February 19, 2016

Our WDW Christmas Adventure Part II: Disney Resorts and Disney Springs

Aloha! My name is Len and if you remember (even after wanting to forget) my last guest post here, you’ll know that I’m back with part two of a series of columns devoted to our Walt Disney World Christmas vacation.

Instead of following a chronological timeline of our trip, I thought it’d be easier to break down the report to specific parks and areas.  This way I won’t have to strain my already poor memory on exact details and it won’t give you readers whiplash jumping from one park to another in states of utter confusion!

I covered the Universal portion in part one of this series and will now take a look at Disney Springs and the WDW resorts we stayed at during our time in Orlando.

I’ll start with Disney Springs first as this will be a fairly short take on the place. I’ve only been to WDW twice before, in 1996 and 2004, so my recollection of Disney Downtown is vague to say the least. I know major changes have occurred (the shutting down of Pleasure Island, etc.) over the last few years, but I don’t have enough history or perspective to really comment on it. I always felt Disney Downtown was an extravagant outdoor type shopping mall...an urban force of lights, neon, and commerce. With that being said, I’m digging the creative focus and direction of the newly appointed Disney Springs. The area has a more rural, outdoor “fresh air” feel to it that’s more in line with the quaint, rural themes of Main Street. Imagineers have begun reshaping the area with a more natural and relaxed approach. There’s increased usage of plants, flowers, and trees throughout the walkways and between the buildings. All of this ties into a rebirth of sorts for the shopping complex as well as reinforcing Spring as a time of renewal.

If adventure has another name...

Due to time constraints, we weren’t able to visit many establishments, but one targeted early on was Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar (based on the pilot who flew Indiana Jones in the beginning of Raiders). The place is surprisingly small, but that works to its advantage.  From a story viewpoint, it makes sense that an ex-pilot might open up someplace intimate to reminisce about grand adventures that spanned the globe. The bar would also serve to display artifacts and relics amassed throughout the years by a famed archeologist.  And boy, do the Imagineers use this premise to exert their considerable skills in artistry and theming.  The little touches and attention to detail are all there…from the unearthly beverage dispenser of green glowing juice to a large time capsule which doubles as a private dining area. Guests will feel as they’ve walked into a place totally at home in a George Lucas movie.  I’m not sure if it’s because Indy exists in a specific time period grounded in reality, but I think Disney does a better job at translating this property over Star Wars into rides and attractions. 

Of course, the upcoming SW land may change my opinion, but until that time, the  Hangar Bar clearly puts Indy ahead of Han Solo and company.

Dinosaur! The restaurant version. 

Although we didn’t get to experience the highly rated Raglan Road, we did get our fix of brontosauras burgers at T-Rex restaurant (okay, no bronto burgers as Hanna Barbera would be handing out cease and desist orders)!  Operated by the same company that owns Rainforest Café, I was expecting a moderately entertaining meal with second tier animatronics (no knock on Rainforest, but after a day at Disney, it’s hard to get excited about that place).  Boy, was I in for the shock of my life! As soon as I walked through the entrance, I was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of this place. Greeted by a ferocious Tyrannosaurus, the restaurant is littered with carefully crafted staging scenes that utilize lighting, color, sound, and movement on par with the best of Disney! Never mind that the food was mediocre (although portion sizes were generous), the theater like environment is worth the price of the meal and a huge dessert too. You have monstrous sea creatures floating atop the bar area, an ice cave for large parties to dine, and a more secluded, quiet area where you can eat next to a baby mastodon.  T-Rex is a sumptuous treat for the mind and senses and is not to be missed!

At the opposite end of T-Rex’s cavalcade of (in)sight and sounds, you can discover a quaint little shop like Erin McKenna’s Bakery. This is literally a “hole in the wall” with enough room for maybe a dozen customers. But what a gem of a find! We ordered a couple of the pastries including one of the best chocolate doughnuts I’ve ever eaten. It was of the cake variety…super moist with a chocolate frosting that mesmerized my taste buds. The doughnut was pricey (about $3.95), but worth every penny. Besides when you’re at a Disney resort, four dollars is equivalent to a buck and a half in real world currency…hah!

If the good Lord is willing, I hope to make it back to Disney Springs when construction is complete. I already like what I see and can imagine it will only get much better it heads to the finish line.

For this trip, my wife and I stayed at 5 different resorts! Yes, it is crazy and something only a goof ball like me would attempt. I love the theming of each individual resort, so I wanted to experience as many of the hotels at WDW as humanly possible. That being said, it was too much of  an overkill with the constant moving and packing. I’m blessed to have such an understanding wife who puts up with my Disney madness!

Animation before your eyes.

Our first two nights were at Disney’s Art of Animation. This resort falls into the value category, but it’s priced higher than the older All-Star hotels.

I stayed at the All-Star Music back in 1996 and wasn’t a big fan. The rooms were small, stairwells cramped, and it felt like your basic cookie-cutter motel but for a few Disney trappings.  Plus the food court felt like miles away, making those free refillable mugs practically useless. Although some may question whether AOA is worth the 33% price increase, it was for me. The rooms are bigger for one reason. And although the food court is still a long trek, the theming of the grounds makes the walk seem shorter. The Imagineers seemed inspired by the resort’s theme, utilizing a nice mixture of  2D and 3D art. While those huge props at the All-Stars seem a bit cheesy at times, the larger than life characters from Disney’s animated features fit right into the overall staging here.  

Our 3rd night saw us moving over to the Cabins at Fort Wilderness. I was tempted to book two nights, but I just couldn’t justify the cost seeing as how it was only for the two of us. The cabin can easily accommodate a family of six and that would make it worth the nightly room rate. With a kitchen, living room, and dining area, our cabin was beautiful and very homey. But getting out to Fort Wilderness is a task, let alone trying to reach the cabins. Maybe if I had a car and/or family, I would consider staying here again, but as that’s unlikely, I don’t see myself returning. 

Nighttime view at Coronado Springs.

Coronado Springs was next up.  I had originally booked here for two nights, but changed the first day to the aforementioned cabins. In hindsight, that was a mistake. We were given a free upgrade to a junior suite since Disney had run out of standard rooms. With living quarters and a huge master bedroom, this place had almost as much breathing space as the cabin! I love Coronado with its Aztec/Spanish art deco flair and design.  Panchitos gift shop is one of the coolest looking stores at a WDW resort and the only place you’ll see the Three Caballeros (other then Epcot’s Mexico pavilion).  The Pepper Market, with its array of food stations, is a great place to grab a bite.

Three nights at the Port Orleans Riverside seemed like an eternity after two 1-nighters…LOL!  This is a beautifully themed resort that really brings the feel of the South alive. From the architectural design of grand plantation manors to the Riverside Mill food court, Port Orleans imbues its guest with a feeling of relaxation and peace quite rare in the hustle and bustle of WDW.  Even three nights was not enough for us to fully experience all this resort has to offer. I highly recommend the “Make Your Own Pasta” station… a linguine lover’s dream!

Wilderness Lodge Totems.

Our final stop, and a ritual I’ve followed on our prior two trips, was Disney’s The Wilderness Lodge.  This resort is the “crème de la crème”, if hotels were desserts! The Disney term “coming home to the parks” is sheer marketing jargon for the most part, but it does ring somewhat true whenever I enter the lobby of this resort.  Wilderness Lodge is the epitome of Disney’s mantra for total immersive experience.  

Lobby fit for a (Cowboy) King!

Not for a second do you think you’re in former Florida swamp land. Here, you’re deep in the heart of the Northwest, off on some frontier expedition, looking for a night or two of rest and relaxation! Okay, that sounds like more marketing jargon, but you get my point! The rooms are excellent with adequate space, but the spotlight belongs to the lobby. From the immense totem designed pillars to the huge stone fireplace, Wilderness Lodge has a queue design that the park’s rides could only dream about. 

Meeting the Big Cheese.

Here’s a funny anecdote about this resort. I remember watching an episode of Family Matters where Urkel wins a science competition and is sent to WDW for the nationals. He just happens to be put up at the Wilderness Lodge, which I thought was a made up place for the show (this was ages before internet).  It was only during the credits that I found out it was filmed on location at Walt Disney World. I made a mental note to book this resort if I ever get a chance to get out to Orlando. Wishes do come true…and hey, got any cheese?

Coming Soon: Part III – Magic Kingdom

(Text and photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)

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