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…]

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 First Course offering at California Grill

We recently had the pleasure of eating at the California Grill for the first time. We will get to a review of the whole experience in an upcoming post, but we wanted to mention a new first course that our server said was added to the menu May 30th.

The Squash Blossom “Oscar” with Petite Crab Cakes, Farmer Jones’ Asparagus, and Sauce Bearnaise. Yes, to some I am sure this sounds strange, especially when you realize you will be eating a whole squash blossom, including the flower.

Squash Blossom Oscar at California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort

Squash Blossom Oscar at Disney’s California Grill

The squash blossom is stuffed with provolone, asiago, and parmesan cheeses and tempura battered. The proportions of the three cheeses was perfect, with no one flavor overwhelming another, and the tempura was light and crispy. The Crab Cakes were made with fresh chives, tarragon, and lemon, and just enough mayonaise to hold the crab together. Our server made sure to mention that there was NOT any bread crumb filler in these crab cakes. They were lightly pan fried and served over the bearnaise, instead of smothered in it.

Squash Blossom Oscar with Crab Cakes and Asparagus at Disney's California Grill

Squash Blossom Oscar with Crab Cakes and Asparagus at Disney’s California Grill

Since there was two of everything, this was a perfect first course for the two of us to share. We were equally impressed with how wonderful this selection was and it is always nice to see Disney maintaining the menus with unique and seasonal offerings. Speaking of seasonal, I imagine that squash blossoms don’t stay in season for long, so if this sounds like something you want to try don’t wait too long!

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!

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.

Disney Dining Review: Kona Cafe

Although we have never stayed at the Polynesian Resort, we have visited a few times. Our first trip we did the Spirit of Aloha Luau, which was a lot of fun. We have taken the boat over from Magic Kingdom and walked along the beach. We have gotten off the monorail just to look at the lobby with its beautiful greenery and waterfalls and check out the Wyland Gallery. But after reading an article on the Disney Food Blog, I found another reason to visit – the banana-stuffed-sourdough-bread-rolled-in-cinnamon-sugar Tonga Toast at the Kona Café.

We had 8:45 am reservations, plenty of time to get from All Star Music to Magic Kingdom to ride the monorail over. Kona Café is on the left on the same level as the entrance from the monorail. We were seated right away and immediately ordered the French press of Kona coffee for two. If you like strong coffee, it doesn’t get any better than this, especially at (typically Nescafe saturated) Disney World. My heart, or I should say stomach, was set on the Tonga Toast, but I was very tempted by a few other things on the menu too. I was pretty pleased when Dave ordered the Pineapple Macadamia Pancakes because that was my second choice!

The wait for the food was a little long, but not unreasonable. For a Saturday morning, the restaurant was busy, but not packed. I would imagine, since the entire eating area was open to the hotel lobby, that it could get pretty loud in there during the peak season.

When our meals came, the waitress also brought one pitcher of maple syrup and one of strawberry syrup. The strawberry syrup was wonderful, tasting of really fresh, ripe strawberries and nothing artificial. It was a perfect compliment to the Tonga Toast. I must admit, I had a slight concern with ordering Tonga Toast because I had read one review where the writer had thought that it was too sticky sweet for their tastes and especially for breakfast. Now I like sweet, but I can’t handle sticky sweet and the Tonga Toast has made my list of one of the best things I have had at Disney. All the flavors, the cinnamon and the banana and the sourdough French toast, were all so good together. And it was sweet, yes, but definitely not overwhelming. I really wanted to try those pancakes too, but I hated having to share! But I’m glad I did because the pancakes were fantastic! The pineapple and toasted macadamias were actually mixed in with the batter and they didn’t skimp on the amount they put in there. They were a bit more filling than the Tonga Toast, but they were just delicious. Dave had also ordered ham on the side and that was a perfect compliment.

Kona café is an excellent choice for breakfast (I’ll admit we couldn’t finish all of the pancakes, but I think I picked every last macadamia I could find out of them) and definitely a good start to a busy day. Next time we go we’ll have to bring the kids, I need someone to order The Samoan so I can try that too!

For more info about dining, including food allergies and the Disney Dining Plan, check out our Dining at the World page.

Review: Disney Parks Mobile Magic App

In November of 2009 Disney released their Mobile Magic app for Verizon Wireless customers. This past August, we had a chance to try it out. The app costs $9.99 for 180 days of access and a 24 hour free trial is also offered. I used the free trial version and did not find any missing functionality. If it is any indication of where this review is going, I plan on buying this app on our next vacation. The only reason I didn’t buy it this trip was that the trial continued to function for the full two days we had in the parks. I imagine they will catch up with me on the next trip…

For each location on Disney property the Mobile Magic app offers a module for Today’s Events, Attractions, Characters, Search, Transportation, Games, My Favorites, Shopping, Guest Services, and Dining. The app works for Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.

There are a few other apps out there offering information about schedules, wait times and fastpass return times. For these other apps, schedule information is probably fairly reliable, but wait times and fastpass return times are maintained by users of the app. They either enter these times in to a web page for others to view or they click a button when they get in line and click it again when they get on the ride and the system calculates wait times to be posted for others to view. Since it relies on users to maintain the information, it is often out of date or simply incorrect. Disney’s Mobile Magic App does not have this limitation.

When you run the app it uses the phones LBS to determine where you are and displays the proper park or resort location. For the app to know your location you must have the LBS (location based services) function enabled on your phone. This is an easy function to turn on and the app can help you if needed.

The Attractions module

Being offered by Disney, this app has a distinct advantage over others in that it can pull real time data directly from the Disney network for ride wait times, and Fastpass return times. It does not rely on users to maintain this data.

The wait times and return times for the park you are in are accurate and up to the second that you select the Attractions module in the program. Based on the time it takes to load the Attractions module it seems to be gathering all ride data at once rather than querying it as you select a ride. I can only assume it does not update while you are viewing the times, only each time you select the Attraction module.

Note that Disney limits access to exact wait times and return times to the park you are currently in. It will however let you know if fastpasses are “available”, “nearly gone”, or “not available” and a general indication of wait times of “see now”, “moderate”, or “heavy”. If a ride is not functioning it will be listed as “down”. I did not have another person at another park to verify the accuracy of this information or to tell me the actual time of a “moderate” wait.

The attractions module will also give you a map of the park and locate you and the attraction on the map to help you find your way.

The Today’s Events module

When you select this module it starts with the weather for the day and as you scroll down lists each of the events and the next show time. Selecting the event you see a list of all the show times for the day and can select maps to the location and even set a reminder for the event. This is definitely easier than dealing with those printed schedules that always get buried in a bag somewhere. We all seem to be able to quickly find our cell phone these days.

The Today’s Events module is also very accurate and up to date. The Main Street Electrical Parade was something we wanted to see and was on the schedule on the Disney website when we planned our trip. I checked the app the day we planned to see it and it was not listed. I asked two cast members and they checked their printed schedules and said it was running. When we got to Magic Kingdom I asked again and the cast member said there was a lot of confusion but no, the parade was not running that night. So the app had more up to date info than some of the cast members.

I did find the location of some of the events to be incorrect. It showed The Village Beatniks playing under The Tree of Life which was off by quite a bit.

I did not fully check out any of the other modules but I assume they are equally as accurate and functional. I am sure the Characters module would be very helpful in finding those elusive character greeting spots and arriving before the crowds. The Dining module looks very useful as well.

I would recommend this to anyone that has a compatible Verizon phone. I could see where, during the busier times of the year, the ride information could be a great time saver. For people new to the parks the mapping system should be very helpful. And for the geeks like me, I loved it! I am not sure how much data it uses but make sure you have some sort of prepaid data plan because pay as you go would probably cost a fortune.

Disney Dining Review: Kimonos

Kimonos is a sushi and karaoke bar located in the Swan side of the Swan and Dolphin resort in the Boardwalk area of Disney property. Kimonos is open for dinner at 5pm and karaoke starts at 9pm. I called prior to our trip to Disney, but was told that reservations are not taken. Note that Kimonos does not accept Disney room charges, the Disney Dining Plan, or Disney Gift Cards.

Warm wood tones, dark furniture and hanging paper lanterns invite you into what at first looks like a small restaurant. There is a sushi bar to your left with a few chairs and the modest karaoke stage is to the right. Tables in the center of the room can be pushed together for larger parties and smaller tables line the inner walls. Once you are inside the restaurant you notice there is also seating along the outer walls, an area separated from the center of the room by colorful Kimonos hung from the ceiling. This outer area has more tables and some comfortable couch seating. The bar is at the very back of the restaurant.

We asked our server, Megan, for recommendations for dinner and she didn’t steer us wrong. We started with the Filled Eggplant appetizer, a crab and chicken combination rolled in thinly sliced eggplant and tempura-fried. Very yummy! She also suggested the Lobster Salad Roll, a tasty mix of lobster, fried grouper and wasabi caviar and the Bonzai roll with spicy tuna, avocado and topped with eel. The flavors in this were wonderful, but unfortunately there were some bones in the eel. We also had a couple of pieces of yellowtail nigiri, because well, it’s my favorite and always just melts in your mouth.

Another great thing about this restaurant was the drink menu. Being the martini-lover that I am, I had to try the Cool Cucumber Saketini, a delicious mix of vanilla vodka, sake, a hint of rock candy syrup, and fresh muddled cucumber. I wasn’t sure exactly what that last ingredient meant, but I never thought that a cucumber martini could taste so good. But, here is the best thing about their wine list – they actually carried a wine from the New York Finger Lakes! We live in the Finger Lakes region and are big supporters of NY State wine, so to find one on a menu out of New York State is a wonderful thing. If you try Kimonos, I highly recommend a glass of Heron Hill Semi Dry Riesling, it would be a perfect complement to their food.

It didn’t seem like it would be a lot of food, but we were quite full. (The rolls were pretty big.) Megan tried to persuade us to have a few more drinks and stick around for the karaoke, but we politely declined. We thanked her for her humorous and attentive service and thanked the sushi chefs for a delightful meal on our way out. Since this was the first night of our vacation, my fortune cookie fortune was pretty appropriate: “Happier days are definitely ahead for you.”

Review: Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside

Our review of Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside is based on our single experience staying there November 13th thru 18th, 2009. The service, cleanliness and theming are comparable to other Disney moderate resorts, fully living up to the usual Disney standards.

The grounds are a bit confusing. We had some trouble finding our room at first but once you get your bearings its ok. Riverside is very picturesque, especially in the mornings. The reflections in the calm waters of the Sassagoula River…

Disney's Port Orleans-Riverside Mill

Disney's Port Orleans-Riverside Mill

Disney's Port Orleans-Sassagoula Steamboat Co.

Disney's Port Orleans-Sassagoula Steamboat Co.

…and the way the morning sun comes thru the trees is beautiful.

Disney's Port Orleans-Alligator Bayou

Disney's Port Orleans-Alligator Bayou

Disney's Port Orleans-Alligator Bayou

Disney's Port Orleans-Alligator Bayou

The main pool is not nearly as big as the one at say, Caribbean Beach, but it does have a water slide and some water spouts for the kids. If you want to do some exploring, the Alligator Bayou area is lush and winding and it’s just a short walk to check out the Port Orleans French Quarter too. The room layout is typical of other moderate resorts, basically identical to those we stayed in at Caribbean Beach, just themed differently. Some of the Riverside water view and standard view rooms with two double beds also offer a trundle bed for a maximum occupancy of five. As of 2009 I would say that the rooms at this resort could stand a refresh in terms of a coat of paint and some new furniture. This didn’t jump out at me but when you look at the details one would hope that the rooms at this property are nearing the top of the list for renovation.

In my mind the best part about Riverside was the dining options. We have not eaten at Boatright’s Dining Hall, the table service restaurant at Port Orleans Riverside, so I can’t give any opinions on that. However, in our opinion, the counter service options offered at the Riverside Mill food court are some of the best. There is a pastry shop with all sorts of wonderful goodies. There are make to order sandwiches, salads and hot food. Servings were enough for the two of us to split one entrée and be satisfied. For breakfast the hot food was scrambled eggs with whatever fixins’ you wanted and the the usual Mickey waffles. Lunch consisted of gourmet sandwiches, interesting pastas and salads, and a selection of made to order stir fry entrées. The River Roost Lounge is a full indoor bar and lounge and has a separate section with a piano player that does fun sing-a-longs to entertain the kids. The Muddy Rivers Pool Bar by the main pool serves drinks and snacks. They were getting ready to close as we arrived for a drink in early evening. I asked about their hours and the bartender said they would stay open as long as they had customers but in mid-November crowds were very light so they usually closed up fairly early.

I would be comfortable recommending Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside resort to anyone looking for moderate price range accommodations on Disney property. If you are looking for the very freshest rooms I may point you more toward Caribbean Beach since I know they have done some recent renovations. For the amount of time we spend in our room this doesn’t bother us and the excellent quick service food options are a big plus that will keep us coming back.

Disney Resort Pools: Caribbean Beach

Although we have now been to Disney three times, we have only stayed at two resorts. For our first trip we knew we wanted to stay at a moderate resort. We wanted something a bit “more” than a value resort, (perhaps originally thinking “if we are going to do this once, we’ll spend the extra money”. Little did we know…) but a deluxe resort was definitely out of our price range. So our choices were between Caribbean Beach Resort, Coronado Springs and Port Orleans. We decided on Caribbean Beach mostly because of the pool…

So doesn’t it just figure that for our first trip the main pool at Caribbean Beach was closed for complete renovation? Thankfully, the kids didn’t seem to care much, the other pools were open and to them just the fact that they were swimming in Disney was awesome. But when it came time to plan the second trip, the kids knew they wanted to return to C.B. to experience the new pool having been enticed by the pictures posted on the construction walls.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Main Pool

Disney's Caribbean Beach Main Pool

Well, the new pool is amazing. It is very large with the deepest area being just over 4 feet (perfect for my kids who aren’t the greatest swimmers). There is a small slide at the shallower end, a larger tunnel slide at the deeper end and a zero-depth-entry area.  The whole area has a dilapidated Spanish style fort theme with turrets, bridges and cannons that spill water. Next to, but separate from, the main pool is a kiddie area themed around a pirate ship with more slides, a dump bucket and water cannons. There are also 2 large Jacuzzi type pools in the main pool area, they would each fit about 8 to 10 people.  There is plenty of chaise and table seating, even during the busy July season, we were able to find open chairs.  The pools are open 24 hours.  The main pool does have lifeguards and their schedules vary by season.  When the lifeguards go off duty the water slides close.  The other “quiet” pools in the resort don’t seem to have lifeguards.  Towels are available, so you don’t have to bring your own (or use your room towels) and there are adjacent  showers and bathrooms.  Having yet to experience many other of the Disney resort pools, I’m not sure how this one ranks in Disney standards.  But when you have a tough time getting your kids out of the pool to go watch fireworks at Magic Kingdom, I think that says a lot!