Rich’s Birthday Celebration Part 1: Na-vi River Journey and Nomad Lounge

One of the fun things about living here is checking for FastPass+ for some of the more popular rides in the 30-day window – you never know what you might find. We’d heard about the craziness of Pandora’s opening day (just entering the park had to be scheduled), and thought we might not be able to ride either of the two new rides until after the summer crowds were over.

But I happened to notice an opportunity for the night before Rich’s birthday and thought what a fun birthday kickoff that would be. Besides, he was taking his birthday off so it would be okay if we were out late on a work night. This was also the first time we’d experience Animal Kingdom at night since they started extending the hours. For most of its history, it would close around 7 pm or so, and we had only experienced it during the morning hours.

We arrived at the park at around 6 pm or so (I think our FP was for about 7 pm), parked, and trammed to the entrance. We noticed right away that there was a lot of shade at this time of day, which was a relief because AK can be very hot. It was busy but not unpleasantly so. We stopped off at Guest Relations so Rich could get his birthday button. He got a lot of happy birthday wishes. We even stopped at PhotoPass, the first we’d done that since we got our APs.

We explored Pandora and were very impressed with it. Animal Kingdom used to be somewhere we’d go about every 5 years – lol! But now it may be our second favorite park, although it’s certainly giving Epcot a run for its money.

We enjoyed the ride so much, we’ve made another FP and can’t wait to return. (Besides, we need to see the rest of the park because we really didn’t see much other than Pandora).

Afterwards we stopped in at Nomad Lounge and peeked into Tiffins. We were quite impressed with both. But with birthday dinner the next day, we were there for appetizers and drinks. It was a bit warm outside so we found a nice air-conditioned table and chairs inside and ordered our drinks.

Rich got the Lamu Libation, a Rum Runner type drink, and I got the Hightower Rocks, a watermelon Margarita – so refreshing! Then we ordered the Florida LionFish Tacos and Pork Ribs. The tacos were refreshing, although the shell was too dainty and broke, making eating it a bit difficult. But the ribs, oh my goodness, absolutely delicious!

Afterwards, we walked around outside the lounge, making plans to return next time after dark when it’s a bit cooler out there. The tables for two are a bit small so that might be best saved for drinks only, although there are couches and tables for larger parties.

We headed back to Pandora to take another look around in the dark – the atmosphere is so amazing. We’d skipped dessert at Nomad Lounge (Churros was the only choice), so we picked up some dessert at a walk-up – some kind of cream cheese pineapple eggroll, I think. It was tasty, although the filling squirted out and got a bit messy.

Anyway, we then headed back to our “resort,” which is about 45-minutes to an hour away, depending on where we are in the park and traffic. But, having lived 2 miles from WDW for a year, we know the back roads pretty well.

It was really a wonderful way to kick off Rich’s birthday. Unlike my birthday when we did a morning activity, back to the resort, and then back to Disney for dinner, we split it up – evening activity the night before, back to the resort for a restful morning, and then back to Disney for birthday dinner.

The lush Pandora grounds

The ceiling in the Nomad Lounge (while there we chatted with a couple who lived in Windermere, where we used to live). They were staying onsite for the wife’s birthday.

Lamu Libation

Hightower Rocks

LionFish Tacos

Pork Ribs


Looking back at Nomad Lounge

Rich’s Birthday Celebration Part 2: Citricos

By Rich

The Grand Floridian is a beautiful place to celebrate, and Citricos was the perfect restaurant for my birthday dinner.

We were seated in an excellent location at a table for two near the exhibition kitchen and the private wine room/dining room. Our server, Naow, was very good. He was attentive and helpful, with some humor too.

The bread basket was first. It included some warm, delicious kalamata olive bread. A very tasty start.

Menu

Amuse-bouche
Rich & Kathy
Watermelon and Goat Cheese<

Entree

Kathy

Bell & Evans Chicken
Fregula Pasta, Mushrooms, Spinach, Sun-dried Tomato Pesto, Chicken Jus

Rich

Wild-caught Halibut
Saffron Jasmine Rice, Clams, Calico Scallops, Chorizo Vinaigrette

Dessert

Birthday Dessert
Custard in a Cone with cream and chocolate

Rich & Kathy

Florida Key Lime Pie
Baked in a Graham Cracker Tart Shell served with fresh Strawberries and a Quenelle of Sweet Mandarin Sorbet

Wine

Kathy: Lafond Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, CA

Rich: Kurt Russel’s GoGi “Goldy” Chardonnay

The amuse-bouche was a fresh start, well balanced between the sweetness of the watermelon and the tanginess of the goat cheese.

Kathy had the chicken. Who knew chicken could be so good? I had a taste with all the accompaniments, and it was amazing. Full-flavored, juicy, and smoky. The sun-dried tomato pesto was a perfect match.

I had the halibut. I love well-prepared fish, and this was no exception. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The rice was creamy with the lovely semi-sweet taste of the saffron. Of course, I also love clams and scallops, and they paired splendidly with the fish. The chorizo vinaigrette tied it all together.

We both selected the suggested wine pairings for our entrees, although we were actually thinking of getting the opposite. In the end, the suggested pairings were perfect. Kathy’s California Pinot Noir stood up nicely to the rich chicken, and my Chardonnay added a brightness to the fish without overpowering it.

For dessert, we ordered the key lime pie (one of our favorite desserts) to share. Before we could eat that though, Naow brought out a birthday dessert for me — custard in a cone with rich cream and a chocolate that said “Happy Birthday” on it. Kathy and Naow serenaded me with a much-appreciated rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

The key lime pie was fantastic — just the right touch for ending a fabulous meal.

It was a fantastic birthday meal. The food, the service, the atmosphere, and the company of my beautiful wife made for a memorable evening. We will definitely be back to enjoy Citricos again.

Thoughts from Kathy:

After dinner, we sat down in Mizner’s but it was crowded and noisy and didn’t have the vibe we wanted that night. So we got up and walked over to the Poly, for old times’ sake. It was a very romantic stroll and, as usual, we enjoyed the grounds. However, the inside “renovation” – oh dear, it was pretty bad, in our opinions. We doubt we’ll be back there. It just looks so tired and why don’t they add a nice adult, upscale restaurant? It’s even more family friendly (family exclusive?) than before.

Even Trader Sam’s was in an odd location. We peeked into that, too, but the one at Disneyland is far better. So we headed back to the GF, picked up our car parked halfway between the two (or at least, it seemed) and drove home remembering every bite of the amazing food and awesome service. We’d put Citricos on the same level as Napa Rose at the GC.

Mizner’s Orchestra on the Mezzanine

Kurt Russell Chardonnay

Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Watermelon with Goat Cheese Amuse Bouche

Bell and Evans Chicken

Halibut with clams and scallops

Complimentary Birthday Custard

Key Lime Pie

The Grand Floridian

The Polynesian Village

Territory Lounge

Thirteen weeks and counting since we left our home in Las Vegas, and this is starting to feel like the longest road trip ever – lol. So even though we had a fabulous night at Epcot last Friday, by Sunday the “resort” was feeling quite confining. Rich said, “Let’s go to Disney Springs” and off we went.

We arrived at around 6 p.m. and it was still quite hot out with very few clouds. We actually enjoy the afternoon storms because they cool things off and when they’re missing, it can be pretty uncomfortable in late afternoon. Disney Springs was also very crowded, so we turned around and headed for Wilderness Lodge. Just the sound of it was refreshing, and we’d been toying for some time with the idea of a drink and snack at Territory Lounge – “Berry Cobbler” in particular.

Rich dropped me off at the Lodge while he self-parked and so I waited for him in the Lobby. Ah, you know how wonderful that is! When he joined me, we made our way to the Lounge, found a table with a view of people going in/out of Artist Point. Such fun people-watching. We began to relax and feel quite at home here. I’d been craving a vodka martini and Rich said, “Dirty?” and ordered 2 “dirty” vodka martinis. They really hit the spot.

Feeling a lot like we were at our favorite Hearthstone Lounge at the Grand Californian where we would get a Flatbread, I spotted the Neopolitan Pizza, which we shared and was so yummy! I was quite full after that and suggested we skip dessert. Well, I thought Rich might cry – lol – so I said, “Go ahead and get dessert” and he ordered the Cobbler and a decaf, and I managed to help him out with both.

Not a bad way to kill time while waiting for a new home to be built, right? I wish we were going there tonight. I can taste the martini and the pizza. The CMs were so friendly and the manager stopped by to see how we were doing. It was also quite a nice crowd – couples and a couple of families with well-behaved kids. What a delightful evening! Territory Lounge definitely competes quite well with Hearthstone Lounge, which I’m happy to know because I was afraid I would be missing Hearthstone too much. No problem!

Good-bye Universe of Energy, Hello Frozen

We secured a FP+ for Frozen last Friday night (our first time), and while we were there, we rode Universe of Energy for the last time. I have nostalgic feelings for it, remembering when Epcot first opened in October of 1982 – I was there the first week in December. But I do believe it is time for it to go – so dated and long and boring – lol!

Good-bye Universe of Energy

From there we stopped in at Mexico and got a couple of Cucumber Margaritas on the rocks at a new stand we hadn’t seen before. And a Margarita on the Rocks is new for us, too. Before they only had frozen and we prefer the rocks.

Feeling at home, like we’d never left

We also noticed the Food & Wine Festival booths were in place, although still in progress. We were thinking 2 days before Labor Day weekend was too early to start the festival but now we can’t wait.

Food & Wine Festival booth in progress

We sipped and walked around the Lagoon, stopped in at the Caramel shop in Germany and Rich picked up a little dessert for us and then peeked into Spice Road Table in Morocco – definitely on our “must do” list. Then we headed back to Norway to ride Frozen. We’d thought that Frozen was overly-hyped but we were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the ride – definitely an improvement over the former Norway ride, at least to us.

Same boat, new ride

Olaf was so cute, we had to bring him home and he sits proudly next to our disco light next to the stereo – lol! Well, we had to do something to add some charm to this place. Ha!

Olaf loves disco

Which reminds me, did we post a pic of Mr. & Mrs. Quack?

Mr. & Mrs. Quack from the BoatHouse gift shop

After that, we headed out to the parking lot before the Illuminations crowd but stopped in at Mouse Gear to pick up a new set of “Love is Magical” champagne glasses for our upcoming anniversary. We chatted with the friendly CMs – they knew from our AP and I.D. that we were locals so we talked about favorite booths at the F&W Festival.

This last move to Florida was the first time we’d left California after we’d enjoyed Cars Land so much. I was quite concerned that I’d miss Cars Land and DCA too much. But I’m happy to report that World Showcase at Epcot continues to top that. It’s always been our favorite park and continues to be so.

What an amazing evening at Epcot! It didn’t rain on us, wasn’t too terribly hot, and the crowds were down – a much better experience than my last MK day trip. And now the F&W Festival is coming up – pretty awesome!

 

Disney in the Morning, Evening at the Beach

After such a hot, hectic but exciting morning at the Magic Kingdom, I needed to relax at the beach so Rich and I headed out there after I picked him up at work. The beach was amazing, and something I’m so looking forward to when we finally live there.

As an update to yesterday, I got a bit dehydrated even though I drank water throughout the morning – it was just too hot for the parks. I’m still under the weather so we’ll probably reschedule this weekend’s Frozen FPs.

 

Catching up with the Magic Kingdom: Mine Train for the First Time

As locals twice before, we know to avoid the parks in the summer – not only for the heat but for the crowds – cranky, pushy, annoying crowds! That’s why we almost decided not to get an AP until the Food & Wine Festival. Still, here we were with so much to catch up on with the time/access to do it now.

So far, we’ve caught up on the two easiest parks to get in and out of: Epcot and Studios. We only wanted to brave the MK during the summer if we could get the elusive FP+ for the Mine Train. I know Sue is crazy about it – she rides it on every park trip she takes.

Finding one of those, especially on a summer weekend is like finding gold – eventually I did find one for a weekday just a week or so ago for yesterday. With this unexpected gift, I braved the MK just to ride the Mine Train while Rich was working. 🙂

This is the first I’ve driven to WDW solo this time around – I’d done it plenty of times before, even from Tampa. But I’m not quite as adventurous solo as I used to be. Still, I was determined to peek into the MK and to ride the Mine Train.

I started my day with a cup of coffee but skipped breakfast, thinking I’d get something at the MK, and then I rode with Rich to work, which is about 20-30 minutes north. Then, I headed back south, past our resort on a toll road, and on to the Magic Kingdom. I took a wrong turn around all of that construction on-property. I had to drive way out of my way to find a turn around to head back. I got lucky with my parking space on the end of the row near the Tram stop – usually we’re the first ones in all the way to the farthest end – lol! I made it onto the waiting tram – yay – another win! But by the time I got to bag check, I’d chosen the shortest but slowest line with the biggest bags. Ha! And then I got lucky and had to be scanned. Oh well, I was in no hurry.

A huge crowd was ahead of me in line for the Ferry, and no way was I going to make it on that one, especially with strollers and ECVs running over me. A CM said the next one would arrive in 15-20 minutes – yikes! Thankfully, it was only about 10 minutes. I found my spot near an open “window” and settled in, taking photos. But then a family behind me started crowding me, trying to push me out of the way so they could stand there. This seemed to be a trend on this day – groups bullying me as a solo. Very annoying!

They say that a woman in her 50s becomes invisible and my friends and I found that to be true. But watch out for the next decade – you’re suddenly visible again but visible as an old lady – not fun! More on that later.

I stood my ground, taking video and photos, getting my first look at the Poly bungalows – not a fan of the color – too washed out for me, compared to the traditional rooms. Soon we were off and I entered the Annual Passholder line without a hitch.

The park was very crowded and it was quite hot out. There hadn’t been a storm the day before so the heat was mounting. I headed for Adventureland to take a look around and to take some photos. I saw the new Skipper’s Canteen – we’ve made and broken several ressies for that – hope to eat there sometime, and I thought about riding Pirates – it had always been a walk-on at 10 a.m. even on weekends in the past, but the standby line was 40 minutes. Yikes! I’d read about how WDW seems to always be crowded these days but I had to experience it myself.

I stopped to take some video of Splash Mountain and then walked through Frontierland. By this time I was getting hungry and thirsty – I’d finished the bottle of water I’d brought with me. I took a peek at restaurant availability from my Disney App and noticed that “Be Our Guest” had availability at 11:30. I checked the menu (breakfast) but everything was $25. I decided to pass on that. It was getting close to my FP+ time so I headed for Fantasyland – my first look at the “new” Fantasyland. I got as far as the Mine Train and I was in my window so I got in the FP+ line as a party of one.

I joined another party – grandpa and grandson in the front and mother in the back. When I walked up to join them, she turned around, caught by surprise, and yelled out something that sounded like, “Ewww.” Maybe she expected to ride without a stranger joining in. Maybe she thought I was an old lady but not any older than her dad. Whatever her problem was, she ignored me for the entire ride when I said something. I’m used to Disneyland where everybody treats me like family and we chat about the rides.

I totally disliked this ride – it reminded me of Primeval Whirl, which many, including us, call “Primeval Hurl.” I couldn’t wait for the ride to end. I’d much rather ride Big Thunder Mountain – at least, I think  so – it’s been a year since I last rode it at Disneyland. Maybe I don’t like any of the fast-moving rides anymore. Anyway, the part I did like was the singing of the “Heigh Ho” song by the Dwarves – it’s my ringtone. 🙂

After I escaped the ride, I noticed an ice cream cart so I stopped to get some breakfast – a Mickey Ice Cream Sandwich (yum, yum, yum!) and bottle of water for the trip home – $8. It was way too hot and I’d already walked 2.5 miles and couldn’t take the crowds, especially rude crowds, anymore. That’s what summer is like, I know. I won’t be back to the MK until it’s more comfortable and that probably means staying onsite once we’ve moved into our beach house. It’s so hard to do this park as a local.

I finally made it to the Ferry, and while I waited, an older man chatted with me about how he and his wife were there on a family trip with the grand kids and he was way too old for this heat anymore so he told his family he was headed back to the resort. I guess I’m at the age now where the only people who want to talk to me are people my age. The problem is, they all seem to talk about their grand kids. I’ll have to work on finding something to say in return, not having kids or grand kids.

It was an exhausting but fun day, even if it was hot, crowded and the Mine Train wasn’t my thing.  It’s still pretty cool getting to go to WDW whenever the mood strikes.

 

 

A Magical Disney Birthday at Narcoossee’s

Surprisingly enough, we’d never eaten at a Grand Floridian restaurant but had noticed Narcoossee’s one evening when we landed at the GF dock after cruising around Bay Lake a few years back. So I chose to have my birthday dinner there. Rich made a 7:10 reservation.

After our lunch outing at Hangar Bar, we returned to our “resort” home for naps and then headed back to WDW at around 5 pm. We took a toll road but the city streets leading to I-4 were so packed, we were thinking we’d barely make it in time. Orlando is undergoing such growing pains – I-4 is almost always jammed and under construction almost everywhere. That’s why we do our best to avoid it but, like I said, the roads that cross over I-4 can get pretty backed up.

We finally moved beyond I-4 and once we were on the toll road, we were doing great. We pulled up to the GF gate for the first time and told the guard we had ressies for Narcoossee’s. Unfortunately, we didn’t know exactly where self-park was and we drove in a circle – lol! We stopped the second time around and asked the CM valet where self-park was and he directed us to self-park over by the villas.

We parked and wandered over to the Spa to take our first look of the area since the Villas arrived. We strolled back through the Villas, and then on into the GF. We noticed Cinderella and Prince Charming posing with some kids so we stopped to take a few pics and then on out to Narcoossee’s because by then it was getting close to our reservation. The CM first attempted to seat us in sort of an upstairs area and we asked for a window table. So we were led back to the front desk and he checked to see if we could, indeed, be seated by the window. We were.

Our server introduced himself and when Rich told him it was my birthday, he made the obvious crack about how, at his age, he stopped celebrating as if I might want to too, since I was probably near his age. I only started celebrating my birthday 21 years ago when Rich and I got together (forbidden in my family’s religious background) so I celebrate with gusto every chance I get. Rich is so good at making this happen for me.

On the other hand, I’ve turned off notifications and try to avoid Facebook on birthdays and holidays because FB has enabled some weird interactions in the past, and I don’t need that on my birthday.

Rich was reviewing the wine list and I reminded him of a Disney friend’s recommendation for the Sequoia Grove red from Napa – I have a special tradition with Napa, Redwoods, and Sequoia National Park and drinking a wine with that name would be so special. I looked at the menu but I was still a bit full from lunch at the Hangar Bar and was tempted to just order an appetizer, but then thought, oh it’s my birthday – I need the full experience of a main course. So, here’s what we ordered:

Rich:

Seared Line Caught Swordfish
Toy Box Tomatoes, Marble Potatoes, and Basil Aïoli

Kathy:

Wild Caught Shrimp and Garganelli Pasta
Spinach, Oven-roasted Tomatoes, Basil Pistou, Cheese, and Chardonnay-Garlic Cream

Our server put in our order and brought two glasses of the wine, and some bread. I had planned to ignore the bread but the longer we sat there, the hungrier I got and we soon realized nobody was getting served. So we started sipping the wine. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this wine is a food wine – not a sipping wine – and it was a bit powerful for me without any food. If I’d known we were going to be sipping for so long, I might have ordered something lighter to begin with. But I didn’t know so I started in on the bread and the wine went down a lot more smoothly – lol!

Fellow guests were getting cranky the longer the wait was. The table behind us had been seated at 6:30 and by now it was 8 p.m. with no food in sight. The couple across from us downed more and more champagne. We started seeing food pass us by, plate after plate, dish after dish. Finally, the table behind us got their food but the steaks were overcooked. By this time I was worried the food wouldn’t be any good – what a birthday, huh?

Eventually, our entrees were served at 8:25 p.m. By this time we really were hungry! The good news is, the food was really, really good!! The server then redeemed the situation with a birthday dessert: the (recommended by a Disney friend) Almond Cheesecake, which was amazing and two glasses of champagne. Apparently, the kitchen thought it was also our anniversary (actually, next month). The server joked that we’d sat there so long, it practically was our anniversary – lol!

The other good news was that by the time we finished this amazing dinner, the new Happily Ever After fireworks were starting and so we got to see those, too. And then after that, the Electric Water Pageant had begun so we sat out on the balcony and enjoyed those. Disney had certainly saved the birthday with some pretty awesome Disney magic!

We ended the night with a stroll through the GF and some music at Mizner’s. It was, indeed, a very magical birthday!