Friday, November 25, 2016

Be Our Chef - Exclusive Experience

Are you a foodie?  Have you been looking for something new and unusual to do onboard your Disney Cruise?  Have you ever wanted to see how some of the Palo dishes are prepared and learn how to cook them yourself?  Well look no further than the new "Be Our Chef" guest experience.  This exclusive new experience is being offered on select Disney Cruise Line sailings.  Currently it is being offered to concierge guests once onboard the ship (currently testing on the Disney Fantasy), but it is slated to open for booking online in the near future.  The intimate experience is limited to only 8 guests, and it is held on a port day.

While onboard the Disney Fantasy last month I had the opportunity to learn more about this fantastic opportunity first hand.  While we had planned to participate in this, an unexpected event kept us from being able to do so.  However we were fortunate enough to have our fellow cruise mates enjoy this event and share it with us.  Thank you to Bob S. for providing the pictures and details from one of the first Be Our Chef experiences!

So what exactly is Be Our Chef?  It's an opportunity to work directly with the Palo head chef and the assistant chefs to learn how to make some of the wonderful Palo dishes.  Because the experience is limited to only 8 participants it allows each one to work closely with the chefs and ask questions and learn more about cooking.

The event starts the night prior--with a delivery of a chef's jacket, apron and cap so that everyone can arrive dressed and ready for the day.  Bob and his party arrived at 11:00 a.m. and were greeted by Palo Head Chef Massimo and Chef Mickey for photo opportunities.  After pictures were taken they were taken on a brief tour of the Palo kitchen.  On this day there were only 4 participants, which made for lots of fun and engaging time with the chefs.

After the tour of the kitchen (and lots of hand washing!) Chef Massimo demonstrated how to assemble a margarita pizza properly.  Each participant had their own station in which to work and each one made their pizzas.  After making the pizzas it was time to learn how to mix a ravioli filling and how to prepare the dough for the pasta.  After watching chef, it was time to make and assemble butternut squash ravioli!   (I love Palo butternut squash ravioli!)  After being shown how to make this, they made their own pasta, filling and assembled their ravioli.

Finally it was time for the best part, dessert--and today it was Limoncello Cheesecake!  After watching Chef Massimo's demonstration, each participant headed to their stations to make their own cheesecake.  Having such a small group made for lots of fun and personalized attention from the chefs.  The chefs seemed to be enjoying the experience just as much as the guest chefs!

After prepping all of the food it was time to EAT!  The participants head to the dining room after finishing up and have a seat and relax.  Then they are served a 3 course meal (the dishes are the same ones they just learned to make, but not the actual dishes they prepped.)  In addition to the meal, the Palo Sommelier pairs wines with each course for the participants.  After enjoying a lovely meal and laughing and reminiscing over the fun they all had, each participant was presented with the pictures taken with Chef Mickey and Chef Massimo (in a lovely portfolio).  In addition everyone received a beach bag with the Palo logo on it, and copies of each of the recipes that they had just made.  Everyone then swapped out their "used" Palo apron, hat and chef's jacket for fresh clean ones to take home as a souvenir.

This new experience is great for those who enjoy cooking, are foodies, or are just looking for something brand new to do (instead of going ashore for an excursion.)  This experience is not currently offered on all of the ships, and the event is subject to change at any time.  If this sounds interesting to you, until it is available to book online in advance of the cruise, make sure to check as soon as you board the ship to see if it is available to book.  Due to the newness of this event, details are not available as to whether it will be offered to non-concierge guests, or if it will be offered to concierge first, and then open to others.  Currently it is being offered to concierge guests.  The cost of this exclusive event is $279 per person, and it is limited to 8 participants.

Contact your DreamFinder Travel agent for more details, or to book your Disney Cruise vacation today.   Request a Quote

Blog post by DreamFinder Travel's Director of Travel Services, Sue Ellen Soto-Rios

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Universal Orlando for the Walt Disney World fanatic

With the addition of the two Harry Potter sections at Universal Orlando, we have more and more client's heading over to see what Universal Orlando is all about.  Recently several of the DreamFinder Travel agents attended a multi-day agency training course to learn more about Universal Orlando and have some fun experiencing all they offer.  Today's blog post is written by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill, as she tells what it's like for a "Disney" fan to head to Universal for the first time.  It's a comparison between the two, and some tips and info.
Universal Crash Course for WDW addicts

            Last spring I was invited to participate in an agent education at Universal Parks and Resorts in Orlando. We had three days packed full of information and touring which left me wanting to come back for more!  A life-long Disney addict, I suddenly found myself wanting to cheat on “The Mouse” and head across town for something different!

            I found my opportunity to come back in August, and surprised my 13-year-old daughter with her first visit to Universal.  We were already on the East Coast visiting family, so a “small detour” wasn’t too hard to arrange.  The rest of this blog is intended to point out some of my observations as to the differences between Universal and WDW.

Arrival at the airport:  As there is no Magical Express for Universal, I arranged transfers to my resort thru Super Shuttle.  This can be bundled as part of a package, and I found it very easy to use.  They have an app, and I received frequent texts and instructions upon arrival on how to meet my driver.  While I did wait about 25 minutes outside, there were only 3 of us in the van and I was lucky enough to be the first dropped off.  Note that the on-site hotels charge a parking fee per night.  For me, it wasn’t worth renting a car and paying the parking fee. 

Hotel/Resort Key
Resorts:  Instead of more than 20 resorts, you have five resorts to choose from “on property” at Universal. The 3 original hotels are the iconic Hard Rock, the Italian-themed Portfino, and the very tropically themed Royal Pacific. The two newest resorts join them:  Sapphire Falls and Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  The above hotels are listed in decreasing order by price.  I opted to stay at Royal Pacific to get a mid-range feel but retaining one of the on-site perks of the original 3 hotels:  Unlimited Express Pass!! I opted for this as I was going in August.: While the locals had gone back to school, it was still summer and it was very hot.  I wanted to minimize the wait if I could.  That being said, on our last day we met up with local friends and toughed out the lines and found them to be mostly manageable.

Express Pass Machine
Express Pass versus Fastpass:  If you’re reading this, I’m betting you know the premise of Fastpass…pre-reserving 3 ride times per day to reduce your wait times on headliner attractions.  At Universal, Express Pass is an option.  It can either be added on top of your ticket media if you’re staying off-site or at one of the newer hotels, or, it’s included as part of your hotel perk (theme park admission still required).  There are variations of Express Pass, but the one I’m going to wax poetic about, it was linked to my hotel stay, not my ticket. You take your hotel key and insert it into a kiosk at the hotel and get an “express pass” with your picture on it good for the length of your stay.  I kept it in my lanyard so that my ticket was scan-able on one side and the Express pass visible on the other. With the exception of the Harry Potter Rides and the new Kong attraction, I was pretty much able to use the Express Pass for everything else. 

On-site Benefits: Where WDW has early and late Magic hours, Universal has early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  This was very useful, as we were able to repeat some rides and make our way so that the wait for Kong was not too long once the park opened.  In addition, there is boat transportation around the property making it easy to resort-hop for dining or for just looking at the hotel properties. 

 Property layout: Universal does not have the same luxury of having plenty of land that WDW does, but they have maximized the space that they do have.  Their version of Downtown Disney is called Citywalk.  Citywalk is literally a wide U-shaped area that is connected on either side by a park.  In between the two parks is the Hard Rock Café and the Blue Man Group.  While your step-counter will show you’ve walked all over, it literally is very compact.

Ticket options: As with WDW, there are multi-day ticket options available as well as a park-to-park option.  The more you play, the more you save. 

Dining plans:  While there is one at Universal, it’s not even a comparison.  Disney has more participating restaurants and wins this hands-down.  None of the resort hotels at Universal participate in the Dining plan. 

Club-level amenities:  Club level service is very similar at WDW and Universal.  It is available at the 3 original hotels, and I have utilized this at both Portofino and Royal Pacific.  It is key-card access at both and there are dedicated times for breakfast, snacks,  “appetizers”, and desserts.  My daughter and I were able to use the appetizers as our dinner.  If you have large eaters, this will not suffice, but we were good with the lighter fare.  I found the wine to be decent.

Park “theming”:  I was shocked at how good the theming was of all the attractions.  Universal does theming wonderfully, with the only downfall being that they don’t have the ability to transition you from one land to another like WDW does. 

Notes on handicapped/differently-abled access: WDW is the place to be if you have a mobility impairment.  A member of my party during my first visit used a walker, and while there is ADA compliance, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to accomplish.  I noticed a large difference in the number of wheelchairs, scooters, and even strollers in this park.  I would approach this very differently if you have a multi-generational/differing-ability family.

Departure:  I had a 7am flight and had Super Shuttle reserved for my departure as well.  It was mostly flawless, with the exception of them wanting to back up our departure time by texting me at something like 3:45 am.  Fortunately, I was randomly awake and it wasn’t an issue.

            Overall, we had a GREAT time.  This was a huge hit with my daughter.  I think she is at the perfect age to really go for the thrill rides.  This is not a one-day and done trip.  We had two full days and an evening, and that barely enough.  Next year, their new waterpark (Volcano Bay) will open and that will be a full day unto itself.   I highly recommend considering this during your next visit to Orlando!

 For more information on booking your Universal Orlando vacation, contact your DreamFinder Travel agent.  DreamFinder Travel 


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

New Hotel Planned for the Disneyland Resort, a AAA Rated 4-Diamond Hotel

We have just learned that Disneyland officials have submitted plans to add a new high end hotel at the Disneyland Resort.  This hotel would be a AAA rated 4-Diamond Hotel, and according to the OC Register, it will be located on the North-End of the Downtown Disney parking lot (behind the Rainforest Cafe.)   The proposal is for a 700-room hotel and a new parking structure.  Concept art is below of the proposed hotel.  Construction on the hotel, according to the plan, would begin in 2018, with a slated opening of 2021.  Construction on the parking structure would begin in 2017.
Concept art, lobby for the proposed new hotel 
Concept art for pool at new hotel
Concept Art of new rooftop restaurant at the proposed hotel

*Concept artwork (c) Disney

Friday, June 3, 2016

Dining at Aulani, 3 part series conclusion.

This is part 3 of a 3 part series by DreamFinder Travel agent Kim Merrill.

You may be wondering what your dining options are at Disney’s Aulani resort in Hawaii.  Having just returned from a stay at that wonderful resort, I can assure you that there are plenty of food offerings to satisfy all family members!

Quick Service:

Ulu Café is Aulani’s quick-service option.  Equivalent to Walt Disney World’s quick service options, there are a variety of pre-packaged grab and go items that satisfy many different levels of taste.  We ate breakfast here twice and were pleased with the different selections.  There were breakfast wraps, breakfast sandwiches on a croissant, French toast with eggs or bacon, pastries, oatmeal, or boxed cereals.  While I did not eat lunch or dinner here, they had daily specials that included different soups, sandwiches, salads, or entrees.  This is also one of the locations that you can purchase and fill the Aulani version of a refillable mug. There is a second location that is open 24-hours, but Ulu Café has the coffee, tea, and soda locations while the 24-hour option has only sodas/lemonade/juice stations.

Sit Down locations:

Makahiki is Aulani’s buffet option that is open for a character breakfast daily and an intermittent dinner character meal.  As you can see below, the décor was stunning!  All the dining locations at Aulani are open-air, so if you were to turn around from the wall pictured below, you would see open doors leading to a patio where there is live music playing in the evenings.

We ate there for dinner on a non-character night.  While pricey, we were VERY pleased with both the variety of selections and the quality of the food.  I’d like to point out that there were 3 types of sushi available (yeah!!) and that there were other regionally inspired dishes in addition to perennial favorites like prime rib and chicken dishes. Reservations are available for this restaurant, and can be done online prior to your arrival, during your arrival, or you can call the restaurant if you prefer.  We made a same-day reservation and obtained a 6:30 p.m. slot without difficulty. Please note that children over age 9 are charged as an adult.

Aulani’s other sit-down establishment is named Ama Ama.  Ama Ama is actually a local fish, so as you can imagine, the menu here for dinner is locally sourced and inspired.  This is their “signature” restaurant, and as such, the pricing reflects this. We were willing to give it a go, but in looking at the menu, thought that we would do better as a family going for lunch instead of dinner, as the dinner options were not tween-friendly (and our tween has a teen appetite and would not do well with a kid’s menu). They have a much more reasonably priced lunch menu as well as a breakfast offering if you’d prefer a table-service option instead of a grab and go breakfast.  Had we managed to do this as an adults-only dinner, this would have been a lovely romantic dinner for us.  Reservations are also available here and can be made as described above for Makahiki.

Bars and pool/beach options:

My favorite find for this trip was the O’lelo Room.

Dedicated to the Hawaiian language, all the bartenders here are fluent in Hawaiian and can help with pronunciations!  They have a bar menu from 5-7pm each night and my husband and I spent a lovely evening here having drinks and appetizers after our daughter actually opted to participate in an activity at the kid’s club (more on that later). They had a list of tap beers for $5 and house wine for $7. We had Kahlua pork nachos for $9 and then had the Calamari with different dips for $15.  Both were very tasty and they brought small samples of a few beers when my husband asked for recommendations.

Poolside, there were 3 different options:  Shave ice, the lava shack (where you could get DOLE WHIP and refill drinks), and an area where you could get hot dogs, chicken tenders, coconut shrimp and the like. There was also a small place by the beach to get snacks that were not your average fare!  Sadly, there is not a drink refill station right off the beach.

Near the adults-only pool there is a bar, as well as one located just off Ama Ama.  Interestingly, none of these bar areas are off-limits to children.  That being said, there really is nothing there that would attract kids to those spots, and there are areas that can be near and serviced by the staff that work there but are out of the “bar” area itself.  I did also notice drink orders were being taken on the beach, but I was not approached once by any of those cast members, so I’m not sure whether that was due to under staffing or my lack of looking interested in beach-based alcoholic beverages.

I hope you have found my information on Aulani helpful.  There are some great promotional offers available, and I am happy to obtain a pricing quote for you.  Please contact me for more information, or use the "request a quote" option on the blog, website or Facebook page.  I will follow up with more information on the Kids Club for you in a new blog post, and include the "kids" point of view as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Changes announced for the Disney Wonder cruise ship

Exciting new entertainment and experiences are in store for Disney Wonder guests after the Disney Cruise Line vessel is transformed this fall. Headlining the enhancements are imaginative spaces for children, a jazzy restaurant and an English pub.
Following are highlights of the fun for guests of all ages, debuting on the Disney Wonder this fall.

Marvel Super Hero Academy
The Marvel universe comes to life in Marvel Super Hero Academy. Here, young guests can train to develop the brave and adventurous heroes inside themselves. It’s an exciting addition to Disney’s Oceaneer Club, the engaging and interactive space just for children.
Marvel Super Hero Academy, Disney Wonder
Exclusively on the Disney Wonder, Marvel Super Hero Academy will offer extraordinary adventures in which each young guest plays an integral role. With the mentorship of some of Marvel’s greatest Super Heroes, young trainees will learn the value of teamwork, bravery and problem solving through hands-on play and programs.
In one mission, Spider-Man will appear in person to help children hone their spider senses by perfecting their skills of reflex, speed and sharp minds. Children will work on their web-slinging and then get to see themselves in the headlines of the Daily Bugle.
The high-tech command post is also where other Marvel Super Heroes will interact with children via a large digital display, helping them unleash their inner heroes. In one program, kids can control the movement of a character on screen to practice super skills like repulsor blasting.
Throughout the academy, displays will feature equipment that helps make Marvel Super Heroes the mightiest in the universe. Captain America’s World War II shield, Iron Man’s helmet, Spider-Man’s web shooters and Black Widow’s gauntlets will inspire young Super Hero recruits.

More Fun for Young Guests
Elsewhere in Disney’s Oceaneer Club, open to children ages 3 to 12 years old, kid-sized fun continues with new play spaces and more character interactions than ever before.
  • Frozen Adventures is where fun takes the form of imaginative play and hands-on activities. On the digital screen, Olaf leads summery games with a wintery twist and a sing-a-long of “In Summer.” In another festive activity, young guests prepare for a coronation and receive a truly royal and in-person visit by Anna and Elsa.
  • Club Disney Junior features favorite Disney Junior characters, storytelling and games. During one activity, Doc McStuffins pays a visit to the club to help children diagnose and treat the stuffed animals.
  • Andy’s Room is where kids feel toy-sized in the multi-level play space themed to the Disney-Pixar “Toy Story” trilogy. As a special treat, Woody appears in person to join youngsters in a hoedown and Jessie stops by to join in a scavenger hunt.
These and other spaces provide the perfect settings for children to meet their favorite characters, dance, play and just have fun with them.
A new It’s a Small World Nursery will delight the youngest cruisers with a whimsical world inspired by the style of the legendary theme park attraction.

Tiana’s Place Restaurant

Exclusive to the Disney Wonder, Tiana’s Place restaurant will transport guests to an era of southern charm, spirited jazz and street party celebrations. With a menu influenced by southern-style cuisine, Tiana’s Place will provide food for the body and soul, showing that dreams and dishes come true.
Tiana's Palace Restaurant, Disney Wonder
Guests of Tiana’s Place, the restaurant inspired by Princess Tiana in the Disney animated feature, “The Princess and the Frog,” will be treated to a celebration of New Orleans dining and entertainment. Live music will be performed on the main stage, with rhythmic, toe-tapping notes of jazz, swing and blues setting the tone for the French Quarter supper club atmosphere.
Chefs will cook up Tiana’s recipes, drawing inspiration from the flavors and ingredients of the Louisiana bayou. Tiana’s personal touch will be evident in the menu, the entertainment and throughout every detail in the restaurant. From Tiana’s family photos to water lily-shaped candleholders to her framed culinary awards – all will help tell the timeless tale of Tiana’s journey from waitress to frog to princess to proud restaurant owner.

English Pub, Disney Wonder
Cheers, to an English Pub
The adult district includes a brand-new pub that invites guests to take a jaunt to an authentic English tavern. Dark woods, plush leather furniture and brass accents are reminiscent of a friendly neighborhood pub. Of course, a selection of British and specialty beers create the perfect pub atmosphere, where adult guests can sip a pint or cocktail, or sample a brew made especially for the pub.
Observant guests may discover this is no ordinary pub. Subtle nods to classic Disney films set in London can be found in artwork, props and other bits ‘n bobs throughout the space. Brilliant stories of all sorts will be celebrated at the pub, whether those tales be true, tall or flat-out mad.

Enhancements from Stem to Stern
Throughout the Disney Wonder, other new and enhanced areas include:
  • After Hours – a new adult district featuring an English pub, an all-new night club and a shiny new model of the popular Cadillac Lounge
  • A reimagined and relaxing Senses Spa & Salon and a new Chill Teen Spa
  • Animator’s Palate main dining restaurant updated to introduce the popular “Drawn to Magic” and “Animation Magic” dinner shows
  • D Lounge for family games and entertainment
  • Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique providing magical makeovers for children
  • Edge club for tweens
  • Cabanas casual dining location
  • Palo specialty restaurant makeover with Venetian-inspired décor
The ship’s upper decks also will be redesigned for waterful enjoyment:
  • Twist ‘n’ Spout water slide provides splashtacular fun
  • Dory’s Reef is a splash zone that offers fanciful water play for toddlers

  • AquaLab is a pool and interactive water play area for kids and families
After the Disney Wonder undergoes dry dock Sept. 9 to Oct. 23, 2016, in Cadiz, Spain, the wave of new enhancements debut on sailings starting Nov. 10, from Galveston, Texas.
The Disney Wonder will continue to sail from Galveston to the Bahamas and Caribbean, until the ship sails to San Juan, Puerto Rico on Jan. 20, 2017. On Jan. 26, 2017, a three-night cruise aboard the Disney Wonder takes guests from San Juan to Port Canaveral, Fla., where the ship will homeport for the spring.

To learn more, or for your no-obligation pricing quote, please contact DreamFinder Travel  today, or click on the "request a quote" link.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hawaii--Aulani, part 2 -- Transportation

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa (in Hawaii) by DreamFinder Travel Agent, Kim Merrill

To continue from my last blog post, Transportation from Honolulu International Airport (HON) to Aulani is an aspect of your vacation planning that may not be first and foremost on your mind once you have made that all-important resort reservation.  However, I encourage you to think about this sooner rather than later as there are a few different options when it comes to transport around Hawaii.

I just returned from Aulani and want to provide a few insights I garnered from my experience that may help you with your vacation planning.  My family chose spring break as a way to escape the rain and gloom of the Pacific Northwest.  Knowing that my husband would be joining us a few days into our vacation and that we had a few day excursions planned, I opted to reserve a car to make transportation easier.

I ended up with a car rental through Alamo.  In case you were not aware, Alamo is Disney’s preferred rental agency and Aulani has an Alamo reservation desk at the resort.  As I am a DVC member, I did not book my car as part of a resort package and instead did so directly with Alamo, please be aware that you are able to book a car as part of an Aulani package.

As this was my first visit to Aulani, I found out on my arrival at HON that the Alamo rental location is actually located a short shuttle ride away from the airport terminal.  The shuttle stop is a quick walk from baggage claim and we only waited a short time before an Alamo bus arrived to take us to their off-site location.  The Alamo site was well staffed and we were at the rental counter after only a small wait.  We were greeted and well notified that the return location for our car was as this off-site location and were given a brochure that had not only instructions in it but also an address available that we could plug into our map app on our phones.

I had reserved a convertible, and as I walked out to the lot, I saw that there were 5 cars in the lot, but both of the Mustangs had clients already in them.  Dismayed (as I really wanted to relive my teenage Mustang days), I inquired whether there were any other Mustangs being prepped for rental.  I found out that there were a few waiting for washes, so I waited for one to arrive.  As my 10-minute estimate elapsed into 25 minutes, I received profuse apologies and they actually apologized and waived my having to fill up the gas tank on my return.  I feel the need to note:  my request was simply me being picky.  There was a Camaro and VW Beetle convertible sitting in the parking lot ready to go.  I did actually sit in both of them and found that the Beetle has zero legroom in back and that the Camaro had such a sloped windshield that my short little self had issues seeing out.  Another observation to note:  consider your luggage when reserving your car.  While I personally had no issues, I have to admit that I snickered a bit at a family of 3 trying to cram 3 large suitcases into a small Mustang trunk.

Unlike most rentals that I have done recently, this Alamo site really emphasized your checking and notating any damage to the car.  A staff member PRIOR to your departure reviews this and it is noted on your paperwork and in their computer system before you drive away.  I also received a tutorial on operation of the convertible top.

Some interesting things to remember:  this airport has not been renovated in years and the surrounding signage is sub-par, in my opinion.  Take a look at your phone’s GPS and get an idea what you’re doing before you leave.  My daughter was my copilot, and we had a few wrong turns and re-routes before we were on our way.  There is a lot in the way of road construction throughout Oahu, so pack your maps, charge your batteries, and pack your patience. 

Another thought to consider: Flight times.  We arrived into HON about 1:30 in the afternoon.  We made decent time to Aulani (about a 35-40 minute drive at that time of day), but as our room was not ready, we headed 2.5 miles away and went to Costco and Target to get supplies.  By the time we left, that 2.5 miles took us 25 minutes to conquer.

Parking at Aulani is complimentary for DVC members, but there is a charge for non-DVC vacationers.  This is fairly standard across Hawaii, and there is no real way to avoid this.  This fee may impact your decision to rent a car while staying at Aulani.  There is a current promotion for summer vacation dates that includes round-trip transfers to Aulani with a one-day Alamo car rental.  This may be ideal if all you are doing during your vacation is a day trip to see Oahu sites.  Some of these sights can also be managed using the excursions bookable thru the resort as well, negating the need for a set of wheels at all.  There is an ABC store across the street from Aulani where basics can be acquired.

As you can see, some thought does need to be put into logistics for your vacation, but with the help of your Dreamfinder Vacation Planner, you can come up with a package that works for your family’s needs. Car or no car, you’re going to have a fantastic stay!

Part 3 of this 3 part series will follow soon.

If you would like a quote on a stay at Aulani, or any other location, please contact your DreamFinder Travel Agent today.