Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Upgrading Disney's Free Dining Promotion

Being mildly obsessed with eating, I am a big fan of Disneys' Free Dining promotion. I speculate when it will come out, the restrictions, which plan will be offered in each resort category, and so on. Yeah I know I have a problem, but hey-I gotta be me.

I've been keeping the faith that we will soon see another Free Dining promotion for late Summer/Fall. So I thought I would do a post (in the event a promo does come out) about a little trick we always take advantage of-upgrading the dining plan you are given for free, to a plan you like better. While not free to do this, it can get you out of a plan you don't care for (for me that's the Quick Service Plan) and into a better plan, with more options, for a reduced cost. We almost always pay to upgrade to the Deluxe plan. What can I say-I LOVE this plan. I just can't do burgers & nuggets for an entire vacation. But if the resort you are staying in is only offering the the Quick Service plan, then maybe paying to upgrade to the Plus plan it worth it to you. You get more dining options and the ability to do character meals and can even use 2 sit-down credits toward a Signature dining experience. You can also go up 2 tiers to the Deluxe plan-even if you're staying in a Value resort.

So how does it exactly work? Real easy:

1) First you book a Disney package, including room & tickets and you get one of the plans for free. Which plan depends on what Disney is offering at the time, but usually the Values get the Quick Service plan. The Moderates have gotten both the Quick Service & Plus plans, and the Deluxe resorts usually get the Plus plan. Notice my liberal use of the word "usually"-meaning Disney can and has thrown curve balls. But this is usually (there it is again) how it goes.

2) Then you decide which plan you would like to jump to. Do you want to go Quick Service to Plus? Or Quick Service to Deluxe? Or maybe even Plus to Deluxe? No problem. You just let your agent or Disney (if you're booking direct) know which plan you would like to upgrade to and they will simply add on the DIFFERENCE IN COST from the plan you are getting for free and the plan you wish to upgrade to.

**Now keep in mind that the cost of the dining plan is a per person, per night charge. So if you're getting the quick service plan for free for 2 people, you would add $37.10 per day ($18.55 each person) to the total cost of your vacation.

3) Plan your dining! Make your advanced dining reservations 180 days in advance. It wouldn't be good to upgrade to a better plan, only to be locked out of all the places you want to eat.

It's pretty much that simple! I've listed below the cost to upgrade from the different plans. I also listed the peak and non-peak travel costs & dates. Just don't forget this is per person, per day, when doing the math.

The NON-peak Dining plan cost to upgrade: 

To Upgrade from the Quick Service Plan to Plus Plan
$18.01  Adult
$2.84   Child

The Cost to Upgrade from the Plus Plan to the Deluxe Plan
$44.38 Adult
$9.68   Child

The Cost to Upgrade from the Quick Service Plan to the Deluxe Plan
$62.39 Adult
$12.52 Child

Dates for non peak pricing:

1/1/13 - 2/13/13
4/7/13- 5/30/13
8/4/13- 12/12/13

Peak travel time dining plan cost to upgrade:

To Upgrade from the Quick Service Plan to the Plus Plan (during peak season)
$19.36 Adult
$43.84 Child

To Upgrade to from the Plus Plan to the Deluxe Plan
$45.33 Adult
$10.75 Child

To Upgrade from the Quick Service Plan to the Deluxe Plan (during peak season)
$64.69 Adult
$14.59 Child

Peak travel dates are:

2/14/13 - 2/23/13
3/8/13 -   4/6/13
5/31/13 - 8/3/13

If you're still unsure or have questions-email me at and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guest Review of Disney's Aulani Resort

My good friend Richard, stops by with his review of his stay at Disney's Aulani resort in beautiful Hawaii. Richard is a "local boy" and a retired Fire Captain, and so his review has some great insight into Disney's attention to detail, safety and the authentic touches used to create Aulani. I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I did!

A Disney Resort & Spa
 Ko Olina, Hawai’i 

  First of all a little background information, I am a retired Fire Captain, Honolulu Fire Department, HFD’s first full-time Public Information Officer with 27 years of firefighting experience under my “helmet.” Time with my family is always a cherished event because many family occasions were missed while on duty.

 The weekend spent at Aulani was a celebration of my daughter’s, Marissa Soo Faleolo, birthday so it was planned and booked three months in advance. Marissa and her husband, Okesene, their daughter, Leina, and their sons, Oakley and Ailama along with my two sons, Davit and Blaise and I were about to embark on a “staycation” traveling by car about 45 minutes from our respective homes in East Honolulu.

 Disney’s Aulani magic began three weeks prior to our stay with the arrival of the “Aloha Soo Family” to Aulani information booklet. It contained sections to assist you in planning your stay both on and off property. The information and the pictures built up the excitement of the weekend and it eased the check in process by allowing you to check in online up to 10 days prior to arrival. Mahalo for this advance sharing of information.

 The first night at Aulani Hawaii by Disney was of course magical. The grandsons spent the evening at Aunty’s Beachhouse, an on-site day care, that is filled with activities, a caring staff and most importantly FREE. Us adults ate at 'Ama 'Ama's an open air hale overlooking the lagoons. It is situated so that you feel like you are in a grass hale. The food was great & so was the bottle of cabernet. Olelo winery a California’s Central Coast vintner, and then a bottle of Moet Chandon-a birthday celebration that Marissa will always remember. The staff served a Mickey Mouse birthday cake with a lite sparkler and the young Kane (male) strolling musicians sang Happy Birthday plus a song about Papakolea, the area where we reside in Honolulu. After, Marissa fetched my grandsons from Aunty’s Beachhouse and we walked the grounds, then turned in for the night. In the morning we were scheduled for the character brunch at Makahike with 28 family members...BOY THANK GOD FOR PLASTIC...I might go into a second card....NOT!!! Almost forgot, the room accommodations are like no other - the beds are so comfortable, I passed out typing on the computer. The amenities leave nothing to want. Across the street is an ABC store (a local market chain) which is huge and stocked with everything you forgot to bring. The grounds & buildings are done so that you, your kids, your grandkids-whatever can just stop and enjoy Hawaiian artworks and culture in a Disney setting plus the staff is everywhere but not in your face, if you know what I mean. Local staff and very discreet but attentive...Disney got IT!

Day 2, I'm in my "papa" role so I get up at 4:30 am (it’s a fire thing), make coffee and venture out to Costco (5 minute drive) for gas and McDonald's for early breakfast to bring back for the family, mind you we have 10:30 am reservations for Makahiki character brunch, but everything is good. Pit stops at Longs for gold fish crackers and blistex (Marissa texts me and asks if I can get these items - do I ever say, No!) Makahiki (a buffet type restaurant) was great! My daughter was touched that the chef came out and discussed with her on what he would prepare in light of my grandson’s, Oakley, food allergies something that we have never encountered at other resorts. Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy were all dressed in aloha attire posing for pictures & group interaction. 20 + family members attended and a good time was had by all. Back to the room and change for the pool. Okay-it’s the pool that makes this place-water slides, water features, lazy rivers plus the service and here’s a hint-order from the 9 and under menu (the staff considers everyone 9 and under at the pool). It is like appetizers the whole day or a tapa type menu at half the cost of the regular menu. The macaroni and cheese with peas, the mini Angus Burgers with cheese, plus the sweet potato fries are to die for. At the end of the day we lingered around the fire pit (this is a great spot to pick for a landing zone-great access to both the pool and the ocean plus couches, chairs and tables which can be arranged to seat your family members saving the cost of a pool cabana) for story telling-the legend of the Menehune (a tribe of little people that inhabited Hawaii) by Uncle Aito. He is great and he interacts with everyone. The grandsons were in awe of his stories, I just wish I didn’t fall asleep halfway thru his story, but I enjoyed a few wine coolers earlier that day ;) Now what to do for dinner!!! That evening everyone is doing the interaction thing with IPods or Ipads-something about strolling through the grounds and rocks communicate with you, kind of a Disney “Hide and Seek”, but I stayed in the room watching the news - too high tech for me. We ended up ordering pizza delivery from Papa John Pizza. They delivered to Aulani and it was perfect. Ailama almost fell asleep with a slice of pizza in his mouth lol.

Day 3, and our last one at Aulani, but I wanted to share and recap a few tips. Even though they do not provide roll away beds-they do provide air mattress beds at no charge, you can order a microwave for the room-no charge. Be sure to walk the pathway connecting all the four lagoons at Ko Olina it is a very comfortable walk with spectacular views of the ocean and the vistas of Honolulu. Take along a camera. And don’t worry-there are well-kept restrooms at each lagoon-what more can a “senior” need during a walk? When you get to the pool even though there are many areas to sit, I recommend the area below 'Ama 'Ama near the fire pit it is less crowded plus there are full-on couches and chairs with cushions and coffee tables in addition to the lounge chairs which you can rearrange plus at that level you can go to the ocean or the pool as well as see the ocean and the pool. Again, remember order from the "9 and under" portion of the menu. It’s just like a tapas menu. And finally, the most reasonable wine is Olelo (not Hawaiian) but from Central Coast California-the cab had a really refined but a slight fruity taste. Finally one last comment, with 30+ years in the safety field, it is my opinion that Aulani places safety first and its shows. The pool is the main feature of this resort and there must be over 20 lifeguards standing-not sitting-and walking the whole time. They each have floats and water proof walkie-talkies plus there are supervisors who work it as a team. Obviously they work well together and communicate constantly. But parents, remember, your job is still to watch your kids at all times. I saw more than one occasion when the parent obviously lost track of their kids and were frantic until they found them.

My final word is we love Aulani and the Soos and the Faleolos will definitely be back!!!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Being a New Yorker, I am a BIG Giants Fan and super excited about their Superbowl win. In honor of their win & Eli's visit to Disney today, I am running a giveaway. There are 3 great prizes to choose from and lots of ways to enter! Have fun & GOOD LUCK!!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mini Food Review: Artists Point House-made Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi

For my last visit to Artists Point, I made a conscious effort (EFFORT) to go meatless. I can often be found ordering the largest piece of roast beast a restaurant has to offer-raging carnivore here folks. But for this meal I wanted to try some of the vegetarian options that were available (note: when I say vegetarian, I do not mean vegan-as this dish has dairy.). My entree choice was the House-made Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi. Let me start by saying there are a few things in this world that I love, but rarely get because it's a tricky dish to prepare and commercial preparation can usually do more harm than good. Gnocchi is one of them. While in theory gnocchi is easy enough-execution is another story. What I am looking for is a light, fluffy, tender (NOT chewy) dumpling that doesn't hit my stomach like a lead pellet. Artists Point gnocchi brings it's A game. Prepared & cooked to perfection, these little gems were flavorful too. Perfect amount of salt & pepper, a light potato flavor more still maintaining the traditional dumpling taste gnocchi should have. As further proof of their deliciousness (and the chef knowing they hit a home run) the sauce is a very light butter sauce. Almost more of a glazing then a full on sauce. This dish is enhanced by a selection of fresh, tender vegetables. English peas, chanterelle mushrooms, heirloom carrots & sweet corn nage** are plentiful in this dish and you really need to get a let a bit of each in each bite.There are also little globs of fresh ricotta throughout this dish, adding a bit of tangy dairy to the plate. Personally I could have done without it, or would have preferred it was seasoned, but I am not a big fan of naked ricotta. The issue is seasoned ricotta would have thrown the balance of the flavors off, so next time I will probably just request it be left out of the dish. There is a slight sweetness to this dish from the carrots, corn & English peas and what I believe is the use of sweet cream butter in the sauce. The mushrooms provide a wonderful earthiness, but being a milder mushroom-it's not overbearing. This dish proves that vegetarian can be nothing short of amazing. And if you're not ready to give up meat entirely, I would suggest sharing this meal as a pasta or even appetizer course, but do give it a chance-you will be pleasantly surprised.

**Sweet corn nage is a fancy word for a method of preparation. Basically it means that the corn was prepared in a broth most likely with shallots, butter & wine (usually white). The broth & corn are then added to a dish.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mini Food Review: Artists Points' Smokey Portobello Soup

Ever think about something and just the memory of it makes you smile? Yeah-this soup has me sitting here smiling just remembering how off-the-charts good it is. Let me start by saying that although you're are going to not believe me-no pork is used in this dish. There is a disagreement as to whether this soup is a true vegan option or not. I was told that it is a true vegetarian dish, others have been told chicken stock is used in the preparation. This is actually often the case with a lot of "vegetarian" soups. If you are a vegan, I would recommend speaking with the chef, simply because menus & preparations change and the truly vegan version of this soup could be the most recent version. But with this soup the bacon-like flavor comes entirely from the smoking of the portobello mushrooms used in the soup. The nice meaty, earthiness of the portobellos-both smoked and fresh, is tamed by silky heavy cream. Onions lend a full flavor & sweetness to the dish and the whole thing is kept from going flabby by the addition of white wine. I am guessing it's Chardonnay-or at least that's what I would use, because the oakiness of Chardonnay would blend nicely. Topped with roasted shitake mushrooms, which give the soup a nice bit of chewy texture and chive oil and creme fraiche that cut through the very mild heaviness of the soup without over-powering it. This soup it good on every level. It is filling without making you sluggish, like many cream soups do. It is flavorful without being salty or too smokey. And it will leave you contemplating ordering another bowl. Seriously contemplating.

Restaurant Review: Artists Point

Getting back into the swing of things with a review of Artists Point in the Wilderness Lodge Resort. I approached this meal a bit different then I normally would. In a restaurant that offers a wide variety of treats for the carnivore in you-I decided to give meatless a try. While not pure vegan-my dining choices were void of meat with the exception of meat stocks used. And you know what? It was amazing!

Brief Description: Artists Points' cuisine is inspired by the Pacific Northwest with heavy emphasis on hearty meats, game & seafood. Think salmon, halibut, buffalo, & pork. Also root vegetables, mushrooms and hearty, homey desserts. Many of the dishes are the kinds you would expect from a rugged lodge-IF every lodge had a 5 star restaurant in it lol.

Decor: In keeping with the atmosphere of the Wilderness Lodge, Artists Point is designed with warm wood furniture, exposed wood rafter beams & pillars, wrought iron fixtures with alabaster shades and huge murals depicting rugged outdoor scenes. Huge windows surround you, giving you a view to the outside pool area, geyser and surrounding woods & lake. While you might think it would lack in refinement & a cozy feel-it's actually the opposite. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting and kind of makes you wish you were wearing your favorite comfy sweater. The noise level is low, which has been helped even more by the addition of carpeting, and the lighting is ample without being overbearing. But something that I wanted to mention about AP-while it is beautifully decorated-it's not overbearing and distracting. I say this because I think that it is a great option for kids. It's casual atmosphere and low-key theme seems great for keeping kids at ease and not over-stimulated. Of course that can have a reverse effect on kids if they are bored by it-but overall, I think it's a great option for families.

Service:  I have nothing but praise for the service at Artists Point. I have a special mention for my server, Peter, who is a professional in the truest sense of the word. His extensive knowledge of the menu & wines, his timing and intuition and his personality were in one word-perfection. Nothing pleases me more than getting a good server and my experience was made better ten-fold because of Peter. I also found it funny that toward the end of the meal, as I took out my notebook to record my impressions for later, he was completely unfazed lol. Although Peter was an extra special treat, I have never had anything less then wonderful service from any member of the Artists Point staff. I was warmly greeted and shown to my table by a lovely hostess who chatted with me a bit. I also received attention from 2 managers on duty, inquiring about my meal and asking if I needed anything. This has been my experience both alone & when dining with my family.

Menu Selections/Approachability: As I stated before-if you're an avid carnivore, Artists Point is a little slice of heaven for you. But that doesn't mean vegetarians should steer clear. As I also said, earlier in my review, I purposely choose meatless options for this visit. I've been numerous times to AP and being a raging carnivore, have enjoyed many of the steaks, pork, & game meats offered. That's why, honestly, I did not expect to enjoy my main dish of gnocchi as much as I did. But I will get into that in the next part of the review. The menu has a wonderful selection of seriously interesting appetizers & salads. They are ingredients you will recognize, but ingeniously prepared like the Smokey Portobello Soup, or the "BLT" salad. The entrees section has a nice representation of meats such as chicken and steaks & seafood, including the Cedar Plank Roasted Wild King Salmon-their signature dish. Accompaniments are also familiar but approachable like the the sweet corn pudding. Dessert again gives us a signature dish AP is famous for-the Artists Point Cobbler. While the other options are always good-this one is not to be missed. It is seriously smile inducing and gives you a major case of the happy food dance. Overall I feel this menu has something for everyone and isn't too scary to the average diner, yet still manages to delight those with a refined palette as well. I think that anyone can find something to please them at Artists Point.

Execution/Food Quality: 3 words-wow, wow, wow. Where do I even begin? Fresh goes without saying but when you're looking for the river they pulled that salmon out of-THAT'S fresh.  The menu just screams of how much care & attention is used in picking out the ingredients for the dishes. Not just in the uniqueness, but also in how they go so well together. I have this image in my mind of the chefs at AP going out each morning and hand picking everything down to the last cherry tomato. And when they get back-that's when the real magic begins. The cedar plank salmon I mentioned earlier, well I'm not sure I can even convey how masterfully this is done. AND TO ORDER! My entree, the house-made gnocchi were utterly perfect. And gnocchi is one of those things where a lot can go wrong. They were light and fluffy, yet tender and so stinking flavorful! Their flavor was such that they could have stood on their own as the meal. And finally dessert, the Artists Point Cobbler was another dish that was prepared to order. Served warm with fresh berries & house-made sorbet was everything that is right about dessert. From beginning to end, my meal at Artists Point was nothing short of perfection. And that is the standard, again & again.

Value: With the signature restaurants of Disney, value can be subjective. I am one of those people who will pay through the nose for a good meal-but I hold you to that. I want to leave on a major food high and in the end-it's the food that puts me there. Of course service and decor play a big part, but food is the key. Having said that-you get every bit of your money's worth at Artists Point. Top notch service, lovely atmosphere and fantastic food back up the menu prices. Average appetizers price of $13, an average entree price of $34 and an average dessert price of $10, Artists Point is on par with other WDW dining locations, if not a little more reasonable.  

Transportation Rating: 3 Getting to Artists Point isn't tricky, but it can eat up some time. Take a resort bus to the Magic Kingdom (or monorail/boats if you're staying at a monorail resort) and then take the boat over to the Wilderness Lodge. Look for the dock specifically marked Wilderness Lodge. Once you dock walk to the resort, passing the pool and depending on which entrance you use, you will probably walk right past it as you enter the main hall of WL. If not it is located toward the back of the great hall diagonally across from the store. To return simply take the boat or a resort bus back to the Magic Kingdom and grab a bus to your resort from their.

My final word on Artists Point is, although it often gets overlooked, it is well worth the money & time to check it out. It offers something or every palette and delivers an unforgettable dining experience. If you've not made your way to Artists Point-make that reservation. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Updates to the 2012 Disney Dining Plan

***Doing a quick supplemental post on the changes/updates to the 2012 Disney Dining Plan. I am also going to revise my original posts on the 2011 plan to reflect the changes and make that a resource post.

2012 brings a few changes to the Disney Dining Plan, some good some not-so-much. Some changes were started in 2011, like the new reservation process of taking deposits for many of the more popular dining locations. From what I've seen, both as a repeat Disney guest & as a travel agent making dining reservations for my guests, it has been a positive change. Taking a credit card, to ensure attendance or timely cancellations, has immensely helped free up many hard to get locations. There is also the addition of many new restaurants and lounges to the dining plan, which is helping ease up the problem of booked out restaurants. So let's go through the changes & additions by plan.

Quick Service Dining Plan

*This change I do not like at all. The 2011 Quick service dining plan consisted of (2) quick service credits, (2) snack credits, per person, per day & (1) refillable resort mug per person. 2012 sees us losing (1) snack credit. Although the Quick Service Dining plan was the only one of Disney's dining plans not to increase in price, the loss of the snack credit makes it hard to get value out of it. That extra snack credit was great to use on breakfast items such as bagels, muffins, fruit & cereal, leaving you with the other credit for snacks.

Plus Dining Plan

*The next plan up-the Plus Plan sees some good & bad changes. Let's start with the inevitable bad-the price went up. Such is life I guess, but $5.55 for the adult plans & $1 for the kids plans are a bit hard to swallow. That was food humor. Ok it was bad food humor but it's Wednesday-cut me some slack. The good change is you now get the refillable resort mug for everyone in your traveling party. To be honest-I never got why this wasn't ALWAYS the case. I guess the $5-$6 dollar a day difference in the dining plan cost is going to cover all that soda & coffee that will be flowing with all those extra mugs in circulation lol.

Deluxe Dining Plan

*Lastly we have the Deluxe Plan. What you get with this plan stays the same-but again we see a nice price jump. And by nice, I mean NOT nice. $6.53 for the adult plans & $1.80 jump for the kids plans. We're also seeing seasonal pricing as well with the Deluxe plan, which we had not seen before. During these times you will see the plan jump by over $10 for adults & $3.80 for the kids. OUCH!! Remember-these are per person, per day jumps.

So let's talk about this a bit. We are seeing some less than favorable changes being made to the dining plans-but does that mean we will be seeing more dining discounts & codes? Is this a for Disney to cover the costs of such promotions? Or is this just Disney reacting to the same budget pinch we are all seeing after a trip to the grocery store? I think it's a combination of both.I think that Disney saw a rise in food prices & the costs associated in transportation, but I also think that promos & discounts have a lot to do with the new changes.

Which brings me to the last of the overall changes to the dining plans. The addition of new restaurant & dining options. Here is a list of the new additions:

Counter Service Additions:

Magic Kingdom
Diamond Horseshoe
Friar's Nook
Golden Oak Outpost
Tortuga Tavern (formerly El Pirata y El Perico)

Katsura Grill (formerly Yakitori House)

Animal Kingdom
Beastly Kiosk
Mr. Kamal's

Hollywood Studios
Min & Bill's Dockside Diner

Blizzard Beach
Cooling Station

Typhoon Lagoon
Lowtide Lou's
Snack Shack
Surf Doggies

Bongo's Cuban Cafe Sandwich Window
Marketplace Snacks

Landscapes Cafe (Art of Animation)
Paddock Grill (Saratoga Springs)
Trails End Takeaway (Fort Wilderness/Campground)
Turtle Shack (Old Key West)

Sit Down Service Additions:

Animal Kingdom
Rainforest Cafe

Bongos Cuban Cafe
Crossroads at House of Blues
Paradiso 37
Rainforest Cafe
T-Rex Cafe

Signature Dining Additions:

Bistro de Paris (yay!!)

Fulton's Crab House
Wolfgang Puck Dining Room Upstairs (yay again!!)

I am also getting reports that many of the resort lounges have also been added as dining locations. They are being charged as a Quick Service meal credit on the dining plan. They include a non-alcoholic beverage, an entree (which will most likely consists of an appetizer) and a dessert-no info on what that entails.

So there it is, the good, the bad & the new of the 2012 Disney Dining Plans. While I still think there's value to be found, you are going to have to look a little harder & get a bit more creative to get the most out of your plan.