You did what? (Part II)

Now that I got all of the COVID-19 talk out of the way, let’s jump into the fun stuff! So yes, the fam plus the four usual suspects (my mom, stepdad, and two nieces) hopped on a plane to Florida last month. Destinations: Universal Orlando resort, Disney’s Vero Beach resort on the Atlantic coast, and back to Disney’s Saratoga Springs resort for one night before flying home. This trip was unique because it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the Universal parks and I had never been to their waterpark, Volcano Bay. It was also our first time staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal. Moving to Vero Beach, it was our first time there as well, and also our first time staying in a Treehouse Villa at Saratoga Springs at WDW. So many new things to try out!

Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando is AMAZING! We opted to upgrade to Club level service there, which during COVID, basically means you get access to the Club level lounge on the 7th floor of Tower 3, the Royal Tower. Non-COVID would’ve offered other things like turndown service, robes, cabana rental discounts (which we could’ve used but they weren’t needed, etc.) Our rooms were very close to the lounge, so that made access a breeze. The lounge was open from 7am to 9:30pm and had a schedule when specific dining offerings were available: breakfast, snacks/drinks in the afternoon, hors d’oeuvres plus wine/beer in the evening, dessert in the late evening. Everything was served to you when it came to the food and drinks but you weren’t limited on the quantities you could receive. We enjoyed having breakfast each morning (fresh donuts and pastries, hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal cups, fruit, granola, yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, coffee, tea, sodas. The snacks in the afternoon were things like chips, granola bars, cookies, peanuts, crackers, fruit, sodas, and waters. The evening service had hot offerings like chicken bao buns, wings, macaroni and cheese, BBQ as well as boxed offerings like meat and cheese or hummus and veggies. Dessert was usually cookies and/or brownies. Everything we had was really good, plentiful, and high-quality. The service in the Club lounge was top notch. Very attentive, kind, and genuinely happy to be there would be how I would describe the team. Every time we went in the lounge, I felt welcome and very well taken care of.

The resort itself was beautiful. The lobby was renovated last year and there was a conscientious effort to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable during their stay. I already mentioned the ‘text the front desk’ service and that was incredible. Unbelievably convenient and very responsive. I didn’t miss daily housekeeping service, despite being in a club level room, and felt like that was just another step Loews was taking to make sure their guests feel as safe as possible. The pool is huge, lagoon style, and a great way to spend a few hours (or most of a day, as my mom and stepdad found out). The pool was also just an elevator ride out of our building and a few short steps away.

Just past the pool was the shuttle boat dock to take you to Citywalk, where you then walk a short distance into either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. The boat ride is so short, pleasant, and such an easy way to get around. Being able to hop out of the boat and be inside Universal Studios in just a matter of minutes is fantastic. You clear security before you board the boat so entering the park is literally just a scan of your ticket and you’re on your way!

A great perk received by staying at Royal Pacific (or the Hard Rock Hotel or Portofino Bay Hotel) is that you receive Universal’s Unlimited Express Pass for free for your theme park days. This can be very expensive to add on and is well worth it, even when the crowds are light (as they are right now). It’s basically like a Disney FastPass on steroids because you don’t have to sign up for anything in advance, you just hop in the Express Pass line for any attraction that offers Express Pass service (most do), and you’re on your way to a much shorter wait to experience that attraction. Love it! We rode several attractions before we headed to one I was really dying to try, the new Bourne Stuntacular show. This just opened shortly before we arrived and it lived up to every bit of the hype I had heard about it. I have never seen a show that mixed live action and virtual scenes so seamlessly. You really couldn’t tell what was actually happening right in front of you versus which pieces were added in digitally. Craziness! This attraction doesn’t use Express Pass but any time you wait to watch the show is time well spent. We also had to swing by and ride the classic E.T. Adventure ride that I remember riding as a kid on my first trip to Universal years and years ago (still the same!) On the way to that attraction, Squidward and Patrick of Spongebob Squarepants fame were hanging out looking for some folks to snap a few pics with. Of course, we had to oblige!

No visit to Universal Orlando is complete without enjoying the two sections of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios park and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure park. My kid and the nieces had a great time learning and then casting new spells for a variety of fun outcomes in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The ride on Hogwart’s Express between the two lands was super fun and, spoiler alert, is different each way!

Being as we visited Central Florida in July, spending some time at a waterpark was a huge relief on the hot and humid days. Volcano Bay really far surpassed my expectations and (gasp!) is probably now my favorite waterpark!! The wave pool there is a lot of fun with the typical variety of waves pumped out to keep guests bobbing along for hours. Some of their slides were down right insane! The lazy river was a nice break after we spent some time in the wave pool but our hands down favorite attraction was TeAwa The Fearless River! I read somewhere before we arrived that if Universal said you had to put a life jacket on to experience the attraction, they meant it. Was that ever right! This was a lazy river gone wild and nothing lazy about it. Life jackets were mandatory and you definitely needed one. No rafts in this river but you were traveling through rapids, strong current, and uneven depths… weak swimmers need not apply! We went around like five times before we were exhausted (happily) and decided to break for lunch. Luckily, we got seated for lunch right before a huge rainstorm came through so our break was perfectly timed. There’s so much to do for all ages at Volcano Bay that I can’t wait to go back again!

Volcano Bay

I could go on and on about Universal but alas, time to move on to Vero Beach. As I mentioned, it was our first stay at Disney’s Vero Beach resort on Florida’s east coast. Our two-bedroom villa there provided a nice home base for breakfast, lunch, and to crash at night. Other than that, we were in the pool most of the day, on the beach in the early morning or evening either looking at sea turtle nests or collecting shells. The beach was pretty seaweedy, which was ok with us as we don’t really swim in the US ocean anymore. Shelling was fantastic, lots of great shells here and I completely wasn’t expecting that. The big fun though was the sea turtle nests. Loggerhead and green sea turtles have made hundreds of nests in Vero Beach this year so far and you couldn’t walk a few feet without passing one. We saw scraps of egg shells when walking but had the pleasure of watching the Sea Turtle team at the resort checking nests one morning. They even found a straggler down in a nest where its siblings had successfully made it out to the ocean so they were able to save the little guy and get him on his way! It’s mindboggling to see the team pulling hundreds of eggs (shells basically, they are checking the nest after they know that some turtles made it out a few days prior) from over a foot down in the sand. Definitely an experience I’d like to have again! The picture below is of a loggerhead nest and you can see the eggs in a pile between the two team members. There was something like 5 unhatched eggs, no longer viable, in this particular nest and over a hundred that had hatched.

After a few days at Vero, we drove back to Disney World, about two hours away. My brother and his family now live in central Florida and we had made plans to meet them at Disney Springs for dinner at Raglan Road. We had a decent size party and were given a really cool booth to dine in that night, something along the lines of where the bad guys would hang out to handle their business in private. Super fun! The dancing and music that is typical for Raglan Road was still taking place as well, which I was happy to see. Delish food as always.

After dinner, we got settled in at our Treehouse villa for the night. These are such fun! They really are a villa in the trees with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room area, washer and dryer, private deck, etc. With windows all around, the view is just crazy! We’re all talking about staying there again in the future. These treehouses take woodsy and luxury to a whole new level!

Last stop before we flew back home was Disney’s Contemporary resort where we had breakfast at Chef Mickey’s. This was a completely new offering — no characters, no buffet — but the food was good, fresh, and brought to your table family-style. Still all-you-care-to-eat and priced at $25 per adult, we felt like it was a steal, and hello, Mickey waffles! After breakfast, we had a little time to burn so we visited the shops in the Contemporary and then walked outside to take a peek over toward Magic Kingdom. Cinderella Castle has gotten a face-lift and is now sporting a pinkish hue (nothing like the birthday cake of the park’s 25th birthday though, yikes!) and I had to snap a few pics. I think it is nice and while I would’ve liked to see it up close, I didn’t have the time or the Park Pass reservation.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the airport and fly home. Darn, all good things really do have to come to an end, don’t they. We had a great time with so many ‘firsts’ and the trip fully renewed my passion for travel. If I could, I’d be back on a plane and checking in at Royal Pacific again tomorrow to do it all over, mask and all. This Disney girl might have even been converted to the dark side (Universal). Everyone had a blast, felt completely safe, and made all kinds of new memories. Isn’t that what it is all about?

xoxo,

Amber

You did what? (Part I)

A little over two weeks ago, my family and I hopped on a flight and headed to Florida. This trip had changed so many times, it was enough to make your head spin. The final itinerary was set mere days prior: fly out from Richmond to Orlando, spend three nights at Universal Orlando resort, drive to Vero Beach and spend three nights there, drive back to Orlando and spend a night at Disney, fly home the next morning. This trip was meant to be one where we stayed in resorts we had never stayed at, enjoyed new experiences, and (the elephant in the room) visited theme parks during a pandemic.

At this point, I have a feeling that you are thinking one of two things: how were the parks different or what a moron I must be for traveling right now.

I’ve seen plenty of opinion pieces regarding travel in the last few months. How anyone that travels is inconsiderate, selfish, killing the elderly, you name it. How we go out without social distancing, not wearing masks, touching everything, spreading our germs to the world. What you should remember (and I struggle to) when reading those articles is that they are filled with the writer’s opinions.

Here is my opinion. When I leave the house, I wear a mask anytime I go into a store, get gas where others are around, etc. Hand sanitizer is frequently applied and I wash my hands every single time I come back home and while I’m out, as needed. I don’t go into stores very often and do online grocery order pickup once a week. As I mentioned in my last blog post about going to the beach in early June, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to minimize my contact with others before we ever left home. Gloves and hand sanitizer for pumping gas, masks for anytime we were in public, online grocery ordering so we could have contactless pickup for food to use for breakfast and lunch in our rental home, takeout from local restaurants for dinner to help their local economy and avoid contact with others, very minimal in-store shopping and always with masks and sanitizer. My stepdad, traveling with us with some health challenges, stayed in the vehicle on the rare occasion that we went to a store. On the beach when we were around others, we social distanced from others without issue. At no point did we feel unsafe or go out of our comfort zone as far as contact with others. There were people that were not wearing masks, as there was no mask order in North Carolina at the time, but we held firm on using ours. On the drive to and from the rental house, we had fast food lunches in our vehicles to avoid any contact concerns.

For the Florida trip, we traveled by plane. That meant masks from the moment we got to the airport garage in Richmond until we were in our rental van in Orlando. We each had hand sanitizer and used it regularly, in addition to actual hand washing when available. I packed a container of Clorox wipes and we spent the first few minutes onboard the plane wiping down everything we might touch in our seating area, despite the flight crew just having sanitized the plane too. JetBlue doesn’t have typical beverage and snack service right now but is offering a snack bag, a great alternative. Most of us kept our snack bag and ate it later that evening.

Once we arrived at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando, we had to enter the hotel and pass through a temperature screening. That was done every morning at the hotel (for guests, at the parks themselves if you weren’t staying onsite). Check in was contactless and very simple. Our rooms had been left empty for 24-48 hours prior to our arrival and thoroughly cleaned after the last guest. During our stay, housekeeping didn’t enter the room at all. Royal Pacific offered a fantastic ‘text the front desk’ service that had fresh towels, amenities, etc. delivered to the room in minutes and trash was picked up outside of the door daily. We upgraded to add the Club Level service during our stay and the staff there ensured that every table was wiped down between guests, guests wore masks, sanitizer was available, and food was handed to the guest instead of being self-serve.

With my stepdad’s health issues, he and my mom decided that this portion of the trip for them would be spent at the hotel enjoying the pool and relaxing. Myself and my husband, plus our daughter and two nieces, went to the two theme parks at Universal and the waterpark there, Volcano Bay.

Shuttle boats and buses were marked for social distancing as were the lines to wait to board. Universal marked the six foot distance everywhere you could think of and, in fact, it was more like nine feet in most places to allow for families that took up a little more room. That was fantastic. The parks in general are running well under capacity and everything felt very empty and a little eerie. Masks are required at the resorts (everywhere except the pool and if you are sitting down eating or drinking), on all transportation, and in the parks (unless you are sitting down eating or drinking). There are no exceptions. There are Universal employees in place to stop guests throughout the parks that are trying to walk and drink, pull their mask down so their nose is exposed, etc. and will stop the guest to correct the behavior. Surfaces and rides are being frequently cleaned and all staff wear masks. Attraction capacity is also reduced and you are not seated in a ride vehicle with someone that isn’t in your travel party. Upon entering an attraction, hand sanitizer is squirted into your hands to apply, no way around using it.

The only time I felt even slightly uncomfortable was later in the afternoon one day when waiting to ride Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike ride. There were so many guests returning to ride the ride for their virtual boarding time when we were that the line got very long, was in the sun, and social distancing went out the window for a bit. Everyone was still masked though and the line moved quickly, which then slid back into the social distancing spacing.

There are U-Rest Areas throughout the parks and Citywalk where you can socially distance yourself, remove your mask, and take a break from the action with your family. This was a great rest option. Masks are often hot and I would encourage you to find one that is lightweight but two-ply or more, breathable, and quick drying. If you find a mask you love (as much as you can love a mask), you really don’t think about it being on when you’re there. It is easy to wash them in hot water with soap each night and hang to dry.

Sit-down restaurants had tables socially distanced, masks required until seated, servers remained masked, some offered bags to put each guest’s mask in while they ate, fresh glasses were brought to the table with each refill, etc. This was the first time we had eaten at a sit-down restaurant since March 15th.

The waterpark, Volcano Bay, required masks for entry, shopping, and at all dining locations unless you were sitting and eating or drinking. No masks were required on the attractions or pools, for obvious reasons, but social distancing was required. Their chairs have been moved to allow for distancing between parties. Rafts are sanitized between guests as are life jackets.

After we left Universal Orlando, we drove to Vero Beach, less than two hours away on the Atlantic coast of Florida. There, we checked in at Disney’s Vero Beach resort. Groceries were delivered by Instacart, takeout for dinner. Masks required everywhere except the pool, on the beach while distanced, and while sitting down and eating or drinking. Pool chairs were distanced and you were seated by the pool staff with your family into the pre-arranged chair groupings. Social distancing in the pool was encouraged and chairs were sanitized between guests. No housekeeping but an employee did check daily to remove trash and ask if we needed anything.

Three nights at Vero were followed by a drive back to Orlando and a one-night stay at Disney’s Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs resort. The treehouse had been cleaned and sanitized prior to our arrival, just like Vero Beach’s villa, with device remotes in plastic bags, amenities wrapped, etc. Online check-in service was used here so we never went to the front desk at all. Our villa number was texted to us prior to arrival so we went straight there and unpacked. That night was spent at Disney Springs, where social distancing is encouraged, stores have been modified to allow for distance between guests, and restaurants are operating well under capacity. No paper menus, you’re shown a QR code to scan to pull the menu up on your smartphone. Servers wear masks, guests do too until they are seated and anytime they get up. Tables are spaced and capacity overall is limited.

The next morning, we packed up and drove to the Contemporary resort for breakfast at Chef Mickey’s — currently a family style meal with no characters. We were required to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotel, since we weren’t staying there, and check in for the reservation was done online. Once our table was ready, a masked and shielded server took care of our needs. The food was brought to us on serving platters, with refills as requested. Tables were distanced and guests were masked until/unless they were seated. Menu was via QR code here too. Even the check was in a paper folder instead of the typical padded plastic holder that restaurants typically use. After breakfast, we looked through the Contemporary stores, all masked and distanced, no pin trading right now, and grabbed a few last minute items. We spent a little while outside enjoying the view and checking out the new Cinderella Castle design before driving back to the airport to fly home. Orlando’s airport was the same as Richmond, masks everywhere, handwashing, hand sanitizer, etc. Some other travelers had shields on top of their masks, gloves, we even saw what looked like full Hazmat suits. Let’s just say that people were being careful.

Back in Virginia, we’ve generally returned to COVID life. My husband is working from home until we’ve officially been back for two weeks and we’re pretty much staying home or swimming at my mom’s pool. Masks stay on when we go out, which is rare, handwashing and sanitizer are used very frequently.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat. That’s not just because it is a great time to visit the theme parks with the incredibly low crowds but because I felt safer in those theme parks and resorts than I do in my local area. Masks are required and you’re reprimanded if you don’t follow the requirement. People generally keep to themselves and respect boundaries.

Don’t buy into the hype about traveling and how if you didn’t do it, those workers wouldn’t be at risk and wouldn’t have to go to work because you wouldn’t be there creating demand. Every single worker I talked to thanked us for being there, for visiting, and allowing them to be able to be back in their jobs. Hospitality and tourism is a huge industry and doesn’t just affect big cities and major tourist destinations. Think about your local restaurants and attractions. I live in a small town. Our downtown was a bustling place with restaurants, shops, a Shakespeare playhouse, art center, etc. Now with COVID, everyone is hurting. Not only are the locals not going out to these places but we’re also not getting tourists to come and fill that gap. Stores and restaurants here have already begun to close. I feel certain those workers and small business owners would generally be much happier to have guests coming in and enjoying what they have to offer than watching their businesses fall apart. I know this small business owner would.

Until Part II — where I talk about the fun stuff like club level perks, attractions in Universal Orlando, riding the fearless river at Volcano Bay, tracking sea turtles at Vero Beach, and spending the night in a treehouse — stay safe out there!

Amber

Spending Christmas with Mickey

Now that it is almost February, I thought it was about time to recap my holiday travels on the trusty blog. The fam and I spent Christmas 2019 with Mickey at Walt Disney World, a first for us. We’ve visited close to Christmas before but never right over the holiday itself. As expected, we were not alone in our journey to the Most Magical Place on Earth. I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many others joined us for the holiday. Christmas through New Year’s is the busiest time of the year to visit Disney and the lines for darn near everything proved that as fact. Despite the crowds and daily rain, we still had a fantastic time at the Mouse while switching up the holiday routine.

Hitting the highlights…

  • New resort! We stayed at Disney’s Riviera Resort, the newest on-site Disney property. It officially opened on December 16th and we checked in on the 22nd. You could tell that the finishing touches were still being added but the resort was AMAZING! I can’t think of one negative thing about this one, other than the price. (No, I DO NOT travel for free just because I am a travel agent. I pay just like you do.) The theme, while subdued compared to some of the other resorts, felt refined and artistic, posh without being stuffy. I would stay there again in a heartbeat!

    Our in-room tree at the Riviera resort

    Our in-room Christmas tree at the Riviera resort

  • Skyliner! The newest form of Disney resort transportation, the Disney Skyliner gondola system, blew me away. I had iffy expectations on this one, just not sure how well this new option would really work and how it would compare to the buses as far as speed. Let me just say, Disney needs to install these things everywhere! They are so fast and smooth. Despite being high in the sky (yikes for my fear of heights), the fantastic views took my mind off of swinging in the breeze. Speaking of breeze, I was shocked at how much airflow these truly had. Now what that will be like in July, I’m not sure, but they’ve definitely got my vote so far.

    Disney's Skyliner

    Disney’s Skyliner gondola vehicle with Chip and Dale

  • Very Merry Christmas Party! We’ve done this before, last year in fact, and it is always a hit. This was the last party of the year so I was expecting mega crowds since the party was sold out. The weather was pretty cruddy that day though, which always helps cut crowds… Don’t be the one that stays in the hotel room in the rain, get out there and have fun with fewer people! Truth be told, I do the parties more for the special aspects than the attractions themselves. The parades, fireworks, free treats, and ride overlays are what I’m looking for. The new fireworks this year were stunning, filled with projections like the Happily Ever After regular Magic Kingdom nightly fireworks. These projections are breathtaking. Do yourself a favor and forget that anyone ever said to watch fireworks from outside of Magic Kingdom. Get in the park, find yourself a good spot in front of the Castle, and prepare to be amazed. You need to be in the park and in direct view of the Castle to really get the full effect of the show now. Anyone can watch big booming fireworks from a distance but what Disney pulls off in the park is unparalleled.

    Very Merry Party fireworks

    Very Merry Party fireworks, stunning!

  • Yuletide Fantasy Tour! Any behind the scenes Disney tour is going to knock your socks off. We’ve done several as well as private VIP tours and never come away feeling like we overpaid (and some of these are $$$). This particular tour took us to Holiday Services behind Magic Kingdom, where Disney stores all of the holiday decorations for the parks and even Disney Cruise! You have never seen the level of organization that exists in that building elsewhere on Earth. What seemed like bazillions of ornaments, all sorted by size, shape, theme, location to be used, etc. plus wreaths, garland, trees, lights… holy cow. Then we stopped by Disney Event Group where so much magic happens, I’m surprised it doesn’t spill right out the door. Disney Floral and Gifts lives there, the team that makes some amazing gift baskets and flowers for guests to the resort. I even saw the basket heading out to be delivered to Lisa Ling, who was to be a narrator for the Candlelight Processional in Epcot. Super fun! Costumes, rehearsals, weddings, and so much more get tweaked and crafted there too. We wrapped up at Amorette’s Patisserie at Disney Springs, a huge fave of mine, where we were taught how to properly decorate a gingerbread cookie. What a way to end a spectacular holiday tour! Delish!

    The kid's gingerbread cookie

    The kid’s gingerbread cookie, sweet!

  • Rise of the Resistance! Anyone who knows me knows I am a gigantic Star Wars fan. Shoot, we flew out to Disneyland for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge there in June, went to Disney World for their Galaxy’s Edge opening in August, and got up at a ridiculous hour just to get to Hollywood Studios in time to get a Boarding Group for the newest addition to Galaxy’s Edge, the Rise of the Resistance attraction in December. Let me just say, that ride is so much more than just a ride. It is a full experience and OMG was I impressed. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, will you understand it? Obviously not as well as a fan, but the backstory is that you’re at a Rebel (aka the good guys) base on the planet of Batuu (the planet that Galaxy’s Edge is set in) and something has happened that means you need to get off planet ASAP. You go through the steps to get away and you’re captured by the First Order (aka the bad guys) and need to find a way to safety. High intensity, full of action, and loaded with some revolutionary tech, this attraction has raised the bar for theme park attractions up so far. Get up early, get that boarding group, and enjoy every minute. We were Boarding Group 66, ironic?

    Boarding Group 66

    Boarding Group 66 for Rise of the Resistance, four minutes after the park opened!

  •  The EPCOT Experience! EPCOT is changing, a major metamorphosis, over the next couple of years. New attractions, shows, restaurants, a complete redo for the front of the park, and so much more. There’s a new attraction of sorts at the old Odyssey pavilion in Epcot, between Test Track and Mexico, called the EPCOT Experience. This is a brief show about the changes coming to the park as also has displays related to the new attractions as well as some super cool posters of current and former attractions. Definitely worth a stop for Disney fans and those interested about the future of the park.

    Universe of Energy poster

    Remember Universe of Energy?

  • When money is no object?! During the Yuletide Tour, we were treated to seeing what you can get at Disney when money is no object. Now listen, in my profession, I get asked if Disney can do all kinds of things and my response is generally ‘no’ — not because they can’t or won’t but because you would likely laugh in my face if I told you cost. Can characters meet me when I get off the plane? Tuck my kids into bed? Let’s just say, sure they can. If you have the money, Disney will make it happen. Back to that tour, we saw where a ridiculously wealthy family had a private event created for just for them with every little detail completely customized. This family apparently has these events every year or two and we’re talking everything from customized wraps on the buses that transport them around to characters created from scratch just for them, including the costumes! Set pieces, special food, brand new costumes for the service staff, closing parks early just for them, they’ve done it all. So I guess when your budget has the flexibility to throw in a couple/few  commas for some add-ons like this, Disney Event Group will make it happen.

Feeling a little jelly? I was too. Good grief, can you even imagine having Disney setup a whole team just to create an event like that for your family? Wowza. And no, travel agents don’t get anything free like that either. What a way to wrap up the trip! We finished the tour, hit Epcot again for lunch and a few more snacks, and then we were on the road again. After an overnight at Disney’s Hilton Head resort (LOVE that place!), we were navigating the ever-crowded I-95 on the way home. I will say, anyone that drives to Disney using I-95N/S, seriously consider forcing your GPS to take you off the interstate and through more local roads in North and South Carolina and Georgia. We’ve been doing this a lot when driving, as long as it doesn’t add a huge amount of time to the overall travel, and our trips have been a lot more pleasant. The traffic on I-95 can be so awful and filled with accidents, that the local roads with their cotton fields and glimpses into the past are a great alternative. If nothing else, you’ll end up with some interesting things to talk about based on what you see along the way. It’s not always about the destination…

Until next time!

Amber

Back to Batuu… East Coast style

After an epic trip to Disneyland in July, my family couldn’t wait to hop a plane to Orlando to enjoy the opening weekend of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the end of August.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Traveler's Guide

The guide with all the details you need for your visit to Batuu

The plan was to arrive on Wednesday night late, Galaxy’s Edge grand opening day on Thursday, Magic Kingdom for the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Friday, Epcot for the Food & Wine Festival on Saturday, Animal Kingdom on Sunday with some pool time at the resort, and fly home Monday. Busy weekend with the added Labor Day weekend crowds, Star Wars fans in town for the opening, and locals pouring in for the start of the Food & Wine Festival. We were prepared for all of that but not for what else wanted to come to town… Hurricane Dorian.

Stormtroopers and Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren and a stormtrooper, I can handle. A hurricane, not so much.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is very similar to the land in Disneyland Park in California. We were able to enjoy the land a little easier in the massive opening day crowds by using a VIP tour guide. Those are the best! Pricey as all get out but worth it if you want to get a ton done in a day and have a larger party (up to 10 guests) that you can split the cost between. I can add these to a GototheMouse.com booked vacation package too, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for an ultimate splurge. My daughter was finally able to get more Kyber crystals for her lightsaber built in California (still no white ones though, darn Ebayers!) and I built a droid at Droid Depot. Super fun to build and customize, can’t wait to take him back in December and play with him more in Batuu. Welcome R3-A6!

R3-A6

My new droid, R3-A6, working for the Resistance!

Our VIP Tour took us through Batuu and then back to Earth to enjoy Toy Story Land, some opening day merch shopping, over to Animal Kingdom for Pandora fun and lunch at Satu’li Canteen, zipping to Epcot to ride Soarin’, and then back to Hollywood Studios to finish the day with a ride on the Millennium Falcon in Batuu. The seven hours goes so fast but it’s a blast while we’re being spoiled with the guide!

The Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in Magic Kingdom was such a great experience this year. Disney has enhanced the ‘Boo to You’ parade with new floats and characters plus a change in the existing float order. The fireworks though were the showstopper, a complete redo on those to now feature Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and projections on Cinderella Castle! The show is now up to par with the nightly ‘Happily Ever After’ fireworks in the park. I would love to see those again! Lots of candy was collected, attractions enjoyed, and entertainment adored.

Not-So-Scary fireworks

These fireworks were a blast, literally!

The Food & Wine Festival in Epcot was delish as usual. New booths and foods to try (for a fee) throughout the park. One continued complaint I have as a vegetarian is that there aren’t nearly enough vegetarian options available. Disney is starting to offer the trendy ‘plant-based’ meat products as a vegetarian option but this vegetarian doesn’t want that overly processed fake meat. Hopefully the trend is short-lived. There’s lots of construction starting in Epcot for the attractions being added and moved in the next couple of years. The park still has more than plenty to keep a family occupied though so I’m not recommending putting Epcot on the back burner for now. We enjoyed seeing the Plain White T’s in concert as a part of the Eat to the Beat concert series, LOVED it!

Disney has also enhanced the Epcot experience for kids (and the young at heart) by adding a puzzle game in the MyDisneyExperience app to dovetail with the Kidcot fun stops throughout World Showcase. Hunt for the puzzle piece, snap a pic, and then solve some puzzles to see how much you can complete toward the goal of solving them all!

Epcot Puzzle Hunt

The Epcot Puzzle Hunt is great for kids of all ages to use for a deeper dive into Epcot’s World Showcase countries!

We went back to Batuu a few times (had to play with my Datapad on the MyDisneyExperience app!) and into Epcot several more times. It was a breeze to get to both parks since we were staying at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn resort. Super convenient. We popped back in to Epcot early on Sunday morning for a tea tasting experience at the Rose & Crown restaurant in the United Kingdom and that was a real delight. We learned so much about the history of tea, types of tea, brewing tips, and enjoyed sandwiches and the best scones I’ve ever eaten. This was $35/guest but definitely worth every penny.

So what haven’t I mentioned… oh yeah, Dorian. That hurricane completely destroyed parts of the Northern Bahamas and everyone should consider a donation to the Red Cross to help those affected by the monstrous storm. Central Florida ultimately had basically no impact from the storm, despite days (and days) of forecasting that it could, (might, would, might not, wouldn’t) affect Orlando. We were to fly home on Monday, the forecasted day for the most impact to Orlando. The airport announced they would be closed and the fun really began. I cancelled my flight and decided we would rent a car and drive home on Sunday. The drive takes about 12 hours total but we always overnight so leaving Sunday would’ve been required. That meant cutting my trip a night short, definitely not ideal, but you do what you have to do. Then there was panic that the car rental companies were out of vehicles to rent. How crowded would the roads be? Could we get out if we tried? What about gas? When should we leave? How do we get our car parked at the airport in Virginia? And on, and on. At least I had a great travel agent on the job (that’s me!) who kept an eye on the situation, saw the forecast changing to slow the impact days to Tuesday/Wednesday, noticed that the airport had changed its mind on closing, and rebooked the flight home for our regular time on Monday. So our plans for Sunday and Monday were upended but we made the most of our newly found ‘bonus’ time and checked out as scheduled on Monday. The airport was a ghost town, so many cancelled flights and travelers that had been forced to change their plans, pure craziness. I’m all in favor of being cautious and flexible but man, Hurricane Dorian really threw everyone for a loop. Gotta love hurricane season.

We’re back home in Virginia and enjoying a couple of days of 90+ degree weather, more afternoon pool time this week. I’m not looking forward to fall, this travel mom is a summertime fan. Next month, I’ll visit Cancun for a few days so the warm weather won’t leave me for too long.

Until next time…

Amber

 

A blazing hot June at Disney

Hi, it’s Hailey here and I’m going to tell you about our most recent trip to Walt Disney World! I’ll recap the highlights of our trip, and what I enjoyed the most! Let’s get started!

On the day we arrived we went to Animal Kingdom, and the first ride we rode was Expedition Everest, and I loved it, as usual! We also rode Kilimanjaro Safaris and Na’vi River Journey, which I also enjoyed. We had Tusker House for dinner, which was delicious! At dinner we also met Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, Donald, and Goofy. During our stay we also visited Disney Springs, and we ate at The Edison for the first time, which was amazing! There was delicious food, and drinks there, I had a Non-Alcoholic Pina Colada type of drink; and the factory design in the building was very cool!

The Electri-fries at The Edison

These fries at The Edison were ah-mazing!

We also stopped by Amorette’s Patisserie for dessert and we enjoyed a Mickey Dome Cake and an Aladdin themed cake, both were delicious!

Mickey dome cake & Aladdin layer cake

Amorette’s never disappoints!

We were also in Epcot for the last day of the Flower and Garden Festival, and we enjoyed some delicious snacks! I had some delicious Citrus Salmon, Spicy Fried Cauliflower, a Key Lime Tart, and many other yummy goodies! We also stopped by Karamell-Kuche in Germany to pick up some caramel popcorn and marshmallow and caramel swirls, yum! While we were in Epcot, we had Via Napoli in Italy for dinner, and while I was not very hungry from all the snacking I had done earlier, I still enjoyed my favorite pizza from there! (Note from Amber- we do other things besides eat while on vacation, though it might not seem that way!)

Typhoon Lagoon was a great way to break up the trip, was nice and relaxing! We enjoyed many waterslides, like Miss Adventure Falls and the Crush ‘n’ Gusher waterslides, the Lazy River, and of course the Wave Pool!

Typhoon Lagoon Wave Pool

Every day is a good day when you spend it at Typhoon Lagoon!

We also had Be Our Guest for breakfast one day, which was better than I expected, I really liked the Croissant Doughnut that I ate! While we were in Magic Kingdom, we rode many rides like Haunted Mansion (one of my favorites, foolish mortal!), Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, it’s a small world, Tomorrowland Speedway, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, and many more!

The Carrousel in Magic Kingdom

We even had time to hop on this beauty!

For the last night of our stay we switched over from Old Key West to the Polynesian, and we swam in the pool closest to our room, which we later discovered was a saltwater pool! We really liked swimming in the pool, it was very relaxing! After swimming, we went to ‘Ohana and had a wonderful dinner, I really like the noodles they have there!

The Great Ceremonial House

The beautiful view inside the Great Ceremonial House at the Polynesian resort

After our last day, we flew home to the not so warm weather, after we had been in the around 100 degree weather of Florida, and it took a little bit of adjusting to the cooler temps! I can’t wait to go on our next adventure, on which we will go to Disneyland to see Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge! I will be back to blog again!

See you next time!

-Hailey

Easter, Earth Day, and Joe Rohde…

I’m only about a month late working on this blog post. Springtime definitely kicks life up into high gear around my house! In late April, the fam and I flew the friendly sky to Florida, looking some Mickey fun for Easter break. Our home base was Disney’s Coronado Springs resort, a great choice for adults or families with older kids. The resort is pretty large and spread out, so getting a preferred location room to keep you near the food court and lobby is a must to keep the walking time at a minimum. The new Gran Destino Tower at the resort will be open in July and we’re not quite sure how that will impact bus traffic from the resort to the parks or usage of the amenities. I’m hopeful that its impact will be minimum on the existing resort but, with almost 550 new rooms, I’ve got some concerns. Time will tell on that front.

Our flight into Orlando was supposed to land around 1pm but the spring thunderstorm season had other plans for us. Ultimately, we got to the resort around 5pm which put a damper on my arrival day plans at Hollywood Studios. By the time we got to the park, we had to rush to dinner, and only had time for a couple of rides before the park closed. We lucked out though and jumped in the line at Slinky Dog Dash right before closing. That kept our wait under 20 minutes and we got to ride Slinky in the dark, my fave time to ride so you can get the full effects of the lights/sounds on the attraction.

Slinky Dog Dash

Slinky Dog Dash ride queue decor

We spent the next morning at Magic Kingdom, enjoying the Marceline to Magic Kingdom tour. What a blast! This tour is great for older children and adults, preferably those who have been to Magic Kingdom at least a few times in the past and have a desire to learn more about the man behind the mouse, Walt Disney. I’m not going to spoil it for others but the backstage access you get on one part of this tour is to die for! With the age requirement at 12 years old, any backstage access is surprising as that is usually reserved for the tours that require guests to be 16 and up.

After the tour, we enjoyed the park for awhile and then hopped on the Grand Floridian resort boat to check out their annual Easter Egg display. Amazing, as always.

Grand Floridian Easter Eggs

Just a small section of the many hand-decorated eggs on display at the Grand Floridian resort

After the Grand, we hit the monorail to loop over to the Contemporary resort to check out their egg display. A smaller display than the Grand Floridian’s, but still quite the sight.

"Disney Parks snacks" egg

“Disney Parks snacks” egg

From the Contemporary, we monorail’d around to the Polynesian resort for dinner at ‘Ohana (FANTASTIC and oh, so much food!) and back over to the Magic Kingdom for more fun before closing. A fun nighttime ride is a jaunt on the Jungle Cruise. Just watch out for Trader Sam at the end, you know… the Head Salesman.

Trader Sam

Trader Sam bidding you farewell on the Jungle Cruise

Not slowing down, Epcot was the park of the day on Sunday. The Flower and Garden Festival was in full swing, one of my favorite times of the year. We always enjoy the Egg Hunt and Spike’s Pollen Nation Exploration games (small fee to play with a small prize at the end).

Spike and Eggs

Collection maps for the Eggstravaganza and Spike’s Pollen Nation Exploration in Epcot

These games get harder every year. So many places to hide the eggs and the little Spike figure. It takes some skill to find them all!

Spike

We found a Spike!

We finally made it into the Stave Church’s “Gods of the Vikings” display in Epcot too, that has been on my list since it opened last year. A super interesting display for those looking to learn more about Viking Gods like Thor, Odin, Loki, and Freya.

Epcot Thor display

Thor, God of thunder

As our trip was coming to an end, we squeezed in a morning at Animal Kingdom to celebrate the park’s 21st birthday, which is also Earth Day. We couldn’t miss the celebration! The highlight of the day, and the trip in general, was meeting Joe Rohde, one of the brilliant Disney Imagineers. Joe was the lead designer on the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, Disney’s Aulani resort in Hawaii, several of the country pavilions in Epcot’s World Showcase, and so much more. A true creative genius and it was an honor to meet him.

Meeting Joe Rohde

The perfect way to end our trip, meeting Joe Rohde!

After meeting Joe, we hopped on Na’vi River Journey for a quick spin and then made for the park exit. We were pleasantly surprised to run into Kevin from ‘Up!’ on the way out!

Kevin from Up!

Kevin from Up!

We thought we had really hit the jackpot by that point and then…

DiVine

DiVine! What a talented performer!

DiVine! We haven’t seen her for years! She’s truly a talent and amazing to watch.

Stopping to meet Kevin and DiVine though really threw a kink into my already tight schedule. Then our bus back to Coronado Springs had just left before we got to the stop…  yikes! By the time we got to the resort and grabbed our luggage from Bell Services, the Magical Express bus was pulling up to take us back to the airport! We literally had a couple of minutes to spare. A LOT too tight for my liking, but the morning was worth the rush (and panic!)

I’d recap the ride back to the airport but, since I fell asleep as soon as I got into the seat, nothing for me to share on that part! We flew home on Spirit Airlines for the first (and last) time. They had the flight time we needed and at a nice price since the trip was a last minute idea, plus I had been thinking of trying them out since they are flying from some of the markets that my clients live in. Blech. Don’t need to do that again. Spirit can’t use the Resort Airline Check-in to get boarding passes and drop your check bags, so that stunk for sure. Then the check-in at the airport was a cluster, to say the least. Nobody knew what they were doing, how to line up, what needed to be done before getting to the counter, etc. Add that insanity to the holiday weekend crowds and I quickly remembered why I always say that you get what you pay for. No one was happy. Then the flight left about 30 minutes late, puny in the grand scheme of things, but you wouldn’t know it from the other passengers on the flight. You would have thought we were getting home three days late. The complaining, which wasn’t helped by the fact that there was only one agent working the gate and who wasn’t giving us any updates at all. Our gate screen said we were boarding, then boarding was closed, before the agent ever made any announcements to us. Craziness. Not the way to end an otherwise perfect vacay, that’s for sure.

So, where to next? One guess on this one is all you’ll need… Stay tuned!

xoxo,

Amber

 

 

 

 

Disney at Christmas?

Two words that don’t typically go together – Disney and Christmas. Why is that? The period between Christmas and New Year’s is the most crowded and expensive time to visit Disney. We’re talking long lines for everything, even the bathrooms (YIKES!) Normally, about as close as I get to Christmas at Disney is the first week or so of December. I was feeling brave and lacking in holiday spirit, so I took the kid and hopped on a plane to the House of Mouse. Other than an unbelievably rainy day with a tornado warning (wait, what?!?), we had a great time strolling around, wearing our jingle bells.

Home base for this trip was Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter resort. This is my favorite moderate/mid-range resort at Disney, out of the four options because of its small size and easy to navigate layout. Years ago, the hubs and I had our first anniversary trip here. My, how time flies! The resort was beautifully decorated for the holidays and I always love how they incorporate the Mardi Gras colors of purple and gold into the decor there, even at the holidays.

Lobby tree at Port Orleans French Quarter

One of the many beautiful trees decorated for the holidays at Port Orleans French Quarter resort

I get asked a lot about weather in Florida, with many guests making the assumption that Florida has a tropical climate. That’s not the case by any means, as was evident during my trip. It poured rain like I’ve never seen one full day and there was a tornado in the immediate area, thus prompting the tornado warning, followed by two days of needing a winter coat. It seems like the Disney weather is taking a page from the Virginia weather playbook, freezing one day and 60 the next.

Despite the weather, we still had a blast, or maybe I should say ‘a splash’. There’s a reason why I recommend that you pack two pairs of shoes. Wearing a pair soaked completely through before they’ve had a chance to dry is the pits. The only water I had intended to visit was the Jungle Cruise in Magic Kingdom, to enjoy the ‘Jingle Cruise’ that it turns into during the holidays. The usual ‘punny’ jokes get a holiday twist and the ride scenes get some new decor. Super fun, well worth the FastPass with the long wait.

Santa Mickey topiaries

Santa Mickey topiaries in Epcot

As usual, Epcot didn’t disappoint with the holiday decor and seasonal entertainment. The ever-popular Candlelight Processional was in full force with Pat Sajak narrating one evening while we were in the park. The new-ish International Festival of the Holidays featured some fun food stands throughout World Showcase, where you could purchase sample-size foods from the various countries participating. We had every intention of doing some snacking but the pouring rain put a damper on that plan.

Chip and Dale holiday topiaries

Chip and Dale holiday topiaries in Epcot

After Chip and Dale kicked us out of Epcot, we headed to the Wilderness Lodge resort to try the new Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White meal. Character interaction was great and I loved The Queen there. It’s not often you get to meet a villain so I’m glad Disney added her into this meal’s story. The food however, was less than desirable for the two of us. I’m a vegetarian and the kid is mainly vegetarian so the meal options were blah compared to what carnivores would’ve enjoyed. That busted my bubble on the meal so I probably won’t go back without a menu change but I think others will enjoy it.

Banished by The Queen from Wilderness Lodge, we made our way to Magic Kingdom for the Very Merry Christmas Party. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m much more into Halloween than Christmas so I don’t normally do the Very Merry party. Feeling like a change, we decided to do the party and were pleasantly surprised with how much we enjoyed ourselves. I think that has a few different reasons this time: this was the really bad weather day so the crowds at the party were slim, despite being so close to Christmas; there were tons of free snacks; and the wait lines were very short. I’ve never even been in the regular queue for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train because the lines are always so long, but we only had about a 30 minute wait for the ride during the party. The queue was fun and our fellow riders got into the spirit by singing lots of holiday tunes as we waited. That pepped everyone up! The park had free wrapped cookies and drinks at a variety of locations and I’m still working on those here at home a couple of weeks later. Good cookies and so easy to bring back! Small snow cones and warm soft pretzels really capped off the night. The parade was outstanding and I remembered how much I missed seeing the toy soldiers and reindeers, plus my old pal, Wreck-it-Ralph.

Toy Soldiers

Toy Soldiers march along in the Very Merry Christmas Party parade in Magic Kingdom

Reindeers in the parade

Reindeers pranced behind the Toy Soldiers, so cute!

Wreck-it-Ralph

And I’m happy to say, Ralph did not wreck the parade!

We closed the park that night, dragging our bodies to the dead center of our room at French Quarter and falling asleep for the night. Oh, if only Disney World followed Disneyland’s lead in overlaying the Haunted Mansion ride with Nightmare before Christmas…

Another stop we had to make was at Disney Springs to see the Christmas Tree Trail. Disney set this up a couple of years back and continues to improve each year. I could not wait to see the Haunted Mansion and Star Wars themed trees this year and, wow, they hit those out of the park. I didn’t think the Bride could get any creepier but, seeing her in the tree, hot and cold running chills!

Haunted Mansion tree

The Haunted Mansion tree on the Christmas Tree Trail. See the bride?

Star Wars Tree

Here’s the Star Wars Tree on the Tree Trail. I loved those little Jawas!

Not to be missed was Hollywood Studios, even though they stopped presenting the Osborne Lights a couple of years ago. I had to see the ‘Hollywood Toy Hotel’ for myself and checkout the Toy Story Land Christmas add-ins. Definitely worth swinging by the park for a few hours.

Hollywood Toy Hotel

The Hollywood Toy Hotel with a ‘you’ve got a friend in me’ twist

All-in-all, great trip. Leaving Orlando right before Christmas gave us a good buffer from the major crowds and we enjoyed soaking up the Christmas offerings, not so much the rain though. If only I controlled the weather… I think there’s a fish for that, if we just feed him peanut butter sandwiches…

Until next time!

Amber

 

Surprise! We’re celebrating your birthday at Disney!

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

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

Waffles from Ale & Compass

Why yes, it was dessert for breakfast!

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

Yacht Club room curtains

Disney constellations!

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

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

Slinky Dog Dash

That wait time does indeed say 10 minutes!

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

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

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

Until next time…

Amber

Magical Express time

Time to get back on the bus…

One birthday, seven guests, some tigers, and 100 degrees! Back to Disney!

We hopped in the van and hit the road to the Sunshine State… me, the hubs, the kid, my mom, stepdad, and two nieces. You would think that seven people in a mini-van (love our Toyota Sienna!) for 12.5 hours would be a rough start to a trip but I think all the conversation made the ride seem quicker. The feet in the face, not so much (Skylar!) but otherwise the ride was smooth and our quick overnight in Georgia helped break up the drive.

Arriving in Orlando, we went first to SeaWorld, a first trip for the kids and the hubs. I hadn’t visited since I was a teenager years ago. The best part was the dolphin show, which I think most guests remember from trips as a child, but otherwise the park felt lacking. Too hot, too crowded, lacking enough signage, etc. I still have a hard time with some of their animal practices so that didn’t help my overall impression but I went in with an open mind on that front. There were way more rides than the last time I visited and those seemed to be the draw — in this seemingly animal-focused park. Weird.

Dolphin show at SeaWorld

Dolphin show at SeaWorld… such brilliant mammals!

At Disney, in all fairness, it was hot too but their parks seem to have more airflow and shady spots to take a break, sorely needed in the summer. We spent the next few days zipping from park to park, cramming in as much as possible so the nieces could hit the highlights in all four parks. Mine Train, Expedition Everest, Big Thunder Mountain, Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Avatar: Flight of Passage… even time for a spin on the Carousel of Progress. So much accomplished in a short three park days.

Eeyore

We even made time for this guy!

Everyone enjoyed the Happily Ever After fireworks dessert party in Magic Kingdom, despite Mother Nature’s attempt to rain us out. Big negative this time around was the dessert party crowd in the viewing area. Disney recently started offering a post-fireworks dessert party in addition to the pre-fireworks party. Those post-fireworks guests share the same viewing area with the pre-fireworks guests and that stinks. It was much more crowded than we experienced in March – during spring break. Hopefully this changes.

A super fun time was had by all at Typhoon Lagoon, with a Beachcomber Shack (private cabana) rental to enjoy all day long. We also visited Typhoon Lagoon one evening during a private Disney Vacation Club event but that was PACKED! Hard to find an empty chair anywhere and the lines were long throughout. So much for a limited admission event…

 

Typhoon Lagoon

An empty wave pool awaits at Typhoon Lagoon!

When we drive to Florida, I like to try to find fun things to do on the way home, if we have time. This trip had a planned activity on the way home that was thwarted by crazy hot/humid temperatures and rainstorms. I changed my plans on the fly to include a visit to the Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville, Florida. This is a non-profit, forever home for wild cats that have been abandoned, neglected, or given up for various reasons by private owners and zoos. If you’re ever in Jacksonville, I highly recommend checking their calendar to see if they’re open to the public for a night feeding that day. Super fun time for everyone, reasonably priced, and a great cause. You can even adopt one of the cats and help support their mission to build new enclosures. For local folks, this reminded me a lot of the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s origins with wild cats instead of native Virginia wildlife. Seeing tigers and lions frolicking with the Executive Director and volunteer staff was truly a memorable experience!

Catty Shack Ranch

Just chilling after a huge rainstorm, waiting on my dinner to be delivered!

Until next time… which happens to be very soon! Toy Story Land grand opening, here I come!

 

 

 

Visiting Disney to enjoy new experiences

Hello all! Amber here. In late July, the kid and I visited Walt Disney World on a mission to try as many new things as possible, in a super short timeframe. Did we succeed? YES! I’m going to turn it over to the kid to report in with the things we tried and her take as a tween.  Here we go!!

Hi! I’m Hailey and today I am going to tell you about all the new things we tried on this past trip. First things first flying, in the middle of summer, and in the afternoon is just asking for a disaster! We had to sit in the airport until about two hours after our original flight time, because of the weather in Orlando. But now to the more important stuff.

Our first park day was at Animal Kingdom. We had so much fun in Pandora, and both the rides were amazing! I would recommend riding Na’vi River Journey, it’s worth it after waiting in the line or using a FastPass for the ride. The food at the Satu’li Canteen was very good. I would recommend the quinoa salad with the black bean vinaigrette, I really enjoyed that. The veggie curry pods I didn’t enjoy as much as the salad, I’m pretty sure that the curry, and the overall texture, was my problem. But if you are a fan of curry and like steamed buns, you would probably like the pods much better than me. If you eat at the Satu’li Canteen you HAVE to try the blueberry cream cheese mousse, it was AMAZING! I think that while it took a long time to wait to ride Na’vi River Journey it would be a lot more worthwhile to save your FastPass for Flight of Passage, if you have any hope of riding it in a fair amount of time. But if traveling to Pandora with younger children, or children who are afraid of thrill rides or heights, it would be of more use to use your FastPass on the Na’vi River Journey ride.

If you like thrill rides or Soarin’, but more action packed, than this is the ride for you! Flight of Passage was an amazing ride! It was a lot less jerky than I thought it would be. It was a nice way to cool off in the hot afternoon. I would recommend Flight of Passage for kids my age, early teens, teens, or adventurous kids who are tall enough, like Soarin’ and are not afraid of heights. While you aren’t off the ground, it simulates you being thousands of feet up.

The Caring for Giants tour was a wonderful tour. I would recommend the Caring for Giants tour for mature eight year olds to nine or ten year olds and up. It was a truly amazing experience, getting to see elephants, just going about their business, kicking up sand to protect them from the sun, living in their natural habitats. It was an fantastic tour.

At Tusker House the buffet was delicious, and extremely vegetarian, which was very good for me and my mom! I think there is absolutely no need to go there for breakfast, when the food served for dinner is delicious. Now that the characters, Daisy, Mickey, Goofy, and Donald, as safari versions, come visit your table with all meals you don’t have to go there for breakfast to see them, you can see them all the time!

For the Rivers of Light show or package, I would recommend arriving around 35-45 minutes before the show starts, in order to get a good seat. I would recommend trying to get a seat in the first row of normal seats, for the best view. I wouldn’t recommend giving your child a freshly refilled bubble wand when every one is all clumped up in one spot, no one likes to be sticky or have bubbles in their Starbucks.

Rivers of Light was a fantastic show! It didn’t need to have fireworks to be an amazing show! It was very nice I enjoyed the projections onto the screen of water, they were beautiful. Also, if you are visiting Animal Kingdom in the night you must visit Pandora! Everything starts glowing and it is beautiful! Just make sure to stay hydrated whether you are visiting Africa or a guest among the sights of the world of Pandora.

I definitely recommend the Amorette’s cake decorating class in Disney Springs for mature nine to ten year olds (and up) who have a passion for baking. For me, as a twelve year old, who loves to bake, I really, really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about cake decorating. I would definitely try out any of their new cake decorating classes!

In Epcot, I would recommend the Frozen Ever After ride to fans of Frozen and really anyone. But I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a Frozen ride to be so much like Splash Mountain! It was a great ride for cooling off. I also really enjoyed the Behind the Seeds tour, which is where you get to learn more behind the scenes information about The Land, I think it is more geared towards mature nine or ten year olds and up. I think it was a really neat tour and I learned a lot about the plants and fish in The Land.

On the way to Magic Kingdom from Epcot, we tried out the new Express Transportation service. It was very handy, being on a tight schedule, as long as you are there on the dot and ready to board the bus, or else you have to wait a half a hour for the next bus to arrive. It didn’t take nearly as long as the regular bus service, but that’s in the name right? Anyway, I would definitely recommend using the Express Transportation if you are on a tight schedule and park hopping, so you don’t miss your Be Our Guest reservations.

I really enjoyed Tony’s for dinner in Magic Kingdom, and I recommend it for anyone who likes pizza, pasta, and anything Italian of course! I also definitely would recommend the caprese salad there, it is amazing! I also would recommend the Happily Ever After dessert party, there are lots of different sweets there for you to enjoy, and they are wonderful! I really liked the cookies and cream mousse, it was delicious.

The Happily Ever After show was a spectacular show, with fireworks and projections onto Cinderella’s Castle. I think to get the full experience, you have to see the castle, not just the fireworks. I really enjoyed this past trip with my mom, we have tried lots and lots of new things, with a few familiar things among them.

In the future, look for more trip reports from me!

~Hailey

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Desserts at the Happily Ever After dessert party

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This is a Winter Melon!

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Cake decorating at Amorette’s in Disney Springs

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Safari Daisy at Tusker House

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Caring for Giants Elephant Tour

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Lunch at Satu’li Canteen in Animal Kingdom