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Old 06-29-2009, 09:59 AM   #1
kristilew
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Southwest Splendors: The Good, The Bad and the Thunderbird

Overall, we had a great trip. We fell in love with the Southwest. The red rocks were so gorgeous and we loved the way the scenery changed with every shift of light. My friends who go out there regularly always start their stories with “and there we were, with red rock vistas all around…” and I never really understood why that would be pertinent to a tale about a tennis match. Now I do. Everywhere we turned, everything we did, we were aware of the beauty around us and it was breathtaking. I have no idea how people drive there without constantly wrecking due to not having their eyes on the road. I can’t imagine anyone ever getting jaded to those views!

I think this would be a perfect “starter” trip for someone who hasn’t done group travel before, and hasn’t done one of the international ABDs. There was plenty of “on your own time,” and enough space both physically and in the schedule to let each family choose how much to mingle and how much to stick together.

We ended up on this particular departure by default, when our original choice was part of the “great cancellation” earlier this year. (There was actually an ABD phone center CM on our trip who gave a little insight into that and other ABD mysteries on this trip – I’ll do another post on that.) The timing ended up working out well for us – we were able to squeeze in another trip earlier in the month, our pretrip was easy to change, we had a few days to enjoy summer after school got out.

BUT, we never could shake the feeling that we were on the “wrong trip.” I know that sounds silly, but that was the feeling. It started with our entrance into the lobby of the Amara where we were greeted by a large sign welcoming everyone to the “Vacation Club Exclusive” Adventure. Not a big deal and it was never mentioned again. Just a little disconnect. We sort of wondered if there was some secret DVC ritual going on at night after we’d been told the festivities for the day were over and we could go to bed. There also just happened to be a lot of families on this trip who shared very similar regional backgrounds, very different from ours. Nice people, we liked everyone, just the humor was a little inaccessible to us. Where they bonded, we held back a little.

This sort of “off” feeling was entirely within ourselves and had nothing to do with the presentation of the ABD. It affected some of our perception of the trip, but isn’t helpful to apply to a review for other DISers. So I’ve been trying to think through writing a more unbiased review and have run into another issue: We compared everything on this trip to the one we did last year, Sacred Valleys and Incan Cities. That one was the trip of a lifetime. Everything was perfect. We fell in love with ABD. Then this trip was like the “second date.” And not as fabulous. We tried to decide if it was just that we were in America. But the Southwest was every bit as magical to our Southeastern eyes as Peru was. Really the main difference here was in the service and quality level of the Adventure itself.

But who wants to read a review that is negative? Especially when, actually, our experience was very positive, and would have been even more so if we hadn’t been constantly comparing and looking to have our very high expectations from the last trip met. On the other hand, there are some DISers who have equally high expectations and some who are actually doing these trips in the order we did them. I always think forewarned is forearmed, when it comes to avoiding “expectation failure” as DH calls it. Plus, there are a few very practical things to know that can improve the trip. AND, everyone wants to hear about the Thunderbird.

So, I’m going to break up the info into three lists: the good stuff, the stuff that disappointed, and more than you ever wanted to know about the Thunderbird Lodge. If you want to skip the negatives, it will be a more upbeat report. And yes, we would do another ABD and we still love Disney.

Last edited by kristilew; 06-29-2009 at 10:18 AM.
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Old 06-29-2009, 10:08 AM   #2
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Thanks Kristilew for prepping us regarding your trip and report. Also, thanks for being honest in your observations. I believe that is very helpful. It would be impossible to have the same feelings for every trip since so many factors come into play to make the group travel experience. Looking forward to reading your report ... all aspects. These are your experiences and hopefully we all realize it will not be the same for everyone.
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Old 06-29-2009, 10:16 AM   #3
kristilew
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The Good

So the good stuff first:

Again, the scenery. Wow wow wow. Amazing. The star of the show. You could go to Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Moab, and just drive around and you’d have a wonderful memory. Being able to get out into all that beauty was even better. Pictures don't begin to capture it.


The Amara. We loved the Amara Resort. I know it has had mixed reviews, and I can see how your room placement would make a huge difference. Our ground floor room had a lovely patio that looked out onto the grassy courtyard where the welcome dinner was. When we looked to the end of the courtyard, we could see Snoopy Rock. We very much enjoyed sitting out on this patio in the evening.

At night, our room was silent and the beds were very comfortable. The staff was friendly and efficient.

This would be a good time to mention the kids in the group. There were a lot of kids, mostly boys. They ranged in age from 5 to 13. There were a few older teens, but they stayed with their parents most of the time and didn’t identify with the “kids.” The kids bonded in the airport and were a cohesive unit by the time the welcome dinner ended. They finished that first evening with an elaborate game of night tag all over the courtyard and deck of the Amara and was repeated the next night. I’m sure any other guest in that hotel hated our group.

I count the kids as a “good” because they did get along so well and had so much fun together. This was especially wonderful for our DD11, who, as an only child, has been on far too many trips where she is expected to read quietly at long restaurant dinners while the adults talk. She was in heaven. (you’ll see the kids show up on the “bad” list as well, but from a kid perspective they were fantastic.)

The guides.

The ABD guides, Geraldine and Maura, were on their third straight SWS trip, back-to-back with no break. They were clearly exhausted. Nonetheless, they worked very hard every minute and did a fantastic job. Disney really knows how to hire people who love to guide, and these two were no exception. Unfailingly upbeat and friendly, full of humor and fun, and ready to solve any problem at the drop of a hat. I was especially struck by their efforts to speak to each family individually at least once a day, to check in and make sure all was well.

The step-on guides were also A+. Everyone who had anything to do with imparting information was just wonderful. The ranger at Montezuma Castle was awesome. Taz, our Red Jeep tour driver was a perfect match for us. DD rode in a different jeep and her driver, Stephanie, was also incredible. Informative and funny.

The older couple who split the group and toured us through Red Rock State Park was great. The Navaho Reservation guide was fascinating to listen to. The Grand Canyon naturalist and the Arches National Park guide were excellent. Because there are only about 10 kinds of plants out there, and they are the same in all three places, there was a bit of redundancy in the information we received. But each guide made it seem fresh and interesting, with his own twist on things. And all had funny stories and interesting insights. This is where I think you really see the value of an ABD. There is simply no way you could do this trip on your own and put together such a team to keep you informed and entertained at every new location.

The entertainment. We enjoyed the Old West themed entertainment at each location. The welcome dinner included the snake and spider guy, plus a lovely couple who sang folk and cowboy songs and got the group singing along at the end. The group dinner at the Grand Canyon concluded with a demonstration of Hopi singing and dancing that was so impressive we bought their dvd.

Our farewell dinner was serenaded by a young man who styled himself after the old time country singers like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. He followed us out to the campfire and played there as well, and was really quite good.


The ATV add-on. A BIG thank you to the various DISers who have recommended the ATV activity at Red Cliffs Lodge! We never would have done this activity otherwise. In fact, I signed up for it solely on the advice from the DIS, and never even asked the price. When I checked the cost at the desk just before being picked up, so I would know what to tip, I about had a heart attack and was sure I’d made a huge, irreversible, mistake. However, I would have paid twice that to do it again. We LOVED it! Stephen was the perfect guide for this, giving us good instruction on the vehicles, providing excellent leadership, and totally catering to us with snacks, drinks, and photo ops. We rode through canyons and over streams, seeing scenery unlike anything else we saw on the rest of the trip. Really, really awesome.


Red Cliffs Lodge. Thumbs up here as well. Welcome spaciousness after the Thunderbird. This was the only place we stayed that had a separate sink with a big counter, outside the shower/toilet room. Very useful when several people are trying to get ready at once. Each room has a little back patio that is private on the sides, but opens out into a shared grassy strip. Of course, three minutes after arrival, the kids were all tearing up and down the grassy strip having a blast. We enjoyed being surrounded by nature. There was a bird’s nest in the tree closest to our patio and we watched the parents feeding the hatchlings several times. The horses roamed around the creek that ran behind the fence in back. We saw deer from the main deck while eating dinner the second night. And the Colorado River ran by the property, with cliffs all around. Just really beautiful to look at. The staff was very friendly and helpful, and the food here was the best we had. (more on that later…) There is a cute movie museum in the basement, devoted to the various films, tv shows, and commercials made in the area. Of course, RCL is a winery and everyone enjoyed their wine. We actually don’t drink much wine and were pleasantly surprised by their beer selection as well. The bartender was the same lady each night and DH and I both enjoyed her immensely.

Actually, I suppose I should count “The Beer” as another Good. Everywhere we went, there was really good beer. If you’re a Mich Ultra drinker, you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about, but if you enjoy a good selection of micro brews or craft beers, this is the trip for you. (or maybe the Ireland one ) DH got to try several beers on draft that he only can get in bottles here, and there was a good selection of beers that are hard to get in NC due to the slightly higher alcohol content.


The Arches hike. We loved it. If you’ve done any real hiking, you would give this a rating of “low moderate” on the challenge scale. And the moderate only b/c you are gaining altitude quickly. There is plenty of slick rock for easy footing, and no vertical scrambles (much to DD’s disappointment after our pre trip hiking in Sedona.) At the steepest part, steps are actually carved into the rock for you. Yet it is challenging enough to be interesting, and again the views are amazing. The guides went one in front and one in back, and while the one at the front kept the kids from sprinting ahead and missing all the views, the one in back stayed far enough behind that each person could comfortably go at his or her own pace without feeling like they were holding up the group. We were given plenty of time at the top to look around and take pictures. Those of us who were more adventurous were allowed to go “off trail” when we wanted to explore some other rock feature or get some cool photos. A good, not-too-taxing, short hike, all-in-all.


The pacing. There was enough to do each day, without ever really wearing you down. There were plenty of rest opportunities, if you wanted to take them, and yet plenty of chances to do more on your own if you’re a “pack a lot in” kind of vacationer. We were never bored or exhausted.

Tom. What a great guy! He is the coach captain and does a fabulous job. We sat with him at several meals and really enjoyed talking with him.

The Grand Canyon Condors. I had gotten DD a bunch of books that had fictional story lines taking place in the GC. I had expected Brighty of the Grand Canyon to be her favorite, but she latched onto an adventure story called Mysteries in Our National Parks: Over the Edge: A Mystery in Grand Canyon National Park . There was apparently a sideline in it about the rescue of California Condors from the brink of extinction, and their reintroduction to the Grand Canyon. They are still pretty rare.

All the way to the GC, DD rattled on about hoping to see a condor. The guides told her not to get her hopes up, as they had not seen one in the two years they’d been doing this trip. I was picturing us having to trek all over the place with binoculars trying to find one, just to appease her and prove how rare they are. But Walt was smiling down on us. When DH left me to unpack and looked around the area immediately around our hotel, he came running back to get DD. Turns out there is a condor nesting site about a hundred yards away (and another 200 below) from the hotel. They come in at dusk. So in her first hour at the GC, she got to see 3 condors in flight and on the cliffs. She was ecstatic.

The next day, a juvenile one actually landed on the roof of the little shop nearby and hung out for about 40 minutes, and DD happened to be there when he did. They mutually checked each other out until a Condor specialist chased him away, explaining to DD that the bird had just been released and had to be trained not to trust people and they couldn’t allow him to get comfortable so close to the crowds. He also informed her that this was only the second time in 14 years a Condor had alighted there, so she felt like she had a rare sighting. We came back later in the afternoon and attended the park ranger lecture on Condors, so DD definitely got her Condor fix and was extremely happy. She even bought a Condor plush.

More posts to follow...still doing lots of

Last edited by kristilew; 11-10-2009 at 10:45 AM. Reason: clarify book title
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Old 06-29-2009, 11:43 AM   #4
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Kristilew
I have worried a bit about the same thing. We loved Ireland-I am worried that nothing else will stand up to it.
That I will set my expectations too high
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Old 06-29-2009, 01:59 PM   #5
kristilew
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The Bad

The less-than-perfect stuff:

A lot of what we did not love about this trip was in comparison to the Peru trip. If this had been our first ABD, we’d never have known the difference and perhaps would have felt differently. However, we had done the Peru trip, and at only a $200 difference per person, we expected a similar level of service/amenities. DD has been studying medieval history and had the best comparison: on the Peru trip we were treated like royalty; on the Southwest trip, we were treated like wealthy merchants. Everything was just a little less nice, a little less polished, a little less classy, just a little “less” overall.
It breaks down into a couple of areas. Again, none of this ruined our trip. It’s just worth reporting for those wanting every detail.

The food
Where on the Peru trip we had a chef meet us for lunch most days, and put out a hot and cold spread with plenty of choices, on this trip we were either on our own, with varied results, or we had a minimal lunch. A couple of times, just a cold sandwich and a bag of chips. It felt cheap.

The dinners as well were far more limited this time. Tiny buffets with no more than two main dish choices. Limited side dish and dessert options. Again, everything beyond the most basic beverages at an extra charge. Nothing regional was offered during the group dinners. (There was a Mexican buffet one night, but as this was in Moab, I’m not sure that counts as a regional connection.) There were not special kids’ options at the group meals either, not even cheese quesadillas on the Mexican night. This wasn’t a problem for our DD, but if you have a picky eater you might want to know it. There was nothing wrong with the food, but nothing particularly great about it, either. About what you’d get at any large dinner meeting held in any chain hotel anywhere in America.

Breakfasts were fine, but again not nearly the choices we’d had before. The first two mornings, at the Amara, there was no choice at all. You sat down and eventually a plate of runny eggs, bacon, potatoes and a watermelon slice was plunked down in front of you. Not necessarily at the same time as anyone else at your table or family got theirs, either. There was a basket of cold toast on the table and a side table with juice or water and milk and Kellogg’s cereal. Thunderbird had some choice (more about that in the Thunderbird section) and the best breakfast was at Red Cliffs Lodge.

There were a lot of meals on our own. 3 lunches and 3 dinners. While it was nice to be able to pick a place to eat, and to get a better selection than the group meals, there were a couple of downsides: For a trip that I like to think of as prepaid, we were constantly pulling out our wallet. You really have to plan for and budget for the meals on your own, and at tourist town prices. ETA: I've been reflecting on this and decided I'm not being fair. First of all, it states clearly in the trip descriptions how many meals are on our own, so it should not have felt surprising at all. Secondly, I think the Peru trip must have been unique in how few meals we had on our own. Looking through the ABD book, most trips offered have several on your own meals, especially the ones in the US and other "easy" places to eat out. Finally, when I looked back over the receipts, the prices just weren't that outrageous.

Also, the service in most of the restaurants was pretty good, but in Moab it was truly awful. This included our “adult dinner on our own” at Red Cliffs Lodge. I can’t figure out if there’s “Moab time” which is slower than regular time, or if we just got really unlucky.

On the other hand, there was plenty of food and all of it was edible. Options were available if you didn’t mind paying for them. I can’t say the same for every trip I’ve been on.

The bonding

This one is very subjective.

On the Peru trip, we were with our group nonstop for the first few days. This led to getting to know people rather quickly. On the Southwest trip, the group split up after lunch on the first day and didn’t spend time together again till the next morning. And this was not for relaxed together time, but for a guided tour followed by a three hour bus ride. Day 4 was also mostly on our own.

Additionally, it felt like a real effort was made to help people connect on the other trip. For example, the introductions were conducted in a circle, before the welcome dinner. Whereas the introductions on the Southwest trip were sort of an afterthought to the dinner, with someone from each group standing up at their place at one of the tables scattered around the lawn. Some were still eating, some were still talking in their own groups, and some were already wandering off. You couldn’t see people’s faces to connect them with their names.

The bus situation was also not conducive to fellowship. We were on small coaches with low-backed seats on the last trip. There was a lot of chatting and getting to know each other. When someone joked around, it was easy for everyone to join in the fun. On the big bus for this trip, the seats are so high, you have to kneel in them and turn around to talk to someone directly behind you. You have to lean over the person next to you if you want to talk to the one across the aisle. There would be bursts of laughter from one section that just had folks in other sections shrugging at each other. Because everyone pretty much sat in the same seats every single time, there were some people on this trip we never got to know at all. Or only on the last day, and then to realize we would have really enjoyed them.

I think if we’d realized how the timing and bus would work out, we would have made a much bigger effort the first night to go around and meet everyone face-to-face and chat a little. I also think part of this issue was purely our own problem. It just happened to be that we didn’t have quite so much in common with some of the folks on this trip as we’d had before, or that the other people on this trip had with each other. And if one wasn’t so sure about the forced camaraderie of group travel anyway, this set up would probably have been ideal.

The special touches

This is where Southwest Splendors really failed the comparison test. There simply weren’t special extras on this trip.

Where the kids were constantly being taken aside for a little diversion during the learning portions of the trip in Peru, they were never treated as a special group except for the Jr. Adventurer evening on this trip. This led to bored small children being rude and hyper while the adults tried to listen to the various guides and the parents pretended it was fine since we’re all on vacation.

While the entertainment was great, it was not interactive. After being invited to join in the Peruvian dancing, I eagerly awaited the chance to watch DD learn one of the Hopi dances. Never happened. They performed, posed for pictures, and left. Same for all the entertainers. There was never a night with an equivalent to the vegetable carving or the fabulous white-elephant exchange that we had thought were hallmarks of an ABD.

On the rafting trip in Peru, we left the river to be met by towels, dry clothes, and a scrumptious snack buffet. There was a photographer on land taking pictures the whole way. We floated down a section along the Inca trail, with the raft guide giving us detailed information on what we were seeing. On the SWS rafting expedition, we rafted down a pretty plain stretch of the river. There were a very few class I rapids. Our guide told us he would love to run them, but had been instructed to avoid any excitement b/c of the children. We got out on a little beach to be greeted by… annoyed sunbathing locals who had to move out of the way of our rafts. That’s it. One of the raft guides showed everyone how to play a game in the sand and eventually the bus turned up to run us back to the Lodge and the rest of the afternoon to ourselves.

I have no idea why there weren’t the special touches on this trip, but we really missed them. If we hadn’t been looking for them, I suppose it would have seemed different. But even families that had not done an ABD commented several times on how cheap parts of this trip felt. There was not the “they’ve thought of every little thing” feel here. In this respect, it truly felt like a lower class trip than the one we’d taken before. Folks on this trip who had done multiple ABDs basically agreed that the foreign ones are far and away better than the American trips. Only having the two to compare, I can’t say.

The kids

Ok, this one is purely our problem, but on the chance that anyone is like us, I’m including it anyway. It will definitely be a part of our thinking in selecting a future trip. NO offense is intended in the following paragraphs to families with multiple kids, families with young children, families with boys, or people who love to be around children in general. I know that if we want to avoid kids, we should book the adults only trips.

We are not “kid people.” We have a kid, and we love her. But we have only one on purpose. We enjoy most kids on a one-on-one basis, if we can get to know them. But we think most kids need a little more discipline than they are actually receiving. We don’t find typical little kid behavior adorable, the way some people seem to. This may be a deficiency on our part, but there you go.

We like the idea of the ABDs because our own kid does like kids. She wants to be around them. (go figure ) We were pleasantly surprised by how well that worked out last year. Most of the kids were older. They were all well mannered. She was happy, we were happy.

We simply hadn’t focused on the higher accessibility of this trip translating to a LOT more little kids. Specifically, in this case, little boys with lots of energy. Children who played electronic games loudly every minute we were ever on the bus. Children who ran up and down the bus aisles, interrupting adult conversation and guides. Children who made so much noise in the back of the bus that we couldn’t hear the guides. Children who acted like all the adults were available to them at all times. There was one small boy who got completely in DH’s face on the bus while DH was talking with another man. When DH didn’t stop and give him attention, this child actually blew into DH’s ear!

In our world, children are just not the center of everything. On this trip, the kids acted like they were. DD thought this was wonderful, and we tried to loosen up and roll with it. It was fun to see them all playing tag or enjoying themselves at the pool. It was great that they wanted to sit at a “kids table” all the time. We didn’t so much like it that the kids table ignored the speakers and made it hard to hear. We also got frustrated by the smaller boys interrupting the various step-on guides with no repercussions.

Still, plenty of people on this trip thought the kids were super cute. And we are pretty uptight in some respects. So really, as a downside, this was a small one. It would just lead us to choose an ABD with a higher minimum age, and not so easy to get to (Australia, maybe?). That way, perhaps the kids that do go would be more seasoned travelers and a little older and calmer.

Also, on a trip where all the kids end up at the back of the bus, we would make an effort to be much further forward than we were on this one, especially as the seats we landed in driving away from the airport ended up being ours for the rest of the trip. I might even go so far as to ask the guides to request at the outset that headphones be worn with dvd players or psp games.

The heat/air

This is not really a “bad” so much as an area to be aware of for some preventative packing. We had beautiful weather. It was in the high 80s/low 90s most of the time. When it did rain, in Moab, it was not during any activities, and enhanced the activities we did do by getting rid of the dust. However, everyone local told us how lucky we were with the “low” temps. I imagine in another few weeks, it will be pretty darn hot.

The guides were good about providing sunscreen at the start of an outing. And they had a little bottle with them all the time. But if you or your kid burns easily, you might want to carry along one of those face sticks for quick touch ups.

The dry air was really, well, dry. Every child on the trip had at least one nosebleed. I am still seeing blood every time I blow my nose, as is DH. If I had focused on this, I would have brought along a moisturizing nasal spray of some sort. (Not a decongestant, as these dry further.) I have no idea if there is such a thing as a small, portable humidifier, but I would look into it if I were doing this trip again. One weird issue we had with this was that DD doesn’t pay attention and blow her nose as much as an adult. So in the middle of the night, most nights, she would wake up coughing – and there would be a little blood in it, which was freaky. Once I woke up enough to think, I realized it was just postnasal drip. Again, a spray would have been nice. In its absence, however, I just had her sniff in a few drops of water and that really seemed to help. This is gross, I know, but if it helps anyone else sleep….

The altitude

This was not a problem for us at all. However, we arrived three days early and had plenty of time to adjust. There were some on the trip, however, who had some mild altitude sickness symptoms. But the guides never mentioned altitude symptoms, so these folks assumed they were regular old not feeling well. It wasn’t until an after dinner talk the night before the Arches hike that they mentioned they were not sure they could do it due to the way they had been feeling. It became clear that they were having altitude issues (the symptoms are headache, shortness of breath, slight nausea). At this point, the guides gave them some aspirin, which I advised washing down with a caffeinated beverage. (Altitude sickness pills are just caffeine and aspirin.) The aspirin thins your blood and the caffeine speeds your heart rate and blood flow. They did this and felt fine the next day and were able to hike. So if you’re coming from sea level, you might want to throw in the Bayer.

And that’s pretty much it. Obviously, the good far outweighed the bad, and much of it was in our own minds as opposed to being objectively negative. Much of it could be totally different on the next departure of the same trip.

Last edited by kristilew; 08-03-2009 at 05:55 PM.
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Old 06-29-2009, 03:53 PM   #6
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Thanks Kristilew for your trip report. As the parent on an only, 13 yo daughter, I can relate. Maybe we can go on the Provence/Paris tour together in a couple years!
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Old 06-29-2009, 03:57 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kristilew View Post
The less-than-perfect stuff:
And that’s pretty much it. Obviously, the good far outweighed the bad, and much of it was in our own minds as opposed to being objectively negative. Much of it could be totally different on the next departure of the same trip.
Kristi, I'm so glad you put it all (your opinions) out there for everyone to read.
I personally don't think the behavior of the children was in your mind. Rowdy children in any group situation can be annoying. Children can have fun without being obnoxious but unfortunately in group travel the parents are on vacation too and sometimes don't feel the need to supervise their own.

You never know how a group is going to bond and that's where a different schedule might have helped 'throw' you all in the mix a little more.

Obviously if we take a second trip we really enjoyed out first one and are bound to have preconceived ideas and expectations. Yours didn't jive this time. I hope the magic works for you again!
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Old 06-29-2009, 04:47 PM   #8
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Thanks you so much for your trip report. I myself have four children (15,13,12, and 9) and am thinking this will be our first ABD. I do however have one very picky child who would probably starve if we didn't have some kind of chicken nugget/chicken tender at least twice. Do you think you will do another ABD?
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Old 06-29-2009, 04:55 PM   #9
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The Thunderbird

And now the part you’ve been waiting for….

We had a real love/hate relationship with what we, and many on our trip, came to call the “Thundercrap Lodge.”


On the one hand, I really, truly, hated that hotel room. I’ve stayed in worse, but only b/c DH was once in the Army and we spent a couple of nights at Moon Hall at Ft. Bragg, before there were nonsmoking sections.

In fact, if you’ve ever stayed in “temporary government housing,” as most military hotel rooms are called, you have a pretty good idea what to expect here: Low ceilings. Painted cinderblock walls. Carpet chosen to hide the copious amounts of dirt it has retained. Odd stains in odd places. A funky smell. Mattresses that must have been thrown out from some other hotel long ago.


On the other hand, you really, truly, can’t beat the location. And the guides swore up and down that the Thunderbird was a step up from the in town hotel they used to use. They claimed that Disney made them do inspections of that one before allowing the guests in, “just in case…”

We could have used an inspection on our room. Here’s the story:

After a terrible night’s “sleep” we felt that the only thing that could help us would be a shower. I was a little hopeful about this, as the bathroom itself wasn’t so bad. It had obviously been refurbished in the last decade, unlike the rest of the room.


True, there is an incredibly noisy fan that comes on with the light, which you can’t turn off. But it was clean. True, the shower head is only 5 feet and a half inch off up on the wall, but hey, I’m only five feet and a quarter of an inch tall, so I could just fit.

I turned on the tub spigot and was thrilled to find good, hot water pouring out. So far so good. I hopped in without switching it to shower mode yet, and it was a little too hot, so I turned the knob to cool it a little. And sustained a second degree burn on my foot. (ok, probably not second degree. But it hurt! )

The subsequent yelp brought DH running, and we tried for quite awhile to find the right setting. There wasn’t one. Only scalding. Thank goodness DD didn’t go first! We called down to the front desk and were asked the pertinent question: “Well, did you fiddle with the knob?” After assuring her that yes, we did in fact know the concept of a shower, she sent someone from maintenance t o ”have a look.” He arrived with admirable promptness (perhaps not so many calls at 6 am?) and fiddled with the knob. He then confirmed “Yup, it’s broken. Ain’t no cold water hooked up to it.” Could he fix it? “Nope. “ But he would put in a report.

Luckily, there was cold water at the sink. So we cleaned ourselves up as best we could and headed bravely into the new day. At breakfast, I asked a guide if she could look into it, and she said she would. At the moment though, it was time to get in the coach and head out for the morning. As we were dropped back off for lunch, it became clear that we would not see our guides again that day. I asked about the shower situation and she said she would check on it before they left to take folks in for the helicopter ride and that she would leave me a message at the desk.

We checked to see if anything had been done before we headed to lunch, but nothing had. This was a bummer as we had wanted to hike down a ways into the canyon, possibly to the 1.5 mile point where there is a snack bar and have lunch there. But there was no way I was committing to a sweaty hike without knowing I’d be able to shower sometime that day. So we scrapped our hiking plans and headed to lunch at El Tovar (more on that in a minute – it was great and greatly improved our mood.)

When we got back from that, still no working shower. We were now getting into the afternoon and getting worried. I called the desk and got the most horrible person I’ve ever dealt with at any hotel, bar none. She told me that she had no idea if they’d fix it or not, and that if they didn’t fix it I was just SOL (really) b/c all the rooms were full and there was no way I’d be moved. And not with a sympathetic or apologetic tone, either.

At this point, I just made up my mind to get over it. Me being upset was just making DH upset because he couldn’t be my knight in shining armor here. DD was thrilled to get away with being dirty. Basically, it was my attitude that could make or break the rest of our day at the Grand Canyon. So I put on my big girl panties and went out and had a wonderful afternoon. And of course, when we got back after dinner, there was a message from Maura and a working shower.

She told me later she basically had to stand at the counter and have a stare-down with the woman to get someone in there. I cannot imagine trying to get something fixed at this hotel without Disney muscle behind you. Don’t ever stay here on your own, thinking “well, it’s good enough for Disney.”

Everyone else had working showers, but all complained about how low the showerhead was. In retrospect, I could have knocked on someone’s door and asked to use their shower, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.


The other thing that was pretty bad about the rooms was the beds. They were small – maybe a little less than double sized. So I’m not sure why the sheets didn’t fit. Perhaps the lack of a fitted sheet on the bottom. What ended up happening -to everyone, I gathered from later discussion – was the bottom sheet worked off in the night and you woke up to find yourself on a part of the tiny mattress pad and the rest of you the bare mattress. Ewwwww is all there is to say about that. Really. Ewwww.

I had debated before we went about getting one of those silk sleep sacs they advertise in travel catalogs. I am a sheet snob and was worried about the sheet quality (silly me) But they’re not cheap and if I got me one, everyone would want one. So I skipped it.

Here’s what actually would have been helpful: Remember those “sheet garters” they came out with when mattresses first transitioned to pillow top and the deeper fitted sheets weren’t being made yet? I still have a set in the attic somewhere. If I’d thrown them in, they would have helped a lot. Otherwise, I wish I’d packed just a regular double fitted sheet to put on the bed. It could have been a cheapy from Target that I washed a couple times at home to soften up, then left behind. This would have definitely been worth the room in the suitcase.

So, yucky rooms. BUT, the location was AMAZING.

It was so nice to be at the canyon at the start and end of the day. We were truly right on the Rim, with only a small lawn and sidewalk between the hotel and the edge.


Most people in our group got up to watch the sunrise, and they saw elk and deer grazing on the hotel lawn. It was great to be able to stop back by the room during the day to change forgotten camera batteries, use a private bathroom, or take a little rest. It was wonderful to be at the canyon as the sun set.

There are trains and buses that drop tourists off around 11:45 and pick them back up again around 4. Between those hours, the area along the South Rim and in the restaurants and shops felt like WDW on a busy summer day. Big crowds, long lines. But first thing in the morning, and after 4, it felt much more private. As the sun set it became very peaceful indeed. We took the tram up to Hopi Point and actually had that section of the Canyon all to ourselves for quite some time.


I imagine that we got a very different feel for the canyon than was possible when the group stayed in Tusayan. It was during the off hours allowed by staying at the Thunderbird that I really enjoyed the Grand Canyon and felt its majesty.

Another good thing: due to staying at the Rim, we got to eat at both the other Lodges – Bright Angel and El Tovar. While in some respects this only served to emphasize that we had gotten the ugly stepsister hotel of the three, in others it totally enhanced our experience.

We had been advised to eat lunch before the train arrived at 11:45 so we headed to El Tovar on the early side.


This is the fancier of the two and we decided we’d rather enjoy it at lunch prices and before we were dead tired. (others had made dinner reservations far in advance, and treated it as a special occasion. They were not disappointed.) We really enjoyed our lunch here. The atmosphere was old-fashioned and refined. Our waiter was excellent and gave us a lot of good advice (like telling us to head up to Hopi Point.) The food was fantastic.


We ate dinner at Bright Angel, which was far more casual. The service was less hovering but perfectly fine, and the food was good. We all ordered pretty basic stuff as we were still full from lunch. By the time we finished dinner and checked out the cool little “history room” at Bright Angel, the line had disappeared at the ice cream parlor so DD was able to end the day on a sugary note.


Other info about Thunderbird

We ate breakfast both mornings in the Arizona Room at Bright Angel. This was pretty basic but did include a few more choices than we’d had so far. There was fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, cereal and biscuits and gravy. It was not bad at all, and very convenient.

The dinner the first night was in an upstairs room in the Thunderbird. I didn’t like this location at all. I’m sure it is supposed to be pretty with its canyon view. Unfortunately, this was a late-ish dinner, and the setting sun glared into the room through dusty old mini blinds, obscuring any view other than the motes in the air. When the Hopi dancers performed, pictures were all but impossible to take, shooting into the sun like that. Plus, the setting was so ugly for those lovely dances.


I couldn’t help but think back to our Peru trip when the dancers performed outside, with a gorgeous glacier as their backdrop (and the guides apologized for the one small utility pole in the distance that could mar a photo!)

So like I said, Love/ Hate. Everyone in our group was relieved to get to the Red Cliffs Lodge and finally get some sleep. But all-in-all it was worth it to stay on the Rim. And your shower will probably work fine.
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Old 06-29-2009, 05:06 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by mwebsite View Post
Thanks Kristilew for your trip report. As the parent on an only, 13 yo daughter, I can relate. Maybe we can go on the Provence/Paris tour together in a couple years!
What a lovely idea! I actually just spent a week in Paris with DD at the start of June. We had the most wonderful time. It's a great city for a tween/young teen!
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Old 06-29-2009, 05:15 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by brewcrew View Post
Thanks you so much for your trip report. I myself have four children (15,13,12, and 9) and am thinking this will be our first ABD. I do however have one very picky child who would probably starve if we didn't have some kind of chicken nugget/chicken tender at least twice. Do you think you will do another ABD?
This would be a great first ABD. Your picky eater will be fine. There are only two days in the whole trip that don't have at least one meal on your own. One is the long drive day, where lunch is at a diner kind of place and where I actually orderd chicken tenders. The other one, lunch consists of hot dogs and hamburgers.

Also, the guides provided plenty of snack food every day, including fruit, chips of all kinds, and those little packs of various kinds of cookies. Also granola bars and fruit snacks. You could easily take a few extra and hoard them for picky kid.

Yes, we will probably do another ABD. I still want to go to the Galapagos, and Ireland is high on my list (and that trip has great reviews.) Also, we do like to allow DD some companionship when we travel. But (big surprise) we don't like most of her friends well enough to take them with us anywhere for a full week. We've solved that in the past by traveling with our good friends who we spent three days with in Sedona pretrip. But their boys are getting older, DD is getting older....one of these days this arrangement is going to pose more problems than solutions. So ABD is a good answer for us.

However, we may take next year off. The whole cancellation thing turned us off some. And we really fell in love with the hiking parts of our trip this time. We're thinking maybe a final two-family trip out to Yellowstone, or some other national park, doing more serious hiking than is allowed on the ABDs.
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Old 06-29-2009, 05:19 PM   #12
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Kristilew, thank-you for posting your review so quickly. As a former Peru ABD'er as well, I am actually glad to know that I need to lower my expectations for the food and accommodations. In Peru, the meal experiences were high quality, unique and first class....I will now be prepared for my "sandwhich and a bag of chips", whereas if you hadn't told me ahead of time, I may have been (o.k. I WOULD have been) disappointed. I did not have high hopes for the Thunderbird, after reading the tripadvisor reviews of it, and I will now find room in the suitcases for a few sheets for the bed. I agree with you about the expectations being set high, especially with the price we are paying...I'm not sure why it is acceptable from an ABD perspective, to give a lesser experience when in the U.S. Anyhow, I appreciate the honesty of your review, and will definitely go with an open mind, and lowered expectations, but I know that we will have a wonderful time too....thanks again.
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Old 06-29-2009, 06:53 PM   #13
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KJD, you know I'm mostly posting this for your benefit One of these days, you'll have to go on a trip first and give me advice!
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Old 06-29-2009, 07:48 PM   #14
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Thank you for posting, but I can't help but notice the differeneces in our trips. We did the Southwest Splendors adults only trip last September and our experiences seem very different than yours. We had Mike and Koury as guides and the guides do make a difference. I also believe having no children made a difference. We have raised our children and agree with you about the behavior of many children. What their parents think is cute, we often find annoying. We never allowed our children to behave like many of the kids today behave. Thus, we only do the adults only trips.

On a side note, we found the hotel at the Grand Canyon last year to be very nice and had no issues with it at all. We were wondering what people would think of the Thunderbird because we had stayed at it on our own a few years ago and hated it.

I am glad you had a good trip and we are looking forward to our Prague and Vienna trip in September.
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Old 06-29-2009, 08:43 PM   #15
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Thanks for the report, this was one trip that I was in contention for my next adventure and now I am not so sure. The Hotel issue you had at Thunderbird is totally unacceptable, egads those pictures look like a motel 8 not a hotel that Disney would use.

As for the children, well I have none and try to book adult only trips or trips when I know school is in session, I don't have a problem with children, it is the parents that allow children to do whatever they want and think that it is okay because hey they are only kids that bothers me. Your husband was better than I was cause I would have said something to the parents.

I am glad you didn't let the issues spoil your trip and that you had a good time in spite of them.

I also hope you let ABD know of your issues, the ones that they have the power to change such as the meals and the Hotel, these trips are not cheap by any means and for the cost they could do better with the hotel and at least allow something other than water as a beverage at meals. There were three dinners included on my trip and at all three in addition to soft drinks, water or iced tea you could have had beer or wine. I don't drink so I didn't partake but it was an option for those that wanted it.
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