Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Green Organic Family Visits Walt Disney World - Part 2 - Downtown Disney, and Our Guide to Dining, Shopping, and Traveling Around Disney World

Continued from Part 1

From Old Key West to Downtown Disney
Sometime Saturday morning, the three of us all awoke to the warm glow of the morning sun, peeking through the shutters. We were actually here in Disney World :) Time to get up and have some fun!

I opened up all of the curtains and shutters, and swung open the bedroom and living room doors leading out to the balcony. Wow! We couldn't see the pond when it was dark outside, so this was our first look at everything in daylight. Two sets of jets were positioned at opposite ends of the pond, shooting water high up in the air. Ibis birds were having breakfast down below. There was tropical greenery everywhere. So peaceful :) Green Organic Girl and I enjoyed our breakfast on the patio table and chairs, and took in the view. It wasn't long before we caught glimpses of the Disney shuttle buses, painted with images of mouse ears balloons, making their rounds. The little one was getting really excited, and so were we :)

After showering, and first coaxing the little one into the jacuzzi tub, and then later trying to convince her she had enough fun and it was time to get out, we got dressed, put on our sunscreen, sunglasses, and hats, packed our drinks and snacks, and off we went to Downtown Disney! We had a special lunch reserved at the brand new T-Rex restaurant; owned by the same people who run the Rain Forest Cafés. As we were running a little late, we decided to take our own car to nearby Downtown Disney, instead of the shuttles.

It was just a short drive from Old Key West. As we approached, we could see the giant Planet Hollywood globe in the distance. The entire Downtown Disney area is open to the public, with plenty of free parking, and all sorts of things to see and do. You can ride a merry-go-round, then go up 400 feet in a giant helium balloon and enjoy a spectacular view of the Downtown Disney area, the waterways, and the gorgeous Saratoga Springs resort, then have your choice of numerous restaurants for dinner, and finally, finish off your evening with a show at Cirque du Soleil. Just like the Disney parks themselves, there is something there for everyone.

As the whole Disney experience was new to our whole family, I decided to do some prep work in advance. One extremely helpful tool was none other than YouTube. Many families have uploaded their own videos, and I was able to preview a lot of the attractions, including the T-Rex restaurant. I wanted to be sure it wasn't too scary, before booking a table.

When we finally arrived at T-Rex, we had a fantastic time. The restaurant and gift shop are open to the public. You're very welcome to wander around, taking pictures, and they even encourage you to touch the animatronic creatures. There were still a few dozen or so empty tables when we arrived at our reserved time, but they filled up quickly. The menu had a lot of choices, and was very family-friendly. The prices were a little on the high side, but it was worth the entertainment factor. I don't want to spoil any surprises, but I will tell you that this is a LOUD restaurant. Not just from the sound effects, but mostly because it is actually not that big inside, and the tables are very close together. Combine that with a gift shop and lots of people running around, and it makes for a rather noisy dining experience. I still think it's worth at least a walk through the facilities :) As a bonus, as vacation club guests, we were eligible for 15% off our meal (more on dining and discounts later).

We spent the rest of the day meandering around the Downtown Disney area; riding the merry-go-round in the Marketplace area, visiting the massive gift shop, watching the giant helium balloon, as it traveled up and down, and eventually going on a ride ourselves. There's just so much to see and do. Be sure to set aside some time to visit this area of the property.

As our first day concluded, it was time to prepare for the next very busy four days, where we were planning to visit each of the four Disney World parks. As Disney resort guests, we were given another perk: Magic Hours. Each park has a special designated day where they either open early, or close late, and give resort guests extra time to play. We called ahead to see which parks had Magic Hours when, and planned our days accordingly: Magic Kingdom on Sunday, Hollywood Studios on Monday, Epcot on Tuesday, and Animal Kingdom on Wednesday. But first, a little more pre-planning...

Getting Around

I do commend Disney for having a fabulous mass-transportation network of their own.  Shuttle buses run to and from the airport, the cruise ship port, and within the resorts and the parks themselves.  There's also the monorail and small ferry boats.  As resort guests, we could take advantage of both free parking, and these shuttle services. We were able to park our car and pretty much just leave it there the whole time we stayed.  About every 20 minutes, we could take a shuttle wherever we needed to go.  However, the smell of the exhaust indicated that the current active fleet of 232 shuttle buses (as indicated by one of our drivers) run on conventional petroleum.  Our driver said that as the tourist season peaks, they'll soon go to 400 shuttle buses.  400 buses every day, and they don't use a cleaner fuel source?  I can't imagine that Disney doesn't fry up enough French fries every day to make at least some biodiesel.

Also, be aware that there is a lot of walking distance between the shuttle bus stops and the gates. Even if you do decide to drive your own car, you have to then board a shuttle from your parking lot to the park entryway. Don't plan on leaving things in the car, just in case you may need it later in the day. It's a long haul back to your car.

So, before heading to the parks, if you don't already own one, invest in an umbrella stroller, or be prepared to pay $15 a day to rent one.  Not only is your little one going to get tired from walking, it'll serve as a good spot for him to nap, and to stow things like a small cooler bag with your own drinks.  You can have anything you want to drink at Disney; as long as it's fountain water, coffee, or a Coke product.  Kids meals do come with milk or apple juice, but we brought our own organic versions of Organic Valley aseptic individual milk servings, and Apple and Eve juice boxes.  Disney's park rules say "No Coolers", but I saw plenty of people pushing double strollers around with a child in one seat and a large soft-sided cooler in the other.  Just leave the adult beverages at home ;)

Our Combi stroller also held our little L.L. Bean junior backpack, with a few of the princess' toys, a travel pack of Seventh Generation alcohol-free wipes, toilet seat covers (more on that later), and baggies of our favorite dry snacks.  Under the stroller, in the basket, we stowed our L.L. Bean rain jackets, and a rain shield for the stroller itself.  Be prepared for rain.  This is Florida, after all.  It can be sunny one minute, and then a torrential downpour the next.  Also, as my hubby learned the hard way, if you see any ominous dark clouds, even small ones, cover the stroller with the rain shield before we all walk into a gift shop.


As a mom, I am happy to report that toys are not outrageously expensive (like food) at the Disney gift shops.  A stuffed toy can be had for $15.  My daughter, who loves trucks, trains, and cars, picked out a Tonka fire engine that makes sounds for $20.  Our favorite thing was the "Build Your Own Mr. Potato-Head" station, found in a couple of the larger gift shops.  For $20, you could fill a small box with all sorts of Potato-Head parts, including the potato itself, if you don't already own one.  There were all sorts of Disney-themed pieces, including mouse ears, and Star Wars themed pieces as well.  Just be aware that some of the stores are huge... I mean MASSIVE... and they may have multiple entrances.  There is similar merchandise to be found in most of the stores, but there are themed items within each park as well, that you may not find elsewhere.

I made a point of signing up for the Disney Chase Rewards Visa card before we left. This card not only offers rewards certificates for Disney merchandise, but it also offers things like 10% off purchases of $50 or more at Disney stores. However, as there were slightly different offerings in the various gift shops, my total purchases didn't always amount to $50 or more to qualify for the discount. It wasn't until we did our big “souvenirs for friends” roundup that we finally qualified for 10% off.

I was extremely pleased to see that Disney's gift shops had offerings like T-shirts made from organic cotton, and even pencils, with the top end bent and formed in the outline of mouse ears, made from recycled materials. The Animal Kingdom even had plush Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls made from organic materials. My own souvenirs included a license plate frame, USA-made from 100% recycled plastic, and featuring a green set of mouse ears, and a “Love Your World” message. I also chose a “Conservation Hero” pin at the Animal Kingdom, that benefits the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Those pins can be purchased for a donation of any amount of your choosing.

With all the toys, clothing, and even household items and gifts to choose from, one might worry about having to carry all this stuff throughout the parks. Disney has already thought of a solution for that. There is no charge for resort guests to have their purchases delivered directly back to their own resort's gift shop, for later pickup. For guests not staying on property, each park has a package pick-up location near the park's entrance.

When You Have to Go...

A note about potties:  this is Disney we're talking about, and while the restrooms are plentiful, accessible, and easy to find, a public restroom is a public restroom; they've been used by many, MANY people.  Even Disney with its full-time bathroom attendants couldn't quite keep up with the cleaning.  While they aren't the most eco-friendly option, I always carry around "Potty Toppers" for the little one.  These are thick plastic-coated disposable one-time-use covers that are water-resistant (unlike the 1-ply paper covers in each stall).  This time, I had to go with the "germophobe mom" side of me, rather than the "eco-friendly" side.

My mother once told me that the Hong Kong Disney Land has child-height toilets and sinks.  Not our Disney World in Orlando, however.  If your child is potty-trained, be prepared to have to lift your child up and hold them in place while they go.  Then try to find a dry counter top for your child to lean over while he or she washes their hands.  I found that even in the handicapped stalls, the toilet paper, sinks, and paper towels would have been very difficult for someone in a wheelchair to reach.  Also, it appears that every public toilet on Disney property is one of the automatic flushing types.  I hate those.  Not only do they go off at the most inappropriate time (if at all), they then spray toilet water all over the place.  Just disgusting.  Are you listening, Disney?  Your guests prefer not to be sprayed head to toe in toilet water.  Until they fix that, step away quickly, and take your child with you!!

Dining at Disney World is Expensive

There's no other way to put it.  We were forewarned by several Disney fan blog sites, but be prepared for some sticker shock.  We're talking $28 for a hamburger-and-fries dinner for two adults and one child.  Those adorable ice cream bars dipped in chocolate, shaped like Mickey Mouse's head will cost you $4.  Each.

As I mentioned in Part 1, our family was very fortunate to be staying on the property in a villa with a full kitchen in the Old Key West resort, and were able to have some meals and snacks in our own room.  The kitchen came fully equipped with a full-size fridge, cook top, toaster, microwave, dishwasher, dishes, cutlery, and even baking pans and a blender.  The gift shop at Old Key West is also stocked with cartons of eggs, milk, yogurt, cheeses, cold cuts, peanut butter, cereal, and other basic items.  You'll also find a multitude of grocery stores and even gas stations that sell grocery items nearby. 

We planned some meals, like breakfast, to be eaten in our room. We brought along my soy milk, my dairy-free Earth Balance margarine, breads, cereals, crackers, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, juice, bottled water, and some other snacks, along with our beloved Keurig coffee maker and favorite K-cups of tea and coffee, and voila!  Breakfast and quick snacks were at hand.  This was especially helpful, as any parent will know, it's near impossible to get a child to sit down and eat a decent meal.  We were prepared to accommodate the little princess, and let her have something simple to get going in the morning, and then stop a few hours later for a snack.  Doing that saved time and money and food, as we didn't have to head to a restaurant and sit down to a big breakfast that the little one would only nibble on.

When it does come time for a meal, if you're looking to do something special, like a character buffet, or if you want some place very popular, like Le Cellier in Epcot, be sure to call the Disney dining line and make advance reservations.  You can make reservations up to 90 days in advance (180 days for resort guests).  Even during our preparation for our "off-season" visit, we had a heck of a time trying to get into character buffets; even for the less popular characters.  Do keep calling though, as people regularly book several things at the same time, and then later finalize their decisions, and start canceling others.  Don't worry if you can't get reservations.  There are still plenty of places to eat, on and off property, and they aren't all sit-down restaurants either.  Some of the "express" counters share a kitchen with the sit-down restaurant next door, and you'll get the exact same food out of both places.  You won't starve.  You'll pay a pretty penny, but you won't starve ;)  I'll go into more detail about the locations we dined at while staying on property as I discuss each visit to each park.

I should also mention at this time that I suffer from a milk allergy, so I really have to watch what I eat. But Disney is very accommodating of allergies.  For the times when we were eating out, we made sure to let the reservations agent know that we had someone in our party with a specific food allergy. When we later arrived for character buffets, the chefs personally came out and met with me, and walked me through the buffet, pointing out do's and don'ts. They even offered to make me separate servings of veggies and pasta at no additional charge. The lovely little chocolate cake that we had with Pooh Bear was even a dairy-free vegan cake, that we had requested in advance (with an additional charge). It was delicious :) We had dinner at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney one evening, and I really wanted the mushroom penne pasta, but it was in a cream sauce. Not a problem at all. The server made a special note, and the chef prepared a dish just for me, without the cream. No extra charge for that either. It was nice to be able to enjoy my meals and not have to worry about an allergic reaction later in the day. However, all this fun-filled dining was not cheap. By the time we paid for the special birthday cake, the Pooh and Friends character buffet at the Magic Kingdom's Crystal Palace came to over $100 (including a 15% resort discount, tax, and tip). The next day, we went to Hollywood and Vine at Hollywood Studios, to dine with the Little Einsteins, Jojo, and Lion, and that bill, sans cake, and sans discount, was another $100. Did I also mention that these were LUNCHES?  Yes... $100 lunches.  As Scar says, “Be prepared!!”.

While dining on the property can be expensive, Disney itself does offer some dining savings. One method is in the form of a "Dining Program", but for our family, it just didn't seem to work out.  First, you have to buy into this meal plan for EVERY member of your family, and for EVERY day of your stay on Disney property.  The meal plan also includes dessert, which we don't eat.  We do sometimes order appetizers, but those aren't included in the plan.  We also regularly get two adult entrées, and just share with the little one.  She is rarely ever hungry enough for her own kid's meal.  So for us, we opted not to get the meal plan, and in the end, it did work out in our favor.  But do look at your own family's eating habits and do the math before you decide.

Even though we opted out of the dining plan, we still did receive some dining discount perks. As Disney resort guests, we were given a pocket guide that listed various locations throughout the park that offered discounts, ranging from 10% to 20% off meals (mostly lunches) on the property. The T-Rex restaurant is one of them (giving us 15% off by presenting our room key to the server). Be sure to ask for the discount specifically, as the servers juggle a lot of tables, and don't always remember to adjust your bill accordingly.

And remember the little cooler and ice pack you brought along in your stroller? Bring along some baggies or reusable containers, and pack up your leftovers for snacking later on.

Of course, this is the Green Organic Mama blog, and we haven't yet covered organic food. Sadly, we didn't come across any; unless it was hiding in some of the more upscale “signature” restaurants. Burgers, fries, hot dogs, packaged apples, grapes, carrot sticks, and pretzels are the standard fare. Only one time did I come across soy milk, and it was Silk (read: NOT organic), and it was only in the Seasons cafeteria in the Land Pavillion at Epcot. I vaguely remember an episode of “Dinner: Impossible” on the Food Network, and I thought Disney had some hydroponic vegetable gardens of their own, right on property. I would have liked to have toured those. Disney is definitely lacking in the organic offerings department. I did, however, like the fact that they used biodegradable paper drinking straws in the Animal Kingdom... just in case an animal gets fed one. It would have been nice to see biodegradable disposable plates and cutlery throughout the parks. Then maybe they can open another ride... the Build Your Own Compost Heap Extravaganza!

You're On Vacation... Relax!

Just looking at the park maps on paper, doesn't really give you any kind of perspective at all about how big the places actually are. My aching feet will tell you that it's not a small world after all.

Especially when traveling with small children, have a general plan, but be prepared for delays and deviations. Also be prepared to head back to your hotel for a nap in the afternoon. You're all going to need it... trust me! Prior to our trip, my hubby kept shaking his head, every time I mentioned that “N” word. But once we got there, he realized just how much we all needed to stop and rest, and recharge our batteries in the middle of the day.

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