Bust Out Your Jazz Hands at Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter Resort

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During our last Disney trip (the one we took three weeks ago and which I very much wish I was enjoying right this moment instead of hiding out in my home from another weekend of Eastern Ontario Nightmare Snow) we stayed at the Port Orleans French Quarter, a resort I’ve wanted to stay at since it opened nearly 30 years ago.  A sister property to the exquisite Port Orleans Riverside, which is just on down the river bend, and at which we have stayed twice, the French Quarter shares its sibling’s incredible attention to detail in its (deeply sanitized) presentation of Louisiana, here with architecture, food, entertainment and an overall design aesthetic modeled after The Big Easy herself.

I lamented in an earlier post the unfortunate experience we had at Pop Century during our last trip.  In short, it was a gong show of noisiness, uncleanliness and general mismanagement.  We wound up cutting our stay short by four days and moving over to Coronado Springs to see out the remainder of our vacation.

No such drastic measure was required this time, because our stay at French Quarter was perfection, everything I had hoped it would be when I first spied its colourful wrought iron balconies in travel brochures many, many years ago and thought, “I want to stay THERE.”

Like both Coronado Springs and the Riverside, the French Quarter is a moderate level resort, meaning it sits at about the mid-way point in terms of room rates and offered amenities.  Being on the smaller size (1,000 rooms to both Coronado and Riverside’s 2,000) it doesn’t have its own table service restaurant, although its food court, the charmingly-named Sassagoula Float Works, named after the meandering little river that runs along the back side of the resort, is outstanding – efficient, nicely laid-out and featuring some of the best Cajun grub you’ll find outside of N’Awlins itself.  I continue to have nostalgic thoughts about the sweet-and-spicy fried chicken on a biscuit I had twice, wondering if maybe I should have replaced one of those biscuits with a steaming bowl of shrimp and grits.  Or maybe just had both.  Ahh, now we’re talkin’!  Followed up by pillowy, powdered sugar-dusted, Mickey-shaped beignets, because the French Quarter is the only place in the whole of the Walt Disney World Resort that has them.

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Every resort that we have stayed at (four now, three moderates and a value) seems to have prioritized one element of its service above all others.  At French Quarter, this was everything surrounding food and beverage service, from the actual food and beverage (oh, that chicken!) to the service itself, which was always prompt and friendly.  Zero complaints about the lack of a “proper” restaurant; if anything, I liked the food I had at Sassagoula Float Works better than the meal we had at the Riverside’s similarly menu’d restaurant, Boatwright’s.

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But there’s so much more to the French Quarter than its fluffy beignets, and thankfully, their exemplary approach to food extended to nearly all other areas of service, including maintenance and cleaning, groundskeeping and landscaping, check-in (fuss-free and speedy, a Disney resort first for us) and both boat and bus transportation.  The French Quarter just really seemed to have its act together on all fronts, and I liked it.  THIS is the Disney vacation experience I always hope we’ll enjoy – a virtually seamless one.

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Not to say there aren’t a few nit-picky little things I’d change about the French Quarter.  While I loved the free-form, Mardi Gras-themed pool featuring a giant sea serpent water slide (loved zipping down his tongue into the pool even more!) I found myself wishing for a second, smaller pool, a quieter spot for more lap-oriented swimmers to work off the last of the day’s amusement park energy.  Even with its smallish footprint, it’s odd that the French Quarter only has one pool; the Riverside has six!

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And while I really liked our recently refurbished and redecorated room (it felt solid and well-insulated, like our own little bubble amidst the low key hustle and bustle of the rest of the resort) I didn’t care for the lighting, which was all of the sallow, overhead variety.  I HATE OVERHEAD LIGHTING!!!  Always have.  I’m a real low lighting, desk lamp kind of person.  Even the shaded sconces above our beds cast an odd light (nasty little LED lightbulbs at work, I’m sure; I hate those things, too!)

But in all areas where it actually counted – and a lot where it didn’t – the French Quarter knocked it out of the park.  The architecture is gorgeous, a picture perfect recreation of the cleanest and most charming bits of New Orleans – wooden slat shutters, grand balconies, brick pillars and wrought iron everything.  The entire resort is laid out like a small city, with painted wrought iron balconies framing brick-edged streets dotted with hitching posts and streetlamps.  As you near the lobby, jazz music drifts through the air, beckoning you inside, where you can relax in the plush, chandelier’d lobby, or perhaps over by the soothingly trickling fountain, or maybe even inside Scat Cats’ lounge, something like a Sloe Gin Fizz in hand.  The pool was beautiful and overseen by some of the most attentive lifeguards I’ve ever seen.  The cast members we dealt with were friendly and helpful.  The buses ran frequently and on time.  The food was delicious.  Our room was quiet.  Again, excepting the One True Pool issue and my own hangups about overhead lighting, zero complaints!

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One morning a couple of days out from our flights home, I couldn’t sleep (side effect of being terrified of flying) so I slipped out of our room and took myself on a solo, 5 am walking tour of the resort, which I filmed!  Because of course it’s the new normal to be walking around at 5 in the morning talking to yourself through a small camera.  Weird world, man.  But I do hope you’ll check out this video, if not to see this lovely little resort for yourself in the (mostly) still and quiet of a balmy Florida morn, then to lend legitimacy to my whole, “See, I really was talking to someone and not just myself!” argument.  Thank you. 😉

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Tyler Two Pilots! Or How We Spent our Halloween Anniversary

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Hey!  Lest some of you mistakenly think that a poor resort stay at Pop Century was enough to completely undo our precious Disney vacation goodwill, allow me to reassure you that no, it did not.  We are remarkably resilient Disney travelers, and when the overall cruddy vibe at Pop Century began impacting our moods – seriously, who wants to be a grumper puss on holiday? – we got the heck out of there and got on with our trip.  No surprise here, but Disney vacations are expensive, time-consuming and require a ridiculous amount of what I call managerial oversight.  I realize how awful that sounds to those of you who prefer to vacation in “set it and forget it” mode, but once again, allow me to assure you we like these kind of vacations; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone to Disney World four times in one year.  We always have a great time; we’ve just never had to work quite so hard at ensuring that great time.  But things got markedly better – and absolutely calmer – once we moved over to our new resort, in part because Coronado Springs is a really wonderful place to stay, and also because we just refused to allow the crummy time we were having at Pop Century to negatively impact our entire trip.  Ain’t no one got time for that on holiday!

Besides, by the time we decided to leave our resort, we had already been having a ton of goofy, good times fun, and we weren’t inclined to step off the party bus anytime soon.  And some of the most fun we had across our entire 11-day vacation was during an actual party, our second run at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party on October 31st, which also happened to be our 14th wedding anniversary!

We attended Mickey’s Not So Scary in late August during our Labour Day trip, and it was an experience.  Bowled over by the oppressive heat and bonkers humidity, we didn’t attend in costume, and just sort of stumbled around from meet-and-greet to parade to fireworks to midnight stage show in a sucrose-enabled haze.  The whole thing is a blur of too much sugar and too much damp and not enough sleep.  We vowed to do better during our Halloween to Christmas trip.

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And so to celebrate 5110 days of wedded bliss and our second Mickey’s Not So Scary, we decided to don our first ever couples costumes, and spent the day – and the long party evening – bombing around the Magic Kingdom as two different video versions of Tyler Joseph, the lead singer of twenty one pilots.  Why two Tylers and no Josh Dun, the drummer?  With all adoration for Josh, neither one of us is confident enough to show that much sideboob – the man loves his low-cut tanks, if he’s wearing a shirt at all (never change, bro.) 😉

Mr. Finger Candy, resplendent in Tyler’s Stressed Out ensemble (complete with meggings and a whole lot of black gunk about his neck and hands) was being a terrifically good sport, but he was also convinced that absolutely no one would know who we were.  “Husband of little faith!” I mock-admonished him, in the act of smearing my own hands and neck with black stage makeup for my Lane Boy getup.  “Okay, so not everyone’s going to know who we are.  But the RIGHT people are going to know!”

Twenty One Backpack Collage

Turns out we were both a whole lot right and a whole lot wrong.  Virtually every cast member working the evening party knew exactly who we were, prompting much on-the-spot fanboy and fangirling over TOP’s new album, Trench.  In a park full of incredibly costume’d guests (wowza, some people turn it out) we had people running up to us to tell us how much they loved our outfits, and you could hear people all over gleefully shouting out, “Omigod, twenty one pilots!”  It was completely awesome.  I also think Tigger may have been a TOP fan – he kept enthusiastically gesturing to his neck and giving me delighted, double barreled thumbs up.

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Of course, there were also the people who had no clue who we were (“Are they video game characters?” was a common refrain, followed by a dismissive, “Oh, they’re that band”) and I still chuckle when I think of the little girl I overheard in the bathroom stage-whispering to her mortified mom, “Mommy, mommy, did you see the dirty girl with the black stuff all over her neck?”  Heh.

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Anyhow, that’s the story of how much I love twenty one pilots, and how much my husband loves me, and I him – I wouldn’t ask just any man to don meggings and a toque in 90 degree weather for me. 😉  And it’s not every man who would wear them for his wife either (though if we’re being totally honest here, he can go ahead and dress like that every day of the rest of our lives, because he looked hot as hell!  Nearly got us bounced out of the park after I tried to drag him behind the little Dutch kids on It’s a Small World to snog.  Joke, joke – although that is the number one way of getting kicked out of the parks.  Turns out Mickey’s not so down with the guests trying to bang behind the animatronics.) 😉  We had a blast, and it was a great party, Halloween, anniversary and day.  Can’t ask for much more than that.

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Pop Goes the Resort Stay

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Many months ago when we were planning our just-completed Disney anniversary vacation, we decided that because of the length of the trip (11 nights!) we ought to try to maximize our resort dollars with a first-time stay at a value resort instead of our usual moderate.  Out of the five value resorts on property, Pop Century was regarded as the very best, with a fun vibe to match its kitschy-tacky-cute aesthetic.

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So we booked our vacation, and as our long-awaited trip finally approached, we both became quite excited about our stay at Pop – the rooms had all recently undergone a much-needed refurbishment, and if they looked a bit sterile, well, they also looked bright and fresh and welcoming.  We had also heard great things about the kitchen in the food court at Pop Century – supposedly it was ultra accommodating of vegans and vegetarians like my husband, with special substitutions on offer of popular Disney favourites like over-the-top burgers and Mickey waffles.  And we had heard that it was just a fun place to stay, with a nice mix of small families and couples like us having a great time at the happiest place on earth.

I think you know where this story is going.  And I should have known where this story was going, but I had hope.

Misplaced hope, as it turns out, because we had a most unsatisfactory experience at Pop Century.  The kind of unsatisfactory that finds you begging for a room change at 5:00 in the morning.  The kind of unsatisfactory that maroons you at a packed bus stop in the pouring rain for 50 minutes with 200 other furious, soaking wet guests.  The kind of unsatisfactory that finds you just not eating dinner one night because, after waiting in a half hour lineup at the food court, they misplaced your meal.  The kind of unsatisfactory where there’s long, blonde hairs in the shower, even though one of you is a brunette and the other has no hair at all!  And ultimately the kind of unsatisfactory that leads to you booking a room at another resort at 1:00 in the morning after you’ve grown utterly exhausted with all of the above.

Oh man, what a gong show.  Where to start?  With the gargantuan Roger Rabbit figure stationed outside our building?  In hindsight, this was an omen – I hate Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with the fire of 1,000 burning suns.  I hate it about as much as I hate The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which I also heard twice whilst waiting in line for the bus.  Omens on top of omens!

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The rooms themselves were nicely, but inexpensively, appointed.  Can’t say I blame Disney for going low on the quality of the furnishings given that people seem to have used these rooms as their personal playpens – there was not a surface in either of our rooms that wasn’t peppered with nicks, dings and scratches.  And I think the damage may be inevitable given the tiny size of these cramped units – you’re never not on top of yourself, and that’s just with two people in the room.

Pop Century

Transportation to the parks, via Disney’s internal bus system, was usually pretty great, with buses departing from the front doors of Pop Century every 20 minutes.  But travelling between parks and resorts or leaving the parks at night was a nightmare of queuing and standing and grumbling that I came to actively dread.  Most evenings we’d wait for 45 minutes to an hour for a bus back to the resort with 200 other angry guests, miffed that the THIRD bus to Wilderness Lodge had just passed us by while the second Pop Century bus in a row had been scooped by a disabled guest and their 20 accompanying family members.  One night it rained, the kind of weather event that’s more mini hurricane than rainstorm; I’ve never experienced anything so furiously intense.  Umbrellas and rain gear did nothing – we were both soaked straight through to the bone (our bones eventually dried off; our shoes and underwear…not so much!)  With the usual hundreds of guests in line, now cold, sodden and utterly exhausted, it would have been a great time for Pop to allocate a few more buses to usher us all home.  Instead we waited, and then caught sass from our bus driver for not packing ourselves in tightly enough for the stand ‘n’ drip back to the resort.  More than once or twice or five times I overheard fellow guests griping about the lack of timely bus service, questioning what exactly they were getting from their stay at Pop, with one deeply aggravated gentleman saying that were it not for the non-refundable tickets he had bought for an event at the end of the week, he’d pull the plug on his entire Disney vacation, full stop.

Pop Bus

The food court, far from being the accommodating foodie mecca I had envisioned, was an exercise in chaos studies so extreme, Dr. Ian Malcolm would have thrown up his hands and stalked out in frustration (little non-Disney, Jurassic Park humour for you there.)  Forget personalized vegetarian substitutions – the one and only time my husband ordered a vegetarian burger, it still magically showed up layered with drippy back bacon.  One evening I waited in line for 35 minutes for a basic meal of chicken nuggets and waffle fries, only to arrive at the front of the line just in time to be completely and utterly ignored.  I am apparently invisible.  Well, after that, I certainly made us disappear – disappear right off property and straight over to Coronado Springs.  But more on that necessary resort change in a moment.

Coronado Collage

Cleanliness was an issue.  Our first room was cleaned once in five days.  Disney does this thing where they offer you $10 a day if you forego “Mousekeeping.”  We’ve done this before on shorter trips, but this time we weren’t even presented with the offer.  Which we absolutely would have taken had we known that our room wasn’t ever going to get cleaned in the first place.  There were also long, blonde hairs in the shower that clearly didn’t belong to either Mr. Finger Candy or I.

There seemed to be absolutely no soundproofing between the units, particularly those with an adjoining door, like our first room.  One morning we were woken at 2:30 am by the 24-hour party people next door stumbling back to their room after what was presumably a long evening at Disney Springs.  I actually don’t think they were being particularly loud, but normal speaking voices – in addition to every creak, thud and toilet flush – registered as though they were happening right in our unit with us.  Another morning we were woken at 4:45 am by the screaming of a baby the next room over; it continued for the next three hours, while we took time out of our holiday to negotiate a room change.

To their credit, Pop Century quickly accommodated our request for a room without an adjoining door.  Of course, luggage services failed to move our luggage to our new room, necessitating a long walk back to the lobby for my husband in the middle of the night to fetch our possessions, but at least we could now enjoy a bit of peace and quiet, right?  Well, sure, so long as you could ignore the thuds coming from all around you as people lowered their already-creaky Murphy beds, threw the bolts on their doors, flushed their toilets.  In the very still of the night, if you weren’t fortunate enough to have jet engine-rated ear plugs screwed into your noggin, you could hear every ding of the elevator and every snick of the bathroom pocket doors sliding shut.  And speaking of the bathroom, you could also hear your neighbours tending to their nature needs, clear as a bell.

On the subject of the neighbours, I encountered precious few of the small families or fun-lovin’ Disney couples I had anticipated.  Instead Pop was inundated with gigantic school groups, frazzled runners in attendance for the Run Disney marathon, and large, nasty families who could seemingly only communicate in lobbed insults (in fairness, I’d be twitchy, too, if I had two adults and three kids in one of those tiny little rooms.  Oh no, wait, I DID have that one morning, thanks to the shoddy construction materials in use at this resort.)  Far from the goofy, easy-going vibe I had been expecting, the entire resort seemed steeped in a frantic, stressed-out mania that made every interaction feel like a competition for precious few resources.

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Perhaps most galling of all was that this harried, Lord of the Flies-esque vibe extended to the cast members at Pop Century, particularly those in the perpetually-slammed food court, who always let you know, if you needed assistance or, you know, food, that they had other, better things to do.  At 1 am the morning we finally decided to jump ship, my request to general Disney Services that we be moved to a new resort was punted down to Pop Century’s front desk.  I’ve no idea why the resort from which we were trying to flee would help us find new accommodations, and indeed, they couldn’t; supposedly there were no more rooms at the Disney inn.  But less than a minute later, after a quick online search, I had secured a room at Coronado Springs for the final four days of our trip.  Care to offer me a job, Pop Century?  Because supposedly I can work bookings MAGIC over here (actually, no, I do not want to work at Pop Century; I’m not very good at providing front line cover for back-of-the-house incompetence.)

Pop Lobby

Following the no-dinner debacle, I groused all the way back to our room – oh, how I wished we could move resorts!  “So why don’t we?” asked my imminently wise husband, reminding me in a flash that we were adults with the desire and – probably most importantly – the means to improve our vacation experience.  Was being forced out of our resort and into a more expensive upgrade how we wanted to spend our hard-earned money?  Of course not.  But any savings that we were realizing as a result of the value-priced room rate were completely undone by Pop’s many and varied negatives.  Ultimately, the situation at Pop Century had grown completely unlivable; the resort’s chaotic vibe was beginning to catch, if my griping and general dissatisfaction were any indication, and I didn’t want those bad feelings to infect the rest of our trip.  So we moved on, and enjoyed four great, Roger Rabbit-free days at Coronado Springs.  The only time I looked back was from the shelter of the half-filled bus to Coronado as I peeked at the 200-strong lineup of poor saps queuing up for another sleepless, dinnerless night at Pop Century and thought, “Thank goodness that’s not us.”

Life on Pandora: Exploring Disney’s World of Avatar

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Kaltxi!  And welcome to what I’m sure you are hoping is going to be one of the final posts you have to endure on the subject of my Christmas trip to Disney World.  Except I still have so much to say!  Particularly on the subject of a very special (and very, very busy) place we visited at the Animal Kingdom on the final day of our holiday, Pandora – The World of Avatar (I’m sold already; gotta love a title that contains a hyphenate.)

The World of Avatar opened in June 2017, and just seven months on, it remains THE hottest ticket in the entire Walt Disney World Resort.  And I do mean that literally – FastPasses were not to be had for Flight of Passage, the most popular ride in any of the Disney parks, although I did manage to nab early evening FPs for Na’vi River Journey, a stunningly gorgeous dark boat ride, and my pick for the better of the two attractions anyways (hard not to go with the one that didn’t make me want to hurl all over the back of a banshee, but more on that in a second.)

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Right, so before I get to the breathtakingly beautiful landscape and design work (Disney calls this “Imagineering”) let’s get to what I know you’re really here for, TIPS AND TRICKS ON HOW TO TACKLE PANDORA – THE WORLD OF AVATAR WITHOUT LOSING THREE-QUARTERS OF YOUR DAY AND/OR YOUR SANITY.

First, stay on property at a Disney resort.  This gives you the ability to book FastPasses 60 days out from your vacation.  You may be able to get a FP for Flight of Passage this way.  I was not able to get any, but I was on the hunt “just” 30 days out.  You should be able to get a FP for Na’vi River Journey with little to no trouble 60 or 30 or even 10 days out.

Staying at a Disney resort also gives you access to Extra Magic Hours, extra in-park time extended to guests of Disney resorts either first thing in the morning or last thing at night.  Find out which day the Animal Kingdom is offering their Extra Magic Hours (owing to what I’m assuming are the actual animals’ nocturnal schedules, they tend to offer them first thing in the morning) and get there early with a mind to hitting Pandora.

No, really, get there EARLY.  Earlier than you think reasonable.  If you’re taking Disney transportation, you’ll find yourself sitting at a dark and foggy bus stop at 6 in the morning with 100 other stressed out people (and that’s just your resort!) also all fretting  about how quickly they can sprint through the Animal Kingdom and directly onto Flight of Passage.

I actually really wish that my fellow guests would not do this.  Moods at Disney are highly contagious, and listening to some teenager joke-mock his walker-enabled grandmother about the hustle she’s going to have to put on the second they step off the bus is dispiriting.  Listening in on other people’s neuroses leaves me feeling highly anxious and unnecessarily fretful.

So it turns out my very best tip is actually to calm the eff down.  Please.  With our ultra early start to the day, we were on and off Flight of Passage in a little under 45 minutes.  And our evening FP for Na’vi River Journey freed us up to then explore the rest of Pandora, and indeed the entirety of the Animal Kingdom.  So no need to go all wackadoo.

Having said all that, I am so freaking glad we got that jump start to the day, because by the time we exited the ride 45 minutes later, the wait time had climbed to three hours.  An hour later the estimated wait time had vaulted to five incomprehensible hours and the lineup stretched all the way to the front gates.  When we took this picture, roaring in front of the Tree of Life, we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves for having conquered at dawn what everybody else was now going to spend the entire day slogging to complete.  Mean?  Maybe!  But the early bird rides Flight of Passage with only a 25-minute lineup. 🙂

Morning Animal Kingdom

Less roar-worthy is the fact that Flight of Passage KICKED MY ASS.  It’s a motion simulator, and a deeply immersive one at that – the screen wraps from top to bottom and then side to side.  The story is that you’re riding on the back of a flying banshee through the alien landscapes of Pandora.  Sounds incredible, and I can confirm that the minute or so of ride I actually experienced was next level amazing.  But oh sweet Jebus, the plummeting dips and drops and that nauseating thrusting motion of takeoff and the gigantic, sloshing wall of water…oof, I may need to stop talking about this, right now. 😦

So yes, I closed my eyes through roughly 60 percent of an attraction that I waited half an hour to ride and that some people waited up to five hours to ride.  But I felt myself begin to break out into a cold sweat, my number one tell, and decided to instantly bow to the warning signs I was too daft to heed on Star Tours.  You’re welcome.

I actually have precious little footage from the exterior or interior of either ride; we really hustled through both lineups, and there was no time to stop and smell the alien roses.  But Na’vi River Journey was definitely the more palatable of the two rides for me, a return to those classic, ultra detailed dark rides that have always set my Disney-loving heart aflutter.  Plus, Na’vi River Journey just looks like the best rave you’ve never been to.  Kind of sounds like it, too.  Gosh, I wish I had pictures of this one – it is a boat ride through a black lit, neon alien jungle, and that’s just as pretty as you might imagine.

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We quite shamefully made incredibly poor use of Pandora’s other amenities.  We didn’t go to Pongu Pongu for refreshing Night Blossom slushies and we also didn’t get to Satu’li Canteen for what is some of the only vegetarian food in the Animal Kingdom (for a place devoted to caring for all manner of wildlife, I find their reliance on BBQ to be quite odd.)  I blame Flight of Passage – my best laid Pandoran food plans went out the window the moment I emerged from the ride whiter than a ghost and (as always) cursing James Cameron’s name.

This is the part where I should probably mention that I hated Avatar, the movie.  Like, LOATHED it.  And I will never not be boggled by its inexplicable (clearly just to me!) popularity.  I remember when I first heard about the blue kitty person movie that James Cameron was making, I said to Mr. Finger Candy, “Mark my words, this thing is going to make, like, $17.38 total.”  And I was wrong.  So very, very wrong!  Wrong to the tune of about $2 billion, but hey, you can’t have $2 billion without $17.38, right?  Anyhow, my seeming ineptitude at making box office projections aside, I really, really hated Avatar and I’ve watched maybe just 35 minutes of the stupid blue kitty people total (side note: Do you know how hard you have to work to get me to hate a cat?  Even an 11-foot tall blue cat with a pervo tail?  HARD!)

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But I was neither too nauseous nor so much of a hater that I couldn’t appreciate the outstanding Imagineering at work in Pandora – The World of Avatar.  Holy cats (11-foot blue cats?) this place is incredible!  And no matter your area or areas of interest (horticulture, set dressing and design, food, music, computer tech, storytelling and world-building, architecture and engineering or simply the films themselves) there’s a little something for everyone to be dazzled by in Pandora.  I was particularly taken with the floating mountains, which I know are no such thing – I watched enough videos of them going up to know they’re engineered marvels of rebar and concrete designed to look like a craggy, levitating precipice.  But when you’re standing beneath a giant, floating chunk of earth, out of the top of which is growing a massive alien tree, its gnarled roots draping down over the edges and bursting through the underside of the rock, it’s hard not to be impressed.

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I kept thinking how much my grandfather, a lifelong gardener, would have loved the seamless blending of our real world flora with Pandora’s Imagineered alien blooms.

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Ah, yet another way to tell you’re getting on in years – when the behind-the-scenes, technical aspects of a theme park are more interesting to you than the actual attractions (see also the Seed Tour at Epcot’s The Land, where you take a mini class in Disney agriculture.)

Pandoran Pond

It’s really just the most stunningly gorgeous world, and so very beautifully executed.  I wish we had been able to stay into the evening when Pandora begins glowing under black lights, the “bioluminescent plants” throwing off alien neon light.  Even the splatter effect walkways (already super cool in the daylight) glow after dark!

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And the waterfalls!  Oh my gosh, so many waterfalls!  I feel like this entire post has been me excitedly pointing out yet another thing that blew my mind about Pandora, but that’s exactly what exploring the World of Avatar was like in the first place – what gorgeous, infinitely clever marvel will I find around this next corner?

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It seems the World of Avatar also brought out the Pepe Le Pew in Mr. Finger Candy, who laid a giant one on me as we stood in front of a lush Pandoran pond, prompting the cast member taking our photo to mock-admonish that “this is a family park!” and for a nearby group of Japanese tourists to spontaneously burst into delighted applause. 🙂 Apparently Pandora is for Lovers.

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So would I go back, even knowing what I know about my ability (or lack thereof) to handle Flight of Passage?  Yes, if only to cover myself with about two dozen anti-nausea patches to see if that makes a difference.  But also to check out some of the food and beverage offerings, and get a glimpse of Pandora after dark.  It’s also just a lovely and beautiful spot to chill out and people-watch for a bit; all those waterfalls make for a very relaxing place to wile away a bit of time.  Big recommendation on the World of Avatar; Disney, not too surprisingly, done good. 🙂

Let the Good Times Roll at Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside

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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!)

Ears and Resort Mug

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.

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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.

Resort Collage

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.

Resort 2

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.) 🙂

Water Will

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.

Resort Lawn

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.

Sittin Pretty

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.

Royal Room Collage

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. 🙂

Fireworks Beds

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!

Pool Time

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.

Resort Collage Lobby

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!

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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.

Resort Lobby

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!

Resort Tree

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!

Christmas Resort Collage

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.

Star Wars at Disney

Vacation Wars Collage

Straight off the bat, let’s establish my Star Wars fangirl bona fides – I have none!  I will freely admit to being a fairweather friend to the Star Wars franchise.  I loved The Force Awakens, haven’t actually seen The Last Jedi (although I look forward to that shirtless Kylo Ren scene I keep hearing so much about) and I watch A New Hope, Empire and Jedi every May the 4th purely because my husband loves them and I love him.  Otherwise…I mean, you guys have seen how Boba Fett goes out.  This is the galactic badass every guy I’ve ever known has rhapsodized about?  Holy cripes.

Okay, so I don’t worship at the temple of the Jedi (that’s probably an actual thing, right?)  But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Disney has done at Hollywood Studios in the lead-up to the 2019 opening of Galaxy’s Edge, which is nothing short of incredible.  I was legitimately dazzled by the ultra detailed world-building Disney has already carried out in the absence of, you know, an actual physical space in which to build their world (that bit of Disney magic is carefully concealed behind tall construction walls, a solid third of the park.)

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Whether it’s droll Stormtroopers walking about the park, offering deadpan observations about the Florida weather, or the hourly live stage show, featuring recreations of iconic scenes from the movies, or the awesome character meet-and-greets, or the displays of props and memorabilia, or the short preview films, or the completely nutso light, projection and fireworks show that closed out the evening, there’s so much to experience and so, so much to be excited about.  It’s going to be just bonkers when the fully immersive “Star Wars Land” opens in 2019.  Also bonkers busy.  Think about the lineups in Pandora and then multiply that by a factor of 25,000 rabid Star Wars fans.  Should be fun!  Also sounds like a challenge for these two amusement park masochists.  Consider the gauntlet thrown!  Also, try the blue milk, it’s…delicious?

Blue Milk Collage

So in the absence of any new, big ticket attractions like actual rides, precisely what adventures did we have at the edge of Galaxy’s Edge?  Well, we…

Star Tours Collage

…rode Star Tours, the OG Hollywood Studios attraction.  This hulking AT-AT, which is large enough to block out the sky, stands in front of the entrance to the ride, while the Ewok-constructed walkways of Endor provide in-line shade from the hot midday sun.  The detail here is just exceptional; if it’s any indication of what we can come to expect from Galaxy’s Edge, it’s going to be phenomenal.

Less phenomenal was discovering, mid-ride, just as I was admiring Poe Dameron’s handsome face in the newly-added scenes, that motion simulators (like the one I was on) no longer accord with my increasingly wussy constitution.  I’ve always been known for having a bit of a cast iron stomach.  I’ve been temporarily felled by food poisoning a time or two, true, but over the whole of my life, I have rarely experienced an issue with motion sickness.  And in this very specific instance, I have never experienced an issue with motion sickness over probably 10 lifetime rides.

That is regrettably no longer the case, because Star Tours turned me inside out.  As did another motion sim, Flight of Passage, one of the Avatar rides at the Animal Kingdom, some days later.  I closed my eyes through the majority of that one (what you can’t see can’t make you throw up), but I had yet to learn that lesson on Star Tours.  I immediately broke out into a prickly, ice cold sweat, and then spent the next four minutes desperately trying to stop myself from launching my cookies into hyperspace.  Mission somehow complete, I stumbled off the ride and immediately collapsed on a garbage can-adjacent bench, the back of my light grey t-shirt soaked with panic sweat.  It was a hell of an exit. 😦 On a less dismaying note, we also…

Chewie 2

…met Chewbacca!  Quite the gracious fella, and super giving with the hugs.  Look at how chill he is up there with his furry paws slung over our shoulders!  Next up, we were…

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…alternately creeped out and freaked out by this emo lurker.  Meeting Kylo Ren was – not too surprising, this – INTENSE.  He basically stalked around for a few minutes sizing us up before accusing us of being Resistance sympathizers.  Then he booted us off Star Killer Base!  Did he not take note of my husband’s Empire Red shirt or my Vader Kitty tee?  Probably just seething behind that mask, thinking about perceived slights.  And his hair.  Possibly his abs.  Super weird dude.

Kylo Ren 2

Here I am attempting not to giggle in the face of galactic greatness, and failing miserably.  Disrespecting a Supreme Leader of the First Order – think that one’s gonna cost me? 😉  Anyhow, once I was done with that little bit of treason, we went out and…

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…had a lightsaber battle!  It was actually quite cathartic.

Christmas Card

This was MORE cathartic!  Or at least it was for me. 😉  I’ve been not-at-all joking that this is going to be next year’s Christmas card.  I think it is my favourite photo of us ever.  Next up we…

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…met a Stormtrooper.  One of the sassy ones who like to gripe about the Florida humidity.  Mr. Finger Candy is bearing a look on his face, standing there beside one of his childhood obsessions (a toy literally freakin’ come to life!) that suggests that his brain just might have broke. 🙂 It was actually really super cute watching him geek out over a beloved movie franchise springing into glorious life right before his eyes.  Speaking of, we also…

Star Wars Stuff 1

…took in a lot of cool movie memorabilia, such as the Millennium Sparrow and a weird cage ‘o parts containing R2D2’s missing arm.  Haha, I’m just kidding – I’m not that much of a Star Wars doof.  I know it’s the Millennium Eagle and C3PG’s arm, duh! 😉

Star Wars Helmet Collage

There were also a number of prop and replica helmets, weapons, costumes and vehicles on display, such as Rey’s broken down hunk of junk (talking about her weird burlap hoodie here and not the hover vehicle.)

Star Wars Kylo Collage

Also the creepy lurker’s seriously ill-conceived, dual-ended lightsaber (that thing really does look like it was designed by a fourth grader) and a $2,500 bust of Kylo Ren’s grandpappy, to which he darkly promised he’d finish what he started.  We also took some time to…

BB8

…meet BB-8!  There was definitely a bit of a communication barrier between us and everybody’s favourite droid, but his cute chirps transcended the human-droid communication gap – apparently he was quite taken with my ears. 🙂  Towards the end of the evening we also found time to…

Star Wars merch

…indulge in a bit of Star Wars-related consumerism.  We picked up these matching hats, bearing what about a half dozen guys assured us is THE most romantic sentiment ever uttered in a movie, along with this cute Resistance Tech pin bearing my husband’s name in the language of Aurebesh.  Wearing matching anything may seem pretty dorky, but like the Jack and Sally hats we purchased at Halloween, these chapeaus really saved our easily freckled, tender pink skin from nastier burns than the ones we already received.  Also, wearing matching clothes is practically expected at Disney; these hats definitely fall on the lower end of the Matchy Kingdom scale (I saw a family of about 15 at Christmas all wearing custom printed fleece onesies.  It was sort of disturbing!)  We finally closed out the evening with…

Star Wars Projection

…front row, slightly right-of-centre seats for the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks and projection light show.  This show, featuring iconic scenes from the movies, was absolutely incredible, and I say that as someone not hugely enamored with the films.  Truth be told, I’ve always found them to be cold, and maybe even a little bit soulless.  But I was an emotional wreck during this show, puffing up with fury during General Hux’s righteously indignant call-to-arms, cheering as colourful lasers and gigantic fireballs set fire to the night, and welling up with tears as pretty pretty Luke gazed off tenderly into the sunset(s).  Such an emo family, those Skywalkers.  And with all of it set to John Williams’ iconic score, it’s an amazingly large and fulfilling experience for Star Wars fans and near-newbies alike.  A can’t miss if you’re at Disney World, period.  I’d come back to see this one in a heartbeat.

There were a number of other Star Wars-related things we took in over the course of the day, from the impressive March of the First Order, to the hourly midday show, and all of it punctuated by the “sounds of Star Wars” – marching Stormtroopers, Vader’s breathing, and so. many. freakin’. explosions!  There’s just stuff blowing up all the time, all over the park.

We had a simply stupendous time exploring all of the Star Wars offerings at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  There is so much to do right now, and that’s a full year before the rope even drops for Galaxy’s Edge.  Based on the amazing time we had at Christmas, it’s going to be an experience worth waiting for (and waiting in line for; the place is going to be overrun for, oh, about the first two years!)  But you know that we’ll be there – wouldn’t miss it for the world.  Or the galaxy. 😉

A Very Disney Christmas: Tips, Tricks and Hacks

Tree Collage 1

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!

Chewie 2

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!