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Dining Review- Hollywood Brown Derby

What could be more glamourous than dining amongst the stars? The HollywoodBrown Derby brings you back to Hollywood’s heyday as no other restaurant will in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We had our first experience dining at the Brown Derby back in May of 2011 and we seek out an ADR for each trip because, well it’s just that good!

First and foremost, this is a table service restaurant and one that is typically in high demand. You will need to get an Advanced Dining Reservation in order to dine here during your vacation. That being said though we have never had issue with getting an ADR. This restaurant can also be booked along with the Fantasmic Dining Package that will provide you and your party priority seating at that evenings performance. If you are on Disney‘s Dining Plan, this is considered a signature dining experience and will take two table service credits. You will also have to provide a credit card to book your ADR and there is a penalty for no shows. You can read more on the Disney Dining policy here.

When you arrive at the Hollywood Brown Derby, you will check in with the Host station and start to look around. Now, if you have any affinity for the glory days of Hollywood take a look at the Hirschfeld drawings and see how many you can name. And these drawings literally adorn every corner of this restaurant so you are literally dining amongst the stars. And the staff also treats you like you are one as well. Every time we have dined here we have been treated and served with such respect and grace we always make it a priority to return.

You will be sat at either a table in the center of the restaurant, or in one of the many booths that surround the center. We have sat in both and prefer the booths. They provide an intimate seating arrangement that harkens back to the Hollywood lunch and doing movie deals over Brown Derby’s famous Cobb Salad.

Our servers each time have been some of the best staff we have encountered on property. They attend to our family like we are the only ones in their area, which I know isn’t the case. But, it’s this attention, mindfulness of our requests and seeing that dishes are brought out a good pace (rolls, appetizer, salad, entree, desert) in no rush and also at the perfect temps that brings us back each time. They also have never let our water, wine, milk, soft drinks get dry. They also always pre bus and pay attention to our kids needs.

Now what you really want to know about, the food. I have made no secret of my lack of appreciation for Disney food on my blog before. But, the Brown Derby is one of the few exceptions I will make with regard to spending money on Disney food in the parks. The food is worth every penny. Each time we have eaten here we have never had a complaint about the level of quality, the pairings, the specials, etc. Each item, like the wait staff, feels as if it has a special touch added to give it that “Wow!” factor when it is presented to you. Our compliments are always sent back to the chefs with the wait staff on both taste and presentation. This is more than just the burger and fries you will get at any quick service counter on property. Care is usually given to each selection, pairing and presentation. Our servers as well have always approached us several times to inquire to the quality.

For our kids, I mean I guess I haven’t met a kid who wants higher end fair, and both of my boys have been well served, fed and entertained. Granted, the menus are the same as you will see in most of the Disney Table Service locations for kids. And having a couple of picky eaters, I’m fine with that. Our youngest likes knowing that at Disney no matter what high end food his parents want, he can still get a hot dog, know what I mean?

The desserts at the Brown Derby are exquisite. And quite large enough to share. Especially after you have been stuffed by such wonderful fair as can be experienced from start to finish, soup to nuts, at the Brown Derby.

Here are some tips for enjoying your experience at the Hollywood Brown Derby:

  • Make sure to make an Advance Dining Reservation.  Walk-ups usually don’t happen here due to the popularity of the restaurant.
  • Be sure to get to the Brown Derby 10-15 minutes before your stated reservation time.
  • Request a booth if available to give you more comfort and intimacy.
  • Don’t worry about showing up in vacation clothes.  Most people in the restaurant are dressed similarly.  You are in a theme park after all.  The only restaurant on property with a stated dress code is Victoria and Alberts at Disney’s Grand Floridian.
  • If you have younger children, you may want to consider bringing something to entertain them.  Having a child who is autistic we usually bring ear buds and an iPod touch for him anyhow for the times he becomes overwhelmed by noises and people.  The Disney kids menus have activities but not enough to keep your children entertained for the duration of the meal.
  • Plan accordingly.  If you aren’t prepared to spend an hour to an hour and a half dining here and it doesn’t mesh with your plans or plan of attack on the park forego dining here.  This is a longer restaurant to experience and relax in, something to absorb and process.  We actually love the respite it provides away from the hustle and bustle of running from attraction to attraction.  Somewhere you can sit down a spell and enjoy being taken care of.
  • The prices can provide sticker shock if you aren’t on the dining plan.  You can view the menu online at several places.  But, suffice to say, if you aren’t aware going in that this can be quite a bit more than a character meal you can get quite a shock.  We factor in dining here into our overall vacation budget because it’s of great importance we dine here at least once a trip, but to others there would be no way they would spend what it costs to dine here out-of-pocket without the dining plan.
  • Something I like to do in the run up to leaving is watch old movies.  We have a contest to see who can name the most of the pen drawings at our table.  Whomever wins gets to choose the desert.  It’s silly, but it’s fun to guess.  And if you get particularly stuck, ask your server.  Most will know each of the drawings in their assigned area.

Autism and WDW pt. 1

Traveling with children presents its own unique brand of challenges.  Add to that a developmental delay, processing disorder, sensorial processing disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder and you have a whole kettle of items to plan for.

When my youngest son was 20 months we made our first family trip to Walt Disney World.  We didn’t know at the time, but our son was and remains Autistic.  I remember that trip set the alarm bells off as a mother when my child from his stroller screamed all the way back down Main Street after Wishes holding his hands over his ears and repeatedly pushing them in and out with a look of pain.  We couldn’t get out of the park fast enough.  And I remember my husband and I looking at each other like “What the heck is wrong?”  We thought a trip to Disney would delight both of our boys and slowly over the course of the next few days our youngest son adapted and we figured out what was stemming him (people being too close to his space, fireworks, other loud noises), so we changed our touring plans appropriately.  But, I will never forget the discussion my husband and I had immediately after the trip which started with, “We need to get him checked, this is more than just a speech delay…”

Now, our youngest son has toured the parks many times.  He loves going to Walt Disney World (especially the Haunted Mansion) and provided we tour at a different pace, he enjoys his time in the parks very much.  But, we have also adapted our behaviors, our expectations, and also we tour with certain items always at the ready.  I want to share as much as I can with you my readers in the hopes that anything we have found will help other families.  Disney is possible for children with ASD, it really is!

First and Foremost: Do Your Homework

If this is your first time visiting a Disney Park, like with all things ASD related, you need to do your research.  There are plenty of resources out there for people with disabilities and touring the Disney Parks.  I personally recommend the following Message Boards and Links:

Mouse-Aid: This is a great site full of information for families not just traveling to Disney (though that is a primary focus) but in general.  The folks on this site are kind and want to help as much as possible!

DISabilities Forum at TheDis: Another great message board.  If you have a question a lot of the posters have personal experience with your dilemma and have been there before.  Great place to get answers even while touring the parks!

Diz-abled.com: Another great link for tips on navigating Disney World with Autism

There are of course many more sites, interviews, and folks out there with great information.  The thing about Autism is it’s a Spectrum Disorder, what works for one child will not for another.  It is all about the sensitivities each child presents, how social they are, where they are verbally and so on.  You know your child best and if talking to a 5 foot tall Mickey will not thrill them, avoid the character meals.  But, if meeting Mickey is their top priority make sure to get in to see the main mouse!  We have found with our son the rules of fair play are very important and he understands every one in our travel party gets to take a turn picking an experience at the parks.  So, even if he doesn’t particularly care for Pirates of the Caribbean he will at least go on it one time for his brother.  If his brother wants a repeat, one of us will stay outside and let him look in the gift shop until the ride is over.  It’s all about compromise 🙂

Make A Plan 

Another item that my son loves is knowing, like Phineas and Ferb, what we’re going to do each day.  What is the plan, where we are going, knowing there is some structure and that we aren’t just loose in the wind.  So, each day I sketch out what park we will be going to, what attractions we hope to see (and I will even show him videos on YouTube of the attraction if available), where we plan on eating, etc.  I put these in colorful, character clad spreadsheets on my computer and in the months leading up to our departure we go through them together so he feels like he has some say over the vacation.

I can’t tell you the amount of tantrums it saves if we let him decide the first ride of the day on specific dates and our eldest son on other dates.  The fairness idea is being drummed into his head constantly at school, so it’s something he naturally is starting to get.  All we have to say if he starts getting upset is that him deciding every ride for our family (which would consist of the Haunted Mansion, El Rio de Tiempo and Muppet-vision 3-D over and over) wouldn’t be fair to Parker, and we love Parker right, we don’t want him to be sad?  That usually is enough to make him relent.  If not, we take a break and sit and do some breathing exercises until he calms.

**Of course, things do change sometimes, this is life, but we have found with both boys if we clearly explain in stages (to allow for processing time), that we can’t go to such and such attraction due to it being repaired for instance and give them time to understand, all the while repeating it in a calm clear manner, it lessens the tantrum that can ensue.  Also if we sweeten the deal with something they have been wanting to do like get ice cream it will usually re-direct them.**

Use the Internet To It’s Fullest

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have been some of the most photographed and video’d places on the planet. If you have a question as to whether or not your child will like a certain, show, attraction, character, etc. look it up on YouTube, on Google or anyone of the many Disney fan sites.  Let them see other vacation videos as well.  We have found that letting our son see other families enjoying the parks goes a long way to laying the ground work for him.

Talk with the School and Support

Our son is tended to every day by a Para-Educator and a support staff at school that help him learn adaptive learning & behaviors, stay on task, and aid the teacher in getting him from place to place.  Before we leave each time, and as soon as I make the reservation I text the dates to his Para.  She starts over the course of the next few weeks introducing it into their conversations at school.  For example if he is starting to get upset she may say, “Is this the way we are going to act in Disney?  How are we supposed to behave?” to start.  She will also be aware that we are going and that since our son tends to hyper-focus on our vacations in the weeks leading up that she will need to gently re-direct him back to his studies.  They also use Disney inspired treats and rewards to help when he doesn’t want to do his work & ultimately pushes through and does it.  We also ask for their assistance on what items we should take with us to keep him calm on the flight, in the parks, etc.  What breathing techniques are they currently using, what vestibular motion is leaning more towards in OT?  What non-verbal images/icons or hand signals are they using when he drops his speech and is stemming?  We are usually up on all of this stuff because we speak every day with them, but sometimes he changes on us and say wants to rock versus bounce so we try to make sure we can provide this while away.

Our Second Part will be on the travel day and how to prepare for driving or flying!

Resort Review for the Rest of Us: Wyndham Bonnet Creek

It’s no secret that the rooms in and around Disney are priced based on proximity to the parks.  In other resort towns you see similar pricing with hotels boasting more the walking distance versus the square footage of their rooms to get guests to put down their name in a guest book.  However, having a Asperger’s child and another one who also has processing delays and hyperactivity my husband and I were looking for a roomier alternative.  We were also looking for a quiet resort close to the parks where we could relax and escape the constant sensorial onslaught that can happen on property.

So, I started to dig and dig and dig some more.  We had rented a house when the boys were little, but honestly the whole experience left me underwhelmed mostly by the 20+ minute (including traffic) to and from property.  I happened to stumble over a thread on a message board for folks who were raving about Bonnet Creek.  Turns out this is a time share resort that is run by Wyndham, Hilton, Waldorf-Astoria, and so on.  Each with their own resorts in the complex.  And also located right up against Disney property.  They had one, two, three, and even four bedroom villas that came complete with kitchens, a master bath, balcony, and several resort amenities.

Check In.  This can be one of the most crucial times for a resort to wow its’ guests.  I mean really there is no repeating a first impression.  The bell services staff was cordial, and the lobby beautifully appointed.  I checked in without any incident and the front desk clerk answered any and all questions.  Now, since I was renting someone else’s timeshare I was directed to a guest services desk for our parking pass (basically what you are going to need to come in and out of the property) but also it’s their way of trying to get you to sign up for a tour.  I simply told them my husband was not going to be joining us and they left me alone.

The Room.  Our room was nicely appointed and looked bigger than my first apartment.  The master bedroom was immediately next to the kitchen, and the second bedroom was just past the living room area.  There was both a breakfast bar and a nice sized dinner table.  We had laundry facilities (which I used to insure we had no laundry to do when we returned home), a fully stocked kitchen, a balcony that overlooked a nice sized pond in the center of property (as well we found out that night the Illuminations Fireworks from Epcot), a master bath with shower and whirpool tub, and a second full bathroom for the kids.  It was lovely, clean, and well done.

The Stay.  We really were near Walt Disney World to go to Disney, but the resort has tons of activities to keep anyone busy.  In fact we were handed a full schedule of activities upon check in.  There is also a shuttle to and from the parks, which I can’t review as we had a rental car.  Security was top notch as well and when we ordered pizza they called to make sure we had indeed ordered and let us know they were on the way.  Overall the stay was wonderful and relaxing.  We did not have any maid services during our stay, but if we requested more towels, garbage can liners, etc. they were promptly dropped off.  I am someone who prefers to forgo maid services anyhow while on vacation and we clean up after ourselves in the mornings.  But, if coming back to turn down service is high on your list for resorts you may want to look elsewhere.

The Beds. The beds were exceedingly comfortable.  My husband is pretty particular about mattress firmness, springs, etc. and slept very well during our trip.  The linens provided were a good sized thread count and were comfortable after a long day at the parks.  The whirpool bath which I got to use a grand total of once, was also a welcome sight after slogging through the parks each day.

Overall we had a fantastic stay at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek and I would recommend it to anyone looking for added room to stretch out after a long day at the parks.  The value you get for the square footage, proximity to the parks, appointment of rooms, as well as the added benefit of a full kitchen and laundry facilities in your room are all wonderful highlights to a great stay.

If you are interested in staying at any of the Bonnet Creek Resorts including the Wyndham or Hilton please contact us for a no obligation quote!

Vacation Service Review: Garden Grocer Orlando, FL

There’s no simple way of saying this aside from I travel with picky eaters.  In fact out of our family of four I am probably the only one who will gladly eat what you put in front of them (provided it’s not icky, like something off of Bizarre Foods or Liver)  So, this posses a problem when we travel, how are we all going to eat on a schedule no less.  We have one with sensitivities due to a gall bladder removal, another with texture issues from Asperger’s and another who won’t eat Tacos, Pizza, or Spaghetti but will eat, get this, baked chicken.  We’re a weird bunch coming into most any restaurant.

So on our past trip to Walt Disney World I, in an effort to get as much square footage for the cheapest price, booked a 2 bedroom Villa at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek.  I will post a review tomorrow of this resort.  It also came with a fully stocked kitchen.  All we had to provide were the groceries.  We had decided since we were provided a kitchen to eat 60% or so of our meals in the room.  And since I wanted to maximize my time in the parks as much as possible and not spend precious hours grocery shopping on vacation I started to look into grocery delivery services in the Orlando area and landed on GardenGrocer.com.

First, the website.  Their site presents a clean, easy to use look.  You can at the start set up an account and shop over days, weeks, and months.  You can add to your cart or delete from it at your pleasure leading up to purchase provided you have an account (email/password) on their site.  It’s very easy to navigate which is a plus as even those of us who are tech minded would like the purchase of food easily.  Each item is also presented with a photo, if like me you shop based on what the item always looks like.

Next, The Check Out.  This is also, simple.  You put in your resort, name, time and date for delivery, you virtually swipe your card and you’re done.  Right?  Nope.  The very next day I received a phone call verifying my hotel, date, time for drop off, everything.  In fact the person who called me knew the resort well that we were staying in and commented on how beautiful it was.  We had a great chat as she went over my order details.  Great service already and I haven’t even met you all!

Last and most important, The Delivery.  I am sure it can actually be an issue shopping for others.  What if you show up to the store and they are out of Eggland’s Best Organic Eggs and no substitute is provided?  KWIM?  I would probably give up after the first order.  But, when we arrived at our resort after a day in the parks I checked at Bell Services for our delivery.  Not only were our groceries delivered on time, but they double bagged the order, and also marked which bags needed to be refrigerated which Bell Services (also gets some credit) did for us until we got there.  The entire order from start to finish was practically effortless on my part and they did a tremendous job!

I fully recommend GardenGrocer.com.  It was a time saver, the cost was not that much more than if I had spent the money myself at the local Publix or Winn Dixie and the service was in keeping with Disney‘s own level.  You can’t put a price anymore on great service and that’s what this was from start to finish.  Next time we are down in Orlando I fully intend on using their services again.  So if you have a picky eater or you just want to be able to make your own meals and save a buck or two, look no further than GardenGrocer.com.

What Would You Do With One More Disney Day?

2012.  Some say it’s the end of times, other’s say it’s just another Leap year.  Disney says it’s an opportunity to do something they’ve never done before.  For the first time ever, both Disneyland Park and Magic Kingdom Park will be open for 24 hours of wonder, imagination and magic starting February 29 at 6:00 a.m.  That’s right, for those of you who have ever wondered what it’s like at 3 a.m. on the Haunted Mansion, you get to find out.

Disney made this announcement on New Years Eve, and some in the fan community were let down as the amount of hype give to the announcement rivaled that of announcing a fifth theme park in Orlando.  And it also seemed to benefit such a small group that there really was a collective “Huh?” going around the internets.  However Disney also tied to this announcement a caveat.

For the next 60 days, Disney is giving away a trip for four to either Walt Disney World or Disneyland Resort.  You heard right, 60 vacations valued at 6,000 bucks a piece.  That’s no chump change.  Airfare, resort, theme park attendance, food, plus money for shopping is all included.  To every cloud is a silver lining.

Here are the deets on how to enter:

You can enter via Disney’s site here: http://disney.go.com/memories/

or text DisneyDay to 347639

You can enter once a day.  So best of luck and let us know if you win!

Disney Review: Jedi Training Academy

Let me preface this whole experience by stating I love Star Wars.  In the grand scheme of the entertainment world I would wager I love Star Wars maybe 3rd to Disney with Harry Potter coming in at second.  I think it was impossible to be part of the 70s and 80s and not know Star Wars was out there, and thankfully I grew up with enough geeks and nerds to make it a veritable necessity to know.  Once I watched, I was hooked.  And so I passed the passion on to my eldest child who is collecting lightsabers and action figures with a fierce abandon.  Who loves to sit and watch the ORIGINAL trilogy with me on weekends and won’t ask “Can we change the channel now?”  He’s as crazy about it as my husband and I are.

So fast forward to our trip this past October.  We didn’t tell him why we were getting to DHS at the butt crack of dawn, we just piled everyone in the van and headed that direction.  Once he was in line though and started to overhear conversation he began a guessing game with me.  “Are we going to meet Master Yoda?”  “Nope”  “What about Mace Windu?” (he has a fascination already in life with Samuel L. Jackson’s Windu, good boy!) “Nope”  “Well why are we here????” “Not telling”

When we got to the Sounds Dangerous building where they do the actual sign ups I told him, “They are going to take you from a youngling and make you into a full fledged Padawan Jedi.  Think you can handle this?”  “I’m so ready Mom.”  That’s my boy!  So we signed him up and the Cast Members only asked him 3 things, “Will you get up on stage?”  “Yep” “Can you take direction?” “Yep” “Will you use the force to the best of your abilities and listen to your instructor?” “Oh yeah”.  And we were ready to go.

We played around at the Muppets and Toy Story then made our way back over to the Sounds Dangerous at 11 to check in.  We waited and they started to line the kiddos up to take them to the stage.  Parker kept turning around and giving me a thumbs up.  Then I found Adam and Thomas down in front of the JTA stage outside Star Tours and we waited for the Younglings to be presented.  Yes, they played the award ceremony music from the end of Star Wars Ep IV when they came out, yes I cried when he came out prepped in his Jedi robe with lightsaber.  I am such a sap.

They were soon introduced to their Jedi instructor who told them how he sensed the presence of the Dark Side.  And that the Younglings must practice hard in order to vanquish it from the galaxy.  Here are some action shots of Parker being trained in the ways of the lightsaber and the Force:

Then who should appear?  “Dark”* Vader, himself!  Each child was given a turn to battle Vader.

*This is how my youngest son, Thomas, refers to him.  And he promptly screamed out from the crowd, “Here comes Dark Vader Mommy!”

But, Parker must have sparked a fear in Vader’s accompanying Storm Troopers as they advanced on him.  His instructor quickly told Parker to use his force push!  And they were slammed back into the building!

At the end of the training, each Youngling was now a certified Padawan in the ways of the Force.  Each was presented with a certificate, and we bought Parker a lightsaber and robe.  What? He totally rocked that look!

All in all I cannot recommend the JTA enough.  It was one of the highlights of our trip and one that we comment on regularly.  Parker did his show and tell on it the following week and I am sure as he gets older it’s going to be one of those Disney moments that come up when he describes why he returns to Disney time and again.

Helpful Hints for experiencing Jedi Training Academy:

  • Get there early!  Rope Drop or before gives you the best shot of getting on the sign up sheet for the shows.  The first show is I believe at 9:30 a.m., though it varies, and the last show is at 4:30 p.m.
  • Only one parent needs to be with your child to sign them up, but every child you wish to sign up MUST be present.  So this means if you want Dad to sign up Junior, and Mom wants to get Fast Passes for Toy Story Mania you will need to go in opposite directions and meet back up after you get this accomplished.  Very often this is what most families do in the a.m. at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
  • When you are told what time to be there for your show, arrive 15-30 minutes before.  Only one parent needs to be present with your child in the waiting area.  The other parent can get seats around the stage outside of Star Tours, and I would recommend getting there early as the shows always attract a crowd.  I mean Darth Vader comes strolling out on stage to the Imperial March, that will turn some heads!
  • There is a Photopass photographer taking pictures of each show.  If you request one she/he will give you a card that has images not just of your child but the entire production.  If you wish to remove everyone else save your child’s photos go to the Photo shop (hint it’s shaped like a giant camera) on Hollywood Blvd. and they can parse it down for you.
  • Take Video! That’s one of my biggest regrets.  We have stills that would choke a camel, but no video.
  • Prep your child before they go on stage that there will be people watching them, loud music, smoke, lights, etc.  Some kids can get freaked out by all of these items so let them in a little on what’s going on.  YouTube has tons of JTA videos if you want to show them before you leave.
  • Be prepared to be surprised.  You never can tell how your child will react.  Mine had his Sir Alec Guinness down pat for the force push which shocked me!  That and he could face Vader with such a calm resolve.  Your kids will definitely surprise you so just wait!