Wednesday, August 17, 2011

So, You're Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation? (Part 3)

Approaching the Wilderness Lodge

Our favorite place to stay
Since we don't have the chance to visit Walt Disney World (WDW) every year, our family really values having a comfortable place to stay that also captures our imagination and that is in a convenient location. For us, that means checking into Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort!  The rustic, but grand entrance (inspired by the great national park lodges in the northwest U.S.) signals to us that it is time to leave our work-a-day world behind and focus on having some good ol' family fun.

A view from the patio and pool area
In addition to having an impressive 7-story lobby, the Wilderness Lodge has a huge fireplace with rocking chairs, a great pool area, its own geyser, and a boat dock for relatively quick trips to the Magic Kingdom.  The Whispering Canyon restaurant is a hoot since the cast members (staff) do a great job of staying in character and there are plenty of dining room activities for the kids (pony races, Lincoln Logs etc.) Beware if you ask for the ketchup!  Whispering Canyon is one of the most filling places for breakfast I've been to at WDW and I highly recommend the skillet-style (a big family style platter) breakfast if you want to have second and third helpings.  Even though the Wilderness Lodge is a Deluxe Resort, it is the most affordable hotel in this group.  The adventerous theme, variety of recreation offerings at the resort and boat transportation make it a worthwhile investment for our family.

Rooms at the Lodge
During our last trip to the Wilderness Lodge we requested two rooms with bunk beds and we got them on the 1st floor with a patio view of the Silver Creek near where the creek bubbles out from the lobby. At first we weren’t sure about the courtyard view on the ground level, but we liked how easy it was to get out to the lobby (via the hallway across from the arcade) and to the bus stop. We didn’t have to wait for elevators and we could easily walk down the hall to get out to the pool. The pool noise didn’t bother us since we faced the meadow area.  Previously, we had stayed on the other side of the resort on the 3rd floor facing the pool and the patio area outside of the Roarin' Fork quick service eatery. There are plenty of room options available to suit a wide range of tastes.

Silver Creek winding through the Meadow

Getting your bearings at the Wilderness Lodge
After you get settled, I suggest taking a quick walk around the resort to get your bearings and to check out the amenities. There's plenty to discover inside and out! Beyond the pool there is a sandy beach (no swimming though) and a climbing structure for kids. Boat rentals (as well as bike and life jacket rentals) are also in this area. Along a boardwalk is the resort's geyser and event further on a boardwalk is the boat dock for transportation to the Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary (where you can easily transfer to the monorail) and the Fort Wilderness resort campground. Surrounded by pine trees, the Wilderness Villas, (a Disney Vacation Club site) are off to the side of the Wilderness Lodge. Inside the Wilderness Resort you'll also find the Mercantile and Arcade.  The Mercantile had a good selection of food items and a variety of Disney merchandise, including clothing with the Wilderness Lodge logo. Also in the lobby, a PhotoPass photographer was usually available during our last visit in the early evening to take photos on the bridge that crosses the headwaters of the Silver Creek. This is nice place for a family or group shot. When you are exploring, don't forget to watch out for Hidden Mickeys and animal tracks on the outdoor paths.  If you want more details, ask about the formal tour of the resort.

Recreation near the Wilderness Lodge
  • My husband and son enjoyed the Sea Raycer boat rental options during one of our visits. Next time I'd like to rent one of the surrey bikes to explore the pathways around the resort.
  • The Wilderness Lodge pool area is easy to get around and has a jacuzzi area and baby pool. The water slide not really tall, but it has a high fun factor.  
  • I have heard that Chip 'n' Dale's Campfire Sing-a-long at the nearby Fort Wilderness Campground is a lot of fun, but we have not done it ourselves yet.  There are also several other activities at Fort Wilderness.
Transportation to the Parks and Elsewhere from the Wilderness Lodge
One of the best features of the Wilderness Lodge is that you can take a boat directly to and from the Magic Kingdom! You'll have the chance to ride on a variety of vessel types and sizes if you use this mode of transportation during the course of your vacation.  From this dock you can also take the boat to the Contemporary Resort for a monorail connection or over to Fort Wilderness. Boats seem to come 
frequently (every 15-20 mins. or so).

Boat approaching dock at Wilderness Resort

If you are headed to other parks, water parks or to Downtown Disney, you can easily take a bus (head outside past the Mercantile and Arcade to the bus stop). Note that while you can get to the other Disney parks by bus from this stop, you cannot get to every Disney resort via bus. However, the concierge can help you determine the fast way to get there and call a cab/van when needed. (We ate at Cape May CafĂ© at the Beach Club Resort for breakfast one morning and found out that the fastest way there would be to take a cab/van. It arrived within minutes to pick us up at the front door of the Wilderness Lodge.) 

Additional information about the Wilderness Lodge
Take a look at these other great resources about the WDW Wilderness Resort:

A view of the Wilderness Lodge from Bay Lake
Check back for information about dining ideas and highlights from the different Walt Disney World parks!

Monday, February 7, 2011

So, You're Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation? (Part 2)


Walt Disney World Railroad Station
What to carry
If you have young kids, you will probably want to carry at least one small bag. I don’t mind walking around with a backpack since you never know what to expect with kids.  The contents of my backpack (with paddled back and shoulder straps) includes toiletries (hand sanitizer pump/wipes, tissues, band aids, Neosporin, hand lotion, sunscreen sticks, water bottle, light snacks, self-stowing waterproof jackets/rain ponchos, extra camera batteries, cell phone, baseball cap etc.  A backpack gives you ample space for diapers/pull-ups and a small pack of baby wipes, if needed.  Especially if you are vacationing in the summer, I highly recommend packing lightweight rain gear since there can be afternoon showers. Having your own rain gear handy means you don't have to hunt down a poncho vendor in the rain. (Will you ever wear a Mickey poncho someplace else? Probably not!) I also packed extra clothes for each kid in gallon slider top plastic bags. (These came in handy after they got soaking wet playing on Donald's boat in Mickey’s Toontown Fair. Sadly, it will close in February 2011 due to the Fantasyland expansion.) 

Staying connected 
Always have your cell phone with you. This was helpful when we took different paths and had to find where to meet up again. I don't usually text, but it was great on vacation. Texting is especially helpful if you have an app that speaks your text messages automatically. Make sure you charge your phone whenever you can and it would also be handy to have an extended life battery and charger.

Don't miss a shot
Minnie Mouse
If you are a shutterfly, pack extra camera batteries (and charger) and make sure you have enough memory cards for the whole trip if you do not plan to unload your camera's contents on a laptop or portable drive each night.  I travel with multiple blank memory cards since I take a lot of photos and short videos on my camera.  I prefer my super zoom point and shoot camera (Canon PowerShot S3 IS) since it is fairly compact, but can still take a wide range of shots.  On our next trip I will probably also take my DSLR with a mid-range zoom lens.  If you have a couple of cameras and have the space, take both! (My husband prefers videos so he keeps the Flip MinoHD in his pocket at all times.) Carry an extra slider top or zip top plastic bag to protect your camera on the water rides.

Which way should we go?
Don’t forget your Park maps! You can pick them up in your resort lobby or at the entrance to each Park. If you and your family want to plan ahead, you can personalize them online and print them before your trip.  You can also have Disney mail them to your home if you request them well before your departure date. Take a look at your park maps before you head out each day so you have a good idea of the attractions you don't want to miss and so you know the locations of your dining reservations.  In addition, when you enter each Park, pick up a Times Guide for details about show times and performances at that particular Park.  Note that detailed Times Guides are only available in the Parks and they are dated.

This is how we roll stroll
With young kids, using a stroller in the Parks is not a bad idea. For one trip we brought our own single umbrella stroller, but it wasn’t able to hold both kids at one time and it offered no shelter from the sun or rain.  So, on our most recent trip we decided to rent a double stroller, which worked out well. There was enough room for both kids to sit and the stroller came with pockets for water bottles and our maps. We found the stroller most helpful in Epcot and the Animal Kingdom. Remember that there is a discount for renting a stroller for multiple days. When you rent for multiple days, save your receipt and just present it at the stroller rental stand when you go to a new park. To identify your rental stroller, you are given with a name badge/stroller plate. If you want to stand out in the crowd of rental strollers, you can print out some snazzy personalized name badges to take with you.

When you get out of a show or off an attraction, don't be alarmed if your stroller is not exactly where you left it.   Sometimes you’ll find that Cast Members move the strollers through the stroller parking aisle so they will be closer to the exit when you come out.

Even though Walt Disney World is the happiest place on earth, don't leave anything of value in your unattended stroller and you probably don't want to take the most expensive stroller into the Parks.

Kilimanjaro Safaris
What is a FASTPASS?
If you want to ride a popular attraction without waiting a looong time, get a FASTPASS when you enter the park. This will allow you to ride less crowded attractions and go back to the popular attraction at a specified time. You might have a brief wait, but the FASTPASS line is shorter than the regular line. Note that FASTPASSES for the most popular rides get “sold out” in the morning hours. If you really want to avoid the long lines, pick up your FASTPASSES early!

During early hours and when there's a break in the action, have a one family member take everyone's Key to the World Card and get multiple FASTPASSES for a desired attraction. A sample of rides that have FASTPASS access are:
  • Magic Kingdom - Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain roller coaster
  • Epcot - Soarin' (a FASTPASS is a must!), Test Track
  • Animal Kingdom - Kilimanjaro Safari Ride, Mt. Everest Ride, Kali River Rapids

  • Hollywood Studios - Tower of Terror, Rockin' Roller Coaster

Size Matters
Before your trip, check online for height requirements for rides if you have young kids. Disney provides a good online filter for all of the attractions so you can see which attractions to include on your list and which ones to save for a future trip.

Rider Swap
We never needed to use this option because we had extra adults in our party, but it sounds pretty handy. Parents can take turns riding without having to stand in line again.

Check out my future posts for suggestions about dining options,  information about the Wilderness Lodge Resort and more ideas about what to do in the Parks once you arrive!

Friday, February 4, 2011

So, You're Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation? (Part 1)

Where Dreams Come True

Over the past few months a handful of friends have asked for suggestions as they were getting ready to go on a vacation to Walt Disney World. I am far from a Disney World expert, but our family has made a couple of recent trips there with young kids and I wanted to share helpful hints with friends who were new to the Disney adventure. Tons of  information is already on the web about Walt Disney World vacations, but it can be really overwhelming to sort through. So, here is a bit of basic information and links to help you get prepared for a Walt Disney World vacation. Check out my future posts for information, hints and suggestions about what to do once you arrive!

Dining Reservations
Chef Mickey's Napkin Dance
Whether you’re on a Disney Dining Plan or not, book your character dining plans and sit-down meals as far in advance as you can. You can do much of this online, by phone talking with a Disney Dining Plan representative or via your travel agent. Many of the character meals are in high demand (for example Chef Mickey’s) and regular meal time reservations fill up quickly. Flexibility is the key in making these reservations. (If you need to schedule a late lunch/early dinner you can fill in the gap between meals by having a big breakfast with a mid-morning snack and plan for a really light dinner.) 

Vacation Calendar
As you are making your meal reservations, begin drafting a daily/week calendar that includes the reservations, important events, and general daily plans. This will help you see how much time you’ll have in the parks and relaxing at your resort.
You can color code and highlight what’s really  important.Travel with a copy and take extras to share with other members of your party. Also, if you have a smartphone, you can add much of this information to your phone calendar. 

You don't always have to do what the calendar says, but it is a basic schedule to help you get the most  work from once you arrive. (For example, during our last trip we had at least 3 dinner reservations that we canceled since we were busy and opted for a quick-service meal instead. It is always better to cancel than to have a lengthy wait without a reservation. I had the Dining Plan phone number in my mobile phone and called as a courtesy to cancel reservations.)

Basic information to include for each day:
  • General blocks of time for park visits and special activities like biking, pool, boating etc. We planned ahead which parks were going to be in based on our sit-down breakfast, lunch and dinner reservations. 
  • Meal reservation times, locations and reservation numbers 
  • Tentative time frames for quick-service meals and locations, if you have some in mind. 
  • Extra-magic park hours in AM and PM (We never stay ready late in the PM because our kids are still pretty young, but  the AM hours are good for getting on the popular rides without a long wait and for picking up Fast Passes for popular rides)  
  • Times of park parades and firework shows 
  • Arrival and departure times and airline flight numbers
Park Calendars – Park hours, entertainment schedule, Extra Magic Hours etc.
Walt Disney World provides detailed information about activities in each of the Parks. From the month calendar, click on the park hours information to get a daily schedules.

Disney PhotoPass
We got a PhotoPass with our AAA reservation packet and pre-registered it online (no charge for this). Once we started using it on vacation, we got an email with an offer to purchase the PhotoPass CD at a discounted price. You can also pre-purchase the Photo Pass CD, which may be even cheaper. Since we wanted to have family group shots and specialty shots, we bought the PhotoPass CD with the coupon that was emailed to us during the vacation. It was worth the price to have unlimited access to those photos.
(Photos on the Disney PhotoPass website expire after a certain date.) After vacation, uploaded the images from the CD to my Flickr account and printed them through Flickr/Snapfish to share with relatives. I will definitely pre-purchase the CD for our next trip.

A colorful PhotoPass border
One of the fun aspects of using the PhotoPass site is that you can crop the PhotoPass shots and add fun borders to them. Also you can upload your own photos and do the same. With the PhotoPass, we had the photographer take several group shots and did some of the magic character shots (with Stitch, balloons, Tinkerbell, baby Simba etc.) Be sure to ask the photographer about the “magic” shots available. We found a photographer in the Animal Kingdom who did our Tinkerbell shot after I specifically asked her about that character.  Some of the photographers were able to also take a group shots with our personal camera.
When you get your PhotoPass, copy the number and save it on your phone or email it to yourself. This will give you access to your photos if you happen to lose that PhotoPass. If it gets lost, just get another PhotoPass
More hints from All Ears website/newsletter  

Also, you can make reservations to have professional photos taken at your resort. We saw the marketing materials for this and thought that it was a cool idea.

Mobile Phone Apps
If you use Verizon, you can use Disney Mobile Magic to get character meet & greet times, attraction wait times, dining information etc. There is a cost for the app. You can also access Disney's mobile website if you have another carrier. 

Online Check-in
If you are staying at a Disney Resort, you can check-in online before you leave home and have your reservation packet waiting for you when you arrive.

Let the Magic Begin!
Disney Magic Express 
If you are flying to Orlando and are staying at Disney Resort, the Disney Magic Express Transportation service is a nice perk. Once you get off of the plane, all you have to worry about is your carry-on bags.  If you aren’t planning on traveling outside of the Disney Parks during your visit, you can leave your child’s car seat at home. (Car seats must be stowed on the Magic Express bus.)  Also, on the way home, the airline/luggage check-in at your resort makes departure time a breeze.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Looking toward the horizon on the first day of Spring

Originally uploaded by amongthepines

March 20, 2010 -- We left 70 degree temps and touched down in snow & sleet that Saturday in March. Normally that type of weather would put a damper on a visit. However, we still had plenty to be excited about since we were in the Windy City to celebrate a very special woman's (my grandmother's) 95th birthday. Thankfully, the precipitation passed overnight and we only had to contend with the wind and cold on Sunday, the day of the party. The gathering was a success and we enjoyed reconnecting with family & friends in celebration of a life so well lived. Seeing the continuous smile on my grandmother's face on Sunday afternoon was heartwarming. Her strong, loving, hardworking and generous personality was in full bloom. Although the weather outside didn't feel like it was early spring, I sensed that many of us who were at the celebration were touched in a special way. I returned home inspired, rejuvenated and ready to welcome the new season.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Chicago, Chicago--that toddlin' town..."

Originally uploaded by amongthepines

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to make a short trip to Chicago in my home state of Illinois. The Lake, Michigan Avenue, the Art Institute, deep dish pizza, the Blues, the buildings etc. What a great city!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Magnolia

magnolia crop
Originally uploaded by amongthepines

I haven't a flower garden, but I have two magnolia trees and they are a lovely sight in bloom. Their flowers are cause for pause, appreciation and reflection. Ah, refreshing beauty.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Reflective Windows - A View of Old East from Old Well in the Heart of Campus
Originally uploaded by amongthepines

It was shaping up as a warm and beautiful early spring day, but a dark cloud now hangs over the campus and town. During the lunch hour we found out the identity of the young woman who was murdered and was found lying in a residential street early Wednesday morning. She was the student body president who was a model university representative with a promising future. Why did this happen? We don’t know yet (there are currently no suspects), but, really, even an answer wouldn't make the situation better.

May her spirit find peace.