Pat Elliott -- September 2002 -- Walt Disney World (Downtown Disney Hotel)
Pat: Mastermind and budget manager
September 20, BWI to MCO via Airtran, hopefully arrive early enough for 7:45 PS at
Rose and Crown and Illuminations on the porch.
Preface: This trip was relatively late-planned. We'd been for ten days last October (2002), and I'd just been in June for a week on business, but felt I needed more. Amy, as I like to say, wants the world, doesn't want to pay for it, and figured since I was the one who said "you know, we could go to Disney for my 40th birthday," decided I'd volunteered to be budgetary manager. Our goal: One week in Disney at a decent hotel, rental car, flight, and tickets on a grand.
Helpful in this matter were two leftover days from last year's passes. Also, I received two "after 4" passes to EPCOT during the business trip in June and saved those. They're good through December 2002. So tickets are in the bag.
We began planning in June. Airtran had $49 per leg rates. Amy had a seminar from September 16-20 in Baltimore and couldn't determine if she could get out of Friday's sessions or not, so we scheduled a 5:30 PM flight out of BWI, which kind of stinks. But ok. Total cost including all fees, $252.
Hotel: We really wanted to stay again at the Courtyard at Little Lake Bryan, but their rates don't fall in the bonus-trip-budget. After many hours on www.biddingfortravel.com, I decide to try the Priceline routine. I achieved the Best Western Lake Buena Vista at Downtown Disney. After some checking, I found some positive and some negative reviews, but it sounded like a good deal at $30 per night. I later saw people getting the same room at $25. C'est la vie.
Finally, I spent all summer checking a multitude of rental car sources and finally decided to give out my CC# when Americar came up with a weekly rate of $68.79 for a compact. Probably a Geo, but it will do. Figured $100 for the week with fees.
We can buy all tickets we don't already have at the Shades of Green ticket office (Amy is a Department of Defense employee), including Typhoon Lagoon passes for $60 and two tickets to Pleasure Island for $26. Thank you Uncle Sam, we're under our budget with about $300 left for food (note: drinks not included in the grand, thankfully). Stay tuned for my book, "I did Disney on seven dollars and eighteen cents." Wife wasn't impressed.
On September 3 (16 days and counting!) and Amy achieved permission to miss Friday's seminars, but we were stuck on a 5:30 PM flight. There was an 8:30 AM flight, but a $50 per ticket fee for changes, plus the ticket increase, and the 8:30 flight, which back in June was only $98 RT, rose to $229 per. So we decided to try standby, as Airtran is one of the last to offer this service free. We're shipped a large piece of luggage down on Monday, and used only carry-on for the trip down. We began wondering, can we get on a flight early enough to make EPCOT by 4 PM, and will it be worth it? Knock on wood. Knock hard.
Thursday, September 19th: After work, I drove to Timonium, MD, where Amy had a hotel room for the night. I called Airtran at 8 PM and they informed me that there were 8 seats on the 8:30 plane. That's pushing it, but we decided to head down to the airport at 5 AM or so. As we tried to sleep, the Travel Channel was showing its Animal Kingdom Lodge special. Although we found this exciting, we spent far more of the evening staring at the weather channel's tracking of Hurricane Isidor. Somewhere around 11 PM, we shut off the lights and manage to fall asleep.
Friday, September 20: D-Day (Disney Day). I woke up at 3 AM. It took me thirty seconds to figure I wasn't getting back to sleep. Amy woke up, too. We checked the weather and found Isidor appears to be tracking NW towards Texas. Bad for Texas, good for us. After packing and locating coffee, we made the 30 minute drive from Timonium to BWI, parking in Satellite B, a fair rate at $7 per day with day seven free. The shuttle picked us up immediately.
Despite horror stories on the net regarding Airtran having long lines and one counter person, I found their line similar to others. They had four counter people available. After fifteen minutes, we reached the ticket booth, explained we wished to fly standby. This was a big moment: getting to Orlando at 10:30 meant an extra full day in Disney, including using our After 4 passes at EPCOT and having dinner at R&C. Taking our scheduled 5:30 PM flight meant getting to the hotel around 9 PM. Plus, not going to Epcot Friday would throw off my whole week's schedule. We held our breath.
The ticket agent informed me the plane was less than half full and rather than have us fly standby, he simply booked us through. I expected Airtran to be the "problem" this trip. How wrong I was. Small seats, non-interested flight attendants who tried, just not too hard. But we paid a very low price, we were able to catch a Friday AM standby, our plane was on time going up and coming down, and we were in Orlando by 10:20. Wife still wasn't impressed.
We both ducked in the rest room and changed into shorts, then spent two minutes reading the weather charts in the baggage area. Isidor, will she or won't she visit Disney the same time as I? We called the Americar shuttle and it was waiting when we reached the parking lot. We were in line at Americar, wearing shorts, by 10:45 AM. It is here my story takes a southern turn.
Amy and I go cheap on things that mean little to us, so that we can have good food and drink, which we consider essential. For the last several trips, I've pushed the envelope finding cheaper and cheaper rental cars. This trip I ripped the envelope, lit it on fire, buried the ashes in a six foot hole, filled the whole with cement, tore the cement out of the ground, loaded it on the space shuttle and launched it towards the Vega System. In short, I've finally found my flash point within the theory "you get what you pay for."
I'll try and summarize this carefully so as to give a review and not a diatribe. From what I saw, Payless and Americar are now the same people. They share a building, my contract was on "Payless/Americar" stationary, and the key chain said Payless on one side, Americar on the other. This is funny because I got scared of the cheap rate and almost paid $25 more for Payless at the last second because it was a "known entity." The hunch to get away from Americar was right on, but the potential solution would have been a good waste of $25.
The non-emotional view of Americar: Long lines when no one else had lines, due to people coming back and standing in line 2 and 3 times to go over problems with their car. This was precipitated by Americar/Payless policy to simply scare the living daylights out of customers so they would purchase waiver insurance. I am used to renting cars and signing many documents stating they can charge me what they want if there are problems: they can't. There are laws, and most credit cards have built in protection. Dodging the hard-sell of insurance is part of renting a discount car, but the problem here was the viciousness with which they performed this sales pitch.
They asked me what my deductible was, which is $500, then put a $500 hold on my credit card. I've never been asked to do this inside the continental US before. I was told to mark everything bigger than a quarter and given a 3 x 5 card. When I went to the car, it looked like a crushed beer can. I went back in and insisted that rather than write this all down, I'd simply like a representative to stand by the car while I videotaped it.
When I came back in, I found my wife in a frenzy. I am not susceptible to sales pitches. My wife, who for the record is smarter and more educated than I, is somewhat susceptible to the same. In the five minutes it took me to document damage to the car, the check-in lady had my wife convinced that Isidor had, in fact, taken a northeast turn and was now expected to slam into central Florida. She also tried to convince my wife that our collision didn't cover hurricanes. After asking my wife what hotel we'd booked, she told Amy that the Best Western LBV had a lot of trees around and should the hurricane hit the area, which it most certainly would in some form or another, cars in the BW LBV parking lot would be sitting ducks for flying limbs, and again, our insurance wouldn't cover it because it was a "natural disaster." I cannot describe the anger I felt at this folly.
Also, they promised me a "Geo Metro" or equivalent. I didn't worry about this originally. Our needs from a vacation car are little, just to get from the airport to hotel and back, out to shopping, and for our trip to CityWalk each vacation. We like having the car "in case" we want to take a day trip, mostly just for convenience. I prefer the smallest, most beat up thing on the lot, making it easy to park and perhaps something that turns off potential car-jackers. I figured NOTHING was smaller and worth less than a Metro. Ever heard of a Suzuki Swift? I'm not complaining about the car itself, it seemed like an OK car. But it's a three cylinder, not a four. And despite this, it seemed to get remarkably bad gas mileage. Regardless, it was hardly equivalent to a Metro. Someone emailed me and referred to it as "an electric roller skate," which about covers it.
Finally, I was told the gas tank contained 2/3rds a tank of gas and I only had to fill it 2/3rds full upon return. This is one of the most pathetic ploys I've ever seen. She pointed out to me that as the tank only holds 9 gallons, "it would probably be easier to just buy the tank." I wasn't going to do that, but obviously, filling a tank that small to exactly 2/3rds of a tank was impossible, so I filled it. It's not the money: it may have cost me an extra $3 to fill the thing. It's the principle.
Since I've now written the diatribe I promised to avoid, I'll simply say that as someone who's rented literally hundreds of cars, this is the most disappointing, angering, and probably illegal transaction I've ever had with a rental company. I'd also point out I checked them on the Better Business Bureau site and they rank as unsatisfactory for refusal to answer to complaints.
So I had to spend the next hour convincing my wife that our collision DID cover rental car damage, even if it was caused by an "act of God." I'll not complain to Americar. I don't wish to speak with them for sixty-two bucks. And although I'll be checking my CC bill for the next six months, they don't seem to have pulled anything fishy with the billing. But note: I'm so easily pleased that some people don't take my reviews of Orlando services serious. It takes a lot to tick me off. But these guys win the prize. Wife most definitely wasn't impressed.
Ok, enough complaining. Back to Disney!
We arrived at the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort at high noon. Agitated by the Americar exchange, I was tempted to just go hang out on the Boardwalk for a while, as I didn't feel like begging for an early check-in. But Amy asked me to try. They immediately put us into our desired room with a DTD view, between floors 8 and 10. Amy hates being up in a high-rise hotel, but we wanted the good view. Room 9008 was a good compromise.
I've stayed in everything from 5-star to flea bags. I'm not really sure where I put this hotel. At the price we paid, $30, I give it high ratings. At its rack rate for September, $129, I wouldn't touch it. At its discount rate of $69.95, I'd note it, but look for better deals. I guess I'd set the bar at $50. This is what I'd pay, value season, to stay here. But at $30, it was delightful. And the fifty bucks a night we saved over the Courtyard was well spent.
The rooms, as reported elsewhere, are kept clean but are worn. The carpets are thin and ragged. There was chipping paint on the balcony. There were little nagging things, like one closet door being difficult to open and a drawer being cracked. However, the room was large and clean. A hint for those trying this hotel in the future: attempt to get a DTD view above at least the 5th floor, and try to get a "corner room." Upon comparing with the Priceline customer next door, the rooms are a bit larger on the corners and the balcony is a full 1/3 larger.
The rest of the hotel falls somewhere in the vicinity of "resort," but I don't know if I'd compare it with the real thing. The entire bottom floor has been completely renovated, and it shows. The lobby has two stores: one for convenience, the other for Disney goods. We compared and the prices were the same here as at any Disney store. The "Parakeet Cafe" actually has two parakeets. They talk, whistle, and meow like a cat. Quite funny most of the time, although a bit startling when you're alone at 2 AM the first time you hear them meow.
In addition to the Parakeet, which serves basic snack-food, there is Traders, the full service restaurant and a bar/lounge. We did NOT try Traders, so the following is second hand information, but the breakfast buffet looked and smelled pretty nice. Those who tried it were saying nice things. It's a basic pastry/bagel, cereal, plus full egg/sausage/bacon/potato, etc., festival. Of course, they have Mickey Mouse waffles. And at $4.99 it was a real good bargain. Warning: the $4.99 includes no drinks. On a down note, Toppers was closed for renovations. We were sorry to miss the chance to see Illuminations from the top floor. But seeing how beautiful the lobby area was reminds one of the need and value of occasional shutdowns.
The pool and bar area were a highlight for us. I found the pool to be quite clean and adequate. However, I wonder if it were a busy season if I'd say the same. The pool seemed a bit small for a 350+ room hotel. However, when it's you, your wife, and two other couples, it's a mighty fine pool. The bar, if you're into such things, as we are, had good snacks (we were able to get kitchen food as late as 11 PM), deals on drinks, and several couches inside around a large-screen TV, a nice touch.
Next, we headed to the Super Wal-Mart by Mediaeval Times. Always a harrowing experience, but not bad on a Friday in September. We retrieved some simple breakfast foods, a cheap Styrofoam cooler, plus some adult beverages for late night on the balcony. We also grabbed two bottles of Dr Thunder. It's nice to have a touch of home.
At 3:15, we headed to the Boardwalk. With our after-4 passes not useable for another half hour, we ducked into the ESPN Club. Quite empty late Friday afternoon, we were able to ogle the many autographs and pieces of memorabilia. My theme for this trip, in retrospect: get to places when others aren't there. There isn't as much to do, but lots to see.
Before going on, I'll explain my personal rating system, a 10-point system somewhat stolen from the folks at Passporter, who's opinion I value greatly. First, value. Is the quantity and quality of whatever, along with the service, worth the price I pay. Second, Magic. We live a short shot from Hershey Park, Knoble's Grove, and Kennywood, all large Pennsylvania parks. And we can be to Kings Island Cincinnati, Great Adventure New Jersey, and Kings Dominion within 3 to 5 hours. Why do we go 1,200 miles to Disney? Because when we enter a Disney Park, a Disney Resort, or a Disney-based restaurant, the world transforms and we're taken away to somewhere else, forgetting the real world exists. That's the Magic. People often ask me why I keep going to Disney since I've been there so many times. My reply: Disney is not like a movie you get bored with. It's like a favorite food you crave.
With that in mind, I give ESPN a 5 on value, a 3 on Magic. It's basically a big-old sports bar. I'm a lover of cold beer and bar food. The nachos, at $6.99, were tasty and priced fairly. The beer was priced fairly. In other words, nothing special, but nothing to complain about. That's where I get my five. As for the 3 on the Magic scale, seeing the memorabilia on the walls was cool. And after years of watching "The Zone" on ESPN, it was neat to see the broadcast booth. But in the end, it was only neat. Neat keeps them from getting a 1, but not much more.
On to EPCOT. The crowds were light, and in what was to be the weather theme for the week, it kept looking like Armageddon, then the sun would come out. I was informed that not only was this typical of a September, but was pretty much the pattern the previous 90 days. Being the pasty white red-head, I found it extremely hot. The wife, a full-blooded sun worshiper, smiled with anticipation. The first night we did very little, in anticipation of our PS at R&C. We didn't want to be late. But in order to get "in the mood," we spent 45 minute in the UK. As we listened to the British Invasion, the first thing I notice is there are a LOT of characters. This would continue throughout the trip. If you've never done so, find out when the British Invasion is playing and go find a seat in the courtyard about twenty minutes early. Sit. Observe. Look at the buildings. If you've never been to London, this is quite a recreation. If you're from London, you know what I mean. And the British Invasion is quite good and authentic, complete with Rickenbacker guitars. Too bad they don't have a left-handed bass player.
Next we spent a little time in Canada, normally one of our favorite stops here, but it was under renovation and wasn't the most appealing thing. This would be another theme throughout the trip, with a lot of construction and several rides closed for repair. More on Canada later, tonight we simply "breezed by."
We headed down to Futureworld and rode Spaceship Earth twice, then checked out Journey Into Your Imagination. Yeah, Figment! We missed ya. Next we rode the Land boat ride. This was the ONLY time we had to use Fast Pass the entire trip. My wife, a biologist, always loves the Land. For those who've never visited The Land, it's an amazing look at current food-producing technology, as well as a brief "ride" through recreated ecosystems. If you know the history of Walt's original EPCOT vision, this is one of the few attractions that encompasses some of his original intent.
In Innoventions we sent email to family. There are kiosks here (and other places in the World) that allow you to take a picture and email it to family and friends. We always send a copy to ourselves, then launch it out to family later. Warning: it can take a month for your email to arrive.
Exiting Innoventions, we hit one of the few downpours we'd see in the parks. We found that with my umbrella and Amy's rain coat, it was no big deal, almost refreshing. Since most people were hanging out at the exit of their last ride, this gave the park to us, allowing us to walk right into a showing of "Honey I Shrunk the Audience." My opinion: rain in Disney shouldn't scare you. It's opportunity knocking. As the rain stopped and the sun came out, a wonderful rainbow formed over the Mission: Space pavilion, one of the most beautiful sites I've ever seen. It was a reminder that no matter how wonderful a WDW creation may be (and Mission: Space looks like a dandy), Mother Nature is the true magician. But it was one of five rainbows we would see over EPCOT, how delightful!
We watched a fountain show, then ran into the Ice Station Cool for some soda. Over the last several trips I've developed a fetish for Mezzo Mix. Here's hoping it comes to the states. If you've never been, ISC is sponsored by Coke, and has free tastes of soft drinks from around the world. Watch out for some of them. But Mezzo Mix is a German drink, sort of like Coke, but something all its own.
Afterwards, we accidentally discovered the talking fountain, which entertained us greatly. After over fifteen trips to EPCOT, I find it remarkable that I miss obvious things all the time, and that I can go in again and again and always see something new. We then started a clockwise trip around the World Showcase. We stopped to ride Rio del Tiempo in Mexico. It's one of our favorites. Mexico is a wonderful pavilion, and the Rio del Tiempo is an amazing ride, more than anything because it's so un-Disney like in some of its cheesiness, yet pulls it off. And there's nothing like pulling off in a boat during dinner hour and passing behind the full dining room, listening to the band.
From there we just had a leisurely stroll around the World, getting to the R&C at about 7:30. I then stood in a line of about fifteen people, all saying they'd like to request a lagoon-side table for dinner and Illuminations. I then sheepishly asked if I could have a lagoon-side table for Illuminations. The Brits are so darned polite, but my apologetic, pleasant counter man basically said "lots of luck, bloke." For some reason, while all of EPCOT stood 75% empty, the R&C was flowing capacity and the waiter admitted there were people showing up as early as 6:30 intending to stay for Illuminations and per their policy, the R&C would let them. So we ordered a Harp on the patio, hoped for the best, and waited.
At 8:00 (for a 7:40 PS, not bad when it's this crowded), my buzzer went off and they promptly took us to a lagoon-side table that simply had to be one of the two or three best seats in the blessed park for Illuminations. I love England!
As for the menu: Decent food, reasonable prices for sit-down. Our total bill was $80 and we were racking up quite a bar tab. We split a cheese and fruit platter, nothing special there but it was fresh. Amy, saving room for a milk-shake later, had the mushroom medley appetizer as her "main meal." For a small person like Amy, when combined with a shared appetizer and the Irish potato bread provided, this was more than enough food. I had the fish and chips and was quite happy. I received a large piece of cod, uniquely breaded, highly flavorful without being fishy or oily. Not to be dramatic, but it was easily the best fish I've ever had. Oh, the "chips" were, well, chips. Isn't much you can do wrong to a steak fry short of over-cooking it.
The ambience of this restaurant at night is fantastic. The waiters were knowledgeable, attentive, and festive. You lose a bit of the "English feel" by sitting outside, but the gains are worth it. Thanks to them and a pile of people who were mighty happy to be on the deck for Illuminations, it was a "party" atmosphere. We sat right above a canister launching the firework shot from the UK and could feel the heat when it blew. Illuminations from this vantage point, if you can get it, is bar far the best I've seen on this, my 14th viewing.
After the fireworks as the place was closing down, I sat at the empty bar while my wife got her things together. The stately English lady who'd been playing the piano all night came over, introduced herself, and just chatted for a while. In the end, I'm not sure if that's "what England is like," but it was pretty neat.
I give the R&C an 8 for value, but the Magic a 10. The value loses a bit, even though the fish was so good, because of limitations. There just isn't that much to choose from on their menu, but it helped that they had what we wanted! As for authenticity, we were surrounded by other customers who happened to be Brits (as seemed to be the case all over the World this week), and several were having a conversation about the CM's dress. It seemed to run from amused to appalled, but the general consensus was they hoped this wasn't how Americans thought they all dressed.
As for Magic, after a day that started in Timonium, MD, and involved airplanes, check-ins, several calls to work to put out fires, my adjustment to the humidity (always a challenge for a redhead), and the annoying experience with Americar, the R&C took me away. Spending a bit of time in the British Pavilion got us in the mood, and sipping Harp for a half hour prior to dinner sitting on a cast iron bench just put me, mentally, in the UK. The British wait staff is polite to a fault, and the Illuminations view gives you a certain pause that guarantees you are no longer anywhere but Disney. I seldom hand out 10s, but this place was a 10 on the Magic scale. Wife, finally, is impressed.
We sat at the R&C until about half an hour after Illuminations, then strolled down to Beaches and Cream so that Amy can confirm that milk shakes, like most things, taste better at Disney. Note: the lines at Beaches and Cream are by far the longest thing we've seen yet.
We head back to the hotel and pretty much drop dead. All in all, an excellent first day in Disney, Americar not withstanding.
Saturday September 21: We awake at 7:30 AM after a late night. We're foggy in the brain, but showers and in-room coffee get our motors running. Today we'll dedicate to MGM. At around 5, we'll take a deep breath and head to MK. Although we've heard horror stories about Saturdays, even in September, we've never, NEVER seen Fantasy in the Sky. Pretty sad for Disney-holics.
We ran past the BW LBV breakfast bar and noted that it's a lot of food for five bucks. We were just too rushed (and still full of fish and Harp), so we decided to do it the next day, Sunday. We got in our Suzuki Swift and drove to MGM, hearing the forecast along the way: partly cloudy with intermittent showers. The day would bring morning sun, clouds most of the afternoon, with a lovely, clear evening, a perfect mix. Amy got the heat and morning sun exposure, which she loves, but I didn't have to slather on coats of SPF 30 every fifteen minutes in the afternoon. However, it was HOT, at least when you left a rainy, 60 degree Central PA 24 hours before.
A side note on the "best discovery of the trip:" Brita water bottles. Come on, be honest, Florida water makes you gag. I read about the Brita portable bottle on several discussion boards. It looks like a normal "sport' bottle, only it has a replaceable charcoal filter. I'll never, ever go to Orlando without one again. I've heard of them being as low as $2.99 on special, but we paid $7.99 at Wal-Mart, which includes one filter. They say the filter will last for about a year or five gallons. I consider these two separate standards. But the last day, the water was still ok. So certainly, a filter will last two people through a week at Disney.
MGM was DELIGHTFULLY uncrowded for a Saturday. I rode both the R&RC and TOT (twice) with a five minute wait on standby. Note: Never, stand too close to the turkey leg stand after doing this. Nausea is a nasty thing.
There was 25 minutes until first session of "Millionaire," and although the line was already forming, park crowds didn't seem to dictate wasting 25 minutes, so we headed to "One Man's Dream." We'd seen the film several times and choose instead to view the exhibits. On this trip, we spent far more park time "observing" rather than "riding." The exhibits in OMD are unbelievable, from Walt's childhood desk to the scale models of Disney castles worldwide. After 20 minutes, we walked over to Millionaire and found about 20 people in line as the doors opened. Not waiting was a smart move. A young lady from Florida went to the 500,000 point mark. Although she missed the million point question, it was quite exciting. Briefly, after game two, my name showed up in the top ten. Wife was impressed.
We next visited our favorite attraction in MGM, the Great Movie Ride. Although this was a walk-on, we sat in the corner of the pre-show area and watched trailers for ten minutes while having a snack. I love the old-fashioned theater and the trailers are gems, an excellent example of Disney taking the sting out of waiting by making the wait itself "an experience."
As of 12:30, we've done most of what we came to do, including the Muppets, the Magic of Disney Animation, and Amy's annual 20 minutes in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground. This is something a 5 foot, hundred pound woman can pull off. Like most parents, I simply find some shade, something to lean against, and film "my little one."
At 1 PM we went to our PS at the 50's Prime Time. Every time we come to Disney, Amy has a shake from the PT, usually several. But we've never sat down for a meal. We did this in place of our favorite "theme" restaurant, the Sci Fi. My past rating for the Sci Fi, by the way, is a 2 for value and a 9 for magic. We've really enjoyed the theme of the Sci Fi, but hated the food (although the milkshakes, according to the milkshake Queen, are the same at both places). I'd read so much about the 'act' at the PT, I had to see it.
What a joy! This restaurant would be almost a negative for those who aren't "into it." We'd only been in the lounge before, which has a bar and waiting areas made to look like 50s era living rooms, complete with old B&W TVs playing '50s clips. This time, there were a pair of roving entertainers, something we'd never seen before, to keep those waiting entertained and interested. All at once, a hostess screams "Elliotts, time to eat." She then admonished my wife for forgetting to return the menu she'd borrowed to look at ahead of time, complaining that "you kids never put things back when you borrow them."
The waitress sat us and made me set the table. She read us the specials, of course pointing out there were some pretty good desserts we could order if we finished our vegetables. Amy, having not read the reviews I'd provided her on the plane, repeatedly got yelled at for putting her elbows on the table. Also, when she asked for gravy on her fries, she forgot to say "please."
The food: I'd originally wanted to try the meatloaf, but saw the turkey sandwich on another table and had to have it, along with the chicken noodle soup. The soup was, in fact, so reminiscent of my mother's, I could almost smell her perfume and see her '60s beehive hair. The turkey sandwich was very, very good, and the chips that came with it were unique. Still, it was a turkey sandwich, nothing special. No complaints, but the meatloaf would have fit the theme more. My fault. But the chicken soup fit the theme.
Amy had the BBQ chicken sandwich with fries. This was surprisingly good. On a trip filled with choice meats, exotic beers, and sinful deserts, the fries with gravy may have been the highlight. I'm not joking! Get the fries with gravy! And to boot, I got yelled at by Angel for stealing food off Amy's plate and was forced to apologize, standing up, in front of "the entire family." Never mind that Amy offered the sandwich on her own! In short, the food was pretty darned good. And look for those fries.
The dining area was all chrome and vinyl. I really, really enjoyed the synergy between the cast members. I've read that some are into it, some aren't, but on this day they were putting on quite a show. We had two busboys in our area, and they kept playing off each other. When one lady at another table was caught "stealing" from her husband's plate and claimed (as I would have, thank heavens I didn't try) that her husband had offered it to her. She was immediately labeled a snitch and forced to stand with her nose against the wall. When the busboy left, I figured it was over, as did she. As she tried to return to her seat -- twice -- both a waitress and another busboy made her go back because she hadn't been given permission to return to her table. Finally, after several minutes, this good sport was forced to sing, with motions, "I'm a Little Tea Pot." She was rewarded with a cupcake and allowed to return to her table.
Unfortunately, some people don't like this type of entertainment. The place was about 90% into it. The 10% that weren't seemed really angry about the whole thing. One guy is actually yelling "for ten bucks a plate, I'll put my elbows where I damn well please," yada yada yada. I imagine some people can get pretty tired at Disney. But do the rest of us a favor: if you aren't into the show, stay away from the PT. Grab a turkey leg.
Ratings: For value, a 7, for decent food, decent prices. That might have been a ten if we'd picked food more "in theme," but nonetheless, the food didn't take me to another dimension. But a 10+ bonus score for the fries and gravy! For magic, a 9. I'm not sure the place could earn a 10 unless all the patrons were into it. The grumping from others kept reminding me where I was. But it was a solid 9, pure Disney.
After lunch, we went back to One Man's Dream and looked some more, then just strolled around and enjoyed the sites. As previously mentioned, I find myself spending a lot of this trip just gazing with wonder at the detail of each park. If you're a vet and have ridden every ride a dozen times, do yourself a favor one time. Set a small attraction agenda, and just watch. As someone who is thus far unable to have children, I'll never see anything as precious as the smile on a child's face upon seeing Pooh coming toward them with open arms.
And man, are there a lot of characters out this trip.
Around 4 PM, we exit the park. We take a Friendship to the Boardwalk and head over to ESPN intending to have a beer and catch the score of the Penn State/Louisiana Tech game. Fat chance. With Florida and Florida State playing and Miami upcoming, the ESPN Club is packed to the rafters with folks who probably won't make room for a Penn Stater. So we go to the car and catch the score on the radio. And we won! Go Big Blue!
It is with a deep breath we head over to MK. We HATE lines, we HATE crowds, and we aren't particularly fans of the more child-oriented parades. And by the way, we HATE crowds and we HATE lines. But in numerous WDW trips, we've NEVER seen Fantasy in the Sky. We decide to trudge forth, attempt to ride a ride or two, then stake out a spot and take turns going to eat. We also decide that rather than get into the cattle call at the end of the night, we'll just hang for a while until the crowds die down because, in case I didn't mention it, we HATE lines and we HATE crowds.
Not since 2000, when we went in June, have I seen such crowds. Main Street is a madhouse. We head to Tomorrowland. and are surprised to find only a twenty minute wait on Space Mountain. Space Mountain's exterior is under construction and the Fastpass is shutdown. It appears the relatively small wait is due to people thinking the attraction is closed. Still, the 20 minute wait was the longest we'd have this trip, although we'd have waited longer on other rides this night. We note that as we get older, Space Mountain, where it used to seem tame, now seems a bit faster and a bit bumpier.
Note: COP and TK are both closed for the season. Big Bummer. We head next to the Haunted Mansion and it, too, is closed. We knew this (announced renovations), but thought it would reopen today (9/21). With lines, lines everywhere, we simply bag trying to get on an attraction, especially after we find 40 minute standbys on Big Thunder and Pirates of the Caribbean.
After surveying the park, we decide to stand on the bridge perpendicular to the bridge between the Castle hub and Liberty Square, as it's right along the Spectromagic route and has an unobstructed view of the castle. We're leaning against a water fountain, which is nice. Amy holds the spot while I run off to find food.
After cruising the carts for a while, I decide on the Columbia Harbour House. The line is a bit long, but only about ten minutes. I grab a "Captains Choice," two pieces each of fish and chicken with fries, an extra fry, and a pair of sodas. The total is about $13. I eat the fish and fries in the restaurant, then take the chicken and extra fries to Amy. The restaurant has plenty of open tables due to people claiming parade-route spots. The fish is very good for fast food, and the fries, like most Disney fries, are adequate. Value rating, a 5, for decent quantity and quality with a fair price. Magic, a 1. It reminded me of going to a really upscale McDonald's and it managed to pull off the unlikely trick of making me forget I was in Disney. For a second, I thought I was at work and on lunch break.
I get back to Amy and find she's been surrounded by a group of Brits. I make a note that, between the three parks over the past two days, as Caucasians Americans, we are in the minority. There's an enormous amount of people from the UK (perhaps the reason R&C was so crazy last night?) and a mix of other various nationalities. Afraid of offending our new friends from across the pond, I don't ask, but I wonder why. Their school year could be different, perhaps? Anyway, we have a nice chat and I get a hilarious exchange with them. They ask about my Brita filtered water bottle, which they've never seen. I explain it to them, and ask "isn't the water down here terrible?" They all look at each other with a knowing glance, then almost sarcastically say "oh, we never drink the water when we come to America." Hilarious!
Spectromagic is pretty neat. Lot's of lights and music. We've always avoided the evening parade and used that time to enjoy deserted sections of the park. The folks that show up late need to show a little courtesy -- trust me, once I'm leaning over the bridge and my wife is pretty much sitting in my pants pocket, can't make anymore room. But our view ended up being excellent. I really, really, enjoyed the parade, which surprised me. Lot's of lights, sites, and sounds.
We waited 45 minutes for the fireworks. I saw, and taped, Tink coming out of the castle, an exciting moment that is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO Disney. But then the other shoe landed. Never, ever come to the left side of the castle and expect to see the fireworks. I'd never read this on-line despite much research. The fireworks from this angle are so far from the castle they aren't just not over it, you couldn't see the castle and the fireworks at the same time. Bummer. Without the castle beneath them, the fireworks are just fireworks. Put up with Main Street, or get to the right of the castle.
So we headed off sure we'd wasted four hours of vacation and hopper time, as we'd been able to ride only Space Mountain and did a lot of sitting around for a lousy view of the fireworks and some very good McDonald's food. But as always, things happen for a reason. In the spirit of taking the time to see and appreciate not just the rides, but the park itself, Amy and I went against the grain and headed to the back of the park. We passed the Haunted Mansion, where two CMs informed us the Mansion would reopen the next day, meaning we'd see it Wednesday. Yeah!
We headed behind the Carrousel and were finally picked off by a CM and a rope around Toontown. The CM directed us to the Castle. But from the back of the castle forward, they weren't rushing people. What a wonderful, Magical place! I'd always admired the changing color of the castle, but alone on the side steps I could sit and watch the hundreds of lights changing and I even thought I could hear the clicking of the mechanisms making them do so.
Tomorrowland was partially lit, partially asleep, giving it a character all its own. We took our time and got to the front of the castle. There were maybe a hundred people there, a mighty small amount compared to normal. We are able to take wonderful photos both towards the castle and down Main Street. There was a certain wonder and camaraderie amongst those of us remaining, calmly taking turns with the photo ops and enjoying each others company. The best part was descending down the steps to the right of the castle. We were the only one's there! Amy, who has a driving need to go where she's not allowed, walked out on the rocks past the barrier, coming inches from falling down the waterfall. Stupid, but it made a great picture. All the while, the fantastic music is blasting through the park.
You can't describe it, so if you never tried it, try it. You'll see what I mean. When people such as myself give "Magic Ratings," this is what we're comparing it to.
Unlike the upper part of the park, Main Street was hopping. I managed to find a Coke. Amy had me sit with Walt and Mickey while she did a bit of last-second shopping. Never sit with Walt unless you want to be the designated photographer! Of course I didn't mind. I think I took seven or eight pictures. And Walt and Mickey kept smiling! Although I hated the evening coming to an end, I had to grab Amy at 10:30 lest we miss the final tram and have to walk all the way to the back of the parking lot. We took the Ferry, which was still running, and said goodnight to MK. We drove back to the BW and waved to Pleasure Island, which we'd see soon. At the hotel, while Amy took a bath, I sipped a beer on the patio and admired the distant glow of the Contemporary. It looks better from afar!
Sunday, September 22nd
A scheduled "off day," meaning no parks. Tonight we're off to Pleasure Island, but the rest of the day is provisional. We woke up around 8:30 AM, a treat for us. We'd fully planned to try the BW breakfast buffet, but early in the morning, we were just too stuffed from two days of indulgence to think about it. We had a light breakfast of yogurt and granola then head to the pool, which we have to share with only two other couples. As with Saturday, the sun is very strong in the morning, too much so for red-haired me. Amy is in heaven. I sit in the shade and try to sleep. I feel lethargic. I go back to the room and try to sleep, but feel more lethargic. I finally do the only thing that makes sense and head for the hotel gym. It's very small, but very nice. A small universal weight set, two stationary bikes and two treadmills, all brand new. I'm assuming this is totally new, as in three months before the hotel was advertised as having privileges at the gym next door. Amy joins me and we find that exercise does NOT ruin a vacation.
Energized, we went to the Shades of Green office in the Contemporary and purchased tickets for both Pleasure Island tonight and Typhoon Lagoon tomorrow. The prices were up, $18 each for PI and $30 for TL. Both were minor savings, but we later noticed that the PI ticket office is selling tickets for $19.95, plus the usual (though not guaranteed) $5 for a five night ticket. We'd have preferred five-night tickets, an option not available with SOG purchase. If we'd have only known. Note: no tax to those eligible for SOG purchases, which is more savings.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in DTD, to shop and whet our appetite for PI. We had a pizza at Wolfgang Pucks. For $7.95 we were given what looked like a ten-inch pie loaded with sausage, onion, mushroom, and green peppers. I though it was the best pizza I'd ever tasted, but Amy's still wanted Pizzaria Uno. Wolfgang Pucks Express gets no magic rating, but a 6 for value.
Next stop, Rainforest Café. Amy can't get enough of this place. I sat at the bar and had a beer. The bar stools all look like the back end of animals. The entire motif is, of course, Rainforest, and they create a storm, complete with thunder, lightening, and chest- beating gorillas. It's really quite the spectacle.
The RC seemed quite empty, and all of the sudden the restaurant was teaming with people. I noticed we'd finally been caught in a driving rainstorm. I found it funny that people over-ran the Rainforest Café to avoid a storm. Amy joined me at the bar and ordered banana cheesecake for her desert, a nice portion of cake with some fruit and a cheese sauce, a nice presentation (at $6.95). Amy, a self-proclaimed cheesecake expert, was impressed. I give the restaurant a 5 for value, based on not ordering much but thinking to myself "them's some mighty high prices for entrees." For a non-park restaurant, I give it a relatively high 7.5 for magic. I'd have given it an 8, but that's what I gave the RC outside Animal Kingdom last year, and I subtract a half a point for not being located next to a park!
The storm finally let up. We spent half an hour in Pooh Corner remembering why Disney is the greatest place on earth: because it's for the kid in everyone. Ditto Disney's Days of Christmas, as well as the Lego Store. We then headed to Pleasure Island for a preview. I don't remember the Wildhorse Saloon, wonder if it's new. But the most important thing is the Adventurers Club was there and waiting for us.
Our last stop was the World of Disney. Best I can tell, this is the largest Disney store in Orlando, although Mousegear is close. Either way, as DTD residents for the week, we had no delivery privileges at the park and choose to do all our shopping here, a quarter mile from the hotel. Note to the non-informed, most of the pricing seems to be the same at any Disney or Disney-authorized property, so buy stuff where it's convenient. But the selection in the DTD store was incredible. We dropped a few bucks on some neat stuff: a Mickey Mouse watch for my sister-in-law, to replace the one she broke; a 30th Anniversary Disney Barbie for a friend's daughter who's a Barbie nut; a wonderful Pooh for the son of the friend who's watching our house and our cat in our absence; and general items as such. I find it fun to buy for children. The fact it gives them special pleasure to get Disney toys and it gives me the same to buy them reminds me again why I keep trudging down here once or twice a year.
While we were in the store, the deluge hit again and it was POURING. This isn't news in Orlando, but it's news to this report because although there seemed to be a storm each day, it's the ONLY time we get caught in it. To those that fret about rain in Disney, when it happens, sit back and enjoy it. It immediately drops the temperature ten degrees or so, for a while. It's quite beautiful. And while you're sitting there in front of the World of Disney under cover, waiting for it to quit, take notice of the architectural genius of the "new Disney" as versus the older areas, such as MK. I watched the water falling, I watched people get wet, but I also noticed that for the most part, the water was disappearing as fast as it fell. In short, the drainage system, at least on the West Side of DTD, is pretty carefully thought out.
The rain stopped at 5 PM. Expecting a huge bar tab tonight, we decide to eat cheap and headed to the Burger King around the corner from our hotel. We're surprised to find the dollar menu is in play. In previous years, resort area fast food joints didn't seem to be honoring national specials. We grabbed some burgers and fries, ate on the balcony, then got dressed up for PI. We left the hotel at 7 PM.
I should point out we're Adventurers Club fanatics. Each year, we insist to each other that we should enjoy all of PI. But the first year we came to PI, we tried everything. The Comedy Club is nice, something we can't get at home. But everything else is basically theme bars with loud music, smoke, and dancing, a great thing for those into loud music, smoking and dancing.
But the Adventurers Club is the one bar where you don't feel like you're "going to a bar," which I can do at home. You're in Disney, with night life. I could go on for pages describing the motif of the bar, the attention to detail, etc. etc. etc. But what it comes down to is the place is interactive, with characters, talking masks, the hilarious colonel (a wall puppet who comes alive with a real party attitude), and shows, shows, shows. The main shows are in the Library. When the bar is full, not everyone can fit into the library. So to keep you interested, there are two other rooms (the mask room and the trophy room) where smaller, shorter shows take place, and the colonel and his wall friends come alive in the lobby. The first time we came here, too many "Kongaloosh" rum drinks, heavy heat, and my total shock at the interactive characters got me to the point that when a gentleman engaged me in small talk during a lull, I honestly didn't know where he was "a person" or a part of the show.
In short, when I enter the Jazz Club, I have a drink with my wife and listen to good jazz. When I go to the R&R Beach Club, I listen/dance to decent rock music. When I go to the Comedy Club, I see a funny comedy show, something I don't often get to do. But when I enter the AC, I leave reality. For this reason, I give the AC a Magic rating off the scale. For Value I give an 8. It's a great, great night, but between the entrance fee to PI and the $8 drinks at the AC, one can quickly approach a hundred bucks for five to six hours fun.
We were there too early on a slow night. We perused the main West End stage. This exercise out of the way, we headed inside the AC. We were the ONLY people in the bar beside the bartender. I asked if we can video tape (I'd never asked because I've never felt like hauling my camcorder). I'm informed that the ONLY clubs you're allowed to film in PI are the AC and the Comedy Warehouse, because all their personal are Disney employees. In the other clubs there are bands that are subcontractors and reserve the rights to their image, which makes sense.
I started filming and notice my wife trying not to bust out laughing, and realized Pamela Perkins was RIGHT in my face! How funny! Another couple walked in and the ratio of characters to patrons is 1:1. At this point, my wife decided the air conditioner in the AC was working too well and she needed to run back to the hotel for a warmer shirt. I found I'd LOST THE KEYS to the rental car from hell. We went to the parking lot and retraced our steps, finding no keys. Wife wasn't impressed.
I was scared to death. Americar would probably charge us a couple of grand for losing keys. Amy suggested, as a last ditch effort, trying the beer stand outside the AC and sure enough, there were my keys. She was mad, real mad! She headed off to the hotel to get a long-sleeved shirt.
I went back into the AC and made the mistake of telling Pamela Perkins what was going on. For the rest of the evening, I was introduced to most everyone that came in the bar by Pamela as "a member and a world class scavenger hunter." Several drinks and shows later, Amy was no longer mad about the keys, which I kept pulling out of my pocket to make sure I still had them. We saw two trophy room shows, countless library shows (jump up for Jinkies!), although for some reason they had no mask room shows, unless they took place while we were elsewhere. The highlight of the evening was the Colonel, just for me, singing the Beer Song. We went outside at midnight to celebrate New Years Eve, because every night is New Years on Pleasure Island. We attended the 12:30 show and as the Club was closing, we realized that once again, we'd not gone to Pleasure Island, we'd gone to the Adventurers Club. Hands down the best part of the trip.
Note: Despite the fact several message boards say it's ok to bring kids in here, I don't agree. While hardly pornographic, the material contains a lot of entendre. And drinking is encouraged, and is practiced. Early in the evening, a couple came in for a short period with their two children. Pamela Perkins engaged the little girl in conversation and the girl offered that she got to miss school to come to Disney but she had to write a report about the trip. Pamela says "well there, you know what you can tell your teachers? Tell them 'we went to Disney and my parents took me to a bar.'" Ouch!
A tip: Behind the AC is a walkway with several patios and a couple tables and chairs. In September, October, June, and August, the months in which I've visited the AC, I've NEVER seen anyone out there unless they are leaving the club after the library show lets out. It's a great place to sit, right on the lake.
When we left PI, it was clear. And hot. And humid. We went to bed tired, amused, entertained, and somewhat fuzzy. I believe we have been "kongalooshed."
Monday, September 23rd
On Monday we made our first-ever trip to Typhoon Lagoon. We'd in fact never been to any water park. I'd worried about this. Number one, I'm suffering from middle age: a pile of beer-belly courtesy of two many Wolfgang Puck pizzas and too many nights at the AC. Second: I'm a pasty-white redhead and I burn at midnight in February. All in all, I'm uncomfortable exposing my body to the world, and exposing it to the hot Florida sun can be downright dangerous. I'm lucky to be married to a fit sun bunny who's wanted to do this forever, so off we go. And what a good choice it was.
As it was a Monday in late September, the park was almost empty, yet had enough people that lack of people didn't take away from the experience. The day was hot, real hot, perhaps the most hot and humid day we've had yet.
Regarding my concerns: First and foremost, after much research on Typhoon and Blizzard Beach, and peeking at both, I've come to the conclusion that for people in my shoes with the sun, TL is a present from Heaven. There are trees everywhere, so much shade I had to try to get burned anywhere but the wave pool. And better still, there were tons of places to sit where Amy could be in the sun and I could be a foot away in the shade. You are allowed to bring in coolers, just no booze or bottles. WDW security bothers me in one respect: as I walked by with my cooler, the gate attendant merely asked "now, you don't have any beer in there, do you?" I could have brought an Uzi in and wouldn't have had to even hide it.
As for being worried about flashing a not-so-fit body around: I know I'm not the only person that feels this way, I've seen many discussions in various groups online about this very subject. I can honestly say if you're worried about this, don't. There were, in fact, wonderfully fit and trim 20 year old hard bodies wearing almost nothing. There were also a couple of middle-aged, heavily obese people wearing almost nothing. And everything in between. I never once felt self-conscious, which allowed me to have a lot of fun. It seemed to be a heavily British and European crowd, which probably had something to do with it. The first time you see a 400-pound 65-year-old-man in a Speedo, you feel empowered and small. Everyone minds their own. Go forward, go in peace, enjoy, and judge not.
Once again, I'm left with the question "when I entered this park, did I leave reality behind?" And the answer is yes. When we go back to Disney, this will be put on our "must see" list along with Margaritaville, the AC, and EPCOT. The basics of the park revolve around the large wave pool in that dominates the landscape. The pool either kicks off multiple, continuous choppy waves, or one big wave at 90 second intervals. It switches which one each half hour.
Surrounding the park is "Castaway Creek." More on that in a minute. Outside Castaway Creek, near the front of the park are lockers, food shops, and various sundry creature comforts. The front of the park to the right is semi-private beach areas. To the rear of the wave pool are all the "slides," and to the left of the wave pool, off to the side of Castaway Creek, are the child rides. We did not visit this area. Atop the whole mess is Mt. Mayday, where sits Tilly the water spouting boat.
The wonderful sound of surf music can be heard throughout the park, featuring such classic bands as The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the Del Tones (which impressed me!). Due to the ridiculously light crowds, we were able to ride each and every ride as often as we wanted. The longest "wait" was no more than two minutes. The climbs were a different matter. Expect to get quite the workout if you wish to indulge in the popular attractions here.
To the left of Mt. Mayday are Keelhaul, Gang Plank, and Mayday falls, the raft rides. We had several turns down each. The one thing we feel we missed by choosing TL over Blizzard Beach was the long raft ride at BB. the TL rafts rides were somewhat short. However, we enjoyed them. As for the slides, you can keep the Humunga-Kowabunga, which did little for me but test the tensile strength of my trunks. Note: kids seemed to love it. We were both far more entranced by the Storm Slides. Where as the HK is pretty much a straight downhill drag-race ala BB's Summit Plummet, the Storm Slides are more of a serpentine event. Do yourself a favor and ride all three. Each one is different and not to be missed nor confused with the other two.
But for us, there were three things that stood out about TL. First, with it's thatch- roofed buildings and palm tree-lined walkways, combined with the music, the water, the rides, they've managed to remove reality completely, the criteria for making a 10 on my magic scale. Although we were maybe a half mile from our high-rise hotel (and several others) and right across from DTD, you couldn't see anything outside the park, until you climbed Mt. Mayday. And the amenities were excellent. You not only feel like you've strolled unto Gilligan's Island, but you feel like they've put a luxury resort there.
Amy's favorite was the wave pool. I simply could not risk burn bad enough to sit out there for hours on end. But short of the time we spent together on the slides, she was out there all the time, particularly enjoying the six foot waves. Note that even on a day when the park was at maybe 20% capacity, the wave pool got crowded.
As for me, Castaway Creek was the new discovery of the trip. I made, according to my memory, 12 trips around the half-mile oval, which slips through several distinctly different areas, my favorites being the rain forest (the only place where the beach music magically disappeared, allowing you to hear the sounds of jungle animals) and under Mt. Mayday, complete with waterfalls going in and out. You can ride one of the many inner tubes, or simply swim or walk it (I did all three). There are "put ins" and "take outs" all along the way, and life guards who are there to help you, but leave the "life guarding" to a minimum. To me, a channel of cool but not cold water, three feet deep, eight feet wide, and half a mile long, cruising slowly through dense forest, well there's just nothing that compares. I will never, ever be able to go to our local water park again.
Tips: First, bring your own towel from the hotel. It costs a dollar to rent one of the cheesy towels offered by TL and you don't get the dollar back. Second, count on walking A LOT on hard cement steps. And third, if it's a crowded day, hit the slides late. Most people, after a day of fighting the surf and climbing the steps to the top of Mt. Mayday just don't seem to have it in them anymore after around 4 PM.
This is our golden new discovery for the trip. A 10 for Magic, and at $30 or so dollars for a pass, it provided us with a full day of fun, making it a 10 for value, too. The only thing I've ever given a 10-10 before was EPCOT. Even the AC, due to prices, was an 8- 10.
We left at about 6:20 (park closes at 6) and were the last ones out of the park. We stopped and got Amy's Pizzeria Uno pie. Pizzeria Uno is conveniently located just a stone's throw away from DTD at the Crossroads. Included there are several fast food and normal restaurants, and Goodings, a grocery store that while a bit pricy, wasn't obnoxiously so, and they have an excellent selection of ready-made foods, such as hoagies, pizza slices, etc. We were able to score a couple excellent green salads to go with our pizza, for $1.99 each.
At the hotel, we ate pizza, then watched Illuminations from our balcony. Although you obviously miss the music and can't see the globe from so far away, the explosions and fireworks are quite spectacular. After this, Amy dropped asleep in two minutes, exhausted from eight hours of wave-pooling. I spent an hour at the hotel bar, sitting in a couch watching Monday night football on big screen. This was a nice touch at the BW LBV.
Tuesday, September 24th
Yet another "off day." Today we slept in until seven, then had room food for breakfast, along with in-room coffee. A word on coffee: the aforementioned Brita water bottles can be used on coffee water, among other things. It's real simple: although several Floridians seem to take umbrage with the concept, I think the water in Orlando is putrid. I can't even have fountain-soda without tasting the sulfur. By running the coffee water through the Brita first, we had good coffee every day. We spent the morning by the pool. Courtesy of TL yesterday, Amy has a bona fide sunburn.
At 11 AM, we hopped in the Swift and began a tour of the WDW Monorail Resorts, something we'd always wanted to do. Although we tend to either stay off site or budget, we're hoping one day to stay at a monorail resort. Call it wishful thinking.
I was surprised at the ease of doing this in post-9/11 Disney. Out of respect to monorail resort guests, Disney no longer gives carte blanche parking, but we were welcomed to the Polynesian and offered a five hour pass. The CM informed me they offer anything from a 2 to 5 hour pass. We would be more likely to get the 2 hour pass late on Saturday, when non-resort folks are trying to abuse the system to see the fireworks. But on a Tuesday, a nice guard named Jim gave us the five hour pass and said to come back over if we needed more.
We visited the Polynesian and the Contemporary at some length. We enjoyed the inside of the Polynesian. From what I saw, if we were to stay at a monorail resort, this would be it. The location is unbelievably convenient, and the atmosphere goes off the meter on the magic scale, complete with palm trees and waterfalls inside the lobby. We enjoyed walking the grounds. I'd been to the Luau in 1981 for my senior class trip. I'd like to see it lit up and in action, but during the day it looks a little run down. The beach, however, offers great views
The Contemporary, to me, isn't the most attractive hotel. It's neat to watch the monorail come and go, and there's some neat fixtures within the main concourse (4th floor?). However, there was little "magic" within the hotel. It's an odd-shaped, slightly run-down hotel.
While we were unable to view rooms in the Polynesian, Amy's government pass allowed us a peak at the rooms in the Contemporary. What we were able to see, by identifying ourselves as GI's thinking about staying there in the future, was the "west section," I think. Regardless, the section off the main building, closest to Space Mountain. I have no problem with the rooms, but they were no more modern nor updated than the rooms at the BW LBV, and they were smaller.
However, without a doubt the finest view of the trip came from atop the Contemporary. Although the elevators, for security purposes, won't let non-guests past a certain floor, the roof was accessible, at least this day, by taking the steps. It was a pretty long walk, but worth it. The door on the roof was open and we were able to take a look at the California Grill, and as a bonus we were greeted by the wait staff as they held their daily meeting. We surprised them, I think! If I understand correctly, that door isn't supposed to be open. But they were quite cordial.
Back on to the roof of the Contemporary, we were blessed by a clear afternoon (soon to change) and could literally see for miles. The Contemporary, at any floor, provides an excellent view of Magic Kingdom. We both noticed that as you get higher, you start to realize, amazingly, how small Magic Kingdom is. Both here and at the top of Mt. Mayday in Typhoon Lagoon, you realize how well planned the Disney parks are, both old and new, to maximize space while not depriving you of the feeling that you're in a different "world." Also, the view gives one an idea how sprawling the Disney nation is, as Epcot appears to be a million miles away. Finally, it was neat, after five days of looking at the Contemporary from DTD, to view DTD from the Contemporary.
From the Contemporary, we simply took the monorail around the loop, enjoying the view, choosing to stop visiting after two resorts. As we were spending the next day, our last, in Epcot and MK, we figured we'd take a leisurely ride and whet our appetites. We took the Monorail to the TTC, passing by the MK entrance, and on this Tuesday the crowd looked thin. From the TTC, we took the loop to Epcot and back. Finally, back at the TTC, we simply took the footpath back to the Polynesian to our car.
With some time to spare, we drove over to Ft. Wilderness to tour the FW Lodge. Without a doubt, this somewhat new resort has captured "the magic." It does, in fact, look like a gigantic log fort and is quite a ways in the woods. I'd also point out that from a touring perspective, it's the biggest pain in the butt to get to, and has the most inconvenient parking lot. But the lodge itself has a presence, and like most of the WDW resorts the center pieces are the lobby and pool areas. In particular, my wife and I were both taken by the "park ranger" CM's, and the hot tub made to look like a natural hot spring. On the downside, we tried to get over and cop a peek at River Country, but couldn't find a way to see it.
As lunch had consisted of various leftovers we'd shoved in the car and consumed at about 11 AM, we were getting quite hungry when we got back to the hotel at 5 PM. We felt like a swim, but the rain had started. So we showered up and headed over to Universal CityWalk for one of our favorite things on earth, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville.
I've always found CityWalk to be ok. It's kind of halfway between DTD and a decent strip mall. But there are several things that make it a fun place. There's a bit of street theater; plenty of theme shopping; Universal Studios and Island of Adventure are in the background, along with Universal's increasingly interesting array of resorts; there's a much larger abundance of the younger set, which seems to give it more energy (although the piped in music, geared to the younger audience, is hard on the ears); and that Universal Globe twirling in the mist gives the place a feeling part Disney, part its own.
But mainly, the place just plain ol' has good eateries and watering holes. We've found the Hard Rock a nice place to visit. NBA City is a neat place, along with the NASCAR Cafe, for sports fans. Pat O'Brien's and City Jazz combine acceptable food, good drink, and good music. As I write this, I realize that what CityWalk offers is kind of Pleasure Island Lite, that is an opportunity for us 40ish folk to hear some tunes, drink some drinks, and enjoy theme bars, and do it without staying out until past midnight. Of course, you can do these things at CityWalk late at night, but you don't have to. Pleasure Island separates the "bar district" and the main eateries. The PI bars don't really get going until between 8 and 9, whereas you can find some "action" at CW by 6 PM on any given night. Note for the cheapskate in us all: CityWalk doesn't start cover charge until 10 PM, PI at 7 PM. If you're ready for a late-nighter, CityWalk can be worth the cover, though.
But just as I always find myself going to PI and entering only the AC, we continually hit CW and head straight for Buffet's. My wife and I are both longtime "Parrot Heads," or disciples of Jimmy Buffett. A freshman in college in the early 81, I went on a whim with three other people from Central PA to Key West Florida to float in an inner tube on the bay and hear "the guy that sings Margaritaville." In the early 80's, Jimmy had some stalwart fans, but he was just becoming a legend. I had no idea who he was. Four of us drove in a beat up Chevy Van (30+ hours) on little sleep and a couple of Hershey bars, stopping at a truck stop in Key Largo to pick up inflated truck inner tubes.
As an English student, I found Key West, adopted home of Earnest Hemingway, to be somewhat of a lost appendage. So hot that you're always in a daze, the pavement melting your shoes, smelling at all times of the sea (in a fresh sort of way, not in a stale fish sort of way), palm trees swaying in the breeze, gravel roads everywhere, water to your left and right, with street performers everywhere, vendors selling cold tropical drinks like hot dogs at a ball game, people happy, and the sunset, oh the sunset.
We plunked in our inner tubes some quarter mile from the concert site, as the sun was going down, and watched it as we paddled to the designated "individual sea transport" section (the waterways were free!) and watched this brilliant musician lazily sing all night about sailing, sipping tequila, and getting old.
Then, due to commitments, we hoped back in our Chevy van, leaving our inner tubes behind to a young boy who I think planned on re-selling them, and drove what seemed like a much longer 30+ hours back home to Central PA.
I've been a diehard Jimmy Buffett fan my whole life and can quickly regurgitate the words to any song, upon command. I've seen him perform some two dozens times since then. But I've never been back to Key West, for every time I've tried, I've driven too close to Orlando and never made it any further! So I became quite excited when Buffett's company added an Orlando franchise to its slowly growing chain of restaurants, something I discovered during my visit in 2000. The others are the original in Key West, plus New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina. Although I've been only to the original and to CityWalk, it's my understanding that each one is completely different than the other and made to encompass a certain feeling. (A LATE NOTICE, while checking the web site while writing this, I've discovered that in August and September of 2002, respectively, Jimmy Buffett opened Margaritaville franchises in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Cancun, Mexico, respectively. The Jamaican Margaritaville has the unbelievable feature of a water slide and full sized pool in the restaurant, surrounding a bar with full, in-pool service).
Like the better parts of Disney, Margaritaville seems to have the ability to take me away temporarily, not only from the world at large, but from CityWalk. I find it easy to forget that I'm on vacation in Orlando, for the restaurant has done a wonderful job of, if not recreating Key West, then creating an atmosphere all its own that shares some of the traits and attributes of Key West.
Margaritaville is a full service restaurant and a nightclub offerings bands, yet also has three distinctly different bars; The Volcano Bar, a large bar around which the restaurant revolves; The Land Shark Bar, which resembles a small tropical island hut-style bar; and the 12 Volt Bar, which resides upstairs and looks down on the main restaurant. The main restaurant, if you look at it enough, is basically a large boat, with the various tables, benches, and staircases forming everything from the port and bow to the row boats. The mast hangs from the ceiling and the main sails are, in fact, large screens for projection TV's on which plays continuous Buffett videos and classic concert footage.
I've been to Margaritaville 8 times in the last three years and tried sitting almost everywhere. There are so many places to sit and each gives you a different perspective of Margaritaville and/or CityWalk. There is outside seating both upstairs on a deck off the 12 Volt Bar, and off the Volcano Bar looking over NBA City and the Hard Rock Cafe. Both are unique, and during busy times (weekends and summers) often a solo performer will be playing live Buffett classics out on the porch.
However, my standard for a good vacation spot is that it take me somewhere else, and you truly have to be inside to catch all of the perfectly recreated, somewhat tacky Key West feel of Margaritaville. You can sit in the main dining room, which can be anywhere from walk in and sit to a two hour wait, depending upon the day and time of year. Many's the time we've taken a pager and repaired to the bar for the two hour wait, only to end up enjoying ourselves so much at the bar that we didn't want to leave. But in the main table area, you'll be a part of the show, which is a party kept going at all times by recreations of the Key West aura, including strings of colored lights, waiters with attitude, and entertainers on stilts who make balloon creations and lead you through the words and motions to Jimmy's "Songs You Know By Heart."
As for the three bars, I see good merit in two. The 12 Volt Bar, located upstairs, is sometimes surprisingly uncrowded even when there's a long wait, and it looks over the entire restaurant, allowing you to take in the whole thing. It wasn't until our first trip to the 12 Volt that I was able to put together the whole "boat" motif of the restaurant. As for the Land Shark Bar, it's ok, but you pretty much sit with your back to the action and doesn't in any way stand out.
The Volcano Bar is a world in and of itself. The Volcano is the centerpiece of the restaurant. It's literally a large, perhaps 25 foot tall artificial volcano, surrounded by the bar. At the center of the bar underneath it sits a very large blender. As time passes, the blender empties. Approximately every hour and a half (two hours during the slow, inactive volcano season), the blender empties. The dinner guests and bar patrons become "the audience," and stand in anticipation. Jimmy begins playing "Volcano" on the video screen, and the volcano comes to life. As the song ends, the stilt men go wide-eyed with fear, the screens break up with static, and finally, the lights cut and the volcano erupts, blowing steam from its fiery top. The green lava flows down the glowing volcano, filling up the Margarita blender. As it fills to the top, Jimmy comes on screen and announces we've finally made it to Margaritaville, and the whole restaurant begins dancing to Buffett's signature song. It's quite the sight!
On this particular Tuesday evening, we were able to secure a table for two on the Shark Bar side of the dining room, allowing us a bit of privacy but putting us at eye level with the stilt performers. For cocktails, I can highly suggest any of the Margarita's, although with this warning: the Margaritaville Classic Marg is, in fact, a margarita as it was intended, and quite frankly, they just don't taste very good unless you're hardcore. Stick to the other varieties, which are classic margs flavored with various tropical liqueurs. For beer drinkers, try the Key West lager, a flavorful but not heavy beer that goes well with red meat.
I've tried almost the entire menu, but Amy always sticks with the same thing, the nachos. Tonight, having had too much fish this trip, I ordered the chicken wings for an appetizer and the old standby, the Cheeseburger in Paradise, for the main course. Amy's whole life is nachos and milkshakes, so when she says the nachos are top rate, count on it. They come with homemade guacamole and salsa, lots of melted cheddar, and everything you'd want on nachos. A plate of nachos large enough that Amy had to take some to go costs $6.95.
As Amy is to nachos, I am partial to wings, having tested wings in 32 state across the country. And these are good. Not too hot, but with a good bite, they are decent-sized, meaty wings, without the excessive vinegar taste used in cheap wings to make you drink more beer. Although I firmly believe there's only so much you can do with burger, the burgers here taste like heaven, and if that's psychological I don't want to know about it. The half-pound of beef is ground, coarse, in-house, and served of course with lettuce, tomato, a quarter-inch slice of Bermuda onion and half a crisp, kosher pickle. And for heaven's sake, don't forget the Heinz 57 sauce, which you'll find waiting for you when you sit at your table. The burger was $7.95 with a healthy portion of boardwalk fries. Unlike Amy, I cleaned my plate. But I wasn't ready to run a marathon when I was done.
Although we hardly needed dessert, we took a piece of key lime pie to go, a bargain at $4.25 a slice. We split it with coffee the following morning. If you're a key lime fan, there is no better.
Our total, including way too many drinks, was $70 with tip. On this restaurant, I'm biased, real biased, but I hope I've at least explained my bias. I give Margaritaville a 9 for value and a 10+ for "Magic." It may be the only thing outside of Disney and east of Las Vegas on which I've ever bestowed that honor. You will pay a reasonable price for very good food, and you'll have fun here. And like much of its Disney neighbor, Margaritaville before 10 PM is a family place.
As we left Margaritaville, we stopped in the gift shop. I'm not much of a shopper and don't cater to paying thirty bucks for a four dollar tee shirt that will shrink after the first wash and ultimately be used to wax my car. But this place has some truly neat gift items. We spend more in the gift shop than the restaurant. Should you drop by, check out the parrot hats, but then buy something useful. The coffee mugs, obviously designed by a tequila drinker, hold a full 18 ounces and have a large, easy to find handle. Most of the standard fair, such as tee shirts and hats, have festive island designs and slightly adult catch phrases, such as "Trespassers will be (offered a) shot on site."
Before leaving CityWalk, make sure you take a peak inside Emeril's. I'm a hobby- chef, and an Emeril Lagasse disciple. However, I've never eaten at Emeril's Orlando, as I don't see my visits to Orlando as dress up affairs, which is what wearing a suit and tie for a living will do to you. But it's a neat restaurant, and if you're a suit/dress wearing family and don't mind dropping a hundred bucks a person, we're talking quality food.
We were actually in the mood for more, and left Margaritaville at 8:30 intending on spending time in O'Briens and/or Citywalk Jazz. To our chagrin, both were closed for private parties. We noticed that except for Margaritaville, which was packed when we left, and the Hard Rock, which seemed to be cooking with the younger set, Citywalk seemed deserted, and most of the main attractions were either closed or shut for a private functions. All's the pity. We decided to go back to the Boardwalk. Surely if Universal didn't want our money, Disney would. On the way back, we realized we were full, sleepy, and old. We went to the hotel and took a leisurely two hour swim in the deserted pool, went upstairs and changed, then had several drinks on the patio outside the hotel bar.
Wednesday, September 25th
Final day in Disney! It's hot when we woke up, hot like I've not felt it in a long while, maybe back to San Juan in 1984. It was our last day and we'd planned to hop both MK and EPCOT. For breakfast we killed all remaining leftovers, including the last of the granola and yogurt. This is now my favorite morning meal. We got to MK for the "dash." The dash can be annoying, maybe even emotionally damaging in July. But in late September, it's friendly and fun. After spending ten days in MK over the last 2 1/2 years, I'd run out of "new" things to do in MK. But nothing, anywhere, will ever beat the music, the atmosphere, and of course watching children's eyes light up. Main Street first thing in the morning is the definition of Magic.
The crowds were ridiculously sparse. The "dash" turned out to be about two dozen people high-fiving. Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear were walk-ons. I'm beginning to notice Buzz Lightyear is in need of some refurbishment. COP and the Timekeeper were closed, which was a bummer. We headed around the castle and rode, in order, Winnie the Pooh, Snow White, and Peter Pan, all walk-ons. Most of the day would follow this pattern.
The biggest surprise was Splash Mountain. Amy and I have always been Thunder Mountain fans, but always passed by SM due to ridiculous lines. Even last October, the standby wait was 45 minutes and the fast pass line looked pretty long. But this day, the ONLY line was at Thunder Mountain, so we hit fast pass and thought, just once, we'd ride Splash Mountain. We kept getting deeper and deeper in the queue and found almost no one. This day, SM was a walk on.
Obviously, Splash Mountain the first time is a thrill. It's definitely, in my opinion, the most thought-out ride in MK, and like most good Disney attractions, the storyline is easy to follow. Note to those who, like my wife and me, have avoided this ride to keep from getting wet, it's just NOT that bad. In fact, I managed to video tape. Sit in the back of the car and keep a small towel handy. There's three places where you have to watch for water. The first is near the beginning, when you climb the mountain, as you get spray from those taking the big drop the other way. Second is, of course, the drop. Here, I simply raised the camera as high as possible and got a wonderful video while keeping the camera pretty dry. The third area is a surprise. After the drop, as you're coming around the bend into the final series of characters, there's a waterfall to the right side of the car, and it seems to be made for the sole purpose of getting you wet. Watch for it!
Bottom line, we loved Splash Mountain. When we went back, Thunder Mountain was a five minute wait standby, walk on with Fast Pass. We were able to do Thunder and Splash Mountain twice with no waiting. An unbelievable joy. After that, we walked on Pirates of the Caribbean and headed to Main Street for one last look.
Around 1 PM, we headed to EPCOT for our final eight hours of Magic. We rode few rides, just Universe of Energy, Spaceship Earth, Test Track, and The Land, all walk-ons. I was disappointed to get home and realize we'd not seen the Living Seas. At four we simply began walking the countries. We spent a good amount of time in Canada, despite the renovations that have the top of the pavilion covered with a canvas. Last year in October, the water was turned off in the waterfall and river. But next to Mexico, Canada is usually our favorite pavilion. The "O Canada" in 360 Panavision hasn't gotten old yet.
Outside Canada, we tried, for the first time, Trapper Bobs Beaver Tails at the food cart. They were WONDERFUL, but alas, a moment of magic was lost. Two beautiful young ladies, looking almost too young to have working papers, were manning the booth. They talked me into the maple and chocolate tail. As they were making it up, I noticed them covering it with Hershey's chocolate syrup. Now, I was somewhat proud that something like Trapper Bob's Beaver Tails required my local chocolate. I told the girls it was quite funny that I came over a thousand miles to have Hershey's syrup. They became quite bright-eyed, told me they lived in Orlando, but for the last two years had taken their vacation in Hershey. "Hershey Park's the best, eh?" My-oh-my. CM's longing for vacation in Hershey. Now doesn't that beat all! It made me think of Central PA!
None-the-less, I give Trapper Bob's Beaver Tails a solid 9 for value. Don't know that you can place a magic rating on a Beaver Tail. But it's very filling, very tasty, and very Canadian (and part Hershey), all for under four bucks.
Also, there was NO cheddar cheese soup. The girls admitted to me that basically, when there's a lot of people, they have cheddar cheese soup. When the park's half empty, there's no cheese soup. I'd point out here that if you search really hard (I won't publicize other web sites, but look REALLY hard) you can find the recipe for the Canadian Pavilion Cheddar Cheese Soup, on the web. The recipe works, and this stuff is awesome. Make sure you have a lot of friends, though. Way too many calories for just me and the missus to have it just sitting in the fridge.
I'm not sure we enjoyed seeing the World Trade Center flag, but we felt it important to view it. The display is quite tasteful, and people's reaction seems to range from awe to sadness. Of course, there was also an older woman chastising us all for looking at it in the first place, but to each his own.
We spent quite a bit of time, maybe 45 minutes, inside the stave church in Norway. We'd breezed by it before, but this time found it quite fascinating. The exhibit itself is a recreation of a stave church, which is neat, but far more interesting are the stories inside.
We wove our way through the countries, riding El Rio Del Tiempo yet again, spent quite a bit of time watching the fountains as the sun went down, and took a lot of pictures, as the crowds were unbelievably light. We watched the Tapestry parade from France, then took a deep breath and brought vacation to a close. Of course, it was at this point that the heavens opened up and we finally got caught smack in the middle of a rain storm, but stuff happens. As we drove home, soaked, we enjoyed watching what we could of Illuminations to our left as we headed into DTD. Neat perspective.
At the hotel, we packed, took one last look, then called it a night. Just for fun, we were late to the airport because the Americar directions on their packet were incorrect. But we finally found them. The shuttle operator stood in front of me at the airport with his hand out when I tried to grab my bag. The flight back took off 45 minutes late due to Isidor pounding Atlanta, which is where our plane originated. All in all, an uneventful flight back. Amy left the lights on in the car while we were gone, so the first thing we dealt with in Baltimore was rain, cold, and dead engine. Bless the BWI satellite lot security, who had our engine up and running in five minutes and refused tip. We made the three hour drive home and wondered where the week had gone.
SUMMARY, THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY
We always find Orlando wonderful, we always try to find news things that thrill us, and we always make sure to revisit those things that have "worked" in the past. To that end.
Late September is an incredible time to go to Disney. So impressed am I with the timing that should we go back anytime soon, it will be next September. The crowds are delightfully low and thus the prices at hotels and such are favorable, and you can do things like sit outside at the Rose & Crown for Illuminations on a Friday night. Yet unlike the October weather we found last year, which can be iffy, September was hot and humid, which the wife loved, and given my choice between sweating or freezing, when in Orlando I'd rather sweat. Of course, there's the ever-present threat of rain every afternoon, but it just didn't seem to get in our way.
Typhoon Lagoon is an A+ stop. To those who've never gone to a Disney water park because it's a water park, it's not. It's magic with surf. If you go to Fantasy in the Sky, don't be so quick to join the masses in the stampede to your hotel. Go backwards instead of forwards, enjoy the beauty of the park.
The Rose & Crown and the 50's Prime Time Café, our new restaurants this trip, both get extremely high marks. The R&C is THE place to watch Illuminations, if you can get on the porch.
The Best Western LBV is a competent hotel, maybe even an acceptable "resort," when purchased on a budget level. Excellent common areas, acceptable amenities, and amazing location, along with a $30 per night Priceline rate, make up for the old rooms. I'd take the hotel again, no questions asked, for up to $50 per night.
And the great discovery of the trip: the Brita Sport Bottle. Best eight bucks you'll ever spend, and it pays for itself the third time you fill it instead of paying $2.50 for a bottle of water.
Old Ideas that keep on working:
Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, Space Mountain, and The Adventurer's Club never let you down. And EPCOT is hands down my favorite place on earth. End of discussion, thanks for asking.
Best moment of trip: Tie between floating down Castaway Creek and being targeted by Pamela Perkins in the AC.
Worst new idea: Americar.