Tuesday, November 27, 2012

1MB Travels: Orlando: Disney Universal Adventure Part 1

This year, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to travel and see more of states outside of CA and NY, than I ever have.

Most of the trips are for work, but I managed to sneak in a short one for fun.

One of the major perks for working for The Walt Disney Company is the employee park pass - which admits the 'cast member' plus up to three guests for FREE to any Disney theme park in the world (except for Tokyo).  The pass also grants 50% off Disney hotels, 35% off all merchandise in-park, and 20% off all food.  So when my friend Curses, in possession of one such magical pass, said she was game for a trip out to Disney World and asked if I wanted to go this Fall - the obvious answer was: "Just say when!!!"

She booked us into a Disney resort hotel, which made everything easy: Disney Coronado Springs Resort, like all other Disney resort hotels, takes care of transportation at no extra cost - including a free shuttle (Disney Magical Express) that whisks you from the airport straight to your hotel (and back)! Just call ahead to make a reservation, then check-in at the counter in Terminal B Level 1.  On the return trip they will even check your bags in at the hotel so you don't have to deal with lugging them to and around the airport!

It was a very pleasant surprise to find Coronado Springs a relaxed, character-free haven with a summer camp vibe (lodges were arranged in cabins spread over sprawling and lush, green grounds around a 'lake').  The light-strung bridge was especially charming. *During the day the buildings are visibly more theme park like, but at night you would think it's just any other lakeside resort!

The room was the quality of a nice motel - but comfortable. As two single kid-free ladies, it was nice to be able to stay in a space that didn't blast character kitsch - we love and expect lots of it in the theme park, but it was nice to have an adult, calm space to return to at night. The lodgings felt like they could have been any lake resort, in anytown, USA. 
We woke up to / walked by this every morning.  They had hammocks around the lake too - it would have been nice to lay there and read if we had more time (but since it was my first time to WDW, we wanted to maximize every minute at the parks!)
We did find time to soak in the 'quiet' pool one night (much needed after a long day of exhaustive trekking). With time to kill before leaving, I also checked out the main pool with its Mayan themed waterfall and waterslide, a nice amenity.

They also really do take care of almost every need on property: Coronado Springs had a coin-op laundry room equipped with vending machines for detergent and fabric softener, as well as change machines for quarters.  So no need to overpack: you can save room in the suitcase for souvenirs!  They also had several eateries in the hotel so you can fuel up before you head out.  Pepper Market offers a breakfast buffet or $14.99, a bargain compared to food inside the parks! It's not gourmet and was designed to be cafeteria-like to appeal to the masses, and the decor is...a bright, multicolored visual assault...but some of the food is not bad, serves the purpose of filling you up, and I did LOVE their chicken tortilla soup which tasted fresh made, from scratch. 
So with accommodations all set - on to our theme park adventures! Walt Disney World really consists of four separate parks - below are the highlights from our trip to each.


We started off on the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition, a fun ride in an open vehicle where you can spot animals from giraffes to antelopes to hippos in a relatively open environment.  Disney is all about imagination, and providing adventure in a safe environment.  This provides that simulated, safe safari for most people - us included - who will probably not be going on a true African wilderness expedition. The bird sanctuary on the walking Forest Exploration trail was also a lovely, serene space with lots of exotic bird-watching!

Expedition Everest was a fun rollercoaster ride that goes forwards and backwards at high altitude (great view of park from the ride!) in an Everest themed attraction where the Yeti makes an appearance.  Loved the attention to detail and sense of humor in this whole 'Asia' area - the waiting areas for Expedition Everest had gorgeous, ornate Himalayan architecture and decor punctuated by visually contrasting, vibrant western 'tokens' like ski gloves and sleeping bags hung from its rafters - as if either an indication of explorers who 'came before us' or tribute to those who 'lost their lives before us' while in pursuit of the illusive Yeti...
As with its sister theme parks in California, alcohol is only served in the non-core, least Disney character branded spaces. Animal Kingdom serves some delicious frozen cocktails including this Yeti Blast triple frozen Margarita (mango, coconut-lime, strawberry).

We weren't sure whether we'd be subsisting on churros and burgers / chicken nuggets for 4 days.  But Disney took great care with their food as well - there was the AYCE meatfest at Tusker House in the African area (which we missed :( advance reservations advised!) and we were excited to try Yak & Yeti  - a Himalayan themed restaurant in the 'Asia' region.  Though the menu is 'Pan-Asian' and made us think PF Chang's (with even more lowest common denominator appeal for tourists), the two dishes we ordered were *shockingly delicious*.  I got the Seared miso-glazed Salmon, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, jasmine rice - which blew me away (possibly because of where my expectations were for theme park food overall) with how well the fish was cooked, perfectly tender, juicy and with bold yet skillfully restrained and balanced flavors.
Curses got the Maple Tamarind Chicken which was also fantastic.  It was the first time I've encountered that combination of ingredients but it all worked really well together - and the chicken was also skillfully cooked - if we didn't know any better you'd think we were at any 'regular' concept restaurant out in the city. 


The heart of Walt Disney World for kids and families is Magic Kingdom - that's where all the classic Disney characters and attractions are. Grateful for the free passes which gave us the luxury of not feeling pressure to experience every last thing to get our money's worth - we actually spent the least amount of time in this park, since a lot of the rides were the same or similar to those at Disneyland.  The first obvious difference between Magic Kingdom and Disneyland is the castle, which is a Cinderella castle versus the Sleeping Beauty one featured at Disneyland. 
This castle didn't house a walk-through of the princess' story like Disneyland's does - but underneath the castle, next to the restaurant, were beautiful mosaics which told Cinderella's story.  Adorable little girls gazed up at these murals, dreaming, in their princess costumes.  Much as we avoided the well-used word, it was indeed 'magical'. In contrast, one fun tangent: there is a Cinderella's Wishing Well outside the castle - which was amusingly used by several ladies as a smoking area when we were there - it was like a jolt of reality in a land of fantasy.
Haunted Mansion is a classic that we have at Disneyland as well, but we saw that it had a 'cemetery' attached to it at WDW, and decided to check out that detour.  Turns out the walk through was just as entertaining as other wait areas at Disney Parks - the tombstones had amusing messages and some were interactive, like the one pictured here where you can press on the embossings to contribute to the funeral song.

The Bluebeard gravemarker was also a fun read for adults! Our only disappointment, since we were there in October during Halloween timing, was that the ride didn't have the special Jack overlay that we were used to seeing at Disneyland (neither did Space Mountain, which has a Ghost Galaxy overlay in October at Disneyland).  But, as Curses smartly noted: WDW is more of a vacation destination, whereas Disneyland services a lot more local guests - so WDW keeps to the original so guests who likely only make it there as a special occasion treat can get the full classic experience, versus Disneyland which tries to create promotional events with their rides to bring local people back in.
In any case, a fun quick excursion to Magic Kingdom - though as a SoCal resident who can get a lot of the same rides at Disneyland, and ones without kids, we're not sure that we would have spent the bulk of our time at this park.



Built to give guests a taste of key countries / cities and cultures around the world through themed areas and restaurants serving 'iconic' local foods, Epcot Center's World Showcase with the best of intentions is in some ways is a cross between Cliff's Notes to the World and World Cultures for Dummies.  But if you see it with the good intentions in mind and knowing that most tourists may not ever venture to the countries they see here...it's a nice way for people to get quick easily digestible samplings of each culture.  We happened to go at a time when they had two initiatives running that helped make the experience of theme-park versions of each 'country of the world' be a deeper and more engaging one:
  • Phineas and Ferb - we LOVED this alternate reality adventure, a really fun way to experience Epcot Center's faux mini setups inspired by countries around the world. You basically pick up a flip phone from one of the stalls around the park, choose which 'country' you want to run your mission in, and Major Monogram comes on screen to give you your assignment. It's a scavenger hunt type game where you have to use clues to locate key places or objects in each 'country' - and the coolest part? Once you find the place or object, pressing a key on the cell phone actually triggers something to happen in that area that you wouldn't have been able to see before - for example, in China, locating a stone by the pond and pressing a phone key triggers a monkey statue to rise up from the pond.  In France, you can trigger a 'spy' camera to take your photo, and trigger Agent P to make a special appearane, ziplining across two rooftops.
  • Food & Wine Festival - no additional admission fee needed.  We were handed 'passports' that you could take around to each 'country's booth, and collect passport stamps for a great (free) souvenir. 
Each 'country' offered small bites of signature foods at ~$7 each, as well as wines or cocktails.  A lot of the choices didn't make sense to me, and I'm ashamed to admit the food snob in me turned my nose up at everything at first - until we reached France. As to be expected, there were crepes - and escargot.  But what was different about the escargot was that they were served in individual baby brioche bread bowls with garlic butter - the first time I'd ever seen them served this way.  Loved the presentation, and the little guys were delicious, too! We didn't eat in the 'bistro/brasserie' in 'France' - but I think they did a nice job capturing that Parisian vibe, at night.
The nightly water/fireworks show over the 'lake' is also fun to watch.   We were told 'Canada' or 'Norway' are the best locations to catch the show, and were well directed.  We stood by Canada and had a great view of the show.

Inside Epcot's iconic globe is 'Future World' - a ride that takes you through the history of civilization and where we're headed.  Like Innoventions at Disneyland, it's nearly impossible to build something that 's going to cost millions and be able to keep up with the speed of technological advances - it was an ambitious attempt at capturing the breadth of human history and projecting our future - maybe if they are able to upgrade to IMAX screens a la Transformers/Harry Potter at Universal, so that it can be more easily updated with the latest advances - it would be a bigger draw.

As it was, our favorite thing at Epcot was the Phineas and Ferb interactive scavenger hunt - the not so hidden geek girls in us wish we had more time to go finish all the missions!



This park was Hollywood themed - we didn't spend much time here since we have the real Hollywood at home. We just made time for the rides that are not at Disney California Adventure - like the Rock N Rolla Coaster (most people love this but as someone who doesn't really enjoy rollercoasters - this was too much for me.  An assault of neon, full blast Aerosmith, and with my head pinballing between the sides of the headrest.)
In exchange for going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, Curses let me drag her to Tower of Terror. The main (cool) difference from the one in Disney California Adventure is that the elevator moves into and down the 'hotel hallway!' for an even more immersive experience before the vertical drops!  Though, I thought the drops weren't as fast and jarring in Orlando.

The villains store was one of our favorite stops at this park - they have really cool, fun, tongue in cheek products with edgier designs.  Loved the witch with apple and vinylmation figure window that says "Which one did you get?" (referencing the mystery figures where you don't know what you're getting).  I also loved the Donald Duck tee that said "The Original Angry Bird"!  Curses bought some adorable Alice in Wonderland tea presses.

We got lucky with our spontaneous food choices on this trip: though initially disappointed that we couldn't get into The Hollywood Brown Derby, a fine dining (!!) spot evoking Golden Era Hollywood, with duck on the menu (sorry Donald!!) along with other decadent sounding dishes, we were excited to get a table fairly easily at the next best place: Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano.  The fabulous smells of good Italian food cooking served as warm welcome the minute you set foot in the door.  In terms of decor, it is casual and 'family friendly' which translates to just a notch up from Bucca di Beppo.

The food though, was fantastic.  To start, we split a Wild Mushroom Flatbread ($12.99) with roasted cremini and button mushrooms, garlic-shallot spread and balsamic reduction - SO good, and since this was an entree, it's generously sized with enough to take leftovers to go (though it is hard to carry it around the park all day, we just couldn't leave any piece of this behind - it was that delicious).  A great gourmet deal especially for in-park dining!

For the 'real' main, we feasted - the strategy? Fill up on one real, hefty, relatively reasonably priced meal versus many small bites of expensive fried salty/sweet things that are not good for us all day.  I got the Pork Osso Bucco ($21.99) braised in red wine and served over roasted garlic polenta and seasonal roasted vegetables. The meat fell away from the bone with a light flick of the fork - with evenly infused, rich wine flavors - I would say seeing the presentation on this plate and tasting this dish, you could easily forget that you're dining in a theme park 'concept' restaurant.  Four thumbs way up.
Curses got the Wood-grilled Tuna ($21.99) over a seasonal vegetable risotto, warm vine-ripened diced red and yellow tomatoes, and olive-caper butter. This wasn't mind-blowing, but perfect for Curses, who was craving something on the healthy side (and she loves vegetables...incomprehensible...) We left very impressed with Mama Melrose's - it was like a restaurant that you would go to anywhere else in the city, even when you had a choice - and we would totally go back, next time we're at the park.


Last but not least, there is Downtown Disney.  All WDW resort hotels provide free shuttles to Downtown Disney as well. Like the commercial strip in Anaheim, Downtown Disney Orlando is filled with plenty of ways to relieve any overly burdened wallets.  There's the requisite World of Disney store with a huge selection of Disney merchandise (and a fun Stitch statue over the entrance that will 'spit' on unsuspecting passersby).  There are the epic LEGO models.

 ...and then there is Pleasure Island, or what I like to call the Disney after dark park.  It's an area of Downtown Disney that's open til 1am, and is packed with bars, pubs, and other places adults will want to escape to after a long day at the parks with hyper kids.
The place that stopped us cold though was Ghiradelli Soda & Fountain Shop - yes, I know there's one in San Diego and tons in San Francisco, but we were there in Orlando and really craving a heavy hit of chocolate. I got the Midnight Reverie sundae ($8.95) made with two scoops of chocolate ice cream, fresh
homemade dark chocolate hot fudge, dark
decadent chips, whipped cream and an
Intense Dark Midnight Reverie 86% chocolate. I almost died - it was so deliciously decadent. Curses got a Very Berry Sundae ($8.95) with strawberry cheesecake ice cream topped with
sliced strawberries, vanilla ice
cream with blueberry topping, whipped cream,
chocolate-covered blueberries and homemade chocolate-dipped waffle roll. The Disney employee silver pass works here too for a 20% discount!! Which doesn't help those without their own Disney employee friend - what does, is that AAA cards work here also for the same 20% discount - score!

A month later, I still remember that Midnight Chocolate Sundae - may have to plan a trip up to SF soon just to get my fix.

Ok, so we did stop by one pub: Raglan Road - a high energy spot with live music inside (modern Irish music, rock covers) and out on the patio (rowdy Scottish folk music?!).  For those into craft beers - they have a menu of them here.  The food - at least the Pub Grub selection - was not impressive - my Smokie City ($13) of creamy smoked haddock & Dubliner cheese dip with potatoes, tomatoes and crostinis promised novel adventure, but delivered single note (salty) disappointment. Curses barely finished her burger as well.  If I had a choice I'd probably only go back for the music and drinks, but for late nighters - this is one of the few spots open late and serving food past 11pm.

All in all, we had a blast on our Disney World trip - thanks Curses for making it all possible!
[To see more photos from our trip, see the album on my Facebook page]

Up next: recap of our Universal Studios Orlando adventure including Harry Potter and Halloween Horror Nights!

Disney Coronado Springs Resort
Pepper Market on Urbanspoon
Disney's Animal Kingdom 

Yak & Yeti Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Disney Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

Downtown Disney
Ghiradelli Soda Fountain Shop
Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop on Urbanspoon



  1. Okay, now I REALLY want one of those sundaes!

  2. They were amazing!!!!! I seriously want to go to SF or SD now just to have another taste :)!!



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