Our First Off Site Hotel Stay for a Disney World Trip

After staying on site at Walt Disney World for our first twenty trips, we decided to take a chance and see what it is like to stay at an off site, non-Disney owned resort for our 21st trip to The World.

We did some research starting with Mousesavers.com to look into the resorts they recommended and where they were located in the Disney area. Staying at the end of August made for some pretty good deals, since southern schools were already back in session, thus “tourist” season was over. We decided on a one bedroom suite at Buena Vista Suites on World Center Drive, about a mile outside of Disney property. Two queen beds, a double pull out couch and a free breakfast for only $99 a night seemed too good to be true. Was it? [Read more…]

Disney’s BeadForLife Kiosks

If you have read some of my other articles, you know I love to shop.  Granted, I tend to look for the best “deal”, but I love artsy, unique items that have a special meaning.  Usually these items are handmade, one of a kind and rarely inexpensive and yet I’ve found the perfect treasure right at Disney at their BeadForLife Kiosks.

Bead For Life at Disney World

[Read more…]

California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort

Sitting on the top floor of Disney’s Contemporary resort, the California Grill has been on our Signature Dining “bucket list” for quite some time. Finally, on our most recent trip, Dave and I were lucky enough to snag reservations at this highly popular Signature Dining location and after reading some recent stellar reviews (Thanks, Disney Food Blog!) we were very anxious for this experience! [Read more…]

New Adult Drink at Joy of Tea in China

Not being a tea lover, I don’t usually give the Joy of Tea at Epcot’s China Pavilion a second look…

Joy of Tea Kiosk

Joy of Tea Kiosk

…but the picture on this display caught my eye, and the title stopped me dead in my tracks. Tipsy Ducks in Love?? Let’s get a closer look.

Tipsy Ducks In Love-A new adult beverage in Epcot at Joy of Tea

Tipsy Ducks In Love-A new adult beverage in Epcot at Joy of Tea

Hmmm, tea (of course), coffee, whiskey, (oooh) and chocolate (now ya got me). We had to try one of these! Although I did not see the tea/coffee/chocolate go into the cup, I did get to watch as the whiskey was generously poured over the top. Whipped cream, they asked? But of course! And I was told to stir it well before trying. (Note that there is a non-alcoholic version available for the kids too.)

Tipsy Ducks In Love-A new adult beverage in Epcot at Joy of Tea

Tipsy Ducks In Love-A new adult beverage in Epcot at Joy of Tea

This was delicious, not as sweet as I would have thought with the chocolate, wondering if a dark or more bitter chocolate was used. You could certainly taste the whiskey, but it was just the right amount to blend with the other ingredients. Tea? Coffee? I’m sure they were in there, but it was the chocolate and whiskey combination that really made this perfect.

As we turned to continue through the countries, we were stopped by the raised bridge for the Illuminations barges. So we sat and enjoyed this new drink in a bit of shade. We were approached by a woman who noted that our drink looked very refreshing (and that we really seemed to be enjoying it!) and inquired as to where we got it. I pointed out the Joy of Tea just down the hill and then watched her wander a bit near the bridge and finally turn and head down to the kiosk herself! (Leaving her perplexed family behind, no less!)

So hopefully this drink will stick around, at least through the summer. It certainly is a cup of Joy!

Eat to the Beat Concert: Howard Jones

On October 22nd I got to see someone that I haven’t seen for 27 years, someone who brought back fond memories and total nostalgia. I, once again, got to see Howard Jones in concert! Now, I’m sure some of you are probably saying “Who? I’ve never heard of him!” (Dave included), but if you were an “alternative” music child of the 80’s, when synthesizers and drum machines were the instruments of choice, then you know exactly who I am talking about.

Back in 1984 Howard Jones was a one man show, just him and a circular, revolving stage with all his keyboards, drum pads, etc. For this show, part of the Eat to the Beat concert series during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival, he was joined by two other gentlemen, one on a keyboard, one with a drum kit. Howard Jones was front and center though, with his own keyboards and still the solo singer.

Howard Jones with his synthesizers at the 2011 Epcot Eat to the Beat Concert Series at Walt Disney World

Howard Jones with his synthesizers at the 2011 Epcot Eat to the Beat Concert Series at Walt Disney World

Howard Jones' drummer with his electronic drum kit at the 2011 Epcot Eat to the Beat Concert Series at Walt Disney World

Howard Jones’ drummer with his electronic drum kit at the 2011 Epcot Eat to the Beat Concert Series at Walt Disney World

Like the rest of us (the audience was mixed, but it was the 40 something women who were truly enjoying themselves) he looked a little older, a little rounder in the face, had a little less hair. But when he sang “No One Is To Blame”, I was that high school student all over again, cranking my Dream Into Action cassette in my ’73 Volkswagen so loud the metal dashboard rattled.

Some of the 40 something women who were truly enjoying themselves...

Some of the 40 something women who were truly enjoying themselves…

Unfortunately I only caught one of his shows that evening. Each show lasts about 30 minutes and he performs different songs for each set, so if you stuck around for all three shows you would enjoy the complete concert experience. Traffic in World Showcase was especially (or maybe typically) congested that Saturday and we just couldn’t get back to the stage to catch any more. I got my fix, though, and it was fantastic. Time has treated Mr. Jones well, his voice is still strong and he’s still a handsome Englishman. Hopefully he will continue to be part of the Eat to the Beat concert lineup in the future, his show was truly a bonus to this Disney trip!

You can view the rest of the photos from this show at our SmugMug Gallery!

Epcot Food and Wine Festival 2011

Well, it’s almost time for us to visit the happiest place during happiest time of year – Walt Disney World during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival! If there was one thing we learned from our last trip, it’s that you can’t do it all in a weekend! Last year was our first visit during the Food and Wine Fest and it was also unfortunately the last weekend of the event. We were overwhelmed (but truly what did we expect?) by the masses lined up at the booths. Much to our dismay, we were unable to take full advantage of all the unique and diverse culinary samples that we were so looking forward to.

Last November’s trip was during a free dining period, which was great for use of our snack credits at the booths. We also had the kids with us, it was fun for them to try some new foods, but they weren’t as focused on the Fest as we adults wanted to be. I had planned an entire itinerary of the offerings at the different booths, which was the best use of our snack credits, which dishes were most recommended or sounded the most interesting, the drinks we really wanted to try,etc. etc. Well, none of that really happened. We sampled maybe 4 or 5 different things (the favorite being the Grilled Beef Skewer at Argentina), I did get to try the Prosecco in Italy (it was ok, but I’ll try something else this year) but we didn’t even get the best use of our snack credit with the Lobster Roll (at the Hops and Barley booth) or enjoy the escargot in France (something I knew I wouldn’t have to share with the kids!)

So this year we are going in October, we will have 2 days that are not over a weekend to take full advantage of all the mouth-watering offerings. We hope to even attend one of the Culinary or Wine and Beverage Seminars. And we are going without the kids. We know now what to expect in the crowd level and I’ll condense the itinerary to be a bit more manageable.

Does anyone else have a “plan of attack” for the Food and Wine Fest? We would love to hear other suggestions, still being novices at this event, any planning tips would be greatly appreciated!

Howard Jones at Epcot!

Humor me if you will for a moment. I am one of those 40-somethings who is still living in the 80’s. At least when it comes to my music. Much to my kid’s disgust, I sing along in the car anytime a Depeche Mode song comes on. (And I found a good radio station, so it’s a lot more then they deserve. Not many people hear me sing for good reason). So you can imagine my utter delight when I found out that Howard Jones will be performing at the Eat To The Beat Concerts October 22nd and 23rd when we will be in Disney for the Pixelmania weekend!

Howard Jones (opening for The Thompson Twins) was my first-ever concert in 1984 at the Garden State Arts Center (now the PNC Arts Center) in Holmdel NJ. Oh how I wish I still had my t-shirt! Now my i-pod has only The Best of Howard Jones, alas my Dream into Action and Human’s Lib cassettes are long gone, but I still know all the words to the songs. (Sorry kids, October will seem like it will never get here!)

As if a trip to The World wasn’t enough to look forward to, now I can also appease a bit of my high school nostalgia. Howard Jones will be performing at the America Gardens Theatre in World Showcase October 22nd and 23rd at 5:15pm, 6:30pm and 7:45pm. The concert is free with Epcot admission. Stay tuned for my review and pictures! (And I will try not to embarrass Dave too much if I decide to dress like Cyndi Lauper for a day!)

Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper

Is Tables In Wonderland a Good Deal?

The Tables in Wonderland dining discount membership is available for purchase by Florida residents for $100 or annual passholders for $75. Our previous trip in November we had purchased annual passes for ourselves, and realized that with the trips we have tentatively scheduled over the next year, the dining discount could be worth it. So, on our last “adults only” trip in January, we purchased the Tables in Wonderland dining discount card. Here is what we learned…

Tables in Wonderland Membership card (front)

Tables in Wonderland Membership card (front)

Benefits of Tables in Wonderland

Tables in Wonderland (TIW) gives you 20% off on food and drinks (including alcoholic beverages!) at almost all Table Service restaurants, some Counter Service (Pizzafari, Flame Tree Barbecue and Restaurantosaurus in Animal Kingdom), the late showings of Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and Spirit of Aloha, and the value resorts food court restaurants. Because TIW includes alcoholic beverages, it is also honored for just drinks at most of the lounges at the deluxe resorts and, our favorite place for a drink, The Rose and Crown Pub in the UK Pavilion.

With the TIW discount, at Table Service restaurants, an 18% gratuity is automatically added to your bill. Usually the service at any Disney establishment is worth that amount and it is a “suggested” amount to add at the bottom of any receipt, so if you take that into consideration, your discount is a full 20%. If though, you tend to tip at the more standard 15% level, then the TIW discount is a bit less. This 18% gratuity is also added to a bar tab, so if you usually only give a couple of bucks for a $20 pour of 18 year single malt scotch, your savings may not be as great. If you use your Tables in Wonderland card at Victoria and Albert’s, a full 20% gratuity is automatically added, but with the cost of Victoria & Albert’s, saving the gratuity alone here could easily pay for your TIW membership.

TIW membership also includes:

  • Complimentary resort valet parking services for the sole purpose of dining. This benefit is good for one vehicle per membership card.
  • Complimentary Theme Park parking for the sole purpose of dining. If you arrive before 5:00pm, you will pay for parking at the Toll Plaza.  On your way out of the Theme Park, visit Guest Relations and if it has been less than 3 hours, show your membership card and dining receipt for reimbursement for parking. After 5:00 p.m., members can show their membership card at the toll plaza to enter the parking lot. Theme park admission is required for dining in all Theme Park restaurant locations. On Block-Out dates, there will be a charge for parking and valet services.

Currently, the Block-out dates for Tables in Wonderland are: Mothers Day, Easter Sunday, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Also, there is a $50 replacement fee for lost or stolen  cards, so take good care if this card!

When you get your card, it comes with the latest version of the booklet listing the participating locations. You can also ask for this booklet at any guest services location. Note that the info in the booklet can change at any time, so if you have a TIW membership and are considering visiting a location that is not on the list, always ask!

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet-Resort Locations

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet-Resort Locations

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet-Resort Locations

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet-Resort and Theme Park Locations

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet-Theme Park and Other Locations

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Tables in Wonderland Member Booklet

Our experience with Tables in Wonderland

The first use of Tables in Wonderland was on our 5 day January trip. We made no advance dining reservations, just deciding to “wing it” when it came to meals. We were able to get into 4 Table Service restaurants without reservations; Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom, Via Napoli and Tokyo Dining in Epcot and The Cape May Café at Beach Club Resort. Normally getting into a Table Service without ADR’s is unheard of, but the end of January is not a peak season and it was just the two of us, so that worked to our advantage. We were also staying at Pop Century, so we used the TIW discount for a couple of quick breakfasts before we headed out to the parks. One morning we enjoyed Pizzafari which, unbeknownst to most visitors, serves a full breakfast. (We’ve had breakfast there twice and were the only people in the restaurant!) We also took advantage of the full discount (no tip added) at Flame Tree Barbeque which, in my opinion, is one of the best values in the parks, their food is excellent and the portions are worth the money even without a discount. This being an “adult only” trip, we also took advantage of a couple of the lounges, Todd English’s bluezoo, Martha’s Vineyard in The Beach Club and of course the Rose and Crown.

Our actual savings from Tables in Wonderland

So in total we used our TIW discount at 10 different establishments. With only the two of us we saved $61.53 just in those 5 days based on our usual 15% tip. If we normally tipped 18%, the savings would have been $71.68. We already have an 8 day trip with the kids scheduled for August, and we are tentatively planning another trip during the Food and Wine Festival in October. We should have no problem seeing significant savings from our TIW membership.

Our advice for purchasing Tables in Wonderland

If you travel to Disney World often enough to justify an annual pass, and enjoy eating at a few table service restaurants on each visit, I highly recommend purchasing the $75.00 Tables in Wonderland dining discount. As a Florida resident that is not an annual passholder you will have to decide for yourself if you can use a TIW membership enough to see a return on your $100 purchase. If you dine regularly at Signature restaurants, especially those at the resorts and Downtown Disney where you don’t need park admission, you could certainly see significant savings. If you only go a few days a year but you have a large family that likes to eat at table service restaurants, you may also be able to see some savings, but do your research first.

For official details regarding TIW, see the Disney TIW web page. This page is intended for Florida residents only and it may ask you for a zip code. Here is one that will work: 32801

Disney Dining Review: Todd English’s bluezoo

After being so impressed with our dinner at Kimono’s, we knew that our next trip had to include another one of the Swan and Dolphin restaurants. We decided to try bluezoo not only because I had read about their wonderful drink concoctions from last year’s Food and Wine Classic, but also because we had purchased one of their $25 off coupons for only $2 from the Restaurant.com website (thanks, Mousesavers!)

Bluezoo is in the Dolphin side of the hotels, off to the right as you walk through the revolving door from the causeway. We were early, so the hostess noted our reservation and we sat at the bar to peruse the drink menu. I was tempted by the Burnt Orange cocktail that looked so unique on the website only to have the bartender inform me that although impressive, the drink was time consuming and didn’t quite live up to the hype. Sigh. So I asked her opinion of the Serenity only to find out that she was Kristin Cooper, the creator of Serenity that had won a contest sponsored by the vodka importer for best mixed drink. Well, that sold me. Serenity was a mix of cucumber vodka, elderflower liquor, strawberry, basil, rosemary, lime, pineapple and just a touch of rock candy syrup. The cucumber and elderflower were predominant, followed by a wonderful fruitiness that was not too sweet. The rosemary was hard to detect, and the basil reference may have only been the leaf floating on the top of the drink, but regardless it was definitely a winner in my book too. The only drawback to me was those short, heavy martini glasses that look so pretty are really difficult to pick up. Dave decided to try one of their microbrewery bottled beers, the Stone Brewery Levitation Ale. Stone describes this beer as a “deep amber ale having rich malt flavors, a big hoppy character, and citrus overtones”. Having a taste for the big rich beers, Dave described it as a fairly light, easy drinker that wasn’t too hoppy. I liked the bottle with its engraved gargoyle.

With the bar drinks being so good, we certainly were looking forward to dinner. The hostess seated us in a large, open and relatively empty dining room. I loved the “chandeliers” with their loose swirls of glass bubbles. We sat at a cozy table with a curved couch for two and were offered a choice of 3 different types of water with our dinner. We chose the sparkling, but I wish I had known they were going to charge us for our water choice. Next time I’ll order the tap!

We were brought a bread selection of herbed and ciabatta breads and a crispy, ornate lavash. All were delicious, but the best part was the fennel butter to go with them.

Our waiter, Shannon, was very pleasant and amiable, so we asked him to suggest an appetizer. He recommended the Teppan Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops on Braised Beef Short Rib with Silky Cauliflower Puree. My mouth is watering again just writing this down. They were kind enough to even divide it between two plates, since we were sharing and half this appetizer was just the right size. The scallop, perfectly cooked, was huge and stacked on a sizable piece of short rib, both sitting in a delicious creamy pool of the cauliflower.

Todd English's bluezoo-Teppan Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops Appetizer

Teppan Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops on Braised Beef Short Rib with Silky Cauliflower Puree

Shannon recommended that each bite should have a bit of both scallop and beef and truly it was one of the most amazing flavors I’ve ever experienced. If I wasn’t in a public place, I would have licked the plate.

Choosing dinner was a tough decision too, but Dave decided on the Ahi Tuna with Parsnip, Seasonal Root Vegetables and Glazed Pearl Onions with an Olive Soil. The presentation was beautiful, with the vegetables across the top of the plate, the two large slices of gorgeous red tuna in the middle and the olive “soil” (basically crumbled dehydrated black olives) across the bottom.

Todd English's bluezoo-Ahi Tuna entrée

Ahi Tuna with Parsnip, Seasonal Root Vegetables and Glazed Pearl Onions with an Olive Soil

I knew this had to be extraordinary, because Dave took his time eating it! He did let me try a piece of the tuna and it was just melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

I ordered the Dirty South Swordfish on House Smoked Tasso Risotto with Rock Shrimp and Littleneck Clams.

Todd English's bluezoo-Dirty South Swordfish entrée

Dirty South Swordfish on House Smoked Tasso Risotto with Rock Shrimp and Littleneck Clams

I ate the clams first, just to get them out of the way. They were very small and perhaps a bit overcooked. The risotto was excellent, but I only found two small shrimp in it. No matter, the swordfish made up for anything that might be lacking. It was a good size portion, also perfectly cooked with a wonderful smoky-paprika rub that was just the right compliment without being “spicy” or overwhelming.

The best accompaniment to any meal this good is a glass of wine that is equally amazing. Dave and I are big fans of buttery, heavily oaked chardonnays. This style is getting harder to come by as wineries lately seem to feel the need to make lighter, fruitier chards. We explained what we liked to Shannon as we browsed the wine list and he said that he would go ask for a recommendation from the bar. He came back with two glasses of a ZD Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. (We said we would share a glass, but again they provided two good size pours and only charged us for one. Granted it was a $17 glass of wine!) This wine was the epitome of our favorite chardonnay, deep golden color and that wonderful vanilla/butter nose and flavor. They could not have picked a more perfect wine for us.

As much as we wanted to try a dessert, we just couldn’t do it without over-stuffing ourselves. Shannon did come back to the table with two small glasses (they looked like shot-glasses) of a raspberry sorbet, but told us to wait just a moment before eating them. He returned a second later with a pitcher of liquid nitrogen that he poured over the sorbet that pooled into the serving plates and bubbled and smoked. It was a pretty neat effect and the perfect end to a fabulous meal.

Todd English's bluezoo-Raspberry Sorbet

Raspberry Sorbet with Liquid Nitrogen (not on the menu)

We can’t wait until we return in August to share this place with the kids. My daughter, who is almost as much a foodie as we are, will love it. My son, I had concerns with because of his allergies. When I inquired about how they handled a shell-fish allergy in a mostly fish restaurant, I was reassured just like anywhere on Disney property, that allergies are handled impeccably and without hesitation. Overall, I highly recommend bluezoo. For the frugal (like us!) there are coupons available and they are on the Tables in Wonderland plan. But the real reason we’ll return is that the food, service and atmosphere may be the best we have experienced so far in Disney.

Planning for our first Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Although I have been fortunate enough to visit the magical world of Disney four times over the past three years, I have yet to experience this wonderful thing they call the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. This is a perfect combination of my three favorite things! I grew up with a mother who took cooking classes from the Culinary Institute of America, James Beard and Richard Grausman, the American Representative for Le Cordon Bleu. We currently live in the New York Finger Lakes Region which boasts some of the finest up and coming wines like Riesling and Pinot Noir. And it’s all at Disney! I feel as if they created this festival just for me!

As soon as this year’s festival map was out, I printed myself a copy. Before the festival even started I was highlighting the food I wished to try. I tried to get the kids excited, but my son, who has food allergies and a picky appetite, was only interested in the German booth’s offering of the Sausage in a Pretzel Roll. My daughter, who is a bit more adventurous, was at first turned off by the “wine” reference, but as soon as she saw sushi on Japan’s menu, she was hooked.

Unfortunately this year our trip starts on the next to the last day of the festival. No matter, that will give me plenty of time to research the reviews so I can plan accordingly. Daily I have been reading the Disney Food Blog and the AllEars websites for updates and pictures. I have been highlighting my map in different colors, what I wish to try, what looks good, what people recommend, etc. I have been noting pricing too, since we are traveling during a “free dining” promotion, I want to get the most out of my snack credits. (Did you know you could use your snack credits towards the sample plates? How awesome is that??) So far, the best deal looks like the $7.25 Lobster Roll available at the Hops and Barley Marketplace. And it looks delicious too! Most plates are very reasonably priced from $2.50 to $5.00 for a more than adequate sample.

But this festival is more than just food; it’s also wine, and other beverages, both adult and kid friendly. The beer selections don’t interest me as much. I like good beer, (you won’t catch me drinking a Budweiser) but I want to focus more on drinks that I couldn’t get at my local bar. I had a harder time finding reviews on the drinks being offered. (I would think after about 3 drinks you could hardly walk straight much less form a cognitive opinion!) And unfortunately they are not considered a “snack” and although the wine seems to be reasonably priced, the mixed drinks tend to be substantially more expensive than the food.

Let’s start with the food. I have 10 “definite” booths I would like to try, 12 items total. The top of my list includes that Lobster Roll, Japan’s Tuna Sensation and Argentina’s Grilled Beef Skewer. And I will have to try France’s Escargot Persillade en Brioche. (My kids probably won’t even walk near a booth that serves snails!) And Belgium’s Steamed Mussels look heavenly. It was really hard to narrow this list down! I have 9 “maybe” booths, food that had mixed reviews or just doesn’t look as appetizing in the pictures. And I originally had 7 “skips” until I read more reviews and two of those booths had inexpensive items that came highly recommended. (Poland’s Pork Stuffed Cabbage and Puerto Rico’s Medianoche Sandwich each for only $2.75) And we’ll only be there for the last two days!

Now the drinks. I think that wine will be my beverage of choice for the most part. There are 18 booths that have wine (including South Korea’s Rice Wine and Ireland’s Honey Wine). I have tried wines from some of these countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand even South Africa and Chile, but I have never had Italy’s sparkling Prosecco or a Moroccan Sangria. A Chardonnay from China? Yes, I’m going to have to try that one. Glasses of wine seem to start at only $2.50 each (although I have no idea what the pour size is, it is difficult to judge in some of the pictures and they may vary from booth to booth) and the most expensive is Canada’s Ice Wine at $5.75. Alright, I’ll admit there are a couple of other drinks I may have to try; Poland’s Vodka Strawberry Balsamic Chiller just sounds interesting. And how can anyone pass up a Godiva Chocolate Liqueur Iced Coffee from Belgium?

And although it may be hard to think about after all that, there are still some desserts I would like to try too. 13 of the 27 booths are offering something for the sweet tooth, including one that is exclusively Desserts and Champagne. Belgium’s Waffles seem to be a big hit in the reviews and they are one of the less expensive choices at only $2.75. I’m a sucker for a bread pudding (Boma and Tusker House have the best) so I will have to try the Pecan Bread Pudding from the Hops and Barley Stand. (Actually, I may end up using all my credits at Hops and Barley. Now if they only sold wine…) And even though we live pretty close to Canada, I have never had the famed British Columbian Nanaimo bar and from the sounds of it, this one is pretty good.

So does anyone else have a plan of attack for the Festival? Have you already been there and can offer suggestions or tips? Any idea if in past years, booths would “wrap up early” towards the end of the festival and we might miss out on anything? I would love to hear from you to help make the most out of those last two days. And if nothing else, I’m sure it will all be a learning experience for the hopefully longer trip we can plan for next year!