Reader’s Questions: February 8, 2014

   1.    Where/how can we eat without reservations?

While it can feel daunting, nay, impossible to enjoy all that WDW has to offer in the way of eateries without reservations, there are options.  Having said that, it is a good idea to make ADR’s, Advanced Dining Reservations, for any restaurant you definitely want to experience.  Some venues are always full and others tend to fill up at peak times of the year, like the holidays.  While some restaurants at WDW do offer stand-by lines, the majority have hosts who stand sentinel and utter that much maligned phrase, “I am sorry we are not taking walk-ups today.”  So, if you want to experience O’hana, Crystal Palace, Cinderella’s Royal Table, or Be Our Guest among others, be sure to make a reservation or you truly do risk not being able to dine at your desired venue.  What follows are some strategies we have found work when dining without reservations.

First of all, be willing to eat at off times.  In other words, have a late breakfast and midday snack and head to dinner at 4:00PM.  If you would like to eat at Be Our Guest for example, be there as soon as they open for dinner and be willing to wait.  Let the check-in cast member know that you would like to wait for a table.  In our experience, a fair number of guests will not show for early reservations and/or the restaurant may be able to seat your party.  The closer it gets to the 8:00PM witching hour, however, the harder it will be to get seated as a walk-in.  O’hana now has a stand-by line, but we have found that waits can still be astronomical.  In our experience, smaller parties have a better chance of being accommodated as walk-ins than do larger ones.  Be open to the greeter’s suggestions.  In some cases, we have been offered a table for 915PM for dinner and happily accepted.

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Also, be willing to eat something new or unusual.  Restaurants that offer steaks, buffets, and character meals tend to fill up first, so consider options like Restaurant Marrakesh in Epcot’s Morocco or Tokyo Dining in Epcot’s Japan.  We often notice that greeters for both Tokyo Dining and Teppan Edo in the Japan pavilion at Epcot are encouraging patrons to avail of open sittings for dinner and lunch.  Likewise, we have luck as walk-ups at Mama Melrose’s in Hollywood Studios and Yak and Yeti at Animal Kingdom.  Be mindful of the fact that this strategy will be less effective during peak times and does not apply to the Magic Kingdom.  In almost no instance, we would attempt to be a walk-up at a Magic Kingdom restaurant with the possible exception of the Liberty Tree Tavern for lunch.  Which brings us to our next suggestion…

Leave the park!  Hop on the monorail, watercraft, or a bus and head to a nearby resort.  Many of the restaurants in resorts do not fill up for dinner or lunch and are likely to be able to accommodate walk-ins.  The restaurants along the Boardwalk often take walk-ins particularly at the beginning or end of service—5:00PM or 9:00PM for dinner.  The Captain’s Grille at the Yacht Club is a charming little eatery with excellent prix fixe offerings and superb service.  The Wave at the Contemporary Resort and the Grand Floridian Café at the Grand Floridian Resort are seldom full.  Maya Grill at the Coronado Springs Resort invariably has open dinner spots as does the Trail’s End Restaurant at the Fort Wilderness Campground.  Prices and service are often better than table service restaurants in the parks.  Note that this strategy will not work for popular venues like Chef Mickey’s, Cape May Café, or Boma.  Travel off the beaten path to find open tables!  Furthermore, do not forget about the wonderful restaurant offerings at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resorts.  Fine and casual dining experiences abound here ranging from Todd English’s Blue Zoo and Il Mulino of New York fame, to Shula’s Steakhouse, the Fountain, and the Garden Grove Café.  The Garden Grove Café also hosts a very reasonable character breakfast on weekends.

Another possible way to enjoy meals without reservations is to visit Downtown Disney, the Marketplace, and West Side.  Many of the restaurants here, though popular, have seats for walk-ins due to their sheer size and turn over.  Raglan Road, the Portobello Yacht Club, and Paradiso 37 frequently have tables available as do the House of Blues and the restaurant at Splitsville, particularly at non-peak meal times like 2:00PM and 4:30PM. Many of these dining establishments house bars that serve food from the full menu.  We love grabbing a glass of wine or beer and sushi at the bar at the Wolfgang Puck Café before enjoying a movie.  Even more dining options are coming to Downtown Disney as it transforms into Disney Springs.

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Finally, be flexible about where and how you are seated.  Many popular restaurants offer their full menus in their lounges or at their bars.  We have enjoyed many a meal in the lounge at the California Grill, the Crew’s Cup Lounge at the Yacht Club, and the bar at Sanaa.  If the venue is full, ask if you can be seated at the bar or in the lounge.  Bar tenders and cocktail servers know the menus well and can often make excellent suggestions.  Have four appetizers instead of two entrees, you may even save some money.

Do not miss the Truffle Fries at the Crew's Cup.

Do not miss the Truffle Fries at the Crew’s Cup.

For information on dining at WDW, check out our restaurant reviews and Top Ten lists!

2.  Which WDW resorts have the best pools?

While almost every WDW resort has wonderful pools with multiple options for activities poolside, there are several notable standouts.  In the value resort category, the Finding Nemo themed pool and the Cozy Cone themed pool at the Art of Animation Resort are both spectacular.  The Nemo themed pool, spanning a huge courtyard between buildings, sits immediately behind the Landscapes of Flavors food court.  Large, three dimensional renderings of various characters from the film surround the free form pool and transport guests to the big blue.  Giant jellyfish guard the entrance to the pool and a nearby anemone shelters Nemo and Marlin.  The scale and detail of these elements shrink humans down to the world of the film.  Music from the soundtrack of Finding Nemo can be heard in the pool underwater.  The cleverly named and themed Drop Off pool bar is nearby with a good selection of libations and snacks.  A short walk away, one finds the Cozy Cone themed pool in the Cars section of the resort.  Sheltered by guest rooms on three sides, this semicircular pool is surrounded by cone shaped open air cabanas that offer a welcome respite from the sometimes harsh Florida sun.  While the landscaping around the pool has not completely filled in yet, this pool promises to be a cozy and intimate refuge in a huge resort when the trees and other vegetation fill in.  The pools at the All Stars resorts, though not our favorites, are enormous and more than adequate for the number of guests.  These pool areas tend to be a bit loud for us and often over-run by tour groups or large groups of student athletes visiting WDW for a tournament.

The pools at Disney’s moderate resorts are a notable step up from most of the pools in the value category in terms of theming and amenities.  Pools at the moderate resorts feature slides and water features like fountains, sprayers, and jets.  Moderate resorts all have what Disney calls “feature pools” as well as “quiet pools.”  Quiet pools are located throughout the resort and usually do not offer elaborate water features or slides.  Our favorite moderate resort pools are found at the Port Orleans Riverside Resort and the Caribbean Beach Resort.  While the general theming of the Caribbean Beach Resort is a bit too familiar and dated for our taste, the Fuentes del Morro feature pool is brilliantly themed.  Turrets and crumbling fort walls envelop a free form pool.  A slide carries guests through the walls to a splashdown and cannons sprinkle guests with water.  Reminiscent of the El Morro fortress in San Juan harbor, this pool gels well with the Caribbean theming and echoes the pirate theming found in some rooms.  A nearby shallow water children’s play area, offers many water features and a giant pirate ship that periodically dumps water onto guests.  This pool truly transports guests and provides a welcome escape from the heat and midday crowds at the parks.

Ol’ Man Island at Port Orleans Riverside is home to our second favorite moderate resort pool.  Literally set on an island in the center of the Port Orleans Riverside resort, this pool features a lengthy slide and multiple water features which splash guests with cascading water.  Abundant theming and mature vegetation give this pool area a homey, cozy feeling that reminds us of the long gone River Country water park.  Rickety wooden aqueducts and make-shift sprayers drip, spray, and drop water onto guests throughout the pool.  This also seems to be one of the best Disney pools in terms of heating.  We were able to swim here in cold weather with no problems as the heating system actually keeps the pool at a welcoming temperature.  For the record, we find Disney are often way too cold and hot tubs excessively warm.  Cast members assure us that the pools are temperature controlled for our safety, but we remain unconvinced that hot tubs need to be set at 102 degrees when it is 92 degree-weather!  Port Orleans Riverside is also home to five other quiet pools that are surrounded by lush landscaping and adequately themed.  Although none of these quiet pools features a slide or other water feature, they stand ready as serene answers to the feature pool on Ol’ Man Island.  The quiet pools in the Alligator Bayou section of the resort are favorites of ours as they still offer a deep end and trees and bushes shade sections of the pool from the sun.

Pools at Disney’s deluxe and villa resorts rival those of any resort in the world.  We are water babies and regularly spend whole days poolside swimming, reading, and catching some Z’s.  Of no surprise to any Disney fan, the 2.5 acre Stormalong Bay at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club resorts reigns supreme as our favorite WDW pool complex.  Actually a small water park unto itself, this sand-bottomed pool provides a lazy river, an impressive waterslide, a shipwreck, its own bar and quick service restaurant, and a large beach and shallow water play area ideal for tots and toddlers.  Guests could easily spend days here and it is hard to drag kids away even for a trip to theme park.  Four large separate pools are connected by wooden bridges and shaded walkways.  The river pool encircles an island that connects to Hurricane Hana’s Bar and Grill as well as to a pool where in-water volleyball and other games are offered.  A three story tall water slide begins its descent from the crow’s nest of a wrecked ship along the shores of Crescent Lake.  Guests slide over the sidewalk and down, around, and into the activities pool on a fun, decent lengthened ride.  A large windmill marks the hours and several waterfalls tickle the surface of the pools enchantingly.  Stormalong Bay sits alongside a walkway providing patio seating for Beaches and Cream, a very popular fifties-style eatery and ice cream parlor.  A separate counter and line provides access for guests in their bathing suits who would like to order ice cream or snacks to go.  Stormalong Bay lounge chairs fill up early and access is restricted to guests staying at the Yacht and Beach Club or the Beach Club Villas.

Several other deluxe resorts are home to incredible pools.  For sheer size and escapism, the pool at the Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo House is a winner.  One of the largest pools on site, the Uzima  pool is nestled between two arms of the Animal Kingdom Lodge which add a much-needed architectural frame to the space.  Lush, overgrown vegetation creates areas of shade and seclusion that break the pool deck up into intimate areas ideal for reading or grabbing a nap.  Although the slide here leaves much to be desired, the hot tub is an oasis unto itself surrounded by towering bamboo trees that sway and creak in the wind.  Trees actually form a canopy over the large hot tub.  An afternoon at the Uzima transports you to another world and screams “vacation!”  The excellent Mara quick service restaurant and Uzima Springs pool bar are steps away.  The pools at the Contemporary Resort occupy a favorite spot with us as well.  Although somewhat stark in theming, these pools are huge and offer water features, a slide, and killer views to boot.  The main pool directly behind the Contemporary’s A-framed tower offers a slide and several sprayers and fountains.  One jet shoots water over 15 feet into the air and the falling water attracts adults and children alike.  A series of arched jets create a semicircle of cascading water that forms a tunnel of sorts.  Guests love to stand under the jets for an impromptu head or neck massage as the pounding water provides relief.  Set along the shores of Bay Lake, this pool complex enjoys great vistas of watercraft, parasailing adventurers, and swooping birds.  With the Wilderness Lodge and campground in the distance and trees ringing the lake, a peaceful, uninterrupted view soothes and transports.  The second pool in this complex actually sits in Bay Lake surrounded by a deck.  Although not truly floating in the lake, this circular, deep, and well-heated pool serves as an escape from the hustle and bustle of the main pool during game time.  Views here are equally good with views of Bay Lake and Bay Lake Tower on one side and the Contemporary itself on another.  The main tower of the Contemporary also shades pool goers from the afternoon sun as it sets in the west.

Possibly a surprise to some of our readers, the pools at the Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa make our list of favorites.  Their number, scale, and variety make them constant favorites of ours.  The Congress Park pool affords direct views of Downtown Disney and the Characters in Flight balloon.  This large, plain pool is immaculately kept and seldom busy.  We enjoy reading under an umbrella between dips in the pool and watching water craft go by.  The lap of the waves is soothing as are the antics of the river otters who often make an appearance along the shoreline.  The Grandstand Pool is themed to horse-racing and offers a pool bar and children’s play area with water sprayers.  A nearby BBQ pavilion makes this a favorite with families grilling lunch or dinner.  Adequate tables and chairs and the theming make this pool fun.  The newly renovated Paddock Pool now offers zero entry, a twisting slide wrapped around a water tower, an extensively themed children’s splash area, and its own bar and grill.  This lively pool is a much needed improvement and provides an alternative to the main pool area in the Springs section of the resort.  The Springs feature pool area near the Carriage House check-in complex features a water slide, two hot tubs, a bar, and access to the adjacent arcade, community hall, and quick service venue, Artist’s Palette.  This pool is home to nightly movies under the stars.  Each pool at Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa offers guests a distinct theme and experience while staying true to the theming of the resort.

For further information, check out our resort reviews and Top Ten Pools at WDW.

3.  Is it possible to buy things that are actually on sale at WDW?

This is tricky!  Disney has periodic sales that are not announced ahead of time.  These sales are frequently on items that are being phased out or are out of season.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible on the consumer side to predict when these sales will take place.  In our experience, however, bathing suits and related items seem to go on sale in the late summer and early fall when new items are coming in.  Boutiki at the Polynesian resort and the Fittings and Fairings store at the Yacht Club seem to offer the best sales.  In fact, we have found that the resort shops seem to have more sale merchandise.  Sale merchandise seems to go fastest in the theme park shops since they enjoy higher volume.  Sale items are usually marked with a white sticker with red border and usually end in a 99.  Ask a cast member if the store has a sale section.  For example, the northeast corner of Tren-D and the north and south walls of the Mombasa Marketplace at Animal Kingdom often have sale items.  Merchandise with dates on it, like a shirt that says “Epcot 2013,” will go on sale as the year goes on.

Sale items at WDW usually feature this sticker.

Sale items at WDW usually feature this sticker.

The best way to find deals at WDW stores is to avail of the myriad discounts Disney offers.  For example, often during peak crowd periods, Disney will offer a 20% discount on your entire purchase if you use a coupon found on your receipt from select quick service restaurants. Usually, one must use the coupon before 1:00PM at select theme park stores to receive the discount. Disney uses these coupons to incentivize guests not to shop at the last minute as parks are closing.  Anyone who has ever been in the Emporium about 30 minutes prior to park closing knows that it can be a mad house!  We have found this to be the best possible discount. As a point of comparison,  Premium Annual Passholders now only enjoy a 10% merchandise discount.  Check out the forums at wdwmagic.com in the news and rumors section for updates about when these coupons are being issued.  Additionally, Passholders and DVC members are entitled to merchandise and dining discounts.

The Marketplace Fun Finds store at the Downtown Disney Marketplace offers sale items and promotions like five items for $20.  This is usually a hodge podge of quite random items, but there are deals to be had.  Mouse pads, phone cases, wine glasses, coasters, Christmas ornaments, Hanukah plates, and journals have all been found here.  This is a great option for souvenirs and/or gifts for kids back home.  We found wine glasses here at five for $20 that were still selling for $12.99 at other WDW stores.

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