2017 Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend in Review

Last weekend’s trip to Walt Disney World was brief but packed with fun.  I’ve got so much to tell you, I thought I’d start with this post full of my impressions of the best and not-so-great aspects of our visit.  I’ll follow up with posts on the Star Wars 10K and half marathon and a restaurant review or two.  Here’s the scoop…

2017 Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend in Review

We arrived mid-day Friday.  Our plan was to get to the Grand Floridian (stayed at the DVC Villas), drop off our luggage, grab a bite at the Gasparilla Island Grill (underrated quick-service), then rush over to Wide World Of Sports so Joseph and I could pick up our race packets for the Dark Side Challenge.  This part went off without a hitch.  I was very excited to see Richard (famous greeter at the Grand Floridian) looking well.  If you seen him, say hello and he’ll say, “Welcome to the Grand!”  I love that he’s in his 90’s and still enjoying his job so much.

We wanted to spend a few minutes shopping at the Expo if possible and, thanks to the event buses running often, mission accomplished!  I’d booked Magic Kingdom FastPasses starting at 4:30 (or thereabouts) for Seven Dwarfs, Big Thunder, and Space Mountain and we arrived in plenty of time!  We even managed to squeeze in Pirates and PeopleMover as well.  Dinner was at Narcoossee’s and the 8:30 dining time was my first error of this trip.  WAY too late to eat before having to get up at 3:15 a.m. the next day.

Before dinner, we managed a quick glass of wine in Mizner’s Lounge.  Joseph had never heard the Lobby Society Orchestra play before and they sounded especially great that evening.  We were wishing we’d had more time to relax and enjoy the music.  On the way to Narcoossee’s, we spotted a rather large dark-colored snake on the sidewalk.  As I’ve mentioned before (here), Joseph has an affinity for reptiles.  I wanted to take the snake’s picture, Joseph wanted to pick it up!  Raymond and I, at the exact same time, realized what was about to happen and quietly said, “Don’t do it!” just about the time the snake decided to slither off into the bushes.  I did mention to the hostess that some guests might be alarmed if Mr. Snake decided to move back onto the warmth of the walkway.

Dinner was excellent as was our view of Wishes during our meal.  As we headed to our room to catch what sleep we could, we noticed and Cast Member and a gentleman in a suit holding a flashlight searching for the snake – or at least making sure it stayed off the sidewalk.  Our room (studio #1428) was the biggest disappointment of our stay.  There was no split bathroom, just a plain bathroom with a tub/shower combo.We didn’t even know such a room type existed!  Made getting ready take much longer for the three of us as we are a decidedly anti-bathroom-sharing people.  The room overall was lovely, but felt like a plain hotel room.  If you’ve seen DVC studios at Disney’s Polynesian Village or Bay Lake Tower, you can appreciate how disappointed we were.  There’s a split bathroom at the Poly and Bay Lake Tower’s kitchenette is so large, there’s extra room (with a counter and mirror) for getting ready.

Watch for a full report on the Star Wars 10K in the next few days.  Let me jump straight to our post-race activities…

At 180-days out, I’d booked a reservation for lunch at Beaches & Cream (Beach Club) and then cancelled it the day before we left home.  I should not have done that.  The recently opened Polite Pig in Disney Springs seemed just our type of place and we all wanted to try it.  Arriving at Disney Springs around 10:00 a.m., we had about an hour to shop before the restaurant opened and we were among the first in the door.  The atmosphere is neat and the employees were perfectly polite.  But, in spite of our love for barbecue and smoked meats, we were (all of us) disappointed in our food.  Such unanimous agreement is practically unheard of!  I ended up feeling sorry we didn’t get to try Beaches & Cream.  Next time we visit the Polite Pig, it’ll be for the bar instead of the food – our beers were very delicious and their drink menu is vast.

After lunch we were off to Epcot for the Disney Exchange Podcast Meet-up!  Nick, Dave, and I, (and our families) were excited to see friends of the show and spent an hour visiting and laughing a LOT!  We felt very humbled and special to have listeners willing to interrupt their Disney vacation to spend time with us.  Thanks especially to “Aunt Sandy”, Dave J., Victoria, Olivia, Linda, and Phillip (a.k.a. Duke).  After the meet-up, Raymond, Joseph and I headed off to use our FastPasses.

Frozen was down, so we used our first FastPass for Soarin’ followed by Spaceship Earth (we got stuck for a couple of minutes by the garlic hat guy and it was great!).  Our last FastPass went unused (Nemo) when we realized how nice it would be to go back to our room for a few minutes before dinner at Il Mulino – our now-traditional-pre-half-marathon-go-to restaurant.  If you are not on the Disney Dining Plan, I urge you to give some of the Swan and Dolphin’s restaurants a try!  This was our fourth visit to Il Mulino and our experiences have all been consistently excellent.

Immediately after dinner, we got back to our room as quickly as possible and were out as soon as our heads hit the pillows!

Sunday morning, there was that little matter of the Star Wars Half Marathon.  (Full review soon.)  Raymond was waiting for Joseph and me when we finished the race and the three of us, along with Dave and his wife, Anne, enjoyed a few minutes of the post-race party before getting on with the rest of our day.  Animal Kingdom was on the agenda and by the time we got there, a bad case of “hangry” had struck so we decided to grab some small plates at the Nomad Lounge.And ended up staying for three hours once Nick and Dave (and their wives and friends) found out where we were and joined us.  If you haven’t been to Nomad Lounge, go!  It’s about as perfect a place to relax as exists on Disney property.  The beverage selection is great, the food is yummy, and the atmosphere is tranquil.  Unbelievably, we left Nomad Lounge and spent a few more minutes together at the Dawa Bar.

Eventually we needed to excuse ourselves in favor of FastPasses for Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest.  We strolled along the Gorilla Falls Trail between attractions and then caught a bus for Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village section for dinner at Sanaa.  We were early and spent time out on the savannah overlook sitting in rocking chairs and enjoying the lovely weather.  Sanaa’s manager was kind enough to find us a table about 30 minutes before our reservation and we were delighted to introduce Joseph to the restaurant’s famous bread service.

To wrap up the day, we met our Disney Exchange friends back at Animal Kingdom for Rivers of Light.  It was our first time to see it and typically, Raymond, Joseph and I had completely differing opinions about this new show (more on that at a later date).  By this time, even with all the rest and relaxation, the trackers on our Fitbits had passed 20 miles for the day.  It was time to turn in so we had enough energy to squeeze in a last little bit of Disney in the morning.

We were awake and busy packing by 6:15 a.m.  We had breakfast scheduled at Kona Café (another tradition) followed by one last FastPass in Magic Kingdom for Space Mountain at 9:20.  Our ride to the airport was scheduled to pick us up at 11:00 a.m.  Dave met us in Magic Kingdom and we had time for a last ride around Tomorrowland on the PeopleMover before blasting off into Space.  It was time to go.  One last bit of pixie dust found us as we went back to our room for our luggage – Cinderella’s horses, carriage and footmen were on the path around our building and we got to see them up close as they passed by.  Then we found ourselves leaving Walt Disney World behind to get home for some much needed rest!

For a very short 72 hours, we had an amazing (exhausting) time!  Joseph completed his first runDisney events.  Nick, Dave and I managed (finally!) to have our first podcast meet-up.  Family, friends, and LOTS of Disney magic all around…we could not have asked for a better time.

Disney World Last Week – Trip Recap

Social Media Buddies, you cracked me up!  Some of you were polite about our Christmas week at Walt Disney World plans and some of you were brutally honest (my kind of folks!) and wanted to know if we were CRAZY!  Yes, a little crazy perhaps, but Christmastime at Disney World is magical.  And crowded.  Boy, was it crowded.

Disney World Last Week – Trip Recap

As with any visit to our favorite vacation spot, this one was packed with tons of Disney magic, lots of fun, and some extra-special Cast Members.  There were a few disappointments, some self-inflicted, but overall we had a great time.  Here’s the lowdown on the best and worst of the trip…

Best Moments-

Having a Tiny Christmas Tree – If Raymond and Joseph thought I was out of my mind for packing a tree, lights, garland, and ornaments (including Disney characters, thanks to my friend, Debbie), they were kind enough not to say so.  Having that little tree in our room made me indescribably happy.  I turned on the lights every evening and it added just the right Christmas touch.

Christmas Morning in Magic Kingdom – The weather was perfect, the Cast Members were incredible, and as the sun came up, we were so happy to be there.  We rode Peter Pan, Little Mermaid, and Big Thunder before breakfast at Be Our Guest.  After that, we used our three FastPasses and were gone by early afternoon to enjoy the rest of the day away from the crowds.

Hugs from Cast Members – I made a point of thanking the various Cast Members we encountered on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for being there to make our holiday celebration possible. Some were clearly surprised and just said an enthusiastic “Thank you!”. Others took time to ask where we were from and before long, we were hugging!  This, more than anything else, put the Christmas magic into this vacation for me.

Voices of Liberty – They’re spectacular any time of the year, but this was the first time we’d heard them sing Christmas and Hanukkah songs.  We were so glad we’d made the time to enjoy this must-do in World Showcase’s American Adventure.

Touring The Decorations – Some folks might refer to this as the Monorail Loop Pub Crawl, but in December it’s called the Tour of Christmas!  The trees are gorgeous and the smell of gingerbread is in the air.  Everything sparkles. Bonus: during mid-to-late afternoon, the lounges are practically empty.

Notes of Welcome – We were greeted by special cards in Kona Café, California Grill, and Tiffins (where we also received some peppermint bark candy).  This was unexpected, unnecessary, and made us feel incredibly special.  Nice touch, Disney!!!

Meeting Peas and Carrots – If you don’t know Carmen and Brian and their fun and informative vlog, you’ve been missing out! They were exactly as charming and fun at they appear on YouTube and I was thrilled to make their acquaintance when we happened to be in Epcot at the same time.

Best Food –

Kona Café – Always a solid choice! We love the atmosphere at the Polynesian and while Kona may be easier to get into than ‘Ohana, the food is no less delicious! We enjoyed dinner on arrival day and breakfast later in the week after sleeping in – what a luxury!

California Grill – The view from our table-by-the-widow was perfect. Our server was awesome and the ever-changing menu a delight!  Thanks to my sister, Sandy and brother-in-law, Joe, we had a Disney gift card we used for an extra special Christmas dinner. From start to finish, complete with three courses, delicious wine and after dinner drinks with dessert, our experience at California Grill was perfect.

Tiffins – Remember last time we went and how much we loved having Kile as our server?  Miraculously, we asked for him again and he was there!  This place is outstanding for Animal Kingdom fans like us and Kile knows everything from the artwork to history and food particulars. Again, we had a magical, memorable dinner and will definitely return as soon as we can.

Jiko – What can I say? We’ve never been disappointed. Plus Animal Kingdom Lodge is gorgeous any time of the year and especially at Christmas.

Morimoto Asia – Raymond and I couldn’t wait to take Joseph here since the experience is right up his alley.  Addicted to Food Network, lifelong fan of Epcot’s Japan pavilion and adventurous diner, this restaurant was made for our only son.  Went exactly as we’d hoped it would and we all enjoyed our lunch tremendously.

Best New Experiences –

Candlelight Processional (dinner package) – We chose breakfast at Trattoria al Forno which was wonderful in spite of the restaurant staff being incredibly short-handed. The atmosphere is cool and the food quite tasty. At about 6:15 that evening, we got in line for the show and found seats in the center about half-way back. Cal Ripken, Jr. offered a fine narration and the singers and musicians were fantastic.  Would we do it again? You betcha!

Express Transfer – While this special, optional service is currently in the testing phase, for park-hoppers like us, it was worth every penny of the $24 per person up charge for the week we were there!  One we added this feature to our Magic Bands, we were set! Slip out one park, board the bus and slip right into the next park…all behind the scenes!  Saved so much time and walking!

Wilderness Explorers – Sure it’s for kids, but I talked Joseph into doing this Animal Kingdom activity with me and we really enjoyed the adventure!  (Full review with lots of details coming soon.)

Jock Lindsey’s Outdoor Seating – I’d never even noticed it before, but Raymond had and suggested we try it out.  There’s lots of space which includes tables and chairs on a boat named “Reggie”.  Of course that’s where we wanted to sit. And what a treat it was! Awesome server and great beer selection.

AMC Dine-In Theater (for Rogue One) – There’s nothing like this movie-and-a-meal experience available anywhere near where we live.  This was such a fun way to combine lunch and a show at Disney Springs.  We loved Rogue One and thought everything from the characters to the scenery, costumes, effects, and storyline were a perfect fit (and tribute) to the original movies.

Disappointments/Regrets

Citricos – This was not what we were expecting after our last visit.  The service was not nearly as good as on our last visit even though there were plenty of empty tables around us.  The real problem was that something bad must have happened in the kitchen and the unmistakable taste of soap was in my and Joseph’s entrees.  No, we didn’t send them back, but we should have.  We should have at least complained.  My only excuse for not doing either of those is that we weren’t very hungry and were particularly exhausted that day.  I just wanted to get out of there.

Wild Africa Trek – This one’s on me.  I should have done more research.  I’ll do a whole review on our experience, but overall I was disappointed in what we got for the splurge.  It was certainly not all bad, just not what I’d hoped for.  One of our guides was really snarky and that’s probably my number one complaint.  We felt the tour was geared mostly towards children and better for families with little ones.

Jingle Bell Jingle BAM Dessert Party – The idea of this is nice, but I wish I hadn’t spent the extra money.  The food and beverage offerings, meeting with Santa Goofy, and viewing area for the show were not worth what we paid.  We did appreciate the nice seating area that kept us out of the cold weather that night and the complimentary hand warmers were a nice touch.  We’ve always wondered and now we know – dessert parties are not for us.

AbracadaBar – We finally made it here on our way to dinner at Flying Fish.  I’m glad there’s a lounge option other than the Belle Vue at the Boardwalk now, but this spot is no Trader Sam’s or Jock Lindsey’s.  It’s a great place to hang out pre-dinner, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit again.

While visiting Walt Disney World for Christmas is not for the faint of heart, there’s plenty of extra Disney magic to be found!  With a little extra planning and patience, a wonderful time awaits!

If you’d be interested in full reviews or additional details about anything mentioned here today, please let me know. Have you spent Christmas at Disney World?  What was your experience like?

 

 

 

 

 

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – 12 Hours of Fun!

animal-kingdom-selfieI’m well aware there are certain people who do not appreciate Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a full-day park.  My family and I are not among them.  We were thrilled recently by the opportunity to spend 12+ hours in the amazingly themed, action-packed,  fun-filled Animal Kingdom.  From rope-drop to park closing, we had an amazing day and still did not see and do it all.animal-kingdom-sign

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – 12 Hours of Fun!

Pre-planning:  We booked two ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) at 180 days pre-vacation at Tusker House for breakfast and Tiffins for an early dinner.  If, by some miracle, Rivers of Light would have come online for our trip, we were ready to turn one of these meals into a dining package.  As it turned out, Rivers of Light was still a no-show.  No matter, we enjoyed both of these restaurants and were very pleased with the choices.  We had also booked three FastPasses:  Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, and Primeval Whirl (Dinosaur was under refurbishment).tusker-house-breakfast-daisy

What we did for 12+ Hours

Morning:  We arrived early for breakfast and enjoyed Tusker House’s buffet which had both unique and traditional breakfast offerings.  We met Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy – all were awesome and spent plenty of time with us for pictures.  As much as I love Donald, Goofy was extra entertaining.  tusker-house-goofyAfter breakfast, we waddled over to Kilimanjaro Safaris and visited with the friendly Cast Members there while we waited for the attraction to open.  Our group of seven and a family of three were the only ones on our safari and it was, hands down, the best experience we’d ever had on this attraction…even though the giraffes (except for one) and elephants seemed to be sleeping in that morning.  We were very excited to have an excellent view of the new African Painted Dogs!  Gorgeous!kilimanjaro-safaris-african-painted-dogsPost-safari, we explored the Gorilla Falls trail, used our Expedition Everest FastPass, strolled the Maharajah Jungle Trek, caught It’s Tough to Be a Bug, and took another safari (with FastPass) to see the previously missed close-up giraffes and elephants.

Afternoon:  We stopped by the Harambe Market in case anyone was hungry, but we only got drinks.  I guess we were still full from Tusker House.  dak-musicianWhile we were enjoying our beverages of choice, we were serenaded by a musician and it was wonderful!  He was very talented and made us feel special.  Then we explored Zuri’s Sweet Shop where we all bought souvenirs.  Zuri's-Sweets-ShopHats, toy Komodo Dragons, and stuffed African Painted Dogs were popular items with our group.  After that we hopped the train for Rafiki’s Planet Watch.  rafiki-meetingWhile there was not a lot going on in the animal care area, the Cast Members were chatty and informative, the animals in the petting area were cute, and Rafiki himself made an appearance and was very charming!rafikis-planet-watch-affection-sectionWe could have seen Festival of the Lion King instead, but Rafiki won out in the group vote and we were happy with our excursion to this seldom-visited section of the park.rafiki-teaching

As we took the train back, we noticed the sky was darkening.  By the time we exited the train and donned our ponchos, a torrential downpour was upon us and all areas of shelter nearby were packed.  I decided we should take a chance on Nomad Lounge (by Tiffins), hoping nobody else would realize it would be open.  nomad-lounge-in-the-rainYES! The place was virtually empty.  We found a table on the patio and ordered drinks and snacks which we made short work of as the rain let up and we headed back out for more fun.  nomad-lounge-snackWe wrapped up the afternoon with a series of rides on Primeval Whirl since there was no wait.  Before long, it was time to return to Tiffins for our early dinner reservation.primeval-whirl2

Evening:  Tiffins, which I will give a full review for soon, was delightful and delicious (truthfully, it was incredible)!  Once the sun began to set, we began what was the completely-new-to-us time of the day – we’d never been able to stay at Animal Kingdom so late before.  The park wouldn’t close until 8:30 and we were going to take advantage of every minute.  Kali-River-RapidsFirst, everyone (except Raymond and I) took multiple trips down Kali River Rapids (no wait).  Then we enjoyed Expedition Everest at night…amazing!everest-at-duskWe took our third Kilimanjaro Safari of the day to see the hyenas and all the nighttime effects before wrapping up this epic day by watching the Tree of Life awaken.tree-of-life-awakens

More than 12 hours after we arrived, we caught the bus back to Bay Lake Tower.  Sure, we skipped things like Finding Nemo The Musical, Festival of the Lion King and Flights of Wonder, but we rode awesome thrill rides multiple times (no wait), had all the safari experiences possible, enjoyed some fantastic food and soaked up all the incredible theming and ambiance Animal Kingdom has to offer.  When the World of Pandora opens and Rivers of Light finally launches, we’ll have to make multi-day plans here on every visit!

What are your favorite things to do at Animal Kingdom?  Are you looking forward to the parks upcoming additions?

Magical Memory Monday – Disney Touring ’til We Drop!

It was Spring, 2005.  Megan was 14 and Joseph nearly 10 – Our Disney World touring plans were simple: Do as much as possible everyday for the five days we’d be there.  We’d hit the ground running and go, go, go for 15 or more hours straight.IMG_2021

Magical Memory Monday – Disney Touring ’til We Drop!

We began in Magic Kingdom, I remember that well because we wanted Space Mountain to be our first and last ride of  the trip.  We were staying at the Contemporary for the first time and were in a garden wing which was a huge splurge for us.  We felt like the luckiest family in the World.IMG_2011

Looking back, I can still recall exactly the excitement of the attractions and the fun we had trying new restaurants and other experiences.  We’d mastered the art of taking turns at being  the runner for getting paper FastPasses and we all felt like the amount of things we saw and did each day was tremendous.  As was, and still is, a much beloved vacation tradition, we paused every evening long enough to enjoy a nice dinner in a table service restaurant where we’d talk about the wonders we’d enjoyed that day and what we were looking forward to for the next.IMG_2069

For the very last day of the trip, we’d made a reservation at the California Grill.  We spent the day at Magic Kingdom and before we walked back to our room to change for dinner, we grabbed some FastPasses for Space Mountain.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  We’d be able to enjoy our nice dinner and have plenty of time to go back to Magic Kingdom and finish our vacation exactly the way we’d planned.RM-Space-Mountain-Sign

California Grill was great!  We were seated near the window and had a wonderful time enjoying the delicious food and wonderful view.  About halfway through our entrees, I noticed our little group had gotten very quiet.  I glanced around the table.  Raymond and Megan were happily eating, but Joseph, who’d leaned his head back onto the window, was sound asleep.  I called to him softly by the nickname I’d given him when he was born, “Sonny?”  Without opening his eyes, he replied, “Ma’am?”  I asked, “We’ve still got our FastPasses for Space Mountain, are you going to be up for that?”  His eyes were still closed, but his answer was firm, “Yes, ma’am.”RM-California-Grill-View

And when dinner was over, he perked right up and we did indeed make our way back to Space Mountain.  Five days of non-stop park touring had certainly worn us out, but we wouldn’t have changed a single moment.  Our family vacation motto was born…We’ll rest when we’re dead.

What’s your favorite Walt Disney World park touring memory?