A Week With The Mouse: DISNEY WORLD!
I had only been to Disney World once before and it was when I was seven. If I’m being honest, I think I enjoyed it even more at thirty. The idea to visit the park, like most of my ideas, came up randomly one day and within an hour turned into a full-fledged, solidified plan. Unlike my first trip to Disney at age 7, this would be our kids’ first real “vacation” at ages 3 and 1. By the time I visited the Land of the Mouse as a child, I had already been to Europe, so when my parents asked me what I thought of Magic Kingdom, my response, in true Juliana fashion, was “it’s all fake!?” I wanted to make sure our kids were really wow’ed by the magic and imagination of it while they were still really young and still into princesses, pirates and giant vermin. Needless to say, they were!
The Long Road To The Perfect Hotel- And All The Stops In Between
I must have changed our hotel reservation a good 10 times before we actually got to Orlando (a fault of mine that I am working on). There are so many options and of course I wanted the trip to be perfect! While I loved the idea of all the deluxe hotels and their proximity to the main park, we would have our car while down there so being within walking distance, or even monorail distance, to the transportation and ticketing center wasn’t the strongest selling point for us. I was more focused on the hotels’ themes.
At first, I was sold on the Polynesian. I wanted to feel completely emerged in whatever location the resort was emulating, as if we were really there. The idea of luaus, tropical drinks and waterfront bungalows really appealed to me because it seemed like the ideal way to get two vacations in one. However, as I read reviews, I learned that many people considered the Polynesian to be somewhat “busy” compared to others, and while we wanted fun, I wasn’t looking for chaotic. We knew the parks would be mayhem so wanted somewhere a little more peaceful to retreat to at night.
The Grand Floridian
I was also very intrigued by the Grand Floridian, as I clearly love Alice and Wonderland (check out the pool!) and the beautiful grounds and elegant atmosphere were calling to me. Giving into reviews once again, I eventually decided against this one because of the busy nature of the property with non-resort guests coming for character meals or to ooh and ahh at the grandeur of the place (who can blame them?)
Port Orleans- French Quarter
After a few more bookings, re-bookings and cancellations, along with some insight from a serious Disney fan/friend, I landed on Port Orleans, French Quarter. We’d never been to Louisiana so figured the Cajun/Bayou feel would be interesting and foreign enough, and having stopped in Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA on our drive down from Rhode Island, I was in a Southern mood. When we finally arrived on a cloudy and slightly rainy January afternoon, I was very happy with the decision to stay at Port Orleans. The Dixieland music playing throughout the main building in addition to the friendly receptionist donning the four of us in purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads set the tone nicely for our stay. Like with everything else that Disney does, they did a great job making the colorful buildings look an awful lot like the images I’ve seen of the real deal in New Orleans.
When the rain stopped and the sun came out, we took a nice long walk around both the French Quarter and its sister resort, Riverside. Things were active but still calm and quiet which is exactly what we were looking for. There were “Movies Under the Stars” playing outdoors for families to gather on the lawn and watch their favorite Disney flicks projected onto a giant screen outdoors. There were also campfires and marshmallow roasting which we took part in right away! The kids loved Disney already and hadn’t even been to the parks yet!
We had our first meal at the resort on the Riverside property at Boatwright’s Dining Hall, a relaxed Louisiana-style sit-down restaurant where the staff is extremely warm with undeniable Southern hospitality. There we enjoyed Cajun-inspired specialties like their incredibly tasty Mardi Gras Fritters (House-made Pimiento Cheese Fritters with Pepper Jelly), Colonel’s Peace’s Pieces (Crawfish, Shrimp, Oysters, and Okra in a crispy Cornmeal Batter with Traditional Rémoulade), and I was especially impressed with their Vegetarian Jambalaya- and the fact that they had such a vegetarian option altogether. I love when restaurants get creative and offer more than just less than exciting variations of salads and plain pasta with vegetables… My meat-eating husband ordered General Fulton’s Prime Rib (Carefully Seasoned with a hint of Coffee and Slow-roasted served with Mashed Potatoes, Seasonal Vegetables, and Red Wine Demi-glace) and said he liked his entree very much. The kids shared a pretty standard bowl of mac and cheese and a kid-friendly version of the jambalaya. Both were hits.
To keep with the theme of the atmosphere, Ryan and I washed down our meals with a couple Southern Hurricanes and while it’s a sweeter drink to begin with and often too sweet for my taste buds, it was the appropriate way to go!
Our first night at Disney was a grand success. After dinner, we settled into our room and after a couple episodes of Disney Junior TV, we hit the hay. The next morning after a morning of eating and posing with Disney pals, we headed back to our hotel room for a little siesta. I went to wash my hands and noticed that the sink water was coming out brown. I called reception right away and while they explained that it was happening because of the electricity being shut off temporarily after the fire, earlier in the day. We were assured that it would clear up shortly and that there was no health hazard to be concerned about, but as I had heard can sometimes happen in the magical world of Disney, we were offered a complimentary upgrade to the Animal Kingdom Lodge!
The Animal Kingdom Lodge
Ironically, the Animal Kingdom Lodge was one of the only hotels I didn’t even look into seriously, let alone book. I had quickly glanced at the photographs and deemed it “too dark” inside, as I tend to gravitate toward accommodations with lots of brightness and natural light. Our new room at the deluxe resort was on the darker side, but we had the most amazing balcony view of the Savannah filled with zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and more! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t taken this resort more seriously before.
I got my two vacations in one, that’s for sure (who knew we would be traveling to Africa that week by way of Florida?), and the food at the resort was incredible (*Everything at BOMA’s dinner buffet was “different” in most delicious way possible and Sanaa’s Indian-style Bread Service, an assortment of various naans and sauces, was reason enough to stay nearby)! There was authentic African face painting for the kids as well as a nighttime safari and lots of traditional African music and dance held in the lobby. When there, we weren’t in Orlando, anymore.
Our wonderful experience at the Animal Kingdom Lodge left me having one of those moments that helped me realize how sometimes, a little less planning (and letting go of the need to cross every t, dot every i, and iron out everything in between) may not always be the best way to go! Leaving room for a little surprise can be exciting and rewarding. After visiting nearly every resort on Disney Property, the Animal Kingdom Lodge is my new favorite, hands down! Who would have guessed?
Being our first family trip to Disney, we wanted to do just couple days at the parks in order to not completely tire ourselves out. I made sure we had a bunch of character meals planned at the different resorts, which to the kids at their ages, was probably even better than going on rides. We also didn’t know how they would do with the long days out and missed naps, but they were great about that.
We did one full day at Magic Kingdom with a second full day at Epcot. Surprisingly enough, Magic Kingdom hadn’t changed much at all in the 23 years since I’d last been there! I am sure that’s part of the reason so many adults love being there, aside from just seeing how happy it makes their little ones- it’s nostalgia city.
Two things which I had not done there as a child were, 1, eating with Winnie the Pooh and friends for breakfast at the beautiful Crystal Palace restaurant (the puffed French toast, which our waiter gave me a recipe for, is Y-U-M-M-Y!) and 2, a royal lunch filled with Disney Princess INSIDE the iconic Cinderella’s Castle. I am so glad that we did both this trip as the two meals were filled with the perfect amount of Disney magic.
Since our children are so young and don’t yet meet the height requirement for many of the rides, we stuck with those that the four of us could go on together. We especially loved: Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, It’s a Small World, DUMBO and a lot of character meet and greets! Our youngest, especially, got a kick out of The Country Bears Jamboree too (as did I)! We stayed for Wishes fireworks display, which was really memorable, as well as BOTH viewings of the nightly Electrical Parade.
Our time at Magic Kingdom was everything I had hoped it would be. To me, one day there was just the right amount of time and for us, more than one, especially with the unavoidable crowded ferry ride you need to take in order to get to or from the park, may have burnt us out. At the end of the evening, 12 special hours after we had arrived, we left the park and headed back to our new hotel room for a good night’s sleep before another long day, this time at Epcot!
I have to credit Epcot for inspiring the multiple European trips we’ve taken this year, as well as those that we have planned and look forward to taking before the end of 2016. Having taken some time off from traveling (you know, to procreate and take care of infants), our visit to The World Showcase reignited my need to explore other counties- this time, with the kids! It was a rainy day again which actually worked to our benefit, keeping the crowds down significantly. We wore our just-bought Disney ponchos and started our tour of the pretend world. Starting in Italy, my favorite, we had some fantastic Neapolitan pizza at Via Napoli that tastes like the real deal. Our waiter, (Luca!), from Verona had us speaking Italian with him and of course that made me want to speak the language more-and soon-in Italy. We shared one Pizza Margarita (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) and another Quattro Formaggi (mozzarella, gorgonzola, fontina and parmesan), both of which were exceptionally good. The house red wine that Ryan and I had went perfectly with the pizzas and I left with a slight buzz after just a few sips- I’m a cheap date.
After Italy, we made our way over to Norway, another country that I love to visit in “real life,” and after reading about the much raved about school bread on multiple Disney-related blogs, I sought out to find it. It did not disappoint! A sweet bread (the non-meat kind), filled with a custard with flavors of cardamom and cream, topped with coconut, was just the right amount of sweet and savory. The object here was obviously to try something delicious from a number of countries within our path and our next stop landed us in Germany. We grabbed some beer and pretzels and admired the biergarten from the outside. We weren’t hungry enough to sit and have a meal just yet so just picked up our snack to enjoy on the go. I was excited to see the kids’ enthusiasm about the different countries and cultures- this was a sign for good things/trips to come!
We strolled through the rain, admiring little trinkets and collectibles from the different country-inspired shops and eventually entered the giant pyramid in the Mexico pavilion. There we took advantage of a photo op with none other than Señor Donald Duck, wearing a sombrero, of course, and went on the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros- a short and cute ride/attraction on a boat through small canals within the pyramid. Before leaving Mexico, Ryan and I had been told to make a stop in La Cava Del Tequila (the tequila cave) for a quick tequila sampler (the kids had juice). It burned going down but kept us arm enough to brave the rain again as we headed to France.
I had to have a crepe- chocolate and strawberry, please- accompanied by a glass of champagne. Naturally I wasn’t hungry, or thirsty, at this point in time but I was on a mission. Plus, hey, we were in France! I also picked up a Napoleon from the bakery there, Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie , but I took that one back to our hotel to have with breakfast the next day. All the food in Epcot was very good. We took a break from the World Showcase to take the kids over to Future World for some additional character meet and greets and to go on a few rides. They loved The Seas With Nemo and Friends along with Turtle Talk With Crush. The Epcot Aquarium was also a favorite, especially for our little guy who is a big fan of sharks! Between the scattered rain and the perks of our Disney Visa, we barely had to stand in any lines!
As hunger set in, we made our way back toward Mexico… Earlier in the day I had made reservations at the full-service, sit-down restaurant, La Hacienda de San Angel. I’d requested a window table (though they make it clear that there are “no guarantees!”) as I had heard how great the view was of Epcot’s nightly firework show, Illuminations. I made the reservation for about an hour before the fireworks started so around 8 pm, we headed to the restaurant and got seated right away. Go figure, both kids were sound asleep in the double stroller at this point, but the maitre d let us stroll them right up to the table. Ryan and I started with some guacamole (which while good was disappointing ,not house-made!) and a margarita each.
Fortunately a lot of time had gone by since our first drink of the day- and we’d had a lot of food in between to help absorb some of the alcohol- so nobody ever got nauseous, despite all the drinks we tried! My entree was exceptional. Three cheese-filled empanadas accompanied by sautéed vegetables, well-seasoned black beans and rice-and I was one happy camper. Ryan had the Tacos de Camarones, which was Fried shrimp, in a Chipotle-lime aioli, with cabbage, lime and salsa verde, all served over flour tortillas.
The kids slept through the majority of dinner (so it almost felt like we were on a date!) and when they woke up they each had a bean and cheese quesadilla and some sautéed vegetables. Their meals were both mother-tested and mother-approved. La Hacienda Del San Angel hit a real home run with the Wilson family.
Soon enough, Illuminations began and we really did have the best seat in the house! Right outside our window was one of the most impressive firework displays I had ever seen- and being so close made it that much more captivating. Needless to say, the children were mesmerized by the bright lights and music which were perfectly synced with one another. After the show, we were all ready to head back to our room and rest our feet after another long day of walking (this time, around the world)!
The stroll back to our car was very pleasant as we had parked in the Beach Club Resort’s lot. Seeing the Beach Club, Yacht Club and Boardwalk hotels and restaurants/shops all lit up was nice and gave us another perspective of the area. In fact, it left us considering doing our next Disney stay at one of the Epcot/Boardwalk-centric properties!
Epcot is certainly one of my favorite parks (World Showcase, in particular). It’s so much fun to transport yourself into so many different cultures, trying the different delicacies that each county has to offer, in such a short span of time. As someone who loves to travel and explore (and to eat and drink), Epcot is the perfect place to get a quick fix of a day in Europe, and for us, there’s no time change or jet lag! Disney excels at representing each country that’s portrayed and within one week of visiting, I had booked three separate adventures to different (real) European countries…I got the “bug!”
A traveler since childhood, Juliana Fraioli Wilson has always had a love for exploring. She is a published writer and an accomplished business owner with a background in music and art. Join Juliana, her husband Ryan, and their two kids in Wanderland! Follow along as they share tips, tricks, recipes and reviews from some of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world.