Adventures by Disney’s Quest for the West

| July 21, 2011 | 2 Replies

If you’re a regular around the DIS, you’ve probably noticed how much everyone here loves Adventures by Disney. To be completely honest, before I started working here, I had never even heard of it. Then suddenly Cristina and I were being whisked away to Wyoming for a week with ABD and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I’m the kind of guy who likes to take it easy so a strictly scheduled “vacation” sounded like a pretty bad idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a suitable place to hide on the final day of the trip to prevent them from dragging me back to the airport.

First, a little background. When I was a kid, circa 1994, my family took a trip to Park City, Utah. It was my first real trip that I can remember and, as a Florida boy, I instantly fell in love with the mountains. A couple of years later we went back out there and did a road trip with my uncle and aunt who live in Wyoming. We saw Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, a dinosaur dig site…it’s one of my favorite memories as a kid. Ever since then, I’ve been dying to get back out to that area of the Rocky Mountains but never had an excuse.

When I heard that we had the opportunity to go on the “Quest for the West” ABD trip, I freaked out! I would finally be able to get back to the place that I’ve been trying to go for over 10 years! I think that a lot of people don’t know what to think when they hear “Wyoming.” The state is huge with the lowest population in the country…only about a quarter of the population of the metro Orlando area. So what is there to do?

As far as I’m concerned, I could sit on a bench and stare at the mountains for 6 days straight and be completely content. Luckily for everyone else on the trip, ABD has a much more exciting itinerary in store. Let’s run through each day.

Day 1: Wyoming Welcome
The first day pretty much consists of flying into Jackson Hole Airport, which is the only airport in the country that’s located inside a national park (Grand Teton National Park). The airport doesn’t have the traditional gates of a larger airport, so passengers deplane down a set of stairs directly to the tarmac. The view as soon as you exit the plane is absolutely stunning as you’re immediately greeted by some of the most beautiful mountains you’ll ever see.

One of our guides, Geraldine, met us at the airport and led us to our transportation to the Wort Hotel in Jackson (Side note: Jackson is the name of the town, Jackson Hole is the name of the region…so Jackson is located in Jackson Hole). We arrived at the Wort Hotel, one of AAA’s top 10 historic hotels, around 1:30 pm and were told that our room wasn’t ready yet. We gave the desk clerk my cell phone number and then met our other guide, Michael, upstairs for some ABD business. He gave us a map of Jackson with all the best places to visit highlighted, he had us sign our wavers for the following day’s whitewater rafting trip, and he even took our lunch order for the next two days.

Once all that was taken care of, we found ourselves with still more time to kill before the room was ready. Luckily, there’s a pretty nice bar attached to the hotel so, being a pretty nervous flyer who just endured a 5 hour cross-country flight, I had no problem grabbing a drink while we waited for them to prepare the room.

The Wort Hotel is a very cozy, quaint little place but it still packs some pretty sweet amenities. All of the furniture is ornate and beautiful and the bathroom counter and fixtures give it an elegant twist. We were instantly comfortable in our room, with the exception of our view which looked out on some sort of outdoor maintenance hallway/alley. No big deal though. We didn’t expect to spend much time in the room.

Jackson is an absolutely beautiful ski town. You can walk clean across it in about 5 minutes, but the views are just gorgeous and there’s a surprising number of restaurants and bars packed into such a small area. We spent a little time walking around and taking in the sights before our welcome dinner back at the Wort.

The welcome dinner was excellent. We were given a choice of salmon, steak, or hot dogs (for the kids) and there was a buffet line set up for the sides. There was salad, steamed broccoli, scalloped potatoes, iced tea, lemonade, and even complimentary wine and beer (for of-age guests of course). Geraldine and Michael talked to us about what to expect on the trip and gave us the schedule for the following day, we did introductions where everyone said a little bit about themselves and what they were most excited about on the trip, and then we got…a special Disney pin!

Let me just say that I’m not necessarily a Disney pin freak, but I do collect meaningful ones (each time we stay at a resort, for example, we’ll get a pin for that resort). Regardless, there’s something pretty awesome about getting pins from ABD that no one else can get unless they go on this adventure. It’s just another touch that makes these trips special.

Anyway, that was about it for day 1. We had a pretty serious schedule the following day so we needed some good rest.

Day 2: Western Majesty

Breakfast was served in the Silver Dollar Grill which is attached to the Wort. We were allowed to order anything we wanted off their regular menu so we weren’t bashful. I got a fruit salad with blueberry yogurt, english muffin, two eggs over-easy, and coffee while Cristina got biscuits and gravy, and French toast…she beat me in the “manly breakfast” department.

After breakfast, we had some free time before lunch so we walked over to the Jackson Hole museum, which recently moved to a brand new location. Admission was $6 per person and there were some pretty interesting exhibits, like a map of all the locations around Jackson that have appeared in films. The museum is still being expanded though, and there wasn’t a whole lot to look at, but it was a nice and inexpensive little diversion.

Lunch was at the Jackson Hole Playhouse which was reserved exclusively for our group. We were given a tour of the facility and then seated for our meal. I ordered “Butch Cassidy’s Buffalo Burger” with sweet potato fries and Cristina got an oriental chicken salad with sesame ginger vinaigrette. My burger was pretty great but Cristina wasn’t too impressed with her salad. During lunch, the wait staff (decked out as cowboys and cowgirls of course) randomly broke into song, sometimes even singing romantically to some of our group. One of the girls flirted with me…I think she really liked me.

After lunch we had a little bit of time to get ready for our whitewater rafting trip. Let me pause here to fill you in on one major detail: it was COLD outside. All of the ABD materials we had received to prepare for our trip told us that that average temperatures were supposed to be in the low 70’s during the day. Luckily, our ABD contact had emailed us before we left to let us know that they were having some unseasonably cold weather and we should pack accordingly. Now imagine having to get ready to jump into a raft on a wild river where you know you’re going to get soaked and it’s 44 degrees and raining outside. Needless to say, I was excited.

Cristina and I had rash guard (surfer) shirts and bathing suit bottoms and thankfully the rafting company provided us with wetsuits and fleece pullovers to keep us warm. Then once we arrived at the launch point, we were given rain gear and life vests, so we were quite bundled. Cristina even helped tighten my life vest (pictured below). Our group was split into two rafts and we launched out into the Snake River.

One subject that continually popped up during this trip was the insane amount of snow Wyoming had received this past winter. Apparently they hadn’t seen this much for 25 years. As a result of all that snow beginning to melt, the Snake River was higher, faster, and meaner than it normally is at this time of year, not to mention we were being pelted with near-blinding rain for much of the rafting trip. Our guide, Roan, did a great job explaining all of the commands to us and easing our fears about the rapids we were about to encounter…and then we came around the corner and saw a raft ahead of us upside down with heads bobbing in the water around it. It wasn’t part of our group, but needless to say, we were all a bit apprehensive after that. Their guide’s ore locks had come loose so he was unable to steer them through a rapid and they flipped. I had much more confidence in our boat for absolutely no reason. Anyways, we managed to get through all of the rapids, including the final which is normally a class 4 but, due to the excessive snowmelt, was about a class 5 (or so we were told). We were all incredibly proud of our achievement and pretty psyched that no one died.

After the rafting trip, we were free to have dinner on our own in Jackson. We had heard about the Snake River Brewery so of course we had to check it out. We had a homemade pretzel as an appetizer which was excellent, I had trout for the first time which I loved, and Cristina got a pesto pasta that was really good. We also had a beer flight with samples of each of their beers and all of them were great. Overall it was a great dinner and we’d both highly recommend it to any beer-drinkers who find themselves in Jackson.

Day 3: Yellowstone Journey

It was finally time to say goodbye to Jackson to begin the long trek to Yellowstone National Park. We were instructed to leave our luggage outside our hotel rooms at 7:15 and breakfast was the same as the previous day. A bus picked us up at 8 am and we learned that this was the bus that would be with us for the rest of the trip. We all got on board and got comfy for our short trip to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center at Grand Teton National Park.

The center was built in 2007 so it’s very modern and contains lots of interesting information about the area. It also has massive floor-to-ceiling windows that offer some breathtaking views of the mountains. We spent a little bit of time checking out the center and took some photos until it was time to board the bus again and head to Jenny Lake.

We boarded a ferry at Jenny Lake and crossed over to a trailhead at the foot of the mountains to begin our hike to Hidden Falls. This was easily one of the highlights of the trip for me because it was nothing but gorgeous scenery and crisp, cold air. As we got closer to the falls, we also had our first close-up snow encounter. Many of the kids in our group had never seen snow before, so watching them freak out and start snowball fights was immensely entertaining. The falls were absolutely incredible but unfortunately, the trail that led further up the mountain to Inspiration Point was still closed because of the snow.

After Hidden Falls, we had lunch at a nice little picnic spot right near the foot of the Tetons. It was another chance to take some great photos and just enjoy the beautiful scenery and weather. Then we boarded the bus again for the long ride to Yellowstone National Park. As we rode toward Yellowstone, the surrounding area was very green with the exception of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Once we passed through the gate into the park though, we were instantly transported to a winter wonderland (remember, it’s merely days before the first day of summer at this point). The rolling hills were covered with snow as far as the eye could see. We made a short stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin to check out some of the thermal features there…and take a bathroom break…and then headed on towards Old Faithful.

We finally arrived at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge where we would be spending the next two nights. Some of our group was a little dismayed to find out that there were no televisions to be found at the Lodge. The point of being at Old Faithful is to see the natural wonders all around you, and it’s pretty tough to do that if you or your kids are glued to the ‘tube in the room. And hey, there was a Keurig so I was content!

We all met upstairs in a conference room for our Old Faithful welcome dinner which was a buffet consisting of wild boar, salmon, mashed potatoes, veggies, and bison chili (which was awesome). There were also chicken fingers and mac & cheese for the kids, but most of the adults dug into those as well. After dinner we were on our own to relax so Cristina and I decided to try and catch an Old Faithful eruption. The strangest thing to me is that they still use exact times when predicting an eruption (7:31 pm for example), but they always say plus or minus ten minutes. If it’s so imprecise, why not just use round numbers like 7:30? But anyways, that night Old Faithful decided to wait until just after the sun went down so we didn’t get to see much. Then it was time for some much-needed sleep.

Day 4: Trail Blazers

We were up bright and early for breakfast in the Snow Lodge’s restaurant. We were able to order whatever we wanted off the regular menu or have the buffet, so we loaded up on good stuff. Then it was outside to catch an Old Faithful eruption…in the sunlight.

A guide named Rose met us to tell us a little bit about Old Faithful and to show us around the geyser basin. One interesting fact to remember is that Yellowstone National Park sits on top of one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. All of the rolling hills you see in the area are actually lava that dried after the last eruption about 640,000 years ago. By all accounts, the volcano is due to erupt again some time in the next thousand years or so, which is just a little bit terrifying. The last time it erupted, it spread ash as far as Texas.

That’s why Yellowstone is so full of thermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots); all of the groundwater is constantly being heated by the magma below, forcing it to the surface. All of the “plumbing” beneath the ground is what dictates how that water escapes. If the holes below are large enough, you’ll just see a bubbling pool of water (hot spring). If there isn’t enough water or the surrounding rocks are so hot that all of the water boils off, you’ll get a fumarole (steam vent). Mud pots are similar to hot springs except they’re full of sediment, creating a boiling pool of mud. And of course, if the cracks and fissures below create obstructions which trap the water, pressure builds and builds until the water finally erupts, giving you the most famous thermal feature; a geyser.

We got a nice tour of the Old Faithful geyser basin before our buffet-style lunch back at the Snow Lodge. After lunch Rose accompanied us to the Fountain Paint Pot trail and then to the Grand Prismatic Spring, both of which were just awesome. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the country and third largest in the world. It basically looks like a huge lake except there’s so much steam that you can barely see the other side 300 feet across. It’s also an incredible shade of blue due to its extreme heat; it’s completely sterile because nothing can survive in that kind of heat. The worst part is, it looks so warm and inviting when you’re standing in the cold wind next to it, but it would definitely melt your skin off.

That evening was dinner on our own so we asked our guides to make reservations for us at the Old Faithful Inn. The Inn is the most famous hotel at Old Faithful and was actually the inspiration for Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort, so of course we had to spend some time there. We had a nice dinner consisting of buffalo chicken wings, an elk burger, bison ravioli, and a warm chocolate lava cake. Then it was time to just relax and take in the sights at the Old Faithful Inn. The main building is amazing to explore because of its “thrown-together” look. A lot of the staircases and floors are slightly crooked and uneven, but you must remember, it was built during the winter of 1903 and it’s the largest log hotel in the world, so the fact that it has survived for so long is nothing short of unbelievable (granted, with some renovations since construction).

After we explored for a little while, we decided to turn in because we had to be up bright and early for our trip to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Day 5: Untamed Nature

The next morning was the same breakfast as the previous morning and then it was on the bus for a long ride out of Yellowstone. On the way though, there were a couple of stops scheduled.

First was the Upper Falls of Yellowstone which was gorgeous. Unfortunately, while the itinerary called for a hike leading to the Lower Falls, the trail was a little too muddy for comfort so after we spent some time taking photos, we got back on the bus to ride down to the Lower Falls. Honestly, I was completely fine with that…we had done quite a bit of walking already so riding on the bus was nice. The Lower Falls lead into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which is absolutely breathtaking. It’s easy to see why they called the area “Yellowstone” because the canyon walls are a bright shade of yellow.

After more photo ops, it was back on the bus to head to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel for lunch.

Our guides brought up a funny observation: It’s the Lake Yellowstone Hotel on Yellowstone Lake. Why they decided to flip-flop the name is anyone’s guess, but it certainly helps with Google searches…maybe the builders had SEO in mind when they built the hotel in 1891. Lunch was whatever we wanted off the menu so Cristina and I both got the pressed turkey sandwiches with Thousand Island dressing and a big bowl of waffle fries drenched in bleu cheese and peppercorns. After lunch we had some time to walk around and check out the hotel. The only negative part of this experience was the massive amount of bugs outside. They looked eerily similar to mosquitoes, but we were told they were actually mayflies. After researching what a mayfly is, I’m pretty sure that’s not what we were battling. They looked exactly like a mosquito minus the needle-nose…so at least we were fairly confident they wouldn’t bite us. Regardless, the hotel was gorgeous and lunch was great.

After lunch, we began the 2-hour-plus drive out of Yellowstone back south to Brooks Lake Lodge. Once we arrived at the beginning of the unpaved road that led up to Brooks Lake Lodge, we finally had to leave our bus behind. Due to the extreme snowfall, the bus would be unable to safely travel up the winding dirt road (flanked by roughly 6-foot-high walls of snow) so we had to transfer to a few smaller vehicles. The road up to the lodge is only about 5 miles long, but it climbs 1,000 feet in elevation, putting the lodge at 9,200 feet above sea level. Believe me, you can feel the difference. Just walking through the snow is enough to knock the wind out of you at that elevation.

As soon as we pulled up to the Lodge, I was instantly at home. This place is absolutely magical, especially when it’s covered with snow. I know most people expected a summer vacation with grassy meadows and a beautiful view of Brooks Lake, but I wouldn’t have traded this winter wonderland for anything. The Lodge consists of a few separate buildings; the main lodge building with a few common areas, full liquor bar, game room, dining room, and guest rooms, the spa building with massage rooms, a large common area, men’s and women’s locker rooms, and an outdoor hot tub, and then a handful of cabins scattered around the property. Then of course there was my favorite part: the dogs. They had (by my count) four dogs running around the property; three Labs and a Corgi-Lab mix. They were so well-behaved and were trained not to go into the dining room, so anyone afraid of dogs being around the food, fear not.

We all gathered in the main dining room to get an overview of the property from Adam, the general manager. The rest of our evening was nothing but relaxation and dinner, which made this place the “vacation from our vacation” that I think we all wanted. It’s really a testament to the planning that Adventures by Disney does. While the entire trip was amazing, they definitely saved the best for last which would leave us all with the best possible impression.

Our guides booked me and Cristina in the “Hunter” cabin which was a cozy little place with a king-size bed and a nice bathroom. The walk from the main Lodge building to our cabin was a little bit strenuous because of the altitude and having to stomp through the snow, but again, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Staying in such a beautiful, quaint little cabin in the snow was a dream come true.

Dinner that night was easily the best meal we had all trip. There was a choice of either cast-iron fried trout stuffed with herbed mirepoix or seared beef tenderloin with grilled portobello mushroom slices and a pomegranate/pinot noir reduction. Both came with a mixed spring green salad, wasabi infused garlic mashed potatoes and caramelized carrots with a deep dish crumble-top caramel apple pie. Cristina and I both opted for the beef and it was just as amazing as it sounds.

After dinner, we signed up for our excursions for the following day. There were two time slots for which we could choose two different (or the same) activities; 10:30 am and 2:30 pm. Unfortunately, some of the activities had to either be cancelled or altered because of the unexpected weather conditions. Cristina and I had hoped to canoe on the lake but, considering the fact that the lake was still completely frozen over, that wasn’t going to happen. Also, horseback riding had to be moved from the Lodge itself down to another ranch at the bottom of the mountain where the snow had already melted away. The other options included a hike and fly-fishing (also at the bottom of the mountain, of course). We signed up for the hike in the morning and horseback riding in the afternoon. Then we just relaxed and had a few drinks before bedtime.

When we decided to turn in for the night, we went and grabbed a flashlight for the walk back. Near the front door of the Lodge, there’s a shelf with a flashlight labelled for each of the cabins. Remember, we’re literally in the wilderness so there’s no light to guide you back (unless you happened to leave your porch light on). They also don’t give you a key for your cabin unless you ask for one. No need to lock up when there’s no one around for miles. Before bed, we stood outside just to stare at the stars. You haven’t seen stars until you’ve been in the Wyoming wilderness. We even saw a couple of satellites glide across the night sky. Yeah…we were in heaven.

Day 6: On the Range

When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I had to do was make a pot of coffee (a coffee maker with packets of Starbucks coffee is provided), grab a mug and sit on the front porch of our cabin. The cold morning air, complete silence, and smell of coffee was enough to make me want to sell my condo and move there. Once Cristina was up and ready, we headed over to the Lodge for breakfast which was a buffet with scrambled eggs, sausage, roasted potatoes, fruit, cereal, and this awesome dish that was like eggs Benedict on top of shredded roast beef.

After breakfast, we got ready for our hike. It turned out that we were the only ones who signed up for the hike in the morning, so it was a personal guided tour with Adam and one of the other Lodge employees. I should also mention that the Lodge employees are all, for the most part, young adults who come from all over the world to work here for a season at a time. It makes for some great conversations when you’ve got people who are new and excited to be there. We piled into Adam’s truck and descended down the mountain to find a less snowy area to hike. He seemed to know the area really well and knew a good trail with a high probability of seeing some animals.

We hiked for close to two hours and saw a ton of deer and elk. We had hoped to see a bear (we were being very safe, of course, and Adam had bear spray with him just in case) but none were around. We got pretty far up the side of the mountain until we hit a ton of snow and had to turn around. It was an awesome experience made even better by the fact that it was such a small group. I might not have enjoyed it as much if we had all of the kids running around.

After the hike, we headed back to the Lodge for lunch. As we ate, we noticed some dark clouds starting to roll in, which was a pretty bad sign for everyone hoping to do an afternoon activity. The weather passed us but apparently it collected over the horse ranch, so they decided to cancel horseback riding because of the mud. The thing about being at Brooks Lake Lodge is that, even when an activity you had scheduled gets cancelled, you couldn’t care less because you’re in the most gorgeous, relaxing place on earth (besides a beach in Hawaii or something). On the plus side, Adam went and powered up the hot tub for us so we grabbed some cocktails and jumped in. Sitting in an outdoor boiling hot tub while staring at a snow-covered mountain is just about my favorite thing ever.

Before we knew it, it was time for the farewell dinner. This time it was a choice of Cornish game hen with stuffing or sliced pork tenderloin with a cranberry sauce. Both came with sliced vegetables and roasted potatoes. Once again, the meal was fantastic. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the food at this place because it’s so secluded and far from grocery stores, but they really do a great job.

Once we finished dinner, we were shooed from the dining room so that Geraldine and Michael could get it set up for the slide-show finale. When it was ready, we were brought back in and seated around the projector screen. Each person was asked what their favorite part of the trip was and what surprised them. Shockingly enough, one of the younger girls said that she was glad there was no TV at Old Faithful or at Brooks Lake Lodge (oh yeah…forgot to mention there was still no TV here…4 days without television?!). I couldn’t have agreed more. I would have been bummed out if people were in their rooms watching TV instead of experiencing the amazing things around them. When that was all finished, they started the slide-show of photos from the past week. This is the moment when it all hits you in the face.

I’m a pretty reserved person. I don’t make friends very easily so throughout this whole trip, I pretty much kept to myself. I had heard everyone else from the DIS talk about the end of an ABD trip and how everyone becomes emotional because you’ve forged these great friendships and now it’s all over. I was afraid I wouldn’t get any of that, but as soon as that video started playing and we saw all of the amazing memories we had made, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all best friends. This is the moment when, regardless of who you are, you’re now an Adventures by Disney fan for life.

After the slideshow there was sledding, table shuffleboard, darts, more star-gazing (you could see the Milky Way!) and then off to bed for the last time…after I ran back to the Lodge to get a key because, yes, I locked us out of our cabin.

Day 7: Happy Trails!

In the morning we had a light breakfast and then it was a 3 hour drive back to the Jackson Hole Airport. To say that flying out of the beautiful mountains and cool, dry air into the Florida heat and humidity was a disappointment would be an understatement. I’m sure some people were glad to be out of the chilly air but I’d live there in a heartbeat.

Anyways, to sum it all up, this was an unforgettable experience. To anyone who has been considering an Adventures by Disney trip but isn’t sure if they’ll enjoy it, I would say DO IT RIGHT NOW! While it may be a little on the pricey side, the amount of planning that goes into these trips is staggering and the fact that your guides are always there to keep things running smoothly is invaluable. If you’re partial to the mountains, the Quest for the West trip is incredible. Just don’t expect all the snow because that’s certainly not normal. Even though a lot of the scheduled activities were cancelled or altered, we didn’t even notice until the end of the trip when we thought back on what we had done. Michael and Geraldine did such a great job leading this expedition that we were able to just sit back and enjoy the scenery and we had an amazing time. Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I get back to the Rockies!

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