Monday, March 27, 2017

Magic Kingdom At Night

Walt Disney World is a magical place. But Disney magic takes on a whole new meaning once the sun goes down.

This is not a post about Disney fireworks, castle projection shows, or nighttime parades. I'm going to be honest with you: I haven't watched a Magic Kingdom fireworks show since my age was in the single digits, I've never seen a castle projection show in person, and when we took our kids to Disney for the first time two years ago, we didn't even bother to stay for the nighttime parade. In fact, we bypassed the parade completely by entering Casey's Corner and walking our way through the Emporium all the way to Town Square and exit the park. Now that I think about it, I don't think I've seen a nighttime parade since SpectroMagic replaced the creepy clowns on the balls with the face characters (which I was very upset about, by the way).

Previous creepy mask face creatures of (literally) nightmare-inducing horror. 
Most recent creepy face creatures that I avoided at all costs (even as an adult).

No, instead this post is about the magical experiences that occur in the hours of darkness at The Magic Kingdom (see what I did there? 😏). About an hour before the first nighttime parade, the back three quarters of the park begin to clear out as many guests begin to line the streets of Main Street USA and Frontierland in preparation for the parade (well, I guess began...there's no nighttime parade as of when I'm writing this article). Let me share one helpful tip with you that I've learned the hard way: if you don't want to get stuck in Adventureland and the west side of Main Street for about an hour to an hour and a half during the parade, plan ahead. Once the parade begins, the likelihood of you crossing the parade route to get to the east half of the park will be severely limited.

Because a sizable number of guests are viewing the parade and subsequent castle projection and fireworks shows, this leaves much of the rest of the park cleared out, or at least a more sparse grouping of people. This creates the illusion that the park belongs to you. Yeah, it's nice that there are fewer people around the attractions so that you might actually stand a chance getting on Peter Pan's Flight without having to wait 270 minutes in a claustrophobic queue with a bunch of sweaty and screaming toddlers. But there is so much more to appreciate at night than simply taking advantage of the shorter lines.

Take, for instance, the fuller immersion of the lands and story of the park just through the addition of lighting. For example, Tomorrowland seems to come more alive, at least to me, in the dark. The electronic background music that plays throughout the land seems to mesh a lot better when the neon lights and spinning planets that are lit up over Astro Orbiter are admired down the Avenue of Planets.

Or take, for example, Storybook Circus. One of my fondest recent memories of visiting Walt Disney World happened back in 2012, when my wife and I visited for our second anniversary (this was the same trip she almost killed a giraffe at Animal Kingdom Lodge and when we ate at the Coral Reef, all while evading a hurricane). It just happened that my aunt, uncle, and younger cousin were visiting Walt Disney World at the same time as us, and we had coordinated our plans to spend the evening together at the Magic Kingdom after dinner. It was late and the park had pretty much cleared out. We ended up over at Storybook Circus to ride Dumbo, which was one of my cousin's favorite attractions that trip and one of the few that my very pregnant aunt could actually ride. My cousin decided after a spin on Dumbo that she wanted to ride the Great Goofini, so my uncle took her over to ride it three or four times, while my wife, aunt, and I sat and talked while sitting on a low wall overlooking the dueling Dumbos. We didn't get to see my aunt, uncle, and cousin very often, as they, like the rest of our family, lived in Michigan, while my wife and I lived in North Carolina. It seems insignificant, but for me it was a special few moments with a family member that I had been very close to growing up, highlighted by the beautiful lighting of the fountained Dumbo spinners and the bare bulb sign of the Great Goofini.

Sometimes darkness creates an opportunity for adding story elements, as well. For example, the Haunted Mansion seems to become "more alive" after the shadow of darkness has fallen like a death veil. If the effect is working during your trip, you may see a ghostly light moving from window to window as though someone is carrying a lantern or candle through the mansion. During the evening hours, the howl of wolves or coyotes can be heard in the distance. There are also times when a strobe light simulates the flashing of lightning on the mansion, accompanied by a clap of thunder. These lighting and sound details can only be experienced at night, adding to the magic of this park later in the day.

I would argue, however, that the best place to spend the evening and nighttime hours in the Magic Kingdom is Adventureland. There is just something about the claustrophobic feeling of the dense jungle closing around you while flickering tiki torches light the area and the steel drum background music echoes through the land. One of my favorite Adventureland details, and I'm not sure if this is an effect that is still active or not, used to scare the crap out of my family. At night, the sounds of cannon fire could be heard occasionally from the cannons watching guard in the clock tower outside Pirates of the Caribbean, accompanied by steam issuing out of the barrel after he erupting cannon ball. Again, this effect was only active at night, which made it more startling because of the loud explosions in the pitch dark.

Some people argue that certain attractions should be experienced both day and night, as the darkness and mysteriousness of night brings a new dimension and side of the attraction's story. I couldn't agree more. However, while some argue that the best nighttime attractions are Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, I would argue that the best nighttime attractions are the Jungle Cruise and the Swiss Family Treehouse. There is just a sense of more laid-back adventure riding through the pitch-black darkness of the Jungle Cruise rivers, lit only by the search light mounted to the front of the boat, and the darkness seems to create a sense of intimacy between the passengers and skipper, more-so than one experiences during a daytime cruise. Darkness also creates a sense of serenity and peace in the boughs above Adventureland in the treehouse home of the Swiss Family Robinson. The vertical distance from the ground as well as the branches and leaves, both natural and Imagineer-made, that populate the area around the enormous tree, seem to block out the noise from the park and attractions below. The height of the platforms also provide some excellent night views of Adventureland, as well as the Magic Kingdom as a whole, that cannot be seen anywhere else in the park.

Once the fireworks have concluded, the park pretty much empties out, giving you a true opportunity to play and be spontaneous in the park. In fact, in certain parts of the park, you might not see another family or another person, creating the illusion that the park is yours alone. Take, for example, the time I was on vacation at Walt Disney World in my college years with my parents and teenage brother. We were in the Magic Kingdom around eleven o'clock and the hub had pretty much cleared out. We were taking our time leaving Liberty Square and heading toward the park exit, when we decided to stop on one of the bridges and peer into the canals. I turned and looked for my brother over my shoulder to see him standing against the railing, his hands in his pockets, peering into the black water below. At first glance, I thought he was urinating into the canal, and I called him out on it. The four of us laughed, because it was very obvious Sam was doing no such thing, but he quickly pretended like he was while I snapped a quick picture (#WeirdKisteHumor). Something like this would not have been possible during the daylight hours. Now, I'm not advocating that everyone go and pretend like they are peeing in water features throughout Walt Disney World, but this kind of spontaneity and playfulness only exists in the hours after the park has cleared out and gives way to the cover of darkness.

Hah...sorry, Sam ;-)

So next time you have the opportunity, I really encourage you to take a few moments and enjoy the peace and beauty that is the Magic Kingdom after dark. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Disney Dining Plan: Is It Worth It?

Welcome to this month's Blogorail Orange Loop. Today we are sharing parts of a Disney vacation that people often ask, is it worth it?

I like to eat.

In fact, as I thought about how to start this post, my mind immediately went to some of my favorite restaurant and dining experiences at Walt Disney World.

Cosmic Ray's Starlight Café. Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn. Be Our Guest Restaurant. The Electric Umbrella. Yak and Yeti.
One of my favorite quick-service restaurants, located at Epcot!

My mouth is literally salivating just thinking about the chicken fingers and fries that I always get from the quick service restaurants.

But the problem is that with as expensive as a vacation to Walt Disney World is, one's dining experiences often suffers. Does our family really need to go to a character meal or eat at the Be Our Guest if we are purchasing a three day Park Hopper for each member of our family of five, as well as staying at Port Orleans Resort: Riverside? Maybe we should just stick to PopTarts each morning for a late breakfast and a quick service meal for dinner...

The nice thing is that this is a decision that you don't have to make!

Instead, you can choose the Disney Dining Plan!

The Disney Dining Plan has different levels guests can purchase to add to their vacation package (as long as they stay at a Disney resort hotel and purchase theme park tickets), tailored to their vacation budget and the type and number of meals they would like to partake in during their trip.

There are three levels to the Disney Dining Plan (all prices are based on a five night trip for a family of four, added on to the price of your resort and park ticket prices):
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining ($691.83) gives guests access to two quick service dining meals per person per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining ($943.06) gives guests access to one quick service meal per person per night, one table service meal per person per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.
-The Magic Your Way Package Plus Deluxe Dining ($1,454.26) gives guests access to three meals per person per night from any category per night, two snacks per person per night, and one insulated drink mug that can be refilled at your resort hotel.

To really understand what you get when you purchase the Disney Dining Plans, we probably need to define the different levels of dining experience one can experience:

  • Quick Service is also known as counter service and is similar to fast food restaurants. This is a dining location, usually in the parks but also including resort food courts and a few locations at Disney Springs, where you stand in line to order your food, pick it up at the window, and find an empty table at to enjoy your meal. These dining locations usually have limited menus, featuring on average no more than five or six options to choose from. Meals at a quick service dining location usually run anywhere from $8-$14 dollars per person. Some of my favorite quick service locations are Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe and Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn in the Magic Kingdom, the Electric Umbrella at Epcot, the Backlot Express at Disney's Hollywood Studios, the Yak and Yeti Local Foods Cafe at Animal Kingdom, and Wolfgang Puck Express at Disney Springs, as well as the numerous resort food courts. 
  • A Table Service meal is a (sometimes) more laid back experience. Upon checking in, a host or hostess walks you to your table, where they give you a menu to order from. This is a full-service dining experience, where patrons can order soft drinks, alcoholic beverages (not covered by the Dining Plan), appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts. Because you are at Disney World, these table service meals are usually themed and sometimes feature entertainment. Meals at a table service dining location can run anywhere from $14.99-$59.99 per person. Please remember that most of these table service dining locations require advanced dining reservations (ADRs) that can be made on Disney's website up to 180 days in advance. Some of my favorite table service locations include the Liberty Tree Tavern and the Be Our Guest Restaurant at the Magic Kingdom, the Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe at Disney Springs. 
  • A snack is exactly what it sounds like. These small items can be redeemed at many locations throughout the Disney resorts and parks at locations including food courts, quick service locations, and even food kiosks. Some examples of what qualifies as a snack is a muffin, a piece of fruit, a box of popcorn, an ice cream bar, a bottle of soda, or even a cup of coffee.
Yummy Disney cookies (almost too cute to eat)!

Yummy cupcakes from the Boardwalk Bakery count as a snack!
There are often coolers in resorts' food courts filled with snack items.

And of course, my favorite Disney treat, the Dole Whip, counts as a snack credit, too! Yessssss!

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at some "disadvantages" that many see with purchasing the Disney Dining Plan:

1. First is obviously the price. The Disney Dining Plan must be paid for ahead of the trip at the time the entire package is paid in full. This amount may seem like a large cost to justify, especially months ahead of actually taking the trip. My wife and I have often had the "dialogue" about whether we could justify spending $700 on food for a five day trip.

2. The second argument against the Disney Dining Plan, honestly, doesn't make sense to me. A lot of people argue that they don't purchase the Dining Plan because of the quantity of food that you get with your meals. I don't see this as a problem, because as stated above, I like to eat. However, when visiting a table service or signature dining experience while on the Dining and Deluxe Dining plans, not only does your meal include a full entree with accompanying sides, but also a dessert. Now, again, I personally don't see this as a problem ("free" dessert with every sit down meal?) but some prefer to not eat such large, heavy meals while traipsing miles through crowded theme parks in central Florida.

"Free" Dessert???

Regardless of these two "disadvantages," I find that there are more advantages to the Disney Dining Plan that motivate me to purchase the plan when we book our vacation to Walt Disney World.

1. Refillable drink mugs. Included for each member of your party is an insulated drink mug that can be refilled an infinite number of times each day of your vacation at your resort. Because these plastic mugs are insulated, they can hold both hot and cold drinks. Therefore, you can refill your mug with soda, Joffrey's Coffee, water, and other drinks available at the resort food court or dining location. Now, not that I've ever done this, but I have "heard of people" who bring their refillable mugs when they resort hop (like riding the Monorail loop or go listen to YeHaa Bob over at Riverside) so they can take advantage of the soda fountains at the other resorts too. Disney's expectation, however, is that these mugs are only to be used at your home resort, but, I mean, it's not like there's anyone policing the soda machines...
My beautiful wife holding a refillable drink mug.

2. Ease and Freedom. The nice thing about the Disney Dining Plan is that it is linked right to your MyMagic+ account and your Magic Band or room key. After ordering at a quick service location or at the end of your meal at a table service location, Cast Members simply instruct you to tap your Magic Band or swipe your room key, automatically deducting your meal points from your account. No carrying around cash or a credit card, no fumbling in a bag or back pocket for your wallet required! No lifting of the sweatshirt tied around your waist, embarrassingly revealing your fanny pack, needed (again, not something I've done any time over the past five years...)!

Does anyone actually wear fanny packs anymore??? Because I don't...👀😐😶

3. Price of meals. Let's say that you decide to go with the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining at a total price of $691.83 added to your five day trip. This is actually a discount on food if you "go big" at the quick service locations. "Why?" you ask? The Quick Service Dining Plan allows you to not only purchase your entree at the dining location, but also a soda. So let's say that you spend $14 per person at the quick service location for two meals a day (lunch and dinner) across your five day trip. That totals out to $700 spent on food during your trip. And that doesn't even include breakfast! So let's say you spend an additional $6 per person on breakfast each day...that brings your total up to $850! Rather than spend that money, using the Quick Service Dining Plan allows you to get your two counter service meals with drink, as well as eat a muffin or piece of fruit (or if you're like me...nectar from the gods--erm I mean coffee) for breakfast, using one of your two snack credits per day. In the end, you'll be saving $150!

4. Cheating the system. After taking multiple trips to Walt Disney World on the Disney Dining Plan, my wife and I have found ways to "cheat the system." For example, let's say that you decide to go with the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining. This package provides you a counter service meal and a table service meal each day, as well as two snacks per day. Table service meals at Walt Disney World range anywhere from $14.99 to $59.99 per person. Since Disney doesn't designate what table service restaurants you can or cannot use your dining credits at, you can choose to use your daily credit on a more expensive, exclusive, and/or "fancy" dining experience (although some table service restaurants require the use of two table service dining credits, so make sure to check into that ahead of time). This includes character dining experiences! My recommendation is that if you want the best "bang for your buck," visit Disney's website and go to their dining page. Here, you can look at the menus for each restaurant on property and can learn what restaurants take how many dining credits. For example, you can dine at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Hollywood Studios, where meals run for an average of $20 per entree. Or, you could choose to eat at Boma, located at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, which averages $45 per person. Both meals only take one table service credit! The Sci-Fi is a fun, immersive dining experience, but serves your basic theme park fare of burgers and fries, with a limited selection of other entrees. However, Boma provides patrons with an authentic African buffet dining experience, giving diners the options of salmon, turkey, ribs, striploin, and many other higher end foods flavored with an African palate. If you prefer a quieter, higher-end meal, by purchasing the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining, you are getting more for your money by going to one of these higher-end options. Character meals are also only one table service credit on the Dining Plan. So if your little one wants to meet Mickey and Minnie or Cinderella and Belle, you can enjoy a meal with "character" at one of many dining locations (many of which would cost an average of $40 per person if you pay out-of-pocket). Some examples of this include Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot, the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood and Vine at Hollywood Studios, the Tusker House Restaurant at Animal Kingdom, and Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort.
Liberty Tree Tavern

The Crystal Palace
Another way my wife and I have figured out a way to "cheat the system" deals specifically with one of my favorite breakfast locations on Disney property: the Be Our Guest Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland. While this new(ish) restaurant is a deluxe and elegant table service restaurant at dinnertime, during breakfast and lunch the restaurant serves as a quick service dining location. This means that if you have purchased the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining, you can still enjoy this wonderful and well-themed table service dining location using one of your quick service dining credits! Just be sure to secure an Advanced Dining Reservation ahead of time, as the stand-by wait to get into this restaurant can be quite lengthy without one.
Be Our Guest Restaurant
5. Budgeting. Disney vacations are friggen expensive. I don't think any of us would deny that fact. However, more often than not, when we book vacations, we only book the resort and park tickets ahead of time, meaning that we then have to come up with some sort of vacation budget for our trip. That means that we have to estimate approximately how much we will spend on things like meals, souvenirs, and entertainment (Characters in Flight? Mini golf? Water parks?) and set aside additional monies for them prior to our vacations. And unless we end up pulling extra money from somewhere else, this could lead to meals and/or experiences being cut out of the vacation should we exceed our budget. When you purchase the Disney Dining Plan, it is included in your total vacation cost that needs to be paid off before your vacation. This means you don't have to budget for meals ahead of time, but rather could choose where you want to eat when you get "rumbly in your tumbly."

6. Free dining. Who doesn't like free stuff? I mean, someone offers me free food? Holy cow. I would be in heaven. I mean, it's amazing enough if I'd be in Disney World, but having free food at Disney World? Where can I sign up??? No, this wish doesn't require pixie dust to grant the wish, just a little bit of planning and travel flexibility. Every year, Walt Disney World offers special vacation offers for free dining if guests travel during certain dates. This means that guests who travel to Walt Disney World during certain times of the year (usually the "slower" times of year) and stay at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel are eligible to have a free upgrade of the dining plan added to their vacation package. However, there are some stipulations. In addition to being required to visit during a certain date range, guests usually have to stay at a moderate or deluxe resort and purchase a certain number of theme park days on their ticket. The free dining plan is usually an upgrade to the Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Dining. Check on Walt Disney World's Special Offers page throughout the year for more information.

So what would a hypothetical day look like for my family on the Disney Dining Plan?

  • On the Quick Service Dining plan, usually we start with using our snack credits for breakfast. We might use our credit to get a muffin or piece of fruit or carrots and hummus. We wouldn't need a beverage with our breakfast, because we could just bring our refillable mugs with us to the dining hall and fill those at the coffee percolators or soda fountains instead. For lunch and dinner, we would choose a quick service dining location located where we planned on spending our day. For example, if we are hanging out in the eastern half of the Magic Kingdom, we may decide to eat at Pinocchio's Village Haus or Cosmic Ray's depending on how busy the restaurants at that time. Or if we decide to spend an evening riding the Monorail around the resort loop, we might decide to disembark at the Contemporary to eat at the Contempo Cafe. The Quick Service dining plan gives you the flexibility and ease of deciding where to eat without having to budget or plan ahead with Advanced Dining Reservations. It allows for a truly spontaneous vacation experience.
Casey's Corner

The Riverside Mill Food Court at Disney's Port Orleans: Riverside Resort
  • If my wife and I decided to purchase the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining plan, we would likely start the day off the same way, redeeming our snack credit for breakfast. One big difference between the Quick Service and table service dining plans, however, is the necessity of making advanced dining reservations, which requires guests to make daily plans up to two months in advance. For example, during our last trip, we decided to have breakfast at the Be Our Guest Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. Because of the popularity of this restaurant, even though it is considered Quick Service at breakfast, we had to make advanced reservations, and were lucky enough to score an ADR at 8:15 in the morning. This meant that when we finished our meal around 9:00, we were able to hop on some of the more popular Fantasyland attractions just as the Magic Kingdom was opening. Because we ate at the Be Our Guest, that determined ahead of time that we would be spending the day at the Magic Kingdom. In the scenario where we got our snack for breakfast, we might spend our day at Epcot and get a quick service meal at La Cantina de San Angel, located across from the Mexico Pavilion (can you say "churros"???). This would maximize our park time during the peak of the day's activity. However, after the sun goes down and things start to become calmer and more peaceful at Epcot, we might decide to have a romantic table service meal at the Coral Reef (read my review of the Coral Reef as an idea romantic meal). Again, the necessity of having an ADR for the Coral Reef required us to plan our day around Epcot two months in advance, meaning that this was the day we had to book our Epcot FastPass+ reservations, as well. Purchasing the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining requires more planning ahead of time and less spontaneity, so make sure you account for that.
My dad and I at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater

Tony's Town Square Restaurant on Main Street, USA
The Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot

While the Disney Dining Plan can potentially be a large amount of money to have to shell out prior to your Disney vacation, I do believe that it is well worth your money in the end. It provides a less stressful experience while on your vacation and allows you instead to enjoy the magic of Walt Disney World on a moment-to-moment basis.

For more opinions on what is & isn't worth the splurge at Disney, check out the other great posts from the Blogorail!

Here is the map of our Magical Blogorail Orange | Is It Worth It? Loop:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Kids Ruined My Life

I sound like a horrible parent and a horrible person, don't I?

Before you start trolling me, let me explain. Maybe it would help if I told you what my life was like before my wife and I adopted our kids.

I used to sleep in until the last possible second. On weekends, I might sleep in until ten or eleven o'clock in the morning. I'd wake up with the sunlight streaming between the slats of my window shades. I'd get up, wander into the living room, flicking on the coffee pot on the way through, and turn on the TV. I might watch some Doctor Who or Spongebob or something while my wife showered and got dolled up.

Later in the afternoon, my wife and I might go drive around town just to get out of the apartment, take an afternoon nap, go out for lunch and dinner, and then go hang out at Target or something until ten or eleven o'clock. We'd get calls from our church friends at nine o'clock on Friday nights to hang out or meet at the local bar, and we'd drop whatever we were doing and head wherever to meet up with them for a cold drink, staying out until midnight or one o'clock.

We'd go where we wanted, when we wanted, whenever we felt like it. We could be selfish, swear without consequence, watch PG13 or R rated movies in our living room at 7:00 in the evening, and practically walk around our apartment naked if we wanted.

No big deal.

And then, on February 9, 2015, we welcomed two little boys into our life, and four months later, their teenage sister (read more about our adoption journey here  and here).

Because the boys were only three years old, I could no longer sleep in.
Instead, I got up early to make the boys breakfast and see their faces light up at the prospect of eating "dinosaur oatmeal."

I could not get a restful sleep through the night.
Instead, they would cry out in the middle of the night, not knowing where they were, calling for "mommy" and "daddy" and would fall asleep in my arms as I rocked them on the edge of their beds, fully putting their trust in me to keep them safe, provided for, and loved.

I could not stay out late with our friends or meet up at all hours of the night.
Instead, we spent more of our time at home, teaching our boys how to read or playing Uno as a family of five, the three kids being goofy with each other.

Instead of my house being peacefully silent, it became filled with laughter.

Instead of being immaculately clean all the time, the house became full of Lego creations and works of "art" plastered to my fridge.

Instead of being able to sit and watch my television shows or play video games on my Wii, I get the opportunity to do more laundry, cooking, and cleaning. This gives me an excuse to serve my wife, to help her out and show her how much she is loved and appreciated.

Instead of spending all our free time with friends who are single or newly married, we instead are able to spend our time with other couples who are either starting a family of their own or already have kids the same age as ours, creating some amazing relationships.

Instead of spending a quiet evening at home with my wife after the boys go to bed, I've been given an amazing opportunity of supporting our teenage daughter at her tennis matches, swim meets, BETA Club induction, and her winter sports court ceremony.

Instead of sitting in bed and watching our shows on Netflix or taking an hour reading before bed, my wife and I get to pour into and invest our time talking to our daughter about her school day, to support her in her endeavors, to watch Prom videos and makeup tutorials and show her how amazing and special of a young lady she is and how much she is loved by her mother and I.

So, yes. Becoming a parent absolutely ruined my life.

But I wouldn't have it any other way.