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Things I Wish I'd Known For My First Walt Disney World Visit

  The first visit to Walt Disney World is stressful, confusing, and a dream come true. I am not the first on...

Sunday, July 30, 2017

My Thoughts on Soarin' Around the World

I had wanted to ride the newest update to Soarin’ ever since it was announced, which was during my Disney College Program back in 2015. In fact, refurbishment began the very same day my program ended. This summer, I finally got the chance to ride it. I was apprehensive about the changes, as I did not hear good things about them.

The only thing that seemed to change with queue was the addition of monitors similar to the ones at airports that post the time of flights. The monitors show trivia questions about the different places Soarin’ takes its passengers. This is a great way to pass time in line. I love that this adds an educational component to the attraction as Epcot was made to be an educational park.

Fortunately, the preshow video with Kronk Patrick Warburton still remains. Before he appears, a video of an airplane flying over a map shows the audience where it will take its passengers. My first impression of seeing the map was that there are a lot of places on it, 13 to be exact. Turns out, this was the same number of locations Soarin’ Over California took us.

This was the first time riding Soarin’ that I was in the second row rather than the first. It is true that you see the feet of the first row passengers dangling down. However, I found it easy to focus on the screen and tune out the feet. The ride is about 30 seconds longer now, but it feels even longer than that. Everyone’s favorite orange grove smell is gone, but there are other delightful smells like roses when the ride takes us over the Taj Mahal.

The transitions between each location were very well done, even though it did scare the teenaged girls sitting next to me. My only complaint of the attraction is that they decided to literally scream at every single transition. The unnecessary screeching took me out of the moment a few times. But that’s a complaint about annoying guests and not the ride itself.

I have heard complaints that the ride isn’t “Disney enough” (whatever that means), but I disagree. There are little nods to Disney all throughout the ride. For example, the first place the ride takes its passengers is around the Matterhorn in Switzerland. As any Disney Parks fan knows, the Matterhorn bobsleds are a famous attraction in Disneyland. Another place is Sydney, Australia like in Finding Nemo. The flight also goes around the stunning Neuschwantsteitn Castle in Germany, which served as inspiration for the Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom. Then there’s the Great Wall of China that was featured in Mulan and the Eiffel Tower, which can be seen in The Aristocats and Ratatouille. Furthermore, Soarin’ Around the World fits perfectly with the theming of Epcot. Even though the attraction itself is in Future World, it is reminiscent of the World Showcase area of the park. Both are designed to take guests around the world.

One of my other apprehensions was about the Disneyland scene at the very end of the flight. Seeing Tinkerbell fly in always put a smile on my face. To my surprise, the flight did take us back to not Disneyland, but Epcot! This makes more sense for the Epcot version as it feels as if guests are flying back to Epcot to continue their day exploring the park.

Soarin’ Around the World truly does fit the theme of Epcot so much better than Soarin’ Over California did. However, I still wish the California version remained on the west coast, as it would fit the theme of Disney California’s Adventure. This could also be a compromise for Californians as the original version of the ride is special to them. The technology upgrades are stunning and the longer runtime makes standing in line for half an hour worth it. Soarin’ Around the World is a testament that changes to the Disney Parks can be for the better.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Disney Darling News: Grand Avenue at Hollywood Studios

Over its 27-year history, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has undergone a lot of changes. From Star Wars Land, to a giant sorcerer hat icon and even a name change, Studios has arguably changed the most of any Walt Disney World theme park. And the part of the park that has experienced the most changes is Streets of America. Its original name was New York City Streets. The Streets were initially part of the Backlot Tour attraction. In 1991, Muppets Vision 3D was added to the land, along win the show Lights, Motors, Action in 2005. The Streets was also the location for Walt Disney World’s most famous Christmas show, the Osborne Family Spectacle of the Dancing Lights. In 2016, the Streets of America closed for good to make room for the newly announced Star Wars Land.

Earlier this year, reports of a small section of the Streets not yet knocked down were prevalent. Some people, including Cast Members, said that the only reason they remained is because construction workers had not yet gotten to that area. However, several guests noticed the building facades were being repainted. This sparked rumors of at least some part of Streets of America being preserved, and perhaps reopened soon. There was no announcement of this made during the 2017 D23 expo. Earlier this week, Disney did officially announce that this section of Streets of America would in fact be reopened to the public. The Streets of America, which once mimicked New York City, are soon to be known as Grand Avenue for the street in Los Angeles. This change makes sense for Hollywood Studios, as Hollywood is a region of Los Angeles.

Along with a new name comes a new addition to Disney dining. The Writer’s Stop coffee shop may have fit in perfectly with New York, but the Baseline Tap House fits in with Los Angeles theme. Baseline will offer beers, wine and appetizers. It has not been announced if any other additions will be made to Grand Ave. Concept art of Baseline is pictured below:

Grand Avenue will open in fall 2017. This should give guests something new to experience to hold them over until Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land opens at Hollywood Studios. Toy Story Land is expected to open summer 2018 and Star Wars Land is projected for 2019.  

What are your thoughts on Grand Ave? Comment below!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

My Walt Disney World Visit Summer 2017

Once I heard that a few of my former Disney College Program roommates had been accepted for a summer alumni program, I knew I had to go back to Walt Disney World to visit them. Due to both my work schedule and theirs, and the fact that I am a broke college student, I could only visit for a weekend. Normally I do not recommend trying to do all of Walt Disney World in just a couple of days as it can be very overwhelming. When visiting the parks, I stuck to one of my biggest tips for visitors, which is to not try to do too much. It’s impossible to do absolutely everything the Resort has to offer over a week long stay, let alone a weekend long stay. Keeping this in mind, I prioritized about 5 things that I really wanted to do and left the rest of my schedule open for flexibility. The main focus of my visit was my friends, and not necessarily the parks. It did not matter what we did, as long as we did it together.

One of my biggest priorities was exploring Pandora – Disney’s latest addition to their parks. During my Disney College Program, I actually went to a special meeting where I saw the miniature model of Pandora. I even stood in the middle of the land as it was in its early stages of construction. I remember a construction worker coming over to me one day at work to show me that the first floating mountain had been built. Seeing the finished version in real life was something I was very excited about.

Along with Pandora, I also wanted to watch Rivers of Light as I had also seen early designs of the floats during my program.

My next priority was to ride Big Thunder Mountain with my friends. Some of my favorite memories with them were riding BTM late at night after watching Wishes.

This next one may seem kind of mundane, but I wanted to visit my favorite place in all of Walt Disney World, Cinderella’s Wishing Well.

About a week before my trip, the D23 expo happened. Along with it was the announcement that the Great Movie Ride would be closing August 13, 2017. GMR immediately flew to the very top of my must-do list. Before then, I had considered skipping Hollywood Studios entirely and spending more time at Epcot. This last minute change meant that I had to sacrifice some time at Epcot, my second favorite Disney Park (more on that later).

I had also talked to my friends about the new firework show at Magic Kingdom. I was still mourning Wishes and was not very interested in it nor had I heard anything good about it. But my roommates convinced me to see it.

So after knowing my friends’ work schedules and having my must-do list down, we had a rough schedule. I would meet them at Magic Kingdom around 5 pm where we would eat dinner, do a few rides and see Happily Ever After. Saturday we would spend most of the morning at Hollywood Studios, grab a late lunch at Epcot, and then spend the evening at Animal Kingdom to explore Pandora and see Rivers of Light. My trip was the weekend of July 21st. I arrived Friday and left Sunday.

Friday Morning - Arrival
My flight left early morning and arrived around noon in Orlando. I actually chose an early morning flight so that I could have more time on Disney Property. Looking back, I probably had a little more time than I needed, but who am I to complain about having extra time on my hands? I took an Uber to my hotel where I unpacked, freshened up and rested a little.

Friday Afternoon -Disney Springs
Disney Springs is something that is free to experience while on Disney property, so it’s a great option to save money. It was about at $7 Uber ride from my hotel. During my program Downtown Disney officially changed its name to Disney Springs and started construction on an expansion. I spent a few hours walking around the new area, called Town Square. Also, I wandered through some gift shops, like World of Disney. Its layout had changed since I was last there. I grabbed lunch at my favorite Disney Springs quick-service place, Earl of Sandwich. From Disney Springs I boarded a complementary bus to the Contemporary Resort. There I rested my legs for a few minutes before boarding the monorail to take me to Magic Kingdom.

Friday Night – Magic Kingdom
One of my friends got off work at 5 pm, so we met at the Magic Kingdom around 5:30 pm. After a few minutes of squeals and hugs, she asked me what I wanted to do first. Before she could finish her question I said, “teacups”. Mad Tea Party was the first attraction I ever rode at Walt Disney World.  We stepped onto Main Street. I had forgotten just how big Cinderella’s castle was. It was like I was seeing it for the first time again. We took a few selfies in front of the Partners statue and headed into Fantasyland. Mad Tea Party was only about a 10-minute wait, which was perfect. While waiting in line we caught up on each other’s lives. She informed me that our other friend would get off work soon and we would meet her in Adventureland.

After teacups we made a detour to see Cinderella’s Wishing Well where we tossed coins in to make wishes. And yes, my wish did come true! I always try to toss coins every time I visit the well because Disney will actually donate the money to charity.

We met our other friend in Adventureland and hopped in line for Pirates of the Caribbean as it was nearby and only had a 30-minute wait time. Honestly, after being away from the parks for a while, I had forgotten what was considered a long wait time for most of the rides. I was hesitant that half an hour was too long, but my friends reassured me that it was about average for Pirates. Before going to the parks, I definitely recommend checking up on the wait times of rides with the My Disney Experience App to get an idea of how long to expect to wait in line. After Pirates we grabbed dinner nearby at Pecos Bill’s, which had changed its menu up a little since the last time I was there. Instead of having most of the toppings out on the topping bar, the chefs will now put some of the toppings on for you like queso. At the bar you can still get extra cheese, guacamole and sour cream. They do this so that people cannot just load up on free toppings. However, Pecos is a relatively inexpensive place to eat on Disney property anyways, so I do not mind the change.

After Pecos, the line for BTM was about an hour long, so we went on the Haunted Mansion instead. While on the ride, one of my friends pointed out Lucifer, the animatronic raven in the ride. She said that Cast Members who work the Haunted Mansion pet Lucifer everyday before the ride opens, otherwise the ride will break down during the day. This superstition is pretty creepy, but it fits with the theme of the ride! After exiting the Mansion, we had about half an hour before Happily Ever After started so we grabbed some great spots in the hub. My friends were very excited for me to see the show. I’ll write more on my opinions of the show later, but I’ll say for now that it lived up to my friends’ hype. 

 Clinging close to each other and singing the song from the show, we fought our way through the chaos that is the hub and emerged into Tomorrowland. While crossing the Tomorrowland bridge, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. My friends and I would usually end our Magic Kingdom nights in Tomorrowland, and I have vivid memories of running around the glowing neon land after a long day of work. We boarded the People Mover, which is the best way to experience Tomorrowland at night. While on the ride, we noticed that the My Disney Experience App said that BTM was only a 20-minute wait. So we hustled across the park for the wildest ride in the wilderness. As it just so happened, we were the last ride of the night. After the rest of Magic Kingdom closes, Main Street remains open for two more hours. One of my friends was craving ice cream, so we grabbed a midnight snack at the ice cream parlor. A lot of other people had the same idea, so the line was huge. I recommend buying snacks at a nearby convenience store to store in the hotel mini fridge for a bite to eat after a long day at the parks. But, a longer wait in line meant more time to hang out with my friends. At the end of the night they dropped me off at my hotel and I rested up for the next day.

Saturday Morning – Hollywood Studios
We decided to sleep in a little so we arrived at Studios around 10:30 am. Our first stop, as anyone’s should be, was the fastpass kiosk where we made a reservation for the Great Movie Ride. We had about half an hour to kill so we got caffeinated at one of my favorite Starbucks locations on Disney property. We also admired the new Alex and Ani bracelets in one of the gift shops and watched a little bit of Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away, which is live show. 

Saying goodbye to the Great Movie Ride was bittersweet, but I’ll post more on that later. After, my friends suggested Toy Story Midway Mania. One of my friends shared some tips on how to earn high scores. For example, on the volcano scene, focus on hitting the volcanoes first. This will cause a bunch of balloons to fly on the screen, which are easy targets. In the Green Army Men scene, focus on the plates on the side of the screen rather than the ones in the middle. As soon as we got off the ride, we noticed that the app said there was a 20 minute wait on Tower of Terror, so we hightailed it over there. After we had been waiting in line a few minutes, it started to rain. Fortunately, we were already under the covered part of the queue. My friend who works at Studios says that sometimes when it rains, they will not open up the doors at the top of the ride, so guests will ride in complete darkness. This is what I was expecting, but the doors did open. As we exited the ride, we noticed a plush Stitch sitting on the photo pass counter. Stitch was wearing a Tower of Terror bellhop uniform and had a birthday pin on him. Turns out, it was Tower of Terror’s 23rd birthday!

Saturday Afternoon – Epcot
We had some transportation difficulties trying to get to Epcot. We tried to catch a bus, but it took over half an hour. In that time, 3 buses from Animal Kingdom had come and gone. Fed up with waiting on the bus, we decided to ride a friendship boat. Of course, as soon as we got in line for the boat, the Epcot bus showed up. We finally arrived in Epcot, made a fast pass reservation for Soarin’ Around the World, and ate at Les Halles in the France pavilion. A warm bowl of soup on a rainy day at Walt Disney World is very refreshing. Next we rode Soarin’, which I will also post more on later. Our final stop in Epcot was La Cava del Tequila, a place I didn’t even know existed. It is a small bar tucked in a corner inside the Mexican pyramid. It is a very different environment than the rest of the park, but it is a cool “hidden” spot. We ordered some margaritas and chips with queso. The drinks were a little spendy, but delicious. Before I knew it, it was time to leave Epcot. I wish we had more time to do a lap around the World Showcase, but I’ll be able to do that the next time I visit. 

Saturday Night – Animal Kingdom
At around 6 pm, we boarded a bus to my favorite park, Animal Kingdom. Once again I was felt the nostalgia as my body went on autopilot walking from the parking lot to the main entrance, just like I used to do every single day for 6 months. I was excited to see that the flamingoes that were absent during my program were back in their exhibit! We explored some of the paths by the Tree of Life to get a closer view of the stunning icon.

Next we wandered into Pandora, which lived up to all the expectations I had. It really did feel like I was in a different planet. I hadn’t planned to ride any attractions in Pandora as the wait times were still crazy long, but we waited for Flight of Passage anyways. During the 2 hour wait, my friends and I gossiped and played games to pass the time. I’m glad they convinced me to go because Flight of Passage is now my favorite ride at any Disney park. 

After Pandora, we went on the nighttime safari. Some of the animals were difficult to see, but some animals like the giraffes and lions were more active at night than they are during the day. I’m glad I finally experienced the nighttime safari, but I think I prefer to ride it in the day. After the safari we watched Rivers of Light. And yes, I will be doing another article on that as well. While exiting the show, we caught a little bit of Awakens, the projection show on the Tree of Life. From what I saw, it was very cool and something that is on the top of my must-do list for the next time I return to DAK. 

We had transportation difficulties once again. We had left our car in the Studios parking lot and needed to get back there. DAK was open later than the other parks due to Extra Magic Hours, and by the time we had gotten in line for the Hollywood Studios bus, Studios had already closed. The only bus that showed up did not allow us on as it was a drop-off bus only. The bus driver assured us that another bus would be by in a few minutes. He lied. About 30 minutes had gone by and no bus. So I flagged down another transportation Cast Member who flagged down a bus to take us back to Studios. The entire time in line, my friends and I were making fun of people who stay way too late in the parks. “There’s probably just that one family who booked a late dining reservation, took like 2 hours to eat and took their sweet time exiting the park,” we joked. To our surprise, when the bus pulled up, a single family stepped off. Being the last person to leave the park may be a cool experience for some guests, but to a group of former and current Cast Members, it’s just annoying, especially after a long day. We boarded the bus with one other group who had also left their car in the Studios parking lot. This bus driver was very courteous and deserved a four keys card as he drove the bus as close to our cars as he could get. My friends drove me to my hotel and we exchanged goodbye hugs. “Love you!” I called to them while waving goodbye. They said, in unison, “Love you!” I was starving, so I went to the Applebee’s in the hotel and ordered some food to go that I ate in bed while mindlessly watching TV.

Sunday Morning – Disney Springs and Departure
I woke up Sunday morning, packed, and checked out. I had a few hours before I needed to be at the airport so I took an Uber to Disney Springs one last time. Here I got breakfast at Starbucks and did some last minute souvenir shopping. I picked up a Hollywood Studios pin to commemorate my last time on the Great Movie Ride. Then, I traveled to the airport. MCO is a huge airport, and I thought security check and navigating my way to my terminal would take a few hours. It did not. Security check was only about 15 minutes and the transportation between terminals was speedy. If I had known this, I would’ve spent some more time on Disney property. Eventually I boarded my flight and arrived home safely.

Things I Learned
·      Having a few must-dos and leaving the rest of your schedule flexible is a low-stress way to visit the parks.
·      Have a back-up plan in case it rains (it will). Also, carry an umbrella even if you don’t think it will rain (it will).
·      You do not need to arrive 3 and a half hours early at MCO.
·      Pandora is amazing and everyone should visit, but maybe not until the wait times lessen a little.
·      If you have the opportunity to ride an attraction that is closing soon, take it.
·      Check the My Disney Experience App a few days before your visit to get an idea of the average wait time for rides.
·      3 parks in one day is exhausting. If you only have a couple of days at Disney, try to stick to no more than two parks per day, and realize that you will not be able to do everything.
·      Try new rides, dining options and shows at the parks, even if you don’t think you will like them.
·      Explore the parks! They are very detailed, and taking some time to wander down paths that aren’t so busy is very relaxing. Appreciate the beauty of the parks.
·      Buy and keep snacks in your hotel room for convenience.
·      To save money, spend the day at Disney Springs or at the resorts instead of paying for admission for the parks.
·      Take lots of pictures!
·      Have fun with the people you’re with. The real memories you’ll be making are with them.

Have you been to Walt Disney World this year? What were your experiences like? Comment below!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Souvenir Shopping with Kids

If you’re a Disney fanatic, you’ll have to fight off the urge to buy everything as soon as you step into a store on Disney property. And after working in a Disney World gift shop, I’m willing to bet that your kids are the same. The only thing worse than a kid in a candy store is a kid in a Disney store. Souvenirs are not completely necessary, but they do serve as a physical reminder of your happy vacation memories. Children will especially love a new toy to play with or a t-shirt to wear to school. But you do not have to buy every toy, or even any toy. Here are a few tips on saving money on souvenirs.

How much to spend?

You can limit your children’s spending in fun, educational ways other than a harsh “no.”

Setting An Amount
Giving your kid a Disney gift card is a great way to teach financial responsibility. Give them a preloaded gift card that they can use throughout the trip on souvenirs. They have the freedom to spend it all in one place or on one souvenir each day. Please note that this may work best with older kids.

If you do not wish to give your kid money, you can always just limit the amount of souvenirs that they buy. For example, you can set a limit of one per day, or three for the entire trip.

Earning Money
Another parenting tip is to have your kids earn the money that they spend. This works well with younger kids. They can earn money for being polite to cast members, waiting patiently in lines, getting ready to leave the hotel on time, finishing a meal, not fighting with siblings or not throwing temper tantrums. At the end of the day they can buy a souvenir with how much money they have earned.

Please note that Disney souvenirs are expensive. A small plush toy will be between $15-$30. Shirts can range between $25-50.
What to spend money on?

While everything in Disney is spendy, there are a few souvenirs that are less expensive than others. Consider pins and pressed penny collections.

Pressed Pennies
At 51 cents each, these are the cheapest souvenirs in all of Disney World. Pressed penny machines are scattered throughout the parks and resorts, and each one has different characters. Make a scavenger hunt or treasure hunt out of it. Searching for penny machines in the resorts is a great way to spend down time away from the parks.

Pin Trading
I highly suggest this activity for shy kids or to teach kids manners and social skills. Pin trading involves interactions with cast members. While individual pins can get expensive as they range from $10-15 each, there are great bundle deals on pins. I suggest buying a starter pack. This includes a lanyard and at least 4 pins and costs around $25. The trick to buy a pack with only one or two pins your child really wants as they will be trading away most of them. Mystery packs are also fun. Each mystery pack has two randomly selected pins. If you kid gets a pin they like, then great! If they do not like the pin in the mystery packs, they can always trade it away for one they like better. The next step is to seek any cast member wearing a black pin lanyard. Some stores even have a pin board – a giant corkboard filled with pins to choose from and trade. Some areas get very creative with pin boards. The custodial staff at Animal Kingdom has a pin trashcan. The stroller rental area has a pin stroller. The Pirates of the Caribbean cast members have pin swords.

What NOT to spend money on

Packing essentials such as hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, umbrellas, ponchos and a water bottle will save you time and money from having to purchase these items in Disney. The parks also sell handheld fans for $20, and believe me, your kids will want them.  I recommend buying some for cheaper at Wal Mart before your trip to avoid the temptation.

Another big seller at Disney World is autograph books. If your child is meeting characters, an autograph book is a must. Instead of buying an autograph book, I suggest making one yourself! It can be a fun craft to do with your child to get them excited about Disney World. I made my own. I bought a small sketchbook with blank pages from Hobby Lobby. It is small enough to fit in my purse, yet big enough to tape pictures of the characters into. I then decorated it to look like Mickey Mouse with red pain and white buttons. Your child can do something similar or make one based off their favorite character. You can use paint, jewels, glitter, buttons, scrapbook paper and stickers. And all of the supplies will most likely be less than an autograph book for sale at Disney.

When to buy it?

A strategy that some people have is not to buy any souvenirs until the last day of vacation. Most will go to World of Disney in Disney Springs, as it is the biggest store on property. The benefit of this is that it prevents kids from impulse buying. They will be much more secure and happy with their decision if they have time to think about what they really want. The downside of this is that World of Disney, despite being the biggest, does not sell everything. There are certain park specific or area specific items that are not sold at WoD. For example, they will not sell Animal Kingdom picture frames. Only Animal Kingdom has them. If you choose to do most of your souvenir shopping in Disney Springs, please keep this in mind. If you are not sure if an item is sold at World of Disney, you can always ask a cast member. They will look it up for you on the computer system.

Of course, there are certain items you may find more appropriate to buy in the beginning of your vacation. For example, Minnie ear headbands or Mickey ear hats that can be worn throughout the duration of the vacation should be purchased first. Another suggestion is to buy small toys or books to keep toddlers busy while waiting in line. Stores sell small toys packaged together in boxes or carrying pouches for easy storage.

Some parents will do their entire souvenir shopping at Wal-Mart. This is not recommended. Wal-Marts in Orlando will carry plush Mickey and princess shirts, but that’s about it. Supermarkets are great for stocking up on Disney themed clothing before visiting the parks. But if you want something that specifically says “Walt Disney World” on it, you’ll have to buy it at the parks.

What tricks work for you while souvenir shopping with kids? Comment them below!