Category Archives: Vacation

Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 2: Lunch, Making Palo Reservations & Stateroom)

Lunch at Enchanted Garden

Enchanted Garden

A number of crew members were stationed in the lobby with the task of intercepting and guiding embarking passengers. Our helpful crew member made sure we knew that our stateroom would be ready at 1:30 and that lunch was available at either Enchanted Garden on deck 2 or Cabanas on deck 10. She recommended Enchanted Garden since it only required walking down 1 flight of stairs and there were long lines for the elevators. We debated briefly as we were also scheduled for dinner at Enchanted Garden that night, but we ended up taking her advice.

The decor of Enchanted Garden is pretty much as the name implies. It is a brightly lit, elegant dining room with lots of greenery. During the dinner hour, there is a show element where the decor shifts from day to night during the meal, but this isn’t done at lunch. Like all of the restaurants on the Dream, the tables are positioned pretty close together, making for kind of a crowded look. Fortunately, the combination of bright lighting and color schemes as well as reasonably high ceilings keep the restaurant from feeling claustrophobic.

Upon entering the very uncrowded restaurant, we were immediately greeted by one of several crew members waiting by the entrance who escorted us to a table close to the buffet. A waiter took our drink orders and then we headed to the buffet to get our food. Since we had all of our carry-on bags with us (including laptop computers), we were glad to have a table very close to the buffet as this allowed us all to go get our food without requiring that someone stay behind to watch the bags.

The buffet included a carving station with roast beef as well as some of the typical side dishes to go with it. They also had salads & fruit, cold cuts and cheeses, a number of different varieties of bread, peel & eat shrimp, and some pasta and fish dishes. A well-stocked dessert area offered lots of different selections of various baked goods (cakes, cookies, etc.) and a freezer with quite a few different flavors of premium-quality ice cream.

The food all seemed very fresh and we enjoyed everything we had. The servers were very attentive and quick with drink refills. From what I’ve heard, the food selection is pretty much the same at Cabanas, but with a self-service drink station. I felt having servers take care of drinks was preferable, particularly for the first meal of the cruise. One of the servers even took a couple minutes to fold a napkin into a hat, which greatly amused my son.

Making Palo Brunch Reservations

One of the highlights of our previous cruises was the brunch offered on days at sea at Palo, the adults-only restaurant. A limited number of reservations are available on-line, but they were already full (probably due to earlier booking dates for concierge and high-level Castaway Club guests) by the time we were able to book. Through research, I had learned that a large percentage of reservations are held back for guests booking on board. They started offering these reservations at the podium outside of the restaurant, starting at 1pm on embarkation day. It was shortly after 1pm when I finished eating lunch, so we decided that I would head up to Palo to try and make a reservation and then meet my wife and son back at the stateroom at 1:30, the time the staterooms were scheduled to be available.

My journey to the restaurant was my first experience with how large the ship is and how difficult it sometimes was to get from one place to another. Enchanted Garden is located midship on deck 2 while Palo is located far aft on deck 12. I first headed to the midship elevators, which I discovered only go as high as deck 11. I later learned that 4 of the 6 elevators did go all the way up to deck 12, but I got into one of the two that doesn’t. I’m not sure if there were signs up clarifying this, but I didn’t notice any. Once I got up to deck 11, I had some difficulty finding the aft elevators and stairs. It turns out that they are, rather confusingly, actually inside of Cabanas. I had to ask a crew member for directions before I finally figured that out. After I found the stairs, I walked up one deck and easily found Palo right there.

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Embarkation Day (Part 1: Arrival and Boarding)

Note: I have decided to split each day of the trip report into multiple parts as the posts were getting overly long.

Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Observation deck at the Disney Cruise Line Terminal

I was a bit nervous about the logistics surrounding embarkation on the Disney Dream.   The Disney Cruise Line had traditionally been known for a very smooth embarkation process at Port Canaveral, but the terminal was designed for the substantially smaller Disney Magic and Disney Wonder and there had been quite a few reports of problems handling the larger crowds arriving for the Dream.

For our previous cruises, we had arrived at the terminal via Walt Disney World transportation, which got us there late enough that we immediately went on board after checking in.  This time, we had rented a car and planned to arrive at the terminal as early as possible, so I wasn’t really sure how it would work.  Fortunately, we found that the embarkation process went very smoothly and with a minimum of hassle.

On Sunday morning, we managed to wake up fairly early and it didn’t take too long to get showers and pack everything up.  We had a light breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.  Holiday Inn Express has pretty much standardized their included breakfasts from location to location, meaning that the quality and selection is predictable and fairly decent.  I particularly like their cinnamon rolls, which are served warm and fresh.  My only real complaint about breakfast was that they didn’t have enough seating in the breakfast area, something else that is unfortunately fairly standard to the chain.  We had to squeeze all three of us around a table for two, but we were able to manage.

Rental Car Return

I was very unsure about was whether it would be better to drop my family and our luggage off at the port and then go to return the rental car by myself or for us all to just take the shuttle.  We finally decided that the logistics would simply be easier if we all took the shuttle, so we headed straight to the rental car return.

We found Budget’s return process at the Port Canaveral office to be chaotic and a bit confusing.  We initially expected someone to come out to meet us to check in the car, as is typical at airport returns, so we wasted a few minutes waiting for that.  Once we realized that wasn’t the process there, I noted that the paperwork had instructions for doing an express check-out by filling out a form and dropping it in a drop box.

When I went inside, there was no drop box in sight.  This left no choice but to get into the line, which was very long due to the large number of people returning from cruise ships that had arrived in port that morning.   Fortunately, we didn’t wait too long before an employee walked the line offering to collect express check-out forms.  While the process wasn’t exceptionally difficult, they definitely should put in a drop box and also place some signs outside giving instructions for returns.

The wait for a shuttle bus was, fortunately, short and we were soon on our way to the Disney Cruise Line terminal!

Arrival and Check-In

Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle
Disney Dream from the rental car shuttle

We arrived shortly before 10:30am, which was the time that the terminal opened.  The shuttle pulled up at a drop-off spot outside the terminal and a cruise line porter quickly collected our checked luggage.  We then joined the line of people waiting to go in, which ended pretty much right where we had been dropped off.

It took us about 20 minutes to make it up to a security gate, where they checked our cruise documents and IDs before directing us into the terminal.  Inside the terminal, we then passed through airport-style metal detectors and sent our carry-on bags through an x-ray machine.  This process was very quick and efficient and we were soon headed up the escalators to the main terminal area.  We then were asked to quickly sign a form stating that nobody in our family had been sick in the last 24-hours and then we were directed to the check-in line.

Disney Cruise Line Terminal
Disney Cruise Line Terminal

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Disney Dream, April 2011: Introduction and Travel Day

Disney Dream

For our honeymoon in 2000, my wife and I went on a 7-night Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic cruise ship.  In 2007, my extended family (including my wife, son, and my parents and sister) took a 4-night Bahamas cruise on the Disney Wonder.   Both trips were great fun and made us into big fans of the Disney Cruise Line.

When Disney announced that the Disney Dream, the first of  two new, larger and more advanced ships, would debut in 2011, we booked another 4-night cruise as soon as they became available.  While the maiden voyage was in late January, my son’s school schedule meant that the April 17th sail date, during his spring break, was our first opportunity.  I was able to book a family stateroom with verandah on deck 7, using points from our Disney Vacation Club timeshare to cover the cost.  The itinerary was the same as our 2007 cruise, with stops at Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, plus one day at sea.  The extended family was unfortunately unable to join us this time, so it was just my wife, 7-year-old son and me.

Flight

Due to the travel time (plus the 3-hour time change) from our home in Southern California to Port Canaveral in Florida, it was necessary for us to fly in the day before the cruise.  Since we have family in the Orlando area, we generally do annual trips out there.  For the last several years, we have been traveling on Delta, which has conveniently scheduled direct flights from LAX to Orlando International.  This year, we also had enough frequent flier points to get one of the tickets for free, reducing the cost by quite a bit.

Our experience with Delta wasn’t really the best this time and I expect that I’ll be looking closely at alternatives for the next trip.  The biggest issue was that they lost all of our luggage on the flight home and then took nearly 24-hours to get it to us.  I’m just thankful that this happened on the return flight.  It could have been a massive problem had they lost it on the flight to Florida instead.

Delta has also been slow to upgrade their planes to the latest conveniences.  Neither the flight to Florida or the flight home offered seat-back entertainment systems or, for that matter, any in-flight entertainment at all.  There wasn’t even a movie.  While the planes did have wi-fi Internet connectivity available, the seats are so closely spaced that we didn’t even bother to try using our laptops in.  They also don’t offer any power at the seats for charging batteries.  These types of improvements are pretty much standard on newer airlines like Virgin America and Jet Blue.

Finally, Delta just isn’t all that competitive in price anymore.  In the past, I have often found them to be the cheapest choice or only marginally more expensive than non-direct flights on other airlines.  Delta’s prices have gotten higher, plus they now charge extra for all checked luggage and any food items more substantial than peanuts or pretzels.  When I did price comparisons for this trip, I found that even with the one frequent flier reward ticket, the airfare for the three of us was only slightly cheaper than some of the more bargain priced airlines, particularly Southwest.

The night before our 2007 cruise, we stayed at a Walt Disney World resort (Saratoga Springs) and then took Disney transportation to the port.  We found that to be a somewhat frustrating experience, as the bus didn’t get us to the port until around 2:30 in the afternoon.  My parents and sister had driven themselves to the port, which resulted in us getting phone messages that they were having a leisurely lunch on the ship while we were still sitting in front of the hotel waiting for the bus.  We hated losing out on those first couple hours when we could have been onboard the ship.

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Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Dining

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

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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