Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Dirtiest Bathroom in Walt Disney World?

Has to be the one in Mickey's Toontown Fair, the one that's called Pete's Garage? I'm not sure you can pin the blame on all the kids, since the one near It's a Small World in Fantasyland is much cleaner (right next to Ariel), but there has to be some plausable explanation for the Walmart-like conditions of this bathroom. You need hip waders in the place by midday.

Pssst. Want to find a clean bathroom in any of the themeparks? Try the ones in the baby care centers. If any of your kids are under five-years old or so, no one will notice. Restaurant bathrooms, even those that are counter-service only, are generally cleaner as well, but keep in mind that most table service places won't just let you walk in to use the bathrooms.

Just how my mind works on a day when I didn't get any sleep the night before due to little kids waking up.

A little escape from the everyday.

If you know me in real life, you know that I am far too snarky and that my parents are far too dysfunctional to have had a real wedding, which is why my husband and I did the courthouse thing. And no, there weren't any shotguns involved. I do love a good wedding however, and this is a lovely one. Carrie, code name Lurkyloo, is a very funny poster on the Disboards who also wrote a Passporter book on Disney weddings. So what's not to love, Disney and weddings? Can I get some cake? No? Well watch this video on The Knot and then go vote.

See, wasn't that fun? Now get back to work. This economy isn't going to fix itself, people.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May Crowds.

Like most Disney nerds, I'm just a little obsessed with crowd levels in the park. I just returned from a quick weekend trip to Disney World, May 15 - 17 and was pretty nervous about the crowds before I left since they were projected to be 8s and 9s by the Unofficial Guide, which I've always found to be very accurate. There's no question that they were lower than that, probably what I would normally expect for 6s and 7s. There were definitely lines for the major attractions and fastpasses were gone for Toy Story Mania and Soarin' by early afternoon, but overall, it was very manageable and some attractions were walk-ons.

Extra Magic Hours at Hollywood Studios were very light; Toy Story Mania was swamped, of course, but it was possible to walk on just about every other attraction. The Magic Kingdom was open until midnight on Saturday night and the crowds were very light, especially after 10:00 p.m. We were practically the last ones in the park when we left at about 12:45.

We were also able to get same day seating for California Grill and several popular restaurants in Epcot (didn't try our luck with Le Cellier), which probably is just a reflection of how bad the economy is than how low the crowds were. People are still coming to the parks, the buy 4/get 3 deal is keeping the resorts full, but they're not spending as much on food and, I assume, on souveniers. Keep in mind that just last year, it was practically impossible to get a reservation at California Grill a month out, so this is pretty major.

The only difference I noticed in the parks from last May was that the bathrooms were dirtier. I'm not sure if this was just bad luck or a result of cut-backs in the park, but most of the bathrooms were pretty appalling.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Car Rental Review: Ouch, that Hertz!

So, you've decided on a Disney vacation. You know that you can't control the weather or how crowded the parks are. You can't know if anyone will get sick or if you'll all hate it and wish you'd gone to the beach instead. There are a 100 little things to do to get ready for what is supposed to be a relaxing vacation, but one thing should be simple: The car rental. Unfortunately, as we found out on a recent trip to Disney, it's far from simple. This is my experience. Yours may differ.

There were three adults and three children on our trip, so I needed to rent a minivan or two smaller cars and after comparing the prices, I found that the prices were pretty comparable. Since we were staying off site and wouldn't be able to take a bus from our resort to the parks, I needed some flexibility that would allow my best friend, husband and older child stay at the parks while I took my younger children back for naps, so I rented two smaller cars. All the major car rental companies are represented at Orlando International, in case you found yourself with a burning curiousity of such things, but there's a catch: You see, only six car rental companies are right in the airport. These include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, L&M and National. If you read reviews on this sort of thing, and I do because I'm sort of nerdy, you'll find that they all come in pretty equal in terms of satisfaction except L&M, which isn't rated very high. The on-site location means that you literally grab your bags at the baggage claim, go over to the rental desk, and walk right outside to your car. This avoids the wait for a shuttle bus, loading all your stuff onto the bus, and then the, presumably short, ride to the rental car company, unloading again, and well, you get the picture. The other companies are off-site, and when I say off-site, well, pack a lunch. It could be a long ride.

Since this was a budget trip (aren't they all?), I shopped around for a car quite a bit more than I usually do. This is probably one of the few areas you are guaranteed to save money on a Disney trip and, if you're obsessed with planning Disney vacations, a little bit of a Disney fix. Since it appeared that on-site rentals were about 10 to 15 percent higher than off-site, we went with the off-site rental. We also found a coupon from Hertz that further reduced the price. I verified that the coupon was valid twice before we left because I needed to speak to Hertz customer service for some other issues anyway, and I was worried that I'd get to Orlando and find out the coupon wasn't valid.

Orlando is a pretty efficient airport; you take a shuttle that's a lot like a monorail to the baggage claim area and the car rental offices are right there, as are the rental car company shuttles. After loading all our bags and kids, which isn't as much fun as it sounds, we went out to catch the shuttle and as luck would have it, our shuttle was right there. And we were the only only waiting for it! Yay! Hey, why weren't there more people waiting for Hertz? Hmmm. Well, nevermind. The driver kindly helped us load our bags, even allowing us to keep our double stroller open so we didn't have to empty its contents. We got on the bus. And proceeded to ride. And ride.

As noted above, at MCO, the car rental places that are off-site are way off-site. Like a good 15-20 minute drive on roads that are, at times, bumpy. So when you add waiting for the shuttle, loading your bags, the ride, wrestling with kids who are not strapped down and having a great time running all over the place, unloading yourself, your bouncing children, and your stuff, looking for a cart for your stuff, and then going inside to check-in, well, you've got about a 90 minute ordeal from the baggage claim to getting in your car. And that's during the slower times of the year.

But who cares? We're in Orlando! And, as we soon found, the Hertz rental place was clean and without a doubt nicer than any rental car place I've ever been in. And empty! What luck. It took a few minutes for the two clerks to stop having their very compelling conversation to notice me and waive me over, but no matter. And that, my friends, is when my experience in the clean but not so efficient and certainly not Disney-friendly Hertz rental office goes downhill. Because it turns out that the coupon, the one I verified not once but twice, the one that I found on a site where Hertz advertises its services, is absolutely no good and even with my USAA "discount," I'm still going to pay over $700 for two cars, two carseats, and one GPS (for the husband's car, since he doesn't know Orlando very well). Maybe for a busy week this wouldn't have been such a huge deal, but this was a four day rental during one of the slowest weeks of the year!

I attempted to whip out my lawyer negotiating skills, feebly explaining that since Hertz advertises on the website where I found the coupon and that I called twice about the coupon and had two different employees told me it was valid, I thought they should honor it regardless. When this failed, I asked to speak to the supervisor, who came out about 15 minutes later. Unfortunately, she'd heard it all before and her not-so-thinly veiled lack of caring told me pretty quickly that any negotiations with this woman were pointless. Ultimately, she refused to honor the coupon. When I politely asked her why she would rather that two cars go unused this weekend, a weekend when park attendance was at its lowest and she had a full lot of cars and no customers, she shrugged and proceeded to walk away.

Hertz really has it made in this situation, particularly given the location and the type of travellers they're most likely dealing with: Tourists anxious to get to their desination, probably Disney or Universal Studios, with excited kids. They don't know the area very well and their wallets are still full or they've already spent so much they've stopped caring and gone completely numb in the wallet, a feeling most Disney travellers come to recognize very quickly. Plus, they probably won't be back to Orlando for years, if ever, so what's the point in building a relationship by offering good customer service? The prospect of gathering up your kids, loading one's luggage back onto the shuttle bus, going back to the airport and renting another car, which in itself is an unknown since you never know what kind of deal you'll get at the last minute, is pretty unappealing. I'm sure most people would have paid the extra $300 or so and chalked it up to bad luck. I might have done so as well, if the Hertz manager hadn't been so unprofessional and unfriendly.

So we went back and waited for another shuttle to take us to the airport. I was so rattled at this point that the only company I could think of was Enterprise, a company I've used many times, so that's the one I called. Within minutes the very polite man on the phone got me the exact same deal that Hertz originally "offered" with the coupon: Two cars, two carseats, and one GPS for $375. Once on the shuttle I met a very nice man who gave up his seat for me who told me that he'd just finished a family vacation and that he always uses Hertz for business, but was treated so badly by them this trip (when he arrived he found out his rental would cost $175 more than he was originally quoted), that when he got back to work that Monday, he was going to cancel his Gold membership and start using another company.

Enterprise is also located off-site and the bus was packed. At this point, I was taking a crowded bus as a good sign. The Enterprise location at MCO is . . . interesting. Imagine, if you will, that the Disney Imagineers were told to design a bus station. In a third world country. It was filthy and crowded, the kind of place where my friend Kristina, upon leaving the bathroom, immediately came to warn us to stay clear. But the employees were friendly and despite the crowd, we were in our very clean cars pretty quickly.

What did I learn here? Well, never rent from an off-site rental company in Orlando, although if I had to do it, I'd rent from Enterprise. For me, my vacation time and my sanity are just too precious. When I got back I realized that with a valid coupon, I could have found a cheaper rental right at the airport. Regardless of what you choose, be aware that rental companies at MCO will tell you that they have an airport location, because they technically do, but only those six companies I mentioned above are actually right in the airport. It's not the biggest hassle if it's just you to ride the shuttle to the rental place, but if you have a large party or even one child with you, save your sanity and rent from the ones directly in the airport.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Guest Post: Disney Dining Plan.

Lisa is a very funny friend of mine from a Disney board. Lisa may or may not have Swine Flu at this very moment, but she forced herself to write this guest post out of the kindness of her heart. Why? Because she cares so much. So when you read this, remember that she allegedly wrote this while laying pale and weak in bed like some sickly 19th century heroine in a French novel. Only with a laptop. Here's her take on the Disney Dining Plan:

Free Dining has once again been offered for August 16 through October 3rd for guests staying on Disney property, and if you're anything like me, you have just found your excuse for a 2009 Disney trip(like you needed an excuse). But for those who may have not heard about the Disney Dining Plan or are not sure if it's is for you, here's some info and insight on one of my favorite Magic Your Way add-on options.

The Plans:
Disney has 3 different dining plans: the new Quick Service plan, the regular Disney dining plan, and the Deluxe plan. There is also an add-on option to the plans called the Wine & Dine-which I will get into later.

The Quick Service plan is the newest and consists of 2 quick service meals (think Burger, Chicken fingers, BBQ sandwiches) and 2 snacks a day per person, per day.It also includes 1 refillable mug per person. The price for this package is $29.99 per adult (10 and up), and $8.99 per child (ages 3-9). While this is not my idea of vacation dining, it does hold a lot of allure for folks who a) don't like to plan their meals 90 days out, b) don't like their theme park time interrupted by having to go eat, c) would prefer to grab a burger then go to a fancy sit down meal. Another perk about this plan, no gratuities. If you are trying to really plan your budget, this plan is the pay one price up front way to go.

The regular Dining plan consists of 1 counter service meal, 1 sit-down meal, and one snack per day, per person. The price is $39.99 per adult (10 and up), and $10.99 per child (ages 3-9). Your meal consists of an non-alcoholic beverage, an entree, and a dessert. It does not include gratuities. I like this plan, because you can really get a lot out of it. You can interchange the meal credits so that you can use your sit-down credits for a character breakfasts one day and dinner at a nice restaurant another. There are hundreds of snack options, and depending on you eating style you could get a full days worth of dining by using your snacks for a light breakfast (Continental style: bagels, cinnamon buns, etc.), have lunch in the parks counter service restaurants, and dinner at one of the many resorts of theme park sit- down restaurants.

This brings us to my favorite option, the Deluxe dining plan. With this plan you get 3 either sit-down or counter service meals (your choice how to use them) and 2 snacks per person, per day. Plus you also get 1 refillable mug per person. The price for this plan is $71.99 per adult (10 and up) and $20.99 per child (ages 3-9) per day. Gratuities are also not included, but appetizers are. Now true, this is the Cadillac of plans, but if you are a foodie like me and can spend upwards to 2-3 hours on one meal-this plan offers a lot of options for some truly wonderful dining while at Disney.

Now, if you are like most and the thought of 3 full meals plus 2 snacks a day seems a bit much, then you can use the Deluxe plan to try some of Disneys' best restaurants. How? Well here's our trick. We book a character breakfast everyday for the latest breakfast seating they have. Since most of the character breakfasts are either buffet or all you can eat, we have a big filling breakfast closer to brunch time (10:30ish) and are pretty much good until dinner time. If you are peckish in the morning, you can always use the snack credits for a light breakfast.You can also book your breakfast for early morning and then use you snacks to get you through to dinner. We are not early risers on vacation, so we usually go for the first option.

Now that brings us to dinner. Since most of the character breakfasts are 1 credit meals, you still have 2 credits per person to use. For our dinners we use our credits for signature dining restaurants like Jiko, California Grill and even dining shows like the Luau. For us, this is the best part of out vacation. Be like I said-we're foodies. By using your credits in this way, you can experience some of Disneys' best restaurants.

Don't forget your snack credits. Each person in your party has 2 per day. They do not have to be used every day, in fact you can use no credits or all your credits in one cay. We like that we don't have to worry about the cost of a snack attack and we also like to use them in creative ways as well. Depending on when you go to WDW, you might find the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is going on. This is a prime time to use your snack credits, as your snack credits are good for most food samples in the many booths in the World Showcase. It does not include alcohol, but I could not find any food it did not cover, including a $7 lobster roll. You can also use your snack credits for some nice treats like Mickey rice crispy treats, and Minnie cookies to take home with you.

One other option I wanted to talk about was the Wine & Dine plan. This is for the wine drinkers among us. This plan allows you one bottle of wine per night. Just like with snack credits, they do not have to be use daily, and like signature restaurants, you can use 2 credits for a reserve bottle of wine. Some of the brands include well known purveyors such as Chalk Hill, Iron Horse, Argyle, Kings Estate and Cakebread. The cost is $39.99 per room. Is this a good value? That all depends on you. We have kicked around adding this on for our vacations, but the truth is we don't always have wine. Some meals it's a cocktail, or a cold beer, or after dinner ports and cordials. But if you and you partner generally have 2 glasses of wine each with your meal, the wine & dine add on could be a big savings, especially considering the average price for a glass of wine at Disney is $10. You get, on the average, 5 glasses out of a bottle, so the savings could add up-or if nothing else you get an extra glass of wine free per night.

While it's not for everyone, our we are big fans of the Disney dining plans. Will it work for you? If you love to eat and try new restaurants, like to pay before you go and don't mind making you dining plans in advance-it is a great addition to your Walt Disney World vacation. But of course it might not be for everyone. One thing though, if your dates allow it, try it out by taking advantage of the Free Dining promotion. It is a great way to get a taste (no pun intended) of the dining plan and how it works and it will cost you nothing but a little bit of time making your advance dining reservations.

Happy eating and have a magical vacation!

Monday Morning Distraction.

Video and links to distract you from work or other fruitful activities this Monday morning:

The horror! Check out these pictures on the newly refurbished It's a Small World at Disneyland. I kind of like it.

Ahh, it's the Swine Flu! The Orlando Sentinel says one case of Swine Flu confirmed in Orlando.

Set your Tivo. List of Disney-themed television for the week. Come on, you know you want to watch that old Roseanne episode where the whole family goes to Disney.

Finally, here's Walt and Mary Blair herself talking about It's a Small World.