Thursday, August 21, 2014

What to Bring? My Packing List

When it comes to traveling I'm neither a minimalist nor a packrat. I'm not saying I've found the ideal choices of what to bring when away from home, but I have found a balance that works for me between having what I need while on the road and being able to carry those items around. Traveling to Disney World can be a little different for those who use Disney's Magical Express transportation, because you can check your luggage all the way to your hotel, meaning you don't have to carry your bags through the airport in Orlando or even to your hotel room. For some, this could be a license to over-pack. Others prefer to bring only the essentials for their vacation, buying extra items along the way as needed.  For me, the time and money spent on buying items I can easily transport is not worthwhile, but I usually rent a car (no Magical Express), so I have to be able to easily carry everything that I bring. It should be noted that I generally fly on Southwest Airlines, which does not currently charge for checked luggage.

Below is my standard packing list. Clothing will vary slightly depending on the weather for the upcoming trip, but most items stay the same from trip to trip. I carry three different bags, including a backpack for most of my photography gear, a 20" duffle bag for the plane, and a 22" rolling suitcase that I check. I'll save the photography discussion for later, since only applies to a small subset of readers, but will list what I bring in the other bags now.

Suitcase (22")

  • portable sunshade
  • poncho
  • sunscreen
  • shoes (1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of waterproof sneakers)
  • plastic bags (for storing leftover food, laundry, wet bathing suits)
  • extra tripod
  • food (oatmeal raisin bars and cereal bars, often replaced by souvenirs on the way home)
  • charging stations (there are never enough power outlets in hotel rooms)
  • packing cubes
  • underwear (fast drying to deal with the Orlando heat and thunderstorms)
  • socks
  • polo shirts
  • soccer jerseys
  • t-shirts
  • belts
  • long pants
  • shorts
  • bathing suits
  • sweatpants
  • shaver
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, shampoo, comb, Swiss army knife, nail clippers, floss, Airborne, ibuprofen, Visine, Neosporin, Band-Aids, Q-tips, melatonin, lip balm)


Carry on (20")

  • packing list
  • printed reservation confirmations
  • loose change
  • Tide pen
  • pens, pencils
  • lip balm
  • USB flash drive
  • maps
  • glasses case
  • comb
  • gum
  • Disney cards (MagicBands, Annual Pass Discount Card, Tables in Wonderland)
  • notebook
  • watch
  • headphones
  • books
  • deck of cards
  • camera chargers
  • camera connecting cables
  • cell phone charger
  • cell phone car charger
  • portable cell phone charger
  • laptop
  • laptop charger
  • water bottle (empty until through security)
  • sandwich (frozen the night before) + snacks
  • apple
  • jacket
  • Disney DVDs
  • stuffed monkey


Monday, June 2, 2014

Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast! at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant (2014)


Starting with the May the Fourth celebration and running through Star Wars Weekends in 2014, Disney's Hollywood Studios offered two Star Wars character dining experiences and I had the opportunity to visit both. This article covers my visit to Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast! at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant.

I'm usually not a big breakfast eater, but when Disney offers something new I'm often tempted to try it out. It's not that I don't like breakfast, but a big meal first thing in the morning usually makes me want to go back to sleep rather than give me the energy to keep moving through a theme park all day. Additionally, a banana, cereal bar, and orange juice in my hotel room costs a small fraction of what I would pay for Disney to feed me. Nonetheless, an occasional character breakfast can still be a lot of fun and I wanted to see as much as possible on my first trip to Star Wars Weekends. With that in mind, I set out to try the Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast.

PLUSES AND MINUSES

+ -
- Star Wars themed film and video throughout the meal (some rarely seen, some original)
- Brief photo op with Darth Vader and Boba Fett together
- too dark for most pictures
- poorly laid out for character meals
- no interaction with Vader or Boba Fett
- only lesser characters visited tables
- expensive
 - no Tables in Wonderland, 2 DDP credits

CHARACTERS

Seeing the characters is why you choose a character meal, right? So, let's start there. We were called by the greeter outside the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater and lined up, then after a short wait we met Darth Vader and Boba Fett. With the rush to get people seated there was no time for interaction, and this was among the more rushed character meets that I've ever participated in. A couple PhotoPass pictures and then a couple more photos with my camera and we were shooed off. The PhotoPass pictures are included with the cost of your meal, and your PhotoPass card also included some generic Star Wars images.

My last meal in the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater was in 1994, almost exactly twenty years before my Star Wars breakfast, so I had forgotten how the restaurant was laid out. The seating is a little odd, as you don't face the other people in your party, but rather you sit on a bench seat of a "car" with a small counter in front of you. I should emphasize the smallness of your "table". I usually have somewhere to put my camera and notepad on a restaurant table, along with my food, but at Sci-Fi that is not the case. You may not be carrying a digital SLR camera (though you may need to here, as I'll note shortly), but there was barely room for the plates of food and our drinks. Kids may appreciate the novelty of this seating arrangement, as may adults who are tired of looking at their traveling companions after a long trip, but those who want to converse may find it somewhat bothersome. However, the orientation of the tables is necessary to ensure everyone can see the movie screens at the front of the theater/restaurant.

For me, the movie screens were the best part of the meal. While not a character encounter, the Star Wars themed video and movie clips that ran throughout the meal were funny, nostalgic, and tapped into the energy and excitement of a Star Wars Weekend. Reliving favorite moments from the six Star Wars feature films was good, but the short clips that ran in between offered the most entertainment. Hearing the original Star Wars theme, with captions like "Bommm Bommm Bom Bom Bom" was amusing, then hearing some sort of Imperial Officer searching for a rebel spy address the crowd was entertaining, and other clips were informative, explaining who the Jawas and stormtroopers were and what else you could do during Star Wars Weekends. Even people who weren't familiar with the movies could know what was going on. The walk-around characters occasionally interacted with the video on the screen, with stormtroopers shaking their heads in embarrassment and disgust as their brethren consistently failed to capture those rebelling against the Empire or just stopping to listen intently when an Imperial officer appeared on screen.

I was able to post video on YouTube of what was shown on the screen, but due to copyright restrictions the audio was muted, but if you want to see some of the footage from the drive-in screen, then take a look:

While the video presentation was entertaining and amusing, the character encounters during the meal left something to be desired. The characters did arrive promptly, perhaps too promptly, as it was fifteen minutes after we arrived before we were able to eat the food that had been dropped off on our table. There are advantages and disadvantages to a full-service restaurant versus a buffet for a character meal. Having servers bring your food to you means not risking missing a character encounter while getting food from a buffet, but it also means food piles up on your table if characters visit in a "clump". Since that was exactly what happened when we first sat down, we ended up rushing through the beginning of the meal to make sure there was room on the tiny tables for our entrées. Had our hot entrées arrived during the cluster of characters, we would either have had to told them to move along or let our food get cold.
As for the characters that did visit, it's not so much that the Storm Troopers or Jawas weren't entertaining, but both were present in other locations throughout Star Wars Weekends, where they could be seen with little or no wait. Trading with the Jawas can be cute, especially for children and childlike adults, though that can be done just as easily on the Streets of America most times of the day and stormtroopers are everywhere in the Studios during Star Wars Weekends. Thus, Greedo was the biggest star of this Star Wars breakfast and that wasn't enough to impress me. Further complicating the character interactions is the relative darkness needed for people to be able to see the video screen at the front of the restaurant. Since a big part of a character meal is taking photos with the characters, darkness is not your friend. A have a camera and flash that facilitate low light photos, but had I used my point and shoot camera or my cell phone my photos would have been grainy or blurry. The darkness and the somewhat haphazard patterns in which the characters wandered the restaurant also made it difficult to know when someone was coming to your table. Overall, featuring mostly easy to find characters and the challenge of taking usable photographs during the meal somewhat diminished the value of my experience.

FOOD

The Star Wars Dine-In Galactic Breakfast includes a few extras before your entrée. Each table receives a plate of pastries, including a vanilla cream turnover, almond pastry, and double chocolate muffin. These were generally light and full of flavor, adorned with Star Wars logos, and served on Star Wars plates. We were also offered a choice of a Greek yogurt parfait or fresh fruit. I chose the fruit, which featured a Yoda-shaped melon as edible garnish. I've had better fruit from most Disney buffets and had to wait awhile to get a second helping of this pre-prepared appetizer, but the pastries were very good.
My breakfast tastes are relatively pedestrian, usually scrambled eggs, sausage, and bacon when I do eat a morning meal in a restaurant. The entrées for the Galactic Breakfast were varied and generally not what I look for in a Disney breakfast, though these choices may appeal to many people and could work well if you treat the meal as a brunch. I opted for the Tatooine Sunrise, with the aforementioned scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage, since it was the only ordinary breakfast choice (no pancakes or Mickey waffles). The eggs and meet were ok, though nothing special, but the breakfast potatoes were unusually seasoned. I can't explain exactly what I didn't like, but they weren't exactly what I was looking for. Wanting to get the most out of the experience, I asked for a second entrée. With shrimp and grits being one of my favorite food items from the last two Flower & Garden Festival outdoor kitchens, I wanted to try Sci-Fi's version of this dish, the Ackbar Surprise. That turned out to be a disappointment, as the shrimp was missing the rich flavor I was expecting and the grits weren't all that flavorful. After not seeing our server from when our entrées were dropped off until he was ready to drop off the check, asking for a second entrée probably added twenty minutes to our meal. For those interested in the other options for your main course, they were as follows:
  • The Dune Sea - salmon, eggs, potato hash, and toast
  • The Kessel Run - steak, bacon and cheddar custard, cheesy horseradish potatoes
  • Imperial Delight - French toast
  • Mos Eisleys Morning - omelet, potatoes, greek yogurt
  • Kids Menu - scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and potatoes or French toast

Beverage selections included coffee, lemonade, ice tea, hot tea, hot cocoa, apple juice, orange juice, milk, or blue milk. Having forgotten to try the blue milk throughout the rest of my Star Wars Weekend, I made sure to have some with this meal and was glad that I did. A hint of fruit flavor (I think people said it was blue raspberry) with the cold milk was refreshing and something I would look forward to drinking again.  For an extra charge, you could order a Mimosa or peach flavored version of the Mimosa, both served with Prosecco, rather than Champagne, in case you're the sort that knows your sparkling beverages well enough to tell the difference.

The last part of our meal (had I not asked for the second entrée) was the Galactic Sendoff. While eating and greeting it was hard not to notice servers walked around with a cart with a bowl of some sort of smoky dish. Not smoky flavor, but rather actual smoke (dry ice, I assume). It turned out the cart contained our dessert, a fruit flavored concoction with a consistency somewhat like yogurt with small pieces of soft sweet fruity candy with liquid inside. If it sounds strange, it was, but I liked it. I really have no need for dessert with my breakfast, but this was a refreshing end to the meal. I wouldn't have paid for it were I ordering a la carte, but if it were included in the meal, then I'd enjoy it again.

COST

The meal was expensive, costing $51.11 per adult with tax, but not including tip. Further adding to the cost was that the restaurant did not accept my Tables in Wonderland discount and had we been on the Disney Dining Plan, the meal would have cost two table service credits. I'll leave it to you to decide whether you think any breakfast (not a Sunday champagne brunch, mind you) is worth $51, but consider that my most recent Disney World breakfast, at Chef Mickey's, cost $29.81 per person (also with tax and without tip, but with my Tables in Wonderland discount), so even by Disney character breakfast standards you pay a considerable premium for this meal.

TIMING

I dined with a friend as a party of two with a 9:45 AM reservation.  We arrived at the check-in desk outside the Sci-Fi restaurant at 9:34 AM, and then were called to get in line for our pre-meal photo at 9:40 AM. We were seated at 9:48 AM. The restaurant was busy, but there were a noticeable number of empty seats and the Cast Members outside the restaurant appeared to be taking walk-up reservations the morning we dined there (though it should be noted that we visited on a Monday, rather than during the Star Wars Weekend activities). We left the restaurant at 10:55 AM, though our meal would have finished sooner had I not asked for a second entrée.

SUMMARY

I was glad that I tried this new character dining experience in 2014, but it is unlikely that I will return in 2015 or beyond. The Star Wars movie clips were great, but that alone wasn't enough to justify paying more than $50 for breakfast. The food was decent, but not outstanding and not as ubiquitous as a buffet. Character interactions weren't bad, but other than the picture with Vader and Boba Fett together, could have been easily replicated throughout the Studios elsewhere during Star Wars Weekends without spending too much time. And, while most people are interacting with those characters they will be challenged to photograph those encounters in the dark and peculiarly laid out Sci-Fi restaurant. If money is not a concern, then consider trying this meal once, but otherwise I'd suggest spending your time and money elsewhere to satisfy your Star Wars fix.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine at Hollywood and Vine (2014)

Starting with the May the Fourth celebration and running through Star Wars Weekends in 2014, Disney's Hollywood Studios offered two Star Wars character dining experiences and I had the opportunity to visit both. This article covers my visit to Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine at Hollywood and Vine.

I was eager to sample this new dining experience during my first visit to Disney World's Star Wars Weekends, hoping to make efficient use of my mealtime by meeting popular characters that would have required long waits to see during this rest of the weekend. The meal featured classic Disney icons dressed as Star Wars characters. Since food tends to be secondary with most character dining experiences, after the introduction we'll start by discussing my interaction with Jedi Mickey and friends.

PLUSES AND MINUSES

+ -
 - saves time to meet popular Disney characters in Star Wars costumes
 - A-list Disney characters
 - above average buffet food
 - Star Wars themed desserts
 - expensive
 - no Tables in Wonderland, 2 DDP credits
 - long wait to be seated

CHARACTERS

Before being seated, the meal included a photo opportunity with Chip and Dale dressed as Ewoks. Disney PhotoPass photographers were present to take your picture and the price of the meal included this picture. As always, the PhotoPass photographers were also willing to take a picture with my camera, so I also had an image to share with friends right away, though the picture with my camera wasn't particularly well-taken. Chip and Dale are usually among the more amusing characters to meet, as they are encouraged to be their mischievous selves with guests, but in this case there were too many people waiting to eat that there was not time for any playful interaction. We just had our pictures taken and were herded back outside to continue waiting for our table. The price of the meal also included PhotoPass photos of the characters from the meal on the Jedi Training Academy stage, in addition to your own pre-meal photo.

Once seated, we immediately met Jedi Mickey, followed about fifteen minutes later by Stormtrooper Donald. Inside Hollywood and Vine you have a mostly unobstructed view of the entire restaurant, so once you determine the pattern characters follow it is pretty easy to know how much time you have before the next visitor to your table. It worked out well that we met Mickey, and then had time to get food before Donald arrived. Of course, at any character meal your experience may differ with the exact timing of when your table visits will occur, so be sure to ask the person who seats you where the characters will come from before they visit your table.

Later in our meal Minnie arrived, dressed as Princess Leia, followed immediately by Darth Goofy.  All of the characters visited our table within 40 minutes of being seated and, while we were catching up on eating after these visits, Mickey returned for a second visit before we left. Our interactions with Minnie and Goofy were cut short and somewhat uninspired, as they both took pictures, but that was it. Mickey and Donald were more playful, encouraging us to try difference poses and offering different pictures with our stuffed monkeys. In all cases, the photo opportunities during the meal were equal or better to what we would have experienced meeting the same characters in the parks, though we spent less time at the meal than we would have waited in line to meet all the characters on their own. Beyond just saving valuable park-time, meeting these popular Disney characters during Star Wars Weekends poses additional logistical challenges, as it is difficult to anticipate when characters you are waiting in line for may go on break or when they may be switched out for another character. This in itself adds to the value Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine.

Tables were also adorned with paper do-it-yourself lightsabers. If your child (or adult) wanted to test their Jedi powers with Mickey or take on villainous Donald or Goofy (or just beat their siblings over the head), then all they needed to do was roll up their red or blue paper and their weapon was ready to go.



FOOD

When I'm not visiting Disney World I've also traveled to many casino destinations, so I've eaten a lot of buffets, everything from high-end to places that would give swill a bad name. Over the years, my tastes have acclimated to appreciate buffets that serve really good food, sometimes even cooked to order, with an enormous variety of cuisine from around the world. Disney offers no buffets that compare favorably to the best of Las Vegas or even the Borgata in Atlantic City, however Hollywood and Vine is one of the few Disney buffets where I actually enjoy most of the food. The selection is limited by mega-buffet standards (you'll find a couple items you enjoy, but won't feel like you need to return five times to try everything you would like), but the quality is above average.

For the Jedi Mickey's meal, the standard Hollywood and Vine fare was replaced with remarkably similar looking (and tasting) food with Star Wars themed names, such as C-3PO's Cream Corn, Greedo's Green Beans, Mos Eisley Meatballs, or Tusken Raider Chicken. Even names of the food in the children's section of the buffet featured furry friends from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, like Chewbacca's Chicken Tenders or Wicket and the Ewoks Macaroni and Cheese. I sampled chicken thighs and the Tusken Raider chicken, along with meatballs, penne pasta, beef, and Lando's Lobster and Shrimp Macaroni and Cheese. The meat dishes were all well-prepared, and with the buffet being so busy, the food turned over fast enough to keep everything fresh. The lobster and shrimp macaroni is one of the highlights of this buffet, and even a person like me, who generally prefers the plainness of ordinary comfort food, appreciates the addition of tasty sea creatures to this dish (at least, when it's done well, as it is at Hollywood and Vine). Of course, those preferring to skip the seafood can find plain macaroni and cheese at the kids buffet (and there's no shame in taking items from here, the chefs will make sure the kids don't go hungry if you eat their food). Were it not for the price tag and the bizarre Disney Junior characters that normally inhabit this location, this is one of the only Disney buffets I'd visit just for the food.

Dessert was where the buffet really embraced the Star Wars theme. Not only did these offerings come with Star Wars names, but the desserts looked like Star Wars characters, including both Yoda and Darth Vader cupcakes. The dessert stand was also surrounded by decorative Star Wars cakes that weren't available to eat, but did well to support the theme. A stormtrooper helmet cake was the most inspired of these. Since I was headed to a dessert party later in the evening, I only ended up sampling a small variety of the desserts that were available, including a small piece of carrot cake with R2D2 printed on top and cheesecake with a chocolate Star Wars logo on top, but I was pleased with all of my selections. Were I to return, I would do so with more of an appetite and not on a night when I was planning to eat more sweets later in the evening.  The desserts available here provide ample opportunity to work off all that exercise you get walking around the Disney parks all day.

COST

The meal was expensive, costing $59.63 per adult with tax, but not including tip. Further adding to the cost was that the restaurant did not accept my Tables in Wonderland discount and had we been on the Disney Dining Plan, the meal would have cost two table service credits. Neither the food nor the character experience makes this meal a tremendous value, but Disney had no trouble filling Hollywood and Vine for this meal, so I don't anticipate any price breaks going forward. With the high price of most Disney table service meals, I considered that I was probably paying $20-$30 more than I may otherwise have paid for a buffet, but with the limited time I had available for Star Wars Weekends it was worth that extra cost to save time. Had I been on a longer vacation where I had more time to devote to seeing the Star Wars characters in the parks, I may not have seen this meal as an acceptable value.

TIMING

I dined with a friend as a party of two with a 6:20 PM reservation.  We arrived at the check-in desk outside the Hollywood and Vine buffet at 6:10 PM, where there was a short line to check-in, followed by a much longer line to have our pre-meal photo taken. It was 6:35 PM before we had our pictures with Chip and Dale and then we were sent back to wait on the patio outside the restaurant, though it was only a few more minutes before our table was ready and we were seated at 6:38 PM. While waiting in line for our photo, we noticed many people called out of line as their tables were ready and Cast Members waded through the sea of humanity looking for diners to try to get them seated as quickly as possible. This pre-meal photo was a considerable bottleneck and the restaurant seemed to be struggling to keep pace with the crowds. Hopefully, that will be addressed as this meal returns, but if not, then plan an extra twenty minutes after your ADR before you are seated.

SUMMARY

Jedi Mickey's Star Wars Dine was a positive experience for me. It is expensive, even by Disney standards, and the first year of operation posed some logistical challenges in handling the volume of guests and getting them seated in a timely manner. Not accepting Tables in Wonderland and charging two Disney Dining Plan credits hurts the value of the meal, though that's not likely to change so long as the meal keeps playing to packed houses. I do give Disney credit for making sure guests knew the costs associated with the meal, as I received a confirmation email explaining the costs about two weeks after my initial reservation. As for what you get for your premium price, food was above average for Disney buffets, character interactions were about what you should expect, and theming in the restaurant was minimal, with the exception of the desserts, for which the theming was exceptional. With time to meet some of Disney's most popular characters in their Star War costumes and "get your money's worth" out of the food selections, you'll spend more time (and money) than you would at most character meals, but if your time at Star Wars Weekends is limited and you want to meet Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Chip and Dale, then dinner at Hollywood and Vine is an efficient way to do so.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pluses and Minuses of FastPass+

With some firsthand experience using MagicBands and FastPass+ under our belts (see this previous post), we'll summarize some the the positives and negatives of Walt Disney World's new reservation system for attractions and other in-park experiences. Disney has already improved the operation of FastPass+ since it began testing the system last year, so some of the current negatives may just be growing pains, so we will update this document as the system evolves.




+ -
Great for days when you arrive late to a park, you can reserve FastPass times for popular attractions that would previously have been sold out
Can select the times you want, instead of just the next available time (works great if you're leaving the park to take a break, if you won't return to a certain "land" until much later in the day, or to work around other reservations) Selecting exactly the time you want sometimes requires some fiddling with the system
Don't have to walk to an attraction twice (in the past you'd go once to get your paper FastPass and again to ride) Still need to visit FastPass kiosks if "hopping" to a second park or to make more than three reservations in a single day
You can lock in FastPasses for popular attractions long before you leave home FastPasses a few new or very popular attractions (like the Ann & Elsa meet and greet or some Star Wars Weekends events) may sell out before you even get a chance to reserve one
Disney resort guests may book FastPasses 60 days before their vacations Non-Disney resort guests may book FastPasses 30 days in advance, but much have already purchased a valid park ticket to do so
Some quick service restaurants (currently only Be Our Guest in the Magic Kingdom) offer the chance to order your meal in advance, then just show up at the restaurant, check-in, sit down, and eat

Can only pre-select FastPasses for one park each day

Can't pre-select FastPasses for the same attraction more than once in the same day

In the Studios and Epcot, FastPasses are tiered so that if you select one popular attraction you cannot select FastPasses for some other popular attractions that day

Changing times or attractions on your phone or other mobile device sounds like a great convenience, but in practice it is slow and clunky