1. Where We Stayed
We decided to ante up for a one-bedroom villa at the Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort. I'm really, really glad we went with the BLT. It's technically a Disney Vacation Club property, but, unless it's all booked up with DVC members, you can book a villa there just like you'd book any room at a Disney resort.
We were so happy to have the two separate rooms when Nate was napping and when he went to bed, although we did end up napping a fair amount ourselves in the afternoons. (More about that below.) We made breakfast in the room every day that we didn't have a character breakfast scheduled, and I actually did a load of laundry in the in-room washer and dryer.
I only had two complaints about the resort. First, one of the advertised amenities at the BLT is a rooftop deck overlooking the Magic Kingdom, from which guests can view the nightly fireworks. We tried in vain to find our way up to the deck only to be told later that it is only available to DVC members. That was a little disappointing, but not really a big deal; you can still watch the fireworks from a big balcony on the side of the original Contemporary Resort (complete with the music piped in from the Magic Kingdom).
The bigger problem was that the room lacked wi-fi internet access. I'd planned to spend Nate's naptime streaming shows on Netflix and Hulu, and was sorely disappointed when we had no wireless signal in the condo. I don't even mind paying for wi-fi; just make it available. The front desk folks told us that wireless is only available in the public areas of the Contemporary Resort--and even then, only for a daily fee. (Although I don't mind paying for wi-fi in my room, I decidedly do mind paying for service I can only access in the lobby.) Surprisingly, I just looked at the "Amenities and Services" page on the BLT's website, and it lists Wi-Fi under "Room Amenities"--call me crazy, but I think that implies that wi-fi is available in the room.
Clearly, I was pretty bitter about my inability to web surf on vacation. The only upside was that it kind of forced me to nap while Nate napped, which I probably needed.
2. Getting Around
Our resort was on the monorail line, which made getting to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot a breeze. Bus service was available to the Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios, but the buses always took a lot longer to arrive than did the monorail (understandably). Getting to Epcot takes a little longer because you have to change monorails; the Magic Kingdom didn't require a switch.
The monorails and buses were never crowded for us; we could almost always sit down, and we never had to fold up our stroller on the monorail. I imagine that during peak season, though, the transportation gets pretty claustrophobic. It would also be really annoying to miss a bus or monorail because it was full.
The thing to remember is that, even staying on property--even staying on a monorail-line resort--getting around takes a while. The monorail goes in a big loop, and if you only have to ride one stop headed to the park, you'll have to pass every other stop on your way back to your resort. Still, it was far, far easier not to have to deal with renting and parking a car . . .
. . . Except that I really hated the transportation to and from the airport. This was probably just an issue with our particular resort, though. We were riding the "Disney Magical Express," a free bus service that Disney runs between the Orlando airport and its various resorts. Each bus services several resorts, so our bus dropped off and picked up at the Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Wildnerness Lodge resorts. When we arrived, we were the last resort to be dropped off. No big deal, I thought--I wanted to see the other resorts, and I figured it just meant that we'd be the last picked up on the way back to the airport.
I was wrong. The Contemporary was the last to be dropped off and the first to be picked up for the trip back to the airport, and that extra half hour or so was significant when dealing with a squirmy toddler--and when our pick-up time back to the airport was before 8:00 a.m. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was just something I found a little annoying. The whole process was just slow: Waiting for the bus at the airport, loading a bunch of families--and their carry-on luggage/strollers, driving around to the various resorts, and then unloading the carry-ons and strollers that were stowed under the bus at each resort. I'm not sure how much round-trip cab fare is, and it's probably enough that it was worthwhile for us to take resort transportation. Nevertheless--there's nothing magical about the Magical Express.
3. The Parks
We've arrived at the portion of this post where I sing the praises of the off-season. Oh, February, how I love you! I think that the longest line we waited in was for the Dumbo ride at the Magic Kingdom--probably about 20 minutes or so for that notoriously slow-loader. We zoomed onto many rides with no wait at all.
The thing that surprised me the most was seeing Nate react to the Disney characters. I expected him to be either uninterested or maybe a little scared. Instead, they turned out to be his favorite part of the experience. We even did a couple of character breakfasts (which I'll discuss below), and he could hardly contain himself waiting for each character to arrive at our table. Perhaps the breakfasts are a little better suited to children old enough to understand the concept of waiting their turn.
Nate was able to ride on a fair number of the attractions. Here were some of our hits and misses:
Magic KingdomNate loved It’s a Small World, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Buzz Lightyear—anything that was really colorful and had a lot to look at. He was content on Dumbo, the Astro Orbiter, Aladdin’s Magic Carpets, the People Mover, the Pirates of the Caribbean, Mickey’s Philharmagic, and the Haunted Mansion. He got incredibly fussy during the Hall of Presidents (a bummer, because I really wanted to see the whole thing) and the Country Bear Jamboree, but he was having a really hard time the morning we saw those.
David and I were able to ride things like Space Mountain and the Big Thunder Mountain railroad by “switching off,” something Disney allows for parents of small children. We’d approach the cast member at the entrance to the line and tell him we needed to switch off. He’d give us a ticket that was basically a fast pass for the second parent to use to ride after the first parent was done. Then one of us would wait outside with Nate while the other rode. The only exception was Space Mountain, where we went through the line together until almost the very end, and Nate and I were sent to the exit platform to wait for David to finish the ride. Once he was done, I was allowed to back track up to the loading platform to ride myself.
Except for Space Mountain, it seemed like if both parents had obtained Fast Passes, there was no need to get a “switch off” pass. The pass for switching off just puts the second parent into the Fast Pass line, anyway; you don’t get to skip ahead any farther than the other Fast Pass folks.
EpcotEpcot is kind of a bust with a toddler, I thought, which is a huge bummer, because it’s such a gorgeous park. I really wish David and I could have had some time to ourselves to explore the World Showcase section.
We rode Spaceship Earth, The Land, the Three Caballeros, and the Nemo ride with Nate. All were fine, but he didn’t seem really excited about any of them. He actually got a little antsy during The Land, which is a little long and goes through a bunch of greenhouses toward the end—not so interesting for a toddler. Nate had also just ridden it with David while I was riding Soarin’, so he was seeing it for a second time.
I feel like we really didn’t get to enjoy Epcot enough. Soarin’ was the only non-Nate-friendly attraction that David and I saw, even though there are others that look interesting. But there wasn’t enough at Epcot for Nate to draw us back for a second day, and with Nate’s afternoon nap it wasn’t possible to fit in as much as we would have liked. I’m really looking forward to seeing Epcot again when Nate is elementary school-aged, when we can enjoy all of the attractions together.
Animal KingdomNate absolutely loved the Animal Kingdom. For some reason, it was the only park in which he was content to ride around in his stroller. He loved seeing all of the animals, both on the Safari ride and just around the park. Animal Kingdom also had what were hands-down my favorite attractions of the trip: The Festival of the Lion King show and Finding Nemo—The Musical.
Nate was particularly entranced during the Nemo show, which was, in my opinion, completely stunning.
We also saw It's a Bug's Life, which had one moment that scared Nate. It was sort of cute, but I don't think it would be worth waiting a long time to see. David and I rode Expedition Everest, which made me ever-so-slightly queasy. (There's a part where it goes backwards, which was the issue for me.) We took Nate on the TriceraTop Spin, which was essentially just like Dumbo. Nate liked it fine.
On our last day, we decided to check out "Camp Minnie Mickey," which is just a big area with a bunch of pavilions for kids to meet the characters. Had we not discovered how much Nate adored the characters, we never would have done this--and if I'd had to wait in lines, I would NOT have wanted to do this. Instead, though, there were never more than a couple of people ahead of us to see any character, if that, and Nate was able to visit Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Chip and Dale, three rabbits and a bear (who ARE some of these characters?), all in quick succession. He was in heaven.
Aaaaaaaand . . . at this point I have rambled on for nearly 2000 words about my vacation. I still have to discuss restaurants, including the infamous 'Ohana stormout. But Nate is up from his nap, and I just need to post this already. I promise, I'll discuss Disney dining. (Expensive! Widely variable in quality!)
I'll also post a video I took of our room, in case you're interested. OR EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT.
Oh, for heaven's sake, I'm just hitting publish now.