Never have your wedding reception the night before you’re leaving on the honeymoon, especially if your flight is leaving painfully early the next morning.
Our original plans called for the wedding ceremony and reception to happen on September 9th, our original anniversary date. Between the problems of a middle of the week wedding, sorting our schedules and about a dozen other factors conspiring against us, we were married on August 30th, but the wedding reception moved to the following weekend. With this change in plans, we were able to use Labor Day as part of our honeymoon plans, thus getting an extra paid day off. It sounded like a perfect plan.
While I supposed it technically qualified as a reception, we took to calling the event the Sunday before we left a wedding celebration. Unofficially, it took on the nickname “Nerd Wedding”. We hosted the event at the local Dave and Busters. Instead of table numbers for our guests, each was themed to a cartoon or video game series we liked. Anime music videos and cartoon clips played on the video wall behind us throughout the dinner, and we requested all of our guests eschew traditional formal wear in favor of super hero attire.1
Then again, for a couple whose wedding bands were Green and Blue Lantern rings and opted out of a first dance in favor of a first game of skeeball2, this was probably to be expected. We even had anime characters as the toppers on our wedding cake.
We had a wonderful time with our family, friends and coworkers, and naturally stayed just a little later than we originally intended. We had a few things left to do when we got home, and we assumed we’d get them done quickly, lie down for a quick nap and catch an airport shuttle that was slated to arrive before five in the morning.
If this were a movie, this would be the scene where we smash cut to Christie and I eating the last little pieces of our leftovers and scrambling out the door, without a minute of sleep before we left. Sadly, it was pretty indicative of our planning for the entire trip.
Planning, planning, planning. You hear that as the first step in almost anyone’s advice for a Disney trip. Getting the best price, planning out your Advance Dining Reservation(ADRs) and FastPass+ selections and any other add-ons for your trip. Scores of guide books, web sites and podcasts exist to help you craft a master touring plan to let you hit the most attractions, eat the best meals and in general not tear your hair out in frustration over waiting in queues and settling for a nonstop diet of churros.
Christie and I subscribe to a different philosophy. It can best be described by the fact we joked this past year that we should rename our table at the local anime convention SOOP Productions, short for Seat of Our Pants. Our planning on most things resembles an out of control Russell Westbrook fast break, in that we just go and whether it ends well or poorly for us, it’s bound to be spectacular. We first broached the subject of buying a house in December and closed in April.
Allow me to re-enact the actual way we decided on first resort choice:
INT. MCPHAIL HOUSE – DAY
We open on a three bedroom home in Oklahoma City. Two bedrooms, converted into offices, are situated next to one another. Inside one, a black lab mix, SAPPHIRE, is sprawled across the floor. A pair of cats dash down the hallway. STEVE sits at his computer, looking at the Disney Parks web site.
Hey Christie, are you doing anything right now?
CHRISTIE responds from the other office.
You wanna look at Disney hotels real quick?
A similar scenario unfolded when we decided to add a few days to our Disney trip and couldn’t book the same resort, and once more a few weeks later for the Universal leg of our trip.
We put a little more time into deciding which attractions we wanted to to visit, and by that I mean we actually sat down together with a guidebook and gave each one a Yes/No/Maybe. I turned that list into a spreadsheet file, and after factoring in which attractions were either down for refurb or closed outright(bear in mind this trip happened shortly after the announcement of Star Wars and Toy Story lands, so the shuttering at Hollywood Studios had already begun), we selected our FastPass+ choices. I actually picked most of the places we actually put in ADRs for, with one exception which I’ll get to shortly.
However, this approach actually helped, as we were emboldened by our ignorance. Common sense dictates that you are out of luck if you don’t grab the in-demand ADRs and FastPasses right away. With the help of My Disney Experience, which I’d highly recommend to anyone heading to Walt Disney World, we kept checking back in. We eventually got everything we wanted on FastPasses, and even snagged a table at Be Our Guest on our last night in the park mere weeks before we left.
As we got closer to the trip, I wanted to figure out a way to surprise my wife. I loved the stories of parents surprising their children with Walt Disney World trips, and spouses surprising their significant others with something special. More importantly, Christie stood by me during my health scares. She’d proven that she would stand by me no matter what long before we exchanged vows, and I wanted to find a way to thank her for all she meant to me.
I finally settled on a private fireworks cruise, about a month out from our trip. I can hear the Disney vets snickering already.
I spoke with a cast member about my plan, and in traditional Seat of Our Pants fashion, I picked the Tuesday night of our trip. The cast member I spoke with found two spots on a Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage. Not quite what I had in mind, but it still sounded like fun. About an hour after I hung up the phone, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Tuesday night would be our Extra Magic Hours night in the Magic Kingdom, and I really wanted to take advantage of them. The SOOP method chickens come home to roost sometimes.
Now, you can call what happened next whatever you like. Extra pixie dust, Disney magic, or sheer dumb luck. But I’m convinced this was the first of many examples where someone was looking over our shoulders and made things fall in just the right way. I canceled the Pirates and Pals trip, and the cast member found an open Specialty Fireworks Cruise on Wednesday. September 9th. Our original anniversary date.
Everything was perfect… until my wife chose The Wave for our dinner that evening, and I’d scheduled the cruise for pick up at the Polynesian. A third call to a very understanding cast member changed the pickup location to the Contemporary. This would prove to be a fateful decision in a couple of ways.
Even with the eye-searingly early flight, the time change and laws of physics dictated we wouldn’t land in Orlando until mid-afternoon, so we decided to skip the parks on our first day and visit Downtown Disney. From there, we’d head to the Polynesian for a visit to Trader Sam’s. It sounded like a solid plan.
Of course, that came prior to the whole “getting on a plane with no sleep” thing.
As we walked through the bridge off the plane and into the airport, the gaps gave us our first sampling of Florida heat. Now, if you live in other parts of the country but have never set foot in the Sunshine State, you might think you know hot weather. You don’t. You’ve only experienced weather pulling a convincing cosplay of Floridian heat, and while it might be impressive, it’s not the same thing. The time of year, proximity to the equator, humidity and the invariable closeness to other human beings combine to form the Devastator that is the sweltering Florida summer, As near as I can tell, it lasts as long as tornado season in Oklahoma; There’s an expected starting and ending date but really, you should be ready for anything at any given moment.
The journey to Orlando was largely uneventful. Our shuttle driver picked us up and offered about as much conversation as is appropriate in the pre-dawn hours. We breezed through security, got the first of several doses of caffeine and boarded our flight, where I was treated to the view of a sunrise from far above the ground. It’s a stunning sight, with the brilliant reds, pinks and oranges playing on the clouds just on the horizon, while a glance in the opposite direction shows the ground still covered in darkness.
We stopped in Atlanta, which held a little added significance. In high school, my brother and I visited my mother twice while we lived there, and memories of Atlanta Braves games, Zoo Atlanta and drinking enough soda at World of Coca Cola to get a nasty stomach ache came rushing back. We ate at Jersey Mike’s during out layover, significant only because it would be the last familiar place we’d eat until the last day of our trip. From there, the flight to Orlando was short, and you couldn’t help but feel the buzz of excitement from the passengers. We weren’t the only ones whose wrists were adorned with Magic Bands, and at one point I even heard a little girl singing “Let It Go” a few rows back.
If the heat made an impression, so did Orlando International Airport. No disrespect to the terminals in Oklahoma City and Atlanta, but MCO is spectacular. Between the tiled walkway and the Disney, Universal and SeaWorld gift shops a short distance away, it felt less like an airport and more like a spectacular sort of shopping mall. We even moved around the airport via rail, like a strange preview of what awaited us.
It was a short journey to the Magical Express line, where we met our first of many wonderful Disney cast members. Cast members would pick up our luggage directly from the airport, and it would be waiting for us in our room, if we chose to take a bus to the parks immediately.3 Instead, we got into the right line, and boarded our Magical Express bus, a largely uneventful trip, save one important moment that every visitor to Walt Disney World savors.
Few signs illicit the reaction of the Walt Disney World entrance sign. It’s almost certainly one of the most photographed road signs in the world, a picturesque view marred by the phalanx of smaller white signs on either side of the road, informing all drivers that stopping is not allowed, and that this is strictly enforced. A bevy of vehicles had pulled into the grass partitions on either side, clearly willing to chance it to take a photo, marking their passage into Disney World property.
Our driver gave us the opportunity to snap a few shots of the sign as he slowed down, and I managed to get a half way decent photo to mark the moment. From there, we got a few brief previews of other Walt Disney World resorts, moving far faster than his initial estimate of “two weeks” to reach our destinations, until we finally saw what would soon become a familiar sign at the edge of the property, and entered Port Orleans French Quarter.
In 1704, ten years after their expedition set sail from France, the expedition of Pierre d’Orr and Philip Leane reached the lush deltas of the Sassagoula River. The two men quickly realized this land would not only prove bountiful in terms of future crops, but would be a prime location as colonists continued to settle the New World. In September of that year, they formally claimed the land for France, and honored both their families by naming the new settlement Port Orleans. Two hundred and twelve years later, my new wife and I visited this still thriving town off the shores of the Sassagoula.
Okay, I’ll take a step back and let you all in on a little secret, since I know not everyone reading this is as much of a Disney fanatic as I am. French Quarter, or Port Orleans as it was originally known4, opened in 1991 and it was not, in fact, a two hundred year old settlement prior to becoming a Disney World resort. However, story is one of the most(some would argue the most) important element in Walt Disney World, and it’s not restricted to the attractions and characters in the park. Every resort on property has an extensive back story to explain its concept.
Also, when you step through the entryway into an attraction, land or resort, you are stepping through a portal that takes you from our reality into the worlds that the Imagineers have created for us. So going forward, when I talk about these experiences, where applicable I’ll be treating them as they were intended. In other words, no need to tell me what’s “really going on”, as I prefer to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in these worlds. It really is the best way to experience Walt Disney World.
A colorfully attired doorman met us as we walked off the bus and welcomed us to French Quarter, and perhaps one of the most amazing hotels I’d ever set foot in. A large fountain dominates the lobby of the hotel, with images of colorful jesters and other familiar Mardi Gras imagery in almost every direction. From there, we walked outside and into the courtyard of the resort, where an alligator band stood frozen in time, playing just a short distance from the swimming pool and spa. Wrought iron fences in black, green and blue stretched in front of the upper floors of the buildings. The walkways, outlined with red brick and surrounded by beautiful landscaping, boasted street signs with creative names like Rue D’Baga and Cake Walk. All the while the sounds of jazz filled the air. As we quickly learned, at dusk or into the evening, the atmosphere was utterly romantic, the perfect choice for our honeymoon.
As we neared our room, we got yet another welcome surprise on our honeymoon, an upgrade to a river view room. We could open our door and see the mighty Sassagoula, or watch as horse drawn carriages ambled by. I’d considered taking my wife on one of these, but opted instead for the aforementioned fireworks cruise. Besides, with a busy week of park hopping planned, we hadn’t planned much time in the resort itself.
The room itself was beautiful, fitting with the New Orleans style flair of the resort, from the artwork on the wall to the purple and gold accents on the bed. But after a few hours of Florida heat, we might have appreciated the glorious fans in the bedroom more than anything else.
We didn’t linger long, however. After taking a short break to gather our bearings and a stop by the Sassagoula Float Works for a beignet(they live up to the hype), we got ready for the next leg of our trip.
There’s no end of buses in Walt Disney World, taking you between the parks, resorts, shopping areas and even the airport. However, one benefit of spending time in the Port Orleans resorts comes in the form of another transit option. If you venture to Downtown Disney(or Disney Springs, as its now known), you can take advantage of the Sassagoula and take a ferry down.
So naturally, they were down when we strode to the docks, so we took a bus to Downtown Disney.
There’s actually not much to say about Downtown Disney, for two reasons. One, while it’s an utterly fascinating and well designed shopping center, at the end of the day it’s still a shopping center. I feel like I’m probably only marginally holding your interest by talking about a pair of people walking around a theme park. Really, I doubt I have much interesting to say about World of Disney, other than it’s massive and Stitch spits water on you.
The second reason was that, after about half an hour of walking around, the lack of sleep started to watch up with me. I was somewhere in the thirties in terms of hours without sleep, and the humid rains of Florida only added to the toll. After we walked out of World of Disney and I snapped off a few shots of the Lego Store’s décor, I turned to my wife and suggested maybe we should come back later in our trip, and head to Trader Sam’s before I passed out.
Because when you’re exhausted, alcohol is a great idea!
Another bus trip later, and we found ourselves standing in front of the Polynesian Village Resort. Now, let me be clear. I loved French Quarter. It’s beautiful, and I think it may well be the most romantic resort on Disney property, and the lobby is fantastic. But it’s not the jaw dropping experience that is setting foot in the Great Ceremonial House of the Polynesian Village Resort. While I’m fairly certain we visited during out trip in 1984, I can’t say that I have very many memories of it, and actually confused it with the Contemporary somehow. So I can’t speak to the changes after the 2015 renovation. But it’s a beautiful, wide open building that completely transports you into its world.
As we navigated the lobby to find our way to Trader Sam’s, I walked to the back bay windows and looked across the resort property. It took a moment, but once I saw it, it was unmistakable. I quickly tapped my wife on the shoulder and pointed out the tiny landmark on the horizon.
We’d caught our first glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle and the Magic Kingdom.
If you’d like to know more about Trader Sam’s and what we thought of it, check out this review in my Trip Reports section. Seriously, this thing is long enough without including it here!
We finally got to experience the Sassagoula ferries on our return trip, with the darkness, lack of sleep and lingering effects of Trader Sam’s distracting us to some degree. But as the ferry drifted past the other resorts that lined the Sassagoula, a strange feeling of familiarity passed over me.
It wouldn’t be until we took the boat in the light two days later that I realized why.
A shout out to the wonderful site PortOrleans.org, where I found the information about the back story of the two Port Orleans resorts, and is well worth your time to check out and learn more about both of these fantastic resorts.
1. The staff at Dave and Busters even made up original cocktails with super hero themes for the night. If you’re in Oklahoma City, I’d highly recommend stopping by, as I can’t say enough good things about how well they pulled off this entire event.
3. Worth mentioning for anyone who might be reading this for trip planning tips: Typically your Magical Express packet comes with one tag per person, so you’ll want to contact Disney for more if you need them. I wasn’t aware of this, but worst case scenario, you can let a cast member know and they’ll make sure all your bags get to your room. We got ours without incident, waiting when we got back from Trader Sam’s.
4. Port Orleans and Dixie Landings were separate resorts run by the same management team, but when connections to all things Dixie grew more controversial, Disney made the decision to rebrand the resorts and acknowledge their connection. Port Orleans became Port Orleans French Quarter, and Dixie Landings became Port Orleans Riverside.