Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Epcot-Drinking Around the World...nah, DESSERTS Around the World!

You may know that there is a popular pastime for adults while at Epcot known as “Drinking Around the World”.  It involves going from one end of World Showcase to the other, stopping to try an adult beverage (read “alcohol”) in each country-something unique to that country.  Me?  I used to drink alcoholic beverages back in my early 20s but haven’t really touched them in the last 15 years or so (I don’t like how alcohol makes my head feel like I’m detached from the world).  So what’s a non-drinker like myself to do when invited to drink around the world?  Why, turn it into DESSERTS Around the World instead!
Just like with Drinking Around the World, Desserts Around the World works best if you share with others.  That way you can try more desserts (YUM!) and not fill yourself up after just a couple of stops.  Everyone has their favorites-chocolates, frozen desserts, pastry-type desserts and so on.  Here’s my personal picks for desserts in each country:
Mexico-I’m a sucker for a churro.  Fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar?  Sign me up!
Norway-School Bread-A yummy sweet bread/roll with vanilla custard inside, then topped with icing and toasted coconut.  It’s not super-sweet but is just right and a really yummy snack (and it will fill you up pretty well if you eat the whole thing by yourself).
China-Cinnamon Apple Egg Roll-Egg roll exterior, but the inside is filled with cinnamon-sauced apples.  Yum!
Germany-OMG...can you say “caramel”?  Germany’s Karamelle-Kuche shop has all sorts of yummy caramel desserts-from caramel applies to hard caramel candies.  My favorites (right now-I LOVE caramel so these choices can change pretty quickly as they introduce new desserts) are the caramel-marshmallow pinwheel (try sucking on it after putting it in the refrigerator for a while!) and the chocolate cookie with caramel filling (also has caramel drizzled on top).
Italy-I may be the odd one out here, but I prefer raiding the chocolate candies from the store out front (right hand side as you’re looking at the pavilion-Delizie Italiane).  But then again, when I eat a meal in Italy’s restaurants, there’s never any room left for dessert. 
United States-okay, this is a toss-up.  Traditional?  Gotta go with the funnel cake at the funnel cake kiosk.  Fried dough topped with powdered sugar?  Perfect!  My other choice here is at the Liberty Inn counter service restaurant-the S’Mores Mousse Brownie--and yes, it’s as good as it sounds!  When I first ordered it I was wondering just how bad could a counter service dessert be?  And then I took a bite...and devoured the rest without offering to share with anyone.  Good thing my friends had ordered one as well.
Japan-Kaki-Gori...basically a sno-cone though this is called “shaved ice”.  Love the strawberry flavor.
Morocco-I can honestly say I’ve never had a dessert from Morocco.  I’ll have to remedy that by stopping in to the cafe to see what’s available.  I’m not a baklava fan...anyone have a dessert favorite in Morocco for me to try?
France-hmm, desserts in France...with Boulangerie Patisserie, how can you pick just one?  Everything I’ve tried there so far has been delicious.  If I had to pick a favorite, I’d probably go with the Creme Brulee, followed by the Chocolate Mousse...and Chocolate Eclair...oh and the Cream Puff.  But a tip for those of you who will be in Epcot during the Food & Wine Festival--get your Creme Brulee at the F&W kiosk instead.  It’s not just regular Creme Brulee--it’s MILK CHOCOLATE Creme Brulee!  Oh YUM!
United Kingdom-another country I haven’t had a dessert in, though I’ve heard the Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Rose and Crown is pretty tasty.  Adding that to my list of desserts to try this fall.  
Canada-For me, Disney disappointed me when they removed the Beaver Tail kiosk from Canada.  Beaver Tails are fried dough in the shape of a beaver tail, topped with your choice of maple and chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream, apples and cinnamon, chocolate hazelnut and sugar...and my favorite-cinnamon and sugar.  Unfortunately, the kiosk has been gone for many years and every time I pass by I lament this fact.  Fortunately, Le Cellier has MAPLE Creme Brulee.  Unfortunately Le Cellier is now a Signature Dining restaurant and is still pretty expensive so no maple creme brulee for least not every trip.
Have you ever tried doing Desserts Around the World? Which are your favorites?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Why I don’t use the Disney Dining Plan

So have you heard about the Disney Dining Plan?  If you are staying at a Disney owned/operated hotel with one of their Vacation Packages (including tickets) OR if you are an Annual Passholder booking either a package or just room only, adding the Disney Dining Plan basically allows you to pre-pay for your meals.  They have a few different plans to choose from ranging from their Quick Service Dining Plan which is just two quick service meals, one snack item and one Resort refillable drink mug per person, to their Platinum Package Plus Dining Plan which has accommodations at  select Disney Deluxe Resort or Deluxe Villa Resort plus the Premium Dining Plan (3 Meals-can be Table Service or Quick Service, 2 snacks plus the refillable mug), a fireworks cruise, reserved seating at Fantasmic!, a select spa treatment and more).  The plan has to be purchased for everyone staying on the reservation.
How much does all this cost?  The simple Quick Service Plan for adults is $37.99 per person, per night--this is in addition to the cost for your vacation package (or room if you are an Annual Passholder doing the room only option).  Pricing goes all the way up to $239.00 per adult per night for the Platinum Package Plus Dining Plan (again, in addition to your regular vacation package).
Now I’m extremely budget-minded (aka CHEAP)...I have to be in order to visit WDW as often as I do.  DH and I do splurge from time to time and go for the moderate resort instead of a value resort...but I have never stayed at a deluxe resort (YET).  I’d rather stay in a less expensive room and be able to stay longer and do more extras (like the behind-the-scenes tours).  Because I watch my money, I am not averse to wandering off-property into the Orlando metro area to eat at a non-Disney (*gasp*) restaurant which as I’m sure you can guess is normally a lot cheaper than eating on-property.  
One of the great things about that is that many of the large chain restaurants (and some of the smaller ones too) offer great rewards programs where you can earn freebies from appetizers/desserts all the way up to a high-end entree or even a whole meal.  There’s also rewards programs like MyPoints where you earn points by reading emails, checking out web sites, shopping online, taking surveys and more...and you can redeem those points for gift cards or even money deposited into your PayPal account (email me at thedisneyworldfiles at gmail dot com if you’d like me to send you a referral invite-it really is a fantastic site!).  
I was just in WDW the first weekend of May for the Expedition Everest Challenge.  I was there from late Friday morning to late Sunday afternoon.  I had a TGI Friday’s certificate for a free steak or ribs entree from their rewards program plus a $25 gift card for Rainforest Cafe that I got from redeeming points on the MyPoints site.  I brought some snacks with me and originally planned on eating breakfast in the room, but wound up having more brunch-like meals instead...mostly due to the fact that Friday and Saturday night were very late nights so Saturday and Sunday mornings I slept late.  How much did I spend out of pocket?  Just over $50 for the whole 3-day weekend.  And that was with two excellent meals (steak at TGI Friday’s and Rainforest Cafe).  If I had added the lowest plan (Quick Service), it would have cost me $75.98 for the plan for the weekend and I would have not had as many meals.  Plus, my roommate would have had to pay for the plan as well since everyone on the room has to have the dining plan.  Another thing-my room rate would have been higher, adding about another $40 to my hotel bill since the room rate would no longer be my 3-day weekend trip would have cost me about $65 more if I added on just the Quick Service dining plan.
I try to do this for every trip to WDW.  This means for me...well, the dining plan doesn’t make financial sense.  Granted, I do drive to WDW and so I have a car which makes heading off-property fairly simple (and no, it doesn’t take a long time to get off property-especially when you know the back ways like I’ve learned over these many years).  But even if I didn’t, there’s always the Rainforest Cafe gift cards or PayPal deposits that I can earn from MyPoints...and from time to time some of the restaurants on Disney property have certificates available on (I was able to score one for the House of Blues at Downtown Disney once...I’ve also seen the restaurants that are in the Swan and Dolphin on there).  Right now, the MyCokeRewards website will let you trade in 750 points for an admission to the House of Blues Gospel Brunch-a buffet brunch with live gospel music on Sundays that normally costs $33.50 per adult!  You can’t beat deals like that!
So the verdict for me personally?  No dining plan.  I may splurge here and there with a character meal once a year, but for now I’m saving as much as I can so I can enjoy being at WDW for more days and try more of the fun extras.  Some day when money is no object, I may try out the dining plan just for the convenience (and the free mug!).  And if I ever win the lottery, count me in for that Platinum Package Plus Dining Plan (read about everything you get here).  For now, my cheap self can’t justify it.
Do you use the Disney Dining Plan?  If you do (and use something other than the basic Quick Service Plan), would you consider lowering your plan to incorporate some of these suggestions to fill out your dining repertoire for your trip?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

WDW Extra Magic Hours-is it really worth it?

One of the perks that Disney heavily advertises about staying at an on-property hotel is Extra Magic Hours (EMH) in the parks.  Basically, if you stay at a Disney-owned hotel, Shades of Green, the Swan or Dolphin, or even the Downtown Disney Hilton you’ll have either one hour in the morning or three hours at night where one of the parks is open extra just for those resort guests each day.  Which parks open early or stay open late will vary.  All four parks take turns with a morning Extra Magic Hour; all but Animal Kingdom take turns with the evening Extra Magic Hours.  

In order to enter a park that has the morning EMH, you must show your resort ID card (your Key to the World card-your room key) to get in.  For evening EMH, once the park officially closes to off-property guests you will have to show your resort ID card to ride any rides or shop in the stores.  Theoretically if you are staying off property you could stay in the park during evening EMH but you would just be able to wander around and buy food...though if a parade or fireworks show was going on you could see those as well.

From my personal experience, I will tell you that the morning EMH is probably the best time to be in the parks.  Since you have to show your resort ID to even get through the gates, that automatically cuts down on the number of people able to get in.  Also, I’ve noticed that in general, crowds tend to start really showing up from 10am on so that by lunchtime everything is in full even if lots of guests are eligible to attend morning EMH, a lot of them don’t seem to take advantage of it.  BUT, I’ve also noticed that whatever park has EMH, whether it is in the morning or evening (and regardless of which park it is), will normally be the busiest park that when we are at WDW, we’ll usually head to the park that has morning EMH, then park hop to a less crowded park for the rest of the day.  You can get a lot done during that first hour when it’s just 
resort guests, especially if you also take advantage of the FastPass system which will already be up and running for morning EMH.

Evening EMH...well that’s a whole other animal.  They are three hours long...and I guess it’s a lot easier for people to stay up later than to get up earlier so evening EMH tends to be a lot more attractive to Disney resort guests.  I’ve found that whatever park has evening EMH winds up being super busy all day long, especially after about 11am.  This is probably also due to those resort guests who do not get the park hoppers so if they are taking advantage of the evening EMH, they’ll be at that park the entire day since they can’t hop to another park without using up another day on their ticket.  And so more and more guests fill the EMH park throughout the day in anticipation of getting those extra hours at the end of the night without the off-property guests taking up space in the ride lines.  I’ve found that evening EMH are not really worth it unless you can stay until the very end-especially if those EMH go into the wee hours of the morning (like during peak times of the year when the Magic Kingdom’s regular closing time is 11pm or midnight so EMH means it is open until 2 or 3am).  Guests with young children or toddlers tend to leave without taking full advantage of those evening EMH since said kiddies just can’t seem to stay awake that during the last hour or so of evening EMH the parks are much easier to navigate and lines are a lot shorter-again even more so when those EMH keep the park open past midnight.

So my opinion?  If you are staying on property at a resort that has the EMH benefit, definitely use the morning EMH.  Yes, you may be getting up at the crack of dawn (or even before *gasp*), but you can really experience a lot of rides during those early morning times, then either hop over to another park that is not as busy for the rest of the day or if you don’t have a hopper pass or annual pass, you can return to your hotel during the busier (and hotter) part of the day to relax, enjoy the pool or take advantage of the many other activities Disney has available outside of the theme parks.  Evening EMH...I normally avoid these unless I know I can stay up until the very end.  The older I get, the harder that gets.  I’d rather spend my time at a non-evening EMH park, ride the attractions with shorter lines and have a less stressful day.

Do you take advantage of Extra Magic Hours?  Do you think they are worth it?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Walt Disney World as a Solo Traveler

Living three and a half hours away from Walt Disney World means that I can visit pretty often compared to many others.  Since I work at a Monday-Friday job, it makes it easy for me to pop up for a quick weekend Mickey getaway.  My DH on the other hand-he’s on the road a LOT for work and that work schedule doesn’t coincide with my weekends very often-usually he’s home during the week instead.  That means many of my WDW trips are done as a solo traveler...and while it’s always a great trip when he can come with me, solo trips can open up so many new possibilities!
One of the best things about traveling to WDW solo is that you can do whatever YOU want without consulting someone else.  Want to ride Tower of Terror ten times in a row?  Go for it!  See every single stage show, eat at only one type of restaurant, ignore the parks altogether and just tour the hotels and shopping?  Why not?  My DH has knee issues when riding attractions that produce lots of force and/or gravity changes (like Rock’n’Roller Coaster, Mission:Space, Tower of Terror) thanks to his multi-sports playing back in the day, so say we go to Disney’s Hollywood Studios--he’ll ride either RnR or ToT, but not both...and only ride one time the whole trip.  Me?  I could alternate riding and FastPassing both multiple times in a day.  There’s other rides that he could care less about riding (Star Tours at DHS, the Carrousel at Magic Kingdom, Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom to name a few) that I really like to do either for the fun of the ride or for the memories it brings each time I ride it.  And so I wind up either riding alone while he waits outside (patiently?  impatiently?  I can never be sure)...or I wind up skipping the ride altogether and look back over my shoulder with a pang as we pass by.
Solo...I can wander the parks however I want, at whatever pace I want, riding whatever rides I want without making my traveling partner(s) wait for me or missing my favorites to do what he/she/they want to do instead.  Now that’s not to say that I don’t like going with DH or a group of friends-I have a fantastic time at WDW no matter what.  Being there, no matter who with, no matter the weather, no matter the budget--that’s always better than spending that same time just hanging around the house or doing the regular hometown stuff.  Going solo just provides the opportunity for a whole different experience taking only your own preferences into consideration.
Do I feel odd being there by myself amidst families, tour groups, couples and the like?  Not at all.  I’m a pretty independent person in general so vacationing by myself is no big deal.  I do prefer having DH with me when it’s a longer trip so we can enjoy it together (whether it’s WDW or somewhere else), but if I’m on my own I enjoy it as well...after all, I’m not at work, I’m on vacation!
Ideas for solo travelers:
-Tour the WDW resort hotels
-Try an all-four-parks-in-one-day itinerary 
-Spend a people-watching day/half-day/hour in one or more of the parks.  Pick up some lunch during an off-peak meal time, find a good place to sit and eat and enjoy the view-you’ll see some of the most interesting things.
-Are you a thrill ride junkie but no one else will ride with you?  Turn one of your days into a day of just that.  
-Want to meet and get pictures with all of the characters but no one else wants to “waste” ride time doing that?  Here’s your chance!  Cast members are always happy to take pictures of you with your camera-even the Photopass photographers will do so if you just ask.
-Try out something (or lots of somethings) that no one else you usually travel with is interested in-behind the scenes tours, carriage rides, water sports on the Seven Seas Lagoon, horseback riding.
-Take the Disney Vacation Club sales pressure (really!) and you may discover it really is right for you.
A solo trip doesn’t have to be can have fun, relax and enjoy everything YOU want to enjoy.  And don’t feel guilty about it after.  Walt Disney World is not just for families, couples and groups-it has something for everyone, even if everyone is just YOU.

What's your favorite way to spend solo time at WDW?

Monogrammed Disney Tote Bag Giveaway

Here's a chance to win a monogrammed Disney Tote Bag from Chip & Company:

Monogrammed Disney Tote Bag Giveaway

Friday, May 4, 2012

Heading into the World

I'm heading up to WDW this weekend for the Expedition Everest Challenge, a runDisney event at Animal Kingdom.  It is a 5K adventure race (meaning we'll have obstacles along the way) plus scavenger hunt in AK.  The event is Saturday night after the park closes.  I'll have a recap on that, plus any info I come across for the parks while I'm there, when I get back!