Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Takeaways: My Tips for Disney World

So what were my lessons learned about Disney World?  I'll try to summarize it here:
  • Because of the 180 day reservation rule, you really need to start planning a Disney World vacation seven to 12 months before you go.  Can you do it with less time? Absolutely, but there are some things you won't be able to do.
  • Figure out how you are going to allocate your time roughly between each of the four parks early on; it can help guide you with deciding where to stay.
  • Don't worry about trying to see it all.  It might take a month to see and do everything. Prioritize what you want to see, and don't be afraid to skip anything in favor of repeating things that you know you'll enjoy.
  • If you live around the Omaha area, consider skipping Animal Kingdom entirely. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo has much better animal attractions than Disney World, so why spend your time there versus spending times at other attractions that you cannot experience at home?
  • Trying to figure it all out?  Pick up a copy of the Unofficial Guide to Disney World. It has in depth reviews of all of the rides, resorts and restaurants.  It's a huge read, but better than anything else I found.  Their "TouringPlans.com" companion web site and "Lines" app for your iPhone are great resources for planning your trip. How regimented you allow yourself to be on your trip is up to you, but these sites will give you the best information on what are most popular attractions and how to get to squeeze as much into your trip and minimize the boring waits.
  • When it come time to pick a place to say, pay attention to the transportation options between a resort you are considering and the various places you want to go.  (Hint: you may need to allow an hour or more just to get from point A to point B with Disney transportation.)  It will vary, so choose carefully.
  • You can save money staying at a non-Disney resort, but you'll likely spend even more time dealing with transportation, and you may not be able to get reservations or FastPass reservations for the most popular meals and rides (Cinderella's Royal Table, Frozen, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, etc.) since on-site guests get first crack at those.
  • Like most hotels, Disney resorts list capacity by assuming two people per bed. That may not work for your family, so it's handy to have this list of resorts that have more than two sleeping surfaces in some rooms: Animal Kingdom Lodge & Villas, Art of Animation, Bay Lake Tower, Beach Club, Contemporary, and Grand Floridian.  Some of these are suites that can hold 6 to 9 people.  Disney World does not offer rollaways, so don't expect that as a solution.
  • A really good site with in depth reviews of Disney accomodations is yourfirstvisit.net . I'd take all of their conclusions with a huge grain of salt; the author has specific recommendations based on their own itineraries that may - or may not - match your needs.
  • Decide what's important to you: each resort has a different "theme" with different amenities. Do you want a bigger pool?  A more kid-attractive design?  Do you want to be closer to the parks you are going to visit more often? (Pay close attention to that one!)  Do you want to spend as little as possible?  Again, it's your money and your vacation.  You make the decision.
  • Give a Vacation Club rental some consideration.  You can get a better accommodation for less money.  We did, and don't regret it one bit.
  • Apply for the Disney Visa card, even if you have a really good cash-back credit card. Some restaurants and most souveneir stands offer a 10% discount if you use your Disney Visa.  Plus, there are exclusive meet-and-greets (WITH NO LINES) with Disney characters available.
  • Don't get the Disney Dining Plan.
  • That last one may surprise people.  Years ago, the Disney Dining Plan apparently was a good deal for most people.  Now that it's so popular, Disney doesn't feel the need to price it as such, and now it's rarely a good deal for most people.  There are exceptions, especially for folks who would happen to eat exactly as the plan calls for if the plan didn't exist. In researching it, I've found that the majority of people end up spending more with the plan than they would have if they just paid ala carte.  That's especially true if your kids are 10 years old and still prefer kids meals; 10 year olds pay adult prices, even if they are fine with chicken nuggets at each meal.
  • If you see an ad for "Free Dining", look to see what other discounts are available so you know how much you are paying for that "free" dining plan.  (Hint:  it's never free, and still probably not a good deal.  The Mouse usually wins.)
  • Price your trip seperately from park tickets; I bought our tickets from ParkSavers and saved about 10%.
  • Don't be afraid to "Park Hop" especially if you are a first time visitor. Disney offers a new "express transportation" option which takes you directly from one park to another without stopping for security.  We "park hopped" three times on our trip (not using the express option), going to a different park after supper than we started the day at.  It's reassuring for a first time visitor to be able to switch parks if you find that your plans aren't working out for you that day.  
  • If you can be at the park when it opens (commonly referred to as "rope drop"), you'll probably be able to cram in an afternoon's worth of fun into the first hour the park is opened.
  • Making it to "rope drop" can be a challenge when you stayed up late the night before watching fireworks.  So try to pace yourself and remember, you aren't able to see everything.  Set your priorities.
  • To get moving early in the morning, consider eating breakfast in your room as you get ready.  Pop-tarts and breakfast bars can be quick breakfasts.
  • Grocery delivery to your Disney resort is a great way to save time and money versus buying breakfast at the Disney counter service locations.  Garden Grocer is the longtime standard, but Publix now offers delivery via Instacart.  The Instacart/Publix solution has MUCH better prices and selection than Garden Grocer.  Some people like Amazon Prime, but that won't help you with perishables like milk, juice and fruit.
  • I hate buying bottled water, as I consider it wasteful. But Orlando's city water tastes and smells awful due to it's high sulfur content.  It's safe to drink, but you might consider buying water with your grocery delivery.  Some people also prefer to use the flavoring concentrates or packets to hide the taste.
  • If you are taking a week or more for your trip, some people suggest taking "rest days" where you don't go to a park.  But with Fastpasses and the relatively low cost of adding days to your park ticket, I think "rest days" are wastes of time.  Instead, plan for lighter days.  Sleep in, grab some Fastpasses for late morning/early afternoon, then head back to your room for pool time and an early bedtime.  This is also a great way to get FastPasses for both Soarin' and Frozen by turning Epcot into two half-days on your schedule.
  • If you don't have the dining plan and are heading back to your resort in the late afternoon, order in supper via restaurant delivery from outside the World.  Yelp is a great source of finding restaurants that deliver.  Here's a list that I had:  Giordano's and UNO for delicious Chicago-style pizza, Chevy's for Tex-Mex, Chili's and Bahama Breeze for burgers and traditional casual dining.  It'll cost you less and the food will certainly be better than what Disney has to offer.
  • If your kids want to see the Disney characters, your best bet can be a character meal. It'll cost you dearly in terms of time (90 minutes) and money, but you (a) have to eat at some point and (b) you'd spend all that time (and then some) waiting in line for a meet-and-greet anyway.  I didn't notice a big different in terms of character interactions at any of our character meals, but I did notice a difference in food quality.  (Tusker House dinner is awful.)  Check the menus before booking.  A lot of people like character breakfasts, but the morning is also the best time to check out the rides before the lines get ridiculously long.
  • It's expensive, but you might want to pay for Disney's PhotoPass before you head to Orlando.  (You save $20 if you buy it three days before you arrive.) Disney photographers are available everywhere to take your picture, and you'll get amazing pictures you won't get any other way (like the above picture from Seven Dwarfs Mine Train).  Yes, you can take selfies, but these are better...and who wants to spend their vacation staring at a phone screen?
  • While you are waiting in line for an attraction, use the Lines app to gauge what attractions you might do next; it'll show you both Disney's announced wait times as well as what their metrics actually predict.  It'll even suggest whether you are better off waiting or not.
  • Your phone battery probably won't survive the day at Disney.  Bring along portable batteries and charging cables so you can give your phone a boost during the day. That might also mean you need extra chargers at night to recharge everything. Disney hotel rooms do not have alarm clocks, so plan to charge your phone on the nightstand next to the bed.
But did we have a good time?  The kids had a blast; in fact, my son asked me when we could go back as the bus pulled away from Disney World.  So we'll probably go back in a couple of years, though this time, probably split with a four day Disney Cruise, leaving from Port Canaveral, which is about an hour east of Orlando.

The Disney World Trip Report

  1. Planning a Disney World trip
  2. Where to stay at Disney World
  3. Waiting in Line at Disney World
  4. The Magic Kingdom
  5. My Takeaways & Tips for Disney World

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Magic Kingdom: Disney World's Crown Jewel (Part Four of Five)

Our last three days at Disney World, our trip was mostly focused on the Magic Kingdom. That wasn't necessarily by design initially; I used crowd predictors to pick parks for each day, and our Magic Kingdom days ended up getting pushed to the end of the trip.

Thursday morning, we were able to get the kids up and fed in time to be able to get through security at the Magic Kingdom in time for a 9 am "rope drop".  My daughter loved the welcome show, but my son and I found that it was a great opportunity to make a dash for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at opening. The wait turned out to be only about 15 minutes.  We then got another ride in at Buzz Lightyear then redid Splash Mountain.  I checked the time and realized that at park opening, my son was able to redo his entire first afternoon in less than an hour with much less standing in lines.

But as the morning went on, the lines started to get longer. We took our obligatory ride on "it's a small world" which is just as annoying as you might have expected. (The best solution I've heard for this ride is to bring your own headphones and pipe your own music in over that damn song.)  Then came lunch time and my daughter's favorite part of the trip: Lunch at Cinderella's Castle. This is probably the most popular character meal at Disney World, and certainly the nicest setting. It's so nice, in fact, that I had to prepay for everything when I made our reservations 180 days earlier.  I only paid for my daughter and I to go; I figured my son had zero interest in seeing princesses.  (And I had even less interest in spending $60 to listen to him complain.)  He and his mom went and ate waffles for lunch at Sleepy Hollow; from what I could see, her lunch looked better than mine.  I had a roast pork served with some fancy beans... yep, an attempt at a high-class pork and beans, all for my $60+.  For what it's worth, my daughter loved her "royal" chicken nuggets.

This is where I repeat:  You don't go to Disney World for the food. And this lunch wasn't about the food (although the chocolate pie I had for dessert was really good), but about my daughter meeting the princesses. And she adored it. What surprised me were the number of adults eating lunch there without children, but another thing I learned at Disney World is that everyone kind of becomes a kid again.  While we were eating,
Look closely. That says
170 minutes!
I noticed through the windows that it was getting awfully dark outside, and so I switched my phone from camera to a radar app. Sure enough, a thundershower was rolling through Orlando at that same time, shuttind down all of the outdoor rides while we were at lunch. The aftermath? Ridiculously long lines the rest of the afternoon. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was posted at just shy of three hours, and everything else was backed up. So after one last FastPass on the Winnie the Pooh ride (not worth it for anybody school age, even if they still like Pooh), we headed back to Bay Lake Tower and the pool.  It was a quick swim, because we had dinner reservations at Animal Kingdom's Tusker House, with a package deal to get good seats for the new Rivers of Light show.

I've heard a lot of raves about the food at Tusker House, but I've since learned that much of that comes from people starting their day with breakfast. For us, Tusker House was the WORST food we had on our trip. I'm sure much of that was a personal preference as the menu is heavily African themed, though I did see a lot of adults around the kids buffet.  My son didn't even like those "kid friendly" options, so it was rather frustrating to spend $200 on a meal and have him go away hungry.  We did get some cute pictures of Goofy
Goofy says "Eat Your
Supper!"
and Donald Duck trying to encourage him to eat something, though.  While we were waiting for my son to finally eat something, I found a "day-of" FastPass online for the Expedition Everest roller coaster, and I used that as an incentive to get him to eat a little bit.  He loved that ride enough that I got him another one immediately afterwards, while my wife hit the concession stand for kids snacks during the show. (You shouldn't need to buy snacks after an "all you can eat" buffet, but that's the situation we were in.)

I enjoyed the Rivers of Light show, but looking back, I imagine kids being bored with it.  It reminded me a lot of an Olympics opening ceremony: lots of music and lighting effects, but nothing kid-enticing. My kids didn't seem to mind it, though.  If this show were at any other park, the producers would add fireworks to it, but that would cause too much of a panic in the animal attractions. I am glad that we did the dining package, even if the food wasn't good.  I saw the ridiculously long standby lines for the show, and decided that it was still a better investment than waiting two hours in line.  (Though then I could have had more Flame Tree Barbeque for supper...)

The late night at Animal Kingdom meant that we were slow to get going Friday morning, and since it was an "Extra Magic Hours" morning at Magic Kingdom, we arrived to find many of the lines at Disney World already pretty long when we arrived at 8:30 am.  (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was over an hour at that point.)  We did get to do an early run on the Buzz Lightyear spin, and my son and I did Big Thunder Mountain. (Big Thunder is probably hitting my upper limit on roller coasters.)  My wife did let my son ride solo on Space Mountain in the first hour; neither parent had the will to try that.  The difference between our two kids were never so apparent than with our morning FastPasses:  my daughter screamed and hated "Pirates of the Carribbean" while my son probably would have rather had a spelling test than sit through "its a small world".  (Truth be told, Mom & Dad probably would have preferred to help my son with his spelling than sit through that.  If we have to do "small world" again, I might have to take the suggestion of bringing headphones and providing your own soundtrack instead of listening to that . . . song . . . over and over and over again.)

We then headed to Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor, which had a bit of an unexpected wait..though it turned out to be well worth it when they picked my daughter to be part of the show!  The premise of the show is that the characters from Monsters Inc. have converted from trying to scare kids into making them laugh, turning this into a G-rated comedy show.  The animated characters perform on the main screen, and they randomly surprise audience members by pointing a camera on them.  And about midway through, there's my shirt and my daughter up on the screen. She wasn't the target of any jokes, but she played the set up person for all of the jokes, and had a blast.

Lunch was with Winnie the Pooh at the Crystal Palace; I had thought my kids were too old for Pooh and friends, but I guess you're never too old for anything at Disney World. It certainly was a relaxed vibe, and the food was OK.  I think Hollywood & Vine was a little better in terms of food, but let me say again... you don't go to Disney World for the food.  And you aren't paying over $150 for lunch for the food either.  After lunch, we had our final preset FastPass for the Mad Tea Party, which amazingly turned out to be another ride everyone seemed to like.  After that, I started checking online for wait times and realized that pretty much everything we'd want to ride had a minimum of a 45 minute wait.  So we made a couple of gift store purchases and headed back to Bay Lake Tower for a final afternoon swim.

I had bought a few boxes of Macaroni & Cheese with our groceries to have on hand for a contingency, and since everyone was pretty full from the lunch buffet, we decided to just have that for supper along with a couple of slices of leftover pizza. (Yep! A cheap meal at Disney World!) Since it was our last night, we headed back to the Magic Kingdom for one final fireworks show.  Weird thing for us is that the show seemed different (no Tinkerbell flying out of the castle) than the one we saw two nights before.  While we were waiting, I scanned my Disney app and found a FastPass for Buzz Lightyear shortly after the fireworks, so I figured, what the heck.  And once we finished that, another FastPass for the Mad Tea Party.  My wife was concerned we were staying up too late, but I reminded her this was our last night. The kids could sleep on the plane or sleep in on Sunday morning in their own bed.  And as we headed out, my daughter wanted one more ride on the Regal Carousel, which even my son obliged.  Everyone was pretty tired when we got back to the room, so it wasn't a problem getting the kids to bed quickly.  Mom & Dad, however, had to start packing up.

Since we had a washer and dryer in the room, we didn't have that many clothes to pack, so the only issue was finding room for the souveneirs we were bringing back. Fortunately, we had brought a couple of small extra bags on our trip empty so that we could check more bags on the way home. (That's the one good thing about Southwest Airlines.)  Fortunately, everything seemed to fit, making it easy to finish packing the next morning.

One of the things Disney does well is making the arrival and departure process easy, and departure is extra easy. The next morning, we found our boarding passes hanging on our room door, so we were set. We dropped our carry on bags with bell services at the front door, and then headed over to the Contemporary with our checked bags.  Boom! Everything was checked in with the airline and we were ready to go.  Except that our bus wasn't leaving until 1:20 pm and it was 8:30 am.  So it was off to the Magic Kingdom for one last morning of fun!

No "extra magic hours" this morning, so at "rope drop", we had our choice of attractions.  My son wanted to do Big Thunder Mountain one last time, and then we headed for Buzz Lightyear yet again, even though we had a FastPass for later in the morning. We also hit a couple of classics with "Mickey's PhilharMagic" and Dumbo.  PhilharMagic always seemed to have really short wait times in the afternoon, but it turned out to be a pretty good 3-D show.  I kind of wish we would have snuck that in on a busy, hot afternoon. And since we were nearby, my son wanted to do Goofy's Barnstormer kiddie roller coaster. For some reason, he liked that more than the other coasters; it might have simply been the Goofy association.  After one last carousel ride, we headed for our final ride:  Buzz Lightyear with a FastPass+.  And just like our first ride, we found the longest line.  In fact, the line was so long, I wasn't sure we could afford to wait.  But the line started moving, and we gave it a chance, and we were able to get it in.  They were having some issues with the ride, as it stopped three or four times as we rode through.  That wasn't a problem, though...as it simply gave us more time to score points.  (New high score for me of over 200,000!)

But then it was time to head out, as we were supposed to be ready for the bus to the airport in 20 minutes. Our original agenda was to have lunch at Chef Mickey's, but we cancelled it two days earlier because (a) we already had done two character meals and (b) we realized that we didn't think we could spare the 90 minutes for lunch.  And considering the ride issues on Buzz Lightyear, we certainly wouldn't have made our lunch reservation.  In fact, we didn't even have time to eat lunch, so we grabbed a couple of snacks out of my wife's backpack to hold us over until we got to the airport.  The Magical Express got us to the airport in more than enough time; we had over two hours once we arrived, so it actually ended up a good use of our time.  (Airport food or Disney food, you decide which is less worse.  Surprisingly, airport food was much cheaper than Disney food.)

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of Southwest Airlines because of their "cattle car" setup.  It's OK if I'm travelling by myself for business, but for family trips, I wasn't going to risk it. Except Southwest does have some non-stops between Omaha and Orlando, which are awfully hard to resist. And my concern about the "cattle car" was reduced now that Southwest sells "Early Bird Checkin", which pretty much assures you "A" group boarding.  So when we booked, I figured Southwest's $15 fee for Early Bird Checkin offset the other airline's luggage fees, so we just picked the most convenient flights for us.

Southwest's non-stop flight from Omaha to Orlando left before 6 am in the morning, which wasn't family friendly in my eyes.  Getting the kids up at 3:30 am to fly to Disney seemed like starting the trip on a really bad note.  So we compromised:  flew American to Chicago the night before, enjoyed the pool at the hotel that's connected to O'Hare (great indoor pool!), then caught a 7 am flight the next morning.  It still got us to Orlando in the morning, so we could still have some Disney fun that first day, but saved us two hours of sleep.

The flight back was easy to pick on Southwest:  a three hour flight straight to Omaha. There was no wifi and thus no entertainment on board, but it didn't really matter at all to our kids. My son curled up in his seat and was out cold before the plane even took off.  (I only let him nap for about 45 minutes, though.)  I did leave Sunday completely unscheduled (other than picking up our dog from the vet), because I wasn't sure how much sleep the kids needed to make up.  They did sleep until well after 8 am that morning, which I'm sure their teachers appreciated the next day.

So what are my takeaways from Disney World?  Some of my opinions were confirmed, and some of the advice I found online turned out to be worth what I paid for it (zero).  I'll summarize that in the conclusion in part five.

The Disney World Trip Report

  1. Planning a Disney World trip
  2. Where to stay at Disney World
  3. Waiting in Line at Disney World
  4. The Magic Kingdom
  5. My Takeaways & Tips for Disney World

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Line, Lines and More Lines at Disney World (Part Three of Five)

Any doubts we had about choosing Bay Lake Tower for our trip to Disney World quickly vanished once we actually arrived. Not only was the staff super friendly, but the kids loved the room - even before I pulled them out to the balcony to show them Cinderella's Castle and Space Mountain across the parking lot. Very quickly, we were heading across that same parking lot for the Magic Kingdom and some lunch. (Hunger was quite enhanced by the fact that we'd been up since 5 am to catch our flight to Orlando.)  Figuring that the kids would rather eat at the park than at the resort cafeteria, we headed to Cosmic Ray's in TomorrowLand.  I had already prepared myself mentally to spend close to $50 for fast food burgers, and come to grips with it as part of the price. The burgers and chicken nuggets were nothing fancy and fine; not sure we needed the two pounds of fries they gave the four of us.  But whatcha gonna do?

This was the FastPass+ line for
Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin.
Cosmic Rays met my main criteria for lunch: first, it had something acceptable for everybody and secondly, it was really close to our first FastPass reservation: Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. We had heard all of the horror stories about lines at DisneyWorld, but nothing quite prepared me for the FastPass line for the Buzz Lightyear ride.  I had assumed that FastPass allowed you to go to the front of the line, but it turns out, it actually just gets you into a shorter (?) line.  And on that first afternoon, the line for Buzz wrapped around the queues and all the way over to the next ride.  Now, I had worked to set up a personalized schedule from touringplans.com, a site that tries to fit as many of the things that you want to do into an order that they call a "touring plan." (I'm not sure I'd use the word "touring" to describe a day at DisneyWorld, but OK...)  The expected wait time to get in was supposed to be about five minutes, but the line was actually over a half hour long.  (The "standby" line for people without passes was posted as an hour long; I suspect it was even longer than that.)  Once we got on the ride, we had a blast... in fact, I dare say that was our favorite ride at Disney World.  I think we rode it at least six other times the rest of the week!

Afterwards, we manually started to shuffle our "plan" and moved straight to watch the parade. My 10 year daughter loved it (especially when Merida pointed at her and mouth a complement about their red hair); my seven year old son didn't until after all of the princesses had passed by.  After that, it was off to more rides and activities. I felt bad for my son: he had FastPasses for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Splash Mountain, but because of the lines, that's all he got to do that afternoon. My daughter did get a couple of character meets and a ride on the carousel (because that line was only 15 minutes long) in. Needless to say, we weren't exactly feeling any "magic" at Disney's Magic Kingdom that afternoon, and so we headed back to Bay Lake Tower.  The kids went swimming while I did something that's probably sacriligeous to the Disney-obsessed.

I ordered pizza for supper.  From a non-Disney restaurant.  This was all planned, as I also was waiting for a delivery of groceries.  Since we had a kitchen with a full size refrigerator, we figured we'd eat breakfast and snacks in the room as we got ready each day. And as long as we were going to be getting pizza delivery, beer to wash it down.  And it was good pizza.  Damn good pizza.

Giordano's Deep Dish!
Best meal we had.
Giordano's.  The Chicago-style deep dish.  Yes, it's a chain, but the nearest locations to Omaha are 300 miles away in Minneapolis. I don't know if Giordano's is better in Chicago, or if Lou Malnati's is better than Giordano's in Chicago.  All I know is that Giordano's was the best meal we had in Orlando...and since we ordered extra for leftovers (again, we had a kitchen), it actually was the best two meals we had.

The other benefit of Bay Lake Tower? All we had to do to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks was walk out onto the balcony. No lines, no mass of humanity.  And five minutes later, the kids were in bed. (After a 16 hour day, that's a good thing.)

The next morning, the plan was to hit Animal Kingdom and then hop over to Epcot. That plan hit a snag when exhausted kids slept in later than the "touring plan" suggested, which was then complicated by a 45 minute wait for Disney to send a bus to our resort. We watched three buses come and go to Epcot (two left empty) and a couple for Hollywood Studios before we finally were able to head to Animal Kingdom.  That resulting delay meant that when we got to Killimanjaro Safaris first thing, we had to stand in line for an hour. The Safari was marginally interesting, but since we usually head to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo several times a year, wasn't worth the time we spent waiting for it. (People who don't have a good zoo nearby will almost certainly have different opinions.)

Disney does shows extremely well, and after the Safari, we hit the "Festival of the Lion King" and "Finding Nemo: The Musical."  Both shows were impressive performances.  In between, we had lunch at the Flame Tree Barbeque, which might have been the best Disney restaurant we ate at on our trip. Comparatively speaking, it also was one of the better values, as we were so stuffed afterwards that we just had snacks the rest of the day instead of actually having supper.  We also watched "It's Tough to Be a Bug", which absolutely freaked my 10 year old daughter out.

Our day at Animal Kingdom could have been better if we had planned FastPasses for that day, but we decided to take advantage of our Park Hopper that day and use our three FastPasses at Epcot that evening. Epcot tiers their FastPasses, and only allows you to select one of their top three attractions each day. So by spending parts of two days at Epcot, we were able to get FastPasses for both Frozen and Test Track.

Half hour in line with a FastPass+ for Frozen
105 minutes for standby. Yikes.
My daughter absolutely loved the first part of the new Frozen ride at Epcot (even though the FastPass line took over a half hour to get through). Then she hit the small waterslide part in the boat, and just about lost it; she hates any sort of thrill ride, which ended the ride on a bad note.  The kids really liked the interactive "Turtle Talk with Crush" show, where "surfer dude" Crush from Finding Nemo interacted with all the kids in the audience.  Great fun that leaves you wondering "how do they do that?"  "The Seas with Nemo and Friends" next door was a huge disappointment though; it's a ride through an aquarium, but it pales in comparison to the aquarium at Omaha's zoo.  Although we were exhausted after a full day of hitting two parks, we found enough strength to get some pretty good (and expensive, even by Disney standards) ice cream at L'Artisan des Glaces while we waited a few minutes for the Illuminations show, which features iluminated floats and fireworks on a lake.

Tuesday, we had already planned to make that a "sleep in" day, so we had a late breakfast planned at the "Kona Cafe" at the Polynesian Resort.  We love Hawai'i, and thought that some "POG" (Passion fruit/Orange/Guava juice cocktail) was hard to resist for a little splurge. The POG was good, but much of the rest of the breakfast was rather mediocre.  We then headed to Hollywood Studios for the day.  Many people suggest skipping Hollywood Studios, as many rides and attractions have closed as a new "Star Wars" land is under construction. That wasn't our experience; in fact, I think our kids rated Hollywood Studios as our second favorite park.  The Indiana Jones Stunt show was very entertaining, and my son loved seeing all of the Star Wars characters.  My daughter preferred the Frozen sing-a-long, though.  Everybody got a big kick out of Toy Story Midway Mania, though; it's another shooting arcade game like Buzz Lightyear; we even rode it a second time without a FastPass just before supper because the lines were starting to dwindle.

We finished our day at Hollywood Studios with a "character dinner" at Hollywood & Vine, which featured Mickey and Minne Mouse with Donald and Daisy Duck. Some reviewers have panned this restaurant elsewhere, but frankly, we thought this was the best buffet we had at Disney World. We picked this as part of a dining package which also gave us preferred seating for the nighttime Fantasmic show, which the kids loved. As we left, we did see the Star Wars fireworks in the distance; we could have stayed later and moved closer, but figured we were better off grabbing the first available bus back instead of getting stuck in the fireworks crowds.

Wednesday morning, we headed back to Epcot with the hope of getting there early enough to ride Soarin' in the standby line, but thanks to monorail issues, we got there too late to do that.  Instead we checked out Spaceship Earth (the huge 18 story globe), which was pretty interesting (and thankfully didn't set off my claustrophobia).  My son and I went on Ellen's Energy Adventure, which while interesting, is just a touch too long at 37 minutes.  After that, we hit Test Track, which allowed guest to design their own car, and then head on a 65 mph spin in a convertable around the building on the test track. You're going faster than any other ride at Disney, but it's more thrilling than putting the top down on a highway because of the banked turns. (My son and I loved it; my wife and daughter didn't.)  Afterwards, it was nearly impossible to get our kids out of the pavillion where you can experiment with all sorts of car wizardry.  But there was an issue to all of this:  remember the "Touring Plans" schedule that I had set out?  Well, the schedule was based on spending about a half hour or so at Test Track, but we ended up spending well over an hour.  And that schedule?  Pretty much trash at that point.

My wife and son rode Mission Space while my daughter and I started manually reworking our afternoon plan for Epcot. Lunch at La Cantina de San Angel was pretty good, though my kids were starting to hit the exhaustion stage.  We attempted to start touring the World Showcase, but I eventually came to the realization that it's mostly shopping with an exhibit here and there.  Even though we were about halfway through the World Showcase, we made another audible.   My wife wanted to continue looking, but my son was clearly done, so I decided to take him back to the room.  On our way out, I located a secret character meeting spot only for Disney Visa cardholders. The look on my son's face when he turned the corner to meet Mickey and Goofy did wonders to reset his attitude.

Getting back to the resort and the pool helped even more. Our original plan was to spend the whole day at Epcot, but we'd had enough.  My wife and daughter joined us back at the room an hour or so later; eventually they hit that exhaustion stage as well.  Thankfully, we didn't have any reservations at Epcot that night, so supper became the leftover pizza from Sunday night.  And after that, we were refreshed enough to head back into the Magic Kingdom to catch the fireworks from just outside Cinderella's Castle before heading back to bed.

The Disney World Trip Report

  1. Planning a Disney World trip
  2. Where to stay at Disney World
  3. Waiting in Line at Disney World
  4. The Magic Kingdom
  5. My Takeaways & Tips for Disney World