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.

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!