this means standing in long lines and a limited selection. More often than not, that selection becomes more and more limited as the morning passes, with few if any fastpass options available by mid-day.  In short, having the ability to choose your fastpasses ahead of time, in the comfort of your own home, has become a game-changer.

I'm not going to argue whether or not the new fastpass system is fair. After all, Disney is a business, not some benevolent uncle sent to make all your dreams come true, although it can sometimes feel that way.  I've heard a lot of complaints from those who stay off site, particularly those who own local timeshares, that Disney is marginalizing off site guests.  I can see some validity in this argument, but in the end, Fastpass+ is just good business.  And why shouldn't a company maximize their profits?

For all its bumps and hiccups, Fastpass+ just made your theme park experience run a lot more smoothly. It also, in some respects, evened the playing field. It used to be, many guests didn't even bother with fastpasses--they simply didn't know they needed them. Now, more guests than ever are using fastpasses, and more importantly, they're using them them correctly.  This probably means better crowd control in the long run, although I'm not sure that statement has been proven correct just yet.  What we do know is that right now, it's giving an advantage to on-site guests.

Will Disney eventually extend the ability to book fastpasses in advance to off-site guests? That remains to be seen. So far, Disney has only stated that it will happen "in the future." What do you think?  Does Fastpass+make you more inclined to stay on site? And if you stay off site, how do you feel about this? I'd love to hear.