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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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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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Booking with a Discount

Several times per year, Disney vacationers can book their trip and choose to either apply a room discount or receive a free dining plan. This promotion usually runs seasonally (it is now currently active for summer) barring specific “blackout” dates during which the discounts cannot be applied. It’s generally a good plan to wait for these discounts to become available before booking, because they can save you a lot of money. But how do you know which one to choose?

Below is a breakdown of prices from a Value, Moderate, and Deluxe hotel comparing the savings of the room discount and the free dining plan during the summer season.

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If you’re staying at a Value or Moderate resort, the Dining Plan could wind up saving you more money per night. Keep in mind, however, that Value resorts are only offered the Quick Service Dining Plan, which may not help as much as you think. Read more about the different types of dining plans here.

If you’re booking a deluxe room, applying the 30% room discount is usually the better buy. However, it is still worth researching the dining plans available and determining whether or not applying one would best suit your vacation.

 

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Spotlight: The Yacht Club

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding which on-site hotel to stay at during your vacation: price, location, atmosphere, amenities, etc. Some people feel a certain loyalty to their hotel of choice, and will stay there for every Disney trip—others like to explore the wide range of options available. Personally, I enjoy knowing exactly which hotel I’m going to book for all my vacations, and that’s the Yacht Club.

The Yacht Club is a deluxe hotel located in the Epcot resort area next to its sister hotel, the Beach Club, and across from the Boardwalk Inn. The resort is modeled after a New England seaside beach town and features a gorgeous landmark lighthouse, as well as Stormalong Bay, an outdoor pool complete with sand and a massive shipwreck-themed water slide. The rooms are boat-themed, and there is a special floor reserved for a “Concierge Level,” which contains a lounge that serves food and a private balcony. Here are some great reasons to stay the Yacht Club:

The View

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The back of the resort looks out over a scenic lagoon with sandy beaches and a boardwalk that leads to the lighthouse. It’s incredibly picturesque, and is especially pretty at dusk. The resort holds movie screenings and other events right on the beach, and you’re always free to walk along the sand and lounge in the beach chairs. You can see Epcot’s IllumiNations right from the beach, and many of the resort’s rooms give you a view of the lagoon from your balcony.

The Rooms

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The rooms at the Yacht Club are simple but elegant, and are slightly more refined than the ones found at the Beach Club because the Yacht Club typically caters to an older crowd. All rooms are furnished with a private balcony that provides great scenery. The lobby is also very elegant, and when you arrive you are greeted by The Captain, who hangs around the resort completely in character.

The Amenities

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Stormalong Bay is an outdoor pool that connects the Beach and Yacht Clubs. It’s an enormous facility with plenty of sun, sand, and beach chairs. It’s got a great water slide for the kids, a lazy river section, and has plenty of noodles and tubes to go around. The Yacht Club is also home to Yachtsman’s Steakhouse, an upper-scale restaurant with some really quality food options.

The Location

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Perhaps the best reason to stay at the Yacht Club is its position between the parks. A short walk from the hotel will take you directly to the back of Epcot (pictured above) and right to the France Pavilion. From the park, you have boat and monorail access. If you choose to walk down to the lighthouse, there is a boat service that will take you across the way to the Boardwalk, or over to Hollywood Studios. Buses also stop by the lot to bring you to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.

 

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Spotlight: Flower and Garden Festival

If you’re booking a last minute vacation this spring (and you love Epcot as much as I do), you’ll want to check out the Flower and Garden Festival, held every year from March to mid-May. The special attraction takes place in both World Showcase and Future World, and features gorgeous character topiary and flower arrangements throughout the parks. The festival hosts special events for Earth Day, as well as entertaining “Flower Power” concerts on select weekends. You can also visit “Outdoor Kitchens”  throughout the park, which are similar to the offerings of Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival. For an extra fee, you can also participate in a “Gardens of the World Tour,” in which you’re led around the park by a horticulturist for a 3-hour tour of the most impressive garden displays. Also feel free to stop by the United Kingdom Pavilion for a “tea garden” afternoon special tour.

Here are some displays you’ll see throughout the parks:

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It’s a great time to visit the parks, and for the avid Disney-goer, it’s something you’ll want to see at least once.

 

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Spotlight: Haunted Mansion

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This iconic supernatural journey through a ghostly home is located in Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom, and is one of Disney World’s most famous attractions. Just because it’s well-known doesn’t mean it’s overrated! The ambiance and attention to detail are just a few great things that puts this ride on my must list.

The Haunted Mansion attraction starts with an interactive queue that builds the spooky atmosphere, complete with an eerie crypt and ghostly graveyard. Inside the mansion, Disney Imagineers put forth some of their greatest work with a room that inexplicably stretches right before your eyes. When you get to the ride, an invisible Ghost Host invites you to take a seat inside your ‘doom buggy’ and tour the home where ghosts lurk at every turn! You’ll want to try out this ride a couple times to catch all the details – they’re worth it!

While a little scary at times, this ride is suitable for younger vacationers, and is perfect for the kid at heart. It truly sums up Disney Magic.

Images courtesy of vimeo.com, answerparty.com, and disneyworld.disney.go.com.

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Spotlight: Disney’s Boardwalk

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For an enjoyable and laid-back evening, stop by Disney’s Boardwalk, located just outside of Epcot and across from the Yacht and Beach Club hotels. Though it’s open during the morning and afternoon, the best time to experience the Boardwalk is at night, when the entire strip is lit up and comes to life. The environment is evocative of a classic Seaside boardwalk, complete with arcades, bakeries, shops, and live performers. If you walk along the strip, win some prizes by playing games of chance and skill, and end your evening by picking a table along the water’s edge and treating yourself to a beautiful view of Epcot’s IllumiNations, visible just above the Boardwalk buildings.

I personally love ending my vacations with a trip to the Boardwalk, which is somehow simultaneously relaxing and exciting. There are many great places to eat (the ice cream shop is particularly delicious) and the performers are so full of life. The Boardwalk is a must for me, and it’s something unique that everyone should experience at least once!

Image courtesy of disneyworld.disney.go.com.

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