Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Our first trip to the Magic Kingdom...with kids*

Olivia (age 2) and Mommy with Chip & Dale - March 2006

Our first trip to WDW with kids was in March 2006 when Olivia was 2 years old. We planned the trip at the last minute - after deciding to spend a week in Tampa in early March (it was a great time to go - the college where I was teaching had an early spring break and the crowds at the MK were wonderfully small!).

So, after deciding that we were taking Olivia to the MK for her very first trip, we had a few choices to make: where to stay, what to pack, where to eat. You know...the important stuff! And I didn't have six months (or more) to plan this trip [and that is my normal suggestion - start planning at least six month before your trip -- personally I start planning my next trip as soon as I get home from my current trip...but I AM a bit obsessive about planning].

We decided that we were going to stay at the All-Star Movies Resort and that we'd do a one-day base ticket, but add on the Disney Dining Plan. I figured that way everything would (essentially) be paid for BEFORE our trip and there'd be less to worry about. I called AAA (because we're members) and they took care of the details. And, we were lucky enough to be able to make an Advance Dining Reservation at The Crystal Palace with only a few weeks left until our trip.

We had our "Magic Kingdom Day" planned for the end of our Florida trip, but in retrospect (yes, three years later I'm still thinking about this), we should have done it FIRST. We should have stayed "on property" for two nights - giving us more time to enjoy our resort and RELAX. But we all learn from travel mistakes...and that was mine.

As it is, we arrived at the resort before 7:30 a.m. and were lucky enough to be able to check in (normal check-in time is 4 p.m.). So, we quickly brought the luggage to our room and then headed to the bus stop to get a bus to the MK. We chose to leave our small umbrella stroller in the car and just rent a Disney stroller (again, going against what I now recommend - bring your own stroller!).

This one-day trip was a great learning experience - our first lesson: When a ride has the word "Scary" in it's title, be warned....it probably IS scary.

Exhibit A: "Snow White's Scary Adventure". That was the first ride we took Olivia on...and it was a disaster of epic proportions. She screamed during the entire ride and was afraid of any ride that had even the smallest 'dark part' (including the Pooh ride, the Jungle Boat and the train!). Yikes. Bad, bad parents. However, she did enjoy 'it's a small world'...whew. [And now, her favorite ride is The Haunted Mansion! So at least she wasn't permanently 'scarred' from our bad ride judgment.]

We tried to fit as many experiences into one day as was possible with a two-year-old. We rode all the 'must do' rides, we visted Mickey's Toontown Fair and met Winnie the Pooh and friends (this was before Olivia discovered the princesses), we ate lunch at the Pinocchio Village Haus (sitting at a table that overlooked it's a small world -- the best seats in the house!), we watched the afternoon parade, we met more characters, we shopped, we ate dinner at The Crystal Palace and we stayed to watch Spectromagic.

The only thing we missed was Wishes (and only because we were all exhausted and had to start our drive home to Ohio the next day). Oh, and nap time...who needs it....Olivia took a 20 minute power nap in the stroller outside Cinderella's Castle. [I do NOT recommend this. I always say go back to the resort in the afternoon and REST. But we only had ONE day!].

I think by the end of the day we were all over-stimulated and exhausted and had done more in one day than some families can manage in two or three days. Which brings me back to why we should have done this visit at the START of our Florida vacation. Had we put more thought into it, we could have stayed on property for two nights (instead of just one), and we could have enjoyed our resort and maybe even had half of a day more to spend in the Magic Kingdom. Ah, hindsight is always 20-20, right?

As it was, I started planning our next trip as soon as we packed up the car and headed home to Ohio. We knew we'd be coming back in the fall of 2007 (and would likely have an addition to our family -- as we were planning that too)! And, as planned, our next trip was in September 2007 and our "party" was now a family of four (kids ages 3 1/2 and 8 months). I learned a lot during that trip and during our most recent trip (with a party of 10!!)...and so...sit back, relax and enjoy the next couple of posts -- I'll be sharing my pre-arrival tips and 'while you're at the parks' tips.


*OK...so it was really just 1 kid....

Disney celebrates volunteers in 2010

In 2009, Disney celebrated your birthday .... and in 2010, it's time to celebrate the idea of giving back to your community and being rewarded for your hard work and dedication!

Today the Disney Parks announced their new campaign for 2010: Give a Day. Get a Disney Day.

The basics of this promotion are: beginning in 2010, if you sign up and volunteer with a participating organization, complete your day of volunteering, and have that day of volunteering verified, you get a certificate for a free ticket to Walt Disney World or Disneyland.

So, check out the Web site and find a list of participating organizations and get going!

Let's get out there next year and volunteer!

This is a wonderful opportunity to give back to your community - kudos to Disney!

NOTE: Another source for information is the HandsOn Network - an organization that is working with Disney on this endeavor. Check them out here.

For more information, check out this article from the Orlando Sentinel.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Making Memories

The family, with Chip and Dale, at the Magic Kingdom (April 2009)

Earlier today, @DisneyParks on Twitter posed this question: What is your first Disney Parks memory?

I thought about it and came up with several, only one of which I shared.

I don't know how old I was or when I really started remembering our trips, but these are the things that stick out in my mind:

- Driving to Orlando from my grandparent's house in Tampa - the excitement of those 'day trips' to the Magic Kingdom was almost unbearable. I wanted to be there NOW!

- Seeing the first signs for Walt Disney World and then seeing the gateway to the Magic Kingdom (where mom and dad had to pay for parking). We were almost there!

- Getting out of the car, looking around to see where we were parked (Goofy, Minnie, Pluto?) and then hopping on the tram that would take us to the Ticket and Transportation Center.

- Hopping on the Monorail, finally headed to the Magic Kingdom!

- Walking through the passageway underneath the train station and stepping onto Main Street and there it was. The Castle. I was in my happy place. We had made it.

We made many trips to the MK (and later to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios) when I was younger, and the were all magical for different reasons.

A few more memories:

- Riding 'it's a small world' -- this has always been my favorite ride.

- Buying those little plastic fruits filled with juice - I remember oranges, apples and grapes. I am quite certain that I actually collected those for a while.

- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wish they had kept this ride.

- Pirates of the Caribbean, pre-Capt. Jack Sparrow. My other all-time favorite ride. I actually loved waiting in the queue for this ride -- it's so dark and spooky.

- Riding Space Mountain for the first time with my dad. Scary and fun!

- "If You Had Wings" -- that was a great ride.

- The Skyway (you know, the little buckets on the wire). At the time I loved it . Now, I am terrified of bucket rides.

- The Main Street Electric Parade...I loved this parade, but at the same time it made me sad, because I knew our day at the Magic Kingdom was coming to a close.

- The twinge of sadness I felt as we disembarked the tram and headed to our car, knowing that our magical day was over. But there was also a little glimmer of hope, knowing that another magical day would happen again soon.


I hope that the tips and information I share on this blog will help you and your family create magical memories for many years!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

An update on advance dining reservations at WDW

A few months ago, I wrote about making your advance dining reservations (ADRs) for Walt Disney World and mentioned that for resort guests you could make your ADRs 90 days before your arrival at WDW.

Well, as of October 27, the ADR window goes back to 180 days.

That means, if you are traveling to WDW in the spring of 2010 you need to check when your 180 days arrives and call on that day! (Go here - it's a great site for calculating your 180 days).It is possible that October 27 will be a very, very busy day for the ADR phone lines. [Think of it this way: On 10/26 only those people who were 90 days out from their trip are going to be making their ADRs and then the very next day...anyone who is 180 days out from their trip are going to be making that mad rush at 7 am to get ADRs at Cinderella's Royal Table]. Get your dialing fingers ready!

Don't forget, the number to call in order to make your ADRs is 407-WDW-DINE.

You can also make ADRs online here. I haven't used the online booking for ADRs yet (it wasn't quite ready when we booked our ADRs the last time), but it looks relatively simple - click on the orange box that says "Book a Reservation" and then choose the date, time and number of people in your party. It is probably better to be flexible with dates and times in order to get a reservation.

And while 180 days (that's SIX months!) might seem an impossible stretch of time and you might think "there's no way I know what I want to do six months from now at WDW"...trust me, you can figure it out. You can plan it. I've done it before. And, while tcallhe calendars for spring might not be out yet for the parks, but you should still be able to plan most of your meals without a problem.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Disney's All-Star Movies Resort

My first* experience staying 'on property' at Walt Disney World was when we stayed at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort, one of the 'value' resorts at WDW.

I love this resort. L.O.V.E. it.

There are three All-Star resorts at WDW - Movies, Sports and Music. The resorts are 'neighbors' - that is, they are situated next door to each other - but they are three separate hotels. Each resort has its own pool, lobby and food court. And each has its own theme, represented by over-sized musical instruments (Music), sports items (Sports) and characters/items from popular Disney movies (Movies).

As with any resort anywhere, there are good and not-so-good things about the All-Star resorts in general (even though I've only stayed at the Movies, I think these could apply to all three).

First, let's talk about the good.

The rates
These resorts are very budget-friendly - rates begin at $82 a night.

The resort
The resorts are family-friendly - bright, colorful, and fun. I remember the first time we stayed there, walking into our room in the 101 Dalmatians building and being greeted by movie posters on the wall and 'movie themed' bedding. And let's not forget the extremely tall 'Pongo' and 'Perdita' that stand guard outside the Dalmatians' buildings. [Other movies represented at the resort include Toy Story, The Mighty Ducks, Fantasia, and The Love Bug]. The exterior staircases at the Dalmatian building look like giant fire hydrants (at the Mighty Ducks building - where we stayed in 2007 - they are giant hockey nets).

There are two pools at the resort - one is watched over by Sorcerer Mickey and the other is located outside the Mighty Ducks building and is aptly named, the Duck Pond. It resembles a hockey rink, complete with Goofy playing goalie. As is the case at all Disney resort pools, life vests are available for children at the pools. We discovered that the Duck Pond pool is always less crowded than the Fantasia pool - probably because it's a not in a central location (the Fantasia pool is directly outside the main building (Cinema Hall).

The rooms at the resort are small - 260 square feet - but we managed to survive an entire week in our room with the addition of a stroller, a pack-and-play and a refrigerator. No one was tripping over anyone. And really, you aren't going to spend that much time in your room -- you're at Walt Disney World! [And speaking of refrigerators - if you want a mini 'fridge for your room at the All-Star resorts it will cost you around $10 per day. However, if you have a baby in your group, you may be able to get it at no charge, which is what happened to us. While we were checking, we requested a fridge and our cast member told us he'd give it to us at no charge because we had an infant. That was amazing!]

And I have to mention this: one of my favorite things about the resort is walking past the buildings and see how people have decorated the window to their rooms - they put costumes, plush animals, balloons and other decorations in the windows. It just adds a little bit of magic to your room.

The food
Each All-Star resort has a quick service food court, at the All-Star Movies the food court is the "World Premiere Food Court". You can buy your refillable mugs here - and get them refilled here for the duration of your trip. The food court has five different areas where you can choose from a variety of items including hot foods, sandwiches, bakery items, pizza and salads. The drink station is located in the middle of the food court - with pop/soda machines, coffee, hot water and a mug wash station. You can use your quick service and/or snack options from the Disney Dining Plan at the food court. And, if all else fails and you have a car - there is a McDonald's right down the road.

And now, the not-so-good. [Because this IS Disney, I believe that nothing is ever BAD...but there are some things that might need to be 'fixed'].

The resort
The All-Star Movies is a big resort - it has 10 buildings spread out over a somewhat large area. You might do a lot of walking to get to your room or to Cinema Hall (where you check in/out and where the arcade, gift shop and food court is located). And, as we discovered the day we checked in, you might wait a long time to check in. As in, more than an hour - depending on what day you arrive, what time of year it is, etc. We arrived in late September 2007 and stood in line with two tired, hungry and cranky kids for more than an hour. It was definitely the low point of our trip that year.

That being said, there is a small amphitheater for the kids right next to the check-in area - so the kids can sit and watch the Disney Channel or a movie while mom and/or dad stand in line.

You may also find that the food court is packed on certain days (we found this to be true only once - on the Saturday when we were leaving. It seemed as though the entire resort was leaving with us). Keep that in mind when planning your arrival/departure days. Saturdays are not always the best day to come and/or go.

Bus travel
Know this for the All-Star resorts -- the buses will usually drop off/pick up in this order: Sports, Music and Movies. We traveled at a time of year when the crowds were lower, so this was not really an issue for us, but it's something to keep in mind when choosing an All-Star resort.

The bus stops for the parks are located in the front of the resort - and there is little to no shelter from the elements. You will encounter the longest bus rides to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Our shortest bus ride was to the Animal Kingdom. [Having stayed at a deluxe resort this year, we did notice that the wait times for pick up at the parks was much lower for the Wilderness Lodge than it was for the All-Star Movies.]

We had several experiences at the MK and Epcot where it seemed as though we waited and waited and waited for our bus when all the other resort guests were not waiting as long. Perhaps they have 'fixed' that issue now.

And really, those were my only 'complaints' about ASM - waiting to check in and waiting for buses.

If you're looking for a fun resort that won't break the bank - I highly recommend the All-Star resorts. I think you'll fall in love with All-Star Movies, just as I did. I cannot wait to go back and stay there again!

*It should be noted that while this is 'technically' true, I did stay at the Hilton at Walt Disney World when I was a teenager. But it was with my parents and sister...and I don't have any valuable tips from that stay.

When you wish upon a star....

This post is a bit 'off topic' (there are no tips for a successful Disney trip hidden anywhere)...but since this is my 'unofficial' Disney blog, I figured this was the place to share my thoughts.

I just submitted my application to the Disney Mom's Panel.

My heart is still racing.

If I was lucky enough to be picked for this panel, out of 20,000 applications -- let's just say I would jump for joy. For several weeks.

It would be a dream come true.

But for now, I will take a deep breath and continue to post my tips for you right here!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Disney's Wilderness Lodge

If you're wondering what Disney resort is 'just right' for families, I have a suggestion.

Check out the September 2009 issue of Travel & Leisure. This issue has a bonus section 'Travel & Leisure Family' that lists the world's best hotels for families.

Seven (yes....7!) Disney resorts made the list of the top 50 resorts in the United States and Canada. Six of those seven are located at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The seventh is Disney's Grand California Hotel & Spa in Anaheim.

Number 13 on the list....Disney's Wilderness Lodge!

We stayed at the Wilderness Lodge back in April, and I have to say...it IS a great resort for families. If given the option (and an budget without limits*), I'd stay there every time we visit WDW.

When our Magical Express bus pulled up the front of the WL back in April, I was in awe. It's a beautiful resort on the outside...but when you walk through the front doors into the lobby, be prepared to be amazed!

The Lobby
The lobby is open, airy and features an 82-foot tall fireplace and several totem poles. It is, in a word, breathtaking. A small bubbling brook begins in the lobby and continues outside, flowing into a waterfall and eventually into the resort swimming pool. 'Hidden Mickeys' abound in this resort - be sure to ask the front desk for the hidden mickey "hunt list" and then start searching. We found a few Hidden Mickeys...but never had enough time do find them all.

The Rooms
Our rooms were located on the main floor of the hotel - which was nice ... no elevators needed. We had requestedl 'courtyard' view rooms -- overlooking the pool. If you can, I suggest paying the extra money to get a courtyard view. What an amazing view. I believe that every room at the WL has a private balcony, and that was one of my favorite things about the resort. I loved sitting on my balcony in the morning, watching the resort 'wake up' ... and in the afternoon it was fun to sit out there, soaking up the 'pool atmosphere'.

Overall, the rooms were great. We had two queen beds and a pack-and-play and there was still enough room for all of our stuff, including a double stroller! There was a full-size closet where all the suitcases fit, along with 12 princess costumes (whew! good thing I had somewhere to hang those!). The sink area was HUGE - enough room for all my 'beauty products (what you think this happens naturally? ha!)...and the rest of the family's 'stuff'. And, there was also a dorm size refrigerator -- a definite bonus when you stay at the deluxe resorts.

Be sure to look for hidden mickeys on the carpet in the hallways and on your bedspread!

The Food
You can't write about any Disney resort without talking about the food! And you'll get some good eats at the Wilderness Lodge.

On our first day at WDW we were STARVING when we arrived at the resort after a whole morning of travel, so we headed to the Roaring Fork...the quick service restaurant at the WL. The Roaring Fork serves breakfast items (hot and cold), sandwiches, salads, pizzas and snacks (including the very yummy Mickey Ears rice krispie treats -- my absolute favorite!). My husband and I shared the roast beef and blue sandwich and I'll say it here -- it was divine. My favorite breakfast item was the mix your own cereal bar. Basically you can choose from several types of cereal (frosted flakes, rice krispies, etc.) and the cast member behind the counter will mix them in a nice sized container. All you need to do is add milk.

The Roaring Fork is also the place to go when you want to buy and/or refill your refillable mug. For $12.99 you can buy a refillable mug and then fill it with coffee or pop as often as you want for the duration of your trip (note however, that the refillable mugs cannot be filled at any of the theme parks). This is a great deal and I would suggest it to anyone. We usually purchase one mug ... and my husband and I share it.

The Whispering Canyon Cafe and Artist Point are also located at the Wilderness Lodge. We didn't have a chance to eat at the Whispering Canyon but I know people who have eaten there and they said it was the BEST table service meal they had at WDW. It's on my 'to do' list for 2011. My parents enjoyed a night out at Artist Point and reported that the meal was very good.

The Pool
Ah, the pool...one of the most important locations at any WDW resort. And, I am happy to report, the pool at the WL does not disappoint.

The pool is large, but not too huge...and includes a waterfall and a water slide. There is a separate 'baby pool' -- and my 2-year-old loved that. Another bonus at the WDW resort pools -- life vests are available for the kids. At the WL you need to walk down toward the beach to the rental shack and you can 'rent' (free of charge) a vest for the entire length of your stay. Yes, you can take the vest back to your room every day -- and at the end of your stay, just return the vest to the rental shack. It's that simple.

For the adults, there is a nice pool bar - the Trout Pass bar -- located at the pool.

The Grounds and more....
Personally, I think the grounds of the WL are one of the most beautiful properties at WDW. You really feel as though you've been transported to a national park - there's even a working geyser on site!

The resort itself is located in the Magic Kingdom area of WDW - but it is not a monorail resort.

You could spend a few hours just walking around the resort, taking in the atmosphere, hanging out on the beach at Bay Lake (no swimming!), sitting in a rocking chair outside the lobby .. you know, just relaxing. I saw many families taking bike rides and walks around the grounds when we visited in April....and it looked fun!

One of the things you MUST do is watch the Electric Water Pageant. We walked down to the beach on our second night at the WL to watch the pageant, and it was a perfect way to spend 10 minutes! The pageant floats past all Bay Lake resorts - and you might even catch a glimpse of it as you exit the Magic Kingdom (we saw it on our last night at WDW as we waited for the boat back to the resort).

Transportation to the parks
As I mentioned above, the WL is not a monorail resort.

You can travel to the Magic Kingdom via boat or bus (or car if you have one!). We took the boat and the bus...and discovered that it was often quicker to take the bus. The bus stop is located in the front of the resort - you can reach it by walking out the doors near the Merchantile and following the sidewalk down to the bus stops. The boat dock is located on Bay Lake - walk past the pool and over a walkway to the docks. We waited more than 20 minutes on one day for the boat....but we did discover that on the way "home" from the MK, it was often faster to hop on the boat!

In order to reach Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios or the Animal Kingdom you must take the bus. For the most part, we had good 'luck' when it came to taking the buses and having short trips. We did end up stopping at Fort Wilderness a few times (en route to DHS) and on one of these trips we spent 45 minutes on the bus! But, for the most part you can figure on spending 15 or 20 minutes on your trip to those three parks.

The rest of the story
Well, there you have it...a rather lengthy report on my favorite deluxe resort...one of the best resorts for families. This resort has it all -- location, a great pool, good food, hidden mickeys and enough fun stuff to keep kids of all ages entertained for days!

*Note: the resorts listed in this article are ALL Deluxe resorts. These may not be in your budget, but never fear. A future post will be focused on the Disney Value Resorts, specifically the All-Star Movie Resort - perfect for the family on a budget!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Happy Halloween - Disney style

Happy Halloween!

Yes, I realize it's only September...but if you are headed to Walt Disney World anytime between now and November 1st, you MUST check out Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom.

We were lucky enough to experience the party in September 2007 ... and I wish we could go back every year.

When we booked our 2007 trip, I had no idea what to expect from the MNSSHP. But, the party was scheduled for our last night at WDW and I didn't want to miss out on any fun, so we decided to pay the extra money and was it worth it!

Yes, I said we paid EXTRA money to go to the party.

Let me explain: even if you have a ticket for the Magic Kingdom on the day of the MNSSHP, you still have to buy a ticket to get into the party. It's a special event.

And it really IS special.

The Magic Kingdom is decorated for Halloween with jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows and other Halloween-themed decor. It makes the whole park THAT much more magical.

And, at the party, the characters walk around dressed in Halloween costumes. There is the "Boo to You" Halloween parade, complete with the Headless Horseman (who starts the magic) and a special presentation of "Wishes" called "HalloWishes" -- and the Disney villans are sure to make an appearance.

The best part, in my opinion? Trick-or-treating in the Magic Kingdom! (You don't need to have your own 'trick or treat bag' either -- you'll be handed one as you arrive at the MK!)

Olivia had a blast trick-or-treating with Winnie the Pooh and Alice (make sure to find the walkway between Tomorrowland and Toontown -- it's where the characters from Alice in Wonderland will be located). And, she was able to get her photo taken in front of Cinderella's coach (which was located near it's a small world" in the stroller parking area).

How magical is that?

Halloween is my favorite holiday and to be able to celebrate at my favorite place ... well, it was a perfect end to a perfect trip.