Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bongo's Cuban Cafe: A Dinner Review

Co-owned by Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Bongo's Cuban Cafe is a 2 story restaurant located at Downtown Disney Westside serving lunch and dinner daily. I had the opportunity to eat dinner here last Saturday. Is it worth it? Read on to find out. 

Bongo's is described as “recreating the feel of a 1950's Havanna nightclub offering authentic Caribbean flavor.” It's certainly got a tropical feel, from the greenery, the intricate and detailed mosaic on the wall, and even the (fake) parrots over the bar. I'd previously only eaten lunch here, and found it largely empty. That is definitely not the case at night. The restaurant is packed with people at the bar and waiting for tables in line, and every table inside and outside was occupied. However, the biggest negative for me, and what will keep me from returning, is that loud music was BLASTING from speakers the entire time we were dining, and only stopped to allow a band to take a stage at night who were equally loud. I'm all for having music in a restaurant, but when it is to the point where it is impossible to have a conversation without screaming, or even order your food without screaming, it's too much. 
The dress code is theme park casual.

Check out the cool bar stools!


Our server, Ali was good, though I think in an effort to be personable, she lingered too long at our table and tried too hard to herself into our conversation. I don't mind a little friendly banter, and in fact prefer when a server smiles and makes good eye contact and is outgoing, but it got to a point where my table-mates and I were exchanging awkward glances wondering if she would go away. The speed in which food was brought out from time of ordering was excellent though drink refills took a little longer than I would have liked. To be fair, this may have been in part due to the large number of tables she seemed responsible for.

Just part of the interesting mosaic adoring the walls.


Not being of Cuban heritage, I suppose I'm at a disadvantage as to whether Bongo's is truly authentic or not. Plus, to me it seems like it would be pretty hard to mess up cooking something like shredded beef over white rice, or chicken over yellow rice. However, I have seen mini reviews and heard comments from people who are Cuban who say this is a “must go to” location each trip, so I take that as a positive sign.

The varied menu features a wide selection of entrees ranging from the El Churrasco, a tenderized skirt steak grilled to perfection and served with a side of Chimi-Churri sauce, white rice and green plantains ($19.95) to the Chicarrones de Pescado, lightly floured and fried marinated fish chunks served with a side of homemade tartar sauce accompanied by white rice and sweet plantains ($17.95). 


For my meal, I went with Ropa Vieja, shredded beef in a light tomato sauce with onions and peppers served with white rice and sweet plantains ($15.95) while my wife was a little more daring and tried the Camarones al Ajillo, tiger shrimp sauteed in a garlic and olive oil sauce served with white rice and green plantains ($22.95). The food was okay, but it didn't wow either of us. Though the portions were generous, the food seasoned and flavorful, there was nothing about the meal that made us eager to return. For me, Bongo's is a place I would eat if I couldn't find availability anywhere else within the Downtown Disney area. 
The Ropa Vieja. Presentation isn't a strong point of Bongo's.

Prices for entrees range from approximately $15.99-$35.99, and a childrens' menu is also available.

Bongo's Cuban Cafe is one table service credit on the Disney Dining plan (a new addition for 2012), and they also accept the Tables in Wonderland card. Reservations are recommended before you go.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grand Floridian Cafe: Lunch Review

 Walk ups can be easy to get here.
I'll admit that when I hear the words cafe, I don't think of a small coffee shop in Paris, where lovers sit outside drinking espresso out of small cups and ogling one another. Maybe it's from what I was exposed to living in New Jersey, but “cafe” was usually code for “run down diner with perpetually sticky floor and wobbly tables that owner is trying to make sound upscale in an effort to attract business.” Luckily, the Grand Floridian Cafe is not code for anything but a delicious lunch (or breakfast or dinner). Read on for my review.


Located towards the back of the first floor of the main building of the Grand Floridian, the Cafe is easily overlooked by many guests. This, coupled with its surprisingly large size meant that my wife and I were easily able to get a walk-up table for lunch, even though it was both the Princess Marathon weekend and the NBA All-Star Weekend in Orlando, and crowds were noticeably heavier.

I'm not in love with the decor -the flowery wallpaper and curtains remind me of a grandmother's home. But it does fit the overall Victorian theme of the hotel and certainly isn't out of place in that sense. And I do love the high trey ceilings, as well as the fresh flowers throughout the restaurant, including a fresh rose at each table. My wife and I had a table near the window with a beautiful view of the grounds and the pool. 

I love the trey ceiling and how bright and airy the Cafe feels!

The dress code is theme park casual.


Our server, Robert, was excellent. He was friendly and personable not only with us, but with all the tables he was helping. He was prompt with our drink and food orders and was always there checking in and making sure we had enough to drink and didn't need anything else. I wouldn't hesitate to ask for him again or recommend him to others.

Ask for a table by the window and get a great view of the grounds.


For lunch, the Cafe offers a variety of soups, salads and sandwiches. My wife had the Grand Sandwich, an open-faced hot ham, turkey, bacon, and tomato with a rich Boursin cheese sauce and fried onion straws, served on Focaccia bread ($12.49), while I had the Reuben Sandwich, which includes corned beef, Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut on rye bread ($10.99), though I substituted the rye for Focaccia as well. It comes with a side of chips, fresh fruit, or a cucumber salad, I chose the salad.

The Grand Sandwich.

We both liked the Focaccia bread, finding it crispy, yet still soft. Our only complaint was that it seemed a bit too salty, especially when combined with the ham on the Grand Sandwich. The sandwiches themselves were extremely tasty though, and the meats fresh and flavorful. We both ate up every bite. The cucumber salad was a nice compliment, the oil and vinegar mixture proving the right balance of sweet and tart, while refreshing on the palate.

The Reuben comes on rye but I substituted Focaccia bread.

While we didn't save room for dessert, there were a number of smaller offerings to satisfy any sweet tooth, ranging from a Key Lime tart to a Boston Creme pie. 

Who's up for some dessert?

Prices for lunch range from $15.99-$35.99, and there is a kid's menu. The Grand Floridian Cafe is one table service credit on the Disney Dining plan, and they also accept the Tables in Wonderland card.

$100 Disney Gift Card Giveaway.

Could you could use a little extra cash on your next Disney trip?  Now you can win an extra $100 and discover new blogs!  I've joined  group of Disney bloggers who've combined their resources to offer a $100 Disney Gift Card.   All the details are below--it's quick and super easy with Rafflecopter.

Thanks to Theme Park Mom and Disney Every Day for organizing this group giveaway!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Psst. Dont forget the rules:

  • Open to residents of U.S. and Canada
  • Must be 18+ to enter
  • $100 Disney Gift Card will be mailed to the winner
All entries will be verified upon selection of a winner to make sure that they are still in compliance with the terms of the giveaway

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fantasyland Expansion Photo Update, February 27, 2012.

Who's looking forward to eating dinner in Beast's Castle?

It's been a couple weeks since I've had the opportunity to look at the work being done on the Fantasyland expansion, and progress continues to be made. You can click on any of the pictures to see the larger versions.

We start with the area around Beast's Castle. In my last update, I wondered what would go on the steel rods sticking out of the rocks. The answer so far has been - wait for it - more rocks. Through the use of forced perspective, when finished, the Castle will look as if it is perched high on top of a mountain. 

A home fit for a prince.

Moving on and over to the right of Beast's Castle to the Under the Sea - Voyage of the Little Mermaid attraction, lots of work has been done to Prince Eric's Castle, as we now have domes appearing! 

These next two close up shots show the level of detail being put into the Castle. I love the patina on the walls! 

Work also continues on all sections of Belle's Village. This is probably the area that seems to have the least amount of work done to it at this point.

There's still a lot  of framing around what will be Gaston's Tavern and a gift shop, but the exterior hasn't changed much from the last few weeks. 

Crews are working on it though, even on Saturdays. It's been that way since construction started.

And progress has been made in the last couple of weeks to the exterior of Maurice's Workshop. According to the Disney Parks blog, the workshop will be surrounded by a wishing well, footbridges and lush landscaping. Once inside, guests will step through a magic mirror and find themselves inside Beast’s expansive library, which he created as a gift for Belle in the film. This room will serve as the setting for a memorable character interaction experience with Belle, with a little help from Lumiere, the enchanted candlestick.

Next stop on our photo tour, Storybook Circus. It's no surprise that this area is getting lots of attention since a significant portion of it, including the new Fantasyland Train Station, one side of Dumbo, and the Great Goofini are to open at the end of March (Disney hasn't announced an exact date for "end of March" as of this writing). Here you see that one of the big tops has been covered by a tent, whereas two weeks ago, they were both still uncovered. 

Lots of color and signage has been added to the area, too. In front of the sign that says "Barnstormer" you can see the new Dumbo that will be operating when Storybook Circus opens to guests. To the rear left, part of the train station can be seen. 

The scaffolding is down over by the Great Goofini now as well. Here's a close-up of the roller coaster with the cutout. To the right, you see another tent that is up; I believe that will be covering in between the two Dumbo rides once they are both operating. It's very hard to tell with all of the construction walls and vehicles in the way sometimes!

I know lots of young guests are eager to ride Dumbo! They were testing it earlier in the week.

Lighting has been installed now throughout Storybook Circus. I love the bright colors on everything to really make it seem like the circus has come to town.
To the far rear left, you see the Fantasyland Train Station. 

This is the backside of the new Fantasyland Train Station. I wanted to give you an idea of the incredible brick work on it. I really like the way it is turning out. It is also going to be pretty substantial in size, which is good news, because there are going to be plenty of visitors when the expansion opens up!

We end our photo tour with a picture of why it's so hard now to get pictures of the Fantasyland expansion in progress. This is Pinocchio's Village Haus Restaurant in the current Fantasyland. From the second floor windows, I used to be able to get great shots of the entire expansion being built (come for the photos, leave before you decide to eat the food there!). Well, I guess I wasn't the only one, and clearly, Disney management doesn't want people taking photos -because as you can see, they stapled thick white cloth over the windows to block the view outside.

Until next time, thanks for joining us on this photo tour! I hope you enjoyed it. And Chris, I realize I went way over 100 words for the article, so you win the bet this time. (editor's note: Does this mean you're buying the turkey legs, Bob?)

Guide to the Haunted Mansion

The Haunted Mansion

An 11-minute ride-through attraction, the Haunted Mansion offers plenty of silly mixed with a little bit of fright and a whole bunch of "how did they do that" special effects. There are plenty of moments spent in the dark and a few moments with pop-up ghosts that have startled adults. This is a Disney classic, though, and should not be missed.

Technical Specifications:
Theme Park: Magic Kingdom
Land: Liberty Square
Opened: 10/1/1971
Capacity: 320
Type: Omnimover, Dark Ride, Disney Classic
George's Rating: 5 Ears

The Attraction
The spooky house on the hill sits in its own little corner of Liberty Square. As you approach the Haunted Mansion, there are quite a few details to take in: the Hudson River Valley architecture; the line forming under the deep red, tent-like queue; the horseless carriage; and the unkempt forest that seems to cradle the building. There is always a castmember stationed near the carriage house, if you need directions or special assistance.

An interactive queue debuted in 2011 that provides two ways to get into the Mansion. The left side takes you through the cemetery and the interactive additions. The right side goes directly to the entrance foyer. Both sides of the queue empty in the space right in front of the doors. Logic dictates that the right side is quicker and the left side is more entertaining.
A Note From Imaginerding
The addition of the interactive queue in 2011 has been (and probably always will be) a heated topic among Disney nerds and geeks. Most die-hard Mansion fans consider the queue to be an affront to the original intention of the Haunted Mansion. It seems rather comical at times, which ultimately makes it a much more lighthearted experience for the younger set. It is hard to argue that the queue is a mistake when the Imagineers have offered ways of trying to nail down a story for the Mansion. Many people don't understand the history of the attraction and the queue does offer tributes to the artists that created it and tributes to the various story incarnations.

Into the Darkness 
You will spend a few moments waiting at the entrance (actually, this is the mausoleum entrance to the house) waiting for a castmember to open the doors and invite you in. They will lead you into the foyer with a fireplace and a portrait of the Ghost Host. The castmember will direct you to one of two octagonal rooms and ask you to move into the dead-center of the room. Once the doors are closed, the Ghost Host introduces himself and the pre-show begins.

Tip If this is your first time, do your best to stay in the dead-center of the room in order to get the full effect.

The Ghost Host explains that you are in a room with no windows and no doors. How are you going to get out? Notice the paintings? Is the room stretching? When the lights go out, make sure you look up. This can be a rather morbid sight for a first-timer, but most kids will not notice the effect. If this is not your first visit, then head to the wall (with the pink lady) that opens in order to get slightly ahead in the queue.

You enter the Doom Buggy load area, which funnels you from a large area to a cattle-call style load. Make sure you are with your party; it is very easy to get separated. When you approach the Doom Buggies, you will have to walk onto a moving belt and then transfer into the ride vehicle. The Doom Buggies will fit two adults comfortably and a family of three tightly.
A Note From Imaginerding
The castmembers that work at the Haunted Mansion are referred to as Maids and Butlers. Most of the time, the Maids and Butlers do not break character inside the Mansion--their morbid and deadpan presentation can be as unflappable as the Queen's Guard

The first part of the ride is often remarked as being the most frightening. There are breathing doors, turning doorknobs and a corpse trying to escape from a coffin. After Madame Leota's Seance Circle, you will have about 30 seconds to view one of the most fantastic effects that Disney has ever done--the ballroom scene. This scene requires several ride-throughs to take it all in. Make sure to pay attention to the ghosts at the table as well as the portraits and the ones on the chandelier.
A Note From Imaginerding
The addition of the Bride into the attic was part of the 2007 refurbishment. It is generally understood that the Haunted Mansion (debuted in 1969 at Disneyland) does not have a story. Adding the Bride has been seen as the Imagineers trying to force a story onto a series of tableaux and mood-based scenes.
You turn a corner and enter the attic scene. This part can be a little claustrophobic and frightening on a psychological basis. You do meet the bride and if you pay attention to the portraits, you just might see what happened to her husbands. After the attic scene, you head down with the Doom Buggies facing backwards. it is a strange angle, but adds to the overall feel.

The final, major scene takes place in the graveyard. This is where the Grin Grinning Ghosts song comes into full play. There are a few, standard pop-up ghosts that could frighten adults. There are a lot of details in this area, like tombstones, ghosts enjoying tea and some frightened animals. Pay attention to the singing busts--one of them is the late Thurl Ravenscroft. He was also the voice of Tony the Tiger.

As you reach the end of the ride, you will be warned by the Ghost Host that a few playful spooks will follow you home. This area was refurbished in 2011 and new computer generated ghosts were added. This lends even more playfulness to the ride and often will leave you laughing. 

The Haunted Mansion is considered a Disney classic and has remained mostly unchanged for 40 years. Younger children could be frightened by it and you will need to judge for yourself how your children might react. My kids have been riding the attraction since before they were three. But then, they are Junior Imaginerds.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Karamell Kuche in Epcot's German Pavilion.

When you walk into Karamell Kuche, located in Germany's Epcot pavilion, it hits you immediately: The smell of butter, sugar and cream.  On your left, someone is melting caramel in a huge copper bowl to be poured on the shop's signature popcorn.  In front of you, a large display showcases treats under glass almost too pretty to eat.  Should you have the chocolate covered caramel sprinkled with sea salt or maybe channel your inner kid and try the caramel apple?

There's something about the combination of salty and sweet. It's my favorite type of treat, bar none, and with the rising popularity of salted caramels, it quickly pushed out chocolate as my favorite dessert. Give me a nice, deeply flavored caramel, one that's soft and chewy, where I can actually taste the flavor of the cream and the almost burnt taste that comes from that point where boiling sugar and water turns a light amber, and I'm a happy woman.  Disney opened Karamell Kuche at the height of the salted caramel trend, and the success of the shop attests to its continued popularity and the enduring, widespread appeal of  the salty sweet combo.

It's hard to gauge here, but the caramel pecan bar and the turtle next to it are quite large. At one snack credit, these are a terrific deal and enough for two.  You might try the shop's caramel corn as well, but be forewarned:  It's actually one of the weaker items on the menu as it's often a little stale. If you get it on a good day though, it's heavenly.

I'll admit, when the shop first opened I had my doubts. I make salted caramels a lot (okay, more than I should) and to me there's a big difference between a caramel that tastes homemade and one that has that commercial, artificial flavor. How would Disney, along with candy maker Werther's, replicate the taste that I love so much for thousands of customers a day? Well, I shouldn't have worried. Whatever they're doing, the treats at Karamel Kuche taste like they're made in small batches with good quality ingredients.

I'm sold. In fact, I'm almost tempted to throw out my candy thermometer.

Fantasyland Update and the Closing of Snow White's Scary Adventure.

Prince Eric's Castle taken yesterday.

As I stood with a bunch of adults last August in front of Snow White's Scary Adventure, I couldn't help but feel that this was the last time I would ride the attraction.   All of us agreed to ride it--one last time--even though we were all going to be back before the end of the year, certain that it would be demolished in September when the crowds were low.  Well, it's been a long time coming, but this week Disney finally announced a closing date for SWSA:  May 31, 2012.

Disney attractions are sometimes more about sentimentality than the ride itself. Even the most diehard fan could walk into SWSA and remark at how tired and old it looks:  The cutout figures, the bumpy, track, the uninspired ride vehicles.  Despite an extensive refurbishment, it always looked a bit shabby compared to the rest of the attractions in the park, little more than a  pretty carnival ride.  But tell that to the mom who watched her princess-obsessed 4-year old wave at Snow White at the end--and who rode it five times in a row.  For her, those sweet memories come back every time she visits, even though her little girl now has children of her own.

Storybook Circus Tents.

But, out with the old, in with the new, right? There's a whole new section of Fantasyland that's due to open this year and I can't wait to see it. Here's the latest news and rumors:

  • Rumors abound that SWSA will not close until Journey of the Little Mermaid opens. If this is true, then this adds some credence to what I was told in December, that the attraction will open before the summer season begins.  Unfortunately, most sources are saying late summer or early fall. I've been pretty firm in my belief that the Little Mermaid will open in May, but the fact that other Fantasyland expansion projects have been delayed is making me doubt that now.
  • From the official Disney Parks Blog, one Dumbo spinner, the Great Goofini, and the train station will be open in late March. There are rumors of a soft opening starting in mid-March, but everything is pretty fluid right now.  Remember that Dumbo was supposed to open in February and then that date was moved to early March. 
  • The Big Top canvas is up. Check out this fantastic picture from back stage.
News is pretty sparse this week and looking at the pictures above, I'm dubious as to whether or not I'll be riding Dumbo when I go down in late March.  What do you think? If you're visiting for Spring Break, do you think any of the Storybook Circus attractions will be open? 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Update on Booking 2013 Rooms in 2012.

I just took down my post about booking rooms now for 2013. Briefly, the gist of that post was that you could book your 2013 room rate at 2012 prices. This is something that Disney hasn't done before and we were happy to see it because while you could always book your rooms 499 days in advance, often those room rates would change when the new packages came out that summer.

There's been a pretty steep learning curve for all of us on this new policy. I always double-check any quotes I send out because there's nothing worse than being off by even a little bit. As a travel agent doing the majority of my business online, I know that the most important thing I have is my reputation for honesty and while it's a big internet, I don't want even one client to question that. So I'm very careful. 

I haven't been able to verify my prices for my 2013 quotes because they've been for January or Art of Animation, which are resorts where we don't have 2012 rates to quote. But yesterday I quoted the Grand Floridian for a client in June 2013 and as she pointed out, the quote from Disney was around $180 more than her quote that she did online for 2012. Sure enough, she was right. I called and verified some resorts, and it turns out the price increase is 4 percent over what you'll pay this  year. 

So, what does this mean? Well, it means two things. One, your 2013 rate is guaranteed, it's just not guaranteed at 2012 prices. That's a nice option for guests who like to plan far in advance. And two, it may mean that last year's room increase (which was 7 percent on average) is going to be lower this year. No one knows yet if, when Disney releases packages this summer,  they'll bump up the rack rate an additional 3 percent from the current 2013 rates or if will stay at the same 4 percent increase.  Finally, as a cast member said to me this morning, "we don't know how that 3 percent savings is going to shake out for the rest of the package." In other words, will the dining and ticket prices change as well?

Confused? Yeah, me too. But I wanted to put this out there and let you know that there was some confusion initially. I'm going to send a link to this post to all my 2013 clients and let them decide what to do as well.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to: Beat the Summer Heat

Summertime...and the living is easy
I know it's not even spring yet, but I can't help but look forward to summer at Walt Disney World. It's been a very warm winter here in Central Florida so far. Aside from a scattering of days that were quite cold (and yes, it can get cold here), we've experienced consistent temperatures in the upper 70's and low 80's . There's also been very little rain. Having such a warm winter makes me think that we could be in for a very dry, hot summer though.

Summer of course also happens to be a time of year when lots of people visit Disney World. After all, the kids are out of school, the parks  stay open later, and it's traditionally the period people think of when you talk about taking a vacation. If you're one of those people, here's some tips on how to survive summer at the parks.

 Dress appropriately

Average highs during June – August are in the low 90's, but an average humidity around 60% during the same period can cause the heat index (or what a person's perception of the temperature is) to be much higher, so it's not usual to feel like it's more like 98 degrees (or more!) out. This should go without saying, but now is not the time to wear all black clothing and combat boots, while lugging around a backpack so large it comes with its own Sherpa. Light colored clothing, shorts, and t-shirts is the way to go. And don't forget to wear a hat and sunglasses. This goes for kids, too. Ditch the combat boots, and the flip flops (they won't give you enough support as you walk through the park, plus you're just asking for a wicked sunburn on the tops of your feet). And ditch the huge backpacks, too. I'm not saying don't carry one, but visitors tend to overpack for the parks. Before you head out the door, ask yourself “Will I really need this in the parks today?” If the answer is no, or probably not, leave it behind. Trust me, by early afternoon, you'll be thanking me.

Sure it's a nice hat, but I don't think it's going to protect you from the sun....

 Use sunscreen

This is another must. I know, lots of people go on vacation and want to get “a little color” to show off when they get home. The trouble is, it doesn't take long to go from a little color to a bad burn in the Florida sunshine, and you don't want to be in pain on your vacation after waiting months for your trip to arrive. Use something strong, with at least an SPF of 50 for the best protection, and don't forget your ears and behind your neck. The goal is to shield your skin, not saute it, so skip the cocoa butter. Parents, make sure your kids wear it too, even if they're like me as a kid and scrunch up their face and yell as soon as you try to touch them with it. If you're going to be swimming or at a water park, take the time to reapply it more often than you normally would. Remember that the sun's rays reflect off the water, so you will burn faster.

Stay hydrated

Aside from all the walking you're going to be doing, the heat will really take its toll on you, and you're going to sweat – a lot - so drink plenty of fluids. Ideally, you want to drink water, and not caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, since those will actually dehydrate you more quickly. You can even get a cup of ice water from all counter service locations free of charge, though, to be honest, the water isn't always that great. Consider getting some bottled water to keep in your room, and keeping it chilled in your in room fridge if you have one, or an ice bucket. 

This isn't exactly what I meant by "stay hydrated."
Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours

Whether you use them in the morning, in the evening, or both, these can be a lifesaver during the summer. Roughly 70% of all park visitors don't take advantage of the morning EMH, so if you're a morning person and can get to the parks, go! Not only will it be cooler before the heat of midday starts to set in, but you'll get a lot accomplished in the early morning. And if you're a night owl, you'll love summer and the late park hours -imagine being able to stay in the Magic Kingdom until 2 or 3 a.m!   So if your group has the ability to stay out later,  you might relax during the day and hit up the parks at night. Not only will the temperature outside be much more comfortable, but experiencing attractions like Jungle Cruise, Tower of Terror, Test Track or Expedition Everest at night is really different.

Night time is a great time to be in the parks! 

Leave the parks

Regardless of how you tour, you should plan on taking a break during the midday. From about 1-4 p.m., the sun will be at its hottest. It's no surprise that the hot weather makes people cranky and they start to snap at one another. Don't let this be you. Go back to your room for a few hours, and take a siesta, or swim in the pool. Then maybe have a nice dinner and head back to a park for the evening. An even better idea? Take a day off from the parks (about midway through your trip) and spend it relaxing poolside, or by visiting one of the water parks. I guarantee you'll feel better the next day!

Doesn't that pool look inviting? If the scary clown doesn't eat you, I mean.

Use Fastpass and a touring plan

No one likes waiting in line for things, and that's especially true when it feels like it's 95 degrees out and you're baking in the sun. Make sure you use Fastpass for the popular attractions whenever you can, and if you aren't using a touring plan, get one. I can  tell you from experience, they work very well, and can greatly reduce the amount of time you spend in line. 

Better get a Fastpass, or be prepared to wait to ride!

Go for the “cool” attractions

No, I don't mean cool as in awesome. Do kids even say awesome anymore? I feel old. I mean attractions like Philharmagic, Haunted Mansion, Muppet Vision, It's Tough to be a Bug, and yes, even the Hall of Presidents. They're large, air conditioned attractions where you can get out of the sun for a bit. Plus, you can sit down in them, and you can probably even take a long nap without anyone bothering you in that last one. Another good place to come in from out of the heat? The shops. Suddenly, paying $28 for a t-shirt seems reasonable if it means not having to go back outside for 10 minutes.

Bring a poncho

 Summertime in Florida means rain (well, usually). Typically, these storms happen in the afternoon and although they are impressive, strong storms, with thunder and lightning, and can often deliver several inches of rain in a short period of time, they also don't tend to stick around. Here's a tip, too -they'll be lots of people who will leave the parks once it starts to rain; chances are though by the time they get back to their resort, the rain will already be on its way out, so use this time to shop, eat a snack, or experience an indoor attraction. You may just find a much more empty park to enjoy when the sun comes back out.
Serious downpours are part of summer!

What are some of your favorite ways to stay cool in summer at Disney? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Free Dining.

Belgian Chocolate Trio at Yachtsman Steakhouse.

Unless you're traveling during the busiest weeks of the year, you'll probably get a discount when staying on Disney property. By far, the most popular discount is free dining. Originally offered in the fall to bring in guests during the slowest months of year, free dining is now offered, either through general public discounts or pin codes, during all but the most busiest times.  Here's what you need to know.

When is it offered?

Free dining, like most Disney discounts is offered during the slowest months of the year. Safe bets are late August, September, the first and last weeks of October, select days in November and December, most of January, and select days in February and March. 

Keep in mind that free dining will be blacked out for holidays like Columbus day, where kids are out of school, Canadian Thanksgiving (the middle two weeks in October), Jersey Week (early November), Thanksgiving week, Christmas week (usually the 19th through New Year's Day), marathon week in January, and Martin Luther King Day.  Black out dates will vary from year to year, so be flexible about when you can travel.  For this reason, I usually recommend people hold off on booking their flights until free dining is announced.

How do you get free dining?

Check into a Disney resort when free dining is offered and you'll qualify.  As long as you're checking in on a day it's offered, you're good for your entire stay.  You'll need to buy a 2-day park ticket to qualify. If you're an annual pass holder, you can save that ticket for another trip, pass it onto someone else, or use as "money" the next time you buy an annual pass. Just remember if you're not using the ticket to have the cast member take it off your Key to the World Card at check-in so you don't accidentally swipe it in the park.

Free dining is offered in two ways, either as a general public discount offered to everyone or as a pin code.  Pin codes are discounts that are personal to you; you can read more about them here

I've already got a reservation. Can I still get free dining?

Yes.  Just have the new discount applied to your existing reservation. If you've got a room-only reservation, you'll need to switch it over to a package and add tickets.  A way to avoid this is to book a "base" package where you have the option of adding tickets and dining later.  Keep in mind that some resorts and room categories are excluded, so you may have to move up to a different category of room or even a different resort.

Generally, it's best to get free dining added your reservation the first day it's out.  Disney never announces how many rooms in a resort will get free dining, but you can bet that the availability of standard rooms under any promotion is very limited.  Once rooms are booked, that's it.  So if you're set on staying at a certain resort, you'll want to have it applied right away, but if you're flexible about where you'll stay, you can avoid the three hour waits on hold the day free dining comes out and come back later when things slow down a bit. I know last August when free dining was announced, there were resort categories that filled up that morning. Others weren't sold out even on the last day free dining was available.

Remember, there are no penalties for adding a discount to an existing package unless you're under 45-days prior to travel. After that time, you may be charged a $50 change fee.  If you're already booked under a promotion and free dining is better for you, you can switch to free dining, but remember the promotion you have will be gone. So a room discount will go to rack rate or a "kids free" option will disappear.  Disney has one clear rule with discounts and it is that you can only apply one discount at at time. Otherwise, feel free to change to as many promotions as they are released.

What's better: A room discount or free dining?

It depends entirely on the make up of your group and where you're staying, but generally free dining is best at the values and room discounts are a better option at the deluxe resorts. Moderates can break close to even. You'll want to do all the math on this one, since your group make up can change your savings a great deal. Further, Disney doesn't always discount deluxe resorts the same. In the past, we've seen 25% off at the Grand Floridian while other deluxe resorts were discounted at 35% off.  That can change your savings enough that free dining might be a better option.

I'm staying at a value resort and getting the quick-service plan for free.  Can I upgrade to the base plan?

Yes, you can upgrade to the base plan or even the deluxe plan. You'll just pay the difference between the two plans, a minimal amount.

On a personal note, I don't really like the quick-service plan. I think it can be too much "fast food" if you're not familiar with the parks and the locations that serve healthier options, so I usually recommend guests upgrade to the base plan, which I think is the most practical plan and the best use of your money.

I'm not sure I'll eat enough for the dining plan to be worth it. Should I still get free dining if it's available?

It depends, but look at it this way: It's free, and most of the time, it's the best discount out there. Even if you're a light eater, you're going to have to eat on Disney property at some point, if not for your entire stay. Three small quick-service meals a day will run you around $30 to $40 per person. This is assuming you get a sandwich and a drink each time, nothing else.  So while you might be a light eater and feel that the plan isn't worth it, when you add up what you'll be spending anyway, it looks a lot better.

Again, do the math. Go to sites like All Ears and check out their menus. And then see if you can make free dining work versus a room discount.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Restaurant Review: The Childrens' Menu at Via Napoli.

Festive and pretty, Via Napoli is a grown up
restaurant kids will love.
Photo copyright Disney.

Most Disney kids' menus follow a predictable pattern:  Nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and burgers.  The exception to the rule is the World Showcase, where kids can partake in more sophisticated but still kid-friendly versions of the type of cuisine their parents and older siblings are enjoying.  Nowhere is this more true than at Via Napoli, where the kids' menu is easily as good as the adult menu.

If you've eaten there or followed the buzz, you know that Via Napoli serves outstanding wood-fired pizza with fresh mozzarella and inventive toppings. Appetizers and desserts are a pleasure, and the dining room is visually appealing, lively, and fun.  It's a must-do for us on every trip. 

If you're on the dining plan, kids start with a fruit cup or a small salad.  My kids preferred the fruit cup, which was a large serving of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and grapes.  It's served in a fancy little glass perched on a saucer; a nice touch that makes kids feel a bit grown up.  You'll then get a choice of three entrees: A small individual pizza, spaghetti with meatballs, or a ham and cheese calzone.  Kids on the dining plan also get a choice of dessert, a chocolate gelato or cookie.

Fruit cup.

My sons chose the pizza, which is a smaller version of the adult pizza.  It's chewy, thin crust pizza with a delicious marinara covered with buffalo mozzarella. The taste is extraordinary, but if your kids prefer a traditional New York-style pizza, they may not like this.  My kids love it, but just be forewarned.  The marinara is nice and light, with the fresh taste of tomatoes and not overly spicy.  If I had one complaint it's that the cheese only covers a few inches in the middle of the pizza. I would have preferred it to go a little bit closer to the crust.

My daughter had the spaghetti with meatballs and she ate the entire thing, minus the meatballs. My husband and I actually had them and they were quite good!  Tender, lightly seasoned, these would please kids who are real carnivores, I think.  The serving is huge, so if you're not on the dining  plan and you have light eaters, you may consider having your kids share this entree.

Spaghetti and Meatballs.

After being offered cookies at almost every Disney restaurant, my kids were tired of them and opted for the rich, chocolate gelato instead.  Most ice cream that bills itself as gelato lacks the creaminess of real gelato, so I was pleased to see that Via Napoli's has that desired texture that sets it apart from your everyday ice cream. The darker chocolate flavor of the gelato gave it a grown up touch that just added to the luxurious feeling of the dessert.  It's a real surprise.

Mention must be made of the atmosphere of this restaurant, which is fun and lively at all times. Kids, and grown ups, can be a little loud without worry, but it's not so loud that you can't have a nice conversation. For quieter dining, try the covered outdoor seating, which is romantic enough for a date. Stepping into Via Napoli, you really will feel la dolce vita, right down to the friendly Italian wait staff.  Next time you're planning a Disney trip, give it a try.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In Full Bloom: Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival 2012

Spring is one of my favorite times of year to visit Walt Disney World. Temperatures are warm without it being too hot and humid like the summer months, the sun is almost always out, with very few rainy days, and the crowds are....well, if you take away Easter Week and Spring Break, the crowds aren't bad at all! But one of my most favorite reasons for loving Spring at Disney World is the annual Flower & Garden Festival which this year will be held from March 7-May 20, 2012.

Now, if you've ever been to a Disney theme park, or even if you've looked at pictures or seen a special on television, you know it's not exactly a concrete jungle. The grounds at the parks and resorts are always lush, green, and perfectly landscaped. What makes the Flower & Garden Festival so special then? Well, as famed chef Emeril Lagasse would say, this is when Disney “kicks it up a notch (bam!),” and they do so in a big way, with explosions of color and flowers in every shape and size everywhere you look. (And no, I can't believe I just used an Emeril Lagasse expression either. I think 2003 is calling).

Some of the many character topiaries on display in 2011.
And yes, Lotso did smell like strawberries!

This year, the 19th for the festival, the theme is “Magic in Bloom”, and here's just some of what you can expect to see (and if you can't attend, that's okay too, you can experience it vicariously through the blog and the pictures we'll be posting of this year's event):
  • 30 million blooms all around the park.
  • More than 500,000 plants, trees and shrubs are planted for the festival; Half of those are annual blossoms planted just for the festival!
  • Over 100 topiaries, including 75 of various Disney characters.
  • Among those 75 topiaries will be a larger than life display at the front of the park, celebrating the classic animated film, Fantasia, which will feature 28 different topiaries, more than has ever been used in any front entrance display.
  • Over 400 horticulturists will help install landscaping, plant the many flowers and trees, and put the topiaries in place. Amazingly, all 100 topiaries will be set up throughout Epcot in a single night!
Though takes over 24,000 cast member hours and over a year to plan the Flower & Garden Festival (Disney is already planning for next year's festival, in fact), it's not just about some pretty flowers. The popular “Bambi's Butterfly House” will be expanded this year, and will feature over 1,000 different butterflies and 10 different species. Kids ages two and up will enjoy the “Let's Get Moving” play structure, while kids of all ages will enjoy Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden, featuring topiary homes and structures of the many Disney fairies. I have it on good authority that this is where Tinkerbell stays in between flying over Cinderella's Castle each night during Wishes. There's lots to be seen in the pavilions around World Showcase, too, including a bonsai collection in Japan, and the English Tea Garden in the U.K. Pavilion, which features a 20 minute guided tour at select times each day.
Tinkerbell's House in the Pixie Hollow Fairy Garden...

And butterflies like this one, from the butterfly garden,
are just some of the things you can expect to see.

Whether you're a regular green thumb, or, like me, you once killed an artificial plant (in my defense, if it hadn't looked so real, I wouldn't have watered it), you might enjoy the over 160 gardening seminars that will held during the Festival. These seminars are on a wide array of topics, from gardening challenges to the A-Z of herbs. HGTV returns as sponsor this year, and that means that HGTV stars like Sabrina Soto, Brandon Johnson, and Carter Osterhouse will be on hand on select days to share some gardening tips and secrets as well. As always, if you plan to be in attendance, make sure you check your Festival guide for times and locations.

There are plenty of seminars during the Festival -

And hands on demonstrations to turn you into a gardening pro!

After taking all that in, be sure to grab your favorite adult beverage – my recommendation would be the Grey Goose Orange Slush from France - and stick around for the “Flower Power” Concert Series, which take place Friday-Sunday at the American Gardens Theatre in World Showcase. Featuring performers known for their hits from the 1960's and 1970's such as Jose Feliciano, Starship (Starring Mickey Thomas), and Chubby Checkers, it's a great way to end an event filled day at Epcot.

Ka-Chow! Lightning McQeen says don't miss out on exclusive
Flower & Garden package savings!

Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival takes place through early May. Flowers are at their best from mid-March through mid-April.