Sunday, January 31, 2010

Toy Story 3 International Trailers.

Fun montage of the new Toy Story 3, opening this June, Via Chip and Co:

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kids Nite Out: In Room Babysitting During Your Disney Vacation.

If it's your first vacation to Disney World, you might be surprised to learn once you get there that there are a lot of fun, grownup things to do, whether you want to enjoy a quiet dinner at one of Disney's signature restaurants, see a show like Cirque de Soliel, or just explore the parks without the kids.  But unless you're travelling with a sitter or your in-laws, chances are you don't have childcare. For kids ages 4-12, you can use Disney's on site child care available at some of the deluxe resorts. At $10 per hour with a three hour minimum, it's an economical way for parents to enjoy a night out, but the hours are limited, only 4:30 until midnight.  If your kids are older or younger or if you need more flexible hours, this option won't work. 

One alternative is to use an in-room babysitting service. We used Kids Nite Out on our last two trips to Disney World and have been  very happy with them.  Kids Nite Out, which works with both on and off site hotels,  is one of several well-known babysitting services in the Orlando area.  All their sitters are screened and have undergone thorough background checks through state law enforcement.  You can request a male or female sitter, but make sure you let them know when you make the reservation that you have a preference.   They show up at your hotel wearing a Kids Nite Out T-shirt and name tag and will feed, entertain, and put the kids to bed. They'll even take them to play areas around the resort, but they won't take them to the pool. They also don't bathe kids.  Most sitters arrive with a bag full of age-appropriate activity books and toys.   Rates run from $16 per hour for one child to 23.50 per hour for four children.  There is a four hour minimum and a $10 transportation fee per sitter.  There is a $2 per hour fee for sitting services that begin after 9:00 pm. 

On the plus side, Kids Nite Out works around your schedule, whether you need them during the day or night.  Since they aren't at a set location for a set number of hours, they'll stay as long as you need them.  If you'll be out late, it's nice not having to move a tired, cranky child from a Kids Club back to the room.  To me, it's a huge plus having the kids put to bed at their usual bedtime.

Of course, using a service like Kids Nite Out requires a lot of trust on your part.  It can be nervewracking leaving a total stranger with your kids, but we've been very comfortable with the sitters we've had. Many of the young women are college students; one sitter was actually a law student on her winter break.  All of them have been super-friendly and immediately interacted with the kids.  They took notes on what the kids' schedule was like and asked the kind of questions you'd expect an attentive sitter to ask.    We actually used two sitters because with really young twins, it's easier on everyone, particularly me and my husband (Okay, me.  I'm a worrier.). When you consider the hourly fee for three kids, it's not that big of a jump to split it between two sitters.

If you hire an in-room sitter, make sure you provide a meal (we usually order a pizza) if your sitter is going to be there longer than eight hours. We want the people taking care of our kids to be happy, so we leave plenty of snacks as well.  If you want to tip your sitter, Kids Nite Out doesn't let you put it on the credit card you left with them, so you'll need cash or a check. 

We'll definintely use Kids Nite Out again.  We had a really fun night riding attractions we can't go on with the kids and loved coming back to the resort and seeing three sleeping children. We also got a great report from our older son the next morning.  Excellent service.


Note:  Several posters on the Dis have successfully used this coupon for a free hour of babysitting from Kids Nite Out.  Google turned up a few others as well.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fast Disney Facts: What to do if you lose your park tickets.

You've paid a lot of money for your Disney vacation and then, you lose the key to the whole thing:  Your park tickets.  What do you do?

Well, if you're a resort guest and you've had Disney put your park ticket on your room key, it's as simple as going to Guest Relations (located inside every theme park) or the concierge desk at any resort and having it replaced.  Thankfully, all your information is in Disney's system, so you'll get a ticket back that has exactly the same information on it as the one you lost.  This is why I always have Disney put my tickets on my room key, even if I don't buy the ticket through Disney and use a service like Undercover Tourist  instead.  Keep in mind that Disney will only add tickets they sell or an authorized dealer's tickets to your room key.  If you buy tickets off site from discount brokers not affiliated with Disney, it's highly unlikely they will add it to your room key.

If you're staying off site, it can be a little trickier.  A cast member friend of mine who works in Guest Relations recommends always making copies of your tickets before you go to Disney.  I actually make three.  I put one copy in my luggage, one in my handbag, and I leave one at home.  It's probably overkill, but it gives me peace of mind knowing that worst case scenario, there's a copy of my ticket somewhere.    Your travel agent and reputable vendors will also keep records of the tickets they sell and work with the park to reissue another ticket, but this can be very time-consuming.  If you have your ticket information, all you have to do is go to Guest Relations and have it replaced. Disney isn't technically required to replace lost or stolen tickets, but they always do so with proper documentation.

Finally, if you discover that you've lost a ticket with a non-expiration option on it when you get home, you can send your inforation to WDW.Ticket.inquiries@disneyworld.com to get a replacement ticket.

ETA:  Thanks to Julie for pointing out that you can also take a digital photo of your ticket. It saved her trip!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Morning Distraction.

January is usually one of the slowest times of the year at Disney World, but there's still plenty of  Disney news going around:

The Disney Blog has a few thoughts on the arrival of Legoland to Central Florida and the possible impact it may have on Disney World.
Theme Park mom talks about rides for the under-five crowd at Hollywood Studios.  I think DHS is a hugely underrated park for small kids.  Don't forget all the great shows while you're there.

The Disney Food Blog on the iconic Disney World funnel cake.  I stand firmly behind my contention that the funnel cake is a vegetable.

It's award show season and Disney Geek Dad has come up with his own, very funny list of awards for Disney Podcasters.  Go check it out; you might find a new podcast to listen to.

Progress City has a great collection of drawings from the proposed Fantasyland expansion.

Even Central Florida gets cold during the winter.  The World According to Bruce is thinking about Disney fireplaces at the resorts.

WDW News Today has some interesting new photos of refurbishments around the Magic Kingdom, including Splash Mountain.  If you've ever wanted to see the moat around Cinderella Castle being cleaned, this post is for you.

Finally, go check out Jack over at the AllEars blog writing about Spaceship Earth. Great history and photographs.

Happy Monday!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting Wait Times on Your Mobile Phone Using Lines from the Unofficial Guide.

No one  likes to wait in lines, but it's almost unavoidable at Disney World.  Fortunately, there are ways you can cut down on wait times, the most obvious of which is to use a touring plan.  But this past fall, Disney fans saw the introduction of several new wait time applications and mobile websites which promise to further limit your wait times and change how you tour the parks.  One of these sites is Lines, which I used on my trip in December.  Lines is from the people behind The Unofficial Guide, so the wait times you'll see are based on years of actual data and experience.  To get better numbers, you'd need to talk directly to the folks at Disney. 

While planning my trip I didn't initially plan on using Lines because it didn't work on my phone.  I have Verizon, so I hoped to use Verizon's new Disney app, Disney Mobile Magic, but it was only available at the time on a limited number of outdated phones.  Ironically, the morning Touring Plans announced that Lines was available on Android phones, a phone which I had been thinking about getting, my own phone met an unfortunate demise at the hands of one of my toddlers.  Naturally, I did what any reasonable person would do under such circumstances:  Grabbed the kids, drove down the Verizon store, and plunked down my money on an Android, signing away two more years of my life to Verizon in the process. 

Lines currently works on Iphones, Blackberry phones, Androids, and Palm Pre phones.  Just go to the Touring Plans mobile website, sign up and you're ready to go.  Right now, it's free.  Lines gives you a number of things:  Attraction wait times; fastpass availability and return times; refurbishment and closures; park hours, including extra magic hours; and 10-day crowd projections.  Hollywood Studios, Disney Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and the Magic Kingdom are all included.    You can also submit wait times yourself. Until now readers of the Unofficial Guide could submit wait times via Twitter, but using Lines is so much faster and easier.  It probably took about 10 seconds to submit a time on my Android and a few more seconds more to add a fastpass return time.

Lines couldn't be more simple to use.  It's a very basic-looking  with no unneccesary graphics or information, so you see what you're looking for right away.  This is a good thing when you're in a hurry in the parks.  When you go to the main page, this is what you'll see:


Once there, pick your park.  You'll see a list of attractions in alphabetical order with their wait times posted.  Click or touch on the attraction you're intested in and you'll be taken to a page that looks like this:


This page will show you wait times, both from Touring Plans and those submitted by users, fastpass return times, estimates of when fastpasses will be gone and standby peak.   It also shows you when attractions are temporarily down.

On the upper right hand corner of your screen, you'll see the word "time."  Click on that and you'll see a screen that allows you to submit posted wait times (not the actual time you spent waiting in line, but the time posted at the front of the attraction by  Disney) and fastpass distribution times.  Submit that and your done.  It's so easy to submit times that I found myself putting times in  as I walked from one attraction to another (while pushing twins in a stroller!), or right before I entered an attraction and then when I left.  Even my seven-year old did it. 

So, are the wait times accurate?  I found them to be within minutes if not on target most of the time, particularly when augmented by times submitted by other users.  Lines doesn't need these submissions to work, but it's a nice bonus, especially on days when attendance levels are slightly off from projected levels, which happens on occasion.  Obviously, since the times posted by Touring Plans are based on past data, there is occasionally some discrepancy between what posters are submitting and what Touring Plans is saying the wait will be.  This happened on our last day there, the Saturday before Christmas.  If you follow Disboards or the Touring Plans blog, you know that park attendance levels were unexpectedly heavy starting that day, but there were so many users submitting times, we didn't have any issues.  It's a good indicator of how good the system is, I think.  So if you're even slightly inclined to help your fellow park visitors while in Disney World, this is a good way to do it.

One of the strong points that Lines has going for it is that it isn't based on GPS, so you can use it outside of the park you're in.  This is actually the downside of Disney's application, which only works in the park you're currently standing in.  With three small children, it's difficult for us to get to the parks at rope drop, so we often looked at times that people were submitting beforehand and based our choice of park on that.  It's also nice if you're in one park and want to park hop to another; now you can know if there are, for example, fastpasses left for Toy Story Mania and if it's worth your time to go over there.    Really, if the mood strikes you, you can even check wait times back home, hundreds of miles away from Disney.  Personally, I enjoy annoying my husband by occasionally saying, "Hey, did you know the wait for Splash Moutain is 75 mintues and there are no more fastpasses?  No, you did not."

I really enjoyed using Lines.   It was great not having to walk across the park to find out what the wait time for an attraction was.  We either went or skipped it, based on what we saw, instead of what we usually did, which is walk across the park, wasting time and energy.   It was also fun submitting wait times, even for a non-geek like me.   I especially liked that as the week I was in Disney went on, they changed the program a bit and started adding funny little titles to the top submitters at each attraction.  What Disney fan doesn't want to be a "Galactic Hero" or a "Master of Both Space and  Time"?  Plus, we're big fans of the Unofficial Guide around our house.  I think they do a lot for the Disney community, so it was nice giving something, however minor, back to them.   And, it was easy.

Lines doesn't have other park information, such as parade times or restuarant information, although they do link to Steve Soares' site (listed under the live shows).   Probably the most in-depth application for this type of information is the DisUnplugged E-ticket application, but it's only available on Iphones at this time.  You can also check Disney's mobile website even if you don't have the  Disney application on your phone.

I highly recommend Lines.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reader Email: Can you ride Disney transportation if you're not a park guest?

Chris:

I had a question that I have not been able to find an awnser to.  When you get tickets with the water parks and park hopper passes are you able to use the disney transportation for free as well with that. The buses, monorail and boats? if you're staying outside the park that is.

Kyle O.

Kyle:

Thanks for your question and for reading my blog.  You can absolutely ride Disney transportation as an off site guest (also known in  Disney-speak as a day guest).  The great thing is, you don't even need a ticket to ride Disney transportation, so if you're just going on site to have dinner, resort hop, or explore, you can use Disney's transportation system.  When you think about it, it benefits Disney just as much as it does guests, as many people will come on site to shop, have dinner, or check out a resort for a potential stay in the future.

So go ahead and ride the monorail, the Friendships between Epcot and Hollywood Studios, Disney buses, and the ferry from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom.  You can also ride the resort boats to and from the parks if you wish.  Keep in mind that since you're staying off site, you will have to pay for daily parking at the parks which currently runs $14.  Your parking pass is good for any park that day, so you can park hop if you wish using your own car and not have to pay park again that day.

Have a wonderful time on your upcoming trip!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Monday Morning Distraction.

Some Disney news to help you ease into your work week:

Dis Unplugged blogger Kathy Werling has some great pictures of the Cinderella castle refurbishment, including some of the empty moats surrounding the castle.

The Orlando Sentinel weighs in on the lastest extra-secret, super-crypto Disney Rumor:  NextGen.  Whatever it is, I think I like it.  Update:  Fixed the link.  Not that all that constitutional law business wasn't interesting. Sorry!

What fun:  A sneak peek at a dinner in the Great Movie Ride in Hollywood Studios courtesy of The Disney Food  Blog.

We all want to be Joe Rohde, the incredibly creative and likeable Imagineer, just a little bit.  DisneyShawn talks about  Rohde's work in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The Parenting Panel at Mouse Planet discusses the pros and cons of taking kids out of school for a Disney vacation. 

Stitch Kingdom with a list of D23 member events for 2010.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Childproofing on Vacation.

Bad parenting confession: Despite the fact that I was then living in the kind of suburban DC neighborhood where you would occasionally see a van pulling up to a neighbor's house with some catchy name like "If You Don't Childproof with Us Your Baby Will Not Get into Harvard!" I was blissfully unaware of the business of childproofing until my oldest child started to crawl. I mean, why would you have to childproof a house for a baby? They're so cute and . . . immobile. After he stopped being such a delightful little lump however, I discovered that my house was no longer a small, innocuous-looking little house but rather a seething pit of chemicals and cords and light sockets that attract little fingers, to say the least of the stairs, which were clearly put there to drive me insane.  Oh my. It was time to childproof.

Still, I approached childproofing quite sanely, if I don't mind saying so myself, trying to stay one step ahead of this rambunctious little person. Besides, I was too cheap to hire a professional childproofing service. And I think we did quite well, my husband and I. That is, until we attempted to go on vacation. At the time our son had just turned two-years old. Old enough to understand the word "no" but not old enough to care. In a split-second he'd figured out how to open the hotel room door and run out of our room which, incidently, was on the 7th floor overlooking an atrium. It was at that point, cue ominous music, when I realized that childproofing doesn't take a vacation. If anything, it's actually more important to childproof away from home, when the kids are excited, the environment is unfamiliar and fun to explore, and the adults might be distracted.

I'm basically telling you all this so you don't think I'm a crazy helicopter parent (shhh, I kind of am). 

If you've ever walked into a hotel room or rental house with a child or two, you know what a dangerous place it can be: Lightsockets, exposed! Lamps sitting on top of glass tabletops for goodness sakes! Cords hanging from the blinds! Even in the most kid-friendly hotels are designed with adults in mind or at least with children in mind who are well past the stage of putting everything in their mouths. Nothing is ever babyproofed in a rental, so you better think fast when you walk in the door. The good news is it won't take but a few minutes to babyproof your room and you can probably carry everything you need to do it in a gallon-sized Zip-loc bag.

A couple of points, first. Most of this advice applies to rental houses; it's not entirely realistic to babyproof a hotel room, but there are some steps you can take to make sure your room is safer, one of which is being aware of less obvious dangers, like how easily doors open to the outside hallways. Keep in mind that you want products that won't harm the room, are portable, easy to install, and inexpensive. Everything I mention here fits that criteria. They're also easy to find at Target or Babies-R-Us.

When you first go into your rental, you may want to remove any delicate knick-knacks within reach of small chldren. This is less for safety reasons than for financial reasons, as you don't want to have to pay for it at the end of your stay if it gets broken. Put anything you don't want broken into a closet if there's room. Last vacation, I actually moved a glass topped coffee table into the next room after one of my two-year olds decided it made a nice platform from which to continuously spout her personal manifesto. Next, check to see what's in the lower kitchen cabinets. We once rented a beach house with cabinets that couldn't be secured. A glance in the lower cabinets revealed a couple of large pots. No worries there, but right next to the pots was a knife block with 8 very sharp knives. Put dangerous items in the upper cabinets. Don't forget to look under the sink for cleaning products that might be harmful to kids. I like these locks for cabinets with knobs.


You'll find this type of cabinet in most Disney Vacation Club (DVC) kichens, so they're easy to lock.

If you want to block off access to a room altogether, these doorknob covers are great; the childfree adults in our group especially liked them, as they kept little ones from waking them up at 5:00 in the morning. They're cheap, take about two seconds to pop on or off, and don't harm the doorknob, which makes them perfect for childproofing someone else's house.


Most hotel rooms and all DVC units have lever-style handles rather than knobs, particularly on the outside door.  Try this lock from One Step Ahead for those types of doors.  You can also purchase this lock at Babies R Us.



We used these locks last month on the bathroom doors at Kidani Village.  I really don't enjoy spending my vacation time saying "Get out of the toilet, Junior" over and over so this saved us a lot of trouble. It sticks onto the door, but didn't take off any paint.

Many rental houses in Orlando have screened-in pools, some just a few steps from the family room. If possible, check with the rental agent or owner prior to your trip to find out what kind of safety measures are in place. Ideally, the door leading out to the pool should not only have a deadbolt (preferably one that requires a key which can be put in a safe place) but it should also have a lock on the upper part of the door that children can't reach. Make sure all the adults in your party are mindful about keeping the door locked. If there's a alarm system on that door, make sure everyone knows to keep it armed.

One of the biggest dangers in hotels rooms is the balcony.   Obviously the biggest issue is a child falling off the balcony, but also be aware that some balconies, particularly those at Disney resorts, have low walls or partitions that aren't completely closed, allowing children to squeeze through to your next door neighbor.  Ideally, a sliding glass door leading out to the balcony will have two locks, one of which is high enough so that your smaller children can't reach it.  I found the sliding glass doors in Kidani Village to be difficult to open, even for an adult; they have two locks and although they are low, I didn't feel the need for any more security.  If you want added security, you can buy a small lock that attaches with adhesive to the windows of sliding glass doors.  Keep in mind that some condos and most  DVC units have two balconies, so you'll need two sets of these locks.

Childproofing your rental should take only a few minutes but it's an excellent investment in your vacation:  It takes almost no effort to pack a small bag with a few outlet covers and even less effort to install them.  Think about it this way: You might spend hours debating advanced dining reservations or deciding which park to visit on a given day.  This takes almost no time and is probably most like how you live at home.  Obviously, childproofing your room doesn't take the place of  keeping a watchful eye on your child, but it can make your vacation go a lot more smoothly and give you peace of mind.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fast Disney Facts: Friendship Boats.

One of the most enjoyable and easiest ways to travel from Hollywood Studios to Epcot (or vice versa) is to take a Friendship boat. You can board one of these boats at the front of Hollywood Studios (the launch is on the left as you leave the park) or at the International Gateway in Epcot. The ride takes about 25 minutes.  From Hollywood Studios the boats stop first at the Swan/Dolphin, then at the Yacht & Beach Club, followed by the Boardwalk, and finally, it reaches its final stop at Epcot.  You can get off at any of these stops and explore the resorts, then board another boat or simply walk to your destination.

The boats are wheelchair accessible and have ample room for strollers, which means kids can stay put, a real plus for parents who want to avoid the hassle of taking kids out of the stroller and dragging it on the bus.   The Friendship boats also save steps if your destination is the World Showcase, allowing you to bypass Future World altogether.

The Friendship boats run daily from 8:30 a.m. until about an hour after closing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday Morning Distraction.

A brief round-up of some of lastest Disney news on this undoubtedly cold morning:

John Frost over at The Disney Blog discusses some Disney World Valentine's day dining options.

Chip and Co with some news and a clip about Mr. Pricklepants, a new character in Toy Story 3.  Just the phrase "uptight hedgehog in Lederhosen" makes me laugh.

The Prince Caspian meet and greet at Hollywood Studios is closing.  Let's be honest:  I'm not sure anyone is going to miss Prince Caspian.   I mean, he's no Mr. Toad. 

It snowed a bit in Orlando over the weekend and you didn't even need a ticket to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party to see it.

WDW Central on the benefits of spending time alone in the parks.

In honor of this past weekend's half and full marathon, Just Another Disney Blog has two fun marathon videos from year's past.  Love the time lapse video from the 2009 half marathon.  Note that the person who filmed the race did it with a camera strapped to his head.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to run 13.1 miles with a camera strapped to my head. That's dedication. 

Jentasmic at Studios Central has some New Year's Resolutions for Disney Parks.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Disney Wine and Dine Half-Marathon.



I'm not a runner.  I'll work out every day given the opportunity, but I really hate to run and I've never been good at it, even when I was in the army and ran all the time for no apparent reason other than the fact that someone with more rank than me told me to do it.  When I got out of the military, I swore I wouldn't run anymore and I found other ways to exercise. And let's face it, there are far better ways to get and stay in shape that don't involve all that impact on your joints. 

After I had my twins, I really needed to get back into shape. The first year after they were born, I didn't work out.  I did, however, discover the joys of chocolate for breakfast.  In hindsight, that and the fact that I'd stopped exercising, something that had been such a huge part of my life, was probably a bad sign, but I really didn't know how to change things:  I was simply too busy.  Suddenly I was stuck in the house with three kids under five and nowhere that I could easily go. The most exercise I got was figuring out unique and occasionally effective ways of feeding both twins at the same time.  Even though I wanted to work out again, getting back to the gym seemed like an impossibility.  I worried that the twins would hate being left in the childcare or that they would get sick from being around all the other kids.  But when they were about a year old my neighbor, in great shape at 60-something, talked me into joining her gym.  I'm really grateful to her for that.  It was the push out the door that I needed.

I can't even convey how freeing it was to get back to working out.   The twins surprised me and loved going to the gym childcare; they run in there and never look back.  The whole thing was just heaven, a small thing that I could do for myself.  But lately, I've found myself wanting to try something diffferent. I think my regular workouts are challenging, but when I look over at the women in my gym who are running, I find that I miss it.  There's something really empowering about it.  Still, I needed something to motivate me. 

A while ago, I heard about Disney's Wine and Dine Half-Marathon, which is a new nighttime race taking place on October 2.  I knew almost nothing about Disney marathons and I figured that they were for serious runners, but I started to see postings on various websites about them and I realized that regular people, some of whom were very new to working out, were giving them a try.  Still, the idea of a full marathon?   I'm not sure I want to compete in any sport that requires me to slather vaseline over my entire body, thank you very much.   And even a half-marathon seemed a bit intimidating.  But a relay marathon with the words "wine and dine" in it?  I  think I can handle that.  And I think that it will give my workouts some new structure.  So my Disney-phobic friend Suzanne (who, incidently, I'm fully expecting to turn into a Disney fan while we're down there) is going to run it with me. We just have to figure out who's doing the 8 mile portion and who's doing the 5 mile portion. 

Here's to a new goal for 2010.

You can find more information about Disney's Wine and Dine 1/2 Marathon here.

For information on other races at  Disney World, see Disney Running.

Reader Email: What type of bag do you carry in the parks?

An email I received over Christmas.

Chris:

My husband and I are going on our first trip to Disney World next month and I'm looking for a bag to carry in the parks.  Do you have a favorite?  I'm thinking my usual handbag (big, more expensive than my husband knows) is a no-no, but I don't want something "dorky."

By the way, we liked your Hertz review.

Thanks,

Melissa A.

Dear Melissa:

Thanks for your question and for reading my blog.  I carry a Sherpani Vida, which is a small but (I like to think) stylish backpack.  If you hike or climb, you've probably heard of the brand.    It's small but big enough that you can throw in your wallet, a brush, a water bottle and a few things for the kids, if you have children.  On the last trip, I even had my raincoat in there.  It's sporty while still being feminine.

Here's a photo of the Sherpani Vida I use:




I'ts not technically waterproof, but I've carried it in the rain and everything stayed dry.   It's a fairly small backpack, which is important to me as I'm pretty short.  The flaps all have magnetic snaps, so it's really convenient to just throw things in there. There's a little coin purse on a string and a couple of pockets inside.  It's just a great all-around bag.  I don't carry a backpack style bag at home, but it works really well in the parks to have my hands free and to not constantly be looking for a place to store it when I'm getting on attractions, the way I would be with a regular purse.

I like this Sherpani as well, although I don't own it. It's feminine without being too fussy:




You can find either of these bags at the Sherpani website.  I bought mine at Zappos.

There's a good reason for not carrying your regular bag in the parks, particularly if it's expensive. For one, it's probably too bulky and the strap will slip off your shoulder.  The last thing I want to be worrying about in the parks is my handbag.  Just as importantly, I've found that a regular handbag gets too much wear and tear in the parks.  Chances are it will get wet and knocked around.  If you're not careful, it could even end up falling out of an attraction.  So a studier bag, regardless of style, is a better option.

I know a number of people who carry full sized backpacks, but that's just too much bag for me.  I've seen people on message boards touting a brand called "Baggalini" but it has the same problems as a regular shoulder bag, not to mention the annoying name.  Oh, and it's kind of "dorky."

I hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reader Email: Stress-free, low-cost trip with Young Children.

Hi Chris,

I have followed your other blogs since before the twins were born.  I came over to EWDW to ask for advice. I have two boys, age 5. We want to visit WDW in Feb (for their 6th birthday) and would prefer to go over a week end to reduce time away from work and school, and want to keep cost to a minimum. We only need simple accommodations, but clean is a must. I have been to Epcot and was not thrilled, really don't want to spend the $$ for the kids to go there this trip. Should we just focus on WDW and leave all the rest (universal, etc) for another trip?

What is the best way to enjoy the most for the least spent in $$, time and energy/frustration?

Thanks!!

Hi, Robin:

Thanks for reading this and my other blog.  From what you've written, it seems like you want a really low-key trip, which is totally doable with some preparation.   Here are a few thoughts.

February is a great time to go, as long as you avoid the days leading up to Valentine's day plus the weekend after.  Not only does it get crowded during mid-month, but Disney raises its resort prices because it's a popular time to visit.  I think you'd be safe going any time early or later in the month (possibly avoiding Superbowl weekend).  You can check the Touring Plans crowd calender to get a more exact idea of how crowded the parks will be, but they only have free access 30-days out.  

As for inexpensive places to stay, I love Pop Century.  It's a Disney Value resort, so you have all the benefits of staying on-site, the most important being transportation, but the cost is comparable to a mid-price room off site.  It's also very clean.  I'm the type of person who notices everthing and I felt our room at Pop was immaculate.  Most kids love Pop.  It's brightly colored and has fun pools.   The food court is probably the best of all the Disney resorts. There's no sit-down restaurant on site, however, and if you want a refridgerator in your room, you'll have to pay a daily fee of $10.  The only downside of having everyone in the same room is that you can't do much after the kids go to bed.  

There are a lot of places off site that will meet your needs, including many that will be cheaper (although, not as clean), but none of them will be as convenient as staying on site.  Right now you can still get rooms at Pop, although you should book as soon as possible if you're interested in staying on site.  I went to Disney.com and put in a check-in date of February 3, staying five nights, and was quoted $484.  That's a great price.   You can sometimes get better rates from a Disney-certified travel agent, so you might try that as well; they should be up to date on the latest discounts.  Check Mousesavers for other discounts; they are your best bet if you're booking on your own.

Tickets are what really hurts your budget.  Whatever you do, avoid buying tickets on Ebay or from brokers right outside of Disney World (mostly on Highway 192 and International Drive).  For the cheapest tickets, try Undercover Tourist.  There are only a few Disney-authorized discount ticket brokers and they are one of them. To get the absolute lowest rate, sign up for Mousesavers newsletter and use the Undercover Tourist code; that will save you a few more dollars.  The only downside to using UT is that those tickets can't be tide to your Disney reservation, so if you lose them it can be a pain to replace them.  Make sure you make a copy of each of your tickets, that way the guest services can replace a lost ticket more easily.

Since your boys are young, I'd avoid Universal, which is geared more toward older children.  Your boys will love the Magic Kingdom, of course, but they'll also like Disney Hollywood Studios (DHS) and if they enjoy animals, Disney Animal Kingdom can be fun.   There are fun things to do with kids at Epcot, but if you don't like that park, not worries:  There's so much to do at Disney, you really can't do it all, even on multiple trips.  When you buy a Disney ticket, you can get into a Disney park that day, but you can only visit that one park. If you want to go to other parks that day you'll have to get a park hopper option, which costs roughly $50 more per person (although it's for the entire trip, regardless of how many days your ticket is for).  Unless you see yourself going completely "commando" and seeing and doing everything, you probably don't need this option.  You can always add it once you get to the parks if you find you need it.

You don't say how many days you want to stay in Orlando, but if you're only going to be there a few days, I would only try to primarily visit DHS and the Magic Kingdom.  DHS has great shows, one of which is the Beauty and the Beast. Take your boys; I promise they will love it.  It's all action and singing.  My seven-year old son wanted to see it again and again.  If they like Star Wars, they might want to try being in the Jedi Training Academy.  Get their early, as kids are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Of course, the big draw at DHS for younger kids is Toy Story Midway Mania (TSMM), which is a carnival-like game in 3-D.  Really, it's the most fun ever; I find myself yelling and screaming through the entire thing.  Unfortunately, there's always a wait.  Your best bet is to go to DHS when they open and have one of you take your park tickets (for the entire family) and run over and get fastpasses, which allow you to bypass the lines at a specified time.  While your husband is doing this, you could take the boys over to Star Tours and get in line for Jedi Training Academy.  By the time the boys have done Jedi Training Academy, your fastpass window will likely be open for TSMM (although if your husband is really quick, it could be earlier). Or, if you don't care for Star Wars, you can always get your fastpasses right away, ride TSMM or go and ride another ride with a short wait.  Either way, getting your fastpass first thing assures that you'll get to ride one of the more popular rides at  WDW with a minimum amount of wait.

The Magic Kingdom is a huge hit with kids and there's so much to do that you could spend days here and not do everything.   Since there's a lot to do, you might consider using a touring plan.  You can get them from  TourGuideMike or from TouringPlans.   You don't have to stick to a plan entirely and in fact, I find it almost impossible to do so with young children, but you can take the basic ideas and save yourself time and walking.  It's well worth the money.  If this seems like you're making your vacation too complicated, don't worry.  Barring the busiest time mid-month, February is a slow time and you can still do everything you want to do with some planning.  Just remember to get there early and get a fastpass for the attraction you most want to ride (that also tends to have long lines--don't waste your FP on an attraction no one wants to ride), then go ride something else while you wait.  Dumbo, Splash Mountain, Winnie the Pooh, Snow White and Peter Pan are all rides that young kids like that also tend to have long lines all day, so try to get to those attractions early, before the parks get busy.

You don't need to spend a lot of time preparing for your trip, but a little bit of preparation can save you a lot of time and make your vacation more enjoyable. If you're only going to do one thing, buy an Unofficial Guide (they're also the people behind Touring Plans).  It's the best one out there. If you don't want to spend the money or if you find the guide just too huge to deal with, go to the Disboards for specific questions and post your own or use their search option. The Dis is one of those places where no question will go unanswered.

Good luck and have fun!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Is the Disney Dining Plan Worth It?

My family and I tried out the dining plan for the first time on our recent trip to Disney World. For us, I think it was a mixed bag. A big part of any vacation for me is the food and fortunately, there's a lot of great food in Disney World. On the plus side, I loved paying for everything ahead of time.  It's mainly a psychological thing, because you've already "paid" in one way or another prior to your trip, but it certainly made those $100 plus lunches seem more palatable, if you'll pardon the pun.  Another plus is that you're able to try a lot of different restaurants on your trip; in fact, to get your money's worth, you're going to have to do this. Unfortunately, that's also the downside of the dining plan.

Here's a brief run-down of the dining plan for those who haven't used it before. On the basic dining plan, which is available only to resort guests, each individual on the plan gets once snack credit, one counter service credit, and one sit-down meal credit per day. The number of days on your meal plan corresponds with the number of nights of your stay and expires at midnight the day of check out.  Everyone age three and over who is on your resort reservation will have to be on the plan. So if you're staying for seven nights and you have four people on your reservation, you'll have 28 snack credits, 28 counter service credits, and 28 credits for sit down meals for the entire trip. There's no obligation to use a certain number of credits per day; in theory, you could use all your snack credits on the last day. Every time you pay, your credits are automatically deducted and you'll see your total credits remaining for that type of meal at the bottom of your receipt. In my experience, the cast members are great at explaining to you what's left on your plan and what's available to you.

Both counter and table service credits give you an entree, drink and dessert.  From time to time, what's available on the plan will change slightly. A message board like Disboards or Passporter is an excellent place to get up to date, in-depth information about these changes before your trip. It's also a good place to find out how to best maximize the value of the plan so that you know what to pay cash for and what to use your credits for. Some snack credits, for example, are a better deal than others. I found that it was cheaper to just buy my kids a carton of milk than it was to use a snack credit.  Also, be aware of the ever-changing rule on kids' counter service meals. Right now, Disney doesn't differentiate between adult and children's counter service meals.  This has caused some confusion; you can read more about it here.

One of the biggest complaints about the dining plan is that it's just too much food. I actually disagree. It's not too much food; it's too much of the wrong kind of food. I love dessert, but it's not necessary at every sit-down and counter-service meal. I would have much rather had the option choosing between an appetizer or a dessert. At some places you could get fruit or yogurt as your dessert, but this wasn't the norm and often at counter service restaurants, your dessert choice was some sort of fossilized cake in a plastic container. My kids wouldn't even eat that. Obviously, the addition of dessert makes the dining plan seem like a better deal. You are, after all, getting this huge meal. But if you wouldn't normally buy that dessert to begin with, how much of a bargain is it?

So does the dining plan save you money? Well, yes and no. Obviously, if you get the dining plan for free, it's a good deal, although there's a lot of argument, best saved for another post, on whether or not the dining plan is a better or worse deal than Disney's resort discounts (you can't combine free dining with resort discounts). We probably saved around $300 by using the dining plan, but I think the bigger question for us is whether or not we have eaten all those meals in the first place? There were some restaurants I really wanted to try on this trip and truthfully, I'm not the kind of person who can happily vacation without a few good meals. If we hadn't been on the dining plan, we would have still kept four of the six sit-down restaurants we ended up eating at.  Three of those meals would have been with the kids. Since our twins are under three, they ate free, which saved us a lot of money right there. If we hadn't been on the dining plan we would have been paying to feed two extra kids.  There's also no question that we would have used the counter service meals anyway; it's just too convenient in the parks.  In fact, despite the rather useless dessert option, I think the counter service meals were the best part of the plan as far as value was concerned.

The four sit down meals that we would have eaten regardless and the counter service meals roughly equaled what we spent on the dining plan, even when you consider that we wouldn't have ordered all those desserts without the plan. When I put together all the numbers, what the dining plan did for us was allow us to eat at two additional sit-down places for “free” and gave us snacks, also for “free.” So in that respect, it was worth it.

There's no question that you can eat more cheaply at Disney by not using the dining plan, particularly if you have access to a kitchen.  Many people bring their own snacks and lunches into the parks and eat their dinner off site.  Maybe they splurge on one big meal on site.  It's not my personal preference because it seems like too much work, but at the end of their stay, they've saved a lot of money, no doubt. 

I think the dining plan works best for those who plan on eating at multiple sit down restaurants, say four or more times during a week-long vacation.  If this isn't how you normally vacation or if these types of scheduled breaks during the day aren't how you tour Disney, it's probably not going to work for you.  I love having one relaxing meal per day, so in that respect, it made sense for us.  Once you consider how many sit down meals you normally eat and then add in what you would normally pay for counter service meals and snacks, a number which can be shockingly high, you'll have a better idea of how the plan will work for you, at least from a cost perspective.

Even though the dining plan can be a good value, it can also feel like a sort of forced food march where your trip can start to feel like it's being ruled by your advanced dining reservations (ADRs). This was probably the biggest downside for us, particularly with smaller children. At one point, we found ourselves holding prized fastpasses for Toy Story Midway Mania that we had no intention of giving up but which also meant missing our lunch ADR. Fortunately, we were able to change it, but doing so meant spending a good 15 minutes on the phone with Disney Dining and if it had been a more desirable restaurant, we probably would have lost our ADR altogether. While anyone can make the dining plan work with a few adjustments, I think the it works best for those who are flexible and who take a more leisurely pace in the parks. For those who want to see and do everything, stopping to eat a sit down meal at a specific time in a specific place can really cut into your touring time.

Mention must be made about the availability of ADRs, which can be a problem on the plan. Make your ADRs as soon as you're allowed to by Disney (at this point, at the 180 day mark) even if you don't yet have the dining plan or even a resort reservation. Disney doesn't care if you make your resort reservation and ADRs six months out and then add the dining plan a week before your trip; it's all the same to them. If free dining becomes an option after you make your ADRs, check back with Disney or your travel agent to see if you can change your resort reservation to a package so that you can include it.  If you're taking a spur of the moment trip, check on restaurant availability before you add the dining plan.  There's nothing worse than getting the dining plan, particularly getting the dining plan for free as part of some promotion, and then realizing that the only place you can eat is Nine Dragons or that you can only eat at really odd hours. That is, without question, not going to be a bargain.

In closing, whether or not the  Dining Plan is a good deal for you depends almost entirely on how you eat. I think the dining plan works best if you're the type of Disney guest who eats at sit-down restaurants at least half of the time on your trip. Further, it helps to have a reasonably flexible schedule.  Finally, you need to be able to get most of the ADRs you want. Next time, I'll do better research; I certainly could have maximized our value if I'd been better informed. Since I loved how convenient it is, I think that we'll do the plan on our next long trip.

Please check out my latest offer, a free $50 Disney gift card when you book a new vacation package.  This is in addition to current Disney discounts.  Email me at ChrisW@pixievacations.com.