Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Town Busch Gardens Williamsburg review for kids on Autism Spectrum

It has been an absolute joy to cover what was going on this season at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. It truly is one of our most favorite places on earth.

Christmas Town is still going on so there is time to get there if you wish. Best time for ASD kids is going be when it isn't overly crowded, so I would advise against visiting on a Saturday, at least not the full day.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Christmas Town at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg is full of holiday magic

America’s most beautiful park lives up to its title again with Christmas Town.   Busch Gardens in Williamsburg’s halls are completely decked with wreaths, bows, lights and real Christmas trees for the sixth time since 2009. The event has grown much over the years with even more lights, shows and rides open from its early beginnings. The park gets turned into this holiday extravaganza in just about 3 weeks after Howl-O-Scream.

Christmas Town is an additional event which typically begins a week before Thanksgiving and runs until the end of the year. This year (the most wonderful time of the year at Busch Gardens) began on November 21 and is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus 2 weeks in the middle of December. The park is open overall from 2-10 pm but you should check the operating hours before going as some days they open later or close earlier.  This is a time to visit the park for the seasonal delights and not necessarily the rides (as many are not operating due to weather and maintenance). The coasters are closed except for Verbolten, as are all the water rides and the two dark rides (Europe in the Air and Dark Castle), the Mach Tower and all other rides remain open weather permitting. 

In fact if you are short on the Christmas spirit, this is the place to go. It is nearly impossible to not truly appreciate the beauty of the holiday season with 8 million twinkling lights, the sweet clean smell of pine trees and some of the best hot cider and hot chocolate you have ever had. Also,as it turns out Santa takes up residence at Busch Gardens before he takes his long journey on Christmas Eve. If that isn't enough there are live penguins, delicious food and plenty of options for shopping. But it's the lights that make it so magical...plus some "snow".

What you will see
Each country has its own light theme. England is very traditional with white lights, holly and red ribbons.  It "snows" in England near Union Jax in the evenings.

In Scotland  it’s a winter wonderland of blues. The horses are still at the stables for pictures.

Ireland and Italy are themed as you would expect, Ireland is lit in greens, Italy is very gold with angles. 

Fiesta Italia has become Holiday Hills and is a retro holiday theme with your classic red, green and white. All of the rides and the arcade is open here (with heat). 

They also added these billboards to give it a town theme that features the original Coke Santa Claus. 

 France is full of blue, purple and silver and decorated as the 12 days of Xmas so plenty of partridges in some pear trees. This is also where the Penguin attraction is located. Penguins are on loan from SeaWorld and a zoo. 

Germany’s theme is O’Tannenbaum and is home to the 50 foot tree that lights up with music. 

You can click here to see the video of the actual lighting.

Be sure not to miss the Polar Pathway (the transition from England into Italy where Pompeii is). Riding the train around when it’s not super cold is really nice you can see a lot of the lights including what you can only see from the train. The Skyride is open as well and the above view is probably breath taking (it was far too crowded for us to get on it) but I have enjoyed the skyride plenty of times and am always in awe. You can lap the park twice in the same day to see it all (both lit and unlit).

What you will hear
As always, Busch Gardens has music in the back ground of each country. So for each themed location there is a set list of holiday music on the loop. Over in Germany you will hear O'Tannenbum, in other songs in German. In Ireland there is holiday themed Irish music. France plays the Twelve Days of Christmas. But my favorite was when you walk the bridge between Italy and Germany to the song Let there be Peace on Earth while looking at the lights, it is such a lovely version of the song it may just get you a tad choked up.

Holiday Shopping
Shopping at Christmas town can be part of the fun there is plenty of it around. The normal stores will be open selling Busch Gardens merchandise as well as holiday decorations and gifts. In Oktoberfest there is an outdoor market of items from local artisans, winery and even more fun ornaments and such at the big store in Germany across from Dark Castle. With all of holly jolly around it makes a good time to pick up some special items, or get pictures done for your holiday gift giving, regardless of what you celebrate. Cashless wristbands are offered and can be purchased once you enter the park to make your day a bit easier. You can pre pay a set amount or link to a credit card depending on your preference and needs. If you pay up front with cash and don’t use it all, it is refunded to you at the end of your night. You can use these for all purchases including dining.

Food is always part of the fun and exceptionally delicious at Busch Gardens. The menu is relatively the same but gets tweaked for the season.  Some examples of holiday themed foods are turkey, ham, stuffing, hot chocolate and hot apple cider. You can purchase a Christmas Town themed refillable mug for about $6 and get as much hot chocolate and hot cider all season long for $1 a refill. For Christmas town you will also get to enjoy holiday treats like S’mores, Fondue Fudge, seasonal soups in a bread bowl. Over in France you can get some Trappers Smoke House deliciousness even outside from smoked turkey legs to smoked sausage sandwiches with whatever toppings you like (kraut, cheese, peppers, onions, chili, all of the above), plus beef stew, corn dogs and much more. There is never a need to ever be hungry here. In Italy you can dine at Dashers Diner for a buffet, or grab some Italian classics at Ristorante Della Piazza. Pricing is always reasonable compared to what you would spend for the same quality. (much better than Applebees or Olive Garden, more authentic)A typical family meal for 3 is about $30-$35 including dessert and drinks. There are many options available for counter or sit down meals. I am getting hungry just thinking about all of the options, and really you need several days if you want to enjoy it all....do not eat before coming to Busch Gardens, its worth it.

Santa’s Fireside Feast (Castle O Sullivan in Ireland) is a holiday buffet and interactive show with Santa. You can meet Santa, tell him what you would like for Christmas and get a picture taken with the big man himself. He also will read everyone a story, there is a small show with this including elves but you are part of the show. 

Ms. Claus will bring cookies out for dessert. It was a real delight and a must for kids. You can book this for lunch or dinner, bring your appetite the buffet includes a carving station of turkey or ham, Swedish meatballs, homemade mac-n-cheese, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and plenty of food for kids plus a salad bar and more. Cost is about $31 for adults, $20 for kids 3-9 and free for children 2 and under.

No trip is complete without a visit to at least one of the shows. Every theater except for the Palladium in France has a show for Christmas Town. In the Globe Theater (England) you can enjoy Scrooge No More an adaptation of the Charles Dickens Classic A Christmas Carol, with a technological enhancement. On opening weekend it was standing room only and for those who have seen London Rocks or the Jack the Ripper show, we had a good idea what to expect. The Globe has received an upgrade this year with lighting and sound and the festive show fully takes advantage of the new technology. At the Festhaus there is Deck the Halls a musical holiday review show that covers all the many "Christmas" traditions. In Italy at the San Marco Theater  is Miracles a winter themed acrobatic, action packed dance and vocal show. And in Ireland at the Abby Stone is Gloria a retelling of the first "Christmas".

If we lived closer I would be at Christmas Town over and over throughout the season, especially if having a bad day.  Parking is complimentary for season pass holders and $15 if you do not have a pass. Saturdays are typically very busy, so keep that in mind when you make your plans. There are heaters (the type you find at restaurants/bars with outdoor dining) spread around the park for you to warm up in case it is chilly. There are also tents set up in France, New France and England for you to eat "indoors" where you would normally not be able to do so.

I would recommend getting the Christmas Town Pass even if you aren’t local and are going for the weekend. It’s a good value to spend 2 days there. And you need that to be able to take in all the shows without rushing through the park. This is a time to savor and enjoy your family, take pictures to cement memories. And just savor the season.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What it is like to take a Disney Cruise

All Aboard the Disney Dream!!

                    This smoke stake plays "when you wish upon a star in horn" it's magical!

Since I recently turned a certain age and haven’t been celebrating my birthdays we decided to do something a bit fancy this year.  My husband and I have never been on a cruise and I was apprehensive about embarking on one so I told him, if we can go Disney and do it for the shortest period of time, I am in. I have motion sickness issues, to the point I don’t even go on a carousel, but this has never diminished my love for certain theme parks (Busch Gardens, Disney). I enjoy the atmosphere. Since our son is autistic and has numerous issues with certain concepts, transitions and sensory challenges, we knew we had to do this first.  As you know, you can’t possibly get your ASDchild to understand what is not understandable to them if you can’t reach them, and you certainly can’t reach them if you never did it yourself. So it was research really (wink).

We took the Disney Dream in October on a 3 night cruise to the Bahamas out of Port Canaveral Florida.  This cruise will take you to Nassau for the day and a day at Disney’s private island Castaway Cay.  We never left the boat on the day at Nassau, but we did have to check out the island. It is all that you hear and more, but more on this later.

Disney has its own terminal in Port Canaveral. They do the check in process as smoothly as possible, but considering the ship can hold 4,000 guests, expect it to take a bit. They give you the option to pick an arrival time. We arrived just before 1 p.m. which may have not been the best time. Since we were on property just prior to the cruise we had Disney pick us up and take us to the terminal. They can do this from the airport as well, and if you aren’t renting a car and don’t have a large group of people it is the most economical way to go.  It is also the most stress-free way. The buses are comfortable, air conditioned and have a bathroom. Plus they handle all of your luggage. They also show Disney cartoons and a video about what is coming up on the cruise. Similar to what you see on the MagicalExpress (Which is also lovely and a must). Your actual check in can be started online, so when you get to a cast member it only takes a few minutes for them to take your picture and give you your key to the world cards. The cruise line as of the fall of 2014 is not set up for magic bands yet. Don't forget you need a passport or passport card when going to the Bahamas. If you don't have either of these, I was told you can bring your birth certificate (with seal and mother's maiden name) along with a driver's license. But if you wind up in a situation where you had to fly home, you would still need a passport.

The Disney Dream is spectacular, it is an enormous ship of over 1100 feet in length and can carry over 1400 crew with the 4,000 passengers. It is not the largest cruise ship, though it is one of them. 

                                    It is beautiful on the inside and out. Art is everywhere.

I was apprehensive about the motion of the ocean and countless people have told me for years, that these cruise ships are like hotels, and you can’t feel it. Well they were wrong that I could indeed feel it, but they were right that it did not make me sick and that it was like a big hotel. I could only feel the ship the first day, and the last night when we were cruising at a very good pace back to Port Canaveral. From Nassau to Castaway, it was as if the boat was just floating there (which is semi-true, it’s a short distance). I have been on ferries and the Spirit of Philadelphia and never got sick on those, but did feel queasy on the Spirit when we were docked and a bigger boat came by. This never happened on this cruise. I did not feel sick in the slightest, and I have felt queasy from reading a book in a car, swinging on a swing too long, and I cannot ride rides like Star Tours.  Everyone is different and they do have an infirmary on board stocked with motion sickness meds. I did feel like I was moving still for about 2 days after, not nauseous just like you feel after being in a car for a long time. A tad vertigo without the spinning. 

Once you are on board (and you can board around 11 a.m.) you can get your picture taken, check out your room and go have your first meal. Rooms are ready by 1:30, your luggage will arrive later so take a day bag. Our first meal was at Cabanas, which is the main buffet. They put out a breakfast and lunch buffets each day of the cruise. You do have counter service options as well as 24 hour room service. Room service is FREE, with the exception of alcohol and bottled beverages.  There are also 5 full service restaurants on board that are typically for dinner; Animators Palate, the Enchanted Garden, and The Royal Palace. Palo and Remy which are fine dining, more private options, work as reservations only with a 75 upcharge per couple. The first day you also had the option of eating lunch at the Enchanted Garden. At 4 p.m. there is a mandatory safety drill. Even though it is well organized sending specific guest rooms to specific areas of the main theater, It was very chaotic getting into the theater. Though the drill itself was very short, less than 10 minutes.  And its purpose is to show you how to use a life vest and where to go if there was an emergency. But now that we know what to expect, I would wait to enter near the end to avoid the chaos, or ask a cast member to be seated BEFORE the chaos when bringing our son.

The ship is decorated for Halloween during the month of October for Halloween on the High Seas.

The ship is full of activities. The highlight for the adventurous is the Aqua Duck, a water coaster.  You don’t have too many steps to climb and the wait will vary on when you decide to ride it. I noticed it was from 10-45 minutes. We chose to ride it the day the ship docked at Castaway, just before we disembarked. (it was 10minutes that day) You ride in a 2 person raft up down and around the ship (and yes it actually goes over the side a little bit) it wasn’t overly terrifying thankfully, it was fun! We rode it a second time even.

There are movies playing in 2 locations most of the day all days of the cruise. One is a large TV by the family pool, and also in one of the 2 theaters. In the evening you get treated to a Disney production in the other theater, it is more elaborate than the shows in the parks, and about half of the time of a Broadway show. The quality is as good as those Broadway shows between the talent and the special effects You can also, swim, play sports, visit the health club or spa, take a tour, play various games and just plain relax. There are numerous activities each day and you will be given what is called Your Personal Navigator, and lovely 4 paged brochure of all the activities, movie times and restaurant operating times each day. The live theater show is different each night, so if you don’t see it, you don’t see it. We only made one of the shows, which was called Believe, and it was awesome. I don’t always care for live theater, probably because you have to sit still for so long in crammed quarters (hate concerts too, but love music). But this was just right for me as it was just 45 minutes long. My husband (and the guy next to him) were caught crying at times…though he will say it was the bubbles they launched from the ceiling.

                                                 Pirate party night on one of the big LED TVs

Followed by fireworks! For those with sensitive ears/sensory challenges these will be the quietest fireworks you have experienced, vast ocean means no echo.

The food on board is amazing and excellent. I have some sensitivities and issues with my digestive system so whenever I have “fake food” as in, food with too many additives and such, I get ill. This never happened so I have to assume judging from the taste and experience Disney is using higher quality food. If you have allergies, be sure to tell them when you are booking. A chef will also speak with you on the ship. You will also have 3 servers who will follow you from night to night on the rotational dinning.  They were marvelous and fun. They get to know what you like, and they refill your beverage pretty much after every time you take a drink (ok, not really but if felt that attentive). When you book your cruise you can select which seating you prefer. First is at 5:45 and second is at 8:15. You get to go to each restaurant each night.  The Royal palace serves French cuisine and the d├ęcor is modeled after many Disney Princesses without the actual princesses. The Enchanted Garden’s food is similar but is called Continental fare and the restaurant changes its look slowly throughout your meal. Lamps that look like flowers opening change color, as do pictures on the walls. Animators Palate is family fun and an interactive experience with characters from Finding Nemo. The art work comes to life and gets more evolved throughout your meal. This may not be technically "fine dining" but it feels like it, and must be in the category of Disney Signature Dining. If you are a couple you will be seated with other couples. We got to know a lovely couple from Canada who also have an autistic child (also not with them for the cruise) and another fun couple from Orlando who were huge Disney fans. I wasn’t sure I would like sitting with strangers, but it turned out to be great fun, and a little magical.

                                                         The Enchanted Garden
                                                           Animator's Palate
                The tables are numbered and you sit at the same numbered table each night.

                                                A special surprise birthday cake just for me!

Your room is cleaned twice a day.  In fact the whole ship was extraordinarily clean, people were always cleaning. You will arrive to your room clean, and in the evening around dinner or your show time, it will be cleaned again. They will leave you chocolate and a little surprise with Disney’s special art of Origami towels.  Our stateroom attendant Danny was a real delight and even left us a bag of trick or treat candy one night (which we did bring back for our son). Disney is serious about hygiene and not spreading germs, you very rarely hear of people getting sick on a Disney cruise. I didn’t see anyone sick the whole time and it is in part because of their cleanliness and they make you sanitize your hands every time you sit to eat. Hand sanitizing stations are in many locations and before boarding.

                   It might be an Elephant or it may be Zero from Nightmare Before Xmas.

                                                        Boo! It's an origami Ghost!

You should plan to leave tips for your stateroom attendant and wait staff. You can have it added to your bill or get envelopes from guest services for cash. Disney will give you information on suggested tips based on your occupancy and length of cruise. We left slightly more for 3 out of 4 of the people we tipped and standard for our head server (only because he had little hands-on work compared to the others, so wanted to give them more) For our 3 day trip with the 2 of us meant we left about $80 (standard was $70 something). I felt they earned it.

Castaway Cay is a lovely island, with happy people. They will bring you drinks on the beach and there is a lunch Barbecue (in 3 locations, Cookies, Cookies Two, and at Serenity Beach the adults only area). Mouth watering steak, burgers, dogs, sausage, chicken and salads. I told my dad he should consider a cruise just because of Castaway Cay. Not only can you eat steak from 11:30-3pm the day you are there, you can smoke anywhere you like. (just have the decency to not smoke near children or be a litter bug). There are island activities if you wish to add them on, like snorkeling or renting rafts. There is a water play area for kids (or adult kids) and other water craft adventures. We chose to just relax on the beach, swim, read and eat.

Ok, I did go on the water slide, but it was for research purposes.

                                                       And Characters too!

On your last morning you get breakfast in the same place you had your last dinner. If you are a first seating at dinner, breakfast is at 6:45 a.m, if you are second seating it is at 8 a.m. You also have the option to go to Cabanas for one last buffet! We went to the sit down so we could tip our "crew" and say goodbye to our dinner companions.  Disney is serious about you getting the heck off the boat though, they have to turn it over for the next group that will be sailing the same day.

In my experience I find the company itself a remarkably well fueled machine; everything runs smoothly, and on the cruise everything was meticulously clean. The staff who works in their children’s activity centers are staffed with professional childcare workers and teachers.  So it doesn’t matter if you don’t care about Mickey, the customer service alone is what will have me come back. But that magic aspect doesn’t hurt either. There are characters on board and at Castaway Cay, you will have an easier time and more of it with those characters then you do in the parks. The ship was beautiful, full of art, and even an art gallery. We didn't get to see everything or do everything, but I know we will be back. 

Examiner Article "Can you take a child with Autism on a Disney Cruise?"

Up next, the cost of a cruise and how to pay for it. (coming soon!)

                                                                See ya real soon!!!