Friday, May 16, 2014

Delicious Disney Celebration!  

This post is part two of my 40th birthday Disney Celebration trip, to read part one click here.

The Disney Contemporary resort renovated their prized rooftop California Grill in 2013 changing almost everything about it = but the spectacular view.
I was excited to try it out since reading a lot about it on some fellow blogger posts and articles like in Jeff Houck's 33 Best things I ate in 2013 article which you can read here or in Ricky Ly's Tasty Chomp's full review of the pretty restaurant here.

We were so excited to get to enjoy amazing and romantic views of the parks, castle, lake, sunset, electric boat parade and fireworks all while celebrating my 40th birthday dinner!

They also have two observation decks outside that extend pretty far out to allow maximum viewing for those who dined early in the evening and stayed for the show or for those who eat in the lounge and want a better view of both the Epcot and MK shows!  We scored some of the best seats in the house for some pre-dinner wine and the sunset and then an amazing view for dinner and the sparkling night show.  Here is a panoramic shot of the deck and park area.

Just to get into the restaurant you have to check in on the second floor to ensure you are on the list and then take a separate elevator to the top floor to arrive in their beautiful wine-clad foyer.
We chose a delicious Round Pond Estate Merlot that we fell in love with on a trip to Napa which you can read more about in one of my earlier blog posts all about our wine adventures here.  (I highly recommend both their wine tasting and vineyard tour and especially their olive oil tasting which was amazing!)   Here is a good tip - don't just go by their regular wine menu at the California Grill, when I noticed Round Pond was available in a white wine but we preferred red, I inquired and our excellent waiter Topher grabbed a completely different (and huge) wine list which he promptly showed us they did afternoon have the Round Pond Merlot available - score!!

  They did a lovely job with their menu and it was difficult to make choices...

For appetizers we enjoyed the spicy meatballs and some delicious salted butter and breads.

Followed by a highly seasoned bell & evans chicken, asparagus gratin, olive oil potatoes in a cabernet demi.

 And a bison tenderloin that was dreamy!

The most special surprise was a two-tired mini cake that my husband had planned into the evening ahead of time with the Disney bakery team.  You can get more information about their adorable cakes and exquisite celebration ideas here.  

What a SWEET surprise and an adorable Disney Penguin from Mary Poppins helping us celebrate.  The cake was (absolutely positively-without-a-doubt) the best cake I have EVER tasted!

This two dimensional penguin was adorable (and delicious) they decorate and customize them with edible printer paper and fondant - they can customize practically any request and my hubby said they were a pleasure to work with! 
Apparently you can get these mini-cakes for two (or a regular size or massive cake for a crowd) made by the same delicious Disney bakers who make their awesome wedding cakes too and have one delivered to many of the park restaurants or hotel rooms for a special occasion.  Here is a fun cake they made for my friends Wendy & Bill for their wedding at the Grand Floridian last year - beautiful and delicious!

Then the lights went dim and they piped in the music from the magic kingdom and we saw everything from tinkerbell descending from the castle to the best view right in front of us of the fireworks.  Awesome!

Talk about turning 40 with some magic!
In a couple days, check out my next post where I will review the Treehouse Villas at Disney- what fun to stay up in the air among the treetops with some special family and great memories in a unique circular tree home   Stay tuned~!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

It's a yummy world after all...

I was fortunate enough to celebrate my 40th birthday this month at the "happiest place on earth"!  Although the bright glaciers and dogsleds of Alaska were very tempting (and certainly still on my bucket list) I opted to stay close to home and be as laid back and stress free as possible.  We planned an extended long weekend of resort hopping, park hopping, savoring some new favorite food and wines, special time with family & friends and lots of that relaxation thing!

I must have changed my mind 20 times when it came time to select where to eat and where to stay.  I learned some interesting things along the way that I'd like to share among my photos on this post.

With as much as I travel for my regular job, I have learned a tremendous amount about researching hotel values (note that didn't just say pricing, but value-- because to me, location and amenities are usually way more valuable than price when you are away from home).  I was perfectly happy with changing hotels each night in order to suite our location and amenity desires.   I love having new experiences and a change of scenery - although this is not the easiest if you are toting small children it can lead to some fun surprises!  I tend to be a huge planner when it comes down to details but this trip and lately in life in general I have found myself relaxing my need for complete structure and went with the flow for the most part which was a nice change.  For this trip we chose to resort hop to 3 different experiences based on what we wanted to do each day.

Disney has some wonderful amenities for those staying on resort-properties which are no big secret but for those who may be unaware here are a few:  extra magic hours means that one park opens early or stays open later for just resort guests, you can utilize their website and My Disney Experience where you can organize every moment of your trip from tickets/ passes assigned to you, fast pass requests to allow you to avoid some waiting in lines (neat tip - you can now select the exact hour you prefer for each fast pass and rearrange what you want to do by the hour instead of the time they assign you).  We also learned the  little known fact that even once we picked our times we could go to a kiosk at any park and add unlimited extra fast passes for that day depending on what was left available and even pick times for rides at other parks while we still had some for a different park- none of which you can do online currently.  Utilizing Disney's mobile app on your cell phone allows you to adjust times on the spot which was nice for staying flexible.

We decided to hit a couple of parks on our arrival day and had chosen to stay one night at the Dolphin hotel located on the lake next to the Boardwalk property and Epcot.  For us being able to walk/take a boat back to the hotel was the biggest win- plus not spending extra on a deluxe resort when we'd be at the park all day was great too.  We opted for a hotel that is technically not considered Disney property- BUT you get the same amenities as if you were including: extra magic park hours, fast pass wristband setup an extra 30 days earlier than just pass holders get, etc. and proximity without having to get on (much less wait for) a magical Disney bus.

Two weeks before our stays we were mailed out my-magic wristbands for everyone who would be staying on any part of our trip reservations. These are ours to use for any future Disney trips as they contain a chip which keeps track of any passes or even day tickets we buy, serves as your hotel room key, allows you to make purchases on any property or park using a pin number and a wave of your hand, and is waterproof for the pools and comfortable to wear.

 Non-resort guests who have passes can purchase these wristbands as well for about $13 each.  What a nice replacement for not worrying about your cell phone deactivating the magnetic strip on your hotel room key card or carrying around your passes - worry no more!
Elizabeth Sniegocki of A Natural Nester took this picture of my niece Sage using her magic wristband to open the door of our Treehouse Villa....more about that fun hotel stay coming up.
When we arrived at the Dolphin early in the morning they already had a room available for us!  It was wonderful to take the Disney boats right from their dock over to both Hollywood Studios and also directly over to Epcot.  We enjoyed seeing the Epcot Illumination fireworks on the boat ride back.  It is also an optional 15 minute walk if you prefer that  -and a pretty one along the lake and Boardwalk and its fun atmosphere.  This location was also perfect as we had planned to check-in next door at the Yacht & Beach Club resort the next morning for a day of pampering & relaxation.  
We dined at the Hollywood Brown Derby for lunch the first day at Hollywood Studios.  I enjoyed a delightful sparkling wine and champagne flight and spectacular service.  

Their Zellwood corn soup with lobster ravioli was delicious!

Their Char-glazed Filet of Beef with a Red Wine Reduction and truffled potatoes and haricot verts were nice too! 

For our day of relaxing, I was pretty torn between the Yacht Club and the Boardwalk Inn - and only opted for the Yacht and Beach Club because we knew how amazing the pool area was and that won me over.  We had stayed at the Beach Club previously and found it be fantastic.  We also opted to upgrade ourselves ahead of time to enjoy the Club Level at the resort.  For only $100 more, the amenities were wonderful especially if you weren't going to a park for that day and I cannot wait to tell  you about them.  This is all on top of their fantastic deluxe Disney service - we were even able to snag a lake/ pool and boardwalk view with a pretty balcony that we enjoyed greatly while sipping on our complimentary wine.  What was better was that we didn't have to pay for the upgrade based on availability and we were able to enter our room as early as 11am the day of check-in before heading into the sun.  I must mention that a Thursday night stay here was double the cost of a Friday night stay - strangely enough.  A great tip is to absolutely book your stay as individual nightly reservations instead of multiple nights as you will save greatly for certain dates - otherwise you will pay the higher or average price for every single night.  As the weeks grew closer to our stay the rates went down quite a bit too so that is something to keep in mind and Florida resident and AAA discounts help too!.  This hotel also has a convention and conference center which can impact availability and rates too.  The beach club and yacht club are 2 separate hotels that share a vast pool area - which has a phenomenal sandy bottom, lazy river, pirate ship slide, hidden hot tubs, and some great casual dining options.

Here was something we found rather hilarious in our room too - you all know about "turn-down" service... well at Disney I guess it is known as "turn" service instead- it seems they think moving the pillows from being ready to use and instead turning them up and sideways in the evening for you is supposed to somehow make it easier when crawling in after a long magical day :)
This pic is before turn "down" service.
 And this pic is from after just the "turn" service... lol!  At least the chocolates were good!

On to the YUMMY stuff!

Club level is available at most of the deluxe Disney resorts and sometimes honeymooners, etc receive a free upgrade.  It is full of nice extra perks  if you plan to spend a day at the resort vs. using a park pass or if you prefer to lodge a little more VIP.  They are all run pretty much the same way - you get a special welcome and separate check in area without the long lines in the regular lobby, the club lounge is open all day from 7am to 10pm except for 2 one hour breaks midday for restocking.  They offer 4 different complimentary food experiences including breakfast, mid-day snacks, afternoon happy hour and nightly dessert and cordial time.  We were offered breakfast both our check in and check out mornings and enjoyed all of the concierge service and an extra place to escape from the sunshine mid-day for snacks.  
They offered us a glass of wine and beer during the snack hour when took breaks from their awesome spa areas and they then put out a full selection of wines, beer, hot and cold appetizers in the afternoon and then and some amazing little desserts and spirits and cordials as the day progresses too.  The area can get quite full and there are tables and couches or you can bring things back to your room too.
Healthy snacks as well as a variety of hot and cold appetizers were available throughout the day
Lots of mini plates to choose from for kids of all ages.
Refreshing watermelon shooters!!
Peanut butter and jelly dippers served with fruit
Plenty of cordials and nightcaps in addition to a full selection of complimentary wine and beer
Jars of candies, cookies, crackers were there to tempt your salty or sweet tooth
Plenty of tea, lemonade, juices and a fridge stocked with canned beverages too
Coffees, cappucino and more

Before we get to the special birthday dinner pictures - some more tips for you..... I cringe a teensy that I'm sharing this next batch of Disney advice with so many of you as you may get a table I had wanted, but since I learned some of these from a fellow blogger I am sharing the love.... there is surely enough magic for everyone in this small, small world right?!
  • If the restaurant you want is not available the time frame you want to go, try changing the number in your party... I was able to snag an extremely-hard-to-get table at Be Our Guest at Magic Kingdom by requesting a table for 4 instead of 2.  Trust me there will be a long line of new friends clamoring that they are in your party just to go beyond the velvet ropes -very happy to become your guest.
  • If you are staying at a resort they are currently testing a fast-pass of sorts for Be Our Guest for their lunch service - you can reserve your spot here.   What is also good about this test they are doing currently is that no credit card is required and if you don't show for your lunch time window there is no issue either (we opted to give up our reservation on our final day and get our sleepy selves home early vs another day at the parks - so my review on "BOG" will have to come another day).
  • Keep trying!!!  I wanted pretty badly to try out the newly renovated California Grill on the top floor of the Contemporary Hotel overlooking the castle & lake - and arguably the best spot to view the fireworks show.  We tried multiple times a day in the weeks leading up to our trip to get a table even though they were booked solid and lo and behold got a table at the perfect time on my exact birthday just through pure diligence on their website.  Meal reservations must be cancelled by 24 hours beforehand to avoid being charged $10 per person so many people overbook themselves and cancel meal reservations right before they arrive -so check often and especially last minute.
  • Reserve your dining & fast passes up to 180- days in advance, if you don't know exactly when you will be visiting.  For example, if you are 110% positive that you will be visiting sometime during let's say the Epcot Food & Wine Festival in the fall, book yourself for every day you think you might be there and guarantee yourself a fast pass for the soon-to-be-coveted Seven Dwarf Mine Train that is opening this month at the magic kingdom.  We were able to book 60 days past our last resort stay-date for a potential day trip back to Disney to try out this ride later this month.  Fast passes don't have to be cancelled or used - so no harm done.  By the way, for more details on how to best utilize the fast passes and more details on this newest roller coaster, check out Seth Kubersky's great blog post here.  
Come back soon for part 2 and read all about our wonderful dining experience and incredible view of the park and also to get to read more about our very fun and special Disney Treehouse Villa hotel stay with some family!!