The kids had been bugging us for a while now to go back to Disney World. The last time we went , we took my oldest daughter, now in tenth grade, out of third grade for a week to enjoy a less crowded time in the park. My 11 year old son was five the last time we went, which actually was his third
time, but evenso, he barely remembers anything about our vacations there.
The problem lies in when to go. There is no way I am going to go across the country in the middle of the summer and fight crowds and heat and there is also no way that we can take the kids out of school for a week anymore. So February break was the option. I told the kids that this was an expensive trip and that there would be no skiing this year. They said 'fine.' That was the end of the discussion.
A trip to Disney World requires a lot of planning and a lot of advanced reservation. The hottest tickets in town fill up 180 days in advance. We are today about four months from the start date of our week long vacation and so far I have already experienced some shut down. So let's get to planning!!
Where to stay??
The big question with regards to where to stay is do I go Disney property or non-Disney property? Almost every guide book out there will advise you to stay on a Disney property. Staying on a Disney property does come with some advantages. Disney guests are admittedly closer to the parks, can avoid renting a car and parking fees with use of Disney's elaborate transportation system including to and from the airport, can have purchases delivered back to their hotels, and can take advantage of 'Extra Magic Hours,' which allow guests to enter the parks an hour earlier or stay an hour later than non Disney guests.
However, ladies and gentlemen, these are the hard facts. You are going to pay for your privileges.
Disney hotel rates are exorbitant, really, in a way that I can't imagine offsets renting a car for a week.
The absolute cheapest Disney accommodation you can get for the days we are going is $190.84 plus tax per night at Disney's Caribbean Resort. The All Star Music Resort was $300.84 plus tax. But far more common were rooms at the Contemporary, the Grand Floridian, Fort Wilderness, and Animal Kingdom Lodge for 5-7 hundred a night. And let me be perfectly clear--this is for a STANDARD room. All five of us are sleeping in one room. No microwave, no fridge, no plates or forks, nothing! 600 hundred dollars and I have to sleep in the same room with my kids--DREAM ON! Nothing is worth this--get with the program, people!
Even a campsite at the Fort Wilderness Campground is $92. That's NINETY TWO dollars!
So how do you really feel, Nadia?
OK well maybe it is obvious that we have never stayed onsite. The last three times we have been there we stayed at what was called the Horizons by Marriott, now called Marriott at Harbour Lake(link).
We rented the condo from a timeshare owner for about a thousand for the whole week through a website called redweek.com. The condo had two bedrooms and a fold out sofa, a full kitchen, a spacious living area, free parking, and a great pool with a waterpark and waterslide. It was only 15 minutes from the parks.
Since then the internet vacation rental market has grown considerably and it is quite easy to compare oodles of vacation rentals and hotel rooms with a few clicks on the laptop. Both VRBO and airbnb have plenty of accommodations for rent, at all price ranges. I found that typing in "Lake Buena Vista," the city in which Disney World is actually located, is better than typing in "Orlando." The cities of Kissimmee and Celebration are also nearby and have very reasonable accommodations.
At the risk of going on too long about accommodations, let me tell you what I got this time around. For a total of $1146, which includes all resort fees, a cleaning fee, and taxes, we are staying at the Blue Heron Beach Resort for seven nights. For about $164 a night we are getting a two BR two bath condo with a full kitchen. Every child has their own bed. The money we will save not having to eat breakfast out every morning will far cover the daily Disney parking fee of $20 daily, on the days we do not use their free shuttle. The condo has a balcony overlooking Disney Springs, formerly called Downtown Disney, from which can be viewed the nightly fireworks at both Epcot and Magic Kingdom. Also included are parking and wifi. Is it luxury? No, but it's clean and spacious, and a reasonable value for what we are getting.
Our off site hotel really wasn't so bad!!
Building an Itinerary
The next thing you need to do is build yourself an itinerary for the length of your stay. Hopefully, you will stay at least seven nights, which will allow you to visit all the parks once, have an extra day in one of the larger parks, and either a day off to enjoy Universal or a water park, or an additional extra day in another park.
The itinerary allows you to decide which parks you want to enjoy on what day. This will be critical when making your dining reservations, which you will want to do as soon as possible.
This time we have decided to spend two days in the Magic Kingdom, two in Epcot, and one each in both Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios. On the night with early-ish closures, like 5 pm at Animal Kingdom and 7pm at DHS, we can chose to attend a night event, like Hoop de Doo Revue or Mickey's Backyard BBQ, visit Disney Springs and catch the late offering of Cirque Du Soleil's La Nouba, or have dinner in one of the many Disney property restaurants. Hey, just cuz we're not staying there doesn't mean we can't EAT there!
We also tend to not schedule our days in certain parks the same day as Disney guests have Extra Magic Hours. We feel like these parks would be more crowded on these days.
If you have fewer days, you may choose to buy park hoppers rather thank single park tickets. Hoppers will allow you to go to more than one park in a day, so after you day concludes at 5 pm at Animal Kingdom, you can go over to Magic Kingdom and have dinner and enjoy the night activities. Hoppers are considerably more expensive than single park tickets. For example, a 6 day park hopper is XXX while a 6 day single park pass is $325 plus tax. Once again, I hardly think a hopper is worth it. Most Disney sites advise that is takes 90 minutes to transport between parks. What a waste of time. With a good itinerary you will make the most of your park and non-park hours. Save your money and your time. Needless to say, this time we will not be buying park hoppers, as we did not the last three times we went.
Where to eat?
Though eating may seem to be a simple venture, at Disney World it most certainly is not. I cannot tell you the exact number, but between the four theme parks, Disney Springs and all the Disney hotels, there are eating experiences of every style imaginable, character or not character (and which characters!), in a castle, on a boat, near a river, with a show, buffet, family style, all ethnicities--you name it!
There are two main types of eating experience in Disney World--quick service and table service. Table service restaurants you are going to need to reserve in advance. Reservations can be made online at disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/ for all table service restaurants up to 180 days in advance. Let me say thank God for the online reservations. The first time we went was about ten years ago. At that time you made your reservations by phone up to 90 days in advance. The hottest restaurants, namely Cinderella's Royal Table--a breakfast experience seriously IN Cinderella's castle, filled in an instant. For ten days, I got up at 7am EST (that means I got up at 4am) and got on the telephone to WDW. I learned to push the buttons in the right order and after 2 or 3 attempts finally got through before the reservations were full. Thank goodness those days are over! However, now that reservations are available 180 days in advance, to the planner go the spoils!
We are total planners, but as I told you, we had our itinerary together about four months in advance, which already left me shut out of some the hottest dining venues at times we wanted. The new restaurant in Belle's Castle in new Fantasyland, Be Our Guest, was full for dinner on a Monday night (or any night for that matter) so we opted for lunch. The only reservation we could get on Wednesday at California Grill in the Contemporary was 9:15 pm. I was also shut out of early breakfast at 1900 Park Fare on Sunday morning and Ohana at the Polynesian Sunday night. We are going to Ohana for a Lilo and Stitch character breakfast instead Sunday morning and we got all the other reservations we wanted..but you get the picture..the restaurants fill.
You can test your luck by stopping into Guest Relations at any theme park and trying to get same day reservations at any place. I have done this. In this case you better not be too picky..the restaurants available are not in high demand.
Anyway, we have done a lot of eating at Disney World, and these are some of our favorites:
The Contemporary Hotel: Chef Mickeys and California Grill
The Polynesian Hotel: Ohana
Fort Wilderness: Hoop de doo Revue and Mickey's Backyard BBQ
Animal Kingdom Lodge: Boma
Magic Kingdom: Cinderella's Royal Table and Crystal Palace
Disney's Hollywood Studios: Hollywood Brown Derby
I must throw in here that, though we have never used it, the Disney Dining Plan is wildly popular and has greatly increased the number of guests actually making reservations to eat. The Disney Dining plan allows for a certain amount of eating experience daily as part of your ticket, like one quick service, one table service, and 2 snacks per person. Apparently the plan DOES save money I am told, if you eat all the food. This is too much food for our family, and too much time spent eating. Another issue is that some of the nicer table service venues, like Cinderella's Royal Table and Hoop de Doo Revue, require TWO credits, so on a six day pass you can only relax in a nice restaurant three times. Anyway, we always choose to just book one nice (meaning two credits) meal every day and then pack our own snacks and make do, so the dining plan was not worth our while.
Eating at Crystal Palace with Pooh and friends
Breakfast at Cinderella's Royal Table on Ally's
5th birthday was worth it
Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary is fun too!
Booking Fast Passes:
A new program at Walt Disney World is the ability to book fast passes ahead of arriving at the park. I have not experienced this yet but I will try to explain it as best as I can.
The program is called Fast Pass+ . As soon as you get your ticket and it is 60 days in advance if you are staying on-site and 30 days in advance if you are staying off site, you can start reserving your fast passes for the days you are there. There is an app for your phone called My Disney Experience from which you can manage all your Fast passes (and dining reservations). You are allowed to book three fast passes in advance. I guess after you use them, you can get more and more one at a time until supply for the day runs out. Magic Kingdom literally has fast pass available for almost every ride-including Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan's Flight, and Dumbo. Also included are some weird ones, like fast passes for saying hello to Anna and Elsa. What? Anyway, I guess they have expanded the availability so that all experiences are options, not just the thrill rides. DHS and Epcot have two tiers of fast passes and you can only reserve one from the first tier in advance.
Quite frankly I cannot tell if this is going to be good or bad for us. We are organized so you can bet we will be reserving as soon as we can, but since we are staying off site, will the fast passes for all the rides we love be gone? In addition, it's something new we have to learn--ugh. Gosh, I just liked fast pass the old way.
Anyway, it's a Disney gimmick at its best. Everyone knows to enjoy Disney you need to use fast pass, and now to reserve your fast passes have to buy your non-refundable tickets 60 plus days in advance. It is going to cost us over $1700 to buy tickets for our family--we are going to need to be 100% committed to going when we buy tickets. Even if the unthinkable comes up and you wind up never going on your trip, Disney has your money.
Well that is it! I'll let you know how the Fast Pass thing turns out! In the meantime, we will head to Disneyland to visit during the Christmas season for the third year in a row! I've been meaning to write for three years about it! Let's see what happens!!
And now for some pictures!!
Me and my cute (and very young) family visiting with Mickey and Minnie at Epcot circa 2007
Epcot at night is beautiful, as are all Disney parks
At Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom
Who hasn't taken this family photo??