Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Disney World Tips & Tricks

 Great tips & tricks if you're planning a Disney World vacation!  Includes info on hotels, dining plan, the planning process, and more.



For the past couple of weeks, I've been jotting down little notes on everything I wanted to say about the process of planning and going on a Disney trip.  It's really a lot more complex than you would initially think!  There's a lot to think about, but if you plan it the right way, it can be such a low-stress and fun trip.

My Planning Process

The process of planning this vacation started about a year ago.  I had two times of the year nailed down that I focused on: February 2015 and October 2015.  We initially thought about going in February because Emmie would still be 2 (so all meals and park admission would be free) and it is a slower time of the year.  Ultimately, we decided against it because we thought she'd just be too young to enjoy it (and we were right - I'm glad we waited).

Our initial trip was booked for October.  By total coincidence, the free dining plan days for the year were announced the same exact day we had to book our ADRs for the trip.  After a ton of checking by our travel agent and by me, we weren't able to find a room in our original hotel (one of the suites at Art of Animation) that fell under free dining for the last week of October.  So, we changed it to Caribbean Beach Resort for the second week of November.  Not a big deal, but we still would love to have stayed in our original room and been able to trick or treat at Disney!  I'm so glad we got to see the Christmas decorations though.

So from that point, I started planning dining.  For Disney, there are two big plans you have to make in advance - Advance Dining Reservations for table service meals (6 months from the first day of your stay) and Fastpasses for rides (60 days from the first day of your stay if you are staying on-site).  I planned meals first...really I just made a list of places we really wanted to go and matched the days up to when we would be in what park (I used touringplans.com to decide that...it's a great site that shows you how busy each park will be each day).  Then, at 5am our time 180 days before our trip, I was on the Disney website with my list of reservations that needed to be made!  I made the popular ones first (Chef Mickey's, Be Our Guest, Akershus, and O'hana) to make sure we got them.

From there, I used touringplans.com to make a schedule of our days.  You plug in the rides you'd like to do and what reservations you already have for dining, and it optimizes wait times/walking times to make the most efficient schedule possible.  Such an awesome site, I'd really recommend it.

So, at 60 days out, I looked at what was most popular for each day and made Fastpasses for those rides.  For the most part, it worked out...there were a few rides I had to move around so that we had 3 Fastpasses per day (the most you are allowed), but it worked really well.  Just make sure you get Anna and Elsa, Peter Pan's Flight, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train before anything else...they go the fastest!  Like I mentioned, there were no Anna and Elsa passes to be had even when I got on at 11pm 60 days before our trip (people that are staying on site can book all of the days of their trip on the first day, so they had already snatched them up)...check this site often to see if there is any availability, and just get them when you can!

A few recommendations when planning...
  • Group your rides together as much as possible.  If you do a touring plans subscription it should take care of this for you, but try to group rides that are close to each other together so you're not walking all over the park.  At Magic Kingdom, we did one day of just Fantasyland, one day of Adventureland/Frontierland, and one day of Tomorrowland (with a few exceptions).
  • Be flexible.  Rides are going to have longer wait times than expected, and your child is going to want to ride the same ride 10 times.  Don't get a schedule that's so rigid that you forget to have fun with it!  Same with fastpasses and ADRs...chances are you're not going to get everything to fit perfectly into the schedule you make.  That's ok - just adapt as needed.
  • Add in cushion time.  This is something I didn't do and probably should have.  Don't book your schedule to the point where there is no flex room.  Like I said, wait times can vary and you don't want to be so structured that it isn't fun.
  • You won't get everything done you want to.  There is so, SO much to do at Disney...there's no way you can do every single thing you came to do.  There's always a next time, right? :) Just prioritize and make sure you get the big things done, and don't sweat the rest!

Our Resort

After the snafu with free dining, we changed from Art of Animation to Caribbean Beach Resort.  It really was great for our first time at Disney.  Nothing spectacular, but the rooms were exactly what we needed.  There is a huge pool area that is great for an off-day and there is also a fairly large restaurant area.  It is a massive resort.  If you're staying there and taking the bus, my #1 recommendation would be to request the Jamaica part...it's the first (of many) stops on the bus route, so you're almost guaranteed to get a seat (as opposed to standing for the whole ride to the park).

(I never took a decent picture of our room, but here's a link to what it looked like.  Another perk to the Jamaica rooms - they've all been recently renovated!)

If you're staying on site, it's worth looking into the many, many discounts Disney offers in the off seasons (around September through March).  You can get free dining like we did or you can usually find a decent discount on your room rate.  It really varies from family to family whether the dining or room discount is the better deal...do your homework and crunch the numbers to see what works best for you!  I know that, with the more expensive hotels, the room discount typically works out to be a better deal, but again...do your homework.  This is one of several reasons we went in the off season: the rooms are cheaper, there are better discounts, the parks are a little less crowded, and the weather is nicer.

Dining Plan

As I've mentioned several times, we were on the regular Disney Dining Plan.  This gave each of us one snack, one Quick Service (kind of like fast food), and one Table Service (sit-down meal) per day, but the credits can be used in any order or as frequently as you'd like (so, in theory, you could use them all in one day).

When I was crunching the numbers to see if the dining plan would financially work for us, I found this calculator that really helped.  You can put in where you're planning on eating each day and the calculator will tell you how much you'd pay out of pocket so you can compare to your dining plan cost.  When I calculated, what we realistically would have paid was about the same as the cost of the dining plan for us.  When I say realistically, I mean not buying a dessert with each meal, watching our costs, etc...not going "all out" like the dining plan lets you do.  So it really made sense for us to get the dining plan.  With it, we got a few extras that we probably wouldn't have splurged on otherwise (desserts with every meal, nicer dishes, and even a few nicer restaurants).  Plus, it made sure we didn't have to worry about costs and numbers during a vacation, which was a huge advantage to me!

I definitely would recommend the dining plan, especially if you can find a time of the year that offers free dining with your stay.  You can save a ton of money and treat yourself a little while on vacation!  I'd say the only disadvantage to the dining plan is that you'll end up with a TON of food.  So much that it almost felt wasteful at times...I'm just somebody that doesn't like wasting food, and there were several times where it just wasn't possible to take it with us (we were going to be in the park a few more hours or didn't have access to a fridge anytime soon).

Here's how our dining plan broke down.  When I say "3 credits" or "2 credits" on some meals, that's how many it took to feed all three of us, not each one individually.

Quick Service Restaurants
Wolfgang Puck in Downtown Disney (1 credit)
Earl of Sandwich in Downtown Disney (1 credit)
Casey's Corner (2 credits)
Pecos Bill's (1 credit)
Converted 2 credits to 6 snack credits to use at Epcot's Food and Wine Festival (You can do this as long as you use all 3 snack credits from 1 quick service at once, in one place. I'm not sure if it's available everywhere.)
Pizza Planet (3 credits)
Columbia Harbour House (3 credits)
Be Our Guest Lunch (3 credits)
Pinocchio Village Haus (2 credits) (We really just had 2 left to use as we were leaving, so we picked this up to go.)

Table Service Restaurants
'Ohana (3 credits)
Hollywood & Vine Breakfast (3 credits)
Tusker House Lunch (3 credits)
The Crystal Palace Breakfast (3 credits)
Akershus Dinner (3 credits)
Chef Mickey's Breakfast (3 credits)

Snack Credits
I honestly lost track! :) Some of our favorite uses were...

Food & Wine Festival dishes at Epcot
Cinnamon Roll and LeFou's Brew at Gaston's Tavern, Magic Kingdom
Dole Whip Floats at Aloha Isle, Magic Kingdom
Carrot Cake Cookie at Writer's Stop in Hollywood Studios
different international treats in Epcot (School Bread in Norway, Cronuts, Caramel Apples at Karamell Kuche)
Starbucks in Magic Kingdom (any drink you want!)
French Onion Soup at Be Our Guest Lunch (can't just walk in for this, but if you're there anyway, add it as an appetizer!)

Fastpasses

Fastpasses are an absolute must for any organized day at Disney.  They're exactly like they sound - they give you access to a much shorter line for many of the more popular rides at all Disney World parks.  I think the most we waited for any Fastpass line was 10-15 minutes (when the standby line for the same ride, at the same time, would have been well over an hour).  A little bit of planning can go a long way in maximizing your time in the parks!

If you're staying at a Disney Resort, you can schedule your Fastpasses up to 60 days from the start of your stay...so if you have a longer stay, you have a huge advantage over somebody getting there later than you!  For example, if you have a 10 day stay, you can schedule fastpasses up to 70 days before the last day of your stay.  That's how many of those popular fastpasses get snatched up before most people have access to them.  If you're not staying on site, you can schedule Fastpasses up to 30 days out (but you have to do each day individually at 30 days out from that day).  You can see why there's a huge advantage to staying at a Disney hotel!

Each person in your party gets up to 3 Fastpasses per day at a single park.  So, if you have Park Hopper passes, you can't schedule 2 Fastpasses at 1 park and 1 at another.  But, once you use your first three, you can make another one at one of the kiosks in the park (and only there, not on the app). Usually the really good ones are gone for the day by the time you would do that, but you may be able to knock a few minutes off your wait by making an extra one!

Here's what we did for our Fastpasses...

Magic Kingdom (over 3 days and 1 night - see this post as to why I did that.)
Enchanted Tales with Belle
Barnstormer (not needed - usually short waits)
Meet Ariel in Her Grotto
Meet Anna and Elsa (definitely recommended for a Fastpass)
Meet Cinderella and Rapunzel
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Jungle Cruise
Peter Pan's Flight (definitely recommended for a Fastpass)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (seriously - don't try to go to this one without a Fastpass)
Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin
The Haunted Mansion

Epcot
Turtle Talk with Crush (if you're doing The Seas with Nemo and Friends, I'd do one for that instead.)
Spaceship Earth
Soarin'

Hollywood Studios
Toy Story Midway Mania (definitely get one for this!)
For the First Time in Forever Frozen Singalong (not really needed, but nice for scheduling)
The Voyage of the Little Mermaid (again, not really needed, but helps with scheduling)

Animal Kingdom (We didn't have any for this day, see here as to why, but originally these are the Fastpasses I had booked)
DINOSAUR
Kilimanjaro Safari
Finding Nemo: The Musical (not needed, we walked right in!)

Single Rider Lines


There were several rides that I wasn't able to do and Emmie was too short to do.  When we had the option, Noah took advantage of the Single Rider lines for these.  If you're by yourself, you can wait in a much, much shorter line for certain rides at the parks.  Noah typically waited under 5 minutes in these lines.

There are Single Rider Lines for Test Track (Epcot), Rock n Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios), and Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom).  We didn't take advantage of it because I was pregnant, but there is also a child swap option on many more rides that allows you to basically get a fastpass for another adult that had to wait behind with a small child.

Magic Bands



These are just the coolest idea ever!  They are bracelets that you wear throughout your stay on-site at Disney, and they have basically everything you need in one place.  The little chip inside the bracelet is your room key, your dining plan, your charge card (we chose not to do this so we could keep track of our spending a little bit better, but it is possible), your Fastpasses, your Photopass...basically, if it's something that identifies you at a Disney park, it's on here!  You just scan this band and put in a pin number each time you need to use it.  It's nice to not have to keep up with 10 different types of documentation on your vacation!

Park Hopper

Park Hopper is an option you have when you purchase your tickets.  It's a little bit more expensive, but it allows you to go to more than one park for each day of your trip.  We were required to purchase Park Hopper to qualify for free dining, so it was kind of forced on us...but I'm glad we did it.  It allowed us to maybe go to a park and have dinner at a different park (making dining reservations much easier to book), or allowed us to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours (the extra time resort guests get at a park each night) even if we hadn't been at that park during the day.

I don't know if you can purchase this if the tickets don't come directly from Disney, but it's worth looking in to!  Definitely sit down and look at your schedule to see if you'll need it beforehand.

Photo Pass

We didn't do too many "extras" on top of our vacation package, but Photo Pass is one we invested in that I can't recommend enough.  It's called Memory Maker when you initially purchase...for $169 (as of right now), you can purchase this in advance of your trip and have access to every picture that's taken in the park.  That includes ride pictures, pictures at meals, group shots in front of castles/landmarks...as far as I know, if there is a Disney employee taking a picture, it falls under your Photo Pass.  You take your picture and the photographer has a scanner that "scans" your Magic Band, and you have access to the pictures within about 30 minutes (online or on the Disney app).

We had well over 300 pictures through this, so I'd say it was worth every penny.  Plus, this makes it where you don't have to necessarily carry a nice camera around the parks.  I brought my big Nikon, but really never pulled it out of the case.  Instead, I used my phone for pictures and relied on the Photo Pass when I wanted a better shot of something (especially group shots of us).  Definitely get this...no doubt we got our money's worth out of it!  And make sure you order it in advance, because the price goes up a good bit if you buy it too close to your stay.

Transportation

There are very mixed reviews on the bus system at Disney, but I can say that (for the most part) we used it with a ton of success.  We rarely ever waited more than a few minutes for a bus and, as long as you're getting on the bus at the first stop at your resort, you should be able to find a spot that doesn't squeeze you in like a sardine.  Just don't expect to get right on a bus at park opening or park closing...those lines can get a little crazy!  That's one reason it might be worth it to leave a little earlier than closing.

If you're staying at one of the resorts on the monorail, you're all set...that's the way to get around Disney!  The waits were so much shorter than the buses, even at park close, and it's much faster/more comfortable than the buses.  You pay more for those hotels, but there are a lot of advantages too!  The monorail only goes to Magic Kingdom and Epcot, so you're on the buses for Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.

We never drove to the parks, but I'm not sure it's worth it. Not only do you have to deal with parking, but you then have to get to the park, which is still a little bit away from the parking lot.  It might be worth it if the buses are busier, but we never really saw the need.

Time of the Year

I know that a lot of families just aren't able to go during the off-season, but if you can, I would totally recommend going that way.  Florida is miserably hot during the spring/summer and the prices get a little crazy (and there are few dining/hotel discounts during the summer from what I've seen).  You're basically paying more to go when it's more crowded and hotter.

We went in November and it was still warm.  We all wore short sleeves and shorts almost every day and Noah and Emmie went swimming one day...it was typically in the high 70's/low 80's.  So not miserably hot, but warm.  It was kind of bizarre to walk around the parks listening to Christmas music while it was that hot/humid outside!

I did love going during Christmas.  You have the option of going to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party (we didn't) and the parks are all decorated for Christmas.  It was really fun to see!

Meeting Characters


You will have a ton of opportunities to meet every character imaginable at Disney.  If you can book character meals, definitely do it...that allows you to meet your characters without having to wait in line at all.  If you don't do this, the waits for each character ranged from 15 minutes all the way to 2 hours (Anna and Elsa).  We were able to meet the Winnie the Pooh characters (Crystal Palace), Mickey and the Fab Five (Chef Mickey's), the princesses (Akershus), Disney Junior Characters (Hollywood & Vine) while we ate...that saved a ton of time waiting in the parks!  Emmie was actually pretty spoiled by this...it became kind of difficult to convince her to wait in line to meet characters.

Gifts from Tinkerbell



A few months before we left, Noah and I started buying little Disney knick-knacks as we saw them.  Most came from the Dollar Tree...nothing big at all.  Then, each day, "Tinkerbell" left Emmie a treat when she woke up in the morning.  It was just a fun way to start off each day!  We also sprinkled a little bit of glitter from the door to the treat.

Disney While Pregnant

I've gotten several questions on going to Disney while pregnant.  It was...an experience. :) Obviously, we had no idea that I would be pregnant or as far along as I was when we booked the trip, and I felt comfortable traveling at that point in my pregnancy, so we kept the dates as they were.

I wouldn't recommend going any further along than I was (I was 26/27 weeks while we were there).  That much walking is tough when you're carrying around a big belly.  As it was, I had to take a ton of breaks (usually every 5-10 minutes), drink a lot of water (I kept water bottles in our backpack and tried to go through several a day), and just generally take it really slow, or I would start having contractions.  There were also a lot of rides I couldn't go on...if it moved fast at all, I probably couldn't or wasn't allowed to do it.  So, just know that you are going to have to make some sacrifices if you're pregnant at Disney, but it is doable!  Obviously, talk to your doctor about what's best for your pregnancy.

Naps at Disney

I also got several questions about taking naps and keeping at nap schedule at Disney.  We did a terrible job with the to be honest.  I scheduled 2-3 hours in as I could each afternoon, but we ended up skipping most of those.  Instead, we would leave the park early to at least have a rest time as much as possible (definitely did this on Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom days...those parks are easy to finish early).

Just know that, if your child is on a great sleep schedule, it's probably going to go haywire at Disney. Emmie recovered quickly once we were back though!

The Whole Family in One Room

That brings me to my next point...sleeping in the room with your child/children.  Like I mentioned before, we originally had a suite at Art of Animation booked.  The main reason was that we would be sleeping in a separate room than Emmie, which she typically needs to go to sleep at night.  We changed that though, so we kind of had to adapt.

It really worked out much better than I could have imagined.  Emmie was so worn out by the time we got back to the hotel each night that it was no issue at all for her to fall asleep in the room with us.  We just made sure to be quiet and give her a few minutes when it was bedtime, and still went through our bedtime routine each night (brush teeth, read a book, tuck her in).  Disney resorts actually have a really cute channel that reads kids a bedtime story, so that became part of our routine!

What to Bring

There are a thousand different Disney packing lists out there...I just searched on Pinterest and found a great one.  So I'm not going to even try to break down each thing we took to Disney.  I will say that we packed both warm weather and cooler clothes for the time of year we went.  I'm so glad we did - the temperature was a little warmer than what was predicted, and we would have been miserable in clothes we normally wore during November!

As for going to the parks, we brought a backpack each day that had everything we needed (only bring one bag if you can...there are long bag check lines at the front of each park, and if you only bring one, only one person has to wait in those lines).  In it, we had...

-Bottles of water
-Little snacks, like granola bars
-Emmie's autograph book for characters (definitely get this...it's a cute souvenir that's really personal)
-A bag of quarters and pennies so Emmie could press her coins each day (again, highly recommended...an inexpensive and personal souvenir)
-A mobile battery supply for phones (I'd recommend this more than anything else...our phones were usually dying by early afternoon and they are crucial at Disney.  We had the EasyAcc 10000mah power bank (c/o) and it was excellent...we only had to charge it once during the trip and it recharged our phones each afternoon.  You can see their full powerbank selection here.)
-Any credit cards/IDs needed (not really needed if you put everything on your Magic Band)
-I didn't have baby wipes, but that would have been great for quick clean-ups.
-If needed, something to occupy children in longer lines.  We just did games on our phone if needed, but little treats are good too!
-Cell Phones
-Sunglasses

We obviously also had our stroller at the parks too.  We have a BOB Sport Utility, but I would never take it again...the front wheel is stationary, so it was incredibly difficult to turn and navigate in the parks.  I've heard great things about the City Mini strollers, and there were an absolute ton of them in the parks!  (That might be our choice for double stroller, we're still deciding.)  Make sure you bring one that breaks down easily if you're taking the buses, as you'll need to break it down each time you ride the bus (not an issue if you're on the monorail).  We drove and had room to bring our own stroller with us, so there was no need for a stroller rental, but there are several companies available in Orlando if you need it...I wouldn't recommend renting the strollers in the parks, they looked really uncomfortable.

Phone Apps

Again, this is a popular search on Pinterest, so I won't even start to tell you all of the options out there for Disney apps...instead, I'll tell you what we used.  I made a folder on my iPhone of all the most used apps during our trip...

-My Disney Experience: This one is a must.  It gives you up-to-date wait times for rides and characters, your fastpass and dining reservations for the day, restroom locations, your photopass pictures, and park hours for the day.  I used this constantly!
-Camera App: It was just easier to have this convenient to use for the trip.
-Numbers (Spreadsheet) App: Before we left, I made a spreadsheet of my tentative schedule for each day, with fastpass, dining reservations, and planned Quick Service meals (plus any random reservations) marked and highlighted.  I also labeled a map of the park and copy/pasted it into the page for that day.  It was a huge help when I was deciding what we should do next!



I also highlighted the rides we had already done as we did them...that way, I could make sure we got everything in.  This was super helpful!  (This is obviously just one page of the spreadsheet...if you'd like the full version to see how I did it, you can email me and I'll be glad to send you a copy!)

-Weather App: Just to check the radar and forecast as needed.

Souvenirs



There are gift shops everywhere you turn at Disney, and it's hard to convince a child that we don't need to buy something from every single one.  So, before we even arrived, we made a deal with Emmie: she got to get her Mr. Potato Head accessories and one toy from Downtown Disney the first night, using the money that she had saved and grandparents gave her for the trip.  Then, she wasn't allowed to buy anything until the last day.

Each time we saw something in the parks that she liked, we took a picture on our phone.  The last day, she was able to pick her favorite items, as long as she was able to afford them with her money.  It really was a great lesson on budgeting and only spending what money you have!


Besides that, we did bring a roll of pennies and a roll of quarters for her to press pennies in the parks. There are lots of penny pressing machines throughout the parks that allow you to remember fun little events...it's a perfect way to (inexpensively) make a souvenir in many different places.

Random Questions

If you ever have a question in the parks, Google it...there's probably an answer.  Noah and I actually had a running joke of how random of a question we could think up and find an answer on Google.  If I ever needed to know the average wait time of a ride during the day (to plan when we would visit it), Google was my friend.

Wow...this post got way, way longer than I thought it would!  But there really is so much that goes into planning and doing a Disney trip.  I hope my recommendations can help a few of you!