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.

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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!

Free Disney Dining 2017 Breakdown

Hey Disney fans! Spring has reached our corner of the world and I’ve been out in the garden and neglecting all other things in my life. So on this particularly cool, over-cast day, I’m getting back to the blog. This Monday, the long-awaited arrival of the free dining promotion was released on the Disney website. I wanted to quickly breakdown the details of this promotion and tell you how to still get in on the frenzy.

Disney offers several discounts throughout the year, from room discounts to specially priced packages. But the free dining promotion is by far the most talked about and anticipated. Here’s what it is: a free Disney dining plan for everyone staying in your room for the length of your stay. Free food! At Disney! Sounds pretty amazing, right? So, on to the details to see if you can take advantage of this great promotion.

The check-in dates are as follows: August 21st-September 30th, November 14th-20th, 25th-27th, December 8th-23rd. Your check-in date must fall on one of these dates to qualify. In addition to these dates, if you hold a Disney Chase Visa, you can check in from August 13th and still get free dining!  Book now through July 7th.

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Most resorts are included in this deal. The only exclusions are the campsites at Fort Wilderness, 3-bedroom villas, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort – Little Mermaid Standard Rooms and Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows. Specific resorts excluded are All-Star Movies and Port Orleans-French Quarter. The way the offer works is this: stay at a value or moderate resort and receive the quick-serve dining plan or stay at a deluxe resort and receive the standard dining plan. With the quick-serve, you get 2 counter service meals per day, a snack, and a refillable cup. With the standard plan, you get a table service meal, a counter service meal, a snack each day and a refillable cup. You do have the option of upgrading from quick-serve to standard for about $20 a day per adult.

Ariel's "Part of Your World" at Disney's Art of Animation Resort
Matt Stroshane, photographer

You must purchase a minimum of a 2 day park hopper park ticket for everyone in your party. The number of meals you receive corresponds to the nights of your hotel stay, not your ticket. So, if you have 6 nights booked, but don’t want to go to the parks everyday, you could buy, say a 4 day park hopper ticket and still get 6 days of free meals. In my humble opinion, if you are looking to do a trip on a budget, it is most prudent to book a value resort and upgrade your dining plan. Let’s look at some numbers! We’ll look at a 5 night stay in September for 2 adults and 1 child for all the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: Staying a Pop Century and upgrading the dining plan: standard room and 6 day park hopper ticket with free quick-serve dining= $1931, with the upgrade=$2116

Scenario 2: Staying at Coronado Springs and upgrading the dining plan: standard room and 6 day park hopper ticket with free quick-serve dining= $2264, with the upgrade= $2449

Scenario 3: Staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge with standard dining included: standard room with 6 day park hopper ticket= $3302 (no upgrade needed.)

So, unless you are dead set on staying at a deluxe resort or moderate resort (which offer better amenities, bigger rooms, etc,) the best choice financially is to plan your stay at one of the awesome value resorts. We have heard that Pop Century is the one to book for this promo folks (so, of course, we did!) Another option, if you are not big eaters and are willing to brown bag it everyday, is to take the room discount. This is a great deal for people who would like to stay at a moderate or deluxe resort, are willing to eat cheap and don’t like park hopping. Prices for the same dates with one park a day 6 day ticket and standard room are: Pop Century $1755/ Coronado Springs $2056/ Animal Kingdom Lodge $2513. So, as you see, free dining is not actually free, as you are paying full price for your room, but eating at Disney is expensive. The value you get with this promotion is great if you understand how to get the most value from the dining plan.

As you see, it is possible to do Disney cheap(er). Being flexible in your travel dates obviously helps, as most of these dates are when school is in session. The rooms for this promo go quick so start planning. We are taking advantage of the Disney visa dates and going before school starts in August. And yes, we are fully planning to sweat, wear our ponchos through the storms, and take afternoon pool breaks. We are just so excited about all the new attractions and shows Disney is unveiling this year and can’t wait to go (and eat) again!

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Are you planning on taking advantage of free dining this year? Let us know in the comments!

Questions to Ask When Planning Your Disney Trip Budget: Part 5

So far in our series of questions to ask yourself when planning a Disney vacation budget we’ve looked at: where you’ll stay, when you’ll travel, what kind of tickets you’ll need and how you will get there. The next question we’ll tackle is, “What will we eat while we’re there and how do we afford it?”

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Food, glorious food. I get pretty excited about planning meals for our trips. My husband might say that I’m obsessive about finding the perfect reservation at the perfect time of day. I love trying new places and revisiting old favorites, but I am aware that all those restaurant meals can add up quickly. Here we’ll look at some options for keeping costs down while still enjoying the culinary delights that Disney has to offer.


  • Consider bringing food from home. In our situation, we go “snack and breakfast” shopping at our local Aldi (a great discount grocery store) a few days before we leave for vacation. We purchase bars, cheese and peanut butter crackers, cheese cubes, salami, toaster pastries, soy milk and cereal, and trail mix, along with drink mixes to liven up our bottled water. I pack a plastic tote with our food, bring some zip-lock bags to pack with snacks each day, load it in the car and we’re set. If you’re flying, we understand you can’t bring all that food with you. Amazon is a fantastic resource for buying groceries and you can have them delivered right to the resort (for a small fee!) Just stop by the front desk and pick them up when you arrive. Another idea is placing an order at Walmart and choosing a store close to the parks. This is the closest one I found. You can set a time to pick up your order and it’s a free service. However you do it, just make sure you have a good assortment of snacks for long days at the parks. It stinks to have a hangry toddler when you’re about to meet Cinderella at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Think about checking out the Disney dining plan. This is a hot topic among Disney veterans. Some people can’t imagine a vacation without it, and some think it’s too much money for too much food. We’re somewhat in-between on the matter. On our first vacation to Disney, we paid out of pocket for our meals. We did some sit-down meals and a character meal, but we ate a good share of quick-service and I felt like we had to be really careful budgeting for our meals. With the dining plan, everything except tips is prepaid, so it feels like you can really treat yourself. On our last two trips, we had free dining. Even though we didn’t pay for the dining plan, I tried to maximize our dining credits. Meaning, I tried to find the most expensive character meals and ordered the most expensive entree at the quick-serve restaurants. We pride ourselves on finding the priciest snacks and meals that we don’t have to pay for!
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    All this food for one snack credit? Yum!

  • The Tables in Wonderland card could work for you. If you are a Florida resident, annual passholder or DVC member, you are eligible for Tables in Wonderland. This card gives you 20% off all food at participating Disney restaurants. It does have an annual cost. Click this link for a list of restaurants that participate in the program.
  • Use the Disney website to get an idea of how much to budget for food. Once you have snacks bought, use the Disney website to look at menus and prices for the restaurants you’d like to visit. You can pretty much budget out every meal you’ll be eating on Disney property. For example, say you were interested in trying 50’s Primetime Cafe in Hollywood Studios. You might decide to have the meatloaf at $18.00 and skip the soda in favor of one of their famous peanut butter and jelly milkshakes ($6.00.) Now you know what you’ll be spending and how much to allow for a gratuity. The Disney Dining Calculator is another resource for meals like buffets, that don’t always have an exact price on the Disney site. You plug in the number of people in your party, and where you’ll be eating for each meal and it can help you decide if the dining plan will be a good value for you or not.
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Entree Menu at 50’s Primetime Cafe

I hope these tips can help you navigate the world of dining at Disney. By no means is it cheap to eat “in the world” but it is good to have some tricks up your sleeve for keeping costs down.

6 Questions to Ask When Planning A Disney Budget: Part 3

We’re back with the next part of our Disney vacation planning series. The oh-so-important question this time is, “When should we go to Disney?” There are several factors to consider when deciding on the time of year to schedule your trip. Hopefully you have some flexibility in planning and can take advantage of our tips!

Weather: As I’m sure you are aware, central Florida can have some pretty extreme weather. The time of year you choose to go can make or break your trip. We have a zero tolerance policy for humidity and daily rainstorms, so we know to miss June-September. We always strive to visit from early November to December, and have been very fortunate to have wonderful weather.  Highs most days were in the 70’s and low 80’s on our recent trips, and lows were in the 60’s.  On our last two trips there were only 2 days when we needed to wear long pants to the parks during the day. Prices are lower during these times, due to school being in session.

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Photo credit: Benjamen Benson via flickr

School Holidays: I’m assuming that there are a few of you out there that are interested in sharing Disney magic with your children. If your children are school-age you may immediately think of visiting during major breaks such as Christmas, summer or spring breaks.  You have to remember that the rest of the nation has the same breaks more or less, meaning the crowd levels are insane and since those periods are in high demand, prices are sky-high. Only you can decide if you want to battle crowds and pay more, or take your kids out of school to visit during a slower time of year.We have taken our daughter out of school in 2nd and 3rd grades, and got her homework for the week before she left. We enjoy special discounts since we are traveling at slower times of the year, and to us that’s worth it. As our daughter gets older, we will have to re-think when we go, since taking her out won’t be an option. Long weekends with teacher work days are an option for shorter trips.

Crowds: Spring break, summer, Christmas, Independence Day. I strongly advise you to avoid these times when planning your trip. The prices will be crazy. The crowds will be crazy. The wait times for rides will be crazy. Get the picture? Besides bad weather, nothing ruins the magic more than large crowds. Yes, I understand the allure of wanting to spend holidays at Disney, but it’s just…not…worth…it. Our top recommendations for low crowds are January-February (excluding holidays), October-November (not Thanksgiving!) and early December. (You can still experience all Disney’s Christmas entertainment in early December.) If you choose to go on the busy times, proceed at your own risk!

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photo credit: Brett Kiger via flickr

Special Offers: If you are looking for discounts for your Disney trip, there are some that become available throughout the year. Disney usually releases their specials 4 to 6 months ahead of time. This means if you want to travel in May, start looking for offers in December and January. The most common discounts are room only and package deals, and the free dining offer. Disney Tourist Blog has a  great post that talks in-depth about each discount offered. Do the math on any special offer to make sure it works for your situation. We prefer free dining to a room discount, because we stay at moderate or value resorts (which only get a 10-15% room discount) and it saves us more money to get 3 free dining plans for the length of our stay. If you are traveling as a couple and plan to stay in a deluxe resort, the room discount would be a better deal.

As you can see, the timing of your vacation has a big impact on how much you will shell out for your big trip, and how much enjoyment you will get out of your time in the parks. It will be one of the most important decisions to make about your trip so plan wisely. Use our pointers to help you plan for a trip that makes the most sense for you and your budget.