Category Archives: Theme Parks

Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – Accommodations

Our family took our annual trip to Walt Disney World (and Orlando in general) from 12/7-12/15.  We bought into the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) time-share a couple years ago, which makes it pretty easy for us to reserve a 1-bedroom villa for our typical length of stay.

Our home resort for DVC is Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, a large, very spread-out resort complex located near the Downtown Disney shopping and dining area.  At the time that we bought in, this was the only home resort that was available without going through the extra difficulties (and risks) involved with purchasing an interest on the third-party market instead of directly from Disney.  The DVC contract allows members to book accommodations at their home resort 11 months in advance and at any of the other DVC resorts, if available, at 7 months.

Based on what we knew about the location and decor of Saratoga Springs, it hasn’t been our first choice of where to stay.  Our standard procedure has been to go ahead and book our target dates there at the 11 month mark, but then switch the reservation to another resort that is more to our taste once the 7 month booking window opens.  Prior to this year’s trip, we had only stayed at Saratoga Springs for one night, which was last year’s arrival night before heading to port to take the Cruise the next morning.  Our longer Walt Disney World stays as DVC members had included two stays at The Villas at the Wilderness Lodge (our favorite resort) and one stay at the Boardwalk Villas.

This year, we apparently picked some pretty high-demand dates for our trip as there was no other availability for the first 6 nights once we hit the 7-month booking window.  We were able to book Villas at Wilderness Lodge for the last 3 nights only.  We did get on the waiting list for the first 6 nights at Wilderness and also checked back a few times to see about other options.  Nothing opened up, though, and we did end up spending those 6 nights at Saratoga on this trip.

Getting right to the point, we were not especially happy with Saratoga Springs.  The room was very typical of the single-bedroom villas that we have stayed in at other resorts and was still a good fit for our needs.  The size and layout of the complex was our problem.  Saratoga Springs is huge and extremely spread out, making it very difficult to navigate.  Our room was in the Carousel building, which is one of the most remote.  This put us very far away from most of the resort’s amenities, particularly the food services and the Downtown Disney boat transportation.  These major amenities are generally clustered pretty close to one another, but are a pretty long walk from the remote buildings, such as the one where we were staying.

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Thanksgiving at Disneyland

We have had an exceptionally busy month of visiting relatives and our son’s birthday celebration and, to top it off, we have a trip to Florida coming up next week.  With all that going on, we decided that we just didn’t feel like going through all the work of preparing a big Thanksgiving dinner at home this year.  Knowing from past experience that, on Thanksgiving, Disneyland isn’t overly busy and they offer special menus of traditional turkey dinners at most of their restaurants, we decided that a day at the park was an ideal way for us to spend the holiday.

We left for the park around 11am and I was pretty surprised at how heavy the traffic on the south 5 freeway was.  In the past, I’ve usually found that traffic is pretty light on Thanksgiving, but the drive this time turned out to be pretty slow-going.  We didn’t see indications of any accidents or other problems, so I suspect that our timing was such that there were just a lot of people heading down to Orange County or San Diego for holiday gatherings.  The drive wasn’t particularly unpleasant, though, and we enjoyed listening to the Christmas music station on XM satellite radio during the drive.  Thanksgiving is the first day that I’m generally willing to start listening to Christmas music, even though it seems like some stations start playing it earlier every year.

We occasionally switched over to the traffic reports on XM, but didn’t get any information from that either.  We found it weird when they were reporting one major incident on “southbound I-10”, considering that the 10 is an east-west freeway.  Eventually, we figured out that the traffic reporter was misreading the first digit of “110” as an “I”.  We often find the traffic reports on there a bit amusing since the reporters are clearly not in Southern California and often seriously butcher pronunciations.  It is particularly fun listening to some of them trying to pronounce “Cahuenga” or “Sepulveda”.

By the time we actually got into the park, it was close to 1pm.  During a previous Thanksgiving visit, we had eaten at Carnation Restaurant on Main Street and had found that to be an especially good choice.  It is a table-service restaurant, which is preferable to cafeteria style for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Americana setting of Main Street just seems exceptionally suited to the holiday.  We were briefly concerned that the weather was a bit drizzly and overcast and the restaurant has all outdoor seating, but the weather was already clearing by the time we got there and we noted that they had large umbrella coverings over all the tables, so we decided to go ahead with it.  Even though we didn’t have reservations, we were seated with only about a 15 minute or so wait.

When they brought the menus and explained to us about the special Thanksgiving dinner, we immediately ran into a very large irritation, although it was one that wasn’t entirely unexpected based on a previous experience.  Despite the fact that it was Thanksgiving and the fact that Disneyland is obviously well-known for attracting families with small children, they were not offering a children’s portion of the turkey dinner.  Basically, children had to either order the adult portion (at the full price) or settle for a choice of chicken strips, macaroni & cheese, or PB&J.  Our 5-year-old most certainly was not going to willingly accept anything other than a turkey dinner, which is one of his favorite meals even when it isn’t Thanksgiving.

When this came up 2-years ago (and our son was only 3), we ended up escalating the issue to a manager and eventually the chef actually came out and offered to prepare a half-portion for our son.  He also instructed the servers to make that option available to any other families and we saw several other families order the same while we were at the restaurant.  I had hoped that after that experience they would start simply placing it on the menu, but I guess that didn’t happen.

Our son’s appetite has grown quite a bit and, quite honestly, we just weren’t in the mood to go through the big hassle of escalating the issue again this year.  Therefore, we just went ahead and ordered 3 adult meals.  We figured my wife and I can also augment our own meals a bit, if it proved to be too much food.  The portions were really quite large, though, and he did end up leaving some of the turkey (and most of the stuffing) on the plate, even after we did both take some of his food as our own second helpings.  We did see other children in the restaurant also struggling through the large portions and I suspect they ended up with a bunch of waste.  In retrospect, I do kind of wish that we had made more of an issue out of it again.

The food was generally pretty good, although we did agree on one complaint.  The gravy used on the potatoes and turkey was quite a bit more salty than it should have been.  It certainly didn’t help that it didn’t occur to me to test it before adding a little additional salt.  It still wasn’t bad enough to warrant sending the food back, but I did find myself scraping off much of the gravy.  Other than that, the turkey was served hot and wasn’t overly dry and the potatoes and stuffing were good as well.  The meal also came with some cooked vegetables which aren’t to my taste (I really don’t like any cooked veggies other than corn) and some fresh cranberry sauce and a dinner roll.  With the obvious caveats above, it was a pretty decent Thanksgiving meal for about $15/person and the location certainly was top-notch for it.

While pumpkin pie was available as a special Thanksgiving-only dessert option, none of us really care for that and decided to opt out from it.  Instead, we got ice cream sundaes from the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor as our dessert and enjoyed them while listening to the piano player at Refreshment Corner.  One of Disneyland’s long-standing traditions for the holiday season is to offer special seasonal food choices at some locations and one of my absolute favorite is peppermint stick ice cream.  That was a key motivation for me wanting to get ice cream for dessert and it was as good as ever.

During the remainder of the afternoon, we took the opportunity to enjoy some of the park’s special offerings for the holidays.  This included two rides (one during the day and one after dark) on It’s a Small World, which they have been extensively decorating for the holidays for a number of years now.  That is something we look forward to every year and we were particularly excited to see this time, since the attraction had been down for a major refurbishment since the beginning of the year.  We only noticed a few minor changes (most notable being all new boats), but everything looked to be in excellent condition.  This is a very popular attraction during the holidays, but the lines were very short (10 minutes or so) each time.  Thanksgiving just isn’t a very busy day at the park.

Other than the two rides on Small World and one ride on King Arthur’s Carrousel, we didn’t actually do any other rides that day.  Instead, we spent some time looking at the various decorations as well as paying a visit to the "Reindeer Roundup" area on Big Thunder Trail to see the pardoned national turkeys (who usually end up at Disneyland after the ceremony with the president) and pay a visit to Santa Goofy.  We also enjoyed a walk through the newly re-opened and updated Sleeping Beauty dioramas in the castle.  This had been closed for about 7 years and it was nice to see it return.  After dark, while my wife went off to do some shopping, my son and I enjoyed sitting for a while at the hub waiting for and watching the lighting ceremony where they turn on the elaborate Christmas lights on the castle.

We left the park for home around 7:30pm or so and found traffic to be fairly light for the drive home.  We made a couple attempts to see if we could find any fast food restaurants opened for a small and quick dinner, but found that everything we checked was closed.  I guess there just isn’t much demand for McDonalds or Burger King on Thanksgiving. While we were getting a bit hungry by the time we made it home (and fixed some hot dogs), I did think it was nice that those places let their employees spend the holiday evening wieh their families.

This was a nice Thanksgiving and, despite some complaints about the meal, I felt we made a good choice as to how to spend the day.

Our Hurricane Wilma Experience (October, 2005)

A post on The Disney Blog on Friday reported on the threat that Tropical Storm Fay poses to the Orlando area.  In October of 2005, we were on vacation at Walt Disney World when Hurricane Wilma came through Florida.  I wrote up a few paragraphs in that blog post’s “comments” section and it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to expand those comments into a full report on that experience.  These are based on nearly 3 year old recollections, but hopefully it will still be reasonably accurate.

Most people will likely remember that an unusually large number of strong hurricanes hit the southwestern USA, including Florida, during the Summer and early Fall of 2005.  This, of course, included Hurricane Katrina, which so severely devastated New Orleans and other communities in that part of the country.  Orlando was in the direct path of a few of these hurricanes and at least suffered some severe weather from most of them.  Having family in the Orlando area, we had followed these events very closely, but we generally weren’t giving too much thought to any potential impact on our late-October vacation plans, since major hurricanes that late in the season were previously exceptionally unusual.

It did start to grow into a concern during the last week or so prior to our trip as Tropical Storm Wilma formed and eventually was upgraded into a very strong hurricane.  It pretty quickly became apparent that Florida was within its most likely path.  Out travel plans had us arriving in Orlando on the evening of Saturday, October 22. Initially, Wilma looked pretty likely to pass through before our trip, but the storm slowed down somewhat and it ended up making landfall on the southern part of Florida very early in the morning of Monday, October 24.

As the timing of the hurricane became more obvious, we did give some consideration about whether to change our travel plans. While we had heard that Disney and the airlines were generally being pretty generous about waving penalties for late changes to reservations due to the hurricanes, we had also heard numerous reports (including first-hand accounts from family) on how WDW had generally fared well during the previous storms of the season.  The combination of my work schedule and the typically long lead time needed for most WDW reservations led us to realize that our only likely alternatives to going as planned would be to either cut the trip short by a couple days or cancel it altogether.  We ended up deciding to take our chances.

I admit that we did come awfully close to canceling on Friday, though, as our son (just under 2-years-old at the time) woke up that morning with a bad case of pink eye.  We did get him in to see his doctor that day, who very helpfully prescribed a liquid antibiotic that required refrigeration, not exactly the best thing when we had a full day of air travel coming up the next day.  That problem was solved by a quick trip to the store to buy a soft-side cooler and some Blue Ice, but it still was yet another concern.  Late that afternoon when my wife started complaining of a sore throat (typically the first sign of a cold for her), I couldn’t help but wonder if we were seriously tempting fate by planning to continue the trip.  Fortunately, neither of their ailments actually turned out to be overly long-lasting or severe (they were both pretty much fine by Sunday), but we didn’t know that at the time and I admit to being something of a nervous wreck by Friday evening.

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Disneyland Resort Trips Report – June/July 2008 Part 2: Attractions and Shows

In part 1 of this report, I mentioned that over multi-day visit to the Disneyland Resort was a replacement for an originally planned trip to Walt Disney World around the same time and that we decided to delay the trip because our son had become skittish about visiting theme park attractions. Since the Disneyland Resort is so much closer to home and we visit it much more frequently, we figured that our visit there would be a better opportunity to keep trying to re-build his courage while not really feeling like we are missing all that much if what we can do remains pretty limited.

During this visit, we let our son largely set the pace and do a lot of the choosing when it came to the rides and shows that we visited, but we also gave him a lot of encouragement to work some new experiences into the visit as well. He visited his favorite attractions (King Arthur’s and King Triton’s Carousels, Mad Tea Party, Tuck and Roll Drive ’em Buggies, Goofy’s Playhouse, Playhouse Disney Live, Enchanted Tiki Room) while also talking him into visiting several that weren’t on his previous "approved" list (such as MuppetVision 3D, the Aladdin stage show, Toy Story Midway Mania, and the Mark Twain Riverboat). We still didn’t do any of the major thrill rides, even though he is now tall enough for many, but he definitely is making progress.

One thing to note is that we did almost entirely stick to visiting attractions that our whole family could do together. I really was the only one in our party that could have done most of the major thrill rides, since our son isn’t really up to them yet and everyone else in our group has restrictions due to medical conditions. I’m certain I could have gone off to do some of the coasters had I wanted to, but I really was far more interested in family time. I do look forward to the time when my son is ready to do some of those bigger rides with me, but I’m also in no rush about it. The experience of seeing the attractions with my child is so rewarding that I don’t miss the thrill rides.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to write up specific notes on a few key attractions. Our visits to the Disneyland Resort have become less frequent than they used to be and these trips ended up being the first opportunity to see a few new attractions and shows. I’ll also include a few notes about some of the other attractions and shows that included some memorable element.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

The re-themed and re-opened version of Disneyland’s classic Submarine Voyage was the major new attraction for summer of 2007. Due to the extremely long lines (often over 2 hours or more) combined with our son’s skittishness, we hadn’t yet visited it before this trip. We were pretty determined to finally see the ride on this visit, with my father (who is a major Disney-enthusiast) being particularly excited to have the opportunity to ride the subs again.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

During our first full day at the parks (Monday 6/23) the ride was having a lot of technical difficulties, resulting in it being closed for much of the day. I’m not really sure if it ever actually opened that day as it was listed as "temporarily closed’ every time we checked in. We did leave the resort for dinner at Knott’s that evening, though, so it may very well have opened later in the day. Seeing it closed so much on Monday did make us (my father in particular) pretty nervous about whether or not we would actually get an opportunity to ride it. On Tuesday, though, the ride was opened and we found that it had a posted wait time of around an hour shortly after we had finished our lunch at the Blue Bayou.

One really nice feature of the ride is that they offer a special, alternative experience for disabled guests who are unable to board the submarines. Off to the side of the dock where guests board the regular ride, there is a building containing a small theater (it seats about 30 guests) where they show a high-definition video presentation of the full ride experience. My mother suffers from severe arthritis in her legs (she has to use a motorized scooter much of the time) and couldn’t possibly have managed the narrow ladder to get onto the ride. My wife has a back condition and also had doubts about whether or not she could board, thus she decided to join my mother and attend the alternate version. They took our son along as well, since we were pretty doubtful that he would be willing to board the rather claustrophobic submarine.

Guests using the alternate experience enter through an entrance near the monorail entrance. With the fairly high-capacity and fairly low-demand for it, they found that they only had to wait for the next available showing. After helping them to get situated in the line for the alternate experience and arranging where to meet later, my father and I were prepared to head around to get into the hour-long queue for the regular ride. Much to our surprise, the ride attendants instead escorted us to a nearby waiting area and told us that we would be put onto the next submarine. That means that we boarded the regular ride about the same time that the others entered the theater, thus minimizing the amount of time our family was separated.

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Disneyland Resort Trips Report – June/July 2008 Part 1: The Food

The headline for this post is not a typo.  This report is going to cover two different stays at the Disneyland Resort over just a few short weeks of time.  We first spent 4 nights at the resort on June 22-25 and then stayed overnight again on July 4th.

We have a membership in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) timeshare and had originally planned to make a trip to Walt Disney World in late June right after our son completed his first year of pre-school.  After our October trip last year, we found that our son had become pretty skittish on rides and attractions and we decided it probably would be wise to delay our trip until December to increase the chance that he would grow out of that a bit.  Canceling that trip meant that we ended up with a number of DVC points that we had to use by August or end up forfeiting them.

My parents live in the Orlando area and they decided to come up to visit us during the same period that we had originally planned our Florida trip.  They were interested in staying down at the Disneyland Resort for a few days, so it then made sense to use up those points with a stay down there.  After researching, we discovered that we had the points available to cover the cost of a concierge-level room at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel for those 4 nights in June with enough left over for the 4th of July as well.  We had used points to stay there on July 4th for the last few years (avoiding the need to drive home after the fireworks) and it was very appealing to do that again this year while also having the chance to enjoy a longer, multi-day stay at the Grand Californian as well.

Instead of trying to test my memory with a day-to-day report on our visit, I’m going to categorize my report.  In this first part, I am going to concentrate on our dining experiences during the trip.  I’ll likely add additional parts to this over the next few days reporting on other aspects of the trip.

Character Dining

My parents arrived mid-afternoon on June 22 and we decided that a character dinner would be a good way to start the trip.  Around the 60 day mark before our trip, we made reservations at Goofy’s Kitchen (at the Disneyland Hotel) for that first-night dinner.  Our reservations were at 6pm and we were happy that they were able to seat us within about 5-10 minutes of our arrival at the restaurant.  Walk-up guests were being told that there was a 90 minute wait, so reservations are definitely a very good idea here.

Before seating, they gathered our family together for a photo with Pluto.  About halfway through the meal someone came to our table to try and sell us a pretty overpriced (around $40, if I recall) package of the photos.  They did the same thing when we did the character breakfast at PCH Grill later in the week (this time with Daisy Duck), so this must now be standard at the character meals.  In both cases, we declined as the packages were pretty costly and the photos weren’t that great.  I don’t remember encountering this there before (although it has been a while since we last did a character meal at DLR) and I don’t really care for this system.  I don’t mind the pre-meal photos, but I’d much rather they use Photopass to sell the photos.  At least at PCH, a CM did offer to also take a couple photos with our own camera, something that wasn’t offered at Goofy’s Kitchen.

The food at Goofy’s was ok, but nothing special.  This was consistent with our past experiences there.  We have always found that you definitely go there much more for the character-experience than for the food.  The food is definitely better than a low-end buffet like a Hometown Buffet, but I would also say it is closer to that than it to what you typically find at a high-end hotel buffet such as at the better Vegas hotels or at somewhere like a Hilton or a Hyatt.  Those used to the Walt Disney World character meals are also apt to be disappointed by Goofy’s based on our typical experiences.

The buffet does feature carved prime rib as a main entree and it was pretty decent.  On my first trip up there, I did get a piece that turned out to be quite a bit more rare than I generally like (and I prefer beef to be medium to medium-rare), but I can’t fault them too much for that since I didn’t specify a preference.  On a subsequent trip up there, I was easily able to get another slice that was more to my taste.  I do think they should probably ask before serving the meat that rare, but it still wasn’t that big a deal.  I did think the rest of the selection at the buffet was somewhat more limited than it should have been, which was not unexpected based on past visits.  For example, I was really surprised that they only offered one variety of roasted potatoes (which I couldn’t eat because they had onions) and didn’t even have the mashed potatoes and gravy that are usually commonplace at this kind of buffet.

I actually thought that the children’s section of the buffet was a better selection.  They had a couple different kinds of pizza, chicken strips, popcorn shrimp (I actually had quite a bit of this), macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti.  Our son actually completed finished off two pretty full plates of food, which was a larger meal than we are used to him finishing.  He especially liked the spaghetti and ate two pretty big helpings of that.

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