Spotlight: Soarin’

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Future World, Epcot, contains one of Disney’s most innovative and unique rides. Soarin’, the high-flying adventure over California, is one of my personal favorites, and gives riders a distinct feeling of weightlessness. The premise behind the ride is a simple one: you get to view iconic areas of the Sunshine State from a hang gliding-like perspective. The ride itself, if you want to get technical about it, is really just one giant projector screen. But as you’re lifted off the ground in your tiered elevated chairs, your feet dangle in front of you as the projected images surround your view. You soar over places like the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park, Los Angeles, and even the Disneyland California park itself. Several of the scenes infuse a distinct scent, such as the salty ocean as you fly over Malibu, or evergreens as you fly over the mountains. The ride really does feel all-encompassing, and when you “land” it seems as if you’ve actually been to the places on the screen. Soarin’s sense of realism is unparalleled, and its finale (Christmas fireworks over Disneyland) is truly breathtaking. Be sure to check this one out if you’re in The Land—it’s worth the wait.

 

Image courtesy of flickr.com.

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Tip: Hotel Club Levels

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If you have some extra room in your budget, consider upgrading your hotel room to ‘Club Level.’ Formally known as the Club Level Concierge, this special floor option is available in all Disney Deluxe Resorts. Know upfront that it is a fairly expensive option, especially when it’s on top of the price of a room in a Deluxe Resort. However, there are a lot of perks to staying on Club Level, and you should consider it when planning your vacation.

Club Level, to start with, is (in most locations) a select floor of a resort that operates in a “members only” format. When you arrive for check in, you’re escorted directly to the Club Level floor and allowed to bypass the front desk chaos completely. These Club Level check-ins are very personalized and accommodating; hotel staff are available to print your park tickets, make last minute reservations, and even provide you with something to eat and drink while you wait.

That brings me to another perk: the Club Level Lounge. The Lounge is a sitting and dining area with several couches and tables and television sets. There is a food area that lays out small meals and snacks throughout the day, plus coffee in the morning and wine and beer at night. One great thing about this option is the availability of breakfast each morning; if you’re getting up early before you hit the parks and don’t want to pay for an expensive meal every day, the Club Level is a really helpful tool. Don’t expect any of the food options to substitute a three-course meal; most of the offerings are small finger foods (bagels, vegetable plates, chips, various appetizers), but it’s a decent alternative if you don’t have the time for a full meal.

The service on Club Level is also impressive. Wait staff is very accommodating, and if you’re stopping in while the Lounge happens to be closed and setting up for the next meal period, there are always employees available to grab you some extra food. Some hotels offer additional perks, as well. For example, the Club Level of the Yacht Club comes with a private balcony that you can enjoy any time of the day, and happens to be a great viewing location of Magic Kingdom’s Wishes.

I really enjoyed staying on Club Level, and I would highly recommend that you try it out if you’ve got the room in your budget.

 

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Tip: After Disney

If you’re planning an extended vacation and want to explore other Orlando parks, or if you’re just looking to see a different part of Florida, I’ve got two recommendations. The first, much like Disney itself, is a theme park/resort with tons of cool attractions and an all-inclusive vacation experience. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m referring to Universal Studios, Disney’s Orlando cousin.

Universal can feel a lot like Disney, especially at first glance. This can be a good thing if you love the theme park experience but feel like you’ve done everything there is to do at Disney and are looking for something new. Universal is a very similar vacation, but the attractions and themes are decidedly different. Many of the rides at Universal are built for an older crowd, and while Disney tends to focus on princesses and happily ever after, Universal Studios has an entire land dedicated to the Simpsons. But much like Disney, Universal contains multiple parks (Islands of Adventure and the actual Universal Studios, specifically), that have some really great rides and dining options. My personal favorite part of Universal Studios are the Harry Potter pavilions, Hogsmeade and the recently-added Diagon Alley. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, these parks are a must see, and feel very much as if you’ve walked right into the books.

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If you want a break from all the theme parks and are looking for something much calmer, I recommend visiting Clearwater Beach, just outside of Tampa. The beach is situated directly on the Gulf of Mexico, and the place is absolutely breathtaking. I recently stayed at the Sandpearl Resort, which is right on the beach, and the ambiance and amenities of the place were unbelievable. It was the perfect place for a weekend getaway where you can relax by the pool and on the sand. The surrounding town has some pretty neat shops, and if you get the chance, take one of the sunset cruises available—you won’t regret it!

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Spotlight: 50’s Prime Time Cafe

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Disney has countless themed restaurants, each one more unique than the next. One of my favorites is in Hollywood Studios, and it takes the shape of a family home in the 1950’s. The 50’s Prime Time Cafe really pulls out all the stops, and eating there is more of an entertainment experience than anything else.

The lobby of the cafe is decorated like a suburban living room, with big, comfy couches and TV screens playing black and white sitcoms. The hosts and hostesses yell out names across the room and really play up the atmosphere as if they’re calling you to dinner at home.

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The restaurant itself is set up like an old-fashioned kitchen, and the entire aesthetic is really authentic, right down to the classic television sets. But the best apart about eating at 50’s Prime Time Cafe is the interactions with the waiters and waitresses. These people are just as dedicated as the park’s character performers, and really nail their role as strict 50’s figures. They’ll scold you for putting your elbows on the table and ask you to set the table to take dishes back to the kitchen. And watch out if you don’t finish your food! The experience here is always hilarious, especially for first timers that don’t know what to expect. The food is classic diner/mom’s kitchen style, and it’s usually a decent meal. More than anything, you should check out 50’s Prime Time for an experience you won’t find anywhere else in Disney.

 

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Downtown Disney

If you’re staying at Disney for an extended period of time, or you’re traveling with an older crowd that isn’t as interested in the parks, consider visiting Downtown Disney. It’s a strip along the water full of shops, restaurants, interactive games, and nightlife.

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There are some brand name stores along the strip, including Sunglass Hut and apparel from House of Blues and The Rainforest Cafe. Many of the shops are Disney specialties, including the enormous merchandise store, World of Disney; the Art of Disney collectible shop; and the sweet Goofy’s Candy Company. You can purchase just about anything along the strip. There are plenty of dining options as well, like Wolfgang Puck’s fancy cuisine, Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe, or an assortment of food trucks.

You’ll also want to check out some of the entertainment that Downtown Disney has to offer, including a movie theater, a bowling alley, and performances like Cirque de Soleil and concerts at the House of Blues. Young guests might also enjoy DisneyQuest, a unique interactive theme park with high-tech games.

Downtown Disney is currently under renovation, though their website says that over 70 establishments remain open through construction. The expansion will be called Disney Springs, and is expected to double the amount of shops, dining, and entertainment options.

 

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A Very Disney Christmas

Christmas carols, silver bells, reindeer… it’s that time of year again! Oh, wait, no it’s not. But as Disney’s summer deals come to a close and discounts are released for the fall and winter, it is time to start thinking about spending your holidays at the happiest place on Earth.

Disney is bursting with magic any day of the week, but around Christmastime, the park really shines. To start with, everything is completely decorated and decked out in holiday cheer. Buildings in the parks are strung with wreaths and lights, and hotels even offer unique yuletide displays.

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(Above: Main Street, USA; Below: Toy train set in the Yacht Club)

Several attractions throughout the park also take on a holiday theme during this time of year, including the very appropriate “Jingle Cruise,” where the skipper’s typical puns are adapted for the yuletide crowd. These holiday variations on classic attractions are definitely fun, but it’s the additional Christmas events that make visiting between late November and early January worthwhile.

One of the more little-known holiday events is the nightly lighting of Cinderella’s Castle. Around dusk, the voice of Cinderella’s godmother can be heard throughout Magic Kingdom as she transforms the castle into a vision of shimmering Christmas lights. It’s a fun little show to catch if you’re around, and you’ll get some really great pictures of one of Disney’s most famous landmarks.

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You’ll also want to check out some of Epcot’s special offerings, including the Candlelight Processional and Holidays Around the World. The former features a special celebrity guest each night, so that might be something to consider when booking. I just missed the time window for those two events, but I was able to see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and it’s without a doubt one of the coolest things that Disney has to offer.

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The Streets of America in Hollywood Studios are decorated with more lights than you can possibly imagine, and they all move and flash to popular Christmas songs. My family actually went one night when it was raining (pictured above) and so crowds were minimal and the puddles on the streets reflected all the lights. We almost skipped it because of the weather, but I’m so glad we didn’t—it was nothing short of magical, and I 100% recommend it.

 

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Spotlight: World Showcase

Walt’s original vision of Epcot was, literally, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—a utopian society where cultures could co-exist peacefully. World Showcase is the embodiment of this idea, and brings together countries from around the world (Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the US, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada) in one large loop around the back of Epcot. This pavilion is unlike anything else you’ll find at Disney, or in any theme park, for that matter.

First of all, no detail is too small for this pavilion. Each country is diligently themed and represented, from the availability of local foods to the architecture of the all the buildings. Cast members can also only work in the park if they’re originally from the country that they are representing. Each new pavilion really feels authentic, and you’ll leave Epcot feeling like a world traveler.

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Several of the pavilions have rides to accompany their country, such as Mexico’s boat ride led by Donald Duck. Norway also has a famous ride, Maelstrom, which was a journey through land conquered by the vikings. As of late 2014, this ride unfortunately closed to make way for a new Frozen-themed attraction to break ground soon. Other countries, like Italy and the UK, have performers and shows that take place at various times, such as concerts in the garden or jugglers in the town’s square.

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I would recommend dedicating a night or two to explore World Showcase and soak up the culture—and be sure to catch IllumiNations on your way out!

 

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Disneyland vs. Disney World

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Aside from being on opposite ends of the country, there are numerable differences between Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Many first-time Disney-ers might imagine that the parks are more or less the same on both coasts, but the reality is that they offer a vastly different vacation experiences. I’ve never been to the Disneyland California park, but I’m going to provide you with some facts on each resort so that you can understand the differences and decide for yourself which one would best fit your trip.

It’s important to note, first of all, that Disneyland California is actually the original—Walt founded the park in Anaheim in 1955. As such, it contains the first versions of attractions synonymous with the Disney name: It’s a Small World After All, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.. Still, after Disneyland was built, Walt turned his attention to a much larger endeavor called “The Florida Project,” which would ultimately become the massive resort that is Walt Disney World in Orlando today.

This leads us to our first difference: size. Disneyland has two main parks, Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure, with the former functioning as a Magic Kingdom type park (featuring Main Street USA, Fronteirland, etc.). Getting from park to park can be done on foot, though there is a functioning railroad and monorail system. Disney World, on the other hand, has four parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios), as well as two water parks and twenty five hotels. The resort as a whole is enormous, and as such getting from park to park can sometimes be challenging. Disney World offers the traditional monorail system as well as buses and water taxis.

While we prefer the all-inclusiveness of Walt Disney World, getting from place to place can be a challenge, and can result in a lot of wasted time. If you’re going for an extended period, Disney World will probably give you more bang for your buck—but if you’re interested in smaller day or weekend trips, Disneyland might be your better bet.

The next major difference between the parks is the attractions. This doesn’t necessarily apply to just rides—as mentioned before, many of the staples exist in both parks. The real discrepancies here fall more in line with the experiences that are offered at each park. For example, two of Disneyland’s major draws, Indiana Jones and Radiator Springs (Cars Land), are unparalleled or simply don’t exist at all in Disney World. Conversely, World Showcase in Epcot is an enormous dining/attraction experience that won’t be found in Disneyland. Many draws of Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios can’t be found there, either.

Also falling under the general umbrella of attractions are nighttime shows. Disney World offers Wishes and IllumiNations (both of which are discussed in great detail on this blog) while Disneyland features Dreams Come True and World of Color. The former is a similar castle show to Wishes, and the latter is a water show that surrounds Disneyland’s famous ferris wheel. Preference here is based on personal taste, so you might consider researching some of the shows on YouTube before deciding.

The final major difference that this post will cover is theme. This can probably be best represented in the parks’ major landmarks. Walt Disney World is best recognized by the grandiose Cinderella’s Castle (and, to a lesser extent, Epcot’s giant golf ball and Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life). Disneyland, on the other hand, is represented by Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (which, let’s be honest, has nothing on Cinderella) and the ferris wheel. While Disneyland focuses more on original Disney storylines and attractions, Disney World branches out to include themes like connecting cultures (Epcot) and understanding life around us (Animal Kingdom).

In the end, which park you choose really just depends on your preference (as well as travel convenience and vacation specifics). I’m (clearly) partial to Disney World, but many people that write about this topic will tell you that you’ll likely be more favorable to whichever park you experience first. But either way, you can’t really go wrong.

Image courtesy of theculturebite.com.

 

 

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Tip: Hidden Mickeys

One of the best things about Disney World is that each time you go, there’s always something new to explore. Even if you’ve been to the parks many times, stayed at a variety of hotels, and even checked out the water parks or Downtown Disney, you can always find a little extra magic in Hidden Mickeys. Part of the architecture, landscape, and walkways of the resort, Hidden Mickeys are exactly what they sound like: Mickey icons that blend into their surroundings. There are hundreds of them around the resort, and we may never find them all. But here are a few spots to look out for to get you started:

In Magic Kingdom, this coiled rope Hidden Mickey can be found on the ferry loading docks in the park and at the Transportation and Ticket Center.

Also in Magic Kingdom, this Hidden Mickey is part of a window display along Main Street USA’s Confectionery store.

This Hidden Mickey can be found in the Morocco Pavilion display in World Showcase, Epcot.

A little harder to spot, this Hidden Mickey is located in the Karamell Kuche shop of Epcot’s Germany Pavilion.

Try to find others as you make your way through the parks! Share your favorite Hidden Mickey spots on this post to help out other Disney-ers.

Images courtesy of hiddenmickeysguide.com.

 

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Breaking Down Avatar Land

With about two years of construction still to go, many people have yet to make up their minds about “Avatar Land.” Will it be a huge hit, or an unnecessary expansion? Is this what guests want to see, or could the money and resources have been better spent elsewhere? It’s hard to say just yet, but let’s look at some of the pros and cons.

Cons

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1. Avatar came out in 2009.

Sure, it was (and still is) the highest-grossing movie ever. But so what? It was a huge phenomenon that has since faded from the pop culture radar. Director James Cameron’s proposed sequels have been delayed, postponed, and then delayed again (the franchise’s second installment is currently slated for 2017… 8 years after the original). The reality here is that Avatar was fun in the moment, but is now just another blockbuster. Incorporating it into the Disney Parks just doesn’t feel relevant anymore.

2. Pandora doesn’t necessarily fit into the theme of Animal Kingdom.

A fictionalized land located on the surface of a far-off moon, Pandora is all about the make believe. Its creatures are larger than life and it is home to blue-skinned humanoids. Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, is all about connecting us with our animal kin; it features up close and personal encounters with real animals and lets us explore the nature all around us. How will Avatar Land fit in?

3. Nighttime shows might disturb the animals.

I’m all for Animal Kingdom expanding its hours and holding nighttime shows, but the reason for not doing this in the first place was to protect the animals that reside on the savanna. There aren’t many details about the “Rivers of Light” show yet, and so the safety of the animals remains a concern for many Disney fans.

Pros

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1. The proposal sounds awesome.

It’s impossible to tell until we can actually see the thing, of course, but from what we’ve heard so far, Avatar Land has the potential to be an incredible addition to the park. A 3-D flight simulator a-la Soarin’? A winding river boat ride through Pandora? Glow-in-the-dark plants and bio-luminescent pathways? Floating mountains? I’m in.

2. Including Pandora expands on the original premise of Animal Kingdom.

Ever heard of Beastly Kingdom? It was a proposed pavilion in Animal Kingdom’s early stages, a land that would represent dragons and unicorns and all things fantasy, and connect them to the animals that we know today. The idea was scrapped and Camp Minnie-Mickey was produced instead, but doesn’t Pandora seem to fit in perfectly with this premise? The characters and creatures of Avatar are mythical, magical, and most certainly beastly. I think it’ll be a good fit.

3. Animal Kingdom can currently be done and over with in just half a day.

Whenever I plan a trip, we pretty much dedicate only one morning to Animal Kingdom. We hit the Early Magic Hours, stay through lunch, and then head off to a different park that has more things to do. Expanding Animal Kingdom’s hours and including a nighttime show is a great idea that will give guests a whole new way to explore the park. Something like this has been long overdue, and judging by the concept art, “Rivers of Light” is going to be amazing (as long as it doesn’t bother any animals).

We’ll have to see how things progress, but right now, I’m totally in for Avatar Land. I don’t care so much about the actual film mythology (I’ve actually never seen the movie, whoops), but I really like the concept and I dig the idea of a glow-in-the-dark Tree of Life. What do you guys think?

 

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