On a Not-So Lazy Sunday Morning

I’ve been a very busy bee this morning – no day of rest for this little worker, who is already feeling anxious about tomorrow’s BIG START to our renovations.  I may have mentioned a time or 20 that I’m not the best at dealing with stress; I can turn myself into anxiety-ridden knots over things that should really be NBD (although I suppose completely gutting and renovating your bathroom – your only bathroom – and replacing all of your flooring qualifies as an actual big deal.)  So I’ve been up for many hours removing framed photos and other artwork from the walls, stashing boxes of our belongings on the balconies, and making two raspberry cream cheese pies for a celebratory, kick-off to the renos dinner we’re having this evening with my mother, who has been acting as our in-the-know general contractor (we have a contractor, actually, but my mom has a lot of experience in the area of construction and home renovations, and we couldn’t have arranged ANY of this without her invaluable assistance and oversight.)  So it’s been a bit of a busy day, and it only just turned noon!

I accidentally tore off three of my four “good hand” nails the other day pulling up the last of our flooring, so I’ve been looking for other blogging and vlogging ways to occupy my online creative energies.  Enter a couple of short videos I made for our YouTube channel, Park or Perish!, all about some of the delicious food we’ve enjoyed at Disney World over our last number of trips – just try not to fall ravenously hungry looking at all this yumminess.  Happy watching, and bon appetit!

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Literary Inspiration: The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World

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“Wait,” you may be saying to yourself, “you never shut up about Disney World, and I suspect from your last seven, long, incredibly detailed posts that you already know all of the out-in-the-open magic of Walt Disney World.  So what gives with the book?”  (As an aside, it’s amazing how much you sound like me when you’re calling me out!  You’re also a little rude, but I’m willing to overlook that.)

What gives with the book, The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness, is that in the lead-up to our last trip to Disney, I was looking for a fun trivia book that would point me in the direction of some heretofore undiscovered Disney delights.  Turns out I really do know, like, 90 percent of the magic of Disney World, and this spare little book didn’t illuminate too many things I was not already aware of (at the Magic Kingdom, a kid’s eye view of the Sleeping Beauty fountain in Fantasyland reveals a crown atop Aurora’s head; over in the Animal Kingdom, the red, yellow and white pipes that run along the ceiling in Dinosaur bear the chemical compositions for ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise in a nod to the ride’s original sponsor, McDonald’s; Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror bears an exterior Mediterranean aesthetic in order to blend in with Epcot’s Morocco pavilion next door, over which it – pun intended – towers.)

Things I should have noticed before I purchased the book?  That its information only went up to the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland expansion in 2012, which means it was missing details on both 2017’s Pandora – the World of Avatar expansion at the Animal Kingdom and the opening of 2018’s Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios.  So it was really telling me nothing I didn’t already know.  It did not take me very long to blip through this wee book.

The most complete, detailed information came in the section on the Animal Kingdom, the park I am probably the least familiar with.  And I suspect that its completeness is owing to Veness securing a direct interview with Joe Rohde, Disney Imagineering legend and lead designer of the Animal Kingdom.  Ultra engaged, ultra gregarious and ultra creative (you’ve seen him; he’s the very enthused, exceptionally earnest gentleman with giant, stretched out earlobes weighted down with intricate metal rings) Rohde strikes me as the kind of man who would grant a delightful interview to anyone, from a major news outlet, to an elementary school newspaper, to an author seeking information directly from the source.

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There is just a ton of detail here about the Animal Kingdom, in particular Dinoland USA, a day-one part of the park (an incongruous mix of the serious – paleontology – with the not-so-serious – a trashy side-of-the-highway amusement park) that has never quite felt like it fit with the rest of the park’s lush, natural aesthetic.  I love the crap out of the Dinosaur ride (it might be my third favourite ride behind the Haunted Mansion and the Tower of Terror) but I’ve just never understood the Dino-Rama midway part of Dinoland USA; why the too-bright, too-loud dino carnival in the midst of the Animal Kingdom’s otherwise peaceful oasis?

Dino-Rama Collage

Rohde, who oversaw the design and implementation of Dinoland USA, has always said there’s a method to his madness, and Dino-Rama isn’t just a weird jumble of carnival shys, body-punishing wild mouse coasters and hokey dinosaur puns (“This exstincts!” proclaims one sign bearing a dino staring up in dismay at a meteorite hurtling towards his head.)  But I’ve warmed to the place considerably since reading The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World, because it finally explained that madness, and turns out, it’s really not so weird after all.

The story behind Dinoland USA is that the Dino Institute, a scientific operation where you can take tours into the past (AKA ride the Dinosaur ride, in which you travel back to the Cretaceous period to nab a dino for a morally conflicted researcher, Dr. Grant Seeker, heh), has funded a paleontology expedition in the area and sent a number of students and professors there to carry out the painstaking work of digging up old dino bones (AKA The Boneyard, a massive, incredibly fun-looking playground area for kids.)  The grad students and their professors live in the various trailers and RVs dotted throughout the area, with a number of these 1960s-style trailers converted into makeshift dining halls bearing names like Trilo Bites, the Dino Diner, Dino-Bite Snacks and Restaurantosaurus (actual dining spots you can visit and grab a – sigh – dino bite.)

Animal Kingdom Dino Diner

So the story goes, married couple Chester and Hester, carny opportunists to the core, came to the area and immediately noted the financial possibilities inherent in a place with a totally captive audience of stressed out, entertainment-starved academics.  So they moved in right next door and, cribbing off the Dino Institute’s goodwill and legitimacy, opened up Dino-Rama, a ramshackle midway competitor for the students’ attention, time and money.  This is a dig at the many, many fly-by-night attractions that sprang up directly outside Disneyland’s gates when that park opened in 1955, a “how did we not see this coming?” move that irked Walt to no end and prompted him to essentially buy up nearly all of central Florida in a move to head off a repeat performance when he opened his World of Disney in 1971.

Dino Collage

The big draw in Dino-Rama, aside from numerous looming dinosaurs and Chip and Dale strutting about in their finest dino costumes, is Primeval Whirl, a densely knitted wild mouse coaster in which your cart wildly spins, sending you plummeting downhill somehow both sideways and backwards.  It’s an incredibly rough ride – really never fails to break our old arses – and you swing about so much, you never really get a chance to appreciate the silly cartoon dinosaur artwork and sad trombone jokes that pepper the attraction in a budget imitation of the legit Dinosaur ride next door at the Dino Institute.  Here, behold!  Now with additional Triceratops Spin action!

It’s all so very petty and passive aggressive, and I really kind of love it now that I know the backstory.  The whole of Dinoland USA is actually blanketed with little bits of trivia about the two disparate groups – letters and photos and other mementos dotted about as reminders of this odd, competitive pairing.  I think it’s all quite charming!  And information I’m glad to have learned – it really made my experience that much richer this last visit to have the scoop on the funny little inside jokes and local colour of Dinoland USA.  Which is why I chose its colourful sign – at least the Dino part! – as the subject matter of this manicure, inspired by Hidden Secrets of the Magic Kingdom, which I read in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the eighteenth prompt, “a guide.”

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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. 😉

Where the F*@! You Been?!: A Disney Vacation Explainer

Ah, friends, I am so sorry – I went and did the thing that annoys the ever-loving stuffing out of me when other bloggers do it, which is drop completely off the grid with nary an explanation for the prolonged absence.  And so I apologize, with the weak justification that I was at Disney, because of course I was at Disney!  Just trying to wring as much value as we possibly can from our annual passes (and at 20 in-park days, including a whole host of other little discounts, I think we’ve done quite well on our investment.)

Rainy Day Collage

We stayed at the Port Orleans Resort French Quarter, a quaint little resort styled like the very cutest and cleanest bits of New Orleans.  I’ve wanted to stay here since Disney built it and its much larger sister resort, the Riverside, nearly 30 years ago.  We somewhat recently soldiered on through a Disney accommodation debacle at Pop Century; the poor experience had actually soured me a bit on all Disney properties, so I was feeling a little nervous about what we might encounter at this smaller, older resort.

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I really needn’t have worried, because we wound up having a fantastic stay, and we loved every minute we were there.  The French Quarter’s older, meticulously maintained buildings and grounds – densely arranged, and occupying a fairly tiny geographical footprint – make the entire resort feel solid, protected and a little hidden.  I liked its sense of small city intimacy and the attendant quiet, both in terms of between-unit noise (virtually nil, but for the faint flushing of those insanely loud air toilets) and the general level of ambient hotel noise.  Plus it was just an adorable little cityscape to call our home for seven days, and the sea serpent water slide at the pool was bitchin’.  Also, powdered sugar-dusted beignets, fried chicken on a biscuit at the food court and swingin’ jazz gators in the streets.  Who wouldn’t love staying here when all that goodness abounds?

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We spent six days doing all of our favourite Disney things, and also trying out a number of fun new experiences.  We ate some incredible meals in-park, at our resort and, of course, at Disney Springs, which is basically a theme park of food, alcohol and merchandise.  We always try to hit up Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ for night one cocktails and southern vittles; our vacations never feel as though they’ve really started until we’ve cozied up out on the screened-in porch with a basket of hush puppies and a couple of moonshine cocktails.

Homecomin' Cocktail Collage

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We tried out a number of new eateries and lounges.  We ate – and mostly enjoyed? – a lot of weird snack food.  One afternoon we wiled away a couple of rainy hours in an honest to goodness tequila cave – La Cava del Tequila – in the Mexico Pavilion.  The queso and quacamole were excellent, as were the margaritas.  And yes, I do fully cop to a Disney margarita problemo – I’m powerless in the face of vacation cocktail hour; does your sanity good!

Tequila Cave Collage

Lest you think all we did was eat and drink (and that’s certainly what both our waistlines AND wallets are currently suggesting) we also rode a record best 21 rides one cold and rainy day.  We hit up the Haunted Mansion five times over two visits and improved our scores on Toy Story Midway Mania over four total rides.  We rode Slinky Dog Dash, the newest and hottest ride in any of the parks, twice, including a last-call ride that put us in the second last dog of the night.  I had a small stroke when I saw that my favourite part of the Peter Pan ride – it’s not even part of the ride, just a small teddy tea table tucked into a corner as your flying pirate ship heads out of the waiting area and into the Darlings’ bedroom – had been removed and replaced with a jumbled pile of toys.  I burst into tears at the sight of it.  I’ve been fascinated with that little table arrangement since I was a very small child; its absence was genuinely upsetting.

Rides Collage

We met a number of cool characters, including Edna Mode of The Incredibles and Mike and Sully of Monsters Inc.

Characters Collage

Our favourite meet-and-greet, though, was with Vanellope Von Schweetz and Ralph of Wreck-It-Ralph.  Vanellope was SO excited to check out my new Wreck-It-Ralph ears, and Ralph was just excited when my husband commented that he looked as though he had lost a few hundred pounds. 🙂

Ralph Collage

Hmm, let’s see, what else?  I got You’d by Darth Vader at Hollywood Studios (I was sitting by a window having a little break when I looked up, and Darth Vader was just staring in the window at me.  I threw him a nervous little wave, and he spun around and stalked off.  That entire family is so freakin’ WEIRD, man.)

One morning when I couldn’t sleep (I get frazzled about flying days out from my actual flight, making sleep in an unfamiliar place pretty much an impossibility) I got up and filmed a solo walking tour of our resort.  Look for that video on our YouTube channel sometime soon.

We watched some phenomenal stage shows (the Nemo show at the Animal Kingdom is incredible; live music, acting and puppeteering at a level that will make you question how you can be seeing something so beautifully produced and performed in a theme park) and incredible fireworks displays.  Much to Mr. Finger Candy’s delight, we played a solid 10 or more hours of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, completed two games and amassed over 20 free packs of cards.  That’s what you call dominating, kids!

Rainy Sorcerers Collage

So that’s where the f*@! I’ve been, once again with apologies for just up and disappearing on you.  I promise now that I’ve gotten that Disney out of my system for the time being, I’ll settle down and get back to the serious business of nail art, literary takes, bath, beauty and wax reviews, and of course planning for our next Disney vacation, perhaps once again at the French Quarter.  And hopefully by that point the teddy tea table will be back. 🙂

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.”

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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.

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

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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? 🙂

Pop Goes the Resort Stay

Pop Collage

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.

Potato Heads

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!

Roger Rabbit

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.”

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!

On general principle, I’m against the front-loading of any major holiday.  I stopped shopping at craft retailer Michael’s years ago after they began trotting out their Halloween merchandise in mid-July, so incensed was I (also because everything is wildly overpriced, and their staff, in my experience, are not the nicest of folks.)

But when Mr. Finger Candy and I went to Disney World over the Labour Day long weekend and found ourselves at the Magic Kingdom for one of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Part(ies), we just decided to roll with it, late August date and 91 degree temps notwithstanding.  Here’s some of the festive fun we had. 🙂

First, a photo with some of the outstanding Halloween decorations at the very front of the park.  Not too surprisingly, Disney does seasonal decorating very well; glance around the park and you’ll find lush boughs of leaves trimming every door frame, flickering rows of Jack-o-Lanterns lining each balcony and streetlights hung with festive foliage.

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The Halloween parties (hereafter known as MNSSHP) run from mid-August to Halloween.  It is a hard ticketed event, which means your admission is NOT included in the cost of a regular park ticket, so be prepared to pay up (and up and up and up…)  The party itself runs from 7 pm to midnight, although guests are admitted as early as 4 pm (but as annual passholders, we can go whenever the heck we want!)

Around 6 pm cast members will begin ushering out the day’s remaining guests to prepare the Kingdom for the evening’s festivities.  I wouldn’t recommend hiding out behind the little Dutch kids on It’s a Small World so you can stay on until the party; the CMs are rather diligent about checking your issued event bracelets.  Capacity for the parties is capped at 20,000 guests, although there were far fewer than that in attendance on August 31st.  Which, of course, made it the perfect evening for these two MNSSHP newbs to really explore this cool seasonal event.

Because of all the usual safety concerns, there are strict rules concerning costumes.  Within reason, kids can wear pretty well whatever they’d like, while adult costumes are measured against a firm list of do nots – do not wear a mask, do not wear a full, floor-length costume, do not come dressed as 45 (sorry, that’s just one of my personal requirements.)  Basically, do not look like you could be confused for an actual character at work (and play) in the parks (and that includes 45!  Anyone take a real gander at his animatronic in the Hall of Presidents?  I swear they just nabbed an old beaver pelt from one of the tableaus out by Tom Sawyer Island and stapled it to his head.  Just like real life, ba-dum *ching*!)  We attended this party costume-less (a very wise decision given the obscenely humid weather) but we’ll be back on Halloween, and you can bet we’ll bring our A game then. 🙂

Our first stop, for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom-lovin’ nerd I’m married to, was the Main Street Firehouse for our special event Sorcerers cards.  Limited edition cards for this neat, Magic Kingdom-exclusive collectible card game/scavenger hunt have been produced nearly every year for both the Halloween and Christmas parties; this year’s Halloween card features Orange Bird, the cheery citrus spokesbird of Sunshine Tree Terrace, a counter service spot in Adventureland where you can enjoy life-sustaining (or at least life-improving!) Citrus Swirls – frozen orange juice concentrate on one side, creamy vanilla soft serve on the other, blissed out heaven in the middle.  Here we’ve shown one of our cards (already safely ensconced in a protective top-loader; thanks, nerd!) alongside our not-long-for-this-world Citrus Swirl and a passholder exclusive Orange Bird pin we picked up later on in the evening.

Orange Birds

Crucial administrative details thus attended to, we walked over to Liberty Square and joined a lineup of 500 other overgrown goth lite types to meet Jack and Sally of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The Pumpkin King and his ragdoll paramour only show up during MNSSHP; they are not characters you will find regularly bopping about the parks like you would the princesses or Pooh and the gang.  Which is the ONLY reason I consented to stand in a very hot, not particularly well shaded lineup for two and a half hours in order to meet them!

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Also because I adore The Nightmare Before Christmas, and when we finally met them, I could not stop myself from excitedly telling them about our Halloween wedding nearly 14 years prior (“Did it rain?” Jack queried.  “Actually, it did!” we chirped, prompting a keening, “Oh, how perfectly lucky AND marvelous!” from the man himself.  I nearly up and died and became a resident of Halloween Town right then and there.)

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Regrettably, after standing in a nearly three-hour lineup in the blazing sun (twas not blazing by the time we made it to the front of the line) the rest of the evening proved a real struggle against total collapse – following all that unaccustomed heat, 12 hours of air travel, precious little sustenance and a 2:30 am wakeup call nearly 24 hours previous, we were feeling quite piqued.

So no better time to shove a bunch of sugar in our faces, right?!  There are a number of party-exclusive food items available during MNSSHP, in addition to a seemingly endless quantity of candy you can pick up along the innumerable trick-or-treat trails.  We probably should have stuck with the mini Snickers (ooh, Snickers) – the Jack Skellington push pop we grabbed from Sleepy Hollow (cake, frosting and other creamy stuff layered together in a push-uppable container) nearly did us in; total blood sugar blitz.

I don’t know why we have so many darn photos of that push pop, because it wasn’t that good!  There are so many incredible snacks available at the parties; why did we go with this weird, cake crumbles and cream thing?  Next time, poison apple cupcake, I’m coming for you!  Below, Mr. Finger Candy standing in front of Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe with a Jack Skellington push pop IS The Nightmare Before Christmas, wah-waaaahhhhhhhhhh.  Get it, get it?  “Yes, we get it,” you’re saying.  “And it’s still not funny.” 😉

After stumbling away from our snack spot, we ambled about for a bit, seriously contemplating whether we should just pack it in for the night and return to our resort, despite not having seen the parade, the Sanderson Sisters stage show or the fireworks show.  That is how sickly we were feeling!  Instead, we rallied hard – not too difficult when you consider the money on the line; Disney is an incredible vacation experience, but it’s never not inexpensive – and went off to Tomorrowland to meet our buddy, Stitch, resplendent in his Halloween costume as white jumpsuited Elvis!  As always, Stitch was an amorous little thing – he kissed my hand twice, oh my!

Stitch

But fuzzy blue alien kisses are apparently just the remedy one needs for an overabundance of sun, heat and sugar, because after our cool meet and greet with him, we felt immensely better, and decided to hotfoot it over to Cinderella Castle to catch the HalloWishes fireworks show.  We have had just the worst, most crap luck when it comes to properly seeing any of Disney’s amazing fireworks shows – usually we’re stuck behind the Castle seeing none of the cool projections they feature during Happily Ever After, or we’re at Epcot and we’re too pleasantly tipsy on walkin’ margs to possibly stay (and stand!) for Illuminations, or one particularly memorable time, we were trapped on Pirates of the Caribbean for 45 minutes and missed the entirety of the Magic Kingdom’s Happily Ever After fireworks show.  But for this special seasonal show featuring incredible projections and fireworks (that finale!) scored to neat arrangements of some of my favourite creepy Disney music, we had front row, centre (standing, always standing) space, and it was wonderful.  You know, I never thought I was one of those “I love it when shit blows up!” kind of people, but you guys, I love it when shit blows up!  Especially sparkly shit that makes a real big bang. 😉

In between all this, we hopped about a bit and rode a few rides – Pirates of the Caribbean, with live actors dotted throughout the ride just for the Halloween party, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and the Haunted Mansion, but of course.  I’d typically say that given all of the other things to occupy your time during Mickey’s Not So Scary, actually riding the rides is a pretty poor use of your party time, but we walked straight onto all three with no problem and it didn’t impact our schedule in the slightest.  We also walked around and hit up a couple of the merchandise shops to check out the party-exclusive items, where we grabbed this refillable, light-up cauldron popcorn bucket I’m posing with the following morning in our hotel room.  Holy crow, was this thing popular!  Nearly as popular as my Gaston ears.  People would just bellow across the street at me, “WHERE DID YOU GET THAT AWESOME BUCKET?!” and I’d be, like, “Uh, right over there?”  Over the next couple of days, I saw so many more of them begin to pop up – pun intended – around the parks.  And in case you’re wondering, yes, it will be returning with us at Halloween.  We really love our $2 refills, and who doesn’t want to tote around a glowing cauldron?

Next, we walked back to Main Street and nabbed a super primo curbside spot right outside Casey’s Corners from which to watch the Boo to You Parade!  Once again, parades are, historically, not my jam.  I nearly had a total meltdown last Christmas after getting stuck in a massive crowd of people between Frontierland and the river on one side, and the relentlessly annoying holiday parade on the other, so no, not my thing.  But I loved this parade!  Gosh, it was so charming.  Featuring a showstopping entrance by the Headless Horseman (I apologize, but my camera utterly failed during the parade; poor thing could not keep up with the cascade of flashing lights and colours), as well as appearances by the Grim Grinning Ghosts, Jack Sparrow and his scurvy lot of pirates, the Splash Mountain gang, the gravediggers and diningroom dancers from the Mansion, Vanellope Von Schweetz and frickin’ Clarabelle the Cow hoofing around a silo, among many, many others, this delightful parade concluded with an entire float of rarely glimpsed baddies – Cruella, Jafar, Maleficient and the Evil Queen.  Badass, in the cutest, most adorable manner possible. 🙂

Finally, we capped off our evening with a midnight viewing of the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular Show, featuring the Sanderson Sisters, The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Mr. Oogie Boogie Man and about a half dozen other killer villains – Cruella again, Dr. Facilier, Hades.  The show itself was a ton of fun, just a tiny bit raunchy (by Disney standards, of course, so still very family friendly, even at the late, late hour), with some great songs (shoutout to the ultra fun version of I’ve Put a Spell on You.)  And I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Cinderella Castle look so beautiful; the projection technology they’re using now is real world design and tech magic. 🙂  Just another day at the office, I believe the Disney Imagineers would call it. 🙂

Then, having been awake and on our feet for 23 out of the last 24 hours, we left the Kingdom and threw ourselves onto a resort bus back to Coronado Springs, where we rested and rejuvenated for the grand total of three hours and 45 minutes, before we got up and returned to the Magic Kingdom to start it up all over again.  No rest for the wicked, you know – just ask the Sanderson Sisters!  Also, there might be something wrong with us? 😉