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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Trip to Walt Disney World – Good, Bad, Ugly

Old Key West ResortSo – upon just returning from another visit to our beloved Walt Disney World, my mind is swirling with thoughts.  I have a lot to talk about!  I also have a bazillion (yes, that’s the official count) new pictures to share with you.  I took three cameras, my iPhone, and even a brand new GoPro video camera – which I used for ride videos and as soon as I can figure out how to post those to Living a Disney Life’s YouTube channel, I’ll let you know.

For those of you who are regular readers here – I did nearly everything I had planned and knocked off several items from my Disney New Year’s Resolution list – more about that later.  I love Walt Disney World as much as ever – I’m intentionally writing a balanced post of the highs and lows of this particular trip – I am in no way feeling negative about Walt Disney World in general.

If you have any questions about specific things, be sure to give me a holler!  I’ll be happy to help in any way that I can.  Now, without further ado, may I present…

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

The Good:

The grounds of the Old Key West resort are gorgeous.  Particularly the landscaping!  BecauseDisney's Old Key West Resort OKW is the original Disney vacation club property (early 1990’s) – the trees and plants are mature and lush – very pretty.  The studio we had was spacious and in good repair – plenty of room for the four of us.

The service at Old Key West – was excellent overall.  The lady that checked us in was the least magical of them all and I’ll give her a pass because I was pretty grumpy (got up at 3:00 am to catch a plane) and my opinion may have been skewed.  Because of OKW’s out-of-the-way location maybe, it seemed everyone from the bartenders to the restaurant wait staff to the bell hops worked extra hard to deliver excellent service – like they were genuinely glad to help.  Moe at Olivia’s was excellent.

TFestival of Fantasy Parade he Festival of Fantasy Parade – It’s really fantastic.  We roasted in the sun, sitting on our rain ponchos (so our, uhm, bottoms wouldn’t fry on the burning hot curb) and hoped like heck the parade would be worth all the sweating.  It was.  More on that another day.  Just going to leave you with this:  Don’t miss it.

Star Wars Weekend – I am NOT a huge Star Wars fan (about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10), but the excitement is hard to resist!  We got to see the motorcade (but could not make the Symphony in the Sky fireworks, sadly) – John Ratzenberger was there the day we saw it and THAT was exciting in itself.  All the special Star Wars touches from the Storm Troopers to the Darth Vader and Yoda cupcakes – just great Disney fun!

Short wait times!  We arrived the day after the 24 hour event and were pleasantly surprised byIMG_4109 low-ish crowd levels.  Most attractions like Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Maelstrom, etc. (all non-headliners) had 20-30 minute waits.  We left quite a few FastPass+ choices unused.  We knew we could have changed them to something else, but never felt it necessary.  We used morning Extra Magic Hours and a few FP+’s to ride Rock’n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Expedition Everest several times each.  Yes, we DID get to ride the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, too!

Disney's Flying Fish RestaurantFlying Fish and Raglan Road – these were our two best dining experiences of the trip.  Yes, the food was delicious, but in both restaurants, the service was outstanding!  Bob at Flying Fish (Boardwalk resort area) must be among the best servers on Disney Property – he could describe a cardboard box in a way that would make you really want to eat it!  Brett at Raglan Road (Downtown Disney) was fun and charming – very attentive, yet easy going – a real pleasure.  I highly recommend both of these restaurants!  More to come on them in other posts.

Primeval Whirl – I’m just going to give a little shout-out to this odd little ride in Animal Kingdom’sPrimeval Whirl Dinoland U.S.A.  I’d never ridden it before, but on this visit rode it three times!  I thought it looked too spinny (made that up) and, well, silly in the past, but gave it a go and had a blast!

Pin Trading – Just as much fun as ever!  We asked at every resort and every shop if there were pin boards or books we could look at – Much trading fun ensued!

The Bad:

Old Turtle Pond at Old Key WestOur location.  Let’s face it.  We are resort loop snobs.  We love the monorail resorts above all others.  We only stayed at Old Key West because, as Disney Vacation Club members, we had points enough left over after booking our October trip to stay at OKW for 6 nights.  We figured being anywhere on property was better than not going at all, but boy, oh boy, did we miss Bay Lake Tower!!!  Bus service was so slow, Raymond nicknamed the closest bus stop (Turtle Pond) to our building the “little stop of horrors”.  It often (we timed it) took us more than an hour to get to (or from) a park or Downtown Disney.  We walked to the Hospitality House from our building (38) twice and it was a LONG haul.  The resort is huge and very spread out.

Magic Bands – a mixed review, really.  Raymond’s band almost never worked on the first (orMagic Band at Park Entrance even second) try and sometimes not at all (like it was broken).  When you’re trying to enter a park and your Magic Band won’t work, it’s a bit embarrassing, holds up the line, takes up valuable time, a senior Cast Member with a tablet has to be called over to assist – just bad all around and, in Raymond’s case, happened more often than not.  We saw this happen to other people too, every day we were there.  When they worked, Magic Bands were really convenient.  Disney must find a way to add discounts automatically to the band – like DVC, Annual Pass, Tables in Wonderland, etc.  It’s a pain to have to carry around all the cards and ID’s for this.  Also, the app was VERY slow – Every time we tried to use it.

The Hollywood Brown Derby and Tutto Italia.  We will, most likely, never EVER darken the door of these two establishments again.  We have, on past visits, dined at Tutto Italia (Epcot’s Italy Pavilion) and loved it…which is why we booked it especially for Raymond’s birthday dinner.  Our meal there was a disaster – as was our first experience (and last) at the Brown Derby (Disney’s Hollywood Studios).  In both restaurants our table was in stealth mode – you Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney's Hollywood Studiosknow, it was like we were invisible!  The servers ignored us – to the point that we made jokes about it to keep our morale up.  In both places we felt the food was overpriced and overrated – lacking in flavor and presentation.  Even the “famous” Cobb Salad at the Derby was awful – Megan and I both ordered it and both of us felt the bleu cheese (which I really love) was completely overpowering.  It’s quite rare for us to not enjoy a dining experience at a Walt Disney World table service restaurant – I can’t believe we had TWO such horrible experiences in the same week.

The Ugly:

The Disney bus service seems to have declined in general.  Maybe part of it goes back to not having a premium location, but one incident (Raymond and I were not present) stands out as indicative of this decline.  Joseph and Megan stayed out late one night to spend more time on park rides.  After catching the bus back to Old Key West, they had a very disturbing experience.  It actually frightened them both and, let me tell you, having me for a mother has made them pretty tough – they don’t scare easily.  It seems there was an Hispanic family whose son was enamored of hanging onto the straps used by standing riders – the bus was not full, Disney Bus to the Grand Floridiannobody needed to stand.  This boy wanted to swing from the strap which made the bus driver super angry.

Long story short – the anger escalated, the bus driver yelled (in Spanish) at the family more than once and even stopped the bus in the middle of the road to try to kick them off.  The boy’s parents and the driver had an extremely angry, prolonged exchange.  At this point, the driver’s rage had him accusing the child of doing things he wasn’t doing.  The other passengers tried to tell the driver – no one was standing up or doing anything wrong.  Emotionally compromised, the driver then acted recklessly by speeding off and “driving like a maniac”, which prompted most people to exit at the next stop, even though it wasn’t the stop they needed (due to fear).  Megan and Joseph overheard many families’ comments about it.

The kids were both shaken up by the bus driver’s complete disregard for passenger safety – plus, being at Walt Disney World, nobody expects there to be altercations of this nature.  The drivers usually seem capable of handling anything passengers can dish out – with a smile and a kind word.  Aside from this, bus service seemed “off” from prior experiences – there was often a longer wait than 20-30 minutes between buses.  Heaven help you if you try to park-hop midday from the Studios – the bus stops for the other parks are out in the wide open with absolutely no shade whatsoever.  I’d be interested in hearing how your recent experiences with Disney transportation compare with ours.

Those are my general overall thoughts and impressions of this trip.  I will write reviews of Old Key West and each restaurant we visited (and much more)  in more detail over the next few weeks.  Again, if you have questions or feedback, please leave me a comment.