‘Mummy, can we go to Disney?’ – possibly the six most dreaded words in the British language (at least in our house). We like to holiday in a nice villa in the South-West of France or chill out at a cottage in Cornwall. We loathe theme parks, hate rollercoasters and are allergic to plastic, glitter and oversized cartoon characters. Yes, we’re holiday snobs but we’re happy (and yes, OK, horribly bourgeois, smug) holiday snobs. We twitch at Disney ads and say bah humbug to pixie dust.
Yet I discovered, on a recent trip to Florida, that you CAN do Disney discrete and even Disney delightful. It is actually possible to stay in fabulous hotels and eat in top-class restaurants. The entertainment can be world-class (they get some truly great acts and A-list names). You can even enjoy excellent bespoke facials and massages in a pretty upmarket spa. Disney will never be gritty and ‘authentic’ but then not everyone wants gritty and authentic. Sometimes it’s actually quite pleasant to go on holiday and for everything to be easy and, well, nice. Let’s be clear that the level of service at Disney is sky-high. You simply don’t get grumpy staff and if you find a piece of rubbish, I’d be very surprised. I only saw one bug in the whole week I was there (which, come to think of it, is a little spooky).
I went to Walt Disney World with a mind so closed it was double-bolted. I was convinced I was going to loathe it and had my ‘cynical’ hat rammed so hard onto my head that it was giving me a headache. But, over the course of a week, I had to eat that hat. Disney isn’t for everyone but it IS possible to have a pretty civilised holiday here – if you plan carefully. So, here, with no further ado, is my advice to picky (yes, and snobby and smug) parents.
Where to stay
You can do Disney on a shoestring and plenty of people stay off-campus or in budget accommodation and have a great time. But this isn’t an option for picky parents. If you can afford it I would advise the following:
If you’re feeling totally selfish: The Grand Floridian Very elegant, refined hotel on the waterfront (with pristine white beaches that nobody seems to use as they’re all reclining by the pool). The spa is a stroll away and there’s fine dining in the various restaurants (Citricos highly recommended). Despite being very busy when I visited, it never seemed crowded or noisy – just serene and sorted. Transportation to the parks is easy – via monorail, water launch or bus. Probably the most grown-up and sophisticated of all the Disney hotels.
If you like the exotic and the artistic: Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was blown away by this huge hotel, modelled on a very wild (and upmarket) African safari Lodge. The architecture is amazing and the attention to detail quite extraordinary. This is one both arty parents and active children will love. The hotel looks out over the Animal Kingdom and you may be able to see giraffes or antelope from your room. The setting outside is all very tropical.
It’s lively with loads of extra activities for children (storytelling by the indoor fire pit for example) and great food (much with an African influence).
If you like laid-back and easygoing: Beach Club Resort. I stayed here and found it a friendly, bustling hotel with a lively atmosphere and a great pool complex. It’s got three acres of water around it but, even so, you need to grab a space by the pools early on. Fun slides and mini whirlpools keep children occupied for hours. This is classic laid-back American comfort at its best (my room service was fabulous – though not everyone reported the same level I had) and should be a great compromise if you want comfort and class yet still want your children to have a blast.
The Theme Parks
It’s a must if you’ve got small children, and particularly girls. But let’s be honest, it is enormously crowded and you will have to queue for ages for many of the most popular rides. For tips on how to beat the queues and how to survive Magic Kingdom (and loads of other tips) check out my fellow blogger Linda Jones’ advice here .
However, there are some rather, er, magical bits.
• The Haunted Mansion: this beats any old ghost train. You start off locked in a darkened room with suitably lugubrious staff (the only time I have ever seen a Disney ‘cast member’ not smiling!) and then are escorted into your seats for a tour through the Haunted Mansion. Some of the effects are breathtaking (looking down on a ballroom with ghostly dancers was truly stunning). Would not be suitable for very young or suggestible children as it really is pretty spooky.
• Mickey’s PhilharMagic: engaging 3-D show in a big old-fashioned theatre. Great for all ages.
• Peter Pan’s Flight: gentle swooping ride over the rooftops of London and into Neverland.
• The big firework display Wishes…..(though it gets hugely crowded).
Not my game (but you might like):
• Splash Mountain: a vertiginous drop involving a lot of water.
• Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: a runaway train roller-coaster. Good entry level rollercoaster apparently.
• Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique: where little girls can be transformed into princesses – expect HUGE amounts of glitter, lace and puffball satin. Wince and bear it. Boys can now get the Jack Sparrow treatment (suspect some girls might prefer that too).
This really impressed me. The design is stupendous – incredibly well-thought out with huge attention to detail. Not remotely plastic and, at times, you could almost imagine you were in Africa or Asia (just without the bugs and no grinding poverty). Yes, it’s a confection but by heck it’s a clever one and I could have spent a lot of time here quite happily.
I really liked:
* Kilimanjaro Safari: an open-top vehicle takes you on a mini safari where, with very clever concealed enclosure devices, you feel as if you’re really going through the savannah, lurching down tracks and veering over wobbly bridges. The wildlife is pretty incredible and there’s an added extra – a frantic hunt to save a baby elephant (not real, don’t worry) from poachers. HUGE fun and brilliantly conceived.
* It’s tough to be a bug: you walk through the Tree of Life (a quite bizarre huge stone-carved tree) to the ‘root system’ for this 3-D and multi-media show about bugs. If you want the full-on experience (and aren’t scared of spiders!) sit in the middle (out on the edges, the 3-D isn’t as powerful and you miss some of the, er, attractions). Very very clever but watch out if young children are easily frightened.
* Finding Nemo – the Musical: clever and very original stage show using puppetry, dance and music. Children will love it and it’s bearable for adults though not quite up there with The Lion King.
* DINOSAUR: brilliant ride that takes you back on an against-the-clock adventure into the past. Amazing effects and some scary moments but, although you get thrown around a bit, it’s not a roller-coaster (halleluyah). I loved this one.
Not my game (but you might like):
• Kali River Rapids: white-water rafting – you get soaked.
• Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain: the ride that made me cry. Absolutely terrifying (to me) rollercoaster with a Yeti to boot.
I found it quite hard to get a grip on this one as it doesn’t have the cohesion of, say, Animal Kingdom and to be honest it didn’t really rock my boat. But it depends what you’re into and what you’re prepared to do for your children.
* The American Idol Experience. I really thought I’d loathe this and would be wincing all the way through but actually it was very impressive and a lot of fun. The singers (all visitors who had auditioned earlier) were pretty incredible and the crowd gets whipped up into a frenzy by the compere and the judges (though the Simon Cowell-alike was pretty lame and seemed horribly staged). You get to vote for your favourite at the end.
Not my game (but you might like):
• Muppet*Vision: 3D multi-media show. A bit wobbly round the edges but children loved it as did their parent muppet-fans.
• The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: the big one. You drop 13 stories at random, so you never get the same ride twice. My fearless friends reckoned it was ‘awesome’. I sat outside and listened to the screams.
• Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith: well, not live obviously! This was voted favourite rollercoaster by our gang – it’s fast and exciting (apparently) but smooth and great fun. I take their word for it.
I would have liked to have spent more time here as there was plenty to explore and the pace is less frenetic than man of the other parks. Parents will feel a nice warm glow that their children are getting a bit of educational value from their trip. Picky parents can also pretend for a little while that this is all a dream and they’re really in France, Morocco, Italy or Norway.
* Soarin’ – quite quite incredibly mind-blowing. You are strapped in and lifted up and then you become immersed in wrap-around visuals. You really do feel as if you’re hang-gliding over sea, mountains, fields etc – to the point where you lift your feet as you zoom down to the surface of the lake. Totally amazing but avoid if you get motion sickness!
* Turtle Talk with Crush: this is also quite remarkable, in a very different way. You get to talk to Crush (who’s on a big screen) and somehow (very clever) he talks back. Not a set-up but obviously some smart technology and a very quick-thinking Crush. Young children will be enthralled – and parents will laugh their heads off.
* IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth: very beautiful night-time firework display set to music.
Water Parks – Typhoon Lagoon
This was a bit of a revelation. If you have children ten to one they like water and mucking around and being active while you like to lie back (either frying in the sun or being sensible in the shade) with a glass of something in one hand and a good book in the other. Well, everyone gets their wish here. There’s a beach (pristine – no dog poo, no jellyfish, no bits of broken glass) with a bit wave that surges up and over every 90 seconds. There are exciting rides and quite places to curl up in a deckchair. They’ve thought of the lot here – you get a locker for all your stuff; you can hire towels or life jackets; you can buy a drink container and top it up as and when you want. There are even people around to take photos so you don’t get the camera wet. I could have parked myself here quite happily for a few days.
* Castaway Creek: a circular waterway that meanders around the park – you pop into a ring and float quietly round in endless circles should you desire (or use it as a lazy way to get around the park).
* Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool: those amazing six-foot waves. You can learn to surf here at certain times of the day – ideal if you’re nervous about children learning in the open sea.
* Shark Reef: learn to snorkel or scuba amongst tropical fish and real (small!) sharks. Again, a really clever idea as it’s totally safe.
Not my game (but you might like):
• Humunga Kowabunga: shoot out of the high speed tube at a ridiculous 40 mph.
• Crush ‘n’ Gusher: pretty intense water coaster with uphill climbs and vertiginous drops.
• Gangplank Falls: white-water rafting
I didn’t visit the other water park, Blizzard Beach but this also has a continuous flowing creek which circles the park, a large wave pool and a bunch of body slides, speed slides, raft rides and inner tube runs. The consensus is that this one is more suited to older children and teenagers while Typhoon Lagoon is more of an ‘all the family’ job.
Where to eat
All the hotels mentioned have a variety of restaurants and cafes and I was generally very impressed by the food on offer. Most have huge buffets for breakfast (Mickey shaped waffles with maple syrup and fresh fruit went down well). It’s worth hotel hopping though to try different tastes. I was expecting a lot of fast food and some mediocre menus but was blown away by the quality of most of the food. Many of the restaurants were serving food that was truly first-class – particularly the seafood, salads and the steaks (Americans really know how to do steak).
My favourite eating places included:
Spoodles at the Boardwalk Resort. Mediterranean inspired café and restaurant. I had breakfast here, sitting outside in the sun, overlooking the lake while a duck and ducklings waddled around hoping for leftovers. A hugely civilised way to start the day with superb oak-fired flatbreads, pancakes, crispy bacon and maple syrup. Fresh juice and great cappuccino.
The Flying Fish at the Boardwalk Resort. ‘New American’ cuisine with an emphasis on totally fresh and seasonal seafood. I had spiced calamari followed by the juiciest oak-grilled hand-harvested Maine scallops on a pea risotto. Heaven on a plate.
The Wave at the Contemporary Resort. You could be in New York or London at this smart, sophisticated and modern lounge and restaurant. The décor is minimal and (dare I say it, a bit bland) but the food is spectacular. The chef is hugely eco-conscious so you won’t find overfished species of fish and seafood. I had the most delicious sushi-grade tuna here, spiced and very lightly seared on a bed of sharp, tangy leaves. The puddings are out of this world.
Citricos at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. This large restaurant at the top of the Grand Floridian has an open to the restaurant kitchen and chefs who get totally over-excited about food. The steaks were sublime as was the swordfish (sweet and dazzlingly fresh). Madly civilised but warm and friendly. I would be happy to have this as my local restaurant and eat here all the time.
If you really want to push the boat out apparently Victoria and Albert’s (also at the Grand Floridian) is quite something. It’s won every award under the sun for its food, décor and service. Actually it sound a little over the top with harp music, strict evening dress code and ‘butler-style service’…no children under ten and reservations strictly required. Pricey too.
• The Hollywood Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios. Great GREAT steaks.
• Chefs de France at Epcot. French brasserie style eating.
• Tusker House Restaurant at Animal Kingdom. Bustling buffet with African influences.. Fabulous design.
• Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney. Fresh salads and good subs and sandwiches – great if you’re in a hurry.
Not so great:
• Yak & Yeti in Animal Kingdom: nice idea – fast food with an exotic theme but my chicken was greasy and sickly.
• Tony’s Town Square at Magic Kingdom – noise level at migraine level and my meal was cold – twice.
The Grand Floridian Spa
It’s not bad, not bad at all. Given the amazing design at some of the Disney hotels and restaurants, I was a little surprised that they hadn’t pushed the boat out a little more and made it really spectacular. The changing and waiting areas are a little cramped and gloomy – it would be nice to have separate changing rooms rather than an open-plan room with lockers.
But the therapists are very friendly and warm, and obviously very well-trained. My Swedish massage was highly competent and very relaxing – it wasn’t the absolute best I’ve had but certainly worth a creditable 8/10.
I would have liked to have tried the Aurum Manus Massage, a first for the spa which uses warmed organic oils and semi-precious stones to stimulate the meridians (possibly a little hippy-dippy but sounds interesting) and also the Bamboo Harmony Massage which uses bamboo sticks of various sizes to massage the body.
I’d also be interested to experience the facials using ama la products (organic and fair trade products made in Germany).
I really had no idea that Disney had spas – and good ones – in their resorts. Worth going just for this really….
Another surprise – Disney really does make some pretty desirable products. We fell in love with the Cook Shop in Downtown Disney where you can buy pretty tasteful Mickey-shaped accessories – fab teatowels, ice cube trays, colanders, glasses and bowls (with discrete logos). Great cookbooks and cooking ingredients too.
You can create your own T-shirt at the Haynes Design-a-Tee store – though be warned that certain themes just ‘aren’t Disney’ – no alcohol, no swearing and even divorce got a frown and a shake of the head.
Animal Kingdom has some rather fab safari Disney goodies – tasteful animal print bags and hats with discrete logos.
• Sparkly Mickey mouse stud ear-rings and Tinkerbell drop earings. Pretty tasteful bling.
• Disney FitFlops – black patent with mouse design on the soles of the sandals. Very cool.
• Mouse ear salt and pepper shakers
• Black patent and leopard print bag – deeply smart.
• Grunge Tinkerbell t-shirts.
For more great reviews of our trip vist the blogs of my fellow Disney 7
Becky at englishmum
Laura at Are we Nearly There Yet Mummy?
Linda at Have a Lovely Time
Lulu at Family Affairs
Alice at Dulwich Divorcee
Erica at littlemummy
You can read my own horribly cynical posts at Diary of a Desperate Exmoor Woman