Monday, September 12, 2005

It's Expressly Magical

Yippee! My Magical Express packet arrived today! I really wasn’t expecting it until sometime late this week, but my son received his packet last week. We booked our individual trips at exactly the same time, so I was a little worried that he received his and I didn’t. The packet contains information about how the Magical Express system works and includes special yellow luggage tags that identify which luggage needs to be transported to the resort. When the Magical Express service began last May, there were some bugs to be worked out. People reported lengthy delays in getting their bags delivered to their rooms, with some bags not arriving until the next day. A recent poll on the Dis Boards indicated that 85% of the 63 poll participants were very pleased with the Magic Express Service and would use it again. I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. It will be so nice not to worry about hauling our luggage to and from the airport.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The New Look

My original DisneyAdventures website was created in FrontPage using tables nested within tables nested within tables. As a result, it didn’t lend itself very well to modifications. As the number of blog entries grew, the need for archiving became very apparent. So, one weekend I decided to use one of the templates that Blogspot provides. Because green is my current favorite color, I chose a template with different shades of that color. At first I was very happy with the new look, especially the Previous Posts and Archives sections in the sidebar. But, as time wore on, I really missed my DisneyAdventures header that I had on my old site. The background of the header included at picture I had taken of “it’s a small world” during our Spring Break trip in 2003 with my parents, son, my niece and two of my nephews. My son helped me crop the picture, and add the special effects. It really made me happy to see it and brought back many wonderful memories of that trip and the trips afterwards. I also missed the vacation countdown clock.

It was easy enough to add my header to the template; however it really looked awful with the green color scheme. So, following my son’s suggestion, I switched to a new template that had minimal colors and graphics. After that it was fairly easy to make modifications to the existing template. I added back in my header and countdown clock, and changed some of the fonts and colors. It’s still not completely done, but I want to concentrate more on adding blog entries at this point.

California Dreamin'

Located on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort, the California Grill offers a unique dining experience. I had heard from several people that it is possible to view “Wishes”, the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks show, from inside the restaurant. At show time, they dim the lights and pipe in the music. With that in mind, we made an ADR for 7:30 PM, hoping that the time would coincide with the fireworks show. There is also concern that we won’t be able to view the fireworks from our table. This fear is somewhat alleviated by learning that there is an observation deck reserved solely for patrons of the restaurant. If we’re not able to get a good view of the fireworks from our table, we’ll step outside and watch the show, then return to our table afterwards. At the time I made our ADR, I didn't know what time the fireworks would begin. I figured if they start at 8:00 PM, we'll watch them at the beginning of our meal. If they begin at 9:00 PM, then we'll watch them after we eat. Either way, I'm not leaving the 14th floor of the resort until the last firework has dimmed.

It's Fantasmic!

We are really looking forward to seeing Fantasmic! during our visit. We saw Fantasmic! at Disneyland last December for the very first time and want to see how it compares with WDW. One of the nice things about Fantasmic! at WDW is that the show is presented in it’s own outdoor theater with seating, so you don’t have to camp out and save a spot on the curb, like you do at DLR. Fantasmic! is very popular at WDW, as it is in California, so people begin lining up 1 to 1-1/2 hours before the show in order to get a seat.

I learned that WDW offers a dinner package that gives you preferred seating for Fantasmic!, eliminating the need to line up so far in advance of the show. It is still recommended that you arrive at the theater about 30 to 45 minutes before the show starts; however, you don’t need to wait in the long line outside, but instead can enter the theater right away and sit down. Three of the table service restaurants in the park offer the dinner package: Mama Melrose’s, Hollywood & Vine, and The Brown Derby. Each of them offers a fixed price meal that is roughly equal to what you would pay to eat there without the dinner package. The bonus is that you get the preferred seating. Also, the dinner package is not covered by the Dining Plan, so you would have to pay for this out of pocket.

Our original plan was to eat at The Brown Derby on Sunday evening without the dinner package and use two of our table service credits (since it is considered a signature restaurant). Then, we planned to purchase the dinner package at Hollywood & Vine for later in the week. The Hollywood & Vine dinner package was the least expensive of the three, around $23 compared to $37 at The Brown Derby. Our thought was to spend as little out of pocket as possible.

During my last call to Disney Dining to make ADR’s, the CSR that I was working with suggested that we book the dinner package at The Brown Derby and use the dining plan for Hollywood & Vine, which is only one table service credit. This would free up a table service credit to use elsewhere. Her reasoning was that the two table service credits used separately would be worth more than the $37 we would pay to do the dinner package at The Brown Derby. After discussing this with my son, we decided that it made sense to do that.

I called back and switched our Fantasmic! Dinner Package from Hollywood & Vine on Friday to The Brown Derby on Sunday evening. Since we had used up all of our table service credits, we had planned to just have dessert and beverages at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater restaurant. By freeing up the extra table service credit, we are now able to eat lunch there on Tuesday.

New ADR Procedure

On July 18, making dining reservations just got a little easier. When guests staying at Disney-owned and -operated resorts reach their 90-day booking window for the beginning of their trip, they may now make reservations for ten days' worth of Advance Dining Reservations. The dining agent will confirm your hotel reservation before making the dining reservations. Those not staying at Disney resorts will need to continue making reservations on a rolling 90-day basis.

Apparently, the new policy will not be opening all reservations for a given restaurant for early booking. A sliding percentage of seats will be made available for early booking, with fewer seats opening up for the more popular restaurants. This means that very few seats will be opened up for the Princess character meals at Cinderella's Royal Table and Restaurant Akershus. However, it will give resort guests an additional chance to snag a reservation, first at their 90-day-plus-ten window, then again when the rest of the reservations open up at 90 days out.

While the tough-to-get seats will remain difficult, what the policy does is allow resort guests to make all of their reservations with one call (with the possible exception of high-demand seats), lowering the number of required long-distance calls. While not quite back to the old days of "only resort guests can make advance reservations," Disney has given guests one more incentive to stay on-property.

Your Table is Ready

In the afternoon of July 4, even though I had been told that Disney Dining would be closed, I called anyway and was very surprised to find that it was open. The Customer Service Rep (CSR) that answered my call told me that they are open 7-days a week, including holidays. I asked for an ADR for Cindy’s and was not surprised to find that they were booked for the day. Fortunately, I was able to book the Brown Derby for dinner which was on our schedule for the first day of our trip.

Each of the next six days, I was up at 3:55 AM and began dialing the phone at 3:58 AM. Fortunately, was able to make all the ADR’s we had hoped to make. I did make some minor adjustments to the original schedule. Here’s what we ended up with:

Sunday, October 2, 4:00 PM – The Brown Derby Fantasmic Dinner Package
Tuesday, October 4, 12:00 PM – Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater
Tuesday, October 4, 7:30 PM – L’Originale Alfredo di Roma
Wednesday, October 5, 7:30 PM – California Grill
Thursday, October 6, 4:55 PM – Liberty Tree Tavern
Friday, October 7, 6:00 PM – Hollywood & Vine
Saturday, October 8, 8:55 AM – Cinderella’s Royal Table Character Breakfast

Breakfast at Cindy's

To date, our one and only character dining experience was for lunch last October at Ariel’s Grotto in Disney’s California Adventure. Our trip in October was our very first trip with just the two of us and our first time with an annual pass. We made a point to try some new and different things. Unfortunately, our experience was less than stellar. The room was very crowded with noisy, excited kids, which we should have expected. In addition, we spent the entire meal at the same time worried that we would be ignored by the characters, and fearful that they actually would stop at our table. It was an extremely awkward meal and we ate as quickly as possible. Only one character stopped for just the briefest of visits before moving on to the next table. We vowed never to subject ourselves to this embarrassment again.

So even with that experience still fresh in mind, we decide to book a breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom. The selling point of this eating establishment is that we get to eat in the actual castle. In attendance at this meal are Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother, Snow White, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, and Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, ADR’s for this breakfast are extremely hard to get, filling up within minutes after the call center opens at 7:00 AM. In fact, the more I read about how difficult it was to get ADR’s, the more it became my mission in life to eat there.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World offers some great advice on how to get those coveted ADR’s for Cinderella’s Royal Table. Bob Sehlinger, the author, offers the following advice:

Verify that your clock is set correctly by visiting the atomic time website and adjusting your clock if necessary. He says the Disney Dining center is about 1 to 3 seconds off from this time.

Call Disney Dining in the afternoon (when it’s the least busy) a few days before your 90-day window begins to make a note of the options on the automated call system in order to speed your way through it when you call back for real, and to verify with the dining representative the actual date that your 90-day window begins.

On the morning that you call, begin dialing a few minutes before 7:00 AM eastern. If you start to hear the recording telling you that the office is closed, hang up immediately and hit the redial button. Continue doing this until the recording changes to the one indicating the office is now open. Quickly work your way through the automated system without listening to the entire recorded message. Once reach the point where you are on hold and listening to Disney music, do not hang up. If you hang up and redial you will just place yourself at the end of the line.

Once the representative gets on the line, do not engage in any phone pleasantries. Instead you should blurt out your request as quickly as possible, i.e., “Cindy’s, May 21, 4 people.” You can apologize for your abruptness after you get your ADR. Do not waste time asking which times are available or you’ll find yourself without an ADR.
Even though Friday (our last full day before we leave) was the day we hoped to eat at Cindy’s, I planned to try to get an ADR each morning I called just in case I wasn’t able to get the day I actually wanted. We could always cancel an unneeded reservation and make someone else’s day.

90 Days and Counting

An Advanced Dining Reservation (or ADR) is Disney’s version of a reservation. However, they do not set aside a specific table for you at your assigned time slot. Instead, when you arrived for your ADR, you will be seated at the next available table for your party size, ahead of any walk-ins that may be waiting. ADR’s may be made up to 90 days in advance and are highly recommended during peak times and for the more popular restaurants.

The biggest obstacle to making ADR’s 90 days in advance is that Disney doesn’t publish the park hours and events schedule until about 60 days in advance. Since you don’t know when any of the parks will open or close, or when the parades and fireworks are scheduled, it makes it hard to plan your meals. I found a website that listed park hours for the same time last year and used those as a guide.

If you plan to make ADR’s for more than one day of your stay you’ll need to call Disney Dining when the 90-day window comes up for the each ADR or risk not being able to eat where you want to eat on the day that you want to. Unfortunately, the Disney Dining phone number is a long distance call. In addition, Disney Dining opens at 7:00 AM eastern time, which is 4:00 AM on the west coast.

When I called to make our ADR for the Liberty Tree Tavern, I confirmed with the representative that July 4 would be the 90-day point for our first day in the park. However, she told me that the Disney Dining call center would be closed for the holiday. So I was prepared to call bright and early at 4:00 AM on Tuesday, July 5 to make the first of our ADR’s.

That's the Plan, Stan

Since there is so much to see and do at WDW, it seemed like a good idea to come up with a general outline of which park to visit on each day.

I created a spreadsheet in Excel in which I entered in the park hours, the morning and evening magic hours, and the parade and fireworks schedules using a combination of last year’s schedule and September 2005 park information as a guide. Next, I scheduled in the parks that we wanted to visit on each day. Our basic plan is to visit one park in the morning, go back to the resort for a rest in the afternoon, and return to another park in the evening. Since we both think that the Magic Kingdom will be our favorite park and since we think there is more to do there than any other park, we plan to spend the majority of our time there.

After many hours of research and debate and after undergoing numerous revisions, we finally came up with a general outline of which park we want to visit each day. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

Saturday, Day1
Travel Day

Sunday, Day 2
AM – Magic Kingdom
PM – Disney-MGM Studios

Monday, Day 3
AM – Epcot
PM – Magic Kingdom

Tuesday, Day 4
AM – Disney-MGM Studios
PM – Epcot

Wednesday, Day 5
AM – Magic Kingdom
PM – Magic Kingdom

Thursday, Day 6
AM – Animal Kingdom
PM – Magic Kingdom

Friday, Day 7
AM – Magic Kingdom
PM – Disney-MGM Studios

Saturday, Day 8
AM – Magic Kingdom
PM – Fly Home

We had already planned to spend the most time at the Magic Kingdom Park and as we filled our scheduled with the activities we were most interested in, our time in the MK seemed to grow. Once we decided on the general outline, we plugged in our choices for table service meals for each day, based on the park we were planning to visit at the time.