Hotel Review–Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas, Lake Buena Vista, FL–Child Centered

Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas is my diamond in the rough. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t falling apart on the outside and it certainly isn’t in a questionable location. In fact, it may be one of my favorite hotels to stay at when we visit Disney World. The reason it’s a diamond in the rough is because it blends so seamlessly into the backdrop of a busy Atlantic shore boardwalk, but it offers so much tranquility at the same time. While well orchestrated chaos surrounds, I can slip off into a bench and watch it swim by, content in the knowledge that my little people are fully partaking in that chaos and I don’t need to do a thing to stop it.

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Map of the hotel and amenities

We are members of Disney Vacation Club, with our home hotel as Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, yet more often than not, we try to book our rooms at The Boardwalk. Why? As a frequent visitor to Disney World, there are two aspects to this hotel that keeps this family coming back to it again and again.

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The walkway between the hotel and Hollywood Studios winds around the lake. The parks can also be accessed by riding on the boat pictured.

First of all, we love the location. As a walking family, we appreciate that we can stroll easily to Epcot and easily to Hollywood Studios from the hotel (there are buses and boats as well, but nothing beats a nice walk). This is even more important since we have to bring strollers (there’s nothing worse than trying to grab all of our junk out of our two strollers, fold them (while keeping the little people from running into the road), throw them over my husband’s shoulder and get the three little people onboard a rapidly filling bus in a 30 second time period, especially when I’m not trying to look too crazy). Also, it’s not so bad getting to Magic Kingdom either, especially now that Disney offers the Express Transportation Option, which means we get to skip the security and entrance lines at MK because we’ve gone through them at Epcot. And what’s also great is that when we get to Epcot, we use the back entrance found quietly placed between France and England in the World Showcase where there is little to no line. This lack of line is of significant benefit when we are there for Food and Wine or the International Flower and Garden Festival. We can get in and out of the park quickly and easily. It also makes it quite simple to just slip over to Epcot for dinner after a day at another park.

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The easily accessed and usually empty back entrance to Epcot.

The second reason that the Boardwalk is on my list of go to Disney resorts is the amenities of the property. To be honest, Disney, in general, does a great job of making sure each resort has enough to do that we’d never have to leave the property, but the way in which these amenities are presented at the Boardwalk are what make it a standout property. As a mother of three littles five and under, I’ve figured out that taking breaks and not pushing too hard are essential to having an enjoyable vacation (for more momma survival tips, see my post “How to Turn a Trip to Walt Disney World into a Vacation”). This was easy when all my little people took naps, but that’s simply (and unfortunately) not the case anymore. So, what to do with a five year old (and occasionally a two year old) who don’t want to nap while the tiniest little gets a real nap in a real bed in a real room (albeit a hotel room)? At the Boardwalk, one of the grown ups takes the non-nappers out to explore the actual boardwalk area. Instead of just roaming the hotel (which they’d actually be more than happy to do as they fancy themselves hotel connoisseurs) they get to feel like they’re going somewhere special. They eat ice cream, get drinks, sit and watch the water, and take millions of photo booth pictures (and the hubs grabs me a lovely little adult beverage and brings it back to the room for me…it really is true love (hello AbracadaBar, I’m looking at you)). In the evening, we can come back to the hotel before dinner and still “go” somewhere for dinner when we eat on the boardwalk. It’s different than eating at a restaurant in the hotel. It feels special and new to the little people. It’s an experience. And the evenings on the boardwalk? They’re filled with caricature portraitists, magicians, face painters, and a slew of other entertainment that helps make it feel like we’re not at just a hotel’s amenities, but at an entirely different place.

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The courtyard outside of the entrance to the hotel off of the boardwalk. This is a great space to let little people run around and play a game of tag. Some evenings this turns into a theater with a large screen and blankets to sit on.

There are so many options to choose from when visiting Disney World, but my family and I keep coming back to Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas. Our days are easier without running to catch buses in enough time to break down strollers. We love having Epcot and Hollywood as options just to swing by to grab a bite to eat. It is the perfect combination of enough to do to entertain little people, but not so much that it is overwhelming and invites meltdowns. It’s a place to sit and watch the world go by without feeling like I’m missing out on that world.

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Patiently waiting for ice cream from Ample Hills, an amazing ice cream parlor that has its home base in Brooklyn (blocks from where the biggest little spent her first years…it always feels a bit like coming home.)

A few other fabulous and not so fabulous aspects of the hotel are listed below.

Pros Cons
The rooms are recently renovated (within past year) The choice of floor is difficult to keep clean (grained wood=little people grime sticks in textured grains)
Variety of room types available (with a variety of amenities such as kitchens, clothes washers, and dryers and high chairs, if requested) Rooms are relatively small (Villas) with no substantial table area (big enough for two only), and limited space for extra cribs/beds in bedrooms (only one would fit)
In the 1 bedroom Villa, the bathroom is split into two sections: shower, sink, toilet in section off of main living area and garden, jetted tub and sink off of bedroom (so toilet can be accessed without waking sleeping little people in bedroom) There are just shutters separating tub from bedroom (rather than a solid wall), so it is impossible to get a bath while little people sleep in bedroom.
The rooms have balconies The boardwalk side rooms can be loud if overlooking a busy section of the boardwalk as well as during the Epcot fireworks show
As a DVC member it is easy to access pool at Yacht/Beach Club The main pool is small overall (though it does have a slide). And the secondary pool is also small
Magic bands provided No on site character dining
Access to Magic Hours No on site Children’s Activity Center
Ample Hill ice cream (we lived blocks from the original in Brooklyn and it is un.be.liev.able.) Bathtubs (Villas) are large garden tubs, not ideal for bathing tiny little people
Outdoor play area
Outdoor grill
Kid activities (outdoor movie nights, smores, bike rental, etc)
Life vests for pool
Easy walk to Epcot and Hollywood Studios
Transportation to the parks (bus, boat, and walk)
Fireworks visible from both Epcot and Hollywood Studios (from room depending on room, but always somewhere outdoors)
Background of Epcot fireworks plays at the Boardwalk so you can experience the entire event from afar (yay for scared littles like mine)
Magical Express Service to and from airport
Resort Airline Check in (no need to drag bags to the airport or deal with lines at the airport)
A variety of eating and drinking options (from formal fish dinners to fried mac and cheese bites from a truck and onto a great drink at the AbracadaBar)
Childcare Services available for children 6 months to 12 years (prices found online)
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The delightful AbracadaBar right outside of the courtyard at the entrance into the hotel from the boardwalk.

What’s important to note is that we are Disney Vacation Club members, so we stay in DVC rooms, which provide us with kitchens and clothes washers as standard (in a 1 (+) bedroom villa). If these amenities are desired, they need to be requested. Additionally, if view is important, then it needs to be taken into account when booking the room. Some rooms overlook the boardwalk, some overlook a pool, while other rooms may just overlook the entrance or the parking lot. It is important to be clear when booking the room as there are a variety of room configurations and amenities available. Be aware of what you are booking when you book. That being said, regardless of the type of room you book, the location of the hotel and its “Coney Island”-like theme create the perfect balance of excitement and tranquility.

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Some Boardwalk photobooth fun (well, most of us had fun…).

Note: Hotels are based on a four level scale: Child Centered, Child Friendly, Child Accommodating, Unsuitable. A Child Centered hotel is a hotel in which the child’s comfort, happiness, etc. is paramount. A Child Friendly hotel has those implements in place to create a fun atmosphere for the child, though it is not the apparent mission of the hotel to continuously do so. A Child Accommodating hotel is that hotel where it will assist the parents in making the child comfortable at the parent’s request only. An Unsuitable hotel is a hotel that has no accommodations suitable for a child or the cons of the hotel make the hotel dangerous for the well-being of the child.

 

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Answers to Some Questions You Didn’t Know You Had When Planning a Getaway to Nickelodeon’s All Inclusive Resort in Punta Cana-Updated

NOTE: This post has been updated to reflect additional information provided by the resort’s concierge. Some of the information is in conflict with the information previously provided through the resort’s Facebook contact. (Nov. 16, 2016)

One thing I know about traveling with my littles is that it’s nice to go places where they are entertained by the world around them and I can spend a little less time being just sooooo entertaining. With that in mind, my husband and I set out to book a summer trip that offered our little people a bit more entertainment than they normally get when we travel beyond Walt Disney World or a beach house. My littles are small, we’re talking five, two, and under one. They still haven’t quite mastered the excitement of immersing IMG_6135.JPGthemselves in other cultures and understanding the implications and depths of historical locales and movements. So, our options were somewhat limited.

Then one day it just started popping up everywhere. I mean every single place I looked. It stalked me. Nickelodeon’s new all inclusive property in Punta Cana. So I researched and read. And read some more. And researched some more. And then I sat down to see if this place was really worth it. Most of the customer reviews from last summer were less than kind, but then again, it was a property that just opened last summer and everything was not up and running at the time. So, armed with some questions taken from those reviews, I, in my best explorer mindset, set out in search of answers. The problem was, the website was a bit less than informative. There were descriptions of a sentence, but no details. How important are details? Let me say again, I have three little people. Seriously. Details are ridiculously important.

I reached out to the hotel via their contact info and received no response. I then moved on to Facebook, and within hours I had a response. I spent the next week asking more and more questions and finding more and more questions. And I was getting answers. And when I ran out of answers, I went to the head concierge. Unfortunately I didn’t get any answers there, but I’m still hopeful. And now? I have most questions answered. And so do you.

Are the facilities all up and running? I was told they are 100% up and running. What I figured out though, through asking questions about other amenities, is that while the facilities may be 100% up and running, not all programs are. This could change over time. If there’s a particular program you’re interested in, it would be best to ask. (For example, the Spanish Lessons are not yet a part of the program there, though it is listed on their website as one of the services they offer.)

IMG_6503.JPGIs there a charge for any of the “Gotcha Covered” amenities and are they guaranteed if requested? (cribs, strollers, Gerber baby food, bottle sterilizers and warmers, step stools, bathrobes, bath tubs, changing tables, baby monitors, beach toys) The amenities are always available and should be guaranteed whether or not you request them ahead of time. Also, the Gerber food, while not organic, is suitable for children as young as six months old.

What is Nickelodeon Place? Listed on the Activities page is “Nickelodeon Place,” but what exactly is it beyond a character meeting spot (which is listed as a separate activity anyway)? Well, essentially it’s everything and nothing rolled into one. It is the general name given to the large area that contains all of the separately listed activities (Aqua Nick, Aqua Bite, Just Kiddin’ Kids Club, Character Central, Plaza Orange amphitheater, Nick kNacks, and the Sports Hub). So, though it is listed as a separate activity, it, in fact, isn’t.

IMG_3829.jpgWhat is the character meeting/Character Central situation look like? Is it organized or arbitrary? How will I know when to show up? Many of the online reviews contained complaints of not seeing any characters while on property. I was told that there is a set schedule that varies each week depending on variables such as weather and occupancy. So, it is set. But not that set. This schedule can be picked up upon arrival.

What about character dining? What are the options? How easy or hard is it to book? Currently, the only dining options with characters are breakfasts and those breakfasts only occur on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday from 8-10am is the TMNT Power Breakfast and on Sundays from 8-10am is the PJ Jam Breakfast. While these are the only days with character breakfasts, I was told that this can change depending upon demand. Since the supply is limited, these meals can be hard to get, but fortunately, character breakfast reservations can be made prior to arrival through contacting the concierge.

Can I make dining reservations in advance? While you can make character breakfast reservations in advance, you cannot make regular dining reservations in advance. These reservations should be made on property with your personal concierge or the lobby concierge. UPDATE: After getting directly in touch with the resort’s concierge (rather than through Facebook) I have been told you can make dining reservations prior to your arrival.

Is babysitting available? How much is it? And for what times? Evening babysitting is available. The cost for this is $20/hour for up to two children. Each child under four requires one babysitter for themselves. During the day, children over four can be dropped off at Just Kiddin’ and the same pricing applies for any other children who are being watched by a babysitter. UPDATE: The price per hour is until 11:00 p.m. If the service is needed additional hours, the guest is responsible for the Taxi fee to get the nanny to his/her final destination. The Taxi cost is additional to the fee per hour.

What is the process for vetting the babysitters? This is still a question I’m waiting to have answered. I will update this when, and if, I get a response. UPDATE: The babysitters are certified, and they do run background checks (as they do on all staff). Most sitters speak English or another language (as well as Spanish).

What is Just Kiddin’? Will my four year old be doing the same activities as the older children there (up to 12 years old)? Just Kiddin’ is a daytime drop off location. IMG_7709.JPGIt has both free play and scheduled activities. These scheduled activities are subject to change and will be given at check in. All kids will be together. So, yes, your four year old will be in the mix with the eight year olds and the twelve year olds. There is no separation by age.

Are there connecting rooms and can they be guaranteed? As a family of five, our room options are somewhat limited, especially if you’re like us and want a separate room for the grown ups to sleep in. If that’s what we want, we have to book a Pool Super Villa. And that is soooo much more space than we need (and sooooo much more money than we want to spend). Fortunately, you can book two connecting rooms (in certain buildings). Pads connect with other Pads and Pads connect with Swank Suites. As far as guaranteeing those? I was told they should be able to guarantee them.

When can spa reservations be made? Truth be told, this is one of the few questions that I have struggled to get answered. I have not heard from anyone, and the follow up on promises to get me that information has been nonexistent. This just leads me to the conclusion that it either contains some top secret information, the pricing is still being set, or the services are not entirely set (or there is just a real difficulty in acquiring this information). UPDATE: The spa services can be made in prior to arrival. I am still waiting for a current and correct menu for spa services.

Does the hotel provide transfers from the airport? Once you book your stay, you will be given the option of choosing to also book a transfer from the airport to the hotel.Transfers are done through Nexus Travel, the resort’s official transportation company. You can also book directly with them at www.nexustravel.com.

This trip is designed for relaxation and restoration, and some of the details are what I needed to get that process started. I’m looking forward to those smooth, sunny days, resting my weary bones on a soft-padded lounge chair outside my hotel room, listening to birds singing and watching the sun reflect off the cool blue of the pool out the door of my swim up suite. Or, more likely, trying to frantically use said lounge chair to create a barrier in my attempt to corral my little people so they don’t get too curious about that pool. And when I feel a bit overwhelmed at those climbing, crawling, eager little legs, I will remind myself to be thankful for that curiosity and the little explorers that that curiosity is creating.

Keep checking back for updates and a post-stay hotel review.

Hotel Review–The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, Lake Buena Vista, FL–Child Accommodating

The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort is a hotel (two really) that my family stays at frequently. There is something about hearing the fountains and the boat horn and sniffing the cozy vanilla smell that immediately makes me feel at peace. IMG_7026.JPGIn fact, until we joined the Disney Vacation Club it was the only place we stayed initially for two main reasons.

First, the Swan and Dolphin have the unique quality of being the only non Disney hotel still located on Disney property. Due to this, guests have most (but not all) of the benefits of a Disney hotel (extra magic hours, transportation to parks, and character dining to name a few), but guests also get to redeem points or get points for their stay because the hotel is a Starwood Property (which just happens to be our favorite hotel collection, so there’s no way we would’ve turned a blind eye to these two hotels).

The second aspect of the property that drives us to return is its location. It is situated within a scenic and easy 15 minute stroll to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The walk to Epcot takes us past The Boardwalk area, so we have easy access to all the amenities there (the hotel restaurants, the restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, bakeries, etc), and when we get to Epcot the path terminates at the entrance found quietly placed between France and England in the World Showcase. This lack of line is of significant benefit when we are there for Food and Wine or the International Flower and Garden Festival. It also makes it quite easy to just slip over to Epcot for dinner after a day at another park.

All in all, staying at the Swan and Dolphin was a fairly easy decision for us before we had children. Since kids, we still come back about once a year, but it is not our go to anymore. While the hotel is clearly a part of the world of Disney, it is also distinct in how distant from Disney it can at times feel. The hotels have quite large convention centers that are usually booked. This means that rather than having a family vibe, they often have a corporate vibe with groups of adults running from one meeting to another and signs and tables situated throughout the lobby (at least of The Dolphin). It seems the lobby is less a IMG_7010.JPGplace to gather with a family than it is to be a meeting place of members of a larger visiting convention. When weaving our way through the throngs of convention goers, it feels as though we, as a family, accidentally stumbled into a meeting we were not supposed to be at. It is less than welcoming. In the Dolphin (our preferred property), the bar can become full of people mingling, and since the bar is located in the hallway of the lobby at the top of the escalators leading to the main entrance to the walkways and amenities, it is impossible to navigate at times.

IMG_7002.JPGI think the aspect of the hotel that keeps it from being Child Friendly can best be summed up by our last visit. We were at the Dolphin during Hurricane Matthew and the closure of the parks. We asked the concierge if there were any special activities they had set up for the day to keep kids occupied, and they told us the Children’s Center would be open, as it usually is on rainy days. This small collection of rooms, tucked into the back corner of the hotel was the only amenity set up for children on a day when all children were confined to the hotel. (Disney properties, on the other hand, went so far as to bring the IMG_7004.JPGcharacters into the hotels so children could visit with them while stuck indoors.) Additionally, while the hotel has some great activities like S’mores and parent’s Date Night, they do little to advertise these services and parents must go out in search of them (we chanced upon them listed on an electronic poster when wandering the hotel during the Hurricane). In the five years we had been frequenting the property with children, this information was never verbally discussed with us. In summation, the hotel has much to offer, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because it is on Disney property, it is the equivalent of staying at a Disney hotel.

Pros Cons
Access to Magic Hours Convention center can create chaotic, crowded, corporate atmosphere
Indoor ice ceam parlor Concierge service is not always knowledgeable
Kid friendly eating options Guest Services are slow, often requiring multiple calls (ex: we waited 10 hours for a crib)
Large, interesting pool with kid friendly depths Check in can be time consuming and rooms are not always ready “on time” (3 pm check in time)
Life vests for pool Balconies not in all rooms (always a nice place to escape with a grown up once your trapped in the room because of sleeping children)
Easy walk to Epcot and Hollywood Studios No transportation to/from the airport (no Magical Express of other Disney properites)
Transportation to the parks (bus, boat, and walk) Parking lot gets filled quickly so finding a spot can prove difficult even if it is paid for, and the valet service can get quite backed up
Fireworks visible from both Epcot and Hollywood Studios (from room depending on room, but always somewhere outdoors) Camp Dolphin is small with limited space and not always available
S’mores by the beach six evenings a week Disney dining reservations can only be made at exactly 180 days out rather than 180 days plus the duration of your stay
Swan boat rentals There are no linked Magic Bands for your park ticket, room key, or charges
Two complimentary hours of child care while dining at one of their signature restaurants or during a 75 minute spa treatment  
Character dining at Garden Grove  
Camp Dolphin: supervised activity center for children ages 4-12 (open nightly 5:30-midnight; call for reservations)  
Park tickets can be purchased on site  

Of note, the rooms are undergoing renovations.

Note: Hotels are based on a four level scale: Child Centered, Child Friendly, Child Accommodating, Unsuitable. A Child Centered hotel is a hotel in which the child’s comfort, happiness, etc. is paramount. A Child Friendly hotel has those implements in place to create a fun atmosphere for the child, though it is not the apparent mission of the hotel to continuously do so. A Child Accommodating hotel is that hotel where it will assist the parents in making the child comfortable at the parent’s request only. An Unsuitable hotel is a hotel that has no accommodations suitable for a child or the cons of the hotel make the hotel dangerous for the well-being of the child.

The Equinox, a Luxury Collection Golf Resort and Spa, Manchester Village, VT: Child Accommodating (but well on its way to being Child Friendly)

 

The Equinox is one of my favorite places to be. We found it because my husband knows how to work magic with points and Starwood is one of his preferred groups. When it was just the two of us, I wanted somewhere to go to get out of Brooklyn and hike. Somewhere with clean air and a slower place, and the Equinox is what we found. That was way before kids, and back then when it was just the two of us, it was amazing. Now it isn’t just the two of us, so how has my relationship with this property changed?

To begin with, the hotel has changed. Or I have changed. Or maybe I’d like to think this hotel and I have changed together. In essence it is still the same place, but the clientele seems quite different. Smores Sign Equinox.JPGWe used to just be a couple, and we’d see other couples all around. Now I see kids, families, spread out through the hotel. Is it them? Or is it me?

It’s them (mostly). In speaking with a member of the hotel staff, I was told that since a new manger came onto the scene, the hotel has been working towards having a more family friendly presence. What this means is that they are trying out a variety of new programs aimed at kids and that it’s important to ask what’s available to your children while you’re there. Some of these programs may be just during certain weekends, some seasonal, and others phased out or replaced. One of the most important additions is the Equinox Teepee Equinox.JPGExplorer’s Club, designed for children ages 4-12 in all day or half day programs (this isn’t offered every day and the hotel recommends making reservations). The Club keeps little people occupied with a number of activities such as taking the kids to the Land Rover test track and let them drive the Mini Land Rovers on a special course. While we were there, the Club took the explorers apple picking. It seems the activities depend upon season and interest.

As for our most recent experience, I’ll outline the pros and cons below.

Pros Cons
Smores on Thurs-Sat (new) Some rooms are small (it’s an old building, so rooms are a variety of shapes)
Explorer’s Club (new) Loud hallways
A teepee in the room (just ask, new) Not all rooms have bathtubs
Carriage rides (new, only on weekends where there are no weddings) No inexpensive, fast dining options for hangry children
A swing set No indoor play area for children in the event of rain
An indoor pool The falcon bar has music on the weekends and depending upon your room, you will be able to hear it
An open field for playing right next to central deck of hotel where parents can sit with a glass of wine and watch No balconies (always a nice place to escape with a grown up once your trapped in the room because of sleeping children)
A number of hiking paths of different skill sets are right out the back door  

Of note, the hotel allows dogs of all sizes on property, so they are all over the property (except the nice grassy spot off the deck). So, if your children are scared of dogs, there is a chance they will run into one. If they aren’t, like my kids, they will be in little-kid, doggy-loving heaven.

Stratton 3 kids.jpgAdditionally, because this hotel is located at the base of a mountain and so entwined with its surroundings, I have to specify that this review is based solely on the hotel as a late summer destination. In winter, the hotel takes on an entirely different feeling as families descend upon it as a basecamp for the surrounding ski slopes.

Note: Hotels are based on a four level scale: Child Centered, Child Friendly, Child Accommodating, Unsuitable. A Child Centered hotel is a hotel in which the child’s comfort, happiness, etc. is paramount. A Child Friendly hotel has those implements in place to create a fun atmosphere for the child, though it is not the apparent mission of the hotel to continuously do so. A Child Accommodating hotel is that hotel where it will assist the parents in making the child comfortable at the parent’s request only. An Unsuitable hotel is a hotel that has no accommodations suitable for a child or the cons of the hotel make the hotel dangerous for the well-being of the child.