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Epcot – from lunch until sore feet take over

14 Jun

Back to where we left off.  We have just exited Animal Kingdom and our plan is to find food!  Fast!  We didn’t realize how hungry we were until we were on our way out and stumbled upon these …

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Yes!  It’s a cupcake shaped like a Meerkat!  So cute – and so not what we wanted to eat at that moment in time … lucky meerkat!

Back in the car and off to Epcot … but instead of heading to the front, we headed for the Boardwalk resort area, thinking we might grab a bite to eat there.  We parked in the visitor parking for the Boardwalk Resort and Villas and headed in from there.

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This is one resort I’ve never stayed at … but I’d like to try it sometime as it seems to have raving fans.  Today, however, nothing much was going on either at the resort or along the Boardwalk and the one restaurant that had a menu that we were really interested in was not open for lunch.  It was still pretty chilly, and the wind blowing across the water was just raw.  Out of the wind, the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day.  Since the boardwalk was really, really dead, we just continued walking to the “back door” of Epcot Center.

The really nice feature of all the Boardwalk area resorts, which include the Swan and Dolphin and Yacht and Beach Club, is that you can walk from there to either Epcot or Hollywood Studios.  In addition, there is a nice path around the water that serves as a bike path, jogging trail, and people-watching venue.  Again, unless people are staying over there, they don’t tend to enter Epcot from this direction, so lines are pretty short and entry is fast and easy.  That said, you are on the “back side” or the World Showcase side of Epcot, so in the morning it’s a bit of a walk to the front where things are open.  Coming in at around 1pm as we did, however, means that the World Showcase is open and there is lots of activity to be found.  Plus, since we were looking for food, this was EXACTLY where we wanted to be … and we let our noses lead us straight to France.

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We were there during the Flower and Garden Festival, which is one of my two favorite times to visit Epcot, the other being the Food and Wine Festival, which runs from September 27-November 11 this year.  Amazing topiary creations are all over the park during this festival, and I’m going to bore you with photos galore.  But even better?  The food booths … and our first stop, in France, netted us this yummy ratatouile tart:

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Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much – but it TASTED glorious!  And it hit the spot!  We wished we’d bought two … but Britt was a little hesitant about it, having no idea what ratatoulie was, so we went on the safe side this time around.

The way the food booths work is a little different from the normal food operations … you stop and purchase a ticket (or tickets) for what you want to try, and then present the ticket as payment for your order.  If it’s crowded, this is a hassle.  But remember, it was cold out by Florida standards, although by now it was close to 60 degrees out, so no crowds today!

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We kept walking around the World Showcase … next stop, the booth in Japan:

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Here we sampled the Yakisoba Pan:

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And the Chirashi Hanazushi:

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Both dishes were excellent, although I preferred the “Zushi” – the noodles on bread were a little too carby for me, although it did make them really easy to eat!  As we continued on our quest we found ourselves in …

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The good old USA – here are some of the topiaries we found as we explored the American Pavillion:

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We skipped over this food booth, and the Italian one as well, since they weren’t serving anything we hadn’t tried before.  But I do have the menus, so if you’re interested in seeing them, comment on the blog and I’ll post them up.  In the meantime, check out the detail on the Lady and the Tramp topiary in Italy:

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I may be raving too much for you about the genius of Disney’s artists and designers, but come on – who DOES this?  A coat hanger for a dog tag .. brilliant!  And the use of the different varieties of plants to create the different textures on each of these sculptures had me in awe all the way around the park.  It was amazing.  On to Germany …

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This was our second favorite stop of the day – France being first.  We sampled the bread pudding (very rich – almost TOO rich – really glad we were sharing)

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And the meatloaf – which was not what we expected, but was SO good!  Point of note – it contains pork.  There was a lady blowing up behind us because the meatloaf contained Pork and had “ruined her”.  Honestly?!?!  If you have dietary restrictions, check the ingredients of ANYTHING you order – even if this had been “American style” meatloaf, chances are pretty good that it might have contained some pork … vent over – here is the picture of the yummy sandwich that looked … well … not so yummy.  (glad we braved it)

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Kinda looks like Spam doesn’t it?  But WOW – it was amazing, and if I could have purchased that mustard, I’d have a cabinet full of it right now.

At this point, we were so full we were bursting.  So we decided to pass on China, Norway (the food that is, we did ride Maelstrom), and Mexico figuring if we got the munchies we could always come back.  That is, we almost passed on Mexico.  Brittany developed a craving for horchata as we walked by the Mexico pavillion, and we were stunned to find that it is not served in Epcot Center.  Since we couldn’t get horchata, we got coffee instead – at the Mexico pavillion.  Here’s the funny (funny ha ha in our minds, anyway) part – she got an iced caramel latte and I got an iced latte with Baileys – Italian style coffee with Irish liquor in Mexico … where else but Disney??

Right next to the coffee stand was our good friend Mike!  We hadn’t seen him in years…

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And his buddy Sully …

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Spaceship Earth, the Dancing fountains surrounded by towering topiaries – and HERE is where all the people are!!!  I guess it kind of makes sense … Future World is largely indoors, so you can stay out of the frigid Florida air, lol.  That said, there were no Fast Passes left for Soarin’, Test Track, or anything else on this side.  But that’s okay, we’re not here to stand in line today, having only one day to do as much as we can, and so we headed for what used to be called “The Living Seas” and is now called “The Seas with Nemo and Friends”.

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We happily sank into a clamshell and set off to “find Nemo” while our feet throbbed and rested and then wandered in to the building to explore the tanks.  We probably spent close to an hour in there and we found ourselves fascinated by these rescued Manatees:

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They had been struck by boats and one was missing a fin, so are not able to live in the wild, but they seemed pretty happy here!

Back out to the Journey into Imagination Pavillion to see Michael Jackson in Captain EO

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And on to the butterfly tent … where all the fairies live and you can watch butterflies hatch from their cocoons.

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We were getting pretty tired and thirsty by now and our dogs were barkin’, if you know what I mean, so we started heading back towards the World Showcase on our way back to the car. Along the way, here’s what we saw:

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someone is not afraid of Nala …Image

the happy family

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Rafiki and Simba

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look who is lurking by Test Track!

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this is my favorite shot!

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My 4×12 garden takes me forever to plant – I can’t even imagine attempting this!Image

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Red glass poppies along the “yellow brick road” to “Oz”.  At the other end, we found the UK pavillion and stopped for some rose lemonade and peach iced tea.  And guess who else we discovered – these were the BEST!

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major points for creativity on the placement of Peter … Image

As we walked back past France, it crossed our minds that we might want more ratatoulie, and then it uncrossed them and we kept strolling out to catch our “Friendship” back to the Boardwalk Inn and Villas.  We headed for the car, abandoning the plan to try and catch the Rock-n-Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios, opting instead to head back to the timeshare for a rest.  Magic Kingdom will be the next stop, after a little exploration of the Polynesian Resort … and its open until 1am, so we’d better rest up!

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Animal Kingdom

11 Jun

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park is probably the least visited of the four major parks in the Walt Disney World Resort.  With the shortest park day, typically opening between 7 and 9am and closing between 5 and 7 pm depending on the season, many people don’t see the value in using one of their ticketed days to visit.  The other objection is “It’s just a zoo, and I can go to the zoo at home.  I beg to differ.

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The best tip I can give you for Animal Kingdom (or AK, as I’ll refer to it from here out) is to arrive at park opening.  If you do, you’ll be able to make the most of your day AND you’ll see the animals when they’re at their most active.  Contrary to what you might think, cool days are great for animal activity!  The day we visited on this trip, the temperature was around 47 degrees and there was a stiff breeze blowing.  Not the most comfortable of mornings, but when we bundled up (jeans and a sweatshirt – we are from Chicago – and in March, that’s just plain balmy)we were fairly comfortable.  There were NO lines – the parking lot was almost empty and we arrived at the park an hour after opening, which I normally wouldn’t recommend.  Arriving right at “rope drop” gives you the best opportunity to experience the park at its best most days.  However, the cool temperatures, slightly off-peak timing of our visit, and the fact that we were there on a Thursday all worked in our favor.

As I normally recommend, we headed straight for the Kilimanjaro Safari.  KS is a faux safari through the grasslands and savannahs of Africa and it allows you to see a wide variety of animals.   The vehicle you ride in is a “modified” Jeep type vehicle that has about 10 rows of seats (bench-style) that seat four people each (more if you have small children).  To get your best views, you obviously want to be on an end – those in the middle can see just fine, but you’ll have a much more difficult time if you wish to photograph any of the animals.  Your “guide” will explain what animals you’re seeing as you travel along the road.  You will likely be able to see the vehicle ahead of and behind you, but don’t worry; it really doesn’t detract from the experience.

 

Welcome to Africa

Welcome to Africa

The view from inside the Jeep

The view from inside the Jeep

Off we go ...

Off we go …

Right out of the gate, we saw giraffes very close to the vehicle, and some large hooved animals (sorry, I didn’t take great notes on what animals we saw).  They were much closer to the “Jeep” than I’d ever seen them before, and we’ve visited AK many times as Britt aspires to be an animal scientist of some sort.   A few of them even decided to cross the road right in front of us, so we got a very up-close and personal view of them.

I think this may be a Bongo

I think this may be a Bongo

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The picture below shows some people trekking across a rope bridge along the safari route.  These people signed up for one of Disney’s many specialty tours – one I’d love to take sometime.  This particular tour runs just over $200 per person and takes you “backstage” throughout AK, including some animal care areas.  You get a very good idea of how the park is operated from an animal care perspective.  It sells out pretty quickly, so if it is something you’re interested in, when you call or email me to book your trip, let me know, and I can help you make arrangements for it, or for that matter, any of the “backstage” tours Disney offers – and there are many of them!

Wild Africa Trek Participants

Wild Africa Trek Participants

As we continued, we saw more hooved animals (Ibis, I think), and more Giraffes.  Disney has two kinds of giraffes, the reticulated giraffe, pictured here, and Masai giraffes.  We were fortunate enough to see both on this trek, but the first one was on the wrong side of the vehicle and I couldn’t get a good photo.  The easiest way to tell them apart is that the reticulated giraffe has spots that look kind of jagged, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, while the Masai giraffe has much smoother spots outlined in white – they just look more orderly, I suppose, but other than that, it’s difficult to identify any real difference between the two.

Reticulated Giraffes

Reticulated Giraffes

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As with all Disney experiences, the details are very well done, even if the “story line” is kitschy.  For instance, inside the jeep you’ll see a mesh bag with “equipment” dangling above the driver and our “jeep” had rust spots and stickers inside – they’re all slightly different, so it’s fun to notice the little things that set them apart from each other. 

"Details"

“Details”

For those of you who have been on KS before, the “Little Red” storyline has been dropped, so no more explaining to teary eyed littles that an elephant didn’t really die at Disney World.  Speaking of elephants …

Of course YOU already know these are AFRICAN elephants - we ARE in Africa!  (yes, someone asked the "guide")

Of course YOU already know these are AFRICAN elephants – we ARE in Africa! (yes, someone asked the “guide”)

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Flamingos

Flamingos

 

Just past the elephants were this flock of flamingos, and then as we rounded the corner, we met some new friends…

White Rhino

White Rhino

 

I’m not sure if they just happened to be crossing the road or if they were looking for something to eat, but these two rhinos trotted right up to the vehicles in front of us, then to ours, and then moseyed along the road right in front of us.  They had NO fear of the vehicles, and I guess if you’re a rhino, why would you?  You know how badly hitting a deer can damage your car – just think what one of these babies would do to your average Prius or Honda Civic!

Hey, Jack!  Got any snacks???

Hey, Jack! Got any snacks???

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A little further up, we arrived in big cat territory.  The cheetah was on the wrong side again, but these two lions were sunning themselves right next to the road.  This is the closest I’ve ever seen them to the road – usually they tend to be far enough away that I need my “big lens”, not just my point and shoot to get a good photo.

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On around the bend, we meet up with some more of the hooved animals, a lazy ostrich, and a few more very friendly rhinos.  Just after that, the ride ended and it was back to the park.  Here’s where most people start to make mistakes and miss the charm and the magic of Animal Kingdom.  If you’ve arrived early, take your time and enjoy the walking trails.  We took the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which you’ll find on your way back to Harambe Village.  There are trails in Africa and Asia.  Each is about ¾ of a mile long, so they’re good for exercise (as if you weren’t walking enough, right?), but will also allow you to view some of the lesser seen animals in the park.  We met this friendly little fellow just a short way in.

The birds aren't particularly shy here, either.

The birds aren’t particularly shy here, either.

The “wild” American rabbit – I got a kick out of this guy.  The prairie dogs were buried deep underground since it was so cold, but this guy decided if they weren’t going to eat, he’d be happy to help them out.

Bugs?

Bugs?

Also on this path are the gorillas.  We got some great views while we were there and really enjoyed watching them as they foraged for food.  Disney uses food to keep the animals entertained and in motion, and spreads the food around to keep the animals on the move.  Different locations have food at different times of the day … this is true of all the areas of AK park.  One point of note, the Gorilla area of the trail is a QUIET zone.  This is because the gorillas can view excessive noise and motion as a threat and become agitated.  You’re in their home … try to be respectful.  Think of them as furry grandparents who can’t handle a lot of wild activity.

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AK Park is laid out in the same “hub and spoke” pattern that Magic Kingdom uses.  The main difference is that, unlike MK, at AK the “lands” do not all connect.  You have to cross back over to “Discovery Island” to move between some of them or to the park exit.  How do you find Discovery Island?  Just look for the Tree of Life, pictured here.  It is one of two very recognizable structures in this park – and its different from every angle.  Inside the tree is the 4D movie, “It’s Tough to Be a Bug”.  Be prepared to get stung, sprayed, etc. as you enjoy the characters from “A Bug’s Life” teaching you about the insect world.

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Take some time to check out all the detail - it's kind of amazing.

Take some time to check out all the detail – it’s kind of amazing.

 

After KS, I highly recommend heading over to your choice of either Expedition Everest or Dinosaur! to grab a fast pass.  Because we were on a short schedule and knew that Britt couldn’t handle the jerkiness of Dinosaur!, we headed for Asia and Expedition Everest.  When we got there, the stand-by line was 25 minutes long, and the fast pass return time was 30 minutes away.  We decided to grab the fast pass and head for the walking trail through Asia.  Here are some of the friends we met along that trail.

Check out the wingspan on this fruit bat!

Check out the wingspan on this fruit bat!

Shere Kahn

Shere Kahn

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Elds Deer

Elds Deer

These Eld’s Deer were right up close to the trail as well, and the young ones were quite frisky.  I didn’t grab a picture of the young ones because they were busily sprinting and leaping, back and forth, while the elder ones grazed and watched.  (They moved too fast for the point and shoot – they were a literal blur)  The male of this species drop their horns between May and June every year – note how long they are in this picture.  You’re seeing them at almost the longest they ever will be, and the people that come in June will have a difficult time distinguishing between males and females until the horns begin to grow back again.

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I’m assuming this is some kind of a peacock, but he was just chilling out right next to the walking path.

The tigers are along this path as well, and they are quite popular, although today they were pretty tight up against the wall, soaking in the heat from the warm stone along with the heat of the sun, so it was difficult to get a great photo.

We rode EE, which is one of my favorite coasters in WDW, with Hollywood Studio’s Rock-n-Roller Coaster being my absolute favorite.  This one is themed well as you wait in line, if you have to wait at all.  The fast pass had us on board within 5 minutes of entering the queue.  While it does not go upside down and is just generally a “fun” coaster – not too scary with the drops or turns for little ones – it does go backwards for part of the ride, and there are some very dark moments – dark as in no lights – so if you’re children are prone to be afraid of the dark, I’d take a pass on this ride, or do a “baby/kid-swap”.  For those not afraid of the dark, this is a perfect “big kid” coaster!  All the fun without any of the “fear”.

The big drop at Expedition Everest

The big drop at Expedition Everest

Speaking of kids, if you want something fun for them to do while you’re exploring the park, you could play a trivia game and give them stickers for each of the animals they find … relate it back to a Disney film like Lion King or Jungle Book depending on what area of the park you’re in.  Here’s a link to some Jungle Book Trivia:

http://www.funtrivia.com/en/Movies/Jungle-Book-The-12349.html

 

After Expedition Everest, we took a quick stroll through Dinoland, just because we really enjoy its bright colors, carnival like atmosphere, and people watching there, but as our tummies started to growl, we decided to make our way to Epcot for lunch.  As we exited AK, right around noon, this is what we saw:

Crazy people who slept in and will now suffer the consequences

Crazy people who slept in and will now suffer the consequences

Remember when I said that arriving early was your best bet?  This is why.  All these people were waiting in line to get IN to the park – and while we were there, there were barely any lines at all.  Later that day, we checked the “World of Disney Lines” app on our phone, and it said the park to avoid was Animal Kingdom – after seeing the lines on our way out, I can imagine that would be true!

Other “don’t miss” things to do at AK include the Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo, The Musical – and the Wonder of Flight show.  They are highly entertaining, well performed, and well attended.  If we had not been so short on time, having only one day to get to multiple parks, we would definitely have taken the time to see those three shows.  The other nice thing about AK is the ease in meeting characters.  In Camp Minnie Mickey, on the greeting trails, there are multiple character greeting spots and harder to find characters, like Pocahontas, can also be found in AK.  It’s a great way to spend a first day at Disney, allowing yourself time to adjust to the rhythm of the parks.  As for food, there are some great dining options inside and a Rainforest Café available at the park entrance – there was no waiting the day we were there, but advanced dining reservations are usually highly recommended.  Yak and Yeti and Pizzafari are two other very popular choices – and this time, I noted something new – a little booth selling wings – here’s a menu … with Britt’s limited ability to eat, we passed on these, but will definitely look for them again next time we go to AK (they were in Asia) as they smelled fabulous.

Yummy Wings in Asia

Yummy Wings in Asia

Next up, Epcot and the Flower and Garden Festival.

Exploring Disney’s Newest Resort – The Art of Animation Resort

14 Mar

Part of what we are doing while we are here is exploring Disney resorts that we’ve never been to.  The first one we decided to check out is the newest – Disney’s Art of Animation Resort. 

 

The newest of Disney’s “Value” resorts, AoA is located across a lagoon and connected by a bridge and a beautiful jogging trail to the Pop Century (another Value resort).  AoA consists of four different themed areas:  Finding Nemo, Cars, Lion King, and Little Mermaid.  Of these areas, all but the Little Mermaid areas have “family suites”, which sleep six.  The suites have a queen sized bed (in a room with a door that closes!), a double sized sleeper sofa, and a double sized “table bed”, which is a convertible bed that folds down, out of the wall, over the dining table in the room.  It’s a very unique, space saving idea and is similar to the Murphy Beds offered in the Wilderness Cabins.  The Little Mermaid rooms are ‘standard’ rooms, meaning that they sleep up to four with two double beds or one king bed.  The Mermaid rooms also have outdoor entrances, similar to what you’ll see at the other value resorts, while the suites enter from a hallway. 

The check in and lobby area are attention grabbers with their funky lighting and incredible animation artwork.  If you’re at Disney, don’t EVER forget to look up – check out this cool chandelier feature in the lobby at AoA – each panel is unique and you could spend quite a bit of time looking just at this!

 

The “Big Blue Pool” is the largest pool area of all the Disney resorts to date, and it’s themed very creatively.  We were almost on sensory overload as we walked through the whole resort, but this was especially well done and the families using the pool were obviously having a fantastic time!

 

 

Note the fountain fish – there is an entire toddler area with the great squishy randomly squirting water features, a playground right off the pool, and bright, happy colors and music everywhere. 

The outside of each building is “themed” as well –

It was really cool and made me kind of wish I was staying there … kind of.  Rooms right now have starting prices ranging from $118 per night for a standard room (Mermaid) to $284 per night for the family suites. 

 By the way, if you’re interested in getting pricing for a Disney vacation, you can email me at travelingtogether@yahoo.com or visit my website at http://travelingtogether.agentarc.com/content.asp and I’m happy to help – on with the review now that the cheap and tawdry advertising is over. 

AoA has a great food court – I’m posting the menus below, but there were also a great variety of “quick take out” options from Greek yogurt and fruit to sushi and pre-made sandwiches and salads, ready to grab and go if the kids won’t leave the pool.  Oh, and for dessert?  Gelato and pastries …

 

 

 

The theming was wonderful throughout the resort.  Here are some photos from each of the different areas – Lion King first – the movie screen was for “movies under the stars” – a free option for Disney guests.  The movie tonight?  Up.  A great way to unwind and relax a little before attempting to get the kids into bed. 

 

 

Behind the skeleton is a little cave type area that was all lit up – there were kids playing in there, so I didn’t snap any photos – I’m trying not to unintentionally make anyone’s kids fodder for the internet – but if I were predisposed to do so, Disney would be the place to get the best shots!  Princesses skipping along with sticky marshmallow faces, pirates around every corner – if you give your kids a break and allow them to rest and enjoy some of the little spots designed just for that instead of pushing to do everything (its impossible –trust me), it truly CAN be the happiest place on earth.

On to The Little Mermaid – I’ve seen some criticism of this area (and the Lion King) on line from Disney fanatics who don’t think that the theming was quite enough – trust me, it’s plenty!  I’m not sure what was expected, but in my opinion, there is plenty to look at, lots to do, and when I get back to my resort after a long day in the parks, I like to be able to relax a bit.  That said, the pool areas in both the Lion King and Little Mermaid areas were not nearly as well done as the Cars area, which (contrary to what I expected) became my absolute favorite – although I think all three smaller courtyards (the Nemo rooms are off the Big Blue Pool) are a lot of fun.  Anyway, I digress – here’s Ariel and her friends.

 

(I love how the landscaping plays into the theme – Disney is all about the details!)

Neptune, Ursula and Ariel are as tall as or taller than the buildings – they are just FUN!

On to Cars – this part of the resort is INCREDIBLE – and when I book a trip to AoA, this is where I want to be.  Check out the pool cabanas – the theming here is so well done that it makes some of the more luxurious resorts look weak by comparison. 

 

Gotta love orange cones as cabanas –

 

 After AoA, we headed over to Downtown Disney to grab a bite to eat at one of my favorite places, The Earl of Sandwich.  If you’re in the mood for soup, salads, or great sandwiches and actually care about your budget, this is a great option.  Full sized sandwiches (10-12”) run $5.99 – and salads are similarly priced.  When Subway brags about a $5 footlong and their quality isn’t even close to EoS, the deal is even that much more surprising.  Here’s my sandwich – the Chipotle Chicken and Avocado, which comes in at a reasonable 440 calories (yes, I’m that person – watching my calories even while on vacation, sigh).  Britt had the Tuna Salad sandwich.  I normally will never order a tuna salad sandwich while out to eat, but this one is worth a look.  I don’t have a photo because she dug in too fast, but it was chunky, just the right amount of dressing and served with melty, mild Swiss cheese (she couldn’t believe it was Swiss – it didn’t have that ‘bite’ and tasted more like Havarti). 

 

After dinner, we wandered a bit, shopped a very little, and then as the exhaustion from rising at 3am to catch our flight began to overwhelm us, headed back to the timeshare.  We’re at Bluegreen’s Fountains resort – on International Drive, it’s a fast 10 minute drive to the Walt Disney World Resort and about the same distance to Sea World.  Universal is just a little further up the road from Sea World, so it’s in a great location, and if you have the opportunity to stay here, I highly recommend it.  A few pics below of Lego sculptures and then a few more of our timeshare.

The timeshare is below – these are the super deluxe units – not what I booked, but we got upgraded (YAY!) to the newest and nicest.  But here at the Fountains, even the old units are beautiful – if you want to check them out, go to  http://www.bluegreenonline.com

Bedroom 2 – with 2 double beds

Bathroom 2

the kitchen – with marble countertops and nice, new appliances, it comes fully stocked with all the dishes and utensils (and cookware) you could need – even kitchen scissors!

Master bedroom – King bed

“extra” sink and counter in master bedroom

The sink area inside the master bathroom – there is a shower across from the “extra sink and countertop, and then this gem inside the bathroom itself:

 

Outside there are two pools (one is indoor/outdoor), all kinds of food options here at the resort, a few beautiful lakes, and a 1/2 mile jogging path that encircles the lake.  But now, as I warned you above, the pillow is calling, and this is where my day must end.  Back later with Animal Kingdom!

 

 

Spring Break 2013 – Central Florida, Bahamas, Key West

13 Mar

We’re on the road again!  Things got a bit crazy the last half of 2012, but they’ve settled down now and Brittany and I are out on the road – or, I should say, in the air.

Britt had a pretty serious surgery at the end of January, and we’re exactly six weeks out today!  What better way to get a teenaged girl to want to recover than to plan an awesome vacation?  I can’t think of one, so that’s what we did.

This morning, at 3am, my alarm went off.  While the rest of the house was still sleeping, I got dressed and went to wake Britt.  The two of us crept out the door, trying not to wake the rest of the family (other than for a fast goodbye they probably won’t remember) or the “puppy” and loaded our 2 carry-on sized bags into the minivan.  Along with those bags, I have my laptop case and she has a tote bag.

This trip, we’re doing something a little different than my normal routine – we’re flying on Southwest.  I think its been close to ten years, and maybe longer, since I’ve been on this airline.  They used to be considered a “low cost” carrier – and maybe they still are, but I have found that their ticket prices tend to be pretty closely aligned with most of the other major carriers (AA, United, Delta … you get the jist).  Sometimes their fares are even higher, which means that using them didn’t make sense at all.  For one, Southwest flys out of Midway airport – Midway isn’t a bad airport at all, and I’ll discuss that in a bit, but it is not even a little bit convenient to get to from where I live.  If you take a limo or car service, they charge close to fifty percent more to take you there, if you’re flying during peak times, the traffic is horrible, and the neighborhood – let’s just say its seen its better days.

This time, however, Southwest it is.  A couple things that have changed since we last flew are the option for “early check in”.  I’ve seen this widely panned in reviews, with flyers stating that it doesn’t buy you any better seat than you’d get if you were checking in normally – but at $10, I think the risk would be worth it.  You’re guaranteed a slot in the “A” boarding group – which is helpful since Southwest does not have assigned seating.  In the old days, you’d get to the airport as early as you could stand, and then do just that – stand in line at the gate – first come, first served.  It was miserable and you’d have folks “saving places” for others – which if it is your husband, wife, or child is ok.  When its your entire softball team, not so much.  Now, Southwest has boarding groups and inside of each group are assigned numbers.  When they call your flight for boarding, you line up according to your number and passengers are boarded five at a time, in order.  Much nic)er than the old days.

The plane, too, has had a bit of an upgrade/facelift.  Last time I flew SW, the color scheme was royal blue and orange.  The seats were cloth and there were “facing” seats in the front of the plane.  Today, our 737 has wifi (for a fee), leather seats, and is configured like a “normal” aircraft – that said, those front seats that faced each other were really  nice when we travelled with all three kids – their legs weren’t as long as ours, so we got more leg room, our family could all sit together and converse, and it was really comfortable.  I can see, however, that if you had six adults in those seats, the leg room might not be ideal.

The “bags fly free” feature was also very nice and the skycap at the airport was awesome in helping us get our 2 bags checked why lug them around if you don’t have to …

Overall, Midway is an easy airport to navigate.  Its small, which means you’re never too far from your gate. There are skycaps to help you avoid the annoying check in lines caused by groups traveling together and people who have never learned how to check in via the kiosk or online.   I was pleasantly surprised to see that more food and merchandise venues are open at Midway in the early morning (think 4:30am) hours than at O’Hare.  We easily found something to eat and drink on the way to the gate and had several options to choose from, unlike the McDonalds only model that seems to be par for the course at O’Hare prior to 5am.

Boarding went quickly and we were in the air in a jiffy.  The other  thing that’s interesting about Southwest – although not my favorite thing – is that they kind of act like a bus.  We booked a flight to Orlando, but made stops in Baltimore MD and Greenville SC “on the way”.  The good – we didn’t have to exit the plane.  The bad – 3 takeoffs and landings and an additional 3 hours in travel time over a direct flight.  Ick.

Something else that has changed – the flight attendants aren’t quite as much “fun” as they used to be back in days gone by.  Air travel has changed so much that perhaps it isn’t entirely practical, but remembering fondly the whole aircraft sing-alongs , jokes over the intercom, and general goofiness had set my expectations up a little differently than what actually occurred.  Maybe we just had a “down to business” flight crew, but all those fun things are gone.  The peanuts, pretzels, and free beverages (even liquor on certain days of the year – St Patty’s day is next), still exist, though, and overall it’s been a great flight.

So, over the next week, Brittany and I are planning to have a few different experiences which we’ll share with you along the way as we have wi-fi and in updates after we get back.  This afternoon, we’re checking in at our timeshare condo and then probably hitting Downtown Disney (and maybe Universal’s Citywalk later this evening – just for comparison’s sake).  We’ll visit some of the Disney resorts, a couple of their theme parks and restaurants (pictures, detailed reviews and info to follow), and the Boardwalk entertainment center.  We’ll explore Cocoa Beach, board the Carnival Ecstasy for a run to Nassau, Freeport, and Key West, and will end back in Orlando before boarding our Southwest flight back home – that will be an evening flight, so we’ll see if the fun returns.  If not, I’ll chalk it up to another casualty caused by an abundance of caution in our crazy world.

As we approached Orlando, my imagination ran wild and I snapped a photo of this “not very Mickey-shaped” water feature:

We exited the plane, hit the ladies room, and grabbed the “train” as my girls used to call it, from the terminal to the main airport building.

 

This is Britty on the train – I have pictures of her sitting in the same spot from the time she was 2.  We haven’t flown in to MCO in quite awhile, and as we boarded, I indicated the shelf at the back of the train and said, “when you were little you used to love to sit there”.  She gave me a really sheepish look and told me that was what she was planning to do now, too.  I guess some things never change – and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve never been in MCO, to get to your gate from the ticket counter, you go through security and then catch the train to your terminal.  You do the same thing in reverse when you fly in to Orlando – the key is, you MUST pay attention to which baggage claim area you are heading to.  It matches the terminal you flew into (unless its a wierd coincidence that every time I’ve flown in I’ve collected my baggage at the claim center with the same letter as my terminal).  Off to baggage claim “A”, grabbed the luggage, and then a quick shuttle to my new favorite rental car company, Sixt.  No line and no hassle later, we were in a sleek Mazda 6 buzzing down the tollway towards our timeshare on International Drive.

So, sit back, relax, and keep your eyes open as you take a “virtual vacation”.  If you have questions about anything along the way, please feel free to post them in the comments section.  I’ll do my best to answer them quickly for you, or to find the answers for you if I don’t have them handy.

On the road to Boston

14 Jun

Brittany and I got up early yesterday.  A bird woke me up at 3:30am.  No, I didn’t get up then – I closed the window and crawled back into bed, sleeping fitfully until the alarm went off an hour later.  Then we got up and were on the road by 5, having loaded the car and prepared everything else the night before.

 Photo: Fermilab sunrise

The trip out of Chicago was fairly easy.  The sun was just rising and it was beautiful.    Fog lifted ghostly fingers from every body of water we passed on the way out of Illinois, traffic was non-existent and we sailed on over the border to Indiana without a hitch.  After a quick stop for gas and some of the most disgusting coffee I’ve ever had (thanks, Hardees …) we were back on the road, moving towards Boston. 

A couple of thoughts about interstate travel in the US – The interstate highway system is a marvel.  I’ve traveled through parts of Europe, Central America, Mexico, and various Caribbean islands, and never see of America is an interstate highway, you’re sadly missing out.  I found myself thinking about the homogenous nature of the offerings at every exit – granted, there are some regional differences, but for the most part, you get McDonalds, Starbucks, the same chain motels (Super 8, Motel 6, Hampton, Holiday and Hilton or Bayside Inns), and the same retail offerings (WalMart, Macy’s Barnes and Noble, etc).

 

The upside to this sameness is that you know what to expect – the downside is … well, it’s just B-O-R-I-N-G.  I could see the “old highway” in spots, just off the interstate, and found myself wishing I could exit the super-highway and travel down it’s less polished, hillier, curvier, small town laden route.  The old roadhouses were visible from time to time, as were smaller retail establishments and old-style “motor-hotels” (where the word motel came from).  Soccer fields, baseball fields, farm fields, and all kinds of things are “over there” along that road.  The things that make America “home”.  Over there, on the “old road”, there’s probably a farmer driving a pick-up truck piled with fresh berries on his way to a farmer’s market – or there might even be a farmstand (or a lemonade stand!) along the road where I could pull over for fresh produce to nosh on.  But today, it’s the superhighway – and it has its benefits, too. 

 

Along the way, we saw (or smelled) 3 smashed skunks, 6 roadkill raccoons, countless highway patrolmen who think they’re sneaky but all hide in the same spot, just in a different mile of the highway, several bald eagles, dozens of deer – two of whom were bounding through a field of golden grass that was so tall they appeared to be swimming in it – only their heads visible – rivers, bridges, vineyards, motocross race tracks, mountains and streams, and marshes.  The diversity of scenery was beautiful and amazing. 

 

We had packed LifeWater in different flavors, Town House Flat Crackers with Sea Salt and Olive Oil (my new favorite), red-pepper hummus, sliced apples, sharp cheddar cheese, and ritz bitz with peanut butter, and all day as we drove, we snacked when hungry.  It was a really pleasant drive – Britt slept part of the way, we listened to old music, chatted, and just enjoyed each other’s company.

 

Speaking of scenery, we stopped at Niagara Falls.  That’s worth a post all on it’s own … but here’s a sneak peek.

 Photo: Niagara Falls, NY

Over the next couple of days, we’ll be in Boston, on the Carnival Glory for some classwork and a cruise to the Canadian port of St. John New Brunswick, and then back home.  Next up, our Niagara Falls experience … it was something I recommend everyone see at least once …

The “Mother Road” – planning begins!

9 Jun

Brittany and I head for Boston on Wednesday morning – early.  We’ve decided to leave as early as possible – probably around 4am, when my dog usually wakes me up in an attempt to kick my husband out of the bed so she can sleep on his pillow.  I’m not sure why she needs to wake ME up to kick HIM out, but there you have it – dog logic is nothing you can argue with … it simply is what it is.

 

(she doesn’t look very scheming here – but trust me, she’s been known not only to kick hubby out of bed, but also to steal any food not nailed down – including full, wrapped loaves of bread, which she hides, presumably to eat later.  Good thing she can’t undo twist ties)

Anyway, since we’re leaving on Wednesday and I just finished the book I was reading, I ran to the library to return my (overdue) book and see if there was a travelogue on the Boston area.  Alas, no travelogue on Boston (no Lonely Planet or Blue Moon either – I had to settle for Fodors), but I DID find this:

 

 

Which I’ve started reading and am, quite frankly, in love with!  Here’s why –

 “Traveling is about seeing new places and about pointing a camera at squinting people or objects that usually turn out to be too far away.  Traveling is about spending money on stuff you’d never dream of buying at home.  It’s about discovering the different and occasionally the bizarre – about finding something adventurous, daring, and even romantic in yourself.  It’s about widening your horizons along with the changing view beyond the windshield.  Traveling is like racy lingerie, trashy magazines, kitchen gadgets, and auto accessories.  None of these are necessary, but they all make life a little more interesting, a little spicier than it might otherwise be.” (from p xi – and it just keeps getting better from here)

 

After the library, I headed over to pick my oldest up from her ACT test – and since they weren’t done yet, I had some time to kill.  What to do … what to do?  Grabbed my book and started devouring it!  After looking over the first couple chapters, I’ve come to a decision – there is just too much to see and do along the Route – we’ll never get it all done in one trip – so, this summer, we’re going to start making day trips to some of the Illinois “hot spots” and maybe take a long weekend and head into Missouri.  That way, when we head down the road next summer, we won’t have to feel like we’re missing the stuff that’s close by, and it will leave more time for some of the things we’d like to spend more time with further down the road. 

 

The first “day trip” will be in the next two weeks – we’re going to start by taking the train down to Chicago and having breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s diner.  http://www.loumitchellsrestaurant.com/menus.html

 

After breakfast at Lou’s, we’ll wander around Chicago – our “hometown” – taking in sites we love and are familiar with and seeking out some we haven’t paid attention to before. 

Buckingham Fountain

Castle Car Wash

 A late lunch at The Berghoff might be on the “menu”. 

Maybe we’ll even head to Lincoln Park Zoo or Navy Pier for some fireworks before the commute home. 

(Lincoln Park Zoo – still FREE – and a beautiful place to spend an afternoon)

Another day, we’ll work our way towards Joliet and Plainfield, down to the Springfield area – which might warrant an overnight stay as well.  And the weekend trip I’m hoping to take?  From the Springfield area, through St. Louis, and on to Meramac Caverns … a place I’ve wanted to go MY WHOLE LIFE, but have been repeatedly told “it’s a tourist trap”.  Maybe so, but this is the year I’m going!  I can’t fathom why I’ve waited so long. 

(I grew up driving by barns like this – and signs like this:)

 Miles spent dreaming about what the inside of that cave must be like  … only to be told “we have to make time” or “that’s a tourist trap”.  Where’s the romance in a road trip without a good tourist trap or two??? 

Anyway, the wiper blades and air filter have been changed, wiper fluid filled and I finally changed that annoying fuse that meant one of my charging ports in the minivan wasn’t working – no more plugging the smart phone in there, I guess – so the car is ready.  Britt and I have our snacks purchased and will be packing our bags tomorrow.  Monday and Tuesday will be full days of craziness at work – and then we’re flying down the road, free as a bird (except that birds don’t have to pay tolls or buy gas … but you get the point).  We’ll be spending the night in Schenectady, NY – only because I liked the sound of the city.  No- not really – but if I could pick a place to stay based on the sound of the town, Schenectady would be right up there … along the way, I’m thinking we might make a detour here:

 

 

Niagara Falls – another place I’ve always wanted to stop.  Granted, there’s a lot more to do than we can see in an hour or two – we won’t have time for the “Maid of the Mist” on this trip – but I’ll get to stop and gaze at water that’s traveled from Lake Nipigon in Ontario, through Lakes Superior, over the falls and on to the Atlantic.  My youngest read a book called “Paddle to the Sea” featuring the journey this water takes – told from the point of view of a little carved toy that floated down the river.  It’s a great book to check into if you have kids in the 6-11 age range that still like to be read to … we read it, a chapter at a time, before she went to bed each night.  Sadly, she’s not along on this trip, but we’ll be grabbing plenty of photos to share with her (and you). 

 

Stay tuned – the next installment will be Wednesday night – from Schenectady.  (just needed another excuse to say that – even if it’s just “in my head”)

 

 

 

 

Prep time – part 2

8 Jun

If you’re getting ready for a summer road trip, preparation is essential.  In my last installment, I went over getting the car ready – getting yourself ready is equally important.

 

When I was a kid, we used to take summer vacations to the same place in Northwest Arkansas every year.  Even as a kid, I used to prepare before those long journeys, although travel by car these days is a lot different than it was back in the ’70’s. 

Back then, seatbelts were a “suggestion” not a requirement …

we could cram a bunch of people and luggage in and just “make it fit” …

A/C was thought to “ruin the gas mileage”, so we rode with the windows down …

Fast food stops were almost unheard of  –  at least in my family.  So were coolers!  We ate warm sandwiches that were kind of smooshed up – usually in a cemetary my Dad noticed while driving through a small town …

Interstate travel?  Sometimes – but not all the time.  They existed, but weren’t quite the same as today, so travel took longer.

 

Back then, I used to save my allowance ($.25 per week) for 2 or three weeks and then make a trip to the Ben Franklin to stock up on candy and snacks for the trip.  I’d make a trip to the library or secondhand book store and stock up on reading material, too (I never got carsick). 

 

These days, I still plan for those 8-12 hour road trips, but life is a bit easier … now I’m in charge, not Dad – so I get to decide when to stop, where to stop, what music we listen to, and whether the A/C is on or off (my vote – ON!).

 

So rather than a trip to the Ben Franklin, my planning and preparing consists of a few different things – making sure I have the reservations handy for any hotels, etc. where we’ve pre-booked.  Making sure that my sunglasses are at hand – and that we have a cooler (with ice!) stocked with beverages for the road and quick, easy snacks like cut up fruits and veggies, crackers, cheese, and if my hubby is along, cookies!  Reading material and drawing material for the kids is a must – and a good i-tunes playlist is a “double-must”!

 

But packing the car is almost an Olympic event.  These days, I drive a minivan. 

 

 

Even with as much room as a minivan has – packing 5 people in along with luggage can be a lot of “fun” – so we use some simple rules when getting ready to go.

1.  Everyone packs a “car bag” with their own “entertainment”

2.  If we’re going someplace where we’re staying put for awhile with an overnight stop (or two) along the way, we pack a special bag for that overnight stay – that avoids having to pull EVERYTHING out and look like we’re moving in to the Super 8.  It also saves time in the morning because we don’t have to repack the whole darn van – just one duffle bag and maybe a couple of pillows.

3.  We figure out how often and approximately where we’ll stop before we leave.  If everyone knows what to expect, it cuts down on the annoying “Are we there yet?” questions – that said, rest areas and gasoline stops are dictated by necessity … but if the grouchy sister is sleeping and someone needs the bathroom, we keep driving and cross our legs (for reference, the grouchy sister changes around and might even include Mom on occasion).

4.  The kids have full access to the maps AND my favorite road tool trip of all time – the Next Exit book!

 

Between “Gas Buddy” and this book, we avoid a lot of hassles and annoyances – rather than “hoping” something good is coming up where we can stop, when tummies start rumbling or we know we’re due for a break, this comes out and we figure out exactly what’s ahead and which exit to take.  It’s heartbreaking when you grab a McDonald’s coffee out of desperation and then see the Starbucks sign not even a mile later – this book avoids those disappointments!  (for the record, McDonald’s coffee is actually pretty darned good – but I love me some Starbucks)

The Next Exit book is updated every year, but I find it’s useful life to be about 24-36 months. 

I’m hoping these tips help some of you as you prepare for your next road trip.  Mine starts on Wednesday morning, next week.  My oldest daughter and I are heading off to Boston on business.  She and I have figured out what “snacks” to pack in the car – we’re not planning on fast food at all – it’s back to the “old days” but with a cooler full of ice.  Instead of warm egg salad sandwiches (Sorry, Dad – I know you meant well, but EWWWW), we’ll be munching on veggies, apples and cheddar, pita chips with hummus, and peanut butter with Ritz crackers.  We’re deciding on drink choices and will take a run to the “fun beverages” aisle of the grocery store, where we rarely shop – you know, LifeWater, Fuze, etc – the kind of stuff that we just don’t buy everyday.  And next we’ll be figuring out where to stop along the way – there and home.  We’re hoping Niagara Falls … stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted.