Monday, April 29, 2013

Disney Day 4: Magic Kingdom (Columbia Harbour House & Be Our Guest Restaurant)

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Day 4 of My Super Magical Birthday Celebration fell on my actual birthday. It was a no-brainer that we would go to the Magic Kingdom that day (since it's by far the most magical of the parks). We started out the day by heading next door to our resort to the Port Orleans French Quarter to indulge in some Beignets from Sassagoula Floatworks.



These pillows of powder sugar-covered fried dough were the most indulgent way to turn *cough cough* the age I was turning. We loved them so much, in fact, that the next morning we went back for more!

Beignets 6 for $4.29

We arrived at Magic Kingdom before the park opened, and thus had the pleasure of seeing the special park opening show.


Then we headed straight for Tomorrowland, but not before catching some glimpses of the most famous castle in all the land... Cinderella's Castle :)




We rode Space Mountain twice, followed by the Astro Orbiter and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. We planned to head back to Tomorrowland later to finish up the remaining attractions and made a beeline to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which by day's end we would ride 5 times (3 during the day and 2 at night)! Along the way we did stop to take some very enthusiastic photos in front of the castle. Because you gotta. It's magical!



We also stopped for a short churro break in Frontierland before heading to the Haunted Mansion. 




This girl's got problems. She's petting an imaginary horse! In public! Sheesh.


It was just about lunch time, so we grabbed Fast Passes for Peter Pan's Flight, did a quick spin on the Carousel and finally headed to Columbia Harbour House, which based on reviews we had previously read is probably the best quick service restaurant (not counting the new Be Our Guest) in Magic Kingdom. It also doesn't have the crazy lines that Be Our Guest has at lunch. The menu sways from the typical burger and chicken nuggets and instead offers things like tuna fish sandwiches, grilled salmon, and even a fried fish or fried shrimp basket. I opted for the fried fish, which features a better version of fish sticks. I was pleased with my choice, as was my sister with her selection of the salmon.

Fried Fish Basket $7.49

Next on the agenda was cashing in our Fast Passes for Peter Pan's Flight. Neither of us had been on it before, and it is notorious for having really long lines, so a Fast Pass was the way to go. It was a really fun ride! I would definitely plan to do it again on future trips and if the line wasn't so long I would have ridden it again this time around too!


We followed that up with Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise, a stop at Aloha Isle for some Dole Whip (yes, please!), grabbing Fast Passes for Splash Mountain and then waiting it out with a visit to The Hall of Presidents. When Splash Mountain was over, we headed back to Tomorrowland to finish up our agenda there. This included the Monster's Inc Laugh Floor (really funny!), Stitch's Great Escape (eh), the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover (a nice break for your feet, and a peek inside Space Mountain and other Tomorrowland attractions), and Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress (supposedly Walt's favorite attraction).



At this point, we had checked every attraction off our list that we had planned to do, and it was nearly time for our dinner reservation at Be Our Guest Restaurant in New Fantasyland. You can clearly get a lot done when you have an agenda, get to the park early, and plan your day wisely with strategic and efficient use of Fast Passes.



We felt very lucky to have reservations at Be Our Guest Restaurant. A number of people who walked up to the restaurant in hopes of dining there were turned away. Another group of people who wanted to go inside just to look around also left disappointed. We felt very very special. It helps making your reservation 180 days in advance!



When it was time to be seated, a cast member dressed like Lumiere at the end of Beauty and the Beast (when he became human again) greeted us with a candleabra and asked me to lead the way into the castle. It felt very exciting and special!



The interior of the castle is gorgeous, and split up into 3 dining rooms. The main dining room is the Ball Room. This is the largest and most elaborate, with crystal chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows depicting snowfall and distant snow-covered mountains.


Although I didn't request a particular dining room, I was secretly hoping this is where we would be seated. It's seemed the most regal and luxurious for my birthday dinner :)


The second dining room is the West Wing. It's smaller and quieter than the noisy Ball Room.


It features the infamous rose, slowly losing its petals, as well as the torn painting of the prince.


When lightning strikes, the painting changes to one of the Beast, but only for an instant. The third dining room is the Rose Gallery, and is only available during lunch.


Lucky for us, we were seated at an end table in the Ball Room. This meant that it was less noisy than tables in the center of the room would be. We also had an excellent view of the Beast's parlor where the Beast was waiting to take photos with diners as they exited the restaurant. All I can say is there were LOTS of scared children who wouldn't go in there, haha.


We both decided it was a French Onion Soup kind of night. Unfortunately, the broth was much lighter and less flavorful that we prefer for our French Onion Soup. I like a nice meaty broth with intensely caramelized onions, but this used vegetable broth and had very little flavor. In the end, the soup is pretty forgettable.

French Onion Soup $6.99

My sister had the Grilled Strip Steak with Garlic Butter Spread and Pommes Frites. Although her steak was cooked nicely, her fries were almost inedibly salty. 

Grilled Strip Steak $29.99

I opted for the Thyme-Scented Pork Rack Chop, which was served with Au Gratin Pasta, Seasonal Vegetables (green beans, in this case), and Red Wine Au Jus. I asked for it to be cooked medium, and it was cooked perfectly. It was very juicy and flavorful, and the additional jus was just an added benefit to an already juicy and tender piece of meat. The Au Gratin Pasta was essentially very firm (read: not saucy) macaroni and cheese baked individually, unmolded and served. It was tasty and a nice compliment to the pork. While the soup was underwhelming and only half of my sister's entree was executed properly, I was overall quite pleased with MY entree.

Thyme-Scented Pork Rack Chop $21.99

Our waiter seemed to be very busy (I believe they are booked solid every single night from now through the foreseeable future) so he absentmindedly forgot all about The Grey Stuff, which is a special dessert treat for those celebrating a special occasion. He brought us our check, and I had to kindly inquire about The Grey Stuff. He apologized and thanked me for reminding him. I was not about to have a meal in the Beast's Castle without The Grey Stuff! Can you blame me? I was so looking forward to it! 


For all of you not in the know, The Grey Stuff is actually whipped Oreo (cookies-and-cream) panna cotta that is piped onto a plate and topped with candy pearls. Although it's just a taste and not a full dessert, it is delicious and a very special treat at the end of the meal. I also got a birthday card signed by Belle and the Beast! I know you're all super jealous of me right now ;-) I additionally got to meet the Beast and take a picture with that handsome guy! Swoon!


These guys actually whisper to each other. It's really cool :)


We explored a bit more of New Fantasyland--checking out Gaston's Tavern and Prince Eric's Castle--before hitting up Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for a couple more rides in the dark :) 



Prince Eric's Castle

My birthday at the Magic Kingdom was soooo magical. I loved every moment of it: every ride we experienced, every show we watched, every meal we ate... even with the subpar elements, the fact that we were dining in the Beast's Castle made up for it. I literally can't wait for my next trip to the Magic Kingdom. It really is where dreams come true!

Sassagoula Floatworks & Food Factory
2201 Orleans Dr.
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 939-3463

Magic Kingdom
1180 Seven Seas Dr.
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 824-4321
Columbia Harbour House
1180 Seven Seas Dr.
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 939-3463
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/magic-kingdom/columbia-harbour-house/

Be Our Guest Restaurant
1180 Seven Seas Dr.
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 939-3463
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/magic-kingdom/be-our-guest-restaurant/



Friday, April 26, 2013

Disney Day 3 (Not Disney): Discovery Cove (Laguna Grill & Flying Fish Cafe @ Disney's Boardwalk)

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It's time for Day 3 of My Super Magical Birthday Celebration! We actually didn't go to a Disney park that day. It was the one day we strayed from the Mouse, and it was absolutely and totally worth it! Have you ever heard of Discovery Cove?

Photo courtesy Discovery Cove

It's a really amazing all-inclusive tropical getaway. In Orlando. Honestly, it feels like you've stepped into a lush Caribbean hideaway with both freshwater and saltwater areas featuring lots of incredible creatures that you can interact with.


Full disclosure, it's very expensive to get in, especially if you add on the optional dolphin experience. Before going we read lots of reviews and each and every one of them concluded that it was worth the price. If people are willing to drop potentially over $300 on a day at Discovery Cove (depending on the pricing that particular day and whether you include a Dolphin Interaction) then you know it must be something special.


Things that are included in your day at Discovery Cove: unlimited food at both a breakfast and lunch buffet at Laguna Grill (which I will discuss later), unlimited snacks and drinks (including alcoholic beverages), free use of lockers and equipment, a souvenir snorkel which you get to keep, unlimited access to the Grand Reef (where you can snorkel with thousands of tropical fish and rays), unlimited access to the Wind-away River, Serenity Bay, and Freshwater Oasis (where you can spy on curious marmosets and otters), and unlimited access to the Explorer's Aviary where you can hand-feed a variety of beautiful birds. There's also a limited number of people allowed into the park each day (to control crowd levels) and reservations MUST be made in advance.


If you'd like, you can add a 30-minute Dolphin Interaction to your package, or even a Seaventure underwater walking tour. These are an additional charge, but both have excellent reputations. We elected to add the Dolphin Interaction to our day, and it was an absolute dream come true.


But first, let's talk about the rest of our experience a bit more. Our two favorite non-dolphin attractions were hands down the Grand Reef and the Explorer's Aviary. We spent an incredible amount of time snorkeling in the Grand Reef, petting a variety of beautiful stingrays, observing regal-looking sharks across the other side of a glass partition (but still underwater so you almost believe you can touch them), immersing ourselves in a myriad of rainbow-colored fish, and simply falling in love.



I'm a huge fan of snorkeling. I actually own my own snorkel gear and take it with me on select trips to snorkel-friendly locations (such as the Caribbean). I also have an underwater case for my point-and-shoot camera so I found this to be an excellent opportunity to use it!


Even though you aren't in open water, the snorkel experience here is probably better than a lot of others because you are guaranteed that there will be lots of fish, and a huge variety of them at that. You also can rest assured that these stingrays are very safe to swim with because they have essentially been neutered of their stingers :)





We kept returning to the Grand Reef because it is as grand as the name suggests. We also had a bit of a stalker fish. This one fish apparently was obsessed the the exact style water shoes we were wearing and found us EVERYWHERE in the huge reef where we went and would bump into our shoes and even on a couple occasions bit my shoe and shook it around, haha. It was pretty hilarious because it was such a tiny and cute fish, but man was he powerful!



The other area we absolutely fell in love with was the Explorer's Aviary. As you probably noticed in my Animal Kingdom post, we had a bit of a love affair with the birds there as well.

This is one of the professional pics they took during our visit!

Unfortunately, I didn't have my fancy DSLR camera at Discovery Cove (water damage would have ensued) so these bird pics aren't as good. We had a wonderful experience feeding the birds and having them land on our arms and even sometimes our shoulders. Each species was more beautiful than the next.



It was easy to spend a lot of time with these lovely creatures, but after all the swimming and exploring, we were pretty hungry. We had already hit up the breakfast buffet at Laguna Grill first thing in the morning. It offered up staples such as scrambled eggs (both plain and Southwest), home fries, sausage, ham, oatmeal, French toast sticks, a variety of breakfast pastries, fruit, cereal, and more. I opted for some Southwest eggs with home fries and sausage, the French toast sticks (which were my favorite out of everything), and some pastries. The pastries were easily forgettable. The rest of the food was okay, considering it was all-you-can-eat and included in the price of park admission. I wasn't overly impressed with any of it, but again, it's a crowd-pleasing buffet that is not meant to be gourmet. For what it was it was totally fine.


The lunch buffet had some more interesting options. A standard burger and hot dog were available, of course, but there were also things like pulled pork sandwiches, pasta with meatballs, and grilled tilapia.


I went for a pulled pork sandwich (which was alright... could have used more spice and flavor), some Jambalaya (this one was spicy and had decent flavor), macaroni and cheese (because I have an addiction), fries, and Caesar salad. The food was overall pretty decent, but once again, nothing to write home about. You're obviously not at this park for the food. I actually really did enjoy the free snacks that were available, including things like trail mix, soft pretzels, and even ice cream sandwiches!



When the afternoon rolled around, it was finally time for our Dolphin Interaction! A childhood friend of mine works at Discovery Cove and headed up our group. We got to meet an adorable dolphin named Akai!


We gave him kisses and hugs, and had him pull us back to shore by holding onto his fins. It was a wonderful experience that will remain etched in our memories forever (especially since we bought the DVD and photo packages, haha).


Perhaps the most thrilling part of the experience was when I was asked to be a special helper and retrieve a buoy from Akai. When he finally emerged from the water he was holding a buoy in his mouth that read "Happy Birthday, Victoria." I was so shocked and ecstatic! What a fantastic birthday surprise! Then our group went onto sing me Happy Birthday with Akai singing right along!! It was simply out of this world!


With so much to do there, we easily spent the entire day at Discovery Cove and then headed back to our hotel to get ready for dinner. Since we had spent all day swimming with fish (and some mammals), we figured fish should be on the menu for dinner too ;-)


That evening, we headed to Disney's beautiful Boardwalk, inspired by the turn-of-the-century Atlantic City Boardwalk (which also, of course, meant I couldn't stop thinking about Boardwalk Empire on HBO--amazing show).


Not only is there an actual Boardwalk filled with fun seaside shopping, dining, and entertainment, but the Boardwalk houses one of Disney's Deluxe Resorts, the Boardwalk Inn. It's high on my list of places I'd like to stay on a future Disney trip. It captures the whimsy of this old-school seaside tourist attraction just perfectly.


Flying Fish Cafe is actually one of Disney's Signature Dining experiences (which means the food is outstanding and the prices are higher). Its decor is playful and whimsical, featuring lights shaped like parachuting flying fish, a ferris wheel, and more.


It would seem borderline cheesy if the restaurant wasn't housed on a would-be replica of turn-of-the-century Atlantic City. In this case, it totally works.


I personally felt like the birthday aspect of my meal at Flying Fish Cafe was better than any of the other restaurants where we dined. And here's why. First of all, the staff had printed a special birthday version of the day's menu which I got to keep as a souvenir. They had also prepared a Happy Birthday pin for me, probably once they noticed I wasn't wearing one (it was the only time during the trip I didn't wear my pin because I was wearing a very nice and VERY expensive Betsy Johnson dress--go big or go home!).


In addition to the amazing food and service that already came with our visit, our waiter brought over two complimentary glasses of Champagne in honor of my birthday. That trumps any free dessert, in my opinion :)


We started out with some of their delicious bread, which appears to be studded with herbs. The crust was fantastic!


Each of us selected a salad to start. My sister was inspired by our visit to The Land in Epcot, and couldn't resist the Epcot Land Pavilion Sweet Bibb and Red Oak Lettuce (which we saw growing!), served with Frisee, Forelle Pears, Gorgonzola Dolce, Radishes and Candied Walnuts, with an Artisanal Loire Valley Walnut Oil Dressing. She LOVED it!

Epcot Land Pavilion Sweet Bibb and Red Oak Salad $11

I would have easily swayed in the same direction if it wasn't for the Roasted Heirloom Beets and Truffle Tremor Goat Cheese with Young Greens, Spiced Pecans, Blood Oranges, and Pecan-Truffle-Blood Orange Vinaigrette. Holy moly. This salad was spectacular! There were several varieties of regular and baby beets on the plate, along with large chunks of the goat cheese, which had a really pungent flavor compared to regular goat cheese. The nuts added a wonderful crunch while the vinaigrette balanced out the sweetness of the beets with some delicious acid. This salad was a winner!

Roasted Heirloom Beets and Truffle Tremor Goat Cheese $13

For entrees, we both selected fish dishes. That was pretty obvious. It didn't matter that I had eaten fish at dinner the previous two days. I was at the Flying Fish Cafe and I was eating fish, dammit! My sister ordered the Brioche, Horseradish and Herb-crusted Local Flounder, which was served with Spring Onions, Caramelized Cippolini Onions, Salsify, Rainbow Carrots, and Pan-roasted Fiddlehead Ferns, with a Meyer Lemon and Vermont Butter Emulsion. She thought it was excellent, flaky, and moist.

Brioche, Horseradish, and Herb-crusted Local Flounder $34

I selected their most popular dish, the Idaho Potato-wrapped Red Snapper, served over a Rich Leek Fondue with a Veal Glace de Viande, and Red Wine-Cassis Butter Reduction. I loved this dish so much that I plan to make it in my own kitchen (I've seen the recipe online). The fish itself was cooked perfectly, wrapped with really-well-done potato slices that added some great character, flavor, and texture. The leek fondue was creamy and rich with a mild onion flavor. The sauce was far more intense and created a nice contrast between the decadent leeks and flaky potato-wrapped fish. Although the presentation appears far simpler than my sister's dish, I assure you the flavors are all up in your face! Fantastic!

Idaho Potato-wrapped Red Snapper $36

Although the food at Discovery Cove was nothing exciting, the park itself is extraordinary, and a must-visit in my opinion! We definitely plan to return on a future visit to Orlando with the whole family! Meanwhile, Disney's Boardwalk holds a very special place in my heart as well. Not only am I dying to stay at the resort, but I look forward to further exploration of the Boardwalk itself, and DEFINITELY more visits to the Flying Fish Cafe in the future.

Discovery Cove
6000 Discovery Cove Way
Orlando, FL 32821
(877) 557-7404
www.discoverycove.com

Disney's Boardwalk Inn
2101 Epcot Resort Blvd
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 939-5100
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/boardwalk-inn/

Flying Fish Cafe
Disney's Boardwalk
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
(407) 939-3463
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/boardwalk/flying-fish-cafe/



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