Been There, Disney’d That: Tips and Tricks on Having Your Best Disney Vacation

Halloween to Xmas Pooh Collage

We somewhat recently returned from a week and a half long anniversary trip to Disney World that encompassed two holidays, the end of the Halloween season and then the very beginning of the Christmas holidays.  No joke, we left the Magic Kingdom around 1 am November 1st after spending the evening attending Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, and by park opening eight hours later, all of the Fall decorations had been removed and nearly all of the Christmas ones had been added.  Two days later the entire park was “done,” up to and including Queen Elsa’s Griswold-worthy lighting job on Cinderella Castle and the giant, towering Christmas tree in the entrance hub.  Disney decorating services move lightning fast.

Magic Kingdom Castle Collage

But impressive work on the part of the decorating team aside, I think the truly impressive feat is that we got through 11 holiday days at the Happiest Place on Earth without incurring a mountain of vacation debt, or suffering hideous sunburns, or eating anything truly appalling, or losing our sanity and murdering one another.  I mean, we came awfully close on that last one, but we pulled ‘er back (I kid; Mr. Finger Candy and I travel remarkably well together.)

Also, this was our fourth trip to Disney World in a year; it’s almost like we know what we’re doing now!  Here’s a few things we’ve learned along the way – I hope these practical tips and tricks from a couple of nerds-in-the-know help you maximize your time and enjoyment on your next Disney trip. 🙂

Set a fun vacation challenge for yourself: It may seem counterintuitive to add to-dos to an already packed and stressful vacation schedule (yes, Disney’s loads of fun, but it can occasionally feel like a death march.  With churros.)  But we’ve found that adding a side mission of sorts – like, say, bridging two holiday seasons by attending Mickey’s Not So Scary on Halloween and then Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party a week later – keeps us on task and ups the fun quota significantly by giving us silly little challenge parameters to goof around within.  Or maybe I just like looking down at my list of to-dos for the day and seeing “Ride every roller coaster after dark” or “Eat nothing but snacks.”

Magic Kingdom Collage 2

Be prepared for every weather eventuality: Again, how helpful, my advice here simply being BRING EVERYTHING.  But the only predictable thing about Orlando weather is its unpredictability, and if it’s not 90 degrees and humid like it was every stinkin’ day we were there, it’s raining.  And sometimes it’s both!  So pack a travel umbrella and a poncho and maybe even a pair of flip flops that you can throw on in the event you’re caught in a ferocious downburst while sitting at the outdoor Fantasmic amphitheater at the very back of Hollywood Studios one evening.  True story.

Wear sunscreen and stay hydrated: Based on the number of people I saw spackling themselves and their kids with spray sunscreen, I probably don’t need to preach my lifelong gospel of sunscreen (does a Celtic body good!) Well done, Disney travelers.  But I also know there are a ton of people who run about the parks all day long powered on nothing but sugary soft drinks and desserty coffee concoctions (shout-out to the utterly befuddled Southern woman aghast that one establishment “ain’t got no Coke!”)  Man cannot live on Powerade alone!  So go grab yourself a water.  But if you’re not down with paying $3.50 for a bottle of Dasani (geez, who is?) simply roll on up to any counter service location and ask for a couple of cups of ice water, and they’ll give them to you gratis.  Last thing Disney wants is for you to face-plant in front of the Carousel of Progress, so drink up.

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Find the good air conditioning: Disney attractions are notorious for ending in a gift shop.  But the gift shops are air conditioned!  As are the rabbit warren of shops that line Main Street in the Magic Kingdom – you can actually traverse the entire length of Main Street without ever going outside.  Duck into these air conditioned cold spots as often as you can for a quick refresher (fun discovery?  The very best AC in the Magic Kingdom is directly over the oil paintings in The Art of Disney store on Main Street.)

If it makes you sick, don’t ride it: This is advice we only just heeded this past trip, and I think our vacation experience was all the better for it.  Typically we soldier on through rides that have proven to disagree with our old ass constitutions (Space Mountain, Everest, Flight of Passage, Star Tours) and then feel like sweaty, nauseous butt for the next 30 to 90 minutes.  This time we just eschewed those attractions altogether, choosing instead to double or triple up on some kinder, gentler rides (or sextuple – that’s totally not a word – in the case of my beloved Haunted Mansion.)

Work those FastPasses: Three of these express passes are available to every guest every day either physically, in park at a kiosk, or virtually through the My Disney Experience app.  Save the extremely popular, always-slammed attractions (Slinky Dog Dash, Flight of Passage again, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) it’s relatively easy to schedule and obtain these passes.  Yet based on the amount of grumbling I heard from the standby line as I zipped past in the express line at my designated time, few guests know about this awesome perk.  So download the free app or show up in park and schedule a day’s worth of FastPasses so you don’t spend more time than necessary waiting – and grumbling – in line.

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Make advance dining reservations: The immense popularity of the Disney Dining Plan, a pre-paid food plan not unlike the ones you may have enjoyed at college, means getting a walk-up table at virtually any restaurant in any of the parks is a real chore.  So if there’s somewhere you really want to dine, make an advance reservation.  Disney allows you to book your dining up to 180 days out from your trip, which is generally overkill unless you’re talking about Be Our Guest, in which case it’s not enough kill; that place is wildly popular. We certainly love it, and we make it a point to eat there at least once per trip.

Be Our Guest Collage

Take screenshots of your FastPass plans and dining reservations: The My Disney Experience app is a great resource for the more technically-minded Disney traveler, but it is a battery killer, particularly when you’re calling up the app every 15 minutes to see which ride or restaurant you need to dash off to next.  Take a screenshot of your plans and make it the temporary wallpaper to your phone; now your plans are available at the quick touch of a barely-battery-draining button.

Consider becoming annual passholders: Every family’s break-even point is different, but generally speaking, if you’re going to be in park for 12 or more days a year, like we were in 2017 and 2018, it makes the most financial sense to become annual passholders.  APs also enjoy some nice little passholder-only perks, as well as discounts on food, merchandise and accommodations, and unlimited access to the Memory Maker photo service.  It’s a pretty decent deal, and we’ve been really pleased with our first year as annual passholders.

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Add funds to a reloadable gift card: Not only will this keep you mindful of your budget (it’s easier to track your spending when it’s in pre-paid, round dollar increments) but it’s a fuss-free way to pay at merchandise shops, counter service dining locations and all of those little booths at Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival.

Stay flexible: Rides go down, the app crashes (repeatedly), your bus doesn’t show up on time, weather concerns cancel the fireworks – these things happen all the time, and the best you can do is just roll with the punches.  Allow yourself lots of time to get to your reservations, engage Guest Services when technical or weather problems derail your plans, move on if the going gets tough, and always have a plan B.  And don’t snipe – or worse – at the cast members for things that are beyond their control.  I’ve yet to meet a CM who could control the weather.  Unless the Thor who strides about the Norway pavilion in Epcot actually is the God of Thunder!  In which case, I think he is quite underpaid.

Don’t be so serious: Cast members love us because we’re polite and will do literally anything for a laugh, whether it’s gossiping about Gaston’s purported addiction to manscaping (seriously, when we met him he was SO waxed!), pretending to Force choke each other in a goofy lightsaber battle or posing for an every-park series of cheesy prom pics.

Prom Photos Collage

You’re at Disney!  Live a little and snuggle up to that dinosaur statue already. 🙂

Dino Collage

Remember that there is so much more to Disney than its rides: I’m always a little dismayed when I overhear other guests planning their entire Disney vacations around the rides.  Sure, Disney attractions are groundbreaking technological marvels, but there is SO much more to Disney than the rides.  So take in a musical show (or four) at Hollywood Studios.  Hop on the monorail and explore the deluxe resorts across from the Magic Kingdom.  Take a scenic boat ride over to the Boardwalk for ice cream and tequila (preferably separate, but hey, you do you.)  Spend a day playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a free-to-play interactive card game.  Enjoy a special meal at one of Disney’s incredible themed restaurants.  Spend the evening bopping around Disney Springs.  Have your picture taken with a favourite character.  Take a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the parks.  Or…

Attend a fireworks viewing party, one (or both!) of the holiday parties or some other special event: Some of the most fun we had this trip was at Mickey’s Not So Scary and Mickey’s Very Merry.  Having attended a Not So Scary earlier in the season, we didn’t feel pressured to cram in a bunch of gotta-dos, preferring instead to explore the Magic Kingdom at our leisure, riding rides, meeting cool characters, explaining our costumes to people who didn’t know who we were (and fanboying out with the people who did) and pulling down some serious loot on the trick-or-treat trails.

Halloween Collage

Mickey’s Very Merry was a first for us this year, although we caught quite a bit of the entertainment – the stage show, Elsa’s castle-lighting and the parade – last year when we were actually at Disney on Christmas Day itself (and yes, it’s every bit as busy as everyone says it is and you fear it will be!)  We enjoyed all of those attractions this year, including the beautiful and moving Holiday Wishes fireworks and projection show, some cool character meet-and-greets, cookie and cocoa-collecting and a whole mess of walk-right-on attractions.

Very Merry Collage

We also started off that day with the first ever seating of breakfast at The Plaza Restaurant on Main Street, which was utterly, utterly delicious; a month on I’m still thinking back fondly, and often, on the delectable lobster Eggs Benedict (on fried green tomatoes) I enjoyed.  It was such a special dining experience – as Ice Cube might say, it was a good day.

The Plaza Collage

But the best day had to have been the evening we attended the Jingle Bell, Jingle Bam Holiday Dessert Party at Hollywood Studios.  What fun!  We had such a blast!  And it had nothing at all to do with the fact that we both got pretty tipsy on generously poured holiday cocktails and attempted to eat our combined weight in cheese fondue and naan bread, nothing at all. 😉  Jingle Bam, the Prep & Landing-themed fireworks show that closes out the night at Hollywood Studios, is an awesome show; I love its odd mix of P&L, the Nightmare Before Christmas and schmaltzy holiday standards.

Jingle Bam Collage

We really got our merry on at the dessert party.  I also danced quite a bit, which I showed off in this video I made for our YouTube channel that I have posted before, but hey, one more time for the cheap seats in the back.

These were all super fun events that yes, we paid extra money to attend, but I think the payoff was worth it for these incredible experiences.  Sometimes you just have to treat yourself, you know?

So there we have it, tips and tricks from a couple of semi-pros on how to have your best Disney vacation.  Although hey, you’re at Disney, so isn’t every vacation really the best? 🙂

Dining at Disney, Part II

Last we broke the Disney fast, I was regaling you with tales and blurry photos of the equally blurry, margarita-enhanced evening we spent drinking and dining our way through Epcot, and before that, two stupendous feasts at our favourite Magic Kingdom restaurant, Be Our Guest.  I mentioned in my last post that my husband and I were fortunate enough to enjoy fantastic meals virtually every time we put fork to plate, a complete rarity when you’re on holiday.  There’s always inevitably that one meal where afterwards you think to yourself, “I really wish I hadn’t wasted my money and calories on that.”  Also, vacation food – particularly theme park vacation food – is frequently terrible.  But save maybe one or two snacks that didn’t quite live up to the hype (Dole Whip, what weird animal are you anyways?) we enjoyed some wonderful – and wonderfully delicious – meals.  Here are three more of my favourite dining experiences.

Midday Break at Gaston’s Tavern

Gaston's Collage

Yes, that is Mr. Finger Candy, just sitting there in a tri-cornered pirate hat, unironically.  As you do. 😉

No trip to the Magic Kingdom would be complete without a stop at Gaston’s Tavern.  I love this charming little spot; tucked into a nook between Be Our Guest and Journey of the Little Mermaid, it’s typically quite quiet, even during the busy midday rush (I say “typically,” as Christmas morning the 50-strong lineup stretched clear across the bridge.)  LeFou’s Brews are the non-alcoholic specialty of the house, a sweet-and-sour concoction of frozen apple juice and fruity, foamy topping.  They are sooo yummy; a lighter, more refreshing alternative to lemonade.

But on the subject of the man after which the tavern is named, I regret to inform you that the big, throbbing tool was once again absent.  We are now 0-4 on meeting Gaston, and to be honest with you, my feelings are a little hurt.  I’ve now traveled all the way from the Canadian wilderness to France (by way of Orlando) twice, I’ve visited his tavern – scene of the rehashing of all his greatest victories – four times, and I was deeply sympathetic upon discovering that his absence our first day was due to his need to nurse his emotional injuries following a humiliating trouncing at arm wrestling (so we were informed by a bemused cast member.)  But to leave me hanging four times in a row?  Why, Gaston, that’s positively primeval.  All the same, I still struck a fetching pose outside by the fountain bearing his bulgy likeness.

Gaston Pose

Dinner at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe

Hands down, this was the most fun I’ve ever had while dining.  Possibly some of the most fun I’ve had EVER, actually!

Prime Time Collage 1

A meal at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe is a bit like 1950s LARP-ing, with pot roast!  After checking in with an earnest-looking young man in a crisp soda jerk uniform, we were invited to take a load off in Dad’s adjacent rumpus room while Mom put the finishing touches on our meal.  We were ambling about the lounge gawping at all the linoleum, naughyde and zebra print – and at this time of year, silver tinsel – when an older gentleman dressed like every photo of my grandfather ever stepped forward and barked, “FINGER CANDY KIDS!  Finger Candy kids, put your toys away, wash up and get inside, it’s time for dinner!”  As we followed our Pops-for-the-night through the restaurant, which is sort of laid out like the world’s largest, most ambling mid-century bungalow, I could hardly tear my eyes away from my surroundings.  The entire place is an absolute marvel of 1950s design; I could have spent hours just walking around, taking in every last harvest gold canister, blown glass ashtray or rabbit ear’d TV.

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Upon being seated in what I think was the breakfast nook, we were introduced to our waiter (an “exasperated” baby-sitter type who immediately dubbed us Uncle and the Princess) and another table of heretofore unknown relations.  We were also reminded of the house rules, which include such tidbits of mannerly wisdom as “Hey kids, no lids!” and “No elbows on the table,” which is helpfully printed on the top of the menu.  Here is my husband flouting both of those rules simultaneously, which prompted our waiter to swing by, tap his arm and say, “The only elbows allowed on this table are the ones in the macaroni.”  Busted!

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Also, someone has clearly never heard of the “snitches get stitches” edict, because here’s my beloved attempting to rat me out for taking pictures with my phone (which I had hidden under a stack of napkins!  Modern tech is not verboten at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe, but you will get some righteous, all-in-good-fun crap from your distant relations about your reliance on modern conveniences.) 😉

Prime Time Collage 2

Dinner itself was way, way yummier than I was expecting.  It has been my unfortunate experience that these sorts of themed restaurants often trade style for substance – I’ve had some seriously dodgy (and expensive) meals from a number of places that have prioritized their memorabilia collections over the food served therein (Planet Hollywood and any and all Hard Rocks, I’m looking at you.)  But dinner at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe was the perfect combination of both kitsch and delish.  My pot roast was a particular standout, and who’s going to say no to a neon purple cocktail?  Not the Princess!

Prime Time 1

Ordering that drink actually led to some amazing interactions with our waiter and our getting-larger-by-the-moment extended family.  Dropping my glow cube-enhanced cocktail off at the table, our waiter announced to the room at large, “Look out, cousins, Princess found the keys to Dad’s liquor cabinet!”  I assured him that I could hold my own (this was pre-Epcot, and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him!) and he responded by going over to a girl with purple hair the next table over and remarking, “No, seriously, drink too many of those and your hair will actually turn this colour.”  Ha!  My husband responded by pointing to his own, ah, follicly-challenged head and said, “Yeah, and if you work too hard, THIS is what will happen to your hair.”  That prompted a huge round of guffaws, and an appreciative slap on the back from our waiter, who said, “Listen to Uncle here, kids – he is laying down some TRUTHS.”  Oh my gosh, so good, we’d go back in a heartbeat.  I walked out of there with a giant smile on my face and a happy tummy full of great comfort food – can you ask for anything more?

Prime Time Collage 3

Bar Dinner at Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’

The last night of our vacation we stumbled back to our resort following a 12-hour day at the Animal Kingdom.  After having hurt the top of my right foot on Christmas Day (17 hours at the Magic Kingdom will do that to a person) I was actually beginning to question whether my ultra tender tootsie was just flat out broken.  But following a change of footwear and a quick freshening-up, I rallied hard, hobbling and wobbling my way to Disney Springs for one last dinner at our favourite Florida restaurant, Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’.

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Which was, of course, packed.  Not too surprising given this cozy restaurant’s popularity and the deep chill just beginning to creep into the night air – Homecomin’s scrumptious Southern cuisine really beckons during the colder winter months.  Without a reservation, we were looking at something like an hour and 10-minute wait for a table.  So we pulled up a couple of seats at the gigantic wooden bar, ordered two (later four) fairly lethal moonshine cocktails and some accompanying vittles, and spent an amazing couple of hours watching the bar staff dazzle us with their mastery of the alcoholic arts.  At one point I looked up to see the head bartender muddle some fruit with his left hand, pour two pints with his right, turn off the taps with the side of his head, all whilst kicking something into a ground level garbage can.  It was fairly incredible – Cocktail out in the real world.

And not for nothing, but the drinks were won-der-ful – unique, deftly layered cocktails brimming with high octane, house-made ‘shine.  My husband’s Apple Pie a la Mode tasted like liquid gold – the perfect festive toast on which to end a Christmastime vacation.  My Berry Lavender was flat out spectacular.  I’d seriously drink a barrel of this rosemary and lavender-infused gem, it was that great.  Wowzers, what a cocktail!  And so delicious alongside Church Lady Deviled Eggs, Thigh High Chicken biscuits and Momma’s Mac and Cheese.  I’m so glad we somehow found the energy to go to Homecomin’ for one last special meal; it was a truly wonderful one.

Homecomin

In conclusion, food is good and we ate a lot of it!  But more than that, we’ve returned home, having enjoyed an embarrassment of perfect dining experiences, with tons of fun memories…and plans for next time.  This could be very dangerous!  But at least we know it’ll absolutely be delicious. 🙂

Dining at Disney, Part I

I think the general belief when it comes to Disney cuisine is that it comes in two – heh – flavours: Expensive, or churros (or Premium Mickey Bars, or turkey legs, or Dole Whip, or Mickey pretzels, or popcorn – lots of snacks ’round the parks.)  Sometimes it can be both; this dinky little cup of Dole Whip (an iconic Disney dish, and I do not know why, because it’s nothing more than pineapple-flavoured soft serve) was $7!

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But it doesn’t always have to be uninspired park fare.  Although it will always be expensive, because there is no other way at Disney.  However, even after making your peace with the fact that theme park pricing does not in any way resemble our Earth pricing, a $7 cup of ice cream is still a tough nut to crack (I was going to go with the slightly more food-friendly idiom of “bitter pill to swallow,” but this sweet, tropical soft serve was actually quite easy to swallow.) 😉

From a cost perspective, there are a number of dining plans available through Disney; I saw a lot of families with young children taking advantage of the counter service options (I suppose when your little one will only eat chicken fingers or mac and cheese, there’s not much point in going with a more fulsome and varied table service plan.)  Mr. Finger Candy and I have never availed ourselves of one of these plans before.  We looked into it briefly as we were planning this Christmas trip, but ultimately concluded that owing to our eating habits, as well as the rather lengthy list of new-to-us restaurants we wanted to try, we’d be better off going our own way.

And as we were marveling the other day, we actually did better than better, enjoying one of those ultra rare vacations where every dining experience was a winner.  There isn’t a single thing we ate, save perhaps that $7 Dole Whip, that I thought afterwards, “Aargh, I really wish I hadn’t wasted money and/or calories on that.”  Winner winner, excellent dinners!  And so in a sea of memorable meals, here are some of the highlights from our trip.

Breakfast and Dinner at Be Our Guest

Lumiere

Fun fact about Mr. Finger Candy?  He loves Beauty and the Beast, and he loves eating at Be Our Guest, a Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant at the Magic Kingdom, even more.  We kicked off the first park day of our trip with an early morning breakfast reservation (you don’t always need reservations to get a table at this very popular restaurant, but I wouldn’t chance it during the holidays.)  When we visited Be Our Guest at Halloween, we dined in the West Wing.  This time we nabbed a cozy table over by the grand ballroom’s floor-to-ceiling windows, outside of which gently falling snow drifted down onto a craggy, snow-peaked mountain scape.

Be Our Guest Collage Again

Be Our Guest 2

As at Halloween, I enjoyed the Feast a La Gaston, your standard (but quite yummy) bacon, egg and roasted potatoes platter.  Also going with the same delicious order he had last time (Croque Madame Without the Ham, as we call it) was my husband, who…who just is.  Man, I don’t even know with this guy sometimes!  Also, this is absolutely not the last photo you will see of him shoving a plate of food directly into his face, usually to the total amusement of everyone around us.

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Then late on Christmas Day (10 pm!) we returned to Be Our Guest for an intimate, French-inspired meal hosted by the Beast himself.  Quite hospitable for a reclusive shut-in, really.

Be Our Guest Evening

Dinner at Be Our Guest is a bit of a different experience than breakfast, which falls under the quick service banner.  Dinner is a proper table service meal overseen by a fussily attentive waiter.  Everything feels quite lovely and luxurious, even if you’re sitting there in dorky mouse ears, half-comatose from having spent the past 15 hours running around a theme park, holding a rose-shaped napkin.

Be Our Guest Dinner

After dinner (herb butter-topped steak frites for me, a lovely little cheese plate and a salad for my far-more-responsible-than-I husband) we tried the Grey Stuff!  And it was…all right, I guess?!  Wait, I don’t think that’s the right answer.  I believe the dishes would say it’s delicious, but I thought this cookies and cream-flavoured flan was just sort of okay.  I am, of course, the completely wrong person to assess the merits of a dessert; not much of a sweet tooth, me.  Sorry, dishes. 😦

The Grey Stuff

Then after dessert the lord of the castle himself received us in his study!  My husband bowed and I curtsied.  Not the least bit ashamed to out ourselves as massive wieners here. 🙂

Dinner with the Beast

Dinner and Drinks at La Hacienda de San Angel

With a bit of an emphasis on the “drinks” part of that title. 😉  Not that dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel, housed in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, was not stupendous on its own merits.  I absolutely loved the taco sampler I ordered, particularly the crispy fish and barbacoa tacos, and Mr. Finger Candy is never not pleased with any place that considers a skillet of melted cheese and peppers to be an acceptable thing to eat as an entree.  Queso Fundido, it’s what’s for dinner!

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Oh, but the drinks…so despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m not much of a drinker.  I’ve never been great at holding my liquor (my intoxication trajectory, if you will, is pretty much a straight up and down line) and as I’ve gotten older, I find it’s a buzz I just don’t care to seek out that often.  But I do love the taste of alcohol (wood barreled things in particular) and when we dine out (which in our non-Disney life we do very, very infrequently) there’s nearly always a delicious-sounding cocktail that catches my eye.

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And so it went at La Hacienda de San Angel, where I ordered an absolutely fan-freakin-tastic Orange Mango Fire margarita to accompany my meal, only to find myself, some hours and two additional margaritas later, attempting to parkour off the bridge leading to “Old Montreal” in the Canada pavilion.  It did not go well!

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I blame the Orange Mango Fire margaritas, which were far, far, far too delicious and absolutely lethal.  Somehow not as bonkers as the Habanero Lime margarita I enjoyed from Boatwright’s the first night we were at our resort (I took a sip and slapped myself across the face) but quite close!  Disney cocktails don’t screw around, particularly the ones laced with ginger liqueur, Tabasco sauce and Tajin chili-lime seasoning.

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Seriously, this juicy, fruity, sweet-and-heat cocktail was so absorbing (more like being absorbed into my bloodstream) I barely noticed the gorgeous sunset taking place right outside the lagoon-facing windows.  Next time we visit we’re going to see if we can time our dinner reservations to Illuminations, Epcot’s evening fireworks show that takes place right over top of the lagoon.  Also not get so tispy that we fail to notice that day has turned to night.

San Angel Sunset

After dinner we salsa’d our way out of the restaurante and directly over to the Choza de Margarita, an outdoor margarita stand roughly 20 Latin dance-infused steps away from the San Angel.  There we grabbed another on-the-rocks marg, this time a Guava Pink Peppercorn margarita (I’ve really got a thing for the spicy and sweet, tequila-based cocktails, don’t I?) and set out on a leisurely stroll around the World Showcase (because you can do that now, just wander around Disney with open alcohol; my, how the times have changed in the era of Food and Wine.)

But all margaritas and then even more margaritas make Sandra something something, so we stopped for a wee sit-down and a giggle in front of the Epcot Christmas tree.  This is actually one of my favourite moments of our trip – squiffed at Disney, sitting on a bench with my husband in front of a 30-foot Christmas tree in a short sleeved tee on Boxing Day, giggling our butts off.  Okay, so he has abysmal table manners.  But we do have fun. 🙂

Drunk at Disney Collage

I think I’m going to leave things off right here for this first installment of Drunk Dining at Disney. 😉  Join me next time, won’t you please, as I talk about the amazing Christmas Eve dinner we enjoyed at the 50s Prime Time Cafe and more drinks, drinks, dranks at our favourite Florida hangout, Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’.  Until then, bon appetit!  Oh, and cheers!

A Very Disney Christmas: Tips, Tricks and Hacks

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My husband and I enjoyed a somewhat impromptu trip to Disney World this past Christmas, an act that has generally elicited one of two responses – fear-tinged awe or aghast horror.  WHY would we go to the busiest theme park resort in the world during the most expensive and popular season, and without kids, no less?!  What kind of freaks and/or masochists are we?  And yes, this has been the reaction of quite a few judgmental people – apparently the best time to go to Disney is never, but if you really must, at least make sure you’re not one of those childless losers lining up to take pictures with some capitalist plushie from the Star Trekking movies (very nearly an actual quote.)  Also, oops, clearly didn’t get that memo before we left!

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It should also be noted that Chewbacca, of the Star Warsing movies, thankyouverymuch, gives really excellent hugs.  He’s kind of like Olaf that way!

Warm Hugs from Olaf

So why did we go to the most popular and well-attended theme park in the world during the busiest and most expensive travel season of the year?  Well, for no grander reason than we simply wanted to, but delightfully enough, because we could.  We had the means and the time, so we went for it, with the full knowledge that it was going to be busier than we had ever seen it across a combined 14 visits.  It was going to be a challenge, an adventure – and 2017 was nothing if not the year we heeded the siren call of adventure. 🙂

And was it busy?  Yes, of course!  I estimate that over four parks and five days, we rubbed shoulders with close to 200,000 of our newest, bestest, most-standing-on-top-of-us friends.  Christmas Day the Magic Kingdom reached capacity for what was at that point just the second time in Disney history (it would do it again a week later on New Year’s Eve.)  That’s 65,000 people right there.

But the quality of a Disney vacation should not be determined by a metric of attendance numbers alone.  To be sure, the extra crush of humanity changed our Disney experience from every other trip we’ve ever enjoyed, in some predictably bad ways (shout-out to the disgraceful woman at the Indiana Jones show loudly grilling a cast member on what kind of disability she’d have to present with to be able to sit in the reserved-for-accessibility seating) but also in a number of unexpectedly delightful ones (the discovery of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a number of stupendous themed meals and about a dozen awesome character meet-and-greets.)

We were already quite cocky about our mad Disney cred (with my 11 lifetime visits, I practically qualify for a pension) but I think we were both slightly taken aback by how much we had to learn – on-the-fly – during the busiest of the busy seasons.  But by the end of our six days in theme park paradise, we had regained our swagger (helped along considerably by our total dominance of the World of Avatar) and have even begun bandying about the idea of another similar trip next Christmas.  “We’re all a little mad around here,” said either Norman Bates or the Mad Hatter. 🙂

So, how did we manage an amazingly fun Disney World vacation during the hap-happ-i-est sea-son of alllll?  Here are a few tips:

Be prepared, be prepared!  No, really, preparation is key.  The moment you’ve booked your vacation, download the My Disney Experience app.  It’s free, and with screens displaying the entirety of the Walt Disney World Resort (everything from wait times to PhotoPass spots) it’s an invaluable in-park resource.  Particularly if it helps you assess and avoid situations like this one, a 310-minute lineup at just 9:30 in the morning for Avatar’s Flight of Passage at the Animal Kingdom.

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Through the app you can also book dining reservations, place mobile food orders for pick-up, confirm the day’s park hours and showtimes, link your party’s tickets for faster processing, and, of course, book those vitally important FastPasses.  All just little pieces in the preparation puzzle.

Do your homework.  If you’re staying on-property at one of the Disney resorts like we did, this gives you access to Extra Magic Hours.  Extra Magic Hours are first-thing-in-the-morning or last-thing-at-night in-park hours given to guests of Disney’s resorts and hotels.  I know waking up at 5 am when you’re on vacation is a pretty crummy proposition, but taking advantage of these additional hours can often mean the difference between experiencing that attraction you were just dying to see or…not.  Working those 7 am Extra Magic Hours is how we rode Avatar’s Flight of Passage, THE newest and most popular ride at any of the Disney parks, in a little under 45 minutes with no FastPass.

So if you are staying on-property, call up the Disney Parks calendar and take note of each park’s scheduled Extra Magic Hours for the duration of your trip.  You may even wish to consult the calendar before booking your tickets, should the offer of Extra Magic Hours (or lack thereof; they’re not offered by every park every day) alter your schedule in some way.  The Disney Parks calendar also contains great information about what shows, parades and fireworks displays are running at each park and when.

Do even more homework for extra credit.  I can’t stress the importance of planning and organization when it comes to Disney vacations quite enough.  Book and confirm those dining reservations so you don’t spend precious hours of your day loitering around the restaurant waiting for a table to open up.  That’s how we enjoyed fantastic, stress-free meals at all our favourite Disney haunts, including the 50s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios, La Hacienda de San Angel at Epcot (Queso, you are indeed quite Fundido!) and Be Our Guest (twice) at the Magic Kingdom.

Dining Collage 1

Using the app, the Disney Parks calendar or a paper park map, double check the times of any shows or parades or fireworks displays you’d like to catch.  If there’s a can’t-miss on your list, set a notification on your phone to go off one hour before showtime and then get there early.  I regrettably lost track of a couple of stage shows at Hollywood Studios, only to discover that we had missed the final performance of the day by minutes.

Make up a list of the things you’d like to do on your Disney vacation on a park-by-park basis.  This needn’t be anything set in stone, as your plans WILL change.  But it’s always good to have a rough idea of what’s out there and the attractions you’d like to take in, particularly when you’re being bombarded with all sorts of other loud and shiny distractions.

Maximize your time.  The best way to do this is to work those FastPasses.  Disney hands out a limited number of these express tickets for nearly every attraction in every park every day.  Each guest is entitled to three, although you can book additional FastPasses on a one-by-one basis once you’ve used up your third of the day (pending availability; typically by the late afternoon, the only FastPasses left are for those attractions that don’t really require them in the first place.)

FastPasses are available to all guests, including those who wish to roll up to a ride-adjacent kiosk the day-of and book a time with an actual paper ticket.  But if you’re using the My Disney Experience app, you can book, cancel and modify your FastPasses at will right over your phone.

If you’ve pre-booked your park tickets, you can begin setting up your FastPasses 30 days in advance of your vacation, and if you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can begin choosing your FastPasses 60 days in advance of your vacation.  Once again, this is how we rode both hugely popular Avatar attractions in one day – an early start thanks to the Extra Magic Hours took care of Flight of Passage, while a well-chosen and early-booked FastPass knocked off Na’vi River Journey.  If you can, book those FastPasses early for best choice.

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To that end, a little “insider information” can help you optimize your FastPasses.  Many rides, even on the busiest of days, don’t require a FastPass (I’m not counting Christmas Day here; I would have gratefully accepted a FastPass for the Tiki Birds on Christmas Day when every wait time was an hour plus-plus.)  Don’t waste your precious FastPasses on rides that rarely need them (Journey of the Little Mermaid, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Pirates of the Caribbean at the Magic Kingdom all come to mind) or rides whose wait times only begin ticking up during the peak afternoon hours (the Haunted Mansion, Jungle River and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – again, Magic Kingdom attractions, all – also come to mind.)  Knock those rides off early when the wait times are naturally manageable, and save your FastPasses for the attractions that are permanently slammed, or that have long, boring and uninspired wait lines (continuing to use the Magic Kingdom as an example, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Peter Pan’s Flight and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train would all be excellent candidates for a FastPass.)

From a general time management perspective, try to make peace with the fact that in order to enjoy all that Disney has to offer, you’re going to have to temporarily suspend the comforts and rituals of home.  You may not be much of a morning person, or you might prefer to start every day with a leisurely, two-hour breakfast, but unless you’ve structured your vacation around those daily quirks of life, you’re just going to be wasting a lot of time you could be spending in the parks.  On Christmas Day in particular, dawdlers who rolled up to the Magic Kingdom at noon found the park at capacity and the gates temporarily closed.  So get there early, stay way late, and bank that sleep for the flight home.  Kind of like these two goobers sharing a midnight smooch of triumph in front of Cinderella Castle following a 17-hour day of theme parking Christmas Day.  Oh yeah, we hardcore!

Kissing Pictures are Tacky

Also, we’re not kissing in that photo so much as we’ve just passed out on each other’s faces. 😉

In terms of making your way comfortably around the parks, travel light.  Families, particularly those with very young children, have no choice but to lug what a friend calls “the debris of life” all over hell’s half acre (also known as the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Day at noon in the middle of a parade.)  But I’m side-eyeing the crap out of your lazy 12-year-old folded into a three-seater stroller, or the full size rolling suitcase you’re dragging behind you that contains Grayer, Kelpsey and Savani’s very important Goldfish crackers.  Or the vloggers who show up with $20,000 worth of camera accessories strapped to their iPhone.  Showing up to the parks with anything more than a light day bag is not just rude and inconsiderate (run that stroller into my shins one. more. time and it’s going straight into the Rivers of America) it’s also a primo way to spend an unnecessarily long time at bag check and security.  Pare your pack down to just the essentials – phone, wallet, sunscreen, lip balm, portable charger, painkillers – and leave the rest up to random chance.  Security will thank you by processing your nearly empty bag in about two seconds flat, leaving you free to zip into the park and straight onto a ride in the time it takes them to vet just two pockets of your neighbour’s Suitcase o’ Snacks.

Seriously, though, get your able-bodied teenager out of that stroller already, and stop yelling at the cast members because a ride can’t accommodate your Mini Cooper-sized EMV.

Finally, one last random tip for maximizing your in-park time: Employ a bit of theme park psychology.  For reasons I would need to be a student of the human mind to understand, when given a choice between travelling to the right of something or to the left (a lineup, for instance, that branches at one point) we nearly always take the right.  The right side of anything (the parks themselves, for instance) will always see the greatest concentration of people.  So if given the choice to go to the left or the right of something, choose the path less-traveled and head west.

Stop being such a friggin’ jerk, you jerk.  That’s just good life advice, but it holds especially true for mass gatherings of tens of thousands of people.  Attempt to be considerate.  Treat your fellow guests with just the tiniest bit of respect.  Wish the cast members happy holidays and a very merry Christmas.  Thank them for being away from their friends and family during the holidays so you can enjoy this special experience.  Stop yelling and can the threats – no, no one knows (or cares) who you are.  Stop line-jumping.  For that matter, stop ranting about the wait times – not my fault you’re an idiot noob (whoops, that wasn’t very polite or compassionate!)  Basically, if you can manage it, BE CANADIAN.  We might be grumpy dicks, but we are remarkably wonderful world travelers.

Wow, that felt kind of exhaustive, but I’m also all too aware that there’s so much more about the parks that I just don’t know.  Well, extra impetus to get back there lickety split and correct this deeply troubling gap in my Disney knowledge. 😉  If you’re contemplating a Disney vacation, I hope this information helps you out.  Happy travels at the Happiest – and sometimes busiest – Place on Earth!