John Thompson -- March 1999 -- Walt Disney World (VBR)
A few words about this report from Vero Beach. This report was written specifically for our web site. It doesn't really have a chronological flow - it just touches on several subjects. If you want to read the report and see accompanying pictures - please visit http://www.thompsonfamilyweb.com
When we walked into the lobby of Disneys Vero Beach Resort, the first thought that passed through my head was "Wow - just like a Disney resort, but without Walt Disney World".
Disneys Vero Beach Resort (DVBR) is, of course, exactly that. I dont know what it is about Disney resorts that make them feel different from other resorts. Its not that they are necessarily better, they simply have a feel thats all their own. Maybe its the little touches; the attention to detail, the "themeing", the music playing softly in the background, the friendliness of the staff. But then other first class resorts have attention to detail, themes, soft music and friendly staffs. So maybe its just me.
My wife Andie, our two kids Natalie (5 ½) and Charlotte (1 ½), and I would be spending the better part of a week at this resort, arriving the evening of March 27th and leaving on April 1st. This was our annual winter trip to a warm climate. In fact it was, of course, early spring, but its nice to leave the cruel winter weather of the northeast for a week in the tropics (sort of), knowing that when we returned the weather would start getting warmer. Besides, Nat is in her first official year of school (kindergarten), and we selected this week to travel because shes on Spring Break. She also had a week in February, but getting to a guaranteed warm climate in February would require traveling further than we wanted to with 2 small children. The irony is that it took much longer to get to Vero than it had any right. Our plane left at 2:00 PM on Saturday, we had to switch planes in Atlanta, fly to Melbourne then drive an hour to Vero. We walked into the hotel lobby at about 9:00 that night.
All the buildings take their exterior design cues from the historic architecture of the area. Im not familiar with the particular style, but it has something of a Craftsman style feel about it with multiple steep gables, a variety of roof lines and fairly prominent overhangs. I can say that there are many paintings and photographs of historic Vero Beach buildings throughout the resort and the heritage is clear. All the buildings are painted in a light muddy brown.
The lobby is a large, open space with a vaulted ceiling and exposed cream colored beams. There are many reminders of the history and natural surroundings in the lobby, as well as many references to the areas number one industry - growing citrus fruit. Near the entrance there is a wonderful mosaic on the floor with compass points and a large image of a sea turtle. Inside the lobby youll find the check-in desk, DVC information and guest services, the resorts two restaurants and one lounge, and a small store called The Island Grove Packing Company. Its a charming little store with many of the little things you might suddenly find yourself needing: drinks, various food items like cereal and cookies, suntan lotion and sunscreen and, of course, Disney merchandise. This is also where you get DVC or DVBR logo clothing (gotta get that DVBR T-shirt!). There is a small area with mostly pirate (and Peter Pan) themed toys, a fact that earned this establishment the nomenclature "The Pirate Store" by Nat.
This trip was also the first time we had the opportunity to use our membership in Disneys Vacation Club (DVC).
For those not familiar with DVC, its Disneys version of a vacation timeshare. Unlike a traditional timeshare, however, you dont purchase a specific week at a specific resort. Instead you are given "vacation points". Each point can be exchanged for use in any of Disneys 4 DVC properties. In addition to DVBR, there is Disneys Hilton Head Resort in South Carolina and 2 resorts at Walt Disney World; Disneys Boardwalk Villas and Disneys Old Key West Resort. Additionally you can trade your points to stay at any one of about 250 non-Disney resorts worldwide. It was this freedom to use our points to visit non-Disney resorts that finally sold us on DVC. Andie and I look at it like a vacation bank account - we pay the bill every month then get to stay at great places and leave owing nothing. Could we stay at places that are just as good or better for less money? In the case of the DVC resorts, no. In the case of non-DVC resorts, yes we probably could. But as Andie puts it, this almost forces us to go on vacation because weve already paid a large portion of it.
For more information on the Disney Vacation Club, visit their web site at http://www.disneyvacationclub.com or visit Brian Bennetts web site at http://hometown.aol.com/DVClubber/dvchome.htm. Brian is DVC member and his site has lots of helpful info.
In a traditional timeshare you purchase a week (or sometimes a particular week of the year) in a specific resort. While timeshares are generally considerably less expensive than staying at a comparable hotel, and while you are guaranteed a week in what might otherwise be a difficult area to book in to, there is an obvious trade-off in freedom of choice. Unless you know for a fact that you want to spend the same week in the same place every year, a timeshare can certainly be a mistake. That is why some of the most successful timeshares are in places like tropical resort areas and ski resorts.
Many timeshares offer exchanges through timeshare exchange programs like Intervals International. (II). II allows you to place your week into a pool with a lot of other weeks at other timeshares so that you can trade your week on the beach in the July with someone elses week in Vermont in February. Sounds great, right? Well, there is one catch. In order for you to trade out, someone else has to request a week in the resort you have ownership in. So II isnt going to work well for you unless you have an ownership interest in a popular timeshare.
Disneys Vacation Club (DVC) does it differently. Instead of getting a week (or longer) in a specific resort, you get "vacation points". These points can be traded for stays at a number of places. First, you can stay at any of the 4 DVC properties (Disneys Boardwalk Villas and Old Key West Resort at Walt Disney World, Disneys Vero Beach Resort or Disneys Hilton Head Resort). Next, you can use your points to stay at most of Disneys resort hotels at Walt Disney World, Disneyland or Disneyland Paris (although the exchange rate is much more attractive at the DVC resorts). You can also exchange for several other high-end resorts like the Plaza in New York or Shutters in Santa Monica. There are also "adventure excursions" like white water rafting. Or you can choose a cruise on Holland America or the Disney Cruise line.
You can also exchange your points for a week at another property through Intervals International. You will remember the caveat I pointed out about II, but 3 things make it work well for DVC. 1) you dont own a specific week, so you dont have to worry about that, 2) DVCs excellent Member Services department takes care of the details and 3) DVC properties are among the most in demand, with II waiting lists common. You still have to deal with the fact that someone at the timeshare you are requesting has to give up their week, but your odds are much better.
So, you may ask, how much is a "vacation point" worth? Hard to say, but in 1999 dollars I use a guideline amount of $10 per point per year. This guideline helps me to decide whether trading points for staying at a specific hotel for a specific night is worth it. For instance, if were staying in a room that would cost $200 per night if we paid cash but is only 15 points, thats a good deal. But if its 40 points, we might reconsider.
DVBR has several types of rooms. The largest are the 3 bedroom Beach Cottages, which sleep up to 12 and are stand-alone structures. There are 6 of these cottages; one is used as a model. There are also 4 "Vacation Homes", each of which house several Studio, One Bedroom, Two Bedroom and Studio units. Actually there are only One Bedrooms and Studios, as the two are attached to make the Two Bedroom units. The main building, which houses the restaurants and the lobby, also boasts over 80 "Inn Rooms". These rooms are a tad smaller than the Studios and with a more conventional hotel room configuration.
Our room was a Studio (room 1417 in vacation home 14) on the ground floor. Most DVC rooms are larger than most traditional hotel rooms although the studios are what I would consider about the size of a larger than usual hotel room. There was a queen-size bed and a sofa with a pull-out bed. The bathroom wasnt bad (though not *nearly* as nice as the master bathrooms in the 1 bedroom units with their Jacuzzi tubs), and there was a small refrigerator and microwave. There was a TV in a hutch with drawers and more drawers in a small dresser next to the bed. One of my biggest complaints about the room was the lack of drawer space. Not nearly enough for 2 adults and 2 kids. I think this is because the room was designed more as the 2nd bedroom in a 2 bedroom unit. The room was tastefully appointed, with pale pink walls (one wall was a pale blue) and nice details. It was a bit cramped for the four of us over 6 days, but a nice room overall.
The room also had a small patio. Being on the ground floor, when we first arrived it seemed a little claustrophobic because it was surrounded by tall plants. It just so happened that the ground-keeping staff arrived on our second day there and trimmed the plants back, and the claustrophobia was replaced by a lack of privacy - or light. You see, the bulk of the light for the room came through the glass door that opened to the patio, and if we wanted any privacy we had to pull the shade down. Oh well, thats what comes of requesting a ground floor room (Andies preference, not mine).
Being a timeshare property, the services are somewhat different than you would find in a regular hotel. The main difference is you dont get daily maid service. Much of the hotel is occupied by people who paid cash and are not members of DVC (referred to as "guests" as opposed to "members" - guests account for about half of the people who stay at DVBR according to one employee (or "Cast Member", using Disneys parlance), and I assume the "guests" get full maid service. You do get "Trash & Towel" service every few days. This amounts to someone coming to your room and emptying the trash and replacing the towels. We found this to be perfectly acceptable - we always thought of daily maid service at hotels as overkill anyway. With a baby in diapers I will admit that the trash gets a bit ripe - we ended up emptying it ourselves. In the future I think well bring small trash bags to put the dirty diapers in before putting them in the trash.
The pool at DVBR, for us at any rate, was the resorts main attraction. Like most pools at Disney resorts its very kid friendly. Most of the pool, which is shaped somewhat like Mickey Mouse, is shallow enough for a 5-year old to stand with their head above water. The deepest portions are about 5 feet deep, shallow enough for a parent (or a dad, at least) to stand while holding kids. Another thing Ive noticed about pools at Disney resorts are the lifeguards. Its not just that they are always on duty, its the way theyre on duty. To begin with, I noticed that no single lifeguard ever seemed to be on "active duty" for more than about an hour (although I wasnt exactly standing there with a stopwatch). Good thing, too, because the lifeguards on active duty are extremely alert and attentive, constantly scanning the pool for possible trouble or (more often) people breaking the rules ("Please do not hang on the rim of the basketball hoop - Thank you", "Please come down the slide one at a time - Thank you").
The pool also has a deceptively tame looking waterslide. Its built as a tower structure on the pools south side with the slide circling the tower and emptying into the pool. To begin with, I think Disney used their old "forced perception" trick in reverse. From the ground the tower doesnt look that tall, but once youre inside and you climb the spiral staircase in the tower to the top, you realize how high up you are. The view from there of the ocean and resort is really quite nice. Coming down the slide I was very surprised what a wild ride it is. (I wouldnt want to discourage anyone who doesnt like wild rides, so Ill point out that I usually came down the slide lying on my back. If you come down in a sitting position the ride is much tamer. Natalie came down the slide many times - usually sitting up - and had no problem.) If you go to DVBR, the waterslide is an absolute must.
One problem with the pool is that people tend to "stake out" claims on lounges early in the day by placing their stuff on them when they dont intend to use them for a while. While I found this annoying, I must admit that we did it too. If we hadnt, we would have had a hard time finding a good spot. In our defense, we got to the lounges within an hour or so of staking our claim while some seemed to go unoccupied for hours. On the other hand, there are plenty of lounges by the pool and I dont recall seeing anyone sitting on the ground for want of a lounge chair.
For those who prefer their water as God intended, the beach at DVBR is quite nice as well. I must admit that we didnt really spend much time on the beach. The surf was a bit rough and, as it was late Winter/early Spring, the water was cold. With two small kids to worry about, the controlled (and heated) environment of the pool held much more appeal. One thing I will say about the beach, its a shell collectors heaven. Ive never seen a beach with so many shells. Andie and Nat amassed an impressive collection.
Besides the pool and beach there are a lot of family-oriented activities available at the resort. In the pool area there is a sauna, well-equipped workout room and masseuse. Near the pool is a sandy "tot area" and a surprisingly challenging 9 hole miniature golf course with decorations inspired by the history and environment of Vero Beach (one hole has a broken ships mast, another a cannon, another alligators, one with sharks, etc.) There is also a pirate ship called The Tiger Lilly with water spraying from its masts and a small slide. There is a sign posted nearby announcing that the Tiger Lilly is for the use of children 5 and under. Charlie was a bit dubious, but Nat loved it.
There are organized activities for the kids throughout the day. Many are informal and seemingly spontaneous (contests to see who can retrieve the largest number of plastic fish from the pool and the like) and some are more organized but still free (scavenger hunts, etc.) There are also organized activities for small children, most appeared to be crafts oriented. For a fee, there is Disney Discovery Club (2DC) for kids 4 to 10 (or possibly 12). These organized evening activities run from 6 PM to 9 several nights a week. We signed Nat up for 2DC on Monday, but she decided not to go. Its a pity, I think she would have enjoyed it.
Across the highway - and connected to the main resort complex by an underpass walkway tunnel - is an annexed area containing tennis & basketball courts and a nature trail named The 100 Acre Wood. Its a nice place for a cool walk in a wooded area. We rode bicycles over there. If you use a bike from Eb & Flos, be sure to check it out first. I was nearly unable to ride the one I got. One word of warning: the ground had a lot of soot on it from campfires held nearby - and from what looked like burning to clear a trail - and your feet or shoes get very dirty. Leave the white pumps in your room.
We did participate in the campfire on Monday night - a lot of fun in a silly sort of way. Nat & I also participated in a scavenger hunt. I thought we did pretty well, though we werent one of the winning teams. The home base for most of the resort activities is "Eb & Flos", which is near the pool. This is where you get any equipment you need and sign up for various activities. Much of what they offer is free, and the things they did charge for are reasonably priced (Golf clubs for mini golf are $3, $1 for DVC members as an example).
The resort boasts 2 very nice restaurants, Shutters and Sonyas. Shutters is casual and Sonyas is more up-scale, though far from formal. There is also a pool-side bar/snack bar called Bleachers and a lounge in the main building with a stunning ocean view called the Green Cabin Room. As we were staying in a studio and didnt have a kitchen, we ate nearly all of our meals at one of these establishments. This increased the cost of our stay substantially, as they are not cheap places to eat. The prices for kids meals (all that we ever ordered) at Bleachers arent too bad, but Shutters has your standard (read too high) hotel restaurant prices and Sonyas is a little more expensive.
Here are our thoughts on the various eating establishments:
The frozen drinks from Bleachers are quite good, and of course the atmosphere didnt hurt. Each day they have a "drink of the day", but the only one we tried was a Citron Absolut Lemonade Slushy. The lemonade slushys - a regular on the menu - are quite good and, as you can imagine, adding vodka didnt hurt much. The kids meals, served in a plastic beach pail, are also pretty good and actually quite filling for an adult (especially when, like us, youre having huge breakfast and dinners). All we ordered were chicken strips and grilled cheese sandwiches. They were served with fresh fruit (grapes when we were there) and quite yummy cookies.
Shutters is a wonderful place for breakfast and a decent place for lunch. The dinner menu is fairly daring - but not too - and, as is often the case with resort restaurants in general and Disney restaurants in particular, the execution was not as good as the conception. Breakfast at Shutters, on the other hand, I cant recommend highly enough. Here is a breakdown of various things we ordered from Shutters:
Mushroom omelet - Andie was impressed that they used fresh herbs Eggs Benedict - A "special" (not on the regular menu). Made with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes added to the hollandaise sauce. Absolutely wonderful Mickey Waffles - Need I say more? French Toast - Thick slices of cinnamon swirled bread dipped in egg batter and deep-fried. My arteries are hardening just thinking about it. Absolutely awesome. The best French toast Ive ever had.
Conch fritters - unusual and tasty. Black bean chorizo soup - really good. One of the best things on their (non-breakfast) menu. Caesar salad - too mayonnaise-y & heavy Pasta dish - I forget exactly what it was but Andie called it "pretty good". Jerk steak sandwich - Pretty good, but steak was a bit tough.
One note on the kids meals. Charlie had a PB&J sandwich the one time we had lunch at Shutters. The sandwich was trimmed by a cookie-cutter into three round sections strategically arranged to resemble a certain mouse. The bread was your standard white bread - except it was anything but white. Instead it was a psychedelic swirl of bright blue red and yellow. Very weird - but pretty cool. Being the thrill seeking kind of cat I am, I took a bite. It tasted like bread. Our server Chuck told us that Disney was using the bread as a new standard for all the Walt Disney World restaurants.
We had reservations for Sonyas on Wednesday Night. This turned out to be fortuitous because DVC members get a 10% discount on Wednesdays. This was Andies and my one grownup night out - we hired a baby-sitter through the hotels guest services for the evening. Sonyas is, in reality, simply an extra dining room off Shutters. In fact its only entrance is through Shutters. The dining room has a more elegant feel, with dark wood and stained glass. Its still quite casual, though. You would feel equally out of place here in an evening gown as shorts and a T-shirt. The service was good and the food quite pleasing. Fresh bread was delivered to our table with an assortment of flavored butter - a nice touch. Andie had steak and I had roast duck. Normally I wouldnt dare order duck at a place like this - its too easy to get wrong - but, after seeing them roasting on a spit on the way in I couldnt resist. I wasnt disappointed. For dessert Andie had Coconut Creme Brulee and I had an Apple Tart. Both were delicious.
Before our dinner at Sonyas we had drinks and appetizers in the Green Cabin Room, a bar and lounge on the second floor of the lobby with a magnificent view of the ocean. Mother Nature was cooperative and provided us with an absolutely stunning sunset as we enjoyed our drinks. I highly recommend a sunset drink here. Kids are allowed so if you dont have a baby-sitter you can still enjoy the view.
We also had one dinner at a restaurant in Vero Beach called Mr. Manatees. This is a bright, fun family oriented seafood restaurant with good prices and great food. Andie has deep fried shrimp with coconut (I tried it and loved it, and Im not a big fan of shrimp), while I had fried oysters.