Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Disney World Hotels: The Countdown

Before I start in on the top 25 of my Disney song countdown, I thought it would be fun to do a post on my favorite Disney World hotels.  One great advantage that Disney World has over Disneyland is the advantage of space.  Anaheim may have been dotted by orange groves in 1955, but today it is a busy metropolis and the Disney-owned foothold is small and without much room to grow.  But Walt Disney learned from this and made sure to build Disney World in a place where there would be no limits on space.  Orlando may be the #1 tourist destination in the world today, but it was a relatively small town without much tourism when Disney bought large amounts of land there in the mid 1960's.

With lots of space came lots of places to stay, and one great thing about going to Disney World is getting to see the beautifully and creatively designed hotels.  I haven't stayed in every one, but I've visited all of them (except one).  They're all great, even the lowest on the list, and the number 1 is the greatest hotel in the world.  

Some hotels that I won't include are the Swan and Dolphin (since they're not technically Disney owned) or Shades of Green (which is reserved for military servicemen).  The main reason for going to the Swan and Dolphin is that there's a decent little ice cream shop in the Dolphin, but other than that there's not much to look at.  Unfortunately, the buildings are so darn big that it obliterates the World Showcase skyline when you're in Epcot.  As for Shades of Green, I remember going there once as a kid (when it was called the Disney Inn) and being wowed by the pool that was in the shape of Mickey ears.  I also won't include some of the Vacation Club properties (like Bay Lake Towers) that are adjacent to the original hotels.  

I should also mention that I'm ranking these strictly based on "where would I like to hang out for an afternoon?" as opposed to price or location.  All right, off we go on the countdown!   

16.  All Star Resorts.  These are actually 3 hotels in one (All Star Movies, Sports, and Music) that are right next to each other.  They are the best value (i.e. cheapest) of all Disney hotels, but they're still very nice with great food courts, pools, and exterior designs.  I'm a big Herbie fan so kudos to the All Star Movies for a special Herbie section.  

15.  Pop Century / Art of Animation.  I've been to Pop Century but not the Art of Animation (though my Dad tells me it's nice).  They are in the same vein as the All Stars -- good value and colorful designs.

14.  Coronado Springs.  Beautiful architecture and a nice big layout.  The lobby isn't spectacular, but the pool is nice (complete with Mayan pyramid) and the Pepper Market food court which serves Mexican cuisine is a good place to eat. 

13.  Caribbean Beach.  I was about to write that there's not much to see here, but then I googled the swimming pool (since I could never remember swimming there) and was kind of blown away by the awesome looking pool (which the internet tells me was renovated in 2008).  Not much of a lobby, but the food court is excellent and has some good variety.

12.  Animal Kingdom Lodge.  This is probably higher on most other people's lists.  Maybe if I spent more time there I'd have more of an attachment to it, but it does have a great lobby, pool, and you can see actual animals in the savannah behind the hotel.  

11.  Boardwalk.  I like boardwalks in general, and this one is a beauty.  There's lots of fun shops and restaurants, including the ESPN Club which I loved as a kid. (I remember they sometimes had athletes come by to speak which was fun -- not sure if they still do that. And now that all the ESPN Zones have closed except the one in Downtown Disney California, the ESPN Club is a more unique experience).  There's a fun nighttime energy on the boardwalk with lots of people, old-school bicycles, and street entertainment like jugglers and magicians.  

10.  Port Orleans (French Quarter).  This is not a hotel where I've spent a ton of time, but it's a fun place to hang out, and who doesn't enjoy the New Orleans/Dixieland Jazz/Mardi Gras/Alligators theme?  Plus you can get beignets for breakfast at the food court which is cool.

9.  Yacht and Beach Club.  For whatever reason I've always had a soft spot for the Galley restaurant. In general this hotel has a very chill, elegant, relaxed feel which I like.

8.  Saratoga Springs.  I'm also a big fan of the "horse racing" theme -- there's just something that's nice and relaxing about it and about this hotel.  Technically, the Treehouse Villas are part of this resort too, and they're kind of a hidden WDW gem (never stayed there but have driven by them).  

7.  Old Key West.  Once I became a teenager, my parents joined the Disney Vacation Club and we started staying at Old Key West a lot, so I have a soft spot for it and its bright and cheery atmosphere.  Beautiful and spacious rooms, great pool, nice restaurant (Olivia's), and they even have a basketball hoop (which was appreciated by teenage me).

6.  Contemporary.  Not the greatest lobby to hang out in, but it's got the timeless, classic Disney feel (it opened in 1971 when the Magic Kingdom did) and I always like going there.  I have fun memories of racing against my sister up the multiple sets of stairs on the way to the monorail which travels right through the hotel atrium in dramatic fashion.  In fact, the story goes that when I was a toddler, we used to eat at the food court often (which was where the Contempo Cafe and Chef Mickeys are now located).  I wasn't eating my peas, and my mother cleverly challenged me to eat my peas before the next monorail passed through overhead, and that got me to scarf them down (safely, of course).

We used to park at the Contemporary and walk over to the Magic Kingdom -- this was before the "walkway around the world" or whatever they call it (aka the greatest moneymaker that Disney ever dreamed up -- stone tiles with people's names and hometowns that probably cost $100, and Disney must have installed about 10,000 of them on that walkway).  Now it's not so easy (in fact it's not possible unless you're willing to lie) to park at the Contemporary and walk to the Magic Kingdom, but back in the 80's it was a dusty road that our family had pretty much all to ourselves since no one else seemed to know that trick.  In today's world of the internet and instant communication, any kind of tip like that would be revealed instantly on message boards and forums, so it's much harder to find loopholes like that which are unknown to others.

One other nice memory I have of the Contemporary was the arcade on the ground floor (which is no longer there - it's where The Wave restaurant is now).  I was never a big arcade guy, but the one in the Contemporary was massive and had a ton of fun games and things to do.  And did you know that Nixon gave his "I am not a crook" speech at a convention in the Contemporary?  And one last fun fact: when you're getting on/off the monorail, if you look at the big mural in the center of the hotel you can see a goat with 5 legs (one of the coolest "Hidden Mickeys" there is).  

5.  Dixie Landings.  Technically this is called "Port Orleans: Riverside" but I still call it by its old name: Dixie Landings.  I've never stayed here and am not familiar with the rooms or the pools, but this hotel is as high as it is for one primary reason: the Riverside Mill Food Court (aka the best food court on property).  Great food, desserts, awesome seating area (including a gigantic working water wheel), and it's never crowded.

And Boatwrights is a nice place to eat.  The kids menu used to have the Song of the South characters (see below), and my sister and I actually took the menu and copied onto a clear cell and then projected it onto our basement wall at home.  Then we traced it and painted it, so this picture below is on our basement wall in reverse.

4.  Grand Floridian.  The priciest hotel of them all, but that price tag includes chocolate mints on your pillow, so why not!  My favorite thing about this Victorian-style hotel is the lobby -- an elegant yet comfortable place to relax, often to the sounds of a live piano player.  

3.  Wilderness Lodge.  Speaking of lobbies, this one is the best lobby of all (not just of Disney but of anywhere).  Beautiful, breathtaking, and serene, if you have time to visit just one hotel on your trip, this is the one.  I'm not a huge fan of the Whispering Canyon restaurant -- I've only eaten there once, but I remember the waiters had a shtick which for me was annoying and borderline rude, though it was a long time ago so maybe that's changed.  Also the pool is great and there's even an Old Faithful style geyser. 

2.  Polynesian.  The lobby for the Polynesian is not spectacular like Wilderness Lodge, but there's something about the whole place that just hits me right.  Probably helps that I'm a big fan of Polynesian culture in general, and I always love walking around the lobby and the grounds and hearing the Hawaiian music playing in the background.

Two fun facts about the Polynesian: one is that John Lennon signed a document there that officially broke up the Beatles.  Two is that I remember seeing an automatic sink there for the first time ever.  I'm guessing it was around 1987 or 1988, and I went into one of the bathrooms in the lobby area and was amazed by the sinks with magical powers.  There were no other automatic sinks that I had ever seen before (in Disney World or in the rest of the world).  My parents remember this too so I know I'm not making it up.

I ran this by Steve at the Tikiman Pages, a Polynesian resort fansite, and he said:
My first visit to the resort was 1983 but I don't remember the bathrooms. I know many of the first things at WDW were often tested at the Polynesian and still are. Like the touch screen ordering was first used at Captain Cook's back in 2005.

Maybe someday someone who worked for Disney can answer my question for sure, but I'm pretty confident in my belief that the Polynesian was at least the first place with automatic sinks in Disney World.  Not sure about the whole world, though.  And I've never actually stayed there -- one reason is that my Dad didn't like to because there was no hot tub.  But happily, that has now changed and there is a hot tub.  The lesson here: don't come between the Sweedos and their hot tubs. 

1.  Fort Wilderness.  The clear Numero Uno hotel, not just for Disney but for anywhere.  There was something very magical for young me when we would pull up to the entrance and see that coonskin musket Mickey sign (pictured above).  It's not your standard hotel, in fact it's not really a hotel at all (it's a campground) but I am counting it. This is where the Sweedo family stayed when we went every summer starting from when I was about 3 and ending around 12 when we switched to Old Key West.  These were my formative years and so this is the clear sentimental favorite, but it's also objectively the best place to stay in Disney World or just in the world.

The campground is organized into loops (the whole place encompasses a massive amount of land), and about half of the loops are pre-existing trailers while the other half are plots where people can bring their own RVs.  We never had an RV and so always stayed in a pre-existing trailer which was small but very nice.  There's a Murphy bed (that pulls down from the wall) and a bedroom with a Queen bed and bunk beds, so it comfortably slept the 5 of us in my family. There's also a full kitchen which made it nice to have some meals in and save some money.

We used to stay in either the Cedar Circle or the Moccasin Trail loop which was right near one of the pools, and you can take buses to get around the rest of the fort.  There's a ridiculous amount of outdoor things to do (e.g. biking, swimming, horseback riding, etc.) -- in fact, you could have a great vacation and never leave Fort Wilderness.  There's a very nice petting zoo and stable in the Pioneer Hall area (at the back end of Fort Wilderness) which allows visitors to see some horses used in the Magic Kingdom and gives little kids a chance to get pony rides.

Pioneer Hall is home to the Hoop Dee Doo Revue (which I think I did once and barely remember), but much more appealing to the Sweedo family is the Trails End Cafe, aka the best restaurant on Disney property and by far the best bargain.  It takes a little bit of effort to get to (you can't drive to it - you either have to go by bus or boat), and that helps keep the crowds down. They have a breakfast and dinner buffet that is to die for -- amazing food, a great down-home atmosphere, and it's not all that expensive compared to other Disney restaurants.  The restaurant (and Fort Wilderness in general) is extremely laid back and a welcome antidote to the overstimulation and delirium that is the Disney theme parks.

That whole area back by Pioneer Hall is sacred ground to the Sweedo family -- we had a lot of good times there.  It's where River Country used to be (actually it's still there but is closed) and where we used to go in the hot summer afternoons.  River Country was an "old fashioned swimming hole" -- a water park which was unique in that the water came direct and unfiltered from the bay unlike today's typical chlorinated fare.  Who knows if it was sanitary, but it sure was fun. There were slides, tube rides, zip lines, and more, and it's sad that it had to close.  The structure for the park is still there (probably because it would cost a lot to dismantle it), but I don't think it will ever open again.

One other fun memory I'll share with you (that is if you're still reading by this point): I remember there used to be a gate at the front where car drivers would have to punch in a 3 or 4 digit code on a keypad to raise the gate, and the code would change each week.  My sisters and I used to ask my Dad if we could push the buttons, and I can remember being on my Dad's lap as he held me out the window at night while I pushed the buttons.  Can't put a price on memories like that.  

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