Thursday, May 29, 2014

Vacation Recap & Review: DCL and AKL

For my 30th birthday, I was blessed enough to get to experience an amazing surprise vacation: a three day Disney cruise followed by two days at Walt Disney World (WDW). Usually when we vacation, we take the cheap affordable option. But for this trip, we decided to splurge. It was definitely a different type of vacation, especially since we almost exclusively stay at the value resorts at WDW (the All-Stars, Pop Century, Art of Animation). This post will briefly recap and review both parts of the trip.

Disney Cruise Line (DCL)
Let me say this before we even get started, if you know Disney than you know that almost everything Disney does is larger than life. This is no different with DCL. From the minute you are welcomed onto the ship (they announce each family as they board) until the minute you are disembarking (and shaking hands with the captain), you feel like you are royalty. The service aboard DCL is unlike anything I've ever experienced- each and every cast member is friendly, polite, and will go miles out of their way to keep you happy. Hands down, DCL has the best customer service I've ever experienced.

Cheesin it up with the captain!

Another feature that sets DCL apart is their rotational dining. You and your party rotate to different restaurants each night and your service team rotates along with you. For our cruise, Mauricio and Rachelle were our servers and they did an incredible job. Every day, they would ask us about our day- they really got to know us over the course of three short days. I actually cried the morning we left when I realized we wouldn't be eating dinner with them again!

Our Disney Dream "Breakfast Club":-)

Speaking of food, it is absolutely excellent. The buffet that you eat for breakfast and lunch is expansive- we were able to find healthy and yummy options at every meal. The sit-down meals in the restaurants are absolutely incredible. You can also order as much food as you want and if you don't like your dinner- send it back! The sit-down dinners are all-you-can-eat! DCL also offers a sit-down breakfast the morning you leave the ship which was a really nice way to leave the cruise.

In addition to the service and food, the actual ship (the Disney Dream) is simply gorgeous. The restaurants, theatres, even the lobby is beautiful. We booked a stateroom on the sixth deck with a veranda- completely worth the extra cost. You can see more pictures of our room here.

The only thing that we didn't love about the cruise was the amount of "selling" happening on board the first day. All along deck 11, where the food and pools were located, cast members were really pushing alcoholic drinks hard. It seemed like there was a cast member every three feet trying to sell you the drink of the day. Honestly, it was really annoying and turned us off a little from the cruise. Luckily, they didn't do this at all on the second or third days.

Overall, we loved our experience with DCL and can't wait to do it again!

Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL)
The only thing that made getting off the ship bearable was a two day trip to WDW! For the second leg of our vacation, we stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Matthew selected this resort because I have always wanted to stay there- on our first Disney trip (November 2011), we ate at Jiko- the restaurant in the lobby- and I fell in love with how beautiful the resort was. But the most unique part of AKL is that there is an actual wildlife preserve at the resort! How cool is that?!

We had a room on the fourth floor overlooking the Sunset Savannah. The room itself was gorgeous and much bigger than a value resort. We had two sinks, a coffee maker, and a full dresser- none of this is available in a value resort. Neither is this amazing view:

Two giraffes and a baby!

The first day we arrived at AKL (Sunday), we enjoyed the resort- napped at the pool, enjoyed the hot tub, walked around getting pictures of the lobby and different animals on the preserve. Then we ate at Sanaa (fabulous Indian/African food!) and went shopping at Downtown Disney.

These flamingos were so loud! It was awesome.

Wild donkey and some kind of antelope.
Dessert at Sanaa.

Does this even need a caption?

Queen beds and lots of room in the deluxe resorts!

Beautiful pool area.

Aerial view of the lobby- taken from the bridge you can walk across :-)

After a successful and relaxing day, we headed to the parks on Monday. As you might recall, Matthew (because he's awesome!) had already booked our fast passes to meet princesses in Magic Kingdom (MK) that afternoon and made a reservation for Be Our Guest restaurant for dinner. But we had the morning free- so we headed to Animal Kingdom (AK) just as the park opened at 8 am.

We went straight to Expedition Everest, waited about three minutes, and got to ride in the very front of the train! It was so awesome! After we conquered the Yeti, we decided to head over to Epcot to be there just as the park opened at 9 am. We rode Test Track and Soarin' (less than 15 minutes wait for each) and got pictures with some of our favorite characters- Goofy loved Matthew's Goofy New Balances! Then we took a quick lap around World Showcase, ate lunch in Mexico, and hopped on the Monorail to go to MK.

One of my favorite rides in all of WDW!

Whoa! Front row!!

Goofy "dusting off" Matthew's Goofy shoes.
The main mouse.

One of my favorite gals!

Spaceship Earth- view from Italy.

Though the Flower and Garden show was over, most of the flowers and sculptures were still out- so pretty!

Once at MK, we got to meet Anna and Elsa, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. All with no lines! I think each princess visit took less than 10 minutes. At one point, the wait for Anna and Elsa was 300 minutes long- that's five hours!!!! Crazy. By the way, we got a little tidbit from one of our bus drivers: Maelstrom, the Norway boat ride, will be replaced by a "Frozen"-themed ride within the next year! We also got to watch the new Fantasy day parade- truly magical. I just don't even know how they come up with this stuff!

This was the coolest.

Sleeping Beauty aka Aurora.

Yuckin it up with my favorite mermaid, Ariel.

Princess float in the Fantasy parade.

The "ruffians" swung back and forth on the axes- super cool.

There she is again!

This fire was so hot! You could feel it from 20 feet away!

Reminds me of "Joseph!"

"See Ya Real Soon!"


I don't know why I'm compelled to pop my knee when standing next to a princess.

At the end of the day, we had our reservation at Be Our Guest Restaurant. We have been trying to eat here for MONTHS! We were seated in the Rose Gallery room- there are two additional rooms: the Ballroom and The West Wing. While the restaurant itself was very impressive, the food was just ok. We did get wine- this is the only place in the MK that serves alcohol- however, at $9 and $16 a glass, this ended up a pretty expensive dinner even though we were on the dining plan. While we are glad we went for the experience, I don't think we need to do it again.

Entrance into Be Our Guest.

The napkins were roses :-)

Scandalous! Drinking in the Magic Kingdom!

Pictures with the Beast in his study before we left the castle.

After dinner, we had all intentions of either staying to watch the fireworks or heading over to Hollywood Studios to catch the 10:30 showing of Fantasmic. However, we were SO tired that we ended up going back to the room and crashing. It was a great day :-)

On Tuesday, we were able to sleep in as our flight didn't leave until the afternoon. We sipped our coffee as we looked out over the savannah- there was a beautiful group of zebras that were hanging out right near our balcony. After breakfast at BOMA (the buffet in our hotel), we sadly headed back home.

While we loved our stay at AKL, I don't think we'll be doing it again anytime soon. For just two nights, it actually cost more than the three night cruise. And I think we got more for our money with DCL. It's hard to justify a deluxe resort in WDW unless you are going to be spending a lot of time at the actual resort. Also, I have to say that the service at AKL and WDW paled in comparison to what we saw on DCL. It wasn't bad, just not as great as it was on the ship. I wonder if we would have felt differently had we done the few days at WDW before the cruise.

Overall, this was an absolutely amazing trip full of wonderful and unique memories. Turning 30 isn't so bad when you get to do it in the happiest place on earth with the most awesome person you know :-) Here's to the next 30 years!

QOTD: What's your favorite place to vacation? Have you ever celebrated a birthday with a trip?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

First Disney Cruise "Must-Do's"

If you've ever watched television in a Walt Disney Resort hotel room, then you've probably seen Stacey hosting a little show affectionately called "Must Do Disney." She runs through all the "must-do" rides and experiences at WDW every 20 minutes.


In that vein, I present to you Sparkly Runner's "must-do's" for your first Disney Cruise Line vacation! Collectively, Matthew and I have been to Walt Disney World dozens of times but have only been on one Disney Cruise. What's outlined below is our experience of what worked and what we would absolutely do again on the next Disney Cruise. When most people think of Disney or a Disney Cruise, they usually think that everything is geared towards children. While that is part of what they do, there are plenty of experiences tailored to adults. This post will refer to what we- as a couple without children- would do again. If your family includes kids, I would highly recommend googling "Disney cruise kids activities" to get an idea of what's available for children.

1. Check in online as early as you can.
When taking a cruise out of Port Canaveral, check in online as soon as it's available- usually 45 days before departure date. You should get an email letting you know when you can check in. This early check in allowed us to get on the ship around 11:15 am in boarding group three. There were over 30 groups! By getting on the ship early, we were able to walk around and get acclimated without a ton of people on board.

There are also characters hanging out in the port as you wait to board.

This was pretty awesome!

The Disney Dream is gorgeous.

Getting on early means no lines for pictures!

Quiet Cove, the adults-only section of the ship.

Deck 11 with the Mickey and Donald pools and the Aquaduck behind us.

2. Visit Guest Services right away to sign up for unique experiences.
Right after boarding the ship, we went to Guest Services to sign up for a few things we didn't want to miss- the Castaway Cay 5k and a tequila tasting :-) We had read other blogs that mentioned there would be on-board tastings (beer, wine, whiskey, etc.) on various days of the cruise but that they often sold out even before they were listed in The Navigator (our daily activities guide).

We registered for the 5k (no extra cost) and a tequila tasting ($15 per person) on the first day we got on the ship so we were guaranteed the experiences we wanted to do.


I also got to get behind the bar and make strawberry margaritas for the group!

I make a mean margarita :-)

3. Don't be afraid to spend a full day on the ship.
With only three days to cruise, there is some perceived pressure to try and do everything. Trust me, you won't be able to. With a Disney cruise, there are literally five activities happening at the same time all day and night long. It can be really overwhelming.

But don't forget, you are staying on an amazing floating resort! Don't be afraid to miss out on some excursions to enjoy the ship. On the day our cruise was docked in Nassau, Matthew and I got off the ship, walked through the Straw Market and bought some souvenirs, and were back on the ship by 11 am. We spent the rest of the day riding the Aquaduck (the Disney Dream's water-coaster), laying by the pool, and relaxing. It was really fun and we felt like we were getting the most out of the actual ship. And because the majority of the cruise-goers were off the boat, we had a lot of it to ourselves.

Gorgeous pools.

4. Visit "The Rainforest."
On board the Disney Dream (just like all the Disney Cruise Line ships), there is a spa that offers massages, manicures/pedicures, acupuncture, etc. We had done some research and heard about "The Rainforest"- a sauna/aromatherapy/heated stone bed/private hot tub experience that was incredibly affordable: $16 per person per day.

It. Was. Awesome. There were three separate sauna rooms, four aromatherapy showers, a row of wonderful, heated beds, and two private hot tubs. We used it on Friday, the day we spent docked in Nassau. I had the best nap of my life on the heated stone beds. We also got to use the spa's locker rooms all day. So after we had enjoyed The Rainforest for a bit, we left our stuff in the locker and went to lunch. Then we came back and relaxed for a few more hours.

This is the most amazing bed in the world.

Private hot tubs.

Different sauna rooms.

Aromatherapy showers.

These are the faces of total relaxation.

5. Dress up for Pirate Night.
On our cruise, Friday night was Pirate Night and costumes were encouraged. All the cast members were dressed as pirates- it was really fun. When we came back to our room on Friday afternoon to get ready for the night (show at 6:15, dinner at 8:15), our housekeeper had left us Pirate Mickey bandanas to add to our ensembles. Overall, this was incredibly spirited and fun night- I'm so glad we joined in the fun in costume!

Renata (one of our dinner tablemates) and I with Mickey Premium Bars!

Matthew and I on deck for the Pirates in the Caribbean party!

Simple pirate costume- hoop earrings, striped shirt, capris, winter scarf around the waist, and a bandana.

Our complimentary Pirate Mickey bandanas.

6. Get a room with a view.
There are a lot of opinions out there on whether or not you should get a room with a veranda on just a three day cruise. My advice- do it! I can't tell you how nice it was to come back to the room after a long day and sit out on the veranda, just staring at the ocean. Also, watching the sunrise in the morning was priceless. For a few hundred dollars, the view was 100% worth it. And it makes the room seem just a bit bigger.

Amazing skyline.
Can you beat this view?
Room- view from the balcony.

View from the other side.

All smiles with this awesome view.

7. Order room service.
Did you know that on a Disney cruise, room service is included in your total cost?! Pretty dang cool. Since Cabanas (the buffet and 24 hour drink station) was on deck 11 and we were staying on deck 6, sometimes we didn't want to make the trek up for a cup of coffee in the morning. So we ordered coffee to be delivered to our room each morning! We could enjoy coffee in bed or on our balcony- for no extra cost! I would highly recommend taking advantage of this- it made us feel like we were truly being pampered on a luxury cruise liner :-)

Does it get better than this?
Pre-run coffee on the balcony. AKA heaven.

8. Don't skip the entertainment!
If you've ever been to a Disney park or runDisney event, you know that the entertainment is top-notch. Now, multiply that by 10 and you'll have an idea of the entertainment presented on the ship. For a three night cruise, there are three separate shows; "The Golden Mickeys," an awards show honoring favorite Disney movie characters; "Villains Tonight," a comedy/variety show featuring Disney antagonists; and "Believe," an original production with familiar songs and characters. Each is about an hour long and full of magic. These shows rival most of the Broadway shows I've seen. Even more impressive, it's the same 20 actors for each show- they are crazy talented.

In addition to the stage shows, there are parties to celebrate the beginning and the end of the cruise and a pirate party complete with fireworks. Did you know that Disney Cruise Line is the only cruise line allowed to shoot fireworks off of a boat?! And that the firework remnants that fall into the ocean become a protein that fish can safely ingest?! True Disney magic.

The "Pirates in the Caribbean" deck party.

Fireworks on the starboard side. We were actually able to lay down on the deck to watch them- awesome.

9. Take full advantage of character opportunities.
What would a Disney vacation be without Disney characters?! Luckily, Disney cruises are full of characters- they appear in shows, for pictures, and will actually personalize items for you that you give a cast member ahead of time. When we first got on the cruise, we went to Guest Services and gave them two mats for a 5x7 picture frame. We asked for the characters to autograph them- one with the fab five, one with the princesses. On the last day of our cruise, they were delivered to our stateroom. Pretty cool, right? You can give them up to two items per stateroom.

We were also able to get pictures with lots of our favorite characters. They would publish times and locations in The Navigator each day so you could always know where they would be. Bonus- many were in "cruise attire" which was adorable.

Our finished picture frame mats.

10. Research, plan, but enjoy yourself!
This one seems really simple- you're on vacation! It should be easy to relax! But, if it's your first cruise, you may feel anxious about not knowing what to expect but still wanting to get the most out of the experience- I know I did. Matthew and I both did lots of research by reading blogs and asking questions of people who had cruised with Disney before. We planned each of our days and were pretty happy with the overall execution of those plans. However, there was always wiggle room to change course if needed. This allowed us to relax and be confident that whatever we chose to do would be fun and worth-while.

Looking back, we had a wonderful vacation and can't wait to do it again soon!

QOTD: Have you ever cruised before? With Disney? What's your "cruise must do?"