Disney Summer Road Trip Recap

The Epic Mother/Daughter Disney Summer Road Trip has come and gone.  800 miles to Walt Disney World for four park days and home again.  Did we have a good time?  Oh, you bet we did!  After all the planning and anticipation, we couldn’t have asked for more.

Disney Summer Road Trip Recap

We shared our plans in this post a few weeks ago.  When we hit the road at 8:00 am sharp on June 24th we were excited about our girls-only adventure.  We had our favorite Newk’s chicken salad sandwiches and plenty of drinks in the cooler.  Those snacks I’d bought at the Japan Pavilion back in April were within easy reach in the car.  We had a new podcast recommended by my friend Kelly about Unsolved Murders queued up in iTunes.  Suitcases, rain gear, GPS directions…we were ready!

The weather was great for the drive down.  In Mississippi we saw Lightening McQueen and Mater by the side of the road!  We thought this was both hilarious and appropriate so we stopped for a picture.  After that, it felt like we were on The Autobahn!  Nobody in Mississippi or Alabama seemed to care about the speed limit at all and we had to go kinda fast to keep up with the crowd.  We never once saw any troopers or other law enforcement watching for speeders…vastly different than in Louisiana.

I figured 9-10 hours of shared driving would be the maximum we could handle on day one.  I’d booked a room at the Hampton Inn in Lake City, Florida for Saturday night.  We could get a good night’s rest and tackle the last 2 1/2 hours of the drive on Sunday morning.  Everything went exactly according to plan.  I’d had a recommendation from someone on a Facebook forum to stop in Tallahassee for ice cream at Lofty Pursuits.  We cheered ourselves on by looking forward to stopping there for an afternoon snack and were delighted with the restaurant’s huge menu and quirky décor.  Guinness ice cream is a thing and it is spectacular.  I had warm chocolate ganache on mine, Megan had hers in a cone.

Our room at the Hampton Inn was perfect with super comfortable beds.  After polishing off the last of our sandwiches, we sipped wine and watched a couple of episodes of Outlander before turning in.  Hey, girl trip means we get to do girly stuff.  The next morning’s drive was a breeze and before long we’d arrived at Saratoga Springs.  Our studio was great and very close to a bus stop.  Full review coming soon.

As per our plans, we spent Sunday afternoon and evening in Magic Kingdom with a quick dinner break at the Wilderness Lodge’s new Geyser Point Bar and Grill.  We capped off the day with Happily Ever After and loved it!

Monday was my favorite day of the trip.  We left Saratoga Springs at 6:30 am and didn’t get back until 11:00 pm.  We spent all that time in Animal Kingdom and had a blast!  I’ll write individual posts with more details about Pandora and the Caring for Giants tour, but those were both amazing.  We had FastPasses only for the Na’vi River Journey in Pandora that day with a FastPass to experience Flight of Passage booked for the next morning.  You cannot get FastPasses for both on the same day.

We watched the wait time for Flight of Passage throughout the day and it quickly became 250 minutes before declining during the afternoon hours.  After Caring for Giants, we decided that if the wait time got below 100 minutes between then and our Rivers of Light FastPass, we’d wait in the standby line so we could ride Flight of Passage twice on this trip.  Normally, we will not wait longer than 30-40 minutes for anything except our most favorite attractions and only then if absolutely necessary.  While we were enjoying our Flame Tree Barbeque dinner, Flight of Passage’s wait got to 90 minutes and we had just enough time to do it.  I’ll tell you all about in another post soon, but we were so happy we got in that long line!!!

Tuesday we split between Animal Kingdom and Epcot.  We got to eat lunch at La Cantina de San Angel in the Mexico Pavilion which we hardly ever get to do because we’re the only ones in our family who love Mexican food.  It rained quite a bit that afternoon, but we were prepared.  We rode out the worst of the storm listening to Voices of Liberty in The American Adventure rotunda.  They are so talented and put on a wonderful show!  Once the rain let up a little, we made our way back to Saratoga Springs and then on to our dinner at Paddlefish in Disney Springs that night.

Wednesday we split the day between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot.  The weather was gorgeous and the Studios didn’t feel as crowded as usual.  We did all our favorite attractions, saw all the characters in the Star Wars Launch Bay, and had time to enjoy a cold beer before we headed to Epcot.  By 4:30, it was time to get back to our already-packed car at Saratoga Springs and head back to the Hampton Inn in Lake City for the night.

The drive home on Thursday was a lot more challenging than on the way down.  We left extra early since we’d seen a sign outside of Lofty Pursuits that they were now serving breakfast.  Strawberry pancakes and coffee…delicious and just the fortification we needed.  We’d been averaging 5 hours of sleep a night since Sunday and were exhausted.  We drove through what felt like a monsoon for hours along the Florida panhandle.  After we got through Mobile, things got better and we made it home safe and sound with lots of souvenirs for Raymond, Joseph, Grant, and Lyndsey.

Success!  We had an excellent trip and accomplished all we’d set out to do.  Plus, we now know about literally dozens of unsolved murders around the world.  Megan and I took on the challenge of a 1600 mile drive to have a mother/daughter adventure.  We rarely get much alone time these days, so having each other’s complete and undivided attention while enjoying our favorite vacation destination was like a dream come true.  And we’d do it again!

 

 

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.

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?

 

 

My Disney Experience – A Fair and Balanced Review

WDW Bus Stop at Old Key WestUp until our recent visit to Walt Disney World, I could only speculate about how I would use all the new bells and whistles of the My Disney Experience, MyMagic+, FastPass+, and MagicBand.  I researched, I planned, I chose my ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) 180 days in advance, I purchased MemoryMaker, I customized my Magic Band, I selected my FastPasses 60 days before I would need them.  I played by the rules, so to speak, and fulfilled what I considered all the new requirements for a visit to my favorite vacation destination.

The Good News:  For the most part, the WHOLE of our experience was a positive one.  I’m going to be completely honest in the rest of this article – not to whine, but to tell you how our experience really was – for us.  We always have been and still are HUGE Disney fans.  Please don’t misunderstand comments that seem to be complaints – to be fair and balanced, I need to point out areas that can be improved or that didn’t work well for our family.WDW Mickey Pretzel

We did not experience any glitches with linking our party in the My Disney Experience / MyMagic+ system, selecting FastPasses, etc.  The convenience of using a MagicBand for resort room access was awesome!  Our MagicBands were comfortable, lightweight, and non-irritating.  After selecting a PIN for use with our MagicBands for charging purchases, I’m certain we did spend quite a bit more money than intended – the process was so darned easy to use!  Touch the key pad, enter the 4-digit pin, enjoy your purchase.  Snacks, souvenirs, meals, drinks – the bill really racks up fast!

The whole FastPass+ thing was fine, but not as great as I’d imagined.  I was, perhaps, a bit overly optimistic.  We left a lot of FastPass selections unused!  Crowd levels were such that, for the most part, we didn’t need FastPasses for any other than e-ticket (headliner) rides and attractions.  Being forced to select 3 then only needing one or two Waiting for Toy Story Midway Maniameant that if we never used all 3 on a particular day, we totally ruined our chances to select more.  Yes, we could have changed our selections to something else in the same park, but then we’d have been more or less “forced” to ride out those passes to be eligible to get more – and we wanted more, especially for a different park.  Plus, the addition of the tiered FP systems in Epcot and the Studios really proved to be challenging and not as good as the old FP system for our family (your experience may be completely different!).

Getting into the parks seemed to be a LOT slower than in the past.  Especially for us since Raymond’s MagicBand almost never worked properly.  Remember Key to The World cards?  How you fed them into the card reader then the fingerprint reader’s light would come on?  Well now you touch the Mickey on your MagicBand to a reader and wait for a light to swirl around and around (on the reader, while you’re touching Mickey to it) before the swirling light becomes a bright, solid light – THEN the light comes on for the fingerprint DSCN3367reader.  Then you wait for the whole shebang to turn green- it’s much slower than the card reader!  Especially when one member of your party has trouble almost every time.  In Raymond’s case, the Cast Member by the MagicBand reader would have him try multiple times before calling over a Senior Cast Member with a hand held reader – who would read Raymond’s MagicBand, call him by name, and give him the go-ahead to enter.  This would have been okay if it only happened once, but we visited two parks a day and the process got tedious in a hurry.  It also felt like we were…how do I put this…appearing suspect.  I wasn’t embarrassed, really, but – we just felt singled out, stared at, scrutinized, again and again.  When you’re trying to use Morning Extra Magic Hours and you get held up every time…I’ll stop complaining now, you get the idea.

Splash Mountain Ride PhotoSo – to wrap it all up for you…

MagicBands – very convenient when they work properly.  Highly wearable – no complaints about comfort (I kept looking at mine as if it would tell time).  If Disney really wants this to be convenient, they’ll find a way to attach your discounts (Tables in Wonderland, DVC, Annual Pass) so you don’t have to carry all the cards!

MemoryMaker / PhotoPass – easier to use than the old system – just hold your arm out post-picture-taking for a quick scan of a MagicBand and you’re on your way.  Ride photos, character dining pics, park photos all together for one price with MemoryMaker.  If you’re Family Pic at Disney's Boardwalkthinking about it, pre-purchase for the $50 discount.  You can read my justification for forking over the $149 here.

FastPass+ – There’s a definite learning curve here.  I think I can do better on our next visit.  I strongly dislike the must-choose-and-use-three at the same park before getting the option to hop and pick again.  I also wasn’t a huge fan of having to use a kiosk to pick the fourth, fifth, etc. (versus being able to use the app, which you can’t).

MyMagic+ – There’s still some work to be done.  I believe the app is not as user-friendly as it could (and should) be.  It’s so slow!  Even when we were in a park – SLOW!!!Meg and Joe at Disney's Hollywood Studios

We had a GREAT vacation!  None of the problems we experienced were more than momentary annoyances.  No matter what kind of change you’re faced with, there’s always a period of adjustment.  I feel certain that Disney will address the existing system glitches.  I believe they will listen to guest feedback and make some additional tweaks here and there.  I am very much looking forward to our next visit to Walt Disney World in October to celebrate our 25th Anniversary – our first trip without children since my first visit in 1990!

Tim over at Dad for Disney has a great article on new versus old FastPass systems.  Check it out here.

If you’ve been to Walt Disney World recently, how was your experience with the new system?