Zesty Zagreb

When I first mentioned that I would be traveling to Croatia to people, I typically got two reactions.  The first set of people asked me where it was, saying they had never heard of it.  The second group immediately asked me if I was going to Dubrovnik to see where Game of Thrones is filmed. Most people who do travel to Croatia are usually only stopping there on a cruise, although tourism for the entire country has grown and continues to grow at a very fast rate.  Since Croatia is where my mom’s side of the family descends from, we wanted to spend a good amount of time exploring everything the entire country had to offer.

The first place to kick off our Croatian country tour was the country’s capital city, Zagreb.  A city that is only just recently experiencing a large growth in tourism, Zagreb has one of the nicest, if not the nicest, airports I have ever been in.  It’s small, with only a few terminals and two baggage claim belts but boy, is this place clean.  I would feel absolutely confident eating off the floors.  I was genuinely impressed so hats off to you, Zagreb Airport!

IMG_3330.JPG

Upon exiting the airport, we met Kris, our driver for most of the next 10 days.  It’s easy to say that my mom and I instantly felt a connection to Kris.  A quick 20 minute drive later and we were dropped off at the Hotel Dubrovnik (interesting name for a Zagreb hotel, eh?), a beautifully renovated hotel in the heart of the lower town.

After a quick bite to eat, we met our tour guide who would be taking us around the highlights of the city.  Our tour guide kicked off our tour in Ban Jelaĉić Square, the main central square of the city, named after Josip Jelaĉić, a famous military general who abolished serfdom in the country.  The square is surrounded by beautiful, old buildings and features a small market selling local items.

IMG_3318.JPG

We made our way towards Upper Town stopping first at the Zagreb Cathedral.  Dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, the cathedral is the tallest building in the entire country of Croatia.  Unfortunately, the inside wasn’t open to the public that day but the outside was certainly beautiful enough to make up for it. 

IMG_3321.JPG

Moving upward, our tour guide led us through the Stone Gate, one of the most important landmarks in the city.  The Stone Gate is the only remaining piece of the walls that were created in the 1200s as a means of securing the city.  Legend has it that the entire gate was destroyed in a fire in 1731 with the exception of a painting of Mary and her child.  The painting still remains and it is believed to possess miraculous powers.  Citizens and tourists alike regularly come here to light and candle and pray.

IMG_3323.jpg
IMG_3320.JPG

Just a few steps more, we finally came up St. Mark’s Church, something I had been exited to see based on my research of the city.  It is quite possibly one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.  It’s not large by any means in comparison to the typical cathedrals found throughout Europe but the roof is simply breathtaking.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside but I can only imagine the inside matches the beauty of the outside.

IMG_3326.JPG

Walking past the Lotrscak Tower, a famous 13th century guard tower (you can climb up it during peak tourist season), we made our way to the Funicular Railway, home to the shortest cable car in the world!  For a few euros, you can ride the cable car up or down the hill.  My mom and I would ride it down the hill the next morning.  It is short; the ride lasts less than a minute.  But it’s worth it to be able to say we rode the shortest cable car in the world!

IMG_3328.JPG

My mom and I were guided down the hill on foot by our tour guide and dropped off at the bottom of Tkalciceva Street, a street known for its bars and active nightlife.  It was nearing the end of the day and our tour guide gave us one more tip before leaving up: visit the Vincek Pastry Shop.  As we parted my mom and I decided before we stopped at the pastry shop to find a bite to eat.  This is where we learned something that would follow us for the rest of our trip: restaurants are limited in the country of Croatia.  While the country’s economy is growing, wages are still very low in comparison to the cost of living, meaning people do not have much money.  So instead of eating out at restaurants, they eat at home and go out at night to places called “Café bars.”  These are everywhere and are exactly what they sound like: places that serve coffee and alcohol.  You can find Café bars on every single corner, sometimes 10 of them lined up in a row.  But rarely do they serve food.  Finding a full sit down restaurant can be tough so beware!  That being said, my mom and I finally stumbled upon a pizza/pasta place and enjoyed a nice glass of Croatian wine. 

IMG_3322.JPG
IMG_3319.JPG

After our meal, we made our way over to the Vincek Bakery.  While I wasn’t able to read any of the signs, I picked up a few sweets.  This should definitely be a stop on your Zagreb tour! 

My mom and I only had a few hours the next morning to finish exploring Zagreb before heading on the road to Topusko.  As my mom and I are avid caffeine addicts, we made our way to Johann Franck, Zagreb’s famous coffee shop.  We spent about an hour outside people watching in Ban Jelaĉić Square with a delicious cappuccino and breakfast pastry.

IMG_3317.JPG

Our final stop in Zagreb was the Dolac Market, a fresh, open air market, which is open daily from morning until early afternoon.  It houses produce stands as well as souvenir and craftsman stands.  An almost centuries long tradition, my mom and I agreed we could have spent a whole afternoon in the market, exploring each stand.  It smelled like heaven; fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the farm.  This is a market not to be missed!

IMG_3325.JPG

While our time in Zagreb was short, I feel like we covered just about everything, although I wouldn’t have minded an extra day to hang around and visit a few of the museums.  Zagreb is definitely underrated in terms of Croatian tourist spots.  It’s true that it doesn’t offer the incredible beaches like other cities and islands but it is the heart and soul of Croatia and I highly recommend everyone start their Croatian adventure here!

Our Airbnb Nightmare

Buckle in, friends. This one is a doozy. Long but important for anyone using the Airbnb platform. I will apologize in advance for how many times I use the word “again” but it really accentuates the situation.

_________

Back in July I received an email from my good friend and travel pal, Sarah, asking me and fellow travel pal, Kristin, if we would be interested in going to Scotland for New Year’s.  Never one to turn down a travel opportunity (unless I truly cannot make it happen financially or work wise), I jumped on the email and responded enthusiastically.  When I started looking into flight prices, I kept finding that flying to Dublin and booking flights to Edinburgh separately was going to be the cheapest option which got me thinking about a regret I have had for many years.  Back when I studied abroad in 2009 in London, a few friends planned a trip to Ireland over a school break. I assumed that the trip would include Dublin (because, duh) and too late did I realize that Dublin wasn’t included on the itinerary.  Why, I have no idea since it’s the capital of Ireland but alas, it wasn’t.  I never made it to Ireland again during my study abroad and it is something that has always bothered me.  So when looking at the flight situation, a lightbulb went off in my head that I could stop over and finally experience Dublin, 9 years later.  I let Sarah and Kristin know of my plan and assumed that I would just meet them in Scotland a few days late since they had both already been to Dublin.  To my surprise, both of them said they would be happy to join me in Dublin first, especially since they were finding the same price deals.  Destinations and dates decided, we all booked our flights and turned our attention to accommodations.

Having used Airbnb on previous trips in the United States, we thought that it might be nice to have a full apartment with laundry facilities on our trip.  None of us were planning to check a bag and winter clothes tend to take up a lot of space.  It just seemed like a good idea.  We searched through Airbnb’s listings and decided on two apartments with great locations in both Dublin and Edinburgh city centers.  We booked both within the week and paid for our portions accordingly.   This was all completed back in July.

Fast forward to December; it was time for our New Year’s trip.  As soon as we landed in Dublin, we headed straight for our AIrbnb located in the heart of Temple Bar.  Upon entry, we immediately all took note of how cold it was.  At first we didn’t think anything of it; we figured the owner turns off the heat in between guests and since the apartment didn’t appear to get a lot of light, it naturally held in the cold air.  We turned the thermostat to high heat and decided to take a nap to catch up on missed red eye sleep.  I woke up to one of my friends telling me that not only had the heat not kicked on during our nap but also she had tried to shower and had no hot water.  Greaaaaaaat.   We contacted our host and to make a long story short, a plumber spent 2 hours that night trying to get the heat to work and came up short.  The system was busted.  We needed a new place to stay.  For context, it’s 9:00pm.  (Note: we placed no fault on the host for the faulty heat/hot water issue.  Things happen and he was great about trying to get it resolved.  He sent a plumber that unfortunately, just couldn’t get it to work.  We appreciated all the help the host tried to provide.)

I contacted Airbnb through both their support page and Twitter.  I received a message back on twitter that said that a case manager would be contacting us soon.  When I asked if they had an ETA on when we could expect the phone call, I was told that they couldn’t do that because calls were made in the order a support ticket was received.  I was told it could be a few minutes or it could be a few hours.  What?  It’s 9:00pm, we have no one where to stay, and you’re telling us we may not receive any kind of help for hours?  Not off to a great start, Airbnb.  The three of us decided that instead of waiting around for an unknown period of time, that I would run around the corner to the various hotels and see if any of them had a room open.  Sarah and Kristin would stay, start packing, and wait for a call from Airbnb. 

Two stops later, I had secured us a room at the Temple Bar Hotel for roughly the same cost as our Airbnb stay (a little more expensive, but not by much).  When I called Sarah and Kristin to let them know, Sarah explained that she had received a call from Airbnb.  They had cancelled the Dublin apartment on our behalf, started a refund for our money, and placed no blame on the host.  They did not offer us an help on finding a new place or offer us any kind of help in offsetting the cost of having to put out money for our new place (refunds are not automatic, so at this moment we were out the cost of 2 hotels/Airbnb stays).  Thankfully, we were only in Dublin for 2 days so we all had enough to cover.  We overlooked the lack of customer service because at this point, we just wanted to be warm.  Plus, we figured the worst was over.  (Insert ominous music here.)

An hour and a hot shower later, the three of us were getting ready to head out for a drink.  As we were walking through Temple Bar, Sarah checked her Airbnb app to make sure the Dublin apartment had been removed.  To her horror, not only had our Dublin apartment been removed, but so had our Edinburgh stay.  I immediately pulled up my app as well to confirm that it was in fact gone.  I also check my email to see if anything had come through there.  I noticed I had not one but two refund emails from Airbnb.  Oh no.  The first was for our Dublin apartment and the second was for our Edinburgh stay.  Double oh no.  Sarah opened her Airbnb inbox to find a message from the original case manager who helped us with our Dublin cancellation.  In this message the case manager, Tammy, let us know that she mistakenly cancelled both of our stays.  She said that if we needed help finding another place to stay in Edinburgh to let her know and she would offset the cost if it was more expensive.  Otherwise she apologized and told us to have a great night.  Wait, what?  You accidentally cancelled our apartment for a check in date of 2 days away over New Years in a major city and the only thing you have to say was sorry and good luck?  All of three of us agreed to head right back to the hotel to get this figured out in a quiet place.  This was not good.

Sarah called the customer service line that had previously been used to call us regarding our Dublin stay.  We were told that Tammy would be giving us a call within 20 minutes to sort out her mistake.  20 minutes went by.  Then 30 minutes.  Finally, at 40 minutes, we called the customer service line again.  We were told that Tammy would call us within 30 minutes.  As you can imagine, we said this was unacceptable.  We were then told that the only person who could help us was Tammy and that we would have to wait.  Again, unacceptable.  We are three girls overseas with no place to stay because someone else made a mistake and didn’t appear to have any concern about fixing it.

Sarah demanded to speak with a supervisor.  Again, we were told this was not possible.  She insisted that someone needed to help us right at that moment.  After being put on hold for almost 10 minutes, the original woman who answered said that she could reassign our case to a new case manager.  While this back and forth was occurring on the phone, I was looking through the Airbnb app to see if anything was still available.  At this point, I had lost all faith and knew that no matter what happened, we needed a place to stay.  I found something that could accommodate us but it was more expensive.  I held onto it just in case but noticed that 5 other people were looking at the same place for the same dates.  I knew 2 of those people were in the room with me, but I had no idea who those other 3 people were.   We were taken off of hold and connected with a new case manager.  She informed us that the best she could do was reach out to our original host in Edinburgh and ask if we can rebook her place.  Other than that, she explained that she would need Tammy and her supervisor’s approval to give any other kind of assistance.  Sarah again asked to speak with a supervisor.  Again, we were put on hold. 

While we were on hold, the three of us decided to go ahead and book the available Airbnb apartment I had found on my phone.  We all agreed that we had no faith that we were going to get our original booking back.  I should note that the host never responded so had we waited; we would have had no place to go.  We figured it was better to have a place to stay and figure it out on the back end.  Plus, since we booked the second place through Airbnb, it would be easy for them to find all of our information. 

We were taken off hold and told again that there was nothing more they could do for us right now without Tammy and her supervisor.  We were also told that supervisors only call out in the order that supervisor call requests are received.  They occur within 24-48 hours after an incident.  We asked about the discount that was promised to us in Tammy’s initial note should a new place be more expensive.  Again, we were told nothing could be done without Tammy and her supervisor.  It was like a broken record at this point and I couldn’t stand to hear the same excuse one more time; none of us could.  Resigned to the fact that we weren’t going to receive any help from Airbnb, Sarah simply asked that a supervisor call her in the 24-48 hour time frame to discuss what had happened and how horrible our customer service experience had been.  At least we had a place to stay?

24 hours passed, then 48.  We received no call from a supervisor.  We reached out and asked when we could expect a call.  No response.  We all agreed that when I got home, I would file a credit card dispute on the charge until they gave us the difference they had promised.  We went about our trip and had a wonderful time despite the Airbnb mess.

Upon my return home, I reached out one more time to Airbnb in good faith, giving them one more chance to make things right on their own accord.  As you can probably guess at this point, I received no response.  The next day, I filed a credit card dispute on the charge with my bank.  I told them that I would pay up to the original booking amount and not a single cent more.  While it wasn’t a large amount of money, it was now the principle of the matter.  It took me almost 2 hours to file the dispute and gather all the information and evidence to back up my claim.

Once the dispute was filed, I again reached out to Airbnb to let them know that their charge was now in a fraud dispute claim with my bank.  And wouldn’t you know I got an almost immediate response from Airbnb.  Shocker!  Of course, they couldn’t care less about helping 3 girls they left stranded in a foreign country but as soon as their reputation gets dinged for potential fraud, they are on top of the case!  Within 2 hours, I was on the phone with a supervisor named Chloe.

Now, I will give credit where credit is due here.  Chloe was great.  She gave us a bit more than the difference of the two apartments (although it was only $12 which got split three ways, I appreciated the gesture) and gave each of us $200 Airbnb vouchers to use anytime, anywhere within the year.  She was kind, a great listener and was honest in saying that even she was frustrated reading the details of my case.  If you’re reading this, Chloe, you are A1, and I appreciate you.

That being said, it should not have taken me filing a dispute with my credit card company to receive help for a mistake that was made by Airbnb.  There are so many what ifs in this situation that could have had disastrous consequences.  What if there wasn’t another place to stay in Edinburgh since it was New Year’s?  What if the three of us weren’t financially sound and able to put out nearly $1500 out of our own pockets while we waited for our refunds?  What if we weren’t avid travelers who knew how to navigate tough situations and be flexible?  What if even one of us had medical issues or special needs that required a certain type of accommodation?  The three of us are lucky and blessed in our lives but there are many people out there using Airbnb’s platform who are not so.

While I have every intention of using that $200 credit, I will never use Airbnb again after that.  Nothing, truly nothing, is worth the risk of experiencing what happened on this trip again.  Safety when traveling is my top priority, as it should be to anyone, and clearly safety is not a top priority for Airbnb’s users.  I share this story not to scare you or tell you not to use Airbnb but to simply make you aware of what kind of service you can receive if something goes wrong.  Always do you research and due diligence when planning your travels.  I know all 3 of us will be a lot more cautious when making our plans going forward.

Ps. Our Edinburgh apartment didn’t have hot water either…

 

New Year's Resolutions


Happy New Year! 

We are officially in 2019, how crazy is that?  I swear 2018 didn’t even happen; it went by so incredibly fast.  And yet, here we are!  Now, I’m not normally one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I tend to hang out in the camp that thinks they’re silly and pointless.  But this year, I’ve decided to change my outlook and see what the hype is all about. 

I promise I’m not going to tell you that I want to lose weight or anything like that.  While I would love to start an exercise regimen and get back in shape, it’s just not feasible for me for two reasons: 1.) I injured my knee a few weeks back and am in physical therapy for the next month and 2.) I hate working out.  Hate it.  With a passion.  Nope, no thanks, I’m good, next.  I have to give myself a serious pep talk just to walk up one flight of stairs.  My resolutions are also not very travel based (gasp!).  Now that I’ve been on this blogging journey for just over a year, I thought it might be nice to jump outside the travel world every once in a while (double gasp!).  Plus, I’m totally using this as an opportunity to ask y’all for recommendations (and keep myself accountable). My goals in 2019 are to:

1.)    Read One Book a Month

My first resolution is to read one book a month.  I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, some people read a book a week, but between two jobs, graduate school, freelance writing, blog writing, and general life living, I think this is the most realistic reading goal for me at the moment.  So far I’ve got my first three months set:

January - What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristin Newman

February - Becoming by Michelle Obama

March - You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

I’m open to any and all other book selections to fill out the remaining 9 months!  I read everything from biographies, historical accounts, romance, thriller, etc.  Send me a message!

2.)    Pay Off My Credit Card Bill

While my credit card bill isn’t that high, it’s not zero either.  I want to change that in 2019.  By the end of the year, I want to have a zero balance.  My student loans from grad school will be dropping at the end of the year and I’d like to make sure I go into 2020 with only one set of interest accruing debt.  My current debate is how to go about doing it.  I’ve calculated out how much it would cost per day, per week, and per month what it would take to pay it off within the year and I just don’t know which the best option is.  This is something I really want to stick to this year so if you have any tips, tricks, or apps you swear by, I’m all ears!

3.)    Stop Hitting the Snooze Button

Of all my resolutions, this one is definitely going to be the toughest one for me.  Anyone who knows me knows I suck at mornings.  I have tried everything from the apps that gently wake you up by your REM cycle to the apps that force you to do math before your alarm will shut off.  None of it works.  To be fair, I do have an under active thyroid that causes me to be exhausted at any given moment.  I can sleep for 14 hours every day and feel just as tired as if I didn’t sleep at all.  But I just keep imagining all the extra sleep I could be having if I just got up when my alarm went off the first time. Let’s see how this one goes; no guarantees. 

4.)    Stop Eating Out/ Ordering Food Delivery

I may or may not have an obsession with Folklore Tacos in West Orange, NJ.  It’s something I’m trying to come to terms with and it’s taking a toll on my mental health not to order my favorite meal twice a week.  Okay, so I may be exaggerating but their tacos are just so damn good.  Let’s not forget about the gnocchi Alfredo from Ameti Pizza in Clifton, NJ.  You guys are the real heroes.  But as deep as our love goes, I can’t lie about the cost of it.  Eating your incredible food is expensive and financially draining.  So this year, I am vowing to cut back on takeout, delivery, and eating out.  What used to be a special occasion has now become the norm and I need to get back to making food at home and packing lunch ahead of time.  First stop after work today: the grocery store!

5.)    Write 1 Blog Post Per Week (Minimum)

Sometimes I am really great about writing content for the blog and other times I just plain suck at it.  Life gets in the way, work is demanding, and some weeks I’m simply uninspired.  I’m hoping that my goal of one post a week minimum will keep me on track and pushing out consistent content.  New and relevant content will also help me connect my blog to my other social media channels and hopefully drive connecting traffic!  I’ve already got January covered with ideas but would love to hear from y’all about any kind of content you would like to see!  I’ve got an idea for a full packing page that I’m hoping to flush out in the coming months but I’m open to anything else!

6.)    Post 5 Images to Instagram Per Week

Similar to above, I am hoping that this small goal will keep on a consistent track of posting great content to my social media platforms.  Posting this frequently will also keep my page fresh in the Instagram algorithm world (can we all agree it’s the worst?).  Now if only I could get better at creating a monthly content calendar…

7.)    Drink More Water

This one is super simple and yet really complex for me as I have never been a water drinker.  I actually don’t like the taste of water.  Yes, it has a taste.  They all do and they’re all bad.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I have grown to understand just how important water is for your body.  I’ve certainly gotten better at drinking water over the last two years but I’d like to do even more.  I have a refillable tumbler cup at work with free filtered water in our kitchen area.  I downloaded an app that reminds me every 2-3 hours to drink a glass of water.  It’s called Habitbull for anyone interested! 

I’m actually really excited to get working on my resolutions for 2019.  This is the first time in many years that I have not only created a resolution for myself but made an action plan to stick with it.  I’m also excited to read some of your recommendations, tips, and tricks!  Now let’s go kick 2019’s ass!

Weekend Warrior: Charleston

In my post about how I afford to travel, I mentioned the importance of taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.  A few months back, my coworkers and I were discussing possible 4th of July plans.  Our company was closed July 4 and 5 (Wednesday and Thursday) and offers half day Friday throughout the summer.  My boss told us that since no one would be in the office, to not bother coming in that day meaning I had just gained 5 days in a row off.  Score!

So I hit the drawing board and began looking at places I could go.  My initial thought was to stay close to home and head down to the Jersey Shore.  But after checking out both hotel and Airbnb prices, I knew I could go elsewhere and get a much better deal.  I began looking into cities I had never been to before, specifically in the south.  My top choices were Nashville, Charleston, and Savannah.  I knew I wanted to take on Nashville as a girl’s trip and Savannah with my significant other since he wants to go there as well.  Which meant Charleston was my destination!

I have recently started using the Hopper app to book my flights and I have to stay, I won’t book flights without consulting the app anymore.  Simply put in your start and end destinations and it shows you a calendar of when flights are the cheapest.  If you’re set on dates like I typically am, it allows you to watch the dates and gives you alerts on when to wait to buy and when to book.  It’s a great money saver and better yet, it’s completely free!

In my search for lodging, I came across the cutest Airbnb listing close to Folly Beach. The price was great and had the location I wanted, so I booked it!  Katie, my host, was wonderful! She was beyond welcoming and helpful. The apartment was perfect and had a beautiful view. Close to the beach and great restaurants and close to downtown too. I would recommend to anyone heading to Charleston!  You can find her Airbnb rental here!

IMG_0283.JPG
IMG_0269.JPG
edited.jpg

I flew into Charleston late morning and landed early afternoon.  My first stop after picking up my rental car was of course, Waffle House! Look folks, I’m a Jersey Girl who has been blessed with an abundance of diner options her whole life and don’t get me wrong, I love a good diner.  But there is something magical about a Waffle House.  You walk in and it is thoroughly not impressing, so much so that if I didn’t know the gold that was waiting for me, I would walk right back out.  Each location I have ever been in hasn’t seen a deep clean or an interior refresh since they opened.  But that is exactly what makes the food so good.  It’s greasy, buttery, and everything you’re not supposed to put into your body.  Every time I see a Waffle House or head to an area with one, I make sure I stop in.  I could go on and on about my love of Waffle House, but I’ll spare you, dear reader, and just leave it at that. If you are interested in a super interesting piece of Waffle House history, however, I highly recommend checking out this podcast! I won’t spoil it for you but it’s actually really fascinating.

After a quick stop at my Airbnb to drop off my bags and change into beach appropriate clothing, I hopped in my rental car and made my way over to Folly Beach, about 2 miles from where I was staying.  Since there’s only one road in and one road out of Folly Beach, traffic can back up quickly.  It took me a little longer than normal to get down to the beach but since it was a little later in the day, it wasn’t too bad.  Plus, I’m living in Northern New Jersey outside New York City; traffic is a norm in my life.  Another thing to be aware of at Folly Beach: parking is weird.  There are some small parking lots close to the beach that you can pay for, but at $7 and a lot of personal experience parallel parking, I figured I’d try my luck at street parking.  Well, it’s not actually street parking.  In order to be legally “street” parked in Folly Beach, your car tires must be off the road and on the grass but some grass is not fair game since it’s technically owned by the house behind it.  Still, it’s not too tough to find parking if you’re willing to walk a block or two.

Parking out of the way, I made my way to the beach!  The beach is one of my favorite places so I’m not picky about them.  Folly Beach is your typical beach, white sand, blue water.  I will say, heading down to South Carolina, I expected the water to be clearer than from where I’m from in the northeast.  It was definitely clearer than the north but still not as clear as I was expecting.  Even so, just being able to swim in the ocean and kick back and listen to my favorite podcasts was simply relaxing.

IMG_0271.JPG

Back at the Airbnb, I make myself some dinner, grab my book and a beer, and head out to the boat dock to watch the sunset over the bay.  Bring bug spray, folks.  You’re going to need it.  But it’s truly so worth it.  I mean, look at this view!

IMG_0282.JPG

Late into the evening, I get myself together and make my way towards downtown Charleston for one of my favorite things: a ghost tour!   I wish I had better news here but I won’t lie, this ghost tour was extremely disappointing.  I had high hopes for a city with such an incredible history.  But alas, the Death & Depravity Tour by Ghost City Tours of Charleston was the worst ghost tour I’ve been on, and I’ve been on a lot (Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., New Orleans).  If you’d like my full review of the tour you can find it here.   As I mention in my tour, there are plenty of other ghost tour companies in the city that I believe you will have much better luck with.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early so that I could experience the Magnolia Plantation.  Rich with history, this plantation topped all the city’s must do lists.  I read that the best time to get there was first thing in the morning.  And that’s exactly what I did.  I purchased a general admission ticket and added the plantation house tour, boat tour, and slavery home tour.  When I arrived, I was one of the first people on property and by the time I left, the parking lot was full.  My early arrival allowed for a peaceful walk around the gardens with few interruptions.  This beautiful piece of property holds a dark history that is important for all visitors to learn about.  Of all the things I did during my time in Charleston, this was by far the best part.  And the pictures really don’t do this place justice.  All in all I spent about 7 hours here so if this is on your list of things to do, give yourself plenty of time!

IMG_0289.JPG
IMG_0303.JPG
IMG_0321.JPG
IMG_0327.JPG
IMG_0346.JPG
IMG_0438.JPG

After spending so much time at the plantation, I decided to spend the rest of my evening relaxing at the beach.  I drive the few miles to the beach, put sunscreen on, and as soon as I hop in the ocean I hear a giant thunder clap.  I look out a few miles towards the shore and see a nasty thunderstorm rolling in very quickly.  I got out of the water faster than you could ever imagine and ran back to the safety of my car.  So much for that, I thought.  Knowing there wouldn’t be much to do since outside activities were a no go, I headed towards the nearest bar and settled in for the next World Cup game (go Croatia!).  Two hours later, I had made friends with the folks around me and the bartender and was partaking in Croatia victory shots.  If you’re traveling alone, I’ve learned the best way to meet people is to sit at a bar.  It’s inevitable that every time I sit at a bar, I will meet at least one new person.  Sit at the bar and at least pretend to be interested in what’s on their television.  You’ll thank me later.

The next day, I headed towards downtown Charleston for the first tour departing for Fort Sumter, a seat fort only reachable by a 20-minute boat ride.  It is most notably known for two major battles during the Civil War.  The total tour time is approximately an hour and half, including boat transportation.  As Americans, learning and experiencing our history is so critical, especially given everything that’s going on in our political climate.  The Fort Sumter tour is a great way to expose yourself to history while also enjoying the waters of Charleston.

IMG_0472.JPG
IMG_0499.JPG

The last part of my Charleston adventure was exploring the beautiful, old streets of Downtown Charleston.  I love the charm and history that each building has.  It’s not like New York or Philadelphia where every building is new and glass.  These buildings are old and historical and the architecture is dreamy.  I could spend hours walking through every single alley and cobblestone street.  It was a wonderful way to cap off a great weekend!

IMG_0522.JPG
IMG_0526.JPG

Weekend Warrior: San Diego

I am so excited to write about my San Diego trip!  I have been buzzing ever since I landed yesterday.  San Diego has been a top city on my bucket list for quite some time now so when my significant other, Kyle, told me he had a work trip in “America’s Finest City,” I knew I had to make this trip happen.  I politely (at least I think it was polite) asked Kyle to ask his boss if it would be okay for me to crash in his hotel room.  I promised Kyle I wouldn’t bother anyone and didn’t need to be entertained.  I am quite adept at traveling alone and had a few friends living in the city I could visit.  Thankfully, Kyle’s boss said yes, I could come! I was so excited.  A top bucket list city and free accommodations?  I was sold.

As I started researching flight prices from Newark, I was a little surprised to find that there weren’t many direct flights to San Diego or if there were, they were at odd times or out of this world expensive.  Then it hit me, another item on my bucket list: driving the Pacific Coast Highway.  I knew flights to LAX would be cheaper than to San Diego and they would be direct.  I’d rent a car and drive the PCH from LA to San Diego.  It would be perfect!  I’d have to rent a car but I figured if I was spending the money and time anyway, I might as well do something cool!  So I purchased a one-way ticket to LAX, rented a car, and purchased a nonstop flight back from San Diego to Newark (thanks, Black Friday flight deals). 

Pro tip: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to your plans.  If you’re going to spend the time and money doing something, you might as well make the most out of it.  Take my Croatia trip, for example.  Flights to and from Croatia were going to cost almost $6,000 for two people.  Um, excuse me, WHAT?  No way.  I started to think outside the box and considered my other options.  Flights to London, I knew, were always fairly priced and I wouldn’t mind spending a day or two in a city I once called home.  I also knew that flights from Germany were decently priced as well.  By adding two extra days to our trip, even with hotels and food costs, we were able to save almost $4,000 on costs.  Not bad, huh?  Lesson: be flexible and get creative.

Now, I still want to drive the northern piece Pacific Coast Highway but I was thrilled by my drive from LAX to San Diego.  I first stopped in Long Beach and had the most delicious brunch at The Attic on E Broadway.  Seriously, I ordered the crème Brule French toast and it was truly one of the best French toast dishes I’ve ever had.  Jamie, the bartender, was amazing and made me the most amazing peach Bellini, with fresh muddled peaches.  This place is definitely a popular spot; I arrived around 1:00pm on a Friday afternoon and there was a 30-minute wait for tables of 2 or more.  Luckily, I was flying solo and was able to snag an open seat at the bar.  If you’re heading here, which I totally recommend, you should try and get a reservation. 

IMG_1800.JPG

After brunch, I hopped on the PCH and started my drive.  I knew I wanted to stop at a few beaches along the way, the first being Laguna Beach.  I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV in high school (I used to secretly stay up late at night to watch The Challenge) so I didn’t know much about the show until I started college and began watching The Hills.  I’m fairly sure that my love of the Challenge combined with this new discovery of a true “reality show” kicked off my love of trashy, half-real, half-fake television shows.  I, of course, went back and watched Laguna Beach and silently cursed my parents for not letting me watch it while all my friends did.  Now, at 27, I had the opportunity to see where it all began.  And it was gorgeous.  I was expecting beautiful homes and beaches but this small little beach city was beyond charming.  I know it may be cliché to stop in a city just because a reality TV show was filmed there but in this case, I do hope you consider making it a stop for the city itself.  It may just surprise you!

After a few more stops, I noticed the sun was starting to set and I made my final stop along the shore to catch the last few moments of sunlight.  I think I’ve mentioned how I feel about California sunsets in the past and how I’ve never been truly impressed.  And I won’t lie; this sunset didn’t rock my world like the Greek sunsets did.  But that’s to be expected, I’m sure, and this sunset was beautiful in its own special way. 

Back on the road, I texted my friend (hands free, of course) and let her know I’d be arriving in her around 6:00pm.  She let me know she had a great spot to grab a drink and I was sold.  After picking her up, she directed me towards a restaurant on the water called Coasterra.  If you’re driving here, be prepared to valet your car, as there are only a few self-parking spots.  At $7, however, it’s not too bad of cost.  And it’s worth it too.  There’s a reason this restaurant lands on just about every top list of places to eat or drink.  While I can’t speak to the food as we only grabbed drinks, I will say that they serve some of the best margaritas I’ve ever had.  And the view of the San Diego skyline simply can’t be beat. 

IMG_1806.JPEG

After a long day of travel and a few margaritas with a great friend, I decided to call it a night and head back towards my hotel.  A quick note about my hotel: I stayed in the Downtown Courtyard Marriott, formerly a huge bank.  The architecture and old vaults make for a unique hotel experience.  I highly recommend staying here if you are looking for a great downtown location. 

The next morning I woke up bright and early so I could pack as much as I could into my day.  I started off at the Donut Bar, a heavenly little donut shop serving giant donuts and mimosas.  Pure heaven.  And well priced too!  4 large donuts, 1 mimosa, and 3 coffees ran me only $25. 

IMG_1810.JPG

After dropping the donuts and coffee off to my significant other and his coworkers, I hopped on a bus and headed towards Balboa Park.  The public transportation buses in San Diego take either prepaid tickets or exact change.  The bus ride cost me $2.25 so make sure you have your quarters.  It’s a great alternative to Uber, which would have cost me about $10 for the trip.  And it’s environmentally friendly! San Diego also offers electric scooters as another fun, environmentally friendly way to get around the city. Starting at $1, you can ride them just about anywhere and leave them wherever your trip ends. Download the LimeScooter app on your phone to get it started!

IMG_1877.JPG

I spent a good bit of my time exploring Balboa Park. It’s huge!  They have all kinds of museums, gardens, and restaurants.  There is also a large homeless population living in the park.  It’s quite the juxtaposition to see these ornate beautiful buildings with homeless people living outside of them.  It’s a great reminder to not only be thankful for what you have but to be respectful of the spaces you’re in when traveling.  To you, it’s a beautiful park waiting to be explored.  To someone else, it’s home.

After spending almost 3 hours in the park, I was ready for lunch.  Based on the recommendation of a coworker, I decided to head over to The Crack Shack, a fried chicken joint.  I won’t lie to you, as soon as I saw the line wrapping around the block, I decided to ditch my idea of a fried chicken lunch.  I don’t care how good the food is; I’m not standing around the corner to wait for it.  Sorry, Crack Shack.  I remembered seeing a brewery/food spot around the corner while in my Uber.  I pivoted quickly and started walking.

Ballast Point brewery was amazing.  It had so many beers on tap, it took my a solid 5 minutes to decide which 4 to choose for a flight.  I also ordered pretzel bites with beer cheese.  I highly recommend this spot if you’ve got a group whose tastes vary widely.

After lunch, I spent the afternoon just walking around by the water.  I was close to the USS Midway museum and was able to see some of the amazing ships and boats scattered around the water.  It was a lovely, peaceful afternoon.  I wasn’t up for anything crazy that night as I hurt my knee in an accident.  It was telling me to call it a day, so that’s exactly what I did.

The next morning, I woke up so excited for the day.  Today was the day I was paragliding!  I could not wait.  This was something that had always been on my bucket list ever since I was 12.  When I visited my Dad in Germany, he and I had agreed we would paraglide over the German Alps.  My mom quickly shut that idea down once she found out our plans claiming that 12 was just too young to be doing such a thing.  Ever since then, paragliding has been very high up on my list things I was dying to do. 

Torrey Pines Gliderport is well known for their flights and is extremely popular for newbies and veterans alike.  They do not take reservations because it is so dependent on the wind and weather conditions and these can change at any moment.  The best way to do it is to give them a call the morning of, put your name on their list, and have them give you a call when they’re clear for flying. 

If you don’t have a flying license, you will have to participate in the tandem version, which makes total sense.  I had no intention of flying alone.  Tandem paragliding is also not allowed as a tourist activity in the United States.  The only loophole to this law is that you can paraglide as a “flying student.”  Before flying, you essentially sign a contract saying that you are a student learning to paraglide from the tandem instructor.  You also must sign multiple liability waivers as well as be filmed on video waiving your right to sue in case of injury or death.  You accept that this activity can end very badly.  As someone with anxiety, this part made me very nervous.  But the instructors assured us that this was routing and that the flights are very safe.

IMG_1933.JPG

Getting strapped in, the instructor walked through the steps of take off.  Essentially you run against the wind off a cliff.  From there, the parachute picks you up and the instructor controls the strings so you glide effortlessly over Torrey Pines.  If you’ve ever ridden Disney’s Soarin’ attraction, it feels almost exactly the same but instead of a simulated version, it’s the real deal.  Paragliding over the cliffs and water was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever experienced.  If you ever have the chance to paraglide, it’s something I recommend over and over again.  I did have to land on the beach and hike up the cliff due to rapidly changing winds, but still, it was beyond worth it.

IMG_1932.JPG

After the insane hike that was climbing back up the cliff after landing, my friends and I decided it was time for a drink.  My friend Lucas lives in San Diego and knew of a bunch of cool breweries we could try out, most of them located in the Ocean Beach area of San Diego.  The first was Culture Brewery, a small but great brewery that allows dogs to freely roam.  I made many dog friends that afternoon.  After a quick bite at a delicious burrito spot, Sunnies, we quickly made our way over to Sunset Cliffs to catch the beautiful cotton candy sunset.  We then headed for the second brewery, Kilowatt.  This place is so cool. It’s covered in neon lights and is filled with all kinds of games, not to mention delicious beer.

IMG_1895.JPG

All in all, my weekend in San Diego was nothing sort of amazing.  The weather was phenomenal, the food was amazing, and it was beyond nice to be able to spend time with friends I’ve missed dearly.  I wish I could have spent more time in this lovely city but I am grateful for the time I had.  I can’t wait to go back!

 

My Packing Essentials & Favorites

Packing is one of my favorite things to do when I’m getting ready for a trip.  Not that packing itself is fun but you’re excited and anxious and it’s part of the fun of knowing in a short time you’ll be off to somewhere new! Unpacking is another story but let’s pretend that part doesn’t exist, shall we?  I certainly do for weeks at a time after a trip…….

Untitled.jpg

I’ll kick this list off starting with my favorite bags.  If you’re like me, you love a good deal.  There’s nothing I hate more than seeing a great luggage piece only to turn over the price tag and be promptly shocked into death.  $300 for a rolling piece of plastic?  A piece of plastic I am going to beat the crap out of?  A piece of plastic the airport employees are going to abuse worse than I do to the candy aisle the day after Halloween?  Yeah, nope.  In the words of the great Ariana Grande: thank u, next.  I few years ago, I tentatively ventured into TJMaxx’s luggage section, cautiously optimistic.  As a former employee of the great discount store, I was hopeful that my old friend would have something great for me.  And that’s how I had my luggage “come-to-Ritz Carlton” moment (like a come-to-Jesus moment but better).  I scored a large piece of rolling luggage (all 4 wheels!) for under $60.  Oh yeah.  You better believe I immediately eye-claimed that piece of luggage to everyone around me and promptly rolled it to the cashier line like a proud dog who just took his first poop outside.  A few months later, I was in desperate need of a new rolling carry-on bag as I use a carry-on bag way more than I do a large, checked bag.  I didn’t even bother checking out anything else and made my way directly to the local TJMaxx.  Since TJMaxx isn’t like a normal retailer, I can’t link the exact bags I found but you can get an idea of some of their luggage offerings on their site here.  Skimming over their site quickly, I still recommend you check out what they have in store as I think you may have even better luck. 

**ps. Beware the “smart” bags.  You know those cool bags everyone brags about because it can charge your phone.  First, they’re heavier and will limit the weight of the rest of your luggage.  Second, some airlines won’t allow them as a carry-on and will force you to check it.  Make sure if you do purchase one of these that you carefully check your airline’s regulations.  Or you know, you could just live without a fully charged phone for a few hours….

front-catalina-deluxe-washed-canvas-thistle-weekender-lo-and-sons_375x500.jpg

Speaking of bags, I love a good weekender bag and always have.  I got one for Christmas a few years back and it’s still going strong, although it’s definitely nearing the end of its life.  A few weeks ago, as if the internet heard my old bag’s cry for help, I saw an internet ad for a weekender bag.  It was beautiful.  It had a pocket with a zipper that could either remain a true pocket or be zipped open to go over your luggage handle.  It also had a shoe compartment.  A shoe compartment!  No more carrying plastic bags and tightly wrapping my soiled shoes in them and placing them next to my clothes.  No more bag flailing all around my carry-on luggage as I awkwardly make my way through the airport at 4am.  I love this bag.  I’ve tried it out on a few airline trips as well as a few long weekend getaways to my parents house.  It’s just the best and I highly recommend it. Plus, it comes in a bunch of different colors!  You can get yours here.

41JyUE9n-3L.jpg

Now let’s get to actually packing, shall we?  First up, the famous packing cubes.  Now, I’ll be honest here, I have mixed feelings on packing cubes.  I think they’re great for a larger bag when it comes to carry-on luggage, I find their usefulness to be hit or miss.  I’ll use them for things like my hair tools but not my clothes which I can maneuver better when they’re out of a bag.  That being said, I love them for longer trips.  They help keep me organized as I make my way from location to location.  I got my set from here.  I like this set because there’s tons of design options to choose from and their inexpensive which means they’re great to try out and see how you feel about packing cubes.

91PqiJhE-iL._SL1500_.jpg

In addition to packing cubes, I also really love individual bags designed for certain items.  The first individual bag I have is an undergarment bag.  It has separate small pockets inside for underwear and keeps your bras safe (you know what I mean ladies, no one likes bent underwire).  And since I only ever bring a few bras with me on a trip, I usually have enough room to put my pajamas in this bag too, making it the perfect undergarment bag.  Get yours here!  (Just a heads up: I have read in the reviews that if your girls are bigger, this bag may not work for you.  Make sure to read the measurements carefully!0)

81LfVGlmeNL._SX522_.jpg

I also am obsessed with my makeup bag.  If you’re like me, you love you some high end makeup and I’m sorry, but my Bobbi Brown foundation deserves better than a cheap, plastic, unprotected makeup bag.  I got you, Bobbi.  This bag is amazing because it’s slightly padded but not bulky and has separate compartments so not only can you organize your makeup by type but you know it’s being kept safe on your journey.  No more broken Urban Decay eye shadow palattes!  Hell, even my Elf palettes deserve it.  And for those of you who travel without your makeup or with minimal makeup: can you please let me know how you do it?  Thanks in advance.

IMG_1786.JPG

My last essential bag is my toiletry bag. It’s a Travel Check hanging back which I have been using for years. It’s got multiple pockets and has a hanger so that you can save space in your hotel room and keep it organized as you go along. I also love that it’s collapsible so that if I’m traveling with less, the bag is smaller. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it anywhere online for sale anymore but here’s a link to a similar one!

And that’s how I make my bag clean and organized!  I am also a big user of clear plastic bags like Ziploc gallon bags.  I use one for my headphones, chargers, and power banks, one for my camera equipment, one for my toiletries, one for airplane essentials like compression socks, earplugs, and snacks, you get the idea.  Clear bags help you pull out only what you need and avoid making a massive pill of stuff on your bed looking for one thing.


Ps. No spon-con in this post.  I did not receive any compensation for sharing these items with you.  I just happen to use them and like them.  Now, if you’re reading this packing cube PR and want to send me some, I won’t say no….




Animal Kingdom Overview

Ah, Animal Kingdom.  My favorite park.  My home park.  During my College Program (oh, you didn’t know I participated in the Disney College Program?  Let me remind you again!) I worked at the Animal Kingdom as a main entrance merchandise cast member which included working in the gift shop right outside of the park, the gift cart opposite the shop, the cart next to Guest Relations, Locker Rental, the PhotoPass gift shop, and stroller and ECV rentals.  Okay, I’m going to get on my soap box for a quick second.  I loved my experience with the Disney College Program.  I’ve heard the horror stories.  I’ve heard them all.   I get it, your coworker’s daughter hated her program because she got paid minimum wage and, gasp, had to actually work.  I’ve heard it and I don’t care.  I knew what I was signing up for.  I willingly and happily signed up to be cheap labor and nothing more than a number to an international Fortune 100 company.  I was realistic about what my experience would be and understood my days would be long and pay would be low.  But you know what?  Most internships don’t pay anything and I got to work at Disney freaking World, a lifelong dream of mine.  I loved playing with bubble guns and light sabers and watching children’s’ faces light up.  I loved receiving strollers from parents at the end of the day and listening to their child’s stories about their favorite character and favorite rides.  I loved being part of the magic.  As a human being, I had some of my most rewarding experiences when Make a Wish children wanted to hug me because they were so grateful for their experience.  As a professional, I learned my most important soft skills like interpersonal communication, customer service, and conflict resolution.  And as a girl who grew up on princess movies and fairytales, I geeked out when I had to drive an ECV through the parade route and the entire crowd cheered me on as I princess waved.  Don’t come for my internship experience; I will make it rain pixie dust all over your negative ass.  Airplane Ass mic drop. *Gets down from soap box.  Okay, sorry, I’m done….maybe.  I make no promises. 

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

dcp1.png

Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day (April 22) in 1998.  It is the largest theme park in the world but actually has the smallest amount of people space of all 4 of the Disney World theme parks.  The safari is just that big.  It is the 6th most visited theme park in the world and is dedicated to the natural environment and animal conservation, a cause near and dear to Walt Disney himself.  Unlike in the other parks, you won’t find any plastic straws, lids, or balloons.  Everything used in the Animal Kingdom is biodegradable.  It was recently announced that the other parks will be similarly following suit in the coming years.  There are also no nighttime fireworks as the sound would be upsetting to the animals that live there and up until just a few years ago, there was no nighttime activity at all.  Just a heads up, this park can only be reached by car or bus.  There is no other transportation option such as monorail or boat.

zoo820163LARGE.jpg

The theme of the park is separated into 3 parts, each of which is honored at the park’s entrance: What was, what is, and what never will be.  Check out Dinoland and Dinosaur for the “what was” portion of the park.  “What is” can be found throughout the park in the form of animal trails, the safari, and animal conservation efforts.  “What never will be” can now be experienced in the new Pandora land.  Wanting guests to experience a true adventure, Joe Rhodes, the head Imagineer of the park, did not print park maps for the first few weeks of the park opening.  He wanted guests to truly experience what an adventure would feel like.  As you can imagine, guests did not enjoy this and after many complaints of being lost, maps were made and are still used today. 

gate1.jpg

The park is built in the shape of a……..WHEEL! Yes, a wheel, built around the Tree of Life, the park’s main icon.  At the bottom of the wheel, heading towards the Tree of Life, you walk through an area called the Oasis.  This area definitely gets you in the mindset that you are leaving Orlando and entering the Animal Kingdom.  The Oasis features multiple animal exhibits that allows guests to see some smaller animals like wallabies, swans, and macaws. 

disney-animal-kingdom-map.jpg

As you walk out of the Oasis you come upon Discover Island featuring the beautiful Tree of Life, a 145ft sculpture of a baobab tree.  The Tree has 325 carvings of animals, both living and extinct and houses the 3D show It’s Tough to be a Bug.  With over 1,000 leaves placed on the tree, it really is a beautiful sight and is my personal favorite park icon.  Discovery Island is the central hub of the park/wheel and houses a few more animal exhibits as well as the park’s largest gift shops.  The area is named after the former location of a wildlife observation area near the Magic Kingdom which has recently been announced to become a new resort.  At night, projections light up the Tree of Life and if you’re a big Up fan, you can meet Russell and Doug from the movie just under the right side of the Tree.  Discovery Island is also home to the Flame Tree BBQ which offers the not-to-be-missed pulled pork nachos. 

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

As you move to the right of wheel, you’ll come upon Dinoland.  Dinoland is made up of two parts: The Dino Institute which houses Dinosaur, a thrilling ride back in time to the Cretaceous period based on the 2000 movie of the same name, and Chester & Hester’s Dinorama, a roadside carnival type area featuring familiar carnival games and attractions.  The story behind this area is The Dino Institute moved in and bought up all the surrounding land, homes, and businesses but Chester & Hester wouldn’t sell their land to the Institute.  Dinorama is supposed to look a little tattered and beat up; it is a roadside carnival after all.  Don’t worry about getting FastPasses for any of the attractions in this area; the other areas of the park typically are more popular and have more traffic.  Just above Dinoland sits the Theater in the Wild which features a Finding Nemo live show.  Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the show but if you’ve got young kids or are in desperate need of a break from the Florida heat, this is a great option.

thQRKM1PX0.jpg

Moving up the wheel, you begin to make your way to Asia, the first expansion to the park after its opening.  This area opened shortly after the park’s initial opening in 1999.  The Asia section of the park is based off of a fictional Anandapur village which features the Forbidden Mountain of Expedition Everest, my favorite ride on Disney World property.  Here you’ll narrowly escape being captured by the Yeti himself (although fun fact, the Yeti used to swing his arm but he’s so heavy that his swinging was pulling the entire ride off its foundation).  Depending on the time of day you’re heading to the Animal Kingdom, you may want to grab a FastPass for this attraction.  Or if you can separate from your group during the ride, the single rider option is a great way to skip a long wait time.  In Asia you will also find the Kali River Rapids attraction (prepare to get completely drenched), Up! A Great Bird Adventure bird show, the Maharajah Jungle Trek (great for seeing Tigers not found on the Safari), and the seating area for the amazing nighttime show Rivers of Light.  My favorite Quick Service restaurant in the Animal Kingdom is located in Asia: Yak & Yeti.  But don’t confuse the quick service with the full service location of the same name right next door!

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

To the left of Asia sits Africa, the largest section of the park based off of the fictional Harambe village.  I love this part of the park from the food to the music and entertainment.  Here you’ll find the Kilimanjaro Safari Adventure that takes guests on a 20 minute ride through the Safari and showcases some of your favorite wild animals.  Grab a FastPass for this one; the lines get can gnarly.  Once you’re done with your safari ride, head over to the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail where once again, you can see some amazing animals not featured on the safari.  In this portion of the park, you will also find the Festival of the Lion King, the greatest show on property.  It’s amazing, beautiful, breathtaking, and emotional; it’s everything.  Whatever you do, do not miss this show.  Depending on the time of year, the show runs either every half hour or every hour.  Your whole family will love it and it is air conditioned!  Finally, you’ll find the train station for Rafiki’s Planet Watch here in Africa.

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

The Wildlife Express Train takes you a little north to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, a behind the scenes look at Disney’s conservation and animal research efforts.  Rafiki’s Planet Watch also offers a petting zoo, called Affection Station, and the Habitat Habit exhibit where you can see adorable Cotton Top Tamarins.  Just a quick heads up, the Affection Station is closed until spring 2019, although no reason has been given. 

Heading back into the wheel, below Africa, sits Pandora, the newest addition to the park which opened in May of 2017.  But first, a little background information on what lived in this area previously.  Before Pandora land began its construction journey in 2014, Camp Minnie Mickey lived in its place.  The Festival of the Lion King used to be housed here before its logical move to Africa.  You were also able to meet some of your favorite characters like Mickie, Minnie, and Pocahontas.  Remember how I mentioned the original theme of the park was to include “what never was?”  Well Camp Minnie Mickey certainly doesn’t make sense in that theme concept now does it?  Originally this area was meant to be called Beasty Kingdom, a land devoted to creatures of legend and mythology such as unicorns and dragons.  Have you ever seen the Dueling Dragons roller coaster at Universal Studios?  That was supposed to be the main attraction for this land as well as a maze and a boat ride through the scenes of Fantasia.  Due to budgeting and timeline constraints, Beastly Kingdom never materialized and Camp Minnie Mickey was put as a filler for park opening.  The plan was to have Beastly Kingdom open at a later date but with the money draining Euro Disney causing issues, it was scrapped altogether.  Cue the Pandora land in 2017!

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

IMG_0056 (2).JPG
IMG_0063.JPG

This area is inspired by the James Cameron film of the same name and features the floating mountains, plants, and wildlife shown in the movie.  This new land saw the addition of two new attractions to the park, Avatar Flights of Passage and the Na’Vi River Journey.  You are going to need a FastPass for Flights of Passage but beware they’re tough to come by for reasoning mentioned in a preview post.  Therefore, if you are not able to score a FastPass, get to the park about 30 minutes prior to park opening.  It’s the only way to avoid that insane wait time.  I recently visited in September and got to the park right at opening and still had to wait an hour.  It’s absolutely worth it but I don’t know that I’d wait more than that.  The Na’Vi River Journey truthfully feels like the forgotten stepsister of this area, like they blew their budget on everything else and went, “oh shit, we forgot about the boat ride.”  It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not Flights of Passage and it is certainly not worth more than a 10 minute wait.  What is worth a wait is the new quick-service location, Satu’li Canteen and the bar right outside of it.  The food is delicious and the drinks are even better.  Originally considered a “half-day” park, the Animal Kingdom saw a 2 million person attendance jump with the opening of Avatar.  Although truthfully, I’d still argue you can conquer the park in a half day.  The exception to that rule is the Rivers of Light nighttime show.  It’s a light and water show that conveys the message of being one with our world.  It’s beautiful and I adore the message.  With all the new things at Animal Kingdom, we spent the morning and early afternoon in the park, went back to our hotel and took a nap, had dinner at Boma (right next door to the park at the Animal Kingdom Lodge), and went back to the park for the show.  I highly recommend this plan of action for the park!


As with any “zoo” type attraction, Animal Kingdom is not without controversy.  It saw protests on its opening day from animal activity groups and just 3 years ago was ranked #10 on the Worst Place for Elephants list.  Despite the controversy, Disney is doing great things for animals.  Just 10 years after its opening, 8 white rhinos were born, a nearly extinct species, in addition to 7 elephant calves and 11 giraffes. 

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

@EnrichedMediaEnterprises

Quick fun fact about the park before we wrap up!  Animal Kingdom is the only park with doors on its restrooms (all other park restrooms can be accessed without going through any kind of door).  This is because in the unlikely event of an animal escape, guests can go into the bathroom and the lock the doors for safety.

*Quick soap box moment: I love this park so much.  It’s perfect for every group at Disney World.  Kids and parents will love it.  It’s got the smallest amount of people space so your knees won’t be throbbing like after a day at Epcot.  If I could start and end my Disney World vacations here, I probably would.  Just kidding, I could never do that.

Hollywood Studios Overview

Ah, Hollywood Studios.  What a park.  Or shell of park.  The sign really should read “Coming Soon Studios” or “The Land of Forgotten Attractions” instead of Hollywood Studios but we’ll get to all of that in a bit.  For now, let’s kick this post off with a little history lesson on how the park came to stand today.

The original concept for Hollywood Studios was created…by accident.  No, really.   Two of the Imagineers working on Epcot had initially created two pavilions (remember Future World is made up into pavilions), the first called Wonders of Life (which did open as a pavilion during park opening but today serves as the Festival Center operating seasonally) and the Great Movie pavilion featuring the Great Movie Ride that ultimately opened at Hollywood Studios on its grand opening day.  The CEO at the time, Michael Eisner asked the Imagineers if they could instead create an entire theme park built around the concepts of the two pavilions. 

Original Park Ariel View, 1989

Original Park Ariel View, 1989

Opening Day, 1989

Opening Day, 1989

Opening on May 1, 1989, Hollywood Studios original name was MGM Studios based on a licensing agreement with the MGM Company.  The reason for this important relationship was Hollywood Studios was initially created to be both a theme park and a working production studio, just like the studios in Hollywood, California.  The park would be dedicated to film, television, music, and theater, while creating its own media.  Today it looks quite different than it did opening day, but it still is the 9th most visited theme park in the world.

Opening Day, 1989

Opening Day, 1989

First, let’s quickly address the name change.  Hollywood Studios received its present name in 2008, after the relationship with MGM Studios finally ended.  The MGM Studios relationship was tumultuous from the beginning, so many Disney historians believed this partnership wasn’t built to last.  During the first few years of the agreement, both companies threw lawsuits each other’s way over regarding activities both companies were engaging in outside of the agreement (MGM was building a theme park in Las Vegas, Disney was producing media outside of MGM, etc).  Additionally, throughout the 2000s, all production capabilities were removed from the park. 

I do want to note that in 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger hinted at yet another name change for the park after an adorable interaction with a child audience member.  Seriously, it’s so cute to watch a child pull a “big secret” out of a Fortune 100 CEO.  Despite this apparent slip up of the CEO seemingly spilling the beans, the company rejected the name change rumor once and for all in February 2018.  But who really knows.  Anyway, from here on out, I will refer to the park as Hollywood Studios, regardless of the timeline, just to keep things easy and less confusing. 

On opening day, Hollywood Studios started out with just two attractions: The Studio Backlot Tour and the Great Movie Ride.  The Backlot Tour took park guests through the working studios located on park property.  The Great Movie Ride was a movie themed ride taking guests through film history and featured some of the most well-known, classic films ever made.  The park remained this way for 5 years until 1994 when Sunset Boulevard was created featuring The Hollywood Tower Hotel and the Streets of America were created to alleviate the congestion caused by the growing attendance numbers.  The park’s attraction list continued to grow from there.

1502376343599.jpeg
HollywoodStudios-ChineseTheater.jpg

The park’s original icon (like the castle at Magic Kingdom) was the Earful Tower, a water tower featuring the famous Mickey Ears Hat.  This served as the park’s icon from 1989-2001 when the Sorcerer’s Hat from Fantasia (in conjunction with the release of Fantasia 2000) was placed in the main area of the park.  Removed in 2015, the hat was quite controversial amongst Disney purists.  I personally liked it.  Today, there’s a lot of debate over the park’s icon.  Some say it’s Chinese Theater at the end of Hollywood Boulevard, an exact replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.  Others will say it’s the Hollywood Tower Hotel attraction.  I don’t really lean one way or the other for a few reasons.  The first is that the Chinese Theater has been at the park since its opening so it could have been the park icon all this time but it wasn’t; the Earful Tower was (there was also some contractual issues with the usage of the Chinese Theater as the icon which is a main reason behind the Sorcerer’s Hat being built but I won’t dive into that).  On the other hand, with the Tower of Terror attraction in Disneyland’s California Adventure receiving a Guardians of the Galaxy overhaul just last year, I am not 100% convinced that the Hollywood Studios version won’t receive the same treatment once Star Wars land is complete and the licensing agreement the Twilight Zone ends.  Bring back the Earful Tower! Okay, okay, I’m moving on.

MGM_sorcererhat.jpg
hollywood-earful-tower.jpg

As I mentioned above, all production capabilities were shut down in the 2000s including the animation unit in 2004 and the former soundstage in 2007.  I distinctly remember seeing these parts of the park as a child and thinking how cool it was to be a part of the making of media.  I saw quite a few young stars while riding the Backlot Tour filming Disney Channel shows.  As the park moved away from the production side of things, they had many exhibits featuring real props from famous movies like the getaway car from 101 Dalmatians.  I do miss this version of Hollywood Studios as I loved how different from any other theme park it truly was.  But alas, change must come!

Studio_Backlot_Tour.jpg

In the 2010s, all studio-like attractions were also completely phased out of the park including a Drew Carey show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire (I came in 7th place once, tooting my own horn here), the American Idol experience, a Captain Jack Sparrow themed attraction, and most notably, the Studio Backlot Tour.  I know that without any backlot to tour the attraction didn’t make any sense and yes, it was outdated but ask any Disney purist and they’ll most likely tell you that this one still hurts.  And that’s not the only closing that hurts.  In 2016, the Streets of America closed meaning that last of the Osborne Lights spectacle was put on.  The Earful Tower was also removed in 2016.  These two removals still have me a little bitter.  Finally, in 2016, the Lights, Motor, Action! Stunt Show closed down.  I personally enjoyed this show, although I found it a little long.  It never quite landed with guests as Hollywood Studios.  It was brought over from Disneyland Paris where it was, and still is, a huge hit.  But as the Disney Company will tell you, different things translate different in each country’s parks.  To round off the sad closings, the final nail in the coffin to the old Hollywood Studios came in 2017, with the closing of the Great Movie Ride, the last original piece of the park.  It is scheduled to be replaced by Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.  Look, I’m super excited about the railway, I am.  I just think it could have been erected elsewhere in the park.

lcoie3841.jpg

Before we move onto the park today, I do want to pay a quick tribute to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.  Of all the closings at Hollywood Studios over the years (and the parks in general actually), this one upsets me the most.  In the very early 90s the Osborne family (no not those Osbornes) of Little Rock, Arkansas decorated their home at Christmas with an absurd amount of lights, adding more every year.  By 1993, the family was putting up over 3 million lights.  This of course drew national attention and several cities reached out to the family to host the display in their own towns but Disney won out.  For almost 10 years, the Osborne Lights danced in the Streets of America in Hollywood Studios.  And just like the original, Disney’s version grew and grew.  During its last year in 2015, Disney put up over 10 miles of lights requiring 800,000 watts of electricity to light.  It was truly an incredible sight to see; one that still gives me chills thinking about it.  The lights were solid except for every 7 minutes when they would dance to a famous Christmas song.  Fake snow, or as I call it Snowpe (it’s literally soap), fell down from the sky creating an incredible winter wonderland.  I miss it dearly and I will forever hold out hope that they will bring it back.  Maybe, possibly, PLEASE DISNEY!

2014-12-12 19.13.03.jpg

Okay, okay, enough backstory and bitter Katherine.  Let’s get to the park today!  And while I may seem bitter and sad about the old Hollywood Studios, I am excited for what’s coming!  Fun fact: Hollywood Studios shares a “sister park” in Disneyland Paris; I’ve been and it’s very similar with a few additional attractions.  So let’s talk about the shape of the park.  Guess what, it’s not a wheel!  When it was originally created, it was actually in the shape of a hidden Mickey Mouse.  Unfortunately, after much expansion and construction it’s now more like a fat t-ish shape (or will be once Star Wars is done). 

Toy-Story-Land_Full_32265.jpg

When you first walk into the park, you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, created similarly to Main Street USA, featuring shops and stands.  At the very end of Hollywood Blvd, you see an exact replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the original located in Los Angeles.  Also at the end and on your right side is the Brown Derby, an exact replica of a restaurant in Los Angeles by the same name.  If you take the only true right off of Hollywood Blvd, you will find yourself of Sunset Boulevard, inspired by the street in Los Angeles of the same name.  This area features iconic attractions like the Tower of Terror (one of my favorite attractions) inspired by the Twilight Zone and Aerosmith’s Rockin’ Roller Coaster.  Here you’ll also find some of the parks best entertainment offerings: Beauty & the Beast Live on Stage and the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater featuring Fantasmic!, a nighttime water and lights show with Sorcerer Mickey.   You’ll want to FastPass either Tower of Terror or Rockin’ Roller Coaster based on your preferences and timing.  If you get to the park early in the day, you won’t need either.  Both attraction start getting busier as the day goes on, although Tower of Terror’s wait times tend to fluctuate more than Rockin’ Roller Coaster’s.  That being said, Rockin’ Roller Coaster does have a single rider line option if that’s something you and your family are able to do.  Additionally, if there’s two showings of Fantasmic!, always try for the second showing as it’s a little easier to get your preferred seat.  If you do chose the first showing, make sure to get there at least 30-45 minutes (err towards 45) prior to show time to get a good seat.  No one likes standing at these kinds of things, am I right? 

Photo Mar 22, 17 06 02.jpg
maxresdefault (1).jpg

Behind Sunset Boulevard and northeast of the Chinese Theater is Animation Courtyard.  This area has also seen some changes over the years.  As it stands, today you can see two shows, Disney Junior Live on Stage and the Voyage of the Little Mermaid.  Animation Courtyard also houses Start Wars Launch Bay where you can meet some of your favorite Star Wars characters, Kylo Ren, BB8, and Chewie.  Finally, this area houses One Man’s Dream, a timeline look through Walt Disney’s life including a short video narrated by the legendary Julie Andrews.  This area always makes me a little emotional because I look up to Walt so much.  Now I know you may not feel the same as me so if I can entice you into this area, it’ll be by letting you know that they always have 3D models of what’s coming next to the parks around the world.  Right now, you can see a partial 3D model of the new Stars Wars Land.  It looks AWESOME.

IMG_1028.jpg

If you take the first left off of Hollywood Boulevard, you’ll find yourself at Echo Lake, an area designed to mimic the “California Crazy” architecture of the Hollywood Golden Age.  This section of the park is actually quite large and if I had to guess, the structure of this area will change slightly with the opening of Star Wars Land next summer.  As it stands, this area contains the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular Show (although I do believe this will either get the ax or get an upgrade after Star Wars Land opens), Star Tours, Star Wars Jedi Training (perfect for your kiddo!), the Hyperion Theater featuring a Frozen sing along (yeah, I’m over it too and so is everyone else), and the ABC Sound Studio offering a short film called Star Wars: Path of the Jedi (I’m assuming this will also change with the new opening of Star Wars Land).  Food wise, you’ll find a number of very popular options: Hollywood & Vine (buffet), 50’s Prime Time Café (a favorite of mine, don’t miss the fried chicken), ABC Commissary (a great quick service option), and the Sci-Fi Dine in Theater.  I’ve never eaten at the Sci-Fi due to the fact that I come from a family of 3 and it’s built for even number groups but I have heard great things about it!

043009_NF_F_DisneyMGM_Feat2.jpg

If you continue through Echo Lake towards the back, you’ll come across Grand Avenue, inspired by Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.  There’s not a whole lot going on here these days; this area used to lead you to the Streets of America, the Light, Motor, Action Stunt Show, and the Backlot Tour.  Originally, this area was supposed to be Muppet Studios but after Jim Henson’s death, the overall deal fell through.  It does house Muppet Vision 3D, however, the only Muppet attraction to make it from the plans.  You’ll also find Mama Melrose’s Italian restaurant (it’s just okay in my opinion) and PizzeRizzo, a seasonally operating quick service location serving, you guessed it, pizza. 

muppet-vision-3d-disney-hollywood-studios.jpg

Finally, the last piece of the park towards the back is the new Toy Story Land, which opened this past summer.  While it wasn’t as big as I was hoping or expecting, I will still very pleased with how it turned out.  The entrance for guest favorite Toy Story Midway Mania was moved to the back of its building location and now is placed within the new land.  We also saw the addition of the Slinky Dog Dash, a family friendly roller coaster type ride (get the back seats, it feels like an actual slinky!), and the Alien Swirling Saucers, similar to a Mater/Cars themed ride in Disneyland’s California Adventure.  The overall theming for the new land gives the illusion that you are in Andy’s back yard.  While small, this new land certainly packs a punch in its offerings.  All three attractions are great (although you should really FastPass SlinkyDog and Midway Mania if you can) and I loved the new quick service area serving homemade PopTarts (delicious!) and a Grown Up Lemonade (and yes, you can get it at 8am).  Due to the new land being, well, new, I highly suggest getting there right at park opening, and if you can, lining up before park opening.  This will minimize your wait times and allow you to enjoy the land more before the crowds (and Florida heat) kick in.

tslns23801sdgjhf-624x352.jpg

COMING SOON!  Star Wars Land is set to open in summer 2019 and I cannot wait.  We don’t have a ton of information other than an overall glimpse into what’s to come.  We know there will be two main attractions and full size Millennium Falcon that guests can experience.  We also know that there will be a Star Wars themed hotel that guests can stay in and experience what it’s like to be a Jedi.  This hotel will have a direct connection to Star Wars Land and Hollywood Studios.  Pricing and booking information hasn’t been released yet but the rumor mill is saying one night will cost you upwards of $1,000.  Start saving your pennies, folks!

drone.png
gallery-1492433203-4-17-wdi-9003-610.jpg
star_wars_land.0.0.jpg
Star-Wars-Land_Full_32437.jpg

Did I miss anything you love about Hollywood Studios?  Let me know!  I’d love to hear it!

Epcot Overview

Epcot, the 2nd of the 4 Disney World theme parks and the 7th most visited theme park in the world, opened 12 years to the day after Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1982.  The park’s theme and concepts are loosely based off of Walt’s idea to create a Utopian style city, titled the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or Epcot.  While riding the Tomorrowland People Mover in Magic Kingdom, you can actually see a 3D model of Walt’s concept; it’s quite incredible.  Before getting into the park as it stands today, I want to give you a brief overview of Walt’s dream for Epcot, as it will really help you understand how the park came to be.

Epcot was always meant to be a real working city.  In fact, Epcot was the main driving force behind the creation of Disney World itself.  Walt wanted Epcot to be built first but investors wanted a replica of Disneyland.  So Walt built the Magic Kingdom in the hopes of appeasing his investors and getting them on board in the future for his real idea for Disney World.

Epcot was to be built in somewhat of a wheel shape (yes, Walt certainly liked his wheels).  In the center would city a large commercial area filled with laboratories, corporations, and businesses.  A hotel would sit in the center and would be the only residence type building in the city center.    Surrounding the hotel would be restaurants and shops featuring cuisines and items from around the world (World Showcase sound familiar?).  The green belt, the circle around the city center would house city services, schools, churches, and stadiums and would be the true separation between work and residence life. 

Walt-Disney-Epcot-plans-web_750.jpg

The next circle out would feature a low-density residential area with single-family homes.  Homes would be built in the style of a flower petal, with houses being built on the “petals” and the center of the “flower” offering green spaces for families to gather.  The final circle in the wheel would offer a high-density housing area full of apartments. 

There would be no driving allowed on the main ground level in Epcot.  Roads for cars would be built underneath for visitors to travel through as well as parking for weekend pleasure trips (here’s where you see some of the concepts of the utilidoors in the Magic Kingdom!).  All parts of the “wheel” would be connected by monorail and People Mover (similar to what was created in Magic Kingdom).    There would be no need for cars in the day-to-day life in Epcot and streets above ground would be reserved for pedestrian traffic.

Epcot would also offer a Disney Airport called the Airport of Tomorrow.  Fun fact, this was partially built but has only ever been used for high-level members of the company and country such as Presidents and Roy Disney.  While the airstrip is still in tact, it is rarely ever used and never materialized into the full service airport Walt had envisioned. 

2ccba-wdw2bairport2b1.png

Within Epcot, no one would own their property, but instead rent it at fair market value.  Walt wanted ultimate control over all the properties so that he could update the entire city when he wanted to be filled with the latest and greatest technologies (he loved innovation and was obsessed with new technology).  All citizens living in Epcot would work in Epcot at one of the city’s companies in the center and everyone would have to hold a job.  There would be no retirees living in Epcot. 

Unfortunately, Walt’s dream of Epcot never came to fruition.  When Walt died, the company decided they didn’t want to run a city without his guidance.  For today’s version of Epcot, they used many of his concepts and ideas to create a park dedicated to world culture and technology.  Fun fact: Singapore is often cited as a real-life Epcot although I cannot confirm if this is true or not.  If you’ve been, let me know!

1180w-600h_100212_FS_FromTheArchives_EpcotOrigins_ConvergingFutureWorldWorldShowcase-780x440.jpg

So now that you have a backstory on how Epcot came to be, let’s take a look at the park as it stands today!  Separated into two main parts, Epcot is more than twice the size of Magic Kingdom and is dedicated overall to the celebration of human achievement.  The first section upon entry (the main entrance, there is a smaller entrance in towards the back of the park from the Boardwalk/ Epcot resort area) is considered Future World, an interactive exploration of technology and science.  The second part of Epcot is the World’s Showcase, featuring 11 countries and their food, cultures, and cuisines. 

epcot-map.jpg

A quick note: in 2016, it was announced that Epcot will go through a major overhaul, similar to what Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios have all experienced.  So far, only two major follow up announcements have been made: a new Ratatouille ride and Guardians of the Galaxy ride are both in the works.  My guess is that once the major construction of Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios is complete, we will hear a bigger announcement regarding Epcot.  In preparation for these big changes, there are many smaller attractions within Future World that have been closed or temporarily re imagined.

Epcot is often referred to as the “adult park” and in many cases this is true.  As a child, Epcot was my least favorite park to visit and my parents’ favorite.  But as I’ve gotten older, I have come to see just how awesome Epcot really is, although a major part of that is mostly likely due to be being over the legal drinking age.

IMG_0285 (1).JPG

So let’s focus on Future World first, as this is actually the part of the park that opens first.  The World Showcase opens two hours after Future World does on any given day, although they both close at the same time.  When first walking into the park and Future World, you see Spaceship Earth, the main icon of the park.  No, it’s not a golf ball.  It’s actually a geodesic sphere structure containing a slow ride through history by the same name inside.  Heads up, this attraction is closing for renovations within the year. 

IMG_1227 (1).JPG

Walking past the sphere you enter an open circular area with different pavilions branching off into, you guessed, a wheel style.   To the southwest direction, you will find Mission: Space, a simulations ride designed to allow you to experience what it feels like to go to space.  This area is also the future home of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ratatouille rides.  Moving up the wheel, you’ll come across the Festival Center, formerly the Wonders of Life Pavilion.  The Center is only open seasonally, most notably for the Food & Wine and Flower & Garden Festivals.

Experiencing the Festival Center Food & Wine Festival Offerings!

Experiencing the Festival Center Food & Wine Festival Offerings!

Just above the Festival Center sits Test Track, an attraction that allows you to design your own car and test it out.  Since its renovation in 2012, the lines for Test Track have become consistently long, longer than I would ever wait for the ride.  Now you can FastPass Test Track but be warned that if you FastPass Test Track, you won’t be able to FastPass any of the other big attractions like Soarin.    Since Test Track has a single rider line (I’ve never spent more than 20 minutes in this line), my recommendation is that if you can split up your group, take the single rider option here and FastPass Soarin. 

r-1494788897-TestTrack44.JPG

Next up around the wheel (and to the right of the sphere), you’ll find Imagination!  This pavilion contains Journey into the Imagination with Figment.  Unless you’re a Disney regular who loves Figment, feel free to skip this one.  While Figment is a beloved character for Disney purists, this version of his attraction is not.  Feel free to Google the history of this ride if you’re interested in learning more. 

IMG_2375.JPG

Below the Imagination pavilion sits The Land, a pavilion featuring some of my favorite things: Soarin and Living with the Land.  Soarin is a flight simulation attraction taking guests on a highflying adventure over 6 continents.  It’s one of my favorite attractions.  I highly recommend using a FastPass for this ride as the wait times can get quite long very early in the day (and never really comes back down).  Living with the Land is a slow boat ride through the greenhouses at Epcot where guests can learn all about the innovative ways Disney is learning to grow food sustainably.   Finally, this pavilion houses one of my favorite quick-service locations, Sunshine Seasons.  The food found in this location is mostly from the greenhouses found in Living with the Land.  Super cool!

IMG_2378.JPG

The last pavilion is Future World is the Seas, containing the Seas with Nemo & Friends, Turtle Talk with Crush, and an aquarium like area that guests can explore and learn about the sea life living there.  The Nemo & Friends ride is built very similarly to the Ariel and Haunted Mansion rides in the Magic Kingdom.

2015-10-31 12.02.53-1.jpg

As you exit this side of the park and head back into Future World center, check out some of the indoor buildings.  Here you can meet many of your favorite characters including Minnie and Goofy.  There is also a rotating character meet and greet currently featuring Baymax from Big Hero Six and the characters from Inside Out.

IMG_1059.JPG

As you leave the Future World wheel, you’ll find yourself heading towards yet another wheel, the World Showcase.  11 countries are featured in the showcase with room for 8 more, though you won’t notice that kind of extra space as it’s hidden quite well from view.  The original pavilions featured during park opening in 1982 were the United States of America, Japan, France, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, China, Germany, and Italy.  Morocco and Norway were added later, 1984 and 1988 respectively.  In 1982, Israel, Spain, and Equatorial Africa were all announced as coming soon, but obviously never made it.  Over the years, I have heard so many rumors of other pavilions being built, especially Brazil.  But as far as I know from my connections at Disney, there are no current plans to build any more pavilions in the near future.  Now, that could all change with a more comprehensive Epcot overhaul announcement but we’ll have to wait and see!

Each country contains themed architecture, landscapes, attractions, shops, and restaurants reflective of the culture it represents.  The exception to this is the Frozen ride in Norway.   Disney purists like myself will talk your ear off about how inappropriate this ride is to the World Showcase and how much of a tragedy it is that its predecessor, Maelstrom, was closed.  I’ll spare you my diatribe on this topic and instead direct you to Google (or my contact page) if you’re truly interested in the topic.

Epcot, while not my favorite park, is the park where I can spend most of my time.  I love going from country to country trying new food and drinking all the delicious beverages.  I could spend all day shopping in the various stores.  Pro tip: if you are planning to drink around the world (which I highly recommend doing), start in Canada.  Never start in Mexico.  Ever.  That’s an amateur mistake.  Why shouldn’t you start in Mexico?  Well, Mexico has margaritas.  After a full day of drinking all kinds of alcoholic beverages, you should END with tequila, not START with tequila. 

I adore the World Showcase, especially now that I’ve gotten older and can truly appreciate the meaning behind everything.  Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, the fireworks show in the center of the showcase displaying a show of cultural unity makes me cry.  Every single time.  I especially cried this past trip knowing I may never see Illuminations again as it’s been announced it will be ending in the coming months. 

What should you see and do in the World Showcase?  Well, that is of course, entirely up to you!  But if you’re in need of recommendations, here are a few of my favorites:

mexico.png

Mexico Pavilion

  • Grand Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros

    • A great place to take a relaxing break from the unforgiving Florida sun (or rain)

  • San Angel Inn Restaurant

  • Cantina de San Angel

    • The empanadas are my favorite!

  • Choza de Margarita

    • Do not pass by without stopping for a margarita

Norway_Full_24990.jpg

Norway Pavilion

  • Kringla Bakeri og Kafe

    • Stop by for the school bread and puff pastries

_YRI9308.jpg

China Pavilion

  • Don’t forget to meet Mulan!  You won’t find her anywhere else on Disney World property

600-germany2.jpg

Germany Pavilion

  • Karamell-Kuche

    • I stop here at least 4 times while in Epcot.  Their caramel marshmallow rolls are TO DIE FOR.  Seriously, I LOVE THEM.

  • Weinkeller

    • Stop here for a tasting of real German wines, some of my favorite kinds of wine.  You can also sample beer as well if that’s more your speed.

  • Miniature Train and Village

    • I love trains and have since my childhood. This small train village doesn’t disappoint.

IMG_2380.JPG

Italy Pavilion

  • Via Napoli

    • A full service restaurant that serves the best pizza

  • Tutto Gusto

    • Stop by to sample delicious Italian wines

American Adventure

View from the World Showcase

View from the World Showcase

  • Check out what’s going on at the America Gardens Theater!  I’ve seen Boyz II Men, Hanson, and En Vogue perform as well as seen Neil Patrick Harris and Blair Underwood lead the audience through the biblical story of Christmas.

  • Don’t forget to buy a classic funnel cake from this area.

_YRI9316.jpg

Japan Pavilion

  • Mitsukoshi Department Store

    • I buy some of my favorite international candies and goodies here.  It’s one of my favorite shops on Disney World property

  • Garden House

    • Sake!!

0c3dce632f1e69a4ab39d3ea90580e92.jpg

Morocco Pavilion

  • Look, I won’t lie to you; Morocco is where I go to get a good buzz on.  They use a heavy hand to pour their drinks and I’m never mad about it.  I also find it’s one of the best themed pavilions and most fun to explore.

  • Don’t forget to meet Jasmine and Aladdin in this pavilion.

France_Pavilion.jpg
IMG_0089.JPG

France Pavilion

  • If you know me at all, you know I don’t have much to say about Paris.  But I do love Disney’s pavilion version of Paris.

  • France Kiosk

    • Do not skip the Grand Marnier Orange Slush

  • L’Artisan des Glaces

    • The famous macaron ice cream sandwich!

1200px-United_Kingdom_street_at_Epcot.jpg

United Kingdom Pavilion

  • This pavilion has a special spot in my heart since I studied abroad in London during college.

  • Rose & Crown Pub

    • Buy a traditional UK beverage like a Guinness or my personal favorite, Strongbow

  • The Tea Caddy

    • I can buy my favorite UK candies here.

Canada-620x330.jpg

Canada Pavilion

  • You must try the famous Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup Poutine.  It’s insane.  Or just try the soup.  It’s also delicious.  You can also buy a croissant doughnut at the same location. For those of you living outside the northeast (where these have become quite common), this is a must try.

IMG_2368.JPG

Epcot also puts on two big festivals every year: Food & Wine in the Fall and Flower & Garden in the Spring.  They are two of my favorite times to visit Epcot, especially Food & Wine.  Disney adds almost 20 new food carts full of new cultural cuisines to try.  It’s a food and beverage lover’s paradise.  But I’ll save the festivals for a different post since this one is already quite long!

What’s your favorite part of Epcot?  I’d love to hear about it!

Magic Kingdom Overview

_YRI8820.jpg

Magic Kingdom, the most visited theme park in the world, is the original of the Disney World theme parks, opening on October 1, 1971, concurrently with Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Contemporary Resort.  It is based off of Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California with Cinderella’s Castle at the center instead of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  Walt Disney was inspired to create Cinderella’s Castle for Disney World after falling in love with the Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany.  Magic Kingdom was built to be a larger, improved version of Disneyland.  Unfortunately, Walt passed before its completion. His brother, Roy Disney, opened the park in his place.

IMG_2293.JPG

Magic Kingdom technically sits on what would be the second story of the grounds.  On what would be considered the first floor is the utilidors, the complex set of tunnels that are housed underneath the park.  These were built after Walt Disney, at Disneyland, saw a cast member from Frontierland walking through Tomorrowland, destroying the theming illusion Walt had wanted to create.  With the utilidors, cast members and VIP guests, can easily maneuver unseen through the parks and pop up in their respective locations.  It also houses a barber shop, cafeteria, and other cast member amenities.  The company had originally wanted to place utilidors under all the parks but due to zoning restrictions, they weren’t able to do so (it was not a financial decision, despite much reporting).  Epcot houses a partial set of utilidors, the only set the company managed to get up before construction was shut down by local government officials. 

Because the park sits above ground, the trash system is quite impressive, believe it or not (not where you thought I was going with that, right?). Many of Magic Kingdom’s trash cans (placed every 50 ft after they studied guests’ trash habits) are actually connected to another underground tunnel system designed specifically for the trash. When guests drop their trash into the cans, it goes directly to a different part of the park (in the back) that separates trash by item. So if a guest didn’t recycle a water bottle, it will still be recycled. Walt was very much into taking care of the environment and this is something that allows his legacy to be carried on. Cool, right?

monorailbmp-copy.jpg

Guests can access the park directly via the resort bus transportation system or taxi/rideshare drop-off points.  Guests staying at the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary, and Fort Wilderness, can access the park via boat or monorail, where available.  Guests with cars must park at the Transportation and Ticket Center, about a mile away and across the Seven Seas Lagoon.  From here, guests must transfer to the park either via monorail or boat. 

disney-magic-kingdom-map.jpg

The Magic Kingdom is built as a wheel, with Cinderella’s Castle sitting in the center and the lands branching off.  When walking up to the castle, the first “land” you are exploring is Main Street U.S.A. built to reflect early 20th century, small town America, and the kind of town Walt experienced growing up and idealized.  The street leading up to the castle is a forced perspective; the castle itself is actually very small.  See, when buildings reach a certain height, they are required by Florida state law to have blinking lights on them to alert airplanes of their presence.  Walt didn’t want anything to destroy the illusion of the magic of the park.  So they created a small castle and built Main Street U.S.A. as a forced perspective.  The second stories on the buildings are shorter than the first and the third stories are shorter than the second, thus creating the illusion that you are walking towards a large castle.  Main Street U.S.A. is full of shops and restaurants to experience from The Main Street Emporium housing all kinds of Disney merchandise, to The Plaza Restaurant serving a delicious PB&J milkshake, to a working barber shop providing haircuts for free for guests.  If you notice a distinctly sweet smell while walking down the street, it’s not the shops baked goods you smell although they certainly smell heavenly on their own.  It’s the smell of baked goods and sugar being pumped through the street vents, drawing you into the stores.  You should definitely stop into the Main Street Bakery for a cake pop; you won’t regret it.  You will also find tributes to key people involved in the creation of the Magic Kingdom and Disney World.  Their names are cleverly disguised as company names in the windows of the street.

slide_344655_3593694_free.jpg

Directly to the left once you exit Main Street U.S.A. is the bridge to Adventureland, a land honoring the adventure that is exploring other lands.  You will see influences of other cultures all over the world.  Here you’ll find classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tikki Room, and the Swiss Family Treehouse.  This is also the land where you’ll find the famous Dole Whip!  Do not miss this classic treat.  Tortuga Tavern, a seasonal quick service, is also located in this land.  It’s my favorite quick service restaurant in Magic Kingdom.  It’s only open during peak season though, so if it’s open during your trip, make sure to stop by.

adventureland.jpg

Right above Adventureland on the “wheel” is Frontierland, inspired by Walt’s love of cowboys and the “Old West.”  Frontierland features two of the “mountains:” Splash Mountain, classic log flume ride and Big Thunder Mountain, a roller coaster type ride.  During peak seasons, using a FastPass for Big Thunder Mountain is usually a good idea.  Tom Sawyer’s Island sits right across from the mountains and is accessible by a quick boat ride.  This island attraction is great for the outdoor adventure kids who like running around and exploring.  Frontierland also houses the Country Bear Jamboree but for the love of modern day America, skip this one. 

frontierland-signs.jpg

Moving around the wheel brings you to Liberty Square next, a tribute to colonial America, and an exclusive land to Disney World.  Liberty Square houses the Liberty Square Riverboat, featuring a half mile boat ride around the Rivers of America, the Hall of Presidents, a cute outdoor Muppet show, and the Haunted Mansion. It also has one of my favorite stores, the Christmas store!  Disney ornaments are my favorite Christmas tree decorations.  They’re beautifully done and I try and pick up a new one every year.  Liberty Square is also home to Sleepy Hollow Treats featuring the famous waffle ice cream sandwich treats!

6419119187_ec15ac2668_b.jpg

Next up is Fantasyland, including New Fantasyland and Storybook Circus.  Fantasyland is set up carnival style and features some of the most classic rides in Disney history including Cinderella’s Carousel and it’s a Small World.   Originally in Storybook Circus’ place was Toontown, opened in 1988 as Mickey’s Birthdayland to celebrate the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse.  This area was closed in 2012 and reimagined as Storybook Circus.  It houses many of the original concepts in new forms such as a child’s water play area and a Goofy themed mini coaster.  New Fantasyland also opened in 2012, the largest expansion any of the parks had seen to date.  A new Snow White themed coaster was built, a Beauty and the Beast themed story time attraction was added, as well as a ride featuring Ariel, a near exact replica of the Disneyland version.  The Snow White themed coaster, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train has some of the best animatronics I’ve ever seen and always has a very high wait time.  If you can get a FastPass for this attraction, do it!  Be Our Guest restaurant also opened in conjunction with New Fantasyland; you can find my thoughts on this restaurant in my dining post.  If you’re walking through this area, make sure to stop and pick up a LeFou’s Brew from Gaston’s Tavern.  It’s amazing and a must buy for me every visit.  You can also find many of your favorite Disney characters throughout all of Fantasyland and Storybook Circus including Winnie the Pooh, Ariel, Rapunzel, and Daisy Duck, just to name a few.

2953441456_496373c25e_b.jpg

And last up on the Magic Kingdom wheel is Tomorrowland, my personal favorite land.  I find myself always spending the most amount of time in this land.  Originally built to the theme of an Intergalactic city imagined from the 1950s, today the theme works like a working city of space.  Space Mountain, an in-the-dark roller coaster, Tomorrowland Speedway, Astro Orbiter, and the People Mover, an easy ride around the land, serve as the transportation of this city.  Depending on the time of the year, you’ll most likely need FastPass for Space Mountain if you don’t feel like waiting.  Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor serves at the city’s entertainment and is one of my personal favorite attractions; it’s hilarious.  Buzz Lightyear’s themed ride acts as the city’s law enforcement center.  Finally, the Carousel of Progress, a Walt Disney original, acts as the city’s cultural center and historic preservation.  Within Tomorrowland there are a few quick service options, including Cosmic Rays, a smoothie stand, and a place directly under the Astro Orbiter where you can purchase an iconic Disney Turkey Leg.  Fun fact, Cosmic Rays the largest quick service location in Tomorrowland is the second busiest quick service food location in the world (the actual world, not Disney World).

IMG_2295.JPG

At night, you watch a beautiful castle projection show and a fireworks show, each put on every night. It really is an amazing way to end a classic, Disney day.  Magic Kingdom is the heart and soul of the Disney World resort.  While it’s not my personal favorite park out of the 4, it is my favorite for connecting to the rich history the Disney company offers and some of Walt’s own personal creations.  Make it your first stop on your Disney adventure.

_YRI8896.jpg

Disney Overview

Welcome to my Disney overview!  I’m so excited to walk you through all things Disney World.  But first: a little backstory on my history with Disney.  My first trip to Disney World was at the age of 7.  It was my Grandmother’s dream to go to Disney and unfortunately she never made it.  So my Dad made it a goal to take me to live out his mom’s unaccomplished wish.  My parents scrapped together everything they could to take me.  And truthfully, it was kind of a disaster.  Our trip was in the dead of February, snow season in the Northeast.  In the middle of an ice storm, we headed to the Philadelphia International Airport before the sun was even out.  Long story short, it took three planes, two airport stops, and almost 12 hours to finally make it to Disney World.  We lost a whole day.  Despite the disastrous start, I truly loved it.  And my parents did too.  We wound up visiting 4 more times throughout my childhood and into my teen years.  While visiting after graduating high school, my Dad started up a conversation with one of the young cast members.  It was in that brief conversation that I learned about the Disney College Program, an internship for college students looking to gain work experience with the Walt Disney Company.  Four years later, I participated in the 2012 Fall Disney College Program.  I’ve been back a few times since then and witnessed a lot of changes; some I love, some aren’t my favorite.  Still, it’s truly my second home and happy place.  (I have also visited Disneyland in California and Disneyland Paris in France.  Since I’ve only been a passive visitor to both, I will not claim to have intimate knowledge of those parks like I do of Disney World.)  Now, onto the good stuff!

Opening Day!

Opening Day!

Disney World opened in October of 1971, 16 years after Disneyland opened in California.  Walt Disney died before the opening of Disney World, so he never walked it himself.  But he had a huge hand in its conception.  In the early 1960s, Walt Disney used a handful of dummy corporations to acquire over 30,000 acres of land outside of Orlando.  Some of the names of these dummy corporations, like Ayefour Corporation and Latin-American Development and Management company can be seen in the windows of the stores on Main Street U.S.A. in Magic Kingdom.  Other names of dummy corporations, like Reedy Creek Ranch Corporation, were repurposed.  Today, Reedy Creek is the name of the Fire Department located on Disney World property.  Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and the business brain behind the Disney Empire, opened the first theme park, the Magic Kingdom, which is very similar to Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom and has been mirrored at other Disney resorts around the world.  It is the first and the classic.  The four remaining theme parks, Epcot, MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), and Animal Kingdom opened in 1982, 1989, and 1998 respectively.

WDWfirestation02.jpg

Today, Disney World houses 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 27 themed resorts, nine non-Disney hotels, multiple golf courses, a camping resort, entertainment venues, and shopping centers including Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney.  Disney World hosts guests from all over the world, including its Disney Vacation Club (DVC) members who have the opportunity to stay at specific DVC resorts and are eligible for special discounts.  These special discounts are also extended to annual passholders.

I exclusively use Disney World’s website when booking my vacation.  I know there are other sites but prefer to book direct so assume that everything I talk about from here on out is done by using their website.  When planning your vacation to Disney World, it’s important to understand your timelines.  Disney World reservations open up on their website 6 months in advance of the start day of your vacation.  Depending on the time of the year, some resorts will book up quicker than others, especially if you’re looking at the holiday season.  Something else to be aware of: resort blocks open up at different times.  So if you’re browsing your options and see Pop Century available and then a week later, it’s no longer available, this means they sold the specific block of rooms that was open.

WebCrop.png

When you book your vacation, your account is automatically assigned a Magic Band for each person in your party.  You can customize your colors and names 90 days out.  Be aware that Magic Bands are complimentary for guests staying at a Disney hotel.  All other guests must purchase their Magic Band or will receive cards as their tickets.  Magic Bands are an incredible piece of technology.  In the style of a bracelet, everything for your vacation is linked to it.  You use this Magic Band to access your room, utilize your Disney Dining Plan, and use scheduled FastPasses.  You can also link your credit card so that you do not have to carry anything other than your band to the parks.  Fun fact, I was working at Disney World when they first began the rollouts of the Magic Bands.  Disney spent over $1 billion on this piece of technology and its implementation around the resort.  They had no idea if it was going to work since it had never been done before.  Lucky for them, it’s been a huge success.

r-1409938054-MagicBands3.jpg

It is imperative that you make dining reservations prior to your visit.  Walk ins to full service restaurants are rarely accepted at the top restaurants, especially during peak seasons and peak dinner hours.  Dining reservations also open up at the 6 month mark of your start date.  This can get frustrating if you’re looking to book some of the top restaurants.  Because it is 6 months out from the start of your vacation, you can book your entire vacation’s dining experiences at once, even if your last day isn’t within 6 months.  This means that if someone’s vacation started just one day before you, they’ve had access to the reservation system longer than you have.  Plan ahead and have plan b’s if you don’t immediately get your first choices.  And keep checking! Cancellations happen all the time meaning you’re never truly locked out.

FPPENA479576.png

FastPass is a system by Disney to help guests plan their days in the parks and skip most of the lines for a particular ride.  Reservations for FastPass open up 90 days prior to the start day of your vacation.  The reservation system works similarly to dining reservations in that some people may have had access to the reservation system longer than you have.  Top attractions book out fast so it’s important that you book as closely to the minute of your 90 day mark as you can.  Guests can reserve 3 FastPasses per day, per park.  This means all 3 FastPasses must be booked in the same park; you can’t split them between multiple parks.  In the old days, you could get just about as many FastPasses per day as you wanted.  Truthfully, I miss the old FastPass system.  It allowed for more spontaneous adventures and it was almost like a game trying to figure out how to get as many as you could in a day.  But you can still have a lot of success with the new system.  Fun fact: Disney did not actually implement the original FastPass system for guest benefit, as they advertise it (and as I said above).  It was a security tool designed to better control crowds in specific areas of the park.  With FastPass, they can better gauge and direct how many people are in which parts of the parks.  As guests, we just benefit from it.  Crowd control is actually something Disney is experts at but not something we often think about.  Their crowd control expertise is sought after by companies around the world.  TSA actually consults with Disney often when discussing airport crowd control, although let’s be real.  They haven’t been as good at it as Disney, am I right?

Bus-Picture.jpg

Complimentary transportation is provided through a variety of means throughout the property, depending on your location. Buses are provided for every Disney resort to and from the parks as well as to Disney Springs and the two water parks. Each park offers park to park transportation for those park hopping. Certain resorts also offer boat and monorail transportation, detailed a bit more in my resort post. Recently, Disney began partnering with Lyft to provide guests with the Minnie Van option picking up guests at their hotel and dropping them off wherever they would like to go. This option is more expensive than traditional Lyfts and Ubers, which are also available.

Throughout my Disney series, I go into each piece of the park in detail.  Hotels, dining, individual parks, and additional offerings all have their own posts.  So if you’re looking for more in depth information about each piece of Disney World, make your way back to the Disney Series homepage and get started!

Where to Stay

Now that you’ve officially decided to plan a vacation to Disney World it’s time to decide where to stay.  As you start to look into all of your options, you feel extremely overwhelmed.  Trust me; this is a totally normal feeling.  Between the 27 hotels on Disney property in addition to the hundreds of hotels in the surrounding areas, there’s a lot to choose from.  Even if you’ve been to Disney World before, stick around!  You may learn a thing or two about the differences between all of the resorts.

orlando-walt-disney-world-resort-map.jpg

First, I will briefly address off-property resorts.  Frankly, I’m not a fan.  This is 100% a personal preference but speaking from a lot of experience, you’re better off staying on property.  You may receive a cheaper price on your room on the outset (although I would argue that Disney’s value resorts are the same price, if not cheaper, than many of the hotels off-property) but you’re losing out in the long run.  And here’s why:

  • When staying off-property you are not eligible for the Disney Dining Plan, something I am a huge advocate for.

  • You will not receive a complimentary magic band which links all tickets, dining experiences, credit cards, and FastPasses together.  If you would like to utilize this technology, you must purchase a band at one of the parks.

  • You are not eligible to participate in Disney’s Extra Magic Hours where the theme parks open early or stay open late for Disney Resort guests.

  • Guests staying on property can book their FastPass experiences 60 days in advance.  If you are not staying on property, you can book 30 days in advance.  By then, most of the top attractions will be booked.

  • While many off-property resorts do offer transportation to Disney, they are not as frequent or reliable (and sometimes not included in your cost).  At Disney, there are free buses that run at a minimum every 20 minutes.  During peak hours (park open and close) they run closer to every 10 minutes.  They take you directly to the parks and have a streamlined bus stop close to the entrance.  Off-property buses are stuck walking farther and waiting with everyone staying off-property, regardless of hotel.  It’s a jumbled mess after a fireworks show or big event. 

  • For those guests staying at some resorts (including those surrounding the Magic Kingdom, Port Orleans, etc.), you also have the opportunity to utilize other forms of transportation (depending on your location) such as boat or monorail.

  • Disney has also recently introduced the Minnie Van service through Lyft offering hotel guests a quick, individual way to get to the parks.  Operated similar to Uber and Lyft, families can feel confident in their experience knowing they are being taken around property by a Disney Cast Member.

  • You are not privy to the same level of customer service offered by Disney World cast members.  Cast Members go through rigorous training in customer service and guest interactions.  It is our top priority.  You are #1 during your stay on Disney property.  That’s not to say you won’t receive great service elsewhere, but it’s not prioritized the same way and I have not experienced the same level of consistency. 

There are a few exceptions to these rules; the hotels at Disney Springs Resort Area do enable guests to enjoy some (not all) of these perks.  These hotels at Disney Springs are the Best Western, Hilton, Doubletree, Holiday Inn, B Resort, and the Wyndham.  Staying at one of these hotels enables you to experience Extra Magic Hours and 60 day FastPass booking.  Currently, these perks are only guaranteed through December 2019.

Look, you can stay off-property and still have a magical vacation. I’m simply here to tell you that I believe you can have the best, most magical, full Disney experience by staying on-property.  If you disagree, well I’m sorry to stay this is where we part on this post.  Head over to some of my other posts for other great Disney content! For those of you still with me and staying on-property: moving on!

Here’s a list of all of Disney’s Resorts by level:

Value Resorts

  • All Star Music

  • All Star Movies

  • All Star Sports

  • Pop Century

  • Art of Animation

  • Fort Wilderness Campsites

Moderate Resorts

  • Caribbean Beach

  • Coronado Springs

  • The Cabins at Fort Wilderness

  • Port Orleans Riverside

  • Port Orleans French Quarter

Deluxe Resorts

  • Animal Kingdom Lodge

  • Beach Club

  • Boardwalk

  • Contemporary

  • Grand Floridian

  • Polynesian

  • Wilderness Lodge

  • Yacht Club

  • Swan & Dolphin*

  • Star Wars Hotel*

(Swan & Dolphin are part of the Boardwalk Resort area at EPCOT.  They are not technically owned by Disney but are operated as if they are.  Guests experience all the perks and amenities that other Disney resorts experience. Star Wars Hotel is coming soon in conjunction with the opening of Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios.)

Deluxe Villas

  • Animal Kingdom Lodge Villas

  • Bay Lake at Contemporary

  • Boulder Ridge & Copper Creek at Wilderness Lodge

  • Beach Club Villas

  • Boardwalk Villas

  • Villas at Grand Floridian

  • Old Key West

  • Polynesian Villas & Bungalows

  • Saratoga Springs & Treehouse Villas

  • Rivera Resort (Coming Soon)

I’ll kick off the Disney Resort piece of this post by letting you know that I have physically visited to every single resort on property.  I have also stayed on at least one of each level of resort:

Value Resorts

  • All Star Music

  • All Star Movies

  • Pop Century

Moderate Resorts

  • Caribbean Beach

  • Port Orleans French Quarter

Deluxe Resorts

  • Contemporary

Deluxe Villa Resorts

  • Saratoga Springs

Different levels?  What does that mean?  Disney World breaks their hotels into four different levels: Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Deluxe Villas.  For the purpose of this post, I will group the Deluxe and Deluxe Villas together because the Deluxe Villas (with the exception of Saratoga Springs/ Treehouse Villas and Old Key West) are located on the property of the Deluxe Resorts.

As you’re probably guessing, the Value resorts are the cheapest option and costs go up from there.  And you’re right!  But cost isn’t the only difference.  The rooms are slightly larger the higher the level but truthfully, there’s not much of a difference in what’s inside the rooms.  The main difference between the levels of resorts is the property and its offerings.  A Value Resort has more rooms that are closer together, a basic main pool with one or two smaller pools, and a food court.  Moderate Resorts offer more space between rooms and buildings, a nicer main pool, a food court, at least one full service restaurant, and often a café and resort activities such as bike or boat rentals.  Deluxe Resorts include higher quality of everything in the lower levels (such as nicer pools with slides) plus additional full service restaurants (and typically a character dining experience), additional resort activities such as parasailing, closer proximity to the parks or Disney Springs, and added transportation options such as boats and monorails.  Some Deluxe resorts have special offerings too.  For example, the Polynesian offers as Child Daycare for parents looking for an adult night out and the Animal Kingdom Lodge houses animals right outside your room.

Let’s talk about price.  The 2018 hotel price range per night for each level is below.  If you’d like a specific breakdown for each resort and each time of the year, please follow this link

Value Resort

  • Art of Animation (suite style)  - $127-$519

  • All other Value Resorts - $97-216

Moderate Resort

  • Fort Wilderness Campground - $75-189 (depending on the camper hookup you are looking for)

  • Fort Wilderness Cabins (suite style) - $364-568

  • All other Moderate Resorts - $364-568

Deluxe Resorts

  • All Deluxe Resorts - $359-1213

As you can see, prices greatly vary.  You will spend more for peak times including holidays and special events, weekend stays as opposed to weekday stays, how many people are staying in your room, and what kind of room you would like.  Rooms closer to the main building with a pool view will cost more than rooms with no view towards the back of the hotel property.

Now that we’ve gone over price, how do you know which hotel is right for you?  There’s no right answer for this question.  Anyone can enjoy any hotel.  The best choice for you comes down to your budget, the time of year you’re traveling, and the experience you’re hoping to have.  I am going to run through some example scenarios of what works best for different situations.

1.)    A couple (or small family) is spending a long weekend Disney World, approximately 4 days.  They want to cover as much of Disney World as they can.  They don’t come here often (or they’re first timers) and want to see as much as they can in their short window frame.  They have a smaller budget and want to get the most out of their money.

  • They should stay at a Value Resort.  They will most likely spend most of their time at the parks seeing everything.  They will not spend much time at their hotel and therefore, they do not need all of the upgraded hotel amenities. 

2.)    A family with young children (ages 3-6) is visiting Walt Disney World for 7 days.  They are spending approximately half of each day in a theme park.  The young ones need breaks during the day for naps and rest.  The parents would like to experience some of the fine dining options around the resort and the kids love spending time by the pool.  The family has been saving for a long time and their budget is unlimited. 

  • This family should take advantage of a Deluxe Resort, such as the Grand Floridian.  Deluxe resorts offer the dining options that will satisfy the parents with upgraded pools and features the kids will love.  Since the family will spend a decent amount of time at the resort, spending money on a Deluxe resort makes sense.

3.)    An older couple is visiting Disney World.  They have been a few times before but still enjoy spending time in the parks.  They want a healthy balance of hotel amenities and park time.  They enjoy nice dinners but nothing overly fancy.  They enjoy taking long, scenic walks.  Their budget is within the middle range.

  • The couple should stay at a Moderate resort, such as Port Orleans Riverside.  A moderate resort would offer them plenty of scenic walking space and casual, but nice dining options.  Since their time will be balanced between hotel and park, the moderate resort offers a great middle ground for their stay.

Here are some overall thoughts on which hotel to choose for your family:

  • If you have the money, the upgraded resorts are beautiful options with closer proximity to the parks and greater amenities.  If you’ve got it, go for it.  I’ve never said no to a nicer hotel, have you?

  • That being said, if you plan on spending all your times in the parks, you’re best use of money is a Value Resort.  There’s no point in spending more money on something you won’t use.

  • If you’ve got a big family or a lot of people in your party, I highly recommend looking into the Villas, Cabins, or Art of Animation. These hotels offer multiple room setups that are made for larger groups.

  • If you prefer a quieter, more relaxing vacation experience the Moderate and Deluxe Resorts may be a better option for you.  Although, I’m not sure you’ve 100% chosen the right place for your vacation in general.  As anyone with Disney World experience will tell you, it’s not the most relaxing place.

All this being said, you can have a great experience at any Disney World hotel.  Their offerings, customer service, and experiences are truly world class.  If you’d like to chat about what would work for you and your family, drop me a line over at my contact page.  I’d love to help!

To Eat or Not to Eat

The world of Disney Dining is huge and complex.  There are more than 400 places to purchase food within the resort, including 90 full service restaurants, over 30 of which are located within the parks themselves.  This number includes both full service and quick service restaurants.  For those of you not 100% familiar with the terms, the difference is this:

  • Full service restaurant – a traditional sit down restaurant with hosts, servers, etc.

  • Quick service restaurant – a counter style service such as a McDonalds or Chipotle where you place your order with a cashier, receive your food, and find a nearby table.

  • Signature Dining – you’ll also see me mention this a few times.  Signature Dining is a table service meal (or buffet style) that is either considered very fine dining (such as some of the restaurants at the Grand Floridian hotel), a dinner show (such as the Hoop Dee Doo Revue), or a Character Dining Experience

I will also use the term “snack” a lot and it’s pretty much what it sounds like.  Snacks include items such as popcorn, candy apples, cake pops, etc. 

Cake Pops using Snack Credits!

Cake Pops using Snack Credits!

Arguably and truthfully, there are too many restaurants on Disney property, especially at the newly reimagined Disney Springs: an issue that Disney is actually facing now and struggling with.  Disney World is consistently offering dining discounts in an effort to fill all their restaurants, something that is especially tough to do in the off seasons.  This brings me to the Disney Dining Plan.  It’s a polarizing offering at the resort, one that has many fans and many critics.  Truthfully, there aren’t many people that fall in the middle of this debate.  But with so many dining discounts being offered recently at the parks, I am finding more and more that it is a worthy option when booking your vacation package.

Disney_Dining_Plan.svg.png

Quick reminder (or heads up) for those of you who read my “where to stay” post: The Disney Dining Plan is only available for those staying at a Walt Disney World resort.  For those of you staying of-property, feel free to skip down this post a bit.

So what is the Disney Dining Plan?  The DDP is a prepaid meal plan that gives guests a certain amount of “credits” to be redeemed at participating dining locations around the Walt Disney World resort (very few restaurants do not participate). 

There are three tiers to choose from that are outlined below.  The pricing listed is for 2018.  Disney has released 2019 Dining Plan pricing but there weren’t many changes.  Adult costs stayed the same while children’s pricing went up slightly.  For all table service meals, tax is included but tip is not.  Certain credits can be combined for other options and while the plans say you get A, B, and C per person, per day, the credits are actually just a lump sum and you can use them however you like (i.e. all your quick service credits in one day).  It’s confusing, I know.  Stay with me!

The famous Dole Whip! You can use a Snack Credit for this too!

The famous Dole Whip! You can use a Snack Credit for this too!

  • Quick Service

    • Offers 2 quick service meals and 2 snacks per person, per day plus one refillable mug that can be used at your resort (and some locations around the water parks)

    • Each quick service meal includes one entree and one beverage (including alcohol where available)

    • One quick service credit can be substituted for 3 snack purchases in a single transaction

    • $52.50 per adult, $21.74 per child, 3 & under are free

  • Table Service/ Standard  (the most used, traditional meal plan)

    • Offers 1 counter service, 1 table service, and 2 snacks per person, per day plus one refillable mug that can be used at your resort (and some locations around the water parks)

    • 2 table service credits can be combined for 1 signature meal, 1 dinner show, 1 pizza delivery, or room service

    • $75.49 per adult, $25.75 per child, 3 & under are free

  • Deluxe Dining Plan

  • 3 meals that can be used at your choice of quick service or table service locations and 2 snacks per person, per day plus one refillable mug that can be used at your resort (and some locations around the water parks)

  • $116.25 per adult, $39.99 per child, 3 & under are free

  • Overall, I really do not recommend this meal plan unless you have an unlimited budget and plan on doing mostly character dining, dinner shows, and fine dining.  If this is the case, you can combine credits and make the most out of this option.  Otherwise, this is just way too much food.

The Disney Tourist Blog averages that meals at Disney World cost the following per person

  • Table service: $45 per person

  • Quick service: $21 per person

  • Snack: $3-5

So as I mentioned above, the Disney Dining Plan has a lot of fans and critics.  You can call me a fan but as with anything else, it is not right for everyone.  Here’s a quick breakdown of some winners and losers on the meal plan:

  • Vegetarians lose, every time

    • Sorry veggie lovers but vegetarian meals, like salads and pastas cost less and therefore, you don’t come out ahead spending $75 per day

  • Drinkers win

    • Alcoholic beverages cost an average of $10 at Disney World.  So if you’re someone who enjoys a drink or two at dinner, this is a great way to save money.

  • Festival attendees win

    • Festivals like Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival or Flower and Garden Festival accept snack credits on most of the food offerings which is a great way to use a snack credit on something that typically costs more than the snack credit is worth

  • Water drinkers lose

    • If you are planning to use snack credits on water or a last minute bag of pretzels for the plane, this is not the plan for you.

And some overall, general information about the Dining Plan

  • When using snack credits, you should aim to purchase items worth $5 or more.  Anything less than $5 is costing you money

  • Critics will argue that meal plan costs have gone up but here’s the thing: so have menu prices. 

  • Pre-planning is the name of the game with the Dining Plan.  Compare prices at restaurants you are interested in, pick your snack credits ahead of time, and make sure you are making the most of your money.  Last minute decisions don’t benefit you on the Dining Plan.

  • Heads up, it’s a lot of food. My mom calls it the “Make it Stop Plan” because of how much food you get on it.  But again, you want to get as much as you can for your money.

  • It’s convenient.  You pay for the meal plan with your resort and ticket package so by the time you get to Disney, you don’t have to think about spending money on food.  It’s a great way to help with those who struggle with budgeting.

Again, the meal plan isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.  I’m just here to say that I like it because it takes some of the stress out of my vacation and helps me budget and plan, something I am a big proponent of.  But enough about the Dining Plan, there are plenty of other blogs who detail it too.  On to the good stuff: food and alcohol!

There are hundreds of dining options to choose from; there is truly something for everyone.  For a complete list of every food option on property with updated menus, click here.  As you can see, they’ve done a lot of the work for me here so I won’t expand too much here. 

I’ve already explained Quick Service, Full Service, and Signature Dining but these can be broken down even further.  I will just expand a bit on the different types (a bit more than above) and throw in some of my favorite as well as some tips and tricks:.

The delicious Night Blossom!

The delicious Night Blossom!

  • Quick Service

    • There are a few different kinds of quick services, although they don’t have individual names.  For example, Sunshine Seasons Food Court in Epcot’s Future World is a large food court style eating area with 3 different food windows and a large seating area.  Conversely, Storybook Treats in Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland sells strictly ice cream treats. 

    • Magic Kingdom Favorites

      • Aloha Isle – Dole Whips are a MUST when visiting Disney World.  They can also be purchased Disney’s Polynesian Resort

      • Casey’s Corner – the best hotdog on property

      • Gaston’s Tavern – do NOT miss Lefou’s Brew

      • Sleepy Hollow – the waffle treats here are divine

      • Torguga Tavern – the only open this quick service location during peak times throughout the year but it still is one of my favorites              

    • Epcot Favorites

      • Karamell-Kuche – okay, it’s more like a store than a quick service establishment but you will never find a caramel treat like they make them here

      • La Cava del Tequila – the #1 spot for margaritas

      • L’Artisan des Glaces – Macaron ice cream sandwiches!

    • Hollywood Studios Favorites

      • Woody’s Lunch Box (New!) – the Raspberry Lunch Box Tart is the best pop tart you’ll ever try.  I also love their Grown-Up’s lemonade; they even serve it when the park opens!  Breakfast of champions, am I right?

    • Animal Kingdom Favorites

      • Anandapur Ice Cream Truck – They make ice cream floats with whatever soda you choose.  For me, I love an Orange Soda Float

      • Flame Tree BBQ – don’t skip the pulled pork nachos

      • Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes – I love their Honey Glazed Tempura Chicken 

      • Pongu Pongu – I love both the Mo’ara Magarita and Night Blossom. 

  • Full Service

    • As I mentioned above, full service can include regular dining meals, signature meals at more expensive locations, character dining experiences, and dinner shows. 

    • All full service dining experiences can be reserved through the Disney World website 6 months out from the date you intend to visit.  Beware; some of the more popular restaurants require booking 6 months out down to the minute such as Be Our Guest and Le Cellier.  If you miss this tiny window, don’t give up just yet.  Check the website regularly for cancellations and check out the restaurant the day off for any last minute cancellations.

    • Disclaimer:  Disney World is constantly moving chefs around and the servers are always changing (a topic worthy of its own post; maybe one day).  Menus are also consistently changing and being updated.  For example, my first experience at the Turf Club at Saratoga Springs was absolutely fabulous.  I made it my “favorite” restaurant after that one experience.  Two years later, I finally went back and I had a completely different experience, though it still lands on my top places.   Consistency can be tough to find.  That being said, here are some of my hits and misses:

    • Epcot

      • Via Napoli – some of the best pizza I’ve ever had…and I’m from New Jersey which makes me extremely qualified to judge

    • Hollywood Studios

      • 50’s Prime Time Café – the best fried chicken on property

    • Animal Kingdom Lodge

      • Boma – I stop here EVERY visit.  I love it here.

    • Coronado Springs

      • Maya Grill – the service here is outstanding! And so is their fried ice cream

    • Fort Wilderness Resort

      • Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue – it’s a great dinner show with great food

    • Grand Floridian

      • 1900 Park Fare – my favorite breakfast buffet; they even have gummy bears for breakfast!  Here you’ll meet Mary Poppins, the Alice and Wonderland Folks, as well as Tigger and a few others

    • Contemporary

      • Chef Mickey’s – if you’re dead set on a character dinner, this gets my vote. The selection is larger than other of your other options.

    • Old Key West

      • Olivia’s Café – get the key lime pie, trust me.

    • Polynesian

      • Ohana – I love the family style meal and the bread pudding is legendary.

      • Kona Café – the food is some of my favorite on property

    • Saratoga Springs

      • Turf Club – classic dining experience that’s great for adults

    • You’ll also notice that most of my favorites are located at resorts.  I find that many of the in-park restaurants are a little underwhelming.  Here are some of my places to avoid besides Be Our Guest (my opinion only, experiences may vary, folks!):

      • Be Our Guest – I know this one is extremely popular and I’ve heard many people have had amazing experiences.  I personally found it overrated and overpriced.  The cast member experience was one of the worst I’ve had.

      • Cinderella’s Royal Table – wait in line for the regular Princess meet and greets and get dinners somewhere else

      • Tony’s Town Square – once you’ve had real Italian, it’s hard to settle for anything less

      • The Crystal Palace – breakfast buffet is okay but the lunch and dinner are underwhelming

      • Biergarten – I love the concept of long table, family style seating but the food just wasn’t that great

      • Hollywood & Vine – similar to the Crystal Palace, breakfast is fine but lunch and dinner are MEH

      • Mama Melrose – similar to Tony’s, mediocre Italian food

      • Jiko – was not overly impressed.  With this being a finer dining experience, I expected more

 Disney also runs special events throughout the year ranging from food festivals to special dessert and fireworks shows.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never done the dessert shows but I‘ve heard mixed reviews.  Some people rave about it and others think you don’t get as much as you should for the money.  I’m not against them; I’m just always full from my other favorite treats around the parks to even bother.  But what I have participated in and what ultimately keeps me coming back are Epcot’s two main festivals: the Food & Wine Festivals and the Flower & Garden Festival.

IMG_2368.JPG
  • Food & Wine Festival

    • My absolute favorite thing.  Starting in late August, the Food & Wine Festival runs through early November, arguably the best time to visit Disney World.  Kids are back in school and the holidays haven’t started yet.  In addition to the permanent countries that offer food and wine specialties in Epcot’s World Showcase, Disney adds approximately 30 more temporary food and drink carts serving up small portions of items native to the corresponding country.  The countries change from year to year as well as the offerings.  Disney posts the menu about 6 months in advance.  If you ever have a chance to visit during Food & Wine, I highly recommend it.

  • Flower & Garden Festival

    • I also love the Flower & Garden Festival.  Disney’s incredible horticulture department brings out some of the most beautiful Disney topiaries, flowers, and even a butterfly garden.  Epcot also brings out a number of additional food and beverage carts similar to Food & Wine Festival.  I always refer to it as a mini Food & Wine.  While it is during a busier time of the year (Spring time is big for families with children on spring break), you will still find it quieter than the holiday and summer seasons.

 One thing I didn’t cover, and won’t really touch on, is the dining options at Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney.  There are tons of new restaurants to try in Disney Springs with more opening every month.  I have heard great things about Chef Art’s Homecoming, specifically.  But the reason I don’t talk about them is because, frankly, I’m not a fan of the Downtown Disney revamp that took place a few years ago.  It feels more like a fancy, outdoor outlet mall rather than the Disney themed shopping experience it used to be.  Of course, that’s a personal preference and I’m happy to answer any specific questions you may have about it.

 Now, I know you’ve been hit with a lot of information and I know it’s overwhelming.  Walt Disney World has really stepped up its food game in the last five or so years to become a true foodie destination.  If you have a favorite food destination at Disney World or an experience that’s different than mine, I’d love to hear it.  And as always, if you have any questions, I’m here to help!  Drop me a line over at the contact page.

 Misc. FAQs

 Are character dining experiences worth it?

_YRI8881.jpg
  • EH.  Kind of.  Maybe.  Depends.  Sensing a theme on my Disney posts?  I enjoy character dining, I do.  But not all experiences are worth it.  You pay more to meet them.  Be aware, they only stop at your table for a minute or two to take some pictures and sign autographs.  You do not have unlimited access to them.  They are also typically buffet style meals and not all Disney buffets are created equally.  If you or your child loves a character dearly, it may be worth it.  For example, I adore Eeyore but he only does meet and greets at the Crystal Palace and in the parks on special ticketed events.  I’m not a huge fan of the Crystal Palace but I will eat breakfast there because I want to meet Eeyore.  See how this works?  Breakfast buffets are pretty standard across the parks so it’s not a big deal where you go.  For dinner, I only really recommend Chef Mickey’s, in total honesty.

·         For a complete list of all Disney Character experiences click here!