February 5, 2013

Disney Planning for Newbies


This past November our family went to Disney World for the first time and it was spectacular. Here are a few planning tips and suggestions that helped make our Disney vacation a trip of a lifetime.


The Disney website is a great place to start. The site has lots of great info like where to stay, attractions, where to eat, park pass options, a Planning Centre, etc. There's a lot to consider and it can feel overwhelming but don't panic! Here's the process broken down for you.

1. Pick your dates: based on your availability, seat sales (flights) and possibly free dining. We bumped our trip back a few days in order to take advantage of free dining when it was offered. You can read about that option here. Essentially, your dining plan is included if you stay on site and also buy a minimum of a 2-day park pass during "Free Dining" periods.

2. Decide where to stay: If you decide to stay on site you can opt into the meal plan (paid or free depending when you go), your transportation to Downtown Disney and to all of the parks is included as well. The shuttle buses come every few minutes all day/night long and you can cruise from park to resort to another park etc. as they all connect. There are several levels of accommodation to choose from: Value, Moderate, Deluxe. We stayed in a value resort (the least expensive) called Pop Century and we thought it was great! Clean, good cafeteria, friendly staff and lots to do at the hotel for kids.


If you're staying on site, you'll get Complimentary Airport Pickup and Return. Disney's Magical Express Service picks you up at Orlando International Airport and takes you to your Disney Resort hotel. In addition, the service lets you bypass baggage claim and have your bags delivered to your Disney Resort hotel room.

3. Plan which parks to visit and when: Of course there's no bad time to go to Disney. Hello, it's Disney, but in order to avoid the long line-ups and in an attempt to get the most out of your visit, it's important to plan which parks you'll visit on which days. Once you plan where you'll be and when, make a short itinerary for each day which includes where you plan to eat at each park and which rides have the longest lines. Get to the park early and hit those first (either line up or grab a FastPass). Lines tend to be shorter closer to park closing as well.

Rides with the longest lines by park:

Animal Kingdom
Expedition Everest
Kilimanjaro Safari
  
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Hollywood Tower of Terror (our favourite ride of all!)
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster
Toy Story Mania

Epcot

Mission Space
Soarin'
Test Track

Magic Kingdom
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Buzz Lightyear's Ranger Spin
Dumbo
Jungle Cruise 
Peter Pan's Flight
Space Mountain
Splash Mountain 

FantasyLand has now opened at MK. It looks amazing!

*Research the height restrictions for the rides to avoid wasting time lining up for those your littlest ones can't get on. You can find that info here.




4. What to eat: This can be the most confusing part of the planning and the sooner you make reservations and get this part organized the better. Make all dining resos online here 

We did a character buffet late lunch at MK at the Crystal Palace and it was fabulous.

We were happy with the free dining plan. This is essentially the set dining plan but for the time we were there, it was included. The dining plan includes daily per person:

  • 1 Quick Serve (think fast food/cafeteria) 
  • 1 Sit Down (think real restaurant or all-u-can-eat buffet and some have "Character Meals." This means while you dine, Disney characters rotate through the dining room, stopping briefly at your table to chat...ahem, mime, because they don't speak...and sign autographs) 
  • 1 Snack. Snacks are rather eclectic. These can include souvenirs like giant lolly pops, a bowl of oatmeal in the quick serve dining room, an ice cream bar and many other things. You can ask for a list of what is considered to be a snack at your hotel's front desk.
Since you only get two big meals a day, it's a great idea to keep and assortment of breakfast foods in your hotel room e.g. juice boxes, muffins, bread and peanut butter, bananas. We didn't have a fridge or microwave in our value hotel so items we could keep fresh were limited. Also, you'll want to pack some of these things PRIOR to arriving at the hotel because there are no grocery stores, only the cafeterias which are expensive and without a car you're a captive audience. We flew out of Buffalo (and saved several hundred dollars this way) so packing a few food items–and wish I'd thought of it but didn't...a tetra pack or two of wine–in your luggage is permitted as we didn't have to cross the border.

5. Coordinate park visits and restaurants: Once you figure out which parks you'll be visiting each day, book the restaurants. Use an Excel spreadsheet and make a chart. It sounds over-kill, but it really helps keep it all organized. Don't forget to print a copy before you go otherwise your husband will spend an hour trying to find it on his phone in the hotel, cursing and saying all kinds of very un-magical things while he tries to remember where we're eating dinner on our first night. I put the man in charge of one thing... Anyway, let's say you're spending a day at Animal Kingdom. You could book your daily sit down meal at Tuskar's restaurant/buffet inside the park (GREAT food and it's a fun character meal with Mickey and the gang). And because this restaurant opens before the actual park does, we were in the park before the crowds! We ate a late quick serve lunch at The Flame Tree BBQ (really tasty) and then had a light snack back at the hotel before bed (this was a combo of snack credits and cash).

6. Fast Pass: This is fantastic and the best way to avoid lining up! Read this dad's description about how the Fast Passes work

7. Fun things to do: 
  • Horse drawn carriage ride across the Magic Kingdom (free) 
  • Parades–you have to see at least one, the same goes for fireworks though we missed them all due to a sleepy six year old... 
  • Resort hop. You can use your keycard to access any of the hotels on site so if you tire of your hotel and want to explore. For example, if you'd like to watch the MK fireworks but you don't have a park pass for that evening, you can relax on the Polynesian Resort beach and catch them from there.
8. How do you pay? When you check in, each family member is given a card which acts as your room key, park pass, it keeps tabs on meals redeemed and you can make purchases with it in any of the stores, parks or restaurants. Cha-ching!

9. Final tips:
  • Bring autograph books to bring along to all the parks with you. I like the ones that also have photo pages so you can insert trip photos later to make a Disney Vacay scrapbook.


  • Don't feel like you have to go to a park every day. We saved a day to lie by the pool all morning and then spent the afternoon and evening wandering around, watching performers, shopping and dining in Downtown Disney.
  • It rains a lot in FLA but don't let a little rain keep you away from the parks. In fact, lines are shorter on rainy days. Pack or purchase a poncho and have at it! 
  • Hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, water bottles (we used the unlimited refills mugs from the hotel's dining plan....filled with coffee in the morning, rinsed and then filled with water all day) wipes and snacks and a backpack to carry it all in.

  • There is absolutely no way you'll be able to do everything in one holiday. There is so much to do at Disney you'd need months to cover it all. So relax, enjoy each moment as it comes, and know that if you miss a parade or an autograph signing or a certain ride or anything you imagined yourself doing, you can do it next time!

Have you been to Disney? Do you have any tips you wish you had known before you went?


* Thanks to my brilliant friend Kyle for sharing his tried and true tips and for guiding us through the planning process. Kyle, you deserve a pair of gold Mickey ears. 


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