- Before you even think about booking, order this free DVD: http://bit.ly/fLXWuL. It will provide lots of planning information AND your kids will love it.
- Consider what time of year you'd like to visit. Obviously summertime seems obvious, but it's hot and crowded during the warmer months. If you CAN, try to visit during January-March or from Labor Day to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Prices are cheaper and sometimes Disney will offer free dining during the "value" season. The first two weeks of December are also a great time to visit. Personally, I like October the best because the fall decorations look awesome!
- Let your kids order free, customizable maps here: bit.ly/lVIiIe
- As lame as it sounds, buy a planning book. Just run a search on Amazon and you'll find dozens. I recently suggested this one: amzn.to/mfGnJX to my in-laws so they can get ready for our trip in 2012.
- Consider applying for a Disney Visa: bit.ly/8KQDdj. We have one and LOVE it! On every purchase, you receive 1% back in Disney Dollars. Before going on a Disney vacation, we redeem our Disney Dollars and can use them on souvenirs, tips (if we're using the Dining Plan), etc. You receive 10% off any purchase at Disney World, 20% off guided tours, and you have access to an exclusive character meet and greet.
- Okay, so you've done your research and you're ready to begin planning. Even though it seems really simple to book your trip online, I would really suggest calling. Disney hires only the best so it's actually a pleasant experience. Plus, you can ask your Cast Member about any deals that may be coming up. Be sure to tell them thank you if they help you snag a special price or upgrade you to a different resort!
- Which resort should you choose? I've stayed at a myriad of different resorts on and off Disney property. It's tempting to stay off-property in the name of saving money, but I would really suggest staying on-site. Once you park your car at a Walt Disney World resort, that's the last time you have to drive anywhere. Disney provides transportation for you everyday to wherever you need to go. You also get Extra Magic Hours which give you access to a park before or after it closes to guests not staying on Disney property. Value Resorts are the cheapest resorts and during the "value season" some can be as cheap as $69 a night! These resorts include Pop Century, All Star Music, All Star Movies, and All Star Sports. Moderate Resorts feature more space in both the bedroom and bathroom areas. They also sport an in-room refrigerator. Moderate Resorts include Port Orleans, Caribbean Beach Resort, Coronado Springs, and Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Usually if Disney is offering free dining, you have to stay at a Moderate Resort. Deluxe Resorts are the most expensive on Disney property. The rooms are bigger and many rooms feature concierge service (snacks, reservation planning, etc.). These resorts include The Polynesian, The Contemporary, The Grand Floridian, Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Beach Club, Wilderness Lodge, and The Yacht Club. If you're looking for a dose of luxury on your Disney vacay, then one of these resorts might be the fit for you.
- Do I need a Dining Plan? In a word, yes. If you're anything like Dr. David Phillips (my father) you'll be much more relaxed if you know that your food is already paid for. That way, you're not nickeling and diming everything your kids cram into their mouths. There are several Dining Plans to choose from. My suggestion? Go for the basic Disney Dining Plan. You and your family will each receive credits that allow for a quick-service meal (fast food meal) with an entree, side, drink, and dessert, a snack (basically anything under $4), and a table-service (sit-down meal) with an entree, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverage. If you can book your trip during a free dining offering, good for you! If not, I'd still suggest biting the bullet and paying a little extra for the plan. You'll save money, I promise!
- Do you need Park-Hopper passes? That really depends on what you want to do. If you have the time to spend an entire day at each park, I'd suggest forgoing the Park Hoppers and save a little money. If you need to visit more than one park in a day, then they will obviously be a necessity. Also, when you book, unless you want to visit the water parks, remove that options from your tickets and watch the prices drop, drop, drop!
- You can make ADR (Advanced Dining Reservations) 180 days before your trip. I suggest marking that date on your calendar and calling the moment you wake up on that day. Need a list of fun restaurants featured in different parks? Backtrack in this blog or check out: www.allears.net for menus. This website outlines what restaurants Dining Plan credits can be used at. There are even some character meals (mostly breakfasts) that you can use one table-service credit for!
- Prepare your body. Walk. And when you feel tired, walk a little more. Make your kids walk too. Walking is a necessary evil at Disney World. In my family, whiners are not tolerated!
- Check www.allears.net for the Extra Magic Hours that will be featured during your visit. If you've got Park-Hopper passes, you can go to the park with "morning" extra hours and then hop on over to the park with "late" hours in the evening. If you don't have Park-Hopper passes, choosing the park to visit is really up to you. Everyday one park has an early hour and another park has a late hour.
- Plan every moment of every single day. I know that sounds like a drag, but you really want to maximize your money. As Dr. David Phillips puts it, "Time is money at Disney World." My mom usually has a schedule for each park that includes what attractions we want to hit, what time the park opens, what time shows are playing, and our dining schedule/ADR numbers. There are even iPhone apps that let you prioritize what attractions you'd like to visit the best.
- Speaking of iPhone apps, download Disney Wait Times. We've just got the free one and it works well. Throughout the day, people update wait times of different attractions.
- I love packing for trips. Call me a nerd, but making a packing list is incredibly soothing and putting that check mark beside an item makes me feel so at-ease. What are a few things you'll need?
- Moleskin. No, not the notebook (Gabe). You buy this at drugstores and it helps ease the pain of blisters. And you'll probably have some blisters before the end of your trip.
- Medication. Pack whatever you think you'll need. I keep a mixed pill bottle in our backpack so I have easy access to Tylenol, Benadryl, etc.
- Lightweight clothes. Even in December, you'll usually be comfortable in jeans and a light sweater.
- Ponchos. We always take ponchos featuring Uga (the bulldog), to showcase our University pride. Sometimes I think Dad just wishes it would rain so he could walk around in his UGA Crocs and red poncho shouting, "Go Dawgs!" and fist pumping. Florida Gator fans always shoot him dirty looks.
- Sunscreen. Pretty self-explanatory.
- Comfy walking shoes. I usually take tennis shoes and my Chacos.
- A hat. If you're cool like my brother, take a baseball hat. If you're cool like my Dad, take a humongous straw hat (with a UGA band across the front).
- Pop-Tarts. They may taste like cardboard, but you'll save $$$ on breakfast food.
- Water bottles. Florida water is gross. Disney is really lax about what you can take into the parks, so you won't have to sneak in water bottles.
- A light jacket (if you're going during the winter months).
- Disney Plush toys (for the kiddies). Before our first family trip ever, my Mom went all the way to Atlanta to The Disney Store and bought Gray and I our first Mickey and Minnie plush toys. Housekeeping will usually pose the plush dolls into cute little positions or tableaus that will make your children really happy.
Getting Down There
- Obviously you have two options: fly or drive. My suggestion? Fly if you can. Disney will pick you up at the airport, free of charge through their Magical Express service. For us, driving to the World takes nine hours. Yuck.
Checking Into Your Resort
- Once you get to your resort, you'll obviously need to check-in. Each member of your family will be issued a Key to the World card. This card is super important! It's your room key, dining plan charge card, park ticket, Fast Pass ticket-getter (for lack of a better title) and credit card. Don't lose it! My suggestion? If you're a lady, invest in one of these: http://bit.ly/mO94un. I have several and keep it clipped inside our backpack. It holds our ID's, Key to the World cards, and our Photopass card. It's convenient to have everything where I can grab it quickly.
Miscellaneous Park Information
- In the next few weeks, I'll post blogs laying out detailed information about the different parks. I'll outline the who, what, when, why, and where of each park. For now, here's some miscellaneous info that applies to all parks:
- The moment you step foot into a Disney park, you'll be inundated with requests to have your picture taken by Disney Photo Pass Photographers. They'll take your picture (usually in a scenic spot, i.e. in front of Cinderella's Castle) and give you a scan card. This card is your Photo Pass. You can receive a different Photo Pass for every picture you take but I like to have them scan the same card each time. It's easier to locate your pictures online later. The Photo Pass Photographer will usually take a picture with your personal camera if you ask.
- Fast Passes, a.k.a. the best invention on the face of the planet. Fast Passes "hold" your place in line. For example, say you want to ride Space Mountain, but the wait is 60 minutes. Instead of waiting for an entire hour, simply walk over to the Fast Pass kiosk (usually near the entrance of an attraction) and pop your Key to the World card into the machine. Each member of your family will need a Fast Pass (which is why it's better to keep all of your cards together). The Fast Pass will give you a time to come back (for example-11:05 to 12:05). Once 11:05 rolls around, your Fast Pass is valid. Flash it to the Cast Members dotted along the Fast Pass line and you'll typically wait less than ten minutes to board the attraction. You can only have one Fast Pass at a time, BUT you can get another Fast Pass the moment your first one becomes valid. So when your Fast Pass becomes valid (again, for example, at 11:05) go grab another for a different attraction before boarding the ride you have a Fast Pass for. Taking advantage of this free service is an excellent way to maximize your money.
- If you want to meet characters, book a character meal. Waiting in line to meet Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy may seem like a good idea at the time, but sometimes you'll wait over an hour for that photo op. When you book a character meal, you're guaranteed a photo op with all of the characters featured at the meal AND your kids will get a little more time with each character. We're in our mid-twenties and we still like character meals.
- Do plan on watching the parades and fireworks displays. Even for the most jaded Disney guests, the parades are the best time to see some pretty obscure Disney characters. If you see people staking claim to curbside seats, you should probably pop a squat yourself. And be a little territorial, lest crazy Yankees try to infiltrate your spot (speaking from personal experience). If you're absolutely NOT interested in watching a parade, this is a good time to squeeze in visits to high-traffic attractions.
- If you have small children, don't feel pressured to stay in the parks all day long. A lot of parents take their kids back to the resort for a while for a nap. Just hop on the bus/monorail/boat back to your resort and you'll be there in no time.
- Speaking of planes, trains, and automobiles, getting to and from your resort is super simple thanks to the Disney Transportation System. Depending on what resort you're at, you'll be bussed, boated, or monorailed to the parks. You can also catch a monorail from the Magic Kingdom to EPCOT. We always try to hop on the first bus out from our resort. Call the front desk to find out the times.