Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spotlight on: Azamara Quest

In December 2016,  we took a cruise on the Azamara Quest. This is a small ship with only five 700 guests.

Cabin:  The cabins were small and the shower was tiny. I was grateful that our cruise was only eight nights because I couldn't have imagined going on a longer cruise with that small of a shower. To give some perspective,  the Azamara balcony cabins were about the size of a Carnival interior cabin. They did make good use of the space. We liked the patio furniture on the balcony because it allowed to have a comfortable meal outdoors. We love our room service breakfast.

Staff: We really got to know staff very well because each staff member usually has multiple roles,  especially the bar waiters. This made the service a lot more personalized. We enjoyed the special touches like chilled towels and ice water as we sat by the pool.

Dining - The food overall was good. It wasn’t the best cruise food we’ve ever had. Email me and I'll tell you who that honor goes to.  The menus were good and we liked the grill by the pool – especially the wings. We still the same problems with the buffet being crowded, but the service was better than we have experienced on any other ship. We had some struggle with the dining room service at dinner time. We did not have a consistent experience across the different tables where we were seated. It’s all open dining.  The means you cannot get dining time like you can on the large ships. In general, we prefer having a set time at the same table with the same staff for each dinner. We find this usually ends up with better service since the dining staff get to know us better.

Activities – We missed having a comedian onboard. The nightly shows were pretty good.  I really enjoyed the Broadway review. Trivia was taken very seriously and played in teams. We were surprised at the number of live musicians across the ship in the evening.

Itinerary -  Azamara tries to differentiate itself by having the more time in port.  In almost every port, we didn't leave until 10 or 11 o'clock at night. This made a huge difference in what we were able to do. It took so much pressure off of feeling like you had to rush back or you might miss the ship.

AzAmazing Evening – The other very special part of cruising Azamara is the AzAmazing evening. The team organizes a special event on land for the whole ship. Ours was a party at the governor's mansion in Antigua.  It was unbelievable. They had terrific local bands with the longest firework show I have ever seen. We had police escorts from the cruise ship to the event.  Coming back all of the staff from Azamara was outside with trays of drinks welcoming us back to the ship with the orchestra playing.

Overall Vibe -  We read more than we have any other cruising been on. We met some wonderful people. People seem to be more friendly and more open to getting to know you again because there were so much fewer of you. Overall,  we were surprised that the service didn't exceed our expectations. I think that's a sign that we have just been on a lot of fabulous large ship cruises. For those who don’t cruise as often as we do,  I think you'll have a more consistent experience on a small ship versus the varied experiences we've had on a large ships. Though, the small size of the cabin that would be a deal-breaker from many people.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Groups with Different Budgets

 Traveling with friends and family is a lot of fun, but one issue that comes up is when everyone does not have the same budget for the trip.

One of the ways I help my client is to look at different options that could accommodate different budgets. Two examples of this are all inclusive resorts and cruises because they have a variety of room/cabin options at different price points.

For example, the Iberostar Paraiso complex south of Cancun,  Mexico has five resorts along the same beach. You have access to  different levels of amenities depending on which of the resorts you stay in.

You can choose:

 Grand Hotel  - An adults only luxury all inclusive resort with unlimited a la carte restaurant options and exchange privileges  at all five resorts 

Maya or Lindo – A family all inclusive resort with unlimited all – inclusive a la carte restaurant options at your resort and the Del Mar or Beach. You also have exchange privileges at Del Mar and Beach.  If you stay at Maya, you can access Lindo restaurants. Maya guests cannot access Lindo restaurants. The Maya and Lindo share the pool and beach area. The Maya resort has all junior suite. The Lindo has standard rooms.

Del Mar or Beach – A family all inclusive resort. You have restrictions on the number of nights you can eat at an a la carte restaurant. No room service.   

Your group could still meet on the beach together, enjoy the pools together or get reservations at the a la carte restaurant at the lowest level resort.  The downside to this is that the people who paid for the Grand Hotel probably wouldn't use them as much if  the rest of their group was at the Del Mar  or Beach Resort.  This came up recently at a 40th birthday party at an adults only all inclusive resort that offers a privileged club. Some of the group paid for their preferred Club rooms, but the rest of the group opted for a regular room. Those who paid for the preferred Club said that they didn't really use the amenities because they were spending time with their friends.

Another option is to explore different lengths of trip. The lower budget crew stays 3 nights and those with a higher budget threshold stay longer and/or upgrade their room category for the second half of the trip.

In a similar way, cruises offer a good opportunity for people with different budgets. You have a range of cabins choices from cabins with no windows up to suites. When picking a cruise, it's important to make sure that you can all be together for dining. For instance, Celebrity, Cunard, and the Norwegian Haven have separate dining rooms depending on the cabin you book.  Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean or the general Norwegian room may be a better fit to ensure you share the same dining options.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Choosing a Fast Pass for Disney World

Fast Passes are reservations for rides, attractions, shows, or parades at Disney World. You can make up to 3 per day for one Park in advance.  This requires that you have a My Disney Experience account set up and linked to your reservation. 

If you'd like a copy of this in a PDF, email me.

If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort, your Fast Pass reservations will open at 7:00 am 60 days prior to your date of arrival.  You will be able to make reservations for your entire stay.  

If you are not staying at a Walt Disney World resort, you can make a Fast Pass reservation thirty days in advance. 
You will not be able to make the reservation for your whole stay.

Once you have used your first three pre-scheduled Fast Pass reservations, you are able to reserve more Fast Passes one at a time.  After you scan your third Fast Pass, I recommend opening the App while you are waiting in line and securing an additional Fast Pass then. You can make a Fast Pass for a different Park if you have a Park Hopper ticket. After you use that Fast Pass, you will be able to reserve another Fast Pass. This works best at Magic Kingdom since so many attractions are available for Fast Pass.

Here's a step by step tutorial on how to make a Fast Pass reservation on My Disney Experience. 

Once you use your three Fast Pass reservations, you can go to a kiosk in the Park or use the My Disney Experience App and request additional Fast Passes one at a time. 

My general recommendations for the Fast Passes are: 

1. Not every ride needs a Fast Pass. Below I've listed the rides that tend to have long lines. Star Tours, Anna and Elsa Meet and Greet, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are three of the most popular rides in Disney World. 

2. If you are having trouble finding a Fast Pass for a Park, schedule a character meet and greet or a movie. These are air-conditioned areas that offer a break from the heat or the rain. 

For Magic Kingdom, you can pick three of the following attractions. I've listed the attractions that tend to have long lines and  I've sorted them by height restriction.  

Any Height
Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin 
Jungle Cruise
Peter Pan’s Flight 
Pirates of the Caribbean 
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid

Rides with Height Restrictions
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train - 38 inches or taller 
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 40 inches or taller 
Splash Mountain ® - 40 inches or taller 
Space Mountain®  - 44 inches or taller 

Character Meet and Greet
Cinderella and Eleana
Tiana and Rapunzel
Mickey Mouse
Tinker Bell 

For Epcot, the attractions are split into two groups.

First Group - You can pick one: 
Soarin’ - 40 inches or taller  - This is my favorite ride, but kids usually find Test Track more exciting because you race around a track at 60 miles an hour.
Test Track - 40 inches or taller 
Frozen - Any Height - Take a slow moving boat ride with some darkness and drops through the movie.
IllumiNations Reflections - This is a special viewing area.

Second Group - You can pick two  attractions: 
Character Meet and Greet: Meet Disney Pals at the Epcot Character Spot
Mission SPACE® - 44 inches or taller  - This is very intense and can be claustrophobic for folks. 
Spaceship Earth - Any Height
The Seas with Nemo and Friends - Any Height
Show: Turtle Talk with Crush - Any Height 
Living with the Land - Any Height

Journey into the Imagination and the Pixar Film Festival generally do not have long lines.

For Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the attractions are split into two groups: 

First Group - You can pick one of these attractions: 
My recommendation in this group is Toy Story Mania - Any Height. The other options are Fantasmic, Beauty and the Beast on Stage, The Great Movie Ride,  and Rock N Roller Coaster. 

Second Group - You can pick two of these attractions: 
Show: Disney Junior - Live on Stage - This show you sit on the floor so it is nice to get in first and be closer to the front. It's a puppet show. 
Star Tours ® - The Adventures Continue - 40 inches or taller - Great use of a Fast Pass.
Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - 40 inches or taller - Large drop

For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Muppet Vision 3D, and Voyage of the Little Mermaid tend to have shorter lines because they are a all shows in a large theater.

For Animal Kingdom, you can pick three attractions: 
Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain ® - 44 inches or taller 
Show: Festival of the Lion King
Kilimanjaro Safaris ® - Any Height 
Dinosaur - 40 inches or taller
Rivers of Light Preferred Seating
Primeval Whirl - 48 inches or taller
Kali River Rapids - 38 inches or taller

Character Meet and Greet - Meet Disney Pals at Adventurers Outpost , Finding Nemo, and  It's Tough to Be a Bug tend to have shorter lines.

**Updated March 2017**

Monday, March 6, 2017

Dining Recommendations for Disney World

**Update March 2017**

Dining reservations for Walt Disney World resort restaurants open 180 days in advance. 

If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort, you can book your entire stay at that time. 

If you are not staying at a Walt Disney World, you'll need to check each day to make your reservations. 

You can start making a reservation via the My Disney Experience App or online at Disney Dining at 6:00 am or via phone (407-WDW-DINE) at 7:00 am. 

If you have food allergies, be sure to let them know at the time of booking. Disney World is fantastic with food allergies. They offer special menus that indicate which items can be made according to your needs. Plus a chef can come out and discuss and your options. 

For more tips on planning on your Disney vacation, click here to request my free Escape the Crowds at Disney World guide. 

The Hard to Get Reservations

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Three Things Not to Miss on the  Carnival Valor

We were really excited to learn that the Carnival Valor was sailing three or four night cruises from Port Canaveral. Usually, shorter cruises are on older ships. We took advantage of a 3 night sailing over Thanksgiving.   It was one of the best service teams we’ve ever had in the dining room. The service was great!  

Here’s three tips to make the most of your time on the Carnival Valor:

1.     Have a drink at the steakhouse bar. Eating at the steakhouse incurs an extra charge because it's a specialty restaurant. However, the bar is available to all guests. This is an especially good deal if you have the drinks package because the steakhouse bar has wines that are not available at any other bar. I especially enjoyed a delicious $19 glass of 19 rose champagne each night before dinner.

2.      Take advantage of the lounge chairs on the Deck 4 deck. The pool can get pretty crowded on Sea Day. So if you're looking for a quiet ocean view chaise lounger, head down the deck 4.  

3.      Blue Iguana Cantina for breakfast. This is my favorite breakfast on any cruise ship I've ever been on. The huevos rancheros or breakfast burritos are delicious. Be sure to try the watermelon and jicama salsa. Trust me.

Monday, February 27, 2017

10 Things to know about Iberostar Grand Paraiso

10 things about Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso

1.       It's an adults-only all-inclusive resort that's part of a five resort complex south of the Cancun airport in Mexico. The other four resorts are family resorts.

2.       The entry-level suites here are very nice.   You can see the bathroom is large as well as the room has a lot of space.

3.       It’s a great option for groups with couples, friends, and families since it offers suites with two beds. I like that the resort offers rooms with two beds.

4.       The buffet is great. I am not a buffet person, but I was very impressed with the buffet at this Resort.

5.       Avoid the Latelier restaurant. The menu is really weird. I can see what they were going for in terms of avant-garde Cuisine. However, tuna tartare should not be served with strawberry soup.

6.       Take advantage of the other resorts. If you are looking for a little change of pace or a livelier pool experience all you have to do is head over to one of the other Resorts. The other benefit of choosing the Grand Hotel is you have option to eat at any of the ala carte restaurant in any of the five resorts.  

7.       Head over to the shopping complex. We were pleasantly surprised that it had restaurants. bars, and a nightclub included in the all inclusive. Our favorites were the tacos and gelato! Try the burger bar and the tequila bar. Plus you can find little shops where you could shop for souvenirs and the large spa.

8.       Lunch at the grill by the pool. We love that you could get virtually any protein you wanted grilled to your liking at the pool Grill. Now, the Grill Master was a little surly. The chefs stirring the giant vat of paella were super friendly.  

9.       The indoor pool. The resort has a gorgeous indoor pool with a retractable roof.  It’s huge and similar to the spa wet areas that other resorts require you to pay extra to access.  It’s an awesome place to retreat during the afternoon rain showers.

10.    Use the opportunity to try a lot of different drinks if you drink alcohol. This Resort had some very skilled bartenders in the lobby bar that made really interesting cocktails.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Disney World Refurbishment Update February 2017

Below is the latest updates on refurbishments and closures at Disney World:

Magic Kingdom

The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour
Walt Disney World Railroad
Hall of Presidents
    Jan. 1 - Feb. 28, 2017
    Jan. 9 - Mar. 2, 2017
    Jan. 17 - Jun. 29, 2017