Day 1 was a total disaster. When I decided to tack a few solo days on the front of our Halloween trip, I picked Oct. 7 as the first day of my trip so I could meet up with my pal Lori (whose wedding Jensey and I stalked last May).
The plan was to arrive in the early evening, check into the Dolphin, grab a quick bite at bluezoo, and then meet Lori and her husband for IllumiNations. However, as I was heading out the door to the airport, I got a text from Delta saying my flight had been delayed… by five hours! I frantically tried to get them to put me on another carrier’s flight or one from another airport, but all the flights from LA to Orlando that day had either already left or were leaving in the next 45 minutes. Thanks for the last-minute notice, Delta. And thanks for starting LA-to-Orlando service, Virgin America, because now I will never have to fly Delta again!
So let’s pretend Day 1 never happened and make Day 2 be Day 1.
Day 1: This might run long cuz I never did a pre-trip report, which would have covered all the boring planning details….
Originally I was going to stay at Pop Century for the Patrick-less part of my trip, with the first night free on Starwood Preferred Guest points at the Dolphin. I had never really been interested in staying at the Swolphin before, but now that we’ve had the good fortune to stay at so many of the Disney resorts (I don’t count the Moderates because I think they are overpriced, glorified Value resorts), it’s become like a game to try out new places whenever I can afford it.
So when the Swolphin announced the debut of its Epcot Food & Wine Festival counter-programming, the Swan & Dolphin Food & Wine Classic, with dates that exactly matched mine *and* discounted hotel packages, I tacked on another day at the Dolphin. The package came with two all-you-care-to-choke-down wristbands for the food booths at the Classic, which were supposedly worth $50 each, so in my mind I was actually SAVING money by staying there.
And then I started thinking how much fun it would be to knock another hotel off my list using the 40% discount code Disney was offering during my stay. I’d always been curious about Old Key West because if you wanna buy into the Disney Vacation Club on the cheap, one of your best bets is to get a resale contract at Old Key West. But I could only get two nights in a studio there cuz it was Columbus Day Weekend, which left me with this one Pop Century day between the Swolphin and OKW. So I rang up the Swolphin to see what they could do to for me and got a nice young man who told me about a fabulous AAA rate. Perfect!
Fast forward to THE WEEK BEFORE MY TRIP [ominous music], when I discovered that the nice young man had booked my last night at the Swolphin for September 10th instead of October 10th, which meant I’d been charged the full rate as a no-show fee back in September and I HAD NO PLACE TO STAY on the night of the 10th! The Dolphin was booked. The Swan thought they might have a place for me, but it was almost $100 more than I’d already been charged. I was furious at myself for not noticing the wrong date on the confirmation email, and I was sobbing on the phone with the Starwood customer service agent telling me the place was sold out. The agent told me she was going to work things out and call me right back. Hours passed… I called again and spoke to someone else, who called the manager at the Dolphin and got the same “sold out” spiel. And then I got an email from the first agent. Perhaps it was my blubbering insistence that I was going to have to sleep in a ditch, or maybe she was just doing her job really really well, but somehow she’d managed to find me a room at the Dolphin for the same rate I’d already paid and link it to my other 2 reservations so I could stay in the same room the whole time!
Which is all to say… here are some pictures of my room at the Dolphin!
The main room was OK—a little more generic than I expected given how plush the lobby is, but quite spacious. The bathroom area was grim. That’s where you can tell the Dolphin is just another Sheraton—cramped shower room, dull stuccoed sink area with fluorescent lights, cheap-smelling toiletries…
Still, the lighting around the sink was better than at any of the Disney hotels I later stayed at!
I got up early enough that morning to catch the sunrise. Here’s what my view looked like:
I think these are actually the sunset views…
The first thing on the agenda today was a 9am meeting at Franck’s Bridal Studio with members of the Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings marketing team and Carly from The Disney Wedding Blog. She and I had been talking about joining forces on some DFTW research, so when she learned I was going in October, she was able to take advantage of Disney’s deals to come down too! She also lined up a bunch of interviews, including this one. The plan was to tour ceremony and reception sites in Animal Kingdom, so I was toting the nifty wide-angle lens I’d discovered for Patrick’s camera. (More gratuitous pre-trip-report info ahead!) If you’ve liked Patrick’s camera (the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1) enough to buy one, you might also want to check out this lens. Sony doesn’t make a wide-angle lens for that model, so an enterprising company that sells photo/video equipment to Realtors has created one.
I bought the lens specifically for taking pictures and videos of the various Disney wedding sites, but when Patrick arrived and tried it out, he was smitten! As you may know from past trip reports, he’s a huge fan of the detail shot. Well, on this trip, it was all wide-angle, all the time! You’ll start to see this on Day 6 (Harry Potterland Day).
While we’re on the subject, there are three other things I got for this trip that I want to recommend. One is a laptop backpack designed for passing through TSA with ease. I’d never taken my computer on a trip before and didn’t want to be the one fumbling with a complicated case as the security checkpoint, so I found this thing. The laptop sits in a mesh sleeve inside a separate compartment that opens with one easy motion. The sleeve slides out so the ‘pooter can sit on the scanner belt but remains attached to the backpack. At the end, the sleeve slides easily back into its compartment and you’re on your way. I loved it!
Another thing I got was… a hip pack! A dorky, dowdy, ultra-touristy hip pack. After toting a garish green and purple fanny pack (that one’s for you, my UK and AU readers!) for most of the ’80s, I was dead-set against ever being so fashion-backward again. But years of dragging (or making Patrick drag) our backbreaking blue backpack all over the parks finally made me acknowledge that a hip pack makes so much more sense. It still allows me to bring the essentials (and more “just in case!” stuff than I ought to) but it’s sooooooo much more comfortable—you can almost forget you have it on. So there. I said it. I wear a hip pack.
The third cool thing I got for the trip was a new Bobble. I love these things—especially now that they come in bright color combos—because you can fill them up just about anywhere but a Florida lake and they make the water taste great! No more shipping huge cases of bottled water to our resorts. Unfortunately, my decision to ditch the blue backpack meant I didn’t have a way to carry the Bobble in the parks. So we quickly became familiar with the best places to get free ice water in the parks (some places only give you tiny red cups, but others give you giant soda-sized cups!).
That morning I was still trying to figure out how all my new gear was going to work together to make me trek-ready, so I just tossed the whole pile in the rental car and hit the road for Franck’s—laptop pack, hip pack, Bobble, lens, camera, tripod, giant hat, notepad, bed roll, pup tent, and tin cup all tumbling from side to side in the backseat as I careened around those curvaceous Disney onramps. And I was so pleased with myself for not getting lost on my first drive of the trip!
As you may know, Franck’s Bridal Studio is the storefront for Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings—the place where they meet you for site visits and hold your planning session and display their wares. It is named for Martin Short’s character in the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride and sits next to the Wedding Pavilion at the Grand Floridian. Franck’s recently got a facelift, so I was sure to exhaustively document the new look.
Does anybody want to see pictures of all the placesettings and favors and stuff? [chirp…. chirp…] Well, too bad! I shot it, so you gotta look at it!
Whew! Finally, our DFTW hostesses whisked us away to Animal Kingdom to see some event locations. For this section, I’m going to try something new: I’m going to try to whittle down the number of photos. I know I’m terrible at picking “selects” for my trip reports, but I also know you don’t want to see hundreds of angles on a counter-service seating area. So here goes…
Tamu Tamu Courtyard
Majarajah Jungle Trek
The last place we tried to look was the Dinosaur Lounge above the Dinosaur ride. I was excited to see its “’90s Bland” look in person, but when we got there, it was actually being used! Maybe next time…
After our DFTW hostesses bid us farewell, Carly and I set out to document the three sites for Disney’s new Memories Collection of low-cost elopements/vow renewals. While Carly was sporting a sleek iPhone-sized camera and small camcorder, I was rattling around like a sherpa, a laptop bag on my back, a tripod clutched in one hand, and Patrick’s camera dangling just far enough from my neck to perpetually sock me in the breadbasket.
We started at the Grand Floridian’s Summer House (not a Memories location), which, as usual, was not open. It’s basically just an outdoor bar with a patio, but invariably when couples first see it listed as a venue, they think you can go inside it. Carly and I were both hoping to get shots of it with the shutters open to reveal the bar, but no dice…
The Summer House
The first Memories Collection location we scoped out was Conch Key Marina, which is at the end of the path on the right-hand side of the Grand Floridian Marina (if you’re standing in front of Gasparilla Grill & Games looking toward the Magic Kingdom).
Conch Key Marina
Next we checked out Narcoossee’s Landing, which actually has two possible ceremony sites, both adjacent to the path for guests taking the boat to and from the Magic Kingdom.
One spot’s by the tree…
The other is on the right-hand side of the dock…
From there, we poked our heads into Narcoossee’s, which is tied with Living Seas Salon for Hardest Reception Venue to Photograph. We could hear people in the kitchen, but no one was in the dining room, so we sneaked in and took a bunch of underexposed pictures and videos.
And then we poked around the Grand Floridian lobby!
From there, we drifted over to the convention center to take pictures of as many empty ballrooms as we could find. I think I must’ve been doing video most of the time, because all I have is this one:
Key West Room
Because we hadn’t been able to meet the previous night, Lori and I had been playing text tag all morning trying to figure out how to get together before she and her husband left Walt Disney World that day. It finally worked out that we were able to meet in front of the Grand Floridian for an all-too-brief chat before they took off and Carly and I gave in to our growling stomachs. Not only did I not get to spend the quality time I’d hoped for with Lori and Eoghan, but I didn’t even remember to take any pictures! However, it was nice to at least see them and hear about their trip, and I was so grateful we’d been able to cross paths despite our hectic schedules.
Since our next Disney wedding photo location was at the Polynesian. Carly and I decided to grab lunch at Kona Café. This was the first of numerous spontaneous table-service meals I had at WDW on this trip; I never had a problem getting into any restaurant without a reservation, even though it was the middle of Disney’s free-dining promotion. Oh wait—scratch that. The next day, Carly had the guts to walk into Le Cellier at prime lunchtime and ask for a table with no reservation. We didn’t get one, but she definitely gets points for trying!
On our monorail ride to lunch, we stopped off at the Ticket & Transportation Center because I thought there would be a Guest Relations window there at which I could purchase my Tables In Wonderland dining discount card. Now I know what you’re thinking… You’re thinking, “Lurkyloo, it ain’t called the ‘Ticket & Transportation & Guest Relations Center’!”
So as I stood in line at a ticket counter waiting to be told that I needed to head back to the Magic Kingdom if I wanted Guest Relations, I watched a scene unfold that would be one of my greatest nightmares: A large family was standing at the counter at almost 2pm trying to buy $$ one-day tickets for the Magic Kingdom, only to be told by the kindly Cast Member that the park would be closing at 7pm for the extra-cost Halloween party. She tried to talk them into tickets to Epcot or a Park Hopper or a multi-day pass, but apparently they only had this one day to spend at Disney World, and they wouldn’t be coming back for several years. It made me sad…
Anyway, after I’d had my own hopes and dreams gently crushed, Carly and I proceeded to the Polynesian, where I paid full price for this:
They were pretty dang good—I think it’s cuz The House made them! We’d been go-go-going since our DFTW tour that morning, so it was nice to finally stop, take a breath, and get to know each other. Of course, I then wasted the whole break babbling about Disney weddings, but it was wonderful to converse with someone who knew what the H I was talking about—and actually cared about it too!
After lunch we stumbled around the Polynesian trying to find the path to Luau Cove, but in doing so we lucked into a wedding being set up at Sunset Pointe, an Escape wedding location. Of course, we took bajillions of pictures.
It was funny because at first the photographer and videographer thought we were guests, so they were shooting us shooting them. We were like, “Uh, no, we’re nobody…” — hope we don’t end up in the final product!
We finally got rousted like the crashers we were because the groom and guests were headed our way.
Off to Luau Beach!
Apparently the ceremony spot is right where those boats are.
Next stop: BoardWalk Conference Center!
St. James Room
Park Place Room
Marvin Gardens A, B & C
On our way over to the Yacht & Beach Club Convention center, we got to see how the chairs and cake table get to Sea Breeze Point.
Yacht Club Convention Center – Grand Harbor Salon VII
You gotta admit, Disney’s convention centers are more interesting-looking than most!
Hampton or Saybrook Room
Cape Cod Hall D set up for a wedding rehearsal
Yacht Club Gazebo
I’d never been inside Atlantic Dance Hall, and it isn’t open during the day, so we decided to take a peek. They were setting up for some event, and tons of people were going in and out, so we darted inside to see how far we could get before we were asked to leave.
So, the way the Food & Wine Classic works is they offer five booze-related seminars at 4:30 pm, and then at 5:30 pm you can go out and graze at the tasting booths in the causeway between the Swan and the Dolphin. Each booth is sponsored by a vintner or one of the restaurants in the hotel. The samples require tickets that cost $2 each (and most samples require more than one ticket) or $45 for 25 tickets, or you can buy a $50 wristband that gives you unlimited samples and admission to one of the booze seminars.
They made me pick a seminar to attend when I booked the package because that’s the only way you can get your wristband. I asked how it would work if I didn’t really want to attend the seminar and was told that I just had to show up at some point to pick up the wristbands. But when we breezed in around 5pm, the check-in staffers had already left and taken the wristbands with them. And there were no event staffers in the halls or at the main event desk. So Carly sat in the back of the seminar gamely attempting to create some sort of smoking cocktail while I hunted down a few staffers, each with less knowledge about the wristbands than the last.
Modern Mixology Seminar
Finally, after the seminar had ended and everyone else went out to the causeway to form huge lines for all the food stations, a frazzled staffer turned up two wristbands and sent us on our way. Oh, and we each got a nifty plastic tray/plate thingy with a slot for a plastic wineglass.
The setup was interesting. Because the causeway is also the path to the boats, every 20 minutes or so the crowd swelled with people getting off the boats and heading into the hotels. These mystified tourists had to push their way through long lines of tipsy revelers waiting for “free” booze.
Down at the Dolphin end of the causeway, a stage covered the fountain and the smooth jazz band Pieces of a Dream covered the stage.
The Latin Jazz All-Stars (a *real* jazz band and one I’d actually have loved to see) were also supposedly on the bill, but every time I walked by that night and the next one, it was always Pieces of a Dream.
Donning our wristbands, Carly and I dived right in. There was a huge line for bluezoo’s Shrimp Cocktail Steam Roller…
….so we started with…
… and proceeded to…
They also had an assortment of fussy little desserts by Executive Pastry Chef and two-time World Pastry Champion Laurent Branlard.
The chocolate thingy was pretty good, but the two-time World Pastry Champion is gonna have to do more than that to earn the Lurkyloo Seal of Approval. (Two words: peanut butter.)
The Fountain was also serving the classic ice cream accompaniment… falafel?
By far the most popular non-booze-related station was Shula’s Steakhouse, where they were serving mini filets with creamed spinach. We bit the bullet and stood in line for this one. It moved soooooo slowly because it’s kinda hard to turn out made-to-order steaks quickly. It’ll be interesting to see if they attempt this again next year.
Because it is impossible to cut a steak with one hand, we nabbed a highboy for this one. As we were enjoying the unique experience of eating steak and creamed spinach standing up, someone began shrieking at us from the line, “Lurkyloo! Where’s Patrick?! Where’s Patrick, Lurkyloo?!!” Caught off guard, I began patting my pockets and wondering, “I had him here just a minute ago, didn’t I? Did I accidentally set him down somewhere and leave him?”
Regaining my senses, I shrieked back, “He’s at home in LA working on storyboards for the season finale of The Ricky Gervais Show that are due today so he can come out to Disney World next week!!!” (I have a very powerful set of lungs.) Later I ran into her again, and we had a lovely conversation in our indoor voices. She’s a DISBoards lurker who may at this very moment be lurking on this site!
Carly and I were basically out of commission after eating an entire steak, but we selflessly soldiered on so that I could report on all the other dishes for you.
Il Mulino offered a “handcrafted” meatball sandwich—is there any other way to make a meatball sandwich? Perhaps some places use a steam-powered Rube Goldberg machine that shapes the meat, hits it with a blowtorch, and slaps it in a bun with robotic arms? And don’t get me started on the baffling use of quote marks around the word petite in the description…
By this time the line for bluezoo’s shrimp steam rollers had died down, so we grabbed a couple of those.
This one went into my mouth and right back out again (discretely, with a napkin). If I want already-been-chewed food, I’ll do the work myself, thank you!
The Verdict: The Swolphin Food & Wine Classic began the dawning of my gradual realization that food-and-wine themed festivals are really more about booze than food. If you don’t drink, you really are getting only half the experience—and possibly less! At this event there were more than twice as many booze booths as food booths. Of the eight food choices, two of those were dessert. I’d say $50 for a tasting wristband is a terrible deal if you’re not drinking and a fabulous steal if you are. For me, the best thing about the Swolphin Food & Wine Classic was getting to hang out with Carly. So unless you can drink your weight in booze or have a charming Disney blogger to go with, you may wanna give this one a pass.
Our guts busted, we decided to call it a night… except neither of us did! On a whim, Carly decided to stop in at Hollywood Studios, which turned into an odyssey of frustration: taking the boat over only to find the park closing for the night, riding the boat back to Epcot and finding it wall-to-wall bodies (because it was the only park open past 7:00 that night), then having to make her way through the crush to wait in an endless line for a bus back to her resort. I think she even said there was a fight at the bus stop!
Meanwhile, I decided there was one square inch of space left in my tummy and I was gonna bomb it with the scallop and short rib appetizer I’d missed out on at bluezoo the previous night. The weird thing was, when I got it, it was totally blah—not nearly as good as I’d remembered. I usually never say anything, but the waitress was really friendly so I mentioned it to her. The next thing I knew, she’d had the head chef make me a new one! Apparently the guy who made the first one was new, and he’d been having trouble. Well, I didn’t want to be rude, so I stuffed down another whole appetizer (this one much better!).
It was still early when I waddled outta bluezoo, so I decided to take a boat over to the BoardWalk to pick up my fave peanut butter chocolate cake slice (I don’t know—for later, maybe?). On my way back, I got to watch IllumiNations from the back of the boat, which made me so happy! And when I got back to my room, I got to have a Skype chat with Patrick, which made me even happier!