Monday, December 9, 2013

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel...a True Destination Hotel

Who says that Universal Orlando can't be an actual destination in and of itself?  I am discovering that too many travelers don't give Universal Orlando and one it's onsite resorts enough credit for being its own stand-alone vacation destination.   I must confess that I was one of those travelers a few years back...ok, maybe only a couple of years back.  But I am no longer one of those people.  I am a true fan of Universal and what it offers when it comes to a full vacation package.

Did their rides and attractions change my mind?  Not completely, although The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has aided a bit.  Their resorts are what has sold me.  Universal Orlando has made a smart move in teaming up with Loews and Hard Rock.  Both Loews and Hard Rock know how to run hotels and resorts.  They know what makes their hotels something that travelers will stay at even if a theme park is not adjacent to them.  That to me sets them apart from Disney.

Show of many of us Disney fans (if we are really honest) would stay at one of Disney's resorts if there were no theme parks to visit?  How many of us would pay the prices at a Disney resort if there were no theme parks, would be a better question to ask.  I am thinking not many of us would including myself.  But in comparison, I would for sure stay at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel even if a theme park visit was not planned.  It is a true resort hotel and a destination hotel.

What makes it a good destination hotel you ask?  Here is my criteria for a great hotel to be a destination hotel:

1) Great pools with attentive staff and good ambience
2) A good variety of food options ranging from grab-and-go to fine dining
3) Lot's of shopping options that cover a lot of different things from art to clothes to souvenirs
4) Great eye appeal in the design and lots of areas of interest (best way I can describe that)
5) Evening lounges for entertainment
6) Large, comfortable rooms preferably with a separate tub and shower
7) A first class spa

The Portofino Bay Hotel offers all of these and does a great job keeping your interest at the resort itself.  You could wake up, go grab a nice buffet breakfast at Trattoria del Porto, enjoy the paper and cup of coffee before putting on your swim wear and heading down to one of their great pools.  You could then eat lunch at the Splendido pool side grill before you head off to your mid-afternoon spa treatment at the Mandera Spa.

Then go back to your comfortable room, relax before getting ready for pre-dinner drinks at either Bar American or the Thirsty Fish.  Let your appetite build there before heading off to a fine dining experience at either Bice or Mama Della's.  Then cap the evening off again with an aperitif and some live music and take in the evening serenade out on the promenade.  That is what I call a vacation!

That is how a stay at the Portofino Bay Hotel can go.  I am speaking from experience and am writing this post as a review of just the property itself, not the parks.  Did we visit the 2 Universal Orlando theme parks during our stay?  Sure we did, but we found ourselves gravitating back to our resort during the day.

Our stay consisted of 2 nights in one of the hotel's club level rooms which gave us access to the private lounge downstairs where we enjoyed our included continental breakfast, afternoon snacks and beverages, evening snacks and beverages and our nightly cookie run before heading back to our room.  We enjoyed the evening snacks well enough that we considered them a meal. Beverages included at the evening snack time were choices of red or white wine, domestic and imported beers, sodas, water and teas.  And the continental breakfast was plentiful each morning.

We enjoyed a pool side lunch at Splendido and utilized their pool servers often for some fun afternoon treats.  One of our dinners was at the wonderful Mama Della's.  The food and atmosphere were wonderful if you enjoy Italian cuisine and being serenaded table side.  The Italian theming of the hotel is well done.  Great theming means you transport the guest from where they really are to somewhere else (mentally) just by good design, architecture and ambience.  As you walk around the hotel's grounds, you do get the sense that you may have taken a longer flight than you had planned and have actually stepped into a nice seaside Italian town.

So here again is where I think Universal has done well by forming this partnership with Loews.  When you are at a Disney resort hotel, you are constantly being reminded that you are at Disney.  Their dining is built around their dining plans.  Their shops are mainly focussed on selling their name and merchandise.  The Disney deluxe resorts have smaller rooms overall.  Disney's argument in return would come to Disney because you want all things Disney and because you will most likely be heading into one or more of the 4 main parks so the room sizes are overlooked.  True! But for those who don't want Mickey staring at them every time they turn around, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is a great Orlando vacation option.  I think it is time to quit thinking of Universal Orlando as just an add-on to a Disney World vacation.  I think it is time to start considering one of their resort hotels as an actual destination and then you can decide what you want to add to the trip as far as theme park visits or some other Orlando area attraction.  Bravo Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, bravo!

For more photos of the can click on this link, Portofino Bay Hotel

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is the Grand Floridian Truly "Grand?"

Anytime I am about to write a review that is at all less than 100% positive when it comes to Walt Disney World, I feel the need to announce that I really am a huge fan of Mickey and his pals.  So let's get this straight...I am a believer in the Disney magic, period.

But being a believer in the magic does not always mean that I will cover my eyes or stick my head in the sand when it comes to writing an honest review of one of my stays at a Walt Disney World onsite property.  You can probably already sense where this is headed.  So let's just jump into the cold chilly waters at the deep end of the pool, shall we?

My wife and I enjoyed a long 10 day vacation in Orlando back in September of this year.  The trip was broken up into 3 nights at Universal Orlando's (Loews) Portofino Bay Hotel and 7 nights at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort. I will write a separate review again of our stay at the Portofino in the coming days.  We had a WONDERFUL stay at the Portofino.  Because of that wonderful stay, we were thinking about how even more wonderful the last 7 nights of our trip were going to be.  I mean after all, we were headed to the creme de la creme of all of the Disney properties.  The grand daddy so to speak.

The resort is eye-poppingly beautiful as you drive up to the main entrance and step inside the main lobby.  It is one of the resorts that so many like to simply make a stop at so they can go inside and take pictures of the towering lobby and timeless decor.  The service staff is mainly made up of veteran and experienced cast members who know the art of service and especially "Disney" service.  So all started well with our arrival.  Check in went smooth as expected and we were escorted by golf cart to our room's building.  We were in a "garden view" room which meant we had a great view of a small section of Bay Lake and the monorail.  I actually enjoyed sitting out on our balcony sipping my morning coffee watching the monorail go by and hearing the train from the Magic Kingdom fire up it's whistle.  That really was the highlight of the room and that is where the positives of the room begin and end.

We noticed as we entered that the room smelled quite musty.  Frankly it smelled like dirty socks.  We thought maybe it just needed to be aired out but the smell did not improve as the week went on.  You are probably asking, "why didn't you go complain and ask for another room?"  Well for one thing, I hate moving rooms.  It is frankly a hassle.  And for another thing, I figured that if "mousekeeping" can't tell that our room smells like stinky socks, that possibly means a lot of other rooms smell like stinky socks. And the last thing I want to do is move to another room and find out the stinky sock smell is commonplace.  So we decided to stay put and made the best of it as we would return each day to our room and exclaim "home stink home."

The room size was average with other deluxe resorts we have stayed in.  The decor seemed faded which is not a big deal, but coupled with the smell, it just made the room seem like an old hotel room that you might find anywhere.  Mousekeeping did a good job of keeping things cleaned up but we did not observe anything that made us feel like we were at the top of the resort food chain.  We tip mousekeeping every time and it is becoming apparent that all you get from that is what you would get had you not tipped...a clean room, other than your standard Mickey head towel when you first arrive.
So let's throw in some positives before this becomes a totally negative nelly review.  Gasparilla's was great.  We enjoyed our snacks and meals there and had great service each time.  Cast members were friendly and helpful and we liked the food choices considering this is a counter service venue.  We also enjoyed the Grand Floridian Cafe for breakfast.  Food was good and the service was very attentive.  The shopping at the Grand Floridian is also plentiful and our pocket books reflected that when we returned home.  Their general souvenir shops seemed a bit slim compared to other resorts like the Polynesian or even the Pop Century, but overall the shopping options were great.  We did not try any of the other table service venues due to budget constraints so I can't include those in this review.

But I now must press on to the more negative aspects again.  You have to keep in mind that staying at the GF is not easy on a bank account.  You pay a premium to stay at this resort compared even to the other 2 monorail resorts (Polynesian and Contemporary).  The nightly rate is comparable to what you would pay at a Ritz property of even a Waldorf Astoria hotel.  So you go into your stay with a HIGH level of expectation.

So to get to some of the huge negatives that Disney has to address at some point, let's talk resort to park transportation.   To sum it up, it is the worst we have experienced to date.  Keep in mind we have stayed at every level of resort, value to deluxe, and this was the worst bus system by far.  For example, Monday's are usually extra magic morning hour at the Animal Kingdom.  So every trip we take, we plan on heading to the AK on our first Monday.  Our routine is that we usually get up and go eat around 6:45am or so and try to be at the bus stop no later than 7:30 to make sure we are at the park by 8am.  We actually got down to the bus stop by 7:15.  Another family was already there and said that a bus had already come by but it was for Hollywood Studios and they had yet to see one for the AK.  That was a tad odd since HS was not having extra magic hours, but ok.  7:30 came and another bus arrives and to our surprise, it too was heading to HS.  2 buses for HS, 0 for AK and we have 30 mins until rope drop for extra magic morning hour.  The family that had been waiting also had an 8am ADR at the Tusker House and you could tell they were starting to get a little nervous. 7:40 rolls by and you guessed it, another bus for HS and no bus yet for the AK.  A Disney "bus coordinator finally arrived around 7:45 and assured the large antsy crowd that was gathering that a bus was on its way. bus. bus.  Finally at 8am a bus for the AK finally arrives.  So families were late for their ADR's and we missed the first 30 mins of the extra magic hour for the first time out of our previous trips.  I was not happy, others were not happy and to make matters worse, when the bus finally arrives, it had already stopped at the Contemporary and Polynesian.  That's right, the GF is the last stop on the bus route which means you may or may not get to sit down depending on crowd levels.

Well...we made it to the AK and still got to do all we wanted to do, but as we made it back to the GF, my wife and I were talking about the horrific bus system and she was asking me if I was going to complain.  My answer to her was that it would be fruitless to complain to someone at the GF since it is really Mears who needs to get their you know what's chewed off for the terrible bus planning.  As I said that to her, a manager of the resort walked by and overheard and stopped us and wanted to know what had happened.  I explained the situation and told him that when you stay at the GF, you are expecting a lot since you are paying a lot.  I let him know that it will be hard for me to recommend the resort to my clients who like to also spend a lot of time at other parks besides the Magic Kingdom.   And heaven forbid the monorail breaks down (which it did twice during our stay).  It is not a pretty site when guests are trying to cram onto the boats to get to the MK or onto the newly dispatched buses for those trying to get to Epcot. But back to the manager.  He listened and acted very concerned.  He asked if he could do anything for us and we politely said no since we were not complaining to try to get a freebie.  But he insisted on taking our names and room number which then set up a little expectation in our minds.  Long story short...nada.  He did nothing.  It is a bad thing to set up expectations as if you are going to try to do something and then simply do nothing.  No bueno!

Well, to top it all off, we took one of the hot sunny days and decided it needed to be a pool day.  Now this is going to sound knit picky, but we had spent three days at the Portofino which has an awesome pool.  Their pool chairs are wonderful, their pool staff was attentive, the pool towels were large and in abundance.  We thoroughly enjoyed our pool days while at Universal.  So again, picturing that the GF was going to be even better, it turned out to be a tremendous let down.  The pool chairs were not that good (again compared to what you would get at a Ritz or Waldorf) and the towels were the size of hand towels.  We actually giggled when we grabbed their pool towels and realized that it would take like 4 of them to cover your chair and the pool bar cast member came by once and that was it, never saw him again. bueno!

Now I know this sounds like a terribly harsh review and I am not happy about having to write it, but it is time for those of us who have been long time supporters of WDW to quit treating it like the a sacred cow.  When they mess up, they need to hear about it and people need to see that not everyone is turning a blind eye to their slips in service and overall experience.  This was the first time that we were ready for the trip to end and that saddens me a bit.  I want to always be able to go and be sad about leaving and I always want my clients to have the extra magical experience as well.  So when I have a less than magical experience at one of their resorts, I want them to know about it so maybe just maybe corrections can be made etc.   My fear is that first time Disney goers are being given an experience that is nothing like what so many of us experience several years ago and that is becoming the new norm.

So to sum it up, poor transportation, bad management follow-through, stinky room and hand towel-sized pool towels makes this a resort that we will not be returning to other than to visit for the day and enjoy one of it's restaurants.  Grand?  Not so much.  I would call it the "Pretty Nice Floridian Resort."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party 2013 Review

Orlando is packed full of things to do during the months of September and October, especially if you are a fan of Halloween.  The two biggies, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, put on some incredible events starting near the end of September.

If being scared out of your wits is your thing, Universal Orlando puts on one of the most famous wet-your-pants, hurl-your-flaming-Moe, shindigs found anywhere.  Their Halloween Horror Nights 23 took things to a new level this year by adding more effects such as the smells of death and decomposition.  No...we did not attend this event during our 10 day stay in Orlando.  Part of me wanted to, but I also knew that we were headed to WDW after our Universal stay and I had planned on buying event tickets to Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party which I will from now on refer to as MNSSHP.  Plus...I am not sure nasty smelling zombies jumping out at me is my thing anymore at the ripe old age of forty...uh never mind.

So let's move on to MNSSHP which we did attend on Friday the 27th.  This event is equally as popular as Universal's shindig, but offers a much less frightening experience which appeals to everyone in the family (especially since Universal's party is for adults only). We had already attended Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party (MVMCP) back in December of last year so I wanted to compare the value between the two events since both require an extra ticket besides just your normal park ticket.  If a family is going to spend upwards of an additional $60+ per person for a single night, they need to know what they get for the money.

Now I know some will disagree with me on this, but I am going to say it anyways; MNSSHP is a much better bang for your buck event than MVMCP.  Don't get me wrong, we enjoyed both events.  Both are magical in their own way.  But just looking at what you get for the extra ticket that others won't get if they don't pony up the extra cash, MNSSHP comes out on top.  For example...everyone who attends the Magic Kingdom during the Christmas season will have a chance to see Wishes, their awesome nighttime fireworks show.  Those that attend MVMCP pretty much get the same fireworks show as everyone else.  During MNSSHP, you get a fireworks show (HalloWishes) that is only for those who attend the event and it is FAR different than the normal Wishes show that is put on for other guests.  And is possibly one of the best fireworks shows I have ever seen.

Both events have special parades, but the addition of the Headless Horseman riding down Main Street during "Mickey's Boo To You Halloween Parade" makes it uber special in my opinion (see attached video).

Both events have special treats offered to guests.  MVMCP has stations set up where guests are treated to cookies and hot chocolate.  MNSSHP has trick or treat candy stations set up all around the park which gives the kids an early pre-halloween candy advantage over their friends back at home.

Both events have a lot of attractions open for guests who attend and most had VERY short queue lines which allowed us to get off and right back on some attractions had we wanted to.

But one of the other differences I noted that makes MNSSHP better in my opinion is how they are able to transform Liberty Square into an entirely different feeling area of the park during the party.  The music at the start of the video in this post is the same music that you hear during the party as you walk through Liberty Square.  But the best part is how they also bring the Haunted Mansion to life during the party.  The colors, the fog, the music and even some changes to the cast members make it an awesome thing to see during party hours.

One more added benefit to the MNSSHP is the attendees to the party.  Guests get to dress up which makes the party one gigantic costume party.  It was fun seeing the creativeness put into some of the costume designs. The atmosphere overall was one of a huge, fun family-friendly party.

So to sum it up...yes my wife and I spent over $120 to attend this event.  But would I spend that money to attend the MVMCP again?  Maybe not.  Would I spend it again to attend MNSSHP?  Absolutely yes.

Have you been to one of both?  If you have been to both, what is your overall opinion of the two parties?  Would you do one or both of them again?  I would love to get your feedback.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Walt Disney World Quiz Contest #6

Here is the final quiz contest for this trip.  We have been at Walt Disney World for 7 days and you have had 6 chances to win. We head home tomorrow so stay tuned for my reviews of what we have done on this trip to the "Happiest Place on Earth."

So because this is the final quiz and final opportunity to win a Starbucks gift card, I am going to include a bonus question to give you two chances to win.  The person who again answers first with the correct answer (in the comment section) will win a $5 Starbucks gift card.  If you answer both correct, you can win $10 in Starbucks gift cards.

So first...tell me where the photo was taken.  Was it at a resort?  Was it in one of the 4 main parks?  If you think it was in a park, name the specific attraction.

And for your bonus the Star Tours flight number that everyone travels on.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Walt Disney World Quiz Contest #5

Hello friends!  Here is today's Walt Disney World quiz challenge.  Name the park, resort or restaurant within Walt Disney World property where the object in the picture can be found.  If it is a park, name the park and attraction in order to win.  If it is a restaurant, name the resort or park that the restaurant can be found in.  The first one to comment with the correct answer wins today's $5 Starbucks gift card. If you play everyday, you can win everyday.

Thanks for playing!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Walt Disney World Quiz Challenge #4

Here it is's quiz challenge.  Name the park or resort where the object in the picture can be found.  If it is a park, name the attraction that it is found at.  First one with the correct answer wins a $5 Starbucks gift card.  Good luck.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Walt Disney World Quiz Challenge #3

Hello friends!  Here is today's Walt Disney World quiz challenge.  Name the park, resort or restaurant within Walt Disney World property where the object in the picture can be found.  If it is a park, name the park and attraction in order to win.  If it is a restaurant, name the resort or park that the restaurant can be found in.  The first one to comment with the correct answer wins today's $5 Starbucks gift card. If you play everyday, you can win everyday.  We have had two contests so far and two winners.

Thanks for playing!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Walt Disney World Quiz Challenge #2

Ok is the second quiz challenge of the week.  Remember...we have park hoppers during this trip so we could be in any park at any time taking these pictures.  We could even be visiting several WDW resorts while we are here.  So don't try to guess based on where you saw we might be due to our Facebook posts. Ha!

Name the park or resort that this picture was taken at.  If you think it was taken in one of the 4 main Walt Disney World parks, name the particular attraction that it can be found out.  The first one to guess it correctly will again win a $5 Starbucks gift card.  And if you play everyday, you can win up to $25 in Starbucks gift cards (assuming you played yesterday).  You must enter your answer in the comment section below and the first comment with the correct answer wins. Good Luck!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

WDW Quiz Challenge #1

Here is the first quiz challenge for this trip.  Name the place including park and attraction and/or food venue where this picture attached was taken.  First person to comment with the correct answer wins a $5 Starbucks gift card.  This is the first of 5 quizzes. Tomorrow will be a new one and a little more difficult.

Monday, September 16, 2013

New Quiz Contest Coming Soon

For those of you who have been a follower of my business's Facebook Page, Operation Destination Vacations, you know that every time I take a trip to "The Happiest Place on Earth," there is a daily contest to see who can guess where I am the quickest.  I post a picture during the days I am there and each picture is from a different location within the 4 theme parks.  It is a daily quiz contest and a person can win as many times as the contest is offered.  The daily winner wins a $5 Starbucks gift card.

I will be once again at Walt Disney World starting on September 21st and will run the daily contest starting on Sunday the 22nd and it will run through Friday the 27th.  The same rule applies; the person who guesses where I am based on the picture the fastest (exact location such as what attraction, show, restaurant etc) will win. You must enter your answer here on my blog in the comment section of each post.  This is different than before where the contest was held on my Facebook page.  Facebook's rules make it risky to hold any form of contest on your actual page which is why I am moving it to here on my blog.

So stay tuned and make sure you are following my blog.  I will try to post the  daily contest about the same time each day which should be around 3pm eastern time.

I look forward to seeing your answers!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

WDW Question: When Are The Best Times To Visit?

Looking back over the years, the most prominent questions that I get asked related to a Walt Disney World vacation are usually centered around when are the best times to visit?  So I am not sure why it has taken me this long to write a blog article related to the subject.  Nevertheless, here are my personal thoughts when it comes to the times of year that will make for a better overall experience during your stay at the "Happiest Place on Earth."

Naturally, the best times when it comes to crowd levels, are those times when the majority of kids are in school.  That means that spring break, fall break, the Christmas break and the summer months are never optimal times for those who prefer to spend less time in a line and more time on the actual ride.  But for a lot of families, they simply have no choice but to go during school breaks or in the summer between the end of May and the beginning of August.  If summer is your only option, I recommend going earlier than later.  The weather will generally be better earlier in the summer season than later during the times when the summer overlaps with the heart of hurricane season.  So maybe look at going as soon as school lets out in the end of May or very beginning of June.

But for those that do not have to worry about school schedules or holidays, here are my top choices of times to visit:

1)  Most of September.  Most everyone is back in school now by the beginning of September.  If you can wait until after labor day, you will hit a time of year that does not coincide with any holiday weekend and the weather can be a little better as you get further into September (I stress a LITTLE).

2)  The two weeks after Thanksgiving.  Again, most families that took an extended Thanksgiving Day holiday will be back home.  The weather is generally really good (low 80's, lower humidity etc), but be aware that this can also now correspond with the beginning of the summer break for some South American countries.  So crowd levels tend to be a little higher than September.

3) The second or third week of January or the first and second week of February.  Good weather and generally decent crowd levels, at least by Disney standards, make this a great time to visit as well.  If you go in January, you are more in the peak of the southern hemisphere summer break, but Disney still views this as a low period because this tends to also be a time when they are training a lot of new employees who are trying to earn their "ears."

There ya go.  There are my top 3 times of the year that I recommend to clients to book their WDW vacation.  Again, I make my recommendations based on crowd levels as well as factoring in weather.  But overall, I will go when the crowd levels are at their lowest even if it means the weather might be a bit more iffy.

Let me know if you have any questions related to crowds and wait times.  You can also feel free to either agree or disagree with my choices. What has been the times that you have found to be the best to visit WDW?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

AIl-Inclusive vs European Plan

If you have ever traveled outside the US, you most likely reserved a hotel that was either on an "EP" plan or an "AI" plan.  You may have noticed those symbols within your quote and never really paid attention to what they meant as far as your price was concerned.  If you like to peruse the internet and book vacations yourself, you may not even have realized which plan you were on until you arrived at your destination.

There are some resorts and hotels that now offer both an EP plan and also an AI plan.  EP simply stands for "European Plan" and AI simply stands for "All-Inclusive."  But if you were not aware of that, you may have booked a room at a hotel that offers both and think you got a steal compared to someone else who paid X amount of dollars more for the same room.  Little did you know that they were on an AI plan while you were on an EP plan.

All-inclusive resorts are very popular these days, especially when it comes to traveling to places like Cancun, Punta Cana, Jamaica etc. They have made traveling more affordable to a wider demographic. What are the pluses?  The biggest is the one I just mentioned...affordability.  When you look at the price for an all-inclusive, you know what the real cost of the trip is going to be upfront because most include your beverages, most of your food and your lodging and even some non-motorized water sports such as snorkeling, kayaks etc.  Some luxury all-inclusive resort chains also tout that your gratuities are included upfront, but that can be argued (and maybe I will in a future post).  So when a travel agent sends you a quote that includes flights, round trip transfers and an all-inclusive resort, you know you are seeing all of the costs minus any excursion that you may want to venture out on in whatever Country you visiting.

A lot of all-inclusive resorts know that, in order to be successful, they need to appeal to that broader demographic so they have kept their prices more affordable than some of the more high-end boutique and chain hotels.

Which really leads to the only negative when it comes to all-inclusives.  Regardless of how many stars are put next to the description of the resort, some will argue that the food quality is never as good as you will find at some other resort or hotel that only offers the European Plan when it comes to their food venues.  Some will also argue that the drinks are more watered down at an all-inclusive again implying that you are not getting the highest quality of beverage or food.  Or they argue that you will only get "local" (cheaper) liquors served when ordering your Mojito or Margarita etc.  There is a lot of validity to that argument.  Do resorts try to find ways of cutting costs so they can offer these all-inclusive plans and allow patrons to eat and eat and eat and drink and drink and drink while trying to turn a profit?  Sure!  Does that mean you are going to have awful food and terrible tasting beverages?  NO!

But you can't go into an all-inclusive resort and expect Ritz or Four Seasons level food and beverage.  If you go into an all-inclusive knowing you are going to be staying in a beautiful location, enjoying nice accommodations, really good food and drink and even enjoyable entertainment, then you will have a great experience and love the all-inclusive option.

But if you are a really serious connoisseur of food and wine and cocktails, then you should probably look at hotels that offer only the European Plan.  So to keep things simple...EP simply means that you are paying for your resort stay and any meals and beverages will be billed to you separately and NOT included in your resort room rate.  Your major hotel chains such as Marriott, Hilton, Ritz Carlton etc offer EP plans when it comes to your meals and beverages.  Some chains, like Hilton as I mentioned earlier, now offer both at some Caribbean destinations where all-inclusives are the more popular option.  But as a general rule, these major chains will be EP.  Smaller boutique-style hotels tend to be EP.  You will find that some of the smaller, more upscale Caribbean destinations such as St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis etc mainly have hotels and resorts that are on the EP plan.  These resorts and destinations tend to appeal more to those where budgets are not as important as other criteria when it comes to their vacation planning process.

So I say all of this to simply educate you so you know what you are getting when you choose hotel A over hotel B and you did that solely on price.  You may not have paid attention to one being EP and not AI.  EP resorts and hotels often appear less expensive when comparing packages, but your food and beverage will add up in a hurry during your trip.  The AI option may end up being the better deal if you are one that likes drink and eat a lot while on vacation.  So look for those symbols in your quote and "know before you go."

Out of the two pictures in this post...can you tell which one is at an AI resort and which one is at an EP resort?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Rebooting the Family Vacation"...My Reply

Christopher Elliott is a very well-known travel writer that contributes to a variety of publications such as the USA Today and National Geographic which is where I found his latest article.  It is titled "Rebooting the Family Vacation."  You can read it by clicking HERE.  I encourage you to go read it before reading my reply to his article.  I have taken some of his views to task in the past and find myself doing the same with this most recent post of his.  But again...make sure you read it before reading what I have to say.  Are you reading it?  I can see you! Go read it!! that I know you have taken a moment to let it sink in, here is what I have to say in reply.  I agree with most of what he had to say.  It IS a shame that so many parents never take their kids to places that offer any form of cultural enrichment and actual downtime.  It is a shame that some parents force feed their kids the same old fast food that they get at home which is not only made in mass quantities, but also not healthy at all.  But that is not to say that vacations to amusement parks like Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando are worthless and bad overall for children.  In fact, some would argue (including me) that a vacation to Walt Disney World offers some of the best cultural experiences a child can have without needing a passport.  Epcot and Animal Kingdom offer everyone a chance to experience people from various parts of the world, including their native cuisine.  They also offer hands-on educational experiences such as Rafiki's Planet Watch and Innoventions East and West.

So I take an exception to what seemed to be a huge generalization in Chris's article when he mentioned amusement parks amongst this statement, "We’re too tired to prepare real meals for the kids, and we’re too busy to plan enriching travel experiences, so we buy what’s easy—processed junk food and off-the-shelf, highly marketed package vacations that are overly focused on amusement."

While a place like Walt Disney World is about amusement, that amusement can very well come in the form of enrichment.  And there are lots of choices where families do not have to settle for "processed junk food."  No one can force parents to look for healthier eating choices or to search out those "amusement" experiences that both entertain and enrich, which leads me to my second exception to his thoughts.

I was shocked to see that he is blaming the travel industry for this demise of the family vacation.  I fail to see where someone can lump travel agents, tour operators and even cruise lines into this problem.  Are there some travel agents who don't know have enough travel knowledge in order for them to properly offer some culturally diverse vacations to their clients?  YES!  But generally travel agents take their cue from their clients.  In other words...we listen.  We ask "where do you want to go? What types of experiences do you want on your vacation?  How many days off can you take?  What is your budget?  What are the ages of your kids and what do they like to do?"  We ask all of those questions and we listen enough to be able to offer options that suit what the client wants...not what we want.

If a client comes to us and says..."We want to take our kids to Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando," we don't reply with "have you thought about the Grand Canyon instead??  We would get that look that says, "Are you an idiot? Did you just not hear me say that we want to take our kids to Walt Disney World?"  The same look would be given if a client said, "We want to head to Cancun so we can do literally nothing and just relax on the beach" and then we reply with, "Have you thought about hiking through the mountains of Peru?"

Now again...can a client go to Cancun and experience some awesome, local Yucatan cuisine?  YES!  Can a client take their family to Cancun and experience some real cultural enrichment by visiting some of the Mayan ruins or other World Heritage sites? YES!  And most of those options are presented to clients during the planning process, but that doesn't mean they will take advantage of those options.

Travel agents, tour operators and cruise lines make all of those enrichment options available, but you can't force a vacation on a client that the client does not want.  A cruise line will take people to a variety of ports of call that will offer every passenger the chance to experience something unique to that Country, even the food.  But again, if the client simply chooses to take a "beach break" at every port, how is that the fault of the cruise line?  And if a family can only afford a 3 or 4 night cruise that only stops at ports that center around beaches and fun in the sun, who am I or who is anyone to try to force the client to take more time off or spend more money?  That leads me to my next rant about the article.

It cannot go overlooked that Chris's article failed to take budget into account.  If a client's budget is X, but the more culturally diverse vacation would cost Z or Y, a good travel agent is not going to try to up-sell their client to Z or Y.  If clients want to go to a certain place because airfare is cheaper or maybe they can drive instead and that destination also has some things they want to do on vacation, then it is not a good business practice to try to get the client to spend more money so they can consider more options that you, the travel agent, thinks is best for their overall vacation.  This is how travel agents have gotten a bad rap over the past several years.  The general public thinks it is all about the sale and not about what they really want or what they truly can afford.  It is the goal of the travel industry to provide vacation options that the families want AND can afford.  Do I wish more clients would consider a trip to some far off destination where they can all learn more about people from all over the world?  YES!  But lest we forget, we are still a Country that has gone through a major financial crisis in the not so distant past and budget-friendly travel is still a priority with most families.  These days, a family either takes the budget friendly vacation or no vacation at all.  I would rather see families go where they want and spend what THEY want vs not going at all because someone thinks their vacation is not very educational or enlightening.

And keep one more tidbit in mind before we criticize the type of vacation that the American family is taking; we should be thrilled that families are vacationing at all.  We, the good ole USA, are one of the worst industrialized Countries when it comes to the amount of vacation days that a family will typically take or be given by their employer.  So, as a travel agent, I am thrilled when I get contacted by a mom or dad that says they are ready to take some time off and take their kids to any place that is not their neighborhood pool or local Chuck E. Cheese and requires them to leave their current city limits and spend nights away from home.

So if families want to spend their vacations on the go and at a fast pace, and if they want to only eat what they know their kids WILL eat, then who are we to tell them they have to do something different? I wish more clients took some of the more culturally diverse suggestions?  Sure.  Do I wish more clients would branch out and try some different food options that reflect more of what the actual locals eat?  Absolutely.  But families make choices that are best for their families and I can't judge a family because they choose a certain vacation over another.   I am all for vacations that offer a bit of everything and I am very much for vacations that truly offer some much needed R&R, but I cannot see how someone can point fingers at someone else and blame them for what some other family chooses to do.  There are too many factors that go into vacation planning and I simply feel Chris's article did not take those factors into consideration.

So there is my reply.  What are your thoughts about the article or even about my reply?  Agree with Chris?  Agree with me?  Disagree with both of us?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Vacationer's Dream

Ok, you have decided to take a vacation so you sit down and create your to-do list.  Hopefully it looks something like this:

1. Discuss possible destinations--check
2. Set a budget for the trip--check
3. Pick possible dates for the trip--check
4. Call a travel agent to help plan the details--check
5. Officially book the trip with the help of the agent---check

Now the excitement begins.  You find great apps or other ways to countdown the days until you leave. Time has flown and the time is getting close enough to start packing the bags and then...BLAM, a new form of stress hits.  Who is going to watch the dog?  Who is going to pick up the mail?  Do I have all of my prescriptions?  What about the groceries in the fridge?  The to-do's start to mount up again and they can zap some of the fun away from the vacation itself.

So what if I told you that there are services out there that can even take away those stress factors and give your brain more time to focus on the really fun aspects of your trip?  Wouldn't it be a dream to have someone you could call and they would literally take care of all of those tasks that you can't ignore, but would prefer never to have to worry about?  Imagine not having to worry about anything related to your trip other then things like, "did we load the bags in the car" or "do we have all of our travel documents?"  You know...those things that are actually a part of the trip.

So enough of the lead-in teaser stuff.  Let me introduce you to one such company.  The name of her company is Julie Hullett Concierge LLC and naturally Julie Hullett is the owner.  This is a sample of what she can do for you while you pack your bags (and I even have someone who can offer advice on what to pack, but that is for another post); Julie can take your pet to the boarding kennel, pick up your dry cleaning that you need for the trip, pick up any necessary medications from the pharmacy, and anything else that you might need or need to do before you leave home.

Then picture that the trip is coming to an end and you are about to head home.  Your brain starts to get out of vacation mode and into "what do I need to do when I get home" mode.  Now picture Julie going to get your pet and having him or her there waiting for you when you walk in the door.  Imagine the heat or the AC being at the right temp, your fridge being full with those staples that you knew you would need but hated to buy right before you left home, your mail laid out and organized on your dining table and so on and so on.  Are you getting the stress-free picture?  This is why I call her and her services a "vacationer's dream."  Life would not skip a beat while you were gone.  The transition from before the vacation starts to being on vacation to returning back home from vacation would be so smooth and stress free that you would never plan a vacation the same again.  You would forever be hooked and your concierge's phone number would be a "favorite" in your contacts list.

So the next time you plan a vacation, add one more planning item to your list besides calling a wonderful, all-knowing travel consultant like myself (was that a little much?)...make sure you make an appointment with a concierge service like Julie's.  And if you are in the Nashville Julie.  She is awesome to work with.

Have you ever heard of a service like this?  Have you ever used a service like this?  I would love to get your feedback.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Walt Disney World...From an Adult's Perspective

Perusing the internet lately, I have come across a couple of articles related to visiting Walt Disney World sans-kids.  Both had some interesting points of views and recommendations of things to do when you don't have any little ones in tow.  But as I was sitting there reading those articles I thought, "wait a doggone minute, my wife and I have been visiting Disney for the past several years and we don't have any children, so why am I not offering advice along these lines as well?"

So here it view of Walt Disney World from the perspective of someone who has never had a child but is a huge fan of the mouse and a soaker in of the magic.

First off, who said you had to be kid in order to act like a kid??  We approach WDW with as much enthusiasm as any child and get a big case of the "can't sleeps" the night before we head down to the "House of Mouse."  Isn't that one of the beauties of going on a Disney vacation?  Don't we all get to once again go back to the memories of our childhood and relive some of that knowing we are in a judge-free environment?  I mean for Pete's sake, where else can you go and see grown adults wearing some of the goofiest hats you have ever seen, no pun intended, and having a ball doing it?  So my point is, don't think you have to go to WDW and act your age even if you don't have kids and even if you are an adult by the law of the land standards.  And this also means that you should be able to ride Dumbo, Peter Pan's Flight and all of the other "children's rides" without feeling the need to hire a kid so you have an excuse to ride them.  Disney is ageless so act like it and be a kid again.

Secondly, if you happen to not have any young ones, enjoy the fact that you are free from any worries about nap times, eating schedules or ride height limitations.  That alone allows you to enjoy WDW on a much more relaxed pace.  My advice...get up early and get to all of the parks as soon as they drop the rope.  You will notice that the parks start filling up more the later that it gets in the morning.  You can rest assured that many who are arriving an hour or so after the park opened are the ones with kids.  They had to get their kids awake, get them dressed, get them fed and then get them corralled onto a bus or into a car.  Meanwhile you and your significant other awoke, got ready, grabbed a quick bite and were at the park 15 mins before the opening gong and already had 4 attractions chalked up before the family with kids got into their first queue line.   So enjoy your early morning conquest and go have a cinnamon roll to celebrate!

Thirdly, take some time to stop and smell the adult roses.  Kids see things through kid's eyes, naturally. What a child may miss is the amazingness of the Disney engineering, the artfulness of the cast member's performances and the awesomeness of the sheer size of all that makes up Walt Disney World. The daily performances of getting people in the parks, on rides, ushered into shows, fed, cleaned in rest rooms etc is an incredible and mind-boggling feat in and of itself.  Take time to notice that and appreciate that. Notice the lack of trash blowing around.  Notice that the food, even the quick service food is actually pretty good considering it is being made at a feverish pace behind the scenes in mass quantities.  Pay attention to the detail that goes into almost every attraction's queue line.  Stop and admire the beauty of the landscaping.  Pause and marvel at the engineering that went into that attraction that either almost made you piddle your pants or shed a tear from the memory it brought back.  Take a moment to really enjoy the hundreds of music scores that you can hear during your visit, either at the parks or even back at your resort.  Watch the fireworks shows for crying out loud and comprehend that they do those on that scale EVERY DAY!  That alone is incredible.  Just stop and really appreciate what too often goes overlooked by the critics and by those adults who think WDW is just a place for kids.

So let me just sum up by saying that, if some adults go to WDW and come back and say it was too boring or too "childish," mark them and avoid them because they have lost their ability to stop and enjoy some of the more simpler things of life and those are not usually the happiest people to be around.    Disney is meant to be a place to go to where you can suspend reality for just a few moments and let us all focus on things that can make us smile.   Doesn't the world need more of that these days?  Doesn't the world need some more Walt Disney's to help us remember that dreams are what keep us going?

So there you have it...Disney through the eyes of a 45 year old kid who will ride Dumbo with his wife and watch her get as giddy as a 5 year old while doing so.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dueling Theme Parks

You gotta love competition when it comes to theme parks, especially when we are talking about the big two; Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World.  Both companies are being pushed by each other to be better than the other.  As soon as one announces a new addition, whether it be a single attraction or an entirely new area of their park(s), the other one usually follows suit with their own announcement.

For example...Universal announced a few years ago that they were adding what has now become the savior of their Orlando park, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Not long after that, Disney comes out with their own announcement regarding the expansion/renovation of the new Fantasyland area in the Magic Kingdom.  

The "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" attraction has taken the thrill ride experience to a completely new and immersive level.  As I have explained it to people, "it is Soarin on steroids." And not to be outdone, the newest and yet-to-be-opened "Seven Dwarfs Mine Train" in the new Fantasyland is already boasting to have the "first-of-its-kind ride system."

These newest additions to Fantasyland including that new state-of-the-art attraction are slated to be opened sometime in 2014.  Well again not to be outdone and upstaged, Universal counters with the opening of the new Transformers: The Ride 3D and then double-counters with their announcement a few days ago of their newest expansion project; the addition of Diagon Alley which will be an automatic success with anyone who has followed the Harry Potter movies and books.  Universal also promises to deliver some new state-of-the-art ride experiences taking the thrill ride to another new level and is expected to be opened around the same time as Disney's newest ride next year.

For us as fans and park visitors...this is AWESOME!  I say...bring it on Universal and Disney.  My hope is that Disney soon announces a new expansion to the Animal Kingdom or to Hollywood Studios because as soon as they do, they will also be promising yet another new and exciting "state-of-the-art" immersive ride experience.  And, as soon as they do, you know what will be coming.  That's right...a counterpunch from our friends at Universal which makes the future look pretty bright for the fans of both Universal and Disney in my opinion.

So with all of this said...which new 2014 addition are you most excited about?  Disney's new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train?  Or Universal's new Diagon Alley area?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Travel Quiz Contest

Interested in winning a $25 Target Gift Card?  Here is a way you can do just that.  Enter the correct answer in the comment section and everyone who answers correctly will be entered into a drawing. The person chosen at random from that drawing will win a $25 Target Gift Card.

You can enter here or visit my Facebook Page (Operation Destination) and comment under the post with the same question which is this:

True or False?  A US citizen can enter the Caribbean island of St Thomas by air without a passport.

Contest closes at 6pm central time today. Good luck!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Waiting Game

Not sure what it is.  Is it a cultural thing? Is it a generational thing?  Or is it simply a human thing?  I am referring to this idea that waiting will somehow give you a better advantage when it comes to the cost of booking a trip.

I am curious because it seems to cross over into other areas of life.  Back in the day when I was a Realtor, I had clients who would decide to wait on making an offer on the home they wanted or decide to wait to list their home to see if the market would improve.  In most of those cases, the waiting cost them money.  I am talking about 5+ years ago.  A couple would think that waiting might cause the owner to reduce their price before they made an offer, but then get upset when that same house sold right out from under them.

I am not intending to make this a post about real estate, but I want you to see that maybe it is more than just an industry-specific notion that waiting will somehow work out to your benefit.  Because here I am now working as a professional travel consultant and I see the same exact mentality.  "Let's wait and see if airfare will go down" or "let's wait and see if that cruise offers some steep last minute discounts."  That might have been the case several years ago, but the landscape has changed.

Today...we are experiencing a huge uptick in travel across the board.  In fact, this article, "Consumer Travel Attitudes Hit a High Note," shows that more people are traveling now due to several positive factors.  That means demand is up.  Airplane seats are being filled.  Hotel rooms are being booked.  Cruise lines are selling staterooms further in advance of the actual cruise date.  I already have clients booking vacations into December of this year and hotel rooms have already become scarce at the more popular destinations.

I say all of that to say...if you wait, you might not only pay a higher cost for your trip, but you may also lose out on the place that you wanted to stay.  I have had situations where someone wanted to ponder a little longer and that pondering cost them a few hundred dollars because the cheaper airfare had already sold out.

This is going to take a mentality shift for a lot of you, but here is my advice.  Decide where you want to go.  Determine the dates as quick as you can.  Sit down with yourself, your spouse or your significant other and determine a budget that you can afford for the trip.  Then contact a professional travel planner and give him or her that info and let them do their job.  And when they come back with options, don't think that you have lots of time to ponder and check prices etc.  That price you were quoted may not be there tomorrow.  So listen to your trusted professional.  He or she knows whether the place you are going and the time that you want to go will be something that you can wait on or not.  If it is Hawaii in December...I wouldn't cue the Jeopardy music and think you have plenty of time to decide.

So I am not sure I have an answer to my original question; is this idea of waiting unique to us Americans or is it a world wide trait?  Have you waited to book only to find out that you missed your chance at getting the lowest price?  Maybe you disagree with me.  You comments are always welcome.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Cruise Industry...Is It Safe?

An editorial-style response from me regarding the cruise industry.  The Carnival Triumph accident was just accident.  I felt the need to give you my opinion related to that accident and also due to the amount of questions I have received related to that unfortunate event.