Planning Our Next Walt Disney World Trip!

Well, we agreed we were going to skip Disney this year and take our 10 year old to Universal Orlando. But things change, and when Disney’s “free dining” promotion came out in April, I couldn’t resist the temptation to just see what was available. Luckily, the dates were extended an extra 3 weeks early to Disney Chase Visa cardholders. Meaning instead of August 20th, we could book free dining starting August 2nd (this is why having the Disney Visa is a good thing, even if you don’t plan on using it often.)

After grabbing a reservation at an All-Star resort (not exciting, but fine) I continued to look around and couldn’t believe my eyes when a value studio popped up at Animal Kingdom Lodge for a few hundred more than we would be paying for our stay at All-Star, and we wouldn’t have to upgrade from the quick serve plan (stays at deluxe resorts include the standard dining plan.) We’re normally not Deluxe resort-type people. We figure our hotel just needs a clean room and a decent pool. But hey, if you twist my arm, I guess I’ll stay at a deluxe resort complete with a savanna with zebras, giraffes, and ankole cattle, one of the best pools on property and 3 of the best restaurants in all of the Walt Disney World resort. So we are doing 4 nights at AKL with free dining! We are so very excited.

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In addition, months before I booked this trip, I decided to try out renting Disney Vacation Club points to see what it was all about so I could report back about my experience. So after we check out of AKL Jambo House, we check in for one night to AKL Kidani Village, which is the DVC only part of Animal Kingdom Lodge. We will be staying in a Savanna view studio. With me so far?

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photo credit: Loren Javier via flickr

Then, while planning our week, something else happened…Disney released the dates for the 2018 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, with the first date being the night we are scheduled to leave. And is also the day before my husband’s birthday. We happen to love the Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, even if we have to go in August. So, we added on a 2 night stay at Pop Century, taking advantage of the room discount promotion currently going on.

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We are looking forward to seeing the brand new Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios. We have a Fastpass for Slinky Dog Dash and plan to “rope drop” Alien Swirling Saucers. I’m very excited to try some of the yummy-looking food at Woody’s Lunch Box, too. We will also be spending a lot of time in Animal Kingdom in Pandora, one of our favorite places!

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Our dining reservations are all set as well. We will be trying some new restaurants, like The Plaza in Magic Kingdom, Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness, and Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge. We’ll be hitting our faves Tusker House, Garden Grill, and Be Our Guest too. We simply love free dining and can’t wait to try some new snacks on this trip.

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photo credit: Nicole Pacitti via flickr

So, those are the details of our 7 day August trip. We can’t wait to share all the fun with you! Make sure you keep up with all our adventures by subscribing to the blog.

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Disney Character Dining Ranked by Us for You!

Hi folks! I have been deep into planning mode lately. Our August trip has evolved from just Universal Orlando to a hybrid Disney/ UO trip, but I’ll share more of that later. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of wishing that I was back at Walt Disney World, soaking up the warm temperatures and hanging with my favorite characters.

One of the things we love most is character dining at Walt Disney World. Even though our daughter is growing out of it, she’s still a pretty good sport about it. Character dining is a great way to meet your fav characters and get a great (most of the time) meal! We thought it would be fun to rate each of the character dining meals we have experienced to help out those who may be having trouble deciding where to try. The “location” category is for how convenient or special the restaurant’s location is, while the “atmosphere” category rates the overall feeling of the restaurant. This is, of course, our personal opinion. Yours may differ. With that being said, enjoy our character dining ratings!

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Tusker House— Food: 5 Character Interaction: 5 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 4                                      Characters include: Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy

Garden Grill— Food: 4 Character Interaction: 5 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 5                                        Characters include: Mickey, Pluto, Chip, Dale

Akershus— Food: 4 Character Interaction: 5 Location: 4 Atmosphere: 5                                               Characters include: Snow White, Ariel, Aurora, Cinderella, Belle

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Hollywood and Vine (L, D)— Food: 2 Character Interaction: 4 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 3               Characters include: Goofy, Minnie, Mickey, Donald, Daisy

(Hollywood and Vine also has a character breakfast with Disney Jr. characters which we’ve never personally experienced. )

Crystal Palace— Food: 3 Character Interaction: 4 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 5                                      Characters include: Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet

Cinderella’s Royal Table— Food: 3 Character Interaction: 2 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 5                    Characters include: Ariel, Jasmine, Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White, Belle

1900 Park Fare (B)— Food: 4 Character Interaction: 3 Location: 4 Atmosphere: 3                               Characters include: Alice, Mad Hatter, Pooh, Mary Poppins

1900 Park Fare (D)— Food: 2 Character Interaction: 5 Location: 4 Atmosphere: 3                              Characters include: Cinderella, Prince Charming, Drizella, Anastasia, Step-Mother

‘Ohana (B)—Food: 4  Character Interaction: 3 Location: 5 Atmosphere: 4                                              Characters include: Lilo, Stitch, Mickey, Pluto

Chef Mickey’s— Food: 3 Character Interaction: 4 Location: 4 Atmosphere: 3                                       Characters include: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto

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Cape May Cafe (B)— Food: 4 Character Interaction: 5 Location 3 Atmosphere: 3                               Characters include: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Daisy

Trattoria al Forno (B)– Food: 5 Character Interaction: 4 Location: 4 Atmosphere: 4                          Characters include Rapunzel, Flynn Ryder, Ariel, Prince Eric

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That about does it. We didn’t rate Mickey’s Backyard BBQ at Fort Wilderness, as we have not done that experience, and probably won’t any time soon (it’s out of our price range!) I hope you’ve found this post useful, or at least mildly entertaining. At any rate, we had a blast remembering  our past character dining experiences. What’s your favorite character meal? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Disney Questions…Answered!

Hello out there! It’s another snow day in the south (at least we have actual snow for this one) so what better time to throw a movie on Netflix and do some blogging? I have joined a few Disney trip planning groups on Facebook, because I like to share my views, help newbies, and learn from others who have been to Disney a lot more that me! I’ve noticed that there are many of the same questions asked on these groups, so I figured I’d do my best to answer some of these questions here. Read on to see if I answer some of your Disney-related queries!

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When should I go to Walt Disney World? If you can go at any time during the year, the best months for crowds and weather is early to mid-November, and early December, as well as most of January to early February. September crowds tend to be low, but the weather is more unpredictable. There really is no “low’ season anymore due to all the new stuff happening at the parks, so plan to visit when good weather is more likely and crowds won’t be at their peaks. These peak times to avoid if at all possible are spring break, early to mid-summer, and holidays.

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Where should I stay? I always recommend that people stay at a Disney resort hotel if it’s at all in their budget. The perks are just too awesome, and there is a Disney hotel for every budget. There are certain times of year you can get a room on property for under $100! If you have a larger family, you might look at Art of Animation suites or the Cabins at Fort Wilderness. There are so many great resorts on property that you should strongly consider it. If you’re looking for an upscale, amenities-rich experience, look into the deluxe resorts. I have enjoyed both moderate and value resorts, since we are focused on enjoying the parks, and just need a bed, decent pools, and some food.

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How far ahead should I start planning? I always say, the sooner the better with Disney. Decide on your travel dates, then start researching to decide what tickets you’ll need, where you want to eat and where you’ll stay. Dining reservations can be made 6 months out and Fastpass+ can be made 60 days out for guests staying on property (see? Perks!) Can you plan a trip in a month? Yes, but be prepared to not get the restaurants and Fastpasses you want (character meals book up fast as do FP for popular rides.)

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Should I get the Dining Plan? The Disney Dining Plan has its pros and cons. The prices have gone up for 2018 and now include alcoholic or specialty beverages, so if you don’t imbibe the strong stuff, it might not make financial sense. We love the Dining Plan when it’s free. We get it included with a package at certain times of the year and do our research to get the most out of it. Paying out of pocket for food is going to make the most sense for most families, but do the math and see if it works for you.

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Where/ What do we eat? The Disney parks and resort hotels have every kind of food imaginable, from chicken strips to Kobe beef with bordelaise sauce (seriously, check out the menu for Victoria and Albert at the Grand Floridian here.) Check the Disney website under dining for every menu for every restaurant on property. If you have special dietary needs, alert the staff when you arrive at the restaurant and every effort will be made to accommodate your request.

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Where is Harry Potter Land? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is at Universal Studios Orlando. This is a different park from Walt Disney World Resort. ‘Nuff said.

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So, there you have it! The most common questions about travel to Walt Disney World answered. Still have questions? Post a comment here!

Looking Back…And Ahead

Happy New Year Disney fans! 2018 is coming in with a wallop with this cold weather. Am I right? As I get older, I become increasingly intolerant of the cold. So as usual, my thoughts turn to my favorite warm place-Disney! I wanted to muse on our Dis-related experiences in 2017 and look forward to what we are planning in 2018. Very exciting stuff!

My favorite Disney moments of 2017 were as follows:

  • Watching Happily Ever After for the first time. Wishes was a great fireworks show, but Happily Ever After upped the ante. The addition of castle projections, new, exciting pyrotechnics and great new songs highlighting Disney from the 90’s and my favorite, Moana, had me tearing up more than once. I really lost it when Tinkerbell flew down from the castle. The fact that they kept my favorite part from Wishes made me love the new show even more.
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Photo credit: Justin Callaghan via flickr
  • Visiting Pandora and riding Flight of Passage. Well, duh, this is stating the obvious. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who visited Pandora and wasn’t impressed. I just couldn’t get enough of this incredible place. From the floating mountains at dusk to the bio-luminescent plants glowing at night, everything about it was magical. And Flight of Passage is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m so glad we got to visit while Animal Kingdom was having Extra Magic Hours in Pandora from 10pm-midnight. It let us spend even more time oohing and aahing and made the stand by lines for both Pandora rides much more manageable.

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  • Music of Pixar Live! I enjoyed this show Hollywood Studios so much. The music was wonderful, and paired with footage from the movies and the actual characters on stage, it was an overall excellent experience. I can confidently say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the “Up” sequence.

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  • Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. We were so lucky this year to be able to attend the Magic Kingdom’s hard ticket Halloween Party. We had such a blast watching the Boo To You Parade, the Hallowishes fireworks show and the treat trails, where we filled up with a year’s supply of candy. I can’t wait to do this party again.

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Now, looking ahead to 2018, we have some exciting things lined up.

  • Our daughter is now 10 years old and a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, which of course means…that we are going to Universal Studios Orlando this year! I am excited to explore a completely new park(s) and especially am looking forward to checking out Volcano Bay. We’re staying at Cabana Bay, which looks super fun and kitschy and has an awesome lazy river. That will happen in August.
  • We are planning a tentative November trip to Disney to check out Toy Story Land! We are hoping for the Free Dining promotion, and are planning a split stay so we can rent DVC points and stay a couple of nights at a Deluxe resort (our first time!) We’re thinking Animal Kingdom Lodge or the Boardwalk Inn. We want to check out some DVC resorts because…

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  • We’re buying into the Disney Vacation Club this year!! It makes sense for us and I have been doing a LOT or research into it. We know that we want to vacation at Disney most years. And as much as the value resorts are great, mama likes Deluxe digs. I’m going to do a whole post on what I’ve learned so far about DVC and explain why it’s a good fit for us.

So that’s where we are for 2018. We are excited to experience some new things and revist our perennial favorites. We’ll keep you up to date on all of it, as always! Do you have any Disney plans for 2018? Let me know in the comments and be sure to subscribe to keep up with all our adventures.

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Disney Cruise Tips!

Hey everybody! I can’t believe it’s been a month since our first Disney cruise. It was such a fantastic time and it was over way too soon. As always, I want to share some tips I learned. I hope you find this helpful if you are planning to cruise in the near future.

  • Consider a Park-n-Cruise package if you’re driving into the port. We sailed out of Port Canaveral and spent the night before the cruise at a nearby hotel offering a package. We simply left our car in the hotel parking lot, had our luggage at the pickup spot at the front desk and that was literally the last time we touched our luggage until it was in our room on the ship. The shuttle picked us up and dropped us at the port, where the porters whisked our bags away (you DO tip these guys.)
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The “Sail Away” party at Port Canaveral
  • It’s okay to get to the port early. We got to the port just before they opened, and had to wait a bit to get in. But being at the terminal when they opened meant no waiting to check in and a very short line (about 5 minutes) to meet Mickey in his captain’s attire (a hint for this is to get in line before he comes out. Most people don’t know what the line is for.) We did have to sit for about an hour waiting to board the ship, but there were TVs for the kiddo and I caught up on my social media. The port does get crowded and the line for Mickey was really crazy not too long after we met him.

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  • If it’s your first cruise, invest in a lanyard with a pouch. Your Key to the World card is your room key, and your way on and off the ship at port. It’s really important that you always know where it is. I lose things, often. Having the card snug in its pouch around my neck meant I always knew where it is.
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My husband on Pirate Night!
  • Another tip for first time cruisers is keep walking! When we first entered Cabanas, the cafeteria-style buffet restaurant, the dining room was packed and the buffet line was really long. We then discovered that the restaurant has two identical buffet lines. If you keep walking past the crowd a little further into the restaurant there is plenty of open seating and the line was not as crowded. This goes for elevators too. There are elevators in the mid, front and aft of the ship. Do a little walking if the elevators are packed and try a different set, or take the stairs.
  • Try to connect with your co-cruisers before you set sail. Search for a Facebook group for your cruise date. This is a great place to sign up for fish extender groups, (I’ll talk about fish extenders later) ask questions, and make friends. We found a penpal for my daughter (a shy only child) who we met up with on the ship, and they played together several times. We also joined a trick or treat group though our FB group that made the cruise a little extra fun!
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No, Stitch was not her penpal!
  • Miss the crowds by hitting Castaway Cay early. We had no wait to disembark or to catch the shuttle to the beach. And had our pick of chairs on the beach. This is a really important tip if you plan to snorkle, as that area of the water gets super duper crowded after about 10:30. Plan to snorkle early for clear, uncrowded water.
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The beach fills up quickly!
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No waiting for photos at Mount Rustmore
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We had an empty beach for a few minutes

These are a just a few things we learned on our cruise. We definitely did not know what we were doing for the first couple days, but the cruise staff are very friendly, helpful, and accommodating, so don’t hesitate to get help! Have you done a Disney cruise? Comment and let us know your thoughts! We fell in love and are ready to plan our next one.

Adventure in Pandora! Part Deux

Hi again! We’re finishing up our trip report of Pandora: World of  Avatar in Animal Kingdom. We visited back in August, only a few months after it opened to the public. Like I said in the first part of this post, we are not huge Avatar fans, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying this new world that Disney has brought to life. It’s, in one word, astounding. The area consists of two rides, a gift shop, a quick-serve restaurant (and a little drink/ snack outpost) and an interactive area with drums that the kids can bang on for a while. There is plenty to see here that will take up an afternoon, so plan enough time to explore and check out all the details.

We ate two meals at Pandora’s counter service restaurant Satu’li Canteen. This place was a total crowd pleaser. We were with an unadventurous eater and I was nervous that the bao bun cheeseburger and the boba balls would turn her off. Luckily they offer a hotdog wrapped in a crispy/flaky dough with handmade chips ($6.79 or one quick service credit). Crisis averted! The rest of us were excited to try the rest of the menu. My munchkin and I ordered from the bowl menu-pick a protein, base and sauce. I love an interactive menu experience ($11.49-$12.99 or one QS credit.) My husband tried the cheeseburger steamed pod ($10.99 for 2 or $7.49 for 1 in the kids’ menu) a steamed cheeseburger pod stuffed with ground beef, ketchup, mustard, pickle, and cheddar cheese, which he liked (it was not my cup of tea, but I’m weird about ground beef.) The bowls were fresh, delicious and very filling. This dish gets my vote for top quick-serve dish at Animal Kingdom (sorry to all you Flame Tree fans!) The desserts were visually intriguing and really tasty! We loved the blueberry cheesecake.

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We also visited Pongu Pongu (“party party” in the Na’vi language) the kiosk serving drinks, cocktails, and one snack. We sampled the “Night Blossom”, a frozen mix of limeade, apple and desert pair topped with boba balls ($5.99 or one snack credit), and the Pongu  Lumpia, a mix of pineapple and cream cheese in a spring roll wrapper ($2.99 or one snack credit.) This is the perfect snack combo for waiting in the winding, endless queue for Flight of Passage, as the sugar content will perk up even the sleepiest traveler. But, seriously, the drink was really tasty, and the spring roll, although a bit messy. had a really good flavor.

Speaking of Flight of Passage, I have to say a bit about the most talked about Disney ride this year. We had the opportunity to ride this 3 times on our visit, and I would have ridden it more if not for the outrageous waits. The premise for this ride is that you are taking part in a program that pairs Na’vi avatars with us regular folks, so that we may experience what it’s like to ride on the back of an Ikran, or banshee, a flying creature native to Pandora. The preshows (there are two), which pair the riders and avatars, and fill us in on the background of this program are great…the first time. Having to stand through them every time is a little boring. But the payoff is the ride. Straddling a bike-type ride vehicle, you get supports behind your back and calves, keeping you nice and snug. Donning your 3D glasses, you’re transported to the wilds of Pandora. It’s unbelievable-the scenery, the feeling of movement and the breathing of your Ikran beneath you. I might have cried just a little bit. I recommend succumbing to the magic of the ride. It is tempting to look around at the other people and figure out the mechanics of the ride, but that will take you out of the experience, and you won’t get as much out of it. The photos below show just a few parts of this very detailed queue.

The last thing I want to talk about is the transformation of Pandora when darkness falls. The sounds are different-the nocturnal creatures are now awake and calling to each other-and most impressively, the bio-luminescent plants are now glowing all around you. The only thing more beautiful than Pandora during the day is Pandora at night. Plan to visit this area at both times. It’s truly magical. Overall the Valley of Mo’ara at night is a peaceful and bewitching place to explore, where the emphasis is placed on the natural beauty of this alien land.

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Photo courtesy of Disney Parks Blog

So definitely make this part of your next Disney trip. We recommend visiting around lunch time and then again before the park closes so you can experience all aspects of the land. Flight of Passage Fastpass should be your first priority, since standby lines for Na’vi River Journey are usually a bit shorter. And plan for a meal (or two!) at Satu’li Canteen. Most of all enjoy and take the time to soak it all in!

Have you experienced Pandora yet? What was your reaction? We’d love to hear your comments!

Halloween with Mickey at the Magic Kingdom: A Trip Report

Hello Disney fans! We just came back from our very first Disney cruise last week and, oh my goodness, was it incredible! (We will share every detail in an upcoming blog post, but stay with me here.) A few weeks before we were set to leave on this wondrous adventure, my husband and I were watching yet another vlog from Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. I sighed, longing to see the Boo To You Parade and Hallowishes fireworks in person. Then I did what I do from time to time and checked to see if there were tickets for the party available the night before our cruise shipped out (because, remember, there’s no harm in looking!) I think you know where I’m going with this.

SO, our plan changed. We would leave Saturday instead of Sunday, add a night at our cheapie Cocoa Beach hotel, drive out to Orlando (about an hour from our hotel) book a lunch at a resort near the Magic Kingdom, and attend the Halloween party (knowing we would be exhausted the morning of the cruise, but as long as we could get our bodies and luggage on the shuttle, all would be well.) It was not cheap. There I said it and I regret nothing! This was not our most budget-minded move, but more in the vein of, “you only live once and why not go crazy once in a while” But we were so excited–we were going to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!

Sunday afternoon, we drove straight to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge where we had lunch reservations at Whispering Canyon Cafe, one of the many restaurants on my Disney dining wish list. We were early and toured the lobby and grounds of the resort, taking photos in our costumes (Princess Anna, Jyn Erso, and Nick Wilde) with the resort as a gorgeous backdrop. We knew the servers at this establishment had a reputation for acting sassy to guests (on purpose!) so we were ready when the server threw a handful of straws and bev napkins on our table. The food was really good comfort food. Barbecue and bison burgers are the highlights. We finished our meal amused and satisfied and made our way to the boat to Magic Kingdom.

The ride over was serene but cold! I was oh so glad I had made a simple Anna-esque cloak lined in velvet to keep out the wind that was kicking up. It would indeed feel like a Halloween night at this party. We docked at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom at about 3:30, got through bag check and waited with a crowd of people at the entrance gates. I got a chance to see the other costumes and there were some really creative ones and some really simple ones as well. At about 3:50 they started letting people through the tapstiles. We gleefully entered, got our wristbands, and got our picture taken at a Photopass location right in front of the train station, There was no wait for this as I guess people were eager to get into the park.

We had made a couple of fastpasses for Peter Pan and Space Mountain, both of which had insane wait times (when did Disney get so busy in October?) After riding those we did Peoplemover and got our first seasonal treat, which was candy corn ice cream from Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies. Wouldn’t you know, my husband licked it before it could be photographed. It was tasty, and luckily for me, didn’t taste a whole lot like candy corn. We headed towards Main Street on the train from Fantasyland, as it was getting close to party time. We followed the signs to a path behind Main St. where the party festivities were gearing up. We got our trick or treat bags, and got a chance to check out some exclusive party merch (I had to get the 2017 MNSSHP pin with vampire Mickey. So cute!) and hit our first candy spot.

We headed over to Adventureland and rode Pirates of the Caribbean, which was walk on, then hit some trick or treat spots, marked with large inflatable pillars. We happened upon the Cadaver Dans in Frontierland doing a great show of music and bad bad jokes. It was absolutely fantastic. Brer Rabbit was just hanging around in Frontierland causing general mischief and taking selfies with fans. It confirmed that Frontierland is one of my all-time favorite parts of the Magic Kingdom.

We focused mainly on special entertainment and Photopass spots, as there were many spots with “magic photos” especially for the Halloween party. We checked out several character meet and greets, but for us, waiting in lines didn’t seem like a good use of time. Characters like Moana, Jack and Sally, and the Seven Dwarfs had the longest lines. It seemed like when we did get in line, the characters were about to join the parade and wouldn’t be back for 30 minutes or so. That was kind of disappointing. We skipped the first parade, opting to catch the later showing, and headed to the hub area when it was over to get a good spot for Hallowishes fireworks show. We stood off the hub, near the Plaza Ice Cream Shop. What an amazing show! I was so awed.  And the crowd was more sparse than I thought it would be, so we really did have a great view of the castle and pyrotechnics.

 

It was time for more eating and trick or treating. We made our way back to Frontierland where we would watch the second parade showing. It was a spectacular parade. I love the “Boo to You” song and play it on Youtube all the time now. It’s so darn catchy. I wish we had been in a spot with slightly more light for picture taking, but it really made the parade more spooky.

We ended out the evening by (finally) riding Haunted Mansion. All the cast members were dressed even more morbidly that usual. We caught some of the last showing of the castle stage show “A Hocus Pocus Villian Spectacular” but it was indeed midnight and our petite Cinderella was done. We stopped along Main Street and got some last minute photos and caught the bus back to Wilderness Lodge. My poor husband then drove us back to Cocoa Beach as the little one and I promptly passed out. What a great night! I highly recommend this party (as well as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.) The tickets can be expensive, but it’s worth it to cut back somewhere else to make this fit in your budget. The chance to dress up as a favorite Disney princess in the Magic Kingdom is not something you get to do everyday and it was a night I’ll never forget!

So, You Want to Save on Your Disney Trip…We Share Our Strategy!

Maybe you just booked your next Disney trip and are ready for our cost-saving tips. Or, maybe you’re in the dreaming phase (the phase we’re in about 99% of the time.) Either way, our strategy for saving is useful for anyone interested in vacationing at Disney on a budget.

My husband and I divide up vacation prep as follows: I make the spreadsheet, book ADRs, Fastpasses and hotels, and he figures out how we can pay as little as possible for the trip. It works out well, since I obsess over  eating food, not paying for it! This is our process for saving.

  • We start out by seeing what discounts are available for the time period we’re looking to travel. Either that, or we see a great offer, and decide if we can get away from school and work. As you know if you’ve read this blog in the past, we love the free dining promotion.  For us, it’s better than a room discount because we mostly stay at value resorts, where the room discount is not as deep. That is usually offered late summer through December, and we can usually make a short trip happen somewhere in this time frame.
  • Next we start saving. We have a change jar that gets filled up with extra cash, found change etc. which gets turned in at our Credit Union and put in a separate vacation account.

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  • Meanwhile, we use a rewards credit card for all our purchases, using it like a debit card. We make sure we never carry a balance on (paying interest is the opposite of what we’d like to accomplish!) We used to use the Disney Chase Visa, but changed to a low fee card with a higher cash back rate. 2% doesn’t seem like much but it adds up over the year or so it takes us to save.

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  • We pay for our vacation with discounted gift cards. We buy our gift cards online  (with our rewards card) at BJ’s Wholesale Club for $94.99 per $100.00 card. We also use Ebates, which is a handy way to get cash back on your online purchases (1% for BJ’s) It can be time-consuming to type in all the gift card numbers to pay for your trip, but I just picture myself walking down Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom and the time flies by.

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So here’s a rundown of our savings for a $3000 trip (or about a week for 4 people.) We buy $3000 in gift cards from BJ’s for $2849.70. We get $28.49 back in a check from Ebates, and $56.98 back from the credit card (in a credit or straight cash back) For a total savings of $235.77 or roughly 8%.

So with a little discipline and foresight we have found a way to save a pretty significant amount for our vacation.  We have heard of other creative ways such as setting a budget for food, and whatever you save you put in a Disney fund.  So please share your ways to make a trip to the Magic Kingdom a little easier on the wallet. If you’re interested in getting money back on your online purchases from Ebates (yes, you get an actual check!) use this link here

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What We Learned from Our Last Disney Trip

Hello dear readers! Wow, autumn is starting to happen all around me and I realized that I haven’t written in some time. I wanted to write a blog post while our last trip was fresh in our minds, but back to school means back to work for me, so, here we are!

We got back from our last trip a little over a month ago and it was different for us in several ways. For starters, we had an extra person with us–we usually just travel with our little family of 3, but this time we brought a friend of my daughter’s. My 9 year old isn’t as entertained by her parents as she once was, nor is Disney as sparkly and magical as it was when she was 5, so we invited a travelling companion. It worked out really well, and I wish I could afford to bring this friend on all our future trips. We also went at a new time of year. We usually go to Disney in November or December, to avoid high crowds, and high temperatures. Now that I’m a teacher, we really can’t just travel any old time of year. When free dining opened up, we took advantage of the extra week offered to just Disney Visa cardholders and went the 3rd week of August. I actually enjoyed many things about going this time of year that I didn’t think I would. The longer park hours, no holiday parties to cut into our Magic Kingdom time, more pool time in the afternoons, and in general just a more laid-back vacation. But the heat was a huge factor. I remember standing in front of the stage at Hollywood Studios watching “Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away” and feeling like I was standing on the surface of the sun. In addition, it was our first trip with our newer nicer camera. Which meant that we got a lot of great shots, but some shots failed miserably due to its unskilled user. I still have a lot to learn about digital photography.

So, without further ado, here are some things I learned on our last trip:

Be flexible.  When I book a Disney trip, I enter planning mode pretty much from the moment I click “check out” on the confirmation page. I am a detail-oriented spreadsheet kinda gal and my family might possibly get tired of me asking if they would rather eat at Skipper Canteen at 5:15 or 5:25. Vacationing with kids, however. means that sometimes you just have to go with the flow. We had a Be Our Guest dinner reservation booked for our first night of our trip, when it gradually dawned on me that the girls probably would neither appreciate the food, nor want to sit down for a long meal on our first day. So, with much gritting of teeth, I canceled, promising myself a meal there on our next trip. Also, when the girls got worn out from the intense heat, and I could see in their eyes that ALL they wanted to do was go back to the resort and hang in the pool, it was time to go. No matter how much I wanted to do Space Mountain one more time.

Pop Century pool
Sometimes you just need some pool time.
Being prepared for weather can make or break your trip. We knew what to expect of Florida in August, and we still were not prepared for the intense heat and humidity that greeted us each day. Luckily, I had purchased a number of items that saved us from fainting and kept us from getting too crabby and irritable. Cooling towels and personal fans really helped the girls get through the trip. The necklace fan proved to be the best purchase, as it was sturdy and we didn’t need to worry about forgetting it somewhere. We also bought a travel umbrella to shade us from sun and rain. I really prefer an umbrella to a poncho or rain jacket. It’s more versatile, and I have a hard time putting myself in a plastic sheet when it’s 90+ degrees and raining. Taking air conditioning breaks at any chance was also helpful. Cutting through a gift shop or ducking into Country Bears gave our bodies a chance to cool down.

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Beautiful but hot!
It’s not going to be possible to see and do everything. Okay, so I knew this already, but this trip really hammered it into me. I missed doing some of my favorite things on this trip. And…it’s…okay (taking a deep breath as I write this.) With young children, you have to make decisions about what to do and see, because they have a limited window of time when they’re going to be into it. We made some compromises with the girls. One day we missed rope drop (gasp!) at Hollywood Studios to let the kids sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast and play in the pool. They really needed a rest! In exchange, we went to late night extra magic hours at Animal Kingdom that night to spend more time in Pandora (because there is never enough time to spend in Pandora.) We still had a great day and had energy for that late night. It meant that we missed meeting BB-8, but I had to just…let it go (like my friend, Elsa.) It’s harder if you know you can’t come back to Disney for a year, or 2, or ever, but just go with the flow and you’ll have a much better time.

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Pandora at night. Photo credit: Athena Iluz via flickr
Well, these are my main takeaways from our last Disney trip. We had a fantastic time and I would definitely do a summer trip again. What do you think? Have you ever learned any valuable lessons while on vacation? I’d love to hear your comments. Stay tuned for some more from our trip, like a review of Pandora, and how free dining worked out for us this time.

Our 3 Favorite Disney Eats

We are gearing up for our next trip to Disney next week! We are at the 3 day mark, and that’s when I begin to panic about remembering to pack everything (we forgot our trading pins on our last visit and I felt awful for our daughter, who had so much fun trading the time before.) I am still tinkering with our dining reservations, but am pretty satisfied with our lineup. In narrowing down my decisions, my husband and I were reading reviews about a Magic Kingdom restaurant with a western theme. One review was glowing, and the next dreadful. It made me realize that you really can’t depend on reviews. One person’s culinary masterpiece is another’s prison meal. That being said…we thought we would share with you our favorite overall dining experiences at the Walt Disney World resort. These are meals that we still talk about and try to experience every time we visit. Let’s begin!

Favorite Disney Eats

  1. California Grill. It’s hard to go wrong with a signature meal. One would hope that for the money you’re paying, that the meal and service would be unforgettable. We have experienced dinner and Sunday brunch at the California Grill and they were both amazing meals in every aspect. The service is attentive but not overbearing, the food is fresh, flavorful and beautiful to look at. And that view (see the photos.) Now all this doesn’t come cheap and I doubt we would have gone if not for the Dining Plan, since it is not for the budget-conscious. But, if you have the dining plan or are planning a celebration meal while on property, this is the way to go.
  2. Tusker House. We devoted a whole post to a review of this Animal Kingdom character buffet. Generally considered to be the best character meal at Walt Disney World by those who know, we always schedule a late breakfast at Tusker House. The number one reason is the food. Basic breakfast is provided, and yes, you will get your beloved Mickey waffles, but the menu also includes African and Indian-inspired dishes that are fresh and full of flavor. The other main draw of this establishment is the character interaction. Mickey and the gang are here and we always have such a blast with these guys. We highly recommend taking time out of your Animal Kingdom visit to dine here and experience this place for yourself.
  3. Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. Another experience in the “not-so-budget-friendly” category, Hoop-dee-doo will cost over $200 for a family of 4. Why do we recommend it? Unlimited food, like ribs, fried chicken, baked beans, salad and strawberry shortcake is brought to your table and served family-style. The extra perk of this dining experience is unlimited beer and wine for mom and dad! The entertainment is the real draw here. The musical show that accompanies your meal is classic Disney. The 2 hour Vaudeville-style show will have everyone clapping along before long. The interaction with the audience is so much fun. We got to stand up and celebrate our anniversary in a fun and special way. If you are looking for something very different that will become a favorite, and you have 2+ hours to spend dining, we highly encourage you to give Hoop-dee-doo a try.

So, there you have our top 3 dining picks for Walt Disney World. Have you tried any of these restaurants? What are your favorite dining experiences? We’d love to hear your thoughts!