Friday, September 30, 2011

(Must Do: Fantasia Gardens Mini Golf)

It seems that I have been talking about traditions a lot lately, and Fantasia Gardens is no exception. In an earlier post this week, I recommended arriving in the early morning hours to your Disney resort so that you could spend the day doing as you pleased, while maximizing your vacation time. For us, Fantasia Gardens is one of those first-day traditions.

Inspired by Disney's full-length feature film Fantasia, Fantasia Gardens is an 18-hole, interactive mini golf course. There are actually two options for play; Fantasia Gardens and Fantasia Fairways. Fantasia Gardens is what most visitors seem to prefer, as it resembles a (not-so-traditional) mini golf course with interactive elements such as shooting water and musical tones. Next door is Fantasia Fairways, a miniature scale course for the more serious or experienced golfer. During busy seasons, Fantasia Gardens is usually crawling with visitors, while the Fairways are pretty empty. It seems to be the place that people go if they just want to shoot a few holes and don't want to deal with the crowds. I have not experienced Fantasia Fairways myself as I can't seem to stay away from all of the fun at the Gardens.

Each of the 18 holes at Fantasia Gardens represents a different song from the movie Fantasia. At the beginning of each hole, there is a book explaining, in musical form of course, the best strategy for getting a hole in one. Hole 8, as pictured above, just happens to be one of my favorites. It features that villain that everyone loves but never seems to know his name; Chernobog. The cavern is dark and even a bit scary (especially at night). Send the ball home and you're rewarded with some great special effects. I won't tell you everything that happens, but here's a little preview...

There's so much detail here, and if you love Fantasia, you'll love Fantasia Gardens. Each hole has its own music and special effects. There are dancing alligators, hippos in tutus, broomsticks that throw water, and those cute little dancing mushrooms that I am for whatever reason kind of in love with.

Visiting during the day is just as fun as playing at night, but there are certainly trade-offs. For one, if you can manage to go earlier in the morning (the course opens at 10am), you can usually avoid a great deal of the crowds. On our last visit, we actually went at night - around 930pm. The crowds were minimal, and some of the effects at night are even more dazzling (especially Night on Bald Mountain, as mentioned above). No matter when you decide to go, I recommend that you avoid visiting in the middle of the day. Crowds are certain to be at their highest, and while they do a great job of spreading out the wait times between golfers, it seems like it could be a hassle. Regardless, you can catch some great views of the Tower of Terror day or night. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams!

There's so much more to Walt Disney World than just the theme parks, as fabulous as they are, and a round of mini golf is great for kids of all ages. Fantasia Gardens is open seven days a week from 10am - 11pm. The easiest way to get to Fantasia Gardens is by car if you have one - parking is complementary. You can also get there by taking a bus from one of the theme parks to the Swan or Dolphin, and then walk from there. Fantasia Gardens is located in the Epcot resort area. Admission for one round of golf is $12 per adult, and $10 for children ages 3-9.

Have you been to Fantasia Gardens? Do you have a favorite recreational experience in Walt Disney World? Leave it in the comments!

Happy Golfing!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

(Disney World Eats: Pizza)

Everybody likes pizza. You don't have to love it, and it doesn't have to be your favorite food, but every once in a while, you just have to have a slice. Disney certainly has no shortage of the saucy snack - take a look at two of my favorite places to grab a bite of the good stuff.

Pizza Planet, February 2005

Pizza Planet is somewhat of a tradition for me. Since we first started our yearly trips, it's been a must-stop. I love to go and grab a cheese pizza, and kick some butt in a game of air hockey. 

Pizza Planet, March 2006

It's actually pretty good pizza - it's served nice and hot with a good load of sauce, which is important. The crust tastes awesome, and the cheese is good. This is no award winning pizza, but it's great for a quick mid-day meal or a snack if you share it.

Pizzafari, May 2007
Hop over to Animal Kingdom, and Pizzafari is serving a similar meal. While the pizza is largely the same, the atmosphere is not. There are multiple rooms here with a lot to look at. Choose a seat in the Upside Down room as we did, and you'll be eating along with animals that spend much of their time living upside down. Other rooms include the Camouflage Room, Nocturnal Room, Home Room, Four Seasons Room and the Bug Room. Solely animal-themed songs are played in the background, if you listen carefully. An individual cheese pizza will run you $8.39, and comes with a Caesar salad.

Pizza Planet, May 2009

Pizza Planet may not have as big a variety of rooms, but it offers a different pizza experience. For one, the wonderful songs of Randy Newman are on constant play here. Randy Newman is awesome, there's just no denying it. Here you can here the songs that he did for the Toy Story Movies.

Pizza Planet, May 2010
Pizza here is slightly less expensive, but only because you have the option to purchase an individual pie without the side salad. An order of cheese pizza here will run you $5.99. Both Pizza Planet and Pizzafari offer desserts, and they vary from one another. The only thing that Pizza Planet doesn't have that Pizzafari does is breadsticks. So, what will it be: beautiful painted murals of animals to explore while you eat, or an exhilarating game of air hockey after your meal? For me, it's the latter. I'm a Pizza Planet girl through and through. 

Do you have a favorite Disney spot to grab some pizza? Tell me all about it!

Happy Eating!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

(Antoni Gaudi, Pride of Barcelona)

The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's Magnum Opus

Upon returning from Barcelona, I realized that I had come home with so much more than just a tan. I had a sense of travelling parts of the world that I had never been before, and I came away from it all with a new obsession: Antoni Gaudi. My heart aches daily with the yearning to go back to Barcelona, and I truly don't believe that my experience in this amazing city would be the same without being touched by Gaudi's genius.

Casa Batlló 

Born in 1852, Gaudi truly had an architectural style all his own. He introduced new techniques and materials, and was well known for his work done with mosaics. Trencadis, his most famous of methods, is a type of mosaic made with discarded pieces of ceramic. This is evident in many of his creations throughout the city.

More of  Casa Batlló 

Casa Batlló, built in 1877, is a prime example of Gaudi's complete aversion to using straight lines. Most of the facade features his trencadis, and most of the building has a rippled, flowing look. The local name for the building is the House of Bones, and I can see why based on the balconies that possess a very skeletal look. The roof of the building has a scaly-looking mosaic, which to me resembles the scales of a fish and to many others resembles the back of a dragon or dinosaur. I regret not having the time to actually explore the building as our visit in Barcelona could never be long enough, and am planning a Gaudi-specific trip for some time in the (perhaps very) distant future. 

Casa Milà

Casa Milà was officially completed in 1912, and has a very tame, Gothic look compared to many of Gaudi's other works. Gaudi had planned for the Casa Milà to be a religious symbol, but his original plans were discarded when it was determined that the height of many of his statues violated the city's building code.  Officials ordered the demolition of aspects exceeding standard building heights for the city, including a large statue of the Virgin Mary. The very-devout Gaudi nearly gave up on the project, but was persuaded not to by a priest. The owners of the building gave Gaudi a lot of trouble during the construction of this building, and in the early 1980s it was in very poor condition. It has since been renovated and looks to be in great condition, as pictured above.

 One of, it not the very favorite part of Barcelona for me is Parc Guell. A garden complex that climbs up and up for miles, evidence of Gaudi's genius is everywhere here. From his amazing work with mosaics to the dripping, Gothic elements and modern whimsicalness, this place is really a feast for the eyes. It's also a workout for your legs, if you choose to walk every single step.

Eusebi Guell, whom the park was named after, originally had intended for it to be a housing site. With only two houses, none of which were designed by Gaudi, it was unsuccessful. The site was very prestigious at the time, but with no one interested in purchasing either house, plans were scrapped. Guell suggested that Gaudi purchase the site, and that is exactly what happened. In 1906, Gaudi used his savings to purchase the site and moved in with his family and father. He lived in the house for 20 years, and turned Parc Guell into what it is today. Gaudi's house is now a museum that can be visited, for a fee, during your visit to the park. Entrance to the park itself is free.

There is much to be seen and explored at Parc Guell, and I urge you to take the time to do it. If you get there early enough in the morning, crowds are very low. This would be a great place to pack a picnic and enjoy it from a place where you can really take in the beautiful views that the hillsides provide. 

My favorite element of Parc Guell is this good-looking guy, pictured above. Gaudi's dragon is made with his famous mosaic work, and it's really a sight to be seen. There were tons of people crowding around it to get a photo, and I can see why - it's pretty famous throughout all of Barcelona. In 2007, some jerk beat the heck out of the poor guy with a crowbar. Why someone would want to destroy such a gorgeous piece of work is beyond me. He was restored of course, and looks better than ever. Take that, vandal. There are replicas of the dragon in every single gift shop, and there was no way I was leaving the city without taking one home with me. It now sits proudly in our new tiny studio apartment, and I wouldn't give it up for anything! 

The Sagrada Familia is truly Gaudi's opus. My breath was taken away the moment I saw it, and the insane height of it ensures it can be seen from many spots in the city. Nothing really compares to being right underneath it though; it just makes you feel so small. What's even more heartbreaking about the structure though, is knowing the story behind it.

Construction of the Sagrada Familia commenced in 1882, but Gaudi took over in 1883. Design of the Roman Catholic church was completely transformed, as only Gaudi could do. The structure is rich with religious symbols; an entire side of the Sagrada Familia is devoted to the Nativity. The facade to the West symbolizes the Passion, while the yet-to-be-completed South facade will represent the Glory. Eighteen spires, representing the twelve apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest of the spires, Jesus Christ, were included in Gaudi's original design. So far, eight of them have been constructed; four apostles on the Nativity Facade, and four apostles on the Passion facade. 

On the fateful day of June 7, 1926, Gaudi was walking along the Gran Via de les Catalanes, when he was hit by a tram. He passed out, and it took a long time for anyone to notice him. He was mistaken for a beggar, with his worn old clothes, and he wasn't carrying any ID. He was finally taken to a hospital, but it was too late. On June 10, Antoni Gaudi was dead. He was aged 76, and at the height of his career. He had spent the last years of his life absolutely devoted to the construction of the Sagrada Familia.

Gaudi never worked with blueprints, and instead preferred the use of three-dimensional scale models when designing his architecture, molding them as ideas came to him. In 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, those models were destroyed by Catalan anarchists. Today's design is based on reconstruction of the models, with the addition of modern design. There are those that are opposed to the post-Gaudi continuation of construction, because they feel that the finished product won't live up to Gaudi's vision. Upon completion which is slated between 2026 and 2028, the Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church building in the world. 

I am confident that I will be returning to Barcelona, because I know I couldn't go my entire life without again being immersed in what I now consider the greatest city on Earth. When we do get back there, I hope to take the time to really explore all of Antoni Gaudi's inspiring works. Until then, this is a great book for more information, and I also found an amazing film on Hulu. Enjoy!

Happy Travelling!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

(Hit the Bulls-Eye: Toy Story Midway Mania)

By now, I'm sure most of you are familiar with Hollywood Studios' newest craze, Toy Story Midway Mania. Our version in Orlando opened officially on May 31, 2008, with another in California opening on June 17 of the same year. Toy Story has long been one of my all-time favorite movies, so I was very excited when I heard the news that Disney was bringing this to life. Fast forward to 2009, the first experience that I had with the interactive carnival game ride.

Along with the introduction of Midway Mania came Pixar Place, a new land of sorts in Disney's Hollywood Studios. I was originally very upset when Who Wants to be a Millionaire: Play It! was closed, because who doesn't love that game? I always used to go in wishing that I would get that spot in the hot seat, and at the same time scared to death that it could actually happen. It was difficult for me to let that one go, but what Disney had in store was so worth the sacrifice. Pixar Place is fairly small right now, but I have no doubt that it will turn into something very special in the years to come. The original Pixar Studios in California was the inspiration for the new addition to Hollywood Studios, and our favorite characters from the Toy Story trilogy have been let loose on the built-to-scale replica. Everywhere you look there are Green Army Men, Monkeys in a Barrel, pieces from board games and other Pixar characters climbing walls and hanging from buildings. Pixar Place currently has one place to stop for snacks, Hey Howdy Hey Take Away. If you're looking for a frozen drink (raspberry lemonade or Coke) and a souvenir bucket of popcorn, this is your place!

Now for the best part! First of all, if you haven't yet experienced Midway Mania, make it your mission to grab a Fastpass first thing in the morning. If you get there early enough in the morning, you can walk right on the ride and get a Fastpass to ride it later. This is by far the most popular attraction in Hollywood Studios right now, and there is no sign of that popularity slowing down. Fastpasses run out quickly and early here!

Upon entering Midway Mania, you are immediately shrunk down to the size of a toy. Don't be bummed if you have to wait in a line here - this place is a feast for the eyes. Disney did a great job of incorporating our favorite games from childhood (like Candyland and Chutes & Ladders) in this toyland atmosphere. Mr. Potato Head fills the position of the Carnival Barker, and as an interactive animatronic, can identify people in the audience while singing and telling jokes. Woody, Buzz and all of their friends have rounded up their favorite games and set up a carnival of midway-style games to test your skills. Aside from the initial practice round (which really helps you get a good feel for how to play), there are five mini games throughout the ride. My personal favorite is Buzz Lightyear's Flying Tossers, a ring-toss game featuring Buzz and his alien friends. Other games include an egg toss game featuring Hamm, a plate-breaking game featuring the Green Army Men and Woody's suction cup shooting game. Bo Peep originally had a balloon popping game, but was replaced with Rex and Trixie's Dino Darts with the release of Toy Story 3 in May of 2010.

The ride is very fast-paced, and the games are incredibly fun and addictive. It's really too bad that the lines are so long, because once it's over all you want to do is play again! Each vehicle features what looks like a cannon, which is operated by pulling its string. The functions change depending on what game you are in; sometimes the cannon shoots darts, other times baseballs, and so on. You arm may get a bit tired after a while, with the fast-paced pulling that you do in a desperate attempt to beat your opponent! Each game is incredibly immersive, with excellent 4-D effects - you may even get splashed with some water!

This attraction by far exceeds Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom, especially due to the fact that I kind of kick butt on this one! Buzz Lightyear's attraction is in major need of an update, and I can never seem to figure that one out. When you hit a target in Midway Mania, it responds very well whereas Space Ranger Spin always feels like a shot in the dark to me. J is very good at both games, and almost always wins. Notice the scores above though - I was way ahead the entire game (right), until the bonus round when he snuck up on me and ended up winning by 100 points (left)! Notice the percentage of accuracy though - it still counts as a win to me!

This ride is just all in good fun to me, and I look forward to it every time I can make it to Walt Disney World. There are some people who take this game very seriously though! Apparently each of the 5 games have what are called "Easter Eggs," which are triggers that allow for you to score more points. There are even websites explaining each of these hidden targets. It's actually sort of interesting, and I'm ashamed to admit that I kind of want to give these a try! So, since I'm certain that many of you have experienced the ride, I'm curious: do you have any strategies for scoring the most points, or do you like to just go and have fun? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Happy Gaming!

Monday, September 26, 2011

(Go to the Mardi Gras: Port Orleans French Quarter)

The second of two sister resorts inspired by New Orleans, Port Orleans French Quarter is without a doubt one of the best options in Walt Disney World's moderate price range. Opened on May 17, 1991 as Port Orleans Resort, it was not yet a partner with Port Orleans Riverside (then Dixie Landings). While they have since joined to make two parts of a whole Port Orleans, each resort is quite unique. With over 1,000 guest rooms, French Quarter has a lot to offer its guests.

From the moment you walk into the lobby, you are immediately hit with the luscious sounds of New Orleans jazz. I'm quite sure that our check-in would have gone smoothly, but in our excitement, we left North Carolina much too early and arrived in Orlando at about 430am. I certainly wouldn't recommend attempting to check in at that time - needless to say, we were SOL for the moment! So, after a 2-hour nap in the car, we again attempted the check-in process. We were bleary-eyed and totally groggy, so I don't remember much, to be honest. I think the cast member who checked us in thought that there was something wrong with us. In any case, we got all set up and moved on to some breakfast.

At breakfast - it was a bit early for pictures!

As silly as it sounds, I really do recommend arriving to your Disney resort in the early morning hours, especially if you're driving. You're exhausted yes, but there's something very magical about that hour. The grounds are quiet and peaceful, the grass is covered in dew and the weather is cool. There's next to no one in the cafeterias, and it's truly a great time to wander around and familiarize yourself with where you are going to be staying. Plus, you have an entire day to enjoy the parks or go mini golfing (a tradition for us), or whatever you want to do. It definitely maximizes your vacation time. Anywho, end of tangent - on to breakfast. Port Orleans French Quarter really only has the one option for dining, and that is the Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory. French Quarter's sister resort, Port Orleans Riverside, has a full-service restaurant that does serve breakfast, so if you're interested, you could take the hike (or ride) over there. It's less than 10 minutes from door to door at either resort - a pleasant walk.

You can pretty much expect the same from Sassagoula as you can from the other moderate resort cafeterias, and for that matter, the value resorts as well. The breakfast is great - it has sort of become a tradition for me to grab a cheese danish on the first morning of our vacation. You can also expect to find a great variety of hot breakfast options such as french toast, pancakes, and Mickey waffles. There are also great cinnamon buns and delicious beignets - but more on those later.

Sassagoula Floatworks has a fun atmosphere. Everything that you think of when you think Mardi Gras is hanging from the ceiling of the dining room. Trumpets, crowns, beads and much more, all set in what resembles a warehouse.

While French Quarter does not have a table service restaurant, they do have a pretty great bar. Scat Cat's Lounge offers alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in a relaxed atmosphere until 12:30am daily. We were fortunate to catch an entertaining one-man band outside of the bar one evening. He definitely seemed to favor Neil Diamond, and his version of Sweet Caroline had the crowd going crazy! We really enjoyed watching him - I hope that he still works there (he told us he splits his time between FQ and Universal Studios!)

The grounds of Port Orleans French Quarter are gorgeous. Flowers are abundant, as are the water fountains. It's really a great place to just wander around and enjoy the surroundings. You can also catch a carriage ride from Port Orleans Riverside. I have not done this personally, but I imagine that there is no better way than to really participate in your surroundings and take it all in.

There is one pool at Port Orleans French Quarter, and it's a good one! Scales, the huge dragon slide ridden by King Neptune, will certainly tempt you into taking a ride. My personal favorite are the members of the Alligator Band, which can be found all around Doubloon Lagoon. Watch out though, their instruments shoot water!

Since both Port Orleans resorts are located in the Downtown Disney area, they offer access by boat to the shopping district. One of my favorite elements of our stays at both of the resorts was the boat ride to Downtown Disney. The scenery is great, and it's another way to get a tour of your surroundings. The boat ride is leisurely and relaxing...and probably a bit slower than the bus (a boat arrives only every 20 minutes). If you're in a hurry, maybe this isn't the best option. Note though that French Quarter does share a bus with Riverside, which can be a hassle during the busy seasons. Riverside has 4, count 'em f-o-u-r bus stops, so overcrowding is inevitable. Our stay was in early May, and we really didn't experience any bus issues; certainly not like we did at another moderate resort that won't be named. Cough Caribbean Beach cough...

Powder face! The beignets are scrumptious! 

Now, on to those man-catching beignets (as they say in my beloved Princess & the Frog). I have not yet had the privilege of visiting the real New Orleans (but mark my words I'll get there!) so I have no real basis for comparison of Disney's beignets to those of the Big Easy. I do, however think that Disney's are quite tasty! Don't think that you're just going to mosey on up and get some though, unless you're one of those people who always seem to get lucky. There's almost definitely a line, and if there's no line, there's still a wait. These guys are made fresh and it's a good thing too! You can get three beignets for about $3, and they're served oh-so-warm with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. We had to wait about 15 minutes once we placed our order, but it was worth the wait. We brought the sweets back to our room (and I'm glad we did, because we both had mad cases of powder face when we were through) and chowed down. One of the biggest complaints that I have heard about Disney's beignets are that they tend to be on the heavy side, rather than the light and airy version that is supposedly found in New Orleans. J shared this sentiment, and said that while he found them to taste good (doesn't anything fried and covered in powdered sugar?) he wished they were a bit lighter.

Our rooms were clean, comfortable, and everything that you expect from a Disney resort. The sizes are comparable to the other three moderate resorts as well as those at the value resorts. There are three options for your rooms; Standard View, Garden View and Water View. Of course, all vary in price. We had just a standard view room, and were in building two. There are two floors in each building, and this is one of the few places where you actually want to be on the bottom floor. There are no elevators in the buildings, and carrying all that luggage up the stairs can be quite tiring! French Quarter is a decent sized resort, but not so big that any building is better than the other. We had a very short walk to the main building and the bus stop, and we were as happy as clams in a pot of New Orlean's jambalaya.

photo courtesy of Disney Parks Blog

Ready for the best part? In March of 2012, 512 guest rooms at French Quarter will be converted into Royal Guest Rooms, inspired by one of my favorite Disney animated films, the Princess & the Frog! It's a perfect fit, and I'm excited to see the final result! Reservations are now being taken for a stay in one of these rooms. If you're a lucky guest, tell me all about it!

So....would I recommend a stay at Port Orleans French Quarter?

Yes! Si! Ja! Oui! Sea! Da!

Ok, those are all of the languages that I know how to say the affirmative. Port Orleans French Quarter is a great place for families travelling with or without children. There's plenty for the kids to do - they'll love the waterslide - and romance is definitely in the air for couples travelling without kids. The flowers are fragrant, the jazz is hot, and the bar is hopping! You can bet your beignet that you're going to have a great time at this resort.

Before I go, take a look at this video created by the amazing folks over at AllEars. It's a good tour through the resort, and features some fantastic music (Dr. John does Disney proud!)

Happy Vacationing!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

(Disney Does...Avatar?)

On Tuesday, Disney made the announcement that they will be pairing with James Cameron to bring an Avatar-themed land to their Animal Kingdom theme park. While I do recognize the similarities between the messages of conservation that both the Animal Kingdom and Avatar convey, I'm just not sure how I feel about this announcement. Avatar was a very visually stimulating movie, but certainly not a favorite on my list. It sort of feels like a Universal Studios move; acquiring the rights to a huge movie and making a land out of it (ie, Harry Potter). I am a huge Universal fan, but there are major factors that distinguish it from Disney. I do not like the idea of the two crossing paths. Don't even get me started on how I felt when I found out that Disney had purchased Marvel. What a mess.

Nonetheless, I trust that my beloved Disney won't let me down, and in 2013 when construction is slated to begin, will be sure that the creation of this new land is done with subtlety and a huge serving of the Disney magic that everyone so loves. So however reluctantly, I'm going to show my support. Check out my picks for what to wear to show your Na'vi blue!

1. Tibi 3/4 Sleeve Drape Dress, $297 | 2. Tibi Crepe-de-Chine Top, $275 | 3. American Apparel Jody Sunglasses, $35 | 4. TopShop Scallop Tank, $30 | 5. Madewell Dovetail Shirtdress, $158 | 6. Lanvin Asymmetric Top, $425 | 7. ASOS Frill Dress, $204.90 | 8. Urban Outfitters Boyfriend Blazer, $78 | 9. Tibi Cobweb Lace Dress, $396 | 10. Hanky Panky Boyshorts, $29 | 11. Alice & Olivia Fiona Dress, $550 | 12. Pierre Hardy Colorblock Ankle Boots, $1,200 | 13. ASOS Pleated Maxi Skirt, $47.57 | 14. Equipment Signature Blouse, $145.60 | 15. Free People Utility Jeans, $98 | 16. DVF Judith Wrap Gown, $1,600 | 17. Anthropologie Dessous Ballerinas, $99.95 | 18. Trina Turk Tassel Necklace, $248

Happy Shopping!