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Kizyr

MAGFest - Guide to the National Harbor (updated for MAG XIV/2016)

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FEBRUARY 17, 2016 - THIS LIST IS NOW UPDATED FOR MAGFEST XIV/2016

Since 2012, I've been making and updating this guide for the Gaylord Hotel and National Harbor area for all MAGFest attendees. It's another year, another MAG, and another update.

As always, if anyone has suggestions to add here, just post and I'll update. If anyone wants to make plans, then I'm game (or just do the GroupMe app - check the MAGFest thread for details).

 

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GENERAL INFO:
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HOTEL/AREA

The Gaylord Resort is gorgeous. The Atrium, Hotel, and Convention Center are all connected, and the overflow hotels are just 1-2 blocks away. In The Atrium there are several shops and restaurants, though most are high-end (Old Hickory, Moon Bay), have bad food (National Pastime), or are coffee (The Cocoa Bean). You're usually better off walking a few blocks west for food/supplies.

The area was planned, so most everything is 2-5 blocks away, and there are maps everywhere. There are plenty of shops and restaurants (more on that below). The only unfortunate thing is that it's geared towards tourists, so many options are expensive. I'll give some suggestions for different budgets down below.

As for the hotel: budget an hour to check in, an hour to check out, and an hour to leave the parking garage (seriously: 2013 was a mess). Also, make sure you're in the right line, 'cause you'll be pissed if you spent an hour waiting for check-in just to find out you're getting tickets for Shrek on Ice instead.

PARKING

If you have a hotel, stick with parking for that hotel. That will normally be your best and cheapest option.

If you're driving in each day, the public garages aroud the harbor are $16/day or $11/day (they're funny about what they charge when you leave after 8pm). Be careful! There's a flat $11 rate if you come in after 8pm regardless of how long you're there (so if you leave and come back after 8pm, you may have to pay $11 twice).

Lastly, don't bother with street parking. Meters are only good for 2 hours and they enforce them 24 hours.

TRANSPORT

If you're not driving, the best way to get to the area is by (1) taking the Green Line to the Branch Ave metro station (link), and (2) taking the NH1 bus to the National Harbor (schedule PDF). If you're coming back, you can take the same way, but the buses stop running before 11pm. You should look into connecting with other con-goers to see if you can catch a ride, or take a cab to a more convenient metro (check schedules to make sure the trains are still running).

The airport shuttle from DCA to Gaylord costs $19, by the way.

EATING

I have specific restaurant lists below, but here's a brief rundown of what you should know:
- For breakfast, there aren't a lot of good inexpensive options. You're usually better off buying some cereal, granola bars, fruit, etc..
- For lunch/dinner, a lot of the restaurants get very crowded at peak hours (Nando's, Elevation Burger, and Rosa Mexicano especially). Try off-peak hours and check what restaurants are open real late.
- For the budget-conscious, there are a few inexpensive options I've highlighted below. But also consider ways you can bring in your own food (like breakfast) or buying at some of the stores around (like Potomac Gourmet or CVS).
- Drink lots of water. Even if it's cold, you need water.

 

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RESTAURANTS:
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There're plenty of restaurants in the area. I've checked out nearly all of the ones over the years that might be more appealing to MAGFest-goers.

THE SHORT LISTS:

Recommended (starting with the best):
- Nando's Peri-Peri
- Elevation Burger
- Fiorella
- Granite City Food & Brewery
- Rosa Mexicano
- Succotash

On the cheap (starting with the cheapest):
- Subway
- Potbelly Sandwich Works
- Nando's Peri-Peri
- Potomac Gourmet Market (for ready-made soups/sandwiches)

Breakfast options (starting with the morningest):
- Harbor Coffee
- Potomac Gourmet Market (for ready-made soups/sandwiches)
- Subway

Dessert options (starting with the sweetest):
- SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier
- Pinkberry
- Ben & Jerry's

THE CHANGE LOG:

Here are some of the places that have disappeared in the last 2 years:
- Baja Fresh
- Freshii
- Nature's Table
- Ketchup
- ChiDog O's
- Cake Love

Here are some of the places that are new in the last 2 years:
- Granite City Food & Brewery (replaced construction)
- Succotash (replaced Baja Fresh and Freshii)
- Crab Cake Cafe (replaced ChiDog O's)
- Walrus Oyster and Grille (replaced Ketchup)
- Redstone American Grill (replaced empty lot)

THE LONG LIST:

I've divided this into 3 sections: (1) breakfast/lunch/dinner places, (2) coffee/dessert places, and (3) places to cross off the list. They're roughly in order of best-to-middling, though I try to balance quality with cost. Also, where I can, I've marked the cost (from $=$10/person to $$$$=$40/person) and my own subjective assessment (from 1/4 to 4/4).

(1) For breakfast/lunch/dinner:

Nando's Peri-Peri ($, 5/4)
PROS:
Everything! It's inexpensive ($8-$12, generally, no tipping needed). The food is delicious. The chicken is legendary. The vegetarian options are good. Even when it's crowded, you get a seat quicker than most other places.
CONS: It can get a little crowded and noisy at night, sometimes. Yet they still manage to be faster at seating you than other places.
(Most people who know me know I'm a huge Nando's fan and advocate. I usually go to a Nando's once a week on average. It's just that good.)

Fiorella Pizzeria E Caffe ($$, 3/4)
PROS:
Moderately priced and pretty decent Italian/Pizza place (even for someone like me who isn't big on Italian food). They're also very good with seating large groups (when they have room, of course, so calling ahead wouldn't hurt).
CONS: Desserts are a little subpar. Also OCR word has it that there's a surcharge for sharing pizzas, though I don't know if they still do that (it's worth asking before ordering one).
(Good option if you're in the mood for Italian, and don't mind walking down to the harbor area.)

Elevation Burger ($, 3/4)
PROS:
The burgers are good, it's cheap ($5-$10), and the vegetarian & vegan burgers are both good.
CONS: This can get extremely crowded. Also, the burgers alone are kind of small -- get a side dish, a milkshake, or something on the side; there's also not much sitting room inside.
(Good option for lunch if it's not too crowded. Take my advice and get a side dish with your order though.)

Granite City Food & Brewery ($$, 3/4) [NEW!]
PROS:
Relatively inexpensive ($15-20), good food, and plenty of seating areas to accommodate larger groups. This is also open pretty late ('til 11pm Thursday, 'til 12am Friday-Saturday).
CONS: Not much, actually. (Since this is new, I can't say how crowded it will get come MAGFest.)
(New restaurant that has typical American fare. Main thing that sets it apart also is how late it's open.)

Potomac Gourmet ($, 2/4)
PROS:
This is a grocery store, but they have some to-go soup and pre-packaged sandwiches, generally for under $7 for a quick lunch. Fresh fruits/veg, also.
CONS: It's just a grocery store, not a restaurant, but it's a good option for a quick meal.
(This is the best place if you're in a hurry. If you're getting groceries here it's not very cheap, but the ready-made lunch options are actually less expensive than most other places in the area for lunch.)

Succotash ($$$, 4/4) [NEW!]
PROS:
Great southern restaurant (like, Louisiana-to-South Carolina) and very generous portions, especially with the side dishes.
CONS: Rather expensive ($20-30). The main reason it's this high on the list is because the portions are generous enough to make this a decent value.
(I rate this highly because of my fondness for southern food, and the portion size is another plus. The fries, succotash, and anything fried is good; skip the watermelon and peanuts though.)

Rosa Mexicano ($$$, 4/4)
PROS:
Absolutely fantastic food (and you really should get the guacamole if you're going to come here). You will be very full after eating here, so you may as well go in the early afternoon and eat a full three course meal and skip dinner -- it's worth it, if you ask me.
CONS: It's definitely not cheap. It can also get crowded, especially at night, and it may take up to 2 hours to get a table without a reservation.
(This place is my favorite for high-quality Mexican food. Also the portions are generous; after eating lunch here I end up skipping dinner... However, the price and long wait rule it out for most people.)

Harrington's Pub & Kitchen ($$, 2/4)
PROS:
Overall, I think the food is a bit above-average compared to most Irish pubs. Entrees are a little pricey but the sandwiches are good and moderately priced (like $12-$16 usually).
CONS: Aside from some of the entrees being pricey, not many cons. They sometimes have live music, but the place is large enough to where you can sit pretty far away if you're not interested.
(Okay option if you prefer pub food.)

Crab Cake Cafe ($$, 2/4)
PROS:
Well, it has Maryland Crab Cakes. Those are always good.
CONS: If I wanted to spend $14 on a sandwich, I'd just go to one of the other sit-down restaurants. (The prices aren't listed in the window, but the vegetarian sandwich is $11 and the crab cakes are all $13-14.)
(Only good if you really want some crab cakes. Otherwise, no reason to go.)

Potbelly Sandwich Works ($)
PROS:
Inexpensive but filling sandwiches. And I've always liked their milkshakes. They're also usually good about handling the lunch rush.
CONS: The line will go out the door at lunch, and there won't be any place inside to sit unless you're lucky. Though, they do get through the line at a good pace.

Subway ($)
PROS:
...it's Subway.
CONS: ...it's Subway.

McDonald's ($)
PROS:
...it's McDonald's. 
CONS: ...it's McDonald's. It's also all the way out in the gas station near the National Harbor entrance, so you probably won't want to walk all the way there in the winter.

Bobby McKey's ($$$)
(Haven't been here.) Open late and sandwiches look moderately priced, but everything else looks pricey.

Cadillac Ranch ($$$)
(Haven't been here.) Open late and sandwiches look moderately priced, but everything else looks pricey and the Yelp reviews aren't great. They do have a mechanical bull, though.

Public House ($$$)
(Haven't been here.) Sandwiches are moderately priced, entrees are expensive though. It gets very crowded on weekends. Yelp reviews aren't great, but it could be worth a try?

Redstone ($$$, 3/4)
(I haven't been here, so I'm going to quote OA's review)
<OA> PROS: Rotisserie chicken, buffalo shrimp, typically a lot of rich cougars on the prowl.
<OA> CONS: It is really spendy, the ones in MN are probably better ;-)
<OA> A 'casual' restaurant for rich people where they are super meticulous about service. The chicken is amazing, and the buffalo shrimp are incredible. The prices are really high, and I've never heard of having a Cheeky Redstone. Better off with Nando's, IMO.

National Pastime Sports Bar & Grill (in the hotel) ($$, 1/4)
PROS:
They have TVs.
CONS: The food is overpriced and really not good.
(Only saving grace is it was a place to watch playoffs back when MAGFest was in January. But if by some miracle they're showing any cricket matches here, give me a call.)

(2) For coffee/dessert

SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier (¢¢, 5/4)
As a chocolate lover, SPAGnVOLA is one of my favorite chocolatiers, second only to Lindt. The hot chocolate, gelato, and pretty much everything else here is delicious (mind you, some of the treats like bonbons/truffles are pricey, but the coffee, gelato, and hot chocolate are all reasonable).

The Coffee Bean (in the hotel) (¢, 2/4)
It's good to go for a quick coffee fix. It's in the hotel, so the location is convenient, and the prices are about the same as any other coffee shop. But the coffee is average; Harbor Coffee is a bit better.

Harbor Coffee (¢, 3/4)
Good coffee, and the same price as any other place. It's about 2-3 blocks from the hotel, as opposed to in the hotel -- that's the only down-side.

Pinkberry (¢, 3/4)
Delicious frozen yogurt with toppings. They also claim to be open late (allegedly until 12am on Saturdays).

The Peeps Store  (¢, n/a)
It's Peeps. Where else are you gonna find an entire store devoted to these marshmallow chicks? They have other merchandise too.

Ben & Jerry's (¢, 2/4)
...It's Ice Cream. It's not Nice Cream, but it's still ok.

(3) Probably should avoid

McCormick & Schmick's ($$$$, 4/4)
The food is actually very good, but it's very expensive. I don't think many folks came here to drop that kind of cash.

McLoone's Pier House ($$$$, 4/4)
Like McCormick, the food here is also very good, yet very expensive.

Grace's Mandarin ($$$$, -1/4)
The food is overpriced and comes in small portions, the decorations are gaudy, and the waitresses dress like a cross between P. F. Chang's and Hooters.

Thai Pavilion ($$, 1/4)
For a Thai restaurant, the food is a bit below-average yet the prices are above-average. There was also just one vegetarian option the last time I saw. I'd pass.

Old Hickory Steakhouse (in the hotel)
Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine (in the hotel)
Pienza Italian Market (in the hotel)
Bond 45
Sauciety

(Haven't been to any of these places) I can't speak to the quality of any of these places -- some of them even look quite good -- but the prices are very high and I don't think anyone came to drop that kind of money here.

 

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CHALLENGE MODES:
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Below is a specific strategy guide for some players who are looking for a challenge, whether out of necessity or... well, usually necessity.

VEGETARIAN MODE:

Fortunately the DC area is pretty friendly to vegetarians, so you have plenty of good options among most of the places I listed above. I'll list out the best places for vegetarians and strats to keep in mind at each.

Nando's Peri-Peri: Has many vegetarian options -- the halloumi cheese wrap, roasted vegetable wrap, veggie burger, and all of the sides, are good for this. You're definitely not missing out by just going vegetarian here.
Elevation Burger: Their vegetarian and vegan burgers are pretty good, and if you're fine with dairy then you can still get their shakes.
Rosa Mexicano: They have a specific vegetarian menu. When you sit down, ask for that -- it'll give you more options than you may see on the normal menu.
Succotash: There are fewer vegetarian options here, but still enough, and they clearly label which items are vegetarian or vegan on the lunch and dinner menus.
Fiorella: There are several vegetarian options as long as you're fine with cheese.
Subway: Well, if you're running out of options, you can always get the veggie sandwich at Subway. I'm always suspicious of their veggie patties though.

VEGAN MODE:

The DC area is also relatively friendly to vegans, though understandably your options will be more limited than vegetarians. But! You'll still have plenty of options here.

Nando's Peri-Peri: The only good vegan options are the roasted vegetable wrap and butternut squash salad, plus most of the sides. Mind you, those are all still really good, so you're not missing out by joining us for a Nando's run.
Elevation Burger: Their vegan burger is good. However, make sure you are specific that you don't want any cheese on it (I've actually had this problem at other Elevation Burgers).
Rosa Mexicano: Similar as the vegetarian mode, ask for a vegetarian menu when you sit down -- you'll have way more options. Many (though not all) of the items on there can also be made without cheese upon request.
Succotash: There aren't many vegan main dishes, but most of the side dishes (which have generous portions) are vegan. The menu clearly specifies what is vegetarian or vegan, too.
Fiorella: There are fewer options here -- mostly just pasta and sauce, or some custom orders without cheese, but I haven't tried either so I can't vouch for quality there.
Subway: ...and when in doubt, there's still Subway.

CHEAPSKATE MODE:

So you want to get through spending as little on food as possible? Well, that involves a little bit of a different strategy. The short version is that you should make a grocery run before you get to MAGFest, and just store what you need in the mini-fridge for breakfast and lunch, and eat out for dinner. Prioritize fruits, ditch the junk food, and drink plenty of water.

So here are some specifics:
(1) Breakfast: Pack some cereal, milk, and disposable bowls/spoons; OR some granola bars (...not the kind that are no better than candy); OR some fruit like bananas and apples. Don't skip breakfast -- you just end up hungrier and more tired.
(2) Lunch: A bit more of a challenge, but you can tide yourself over with other things you've packed or stocked up on beforehand. Fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, etc.), peanut butter crackers, granola bars, yogurt, etc., can help you last until dinner. And drink lots of water.
(3) Dinner: Unless you plan on bringing like a portable hotplate (...honestly this is a bad idea unless you have a lot of room, like in the suites, and even then really know what you're doing), allow yourself to eat out for dinner. The best low-cost options are Nando's, Potbelly, Subway, and Potomac Gourmet.
(4) Other: Drink lots of water. Yes I know I keep repeating this, but it keeps you from getting too hungry, and makes it less likely you'll get sick. Also, if you run low on anything, CVS and Potomac Gourmet should have what you need to restock.

HEALTHY MODE:

...um... ...I'm not good at this one... OA would give better advice here.

 

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OTHER PLACES:
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Not many folks going to MAG are planning on shopping, but there are a few things around that you might want to be aware of.

CVS
There's a CVS right across from Nando's Peri-Peri, if you need to grab anything you couldn't pack on your way in.

Urgent Care
There's an urgent care clinic just up from CVS (from the hotel, turn right around the corner of the CVS). Just keep this in mind in case you catch MAGFlu and need to check in.

Potomac Gourmet
This is a small upscale grocery store. Fruits/veg, packaged food, soup and sandwiches, that kind of thing, you can stock up on here. The price is slightly above-average, but not bad unless you plan on doing a month's worth of shopping here. I prefer just having the soups/sandwiches if I need a quick lunch from here (you can get an ok lunch for under $7 from here).

Stonewall Kitchen
This is not a place for buying food. It's just a cookware place (like Dean & Deluca or Sur La Table).

Bubble Bounce
This is not a restaurant. It is an indoor playground where you can drop off your kids. For some reason the National Harbor guide lists it under their restaurants on some maps. Don't be fooled unless you want an uncomfortable conversation.

Capital Teas
And this is a tea store I really don't like. The tea is of really poor quality yet they charge a ton for it.

The Awakening
Baja Fresh, Freshii, and Nature's Table are gone, but this thing is still here...
The_Awakening_by_J._Seward_Johnson.jpg

zykO and Moguta like this

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Any advice for Metro riders (I won't be there, but want to be next year)?

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Thanks Kizyr! This is a really good idea. I would also like to say that I've been to Ketchup. You can order a thing of fries with 5 different varieties of ketchup. There must have been something vegetarian there, probably like a veggie burger, since I ate there.

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Any advice for Metro riders (I won't be there, but want to be next year)?

That depends entirely on what you're trying to do with the Metro. Do you want to visit DC or something while you'd be here?

The closest metro stop to the harbor is Branch Ave. on the green line. The NH1 bus runs from the station to the harbor every 30 minutes from 8am to about 10pm.

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Much appreciated.

Are there any convenience / grocery stores in the immediate vicinity (reasonable walking distance) of the hotel? I'm flying down, and I've got a busy schedule in the days before, so I probably won't be able to pick up what I need before leaving. (I'm moving half way across Canada literally less than 24 hours before I fly out for MAGFest... 8-O)

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Much appreciated.

Are there any convenience / grocery stores in the immediate vicinity (reasonable walking distance) of the hotel? I'm flying down, and I've got a busy schedule in the days before, so I probably won't be able to pick up what I need before leaving. (I'm moving half way across Canada literally less than 24 hours before I fly out for MAGFest... 8-O)

A quick search on Google Maps brought up a place called Potomac Gourmet - that work for you?

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Awesome rundown of the food places, can't wait to eat some things and hang out with friends! :D

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Any advice for Metro riders (I won't be there, but want to be next year)?

As Arrow mentioned, the metro way to get there is by going to the Branch Ave metrorail station, and taking the NH1 metrobus to the National Harbor. However due to the schedules at MAGFest, you'll probably want to stay well past the time that the buses stop running. For the ride there, Metro'll be fine; but for the ride back, you may want to connect with some folks who are driving to get a ride from them (or just get a room if it's in your budget?).

I'll add that info up top.

Are there any convenience / grocery stores in the immediate vicinity (reasonable walking distance) of the hotel?

No worries; there are several. There's a big CVS right across from Nando's Peri-Peri. There's also Potomac Gourmet diagonally from there, which is an upscale small grocery store with prices only slightly above average.

I'll add notes on that up top, too.

Thanks Kizyr! This is a really good idea. I would also like to say that I've been to Ketchup. You can order a thing of fries with 5 different varieties of ketchup.

I kind of dismissed the place a little early, but now that you mention it I'm curious to try it out. From the looks/prices it seemed like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a burger joint or an upscale place and ended up splitting the difference... KF

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Thank you Kizyr! I'm looking forward to this!!

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Just so you all know, the Cadillac Ranch has a mechanical bull I hope I do not need to tell you guys that this is awesome. I have not looked at the prices for this place, but seriously, I want to get a group together and put this bull to the test.

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What are good breakfast options Kaiser?

Also wow there's a place called Cakelove.

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Also wow there's a place called Cakelove.

Cakelove is awesome! They have indiv. cupcakes and cake slices as well as whole cakes, so it's a nice place to go for dessert. They also have vegan cupcakes! But I think they're only OK. The regular cakes and cupcakes are really good (and I'm guessing that's pretty much all everyone else will care about).

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So wait, to be clear, they don't have parking at the hotel - we have to find a garage nearby?

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They DO have parking at the hotel. It's $21 a day according to my room reservation e-mail, unfortunately. Of course, compared to the overcharges you'll get for leaving your car in a nearby $11 garage for 96 hours straight, it's probably the better option.

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So I was looking at restaurants too, and noticed this tidbit about Fiorella Pizzeria:

"Beware of the sharing pizza tax. If you split a 18" pizza with your mate, expect to pay an additional $12 just to share the pizza. You are better off buying two 12" pizza's."

Not sure if it's true as the menu does say 18" to share but it's worth keeping in the back of your head.

There's also a Ben & Jerry's right near the Potbelly & apparently a Godiva.

The hotel also has a steakhouse but boy does it look expensive.

Edited by Bahamut

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"Beware of the sharing pizza tax. If you split a 18" pizza with your mate, expect to pay an additional $12 just to share the pizza. You are better off buying two 12" pizza's."

What the hell? Who's gonna eat a 18" pizza by themself?

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They DO have parking at the hotel. It's $21 a day according to my room reservation e-mail, unfortunately. Of course, compared to the overcharges you'll get for leaving your car in a nearby $11 garage for 96 hours straight, it's probably the better option.

Wait, wait... I thought the parking was $11 a day. I hope someone might clarify this for us.

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Wait, wait... I thought the parking was $11 a day. I hope someone might clarify this for us.

The hotel has its own garage which is very expensive. The Harbor area has individual parking garages that are $11 a day. For Katsucon, we were able to park with no problem at the garage right across the street from the hotel, which was a five minute walk (if that). I'm definitely planning on leaving my car in one of the regular garages, unless there are penalties for leaving your car overnight.

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I read to "good gelato" and stopped, happy. :P

Thanks for the writeup, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone soon!

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Ok, I've added some more info to the top post to answer a few questions (to the best of my ability).

First, the questions that haven't been asked that I'm realizing now:

- The Gaylord Hotel can get super crowded at times with a lot of people checking in and out. The last few days have had a lot of activity, so you may want to budget a lot of time to be on the safe side for checking in and out.

- There are several restaurants inside the Gaylord Atrium (same building as the convention center), but most of them are kind of pricey. I can't vouch for the quality as I haven't tried any of them out.

- If you eat at Rosa Mexicano for lunch, you can probably skip dinner.

I've updated the first post with more info just on the hotel.

What are good breakfast options Kaiser?

Also wow there's a place called Cakelove.

I usually eat breakfast at home, but there are a few places in the area that seem good for it. Among them:

- Nature's Table

- Freshii

- Potomac Gourmet Market (they have ready-made soups/sandwiches)

- Subway also has breakfast

- A few restaurants inside the Gaylord Atrium may also serve breakfast

I've added a bit on the first post to list breakfast options.

I read to "good gelato" and stopped, happy. :P

Thanks for the writeup, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone soon!

And on that note, I've added a bit to the first post to list dessert options. To recap that, there's:

- Nature's Table (gelato)

- Ben & Jerry's

- CakeLove

- The Peeps Store

- Elevation Burger (milkshakes)

- Other places inside the hotel

So wait, to be clear, they don't have parking at the hotel - we have to find a garage nearby?

Arrow and Vinnie clarified this. I'll expand on it a bid.

If you have a hotel reservation, you're fine just leaving your car in whatever hotel's garage for all 3-4 days. There's also a MAGFest rate of $11/day at the Gaylord, but you'd have to check with MAG on that, I'm afraid.

I have no idea if there are any penalties for leaving a car in one of the non-hotel garages overnight.

Anyway, I made these revisions to the first post. Can't wait 'til Thursday! KF

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Ok, sorry for the double-post, but I wanted to point out this guy:

The_Awakening_by_J._Seward_Johnson.jpg

(Link to "The Awakening")

This is the statue that's at the National Harbor on the beach. I dunno about you folks, but it looks kind of... ridiculous. Given that, anyone want to try to take the most ridiculous photo with this guy? Y'know, someone falling into his mouth, that kind of thing.

I'm lousy with ideas. Maybe y'all can come up with something. KF

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So restaurants around the Harbor are expensive :shock: .

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Nature's Table turned out to be a great option for pickup since people tended to not go there compared to other places in the area.

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