Top Disney Questions…Answered!

Hello out there! It’s another snow day in the south (at least we have actual snow for this one) so what better time to throw a movie on Netflix and do some blogging? I have joined a few Disney trip planning groups on Facebook, because I like to share my views, help newbies, and learn from others who have been to Disney a lot more that me! I’ve noticed that there are many of the same questions asked on these groups, so I figured I’d do my best to answer some of these questions here. Read on to see if I answer some of your Disney-related queries!

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When should I go to Walt Disney World? If you can go at any time during the year, the best months for crowds and weather is early to mid-November, and early December, as well as most of January to early February. September crowds tend to be low, but the weather is more unpredictable. There really is no “low’ season anymore due to all the new stuff happening at the parks, so plan to visit when good weather is more likely and crowds won’t be at their peaks. These peak times to avoid if at all possible are spring break, early to mid-summer, and holidays.

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Where should I stay? I always recommend that people stay at a Disney resort hotel if it’s at all in their budget. The perks are just too awesome, and there is a Disney hotel for every budget. There are certain times of year you can get a room on property for under $100! If you have a larger family, you might look at Art of Animation suites or the Cabins at Fort Wilderness. There are so many great resorts on property that you should strongly consider it. If you’re looking for an upscale, amenities-rich experience, look into the deluxe resorts. I have enjoyed both moderate and value resorts, since we are focused on enjoying the parks, and just need a bed, decent pools, and some food.

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How far ahead should I start planning? I always say, the sooner the better with Disney. Decide on your travel dates, then start researching to decide what tickets you’ll need, where you want to eat and where you’ll stay. Dining reservations can be made 6 months out and Fastpass+ can be made 60 days out for guests staying on property (see? Perks!) Can you plan a trip in a month? Yes, but be prepared to not get the restaurants and Fastpasses you want (character meals book up fast as do FP for popular rides.)

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Should I get the Dining Plan? The Disney Dining Plan has its pros and cons. The prices have gone up for 2018 and now include alcoholic or specialty beverages, so if you don’t imbibe the strong stuff, it might not make financial sense. We love the Dining Plan when it’s free. We get it included with a package at certain times of the year and do our research to get the most out of it. Paying out of pocket for food is going to make the most sense for most families, but do the math and see if it works for you.

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Where/ What do we eat? The Disney parks and resort hotels have every kind of food imaginable, from chicken strips to Kobe beef with bordelaise sauce (seriously, check out the menu for Victoria and Albert at the Grand Floridian here.) Check the Disney website under dining for every menu for every restaurant on property. If you have special dietary needs, alert the staff when you arrive at the restaurant and every effort will be made to accommodate your request.

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Where is Harry Potter Land? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is at Universal Studios Orlando. This is a different park from Walt Disney World Resort. ‘Nuff said.

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So, there you have it! The most common questions about travel to Walt Disney World answered. Still have questions? Post a comment here!

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Halloween with Mickey at the Magic Kingdom: A Trip Report

Hello Disney fans! We just came back from our very first Disney cruise last week and, oh my goodness, was it incredible! (We will share every detail in an upcoming blog post, but stay with me here.) A few weeks before we were set to leave on this wondrous adventure, my husband and I were watching yet another vlog from Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. I sighed, longing to see the Boo To You Parade and Hallowishes fireworks in person. Then I did what I do from time to time and checked to see if there were tickets for the party available the night before our cruise shipped out (because, remember, there’s no harm in looking!) I think you know where I’m going with this.

SO, our plan changed. We would leave Saturday instead of Sunday, add a night at our cheapie Cocoa Beach hotel, drive out to Orlando (about an hour from our hotel) book a lunch at a resort near the Magic Kingdom, and attend the Halloween party (knowing we would be exhausted the morning of the cruise, but as long as we could get our bodies and luggage on the shuttle, all would be well.) It was not cheap. There I said it and I regret nothing! This was not our most budget-minded move, but more in the vein of, “you only live once and why not go crazy once in a while” But we were so excited–we were going to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!

Sunday afternoon, we drove straight to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge where we had lunch reservations at Whispering Canyon Cafe, one of the many restaurants on my Disney dining wish list. We were early and toured the lobby and grounds of the resort, taking photos in our costumes (Princess Anna, Jyn Erso, and Nick Wilde) with the resort as a gorgeous backdrop. We knew the servers at this establishment had a reputation for acting sassy to guests (on purpose!) so we were ready when the server threw a handful of straws and bev napkins on our table. The food was really good comfort food. Barbecue and bison burgers are the highlights. We finished our meal amused and satisfied and made our way to the boat to Magic Kingdom.

The ride over was serene but cold! I was oh so glad I had made a simple Anna-esque cloak lined in velvet to keep out the wind that was kicking up. It would indeed feel like a Halloween night at this party. We docked at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom at about 3:30, got through bag check and waited with a crowd of people at the entrance gates. I got a chance to see the other costumes and there were some really creative ones and some really simple ones as well. At about 3:50 they started letting people through the tapstiles. We gleefully entered, got our wristbands, and got our picture taken at a Photopass location right in front of the train station, There was no wait for this as I guess people were eager to get into the park.

We had made a couple of fastpasses for Peter Pan and Space Mountain, both of which had insane wait times (when did Disney get so busy in October?) After riding those we did Peoplemover and got our first seasonal treat, which was candy corn ice cream from Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies. Wouldn’t you know, my husband licked it before it could be photographed. It was tasty, and luckily for me, didn’t taste a whole lot like candy corn. We headed towards Main Street on the train from Fantasyland, as it was getting close to party time. We followed the signs to a path behind Main St. where the party festivities were gearing up. We got our trick or treat bags, and got a chance to check out some exclusive party merch (I had to get the 2017 MNSSHP pin with vampire Mickey. So cute!) and hit our first candy spot.

We headed over to Adventureland and rode Pirates of the Caribbean, which was walk on, then hit some trick or treat spots, marked with large inflatable pillars. We happened upon the Cadaver Dans in Frontierland doing a great show of music and bad bad jokes. It was absolutely fantastic. Brer Rabbit was just hanging around in Frontierland causing general mischief and taking selfies with fans. It confirmed that Frontierland is one of my all-time favorite parts of the Magic Kingdom.

We focused mainly on special entertainment and Photopass spots, as there were many spots with “magic photos” especially for the Halloween party. We checked out several character meet and greets, but for us, waiting in lines didn’t seem like a good use of time. Characters like Moana, Jack and Sally, and the Seven Dwarfs had the longest lines. It seemed like when we did get in line, the characters were about to join the parade and wouldn’t be back for 30 minutes or so. That was kind of disappointing. We skipped the first parade, opting to catch the later showing, and headed to the hub area when it was over to get a good spot for Hallowishes fireworks show. We stood off the hub, near the Plaza Ice Cream Shop. What an amazing show! I was so awed.  And the crowd was more sparse than I thought it would be, so we really did have a great view of the castle and pyrotechnics.

 

It was time for more eating and trick or treating. We made our way back to Frontierland where we would watch the second parade showing. It was a spectacular parade. I love the “Boo to You” song and play it on Youtube all the time now. It’s so darn catchy. I wish we had been in a spot with slightly more light for picture taking, but it really made the parade more spooky.

We ended out the evening by (finally) riding Haunted Mansion. All the cast members were dressed even more morbidly that usual. We caught some of the last showing of the castle stage show “A Hocus Pocus Villian Spectacular” but it was indeed midnight and our petite Cinderella was done. We stopped along Main Street and got some last minute photos and caught the bus back to Wilderness Lodge. My poor husband then drove us back to Cocoa Beach as the little one and I promptly passed out. What a great night! I highly recommend this party (as well as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.) The tickets can be expensive, but it’s worth it to cut back somewhere else to make this fit in your budget. The chance to dress up as a favorite Disney princess in the Magic Kingdom is not something you get to do everyday and it was a night I’ll never forget!

Free Disney Dining 2017 Breakdown

Hey Disney fans! Spring has reached our corner of the world and I’ve been out in the garden and neglecting all other things in my life. So on this particularly cool, over-cast day, I’m getting back to the blog. This Monday, the long-awaited arrival of the free dining promotion was released on the Disney website. I wanted to quickly breakdown the details of this promotion and tell you how to still get in on the frenzy.

Disney offers several discounts throughout the year, from room discounts to specially priced packages. But the free dining promotion is by far the most talked about and anticipated. Here’s what it is: a free Disney dining plan for everyone staying in your room for the length of your stay. Free food! At Disney! Sounds pretty amazing, right? So, on to the details to see if you can take advantage of this great promotion.

The check-in dates are as follows: August 21st-September 30th, November 14th-20th, 25th-27th, December 8th-23rd. Your check-in date must fall on one of these dates to qualify. In addition to these dates, if you hold a Disney Chase Visa, you can check in from August 13th and still get free dining!  Book now through July 7th.

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Most resorts are included in this deal. The only exclusions are the campsites at Fort Wilderness, 3-bedroom villas, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort – Little Mermaid Standard Rooms and Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows. Specific resorts excluded are All-Star Movies and Port Orleans-French Quarter. The way the offer works is this: stay at a value or moderate resort and receive the quick-serve dining plan or stay at a deluxe resort and receive the standard dining plan. With the quick-serve, you get 2 counter service meals per day, a snack, and a refillable cup. With the standard plan, you get a table service meal, a counter service meal, a snack each day and a refillable cup. You do have the option of upgrading from quick-serve to standard for about $20 a day per adult.

Ariel's "Part of Your World" at Disney's Art of Animation Resort
Matt Stroshane, photographer

You must purchase a minimum of a 2 day park hopper park ticket for everyone in your party. The number of meals you receive corresponds to the nights of your hotel stay, not your ticket. So, if you have 6 nights booked, but don’t want to go to the parks everyday, you could buy, say a 4 day park hopper ticket and still get 6 days of free meals. In my humble opinion, if you are looking to do a trip on a budget, it is most prudent to book a value resort and upgrade your dining plan. Let’s look at some numbers! We’ll look at a 5 night stay in September for 2 adults and 1 child for all the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: Staying a Pop Century and upgrading the dining plan: standard room and 6 day park hopper ticket with free quick-serve dining= $1931, with the upgrade=$2116

Scenario 2: Staying at Coronado Springs and upgrading the dining plan: standard room and 6 day park hopper ticket with free quick-serve dining= $2264, with the upgrade= $2449

Scenario 3: Staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge with standard dining included: standard room with 6 day park hopper ticket= $3302 (no upgrade needed.)

So, unless you are dead set on staying at a deluxe resort or moderate resort (which offer better amenities, bigger rooms, etc,) the best choice financially is to plan your stay at one of the awesome value resorts. We have heard that Pop Century is the one to book for this promo folks (so, of course, we did!) Another option, if you are not big eaters and are willing to brown bag it everyday, is to take the room discount. This is a great deal for people who would like to stay at a moderate or deluxe resort, are willing to eat cheap and don’t like park hopping. Prices for the same dates with one park a day 6 day ticket and standard room are: Pop Century $1755/ Coronado Springs $2056/ Animal Kingdom Lodge $2513. So, as you see, free dining is not actually free, as you are paying full price for your room, but eating at Disney is expensive. The value you get with this promotion is great if you understand how to get the most value from the dining plan.

As you see, it is possible to do Disney cheap(er). Being flexible in your travel dates obviously helps, as most of these dates are when school is in session. The rooms for this promo go quick so start planning. We are taking advantage of the Disney visa dates and going before school starts in August. And yes, we are fully planning to sweat, wear our ponchos through the storms, and take afternoon pool breaks. We are just so excited about all the new attractions and shows Disney is unveiling this year and can’t wait to go (and eat) again!

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Are you planning on taking advantage of free dining this year? Let us know in the comments!

6 Questions to Ask When Planning a Disney Budget: Part 2

Hello again. We’re back to discuss the second question we think is crucial to planning your Disney budget. The focus of this post is “Where to Stay?” Lodging will be one of your biggest expenses, along with food and park tickets. This post aims to help you look at your choices and decide what the best fit might be for your situation.

Orlando Florida is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. In 2015 alone, 66 million people visited this mouse mecca! There are over 150,000 hotel rooms to choose from. That means lots of options, but it can get overwhelming to try to find the perfect room that fits your budget and your travel plans. Some things to consider are: will this be a Disney only trip or will you be visiting Universal Studios, Seaworld, and the other myriad attractions in central Florida? Are you okay with eating out for most of your meals or would you like to make your meals in your room? Do you have a car or will you be depending on public transportation to get you to the parks? These are all important questions to ask while searching for that perfect room.

There are several reasons we like to stay on property at Disney. We are a small family, so we can make a modest room in a value resort work pretty well. We spend most of our vacation time at the Disney parks, so we don’t need a lot of amenities or a kitchen in our room to cook food. Disney provides excellent free transportation, and when we feel like driving to the parks, staying on property means parking is free (staying off-property means adding $20 a day to your budget if you will be driving to the parks.) We like the perk of having access to Extra Magic Hours (a time period before the parks open or after they close, that is only open to resort guests.) We also love being in the “Disney bubble.” This is the feeling that you have left the real world behind and all your worries drift away. The omnipresent theming envelops you in a world of magic from the moment you pass under the arch that proclaims you are entering a land “where dreams come true.”

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That being said, there are situations where it would make more sense to stay off-property. If that’s the case for you, here are a few choices to consider.

  • Airbnb: Choose your size and style of housing. We found a room to rent, a stone’s throw from the Magic Kingdom for $60 per night. The total for a Sunday to Friday stay was only $373 with cleaning fee and taxes! Or you could rent a whole condo for $192 a night. The great thing about Airbnb is that it is a trusted source of vacation rentals, and you can find something to match your budget and needs in almost every neighborhood of Orlando and the Disney-area. Airbnb is ideal if you are willing to take an Uber to the parks, want to be able to cook your own food, and are on a super-tight budget.
  • Resorts: There are tons of non-Disney owned resorts to choose from in the Orlando area to fit all budgets. If you are not planning to go to the parks every day and want a more relaxing trip, with some outlet shopping thrown in, you may want consider an off-property resort. Just be sure to look at the extra charges that most resorts tack on. Many hotels I’ve looked at sound great, until you find that they charge a daily resort fee of $12 to $30! And as stated above, you will have to pay for parking at the parks unless you Uber, or the resort offers a shuttle. Our favorite website to search for hotels is tripadvisor.com and you can always check out the Priceline  site, which guarantees that their rates are the lowest prices you can book.
  • Vacation Home Rentals: If you have a large family, or are doing a trip with a few families, it probably makes more sense to go in on a house. Having a kitchen will save you a lot of money and you can have food delivered through Amazon prime pantry. We searched online and found houses that sleep up to 8 people for a weekly rental of $850. Check out vacation home rentals by tripadvisor or VRBO.

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  • Camping: For the more adventurous among you, Orlando also offers some large campgrounds in the area. You can still experience the Disney bubble while you camp, by reserving a site at Disney’s Fort Wilderness campsites. Rates vary throughout the year from about $53 in January and the summer months, to over $100 during the spring and holiday season. If you’d like to explore the wild part of Florida on your trip, floridarambler.com has a list of campsites within a hour of the parks.
  • DVC rental: There are a few reputable sites that allow Disney Vacation Club members to sell their points to you. What does this mean exactly? DVC members who can’t or don’t want to use their points on a Disney vacation every year, use the web to rent them out. If you thought staying at Animal Kingdom lodge was outside your budget, think again! Depending on the time of year you’re planning to go, staying at one of the studios (or villas if you need more space) at Disney’s deluxe resorts may be within reach. For example, staying at a standard studio at Bay Lake Tower in value season would run you $840 for 5 nights through David’s Vacation Club Rentals (a reliable site for renting points.) Compare that to Disney’s official price for that same room of $458 a night! You can still use the Disney website to check in online just as if you booked through Disney, and use magic bands for Fastpasses, etc. You can’t however, take advantage of special offers like free dining or any other discount where it is necessary to book a package through Disney. And maid service is not provided daily, but will happen once or twice throughout your stay.

Hopefully this post has helped guide you in deciding on the best accommodations for your family’s vacation. Although there are many things to consider such as size, amenities, price, and proximity to the parks, Orlando has, quite literally, something for everyone! So have fun researching and dreaming of your sunny vacation!

Photo credit title photo: Joe Penniston via flickr

Which Disney Resort is Right for You?

One of the most important steps of trip planning is determining where to rest your weary bones after a long day (and night) at the parks. There are many factors to consider when you’re deciding on one of the 34 unique resort hotels on Disney property. Here we look at the 3 resort categories and what the major differences are at each level.

Ariel's "Part of Your World" at Disney's Art of Animation Resort
Matt Stroshane, photographer

Value: The resorts included in this category are Art of Animation, The All-Star resorts, Pop Century, and the Campsites at Fort Wilderness. One of the most awesome things about the value resorts is the kid-friendly theming. Giant characters decorate the grounds, immersing everyone in the magical world of Disney before even stepping foot in the Magic Kingdom.

Each resort has one large pool and at least one other pool, although there are no slides at these pools. The only dining options at this level are quick-serve, cafeteria or food court-like dining. The room size is slightly smaller than the other categories of resorts, averaging 260 sq. ft. One disadvantage to the value resorts is the distance to the parks. They are the farthest away and the buses may take up to 20 minutes to make their way to and from the parks.That may not seem long, but when it’s standing room only after a long day of walking, you will be counting the minutes. Rack rates on average for a standard room at the values  start at around $100 and can go as high as $200 and more during peak season. If you have young children who would appreciate the theming, are on a tight budget and plan to be visiting the parks much of the time, a value resort might be the perfect match for your family.

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Moderate: The resorts in this category are Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs, Port Orleans-Riverside, Port Orleans-French Quarter, and the Cabins at Fort Wilderness. The moderates have a slight increase in price over the values, with resorts in this category starting at just under $200 to almost $300 at popular times of year for a standard room. With that price hike, you get slides at the pools (the jaguar slide at Coronado Springs is a blast!) and more dining options. All of the moderates have table service restaurants and several bars and lounges.

Room size increases to  comfy 314 sq. ft. at the moderate level. The theming may not be as appealing to kids, but that doesn’t mean each resort is not immaculately themed and beautifully detailed. The moderates are closer to the parks, which means shorter bus rides. One thing you may not appreciate about the moderates is they tend to sprawl over a large area. This may mean walking several minutes to get from your room to the pool or dining. This is a disadvantage for some, but we always find it an enjoyable way to get familiar with the layout of the resort. If you’re traveling with older children or other adults, and plan to spend more time enjoying the pools and restaurants of your resort, a moderate could be a great choice.

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Deluxe: the deluxe resorts are Animal Kingdom Lodge, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk Inn, Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Wilderness Lodge. There’s not much bad to say about Disney’s deluxe resorts. The beautiful theming, various dining options, and close proximity to the parks make them all highly desirable.

Want to watch the evening fireworks at the Magic Kingdom from your room? Then a theme park view room at the Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian is a must. Of course, luxury comes at a price, and you will be spending anywhere from $380 for a standard room at Wilderness Lodge to $1000 or more for a park view room at the Poly. The room sizes vary at the deluxe resorts, but range from 340 sq. ft. to 422 sq. ft. for standard rooms. Needless to say, dining at this category is abundant and most resorts have a signature dining experience in addition to table service and quick service dining. The amenities are top-notch; from kids’ clubs to spa and concierge services, your every need is attended to. If you are truly looking to spoil yourself and your family, you can’t go wrong with a Disney deluxe resort.

Whatever you’re looking for in accommodations, Disney’s got it. No matter which resort category fits in your budget, you can expect complimentary transportation to all Disney theme and water parks, themed pools, restaurants, and access to Extra Magic Hours at the parks. Keep in mind that even if you don’t stay at a deluxe resort, you are free to tour the grounds, eat at the restaurants and enjoy the ambience. It’s a great compromise if your budget says value but your heart says deluxe.