Monday, August 29, 2016

Going all-in on Walt Disney World: On-site Trip Report

We're just back from our first all-in 100% Disney Parks family vacation. Although we've visited Walt Disney World several times over the years, and Disneyland as well, we've almost always stayed semi off-site in one way or another.

My absolute number one upscale family friendly resort in the country, Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World (full review) served as the benchmark. We stayed there the past two years and although it was amazing, I couldn't help but wonder whether we'd enjoy a Disney Deluxe Villa even more.

I mean, when the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom are over and you exit the park what could be better than avoiding the crowds and walking right back to your room rather than battling the crowds to board the monorail, bus or boat?

Selection Process

We chose a 1 Bedroom Villa at Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort for its proximity to the Magic Kingdom, separate bedroom and living area, 803 square feet of space, in-room laundry and full kitchen. This Disney Deluxe Villa is mostly occupied by Disney Vacation Club members, but when booked directly through Disney it provides more flexible cancellation terms and daily housekeeping.

According to Touring Plans, rack rates in 2016 for a 1-BR Villa with a "standard" view go for $655-$996/nt. Ouch! Making matters worse, Bay Lake Tower Villas are almost always excluded from Disney's reliable 20-30% off promotions and free dining offers. The rate during our stay was somehow $582/nt when I booked it 6+ months out so the best I could do was leverage the Citi Prestige credit card 4th night free benefit, bringing the per-night cost down to $436/nt.

$436/nt is still very expensive, and significantly more than the Four Seasons Orlando which thanks to their own 4th night free promo for these dates was $344/nt. If I could stack Citi Prestige 4th night free with Four Seasons 4th night free (which I believe will be possible when Citi Prestige starts pricing its 4th night free based on the average room cost per night rather than the cost of the actual 4th night) that would knock the Four Seasons down to $258/nt. Plus, when booking through the Citi Prestige Concierge as a Four Seasons Preferred Partner Hotel that would mean daily free in-room breakfast (amazing), room upgrade, and a $100 spa credit, making the Four Seasons an amazing value, especially relative to Disney Deluxe accommodations.

That math, combined with the luxury of Four Seasons, is what's driven our past stays there. But this review is about going all-in on Disney. So let's get to it!

See also: What Disney benefits do and don't convey at Four Seasons Orlando


Customized Magic Bands arrive 30 days prior to depature
Nobody makes planning a vacation more fun than Disney
I don't think anyone makes planning a vacation more enjoyable than Disney. As the certified family vacation planner in our group it was an absolute pleasure planning our trip from beginning to end. Some may find the sheer number of options and the decisions you're invited to make overwhelming (where would you like to eat lunch on Thursday six months from now?) but for me, it was fun interacting with the trip and I enjoyed seeing it play out during our stay.

I booked our lodging 8 months out, which afforded the opportunity to make dining reservations 180 days prior to our arrival. This benefit, along with being able to book FastPass+ reservations 60 days out was probably the most tangible and useful benefit of staying at a Disney hotel.

Interacting with the reservation through the My Disney Experience website and app before (and during) our trip was a delight. At any moment I could see our itinerary for the trip including resort, dining, and FastPass+ reservations to craft our trip and keep track of what we'd booked. Compared to, say, a self-crafted urban/European adventure it was a relaxing walk in the park for this dad.

One minor rough edge that could use improvement is the scheduling and integration of their complimentary bus to/from the airport (their so-called Disney's Magical Express). When I booked the room, I did it through the Citi concierge. So they were my "travel agent". And that being the case they were the ones to notify Disney which flights we were on. We of course didn't have airfare booked when I booked the hotel so it was on me to update Disney with this information. However, I didn't realize this until just a week before our trip (because all indications were that our trip plans were "all set" according to the My Disney Experience website) and even when I updated this information on a separate website our plans didn't show that the bus reservation was linked to our stay. All was well when we arrived at the airport however, so it was a minor nit in an otherwise impressively integrated planning experience.


Text notification that our room was
ready ahead of schedule. Plus, upgrade!
We didn't check bags so we didn't get to experience the magic/potentially anxiety inducing experience of letting Disney transport your luggage directly from baggage claim to your room.

We first entered the Disney bubble when we scanned our Magic Bands at the Disney Magical Express staging area at the airport. Things went off without a hitch and within 10-15 minutes we were on our way to our resort.

Unfortunately, when staying at Bay Lake Tower you're the fourth and final stop on the bus route which means it takes over an hour to get to your hotel which is magical or moderately annoying depending on whether you're in a hurry. For us it was no big deal since we were arriving early and we weren't using park tickets the first day.

And to my delight we got a text message from Disney updating us on the status of our room. Check-in isn't guaranteed until 4 pm. I appreciated that they sent us a text at noon saying our room wasn't quite ready yet because it gave me confidence that they'd keep me informed of the status so I could make adjustments to our schedule if needed. Then just as we were nearing our hotel they followed up and said our room was ready! Awesome.

As we entered the lobby we were greeted with a friendly "Welcome Home" and a cast member confirmed that our room was ready and our Magic Bands would get us into the room. Pretty amazing.


1 Bedroom Villa at Bay Lake Tower
We booked a Standard View room because I'm always hesitant to pay a lot more for a view, but I was pleased to see we were on the 12th floor in room 8235 which is a Lake View room. The money shot at Bay Lake Tower is a view of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom with sounds piped in over the TV but I hear the Lake View rooms are overall more enjoyable because you're not just looking at a parking lot all day. I don't know about that but I thought the view was very nice.

What I was looking for in the room was to combine the spaciousness of Four Seasons Aviara (full review) with proximity to the Magic Kingdom. And while the room wasn't nearly as spacious as a villa at Aviara it was very comfortable. Two full bathrooms, well carved up to enable concurrent showering/preparation. In-room washer/dryer to minimize the amount of packing needed for the trip. A full kitchen (hardly used) but with built-in dining table that was great for breakfast. And a separate bedroom with easy-to-use fold out sofas for the boys. Two of them so no fighting! Tremendous.

Hotel Overall

View from room 8235 at Bay Lake Tower
I had concerns going in about Bay Lake Tower's overall resort feel. I knew that the hotel had "only" a pool and waterslide vs acres of family friendly lounging and entertainment options at the Four Seasons. But the low level of service at the pool was disappointing.

At the Four Seasons when you enter the pool area you're immediately greeted and set up with towels and chaise lounges, provided menus, water and attentive food & beverage service. At Bay Lake Tower, there's none of that. Towels are available, and the pool thankfully wasn't that crowded. But you're on your own.

There's a bar nearby where you can fetch your own drinks with limited food options. And there are towels you can grab (thankfully you don't need to present your room key for each towel you take). On the bright side there are lifeguards there so you don't have to keep quite as close of an eye on your kids as you otherwise would at an unattended pool. And a waterslide which kept the kids interested for a while.

But overall, Bay Lake Tower isn't much of a resort. Try the Polynesian or Grand Floridian if you're looking for more of a resort feel on the monorail.


If there was one thing that stood out for me on this vacation it was how much I [planned for and] enjoyed the dining experience. Growing up going to Disneyland in Anaheim, my idea of a good meal was an Astro Dog in Tomorrowland. Or maybe the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square if you were fancy. So it's taken me a while to adjust to the idea of Disney food being a good thing.

But on this vacation it really fell into place for me. This wasn't at all an amusement park/junk-food driven vacation. But rather more of an immersive themed dining experience. It takes some research and planning to experience it but my goodness - we had some tremendous meals on this trip that I thoroughly enjoyed.

See, when you've got young kids the thought of enjoying a meal with them - where they not only behave but enjoy them in an appropriate manner alongside you is something that's hard to attain. Now that our boys are 11 and 9 it's something that we've been able to experience; but only in fleeting and exceedingly rare moments.

One of those moments was last year at the California Grill. I highly recommend avoiding the temptation to go straight to the parks on the day of arrival and instead build up the anticipation by visiting a resort hotel near the Magic Kingdom for dinner. I was half-concerned that a follow-on visit here would be a disappointment but if anything this visit exceeded the amazingly high expectations I had based on last year's visit.

Here's a run-down of the restaurants we visited on this trip, rated on a 100 point scale...

California Grill: 100 points

The Peach Salad at California Grill
No salad has a right tasting this good
Our server commented that "he'd eat here twice before eating anywhere else on property" and I agree with him. Simply put, this is the best upscale family-friendly dining experience I've found anywhere in the world (let alone The [Disney] World). Upscale yet comfortable. Inviting menu with something for everyone. The view of the Magic Kingdom and the sunset/fireworks are the most unique thing about this restaurants but the food, service, ambiance, and overall experience are the reasons I'll return.
Pork Two Ways with
Grilled Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Polenta, Mushrooms, Laquered Belly, Country Applesauce
Try the Oak-fired Filet of Beef with Buttery Mashed Potato, California Delta Asparagus, Wine Merchant Sauce -or- the Grilled Tenderloin with Goat Cheese Polenta, Mushrooms, Lacquered Belly, Country Applesauce.

'Ohana: 95 points

Me enjoying a Lapu Lapu at 'Ohana
Visiting the Polynesian felt very similar to a trip to Hawaii
A visit to 'Ohana within Disney's Polynesian Village Resort felt every bit as "authentic" as our visit to Hawaii earlier this year. That's as much of a dig on typical Hawaiian hotels as it is a compliment to the Polynesian.

Everything is served family style and there are no choices to be made so the food comes quickly, abundantly, and deliciously so it's hard to find a sad face in the room.

Tip: Pair it with a visit to Trader Sam's Grog Grotto to complete the experience.

Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper's Canteen: 93 points

The award for best new restaurant goes to...
Skipper's Canteen!
A new and welcome addition to the restaurant-poor Magic Kingdom, Skipper's Canteen is hurting for business due to it's lack of legacy/nostalgia booking. And also for it's "challenging" menu.

Themed as the place where Jungle Cruise skippers eat their meals, the menu is exotic and interesting. But we were all able to find something we enjoyed. Surprisingly affordable too.

I loved the Vegetable Curry with Coconut Rice and Naan. And the Nile Nellie's Noodle Bowl with Duck my son ordered was tremendous too. Avoid the "A Lot of Steak" Salad though, unless you're sure you'll like the Coriander-Mint dressing (or ask for a dressing substitution).

Great service here as well.

Tip: Make your reservation here right after a FastPass on the Jungle Cruise to complete the experience.

Biergarten: 92 points

This was a successful attempt to remind us of our time in Germany last summer. I thought the menu would be more challenging for our group because if someone asked us "what are some of your favorite German dishes?" I would be stumped. But I was surprised I enjoyed so many of the options on the buffet.

Here you're seated with others at long tables like you'd find in a German beer garden, and we had a great time with the family we were paired up with. I wondered whether Disney intentionally tries to pair up families with kids around the same age. Our boys and theirs compared notes on Pokemon Go for the 2nd half of the meal while we chatted and had a great time enjoying the faux Oktoberfest evening vibe and German oompah music.

It's sometimes difficult to find a situation where everybody in the family is having a good time at the same time but that's the point of Disney vacations in my book, and it happened here for sure.

I took WDW Prep School's tip (incredibly helpful podcast for planning your Walt Disney World vacation) and ordered a liter of Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweisen. I though it was delicious, and you might too if you like refreshing fruit beers. Purists would surely prefer some of the other beers on the menu.

Teppan Edo: 88 points

The main attraction at Teppan Edo is the hibachi,
but the sushi is very good too
The quality here is solid, and the slight language barrier with the servers and other restaurant employees helped heighten the experience. But if you have a decent hibachi restaurant in your town you can probably get 90% of the experience for half the cost. Still, this was an enjoyable visit to a well-done pavilion in World Showcase.

50's Prime Time Cafe: 88 points

I was surprised how much we enjoyed this restaurant and it was all because of how well our server, Gary, played his role as a fun uncle with keys to Dad's liquor cabinet. I prepped the boys so they knew not to place their elbows on the table and to take their caps off, and Gary was sure to chide Mom for violating the rules and me for trying to interfere with with the kid's orders.

Hollywood Studios is a tough place to find a good meal as well, and if you're tired of The Brown Derby (or don't want to spend that much on lunch) give this place a try.

Be Our Guest: 86 points

They've put a lot of thought and attention into this restaurant, and it's one of the hardest reservations to get in Disney World. I thought the build-out was impressive, and the ordering experience on a touch-screen interesting, but the cafeteria-like setting and overall food quality brought this down a notch. The Grey Stuff is delicious however so it's worth a try if you can snag a table.

Disney Transportation

The most challenging part of the day is getting back
to your resort after fireworks, made more
challenging by early monorail closures
I was thoroughly unimpressed with Disney transportation on this visit. One of the things that pushed us towards staying at a Disney hotel, specifically one on the monorail, was that it would make getting to and from parks more pleasant.

This proved true the first couple days of our visit when we rode the monorail to the Polynesian for dinner. But we found walking to and from the Magic Kingdom to be less of a production than taking a one-hop on the monorail.

The "Magical" Express was a bit slow and a nuisance (if it weren't for UberX being outlawed for arrivals at MCO I'd just self-fund future stays via Uber).

But the biggest disappointment in Disney on this trip was the way they'd choose to shutdown the monorail from Epcot back to the Magic Kingdom-area resorts at park closing. As things were, you had to take a monorail from the Contemporary to the Ticket & Transportation Center, change monorails, then continue on to Epcot. This was fine on the way to Epcot but getting back was another story.

Epcot's World Showcase is invariably where we choose to finish the day due to cooler temperatures and abundant appealing restaurants. But each night we left Epcot we found the monorail was closed at 9p even though it was supposed to be open until 11p.

This was a major disappointment because now if we wanted to get back to our hotel using Disney transportation we'd have to wait in a LONG line for the bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center, then catch a monorail to the Contemporary while fighting crowds exiting the Magic Kingdom trying to get back to their resort hotel.

We opted for Uber instead which at $7 was a tremendous value. It was just disappointing to discover that the monorail wasn't running because had I known in advance I would have picked up at Uber at a resort near World Showcase (Beach Club or Boardwalk) rather than tromping across Future World. Plus, finding Uber/Lyft pickup points is a stressful nuisance.

From prior trips, I knew the busses were a pain. I was pleased to see they installed signs at some pick-up points predicting how long it would be until the next bus came. But look at the sign below. If you were trying to get to Hollywood Studios, what would you infer from the fact that there was no predicted time for the next bus to Hollywood Studios? I'd infer that there were no busses going there today and I might have to take the monorail to the Ticket & Transportation Center.

But no, the time board was just flaky and didn't have an anticipated time for many of the destinations for some reason. It would be better if the predicted time was "< 20 minutes" if the next arrival time was uncertain, yet the busses were running at that time. The bus arrived about 15 minutes after we got there, which was fine. But if they're going to have signs predicting arrival times you'd think they could get them working helpfully.
What time is the next bus to Hollywood Studios?
Who knows...
If there's one thing Disney could do to improve the experience for me, it would be to make Uber pick-up/drop-off easier at their parks.

Park Experience

One thing I was interested in assessing was how much more we enjoyed the parks as a result of being so close to them. The idea of "bopping back and forth" between the room and especially the Magic Kingdom was appealing to me, and on prior trips staying "offsite" at the Four Seasons getting to and from the parks spontaneously turned out to be more than an ordeal than I preferred. Because taking their bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center then taking the monorail or a ferry took a lot longer than I'd prefer.

Although it sure was nice to be able to walk to and from the Magic Kingdom in about 10 minutes from Bay Lake Tower it wasn't the game changer I hoped it would be. The first day at the parks we were able to sleep in a little later since we didn't have to account for additional transit time. Similarly, being able to walk back to the room for an afternoon swim and/or nap was great. And being able to walk home after the fireworks was sure nice (that's the absolute darkest/ugliest part of any Disney Parks visit in my book).

But I dunno. Staying close to the Magic Kingdom wasn't the game changer I hoped it would be because a) You invariably visit parks other than the Magic Kingdom and b) Those other parks aren't as nearby as the Magic Kingdom and c) The Disney busses are grueling enthusiasm crushers.

Having Extra Magic Hours was nice the one morning we used it. But at the Magic Kingdom, where rides are most plentiful, only half the park opens early so the upside is limited.

Having Magic Bands actually was pretty nice. Magic Bands serve as your room key, a means for charging things to the room, and your FastPass+ reservation holder. I felt like I was forgetting something leaving the room with only a Magic Band and my phone. But it all worked out brilliantly. And yeah - we probably did buy more stuff because we could conveniently pay for it quickly with a Magic Band (charged to our room). But a Disney Gift Card works just as well for purchases. And park "tickets" (now also the size of a credit card) combined with room keys for non-Disney hotels aren't much of a hassle either.

I thought I'd buy a souvenir t-shirt and have it sent back to the room, just because I could. But even that didn't quite work because I opted against buying the shirt I was interested in mid-day.

In the end, the overall park experience for us wasn't significantly heightened as a result of staying at a Disney hotel. But if you're the type who maximizes Extra Magic Hours and spends the whole day in the parks staying on-site may make a bigger difference.


The night before depature they delivered pick-up info for the Magical Express. I was impressed that they printed out boarding passes, complete with TSA PreCheck and jetBlue Even More Room Seats confirmed, based on the departure information we provided. Nice touch! That saved us some time at the airport, but we didn't really need it because the Magical Express departed a full 3 hours before our flight.

And surprisingly the Contemporary was the first stop for pick-up on the way back to the airport. So we were last to be dropped off and the first to be picked up which means nobody spends more time on the bus than guests at the Contemporary/Bay Lake Tower. No biggie but it's quite inefficient versus catching an Uber.

Bottom Line

When I got the bill from the hotel I was surprised at how large the sum was. Even though our airfare was separate, we purchased our park tickets ahead of time, and we paid for many of our meals with Disney Gift Cards the final tally was astounding. Perhaps the Magic Bands had performed their duty and we made more elective purchases than we usually do.

Perhaps my mental bookkeeping felt like the overall cost of the vacation was less when it was more compartmentalized and seeing "everything" as one bill from the hotel made it hit home.

But the room was undeniably expensive. Probably indefensibly/unjustifiably so.

If I had to do it again (who am I kidding, we will do it again) I'd probably be more flexible in my choice of Disney hotel and stack Citi Prestige 4th night free with a Disney hotel that's eligible for a deep discount and/or free dining.

But if that didn't materialize I'd be right back to the Four Seasons and/or I'd check out the Ritz Carlton or Waldorf Astoria using points. Variety is nice even if it's not always the absolutely "best" choice.

I did enjoy this vacation tremendously and I'm sure that once the minor negative marks are forgotten I'll be reminding the family on a weekly if not daily vacation how awesome our 2016 trip was.

I might even start poking around at another Disney Cruise since enough time has passed that I've forgotten some of my frustrations with them.

Drop me an email, ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or Instagram @RobertDwyer if you'd like connect.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Trip Report: Visiting the "real" Sea World

My boys offering Tilikum their popsicles
Sea World Orlando
January 28, 2010
For as much of a Disney Parks fan as I am, some of my absolute favorite family vacations have included visits to Sea World. There's just something about the combination of shows and pacing of a visit there that's suited our family incredibly well over the years.

Everyone has had a good time, and while there are a variety of things to enjoy at Sea World the theatric Shamu orca shows have certainly been the highlight.

I enjoyed visits to Sea World San Diego growing up. I wasn't bound and determined to become a marine biologist by any means but I was amazed by how the whales performed. Orcas are some of the best looking animals in the world and to see them put on a show up close has never disappointed.

Once I had kids of my own the show really impressed me in new ways. I don't know if it was the quality of the production or what, but when I took our boys, 4 and 2 at the time, to see the Shamu Believe show at Sea World San Diego in 2009 I was totally unprepared for how it affected me.

I'm not much of a cryer at all - perhaps once every few years or so. But by the time the show was over me and my 4 year old were sobbing on each other's shoulders. There was something about the amazing show the orcas and the trainers put on that day combined with the messaging, as Hallmark corny as it may have been, that struck a chord with me. Part generational, part connection with the whales, part inspiring kids to be the best they could be. Sea World knocked it out of the park with that Believe show.
My 4 year old and I sobbing on each other's shoulders
after watching the Shamu Believe show
January 2009, Sea World San Diego
We haven't been to Sea World since the release of Blackfish in 2013. Not necessarily because I've bought in fully to the message in the film. But I've felt like I wanted to learn more about orcas in the wild before I could be enthusiastic about visiting them again in captivity.

See, I don't consider myself a true animal lover. Or really a whale fanatic in general. There's just something about orcas that really fascinates me. And I can't trace that interest back to anything other than my visits to Sea World over the years.

So I'm torn: On one hand Sea World is responsible for my interest in orcas. On the other hand keeping orcas in captivity is particularly cruel given what their lives are like in the wild versus how they live at Sea World.

After the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, I started following the controversy surrounding orcas in captivity and specifically at Sea World more closely.

I read Death at Sea World and took note of this piece which recommends a visit to the "real" Sea World in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle over a visit to Sea World parks. Have a look at this quick video:

When the opportunity arose for a summer family vacation to the Pacific Northwest, I was sure to include ample time in our itinerary to try to see orcas.

Turns out - it's quite difficult to spot orcas in the wild.

I did as much I think as any reasonable parent could to put their family in a position to see orcas in the wild in the Pacific Northwest. Were we successful? Did we have a good time? Read on...

Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor

We left our hotel in Seattle around 10a bound for Anacortes, the nearest ferry departure point to the San Juan Islands. Our destination was Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I made reservations well in advance and arrived right on time without incident for our 1 hour ferry ride.

First off, I'd highly recommend getting a car even if you're staying in Friday Harbor because other parts of the islands are most conveniently reached via car.

I was hopeful that we might spot an orca on our ride out on the ferry. The woman pouring wine at Chateau Ste Michelle (a nice quick tasting stop not too far out of the way) said we probably would - she had in the past.

Unfortunately, we did not see any orcas on the ferry ride. Oh well. It was a long shot. It was a fun, calm, and beautiful ride through the islands to our destination.

Cost: $90 roundtrip for a family of 4 including car.

Lime Kiln State Park

Lime Kiln State Park is sometimes called "Whale Watch Park" because it's so popular with tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the orcas cruising by. A lot of things I'd read, including the piece linked to above, seem to imply that there's a very good chance you'll see orcas while visiting Lime Kiln State Park.

We were not so fortunate.
Lime Kiln State Park
8:00a July 6, 2016
No whales
I first visited for about an hour around 8a the first morning after we arrived. There were a couple other enthusiasts roaming the shore hoping for a glimpse and chatting about orcas, salmon population, and eco system effects on the orca population. But no whales appeared.

We came back with our families later that afternoon and stayed for a couple hours. There was some excitement in the air as the J Pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales had been sighted in the area a few days prior. And they'd been seen 100 miles north hours earlier in the day. There was some speculation they might cruise by at any moment so we kept up hope. But after a couple hours with no whales we left, a bit disappointed.
Lime Kiln State Park
2:00p July 6, 2016
No whales
From the looks of things, sightings at Lime Kiln have been rare in 2016. Like 5 days in the past two months rare. As compared to 2015 which had 22 days with sightings at this point, that's quite a drop in action. But even so - the whales don't pass by Lime Kiln at all most days even in a good year. So there's a very good chance that if you sat there all day from sun up to sun down that you wouldn't see an orca. That's long odds compared to seeing an orca at Sea World.
Whales last sighted 3 days ago?
I don't like our odds here...
After an unsuccessful visit to Lime Kiln I was starting to get discouraged.

Fortunately, we had our best chance for sightings yet to come with a whale watch cruise booked the next evening.

Cost: $10/day for parking. $30 for a season pass.

Whale Watch Cruise

Before our trip I did some research on whale watch companies out of Friday Harbor. There are quite a few companies to choose from, but I was surprised at how there weren't a ton of time slots to choose from. In fact, many of the smaller companies were booked up on some days a couple weeks in advance.

I ended up going with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on a 4p cruise. They sail out of Snug Harbor on the west side of the island, about a 20 minute drive from Friday Harbor. They had the #1 ranking for activities on Trip Advisor for Friday Harbor so I went with them even though they were pricey at $129 per person. On the bright side they have just 6 passengers per boat along with a naturalist and the captain.

The morning before the cruise we checked out The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. It was fun, if a little dated, but mostly orca focused so it hit the spot. Overall, I was struck with just how primitive our knowledge of orcas is. I mean - in the '70s Sea World was legally rounding up and capturing orcas in these very waters for their shows. Now they're ending their orca breeding programs and planning to end theatric shows? Amazing how quickly things can change.

Worsening my apprehension about an expensive and disappointing whale watch cruise was the forecast for rain that evening right about the time our cruise was set to start. This combined with the fact that not all of the whale watch expeditions were successful in seeing orcas had me quite concerned I was setting up for a $500+ bust of a whale watch cruise. But we soldiered on!
We departed out of Snug Harbor
Last chance to see orcas
We arrived at the appointed departure point with plenty of time (didn't want to miss it) at the lovely Snug Harbor Resort. It was the four of us plus a nice couple from Miami on the boat.

Captain Alan briefed us on safety but the question we all wanted answered was: "What are the chances we'll see orcas?" He played it cool. To my [growing] concern he said the morning expedition did not see any orcas. But they did see a Humpback! "Big whoop," I thought to myself. If I don't see any orcas it's going to be a sad sight...

Shortly before taking off he shared good news about our chances for seeing orcas: They'd been spotted right at the entrance of Snug Harbor moments ago! We were going to see killer whales!
Me and my 9 year old
Primed to see some orcas
As soon as we got out of the harbor we could see a collection of other whale watching boats about a mile away. The captain kicked it into high gear and we joined the pack in about 10 minutes. Moments later, it happened. We saw our first orca in the wild!
Orcas! J-2 Granny (I think) and another J Pod whale
At first I felt a sense of urgency to make the most of this precious moment. I mean, earlier that day we were learning about the J Pod's matriarch "Granny" and here we were 200 yards from her? Of all the places in the ocean, we found her? Amazing.

As the evening unfolded we'd see about 15 distinct killer whales breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping, and generally putting on an amazing show for us.

The fact that the J Pod was right outside the harbor where we started our whale watch cruise was tremendously fortunate. I mean - if they were an hour away we would have spent two-thirds of our time getting to them and back to the harbor. But as it was we spent almost the entire 3 hours with the whales. It was fantastic.
L-87 Onyx with his straight 5' dorsal fin
Keep in mind that by law, boats can't intentionally motor to within 200 yards of a killer whale. The best you can hope for is a scenario where the captain kills the engine and a killer whale decides to make its way over to your boat.

More commonly, you're cruising on relatively calm waters at the same pace as them watching them glide along the surface of the water, exhaling powerfully and audibly through their blowholes, and generally putting on a surprisingly good show while they're hunting for salmon.

I intentionally posted these grainy photos taken with my iPhone so as not to oversell how close we were to the whales. If you want to see some great shots taken with a telephoto lens, head over to this Nature's Keeper's Facebook page. The photographer, Heather MacIntyre, was the guide on our cruise. She did a tremendous job explaining what we were seeing and maximizing our experience out on the water.

I shot a couple of videos.
Here's one on Twitter showing a mama and baby breaching back to back.
Here's one on Instagram showing the pod traveling together with a big breach. Wait for the splash at the end.

It was so exciting being out there on the water not knowing what they might do next. Might we get super close to one? Might they jump really high out of the water like at Sea World? The spontaneous mystery of it makes every cruise unique. You never know what you're going to see.

I sat on the front of the boat the entire time, not noticing until about two-thirds of the way through that it had been raining pretty heavily. I did not mind one bit.

Overall, it was a truly amazing experience. Worth every penny and then some. I'd gladly pay to go again in a heartbeat - if we were guaranteed to see orcas!

Cost: $129 pp (cheaper options are available on boats with more people)

Bottom Line

So was it worth it? Absolutely, for us. Getting to see orcas in their natural environment was something I've wanted to do for a long time and I'm so glad we were able to. We had a great time doing it together as a family.

But what if we hadn't seen orcas on the trip? Or if we only saw them in the very far off distance with little impact? I think my feelings would have been quite different, both in terms of whether it was "worth it" and in terms of my current feelings about orcas in captivity.

If we hadn't seen orcas on this trip, I would have left feeling like I tried very hard to "do the right thing" and see orcas in the wild instead of at Sea World and ended up disappointed. I think I would have felt a bit more like there's a reason for Sea World. They make seeing an orca a sure thing and that's an opportunity that most people don't get.

Seeing orcas in the wild was a more educational experience that sparked a different kind of curiosity than I left with after seeing them in captivity. Whereas after seeing them at Sea World I thought they were "amazing" I'm now feeling even more curious about the eco system challenges orcas face in the wild. Why are sightings of the J Pod down so much this year? They say it's because of a dangerously low supply of salmon - why is that? Do dams need to be opened? Is the area overfished? What are the implications of righting those situations? So many questions.

In the end, I still see merit in what Sea World has done with their orca shows. If it weren't for them, many of the most effective proponents for orcas might not have gotten their initial inspiration. Sea World has certainly heightened awareness of orcas and other sea animals over the years - if they're not permitted to continue providing this kind of spark, where will our next generation draw its inspiration from?

Will we go back to Sea World? Gosh, I don't know. I mean - I love seeing orcas any way I can. But after seeing them so healthy and vigorous in the wild it would be depressing to see them in captivity with their collapsed dorsal fins, decaying teeth, and general lethargy from being cooped up in small pools for years.

You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see Sea World take it to the next level with an immersive resort right on the ocean in the Pacific Northwest. Create some huge sea pens where a semi-controlled environment would enable them to serve as a rehab hospital for sick orcas and ones that have formerly been in captivity. Combine it with amazing on-shore exhibits and guaranteed opportunities to see orcas in an environment that enables them to get out and explore a bit and I'd be there. It could be amazing if done well. And it's not as far fetched as you might think.

But I don't know... It sounds kind of like Jurassic Park. And we all know how that ends.

I really hope Sea World can find a way to continue to inspire the public to have a greater appreciation for sea animals - especially orcas. But in the mean time, if you get a chance to see orcas in the wild I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Review: Seasons Restaurant Chef's Table at Four Seasons Aviara

California charcuterie and cheese plate
Last year we visited the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara just as they were putting the finishing touches on a multi-million dollar renovation. The place was already great, but the aim of the renovation was to make the Residence Club a complete vacation destination with its own spa and signature dining experiences.

Read more: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family Friendly Review

What we saw looked amazing. An ambitious culinary renovation was the centerpiece of a broader expansion of the Residence Club's Meadows lobby, spa, and gym.

But since they were days away from opening the restaurant we weren't able to enjoy it until a recent visit Memorial Day weekend.

I'm glad we were able to return because it was one of the best dining experiences I've ever had.

Residence Club

The Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club is located in Carlsbad, CA about a 45 minute drive north of the San Diego Airport. We've been coming here for years and it remains one of our favorite family friendly vacation destinations.

Here's a quick video overview:

Seasons Restaurant

Seasons Aviara looks exactly like renderings predicted it would - gorgeous
In 2015 they opened Seasons Aviara. From their website:

"Designed to be the culinary epicenter of Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara, Seasons Restaurant delivers farm-to-table cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant’s California-inspired fare takes shape via multiple distinctive dining experiences including an interactive chef’s table inside the working kitchen, a signature one of a kind Kitchen Counter experience, and a well-appointed private dining room. Bask in the natural light with its custom glass ceilings and relax over handcrafted cocktails and a wine list featuring the best Californian winemakers."

It's worth noting: Seasons Aviara is a private restaurant for the owners and guests of Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara only.
Bar area at Seasons Aviara

Chef's Table

Our menu for the night (click to enlarge)
In my experience, there's something special about staying at or visiting a Four Seasons. It's like magic can happen at any time. As soon as we walked into the lobby it was as if everyone who was working there knew who we were. "Enjoy your dinner," was said with a smile from a clerk behind the front desk at check-in. "Right this way, Mr. Dwyer," and "welcome to our Chef's Table."

The Chef's Table is set in the kitchen on a long wooden table which comfortably seats 6-10 people, perfect for family style dining. The experience costs $49 for adults, $25 for kids - a spectacular value considering you can pay $20 for burgers poolside at some high end resorts.

Couples or smaller groups might enjoy the Kitchen Counter experience, which I'm told features a more adventurous on-the-fly menu. Either way, you'll enjoy the view of the pool and courtyard area of the Residence Club's Meadows area during your meal.
Chefs Table and Kitchen Counter
Overlooking the Meadows pool area
The Chef's Table is family style, which is a format I normally don't care for. Unless I'm dining with my family! Which I was. A few days prior to your reservation you'll be asked to select a couple salads and a couple entrees for your group. These choices are then expanded upon with the Chef's selections for the day. Here's a sample Chef's Table Menu.

As we were getting settled and selecting some beverages a little Four Seasons magic kicked in. Our server advised that he had a special beverage for my sister. It seemed a little out of the blue, but we were amazed and delighted they'd picked up on a comment my sister left on their Instagram about one of their signature drinks. The Four Seasons somehow made the connection between our reservation, my sister joining us [different last names], and the comment she left on Instagram - and followed up by serving her the drink she asked about. Impressive.
2013 Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Outstanding
The wine list was mildly California focused, but not exclusively. We started with a bottle of rosé Cava (from Spain). Markup was reasonable, I thought. Like this 2013 Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (pronounced FAY-luh) at $54. The wine was spectacular [93 points for me] and a at a very fair price considering the wine that retails for $34.

We started off the evening with a plate of charcuterie, cheeses, nuts and fruit. The California-shaped serving board set the tone nicely for the focus of the restaurant, and accompanying flatbread made for a very nice start to the evening.
For our menu choices, we kept things pretty conservative with wide appeal. The Caesar salad was terrific - the grilled and chilled lemons were a nice touch. The Strawberry Lettuce Leaves salad with compressed strawberry, manchego, spiced pecans, and lemon verbena vinaigrette was outstanding. Kind of reminded me [in a very good way]of the L'Occitane lemon verbena soaps they've had in the villas - a scent I always associate with Four Seasons Aviara.
Strawberry Lettuce Leaves salad
Between the salad an entree courses, the Chef's Whim was a delicious surprise. They laid paper down the center of the table and left us wondering what they'd surprise us with. Local Langostino Lobsters was my guess, but I was wrong. Check out the look of surprise on my 8 year old's face as he sees what's coming out. Priceless. Spoiler alert: If you plan on going there I'd leave it a surprise, but if you're curious check out this video to see what it was. Really enjoyable.
The surprised look on my 8 year old's face when he
saw what the Chef's Whim was: Priceless
For our entree selections, we went with the Grilled Wild Salmon with Israeli couscous, baby squash, and confit cherry tomato, and the New York Steak Frites with chive aioli and caramelized onions.

I don't have any pictures of the entrees unfortunately, because a plate of juicy steak landed on my lap while being served. They were so gracious about the accident - stuff happens. It says a lot about how great this dining experience was when I spent 10 minutes in the bathroom with club soda trying to get my clothes clean and it was still one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I've ever been a part of.

We finished up strong with an Ice Cream Party featuring house made ice cream with all the fixings. Tremendous. The kids enjoyed the meal as much as we did which makes me so happy when it happens. Reminded me of our time at the California Grill at Disney World last year. Everyone in the family focused on having a truly good time together. Can't beat that.
Ice Cream Party, toppings not pictured but were included
After dinner we made our way to the nearby poolside fire to chat and enjoy each other's company a little more. A true spectacular evening at a very special place.
Poolside fire at the Four Seasons Aviara Meadows

Bottom Line

Seasons Aviara is spectacular addition to the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara. Ambitious conceived, masterfully implemented, upscale yet warm and inviting, family friendly, and a great value.

My rating:
5 out of 5 Stars: Perfection

In order to dine at Seasons, you need to be an owner or guest at the Four Seasons Residence Club. You can stay at the Residence Club by renting a villa directly from Four Seasons or by renting a week through an agency or from a private party. Learn more at

Questions? Comments? Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or Instagram

Monday, May 30, 2016

Park Hyatt Aviara Resort Review

Setup service at the Family Pool (click to enlarge)
We're on our way back from a tremendous Memorial Day weekend at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort. Although "May Gray" weather was present most of the time, we had a wonderful stay. From beginning to end the quality of the hotel and the level of service here was very high. We'll be back...


Park Hyatt Aviara public area
The hotel is one of just 138 to earn both a AAA Five Diamond rating and a Forbes Five Star rating (so said our shuttle driver). Although this was the fifth Park Hyatt we've stayed at this year (Paris, NYC, DC, and Chicago were the others) this was our first visit to a Park Hyatt Resort.

This particular Park Hyatt used to be a Four Seasons hotel. However, in 2010 ownership ended its management contract with Four Seasons and brought in Hyatt to run things. What we have now is a property where the adjacent Residence Club is still managed by Four Seasons and the hotel is managed by Hyatt.

See: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family Friendly Review

When I first heard the news that the hotel was going to be a Hyatt my reaction was: "Downgrade". However, I don't think I appreciated that the Park Hyatt level within the Hyatt lineup is positioned similarly aesthetically and in terms of overall quality as Four Seasons.

Most people (other than points & miles hounds) don't understand Hyatt's brands very well (Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, garden variety Hyatt, etc) so don't feel bad if you're not familiar with them. You're not alone!

Park Hyatt is their luxury level, and although it doesn't consistently deliver the way Four Seasons does, some Park Hyatt locations are very nice. So, in hindsight Park Hyatt was a natural fit to take over the Aviara hotel.

I'm a huge fan of Four Seasons and although I'd never stayed at the Four Seasons Aviara hotel proper I enjoyed the amenities the hotel offered in conjunction with Four Seasons Residence Club stays. On a week-long stay you could "mix things up" a bit and visit the hotel pool, take the kids over to the game room, and enjoy golf/tennis clinics for a nominal fee.

Although the relationship between the hotel and residence club has improved in recent times, the two now operate as completely separate entities. For example, you're not welcome to use the pools at the hotel if you're staying at the residence club and vice versa.

So this review is going to be from the viewpoint of a guy who's stayed at the Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club with his family in the past staying at the Park Hyatt Aviara hotel for the first time, with some observations on how well Hyatt Diamond status conveys at this property.


Since we've got Hyatt Diamond status this year and I was in the market for something fun to do Memorial Day weekend I had a look at the Hyatt Regency in Newport, RI. We live in Boston so it would be a short but traffic-laden drive. I didn't like the way availability was shaking out there so I had a look at Aviara. And everything fell neatly into place for a trip to San Diego.

But if there's one thing I've noticed about Hyatt's loyalty program it's this:

Every booking experience is an adventure. 

Some properties have ample award availability, others do not. Some have ample Diamond Suite Upgrade availability, others do now. Some allow you to upgrade a points booking with cash, others do not. Sometimes you get a different answer if you call the hotel vs calling the Diamond Gold Passport desk. If you like puzzles you'll love tinkering with the Hyatt program.

For Memorial Day weekend, paid rates were running around $349/nt. Since Aviara is a Hyatt Category 5 hotel (7 being the highest) it costs 20,000 Hyatt ponits per night OR 10,000 points + $125/nt. I initially opted for the Cash + Points option hoping to apply a Diamond Suite Upgrade certificate to the stay.
When paying with points, the $30/nt resort fee
is waived and there is no tax on the stay
Unfortunately, that suite upgrade award space never materialized. Although there were Park Suites available for our dates and Park Deluxe Suites as well - the Park Luxury Suite was not available. And in order to use a Diamond Suite Upgrade at this property the Luxury Suite needs to be available. And it's hardly ever available. How convenient. I've seen similar shenanigans at other Hyatt properties (I'm looking at you, Park Hyatt Chicago).

It's this kind of carving up of room categories and what feels to me like strategic blocking of award space that has me less than enthusiastic about chasing Hyatt Diamond requalification, as amazing as it can be.

See this thread on FlyerTalk for a listing of the suite categories for each property that needs to be available in order to use a Diamond Suite Upgrade.


The hotel charges $35/day for valet parking and we didn't need a car during our stay, so I decided to hire a car service to and from the San Diego airport for around $100. It worked out great. We arrived quite late so while we were about 20 minutes away from the hotel I called to request they make up the queen foldout sofabed so our boys could go straight to bed. They did and it was much appreciated.

I was a bit "on guard" while checking in since our stay at the Park Hyatt Chicago was rough in terms of recognizing Diamond benefits (we had to fight for eveything we got). However, upon check-in at the Park Hyatt Aviara we were kindly briefed that as a Diamond member we'd receive:
  • Complimentary Full American Breakfast Buffet at the California Bistro (for up to 4 registered guests per room, $35+ value per person and including gratuity, this cannot be taken as room service at this property unlike other Park Hyatts)
  • Food & Beverage Amenity (we opted for a cheese plate and a bottle of red wine)
  • Best Available Room (within room category, we were upgraded to a standard room with an obstructed view of the pool)
  • Complimentary Newspaper (even I who appreciate the novelty of reading the newspaper while on vacation didn't opt to take advantage of this, and shouldn't that be available to all guests?)
  • Complimentary Turndown Service (again, shouldn't this be standard at a five star hotel?)
  • Complimentary Internet Access (worked very well all over the resort grounds)
  • Complimentary 4:00 pm late checkout (based on availability but not useful to us on this stay)
  • Complimentary Spa facility access (surprisingly nice, a $30 value)
  • 30% point bonus on eligible spend (always nice, too bad alcohol is excluded)


View from a 3rd floor "Pool View King" room.
Definitely obstructed, but whatever.
We've gotten some really nice suite upgrades at Hyatts so far this year (Park Hyatt NYC is incredibly refined, and there's a lot of leverage to be had at the Hyatt Regency Maui for example). However, the standard room at the Park Hyatt Aviara served us well. With a very nice large bathroom, king bed with a foldout queen sofa, and outdoor space I was perfectly happy to save our suite upgrade for another stay.

The bathroom is remiscient of those at the Four Seasons Residence Club (which I really like). The room appears to have gotten a meaningful facelift in the past few years, but its styling isn't as contemporary as most Hyatts.

The mattress was a low light for me, and a weak spot for Park Hyatts in general in my opinion. Most Park Hyatts have a rather firm bed that almost has a platform feel to it. And that's fine. But at Aviara I experienced a pillow top mattress that seemed to have large depressions in it that resulted in my feet being higher than my body and left me in an awkward position all night. Not good.

Another weak spot: Although they have in-room Illy capsule-based espresso makers they provide powerdered Coffeemate as a creamer. I'd prefer a liquid creamer. Note that there's Keurig coffee at the front desk before 6:30am and complimentary Illy drip coffee outside the California Bistro starting at 6:30am.

Overall, the room was very good but not quite outstanding.

Food & Beverage

Poolside wood fired pizza oven.
Pizzas were innovatively conceived, perfectly prepared, and absolutely delicious.
If there's one thing that's consistently impressed me about Park Hyatt it's been the food & beverage program. Not just the breakfast (I'll get to that in a minute) but so many Park Hyatt properties feature restaurants you might want visit even if you're not staying at the hotel. The Back Room at the Park Hyatt New York and the Blue Duck Tavern at their Washington DC properites come to mind - terrific.

The brunch served at the California Bistro is outstanding. I remember eating here back in the day when they offered a Friday night Seafood Buffet where in an effort to maximize value guests regularly risked allergic reactions while ingesting copious amounts of shellfish.
Blueberry Crumble Danish were only outdone by Strawberry Cronuts
The pastry chef at this property, from France I'm told, is amazingly talented. Highlights at the buffet included Strawberry Cronuts [wow!], Blueberry Crumble Danish, and Peanut Butter and Chocolate Croissants. Other venues on site benefit from his talents. For example, in the Spa they've got shortbread or macarons on a rotating basis.

Also, the weekend we were there they featured personal s'mores setups poolside. With service for four and the components prepared in house (there's that pastry chef again) they were a very enjoyable novelty.

Each night on the holiday weekend they had a special dinner offering poolside. We loved the wood-fired pizzas prepared right next to our table and delivered by the chef himself. Terrific.
I'd like to be able to buy Cali Creamin' on the east coast
but that would kill the novelty
The beer assortment poolside featured a lot of local brews - including one of my favorites: Mother Earth Brew Co Cali Creamin' Vanilla Cream Ale. It's one of those things where I wish they'd sell it on the east coast but as soon as they did the novelty would be gone.

We stopped in for a drink at The Argyle Steakhouse, down by the Aviara Golf Club. A very nice spot. Seems newly remodeled to a very high level recently. We had a simple plate of french fries that were as good as I can imagine fries being.
Simple french fries at the Argyle Lounge after golf were amazingly good.
Can this place do no wrong?
We didn't visit the hotel's fine dining venue (Vivace) on this visit, but prior visits it has been spectacular. I highly recommend it. You're welcome to dine at the Park Hyatt restaurants while staying at the Residence Club, but not vice versa.

Overall, the food & beverage options at this property delighted across the board.


Enjoy complimentary use of the driving range and putting green
at the Aviara Golf club while staying at the Park Hyatt
A strength of the Park Hyatt Aviara is its scale and the breadth of actities they're able to offer, especially when occupancy rates are high.


The Arnold Palmer designed 18 hole Aviara Golf Club hosts the LPGA Kia Classic. It is a gorgeous golf course. I didn't have time to play it on this visit [hotel guests get preferred tee times] but instead took my boys down to hit some golf balls at the driving range. Normally reserved for those playing a round of golf that day, range access is included in the resort fee.

Pro Tip: The Citi Prestige credit card comes with 3 free rounds of golf annually and 4th night free at hotels. The Aviara Golf Club is included in the list of courses in this program and it's a great redemption since a rates can be as high as $230 per round.
They treated us like VIPs at the Aviara Golf Club
Complimentary loaner clubs - even for young lefties!
I called down and they set me up with complimentary loaner clubs for me and my boys, even a perfectly sized left-handed set for my 8 year old. We enjoyed driving the cart over to the range and hitting balls off turf rather than the synthetic mats they're more accustomed to. After that we putted for a bit and grabbed a drink at the Argyle Lounge while regaling in the fine service we experienced.

The tennis courts also looks to be a great value. Court time on one of six courts (two of which are clay), racquet rentals, and balls are said to be included in the resort fee.

Golf and tennis clinics for adults and/or kids are offered on select days as well.


I'm not a big spa guy so I had a special reporter do a visit and provide her thoughts.

If you happen to have Diamond status with Hyatt (or have a friend who will share their status with you as a "Guest of Honor") be sure to visit the spa.

Even if you are not springing for any spa treatments, check in at the spa desk where they will ask your shoe size then assign you a locker with appropriately sized sandals, plush robe, bottled water, jewelry bag, and laundry bag. After changing in to the robe, stop by the coed "relaxation room" aka the solarium where you can get hot herbal tea, fruit-infused ice water, dried fruit, fresh peaches, mixed nuts, and either freshly baked shortbread cookies or assorted French macarons (cookie/macaron selection seems to be on a daily rotation).

Lounge in the comfy chairs with palm trees and a slight breeze while enjoying the treats. Next head to the spa area for some time in the dry sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi tub. Note: These areas are "clothing optional" and not co-ed. After you are done, jump in the shower and use the eucalyptus spray on the walls to create an aromatherapy shower while you use the provided amenities (shampoo, conditioner, shave cream, razors and shower gel.) After using the blowdryer take a quick trip back to the solarium if it is macaron day then head out to enjoy the rest of your day. Oh, and the fitness center looks well-equipped if you wanted to add some exercise to your spa experience.

Visiting the spa without a treatment normally costs $30, but Diamond guests get it for free. It's almost like a secret lounge. Almost.
Diamond guests get complimentary Spa access.
Useful if it's chilly outside or you just want a healthy light snack. Secret lounge?
But we spent most of our time at the pools and the game room.
Adult pool and bar overlooking the Batiquitos Lagoon
I'm pleased to report that the standard of service the Four Seasons offers poolside largely conveys at the Park Hyatt. As soon as we entered the pool area we were set up nicely with lounge chairs and umbrellas poolside. The chaise lounges were covered with large white towels and additional towels were provided for drying off. Additional towels, if needed, were plentiful and easy to fetch. Food & drink menus were provided along with ice water for each guest.
Ample lounge chairs even when the hotel was at 90%+ capacity
Cabanas [that nobody uses] set back away from the pool - I like it.
Cabanas are available to rent but I didn't see a single one in use. Thankfully, the cabanas were set behind the free lounge chairs (further away from the pool). I appreciated this setup because, in contrast and as a point of comparison, at the Fairmont Kea Lani the space right around the pool was dominated by cabanas that were quite expensive, largely undifferentiated vs lounge chairs, and hardly used. With the hotel at near full occupancy the pools were crowded but not unplesantly so. The crowd was well behaved and our kids made friends with others their age.

We really enjoyed the game room downstairs. The games aren't state of the art or anything but they are complimentary and include two billards tables, two foosball tables, three Xbox stations, a shuffleboard table, and a couple of classic upright video games kept us entertained for hours.

There is a fee-based Camp Hyatt program for kids ages 4-12 [quite expensive at $90-$165 a day, especially considering it was previously complimentary when this was a Four Seasons] which we didn't take advantage of. Our kids are technically within the age range most hotel kids clubs are said to handle, but lately I've found them aimed too much towards the lower end of the age scale. We poked our head in the club just to see what it was like. It looked nice, but the kids in the program were quite young. Perfect for those with younger kids but not for us anymore. The semi-supervised tween/teen ("The Hideout") at the Four Seasons Orlando is great for our kids now - too bad more hotels don't offer something like this.

Read more: Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

The pool area featured live entertainment each night around 5-6:30 which was surprisngly good. I rarely find live entertainment to be a value add at places like this (too loud/not good/not a fan of the genre, etc) but Lee Coulter in particular was great.
Personal poolside s'mores with house made graham crackers and chocolate.
Perfectly complements a dive-in movie.
After the music finished up they fired up The Good Dinosaur as a dive-in movie. The screen was a little hard to see before the sun went down, and it was getting quite chilly by then so we enjoyed our s'mores then headed up for bed, tired especially due to the 3 hour time difference.

It's worth noting that this hotel is not on the ocean. Although there are distant views of the Pacific, the hotel isn't even particularly close to the ocean. They do offer a beach shuttle and chair rental service for I think $15/day. And complimenatry shuttle rides to nearby attractions like the Carlsbad Premium Outlets are available as well.

In the past we've visited nearby theme parks while staying at Aviara, but for a holiday weekend that was a definite "pass" for us. Disneyland is theoretically just an hour and six minutes away and although I jokingly threatened the kids with a visit [I'm the biggest Disney fan in the family] a Disney Park visit on Memorial Day weekend sounds like a death move.

At less crowded times of year Legoland is very close by in Carlsbad. And Sea World isn't too terribly far (are we allowed to be fans of Sea World again now that they're ramping down their orca programs?) but I wouldn't recommend visiting on weekdays due to traffic in both directions.

Overall, there is just a ton of fun stuff to do at and nearby this resort. We all had a great time.

Bottom Line

Six years after being converted from a Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt Aviara remains a high end true family friendly resort hotel. The service standard is very high and interactions with staff was uniformly outstanding with a genuine "it is my pleasure" attitude. Unlike the Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club next door, the Park Hyatt Aviara can be booked using points.

Although both properties have their strengths for family vacations I think the Residence Club is better for week-long stays (it feels like every day is Saturday and there are no chores) the Park Hyatt nicely fills in the gaps for shorter stays with more flexible booking terms.

Award availability at the Park Hyatt (for standard rooms using all points or cash + points) is quite good, but access to suites is limited - perhaps artificially so by the hotel since they've carved out a unique class of suites with few rooms. It's a solid use of Hyatt points at around 2 cents per point, but far from one of the best redemptions out there.

That said I'll gladly return to both the Park Hyatt Aviara and the Four Seasons Residence Club as well. We've enjoyed every single visit to the area and it continues to be one of my Top 3 Vacation Destinations.

4.5 out of 5 Stars: Outstanding

Follow me on Instagram where I've been mostly posting travel related stuff lately or on Twitter (also @RobertDwyer) where I tend to talk more about points, miles & wine. Or drop me an email if you want to keep it on the downlow.
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