Showing posts with label resorts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label resorts. Show all posts

Ultimate Walt Disney World Planning Guide

Planning a trip to the most magical place on Earth can be overwhelming for those who are new to the experience - and sometimes even to those of us veteran mouseketeers!  There's so much to think about when planning a Walt Disney World Resort vacation, let's break it down to what you should be doing before, during, and after the all important 180 day mark.

More Than 180 Days Before Your Trip

  • Book Your Resort Reservation - It's never too early to plan your next Walt Disney World Resort vacation! In fact, there are some great specials you can find before checking out of your current WDW resort.  These deals, called bounce back offers, allow you to grab great percentage off rates or even something like free dining.  Regardless of whether your booking a bounce back offer or planning your vacation from your couch, booking your hotel is a great place to start.  You have choices when you book as to whether you are booking room only or adding a ticket and/or dining package.  Sometimes booking as a package will allow you to take advantage of even deeper discounts.  There are a number of properties to choose from when staying at Walt Disney World Resort, and you can find a guide to understanding those categories here!  By booking your WDW resort BEFORE the 180 day mark, you can take advantage of a little bit of a head start on your dining reservations as resort guests can book their dining reservations for their entire stay beginning at the 180 day mark.  Not sure if a Disney Resort stay is right for your family?  There are many choices around the Orlando area for all of your vacation needs! Here's a look at what to consider when staying off property.
  • Plan a Tentative Itinerary - Are you someone who wants to park hop 'til you drop or are you someone looking to relax more on your WDW vacation?  Looking to see and experience the newest attractions?  Want to book gourmet dining experience?  Need three days in Magic Kingdom or just one?  You can start answering these questions and lay out a tentative itinerary. My plan changes probably fifty times or more from when I start planning, so you don't have to set anything in stone.  However, having an idea of what you want to do on each day of your vacation will help you starting looking ahead to those dining and FastPass+ reservations.  I use a simple table in Word to layout my plans and track changes I make, but there's lots of ways to keep your itinerary organized.  
    With so many unique dining options, where will you eat?

180 Days To Go!

  • 180 days is a big milestone in your Disney planning timeline!  This is the time when reservations for many of the activities you are interested in become available for booking - namely, dining reservations!  Using the plans you made prior to this point, you can begin thinking making dining reservations to go with your trip.  Did you book the Disney dining plan?  You'll want to make sure you're using your credits and booking one or two table service meals per day depending on the plan you booked. Most days I like booking one meal per day as a reservation.  That gives us an opportunity to sit down together and take a break from the rush of the day without feeling tied down with too many dining reservations to make the day our own while we're there in the moment.  If you don't get those reservations you wanted at the 180 day mark, keep trying!  Guests are constantly changing and updating plans so days and times may become available that weren't before.  Other reservations also open up at this point including recreation activities, makeovers, and much more! Looking for dining ideas?  Check out my restaurant reviews and also other options to try when you can't get the dining reservations you were hoping to grab.
  • Update your itinerary - Now that you have some dining reservations you may want to switch park days around or change up your plans.  This is a great time to start utilizing the My Disney Experience app.  Here you can track all of your reservations and plans in one place.  Find out more about this helpful planning tool here.

It's The Final Countdown


  • 60 Days to Go! - If you're staying at a Walt Disney World Resort or a Good Neighbor Hotel, you can begin booking your FastPass+ reservations at 60 days out.  Each ticketed guest can book up to three FP+ reservations per day.  You need to have purchased your tickets in order to reserve FP+ so make sure you have that taken care of prior to this date.  
  • Confirm information in My Disney Experience - Double check your MagicBands order on the My Disney Experience website.  You are able to customize your MagicBands by selecting a color option and can even upgrade to a character design now!  This is also the perfect time to make sure your flight information is added to reservation so that your Magical Express transportation to and from Orlando International Airport can be confirmed.  There is also a spot in the website to add specific room requests for your Walt Disney World Resort hotel stay.
  • 30 Days to Go! - This is when the FastPass+ booking window opens for guests staying off-site.  History as shown that some new times come available when this window hits to allow off-site guests a chance to still get FP+ for popular attractions.  Like with dining reservations, if you don't get what you want on the first try, keep checking back.  Guests continue to change their plans right up until the day of their trip and you can sometimes find great options at the last minute.
  • FastPass+ helps you experience more
    rides with less of a wait!
  • Finalize your itinerary - As you get closer to "D-Day" (That's Disney Day in this context!), it becomes more and more difficult to change your plans because you likely have more and more reservations booked.  With that said, it's not impossible.  Most of Disney's reservations have a very liberal cancellation policy of only 24-48 hours notice.  Just be sure to check the fine print, when booking your reservations so you know what to expect!  
While some bemoan the work that goes into planning a Walt Disney World Resort vacation, it is really a fun way to get your family excited about the trip as your countdown to creating your own magical memories!  If you are using a travel agent, they can help you manage all of this at no additional charge - just make sure they have adequate knowledge of Walt Disney World vacations.  Have specific questions?  Why not visit my friends over at the Disney Parks Moms Panel where you can ask your own questions and get answers from expert moms, dads, and Disney fans!  Happy Planning!

An All-Star Stay at Disney's All-Star Movies

When travelling to the house of mouse, vacationers to the Orlando area know that there are many choices for your hotel stay.  On my most recent Walt Disney World Resort visit, I once again returned to the bubble of being “on property” and stayed at Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort.  This was my first stay at a value resort in about 15 years as recent family trips have found us preferring moderates or deluxe resorts on property or choosing to stay for free using our Hilton points at one of the nearby off-property hotels.  I have to say that I was really impressed with my stay at All-Star Movies and wouldn’t hesitate to stay there in the future or to recommend it to friends and family!

If you are unfamiliar with the All-Star Resorts, there are a few things to know first before we dive into the specifics of Disney’s All Star Movies Resort.  First, the three All-Star resorts are built along the same stretch of road closes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park and include the following themes – Music, Sports, and Movies.  Each resort is very similar (minus the theming obviously) and guests at one resort are welcome to enjoy amenities at the other All-Star properties.  The All-Star resorts along with the Disney’s Pop Century have been undergoing and are still working through renovations to update the rooms.  With these things in mind, the information I’m going to share with you about Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort would also be likely to translate well to the other All-Star properties.


In my opinion the two most attractive things about Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort is the pricing and the theming.  I may drink the dole whip flavored Kool-Aid with a fancy Mickey straw, but even I can admit that a Disney vacation is downright expensive.  This is really rock bottom pricing when it comes to a Disney hotel stay with pricing fluctuating between $100 and $200 per night depending on season, room preferences, etc.  During my stay, the average price per night for a standard room was $133 and on a trip that I priced out while writing this, it came up to $114 per night.  That’s a great deal when you consider that you get all of the perks of staying on Disney property including complimentary roundtrip transportation to and from Orlando International Airport on Disney’s Magical Express, Extra Magic Hours in the parks, access to the Disney Dining Plan, early access to Advanced Dining Reservations and FastPass+ reservations, and much, much more.  If you’re a family that spends most of your time out and about in the parks anyway, this is a very budget friendly option.
 
Next, let’s talk theme.  I LOVED the themes of Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort as everywhere you look there are larger-than-life tributes to your favorite Disney films.  I was solo on this trip, but my two young boys would go absolutely nuts here!  You will make no mistake about the fact that you are in Walt Disney World.  Each section of the resort has a different theme based on a Disney movie.  A quick walk around the resort will highlight Toy Story, 101 Dalmatians, Herbie the Love Bug, Fantasia, and The Mighty Ducks.   The resort also features two themed pools including the main pool featuring Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia and a “quiet pool” featuring Goofy playing hockey in The Mighty Ducks area.  The theme was so amazing that it may make be break my own Disney rule of staying at a different resort each vacation just to experience it again.
A hidden playground!


Speaking of pools, the resort does feature some amenities for families to enjoy, although this where you will start to see a different between value resorts and those in other categories.  I found a nicely hidden and shaded playground for little ones in addition to the pools to enjoy some downtime at the resort with you need a break.  They also have an outdoor area where movies play at various times.  The food court features all quick-service items – no sit down restaurant at any of the All-Star properties.  The food was what you would expect from Disney quick service – good, but not great.  It was hot and service was friendly and fast.  There also is a gift shop (imagine that!) at the resort to pick up all of your Disney vacation goodies.  There’s nothing “fancy” here and certainly no amenity that stands out to make that the reason you book this resort in my opinion, but everything was clean, friendly, and certainly met my needs.

The rooms are also another place where you will see a difference in categories at the Walt Disney World Resort.  Again, my room was clean, comfortable, and certainly met my needs, but nothing to write home about – which was totally fine because most mornings I left my room by 6:30AM and didn’t return until 10PM or later.  I stayed in a room that had not been renovated yet and that was also handicap accessible so my pictures are probably very different than others out there.  My room featured one King bed, some furniture around the room, a TV, the dressing area with a vanity and sink, and then a bathroom that was all open including a wheel chair shower.  If you are considering a stay here soon, Google to get updated room pictures.  The rooms are being updated to include a Queen bed and then a Murphy bed to give guests more options in their room setup while not compromising space.  New carpet and updated bathrooms as well as new art will all give the rooms a fresh feel.  I booked a standard room and was located in The Mighty Ducks section which is the furthest away from the main building.  I was actually directly next to the main building for Disney’s All-Star Music Resort (literally just walked across an driveway to get there) so the front desk recommended and I took advantage of using that resorts restaurant each morning and bus transportation in the evening. 
Breakfast is always better when it's
shaped like Mickey!

The last thing I’ll comment on is the bus transportation because I often hear people criticize this when it comes to the All-Star properties.  Common complaints are that it is crowded and slow to these resorts.  I don’t think I would agree with slow.  After staying at a variety of properties from value to deluxe now in recent years, I think bus transportation is bus transportation and they all run on about that 15-20 minute schedule it seems.  I will say that busses were crowded, but again, I don’t know that I’ve experienced busses at park opening or park close that aren’t crowded when staying on Disney property.  There are times that a bus is shared among all three resorts so you do sometimes make multiple stops picking up and dropping off guests.  This isn’t always the case though.  Overall, I would not have any bus concerns scare you off from staying on Disney property.  You’re in Disney. It’s crowded.  

So, to wrap all of this up, I stand by my previous thoughts here on the blog that there's not a "bad" choice of where to stay on Disney property - just what's right for you and your family.  I really enjoyed my stay at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort and wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.  If your family prioritizes budget and time in the parks with young kids, this is probably a great choice for you.  If you are looking for a quieter, slower paced resort as you want to build more R&R time into your Walt Disney World Resort vacation, consider staying at a moderate or deluxe property to enjoy more of the amenities offered there.  I hope this helps you plan a stay that is "practically perfect in every way" for your family when visiting the Walt Disney World Resort!

DoubleTree Suites Disney Springs

Waiting at the DoubleTree for our bus to
Disney's Hollywood Studios!
Staying on or off property on you Walt Disney World vacation can be a daunting decision and one that each family must weigh for themselves.  The use of our Hilton Honors points allow us to travel to both Disney and non-Disney vacation destinations more regularly than we otherwise might be able to enjoy.  Those of you who are regular readers know that I have previously written about stays at both the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort and the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista.  You also know that I'm someone who enjoys trying new experiences on each of my Disney trips, so our most recent trip found us at a new Hilton owned property - The DoubleTree Suites Disney Springs.

There were a few things that caught my attention about the property from the beginning.  First and foremost, as Diamond Hilton Honors members, our family enjoys free breakfast each morning at the hotel which is another cost saving strategy for our Walt Disney World Resort vacations.  Like many other properties in and around the Orlando area, the hotel provides free transportation to the Disney Parks.  Busses run on a schedule roughly every 30 minutes and service 4 hotels in the Disney Springs area.  Speaking of the Disney Springs area, while we didn't spend time there during our short trip, this location is perfect for exploring the shopping, dining, and entertainment mecca that has blossomed in Disney Springs.

As you may have guessed from the name of the hotel, each room here is a suite.  We had a one bedroom suite that was generously sized for our family of four.  While I neglected to take pictures of the room itself, I'll do my best to describe it.  Upon entering the room, there was a kitchenette and a dining area as well as a sitting area including a sleep sofa, TV, and chair.  The bedroom was separated by a pocket door.  Behind the door stood another TV and a King bed as well as the bathroom.  The separation is fantastic when traveling with little ones as we could stay up after putting them to bed - that's if we had the energy to stay up after a busy day in the parks!

We truly loved our stay at the DoubleTree and there were some things we didn't even get to enjoy - like the pool as our stay was during a rare cold-snap in Orlando.  I could see us enjoying another stay here in the future!

Disney's Coronado Springs Resort

Many of our most recent trips to Walt Disney World have found us at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek thanks to the all of the Hilton Honors points that we have accrued over the years.  But on my girls weekend trip for runDisney's Princess Half Marathon weekend, my friend Christine and I decided to stay on property.  For a trip with such a short turnaround, the perks of Magical Express and regular transportation to all of the race events made it a smart choice for us.

In all honesty, Disney's Coronado Springs Resort was not our first choice.  We were hoping to grab a room at Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter,  but by the time we got around to booking, the resort was sold out.  Keeping with my tradition of liking to stay someplace new each visit, we then opted to stay here.  I have to say that, as always, I was impressed with the theming, service, and beauty of the resort.

The resort is large featuring several styles of buildings, each connecting with a type of architecture from the Southwest and Central America.  We requested a room in the Casitas which was closest to the main building, but a good walk from the main pool.  The resort surrounds Lago Dorado which provides a beautiful centerpiece to the entire resort.  The main pool, the Dig Site, is centrally located as an island in the center of Lago Dorado.  We visited the pool area for about an hour one afternoon, but only enjoyed the hot tub as it was a little chilly and windy for pool time.  Upon arrival at the resort, guests enter into the main building which houses registration, guest services, a gift shop, several restaurants, and the Conference Center.  Yes, you read that right - Coronado Springs boasts a Conference Center too which makes it perfect for adult travelers which can be a nice change of pace to the often kid-crowded All-Star resorts.  The ambiance around the resort is quiet and relaxed - perfection!

Rooms at this moderate resort are decorated with subtle Disney touches throughout.  As a Conference Center resort, the theming here is much more scaled back than others.  One of my favorite features were the dark doors that closed around the sink area and the bathroom.  This was especially nice on a runDisney weekend when early mornings mean that we need ample opportunities for naps throughout the day.

Transportation around the entire Walt Disney World Resort is available by busses.  There are several bus stops around the resort property so that you are never far from a bus ride to the magic!  For Princess Half Marathon weekend, charter busses picked up in front of the main building and we never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus.  Despite the large footprint of the resort itself, it never felt oversized or inconvenient.  My favorite afternoon happened to be lying in a chair by the lake and reading for hours on end.  Beautiful and peaceful.

Overall, I would highly recommend this resort to those seeking a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of your Disney vacation.  There are several choices to relax whether it's at the pool, the spa, or enjoying one of the many restaurants on property.

Looking for additional information about Walt Disney World Resorts and reviews of my favorites?  Check out more of my thoughts here! 




I'm officially a runDisney Princess!

It's been quiet for a few weeks on the blog as I've prepared for and traveled to Walt Disney World for my very first Princess Half Marathon Weekend.  I'll be posting more details on each of these experiences in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to take a minute and give you a quick weekend recap from my trip.

Where We Stayed - For this trip, I was back on Disney property and stayed at Coronado Springs Resort.  The moderate level hotel is also a Convention Center and as such boasts several dining options, a spa, and beautiful grounds.  We were only here for two nights, but enjoyed our stay.  It's definitely one I will recommend to friends and family in the future.

Where We Ate - We had two new dining experiences on this trip.  We visited Chef Art Smith's Homecoming in Disney Springs for dinner one evening where we were delighted by some down home southern cooking.  And on Sunday, we enjoyed the Gospel Brunch at House of Blues - also in Disney Springs.  The Gospel Brunch, which features a buffet of New Orleans favorites and a gospel concert, had been on my "must-do" list for a while now and it didn't disappoint!  I also had the pleasure of introducing my friend Christine to California Grill.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that dinner while watching the fireworks from California Grill is one of my favorites and I was excited to do it again.

What We Did - We ran the Glass Slipper Challenge!  When you spend less than 50 hours in Walt Disney World and run both a 10K and Half Marathon, there's not much time to do anything else.  Both races were a lot of fun.  In typical runDisney fashion, characters and entertainment were everywhere you looked.  And the bling. . .oh, the bling!  It was a fabulous weekend of race medals - my new favorites in my ever growing collection.  Princess Half Marathon weekend had a very different vibe then my previous experiences at Wine and Dine.  It felt "crazier," but I guess that's what happens when you have 20,000+ women running in tutus!

As you can see, it was a short trip, but I was able to pack in many new experiences.  I can't wait to share them with you in the weeks ahead and I'm already counting down to our next trip in November - a return for runDisney's Wine and Dine Half Marathon weekend events!!

Quick Trip Recap

We're fresh off our latest trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and I have so much to share about our vacation!  We traveled with my parents and stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek.  This was the first time we've stayed off property with kids and I have to say that the Hilton was a perfect choice.  I'm going to update my review of the property with everything that we enjoyed with the kids, but in short, the pool, breakfast, and transportation made it easy to enjoy all the parks had to offer as well as relax around the resort during our "down time."

Daddy and Caleb enjoying the pool at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
Our week long trip included a 6 day Magic Your Way base ticket where we visited one park per day.  We opted to spend 2 days each at Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom with 1 day each at Epcot and Hollywood Studios.  Inside the parks, we tried a few new experiences including The Pirates League at Magic Kingdom and the Jedi Training Academy: Trials of the Temple at Hollywood Studios.  Brody, our 4 year old, loved all of the Star Wars activities at Hollywood Studios in particular.  While Hollywood Studios is getting a bad rap lately due to so much of the park being closed for the addition of Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land, I think this might have been one of Brody's favorite days.

My handsome Captain Hook!


Brody was an extremely brave Jedi as he battled Darth Vader and Kylo Ren!
We also tried a few new dining and evening experiences.  The Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage was a memorable evening and one that I would highly recommend to anyone with young kids.  We also enjoyed a fabulous date night out at Jiko with it's delicious South African cuisine and tried out the breakfast at Akershus inside of Epcot.  I was also thrilled to run in the inaugural runDisney Wine and Dine 10K my last day in Walt Disney World.

Meeting my doppelgänger, Snow White, at breakfast!
Just a few quick pictures from the inaugural runDisney Wine and Dine 10K
I'll admit that the week long vacation with a 1 year old and 4 year old had its trying moments, I still think that the boys enjoyed their time in the most magical place on Earth.  I can't wait to share all of the experiences with you from my trip over the next few weeks.  Stay tuned for some new and exciting posts!

Disney Fun Outside of the Parks

One of the most expensive parts of a Walt Disney World vacation is the park tickets which will easily cost a family of four over $1000 for a week - and that's without added options like park hoppers and doesn't include room and food.  But tickets for a brief weekend to Disney can also break the bank for families as even a 3 or 4 day ticket will cost several hundred dollars per person.  This got me thinking recently about ways that you can "do Disney" without being in the parks.  Here are 5 great things to do around Walt Disney World that won't require theme park admission, but will still add a magical touch to your vacation.

Consider a character breakfast at a resort - You can meet some of your favorite characters without needing to visit one of the parks.  Breakfast at 1900 Park Fare, 'Ohana, Chef Mickey's or Cape May Cafe offer a variety of characters and settings.  The cost of the buffet will run you between $20 - 30 per adult (less for kids 3-9 and free for little ones under 3).  Character breakfasts are extremely popular and book up quick so make sure to get your reservations when they open 180 days out.

Dine, Shop, and Play in Disney Springs - Here you will find world class dining, lots of Disney and non-Disney shopping, and fun activities like a movie theatre and bowling alley.  The Boathouse even features really awesome amphicars that you and your family can take out for a spin.  Here you can easily spend an entire day enjoying all that there is to see and do!

Strolling the Boardwalk - Disney's Boardwalk is located between Epcot and Hollywood Studios outside of The Boardwalk Resort and the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.  On the Boardwalk, you'll find a some restaurants and quick grab and go boardwalk favorites.  If you're looking for an adult evening out, check out Jellyrolls, a lively dueling piano bar.

Take a walk on the wild side at Animal Kingdom Lodge - Visit Animal Kingdom Lodge and get a chance to get up close and personal with animals that frequent their safari.  Here you can find viewing spots for all kinds of wildlife.  While you're there, you can also dine at Sanaa which looks out on the Sunset Safari at Kidani Village for a chance to see zebras and giraffes while you have a delicious meal!

Catch the Magic Kingdom fireworks - I know what you're thinking, how can I do this without a park ticket?  There are lots of options! Restaurants like 'Ohana, California Grill, and Narcoossee's offer views of the fireworks from the monorail resorts while piping in the music as though you are standing on Main Street, U.S.A.  Another unique way to see the fireworks is from a cruise on the Seven Seas Lagoon.  Ferrytale Wishes: A Fireworks Dessert Cruise offers a dessert party onboard a cruise while the Pirates and Pals Fireworks experience gives you a chance to meet Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, and Peter Pan in addition to seeing the fireworks.

If you happen to be passing through Orlando and want a quick Disney fix without spending a small fortune on park tickets, check out some of these ideas to get a little Disney magic into your life.  Not all of them are free, but most will be a significant savings over a park ticket.

It's the Most Wonderful Time. . .

. . .of Disney vacation planning!  Today marks 180 days until our next Walt Disney World trip, which means - drumroll, please - it's dining reservation day!  While I'll be spending the next week securing reservations for our upcoming trip, here are just a few of my top new choices on my list.

I run Disney so I can eat Disney! Portobello Bisque at Artist Point.

Minnie's Seasonal Dine at Hollywood and Vine (Hollywood Studios) - This will be a new dining experience for me.  Since we're going at Halloween, Minnie and her friends will be dressed in their most bewitching costumes.  Our plan is to head here on the first night of vacation so we can get our Halloween trip started off the right way!  This meal is also offered as part of the Fantasmic Dinner Package so we won't only be getting a great character meal, but also prime seating for Fantasmic.

Tiffins (Animal Kingdom) - The newest restaurant to hit Animal Kingdom doesn't even open until Memorial Day, but I already can't wait to try it out.  In a park that is seriously lacking table service options, I think Tiffin's will be a welcome addition.  It promises to offer a variety of flavors inspired by exotic travel destinations.

Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge) - Dan and I have been trying to make it to this restaurant for a "date night" for many trips now and we finally have the chance since my parents are traveling with us.  I think the thing that my husband is looking most forward to at this restaurant is the wine list.  The large collection of South African wine will be the perfect compliment to a relaxing meal and a night off from "parent duty."

Dining in Walt Disney World offers so many choices and these are some of the ones I'm most excited to try out this trip.  Our itinerary is coming together nicely and I hope we're able to see everything come together to make this the best trip yet!  For more tips on getting your dining reservations booked, check out my thoughts in a previous post.

Disney on a Dime

Walt Disney World is a vacation that some families see as a once in a lifetime trip.  When friends and acquaintances find out how often we travel to Disney, one of the first questions they ask is how can we afford it.  Disney doesn't have to break the bank.  Here are some of my favorite money saving tips we use when planning our Disney trips.

Buying Gift Cards at Target (or Costco, or Sam's Club, etc.) - There are a number of stores that offer Disney Gift Cards at a discounted price.  For example, you can save 5% off of Disney Gift Cards by using your Target Red Card.  That $1000 worth of gift cards will end up costing you only $950.  And if you purchase your gift cards online and use Ebates, you can earn $20 in cash back to your Ebates account.

Weigh the pros and cons of staying off property - Staying at a hotel off property can often be significantly cheaper then staying on property.  But remember to add in hidden costs when you consider this option - resort fees, parking costs, transportation to and from the airport and parks, etc.  Since we have a lot of Hilton points, we've been staying recently at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek for free.  And you can't beat free!

Book Character Breakfasts instead of Character Dinners - Character meals are a must do for most families in Walt Disney World.  Many character meals offer the same characters at all three meals, but breakfast can be significantly cheaper.  It's a great way to still get that enjoyable character experience without the extra strain on your wallet.

Skip the ticket extras - Park Hoppers and Water Park tickets can be fun, but really aren't necessary on your vacation.  You can easily plan your vacation and squeeze in lots of family fun without the need to hit multiple parks in one day.  And with resort pools boasting amazing water areas, you probably won't even miss the water parks.  Skipping these options will save you hundreds of dollars off of park tickets.

Pack your own snacks - Walt Disney World allows you to bring in your own food and drinks to use for the day.  We often pack an extra suitcase with food and snacks from home and then order some fresh fruit and drinks from an online grocery service like Garden Grocer.  Packing a bag with our own food is an easy way to save on the expense of eating in the parks.




Welcome to 2016!

With the turning of the calendar, a new chapter in the book life is about to be written.  I thought I would take some time to look back on my resolutions from my "Happy New Year" post from this time last year and reflect a bit before setting my goals and resolutions for this year.

  • Maintain balance between wife, mom, daughter, Kristi, and Assistant Principal.  Juggling multiple roles can be exhausting and I want to do my best to prioritize and make time for each of these important responsibilities in my life. - This is probably still my biggest struggle moving forward into 2016.  Keeping up with two kids, a full time job, my house and husband, and still making time for me is never easy.  I think as I move forward this year, this is going to continue to be an area I focus on with my resolution being to be present in every moment.  When I'm at home with my husband and kids, be at home and enjoy them.  When I'm working out, use that opportunity to clear my head and focus on me.  And when I'm at work, give 110% there so I can also have time for my family when I get done.

  • Run a half-marathon.  After the pregnancy, I've decided to set an ambitious training goal to force me to get off the couch and back into shape.  My plan is the Wine and Dine Half-Marathon in November.  Which leads me to Resolution #3. . . - At the end of the year, I'd have to say I half accomplished this goal.  The Wine & Dine Half-Marathon was shortened because of storms in the area to only 6.72 miles.  In 2016, I will run a half-marathon!  Currently, I'm planning to take part in the King Crab Challenge which includes the Frederick Half-Marathon in May, the Baltimore 10-miler in June, and the Baltimore Half-Marathon in October.  

  • Somewhere Disney.  If you know anything about me by now, you know that I need to feed my Disney addiction with a yearly trip.  Dan and I are celebrating our 5 year anniversary this year and are planning either a long weekend getaway to the Food and Wine Festival in November or a short DCL trip in October. - Well, we ended up blowing this one out of the water with a surprise last-minute trip to Walt Disney World with the kids for a week in July where we stayed at Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.  My husband and I have different memories of this trip, but I say it was fabulous!  We then also went in November for a long weekend for the runDisney Wine & Dine Half-Marathon weekend where we stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. The Food & Wine Festival was a fun time and I can't wait to participate in another runDisney race.  Sadly, it doesn't look like a trip to Walt Disney World or Disney Cruise Line is in our budget for this year, but my trip in November means that I'll still be eligible to apply for the 2017 Disney Parks Moms Panel and my husband has already tentatively given me the green light for a Disney trip in February 2017 to participate in the Princess Half-Marthon Weekend.  

  • Continue blogging and interacting with the social media community.  2014 was a first for me with beginning a blog and actually using Twitter.  I've had an amazing time connecting through these outlets and hope to build my skills and followers in the year to come.  If you don't currently follow me on Twitter, please do @dsnyrunrgrl.  I've also applied to host a #DisneySide @ Home Celebration and submitted my interest to be selected for the #DisneySMMoms On the Road Conference - fingers crossed!  And hopefully I'll make it past R2 in the Disney Parks Moms Panel Search this Fall. - This is another area where I feel like I exceeded even my own expectations.  My blog readership increased exponentially this year and my Twitter following has grown from under 100 at the beginning of 2015 to over 1,000 by the end of the year.  I've also entered into the world of Instagram.  I was so excited to host a DisneySide at Home Celebration in February and even more humbled and grateful for the chance to attend the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration On the Road in New York City.  This year, the Disney Parks Moms Panel search ended with an exit in Round 1, but it was exciting to chEAR on some amazing friends who were fortunate enough to make the panel this year and maybe next year will be my chance to be a part of the magic!  

2015 was a year of exciting changes personally too with the addition of our youngest son Caleb in February and purchasing a new home in January.  The beginning of the new year always brings excitement and anticipation and I hope that 2016 brings pixie dust and blessings to my family and yours!  Happy New Year!

Hilton Bonnet Creek & Marathon Weekends

As a frequent traveler to Walt Disney World, I'm always a fan of staying on property with some of the perks like Magical Express and Extra Magic Hours.  However, my bank account isn't always as big of a fan.  And with a healthy supply of Hilton Honors points saved up, we opted to spend our runDisney weekend at the Hilton Bonnet Creek where we could stay for free and use our money for more Disney fun.  Located on a privately owned patch of land that is right in the center of Walt Disney World property, the location of the Hilton Bonnet Creek means that you are the center of all of the action.  This was my first visit to the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort, but I don't think it will be my last!

Outside of the Hilton Bonnet Creek
Rooms & Amenities
The resort itself is beautiful, both inside and out.  The lobby featured numerous areas of comfortable seating and looked out onto some outdoor seating areas where gas fire pits greeted guests each evening.  We checked into a room with a Disney view where we could see Spaceship Earth, the Hollywood Tower of Terror, and ESPN Wide World of Sports all from the panoramic view out of our window.  Our room also overlooked onsite amenities such as the pool and golf course - shared with the neighboring Waldorf Astoria.  While we didn't play any golf on this trip, we did enjoy the pool complex which features a pretty cool lazy river, pools, and several hot tubs.  

The pool complex
Restaurants
On property, there are several restaurants that you can enjoy when taking a break from the parks.  Each morning, we enjoyed breakfast at Harvest Bistro - where there was both a continental breakfast buffet and a full hot buffet.  There were a lot of the usual offerings on both buffets, but a few unusually delicious treats like Pumpkin French Toast Casserole and an artisanal cheese and meat tray.     We had lunch one afternoon poolside at Beech where a waitress served us in our cozy lounge chairs.  My husband and I both opted for the pizza that day.  I was expecting a personal sized entree, but was shocked at the large serving size.  It was delicious and there was plenty leftover to take back to room later on for a snack.  We also tried out La Luce on the evening of the Wine & Dine Half Marathon.  I chose to go for the child's sized spaghetti so that I wasn't overloaded before the race.  The food and atmosphere were both pleasant.  With a wide variety of Italian dishes on the menu, I wish I would have been able to try more.

Transportation
Probably the biggest downside to staying at a non-Disney hotel is missing Magical Express.  Since free transportation was not available to and from the airport, our party arranged for a Mears Luxury Sedan for our travel needs.  It was roughly $75 each way plus tip.  As a group of four adults, we would have spent almost that much on one of their airport shuttles which makes the sedan a no brainer with a dedicated driver, luggage assistance, and direct to your hotel service.  Once at the hotel, free coach bus service is provided each hour to the four major Disney parks.  The coach busses were very comfortable and not overcrowded.  Another big perk of the coach transportation was having the space under the bus to store strollers - making it easier for everyone on board!  If the timing of your plans doesn't match with the bus schedule available, you can always take a cab to the parks for less than $20 each way.

Getting ready to board the bus for the Wine & Dine Half Marathon!
Marathon Weekends
Probably the biggest draw of the Hilton Bonnet Creek during runDisney weekends is the support they offer to runners.  Overall, I was pleased with the race weekend experience, but there were a few cons to go with my pros.  On the plus side, free transpiration is provided to the half marathon race and the hotel features a big send-off to the runners before they leave featuring music, food, and water.  However, I was disappointed to not have transportation for the expo or the 5K during the Wine & Dine weekend.  Since we didn't rent a car, we ended up arranging for Mears transportation or taking a cab to these events.  I was also a little surprised at the overall lack of knowledge by concierge staff on the events of the weekend.  Messages seemed confused - for example, how race transportation was going to work, departure times, and return transportation from the after party at Epcot.  Everyone couldn't have been nicer at helping us try to find the answers to our questions, I just thought more people would be familiar with the race weekend events.

Overall, I would return to Hilton Bonnet Creek again!  It was beautiful, well maintained, and featured many great amenities.  Having stayed at both the Hilton Bonnet Creek and Hilton Lake Buena Vista, I would definitely recommend Hilton Bonnet Creek, especially for families.  There are a few improvements that could be made with regards to Marathon Weekends, but this is a really nice alternative to staying on Disney property and still getting great race weekend treatment.  

Artist Point - Pacific Northwest Cuisine in WDW

Artist Point Menu
There are many things I enjoy about a Walt Disney World vacation, but one of the best parts in my opinion is trying out all of the delicious restaurants on property.  Did you know that more than 125 restaurants can be found across theme parks and resort hotel properties?  With choices ranging from quick service sandwiches to fine dining with some of the best chefs in the nation, there truly is something for everyone.  When my husband and I have the chance for some adult time on our vacation, we always enjoy trying out one of the signature dining locations.  Our most recent trip to Walt Disney World was for the Wine & Dine Half Marathon weekend and we went sans kids.  We visited Artist Point, located inside Disney's Wilderness Lodge, for a late dinner with another couple.  I will give a little disclaimer before starting this review.  We had a very long and unseasonably warm 13 hour day in the parks and had a 9PM dinner reservation.  I think I was more tired than I was hungry which may have impacted some of my overall opinions of the experience.  

The location and decor of the restaurant were comfortable, but not as awe inspiring as some other signature restaurants.  There were large windows overlooking the outdoor area of the hotel while the interior featured soft lighting and beautiful murals depicting life in the Pacific Northwest. It was a pretty restaurant, but didn't compare to California Grill's breathtaking views of Magic Kingdom and the Wishes fireworks show.  

A view across the restuarant
One of several murals throughout the dining area
Our waiter made a few recommendations for the table including the Smoked Portobello Bisque.  The soup was smooth and tasty - it turned out to be my favorite item of the evening!  For my entree, I opted to go with the salmon.  Maybe I was expecting to much of a "wow" dish since we were in a restaurant that should specialize in salmon, but I wasn't overly impressed.  I felt like it lacked seasoning and flavor that could have really enhanced the dish.  In my opinion, the winner of the entree category was the Aged Buffalo Strip Loin that my friend Craig ordered.  When it came time for dessert, I was too tired to keep eating so I passed, but my husband ordered the fruit cobbler and our friends split the fresh donuts.  Both looked tasty!  Throughout the meal, the restaurant staff was able to offer wine pairings that complemented each course - something very important for my husband!

Smoked Portobello Bisque - YUMMY!  A must try!
Cedar Plank Salmon
Overall, I would go back to Artist Point again if I was staying at Wilderness Lodge, but I wouldn't go out of my way to resort hop to make it there.  There are a number of other choices that are just as good or better to check out while in Walt Disney World that are also more convenient to the parks, such as California Grill or The Hollywood Brown Derby.  

What's your favorite signature dining experience in Walt Disney World?

#TravelTuesday - Your First Trip to Walt Disney World, Part 1

Since many of my friends and family know that I love traveling to Walt Disney World, I get a lot of questions from first time visitors.  For first time guests, Walt Disney World vacation planning is overwhelming and I frequently get asked, "what do you recommend?"  There are so many pieces of your magical vacation puzzle to put together, it's simply too much to sum up in a few sentences.  With that in mind, I'm going to break down my best first time visitor advice in a few posts to help spread a little pixie dust to those of you planning your first vacation.

First things first, decide on your when to go and where to stay!

For most families, this process begins about a year prior to their big trip.  However, don't fret if you're throwing together a last minute Disney trip.  As I've shown, it can be done!  Regardless of how far away your trip is, deciding when and where to stay is usually the first step.  Walt Disney World has many great festivals and holiday celebrations throughout the year that add to the already fantastic attractions at the parks.  If you're looking for the least crowded times to travel, avoid major holiday breaks and summer as times that children are usually off school tend to drive up attendance numbers in the parks and wait times on the rides.

Sunset at Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
When deciding where to stay, the first thing you need to know is that you have both "on property" on "off property" choices when staying in Orlando.  For first time visitors (and even the experienced Disney traveler), I highly recommend staying on property.  You get free transportation to and from Orlando International Airport, easy transportation to and from each theme park, extended park hours, advance FastPass+ reservations and so much more!  There are also over two dozen resort hotels to choose from in various price categories so that there is something for every budget.

There are some other options outside of the traditional vacation package booked through Walt Disney World.  There are several companies, such as David's Vacation Club Rentals, that will allow you to rent Disney Vacation Club points from members to stay at Deluxe Villa Resorts without the full price tag.  You could also consider staying off property where you will find some cheaper prices, but without the extra perks of staying inside the "Disney bubble."  Whichever option you choose, your family is well on it's way to planning a magical vacation!

The Turf Club Bar and Grill

After making the trip to Walt Disney World, families are either anxious to hit the parks right away or relax at their resort.  When we arrived on our last trip in July, the flight down to Florida with two kids wiped my husband and I out and we were ready to check into our room and spend a quiet evening in at our resort.  We also needed a place to grab dinner at our resort, Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa.  Since we had eaten fast food at the airport earlier in the day, we were pleased to be able to grab walk-in availability at a table service restaurant at the resort, The Turf Club Bar & Grill.



The Turf Club Bar & Grill continues the larger theme of this resort as a rich history of horse racing is celebrated.  Just outside of the restaurant is a full service bar and a billiards table as well as TVs and comfortable chairs.  When you enter the restaurant you'll be greeted by rich, dark woods and a dimly lit atmosphere.  There is both interior and exterior seating depending on your preference.

For dinner, my husband and I both ordered the Turf Club Pasta with Grilled Chicken.  The garlic and spices helped to flavor a very light dish as the fettucine, chicken, and vegetables were tossed with olive oil.  The menu here wasn't extensive, but the food was tasty.  The large portions also meant that we were able to each take some pasta back to our room for lunch later in the week.


With over 300 dining choices on Walt Disney World property, there are many great choices.  I think it takes a truly special dining experience to pull guests into a resort restaurant and The Turf Club Bar & Grill doesn't have a standout meal or unique character interaction to make it worth the effort to "resort hop" to get here.  However, if I found myself at Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa again, I wouldn't hesitate to visit this restaurant for a good dinner and relaxing evening.

Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa

I'm fresh off our latest trip to Walt Disney World where we enjoyed the comforts of Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.  For each of our seven nights, we called this lovely resort "home" and enjoyed what it had to offer.  Saratoga Springs is a Disney Vacation Club property featuring a wide variety of rooms ranging from studios to the Treehouse Villas.  The resort is absolutely beautiful and sprawling.  The resort is themed after Saratoga, New York and highlights a golden era of horse racing.  It's located near Disney Springs (currently transitioning from Downtown Disney) and features a walking path to that area.

"Welcome Home"
The resort has five areas - The Grandstand, The Carousel, Congress Park, The Paddock, and The Springs.  We requested a room in The Springs as it is the closest to the main building and pool.  Due to the size of the resort, there is an internal bus system.  If you want to be first on the Disney Transportation busses, stay at The Grandstand.  Even though we were the last bus stop at The Springs, we never had a problem getting a bus when we waited.  There are three separate pools throughout the resort.  We opted to visit the pool at The Paddock which also included a specially designed children's area with water features and a water play area for children under 48 inches.  This pool was also zero entry which was perfect for our 3 year old.

The Paddock Pool
There are also several restaurants on property.  The Turf Club Bar and Grill is a table service restaurant featuring traditional American / country club type entrees.  There is also Artist's Palatte - a quick service restaurant located next to The Turf Club Bar and Grill in the main building.  In addition, you can find limited menus at restaurants and bars near the pools.

One of the beautiful walkways around the resort.
During our vacation, our family of four (including a 3 year old and a 5 month old infant) stayed in a studio villa.  Like many other Disney Vacation Club properties, the studio villa features a bed, sleeper sofa, table and two chairs, TV, full bath, closet, and kitchenette.  While a studio was tight when we had to add the pack 'n' play for our youngest family member, we were able to make due for the week.

The view from our standard view studio villa.
Saratoga Springs was a beautiful resort, but featured little "Disney" theming.  If you're family is looking to be surrounded by Mickey and immersed in Disney movies, you won't find it here.  Considering all of the resorts we've stayed at previously in Walt Disney World, Saratoga Springs would not be my first choice simply because it is not convenient to any of the parks - a perk that is important to us with young children.  However, I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.  From a Disney Vacation Club standpoint, Saratoga Springs offers a lot of rooms at a relatively "cheap" point value and is probably the least popular.  This means that you can often find rooms available here at the last minute - a rare find for Disney Vacation Club studio villas.  

Have you visited Saratoga Springs on a Walt Disney World vacation?  I'd love to hear your experiences too!


5 Reasons Why Disney in July is Fun!

Summer is the most popular season for family travel in the U.S.  While the kids are out of school in most parts of the country, families take advantage of the warm weather to spend some quality time together on some amazing vacations.  For some though, Walt Disney World is immediately removed from the list of summer vacation destinations.  I understand.  Some worry about how hot and humid Florida summers can be while others are fearful of facing large crowds.  Well folks, as someone who has travelled to Walt Disney World during the summer twice before and about to embark on another trip in less then a week, I can reassure you that you can indeed have fun in Walt Disney World in summer.  Check out these 5 reasons why your Walt Disney World vacation is still fun - even in July!  

5. Great water parks! - Walt Disney World is home to, not one, but two amazing water parks.  Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach provide lots of family entertainment and a great way to beat the heat.  If you visit Walt Disney World outside of the summer months, you may not get to experience both as in the "off-season" they typically only have one water park open at a time.

Typhoon Lagoon is the perfect place to take a break during your summertime Disney vacation!
4.  No school guilt - While my two are still too young to be missing school when we travel during the school year, I know as an educator how difficult missing a week of school can be for students.  Traveling to Walt Disney World in the summer means that you can have all the Disney fun you can manage without any of the guilt associated with pulling your kids from a week of school!

3.  Later park hours - This is something I didn't really appreciate until our November trip this past year.  I'm just used to parks staying open later and was amazed to see regular park closing times of 8PM for Hollywood Studios or 10PM for Magic Kingdom.  When you add in the early Magic Kingdom closings for special events like Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party (7PM closing time) you have less time to fit in your favorite attractions.

2.  Your Resort Pool - Disney resorts (an even the off property resorts I've stayed at) have some amazing pools.  The pools are not-to-be missed essentials on a summer vacation, but are often overlooked when traveling in the cooler off season months.  Of the Disney property resorts I've visited, my favorite pool so far as been at Port Orleans Riverside.  The water slides are great - even for big kids!

1. It's Disney! - And who can say no to a Walt Disney World vacation anytime of year?!?! Regardless of when you travel, the parks offer a great variety of activities and even in the Florida heat you can find ways to stay cool and have a great vacation.

Last Minute Disney

"Sometimes it's fun to do the impossible." ~ Walt Disney

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a type A, perfectionist, super planner - especially when it comes to Disney.  I've always preached the importance of planning out your Disney trip well in advance to get the best resorts, dining, and FastPasses.  I don't think I've planned a Disney trip in under 6 months. . .until now.



Friends, I have done the impossible.  I have planned a Walt Disney World Resort vacation in just 12 hours only 33 days before we were set to leave.  How you ask?  Well, let me tell you!

We had our July vacation plans change and were now faced with both my husband and I having a week off a work, 2 kids, and looking for family fun.  *Cue the Disney music* I'm always up for a Disney trip, but all it took was one cute "I want to go Disney World, Dad" from our three year old and Dan was also convinced.  Once I had the green light to get planning, I wasted no time!

Step 1:  We really enjoyed using David's DVC Rentals on our last trip to get a Deluxe resort at non-deluxe pricing.  I went out on a limb to see if I could find any last minute availability through them.  While we couldn't get our first choice resort, we were able to find a Studio available at Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.  In just three hours from my initial inquiry, we had secured our reservation and had a confirmation number - ready to keep the planning rolling!

Step 2:  Next, we went after our tickets and FastPass+ reservations.  You can't book FP+ reservations until you have purchased park tickets and linked them to your My Disney Experience account.  In the past, we have used Undercover Tourist to purchase tickets at a slight discount.  However, we felt more pressed for time on this trip so that we could book FP+ before even more experiences were gone.  With that in mind, we opted to purchase our tickets directly through Disney and they showed up in our My Disney Experience account immediately.  After a few hours of intermittent planning online, we had secured FP+ reservations for all of our top picks and I was pleasantly surprised how many experiences and how many good times were still available.

Step 3:  Last part of the initial planning rush was to look for dining reservations.  We opted to not do the Dining Plan again.  I'm not sold on the value of it, especially for our family with a three year old that is a really picky eater.  We were able to get dining reservations at three character breakfasts and a few good dinners.  Only 33 days out meant that we missed our chance for the most popular places and best times, but overall I'm pretty pleased with what we got and plan to check back each day to see if we can find any last minute cancellations.

So that's it - Disney trip planned in less than 12 hours.  While I was doing all of this, Dan had the job of booking flights so we are all set to go!  In the weeks ahead we have a few more details to iron out - like our Garden Grocer order - but we're in a great place and counting down the days to Disney!

My Resort Bucket List

I've done several posts reviewing restaurants and resorts at Walt Disney World.  Today, I decided to try something different.  Walt Disney World has so many resorts and I can't wait to try many of them!  Below are the ones that I would consider top of my bucket list for upcoming trips.

Value Resort Category - Art of Animation
As a mom of two little boys, I can't wait to visit this resort!  While the title may say "value" resort, the rooms are spacious, well decorated, and carry a bigger price tag then other resorts in this category.  Standard rooms in this resort are themed after The Little Mermaid while the family suites are themed after The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Cars.  I can only imagine the faces on my little guys as they enter a Cars suite that they get to live in while on vacation!  I may have a hard time getting them to leave and want to visit the parks!!

Moderate Resort Category - The Cabins at Disney's Fort Wilderness
Those of you who know me well, may find this one surprising.  While I don't enjoy the idea of camping at all, I think of this as more of "glamping" and if anyone is going to get me to like it, it will be Disney.  The cabins feature both living space and a sleeping space with a bit more room then your average moderate resort room.  In addition, you have easy access to Mickey's Backyard BBQ, Hoop-Dee-Do Revue, and are just a quick boat launch away from Magic Kingdom.  Again, these rooms come with a steeper price tag then others in the moderate category (hmmm. . .I'm noticing a trend. . .), but the extra money seems to be well spent to have a truly unique Disney resort experience. 

Deluxe / Deluxe Villa Resort Category - Boardwalk Inn
Honestly, I think I could stay in any resort in this category and be over-the-moon happy.  But, when thinking about where I want to stay next, the Boardwalk Inn is a winner in my book.  What I like most about the Boardwalk Inn is the location.  As far as proximity to parks, you can walk to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios from here and take a bus to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.  And as the name suggests, the Boardwalk Inn is located on Walt Disney World's very own boardwalk.  The boardwalk features restaurants, nightclubs, and entertainment that provide a multitude of activities when you need a break from the parks - all right in front of your hotel.  

Planning future Walt Disney World trips is my favorite hobby and I hope to have the chance to stay at some of these resorts soon.  I'd be interested in hearing feedback from any of you who have stayed at these resorts previously.  What was your experience?