If you are planning the holiday of a lifetime to Disney World in Orlando planning is absolutely vital. What I will also say is that if you plan on any character dining (eg with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck) you will need to do this at least 6 months in advance and will cost you a minimum of $35 each dependant on which character and which restaurant!
For the ultimate Disney experience a stay at one of their many resorts has to be at the top of your list. The French Quarter of the Port Orleans (Riverside) where we stayed for a fabulous 2 weeks was one of Disney's mid-range resorts and was part of an overall package developed with Virgin Holidays that cost in excess of £12,000. Current prices per person on Virgin's website for this resort (including flight) are in excess of £1,030 per person.
When we planned our vacation my wife and I spent a great deal of time online and we ummed and arghed on whether to stay at a Disney resort or stay at a villa which would have cost a great deal less. Being novices however we wanted to keep things as easy as possible and being honest staying at a Disney resort really is simple. Certainly when planning there were several thousands of pounds between these 2 options, but with Disney's free dining plan we saved a great deal of money at the resort and parks and additionally with free parking at the parks / free bus service between all resorts and parks and free riverboat that could take you from the resort to Downtown Disney or to the other part of the Port Orleans resort.
Once we had agreed on the type of accommodation we decided on two companies that we believed could meet our needs - Virgin Holidays and British Airways and what sealed it for us was that although Virgin were more expensive they agreed to match the price on British Airways website and then included access to their V lounge and free baggage collection to the Airport from Downtown Disney. We also had the opportunity of choosing either Disney's Magical Express or Virgin's shuttle service to get us from and to the airport to our resort.
Our package was for 5 adults (myself, my wife, son and his partner and our 16 year old daughter) and 1 child (our 8 year old daughter) in 2 rooms with free Disney dining plan, access to Virgin's V Lounge at London Gatwick Airport, flights, car hire (through Alamo), 14 day Disney Ultimate park passes, 14 day Universal Studio tickets and a 1 day coach tour to The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
We flew out from Gatwick on Monday 6th August 2012 at around 11am in what seemed extreme heat (26 degrees), arriving at Orlando International Airport at around 3pm (local time) in the middle of a thunderstorm with tropical temperatures of 34 degrees. In fact as we touched down to a round of applause we were welcomed by our pilot to Mickey International Airport and after what seemed like several hours walked out of the airport with our cases to the car park across the road where we were to pick up our car. It was pouring with rain as we got in our car (that we had to upgrade for an additional $400) and after a few problems with the satnav set off en-route to our resort.
From the airport the resort was just under 20 miles away. We arrived at the resort around 6pm and were stopped at barriers by the security guard who directed us to a short stay parking area which we could use while we were at reception collecting our room keys etc. Our passes etc were all on printed Virgin sheets which we had to exchange at the airport (for our hire car), at Universal Studios for our park passes and at Disney for our room keys. In the case of Disney the room keys, park passes and Disney dining plan were all loaded on to what they call Disney's Key to the World which is similar to a credit card and can (if selected at check-in) allow room charging. By staying at a Disney resort we also received a car permit allowing us free parking at all Disney parks (normally $14 per day). If you decide to use room charging, any purchases made at any Disney resort or park are charged to your room and on your day of leaving a bill itemising your spend is delivered around 7am to your door and unless you query with reception will be charged later that day to the credit card supplied at check-in. Very simple and if you don't leave Disney is certainly worth trying.
From reception we were directed to building number 7 which was the furthest of the North Quarter (of the French Quarter) which at the time didn't seem that confusing! As we reached it I noticed a very rapid movement across the ground and was curious to know what I'd seen. In fact as I was to find it was one of the many tiny lizards that surrounded the building and when we finally left I would love to have brought one home! (Yes I know quarantine etc but they were really cute)! Our building on one side overlooked the main car park and from our rooms we had a great view of the Sassagoula River which to our left went under a transport bridge to the main Riverside complex and to the right flowed towards other resorts, Downtown Disney and to Lake Buena Vista. In fact there was a regular riverboat passing by every half an hour or so into late evening and a horse and cart taking guests to and from the main resort.
It cannot be said how attractive the buildings and layout of this park is and the photo on my profile was taken (on my Samsung Galaxy ACE phone - also listed on Dooyoo) on our daily walk towards our restaurant. It is a positive portrayal of New Orleans and the Old South. In total the French Quarter has 1008 rooms across 7 buildings each with its own lift.
We were impressed when opening the door to our room by the massive ceiling fans and the contemporary look that they had been given - even down to the taps on the double basin, chest of drawers and to the quilts on our twin double beds. And for the first few nights we were provided by towel origami starting with towels that had been shaped into Mickey's face and ears and later in to a holder for our first time badges that we received at check-in.
It was nearly 830pm by the time we were ready to check out our restaurant and as we entered there was a large tv screen where guests were watching a film that had been scheduled for outdoor use. It was our first chance at using our Disney meal plan and started with a degree of confusion. The plan entitled us to 2 main meals and 2 snacks per day but what constituted a meal or snack was open to debate! There were jumbaliya, gumbo, pizza, cheeseburgers, shrimp or chicken salads and muffaletta (a kind of sandwich) among the menu choices - which never changed, and among desserts were ice cream, cheesecake and fruit salad. There were a range of drinks available including tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a range of soft drinks - including root beer which I can only describe as a mix between castor oil and surgical spirit. For children there's burgers, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As we were using the Disney dining plan we were restricted to the cafes / restuarants that we could use and whilst at our resort we used the Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory.
It soon became clear that Disney employed a great deal of students and elderly staff and many didn't really listen (or care) about what the guests wanted serving completely the wrong meals. When we got to the checkout we were all asked to choose a free plastic cup (normally $11.99 plus tax each) which we could use for free refills whilst at our resort. However, what Disney staff failed to tell us was that the cups could be used at ANY of their resorts as could our Disney dining plan albeit the plan was limited to specific restaurants and other eateries as well as a range across all their parks - a map of participating outlets is available when you arrive at check in. We did however discover that the water tastes foul and we often resorted to bottled water, orange juice and flavoured Nesquik Milk.
It was nearly 10pm by the time we arrived back at our room and we quickly put our clothes in the chest of drawers provided. We found very quickly however that there was insufficient space for what we had brought in 3 suitcases and in fact as we went through our stay more and more had to be left on the table situated in the corner of our room. As it was now past 3am UK time we decided to go to bed and in the morning used our ensuite bathroom facilities before returning again to the restaurant for breakfast. Unfortunately one look at the menu was enough to suggest to me that this was not for me. It included muffins, croissants, Danish pastries, breakfast platters (bounty), beignet (similar to hollow doughnuts), omelettes, pancakes, Mickey Waffles, French toast and a range of cereals. With renewed energy we realised just how much sugar and how much colouring they had in their food and drink and if we weren't so active would have been far too easy to put weight on. If you decide to eat the corn bread or biscuit with your meal they look and feel like cakes without the taste of them! On many occasions I just wanted to put jam and cream on the biscuit because it was just like a scone - without the sweetness! I would also not recommend the grape jelly (grape jam) which is ectremely sweet. Fanta orange by the way is deep red with all the colouring added.
By about the middle of our first week I have to admit that I had had enough of the food on offer at our resort and we started to explore other resorts including the Riverside Mill food court at the main resort which surprisingly had a larger menu and bigger shops!
As we had had Disney and Universal Studios tickets we didn't spend a lot of time during the day at our resort but we did frequently look at the t-shirts, candy, games, badges, photo albums and other items at Jackson Square Gifts & Desires and it would be the place that we visited to collect items bought at Disney parks which are delivered free to your resort. So although my wife (Sue) had her eye on a metal Mickey Mouse trivet, we actually bought it from the Animal Kingdom. Prices were the same at all Disney shops and a t-shirt would be $20-$30 at any resort or park and their scrapbook are on sale for around $26. The only differences between shops are the designs on offer.
We also used the laundry a few times which is available throughout the night using your room key. Machines are coin operated and there is a soap and drinks machine also on site. This compared to the UK is very cheap and it is advisable to keep a check on the dryers as they are very hot. The laundry is situated next to the pool and only a short walk from the restaurant / shop and entrance.
There is also an arcade on site which we didn't use although Sue's son did go in a few times but only after we had gone back to our rooms late at night.
With temperatures ranging from 34 to 39 degrees centigrade we would often return to our resort for an hour or so in the pool to relax normally after our evening meal. Sue had chosen this resort because it was smaller than many and as it was away from the majority of the other resorts she had assumed that the pool would be less busy than the others. In fact, our first week was the end of the American school holiday so was still well populated. The pool had a set of walk in steps near to the alligator slide and depths ranged from around 3ft, up to about 4ft8. The pool bent round on itself and there was a jacuzzi (hot tub), Doubloon Lagoon Mardi Grogs Pool Bar where you could buy your tipple and free towels that you could take over to one of the sun loungers paraded around the pool. There were plenty of lifeguards but health and safety doesn't seem to be on their list as we remained in the pool despite a lightning storm being right overhead. It was almost 30 minutes before they finally decided to close the pool despite lightning almost hitting the resort and certainly not an experience I wish to repeat.
There are plenty of smoking areas throughout the resort and parks and there is a play area that we never visited. At night however when weather permitted towels were issued to guests to sit on the grass in front of a massive inflatable screen which would play a movie every night at about 7pm, and on the occasion we watched it they played Tarzan which was watched by around 60 or so guests and a white rabbit that was sat at the end of someone's towel.
We did on one occasion use the riverboat that we took from the French Quarter Landing to Downtown Disney which was extremely uncomfortable and as the engine revved the vibration coming through the wooden benches was quite off putting. We also used Disney's bus service on one occasion to travel to The Magic Kingdom while some of the party went shopping. Unlike buses in the UK, the seats are sideways and much of the bus is given over to disabled seating and there are in fact only around 30 seats that are rather narrow and uncomfortable. With the bus and boat they are both around 15-20 minute trips.
It is expected in the USA that you tip for any service you receive and unless you have table service you will not be expected to tip at the resorts. However, you are expected to tip the "Mouse Keeper" $1 per person per room per day, so in our case for the 14 days we were due to pay $84. I do say due because Sue's son didn't pay after about the 4th day and in our case although we left the tip which was easily visible it was not always taken. We did consider whether to tip because after about the third day of our stay the cleaning was sporadic and on the odd occasion had not actually been done until mid-afternoon. Certainly the beds were always tidied but the room was not always as we expected. Over the 2 weeks, we probably paid less than $50.
Our room had table and chairs, 2 double beds, bath with shower, dual sink, iron & ironing board, hair dryer (which certainly pleased my wife as she left her prized possession at home), chest of drawers and built in fridge as well as telephone that allowed you to contact services or other rooms in the hotel. There was not however enough space for the clothes despite only having 2 large suitcases and a third that was actually inside our fourth and in fact we had to leave some on our table as we had nowhere else to store them. On saying that we did come home with 3 cases that were on our weight limit of 23kg and the fourth was around 18kg.
Service at our restaurant again was sporadic with the serving stations often ignoring your requests or making their own choices for you. There were also two moments that stood out the first happened on the eve of our departure when one of the servers made an honest mistake and handed me the milkshake of another customer and was subject to a string of abuse despite me handing the drink over to the other customer. The second occasion was about 9am on our final morning when we went in the restaurant for a drink using our snack credits. The self service area had a series of spillage trays that were close to overflowing and one of the cleaners was asked to empty them. It was clear the amount of liquid in them was too much to be lifted out into the sink, and common sense would have told the cleaner to use a cup or something to pour some out before trying to move it. Instead, the cleaner decide to lift it and in so doing flooded the whole area and then made it quite clear that the customers were to blame.
Our impression of this hotel was that the accommodation was really good, and service in the shop and customer service was excellent as was the ground staff who left the grounds in perfect condition day after day. Cleaning and restaurant staff however gave the impression they really didn't care, and the really poor choice on our restaurant menu are what we remember most. I would certainly recommend a Disney resort hotel for your first visit to Disney - just not this one. It is extremely attractive but the service we expected (for the money) was not always up to scratch.
We did visit several other restaurants on other Disney resorts during our stay and in so doing were impressed by some of the building designs and surrounding areas:
Art of Animation - Lion King characters posed on rocks and walking across fallen trees, Little Mermaid characters painted on the outside of the buildings (at the time of our visit the resort was still not fully open)
Disney's All Star Movies - giant Buzz Lightyear and Woody with toy soldiers on the roof, soldiers on parade, giant dinosaur and part of a giant car built in to the design of one of the buildings, and Woody written in wooden building blocks and giant Dalmation among some of the designs on display
Disney's Contemporary resort (located at the Magic Kingdom) where the monorail travels through the resort and in view of the restaurant
Caribbean Beach Resort built on a lake
What our visits did prove was that our Disney dining plans were available at any resort, our drinks cups were usable in any resort and most important of all - they have varied menus some of which are relatively extensive.
Would I stay at Disney again, well yes we would consider it (if we ever had the opportunity to do it again, and if we had the Disney dining plan) - just not at the same resort. The Disney dining plan on average saved us around $35 + drinks for breakfast at our resort and lunch / dinner $60 main meal + desserts $25 + drinks + 2 snacks each per day - so in estimation over $2,200! We loved the experience just not the overall service.
The Port Orleans resort is devided into 2 sections, Riverside and French quarter. If your interested in staying here check out both places as they have completely different styles.
The port Orleans French Quarter resort has a New Orleans/Mardi Gras theme to it. Its a really small resort with only about 1000 rooms (well small on Disneys standards!) so regardless of where your room is located your quite close to everything.
I really enjoy the theming of this hotel, it has little cobbled streets lined with old fashioned lamposts leading to all the different buildings. The buldings are all different colours (pale pastels) with the wrought iron railings just like new orleans. There is always some jazz music playing in the background. The sassagoula river winds along one side of the resort.
In the centre of the resort there is a food court and shop. There is no restaurant here as it is over at the larger section of the resort - the Port orleans riverside but it is only a 10 minutes walk away.
There is only one pool but it is really large, it has a slide for the kids and a pool bar for the adults. The rooms are all the same with 2 Queen beds, bathroom, tiled area with 2 sinks, hanginf area and safe. TV, table, 2 chairs and a small fridge. Its basic but comfortable.
The staff are always friendly and the hotel was spotless. I loved the fact that the maids (or mousekeepers as they called themselves) turned the small towels into animals to leave on the bed - towel origami they called it!
All in all a beautiful resort, quiet and small so feels a million miles away from the busy orlando theme parks.