Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year From Around The Mouse!

Happy 2010, everyone! Hope, Chance and I decided to brave the crowd and hit Epcot for New Year's Eve, and it was AWESOME - what a party! We'll have a full review with tons of pics very soon, but for now we're wishing you a happy, healthy and magical 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Things To Look Forward To In Early 2010

There is so much going on at Walt Disney World during the fall and winter months that it's easy to forget about some of the great things that happen at The Mouse after the 1st of the new year. Here are some of the things we look forward to most as we roll through the winter and into the spring of 2010!

Can't wait to see what the Health & Fitness Expo
is all about during Marathon weekend

Disney's 2010 Health & Fitness Expo (January 7th - 9th, 2010), Disney's Wide World Of Sports
Of course we're excited about the Marathon itself, as Hope goes for the Mickey Medal for the first time. We'll be there to cheer her on the whole way. But before the Marathon comes the Expo. We've never been to the Expo before, and being a family who is as passionate about health and fitness as we are about Disney World, this is something that will be a big part of our weekend. Even if we buy nothing, just surrounding ourselves with everything that's going on will be a huge amount of fun and very inspirational as well.

The 2010 Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (January 7th - 9th, 2010)
This is going to be a wonderful weekend to share with fellow runners and guests. We've been to The Mouse before during the weekend to cheer on other runners, and the atmosphere there is amazing. So many people, cast members and guests alike, get behind the runners and add to the festive atmosphere. We can't wait to be part of it again, and tracking Hope's progress will be an incredible experience. But before that, as we mentioned, the Expo takes place Thursday - Saturday, and on Friday, my brother Kevin and his wife Melanie will be running in the Family Fun 5K through Epcot. And of course we can't wait to see all the obscure Disney characters that only come out for this weekend of fun and fitness!

Low(er) Crowds
OK, I know what you're saying - lower crowds? Where? Well, come the 2nd week of January, the crowds DO go down - at least somewhat. According to the Unofficial Guide's crowd calendar, you're looking at mostly 4's and 5's - meaning more breathing room, more walking room, more openings at restaurants and shorter lines at the attractions. You're also talking about cool, comfortable temperatures which makes for in my opinion a much more enjoyable time at the parks. In my opinion, the best time to visit Walt Disney World is between Thanksgiving and Spring Break - and cooler temps is a big part of it all.

Brian with brother Kevin & sister-in-law Melanie
with NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton at ESPN The Weekend

ESPN The Weekend (February 26th - 28th, 2010)
One of the great things about Hollywood Studios are the special events, most notably Star Wars Weekends and ESPN The Weekend. During ESPN The Weekend, the park transforms into Pro Sports athletes and celebrities are everywhere you look. Live interviews with Hall of Famers under the giant Sorcerer's Hat. Live SportsCenter broadcasts. Trivia games with the athletes. And, of course, the ESPN Sports Zone that opens up being Rock N Roller Coaster where you and your family can participate in all kinds of sports-related activities including hitting in the batting cages, throwing pitches off a mound to test your pitch speed, 3-point shooting contests, football receiving drills and much more. It changes around a little every year and there is almost always pro athletes wandering around giving pointers to kids and even participating in some of the activities. Autographs are also very plentiful this weekend. It also helps that this happens right in the middle of MLB spring training, so baseball players are all over Florida during this event - and plenty love to visit Walt Disney World. If you're a sports fan, this event is a can't miss.

We aren't Braves fans, but the fact that
they have Spring Training in The Mouse is pretty cool

MLB Spring Training (Mid-February through March, 2010)
Speaking of pro sports and MLB spring training, The Mouse has a MLB team in The House for those two months - The Atlanta Braves. The Braves practice and host their spring training games from the soon-to-be-named ESPN Wide World Of Sports complex right there on property. It's a great place to watch a game or take in a practice. If you're interested in attending, don't wait too long to get tickets, because games at Champions Field sell out quickly.

Brian and Hope in front of the Peter Pan
Flower & Garden topiary from 2007

Epcot International Flower And Garden Festival (March 3rd - May 16th, 2010)
What a great event at Epcot. Flower and Garden gets slightly overlooked because it plays second fiddle to the International Food & Wine Festival, but it really shouldn't. Epcot is a great park to stroll around to begin with, but when it's dressed up during Flower and Garden, it just looks phenomenal. Bring the camera and get ready!

Katie and Chance in the Butterfly Garden
at Flower & Garden

Give A Day, Get A Disney Day
Disney's promotion for 2010 is unique and is a great idea, in my opinion. It officially opens on January 1st and that's when the list of participating charities are made known to the public. Put in a days work with one of the charities and you can get a voucher for a free day at a Disney World theme park. If you're a passholder and don't need a ticket, you can give the voucher to someone who could use it. I'm really looking forward to this and our whole family is going to be participating.

Friday, December 25, 2009

New Year's Resolutions Around The Mouse

It's that time of year again - time for New Year's resolutions! We're interested in what your Walt Disney World New Year's Resolution will be. So let us know what you resolve to do at The Mouse this year - perhaps getting over your fear and riding Expedition Everest for the first time? Or maybe trying Escargot during Food & Wine Festival. Whatever it may be, we hope you have fun trying to get it done. Now, here's a few of the things we are determined to do in 2010:

Watch Hope cross the finish line and get her Mickey Medal at the 2010 Walt Disney World Marathon.

Swing on a Caribbean Beach Resort hammock with Hope after the marathon is over.

Keep feeding Chance plenty of veggies so he gets tall enough to ride Rock N Roller Coaster.

See how many times we can trick Katie into drinking Beverly.

Take a Segway tour at Epcot or Fort Wilderness.

Try an item of food I've never tried at the International Food & Wine Festival - from each country! Kidding. Just one item of food will do.

Go to any one of the four parks and dedicate the entire day to doing attractions that I don't usually do. And just enjoy them for what they are.

Give away 100 fastpasses to a people/families over the course of the year. Spread some magic!

Break our family Surrey Bike record of 7 laps in 30 minutes around Crescent Lake at the Boardwalk.

Fulfill the Do A Day, Get A Disney Day promotion and give the Day to someone who could use it.

Go to Jellyrolls for the first time.

See the Yankees play the Braves at Champions Field in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports during the 2010 Spring Training season.

Sing Karaoke at Kimonos. Van Halen's "Panama" comes to mind.

Fill up our bags at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

Ride on the Breathless II with friends and family.

Continue to envelope ourselves in the magic.

And to never lose sight of one thing...that it was all started by a Mouse.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from Around The Mouse

We'd like to wish every one of our friends out there in the Walt Disney World community a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Enjoy the time with your family, and be safe.

And as Walter Cronkite says during the Holiday tag on the end of Illuminations, "During this glorious time of year there is one message that rings out around the world in every language. Peace on earth. Good will to men is a wish to hold in our hearts throughout each passing year. A gift of immeasurable value. A treasure being handed down with care, from generation to generation. And so our holiday wish is that everyone, everywhere share in the spirit of the season. Peace on earth, good will to men."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Frugal Mouse

A day at Walt Disney World doesn't have to break the bank. In fact, even after all trip planning discounts are accounted for (hotel deals, flight deals, Tables In Wonderland discounts for ADRs, Dining Plan considerations, etc.), you can still save money after you arrive. Little things add up, and at The Mouse, they add up quickly. Here are are few recommendations for how to save addition pennies during your trip.

Bring your own breakfast. This is a BIG money-saver. Eat breakfast before heading out (in your room, or at home). I know that unless you're in a DVC Villa, you probably don't have access to a stove that will allow you to make that egg sandwich in the morning. Most of the breakfast items that are served around The Mouse are very overpriced and generic in nature: oatmeal, bagels, yogurt, waffles (even though those are in the shape of our favorite mouse). Not a lot special here, so why spend several times the amount you would if you were to just buy something similar at the store or bring it from home? If you're going to be on the Dining Plan, I'd also not use any points on table service breakfasts either - use those for more expensive table service lunches and dinners and spend money on your own breakfast food instead. If you have a room with a mircowave, we can personally recommend a healthy and delicious oatmeal, Quaker Oats Weight Control Instant Oatmeal. They come in individual packets that you just throw in a bowl with some water and into the microwave for 1:45 and you're done! Not eating a Disney breakfast can save you major $$$ for a day, and it can be much healthier, too.

Bring A Water Bottle.
Re-fill all day long. Prices of bottles of water at Disney are outrageous; there's no need to purchase any water there when you can buy a dozen bottles at a supermarket for the price of 4 bottles inside the parks/resorts. For the really hot days, you may even want to freeze the bottle the night before and have it melt as you walk around the next day - guaranteed ice-cold bottled water!

Free Cups Of Ice
Ask for a cups of ice from counter service restaurants - they'll always give it to you. I find the ice chips perfect to keep in my mouth while I'm burning away in the middle of August. I've been known to put a few on the top of my head as well! Don't knock it 'til you try it!

The Earl of Sandwich, Downtown Disney
Eat lunch or dinner at The Earl. We've sung the praises of the Earl before... for $5.95, you can get a whole sandwich, and the variety they offer is outstanding. The bottom line is that the food quality is very good (unlike many Disney counter service offerings), and the price is very reasonable (unlike nearly ALL Disney counter service offerings). Consider this against most counter service restaurants, and it's a great deal. In addition, they have free refills on their fountain drinks.

Bring Snacks With You
WDW has let their hair down and relaxed about this a little. We've brought snacks in my sling bag for almost every trip we've made in recent months, and they haven't stopped us once. We'll pop microwave popcorn and divvy it up in ziplock bags and throw those in there. Crackers. Cookies. Apples. Bananas. Pistachios. Little Clementines. Pretzels. I'll even bring protein powder on the days I need to fuel up if I worked out that morning. Another idea is the Larabar, which is another great and healthy snack (made from pure and natural ingredients, minimal processing and no preservatives - I feel like a Biggest Loser commercial!) In other words, if it doesn't need to be refrigerated, we've brought it as a snack in a sack. Security check has never said a thing. They seem to know if they force people to buy their food exclusively inside the park, they will soon be losing out on people actually coming inside the park...

Disney Transportation
Save gas if you brought a car - ride the monorail or ferry boats or buses to get around between parks, resorts or Downtown Disney. It takes a little longer, but gas can add up quickly. Plus, there is SO MUCH to see and experience using Disney Transportation that you'll miss if you take a car. Don't get me wrong, as a local, I love the freedom of having the car available. But there is just something about taking Disney transportation that makes it Plus the experience most of the time.

Club Cool, Epcot
For a free treat, try Club Cool. Most of us know all about this wonderful place in the Future World section of Epcot just outside the Fountain of Nations. When those in your party crave something little more than water, go here. Free samples of international Coca Cola products are in abundance.

Rain Ponchos
Bring your own rain ponchos. They are several times more expensive if they are bought inside of The Mouse than they are if purchased at Walmart or Target. Disney knows that if people are poncho-less during one of Florida's patented afternoon downpours, LOTS of guests will feel compelled to go buy a poncho. Don't be one of those people spending $50 on ponchos for your family when you could have gotten them for $8 and just threw them in your backpack's side pocket instead.

An Option For Photopass
Don't get me wrong - we love Photopass. It's a great service - it's just expensive if you decide to purchase it afterward. So don't be afraid to ask the Photopass people to snap a few of your party with YOUR camera. They will do this every time. To buy your photopass photos after your trip can run you big time, so allow them to capture the same image with your personal digital camera. Sure, you won't have Stitch popping up through the sidewalk in your photos, but you'll also save $100+ dollars as well.

Free Things
If you have kids, take advantage of several of the FREE things that are available throughout the World. Some of these free souvenirs can take the place of incredibly expensive store merchandise. See one of our early Tip Of The Tail articles (October 2, 2009) for a comprehensive list of our favorite free things at The Mouse.

The Penny Press Machines
These can also be an inexpensive souvenir for kids. Stash a few quarters and pennies away and it might very well quench that desire to buy something else - something expensive.

Kidcot Stations in World Showcase, Epcot
Kidcot Stations are a gift to parents. There is something magical in the spell they cast over kids. It gives them a creative outlet as they color the mask that was given to them by CM from that country. Countless magic markers are available (a kid's favorite past time) for them to decorate their own mask and the CM will gladly write a message on the mask in their native language if you ask them.

The economy has indeed touched many of us loyal Mouse fans. And as we've cut back and taken advantage of these money-saving techniques, we've found that we really don't miss the other stuff all that much...and actually allows us to appreciate the occassional ADR all the more.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holidays Around The World

A lot has been made of WDW's recession cutbacks, and in particular the elimination of the Lights of Winter display at Epcot. And while I definitely wasn't happy about that, and a few of the other things I've noticed that are gone (the odd "puff-balls-on-a-stick" display just before the World Showcase breezeway, etc.), I've still gotta say Epcot is incredible when it comes to this time of year.

What's the best part about Epcot during Christmastime and the Holidays? Is it Santa over at the American Pavilion?

Is it Helga telling the story of the Tannenbaum?

Or the life-size nutcracker soldier at Germany?

Is it Pere Noel in France?

Is it Father Christmas in the UK?

Is it Sigrid and Julenissen in Norway?

Is it La Bafana in the Italy pavilion?

Is it the Mickey and Minnie just as you enter the park?

Is it the Fountain of Nations dancing to Christmas music?

Is it the huge tree at the beginning of the World Showcase?

Is it the Candlelight Processional?

Is it the Holiday "Peace On Earth" Illuminations ending (narrated by Walter Cronkite)?

Or is it the great Mickey nutcracker (sorry - they probably sell this at EVERY park now...)???

In fact, it's all of these things, and more. Pound for pound, Epcot offers more Holiday extras to the guest this time of year than any other park, even with the cutbacks. Hollywood Studios has Osbourne Lights (which is incredible), Magic Kingdom has Holiday Wishes on certain nights, Cindy's castle lights, Main Street USA decorations, and of course, the Very Merry Christmas Party (although that's a hard-ticket event, so it really doesn't count when discussing what the parks do to Plus the regular guest experience), and even the Animal Kingdom dresses up their Jammin' Jungle Parade so that it Jingles a little. But none of these 3 parks can touch the total number of holiday-specific offerings that Epcot does that's included in the price of regular admission.

My family especially enjoys the Holiday Storytellers in the countries. It's fascinating to hear about how almost every culture in the World Showcase has traditions that have melded into current and contemporary American Christmas and Holiday tradition. As usual, the offerings at Epcot are unique in Disney - a true Walt-inspired idea of "edutainment" and enrichment. In the vast majority of instances, Epcot doesn't dumb down its entertainment for the masses. It isn't afraid to have high expectations of those who visit and to hope they have a desire to learn something interesting about our past or future. Holidays Around The World honors that Epcot tradition and, as usual, it's well worth our time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Exclusive: Interview With A Disney Mom

It all started when she first met Cinderella at age 3...and ever since she's been obsessed with the Castle. She's the quintessential Disney Mom; she's been going to Disney World for more than 20 years and has seen it all. In this exclusive interview, Hope talks about a few of her favorite things from around The Mouse.

What are your top 4 favorite parks in Walt Disney World?
1. Magic Kingdom
"MK is my favorite because it encompasses the magic of Disney. There is nothing else in The World like walking down Main Street USA and viewing the Castle. Every little girl dreams about living in a castle and meeting the princesses. And this park is your opportunity to really be little girl again."

2. Epcot
"I like Epcot because it is so unique from all the other parks; it's a strolling park. You don't have to be rushed because part of the charm is to notice all of the details."
3. Hollywood Studios
"This is a thrilling park with some HUGE rides. But it also has my favorite princess's (Belle) stage show. It also has my favorite end-of-night spectacular, Fantasmic, where Mickey saves the day."
4. Animal Kingdom
"I hate to rate this last, but it's only because the other 3 are SO great. Animal Kingdom is a great theme park for its beauty and it displays Walt's love for animals. It also has some thrilling rides in Everest and Dinosaur. Oh...and the American Bald Eagle's name in Flight of Wonder is named Hope!"

Favorite Disney Water Park: Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach?
"I like Typhoon Lagoon better because for its theming, wave pool and the fact that I think Blizzard Beach is ugly."

What are your top 5 favorite rides/attractions?
1. Cinderella Castle
2. Haunted Mansion
3. Expedition Everest
4. Tower of Terror
5. Dinosaur

What is your top 3 favorite fireworks shows?
1. Fantasmic
"I like Fantasmic the most because you get to see all the Disney characters - especially an epic battle between good and evil...where of course, good prevails."
2. Illuminations
3. Wishes

What is your favorite restaurant?
"Chefs De France. It has a warm, romantic glow...and I will always remember eating there on my honeymoon. The food and service were both superb."

What are your 3 favorite ice cream snacks?
1. Kid's S'mores Ice Cream from Ghirardelli -
"Kids price, big serving, tastes awesome."
2. Dole Whip -
"I love the Dole Whip because of nostalgia sake. It was the one splurge my parents would get when we'd visit when I was young."
2. Ice Cream Shop on Main Street -
"Ice cream with a view."

Favorite Pin?
"My engagement pin. I love it because it commemorates my engagement in front of the castle. And also, it was my first pin."

Which party did you like more: Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party or the Not So Scary Halloween Party?
"First, both are excellent. I would choose the Christmas Party though. Disney does Christmas better than any other holiday. There's something truly special about that time of year at the Magic Kingdom. And the hot cocoa and cookies are awesome."

What is your favorite memory of going to walt disney world?
"How can I choose between meeting Cinderella when I was 3, and KNOWING that it was REALLY her, getting engaged in front of her castle, sharing the magic with my daughter when she met Cinderella, our first date at Epcot, our Honeymoon at the French Quarter and wearing the wedding ears, so many birthday celebrations, the kids first time on each of the rides, especially the big ones...just too hard to choose one."

Which was your favorite hotel we stayed at?
"Port Orleans French Quarter. Love the theming of the hotel and very much loved the horse-drawn carriage ride along the river. If you ever meet Doug, the horse, tell him we say Hi."

What is your least favorite ride/attraction in WDW?
"Sorry Walt - Country Bears. It has to go."

What is the first thing you think of when you think of WDW?
"Hmm, so many great things. But I would say, 'Walt Disney World is magic. It's ageless, it's timeless, it's happiness."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

That's a DOLPHIN?

Alright, I admit that on the exterior, it's ugly. It's an eyesore. It's theming has nothing to do with Disney World. It's a pyramid with HUGE dolphins on it - or are they koi fish? You can see the green pyramid while walking the World Showcase, and that takes something away from the vista. It's just too darned much. But that's all OK, because the Dolphin is a GREAT hotel.

Being local, we haven't stayed on property all that often - Port Orleans French Quarter, All Star Sports, Pop Century, Fort Wilderness Campgrounds and the Dolphin are about it. All were vastly different, but we did very much enjoy all of them and for different reasons (we'll review each in the future).

The Walt Disney World Dolphin is wonderful, though, if for no other reason than these two reasons:
location and beds.

As far as location goes, the Dolphin sits amongst the Epcot resorts across from its companion, The Swan, and down just a little from the Boardwalk Inn and the Yacht and Beach Clubs. It's within easy walking distance of Epcot and Hollywood Studios. It's also within very short walking distance of what is now the best nightspot on property: The Boardwalk.

Personally, I'm a little biased toward the Epcot hotels, because Epcot is my favorite park. And there is nothing better to me than staying around the Boardwalk area knowing that Epcot is just a short 5-10 minute walk away. Ahhhhhhhh...

As we mentioned above, not only can you walk to Epcot quickly, but you can also make the short hike to Hollywood Studios. As highlighted in our previous article And She Told Me To Walk This Way (Nov. 29th, 2009), you can walk from any of these Epcot hotels, including the Dolphin to the Studios in about 15 - 20 minutes or so on this path. It's a nice walk, especially when it's not hot out. Otherwise, you can take the Friendship boats around Crescent Lake (or from Epcot's International Gateway area) to Hollywood Studios in about 20 - 25 minutes. If you want to add more of an active element to your Disney trip, this little walk is a good way to log some activity (there's no shops or attractions to stop your walk - make it a bit of a speed walk and all the better!).

The Dolphin also has several great restaurants, including one of my absolute favorites in The Mouse, Mediterranean Fresh Marketplace (check out our October 30th article, A Taste of The World - A Breath Of Fresh Air for a full review). The Fountain is also a very good table service restaurant; reasonably priced and the food was very good. I compare it somewhat to The Plaza Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom (but with a larger selection): food quality and service are heads and shoulders above counter service restaurants, but the prices are only slightly higher. So if you want something more than a counter service, but don't want to pay the typical prices of a Disney table service restaurant, I suggest The Fountain. I can speak for the Fresh and Fountain, because those are the two we've tried at the Dolphin. But there are many restaurants available, some with huge, well-known names: Shula's Steak House and Todd English's Bluezoo among them. Beware though - BIG $$$'s come with those.

We mentioned the beds as another huge perk to the Dolphin. I first heard about these on the DisUnplugged podcast...Pete and Co. were raving about their Heavenly Beds. Wow, they didn't disappoint - one of the most comfortable beds I've EVER slept in. They were indeed that good. Heavenly Bed is actually the registered/trademarked name for those beds...and it's a very apt name. So whether you use the Dolphin itself as a major part of your resort vacation or if you're just needed a place to put your head down at night, you can't go wrong by staying here. I should also mention that while the rooms are not themed like Disney resorts, the rooms themselves are very spacious...and most have a great view of either the Boardwalk or Epcot. Spacious and very comfortable beds. Really, what more could you want?

Also, since the Swan and Dolphin are companion hotels and right across the breezeway from one another, you can frequent the Swan to take advantage of what they have to offer as well. I can recommend one great place to eat and have fun at the Swan: Kimonos. This is a Japanese bar and grill with karaoke! The tempura platter is particularly good here, and the singing is fun to listen to...although I can say I haven't personally set foot on stage...NO WAY. Kimonos comes highly recommended though, as another quality place to spend an evening after the parks close, or if you're looking for something "adult" to do...another reason why the Boardwalk area in general is now the best nightspot on property.

Lastly, staying at the Swan and Dolphin comes with all the perks of staying at any Walt Disney World resort - the complimentary transportation, Extra Magic Hours, etc. I've heard some confusion on this in the past, but it is indeed the case.

I would definitely stay here again if I get the opportunity. And they have rates at certain times of the year that are about on par with most Disney moderate hotels - and I think this competes with any of those for quality (and probably competes with most Deluxe hotels, too)...especially since you're a 5 - 10-minute walk from the World Showcase!

This is a Dolphin???