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.
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