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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Disneyland Resort – California Food and Wine Festival

My family spent the afternoon at the Disneyland Resort on Sunday, April 14.  The primary purpose for this trip was to meet up with a couple friends to experience the special food offerings available at Disney’s California Adventure for the Taste of California Marketplace, which is part of the annual California Food and Wine Festival currently being offered in the park.  This is the west coast version of a popular, long-running event that Disney holds every Fall in Epcot at Walt Disney World.

The Taste of California Marketplace offers a selection of fairly small, sampler-style portions of a number of different food items, all designed by California-based chefs and intended to represent the state’s culinary culture.  Small cups of California-made wines and beers are also offered to accompany these.  All of these items are available at the now-defunct Lucky Fortune Cookery counter-service restaurant, which is located in the Pacific Wharf section of the park.  This location provides a good infrastructure for the food service as well a large dining area (shared with two permanent restaurants with a great deal of available tables and chairs.  It makes for a much more convenient location than the multiple locations that were used during the first year of the event and which are still in use at the Epcot event.

The sampler-sized portions served at the Marketplace mean that the typical guest is likely to try a variety of choices, particularly if the items are being ordered as a meal rather than as a quick snack.  I ended up ordering 5 of the different food selections as well as one cup of wine.  Another couple that was dining with us eventually ordered and shared at least one of every item offered.

I initially ordered one each of the chicken and beef California skewers, the Festival Cheese Plate and a cup of Mirassou Chardonnay on a first trip to the counter.  The Marketplace also has the usual selection of soft drinks available and, since it was a hot day and the wine doesn’t really work as a thirst-quencher, I did order a Coke as well.  After finishing those, I was still hungry enough to try a couple more items, so I went back up and ordered the Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin Slider sandwich and, for dessert, the Seasonal Berry Trifle.

I particularly liked the skewers, which included the meat and a few various vegetables with a sweet chipotle glaze.  The sauce was fairly strong, but I found it to be extremely tasty and to really complement the flavor of the meat.  I generally don’t like cooked vegetables, and I have a strong sensitivity to onions, so I didn’t really eat too much other than the meat.  That did make the portions especially small for these (a common problem for me with skewers), but I did really enjoy the portions I did eat.

The cheese plate was ok, although I tend to like somewhat softer textured cheeses than most of the ones chosen for this platter.  For one thing, I tend to find softer cheeses to be a bit more flavorful while these were a waxy.  The one big exception was what they described as a huntsman cheddar bleu, which I thought was absolutely delicious.  I love bleu cheese and it mixed with the cheddar to form a flavor that I found tremendously appealing.  The cheese plate also came with some seedless purple grapes which were very fresh and at just the right level of ripeness.  The platter also featured a good sized pita crisp.  I’m not really much of a wine expert, so I asked the clerk to recommend a wine that would go well with my order.  She suggested the Chardonnay as a good compliment for the cheese plate and I found that it did go well with it.

My least favorite of the items that I tried was the Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin Slider.  This miniature sandwich was served on a small brioche roll and also included onion crisps and what Disney described as a citrus mojo criollo sauce.  Due to my sensitivity to onions, I had to remove most of them from my sandwich, although I was able to leave a few on as I’ve found that fried onions generally don’t affect me quite as much as ones that are raw or cooked in other ways.  That meant that I was able to get at least a bit of the flavor that they added to the sandwich.  The sauce was very heavy on garlic, though, and I strongly expect that one’s taste for this sandwich will be very much measured by one’s tolerance for garlic.  I generally do like garlic and initially found that I really liked the flavor.  About half-way through the sandwich, though, I found that I had pretty much had my fill of it.  The friends we were with pretty much picked this as their favorite item, though, so certainly your mileage my vary.

For dessert, I had actually asked for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Marquise, but was surprised when they gave me the trifle instead.  When I checked the receipt, I found that it did show the trifle as well, so I guess that the cashier must have hit the wrong button.  Since the trifle was generally to my taste as well, I decided not to bother trying to get it corrected.  The berries were strawberries and were very fresh and nicely sweetened by both the vanilla custard and light whipped cream.  The pound cake was a tad more dry, but still tasted very good.  Overall, it was a good dessert, although I would probably be interested in still trying the other one if I make it back there before the end of the festival.

One thing that should be noted is that the marketplace does not make for an inexpensive meal.  The items are priced fairly high for the portion sizes and getting enough food for a filling lunch can quickly run up in costs.  They do honor the customary discounts for annual passholders and Disney cast members (employees), which can lower the cost a tad if you qualify.  Without discounts or tax, the food items that I ordered came to a total of $24.50.  The glass of wine was another $3 and the Coke was the usual $2.50 or so (I don’t recall the exact amount).  Those prices for just one person are in the same ballpark as lunch at a fairly high-end table-service restaurant, although with service and presentation that are more in line with fast food. 

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I visited with my family, but I haven’t mentioned anything about my wife and son’s food choices.  The reason for that is that neither of them ended up ordering from the Marketplace.  The food choices just didn’t really appeal to my wife’s tastes and we also decided that the combination of the high prices and fairly exotic selections were questionable for a 4-year-old, even though our son does tend to be a fairly adventurous eater.  This was where the Food and Wine Festival’s setting inside of a Disney theme park was very much an advantage.  It was only a very short distance for them to go over to the Farmer’s Market counter service restaurant where both were able to get chicken strips for lunch. 

The close proximity between the somewhat upscale offerings of the festival and the more traditional theme park offerings served us well after lunch as well.  Our son did get restless with the somewhat longer, more formal lunch (and he was in a bit of a cranky mood anyway), but afterward  we were able to easily take him to do things that were more enjoyable to him.  Had we not been visiting with a small child, we might have been more interested in exploring more of the seminars and other events associated with the festival.  Instead, we park-hopped over to Disneyland where he got to visit with Mickey and Pluto, ride the tea cups and the carrousel, and then finally see the "Enchanted Tiki Room" show before we headed home for the day.  It was an extremely hot day, so we were fortunate that lines were pretty short allowing us to do quite a few things in just a couple hours.

California Adventure had been pretty crowded that day, so we were expecting much larger crowds at Disneyland than we actually found when we got there.  I suspect the Food and Wine Festival is turning out to be a pretty good attractor for the park, although I’m also sure that the "2 for 1" deal for that gives 1-day at each park for one price is also bringing a lot of people in.  I would guess that most weekend visitors taking advantage of the deal likely go to Disneyland on Saturday and California Adventure on Sunday, which would account for at least some of what we saw.  I did notice that the lines for the regular restaurants in the Pacific Wharf area of the park were substantially longer than the lines at the Marketplace, which probably isn’t too surprising at the prices they were charging.

I would overall consider our experience with the Food and Wine Festival to be a positive one.  The food choices at the Marketplace made for a very enjoyable and interesting lunch, even if the prices were definitely somewhat inflated for what was being offered.  Still, it was an overall positive once-a-year experience and I could easily see going again next year.

Vacation Signatures – Explained

One of the Disney-related discussion boards that my wife and I both enjoy participating on is called Mousepad.  Like many discussion boards, this one includes a "signature line" feature, where it will automatically append a personalized signature to every post you write.  Unlike some boards, the software at this site is set up so that if you change your signature line in the settings, it will automatically change the signature on all of your posts, including old ones.

Quite a few of the regular participants (and staff members) on these boards are people that my wife and I have known for quite some time, both online and in real life.  Because of this, we have found that it is fun to regularly change our signature lines to cryptic references to various events in our lives, frequently based on funny things our currently 4-year-old son has said or done.  I admit to have basically stolen this idea from a good friend, but hopefully she doesn’t mind too much.

During our recent Disney Cruise and Walt Disney World vacation, we started coming up with signature line ideas so much that we finally just started taking down a list. After getting home, I created a web page with the list and my wife and I both just put links to that page in our signature line.  Now that it has been up for a while, I figured I’d write up the explanations for each item, since they all represent (hopefully) amusing little anecdotes from the trip.  Hopefully this will be a fun little epilogue to my previous trip reports.

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Disneyland’s Candlelight Processional and Ceremony

This evening, we visited Disneyland to see the annual Candlelight Processional and Ceremony, a long running program of traditional choral Christmas music performed in the Town Square area of Main Street USA. This show features a combined choir made up of numerous area choirs along with a live orchestra and a celebrity narrator. This year’s narrator was Jane Seymour. Although the show is held on Main Street during park hours, it isn’t heavily promoted to the public and a large portion of the viewing area is reserved seating that is not particularly easy to get. They do offer a very limited number of expensive dinner packages to the general public, but the vast majority of the tickets are distributed to invited guests, mainly through various Disney corporate partners. Most of the public viewing is largely obstructed views and a generally long wait is required to stake out a half-way decent spot.

Since we have a 4-year-old that wasn’t likely to sit patiently for the 60-minute show (not to mention the fairly long wait), my wife and I decided to each go to a separate performance while the other took our son on attractions. Right after the second parade got past Main Street, my wife headed off to find a spot for the 5:30 performance. She ended up staking out a spot opposite the Opera House, pretty much right by the rope into the reserved seating area. As soon as the processional started to make its way into the theater, she joined the crowds in that area that were allowed to move in to fill the unused seats in the reserved seating area. As a result, she ended up with a really good seat for the show.

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Disney Cruise and Walt Disney World 10/07 – Mickey’s Not-so-Scary Halloween Party

On Sunday night, we attended Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, an after-hours holiday event held at the Magic Kingdom.  This extra-charge event includes a special Halloween-themed parade and fireworks show as well as trick-or-treating at various candy-distribution stations located all over the park.  There also is a lot of special Halloween decoration, lighting, and music in the park in order to add to the mood.

Disney has wisely created a fun, very family-oriented event that is focused on the more light-hearted aspects of the holiday instead of the scarier blood and gore type of horror that is found at the Universal Studios and Six Flags parks and at the grandfather of theme park Halloween events, the Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm.  The focus here is mostly on Disney characters (and kids) dressed in Halloween costumes and Disney-style spooky characters like Jack Skellington, The Headless Horseman, and the ghosts of the Haunted Mansion.  It is generally the right tone for an event at a Disney park.

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