Good Eats in DC – Scion Restaurant

Last weekend we made a completely unscheduled overnight trip up to DC. Bayley’s two weeks working at Woodward had come to an end, and both of her options for a ride home fell through, so early Saturday afternoon we hopped in the car and headed up to DC to get her. We decided to take our dog Indy with us, so before leaving Jen did a quick search to see if she could find a restaurant in the area that was dog-friendly (the search was literally “dog friendly restaurants in Washington DC“). The first hit in the results took her to BringFido, which led her to Scion Restaurant in the Dupont Circle area. It wasn’t all that close to our hotel, but we liked what we saw on the menu and decided to stop there for dinner as soon as we got to the city, so on the way up I used OpenTable to make a reservation for 7:45pm, noting that we had a dog with us.

When we arrived, parking was a bit of a hassle, but after hunting a bit we finally located a space on the street a few blocks away and walked over to the restaurant. When we got there, I stayed outside with Indy while Jen went to check in. While they had our reservation, the note that I put in OpenTable about having a dog with us apparently didn’t get transmitted to them, and as a result they weren’t quite ready to seat anyone with a dog since the end sections of the patio where they allow dogs weren’t set up. No matter, with a very friendly attitude they jumped right on it and set up the corner that had an awning over it and seated us quickly. Definitely a good start to the evening!

After being seated, we ordered our food and drinks. I decided to try something on draft, and chose the Sun King Wee Mac Scottish-style ale. I’m not a huge beer guy, so I don’t often call out what I drink, but this was one of the best beers I’ve had in quite a while. For my dinner, I ordered the Scion burger (sans onions and pickles) and Jen got the LBJ Mac and Cheese. I should also mention that when they brought our water out, they brought a plastic bowl full of water out for Indy, too, and kept it refilled while we were there. Nice touch!

While waiting on our food, it started raining pretty good, so we ended up switching tables in that same little corner area to avoid water runoff. I think due to water running in on the ground, Indy got a little wet (but not a big deal), but we stayed dry the whole time, even with the downpour it turned in to. Once the food arrived, we dug in. My burger was excellent, as were the garlic fries, which were some of the best garlic fries I’ve had. Jen’s mac and cheese was really good too, although she realized something we already knew from past experiences, that she’s not really a fan of lobster meat. Oops :)

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Overall we really liked everything we had, and the service was outstanding the entire time. Our experience that night led us to come back for brunch the next day with Bayley and her boyfriend. Thankfully it wasn’t raining this time, but the food and service were just as good. It was noticeably busier, but they had space for us in the opposite corner of the patio, so even at noon, we were seated right away. While I was tempted to get the Scion burger again, I ended up going with the cinnamon vanilla french toast. In a word: wow. It was absolutely delicious, and one of the only times that I’ve eaten french toast without any syrup. The vanilla drizzle was more than enough to top it, and I enjoyed every bite. Jen got the New Orleans Benedict (See the above ‘brunch’ link for a description), and while she enjoyed most of it, she wasn’t a big fan of the Cajun Hollandaise sauce that was on it. Bayley went with a side of mac and cheese and breakfast potatoes, both of which were delicious, and her boyfriend had the Scion burger.

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As mentioned throughout this post, both meals were absolutely delicious, and the service was outstanding. The Dupont Circle neighborhood that the restaurant is in is pretty cool, even if it was a pain to find parking (all parking garages we found were closed both times). We wish we could have spent more time in the area, but being on a compressed schedule that had us arriving in DC around 8pm Saturday and leaving right after brunch on Sunday, we simply didn’t have any time. Hopefully we’ll get some time to drive back up late in the summer before Bayley goes back to college. If we do, we’ll definitely be stopping at Scion again!

Random Disney Thoughts

I’m a bit late getting this done, but I wanted to get one last post in from our trip to talk about some of the things we hadn’t done on previous visits to Disney. The entire trip was a blast as usual, but a couple of the items below really helped make it even more memorable.

The 10-Day Pass

This is the first time we’ve done more than 5 consecutive days at Disney, and going in I was sure I was going to be sick of the parks half way through the trip, but can admit now that I was dead wrong. Normally we feel like we have to get everything done at whichever park we’re visiting the day we choose to be there, but having so many days on our hands, there was never any pressure to rush through the parks like we normally would. We went with a much more relaxed schedule where we’d head to a park whenever everyone work up, ride some rides, maybe head back to the hotel for a while, and later on either head back to that park, another one, or in a couple of cases to Downtown Disney for the rest of the evening. We had a general idea of which park(s) we wanted to visit every day based on the crowd calendar at EasyWDW.com, which we found to be pretty accurate. We did deviate from our plan a few times, but that was the nice thing about having so many days, as we felt like we had more flexibility in the schedule. If we had the time and extra money, it’s a pass we’d buy again.

We did make use of the ‘water parks fun & more’ option on our tickets, too, using them to gain entrance into DisneyQuest for a few hours the last Saturday we were there, before heading back to Hollywood Studios for one last park stint. For a Saturday, DisneyQuest seemed empty. I ended up sitting and relaxing most of the time we were there, as I wasn’t feeling that great (the heat was finally getting to me), but the kids had a blast.

Star Wars Weekends at Hollywood Studios

Star Wars Weekends are something they only do from mid-May through mid-June if I recall, and it was kinda cool. In addition to the existing Star Wars stuff they have at DHS (Star Tours, Jedi Academy, etc), they have a lot of characters on hand for autographs and pictures, and even some special celebrity appearances. We didn’t partake in the celebrity appearances, so I can’t really comment on what it entails, or how you get access to it. The characters were aplenty, though. Just about everywhere we went there were lines for various characters. Chewbacca, Luke, Lea, Boba Fett, Stormtroopers, and many, many more. It wasn’t just the kids who were in line either, there were plenty of adults, in some cases sporting Star Wars shirts, replica helmets they wanted signed, and a lot more. No judgement here, I have no leg to stand on, as I’m known to frequent autograph lines at races we attend :). Bayley got in on it too, taking pictures with a couple of characters. She was all too happy to wait 45min to get a shot with Chewbacca:

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One of the coolest things about Star Wars Weekends were the fireworks. They have a special ‘Symphony in the Stars’ fireworks show at 9:45pm each night of Star Wars Weekends with the fireworks shooting off to music from the movies. It was one of the best fireworks shows I’ve ever seen, to be honest. I have a few clips of it, but they’re nowhere near as good as the multi-angle video of the show that the WDWMagic guys have on their site. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend sitting through the whole 6+ minutes. Better than the nightly fireworks at Magic Kingdom, in my opinion.

Magic Kingdom 24-hour event

On May 22nd, the Magic Kingdom was open from 6am Friday to 6am Saturday to kick off the summer, using a Frozen-based theme of ‘Coolest Summer Ever’. We’d initially planned to be heading home that day, but once my wife saw this was happening, we pushed our 7 days at Port Orleans back to accommodate. We really didn’t see much in the way of promotion anywhere for this, as Disney seemed to be more interested in publicizing the 24 hour event going on at the same time at Disneyland, since that park was kicking off its diamond celebration with the 24 hour event. That lack of promotion was quite evident when we arrived on Friday morning for the opening of the park, too. We got there around 5:40am to be there and see the rope drop, and had no problems finding a good spot to watch the festivities.

Once the rope dropped, we headed into the park. We initially headed for the Snow White mine train ride, but seeing that a long line had already formed there, we headed to Tomorrowland. The lack of crowd that early in the morning was evident here, as we were able to ride Buzz Lightyear a couple of times right away with no wait while the kids did Space Mountain twice, followed by a couple of rides in Adventureland, all before 7am. The park really didn’t start to fill up until 9ish, the normal opening time. The place really did fill up, too, with Friday being the busiest day we saw at any park during our trip. An employee we talked to the next day at Hollywood Studios said he heard Magic Kingdom hit a peak of 84,000 visitors at some point during the event. In a couple of the shots below you’ll see quite the crowd at different points in the day. Sorry a couple are blurry, I wasn’t going to stop in front of a large crowd and get run down :)

I’ll be honest, we didn’t stay the whole time. About 4pm Friday afternoon we headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit and freshen up. After that, we headed over to the Contemporary early in the evening for dinner before heading back in to the park. I expected we’d see people start to trickle out of the park after the evening fireworks show, but even with the normal mass-exodus that clogged up main street after that, the park was still pretty full all night.

Side note here – we got stuck in the main street crowd after the fireworks show (not the first time we’ve made that mistake), and saw some pretty sad behavior out of the supposed grown-ups. I get that people were tired and didn’t want to be stuck there, but intentionally slamming motorized scooters and strollers into people to try and make them move out of your way when they have no where to go is a pretty poor example to be setting. I even heard more than one spouse tell their significant other they were going to do it. Someone near us mentioned witnessing fights breaking out between parents, too. Truly pathetic.

Back on topic, once we were back in, we stayed until about 4am, riding various rides and watching the 1am electric light parade. For our last ride, we finally sucked it up and waited in line for the Snow White mine train. At 70 minutes it was the longest line we stood in all week, but we were glad we waited, as it was a really fun ride. All in all, the 24 hour celebration event was a blast, definitely something we’d do again! Here are a few random shots from our time at the park that day.

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Disney Dining Plan Impressions

Coming in to this trip, we’d decided to splurge a little and add the dining package to our stay. Having never purchased it before, we went back and forth on which of the options to choose, but ultimately decided to go with the quick service plan on this trip, not wanting to spend more than necessary on an unknown. We did a little research on the dining plan ahead of time and had selected a few places to eat and snacks to get based on recommendations from other blogs on how to get the best value out of it, but if we’d had more time to devote to it likely could have done even better. My wife’s favorite resource was the Disney Tourist Blog, while I also utilized the Disney Food Blog quite a bit.

Reading various reviews and blogs on whether or not the dining plan is worth it will show some pretty mixed results. To get the full monetary value out of it, you do really need to plan ahead and figure out what restaurants and snacks represent the best value. Even if you get it free as part of one of their annual promotions, it still appears that you have to work to ensure it’s worth it when you factor in the non-discounted cost of the room and park tickets, at least according to this blog. Jen did a pretty good job tracking the cost of all of our meals and snacks over the week we had the plan, and thanks to a little creativity in where we ate we managed to come out ahead, but that only tells part of the story, and certainly doesn’t mean I’d do it again. Why? Let’s take a look.

For those unfamiliar with the counter service dining plan, you get two counter service meals and one snack per day per person. We had three meal plans, as we hadn’t added Bayley’s boyfriend Joe since we didn’t know until the last minute that he’d be joining us. This meant that overall, we had 42 meal credits and 21 snack credits to use as we saw fit over our stay on property. We each also got the refillable “unlimited” soda mugs as part of the plan. We did get unlimited mugs one time before when we stayed at Pop Century in 2009, but that was before they introduced the RFID-enabled mugs they use now. I get why they did it since far too many people refused to play by the rules when we were on the honor system and would bring the same mugs back on subsequent stays (this is why we can’t have nice things), but it made the experience a bit annoying a couple of times. It seems that once the system feels your cup is full, it induces a two minute delay before it lets you get more soda. It was smart enough to know that I hadn’t completely filled when I was doing a half-and-half fill with Cherry Coke and Coke Zero, but those times when I was super thirsty and wanted to drink some and refill right away, I was denied and had to wait. A minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience all the same. If you need it, there’s a great read on how the RFID-enabled cups work up here. They work at other Disney resorts, too, and appear to work for several days after your stay ends, as ours showed they were active until May 30th, a full 7 days after we checked out. We also found that paper cups given as part of meals at some of the hotel counter service restaurants had RFID chips in them that only allowed 3 refills that evening, too.

Anyway, back to the food. I think I mentioned in my last post that in the 5-6 weeks leading up to the trip that my wife and I had been on a pretty strict diet. It’s one that the coach at my boxing gym had put together for me to get me back in to shape after I’d regained some weight last year due to injury. I was down 25lbs when we got there, and over the course of the week on the dining plan, felt like I gained half of it back (but didn’t, thanks in large part to the amount of walking we did).

Oh, and I’d like to add that if anyone’s looking for a solid boxing gym in Charlotte, NC, be sure to give Dyme Boxing a try. I’ve been going 4 years now and have lost and kept off a lot of weight, and enjoy the workouts :)

Back on topic; with the dining plan, meals at counter service restaurants include an entree, dessert and drink. At most places I probably could have eaten a little healthier, but I’m pretty picky with my food, and many of the healthier options just didn’t appeal to me. My biggest example of why I didn’t like the dining plan centers around the desserts. Sure, I could have skipped them, but then I’m wasting money. That, and they looked awesome. For the most part, they tasted pretty good, too. Some examples of desserts we had, including a shot of the inside of Darth Cupcake (that’s delicious peanut butter in the frosting):

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We expected cupcakes with dry cake and cheap frosting, but were pleasantly surprised by all of them. Moist delicious cake with some pretty good frosting. By day three, however, I was tired of anything cake-based and was doing my best to find other options, like the frozen lemonade at Yak and Yeti, which was perfect on a super humid day at Animal Kingdom. By the time day five hit I’d had my fill of park food, too. Maybe it would have been different if we’d had the next plan up, where we could have gotten one table service meal, but still, I wanted something that didn’t taste like mass produced food. Thankfully the counter service options aren’t limited to the parks. The plan works at a small handful of restaurants at Downtown Disney as well, so a few days in to our stay, the kids headed out for a date night (Joe took her to dinner at Sanaa, which we all love), and Jen and I took the water taxi over to Downtown Disney and ate at Wolfgang Puck Express on the dining plan. Honestly, this place was easily the best bang for your buck that we found with any of our counter service meals. For the two of us, the total that night was over $50 before tip (tips aren’t covered by the plan), and our entrees were much better quality food than what we’d eaten in the parks. I had the bacon-wrapped meatloaf on garlic mashed potatoes with creme brulee for dessert, and loved it. We all agreed that their vanilla bean cheesecake shown in the picture below was better than the creme brulee, though, and all got that on our two subsequent visits. Here are pics of my meals here. I had the meatloaf twice :)

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Due to our character meals falling on day one of the meal plan and having small meals at other places we didn’t want to use the meal plan, we were able to use our credits to cover Joe’s counter service meals several times. We also ended the last day with 4 snack credits, and let the kids go pick out whatever they wanted before we left Hollywood Studios on the last night. Your credits expire at midnight on the day you check out, and you don’t get a refund on any that go unused. For snacks, we generally tried to ensure we used those credits on things over $4.50 in cost. My favorite was easily the school bread found at the bakery in Epcot’s Norway pavilion, although we had some pretty good sweets at the bakery in Germany, too. I don’t have a list of all the places we got snacks at, but I do have a list of the counter service locations we ate:

Be Our Guest was an interesting one. After checking the Disney Dining site multiple times each day to see if any space had opened up, we finally managed to get a reservation on one of our last park days. It’s an interesting (albeit slow) experience in the way you order, with kiosks available for your group to customize your meals. Once you order you go find a place to sit, and they bring your food to you on real plates, locating you by the RFID chip in your Magic Band (or the magic rose they give you if you don’t have a Magic Band). The food itself was some of the better in-park counter service food we had too, although the roast beef in my sandwich was slightly overcooked for my tastes. Regardless, it’s a neat experience that shouldn’t be missed.

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Oh, one additional tip when eating at any counter service restaurant with a dining plan: if you want a large drink, just ask. They generally default to giving you a regular size one, but will give you a large at no additional cost if you ask for it in our experience.

We did get value out of the plan, having consumed $142 more in food and snacks than the dining plan cost, but I can honestly say I wouldn’t have eaten half the sweets I did if it didn’t come with the meal or purchased the unlimited soda mugs, and as such, we likely would have spent noticeably less on park food, although to be fair we might have made up for it elsewhere. For me, the only reasons I’d have for getting a dining plan would be convenience and lack of sticker shock. Even those counter service meals are pricy, and the cost of a single meal adds up quick for a family. Not having to fork over a bunch of actual money with each meal would probably keep stress levels down. It’s a lot easier to just swipe a Magic Band, and Disney knows it.

Final verdict: While I wouldn’t jump on the chance to get the dining plan again, I think I’d get outvoted. They both want to try the plan with one table service meal at some point. We’ll see…

Character Meal Fun at Disney

Jen’s birthday fell pretty early on in our trip to Disney, so we left the decision on where to hold her birthday dinner up to her. She’d decided she wanted to do a character meal, and after a bit of a hunt on the Disney Dining reservations site, decided on Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom for a Pooh-inspired dinner, since she’s always loved those characters. At the last minute, we also found an opening for breakfast that same day at Ohana’s Lilo and Stitch character breakfast (Bayley’s always been a huge Stitch fan), meaning we ended up bookending her birthday with two separate character meals. How’d they stack up? Let’s take a look…

Ohana’s Best Friends Breakfast featuring Lilo & Stitch

As mentioned, this was a last minute reservation made the day before, spurred by my wife noticing an opening for 9:45am that wasn’t available when we’d looked prior. Remember in my last post when I recommended constantly checking the reservations site? That’ll be a recurring theme in this post. If something you want isn’t open, keep checking :). Anyway, we arrived about 30min before our reservation, so we walked around the shops a little. I think we ended up checking in at Ohana’s main desk about 10 minutes before our scheduled reservation, and were seated pretty much on-time, even with the expected large crowd outside the restaurant.

The food itself is pretty standard breakfast fare. Your servers bring plates of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, Mickey and Stitch waffles, breads, and a few other things. They’ll bring out more of any of the items, too. Like I said, pretty standard, and nothing special from a taste perspective. Like the other character meals, it’s not about the food, it’s about the characters. Mickey, Pluto, Lilo and Stitch make their way around the restaurant on a well choreographed schedule as you eat, and we had no problem getting time with any of them, even with a packed restaurant and a break for them to lead a parade of kids around the restaurant. One by one, each of the four characters stopped by for some pictures at various points during our meal:

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Definitely a fun time, and a good start to Jen’s birthday!

Crystal Palace – Winnie the Pooh and Friends

This dinner was initially scheduled for 9:50pm, pretty late by anyone’s standards. When we first started looking a couple of weeks prior to the trip, that was the only time available for a party of 4. We kept checking the site, and were able to move up a few times, eventually ending up with a reservation for 7:45pm. After spending the afternoon at the Magic Kingdom, we headed over to Crystal Palace around 7:30 and were seated pretty much on time.

This restaurant is buffet service, and actually had some pretty good food. The mac and cheese in the kid’s section was pretty good, as were the mashed potatoes and the beef available on the carving station. Going against the diet Jen and I had been on in the weeks leading up to this trip, we both made two (or three in my case) trips up for more food. As we ate, the same well choreographed character visits we’d seen at Ohana were taking place here. Bayley had her selfie-stick with her, so she had fun taking selfies of her and Joe with each of the characters, and we made sure that each knew it was Jen’s birthday so she got a little extra attention. The outstanding service and fun table-side visits from Winnie the Pooh and friends made for a fun birthday, but it wasn’t over just yet.

A few days earlier, Bayley and I had decided to tack on a birthday cake to this dinner, so we’d gone through the process to order one. We did this before Jen and I got down to St Pete to pick up Bayley, so I had Bayley make the call to the folks at WDW Magic Kingdom Cakes (per this site). I was surprised that they didn’t have a way to order online, but even more surprised to find that when Bayley called, she didn’t actually get to talk to anyone. She just left her information and they emailed the info and order form to her. When they did, she forwarded it to me, and after exchanging a bunch of texts with her to figure out what we wanted, I placed the order by filling out the PDF form they’d sent and emailed it to the cake service. For anyone considering ordering one when on property, here’s what they sent me:

The cakes come in 6″, 8″ and 10″ sizes, and while the small would have been more than enough for the 4 of us, it had next to nothing in the way of customization options. No custom text (meaning we couldn’t add her name), and no option to add a character image. We really wanted to do both, as well as mixing it up flavor-wise, so I stepped up to the 8″ chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream icing and dark chocolate mousse filling, with an Olaf image on top. I’d have preferred to get a Pooh character image, but according to the order form, none of them are available for this, which seemed a bit odd. Regardless, I ordered the cake to be included with dinner at Crystal Palace. Not long after we finished visiting the buffet, our waiter brought the cake out, complete with a birthday card for her signed by all 4 Pooh characters. Nice touch! My main disappointment with the cake experience is *how* it was delivered. This isn’t anything against the server, he delivered it and sang happy birthday with us, but even at a regular restaurant in the real world, you usually see multiple employees coming out to deliver the cake and sing. Not here, it was just our server. I completely understand that it’d be logistically impossible to get the 4 characters to all come over for cake delivery, but one of them being there might have been nice, or at least a few more servers. For the money the cakes cost, I think I just expected a little more out of Disney. Oh well, it’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, and the cake itself was excellent! I included both a pic of the whole cake and one showing what the delicious inside looked like. My only other issue is one they warn you of pretty clearly when ordering, they will not store leftovers or send them back to your room for you if you’re staying on property. I knew this going in, and is the reason I took a bus ride back to the room to put the leftover cake in the fridge after dinner. I certainly wasn’t going to waste over half of this cake. As far as my overall satisfaction with the cake service, I’m not sure I’d do it again, especially at a buffet-style restaurant where there are plenty of other desserts, but still enjoyed being able to surprise her with it. How often do you get to spend your birthday at Disney, right?

In the end, we all agree that we liked the dinner at Crystal Palace better, especially from the food aspect. Both were fun though, and just goes to show that you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy a character meal at Disney!

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Hotel Review – Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter

Our daughter finished her freshman year at Eckerd College a couple of weeks ago, and since we were headed down there to move her out of her dorm anyway, we decided to tack a week at Disney on to the trip. Originally we’d booked a 7-night stay at Disney’s All-Star Movies resort, but a week or so before driving down we found that we could move over to the Port Orleans French Quarter for a little bit more money, and jumped on it. That’s one thing about Disney’s online reservation system (restaurants included), always keep checking the site leading up to your trip, you never know what you might find or what might open up.

Upon arrival, we saw what many of the reviews I’d read about this place were talking about, in that it’s smaller than the average Disney hotel. I’ve gotta say, that was one of our favorite things about the place. We felt All-Star was way too big the last time we stayed there, as we had quite a hike to get from the room to the main building every day, and that was never an issue at French Quarter. We had a ground floor river view room in building 6 (specifically room 6145), which is out on one edge of the property, but the walk to the main building was only a couple of minutes each way. The place really had a small resort feel, which we absolutely loved. A few shots from around the property:

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The room itself was pretty standard, and being one of their moderate hotels, had two queen beds as opposed to the doubles that the All-Star rooms come with. Definitely a welcome upgrade. The room was tastefully decorated, no complaints there. There was something in the room I was allergic to, however, and I never did figure out what it was. Usually I have issues with down pillows, which I don’t know if we had here, but Bayley had a pillow with her that wasn’t, which I used all week and still had issues, so I don’t think it was the pillows. Oh well, some Claratin took care of it. Really, the only room-related complaint we had is that we didn’t get either of the requests my wife asked for. She’d asked for a high floor (the buildings here are 3 floors high) and a corner room, and we got neither. No biggie though, we had no issues related to room location. We also had a 4th guest, as Bayley’s boyfriend was with us for the week, and were able to fit a twin air mattress in the room with little issue. Additionally, the privacy curtain between the sinks and the room were really nice, as was the double sink setup so two people could be getting ready at once. Some pics of the room itself:

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Note that the fridge was actually fairly roomy. I ordered an 8″ cake from Disney Dining for my wife’s birthday, and the full-sized cake box fit in the fridge without issue, along with quite a few bottles of water and some other random stuff. The safe, on the other hand, was tiny. Small little wall safe that used keys. All this technology in the parks and hotel, and we can’t use a magic band to access our safe?

Some additional benefits of this property:

  • They have a water taxi that will take you to Port Orleans Riverside, or Downtown Disney. We used this a few times, and while most trips were fine, our last attempt to take it over to Downtown Disney exposed a big issue. Riverside is a much bigger resort than French Quarter, and water taxis to Downtown Disney originate there. This means that during peak times, the boat arriving to pick you up can be pretty full. On our last day, we got to the boat ramp right as one was leaving, and waited 20 minutes for the next one out in the hot sun at the end of a line of about 15 people (the previous taxi didn’t have enough room to accommodate everyone in line). When it arrived, it only had room for 13. With 4 in our party, and being at the end of the line, that meant we were out of luck, and were pretty rudely told by the captain we had to wait another minutes for the next one. We were already overheated, having to wait in the sun, so we headed to the bus stop and grabbed a bus over there. On a busy Saturday when the hotel is 100% full (like it was that Saturday on Memorial Day weekend), they really should have the boats running more often, and maybe even have one or two dedicated to French Quarter as demand dictates. Additionally, more shade, and/or misters while waiting in line. Outside of that one time, we never had an issue with the water taxis, taking them to Downtown Disney twice, and over to Riverside once. Definitely a better way to get there versus fighting traffic at Downtown Disney. Some water taxi shots:

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  • In typical Disney fashion, there are plenty of things for the kids to do. We used the pool a couple of times, and in both cases, saw dance parties and hula hoop competitions going on. Additionally, they show Disney movies each night in the little park between buildings 5 & 6 at 9pm, and host a marshmallow-roasting campfire on property each evening too.
  • For a fee, up to 4 people can take a ride around the property in a horse and buggy. Looked pretty cool, but we never did it.
  • Bus service was good. We never waited long for a bus, and never missed one due to overcrowding. The Magic Kingdom bus from French Quarter doesn’t stop anywhere else, but the others do. The Hollywood Studios bus, for example, makes 4 stops at Riverside after picking up at French Quarter (that should tell you how big Riverside is). On our first Saturday there, I took the bus from the Magic Kingdom to the hotel a little after 9pm and back to the Magic Kingdom after resting in the room for about 10 minutes, and the round trip time was roughly 50-55 minutes. We took the bus to various parks about half the time we were there and never had any complaints.
  • The crew over at luggage storage was great. That cake I mentioned earlier that we’d stored in our room fridge? Yea, it was big. We’d only eaten about half by the time we left, so we kept it at luggage storage the day we checked out, as they had a fridge they could hold it in. We didn’t want to waste it, but not having anywhere to store it while we were at parks that final day didn’t leave us much choice.

I think that about covers it. The bottom line is that all three of us agree that this is our new favorite hotel on property, as there was a lot to like. Enjoy a few more pictures from the French Quarter!

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Ship Inspection Saturday – Carnival Fantasy

One of the things that we do as travel agents is the occasional cruise ship inspection. As mentioned in my post back in October after we toured the NCL Getaway, this is generally a 3 hour tour of the ship, hosted by a rep or two from the cruise line, and it’s intended to give us an idea of what our clients can expect should we book them on the ship. This is my second ship tour, and my wife’s fourth, as she did two more while down in Ft Lauderdale for Cruise3sixty a couple of weeks ago. For this one, we were getting a look at the Carnival Fantasy, the only ship from any line currently based out of Charleston, SC. She’s an older ship, having launched in early 1990, but the last refurbishment has her in pretty good shape. The decor is pretty standard for other older ships we’ve been on, too. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the Fantasy has been kept up. Let’s take a closer look…

We drove down from Charlotte early this morning, getting to the port around 10am. Check in for the tour wasn’t scheduled to begin until 11am after all the guests from the previous sailing debarked, so we walked around trying to figure out where to meet. Fortunately, the port area isn’t all that big and we found the spot pretty quickly, and hung out until the Carnival reps arrived. Things didn’t exactly kick off on time, as there was a lot going on. They ended up with surprise Coast Guard  and USDA inspections happening after the ship got back in to port this morning. No biggie, things happen, and we were just a small blip on the list of things the crew had to deal with before they left port this evening. I think we may have been delayed 30-45 minutes boarding as a result. Here’s a couple quick shots of the port, including the front of the terminal. When you arrive and park, a shuttle brings you to this entrance and drops you off here, at which point you’ll go through security and check in for your cruise!

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Another tip: As you board the ship, you’ll notice a bunch of crew wearing red sweatshirts that say “Just Ask”. If you need to know anything, like where you can grab some food or where you’re room is, they are there to answer those questions. No need to get in line for guest services!

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Once we were on, we hustled to check out a couple of rooms. Since we were late, we really were moving fast, and my pictures show it. With more than two dozen people in the group and a schedule to keep, there really wasn’t time to stop and ensure the pictures were clear. The first set here is from a standard oceanview room:

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Not bad, a little small compared to more current ships, but I’d be more than happy to sail in it. Next up is the only shot I got of an interior down the hall:

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And finally, we have a Grand Suite, the largest room category on board. Note that being an older ship, the only categories that actually have balconies are the Junior and Grand Suites

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Due to our time constraints, those were all the rooms we got to see. After finishing there, we were guided around a few other areas as we headed in the direction of the dining room for our lunch. Here are some shots of different areas we saw along the way, including: the show lounge, casino, a couple of bars, the kid’s club, and the Forum Aft Lounge, where they were setting up to host a wedding reception:

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There were a couple of weddings going on today before sailing, from what we saw. We entered the port at the same place they did, and the wedding parties were shuttled in to security the same way we were. While I’m familiar with how on-board weddings at sea (or in a foreign port) work, this was my first exposure to weddings that take place in port prior to the ship’s departure. Not everyone in the wedding party was going on the cruise, so after getting everyone on the ship, they hold the wedding, followed by the reception, and then those who are not sailing are escorted off. Pretty good way to get a shipboard wedding on a budget.

Let’s get back to the tour. After a quick visit to the kid’s club, it was time to eat. They took us to the Jubilee dining room at the aft of the Atlantic deck (8), one of the two main dining rooms on board. We all sat at one of the five tables set up for us, and were served by the staff as if we were cruisers, eating some of the same things served at sea. The menu was pretty well set too, with the only choice we got to make being fish or beef for the main course:

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and here are the courses, in order (I had the beef):

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The spaghetti carbonara was spectacular, as was the warm chocolate melting cake, which is one of our all-time favorite desserts (we usually eat it more than once when we’re on Carnival :)). The braised short ribs were good quality meat, and perfectly cooked, but I’m just not a fan of what ends up being stringy meat (like pot roast type meat). Jen had the beef too, and enjoyed it, but said both the spaghetti and short ribs were better on her tour of the Splendor a couple of weeks ago (they serve the same food on all ship tours).

I’m going to take a second to give a huge shoutout to the wait staff today too, they did a great job, and were even sure to learn our names. After we ate, they even busted out some music and got some of us to get up and dance, just like a regular MDR experience.

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After lunch was over, we headed up to check out the buffets and outside areas on the Lido deck. The buffet stations on the Fantasy are all pretty standard for Carnival, but note that this ship has not undergone any of the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, so no Guy’s Burger Joint or BlueIguana Cantina. It does have a Mongolian Wok though, which we always enjoy.

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No, we didn’t sample any of the buffet food, pretty sure that would have been frowned upon, plus we were full from lunch.

On to the outside areas. Here’s the main area on the Lido deck:

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At the back of the ship, they have Waterworks 2.0, added during its last refurbishment a few years ago

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They’re definitely some nice slides for a ship this old, but the one downside here is location. Being right behind the stack, it was a bit noisier, especially as you walked out to this area (walkway shown in the first shot above). It is what is is, though. The other odd thing about the aft design is that one deck down is the Serenity adults-only area. I shot this looking down on it from the back of the ship where the waterslides are:

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Between the noise from the stack and the kids on the waterslide one deck above, I can’t imagine this is very serene, but having never sailed the Fantasy, that’s pure speculation. If you’ve sailed this ship in her current configuration and can speak to the noise level in Serenity, feel free to comment, we’d love to hear how it really is!

Update: Based on a comment on our Facebook page, it sounds like the location of Serenity is a non-issue!

After we finished on Lido, we did a very quick walk through of the spa, which was a pretty standard setup for Carnival. There seemed to be plenty of gym space for those wanting to work out, too.

Once we finished our walk-through of the spa we were out of time, so we headed down to deck 3, gave our passes back, and sadly left the ship. All in all it was a good tour, and left us with a pretty solid impression of the Fantasy. As mentioned, Carnival has done a really good job with upkeep. Is it small? Yes. Are you limited in room types? Yes. It’s not the Dream or the Breeze, but it’s still a worthy option, especially if you’re looking to cruise out of an east coast port outside of Florida. It’s only three hours from us, so I personally would like to give the ship a shot in the near future if we can carve out some time.

One last thing before I leave you with more pictures of the tour: A big thank you to Joanie and Kirsten, our tour guides from Carnival. They took really good care of us today!

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Hotel Review – Doubletree Lower Manhattan

As mentioned in a previous post, I spent last week in NYC on business. With my client’s offices being in the financial district, I decided to stay at the same Doubletree a coworker of mine uses when he goes up. This is only my second stay at a Doubletree property, the other being the one in Blooomington, IL a few years ago. I used to travel there 3-4 times a year for business, normally staying at the local Courtyard, but was convinced to try the Doubletree on one of my last trips there based on the non-stop recommendations of others. I found that visit totally underwhelming compared to the build-up, and not worth losing out on Marriott points.

So how did they hold up on this visit? Well, things started out with a small issue, but overall it was good. After landing at LGA, I grabbed a car to the hotel, and upon arriving, was greeted by a friendly gentleman at the front desk who handed me my room keys, the warm cookie, and a bag containing two bottles of water. Check-in took all of 3min thanks to Doubletree allowing you to check-in online ahead of time, including selecting your room (nice touch, BTW). I chose 4310, a king deluxe room with a view of the Hudson river. After getting my keys, I headed up to 43 and tried to enter my room. I tried, really I did. I must have tried both keys a couple dozen times, but no go. Neither worked, so back down to the desk it was with all of my stuff in tow. The clerk apologized, set those same cards up for the room once again, and back up I went. They worked like a champ this time, so that little glitch was resolved. No harm no foul, I guess.

The room itself was fine, albeit the normal tiny NYC hotel room size (smaller than I expected for something labeled “deluxe”). The view was pretty good, looking out over Battery Park with a view of the river. Some shots of the room:

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Going in to the trip, I read the reviews on TripAdvisor and noticed one repeating issue that had me a little concerned, that some people found they had long waits for elevators in the morning. Being a business trip, the last thing I wanted to deal with was a long wait for an elevator each morning, but for the most part, it was never an issue, except for Wednesday afternoon. I’d finished the day’s meetings early, and headed back to the hotel around 3:45pm. Upon arriving, I went right up to the room to change so I could head up to Central Park. When I went to grab an elevator to head out, I encountered the wait those reviews mentioned. I waited 10 minutes until one arrived, only to find out it was being used by the staff to collect garbage from each floor, basically being used as a service elevator. No go, so I waited some more. And waited. And waited. After a total of 23 minutes, an empty elevator finally showed up, and I headed out. Was it the end of the world? No, but I’d hesitate to stay there in the future because of it. That, or stay much lower (without a view) just in case I need to take the stairs if the elevators are slow to arrive in cases where I’m strapped for time.

My only other issue, my last day there I went to lower the room temp and found that the AC unit wasn’t working. I’d lower the temp on the thermostat and the unit never kicked on. Since I was leaving the next morning and the window opened a few inches to allow for airflow, I didn’t report it until I checked out. Again, no biggie, the fresh air was cool enough. I have no doubt they’d have sent someone up to fix it had I called that night.

I can’t speak to the room service food or the attached restaurant, as I didn’t have food from either. My dinners were spent at tiny little hole in the wall places I found while I was out walking around, and lunches were spent eating with the client. I did eat breakfast over at the Andaz the last two mornings with one of my customer contacts (he’d flown in for this too), and loved their buffet. Pretty cool hotel, too, so I’ll probably give that a shot next time I go up there.

The location of this Doubletree was pretty good for my needs. The entrance is on Stone St, which isn’t too busy, and it was an easy walk to my customer’s office on Water St. There was also a subway station a very short walk from the hotel entrance, which allowed me to pick up the R train up to the midtown area the last couple of afternoons I was there. One other thing I saw in a couple reviews of this place is that since it’s on a less traveled street, people felt the need to walk over to the ferry terminal so they could get a cab upon checkout. Hogwash. Yes, the street is small and gets less traffic, but all you have to do is ask the bell staff standing there at the entrance and they’ll call you a cab. They had one for me in less than 5min Friday morning at 5:30am.

Overall it was a good stay in a clean hotel room with a view, but I still don’t get the hype around the brand. People swear by Doubletree, so maybe I just keep choosing the wrong ones. That, or the cookies are laced with something that makes you fall in love with the place :). Regardless, I’d stay there again if the situation warranted, but would like to try a couple others in the area first, including the Andaz I mentioned earlier.

Here are a few more shots from my various walks around Manhattan, including some of a protest I stumbled on near Central Park, along with a shot of the sunset from my plane on approach to LGA:

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