Archive for the ‘Theme Parks’ Category

Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Dining

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Eating out tends to be a big part of our trips to Walt Disney World.  Since we make frequent visits, we don’t really feel any strong pressure to see everything.  We really enjoy taking a somewhat leisurely pace on our trip and including at least one sit-down meal during each day is something that we particularly enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to start with a brief discussion of the Disney Dining plan and then provide a day-by-day overview.  I apologize that photos are a bit sparse in this report.  I’ve never really gotten into the habit of taking a lot of photos at restaurants, other than family photos at character meals or other themed locations.  In fact, even the pretty general photos (without my family) of the Sci-Fi Dine-In below are ones that I actually took several years ago.  If I had thought ahead of time of focusing my main trip report on the meals, I probably would have made more of an effort to get at least exterior photos of more of the restaurants.  I’ll try to think of this on my next trip.

Disney Dining Plan

During the last few trips, we have taken part in the Disney Dining Plan, which allows us to pre-pay a fixed per-day amount to cover the majority of our meals.  The plan provides credits for 1 counter service meal, 1 table service meal, and 1 snack item per person for each day of the trip.  The credits are pooled over the length of the trip (expiring at 11:59pm on the departure day), which does provide some flexibility for how they are used.

The dining plan has been somewhat controversial among Disney fans for some reasons that I do think have merit, particularly related to the increased difficulties getting into table service restaurants (at many locations, it is now pretty much mandatory to make reservations 6 months in advance) and it does also seem that some of the menus have been simplified somewhat since the dining plan began.  Overall, the program does work very well for our family and it does save us a considerable amount of money as we tend to order meals that would cost quite a bit more if we were paying directly.

While we still find the plan to be worthwhile, it is unfortunate that some changes were made that reduced the value a bit since it first began.  Originally, the table service meals included appetizer, entree, dessert, non-alcoholic beverage, and gratuity.  A couple years ago, the appetizer and gratuity were removed.  Including both the appetizer and dessert did make for a bit more food than we probably really wanted at some meals.  I do think it would be much better, though, if they would change the plan to offer a choice between the appetizer or a dessert instead of only providing the dessert.  There were a number of occasions where an appetizer (particularly soup or a salad) would definitely have been my preference over getting a dessert.

I’m definitely more torn on the elimination of the gratuity.  On the one hand, I admit that I did notice that service was sometimes a bit lackluster back when the tip was included and, thus, guaranteed.  On this trip, we didn’t really have any experiences where the service was less than good.  On the other hand, though, having to pay the gratuity separately for each table-service meal definitely takes away from the “pay it and forget it” aspect of the dining plan.  Since you calculate the tip based on the original menu prices, it does re-introduce a little bit of a tendency to want to look at the cost of each item ordered and a brings back a little bit of motivation for ordering the less expensive items.

I was also less than thrilled that an 18% gratuity was automatically added to our check at every location.  I’m not sure if that was because of the dining plan or because we had 6 people in our party, but it isn’t a policy that I like very much in either case.  At a few locations, the server did ask me first if I wanted to charge the gratuity to my room charge, but in most cases he/she just brought the charge slip without asking first or commenting.

My main reason for not really liking the automatic gratuity is that I prefer to be able to increase or decrease it a bit based on how the service was.  I also tend to think that 18% is a bit high for buffet meals, but the amount was not lowered at those locations.  I will note that, since the gratuity was charged automatically, I never added anything to it and I’m pretty sure I would have tipped a bit higher at a few locations had it been left up to me.

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Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Bay Lake Tower

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Disney's Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower

During our visit to Walt Disney World the first week of January, we stayed at the newest hotel on property, Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.  Bay Lake Tower is the recently-opened 15-story Disney Vacation Club tower located adjacent to the Contemporary on the site where the north garden wing used to be located.  The Contemporary, of course, was one of the two original Disney World hotels (along with The Polynesian) and is the closest to the Magic Kingdom.

 Entrance to the Contemporary

We have been Disney’s Vacation Club members for a few years, having previously purchased points with Disney’s Saratoga Springs as our home resort.  We had always been a bit reticent about that resort due to its size and location and didn’t actually stay there for any length of time until 2008.  For most of that trip, all of the alternative DVC resorts had sold out by the time the home resort exclusivity window was over.  We really weren’t very happy with it, since it was so far away from all the parks while also being so large and spread out that we found it difficult to navigate around or to use many of the resort’s amenities.  After that experience, we sold off our interest in the early part of 2009 and then re-purchased with Bay Lake Tower as our home resort.

While we were taking a little bit of a risk by re-purchasing at a brand new DVC resort, we felt it was a very small risk.  We had actually stayed at the Contemporary once before during our last trip before we bought into DVC.  On that trip, we had stayed in a room in the old north garden wing, which was since demolished to make way for Bay Lake Tower.  We knew from that experience that we liked both the location and the overall amenities of the Contemporary and that the specific location of the new DVC tower worked really well for us as well.

Bay Lake Tower is considered to be a part of the Contemporary Resort and generally shares amenities.  Check-in and other guests services are done at the main desks in the Contemporary lobby.  Access to the tower is available via a couple ground floor entrances or by way of a skybridge that connects the 4th floor of the Contemporary with the 5th floor of Bay Lake Tower.  The bridge is not fully enclosed and, therefore, exposed to the elements.  If the weather indicates, it is definitely important to remember to grab coats or rain gear when crossing between the two buildings.

View from the Bay Lake Tower SkybridgeView from the skybridge

They do maintain a certain amount of exclusivity by always requiring the use of a room key to access any of the Bay Lake Tower entrances.  This isn’t strictly enforced as it is extremely easy to simply follow other guests into the building, but I do think this is a generally good policy to discourage non guests from wandering the building.  There are some pretty impressive views from the elevator lobbies and hall windows in the tower and I could easily see crowding and noise levels becoming a problem without the more restrictive access.

The 4th floor of the Contemporary (where the skybridge is located) is the hotel’s famous “Grand Canyon Concourse” which includes the monorail station as well as various gift shops, restaurants, and a video arcade.  The gift shops include two general Disney merchandise stores, Bayview Gifts which was mostly clothing and the Fantasia Shop, which featured a lot of Disney-branded toys, trinkets, and a pin shop.  Near the skybridge is an additional shop called Concourse Sundries and Spirits, which has some grocery items.  This store had a small selection of DVC-branded clothing and other items, including one Bay Lake Tower t-shirt, but I didn’t much like the design on it.  We were disappointed that none of the shops had anything else in the way of merchandise specific to the Contemporary or Bay Lake Tower.

Chef Mickey's and Contempo Cafe

The two restaurants on the 4th floor included Chef Mickey’s, which is a character buffet, and the quick service Contempo Cafe.  We had a nice breakfast at Chef Mickey’s on our day of arrival and had a couple quick service meals at Contempo Cafe at various times during our trip.  Both were nice locations and we particularly appreciated having the quick service location that was so conveniently located.  The Contempo Cafe is fairly new (it is in the former location of the old Concourse Steakhouse) and has a very modern feel to it, including a touchscreen ordering system.  The Contemporary has two more restaurants that we didn’t visit, which are The Wave down on the first floor (in the location of the old fast food location) and the high-end California Grill on the top floor.

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Sea-Life Aquarium, Carlsbad CA – 2/14/2009

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Last summer, Legoland California in Carlsbad opened the new Sea-Life Aquarium.  Legoland’s parent company, Merlin Entertainment, already had several similar aquariums in various European locations, but this was their first in the US.  We took the opportunity to visit the attraction during a trip to Legoland over the recent President’s Day holiday weekend.

Sea-Life Aquarium Themed Display

My reaction to the aquarium is conflicted.  I was quite impressed by its theme and decor and I felt that the overall child-friendly design of the exhibits was absolutely outstanding.  If the aquarium was presented as an included attraction at Legoland, or for a very low extra charge, I would be praising it very highly as an excellent addition.  Unfortunately, they have instead decided to position it as a stand-alone attraction with pricing to match.  In my view, it just doesn’t offer enough to justify that approach.

The full priced admission to the aquarium is currently listed as $18.95 for each adult and $11.95 for children.  At least at present, they are offering admission to Sea-Life as a $10/person/day add on with Legoland admission, but even that feels a bit high.  We spent about 90 minutes going through the entire attraction twice and it felt like we were stretching it out quite a bit.   We were able to take advantage of an $8/person price currently being offered to Legoland annual passholders (with a coupon) until the end of March and even that felt a bit high for our family of three for that amount of time, although I suppose that price/time combo is pretty comparable to a movie.

Sea-Life Aquarium Sea Horses

I was surprised that the aquarium has a linear design that pretty much forces guests to tour the exhibits in a specific order.  I had expected a more traditional museum-type design where a central lobby would provide access to the various exhibits that could be visited at leisure in any order.  I think the one-way, linear design of Sea-Life played very heavily into the fairly fast speed at which we finished with the whole attraction.  The design didn’t really seem to encourage lingering anywhere overly long and certainly didn’t make it easy to go back and re-visit specific parts.

The first indication of the attraction’s linear design was a sign out front warning that the only restrooms in the facility are at the very end of the tour.  The sign also advised visiting the restrooms next to the entrance to Legoland before entering the aquarium.  The failure to include a set of restrooms about mid-way through the facility definitely seems like an oversight in an attraction of this type, particularly since families with children are the main target audience.

The main entrance to the aquarium is on the front, right-side of the building with just a couple turnstiles and ticket scanning machines providing access.  There is also a second entrance from inside of Legoland, but we didn’t use it and I’m not entirely certain where it actually entered.  My guess is that it probably just provides access to a pathway that goes to the same small waiting area outside the main doors.  After going through the turnstiles, we had a short wait before the doors opened and we were directed into a small pre-show room.  A day ticket to the aquarium does allow for unlimited readmission, but you do have to repeat the pre-show each time.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – T-Rex Cafe

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

(Continuing my very slowly-written trip report of our 12/7-12/15/08 visit to Walt Disney World and Orlando)

Even on a direct flight, the travel time from Los Angeles to Orlando is nearly 5 hours.  When you add on the three hour time change (as well as the travel time to and from the airport), most of the arrival date is used up.  On our trips, we have typically arrived at Walt Disney World by around 8pm or so Florida time.  After a long day, this is usually a bit late to head into a theme park, so we instead usually look for a fun place for dinner somewhere that isn’t overly far from the resort where we are staying.

trex1

This year, our arrival night dinner was at T-Rex Cafe, the newly-opened dinosaur-themed restaurant at Downtown Disney.  Saratoga Springs is just a short bus ride from there, so trying out this new restaurant seemed like an ideal choice for the first night of our trip.  It did turn out to be a good choice and really helped us to transition from the high-stress of travel into the fun of themed entertainment.  Giving credit where credit is due, I should mention here that I was so hungry and hurried to get to dinner that I forgot to take my camera along to the restaurant.  All the pictures in this post were taken instead by my father (most during a previous visit to the restaurant) and I thank him for sharing them with me.

trex2

At the time of our visit, the restaurant was still officially in "soft opening" meaning that it hadn’t yet had its official grand opening and would still be operating with a few limitations.  The main result of this was that they were not yet taking any reservations, which did at least increase the potential for fairly long lines.  Even though it was a Saturday night, it was fairly late (around 9pm) by the time we got checked into our hotel room and then found our way over to the restaurant for dinner.  In addition, my sister just met us there instead of coming over to the hotel, so she was able to monitor the wait time and jump into the line as soon as we called and let her know we were on the way over.  This resulted in us getting a table almost immediately after we got there.

One other effect of the restaurant being in soft opening (and so new) was that we actually had a little bit of trouble finding it.  Even though the building is rather distinctive and rather hard to miss, Downtown Disney is pretty tightly packed which means that individual buildings aren’t visible from everywhere.  With the restaurant not yet having "officially" opened, it wasn’t yet on the maps or most of the directional signs.  We even asked a couple employees for directions, but the ones we asked didn’t really seem to know the answer.  We finally found it by simply starting to walk across the complex until we spotted it in the distance.

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Holiday Memory: The Disneyland Candlelight Stampede of 1998

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As a very regular visitor to Disneyland over the last 12 years or so, I have seen a lot of major events at the park and have been there for a few customer-relations stumbles as well.  In one case in particular, namely the poorly run ticket-distribution for the 1998 Candlelight Processional show, one of Disneyland’s less shining moments ended up being one of my personally most important and memorable experiences at the park.

The Candlelight Processional is a long running holiday tradition at Disneyland.  It is a concert program that they typically run around the first week of December, which is a musical celebration of the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, featuring a professional orchestra and a large massed choir formed from numerous church and school choirs as well as some Disney employees.  The show also features a celebrity narrator, who tells the Biblical Christmas story in between the songs.  This show has been a favorite Christmas season tradition for me for as long as I have lived out here in Southern California.  It is something I really look forward to every year.

Traditionally, this concert is performed on a stage set up in the Town Square area of Main Street, with the Railroad Station used as the backdrop.  In most years, there are just 4 evening performances of the show, two each on Saturday and Sunday.  The majority of the Town Square area is blocked off for the stage as well as for a large seating area.  Tickets for viewing the show in the seating area are mainly distributed to Disney’s corporate partners and other VIPs while regular park guests start staking out seats early to the sides and further back in order to get even an obstructed view of the show.

This can result in a lot of logistics problems and major bottlenecks in that part of the park on those days.  Because of this, Disney a fairly short-lived (5 years) experiment starting in 1998 of moving the show to the Fantasyland Theater, an outdoor performance venue located across from "It’s a Small World".  Walt Disney World had moved their version of the show from Town Square in the Magic Kingdom to a similar theater in Epcot a few years earlier and had eventually managed to expand it multiple shows a night throughout the holiday season, with reserved seating tickets being sold through popular dining packages.  There was a lot of speculation that this experiment with a change of venue at Disneyland was also hoped to eventually lead to a similar expansion of the program, although that never materialized and the show was finally moved back to Main Street starting in 2003.

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