Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dining Spotlight: Kusafiri Bakery (AK)

If you're at Animal Kingdom and looking for a deliciously sweet snack, you've got to head over to Harambe Village in Africa to the Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery. They have three very distinct treats: the white chocolate elephant cupcake, the brownie paw, and the zebra cupcake. We opted to share a zebra cupcake and it was absolutely delicious! A word to the wise - go early. We stopped by shortly after lunch and got the last remaining zebra cupcake and they only had one more elephant cupcake at the time. Not sure if this was a fluke or if they usually run out so quickly, but better not to risk it if you want to enjoy one of these tasty treats!

Dining Spotlight: Yak & Yeti (AK)

Today we had lunch at Yak & Yeti at Animal Kingdom. This restaurant quickly made its way on to our list of Disney dining favorites. The food was delicious, the decor and atmosphere was nice and we really enjoyed our server, Mark, who gave us great tips on where to view Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade later in the afternoon. Although we had made an ADR, we probably didn't need to because we were there right when Y&Y opened for the day and it was not yet crowded. I'd still recommend making a reservation though - most folks probably don't eat as early as we do, but with a 2.5 year old, that's how we roll...
I had the Chicken Lo Mein, which was absolutely delicious and a very generous portion size. Lots of flavor. I washed it down with a Safari Amber beer, found only in Animal Kingdom.
My wife had the House Salad. I was a little bit disappointed that she just ordered a salad, but once it came out, we were both surprised at how large it was. This was no ordinary house salad, but a tasty, oriental delight. Kristen was very, very happy with her choice.
Michael had the Kid's Chicken Fingers with Chicken Fried Rice and Apple Sauce. As I will cover in a separate post, Yak & Yeti is one of the best places at WDW to find a unique kids menu. Here's some of the other choices available from the kids' menu:

Dining Spotlight: Royal Anandapur Tea Company (AK)

 Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a coffee drinker. However, tea is another story. That's why I had to make a stop at the Royal Anandapur Tea Company at Animal Kingdom, which has a great selection of hot teas. I went with the Masala Chai and was not disappointed..

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Character Dining

Character dining can be one of the highlights of your WDW vacation if you plan it right - but don't forget to plan it out - most character dining experiences, espeially Cinderella's Royal Table, fill-up very fast, so book at or as close as possible to 180 days out. Dining with various characters at any of the WDW locations offering this experience will allow your kids the opportunity to spend some time with their favorite characters with the added bonus of saving your family time by allowing you to eat a meal while characters come to visit your table, rather than wait in line (outdoors in the heat no less) to get photos and character signatures. Plus, if you book a meal towards the end of a dining time frame, your kids may get extra attention from the characters. And, if you have young kids, you'll be pleased to know that kids under three eat for free at Disney buffets!

There are a number of locations within the parks and several of the resorts that offer character dining experiences. We found Garden Grove at the Swan & Dolphin Resort to be very low-key and enjoyable with a nice buffet (most character dining experiences are buffet-style). 

Check out the official Walt Disney World Dining site to see a list of locations. The Disney Food Blog also offers great tips on Character dining as well as suggestions for what character dining experience might be right for you and your family.  Among those, Erin Foster over at DFB has recently featured a great article with 11 tips for a great character dining experience. And remember to check out the Disney Food Blog's Disney World Dining Guide for further insight into character dining and WDW dining in general.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Character Meet & Greets

Disney 'Four Parks - One World' Autograph Book
When it comes to Disney, one of the most exciting activities is the opportunity to meet your favorite Walt Disney characters from television and the movies. My sister and I always had a blast growing-up trying to get as many signatures and track down the hard-to-find characters. Character meet and greets also make for great photo opportunities not only for kids, but for the entire family. Growing-up, my family actually used a character photo with Buzz and Woody as our Christmas card photo one year! My wife and I really like the Disney 'Four Parks - One World' Autograph Book. While it does not have as many pages for character autographs as other books do, every other page has a photo sleeve, so you can inser the corresponding character photo next to the character's autograph. Don't forget to bring along a good pen or two (we recommend Sharpie markers). If you're worried about young children being afraid of the characters, we've had a number of friends who have said watching the Disney Planning DVD and talking about the characters as well as starting-off wiht the more human chraracter (e.g., princesses) helps the kids to warm-up to the idea of being near the characters. Also try turning it into a fun game for the family to try and collect as many signatures as possible - always worked for us!

Looking for Some Exciting Books to Read While on Vacation?

Maybe you've scheduled some downtime by the pool during your WDW vaction, or perhaps your trip to Disney is tied into a longer trip to the beach. If so, I highly recommend checking out any of Steve Berry's intellectual thrillers. Many of them feature the same main character, Cotton Malone, so you may want to start with the earliest book featuring Malone, The Templar Legacy: A Novel. Mr. Berry actually earned his J.D. at my alma mater, Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law. In fact, he was a year or two behind my dad. In total there are six Cotton Malone books, with a seventh due out in May: The Jefferson Key: A Novel (Cotton Malone). The other books in the series include: The Alexandria Link: A Novel, The Venetian Betrayal: A Novel (Steve Berry's Cotton Malone series), The Charlemagne Pursuit: A Novel, The Paris Vendetta: A Novel, and The Emperor's Tomb (Cotton Malone). Berry also has three books that do not feature Cotton Malone: The Amber Room: A Novel, The Romanov Prophecy: A Novel, and The Third Secret: A Novel, as well as 2 e-books: The Balkan Escape (Short Story): A Cassiopeia Vitt Adventure and The Devil's Gold (Short Story).

Hidden Mickeys


Looking to put a new twist on your WDWdiscover. Want a roadmap to to guide you on this scavenger-style fun? Check out Steve Barrett's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets, 4th Edition to help you track down the elusive mouse ears. You'll be surprised at the places you find the famous icon showing-up! In fact, you may notice them even when you're not trying to find them!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Extra Magic Hours (EMH)

Simply put, Extra Magic Hours (EMH) are one of the perks associated with staying "on-property" at a Walt Disney World Resort. Each day, a different Disney Park will offer resort guests the opportunity to enter a park early or stay at a park later. This allows you to spend some extra time in the parks before the general crowds arrive/after they leave, and when things may be therefore less crowded.  This is a really great perk of your schedule and daily routine allows you take advantage of it.  However, for intsance if you have small children who go to bed early, or older children who sleep-in late, EMHs may not be right for you. 

If plan on taking advantage of EMHs, you may want to avoid a park on a day that it has EMHs as it will tend to be generally more crowded overall since resort guests will be taking advantage of that park. Check out TouringPlans.com to determine which days during your visit will be best to visit each park, based on EMHs and other factors.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Celebration Buttons

Whether it's a first visit to WDW, a birthday, an anniversary or any other special occasion, make sure to get a button to let people know what you're celebrating at the parks. You can find the buttons at your Disney resort, or at the parks - just ask a cast member (the proper term for a Disney employee) and they can tell you where to find them. In the Magic Kingdom they can be found at City Hall on Main Street.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

FASTPASS

The FASTPASS can be a great tool to help you maximize your time at the Disney parks. To find out more, visit this webpage from AllEars describing the FASTPASS process and offering some great tips on how to utilize the FASTPASS effectively.

Mouse Ears - the Quintessential WDW Souvenir

Bottom line: Everyone who visits Disney needs a pair of mouse ears. They can be found all over the parks, and come in many variations (and sizes) - from classic to princess to pirate - there's a pair out there for everyone! You can even get your name stitched on the back for a truly memorable souvenir. They have bride and groom pairs for those celebrating there wedding/honeymoon at Disney and also a special birthday pair. Or, you can visit Chapeau at Magic Kingdom Park or Downtown Disney Marketplace area to create your very own unique pair to commemorate your trip to Walt Disney World!

Disney's PhotoPass Service

Worried about getting photos of your family while at WDW? Tired of one person always missing from the photos because someone had to be behind the camera? Disney has the answer to your problems: the Disney PhotoPass service. There are park photographers roaming throughout the parks willing and able to snap you and your family's photo as many times as you'd like while you're at the parks. At the first snap, you'll be given a card like the one pictured below.
Each time a photographer asks if you'd like your photo taken, you hand them this card and all of the photos taken will be linked to one account and you can go online to view all of your photos. From candids in front of Cinderella's Castle to Character Meet and Greets, you can have your photo taken as many times as you like. You can then go online to view your photos and order them as you like.  If you think you are going to order photos, you might consider pre-ordering your PhotoPass to save up to $50 on a package that includes a CD of all of the PhotoPass photos taken of you and your family during your trip to Disney.

And, you might be surprised to know that the Disney photographers (at least in our experience) are more than happy to take the photo with your own camera if you ask - that way everyone gets in the photo and its free!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dining Spotlight: Restaurantosarus (AK)

Restaurantosarus is a great little quick-service restaurant at Animal Kingdom featuring burgers (with an expansive toppings bar), fries, chicken, etc. The restaurant is naturally located in the Dinoland USA section of the park. A solid choice for quick dining at Animal Kingdom.

Disney Guidebooks

The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World 2011 (Unofficial Guides)
The "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," put together by the folks behind Touringplans.com, is considered by many to be the most comprehensive and useful guidebook available. Among other features, it includes numerous maps and charts, including the famous TouringPlans charts detailing crowd levels at various times of the year, and many sample touring plans to help you plan your WDW vacation.  Purchasing this guide allows you to download and printout updates from their website. And, if you're thinking about purchasing a Touringplans.com membership, buy this book first, and you will receive a discount on that membership.


The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2011 (Unofficial Guides)The "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids," written by the same authors as the unofficial guide described above, also gets high marks. Based on a survey of thousands of families, the book is great for helping you figure out how best to avoid crowds and minimize wait times. The guide also covers such topics as what attractions might be scary for kids and why. 
Birnbaum's Walt Disney World 2011Birnbaum's is the official guidebook, sanctioned by Disney. This guide offers the convenience of being much thinner than other guidebooks, making it great to carry into the parks with you. Because it is the official Disney guidebook, it does not contain information about other area parks like SeaWorld and Universal, which some of the other guidebooks.

SniqueAway

Occasionally, I'm going to throw in a non-Disney post. A perfect example is SniqueAway - an amazing travel deal website that offers incredible deals to luxury hotels and resorts across the country and around the world.  We were fortunate enough to take advantage of their Chateau Elan getaway and really enjoyed it. Wish we had time to take advantage of more of them - these are the types of places you would not expect to find great deals and that would make for great weekend getaways or special celebrations. For more information, and to join (for free) click this link: SniqueAway You'll get weekly updates about the properties on-sale and will have a window of several months in which to travel. An example of their offerings is the XV Beacon Hotel in Boston, featured on SniqueAway last month at a discount of nearly 50%! As an added bonus, you get a $25 credit for each of your friends that signs up and then books a trip. And yes, that means you'll help me earn credits by signing-up through the link above, so thanks in advance, and happy travels! P.S. - it's worth signing-up just to look at the gorgeous photos of the featured resorts!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mr. Potato Head - Disney Style

 Looking for a great souvenir to bring home from WDW? A fun shopping experience? How about a little creative thinking and competition? Well, here's something that will let you check all of those boxes: Disney-themed Mr. (and Mrs.) Potato Head pieces! Head over to the Downtown Disney marketplace area, and check out Once Upon a Toy. For $20 you can take home as many pieces as will fit into a box they give you. Talk about a challenge! As someone who loves the art of packing a car for vacation - yes, I did say art - and the challenge of seeing just how much stuff you pack-in, I was all over this! They have all sorts of character pieces, from classic Disney characters, to Dumbo, princesses, Pirates and Buzz Lightyear. For $20, this is a great price for a great souvenir, especially if you're up to the challenge of wedging in every last piece possible! Once Upon a Toy is a great place to shop for other Disney toys as well, and overall, Downtown Disney can provide a nice break from the parks, with many shopping and dining options.

Dining Spotlight: Tony's Town Square (MK)

Tony's Town Square is an Italian restaurant with a Lady and the Tramp theme (although the theming is not that strong) located on Main Street USA inside the Town Square Theater building just inside the entrance to the Magic Kingdom. Because of its location at the entrance/exit to the park, it's probably not a convenient option for lunch unless you are leaving the Magic Kingdom around lunchtime, but may work later in the afternoon/evening, especially if you can snag a table on the porch to view a parade. Frankly, the food was not spectacular, and we much prefer Liberty Tree Tavern. But if you are looking for Italian food (and can't make it to Epcot for some delicious Italian options, this is your spot.

Dining Spotlight: Garden Grove (Swan and Dolphin Resort)

Garden Grove, located at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, is an overlooked/unknown character dining spot at WDW featuring Goofy and Pluto nightly as well as Saturday and Sunday mornings. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed than other character dining spots and its easier to book a reservation. It was a great place for us to take our son for his first character experience, just after he turned one year old. Each night features one of three specific buffet themes, so plan accordingly:
  • Monday: Southern BBQ
  • Tuesday: Mediterranean Night
  • Wednesday: Southern BBQ
  • Thursday: Mediterranean Night
  • Friday: Seafood Sensation
  • Saturday: Mediterranean Night
  • Sunday: Southern BBQ
Another great reason to visit Garden Grove is because you can  sometimes find Restaurant.com gift certificates online, giving you a great discount on your meal (e.g., you can often grab $25 gift certificates for just $2).


EPCOT Kidcot Stations

Here's a fun activity for kids at EPCOT: Kidcot Fun Stops located at various country pavilions around the World Showcase. These activity stations offer kids a chance to learn about other cultures, have their name written in foreign languages, and engage in a scavenger hunt of sorts around the World Showcase.

Kidcot Fun Stops in the EPCOT World Showcase
  • Mexico Pavilion (near Animales Fantasticos)
  • Norway Pavilion (The Puffin's Roost)
  • China Pavilion (near exit to Reflections of China)
  • Germany Pavilion (Volkunst)
  • Italy Pavilion (outside near La Bottega Italiana)
  • American Adventure Pavilion (outside near Heritage Manor Gifts)
  • Japan Pavilion (in Bijutsu-kan Gallery)
  • Morocco Pavilion (Marketplace in the Medina)
  • France Pavilion (Souvenirs de France)
  • United Kingdom Pavilion (The Toy Soldier)
  • Canada Pavilion (exit from O Canada! attraction)
Some pavilions even have other activities for kids, such as the Japan pavilion where  kids can make Japanese fish kites!


Check out this article for more information on the Kidcot locations in each pavilion.

Must Have Resource: Touringplans.com

I cannot say enough about Touring Plans. This is, without a doubt, a MUST HAVE resource for your WDW vacation, both for planning your trip and for maximizing your time while at the parks. The folks at Touring Plans have put together an incredible array of tools to help you plan and enjoy your Disney vacation. Among the highlights of Touring Plans are:

Crowd Calendar: provides a daily crowd level rating for each day of the year for each park, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the least crowded and 10 being the most crowded), as well as an overall WDW rating for that day. It will also tell you the best park(s) to visit for that day and any park(s) to avoid, and list park hours and shows/parades, etc. happening that day in each of the parks. Use the Crowd Calendar to determine the best time of year to visit if your travel plans are flexible and to determine which days to visit each park while at WDW.

Lines: this app for your iPhone, Android, BlackBerry or other Smartphone allows you to view attraction wait times while at the parks so you can decide which direction to head next, the current Fast Pass return time for rides offering Fast Passes, etc. And, you can help the Touring Plans team out by entering your actual wait time or the posted wait time while you are in line.

Touring Plans: View hundreds of different touring plans and find the one that is right for you, or create your own personal plan! Each plan is specifically catered to a different type of guest - whether you are touring with kids, touring without the kids, staying a day, or stay a week; whether you want a leisurely day in the parks, or a fast pace quest to experience as many attractions as humanly possible.

Blog: One of several great Disney blogs on the web, the Touring Plans blog often features tips on how to maximize your time while at Disney. Who doesn't want those kinds of tips?
Touring Plans is a true steal of a deal at only $10.95 for a year-long subscription. It's well worth every penny based on the time and money you'll save by optimizing your travel plans to Disney and your game plan when you arrive at the parks. Become a member today!

This summary barely scratches the surface of all the amazing features Touring Plans has to offer. Check it out now to experience how it can make your Disney vacation more magical!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Must Have Resource: The Disney Food Blog Guide to Walt Disney World Dining

I must admit that my favorite aspect of a trip to WDW may just very well be dining.  For those not aware, WDW offers an amazing array of dining experiences.  In fact, it offers some of the best meals to be had anywhere. Given the number and variety of restaurant options throughout the Disney parks and resorts, deciding where to dine can be overwhelming. Lucky for you (and me) there is an amazing resource out there to plan your Disney dining experiences.  Whether it's a quick meal you're looking for, a special celebration, dining with characters or trying food from a new culture, Disney World has it all. And the Disney Food Blog's Guide to Walt Disney World Dining walks you through all of these dining experiences and will help you narrow your search to find the best meals for your family no matter what you're in the mood for.  Download your copy now! Whether you're a WDW newbie or a seasoned Mousekeeter, you will LOVE this guide!
Download Now!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Postcards from Mickey and the Gang

Want a fun way to add to your kid(s)' excitement about your upcoming trip to Disney? Find a Disney postcard or create a homemade card of your own to send to your kid(s) a few weeks before your trip! Personalize the card with a note from Mickey, Minnie, or other Disney favorites telling them how they can't wait for your kid(s) to visit. And when you're at Disney, stock-up on some postcards for the next time. You can also have characters at the parks sign postcards for your kid(s) to send back home to family and friends.

Tip: Early Park Access

Ever dreamed about having the Magic Kingdom to yourself to take photos and stroll down Main Street USA before the crowds arrive? How about getting a jump start ahead of the crowds at rope drop when the parks open? Then book an early morning character breakfast at one of the parks! For instance, book breakfast at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom. Crystal Palace takes reservations for breakfast that begin earlier than the park opens, so you can enter the park for breakfast by showing your reservation confirmation. While you can't ride any rides, or make it past the "hub" in front of the castle, you will have the opportunity to take photos up and down Main Street and of Cinderella's Castle without the crowds. You'll also be in prime position to make a quick dash to the most popular rides (hint hint Dumbo) before the gates open. Just make sure you book your reservation for a day that does not have Extra Magic Hours. One caveat: if you are staying off-property, it can be a bit difficult to get to the Magic Kingdom super-early, because you have to park at the ticket and transportation center and take the ferry or monorail over to the MK and these do not start running early enough to make the earliest of reservation times (if you are staying on-property, the resort monorail and buses begin running earlier and can get you to the MK on-time).

Dining Spotlight: Golden Oak Outpost (MK) (Quick Service)

If you're looking for a great QSR at the Magic Kingdom, check out one of our favorites - the Golden Oak Outpost. It's located just past Splash Mountain as you head towards Adventureland. We've eaten here several times and found the chicken nuggets and fries to hit the spot. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done at a decent price.
Be sure to check out Allears.net for a complete menu and the Disney Food Blog and Dining Guide for more in-depth reviews. 

Parking Tip: the AAA Diamond Parking Pass

Not staying on-property and plan to drive to the parks each day? Want to score front-row, prime parking at the parks, even if you don't arrive at the crack of dawn (or even if you do)? Then here's the tip for you - the AAA Diamond Parking Pass.  This pass, available to AAA members who book their vacations/buy their park tickets through their local AAA club, allows holders to park in a special reserved parking area at each park. You still have to pay the $14 daily parking fee, but at least you get great parking for that fee, making life a little easier, and saving time arriving at and leaving from the parks. Hey, those critical extra few minutes could mean an extra ride, or getting to see that one character you've just got to meet. And, the good news for those that are not AAA members: you can find these passes on eBay for pretty cheap. They are good for the entire calendar year, so most folks will list them on eBay after they've taken their trip (meaning the further you get into the year, the more there are on eBay and the less expensive they are). We have bought these twice and most recently paid around $7 with free shipping. You'll note that the certificates do say "non-transferable" and "void if sold," but we have not had any problems. I suppose it is always a risk, but at $7 a great risk worth taking. Plus, the Disney Parking staff has enough on its hands to move thousands of cars through each of its parking lots each day, so I doubt they are too concerned our will scrutinize too closely.

EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival

Traveling to WDW during the EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival is great for a number of reasons. First, the creations at EPCOT are amazing - the photos below barely scratch the surface. Second, the weather, while still warm, is significantly cooler than it is in the dead of summer. Third, if you visit during one of the later weeks of the event, you will find yourselves at the parks at a fairly low-crowd time period - after spring break but before schools get out for the summer. The event generally runs from around Mid- March to Mid-May.

Ordering FREE Planning Resources from Disney

Here are links to two FREE items you can order from Disney to help you plan for your trip: Disney Vacation Planning DVD and Customized Park Maps.


Cinderella's Castle @ the Magic Kingdom