Random Disney Thoughts

I’m a bit late getting this done, but I wanted to get one last post in from our trip to talk about some of the things we hadn’t done on previous visits to Disney. The entire trip was a blast as usual, but a couple of the items below really helped make it even more memorable.

The 10-Day Pass

This is the first time we’ve done more than 5 consecutive days at Disney, and going in I was sure I was going to be sick of the parks half way through the trip, but can admit now that I was dead wrong. Normally we feel like we have to get everything done at whichever park we’re visiting the day we choose to be there, but having so many days on our hands, there was never any pressure to rush through the parks like we normally would. We went with a much more relaxed schedule where we’d head to a park whenever everyone work up, ride some rides, maybe head back to the hotel for a while, and later on either head back to that park, another one, or in a couple of cases to Downtown Disney for the rest of the evening. We had a general idea of which park(s) we wanted to visit every day based on the crowd calendar at EasyWDW.com, which we found to be pretty accurate. We did deviate from our plan a few times, but that was the nice thing about having so many days, as we felt like we had more flexibility in the schedule. If we had the time and extra money, it’s a pass we’d buy again.

We did make use of the ‘water parks fun & more’ option on our tickets, too, using them to gain entrance into DisneyQuest for a few hours the last Saturday we were there, before heading back to Hollywood Studios for one last park stint. For a Saturday, DisneyQuest seemed empty. I ended up sitting and relaxing most of the time we were there, as I wasn’t feeling that great (the heat was finally getting to me), but the kids had a blast.

Star Wars Weekends at Hollywood Studios

Star Wars Weekends are something they only do from mid-May through mid-June if I recall, and it was kinda cool. In addition to the existing Star Wars stuff they have at DHS (Star Tours, Jedi Academy, etc), they have a lot of characters on hand for autographs and pictures, and even some special celebrity appearances. We didn’t partake in the celebrity appearances, so I can’t really comment on what it entails, or how you get access to it. The characters were aplenty, though. Just about everywhere we went there were lines for various characters. Chewbacca, Luke, Lea, Boba Fett, Stormtroopers, and many, many more. It wasn’t just the kids who were in line either, there were plenty of adults, in some cases sporting Star Wars shirts, replica helmets they wanted signed, and a lot more. No judgement here, I have no leg to stand on, as I’m known to frequent autograph lines at races we attend :). Bayley got in on it too, taking pictures with a couple of characters. She was all too happy to wait 45min to get a shot with Chewbacca:

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One of the coolest things about Star Wars Weekends were the fireworks. They have a special ‘Symphony in the Stars’ fireworks show at 9:45pm each night of Star Wars Weekends with the fireworks shooting off to music from the movies. It was one of the best fireworks shows I’ve ever seen, to be honest. I have a few clips of it, but they’re nowhere near as good as the multi-angle video of the show that the WDWMagic guys have on their site. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend sitting through the whole 6+ minutes. Better than the nightly fireworks at Magic Kingdom, in my opinion.

Magic Kingdom 24-hour event

On May 22nd, the Magic Kingdom was open from 6am Friday to 6am Saturday to kick off the summer, using a Frozen-based theme of ‘Coolest Summer Ever’. We’d initially planned to be heading home that day, but once my wife saw this was happening, we pushed our 7 days at Port Orleans back to accommodate. We really didn’t see much in the way of promotion anywhere for this, as Disney seemed to be more interested in publicizing the 24 hour event going on at the same time at Disneyland, since that park was kicking off its diamond celebration with the 24 hour event. That lack of promotion was quite evident when we arrived on Friday morning for the opening of the park, too. We got there around 5:40am to be there and see the rope drop, and had no problems finding a good spot to watch the festivities.

Once the rope dropped, we headed into the park. We initially headed for the Snow White mine train ride, but seeing that a long line had already formed there, we headed to Tomorrowland. The lack of crowd that early in the morning was evident here, as we were able to ride Buzz Lightyear a couple of times right away with no wait while the kids did Space Mountain twice, followed by a couple of rides in Adventureland, all before 7am. The park really didn’t start to fill up until 9ish, the normal opening time. The place really did fill up, too, with Friday being the busiest day we saw at any park during our trip. An employee we talked to the next day at Hollywood Studios said he heard Magic Kingdom hit a peak of 84,000 visitors at some point during the event. In a couple of the shots below you’ll see quite the crowd at different points in the day. Sorry a couple are blurry, I wasn’t going to stop in front of a large crowd and get run down 🙂

I’ll be honest, we didn’t stay the whole time. About 4pm Friday afternoon we headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit and freshen up. After that, we headed over to the Contemporary early in the evening for dinner before heading back in to the park. I expected we’d see people start to trickle out of the park after the evening fireworks show, but even with the normal mass-exodus that clogged up main street after that, the park was still pretty full all night.

Side note here – we got stuck in the main street crowd after the fireworks show (not the first time we’ve made that mistake), and saw some pretty sad behavior out of the supposed grown-ups. I get that people were tired and didn’t want to be stuck there, but intentionally slamming motorized scooters and strollers into people to try and make them move out of your way when they have no where to go is a pretty poor example to be setting. I even heard more than one spouse tell their significant other they were going to do it. Someone near us mentioned witnessing fights breaking out between parents, too. Truly pathetic.

Back on topic, once we were back in, we stayed until about 4am, riding various rides and watching the 1am electric light parade. For our last ride, we finally sucked it up and waited in line for the Snow White mine train. At 70 minutes it was the longest line we stood in all week, but we were glad we waited, as it was a really fun ride. All in all, the 24 hour celebration event was a blast, definitely something we’d do again! Here are a few random shots from our time at the park that day.

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Disney Dining Plan Impressions

Coming in to this trip, we’d decided to splurge a little and add the dining package to our stay. Having never purchased it before, we went back and forth on which of the options to choose, but ultimately decided to go with the quick service plan on this trip, not wanting to spend more than necessary on an unknown. We did a little research on the dining plan ahead of time and had selected a few places to eat and snacks to get based on recommendations from other blogs on how to get the best value out of it, but if we’d had more time to devote to it likely could have done even better. My wife’s favorite resource was the Disney Tourist Blog, while I also utilized the Disney Food Blog quite a bit.

Reading various reviews and blogs on whether or not the dining plan is worth it will show some pretty mixed results. To get the full monetary value out of it, you do really need to plan ahead and figure out what restaurants and snacks represent the best value. Even if you get it free as part of one of their annual promotions, it still appears that you have to work to ensure it’s worth it when you factor in the non-discounted cost of the room and park tickets, at least according to this blog. Jen did a pretty good job tracking the cost of all of our meals and snacks over the week we had the plan, and thanks to a little creativity in where we ate we managed to come out ahead, but that only tells part of the story, and certainly doesn’t mean I’d do it again. Why? Let’s take a look.

For those unfamiliar with the counter service dining plan, you get two counter service meals and one snack per day per person. We had three meal plans, as we hadn’t added Bayley’s boyfriend Joe since we didn’t know until the last minute that he’d be joining us. This meant that overall, we had 42 meal credits and 21 snack credits to use as we saw fit over our stay on property. We each also got the refillable “unlimited” soda mugs as part of the plan. We did get unlimited mugs one time before when we stayed at Pop Century in 2009, but that was before they introduced the RFID-enabled mugs they use now. I get why they did it since far too many people refused to play by the rules when we were on the honor system and would bring the same mugs back on subsequent stays (this is why we can’t have nice things), but it made the experience a bit annoying a couple of times. It seems that once the system feels your cup is full, it induces a two minute delay before it lets you get more soda. It was smart enough to know that I hadn’t completely filled when I was doing a half-and-half fill with Cherry Coke and Coke Zero, but those times when I was super thirsty and wanted to drink some and refill right away, I was denied and had to wait. A minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience all the same. If you need it, there’s a great read on how the RFID-enabled cups work up here. They work at other Disney resorts, too, and appear to work for several days after your stay ends, as ours showed they were active until May 30th, a full 7 days after we checked out. We also found that paper cups given as part of meals at some of the hotel counter service restaurants had RFID chips in them that only allowed 3 refills that evening, too.

Anyway, back to the food. I think I mentioned in my last post that in the 5-6 weeks leading up to the trip that my wife and I had been on a pretty strict diet. It’s one that the coach at my boxing gym had put together for me to get me back in to shape after I’d regained some weight last year due to injury. I was down 25lbs when we got there, and over the course of the week on the dining plan, felt like I gained half of it back (but didn’t, thanks in large part to the amount of walking we did).

Oh, and I’d like to add that if anyone’s looking for a solid boxing gym in Charlotte, NC, be sure to give Dyme Boxing a try. I’ve been going 4 years now and have lost and kept off a lot of weight, and enjoy the workouts 🙂

Back on topic; with the dining plan, meals at counter service restaurants include an entree, dessert and drink. At most places I probably could have eaten a little healthier, but I’m pretty picky with my food, and many of the healthier options just didn’t appeal to me. My biggest example of why I didn’t like the dining plan centers around the desserts. Sure, I could have skipped them, but then I’m wasting money. That, and they looked awesome. For the most part, they tasted pretty good, too. Some examples of desserts we had, including a shot of the inside of Darth Cupcake (that’s delicious peanut butter in the frosting):

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We expected cupcakes with dry cake and cheap frosting, but were pleasantly surprised by all of them. Moist delicious cake with some pretty good frosting. By day three, however, I was tired of anything cake-based and was doing my best to find other options, like the frozen lemonade at Yak and Yeti, which was perfect on a super humid day at Animal Kingdom. By the time day five hit I’d had my fill of park food, too. Maybe it would have been different if we’d had the next plan up, where we could have gotten one table service meal, but still, I wanted something that didn’t taste like mass produced food. Thankfully the counter service options aren’t limited to the parks. The plan works at a small handful of restaurants at Downtown Disney as well, so a few days in to our stay, the kids headed out for a date night (Joe took her to dinner at Sanaa, which we all love), and Jen and I took the water taxi over to Downtown Disney and ate at Wolfgang Puck Express on the dining plan. Honestly, this place was easily the best bang for your buck that we found with any of our counter service meals. For the two of us, the total that night was over $50 before tip (tips aren’t covered by the plan), and our entrees were much better quality food than what we’d eaten in the parks. I had the bacon-wrapped meatloaf on garlic mashed potatoes with creme brulee for dessert, and loved it. We all agreed that their vanilla bean cheesecake shown in the picture below was better than the creme brulee, though, and all got that on our two subsequent visits. Here are pics of my meals here. I had the meatloaf twice 🙂

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Due to our character meals falling on day one of the meal plan and having small meals at other places we didn’t want to use the meal plan, we were able to use our credits to cover Joe’s counter service meals several times. We also ended the last day with 4 snack credits, and let the kids go pick out whatever they wanted before we left Hollywood Studios on the last night. Your credits expire at midnight on the day you check out, and you don’t get a refund on any that go unused. For snacks, we generally tried to ensure we used those credits on things over $4.50 in cost. My favorite was easily the school bread found at the bakery in Epcot’s Norway pavilion, although we had some pretty good sweets at the bakery in Germany, too. I don’t have a list of all the places we got snacks at, but I do have a list of the counter service locations we ate:

Be Our Guest was an interesting one. After checking the Disney Dining site multiple times each day to see if any space had opened up, we finally managed to get a reservation on one of our last park days. It’s an interesting (albeit slow) experience in the way you order, with kiosks available for your group to customize your meals. Once you order you go find a place to sit, and they bring your food to you on real plates, locating you by the RFID chip in your Magic Band (or the magic rose they give you if you don’t have a Magic Band). The food itself was some of the better in-park counter service food we had too, although the roast beef in my sandwich was slightly overcooked for my tastes. Regardless, it’s a neat experience that shouldn’t be missed.

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Oh, one additional tip when eating at any counter service restaurant with a dining plan: if you want a large drink, just ask. They generally default to giving you a regular size one, but will give you a large at no additional cost if you ask for it in our experience.

We did get value out of the plan, having consumed $142 more in food and snacks than the dining plan cost, but I can honestly say I wouldn’t have eaten half the sweets I did if it didn’t come with the meal or purchased the unlimited soda mugs, and as such, we likely would have spent noticeably less on park food, although to be fair we might have made up for it elsewhere. For me, the only reasons I’d have for getting a dining plan would be convenience and lack of sticker shock. Even those counter service meals are pricy, and the cost of a single meal adds up quick for a family. Not having to fork over a bunch of actual money with each meal would probably keep stress levels down. It’s a lot easier to just swipe a Magic Band, and Disney knows it.

Final verdict: While I wouldn’t jump on the chance to get the dining plan again, I think I’d get outvoted. They both want to try the plan with one table service meal at some point. We’ll see…