Sunday, November 4, 2012

Todd's Trip Report / Travelog - September 2012

One Friday afternoon, Ethan and Matthew, ages 7 and 5 respectively, exited school and piled into the back of our car for our family’s recent trip to Disney World.  Ethan had been to Disney twice before, two and three years ago.  Matthew, his younger brother had been there with Ethan each time, but also had a one day experience with my wife at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party one year ago.  Joining them on the trip, would be myself – the Disney Travel Agent and planner and my wife, a Disney veteran, along with my mother who was excited to watch the kids enjoy Disney and, let’s face it, a Disney kid herself.  Finally, we would be meeting up with my friend and co-blogger Bob, another Disney expert.

We were piling into the car because we were driving to Disney because of my wife’s health issues that make flight difficult and painful.  Driving this far would be a first for me.  We also had concerns how my wife would tolerate the drive so we were winging it for both Friday night and Saturday night as to where we would stay.  We were scheduled to arrive at Port Orleans Riverside Sunday morning.

One of the scenarios we discussed was driving straight through the night, giving my wife a day to recover before going to the parks.  As it turned out, this was our best option as everyone was tolerating the drive and we pulled into a Florida Welcome Center around 7:00 a.m.  Our task now was to find a place to stay for Saturday and Saturday night.

After a brief discussion we decided perhaps our best chance of getting an early room was to try to extend our room at Port Orleans reservation to one day earlier.  Sure, this would be more expensive than an offsite room, but if we could extend our reservation, we were hoping to be able to get one more day of free dining with the free dining offer.  Between having free food rather than having to pay, the amenities that Disney offers, and the hopes of an early check in, we thought it made up for the extra cost.

So I got the good folks at Disney reservations on the phone to extend our stay…  It’s strange.  We were sitting still, but I could distinctly remember hearing breaks squeal.  They told me they could book us for a room for one night, but could not tag it on to our existing reservation meaning we might have to move rooms and we wouldn’t get free food for that day.  Well, that wasn’t acceptable… and it also didn’t sound correct.

Fortunately, I had my Disney Travel Agent hat with me.  Okay, so I don’t have a hat, but there is a thirty-seven cent idea for you.  Still, being the persistent Disney Travel Agent I am, I called back and this time spoke with guest services.  Five minutes later we were on the road again, our room at Port Orleans Riverside and our free dining extended and waiting for us.

By 9:30 a.m. we were on property and – score! – our room was ready and waiting for us.  An hour later, the car was unloaded and all of our stuff was in Alligator Bayou room 3813 – a supposed premium water view room that overlooked a small leafy pond.  Trust me, you would not want to have paid extra for this premium water view.  No matter, though, as we never opened the shades on our trip.

Now at this point, you would think I would be tired, having driven all night.  I thought I would be, but the kids had slept on the ride and wanted to go to the pool and I really wasn’t all that tired.  So the two boys, my mom, and I headed for the pool leaving Dani to sleep on the cute little pull down alligator bed.

Off to Ol’ Man Island we went.  Now I had stayed at Port Orleans Riverside before and had walked by the pool, but I had never been in the pool before so this would be a first.  We were able to borrow free life vests for the children from the resort and in we went.

There are five interesting features of this pool that make it different than your average backyard pool.  Firstly, as you might figure, it is bigger and can easily accommodate 100 swimmers.  Secondly, Disney offers free poolside events to entertain the kids.  These can be fun for the little ones. 

The final three items, though, are why you go to this pool.  The first of these is your surroundings – quintessential Disney in the detailing.  With bayou style buildings surrounded by lush foliage, the setting is truly inviting and beautiful as is the whole resort.  The second item is a really fun waterslide.  Let’s not get carried away, though.  We aren't at Typhoon Lagoon here.  Still, the slide gives you a fun 10-15 second ride, with a refreshing splash down at the end.  Perfect for littler kids and the kid in all of us.

Finally, and I’m not quite sure why this is entertaining, but it was a certain hit with my kids and numerous others there, are the water spouts.  There are various contraptions that dump water into one circular section of the pool and the kids just love being pounded by these drops from above.  They also love seeing their dad get half drowned in the cascade.

Alright so I’d been up for 32 hours now or so and although I didn't quite feel it, I knew I needed to get some sleep.  So the kids stayed with my mom at the pool and I was off to sleep for a brief rest…
A few hours later, I was awoken as my mom and the kids returned from the pool.  My mom wanted a nap and Dani still needed her rest and I wasn't too tired so I took the kids to the playground to while away the next hour before our dinner reservation at Boma.  The playground is located on Ol’ Man Island behind the pool area.  The area is nice, but fairly typical of a playground you’d find in your neighborhood park.  Still, it was fun for the kids, even if nothing special.

Finally, it was time for dinner – Boma – the African inspired buffet in the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  As we were not even planning to be at Disney yet, this was added on to our dining reservations, one that just kind of worked out perfectly.  We had eaten at Boma on our previous trip and I was not nearly as impressed as the Disneyphiles on the message boards are with this dining experience.  It is a pain to get to using Disney transportation as it generally means a bus from a park to the Animal Kingdom Lodge and then a bus back to a park and then your resort.  It just wasn't worth the effort in my memory.

But we had different circumstances on this trip that just seemed to make Boma a perfect choice.  First, I needed to correct a mistake of my own.  Last time I was there, we were a bit tired and rushed and I never really took the time to look around the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  This time, I wanted to give the Lodge itself a better chance as well as the buffet.  Also, my mom wanted to see some of the different hotels so this would be her chance to do that with the Lodge.  Also, we were meeting Dani's grandmother and none of us had park tickets, but we did have a car so getting to the Lodge would not be too much of a hassle.  So Boma just seemed like the right choice… and it was.

We arrived in the early evening and traveled out to the terrace to enjoy the Savanna views.  We saw more strange animals than I can remember including oryx and giraffes.  The observation area was pleasant and unique, with little nooks and viewpoints created by the convincing faux rocks.  We spent a pleasant late afternoon surrounded by this incredible spleandor enjoying spending time with loved ones we don’t see often enough.

After too short of a time with our family and with no offense intended to our joining companion, our friend (and fellow blogger) Bob joined us and it was time to eat.  I made the wise decision to suspend my normal buffet value maximizing rule (only eat food that had a parent) and sample a little bit of just about everything that looked like it might be good.  And in so I found many tasty and unique items.

My particular favorites included the curry ginger chicken soup which had a sweet tang to it I really enjoyed (though for full disclosure, some others at the table didn't particularly like it).  Also good was the slab of beef with the least spicy of the sauces added (who’s name I never understood, but it was thick and orange and I believe was made with roasted peppers).

My wife’s gluten allergy was well tended and she found several creations to enjoy.  They did not bring her any special made entrees, but they did bring her special dessert including gluten free zebra domes.

Finally, the deserts were very good and nicely served in small portions so you can try a bit of everything and most things were nicely tasty.  Perhaps I shouldn't mention this in fear of rebellion, but I did not have a zebra dome (I don’t care for the alcohol taste).

Overall, Boma was very tasty with a number of items to tempt the more adventurous eater.  There isn’t a lot on the buffet for kids that aren’t willing to sample something a little bit different.  However, they will make items like hot dogs and French fries for your little ones on request.  All that said, I can’t give this buffet a full out endorsement because it is just a pain to get to and from on Disney transportation.  If you have a car or are a somewhat frequent Disney visitor that hasn’t seen the Animal Kingdom Lodge yet, then by all means, give Boma a try.  However, if you are limited on time, don’t visit Disney that often, or don’t have a car, you might want to forgo this one despite it’s popularity.  Yes, you’ll miss out on a tasty meal, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the process.

With dinner over, we took a little more time to relax with good company and explore the Animal Kingdom Lodge after dark.  It truly is a beautiful hotel, but it suffers from location.  It just isn’t near or convenient to anything.  Even the Animal Kingdom park is a bit of a bus ride away.  If you’re coming to Disney to spend your days in the parks, I think you can find better accommodations unless you are a true animal lover.  It is worth noting that the Animal Kingdom Lodge, along with the Wilderness Lodge, have the distinction of being fairly affordable deluxe rated accomodations, really forming their own class pricewise somewhere between the moderates and the more expensive deluxes.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge was our last stop of the day.  An early scheduled morning including opening ceremonies at the Magic Kingdom was on our agenda for the next morning to kick off our week in the parks, so we headed back to the resort and off to dreamland.

Sunday – Magic Kingdom
Everyone was fresh and eager for our first park day and we were at Magic Kingdom a few minutes before opening, ready for opening ceremonies.  A light rain could not dampen our spirits as Mickey and the gang greeted us and several thousand of our closest friends, inviting us to enjoy the magic within.  It was about now that we began to learn that our youngest son Matthew had a real Mickey fetish.  He wanted to visit the big cheese immediately, but we convinced him that Mickey was still busy with the greeting and we headed down a soggy Main Street U.S.A. toward Tomorrowland.

The rain changed our plans somewhat (there’d be no Astro Orbiter in the rain), but we managed to make the best of it, riding Buzz Lightyear, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, and Space Mountain (Matthew and I skipped this and my 7 year old son Ethan did not enjoy this because of the darkness and perceived speed), and meeting Stitch and seeing the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor and Stitch’s Great Escape before pausing for lunch at Cosmic Rays.  It’s worth noting at this point that Disney counter service meals are of generous portion and we knew we could not eat a full meal each.  So we managed to share 4 adult meals and 1 kids meal (the ordering of the kids meal was a mistake) among the 6 of us.  It was way too much food, so if you don’t mind sharing, I highly recommend ordering less meals than you have people.

After lunch we rode Tomorrowland Speedway, Peter Pan, It’s a Small World, Winnie the Pooh, the new Dumbo, and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups (my motion sickness found me skipping this).  We also saw Mickey’s Philharmagic, which the kids absolutely loved.  They particularly liked watching Donald zoom over their heads at the end and crashing into and eventually through the back wall of the theater.  They were even convinced thanks to the nice detailing of the imagineers that Donald tangled in the instruments in the gift shop was the result of the show they had just seen.  Watching the giggles and smiles on their faces through this performance was truly incredible and what should bring any parent to Disney World.

It was getting toward late afternoon at this point so we decided to head toward the exit, using our Mickey Mouse fastpass as we went.  By the way, this is a great new innovation having fastpasses for character meets that otherwise draw a long line – now they just need to add it for the fairy meet in the Magic Kingdom.

Our Mickey Mouse FASTPASSES got us to the big cheese in less than five minutes.  Matthew ran into the room and hugged Mickey, giving him a big “I love you Mickey”.  The scene was already precious, when we received a special bonus – Minnie Mouse walked in to join us too.  We hugged and took pictures.  Matthew showed Mickey his pal Mickey and Mickey wondered why he didn't have a hook on the back of his head too.

With Matthew momentarily satisfied with a Mickey fix, we returned to the hotel for an afternoon rest before heading back for our 'Ohana dinner reservation.  The boys and I visited the playground for a bit and otherwise explored the resort while the ladies rested.

By 6:15 we were on the bus back to the Magic Kingdom.  After dropping the other guests off at the park, our bus driver was kind enough to bring us to the Polynesian before going on break – a little bit of the Disney touch that makes a vacation.  After a few minutes exploring the lushly beautiful interior of the Lobby, we checked in for our reservation and were seated in less than five minutes.

Dare I say we had the best seat in the house, the large round table in the far corner against the windows, with an unobstructed view of Cinderella’s Castle in the distance, appearing to be one of the few tables that did not have trees partially blocking the line of sight to the Magic Kingdom.

Shortly piles of food started appearing, each item tastier than the last.  The only disappointment I had was there were no dumplings as part of the appetizer this evening, which taste great with the peanut sauce, but that was a small loss as it simply left more room for animal flesh.  Yummy.  Both the chicken and the steak were my favorites.  The pork was average.  The rest of the table enjoyed the shrimp, but I avoided the crustaceans.  

The majority of the food was gluten free (except for the chicken wings, which Dani got her own gluten free version of).  Bread pudding was, of course, off the list, so Dani got her own special dessert.
The games for the kids were less than in the past, but this was a good thing as the kids got enough entertainment without wearing themselves out and I had enough time to eat without missing courses while on parent duty.

Finally, for dessert, the bread pudding was excellent.  Not being a banana fan, I was afraid I would not like the banana bread pudding, but I guess if you drown anything in enough butterscotch sauce, it will taste great.  We also got an order of fresh pineapple smothered in caramel – a special order desert they have available at no charge if you know about it – which was delectable.

Overall, 'Ohana provided another great meal.  The combination of very tasty appetizers, all you can eat delicious animal flesh, and scrumptious deserts makes for a satisfied stomach.  The pleasant atmosphere and games for the kids makes for an enjoyable experience.  And the easy accessibility on the monorail line just a few minutes from the Magic Kingdom (on a monorail ride that any kid loves) makes 'Ohana a sure winner for anyone but a vegetarian.

Our planned timing was spot on and the monorail ride back to the Magic Kingdom got us there with a few minutes left to find a good spot to watch the Wishes fireworks display.  As always, the pyrotechnics display synced to story and music didn't fail to deliver.  Of course, between alternately lifting two boys, I’m afraid I missed some of the affect as per usual.

As the fireworks ended, the usual mass exodus began.  But tonight was Extra Magic Hours – two and a half more hours of fun in the parks.  And so we found ourselves like salmon trying to swim upstream against the mass of humanity.  This is especially difficult with a scooter so it took us some time to ford the bodies, but eventually we turned into Adventureland.  During Extra Magic Hours we were able to ride Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Haunted Mansion, and the Carousel.  Cinderella was probably racing from the castle as we finally exited for the night, thus ending our first day in the parks.

Monday - Epcot
We were planning to be at Epcot on Monday for rope drop.  However, Dani was still tired from the day before and needed more rest so my mom and Matthew went ahead while Ethan and I waited for Dani.
The slight delay saw us arriving at Epcot at about the opening time for World Showcase (11:00 am) so we gathered together and headed toward World Showcase for an early lunch since we had a 5 o’clock dinner scheduled.

Fortune, also known as a closed Test Track area and some thoughtful Imagineering, found us walking by the sign up area for the Agent P World Showcase Adventure as we headed toward Mexico for lunch so Ethan, Matthew and I enlisted as Agent M and were sent by Major Monogram to save Norway. 

Unfortunately, we were also warned that the game times out after 15 minutes of activity, thus requiring us to save Norway before doing anything else.  So lunch was put on hold as the boys and I traveled to Norway with Dani and Moma in tow.

I believe the theory of this game is to let the kids play within the country of choice while the parents get to explore the wonderful details Disney has put into each pavilion.  Unfortunately, my kids were a little too young to handle the game on their own and I don’t think Dani and Moma got the idea that they should be exploring and enjoying the pavilion rather than standing around getting annoyed while waiting for us to save the Tri State area and World Showcase.  So, in the end the game was fun for the kids, but detracted from the overall experience of the adults.

Doofenshmirtz foiled, we headed to the Mexican pavilion for a quick counter service lunch and to meet up with Bob.  None of us wanting a big meal with dinner at Chefs de France just five hours or so away, we selected 3 counter service taco meals which successfully fed the six of us while allowing for easy sharing.  This lunch had its good points and its bad points, mostly surrounding the taco shells, which were soft and corn meal based.  The big plus of this is that this made the meal “naturally” gluten free and Dani could enjoy the same food the rest of us were enjoying.  The downside, if you've ever had a soft corn taco shell is they have a slightly strange taste that isn’t quite as good as a flower based soft taco shell.  It wasn't bad, but it isn’t someplace I’d go out of my way to eat at again.

The mini churros and caramel sauce for desert were very tasty.  Then again, what isn’t very tasty when drenched in caramel sauce?  This was the one part of the meal that Dani could not partake in as the churros were chock full of flour.  This meant she got a popsicle for desert.  But with all of us satiated, we decided to make a little kid happy and found a passerby and gave him the popsicle.

Fed and satisfied (despite the minor meltdown we had at lunch), we were now all ready for some rides!  The Maelstrom called us first, as we survived the trolls on this fun but a bit short ride through Norwegian heritage.  Next we met Donald Duck all regaled in his caballero gear outside of the Mexico pavilion.  Hugs and photos later, we were ready to ride the former Rio Del Tiempo, now known as the Gran Fiesta Tour. 

This ride gets somewhat of a bad rap, in my opinion.  The ride is pleasant through some truly beautiful scenery, especially by the Mayan temple at the beginning of the ride that has some pretty cool and realistic effects.  The update offers Donald Duck as a traveling companion through the various scenes later in the ride, which is fun for the kids and the kids at heart.  Overall, I really like this ride for families.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Future World where we found a Mickey and Pluto meet with no waiting in Innoventions for Disney Visa Card holders where you get a free printout of one of your pictures.  Any opportunity to let Matthew dote upon Mickey was well worth it and so of course we took advantage of this opportunity.

We then took advantage of some of the games in Innoventions where Ethan got a special, if a bit vague, treat.  Disney is running a new project that requires photos of guests enjoying various activities around the park and photographers of this project were apparently lurking near the Where’s the Fire safety demonstration.  Apparently they captured a winning photo of Ethan bedecked in his Perry hat and Agent P shirt adorned by a lei from ‘Ohana.  They could not give us a lot of details at the time, but they said they would send us a copy of the photograph as well as further information on where the photo may appear and so we signed Ethan over to the mouse.  It was nice knowing you buddy.

After this we enjoyed Spaceship Earth, including the games at the end of the ride where the boys really enjoyed the shuffleboard like power the city game (and so did their father). 

It was time to return to World Showcase and the France pavilion for our 5:00 p.m. reserved seating at Chefs de France.  I had made this slightly early reservation on purpose, knowing the last round made by animattronic Remy would be at 5:20 p.m and since it isn’t known how much longer he’ll be showing nor when we’d have the inclination to return to this restaurant, I wanted to get a chance for everyone to meet Remy while we still could.

This turned out to be a good decision as it was fun to get to meet the little rat.  He was lifelike looking and his gestures looked genuine, not robotic.  Our table was also in a great location in the restaurant, located in a corner window facing back toward World Showcase lagoon and an alleyway next to the French pavilion.  This alleyway turned out to be the entrance and exit for all the characters working in the area, so we got repeated up close views of Belle, Mary Poppins, Beast, and Marie the cat, whom Dani developed a fascination for.

I’d say, in the end, a restaurant is only as good as its food, but frankly that just isn’t true, at least for me, in Disney World.  It’s all about the experience and the décor was nice as was the other pleasantries already mentioned.  That said, even though I downplayed the importance of the food, it did turn out to be quite good and everyone seemed to enjoy their meals.  Dani’s gluten allergy was well tended and the kids enjoyed their options.  Overall, I would definitely recommend returning to Chef’s de France, but be sure to go during a time that Remy will be present and try to get a table by the windows.

After dinner we managed to make it back to Future World just in time to ride the last ride on Journey Into Imagination of the evening, with the Imagination pavilion closing at 7:00 p.m.  I've always had an affinity for Figment and the boys both liked him so we enjoyed this and found a few hidden Mickey’s along the way.  We didn’t have time for Captain EO before the pavilion closed so we’d have to save that for Friday.

Next, we visited The Land pavilion where we enjoyed the Living With The Land boat ride looking for hidden Mickeys (though I was disappointed they no longer grow vegetables shaped like Mickey.  From there we went to Soarin’ where, despite my severe motion sickness, I was coaxed onto this motion simulator ride.  I need to be very careful on motion simulator rides because if the ride vehicle moves significantly and there is no fixed point of reference, I can easily get sick.  Soarin’ lacks the fixed point of reference except for a few moments where from the top row I could see above the screen.  Fortunately, except during takeoff, the ride vehicles don’t move much at all, just tip a bit or sway, so it isn’t very bad.  Just make sure during takeoff to watch off to the side of the screen where here you will have a fixed point of reference.  Then, during the ride, make sure to close your eyes any time the screen is about to make a sweeping move.  These certainly would be enough to get me sick.  Unfortunately, on my first trip it was hard to know when these were coming so I did feel a little woozy at the end of the ride.  (A subsequent trip a few days later I was fine because I had a better idea when to close my eyes.) 

Next, we made our way to the Living Seas pavilion where we started with a ride on The Seas With Nemo and Friends followed by a quick viewing of some of the fish in the tanks.  Time was running short, however, and we finally, as 9:00 p.m. was drawing nigh, took in the last showing of Turtle Talk With Crush.  This would be one of my proudest moment of the trip.  I purposely took us to the last showing of Crush figuring on a small crowd and thus a better chance to interact with Crush and true to my figuring, there weren't many people in the human tank.

Crush comes out and hones in on the boy wearing an aqua (Perry) shirt and aqua and yellow (Perry’s head) hat who happens to be Ethan.  Now you need to understand that I worry that Ethan shows tendencies to be growing up like his dad and I don’t want him to be plagued by that shyness, so I was proud of him when he was willing to speak into the microphone and he was even funny.  To add some icing to the cake, I then got to talk to Crush too.  It was awesome, dude. 

But it got even better.  Crush then asked the audience if they had any questions.  One hand and one hand only shot into the air.  It was Ethan and he was now volunteering to participate.  He asked Crush if he knew any platypuses and Crush told Ethan he didn’t know what that was to which Ethan responded “Maybe like on my head”, referring to his Perry the Platypus hat.  “You have a Platypus on your head!?” Crush asked incredulously.  “No, it’s a hat silly,” Ethan corrected.  He got big laughs.  I was quite happy. 

Finally, we topped the evening off with a partial viewing of Illuminations, which had just started as we were emerging from The Living Seas pavilion.  I have to say, through 7 different trips where Epcot was open, I have never ever staked out a good viewing spot and watched all of Illuminations.  I’ve seen just about all of it in pieces from behind other people or trees, but I’m just not the type to sit for a half hour in a good spot to get an unobstructed view.  They just aren’t that special to me.  I know a lot of people love these fireworks.  I wonder what I am missing.

The pyrotechnics over, we decided against fighting the crowds to the buses and instead headed over to Mouse Gear to do a little shopping.  Ethan selected a Perry the Platypus stuffed animal and Matthew chose a Dumbo stuffed animal.  We met up with Bob and took some photos before finally heading back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

Tuesday – Magic Kingdom
Tuesday arrived to a groggy morning for some of the group so we didn’t get the early start we were hoping for.  Still, this would be a low crowd day until late in the day when Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween crowd started appearing so all was not lost.

After starting the day by signing up for Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (more on that later), we stopped in to the Main Street Confectionery looking to see what they had in the gluten free department for Dani (having not found anything fresh baked in the Bakery that fit the bill).  The confectionery had an assortment of things that are normally gluten free that could be categorized as candylike (fudge, for example), but also nothing in the baked department.  But, as we looked, a moment of magic occurred as Ethan and Matthew were both given a treat that was essentially a dense cake on a stick covered in chocolate in the shape of Mickey.

With our Main Street activities finished, we traveled to Frontierland where we put smiles on everyone’s faces with several rides on both Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, one of the kid’s favorites and Splash Mountain along with a meeting with Woody and Jessie near the exit of Splash Mountain.  Of course, with my motion sickness, I forgo Big Thunder, but I can tolerate Splash Mountain.  That’s not to say I like it.  I guess I do, but I hate the big drops.  I have to remember for next time the drop at the end isn’t quite as bad as I always think it is going to be.  On the other hand, the drop in the middle that goes down and then back up is worse than I expect.  So – note to self – you really do enjoy Splash Mountain and although you hate the drop at the end, it isn’t as bad or as long as you fear it is going to be for the entire ride.

Lunchtime brought us to Pinocchio Village Haus where we selected a table overlooking It’s a Small World and tried their pepperoni and barbecue chicken flatbreads.  Both were quite tasty, though I thought the barbecue chicken was the better.  Here Matthew also got to participate in a ceremony and record his wish in the fairy wish book.  He wished for Mickey to come and sleep with him in the hotel room.

Appetites satiated, it’s a Small World beckoned from the window at which we sat eating our lunch and so off we went to a world of laughter.  It’s a simple ride, but a perennial favorite of throngs and my family was no different as we took in the many sights around a world better and happier than the one we actually live in.

With those incessantly happy lyrics still ringing in our ears, it was time to save the Magic Kingdom with the Sorcerers of The Magic Kingdom game.  You can sign up for this trading card based game at either the Firehouse shortly after you enter the park on your left or near the Christmas Tree Shoppe in Liberty Square.  (We had already signed up at the Firehouse when we entered since there was no line, but the site near the Christmas Tree Shoppe is usually a shorter wait if there is a line.)  Our first task was to save Fantasyland and so off we went, the five of us working together while Bob watched / photodocumented our heroics.

Sorcerers seems like a good concept but just didn’t work for my family.  The boys are too young to handle it on their own (not to mention we all wanted to try it), but it seemed like five people were a little much and we couldn't really tell whose spell or spells would be used.  Also, the sound on the video was not loud enough to hear very well, which meant you were spending more time concentrating on figuring out what was going on rather than enjoying what was going on.  Also, for the most part it was a detractor to seeing the interesting details of the park, causing you to concentrate on finding and reaching a location rather than the journey. 

In the end, it was not as entertaining as something else I could be doing in the Magic Kingdom so unless I had a lot of time, there are things I’d rather be doing unless crowds were real bad and I needed to kill time waiting for a FASTPASS.

Fantasyland saved, it was time to venture over to Tom Sawyer Island for Bob’s first venture into a Mark Twain’s world reimagined.  I've got to say this attraction is as advertised, any boys dream play area, with plenty of places to explore including caves, mines, hills, windmills, and a fort as well as thing to climb on and play with (did I mention the fort) and bridges to cross.  The kids had a blast and could probably have spent hours there exploring and playing.

But, as much as Tom Sawyer Island is a boys dream, it is a handicapped person’s nightmare.  Dani had to leave her scooter dockside and transfer to a loaner wheelchair.  That however, wasn't a great help because Tom Sawyer Island is about climbing and exploring.  You can’t really get anywhere on a wheelchair.  Dani wasn't up to much walking, but we did manage to help her down some stairs to Aunt Polly’s where she relaxed while we explored.  A nice frozen lemonade would probably have been perfect as she sat and watched the Liberty Belle, but, alas, Aunt Polly’s has long since been shuttered, with only a few vending machines left in her memory.  A shame.

So, anyway, we had left Dani alone at Aunt Polly’s in order to explore the island, but it didn’t feel right leaving her there by herself.  Therefore, as I said, although we probably could have spent hours exploring, we hurried the boys back to mom just in time to watch the parade from the deck of Aunt Polly’s.  It isn't the best of views, but it does save you from the crush of humanity that is paradeside.

The parade ended and Matthew satisfied to have seen Mickey again, we boarded the raft back to the main of Magic Kingdom and soon found ourselves back in Frontierland proper.  Being in the right land for our next Sorcerer’s mission, we decided to give it one more go in helping to foil Hades’ evil plans for Walt Disney’s Florida project.

And in this mission, we had in succession one of the worst moments of our trip followed by one of the best.  In our exuberance and concentration to move from one part of the mission to the next, Matthew got left behind at one of the portals.  Fortunately, I discovered we were short one bundle of cuteness in about 20 seconds and headed back to the last portal.  He wasn't there, but before full-on panic could set in, I spotted him down a trail with two cast members.  I quickly flagged them down and we were reunited, but enough time had passed for Matthew to be in full on tear mode, scared that we had left him.  It was heart wrenching as I brought him back to the rest of the group, who had remained behind at the Christmas Tree Shoppe.

Which brings us to one of the magic moments of the trip.  A cast member, probably recognizing Matthew’s plight, rushed over and asked the two boys to do Minnie a huge favor and be the official tree decorators for the day.  This slowly brought Matthew around, who was having trouble calming down after his ordeal and while Ethan dug in with earnest into decorating the tree, Matthew needed a little coaxing, but eventually came around.  Soon the tree was decorated, a bit lopsided, but beautiful none-the-less.  For assisting Minnie in this task, the boys each got their name on the tree along with a certificate thanking them for decorating the tree and their choice from a box of free ornaments.  Ethan chose a large blue Mickey head shaped ornament while Matthew chose a gold ball with sparkling red “hidden” Mickey’s on it.

Evening was drawing nigh as we found ourselves in Tomorrowland to spend the last few hours before the park closed to those of us not participating in Mickey’s Not So Scary.  We rode Stitch’s Great Escape – which just didn’t make sense because I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be rooting for or against Stitch.  It was dark and loud at times, but the kids seemed to tolerate it okay, though I’m not really sure anyone did anything more than tolerate it.

Escaping with Stitch, we took another ride through on the always enjoyable Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, then began making our way toward The Carousel of Progress.  Unfortunately, I made a mistake at this point as Matthew saw Buzz Lightyear and wanted to go meet him.  The rest of the crowd said they’d go ride the Carousel of Progress while Matthew and I met Buzz, but I thought it would be better to stay together that way everyone could do both.

Well, we had fun meeting Buzz and found out that Infinity was somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant.  Unfortunately, I did not realize that the Carousel of Progress closed at 6:00 p.m. and we just missed the last seating while in line for Buzz so I had a disappointed crowd with me.

However, they quickly sought revenge as Matthew and Ethan wanted to ride the Astro Orbiter.  I was nervous about my motion sickness, but was assured that I could ride this ride and it was “just like Dumbo only in the sky.”  Somehow Ethan, Matthew, and I ended up in line while everyone else disappeared for a voyage into the cosmos on Space Mountain.

Now, if you've never ridden Astro Orbiter, there are a couple of things you need to understand about the ride to know why this was my traveling partners seeking revenge.   First of all, Astro Orbiter is about as much like Dumbo as the little plastic horse you put a quarter in at the mall is like a bucking bronco.  Astro Orbiter is seriously fast, enough to exert some significant G-forces on your body and at least make me fret that Pinocchio’s flatbread was going to be spread around Tomorrowland.  And speaking of the G-forces, you have to understand how the seating arrangement on the ride works.  It’s essentially a horizontal bench that you all straddle with a seatbelt looped around all of you.  Well, this was easy for Matthew in the front as his legs were just around the bench.  It was a bit tougher but easily doable by Ethan in the middle as his legs went around Matthew.  Now that you have that picture, think of the person in the back – me - whose legs had to go around Ethan’s legs which were already spread wide around Matthew.  Needless to say I was crammed into that little rocketship at an unnatural angle and as that thing whipped around, I was wedged in for dear life while trying to hold Ethan in the thing, fearful that he lacked enough seat belt to actually hold him in.

Well, long story and irrational panic later, the ride ended with no one including my stomach worse for wear.  It was now 7:00 and time to fight the wave of interestingly costumed people to make our exit from the Magic Kingdom and head for the Grand Floridian and our scheduled dinner at 1900 Park Fare.

We arrived at the Grand Floridian with a few minutes to spare, just enough to look around a bit while we found the restaurant.  The Floridian is clean, large, and elegant.  Not exactly my taste, but there is no denying it is a beautiful hotel.  An elevator ride down and then a trip across the lobby and we were at the entrance to 1900 Park Fare where they were ready for our party and our reservation.

A dinner at Park Fare starts with a photograph taken of your party outside the restaurant.  Being in the Grand Floridian, they try to upscale things a bit as tuxedoed cast members pose and photograph your group in at what is at least meant to seem a professional manner.  Of course, they are going to bring this photo to your table during the meal and ask you to pay an exorbitant fee for the photo.  I believe it was $30.  No thank you.

Once photographed, we were whisked into the restaurant and shown to our table.  We were also warned that Lady Tremaine and Cinderella would soon be at our table and indeed they were.  The only downside to this is they came so quickly it was difficult to determine a pattern and thus we didn’t know that Cinderella’s sisters and Prince Charming would follow right behind them.  Thus some of our party did miss some of the characters.

That is about the only complaint I have about this restaurant.  The food was very good – a step up from any of the other standard Disney buffets such as Hollywood and Vine, Crystal Palace, and Chef Mickeys.  They have Mickey Mouse head shaped plates available that were a big hit with the kids (and some of the adults).  The only thing that didn’t seem special about the food was the desert, which had limited selections, though the kids (and some of the adults) enjoyed the gummy bears and M&M’s.

Perhaps the best part of the meal is the interaction with the characters.  Being faces (characters that don’t wear masks and appear human), the characters are able to talk with the guests to enhance the interaction experience.  And these characters were great, with spot on acting appropriate to their character and their setting greeting guests.

If you’re a little girl, you’re here to see Cinderella and Prince Charming.  If you are anyone else, you should be here to meet Cinderella’s step-family:  her wicked and deliciously haughty step-mother Lady Tremain and her step-sisters Anastasia and Druzella.  The trio creates a delightful troop, entertaining the young boys in the audience as well as the adults with their behavior.

It was particularly entertaining when Ethan turned down Druzella’s request for a dance, telling her he’d rather eat his broccoli.  Druzella, being the pouty sister did not take this news happily.  It was very funny.  The payoff for me as a parent, however, came later in the meal when Anastasia was wandering the room looking for a dance partner and, without being asked, Ethan jumped to her rescue and volunteered to cut a rug with her, which they did.  Anything that draws Ethan out of his shyness shell and hopefully moves him further away from that in his life is great with me.

On the gluten free front, Dani was well taken care of and brought special gluten free dishes including gluten free bread carved into a standing mickey structure and a gluten free desert which showed the chef’s enjoyed getting to prepare something special for a guest as opposed to the mass quantity deserts they must normally serve at a buffet.

Overall, this is a very good dining experience.  If you are looking for a traditional buffet (as opposed to 'Ohana) in the Magic Kingdom area and you don’t need to see Pooh and friends at the Crystal Palace or Mickey and friends at Chef Mickey’s, then this buffet should probably top your list.

The one downside to our enjoyment of this dinner is we lingered longer than we should have and ended up with not enough time to make it back to the gates of the Magic Kingdom to watch the Halloween party fireworks from there.  Instead, we were recommended to the marina area of the Grand Floridian where we would have a good view of the fireworks.

Indeed, this was a nice area with seats and plenty of room for the kids to run around while we waited for the pyrotechnics to start.  And the view was decent to, if a bit distant.  There was a major drawback however – no sound.  The sound is such an integral part of the overall Magic Kingdom display that missing it really made me feel like I missed out on a lot of the show.  I’m not sure whether the sound is never piped into that location, or was just absent due to it being a special Halloween party fireworks display.  Either way, we would have been better off at the main gate where, at least in years past, you had the sound piped out to you.

By this time it was 10:00 pm and our group was tuckered.  We took the monorail to the Magic Kingdom and then a bus back to Riverside, where we quickly found our pillows and sleep.

Wednesday – Animal Kingdom
This was probably the worst day of the trip as things just wouldn't seem to go our way.  Still it wasn't a terrible day, but it could have been better.  The morning went awry as Dani was not feeling well when she struggled to wake and could not get up in time for the opening of Animal Kingdom, where we were planning to spend our day.  Unfortunately, her illnesses and the stress she had been putting on her body caught up to her this morning, meaning a late start for us.

My mom and the boys went ahead while I stayed behind to do whatever I could to help my wife get ready.  Unfortunately, by the time we did arrive, the early morning hours were long gone and thus the good views of the animals on the Safari were gone too.  (It is best to go to the Safari first thing while the animals, especially the lions, are still active.)

The Safari was still fun, once we got there, but it just wasn't the same.  It’s interesting to note that the poachers story line and the rushed pace at the end of the ride is gone and apparently soon there will be a zebra section on the savanna. 

From there we wandered the Pangani forest trail before heading for lunch, which our group split between Yak and Yeti counter service and Flame Tree Barbecue in a drizzling rain.

Next we headed toward Kali River Rapids, but the ride broke down shortly before we were able to get on it.  At least we weren't the poor groups stuck partly up the incline ramp.  With this delay, we beat a hasty retreat to the Festival of the Lion King, arriving with a few minutes to spare since we did not ride the rapids.  We took advantage of a short Donald Duck line, most folks having already rushed in for an early seat at the show, to meet with the feathered sailor, Ethan being sure to hide Mickey and treat Donald with love after the escapades of Monday with Donald.

Our meet and greet done, we made it into the Festival just before show time.  As per usual, we were sat with the other last minute arriving bleating giraffes.  If you like up close views rather than sweeping overviews, this is one of the shows where having the scooter actually gets you a better seat because you arrive on the ground floor and we were seated in the front row.

This is always a fun show with an attractive young cast in interesting costumes performing fun and humorous feats using disciplines including gymnastics, fire eating, and wired aerial acrobatics.  Throw in some music and characters from the Lion King and you have a romping good time.

From here it was a disappointing visit to It’s Tough to be a Bug in the Tree of Life, where the effects didn’t work in my seat (back row for accessible people), Hopper didn’t appear because he wasn't working, and the spiders did not descend from the ceiling.  Come on Disney.  Flik and company need a little TLC.

From there, it was back to Kali River Rapids, which was once again working.  As it turned out, I ended up in the you’re going to get soaked seat as I whirled to the downward side seat as we went down the drop and water poured on top of me.  Unfortunately, I was foolish and in my desire to avoid the water I put my feet on the ground instead of on the rail.  This, of course, resulted in soaked feet.  Ooops.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent giving the group their rollercoaster fix as they all took several rides on Expedition Everest and a ride on Primeval Whirl.  The kids in particular loved Everest.  Before topping off the day in Animal Kingdom with Dani’s favorite Disney show –Finding Nemo the Musical, which plays at park closing when the park closes at 5:00, we managed to sneak in a quick trip to the boat launch for the never crowded meet with Pooh and friends, which meant we had plenty of time to have fun interacting with the characters.  Still having a few minutes, I took the boys to the dig site in Dinoland U.S.A. for some quick climbing and sliding, which they had fun at while everyone else was using the bathroom.  I’m sure they would have liked more time here, but we needed to be at the Nemo theater by 5:00 p.m. so off we went.

Finding Nemo: The Musical is a phenomenal show, blending bright colors with large scale puppetry held by actors clearly visible on stage with the puppet.   It works.  The show is bright, fun, and amusing for both kids and adults and the cast that performs the show is spectacular.  This show should be on your must see list for a visit to Animal Kingdom.

I was sure to take my time on the way out to visit the Oasis and enjoy the thoughtful, peaceful, and beautiful surroundings of the small animal habitats.  This is a great way to enjoy the park and get yourself out of the rush to the exit.

Unfortunately, the late start didn’t just mean we missed the best time to go on the Safari.  It also meant we missed some character meets we wanted to see including Russel and Dug, Divine, and Mickey, as well as missing Dinosaur The Ride, Flights of Wonder, and Rafiki's Planet Watch.  Oh well.  I guess we’re just going to have to go back.

So, we had a good day in Animal Kingdom, but not as great as we had hoped.  Now, however, I was going to make a fateful decision that was going to make for an unenjoyable evening.  We had reservations for T-REX Café in downtown Disney for Thursday afternoon, but really didn’t want to take the time out of Hollywood Studios the next day.  I knew T-REX only took a few reservations on the Disney Reservation system, so I thought we might be okay to walk in.  And even if there was a wait, we could hopefully explore Downtown Disney a bit.

Well, after freshening up at the hotel, we were checked in at T-REX at 7:27 p.m. and promised we’d be seated within 1 hour and 10 minutes.  It started to rain a bit as we checked in, so we didn’t want to wander too far, but the kids did want to participate in the Phineas and Ferb Experience so we hustled across Downtown Disney where we met up with Uncle Bob at our destination as the rain stopped and they prepared to reopen Phineas and Ferb's backyard.  After a short wait, the boys, uncle Bob, and I were helping Phineas find Perry.  This was fun to do and it would have been nice to watch for a while, but we didn’t want to linger in case they called us early at T-REX.  Foolish.

We were back at T-REX by 8:10 and they hadn't called us yet.  8:37 and our promised 1:10 minutes came and went.  8:45 – nothing.  9:00 p.m. – nothing.    Finally, shortly after 9:00 we were called, and told to wait over on the side.  10 minutes later – 9:15 p.m. we were finally seated. 

A chaos of about 5 different servers ensued with visits to our table, that ended in each of us having about 3 drinks in front of us, but no food order taken.  When they finally came to take our food order and found out we were on the Disney Dining Plan, we were dissuaded from ordering the more expensive items on the menu, being told the cheaper meals were their “specialties”.    I was left with a very sour impression in my mouth by this.  T-REX is not Disney owned and it certainly seemed like they were trying to find ways to not give us what we were entitled to.

Anyway, long story longer, it wasn't until after 10:00 p.m., more than 45 minutes after sitting down and 2 and a half hours since arriving, we finally had food in front of us.  Of course, by this time Matthew was dead asleep and would miss dinner.  If I had any real use for his meal entitlement I would have complained.  As was, I would have hoped the restaurant would have automatically not charged us for the meal, but there was nary a mention of doing anything for the sleeping angel.

Our entrees finished, they tried to rush us out sans desert.  Well, we were all tired.  Some of us were sleeping and we really had no need for desert.  But I was not going to let them get away with this treatment of us, so I ordered everyone a desert to go and finally we were able to go.  My recommendation, then, is simple.  Don’t go to this restaurant.  Wander in and look at the animatronic Dinosaurs if you must – just say you need to use the restroom – but don’t patronize this restaurant.

Thursday – Hollywood Studios
After our late night the evening before, we struggled to get up and get ourselves moving so we sent my mom ahead with the boys to Hollywood Studios, then joined them about an hour after opening.  We immediately got FASTPASSES for Toy Story, then we split, Matthew and I heading for Playhouse Disney while the rest of the group headed down Sunset Boulevard toward Rock ‘n Rollercoaster.  At the last minute Ethan decided not to ride as he watched the cars take off and go upside down so everyone else got to do a baby swap.  Meanwhile, Matthew and I collected gold doubloons as we helped Jake and the Neverland Pirates help Donald Duck get ready for Minnie Mouse’s birthday party.  This was a definite hit with Matthew.  We met back up with our group and then visited the aforementioned Jake, Matthew laying a big hug on him.

Our FASTPASSES were ready, so we got a second set of FASTPASSES  then went for our first ride on Toy Story Mania using the accessibility entrance.  A couple of things are worth noting about this ride.  The accessibility entrance is a separate loading area that takes the ride cars out of the line so the handicapped people can load more leisurely.  Well, the track it follows to take these cars out is very twisty and you get a heck of a ride just getting back onto the normal track before the regular ride begins.

Toy Story Mania is a fun ride, but I think it’s somewhat falsely fun – if you can consider fun to be false (after all, fun is fun).  The real fun in the ride comes from the competition of it, not in the ride itself.  Competing with those in your car, party, and also the records for the last hour, week, etc. is the excitement of it more than anything to do with the actual riding.  If you were given five minutes to sit down with a video game console and go for a high score, I think you would essentially get the same thrill.  Thus, for less competitive people it may not hold the same allure.  Yet, the whole thing is amazingly popular so what do I know.  The one big thing it has going for it is it is one of only a few rides in the park that follows well Walt Disney’s mantra of having the attractions be fun for the kids and the adults.

Finally, it was time for my favorite show certainly in the Studios and probably in all of Disney World – Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage.  If you like an up close view of shows, and depending on how you enjoy large production shows (do you prefer to enjoy the spectacle as an entirety or to focus on the individual performances?), then here is one show where you perhaps get a better seat with handicapped accessible seating, as we found ourselves in the front row.  Anyway, I just adore the color, the singing, the dancing and music in this love story for the ages.  This is a must see for any true romantic.

From here we enjoyed lunch at the ABC commissary where, surprisingly to me, I had my second best counter service meal of the trip – The Chicken Blue sandwich, whose melted cheese nicely complimented the juicy marinated chicken breast.  Yeah.  That’s right.  I was surprised to find something so tasty in the ABC Commissary – especially since I thought it was breaded when I ordered it and was ordering it for one of the kids, but, yes, it was excellent.

We said goodbye to “Uncle Bob” who was sadly off to the airport.  We were sure to miss both his company and his photography skills, but the trip had to go on so the boys and I were off to meet Phineas and Ferb.  This definitely qualifies as probably the best thing Disney has done in a meet and greet area.  Phineas and Ferb are in the background meeting guests, while in the foreground a crew is “filming” for a new Phineas and Ferb movie.  Of course, for the movie they need lots of volunteers and stand-ins so kids are plucked constantly from the line to go play a role in the movie.  Ethan volunteered straight away and got to be a Tiki god.  Matthew was a bit more reluctant, but eventually got into the spirit playing a guitar for “the film”.  It was great fun and interaction while waiting to meet the characters.

The afternoon was occupied by the Great Movie Ride, another ride on Toy Story Mania, the Backlot Tour, Star Tours (which I cannot ride, but enjoyed walking through the queue area), and the Lights, Motors, Action Epic Stunt Show Spectacular.  This is always a fun show and the addition of Lightning McQueen really helps to draw the younger set into the show and enjoy it.  I found it very interesting how all of the other cars are screaming around the arena, but Mr. McQueen is driven very gently and carefully.

Nighttime was drawing in and Dani wasn't feeling well so she went back to the room while my mom, the boys, and I split some pizza and hot pretzels, then wandered in at the last minute for Fantasmic.  We ended up on the far left in the bleachers, which isn’t the greatest view, and is even worse for exiting, but is still good enough.  I like this show, but it begs for some updating.  At a minimum, they can go for the cheap update which would be this:  Every movie villain shown on the water screens (which are really cool) are from Disney movies of the late eighties and early 90’s.  It’s like Disney didn’t have a hit for 30 years, then had a bunch back to back and so just put all of those villains in the show because they were new when the show was made.  So, let’s cut in some new villains.  Make the show more applicable to younger generations.  There are plenty to choose from in movies such as WallE, Bolt, Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Meet the Robinsons, and the Incredibles.  Heck, you could even throw other dimension Doofenschmirtz in there.  And all of this would just involve the changing of a little film and the production that would have to go behind that.   Do we really think Judge Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is getting the right impact with just about anyone in the audience?

If Disney wanted to make a grander change, the Pocohontas stage scene should probably be changed.  Yes.  I understand Pocohontas was the new movie when this show debuted.  But come on.  I’m going to guess if you poll an entire Fantasmic audience and ask people to raise their hand if their favorite character is from Pocohantas, you wouldn't see more than a score of honest hands in the air.  So why is the giant closing production show featuring this movie?  It is probably worth changing, but, if that is too hard / expensive, at least update the film parts on the water screen.

With all that said, the show does feature a dragon (Ethan’s current favorite) and Mickey Mouse, Matthew’s rodent crush, so everyone had a good time.  Matthew spent a good portion of the show fretting that Mickey might not be okay and would die or get hurt, but both the mouse and the boy came through in a celebratory mood so all ended well as we exited the studios for some sleep.

I was sad to have missed the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt show and the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show and a bit less sad, but still disappointed not to at least see the American Idol Experience once in my lifetime.  Oh well.  I guess I’ll have to go back.

Friday would bring us back to Epcot and with Dani having gone back to the room a little early, she was feeling a bit better and we were able to get up and get to the park before it opened.  Disney’s My Mobile Magic app told me that, though the park wouldn't be open until 9:00 a.m., Daisy and Stitch were already awake and greeting guests in Leave a Legacy Plaza so we’d get to have a little fun before the rope drop since I knew there was no longer a real rope drop opening ceremony.

It was while meeting Daisy that I had a really brilliant idea.  I knew crowds would be low for the day so there wouldn't be too much of a wait for anything besides maybe Soarin’ later in the day so instead of hurrying to get a few rides in that we didn’t need to get in early, we headed immediately to the Epcot Character Spot, the one long line there would likely be during the day.  This turned out to work great as we got to meet, Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Donald, and Goofy and interact and have some fun with them prior to the lines building.

Our character crazed kids satiated for the moment, we headed back to the Land Pavilion.  Boards had quoted a 15 minute wait for Soarin’, but there was absolutely no line so we took another ride over the golden state.  As mentioned before, I knew better when to close my eyes so I made it through the scented ride with no real problems.

For a reason I can’t fathom, the kids did not want to go see the Circle of Life movie though they enjoy the Lion King, so my mom and Dani went to that movie while the boys and I enjoyed another float through Living With the Land.  Ethan asked what they fed the alligators, but wouldn't believe me when I told him kids who misbehaved.

Next up was another ride with Figment, and then on to my first ever viewing of Captain EO.  Two things struck me during this show.  First was – oh my god, Michael Jackson is fighting the Borg followed by the realization that Star Trek ripped off Captain EO for their single greatest villain.  Next realization was the whole theater actually shook during the show.  I wasn't expecting that.  It never happened during Honey I Shrunk the Audience nor at any other Disney 3D movie that I recall.  Oh, and handicapped seating for this show is the back row.  I wasn't sure if it was the technology, this being a very old movie that maybe wasn't refreshed before being reintroduced or the fact that we were in the back row, but this was the worst looking of the 3D movies we saw.

Unfortunately, we never made it back to the Living Seas for another ride on Nemo, visit with Crush, or to spend a bit more time looking at the fish tanks we rushed through on our first night here, but we were hungry and the boys wanted to save another pavilion from the evil clutches of Doofenschmirtz so we headed toward World Showcase.

Having seen Marie from the Aristocats walk by us at least a dozen times at dinner the other night, we were not surprised to find her waiting outside of the France pavilion with no line so Dani pounced like a feline herself and got her picture taken with the character that decorates her jammies.

Continuing around World Showcase, we luckily chanced upon an open alleyway with a mass character meet set up.  And these were oddball characters, not your mainstream meet.  True, Donald and Pluto were there, but they were joined by Rafiki from the Lion King, King Louie from the Jungle Book, a giant scary looking penguin from Mary Poppins, and Mr. Smee from Peter Pan / Jake and the Neverland Pirates (whom Matthew refused to go and visit).  This was a fun surprise visit with characters we weren't expecting and I always enjoy stumbling on characters more than going to a place where you know you are going to meet them.

Character distractions done, we finally made our way to lunch.  We had so many counter service credits left, everyone ordered whatever they wanted (and we ended up throwing away half of the food).  My mom and I enjoyed Tangerine Cafe from Morocco.  She had the delicious shwarma platter while I tried something a little different – the Mediterranean sliders combo, which is similar to the shwarma platter, but puts the meat in pitas and adds falafel to your meal.  This continues to be my favorite counter service restaurant in all of Disney World (as long as you are on the dining plan.  It is otherwise also the most expensive counter service I have seen in all of Disney World).  You get a ton of food here – some of which you may not like, but you don’t need to like it all to greatly enjoy this meal.  The centerpiece is the shwarma meats (get the combo platter or the sliders combo).  They are both delicious.

Meanwhile, Dani and the boys headed to America for gluten free / more kid friendly fare.  We met up at the end of their meal, just in time to throw out a lot of food as I was already stuffed.

With our bellies overfilled once more, it was time to give the boys another shot at foiling the evil plans of Hans Doofenschmirtz.  This time we were off to Japan.  As I mentioned Monday, this game just doesn't work for me.  Japan is my favorite pavilion with the beauty of the koi ponds and waterfalls, but I spent too much time distracted by the game to fully enjoy my surroundings.  On a positive note, the boys once again enjoyed themselves playing the game. 

Japan saved, it was time for an afternoon break so we made our way toward the exit, with my mom and Ethan making a stop at Mission Space while Dani, Matthew, and I met up with Mickey’s pet teddy bear Duffy.  Matthew enjoyed having the stuffed bear that Mickey holds hold his stuffed Mickey, but otherwise, this is a somewhat forgettable character whose only real story seems to be an attempt to sell merchandise.

Soon we found ourselves back at the hotel where a trip to the pool was in order for the boys and I.  It was a refreshing dip, but let me tell you something important.  To take a break at your hotel (other than a hotel on the Epcot – Hollywood Studios waterway such as The Boardwalk and the Yacht and Beach Clubs) when you are in World Showcase, you first face a 20 minute or so walk out of the park, a wait for the bus, the bus ride back to your hotel (or walk to the car and car ride), the walk back to your room, and then the reverse to get back to World Showcase for dinner.  That is a minimum of several hours of just traveling.  It doesn't leave much time for an actual break.

So, with our quick break over, we headed back to Epcot for our scheduled dinner reservation at Teppan Edo.  Teppan Edo is a Japanese steakhouse similar to a Bennihanna you might find in your local area.  Disney’s version of this has its positives and its weaknesses.  Its biggest strength is the food is really good.  I mean really good.  This was perhaps the best Japanese steakhouse food I have ever eaten. 

However, you may remember me saying the most important thing about a Disney restaurant is not the food and the rest of the tale starts to dim the shine, though nothing about the meal was bad.  Firstly, you are put in small little rooms with four cooking stations.  It’s not pretty.  It’s not a nice picturesque atmosphere you would hope for in an Epcot restaurant.  You don’t feel like you are in Japan.  It’s functional, and that’s about all.  Also, probably because the room is so contained, it is noisy in there.  I was seated in the corner with the boys between me and Dani and my mom, plus our other tablemates. That made it virtually impossible for me to converse with anyone at the table (minus my two little ones, of course).  Also, it made understanding our accented servers very difficult.  Finally, anyone who has gone to a Japanese steakhouse knows the fun of these dinners is the show the chef puts on while preparing your meal.  The Disney version of this food preparation show is not nearly as good as a good chef at a Bennihanna.  Not being able to hear the cook well also does not help.

So, anyway, we've tried it.  The food was good, but I don’t really think this restaurant is on the need to see list.  There are other experiences you can get in Epcot that are more unique.  A local Japanese steakhouse will be just as positive of an experience.

By the time we finally extricated ourselves from the restaurant, it was nearing 9:00 p.m. – time for Illuminations and park closing.  After polling the group, we (which really means the boys) decided the last thing they wanted to do at Epcot for the trip was to ride Spaceship Earth, not watch the fireworks.  So we began the long walk back to the front of Future World with a goal of making it to Spaceship Earth by 9:00 pm.  Traversing World Showcase with a scooter was cumbersome as we were engulfed by people, but once we cleared Mexico, travel through a near deserted Future World became a breeze with the scooter.  We arrived at Spaceship Earth with a few minutes to spare and once again enjoyed a ride through our past, present, and future before exiting the park for the evening.

Saturday – Magic Kingdom – Last Day
There is nothing more depressing than the day you leave Disney World.  That likely explains why it was difficult to get everyone moving in the morning, bags packed and in the car, and otherwise ready to face the day.  It wasn't until our 11:20 a.m. late breakfast reservation at Chef Mickey’s was nearing that we arrived at the Magic Kingdom and so we headed directly to the Contemporary for our breakfast with the Fab Five. 

Although the plan didn’t work out too well this day, I generally love this last breakfast seating at Chef Mickey’s.  If you manage to wake up on time, you can hit the Magic Kingdom early and do some rides before the crowds build.  (Of course, that didn’t happen this time.)  Also, as the last seating, the number of people in the restaurant begins to thin.  This gives you more time with the characters and also multiple visits.

On the down side, getting breakfast on the meal plan is not an optimal use of your credits.  (It might be your best bet to get the least expensive character meal experience possible if you are not.  Least expensive, however, does not mean inexpensive as breakfast will still cost you more than $20 a head.)  We also were unlucky enough to get saddled with a bad table, wedged in a peninsula with a wall at our back, a window on our side, and a building column also flanking us.  It wasn't terrible, but it would have been better to be more in the open where we could watch the antics of the characters at other tables.  Finally, being in a restaurant on our last day is not where we really wanted to be.  I’d suggest doing counter service on the last day.

On the food front, things are fine with typical breakfast fare, including pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, waffles, and cereal.  They even have gluten free Mickey waffles that Dani really enjoys.  Overall, it’s pretty easy to find something for everyone here.  Nothing stands out as being especially great, but everything that I tried was decent.  Leaving and seeing the buffet full of food still sitting there and very few customers left, I was left hoping they find a good home for that leftover food such as feeding the castmembers.

Speaking of fed, we were feeling as such as we departed for the Magic Kingdom, arriving there around 1:00 p.m.  By this point, the day’s plans were pretty well shot and it was now a question of trying to do a few things to finish everyone’s trip on a high note.  Since there was no line at the firehouse, we quickly ducked in to get another set of Sorcerer’s cards for everyone in the party.  That done, we met Mary Poppins and Snow White and otherwise killed a little time on Main Street waiting for our FASTPASSES for Mickey and the Princesses to come due so we could get one visit in with the Princesses and one last meet with Mickey Mouse for Matthew, who was now insisting he was going to stay with Mickey when the rest of us went home.  Well, we had that one last visit with the head cheese (eater) and it once again proved magical with Matthew smiling, laughing, and telling Mickey how much he loved him.

FASTPASSES for character meets is a great thing.  However, there is a major problem with this particular FASTPASS.   Being at the very beginning of the park, it isn’t really near any of the attractions.  With crowd levels relatively low, the FASTPASSES weren't far enough in the future to justify walking down Main Street to the attractions.  We’d have to turn around and come right back.  So basically you are stuck hanging around the area shopping or meeting characters on the street while you wait.  It isn’t the worst way to spend time, but it is somewhat inefficient.  This will be corrected when the character areas in New Fantasyland open.

With these characters met, the boys both wanted to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad again so we were off to Adventureland where they boys and my mom and Dani enjoyed one final trip in a runaway locomotive.  Rain was threatening so we forewent another ride on Splash Mountain and instead watched the 3:00 p.m. parade go past. 

Dani then wanted to meet Tinkerbell.  The line, however, was near an hour long – everything was fairly crowded as is true of most Saturdays in the Magic Kingdom.  The boys wanted to play Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom again so Dani sent us to play while she waited in line.  Well, we managed to save Adventureland just before Dani reached the head of the queue, which was lucky for us because that meant we could join her for the photo shoot.  So we all got to meet Tinkerbell and her newly found sister Periwinkle.

It was now already later than we had intended to stay and the crowds were still thick, so it was near time to depart.  But we also wanted one final memory for the trip.  After a brief confab, we settled on walking across to Tomorrowland and seeing the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor again and I secretly planned for one more ride on Buzz Lightyear.  We all had a blast at the Laugh Floor again.  I suggest if you see either of my boys and want to get a giggle, ask them why the chicken crossed the road.

Unfortunately, after the Laugh Floor, I noted that Buzz had a 25 minute wait so we decided to head for the exit instead.  We stopped at the Main Street Confectionery on the way out.  We still had 21 snack credits left so we spent half of them on fudge and a few treats for the boys.  Have I mentioned there is way too much food on the dining plan?  Our goodies packed away, we turned and waved goodbye to the castle, then boarded the bus back to our hotel.

Soon we were off to Downtown Disney for some last minute shopping before hitting the road for home.  Downtown Disney at night is crowded and feels nothing like being at Disney World.  I would not recommend for most people that you end your trip with time in Downtown Disney.  It’s not the last memory of your trip I think you want. 

Well, after finally finding parking, we wandered through a few stores for some last minute gifts, then finally found a restaurant without an incredibly long line to squander as many as we could of our remaining 9 counter service meals – four meals we ate, four meals to go, and 1 gift meal for the lady next to me in line.  All of this dining was done at Pollo Campanero for some good fried chicken.  This restaurant is also home to Babycakes NYC – an all gluten free (as well as sugar free, dairy free, etc.) bakery where we spent our remaining snack credits on a box full of goodies for Dani.

And that was it.  We were on the road to home late Saturday evening.  We stopped somewhere in North Florida for the night, then made it home Sunday evening.  Overall, it was a fun trip, though complicated by Dani’s illnesses.  The good thing is I learned a lot for planning our next trip and fine tuning the plans of any of my Disney travel customers that want help.

Ten Lessons Learned
  1. Don’t go to TREX Café.  It isn’t Disney owned and run and they don’t treat you with the service you expect from Disney.
  2. The dining plan continues to be way too much food.  Even with feeding an extra mouth at the counter services, we still had 5 leftover counter service meals, realistically 6 with the food we wasted on the last day in Epcot.  Without the extra mouth, we would have had at least 9.  Plan one of the table service meals to use two credits.  This will save money on tips (at least for a dinner show, where tip is included with the dining plan), save time at sit down meals, give a unique dining experience, and allow the use of more counter service meals.  (On the other hand, don’t buy the dining plan unless it is free.)
  3. I didn’t really miss not having the park hopper tickets.  As long as you arrange your meals correctly, there really isn’t a lot of need to hop for us.  We are a slow moving group with the kids and the scooter so hopping just isn’t necessary.
  4. Driving there really wasn't too bad.  Even the ride home that I was dreading was okay.
  5. Don’t make Downtown Disney the last thing you do.  Unless you don’t mind a mass of people and really enjoy shopping, this isn’t the last memory you want from your vacation.   Likewise, try not to have a table service meal on the last day.  Everyone is going to be itching for more fun time in the parks, not sitting around waiting for food.
  6. Find a way to make the use of the scooter more efficient.  Loading and unloading before and after rides took a long time while the kids were ready to run off to the next thing.  This made the travel around the parks less about seeing things and more about getting places after waiting around to get started.
  7. Going to the right park on low crowd days is perhaps the single most important part of planning a successful trip.  I decided to do the Magic Kingdom on the last day despite planned higher crowds and it was much less enjoyable, especially since it was the last day.  (Don’t go to the Magic Kingdom on a Saturday.)
  8. Traveling with an ill person is challenging.  I often felt sad that I couldn't walk with her holding her hand, for one thing.  (Getting moving more efficiently will help with this some as I then won’t have my children dragging me ahead.)  Also, we need to find a better way of managing her energy reserves, perhaps cutting our days shorter to allow for the enjoyable early morning start.
  9. It’s time consuming with the scooter to take a break and go back to the hotel if you need to take a bus.  Leaving the park, waiting for the bus, getting the scooter on and off the bus, back to the hotel and then the same in the reverse really piles up time.  I’m not sure what, if anything is the solution to this.  The only idea I had was a combined solution with above – stay longer into the afternoon / evening, then cut the day a bit short and go back to the hotel and maybe the pool.  This might save time overall and have us better rested for the morning.  The one downside is you miss evening fireworks, but if this is a night having counter service dinner, it might otherwise all work out.
  10. An early start in the Animal Kingdom is really important so plan the day before so you can have it.  Seeing the Safari first thing really is worth it, plus that will give enough time to do everything else the park has to enjoy including just wandering around looking at this most picturesque park (except for Dinoland USA which is an eyesore).

Ten  + One Best Things From the Trip
  1. My first morning waking up at Disney.  I was up at dawn and walking the paths of Port Orleans Riverside.  It was beautiful and peaceful – a perfect start to a week in Disney.  Port Orleans is a beautiful resort.
  2. Watching the boy’s faces in Mickey’s Philharmagic.  They were amazed and enthralled and a father can’t ask for anything more.
  3. Having Dani get to spend an evening with her grandmother.
  4. "Uncle Bob" was an excellent traveling companion.  The boys loved having he and Jacques along.  It was fun and it was also cool to have our own personal traveling photographer for most of the trip.
  5. Discovering Matthew’s absolute love for Mickey Mouse and watching the smiles and love coming from him each time he saw the mouse.
  6. Watching Ethan come out of his shell – no pun intended – at Turtle Talk With Crush, not only talking with the shelled dude, but being willing to volunteer to talk to him again – and be funny while doing so.  Any time I see Ethan escaping the shyness that plagues his father is a good time.
  7. 1900 Park Fare was a cut above your standard Disney buffet.  The location is nice in the Grand Floridian and convenient to the Magic Kingdom.  The food takes into account the fact that it is being served in the Grand Floridian and is thus a bit more upscale.  Finally, the characters, being “faces” are able to talk to you and are fun to interact with.
  8.  Interacting with characters should be a fun experience.  Take time to act and talk with them.  Simply taking a picture is boring, but some of the characters are great fun to play around with.  We especially had fun with Frontier Donald Duck and Matthew’s Mickey infatuation.
  9. Ethan and Matthew getting to decorate Minnie’s Christmas tree in the Christmas Shoppe in the Magic Kingdom and getting a Magical Moment certificate and ornament as a “thank you.”
  10.  Ethan rejecting Druzella for Broccoli at 1900 Park Fare, then volunteering to dance with Anastasia.
  11. Watching my wife and kids get to enjoy another visit with each other to Disney World and hoping for many more.