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.


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 – 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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Courtyard Marriott San Diego Mission Valley/Hotel Circle – Hotel Review

This past weekend, we did a trip to San Diego to take our son to Sea World for a couple days as an end-of-summer treat before the start of school.  After researching rates and options at hotels in the area, I booked two nights at the Courtyard Marriott hotel located in the Hotel Circle area just a few miles south of Sea World. 

Unfortunately, the experience was disappointing at best and we ended up changing hotels after the first night.  I do want to emphasize that the problems we encountered were somewhat unusual and, to a degree, outside of the hotel’s control.  We didn’t feel that the hotel management and staff handled the situation exceptionally well, though.  I acknowledge that the hotel was generally reasonably nice, but our experience does leave it a very unlikely choice for us for future visits to the area or if anyone asked us for recommendations.

Whenever possible, we prefer to book hotel stays in 2-room suites, since we generally like having the extra space and, more importantly, because our son gets to sleep much easier and more quickly when he is in a separate room from my wife and me.  After a long day at a theme park or doing other touristy things, my wife and I both tend to like to spend a little time reading or using our laptop computers to unwind before we go on to sleep, but our son doesn’t go to sleep easily unless the lights are all off and the environment is mostly distraction free.

I was able to find a rate of $139/night at the Marriott for a 1-bedroom, 2-room suite with a king bed in the bedroom and a pull-out sofa in the living room.  This was an excellent rate for exactly the room type that typically works best for us.  The offer was sweetened a bit more by the promise of a $20 Visa gift card to be given to us at check-in as a sort of rebate.  The deal was only hampered a bit by the $14/day charge for parking, but it still overall worked out to a nice price.  My research found that the hotel was pretty new and appeared to have decent amenities (as would be expected with a Marriott), so I went ahead and booked it.

We were taking advantage of a Sea World admission offer for a second-day free, so we went straight to the park on Friday afternoon, stayed until closing, and then headed over to check into the hotel afterward.  This means that we arrived at the hotel around 10pm.  We were all pretty tired after the drive to San Diego in the morning and 7-8 hours at the theme park.  Of course, it was also pretty far past my son’s usual bedtime.

The Hotel Circle area is aptly named, essentially a split roadway (divided by the freeway) with a continuous series of hotels on each side.  Essentially every major hotel brand is represented here, some with multiple properties (Marriott has a Residence Inn in the area in addition to the Courtyard).  The Courtyard Marriott is a high-rise (10 stories) building pretty far down the street, but still pretty easy to get to and find. 

Parking is all outdoors (no garage) and is not overly secured.  They had access control gates at the entrance and exit, but they were not in use during our stay.  There was only a very limited amount of parking in the front of the hotel and we did have to drive around a bit before we found a time-limited “registration only” space to use while I went inside to check us in.  We also were delayed a little bit because the entrance road and “to registration” signs directed us into a loading/unloading area in front of the lobby that was only one car-width wide, causing a bit of a back up.  More parking was available at the back of the hotel, although I don’t know how full it was as, after checking in, we did manage to grab a spot near the side entrance. We did notice that quite a few cars were parallel parked on the driveway on the side of the hotel, although those spaces were striped.

Check-in was fairly quick and the desk clerk was friendly.  One minor glitch was that they had run out of the $20 Visa gift cards, but they wrote our information down and promised to mail it to us later (it hasn’t yet arrived at the time that I’m writing this).  During check-in, he confirmed that we had a suite and indicated no problems or concerns about the room.  Usually, I will go up and check the room at a hotel before getting our luggage, but it was late and we were tired so instead we immediately gathered all of our stuff after re-parking and headed up to the room.

Immediately after opening the door to the suite, we were immediately greeted by the unmistakable, very strong odor of cigarette smoke. At that point, my first thought was whether I had accidentally booked us a smoking room (unlikely since I’m very sensitive to cigarette odor and tend to be careful about that) and I quickly pulled up the confirmation email on my cell phone to double check.  The email confirmed that, in fact, smoking was prohibited throughout the hotel.  That surprised me a bit as most non-smoking hotels mention it at check-in and even have the guest sign a statement authorizing a cleaning fee if the policy was violated.  Nothing had been mentioned when we checked in, though.

Walking into the living room area, we immediately noticed that a portable air purifier had been placed in the middle of the floor, obviously indicating that the odor had been noticed by the hotel staff earlier in the day.  The odor wasn’t too bad in the bedroom area, but was very intense in the living room area, which is also the location of the pull-out sofa that our son would be sleeping on.  We quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work and I headed back down to the registration desk to discuss the problem.

A different clerk than the one that checked us in was at the front desk and she didn’t seem overly concerned about the problem. She explained that the hotel was “sold out”, but that she would send some one from the maintenance office up to see if he could do anything.  The maintenance man came up and immediately acknowledged that the problem was obvious and that the air purifier device showed that it was known.  He said all he could really do is bring in some air freshener, but that he doubted it would accomplish anything.  He then said he would go down to consult with management to see if there was anything they could do and send someone up.

At this point, another 10 minutes or so passed until we finally got a call from someone (I think the same woman I had spoken too at the front desk) offering to move us to a standard, 2-queen bed room.  She said that they could drop the price down to $109/night (a $30 reduction), but that was really all she could do.  A little research since then has shown that rate was almost certainly the regular price for that room.  I asked for her to please send a manager up to the room and was told that the manager was currently “off duty”.  At this point, I was tired, frustrated, and irritated at the prospect of being stuck with a room that was much less than we had wanted/expected on this vacation and I lost my temper a bit and insisted very strenuously that I be allowed to speak to a manager.

The manager (or at least someone saying he was a manager) did call us back a few minutes later.  He still insisted he could not go below the $109 rate, but he upped the offer to a standard room with a king bed and a sofa bed (instead of two queen beds) and he also offered to comp parking, give us $40 in meal vouchers, and 5,000 Marriott reward points.  This was a reasonably decent offer, essentially knocking another $54 off our out-of-pocket price for the night and we really didn’t have much of an alternative, so we went ahead and took it.

While the savings weren’t bad, the $109 rate for the night still seemed pretty high for a pretty small room that didn’t really seem much nicer than what you typically find at a Holiday Inn or similar class of hotel.  Eliminating the parking fee was nice, although the hotel really shouldn’t be charging one to begin with considering that they have a completely outdoor, non-secured parking lot.  As of this time, the 5,000 bonus points haven’t shown up in our rewards club balance shown online, although the regular points for the stay are there.  It still wasn’t that much of a bonus as a single reward night starts at 7,500 points at their lowest end motels.  Even most of their low-end Fairfield Inn locations are 10,000 points and the Courtyard Marriott where we were staying started at 15,000.

The meal vouchers were probably the best bonus given to us.  We used them for breakfast the next morning and were able to get bacon and eggs for both my wife and me as well as a pastry for our son and bottled juices or water for each of us.  We were a bit surprised that the hotel restaurant was counter service instead of full table service, though, with only a small number of tables that were shared with the business center.  Initially, I thought the restaurant was just a coffee bar and even went up to the registration desk to ask for directions to the restaurant.  The prices were pretty inflated, although probably typical for a hotel.  For the $40 (including a $5 tip), we got a meal that was similar in quality and content to what you would pay around $20 for at a Denny’s or somewhere similar. 

I was still a bit irritated that the manager didn’t seem overly apologetic and kept insisting that they had “done their best” to solve the problem before we arrived.  Other than the one air purifier device, we really didn’t see much evidence that they had done much.  For starters, when we arrived, the room was closed up tight and the air conditioner was turned off, which would have kept the air from circulating much.  While we don’t really know exactly how much cleaning was done, there was none of the cleanser odor that might have suggested any kind of deep cleaning such as shampooing the carpet or furniture.  Admittedly, they wouldn’t have known that we wouldn’t be there until 10pm and were probably trying to have the room ready by the 3pm check-in time, but it still seemed like they could have done a lot more than they did.

I do realize that the problem was ultimately primarily the fault of the guests that stayed in the room the night before.  Looking at the hotel’s website, I see that they only have 8 suites and I do believe that the other 7 were almost certainly already occupied by that time on a Friday night.  I do wonder a bit if they might have been able to find us a more suitable room at the nearby Residence Inn, though, or possibly even at one of the numerous non-Marriott hotels in the area.  While we were waiting for the manager’s call-back, I even took out my laptop computer and started doing some quick research into availability at other area hotels, although we ended up having to make a decision before I had time to get very far with that.

Of course, this problem didn’t ruin our trip and we did at least have a reasonably clean, safe, and comfortable place to stay.  Walking into the tiny standard room after seeing the much nicer two-room suite did dampen our spirits and we all did end up getting to sleep later than we had hoped (it was around midnight by the time we settled in) without really having any time to decompress.  As is typical in standard rooms, getting our son to sleep was not very easy, adding to the frustration and fatigue.

Once we were settled in the new room, I did get out my laptop again and started a search for a better option for Saturday night.  I ended up finding us a 2-room suite at the Embassy Suites in La Jolla (about 10 miles north of Sea World) for $143.10.  After confirming with the front desk staff at the Marriott that there would be no fees charged for us checking out after just one night (no argument at all there), I booked that.  We ended up very happy with that hotel, where the room was just about perfect for our needs and the amenities, including a very good included breakfast buffet, were all really great.  We will definitely keep that hotel in mind for future San Diego trips and I really wish we had found it during our initial research.