MOUSE AND DUCK TALES
Here at Mouse and Duck we are constantly researching the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
Here at Mouse and Duck we are constantly researching the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
All of the Universal hotels are owned and operated by Lowes. This means you can POOL HOP (for all guests except those staying at Surfside Inn). Forgive our enthusiasm but we often wish this was an option at Disney. We love checking out different pools, especially because each one offers something different, like a waterslide or lazy river. Another reason to stay on property is that guests also receive access to one park one hour before regular guests. Currently Volcano Bay and Universal Studios open early. But periodically Islands of Adventures is open early instead. If you can make it there for 8am you can be sure to walk right on a few rides before the crowds increase (although not the really popular rides like Hagrid’s). Another great feature at the Lowes resorts are the vacation planners at each hotel’s reception area who can print your park tickets when you check-in, make dining reservations for you or just answer your questions
We really enjoy the 1950’s theming and décor of Cabana Bay Resort. Its proximity to Volcano Bay was fantastic, but it's also not very far away from the parks. Cabana Bay is considered a “Prime Value” hotel, which means it costs a bit more than Surfside but less than Sapphire Falls. It has a bowling alley, arcade, and a lazy river of its own. It has regular and suite style room options. When we visit Universal again we will likely choose Cabana Bay, however, it is a much bigger resort so it would require a big walk to your hotel, which is always hard after a long day at the parks.
Aventura Hotel has everything you could need in a resort – clean rooms, a great pool with a splash fountain, a pool bar and poolside movies. You can walk right to Volcano Bay underneath the road, which felt super exclusive. There is a great market-style food court, lots of elevators so there is no long waits to get to your room, a shop to get your Harry Potter gear and even a fun lobby Robot to play with. The bar is on the 17th floor and has a fantastic view - we could see all the way to Epcot. The rooms were a bit bland in their modern décor but a reasonable size with a coffee maker and fridge. The staff was very helpful and friendly; it was no problem to leave a day early because of the hurricane, to store our bags for the day or to get extra towels to go over to Volcano Bay before the pool opened.
Aventura Bay and Cabana Bay share a bus. These hotels are in the Prime Value category but are very nice options and comparable to Disney’s Art of Animation.
Sapphire Falls is a beautiful resort with a very relaxed feel. It’s a great resort for those looking for a Caribbean feel near the parks. It is right next to Aventura Bay and is a “Preferred” hotel. This means the price is comparable to a moderate resort at Disney. Unfortunately, it doesn't include the Express pass in your package and it is a higher price point but it is certainly a nicer resort, plus it is dog friendly. The breezy Caribbean feel, view of waterfalls right outside the window and boat to the parks also makes it a higher-end experience. We loved the “sand bar” in the middle of the pool and thought this would be great for little ones. Our bigger kids loved the water slide.
Lowes Portofino Bay Resort, Royal Pacific Resort and Hard Rock Cafe Resort are the “Premier” level hotels or what Disney would call the deluxe options. Staying at one of these three resorts grants you the Express pass for each day of your trip including on your check in day and your check out day. This can be a value of $130 per day per person! Premier hotels are all walking distance to the parks and have their own sit down restaurants. Portofino is based on the city of Portofino in Italy and gives you a European flavor. Royal Pacific Resort has a Polynesian feel with dark wood and orchids and you can take a boat to the parks from it. Hard Rock gives you an edgy rock & roll feel, its architecture is themed off the hotel California.
Obviously the price to stay on property varies depending on the season. Low season is August to September and January. High seasons are Christmas, October, Easter, May, July and around the Memorial Day weekend (last Monday of May). However, when you are choosing your time to travel don’t just think about price. The weather needs to be taken into consideration too. Can your kids handle some heat? Our kids were hot at 7:30am. And the August heat certainly limited how long we could stay at the park or how many rides we could walk to. What saved us was going back to our hotel for a swim and rest in the heat of the day.
Bonus: Insta-cart is an option to order food to your room. We tried it out and ordered granola bars, cereal, milk, fruit and yoghurt. The prices were reasonable and the process of ordering and delivery were very slick. Normally we order from Green Grocer but it doesn't deliver to Universal. With Insta-cart we submitted our mobile order and then met the delivery person in the hotel lobby. We were even able to order our favourite sunscreen so we didn't have to worry about liquids in our carry on. Because we only brought personal items on the plan we were able to save as much as $80 per bag for checked luggage.
We really had an excellent holiday on our recent trip to Universal Orlando, and an even better time than on our last visit. We were almost surprised how much fun we had and here are 5 reasons we would recommend this holiday!
#5 The Low Crowds & Relaxed VibE
Overall universal was a great holiday: it was not busy at all so we really felt relaxed. The end of August usually has low crowds because most American kids have returned to school. The pending hurricane and opening of Star Wars land over in Disney made Universal even quieter. But the lack of a priority ride pass system like Disney’s Fastpass process meant we felt even more relaxed. The Fastpass system means you have a schedule to follow and that can be a bit stressful. Universal has an Express pass system instead. While we don’t love the very high cost of the Express pass, it does allow you to pay more to have priority on all the rides. We actually didn’t think it was necessary at this time of the year as we walked on most rides and found the posted wait times were all lower than advertised. In addition, the Express pass seemed to slow it’s users down a bit as they had to scan their Express pass at each ride entrance. But we were pretty glad that we didn’t need to worry about Fastpasses, or keep checking for new ones like we did in Disneyland with their Maxpass system. You can certainly leave your phone at home if you like and sometimes that is just what the doctor ordered
#4 Volcano BaY
#3 The very close resort accommodations
#2 Great for ages 6+
There are rides that can keep your thrill seekers busy for days but also options for the tamer types in the crowd. It is not to say that really young guests wouldn’t enjoy the experience and ours certainly did when they were 2 and 6 years old, but we were able to enjoy more of the rides now that they are 6 and 10 years old. Our youngest still wanted to ride everything in Seuss land and was afraid to go on a number of the Harry Potter rides. We certainly had to talk her on to a number of the “darker” options. But every time she rode something she wanted to do it again right away and she ended up back in the “dark arts alley” three times. Our 10 year old has seen almost all of the Harry Potter movies so he really enjoyed all the incredible theming throughout. He is also a Marvel fan and appreciated the Marvel themed area. They are just starting to watch the Simpsons so that land had more meaning for them this time. There are so many rides and attractions that you can certainly skip over the really intense rides – Hulk or King Kong. But for families with teenagers these rides would be a big draw. It is fair to say Universal has an edgier side that is a refreshing change.
#1 The amazing Wizarding World of Harry Potter
During this trip we were able to spend lots of time in both Harry Potter lands and really enjoy all small touches that made it feel like we were in the movies. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal is actually made up of two different parks: Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You can travel between the two on the Hogwarts Express but you need a park-to-park ticket to ride it. There are a number of really great rides in both parks including the brand new Hagrid's Magical Motorbike ride. On our first day, the wait for Hagrid's was 150 minutes at park opening time but this meant we walked on everything else including the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts Castle! We can't say enough about these attractions, they are so immersive that you really feel like you are in the movies. In fact, we wished we'd had a bit more time in line inside the castle to really enjoy the queue.
There are SO many great shops to explore in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. You name the Harry Potter item and it can be yours. Everything from a cauldron cupcake, a quill pen set, an Owl backpack, a Butterbeer slushie and even your own Gringots money. It was hard to tell what items were props and what was actually for sale. We grown-ups probably loved it more than the kids, it really was a magical experience.
Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Ride is absolutely amazing! This is hands-down one of the best roller coasters we've ridden. The queue has some fun holograms and neat knick-knacks along the way but the way that you feel like you’re on a really fast motorcycle is spectacular. The wait time was listed at 100 minutes but we were done the ride in 65 minutes. We all thought the ride was well worth the wait and that is saying a lot for a family that avoids long lines. Both kids enjoyed it, although we had to work hard to get our six year old convinced to ride it. Luckily we made friends with some kids from New Jersey who told us how great the ride was and that helped calm the nerves.
A few honorable mentions: the Wi-Fi at Universal and in the Lowes resorts was spotless and connected automatically after the first set up. The Locker systems for rides is slick, just use your park ticket to select a locker and pop your stuff in while you ride. We can’t say enough about the fast and efficient bus service – the buses have one stop outside City Walk (the main entrance to the parks) and resort guests have designated buses that come frequently. We found all the staff to be friendly and helpful. Overall, and even though the hurricane cut our trip short, we would highly recommend this vacation.
We love Volcano Bay there so many slides and the most family raft rides of any waterpark. In fact, we walked around the corner and were surprised to see more slides we didn’t realize were there.
The little kids’ water area has five slides and looks like a fun tree house. Little kids could certainly enjoy this park, especially because of the sand and fairly calm large wave pool. But if you are a daredevil this water park is for you! They are two lazy rivers, both are fast but the fearless river require the life jackets for everyone and even knocked off a hat! We went around this one 3 times.
The volcano itself had very cool water features and a talking holograph inside. Some of the slides wound through the Volcano which we thought was super cool. We had early park entry because we are staying on property and walked on a bunch of slides. Including two that dropped you 4ft and 6ft into a pool at the end of the slide. The park is only 1 year old and looks awesome. The theming is great with thatched tiki huts over the queues, tropical food, and a relaxing vibe.
We didn't brave the plunge slide built into the side of the volcano. Even some of the family raft rides were really fast with huge upswings. The roller coaster family raft ride was very fast and felt like it went on forever.
We know there are lots of adults who love Disney and we think a Disney cruise offers enough adult-only areas to make this a fantastic getaway even without kids in tow or if you are weary parents looking for a break
Lots of adult-only space
We really loved many of the bars on the ship, which all specialized in different drinks. We sampled European cocktails, champagne and great wine selections. Our favourite bar had video images of European cities on the "windows" so you could pretend to be looking out at Paris or Moscow. Plus we purchased a Martini tasting class that we really enjoyed. There is nothing like sampling martinis while overlooking the ocean in the sun. When travelling with our kids we don’t normally feel comfortable leaving them, but on the Disney ships there are so many staff around and such a great kids club, we were able to enjoy some guilt free quite time. Plus most kids were often in their club areas so we didn't feel overrun by other people's kids. The adult only pool areas were quiet and nicely situated. The adult only night club has a famous silent DJ and other dance parties.
Mosaic tile murals throughout the ship, including in the washrooms and even along the buffet line; huge stained glass chandeliers in all the main lobby areas; paintings that come alive; decorated plush carpet - it all adds to the feeling of luxury aboard Disney Cruise ships. This element really shouldn’t be understated. It might seem insignificant, but on previous cruises with other cruise lines we really noticed that décor has the potential to change the way you enjoy your vacation. We have to give Disney credit for taking every opportunity to make a statement. The ship even boasts a Tiffany jewelry store for those times when you need some extra bling.
The entertainment options are certainly G rated on a Disney cruise…. There’s no deep meaning to be found in these shows but their very high quality, with incredible sets, costumes and dancing more than make up for the content. We were a bit disappointed by the magician and juggler but they were still good and funny.
Disney’s spa aboard the Fantasy has some really nice elements. While it’s private couples' rooms are not complimentary like some Princess cruises offer, the décor and amenities were lovely. You can choose which day you want to visit the spa and we thought the price of roughly $18 per day per person was reasonable. The Rainforest Spa offers a variety of aromatherapy steam rooms with different temperatures, showers to mimic a variety of weather and a dry sauna fashioned after a Roman bath. We particularly enjoyed the loungers and whirlpools overlooking the flying fish in the ocean.
Whether you want to enjoy some kid-free time on your family vacation or you are travelling without kids you can be assured the Disney Cruise line offers many options for a great vacation.
2. Safety is priority: Each stateroom comes with a set of Wave phones, which let us give the kids some freedom to roam the ship on their own for short periods of time. We checked in with each other frequently while they played the Mid Ship Detective game. In this game the kids have a map to pictures hanging up around the ship. When they hold up their special card the picture changes to give them a clue to a mystery involving Mickey or the Muppets. There are many versions of the game so our kids played four different times!
4. Characters are everywhere: Just about every time we went to the lobby area and out on the deck we’d meet at least a few characters. You can see where characters will be on the Navigator app but they are out so often you don’t need to plan too hard. Minnie, Mickey, Daisy, Donald, Goofy, Pluto and Stitch sported different themed outfits each day. Even before your cruise you can choose tickets to the complimentary Princess Gathering, Frozen Meet and Greet and Disney Junior Character Breakfast on 7 nights or longer sailings.
Considering that this cruise was our third vacation within a year - we spent 10 days in Southern California and Disneyland in August and then two weeks in Southern Florida and Disney World over Christmas – we were pretty surprised that a cruise topped the list. But, the sheer number of family friendly activities available and the opportunity we had to let the kids enjoy some freedom on the ship while we enjoyed a quiet drink was pretty fantastic.
We spent Christmas in Cape Coral, Florida with three grandparents, an auntie and two kids and we all really enjoyed it.
Probably the best part of this trip was the weather and sun. We choose this place because it was the furthest south we could find for 8 people and we had 25 degree weather every day! We’ve heard it is not always so warm, but there really is something to be said about spending Christmas Eve on a warm beach.
Cape Coral is separated from larger Fort Myers by a causeway. It has lovely parks, its own yacht club with a public beach and lots of shops and restaurants. The whole area has nature reserves and great wildlife viewing - pelicans, crabs, parrots and ibis. Our rental property had 5 bedrooms and a pool overlooking an inlet off the bay. There are loads of vacation properties and waterways in this area which does mean you must drive everywhere you want to go.
Our condo was 45 mins from Fort Myers Beach, which we all really enjoyed. This is a very busy area with lots of shops and restaurants. The pier and beach crowd reminded us of Huntington Beach in California for its hippie beach vibe. It has lots of water sport options like parasailing and great sand. You absolutely must arrive early because the line of traffic after lunch was unbelievable on a weekday!
Sanibel Island is south of Fort Myers. It has quieter beach areas with amazing bird watching, lots of bike paths (bike rentals available) and sea shells everywhere. The nature reserve here has manatees, alligators and rare crocodiles. Arrive early because parking is scarce and the traffic is heavy! We enjoyed Doc Ford’s restaurant for lunch - lots of fresh fish and shrimp options. This would certainly be a great place to stay with lots of shops and restaurants within biking distance. It had a very calm feel to it as well.
Overall we would definitely recommend this area for a holiday!
character dining in the parks
Visit this link for all character experiences: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_CA/entertainment/#/character-experiences/
There are three resorts to choose from if you wish to stay on Disney property in California. We stayed at the Disneyland hotel in August 2018. We choose this hotel because it is the original on-site hotel and therefore, has extra-large hotel rooms with their magical singing headboards. We were also attracted to the two waterslides that look like monorails. But when we went to visit the Grand Californian hotel, its ambiance and luxury made us wish we had stayed there. It had the same kind of luxury feel as Animal Kingdom Lodge or Wilderness Lodge. The restaurants at the Grand Floridian are nicer and the pool area looked just as fun, plus you can walk from here right into the middle of the Boardwalk, putting you closer to the parks. (When you leave the Disneyland hotel, you are at the far end of Downtown Disney and have to walk about 10 minutes to get to the entrance of the parks). The Paradise Pier hotel lobby did not impress us; we think spending more to stay at either of the other two hotels would be worth it.
Of course, everything is better when you see it through your kids’ eyes, but we can’t deny there were hiccups and in-fighting. A long line seemed to bring out the worst in our crew. That is what made the short walk back to the hotel so exceptional. Perhaps the best thing about the entire experience was the ease with which we could walk everywhere. We explored all three resorts, shopped along the Downtown Disney area and park hopped many times over the four days. We loved that we didn’t need to worry about a shuttle bus, parking or rental car at all!
Dining plan: One thing that might surprise those travelers familiar with the "World" in Orlando, is that Disneyland California does not offer a dining plan option. We would love to see Disney add this in future. We find the dining plan can help you budget and let pay for most of your meals before travelling. Because the dining plan wasn’t an option on this trip, we came away having spent significantly more on food than we expected. California’s “fast food” restaurants have delicious, fresh ingredients but the prices reflect that and it was hard to eat lunch anywhere for less than $40US.
One of the best things about staying on property is the many character interactions that happen in the resorts. We could almost always wander around the hotels and find a character or two to take a photo with. Our kids really enjoyed collecting signatures in their autograph book and almost filled it because there were so many characters to meet. Plus the character meals seemed to have more characters as well. This is so much better than standing in line to meet them, as you often have to do in the “World.”
Overall, we are very glad we stayed on property: the quick walk back to our room, the monorail ride from near our hotel to Tomorrowland and the excellent pool areas made this an extra special immersive experience. Check out our review of Disneyland's Parks and Rides.
As travel agents specializing in Disney, we booked our Disneyland vacation and then looked for other attractions to extend our California vacation to days ten Disneyland was a fantastic experience that we enjoyed even more this second trip with our kids (right is a photo of us in San Diego as newlyweds 11 years ago). Read more about our Disneyland experience here. However, there is so much else to see and do for families in Southern California that we wanted to explore.
Ryan and I have a bad habit of trying to do too much (in travel and in life). Our kids, aged 5 and 9, forced us to slow down. This meant we didn't come close to doing everything on our itinerary, but we did manage to include a few things to satisfy everyone.
We flew from Detroit to San Diego with Spirit airlines. While Spirit has a bare-bones approach to air travel, with no in flight entertainment or snacks, we did leave and arrive on time.
We started the trip staying for three nights at the Courtyard Marriott, 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego in Solana Beach. We enjoyed this spot so much! It had a little low-key beach town vibe even though housing costs here are astronomical. The large fairgrounds and race track in town boasts an awesome music festival in September with top acts like Katy Perry and other concerts throughout the year. While Solana is right on the famous Pacific Coast Highway it didn't feel busy. Our hotel had a nice courtyard pool area with pool view balconies, but the best feature of this hotel was the short walk to the incredible beach. We accessed the beach via a huge staircase which provided iconic Pacific coast views. The waves were 2ft while we were there, plenty big enough for us, and the water temperature was 77 degrees. We all really enjoyed splashing in the waves and watching the surfers. We generally hate shopping with our kids so the local outdoor mall deserves a special mention - it was designed with kids in mind, has multiple kids' play areas, unique stores and a yoga and art studio just for kids.
La Jolla Beach, famous for its seals that have taken over the original children's beach, is so fun. La Jolla itself spreads up to the freeway with many large hotels and a huge, very posh, mall. We enjoyed the walkable area closer to the beach with its great little shops and restaurants. We arrived early because we were still on East coast time, this made parking no problem; later in the day parking became a nightmare. There are actually a few beaches where families can swim away from the seals. We wanted to snorkel, but we thought the water in the calm bay might have too much bacteria from the birds and seals, so we headed over to the larger children's pool and splashed in the waves. We visited the Cave Store, which had a very steep and rickety staircase down into a cave that delighted us with a seal that at first appeared to be a statue. Kayaking tours and scuba diving are available here. I think I enjoyed taking photos of the beautiful scenery and wildlife the most; I even caught dolphins on video. Overall this was a great way to start our trip.
Torrey Pines state park
An early arrival worked in our favor again when we snagged a free parking spot next to the beach right off the highway. This state park was recommended by a friend; the guidebook didn’t do it justice and had me worried the kids wouldn't be able to climb it. Indeed, after a lot of crying and whining, our five year old was pretty proud of herself for making it up the hill. Turns out, we should have driven to the top so she'd have energy to hike around the trails and visit a few of the lookout points. This site struck me as so special. It is clearly extremely environmentally sensitive with incredible plants and animal species. The views are outstanding and the landscape, where the dessert and coast meet, is so unique. We arrived before the lodge/nature centre opened (at 9am) but we still enjoyed some of their outdoor kids' activities. I was only sad we didn’t have more endurance to keep hiking.
Belmont Park in Mission Beach
This outdoor amusement park is not exactly a must-see, but it certainly provides a time-honoured California experience. The “park” has a 100-year old roller coaster, lots of carnival games and rides and some new additions like rock climbing (free) and laser tag (additional cost). We took advantage of the Thursday evening summer discount, which helped make this somewhat affordable. Perhaps more worthy of a visit is the beautiful flat beach right beside the carnival, the real parks by the water and the town of Mission Beach itself. SeaWorld is also right across the highway
San Diego Botanical Gardens in Encinitas
Really these botanical gardens were as good as any we have visited and impressive with the variety of truly unique plants – lots that we’ve never seen before. Where else could you see huge bamboo, down the path from a Balboa tree and across the way from giant cacti? The gardens are organized by hot climates around the world – Australia, Africa, etc. Unfortunately, a visit in August was not the best timing – it was hot! We loved the simple water-stream play area, the awesome tree house with real plants growing on it, the butterfly and edible gardens and the art throughout the gardens. But these Canadians weren’t able to see everything or really appreciate what we did see because of the heat. At an admission price of $50US for a family of four, this would be a better trip at another time of year.
This high end and busy beach town gave us a run for our money. We stayed at the Costa Mesa Marriot east of Newport. The Costa Mesa area reminded us of Brampton outside Toronto, with its many office towers and huge roadways. We really liked our suite at the hotel and its lovely pool area, but wished we could have walked or easily bussed down to the beach. Parking was at such a premium we had to reschedule our whale watching tour because we couldn’t find a parking spot after driving around for two hours. The next day we tried again and found a spot that were happy to pay the $21 daily rate for. The whale watching tour hosted by Davey’s Locker exceeded expectations and became one of the highlights of the whole trip! We saw at least 100 dolphins, including babies that swam alongside the boat. The water was 10 degrees hotter than normal so the whales had moved north, but we thought the dolphins and sea lions made this worth the $144US price tag for the four of us. The beach itself had a big pier, playground and lots of sand. We were also impressed by the variety of restaurants and enjoyed excellent crepes steps from the beach
Waves the size of mountains (or so it seemed), surfers by the thousands, beach stretching as far as you can see in both directions, warm sun, beach bums and volleyball pros – Huntington beach lived up to its reputation! After a kind fisherman let the kids reel in a mackerel off the pier, we spent the rest of our time at the beach playing in the waves, so it is hard to say what downtown Huntington looks like. Ryan is still disappointed that we didn’t make it to the chicken and waffle restaurant, but sometimes plans need to change, like when the waves knock of your (my) glasses.
There were certainly some places we are sad we didn't make it to: Bolsa Chica Eco reserve, Annie's Canyon Trail and the Sunset Cliffs. We were also surprised that we didn’t make it back in to San Diego as we really enjoyed the Old Town, Balboa Park and the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego on our 2007 trip. Then there are a few places we are happy we saved for a future trip - we certainly didn't have the energy to brave the traffic of LA even though we really wanted to visit Griffith Park where the Hollywood sign is. Traffic congestion meant we had to plan when we drove anywhere. Overall, this trip was incredible and we would highly recommend it – not least because Disneyland was also great – check our Disneyland blog post about that part of our trip
In the end, we can't claim that we actually made it to all these places. Our intentions were good but sometimes fatigue or traffic forced us to readjust the agenda. There is a real advantage to having a list of activities pre-planned that includes meals when you are traveling with little ones and it certainly doesn't hurt to have wi-fi and a GPS that allows you to adjust on the fly.
Check out our other posts about Disneyland and California