Tahlequah Daily Press

April 11, 2008

Disney update: More food, fun for families



Press Managing Editor

A few months ago, I sent out a questionnaire to some local residents, asking them to list their vacation spots of choice if someone else was footing the bill. Not surprisingly, most folks chose a European destination, but more than a few opted for Orlando or Southern California.

Although I didn’t ask for specifics, several who chose sunny-side-up spots asked if I had any updates on what Disney has to offer these days. It just so happens I do, thanks to a spring break excursion to Orlando. I must again stress that to enjoy Disney World to its fullest, you should plan to spend at least eight days there. With four theme parks, two water parks and a number of other entertainment options, that’s the only way you can cover all the bases. Financial and time constraints have prevented me from staying that long in one fell swoop, but over time I’ve collected a solid repertoire for a good to-do list. This time, we stayed at a different resort than before, and visited a few more excellent restaurants I want to tell you about.

We’ve stayed at the Wilderness Lodge and Contemporary before, and enjoyed both. My husband prefers the Wilderness ambiance, but the Contemporary is more convenient because the monorail runs through it. (Disney does have a bus system that will take you between parks and resorts, but it’s slower and less direct than the monorail.) This time, we stayed at the Polynesian, which also has monorail access and a unique ambiance, and now it’s our favorite.

The Polynesian is usually the second most expensive resort (after the Grand Floridian, which is for those with fatter wallets than mine), but we got a great deal with AAA that dropped it lower than most other deluxe resorts. The Polynesian, unlike some other resorts, is a compound with a “great house” (lobby, restaurants and shops) and several outlying houses containing the rooms, which vary in price according to feature and view. (On a typical vacation, we don’t care about view because we’re rarely in our room – except in Chicago, but that’s another story.) On your arrival, you’ll be greeted with a hearty “Aloha!” and a colorful lei.

The “Poly,” as Disney cast members affectionately call it, boasts the biggest rooms of any Disney resort, and the laid-back island motif is perfect for a relaxing vacation. A pool with a faux volcano and a slide was crowded with kids, so we opted for the quieter circular pool elsewhere in the compound. No sooner had my husband and I grabbed a couple of bags of potato chips and kicked back in loungers than we were accosted by a couple of rather pushy mallards. The hen helped herself to a few morsels and waddled off, but the drake hung loitered, demanding (and receiving) a hefty portion of my Cheetos, directly from my hand. After he ate his fill, he strolled over to the pool, had a drink and washed up.

The best coffee at Disney World is at the Poly – specifically at the Kona Grill. I’ve told you about Kona before; the Eggs Benedict is heavenly. There’s also a snack bar that offers a decent pulled pork sandwich, and it’s open later at night than most places.

We always try to get to Kona Grill when we visit, as well as the aforementioned Bistro; the Rose and Crown, a British pub at Epcot; and the ‘50s Prime Time Dinner, at Hollywood (formerly MGM) Studios. This time, we tried four new restaurants, all at resorts: Boma, at Animal Kingdom Lodge; Artist Point, at Wilderness Lodge; Narcoosee’s, at the Grand Floridian; and California Grill, at the Contemporary. The latter three are not what you’d call inexpensive, so unless you’ve been setting aside money (like we usually do), or you don’t mind carrying a credit card balance, you might want to select one or two of these four-star establishments. And although all are worth the price you’ll pay, if you have to choose only one, go with California Grill.

Situated atop the Contemporary Resort, this restaurant offers the most spectacular panoramic views in all of Disney World, and the food is as good as the mood. We were seated at a window where we had a perfect view of the fireworks display at Magic Kingdom, and our server (Robert, I think) was one of the most attentive fellows to grace our table, anywhere. California Grill’s decor is ultra-modern, and busy but elegant, with chefs working in a central area (California style) so you can watch them if you like. Only the freshest ingredients are used, but the menu can change weekly, but all three of us had something different for all three courses, and everything was exceptional. My son claimed his pork tenderloin was the best he’s ever had. For an appetizer, I had a foie gras pairing (the actual liver and a pate) that was to die for, and my husband had an unbelievably good cheese board. If you eat here, don’t forget dessert: the Banana and Butterscotch “Buzz” and the Honey Crunch Cake will bowl you over. (Note to wine aficionados: You won’t find a better selection!)

Though we’ve stayed at the Wilderness Lodge a couple of times, we never made it to Artist Point until this trip. As you might expect, the setting is the Pacific Northwest, and salmon on a plank is the specialty. But I couldn’t resist trying the buffalo sirloin steak, and it was melt-in-your mouth tender – better than most beef, really. Several people had also raved about the smoky portobello soup, so my son tried it, and the reviews were spot-on.

An evening at Narcoossee’s did at least allow us a glimpse of the posh Grand Floridian Resort. The resort is reminiscent of the elegant eastern seaboard resorts of centuries past – what you might recall from the movie “Dirty Dancing,” only swankier. The restaurant continues the theme; you’d almost expect to view the sea if you glanced out the window. As for the menu, the seafood bisque and the mussels are standouts on the appetizer list, and for dessert, the almond-crusted cheesecake is a good choice. For the entree, we did as advised, and had the surf and turf – a grilled filet mignon with butter-poached lobster tail, potato gratin and green peppercorn brandy sauce. Sensational! You just can’t get lobster like that in Oklahoma.

Boma, at the safari-themed Animal Kingdom Lodge, is a great place to take a family, especially a hungry teenage boy. Out of any Disney World restaurant, it offers the best bang for the buck – $27 for all you can eat, and believe me, there’s a lot to eat. I had seen a menu, but the spread was even more expansive than we expected, starting with the thin, juicy slices of prime rib, wood-roasted meats and grilled seafood selections. My son is a real African cuisine aficionado, so he reveled in the fare – especially the Couscous Marrakesh and Durban-spiced chicken. There was a wonderful selection of hummus and related spreads, a tasty Moroccan seafood salad, and dozens more items I can’t remember. And the dessert buffet – well, there’s plenty to brag about, but the most interesting for us were the cheesecake squares over a layer of white chocolate. We consumed dozens of them.

On this trip, we were able to spend more time in the water parks before. We’d been to Typhoon Lagoon for the first time last year, and this time we made it to Blizzard Beach. Both feature a number of terrific slides, the mammoth “wave pools” and the “lazy river” steams wherein you can float endlessly on an innertube. And both parks are well worth four or five hours of your time.

The star attraction at Typhoon Lagoon is a water roller coaster, Crush ‘n’ Gusher, where you can ride two or three to a tube. There are three different routes you can take, and any one of them is guaranteed to give you plenty of “air time” (and a scraped behind, if you don’t heed the advice of the ride operators and “hold your tush up”). The storm slides offer variety for the adventurous.

Folks in wheelchairs – like one woman I met – will probably prefer Blizzard Beach. We did, too! Like its name suggests, it’s themed around a ski lodge motif, so you can take a ski lift to the top for the three biggest slides. To get to the most extreme slide, Summit Plummet, you’ll have to climb farther, though. The apprehension doesn’t really hit you until you’re seated at the top of the slide and realize you can’t SEE the slide – it plunges almost straight down, 120 feet! After you get the green light, you’ll shoot down at about 55 mph for 360 feet. This one’s not for wimps (and expect a serious “wedgie” at the end of the ride!). Another must-do at Blizzard Beach is Teamboat Springs, a whitewater raft ride – one of the world’s longest – that’ll take six people at a time.

Sound like fun? Sure, it does – but you’d better start making plans now. Things aren’t getting any cheaper out there!

Top Ten Hit List

Since I’ve told you about many other attractions at Disney World, I won’t take up space with a rehash, but for those who missed it last time (and aren’t ambitious enough to search our archives), I’ll give you a list of my favorite attractions (in order of preference). The list might not necessarily reflect it, but Epcot is actually my family’s favorite park. But as you can see, you’ll have to hit every park to get every favorite. Enjoy!

1. Soaring’ (Epcot)

2. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Hollywood Studios)

3. Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios)

4. Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

5. Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom)

6. Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom)

7. Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom)

8. Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom)

9. Teamboat Springs (Blizzard Beach)

10. Crush ‘n’ Gusher (Typhoon Lagoon)

Eight Suggestions Before You Go

Planning a trip to Disney World? Pre-planning is the key to saving money. Here are some hints.

1. If cost is a factor, time of year and the resort you choose will be all priced accordingly. We’ve only stayed in the deluxes, but we know many people who have stayed in moderate or value resorts, and no one has been disappointed. The prices also vary according to season; for instance, Spring Break is one of the priciest times of the year. If you have children, a value resort, at one of the lower seasons, will be your best bet.

2. Stay in a Disney resort. Sure, you can find a cheaper rate elsewhere, but the ambiance won’t be there, nor will convenience. Decide what you can afford, and make your pick – the earlier the better – by going to http://disneyworld.disney. go.com. Which brings me to the biggest advantage for staying in a Disney resort. ...

3. Use the Magical Express. It’s free if you’re in a resort, and unless you’re going somewhere else in Orlando, you won’t have to rent a car. Disney will pick you up in a bus at the airport and deposit you at the front door of your resort. They’ll take care of your luggage, too; it will arrive later that evening or very early the next morning. Then they’ll take you back to the airport at the end of your trip.

4. If you’re an American Automobile Association member make your arrangements through AAA, or at least ask for the AAA discount when you book your resort room. You’ll save a ton – far more than the AAA membership fee.

5. Invest the extra money in Park Hopper tickets. A one-park ticket will limit you to one park for the day; with the hopper, you can go from park to park. This is important because of another resort guest benefit: the Extra Magic Hours, which get you in a certain park every morning an hour early, and lets you stay up to three hours after closing at another park. These vary according to day, however, and the morning park is never the same as the evening.

6. If you’ll be there more than three or four days, invest in the Water Park Fun & More option. I still haven’t gotten to indulge in all the entertainment in this package, but if I’m lucky, I should complete the goal the next time we go. The water parks alone are worth it!

7. Enjoy some of the Disney restaurants, and make reservations early! Most restaurants will take reservations as much as 180 days in advance (although one of our faves, Bistro de Paris, will only do it 30 days out). Don’t wait until you get there, or you may be disappointed.

8. Use the itinerary planner on Disney’s Web site. That way you can get an idea of all the attractions available, and which ones you won’t want to miss.