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Old 01-22-2013, 04:02 PM   #1
olive
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Just back - 15 nights with 5 year old & 5 month old at Universal and Disney (LONG)

I just posted a trip report on the Disney trip reports board. I am re-posting here since Universal/IOA are addressed, as well. Thanks for all the planning help on these boards! Our trip to Universal/IOA was definitely a success.

Just back from 15 nights visiting Universal and Disney. We stayed 3 nights at the Royal Pacific and then 6 each at the Swan and Bay Lake Tower. It was a wonderful trip and we were very fortunate in terms of weather, with most days hitting the 80s and plenty of swimming. We traveled with a five month old and a five year old, and were joined part way through the vacation by grandparents and an aunt (they stayed at the Wilderness Lodge and loved it).

Universal/IOA/Royal Pacific –

I had not been to Universal in about twenty years, certainly long before Islands of Adventure existed. We were a little nervous that there would not be enough to hold the attention of our five year old at these parks, especially considering how much he loves Disney, but we are so glad we visited Universal. We will include it on our future trips. We loved our time there and wish we had stayed more than three nights.

The Royal Pacific was a great hotel. We had dinner the first night at the sushi restaurant in the lobby. We waited quite a long time for drinks - they arrived well after the food and only after a manager happened to come by and ask how everything was - but the setting was perfect for our first night and the manager was great. He chatted with our son about the Avengers, which was adorable. The public areas of the hotel were beautiful, staff were helpful and friendly and the pool looked lovely. We didn't swim while there but did watch part of a movie one night by the pool. We had dinner at the pool restaurant - the name is escaping me - during the movie. I had called down before going over with my son and the front desk assured us they were still serving and would be serving dinner until whatever time was posted, but when we sat down we were told the kitchen had decided to close early. The bartender was wonderful and was able to get us food anyway. We ended up waiting almost an hour all told, but we really appreciated the service. The only downside to dinner by the pool was that partway through the meal folks were smoking and we couldn't easily move with our food. We will just be more careful about where we sit next time. Room was clean and comfortable. We will definitely stay there again.

The express pass was an amazing perk, and we barely waited for anything (forbidden journey aside). Both parks were so well maintained and their attractions were very impressive. Without attracting the ire of the hardcore Disney lovers - and just for background, I have been to Disney more times than I remember, so I count myself among its ardent fans - I have to say I think Universal has Disney beat with new ride technology and recent expansions. Forbidden journey was incredible and unlike anything else we experienced, and the theming at the Wizarding World was amazing. Especially after experiencing the new fantasyland, we give the nod to Universal on new additions. Can't wait to see how the Diagon Alley and Transformers additions pan out.

Our son's favorite rides of the whole trip, including Disney, were the Simpson's and Despicable Me at Universal. These are motion simulator attractions and very well done. For those traveling with a child around our son's age, I can report that he loved everything in Seuss landing (especially the trolley and cat in the hat rides), was bored during sections of Poseidon's Fury, loved Flight of the Hippogriff (he rode that 4 or 5 times), loved Jurassic Park river adventure (3 times, I think) and the discovery center, was excited to ride Spider Man but then got scared on the ride and didn't want to go again, enjoyed Storm Force (basically, tea cups) and the play areas. We didn't do Dudley Do Right because neither my husband nor I wanted to get quite that soaked. He also really enjoyed the Ollivander's experience. Our son has a spectrum disorder and was kind of excitedly flapping around in the room there - there was only one other family and they were not particularly near us, so he wasn't touching anyone else and he wasn't making any noise so I can't see how he was disturbing anyone. A staff member (cast member?) quietly asked him to calm down and pay attention a couple of times but when I explained that that was about as calm as he gets when he is excited and that he has a spectrum disorder, she backed off and said it was no problem (which honestly, I don't see how it could have been one). Disney cast members seem generally pretty attuned to when there might be something else going on with a child and have been mostly wonderful dealing with our son over three trips now, so I think they must have some kind of extra training that not everyone at Universal/IOA has had. That said, we experienced lots of sweet moments at Universal/IOA with folks working there really going the extra mile to make things special for our son. At Shrek, for his second ride, I asked before we went in to the pre show area if we could hang back and wait for the next show since our son apparently couldn’t see in the pre show area the first time around with daddy. We were allowed to wait, but then instead were led to an open space at the front of the room after everyone else had gone in, and later led to front row center seats for the actual show. The staff said they wanted to make sure he had a good view. I thought that was incredible and completely unexpected. We were so appreciative.

We had a nice meal (lunch) at Three Broomsticks - I think we are in the minority with unanimously preferring the unfrozen butterbeer. Someone helped us find a table, which was very nice. It was crowded in there, but less than I expected. We were underwhelmed by the food at Mythos (again, I think we are in the minority on that). We waited quite a long time for the waitress and then for the food even though the section was half empty. Maybe they were understaffed? The setting was super cool for our son, though. At Universal, in addition to Simpson's and Despicable Me being hits, our son enjoyed the Shrek attraction, though the second time around he seemed a bit spooked; enjoyed Twister, Disaster, ET, the play areas near Barney and the Horror Makeup Show, even if he didn’t get all the jokes. Beetlejuice didn't hold his attention so we left after 10 minutes or so, and he was afraid of Men In Black for whatever reason. I thought it was great, though! The Woody Woodpecker coaster was down both days we visited Universal, unfortunately, so he didn't get to ride that one. We had a tasty lunch in Finnegan's at Universal; it was nearly empty at prime lunch time. Staff at the parks were generally great, at attractions and restaurants/concessions/stores. We were so impressed. We didn’t really get a chance to explore City Walk, so can’t comment on that.

Disney – Swan-

The Swan public areas were in great shape and the grotto pool was once again a big hit with our five year old (we stayed at the Dolphin once before). All of the staff we encountered were friendly and professional, and some were especially kind interacting with our five year old, who can be full of questions. We stayed on spg points in a resort view room with balcony. Our last room was an Epcot fireworks view room at the Dolphin (no balcony) on cash, not points, and the view was far superior from the Dolphin room. I don't need a balcony on vacation, and honestly this one was disappointing anyway. The paint on the railing was peeling and rusting and the balcony chairs were in bad shape (cheaper lawn style furniture that had seen better days). We didn't spend any time out there. The beds were very comfortable and we slept well in them, though our duvet was torn in places. The room in general seemed to need to be refreshed. I am not referring to decor - the room looked pretty much like the rooms on their website and our prior Dolphin room - but in addition to the state of the balcony and the duvet, there were lots of scuffs and even gouges on the walls, paint chipped, rusting in the toilet and on the door knob and hinges, etc. Nothing that would ruin or trip, but I expected a better level of care for the property, especially after our great visit to the Dolphin. I would have been more disappointed if we had paid cash for the stay, I think. These were not major issues but could be resolved with relatively minimal investment (or regular maintenance). I expected a bit more from Westin. Service was also a little sloppy sometimes. We noticed a dish of food that someone had left in the hallway when we went to the parks one day, and it was still there when we got back that evening. I did call room service to have them pick it up so no one would step in it, and they took care of it. The hotel provided a crib at no extra charge, and the fee was waived for a fridge for the room since we had a baby. Much appreciated! We signed up for the star points in exchange for waiving housekeeping. This worked out well, although when we did call to request a couple of things (coffee cups and garbage bags) they forgot the bags and then showed up over an hour after they appeared, around 1030, and knocked when the kids were asleep and we were in bed. Also, housekeeping was supposed to clean the room on one of our days and never showed up. We kept things pretty neat so it wasn't a huge deal. We would probably go back to the Dolphin over the Swan if we choose one of these resorts for a future stay. Using star points was easy and seemed like a good value despite the (mostly cosmetic) issues. I hope this doesn't seem like an overly negative assessment of the Swan. We did overall enjoy our stay there, and our son tied Swan for third place among his favorite places to stay at Disney; for comparison, he tied the Dolphin from our last stay - which he calls the triangle hotel - with Bay Lake Tower. (We also stayed at the Polynesian on that stay, and he ranked that second.) My husband and I agreed, though, that if we had stayed at BLT first and then moved to the Swan we would probably have been pretty depressed given the stark differences in quality/upkeep.

Bay Lake Tower-

We drove our own bags over to Bay Lake Tower when we switched resorts and took that as a day off from the parks. We checked in early, around 11, and were told our room would be ready by 4, but it ended up not being ready until about 430, despite calls from us hoping up get in by 4 as promised. We spent the day by the pool as planned, but we had a dinner reservation at V&A that we were hoping to get to on time so starting around 3 I panicked a bit. We ended up being a little late to the dinner because of the delay but had called the restaurant in advance and they were able to accommodate. We stayed in a 1 bedroom at BLT, originally facing the interior/lake and then moved on the second day to a lake view room which had a view of space mountain, the castle and fireworks to the left. Really a nice view and a great space. I think these rooms are much more impressive in person than in photos. There was no remarkable wear in either of the rooms we stayed in, and in fact we were impressed with how well they have been maintained. We never heard a sound from any of the other units when in our rooms. The 1 bedroom was enormous and we really appreciated the space - and the washer/dryer! I think we did laundry daily between swimming and a baby who spits up A LOT. We used the pack and play provided and kept it in the bedroom, and our older son slept in the living room on the fold out chair, which he enjoyed. Mousekeeping was great. Bed was super comfortable. Our son absolutely loved the large jetted tub in the master bath and begged to have his baths in there. We didn't really miss having a quick service location at BLT as we could easily go to Contempo Cafe, and we also kept plenty of snacks and breakfast items in the kitchen in our room.

Elevators were a headache - we were lucky to be on the 5th floor so we could just walk over to the Contemporary to grab the monorail, but when we drove to other parks or walked to the MK, we had to take the elevator. One of the elevators in our wing was out on at least two of the days, and in the evenings one is dedicated to the Top of the World Lounge, so that left one elevator for everyone else. When we first noticed that an elevator seemed to not be working (we had been waiting quite awhile and saw only one operating in that time, other than the top of the world elevator), we attempted to report it to the front desk and were semi-rudely brushed off, told that there was nothing wrong with any of the elevators. A maintenance person stopped us a few steps away to say that we were actually correct and the elevator was down, and that he was in the process of trying to get it fixed. The same front desk person was rude to my husband on another day for another issue. We also had another person give misinformation about airline check in rather curtly, although I appreciate that that particular person at least followed up by calling to correct the misinformation originally provided (though no more pleasantly). This was very strange to me. In general, the staff we encountered at BLT were friendly and professional, and we especially had positive interactions with certain front desk staff who went out of their way to assist on matters, with the lifeguards who were so friendly to us and our children and the staff at the pool bar where we got snacks on a couple of days. It is also odd to experience unpolished service at this price point. I have never, for example, experienced anything approaching rudeness from anyone at, say, a Four Seasons hotel, nor from anyone at prior Disney stays at the Contemporary or Polynesian. We did have one less than stellar encounter with someone at the Grand Floridian, but it was only one isolated incident among many positive experiences so we ignored it.

On one of the colder days, we came back to the room early and hoped to watch a movie before heading back out for the Main Street Electrical Parade. The cables appeared to be missing from the DVD player, so we called down and were told someone would be up in 5 to 20 minutes. About 45 minutes later, we called to check in again and were told they would investigate and call right back. My husband and son gave up shortly thereafter and went to play in the arcade at the Contemporary. A little over an hour later I went downstairs to check in person on my way out to see if this could be fixed while we were out. The person I spoke with was so helpful and apologetic and got everything squared away while we were at the parade. Anyway, these service hiccups did not tarnish our stay and we really enjoyed the room and amenities. We also enjoyed using the Contemporary pool, but I think all of us thought that Bay Lake Tower slide was more fun

Disney generally –

Crowds were really manageable for all but the 19th. We spent that day at MK and had no real issues in the morning, but by early afternoon things were unbearable - 120 minute wait for Winnie the Pooh. A snaking line for People Mover. Walls of people everywhere. We gave up around 230 and headed to the pool, even though it was a bit chilly that day. There were plenty of kids in the pool along with a few fellow freezing parents.

We are reserving full judgment on the new fantasyland until the mine train ride is done - it is looking great! - but so far were more impressed with the little mermaid ride than expected based on some of the reviews (although the animatronics were disappointing in areas, especially after the queue was so cool and after seeing what was done with Lumiere at Enchanted Tales) and less impressed with Enchanted Tales. We waited about 30 minutes for Enchanted Tales (we got there about 10 minutes after the park opened because of a bathroom stop), which is about 20 minutes longer than I think it is worth waiting for. I felt bad for people who waited an hour or more. I was expecting more somehow. It seems fun for the children to get to be a part of the story, but we would only do it again with a short wait. Definitely not a must do for us. There were also some crazed adults in there, including a woman who lumbered between my husband and me to try to get into the room as quickly as possible and nearly knocked over a small child on the way. We basically walked onto the little mermaid ride about an hour after the park opened, by the way. The line moved quickly. The "new" Dumbo looked great and our son enjoyed the play area. We would actually have been able to basically go on the ride with no wait, but they gave everyone the option of checking out the play area first, and our son cannot turn down anything colorful so in we went. Barnstormer is short, as it always was, but our son loves it.

We had good to excellent meals at:

Tokyo Dining (great setting and decent food with great service)
San Angel Inn (love)
Kouzzina (our best meal of the trip other than V&A; we look forward to visiting again)
Victoria & Albert's (we go every trip and love it every time; just wonderful staff who seem to so enjoy what they do and amazing food that is on par with what we eat at home in NYC, but at a better price point! We have never been disappointed by any aspect of V&A)
Hollywood & Vine breakfast (amazing character interaction and food was fine, great staff)
Chef Mickey's (good character interaction and food was fine)
Crystal Palace lunch (really nice selection of dishes including some unique items and very good character interaction)
CRT (okay interaction and okay food, although the initial Cinderella interaction downstairs was great and staff were great)
Be Our Guest lunch (areas before dining rooms were well themed but we thought the theme could be carried through better in the rooms, food not as impressive as expected though the leek soup was quite good)
Sunshine Seasons (chaotic but food better than most other counter service places).
Bradley Falls kiosk (ate here for lunch on both AK days - nice vegetarian options and we appreciated the kick in the noodle salad!)
Trex (entertaining environment for kids, very mediocre food)
Wave (food was fine, according to my family desserts were better)

The trip was pretty long, and I can't remember where else we ate now. Nutella and fruit waffle at Sleepy Hollow was a great snack. Most places did not have the infant high chairs, but we were able to get them at Chef Mickey's and the Wave.

Our son really enjoyed Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom, and the Perry/Phineas and Ferb interactive experience at Epcot. We are looking forward to playing both games more on future visits. I think Epcot is officially our older son's favorite park. He loves many of the attractions at AK and MK, and parts of DHS, but he seems to always want to go back to Epcot, which is fine by us, as we love it, too. We like to see Main Street and the castle at the beginning of our trips, but I think we will stick with MK at the end on future trips. That is what we did this time - MK once at the beginning, I think for half a day, and then not again until after we had done the other parks. The baby was pretty much fine with everything, loved the pools and characters and the Playhouse Disney show. It was so cute to watch his reactions.

The boardwalk area was, as always, beautiful at night and we enjoyed walking along it to and from the Swan while we stayed there.

We used the Neverland Club on our V&A night for our five year old (baby stayed with grandma and grandpa). They were amazing there – space was adorable (we got to tour it because our son was the last one picked up), and the staff were just so friendly and accommodating. We can’t say enough good things about the experience. Our son was a bit teary before we got there, not wanting to stay, and we told him we would wait right there to see what he decided. Well, he ran right in and they had to pull him back out to say goodbye to us. He had a ball.

We really like taking longer trips and will continue to do so as long as vacation schedules allow. Our last three trips have been at least 10 days, and we really like that. This trip was perfect. We like mornings at the parks and then swimming or changing parks for the most part, and we like adding in open days to do something outside of the parks. I kind of can't believe I am saying this, as I grew up in a family that always got there when the parks opened and closed them down, but my style has changed. My parents are also on board with the new touring style!

We rented a car from Advantage, which moved offsite from the airport a couple of months after we made the reservation. We stuck with it, though, because the rate was so cheap - around $275 for a midsize car for the whole trip. We had to wait in a long line - maybe 45-50 minutes - but we were apparently lucky since multiple families who exited as we were coming in said they had waited closer to an hour and a half. My son kept busy with his ipad and snacks during the wait and we didn't have anything planned for that first day anyway, so it was fine. We ended up getting upgraded to a minivan - a Town and Country - which was great with the kids and our small mountain of luggage. No problems with Advantage and we would use them again. There was no line when we dropped the car back off.

We rented a double stroller from Kingdom Strollers. It arrived as expected at the Royal Pacific and was scheduled to be picked up from Bay Lake Tower. They will only rent strollers for max of 14 days, so we didn't have it the first day but didn't really need it then anyway. We were very glad to have the stroller. Our little one was in it lots - basically whenever we were at the parks and he wasn't being carried or worn - and our 5 year old sometimes needs to sit, as well, both to have a space to decompress or because of tone issues in his legs. We would definitely use Kingdom again and I recommend them to others.

If there are any specific questions, fire away! Sorry if this was a bit long.
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Old 01-22-2013, 07:30 PM   #2
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Excellent report...thanks for sharing!
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Old 01-24-2013, 10:03 PM   #3
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Awesome review! Thanks!
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Old 01-26-2013, 02:24 AM   #4
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15 days....wonderful. We are planning longer vacations in the future. Currently we plan 8 days; the first and last are travel days. Then we plan 4 days at each of the parks with two off days splitting the time up. We usually use the off days for a trip to the beach and a water park day. We want to extend our vacations to 2 weeks so we can have a more relaxed stay with multiple park hopping and more off days to explore the resorts.

Thank you for the great report.
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Old 01-26-2013, 03:44 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by wildviper
15 days....wonderful. We are planning longer vacations in the future. Currently we plan 8 days; the first and last are travel days. Then we plan 4 days at each of the parks with two off days splitting the time up. We usually use the off days for a trip to the beach and a water park day. We want to extend our vacations to 2 weeks so we can have a more relaxed stay with multiple park hopping and more off days to explore the resorts.

Thank you for the great report.
15 days really was great. We could even have stayed longer. We liked the relaxed pace and had plenty of time to get comfortable at each hotel, although we would love to have more time at universal next time. Off days were great! I can't believe how much we enjoyed our time outside of the parks. My husband said this was his favorite trip, that he really just enjoyed taking things slow and enjoying non- park time. It was funny each time our 5 year old said he wanted to hang out at the hotel when we would ask what he wanted to do next. Our only full park days were really at universal/IOA. Hope you can take those 2 weeks!!
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Old 01-27-2013, 10:18 AM   #6
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Thanks for such a good trip report and so glad you enjoyed Universal. We love the Bula Bar at the RP pool too.

Glad you enjoyed RPR too. It`s a beautiful hotel
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Old 01-27-2013, 06:13 PM   #7
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We were so happy with RPR! I forgot to mention that they gave us a little care package when we checked in for the kids with baby shampoo and other baby essentials, a CD of kiddie music and a toy for our five year old. It was so thoughtful and just a really nice touch. Service was very good there and it was such a pretty hotel. We are looking forward to staying there again, although my husband says next time we should at least visit the other universal hotels so we know how they strike us.
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