Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Day at the Magic Kingdom

So we are now just 2 days away from our glorious return (after a 10 month absence) to Walt Disney World and the United States!

Isn't it funny how as the number of days until your trip gets closer, the days themselves become longer and longer... That is probably a good thing for this trip as there are a lot of things we have to do before we fly on Thursday morning! As busy as we may be leading up to our trip, we are so excited to finally be returning to Disney, especially so close to Christmas!

In the past we have spent Christmas at WDW as a family for. I was a little worried about the crowd sizes because we tend to visit during quieter times of the year, but the opportunity to be in the Magic Kingdom on Christmas morning greatly outweighed any anxiety that I had! To jump ahead to the end of the story, it was a great day (despite the crowds) due in large part to the planning that we did ahead of time.

First of all we decided to stay close to the Magic Kingdom at Wilderness Lodge. Staying deluxe at Christmas time is an expensive proposition, but if you can do it I highly recommend it. The place is decorated beautifully, and it has such a great Christmas feel to it. By planning at least four months in advance we were able to get a great annual pass rate.

Being so close to the Magic Kingdom was key for Christmas morning. We knew that we would have to get to the gates before rope drop if we wanted to not be crushed in the mass of humanity that would descend upon the park shortly there after. So we set the alarms and planned on getting to the park at 6:45am for 7:00am Extra Magic Hour. Hey, it's Christmas morning, the kids are getting up early anyway! If we're gonna be up, we might as well be riding Big Thunder Mountain! We hit the boat to the Magic Kingdom around 6:30, and we were not the only ones on board, but I thought there would be more people! We made it to the gates just in time to catch the opening ceremony, and used the Extra Magic hour to knock out a lot of Fantasyland, and get some Fast Passes for favorites that we would use later. We hit all of our key attractions, and the little ones got to spend some time playing on the playground in the Splash Mountain exit area.

Getting there early was the smartest thing we did. Since we were able to check off all of our favorites early on, if we did nothing else attraction wise for the rest of the day, we would feel satisfied. One of the cooler things we got to experience was getting to take the first ride down Main Street in the horse drawn trolley! People must have thought we were VIPs because they kept taking our pictures and video taping us! From time to time I check out YouTube to see if we show up in anyone's vacation videos!

We entered the park with the plan that we would
stay as long as we felt it was bearable. We had a great time in the park that morning, and headed back to the resort after we caught mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade at 12:30. We never felt crushed by the crowds, but we could see them growing, and we were ready to head back and open presents! When we got back to the room the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade was on TV, so we kept it on in the background as we opened our presents, and dozed off.

So it was a short but very memorable Christmas Day in the Magic Kingdom, one that I will never forget. Later that night we enjoyed a Christmas feast at The Whispering Canyon Cafe, and took the boat over to the Fort Wilderness campground to see how the RV and camping crowd decorated their spaces.

I know that many people have the same fears that I had about visiting Disney World during the weeks of Christmas and New Years, but I have yet to find another place where Christmas is celebrated so fully. I know that 2010 will not be the last Christmas Day that we spend in the Magic Kingdom!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party: Time for Redemption!

So last week I wrote about our upcoming trip to Disney World (which is now in only 9 days), and how we will be experiencing many firsts on the trip. One of the things that will not be a first for us-but will be the first in a long time- will be Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party is a separate hard ticket event that runs a few nights a week through all of November and most of December. On party nights the Magic Kingdom closes at 7:00 pm, and only people who have purchased tickets for the party are allowed to stay in the park. The party goes until midnight, and there are special character meet and greets, shows, dance parties, two parades, and a special holiday version of Wishes fireworks.

The Christmas Party was actually our family's first Magic Kingdom experience back in November of 2007. We had just gotten off of a 4 night Disney Cruise, and wanted to add on some park time, but didn't want to rush from the ship to the resort. This was a great way to do it. We got back to the resort and relaxed (and napped) for a couple of hours before we headed to the Magic Kingdom for the evening.

Looking back at that night, I had no idea what the heck was going on, or what I was doing! All I knew was that we could get into the park at 4:00, before the party started at 7:00. When we got there we were given a map and schedule of events, but I had not done any prior research of how to maximize our party experience. What a newbie I was back in 2007!

We got to the park at 4:00 and walked down Main Street. This had been my first time in the Magic Kingdom since 1986, when I was in 3rd grade, so it was like experiencing it for the first time! We didn't really take advantage of the smaller crowds and only hit three attractions, Swiss Family Treehouse, the Haunted Mansion, and Buzz Lightyear. I'm sure we will be taking full advantage of the shorter queue lines this time around, especially since it will be our first time back in the Magic Kingdom in 10 months!

One thing that we did get to experience then that we won't be able to this time was a special stage show that used to run in the now gone Tomorrowland theater, Mickey's Night Before Christmas. I'm pretty bummed by this since it was a very good show and was always filled to capacity. Not knowing how popular it was, we tried to slide in at showtime of the first showing (there were 3 or 4), but were told it was full. So we stayed and waited for the next show. I'm not normally a big fan of waiting on line for a show, but this was really worth the time invested. Here is a video shot by the Dis Unplugged from before the final curtain dropped on this holiday classic...

Something that we tried to do unsuccessfully was grab some dinner at what I had heard (and now agree) was the best counter service location in the Magic Kingdom, Columbia Harbor House. It wasn't open because of the party, so we had to hike over to Pecos Bill's which we enjoyed.

We really enjoyed seeing the Christmas Parade (even though someone spilled hot chocolate on my foot), and the special Holiday Wishes. At the end of the post I'll attach the video I made of Holiday Wishes, which is the same fireworks as they show during the party and in late December now.

So we are really looking forward to returning to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party after a four year absence. I am really looking forward to experiencing it as a Disney World veteran , not a rookie!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Time to Play Catch Up & A Trip of Firsts

Playing Catch Up

Well it's been over a month since my last post and quite a lot has happened... We've had two major holidays (well one candy fest and one real holiday), It snowed back home in Washington DC before it did here in Romania, I did not continue on to Round 3 of the Disney Mom's Panel process, and we have finalized our plans for our next Disney World Vacation!

Let's go back in time a bit and talk about the last thing I mentioned there...

Shortly after we returned from our Mediterranean cruise Disney released dates for free dining. Since we were already counting the days until our next vacation in December, we decided to defy the critics and take advantage of Disney's free dinning plan offer. So in 14 days, we will be leaving Eastern Europe before the cold gripping hands of winter can get a hold of us completely, and jet off to a much sunnier place. Can't wait to get home - to Disney World.

A Trip of Firsts

Of course this is not our first trip to Disney World. In fact it isn't even our first in 2011. We went down and stayed at Beach Club Villas for a few nights before we packed up and moved to "The Carpathian Garden," (Romania). However, this will be a trip where we will be experiencing many firsts - don't you just love firsts!

First off, this will be our longest consecutive stay (8 nights) on Disney property. We have always been the type of family that chooses to take several small (3 or 4 night) trips throughout the year, rather than one really big one - who can be that disciplined? But, since we now live 4,997 United miles away from the World instead of 868 miles, we have had to change our vacation pattern. When you have to spend 19 hours to get someplace, it just makes sense to stay longer!

This will also be our first time on the Disney Dining Plan! Free dining was always something that I wanted to try (can it be as bad as some people say it is), the timing was never quite right to take advantage of free dining. We are very excited about this for a couple of reasons. One, we are going to get to try a whole bunch of new restaurants that we haven't had the chance to in the past, and two, this will really make the Disney Parks experience more like the cruise in terms of dining.

Being on the dining plan made us do a couple of things differently in terms of planning. Since we are going during free dining we knew that advanced dining reservations (ADRs) would be more difficult, so as soon as we booked our dates, we headed to the website to book our favorites. This also made us really think about where we would be on the days we were making the reservations. We spent a lot of time on the Touring Plans website referencing their crowd calendar, and looking at park hours - only then did we decide where we wanted to eat. Some of the reservations that we are most excited about are places we have never been. Le Cellier, Sanna, and Crystal Palace to name a few. But we will also be hitting some family favorites as well, like Chef Mickey's and 'Ohana!

We will be also be staying at a new resort on this trip, Port Orleans Riverside. Many of you might remember that Port Orleans French Quarter is one of our favorite resorts, but with our youngest Dis Kid no longer sleeping in a port-a-crib, we had to make the switch to a resort that was able to sleep 5 in a room, and with an 8 night stay not cut into our daughter's college fund! The rooms in Alligator Bayou offer a trundle bed which will work great for our little guy. In some ways it makes me a little nervous to be staying for so long at a resort we have only visited in the past, but after reading many reviews and trip reports, I am confident the only thing that will get old will be lugging our laundry across the resort - you gotta have clean clothes! Just a couple of days ago we read at PortOrleans.org that they have started to open renovated rooms in Alligator Bayou, so we made sure to request a room in one of those buildings. We also heeded the warnings about the buses at Riverside, and we'll be renting a car so we can avoid them.

Probably the biggest first of them all is the fact that we will be coming back to America for the first time since we moved to Romania 10 months ago! And when returning to the US after such a long time, what better place to go back to then Disney! The last two weeks can not get here soon enough!

More to come sooner rather than later... I promise.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Disney Wish List

As we get closer and closer to the holiday season (I'm sure in Target stores back in the USA it is already in full bloom), the 3 Dis Kids are already working on their "lists", so I thought that I would share some of my Disney Wishes. These are things that I have not experienced yet in the immense Disney Universe, but hope to soon! Some people might call this a "bucket list", but I find that term highly morbid, and prefer not to participate in such list making. Besides, I much prefer to name my list after a fireworks spectacular! Here they are in no particular order, well except for how they pop into my head as I write this!

Adventures by Disney Vacation
I can't think of a better way to vacation in some of the great places in this world. Getting to visit amazing locations in the "Disney bubble" is how I want to travel! Specifically the ABD tour I want to do first is the Hollywood Family Vacation. While the destination is not as exotic as some of their other tours (Galapagos Islands, Egypt, or
Greece), the things that you get to see are a Disney geek's dream! Backstage at Disneyland, and a tour of Imagineering are just a couple of things you get to experience on this tour. Plus I have heard/read several wonderful trip reports about it! I am really hoping to do this trip in the next couple of years, and I would also be able to check off another item on my list...

Visit Disneyland
I feel really inadequate as a Disney geek because of the fact I have never visited the original Disney Park. To make matters worse I have twice had the opportunity and not done it! The first time was with my parents when I was in 3rd grade, and we didn't go because of the weather, but the second time was completely my fault... Back when we only had one kid, and before we were a Dis family, we visited Southern California, and we had a red eye flight back to the East Coast. On our last day my wife asked if I wanted to go to Disneyland on our last day, and I said I would rather not. This could have changed my future! Would I have become a Disney geek even sooner? It all sounds very Back to the Future huh? Well with those regrets weighing heavily on me, I know that I need to get there. Similar people have described going to Disneyland as getting to walk where Walt walked, and saying that it just feels special. I'll find out soon enough.

Backstage Magic Tour
This is one of those things that the first time I heard about it, I knew I needed to do it. I am a person that loves to see how things happen behind the scenes, and this tour lets you do that at all four of the Disney World parks. It's expensive ($229 pp), and it is 7+ hours, so it will have to be done on one of those DisKidless trips, but I look forward to the day I get to experience going backstage, and exploring the Utilidors!

Concierge Level
What an indulgence this would be! I would just love to stay Concierge Level at one of the deluxe resorts! I've heard that there is no way to justify the extra money that it costs to do it, but let me find out! Concierge Level allows you access to a special lounge with complimentary drinks and snacks, and-depending on which resort you are at-spectacular views. At the top of this list would have to be one of the monorail resorts, probably the Contemporary. Maybe I could justify this better as research for a future post...

Alaska Cruise
Even before we started cruising I thought that an Alaska cruise would be a cool experience. When Disney announced that they would be doing Alaska sailings, my desire grew to enormous proportions! I am by no means a wildlife person, but Alaska has always intrigued me. After seeing pictures and trip reports from the inaugural season this year, it just looks amazing! As an added bonus you can purchase an Adventures by Disney add on to the Alaska sailings. This one will probably be a tough sell to the wife, who prefers her cruises with sandy beaches and sunny vistas, but she has shown some interest. So there is hope...

So that's it for now. I'm sure that I'll think of more as time goes on, and when I do I'll share them here. I'll also share how they were as I cross them off the list!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Disney World Apps: What's on my iPhone

When I first bought my iPhone I had no intention of becoming one of those app crazed people... I planned to only use the iPhone as a phone and an iPod. I saw this purchase as a move based on efficiency... I could now have my phone and iPod in one gadget, and I would no longer have to carry both. I had heard of a couple apps that were "must haves" but that would be it! Well, it didn't take long for for my best intentions to be thrown out the digital window! I would like to say that I held out a long time, but it only took a few days before I was camped out in the app store, downloading apps that were anything but "must haves", and soon my attention turned to apps that could help feed my Disney obsession.

As with anything, there are good and bad Disney apps. These are the ones that have made the cut, and still reside on my home page after nearly two years. Some get more use than others, but these are the ones that have survived several "cleaning cycles!"

Lines (WDW version)
This is the app that I have gotten the most use out of, because it is in my opinion an app that every person who goes to Walt Disney World. This is the official app for The Unofficial Guide and Touringplans.com. This app gives you very accurate wait times, based on scientific research, and data collected by users in the parks. Len, Henry and the rest of the guys behind Lines came up with an ingenious concept. Get people to do the work for them, giving them the data they need, and let them have fun with it! Depending on how many wait times you report, and when, you can earn badges, and gain bragging rights. Lines is also available for Disneyland. While the app is a free download, you do need to have a Touring Plans subscription for the app to be of any use to you.

Toy Story Mania
I think this was the first app I purchased. I had heard that it was a lot of fun, and thought it would be a good time killer. I had also heard that it wasn't a great attention holder. Both were true. I grew bored with it after a couple of days, but had fun with it. It stays on the iPhone now for the DisKids entertainment. They love the music, and seeing the characters. TSM is $4.99.

eTicket WDW
I knew that I would purchase this app once I got an iPhone. This app comes from the people at WDWinfo.com, disboards.com, and the DIS Unplugged podcast. This was the first Disney podcast that I listened to, an I still consider it my favorite. There is a wealth of information in this app. Some of the features are interactive park maps, park hours, DVC calculator, and the ability to access their popular message boards. Honestly, I don't use the app that much except to access the boards, but that is because I don't need much of the info that the app offers. For someone who is not as familiar with Disney World however, this app would be invaluable! Speaking of value, eTicket WDW is $5.99

Disney Gift Card
I get a lot of use out of this app on our trips! This app from Disney allows you to input your Disney gift cards, and keeps a running balance on each of them. A lot of people use gift cards to pay for their trips, and use them to buy everything while on their trips. We use them that, and for spending money for the kids. It isn't a perfect app though. I would love the ability to recharge the gift cards from the app, and unfortunately, there aren't a lot of icons to choose from to differentiate your multiple cards from each other. But since the app is free, my complaints are just really a wishlist!

MouseWorld Radio
This is by no means a secret! Most Disney fans are probably familiar with MouseWorld Radio, and the app, but for those uninitiated... MWR is a internet radio station (on live365.com), that streams Disney music from the parks, and attractions (past and present) 24 hours a day. MWR has six different channels playing various content, including Studios Central Radio. The iPhone app streams the content from MouseWorld Radio 1. This app is free, but be careful! If you don't have an unlimited data plan, it can get costly if you go over!

WDW Online Advanced Dining Reservations
This is actually not an app, rather a shortcut on my homescreen that takes me to the Disney mobile site for advanced dining reservations (disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations/dining/m/). This has been a great resource for us. Several times we have checked this "app" while at our resort to see if there are any good ADRs available at the park we are visiting that day. We have gotten some great last minute ADRs because of it, including a Chef Mickey's breakfast a couple days after Christmas! My favorite feature of it is a near me now option. This option gives you every available ADR close to you at that time. That plus the ability to book it online makes it just amazing! I'm almost nervous to share it!

WDW Countdown
This is a cool little app by PLR Concepts that lets you put in the start date of you next vacation, and it will keep track of how many days you have until it starts! There are several pictures that you can use to personalize it, and when I say several, I mean loads! Just about every resort is included, sometimes a couple times, and every major attraction! My favorite feature is the ability to rub it in the faces of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers! This app was just 99 cents and worth every penny!

Some other apps that I have but don't really use that much are...
Disneyland Paris Official App
Radio Disney

Do you have a favorite Disney app? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Walt Disney World Mom's Panel: My Adventure (So Far)...

For years I have toyed with the idea of applying for the Walt Disney World Mom's Panel, but never officially took the plunge until the "recruitment period" opened for the 2012 panel last month. I decided to apply this year because of my work situation, and the fact that they advertised that they would be looking for specialists in several Disney areas for the first time. These areas are Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club, Adventures by Disney and RunDisney. For anybody who has spent much time on this site it should be pretty obvious which specialty I applied for... Disney Cruise Line! So lets start the voyage for a Dad of 3 Dis Kids trying to make it onto the Walt Disney World mom's Panel!

The first round of the application process opened up on September 12 for five days or 20,000 applications. Mom's Panel hopefuls logged on to the website and found an application that consisted of Disney knowledge questions, and a few essays about trip planning. The knowledge questions were by no means softballs... One asked who the designed the Partners statue at Disneyland, and the other one asked about Pirate's League at Disney World. The Pirate's League question was worded where if you didn't read carefully, you could easily answer incorrectly. I saw these as a "thinning of the herd", if you missed these I assume your application was shown the circular file. The essay questions were very straight forward, but all of the answers were required to be 100 words or less. This was a little tricky for me, but not as daunting a task as I thought it could have been. To be honest I don't remember what the questions were, and like a "dumbkopf" I forgot to save my answers for future reference. Oh well...

I spent a couple of hours on the essay questions, having my wife read and check for stupid errors I might not catch, and to see if she liked the wording. Since she has written more speeches than she can count over the years her eye and ears for flow and wording are well tuned. She has been an invaluable resource in this process, and is almost as excited about it as I am!

After I submitted my application on the first night, because I was a little fearful that they might reach capacity, I found a little "support group" of other Mom's Panel hopefuls over on the Disboards. A thread titled "Amazing Adventures of the 2012 Disney Mom's Panel" is a group of DISers that share and support each other through the entire process. Several of the posters have been through this process from the beginning, with this being their 5th year of applying! It should not be a surprise that at last count there were over 70 DISers that made it through to the 2nd round!

Well, I must have found the right balance of knowledge and fanboy because last week I found out that I had advanced to round 2 of the process! I had high hopes that I would get past the first round, but didn't get my hopes up. I knew that the numbers were stacked against me, and that there are so many people out there who are very passionate about Disney. I did think that it was to my advantage that I chose DCL as my specialty, because the pool for applicants would probably be smaller than some of the other categories. I got the email after everyone was asleep in the house, so I had to sit on my good news until morning! I also had 2 days of waiting before I was able to go on the website to see the questions. But again I had 5 days to complete the process after that.

Round 2 served up (using my tennis terms there) another batch of questions, but this time they were geared more towards the specialty you chose. Another knowledge question led off. This time they asked where the sports lounge "687" on the Disney Dream got its name. Luckily, my podcast habit helped me out here. I remembered Lou Mongello on the WDW Radio Podcast taking about this when he reviewed the Dream back in January. Not that I don't trust Lou's knowledge, but I also double checked a couple other sources online as well, just to be safe. In case you were wondering... 687 was the keel number that Meyer Werft shipbuilders assigned the Dream during construction. Fun Fact #2 the Disney Fantasy is #688. In addition there were three more 100 word essays about Disney Cruise planning.

The big change-up for round 2 was the video requirement! Applicants were to submit a 60 second video describing their favorite Disney Parks memory. Ruh Roh! Video!? This is for a position that requires answering 25 questions submitted online a week, not video conferencing! This was totally new to me. I knew what my memory would be, and I knew that I could get it out in under a minute, but to do it on camera would be a challenge. Luckily with some serious help from my wife, I was prepped and ready to shoot. It came out OK, but ultimately I would shoot another one hours before the deadline that ended up being the submission. I had some grand ideas for it, but I was hindered by a 50 MB file size limit, and the fact that Microsoft Live Movie Maker is not nearly the video editor that Apple's iMovie is. I have got to get a Mac...

So everything is done, and submitted for final approval by the Mouse. If I should advance to round 3 a phone interview is scheduled, and then who knows... I really feel blessed to have gotten this far, it was a real answer to prayers, but obviously I want to make it all the way. I'll continue to pray about it, and hopefully I have shown them what they would like to see for a Disney World Mom's (Disney Cruise Line) Panelist!

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Disney Mediterranean Cruise: Palma de Mallorca

So we have come to our final port of call on our Mediterranean voyage. Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Honestly, I was a little more excited about this port of call than I think most people might have been. For as small as Mallorca is, the island has produced two men who were able to rise to number one in the world of tennis, Carlos Moya, and Raphael Nadal! I thought it would be pretty neat to see where they came from. Plus we had a beach excursion booked!

We knew we wanted to finish up our cruise with a relaxing day at the beach, and the Disney Beach Transfer was cheap, and it made our life easy. On all of our other 6 Disney Cruises our last port of call was at Castaway Cay, their private island, or actually island paradise. We knew that Mallorca could never compare with Castaway Cay, but it CC's absence it would work nicely!

We disembarked the ship and hopped on a big tour bus. Thirty minutes later we were dropped off in front of a little shop just a few steps from Palmanova Beach. This was definitely primarily a tourist beach, but not on a large scale. There was plenty to do for the half day, but we primarily just sat under our rented umbrellas and relaxed. there were ocean trikes available for rent, which a few fellow cruisers took advantage of, and there was a diving and sliding platform out in the water, which we had some fun on. My dad took a walk with our son to a playground that was on the beach. There were some touristy shops, and a couple of markets that we looked in, and after a few hours we were back on the bus heading back to the Magic.

One of the things that my wife wanted to do on this cruise was the Alice in Wonderland themed tea party. As soon as we boarded the ship she hustled over to Guest Services to get tickets for the girls, and it was something that she was really looking forward to doing with them. While I wasn't there, from the report I got back it was a disappointment. Alice wasn't even there, and it was just apple juice and cookies. But our 4 year old had a good time playing tea party, and it was good girls time, but I think in the future, they will choose to do their bonding in the spa!

That night we decided to take it easy. After 6 nights of great meals in the dining rooms, we thought it might be nice to have a casual meal by the pool. This was one of our best ideas! There was no one up on the deck. We pretty much had the place to ourselves! I think this is the only time I have ever seen an empty Mickey Pool while it was open! We feasted on chicken fingers, hamburgers, tacos, and french fries while we relived great moments from the week. We got a few more pictures of the ship and headed back to the rooms to start the unenviable task of repacking our bags.

One of the more popular activities on the last night of a Disney Cruise is the "Till We Meet Again" gathering in the atrium. You will not be reading about this in any of my writings, because I will never attend it. Honestly, the last night of a cruise is hard enough, I don't want to be reminded by the entire crew that it is time to say good-bye, especially when they play all that sappy farewell music! It would be far too depressing, and I refuse to participate! So you can read about that from someone else!

Not too much to report on from this day. Just a lot of relaxation and reflection. And all that we have left is dragging ourselves off of the ship on the last morning, and some final thoughts to wrap it all up!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Disney Mediterranean Cruise: Day at Sea

Ahh, a day at sea... A great day to relax and reflect... Even on a Disney ship, where there is so much to do this is possible. We were fully planning on spending a lot of time just enjoying being at sea. While we were able to take advantage of the day, it was not quite as relaxing as we hoped it would be.

Lets start off with the night before. I was up late doing some laundry, and noticed that there was a wet spot on the floor near the pull out sofa sleeper. having two small kids who tend to spill things, I didn't think much of it, until I felt a drip land on my head. even at this point I wasn't concerned, we had the temperature in the room pretty low, so it was probably just some condensation from the air conditioning. The room was dark, and didn't want to disturb anyone by investigating, so I just threw a hand towel on the floor to catch the drippings.

The next morning I noticed the sound of dripping water onto the now soaked towel. Since everyone was awake I investigated further. The water was coming from the sprinkler head in the ceiling. At this point I was starting to get a little concerned. The water was clearly dirty, as the white towel now had a distinct rust colored spot where the water was hitting. In addition a room down the hall has a major leak that required severe staff clean up the day before. Before we headed up to Palo for our first brunch experience we called guest services who assured up they would send someone down to check it out.

After returning from brunch (more on that later), and checking on the little ones in the club, it was obvious that no one had been in the room to check the situation. We called guest services again, as the leak had gotten worse. As a group we had planned to go see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides so we vacated the room hoping that the problem would be resolved.

During the movie we got a page from the club, so my wife went to see what the kids needed, and while she did that she stopped by the room to see if anyone had come by. Again no one had, so this time she spoke with a supervisor and finally after we got out of the movie, there was someone in the room checking the leak out. The crew member did not seen worried about the problem, but said that they would need to get into the ceiling to fix the problem. As you might expect the leak had gotten worse. We headed to the pool.

At some point during the next couple hours things got bad in our room. The sofa got soaked, as did a lot more of the floor. My wife spoke with the supervisor Jakob, again, who told us that he would get back to us soon. He eventually was able to get us a new room, just a few down from our current one, and he told us that he was going to be talking to headquarters about what else they would do for us.

When we got to the new room we had a little surprise waiting for us. Jakob had sent down a package with a note saying that they were sorry for the delay in responding to our requests. The package was a miniature suitcase (probably a jewelry case) that was obviously a stateroom gift for the Eastbound Transatlantic cruise, there were also Mickey and Minnie Pook-a-Looz. They also gave us a pretty nice stateroom credit to hold us over until he got word from HQ.

The room was OK, but it was obviously left empty because it was a little beat up, an not up to paying guest standards. The furniture needed some love, and there were some fixtures in disrepair, but everything was dry, so we were happy! We would be in this room for the last two days of the cruise.

Outside of that excitement we had a pretty good day! We spent some time by the pool, saw POTC 4 (the 4th time my daughter had seen it) as I mentioned before, and just enjoyed being on the ship. It was a fully booked cruise, so it was pretty crowded, but we never felt it got to crazy, except for the line at Topsider's Buffet.

Now about Palo Brunch... This is one of those things that everyone raves about! I have never heard or read a bad, or even so-so review about brunch at Palo. I really wondered how it could possibly live up to the hype. Well to be honest... IT DID! I was shocked by just how much food they had on the buffet! All of that plus made to order brnch entrees as well? It was great! I had the Chicken Parmesan, and it was the best I had ever had. It was cooked perfectly and served on top of a Parmesan Risotto... I liked it so much I have been having cravings for a month! I tried to recreate it a couple nights ago, but it wasn't close... There were two things that disappointed me though. First the Midori Champagne that I ordered wasn't as good as I hoped, and we were so full after our main course that we didn't have room for dessert! Oh well something to look forward to the next time!

So despite the headache of the leaky ceiling, we still had a great day at sea. While they were slow to react to our problem, once they did, we were taken care of. Jakob was awesome! He made it his personal mission to take care of us during the ordeal. He met us up at the Mickey Pool to give us our room keys, and frequently checked in to see how we were doing. A few days after we got back from the cruise DCL let us know that to make up for our "lost sea day" we would be getting a credit to use on a future booking. All in all I think the issue was handled well. And rest assured that we will be putting it to good use!

Friday, September 23, 2011

3 Dis Kids: Mediterranean Magic

My plan was to finish typing my trip report before I finished the actual video, but I finished the video quicker than I thought I would! I must be getting better at editing! Plus it's not going to give anything away...

So without further ado... 3 Dis Kids: Mediterranean Magic!


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Avatar Coming to Animal Kingdom

We now take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging about my cruise recap to discuss the big news coming out of Walt Disney Imagineering...

In case you are not plugged in to all news Disney, there was a big announcement that James Cameron's Avatar will be coming to Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park. The news came out yesterday (September 20, 2011) via a press conference at Walt Disney Imagineering in Burbank, California. Many details are not known yet, but we do know that construction is set to begin sometime in 2013.

The Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Tom Staggs, answered some email questions yesterday on the Disney Parks Blog regarding the upcoming partnership, but there was very little new information learned. He gave a possible time frame of 5 years before opening, and said that their vision includes "multiple attractions, entertainment, merchandise locations

, restaurants, and other immersive elements." He did not answer if this would be replacing specific attractions, or if it would be an entirely new land, which troubles me...
My thoughts on this have gone back and forth since I first read about it...

First, I like the idea that they are planning something big, and trying to increase the profile of Animal Kingdom. Unfairly in some respects, and spot on it others, Animal Kingdom is often described as a "half day park", and I know that we are not alone in skipping days of our vacation at Animal Kingdom to return to other parks. Bringing a new aspect to the park, and one that should be really cool if done right (and I have complete confidence that Disney will), will draw a lot of new people to the park.

Secondly, I feel that the connection between Avatar and the theme of Animal Kingdom is a bit of

a stretch. I understand the concept of all animals past, present, and mythical, but this just seems made up. The long rumored "Beastly Kingdom" was supposed to explain the dragon in the parks logo, but big blue people? I'm just not sure.

Third, I am excited to see what a partnership between Disney and James Cameron could produce. Like him or not James Cameron is an idea guy. They might not always pan out, but he has a lot of them. If he is really involved in the design and implementation of this project, I think it will be an amazing experience! The comparisons to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter will come up, but if that is what they are looking to emulate with Avatar, it has the potential to be amazing! While I wasn't as high on the movie as others, I did think that it was amazing to look at, and technically superior to anything we had seen before. If this new land can be as innovative as the film, we are in for something really special!

Some people are saying that this is in response to the before mentioned Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I'm not sure if something that is at best, 5 years down the road can be seen as a response. Also, Avatar does not, at least at this point, have the dedicated fan base that Harry Potter has. They did say that there were at least two more films in the works, but even with those, the Avatar franchise won't reach as far as Harry Potter. I do think that Disney has seen that the model that Universal followed with Harry Potter has worked, and they want to get their hand into something similar. I also think that they have seen where Universal has fallen short in their venture, and will learn from other's mistakes. Disney has a much larger infrastructure and more experience with these types of projects, and they should be able to plan and implement procedures to avoid some of "growing pains" that Universal suffered.

So after typing out my thoughts, and really thinking this over, I think I like this new Animal Kingdow/Avatar venture, but I'm not over the moon about it. On the surface it seemed odd for them to use an outside entity, but they did it with Star Wars, and Indiana Jones to great success. I have high hopes for this, and look forward to seeing how it progresses. We'll just have to wait and see...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Disney Mediterranean Cruise: Naples, Sorrento, and Pompeii

The next stop on our jaunt around the Med is Naples, Italy. This was one of my most anticipated days of the vacation! Today we would be leaving the 3DisKis with my parents, while my wife and I set of on a Disney excursion named "Timeless Pompeii & The Flavors of Sorrento." This would be a great way for my parents to get some quality time with the grand kids, for the kids to get some quality time in the clubs, and for us to have some quiet time.

When we first started planning this vacation one of my first stops was the DIS's coverage of their Mediterranean cruise, "Magic in the Mediterranean". They had hours of content, and hundreds of photos covering their trip, and they have have always been a very trusted source for planning any Disney vacation, cruise or otherwise. While going through their abundance of videos I came across two that really peaked my interest... These were the videos that made us decide on our excursion!

We had been warned on embarkation day that we would be getting into Naples a little later than planned, and that some excursions would have later meeting and departure times. Ours was one of them, so we got to sleep about an hour longer than we originally thought we would.

As we have always experienced with Disney excursions, getting off the ship and on our way was very easy! After our day in Rome on our own, we very much appreciated the hand holding and ease that came with a booked port adventure! We boarded a large tour bus, and soon we were on our way.

Our first stop would be Sorrento, where we would have about an hour and a half of free time before heading to a local farm for lunch, and then we would finish our day with a guided tour of Pompeii.

We winded our way through the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and made our way to Sorrento. We disembarked the tour bus at a store where they specialize in making inlaid wood furniture, but it was pretty much a very large tourist trap (although a nice one) shop. I bet there were 5 or 6 cruise tours all in this place at one time. We saw a quick demonstration about how they make the furniture, and we headed for town.

We walked around town for a little bit. It was pretty, but most of what we saw were your typical shops with things geared for people on vacation, and there were tour groups everywhere! We came to the waterfront, and saw a long drive with a sign for a spa. There was a guard gate and a private property sign, but we figured that since they were advertising a spa they would allow pedestrians in. So we walked down the driveway. What we stumbled upon was an amazing boutique type hotel that had been voted one of the world's top 500 hotels by Conde Nast, The Excelsior Vittoria. we walked in and asked the concierge if there was a cafe, and he guided us out to a beautiful terrace overlooking the water! It was just us and one other couple out there. It was so quiet and restful, unlike the "outside world" just a couple hundred yards behind us! We enjoyed mineral water and a lemon soda with some mixed nuts before we headed back to the tourist trap to catch our bus. This was one of the highlights of our vacation! we were maybe there for 30 minutes, but we knew that we wanted to return in the future.

We re-boarded the bus and headed for the farm. Now being a city person, seeing the actual farm was not high on my priority list. Having a homemade lunch at the farm made from things grown fresh was! Plus I had seen the video, and the rave reviews from the DIS gang, so I was ready to see some cheese making!

Well, it turns out the we did not go to the same farm as the DIS gang... The tour was kind of interesting, but it was really just an overview to buy time while they prepared our lunch. And the lunch was a disappointment. The anti-pasta they served was pretty good and definitely fresh, but the pasta with tomato sauce and ricotta was boring and bland. The eating area was outside in the shade, but there was no air circulating so it was hot and uncomfortable. We did eat with a very nice family from New Jersey, who tried to sell us on Disney Vacation Club. It was nice to talk with fellow Disney geeks.
Now we were off to Pompeii. We we highly encouraged to take a nap on the bus ride, but we were some of the few who did not. Our tour guide woke up the sleepers about 15 minutes before we got to the site to give us some instructions, and more interesting facts about the region. She explained that this would not be the most in depth tour of Pompeii, but we would hit the important parts, and some things that she found especially interesting. i should say that our tour guide was awesome! I hate that I can't remember her name, because she was so personable, and she did such a great job with everyone.
I wasn't sure what visiting Pompeii would be like. After all, i
t is the site of one of the most famous natural disasters in the history of Earth. It was very interesting to be there. It wasn't a living history experience like I have been so used to growing up in Virginia and visiting Williamsburg, and Jamestown. There weren't people reenacting what life was like at the time of the eruption, it was just a lot of ruins. Some were in good shape, some were unrecognizable to what they used to be. This is where having a guide made all the difference. She was able to point out things that you wouldn't even look at, or know what it was if you did. One of the examples that comes to mind were "streets" of Pompeii. There were huge stone blocks going through the middle of the streets, and grooves running to each side of them. Well the stones were to cross the street without having to step in the sewage that would have been flowing down the street, and the groo
ves were actually for lining up the wheels of the chariot so you could drive over the blocks! There were several others too.
After a shot of Limoncello it was back on the bus one more time for the ride back to the ship. Despite the disappointment of the farm, the excursion was still a great success. It was really nice to have Disney handle all of the logistics for the day. We are now totally sold on doing shore excursions! At least for ports where there is a need to venture out further. I also thought that if this $150 per person excursion was this good, I can't begin to imagine how great an entire Adventures by Disney vacation must be! I definitely see one in our future, and if we do another cruise where the ABD add on is available--and all the kids are old enough-- I will seriously consider it.

As good of a day as this was, and as much as we enjoyed it, there was a downside to our excursion. Because of our late arrival, and awful scheduling by DCL we were unable to attend the Castaway Club party for Gold and Platinum members. The party was scheduled for 5:00, and we didn't get back on the ship until 6:00. Why DCL decided to schedule it on a port day is beyond me. Especially a day where so many people would be going outside of the immediate docking area for the day. I understand that these parties are usually held on sea days, and since there is only one sea day on the 7 night Mediterranean itinerary it would be a busy day, but it just seemed to me like this party had become less and less important to them. The quality of this event has gone downhill over the last few years. I had hoped that when they only opened it up to Gold and Platinum members (no offence to Silver members) they would ramp it up again, but they didn't. It is very disappointing.

Sorry for the rant... So that's it from Naples. Up next, a day at sea. Hang on, this one is about to get interesting!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Disney Mediterranean Cruise: Civitavecchia & Rome

Today was the day that I felt excited and sick. We would be doing Rome on our own. No Disney guides, no private transportation, no Rick Steeves, at least not in person... Well I guess there are some things to be thankful for... This was the port of call where I had done the planning and the research. This was the stop that we had the highest expectations for. I mean it's Rome for goodness sake! How many times had my 12 year old watched the Lizzy McGuire Movie and sang along with Hey Now, Hey Now... How many times had my father probably seen Roman Holiday or some other black and white dinosaur of a movie on TCM? We are talking the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon... And we are trying to do it by ourselves, with two kids under the age of five... We were either courageous, or delusional!

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife had done most of the research and planning for our day in Villefranche and Monaco, so this one was mine. I read dozens of trip reports on the DIS boards, studied up at AllEars, and visited countless other websites. But then like manna from Heaven a fellow DISer posted about her website/podcast Cruize Cast I went to the site and saw that they were sharing their experiences doing ports on your own, and low and behold a couple weeks later they did an entire podcast on doing Rome on your own just for me (at least that is how I felt)! They took you through the entire day step by step, and their information was spot on! They planned out a much fuller day than we would be able to do,, but they important stuff was there! I bet I listened to it five times before we left, and at least once on the flight to Barcelona.

We planned ahead and pre-ordered breakfast from room service. We knew it would be a very full day and we wanted to get off the ship early so we never felt worried about getting back to the ship on time.

***On a bit of a side note... I heard more announcements for certain parties to call or visit guest services around departure time on this cruise than all of our 6 previous ones combined!***

We ate and got off the ship pretty early. It was nice that we didn't have to tender, but we did need to catch a shuttle bus to the entrance of the port. That was no problem and before we knew it we were walking to the Civitavecchia train station. I can't remember what time we arrived, but there was a short wait for the next train into Rome. Soon our train had come in, and we boarded. The train ride was about an hour and twenty minutes in the main station in Rome, Termini. We were lucky that we had boarded pretty early, because many people on the train did not have seats for the entire journey into Rome. From Termini we took the metro (a bit of a hike, but very well marked, and my wife was able to grab an espresso) two stops to the stop for the Colosseum, aptly named Colosseum.

Now I am a seasoned metro traveler. I've ridden the rails in Washington, New York, London, Barcelona, and some other big cities, but I have never experienced anything like stepping out of the Colosseum metro station. When you step out into the daylight you look up and there it is, what you have seen on TV and in movies so many times... The Colosseum in all her ancient glory. And what is the first thing that pops into my head?

"Wow having a metro stop this close to the Colosseum must have made it really easy to come see the gladiators!" Please hold the applause until after the post...

We were smart and pre-paid for our entrance online... we paid a little extra for the convenience, but after seeing the line it was money well spent. We buzzed by the stand by line like Fast Pass holders and soon we were in the Colosseum looking for our sons shoes... Just like Audrey Hepburn right?

Per Cruize Cast's recommendation, we had downloaded Rick Steeves' audio guide for the Colosseum an we had enough iPods for everyone ages 12 and up, but it was tough to follow because he wasn't very clear where we should start. My Mom seemed to continually be saying, "oh that is what he was talking about" throughout the tour. I never even bothered to start mine. It was really neat to be there, but when it really hit me that we were in Rome was after we came out of the Colosseum and saw the rest of the ancient city. Before my research I couldn't have told you anything about the forum, but here we were standing at the base of the Colosseum, looking at it. Just like people had said, pictures just can't do Rome justice.

Our next stop was the Trevii Fountain. I had my map, and I was ready to lead the way! I had
read that there were some good places to stop for a quick lunch near the fountain, so we planned
on eating somewhere close to there. The walk was a little longer and not as direct as I had thought, and it was a pretty hot day, but we got there eventually (probably about a half hour later). We saw signs for a McDonalds, but never saw it, so we trudged on looking for the fountain. We walked down an alley and it suddenly appeared in front of us! It wasn't as out in the open as I had thought it would be, but it did not disappoint! The gellato and Coke Zero that we got there didn't either! We all took turns fighting through the crowds to toss our coins in the fountain, and I treated everyone in ear shot to my rendition of "Three Coins in a Fountain. " As we all tossed our coins in I wondered what they would think when they found our Romanian Bani in there!
At this point we were all hot and sweaty, so rather than walk to the nearest metro stop, we decided that we would hop a cab back to Termini station. After talking our cabbie into loading all 7 of us into his Peugeot, we were on our way. He was worried about the local police seeing his full car, so he dropped us off around the corner from the station, right next to a cafe. So we stayed and enjoyed a couple of Roman pizzas in the shadow of the train station.

After eating we started our voyage back to the ship. we were able to decipher the schedule to figure out when the next train to Civitaveccia was, but figuring out which platform was more of a challenge. We found the platform just as the train arrived, and we hopped on and grabbed our seats.

We got back to the ship around 6 o'clock. It's all a blur, but I think we grabbed a snack from Pluto's Dog House, took the kids to their respective clubs, showered up, and went to dinner.

There was a real sense of accomplishment after today. We did it... To Rome and back, with two little ones. We enjoyed the day, but I on't think that any of us would say it was our favorite day of the vacation. We were so happy that we did it, and found Rome to be awesome. But I don't know if it lived up to the (maybe unfairly high) expectations...

Next stop, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii and the kidless excursion!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Disney Mediterranean Cruise: La Spezia

Our second stop on our Mediterranean voyage brought us to La Spezia, Italy, gateway to Florence and Pisa. This is one of those Mediterranean ports where cruisers get off the ship and scatter throughout the Italian countryside. We would be doing things a little differently however...

Early on in our planning we had decided to use one of our port days as a second day at sea. The decision was made for a couple different reasons. The first was that with so many ports to visit, and only one sea day, we knew that we all, and the kids in particular, would need a take it easy day. For us, we knew that after being in a very foreign country for 6 months, and not having been on a Disney ship in over a year, we would want to spend a day taking advantage of everything the ship has to offer. La Spezia was chosen as our second sea day because it made sense to have a good day of rest before we tackled Rome, which was sure to be a tiresome day for everyone. Another reason was because that Florence was at least a 2 hour trainride from the port, and since it was Monday the museum where the statue of David is located would not be open.

We started the day very leisurely, we slept as long as the younger kids would allow, grabbed some breakfast and checked out the navigator to see what was going on and when. Today would be a good day for the kids to hang out in the Oceaneer Club, and for the adults to hang out at the Quiet Cove pool! Nobody put up a fight with this plan, but we promised the kids they would get some pool time today as well! We wanted to make sure that our daughter got to see her favorite character Stitch, so after she got some pictures with him, we dropped them off at the club.
I was a little surprised how many people stayed on the ship. I thought that we would have the place pretty much to ourselves, but apparently, our idea was not as novel as I had thought! The Quiet Cove was active, but not busy, and we were able to get a couple loungers in the sun. We nabbed a couple of decent magazines from the Cove Cafe (although my wife enjoyed her Smithsonian magazine more than my Everyday with Rachel Ray), and some sweet treats, and just relaxed. It was pretty warm in the sun so we grabbed some lunch after about an hour and a half. We grabbed the kids so they could have some pool time, and I think that is when I decided that ice cream would be a good idea!

After some pool time, we thought our oldest daughter might like to do some family crafts. Theywere making buttons in the Promenade Lounge, so we grabbed some drinks from the drink station and headed down for craft time. The crew member who was running this activity was Matthew from Canada, and for the first 15 minutes or so, we were the only people there. We got a chance to really talk to him, and he really seemed to love what hewas doing. We always appreciate Disney Cast Members, but on the ships they just seem to be the best of the best! I think that there is so much guest interaction in a smaller (than a theme park at least) setting, you have to be really good with people, and the Disney Cruise Crew Members are just great at it!
My number one thing for this day was seeing Cars 2 as a family. You might remember that I wrote this post a couple months back about Cars 2, and how I was really looking forward to taking the kids to see it. Since Cars 2 has been out for awhile now, I won't bother with a full review, but the family enjoyed it. It was a little loud for my son, but he watched intently the whole time. Our youngest daughter fell asleep (I guess she was having lots of fun in the club)! Everyone above the age of 12 really liked it too. While I didn't like the story (or felt it was up to the high standards Pixar has set), I thought it was the best looking animated film I had ever seen (we saw it in 3D)! It was also really cool to see places we were going to see very soon!

After the movie it was time to get ready and head to dinner. I have to say that the food was very good on this cruise. Every night we really enjoyed our meals. This was also the first time that I taken part in the time honored cruise tradition of ordering 2 entrees. I usually split the second one with my Dad, but it was still fun to do it! I also ate more seafood than usual on this cruise. I guess my body decided that it missed fish living in Romania! I'm usually such a steak eater on the cruise... Sometimes I surprise myself!

for the rest of the evening we followed the theme of the day, and took it easy. I think after the kids were in bed we put the grandparents in charge, and checked out some of the evening adult activities. We weren't very impressed with the piano lounge singer in Sessions, so we just strolled up on deck before we turned in.

The next stop is the eternal city of Rome. Adventure awaits!