Sunday, May 01, 2016

How I Discovered Magic at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Sunrise view from room at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Photo: ©Kymri Wilt

I had always been somewhat dismissive of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, after all, it seemed to be just a copy “wannabe” of my hometown’s Hotel Del Coronado. It is THE priciest resort at Walt Disney World. Looking at the website, there's not much to distinguish it from the more moderately priced Yacht Club Resort (a tried and true favorite). Nor does it boast African safari animals right outside the window like Kidani Village (still my top pick). So what’s the big deal?

Well, during a recent hosted stay at the Grand Floridian, I discovered there is more to this place than meets the eye. True magic cannot be conveyed in a photograph, or a “luxury” rating. It has nothing to do with a classic fa├žade, elegant staircase, grand piano, perfect cocktails, spacious pools or fine restaurants. At the Grand Floridian Resort, I discovered that small human gestures of service make a grand difference in experience, turning the ordinary into something magic.

Meet Richard

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort
Disney's Grand Floridian Resort
Photos: ©Kymri Wilt

When I first encountered Richard, I almost missed him. Instead, I had noticed a little girl with a pouty face sitting on a bench outside the entrance to the Grand Floridian. There were no obvious parents in sight. As I approached, I watched her face begin to change, and within moments it lit up in an ear-to-ear grin trying not to burst out in giggles. I looked where she was looking. A smallish man wearing a straw hat was dancing a little soft shoe jig. As he turned my direction, I saw his face, and I was overcome with such warmth and joy that I couldn’t help smiling back. This charming man was Richard, and his 91-year-young face conveyed a lifetime of magic.

In the few moments I chatted with him, I learned that Richard has been working at the Grand Floridian in the very same position, at the very same spot, for 24 years. That means he started there when he was just a spry 67 years of age! I have no idea what he did before that, but clearly, he’s not set on retiring any time soon. I asked him to tell me what he loves about his job. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful brides.” Then he goes on to tell me he’s seen the newly married couples return year after year with growing families…and he’s watched their daughters grow up and get married, just like their parents did, at the Grand Floridian Resort.There’s something to be said for a hotel that boasts second (and possibly third) generations of weddings in the same family. And lucky for them, there’s Richard, just like family, standing curbside year after year, to welcome them “home.”

I took a selfie with Richard, and introduced him on my social media feeds so others arriving would feel as “welcome home” as I did. The comments poured in – he is known and loved far and wide, and those who’d never met him before, made a point of finding him. He’s as iconic as the hotel itself…but he holds the real magic.

Let’s Say it was “Jerry”

When I received a text alerting me that my room was ready at the Grand Floridian, I went to the Bell Captain’s desk to collect my held bag, at which point I was offered the assistance of a bellman to help with my case and show me to my room. As I followed him past the reception desk, I see a woman checking in as one of the Traveling Mom writers, so naturally, I stopped to meet and welcome her. She exclaimed, “oh, you’re the photographer!” and we excitedly talked cameras for a few minutes as my bellman stood back and waited patiently. As we proceeded through the lobby, I see more of my dear friends and colleagues arriving, so I stop for quick hellos and hugs, while my bellman stands by. I glance at him anxiously. “Take your time,” he assures me. One of my colleagues thanked me for the posting the “Meet Richard” photo. Then the bellman and I turned a corner and I hear my name. I look over to see even more colleagues and friends at a second check-in desk for our media group where I stop and collect my credentials. This takes some time, and I’m certain at this point my bellman is fed up and ready to disappear, leaving my rolling case to roll off into oblivion. But no, he stands by professionally and unobtrusively, one hand firmly on my case. And when I’m ready, he holds the door open and leads me to a waiting golf cart to transport me to my building.

No sooner do we start rolling along the path when I hear “Kymri, is that you?” Without looking back, and already knowing me by name, my bellman-turned-chauffeur stops the cart, and waits as I catch up with yet another friend. “Look how fancy, you get your own cart!” she remarks. Yes, indeed, I felt like a celebrity with my exclusive cart limo and personal bellman-chauffeur. Certainly the paparazzi were lurking in the bushes, but he masterfully averted them.

During our drive he points out where everything is on the resort property, and offers suggestions for the most photogenic spots, the best place to view fireworks, etc. I asked how long he’s worked at the Grand Floridian. “28 years” he replies, “longer than Richard, but I started much younger.” I distinctly heard the wink in his voice. You see, he was so attentive that he’d even noted the “Meet Richard” conversation back in the lobby. By the time we reached the elevator, I felt like he knew everything about me and had been my private chauffeur for years. I’m sure if I’d asked upon entering my room, he would have
unpacked for me and plugged in all my devices.

Fast forward to check out day, and I’m already writing this article in my head. I realized I’d not noted the name of my magical bellman. There were several staff gathered around the Bell Desk on my way out. I asked for the name of the bellman who’d been working there for 28 years. They all look at each other, then blankly back at me, until one of them humbly admits, “that could be any of us.” Wow. Honestly, would you EVER hear that at any other luxury hotel in the world? From the bellmen? So I get a bit more descriptive, and another one asks “Was it Jerry?” I shrugged hopelessly, so embarrassed that I didn’t recall his name. They saw my discomfort and quickly chimed in to unanimously credit the one bellman who wasn’t there. “Let’s say it was Jerry.”

Brenda’s Gift

One might expect that housekeeping at Disney Resorts is performed by fairies sprinkling pixie dust. Or perhaps, Mary Poppins herself. Spoiler alert: Housekeepers at the Grand Floridian are real humans. They make beds, clean tubs, vacuum crumbs, freshen towels, and even leave chocolates on the pillows at turndown. And they do it all without the help of forest bluebirds and magical dancing brooms.

But they make magic in other ways, which I experienced firsthand. I had just come back to my room after my daughter sent a text that our senior dog, Jambo, had stopped eating.She was home alone with the dogs, her dad still at work, and I texted back that I would call as soon as I got to my room….my freshly cleaned, cool, quiet room.

I called using facetime, so I could see our dog and better judge his state. No sooner had my daughter answered the call then a knock came at my door. With phone in hand, I opened the door to Brenda, my housekeeper. She was checking to see if all was in order, and if I needed any more towels or anything. My daughter asked who I was talking to, so I held up the phone and introduced her to Brenda over facetime. While there was nothing I needed from Brenda, she smiled warmly at my daughter and reached into her cart. “I think you might need more of these… I’ll just give them to you now,” she said, handing me extra chocolates. Then she closed the door leaving us to our call. When I asked to see Jambo, my daughter exclaimed, “Look! He’s eating now!” And indeed he was. While I’d like to think it was the sound of my voice, I’m going to go with crediting Brenda.

Tracy’s Roses

Tracy sharing roses at the Grand Floridian
Photo credit: ©Kymri Wilt
With all of our press events over and done, a group of us were making our way back to the Grand Floridian to catch the Magical Express to the airport. We were walking along the path, and a woman carrying a beautiful bouquet of roses was coming towards us. She skirts the path so we don’t have to step aside. As she passes, someone remarks “What beautiful flowers!” She turns around, and offers a rose to each of us. Naturally, we’re flattered and every one of us pulls a rose from the bouquet, leaving just two remaining.

As we all thanked her, I asked if they were meant for a guestroom, figuring she’d just stop and get more. “No,” she replied, “I just got off work and am taking them to my husband. “ “A special occasion?”, asked another. Tracy replied, “Yes, I suppose it is. He just came home from the hospital today.” And before we could finish thanking her or even try to put the roses back in the bouquet meant for him, Tracy kept right on moving, wishing us all a magical day.

And there you have it, four stories of Grand Floridian staff members making magic.

My Small Gesture of Gratitude

Richard, if you are reading this, thank you. Because of you, I saw a pouty little girl smile…and believe me, I’ve been that pouty little girl more than I’d like to admit. So on behalf of this pouty little girl, and probably hundreds before and since, thank you. Your simple charm is nothing short of magic.

Jerry, if you are reading this, or if you even truly exist by that name, thank you. I know you were introduced and wore your nametag. But it was your magical way of performing the same job you’ve done for 28 years that left an impression deeper than the letters etched on a badge. I’m still wondering if I just imagined that whole magical VIP escorted journey from Bell Desk to my room… was it magic? Or were you just doing your job? Either way, a flawless performance.

Brenda, if you are reading this, thank you. My daughter thanks you for the chocolates, and I thank you for being kind. Your small gesture did not go unnoticed. You are proof that every human has the potential for making magic, knowingly or not. But do tell, where were you hiding your wings?

And finally, Tracy, if you are reading this, thank you. I hope your husband knows that for every red rose missing from that bouquet, one more woman was thinking of him and sending well wishes his way. Thank you for touching our lives in that brief moment and reminding us we’re all just humans, and we’re all capable of sharing little acts of magic in this journey of life.

Full Disclosure

I was hosted by Disney at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and my assignment was to review this luxury property with lots of pretty pictures. Clearly, that morphed into something entirely different. Had I done such a review, you’d never know the magic.

Instead, your only takeaway might be the noisy drinking adults in the public areas all hours of the night, or the renovation work in progress in my building (6) which made for noisy and detoured ins and outs. And there were plumbing issues – a magical running toilet that failed to flush each night I came back to it. But here again, the seemingly ordinary human maintenance man was full of magic, too. He shared a wealth of knowledge about the hotel’s history and explained in detail the process of updating the “historic” fixtures - we’re talking PVC pipe diameters to/from toilets – yet somehow his enthusiasm had me envisioning scenes from “Fantasia.” He’d obviously been working there for years and clearly loved his job, too.

It is evident at the Grand Floridian Resort that when you have contented employees serving guests, the results are magic.

How You Can Book the Magic

Now I understand why families buy into timeshares and return year after year to places like the Grand Floridian Resort. If you are so inclined to try a resort residence rental for your next family vacation, the good news is, you don't have to belong to the Disney Vacation Club to try one! Check out, where you’ll find Villas at the Grand Floridian, Kidani Village, and several other vetted and owner-listed resort properties to select from. Wherever you choose to go, remember, real magic is an experience of exceptional service in simple gestures. If you’re not finding it, then start making it, just like Richard, Jerry, Brenda, and Tracy do, every day, at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Two Things Turning 10 this Year: my Travel Blog and my Passport

The source of inspiration for Mira Terra Images - Antigua, Guatemala.

I realized I've been neglectful of my own blog this very year when I should be celebrating and honoring it. Ten years ago this month, I published my first six blog posts.

I think some gratitude is in order for my 10-year blog-iversary post.

When I started Mira Terra Travel Blog, the intention was purely to drive traffic to my (first and still out there) photography website, A very wise friend who was working in IT during the dot-com boom explained to me that Google doesn't find images, it finds words. So my lovely little travel photography website had launched, but was lost without words. I needed words.

Thankfully, I'd kept handwritten travel journals (before the days of wi-fi, laptops, cell phones and digital cameras) of all my travels begining with my first trip to France at 15. So for my first four posts, I picked a page out of four different journals, picked a favorite slide photo to scan, and told a short story with a single photo. Those first four features were:

Chile: Spirit Dreams
Guatemala: Comfortable Vulnerability
France: Paris Encore (words only)
Kenya: The Last Town

Baby steps, but a start, nonetheless.

So this tech-savvy friend Marie (my first blog follower), read them, and reminded me that I wrote great letters when I travelled, too. Within a week a package arrived of every letter I'd written her during and since our college days, with a note something to the effect of "too good to throw out." A few years earlier, when I became a mother, my highschool friend Nina had done the same thing - she returned all my handwritten letters and postcards I'd sent her from my travels and college life, as "a gift for your daughter - family treasures." Sure, both friends were downsizing their "stuff", and respected my Cancerian sentimentality. But both friends in their own way encouraged me to keep writing, reminding me that my words had value, and put my words back into my hands to do something with. To those two friends, Nina and Marie, thank you. I'm grateful that you are both still in my life, even if handwritten letters have morphed into occasional facebook messages. The friendships remain, and conversations flow as effortlessly today as the letters that seemed to write themselves back then.

Fast forward 10 years to the present, and I'm so busy writing professionally for other outlets that my travel journal posts to my own blog are few and far between. I need to change that. My humble little personal travel-photography blog, which I never once endeavored to monetize, is still here, and I still have boxes of travel journal stories to share.

Which brings me to the here and now, and last night.

Last night I attended a travel media event in Los Angeles, hosted by Bella Guatemala Travel. It was not a presentation or sales pitch. It was a fully immersive Guatemalan experience, with food, dancers, textile weavers, music, artists and even rum-tasting. Being there reminded me that Guatemala is really to credit for kick-starting me on my path as a travel photographer.

Guatemala was my first solo trip after my mother had passed, and I just needed to take my journey; reflecting and writing through my grief, and opening my heart through my camera lens. It was the perfect destination for both writing and photography. Guatemala captivated me with colors, textiles, language, and culture. It woke up all my senses, and filled my circumstantial emptiness with a passion for recording and telling stories, and capturing and sharing images.

When I returned, I subjected my closest friends to carousel slideshows of the 6 rolls I shot in Guatemala. They didn't get bored or nod off. With every passing image projected, they were drawn in, entranced, and listening to my every word. Then, a lightbulb went off for my closest friend Bil, who finally just blurted out "Kymri, you're pursuing the wrong dream. You are meant to be a photographer."

Months later it was a freeflowing conversation with Bil during which "Mira Terra Images" as my brand name was born. Rooted in Latin for "See the World", it rolled off the tongue and felt right. Never mind that Spanish speakers would translate it as "Look at the earth," literally; Bil and I loved it, because together we loved the earth. So thank you Bil, for being that friend who told me what I needed to be told. You knew me better than I knew myself.

A few years and travels later, I gave birth to my daughter, and shortly thereafter, to my brand. My early days with baby were spent at a desk scanning slides with her in my arms.

"Antigua, Guatemala" was the label on the first box of slides I digitized when I got my scanner. My entire brand and logo design for Mira Terra Images came from the shot at the top of this post, the Mayan Calendar on a green wall in Antigua, Guatemala. Think of the significance of that.

Another thank you from this blog's earliest days, perhaps the most important one, goes out to Tom, whose encouragement, creative vision, travel marketing savvy, and above all else, friendship, helped to put Mira Terra Images Travel Photography & Services on the map of the world wide web. With his help, I became my own brand. Thank you, Tom.

How lucky I've been to have the intuitive foresight, encouragement, and wisdom of friends like Marie, Nina, Bil and Tom. There simply are no words for the depth of gratitude I feel towards each of you.

So back to last night, I found myself thinking about how significant that trip to Guatemala was for me. It was two and a half passports ago, and I was saddened to realize that my current passport, expiring this year, has no Guatemala stamp in it's 96 pages and inserts. How is it I haven't been back? I need to change that.

In fact, I think this is exactly the right year, and Guatemala is exactly the right stamp to be the first in my new passport.

So one final thank you for my 10-year blog-iversary post. Thank you, Guatemala. For inspiring me in my 20's, and for being a timeless inspirational presence in my realized vocation(s). I look forward to re-connecting with you, Guatemala, like an old dear friend. The kind that knows me better than I know myself.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Road Trip for Cameras: Scenic Fall Colors in Vermont

“The trees are in Kodachrome all over Vermont. And I’m that car that keeps pulling over. Nature, you win.” - me.

A photo posted by Kymri (@kymri) on

It wasn’t until I posted my first instagram photo from Vermont that suddenly people I’ve known for years were all like “oh, my home state!” Many of you know a lot more about Vermont than I ever will. And, I’m sorry, but I didn’t read your articles, blogs, recommendations or instagram feeds before I went. I got short notice for a last minute assignment, and negotiated an extra day/night plus a rental car so I could explore a bit more of the state. Turns out the east coast contingent of my family happened to also be in Vermont that weekend – how could I miss a chance to see my great-niece? Plus, my lifelong friend from college had bought herself a farm somewhere in Vermont, and I wanted to check it out. So, yeah, I was determined to cover as much ground as I could in the free 48 hours before the job.

As I packed, the temperature in San Diego was 91 degrees. I looked up the forecast for my destination, Stowe, Vermont, and these little tiny white symbols showed up. Now I’m no expert on weather, but I’m pretty sure they were predicting snow. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” I thought to myself, and threw on my puffy winter jacket as I headed out the door to the airport.

It really hadn’t even occurred to me that the seasons were changing in other parts of the country. My friend with the farm, Marie (whom I went backpacking to Egypt with in 1986, and rock-climbing in Arizona with in 2006), tells me she’s two hours south of Burlington, so I asked “How’s the drive, scenic?” Yes, duh, it’s Vermont. “Any fall colors?” I ask, figuring its still summer everywhere else like it is in San Diego, and those snowflake symbols in the forecast were a mistake. Her response was music to my ears….“Yes, lots of colors right now, height of the season.”

No WAY! I was really going to hit Vermont during peak fall foliage? I couldn’t get on that plane soon enough. I left a golden glowing sunset on the west coast, and woke up to a golden glowing landscape on the east coast.

A photo posted by Kymri (@kymri) on

The rental car clerk offered me a navigation unit. I declined, and asked for a local map – I prefer having the freedom to get lost and take a scenic road without a computer voice pestering me to “make a u-turn,” and constantly trying to set me back on the straightest route from point A to point B. Besides, the directions to my friend’s farm were visuals like “cross the creek, second dirt road on the left, look for the big new barn in the middle of a field.” Those are the kind of directions I prefer, being a visual, that’s pretty much how I roll.

So in this recap of my road trip, I’m not going to tell you what roads are the best, where to eat, where to sleep, what are the must-see’s, because, in all honesty, I pretty much winged it without any research whatsoever. I don’t know if I happened to hit the best route, or if it’s all gorgeous, or if you’re going to tell me “you should have gone this way.” I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, I did it exactly right. I was in Vermont, with free time and wheels, during peak fall season. And I ate some pretty fabulous food too.

So to quickly summarize the first day: From Burlington, I went south on 7, and at some point I drove through the (beautiful) campus of Middlebury College. Then I continued south on the 30, east on the 4, south on the 133 and west on the 140.

The further south I got and the later in the day it became, the more the trees were lit like fire, and I kept pulling over. The sky was summer blue, there were a few puffy white clouds, and really, it could have been a summer day had the trees been green.

The nearest town to my friend’s rural farm was Middleton Springs. Don’t ask me road names, there were back roads and dirt roads involved, but I found it before dark, which was my goal as there’s no wi-fi or cellphone service at her farm.

There was much to get done on the farm, as the first “freeze” was forecast for that night, and she would lose anything not yet harvested. The sun dipped behind the mountain, and the temperature dropped. She cooked a farm fresh dinner – beans, kale, herbs, stewed apples - everything grown right there except rice. It was cold, and she fed the wood-burning stove for heat. I bundled up and slept well. The next morning, I peered out the window and sure enough, white frost had covered the ground.

I desperately needed coffee, which she didn’t grow on the farm, and didn’t have on hand. Good thing I planned to set out early, as the nearest coffee would be at a Dunkin Donuts located 3 towns and 16 miles away. We scraped the ice crystals off the windshield, and I hit the road again, heading into Poultney, making a right at the intersection, and heading north to Castleton (hereafter referred to as “Dunkin Donuts Coffee Mecca”). May I just interrupt this post right now to say it’s true, what they say. Dunkin Donuts coffee IS better than Starbucks.

So with hot coffee in hand, I could relax and continue back north to Burlington, and then Stowe, where I would follow the rustic farm stay with a night of fine dining, luxury and comfort at TopNotch Resort. There, I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t do, almost. I wont say “you must stay here,” but I’m just going to say that I did and I loved everything about it.

Here are some favorite scenes from Day 1:

"Vermont in living color." - me

A photo posted by Kymri (@kymri) on

Here are some favorite scenes from Day 2:

"The best roads are the back roads." - me

Day 3 consisted of a drive through the scenic mountains of northern Vermont, to the border of Canada, and back to Stowe. While this day was a work assignment, most of which was spent behind the wheel driving the 2016 VW Passat, I did manage to take a few more pictures and videos.

Here are some favorite scenes from Day 3:

"Vermont has cured me of seasonal deprivation." - me

The greatest thing about my short notice long weekend trip was that I truly did get to experience all four seasons in a day, and that included a first snowfall of the season, which was nothing short of magical.

Be sure to check out my other Road Trips for Cameras:

Castles & Coastlines of Wales
Arizona's National Parks
California's Central Coast
Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore
Guysborough Galleries

This post is part of #IGTravelThursday, be sure to check out more of these wonderful visual travelers!