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?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: "A Tale of Two Festivals"

Spring break 2016 in Southern California saw two popular food festivals return to The Disneyland Resort and nearby Knott's Berry Farm.  Both events were unique and quite different from each other.  Many food festivals take place in the Summer and Fall.  So it was nice to see a couple of Spring offerings.  I had the opportunity to visit both events, and decided to review them together.

This event lasted for two weeks over the park's Spring Break period.  The daily event paid tribute to the boysenberry, which originated at Knott's.  With more than seventy different boysenberry inspired (or infused) food and beverage items, the event had plenty of food to choose from. 

The festival took place throughout Knott's Ghost Town area.
Ten different eateries and several temporary food booths featured the festival offerings.  Wine and craft brew tastings were also available in a special pavilion located at the Wilderness Dance Hall. 

Some of the most popular food items at the festival included the Boysenberry BBQ Short Ribs, featuring Kalbi Beef Ribs with white rice.  These Korean-style ribs were outstanding, and one of my favorite festival foods.  The Boysenberry BBQ Meatballs featured three large meatballs on a stick, covered with Knott's Boysenberry BBQ sauce.  The meatballs were tender and juicy, and the sweet sauce complimented the smokey flavor of the meatballs.  The very popular Fried Alligator Bites with Boysenberry Aioli was served in a cone, atop a bed of French fries.  The bites were tender and crispy.  A very generous portion of aioli was perfect for dipping the bites and the fries.

Boysenberry BBQ Meatballs on the grill

Boysenberry BBQ Beef Ribs with rice
 The Spicy Boysenberry BBQ Wings were another winner.  Each tray came with four to five chicken wings, smothered in the same sauce as the other meat items.  But in this case, the sweetness from the BBQ sauce, mixed with the kick from the wings made for a great combination.  On the dessert side, the Boysenberry Dessert Flautas were my favorite. Two flour tortillas are rolled and filled with boysenberry filling, then deep fried, and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. I could have eaten these all day long.  The Boysenberry Panna Cotta was a cool, custard-type treat, topped with an Almond Crumble.  This item was not as sweet as the flautas, but it was smooth, and very good.

A tasting card was available for purchase throughout the festival, and was valid for the duration of the event.  For $25, guests could try all of the items in this review.  Not only was this a great value.  The portions were enough to share, so two people could spend an afternoon trying all six food items, and leave very satisfied, which is what we did.  A beer and wine Tasting Card was also available for purchase, but since I don't drink either of those beverages, I did not bother with that card. 

In addition to the food and beverages, there were shopping opportunities around every corner, with all of the Ghost Town shops, and many outdoor stands offering a variety of Boysenberry Festival merchandise, packaged food items and much more.  Kids were able to take part in the fun by building their own miniature Boysenberry Pie at the Beary Tales Pie Kitchen (a great tribute to the former Knott's Beary Tales ride that once occupied the space where Voyage To The Iron Reef now sits). 

There was also plenty of entertainment on the schedule day and night, with live music, a D.J. dance party, and shows featuring the Peanuts Characters.  Knott's did a wonderful job transforming Ghost Town into the ideal venue for the Boysenberry Festival.

The only criticism I would offer is that two weeks doesn't seem long enough for this event.  I understand the need to hold it during a busier time, and I appreciate it being open daily, for the entire two weeks.  But I hope in future years, they will find a way to expand at least the food offerings to include a few weekends before and after Spring Break.  Hopefully the popularity and
demand for this event will result in this happening.  Even though there were several refurbishments taking place in the park, in anticipation of this Summer's Ghost Town 75th Anniversary Celebration, it did not impact our experience at the festival.

We went to the Boysenberry Festival expecting to be overwhelmed by great food, in an atmosphere that only Knott's Berry Farm can provide.  This event certainly did not disappoint.  The food was delicious.  There was plenty of boysenberry-related merchandise to select from.  The park really seemed to embrace the berry that started it all more than seventy five years ago.  And judging from the lines of eager guests on a Friday, during Spring Break, this even has a great future.  I know I'll certainly be back next year.

My grade for the Knott's Berry Farm Boysenberry Festival: A+

As the Boysenberry Festival at Knott's was winding down, over at The Disneyland Resort, an old favorite was returning.  After going away for several years the Disney California Adventure (DCA) Food and Wine Festival is back. This was a popular event during the early days of DCA.  Of course, back then, anything they added to the park was popular, because it made a dull, half-day park a little more appealing.  And it's no secret that anything alcohol-related at DCA is as popular with the adults as "Frozen" is with the little ones.

Where Knott's did a fantastic job of planning for the Boysenberry Festival, it looks like the folks at Disney dropped the ball in that area.  For starters, they placed the Festival Marketplace at one of the most congested areas of the park.  The walkway from the Grizzly Peak Waterfall to the Embarcadero features the gateways to Cars Land, Paradise Pier, A Bug's Land and Pacific Wharf.  Add eight food and alcohol booths, several retail carts, tables, chairs and stand-up eating areas, and you've just clogged one of the park's major arteries. 

The event, which runs from April 1 through May 1, has been billed as a "weekends only" festival  (Friday - Sunday).  But the Festival Marketplace is open daily. This has not been promoted, leading me to believe this was a last-minute adjustment to the schedule.  The food seminars, celebrity chef appearances and other upcharge events take place on the weekends.

The foods represent different California cuisines, with beer and wine pairings available for sampling as well.  Of course, this is not a farmer's market.  You will pay for your samples.  Food items range in price from $4 to $8 per sample serving.   A six-item tasting card (similar to the one from Knott's) is available to Annual Passholders for the rather steep price of $39.

In my opinion, the food items at the DCA festival fell way short in both, quality AND quantity, and failed to meet my minimum expectations for Disney.  The mass-produced "hot" food items were lukewarm at best.  The Triple Cheese Macaroni from the Goldrush booth was "heat lamp" warm, with small bits of tasteless chicken.  The three-cheeses apparently were in sauce form, leaving only the bread crumbs on the top as the stand-out from this item.  For $6, you got a half-empty, small black plastic bowl.
The fried Artichoke Chips with spicy aioli (top), and the
Triple Cheese Macaroni with Smoked Chicken.
The $5 Artichoke Chips with Spicy Aioli (also from Goldrush)  were served cold after being pre-cooked and left out for an extended period of time.  The portion included five, one-inch artichoke petals and about a half-ounce of aioli.

The most expensive item I had, was also one of the smallest ones.  This was the $7.50  Chilled Shrimp and Snow Crab Cocktail from By The Bay. It was served in a very small, plastic container,  The chunks of seafood were tasty and tender.  But the onions from the cocktail sauce left an aftertaste.  Again, the serving was just too small for the high price.  I had to take two trips to this booth for the cocktail, as it was sold out the first time I ordered it.

Also from By The Bay was the one item that I truly enjoyed.  The Coconut Tapioca with Mango Puree and Lychee Boba bursted with flavor.  At $4.25, this was the bargain of the festival, even though it was served in a plastic cup, about the size of a buffet dessert serving.

Chilled Shrimp and Snow Crab Cocktail
Coconut Tapioca with Mango and Lychee Boba
As a former food show participant myself, I understand the challenges to maintaining food quality at an outdoor festival.  But thousands of food vendors are able to pull this off without any issues.  The problem at Disney is that all of the food items were prepared at a kitchen (backstage or off-site), and transported to the festival booths where they were stored in refrigerators or warmers until sold.  This kind of preparation often leads to quality issues.  For the prices Disney is asking for these samples, they should do a better job with the final product.

Most casual Disney fans will probably ignore the lackluster quality of the product, and the steep prices, because it's Disney.  I'm as much of a Disney fan as anyone else, but I cannot give them a pass because they are giving us a new temporary event at a theme park.  Mediocre is not something I usually associate with Disney parks.  If you've been to Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival in Florida, you know the kind of standards Disney is capable of holding themselves to.  If I was to compare the DCA Food and Wine Festival to a professional athlete who gives a lackluster performance, I'd say that Disney "mailed it in" this time.

Because I visit the Disney parks very often, and I know the kind of first class events they can hold, I expect to see major changes to this event if it returns to DCA in the future.  In its current form, I think there is plenty of room for improvement.  Especially when compared to the far superior festival that Knott's Berry Farm just put on.

My grade for the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival: C-