MOUSE AND DUCK TALES
Welcome to our blog, where we share our tips on the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
Welcome to our blog, where we share our tips on the latest Disney, Universal and Cruising trends, treats and tours.
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
We’ve heard from a number of people that they want to know more about Legoland so we thought we’d dust off this blog post that was never published to share our thoughts on our trip to Legoland Florida in March 2016.
It is only fair to start by saying that our expectations were high as we have a true Lego addict in our house. And a further disclaimer is that we only saw the new beach resort area before completion. However, we were surprised that overall we thought the park was overpriced.
It took us longer than normal to start the day because of day-light savings (insert rant here) but after a big Denny’s breakfast we were off. The 50-minute drive from Orlando certainly felt longer than expected, and is one reason staying right at the Legoland resort for the night is a great option. On the day we visited there were thunder storms which had a major impact on rides and shows. Unlike Disney World, many of Legoland’s rides and of course their water show had to shut down during lightning. Had we paid full price for our tickets, and then not been able to do many rides because of weather, we'd have been very angry, so only go in good weather if you can.
At the time we visited, our children were 7 and 3 years old. Our oldest was big enough to go on all the thrill rides and roller coasters. The park is really geared to a young crowd, so we were surprised that a number of things frightened them both. Some ride line ups were dark and gave off a spooky vibe. However, teenagers probably would not find enough to do. So we think this park is best for Lego lovers under 10 but perhaps older than 3 years old.
When we visited, it wasn’t busy but some of the ride lines were still long because coasters only had one car. Luckily, most lines had activities or Lego building while you waited to board. The Ninjago area had the best activities, including a great building station.
Some of the other attractions we enjoyed were the mini worlds made of Lego, including Star Wars scenes, famous cities and pirate ships, even though many blocks were faded by the sun. We also liked the many amazing life size Lego statues throughout the park.
If our blog post about why you should cruise with your kids has you convinced, here are some tips to make your trip a little smoother:
Disney’s two water parks and four mini golf courses are great for all ages. They are an under utilized part of most Disney vacation packages but can offer great value and fun.
Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon have excellent play areas for little ones, fun slides for older children and great thrill rides for the daredevils in your group. Both parks have huge lazy rivers that circle each park and provide much needed relaxation on a hot day.
The mini golf courses that you can choose from are all unique and are a fun alternative for a more low-key day. When you stay on property (with a Magic Your Way package) you get passes to one mini golf course for each member of your party.
Park Hopper Plus
In August 2017, we added two water park days and an extra mini golf pass per person to our Disney vacation package. This meant we were getting the “Park Hopper Plus” package. It only cost us $15 per person to add this vacation package to our two-day park hopper tickets. Considering a day at a waterpark can be $60+ and mini golf is $15 per person, the park hopper plus deal provided excellent value. This special might not always be available but it is certainly something to tell your Disney travel agent you are interested in.
Imagine you’ve been shipwrecked on an island, things are falling apart and you will just have to try to enjoy yourself. The theming at this water park is great. I couldn’t help but wonder if the dam at the wave pool was actually going to burst.
The newest ride at the park is Miss Adventure Falls. Our family enjoyed riding it together. It was pretty high but our littlest, who is afraid of heights, still loved it. This ride gives a great view of the park.
The Crush ‘n’ Gusher has three different slides. Our favourite was the Coconut Crusher that features a motorized track making it feel like a water roller coaster.
We weren’t brave enough to try Humunga Kowabunga with its 214 feet downhill drop at a 60-degree angle. But we thought the Gangplank Falls slide was pretty fast and exciting for a family ride.
The little kids’ area at Typhoon Lagoon is much better than the one at Blizzard Beach. Typhoon Lagoon boasts a tube water slide for the really little ones and a fun interactive space for them to play – in fact we couldn’t get our 4 and 8 year olds to leave.
Of course the very best thing about Typhoon Lagoon (or the worst thing, depending on your perspective) is their extreme wave pool. The height and strength of these waves was intense. Our 8-year-old absolutely loved it and wanted to stay in all day. In order to be near the front of the wave pool you had to actually ride the wave or dive into it. Further back you couldn’t help but be knocked over.
Disney’s second water park also has a fun theme letting you imagine you are visiting during winter. Even the songs are winter and Christmas related and there is fake snow everywhere. The slides here are similar to those at Typhoon Lagoon but different enough to be worth a trip.
This water park has a really great chair lift ride to get you to the top of the large water slides. Our family enjoyed the family raft ride, Teamboat Springs, when we had a two-year-old and again now that he is eight. It got us very wet!
We all enjoyed racing each other on the Snow Stormers where you lay on a mat on your stomach and coast down the slides. The Tobaggan racers are a similar ride and represent one of our best family memories – putting our then two-year-old on his own mat and realizing the ride was much faster than expected. I assumed he wasn’t going to make it to the end and then turned around to see a huge smile on his face.
The area that is meant for 6 to 12 year olds (or so) is a ski patrol training camp where kids hang onto ropes, run across moving ice bergs, slide down a zip line that slams them into the water and ride smaller water slides that drop them into a pool. There were some fun options that even our 4-year-old could try and the pool was good for meeting new friends.
The little kids’ area at Blizzard Beach is great for really little kids but our 4-year-old was a bit old for the small slides and wading pool.
Over all, we enjoyed both parks and think the water parks provide good variety to your Disney World vacation. Our most recent visit happened during the extreme heat of August. Surprisingly we weren’t as cooled off as we expected. It was actually hard to find really cold water. Luckily we visited on an overcast day but we still had to keep reapplying sunscreen. We’d recommend guests that are visiting during the hot season consider staying for only a half day or renting a cabana so you don’t overheat. See our packing list below for more tips.
Winter/Summerland Mini Golf
These courses are side by side next to Blizzard Beach and their theming is over the top! Santa built these courses as a vacation destination for off duty elves. And each course has really fun statues throughout, including Santa, sandcastles, ice sculptures and more. The holes are well shaded with large trees, but it can still be really hot, so bring water. There is a small concession stand that sells drinks, candy, hats and sunscreen. When you arrive you give your name and which course you want to golf and they call you when its your turn. This certainly helps space out the golfers but it meant for a 20-minute wait for us. Snacks help pass the time.
Summerland is the trailer park where the elves go for their holidays. We loved the holes with camper vans and the one with the melting snowman. At one hole Santa is sleeping in the sand and another has a swimming pool.
The Winter course is for the elves that prefer to stay cold. You can pretend you are at the North Pole and that might help to keep you cool. The hockey rink hole was really fun and the melting snow castle delivered a hole in one!
Fantasia Gardens/Fairways Mini Golf
We think Fantasia Gardens is the best of the four golf courses because of the many interactive holes. There are musical features in the spirit of the movie Fantasia that are activated by your ball as you putt through. It was hilarious to watch the broomsticks shoot water at each golfer. This is a beginner course and great for little ones.
Fairways is much more like a real golf course and doesn’t have the special effects and décor that the others have. This course is geared to the true golfer in your party. With sand traps, bunkers and water hazards you can really show off your golf skills.
water park packing list:
Below are some things we wish we had brought with us to the water parks:
Water shoes: the cement can get hot despite sprinklers spraying the sidewalks to cool them off. Plus, walking in your bare feet all day is tiring and the wave pools have rough cement floors. Be prepared with water shoes. We’ve purchased kids sizes for $4 in the off season at Giant Tiger.
Compact towel: you can certainly take a towel from the pool at your resort or even your hotel room to the water park but this is formally discouraged. However, we thought a few compact travel towels might be nice too, especially if you want to go to dinner directly from the water park.
Zinc: it is so hard to keep sunscreen on the face when you are swimming all day. Zinc will prevent burns on those sensitive spots (including the scalp).
Water camera: there are so many great opportunities to have fun with a water camera, we were missing ours.
Water shirts: the sun can be so hot in Florida and putting sunscreen all over yourself a few times a day wastes time. A swim shirt saves times and prevents burns on those hard to reach backs.
Magic Band: You can certainly leave your valuables at the resort if you have a magic band. Charging your meals to your room or being on the dining plan makes the day much simpler. Just remember to find out what your partner set the pin code at before you leave all your cash behind.
One of our favorite things about travelling to Disney is knowing there will be something new to see each time. In this post we rate the new things we experienced on our most recent trip to Disney World in the summer of 2017.
1. PandorA avatar world
Animal Kingdom is home to Pandora Avatar World with the famous Flight of Passage virtual reality ride and the Na’vi River Journey ride. Because you can’t get a fast pass for both we can only really comment on Flight of Passage, but we’ve heard that the River Journey moves slowly, has bright colours and doesn’t last long, so it great for little ones. The hype for these rides is a bit overblown considering the incredible wait times, but the Valley of Mo’ara (or area surrounding the rides) is certainly something to see and pushes this to the top of our list for best new attractions. As you walk in you see large plants that look like they might reach out to eat you. You can’t help but stare at the giant rocks that are covered in vegetation. Imagine the Grand Canyon in the rain forest. There are lots of beautiful photo ops and even live music performances in the vein of Avatar.
We arrived 30 minutes before the rides opened and headed to Flight of Passage immediately and it still took us an hour to make it on to the ride. I don’t think anyone should wait longer than an hour for anything so the idea that some people wait 4 hours to ride on Flight of Passage is downright depressing. Having said that, I heard many people around me saying it was worth it. Flight of Passage is indeed an incredible and immersive experience. I did think the interior walk-way before you get on your banshee was rather depressing, and not being a fan of the movie some of the nuances were lost on me, but the ride/simulation itself was jaw dropping. You really do feel like you are riding a banshee through Pandora world. There were smells, water spray and beautiful scenery. The banshee flies to the top of cliffs and then drops you down to skim the water. You fly inside a glowing cave and get attacked by other creatures. The ride did trigger my motion sickness but that was solved by a breakfast of French toast Na’vi style in the Satu’li Canteen (unfortunately the Canteen is now only serving lunch and dinner but the unique options are worth a try). If you aren’t able to get a fast pass for these rides, at least walk over to the valley to see the scenery and check out the shop “Windtrades” that is a great extension of the theme.
2. Happily Ever After Fireworks
We’d heard so many great things about this new firework show that began on May 12, 2017 in Magic Kingdom, and it lived up to our expectations. This new show replaced the Wishes fireworks, one that we have seen a number of times. We are sentimental about Wishes because both our kids saw it as their first Disney fireworks show. But they really loved Happily Ever After.
The show is an amazing collage of characters and movie images projected onto the castle. It was neat that obscure and less popular movies were featured along with popular ones (Hercules, Brave, etc.) The fireworks themselves are almost an after-thought because the images on the castle are so engaging and seem to go on forever. The incredible imagery and length of the show mean we think is the second best new attraction at Disney World.
The downside to this show is that you need to be right in front of the castle to have the best view. It was difficult to move around, not block people behind you, and to push a stroller into place. You also need to be there early to get a good spot, it takes longer to leave after the show and you can’t really enjoy this show from the boat as you leave the park. But overall we highly recommend planning to see this show! Everyone was happy to see that our favorite fairy still made an appearance.
3. Frozen Ride
We were very excited to ride the new Frozen ride. We missed it by a few months on our trip last year - it opened in June of 2016. We are happy to report that the ride lived up to expectations so we ranked this third. This is the old Maelstorm ride transformed. The queue is decorated to resemble a Nordic town. We loved going through Oaken’s Trading Post and seeing him appear in the sauna window. The ride itself had all our favorite characters, including the Snowgies. It even showed Anna and Elsa in their winter and summer dresses. The only disappointment was the darkness of the line up that frightened our 4-year-old, who then decided not to ride at the last minute. The staff were great and gave us a baby swap pass, but we certainly wished we’d been able to get a fast pass for this one so that we didn't stand in the dark line up for as long. This ride is one that we strongly recommend getting a fast pass for, however, because of the way the fast pass system is organized you have to choose between this and Soarin' or Test Track. While we do think Frozen is great, if you are not a huge fan of the movie, you might prefer to use your fast pass elsewhere.
4. Soarin' update
Who doesn’t love Soarin' – the ride in Epcot where you soar above the world looking at film of famous destinations? Nostalgia and shortened wait times put this fourth on our list. We were relieved that the changes made to the show, adding a second screen and new destinations, were seamless. With these updates you don’t have to wait as long in line and the new show has some surprises for Disney World fans. We love this ride because it is something both our kids could ride it without being afraid and because you feel like you are flying over places you might never visit.
5. Trader Sam’s
6. Miss Adventure Falls
This water ride in Typhoon Lagoon water park wasn’t as exciting as we’d expected. At least that turned out to be good for our 4-year-old. The steep ride up certainly pushed her comfort zone any more thrills might have been too much for her. We did have a great view of the park at the top of the incline. The family raft that we rode on tossed us around a good deal. But overall we didn't feel that this slide was very different from Disney’s other family water rides.
New To Us:
We were certainly excited to eat at a table service restaurant inside Magic Kingdom. However, this meal didn’t quite live up to expectations. Our server was great, the décor of the restaurant was really well done and the atmosphere was fun, but the taste of the meal itself was lack luster.
Every year Magic Kingdom hosts Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party on select nights starting in late August. You must purchase special tickets and you can’t enter the park until 4pm. If you don’t have a Halloween ticket on party nights, you will be escorted out by 7pm. We went on the first Halloween party of the season this past August. While it was almost too hot to really enjoy the event, we did walk right on to a ton of rides. We also secured a hard to get reservation at the Skipper Canteen restaurant inside the park. There were stations throughout the park where you could line up for candy and if we had wanted to, we would have come away with enough candy to fill a suitcase. What we enjoyed more was the special Hocus Pocus show in front of the castle with Disney’s Villains (if you haven’t seen the movie Hocus Pocus it is worth watching). The Halloween fireworks feature spooky music and 180 degrees of fireworks (covering your sight-line). The parade was the main attraction and features an opening by the Headless Horseman galloping down main street. Our kids came away singing the theme song. Many of the guests wore great DIY costumes. It was super fun to see characters that don’t normally visit the park but we were surprised that the line ups to meet some of these characters were so long. We ate many of the special Halloween treats throughout the park that we purchased with our snack credits, like pumpkin cheesecake treats, cupcakes, etc.
Overall we are glad we were able to experience the park at this special time of year but attending a little closer to Halloween would make it even more special. The cost of the tickets does vary depending on the popularity of the night.
We are looking forward to visiting the new Toy Story Land, which opened in the Summer of 2018 at Hollywood Studios (watch for that blog post in January 2019). Even more exciting is Star Wars Land that will be opening at Hollywood Studios and Disneyland California in 2019. Plan to book early if you want to visit these new attractions. We expect rooms to sell out fast once the opening date for Star Wars Land is announced. You can follow our Facebook page for the latest updates.
As you can see from our chart, Disney offers a wide range of dining options with characters. We think this is a great way to meet your favorite Disney friends while eating without wasting time standing in line waiting for an autograph (as you can do in a number of spots in the parks). There is nothing worse than standing in line only to be told that the character you are waiting on is going on break.
In contrast, when you eat at a character meal there are staff there to make sure each character makes it to your table for photos and autographs. We have found the characters more than willing to take multiple pictures with each member of the family. We’ve also enjoyed the characters coming to our table more than once and even teasing each other in front of us. Of course every meal we’ve ever had at Disney has had excellent service from Cast Members.
1. Bon Voyage Breakfast was such a delicious breakfast with a relaxed pace that it tops our list. This breakfast happens at the Trattoria El Forno restaurant on the Boardwalk (next to the Boardwalk hotel). It is an Italian restaurant for lunch and dinner and offers an Italian themed a la carte breakfast with Rapunzel, Flynn Rider, Arielle & Prince Eric. It is not offered every day and it is very popular so book your reservations as soon as you can (180 days before your travel day if you are staying on property.) Characters visited our table in between courses of fruit, fresh pastries and a hearty entree. The “Shipwreck al Forno” (a calzone with scrambled eggs, soppressata, bacon, sausage cheese and Sunday gravy) and the “Tangled Eggs” (tomato & basil scrambled eggs, fresh mozzarella, Sunday gravy and roasted potatoes) were both excellent! Don’t be scared by the Sunday gravy, it is simply an Italian style red sauce that goes perfectly with the dishes. Favourite songs from Tangled and The Little Mermaid played while kids paraded after the characters waving their napkins. Our server did a great job of explaining when the characters would arrive and what the kids should do for the parade. She brought our dishes to the table at just the right time, meaning we could relax and enjoy our meal. At this meal we thought we had a longer and better experience with the characters. We noticed one Arielle fan that even had Arielle hold her dolls for a photo (super sweet).
Overall, we found the Bon Voyage breakfast, quieter and with the character visits to the table more spaced out. Since we didn’t have to go up to a buffet we were able to capture better photos and didn’t have to worry about missing a character. However, we are pretty sure you can let a cast member know you have missed someone at any meal and that character will return to your table. At this breakfast a cast member came to ask us if we had seen everyone.
2. Garden Grill in Epcot is our second favorite choice for an enjoyable character meal. Here you can enjoy the novelty of a revolving restaurant while meeting Mickey, Pluto, Chip and Dale. The meal is served family style, which means that they bring a few big platters of food for everyone to share. We enjoyed this as it meant we didn’t even need to worry about menus or making a choice. The platters of food included something for everyone starting with buns & yummy maple butter, Cobb and potato salads, then sausage, beef, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and green beans. A kids’ platter had macaroni & cheese and French fries. The delicious dessert of strawberries & cream hit the spot. Not only was the food great, but we had lots of time with each character. They posed for lots of pictures but then came around again to tease each other and the kids. Our favorite video of the trip has interruptions from Pluto and Chip.
3. Ohana’s Breakfast at the Polynesian Resort beats out other great options for the third spot on our list, largely because we can’t get enough of the atmosphere and theme of this resort. We always feel like we are in paradise as we enter the front doors. Plus this is another family style meal served right to the table, making for a more enjoyable experience. Once again, Mickey, Lilo and Goofy do an excellent job of ensuring they have visited each table. We loved the pineapple bread at the beginning and thought the breakfast platter was more than complete with ham, sausage, waffles, biscuits, eggs and potatoes. Be sure to have the POG juice – pineapple, orange and guava which is included with the dining plan. While Stitch no longer visits tables, he welcomes you outside the restaurant and poses for photos while you wait to enter (yes you will have to wait a few minutes even though you have a reservation at most restaurants). Our kids were really excited to meet Stitch so they were distracted by the wait to eat and we thought this process was seamless. During the meal there is a great parade with maracas for the kids.
4. Belle’s Castle in Magic Kingdom offers three meals each day but only dinner is actually a character meal. This is one of the most popular character dining options and requires very early booking. A walk up reservation can be secured for the very lucky but shouldn’t be counted on. The meal provides a nice respite right in the park. We enjoyed entering Magic Kingdom before it opened because of our early breakfast reservation – we saw rope drop from the inside and took great photos of the castle with no one else around.
Our breakfast at Belle’s castle was enjoyable, particularly because of the beautiful castle setting. The Rose room actually has a rose that looses it’s petals, the Music box room has a life sized statue of Belle and the Beast that dance and the West room has a portrait that changes from Prince to Beast when the lighting strikes plus it appears to be snowing outside. Despite these neat features we ranked this option fourth on our list because of the cafeteria feel. You order food at computers when you walk in, sit at rows of tables and then your food is served from carts. Drinks were available at central stations. No characters are present for breakfast or lunch, only for dinner and the Beast is only available for pictures during dinner. When eating on the dining plan this one credit quick service breakfast or lunch meal offers great value. Our breakfast for 3 adults and 2 children out of pocket was roughly $100, which was a bit pricey.
5. 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian Resort is another popular character option that requires early booking. We came away somewhat disappointed from Cinderella’s Happily Ever After Dinner despite the excellent character interaction. Because it was buffet style with average food and because the characters seemed to move so quickly it felt like we were in a marathon. We were worried about being at the buffet while the characters came to our table, especially when our little ones wanted to visit the buffet many times.
Cinderella and Prince Charming were indeed charming and danced together. The Step Mother and Step Sisters provided some rare and welcome edge to the event, teasing guests and providing great entertainment. There is no doubt this is a great place to eat when you are on the dining plan, especially because seeing the Grand Floridian resort is a must. However, our bill pushed $200 and that was hard to stomach.Park Fare offers a Supercalifragilistic Breakfast with the Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh and Tiger. It also has a Wonderland Tea Party in the afternoon with Disney Characters from Wonderland and an hour of games, stories and cupcakes.
6. Tusker House in Animal Kingdom offers exotic food choices and characters dressed for a safari. You enter the “house” into the main buffet room and then guests are seated in various rooms off that main room. This made the experience more intimate and not too loud. Many of the food choices were delicious with naan breads and dips, couscous, Mojo pork, Curry chicken and really great jalapeno corn bread. We missed out on the famous Zebra Dome dessert but the Turtle Brownies were a great second. Character experiences are offered for all three meals. We enjoyed watching Goofy tease Donald and fall in love with Daisy.
7. Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom has Winnie the Pooh, Tiger and Piglet. When we ate here some years ago we certainly weren’t blown away by the food. It is a standard buffet but it didn’t wow us with outstanding food quality. The atmosphere and décor is nice. It certainly does feel like you are in a Victorian greenhouse, with the white chairs and many windows in the ceiling. Tiger, Pooh and Piglet are super cute but it wasn’t a meal we have repeated.
On the list for next time:
Our rankings will surely change when we finally make it to some of the other character meals on the list. Of the character meals we haven’t tried yet, the following is in order of
Cinderella’s Royal Table is right inside the castle. It is a small dining room so is another meal that requires very early booking. You can meet Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Rapunzel and Snow White. Many little girls go here after a trip to the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique. We certainly want to try this meal but the two dining credit charge has deterred us.
Mickey's Backyard BBQ at Fort Wilderness Resort gets mixed reviews. Alcohol is included in the meal but it is two dining credits for outdoor eating. When were we at Trails End restaurant during a torrential rainstorm we were glad we hadn’t opted for the BBQ. It is an all you can eat BBQ buffet featuring live country music, live rope tricks and line dancing. Characters include Minnie, Mickey, Goofy, Chip and Dale. At $60+ per adult this is certainly a more expensive option.
Akershus Royal Banquet in Epcot (near the Frozen ride) is a great option because it lets you meet lots of princesses like at Cinderella’s Royal Table but only costs one dining credit. It does have Norwegian style food which isn’t enjoyed by everyone.
Cape May’s Breakfast at the Beach Club Resort Minnie and friends dress in beach clothes. This breakfast is said to have an underwhelming location, though the Beach Club is a beautiful resort.
Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort has a reputation for being a loud restaurant with standard buffet fair. Many say it is a must because it is the only place on park where you can see the “Fab Five”- Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy. We thought the atmosphere was too similar to a quick service cafeteria.
Hollywood & Vine at Hollywood Studios in the morning you can meet your favorite Disney Junior characters like Sofia the First, Jake & the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins. The food is a standard American buffet. For dinner Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Daisy appear and are dressed in seasonal attire.
*Remember that characters are subject to change at all meals and not all meals are offered every day. You also need a park ticket to eat at a meal inside a park.
Universal Orlando Resort opened in 1990 and is Orlando Florida's second biggest attraction right behind the Disney theme parks. It had over 9 million visitors in 2016.
Universal boasts three parks: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and their brand new water park – Volcano Bay. They offer five “on property” hotels so that you can make your visit even more immersive. They often have specials like the current buy 3 days get two days free or their vacation package deal for Canadian residents that is $99 per night when you book 5 nights (restrictions apply). You can even use your Air Miles to buy park tickets.
Universal is not connected to Disney, therefore, you do have to book these park tickets and hotels separately from your Disney vacation. If you wanted to combine a trip to both Universal and Disney theme parks your travel agent can arrange transportation between the two resorts. It is about a 25-minute drive.
When you walk from the giant parking garage ($20 per car) over towards the entrance to begin your visit, you look down on a great mini golf course (extra charge of about $15 per person) and are welcomed by the iconic Universal Globe. Before you actually enter the parks there are shops, restaurants, night clubs and a movie theater that makes up the City Walk. We were surprised by the size of this area and that you can enjoy it at no cost if you want to visit on a non-park day. Think party atmosphere with some stores.
Head to your right and you will enter Universal Studios where you can see Diagon Alley, the Simpsons, Minions, Curious George, Fast & Furious, Shrek, E.T. and the Jimmy Fallon ride among others. Head to your left and it is Islands of Adventure with Hogwarts Castle, Seuss land, Spiderman and some pretty big roller coasters.
On our last trip we visited the park on two separate days with our two little children. Even with two full days, we couldn’t see it all. Of course we spent most of our time in the two Harry Potter areas but we also enjoyed other parts of the parks too. Most kids are tall enough for all the rides around age 10 but little kids can certainly can go on a lot of rides as well. Below are our highlights from the perspective of a family with travelling with a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old:
Wizarding World of Harry Potter: A++
The Harry Potter rides are easily the best theme park attractions we’ve ever visited. The theming and authenticity of the rides and shops was incredible. We are certainly fans of the movies but aren’t experts on all the characters and storylines. This didn’t matter at all. Seeing the movies once is enough to appreciate the experience. We really felt that we were walking into Hogwarts and travelling into the vaults at Gringotts. However, our young children were pretty thoroughly scared by the rides. We’d recommend this for children over 8 depending on the child.
As you walk in to Hogwarts Castle, the temperature drops, the lighting is low and you are greeted by portraits on the walls that talk to you. You pass Dumbeldore’s office and see many familiar sights from the movies. The castle’s ride, the Forbidden Journey, puts you in a Quidditch match gone wrong complete with Dementors, and a spider spits on you! The ride made us very nauseous but it was totally unbelievable and immersive.
The Harry Potter attractions are actually spread over two parks and are connected by the Hogwarts Express train. Hogsmeade village and Hogwarts castle are located in Islands of Adventure, while Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios. In order to travel on the Hogwarts Express train, you require a “park to park” ticket. This will allow you to go between the two parks. We think it would be a shame not to ride the train in both directions. Truly this experience was so enjoyable and made you feel what it would be like to be in the movies.
We think Escape to Gringotts might be the best ride in Florida. You are immersed in the story line of the ride right from your entry into the bank when you pass goblins in the bank. It has roller coaster elements, 3D elements and special effects. The technology behind the ride is really impressive. They took a part of a movie and turned it into a ride that you can now be part of.
Universal's Volcano Bay Water Park
The new Volcano Bay water park is 28 acres in size, meaning you should plan to be here for a full day. The designers want you to feel like you are relaxing in a water oasis. They’ve included a river, a sand beach and a giant volcano with a waterfall. The coolest thing about this water park is their brand new technology call “Tapu Tapu.” You tap the totem at each slide with your wristband then go in the wave pool or have a snack while you wait for your time on the slide or attraction. Your Tapu also opens your locker and pays for your food or merchandise.
It is possible to walk from any resort to any other area within the Universal complex. You can also opt for a water taxi or shuttles that provide easy access to the park. This means you can let teenagers walk around on their own. With security checkpoints at each entrance the complex is advertised as very safe.
The five resort hotels on the Universal property are arranged from right to left on the map according to price. Here we feature them in order price lowest to highest. The Aventura hotel is opening this summer and it will have tablets in the rooms and a rooftop bar that serves tapas. The Cabana Bay resort sleeps 4, 6 or 8 people with a retro 1950’s theme. It is walking distance to Volcano Bay and you can see the volcano in the water park from some rooms. Sapphire is the Caribbean inspired hotel. Royal Pacific was recently renovated in a Polynesian style. The Hard Rock resort has a California feel with rock ‘roll memorabilia. The Portofino hotel is meant to invoke an Italian village with a piazza, outdoor cafes and a harbor. There are kids suites in all the hotels and some rooms have sleeper sofas (although this isn’t something that can be guaranteed).
Universal's Express Pass
When you stay at the top three resorts, the Express pass is included. The Express pass means that you go to the front of the line for each ride or attraction in the parks. Even better than a traditional fast pass, there is no limit to how many rides you can use your Express pass with and no waiting for your scheduled time to ride. An unlimited express pass means you can go to the front of the line multiple times for each ride. A non-unlimited pass means you can go to the front of the line once for each participating ride. If you do decide to purchase the Express pass, because you are not staying in the three resorts that include it, you should purchase it in advance because it can sell out. The cost to purchase the 2-park unlimited express pass is $84 and the 2-day non-unlimited express pass is $64. There are a few other options, but we think if you are going to visit you need to get a 2 park ticket.
Universal Dining Plans
When you stay on property you can also choose to buy a dining plan. These plans don’t seem to be the best option since they are not accepted in the resort’s restaurants. The quick service plan gives you one quick service meal, one extra drink, and a snack $21.99 for adults or $13.99 for kids. The table service plan gives you one quick meal, two drinks, and a snack plus one table service meal not including gratuities which is $51.99 for adults and $17.99 for kids. One neat feature is that you can buy the dining plan by the day and it is nice to be able to budget and prepay for meals in advance. We hope they decide to expand where they accept this and maybe even start offering free dining in the future.
Simpson’s World: A
We think this area is a must if you are a Simpson’s fan. There are great photo opportunities including new statues of Chief Wiggum and Carl. The food court had menu items right out of the show like a Krusty Burger or Frying Dutchman Fish & Chips and a Lard Lad donut.
Simulator Ride: B+
This ride had the gags and witty humor you’d expect from the Simpsons plus Side Show Bob! Even the pre-show to the ride was really well done.
Kang and Kodo’s Twirl n’ Hurl ride: B-
Our youngest loves these types of rides: think Dumbo’s ride with funny commentary from your favourite aliens.
Seuss Land: A for young children / C for parents
This area has good opportunities to meet characters, the rides and shops were very well themed and it was not crowded. However, it was certainly geared to a younger age.
Taradon flyers: B
Best for 6 years and up but not for people who are afraid of heights. The seat rocks and with only one seat belt, you really feel like you are flying.
Fievel’s Playground: A
This area provided a fun, shaded playground where our kids could cool off, jump around and really enjoy themselves. We wouldn’t have visited this area without young kids but we were really impressed by the theming and unique activities.
Curious George Splash Pad: B+
This area was another good cool off spot for young children. It really got us wet and we had to drag the kids away.
Shrek 4D ride: B+ for kids
Somewhat dated but enjoyable for fans of the movie.
Dudley Do Right water ride: A
“Crazy and not for the faint of heart” but our child still talks about it. Be prepared for a pure drenching You might even consider paying for the standing dryers (think hand dryers for your body) This is a good reason to pack a poncho or extra clothes.
Great Rides for Older Kids
So many of the rides have new technology. Some of the true thrill rides include the Transformers 3D ride, the Incredible Hulk Coaster, the Reign of Kong and Spiderman 3D. Despicable Me is another great option for older children that we simply ran out of time to try.
New things to watch for
When you are planning your Disney World vacation and trying to choose a Disney vacation package, one decision you have to make is whether you are buying the dining plan or not. We've put together some explanations, definitions and things to consider to help you decide.
Three plan types
why book dining?
Pros: There are some great reasons to add the dining plan to your vacation package.
In the past, Disney has released some dates each year that include their Free Dining promotion package. This means that if you book a certain number of nights at a Disney resort you can have the dining package for free. We have enjoyed Disney’s “free dining” options as part of our vacation package twice. It isn’t always free; your room charge might be cheaper if you took advantage of a different promotion (and you can’t combine free dining with other promotions) however, we certainly enjoyed the experience enough to recommend this option even when it isn’t the cheapest deal. There is nothing like the feeling like you are eating for free. Your Disney travel agent can let you know when Free Dining has been offered in the past.
kid friendly snacks
We have often remarked at the nutritious options that Disney offers. We appreciate that their menus denote the healthy choices with an icon and that all kids’ meals come with milk and fruit at no extra cost. When you know you are going to indulge in a Mickey bar later in the day you can swap out a lunch cookie for yogurt. Some of our favourite snacks included pretzels, bacon cinnamon buns, Mickey shaped rice crispy treats and Dole whip treats.
There are over 150 different restaurants to choose from at Disney. Planning out where you want to eat can be really fun. However, a good Disney travel agent should be happy to recommend your best vacation package option and book all your dining reservations at no extra cost.