Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Timers: What to do in the early planning stages.

Continuing with theme of Darlene's first trip, I want to talk about the things you can do months before your trip begins.  For some of us, this is part of the excitement, but to the uninitiated, it can seem a bit, how shall I put it?  Well, it can seem like a bit much.  I mean, who makes dining reservations six months in advance?  But the thing about a Disney vacation is that you have to plan it.  I've travelled through Europe with nothing more than a backpack and a well-worn travel guide and had a wonderful time, but Disney isn't like that. Sure, you can plan nothing and have a good time.  But if you have a budget, if you don't like lines, and if you want to maximize your fun, a little planning can go a long way. 

The steps you take in the early planning stage are really very minimal, but they get you one step closer to  your goal:  Disney World.  Here's a few of the biggest ones you'll want to keep in mind.

1.  Picking a room. If you're staying on site, you'll want to book early to get your resort of choice.  You may book up to 500 days in advance (Disney cancellation policies are fairly lenient, but you'll want to familiarize yourself with them), but giving yourself a good six months (except for holiday travel) should give you enough time.  I could stay anywhere on property and have a great time, but Disney resorts are so beautifully themed they can really add to your experience, so choose your resort carefully. Do you want a casual fun atmosphere? 

Pop Century.

Something romantic like the Grand Floridian? 

Maybe a tropical paradise is more to your liking? 

The Polynesian Resort is located on the Magic Kingdom's monorail.

Or maybe convenience or price tops your list? It's all there and finding the one that suits you best is half the fun.

2.  Watching for discounts.  Even after you book your room, watch for discounts.  If a discount comes out that matches your existing reservation, you can try to apply it (keep in mind they are limited).  Disney normally releases room discounts or free dining several months in advance. This year has been a little different, because free dining was released for dates through next fall. This doesn't mean that the last series of discounts are it for the year.  What will likely happen is that new discounts will be released and some blackout dates will be removed. This is not guaranteed, of course. Disney likes to keep us guessing. 

If you're not working with a travel agent, you can look for these discounts yourself.   The resort board at Disboards is one of the first places to post news of discounts; I always say, if you want to find out what's going on at Disney World, check there first.  You can also check Mousesavers, but they are usually slightly behind the news at Disboards. 

If you have a travel agent, she should keep up with discounts for you. If not, fire her. Seriously. There are too many excellent Disney certified agents out there for you to work with someone who doesn't keep your interests in mind. 

3.  Making your advanced dining reservations (ADRs).  Park hours usually come out right around when you can also make your ADRs, which is at the six-month mark.  The most popular restaurants, like Cinderella's Royal Table and Le Cellier will fill up before 8:00 a.m., Eastern time on the first day of availability, so if you want one of those restaurants, you're going to have to get up early. You can either call Disney at 407-WDW-DINE or book online at the Disney website. 

4. Buy a good travel guide.  The absolute best guide out there is the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, but it's huge and for some people, it's intimidating.  If you want something smaller that is equally good, try The Complete Walt Disney World, which has gorgeous pictures and is written by a couple who spends a great deal of time in the parks. Finally, for those who like to organize their trips and keep all the information in one place, the Passporter guides are excellent;  Passporter also runs a wonderful site with a friendly community forum where you can discuss Disney and how to use the book. You can't go wrong with any of these guides, so it's really a matter of how much reading and detail you want to tackle.

On a personal  note, I'm not a fan of any of the Frommer's or Fodor's Disney World guides.  They seem like an afterthought and I find that the information isn't any more useful than you would find on a site like Trip Advisor; in some cases, it's far less useful and potentially out of date

5.  Finally, learn two of the most important rules for guests:  How Disney transportation works and why you need a fastpass.

Next up we'll talk about what to expect when you're expecting (to visit Disney World).

Darlene's First Trip.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a reader named Darlene. I’m always touched and grateful when someone reads the blog and takes the time to write me about it, but Darlene’s story had an added element. She wrote:
My first trip to Disney World has waited 21 years - I had a two week vacation planned and paid for the spring of 1999, when the driver of a car ran a stop sign and broadsided my vehicle resulting in my 3 week hospitalization and back surgery, so I had to cancel that vacation.
Since then, Darlene has had serious medical problems due to the accident, including scaring, and pain. Says Darlene:
I am one of those people who looks normal, but will need to rent a scooter to get around Disney World. I really would like to ride some of the rides with my 9 year old granddaughter, and am wondering if you could give me any advice which would help me decide which ones are okay for me.
Darlene continued to say that she’s taking a February trip to Disney World with her son, daughter-in-law, and nine-year old granddaughter. They’ll also be meeting up with some other relatives who are staying off site.  They'll be staying in a two-bedroom Bay Lake Tower with a view of Bay Lake.  It sounds like Darlene has already done some good research; she's staying at the newest, most convenient property on site.

My first thought was "We need to make sure Darlene has the best trip ever!"  That is a long time to wait and I'm so happy that she's finally going.  In the next few posts, I want to talk about three things, which I'll add links to as they're put up:

1.  Tips for first-timers, including a short list of dos and don'ts.
2.  Issues concerning people with disabilities.

3.  Tips for traveling with a larger group. 

Please leave a comment if you have any ideas or tips for Darlene.  Thanks!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do You Need a Parkhopper with Small Children?

Parkhoppers are a great idea, allowing you to "hop" from park to park in the same day. Without them, you're restricted to one park per day no matter how many days are on your ticket.  But they're also expensive. A family of four can expect to add around $225 (they're around $55 each)  to their total ticket cost, regardless of whether they stay one day or ten.  Still, I find the park hopper option invaluable.  It allows me to visit one park earlier in the day even if I have a dining reservation in another park.  I can also leave one park and go to a less busy park if I have the hopper option.  But they're not always a good deal for everyone, particularly those with young children. 

So the question is, should you buy parkhoppers if you're mainly visiting the park with kids?  Ask yourself the the following:

1. How old are the kids?  If they're under five-years old, one park per day is probably more than enough for them and it's going to be easier on you. 

2.  How well do your kids do on Disney transportation?  You're going to be getting on and off buses several times a day even if you don't park hop. This can get tiring after a while, especially during the hotter months.  If you've got one or more kids in the stroller, it's also time-consuming.

3.  How serious are you about keeping your kids on their regular schedule? Park hopping, in my experience, always messes up my kids' schedule because we're spending more time going from park to park. Invariably, one of them will fall asleep in the car or stroller.  Focusing on just one park per day allows me to fit their naps in more easily because I'm not dealing with as many variables. 

4.  Can your budget absorb the cost?  Today, family vacations are a luxury. A lot of people are skipping them altogether or if they're going, they're cutting back on little things that can really add up. If your budget for your Disney vacation is already pretty bare bones and you still want to cut some costs, this is a good way to do it.  Adding that extra $200 to your food and souvenir budget can allow you to say "yes" more often to your kids when they want a treat.

If you decide not to add the option, you'll need to prepare a bit more carefully.  Always check park hours before you make your dining reservations; they're both out at the 180-day mark.  Then, make sure your park days coincide with your dining reservations.  You don't want to end up in the Magic Kingdom on a day when you have a Fantasmic dinner package reservation at Hollywood Studios later that day.  The good news is, if you find that you need the option, you can always add it later in your trip. There's no advantage to adding it before you go; even discount brokers charge the same amount.

Monday, August 23, 2010

More on Changes to the Fantasyland Expansion.

Cinderella's Chateau is rumored to be on the chopping block.
Copyright Disney World.

Before you proceed any further, I just want to caution that what follows is mainly the product of the internet gossip mill, so take it all with a huge grain of salt. 

You may have been following the news of the Fantasyland expansion over in the Magic Kingdom, but if you haven't been, it essentially involves turning one large area in the northern part of the park into Princess Central. There are also plans to take out Mickey's Toontown Fair and replace it with a Pixie Hollow meet and greet, two Dumbo rides, and re-themed Goofy's Barnstormer. In the last weeks however, Disney publicly stated that some of that will change, clearly due to fears that the original plans appealed mainly to a very small demographic. Disney hasn’t specifically said what those changes are yet, but the most credible rumor up until now is that Pixie Hollow is out.

Sorry ladies.  It's not you, it's us.

Just recently however, the rumor mill started churning from some pretty credible sources that the Sleeping Beauty’s cottage and Cinderella’s castle, both souped up meet and greets with entertainment and audience participation, are being replaced with plans for a Snow White themed roller coaster. Think something slightly less adventurous than Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Is this credible? Well, many Disney fans would love it, which may be why the rumor is so popular. When the initial Fantasyland Expansion plans came out at last year’s D23 Expo, it was rumored that Goofy’s Barnstormer would be re-themed along those lines and from what I could tell, it was one of the most well-received elements of the expansion. So maybe. But so far there’s nothing official out of Disney.

The other rumor is that the area that Toontown currently occupies will be getting the full circus treatment, something I personally don’t get given that most kids have never seen Dumbo and seem to care very little about circuses. The Little Mermaid ride will definitely stay (we know there have been permits pulled, for example) as will the Beauty and the Beast elements.

Artists rendering of the Little Mermaid attraction.
Copyright Disney World.

Again, all of this is just speculation. All we know for certain is that some elements of the expansion are being replaced. Personally, I can’t imagine a better addition to the expansion than an E-ticket attraction representing Disney’s first full-length animated film, Snow White.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why isn't there an Annual Pass Payment Plan for Non-Florida Residents?

This summer, Disney unveiled an annual pass payment plan for Florida residents which allows guests to split up payments over the course of a year.  It basically works like this:  Show proof that you're a Florida resident by producing either a valid driver's license or state-issued ID card, then pay for one day's admission plus one monthly payment in advance. For example, say you're buying a Premium Pass, which costs $520.81 for Florida residents.  You'll pay $84.14 plus $36.39 that day and then $36.39 for the next eleven months.  There's no extra charge for getting the plan and there's no interest, so it's a great way to pay for your annual passes, particularly for families who potentially shell out a few thousand a year for APs.

Early reports are that the plan was a success, as many more Floridians than expected took advantage of it. This is great for Disney and for Floridians, but what about non-residents?   When Disney announced this plan on Facebook and on the Official Parks Blog, it became apparent from the comments that most readers were very disappointed that this option didn't extend to non-Floridians.  In fact, on Disney's Facebook page, there were nearly 1000 comments on this subject, nearly all asking why non-Floridians don't also qualify for a payment plan (Plus two guys arguing about Star Wars. Why?).  Some of them took it downright personally.

The only reason I've heard for not extending this benefit to non-residents, and this doesn't come from Disney itself but rather from posters on a Disney message board, is that it poses some difficulties in the event that someone fails to pay.  I find this difficult to believe.  If that were the case, any one of us non-residents could go to Florida, have a ball and run up some bills, default, and be untouchable by creditors. We all know that it doesn't work that way. 

In many ways, extending the payment plan to non-residents is better for Disney.  Annual passes work best for Disney when they aren't used that much. It's kind of like gym memberships; if every member went regularly, the place would go out of business. Now granted, Disney potentially earns revenue every time someone comes into the parks, so having guests come multiple times a year is good for Disney, to an extent. But having lived in Florida, in my experience many Floridians regard Disney as a day trip, particularly if they live within driving distance, so they're less likely to stay in Disney resorts or eat at Disney restaurants or even buy souvenirs . Frankly, if you buy an annual pass and you're used to seeing Disney this way, maybe you're not spending much money at all, but you're still parking on Disney property (for free) and using that pass.  Then that pass makes a lot less sense for Disney.

Conversely, non-residents are almost guaranteed to spend money. In fact, it's pretty much unavoidable.  We're certainly not doing Disney as a day trip.  We're buying souvenirs, trying the restaurants, and staying in the resorts. Plus, give a Dinsey fan an annual pass and what you typically hear is that it will burn a hole in his pocket--he'll go more because the ticket, one of the biggest expenses of a Disney trip, is already paid for.  But unlike nearby guests, we're not going so much that we start to put a dent in Disney's profit. Plus, it's a given that a small percentage of those out of state guests who  buy annual passes might even fail to get their money's worth out of it. Things come up, flights get too expensive, trips get cancelled, passes expire. 

I suppose it's possible that Disney feels that by extending this benefit, the company could possibly be giving the wrong signal to shareholders who might view it as a public admission that the economy has hurt Disney World as much as any other travel destination.  Many parks have a similar payment option, but Disney has never been "most parks."  By not extending this benefit, Disney parks retain the image, at least, that the economy hasn't touched them.  And maybe they don't need the money.  Disney World attendance was steady in 2009, a year when Universal attendance was dismal.  Despite reports that attendance was down slightly in the last quarter as compared to last year, spending per room is up.  Still, I'm inclined to think that the fact that Disney continues to give substantial resort discounts indicates that even the Mouse has felt the pinch in the last few years.

I always say that Disney is one of the smartest companies out there and I think this is a brilliant plan.  And while I'm sure they have their reasons for not extending this benefit to non-residents, I can't imagine what the reasoning is.  What I suspect and hope is that the Florida payment plan is actually being used by Disney as a test to see how it might work for the rest of the country. 

Hey, I can dream, right?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Disney's Wine and Dine Marathon.

Have you ever run a marathon?  Despite being very diligent about exercising, I hate to run. In fact, when I got out of the army, I distinctly remember being really happy about not having to run again unless if was after a the kids or a good sale.  And a marathon?  Well, the idea of doing any activity that might require me to grease myself up in order to avoid--well, I'm not sure what, but trust me, slathering yourself with Vaseline is unpleasant enough.  But if you're a Disney parks fan, it's hard not to get caught up in the all the fun people seem to be having at  Disney races, which exist for almost every ability level and happen several times a year. There's the popular January full and half marathons, the Princess Marathon in the Spring, complete with tiaras and tutus, and a few other races thrown in there as well.  But none pushed me over the edge until I heard the words  "Wine and Dine Marathon." 

Regrettably, there is no wining or dining during the marathon itself.  Nonetheless, I signed up with my good friend (a non-Disney person).  The race is the first Saturday in October. 

The Wine and Dine half marathon is at night, which is a nice idea; I love the parks then.  It goes from ESPN's World of Sports, through Animal Kingdom (at this point, those doing the relay switch off) and continues to Hollywood Studios and Epcot, where it ends in a party which will go on until the wee hours of the morning. That is, if you don't have to run back to your resort and wash off the Vaseline.

Click on the image for a larger,
more intimidating picture.  Yikes.

Disney is fairly strict about pace.  You don't have to run fast, but if you go over a sixteen minute mile, you'll get the boot and are taken to the finish line where, presumably, you'll get a wedgie or something.  Seriously, though, it sounds embarrassing.  I'm a little worried about it. I'm slow.  And wedgies were my least favorite thing about middle school.

Running this summer has proven challenging. We've had lots of obligations and it's been hotter than the sun, so I'm hoping to get a bit more motivated in the coming weeks.  Wish me luck! And if you've run a Disney marathon, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Annual Passholder Discounts out for the Rest of the Year.

Disney just announced AP discounts for the rest of the year.  The dates are 10/3/10-12/25/10. Keep in mind that some dates are blocked out. Resort discounts are as follows:

Save 30% at Disney Value Resorts and Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Save 35% at Disney Moderate Resorts and Grand Floridian Resort.

Save 42% at the remaining Disney Deluxe Resorts.

Save 42% at Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts.

If you're using the dining plan, you'll need to add the special annual passholders dining package.

Use code AM9 or X07 when you call Disney or your travel agent.

You can read more about the costs and benefits of an annual pass here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Magical Express.

One of my favorite benefits of staying on site is Disney’s Magical Express which, despite its name, isn’t the name of the tour bus belonging to a 1970s-era rock band. Magical Express, or “ME” as it’s known in Disney online communities, is Disney’s bus system that takes guests from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Disney World. Here are some of the questions I see a lot about Magical Express.

Sign for Magical Express at MCO.

QUESTION: How does Magical Express work?

ANSWER: Surprisingly well, actually. I know that some detractors criticize Magical Express as a way of getting guests on property and leaving them dependent on Disney transportation, which in turn makes it difficult to go off site. Okay, so that may be one of the results, but honestly, it’s a pretty good system. One of the things I hate dealing with on vacation is my luggage and this pretty much eliminates the need to worry about it from check-in at my home airport until I walk into my room later that day. That, to me, is brilliant.

Disney has a contract with MCO for the foreseeable future that gives them a central baggage receiving area right at the airport. All luggage with the yellow Magical Express tags goes to this location where it’s loaded onto Disney transportation and sent to the appropriate resort.

You’ll call ME at 866-599-0951 at least ten days before your departure date and give the cast member your flight and resort information. Shortly thereafter, you’ll receive your luggage tags. When you check in , you’ll put these tags on your bags and that’s it. Once you arrive you’ll take the bus to your resort and several hours later, your bags will be sent to your room. It’s a great feeling to spend a day in the parks and then come back to your room—happy and exhausted--and see your bags waiting for you.

QUESTION: Who can use Magical Express?

ANSWER: Anyone travelling domestically and staying at a Disney resort. The does NOT include the Downtown Disney hotels, Shades of Green, and the Swan/Dolphin. Not all carriers use the luggage service, although if your airline does not, you may still use Magical Express . Just check your own baggage, pick it up when you arrive, and bring it to the bus.

Currently, the following airlines use ME’s luggage service: Air Train, Alaskan, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and USAir. Southwest is currently in a trial phase of delivery to resorts. At this time it does not deliver luggage to all of them, so you’ll want to verify that with Magical Express that your resort is a participating resort for Southwest.

Keep in mind that minors under the age of 16 will need to be accompanied by an adult.

QUESTION: When should I book Magical Express?

ANSWER: At least ten days prior to arrival. Anecdotally, I’ve taken spur of the moment trips and used ME with only a few days notice; I didn’t get luggage tags on time so I just checked my own bags. I’ve also heard that people have gone up to ME with no reservation at all and used it after providing their resort reservation number. As always, it depends on the time of the year and availability, so if possible, let ME know ahead of time, even if it’s only a day’s notice.

About a week before your departure, you'll receive your luggage tags and ME voucher.  Your tags will have your name and your resort name.  Should you change your resort after the tags arrive or if the resort name is incorrect, cross out the name, put in the proper resort and inform ME before you leave.

Magical Express luggage tags.

QUESTION: What do I do when I get to MCO?

ANSWER: You’ll go to Terminal B, Level 1 to get checked in and wait for your bus. Sometimes, there is no check in at all; you’ll simply be waived over to your bus. I’ve literally walked right on, waited a couple of minutes, and been on a bus out of MCO.

QUESTION: What are the buses like?

ANSWER: They’re very clean, with comfortable seats. It’s a typical tour bus, except with bright and cheery Disney colors. There are two seats on each side of the aisle. As the bus leaves the airport you’ll be shown a program telling guests about Disney World. It’s cute and like most people who ride ME a lot, for me it kind of says “We’re here!” On the way back, you’ll see a short program as well. I’d like to tell you what it’s about but I’m usually too sad to watch.

Service dogs are allowed with the owner. There is also wheelchair accommodation. Let the cast member know about any accommodations you’ll need when you make your ME reservation.

A little word of advice. These aren’t like Greyhound buses. There aren’t any bathrooms (however frightening) on board. If you or someone in your group can’t make it to the resort, make sure you stop and use the restroom before boarding. There are some on your left just as you get into the Magical Express area.

QUESTION: Do I have to check my bags with Magical Express?

ANSWER: No. Just use your airline’s regular baggage service. You’ll go to your appropriate luggage carousel when you arrive, get your luggage, and then bring it your bus. Your driver will load it underneath the bus and unload it when you reach your resort.

Feel free to use the force to get your luggage.

QUESTION: How long does it take to get from MCO to Disney World?

ANSWER: It depends on the time of year. During busier times, it could easily take three hours from landing to check-in at your resort. The usual wait is more like one and a half to two hours. This is mainly due to lines at MCO for Magical Express, not the drive itself. Keep in mind as well that MCO is actually around 35 – 45 minutes from Disney property. My average wait/travel time is about 90-minutes, although on more than one occasion I’ve gone from the airport to the parks in just under two hours. Often, I’ve walked right onto a bus and haven’t had to wait. Despite the occasional horror story you see posted on Disney message boards, Magical Express works quite well and is often the quickest way to get you to your resort.

Again, I want to caution that travel time can vary a lot. In fact, even during slower times of the year, you could easily get stuck behind a tour group and have to wait at MCO for a while. I’m a worse case scenario kind of girl: I assume, even during slower times, that it will take me a minimum of two hours to get from MCO to check-in at my resort, with another hour added on to reach the parks after check-in, that way I’m always pleasantly surprised when it takes less time.

QUESTION: I’d like to go directly to the parks. Can I ride a different bus to Disney property (such as a monorail resort) and then go back to my resort and check-in later?

ANSWER: No. You’ll have to ride the assigned bus for your resort. There’s no rule that says you have to check in right away. If you’re arriving with a lot of people, you could go right from your bus to a resort bus and head to a park. In fact, I often check in later if there are a lot of people ahead of me.

QUESTION: I won’t be staying at a Disney resort until several days after I arrive at MCO. Instead, I’ll be staying at Universal and plan on renting a car for those days and then returning it to MCO as I don’t think I’ll need it in Disney World. Can I take ME to my resort even though it’s not my arrival day?

ANSWER: Yes. You get one transfer to and from your resort. As long as you use your transfer on a day you are a registered guest, you’re fine. In other words, you don’t have to use ME on the day you fly in. To avoid confusion, some people just give ME an arrival day that isn’t the actual day they are coming into Orlando, but the day they will actually use ME.

QUESTION: On our next trip my son is bringing a friend who will need to return home several days before we do. His mother does not want him to ride ME alone as he is only fifteen. Can I go with him and then get a ride back to our resort?

ANSWER: Yes. While you are normally allowed one only trip to and from your resort, Disney will make exceptions in cases like this. Disney actually prefers that a parent or guardian accompany anyone under the age of 18.

QUESTION: What if I want to rent a car? Can some of my party take ME or do we all have to take it?

ANSWER: You’ll hear the same answer everywhere: Magical Express is not a luggage delivery service. If you ask Disney, they will tell you that at least one person in your party needs to ride ME. The reality is, Disney has a contract with MCO to deliver every yellow-tagged ME bag to its proper resort. Your checked bags do not go on ME with you. This means that if you’re willing to take the chance of your luggage making it to the resort even though no one in your party checked in with Magical Express upon arrival, then you don’t have to ride ME.

QUESTION: I have a carry-on bag that I don’t want to take to the parks. If my room isn’t ready, what do I do with it?

ANSWER: You can leave your bag with the resort’s baggage services. They’ll tag it and you can just pick it up later.

QUESTION: How many luggage tags will Disney give me?

ANSWER: They will give you one tag per guest. If you need more, call 866-599-0951 and they will send them to you.

QUESTION: How do I get back to MCO?

ANSWER: When you make arrangements to use ME, you’ll provide them will all your flight information. You’ll receive information the night before you leave telling you what time you’ll need to meet the ME bus the following day, usually three hours before your flight departs. You’ll check your bags and if you’re flying a participating airline, you won’t see them until you arrive back at your home airport.

Buses stop at four places in the airport, as well as at the several resorts that particular bus serves.

QUESTION: What if I miss my bus?

ANSWER: When you make arrangements with Magical Express, you’ll give them all your flight information which allows them to assign you to a bus. If your plane is delayed or if you miss your plane, Disney will still take you to your resort when you arrive. In other words, you’re not assigned to a bus for a specific time; there’s some flexibility. If you miss your flight and will be getting in later than 10:00 p.m., check your own luggage and pick it up.

Missing your bus from your resort is somewhat more complicated. Officially, Disney won’t put you on another bus. Unofficially, I’ve heard they sometimes will, particularly in cases where the delay is not your fault. Be prepared to pay for a cab, as it will depend on the time of year and the cast member you speak to. Keep in mind that their official policy is to only let you ride on your scheduled bus, so it really is beyond the individual cast member’s discretion.

A few final points:

o Magical Express luggage service stops picking up for flights arriving after 10:00 p.m. If your flight is arriving near or around that time, you’ll check your bags normally, pick them up at the baggage carousel, and then have them loaded on the bus.

o Drivers can accept tips. If they help you with your luggage, even a couple dollars is a nice way to say “thank you” to someone who works very hard. In my experience, ME drivers are especially friendly and helpful.

o Carry a travel-on bag with necessities. You bags may arrive within an hour or two or they may be . . . delayed. Significant delays (more than six hours) are rare and are usually the fault of your airline, but it does happen. Take medications, glasses, your little one’s favorite teddy bear, etc., with you on the plane. You can check that bag once you arrive at your resort.

o If your flight arrives later than 2:00 p.m., considering not going to the parks. Use that day to explore your resort. Many guests treat arrival day as a good excuse to enjoy the pool. There will be towels at the pool that you can use, so don’t worry about packing any.

o Don’t waste that Le Cellier reservation you worked so hard to get on your first day if you think there’s any chance your flight could get delayed or you’ll encounter substantial waits at MCO.

o Still feel like you need a car? You can rent one on Disney property and save money. More on this in an upcoming post.

o It sounds obvious but remember: If you don’t have a Magical Express tag on your bag, you’ll need to pick your bag up at the baggage carousel when you arrive.

o Car seats need to be stowed with luggage. They are not allowed on the bus.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reader Email: Visiting the World during the Holidays.

Reny S. writes:

We are planning a trip to WDW in early December. Do you have any good tips for that time of year. We already have our tickets; do you have any ideas of what is the cheapest way to book a hotel? We would like to stay at a moderate or better resort. There are 2 adults, 3 kids (14, 11, 9). Can you add the dining plan without buying a full package? I have never used a TA before. How much do they charge for their service?

Reny. Thanks for your question. I know from emailing back and forth that you’re planning on going right after Thanksgiving week, which is an amazing time, possibly one of the best holiday weeks to go. The crowds should be low and the weather should be close to perfect.  Make sure you pack for unexpected highs and lows weather-wise, both jeans and shorts, T-shirts and light sweaters, and a light jacket for night.  And bring your bathing suits as well; chances are good that it will be warm enough to swim.  Try to get at least one night in the Magic Kingdom; it's truly impressive.  It should be open late at least one night during your stay, but if it's not, I strongly encourage buying a tickets to the Christmas party, which will allow you to stay until midnight.

Visit Santa Paws at Downtown Disney.
Copyright Walt Disney Company.

The main discount that’s out right now for that period is free dining, but since you’ve already bought park tickets, you’ll want to look at room-only discounts. These should come out in the next few weeks; I’ll post them here and you can also check sites like Mousesavers. You might also try signing up with Disney online. Sometimes they send out “pin codes,” which are discounts specific to you sent to your email. They are often a better deal than general public discounts but can be hard to come by.

With five people in one room, you’re probably going to be most comfortable at a deluxe resort. Some moderates sleep five, but the beds in most mods are only double beds and with two kids sharing a bed, you might want a queen, which you’ll find in the deluxe resorts. Wilderness Lodge and Animal Kingdom Lodge are two of the most beautifully themed resorts (both were designed by the same architect). They are both considered to be a lower level of deluxe, therefore they cost less. I’ve never been able to figure out why, as they have some of the nicest pools and the most well-executed themes. Both have bunk bed rooms. Wilderness Lodge in particular is very popular during Christmastime.

If convenience is important, you might want to look into the monorail resorts or one of the Epcot resorts that will allow you to take a boat to Hollywood Studios or Epcot. The Swan and Dolphin hotels both offer discounts for teachers and certain government workers, so if you fall into that category, it’s worth a look. Finally, if you want to stay off site, which will give you a lot more room for your money, I’ve seen some great rates at the Sheridan Vistana and at Gaylord Palms. Both of these resorts have a relationship with the owners of The Dis, so if you’re looking into those resorts, check there first because their rates are very good.

You could also look into renting Disney Vacation Club points which will allow you to stay at a Deluxe resort, give you more space and privacy, and save you money. DVC is a group of resorts that fall under Disney’s timeshares, but don’t let the word “timeshare” scare you: Disney won’t try to sell you anything and you won’t be asked to take part in a presentation. Most DVC resorts are attached to the deluxe resorts, but some, like Saratoga Springs and Old Key West, are free-standing (and also less expensive). My personal favorite DVC resort is at Animal Kingdom Lodge. It’s beautiful. When DVC owners can’t use their points, Disney allows them to rent them out. Here’s a good starting place on renting points. The vast majority of these transactions go very smoothly; both rental boards mentioned in the post I linked to are very safe. You could also check a points broker for discounted last minute rentals. I’m not a huge fan of using a broker for renting points simply because they charge more per point, but for last minute deals, they can be a great bargain.

Gingerbread at Boardwalk Villas and Inn.

You can add the dining plan to a resort reservation but you'll have to add one-day tickets for each member of your party; this technically turns your reservation into a package.   Kind of a weird little quirk.  You can probably avoid this if you rent DVC points as DVC members aren't required to do this.  Passholders can avoid this requirement as well.  Before you do this, make sure you take a look at dining reservation availability online. You can do this at The website is a little busy, but click on the “parks” section on the top and then the “Walt Disney World” section on the side. When you get there, go back to the top column and click on “where to eat.” and then “make a reservation.” As noted above, Disney is doing their free dining promotion during your visit which can make getting reservations later on a bit difficult since most people will have made them at the 180-day mark. Unless you can get most of the restaurants that interest you, skip the dining plan and pay out of pocket for a couple of sit-down meals.

There are some restaurants that you can get on shorter notice (90 to 60 days out) even during free dining. These include California Grill, Artist Point, Yachtsman Steakhouse, Biergarten and Chefs de France. The first three are two table-service credit restaurants but are well worth the price.

A word about using travel agents. In general, I don’t use travel agents when I travel, but I like to use one when I go to Disney. Disney certified travel agents don’t charge for their services. The good ones will keep up on discounts that apply during your travel dates and call you when they come out and apply them to your trip. They’ll also make your dining reservations and let you know about special events that are going on during your stay. If you’re unsure about using an agency, contact one and get some quotes. You can verify these prices yourself through the Disney website or by calling another agent. I don’t endorse an agency on this site, but if you’d like to know who I use, send me an email. I trust them a lot.

Christmas display at the Contemporary Resort in the style
of iconic Disney Imagineer Mary Blair.
Copyright Walt Disney Company.

I don’t know if you listen to Disney podcasts, but you can find a ton of great information about Christmas happenings at Disney World on these podcasts. You don’t need an MP3 player to listen; they’ll work on many phones and on your computer. Here are some you might like:

  • The DisUnplugged, one of my favorite podcasts., recently did a Christmas in July series which discussed various park activities during the holiday season. If you go back to their December archives, you’ll find some information about Universal Christmas events as well.
  • WDWMagic is Lou Mongello’s podcast. Lou is basically Mr. Disney. I don’t know if there’s any one Disney fan who can top his knowledge. Go back to Lou’s November/December archives for some really detailed Christmas information. He has a couple of pieces up about Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that I really enjoyed. Not only is Lou one of the nicest fans in the Disney community, his podcast is completely G-rated, so you can listen with little ears and not have to worry. If you find yourself enjoying the podcast, keep in mind that Lou usually has a monthly meet-up where he meets fans.
  • Finally, check out WDWToday. Their show is hosted by five well-informed, enthusiastic Disney fans, one of whom happens to be Len Testa, author of the Unofficial Guide. You can search their December archives for their Christmas shows, which are normally done by subject (around 20-30 minutes long). WDWToday is also having a series of fan meet-ups while you’re in Disney World. You can check their site for dates if that interests you.

Here’s a list of holiday highlights:

The nightly lighting of Cinderella Castle right after the fireworks. This takes place before the Magic Kingdom closes for the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and is a must-do.

The Candlelight Processional tells the story of Jesus’ birth. Celebrity narrators are joined by local choirs.  It takes place at Epcot several times a night during the holiday season. If you purchase a Candlelight Processional Dinner package you will get priority seating. Otherwise, get in line at least an hour before the show begins, earlier if it’s a popular celebrity leading the processional.

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party takes place in the Magic Kingdom several nights a week with snow on Main Street and special parades and shows. For me, it’s a must-do. Crowds are usually manageable, but avoid weekend nights, which tend to draw larger crowds.  The party officially begins at 7:00 but you can enter the park as early as 4:00 with your ticket.  This is a separate ticketed event.  Tickets can be purchased for a slight discount online from; otherwise, buy them at the park on the day of the party.   Some dates sell out ahead of time.

Photo Copyright Walt Disney Company.

The Osborne Family Holiday Lights in Disney's Hollywood Studios. I went to law school in Arkansas, where Jennings Osborne is kind of a local legend. He’s a big jolly guy who, among other things, does a lot of work for charitable causes. He also likes Christmas. In fact, he likes Christmas so much that his extravagantly decorated house became a local tourist attraction.  Later, he bought the houses on either side of him and decorated those too.  Unfortunately, his neighbors in his very tony suburb didn’t appreciate all the traffic and they got an injunction to make him stop. Fortunately for us, Disney offered to take his entire collection and decorate a portion of Hollywood Studios. The result is a spectacular display of Christmas lights and holiday music. The lights go up at sundown, usually around 6:00 every night. Crowds thin after about 30 minutes, so if you’d like to experience this attraction in a more peaceful setting, come at that time. The lights stay on until after the park closes.

You might want to go resort hopping while you're visiting Disney World.  It's totally free and you don't have to be a guest to visit the resorts, which are beautifully decorated for the holidays. Favorites include the lobby of the Wilderness Lodge and the life-sized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian.

Copyright Walt Disney Company.

A couple of warnings:

Disney tapes its annual Christmas parade the first weekend in December. Expect the Magic Kingdom to be difficult to get into on Friday and Saturday. Sunday is a rain day, so there may be taping that day as well. While it can be difficult to get in and out of the parks, the rest of the park should be manageable. The large Christmas tree in Town Square is usually in another part of the park until after the parade finishes taping.

Photo copyright Daily Disney/Orlando Sentinel.

If you want to watch the taping of the parade, you can sign up online closer to Christmas. There is no cost to view the parade. Even if you’re not signed up, you can watch the parade, but the best spaces are reserved for those holding tickets.

Christmas parties during your stay means that the Magic Kingdom closes earlier. If you have an ADR in the park during the party but do not have a ticket for the party, you will lose your ADR. If you’ve pre-paid, as you will with Cinderella’s Royal Table, you will still be required to pay even though you can't get into the park.

Pop Warner, a sporting event for cheerleading and football, begins December 4th. If you’re taking Magical Express out that day, expect lines at MCO. The kids usually stay in one of the values and a moderate, but those resorts haven't been announced yet.  A lot of non-Pop Warner guests prefer to avoid those resorts that week because the kids are a bit rambunctious.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could literally go on all day!  But hopefully this is enough information to get you started planning your trip. Please let me know what you decided to do and how it worked out. Take care!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chef's de France.

Chefs de France, located in the French pavilion in Epcot, is consistently one of the best restaurants in all the Walt Disney World theme parks. Located in a well-lit, cheerful space, it’s the first thing you see when you round the corner and cross the bridge from Great Britain. There are fun “street” performers just outside and plenty of people watching. Once inside, you’ll be seated in either the main dining room with a view of the walkway around the World Showcase Lagoon or in the smaller, rectangular shaped room with big glass windows that overlook the fountain and other shops. Either view makes for great people watching. Happily, there’s only a small portion of the restaurant that doesn’t afford nice outdoor views. Designed to look like a French bistro with shades of yellow and blue accented with iron, it’s more homey than posh, but the rooms are some of the prettiest in Disney World. The whole place just feels “French” right down to the smallish bathrooms that resemble the type you’d find in a neighborhood Parisian restaurant. It’s fine for a family or for a casual date night.

Photograph courtesy WDW Memories

One consistent thread you’ll find running through all World Showcase restaurants is that the menus are very accessible. This is, depending on your point of view, either good or bad. While they do venture into traditional fare, some of which may be unfamiliar to some Americans, most of what’s available is a variation of something you’re familiar with. I know that some people complain that there isn’t enough authenticity in the World Showcase, but I think they do a good job of giving guests a reasonably authentic experience while also ensuring that there’s something for everyone. On the menu at Chef’s, you’ll find escargot, something Americans tend to think of as quintessentially French, and you’ll find items that you’d see in any French restaurant, but you’ll also find a good steak and at lunch, a burger that’s one of the best you’ll find in the parks.

One thing I don’t like about buffets and restaurants that turn out a high volume of meals every day is that sometimes the meal seems devoid of the human touch. They can still be good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something missing. Without getting too esoteric, there’s a certain something that happens when a chef is in contact with the food he’s making, when he knows his ingredients and is taking the time to season and taste what he’s serving. I’m not sure how many guests Chefs serves a day, but they somehow make each meal seem like it was made in smaller batches, much like you’d find in a neighborhood restaurant in Paris. One of my favorite dishes at Chef’s, the roast chicken, really does taste like it was made by one cook in a small kitchen. You can almost see him, shouting at his sous chef to bring more chopped onions and flirting with the lone waitress as she takes away your order. That’s an accomplishment given the sheer volume of guests who eat here daily.

Over several meals at Chefs, all of them enjoyable, I’ve developed a few opinions about the menu. Given a choice, I’d choose dinner rather than lunch. There’s a good burger on the lunch menu that I highly recommend and the beef short ribs on a cold day make for a delicious treat. Unfortunately, the prix fixe menu, which you’ll likely order from if you’re on the Disney dining plan, is so cheese-centric that after the second course you can start to feel a bit, how shall I put it? Bloated. Don’t get me wrong, I like my dairy. It’s practically a religion around our house. And the food was good. It’s just that I’d like to see them offer a lunch menu that ‘s a bit lighter, especially given the hot, humid weather outside.

The French onion soup, offered at both lunch and dinner, melds beef broth and onions in a way that lets both of them shine and then covers it with gruyere cheese. It’s a soup that, in less skilled hands, can be bland and soggy, but Chefs gets it right. It’s consistently mentioned as a guest favorite. The lobster bisque is also a good choice, tasting fresh and just the slightest bit sweet from the lobster itself but not too fishy; I’ve known seafood haters who order this every time. Appetizers also include a cheese plate and a pate and coldcut sampler, as well as one or two types of flatbreads.  The salads are a nice choice too, which fresh mixed greens dressed in a light vinaigrette; you can order other dressings as well, so don’t hesitate to ask if you prefer something different.

I could go on all day about dinner at Chefs. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in Disney World and that includes Disney’s signature restaurants, of which I’m a huge fan. Even if the food weren’t good, the atmosphere is so cheerful that you can’t help but enjoy yourself. But the food, well the food is pretty good. I generally loathe macaroni and cheese, but Chefs’ grown-up version, gratin de macaroni, is both familiar and decadent, made with cream and gruyere.

The steak is good. It’s not the best steak on property but you won’t be disappointed either. It comes with crispy fries served in a metal cone, so it looks extra fun.  You can substitute the fries for another vegatable.  I frequently order the roasted chicken, which is one of my favorite dishes at Disney World. There are other meat and pasta dishes available. Check here for current menus.

Desserts are definitely worth a try. I like the crème brulee, which has a light vanilla flavor and is served with a Madeleine, those addictive little cookies beloved by Proust. The mango sorbet is a nice choice for those looking to cut back on calories. If it’s available when you visit, the crepes with caramel and apples are worth every calorie and may find you having an embarrassing internal debate over whether or not it’s okay to pick up your plate and lick it. Well, I mean it is your vacation.

The kids’ menu has ice cream or chocolate chip cookies. Both are good, but not quite up to what is offered on the adults’ menu.

A word about the bread. One of the things that the French do really well is bread. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s probably harder to find substandard bread in France than it is to find good quality bread, which is just about everywhere. So it pains me to say that in this respect, Chefs falls short. At best you’ll be served a crusty roll with just a little bit of flavor. At worst, a round, flavorless, doughy ball. Either one will be accompanied by a hard pat of butter. Good bread can be hard to find at Disney World but in the French pavilion? That’s practically criminal.

There’s plenty for vegetarians to be happy about here. If you don’t see anything on the menu, make note when making your reservations that you’d like a vegetarian entrée and let the chef surprise you. If you’re following a gluten-free diet, you’ll be happy to know that the delicious macaroni and cheese can be made with gluten-free pasta. As with any dietary requests, you’ll want to make your needs known ahead of time. Here are some tips on how to do that here and here.

Service here passes what I call the “Disney friendly” test. I know that we Americans like to tease about the French. We’re self-conscious about using our high school French for fear that they will mock us. We worry that the French think we’re frumpy or maybe we think that they take themselves a little too seriously. And then we go to France and find out that, shockingly, they’re just like us. Okay, they’re just like us with better cheese and bread. But otherwise, a lot like us. And that shows at Chef’s, where you will find the same friendly service you’ll find anywhere at Disney World.

Photograph copyright Walt Disney Company.

Speaking of service, while you’re there, you may also get a visit at your table from Remy, the rat from Ratatouille, who visits guests from his perch on a cart wheeled around by a very funny waiter. In my experience, the cast member who pushes Remy around is very good at knowing who to joke with and who to leave to his bowl of hot steaming onion soup. Now you, like me, may have some misgivings about being visited during dinner by a audio-animatronic rat. I mean, who wants to be reminded of rats while you eat? But Remy is cute and funny enough that you’ll soon forget. It’s one of my favorite character experiences in a Disney restaurant. Sorry princesses, but that rat has star power. Remy isn’t always available, so ask while you make your reservations.

Chef’s manages to feel like a neighborhood restaurant in the middle of a very busy theme park. Ducking in on a hot day or sitting down for a cozy winter meal, you feel more relaxed than you would in busier settings. The surroundings are casual enough that you don’t have to worry about bringing the kids but it still manages to be date-night friendly. Most importantly, the food is really does make it a special occasion. Check it out on your next visit.

Chef’s costs one-table service credit if you’re on the dining plan. It isn’t as popular as some World Showcase restaurants, so you can probably get a reservation at about 45-days out. I’ve had luck with walk-ups as well. As with all Disney dining reservations, the earlier you call, the better. Chef’s participates in the Candlelight Processional dinner package.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Product Review: Disney Parks: The Secrets, Stories and Magic Behind the Scenes

In May I received an email from the people behind the video series Disney Parks asking me if I'd like to review their latest videos. Of course, I said yes! I'd seen parts of them on television and always taped them. My kids love them and they're fun to watch when you're missing Disney, as I often do. Since I wasn't blogging at the time and because I had a lot of obligations in the last few months, I didn't review them right away because I couldn’t give it the time it deserved, but since things have slowed down a bit, I've had a chance to watch all of them and I can't recommend them enough.

I loved this series, which includes six DVDs showing secrets and highlights from the parks. My sons especially loved the one on Animal Kingdom, which they watched every single day for a two week period. I found myself humming the tune all day long (if you've seen the video, you know it; it's kind of catchy). The writers had access to Disney Imagineers, executives, and cast members, so you’re really getting the story behind the attractions. The interviews alone are worth the price of the video. The video quality is excellent as is the sound.

I’d recommend this to first-timers to get a general idea of what’s available in the parks. Sure, you can read a guidebook. They’re indispensible. But having that visual to go along with it is really useful and fun. Even if you’ve been to the parks a lot, I think this series is worthwhile for the stories. It’s also nice to reminisce between trips. I know that sometimes at the end of a hard day, I like to pop one of these videos in the DVD player and just relax. Finally, my kids really liked them. I mean, that’s kind of an understatement. It was their video of choice all summer, which says a lot I think, given that they don’t get a lot of television so they have to choose carefully when they do. Although they’ve been to the parks a lot, the little ones don’t really understand the whole picture, but after watching the videos, they really seemed to get it better. At one point, my younger son pointed to something in the store and said “Animal Kingdom!” and like any good Disney-obsessed mom, I thought to myself “Good. The indoctrination is working.” Seriously, I’m counting on that one to push me around the parks in my old age.

I’ve seen these videos discussed a lot in online Disney forums and from what I can tell, you can get them the cheapest from Amazon.   Some of the videos contain footage that you may likely have seen on the Travel Channel, but some of it is new and it's all commercial free.  I also like having it all in one place.

Disclaimer: Other than the free videos, I haven't received anything from the company, so my opinion is completely unbiased. I could have said I didn't like them and I would still have the videos in my hot little hands!!  If you've seen the videos and want to share your opinions or if you have any questions, please let me know in the comment section.