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Destination Disney: A Family Vacation with and without the kids

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

If you want to have a romantic vacation alone with your spouse, plan a week at Walt Disney World with teenagers. I promise you will never see them unless you insist that they meet you for a meal or two. We decamped for the Happiest Place on Earth, armed with sunscreen and leftover Disney dollars, looking for sunshine and amusement. We found both.

We’ve visited Mickey and Minnie Mouse before, in Florida, California and even in France. We prefer to stay at Disney properties because they are very good hotels, consistently well maintained and because of the transportation system. The bus and monorail system allow every one to go their own way without any fuss. With cellphones and texting, we stayed in touch. Some preferred the rides at The Magic Kingdom, while others of us preferred the wine and beers “around the world” at Epcot. Guess who liked what!

The first night we stayed in a family suite at The All-Star Music Resort, one of Disney’s value resorts. The All-Star Resorts (Music, Movie, and Sports) are examples of how Disney has developed lodging for all tastes and prices, including campgrounds. Disney advertises rooms for as low as $84 a night during some seasons at these properties. The two-room suite had two bathrooms, a comfortable queen bed and sleeper sofa. Six people could be squeezed in—all with beds. Seemingly all night long, kids swam in both the guitar- and piano-shaped swimming pools.  Mercifully, the room we had was well insulated.

Our second lodging choice was the newest Disney Deluxe Villa resort, Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. Everything in Disney is themed—this resort takes its cue from the horseracing mecca of its namesake in New York at the turn of the century. Our room was equipped with a mini refrigerator, microwave and balcony. Its only drawback was its size; they called it a studio, but the four of us were tripping over each other by week’s end.

Tickets for the parks are very pricey. For a single day, one park, you pay $82 for one park.  A “Park Hopper” ticket—which allows you to move from one Disney park to another—is $136 per day.  The more days you buy, the less the ticket costs; you ‘only’ pay $50 a day per person for five days. You get a full day of activity from as early as 8:30 a.m. to one night where the Magic Kingdom was open until 3 a.m.—that would be in the morning, before dawn. An adult favorite was strolling around the World Showcase, where you can drink and eat in Canada, Great Britain, France, Mexico, China, Japan, Italy, Norway, and Morocco — all in an afternoon. The teenagers did the rides, ranging from Test Track, a car racing simulation and Soaring at Epcot to Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom. Perennial favorites (and now movies) are the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. And don’t miss the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom.

Eating is a big expense, but there are ways to economize. Having a big breakfast at the resort helps, as food at the hotels was consistently better tasting and less costly than in the parks. Then, eating an early dinner, with a few snacks in between, helps the budget.

The best lunch was a tie between the belly dancing lessons plus kabobs at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot and the hamburger and onion rings at the Turf Club Bar and Grill at the Saratoga Resort.

The sushi chef at The California Grill, atop the Contemporary Resort, is world-renowned (not sure how that happens) and the sushi we ordered was both lovely look at and very tasty. This restaurant is known for its extensive, and I mean huge, wine list. The pork belly appetizer was a winner, as was the pasta entrée. Expect to pay a minimum of $50 per person for dinner. If that’s not in your budget, go for a glass of wine at 10 p.m. and watch the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom. It is the best place to see the spectacular fireworks display that happens every evening.  You may even stand out on a restaurant observation deck for the maximum effect.

We also visited one of our favorite restaurants at Epcot, Chefs de France. Our waiter had worked there for 25 years and bore a strange resemblance to Maurice Chevalier. The steak was outstanding, with a lovely crème brulee to finish. The fixed price menu at $39.95 was a good deal with three courses selected from a list of choices. We picked lobster bisque, short ribs braised in red wine and profiteroles, cream puffs stuffed with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce.

After all that walking, a short visit to the spa was needed. Given everything else there is to do at the resorts and the parks, getting an appointment was easy.  The spa facilities were clean and empty, with a whirlpool, dry and wet sauna for use. It wasn’t the most luxurious spa, but it was an above average facility. The aromatherapy massage was top quality and at resort prices, but worth the splurge for the sheer relaxation value.

Relaxation is in short supply at Disney World with so much to see and do. All of the resorts are full service with activities, and nicely appointed fitness facilities. Every time I visit I vow to spend more time at the swimming pools and every time I get sucked right back into park hopping. I guess we are all just big kids, no matter what our age.

On our last day in Disney, we sat outside the cleanest pub you’ll ever find, The Rose and Crown, the sun shining on our faces enjoying a pleasant 75 degrees, sipping a nice Guinness stout and imagining ourselves in London. For what we paid for the trip, we probably could have gone to the real London but it would have been cold and rainy just like home, and Florida’s sunshine and Disney’s magic was what we needed.

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