24 Hours in Orlando

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Prelude

So, this time last week, I was attending my company’s annual sales conference at The Marriott World Center in Orlando FL. It was the usual over-the-top event full of business reviews, strategy sessions, panel discussions, and an awards dinner (where I did not win…again). The highlight by far of the conference for me was the keynote speaker, Neil Pasricha. Neil got his start writing the blog 1000 Awesome Things, and he has now published many books including You Are Awesome, which all of us at the sales conference were given a copy of. I enjoyed his presentation so much that I went up to Neil afterwards and got him to personalize my book. We also discussed blogging in general, my blog and podcast, and I gave him an A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge sticker (I keep these on hand for just such an occasion). He said he would check out my sites. Thanks Neil!

The first two days of the sales conference featured miserable weather. Wednesday and Thursday it was in the mid-50s, overcast, rainy. Not exactly the escape a Pennsylvania guy was looking for in Orlando in January! Fortunately, the weather turned on Friday – 70s and sunny. The conference ended at noon, so this was perfect timing for the events I had planned. As most of my colleagues boarded taxis headed for the airport, I munched on my box lunch and waited for a ride of a different kind.

The real fun was about to begin.

Friday 24Jan2020

1:00pm. My brother from another mother George Borcherding arrived at the Marriott World from his home in Jacksonville FL. George is a fellow Disney and Tiki enthusiast who also happens to be a Walt Disney World annual passholder. He travels to Orlando at least once a month to get his Disney on, which usually includes a stop at our happy place, the Polynesian Village. Since I don’t live in Florida, I don’t have an annual pass, so my trip to Walt Disney World for a half-day visit would cost me a pretty penny. How could I justify this expense?

Here’s how. Last December I won the championship of my buddy Chris Benton’s fantasy football league. Not bad for my first year in the league! This is a 12-team league with cash prizes for 1st and 2nd place only. In addition, the champion gets to host a pretty sweet trophy. The cash prize was more than enough to cover the cost of a 1-day park ticket, a 1-night hotel stay, food and beverages, and spending money for souvenirs. So, why not? I earned the right to spend this found money on some great memories.

1:30pm. George and I drove to the Baymont Inn to check in, then travelled to the Hollywood Studios parking lot, where we boarded the new Disney Skyliner headed for EPCOT. I hadn’t been to WDW since they opened the Skyliner, so this was a nice treat and a cool way to fly to our ultimate destination.

2:00pm. We arrived at EPCOT, where the International Festival of the Arts was in full swing. Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to stay in Orlando for an extra day was to attend this event, where my Tiki friend and Disney Master Artist Kevin-John would be debuting his two new It’s A Small World art prints. I had my eye on the Polynesian print, and KJ was going to be at the event from 3-5pm today signing his art. We had an hour to kill.

George and I decided to cruise through the World Showcase, where they had tents set up for all of the featured artists at the festival. Although Kevin-John was my main attraction, I had also discovered another artist when browsing the festival’s website: Eunjung June Kim Atellier. June Kim had 4 works she was debuting this year, and I love them all, but the one I really wanted was Happy Orange Song. We found her art in the Wonderground Gallery tent in front of the Germany pavilion, and I bought the big print I coveted and postcards of the others. Sadly, June Kim wasn’t at the festival this week to sign her art, but I will track her down in the future.

2:30pm. We still had a little time to kill before seeing Kevin-John, so George suggested we do a little drinking around the countries. We started with a Tokyo Sunset in Japan, which was a tropical, Tiki-like concoction. Then we moved on to England where we tried some whiskey flights. I went Irish, George went Scotch. We timed our stop in England perfectly, as the typical 15-minute Florida rainstorm passed through while we stayed high…and dry.

3:00pm. The time had arrived to visit with Kevin-John. We wandered over to the Canada pavilion, where the main artists tent was located. When we got there, only one couple was in line in front of us, so we only had to wait about 10 minutes for our chance. George and I both bought the Small World – Polynesia print in the tent and had them ready for KJ to sign. I had brought an orange Sharpee for the occasion, which he gladly used. Kevin-John was gracious with his time and genuinely glad to see us. I think he spent 15 minutes with George and me, talking story and signing our art. I felt bad for the people in line behind us, which at this point had swelled to over twenty people deep. Everyone was in a good mood, though, and it turns out George and I knew many of them anyway, or at least they knew who we were. Ah, Tiki celebrity!

3:45pm. After we finished with Kevin-John, it was time to head over to EPCOT Future World and go on some rides. Sadly, this part of EPCOT is really torn apart right now, as they are renovating much of the park. My wife’s favorite fountain is gone; MouseGears is closed and ready to be demolished; much of the walking area is inaccessible as large walls have gone up to hide the mess. It really is only a 1/2-day park right now.

Fortunately we had FastPasses for Soarin’, the one must-do ride at EPCOT. Although I really miss the old ride, which featured scenic California, the new ride is pretty cool as you fly around the world. Thank goodness they didn’t change the pre-ride queue and briefing video, where Puddy still calls the shots. “Nice work, Pal.”

After Soarin’ we had FastPasses for Living with The Land and Spaceship Earth, but we didn’t need them, as both standby lines were less than 10 minutes. That was a good thing, as our half day at EPCOT was nearing an end and we had another happy place to get to. I bought some souvenirs for the family and as dusk fell, we hit the road.

6:30pm. George and I got back on the Skyliner, flew to Hollywood Studios, hopped in his Honda Pilot and drove back to the Baymont Inn, where we unpacked and got ready to head back out. At this point we switched to an Uber, as there was going to be some Tiki drinking involved tonight. No sense driving the rest of the night.

7:30pm. We arrived at the Polynesian Village Resort, our happy place and final destination of the day. I hadn’t eaten anything since that box lunch at the Marriott World, so we went to Captain Cook’s, where I ordered the Hawai’ian flatbread pizza while George chowed down on some pork fried rice. We sat out on the terrace on a beautiful evening, listening to music and enjoying the water wall.

While we were eating and chilling, we met up with some off-duty cast members and their friends. George knew everybody, as he comes here a lot! By the end of the evening, I would know them too. George also touched base with Skipper Nick, who was working at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto tonight, and put our name on the waiting list to get in.

8:00pm. George got a text from our friend Polly Allsmiller, who was hanging out upstairs at the Tambu Lounge with her husband Rich. Walter was tending bar tonight, so we headed up to get the best Mai-Tai on property and say hello to our friends. I had met Rich and Polly the last time I was at The Polynesian. They are wonderful people and tell amazing stories about their times at Disney, both in California and Florida. The Allsmillers are genuine ohana and I’m so glad we got to spend time with them!

8:30pm. George got a text from Skipper Nick that our table was ready at Trader Sam’s, so we finished up at the Tambu Lounge and headed back downstairs. Rich and Polly joined us as we settled in for a long evening of Tiki drinks and merriment with friends and cast members. Trader Sam’s is more than just a Tiki bar – it’s a Disney Tiki bar. If the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise had and alcoholic child, this place would be it. I’ve spent quite a few evenings here, and I hope I get to spend many more. I’ve also made quite a few Tiki friends here over the years, and tonight just added to my ohana. This truly is my happy place.

Saturday 25Jan2020

12:30am. After closing down Trader Sam’s, we headed back upstairs to the Tambu Lounge to hang out with Walter and the rest of the Polynesian cast members as they closed up shop for the night. By 1am George and I hailed an Uber and headed back to the Baymont Inn, where we called it a night.

Denouement

9:00am. I had woken up a little earlier than this, but George was still sleeping, so I quietly packed my suitcase and headed down to the lobby for some breakfast. George was staying in Orlando until Sunday, and I was flying home today, so I didn’t bother him this morning. I ate my breakfast and called an Uber to take me to the airport. Aloha, George, and thanks again for hosting me for the day! I love you, bruddah.

10:00am. I arrived at MCO with lots of time to spare, as my flight wasn’t scheduled to take off until 12:50pm. I had heard horror stories from my colleagues flying out the day before about long lines getting through security. I didn’t want to chance it. On this Saturday morning it only took me about 15 minutes to get through security, so I had time to kill. I started reading Neil Pasricha’s blog, which is really good. It inspired me to read his book, the one he had personalized for me two days earlier. I finished it 3 days after I got home, and enjoyed every page. I can’t wait until his new book comes out, which he teased us with during his presentation at the sales conference.

After a leisurely lunch at Ruby Tuesday in the airport terminal (not many choices here), I boarded the plane heading back to Newark. So long, Orlando. Until we meet again.

1:00pm. Wheels up as I reflect on the past 24 hours. This truly was a wonderful trip, albeit a short one. It really made me happy to be able to see such wonderful people and do such fun things in the course of one day. I’m glad I took Neil Pasricha’s advice to spend the 20 minutes (well, maybe a little more) to write it all down. The 20-minute replay truly does give you the chance to relive the happiness, and will continue to do so every time I read this blog post. Mahalo, Neil. And George. And KJ. And Rich & Polly. A hui hou.

What’s New at The Polynesian

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Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort is my happy place. When we take family vacations to WDW, that’s where we stay. It’s non-negotiable. The last time we were there, back in November 2014 (see WDW Polynesian Village Day 1), The Poly was under construction, and a lot of the resort was unrecognizable. Last week I was in Orlando for a sales conference at the Marriott World Center, and we brought the family in a few days early for a mini vacation. We didn’t stay overnight at The Polynesian, but we did spend a few precious hours there last Saturday afternoon.

So what was the reason for a quick trip to my happy place? Like I need a reason?!? Actually, there were 4 good reasons:

  1. To see how the renovations turned out;
  2. To get some Dole Whip;
  3. To have dinner at the Kona Café;
  4. To meet my Tiki buddy from Jacksonville, George Borcherding.

Let’s start with George. He and I have become Facebook friends because we share a love of Tiki and WDW. George and I had never actually met, but when I told him I had a sales conference in Orlando in February and planned to stop by The Poly, George marked the date on his calendar and said he would meet me there. True Tiki friendship knows no bounds!

After a quick introduction in the Tambu Lounge, we headed down to the Pineapple Lanai for our first Dole Whip. It’s not a stretch to say George is addicted to Dole Whip. He obsesses over it on Facebook, and his travels in search of Dole Whip are epic. Once we scored our Dole Whip, we sat on the outdoor patio around the corner to be first in line for our next destination: Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

Here was the thing I was most excited to see on this trip: Trader Sam’s. My wife Jessica and I have been to the one at Disneyland, when we were there in 2013 for the 50th anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room (see Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles). When we found out they were opening one at The Polynesian, we were looking forward to checking it out. Unfortunately, it was just being built when we were last here. So this was our next chance, and we took it!

The thing that was most distinctive about the East Coast Trader Sam’s was Uh-Oa, a crazy, Voodoo like goddess who is a focal point of the corner of the bar where we sat. Uh-Oa is also one of the signature drinks that generates an elaborate light and sound show when you order it, and comes in a cool Tiki mug. Of course, we ordered it first, and I brought that mug home to pair with my Krakatoa mug from the West Coast Trader Sam’s.

After a couple of drinks at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, George and I went back into the Great Ceremonial House to pay tribute to Maui, the Polynesian Village Resort logo who has come to life as a large statue at the center of the first floor. I was sad when they decided to remove the iconic waterfall that rose 2 stories above the lobby, but I must admit Maui is a nice replacement. The ground floor is much brighter now, with plenty of seating and wonderful nautical decor hanging from the now-visible glass ceiling. Well done, Disney!

Mahalo, George, for making the trip to hang out with me at my happy place! After this photo, we said aloha to George and went upstairs to have dinner at the Kona Café. My family had never eaten dinner there before, as we’re partial to the feast at Ohana, but this was the trip for new things, so we gave it a shot. It was very nice! They have a new menu at Kona Café, and many of the appetizers are familiar from Ohana, but the entrees were different and quite good. I had the tuna, and it was one of the best pieces of tuna I’ve ever had! After dinner, my son Ryan and I had one more Dole Whip for the road, and we were on our way to our next destination.

All in all, our visit to the Polynesian Village Resort was short but sweet. The changes they’ve made were all for the better, in my opinion. We stayed in 3 different hotels in Orlando for the 4 nights of this trip, and my family agrees: when we come back to WDW for a full vacation, we will come back to The Polynesian. Like I said before: it’s non-negotiable.