Sailing on the World’s Largest Cruise Ship

In mid-November, I was able to enjoy the inaugural cruise of Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas to the Bahamas as a part of a media and travel industry sailing. The Symphony is billed as the the “World’s Largest Cruise Ship” and, after touring it over my two-night cruise, I agree that title is accurate. With 18 decks filled with entertainment, dining, shopping, and staterooms to sleep 6,680 passengers and 2,200 crew, this ship brings new meaning to “floating city”.

Welcome aboard

Welcome to the Symphony of the Seas!

My stateroom was on deck 6 forward, near the spa and with easy access to the Royal Promenade and theater. This was a perfect spot for me and I enjoyed being so close to the theater each evening when returning from the nightly show. The room was comfortable with the bedding in the ‘royal king’ format — two twin beds connected — and a nice balcony with comfy chairs and foot stools. Always important for me is the wi-fi service and Royal excelled in this area. Amazing connectivity and fast speed plus unlimited package availability, a huge difference from Disney Cruise Line’s per MB package cost.

Deck 6 balcony stateroom

My balcony stateroom on deck 6

The activities on the ship were mind-blowing. Mini-golf, ziplining, Flowrider surfing or boogie boarding, an escape room, several pools, ice skating, laser tag, a carousel, waterslides, and a slide that plunges you down a 10-story drop in the dark.

Mini-golf on Symphony of the Seas

Get ready for some mini-golf at sea!

The entertainment onboard was spectacular and I actually preferred the shows on the Symphony to Disney Cruise Line’s offerings. A musical ice dancing show, a musical show recapping the history of flight from the future back to the Wright Brothers, a high-energy aqua show with amazing diving and choreography, and the musical “Hairspray” didn’t disappoint. I was glad that I made time during my short sailing to get these shows in as I really enjoyed each one.

Hairspray

Hairspray the Musical had the theater rocking to the music

The food aboard the Symphony was delish and the culinary staff worked to ensure that the presentation of the options was pleasing to the eye.

Buffet options

Beautiful food for the guests aboard

I was blown away by the variety of environments found on the ship too. It was easy to forget you were at sea while enjoying the onboard experience. The Boardwalk area at the rear of the ship featured the aqua theater, a sports bar, candy shop, rock climbing wall, hot dog stand, and a carousel. There are staterooms onboard that have balconies that overlook this Boardwalk area, for those who would like a balcony but might be nervous about looking out at sea.

Looking toward the Boardwalk

The Boardwalk area from above

Central Park is another open-air area of the ship with trees, a coffee shop, and meandering paths that wind their way around to various high-end restaurants. On the Royal Promenade, the Bionic Bar was a place I had to stop at after seeing pictures online before the sailing. The bartenders here are “Rock ‘Em” and “Sock ‘Em” and they make custom drink creations while you watch.

Bionic Bar

Rock ‘Em and Sock ‘Em mixing it up at the Bionic Bar

Alas, a two-night cruise is a short one and, before I knew it, we were docking in Miami and hopping on buses back to the airport.

Until next time…

Amber

Sailing off into the sunset

Sailing off into the sunset

 

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The “Finest” resort of all…

As I write this blog post, I am on my way to board the world’s largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas, from Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. You will have to wait to hear all about that though, this post is about my trip to Mexico at the end of October. Happy reading!

The fam and I boarded an early morning flight to Cancun, ready to venture back into the sunshine as fall enveloped Virginia. The destination was Playa Mujeres, a gated resort community about thirty minutes north of Cancun. We enjoyed another resort in the same area last June, Dreams Playa Mujeres, so we were excited to get back and try out something new. I chose Finest Playa Mujeres, a family- friendly, all-inclusive resort that belongs to the Excellence Hotel Group. Excellence resorts are beautiful and modern but adult-only; luckily Finest offers that same great service and amenities but allows children. Finest Playa Mujeres is their only Finest resort and they definitely should build more!

Upon arrival at the resort, we were promptly greeted and taken to the Finest Club lounge to check-in. During our stay, we were booked in a Finest Club Junior swim-up suite so that offered a special check-in, fresh flowers in the room, a bottle of sparkling wine, a bowl of fresh fruit, daily dessert delivered to the room, a club-only section of the beach, a restaurant only for club guests, etc. It was divine! Our room was huge, with a walk-in closet and a shower that was big enough for two. The highlight was the outdoor area. We had a Jacuzzi tub directly off the room, enclosed with a glass front so you could relax in the tub but see the porch area. The porch was amazing! A table and chairs, two lounge chairs, a cushioned double bed, a second cushioned bed built into a wall nook, an overwater hammock, and then the pool itself! There were steps going down into the pool from the porch and another set of stairs across the water so you hop out on the other side to access two other cushioned lounge chairs and an umbrella. The only negative was that the pool was COLD because the sun just didn’t hit the water for enough hours to get it warm (or make us hot enough that the water felt good). That was a bummer but we know to request the opposite side of the building we were in to get full sun. I’m sure the time of year and angle of the sun didn’t help either.

Finest Playa Mujeres Junior Swim-up Suite

The best room ever! Finest Club Junior swim-up suite

We did end up spending a lot of time in the main pool, which was the perfect temperature. The pool bar kept the drinks flowing and had a full kids bar menu with plenty of options for the kid to enjoy some non-alcoholic deliciousness. There were rafts for guest use but I brought my own (pro tip!) and we all enjoyed spending some time on that. We did venture down to the beach and swam one afternoon but we are definitely more into the pools (and pool bars) so that’s mainly where we stayed. There was some seaweed the day we swam but nothing too terrible. It was much worse another afternoon that I walked the beach and I would not have swam that day. The seaweed is a cyclical nature issue that comes and goes every few years but 2018 has been particularly bad. Each day is different and all of the resorts do what they can to keep it under control on the shore.

Finest Playa Mujeres beach

My view at the beach

The food was so good, even for my vegetarian self. I am the one that has the hardest time with resorts because sometimes vegetarianism gets lost in translation. Finest rocks the food options though! They had completely separate vegetarian menus and, not only that, the servers were knowledgeable about the options and even commented that something on the vegetarian menu at one of the restaurants actually was prepared in bacon fat and to avoid that. I was impressed. Everywhere we ate was delish and had so many options we could all enjoy. Zero food complaints! There was 24-hour room service available as well and that menu even had baby food on it!  Ever had cantaloupe juice? Yeah, me either but it was so good! There was a little café that served dessert, hand-scooped ice cream, and a variety of coffee beverages; we stopped there each evening on the way to the room.

Nightly treats at the Sweet Corner

Macarons, meringues, cupcakes, brownies… oh my!

The spa was perfection too… I had a delightful deep-tissue massage and came away relaxed and refreshed. The massage therapist was kind, attentive to my specific needs (work those knots out!), and respectful. The treatment room was huge and so comfortable, as was the relaxation area to enjoy before, and the second relaxation room to enjoy after, the treatment. Great experience overall!

We largely stayed on the resort but did venture out crazy early one morning to go to the Mayan ruins in Tulum. We had to catch the van at 6am, which is just ridiculous on vacation, but necessary to get to Tulum early and beat the crowds and heat. The ride there took probably three hours after stopping to pick up a few other guests from other resorts. It is a long ride whether you stop or not, that’s for sure. If was definitely worth the early wake-up and long ride to be able to see the magnificent ruins that remain from so long ago. We had a guided tour and then some free time to explore on our own. There was time for a quick dip in the Caribbean but that involved a huge set of steps down to the water, then some seaweed, then having to climb back up, so all of that was a no-go. It was pretty to look down there but “no gracias” when it comes to all those stairs and seaweed.

Ruins at Tulum

Some of the ruins at Tulum. The detailed carvings that still remain on these buildings after hundreds of years is amazing!

Sooner than we wanted, as always, it was time to pack up and fly home. That was another early wake-up call, 3:55am pick up to go back to the airport. Talk about way too early! It is nice though to see Cancun at sleep, such an interesting place. That brings me to the last thing about my trip, traveling to Mexico in general. Mexico is a beautiful country and begs to be visited and explored. While there are unsafe areas, like any country in the world, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and the resort areas that I stay at and recommend don’t give me any pause. I’m not a fan of the hotel zone in Cancun for my family, it feels too much like a cross between Myrtle Beach and Las Vegas, but some guests love it there. Wherever you decide to stay, you are in for a great visit.

Until next time!

Amber

 

 

Jamaican retreat? Ya mon!

It was that time of the year ago, hopping on a plane to fly somewhere sunny for the annual Top Agent retreat. This year, we were hosted by the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall resort in beautiful Jamaica, only about 15 minutes from the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. It was my first time at the Hyatt Zilara, an adult only, all-inclusive resort belonging to the Playa resorts family. I certainly hope that it isn’t my last! This resort was perfection and I had no complaints other than an odd shortage of certain towels on our last night, quickly rectified by the housekeeping staff.

A huge benefit of this resort is that it is connected to the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, a family-friendly all-inclusive property. So, we had access to more restaurants, another pool, more shops, etc. I have to say, traveling without the kid meant that we largely stayed on the Zilara side and enjoyed our adult time. The infinity pool was super relaxing, except for the foam party… Let’s just say the bubbles were flying and the whole event was quite the spectacle from afar (of course.) Much more tame than I was expecting but truly a blast to watch.

Our room was on the third floor and huge with a spacious bathroom and super comfortable king bed. The balcony overlooked the Ziva pool and some swimout rooms… those always look so divine.

Some swimout rooms at the Hyatt Zilara

Alas, a travel agent’s vacation is never truly a vacation and site inspections filled the good part of our first full day. These are always super useful for me because I truly believe that you need to see a brand and property to really be able to match it to the ideal client. There are things about resorts and room types that you just can’t possibly know about or realize unless you see them in person. Even if that means baking in the sun all day and touring multiple resorts in a long weekend.

We visited the Jewel Paradise Cove, adult only resort and I was impressed by the low-key atmosphere and the unbelievable kind and attentive spa staff. I’m a fan of a good spa treatment so I always like to see how the resorts vary (and oh my, do they ever!) when it comes to offerings, the therapists, and overall comfort. This particular treatment works with water in conjunction (or in place of) the therapist’s traditional hand massage, for guests that either don’t like or can’t have a hand massage for whatever reason.

Jewel Paradise Cove's water massage table

We also stopped by Jewel Runaway Bay while we were in the area, a family-friendly resort that also doubles as an excursion for Disney Cruise Line (and others) guests when in port in Falmouth. This resort is best known for its waterpark and snowcones (with or without the alcohol!) The kids club here looked amazing too – I’ve never seen one with as many activities and options for the little ones to enjoy. They had seemingly everything a child could want to keep them entertained while their adults played.

Slides and the lazy river zigzag the waterpark area at Jewel Runaway Bay

After lunch at Jewel Runaway Bay, we headed to the Hilton Rose Hall resort and then to the Jewel Grande resort. Both are family friendly all-inclusive properties as well but very different. The Hilton Rose Hall has a typical Hilton hotel feel while the Jewel Grande very much has the vibe of high-rise condos. I was shocked to see that washer/dryer combos come standard in many of the rooms at Jewel Grande, that’s virtually unheard of at an all-inclusive resort.

The entrance to the Hilton Rose Hall resort. How comfy!

The Jewel Grande’s spa blew my mind, such a tranquil place and really in tune with the current techniques and treatments. They had a full Himalayan salt room with heated loungers and heated steps to relax while soaking in the good vibes from the salt. Whether the salt treatment is proven science or not, the feeling was quite nice and I’d love to spend an hour or two in there. There were several other agents who booked treatments to return the next day!

The Jewel Grande's Himalayan salt room

Before we knew it, it was time to board the plane and head back to Virginia. Boo.  It’s always a bummer to head home but nice to know that my bags don’t have to stay unpacked for long…

Amber

Surprise! We’re celebrating your birthday at Disney!

About a month ago, I was still holding in a big secret… we were taking the kid to Disney World for her birthday! It is so hard to surprise her and I almost slipped up a few different times. Luckily, I was able to keep it in until I picked her up from school early, fed her lunch, and told her to pack her bags! My perfect little plans were thwarted by Hurricane Florence, causing me to have to rearrange flights at the last minute and decide to fly out a day earlier than scheduled. It all worked out ok though and I definitely wasn’t going to complain about more time at the World!

A flight delay and super late arrival meant we rolled into Disney’s Saratoga Springs resort right at midnight. We were just there for the night so we crashed pretty quickly. The next morning, a Lyft took us to our home for the rest of the stay, Disney’s Yacht Club resort and we got settled in. Yacht Club is a beautiful resort and in such a convenient spot to travel to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The walk over to Epcot only takes a few minutes and is such a nice little stroll. Currently, with the construction at the bus stops and gondola station at Hollywood Studios, walking there is a really, really bad option but taking the boat is a breeze. I had some delicious dark chocolate waffles for a late breakfast at Ale & Compass (formerly the Captain’s Grille restaurant) at the resort and then wandered to our room to unpack.

Waffles from Ale & Compass

Why yes, it was dessert for breakfast!

The resort was recently remodeled and features the standard white linens on the bed but the room didn’t lose all of those signature Disney touches. The curtains were so cute, it truly is a wonder I didn’t try to snatch one.

Yacht Club room curtains

Disney constellations!

First up was Magic Kingdom. We had a few hours to play in the park before the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party started up so we made the most of it. We practically walked on to so many rides! We had our standard three FastPasses but we rode something like ten other rides in just a couple of hours! Dinner at Tony’s Town Square, a new favorite of the kid, and then it was party time. The party sold out, again a Hurricane Florence impact as so many people evacuated to Disney, so it was pretty crowded. We had our highlights to hit — Space Mountain with the lights off, Mad Tea Party with disco lighting and pop music, and Pirates of the Caribbean with live actors plus a little trick-or-treating, Magic Shots, and the Boo to You parade. We crammed as much as we could in the 7pm-midnight time and then hit the hay.

The next morning was an early one. I had registered for an Annual Passholder event at Hollywood Studios for an early opening of Toy Story Land. This event sold out lightning fast back when it opened up so I was super stoked to have been able to participate. This was the first visit to Toy Story Land for the hubs so that made it even more exciting. We had to be at the park at 7am and we rolled in just after that. I would’ve been there before that but the universe was against us that morning and what I thought would be a quick walk from the resort to the park turned out to be a super awful winding adventure through the Hollywood Studios parking lot. Definitely not how I wanted to spend my pre-7am time and before breakfast no less. We made it though and rode Alien Swirling Saucers twice, Toy Story Mania three times, and Slinky Dog Dash FIVE times! The hubs rode with us on Slinky the first two times but then the kid and I just kept getting back in the line and riding by ourselves until the droves of guests came in at 9am. Again, again, again!!

Slinky Dog Dash

That wait time does indeed say 10 minutes!

That night, the kid and I went to Epcot while the hubs ventured off to Universal Orlando to go to Halloween Horror Nights. You wouldn’t catch me anywhere near that but he had a blast on his own, especially in the Stranger Things house. Express Pass for the houses was a must that night as the lines were huge since it was the opening weekend of the event for 2018.

Epcot was filled with guests enjoying the Food & Wine Festival, some enjoying a little (lot) too much in the alcohol department. I’m not sure I’d choose Epcot as the place to get drunk since the alcohol is pretty expensive, the park crowded, and the temperature pretty hot. Not the best recipe for fun. Great teaching moment for the kid though.

Before we knew it, we were packing our bags and the long weekend was coming to an end. These trips are often way too short but so very much fun. Reconnecting with the fam and making new memories is worth every dollar and minute.

Until next time…

Amber

Magical Express time

Time to get back on the bus…

Disney – summer 2018 – round 3!

It was back to the Walt Disney World resort for me and the kid in late July! We spent several days in the Florida sun trying out even more new things on this last trip. How is that possible, you ask? Disney is ever-changing and no matter how many times you go (even in a row), there’s always something new to do. So let’s talk about what was new this time!

  • Disney’s Coronado Springs resort
    • LOVED it! I haven’t stayed here for about three years and have to say, I hated it last time. The rooms were old, resort too spread out, had too much of a business traveler feel, etc. This time… such an improvement!
    • First, the rooms are all being renovated to a modern, crisp new style with laminate flooring, new walk-in showers, a beautiful new vanity area with tons of storage, and a huge countertop surface that is perfect for working or managing all of your vacation goodies in the room.
    • The resort will never lose the business travel vibe because it is a main convention resort for Disney. It also has a new 15-story tower being built at its entrance to support more convention traffic. That being said, this resort is great for families with older children or adults traveling alone because the vibe is so relaxed. The buses are rarely crowded, we had one all to ourselves and several with just a handful of other guests onboard. There are four bus stops at the resort but they go very quickly. The food court was never even remotely full, even at peak breakfast time. I could see families with small children there too, although there are other resorts that fit that demographic a little bit better.
    • The construction for the new tower didn’t impact our stay at all. It is HUGE but actually looks like it will be pretty nice in the end. I’m not sure how the extra traffic from that tower will affect the resort overall, so I’m holding my final thoughts until I can stay there after that is fully operational. I think, between now and whenever that is done though, Coronado Springs is fair game in the moderate category! They’re also building an over-the-water restaurant which I’m sure will be a hit with guests.

      Coronado Springs room

      Check out all of that counter space and drawers! Loved these renovated rooms at Coronado Springs!

  • Pirates and Pals fireworks voyage
    • First and foremost, if you’re seeing the Magic Kingdom fireworks (“Happily Ever After”) for the first time, see them IN THE PARK. If you want a special viewing area, do the Fireworks Dessert Party with Plaza Garden viewing in the park. Definitely do not watch those fireworks from outside the park for the first (or even second) time. You need to be in full view of the front of Cinderella Castle to enjoy the projections shown on the Castle. This is an important part of the new show and just is not the same if you miss them.
    • This is a separate event with an additional fee that is prepaid at the time of booking.
    • The fun starts with a pirate party at the Contemporary resort that includes snacks, drinks, and frozen treats plus a meet-and-greet with Captain Hook and Smee. From there, you move on to board a boat to sail to the Seven Seas Lagoon, where you’ll drop anchor for the fireworks viewing. You’ll wrap back at the Contemporary, meeting another special guest before continuing on your way to finish out the evening.
    • We had a great time on the lake and watching the fireworks from afar, but we’ve also seen Happily Ever After many times from inside the park. Meeting Hook and Smee plus the special guest was a nice treat as were the frozen goodies (Mickey ice cream sandwiches, strawberry popsicles, lemonade popsicles, to name a few.) You’re hosted by two pirates during the party and one of the pirates was hovering on the inappropriate side from time to time as far as jokes made (which was really surprising to me, being Disney, but there were very few small children in the group so maybe that changed the vibe?) so I’m not sure how that left me feeling overall.
    • Would I do this event again? Probably not. I much more prefer the dessert party from inside the park with the better fireworks viewing, way more dessert/treat options, and ease of going back to the rides (or shops!) after the fireworks end.

      Pirates & Pals

      Welcome to the voyage!

  • Toy Story Land (at night)
    • We had already done Toy Story Land during the day but didn’t have time to experience it at night on our last trip. So this time, we made a point to go back in the late evening. It was so worth it! The land takes on a whole new look in the nighttime with everything aglow! Alien Swirling Saucers is a much better ride at night with the lights and music – you can enjoy them a lot more after the sun has gone down. Not to mention, nowhere near as hot when the blazing sun isn’t cooking you from lack of shade.
      Andy's Footprint

      One of Andy’s footprints in Toy Story Land. Much easier to see when the land isn’t packed!

       

  • Painting with a View
    • I have been a Disney Vacation Club member (Disney’s timeshare program) since 2006 and wanted to enjoy one of the new offerings for members called ‘Painting with a View’. This is a private event for members only and runs around $55/person for the two-hour painting session that takes place at the top of Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The 16th floor lounge hosts a small group of painters to recreate a Disney themed painting with a local artist.
    • Our session included light snacks and drinks as well as a killer view (see the blog cover photo) of the Seven Seas Lagoon area. The painting we worked on was from Moana and featured Moana in her sailboat, sailing into the sunset with her Grandmother ray sailing alongside.
    • I loved this experience and would definitely do it again!

      Painting with a view

      The Kid, creating her Moana masterpiece

  • Rivers of Light
    • We’ve seen Rivers of Light, the nighttime show at Animal Kingdom, a few times now. I wanted to swing by the show area though to see how the crowds were looking and wow… the outdoor theater was already really full well before the show was to start. The ‘standby’ section for those without a FastPass or tickets from a dining package (what I recommend for my clients) was at standing room only at least 30 minutes prior to the show starting.

      Everest looming over Rivers of Light

      A full moon glows over the mountain that is guarded by the fierce Yeti!

  • Epcot fun!
    • Lots of fun in Epcot this time too! We enjoyed the new Kidcot activity sponsored by Ziploc that recently replaced the ‘Duffy on a stick’ coloring activity that had been at Epcot for the last several years. I have to say, the new activity is so much better! You go from country to country to collect a little info card about that country. The Cast Member at the Kidcot station writes a phrase or a drawing on the card related to their country and you collect those cards and a sticker at each location. You’re given a cute little Ziploc slider bag that looks like a suitcase at the start of your journey to collect the cards in. For those who liked the coloring downtime, don’t worry! The back of each card features a scene with Disney characters related to that country.

It’s amazing to watch how the construction is progressing at Disney on a variety of projects like the Riviera Beach resort being built near Caribbean Beach, the tower at the Coronado Springs resort, the entire Skyliner (gondola) system, and even the new attractions in Epcot. The Guardians of the Galaxy ride in Epcot is really starting to take shape. It looks to be HUGE! You can see its frame going up in the photo below, look for Spaceship Earth (the big ball), then the tree to the right. On the right side of the tree, you’ll see the Guardians ride building. Crazy how big that is compared to Spaceship Earth! Can’t wait for that one!

Guardians of the Galaxy ride building

To the right of the tree, you’ll see the frame of the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction building!

 

That’s it for now! Catch me next time…

Amber

Two summer trips to Disney are done… almost time for a third!

Hi! Amber here! This post is coming to you direct from the kid. She’s going to give her perspective on our two Disney summer trips so far including a teenager’s point of view of Toy Story Land. Enjoy!

Hello, once again! This is Hailey, and I’m going to be sharing with you my thoughts on the new Toy Story Land! Plus some details on our party of seven, family trip! Here we go!

So for our first trip of the summer we left on the 9th of June, driving in the van, with seven people, three rather large suitcases, backpacks, and a couple snack bags for the twelve and a half hour drive to Orlando. What a ride! Lots of naps, taking videos of my cousin and I doing funny things, dancing, and LOTS & LOTS of singing! (We love to sing “Love is an Open Door”! That’s a favorite!) When we finally got there, we went to SeaWorld. The Dolphin Show was pretty cool, and so was feeding the fish, sea lions, and seals; but the rest of the park was very crowded and just overall meh… We didn’t ride any of the rides, plus I didn’t really desire to lose my lunch… I just prefer Disney World, and all of it’s rides!

When we went to Disney World, we rode lots of fun rides, including Expedition Everest for my second time!! I LOVE that ride!!! Definitely a favorite of mine, now that I have ridden it!!! We also went to the Happily Ever After Dessert Party, which is ALWAYS a fave! So many delicious desserts to try, and the sparkling cider is delicious! (I may have had more than I was supposed to!) And, as always, the fireworks were amazing! During that trip, we stayed at Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which was very nice! There were a lot of bus stops though, and we had to go to the third stop, which took awhile to get around to some nights… but I still REALLY, REALLY enjoyed that trip!!!! I was counting down the days, and so were my cousins! And we can’t wait to go on the next vacation together! Oh! And, on the way home, we stopped at the Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville, Florida, Which was SOOO COOL!! I loved all of the cats and we even adopted a resident there! While he will still remain in the care of Catty Shack Ranch, we sponsor him and can providing funding to give him the best vet care possible! I definitely recommend stopping there for a night feeding, so check their calendar, and make sure to stop by when once is offered! Ok, now let’s go into the more recent trip, the opening of Toy Story Land!

My mom and I had a normal flight, not delayed, not canceled, which was really nice! Then, we were the FIRST people to get on the Magical Express bus and we had to WAIT and WAIT for the rest of the people to come. And then we were the LAST stop! The first was Pop Century, THEN Art of Animation, THEN Boardwalk, THEN FINALLY Caribbean Beach, which was the resort we stayed at. We had ordered Giordano’s pizza delivery, while we were on the bus, and it had said that it would come to the room in 60-70 minutes, which we thought to be plenty of time. Let’s just say Ubers and Lyfts were considered, but not taken, then we got to the resort, AND HAD TO TAKE THE INTERNAL SHUTTLE!!! Like SERIOUSLY?!?!? MY DEEP-DISH PIZZA IS SUPPOSED TO ARRIVE SOON AND WE ARE GOING TO MISS IT!!! But we finally got to our stop then went to the room, the luggage was delivered, and LUCKILY the pizza guy was running late, so it was PERFECT timing!! Mmm… that pizza was DELICIOUS!!! But we only ate half and had to stick the box in the mini fridge… difficult tetris…

The next day we went to check out the situation at Hollywood Studios. We went back to the to-be Toy Story Land entrance, and there were a lot of people bunched around there. We went from there to ride Toy Story Mania, which said the wait was around 70 minutes, but my mom and I think we only waited 20-30 minutes. And she BEAT me!! HOW?!?!??! She, I am pretty sure, got a cat, and I got a beaver. 😦  But the next time we played/rode it I beat her by a little 🙂 , but we both got beavers. After we were done there, we went and rode some other rides and shopped, and we just so happened to sit down on a bench, under an umbrella, when it started to downpour. Perfect timing!! It started to rain harder and harder, so we had to get out our umbrellas and hold them in front of us or beside us to keep from getting completely soaked! Just before we were about to get up I saw someone step in a LARGE puddle of water in the direction we were headed, to get to our Hollywood & Vine lunch reservation, and made sure not to step in it but I assumed that my mom had seen it also, but she had not, haha!

Our lunch was delicious! I really like the food and desserts there! It continued to downpour buckets and buckets of water, and it never completely stopped for the rest of the day. We pretty much just shopped and such after that, and then left, and went back to Caribbean Beach. We went to the “buffet” which was a DISASTER. It was in a pop-up tent sort of thing, since that building and the bulk of the resort was under construction. But they didn’t really have a kitchen, it seemed like, because my mom asked when they were going to get more salmon, because it is one of my favorite foods, and the lady behind the counter said “I don’t know,” and sort of looked back to the door behind which the food was coming from, and we sort of looked confused. The buffet was ok, but I don’t think I would get it again. The breakfast one was better food-wise, but the line was longer. And they had Mickey waffles, which was a plus! And they had real plates! Not paper ones like they had for dinner. We also ate at the Spyglass Grill in the Trinidad South section of the resort, we were in Trinidad North, so we had to walk over farther to get to it. But the pineapple and banana pancakes were delicious!!! I loved them!! Mmm… so good!

We booked a VIP tour to explore Toy Story Land and the top attractions at the other parks. The morning of the tour, we went to eat at The Wave, located in the Contemporary Resort, which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!! I LOVE the sweet potato pancakes, Tillamook cheddar and bacon grits, and the smoked salmon!! And don’t forget the Mickey waffles! The breakfast was delicious, as always! Then, after the breakfast, we split off into three groups and went to vans with the VIP Tour Guide that was assigned to our group, Leslie, and went to Toy Story Land! After getting our bags checked backstage, we walked from the Backstage area near Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster over to the Toy Story Land entrance. By that time, we had heard that Toy Story Land had been closed off, and was only allowing those with FastPasses or with VIP tours into the land. Luckily, we had a VIP tour, so we didn’t have a problem getting in!

The only major problem we had was the low level of shade. There were umbrellas set up throughout the land, but it still was SOOOO hot! My mom had an umbrella, and so did I, so she put hers up for more shade, and all of the people in the group were trying to get in her shade! Anyway, the first ride we rode was Alien Swirling Saucers. I LOVED it! It reminded me so much of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which is in Disneyland, and one of my favorite rides! And then after that we rode Slinky Dog Dash, which was also REALLY fun! My mom didn’t expect to like it that much, but after riding it, she liked it a lot! I also really liked it! The lap-bars were really nice too, they had hand-grips on either side of the bar, which was nice! (Even though my hands were always in the air!) After riding the new rides, we rode Toy Story Midway Mania! After finishing in Hollywood Studios, we rode over to Animal Kingdom. In Animal Kingdom, we rode Na’vi River Journey and then we had lunch at Satu’li Canteen. Lunch was delicious, but we had to wait FOREVER to even get our order placed! And as always, I recommend the blueberry cream cheese mousse! Mmmm! After lunch, we rode Flight of Passage, which, as always, was really REALLY fun!

After Animal Kingdom, we went to Epcot! First, in Epcot, we rode Soarin’ Around the World, which was fun! And then we got back in the van and drove around to Norway, to ride Frozen Ever After! Frozen Ever After was as fun as ever, and we got wet, which felt delightful in the hot weather! And after riding Frozen Ever After, the group hopped back in the van. We decided to go back to Hollywood Studios to ride Slinky Dog Dash once more! After getting off of Slinky Dog Dash, we broke off from the rest of the group, who decided to go ride Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, before five o’clock, when the tour was over, so we said our goodbyes, and went to look at some Toy Story Land merch! After getting some opening day pins and such, we headed over to Magic Kingdom for our reservation at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, which was delicious! We got caprese salad, which was AMAZING, and we each got a different kind of pasta. My mom got gnocchi in pesto with veggies, which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G; and I got a sort of Alfredo sauce covered ravioli, which wasn’t nearly as good as her gnocchi… so after she was done eating hers, I sort of ate a lot of the leftover veggies in the pesto that she didn’t want. Mmmm!!!! Good!

After eating dinner, we went and rode some rides. And OMG!!! I got my mom to ride Tomorrowland Speedway!!! She NEVER rides it!! But it is one of my favorite rides!! She always think that it makes her smell funny, and doesn’t normally ride it because of that, but she DID ride it!!! Haha! Well anyway, we also rode The Little Mermaid ride, it’s a small world, and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. This past trip was a quick one, but we have one more trip to the Mouse House coming up!

–Hailey

 

Toy Story Land grand opening!

I’m back from another trip to the Walt Disney World resort in Florida! I visited at the end of June to celebrate and enjoy the grand opening of Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. What a fun new land and great addition to the park… if Disney would just add a little shade there though…

First up, lodging. I stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach resort to see how the construction there was coming along. In a word… slowly. I haven’t been recommending this moderate level resort to my clients for some time and it looks like that’s not going to be changing. With the construction of the new Riviera Beach resort adjacent to Caribbean Beach, the Skyliner station, the complete renovation of the Old Port Royale section of the resort, and the always clunky Custom House check-in area, this one just can’t be on my list right now. Once the Custom House/check-in moves over to the centrally located (and eventually re-opened) Old Port Royale and the Skyliner system is up and running, this resort will be hugely improved. Until then, no-go.

Caribbean Beach food court in a tent

Current food court option at Caribbean Beach resort

No exaggeration, the ‘food court’ is currently a buffet breakfast and dinner, some type of grab and go for lunch. Granted, the buffet is pretty cheap as far as Disney pricing goes, but eating in a tent on paper plates with tiny little plastic cups is just weird.

On to the good stuff. Toy Story Land! First, grand opening days/weekends are NOT for the faint of heart. It was a mob scene on 6/30 when the land opened. We’re talking hours and hours in line just to be allowed into the land itself because it hit capacity very early on. Not to mention the hours in line for the two new rides: Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash Coaster. Swirling Saucers is very similar to Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree at Cars Land in California Adventure, with different ride vehicles, a ceiling, and fun ride music. Great for families and little ones, which is what Hollywood Studios really needed. Toy Story Mania’s entrance moved from the Pixar Place side into Toy Story Land itself but the ride remains the same (always fun for everyone!)

The highlight attraction is the Slinky Dog Dash coaster. This ride is a family-oriented coaster with a 38″ height requirement, just like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom. I like Slinky a lot better though, for several reasons. First, the ride is so much smoother. This is one of the smoothest coasters I’ve ever ridden. The theme too is just so cute and the way you come down the first big hill into Andy’s backyard really makes you feel like you’re about to re-enter the crowd! The ride stops midway to rev up and take off again across Slinky’s mini-hills, making you really get the ‘walks down stairs’ effect of a slinky toy. Big bonus! You can see into what will be Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge while on Slinky Dog so take a glance to your right!

I also love the ride vehicle! Slinky is so cute and the ride cars are so much more comfortable than Mine Train’s. They are more spacious inside and they have a split pull-down lap bar. That means each guest can pull the lap bar down to the desired height on their waist and there is no bar system that your legs must fit into. For those who are familiar with Mine Train, the lap bars are individual there as well but they are in sort of a frame where your legs/knees must squish between them. Since I’m Pooh-sized and not short, riding Mine Train can be extremely uncomfortable. Not so with Slinky Dog! I actually wish they’d close Mine Train for awhile and replace those ride vehicles with some like they’re using for Slinky. Gigantic improvement!

Slinky getting ready to 'go, go, go!'

Slinky getting ready to ‘go, go, go!’

Alien Swirling Saucers

Slipping and sliding in your saucer!

I can’t wait to go back later this month and visit the land at night. All the lights and effects look amazing! One huge negative is the shade. This new space has virtually no shade, no indoor stores/spaces, very small bathroom area, and no indoor restaurants. There is a quick service food option called ‘Woody’s Lunch Box’ that I’ll be trying on my next visit — this visit was just too hot and packed to even consider a stop. One good piece of advice is regarding merchandise. You can get merch for the land where Sweet Spells used to be, on Sunset around the corner from the Hollywood Brown Derby. This is a new merch location and much easier to navigate than trying to get to the carts in the land itself. Another tip, head to the land early in the morning or late at night (or both.) Trying to do Toy Story Land midday (unless you have a FastPass) is going to be a hot mess for awhile.

How did I get so lucky to be in Toy Story Land on grand opening day? Not to mention that I didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes (except for a backup on Alien Swirling Saucers that kept us in line for probably 15 minutes)? VIP Tour, that’s how. Was it free? Heck no! I get a lot of comments about how it must be nice to be a travel agent and travel for free but I can assure you, that’s not the case. We pay for everything, just like a regular consumer and VIP tours are an expensive experience. A small group of agents and their families got together and booked our own VIP guide to experience Toy Story Land on opening day as well as hit the most popular rides in the other parks in the seven hours we had the guide. The result?

  1. Hollywood Studios for Alien Swirling Saucers then Slinky Dog Dash
  2. Animal Kingdom for Na’vi River Journey, lunch at Satu’li Canteen, Avatar: Flight of Passage
  3. Epcot for Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After
  4. Back to Hollywood Studios for another go on Slinky Dog Dash and then some of the group wrapped on Rock n’ Roller Coaster. The plan was to go to Magic Kingdom but Slinky Dog was calling for a repeat!

The benefits, other than having a guide to take you into the FastPass lines of these insanely popular rides without having a FastPass? Private transportation backstage to each park, no bag check every time you needed to go into a new park, no turnstiles, drop off right at or very close to the ride entrance backstage, snacks/water/ponchos, etc. It was amazing! These tours are for up to 10 guests, minimum of 7 hours, theme park admission is required (including hoppers if you’re doing more than one park) and the per hour rate varies from $425 to $625/hour. You also tip the guide after the tour is complete. So yes, that’s about $3k-$4,500 for the tour. (I can set these up for my clients as well, just ask if you’re interested and we’ll come up with a fantastic tour plan for you!) These are completely custom and the guide will take you to do literally whatever attractions you want, based on their availability. We were going to ride Test Track in Epcot as well but a thunderstorm shut the ride down. You’ll want to allot very little time to eating and shopping during your tour because, let’s face it, you’re paying a premium to have the guide act as your personal FastPass and who wants to waste that shopping?!?

After the tour was over, we went to Magic Kingdom for dinner and were able to get in a few more attractions before the park closed. Four parks in one day! 14 attractions! Super exciting!

Whew, what a busy few days! We’re headed back later this month to do “Toy Story Land — the sequel” where we’ll play a little more in the evening, see what has changed since it first opened (hopefully there’s some shade!), and then check out a few new offerings. We’ll be at a different resort for that trip so stay tuned to see what resort I visited and thoughts on that one.

Happy July!