Disney World Last Week – Trip Recap

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

Disney World Last Week – Trip Recap

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

Best Moments-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Food –

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Experiences –

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointments/Regrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Disney World’s Best Signature Dining

There are so many Walt Disney World restaurants to choose from!  Frequent visitors, like our family, develop a passion for certain snacks, an emotional attachment to a few quick-service places, and we’re downright territorial about our table service favorites!

Let’s talk about Disney’s Signature Dining.  If you’re going to splurge on a meal either out-of-pocket or by burning two table service dining credits on the Disney Dining Plan, it’s important to choose wisely!  While we haven’t quite made it to all the finest dining Disney has to offer (I’m looking at you, Victoria and Albert’s), we’ve tried a good many and have indeed developed enough of a fondness for a few to do what we can to squeeze them into our budgets for both time and money as often as we can.Signature Dining - Yachtsman Steakhouse

For those of you with little ones, fully enjoying a Signature Dining experience can be challenging.  You know you kids best and whether or not they’d like to sit in a fancy restaurant for a lengthy meal.  This is Disney World so signature restaurants are kid-friendly, but they are not as fun as character dining (like at Tusker House or Chef Mickey) or some places with funny servers (think Whispering Canyon Café or 50’s Prime Time Café) and cool themes (Sci-Fi Dine In Theater).  These places also tend to have more “adult” foods on the kids’ menu.  The list I’ve put together here is mainly geared towards families with older children and groups of adults.  If you’ve got something to celebrate, like an anniversary or graduation, signature dining is the way to go!

Disney World’s Best Signature Dining

In The Resorts

Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) – Hands down this is our favorite Signature Dining Experience, but it’s not for everyone!  Jiko is best enjoyed by diners with adventurous palates.  That’s not to say that picky eaters won’t find something to love, but it may take a little creative work with the cooperative servers and chefs.  We’re game (see what I did there?) for trying exotic dishes made with wild boar or buffalo.  We welcome new flavors from African-spiced dishes of all kinds.  Options like pork and lamb shanks, beef short ribs, scallops, halibut, lobster, and vegetarian dishes make up the creative menu.  We have never been disappointed.  The wine list is as fantastic as the food.

California Grill (Disney’s Contemporary Resort) – The food’s good, but the setting is great!  The view from the top of the Contemporary Resort is fantastic and at sunset it’s downright awesome!  The California-inspired menu is broad and boasts a great selection of sushi along with other, many very complex, dishes.  Service is excellent and compared to Citricos and Narcoossee’s at the Grand Floridian (also signature), California Grill manages to seem extra special.  No matter what time you have dinner, you’ll be welcome to stay (or return) and enjoy Wishes (Magic Kingdom’s fireworks spectacular) from the restaurant’s outdoor viewing area.  We celebrated our 25th anniversary at California Grill and our experience was wonderful.

Flying Fish (Disney’s Boardwalk) – Recently renovated and with a new chef, Flying Fish has an awesome location (a short walk from Epcot) and has been very popular in the past.  One of our best vacation meal memories is of dinner at the Flying Fish.  Disney's Flying Fish Cafe ExteriorI don’t know firsthand how the restaurant’s new version compares to the old, but our next Flying Fish dinner is just days away.  The new menu looks fantastic (albeit expensive!) and it may well be worth two dining credits.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Yachtsman Steakhouse (Yacht Club) – A solid choice for steak-lovers, Yachtsman’s proximity to Epcot makes it a stellar alternative to Le Cellier in World Showcase’s Canada Pavilion.  Good service, solid menu, and the butcher/meat viewing area is cool!  We thought the atmosphere a bit more laid back than some of the other signature restaurants and that complimented, rather than detracted from, the overall experience to us.  If you’re not a steak fan, there are better places to eat.  If you love a good steak, I found even the smallest one on the menu (6-ounce Black Angus Filet) to be perfectly cooked, tender, and delicious.

In The Parks

Tiffins (Animal Kingdom) – As I mentioned in the review I did recently, this place is probably not for picky, non-adventurous eaters.  If you love Animal Kingdom for the incredible theming and you want to feel like you’re eating in an exotic far away place with amazing service, consider Tiffins.  It can be a bit expensive, but is very special, so worth it in my opinion (at least once).  The menu is extraordinary and the beer and wine lists are carefully cultivated and unique.  While all signature dining restaurants try to offer exceptional service in a special atmosphere, Tiffins succeeds in a way few others manage.The Hollywood Brown Derby / Disney's Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Brown Derby (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) – While this may be our least favorite of the group I’ve listed here today, it’s worth mentioning.  The Derby has many devoted fans and it offers a wonderful respite from park noise and crowds.  The atmosphere is very cool and the menu offers a good variety.  The Cobb Salad is famous as is the Grapefruit Cake dessert.  If you’re on the dining plan, don’t waste two table service credits here.  If you want a nice meal at a low-ish price for signature dining and/or want the best meal in the Studios, give the Hollywood Brown Derby a try.

What did I miss?  Do you have a favorite signature restaurant that didn’t make our list?

 

Tiffins – Disney Park Signature Dining Perfection

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is immersive, exquisitely themed, and carries guest away on exotic adventures.  For visitors looking for a signature dining experience that perfectly reflects the park’s theming, Tiffin’s is the place!

Tiffins – Disney Park Signature Dining Perfection

My favorite attraction in Animal Kingdom may be in Asia (Expedition Everest), but my favorite section of the park is Africa.  From the Dawa Bar and Burudika Band to the Harambe Market, Festival of the Lion King, and the Gorilla Falls trail…Every square inch of Africa is amazing!  I have yet to visit when I didn’t see several things I’d never noticed before.  On the last visit, we were serenaded by a wandering musician…what a unique and unforgettable experience!dak-musician

When the opening of Tiffins was announced, we knew we had to try it.  We love adventure in both vacation activities and dining.  By all accounts from the early Tiffins reviews, the experience sounded both exotic and delicious.  (This is probably not the best restaurant for picky eaters.)tiffins-sign

We booked an early dinner for seven to cap off a full day of Animal Kingdom touring.  The exterior of Tiffins blends well into its surroundings.  When we walked in, it was obvious that the carefully crafted details outside the building were magnified on the inside.  The most meticulous care went into making the restaurant’s interior feel uniquely special and perfect for its location.

What we liked – Everything!  The service (ask for Kile!), the ambiance, the food, the wine…every detail was fantastic.  Kile, our server, was passionate about Tiffins and was happy to share details with us about everything from the artwork on each wall to the flavors in the menu’s dishes.  tiffins-rivers-of-light-wallNotice the colorful fabric behind the lighted animal figures (just like the floats in Rivers of Light!)?  Those fabric pieces were once Animal Kingdom Cast Member costumes.  tiffins-interior-wall-detailSee the wooden poles?  tiffins-wood-carvingsThey are covered in carvings of a multitude of different animals – these very same poles were once painted bright blue and stood in Camp Minnie-Mickey.tiffins-menu

What we didn’t like – Nothing.  We loved everything about Tiffins…it was us we didn’t like.  This restaurant is special and we felt a little soggy and grimy after being in the park all day and maneuvering through an afternoon downpour.  We were a ragtag bunch eating in a very nice place.  Luckily, that’s to be expected with any in-park dining, so while we wished we’d been a bit more presentable, we enjoyed an excellent meal just the same.tiffins-soup tiffins-octopus-appetizertiffins-beef-entree

What would get us back – Time and budget.  Signature dining = expensive meal, so we’d need to plan accordingly.  Also, we’d want to book a meal at Tiffins during a day we were already planning to be in Animal Kingdom.  Unlike signature restaurants on the monorail loop or at resorts in or near Epcot, the Animal Kingdom park is pretty far away from where we usually stay.  It’s not someplace we would visit just for a meal.  All that being said, we do already have anther reservation at Tiffins in about a month.  Our first impression was great and there are many things on the menu we’d still like to try.

If you’re an adventurous eater and you love Disney signature dining, Tiffins is a solid choice for a unique and special experience.  Have you tried Tiffins?  How was your meal there?

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – 12 Hours of Fun!

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

Disney’s Animal Kingdom – 12 Hours of Fun!

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

What we did for 12+ Hours

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

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

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

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

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

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