New Year’s Eve on a Disney Cruise

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This year, we found a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve that was just the right speed for us, although it will be cost prohibitive to do it again any time too soon.  This year, we took the New Year’s week cruise on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship!

My family enjoys doing something for New Year’s Eve, but we aren’t particularly crazy about dealing with huge crowds and complicated logistics.  While we have spent many quiet New Year’s Eves at home, we have also occasionally tried something a bit more grand, including a party at some friends’ house for 1999/2000 and a couple visits to Legoland California in recent years.  My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve at Disneyland together one time, although it was actually a few weeks before we officially went on our first date.  New Year’s Eve at Disneyland was a fun experience, but not one that we have wanted to repeat.

The cruise was a New Year’s Eve experience that was full of excitement and fun, but with crowd sizes kept very manageable by the ship’s capacity and logistics that made for a relaxing and never-too-complicated day.  Sure, there were a lot of logistics (and cost) involved in planning out the cruise and getting there, but the vast majority of stress and complication melts away once on board the ship.

Picture During the daytime, New Year’s Eve was a port day on the island of St. Maartin.  We were able to sleep in a bit and have a leisurely breakfast at Cabana’s, the ship’s buffet restaurant.  We then spent the rest of the morning just relaxing and enjoying some of the ship’s amenities with a quick lunch at one of the fast food stands on deck.  In the early afternoon, we went on a pre-arranged shore excursion to Orient Bay Beach, one of the island’s largest and best known beaches.  Yes, we spent New Year’s Eve afternoon at the beach!

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A Quiet Christmas with Family

 

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For this year’s holiday season, we put together the longest and most elaborate vacation my family has ever taken. This trip includes a 7-night Caribbean Cruise, stays in 5 different hotels (not counting the cruise ship), plus visits to Disney World, Legoland, Kennedy Space Center, and Daytona Beach.  We have been planning and saving for this trip over 2 years and it is hard to believe that it has finally arrived (I wrote this about 1/3 of the way into the trip).

In the midst of all this excitement, we put together a very quiet, family-focused Christmas.  Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were set aside to spend at my parents’ house.  They retired to Florida a number of years ago and this is the first time that I have been able to spend Christmas Day with them since that move.  Even more importantly, it was the first time that they were able to spend Christmas with their grandson.  My sister, who lives in Florida as well, was also able to join us on Christmas Day.  I really am not entirely sure when was the last time before this that all four of us (my parents, sister, and me) were together on Christmas.  I’m pretty certain it was close to 20 years and might even have been more.

While this isn’t the first time my family has visited during the Christmas season,  in the past, we have either come earlier in December or closer to the new year.  While this allowed us to do some early or late Christmas celebrations, this is the first time since I’ve been married (much less a father) that I have been able to bring my family to actually spend Christmas Day itself with my parents.  I am quite sure that this made this visit a particularly special one for all of us.

We chose to keep the celebration itself pretty simple, which I think made for the perfect chance for the family to simply spend and enjoy the time together.  We arrived at my parents’ house around 8:30am on Christmas Day and opened presents.  There was quite a nice collection of gifts under the tree this year.  I’m not quite sure if my son or my sister’s two dogs got more presents, but I think it was probably pretty close.  We all found that pretty amusing.

When my parents asked for ideas for gifts for my son, Andrew, it occurred to me that he had really enjoyed the Despicable Me movies, particularly the minions, but didn’t have any toys or other merchandise from that.  My parents and sister took that to heart and got him plush toys, a personalized mug, and, the biggest hit of the day, a singing/talking toy minion.  He was amusing in his reaction to the vocal antics of the minion, which was basically "That’s really annoying… but I like it!" all in one breath.

Santa must have known that Andrew is a fan of game shows and that he was on a vacation that would include a couple visits to the beach.  His main gifts this year were a Wheel of Fortune board game (Disney themed), a Jeopardy calendar, and a nice set of beach toys.  He was pretty happy with all of those gifts and the Wheel of Fortune board game provided us with another family activity for the afternoon.

Other gifts received by various members of the family included sweatshirts or t-shirts for each of us from University of Central Florida, where my sister is currently in grad school, as well as the usual assortment of Disney items.  My wife found a particularly clever Disneyland t-shirt of Darth Vader riding the Astro-Orbitor (and holding a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar!), which she got for me.  I hadn’t seen that one before and got a big kick out of it.

While my family has usually gone out for fairly big Christmas dinners at some restaurant or another, my parents very wisely decided to do a nice dinner at home this year.  They cooked a delicious dinner of ham, baked potatoes, salad, green-bean casserole, and apple or pumpkin pie for dessert.  Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the menu choices were a great mix of good, festive food without requiring that my parents (or any of the rest of us) spend so much time in the kitchen as to lose out on good family social time during the day.

Overall, that really was the key theme of the day.  With activities that included play time with my sister’s dogs, playing the Wheel of Fortune board game, watching Finding Nemo (Andrew’s choice) and the Disney Parks Holiday Parade on TV, and quite a bit of time just simply sitting around talking, this was very much a day of family togetherness and was one of the nicest Christmas holidays that I remember.

Answering Difficult Questions from Our Child

For several years now, part of my 7-year-old son’s bedtime ritual has been to mark off the day on a calendar that he keeps in the room.  The calendar lists many holidays and he often will ask my wife and me to explain what they are.  I am writing this post on September 12, 2011 and last night he asked us to explain what "Patriot Day" was.

My wife and I had both paid attention to our share of remembrances, but we hadn’t openly discussed the anniversary around our son.  We also hadn’t had the TV or commercial radio on all day (which is actually pretty normal for a weekend day), so he hadn’t heard or seen any of the coverage either.  The events of September 11, 2001 aren’t currently covered in school for his age group and we hadn’t had previous occasion to discuss them with him, so this was the first time we needed to address the issue. 

I know that we probably could have largely avoided the issue by giving a simplistic answer, such as "It is a day where we recognize American heroes" or something similar to that.  That type of evasive answer somehow felt dishonest, though, so we instead did our best to provide a child-friendly explanation of events that still feel almost entirely inexplicable even to my grown-up mind.  During the conversation, he frequently asked us variations on the question "why?"  We did our best to explain that there really isn’t a good answer to that question.

We weren’t blindsided by the need to address the issue.  It was obviously a possibility that he would see or here some reference to 9/11 around the 10th anniversary and ask us about it.  In fact, it wasn’t really a surprise that his calendar commemorated the day and that was what triggered the question.  For that reason, my wife and I did already have ideas in mind for how to address the subject, although it wasn’t easy to actually express the right words when the time actually came.

We started off by first asking him if he had heard anything about the events, either at school, from friends, or from some other source.  When he said he hadn’t, we then explained that some very bad people had attacked buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., causing many people to get killed.  One thing we avoided was telling him the specifics of how the attacks were carried out, mainly because we do fly somewhat frequently and we feared that part of it would be too much for him to handle.  I’m sure we would have answered direct questions, but he didn’t ask for more details of that type.

We tried to focus on the heroism of the firefighters, police officers, and even civilian bystanders that risked and, in too many cases, lost their lives trying to help get people to safety.  He specifically asked us where they took the people that they rescued and we told him that those who were injured were taken to hospitals, some were simply moved out of harm’s way, and that some of those rescued joined the effort to rescue others.  We tried really hard to convey that the attacks themselves represented the worst of what people can do, but that much of the immediate response brought out some of the very best of humanity and that those heroes are the focus of the recognition of the anniversary.

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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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Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Part 1: On Our Way!

Today is New Year’s Eve 2009 and I’m writing this from the airplane as we are on our way to Orlando for our annual visit with my family and trip to Walt Disney World.

Since Andy started Kindergarten this year, we had to arrange our travel plans around his school schedule.  While we don’t really know whether or not his school and teacher would have been open to us taking him out of school for a vacation, we felt that we really preferred to try to find a time when he wouldn’t miss any.  Looking at the schedule, we discovered that his winter break extended for the full week after New Years, which seemed like a good opportunity.  We are hopeful that we will avoid the worst of the Christmas season crowds with this plan as well as take advantage of some good travel bargains.

We came up with the idea of traveling on New Years Eve with the hope that it might not be as busy a travel day as some of the surrounding dates.  We figured today to be a day that a lot of people would be more apt to want to stay at home or go out celebrating somewhere.  While our flight did end up being relatively full, the airport turned out to be pretty easy to deal with today.

For tonight and tomorrow, we are going to be staying at a Fairfield Inn near my parents’ house in Clermont.  We didn’t really want to deal with the Disney World crowds on the first two New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  This should give us a chance to rest a bit tomorrow after the travel day as well as to give us some pretty good quality time visiting casually with my parents at their house tomorrow.

On Saturday, we will be transferring to Bay Lake Tower, the new Disney’s Vacation Club resort that opened next to the Contemporary Resort earlier in 2009.  Early in the year, we sold off our DVC points at the Saratoga Springs Resort (which we didn’t like very much) and re-purchased at Bay Lake Tower.  We are definitely looking forward to our stay at what is now the highest-end DVC resort.  We then plan to spend lots of time at the theme parks starting Saturday and through the rest of next week, flying home on a week from Saturday.

With the recent reports of heightened security after the attempted terrorist attack last week along with our uncertainty about how crowded the airport was going to be, we decided that we needed to get a really early start this morning.  The fact that today is a Thursday and not necessarily a work holiday for many people also introduced the potential risk of some major traffic on the 405 freeway heading down to LAX.  Because of all this, we got up at 4:30am this morning and left home pretty much right at 6;30am.  I guess we are kind of having to adjust to Eastern time a day early, although we still went to sleep on Pacific Time last night, making us really tired today.

None of the concerns really ended up being a problem, although I’m still glad we maintained some peace of mind by allowing all the extra time.  Traffic on the 405 turned out to be pretty much full-speed all the way, allowing us to get to the airport parking facility (we use WallyPark) in about 20 minutes or so.   At the parking facility, we were able to very quickly get parked, unload our luggage, and get onto a shuttle bus, which we had all to ourselves. 

At the Delta Airlines terminal, there was no line at all for curbside check-in, which let us take care of our checked bags very quickly and without any major hassle.  It was really very nice being able to avoid the need for a luggage cart or having to drag our bags through the airport to the regular check-in desks.  I suppose I could have saved the tip by checking the bags inside, but I felt the small cost was well worth it.

Security was probably our biggest worry.  Over the last week, I’d been hearing all kinds of horror stories about the wait, with reports of wait times anywhere from an hour or so all the way up to 7 hours.  Of course, these were all hearsay and the airport, airlines, and TSA were really saying nothing officially, leaving us with little idea what to expect.  At least this morning, though, the wait really wasn’t much at all.  We made it through in about 20 minutes, which included a little extra time for them to do a hand-search of my backpack, mainly because I forgot to take the camcorder out. 

We ended up getting to the gate nearly 3 hours before the flight.  That gave us plenty of time to get an over-priced breakfast at the airport McDonalds and otherwise catch our breath a bit before getting on the plane.  We found seats at the gate that were right in front of a window and Andy had quite a bit of fun watching the airplanes.

Security does seem somewhat increased from what we have seen in the past.  The security checkpoint felt a bit more formal and by the book than usual, although I honestly don’t know how much of that was perception.  As I mentioned, I did get a secondary search on my bag, which seemed pretty quick.  At the gate, they had a pretty substantial TSA presence during boarding, including multiple officers both at the entrance to the jetway and at the plane’s hatch.  They announced at the start of boarding that the TSA would be doing some random searches and pat-downs during boarding, although I didn’t see them actually pull anyone out of the line for it.  Before they started boarding, they also made a point of announcing that we were waiting for the TSA to search and clear the plane as well.

I’m going to conclude this first post of the trip by mentioning that this plane offers in-flight wi-fi and I have written all of this on-board and will post this momentarily from the air!  As of right now, we are flying over Texas with another hour and a half or so to go before arrival.  So far, the flight has had a bit of turbulence, but otherwise has been pretty uneventful.

Memories of My Son’s birthdays – Part 4 (Age 6)

Click here for Ages 1-3
Click here for Age 4
Click here for Age 5

Age 6

As I mentioned when I started this series of posts, my son turned 6 last week.  After the fairly big and elaborate celebration of last year, we decided to keep everything very low key this year.  We even decided to limit the birthday celebrations to just the immediate family, although that really had more to do with logistics and scheduling than anything  else.

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As our son’s main birthday treat, we decided to make a trip down to Disneyland on the Saturday before.  We have an ownership interest in the Disney’s Vacation Club timeshare and looked into the possibility of getting a reservation at the recently opened Villas at the Grand Californian, but there wasn’t any availability that night so we decided to simply make it a day trip.

We live only about an hour away from Disneyland and have passes for admission, so we do make reasonably frequent visits down there, although not nearly as often as my wife and I did when we were younger and childless.  Our last visit had been only about a month before, but was primarily for the celebration of an adult friend’s birthday.  Since that day had a bit more of a scheduled agenda, we decided to make this visit an “Andy’s choice” day, where he would pretty much get his pick of rides and activities.  For this reason, we also chose not to try and meet up with any other friends, but instead just make it a family day.

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One special activity we included that day was lunch at Goofy’s Kitchen, the character dining location at the Disneyland Hotel.  Andy is still a huge fan of the Disney characters and gets a bit kick out of these meals where some of his favorites come around and visit the table.  During our meal, we had visits with Goofy, Chip & Dale, Mulan, Jasmine, Baloo (from The Jungle Book) and Brer Fox.  We also got to visit with Pluto for a couple photos before we went to our table.

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The restaurant also has occasional kid participation activities and Andy had the chance to get up and do The Twist with the characters as well as to help Goofy with baking of a cake (which mostly involved kids playing noisemakers and pretending to help clean up). 

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Toward the end of our visit to the restaurant, the waiter brought Andy a cupcake with a birthday candle on it and Chip plus a few of the restaurant staff members all gathered for a short birthday celebration.  It wasn’t anything overly fancy, but Andy definitely got a big kick out of it.

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After lunch, we headed back into the park to visit attractions.  This included a visit to see Mickey Mouse at his house in Toontown, where everyone did give Andy a bit of extra attention for his birthday.  The birthday visit was during the first weekend that Disneyland had all of their Christmas activities up and running, so we took that opportunity to see the Christmas parade and fireworks show.  Overall, it was a fun day and Andy seemed to really enjoy himself.

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For the evening of Andy’s actual birthday, he picked pork chops and mashed potatoes for his birthday dinner, a bit of a surprise since we had never really thought that pork chops was one of his favorites.  We then had the traditional ice cream cake for dessert and then let him open presents.

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While he got a lot of really nice gifts, it was kind of funny that possibly the biggest hit of the bunch was the birthday card that I had picked up for him the night before.  The card is the type that has a chip in it that plays sounds when the card is opened.  It features the characters from the Disney/Pixar movie Cars and plays the song “Life is a Highway” from the movie, which has been Andy’s favorite song for quite a while.  Even though my wife had already bought another card for him, I couldn’t resist buying this one when I spotted it while shopping for a couple other items at the local Walgreens store the night before.

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The main gifts this year included a couple Thomas the Tank Engine toys from my wife and me and a shirt and Mickey Mouse wristwatch from one of his sets of grandparents.  The watch was a pretty exciting gift for him as it is his first and he was pretty proud about getting a big kid’s gift like that. 

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Andy’s other set of grandparents were a bit late in shipping out his gift from them (a Mr. Potato Head and full set of parts), so he had a little extra gift opening event later in the week.  That turned out to be a bit of a nice opportunity to prolong his birthday celebration a bit longer.

There was also a little celebration of his birthday in his class at school, but I don’t have any photos as neither my wife nor I were there for it.  My wife brought along a couple packages of mini-cupcakes that were distributed around to the class and the teacher gave him a small gift as well.

While this was probably a much more low key birthday than many of his past ones (particularly the year before), it still was a fun time.  Happy birthday, Andy!