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Old 08-25-2013, 09:32 PM   #1
newfamilyman


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July 25th Venice Cruise Report with Reviews of Disneyland Paris & Private Excursions

Our family had a magical and memorable vacation last month, enjoying the Disney, 12-night Venice cruise and spending a couple of days at the beginning at Paris Disneyland and a couple days at the end in Barcelona.

We did not do any Disney excursions, and the main purpose of this trip review is to help others who are considering different private excursions for Med and European cruises and trips that you are planning for your families. We were mostly glad with the choices that we made, and I want to help others make good choices as well.

Like so many of you, our family loves Disney and includes Disney in many of our vacations. This was our fifth Disney cruise, with our favorites until that point being the August ’08 Panama Canal on the Magic in ’08 and last year’s Alaska on the Wonder. We had Disneyland premium APs for many years, until Disney almost doubled their price, at which point, it no longer made financial sense to renew, though we still enjoy visiting several days a year.

DW Karen and I, Carl, live in Los Angeles with DD Kailey, 12, and DS Christopher, 8.

Air France 380
We decided that a cruise departing in Europe required a stay in Paris and visit to Disneyland Paris. Going to Paris made it easy to decide to try out Air France’s 380. I read varying reports about sitting upstairs or downstairs, and we ended up flying upstairs on the outbound and downstairs for the return.

Based on travelers’ comments that I had read online, I was expecting the upper deck to be markedly superior to the lower deck, but this didn’t end up being the case. If you sit in economy on the 380 on the upper deck, as one poster noted, you have to do the walk of shame as you pass business class and then premium economy before you get to your seats. Boarding downstairs and turning right (see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), you won’t have to encounter any of your more fortunate, fellow travelers.

Another disadvantage to being upstairs is that you have no choice but to be in front of the restrooms, with are shared with premium economy. Where we were sitting downstairs, in row 40, we were in front of the galley, which put us near the drinks and snacks but a cabin away from the lavatories.

I was surprised that Air France managed to make each compartment feel private by the use of curtains, so you didn’t feel as if you were sitting with 500 other people, which was my only concern.

You have the option with Air France of paying for an exit row, which I did on the outbound flight, and it turned out to be a mistake. While there was more legroom, the seat was tighter, as a result of a wider armrest to accommodate the tray and video screen, so I was overall more uncomfortable.

I was very pleased with the Air France flight overall, however. There were many films from which to choose, and I enjoyed a rare double feature of Iron Man 3 followed by a recent French comedy. The stewards were exceptionally helpful and friendly, so no complaints there. Both the seat width and pitch were considerably roomier than economy seats on other aicrcraft. It was a wonderful luxury to fly the A380 on Air France, even in coach.

Next Installment: Disneyland Paris from the perspective of a Disney-loving, American family.
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Old 08-26-2013, 05:30 PM   #2
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Looking forward to reading more. We did the cruise before yours and did all Disney excursions and felt we made mostly good choices too, but I really enjoy seeing all of the different options out there and planning for 'next time' when ever that will be! If we get lucky it may be next summer or the year after, so I am really interested in your thoughts about Venice.
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Old 08-26-2013, 10:43 PM   #3
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Because we were only going to be at Disneyland Paris for two days and one night, I decided to book a private transfer to pick us up at the airport, then bring us to Paris the next day, and then finally bring us to the airport on Thursday morning. I chose RS Transports from the list provided on the Disneyland Paris board and would not recommend them to others. Unlike other drivers, who were picking up their customers directly as they left customs, RS Transports requires its customers to go out a particular numbered door and find them. This proved to be a little tricky, but we did finally locate our driver. The pick-up the next day from Disneyland Hotel went perfectly. Thursday morning, however, outside our Paris hotel, our driver was nowhere to be found. Luckily, I kept getting calls from the company, saying the driver was on his way, and we did end up making it to the airport with time to spare. However, the driver admitted that his alarm clock did not go off, so this was not the most professional or reliable company out there, especially if you have a 7:20 AM flight.

Disneyland Paris
Disneyland Paris feels a bit as if you took a Magic Kingdom park and put it in the Animal Kingdom park. It has a completely lush landscape; you are surrounded by greenery, but you have the classic Disneyland attractions. What surprised and delighted me most was that none of them were identical to their American counterparts. Even Astro Blasters had its own, unique show scenes. With the exceptions of Pirates, which was shorter than Anaheim Disneyland’s and with smaller dips, possibly Space Mountain, which was not a smooth ride, all of the rides here were better than their U.S. counterparts.

For us, the best ride in Disneyland was Big Thunder. Because it is on an island, there is an initial thrill as you are thrust into pitch black tunnel while you go under the water to get to the island, and the ride never lets up from there. Other Big Thunders will be a letdown after this version.

Disneyland Paris has the old Star Tours, and our experience on this ride was a reminder of how much I dreaded the old version, which always left me feeling beaten up. I was glad I did it, though, to witness the most hilarious and shocking CM interaction that I have ever experienced at a Disney park. Before the ride, the CM instructed everyone to pull up on their yellow straps to make sure the seat belts were fastened. I guess one rider didn’t impress the CM very much, who yelled to him, “Come on, pull it like a man! Don’t be such a *****!” Only in Paris…

I should add here that we had read before visiting how all of the rides were so much more intense than the ones that we knew and loved. It became a running joke for kids to say things like, “I’ll bet the Small World there has dips.” It didn’t. My research also prepared me to expect line cutting and smoking even in lines, neither of which proved true, although people were completely ignoring the no-smoking signs when outdoors. Watching young teenagers smoke at a Disney park was another, Only in Paris experience (we’ve never been to the Asian parks; maybe they do it there as well).

We went into Walt Disney Studios Park with low expectations, but I was blown away by how much fun Crush Coaster was. There is a good reason why a long line starts forming as soon as the park opens. By the way, don’t believe the opening times. We got there at 9:45, 15 minutes before the park’s posted 10 am opening time, but there was already a half-hour line for Crush Coaster. There were no early magic hours for this park, so they must have opened it a half hour early.

Crush Coaster is like a mini-Space Mountain, with a brief dark ride while you ascend the track before the fun starts in earnest. Instead of stars, you feel like you’re cruising along the EAC. The ride is slow-loading, but the pay-off is that you have an intimate ride experience, with only four people, two on each side, per turtle shell. It was a blast, and I wish the lines weren’t so long that we couldn’t have done it twice.

Another ride unique to Disney Studios that we enjoyed was Armageddon. A little bit like the old Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Cast Member made it a lot of fun in the pre-show with her enthusiasm. The second part, where you experience the effects, was enjoyable once, but it would be a bit tedious after repeated viewings. The same thing could be said of another of their unique attractions, Cinemagique.

Disney Studios gets a lot of bashing and regularly appears on the lists of least-attended and least-appreciated Disney parks, for good reason. However, Crush Coaster alone makes visiting the park a must. I only wished that Ratatouille had been open for our visit.

Next Installment: Disneyland Paris Food and Castle Club at the Disneyland Hotel
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Old 08-28-2013, 11:24 PM   #4
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I had read some negative things about Disneyland Paris food, especially at the sit-down restaurants (yes, I’m thinking of you, Tom Bricker!). Luckily for us, that would not prove to be true of our meal at Walt’s. I decided to purchase the half-board plan originally because we were going to book the Disney Dreams reserved seating package, but they didn’t end up offering it this year (which is just as well, since we were long asleep by the time the show started). When I tried to cancel after learning this news, I was informed that there would be a steep cancellation fee, so we kept the plan and booked a table for Walt’s during the parade, something that was recommended in many posts.

Eating at Walt’s, for us, was likely as close as we were going to get to eating at Club 33; based on the pictures I’ve seen, there are similarities in the design. We loved the ambiance, but the food itself was also surprisingly good. We asked for a seat by the window, which proved a popular request, and the window we got was not facing the Main Street, so we missed most of the parade. The excellence of the food, though, was vastly superior to that of Blue Bayou or the Carthay Circle restaurants at Disneyland Park in Anaheim.

Because we weren’t sure when or if we would be returning to Disneyland Paris, I decided to splurge by booking a castle club room at the Disneyland Hotel. This property was absolutely magnificent, and again with apologies to Mr. Bricker, I think you would need a magnifying glass to find any flaws with its beauty and upkeep. It took us some time to find our way up to the castle club check-in area, but once we got there, we learned that our room was already ready, though it was only around 2.

We were given an extremely spacious room facing Disney Village, which was well-appointed in what you might call a Disney luxury style. The greatest benefits of castle club, though, don’t necessarily have much to do with the room. Being able to take an elevator a short walk from your room or the lounge and be three feet away from the turnstiles into the park was pretty thrilling. Getting a VIP Fastpass card that works at all the Fastpass-enabled attractions, admitting you to that line immediately with no return time, was pure indulgence and a fantastic time-saver. A final luxury was being able to leave our bags in the room when we left for the parks the next day when we checked out, and we picked them up at the lobby. The whole process was seamless and required no lugging of bags on our part.

The food at the lounge was vastly superior to what is offered in the concierge club of the Grand Californian at Anaheim, the best hotel of the three there by far. The lounge bar has an espresso machine, and they can make some great coffee. It was a nice change to get glass bottles of water, not plastic (and for that matter, it was definitely strange to be able to bring glass into the park, or for that matter, to not have anyone check your bags before you enter a Disney park).

One of the pleasures of visiting a Disney park is snacking. It’s always fun to try out a foreign country’s different and unique potato chip flavor, and one of the popular ones here was Lay’s Rotisserie Chicken flavor. It was pretty incredible to eat a potato chip that tasted like rotisserie chicken, but if you go to Paris, you can try it out yourself. I don’t exactly miss them, but it was fun to try once.

Next Installment: Paris in a Day
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Old 09-04-2013, 05:07 PM   #5
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Thanks for posting. We are going to try to get to DLP next year & so I'm trying to soak up all the tips I can get.
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Old 09-08-2013, 07:26 PM   #6
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Since we had only one day in Paris, it made sense to book a tour. I always start with Viator because I have found them to be very reliable and have only had good experiences with their tour operators. Other reasons I book with them include: (1) they often have sales which can be combined with various promotional codes (HERTZ10 is the one I use the most often to get 10% off); (2) you can cancel without penalty; (3) when an international tour operator requires that you call to confirm with them directly, a potentially costly requirement, Viator will do it for you; (4) they give frequent flyer miles; and (5) you can get 2% of the price back through Mr. Rebates.

The only negative that I have experienced with Viator is that sometimes the hold times can be very long. They used to tell you how many callers were ahead of you on the recording, but now you just have to suffer through some pretty long hold times. On the other hand, if you don’t need to cancel or confirm with an international tour operator, you may never need to call them. I usually only turn to other booking agencies or tour operators directly when Viator doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

Having experienced so many private and small group tours on this trip, I now have a better sense of what I am looking for in a tour guide. Here’s my list, if it helps you better select a tour or operator:
1. Speaks English fluently.
2. Gives you a good flavor of the culture you are visiting.
3. Punctual.
4. Gets you where you need to be without incident.
5. Delivers the tour that was promised.
6. Doesn’t ignore the kids. (This was the hardest, since it was hard to find tours which were designed for kids or were at least intentionally family-friendly.)

With that said, for our day in Paris, we chose the Paris in One Day Sightseeing Tour, which included visits to the Louvre, Eiffel Tour, and Notre Dame Cathedral, with transportation by a Seine river cruise and lunch at the Eiffel Tour included.

We had not eaten before arriving, since I had read a Viator review post which, incorrectly as it turned out, said that the given address was misleading. As a result, we had one of the most expensive meals of the trip: eight croissants, two cups of café crème, one bottle of water, and one individually-sized, plastic container of jam (which alone cost an astonishing €1.50), for €55. I marveled throughout the rest of the trip at how many of our meals would also end up equaling this price but would be considerably more substantive! So my main tip for this tour is to eat before going, since everything near the Tuileries is incredibly expensive and overpriced, and the tour office is easy to find.

As for the tour itself, it was easy to find the tour operator, directly across form the Tuileries metro stop. We had a fairly small group mostly made up of couples but also one other family. It was a short walk to the Louvre, where it felt so good to pass what looked like thousands of people trying to get inside. Once we got in the museum, Paulina did rant quite a bit about the rudeness of Asian tourists, whom she described as unapologetically banging into you with great frequency. I guess if it was your job to be a tour guide, it might bother you more than it did us.

We rushed through the museum, seeing the three ladies, as she labeled them, and then took the first segment of the Seine river cruise to the Eiffel tower. Again, we bypassed lines to get almost immediately on an elevator that took us to the first level, where we ate at Le 58 Tour Eiffel. This tour did not include the elevator to the second level, but we enjoyed the walk up after the excellent meal. Each couple or family got their own table, so lunch was not a community event, as I had feared might be the case.

We had enough time after the meal to visit a little shopping village set up near the tower. My son jumped on a trampoline, which resulted in one of my favorite pictures of the trip, his jumping extremely high after being bounced by one of the workers, with the Eiffel tower in the background. The only problem is that the worker was, in the fashion of a plumber, showing a little bit too much of his butt in all the pictures. I guess that made it more French?

The tour concluded at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Paulina gave us a little information about the cathedral and sent us on our way. We wanted to return to Tuileries, where much to our surprise and delight, there was a County fair of sorts installed for the summer, which we would have never known about if not for the location of the tour operator. Unfortunately, the tour did not include taking the Seine river cruise back to our starting place, so we had to take the metro.

Paulina and the tour met almost all of my criteria, as she failed only in initiating any contact with the kids. Otherwise, she gave us a wonderful flavor of the French culture. My favorite of her stories was when she described being told by an American tourist one, “You can’t be French.” When she asked why not, he replied, “Because you are smiling.” And she was, of course, laughing as she was telling the story. She told him that some French people do smile. She also joked that going on strike was the main French pastime.

Ending the day at the Tuileries fair was a lot of fun. The highlight was the log flume ride, which gave a wonderful view of the Eiffel tour before the final drop. Given that I was really missing some sort of water ride at Disneyland Paris, this really hit the spot and was the perfect way to end the day and our brief stay in Paris.

Let me finally and briefly review the hotel where we stayed, Le Meridien Etoile. I had about 40,000 Starpoints that I could use toward a hotel, and since we needed two nights, and European hotels don’t have big enough rooms to accommodate four of us in one room, and since we didn’t want to stay at the airport, I selected Le Meridien by process of elimination. This was definitely a business hotel, located across the street from the convention center. The rooms were as small as reviewed elsewhere; unlike what I read in a blog, though, I had no problems communicating by e-mail with the hotel staff, who were able to confirm two, connecting rooms. The bathrooms had a sliding screen instead of a door, and one of the rooms had a tub, while the other had just a shower. All in all, it was a good value for Starpoints redemption, since the “nicer” Starwood Paris hotels charged double the number of points.

Next Installment: White water rafting in Villefranche with a private guide
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