Disney Wedding Part 2 - How I met your Venue

Site Visit and Venue Selection

(November 2015, 12 months out)

After making the tentative decision to do our wedding at Disney, the next step was to select a venue. Even though we are frequent Disney vacationers, when it came to wedding venues we realized that we hadn’t seen many of the spaces on the list of possible reception venues. We felt like it was too important of a decision to be made by looking at photos and reviews online, and so we decided to take a quick trip down to Disney to see the options for ourselves.

Really, who’s going to say no to a solid excuse for a spontaneous weekend in Disney, right? That said, if you’re a reader of this blog you’ve probably noticed that I'm not big on spontaneity… unless it’s scheduled in. But, I put on my big girl pants and made myself go to Disney World anyway… ;-)

 


Doing our own recon

We went down the second weekend in November, leaving Thursday morning and returning Sunday. We were out of DVC points and so we decided to stay cash at a moderate resort. We chose Port Orleans Riverside because we were considering it for our guests, and didn’t want to ask people to stay at a hotel we’d never stayed in ourselves and knew nothing about.

Our site planning visit was scheduled for Friday, so we used Thursday afternoon/evening to visit all the wedding venues we were able to get to on our own without a wedding planner present. For the “official” site visit with the planner, you are limited to three venues. On our own, we visited the boardwalk area, as well as EPCOT to view all the venues in the lands. Basically, there is space in almost every land that you can use for a Disney Wedding. We particularly liked Italy and the American Adventure Rotunda. We met some great cast members at the Rotunda who told us about the weddings they'd seen while doing their jobs and how the space was used and decorated. Everyone had really great things to say about weddings at the Rotunda and it was probably closest aesthetically to the venue we'd been considering at home in Michigan.

We also took time to watch Illuminations from the waterfront terrace in front of France (another popular wedding venue). I hadn’t seen Illuminations in years because it’s one of my least favorite offerings at Disney… though I couldn’t remember why exactly, I didn’t think it would be a good wedding venue for us. Though the terrace is lovely, about five minutes into the show I remembered why I didn’t like Illuminations: nothing says romance like FIRE CANONS, right? 

WEDDING CONFLAGRATION? No. No, thank you  .

WEDDING CONFLAGRATION? No. No, thank you.

I knew I did want to incorporate a fireworks dessert party into our wedding experience, though. Just a less-incendiary one. Which meant we would need to pick one of the venues for Wishes fireworks viewing (fireworks with no fire canons = decidedly more romantic). Those are mostly limited to the Contemporary and Grand Floridian. Though I think Wishes from the Polynesian beach are lovely, the Poly beach is not an option for private events.

 


Using time wisely:

The next morning, before our site visit we scouted out the locations at Grand Floridian where fireworks dessert parties are held: Sago Cay Pointe, the Marina Patio, and Narcoossee’s. There’s also a less frequently used dock at the Contemporary, as well as the rooftop seating at the California Grill (which we were already well acquainted with, but decided we should probably have dinner there later that night anyway, just to be safe and to see the restaurant with our “wedding eyes”, as the wedding planner was fond of saying). Of the dessert party options we preferred Sago Cay Pointe--- the Marina we felt was odd because you get the boats in your view and the lights from the resort behind you. Sago Cay Pointe, though only a few feet away, feels much more secluded. We didn’t actually get to see a fireworks show there, though, but we used our imaginations. 

We even took some time that morning to stage some impromptu “engagement” photos ourselves with our travel camera near the Marina. Keep in mind, we’ve been engaged for nearly a decade and at this point hadn’t signed a contact with Disney or picked a venue, but we thought that since we were already there we better get it done just to be on the safe side. We wanted to pick a backdrop that our Disney friends would recognize right away on a Save the Date card, but that others wouldn’t necessarily see as “Disney”  if/when we made the decision to do a Destination wedding. The outcome was… well, hit or miss. But it was a fun way to kill time while we waited for our appointment nonetheless!

After that, we met our Disney Wedding planner and set off to visit the venues that you can only access with Disney Weddings. We started with the Wedding Pavilion, which seemed like a no brainer. Disney's outdoor ceremony spaces are lovely, but having been to a beach wedding and a waterfront wedding in the past, I have bad memories of weddings interrupted by oblivious vacationers nearby. Also: the wedding pavilion is air conditioned. Done and done.

(This was the view pre-alligator-fence).

(This was the view pre-alligator-fence).

With that decision made, we just needed to pick a reception venue. Easy peasy, right?

Our priority was seeing the ballrooms and private rooms around the resorts that we hadn't been able to access on our own. Between the reconnaissance we’d done the day before and what we saw with our planner, I think we visited 90-95% of the wedding venue spaces at WDW. Which is impressive, when you consider HOW MANY potential venues there are. We didn't go over to Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, and limited resort options to boardwalk area resorts and the Grand Floridian. The one space we DIDN’T visit and should have was the Atlantic Dance Hall. We had immediately and non-negotiably ruled this venue out because it was where our good friends had gotten married and we didn’t want to in any way step on the uniqueness or special-ness of their wedding by using the same venue. (Note this for later irony). I had used the restroom in the ADH once on a previous trip, but my partner had never even been inside.

 


Resort Ballrooms (or "HELP, I've made a terrible mistake!")

We went into our site visit fairly confident that we were going to go with a reception at either EPCOT or one of the Disney ballrooms based on the online photos, and we were mainly deciding between ballrooms at the Grand Floridian and at the Boardwalk/BeachClub/YachtClub. Because my partner and I are both visual people and fairly quick decision makers, we were able to visit more than the 3 on our site-visit wish list, because we’d immediately walk into a space and say “nope” whereas (we were told) most couples have trouble visualizing the space and want to see photos and deliberate and discuss. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing per se. Basically, through our site visit we found that we didn’t like any of the venues we’d thought we’d like. The patio space at the Grand Floridian with the monorail running overhead was described by other brides as magical, and I liked it a lot… until the monorail came by! To me, it sounded like being in the NY subway. Much like Illuminations, this was not the romantic atmosphere I was hoping for.

The convention center carpet in all of the ballroom options was also a major deal breaker for me.

The planner brought along an iPad loaded with images from other weddings to show how the spaces could be transformed, but I started to get really worried about the cost and amount of decoration that would be needed to achieve the look in the pictures. I didn't want to spend 1/2 my budget on draped fabric that I wouldn't even get to keep afterwards.

I remember halfway through the appointment as we drove from the Floridian to the Yacht club, I started googling photos on my phone of Greenfield Village’s Lovett Hall Ballroom (which was the main venue we’d been considering in Michigan). I got teary-eyed looking at the images of beautiful wood floors and was convinced I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. Literally, I cried a little in the backseat but my partner covered it up so I’m pretty sure the planner didn’t notice.

Lovett Hall at Greenfield Village.

Lovett Hall at Greenfield Village.

This is what I'd had in mind when I heard "ballroom". Except, I thought a Disney ballroom would be even more WOW!

This is what I'd had in mind when I heard "ballroom". Except, I thought a Disney ballroom would be even more WOW!

The highlight of the ballroom tour was when we walked into one of the spaces at the Grand Floridian which was being set up for a reception later that night. There, in the corner, was the Disney projector cake!! I work in technology and I’d researched the Disney Projector cake technology as part of my job way back in 2012, long before we were planning a wedding. I’d said back then, though, that if I ever did have a wedding I wanted something LIKE THAT--- never thinking that we would have a Disney Wedding and we could, in fact, have THAT projector cake!

I was all like "OMG, IT'S THE PROJECTOR CAKE!"

I was all like "OMG, IT'S THE PROJECTOR CAKE!"

Also, sign me up for one of these twinkle trees! So pretty!

Also, sign me up for one of these twinkle trees! So pretty!

If you’re not familiar with the projector cake, here's a great demo video:

Let me just say, it's so much more beautiful and magical in person! Spectacular!!!

We also had the opportunity to visit The Attic, a former DVC lounge that’s now used only for private parties. We knew it wouldn’t work for us as a reception venue because of the guest size limits, but my partner pretty much fell in love with at first sight as it reminded him of his Great Aunt's house on the beach in Long Island. So we knew we wanted to work it into our itinerary somewhere, possibly as a rehearsal dinner location.

We really liked Ariels, too.... except for the giant fish mobiles, and thought that would potentially also make a great rehearsal dinner location.

We did ask whether we could take this awesome boat bar to another venue... answer: no. :-(

We did ask whether we could take this awesome boat bar to another venue... answer: no. :-(

A coworker of mine just returned from a Disney wedding (apparently it's a thing!) and that couple's reception was at Ariels, so I picked the coworker's brain about the mobiles. He claims that he didn't even notice the giant fish. I'm not sure HOW that's possible, but maybe with different lighting they're not so... fishy?

Oh, and we ran into Cinderella's Coach back at Franck's studio, which was pretty cool, too! Now when we ride the monorail I always look down at the wedding pavilion for a chance to catch a glimpse of them hanging out down there waiting for a lucky bride!

I'd always thought they used little horses for scale in the parade to make the coach look bigger. Then it hit me... it's cuz they're MICE! Get it?

I'd always thought they used little horses for scale in the parade to make the coach look bigger. Then it hit me... it's cuz they're MICE! Get it?


California Grill Saves the Day.

We had dinner reservations at the California Grill after our site visit and our planner suggested that we arrive a little early and ask the waitstaff to let us into the private rooms (Napa and Sonoma). The rooms were nice, secluded, mini versions of the restaurant. The Napa room overlooks the fireworks much like the main restaurant. We were told that if you book the Sonoma room you view the fireworks from the private balcony instead of from inside. My partner prefers to view the fireworks from the outside balcony, whereas I prefer to watch them from our table behind the windows while eating dessert, so booking the Napa room I knew was something that would be important to me (if we booked a Disney wedding, which at that point I was certain we would not because: carpet!).

I was pretty discouraged (and tired!) after our busy day, but then the food arrived!! 

I was pretty discouraged (and tired!) after our busy day, but then the food arrived!! 

I have loved the California Grill since our trip in 2013 (where we only booked it because we had gotten the Deluxe dining plan and had a ton of extra TSs to use up!) On this occation, we ended up seated around the backside of the restaurant which has a less direct view of the themepark and fireworks (normally we’ve been seated right on the themepark side at the tables which touch the windows). It was a nice change, but it reaffirmed for me that if we booked the venue I definitely wanted that Napa view, not the Sonoma.

I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was delicious as always.  The California Grill has the best food, and the most amazing desserts! We asked our waiter about Disney Weddings and he gave us some details about the weddings he’d seen, and even brought the chef over to tell us a little about the menus they use for weddings. As we ate we watched the sun set, and after dessert went out on the balcony for fireworks.

Oh my goodness. Wishes fireworks from the rooftop of the Contemporary. Have I mentioned? (Yes, I know I have.) They are amazing. They are beautiful. They are romantic. They give me all the feels. 

If you've never had the chance, I definitely encourage you to work the California Grill into your next trip if you can! Absolutely breathtaking! 

Watching the fireworks kind of reset my thinking on the whole venue issueA Disney Wedding would be a magical experience. How could it not be….even if the ballroom carpets are heavily patterned, right? I can deal with patterns. And even if Lovett hall has beautiful wood floors, they definitely don't have anything that compares to Disney fireworks.

 


Sneaking in some vacation in our vacation.

The next day was ‘free’ and we had tickets for the first Christmas part of the season. We’d managed to hit all the venues and knew that, though we were disappointed by the ballrooms, we did definitely want to find a way to do a Disney wedding. We spent Saturday in the parks and decided to take advantage of the Disney Photopass service to sneak in some “free” invitation photos. I had brought with me some “Bride” and “Groom” books which I thought we could use to make some clever, sarcastic announcements to our friends and family who, after a decade, had pretty much given up on the idea of us ever actually having a wedding of any kind!

I just want to take a second here and note that after many trips with small kids (and even once with an infant in arms!) visiting Disney World as an adult on your own is AMAZING! No diaper bags and no stroller! We cut through the crowds like crowd ninjas! Hi-ya! I felt light and nimble. We covered tons of ground quickly and without kids avoided the time-consuming activities (like princess meals and princess meet&greets and princess gift shops!) I especially enjoyed eating at our favorite "grown up" restaurants without any little people complaining about the too-fancy food! We didn't have fastpasses or an itinerary: mostly we just had a ton of fun, reaffirming that Disney IS for grownups, too.

I was finally able to find Mr. Gold's shop from OUaT before it was too late!

I was finally able to find Mr. Gold's shop from OUaT before it was too late!

I even found an 'ugly christmas sweater' which I needed for to my company party!

I even found an 'ugly christmas sweater' which I needed for to my company party!


Conclusions

I wrote in my first post about the financial and customer service considerations that led us to decide to have a Disney wedding in the first place. I’m very glad that we decided to do a site visit, even though it was an added expense. It was a nice weekend getaway for my partner and I (which we don’t have very often) and it led us to make very different choices than we would have if we’d picked venues off of online pictures and reviews only.

In addition to our wedding planner, we talked to many CMs and fellow guests about the venues, other weddings they’d seen, and the weather. We met a particularly helpful woman at the pool at Port Orleans who told us about a wedding she had attended a few years prior, and all the activities that the bride/groom had planned for guests to do while they were there--- this got us thinking about the types of activities we’d want to do with our friends and family, given the opportunity.

In addition to the venue, the site visit also made big changes to our opinion with regard to date. We’d originally been considering an August wedding (so we wouldn’t conflict with school schedules) but everyone we talked to down there said that August weather was just absolutely miserably hot. The weather for our site visit trip couldn’t have been more beautiful, and so we ultimately booked a wedding for early November hoping we’ll get the same or similar temperatures.

Also, we had stayed at Port Orleans Riverside because it was the hotel we’d been thinking we’d use for our guests. We found it to be a really confusing resort and required so much more walking than we are used to (I guess we’ve gotten super spoiled staying at DVC resorts!). We spent our departure afternoon at Port Orleans French Quarter enjoying the pool, though, and decided that that was a much more compact resort and a better fit for our guests. Again, things we wouldn’t have realized if we’d gone off of online reviews only.

Loved seeing these super functional and comfy murphy beds in resorts beyond the Polynesian!

Loved seeing these super functional and comfy murphy beds in resorts beyond the Polynesian!


Moral of the story

Even if you’ve visited Disney many times and are familiar with the venues, definitely go back and look at them again with your “wedding eyes” on if you can. You’ll be surprised at how that affects your thinking! You definitely need to see the spaces for yourself and imagine the wedding experience you want to create. No one can do that for you, and no one else out there has exactly the same vision as you do; so while online resources are great… they just aren’t enough compared to actually being there.

Oh yeah…. And remember how I said it was ironic that the one venue we didn’t see was the Atlantic Dance Hall, even though we were right there and the planner suggested we pop in? Well, after weeks and weeks of going around and around about reception venue, ADH is the one we finally chose (based on the fact that we’d ruled out everything else, and because of the photos our friends shared of their reception.) So even though we did do a wedding site visit, we still technically picked our reception venue sight unseen!

 


Our Disney Wedding Selections

We decided to go with an early November Friday wedding. Our dates were defined primarily by availability-- we needed a lot of venues available in a particular sequence and that limited our date options. We also wanted to have Wishes fireworks, so we needed to get in between the Halloween parties (with Hallowishes fireworks) and the Holiday parties (with Very Merry Christmas fireworks). We’d originally hoped for a Saturday wedding but it just didn’t work out.

We also realized that as (or more) important to us than the wedding and ceremony, was finding opportunities to spend quality time with different groups of our friends/faimly. To do that, we decided to cut back on the reception itself so that we could do more with the rehearsal dinner and have a farewell brunch at the end of the trip. We decided to go with an early morning (10am) Ceremony because moving the reception up by an hour saved us thousands of dollars that we could put toward these other experiences.

Here’s what we chose:

Thursday     Rehearsal dinner @ California Grill Napa Room

Friday          10:00 Ceremony @ Grand Floridian Wedding Pavilion

                     11:00-4:00 Reception @ Atlantic Dance Hall

                     8:00 Fireworks Dessert Party @ Sago Cay Pointe

Sunday         Farewell brunch @ the Attic

 

In my next post, I’ll talk about all the OTHER activities we’ve planned and organized. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot and I’ve got some killer spreadsheets!

NEXT: Disney Wedding Post #3 - Contracts and Room Blocks and more! 

Making Fireworks Work for an Introvert

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Let me start by saying that I hate the Fourth of July. Why? In a word: fireworks. I really don't care for them. And yes, I realize that my fireworks crumudgeonliness makes me like the Scrooge McDuck of Patriotism or something. It was all well and good when I could stay in and cover my head with pillows, but now that I have kids I have to partake in the whole experience for their sakes. Sigh.

Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to me on the Fourth of July, so why do I hate fireworks, you ask? So many, many reasons:  It's always too hot | It's always too cold | The bugs bite you | The grass is wet | The people are annoying | The kids don't sit quietly on their blankets | The kids run over your blanket | They never start on time | They're loud | They're too close to the ground | Someone is going to get blown up | It takes a year for them to be over | It takes five years to get out of the parking lot and home | The yahoo blowing up fireworks in their backyard all night, driving the neighborhood dogs crazy | The yahoo blowing up fireworks in their backyard who could set their neighbor's house on fire | The fireworks that touch the ground that could set people on fire.....

I could go on, but I'll stop there. In short, I'm not a fan of fire or explosions or danger in general, and this makes me highly skeptical of fireworks (and Michael Bay films).

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I have never been outside on a lovely, quiet night and thought to myself "You know what this night needs? MORE EXPLOSIONS!" (unless we're talking about Stargate and my favorite quote: "Make it BIGGER! More Explosions! Explosions make for great trailers!"--- yes, I am a geek for some things other  than Disney, you know!)

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My husband tried to make this year's fireworks adventure as painless as possible for me. (Because I'm really not to the level yet where I'm exactly a good sport about having to go, per se.)  Our town's fireworks display is disproportionately large and well-funded and so it attracts lots of folks from all over, and parking is a nightmare. After some map recon, he found us a spot on a side street that was a reasonable walking distance to the golf course but also straight access out of the sub in the opposite direction that most people take. 

It was a sound plan. Except for a bunch of yahoos who parked in the wrong direction on a street not wide enough for passing side-by-side. By the time we got to our car, there were about 40 cars lined up to go East and 5 cars lined up to go West and two cars facing each other nose-to-nose and everyone just sitting there. Just sitting there!!  Like it was going to somehow magically resolve itself?? My husband sent me out to direct traffic because otherwise who knows how long we were all just going to sit around looking at each other. Fortunately, I keep my NY accent in my back pocket for just such an occasion, and was able to convince the 5 cars facing West to turn around and go out the opposite direction, all while keeping more people from turning left down the street where no one was moving vs. turning right where it was wide open all the way to the main road. Seriously, people.

(For those who've said my "Princess Rants" blog isn't very rant-y... there you go. I hope you're happy now.)


I tend to be a bit of an introvert, so I think that's probably at the crux of my problem with fireworks. So, in the interest of cheering myself up on Fourth of July weekend, I thought I'd take  a moment to reminisce about fireworks I do like--- and that's the ones at Disney World, of course! What's not to love? They're beautiful, they're predictable, they start on time, they're succinct, and because we stay on property there's no parking lot gridlock to contend with, we just hop the monorail back to the hotel!

That's not to say that the fireworks at Disney World don't have crowds--- they do. And the crowds at that time of night can be sort of aggressive because it's late and people are tired and grumpy. We've been jostled, gotten separated/lost in the crowd, had adults push in front of the little ones, and all sorts of less-than-optimal experiences trying to watch the fireworks from what everyone says is the ideal spot (right in front of Cinderella's Castle).

In contrast to how I feel, my mom loves fireworks. So, on our most recent trip to Disney World (2013), I set out to look for alternatives so we would both be able to enjoy ourselves... and now that we've experienced the fireworks from elsewhere I can't imagine we'll ever watch them from in front of the castle again. 

Here are some alternative viewing locations if you, like me, struggle with fireworks & fireworks crowds: 


ANYWHERE BEHIND CINDERELLA'S CASTLE

We ended up behind the castle during the Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, right outside of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Half our group was actually on the ride when the fireworks started going off and they said it was a stunning and surreal experience. I don't know how you could time that to do it on purpose, it's one of those pixie dust moments that just happens, I think. As for those of us waiting outside the cue, we got a great view of the fireworks. They're a little more dispersed from that angle (because they're measured to frame the castle) but they were lovely and the best part was there was no crowd jostling around us!

Fireworks are hard to photograph, OK?!

Fireworks are hard to photograph, OK?!

For scale... 

For scale... 


THE CALIFORNIA GRILL / THE CALIFORNIA GRILL'S VIEWING DECK

The California Grill is the Signature restaurant on the roof of the Contemporary Resort. We had heard that this was an excellent spot to watch fireworks and so we booked a late dinner on the arrival night of the trip. If you dine at the California Grill at any time, you can bring your receipt back during fireworks for access to the restaurant's viewing balcony, a great place to watch the fireworks! But, better by far in my opinion, is if you can manage to time dinner such that you're eating dessert as the fireworks start. The restaurant pipes in the music that accompanies the show and you have a great view of the castle and the fireworks display through the big glass windows. We watched the Happy HalloWishes show and it was both beautiful and memorable! Be aware that dining at the California Grill costs 2 table-services if you are using the dining plan. Totally worth it, IMO, the food is outstanding!

Sunset on the California Grill's viewing balcony.

Sunset on the California Grill's viewing balcony.

The girls' candy sushi dessert! (I  might  have stolen some!)

The girls' candy sushi dessert! (I might have stolen some!)

This was the apple dessert sampler I ate: soooo good!

This was the apple dessert sampler I ate: soooo good!

The view of the fireworks from our table!

The view of the fireworks from our table!

This video was from my seat at the table inside the restaurant, not outside on the observation deck. I think that there are speakers that play the music out on the deck, too, though! Make sure you watch to the end (or ffwd) because the finale is pretty awesome!


PIRATES AND PALS FIREWORKS VOYAGE

On our last trip (2013), we bought tickets for the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage on a whim because we were staying at Bay Lake Towers and it sails from the Contemporary Resort. I'm glad we did because we had a ton of fun! You start in one of the conference rooms which is outfitted with a buffet of snacks and enjoy a private photo op session with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee. Then, you proceed down to the Contemporary's docks where you board a pontoon boat. The tour guides keep everyone entertained with trivia and stand up comedy as you drift around the lake prior to the fireworks starting. The fireworks themselves are beautiful, reflected off the water. They pipe the accompanying music onto the boat just like they do at the California Grill. As an added bonus, when you return to dock, you get to enjoy another photo op with Peter Pan! (and, I've heard, sometimes Tinkerbell, too!) It's a little pricey ($35 kids, $60 adults) but a great low-key way to enjoy the fireworks! Plus, everyone gets a reason to dress up like pirates! We're definitely doing this again on our next trip!

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Because we went for Halloween in 201, dressing up was a big part of our trip, and we all had eccentric pirate t-shirts and accoutrements to wear, though they give you pirate bandanas for the boat ride. Eva had gone to the Pirate League earlier that day, which is another story in itself!  I looked through my files and apparently didn't take any video on the boat ride itself, which is too bad because it was a ton of fun! But I did find some footage of the party and the one-on-one time with Peter Pan afterward.

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DISNEY WORLD RESORTS 

You are able to see the fireworks from many resort locations, as far away at the Caribbean Beach Resorts. We have watched them many times from the tranquil walking paths and, though a little distant, they're lovely. I'm not an expert on all the locations where the fireworks are visible, but here is a list compiled by many Disney Fans that I found while searching! It lists the Bus Depot, the Contemporary, the Grand Floridian, Ft. Wilderness, and Polynesian, though they seem to have missed Caribbean Beach! I would guess you can probably see the EPCOT fireworks from any of the Boardwalk Hotels as well. While we're at it, and going along with #3, I know you can rent boats from the resorts, maybe you can rent a boat and watch from the lake as well!?


TOMORROWLAND TERRACE FIREWORKS DESSERT PARTY, or so I've heard...

So, this one we haven't done yet but I'm excited enough about it that I thought I'd share it with you. In researching for our upcoming trip I stumbled upon the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party. A fireworks viewing location away from the jostling crowds? Check. A fancy dessert buffet, too?? Count me in!! Dessert is hands down my favorite meal of the day!  

Have you ever watched fireworks from the Tomorrowland Terrace? Is it as great as it looks? Or do you have a favorite secret fireworks viewing location that I've missed? Please share in the comments below! :-)  


Happy Fourth of July weekend everyone! Please remember to be safe!

And, try not to set anything on fire!  Thanks!!!  ;-)

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The View from the California Grill

The California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort was recently refurbished (in 2013) into what Imagineers describe as a "sleep, contemporary interpretation of mid-century modern California design." I never ate at the California Grill before the refurbishment, so I can't say how it differs from the previous interior. We had one of the first reservations after the restaurant reopened in November 2013. We chose the restaurant because we had spare table-service credits on our 2013 trip, and we'd decided to use them on extravagant dining experiences; that is, restaurants we had never eaten at before and probably would never have eaten at, except for the spare credits. As I was researching all the dining options at Disney World, I read that the California Grill was one of the must do dining experiences, especially during fireworks. I was skeptical about all the hype but after having done it, I'd have to say I agree.

To get to the California Grill you check in at a nondescript desk within the Contemporary resort, then ride a dedicated elevator up to the restaurant. I believe this is to manage the waiting crowd up at the restaurant, because there is not a lot of space for waiting. We had a very large group and we waited out on the observation deck, which gives you a gorgeous view of the Magic Kingdom and Cinderella's castle.... It was sunset, and a great photo opportunity!  

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Note that the California Grill does have a dress code. "Men may wear khakis, slacks, jeans or dress shorts and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. Women may wear Capri pants, skirts, dresses, jeans or dress shorts. Not permitted are tank tops, swimsuits, swimsuit cover-ups, hats for gentlemen, cut-offs, torn clothing and t-shirts with offensive language and/or graphics." So you'll need to remember to pack an outfit specifically for dinner.

We ended up being sat at a long table that ended at the glass wall. The reviews I'd read prior to visiting the California Grill had said to be sure to ask for a window seat... but there's really no need, every table in that restaurant has a gorgeous view! There's really not a bad seat in the house! 

We had a large group (9 people) and everyone ordered something different. Between us, we probably accounted for half the menu options available. There was lots of "try this!", and "can I have a bite of that?" going on, and I'm guilty of tasting pretty much everything. There was nothing that I wouldn't order, every single dish and side dish was divine. But the best part -- oh! the best part by far--- were the desserts. There are not words to express how great the desserts were. They were so good that I even took photos of them (and I'm not a food-photo-taking type of person, generally).

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I had the seasonal apple dessert sampler platter which had an apple creme brule, maple sugar rock candy sticks, hot apple cider, apple strudel, and apple cupcake! Each item was individually spectacular, and the collection taken as a whole was memorable, to say the least.

My girls ordered this... forgive me, I forget what it is called, and I don't see it any longer on the online menu. But, just so you know what you're looking at, those are candy sushi rolls made with rice crispie, gummy worms, swedish fish, and wrapped in fruit rollups! So delicious! (I might have stolen one from them... you know, being that I was worried for their health and stuff).

But, the best part by far are the fireworks! Here is some video of our view of HalloWishes, from my seat in the middle of the table.

The restaurant plays the music synced with the show, and it's such a lovely way to watch the fireworks. We have had so/so experiences watching the fireworks in front of the castle (it's very crowded and difficult for me to manage as I'm not a big fan of the pushing / shoving / touching strangers) and had been seeking alternative ways to enjoy Disney's nightly pyrotechnic displays. For our 2013 trip we did the Pirate and Pals Fireworks voyage for the same reason, and on our upcoming trip we'll be testing out the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party.  

If your goal is to see the fireworks from the California Grill, you will need to check the park calendar ahead of making your reservations to find out what time the fireworks are on the day you want to eat at the restaurant, because the fireworks times vary. Then, you'll need to try to get an Advance Dining Reservation for one hour prior to that start time. (For tips on how to get ADRs, check out my previous post on the subject). This often puts you around 7:00PM for dinner.

If you prefer to eat earlier than that, they've made it so you can return to the California Grill observation deck to watch the fireworks later, all you need is to bring your receipt from earlier in the day with you. On the night we were there, the observation deck wasn't terribly crowded during the fireworks and I think that this would be an excellent way to view the show, too!

We don't do a theme park on our check-in day, and we chose fireworks at the California Grill as a way of still feeling like we were experiencing the parks on that first night. I think it's a great way to kick-off a Disney trip if  you are on the deluxe dining plan and looking for a way to spend those extra credits... Would I eat there if I was paying cash or on a regular dining plan? To be honest, probably not. It is very expensive, and costs two table-service credits, putting it outside my standard trip budget... I imagine it's out-of-budget for lots of people. I certainly wouldn't categorize it as an every-trip must-do type of experience, but if you're looking for something extra special and it's within your trip budget, definitely give the California Grill a try! Everyone should do it at least once. You won't regret it, and you'll never forget it!