Tour Guide Mike Review

If you know my family, you know that we have probably been to Walt Disney World more times than the Disney family themselves.  We have gone at every time of year, gone for different events, gone at various times of day and with various crowds ahead of us.  I have never before felt like I needed help in planning my trip – except for utilizing the awesome and amazing tips offered by the veterans of The Mouse For Less.  This time, I was going with my four month old daughter, during some of the hottest weather of the year, and I wasn’t sure how many days I would have to spend at the parks or if I would be purchasing an annual pass that would encourage me to come back again soon.  I got nervous about how this trip would go.  Yes, I worked at Disney World.  Yes, Jim worked at Disney World.  Yes, Russell worked at Disney World.  It’s not like I had no insider information.  But hearing some of the praise from the members of The Mouse For Less email list about the benefits offered when you purchase Tour Guide Mike, and being nervous about making the most of this trip, I broke down and spent the money on Tour Guide Mike.

Tour Guide Mike can be purchased for a fee of $21.95 (there are discounts available through www.themouseforless.com which brings the price down to $18.95).  What I THOUGHT Tour Guide Mike would do for me was give me a plan of attack, spelled out very clearly, guiding me through how I should spend the time I had while in Disney World.  I thought, based on the days I would be traveling, I would have been given an itinerary similar to what you might get through a cruise director or travel agent, that told me how to make the most of my vacation – seeing as many sights as I could, taking in as many attractions as I could, telling me which days to go where and why.  But, in addition to having all of this information, I wanted it spelled out before me, easy to access, easy to remember, or simple to cart with me. 

I want to start by saying I did not puchase Tour Guide Mike until about 2 weeks before my trip.  Assuming, as I had, that it would be a very specific itinerary for me and my family, I did not anticipate the volume of information that would be available at the site.  Nor did I anticipate that it would not be as easy to find as I expected it to be.  I immediately felt overwhelmed.  There was no way I would have time in the two weeks leading up to the trip to read everything that was available.  There is also a community there where you can join others who are traveling the same month you are traveling.  You need approval from the community leader before participating, and I did not get my approval until a few days before we left, so the community that was discussing my month was of completely no value to me. 

When you sign up for this service, you put in a few pieces of basic information – like the ages of the people you are traveling with, when you are going to Disney World, whether or not you are staying on property – and based on that information, you are guided to a series of articles that Mike has written that may or may not pertain to your party.  There are a ton of articles.  With the amount of time I had remaining before my trip, there was no way I was going to read through all of the articles.  I did my best to read through the express versions of the articles, but every article I clicked on seemed to be related in some way to another article that I should read, and then I wouldn’t get back to where I started and I would feel overwhelmed all over again.

Finally, I was able to piece together some information that pertained to us by going to the sample itineraries.  The thing is, because we have been so many times to Walt Disney World, many of the tips he provides are things we have figured out long ago.  And, they are tips that you can find by asking cast members at the theme parks, checking the boards with the wait times and show times.  While you may not know the questions to ask if this is your first or even your second trip to Disney World, you will have figured it out if you have already been there a few times.  And if you are reading this as you are planning your first trip, you know now that the tips Mike is offering you for $22 you can get for free from many of the CMs at the theme parks.

I ended up printing out nearly 100 pages of stuff, most of which I did not use, because as I found time to read it during our drive down to Florida from New Jersey, it was information I already knew.  And when I put the dates in for my trip, I indicated that we would be there from August 24th through September 2nd, but I could not figure out any way at all to access the information for September.

The things I got the most use out of from the pages I printed out were the opening and closing times of the theme parks and the days the parks had their Extra Magic Hours.  But all of that information is available for FREE at the Disney website, at the front desk of any Disney resort, at the theme parks, and at a variety of other websites.  Had I not printed it all out, I would have just looked it up online. 

I want to emphasize that there might be tremendous value in Tour Guide Mike IF:

 – this is your first trip to Walt Disney World

– you have plenty of time to read thoroughly all of his articles with the tips and information he provides

– you want to go to Disney with your day planned out pretty much to the minute with little flexibility

– you have never been to the theme parks when they are at their most busy and you are looking for tips to avoid the lines and you don’t want to do the work yourself to figure out how to do this.

For my family, having been to Disney numerous times, knowing our way around as well as we know our own home, and already possessing much of the information provided by Tour Guide Mike, I could have spent the money on a t-shirt instead.

Oh, one last thing, Tour Guide Mike does offer a satisfaction guarantee.  Once you are signed up, you no longer see any information about the guarantee, but on the page that tells you how much to pay to sign up, it is there.  We contacted him by email telling him we were not satisfied with our purchase, and we were told that a refund would be granted, and we are the first people since he began his business in 2002 to request a refund.  I think that may be because many people will dismiss the $20 as money down the drain, or once they have gotten their log in information, they no longer see that there is a guarantee.  It could be that people just are too embarassed to request the refund.  I know others who have purchased this and been disappointed in what they found, so even though we may be the only ones to have gotten our money back, I’m sure it’s only because my husband was brave enough to ask.

Cinderella’s Royal Table for Lunch

For the longest time, the hardest meal to get into at Disney’s Magic Kingdom has been breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle.  It was the only character meal there, and featured Cinderella, Prince Charming, and the other familiar characters from the Cinderella story.  Recently, Disney has added the nearly as popular character lunch.  Having a 4 year old daughter, and not willing to go to the extremes necessary to get the Cindy breakfast, I booked the character lunch for our recent trip to Disney World.

I want to start by saying I am not a fan of the character meals at the castle.  I have been to breakfast there with only adults, and I took my oldest when she was about 4 or 5.  The character interaction at this meal is minimal in my opinion, and the food at the breakfast has always been just so-so.  Aside from the fact that it is a sight to remember watching your princess infatuated daughter go goo-goo eyed over seeing her heroines in person, there isn’t much to the breakfast here that I can recommend.  I was more optimistic about the lunch, but not so optimistic that I was going to set myself up to be disappointed if I ended up with an opinion similar to the one I have for the breakfast. 

We arrived at 2:40 for our 2:45 “reservation”.  Here’s the thing about Disney dining reservations – they are not true reservations.  Formerly called Priority Seatings and now called Advanced Dining Reservations, basically all it does is guarantee that when you walk up to the podium, you will be given the next table available for your party size.  There is not a table in the restaurant being held for you, but if another party your size walks up without an ADR, you will be given priority over them when a table becomes available.  We were not seated until nearly 3:15, and by that time, Eilis was really antsy and the baby had woken up from her nap.  When the bells finally chimed and our name was called, Eilis and I were in the potty and we missed it. 

We are sent upstairs to the castle dining room, where we are escorted to our table.  There is an elevator if you need one.  As soon as our butts are in the chair, they are asking us for drink orders, so we ordered without checking out the menu.  Had I waited and been given the chance to look at the menu, I would have seen that there are some specialty drinks available that offer a souvenir mug.  I would have ordered that for Eilis instead of the diet Coke she ended up with.

Before our drinks are served, a waiter brings us our appetizers.  These are pre-selected, and there is a different selection for the children and the adults.  Eilis’ platter arrives with fresh grapes, an assortment of cheeses, carrot and celery sticks, and a ranch dip for the vegetables.  She is way too busy enjoying seeing the princesses to appreciate her appetizers, but she eventually eats everything but some of the cheese.

The adult appetizer varies, so you cannot expect the same items we had on our recent visit.  The platter is prepared based on the number of adults at your table.  Our platter arrived with two slices of buffalo mozarella; two fried wontons; two pieces of cold, grilled chicken, and something else neither Jim  nor I can remember.  I’m not a fan of the buffalo mozarella, and the restaurant was not winning any awards with the cold grilled chicken.  The fried wontons were tasty, and since I cannot remember the last appetizer, I am going to guess it wasn’t a memorable dish either.

Eilis chose chicken strips, which came with more grapes, and she enjoyed them very much.  Jim had the Major Domo pie.  This was shredded prime rib surrounded by a puff pastry in a thick sauce with strips of sauteed vegetables.  Inside the pastry, there were creamy mashed potatoes.  Jim declared it “alright” – not great, not terrific, not incredible and I must eat it again.  I had the pork tenderloin.  Very tender, the pork was presented in several large chunks, drizzled with the same cabernet sauce that surrounded the Major Domo pie, and positioned around the cheese grits, which were topped with thin, crispy onions.  It was really very good, although the portion was a bit on the smallish side, as we were eating this lunch very late with only a small breakfast behind us.  It was a nice size portion if this was genuinely lunch, but by the time we are served, it is 3:30. 

Dessert arrived before they could even clear the dirty dishes from lunch.  Jim and I were each given a blueberry buckle cobbler, topped with a lemon ice cream and raspberry creme fraiche, and served with two strawberries.  Having not had a blueberry buckle before, I didn’t know what to expect.  It looked similar to a blueberry muffin, but it was much more moist than a muffin.  The lemon ice cream was fantastic – I wish I had a whole bowl of just that – it was so cool and refreshing!   This was a great dessert.  The dessert that they gave to Eilis was a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with a chocolate Cinderella crown.  She was really too full to eat it, but she nibbled a bit at the crown.

Lunch here is $23.99 per person for adults (which is anyone over 9), and for children 3-9, the meal costs $12.99.  In my opinion, this is a bit steep for what you are getting, although you are really paying for the look on your daughter’s face, which  is priceless.  But, if it doesn’t matter to you which character you are seeing, consider doing the Crystal Palace for lunch.  You will get much better character interaction, a buffet of all you can eat delicious food, and a bill that is about $4 cheaper per person.  I’m glad we did this meal once, for the photos I have of my daughter, but I would not go back again.  That works to the advantage of the many people who spend hours on the phone trying to book this meal.

Oh – one other thing – when you book this meal (as with the breakfast at the castle), you will pay a deposit of $10 per adult and $5 per child.  This will be deducted from your final bill.  If you do not show up for the meal, and have not cancelled 24 hours in advance, you will forfiet this deposit. 

If you MUST eat with Cinderella, I would suggest trying 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian for their all you can eat buffet dinner with the Princess.

Trip Report, Day 4, The Magic Kingdom and Sheraton Safari

Friday, August 26th

We wake up early this morning, and are just in time to listen to the giraffes talking to each other outside our window.  It’s so amazing to stay at this resort and have this awesome benefit!

We are checking out today, and it’s a big day for Eilis!   She got an invitation under the door this morning from the Princess herself!   Cinderella has invited her to lunch at the Castle! Eilis is beyond thrilled, and so glad to see that Cinderella thinks she has been well behaved enough to go (thank goodness for clip art and pre-planning!). 

We pack up quickly, and I am secretly happy not to have to trudge back and forth to this room anymore – although I have found shorter ways to get where I needed to go, so if I was staying longer, I would not risk any further weight loss from the strenuous exercise I have been doing.  Nice to know I’ll maintain my girlish figure (hey, Mama Cass was a girl, too!!). 

Our arrival at the Sheraton Safari is well before the 3 PM check in time, but I wanted to make sure I got there and checked in, since I booked both rooms in my name and wanted to make sure my brother wouldn’t have any problems when he arrived from the airport.  The lady at the desk is soooo nice to us!   I expected her to hand us a bucket and mop and work to pay for that $1.13 rate we got on the rooms, but she is very pleasant.  She tells us our rooms are not ready, but we are welcome to change, use the pool, use the arcade, relax in the bar, whatever we want to do.  Our oldest is meeting her grandparents today to shop for her birthday gift, so we just unload the bags, leave them with the bellman, and head out to Poinciana to drop Brighid off.

This has nothing to do with Disney, but can I just say, why is it that everything in FL is so far away from everything else?   Even when we lived here, it seemed like it took 30 minutes to get everywhere.  The mall?   30 minutes.  The parks?   30 minutes.  The grocery store?   30 minutes.  Either traffic or distance always seemed to make every trip 30 minutes long. 

We arrive at Solavita and check in at the gate.  The security guard tells us that Russell will meet us at the gate since even though we are inside Solavita, they must live on the Alabama border portion of the subdivision.  Yes, they are that far from the gate!!   After dropping Brighid off and agreeing to meet for dinner later this evening, we are headed back to the Magic Kingdom with Eilis and the baby.

There is one thing I said so often during this trip that I wanted to tattoo it on my forehead.  The phrase was WWW.ONESTEPAHEAD.COM.  I purchased two clip on fans for the baby’s stroller, and EVERYWHERE I went, someone asked me where I got them, or commented on what a great idea it was to have the fans.  Today, being a little hotter than yesterday, we got twice as many comments.

We arrived a little early for our lunch at the castle, so we head over to Buzz Lightyear, the ride Eilis has been talking about since we arrived across the border into South Carolina.  (my kids never say “are we there yet”, but they do say “can we ride….. when we get there?”)   If you can stand the heat, this is really an awesome time to come to Disney World.  I grab fast passes for Buzz, because Eilis is distracted by the Stitch ride, but the fast pass time is only about 45 minutes away.  Jim and Eilis ride Stitch (Jim’s review – don’t bother, especially if you’ve done Alien Encounter; Eilis’s review – “great!”), and then we go to the People Mover (okay, I know it’s not the People Mover anymore, but dang it, I like the People Mover better than the Tomorrowland Transit Authority).  The baby so loves this ride – she is  turning her head around from side to side so quickly, we are mobbed by people who want to remake “The Exorcist” and cast my beautiful daughter as the evil, head spinning Regan.  Next, we go to Buzz.  Jim and Eilis are going to ride together, and I am going to ride with Gracie Face.  I’m not saying my husband is bad at the Buzz Lightyear challenge, but I will point out that while holding the baby in one arm, and controlling the vehicle and aiming the gun with the other hand, I managed to outscore him.  And Eilis.  Put together.  Go me.

And now it’s time!   Our late lunch with the princess has finally arrived!   Jim heads off in front of me to snag a fast pass for Philharmagic, and I check us in at the castle.  Eilis is amazed, and when I ask her to sit on the throne and have her photo taken, she tells me that the throne belongs to Cinderella, and no one may sit in it!   She seems a little disappointed when some of the other little girls who gather to wait show up in princess costumes, but you will never catch my kids in the theme parks dressed up like that unless it’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.  It’s way too hot, way too uncomfortable, and I think it’s a little unsafe in terms of getting on and off the rides. 

We waited a long time to be seated.  Our Advanced Dining Reservation (ADR) time was for 2:45, but it is about 3:15 when they seat us.  Eilis is in such awe, I cannot even capture it in words.  We are seated, and over the course of the meal, Eilis is visited by Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Snow White, Wendy from Peter Pan, and, of course, Cinderella herself.  Jim and I have done castle meals before, by ourselves and when Brighid was small.  I know I am in the minority when I tell you that I do not like the meals here.  It has little to do with the food, but everything to do with character interaction.  It may stem from the fact that all of the princesses are skinny, cheer leader types, and I have had a huge bias against them since my own chubby childhood, but in all honesty, if you go to just about any other character meal on property, you will find the characters more endearing and offering more time.  The princesses every time I have eaten here seem to have only enough time to take a photo with very little interaction.  Snow White did tell Eilis she loved her hair style and thought she might try it herself, but that was really all she said before turning Eilis around to pose for the photo.

On the way out, Eilis watched another family take turns taking pics in the throne, and she could no longer resist the temptation.  She sat in the chair with Gracie and we took their picture. 

There is just enough time to head over to Mickey’s Philharmagic before heading to the Sheraton to officially check in and meet the in-laws for dinner.  What a great show.

We end the day with dinner at the Marriott World Center – delicious!   We finally get our room at the Sheraton Safari, and I am pleasantly surprised that it is not the janitor’s closet!   The room is large, comfortable, and has a ton of toiletries.  We have a pool view with a balcony.  And the beds and pillows – oh, man, are they comfortable!