Friday, 16 December 2016

Time To Sail Away

Grey and rainy skies continued to dominate the Sydney skyline. We breakfasted at Chic, one of the other dining rooms with a limited buffet selection. Family members who opted for A La Carte offerings at the Grande reported a very slow service time with meals not being brought out until 45 minutes after the orders were made.

With cruise plans synced, it was time to have fun. I went to the...gasp...gym! Thank you to Sharon who dragged me along. Unfortunately for us, we couldn't resist pressure from the lady next to us who couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She kindly told us that we were only on "warm up" mode. What?!! What do you mean?!? Despite being on death's door, we upped our difficulty level on the elliptical trainer. Surely we couldn't be that unfit...

We survived our gym escapade and a quick exploration of the ship followed, followed by a reconnaissance trip to two70 for the evening show, Pixels. A game plan was needed to get seats for 24. Lunch was off the ship to satisfy the parental's need for one last "good" Asian meal. Chat Thai won the honours and the family feasted on authentic Thai food. The cheapskate in me was protesting that free food was awaiting me onboard however my stomach won over and I tucked in.

Our morning view

She dominated Circular Quay making everything around seem small

Sticking out the end of the International Passengers Terminal

Breakfast at Chic, discussing the day's plans
Without trying to be overly negative, logistics for this cruise has been disorganised all around. There were issues with getting simple information preboarding and this continued on board. Finding out dress codes for the cruise turned out to be a 60 minute exercise with one staff saying there were no formal nights, another telling us it was formal night everyday and the last one who didn't know!

We left guest services for our very first onboard trivia, but didn't fare too well. Nevermind, it was finally time to sail away. We sailed out of Sydney towards our next destination of Hobart. Disappointingly there wasn't too much fanfare. It wasn't like when the Disney Magic first visited Malta and a 21 gun salute was brought out!

Something we did manage to finally sort out was our reservations for specialty dining. There was major issues with the online booking systems and our reservations were a mess. Children were meant to be free but were charged. There were specials that were not honoured. The list of issues was long. However, again this took having to speak to the head of restaurants to organise. Dining never seemed so completely difficult on previous cruises including previous Royal Caribbean cruises!

Dinner was faster this evening however our waiter was still disorganised. He kept forgetting who ordered which dish! Whilst this was not a big deal, the service did not hold up to service on other cruises. There were three shows on board for which we had to make reservations. One of them was Pixels, our show for the evening. It was technologically quite impressive but lacked cohesive story telling which took away from the show a little. Unfortunately, there was also a technical failure midshow! After about 5 minutes, the show resumed with no further glitches.

On a more positive note, we were able to try Royal Caribbean's new internet service called Voom available on their ships. The speed didn't disappoint, being only a touch slower than internet on land. However, it didn't come cheap at nearly USD 16 per day! As we go along, I'll try to post various areas of the ship.

Finally! Pulling away from the International Passengers Terminal

The ship turning in the Harbour

The tugboats guiding the ship out of the Harbour

Goodbye Opera House

I went to the gym!

Uni friends finally on a cruise together! The indoor pool area

The library

Pixels at two70. The theatre has a panoramic view in the daytime and screens come down to convert it to a theatre when needed

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Ovation Of The Seas

A cold and wet welcome to Ovation of the Seas from Sydney
 After more than a year of booking, the day has finally come for our cruise on Ovation Of The Seas. There was excitement on multiple levels. Ovation, one of the Royal Caribbean's newest ships, is also the biggest ever to sail into Sydney Harbour. The grey and drizzly skies could not dampen the family's buzz in the morning. A 23 strong family group was picked up by our chartered bus and transported to Circular Quay where our mammoth ship awaited us. Check in was surprisingly smooth. As soon as our bus stopped at the port, our luggage was whisked off from the bus straight onto trolleys. There were "mobile" check in staff rather than the usual fixed check in counters. Even though the International Passengers Terminal was full of people, there was a steady flow and we were kept moving. Before long, we were onboard and in Windjammer's enjoying buffet with a view!
Waiting patiently for our bus...

Here it is!

Just to be sure....yup its our bus

Buffet! Yay!

Buffet with a view! Yay yay!
 We had access to our cabins by 1pm and we were lucky to have our luggage arrive soon after.  It was time to explore the ship! But not before the walkie talkies were tested and codenames issued...after all we just HAD to keep in touch with each other. With 6 walkies talkies between us, we were the communication commandos. A quick tour of the ship's highlights, followed by a spin on the dodgems and the obligatory boarding day swim accompanied by the pool deck soft serve were a hit with the children. It wasn't long before it was time for the mandatory fire drill and dinner. We chose traditional early dining and we were allocated The Grande restaurant, an elegant restaurant in line with most restaurants on cruise lines. Minor seating issues were fixed quickly, although the meal was on the slow side.

With the ship docked in Sydney Harbour overnight, some of the adults chose to venture out into the city for drinks. Unfortunately, it was babysitting duties for me. Perhaps a date with the robotic bar tender instead in the near future!

video

Access to our cabin

The view from our Deck 13 cabin balcony

The robot bar tender looks somewhat like Wall- E

Michael has his own pub!

The North Star on its way up

The Bahari Clan

Dodge-ems!

We found the all important soft serve station

Had our swim with a view of The Rocks

Dinner at The Grande restaurant

Let the feasting begin!

How did Mum and Dad score champagne in their cabin?!?!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Tokyo Disney Resort - A summary...

My blog on Japan stopped just as we reached Disney because I was too tired to blog at the end of our long Disney days and everyday life has got in the way since our return!

These are our thoughts on Tokyo Disney Resort (TDR). The information is in no particular order. Hopefully it will be helpful to future visitors. It wasn't as easy planning for and gathering information on TDR compared to the American parks. Our posts on our actual days at the parks will be backdated so those following our blog can follow on. They will hopefully be updated sooner rather than later!

So nine months later, here goes...

Tokyo Disney Resort has 2 parks - Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) and Tokyo Disneysea (TDS). Both are reasonably sized parks. Disneyland is a variant of the Disneyland at LA, Magic Kingdom at Orlando and HongKong and Paris. However, there are rides that are unique to Tokyo. Disneysea is unlike any other Disney park. Visually stunning and the theming is phenomenal. One of the few parks geared for young adults but the Japanese young act like children anyway...definitely worth a visit. In my opionion the best Disney park out of the lot world wide.

Accomodation

There are 4 Disney Hotels (a "value" hotel just opened in June 2016), and then official hotels and partner hotels. The 4 Disney hotels are closest to the parks, and the official hotels and the partner hotels are on the monorail line that serves/goes around the parks. With little ones, this will save you a lot of time from travelling to and from Tokyo itself. This map might be helpful for general orientation. The full list of hotels is available on the Disney website. As to where to stay depends on:

  1. Budget 
  2. How prepared you are to travel to save money
  3. How much value you put into service and convenience
  4. How big a Disney fan you are!

The Disney Hotels are HIGHLY popular. You have to make a reservation right on the day 6 months before your check in date! Online reservations open 12am Japanese time. You can also ring to make a reservation. The Disney hotels run on an occupancy rate of something ridiculous like 98%. What I'm trying to say is...that there is never any last minute discounts. You have to decide whether or not you want to stay there and book if you do. They are also expensive. The most expensive and the most popular is the Hotel Miracosta (also the most beautiful!). It is located within the DisneySea park with its own entrance into the park. We stayed there because we are Disney Freaks...and also paying a fortune (close to $600 per night!) Rooms for 5 at the official hotels was going to cost us around $550 per night...

The official hotels include Sheraton and Hilton, if you have points, then this may be a good option. Being a big chain, they are some of the few hotels that do have bigger rooms. The Sheraton has special rooms for 5 that you can only book via calling or via email but they are more expensive than rooms for 4. The other benefit to these hotels is occasionally on expedia or their own websites, prices can drop momentarily! If you can be bothered stalking, then you may be rewarded with a bargain. Also unlike many other Japanese hotels, their rooms are actually available for booking more than 3 months in advance. It may be a good idea to book a refundable room at one of these hotels as a back up regardless.

The benefits of staying at a Disney Hotel in Tokyo is not as extensive as those in the US or in Paris:

  1. You get to enter 15 minutes earlier than the general crowd. This might not seem like much but the Japanese RUN as soon as they enter! (The only park in the world that this is allowed. Its actually quite an amazing sight to see usually polite Japanese sprinting). In other words, as soon as the parks open, the rides get saturated quickly and so lines build up faster than the other parks around the world. You'll get 1 or 2 rides without wait with early entry, or be first to get the fastpasses for coveted rides and this sets you up for the rest of the day.
  2. You can get your merchandise delivered to your room. This might be handy when busy as usually the better time to shop is earlier in the day but then you have to carry it around...they usually open the shops for another 30 min after parks close and the Japanese LOVE their merchandise (as do I! They have a lot of unusual and cute things). So the shops are PACKED towards the end of the day. So if you can shop earlier and then have it delivered you don't have to lug it around the park.
  3. You can get "hopper" tickets that are different to the ones usually sold. The norm of a 3 or 4 day ticket is - Day 1 - nominate one park to visit Day 2 - nominate one park to visit Days 3-4 - you can move from one park to the other. If you stay at a Disney hotel, you can buy tickets which let you "hop" from Day 1 at only a little more than the normal multi day ticket. But I personally don't think this is worth it as you will need 1 full day at each park anyway.

Timing and Length of Stay

How many days? I would recommend 3 or 4 depending on how "commando" you want to attack the parks and the time of year. If you are travelling with little ones or if it is your first time, I would recommend 4, especially if you are staying onsite. You can go back to the hotel, have a short rest and then go back again in the late afternoon/evening. You will need a minumum of one full day per park. So if you knew what you were doing, it can be done in 2. When I went "solo" in May, I was at Disney from 9am until 11pm! And I didn't get to finish seeing everything...and I had a Japanese expat with me getting me fastpasses whilst I watched shows. This will also allow for some shopping time and to watch the shows and parades. The Japanese ones are of very high quality.

You can buy the tickets online before you go, or purchase them at your hotel if you stay onsite.

As for when to visit, TDR Explorer has an excellent run down on the best times to visit and the times of the year to avoid. This crowd calendar may also be handy to help you fine tune your visit and your touring plans for the parks.

Dining

Sit down dinners are a lot more expensive than sit down lunches in Japan and this holds true within the Tokyo Disney Resort as well. The Disney parks has some nice restaurants in them. Their set lunches are actually decent value. I paid around $30 for a 3 course meal at the "secret cellar" at Magellan's. So...in other words, we would suggest having a nice meal at lunch and quick over the counter meals for dinner! It is probably helpful as you can take a "break" in the middle of the day while eating lunch so you're not wasting "down" time :)

We recommend going for the below and then winging it for other meals based on where you are and what you feel like:

Tokyo Disneyland
Meals - The popular ones are - Queen of hearts (theming),  Hungry Bear Cafe (good value. Need to like Jap curry!), Blue Bayou (inside Pirates of the Caribbean - much like other ones in other parks). Only Blue Bayou needs reservation. If you go for any sit down meals (same principle applies in TDS) make it lunch if you can.
Snacks - Look out for interesting and unusual snacks! eg pizza spring roll, Donald Burger (ebi burger), Mickey hand pao (roast chicken pao), little green men mochi, and of course various flavoured pop corns (remember some flavours are only available in one park and not in the other!)

Tokyo Disneysea
Meals - The popular ones are - Ristorante Di Canaletto (theming - you'll really feel like you're in Venice!),  Magellans (good food, reasonable value). These two will need reservations. Casbah's is counter service venue and need no reservation.
Snacks - Again look out for interesting and unusual snacks! An example is Chandhu tails which can be found in Arabian Coast. I won't spoil the others. Have fun finding and trying all the various offerings! The Teddy Roosevelt Lounge (in the big ship!) is a lovely way to wind down in the evening for an ice-cream/drink. Don't be put off by the lines. They usually move quickly enough.

There were a few sites which we found handy for reviews of the various restaurants:
http://www.disneytouristblog.com/tokyo-disney-restaurant-reviews/
http://tdrexplorer.com/tokyo-disney-resort-restaurant-reviews/
http://appetiteforjapan.com/category/attractions/tokyo-disney-dining/

We didn't bother with restaurants linked with shows because the shows were in Japanese. We can only go by the reviews which are mediocre for Western audiences. I should also mention that we didn't bother with any character dining as we had done many, many, many of them in the other parks and also on the cruises. However, if you are interested, here are some examples/reviews
http://www.charactercentral.net/B3648_TheCrystalPalaceCharacterBreakfastatTokyoDisneylandAReview.aspx
http://www.charactercentral.net/B3649_ChefMickeyCharacterDiningatTokyoDisneyResortAReview.aspx
http://www.honorablerat.com/food-review/2015/4/3/character-dining-at-horizon-bay-restaurant

Booking can be done online from 1 month ahead (although the site is only in Japanese!) Once again, TDR has written an excellent and extensive "how to" with regards to making TDR restaurant reservations.

There are also dining options at Ikspiari (TDR's down town disney equivalent). There are restaurants, a food court as well as a supermarket where you can buy goods that are suitable for breakfast.

Rides, Shows and Parades

Tokyo Disneyland
Must do attraction :

  • Winnie the Pooh - this is is completely different to the other Pooh rides at the Disney parks worldwide and is the best of the Pooh rides! The Japanese go nuts over Pooh...

Must see show:

  • Once upon a Time - a castle projection show. And once again, the best out of the ones we've seen at all the parks. There is a lottery system. We saw the winter edition and I'm pretty sure there is a "normal" version. 


Tokyo Disneysea
This park was built for young couples and so may not be as fun for the younger children. It is however, a very beautiful park, with the most money of any of the Disney Parks spent on it for theming. So do take the time to take in the sights and the small touches like the Venetian gondolas, the whole of Mysterious Island etc
Must do attraction:

  • Toy Story Mania - a lot of fun and VERY popular. You will find that the Disney resort guests (if you stay offsite) will already have a jump on you by the time you get there. Don't be disheartened to see a wait time of 60 min at park opening! If you ever go to the states, the same ride (exactly the same!) is there too with much more manageable queue times. 
  • Journey to Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - these are unique to Tokyo Disney Sea, at no other Parks elsewhere. 
  • Fortress Exploration is a lot of fun for the children. Handy to kill time here if you need to wait for your table at Magellans. 
  • Others that are unique to Disney Sea include Aquatopia, Storm rider

Must see show:

  • Fantasmic - There are similarities to other Fantasmics at the other Parks but is different enough to be worth watching. 
  • Big Band Beat - Excellent broadway quality show. Again there is a lottery system. 

At this point, I will refer you  back to TDR Explore for details on how to use the lottery system. It is important to read up on it and be familiar with it before going in. Have a game plan because the Japanese are quite savvy and unlike in Europe, they know how to use Fastpasses and the lottery system. You have to be at least as good as the locals!

Parades
These do change with the seasons. There was a Frozen parade when we were there and we love watching elderly Japanese ladies really get into the songs. They knew all the actions and there was no holding them back!

Generally speaking, there's no stress for the parades and no need to line up too long beforehand. The Japanese are very polite and arrange themselves in a tiered fashion so that everyone can see. Guests in the front sit and guests at the back stand. The cast members are also very good at re-enforcing this. A good spot at TDL to see the parades is Tomorrow land Terrace - sit at the tables and chairs in the corner that have views of the castle and path that heads right of the castle - they are usually pretty empty. This way you can relax in the shade, have some food and watch the parade in peace (with nearby toilet too). They have a map of the parade routes at the entrance (and probably hotel too).

Touring Plans

Unlike the American parks, there is no "Tour Guide Mike" or "Touringplans.com" to help with detailed itineraries or multi day itineraries. We found the following websites handy as a place to start - and went from there to form a more detailed itinerary.

Tokyo Disney Sea http://www.disneytouristblog.com/1-day-tokyo-disneysea-plan/
Tokyo Disneyland http://www.disneytouristblog.com/1-day-tokyo-disneyland-daily-trip-blueprint/
Rides:

The following was written by Malcolm for "non-Disney" friends for their first day at Disneyland. Its a gem so I will leave it unedited...

"Get a copy of the park map from the hotel the night before. Study it. Here's the basic concept: The most popular rides in TDL are Toystory Mania and Winnie the Pooh. You will need to be in the line 1 hour before park opening. Maybe plan to have breakfast in the line to kill time or bring something to entertain the kids and yourselves (book etc). You may be tempted to think "Let's all stick together. It's too stressful to split up and try and meet etc..." This is amateurish thinking and will only lead to repeated frustration caused by waiting in lines that could largely be avoided. I assume that you will not be able to communicate with each other by phone. Even if you can, this may fail. You need a plan for failed meetings so that no one is stressed and you aren't walking around the park looking for each other. eg: we will meet at x at 10am. I will wait until 1030. If you are not there then we will both go to a predetermined spot (something REALLY obvious - ) on the hour wait exactly 10 minutes and repeat every hour. Hopefully you never fail to find each other, but all anaesthetists have a plan B. OK this is what you do:
-all go through the entrance and immediately give all your tickets to your fast pass person. Said person will walk fast/run to the first fast pass booth (You can try TSM but be aware it may be a 30 minute wait to get this even getting there early - I think on day 1 it's better to avoid this to keep the kids upbeat so fast pass person would go to Winnie the Pooh. The rest of you go to the entrance of your favourite ride  - 2 best options are a) a popular ride at the back of the park eg splash mountain or b) the kid rides that fill up really ridiculously later eg Peter Pan. Go on as many rides in the area that you chose until your fast pass kicks in. Pay close attention to the bit on the ticket that says "next fast pass available at x". Let's say your fastpass for Winne the Pooh kicks in at 10:00 and your next fast pass is available at 10:00.... Fast pass runner, at 0950 should run to new fast pass place and get the tickets and then run back to you - then you all enter Winnie the Pooh together.
Why all the running? Fast Pass attractions are deliberately spaced apart around the park. You will be inefficient and have a bad time making the kids run around. The fast pass times get stretched during the day. You need to stay ahead of the system. Also a 10 minute for fast pass runner while the rest of the family amble across to the next ride and have a snack is much better than you all waiting for an hour... and fast pass runner burns off the churros.

Remember - you must work out your first three fast passes before you go in. When you have a plan it takes the stress out of trying to study the map and make decisions on the run. Check the website (or call) to see if the rides are family friendly or just for some of your family - eg tower of terror

Other strategies - All Japanese act like little kids. They love parades and shows so if you have seen them already use this time to hit the rides (especially kid ones like small world). Eat off peak and early - eg lunch 1115 dinner 530
Also study the shows so you know when they are.

Avoid Duffy - the Japanese love him and anything close to or related to Duffy is always packed."

Here's my input. Always best to plan as much as possible before hand and on the day go with the flow. You still want to enjoy the parks! Rope drop can be a bit scary - all the Japanese will be ready to roll. It will be impossible to stay together. Once you get your first fast pass and meet up at your first ride it is then very relaxing and great fun.

I love Duffy. I succumbed and purchased myself a Shelly May bag (Duffy's girlfriend)!

TDR apps

Unfortunately many are in Japanese only. Not all have fast pass return times and some are free whereas others need to be purchased. It comes down to personal preference as to which you like.

Shopping

Gotta say the shopping was a little disappointing. It is mostly plasticky trinkets unlie the american parks where they have good quality items that have been "Disneyfied - eg platters, artwork, glasses etc)

Merchandise at The Disney Store is different to those within the parks so be sure to visit the Disney Store either in Tokyo or at Ikspiari!

Communication

You are unable to get phone sims in Japan as a foreigner so we used data only sims to communicate with each other via whatsapp (or other equivalent data based messaging system), for navigation and most importantly...for looking up wait times/fast pass availability while at TDR!

There are a tonne of providers so be sure to shop around for the best deals. Here is just one example of a provider https://www.econnectjapan.com/products/sim/

Of course, there are other possibilities, such as using a TravelSIM or if our local mobile provider has options for overseas cover. Just work out what you will likely be using and which would work best for your intended usage.





Thursday, 30 June 2016

Our Last Day In Bali

We were blessed with sunny blue skies for our last full day in Bali. We made the most of it enjoying our villa facilities. We capped off the day and our stay with dinner at Kudeta, the popular beach side "lifestyle" bar and restaurant. It was almost too trendy for us. As usual, the food was superb. Pricey by Bali standards, it was still decent value by Sydney standards. What does that say about Sydney!! This time we did manage to catch the sunset.

Last but not least, our last meal at the villa was with a farewell babi guling (suckling pig). Goodbye Bali, it has been a blast!

How can one NOT jump into that pool!


The monkeys from the cliffside came by for a visit. A baby one

The famous Kudeta

Live DJ

Choosing our meals



Our farewell suckling pig


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ubud and Kintamani

We headed for the mountains of Bali today, driving north towards Kintamani. On the way we stopped by Ubud, reknowned to be the center for traditional crafts and dance as well as the terraced rice paddies. We stopped by a silver shop where we were able to view the silversmiths at work with traditional designs. And yes of course purchases were made...

We could almost make a cheesy Asian style video clip...

The local craftsmen at work


Lara scores! A pair of Balinese crafted silver earrings
Next was the obligatory stop for Kopi Luwak or civet coffee. The civet apparently chooses the best coffee beans to eat. The partly digested beans are said to improve the coffee. The beans gets pooped out and then collected, cleaned, roasted and brewed. We were showed the beans at the various process steps before sitting down at the tasting tables to try the various coffees offered.

The civet

Being showed how the kopi luwak is made


Not a bad view for coffee tasting

The tasting platter

Even Jonah enjoyed the tasting
The cool mountain air was a welcome change to the heat and humidity. We decided to forgo any hiking in view of the weather and opted for a leisurely scenic lunch instead. From there we continued back down as the children wanted to stop at the terraced padi fields. Our last stop was Bebek Bengil where we had Balinese style fried duck. Yummo!

Lake Batur

The closest we're going to get to a decent family photo

The terraced rice paddies of Ubud