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.

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.

Sea-Life Aquarium, Carlsbad CA – 2/14/2009

Last summer, Legoland California in Carlsbad opened the new Sea-Life Aquarium.  Legoland’s parent company, Merlin Entertainment, already had several similar aquariums in various European locations, but this was their first in the US.  We took the opportunity to visit the attraction during a trip to Legoland over the recent President’s Day holiday weekend.

Sea-Life Aquarium Themed Display

My reaction to the aquarium is conflicted.  I was quite impressed by its theme and decor and I felt that the overall child-friendly design of the exhibits was absolutely outstanding.  If the aquarium was presented as an included attraction at Legoland, or for a very low extra charge, I would be praising it very highly as an excellent addition.  Unfortunately, they have instead decided to position it as a stand-alone attraction with pricing to match.  In my view, it just doesn’t offer enough to justify that approach.

The full priced admission to the aquarium is currently listed as $18.95 for each adult and $11.95 for children.  At least at present, they are offering admission to Sea-Life as a $10/person/day add on with Legoland admission, but even that feels a bit high.  We spent about 90 minutes going through the entire attraction twice and it felt like we were stretching it out quite a bit.   We were able to take advantage of an $8/person price currently being offered to Legoland annual passholders (with a coupon) until the end of March and even that felt a bit high for our family of three for that amount of time, although I suppose that price/time combo is pretty comparable to a movie.

Sea-Life Aquarium Sea Horses

I was surprised that the aquarium has a linear design that pretty much forces guests to tour the exhibits in a specific order.  I had expected a more traditional museum-type design where a central lobby would provide access to the various exhibits that could be visited at leisure in any order.  I think the one-way, linear design of Sea-Life played very heavily into the fairly fast speed at which we finished with the whole attraction.  The design didn’t really seem to encourage lingering anywhere overly long and certainly didn’t make it easy to go back and re-visit specific parts.

The first indication of the attraction’s linear design was a sign out front warning that the only restrooms in the facility are at the very end of the tour.  The sign also advised visiting the restrooms next to the entrance to Legoland before entering the aquarium.  The failure to include a set of restrooms about mid-way through the facility definitely seems like an oversight in an attraction of this type, particularly since families with children are the main target audience.

The main entrance to the aquarium is on the front, right-side of the building with just a couple turnstiles and ticket scanning machines providing access.  There is also a second entrance from inside of Legoland, but we didn’t use it and I’m not entirely certain where it actually entered.  My guess is that it probably just provides access to a pathway that goes to the same small waiting area outside the main doors.  After going through the turnstiles, we had a short wait before the doors opened and we were directed into a small pre-show room.  A day ticket to the aquarium does allow for unlimited readmission, but you do have to repeat the pre-show each time.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – T-Rex Cafe

(Continuing my very slowly-written trip report of our 12/7-12/15/08 visit to Walt Disney World and Orlando)

Even on a direct flight, the travel time from Los Angeles to Orlando is nearly 5 hours.  When you add on the three hour time change (as well as the travel time to and from the airport), most of the arrival date is used up.  On our trips, we have typically arrived at Walt Disney World by around 8pm or so Florida time.  After a long day, this is usually a bit late to head into a theme park, so we instead usually look for a fun place for dinner somewhere that isn’t overly far from the resort where we are staying.

trex1

This year, our arrival night dinner was at T-Rex Cafe, the newly-opened dinosaur-themed restaurant at Downtown Disney.  Saratoga Springs is just a short bus ride from there, so trying out this new restaurant seemed like an ideal choice for the first night of our trip.  It did turn out to be a good choice and really helped us to transition from the high-stress of travel into the fun of themed entertainment.  Giving credit where credit is due, I should mention here that I was so hungry and hurried to get to dinner that I forgot to take my camera along to the restaurant.  All the pictures in this post were taken instead by my father (most during a previous visit to the restaurant) and I thank him for sharing them with me.

trex2

At the time of our visit, the restaurant was still officially in "soft opening" meaning that it hadn’t yet had its official grand opening and would still be operating with a few limitations.  The main result of this was that they were not yet taking any reservations, which did at least increase the potential for fairly long lines.  Even though it was a Saturday night, it was fairly late (around 9pm) by the time we got checked into our hotel room and then found our way over to the restaurant for dinner.  In addition, my sister just met us there instead of coming over to the hotel, so she was able to monitor the wait time and jump into the line as soon as we called and let her know we were on the way over.  This resulted in us getting a table almost immediately after we got there.

One other effect of the restaurant being in soft opening (and so new) was that we actually had a little bit of trouble finding it.  Even though the building is rather distinctive and rather hard to miss, Downtown Disney is pretty tightly packed which means that individual buildings aren’t visible from everywhere.  With the restaurant not yet having "officially" opened, it wasn’t yet on the maps or most of the directional signs.  We even asked a couple employees for directions, but the ones we asked didn’t really seem to know the answer.  We finally found it by simply starting to walk across the complex until we spotted it in the distance.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – Accommodations

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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