Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Restaurant Review: Columbia Harbour House.

Columbia Harbour House, located in Liberty Square, has been a Magic Kingdom staple almost since the park opened. Back then, its signature item was a baked potato, but today you'll find mostly seafood items on the menu at this deservedly popular quick-service location.  For non-seafood lovers, you can still get chicken nuggets and fries, but you won't find any burgers on the menu.

The most popular item on the menu is the fried fish basket that comes with a side of fries and broccoli.  If you prefer, skip the same fries you'll find all over property--they're not that great--and add apple slices instead.  The fried fish is very good, with nice white pieces that have a mild taste. The batter is crispy and not greasy. You'll find better fried fish at the Rose and Crown Pub, but if you have a craving for fish and chips in the Magic Kingdom, this will hit the spot.  The only downside is the sour-tasting tartar sauce, which is so bad, I sat there wishing I'd brought a bottle of my own from home!  Try the malt vinegar instead.

On a colder day, you can round out your meal with the popular New England Clam Chowder. It's not something that really stands out on the menu, but this thick, tasty soup is a bargain at $4.69. For something lighter, the vegetarian chili is a great choice at $4.49. 

Lobster Roll.

At $9.99, the lobster roll is filling if not quite authentic. New Englanders will probably want to pass, but for everyone else, it's a fun change of pace from burgers and nuggets.

Anchors Aweigh Tuna Fish Sandwich

I've had the tuna fish sandwich many times and it's consistently good, made with white tuna and dressed with mayonnaise on a multi grain bread for $8.99. It comes with lettuce and tomatoes and chips. 

You might not expect it, but in addition to the vegetarian chili, Columbia Harbour House knows how to treat vegetarians. In fact, the Light House sandwich with hummus, tomato and broccoli slaw on a toasted multi-grain bread is one of the best vegetarian options in the Magic Kingdom, so if you're looking for something beyond the standard, pallid and uninspired veggie burger that's not loaded with cheese, this is a nice option. 

If the downstairs is crowded, try the more sedate upstairs seating.  It's a great place to unwind before you head back outside for more adventure. 

Columbia Harbour House is a nice change of pace in the Magic Kingdom. It's never as frenetic as some quick-service locations, with a more grown-up New England decor and a menu that promises--and delivers--something different. If you like seafood, give it a try.

Tip: The smell of seafood, which you would expect to be present in any seafood restaurant, can be strong in this restaurant and may bother some children (and adults) with sensory issues.  Pass if you think it will bother someone in your group.

Thanks to Bob and Donna Angelo for these photos.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011 Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Every year starting in early November, the Streets of America in Hollywood Studios are transformed into a fantasy of holiday lights, courtesy of the late Jennings Osborne, a businessman and humanitarian from Little Rock, Arkansas.  The story goes that years ago Mr. Osborne wanted give his little girl the biggest Christmas display that anyone had ever seen, so he started decorating his Little Rock home with thousands of holiday lights.  Over the years those decorations multiplied and not surprisingly, his neighbors weren't very happy with all the visitors who crowded the streets where the Osborne family lived to see the now-famous decorations. A group of them filed suit to stop the display and Mr. Osborne, known as a bit of a prankster, responded by adding three million more lights!  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court with the city prevailing.  Meanwhile, the case gained nationwide attention and multiple companies offered to host the display.  The rest is history, of course, with the Osbornes choosing the Walt Disney company, which has been using the original (plus some extra) holiday lights since 1995.
Jennings Osborne passed away earlier this year and he will be missed by many, but his family can take solace in how much happiness he's given people, not just in Arkansas but from all over the world.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights takes place every night in Hollywood Studios during the holiday season, complete with accompanying Christmas music at intervals throughout the night.  Crowds tend to thin out about an hour after that night's lighting, so consider visiting later for a peaceful stroll through the lights.

Please enjoy these photographs from last weekend, courtesy of my friends Bob and Donna.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ask the Disney Travel Agent.

Like most travel agents, I get a lot of questions about the job, everything from how to become an agent to how we get paid, so I thought I would address the most common ones here.

How do travel agents get paid?

It depends on the agency, but most Disney travel agents are paid by Disney, after the client travels. We work on a commission, which means that we get a percentage of the cost of your trip before taxes and fees.  This also means that if a client cancels, the travel agent isn't paid unless that agency imposes a cancellation fee. 

Why does Disney do this? Well, when you call Disney directly, you're probably talking to an agent who works on incentives based on sales in addition to their base pay--in other words, they're working on a commission too, no matter how you slice it. The difference between booking with a Disney agent directly and booking with a Disney travel agent from an outside company is that you'll get the same agent every time and that agent has an incentive to make you happy, such as calling you when a discount comes out.  Why? They want you to come back and send your friends!

Incidentally, our commissions don't effect the price of your vacation. In other words, it's not secretly built into your costs. You'll get the same price booking through us, or a Disney cast member on the phone, or online at the Disney website.

My agency charges fees. Is this legitimate?

It's legitimate, but you shouldn't pay it. Ever. There's no reason for any travel agency to charge you fees since they're paid by the vendor. Some agencies charge cancellation fees so that their agents don't walk away from a cancelled booking without some compensation and I can see the argument behind doing so, but I personally would not pay those fees.

Additionally, be wary of people who bill themselves as Disney vacation planners but who are not associated with an agency or graduates of Disney's College of Knowledge. These people charge a fee for booking (around $50) and an additional fee for planning your vacation. This is a service that most Disney travel agencies provide for free, so why pay for it? Further, these people are rarely insured, so if something goes wrong, you have little or no recourse. If you want help planning your vacation but don't want to work with a travel agent, pay $18 and buy an Unofficial Guide, hang around on Disboards, and do it yourself. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's business, but these "planners" charge uncessary fees and make it harder for us to do our job.

What will an agent do for me?

It's standard practice for agencies that primarily book Disney (that is, a Disney travel agency as opposed to a regular travel agency like AAA) to provide itineraries, make dining and Magical Express reservations, and offer detailed travel advice. Travel agencies that are centered around Disney tend to be staffed by agents who visit Disney a lot, so they know all the tips and tricks that a regular travel agent doesn't know. They also tend to enjoy talking about Disney, so you shouldn't feel bad about asking for help.

One of the most important things a Disney travel agent will do for you is save you money.  They do this by keeping up with discounts and applying them as they come out, but if you're a Disney savvy traveler, you know that you can also do this yourself.  It just depends on if you have the time. A lot of guests want to do the work--it makes the trip feel more real and planning can be half the fun. And for those people, you probably don't need to book with an agent. But if you like help and someone to bounce ideas off of, a travel agent can be an asset.

How do I become a Disney travel agent?

The first step is to visit Disney a lot and know the product. There are plenty of agencies that will hire you if you know Disney World and Disneyland; the key is really finding one that is reputable, fair and a good fit for your personality. It's standard practice to pay a small signing fee (this is often refundable once you sell a certain amount).  Some agencies offer more support than others. This can range from basic marketing help to mailing documents to clients.  My agency has a lot of agent interaction but some agents work entirely alone and may never speak to their fellow agents and only rarely to the agency owner. Agencies may also send you client referrals, but even those agencies will expect you to bring in the bulk of your own clients.  In return for their support, they'll take anywhere from 40 to 20 percent of your commission, so you better like them!

On a personal note, I didn't want to work for an agency that expected its agents to do a "hard sell" with clients and I wanted to be able to set how much I wanted to sell rather than have a quota, which I thought might be difficult with small children.  I also wanted to be able to continue blogging and writing about what I thought was important, even if it wasn't always flattering to the Mouse.  This is what I mean about finding an agency that's a good fit for you. I probably just lucked out, but I know some agents haven't been as lucky, so check out your potential agency online to see how you'll mesh with them. 

Do travel agents have any pull that I don't have?

Honestly, no.  While we can sometimes pull some strings in certain areas or call on favors from friends (and most TAs have a lot of contacts at Disney), we can't get you into a fully-booked Le Cellier, get you upgraded to a Savanna view for free, or find deals that aren't out there.

Do you get to travel for free?

Yes and no. Disney offers amazing training programs and I'd be lying if I told you they weren't AWESOME!  We can also get some pretty great room discounts, but for the most part, we're paying the same price you are.

If you have any questions you want answered privately, please feel free to email me at  Sorry, I can't tell any company secrets or help you get a job, but if you have some general questions about the TA business or how we operate that I haven't addressed here, feel free to write.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cinderella's Holiday Wish Stage Show.

Every night during the holiday season, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother makes a little bit of magic by decorating the castle in beautiful lights that sparkle like icicles.

The show starts with Mickey and all the gang dressed in their holiday finery.

Time to decorate Cinderella Castle for Christmas.

So many decisions to make!  What should they do?

Thankfully, the Fairy Godmother appears to lend a hand.

She needs your help to make some magic.

Everyone joins in to make Cinderella's dream come true.

The Fairy Godmother begins lighting the castle with the encouragement from the audience.

The lights go on in sections, which adds to the excitement once you see the entire castle lit up.  Then Cinderella and the Prince come out to enjoy it.

A happy ending, each and every night.

A beautiful way to end your day.

The show starts every night between 6:00 and 6:30 depending on when it gets dark.  As you get closer to Christmas, it will start around 6:00.  Nearly every spot in front of the castle will give you a good view, but if you're going to be leaving shortly after the show, stake out a spot near Casey's Corner and then wind your way through the shops so you can avoid the throngs leaving the park via Main Street.  Remember that on Christmas party nights, you'll need to leave the park by 7:00 p.m. if you don't have a party ticket, but there is still plenty of time to enjoy this show.

Thanks to Bob and Donna for the photos! Much appreciated, guys.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where to Find Santa This Christmas Season.

There are plenty of places to meet Santa this holiday season at Disney World:

Santa will greet guests at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and he'll also be one of the stars in the parade. The party runs on select nights until December 18 (which is sold out). After the party ends, you can see Santa in the Magic Kingdom throughout the rest of the holiday season.

You can meet Santa in Epcot at the American Adventure Pavilion between November 24 and December 24.  You can also see Santa and his helpers in several World Showcase pavilions telling Christmas stories unique to that country, including France, Germany, and Italy.  This is a great way to introduce kids to your own family's Christmas heritage or to that of others.

Santa will be greeting guests starting on Thanksgiving day until Christmas eve from noon until 10:00 p.m. After Santa leaves for the North Pole, Goofy will take over his duties and continue to greet guests through January 1. 

Finally, you can meet Santa in your resort lobby if you're lucky enough to be visiting Christmas eve.  He'll be there between the hours of 5:00 and 9:00 p.m.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christmas 2011 in the Magic Kingdom.

The Christmas holidays are underway at Walt Disney World.  Even if you can't get down there right now, grab some hot cocoa and enjoy these pictures from my good friends Bob and Donna.

The big Christmas tree in the Magic Kingdom won't go up in Town Square until after the Christmas parade taping ends on December 5th, but this display of wooden soldiers in makes a nice photo op until then. 

Close-up of one of the wooden soldiers.

A nice close up of some of the decorated greenery you'll see.

These Christmas stockings with the Mickey, Pluto, and Minnie on them will delight kids on Christmas morning.

For all you collectors, this year's souvenir popcorn bucket is a cute snowman.

Even Tomorrowland's Christmas trees get a futuristic, 1960s-style.

I secretly want a tree like this at home!

Whatever you do, don't miss the nightly castle lighting ceremony. It's truly breathtaking and worth braving the crowds for. It takes place every night as soon as it gets dark. Be there at around 6:00 just to be safe. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three Words to Banish from Your Disney Vocabulary.

One thing I notice when people start planning a Disney vacation is that they seem to get caught up in the importance of the different resort categories.  If you're new to Disney, those categories are deluxe, moderate, and value, and while you may think they have a lot to do with the defining the resort itself, their more practical use is to give you a hint at what you'll be paying. This is because while it's true that each category presents a certain type room and of amenities, the truth is that the labeling is just as important in aiding your perception of where you're staying.  Call it a brilliant marketing strategy, but don't get caught up in it.

The unfortunate result in focusing on these categories is that doing so can make you overlook a more appropriate resort and more importantly, it can make you spend too much money. I see this most often when people make the jump from the values to the moderates, where there's an assumption that there's a direct correlation between the increase in price and your resort experience. This just isn't true.  Look at it objectively and decide if a larger bed, more "grown up" theming, and a slightly larger room is worth paying $50 to $100 more per night, but don't be swayed by the term "moderate."

So, how do you choose a resort? Well, throw out all your ideas about resort categories and choose what you love and, most importantly, what you can afford.  Don't let snobbery cause you to make a decision that hurts you in the end, but make sure you don't overlook important issues like theming and location.  I have guests who are hesitant to stay at the values because they think they're "low-rent," but value guests are some of the most travel savvy visitors on property because they didn't get caught up in the hype.  And you might be surprised at how many of them can afford the Grand Floridian but don't choose it because it doesn't fit how they travel.  Finally, it's not just budget travelers who get caught up in the name game.  Ironically, the least expensive deluxe resort on property, Animal Kingdom Lodge, is also the most well-themed, but guests sometimes blanch at staying there because it's considered a lower level of deluxe resort.

The terms "value, moderate and deluxe" are all designed to elicit certain feelings from the buyer. All but the term "value" is intended to upsell your vacation.  Banishing these three words from your Disney vocabulary can help you make a smarter decision about where you'll stay on your next trip. A value isn't  "budget" or "low class" and a deluxe won't make your trip better. So choose your resort based on what's works for you, not on what some marketing expert is trying to sell you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Edible Christmas: 2011 Disney Park Treats.

The holidays are well underway at Disney World, as every day brings the arrival of new Christmas decorations, merchandise, or treats. 

Candies with Mickey on the front, Mickey cookies and holiday-themed marshmallows at the Confectionary in the Magic Kingdom.

More Mickey cookies, almost too cute to eat. These make great small gifts to bring back to friends or to tuck into stockings on Christmas eve.

 Mickey head Rice Krispy Treats get a sprinkle of holiday colors.

 Chocolate bars have a Christmas-themed wrapper with all your familiar friends.

You can bring a little bit of the parks home with coffee and hot cocoa mix.

Chocolate Advent calendar for the kids or for kids at heart.

These might be the cutest cupcakes ever.

This white chocolate dipped snowman is wearing Mickey ears!

You can make your own gingerbread cookies in Mickey shapes with this cookie cutter and mix set.

Special thanks again to Bob and Donna for provided these great photos.