Christmas at the Yacht Club Resort

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To celebrate Christmas in July, I am taking a look at one of my favorite resorts to visit during Christmastime. All of the resorts in the Boardwalk area are beautifully decorated for Christmas, and I really enjoy the way the Yacht Club is decorated with a nautical theme. I adore how the Christmas tree peeks through the glass doors from the Boardwalk entryway.

 

The best part of the lobby is the whimsical train set and Christmas village. I am a huge fan of miniatures and little villages, and I always spend time looking at the train set and all the details of the miniature village at the Germany pavilion in Epcot. The train winds its way through a snowy seaside village that features Disney figurines and buildings (some of which are sold at Department 56) as well as shops and restaurants throughout the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. Some of the displays are a nod to Disney films as well. There is an incredible amount of detail to look at, and the last time I was there during the holiday season, I went back to look at the display a few times. So with only 5 months left until Christmas, I look forward to seeing the Yacht Club decorations real soon. The next time you’re at WDW during the holidays, make sure to check out the Yacht Club!!

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Food fun from my last trip

One of the greatest things about heading to Walt Disney World is the dining. There are so many different wonderful food options, from super fancy to a walk up counter – you can find pretty much anything you are looking for or craving. On my last trip I enjoyed some of my must-haves as well as a few new finds:

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These are the most authentic pizzas I’ve tasted since dining in Rome in 2009. I know they import their flour and tomatoes from Naples and I think that might be what puts theirs’ over the edge. Every time I eat here, I must have the same pie – Carciofi Pizza which is a white pizza topped with fresh artichoke, fontina, mozzarella and truffle oil. I had never tasted truffle oil until trying out this pie years ago and I am hooked on it. It adds a really unique element to the pizza. The other pie pictured is a simple Margherita topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. We traded slices, but I dominated the Carciofi. The Margherita was really good too!

Dole Whip

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A true, tried and tested treat, it’s one of my go-to items to have for lunch when I’m hot and saving room for a big dinner. I also really appreciate how it is available almost year round at Epcot (at the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals) since I usually spend a lot of time there.

The Bread Basket and Romaine Salad at Le Cellier

Bread and salad, sounds basic right? Not here. I was blown away at these starter options. The bread was soft and absolutely delicious – pretzel, multi grain and sour dough. I love having different choices and not just a basic plain roll when a bread basket is presented at a a restaurant. The salad description reads as “Black Truffle Vinaigrette, Pecan Whisky Sabayon, Parmesan Brioche Crumbs.” It was seriously one of the freshest tasting salads I had ever eaten. And the Sabayon, had a hint of sweetness that I couldn’t get enough of. The next time I return to Le Cellier, I really hope it is still on the menu.

The Loaded Mashed Potatoes at Le Cellier

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This decadent side is Molly’s favorite accompaniment in all of Walt Disney World. It is gluten free, but that’s where the health benefits end! The mashed potatoes have smoked cheddar, bacon, chives, and potato skin crisp. C’est magnifique! Of course, there was plenty to share, so we all enjoyed this treat.

It has gotten to the point where my favorites list continues to grow and grow. That is another element that keeps Walt Disney World “fresh” for a veteran like myself!

 

 

 

Wildlife of Walt Disney World

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With the recent tragic events last week, it’s a good reminder that as much as we like to be in the bubble, Disney parks are part of the “real world” as well. One thing that has always fascinated us is the variety of wildlife that makes Walt Disney World their home, the real, non-animatronic kind.

Ducks

We have always said that Disney ducks are the happiest ducks on Earth. They make their way into any and every bit of water you can find on property. Lakes, canals, fountains, even pools. You name it, you will find ducks there. Unfortunately people feed the ducks, which is not healthy for them, but I think the ducks are used to enjoying human food at this point. The best time of year to visit is during the oh so cute duckling season. Our favorite duck memory is seeing a cast member with a net standing on the edge of a pond near Journey Into Imagination at Epcot. We stood there watching for a while until we figured out what he was doing. There was a duckling with a plastic ring stuck around its neck. The cast member caught the duckling, much to the vocal dismay of the mama, removed the ring from its neck, and plopped the baby back in the water, unharmed. Here is a slideshow of some pics we’ve taken of Disney ducks over the years:

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Armadillos

Normally seen at night, we spied this lady or fellow one night after eating at Trail’s End.

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Bunnies

Not quite as abundant as ducks, Disney bunnies do have a presence on property. We saw this little one under a building at Fort Wilderness.

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This friend was nibbling grass at Port Orleans.

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We discovered a mama and her babies enjoying the grassy area in the Canada pavilion at Epcot during our most recent visit:

 

Deer

We have seen some deer on World Drive near dusk and while riding the monorail. So, you have to be cautious at night because deer usually don’t travel alone.

Cats

We have seen a couple cats at Walt Disney World, and didn’t have a chance to photograph those. Molly once saw one on the path between Epcot and Hollywood Studios and Emily saw one recently in the parking lot of the All Star Movies Resort. When we visited Disneyland in Anaheim a couple years ago, we didn’t know that Disneyland cats were a “thing.” We snapped pix of this cutie at our hotel:

 

We also saw a cat in Frontierland walking around the remains of the old attraction, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, although it was really far away. Molly has a sixth sense for spotting cats…

We have since discovered that the Cats of Disneyland have a pretty prominent presence in the parks and on social media. Disneyland is home to feral cat colony, and the cats have lived there since Walt’s days, helping to control the rodent population. They are cared for by Disney cast members. Their twitter account @disneylandcats is quite hilarious, and they typically tweet out pictures of cats found all over the resort.

Bald Eagles

We saw this bald eagle, which is really hard to see in the picture, sitting atop the Swan Resort. We weren’t sure if it was, but a cast member confirmed that bald eagles love hanging out in the Boardwalk area.

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Gators

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Being Floridians, we understand that alligators and venomous snakes come with the territory. We snapped a picture of this small gator on the shores of the Rivers of America near the Haunted Mansion a few months ago. Cast members didn’t seem to be too alarmed, and we heard that they only remove alligators that are large or aggressive. We would’ve never imagined the event that happened this week at the Grand Floridian, and we are happy that Disney is now taking steps to educate the public to the fact that even though you’re at Disney, you still are part of the real world. It’s likely that Disney probably won’t even allow an alligator of this size to remain in the parks or in public view going forward. So when you’re out and about at Walt Disney World, be on the lookout for wildlife. You never know what you may find!

 

 

Exploring Disney Springs

The whole family visited Walt Disney World last weekend, and exploring the newly opened Town Center at Disney Springs was on the top of our to-do list. The last time I was at what was formerly called Downtown Disney was last August. The orange parking garage had just opened. When we peered over the side of the garage into the area that used to be the old parking lot it was under heavy construction and looked like a war zone. There were construction walls everywhere, and some areas were unpleasant to navigate. It’s hard to believe that just 9 months later the Town Center is nearly complete and has now opened to the public.

We parked in the lime garage, which also just opened, because that brings you right out into the Town Center area. This garage is more centrally located than the orange garage, which is at the West Side area. Only at Disney would I get excited about a parking garage. They are both aesthetically pleasing and use smart technology, so that you know how many spots there are on each level when you enter. When you approach a row, signs tell you how many spots are available in that row. As you drive down the row, lights hang over each parking spot and ones that are illuminated green indicate open spots.

 

As I said, you exit the lime garage right into the Town Center. The area just opened up and it is impeccable. The typical Disney attention to detail is everywhere. I wasn’t that thrilled with all the chain stores that were going into Disney Springs, but honestly, you don’t even have to go in the stores to enjoy the area. We decided to go on a Sunday morning, in the hopes to avoid crowds and heat. It was a very laid back atmosphere. We drank some Joffrey’s coffee from the new pastry shop Amorette’s and enjoyed the ambiance of the area. I mainly went in my favorite shops on the Marketplace side, as the high end shops aren’t really my thing. My personal favorite is the Co-op Marketplace. I always end up spending a gift card in there! Emily’s husband did get a great deal on clothing at the new skating store, Volcom.

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There are plenty of spots to sit and relax at the Town Center, but we discovered the best spot to relax–at Guest Relations! The building is equipped with all sorts of comfy chairs and couches and they even have a bunch of rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. If you need to speak to someone in guest relations, they take your name and then you can be seated. When it’s your turn they come and get you, so no waiting in lines! Even though we actually didn’t need to speak to anyone in guest relations, we spent quite a while sitting and enjoying the A/C. They also have free ice water inside.

When the Town Center opened, guests were finally able to see the actual springs that make up Disney Springs, and they are lovely. There are some restaurants still in construction that look like they will have seating areas overlooking the springs, and some more stores that will be opening. All in all, I’m impressed with what Disney has rolled out so far, and can’t wait to go back to see it when it is all complete!

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Exploring the Darker Side of Disney

I have to admit it. I am not a pixie duster (someone who believes Disney can do no wrong). While I truly love the magic of Disney parks, there is also have a dark side to my Disney fandom. My experience began with childhood visits to WDW every 1-2 years. Back then it was entirely magical.

Just about the time when I became an adult is when we started having, albeit very archaic, access to the internet. Up until that point, my knowledge of Disney parks came from the Birnbaum guide books and some books I had bought as souvenirs. I remember searching for info on Walt Disney World and finding this very basic website that had tons of secrets about it. The site was just a huge bulleted list of info, mainly about the Magic Kingdom, and this was the first time I learned about the utilidors, hidden Mickeys and dozens of fascinating secrets about the park and its attractions. While I still enjoyed the magic of the parks, I started seeing them with more critical eyes, and wanting to know what was going on behind the scenes. Those perky cast members couldn’t be that way 24/7, right?

I remember I printed out that list from the website and took it with me on a trip so I could see these things with my own eyes. Emily and I also became fascinated with seeing “backstage” areas that Disney didn’t necessarily want you to see, but also didn’t completely cover up. For example, on the People Mover, there used to be a couple circular windows, and if you looked through them you could see a parking lot. When a cast member would open a door from backstage, we would see if we could see anything on the other side. On an occasional crowded night at the Magic Kingdom, you would exit from Tomorrowland behind Main Street USA. It is all done up nice back there nowadays, so it doesn’t lose the magic, but back then it was not very appealing to the eyes. Our favorite way to observe backstage areas and show buildings that you might not otherwise notice was to take the Skyway ride. It provided a great perspective on the park.

Some years later, I discovered the Mesa Verde Times website, and learned about two guys who had jumped out of the Horizons ride (arguably one of the best rides at Epcot) vehicles and spent hours recording and photographing their antics. I also read about Shane Perez’s illegal exploration of a then-abandoned Discovery Island at night. While I would never consider doing anything that would get me banned from the parks, the fact that others did this really intrigued me. When Leonard Kinsey wrote his book, “The Dark Side of Disney” in 2011, I picked up a copy and enjoyed reading about all his adventures and hacks. He also has some neat videos up on YouTube of his off limits explorations.

The documentary based on the book, Dark Side of Disney, was recently released and I have been looking forward to it for a while.  I was hoping that this documentary would be what I thought the train wreck of a movie “Escape from Tomorrow” might be. Indeed it was an offbeat look at how adults enjoy the parks in a variety of unconventional ways. You get to view Disney fans’ darker sides, but they all still are Disney lovers at heart. I don’t want to give too much away in case you want to check it out. This movie definitely isn’t for kids, but if you are interested in less traditional ways that people enjoy the parks, then definitely check it out. And, by the way, I totally want to join a Disneyland gang!

Here’s a preview of the film!

Yet Another Off Property Resort…My Review of Hilton Bonnet Creek

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After all our years of staying at Walt Disney World without ever staying off property, the past few months have brought us to several off property resorts. We’ve stayed at and reviewed The Dolphin Resort, the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, and I recently had the opportunity to check out the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort.  My best friend from home, Sara, had a conference which was held at the convention center at Hilton Bonnet Creek. Always looking for an excuse to head to WDW, I not only was excited to see Sara, but I was also interested in checking out yet another off property resort. The entrance to the three Bonnet Creek resorts is on Disney property, but as you wind down Chelonia Parkway towards the resorts, there is a tiny piece of land that is not owned by Disney. This is where the Wyndham Bonnet Creek, Waldorf Astoria, and Hilton are located. I was always a little intrigued by the Bonnet Creek resort area, as there is that tiny sign for it as you drive down Buena Vista Drive, so that was my chance to check it out.

When I arrived, I pulled up for luggage service and check in. Valet was an option, but I opted to self-park in the attached garage. As I walked into to the lobby, I felt very disoriented…the way that we have felt each time when checking in to a non-Disney resort. It was also extremely loud because the conference was letting out for the day and there were hundreds of professionally dressed folks streaming out of the conference. I think the acoustics of the entryway are not good, because even when there were less people, it always seemed loud. I joked to the person at check in that I felt very under dressed, as I was the only person in a shorts/tee and not in business attire.

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I found my room, luggage was promptly delivered and I started to explore the resort. I definitely did not feel like I was at Walt Disney World. The resort is a concrete high rise with modern flair, but has none of the theming that I am used to when staying on property at WDW. Once I checked out the view from our room, I felt more at home, as I could see the bowling pins from Pop Century, some of the Caribbean Beach Resort, the Tower of Terror, and the Swan and Dolphin Resorts peeking up above the trees.  The room itself was modern, spacious and clean.

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The most impressive feature of the Hilton Bonnet Creek was its pool area. It’s a very large area, with a tropical feel, situated next to the Waldorf Astoria golf course. There were plenty of lounge chairs set up, and we never felt like there was a huge crowd at the pool. There was also a nice sized poolside bar and wait staff provided food and beverage service to the entire pool area. We enjoyed lounging by the pool, and took a few whirls around the lazy river on some tubes. One evening, a movie was shown poolside and folks were just hanging in the pool, watching the movie, and we practically had the lazy river to ourselves.

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I think the biggest perk of our room was the fact that we had an amazing view of the Star Wars Fireworks at Hollywood Studios. Judging from our location in relation to the Tower of Terror, I had an idea that we would be able to see fireworks, but it was so exciting to have a perfect view of the spectacular show.

The last thing that I enjoyed about the resort was the parking garage that was attached. It was really easy to get to my car any time we wanted to go out. I have found that at some of the resorts at WDW, especially the deluxe resorts, it is quite a hike to get to your car. Last year, we were stuck in our room at the Yacht Club due to an intense thunderstorm, and couldn’t make it to our dinner reservation on time. With the parking garage, you can quickly and easily get from your room to your car without getting rained on.

There are definitely some downsides to staying at this resort. Guests are charged a resort fee of $25, which is common for off property WDW hotels, and garage parking is $20 a day. I hear rumors that Disney is exploring adding a resort fee, and I hope it doesn’t happen. I would rather know up front the total price for a room, rather than having different fees added on. I also think that the Hilton jacks up the room prices for conferences. I checked pricing on a random weekend in May and the pricing was half of what was charged during the conference. Also, the food was really expensive.  A light lunch or breakfast will cost you much more than you would pay for Disney counter service food. The resort does offer a shuttle to the theme parks, and posts a schedule, but guests are not entitled to perks like extra magic hours, magic bands, free theme park parking, and Disney transportation. Being an annual passholder with a car, none of these are an issue for me.

All in all, I enjoyed my experience there and exploring the resort. The fireworks view and pool area were the highlights. I’m not sure if I would go out of my way to stay there again, but if an opportunity presented itself, I would return. You can follow along on our adventures in upcoming blog posts!

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Staying off property…again…?

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Photo credit for all photos: Wyndham Hotels and Resorts

 

As you probably know by now, we almost always stay at a WDW resort mostly because we don’t like to leave “the bubble.” Being immersed in the magic 24 hours a day is what we thrive on and at one time was all we ever knew. We’ve started expanding our horizons , and this past week I had the opportunity to try another off property resort. A few months ago, my husband mentioned he had a conference at the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, located on Hotel Plaza Boulevard next to Disney Springs. When he told me the dates and location I told him I was “in” immediately. While he listened and learned about earthquakes I could play in the parks on my own! We also extended our stay an extra night so we wouldn’t have to drive back to Jacksonville on a Friday evening in rush hour traffic. As an added perk, his company paid for our first two hotel nights as well as mileage and his meals. Score!

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From the moment we pulled up I got such a good vibe. Valet parking and self parking are the same reasonable rate ($8), so we used valet as we knew we wouldn’t be driving until we left. It was really convenient being able to unload and not worry about parking the car. Check in was a breeze and we were treated with excellent service. We had a room in the main tower on the 17th floor and it was nice and clean and very quiet.

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The entire place was really relaxing and calming. I made use of their fitness center twice and was impressed at the machines and the cleanliness, as well as towels and water that is offered.

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I took advantage of the hotel bus system once and it wasn’t bad. They depart on the hour and half hour so it was nice to know when to be down for the bus. From pick up to walking into the Magic Kingdom it took me 45 minutes total. For return from the parks, I didn’t write down the locations of where they pick up, so instead I took a bus to Saratoga Springs and walked from there. From the bus stop to my room it was 15 minutes (though I admit I’m a power walker). I did not try any of their restaurants, but it is worth noting they have a 24 hour quick service option located in the hotel lobby.

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My favorite amenity was the proximity to Disney Springs. As mentioned before, if you aren’t staying near the Springs, it’s quite a headache driving or taking a bus to the area. The traffic is usually bad as the roads going into the area get jammed up, especially in the evenings. All 3 nights we simply walked over and were there within 5 minutes since the hotel is literally located next to a pedestrian bridge. It was great being able to really take our time at Disney Springs without being rushed. We also took a few boat rides to the different Disney resorts for fun (Port Orleans Riverside and Old Key West).

If the price was right and I wanted to spend some time at Disney Springs, I would certainly stay here again. It may not be fully submerged in the Disney magic, but it’s definitely close enough for me!

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