By KIM POINDEXTER
How long do you need at Walt Disney World to enjoy every attraction, every restaurant and every recreational outlet? Do you have two months to spare?
Probably not, unless you’re retired and blessed with a recent lottery win. The sprawling expanse of Disney property in Lake Buena Vista showcases activities designed for toddlers to senior citizens, and everyone in between. But with the limited time most folks have available, they often need a little help choosing where and how to spend it.
Every time we (or other Disney fans we know) go to WDW, we try to do a few new things, so we can pass them onto others, and mark a few more items off our bucket lists. This year, not only did we engage in some new activities, I picked out a few “can’t-miss gems.” These aren’t necessarily “attractions” per se, but they’re bits of information that could come in extremely handy – and in some cases, could even be lifesavers.
Here they are, not necessarily in order.
1. Magical Express and other Disney transportation. Most people fly to Florida because of the duration of the drive, and how exhausting it can be. Once you arrive in Orlando, there’s no need to rent a car – especially since Disney transportation is free. The Magical Express will pick you up at the airport in a comfortable tour-style bus. You might have to wait 30 minutes or so for the bus to leave the airport, and it’s roughly a 30- to 40-minute trip to your resort, depending on which one you stay in (different buses go to different resorts). Many of the drivers regale their guests with trivia and other information. Your luggage will arrive separately in your room, usually within three hours of your own arrival. We’ve used the service several times, and so have at least a dozen friends, and no one has ever experienced lost luggage or any other kind of problem. Getting between the parks, and from your resort to the parks, is also a breeze with WDW transportation. If you stay at the Contemporary, the Grand Floridian or the Polynesian, the monorail will whisk you to Magic Kingdom and Epcot; buses or boats (launches) will get you to Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom. The other resorts rely on a combination of buses and launches. There are occasional glitches with the bus service, as would be expected by such an extensive system, but the experience is typically pleasant, convenient, and best of all, free.
2. The Chase Disney Rewards card. If you apply, depending on the offer at the moment, you may get cash back to spend on your trip, or an upfront discount. But you can earn points by using the card to pay your bills here at home, and then turn those points into “Dream” dollars, which you can “spend” at WDW (or Disneyland). Other special offers will come to you via e-mail, and you just have to keep tabs on these. We were able to pay for a meal at Victoria and Albert’s with the points we earned over the past year. Other discounts apply as well. For instance, if you spend $50 on merchandise at a Disney store, you get 10 percent off, and you can take 20 percent off on most tours (see No. 3).
3. Disney tours. We have taken the “Behind the Seeds” tour at the Land pavilion at Epcot, because my husband is interested in hydroponics. He came away with a wealth of information, and this year even bought a book. Let’s see if we can get some tomatoes out of the deal. There’s also a Segway tour through Epcot, at a leisurely pace of about 3 mph, that will familiarize you with all the different pavilions and the attractions therein. If you’re willing to spend a little more money, there are also some fabulous boat cruises through the lagoon at Epcot. Another offering is a VIP tour and seating for the fabulous fireworks show at Epcot, which will bring a tear to even the most cynical eye.
4. Recreational outlets. This year, for the first time in my 50 years, I played miniature golf. Hard to believe – especially since most of the guys I dated in high school threatened to take me to a course in Muskogee, but we never got around to it. My husband has suggested it over the years, but this year, we did it. There are a couple of courses, and we selected Fantasia Gardens at the Swan and Dolphin resorts. With the set straight out of the movie “Fantasia” (including dancing hippos and all!), it was challenging, and more fun than I had ever imagined. I even hit two holes in one, although Chris (who plays “real” golf) had the best score. It’s an economical way to spend an afternoon. WDW also has five world-class “real” golf courses, and I’ve talked to several people who would rather play on them than just about anywhere else. I know one couple who exclusively vacations in golfing areas, and WDW is always on their rounds.
5. Food and Wine Festival. We’ve been to Taste of Chicago, and of course, Taste of Tahlequah, but it’s hard to beat the Food and Wine Festival. With booths from around 30 countries spread out about Epcot, this fall extravaganza promises a sampling of cuisine to please every palate. Most booths offer three of the region’s most popular or signature dishes, plus a couple of wine or cocktail specialties. These are “tasting” portions, but some are quite generous (and by the way, Disney Dining Plans are accepted at most booths). This year, we finally made it to the Tequila Tasting in the Mexican pavilion, accompanied by my sister, Lisa, and her daughter, Amber, both residents of that area. Tequila is jealously guarded as proprietary by Mexico, with only a handful of regions allowed to produce it. We learned there are three basic types of tequila, all depending on how long they’re aged, with “silver” being the youngest. We also were told (which I alreay knew) that 100 percent blue agave is the only way to go. We were served appetizers to go with each of the three samples (and unfortunately, Lisa, who has developed a shellfish allergy, nibbled the crabmeat tostada and later got sick), and then decided which one we liked best. We also got a “shot” of mescal, which none of us really liked. It was a terrific experience and one I’d recommend for anyone, even if you think you don’t like tequila. You might change your mind! Be sure and book early, as slots fill up fast, and there’s only one “tasting” per day (and then only on certain days during the F&WF).
6. Online dining reservations. Speaking of dining, once you set your plans in stone, you’ll want to begin booking your restaurants right away – six months in advance. People find it hard to believe, but I can’t tell you the number of folks we’ve run into at WDW who waited until they got there to try to score reservations. Believe me: Even if you call six months out, you still might not get into a couple of the most popular restaurants (Le Cellier in the Canadian pavilion comes to mind). Since WDW doesn’t have a toll-free number, I’m now pleased to recommend online booking is quick, safe and free. Go to http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations/dining to start perusing the offerings. (I’ll give you some suggestions later.) As I mentioned in an earlier piece, the Disney Dining Plan will most likely save you some money, but consider your eating habits before you decide, and remember that alcoholic beverages and gratuities are not included.
7. High tea at the Grand Floridian. This year, we treated ourselves to this relaxing and tasty treat. No matter which resort you stay in, you might want to set aside a couple of hours during the afternoon to check this out at the Garden View Lounge in the Grand Floridian Resort. Unfortunately, it’s not on the Disney Dining Plan, but for anywhere from $15 to a little over $50 for a couple, it’s worth the additional cash. There is an almost endless selection of teas to choose from, as well as cocktails and other tasty British-style treats, such as scones with clotted cream, pate, trifle, and English cheeses. We had the superb Prince Edward’s Tea, which included duck and cherry terrine, chicken and pork roulade, country pate en croute, and English Blue Stilton cheese, served with marinated fresh berries and Cumberland sauce, plus fresh-baked scones served with Devonshire cream. It was topped off with our choice of tea with a glass of Fonseca Bin 27 Character Port, all for $21. The tea was served in charming pots with all the accouterments, including silver strainers and spoons.
8. Disney’s water parks. At our age, you’d think we wouldn’t like water parks, but thanks to WDW, we still do. Both Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are on our to-do lists every time we visit. Each of these parks is unique in its own way, and my husband has trouble deciding which one he likes best. Typhoon Lagoon has the Crush ‘n’ Gusher water coaster, with three separate chutes (he prefers the Coconut Crusher over the Banana Blaster or the Pineapple Plunger), and the tubes will hold either two or three people (we’ve ridden a three-seater with our son). That’s probably the most thrilling “ride,” but it really depends on what you’re looking for. Both parks have a large pool where tidal waves periodically erupt, and both have “lazy river” features where you can just grab a tube and float in a giant loop. At Blizzard Beach, probably our favorite attraction is Teamboat Springs, which is very much like one of those “rapids” rides most amusement parks have, only you sit in the middle of the giant inner tube in your bathing suit, and then begin the plunge downward through twists and turns. Each park features a tall and steep “plunge chute” attraction (Chris calls them wedgie-makers), and there are also other attractions that either require you to lie back and cross your ankles and arms; sit in an inner tube; or lie on your stomach and take off face-first down a flume, chute or slide. Blizzard Beach has a “ski lift,” so guests who are physically disabled or have trouble walking will probably find this park more convenient. You’ll do a lot of walking and climbing, but I promise you, it’s worth the effort.
9. The Niki Bryan spas. “Are you relaxed yet?” That’s the motto, and if you aren’t relaxed when you get there, you will be after an hour or so. I’ve tried a number of spas, and so have several friends, and these are the best you’ll find at a resort. Niki Bryan spas are located at both the Grand Floridian Resort, which we tried in 2009, and at the Saratoga Springs Resort, where we were treated to a session this year (relaxedyet.com). Saratoga Springs is a huge complex, but it can be easily accessed by bus. There are a number of routes, but we hopped a bus to Downtown Disney, and it took us right to Saratoga, which is essentially “next door.” You might have to switch buses, but it’s just a quick ride. The Saratoga spa is a bit more laid-back in attitude and presentation than the Grand Floridian spa, but both offer the same top-drawer services and exceptionally trained therapists. The therapy beds are comfy and wide (that’s important; many spa beds are quite narrow and you have a hard time keeping your arms relaxed at your sides). The signature treatment is the Adirondack Stone Massage, and it’s simply fabulous. We both had the 80-minute session ($185), capped off with a 25-minute reflexology session ($85). The stone massage involves the strategic placement of smooth, warm river stones at various points on your body as the therapist does her work. Aromatherapy was part of the treatment, and the pleasing scents enhance the experience exponentially, clearing the sinuses as well as the mind. The reflexology focuses on pressure points at your feet, and it really does work to relieve tension in other parts of the body. (While in the waiting area, I talked to a couple of women who said they were pampered with some interesting hydro massage therapies, which sounded like an intensive whirlpool treatment. They were about to undergo pedicures, and one woman told me Niki Bryan gave the best she’d ever had.) Afterward, we retired to enjoy the steam bath, sauna and whirlpool. At both Niki Bryan WDW spas, these three key elements are located in the same room, so you don’t have to traipse all over the place to get from one to the next. You can enjoy the hot sauna (and I do mean hot!) for 15 minutes or so, then move into the heavenly steam bath, where a eucalyptus mist will enhance the cleansing effect. Then you can ease into 104 degrees of whirlpool and kick back to work out any kinks you might have left (and you won’t have many). It’s important to note that if you are a guest in either the Grand Floridian or the Polynesian, you can enjoy the steam room, sauna and whirlpool at the Grand at any time, and we took full advantage of that opportunity. I also looked over the menu while we waited, and notice some body treatments that sounded interesting: body polishes, wraps and other therapies designed to detoxify and relax. If you’ve never had a massage, WDW is a good place to start. Set aside at least three hours to enjoy the whole experience.
10. Disney hospitality. Out of all the hundreds upon hundreds of people we’ve encountered on the WDW “cast and crew” list (employees, in other words), only a single one was less than exemplary (he was a waiter last year at Le Cellier, and maybe it was a bad day for him). Typically, WDW employees will go way overboard to help you in every way. We were wearing “Happy Anniversary” buttons (as do more and more people these days), and about every other cast member we passed wished us well. I asked permission several times to take photos in places were people don’t normally shoot, and they always accommodated me (though sometimes they added, “if you don’t use a flash,” which is understandable). They will tell you about discounts, shortcuts, best times to do certain things, and will help you out if you get in a jam. My husband lost his cell phone in Hollywood Studios. At first we thought it was in the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (which is indoors, in the dark, and goes upside-down), so we thought it was a goner. Turns out it came unclipped from his belt in the considerably tamer Muppets 3D show, so a cast member found it right away and dispatched it to Lost and Found. How that works is, at the end of the day, all items go to a central location by the ticket and transportation hub, and that’s where we picked it up. I talked to four or five other people who have lost purses, phones, wallets, hats, and you name it, and without exception, all things were turned in within a day. It turns out that Disney employees (and apparently most of their guests!) are honest folks.
Up next: Favorite restaurants, attractions and shows, and websites to remember.