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.


+ -
- 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


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.

Here's a look at some of the footage from the drive-in screen:

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.


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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

    Saturday, May 31, 2014

    Star Wars Weekends: Legends of the Force Motorcade - 5/30/2014

    In 2014 I attended my first Star Wars Weekend at Disney's Hollywood Studios. One of the featured events during each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of each Weekend is the Legends of the Force Motorcade, which features Disney characters in Star Wars costumes, a variety of characters from the Star Wars movies, and several visiting celebrities. I saw this parade and accompanying stage from from a VIP viewing area as part of the Feel the Force Premium Package.

    Prior to the show Boba Fett and stormtroopers patrol the event stage

    Your hosts for the motorcade announce each character as they take to the street (though their commentary was out of sync with what I was seeing, since my viewing spot was near the end of the parade route)

    An X-wing pilot led off the parade

    The Disney stars were on hand

    Jedi Training Academy padawan got to march down the street and watch the parade from right in front of the stage

    The Empire was well represented

    And, the Dark Side made its presence felt

    Quite a variety of stormtroopers and other Imperial forces were part of the parade

    This character turned the tables on the many photographers in the crowd

    The sand people didn't appear to be walking in single to conceal their numbers

    Jawas could also be found on the Streets of America and the Star Wars Din-In Galactic Breakfast

    This Wookie (I believe the announcers said it was female), led the procession of "good guys"

    Assorted Jedi

    More Rebel Forces

    R2-D2 rolled down the parade root

    Ahsoka Tano ...

    ... followed by the voice of Ahsoka Tano, Ashley Eckstein, a participant in each 2014 Star Wars Weekend

    Taylor Gray, voice of Ezra Bridger in Star Wars Rebels

    Sabine Wren, from Star Wars Rebels

    Chopper, from Star Wars Rebels

    Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and also appeared in A Visit to the Maul during the weekend

    John Ratzenberger, best known as Cliff Clavin in Cheers and for his appearances in many Pixar films, also had a small role in The Empire Strikes Back

    James Arnold Taylor hosted the brief stage show following the Motorcade and most of the other events of the weekend. In addition to his numerous Star Wars hosting duties and other voiceover work, Taylor is know as the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in several animated forms.

    Still the most recognizable character in the Star Wars universe, Darth Vader was last to appear in the parade

    On stage for the brief post-parade stage show

    Despite my VIP location for the Motorcade, I was still behind quite a few people when the stage show began

    Scenes around the stage

    A photo opportunity, with the stars of the Motorcade

    Show's over when this guy says it is