Land, sea, and stars… an 18th birthday to remember!

At the Benson house, we like to travel to celebrate milestones. When the kid’s 18th birthday rolled around, we knew we had to go big. To celebrate, we did a whirlwind trip to visit Walt Disney World, a brief stopover at Universal Orlando, a 3-night cruise on the Disney Wish, and a 2-night stay on the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser. It was an incredible week away and the memories we made will definitely stay with us forever. Since we’ve been to Disney so many times before, I’ll touch on that but my big focus will be our time on the Wish followed by the Starcruiser adventure.

We started our trip at the Grand Floridian resort, kicking off with time at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I finally got to ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the newest coaster in Epcot. Let me say, not for those who suffer from motion sickness, but I absolutely loved every second of it! This coaster is so innovative with the way the ride vehicles move throughout the experience and how the soundtrack really brings it all together. I ended up riding it three times in this super short trip to the parks and cannot wait to ride it again! I love how fun it is to celebrate at Disney, the little unexpected surprises and terrific Cast Members make it even more memorable. We were chatting with a Starbucks Cast Member and noticed that my daughter had a Haunted Mansion shirt on. They shared how they both love that attraction and she made a special surprise just for Hailey!

Starbucks with a Haunted Mansion bride added on!

Popping over to Universal Orlando for a night at Sapphire Falls resort, we were so fortunate (LOL) to enjoy an evening at CityWalk during the worst thunderstorm I’ve seen in a long time. The hardest and heaviest rain, ponding everywhere, and getting stuck in a small store while trying to wait out the storm… so much fun! We did come home with new shoes, a beach towel, and umbrella I wasn’t expecting to add to my collection. The hubs braved the same storm while enjoying Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Studios but man, hours of a major downpour were not in the plan!

Moving right along, we drove over to Port Canaveral and boarded the newest ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet, the Disney Wish. This is the 5th ship in the fleet and very different in layout and offerings from the first four. Since we were celebrating, we opted to go with a Concierge level room, which took the cruise to a whole new level of pampering! It took a bit to get used to the new flow of the ship, but once we got the hang of it, we were smooth sailing.

We had some friends staying in the Wish Tower Suite (aka the funnel), so we were able to go there and check out the palace that was their room (thanks Kelley!!). Talk about incredible! That room was huge and the bathroom… OMG!!

Concierge was great with the private lounge and pool, sundeck (perfect for an afternoon nap!), early entry to the nightly shows plus free popcorn, upgraded bath amenities, in-room sodas and waters, the best table locations each night in the main dining rooms for dinner, and so much more! Loved it!! Ten out of ten, would do concierge again. We were able to get a family cabana at Castaway Cay too (super hard since there are a very limited number available) and enjoyed soaking up the sun in our own private hideaway for the day.

The new restaurants onboard are great with tasty food and fun show experiences. My favorite, surprisingly, was Arendelle. This is the Frozen themed restaurant and the show for that meal is incredible. I really liked the show in the Worlds of Marvel restaurant as well but the food there was my least favorite. 1923, the third main dining room for dinner, didn’t have a show but was beautifully decorated and we really enjoyed the atmosphere and food there. The Little Mermaid is a fantastic evening show in the Walt Disney Theatre, the level of talent there was incredible! We never made it to the AquaMouse, the first Disney water attraction at sea. A three-night cruise is just so short, some things have to get tossed to the side to experience next time! Something we did experience a good bit, the laundry room onboard. Who does laundry on a cruise? This girl. I’m so happy to report that there is just one laundry room on the Wish and it is huge, with so many machines. For someone who has done laundry on all four ships and been frustrated time and time again, this was the best!! Look folks, it’s the little things…

Now we’re on to my most favorite part, our voyage on the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser! This is the ‘Star Wars hotel’ at Disney and is unlike any hotel experience in the world. The voyages on the Starcruiser are only for two nights and are an all-inclusive experience. The only things you pay extra for are souvenirs and alcohol. These two nights are not cheap by any means. If you read about the voyages online, you’ll find plenty of people grousing about the cost, it not being ‘Star Wars enough’, etc. As a family of three huge Star Wars fans (movies, books, animated shows, live-action shows, video games), I’m here to tell you that that is all noise. This was one of the best things we have ever done, and we enjoyed every single second.

The voyage starts by arriving at the Starcruiser, which is located behind Batuu (Star Wars Land) in Hollywood Studios. The hotel looks pretty non-descript from the outside. When you arrive at the entrance, you’re greeted, and a team helps unload your bags. If you have a car, it is valet parked during the trip. You’re given your Starcruiser databand (a Starcruiser-exclusive MagicBand) and the arrival team will help you set up the Disney PlayParks app, if you haven’t already set that up, for each guest. If you’ve ever used the datapad function in Batuu during a visit to Hollywood Studios, this is a gigantic extension of how that works. You’re using the datapad to do missions and get messages throughout your voyage.

You’re escorted in to watch a brief video about safety during your voyage and then you’re taken to a launch pod to send you up to the Starcruiser itself. This Starcruiser is known as the Halcyon from the Chandrila Star Line and it has been taking guests around the galaxy from Core Worlds to the Outer Rim. When you exit the launch pod, you enter the enormous atrium of the Halcyon. This is the hub of the action throughout your journey. The bridge of the ship is off the atrium, there’s a bar (the Sublight Lounge), a retail spot for your Halcyon memorabilia purchases, and so much to explore! You are taken to your cabin (there are 100 cabins onboard) and shown the highlights of the room as well as how to operate your in-room droid D3-09. Your luggage is delivered straight to your cabin, so no need to fuss with the heavy lifting! Most of the rooms are standard cabins but there are a few suites onboard as well. For the three of us, a standard cabin was more than sufficient. We had a queen bed, two in-wall bunks (twins), and a pull-down twin bed for a 5th adult. You have a viewport that shows the view out into space during your travels (you can close it at night) and some other creature comforts like a pull-out desk and a TV if you need to keep up with what is going on back on your home planet. The bunk beds were really cool and more spacious than they look. They had a neat blanket like a sleeping bag without the zipper that was super comfy. The panel on the right below is where you tap your databand to contact D3-09.

What doesn’t the ship or rooms have? Windows! Remember, you’re in space so your viewport is your window to what is going on outside. I’ve heard some people say that would make them insane but you really don’t notice the lack of a window. There is a climate simulator that you can go into to simulate what the climate is like on Batuu (i.e. somewhere for you to go outside if you get claustrophobic) but it is just open air and you still can’t see the horizon, just some of the sky.

Climate Simulator

Speaking of Batuu, you do get a day (8am-4pm) to spend on an excursion to Batuu. Now, I’m guessing if you’re traveling on the Starcruiser that you’ve spent a good bit of time in Batuu already, so you’d likely do like we did and just visit long enough to do your missions and come back to the ship. You’re paying that higher price point to be able to enjoy the ship, so enjoy the ship! Guests to Batuu are given a special pin to wear so they’re easily identifiable to the Batuu crew. Your MyDisneyExperience app is preloaded with an anytime pass to ride Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run while you’re in Batuu. There are missions surrounding each of these but you don’t actually have to ride them if you don’t have time, the ride goes down, etc. You can still complete the missions regardless. We stopped for a drink in Oga’s Cantina (reservations still required but Starcruiser can help you book that) as there was also a mission related to Oga’s. Ultimately, we spent very little time on Batuu and hurried back to the ship for lunch and more fun! Oh! To get back and forth between Batuu and the Starcruiser, you traveled in a launch pod. I’ve heard the stories on the interwebs about how these don’t look like much from the outside but they are super fun on the inside. Very authentic looking and definitely part of the whole experience of heading to the planet for a visit.

I keep talking about missions and you’re probably wondering what that means. So, if you’ve ever used the datapad in Batuu before, you’ll know what I mean (kind of). What happens is that you board the ship and you’re sent various messages during the voyage about places you need to go, things you need to do, people you need to talk to. Even D3-09 is part of the action! Do you have to play along? Nope. Should you? YES!! You can also stay in costume for the entire experience if you’d like, just wear your favorite Star Wars t-shirt, or wear regular clothes. Nobody will judge you! The group of folks sailing with you are most likely huge Star Wars fans (or wet blankets, but they will become obvious pretty quickly and stay out of the fun) and be just as into the action as you are. After you choose your alliances, you’ll soon find yourself running around the ship trying to help your chosen side succeed. I’m not going to spoil any of the storyline, but you’ll find familiar faces (old and new) and some new friends onboard during your journey.

Don’t mind us, just hacking a few things…

Besides the missions, you also get to participate in lightsaber training and bridge operations training. If you’ve bought a lightsaber in Batuu at Savi’s or Dok Ondar’s, you know how cool those are. Imagine using one and actually deflecting hits! So. Much. Fun! Bridge Ops is super, and you get to work at every station in the bridge, maybe with more action than you were bargaining for! There is ALWAYS something going on aboard the ship and the more you explore, the more fun you’ll have. Think of it sort of like an Escape Room, except you’re not trying to get out! There is even a game like Bingo you can play that is based on the planets of Star Wars as well as separate activities for the Loth Cat Crew (the younger children onboard). The Sublight Lounge has an electronic Sabaac game table if you want to see if you’d have been able to beat Lando to win the Millennium Falcon like Han did.

While you’re doing all of the missions and gathering intel, you definitely work up an appetite! Meals and snacks are provided and were delish! All types of foods were available for a variety of dietary needs. I am a vegetarian and had no issues finding something to eat. Oh yeah, blue and green milk are both on tap! Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style and dinner is served plated with a show/entertainment. We scored a reservation at the Captain’s Table for our second night, which allowed us to be even more in the action and also get a few extra courses with our meal. The first night, our table was front-and-center of the stage so we could take in the performance that night with a fantastic view. Each evening, there were also snacks available in the atrium and we had a big dessert party the last night.

The crew of the Halcyon was incredible. They go out of their way to help you and make you come away with the best experience possible. I was blown away by how well everyone follows the storyline and comes together to end the voyage with a bang! The other guests onboard our sailing were largely adults of all ages (late teens up to probably late 60s-early 70s) and a handful of kids probably under age 10. We often say that we’re huge nerds, especially when it comes to Star Wars, and we were in heaven! We found our people!

If you’re only “kind of” into Star Wars or know nothing about Star Wars, save your money and stay elsewhere. Honestly, that’s for no other reason than to not drag down everyone who enjoys it. If some of your family is really into Star Wars but others aren’t, have the others stay somewhere else and meet up with them after your two-night stay on the Starcruiser is finished. This is the place to geek out and get into the action (or watch from the sidelines but you’ll want to understand what you’re watching) and live your Star Wars dreams!

Enjoy the bridge!

That’s it for now! Gotta rest up from this one!

xoxo,

Amber

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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

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

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

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

New Year’s Mousin’ Eve

Happy 2021! It felt so nice to ring in the new year, snuggled with my family in our room at Disney’s Coronado Springs resort. We had never visited Disney over New Year’s before, as that is typically the most crowded time of the year to be there. We’re talking deep lines to wait for every single thing and that’s just not our jam. However, the capacity limits on the parks made the decision to visit over New Year’s a pretty easy one for us. Hopping on a plane again, we flew south to get away for a few days and celebrate 2021, Disney style.

We’ve stayed at Coronado Springs several times in the past, but this was our first stay in the new Gran Destino Tower at that resort. Let me just say — swanky! Loved the deluxe feel of this moderate level resort. The lobby here is stunning and ultra-modern. I can’t wait to visit again!

Looking down to the lower level of the lobby of Disney’s Coronado Springs resort’s Gran Destino Tower

Coronado is a fairly large moderate level resort, with four Disney bus stops providing bus transportation to the four theme parks and Disney Springs. Staying at Coronado in the past though, I knew that the buses were usually not that busy, so I had no worries on the transportation front. In fact, we had the bus to ourselves several times during this trip, coming or going from one place or another. All transportation is still socially distanced or divided, as I mentioned in my last trip report from November, and I am absolutely loving not having to worry about standing up on a bus when heading home after a long day in the parks!

Park hopping came back as of January 1st and I had the chance to hop between Hollywood Studios and Epcot one day during this visit. Hopping never was for everyone, and that remains true now more than ever. You must have a Park Pass reservation for the park that you will start the day in and you must actually enter that park before attempting to hop. After 2pm, you are allowed to hop to the second park of the day, based on that park’s availability. That seems to be where lots of questions lie. How do you know if the other park is at capacity? What about a dining reservation at the second park if you can’t get in? Why do I want to hop after 2pm if the park I’m trying to get to closes at 5pm (if you’re not asking yourself that, you should be)? Some of these are easy answers, like being mindful of the hours of the parks so you’re not wasting time and money to hop somewhere that will only give you two or three hours of park time. Others are harder, like knowing if the other park will be at capacity. Hopping gives you flexibility but it can also take it away. Since it isn’t free and can be a bit of a hassle with transportation at times, I’d probably leave it to those who really feel their trip won’t be complete without it.

Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom was shining in her new colors. I really like these and how much they remind me of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Cinderella Castle, welcoming 2021 with open gates

Have I mentioned capacity limits in the parks? So, to be clear, that in no way means that the parks are empty and that you’ll be walking on and riding everything you want without waiting. Never going to happen. However, it does mean that the crowd density is way down and the lines you see are much smaller than normal. Now, some of those lines are going to look like they are miles long. Thank social distancing for that. Many of the ride queues weren’t made for people needing to be in a six-foot bubble. The line for Frozen Ever After in Epcot was wrapped all around Norway and clear into China! But the wait was only like an hour. That’s less than you’d normally wait for Frozen on a pre-COVID day at the busiest time of the year (it would have been hours!) and the line was constantly moving. Anyone who says the lines are ‘so long’ right now don’t have much park experience, especially at busy times of the year. Peter Pan’s Flight in Magic Kingdom was like 25 minutes! I mean really folks. That line is always 75 minutes+ every day of the year.

Another cool thing? When the density is down, you can see things in the parks that you might normally squeeze on by. Since there are no fireworks and Castle stage shows, you can walk through the middle of Cinderella Castle all day! I don’t know when the last time that happened was. This gives you so much time to be able to stop to admire the incredible tile murals in the Castle and the detail that they contain. Highly recommend taking a peek at these! Another thing you’re likely to have missed in the past are these cute little bronze statues in Magic Kingdom near the hub area in front of Cinderella Castle. Bet you’ve never even realized they are there before!

Donald Duck, feeling fancy!

Another thing that comes up a lot is the characters. Very few character meals are happening right now and the ones that are have no autographs because the characters can’t come directly to the tables, just walk by at a distance. There are no character meet and greets or scheduled parades in the parks either. What was Disney’s solution? Character cavalcades! These are great. Like unscheduled mini-parades, these pop-up all day long in all four parks. You never know who you might see going by on a float or a car. And the best thing? You don’t need to stake out a prime spot to watch the parade 30, 45, 60 minutes before it is scheduled to start! In fact, I was standing in line at a gift shop, heard the parade music start, hopped out of line and stood right at the parade going by. Literally nobody in front of me, around us, characters right there driving by. Took just a few minutes, got lots of pictures and waves, and back in the gift shop line I went. How.crazy.easy! In Magic Kingdom in particular, there were three sets of cavalcades happening. One had Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and the gang riding on a large float. Another had Pooh, Alice, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Mary Poppins, and Tigger The third was a huge float of princesses including all the main ladies plus Elena and the Fairy Godmother. We saw each one of these cavalcades at least three times one day! In Epcot, out of the blue appeared a horse-drawn carriage with Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and Snow White onboard. In fact, we had no idea the carriage was even coming, it was just there all of the sudden. Then, as it passed, we jumped right behind it and followed it all the way to the Mexico Pavilion, where it went backstage at the end of its route. It was like we were part of the parade too!

Aurora, Belle, and Snow White, greeting their fans in Epcot

Of course, being huge Star Wars fans, we spent time one morning in Hollywood Studios, enjoying Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Going back to Batuu is always a trip highlight for us. This time, we were over the moon to have been able to finally be able to purchase a lightsaber set from Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities. The Ahsoka Tano Clone Wars lightsaber set came out in late October or early November and basically immediately sold out. We tried to find them at Thanksgiving, but no luck. Ebay has quite the collection of them for purchase at double, triple, quadruple, etc. their value, which just irks me to no end. However, we were able to score a set this time, after an apparent restock that had just happened that morning. Should’ve bought a lottery ticket to go with those lightsabers. For those that aren’t familiar with Ahsoka – you need to watch one of the Star Wars animated series called ‘The Clone Wars’. Besides being an incredible show, you get to meet Ahsoka, a great Star Wars heroine who has more recently appeared in the hit live action Star Wars show on Disney+, ‘The Mandalorian’. While in Hollywood Studios, we slide into a theater and watched the new ‘Vacation Fun’ show of Mickey shorts cartoons. These are on Disney+ too and so cute, the same Mickey cartoon style that is featured on the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride at Hollywood Studios. This show just started right before COVID hit and is a definitely stop you should make on your next visit to the park. Adorable!

Oh no! Mickey’s still packing for vacation and it’s time to leave! Sound familiar?

During this trip, we also had another non-Disney mission. From November 13th through January 3rd, Give Kids the World in Kissimmee, about 15 minutes from Disney World, had a stunning display of holiday lights. For those of you that remember the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights show that used to be setup annually at Hollywood Studios, this will look familiar. Disney actually donated over three million of those lights to Give Kids the World for this event. We are huge Osborne Lights fans and I’ve always been curious about Give Kids the World, so I grabbed tickets for the event held on New Years Eve. What an incredible experience! Give Kids the World is a non-profit organization that sits on 89-acres, a ‘storybook’ village resort, where children with critical illnesses and their families are treated to a week-long vacation at no cost to them. Due to COVID, the organization hasn’t been able to grant the ‘wish’ of any families to visit the village for months and they are suffering financially from not being able to fundraise like they would in a typical year. The Night of a Million Lights even was born and sold out most every night of the event, which I am so happy to report. This village isn’t normally open to the public and being able to see it up-close and so beautifully decorated was something I’ll never forget. It has almost 300 villas, basically duplexes, where the families stay for a week during their visit. Like a subdivision, it was quite sprawling to walk through. A huge pool with waterplay area, a spa/salon, mini-golf, an arcade, mini-train set (so cool, you could activate certain features of the town the train runs through), a carousel, a small train for children to ride on, other amusement park attractions, restaurants, and so much more. I was in awe. If you want to support an organization that truly brings smiles to families when they are most desperately needed, this is it.

That’s all for now… happy 2021!

xoxo, Amber

Turkey day with Mickey

The hubs, kid, and I took to the skies to travel to Disney last week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Masks, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, frequent handwashing, and steering clear of other people helped keep us safe during our adventure. The airports, parks, and resorts had most guests wearing masks properly and abiding by social distancing rules. You always have those folks that think they don’t need to follow what has been asked of them, but that doesn’t fly at Disney or onboard an airplane. Disney’s Cast Members (employees) are very quick to correct anyone they see with a nose out, mask completely off, or wearing a non-compliant mask (neck gaiters just don’t cut it there). The airlines are the same way, including banning you from flying in the future if you don’t comply. As Nike says, “just do it”.

The plan for this trip was short and sweet, with some resort exploration and a day at Hollywood Studios soaking up the sun in Batuu. We ended up with two full exploration days, which was great for us, and allowed for more free time and some shopping at Disney Springs. We flew in on Tuesday evening and spent the night at Disney’s Art of Animation resort in one of their Little Mermaid themed standard rooms. These rooms have been renovated to now include two queen beds, laminate flooring, and spruced up décor. I love the move to laminate flooring in the resorts. It feels so much more hygienic and modern than carpet that quickly looks like it has seen its better days. The queen beds are a nice upgrade from the original double beds that had been here since the resort’s opening days.

Little Mermaid themed standard room at Disney's Art of Animation resort
The blue laminate flooring in these rooms is such a great touch to make you feel like you are under the sea!

We enjoyed our overnight here and spend the evening strolling around and enjoying the larger than life decorations in each section of the resort. Our personal favorite is always the Cars section, as the kid was a huge Cars fan when she was little, so we hung out over there for quite a while. When dinner time rolled around, the pizza combo meal from the Landscape of Flavors food court at the resort hit the spot. Large cheese pizza, family size salad, breadsticks, plus the drinks we added on, made dinner under $50 and quite delish. Mobile ordering at the food court was a breeze, I actually placed the order on the MyDisneyExperience app walking to the food court and then selected ‘I am here’ when we arrived closer to the building. After a brief wait while they prepared the food, we were instructed where to enter and what table to collect our order from. A quick stop over at the drink station, where Cast Members were filling drinks for guests, took care of our liquid refreshment needs on the way to our table outside. Eating outside at the resorts is super easy, no matter if you’re in a value, moderate, or deluxe level property. Mobile order your meal from the food court or quick service location, pick it up, and head outdoors!

Calling all cars! Time to check in at the Wheel Well Motor Court!

The next morning, we moved our belongings to Disney’s Boardwalk Villas resort, where we moved into our deluxe studio room for the remainder of the trip. We had early dinner plans at Raglan Road at Disney Springs, so we went ahead and hopped on a bus to the Springs to spend some time shopping, enjoying the Christmas Tree Stroll Scavenger Hunt, and wrapping up with dinner. If you pickup a free map for the scavenger hunt, you can mark each decorated tree found at Disney Springs and return the map for a small prize!

Mulan themed tree at Disney Springs
Participating in the Christmas Tree Stroll scavenger hunt allows you to see all of the beautifully decorated trees, featuring many popular Disney movies like this Mulan-inspired tree.

Dinner at Raglan Road was excellent, as always, and enjoyed on the outdoor patio this time around. What a lovely place to relax and enjoy amazing food in an open-air environment! Service was excellent too, with a five-layer mask worn by our server! After dinner, we headed back over to Boardwalk to get settled in for the evening. We took Disney bus transportation to Disney Springs and back, as well as other times during the trip, and had no safety concerns. When you board, the driver tells you what marked section to sit in, based on your party size, and each section is separated by dividers. No more standing! The emergency exits on the roof are open as well, to allow for more airflow when the bus is in motion. At no time during the trip did we have to sit close to any other party and, we were actually on buses completely by ourselves several times.

Bus seat division
Bus seats were clearly marked for where you could/couldn’t sit and the driver directed you to a section to use for your ride.

Speaking of transportation in general, we rode every form of Disney transportation on this trip to see how each piece was setup. The boats had dividers between rows of seats and were restricting you to one family per row (or two guests per row, depending on the size of the boat/row.) The monorails had separated sections of each train car, and the monorail attendants took your party to an available empty section. Skyliner gondolas are already setup for an individual party to ride in each gondola and there is no longer any mixing of parties in each gondola. I don’t know about you, but I love being separated out like this and have no complaints if it stays this way for awhile. I’m sure as capacity is allowed to increase and pandemic safety concerns get more under control, these types of precautions will go by the wayside, but they’re nice to have right now!

On Thanksgiving, we spent the day exploring resorts and transportation. We started by walking from our resort over to the Epcot International Gateway entrance, where we hopped on the Skyliner over to the Riviera resort. We LOVE Riviera so walking around there was so nice. We grabbed a snack of amazing Romano and herb fries from Primo Piatto and enjoyed those by the water while watching the Skyliner gondolas zip by. After stopping for some photos, we hopped back on the Skyliner over to the nearby Caribbean Beach resort where we switched Skyliner routes to head to Hollywood Studios. At the Studios, we boarded a bus to the Fort Wilderness resort and campground. At the Fort, we spent some time looking around at the different types of campsites, the wilderness cabins, and some of the amenities (great stores and the main pool is so nice!) The resort was bustling with activity from guests enjoying the Thanksgiving Day scavenger hunt, renting canoes and bikes, and gem mining! We actually went to the Fort just to try out the gem mining experience and had such a great time! It had a nominal fee of $9 per bag of ‘paydirt’ that you then took to the mining station where you sifted through the dirt to find the goodies! We had so much fun that we bought a third bag to enjoy!

After our time at the Fort, we took a boat over to Magic Kingdom where we stopped to snap a few pictures before walking over to the Contemporary resort. There, we did a little shopping and took a break outside under the monorail tracks to gaze longingly at Magic Kingdom. Dinner time came around pretty quickly though, and we headed back inside to The Wave, where we had an incredible dinner. Tables spaced very appropriately, servers with masks and face shields, etc. Though indoors, I felt perfectly safe here. Grabbing a holiday Linzer cookie from the Contempo Cafe upstairs on the way out, we grabbed a ride on the monorail to make our way to the Grand Floridian resort. You have to take a picture of the Christmas tree setup at the Grand for the holidays! I so missed the Gingerbread houses this year, especially the big one at the Grand, but it is just one of the many things that we have to look forward to for 2021! Since it was getting late, we decided to take the new walking path that connects the Grand back to Magic Kingdom. A lovely 15 minute or so walk, we enjoyed having this ‘transportation’ option for a great evening stroll. Once back at Magic Kingdom, it was time to board a bus ‘home’ to the Boardwalk to rest our feet and get ready for our Hollywood Studios day!

It was finally time for Hollywood Studios, what these Star Wars fans had been waiting so (im)patiently for! At 6:55am, I logged in to the MyDisneyExperience app, starting the cycle of endless refreshing to try to grab a boarding group for the newest ride, “Rise of the Resistance” in Hollywood Studios’ Galaxy’s Edge section. Boarding groups are required to ride this attraction, due to popularity, and they literally completely fill up each morning at 7am in SECONDS. Not to toot my own horn too much, but BOARDING GROUP #1 BABY! We were in the park, which officially opened at 10am but unofficially opens closer to 9am, and had ridden Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad when our boarding group was called at 9:40am to ride Rise.

Boarding Group #1! I didn’t even realize they actually started out that low!!

Now, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride is very new too and SO.MUCH.FUN! I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but this trackless ride will blow you away! Great for families and adults only, I could ride this ride over and over! I can only hope that rides like Rise and Railway are the future of Disney attractions because these two are simply incredible experiences.

Getting ready to get interrogated by the First Order on Rise of the Resistance!

We spent a ton of time in Batuu, as usual, the Star Wars planet you’re visiting when entering Galaxy’s Edge. Technically you’re at Black Spire Outpost there, and any Star Wars fan will be blown away by the detail that went into creating Batuu. The hubs, the kid, and I have spent hours upon hours in Batuu East (Hollywood Studios) and West (Disneyland) and could easily spend so much more time there. The marketplace was reconfigured for social distancing in a really cool way. You line up to enter the marketplace as a whole. When your turn to enter comes, you then choose which market stall you want to go to first (creature stall, toy store, Batuu merch, clothing, etc.) and wait in that stall’s line. Each market stall only allows one party/family in at a time! So it is basically like a private shopping opportunity where you can actually see all of the merchandise without having to look over and around other guests. Love it! Mobile ordering food in Batuu is even easier now too, especially over at Docking Bay 7. When your food is ready, you enter the building, are given your food, and then you are directed to a table to enjoy your meal (inside or outside). Wait, what?!? No fighting for tables or cramming around one that doesn’t really fit your party? Nope. Directed to a table. Ah-mazing!

After a long day at the Studios, we took a boat back to Boardwalk and ordered some pizza and salad from the delish Giordano’s. Deep dish pizza for dinner, why yes, I think I will! They deliver to Disney resorts and are very cost-effective. Enjoying the pizza by the Boardwalk pool made for a nice break and al fresco experience. Since it was Friday night, that meant only one more thing to cap off the perfect day… The Mandalorian!! Of course, we had to bring the Chromecast along so we could stream Disney+ to our room and be able to see The Mandalorian’s new episode before spoilers filled our newsfeeds. I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t watched it yet, but that episode was superb! Our dreams were filled with beloved Clone Wars characters and a name drop that we weren’t expecting at all!

The next morning brought a yummy breakfast, sans characters, at Trattoria al Forno at our resort. Trattoria is the home of the Bon Voyage Princess breakfast with Ariel and Rapunzel in normal times, but no characters have returned to the location yet. The bonus right now though is that the food is still just as good and the price is very scaled back without the characters. Win-win! After a short flight home, we were back in Virginia and changing out of our shorts into long pants, greeting the chilly evening with a scowl.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber