Thursday, September 4, 2014

WDW Resorts: Disney's Art of Animation and All-Star Movies Resorts

You'll have to forgive the delay between my last post and this one. I actually HAD my next post done, including the web links and photos and even though I saved it numerous times, it disappeared when I went to publish it, and I was so pissed off,  I feared throwing my computer across the room and screaming. OK, I'm calm. So, without further delay, let's try this again. Sigh. 

(For this entry, I may use "AoA" to refer to Art of Animation, and "DTD" as Downtown Disney.)

There are two things you almost NEVER hear in the same sentence:  'Disney' and 'free'. We were fortunate enough to get two in the same day!  I recently moved back to central Florida after a 20-year absence, but we were visiting last April (2013) and I wanted to go to EPCOT before our return flight to Vegas, since I hadn't been there in forever.  So, I talked my mom into getting a room in Orlando on our last day in state and a couple of friends of mine were going to meet me down there to go to the park.

(The pool and traffic cone cabanas from Radiator Springs- AoA Resort)

Now, my mom (Train Wreck #2) is sometimes a wonder to behold when she gets good deals on hotels. I have a degree in Travel and Tourism and she still runs circles around me! But, give the women credit... This one was one of the best! She got us a last minute, Monday night stay at one of Disney's newest resorts, Art of Animation, for about $96. It was only going to be a standard room, but we fully intended to be in the park except when sleeping, and it was only one night so who cared? Wish we could have stayed longer!

(Hakuna Matata! In the "Lion King" section of AoA)

Art of Animation has four 'themes', each being a step up in the ratings:  "The Little Mermaid", "The Lion King", "Finding Nemo" and "Cars". Think Ariel as your standard Holiday Inn type room, and Cars as the Marriott suites sort of room.  We were booked in Ariel, which had a door opening directly to the outside. The plan was, we would leave Ocala and drive for an hour to get to the park right when it opened in order to get the whole day.  My friends were going to meet me at the gate to EPCOT. On our way down that morning, I had a brainstorm. I said we should go to our resort, get a parking pass, leave our car and take the free shuttle to the park. It costs about $10 to park at ANY of the parks, and you may still have to park WAY far from the gate, so this just made sense.

We arrived at AoA at about 8:30 am.  WAY too early to check in, but again, all we were after was a safe place to leave our car. We went to the guest check-in counter (empty!) and spoke with a guest services representative. (I forget our rep's name, but I did actually send kudos to the Disney resort headquarters for her wonderful help, and Disney promptly replied with a letter thanking me for thanking them). We told her about wanting to get a parking pass and she said, "OK, but I can go ahead and check you in, if you'd like." Wait, what?!  BEFORE 1pm?  Well, hell yeah! Luggage will be safer inside! Then she said, "And would you like a FREE upgrade?" My mom and I looked at each other, stunned, and back at the rep and asked her to clarify because we just had to have heard that wrong. She laughed and said, "I'm serious.  Would you like an upgrade to a suite in the "Cars" wing?"  This is literally a four-step upgrade. "Why, yes." I said, as calmly as possible, but doing somersaults inside. "Yes, we would."  We were still grinning at our wonderful fortune when she threw it out there again...."And I'll go ahead and give you a suite overlooking the lake. Also free." It's entirely possible my mom and I both fainted from shock, but we were up fast and excited to see the room.  Text to my friends, "I'll be a few minutes late."

(Murphy bed up! Murphy bed down!)

We loved AoA from the second we pulled into the parking lot. Over-sized art all over the building and that was just the start! When we started taking our luggage to our room, I was like a kid in a candy store! Apparently, with each upgrade of a section in the hotel, you got a better atmosphere to play in. I can't figure out any other way to say it. Down in "The Little Mermaid" section, doors opened outside and there were some really big props, like a 50' Ursula, the statue of Eric and some dancing fish. Move up to "The Lion King" section and you get even more of these huge props. "Finding Nemo" was the pool area so most of the props there were in or at the water. But when you came to the "Cars" section, you actually WALKED INTO RADIATOR SPRINGS!!!  Literally, all the cars where parked about, the sheriff was hiding behind the billboard, the pool was set up with giant traffic-cone cabanas. Unbelievable!  And then... we went to our room.

(Careful! They're waiting for you!)

The entire suite was awesome! Traffic cones on the carpet, a couch that looked like the back of a '57 Chevy (sleeper sofa), two bathrooms resembling car washes, traffic-cone lamps and red furniture with that chris-cross metal trim that guys use in their truck beds and stuff. My favorite part though... the Murphy bed. It was actually 'Mater's dining table, but it pulled down into a Murphy bed. I thought this was just the coolest thing!  My mom, who lived in several itty-bitty apartments in our youth, some of which had Murphy beds in them, just looked at me like I was losing it (too late!). Whatever!  I gave her the bedroom and happily said I would be sleeping in the dining room.  Mom's room and our living room area both did look over the lake and across the lake was Disney's Pop Century resort (like AoA, only music themes).

(Parts of our "Cars" suite at AoA Resort)

We goofed off for about an hour, keeping my friends waiting with texts like, "Seriously! I'm on my way right now!" but then the A.D.D. kicked in and I saw something new. But more exploration would have to wait until the next day. We caught our shuttle and met my friends only a little after the gates opened and it wasn't crowded so it all worked out. I was telling my friends about our suite and my buddy Bryon says, "You got a Murphy bed?!?"  See, mom!  Totally cool.  My mom (who really never told me she didn't like amusement parks), hung out in the park for a couple of hours by herself, and then went back to the hotel around 1pm. She said it was the heat. I think she went to check out the rest of the resort.

(Hanging out with Lightening McQueen and his pals at AoA Resort)

I didn't make it back until after the park closed, which was just about the time started raining. I hadn't really eaten so I hit the food court at the resort before heading to the room. Now I need to say this... every single person I met at the resort from the custodians to the managers were all super-friendly and helpful. You could tell they love their jobs. And why not? It's Disney people!  Considering that I once applied for a job there which would have been a significant downgrade in pay, not to mention I did have a degree and I had worked previously in three different departments of another major amusement park, I couldn't get hired! Jealous. I would have just loved to be one of the princesses!  Anyway, there is always one exception to everything. The food court at the resort is sort of like on a cruise ship, only the food is not complementary. In fact, it's quite pricey. But you have options: Mexican, American, Italian, snack-type food, etc.  I chose unwisely, since I wanted the pasta Alfredo. I stood in line with several other people for a long time, at it seemed to be because the two main chefs were having disagreements. The manager came out and broke them up before they went to blows, but then the one came back again and started it all over again. I think the guy behind me was setting up his camera video in case it really did happen. But that truly was the only bad experience we had there. If you want to do something really cool for your family, spring for the "Cars" wing. If you get a last minute deal, mid-week, in the off season like we did, it's actually pretty affordable for the number of people it can sleep. If you stay longer than one night, they have programs available at didn't times of day for guests: Karaoke, movies under the stars, etc.

(Sarge's Surplus Hut in the "Cars" section of AoA Resort)

Now, let's flash forward about a year and a couple of months. It was the beginning of August (2014), and mom and I were feeling a little itchy to go somewhere. We discussed Savannah, but decided we couldn't really afford it at the time, so I asked mom if maybe we could go to Downtown Disney in Orlando. I was a regular at the Downtown Disney in Anaheim, because I would always stop for a stretch break there when driving from Vegas to Southern California to visit my friends. But let me tell you, DTD here in Florida is about 3 times bigger! Mom and I were really glad we got a room for two nights, because between me just getting over a bad illness and still pretty weak, not to mention the heat and humidity, there was no way we could do all of Downtown in one day. On a cooler day, maybe. DTD is free, and again, if you stay at a resort, there is a shuttle running every few minutes. It was more crowded than our last visit, but we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes. DTD consists of what used to be Pleasure Island and the old Lake Buena Vista shops, with a few new shops added on the other end. The largest Disney store in the world is located there. And I got some sweet new Mickey shoes while there.
(Downtown Disney Orlando (pre-renovations)

Since we knew we weren't going to the parks, mom booked us for two nights instead of just one. I ALMOST had her convinced that we should go to the Magic Kingdom the second day because she hadn't been there since the new Fantasyland had opened, and I really wanted to take her to Beast's Feast at the Be Our Guest Restaurant. If Disney was smart, they would allow people to enter the park with different colored bracelets on. So if you only want to go in to eat, you wouldn't have to pay the full price. But not yet. Sadly, I never thought I'd ever say it, but I had to fess up, I just wasn't up to doing the Magic Kingdom! I'd been so sick, I could only walk a couple of stores before I'd have to stop and rest. By the way, I should warn you, that at the moment, about 1/3 of DTD is under construction and unavailable. Judging from concept art hanging up here and there, it looks like they're turning the Pleasure Island section into a sort of Pier 39, like in San Francisco. Our waitress at the Irish Pub said they would be working on it for at least two years. Speaking of the pub, it's called Raglan Road Irish Pub and I highly recommend the Scallop Forrest and the Kiss before Shrimp. Both appetizers are great for two people to share as a meal.

(The "Fantasia" themed pool at All Star Movies Resort)

On this adventure, we got a deal at a different Disney resort in Orlando. The All-Star Movies Resort. We booked for two nights at about $89 each. That was mid-week and during the summer season, the least expensive area. There are three All-Star Resorts: Movies, Music and Sports. They are lined up in a row at quite a distance to any of the parks. They are a bit older, and I suspect they were the precursors for AoA, Pop Century and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Resorts. Having been in the newer resort, this was definitely a step down. The room was nice and clean, but opened to the outside instead of a corridor. As near as I can tell, almost every room in the entire resort must be the same, with the exception of one piece of art as a decoration. Unlike AoA that is completely tricked out with paraphernalia, All-Star was not. The resort is based on several old Disney movies that seriously need to be updated. I think the newest theme was "Toy Story", but they also had "The Mighty Ducks", "101 Dalmatians", "Fantasia" and "The Love Bug" (I can barely remember the "Love Bug" so I know kids today don't have a clue). The room had a border running around the top which had scenes from all of the movies...hence, they could make all the rooms the same and put up one piece of art. We were in the "Toy Story" section and there was a picture on the wall of Woody and Buzz. All the rooms in all the sections opened to the outside. 

 (Giant Woody (that just sounds so wrong! LOL) near our room at All Star Movie Resort)

I once had the privilege of flying first-class from London to Las Vegas. An awesome experience, but it totally ruined me for flying coach. This was sort of the same thing... after our suite at AoA, All-Star was disappointing. They did have some over-sized characters in various areas, but not nearly to the extent of AoA. I did enjoy the pool, and it was big enough that people weren't crawling all over each other  (the main pool is themed from Fantasia, but there was also a secondary, pool in the "Mighty Ducks" area that no one seemed to know about). After the hot, sweaty days at DTD, the pool never seemed more inviting (I don't usually do public pools... it's a cootie thing!). And I absolutely loved doing the movies under the stars at night. Perfect weather for it, and we even had some bunnies hoping through our deck chairs from time to time.

The morals of this your homework and get your plans together in advance. Check the park website for last minute hotel deals... in both of our resort experiences, we got a better deal from the Disney website than we did on Expedia, Hotwire and the other hotel websites. If you know you're not going to be in the room for anything but sleeping and showering, go with a cheaper one like the All-Stars. They are nice resorts. If you really want a cool resort experience, give Art of Animation a try, especially if you have kids.

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