Friday, October 30, 2009

A Taste Of The World - A Breath Of Fresh Air

There are several restaurants at Walt Disney World that are very underrated. The Fresh Mediterranean Market in the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel is definitely one of them. If you haven't heard of it or haven't tried it you aren't alone. But don't let the relative lack of popularity dissuade you from heading over to the Epcot resort area in order to give it a try.

Hidden away on the ground floor of the Dolphin, Fresh serves light and absolutely delicious Mediterranean fare. In flavor and variety, it is similar to Boma or Tusker House (both of which make the top 5 favorite WDW restaurant list for all 4 of us - see A Taste Of The World, October 12) and also in the fact that it is a buffet. The main difference is that Boma and Tusker House both focus primarily on an African menu, with some Mediterranean influence while Fresh focuses on the scope of Mediterranean variety that includes north African flavors.

Fresh is open for breakfast and lunch, but not dinner, unfortunately. We haven't had the pleasure of trying breakfast here, but have had lunch at this hidden treasure a few times. As in the name, the emphasis here is on a wide variety of freshly prepared foods with huge Mediterranean flavors. Behind the buffet counter the Chefs are in full view so you can see the items actually being prepared and cooked in real time (see above pic). They can also custom prepare an item on the fly if you request. In addition, the menu has been slightly different each time I've been there, so that also helps to keep the can we say this...fresh, from visit to visit! Personally, I'm a fan of rotating menus, especially when it comes to an emphasis on seasonally fresh foods, as they have here.

Mediterranean staples such as authentic Greek salad, antipasto dishes and hummus and pita are offered along with a variety of soups and other light appetizers. There is usually at least one offering each of a chicken, fish and beef dish (I've had the Chicken Marsala which was very good) in order to offer several options. Wraps and panini sandwiches have also been offered - a rotisserie chicken wrap I tried at one point very much stands out. The desserts are also incredible and very similar to what you would find in Boma (sans Zebra Domes, though).

You may ask yourself, "If Fresh is so great and it's so similar to Boma and Tusker House, why didn't it make your top 5?" Good question. It very nearly did. However, I do place it a notch below both, even though they are similar. I'm not crazy about the fact that it's not open for dinner, and lunch is on the expensive side (last time I was there it was around $19.00). And just the fact that it's located in the Dolphin lends it a sense of detachment, even if that's not truly the case; it just seems like you are going out of your way to get there. After all, Tusker and Boma are both part of the Animal Kingdom area and that inclusion makes them feel like they are more a part of Disney World than does Fresh. And most importantly, Tusker House and Boma also have a larger buffet selection to choose from, as well.

If you're staying at the Swan, Dolphin, or any of the Epcot resort hotels, do yourself a favor and run over to try least for lunch. Or, if you're an Epcot regular and have tried most of what the World Showcase has to offer for lunch, give it a try as well. I'm hoping if it continues to grow in popularity, they may decide to open it up for dinner too!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tip Of The Tail - Halloween & Trick-Or-Treating at Downtown Disney

Downtown Disney can be a great (and free) option for those who are looking for a quality place to take their kids trick-or-treating. We did this last year and Chance and Katie (the Jedi and Purple Cheetah(?) pictured above) had a lot of fun and made out like bandits with candy.

There are a few things to keep in mind, however:

Arrive early...very early
First, consider that Halloween is on a Saturday night, and most Saturday nights at Downtown Disney are relatively crowded and the parking difficult to find as it is, so you have that working against you.

Second, it's Halloween and everything is free (no parking fees, no entrance fees, no hard ticket needed, etc.). So while Downtown Disney is popular for local families to begin with, it becomes even more popular this particular evening. The Halloween events (trick-or-treating, street performers, magic shows, etc.) begin at 5 pm, so arrive much earlier than that - I suggest at least a couple hours early.

Park at the West Side
Yes, most of the trick-or-treating locations and Halloween performances are in the Marketplace, but forget about parking there - it will most likely be a futile effort and a waste of time (and may be completely roped off from entry, in fact). Try parking at the West Side, over by Disney Quest and Cirque du Soleil. Yes, you're further away from most of the action, but not ALL of the action is over at Marketplace. There were several locations at West Side last year for trick-or-treating, so that shouldn't be missed anyway. The benefits to this plan are that you'll have a much easier time parking (meaning a quicker start to the festivities and your evening), you won't neglect the offerings in the West Side and Pleasure Island (which you'll hit as you walk through on your way to Marketplace), and it will enable you to simply save time and frustration.

Some locations have multiple lines...then hit the lines multiple times
Make sure to read the handouts/posters regarding which stores and locations actually have trick-or-treat lines; not every store does. Last year, there were lines at World of Disney, Once Upon A Toy, Disney's Pin Traders, Mickey's Pantry and a few others. So check out your options before wasting time visiting all the stores thinking there may be treats when in reality some aren't participating.

As in the Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, each line will hand out multiple pieces of candy to the kids, but due to the limited number of participating stores they have throughout, the kids may want to line up again at some of the same lines again. Nowhere did Disney say this is not allowed, and the CM's see so many different kids in costumes they'd never know anyway (and it would be impossible to enforce). So don't be afraid to go back to a line the kids have already been through in order to fill up their bags a little more.

Also, some stores like World of Disney, usually have multiple lines...some at the entrances, and some deeper in the store that might not be easily seen or known to even be there! Those lines are usually the shortest!

Don't forget Ghirardelli
The incredible Ghirardelli chocolate shop always hands out free chocolate squares to whoever enters the store anyway, but they do even a little more during Halloween. They usually have one or two additional employees outside the store with baskets of chocolate squares, handing them out to trick-or-treaters. Now who wouldn't want some Ghirardelli squares as part of their Halloween goody bag?

We'll be there on Saturday, and it should be a lot of fun. So, until you...and you...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh, You'll Love This...Just One More (Free) Thing...

A few weeks ago we released an article (Tip Of The Tail, October 2nd, 2009) about our favorite FREE things at Walt Disney World. In retrospect, we neglected to mention one very important free thing. And this might actually be my favorite of all: the free drawing you get to take home from the Magic Of Animation attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Now, this attraction has changed over time. Years ago, when MGM Studios was still being used as an actual studio for movie and TV production, this attraction allowed for you to watch Disney animators draw actual movie cells of an in-progress movie and explain the whole process. It was fascinating. For example, I remember visiting this attraction in 2003 when they were animating Brother Bear. That was the best part of the Magic Of Animation attraction. Now, the best part is where you take home your free souvenir.

After entering the attraction, you are lead into a small studio with theater seating. On stage a Disney animator interacts with an animated Mushu (on TV screens above the animator) as they explain the basics of 2-D animation. It actually is informative and entertaining the first time seeing it, and it is worth the time (even if the previous version of real working animators working on actual in-progress movies was MUCH better). From there, you are emptied out into the main attraction area that showcases a room decorated to simulate an animation studio (it's chock-full of cool trinkets, toys and sculptures). After that is a second room that does have production art and cell art hanging on the walls, usually of an upcoming movie that they are promoting. Earlier in the year they had art for Up, and currently (unless it has changed in the last couple of weeks) it is of The Princess And The Frog. It is very interesting to see, even if it really is now just a glorified advertisement at this point.

There are two levels to the Animation studio - you exit the theater onto the upper level. The bottom level has a meet & greet area that usually features Sorcerer Mickey. There are also several stations that allow guests to play with interactive games. The upper level has a smaller meet & greet (our last time there they had the Incredibles posing for photos) and the animation studio where the drawing classes take place. The classes usually change out every 20 or so minutes.

You enter the room and take a seat behind actual drawing/drafting desks. In front of you is a blank sheet of drawing paper (with the Hollywood Studios logo) and an eraser-less pencil. The animator begins to explain the process of basic character drawing, putting emphasis on drawing very lightly in geometric shapes to start. The animators usually have a humorous and effective way of explaining each step clearly enough so that most all can catch on quickly. Having a background in drawing or illustration obviously helps, but anyone can do this and have fun with it. In recent months we've drawn classic Mickey, Goofy and Eeyore (Brian and Katie's efforts pictured here - sorry about the wrinkles!). It's a perfect souvenir to take home and even frame if you want. The kids love this and beg to do it every time we're at the Studios. And it's free!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tip Of The Tail - Jambo, Simba One!

Now that we've given Animal Kingdom its props, we might as well stay over on that side of The Mouse and hand out a few of our best tips for one of that park's best attractions: Kilimanjaro Safari.

There are two great times to hit this ride: first thing in the morning and during Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade.

Experiencing the Safari first thing in the morning is the absolute best time to see the animals. This is the time they are most active, so you'll usually see more at this time of day than at any other point. So if you're not a coaster person and won't be visiting Everest (or if the Safari is simply more important to you), then head over to Africa first thing and get the camera ready!

The other best time to experience the Safari is during the Jammin' Jungle Parade, which usually starts at 3:00 pm. The reason why is because the parade begins at the back stage gate which is directly adjacent to the entrance to the Safari. This alone will keep people out of the Safari because the parade is right there, and it is actually pretty good and very unusual. People also make a point to line the walkways of the Animal Kingdom in order to watch the parade, and this simply means more people along the walkways, means fewer people in line at the Safari (and most other attractions).

There are a few things to consider when deciding between these options though. If you ride the Safari first thing, you will be sacrificing Everest until much later in the day. By the time you finish the ride and head over to Asia, the standby line will be ridiculous no matter the time of year - and the fastpasses won't be for until closer to noon by that time. And it's safe to say that the Safari and Everest are the two biggest must-do attractions at AK, so most people will want to accommodate time for both during the day.

If you ride the Safari during the Jammin Jungle Parade, then of course, you'll miss the Parade. And as far as Parades go, this one is pretty good. So, ultimately, it's about what's most important to you.

Also, a small bonus tip. For anyone who is into hidden Mickey heads, check out the island at the Flamingo exhibit during the Safari...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Defending Disney's Animal Kingdom!

Animal Kingdom has its detractors. Over the years I've read many complaints on message boards or heard first hand the shots that have been taken at this incredible and underrated theme park.

They say it's a half day park because there aren't enough attractions. They say it's a glorified zoo. They say there aren't enough restaurants and the ones they have are horrible. They say it isn't "Disney-enough".

They are wrong, I say!

In fact, Animal Kingdom has made huge strides in recent years - and perhaps made the biggest strides of all four Disney theme parks.

So let's refute the above accusations one at a time:

"I don't like Animal Kingdom because there isn't enough to do. There aren't enough attractions. I'm not gonna spend $80 on a half day park. Boooo!"
I strongly disagree with this sentiment. The real charm of Animal Kingdom - its engrossing theming and attention to detail - makes it so that if you truly appreciate it for what it is, there isn't enough time in the day to do everything!

There are a several 5 Mouse Ear* rated attractions and shows at this park: Kilimanjaro Safari, Expedition Everest, Dinosaur and The Festival Of The Lion King. There are also several 4 Mouse Ear* rated attractions and shows at this park: Tough To Be A Bug, Finding Nemo: The Musical, Kali River Rapids and Flights of Wonder. And enough walking trails (Pangani Forest Trail in Africa, Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia, Tree of Life paths on Discovery Island) that just the above attractions/shows would fill up an entire day if one tried to hit them all.

This doesn't even take into consideration DeVine, the Jammin' Jungle Parade, Conservation Station, Rafiki's Planet Watch, the animals and scenery around the Oasis and Discovery Island, The Boneyard, the live musical acts, the shops, restaurants and simply stopping to smell the roses in this incredibly themed park. There is definitely more than enough here to fill up an entire day - especially if you're there for the first time.

"Animal Kingdom is just a glorified zoo."
Name another zoo that features a Yeti that attacks you as you climb Mount Everest (see photos above; my brother Kevin with our dad at Everest during his free birthday day at Animal Kingdom) or dinosaurs that chase after you during a meteor shower 65 million years ago. It also has Safari Mickey. Case closed.

"They have no restaurants at Animal Kingdom. What's that one...the one with the rain storms? That's all they have."
This used to be a valid point. They didn't have much as far as dining went at Animal Kingdom until just a couple years ago - especially table service. Then Yak and Yeti and the renovated Tusker House came into play.

Tusker House has cracked my top 5 restaurants in ALL of Walt Disney World. The place is incredible (see our Taste Of The World article from October 12 for our views on it) and I consider it Boma's little brother. It's a buffet that's open for breakfast and lunch (and dinner when the park is open late enough) and the food is outstanding. I've only been to Yak and Yeti once, and I have to say it was pretty good. Nothing great, but an admirable addition to a park that was basically devoid of table service. The theming is INCREDIBLE at Yak and Yeti, and the food decent. Its prices are outrageous though, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. While Yak and Yeti might not ever crack my list of absolute favorite sit-down restaurants, it blows the Rainforest Cafe out of the water.

And like most counter service restaurants in The Mouse, most here are nothing to write home about. But the Animal Kingdom does feature at least one very good and unique counter service restaurant - the Flametree Barbecue. Nothing else like it in The Mouse.

They also have the brand new "Picnic In The Park" option at AK. We have not tried this yet, but reviews are generally positive.

So while Animal Kingdom is no Epcot when it comes to dining, at least now you have some quality options available.

"Animal Kingdom just doesn't feel like 'Disney' to me. It's just about animals."
Believe it or not, I've heard this one multiple times. Where do we start? Epcot isn't exactly all about "Disney" or the classic Disney movies. Never mind that it was an original Walter Elias Disney idea. So was Animal Kingdom - at least to a degree. Walt originally wanted real animals on the Jungle Cruise until he realized what a logistical and financial nightmare that would have been. He was also the person who basically INVENTED televised animal documentaries with the True-Life Adventures series in the late 1940's into the 50's. Animals have played a central role in almost all of his films since the very beginning.

So if anyone believes animals haven't played a massive role in the life and career of Walt Disney (and then, in turn, deserve a theme park dedicated to them), then they need to remember that it was all started by a mouse.

*See the Around The Mouse attraction rating system on the sidebar.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pin The Tail On The Mouse

I admit I never understood the popularity of pin trading. Now, pin collecting? Sure. I thought it was a cool idea to purchase an individual pin here and there to commemorate an important day or event as a take-home souvenir. But pin trading? I thought that not only would it be extremely expensive (the least expensive pin you can buy is about $7.00 and it can go up infinitely), but who wants to spend all their time in the parks trading pins when so much else is going on and there's so much to do?

Well, I was misguided on both counts. Not only can pin collecting/trading be relatively inexpensive, but it can be a great way to enhance your trips to The Mouse.

And yes, you read that correctly: it can be relatively inexpensive. For example, I've used Ebay to great effect in purchasing pins. There are many Ebay sellers out there with "Lots" of copyrighted Disney trading pins that can be had from $1.00 - $1.50 per pin. You can buy them in groups of 10, 15, 20 or more. This can set up your trading for months at a fraction of the cost of what you'd get them for at any Disney World pin trading station. Just divvy them out amongst your family and it gives the kids something to focus on during the trip.

Personally, I collect pins that have to do with two subjects in particular: classic Mickey Mouse and the Walt Disney World theme parks themselves. My wife Hope focuses on castles (mostly Cinderella castle, of course, but she just loves all of the castles), our daughter Katie focuses on the "coolest" pins she can find, especially limited editions, and our son Chance focuses and Vinylmation pins. So we all have something to target our trading and collecting efforts toward. It gives the hobby a purpose!

By the way, both Hope I used a portion of our Disney Birthday Fun Cards to purchase a beautiful Mickey Mouse shadow box that houses our collections - for the pins that are "untradable" (see pic to the left). The rest of the pins go on the laynard and are fair game to trade away... ultimately, for pins that will go in the shadow box!

Now, saving money is nice - and these days imperative for just about everyone. But it was to my very pleasant surprise that collecting/trading pins can also very much make your Disney trip all that much more fun and enjoyable. It's a little frosting on the cake, and like with most hobbies, it's almost addictive. It can allow you to interact with one of the most underrated aspects of Walt Disney World: the Cast Members. A great many of them are personable and friendly and love to talk with the guests...many give tips, suggestions and shortcuts, and on a rare occasion some have even given the kids a free pin! And it can be fascinating talking to someone who is from halfway around the world, working at The Mouse. Don't underestimate the value in the personal connections you can create with Cast Members.

So finally, to sum up, along the way we've learned some things that might help you if you decide to get into Disney pin trading or collecting:

1. Buy bulk pins from Ebay for about $1.50 per pin. Make sure the seller indicates they have the official Disney Pin Trading logo on the back.

2. Decide on a subject to collect and focus on that (Mickey Mouse, Animal Kingdom, Stitch, etc.). Encourage your kids to do this as well to give them some direction.

3. Enjoy your interaction with the Cast Members. Half the fun of trading around the parks is getting to know some of these extraordinary people from all over the world.

4. Most resorts have a pin book at guest services, check-in or concierge. These books are several pages long and are filled with pins. The books are not well publicized or well known and could be filled with hidden treasures.

5. Guest Services at each park also have a pin book. This isn't well publicized either.

6. Look for a pin board (a cork board loaded with pins for trading) at Mouse Gears in Epcot, the gift store at the Boardwalk Resort, and the Pin Trading Station at Downtown Disney. I'm sure other places have these as well. Ask around.

7. Tom Corless and John Rick of the WDW News Today network host a very entertaining and educational podcast dedicated to Disney pin collecting/trading called the Disney Pincast. Look it up on iTunes. Highly recommended if you're into pins or will be getting into them in the future.

8. Check out as a tremendous reference for Disney pins. They have photos and information for almost every Disney-related pin ever made. And it is ever growing.

9. Cast Members with green lanyards can only trade with kids. Black lanyards are open to trade with anyone.

10. Personally, I have found Animal Kingdom to be the best park to trade with Cast Members. I've found the most unique pins I've ever traded for at that park. Coincidence? Hmmm...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sum Of All Thrills: The KUKA Monster

Last night my daughter Katie and I had an opportunity to ride Epcot's newest attraction, Sum Of All Thrills. This new attraction is located in the Innoventions Blue building across from Don't Waste It!. Basically, Thrill is about allowing people to understand how math and science are used to create cool and thrilling stuff, like a roller coaster. You use those math and science principals to create your own thrill ride (a bobsled, roller coaster, or jet), then program it into the KUKA robot arm and it takes you on a thrilling, 4-D ride so you can experience your own creation. Very cool idea.

Hope and I had told the kids about the new ride and the new huge KUKA robots that are the backbone of this attraction as we were walking past Spaceship Earth on the way to Innoventions. Upon entering Innoventions, Katie said, "I can't wait to ride the KUKA Monster!" Now that is awesome. I wish they named it The KUKA Monster.

One hang-up, though: the minimum height requirement for Sum is 48" - Katie is tall enough, but Chance isn't. So Chance and Hope went to Club Cool for a while to knock back some Beverly while waiting. The other unfortunate part is that in order to do any inversions (loops, corkscrews, etc.), you have to be 54" tall - Katie is about a 1/2" away from that. So none of the truly thrilling stuff for us.

This looks awesome from the outside. The 4 huge robotic KUKA arms throw passengers around for all to see. The green, blue and red glowing lights from the attraction contrast well with the dark interior of Innoventions, and in combination with the robots, gives the whole attraction an otherworldly appearance.

The wait time for the attraction was about 20 minutes. Not bad, considering Epcot was CROWDED (both the Discover and Create parking lots were near full) was a cool Sunday evening during Food & Wine Festival, after all. I attribute the short line to the fact that not many people enter Innoventions, and also that this attraction hasn't benefited from a huge amount of publicity. Either way, we were grateful for the relatively short wait time. Waiting in line, Katie began admitting to the butterflies in her stomach. Now, this is a 10-year-old girl who begs to ride Expedition Everest, Rock & Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror and Primeval Hurl (err, Whirl)- and has since age 7. Not much makes her anxious, but the exterior of this did.

You move from the outer queue line into the Briefing Room. Before entering the briefing room, you're given a card that you will load your ride information, and that is what will upload your custom ride to your KUKA robot. The Briefing Room is similar to the Briefing Room at Test Track - it's there simply to give you an overview of what you're about to experience. You exit the Briefing room into the Design Lab. The Lab is where you actually design your ride from scratch. Using a large touch-screen monitor and design tools, you choose your ride and custom build it as you want. This is very easy and almost anyone should be able to work with it in order to make your ride. From there, you move upstairs toward the loading area. Once you're up, there are a handful of lockers to load loose items into before sitting down on the KUKA Monster. The cover comes down, and you're ready to go.

I didn't know exactly what to expect here; but it's very Mission Space-like. A monitor is directly in front of your face, and there is a picture-in-picture element so that I could see Katie next to me. The ride schematics load, and you're off.

I must say Sum Of All Thrills isn't that thrilling. It truly is a lot of fun, and worth doing...but not all that thrilling. The graphics on the monitor are more video game than realistic, and the extremely smooth nature of the movement actually takes away from thrill, I think. Now, Sum is very good - and good enough to raise the cool factor of Innoventions 10-fold. Innoventions needs more things like this. And the fact that you can literally design a different experience every time you ride is a huge plus. But as for the "thrill", I'll have to reserve my judgement for when I can actually do the loops and corkscrews to see the true extent of this attraction's thrill capabilities. We'll see!

Katie loved it though. "Turns out it wasn't scary at all! But it was a lot of fun! Can we do it again?!?!"

That says it all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tip Of The Tail - A Monorail Shortcut

It's about 10:00 pm and Wishes just ended. The mass exodus out of Magic Kingdom has just begun. Many thousands of people are trying to funnel down through Main Street, USA and Town Square at the same time, all trying to...just...get...home. It's a madhouse.

A hefty amount of those people head toward the ferry boat dock, and that's a long wait for the slow ferry boats. Others head toward the buses. A small percentage are heading to the boat docks for the neighboring resorts on the Seven Seas Lagoon. And an even smaller amount make the short trek on foot to the Contemporary.

The rest are headed toward the Walt Disney World Monorail. Including you. You're parked at the Ticket and Transportation Center and need to get back to your car. You wanted the freedom to drive everywhere because you didn't want to dedicate several hours each day riding buses. Or maybe you're staying off-site. Or maybe you are local and still need to make the drive home. Any way you cut it, you want to shave off as much time getting back to your car as possible.

But there is help if you decide to take the monorail back to the TTC. Nearly everyone who is in the same boat as you who is taking the monorail will exit Magic Kingdom, and with the help of CMs waving you along, will head toward the right side of the Magic Kingdom Monorail Station. It runs counter-clockwise back toward the TTC. It doesn't stop anywhere else, so the ride itself isn't bad - just a few minutes. But it's getting on the monorail that's the trick. The line at that time of night is usually insane, and that is for almost any time of year.

Avoid it. Take Resort Monorail on the left side of the Station instead - it also stops at the TTC. It runs clockwise out of the Magic Kingdom Monorail Station toward the Contemporary. Yes, it stops at the Contemporary for a pick-up/drop-off, but it doesn't take long. Then it hits the TTC and you're home free.

The whole key is that the line for the Resort monorail is NEVER as long as the TTC line on the other side of the Station. It's only ever a fraction of the length, making the wait to actually get on the monorail much, much shorter.

Time is of the essence when at The Mouse, and this little tip can be a huge time-saver.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Mouse Is In The Details - Serenity Now!

When in Walt Disney World, many times we're so busy running from one attraction, show or parade to another that we don't stop to smell the roses and relax. And it's important to smell the roses sometimes. Not only can it give you a greater appreciation for the creative genius behind the design of the parks and resorts, but sometimes it can give you a much needed break from the hectic pace of the day.

Below is a list of our favorite chill-out spots for you to take advantage of when you need a little break. Some of them I'm sure you've heard of, seen, or even visited and took advantage of. But if you haven't, give them a try :

Koi fish pond and garden, Japan Pavilion, Epcot
The Japan pavilion is personally my favorite of the 11 that encircle the World Showcase lagoon in Epcot. And within that pavilion resides one of the most serene and peaceful spots you can find in Walt Disney World: the Japanese garden. This easily overlooked garden sits almost hidden behind the huge 5-story Goju-no-to pagoda. At ground level is a beautiful pond filled with huge multi-colored koi fish and several small waterfalls. Behind the koi fish pond are winding pathways and rustic bridges leading upward into a traditional Japanese garden. Meticulously kept trees, paths, flowers, pebbles, lanterns and other beautiful ornaments give this area an authentic aura of serenity. At the top, outside of the Yakatori House (the pavilion's underrated counter-service restaurant), the garden theme is continued into a small courtyard. Small tables adorn the courtyard where you can enjoy something from the restaurant if you wish as you listen to the waterfalls of yet another beautiful pond. Garden lanterns hang overhead, lending to the courtyard a beautiful, atmospheric glow at night. The whole garden is an oasis and should not be missed.

Walkway along Village Lake at Downtown Disney
"Relaxing" and "Downtown Disney" aren't usually anything you'd pair together. The Marketplace, especially at night, is usually very crowded. And while the West Side isn't what it used to be (with so many store closings), it still gets very hectic as well - especially with Disney Quest, the AMC theater, House of Blues and Cirque du Soliel all down on that end. However, there is an area to Downtown Disney that can get you away from all of that: the walkway along Village Lake. Running alongside the beautiful body of water that separates Downtown Disney from the DVC resorts of Saratoga Springs and Old Key West, this path extends the length of the West Side, from behind Cirque du Soliel all the way to the Pleasure Island bridge (by the new Characters In Flight helium balloon attraction). Along this path sit numerous benches that provide a beautiful view of the lights of the resorts and Marketplace shimmering on the water. Here, the chaos of Downtown Disney seems very, very distant.

Dawa Bar patio, Animal Kingdom
The Dawa Bar in the Africa section of Animal Kingdom is a relative hidden gem in and of itself. It is one of the few places in the parks (besides World Showcase) where adult beverages can be purchased and enjoyed outside of a table service restaurant. But the bar itself isn't what we're talking about here; we're referring to the patio behind the bar itself. This area is fairly well hidden and easily overlooked. Whether you're enjoying something from the bar or just looking for a place to get away from the crowd, it provides a rather secluded spot with great scenery - a wonderful view of the river its surrounding greenery.

Walkway from Toontown to Space Mountain in Fantasyland
This may not necessarily be a place to sit and get a load off, but it is usually barren. Very few people take advantage of this shortcut to begin with, let alone realize it's even there. This allows for a leisurely stroll that provides glimpses of the Magic Kingdom Railroad Train as it moves along the parameter of the park and the Tomorrowland Speedway in addition to plenty of relative solitude. Bonus: During the Not So Scary Halloween Party, it's a place to rack up the candy!

Walkway deck opposite Boardwalk and Yacht & Beach Clubs
Now, there are very few (if any) poor views anywhere along the Boardwalk. It's one of the most beautiful places in Walt Disney World, either during the day or at night (try early morning before most people get up - it's you, the sound of seagulls, boats and soft early morning sunshine - you're transported back in time 100 years). But there's only one spot that provides a full view of the whole Boardwalk itself AND the Yacht & Beach Clubs. You can only get that view along the covered walkway deck just after the ESPN Club. Most people do not frequent this area as they are usually in a hurry to either get into the Boardwalk area, or back into Epcot. So this little nook provides one of the most serene, scenic views anywhere in The World.

Caribbean Beach Resort Nooks and Crannies
What says relaxation more than a hammock? Well, the areas around the Caribbean Beach Resort are LITTERED with them. I'm not just talking about the hammocks on the sandy beach areas. They are all over the place. Little secluded and tree-covered outcroppings with a hammock or two or three are there for the taking - you just have appeal to your adventurous side to seek them out. But once you find them, you're set - and ready to doze off for as long as you can handle.

Walkway along Sassagoula River at the Port Orleans Resort
Walkways and water are a common trait to most of these spots, and this last selection is no different. The sidewalk running along the Sassagoula River between the Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter Resort hotels is a thing of beauty. Incredible scenery and unique architecture at both resorts lend greatly to the atmosphere as do the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. It's a romantic stroll at night and a relaxing stroll during the day. Benches dot the path so you can have a seat and enjoy for as long as you want.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Taste Of The World

Top 5 Walt Disney World Eateries

Everyone knows that a huge part of the Walt Disney World experience is the food. Wonderful table service restaurants, countless counter service restaurants, and even food carts with some of the most famous snack foods around (premium Mickey Head Ice Cream bars, churros) and full-on 1,100-calorie bombs (turkey legs!) provide more choices than anyone can fathom. We've decided to narrow it down to our top 5 favorites - regardless of the type of establishment - in all of The Mouse.


1. Casey's Corner, Magic Kingdom
"I like the cheese sauce, the cartoons and the stadium seating! I like the baseball uniforms too."
2. Tusker House, Animal Kingdom
"As many 7-layer cookies as you want. Better than Boma."
3. Boma, Animal Kingdom Lodge
"Yummy food, get as much dessert as you want!"
4. Beaches & Cream, Yacht & Beach Club Resort
"I like how they turn the lights down and give you the Kitchen Sink!"
5. Aloha Isle, Magic Kingdom
"Dole Whip (float)! Pineapple juice and ice cream are yummy on a hot day."


1. Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, Disney's Hollywood Studios
"I love the movie screen and that you're sitting in a car while you eat dinner. Really good chocolate milkshake!"
2. Boma, Animal Kingdom Lodge
"Zebra domes! I picked Boma to celebrate my birthday because I love it. I tried squid in a salad though - because I thought they were croutons. Yuck."
3. Tusker House, Animal Kingdom
"Love the 7-layer cookie - very sweet! The Cast Members there are so nice."
4. Biergarten, Germany Pavilion, Epcot
"I think the buffet is really good - and it's HUGE like Boma's. At Christmas the band has a show where they gave us chocolate coins!"
5. Beaches & Cream, Yacht & Beach Club Resort
"I love the Kitchen Sink. And I like how they challenge you to finish it!"


1. Tusker House, Animal Kingdom
"You don't have to leave the Animal Kingdom so you can have your seven layer cookie and then go toss it on Expedition Everest."
2. Boma, Animal Kingdom Lodge
"Disney's take on South African food is delish! The carrot ginger soup is incredible and there are so many options I don't have to worry when trying to please a picky eater in our group."
3. Les Chefs de France, France Pavilion, Epcot
"This meal was one of the highlights of our Disney Honeymoon. Romantic and beautiful, Les Chefs de France is a great place to celebrate with that special someone."
4. San Angel Inn, Mexico Pavilion, Epcot
"This was the first real Disney table service restaurant I experienced and it did not disappoint. The atmosphere is amazing and fun and the food was great. I almost forgot that I wasn't actually in Mexico!"
5. Main Street Bakery, Magic Kingdom
"Nothing beats having a warm flaky croissant in the early morning right on Main Street! I love to sip the frozen strawberries and cream smoothie as I stroll right up to the best part of The World, the Castle!"


1. Boma, Animal Kingdom Lodge
"There's SO MUCH to love here - butternut squash soup, carrot ginger soup, bobotie, couscous, prime rib, zebra domes, passion fruit tarts and more. They even rotate their offerings so the menu is not the same very day. My favorite buffet, but this is definitely not standard buffet food. Exotic but relatively safe choices."
2. Les Chefs de France, France Pavilion, Epcot
"Wonderful in every way imaginable. The food was outstanding (starting with the lobster bisque and flatbread appetizers - delicious). The service was great. But the best part is the location and atmosphere, especially at night; that golden glow creates such an intimate and authentic experience. If you're lucky enough to get a table in the enclosed patio, go for it - being able to see the lagoon and having that fountain bubbling just outside is spectacular."
3. Jiko, Animal Kingdom Lodge
"Couldn't have made better choices for our honeymoon than Les Chefs de France and Jiko. Both were incredible and romantic. The seared scallops were OUT OF THIS WORLD. Our server was a knowledgeable guide through all the courses, making great recommendations for wine and dessert. The decor and design of this restaurant is second to none and that adds to the intimate atmosphere. Fantastic all around."
4. Tusker House, Animal Kingdom
"Boma's baby brother. In some areas, it even has it beat: open for lunch, you don't have to leave Animal Kingdom to eat at a great restaurant, and a better buffet layout. The Orzo pasta with spinach and feta is Greatness in food form - not to be missed. And, of course, there is the 7-layer cookie."
5. Biergarten, Germany Pavilion, Epcot
"Never truly realized how much I loved traditional German food before visiting Biergarten. Cheese spaetzel is a highlight as is the apple strudel with vanilla sauce. The Bavarian town theme and music makes for an awesome experience. Beware though: long tables mean communal dining with people from other parties. If you don't mind this, it isn't a problem. Sometimes, it even pluses your experience."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tip Of The Tail - Getting the Most Out Of Illuminations

There are 3 incredible end-of-the-night fireworks shows at Walt Disney World: Wishes at Magic Kingdom, Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios and Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot. All three are extremely popular events with some important things you might want to consider before attending. In this first of three installments, we offer some tips about how to best enjoy Illuminations.

1. Find a spot upwind around World Showcase Lagoon
This might be the most important tip. There is a tremendous amount of smoke (and sometimes little bits of debris) as a result of the fireworks and the fire barge in Illuminations. These relatively low-lying effects can create a low cloud that can blow almost directly in your face on a windy evening if you're downwind. It can be very uncomfortable, so find a spot upwind on the World Showcase lagoon. An easy way to determine wind direction (aside from finding a free-flying flag as visual refrence) is to pick up a few blades of grass and release them into the wind. Stand on the side of the lagoon the grass blows away from. It will result in a much more enjoyable experience. The smoke generally isn't a problem - but it can be, as I've personally experienced this in the past - so you might as well play it safe.

2. Arrive early
If you haven't seen Illuminations, it's a good idea to get a spot that has as unobstructed a view as possible. This will entail arriving a good 30-45 minutes before show time. Some people camp out on a bench even earlier than that (especially during very busy days), but unless you need to sit down for an extended period of time, all you really need is a spot right up against the fence to ensure nobody will stand in front of you.

3. Get a spot as close to the "Globe" as possible
There are three spots around the lagoon that I have found are extremely close to the "globe" when it comes to its stopping point during the show:
- The Italy pavilion gondola pier
- Opposite side of the lagoon from the American Pavilion between the two merchandise stores
- The lower seating/table area in the UK behind the Yorkshire County Fish & Chips counter service stand.

This is important because the closer you are to the "globe", the easier it will be to see the images that are on its surface - and it makes that part of Illuminations much more interesting. Now, there's a hitch to all three of these spots: they are very popular spots for parties and group events. They are often reserved, so you may have to find the next best thing...

4. The best of the rest
If you can't get to any of those three, there are several other great spots you can find. A few offer a higher perspective of the show:

- The patio at the top of the stairs at the Canada pavilion
- The bridge at the International Gateway area between the UK and France pavilions
- The walkway/deck at the top of the stairs above the Mitsukoshi Department Store and outside the Teppan Edo/Tokoy Dining restaurants in the Japan pavilion.

Also, the walkway just before you approach the Mexico pavilion (going clockwise around the lagoon) is a quality viewing spot with few obstructions. One other spot that provides a truly interesting vantage point is on the Japan side of American Gardens Theater, between the American and Japan pavilions. This provides a close view of the globe and also has a fireworks "cannon" by the walkway - which is very cool to have shoot off right in front of you during the show.

5. Worst spots for viewing
There aren't many "bad" spots to view Illuminations, but many have obstructed views. Most of Germany, Norway, Morocco, France and the areas between Canada and the UK have tall trees, kiosks and boat docks along the walkway making viewing very challenging. Don't waste your time trying to find a quality spot in these areas as they are few and far between. Save these for if you're desperate and there's nothing else available.

All in all, Illuminations is a fantastic end-of-night fireworks show, and not to be missed if it can be helped. Personally, it is my favorite of the 3 that Walt Disney World offers. The music is wonderful - its score is extremely beautiful and powerful. Take in the sights, sounds and audience reaction during Illuminations: Reflections of Earth and envelope yourself in the atmosphere.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Around The Mouse Tales

A Disney Engagement

My wife, Hope, had no idea (that I know of anyway). I had the idea formulating in my head for a few months; I just didn't know exactly how to execute it.

The idea was to propose to her at Walt Disney World.

But how could I do it? Where in The World would it happen? How could I get it documented? If we had the kids with us, how could I keep them out of the loop so it was a surprise to them as well (which is what I wanted)? More than anything though, I just knew I wanted it to surprise her.

Almost a year before, we had our first real date at Epcot - the San Angel Inn - so that was very special to us. Should we revisit the Mexico pavilion for nostalgia sake and do it there? Should I do it somewhere else around the beautiful World Showcase at night with that gorgeous atmosphere all around? Epcot is my favorite park, and she loves it too. It would be appropriate.

Should I pick a romantic spot elsewhere? Perhaps the beach at the Poly. Maybe on the ferry ride going toward the Magic Kingdom at night on the Seven Seas Lagoon? Maybe during Illuminations? I've heard of getting Cast Members involved in restaurants where they can present the ring to her...that was a possibility (but expensive). I didn't have unlimited funds, so that had to be a factor too.

I couldn't really think of a place at Hollywood Studios that I'd want as the scene, so that was crossed off. Same thing with Animal Kingdom.

Should I do it at Magic Kingdom? While the MK didn't hold anything in particular for us as a couple, I knew it was very special to her as she grew up worshiping the castle. She had said many times the castle is actually her favorite attraction in all of WDW. I never considered the castle an "attraction" before, but it really is, if you think about it. It is THE main icon in all of Walt Disney World - not just the Magic Kingdom. It is, in and of itself, THE "attraction".

And even after months of internal deliberation, I couldn't decide where or even exactly when I'd do the deed. Finally, I decided I'd take the ring with me to WDW during one of our weekend trips, and if the opportunity arose, I could do it on the fly.

That particular weekend, we stayed Saturday night at All Star Sports Resort. That evening an opportunity didn't really come about. Nothing happened that would have been "right". If it were to happen, it would be during the day on that Sunday, October 6th, 2007. We decided as a family to go the Magic Kingdom...with a little push from me in that direction (wink, wink). It was an absolutely beautiful and flawless day out. High sky with bright sunshine and relatively comfortable temperatures. I had the ring in its box in my cargo shorts pocket.

It was on the monorail that I decided on a concrete gameplan. Today was the day, perfect weather for pictures to document the event. Main Street, USA would be the place - if they had a Photopass CM near the "sweet spot" of Main Street - in between Casey's and the Ice Cream Parlor. There had to be a Photopass there, though. If there wasn't, the plan was shot.

We were dressed very casually. Shorts, T-shirts, even crocs. The fact that we weren't all dressed up sold the surprise even more so. Upon entering Magic Kingdom early in the A.M., we had breakfast at the Main Street Bakery. From there, I could see exactly where I wanted to make this happen: there was a Photopass CM right there at the sweet spot. After finishing breakfast, the butterflies started. I was nervous, but it wasn't an all-encompassing nervousness. I was actually getting hyped up for it - the adrenaline was flowing. Walking down Main Street toward the castle, and toward the Photopass spot, I suggested to the family, "Hey, let's get a photopass." That didn't go over very well. Hope wasn't down for photopass that morning. "I don't think so, not today," she said.

Oh, I was prepared though. "Yes, let's get one - we have the whole family here, it's a gorgeous day, let's get some photos done."

She protested again. I replied, "PLEASE...let's get some photopasses." After some back and forth, finally she relented. "OK Brian, if you must." She wasn't happy.

We approached the CM. We said Hi and he instructed us to move ahead of him about 10 feet, our backs facing the castle. The 4 of us did just that. But before he snapped any photos, I told Hope and the kids to stay put and I ran to the Photographer. I told him in a hushed tone that I'd like a few shots of the 4 of us taken, then I'd usher the kids over to him because I will be proposing to my wife and I wanted him to snap as many photos of the proposal as possible. His eyes went WIDE. He smiled and said, "You got it."

As I ran back toward the family Hope asked what that was about. I said, "Oh, nothing." By that time, the Photographer was telling us to smile. A few photos later, I told the kids to head over to the Photographer because we wanted a few of just Mommy and I. They headed over and stood beside the CM.

It was the moment of truth.

That's when I turned, looked at her, and bent down on one knee. The look on her face is something I'll never forget. I've never seen anyone smile that big in my entire life. I took out the ring, opened the box, and after I grabbed her hand, I said, "Honey, I've waited for you my whole life. I can't wait any longer. Will you marry me?" My voice was shaky, but it didn't break. We both started to tear up, and she said, "Yes!"

I stood up, we hugged and kissed, and there was applause all around from the other guests on Main Street that morning. One guest yelled, "DID SHE SAY YES?", and I replied with a thumbs-up as we hugged. More applause. All the while, the CM snapped more than 20 photos. They turned out awesome. It is a thing of beauty to have the whole event documented in sequence. The kids ran over to us, and we even got some shots of us all hugging and celebrating together. It was absolutely magical. It couldn't have gone any better.

We celebrated with a Dole Whip and also purchased the Mickey & Minnie engagement pin as a souvenir of the day. Later, we made one of the leather-bound themed photopass picture books to commemorate the engagement. It turned out great - it's a quality book with good picture quality. It was worth the money.

I guess besides the fact that Magic Kingdom is a magical place to get engaged, the moral of the story is: sometimes, you just gotta play it by...ear. ;)

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Tip Of The Tail

Everyone loves free stuff. Especially when it's free stuff at Walt Disney World. So whenever you can get your hands on it, go for it! Below is a list of my top 10 FREE THINGS to get at WDW!

Animal Candy Sculpture - Japan pavilion, World Showcase, Epcot
Miyuki is an incredibly talented candy artist that has scheduled shows at the Japan pavilion where she makes animal-shaped candy for the guests. Now, not everyone will get one - it takes several minutes for her to create one of her unbelievable creations - which in and of itself is phenomenal. Only a few kids will actually get to keep the dragon, or crane, or octopus, or porcupine that she creates. Remember though, she usually only picks kids who are right in the front row and behaving very well!

Club Cool soda samples - Future World, Epcot
Now, this is not the healthiest thing in the world, but it is fun. Located in Epcot's Future World by the Character Greeting Spot and the Fountain of Nations, this "Club" has free soda samples from around the world for you to try. Watermelon from China, Ginger Ale from Germany, Vegitabeta from Japan, Mezzo Mix from Mexico and others. And I don't care what anyone says...the Beverly is underrated!

Chocolate Squares - Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, Downtown Disney
It is unbelievable that Ghirardelli does this. A free chocolate square is given to everyone that walks into the Chocolate Shop. You never know which you'll get: peanut butter, caramel, peppermint bark...but you can bet there will be a line. But its worth it. And it's only one square - portion control!

Flower Lai - Polynesian Resort
If you're staying at the Poly (or even if you're not and just looking around the resort), the staff hands out a flower lai to the guests.

Kidcot Masks - World Showcase, Epcot
Some kids MAY find the World Showcase at Epcot boring. I know, hard to believe, but some do. That is why the kidcot stations are a miracle. Tucked away somewhere in each pavilion is a picnic table with a CM or two giving kids who don't want to look at another shop an opportunity to have fun. Each child will receive a mask that can be designed and colored any way they want. The mask also comes with a cutout of something symbolic from that particular country (Viking boat from Norway, toy horse from the American pavilion, etc.). Ask the CM to write a message in their native language on the mask. By the end of the day, some of these masks can be quite the work of art.

Velcro Frogs - Innoventions West, Future World, Epcot
Yes, you read that right: Velcro Frogs. In the Creative Solutions Studios you can construct your very own frog made up of pieces of shaped Veclro. Choose from several accessories to dress him/her up and then take with you. Odd, but free. *Could* occupy your kids' attention for a while. And did I mention it's free?

Gingerbread House shingle samples - Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
I constantly have an internal battle as to which is the better time of year at WDW: fall, with Epcot's Food & Wine Festival and Halloween, or the Holiday season when the parks are all dressed up. It's a great debate, but one thing is for sure: the Grand Floridian goes above and beyond when it comes to Christmas decorations. This includes the massive, life-size Gingerbread House that resides within the lobby. Gingerbread shingles adorn the roof of the building, and you can even buy a whole shingle - sold right there from the Gingerbread House itself. Or, you can simply get a sample of the gingerbread shingle from the CMs who are constantly handing them out. While the sample is small, and many not be worth the trip in and of itself, it's a nice free perk while you take the time to experience the beauty of the Grand Floridian during Christmas season.

Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure - World Showcase, Epcot
Warning - spoilers! Don't read this section if you want a couple of surprises during the KP Adventure....OK, here we go. The KP Adventure has at least 2 free giveways: a free fortune cookie in the China Pavilion, and a free packet of Tea in the UK pavilion. Norway also gives out a card to the participants, which makes a cool take-home souvenir.

Nerf balls from Move It, Shake It, Celebrate It parade - Disney's Hollywood Studios
During this parade at Hollywood Studios, the floats shoot soft nerf-type balls into the crowd, which sends everyone scrambling. And remember that at the exit point of the parade over by Star Tours, they empty out whatever balls they have left over, so if you're in the right spot you grab quite a few.

Free Birthday Dessert at most Table-Service Restaurants
One great perk of celebrating your birthday in WDW is the special attention you're given by the cast members. And one thing they do at most table-service restaurants is give the b-day boy or girl a free dessert. At Boma, it's a piece ofyellow cake with chocolate fudge shell and Mickey head sprinkles. At Tusker House, it's a giant cupcake. Just make sure to tell the reservation agent that you will be celebrating a birthday when you're making ADRs and they will include that info for the restaurant. Also, make sure to tell the server when you arrive that there's a birthday (just in case).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World!

Just taking a quick minute to wish a Happy Birthday to the Happiest Place on Earth. On this day in 1971, Magic Kingdom officially opened. And on this day in 1982, the great EPCOT Center opened to the public.

This should be a national holiday.