Yeah, that’s a Disney thing. What isn’t these days? It’s a ride, actually, in Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion – the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Cabelleros, a classic dark boat ride featuring state of the art animatronics and a number of dicey cultural stereotypes. Also fiber optic fireworks on the ceiling. Very cool, although not as pretty as the fireworks in our headboards! Maybe I should have called them Headboard Nails. Although in retrospect, that might attract a very different kind of reader than the kind I’m typically used to…
For the Mardi Gras season, I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at one of Disney’s southern-themed resorts, the Port Orleans Riverside at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. My husband and I stayed at the Riverside twice last year, once during Halloween and again over the Christmas holidays, so we have a lot of information to share with you about this wonderful resort, and even more to show. So as they’d say in New Orleans, let’s roulez les bon temps!
The Riverside and its down-the-stream sister resort, the French Quarter, sit on 325 acres of Sassagoula riverfront property and have a combined total of just a little over 3,000 rooms. Moderate resorts both, the Riverside and the French Quarter both fall at about the mid-range of Disney hotel prices, which is to say the rates are reasonable, yet still bear very little relation to our Earth prices. It’s the great fallacy of Disney vacations that you do eventually come to regard their pricing (for everything, from rooms, to ticket prices, to food) as “reasonable.” You can absolutely find less expensive hotels both on Disney property and off, but if you consider your accommodations to be an important part of your vacation and not just the place you lay your head every evening, you suck it up and hope that the nervous breakdown you suffer once you open your post-holiday credit card statement is at least a funny one.
Staying on property at that slightly elevated rate does come with some rather nice benefits, however, such as access to Disney’s Magical Express, an airport-to-resort shuttle service that also collects your luggage from baggage claim and delivers it to your room, so you can get straight on to the serious business of hardcore theme parking. Resort guests also enjoy a wealth of other perks, from Extra Magic Hours (additional first-thing-in-the-morning or last-thing-at-night in-park time) and the ability to book hard-to-get FastPasses and dining reservations two months in advance. The reader-activated resort mugs, good for unlimited refills on soda, coffee and tea for the duration of your stay, are also pretty dope (semi-pro tip: REALLY rinse your mug out well when switching between coffee and lemonade!)
But those are sweet little bonuses (or bitter and bracing, depending on how well you rinsed out that mug) afforded to all guests of a Disney resort, be it value, moderate or deluxe. What sets the Riverside apart for us at least are the little details, at which Disney just naturally excels. The gentle, every-half-hour boat rides to and from Disney Springs, Disney’s shopping and entertainment district. The horse-drawn carriage rides at twilight along the banks of the Sassagoula. The poolside campfire marshmallow roasts. I particularly love the Riverside’s easy southern vibe – in the evenings the comforting sound of the horses’ clopping hooves mingles with the gentle jazz music drifting up from the boats going back and forth along the river, and it’s perfection. It is just a gorgeous, gorgeous resort, and the only place we want to call home when we’re in Florida.
Situated along the banks of the meandering Sassagoula River, the 2,000 or so rooms that make up the Port Orleans Riverside Resort are spread out among two sections, rustic Alligator Bayou along the northwestern edge of the property, home to the resort’s backwoods-style lodgings, and elegant Magnolia Bend down at the southeastern edge, with its stately, antebellum-style architecture. When we visited at Halloween we stayed in the Alligator Bayou. We even had a welcoming party of one very curious little raccoon hiding in the rangy scrub palms edging the walkway.
For our Christmas trip, we splurged a little and booked a Royal Guest Room, beautiful themed rooms featuring all sorts of magical Disney touches. This put us down in the Magnolia Bend part of the resort, and it was…well, it was gorgeous! And refined and elegant and quiet, although that’s just the Riverside as a whole. For such a large and popular resort, it is remarkably peaceful and serene; yet another huge plus in its favour.
I quite liked the laid back, rustic vibe of the Alligator Bayou (conveniently situated right down the path from the early morning fishin’ hole and Ol’ Man Island, the resort’s main pool) but I adored our stay in the Magnolia Bend. It was just such an unbelievably beautiful area, filled with all manner of lovely Disney touches, large and small. I’m also quite the sucker for Colonial-style architecture, and you can’t throw a sugar-dusted beignet down there without hitting a stately column, a wrought iron railing, or both (but really, you shouldn’t be throwing your beignets at all; just take the boat over to the French Quarter and enjoy a lovely plate of them there, or maybe even a beignet-based ice cream sundae.) 🙂
So many grand lawns! The Riverside’s Movies Under the Stars screenings are held on the front lawn of this beautiful building. The Princess and the Frog, the resort’s official/unofficial movie, is a particular favourite.
And there’s also about a dozen fantastic spots in which to get your selfie on, because I have completely turned into that person. Also vlogging, because that’s now kind of a thing, but more on that in a second.
Delightfully enough, reality lived up to our expectations, and our stay in one of the Royal Guest Rooms proved to be an amazing one. It was such a cool (and very, very pretty) room, and filled to the rafters with cute Disney extras. And I do mean that literally – up at the ceiling the decorative border, designed to look like ornately carved wooden molding, featured a tableau of classic Disney characters, from the Fairy Godmothers and Cinderella’s mice, to Sebastian the crab and Chip from Beauty and the Beast. Pretty random lot, come to think of it! Although I suppose the same could be said of all of the little Disney touches, from the Genie’s golden lamp fixtures, to the wall of princess mugshots, to the shower curtain bearing a print of Ariel’s dinglehoppers. What do all those things have in common? Who the heck knows! But it sure was fun trying to sidestep Carpet every morning so I didn’t accidentally trod on his face.
And I’ve already made all of the dirty, totally non-Disney sanctioned sex jokes about this I possibly can, but the headboards on our room’s two queen beds featured fiber optic fireworks. Every morning as I puttered about getting ready, my husband would lay in bed in the dark and stare up at his headboard as it exploded into festive, twinkling light. 🙂
For a closer, more exhaustive (exhausting?) look at our Royal Guest Room, please do check out this quick room tour video I put together. This video also represents my first hesitant efforts at filming, looking like a boner in public vlogging and video editing, so please be kind!
The Riverside is also home to six pools, including the massive (and massively themed) aqua play area known as Ol’ Man Island. On the evening we wandered over to one of the Magnolia Bend pools, I was the only hardy fool brave and/or Canadian enough to venture into the water. Not that I minded having the entire gigantic pool to myself, mind you – gave me an opportunity to chuckle at the wussies scurrying by, bundled in thick hoodies to ward off the “frigid” 75 degree temps. Suck it up, buttercups! And come on in – it’s warm once you just get in!
Outside of the areas of accommodation and recreation, the Riverside also excels at its dining and entertainment options. There are four places to enjoy both at the Riverside, including Boatwright’s, a popular table service restaurant specializing in Cajun delicacies (I had crawfish etouffee and it was wicked yummy) and habanero margaritas so intense, you’ll take one sip and belt yourself across the face (no, just me?) There’s also the Riverside Mill, the resort’s counter service food court, an airy and raftered space housed in the Sassagoula sawmill. Here you’ll find the usuals (burgers, chicken fingers, Mickey waffles) and some slightly more unusual picks (fried green tomato sandwiches, shrimp po’boys, jambalaya.) The refill stations for those resort mugs are also in the Riverside Mill, so it tends to be a pretty busy spot. Then right down the hall from the Mill there’s the River Roost, a cozy lounge that features the same menu as Boatwright’s, including those dangerously delicious margaritas. Three nights a week the River Roost also plays host to Disney comedy fixture Yehaa Bob and his all-singing, all-guffawing piano revue. We’ve yet to take in Yehaa Bob’s show, but it looks like an absolute hoot. When we stumbled by the Roost a couple of nights before Christmas, Bob had the joint rockin’ and the entire lounge in hysterics. Looking forward to catching this one another time when we’re not bagged-out exhausted.
The grounds (325 acres of them, don’t forget; I’m sure the groundskeepers can’t!) are also so, so beautifully maintained. Whether it’s the neatly manicured lawns of Magnolia Bend, with its tidy planters of colourful blooms, or the Alligator Bayou, with its scrubby palms and elegantly swaying willows, the landscaping is outstanding. And Mr. Finger Candy likes to make fun of me for this, but I adore the name “Sassagoula.” It just sounds so funny – I like to really enunciate it, draw it out. So it fits that I love to toodle down the Sassagoula River on one of the resort’s boats, departing from the conveniently located pier just outside the lobby every half an hour for all spots Disney Springs. This has actually become one of my favourite things to do on vacation, especially if it ends with dinner at Homecomin’ on the other end!
And not for nothing, but the inside ain’t bad either. The lobby is a stunning place, its architecture and interior design invoking the look of an elegant steamboat. And while we’re here in the lobby, I’ll note that we’ve always received outstanding service at the Riverside, from the check-in staff and cleaning crew, to the bell services dudes and the restaurant staff. Everybody’s always been super nice and friendly, but that’s kind of just what Disney does. Anything less would seriously be considered an abject failure, and probably a personal affront to the very memory of Walter Elias Disney. Disney employees seem to hold themselves to some pretty high standards, which as a guest, I genuinely appreciate. Pretty decent lot, those cast members.
And when we went down at Christmas, those same cast members outdid themselves with the holiday decorating and the general festive atmosphere. The halls (and the walls, and the rafters, and the flower beds) were decked alright, and with beautiful wreaths and a gigantic tree, in addition to those ever-present boughs of holly. Fa la la la la la la la la!
Really, though, I was unbelievably homesick on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve has always been my little family’s “thing,” and even though I was having an absolute blast (at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, my favourite park!) I missed my mom and dad. Yes, I’m that 40-year-old who missed her parents on Christmas Eve. To that I’d say there are far worse things than being a sentimental schmuck. But coming back to the resort after a long day at the park to find all these beautiful decorations, including this weirdo doing the Thriller dance in front of some of them, put a smile on my face. I thought the gingerbread displays, submitted by the various departments at the Riverside, were totally awesome, too. The bell jar Nightmare Before Christmas display was a particular standout. Well done, Team Riverside!
So there we have it, friends, 2000 words on a hotel stay. I swear I could spin the opening of an envelope into an epic tale. Anyhow, if you’re still with me, thank you for joining me on this look inside a wonderful Disney resort, and my great experiences therein. I hope you get the chance to stay at the Riverside, too, someday and make some great memories of your own.