Thursday, August 4, 2016

My 4th of July at Disneyland

Admittedly, I am somewhat guilty of being one of those people who have sworn-off visiting Disneyland on major holidays.  Back in the 1990's I went to Disneyland twice on Christmas Day, and the park seemed like a nightmare.  I said both times that I'd never do it again.  Fast forward to 2016, when I posted the question to members of my Facebook group asking if it was a crazy idea to visit Disneyland on the 4th of July.

My members wished me luck and echoed many of my previous sentiments. Some of them commented on how "amazing" the 4th of July fireworks were.  Others said they enjoyed seeing the U.S. Marine Band perform during the flag retreat.  But the overwhelming opinion was that Disneyland would be packed, if not filled entirely to capacity.

So I decided to brave the crowds and the heat, and visit Disneyland on Summer's biggest holiday. In doing so, I broke one of my own rules for visiting Disneyland on a busy day.  I showed up in the middle of the afternoon.  Uhg!  I arrived at the parking structure at 3:00 in the afternoon, and there was no back-up of cars.  I quickly found a parking space, and made my way to the tram loading area, where I expected to have a bit of a wait.  A half-empty tram was waiting to whisk us to the main entrance.

"Ok, so I guess the security lines are going to be long", I said to myself.  I had heard that they were making everybody go through the metal detectors because of recent security concerns.  I made it to the back check area, and was through it, and the metal detector in less than a minute.  From there, I could see the main gates to both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure were empty.  I was heading to Disneyland to catch the flag retreat ceremony and watch the afternoon parade.

I entered the park just before 3:30pm, and popped into a few shops.  Main Street was surprisingly calm.  People were scattered along the sidewalk, waiting for the parade, or just taking a break.  I reached the Central Plaza, and made a U-turn to return to Town Square for the flag retreat.  There was a small crowd of people milling around the flagpole, so I made my way upstairs to the moderately empty train station to view the festivities from there.

The 4:pm Flag Retreat ceremony featured the U.S. Marine
Aircraft Wing Band (seen at the bottom of the photo).
I watched the Marine Band perform, and the flag ceremony.  I've seen this ceremony several times before, but on our nation's birthday, it seemed more special.  Immediately after the ceremony, Mickey's Soundsational Parade kicked-off from Town Square.  I've seen many parades from the front of the train station. If you have the right spot, it's one of the best views.

After the parade was over, I made my way to the different lands.  By this time, I knew what everybody had warned be about would not be true on this day.  The park was, dare I say "empty". I mean, the lines were practically non-existent.  Jungle Cruise, Pirates and Haunted Mansion were all "walk-on".  Splash Mountain had a bit of a wait, but I used the Single Rider Line, and rode it twice without any wait at all.  The wait for the Indiana Jones Adventure was listed as 25-minutes.  Over in Fantasyland, most of the attractions had a 10-15 minute wait.  Peter Pan's Flight was listed at 35-minutes.

I made my way to the Fantasyland Theater a bit early for the Marine Band concert.  This is where I found what would be the longest line of the entire day.  This line wrapped around the front side of the theater, and snaked to the right, all the way up and past the Toon Town Train Station, and made it's way down towards the tunnel into Toon Town.  I entered the line in front of the train station.  After the theater opened, the line quickly moved inside, where I found a good seat near the front of the middle section.

The "Marine Band" plays an hour-long concert inside the open air Fantasyland Theater

The Marine Band performed an excellent set of patriotic tunes, and songs by famous American composers.  The crowd enjoyed every number, and showed their appreciation with stirring applause and standing ovations.  The only negative thing I would report is that after what appeared to be a very long line to get it, the theater was only about two-thirds full.  I guess this was another sign of a "slow day" at Disneyland.

After the concert ended, I headed to Frontierland to have dinner at Rancho Del Zocalo.  I knew this area would be deserted, and it was.  I skipped the first Paint The Night parade, because that's what you do if you don't want to wait hours for a good viewing spot.  After I ate, the parade was making it's way from Fantasyland to Main Street.  I took the Adventureland route to Main Street, and ducked into the Candy Parlor, noticing that the alternate walkway out of the park was not open.

As the final float passed by, I exited the candy shop,and made my way out to the middle of the street. This was the easiest attempt at getting a prime viewing spot for the fireworks that I've ever had.  I waited about fifteen minutes in a moderate crowd for the Disneyland Forever show to begin.  As usual, the show did not disappoint.  And the three-minute "Patriotic Finale" at the end was a very nice touch.

After the fireworks ended, I made my way back into Fantasyland to catch a couple more rides, and grab a spot for the second Paint The Night parade.  By the time the parade started, the walkway to it's a small world was practically empty.  I grabbed a seat on the ground with nobody in front of me. The parade was amazing, as it always is.  After Paint The Night was finished, I rode a few more rides, and then made my way to Main Street, for some shopping to complete my day.

Overall, the 4th of July at Disneyland was a fantastic day.  The crowds were incredibly light, and the weather was perfect.  I'm not sure what contributed to the lower than normal crowds on this day.  It could have been one of many factors.  The temporary closures in Frontierland to make way for Star Wars Land, the reduction in Annual Passholders, combined with the number of blocked passes, and the new tiered pricing, making this day the highest priced day to visit, probably all combined to make the 4th of July a great day to visit.  I don't know how long this trend will last, or if it was a one-time occurrence, but I'd gladly take it again in the future.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Attraction Review: Soarin' Takes Flight Around The World!

On June 16, Soarin' Around The World made it's world debut as part of the grand opening of the new Shanghai Disney Resort in China.  The very next day, the new film premiered at the U.S. Disney theme parks.  At Walt Disney World's Epcot, Soarin' opened a third theater inside The Land Pavilion, in an effort to reduce long waits for this very popular attraction.  Initial reports indicated a massive crowd queued up for the ride at park opening, but by mid-day, the stand-by waits were as little as thirty minutes.

Over at Disney California Adventure, Soarin' Over California also changed to the new international film.  There was no fanfare or build-up for the new attraction at the park where the Soarin' attraction was born.  The ride closed for one day to change the film and add new scents (the attraction went through a lengthy refurbishment in 2015 to prepare for the new film).

I arrived at Disney California Adventure that morning not knowing what to expect.  All I knew for sure was that I was going to ride Soarin' twice, so that I could give an accurate review.  Mission accomplished!  The park opened at 8AM.  But this was an "Extra Magic Hours" day, so hotel guests got into the park an hour before everyone else.  I'm assuming Soarin' was open during that time.  When I got to the attraction at 8:15, the stand-by wait was 45-minutes.  I grabbed a FastPass, and did something else to pass the time.

The queue area for the DCA ride has not changed.  Only the lower panel of the wood sign in front of the attraction was changed to reflect the new name of the film. Once inside, everything is still the same, with the photos of California's aviators on the walls in the first section of the building.  The music may be slightly different in the queue area.  One thing noticeably different is the fact that you can now hear thunderous rumbling coming from the theaters.

Once in the boarding area, the pre-ride video that once showed the names of locations in California flying by has been replaced with a "Raiders of The Lost Ark" type of graphic, where a line travels to a location on a map, and the name appears.  Up next is the pre-flight safety video with your "Chief Flight Attendant, Patrick."  Fans will be happy to know that actor Patrick Warburton is still featured.  In fact, it's the exact same video.  In a somewhat strange lack of a move, Disney chose not to update the video.  Instead, they edited the clip, removing only the sound when he says "Soarin' Over California".  In what looks like a bad Godzilla movie, his lips keep moving during "Over California", but you don't hear it.

SEMI SPOILER ALERT (some new scenes will be revealed below)

After you enter the theater and board the attraction, you take off, and the film begins.  While Disney did a nice job of teasing the new film, they did a masterful job of not revealing too much.  The film starts with a view of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, before transitioning to the Arctic Circle where polar bears frolic around and a massive section of glacier falls into the water.

From north, we travel way south, to Sydney Harbour in Australia, where we see two famous Sydney landmarks.  The journey takes us to several other amazing landmarks, monuments and world wonders, before finishing back at Disneyland.  Only at Disney California Adventure will the film begin and end with a Matterhorn.  That's because the Epcot version now finishes at Epcot, and the Shanghai version ends in that park.

The scents that went away from the DCA version of the ride earlier this year are back.  Even one or two new scents will be experienced during the ride.  Thankfully the score for this film is pretty-much the same, with an updated version of the original "Soarin' Over California" score by composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Fans will appreciate the addition of new instrumentation throughout.

I know many people (especially fans of Soarin' Over California) were skeptical of a new Soarin' film replacing the California version in a California park.  Many people thought this would be better suited just for Epcot.  I've probably ridden the original Soarin' more than one hundred times.  Most of those were at DCA. I have been a huge fan of this attraction, the music and the California theme ever since it opened in 2001.

But as well as Soarin' Over California was made, and as great as the original version of this ride was, I knew there was an opportunity to take this new format around the world, and highlight more sights. With Soarin' Around The World, Disney has done just that.  They've also added a whole bunch of new Disney "Magic" to this film.  Sure, there's no longer a golf ball flying at the screen (supposedly hit by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner).  But the new effects in this film will impress, and even surprise many riders.   I believe they could have selected a couple of different locations.  But everything seems to fit.  Maybe a future version will give us New York or another major city.  Maybe we'll someday see a rain forest, or other natural wonders.  I was hoping to see the Grand Canyon. But that's just me.

What I do know is this new version of Soarin' has created an exciting new ride for these parks, and the millions of fans who visit them.  I am so happy I got to ride this classic attraction twice on opening day, and look forward to returning tomorrow, and beyond.  In 2001, Soarin' Over California gave us a brand-new attraction experience, that instantly became a Disney classic. This year, technology and Disney Imagineering has raised the bar on that experience, giving us Soarin' Around The World, and taking a great attraction to new heights.


Did you know? 
Jerry Vargas is an Authorized Disney Travel Specialist with Magical Vacation Planner. He can plan all of the details for your next Disney dream vacation.  His services are free, and Magical Vacation Planner is recognized as one of the top Disney "Earmarked" Travel Agencies in the United States.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The BEST of: Disneyland - Food

Welcome to a new Disney Park Fan Blog series: "The BEST of ".  During this open-ended series of posts, I will examine many of the things that make Disney theme park experiences unique, and break them down into short lists of "bests".  I'm starting the series off with the best food experiences at The Disneyland Resort.  For this post, I'm breaking the Disneyland food experience up into a dozen different categories.  You can decide in the comments if you agree with these selections, and/or add suggestions of your own.  Enjoy!

BEST Theme Park Treat: Dole Whip
For many people this is a no-brainer.  Dole Whips and Disney seem to go hand-in-hand.  There is only one place at the Disneyland Resort where you can get this quintessential treat, and that's the Tiki Juice Bar at the entrance to Adventureland.  Specifically, right next to the entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room.  Just look for the often very long line, and you've found it.

The Dole Whip is a refreshing pineapple soft-serve treat, served in a plastic cup, or as a float, in a cup of pineapple juice.  This is one of the most popular treats at Disneyland.  The Tiki Juice Bar also serves pineapple juice on its own, and fresh pineapple spears.  TIP! There are often two lines for the Tiki Juice Bar.  Look inside the queue area for the Enchanted Tiki Room, and if the other side of the Tiki Juice                                                        Bar is open, you may have a shorter wait.

BEST Burger: Village Haus Restaurant
If you are looking for a large, indoor place to enjoy great food and get away from the heat, Village Haus Restaurant in Fantasyland won't disappoint.  The 1/3 Lb.  Angus Pastrami Burger is my favorite burger at Disneyland. This burger features pastrami, swiss cheese and caramelized onions, and is served with your choice of French fries or fresh fruit.  Village Haus also offers plenty of outdoor seating for people watching.

BEST Breakfast: Mickey Mouse Pancake
Rancho Del Zocalo is the only location where you will find this famous Disneyland exclusive.  Three pancakes are cooked together on a griddle to form a Mickey Mouse head.  The finished hotcake is dusted with powdered sugar, and then decorated with fruit to form Mickey's eyes, nose and mouth. The pancake is served with your choice of bacon or sausage, along with maple syrup and whipped butter.

This fan favorite recently moved to Rancho Del Zolalo (next to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), from the River Belle Terrace restaurant.  The restaurant also serves other American and Mexican-inspired breakfast dishes.  TIP! If you arrive to the park at "rope drop", head over to Rancho Del Zocalo for your Mickey Mouse Pancake, and you just might have the entire place to yourself.  There are even outdoor heaters available on those cooler mornings.

BEST Sit-Down Restaurant: Blue Bayou *
You haven't experienced Disneyland until you have dined at Blue Bayou Restaurant.  This Cajun and Creole-inspired menu offers some of the best food in either park.  But the experience is what makes this place The Disneyland Resort's most popular restaurant.  Blue Bayou's dining room is located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.  Whether you are enjoying a Monte Cristo sandwich for lunch, or Surf and Turf for dinner, it's always nighttime on the bayou.  If you are lucky enough to get a waterside table, you will see "fireflies" across the water, as boats with park guests float by as they set sail on their swashbuckling adventure.

BEST Snack Food: Beignets
Never heard of these (pronounced "ben-yays")?  These deep friend French Donuts are made to order all day long.  Beignets are light, fluffy and delicious, and are covered with powdered sugar.  These New Orleans favorites have found a home at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney, where they can be ordered off the main restaurant menu.  They are also available at Jazz Kitchen Express (counter service, next door), where they are served in bags of 4, 6 and 10.  TIP! If you like your beignets shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, you can find them inside Disneyland at the French Market in New Orleans Square.  While not always as good as the Jazz Kitchen version, these ones are often available in seasonal flavors, like pumpkin and peppermint.

BEST Place For "Healthy" Food: Pacific Wharf Cafe
The food at Disney California Adventure is considerably underrated, when compared to Disneyland. Finding healthy food options in either park can be a challenge.  Portion sizes are usually too big for light eaters, and burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, etc aren't the best options for anybody.  Pacific Wharf Cafe in the area of the same name has a few above average options for those who want a good meal without all the guilt.

The Turkey Pesto Club is a great choice. Slice turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese and Pesto Aioli are stacked on a Sourdough baguette.  This sandwich is the perfect portion, and very good.  Another great option here is the Chinese Chicken Salad.  How many restaurants have a salad in a bread bowl? This may sound like a strange combination, but it really works.  And did I mention the bread is Boudin Sourdough, baked inside the Bakery Tour attraction right next door? Need I say more?

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BEST Meal In A Cone: 
Cozy Cone Motel
Head over to Carsland at Disney California Adventure to visit the Cozy Cone Motel.  This quick service food court of sorts offers several snack items.  But the bread cones at Cone #3 are a great meal in themselves.  The Chili Cone Queso and the Chicken Verde Cone are the menu standards. But the special cones are my personal favorites.  The Mac & Cheese cone is also topped with crumbled bacon, and the BBQ Pulled Pork cone is topped with cole slaw.  Both are amazing, and after you have eaten the inside, and the cone itself, you will have just had lunch on the go.  But if you are still hungry, the other "cones" feature churros, soft-serve ice cream and popcorn.  So go ahead and stay awhile.  It's not called a "motel" for nothing.

BEST Buffet/Character Meal:  Goofy's Kitchen*

 When it comes to buffets, I prefer Las Vegas, followed by Walt Disney World.  But Disneyland has a few buffet locations to choose from.  Goofy's Kitchen at The Disneyland Hotel has been around for years.  It is one of the only restaurants on property that was designed as a buffet, and offers the best variety of all of the buffet locations at the resort.  Open for breakfast and dinner, this eatery has plenty to choose from, even for the the most picky of eaters.  The family restaurant has lots of options for the kids.
And best of all your host Goofy, and many of his pals are hanging around to meet you and your family.

BEST Homestyle Cookin': Plaza Inn Fried Chicken
While Plaza Inn at the end of Main Street U.S.A. is known for its character breakfast buffet in the mornings, this opening day restaurant is famous for its fried chicken at lunch and dinner.  Plaza Inn (formerly Red Wagon Inn) is a Disneyland landmark, and the golden fried chicken in one of the most popular dishes in the park.  Each dish is served with three pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and a biscuit.  Pot roast and pasta dishes are also available if chicken isn't your thing.  Be sure to save room for dessert. There are plenty to choose from.

BEST Fine Dining: Carthay Circle Restaurant*
The replica of the Los Angeles theater where "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" had its world premier is not only Disney California Adventure's icon.  It's also the best restaurant in the park.  This "signature dining" location offers extensive lunch and dinner menus in a plush, art-deco dining room.

Where Blue Bayou at Disneyland has the atmosphere that can't be missed, Carthay Circle has the better menu.  Appetizers like the Fried Biscuits and the Fire Cracker Duck Wings are very popular.  Entrees like the Crisp Duck Confit, Artichoke Crepes, and Grilled Angus Beef Barbacoa are favorites.  The desserts, like the Meyer Lemon Custard Tart are to die for.
The Carthay Circle Lounge features a full bar, along with menu service as well.

TIP! "World of Color" dining packages are available at lunch and dinner, for you to enjoy a special meal, and reserved viewing area for the "World of Color" show in the evening.

Best Fun Food: Corn Dog Castle
Many people will tell you the best corn dogs at the Disneyland Resort are at the Little Red Wagon in Disneyland.  The truth is, the corn dog itself is the exact same thing that is served at Corn Dog Castle in Disney California Adventure.  So why should you go here instead of the more popular Little Red Wagon?  Two reasons.  Corn Dog Castle has three batter-dipped items to choose from.  The original Corn Dog, the spicy Hot Link Corn Dog, and the Cheddar Cheese Stick.  Each item comes with sliced apples or a bag of chips. Little Red Wagon only has the original Corn Dog.

The second reason is the lines.  While Corn Dog Castle can get very busy, the lines at Little Red Wagon are ridiculous, and there's nowhere to sit.    TIP: Corn Dog Castle has ample seating to the left of the building. But if the tables are full, simply walk over to the Paradise Gardens area (next to Goofy's Sky School), where you will find plenty of tables and chairs (and shade).

BEST Meal To Share:Monte Cristo & Pommes Frites*
New Orleans Square is home to Café Orleans.  The patio seating at this restaurant provides the best view of the Rivers of America and the many people strolling along its banks.  Café Orleans is also the best place to enjoy not one, but two different versions of Disneyland's famed, deep fried Monte Cristo sandwich. The original ham, turkey and cheese version is a fan favorite.  A three-cheese version with Swiss, Mozzerella and a double creme Brie is also available.  When coupled with the garlic and parmesan infused Pommes Frites (French Fries), this lunch or dinner combo is the perfect meal for two or even three people to share.

So there you have it.  Disneyland is extra special in the hearts of many because this resort has been able to fit so much into such a compact space.  Where food is concerned, this is especially true.  I don't believe there is any place where you can find so much variety in such a small area. I'm sure you have other items that are your favorites and did not make the list.  Feel free to share them in the comments.  Maybe they will make a future list of Disney Park "Bests".
If you are planning a visit to The Disneyland Resort, and haven't experienced some, or all of these foods, bring this list along with you.

*Reservations are highly recommended for dining at Blue Bayou Restaurant, Goofy's Kitchen, Carthay Circle Restaurant and Cafe Orleans.

Jerry Vargas is an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. For information on his free services,  CLICK HERE.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review: "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion"

It was Memorial Day, 2016 when I took the drive over to Disney California Adventure with the goal of seeing the day's first performance of The Disneyland Resort's newest stage show, "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion." Last Fall, in a somewhat controversial move, the powers that be at Disney announced the end of a successful thirteen-year run of the beloved and very popular "Aladdin: The Musical Spectacular", replacing it with a new show, based on the very popular 2013 Disney animated film, "Frozen". The "Aladdin" show would close on January 10, 2016.

Four and a half months after Aladdin and the Genie took their final bows, "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion" opened, just in time to kick-off the Summer season. Demand for the new show during its opening weekend was high, because: 1. It's something new at a Disney Park. 2. It's a holiday weekend. 3. It's Frozen. We arrived at the park just before "rope drop", and got in a FastPass line near Oswald's Service Station, just beyond the main gate. Because it was ten minutes until park opening, the line was held at the beginning of Hollywood Blvd.

After the park was opened, the line was escorted through Hollywood Land to the FastPass area, which is to the left of the Hyperion Theater, It took about thirty minutes to get to the machines, where we picked up our FastPasses for the 12:30 show. We hit a few rides, including Soarin' Over California, Toy Story Mania and Tower of Terror, before having lunch, and returning to the Hyperion for the first show.

The Orchestra queue was full, and the Mezzanine line was about three quarters full, with thirty minutes left on the FastPass return time. The "stand-by" line was a mob scene, located on the street in front of the queue entrances. It was pretty obvious that very few stand-by people would get to see the first show, and all of them would be on the balcony level. By this time, all FastPasses had been distributed for the day. The people in the stand-by line were going to have a long afternoon ahead of them, waiting for a show that they may not see.

The theater doors opened about twenty minutes before showtime. Our Mezzanine seats were on the left side of the theater, just above the side balcony. I'd say the seats weren't bad. At least weren't on the balcony above, which no longer has the benefit of characters flying by, like Aladdin, Jasmine and Genie did in the last show.
There's no big curtain hiding the stage from view. The entire stage is visible from the time you enter. Video projection technology is used to create the background of Arendelle during what is believed to be summer. Only a few over-sized set pieces are used in the show. Like giant doors, that lower from the rafters, allowing characters to enter from behind. There's also a large staircase that rotates, carrying Queen Elsa over the audience during her performance of the signature song, "Let It Go."

The show itself is fairly entertaining, with a top-notch cast of singers and actors who portray the "Frozen" characters quite well. The musical numbers were great, and all-too familiar to a crowd of "Frozen" fans. The Anna character provides many of the funny lines, while Elsa is more dramatic. Olaf the snowman is a puppet (think Iago from "Aladdin") as is Kristoff's reindeer, Sven. Both puppets provide some comic relief, as does the Duke.
The show tries to pack much of the movie into a production that lasts a little over an hour. Because the "Frozen" story in the film is complex and jumpy, the flow of this production is a bit choppy.

Projection mapping is used throughout the show, replacing traditional sets. At first, this is impressive because it is unique for a live theater show. But the gimmick got old very quickly, leaving me hoping for real sets, which never appeared. There are a few other nice effects used throughout the production.

I have little doubt that "Frozen" fans will enjoy this new musical. For a theme park show, Disney has pulled-off another big production. This is not Aladdin. And if you go in expecting to see something as entertaining and funny as that show was, you may be sorely disappointed. While I am admittedly not a big fan of "Frozen", I did find this show entertaining. But where I probably saw the Aladdin show twenty or more times, I would only go back to "Frozen" if I was bringing my nieces to see it for the first time (in forever:)
This show will not last for thirteen years, or anywhere close to it. I believe this was already Disney's plan after closing "Aladdin". The heavy use of projection mapping instead of traditional sets was more than a cost-cutting measure. It's also an easy way to change shows without constructing new sets and backgrounds. It is quite possible now for Disney to rotate shows, or switch to a new show with less downtime.

"Frozen" has been enjoying a wave of popularity that I don't think can be sustained. While the first film was a massive success, I don't think the sequel will be as big of a win for Disney. And I've always felt that this movie lacks the generational appeal that other Disney films have. With plans for a Broadway musical of "Frozen", this show will probably take its final bow at Disney California Adventure, after the Broadway version opens in New York. This will make room for the next show Disney may already have planned for the theater. That means you probably have two to three years to catch "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion."

My grade for "Frozen - Live At The Hyperion: B+

Friday, May 13, 2016

5 Reasons To Visit Walt Disney World Instead of Disneyland

The internet is filled with posts, stories and opinions about why Disneyland is better than Walt Disney World, and vice versa.  This is NOT one of those stories. A true Disney park fan loves both of these amazing places for different reasons.  It's hard to understand people's intentions when they argue how one place is better than the other.  To do that requires a level of narrow-mindedness that I just don't get.

For this article, I've decided to explore some of the reasons why people should visit Walt Disney World instead of Disneyland over the next couple of years.  This is in no way to make Disney World seem "better" than Disneyland.  I am a huge Disneyland fan, and would never try to diminish the magic and wonder of the theme park that Walt Disney built, or the resort that has evolved in the sixty years since Disneyland opened.

Disneyland is winding down its 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration this year.  And while the event, which will turn one year old next week has been wonderful, it has lost a bit of its dazzle.  The parks are also experiencing record attendance thanks to the popularity of Disneyland's annual pass program.  In addition, Disneyland Park has started the largest expansion in the park's history with what will be the new Star Wars themed land.  This construction has impacted the crowds with the temporary closure of several rides while the project gets underway.

While Disneyland is, and will always be the original "Magic Kingdom", Walt Disney World is an entirely different beast.  It has always been dubbed the "Vacation Kingdom", and it certainly lives up to that nickname. For many years, Disneyland was a 1-day theme park.  Today's Disneyland Resort is a vacation destination in itself.  But while people generally spend three to five days at the Disneyland theme parks, they can easily spend two weeks at Walt Disney World.  Here are five reasons why you may want to consider a visit to Walt Disney World instead of Disneyland for your next vacation.

5. SIZE MATTERS - People who have never been to Walt Disney World simply cannot comprehend how big the property is.  It's huge!  Theme parks are generally measured by acres.  Disney World is measured by square miles.  The entire property occupies more than forty square miles.
Disneyland's Matterhorn Mountain rises 147 feet above the park,
making it the tallest structure in the park.
At 180 feet high, Spaceship Earth
welcomes guests to  Epcot.

The icon of Walt Disney World is Cinderella Castle.
 It stands 189 feet high, making it the tallest
structure at the Magic Kingdom.

Where Disneyland literally put Anaheim, California on the map,Walt Disney World did the same for Central Florida. To give you an example of how big this property is, the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom theme parks are about six miles apart, and everything in between is Disney.
Park icons like Cinderella Castle (Magic Kingdom) and Spaceship Earth (Epcot) are taller than Disneyland's Matterhorn.

Because of its size, Walt Disney World can absorb crowds better than Disneyland.  That's not to say the parks don't get crowded, because they do.  But bigger theme parks can make navigation much easier.

4. NOSTALGIALAND -  Fans who have visited Disneyland for years long for the "good ole days", that featured many bygone attractions.  Several fan favorites that are long gone from Disneyland can still be found at Magic Kingdom Park.  The Peoplemover and Carousel of Progress can be found in Tomorrowland, while the toe-tapping fun of the Country Bear Jamboree can be relived in Frontierland.  Another favorite of Disney fans for generations is the Main Street Electrical Parade. This dazzling extravaganza is presented nightly along the Magic Kingdom parade route.

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover glides along
a covered, elevated track, touring all of Tomorrowland.
Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress debuted at the 1964/65 New York World's Fair,
before moving to Disneyland, and eventually finding a permanent home
 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

The Country Bear Jamboree has entertained audiences at Magic Kingdom
for more than forty years.  
The Main Street Electrical dazzles park goers up to two times every night
along the Magic Kingdom parade route.

Walls are commonly erected during
major refurbishment projects.
This sign lists the attractions closed
inside the parks.
Due to Star Wars expansion and regular refurbishments, many of Disneyland's attractions are experiencing an extended refurbishment that will last well into 2017. This includes most of the Frontierland attractions, the Disneyland Railroad and the popular nighttime show, Fantasmic.  Many rides close temporarily each day for a variety of reasons. It has also become somewhat common to have times of the day when more attractions are closed than open at Disneyland.  To be fair, Walt Disney World is also experiencing expansion and refurbishments itself. Temporary ride closures also happen over there.  But because of the size of the resort and the parks, the impact to guests is relatively minimal.

2. BLING AND THINGS - One of the best innovations to launch at Walt Disney World in the past several years is the My Magic Program, with the My Disney Experience app, FastPass+, and of course,  Magic Bands.
Tap your Magic Band to the Mickey head
to access a FastPass+ attraction.
 This new guest service has made the Walt Disney World experience even more enjoyable.  With FastPass+ service, guests can now schedule a time to experience up to three attractions in a park each day of their visit (up to sixty days in advance). Then when they arrive at the attraction, they touch their Magic Band to a lighted terminal that changes color, allowing them to enter the FastPass+ queue. Magic Bands also act as theme park tickets, hotel keys and much more, and have quickly become favorite souvenir items for fans.  A scaled back version of the FastPass+ program is slowly making its way to The Disneyland Resort.  It is not expected to feature Magic Bands or many of the benefits of the My Magic Plus program.

1. A TRUE DISNEY BUBBLE -  Many people stay at the hotels of The Disneyland Resort for the convenience of being able to walk from their Disney hotel to the theme parks.  Due the compact nature of this, guests can experience a Disney "bubble", just steps away from the hustle and bustle of the Anaheim Resort District, which is lined with hotels and motels that date back to the 1950s.
One of several entrances to the Walt Disney World Resort.

But at Walt Disney World, the "Disney Bubble" takes on an entirely different meaning.
From the time you travel under one of the resort's welcoming archways, you are transported into a world that is uniquely, all Disney.  Miles of Disney roadways are lined with grass and tall trees, hiding the resorts, and backstage areas from view.  Even the road signs have a Disney theme.  Complimentary Disney monorails, buses and boats transport Guest to all areas of the resort.
Purple road signs direct traffic through
Walt Disney World.

In addition to the four theme parks, guests can enjoy
two thrilling water parks, along with two miniature
golf courses.  There are three golf courses for hitting
the links, lakes for fishing, jet skiing and parasailing.
A campground nestled inside a lakeside forest offers horseback excursions, campfires and hay rides.  A massive sports complex features scheduled sporting events and other competitions.
The all-new Disney Springs area comes alive at night.
Guests will enjoy endless shopping, dining and entertainment at the brand new Disney Springs, as well as Disney's Boardwalk.  And with more than twenty Disney resorts to choose from, there are thousands of hotel rooms available for all vacation styles and budgets.
The Magic Kingdom Resort Area offers five of Disney's best resorts.
All of them offer Monorail and/or boat service to the Magic Kingdom.
It's easy to see why the Disney resorts on both coasts each have something very special to offer guests.  Disneyland will always be a magical destination because of its compact size, unique attractions, and treasured history.  Plus, it will always have the exclusive bragging right as the only theme park Walt Disney ever walked in.  But Walt Disney World takes the Disney experience to an entirely different level. Nowhere can guests be more immersed in Disney magic.

I am fortunate to live so close to Disneyland that I can visit the parks any time I wish.  But I always look forward returning to Walt Disney World for a memorable vacation. There's enough Disney magic in both destinations to keep me going back for years to come.
July, 2014 - Inside Walt Disney's Main Street
apartment at Disneyland.
September, 2013 - Standing in front of Cinderella
Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Disney Decisions: Free Dining vs. Other Promotions

Every year at this time, Walt Disney World releases their annual "Free Dining" promotion for late Summer through Fall.  With this promo, guests who purchase a non-discounted room and ticket package can receive a Disney Dining Plan for FREE.  And every year, potential Disney guests find themselves asking the same question: "Is Free Dining worth it?" 

Disney fans have this very weird habit of asking if things are "worth it".  You will find these questions all over fan pages and forums.  I can understand asking this question when there is actual money involved.  But there are "worth it" questions for just about everything from Fastpass choices to character meet and greets.  

But back to the question at hand.  Is Free Dining worth it?  The answer to this question depends on several factors.  To help you decide if a Disney vacation package with "Free Dining" is worth purchasing, let's review some important things to consider.

The actual resort you stay at plays a big role in determining whether the Free Dining package is the best value for you and your travel party.  Under the "Free Dining" promotion, guests staying at a Disney Value Resort get the Quick Service Dining Plan.  This plan includes two quick service meals and one snack per day of your visit, based on the number of hotel nights.  Guests staying at a Moderate or Deluxe resort get the Disney Dining Plan, which includes one quick service and one table service meal, plus one snack each day.  

How many people are going to be in your room?  The more people, the better value the Free Dining element will be.  Again, the resort category plays a role here.  Another important factor in party size is number of adults vs number of kids.  The dining plans are more expensive for adults, so if you have a room with four adults, the Free Dining plan is probably a great option.  If you have a minimum of two adults in your party, you will come out ahead when you use the Free Dining option.   

Eating habits of the members of your party is a consideration.  Big eaters will enjoy the variety offered by the Disney Dining Plan because all of Disney's buffets are available as table service meals.  Light eaters and those who don't want to spend much time sitting down to eat will appreciate the Quick Service Plan because you can eat more "on the go".  That doesn't mean the Quick Service Plan is the best value.  

Consider how much you normally spend on meals when you eat out.  Keep in mind Disney meals are a little more expensive than your local Chili's Restaurant.  The Quick Service Dining Plan costs adults about $44 per day, while the Dining Plan costs about $64 daily.  With the latter plan, think $5 for a snack, $15 for a quick service meal, and about $45 for dinner.  Several websites, including Disney have menus that you can browse through to get an idea of how much you will spend. 

Let's look at a few vacation packages to see how "Free Dining" compares to other offers.  We'll look at packages at three different resorts (Value, Moderate and Deluxe).  Each room will have two adults and two kids (ages 7 and 11, which means the older kid is considered an adult where the dining plan is concerned). Our example family will be staying five nights, with six day Park Hopper tickets.

Disney's Pop Century Resort (Value) - Preferred Room
Regular, non-discounted package cost: $2482
Discounted room and ticket (promotional offer): $2344
Package savings: $138
Regular, non-discounted package cost with Free Quick Service Dining Plan: $2482
Value of Dining Plan: $757.  This is also the potential savings available.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort (Moderate) - Pirate Room with Water View
Regular, non-discounted package cost: $3258
Discounted room and ticket (promotional offer): $2832
Package savings: $426
Regular, non-discounted package cost with Free Disney Dining Plan: $3258
Value of Dining Plan: $1070.  This is also the potential savings available.

Disney's Yacht Club Resort (Deluxe) - Standard View Room
Regular, non-discounted package cost: $3793
Discounted room and ticket (promotional offer): $3192
Package savings: $601
Regular, non-discounted package cost with Free Disney Dining Plan: $3793
Value of Dining Plan: $1070.  This is also the potential savings available.

Unless you plan to go on a hunger strike when you are at Walt Disney World, you are going to have to eat.  Now think about your typical meal spending from above.  If your family would consume up to the amount of the Dining Plans as shown in the three examples, the value of the dining plan represents your total savings.  To maximize your dining plan's value, you must use all your meal and snack credits, and the adults in your group should order higher-end items.  

To maximize your dining plan, think of each meal like a per diem.  If you use the formula of $5/$15/$45 for the Dining Plan, you will "spend" $65 with your available credits each day.  Be sure to use all of your entitlements.  Also make regular use of your Refillable Drink Mug (may be used at food courts and fountain locations only at Disney resorts).  This alone has a value of around $19.  With drinks costing up to $3 each, your mug will easily pay for itself.  But if you use your Quick Service dining credits at your hotel, be sure to get a bottled beverage to take with you, while you enjoy a "free" beverage in your mug.  It's almost impossible to "break even" with the Quick Service Dining Plan because you would be hard-pressed to find two, $20 counter service meals each day, to go along with one snack.

Since the Free Dining plan is only available with non-discounted (full price) packages, room discounts are only available as an alternative promotion.  This is where party size comes in.  Two or more adults will probably want to take advantage of Free Dining.  Solo travelers would benefit more from the room discounts (especially at Deluxe resorts).  If the savings from your room discount will cover your meals, this discount is probably best for you.  

For many people, investing in the Disney Dining Plan is a complicated decision that requires a great deal of thought.  For others, the dining plan provides peace of mind and brings the guest closer to something like an all-inclusive vacation.  When used to its maximum potential, and in combination with the many other features and benefits of staying at Walt Disney World, your vacation can feel a little more magical.  

Jerry Vargas is an Authorized Disney Travel Specialist and Vacation Planner, specializing exclusively in Disney vacations.  For more information about any Disney destination or a free quote, please visit  You can email specific travel related questions to, or you can call or text Jerry at (714) 486-9485.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Disneyland Resort Dazzles After Dark

The 60th Anniversary "Diamond Celebration" at The Disneyland Resort is approaching an anniversary of its own.  The popular event debuted last year, on May 22, to thousands of eager fans, waiting to see what kind of party Disneyland would throw.  For the most part, the celebration has proven to be a big hit.  In the past, Disney would use the major anniversary years to unveil a new, and highly anticipated attraction. With no new rides to offer, the 60th anniversary has focused mostly on entertainment.  

The highlight of the Diamond Celebration has been the return of a nighttime parade to Disneyland Park.  "Paint The Night" is the first new nighttime parade to take over the Disneyland parade route since the Main Street Electrical Parade gave its last performance in 1996.  Its replacement, a parade/street show called "Light Magic", was pulled after the summer of 1997, and never returned. 
The drum float that opens "Paint The Night" pays tribute to Disney's first nighttime parade

Sully is at the controls on the
Monsters Inc. float
While brand new to Disneyland, "Paint The Night" originated at Hong Kong Disneyland in 2014. The new electrical parade pays tribute to classic and new Disney and Pixar films.  While several floats from the Hong Kong parade were replicated for Disneyland, the show was expanded to include some original units just for California.  

"Paint The Night" takes place up to two times each evening, traveling Disneyland's parade route from Town Square at the foot of Main Street U.S.A. to "it's a small world".  The parade features an array of floats with all LED lighting, special effects, including the use of Disney's "Made With Magic" technology, lots of performers, and an upbeat soundtrack that pays tribute to its 24-year predecessor.  
Mickey Mouse brings "Paint The Night"
to an end
The show strolls along a parade route packed with park guests.  It's always best to catch the second performance of "Paint The Night", because it's far less crowded than the first show. While longtime Disney fans still miss the original Electrical Parade, "Paint The Night" is an excellent addition to Disneyland's evening entertainment.  Disney really did everything right, from the amazing design of the floats, to the wonderful musical score.  The "Main Street Electrical Parade" is a major piece of Disney park history.  "Paint The Night" has taken evening parades to the next level for future generations. 

Disneyland has given fans a double feature each evening, with its brand new fireworks spectacular, "Disneyland Forever" taking place immediately after the first performance of "Paint The Night". For the 60th anniversary, "Disneyland Forever" has replaced not one, but three fireworks shows.  "Remember...Dreams Come True" and "Magical" are no more, while the Christmas fireworks show, "Believe...In Holiday Magic" went on hiatus for the 2015 season.  "Believe" is expected to return for the 2016 holiday season.  

Disneyland Forever photo (c)Disney
"Disneyland Forever" allows guests to "step into the magic" in many ways.  For the first time ever, this show features video projections on Sleeping Beauty Castle, Matterhorn Mountain, the buildings of Main Street U.S.A. and the facade of "it's a small world".  The projections feature scenes from the many animated features highlighted in the fireworks show.  Projections have replaced the pyrotechnics that used to burst above Main Street Buildings, and surround the audiences.  

While not the best fireworks show Disney has created, "Disneyland Forever" is certainly a good one.  The soundtrack features new music tied to the park's 60th anniversary theme.  It not quite as memorable or emotional as past shows like "Remember" and "Believe...There's Magic In The Stars". but it's absolutely worth the investment of time to see and enjoy it.  The nightly fireworks are still a very popular, and important night cap to a memorable day at the park, as they have been since 1958.

A rainbow of color on Paradise Bay
Over at Disney California Adventure, the third of the "Diamond Celebration" shows takes place every night.  "World of Color: Celebrate The Magic of Walt Disney" is a wonderful reworking of the very popular "World of Color" show.  This version features actor, Neil Patrick Harris as the host, along with Mickey Mouse (both via video projections), in a salute to the legacy of Walt Disney.  Paradise Bay serves as the stage for "Celebrate", with the attractions of Paradise Pier acting as the backdrop.  Rides like California Screamin" and Mickey's Fun Wheel play important roles in the show. 

The dancing waters of "World of Color"
"World of Color: Celebrate" is a wonderful show.  Harris does a great job as host by narrating and singing throughout the show.  The heavy use of video projection on the water, roller coaster and ferris wheel tell the story.  More than twelve-hundred fountains, along with thousands of lights combine to create some amazing effects.  I was never impressed with the original "World of Color", but I love this version. There is still a challenge to find the perfect viewing area, and I am still not convinced that either of the Fastpass viewing sections provide optimal viewing.  I believe the viewing area for people who purchase the Carthay Circle Restaurant dining package is the best area for watching the show. 

The Disneyland Resort Diamond Celebration is scheduled to end in early September of this year, after a sixteen-month run.  "World of Color" will most-likely go back to its original show, while "Paint The Night" and "Disneyland Forever" should continue for years to come.  I predict "Paint The Night" will leave Disneyland after the 2020 or 2021 summer season, and travel to Walt Disney World in time for its 50th anniversary celebration.  At the same time, I believe the Main Street Electrical Parade could make a return to Disneyland in 2022, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nighttime spectacular that started it all.  Now wouldn't that be something?