Splurge-worthy Disney: visit Mickey like a rock star


By Sarah Sekula, Published in USA TODAY

ORLANDO — A gentle breeze ruffles my hair as seagulls squawk and nearby Spring Breakers assume lounge position. On the deck of a beach bungalow, I swing in a hanging wicker chair in cadence with the waves rolling in. It has the relaxing vibe of the dreamy South Pacific. Just one major difference: the views of Space Mountain, Cinderella Castle and the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

Dotting the shoreline of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, the 20 Bora Bora Bungalows are the first of their kind on any Disney property. Each comes with a private plunge pool (a prime spot to view the nightly fireworks). And don’t worry, you won’t miss out on the music. The soundtrack is piped in through an individual sound system.

The bungalows sleep up to eight guests in a cozy, two-bedroom setting. Starting at $2,137 a night (or the equivalent amount of DVC member points), it’s the newest way to live out your champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Of course, beyond this there are plenty of ways to add extra sparkle on your next visit to The Mouse. In other words, dishing out the extra moola, in these cases, can be worth it.

Sleep at the fanciest hotel
If the bungalows are all booked, the Grand Floridian (starting at $517 a night) is another swanky option.

“For many guests looking for a high-end experience, it is their first choice,” says Lou Mongello, Disney expert and host of the WDW Radio podcast. “There is something wonderful and special about feeling as though you are indulging yourself a bit, yet nothing about the resort is pompous or stuffy.”

Here, parents can bump up the pampering with a couples massage ($275) at Senses spa, while kids hit the Wonderland Tea Party or the Pirate Cruise.

“What I love about it is the sense of escapism and elegance,” Mongello says. “As soon as I enter the lobby, I feel as though I’m no longer in Walt Disney World, but instead on a luxurious resort getaway.”

Plus, if you can afford it, staying on Disney property can bump up your experience, big time.

“It allows you to book reservations for the park’s attractions 30 days before anyone staying off-site and gets you access to the extended “Extra Magic Hours” before or after the parks close to off-site guests,” says Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com.

Skip the lines
Continue the diva-style vacation by signing up for a Private Premium VIP Tour (starting at $360 per hour with a minimum of six hours). Here’s how it works: Your personal guide picks you up at your Orlando-area hotel and whisks you away to the parks of your choice. Want hints on where to find hidden Mickeys? No problem. How about sitting in the front row for the Fantasmic! show?

It is expensive, indeed, but you can bring up to nine guests, and you will squeeze a heck of a lot into your day. Your guide will breeze you through the lines and score special viewing areas for fireworks and parades.

Be warned, though: After this type of treatment, “you’re spoiled for visiting the parks any other way, especially during popular vacation seasons, such as summer and the Christmas holidays,” says Niles.

Indulgent eats
When hunger kicks in, go beyond the typical turkey legs and burgers, and book the chef’s table at Victoria & Albert’s, a AAA Five-Diamond winner.

“It remains one of my most memorable dining experiences anywhere in the world,” says Mongello. “From the staff to the presentation of your meal, the overall experience is remarkable.”

Only one party per evening is seated for the four-hour, 10-course dining extravaganza. Prices start at $250 per person with wine pairings available for an addition $105 per guest. From Italian truffles to Japanese beef to an extensive wine list, it’s a very popular choice for foodies.

If wine is your thing, California Grill has 250 wines on its list and Trattoria al Forno has more than 30 wines by the glass and more than 60 wines by the bottle. Not only can you sip the finest of wines, but there’s a good chance you’ll be served by an expert. The Walt Disney World Resort now has more than 400 sommeliers. Who would have thought?

Cruise in style
When it comes to bragging rights, what could be better than boarding a 52-foot yacht (starting at $699)? Oh, and bringing up to 17 friends along. Certainly this is how Jay-Z and Beyonce must roll. You can arrange for a gourmet, five-course menu; be sure to request the tuxedo strawberries. While you’re at it, splurge for the private butler.

“Being on a boat on the Seven Seas Lagoon offers you a lovely view of the fireworks, but perhaps more importantly, it allows you to see them without being stuck in the crush of visitors massed to watch them on Main Street USA,” Niles says. “And it gives you a huge head start on getting back to your hotel or the parking lot after the show.”

One-on-one time with hippos
The Wild Africa Trek (starting at $189 per person) at Animal Kingdom is something special. Guests don safari vests for a private, three-and-a-half-hour tour of the popular Kilimanjaro Safari attraction. They feed hippos, cross a suspension-bridge (above dozens of crocs) and dine on the deck of a savannah hut where animal sightings are a guarantee. (Don’t worry: A professional photographer is with you to capture it all.)

“We were all surprised by how isolated we managed to feel,” says Carina Graham, who took her son for his 10th birthday. “Like we were not even at a Disney park.”

“At Disney everyone is made to feel special,” Mongello adds. “Premium experiences like these take those feelings to a new level.”