Springtime fun with the Mouse

My last visit to Disney World was in January for the International Festival of the Arts in Epcot so I knew a return trip to celebrate spring was a must-do. The fam and I plus one of my nieces hopped on a plane in late March to enjoy the changing of the seasons at the Most Magical Place on Earth. This trip was my niece’s first time back at the Disney parks in quite some time, so it was great to share the magic with her and introduce her to the wonder that is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Despite not going in as a Star Wars fan, I think we might be converting her, little by little!

On each trip, I try to make sure I do at least one new thing, whether that be staying somewhere I’ve not stayed before (a different resort or type of room), trying a new restaurant, or experiencing a new attraction or event. One would think that we would run out of ‘new’ things after visiting as much as we do during the year but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even if it is something as simple as a new snack or activity, there are always things to try that you’ve not experienced before. For us on this trip, that meant a new resort and room type (Disney’s All-Star Music resort in a family suite) and returning to a restaurant that changed its format (Crystal Palace going from a menu restaurant back to buffet style.)

Staying at All-Star Music resort was a first for us, we have never stayed at any of the All-Star Resort hotels before. While we have stayed at Art of Animation and Pop Century, which are also value level resorts at Disney like the All-Stars, the All-Star resorts never felt like the right fit for us. They are often bombarded with school and sports groups and that isn’t my cup of tea. This trip was no exception as far as that was concerned, there were tons of school groups staying at All-Star Music for spring break when we were there. I have to admit, that was the big downside to this resort because I just do not like getting stuck in a herd of teenagers that are largely unsupervised and they really do a number on lines for the park buses in the morning. That being said, I felt like the resort really compensated for that because we didn’t spend a long time in bus lines and were frequently shuttled to and from the parks on large coaches instead of regular Disney buses. Those seem to hold a significantly greater number of guests (and felt far more comfortable since everyone gets a seat) so that really improved the transportation experience. It definitely felt like a longer ride from this resort to the parks and that’s probably because of its location coupled with only having bus transportation options to the parks whereas Art of Animation and Pop Century also have Skyliner access to two of the four parks.

Panchito Pistoles!

I really liked hanging out by the pool in the late evenings after returning from the parks and that made for a great way to wind down before bed. I am a huge fan of the Three Caballeros movie and the main pool at All-Star Music has a water feature of Donald, Jose, and Panchito. Loved it! Traveling with my niece and my daughter, both teenagers, we wanted to have a second bathroom. The family suites at All-Star Music have two full bathrooms and a kitchenette as well as three separate beds, so it was the perfect setup for what we were looking for on this trip. These rooms have a living room that has a sofa plus a dining room table with four chairs and the first bathroom with a tub/shower combo. Both the sofa and table pull down from the wall to convert to queen-sized beds. In the master bedroom, there is another regular queen bed and the second bathroom with walk-in shower. The storage in this room really blew my mind too, I couldn’t believe how many drawers and shelves were available. I have stayed in many resorts where storage is so lacking that we practically live out of our suitcases and this was such a welcome change. The kitchenette was a great amenity when it came to breakfast in the room and a pizza delivery night. Just being able to store our drinks for the parks and leftovers was a huge help as was the microwave when the idea of a late-night pizza snack hit. There are family suites at Art of Animation too and we have enjoyed those but I actually came away liking the layout and features of this room better. If only All-Star Music could be paired with the Skyliner access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios like Art has though…

There is almost always a festival happening in Epcot and we were fortunate to be visiting during the Flower and Garden Festival. I love Epcot and think it is always so beautiful but the topiaries and floral displays that are found during the Flower and Garden Festival are truly a sight to behold. I am always amazed at what the horticulture team at Disney is able to produce and keep looking beautiful day after day in the hot Florida sun. It is also such a treat to be able to take part in the Spike’s Pollination Exploration scavenger hunt (small fee but you also receive a prize upon completion) because it helps make sure that your park day has a little non-attraction based fun added in.

Bambi and friends and, if you look super close, you’ll spy Winnie the Pooh in the background!

We scored a cancellation at Space 220 in Epcot, the newest restaurant and one that comes at a steep price tag but with a great dining experience. The service here is top-notch and I love watching the astronauts and ships fly by the space station while you’re eating. The theme of this restaurant is that you travel up from Epcot to the Centauri Space Station to dine. So many things to look at while you are enjoying your meal!

A spaceship going by the space station while you dine

I don’t always take the time to visit Animal Kingdom but I wanted to make sure we did so on this trip. I absolutely love the Pandora section of the park and riding Avatar: Flight of Passage but also can’t get enough of Kilimanjaro Safaris. We were pleased to see so many animals up close on our safari including these elephants and white rhinos! It is such an incredible experience to have these majestic animals come so close to the ride vehicle and to watch them interact with each other.

No trip of ours to Disney would be complete without time at Hollywood Studios and at least a walk through Batuu. Usually, we make a stop at Oga’s Cantina for a drink, take a few passes through Dok Ondar’s and Droid Depot to check for any new merchandise, and somehow never miss being interrogated by the First Order on Rise of the Resistance. There are some fun mystery droid blind boxes in Droid Depot right now that run about $18/each but include a little BB or R unit and a display case. Unfortunately, we have bought six and have gotten two sets of duplicates. Bummer!

Next up, interrogation time!

Our Hollywood Studios day was freakishly rainy so we ran for cover a few times and luckily didn’t get too drenched. Ponchos to the rescue! I will say, Florida and rain go together like the sky and clouds. You just need to accept that you won’t have one without the other and prepare for any showers that pop up. Rain is no reason to leave the park but you had better believe that people do! Just hang in there and the shower will pass by soon enough. And if it doesn’t, the crowds will likely go way down so enjoy shorter lines!

Howdy partner! Why yes, I did bring my poncho!

Magic Kingdom was as magical as ever and never disappoints. We took the time to watch the return of the Festival of Fantasy parade and I was so happy to see the Maleficent fire-breathing dragon back in action. There were so many characters dancing down the parade route too! So happy to see normalcy returning!

Belle leads the way for the Festival of Fantasy parade in Magic Kingdom

As all good trips do, it came to an end far too soon, but we were happy to have the memories. My next trip is out to the West Coast to Disneyland so stay tuned for the recap on that this summer!

xoxo,

Amber

Sailing away to Castaway Cay!

Last weekend, I spent my Saturday soaking up the sunshine at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. The fam and I had sailed away a couple of days prior from Miami aboard the Disney Magic on a four-night Bahamian cruise. While the ship made a stop in Nassau, we stayed aboard the ship, a much more pleasant option than venturing into town. We also had a day at sea, which was a pretty rainy one for the bulk of the morning but our Captain took us a little off course to find some sunshine later in the day. That was Super Bowl Sunday and many guests were parked in front of a screen watching the event, while our family found ourselves able to explore an even less crowded ship that we had been enjoying. The Disney Magic’s normal guest capacity is just over 2,700 passengers. Our sailing had 1,035 passengers and 1,037 crew!

The Magic docked at Castaway Cay

Sailing right now, while modified to support COVID safety protocols, is a blast with fewer guests. While I selfishly love the low crowds, I know that isn’t sustainable for any cruise line long term, so I hope that the sailings come back closer to regular capacity in the coming months. I believe Disney is still restricting their sailings to a maximum of 70% of guests but that information isn’t published anywhere to confirm. With the newest ship in the fleet, the Disney Wish, taking its inaugural voyage in July, I think the goal will be to get back to as close to 100% as possible before then.

I last sailed with Disney in September, on the Disney Dream. The COVID protocols are pretty similar now to what they were then but some of the processes feel more streamlined. While you still do have to wear a face covering indoors at all times (unless in your own stateroom or actively eating/drinking), it does feel like we are sliding into what will become the ‘new normal’ for a while. With all guests age 5 and up required to be fully vaccinated to sail and all guests required to take a COVID test prior to being allowed to board, the comfort level felt good while sailing.

Our dinner server also let us know that they are tested ever other day, which seems insane, and also are required to wear face coverings. The overall feeling from the crew is that they can’t wait for the ships to be back at capacity and they wish the CDC didn’t push the negative stance they seem to hold with regarding to cruising. While the CDC finally announced that they lowered their warning level from ‘very high’ to ‘high’ for cruising a few days ago, it really should be lowered further in my opinion. The cruise lines are doing so much more to keep guests safe than is even being done in your own hometown. Disney’s cleaning processes had always been stellar but you can tell that they have stepped those up even further now. Social distancing in theaters is strictly enforced (and great for the guest!) and tables in the restaurants have been spread farther apart to allow for more distancing there as well. The buffet at Cabanas is no longer self-serve, which is amazing as far as keeping other guests’ grubby paws out of the food and the serving utensils from getting sticky and dirty. Even the ice cream is served by a crew member and that’s just fantastic! No more spills around the ice cream machines, long lines while you wait for the guest in front of you to figure out how to work the machine, etc. Love it! The one thing I do really miss though is pin trading with the crew. However, we made a pin ribbon and hung our trading pins outside of our stateroom door so other guests could come by our stateroom and trade with us! That was fun and gave us a little taste of the trading that we were missing.

We spent a lot of time enjoying the variety of entertainment offerings onboard during this cruise. We watched movies on the funnel, participated in several animation classes, made origami, tried our hand at trivia many times, took photos with characters, and watched as other guests took part in some of the family game shows. We won Marvel Trivia and did well on some of the other trivia games but man, competition is fierce!

One of my favorite things about sailing with Disney is seeing the Broadway-style shows that are performed most evenings. On our sailing, we enjoyed Tangled and Believe. Both were excellent and gave us back the live entertainment that we have missed during the pandemic. During dinner each evening, shows are performed in the main dining rooms as well. On our last evening, we dined at Rapunzel’s Royal Table and were treated to a show with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider. This restaurant is beautiful to begin with but with the lanterns in the ceiling mimicking the lantern festival from the Tangled movie, it becomes truly a magical experience.

Rapunzel and Flynn celebrating her birthday and the lantern festival

Oh! Another unique form of entertainment aboard Disney’s Bahamian and Caribbean cruises are the fireworks at sea! It is always a blast to head up to the top deck in the evening to watch the fireworks explode overhead while adrift in the ocean.

Disney Ever After fireworks show

Our day at Castaway Cay was incredible, as always. Even though it started off on the dark and stormy looking side, the end of the day brought beautiful blue skies and a rainbow as we sailed away from our island paradise. On Castaway Cay, guests have free access to plenty of beach chairs, loungers, and umbrellas to use during the day on a variety of different beach areas. A treat that you can purchase is a rental of a private cabana for the day. These cabanas are extremely hard to book and typically booked up by guests staying in concierge staterooms on the sailing or guests who have sailed with Disney many times before (called Castaway Club members.) Castaway Club members are divided into three levels: Silver (cruised at least once with Disney but less than 5 times), Gold (cruised more than 5 times but less than 10), and Platinum (cruised more than 10 times.) We are Platinum members but I actually just lucked into a cancellation of a cabana about four days before our sailing. I wasn’t planning on getting a cabana since they are fairly pricey (generally in the $600-$800 range) but saw that the weather was looking iffy for our island day. When a cancellation popped up, I grabbed it. While these are a splurge, they are truly worth it for the experience. Your own cabana with comfortable furniture, a changing curtain, freshwater shower, hammock, sand toys, sunscreen, safe, upgraded towels (that you don’t have to carry from the ship!), free sodas/waters, cool washcloths, floats and tubes, and the private beach area make this upgrade worth every single penny. For those of us who can get sunburned in the rain, this is such a dream come true.

Each evening, we ended the day with a fun towel/blanket animal and some delicious Dove chocolates on our stateroom bed. Funny how when you get home, there are no more towel animals or chocolates. Hmmm… Those stateroom hosts truly do help make your vacation all the more special!

You know the saying though, all good things must come to an end. We flew back home to Virginia, where we had narrowly missed yet another snowfall, and started dreaming of our next adventure.

xoxo,

Amber

Return to the Epcot Festival of the Arts!

I’ve been a bit remiss in keeping up with my blogging duties over the last month. I neglected to report on my New Years trip to Disney’s Hilton Head Island resort (TL;DR version, Hilton Head was a blast as usual very relaxing and perfect weather!) but I wanted to be sure to capture the highlights of my return to the Epcot Festival of the Arts in mid-January!

Pluto was happy to see us at Hilton Head!

Epcot has four festivals during the year: Festival of the Arts, Flower and Garden Festival, Food and Wine Festival, and Festival of the Holidays. If you’re unlucky enough to visit in a small frame of time between festivals, well boo. They are pretty spread out to cover most of the year but there are pockets of time where the festivals are changing over and you can easily end up in one. Festival of the Arts is my absolute favorite though. So much to do in Epcot that is directly related to the beauty of art and features things like artists on-site creating new art and signing their work, food booths offering beautiful tapas-style items for purchase, and life-size paintings you can become a part of. The level of talent that these artists showcase is incredible!

Let’s talk about chalk art. If you’ve never seen chalk art up close, let me tell you how amazing it truly is! The details, the colors, the scale and size of the work… not to mention the artists have to sit on the ground or crouch while creating these masterpieces! And the rain! I don’t know how they don’t just break down in tears when it starts to rain after they have worked so hard on a piece. Que será será I suppose. Two of my favorites are Leigh Alfredson (thechalkteacher on Instagram) and Nate Baranowski (nate.baranowski on Instagram). Their work is crazy good. Nate does large-scale chalk art that you can ‘step’ right into. You have to check out their Instas. Talent in every shot. When it rains, they take their work indoors and keep the magic flowing!

Leigh’s completed Luca, her work in process of Pico from Encanto (indoor chalking that day due to weather), and another artist completing a National Geographic piece.

One of my most favorite parts of this festival is the paint-by-number that everyone can participate in. You are given a small foam brush and a cup of paint. Each color is numbered and the huge canvas is squared off with each square assigned a number. You are allowed to paint eight squares numbered to match your color. When done, it all comes together in a gigantic mural. I could literally stand there and paint squares all day. You’re given a bookmark that shows what the finished mural looks like. Cast Members say that each mural takes about two days to complete. This year’s mural is a take on Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which is my absolute favorite painting!

All of the festivals have a scavenger hunt available for a small fee. After your hunt is complete, you redeem your completed game piece for a prize. This year’s prizes, appropriately, are little figures that you paint and we chose Figment! How fun is that!

Pro tip: Don’t panic if you can’t complete the scavenger hunt! You can still pick up your prize at one of the redemption locations.

I love going through the countries of World Showcase and looking for the hidden character art! You have to look hard sometimes to find the friends that are hiding in each country! Abu might have been trying to pocket some pans here in Morocco!

Hidden art!

There are so many life-size pieces of art throughout the park that you can step into and recreate for yourself. Track them down and get your pose ready!

Stepping inside of the paintings is such a ‘Scream!’

Of course, it is the artists of the past and present that make this festival what it is. We love to be able to purchase art from our favorite artists and be able to have them sign their work. These folks really make the festival so much more special!

Rob Kaz is an official Disney artist but also has his own line of work that is not Disney related. You can find him on Instagram @RobKazArt

We spent a ton of our trip time in Epcot for the festival but also wanted to try out some new things not related just to that. We had lunch at the new Space 220 restaurant (delish food, beautiful preparation, inventive options, and carefully designed atmosphere), saw Minnie (yes, there are still characters in the parks, quite a few in Epcot actually, you just can’t hug them or get autographs still), and meandered into Club Cool for some soda samples from around the world!

We did make time to visit Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios on this trip as well. Since we were staying at the Beach Club resort, we were able to walk right into Epcot and take a short boat ride to get to Hollywood Studios. Beach Club, Yacht Club, and the Boardwalk Inn all share this same fantastic location and are so convenient to Epcot and the Studios. Of course, no visit to Disney for my family is complete without at least one (or two, or three, or…) visit to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios. We flew the Millennium Falcon a couple of times, fought the First Order on Rise of the Resistance, and managed to spend a few credits on some new droid pins at Droid Depot.

Have you ever heard these droids making noises? Did you know that is caused by other guests using the Play Parks App? Try it!

Magic Kingdom’s fireworks show that started on October 1st, Enchantment, has been so popular that we had not been able to watch it until this trip. It is always so crowded and I just am not willing to stake out a spot far enough in advance to get a decent view. This time, we splurged on the Treats and Seats dessert party and wowza was it worth it! We’ve done dessert parties in the past and enjoyed those, but this one feels different with the COVID impact. This is the seated party option where you have desserts/drinks and then watch the fireworks while seated at the Tomorrowland Terrace restaurant. The tables are no longer really close together and you have a great view no matter what table you are given when you arrive. Other bonuses besides the food and drinks (alcohol too!) would be the bathrooms that are right at the seating area, not getting trampled to death, and your small children (or short adults) being able to see. The last time we tried to watch Enchantment, we were uncomfortably close to a heated argument, near fist-fight, and very unpleasant exchange between several guests stuck in the crowd as the fireworks began. Every penny I paid for the dessert party was worth not having that experience again. Did I mention free Moscato and POG juice — what a way to cap the evening!

Alas, all good Disney trips must come to an end. Before we knew it, we were back in the skies on the way home, filled with new memories and a carry-on full of art!

xoxo,

Amber

SoCal Thanksgiving!

To some, Thanksgiving means turkey and green bean casserole. To my family, Thanksgiving means time to pack a bag and get out of town! This year, we decided that Disneyland would be our Thanksgiving destination. We’ve been trying to get to Disneyland since the summer of 2020, and I can imagine you know how that went. Three rescheduled trips later and it was finally time to board the plane to LAX and enjoy the warm Anaheim air!

Flying around Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year and while it was busy this year too, I can say that it seemed less insane to us than normal. Not that normal is a ‘thing’ anymore since COVID, but I was expecting far worse of an experience traveling via air across the country. Other than what seemed like a million flight changes, rebookings, and getting to LA via Boston (go northeast to go west?), we made it safe and sound into sunny California and started the adventure on a high note. Thanks JetBlue!

Whenever I go to Disneyland, I stay at one of the three on-site Disney resorts: the Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, or Paradise Pier. This time, we went with the Disneyland Hotel, which never disappoints. I love that it is so classicly Disney and you can really feel the history throughout. Our room was lovely, all Cast Members we met were so gracious and happy, even the other guests were pretty darn pleasant. I’ve noticed that guests at Disney World in FL are skewing more ‘entitled’ and can be downright rude and obnoxious since the COVID reopening last year. Expectations are often way out of line with reality in these bizarre times we’re living in and some of the behavior I’ve witnessed definitely belongs back in quarantine. However, Disneyland has a very large local guest population from the SoCal area and that really tends to affect the guest attitude and park experience. I always joke that literally everyone in the parks has at least one piece of Disney apparel on if not multiple, and very few of the matching shirt groups like you see at Disney World. Everyone really seemed happy to be there, enjoying themselves, and ready for a good time. Refreshing!

Welcome to the Disneyland Hotel!

The weather was delightful throughout our stay with not a drop of rain. My hair loves the lack of humidity and I love not looking like a disaster an hour after leaving the room. This is especially true when so many of the other guests have clearly spent a good bit of time prepping themselves for a day in the parks and look like they’ve stepped out of a magazine or off Instagram. I love people watching, looking to see if I can find any celebrities, which is completely crazy since I don’t know that I would actually recognize very many. I did see (and talk to!!) Josh D’Amaro, the Chairman of Disney Parks! Core memory!

Once we got settled in the room, it was time for a quick lunch and then park time. Disneyland was up first and it was crazy how quickly seeing the park got us in the holiday spirit! Everything is always so pristine at the Disney parks and walking into Disneyland, dressed to impress with holiday decor, was breathtaking. I will never get tired of entering those gates and walking down the original Main Street USA toward Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Hello beautiful!

I couldn’t believe how many characters we saw during this trip! Of course, they are all still socially distanced and aren’t signing autographs, but I could make a gigantic list of everyone we saw. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, Marie, Stormtroopers, Jack and Sally, Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Dr. Strange, Thor, three of the Eternals, Black Widow, Black Panther, Shang Chi, Taskmaster, the Dora Milaje, Spiderman, Iron Man, Woody, Jessie, the Incredibles, Snow White, Gaston, plus so many more in the parades! I know I’m forgetting some too! They also have cavalcades with characters running in both parks, like at Disney World, and a full holiday parade that is happening in Disneyland. I was blown away at how ‘normal’ all of that felt and how incredible it was to see the beautiful holiday happenings. I also so love that Disneyland still uses a lot of the original transportation that was in place when Walt was alive like the vehicle shown below with Minnie. Guests can even be driven up Main Street USA in these vehicles!

Something else I love about the holidays at Disneyland is the overlays that are put on certain attractions like Haunted Mansion and it’s a small world. Mind you, most of the attractions/lands get spruced up with holiday decor but these two attractions get full makeovers. Haunted Mansion becomes Haunted Mansion Holiday, rethemed like Nightmare before Christmas. Haunted Mansion is my most favorite ride on both coasts and I love, love, love it when it gets the overlay in California. I cannot believe how much work goes into basically redoing this entire ride for a few months. So impressive! it’s a small world becomes it’s a small world holiday but the bummer this year was that it didn’t open on time due a flooding issue, so we missed being able to ride it by a week or two. Boo hiss!

While Mansion will always reign supreme as the top attraction for me, I have to say that the new Web Slingers: A Spiderman Adventure ride in California Adventure is tough competition. Wait times at Disneyland are a lot different than World and the longest waits we experienced were for these two attractions. There were some longish waits for Radiator Springs Racers and Rise of the Resistance, but we’ve done those before so they weren’t priorities on this trip. Disney’s new Genie+ service hadn’t started yet when we visited Disneyland, so all rides were just regular standby lines for entry. We waited for Haunted Mansion once around 45 minutes (20 minutes the second time and walked on the third time) and 80 minutes for Web Slingers. To get me to wait 80 minutes in line for an attraction is a pretty big feat but I wanted to ride this new ride so bad that I made the commitment. Let me tell you, those 80 minutes were well spent! We loved every minute of this ride and I would have jumped right back on it again if I could’ve. So interactive, incredible technology, and such a fun concept overall. I’m not giving any spoilers other than to say, if you play the game well on this ride, your arms are going to be so tired! Spider-bot targets acquired! Oh and if you haven’t seen the new Spiderman movie, get out there and see it. Excellent flick!

Get your ‘thwip’ action going and throw those webs!

Avengers Campus, where this new Spiderman ride is located, is a brand new section of California Adventure. It is located where the Bug’s Life section was. It is impressively themed and has all those little details you come to love from Disney. The character interaction there is on point too. Several shows throughout the day, characters out for greetings and selfies, and so much creativity! The Pym Test Kitchen with its “altered” food sizes is super fun for a quick service meal. I might have been trying to balance a tray with a gigantic pretzel on it when I met Josh…

Ant-Man, normal size

Speaking of California Adventure, Cars Land was decorated for the holidays too. I love every little thing about Cars Land and their holiday spin is just icing on the cake. Even this little light set up here had everything ‘plugged’ in via jumper cables to a car battery! Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree ride turns into Mater’s Jingle Jamboree with holiday music and a haul-iday tractor spin. Gotta love that ride, even if you and your riding companion squish each other with every turn.

There’s a vacancy at the Cozy Cone, if you’re looking for a spot to rest your tires.

There is always so much to see and do at Disneyland. Even with two parks compared to the four (plus two waterparks) in Florida, there is enough to do to fill several days. Both parks are a stone’s throw from each other too, so no buses necessary. Coming and going from your Disney hotel is super easy and midday breaks for pool time are a dream. As with every other great adventure though, the ending swooped in before we knew it. That 4am transfer back to LAX to fly home was one heck of a buzzkill but a necessity nonetheless. I’ll end this entry with a shot of Sleeping Beauty castle, iced for the holiday season, shining in all of its splendor. Happy holidays!

xoxo, Amber

Celebrating Walt Disney World resort’s 50th anniversary!

On October 1st, 1971, history was made as the Magic Kingdom opened in Florida. Fifty years later, the resort has grown to 4 theme parks, two waterparks, a shopping and dining district, a waterside entertainment district, and more than 25 beautifully themed resorts. The Walt Disney World resort in Florida functions like a city with its own transportation system, fire and medical rescue teams, security, and other infrastructure. It is safe to say that if Walt had been able to see his Florida project on opening day and how it has evolved since, he would be thrilled.

As a huge Disney fan, I had to be there for 50th anniversary celebration’s early days. You’ll note that I didn’t say “start”, because I had no desire to be in the parks on October 1st, knowing that the merchandising madness machine would be in full force. (I was right. Hours long lines to buy merch that almost immediately went up on eBay. Grrr.) The fam and I arrived in town on the 3rd and the crowds were at a very pleasant level by that point. We had the lowest waits for attractions and shopping that I’ve seen in my last couple of trips and had a phenomenal visit. It was still a very hot week, with temps in the upper 90s and higher with the heat index, so a day at the pool was a must and well-received by all three of us. Here’s the scoop.

I knew in the early planning stages of this trip that I wanted to stay at Disney’s Contemporary resort, the iconic A-frame property steps away from the Magic Kingdom park. This resort also opened on October 1st, 1971 and just recently underwent a massive renovation of the rooms in the tower and the lobby area. In fact, there were still some rooms being renovated while we were there. The new rooms have an Incredibles overlay for the design. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that until I saw them in person. They are so sleek and nice! The Incredibles touches aren’t in your face and the rooms are just delightful. And that bathtub/shower was gigantic! Wowza! So much room and the view from our Bay Lake view room was incredible. You can opt for a Theme Park view room and face Magic Kingdom, but I prefer the cheaper lake view side so I can resort watch. When you leave the room, you are inside of the A-frame tower and our spot was perfect for watching the monorails come in and out, looking over toward Space Mountain, and peeking at guests making their merchandise selections in the shops below.

We had to try dinner at Chef Mickey’s again, as the characters came back at the end of 2020 and our last visit to the restaurant was last summer. All of the tables are still socially distanced, as you can see in the picture below (and why it is so hard to get a reservation here and at many other restaurants on-site) and the characters go by the tables for photos at this distanced arrangement. They were rocking some cute new outfits and came around at least three or four times while we were dining. So fun! The food was incredible too, perfection for vegetarians like myself and carnivores alike.

Chef Minnie greeting guests at Chef Mickey’s

There are so many new things to enjoy during the 50th celebration, which will run for 18 months, that we had to dive right in to see what we could spot. The kid and I had been able to see some of the new gold Fab 50 statues in the parks on our visit a couple of weeks prior, but we made it our mission to find all of them and we succeeded! Talk about some work! This is a great scavenger hunt of sorts for families and all of the statues are beautiful, great for photos! The details are amazing and I hope they find a spot for these to remain after the 50th ends.

Bambi and Thumper at Animal Kingdom

Also in Animal Kingdom is the new Kite Tails show and that was amazing! The pre-show and then the 10-minute performance are beautiful and should be added to your list of must-dos while in the park on your next visit. While the seating is outdoors and not shady, it is worth the time, just bring a drink.

Simba soars at the Discovery River Theater in Kite Tails

We made our way back to Kilimanjaro Safaris just as it was getting ready to close for the evening (*Pro Tip: Early morning and dusk are great times for this ride) and saw tons of animals grazing about. Giraffes were aplenty in their area of the savanna and we even saw a young cutie!

Just chillin’ with my ‘rents looking for some dinner…

Magic Kingdom was all decked out for the 50th, filled with many of the Fab 50 statues, the new Enchantment fireworks show, and Cinderella Castle all decked out in her 50th splendor. it’s a small world recently was repainted to be a lot more colorful and we love the new splashes of color as you enter and exit the ride.

it’s a small world, after all

The jury is still out for me on Enchantment though. It is so new and that is driving literally every single person in the park to head to the front of the Castle to watch it that I think I’m going to take a pass for a while. I had not intended to watch the show, got stuck in a walkway when it started and experienced the pleasure of trying to catch a side glimpse while wondering if we were going to get trampled or be dragged into a fist fight with guests who also were stuck in the same small area. Fireworks are great and all but… If you’re going to watch them, please get a spot very early, prepare to be packed in, or get a dessert party package to try to at least be able to limit the number of people who can be in your same viewing area. You need to be in view of the front of the Castle, just like the last fireworks show, so you can see the projections on the Castle that are an integral part of the show. There are even projections down Main Street USA with this one, so a spot along that area would work too. And yes, you can see fireworks from other spots not in the parks but do not believe all of the comments online about how they are such great spots. They’re not. While you can see the high booming fireworks from outside of the park, you can’t see any of the projections which is what gives the show its everything. Either commit to being in the park, knowing what that’s going to entail, or take the time to go from ride to ride and enjoy all of your favorite attractions while wait times are super low.

Cinderella’s Castle in her 50th finest

BTW, Epcot has a new nighttime show with fireworks and projections in the World Showcase lagoon called ‘Harmonious’. It was amazing. I’ve heard lots of mixed reviews and my two cents would be: arrive early, make sure you can see the big circular screen in the middle of the lagoon clearly (so I’d be looking at the area between the Port of Entry and Disney Traders stores or past the Port of Entry store on the way toward Canada), pack your patience. We found a spot early for this one, realized it was behind a big column, stayed anyway, and watched as others packed in just about everywhere else. The spot turned out to be great for us and we really enjoyed the show. Please don’t be that person that comes to the show five or ten minutes before it starts and try to cram in around other people that have been waiting for an hour and a half or more. That’s just rude. You might find your favorite spot is somewhere completely different too. I’ve heard lots of ‘this is the best spot’ reports but I think what it comes down to is that everywhere just has a slightly different view but nothing is really bad.

The big cheese

When we went into Epcot, the boss himself was outside greeting guests as was Minnie and several other characters. At a distance of course, but this is so much better than the old lines you had to wait in for up close shots and autographs. This way, they interact right with you, from a distance, you get your shot and can move on. Easy peasy. We had grabbed a virtual boarding group for the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride in Epcot earlier that morning, so we were able to explore the park and head over to the ride in the afternoon. After a delicious lunch at San Angel Inn in the pyramid in Mexico (such a peaceful restaurant!), our group was called and we hopped on the newest ride in town. There was still a bit of a wait but that was expected and ok, we were super happy to be able to finally experience it for ourselves! I will not be a spoiler other than to say it was incredible and I can’t wait to ride again!

Dinner is served!

Heading out of the park in the evening, guests now pass by the stunningly glowing Spaceship Earth! The new light scheme added to the attraction is out of this world and goes through a little lighting show of its own every so often each night (as does Cinderella Castle, Tower of Terror, and the Tree of Life — the Beacons of Magic nightly transformations.) Definitely stop to watch.

Spaceship Earth is now a Beacon of Magic!

One evening, the fam and I enjoyed the After Hours Boo Bash event in Magic Kingdom. This is a separately ticketed event, held for the first time this year. It is a hybrid version of the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party from pre-COVID and a typical after hours event. Not the cheapest thing to add-on by any means, but fun, and filled with bonus surprises like special characters in the cavalcades, trick-or-treating, and delish snacks. My favorite character in the cavalcades is the Maleficent dragon who breathes fire! She used to be in the Festival of Fantasy afternoon parade in the park, pre-COVID, and just started making an appearance again during this cavalcade. I love it!

Maleficent in her steampunk dragon glory

When you’re in the Magic Kingdom or Epcot area in the evening, you’ll also notice a fun new add to the monorail trains… they glow from below! Each train glows with the color to match the monorail train itself. See how many different ones you see during your trip!

Monorail orange with its orange glow!

It was time for us to move on over to Universal Orlando resort for some time there before heading home. The hubs is a gigantic sci-fi and horror fan so Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Studios is one of his most favorite things. While they always eerily say ‘don’t go alone’, my poor hubs has to because the kid and I would be screamers all night long. This was the 30th anniversary of that event and they went all out. His fave? The Haunting of Hill House. He could tell you all about it. But I write this blog and don’t do the scary, so that’s all you’re getting from me! His advice, go! Get the Express Pass so you can go into the houses without standing in the normal lines, the only way to get to see all/most of the houses during the event. My advice? Please don’t take your small children. Even those teenagers that love the horror movies… it is different when it is real-life and things are coming after you.

Welcome to Universal Studios
Classic Jack the Clown

We’re not big coaster fans so we made our way through the Universal parks and enjoyed some of the less intense rides and attractions. I really like the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride in Islands of Adventure and we were able to see the Shrek 4-D show that is closing (permanently!) in January. Going through Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley is always a must do as well, as is riding Hogwarts Express between the two areas. And Unlimited Express Pass for Universal… get it. It is included with your on-site stay at Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay resorts and well worth it. Basically no waiting in line and you can get so much more done! We stayed at Portofino Bay and it was perfectly themed to match the Italian village by the sea. A great base for our Universal portion of the trip.

An Italian seaside resort, Portofino Bay
Hanging out in Diagon Alley

After many days in Central Florida, it was time to hop in the van and head home to fall in Virginia. The slightly cooler temps of the 70s-80s when we first returned were quite pleasant but our current 58 degrees leaves a lot to be desired. If only I could control the weather…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Back on the High Seas with Disney!

Until a couple of weeks ago, it felt like it had been eleventy-hundred years since I stepped on a cruise ship. While not quite THAT long, my last sailing was supposed to depart on March 22nd, 2020. I’m sure you can imagine how that went. Our family’s spring break cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas was canceled just a mere couple of days before we were to leave. Little did anyone know that was only the beginning of cruising being completely shut down for well over a year. In fact, many ships still aren’t back in service across the variety of cruise lines and those that are have dramatically altered itineraries, much lower capacity, and a host of requirements in place before you can ever think about arriving at the port. Disney returned to sailing in August with the Disney Dream and the other three ships have slowly started to go back into service since that time. All of the sailings so far have been modified in some fashion and I suspect that will be case for quite some time. In the interest of getting a feel for all of the new procedures and what it is like to sail during ‘COVID times’, I booked a 3-night cruise on the Disney Dream for mid-September. Want the deets? Let me tell you all about it!

You know back when the biggest thing you had to worry about on a cruise was getting it paid in full and making sure your passport wasn’t expired? If only. Every cruise line has different protocols right now, so my experience only pertains to Disney Cruise Line, and these rules continue to evolve. In fact, they changed right before I sailed. Fun times. If you are age 12 and up and aren’t vaccinated, you’re not sailing with Disney. If you are under 12, you have to have a negative COVID PCR test taken between 3 days and 24 hours prior to sailing. Once you arrive at the port, no matter your age, you are given another COVID test that must come back negative before you’re allowed to go into the terminal. Your vaccine card and any negative COVID test results are uploaded to a website and approved by Disney so you are cleared to arrive at the terminal for your sailing. If you get to the terminal without a QR code to show that this was complete, you’re not sailing. Forget to complete your online check-in for the cruise and you’re also not sailing. It is all of these things that your travel agent will help you get through before your cruise, to make sure that you’re all set for smooth sailing.

The kid and I are both vaccinated and I completed our online check-in and uploaded all of the necessary documentation. We were ready to sail! Unfortunately, the hubs had to sit this one out. A quick flight to Orlando and an overnight at the Polynesian resort at Disney started the trip off right! The Polynesian Village has a villa section and the studio rooms there are being renovated. We lucked into a freshly spruced up room and WOWZA! I loved it! I am normally not a carpet fan and I haven’t seen any carpet in the new remodels that Disney has been doing, but this carpet was so plush and nice. The sofa in the picture also is a wall pull-down queen bed and it is SO much more comfortable than the old sleeper sofas that used to be in these rooms. What an upgrade!

The carpet was oh so fluffy!

Coming to Orlando always means Disney, even if just for a bit, so the kid and I hopped on the monorail over to Magic Kingdom for a few hours. Apparently we missed the memo that some pretty decent rain was headed our way, so we spent the evening running around like drowned rats, er… mice? And yes, that is me in the pic below, trying to take a selfie in the pouring rain while driving a car on the Tomorrowland Speedway, trapped in a poncho. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Selfies are not my specialty

We were visiting around September 16th, with the 50th anniversary celebration for Walt Disney World starting up on October 1st. We lucked into seeing some of the 50th decor that was already in place, including the newly wrapped monorail. How pretty! These wraps really add a nice touch to the festivities!

Clearly I didn’t look up at the clouds, I was too focused on the monorail!

After a wet night and dripping our way back to the Polynesian, we had a good night’s sleep before heading out to Hollywood Studios for a couple of hours the next morning. Of course, that time was largely spent in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge but hey, no complaints here! I had picked up a rental car when we landed in Orlando to use to get us to/from the port. Surprisingly, many people think you sail from Orlando and um, yeah… no. Orlando is in the middle of the state, the only water around it would be lakes. Port Canaveral is about an hour drive from Disney, depending on traffic, but it is a pretty easy trip. Disney will transfer you to the Port from their resorts (or the airport) for a fee, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being on the bus with someone who then tested positive for COVID and could thwart my plans to sail. You see, if you get to the port and anyone in your travel party tests positive, none of you are boarding. Talk about some strained family relations when that happens!

We arrive at the port exactly at our assigned port arrival time. After a little snafu with how the cruise line wanted us to hand over our checked luggage, gotta love new procedures, we were directed into the parking garage for our COVID tests. This was super easy. A nurse came over, told us about the tests and how to do them (self-administered while she watched) and a Disney Cruise rep came to our vehicle and provided some additional boarding information. Remember those QR codes I mentioned? At this point, I’ve already had that scanned a few times by various cruise personnel since arriving at the port. We swab our noses and are directed to park in the garage and to stay in the car until we are alerted that we are either cleared to sail (YAY!) or would be denied boarding (BOO!) through the website that we’ve used to upload our previous documents to. Told that this could take up to an hour, I realized that I should’ve brought a drink and some snacks. Hot car, parking garage, and Florida humidity definitely weren’t all that and a bag of chips. After about 45 minutes or so, I got the alert that we were COVID negative and cleared to sail! To the terminal!

Now, everything was completely different from this point on for anyone that has sailed with Disney before. Masks needed to stay on at all times indoors on the ship, including in the terminal at the port before boarding. On Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, you had to be masked indoors (bathrooms), on the tram that takes you around the island, and when near/in the food service areas. So, masks on. Enter the terminal and show your ID and the QR code again. All carry-on baggage then goes through the x-ray and people through the metal detector. Up the escalator to the terminal. Boarding groups, if you’re familiar with those, are kind of a mess. It was 2pm by this point and our boarding group hadn’t been officially called (23, I think) but there were literally only a few other people in the terminal. So we were allowed to board. A photo was still taken of the party before entering the gangway over to the ship. You don’t get your Key to the World cards until you get to the room now, so you’re still scanning QR codes and barcodes up to this point. Then you get to the gangway, where everyone trying to board is spaced six feet apart from other parties. Slowly but surely, you make your way to the ship and your family name is announced as usual as you enter the ship. You’re then directed to a circle on the floor in the main atrium where you stand with your party until all circles are full. Mickey and Minnie are on the atrium stairs to greet everyone from a distance and for photos. Once all circles are full, a very abbreviated version of the typical sail away party happens and you are told to go to your muster station location. Odds are, you’re not going to know what that is, but the crew will look it up for you and tell you where to go. When you get to the muster station location, there is another crew member there who will mark you off and tell you how to use the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app (your new best friend) to take a picture of the muster station sign to ‘prove’ you were there and complete your safety drill process.

Hey guys! We’re finally back!

Our stateroom was ready by this point, so we were allowed to go straight there and drop our carry-ons. Our room keys were on the fish holder outside of the door in a sealed envelope as well as our lanyards that are complimentary for Castaway Club members. We met our stateroom hostess, checked out the room, and decided we were famished and needed some lunch. Up to deck 11 we went, in search of Cabanas and the lunch buffet. Now, the differences kept coming. First off, you could tell (if you couldn’t already) that the sailing was way under capacity as far as guests. The pool deck was busy but there were tons of empty chairs and really not that many people. Cabanas was EMPTY compared to normal sailings and the crew served your food to you. Tables were aplenty and the crew also poured all drinks for guests. This was super weird for us, normally boarding and lunch at Cabanas is pretty stressful with guests running in all directions and people everywhere. We never found out exactly how many guests were on our sailing, but heard anywhere from 800 to 1,200 passengers, when capacity is 4,000. We never had to hunt for pool chairs, wait for ice cream, wait for drinks, wait for fast food, seek out a theater seat for the nightly show more than a couple of minutes in advance (you were seated by crew and socially distanced in the rows), etc. There are three sit-down dining rooms for dinner and you’re assigned a rotation of the three so you get to enjoy each one without reservations. There were so few people on the sailing that only 2 of the 3 restaurants were open on the first and last nights, meaning there were only 2 and not 3 rotations. And even our rotation was very empty. There were characters everywhere for socially distanced pictures and meets plus lots of the usual onboard activities like animation classes, alcohol tastings, bingo, etc. The spa was open for many treatments but only for guests age 18 and up. Kids clubs were open on a reservation basis but there didn’t seem to be any issues with getting reservations for kids in that age range 4-12. The 11-14 and 14-17 age kid clubs were open as usual, the nursery for babies remains closed.

Look at all the… people?
Mummy Goofy was onboard to greet us for our Halloween on the High Seas sailing

Disney always does an incredible job of keeping the ship clean and making guests as safe as possible, and this is even more amped up during COVID times. They are very strict with their mask rules and safety measures and I felt no concerns during my trip. Plus we knew that everyone had tested negative as of the day they boarded, so that helped ease my mind (even though I know you can be negative one day and positive another.)

Normally, the sailing I was on would have one day in Nassau, Bahamas and one day at Castaway Cay. Due to what I suspect is some posturing on Disney’s part as a result of some last-minute Bahamian COVID rule changes, Nassau has been removed from many sailings recently and upcoming, including mine. No loss in my opinion, I’m not a Nassau fan at all. We had a day at sea to replace that, which is what I typically use the Nassau day for anyway. Castaway Cay was incredible on this sailing, even more than usual. With the low crowds on the ship, the island felt empty. No need to rush to get a chair, there were whole sections of the family beach areas that had chairs that had never been touched when we left the island around 3pm.

A truly private island paradise!

The food was delish as usual and service was top notch. Every crew member we interacted with seemed so happy to be back onboard and in their roles, even with all of the changes. Genuine gratitude to be back at what they loved was evident everywhere we turned. We, as guests, were so happy to be back at sea too, looking for some type of normalcy to move toward.

Cucumber Garden Roll from Enchanted Garden restaurant, so pretty!

Sailing away from Castaway Cay is always so sad, but knowing you made great memories helps ease the pain. And aloe, aloe helps ease the pain from the sunburn you never apply enough sunscreen to prevent. (Every.single.time.)

Sand in my shoes and memories on my mind!

While this sailing was so different from all previous ones, it was still a lot of fun and worth every minute. The kid and I had a blast and made a new friend on Castaway Cay, the tiniest little fish that swam right around us for probably an hour!, plus we returned home with so many memories from our time together. One of the theater shows onboard is called ‘Disney’s Believe’ and is a musical about how a young girl gets her father to believe in magic, as he realizes she is growing up and how much they mean to each other. I remember watching that years ago when my daughter was young and being one of the sobbing moms in the audience… this time was no different as we just celebrated her 17th birthday. It hits you right in the gut every time. COVID or no COVID, we all have a finite time on this rock and we need to get out there and make the most of it!

Dreaming of the Dream…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Walking right down the middle of Main Street USA

Any true Disney fan knows that Walt Disney spent his childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Moving there from his birthplace in Chicago when he was four years old, the Disney family lived in Marceline for about five years, but Walt cherished his time growing up there and his memories deeply influenced the rest of his life.

After a botched trip to Marceline this spring, the fam and I finally headed West to make the pilgrimage to Main Street USA and see for ourselves how this small town could influence a man to go on to accomplish all that Walt did in his short 65 years.

We traveled out to Kansas City, MO and rented a car for the two hour ride to Marceline. Farm land filled our view for the duration of the drive and it was very peaceful. Corn, creeks, trains, and few cars made for a nice journey. Upon arriving into Marceline, you instantly feel at home. We pulled up to our Airbnb, right on Main Street USA, and hopped back in time. We live in a small town but this one feels decidedly smaller and so quaint.

Welcome to the Chairman’s Suite Airbnb!

Right away, I saw my good friend, Julie, walking up the street with her family. She is also a travel agent and lives a few hours from Marceline. Julie had set up a private evening VIP tour for us to enjoy at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum that evening and offered to give us the ‘tour’ of sights not to miss in Marceline.

Me (right) and Julie (left)

Back in the car, we headed to the Walt Disney Municipal Park for a few photos. Our next stop was the Disney Family Farm, not far from Main Street. This is where Walt and his family lived in the early 1900s while in Marceline. In fact, their original farmhouse is still standing, albeit hidden, under the red farmhouse on the property. The Executive Director of the museum actually lives in the farmhouse right now. Her story is pretty interesting, how she came to know the Disney family back in the late 1950s. In fact, her mom, Inez Johnson, can still be found at the museum regaling visitors of tales from her years as Walt’s friend.

The Disney Family Farm area is tucked away, as expected, in the trees and fields of Marceline. You hear trains going by very frequently as Marceline is on a major rail line that is still very active. As you stand there in the trees, it is easy to slip into a relaxed frame of mind and see exactly why Walt loved his time there so much. It is no wonder that he grew up with an incredible love of trains and was influenced so heavily by this period of his life. The time he spent under his “Dreaming Tree”, drawing and watching over his little sister, Ruth, was so impactful on his life that he is said to have returned to that very tree on every visit to Marceline. The barn on the property meant so much to him that he recreated it for his home in California and it was later rebuilt on the property in Marceline in 2001 for visitors to enjoy today. Guests are allowed to ‘autograph’ the interior of the barn with messages to Walt and Roy and it is amazing to see how many visitors have come to Walt’s Happy Place to pay their respects.

After the farm, we walked around Main Street for a little while before dinner at Los Chimas, the local Mexican restaurant offering delicious food and right near our Airbnb!

We had dinner with Julie and her husband as well as Peter Whitehead, the Creative Director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Peter is such a Disney treasure! His knowledge of Walt and the Disney family, his drive and passion, and the work he has put into getting the museum to where it is today is incredible. He is a great guy and I loved being able to hang out with him and learn more about the Disneys and their lives in Marceline. Peter told us about the history of Main Street and some of its key buildings and areas: the Zurcher building and the Coke Wall behind it, Allen hotel, Uptown Cinema, E.P. Ripley Park with its gazebo where Elias Disney (Walt’s father) played his fiddle, the Marceline Train Station, and the Marceline Post Office, which is the only federal building with Walt Disney’s name on it and where you can get a special postmark to commemorate your visit. We also talked about Walt Disney Elementary School nearby, that was dedicated in 1960 and features murals inside drawn by a Disney artist.

E.P. Ripley Park is a beautiful, tree-filled spot at the start of Main Street USA where Walt used to hang out as a boy. The park is home to some train cars and the Santa Fe and Disney Railroad #2546 locomotive that was donated to the city in the 1950s. The train is shown below as all black, recently repainted and missing the name/number at the moment. The pond pictured below is gorgeous and somehow even has that ‘Disney water’ look to it — park guests, you know what I mean. The Midget Autopia walking track that was constructed and dedicated about two years ago can be seen behind the pond. If you don’t know the story behind Midget Autopia, it is so interesting! This is the only ride ever to leave a Disney park and ran in Marceline for eleven years. It had been located in Disneyland, near the Storybook Land Canal Boats and was moved out of the park to make way for the it’s a small world ride, fresh from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

The museum itself is housed in the Marceline Train Station and trains roll past by Marceline with great frequency. I have never seen so many trains, and been that up close to them, in my life!

The museum has so much to offer with information on the history of the railroad and the Marceline station, Walt’s early life in Marceline and his return there over the years, Midget Autopia, Walt’s family’s lives, memorabilia from donors, murals, a model of buildings of Disneyland done by a fan name Dale Varner, a Stamp Day exhibit, a Club 55 showcase, and so much more. I can’t even begin to describe all of the treasures found in that one building! Personal notes from Walt and Roy to their family members, Disneyland opening day relics, family photos, a recorded interview between Walt and his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, Elias’s tool box, Flora’s butter molds (Walt’s mother), the TV that Ruth watched the Disneyland opening ceremony on (because she hated to travel and didn’t like crowds, so she didn’t want to attend in person and Walt sent her money to buy herself a TV to watch it on), and even Walt’s grade school diploma. There is even a large branch of the Dreaming Tree in the museum for guests to touch for that extra bit of Disney luck as they visit. Having Peter to show us around and give us the extra bits of history made our visit so memorable.

I was also humbled to see both Walt’s elementary school desk, with his carved initials in it, and the actual light table he shared with UB Iwerks in Kansas City. Talk about history! And yes, I touched the light table with Peter standing right there and the ‘do not touch’ sign right on it. Oof! At least his school desk was in a case!

So when I mentioned Club 55 above, did you think I typo’d and meant Club 33? Nope. While Club 33 is the ultra-lux private club that started at Disneyland, Club 55 is a group of Disneyland employees that started working there when the park opened in 1955. Bob Penfield, a Club 55 member, donated several pieces to the museum and they are a joy to look through. Hard to believe that he worked there until his retirement in 1997 and was the last Club 55 member still employed by Disney when he retired. If you’ve watched any of the Behind the Attraction show episodes on Disney+, you might recall the one about the Jungle Cruise ride where it was mentioned that Walt wasn’t happy with the ride timing being unpredictable at first. He gave the ride operators a watch to ensure that the ride was always timed perfectly. Bob’s watch that Walt gave him is on display in the museum.

When Walt died in 1966, he had been working on many projects including the “Florida project” which became the Walt Disney World resort. His brother, Roy, came out of retirement to finish the build of Magic Kingdom and died just a couple of months after the park opened. Such a tragedy. One of the other projects that Walt had started before his death was work a theme park in Marceline! The plans for the park, drawn by Walt, were on his desk the day he died and are now housed in the museum in Marceline. He had had Rush Johnson, Inez’s husband, buying land in Marceline for this project on the sly like he did in Florida. The project fell apart in the 1970s after Walt’s death and Rush sold all of the property less the original 40 acres, where the Disney Family Farm and farmhouse I mentioned are located. Can you imagine if that had come to fruition? Can you imagine what the world would be like if Walt had lived another decade or more? Heartbreaking.

I have always wanted to go to Marceline. Going there this past weekend was a dream come true. Maybe it is because I am such a huge Disney fan, or that Walt and I almost share a birthday (Dec 4th and 5th), or that I just get all the feels when learning about Disney history, but this trip was so inspirational. If we all just follow some of Walt’s words of wisdom, the world would be such a great place!

  • All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
  • When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
  • Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Back to Disney for some summer fun!

Welcome summer! My last trip to Disney was somewhat of a spur of the moment idea to celebrate the end of the school year and the start of summer. Normally, Disney being a spur of the moment vacation is laughable at best. COVID though has made that a possibility right now after causing a very disrupted travel cycle. As far as Disney is concerned though, we are quickly losing our spur of the moment ability as the parks are rapidly shifting back closer to ‘normal’ (or new normal) and guests are coming back in droves. Availability in the resorts is still decent for July and August, but September starts the real possibility that if you don’t already have lodging set, you won’t be traveling to Disney this fall. Even 2022 has pockets of very low resort availability! Book with me, by yourself (WHY?!?!), or with another agent that specializes in Disney travel, but get that room reserved!

So Disney, early June. The kid and I hopped on a plane the day after school got out for the year and headed south. Smooth flight, a luggage delay in Orlando due to lightning, then we were off. After quickly boarding Magical Express, we found ourselves on the Disney resort world tour like never before. Typical Magical Express drop offs and pick ups involve going to multiple resorts, but those resorts are usually close to each other. This particular drop off route had us at Saratoga Springs, Fort Wilderness, the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and finally to the Contemporary, where we were staying. The kid and I were literally the last two people on the bus when we got to our resort. I have no idea how Saratoga Springs and the Fort worked their way into our bus route, but SURPRISE! You never really know where you will go before you end up at your resort… that’s why I always say you need to allow plenty of time between when your flight is scheduled to land before you need to be somewhere. Nothing like being in a rush, or missing, a dining reservation on your first night!

The Contemporary is a fun resort, under major renovation right now that is scheduled to wrap this fall. All of the rooms in the A-frame tower, the main building at the resort, are being re-imagined into rooms with an Incredibles theme. There is a huge debate online about renovating these rooms but, to be honest, they were ready for a refresh. Disney fans are often fans of things staying exactly the same, no change. Hard crowd. Just like the Polynesian resort having its rooms renovated with a Moana theme (opening in late July), it is nice to see some changes at these deluxe level resorts. The themes being added aren’t over the top, just a nice overlay that provides some interest for the kids (and adults!) but not going overboard. We stayed in the garden wing this time, a set of three-story buildings that are located to the back right of the main tower. It was our first time in the garden wing and I have to say, I was really happy there. I’m sure there are rooms that would be a much longer walk that ours was to get to, but ours was in a perfect spot. Easy access to the tower, short walk around the building to the bus stop, right at the pool, great patio outside where I could watch the monorails go by for hours. The rooms here are in the style that the tower’s rooms were, and these are to be renovated after the tower is done. They need a refresh too, mainly to get rid of the carpet, but the room was very comfortable and incredibly spacious. Check out that desk! For someone who works a lot while on vacation (hello 6am dining and 12am Savi’s reservations!), having this kind of workspace is so helpful. I’ll be back in the tower in October for my next trip and I’m hoping that there is still a big desk for me to take care of business while on the road!

Contemporary resort room
A shot from my resort room at the Contemporary, in the garden wing.
What a view! I spent some time one afternoon just watching the monorail trains come and go.

With FastPass service still being unavailable, we had the unique opportunity to ride some of our favorite attractions without those ridiculously long lines. We have ridden Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom tons of times but have never once gone through the regular (non-FastPass) queue. It was a treat to be able to see the queue, take pictures, and really enjoy part of what makes this ride so cool. Our wait was posted at 75 minutes, but we were through the queue, ride, and in the gift shop within an hour. Totally worth it to see all of the extra theming!

So much to see in the Flight of Passage regular queue line!

Speaking of no FastPasses, another thing we did was hang out in the parks until closing or very close to. In the ‘before times’ we would do that too but haven’t done that as much in the last several trips. The kid and I spent a ton of time in Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios and found ourselves there on our first night basically alone. There were hardly any guests in that section after about 7pm (8pm closing time for the park) and we were able to take tons of pictures with no guests in them. We decided closer to 8pm to go ahead and start walking out, so we headed through Toy Story Land to get back to the front of the park. Realizing it was very close to 8pm but not 8pm yet, we hopped in the line for Slinky Dog Dash right as the clock hit 8pm and the park officially closed. Tip, as long as you’re in the line by the time the park closes, you still get to ride. We might have waited 15 minutes or so before we were on our way, riding on Slinky across the tracks above Toy Story Land. Epic!

Hopping in the Slinky Dog Dash line right at park closing, sweet times!

I love a good festival and Epcot has one going on just about all year round now! We were able to sneak in one last visit during the Flower and Garden Festival before the Food and Wine Festival starts up on July 15th. That is super early for Food and Wine which normally doesn’t start until right around Labor Day. More time for everyone to enjoy! Epcot is undergoing such a huge transformation right now with the addition of new rides and attractions, layout changes, and so much more. I can’t wait to see the park when it is finished, but I’m also loving seeing it as it morphs from one trip to the next!

So sad for the end of the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival but excited for the Food and Wine Festival, starting super soon!

As with all changes, we haven’t had a scheduled parade in the parks since the COVID reopening last year. Gone is the 3:00pm daily parade in Magic Kingdom. A source of complaints for sure, but not from me! In the place of that scheduled parade are a number of character cavalcades that go through the parks. Magic Kingdom has three sets of characters that go by throughout the day, Epcot has Mickey and friends and then a princess cavalcade, Animal Kingdom has boats that travel through the waterways, and Hollywood Studios has Disney Junior and Pixar offerings. You can basically be steps from these cavalcades, essentially face to face with your favorite characters. No staking out a spot an hour in advance in the sun, sitting on the hot pavement, people hanging over you trying to take videos while you are trying to enjoy yourself. The music starts, you know a parade is coming, guests form a very rough edge and the cavalcade comes through. I was having a Coke and a Mickey pretzel in front of the Castle when this princess cavalcade came through, see the (not zoomed in) picture below. I didn’t even have to move a muscle to see the floats go by. As you can see from the other guests though, I could have easily gotten right up there and snapped as many pics as I wanted. There was all kinds of room to stand, without feeling sandwiched in. My daughter even walked away from where I was and took some pictures up closer as the floats went around the hub in front of the Castle. So few people I saw her at all times, she got some great shots, and I enjoyed my pretzel. So much better than before! The princesses are able to actually make eye contact with you, maybe comment on your outfit, say ‘happy birthday’ to someone wearing a button, etc. Fantastic!

Why yes, I will take a character cavalcade over a scheduled parade any day!

Speaking of Cinderella Castle, it continues to transform for the 50th birthday celebration for Magic Kingdom that kicks off on October 1st. Check out the spire decorations, so pretty! If you were wondering why the fall is so busy, Magic Kingdom’s 50th has a lot to do with it. So do the numerous cancelations of trips from the fall of 2020, fall always being a very popular time to travel, the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot, the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride in Epcot opening on October 1st, and travel demand! After being cooped up for months, everyone is ready to get out of the house and back to some kind of normal. For so many of us, Disney is that normal we are so longing for. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to visit several times a year (on my own dime, no free trips here) even though the drive is about 12.5 hours for me. Thankfully I can fly in about two hours, after a two hour drive to the airport. Ah, the things we do for Disney love!

Cinderella Castle sure is looking fancy for Magic Kingdom’s 50th birthday!

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Springtime at Disney, what a delight!

Spring at Disney World is one of the most magical times to visit. I have enjoyed many a magical spring break with the Mouse as the Flower and Garden Festival blooms at Epcot and the temperatures start to creep up to their summer highs. COVID made this spring break pretty unusual since the theme park crowds were capped, keeping the typical hours (and hours) long wait times much lower than usual. We started the week in the low 90s and ended with a high of 60! Talk about needing to pack a variety of clothes!

Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey, and Louie at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival

The trip started at Disney’s Polynesian Village resort, in a studio villa room. The Poly is under heavy renovation right now with only the villa side of the resort open for guests. The Great Ceremonial House is open but services are limited and the monorail station at the resort is completely closed. For those looking to travel to Magic Kingdom, the resort boat, bus, or walking along the new (long) walking path are your options. The Epcot monorail line has been out of service for quite some time, so you have to catch a bus to get there or go to the other theme parks. ‘Ohana, one of my favorite restaurants, hasn’t reopened yet either, which keeps guests that aren’t staying at the resort to a minimum. Both pools are open and as beautiful as always. I love the saltwater quiet pool that is closest to the villas. The Barefoot Pool Bar at the main pool was still serving up delish drinks, including my new favorite margarita, a frozen margarita with Dole Whip lime. And the stuff around the edges? Chili-lime seasoning. Oh… so very good! The resort was so relaxing that I might seek out a resort in major renovation stage in the future to help thin the crowds!

Frozen Margarita at the Polynesian resort

We wanted this trip to be a little more ‘chill’ than some of our trips have been, so we made sure to factor in a good bit of downtime into our plans. I like having time to just explore the resort I’m staying at, taking photos, walking around and seeing what you’d normally blast right past on your way to the parks, and enjoying the pools. Each resort is so different, and things change so often, that you could truly have a completely different trip every time you visited. That’s what keeps Disney fresh for me too, that there are constant changes and improvements with each adventure. We’ve now visited on five separate trips since the parks and resorts reopened last July and each trip has been so different. The festivals at Epcot help keep the options there fun and exciting and I can never get enough time in Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios.

I hear grumbling about masks and will admit, don’t love ’em, but they’re a fact of life that we’re all dealing with right now. I refuse to let them hamper my fun. I have never been one to run around from one end of a park to the other, trying just to check off everything that (I think) there is to do. I don’t encourage that approach for my clients either. While you might ‘think’ you’re doing it all, you most certainly are not. You’re probably hitting the main attractions but you are missing what makes Disney unique. If you go to Disney with that plan right now, you’re likely to have an epic fail. This is the time to go to enjoy yourself. Take the time to see things you’ve never seen before. Ride the rides you can never get on because the lines are normally too long (and don’t for one second think that a 20-minute line for an attraction is outrageous, you’ve never seen a Disney line if you think 20 minutes is a long one). Sit down, relax, and take in the sights and sounds of the parks. Enjoy the food. Interact with the Cast Members. Take off that mask in a Relaxation Station while you enjoy a snack and a cool drink. Disney was always meant to be a place where a family could go and do things together, making memories and having fun. It morphed into a checklist of everything you had to do or you just didn’t do Disney ‘right’. That’s ridiculous. You can go to Disney multiple times each year and never do all of the things there are to do. Go, wear your mask, squeeze your kid, stay hydrated, and talk the whole way home about how awesome that favorite ride was.

Now that I’m off that soapbox, back to the trip. The parks, fantastic as always. The lines I saw were laughable at best. Mine Train well under an hour. Ha, that’s crazytown compared to the normal 2-3 hours during spring break. We rode Haunted Mansion back to back with no wait in the early evening. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway with a posted 30-minute wait, might have waited for 20, tops. The other cool thing that people aren’t thinking about is that, for some of the most popular rides, have you ever even been in the normal queue? Most people can only ride these popular rides with FastPasses, when that service was available because the lines were hours long without one. So you never saw the regular queue, some of which are incredibly themed and have exhibits and games. That doesn’t mean I’m going to wait in a three-hour line to look at a queue, but I sure will enjoy it during my 20-30 minute stroll through. Darn soapbox.

After the Polynesian, we made the mistake of moving over to the Swan resort. I had never stayed at the Swan or the Dolphin resorts as they are not owned by Disney and do not come with some of the Disney amenities that you want like being able to use Magic Bands, Magical Express, charging to the room, and now even Disney bus service to the parks. They’re providing charter buses to the parks but those don’t drop off where Disney buses do up at the front of the parks so, hope you like walking! Anyway, had to see what the Swan draw was but, couldn’t find it. While the location is good, sitting in the Boardwalk area near the Disney-owned Boardwalk Inn, Yacht Club, and Beach Club resorts, that was the only perk. Someone commented to me that the hotels reminded them of Las Vegas and maybe that’s what some of the turnoff was. There was nothing at all special about these hotels. They are high-rise properties with one set of elevators per wing of the building that are slow and can get some pretty incredible lines in the evening as guests return to the resort. We even took the stairs up to our room one evening, and if you know me, I am not a stair taker. The pools look nice online, especially the Grotto pool over at the Dolphin resort. We walked to the Swan pool and all the way over to the Dolphin pools and could not find one single beach chair to put our stuff on to get in any of the three pool areas or the beach. Not one. Very luckily, this was the day we left the Polynesian so we were able to get right back in the van and go back to the Polynesian to enjoy their pool again until the end of the day. How many people were in the Poly pool? Maybe 10, including the three of us. The Swan room itself was ok, decent size but bizarrely shaped as a corner room. The bathroom was one of the tiniest bathrooms I have ever seen in a hotel. You could sit on the toilet and put one hand in the sink and your foot in the tub at the same time. Forget having more than one person trying to use the space at the same time. It was hard not to fall over the toilet trying to use the sink. Coming from the Polynesian with the split bathrooms where you had a big walk-in shower and sink in one bathroom and a normal tub/shower combo plus toilet and second vanity in the other bathroom, this was such a letdown. OK, I should know better than staying at the Polynesian and then downgrading to the Swan but jeez. Even the Courtyard hotel we stayed at on the drive to Florida had a bathroom twice the size of the one at the Swan. And don’t get me started about resort and parking fees! I knew about these going in but, for the resort being a huge bummer, the fees didn’t improve the impression. $140.54 charged to my card on departure for two nights of parking and resort fees. Lesson learned.

Oh yeah! Outlets. I wanted to go to the Disney Character Warehouse Outlets near Universal to see what kind of great deals I could find. I knew they were operating with a line system where you would give your number and they would text you with a return time to enter the store. This helps with crowds and social distancing and is sensible right now because the store gets packed. What I didn’t know… Over 80 families in front of me waiting to go into the store. No idea how long that would take before I could go in. If you’ve been to these outlets, they’re not exactly ones I want to spend a ton of time in. I go for the Disney outlet and that’s it. I’m not a big shopper anymore either and there was no way I could find something to do for hours and hours waiting to be able to go into the store. Super disappointing. Add that to the time it takes to drive over there, traffic, and the horrendous parking at the outlets, this was another mistake I won’t repeat. The parking here is usually nuts where you drive up and down the rows until you see someone leaving and you race to pull into the spot before the next guy. The Character Warehouse outlets have been taken over by shoppers who go in and buy all that they can find to turn around and resell on various websites. So those folks hoard and spend way too long of a turn in the store. Grrrr. I’d love to go back to a time when what someone bought was actually for their own use and not to try to turn a resale profit. There are so many things you get shut out of buying now because of this practice and it frustrates me on the regular. If you don’t want the thing you’re buying, leave it at the store for someone that does!!

We had a lovely dinner at The Wave at the Contemporary resort after the outlet debacle, so that made the day perk up in a hurry. Some exploration at the Contemporary and a little pin trading put the smiles back on (under our masks.) One of our days was spent hopping from Hollywood Studios to Magic Kingdom and then to Epcot, a blast and a half! We hit our personal highlights and hopped ’til we dropped. So worth those sore feet the next day!

Cauliflower tacos from The Wave. I cannot say enough about how incredible these things are! I would eat them every single day if I could.

Giordano’s Pizza! I note this place as a delivery option for clients on their travel documents and always try to work it in for my own trips. Well, I worked it in twice on this trip! They have the best deep dish pizza and the hubs is now hooked on one of their subs. It is a really good thing Giordano’s doesn’t exist here in Virginia! You just place your order on their website and wait for the delivery person to text that they are almost to your resort. Delivery does take some time, so plan ahead and don’t worry about it running a little past their estimate, remember the traffic! You will not go to bed hungry after a Giordano’s delivery!

Another lovely trip in the books and we’re already planning the next one, set for the fall. That feels like so long from now though that we might have to squeeze another trip in before then. If only there was a high-speed train from my house to Mickey…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Enjoying the Festival of the Arts at Epcot

Epcot features several festivals throughout the year: International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring, International Food and Wine Festival in the fall, International Festival of the Holidays late in the year, and International Festival of the Arts early in the year. I have enjoyed most these festivals numerous times over the years but the one that had eluded me was the Festival of the Arts. Celebrating its 5th year in 2021, I decided it was time to head south to see this festival for myself. The fam and I hopped on a plane and spent a quick weekend taking in the sights at Epcot and discovering this is our favorite festival of all. Why? Just keep reading…

So the Festival of the Arts only runs from early January to about mid-February. We just missed the start of the festival on our last trip over New Years. After seeing picture after picture from the festival on Instagram and Facebook, I just knew that I couldn’t let myself miss this event. Luckily flights were cheap and I booked a two-night getaway to Orlando. We stayed at Pop Century for this short visit and had a great room in the 60s section, very near the lobby and food court. Great location. This resort really is so fun and whimsical; I loved taking some time to walk around and soak in the icons and decor from the 1950s to 1990s. If you’ve stayed at Pop and never spent some time exploring, do it! Even the display cases in the lobby provide quite a bit of entertainment as you flashback to memories from your childhood. Those from Virginia will notice a pamphlet from Endless Caverns in one of them! The Skyliner took us from Pop Century over to Epcot’s International Gateway entrance between France and the United Kingdom. I love starting at the ‘back’ of the park, especially for festivals, because it puts me right in the center of the action. With no intention of riding or doing anything ‘typical’ on this trip, the focus was on activities and entertainment specific to the festival. Even though we got into the park before opening and stayed until close to closing, we still had a few things that we didn’t have a chance to do that were festival-specific. We’ll just have to go back in 2022! 😉

Who didn’t have a Big Wheel as a kid??

First stop, United Kingdom. There was the cutest display of paintings done of characters by characters here! That portrait of Mulan done by Mushu, in fire!, was incredible. And I loved the ‘pink, no blue!’ influence of Flora and Merryweather on Aurora’s painting.

The weather was looking a little iffy and rain showers were in the forecast, so I knew that I needed to move quickly to the Chalk Art display closer to the front of the park. Every day, artists come into the park and are given three hours and a block of space to finish a chalk art drawing. Color me impressed because their art blew me away. Luckily the major rainstorms didn’t transpire, but I cried a little inside thinking of the work that goes into these pieces only to have them washed away. From famous art reproductions to Disney characters, these pieces were breathtaking!

I felt inspired by the chalk artists, so I decided to head to the paint-by-number mural that was available for guests participate in. This was another must-do on my list. You are allowed to choose a color and then are able to paint seven squares marked with the number assigned to your color. The mural itself is huge and you can go back and paint more squares if you return to the start of the line after you finish your initial seven. The mural is sectioned off for social distancing and the finished mural will look like the bookmark (shown in the picture below) that you get as a souvenir when you’re done.

Another super treat for this festival was going into the countries of World Showcase and looking for hidden art. These characters were hidden pretty darn well at times and so much fun to look for! I won’t share them all, but here are two to enjoy! These would be fun to see year round, but alas, they’ll be gone soon!

You could find so many different styles of art for purchase during the festival as well. Everything from Disney Fine Art, to lesser known artists, different mediums, etc. Here are some of my faves! There are some others on their way to my home right now; shipping is available for these purchases and highly recommended! I also discovered that I love the art from Rob Kaz, the artist behind the little frog named Beau that you’ll see in a painting below. Adorbs!

The artists often visit the festival at different times to showcase and autograph their artwork. This is also so much fun to see. There is even a part of the festival where the artists are painting live! Disney Fine Artist, Tim Rogerson, painted this Baymax with a lollipop while we were there!

Disney Fine Artist Tim Rogerson painting Baymax

Another artist and former Imagineer, Morgan Lee Richardson, worked on a series of paintings illustrating the areas of Epcot and those were a treat to see in person. His work can be found throughout the parks and resorts, especially in Animal Kingdom. You’ll recognize his style from any buttons you have purchased recently in Animal Kingdom for the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. His art is on the right in the shot below, with Jimmy Pickering’s interpretation on the left.

For those of you familiar with Figment, the loveable purple dragon often used as an Epcot mascot, you’ll see him sprinkled throughout the festival. For a small fee, you can participate in a Figment-themed art scavenger hunt and receive a small prize after you have found all of the missing paintings. Figment has inserted his presence in several famous paintings that are hidden in World Showcase and it was a blast trying to find them all. You’ll notice him taking over the lead in ‘One Little Scream’ below.

To fully immerse yourself in the art, there are several 3D paintings setup throughout the park where you can literally ‘get in to the painting’. Some have PhotoPass photographers nearby to help pose you for some really cool snapshots. In the one below, you can step into the pages of Peter Pan and be a mermaid or part of Hook’s crew.

So.much.fun! And I didn’t even mention the food! All Epcot festivals have a food component where you can purchase different snack size foods around the park that are themed like the particular festival. The Festival of the Arts had what I would call the best tasting food of the four festivals and definitely the prettiest. The focus on presentation was impressive. You’ll have to check out my Instagram page for more pictures of the art and food!

Overall, loved this festival! What a great weekend! Can’t wait to go back next year!

Until next time!

Amber