Planning Our Next Walt Disney World Trip!

Well, we agreed we were going to skip Disney this year and take our 10 year old to Universal Orlando. But things change, and when Disney’s “free dining” promotion came out in April, I couldn’t resist the temptation to just see what was available. Luckily, the dates were extended an extra 3 weeks early to Disney Chase Visa cardholders. Meaning instead of August 20th, we could book free dining starting August 2nd (this is why having the Disney Visa is a good thing, even if you don’t plan on using it often.)

After grabbing a reservation at an All-Star resort (not exciting, but fine) I continued to look around and couldn’t believe my eyes when a value studio popped up at Animal Kingdom Lodge for a few hundred more than we would be paying for our stay at All-Star, and we wouldn’t have to upgrade from the quick serve plan (stays at deluxe resorts include the standard dining plan.) We’re normally not Deluxe resort-type people. We figure our hotel just needs a clean room and a decent pool. But hey, if you twist my arm, I guess I’ll stay at a deluxe resort complete with a savanna with zebras, giraffes, and ankole cattle, one of the best pools on property and 3 of the best restaurants in all of the Walt Disney World resort. So we are doing 4 nights at AKL with free dining! We are so very excited.

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In addition, months before I booked this trip, I decided to try out renting Disney Vacation Club points to see what it was all about so I could report back about my experience. So after we check out of AKL Jambo House, we check in for one night to AKL Kidani Village, which is the DVC only part of Animal Kingdom Lodge. We will be staying in a Savanna view studio. With me so far?

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photo credit: Loren Javier via flickr

Then, while planning our week, something else happened…Disney released the dates for the 2018 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, with the first date being the night we are scheduled to leave. And is also the day before my husband’s birthday. We happen to love the Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom, even if we have to go in August. So, we added on a 2 night stay at Pop Century, taking advantage of the room discount promotion currently going on.

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We are looking forward to seeing the brand new Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios. We have a Fastpass for Slinky Dog Dash and plan to “rope drop” Alien Swirling Saucers. I’m very excited to try some of the yummy-looking food at Woody’s Lunch Box, too. We will also be spending a lot of time in Animal Kingdom in Pandora, one of our favorite places!

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Our dining reservations are all set as well. We will be trying some new restaurants, like The Plaza in Magic Kingdom, Trail’s End at Fort Wilderness, and Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge. We’ll be hitting our faves Tusker House, Garden Grill, and Be Our Guest too. We simply love free dining and can’t wait to try some new snacks on this trip.

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photo credit: Nicole Pacitti via flickr

So, those are the details of our 7 day August trip. We can’t wait to share all the fun with you! Make sure you keep up with all our adventures by subscribing to the blog.

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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!

Disney Cruise Tips!

Hey everybody! I can’t believe it’s been a month since our first Disney cruise. It was such a fantastic time and it was over way too soon. As always, I want to share some tips I learned. I hope you find this helpful if you are planning to cruise in the near future.

  • Consider a Park-n-Cruise package if you’re driving into the port. We sailed out of Port Canaveral and spent the night before the cruise at a nearby hotel offering a package. We simply left our car in the hotel parking lot, had our luggage at the pickup spot at the front desk and that was literally the last time we touched our luggage until it was in our room on the ship. The shuttle picked us up and dropped us at the port, where the porters whisked our bags away (you DO tip these guys.)
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The “Sail Away” party at Port Canaveral
  • It’s okay to get to the port early. We got to the port just before they opened, and had to wait a bit to get in. But being at the terminal when they opened meant no waiting to check in and a very short line (about 5 minutes) to meet Mickey in his captain’s attire (a hint for this is to get in line before he comes out. Most people don’t know what the line is for.) We did have to sit for about an hour waiting to board the ship, but there were TVs for the kiddo and I caught up on my social media. The port does get crowded and the line for Mickey was really crazy not too long after we met him.

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  • If it’s your first cruise, invest in a lanyard with a pouch. Your Key to the World card is your room key, and your way on and off the ship at port. It’s really important that you always know where it is. I lose things, often. Having the card snug in its pouch around my neck meant I always knew where it is.
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My husband on Pirate Night!
  • Another tip for first time cruisers is keep walking! When we first entered Cabanas, the cafeteria-style buffet restaurant, the dining room was packed and the buffet line was really long. We then discovered that the restaurant has two identical buffet lines. If you keep walking past the crowd a little further into the restaurant there is plenty of open seating and the line was not as crowded. This goes for elevators too. There are elevators in the mid, front and aft of the ship. Do a little walking if the elevators are packed and try a different set, or take the stairs.
  • Try to connect with your co-cruisers before you set sail. Search for a Facebook group for your cruise date. This is a great place to sign up for fish extender groups, (I’ll talk about fish extenders later) ask questions, and make friends. We found a penpal for my daughter (a shy only child) who we met up with on the ship, and they played together several times. We also joined a trick or treat group though our FB group that made the cruise a little extra fun!
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No, Stitch was not her penpal!
  • Miss the crowds by hitting Castaway Cay early. We had no wait to disembark or to catch the shuttle to the beach. And had our pick of chairs on the beach. This is a really important tip if you plan to snorkle, as that area of the water gets super duper crowded after about 10:30. Plan to snorkle early for clear, uncrowded water.
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The beach fills up quickly!
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No waiting for photos at Mount Rustmore
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We had an empty beach for a few minutes

These are a just a few things we learned on our cruise. We definitely did not know what we were doing for the first couple days, but the cruise staff are very friendly, helpful, and accommodating, so don’t hesitate to get help! Have you done a Disney cruise? Comment and let us know your thoughts! We fell in love and are ready to plan our next one.

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!

What We Learned from Our Last Disney Trip

Hello dear readers! Wow, autumn is starting to happen all around me and I realized that I haven’t written in some time. I wanted to write a blog post while our last trip was fresh in our minds, but back to school means back to work for me, so, here we are!

We got back from our last trip a little over a month ago and it was different for us in several ways. For starters, we had an extra person with us–we usually just travel with our little family of 3, but this time we brought a friend of my daughter’s. My 9 year old isn’t as entertained by her parents as she once was, nor is Disney as sparkly and magical as it was when she was 5, so we invited a travelling companion. It worked out really well, and I wish I could afford to bring this friend on all our future trips. We also went at a new time of year. We usually go to Disney in November or December, to avoid high crowds, and high temperatures. Now that I’m a teacher, we really can’t just travel any old time of year. When free dining opened up, we took advantage of the extra week offered to just Disney Visa cardholders and went the 3rd week of August. I actually enjoyed many things about going this time of year that I didn’t think I would. The longer park hours, no holiday parties to cut into our Magic Kingdom time, more pool time in the afternoons, and in general just a more laid-back vacation. But the heat was a huge factor. I remember standing in front of the stage at Hollywood Studios watching “Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away” and feeling like I was standing on the surface of the sun. In addition, it was our first trip with our newer nicer camera. Which meant that we got a lot of great shots, but some shots failed miserably due to its unskilled user. I still have a lot to learn about digital photography.

So, without further ado, here are some things I learned on our last trip:

Be flexible.  When I book a Disney trip, I enter planning mode pretty much from the moment I click “check out” on the confirmation page. I am a detail-oriented spreadsheet kinda gal and my family might possibly get tired of me asking if they would rather eat at Skipper Canteen at 5:15 or 5:25. Vacationing with kids, however. means that sometimes you just have to go with the flow. We had a Be Our Guest dinner reservation booked for our first night of our trip, when it gradually dawned on me that the girls probably would neither appreciate the food, nor want to sit down for a long meal on our first day. So, with much gritting of teeth, I canceled, promising myself a meal there on our next trip. Also, when the girls got worn out from the intense heat, and I could see in their eyes that ALL they wanted to do was go back to the resort and hang in the pool, it was time to go. No matter how much I wanted to do Space Mountain one more time.

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Sometimes you just need some pool time.
Being prepared for weather can make or break your trip. We knew what to expect of Florida in August, and we still were not prepared for the intense heat and humidity that greeted us each day. Luckily, I had purchased a number of items that saved us from fainting and kept us from getting too crabby and irritable. Cooling towels and personal fans really helped the girls get through the trip. The necklace fan proved to be the best purchase, as it was sturdy and we didn’t need to worry about forgetting it somewhere. We also bought a travel umbrella to shade us from sun and rain. I really prefer an umbrella to a poncho or rain jacket. It’s more versatile, and I have a hard time putting myself in a plastic sheet when it’s 90+ degrees and raining. Taking air conditioning breaks at any chance was also helpful. Cutting through a gift shop or ducking into Country Bears gave our bodies a chance to cool down.

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Beautiful but hot!
It’s not going to be possible to see and do everything. Okay, so I knew this already, but this trip really hammered it into me. I missed doing some of my favorite things on this trip. And…it’s…okay (taking a deep breath as I write this.) With young children, you have to make decisions about what to do and see, because they have a limited window of time when they’re going to be into it. We made some compromises with the girls. One day we missed rope drop (gasp!) at Hollywood Studios to let the kids sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast and play in the pool. They really needed a rest! In exchange, we went to late night extra magic hours at Animal Kingdom that night to spend more time in Pandora (because there is never enough time to spend in Pandora.) We still had a great day and had energy for that late night. It meant that we missed meeting BB-8, but I had to just…let it go (like my friend, Elsa.) It’s harder if you know you can’t come back to Disney for a year, or 2, or ever, but just go with the flow and you’ll have a much better time.

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Pandora at night. Photo credit: Athena Iluz via flickr
Well, these are my main takeaways from our last Disney trip. We had a fantastic time and I would definitely do a summer trip again. What do you think? Have you ever learned any valuable lessons while on vacation? I’d love to hear your comments. Stay tuned for some more from our trip, like a review of Pandora, and how free dining worked out for us this time.

Questions to Ask When Planning Your Disney Trip Budget: Part 5

So far in our series of questions to ask yourself when planning a Disney vacation budget we’ve looked at: where you’ll stay, when you’ll travel, what kind of tickets you’ll need and how you will get there. The next question we’ll tackle is, “What will we eat while we’re there and how do we afford it?”

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Food, glorious food. I get pretty excited about planning meals for our trips. My husband might say that I’m obsessive about finding the perfect reservation at the perfect time of day. I love trying new places and revisiting old favorites, but I am aware that all those restaurant meals can add up quickly. Here we’ll look at some options for keeping costs down while still enjoying the culinary delights that Disney has to offer.


  • Consider bringing food from home. In our situation, we go “snack and breakfast” shopping at our local Aldi (a great discount grocery store) a few days before we leave for vacation. We purchase bars, cheese and peanut butter crackers, cheese cubes, salami, toaster pastries, soy milk and cereal, and trail mix, along with drink mixes to liven up our bottled water. I pack a plastic tote with our food, bring some zip-lock bags to pack with snacks each day, load it in the car and we’re set. If you’re flying, we understand you can’t bring all that food with you. Amazon is a fantastic resource for buying groceries and you can have them delivered right to the resort (for a small fee!) Just stop by the front desk and pick them up when you arrive. Another idea is placing an order at Walmart and choosing a store close to the parks. This is the closest one I found. You can set a time to pick up your order and it’s a free service. However you do it, just make sure you have a good assortment of snacks for long days at the parks. It stinks to have a hangry toddler when you’re about to meet Cinderella at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Think about checking out the Disney dining plan. This is a hot topic among Disney veterans. Some people can’t imagine a vacation without it, and some think it’s too much money for too much food. We’re somewhat in-between on the matter. On our first vacation to Disney, we paid out of pocket for our meals. We did some sit-down meals and a character meal, but we ate a good share of quick-service and I felt like we had to be really careful budgeting for our meals. With the dining plan, everything except tips is prepaid, so it feels like you can really treat yourself. On our last two trips, we had free dining. Even though we didn’t pay for the dining plan, I tried to maximize our dining credits. Meaning, I tried to find the most expensive character meals and ordered the most expensive entree at the quick-serve restaurants. We pride ourselves on finding the priciest snacks and meals that we don’t have to pay for!
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    All this food for one snack credit? Yum!

  • The Tables in Wonderland card could work for you. If you are a Florida resident, annual passholder or DVC member, you are eligible for Tables in Wonderland. This card gives you 20% off all food at participating Disney restaurants. It does have an annual cost. Click this link for a list of restaurants that participate in the program.
  • Use the Disney website to get an idea of how much to budget for food. Once you have snacks bought, use the Disney website to look at menus and prices for the restaurants you’d like to visit. You can pretty much budget out every meal you’ll be eating on Disney property. For example, say you were interested in trying 50’s Primetime Cafe in Hollywood Studios. You might decide to have the meatloaf at $18.00 and skip the soda in favor of one of their famous peanut butter and jelly milkshakes ($6.00.) Now you know what you’ll be spending and how much to allow for a gratuity. The Disney Dining Calculator is another resource for meals like buffets, that don’t always have an exact price on the Disney site. You plug in the number of people in your party, and where you’ll be eating for each meal and it can help you decide if the dining plan will be a good value for you or not.
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Entree Menu at 50’s Primetime Cafe

I hope these tips can help you navigate the world of dining at Disney. By no means is it cheap to eat “in the world” but it is good to have some tricks up your sleeve for keeping costs down.

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

Brunch at California Grill; an Unforgettable Experience

We planned our last Disney vacation to get in on the free dining offer. We booked our stay at a value resort, and upgraded from the complimentary quick-service plan to the standard dining plan (DDP) for a little less than $200 for six days. With the standard plan one of our quick service meals was replaced by a table service credit. It also includes a refillable drink cup to be used at any Disney resort hotel. We really enjoy the quality and variety of the table service restaurants at Disney and prefer them to the standard “burger and fries” world of quick service restaurants.

On our last trip, also with free dining, we enjoyed dinner at California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary to celebrate my husband and my 10 year anniversary. California Grill is a signature restaurant, so if you plan on using the dining plan, each person will have to use 2 credits. I don’t spend my dining credits willy-nilly, so you better believe CG is worth it.

When we found out they were offering a Sunday brunch this year, I jumped on the website and booked a 12:30pm reservation for the 3 of us. Then checked out what the web had to say about it. The reviews were generally positive and we couldn’t wait to experience it.

 

Sunday morning, we walked from the Magic Kingdom over to the Contemporary Resort and took the escalator to the 2nd floor. We checked in and were directed to a special elevator to take us to the top of the resort. We stepped out into a lively scene with a jazz trio playing standards, bartenders busily filling champagne glasses with mimosas and people chatting and eating. The wait to be seated was made much more tolerable with a complimentary mimosa! There’s really not a bad seat in this restaurant, since the windows are huge and there’s a stunning view in every direction. Once we were seated, we were given menus, but told not to worry about ordering our entree at that point, since we had an entire self-serve buffet to enjoy first! The spread was mouth-watering. The stations included a Charcuterie station, a Greek yogurt and toppings station (fresh fruit, granola, and honey comb were on offer) as well as salads, the best deviled eggs ever, pastries, oh, and I almost forgot, sushi! Everything on display was incredibly fresh and tasty. My favorite was the aforementioned deviled eggs and a grain salad called Fregola salad. You can watch a video tour of the whole buffet, including the bloody Mary bar here

After about 10 minutes of noshing, our ever-attentive server was back to see if we were ready to order-that’s right, there’s more! You order an ala carte entree from the brunch menu. It was hard for me to decide between the pancakes (mmmm, pancakes…) and the poached lobster benedict (oh, how I suffer) so the server said it was no problem to add one pancake to my order. Todd got the steak, and little one got the chicken, which she took a bite of, then announced that she was full. The single pancake fulfilled my carb craving and left me with room to enjoy the lobster. Hubby was satisfied with the steak, although he did drip some pesky chimichurri down the front of his shirt and we all picked at the chicken and decreed it delicious, though we were all pretty darn full by this point.

After a few moments of sitting, sipping our coffee and walking outside to the fireworks viewing platform to take in the view, we were presented with dessert. Yes, it continues. Dessert was a selection of small sweets presented on a cake stand. Chocolates, madeleines (which were a tad dry and the only thing we didn’t finish) macarons, and linzer cookies. I’m thoroughly surprised we didn’t have to be wheeled out. Our dining experience took almost 2 hours, so plan this meal around a slow Sunday. You will not want to run to catch your Space Mountain Fastpass right after this meal. And don’t feel guilty about taking a long time. It’s a lot of food, and it’s an experience worth savoring.

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For $80 per adult and $48 per child (see why we like the dining plan?), you are treated like Disney royalty in a beautiful setting overlooking the Magic Kingdom. We thoroughly enjoyed this meal, and if we are on the DDP on a future visit, will definitely try to visit again. Don’t forget to hold on to your receipt so you can come back in the evening and watch Wishes from the observation platform. California Grill’s Brunch at the Top is held  Sundays from 10 am to 1 pm. Cost is $80 per adult and $48 per child. Complimentary valet parking is also available for this event. There’s a link to the full menu here.

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6 Questions to Ask When Making A Budget for Your Disney Trip: Part 1

When planning a Disney vacation there are so many questions that need to be answered when deciding on your budget. We feel that these questions are some of the most important factors in planning your vacation. We often talk about how nice it would be to be able to go at the drop of a hat, and stay at the Contemporary or Polynesian Resort. Unfortunately that is not in our budget! So how do you decide on what you can afford?

These questions will help you figure out what the majority of your budget will be spent on. By spending a little time planning at the beginning you will be able to figure out what works best for your party. You may save a substantial amount of money by looking at the trip this way. Over the next couple of posts we will go into detail about each of these questions.

The first one is “How will we get to Disney?” Your two choices, obviously, are flying or driving. If you don’t live within a day’s drive of Orlando, you will probably be flying. We don’t have much experience first-hand with air travel to Disney, but MouseSavers.com has an entire post dedicated to helping you find a cheap flight. So start looking at your options even before you book your exact travel dates. Many airline sites will give you the cost on a particular day and allow you to search the calendar around your chosen departure date for cheaper fares, so you may discover substantial savings if your travel dates are flexible. Florida does have quite a few airports, so flying to Tampa or Sanford may be more economical. If you do fly to another airport, you have to factor in the cost and hassle of a rental car. If you are staying at a Disney resort and you fly into Orlando International Airport (MCO), Disney provides a free shuttle known as Magical Express, which, in addition to whisking you away to your resort in comfort, lets you bypass baggage claim and have your bags magically brought to your room!

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If there are many people traveling with you, it may be more cost effective to drive to Disney. We are nine hours away, which is manageable as a day trip.  We have found that if we drive several hours and get a hotel room in Jacksonville, where we can find really cheap rates, we can get up early and get a full day in the park. Same thing when we leave. We left after a full day at the park after seeing Fantasmic! and drove 2 hours to St. Augustine beach, which made the drive the next day a little more enjoyable. And we got some much needed beach time after a crazy and fun-packed week.

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Either way you slice it, you’re going to have travel-related expenses (unless you live in Orlando, lucky ducks!) but deciding what mode of transport works best for your family, while keeping an eye out for deals, will be your first decision of many in your Disney trip planning!

Stay tuned for Part 2, as we talk about the next important question, “Where will we stay?”

10 Things We Love about Walt Disney World: Pt. 1

I think a lot of people are confused when we tell them how much we, the adults love being at the Disney parks. Yes, a huge part of it is sharing Disney magic with our 8 year old, especially when she was in her six year old full-blown princess obsession. Even at eight, watching her eyes light up when she met Cinderella’s Prince Charming was unforgettable. Aside from that, there are many reasons why we are so in love with this most amazing place. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Main Street, U.S.A. Walking through the gates of the Magic Kingdom into Town Square, bustling with activity, and making your way through the crowd to Main Street (representing an American town between 1890-1910) is a first you’ll never forget. There are so many things to love about this section of the park. The Main Street Trolley Show is a song and dance show that takes place every morning with dancers in seasonal turn-of-the-century costumes. The Main Street Vehicles take weary visitors up the hill towards Cinderella Castle. There are countless details to take in. Make sure to read up on all the little details the Imagineers conjured up, like the party line telephone where you can listen in on some good old-fashioned housewife gossip. Don’t hurry through this part of the park. There is so much to discover.

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    Main Street Trolley Show
  2. The Monorails: What can I say about this mode of travel around the Seven Seas Lagoon, and to Epcot, except that it’s pretty darn cool. Especially when it goes through the Contemporary Resort. It’s transportation that is so uniquely Disney!

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    Monorail at Epcot
  3. The parades. Specifically the Festival of Fantasy parade at Magic Kingdom. Watching for Maleficent’s mechanical dragon to breathe fire never gets old. The costumes are, well, fantastic, and the floats are so imaginative and fun. It’s also a great chance to see many characters, from princesses and princes, to Mickey and his buddies.

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    Colorful Dancer at the Festival of Fantasy Parade
  4. The food. Yes, for a theme park, Disney has some amazing food. We love the character buffets, such as Crystal Palace, at Magic Kingdom, and Tusker House, at Animal Kingdom, for meeting characters and filling up for the day, but there is literally something for everyone. For example, Epcot has a veritable world of dining options for every taste in World Showcase, from Moroccan to Norwegian to French and beyond. We recommend “eating around the world” if your stomach (and wallet) are up for it.

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    Epcot’s Very Own English Pub
  5. The Characters. Yes, I’ll admit it. I get giddy when meeting my favorite characters from childhood, whether it is Tinkerbell, Mary Poppins, or Piglet. There is just something magical about interacting with characters you’ve read about or watched in films. I think what makes it so special is that the cast members who play the characters are so completely committed to bringing those characters fully to life. It was so much fun to hear Anna talk about her adventures with Olaf and Kristoff, and to listen to Mary Poppins give my daughter advice on cleaning her room. I can’t stress this enough-you don’t have to be a kid to meet and enjoy the characters. Just willing to let a little magic in your heart!
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Anna Sharing Stories from Arendelle

How to these compare to your favorite things? Look for the next five things we’re crazy about at Walt Disney World coming soon!