Yes indeed, it was another fabulous trip to Walt Disney World, this time made extra-special by a free upgrade to Saratoga Springs Resort (we had booked Pop Century) and the “Free” Disney Dining Plan promotion (yes, I did the math . . . in our case we really did save money on paying rack rate in order to get “Free” dining).
Here are a few of the most, and least, Magical Moments from our 6-night stay:
Best Cast Member Pixie Dust: Eric from Illinois, at Disney-MGM Studios. Some Cast Members are so special, I just gotta let everyone know (including Disney management, who’ll receive a note from me shortly). The last night of our stay, my son lost a souvenir mug he’d just purchased at Pizza Planet. I cannot begin to tell you how traumatic this was . . . all the stresses and sadness of the vacation coming to an end somehow crystallized around this lost mug, and I was not sure how we could recover. Stopping by Guest Relations, we were greeted warmly by a Cast Member named Eric, from Illinois. Eric not only advised us on how to use the lost-and-found registry, and how to contact WDW Merchandise to try to purchase a replacement, but he took the time to walk with my son to Mickey’s of Hollywood, and let him pick out any mug he’d like. Eric’s kindness, care, and patience with my sad little boy were exactly the pixie dust we both needed.
And a strong runner-up: Michael from Florida, who chatted with us as we waited for a table at the Sci Fi Dine In. My son and I were particularly impressed at how patient and calm Michael was when confronted by an angry Guest who didn’t seem to understand how the Advanced Dining Reservation system works.
Best Fine Dining Experience: Le Cellier. This hot spot lived up to its reputation. The service was superb, the pretzel bread delicious, and the New York Strip Steak (aka the Scopa Special) cooked to perfection. The Cast Member serving our meal chatted amiably with us, and worked closely with my son to ensure that he had just the right food for his very particular tastes. I never would have booked a meal here without the Dining Plan, but now that I’ve tried it I’ll eat there again, even if I need to pay full price.
Also, a little tidbit of advice: If you’re hoping to get into Le Cellier and can’t get an Advance Dining Reservation (ADR), try dropping in right when they open for lunch (or dinner, but the odds aren’t as good). When we sat down at 11:50am for our noon ADR, only about 20% of the tables were occupied, despite the fact that Le Cellier is apparently fully booked until December. Cast Members told us that there are often tables available for walk-ins during the first 20 minutes or so after they first open, due to the high number of no-shows for those early slots.
Worst Fine Dining Experience: Coral Reef. We had the best of all possible tables, right up against the enormous aquarium. The food was reasonably good, and the wait staff understanding when my son had to send back an entree. But the noise was simply too much – the acoustics of the room seem to amplify the din you’d expect from any family dining establishment, and I’m sure we all complicated matters by shouting a bit in our attempt to be heard from the other side of the tiny little table. We won’t be back.
Best Character Interaction: Captain Jack Sparrow at the Pirate and Princess Party. Two tickets to the Pirate and Princess Party: $80. Wait in line to meet Jack: 45 minutes. Photopass pictures I ordered online today: $40, including shipping. The sparkle in my son’s eyes whenever he remembers giving Jack a set of “black pearl” beads, which Jack tenderly wrapped around his wrist? Priceless.
Worst Wait Times: Saratoga Springs bus service. I was warned, I gambled anyway, and I lost. The schedule clearly stated that buses ran every 20 minutes, but our average wait was at least that long. One particularly annoying example: On Magic Kingdom’s Extra Magic Hour morning we arrived at the bus stop at 7:10am, but no bus arrived for us until 8:15am, shortly after a uniformed Disney Transportation Cast Member arrived with a clipboard and a stern look.
My son had the good sense to start toting a book around for those long waits, and Pal Mickey and I just kept each other company the best we could (“Are you ready for a quick quiz?”).
Best View: From My Balcony, SSR 3723. Would I have appreciated it as much had I paid full price for the Saratoga Springs studio? I doubt it. But nonetheless there it was, a beautiful and relaxing vista right in my very own room. Every day during our afternoon break (thank you for the advice. Unofficial Guide!), I’d spend at least a few minutes sitting out on the balcony watching the fountain, watching for bunnies, and just plain enjoying what passes for privacy when you’re a parent traveling on a budget. I even caught a nice sunset or two.
Worst Scheduling Algorithm: Magical Express. (Be warned: I’m gonna get geeky for real here . . . I know just enough about computer programming and algorithms to be dangerous.) I hadn’t used the Magical Express (ME) before, and was always a bit put off by the fact that you’re required to board a bus to the airport three full hours before your scheduled flight. But I never realized that this rule was applied so haphazardly. Based on a conversation I had with another family on our same return flight (but staying at a different resort), we both boarded ME buses at 7:00am, but their bus made two stops en route to MCO – one of which was at our resort, 30 minutes after we had already been required to leave. And once again, since we were on the same exact flight, it seems to me that if they could depart Saratoga Springs at 7:30am, we could have been sitting right next to them instead of already being at MCO (since our bus was blissfully nonstop).
Now, I could tell myself that Disney’s just trying to trap you in MCO long enough to drop a few dollars in their stores there. Lord knows I did! But I think it’s really just a question of lazy scheduling. Because ME knows your itinerary (and in our case even provided flight check-in at the resort), certainly someone could easily design a scheduling algorithm that looks at the various Guest itineraries and optimizes ME departure times based on ensuring that all Guests scheduled for Flight XYZ arrive at MCO 2 hours in advance of Flight XYZ, rather than just a hard-and-fast rule requiring that all Guests have their butts in ME seats 3 hours before Flight XYZ departs. Had such an algorithm been in place, we might well have had time for one final round of Mickey Waffles, instead of having to be on the bus before Artist’s Palette opened for the day. Harumph.
Best Marketing Strategy: Continuation of the Year of a Million Dreams. I’m still sold on it, as surely as I was last October. Sure, in many ways it’s really more like the Year of a Million Free Lanyards, with a couple big prizes thrown in (many will enter, few will win), and I giggled this morning when I heard Scopa call it the Year of a Million Refurbishments. But those free lanyards feel more magical than they have any right to be, especially when you’ve spent too much of your morning waiting for a bus. And my son’s very proud of the Dream certificate he was awarded for throwing a basketball around with a few Cast Members one morning at Epcot.
Worst Wake-Up Call: The 5:00am call from Stitch and Mickey on the morning of our departure. Was it really time to go already? Couldn’t we just sneak in one more ride? “Well,” I thought to myself, “At least maybe I might be able console myself with a last few pin trades at the World of Disney store at MCO. Maybe Pal Mickey needs a couple new friends to keep him company on the long flight home. I wonder if Magical Express will get us there early enough?”