A Ramble to Disney World and beyond – Part 1

Living north of Atlanta, we have visited Disney World many times and even went to Epcot during its opening year. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons, it has become increasingly expensive to visit the Mouse House, but this has not stopped people from coming. If anything it is more crowded than ever, despite the high prices of food and lodging. There seem to be no bargain rates for the hotels on the Disney property even in the so-called off season. In fact, there is no longer an off season.  Of course there are hundreds of bargain hotels of varying quality that surround Disney World, but only a few are within the Disney Transportation system. Having access to the the Disney shuttles makes it much easier to get from park to park. Almost everyone(except small babies) needs a startlingly  expensive ticket to the park.  Yet, we still enjoy  Disney World albeit in small doses.It has many pluses that match the equally many minuses, and so… we decided to stop in Orlando on our way to Palm Beach and the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction. Then I checked on the current cost of tickets and got sticker shock!

We actually still have a few unexpired partial tickets somewhere around the house in a “safe place,” but we couldn’t find them. If we were to go to Orlando, I’d have to buy  new ones. I follow several Disney websites that offer links to reputable sellers of new discounted tickets to see what was available. We prefer the Park Hopper tickets as we like to visit both Animal Kingdom and  Epcot, and sometimes Hollywood Studios, but don’t want to spend a whole day at one park.

However, Park Hopper tickets are more expensive (of course). In the past, we found that we could save a modest amount by buying a ticket for multiple days (the per day cost comes down as the days go up ) with the no-expiration option. It was disappointing to find that as of this spring, Disney eliminated no-expiration option. Luckily, I was able to find two 5 day Park Hopper tickets at one on-line ticket broker that were among the last no-expiration tickets issued. This was a good deal for us, even though the cost was a little higher initially, because we usually visit Disney World for only one or two days at a time. The multi-day conventional tickets expire, usually within two weeks and single-day tickets are pricey.

Almost forgot. If you haven’t been to Disney recently, all tickets have to be registered by  their owners on the Disney website before they will work. This links them to a bunch of things we didn’t use and one we did, but the key difference here is you can’t switch tickets. If you do, you can’t get into the park. This obviously prevents someone from stealing your ticket, but also won’t allow you to give your partially used ticket to anyone else. We did use the new fast pass system but I’m not sure I like the new way of getting a fast pass loaded onto your ticket before you get to the park. It’s kind of complicated, and in the end, we only got fast passes to Soarin,’  far and away our favorite ride.

So we had our tickets, now to find a place to stay. Unfortunately our favorite hotel, the Swan, was showing high rates, as did the other hotels on the Disney campus.

Our view from the 12th floor of the B, we always get the dumpster view or similar
Our view from the 12th floor of the B, we always get the dumpster view or similar

We were looking at the middle of April, and I guess that is still considered prime Spring Break time.  Fortunately, I noticed an excellent Travelzoo rate for a new hotel near Downtown Disney, the B. The B is considered one of Disney’s preferred hotels;  one of six or so along Buena Vista Boulevard. These hotels are within walking distance of Downtown Disney on one side and restaurants and stores on the other. They also  have a Disney shuttle that goes to all the parks, stopping to pick up people at each hotel in turn before heading out. We had never stayed in a preferred hotel  before, but it was only for two nights and the rate was less than half the cost of a Disney property. So the B it was. (“So B it!”)

Our drive to Orlando was uneventful, but seemed really long. A few years back, the Ramblers would have considered an 8 hour drive easy, but not so much anymore. As we headed onto the Florida Turnpike, we were really looking forward to getting to the B. Following our Google directions, we exited the Turnpike only to find that as we neared our destination, there was road construction everywhere around Downtown Disney! This made it a lot more challenging to find the B, but we eventually got there. The B is a rather strange hotel, modern and clean but somehow lacking in amenities. it had only one restaurant, mostly buffet style, and the rooms had no coffee makers. In recent years, we have gotten spoiled by the single serving coffee makers in many hotels. At the B, you could get a free cup at their gift shop, which also sold ice cream and pastries (I told you it was odd) but our room was on the 12th floor and it was a pain to go to their version of a Quick Mart for coffee. Nevertheless, the B wasn’t bad. It had comfortable beds and excellent soundproofing! We found their shuttle busses to be reliable and convenient and never had to wait very long for one.

We got to the B while the sun was still shining brightly allowing plenty of time to get to Downtown Disney and get our Earl of Sandwich fix.

Senior Rambler happy with his sandwich at the Earl's
Senior Rambler happy with his sandwich at the Earl’s

Downtown Disney is within walking distance but the construction around the area made it a confusing walk. The Ramblers decided to take it easy and ride the shuttle bus system. This turned out to be a really smart idea because the bus driver told us the best way to get to the Earl of Sandwich was to take a pontoon boat across the lake. This saved us a looong walk.

Downtown Disney is in the midst of major changes, but one restaurant that hasn’t changed is the Earl of Sandwich.  It is a counter service place that features a dozen or so sandwiches, with cutesy names, that taste really  good. They also have salads and sides and a few desserts but the Ramblers zeroed in on the original beef sandwich.  Although the prices have gone up,( What a surprise) the sandwich hasn’t changed and we enjoyed ours very much. It is still one of the best deals in the whole of Disney World. Although the Earl of Sandwich is a successful chain , alas. so far it hasn’t ventured into the Atlanta area. Seems silly to get excited about a sandwich in the era of Subway and Blimpie, but all I can say the Earl’s sandwiches are better or maybe it’s the name.

Balloon rising over the lake.
Balloon rising over the lake.

After strolling around Downtown Disney, we headed back to the dock to take the pontoon boat back to our bus stop. While we waited for the next boat, we had a chance to see the tethered hot-air balloon ride in operation. It was fun to watch and quite a romantic sight. The next day we would spend in the parks.

Homeward Bound

The Rambler didn’t stay to tour the Christmas Markets  in Passau, as it was almost noon and she didn’t want to miss her last lunch on the Beatrice. Since this was the final stop,  she would have plenty of time to venture out later in the afternoon. It had been a damp and chilly stroll through the winding streets of Alstadt Passau, but Sonia, our guide,  made it fun despite everything. We didn’t get to hear the famous organ in St. Stephens as no concert was scheduled  that Friday. However, we did get to see a gingerbread haus,straight of Hansel and Gretel, across the street from Simon’s.

Passauer Gingerbread Haus!
Passauer Gingerbread Haus!

Not really, but someone  got carried away with their holiday decorating and gave their shop a gingerbread haus facade.This was the most over the top decorating the Ramblers saw in Europe, and reminded us of something the more fanatical Christmas decorators might put up in the US.

After lunch I couldn’t coax the Senior Rambler to take a stroll with me, as the weather, if anything, had gotten worse. He really dislikes cold weather and blames this on the year he spent in Greenland in the 50’s as a member of the United States Air Force! At any rate, he wasn’t about to go anywhere, so I ventured out myself with the goal of buying some Simon marzipan lebkuchen to bring home. Fortunately for me, their shop was only a short distance from the dock. I really do have a poor sense of direction, and I didn’t want to get lost on the last day of the cruise. When I disembarked I noticed several food trucks parked along the dock along with at least a dozen busses.

Line-up of busses along the Danube, hiding the food trucks
Line-up of busses along the Danube, hiding the food trucks

The trucks sold food and produce to the workers and residents of the Alstadt.  They didn’t have many customers today, not surprising because of the weather. However, the busses were another story. Evidently the Passau Christmas Market draws people from Bavaria as well as river cruisers. I did take a brief look in at the Christmas Market,; since it was a Friday afternoon, a growing number of folks strolled around  despite the bad weather.

Open for business at the Passau Christmas Market
Open for business at the Passau Christmas Market

Passau is one place the Ramblers would like to visit in good weather but on a chilly, drizzly day in December it was time to head back to the Beatrice.

The Ramblers spent the rest of the day hanging out with the many friends they had made on the cruise from both the US and Canada, as well as Australia. Tonight’s meal was  relaxing  and we took our time enjoying the excellent food and wine, although  we knew we would have to get up early for the flight back home.

Anna, one of our favorite servers, who was always waiting with my German coffee!
Anna, one of our favorite servers, who was always waiting with my German coffee! The blue light in the background came from a weird building which changed colors every few minutes. It was directly opposite our cabin window.

After dinner, we enjoyed a Christmas carol sing in the lounge,  very appropriate on the last night.

Our flight on Delta would be non-stop to Atlanta, however it left Munich at 8 AM and the Munich Airport was over 2 hours journey by bus from Passau. All departing passengers were divided into color-coded groups based on the time they would have to leave the ship to catch their flights. We were the purple group, scheduled to leave by 4 AM,(Could have been worse, the first group left at 3 AM, and the lucky ones at 8.) AND we had to have our luggage outside our room by 3 AM so it could be loaded onto our bus. Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep, but the transfer was handled very efficiently. The ship’s galley had even provided breakfast for us tho few took advantage of more than coffee and juice.

The drive to the airport through winter darkness was a quiet one, though I did hear a few snores and we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight.

Waiting at the Munich Airport
Waiting at the Munich Airport

The Munich airport is attractive though fairly small and there were  shops to look through before it was time to board our plane. (And spend our remaining Euros)

We were disappointed in our Delta flight, although we had managed to get extended comfort seats so we had a little more room.  The food was really bad. The Senior Rambler ate hardly any of it, however, I managed to choke most of it down, it was a 12 hour flight after all. But really, Delta should do better for the passengers on their long haul flights. They are a captive audience.

After the passengers boarded, the flight attendants announced that this would be a special flight as our pilot was retiring  after many years in the Navy and at Delta. That was the last we heard of this special occasion, although the flight was thankfully uneventful… except for the landing. Our pilot must have been in a hurry to retire as he came in hot and hit the brakes hard. We had a very bumpy landing, not what we expected from a senior pilot. however we were just glad to get home after a very long 12 hour flight. Some of our fellow cruisers were also on our Delta flight but they unfortunately had to catch a connector to get home.

Atlanta Hartsfield is a very large airport so there was lots of walking to get to and through the customs lines, but everything moved fairly quickly. We were happy to see our daughter Lisa waiting for us, and know that home was only a half hour’s drive. We also knew we would get the urge to take another ramble before long,

Passau; Bavarian gem

After a sumptuous Captains’ Farewell Dinner, we woke to yet another day of rain and drizzle, high 36, low 32. There would be no sunny days for us on this trip. The Beatrice docked in Passau, Bavaria around 8:30 AM. This was  final stop on our cruise. Tomorrow the passengers would disperse, most to the airport but others to other cities in Europe.

Today’s tour started at 9 AM. The senior Rambler decided he didn’t want to go, but undeterred, I joined the Gentle Walker’s group solo. I was very glad I did, because our guide Sonia, was hands down the best we had on the trip.trip europe 905 It was not just her familiarity with Passau’s history but her warm and welcoming self. She greeted us with the traditional greeting of conservative Bavaria Grüß Gott, (translation , “God be with you)  which set the scene for an interesting tour, as she shared many  traditions of the area, including where to tie the bow of your sash if you are wearing a dirndl. (surprisingly important)

And if my female readers ever decide to wear the dirndl, think Maria in the Sound of Music, where you tie the bow is crucial, even today. If you tie it on the left, you signal that you are available, on the right, taken (engaged or married), in the back, a widow and in the front, a virgin. Evidently at least in Austria, people still check out the placement of the bow.. Dirndls are quite popular today in Austria  and Bavaria today, and can be quite expensive.They are worn for special occasions, for a comfortable, traditional look, and even as Halloween costumes. Young women often wear a short skirt and accentuate the low cut bodice, while older women stick to the more traditional long skirt. You can see a variety of dirndls  here. Recent article on Austrian dirndls from Vienna Unwrapped.

Sonia led us through the narrow medieval streets of Alstadt Passau pointing out the high water marks of the disastrous flood that occurred in June, 2013, the worst in 500 yearstrip europe 908. Water from the Danube reached a height of 42.2 feet and much of the Alstadt was underwater. By December 2014, many of the buildings had been repaired although some  along the river still needed restoration. Angela Merkel came to view the devastation personally and arraigned aid for for the townspeople who had no flood insurance

The 13th century date of this building was revealed after renovation
The 13th century date of this building was revealed after renovation

Passau, the town which takes pride because  three rivers meet there, was done in by its unique location in 2013. Sonia later took us up to a high point  in the Alstadt where we could see the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers.trip europe 1004

We also hiked up the cobblestone streets to St. Stephen’s Church which has the largest cathedral organ in the world and the largest outside the United States. This beautiful church was rebuilt in baroque style during the 17th century, although a Catholic church has stood on the site for hundreds of years. Passau was once governed by a Prince-Bishop and his impressive palace stands near the church.At St. Stephen’s, I  got to see yet another creche under construction, as well as the beautiful interior. Although we didn’t get to hear the gigantic organ

Baroque at its finest, St. Stephen's organ
Baroque at its finest, St. Stephen’s organ

, it was an impressive sight, all chrome and baroque gilt. After our visit to the church, we headed back to the shops of the Alstadt where we were scheduled to have a gingerbread baking demonstration.

The Rambler prides herself on her knowledge and skill in the kitchen so she wasn’t too excited about the demonstration. After all, every time she made gingerbread cookies they were the last ones to be eaten.

Gingerbread has never been one of our family favorites. However, I was very glad I decided to go because I learned quite a bit about the history of gingerbread baking.

Creche under construction
Creche under construction

Our instructors were the  third and fourth generation, father and son of the Simon (family)Cafe, Bakery and Confectionery, established in 1903. They told us that gingerbread has evolved since medieval times when it was simply a mixture of flour, honey and water flavored with whatever spices were available.

Simon Sr. holding up a gingerbread mold.
Simon Sr. holding up a gingerbread mold; note jars of spices on counter.

This variety got hard as a rock and kept forever, important in the days before refrigeration when nothing was thrown away. It was often pressed into a wooden mold before baking to decorate it. In the 19th century bakers produced a sweeter version, because of the availability of cane sugar, at first,  mainly in the form of molasses. No longer did they have to rely on honey as a sweetener. Gradually eggs and baking powder were added and the rye flour used in the earliest versions was replaced by white flour. Simon’s also makes a modern version which replaces much of the flour with. marzipan (almond paste and sugar). If you like marzipan, and I do, you will love this version, as I did..

Yummy stuff in the Simon  Confectionery/Cafe
Yummy stuff in the Simon Confectionery/Cafe, the lebkuchen are in the cans stacked on the counter.

The Simon’s call it  Eisenlebkuchen. I later bought a container and savored it all myself after we got home. That’s not as bad as it sounds as the senior Rambler dislikes gingerbread AND marzipan.

In Germany, gingerbread is called lebkuchen, and it contains a variety of spices even a little pepper, but no ginger! If you stop at Passau on a Christmas Markets river cruise, you will probably have a chance to stop at Simon’s and see a gingerbread demonstration. Don’t pass it up.