Here’s a 40th birthday photo from our trip. That’s me in the 2nd row with my youngest daughter, Presley. She’s a happy screamer, so it’s lots of fun to ride Thunder Mountain Railroad with her! In the first row are my oldest daughter Reagan and my cousin Camille. (Daddy was taking the photo.)
Archive for September, 2011
We were able to see some of the preparations for the 2011 International Food & Wine Festival at Epcot on our visit last week. I salivated just thinking of the possible dishes that might come from these tiny buildings! And one kiosk in Japan was actually opened already, since the Yakatori House is still under refurbishment there. Dishes at the festival are primarily tapas style–small portions that give you a taste, not a full meal. They range in prices from around $2.50 to some specialty items or beverages as high as $13. But most items hover right around the $5 mark, a price point that allows guests to try several items without breaking the bank.
Here are a few sample menu items that look especially interesting to me:
- Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup made with cheddar, bacon, and Moosehead beer; $3.75
- German Pretzel Roll, a juicy bratwurst served in a pretzel dough roll; $4.50
- Griddled Greek Cheese with pistachios and honey; $3.25
- Seared Sea Scallop from New Zealand, topped with red curry and kumara (sweet potato), served with apple-radish salad; $4.25
- Bunny Chow, a traditional South African vegetable curry served in hollowed bread; $3.25
- Bulgogi BBQ Beef from South Korea, shortribs served with steamed rice and tangy kimchi slaw; $4.25
We visited during Food & Wine Festival a couple of years ago, and the smells alone are worth the trip! If you’re a genuine “foodie,” F&W is a must-do.
Here’s a tip that’s just for me: follow your own advice! For everyone else, I guess the tip would be: follow the tips you learn here at Affording the Mou$e.
OK, I have a few confessions to make…I let my guard down a few times on our most recent trip and didn’t always follow the tips I give to others. And it cost me. No, nothing that ruined my trip. But a few things that caused us a bit of added frustration or time. Here are a few examples:
- Use online check-in…and do it as early as you can (10 days prior to your arrival). I did this for All-Star Sports, and it worked out great. The only details we had to handle at check-in were paying the remainder of our bill and getting our ”Key to the World” cards and info packet. Breezy. But I didn’t use online check-in with the Grand Floridian. Honestly, I was hopeful that by showing up in person–on the eve of my 40th birthday–that I might have a better chance at a room upgrade. And, ya know, it almost worked…almost. I could actually hear the concierge on the phone with someone, and he said, “Take a look at the comments section,” just as he began making me a birthday button. But apparently, they didn’t have a room available at that time, so I then heard him say, “So, I’ll just put her back where I had her then.” Bummer. Serious bummer. Got my hopes up for nothing. Making matters worse, my regular room wasn’t ready until after 3:00–even though I arrived at around 9:30 a.m. to attempt check-in. Using online check-in would likely have at least secured me a room sooner. And if you aren’t satisfied with the room you’re given through online check-in, you can always request to be moved. Lesson learned.
- Use Fastpass. Yes, we used it most of the time (except for waits less than 20 minutes, and even then sometimes). But on our Animal Kingdom day, we decided that we would wait 30 minutes to ride Kali River Rapids, rather than come back in a couple of hours when the Fastpass window would have allowed. We were willing and prepared to wait the alotted time–except that the wait was actually more than 50 minutes! It’s good that I got soaked on the ride, because I needed to cool down (both literally and figuratively) after that wait.
- If it’s your birthday, let everyone know! I had intended to wear my birthday button all week, but I kept forgetting or taking it off for one reason or another. But I received birthday “gifts” in some surprising places. For example, at the Studio Catering Company, on the day before my birthday, a Cast Member offered me free dessert as I was picking up our food–simply because she saw my button. I wondered how many free desserts I might have missed out on earlier in the week by not wearing it faithfully.
- If it’s your birthday and you’re eating at a table service restaurant, don’t order dessert. (OK, this one wasn’t actually a matter of not following my advice…I just thought it was worth bringing up here.) As I mentioned in my food post, I was pretty disappointed to discover that the birthday dessert I received at Les Chefs de France was actually the one that came with my pre fixe menu. Had I not ordered any dessert, I still would have received it–but it would have been free. I cheated myself out of a free dessert, and that was a sour note at the end of my birthday celebration–and one that could have been avoided.
- Always ask a Cast Member the current parade route. It just so happened that the evening parade was going the opposite direction that I thought it would on this particular visit. This cost us some precious time in getting to our perfect spot to view Tinkerbell’s flight during Wishes. (We wanted to see the “Let the Memories Begin” show on the castle then watch Tink fly before making our escape to Adventureland.) We still made it in time, but we had to miss some of the Main Street Electrical Parade to do it. A rookie mistake that I am ashamed to admit.
I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I know this stuff. Really, I do. But even veteran Disney guests make mistakes now and then. Learn from me…do as I say, not as I do. Avoid stress by sticking to the plan.
While I specialize in planning affordable WDW vacations, our most recent trip was an exception to my generally-frugal rule. It was my 40th birthday–I did not intend to skimp. Still, I can’t stray too far from my frugal ways, so I set our budget at a reasonable $2680. (I like to over-budget, so that I can be happy when we come in under!)
Let me start by saying that had we paid full price for everything on our vacation, it would have cost us over $3625! But, of course, we never pay full price. We used food coupons, gift cards, Disney Rewards Visa dollars, and even bought merchandise on clearance. When it was all said and done, our out-of-pocket cost for the trip was right at $1750–a savings of nearly $2000, and about $900 under budget!
Subtracting what we had already put down as a deposit on our resort stay and the amount of the tickets we purchased several months ago (adding up to around $1050), as well as the nearly $300 in cash that we had saved specifically for the trip, we took only about a $400 hit to our bank account…barely noticeable in the scheme of things.
All in all, despite making a few splurges, we still managed to save a lot and keep it pretty frugal. We’re already beginning to collect spare change for our next trip in our Disney Fund.
One of the things I enjoy most at Walt Disney World is having my favorite treats…and seeking out new favorites! On this trip, I had several new experiences. Out of these, I found one restaurant that now makes my “never miss” list, and one that falls into the “don’t bother” category. Here’s the basic run-down of our food adventures, starting with snacks and treats:
- You still can’t beat the classic Mickey Ice Cream Bar for a cool, creamy afternoon snack. Current price is $3.50, which isn’t terrible by theme park standards. (Of course, you can get a whole box of frozen treats at your local grocery store for that price. Kind of puts things into perspective and might help you resist having one every day.)
- I was slightly less enamored by the School Bread at Norway’s Kringla Bakeri than I had been in years past. Perhaps the pastry isn’t quite as attractive because it has gone up in price to $2.87 (with tax included), but mine was a little dry, even with the creamy custard center. Just didn’t quite do it for me this time.
- The bakery in France, however, did not disappoint. Where else in the World can you get a filling ham and cheese croissant for a mere $3.25? Seriously, this could be a meal! And the chocolate mousse is as good as ever–and only $3.35! Note to self: never, NEVER skip this yummy eatery!
- The carrot cake cookie at Writer’s Stop (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) was as yummy as I remembered it, but at $3.95 it’s a bit pricey–especially if you’re not sharing it. Oh, it’s definitely big enough to share! But I’m really the only one in my family who likes carrot cake (and all the bakery treats at WDW are off limits for my oldest daughter because of her tree nut allergy and the possibility of cross-contamination–boo). So spending nearly $4 and eating the whole cookie myself was a bit extreme–and, yet, I did. Twice. Yep, it’s that alluring…irresistible, even. I just couldn’t help myself. On the bright side, the coffee at Writer’s Stop is excellent (fresh-brewed–not that Sanka junk) and inexpensive at $1.99.
Now, on to more substantial fare:
- We ate at our favorite Animal Kingdom counter service restaurant, Flame Tree BBQ, and were completely satisfied. It was just as we had remembered–a lot of tasty food, and the prices had not increased much since our last visit. The four of us shared two adult entrees, a half chicken meal ($9.69) and a rib meal ($10.69), and all of us were full when finished.
- Another favorite that did not disappoint was Tortuga Tavern (formerly El Pirata Y El Perico) in the Magic Kingdom. When you receive your tray, you might think, “This cost me how much?” Basically, you get a taco shell (or taco salad shell…or burrito…you get the picture) with only meat inside. But, don’t panic! You will get your money’s worth at the elaborate condiment bar. Pile that $8.19 taco salad as high as you can and enjoy! Beef nachos run $7.29, and the kids meals are $5.49. Our girls shared one meal (it comes with 2 sides!), and we drank water–allowing us all to eat our fill for around $22.
- On a different day at the MK, we tried out the new dogs at Casey’s Corner. (By the way, if you arrive at opening, as we did, you might be chosen to throw out the “first pitch” to Casey. And even if you’re not chosen, everyone gets to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the Cast Members throw Cracker Jacks to waiting guests!) We were actually planning to just have a snack here (mostly to spend time with a CM friend who was on her lunch break), as we had late lunch reservations for my birthday in Epcot. Thinking of one of Casey’s hot dogs as a snack was a mistake! They are HUGE! My husband and I should have shared one…but we didn’t. He had the Chicago Dog and I had the Chili Cheese Dog. We had a party of 6 (our family of 4, plus my cousin Camille who is in the College Program at Disney, plus our CM friend Conny), and we all ate here for under $40. And, again, we were full. Here’s the price list for a few items: $8.59 for specialty dogs (fries or apple slices included); $6.49 for an order of corn dog nuggets; $2 for an order of fries; and $5.19 for a plain hot dog. If you like typical American fare that is filling, Casey’s Corner is a great choice.
- Our family has yet to find a favorite eatery at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We fare OK at Studio Catering Company (the turkey club and fries are pretty good at $9.99) and ABC Commissary (the Asian salad isn’t bad for $6.89), but there’s no restaurant in the Studios that makes it to our favorites list.
- At Epcot, Sunshine Seasons has consistently been our favorite counter service eatery because of its many choices, especially in the grab-n-go sections. However, this trip was a bit disappointing. The side salad remains a bargain $2.99–but it has decreased in size by at least 1/3! And the selection of grab-n-go items has decreased significantly. The freshness, flavor, and quality of the food, however, was still top notch. All-in-all, this is still a great eatery…just not as great as it once was.
Finally, let’s talk table service. These fall into the categories of Not Worth the Hype, Consistently Delightful Experience, and New Favorite. Here are my assessments:
- Les Chefs de France. This one has received pretty mixed reviews on fan sites, and I can see why. I, myself, am conflicted. This is where I chose to have my birthday meal, partially because I wanted a new experience with rich food, and partially because I knew the girls would enjoy seeing the animatronic Remy. The service was more than adequate (I had read about snotty servers, and we encountered none of that), and we were seated quickly. As for food, we were not very hungry (see above mention re: Casey’s Corner), so we decided to have an appetizer for the table and order one round of the pre-fixe menu ($23.99) and share it. (Two of the items we were considering were on the pre-fixe menu, and added up to around $22, so we would be getting dessert for $2–a great deal, right?) Knowing it was my 40th b-day, and that I had noted this on my reservation (and I was wearing a ridiculous b-day hat as well–not subtle at all!), I fully expected an additional free dessert, which would be more than enough for our entire party to enjoy. We were seved baguettes in a paper bag–cute presentation–which were warm and yummy. We took the plunge and ordered the escargot–I can’t resist the opportunity to try something new! At $12.99 for 6 small snails, this was a splurge. I choose to think of it as buying an experience, because…well…they just weren’t good (mostly a texture thing). But I was very proud of my picky husband and children for at least trying them (the girls left about $4 worth of chewed up snails in their napkins). The French onion soup was tasty, but not especially rich in flavor. There was a LOT of cheese, but it was not quite as hot as I would have liked (a common problem at Les Chefs de France, if guest reviews are to be trusted). My husband enjoyed the quiche Lorainne and salad. Again, the word adequate comes to mind. Finally, it was time for dessert. I was happy to be serenaded by half a dozen French men. What didn’t make me happy is that I was served, as my birthday dessert, the dessert that I had already paid for. No free b-day dessert. Seriously disappointing. I mean, crushing. (Have I mentioned that I love free food?) This might have colored my whole experience. We were nearly finished with our meal and dessert when Remy made a very brief appearance at our table. He was adorable, but it was clear that his “handler” was in a hurry. Definitely not worth the expensive meal simply to experience Remy. Lesson learned.
- The day before my birthday, my girls and I had tea at the Garden View Tea Lounge (Grand Floridian Resort & Spa). This has become a tradition for me–first with my dear friend Nori, then with my oldest daughter, and this time with both daughters. Tea at the Grand Floridian is a consistently charming exercise in tradition and grandeur. The atmosphere is quaint, the food scrumptious, and the entire experience delightful! It’s affordable, although not cheap. But this time, it was especially affordable and delightful. My friend, Nori, although not able to join us on this trip, called ahead and paid for our tea as a birthday gift! What a fun surprise! In addition, I received a yummy birthday cupcake and a rose from the tea room. This was a much better birthday celebration than my actual birthday meal at Les Chefs de France!
- Finally, our new favorite: Kona Cafe. We visited Kona on a day we weren’t going into the Parks, so that we wouldn’t feel rushed. Having visited Hawaii in my twenties, I was eager to try their version my favorites–Kona coffee and macadamia pancakes. I had also read rave reviews about the Tonga Toast. Our server confirmed that two adult entrees would likely feed our family of 4, so we ordered Tonga Toast with ham and Pineapple Macadamia Pancakes with bacon.
I am the lone coffee drinker in the family, so I wasn’t able to order the French pressed pot for two. Still the carafe of Kona/Columbian blend was pretty awesome. Can’t imagine it being any better! And the food…oh, the food. The pancakes were heavenly! And the Tonga Toast is over 3 inches thick! So very good…and filling…I’d even say fulfilling! Add in a coke for my husband, and we spent around $35 including a tip. Worth. Every. Penny! Add this one to the “must do” list.
OK, I’m going to be honest here: I’m a bit of a Value Resort snob. It’s not that I think the Value Resorts are not adequate hotels–they are! But we tend to visit WDW in during the Value season, and we have never made a resort reservation without some sort of discount (pin code, advertised discount, Cast Member discount, etc.). So, in most cases, we can get a Moderate Resort at a rate that many people pay for a Value. Why wouldn’t we enjoy the extra space and amenities the Moderates have to offer?
That said, even among the Value Resorts, the All-Star Sports Resort is my least favorite. It could be because I’m not a sports fan…but I don’t think that’s it. (My husband is a huge sports fan, and he wasn’t impressed either.) The amenities are pretty much the same at all the Value Resorts–small spaces with basic amenities. The differences lie in the areas of theming, pools, Mousekeeping, and transportation options. Most of them are a matter of opinion, while others–such as bus service–have notable differences. Here is a run-down of why I would not recommend the All-Star Sports Resort:
- Noise. These walls must be paper-thin, because we heard guests returning from the Parks (or wherever else) well into the night. I’m not sure I ever got fully to sleep on our first night. Fortunately, on subsequent evenings, my tiredness took over and I was able to sleep through the ruckus.
- Mousekeeping. Other than the traditional Mickey outline in towels upon arrival, we didn’t see a single towel creation for our entire trip. (We might be spoiled in this regard. On our trip to Port Orleans French Quarter, one eager Mousekeeper gave us dozens of these little critters and even made a display in our window, using our daughters’ princess costumes–amazing!) There were visible stains on our carpet (something sticky–maybe a gummy candy?), and we didn’t get the traditional note from Mousekeeping with the name of our Mousekeeper. One night, I had to remove a live (well, he had been alive…RIP, little guy!) lizard from our room.
- Lack of Disney theming. Sure, there was a “Mighty Ducks” section, but most of the theming at Sports is focused on actual sports–not on Disney-related sports. I guess you could say the same for some sections of the All-Star Music or All-Star Movies, but in both those cases, the Disney theming seems to tie in seamlessly. At the All-Star Sports, it felt like the Disney themes were awkwardly sprinkled throughout the sports accouterments.
- General wear and tear. This resort is a favorite among sports teams (duh!) and other youth groups, because of the affordability of Value Resorts. (And Disney seems to want to put its groups in this resort and save the Movies and Music for families.) Dare I make the correlation? Teenagers aren’t especially known for taking good care of things. This resort sees a lot of traffic…and it shows.
- Transportation. We tend to drive to the Parks more often than not. But on Tuesday morning, while my oldest daughter and I were attending a Youth Education Series program in Animal Kingdom, my husband and youngest daughter decided to head to the Magic Kingdom for a few hours. Since they would be meeting us later at AK, we drove our car and they took a bus to the MK. My husband called me after we were already entering AK, fuming, as he waited for a bus that seemed as if it would never come. Several buses for other Parks had come and gone, but he waited over 30 minutes for a MK bus. Since Sports shares buses with Music and Movies–at least in the off-season–transportation is erratic at best at this resort.
- Faulty wake-up calls. As it turns out, this might have been a problem for all the Disney Resorts, because we encountered it (gasp!) at the Grand Floridian as well. The wake-up call would only play for about 10 seconds, and then would cut off suddenly. Kind of a bummer, when you’re hoping to start your day with a little message from your Disney pals.
I can’t really comment on the pools or food, as we had not time to enjoy either at the All-Star Sports. We spent any free time away from the Parks eating and shopping off-site. Check-in here was fine, especially since I had completed on-line check-in before our arrival. The few Cast Members we encountered on our stay were friendly enough and helpful, but we didn’t interact with any to a great extent. If I had to categorize our experience, I would say it was adequate. But is adequate what you’re looking for when you visit Walt Disney World? I think not!
Anyone out there care to offer their own opinion of the All-Star Sports Resort? Sound off in the comments section.