Dark Side Challenge – April Disney Vacation Plans

In just a few weeks, we’ll be headed to Walt Disney World for a short, action-packed adventure.  We may be there for only three days, but we’ve built quite an itinerary!  With so much to look forward to, it feels like my countdown calendar is moving backwards.  Making things worse is fickle Mother Nature and her indecision about which season to embrace.  Feels like winter one day, spring the next, back and forth until everyone’s sneezing from either a cold or pollen allergies.  All of it has me staring at my suitcase wondering if it’s too soon to pack.

Dark Side Challenge – April Disney Vacation Plans

We chose our travel dates purely for the Dark Side Challenge.  The Star Wars 10K and Half Marathon will be Joseph’s first runDisney events and I couldn’t be more excited for him.  After he spent fall and winter of 2015 running with me as I trained for the 2016 Glass Slipper Challenge, then stayed home with Junior while I went to Disney World, I promised him I’d take him with me this year.  With just a couple of long training runs remaining, we’re ready.

Dark Side Challenge - April Disney Vacation Plans

Springtime in Disney World!  It’s been years since we’ve visited during Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival and we have missed it so much.  Weighing heavily into our plans, Epcot’s going to be where we spend most of our non-running time.  Since Nick and Dave from the Disney Exchange (and their wives) will also be at Disney World, we’re doing our best to coordinate our schedules for a get-together.  The weekend looks like this:

Friday mid-day – Arrive, grab lunch at the Grand Floridian (staying in the Villas) and head to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to pick up our race packets.  Based on past experience, we’ll be there a whole lot less time than it takes to get there.  The race expo is always too crowded to enjoy browsing the booths.  I gave it my best shot last year and still walked away empty-handed.  There’s a lot of cool merchandise, but my patience won’t last long enough to actually purchase anything except a beer.  Once we’ve got our packets, we’ll head right back to the bus and make our way to Magic Kingdom.

Magic Kingdom – We’ve got late afternoon / early evening FastPasses for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain.  Between FastPasses, we’ll squeeze in what we can.

Late Dinner at Narcoossee’s – The last time Raymond and I ate here was late December, 2015 and our experience could not have been better.  The food and service were both excellent.  One of the things we liked best was that our server encouraged us to step outside on the deck to watch Wishes while he held our entrees back to keep them warm.  Nice touch! I’ve scheduled our reservation for 8:30 with Wishes at 9:00 so we can do it again.  After that it’s off to sleep.

Here’s where our plans are a little squishy.  Saturday morning we’ll need to be at the 10k’s starting line well ahead of the 5:30 am start time.  Unlike the previous runDisney events I’ve done, this one starts on Floridian Way rather than at Epcot.  I’m sure we’ll have to take a bus to the starting line, but don’t have a clear idea about how long that will take.  Once the official race course and event guide have been published, hopefully we’ll know more.  The race ends at Epcot and we should be making our way back to the Grand Floridian by 7:00 am to clean up and have breakfast.Epcot View

Epcot all Day!  Sure we’ll be a little tired, but for not rushing around, sampling plenty of snacks and having our group meet-up, Epcot is perfect!  We do have a little lunch reservation we’ll duck out for at Beaches & Cream (our first time there!) and then we’ll be right back for more Flower and Garden action.  We have late afternoon FastPasses for Frozen Ever After, Spaceship Earth, and The Seas with Nemo & Friends.

Il Mulino Dinner – As per our pre-Disney-half-marathon tradition, this amazing little Italian eatery at the Swan is where we’ll order giant servings of carbs and pretend we don’t have to get up super early and run 13.1 miles.  Last year while we were enjoying our Il Mulino dinner before the Princess Half, Joseph (home with Junior) texted us, of all things, a video of him playing Bella Notte (from Lady and the Tramp) on an antique accordion he had purchased earlier that day.  (Sometimes Joe’s love for both music and antiques collides.)  It was perfect and one of my happiest Disney vacation memories.  It’s a shame he can’t pack that thing and bring it along to serenade us in person this time.

Running to the Dark Side!

Sunday morning Joseph and I will put on our epic matching Star Wars shirts (nope, not kidding – had them custom printed just for us) and two great things will happen:  I will not be running 13.1 miles alone (I can’t tell you how much this means!) and Joseph will get to experience first hand how incredibly amazing runDisney half marathons are.  I’m excited to hear what he has to say about the course and all the surprises along the way.  Post-race we’ll meet up with Raymond and enjoy the after-party for a few minutes before we head back to our room to clean up.

Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  We are absolutely ending the day at Animal Kingdom, but if we have time, we’ll make a quick dash to Epcot for lunch around the World.  At Animal Kingdom we have two FastPasses scheduled before dinner – Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest.  We’re eating Dinner at Sanaa in the Kidani Village section of Animal Kingdom Lodge.  Joseph’s going to love the bread service!  Then it’s back to Animal Kingdom park for Rivers of Light.

That’s it.  Then we go home.  I’m hoping we’re not trying to do too much.  At the same time, I’m hoping our scheduled plans will be enough to make our three days feel much longer.

This will be the shortest Disney vacation I’ve ever taken.  How about you?  Would you (could you?) go for just three days?

 

 

 

 

 

Disney Dining – Table Service VS Signature Dining

So many dining questions (mostly my own) when planning a Walt Disney World vacation!  One of the most common is…What the heck is the difference between a “Table Service” restaurant and a “Signature Dining” experience?  This is an excellent question!!!  For guests on the Disney Dining Plan, the difference boils down to this:  Table Service = one credit and Signature restaurants = 2 credits.  But what is the difference REALLY?  What do I get for either my money or my dining credits?  That, my friends, is an interesting poser!RM-Yachtsman-Filet

To even the playing field for today’s exercise, I’m excluding all in-park dining options and focusing on two main categories:  1.)  Resort or Downtown Disney Dining Options and 2.)  Places Where I’ve Eaten.  With this information, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the two dining categories AND you can think about choosing a restaurant without the added expense/use of a theme park ticket.  Honestly, it’s no big secret that our family generally prefers dining at the resorts over the parks anyway.

Disney Dining – Table Service VS Signature Dining

In General:  

Signature Dining is more grown-up.  With the exception of Victoria and Albert’s at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Disney World restaurants are kid-friendly.  That being said, folks in Signature eateries tend to be adults-out-for-an-evening versus families with little ones.Citricos-Window

Signature Dining tends to involve dressier attire.  From the Disney Dining Plan information sheet:  “Dress Code for Signature Restaurants is Resort Casual. Not permitted in dining room: Tank tops, swimsuits or swimsuit cover-ups, hats for gentlemen, cut-offs, torn clothing of any kind, or T-shirts with offensive language and/or graphics.”  You just get a dressier vibe in general and we tend to clean up at our resort before we hit one of the restaurants of the Signature Dining variety.

Signature Dining is more expensive.  In our experience, this is true.  Sure, you can run up a large tab anywhere, but based on a basic 4-5 course meal, Signature restaurants cost a bit more.

Signature Dining may have better service.  MAY being the operative word here.  We’ve had incredible service at places like Flying Fish but, on the flip side, have never had poor service at any of our favorite Table Service restaurants.  If you want your server to know more about wine pairings and how certain dishes or sauces are prepared, you’re more likely to find that in a Signature Dining restaurant.Citricos-Michael

Signature Dining is quieter and more relaxing (and takes longer).  Fewer kids, generally better pacing – the meals tend to flow better in favor of enjoying each course and the dining experience to a fuller extent than at a regular Table Service place.  There’s no rush to move families along before a melt-down occurs.

Let’s look at specific restaurants and compare!

Our favorite Table Service restaurants include this selection of six from the resorts (all are ONE credit on the Disney Dining Plan):

  • Boma (Animal Kingdom Lodge) – Buffet with a fixed price (unless you order adult beverages) that includes a selection of both exotic, African-inspired dishes AND kid (and picky eater)-friendly choices.  Soups, salads, entrées, desserts – a feast to please every taste!
  • Sanaa (Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village) – Feels very close to a Signature Dining experience with exotic flavors and an unsurpassed appetizer, the “Bread Service”.  It’s warm, cozy, and boasts an excellent, knowledgeable wait staff.  (Choose this over Jiko if you need to save a Table Service credit, but want the great flavors and atmosphere if Animal Kingdom Lodge.)RM-Sanaa Server
  • Olivia’s Café (Old Key West) – Underappreciated and off-the-beaten-path, this place is cozy with a homey, beachy vibe.  The service is above par and the relaxed atmosphere after a hectic day in the parks cannot be beat!Relaxed Dining at Olivia's Cafe / Old Key West / Walt Disney World
  • Kona Café (Polynesian Village Resort) – If I had to rank this list, Kona Café would come in last.  Based on the one-and-only time we’ve eaten there, the atmosphere and service left us underwhelmed, but the food was delicious!
  • ‘Ohana (Polynesian Village Resort) – Perfect for families with big appetites looking for a kid-friendly atmosphere.  It helps if you like meat as this is a Brazilian Barbeque-style dining experience.
  • Raglan Road (Downtown Disney) – We love this place!  For an Irish Pub, it’s extremely family-friendly, has fun live entertainment, great music, and a delicious comfort-food-intensive menu.RM-Raglan-Road-Dancers

Resort Signature Dining (TWO Disney Dining Table Service Credits) experiences we’ve tried include:

  • Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) – We love this place!  Expensive, yes, but exotic with great service, awesome wine selection, and delicious menu choices that have never disappointed.
  • Flying Fish Café – The artisanal cheese appetizer is amazing, but we also love the service, the interesting menu (something for everyone, even non-seafood-lovers) and the atmosphere – prime location on Disney’s Boardwalk.Disney's Flying Fish Cafe Interior
  • California Grill – More kids than we anticipated!  Of all the Signature Dining places we’ve tried, this one was the nosiest and had the most kids-on-the-loose.  It’s the balcony that allows guests a magnificent view of Wishes (Magic Kingdom’s nighttime fireworks show) – Access is included with a dining reservation.  The food’s great, the service is awesome, but if you’re looking for a quieter, kid-less dinner, think about trying a different restaurant.
  • Citricos (Grand Floridian Resort and Spa) – This place feels elegant, upscale, and unpretentious at the same time.  The service is excellent!  The menu is broad enough for picky or special-restriction diners.  We also think the atmosphere strikes just the right balance between fancy and on-vacation.Citricos-Interior
  • Yachtsman Steakhouse (Yacht and Beach Club Resort) – Looking for a great steak dinner?  You’ll find one here.  Compared to the great service we’re received at other Signature Dining restaurants, Yachtsman’s servers possess the most pride in their food, atmosphere, and service.  There seem to be more kids here than at some other Signature Dining restaurants, but they’re too busy enjoying their steaks to make noise or cause a ruckus.RM-Yachtsman-Dining-Room
  • Artist Point (Wilderness Lodge) – Again, if I had to rank the restaurants in this category, Artist Point would come in last.  It’s dark and, compared to Wilderness Lodge’s awesome ambiance, lacks character.  Save your dining credits!  We’ve found much better experiences at NON-signature restaurants.  Rumor has it that changes are on the horizon for Artist Point, but it would take a lot to get me back in there for another meal when there are so many other, more reliable options.

Whew!  I’m exhausted…and hungry.  I hope I was able to shed a bit of light on the differences between the different dining experiences at Walt Disney World for you.  I believe it’s important to be an informed consumer when it comes to my precious vacation dollars.

What would you recommend for an excellent sit-down meal at a Disney resort?

 

So Many Disney Food Pictures!

Happy Weekend, Disney Fans!  This week’s Saturdays with Nick is all about FOOD!…Well, food pictures at least.  Like Nick and Barbie, I inexplicably take an enormous number of food pics when I’m on a Disney vacation!  How about you?  How many of your Disney trip pictures are of food or dining-related activities?

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Don’t Play With Your Food. Photograph It!  So Many Disney Food Pictures!

I’m going through every photo from our Disney vacations, and I see a lot, I mean A LOT, of pictures of food.  I know I’m not the only person to take pictures of food, I used to write Trip Reports for the DVC fan sites I belong to, and now write restaurant reviews for this blog and photos are integral to these articles.  But I also take these photos because it helps me remember a good, great, or even bad, meal.

All these examples are from early October, 2009.

We take photos of where we are eating.

 Sanaa, Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village
 Wolfgang Puck Express, Downtown Disney

We take photos of what we are eating.

 Wolfgang Puck Express

Beaches and Cream, Yacht and Beach Club

Pictures of food being made.

Beaches and Cream

 Pictures of waiting for the food.

Beaches and Cream

The food being eaten.

  Beaches and Cream

A photo of food theft! Blatant food theft!

Wolfgang Puck Express

Before photos…

Beaches and Cream

…and after photos.

For more on the Banana Split at Beaches and Cream, please check out this post.

Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World is our favorite time to take pictures of food. We pose it as attractively as possible.

So, remember, Mom said don’t play with your food, but she didn’t say anything about photographing it!

Disney World Dining – Best 1-Credit Table Service Restaurants

RM-Be-Our-Guest-Stained-GlassOnce again, in the interest of full disclosure – I’m not a picky eater.  This is, you know, my blog and thus, my opinion.  I get asked a lot about the Disney Dining Plan in general and table service restaurants in particular.  Disney Dining Plans can be a great value (even if you pay for them and don’t get the free dining promotion), but to maximize your investment, you kind of need to choose wisely (if you care about such things).  There are some terrific web sites and blog posts that work out the details on where you can actually get the best value (Here’s a highly detailed great article from 2014) .  I’m not really into that per se.  I’m more about the overall dining experience versus straight up where-is-the-most-expensive-place-I-can-eat-for-one-table-service-credit.

Bearing in mind that these choices are based on my own family’s experiences – unless otherwise noted, we’ve actually eaten in every restaurant listed.  To make the list, we had to like the food, the selection, the service, and the ambiance as a whole.  Oh, and we’d have to want to eat there again.  So, if we’re all on the same page (HA!) here we go!

Disney World Dining – Best 1-Credit Table Service Restaurants

Exterior Rooftops / Animal Kingdom LodgeBoma Dinner Buffet (Animal Kingdom Lodge) – Boma’s also available for breakfast, but we haven’t tried anything but dinner.  We’ve eaten here several times because the variety of foods on this amazing buffet is simply unbeatable.  Soups, salads, breads, meats, stews, casseroles, kid-friendly fare, unique desserts – it’s all available at Boma.  As an added bonus, arrive early or stay late and enjoy the Animal Kingdom Lodge’s gorgeous lobby and savannah overlook for animal-spotting, entertainment, and educational opportunities. (More about Animal Kingdom Lodge for an evening out here.)

RM-Sanaa-BreadSanaa Dinner (Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village Section) – We recently ate at Sanaa for the first time and thought the atmosphere, service, and food were all excellent.  A bit more adult-oriented than Boma (our opinion), we adored the bread service starter and felt perfectly comfortable lingering over a leisurely dinner.  Romantic? Yes!

Olivia's at Disney's Old Key WestOlivia’s Café (Old Key West Resort) – We discovered this unique restaurant mostly by accident.  We were staying at Old Key West, but honestly had no intention of eating there!  At the very end of our vacation, we found ourselves starving at supper-time with no ADR (Advance Dining Reservation) booked.  Olivia’s welcomed us with open arms.  Great service, broad selection (for all tastes and appetites), and cozy, welcoming atmosphere – Olivia’s won us over!  (Full review here.)

‘Ohana Dinner (Polynesian Village Resort) – This place has wide appeal for the entire family.  All you care to eat, great setting, tasty Brazilian-barbeque-style dinner, decent service – you won’t leave hungry!  If you’re tempted to give this place a try, you must book your ADR 180 days out.  You snooze, you lose…if you want to eat at this uber-popular restaurant.RM-Be-Our-Guest-Sign

Be Our Guest Dinner (Magic Kingdom) – Out of pocket, I thought this was an expensive dinner (review here), but for one table-service credit?  Absolutely I’d book an ADR at Be Our Guest.  It’s gorgeous, the service is great, and the food is fine.  Best, most gorgeous dining room(s) in Magic Kingdom.  Let’s put it like this – if you must book a table service restaurant in Magic Kingdom, make it Be Our Guest where, no matter your opinion on the food or atmosphere, you can at least enjoy an adult beverage with your meal if you like. (Full review here.)IMG_0931

Rose & Crown Restaurant (UK Pavilion, Epcot) – We loved this place.  When we ate there (once so far), we were outside on a lovely evening with a great water view.  The service and food were both great.  We love the UK pavilion – enjoying dinner there is just one more great way to immerse ourselves in its awesomeness.

50’s Prime Time Café (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) – This place is so cool!  The “props”, the atmosphere, the humorous servers, the comfort-food-based menu – it all adds up to a fun place for the whole family.  A good experience and value for one table-service credit.  I’m a notorious anti-fan of the Studio’s restaurants in general, but this place is a winner in my book.

Character Dining:

 Meeting Minnie at Chef Mickey'sChef Mickey’s (Breakfast or Dinner Buffet / Contemporary Resort) – For years (and years!) we ate at Chef Mickey’s on every single Disney World visit.  First for dinner, then when the kids were older, for breakfast.  We’d eat there again – and probably will next time we’re all together on vacation.  The Fab Five and a decent buffet – especially during the summer, this combination at an indoor venue, for a meal, just a monorail stop from Magic Kingdom is a pretty good deal!  (Review here.)

1900 Park Fare / Drizella and Anastasia1900 Park Fare Dinner (Buffet / Grand Floridian Resort and Spa) – We loved meeting Cinderella and her Prince, but Lady Tremaine and the Step Sisters steal the show.  What this restaurant lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in character-meeting experiences and a good variety of tasty food.  We saw families of all ages there and our family of four adults had a great time! (Check out all the details here.)

Honorable Mentions:  Places we haven’t tried, but are on our to-try list because we’ve heard great things:

  • Kona Café (Polynesian Village Resort)
  • Whispering Canyon Café (Wilderness Lodge)
  • Cape May Café Dinner (Buffet)
  • Tusker House Dinner (Buffet)

Your turn!  Which table service restaurants would you recommend?