Friday, 27 July 2012

Planning your Disney Vacation

To plan or not to plan that is the question!

source: Orange County Archives

When we book a Walt Disney world holiday, we have to plan just a little. Dates, accommodation, dining reservations, special events etc, we cannot really escape planning the details that put our trip together (and would we want to?)!

What I want to talk about is itineraries! When you plan your Disney trip, do you create an itinerary? Is it set in stone, every minute of every hour planned out to maximize your time in the parks? Or, is it a little looser? A dining reservation over here, maybe one or two must do extra magic hours? I have to admit, when I first started travelling to Walt Disney World over 10 years ago, our itineraries where set like cement! Though we never went as far as pencilling in the toilets breaks, we had every day planned from start to finish. These days, things are much more ‘free spirited’ but we still can’t help putting an itinerary together.

All this being said, when I travelled to Orlando this year, June 2012, I actually didn’t go with an itinerary. I wanted to know if it could be done, if I really could give myself complete freedom each day to step out of my hotel and go wherever my feet may take me, I went with park times in one hand and only two days specifically reserved for Busch Gardens (we had to book the transport pre-trip).

The results where mixed.

I know many people who do not travel with itineraries, they just get up and go and always seem to have an amazing time (it’s hard not to enjoy yourself out there though isn’t it?) and their reports always make it sound like they had it so easy every day. It felt far from easy. I actually felt lost without my precious itinerary! As decisive as I can be by partner is equally indecisive and it doesn’t make a simple decision as ‘which park shall we go to today?’ any easier. I started to panic that we might spend too much time in one place, not enough time in another etc, even when it came to dining with no firm ideas we ended up in the same place quite a few nights (not that I’m complaining, it was delicious). It meant that when we finally switched to a thrown together plan (I’ll get to that next) we finally got to eat at the new places we’d wanted to try but too late in the holiday to go more than once!

I have a wide variety of Disney planning tools that I use when planning a Disney vacation and each one of these help me piece together my holiday. A variety of dining reservations can be put together after browsing through menus, touring plans that give me an idea of which parks to avoid on what days, and as much as I have learnt from experience over the last 10 years, I still find tons of helpful advice and new ideas on the forums. My days feel much easier when I have a plan set in front of me. It’s not as set in stone as it used to be, but just having it there takes away, some stress.

By the 5th day of our trip, I grabbed my park hours and started putting something together. I pulled out a map of International Drive, looked up reviews and menus online, and started making notes of places we wanted to eat and slowly started putting them next to a particular day.

It all sounds a little OCD now I’m reading this post back but it really did make such a difference. Having it all set out and ready meant we knew the night before were we where off to the next day! What time we had to be up and out for opening and could look forward to where we were going that night without spending 2 hours wondering about where to go eat, only to settle for the same place again.

I always feel as though I do and see more when I have a plan. That first trip back in 2002 was planned like a military operation, we didn’t stop from start to finish and it was an amazing trip, but looking back now, everything was so precise that we missed out on a lot. There is such thing as over planning and we’re careful now not to let our plans take control of our freedom. Maybe I should stop calling them plans altogether and start calling them ‘guidelines’? Dining reservations can be moved around during the quieter seasons and if you wake up one more morning and fancy going to Hollywood Studios instead of Epcot then do that!

Are your Disney travel plans set in stone or are you a free wanderer hopping on the first but that pulls up each morning?

Until next time,

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Extra Magic Hours and Me!

Extra Magic Hours, aka, EMH are one of the many perks of being a Walt Disney World Resort guest. These little gems allow Disney resort guests to enter select Disney theme parks an hour before general admission AND to stay for up to 2 hours after the park has closed to the general public.

Having Main Street USA to yourself during a Magic Kingdom extra magic hour, or racing around Big Thunder Mountain at midnight - it's a totally different way to experience the Disney theme parks and it's exclusive to resort guests!

There's been a lot of talk recently regarding Disney's plans to reduce the extra magic hours, particularly cutting the evening hours down from an extra 3 to just 2, starting January 2013. Disney say they will review the schedules and I imagine during the peak season we could very well find that missing hour back on!
The news hasn't been received well across the Disney community and many are saying it's a factor that would put them off staying at a Disney resort. Honestly, I can see where they're coming from, you're paying a fair few extra $$$ to stay on site and you want to feel like you're getting something extra special, above those who stay off Disney property and considering ticket prices have just gone up too, this is yet another kick in the teeth to many fans. (Lets just hope they don't go the way of Universal and start limiting the EMH to only those guests staying in moderate or deluxe resorts!)

I always consider the EMH's in my planning, especially the early openings. During busier times of the year those early extra magic hours really do make all the difference and you can usually get quite a few rides in before the park opens up. Early extra magic hours have always been my favourite - I'm an early riser! Once the extra magic hours schedule comes out (around 10months or so in advance), the parks with early openings get put straight into the itinerary.

Top tip: Book an in-park ADR for just after general opening. You'll have done a whole bunch of rides and can take a leisurely breakfast afterwards!

As for the evening extra magic hours, we do sometimes take advantage of them, after all nothing can rival the experience of Tower of Terror when it's quiet, late and dark - it's like a whole new ride! We don't tend to include the evening hours in our itinerary but we always make a note of them. The downside to the evening extra magic hours is that the operational rides are always restricted and not everything will be open. The biggest problem I have though, is that non-resort guests are of course still in the park. Now, Disney Cast Members are suppose to stop guests without resort key cards from entering the ride queues etc, but on a busy day when the line has been 90+mins even during evening extra magic hours many of those guests will still be in line. And when they can't get on the rides? There's always lots of arguing, pleading, speak-no-English-so-will-push-past-and-ride-now chaos going on. You don't really feel as though you're getting much out of the evening hours. By time many of the non-resort guests have left, and especially now they are cutting back on the extra hours you get - it's going to be time to head for your resort bus. 

Evening Extra magic hours for me could mean extra time to shop in the parks - but all of the non-resort guests want to stay in the park for as long as possible too so they head to any lighted building with open doors that will have them!

Even though I want to take as much advantage as possible being a resort guest, the evening extra magic hours just don't work for me - so the cut back, as sad as it is, isn't really going to put me off being a Walt Disney World resort guest! Now, if they were to lay their little white Mickey gloves on the early extra magic hours I'd start to get really upset!!

Do you take advantage of extra magic hours? Which do you prefer - early or evening?

Until next time,

Monday, 23 July 2012

Transportation Q&A!

"Let's talk buses, boats & monorails! What have your experiences been with the WDW Transportation system.
Do you use it? Do you like it? Do you choose your hotel based on the transportation option offered?" source

source: BestofWDW

I’ve talked in the past about how much I love the Walt Disney World transport system, it’s one of the reasons we’ve never bothered with hiring a car, especially when staying at a Walt Disney World resort!

Do you use it?
Every day of the trip! The only time we don’t is if we are venturing off site to visit a non-Disney park! Every Walt Disney World resort has a set of complimentary guest busses that take you to all of the theme parks, Downtown Disney, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. It’s also great for hopping on and off to explore other Disney resort hotels.

Do you like it?
Yes…and no. I love the convenience of the busses for a start. There’s nothing simpler than walking out of your hotel and having a bus pull up to take you right to the entrance of the park. No fussing with coins at toll roads, no paying for parking or hoping for a good shaded spot near the front. We’re straight on and straight off. The downside? When it’s busy those busses are super busy. There’s nothing worse than dragging your tired self out of the parks, over to the bus stops and be faced with queuing madness! Late in the evening when you’re tired, the kids are tired and all you want is to get back to the hotel, it can feel like forever until a bus comes along. A car means you always get a seat, the kids can have a nap in the back, and you don’t have to sniff eau de la sweaty-day-at-the-park your whole ride home! For me the good outweigh the bad and I’m prepared to put up with a little over crowding, after all I commute on a regular basis for work so I’m pretty used to it by now! (You’d think I’d want to get away from that on my holiday!)

Do you choose your hotel based on the transport offered?

In short – no. BUT I can see where this plays a big part in choosing your resort. People traveling with small children who plan on spending much of their vacation in Magic Kingdom would do best staying on the monorail loop, which not only offers bus transportation too but also water-taxi. Staying at the Contemporary resort means you can actually walk over to Magic Kingdom too! Staying at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge puts you furthest out from the majority of parks and Downtown Disney but is only a 5 minute bus ride to Animal Kingdom (I really wish they would put a walk-way in!). If you stay at Port Orleans you will share your busses with French Quarter which means a bus could already be full before it gets to you – but you have the option of taking a ferry boat to and from Downtown Disney. If you stay at Fort Wilderness (where you are most likely to have a car), you also have an internal bus system that operates purely on the Fort Wilderness camp ground (that place is seriously massive!) Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa has several bus stops around the resort and it can take up to 20+ minutes just to get off the resort before heading to the park depending on which stop you board at and likewise for disembarking upon your return!. There are pros and cons to the transportation at every resort but I would not let it be the deciding factor in choosing which one I’d like to stay at. I’m looking at the resort itself and what it offers me (especially where Disney Dining Plan is considered!) – The transport on offer is just an added bonus! But hey, that’s just me!

Disney do run a tight schedule with their transportation system, putting on extra busses during events and busier times of the year. No guest is ever left behind, the busses won’t stop running until each guest is safely out of the park and en route back to their resort. They start running up to an hour before park opening too so you can take advantage of those pre-opening breakfast reservations inside the parks.

For me, the good far outweighs the bad and I do enjoy and make the best possible use of those purple seated busses with their orange LED screens. I’d take them over a rent – a – car any trip, especially if I’m a Walt Disney World Resort guest!

What are your thoughts/feelings on the transportation system? Bus or car?

Until next time,

Friday, 20 July 2012

To infinity and beyond!

43 years ago today on July 20th 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon! In honour of this epic anniversary I thought I'd take a look at some of Walt Disney Worlds spacey-offerings! If you're in the parks this weekend then go and celebrate the lunar landing at some of the following attractions!

To infinity...and beyond!

© Saloca in Wonderland

1. Spaceship Earth

It had to be first on the list! Not only are we taken on a journey through some of humankind’s' most extreme advancements and discoveries in language and technology - we are treated to a jaw dropping, eye-popping spectacle at the very top of the 'golf ball'. From the rotating earth to the ceiling of stars and galaxies, you cannot help but feel transported billions of miles above the Earth's surface. My favorite part though is the backwards decent through the twinkling LEDs!

2. Mission: Space

source: Sam Howzit
It's not quite a trip to the Moon but, who doesn’t want to walk through command central? Who doesn’t want a spotlight shining down upon them with Gary Sinise calling you ‘Captain’? I love the giant zero gravity wheel depicting life aboard the space station; we would all love to try eating our cereal upside down just once! Maybe that’s just me though! I love all of the plaques along the last stretch of queue, especially some of their future astronaut predictions! And then, we get to the ride – I’m an Orange team member myself! Spinning round up to 2.4gs, between blasting off and landing on the red plant there is a real adventure to be had!

3. Star Tours: The Adventure Continues

© Saloca in Wonderland
No space themed post could be complete without the ultimate adventure in space-aged travel this side of Endor! Since its refurbishment in 2011, Star Tours offers guests and galactic passengers a choice of 54 destinations and ride variations in spectacular 3D (the new glasses are all kinds of awesome!). Climb aboard your StarSpeeder 1000 at the space port after meandering through the Ewok Village and see just how far across the Galaxy you can go!

So are you on the Orange team or the Green team?

Until next time,

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Watching Wishes!

What's your favourite place to watch Wishes?

Starlight, starbright
first star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
have the wish, I wish tonight
We'll make a wish, and do as dreamers do
and all our wishes...will come true

If there's one thing that never fails to make me smile and cry at the same time it's the night time spectacular Wishes over in Magic Kingdom. Even it's holiday themed special editions put the same silly grin on my face! I remember the first time I ever saw Wishes in 2002, I was in awe, dumbstruck even, I mean, this is a show they put on every night, 365 days a year (weather permitting) and it never ceases to amaze me, even if I do know the song word for word! I can't even guess at how many times I've seen the show but it never gets old for me!

You know me, I'm all for making the most of every minute of every trip so staking out a show spot 2+ hours early has never really appealed to me though there are a few viewing spots I'd love to try, getting them is almost impossible if you don't set up camp - no matter what time of year you go to Walt Disney World! And believe me, you don't want to mess with some of those campers! I've seen full blown arguments when other guests have tried to get in on their 'spot' - though those guests who save a spot for huge tour groups really know how to get everyone in the vicinity riled up! (Not mentioning any names, t-shirts or flags here ;) )

That being said, I do have a couple of favourite spots that are winners for me!

To the Right...

Step from under the trees to avoid leafs in the shots!
Just to the right of the Castle there is a nice tree-y area which includes a PhotoPass picture spot around the Rose Garden. Now, if you time it right (ok, this involves a little staking out!) the photographer packs up around 10minutes before show time and you can stand in the picture spot which gives a unobstructed view of the Castle. If you stand just to the right of this picture spot, under the trees, you get a wonderful view of Wishes. The majority of the fireworks will come up on the furthest right side of the Castle which gives you a chance to get some great shots! 

To the Left...

Damn flag! 
To the left of the castle look for a covered area, it looks a bit lack a bus stop for lack of a better description and it has some water fountains in. If you can get right to the furthest end closest to the Castle up against the railings you will have an almost unobstructed view of the Castle. I say almost because there was a big ol' flag and speaker system ahead of us that shadowed in on many of my photos! If you can step a few yards out from under this sheltered area you will pretty much have a front and centre view. Just note that that floor area beyond the shelter is a favourite sit-and-stake spot so try not to trod on too many other guests!

There are few to-view spots on my list that I'd love to get a chance to try out one trip! Especially the Main Street Station balcony - campers here tend to bring their own folding chairs! And of course, as front and centre as possible at the back of the Partners statue! 

Where do you like to view Wishes from?

Until next time,

Monday, 16 July 2012

Cabana bay

After Disney announced they would be creating family style suites at their newest resort, Art of Animation, I wondered how long we’d have to wait before others decided to jump on the suite-mobile!

Unsurprisingly it wasn’t too long!


Guest Room
Universal has announced plans to build a fourth resort near Islands of Adventure, ‘Cabana Bay’ is set to open 2014. Designed with a budget conscious traveler in mind, traveling with a larger group, the hotel will offer family suites sleeping up to 6 guests, and also offer standard rooms sleeping 2 – 4. With it’s vintage feel of old style American car-cations, it aims to bring back the nostalgia of the time, with it’s clean lines and a bold colour palette, including vintage d├ęcor it is sure to give you that, ‘just off the highway’ feeling.

The resort will offer two uniquely themed pools and spacious themed areas for guests to relax in after a long day at the parks. I’m presuming it will have some sort of onsite food court too but I haven’t heard much on that yet. They will offer transport to the Universal theme parks and guests will be able to take advantage of special early entry days (think Extra Magic hours at WDW). One thing they have stated is that guests of Cabana Bay will not be eligible for the ‘front of line’ express passes they guests at their other resorts receive.

I can see where they’re coming from, those who are paying top $$$ really want to feel like they are getting something out of all those extra dollars, and of course, Cabana Bay guests can purchase the express passes – though no word on if they would get a reduced rate, which I think would be a good idea! There has been some grumbling about the exclusion of the complimentary passes but you can’t please everybody.

Main Lobby?
I’ve got to admit, as much as I enjoy visiting Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures, I’ve never had the urge to stay at their resorts. Don’t get me wrong, they look lovely, and if you’re doing mostly Universal parks then I can see the appeal. It’s the price that has been the main culprit in putting me off though and with no quick access to International Drive without a car, I imagine I would feel pretty cut off and ‘trapped’ up there!

“Oh, but you stay on Disney” I hear you cry, but, there is so much more to do throughout Walt Disney World compared with the Universal Resort Area – and remember I’m coming from a no-car approach here!

I’d look into possible doing a few days in the Universal Resort area on my less Disneyfied trips but I couldn’t imagine spending two whole weeks there!

Have you stayed in a Universal hotel? Was it worth it?

Until next time,

Monday, 9 July 2012

Top 5 MK Character Dining!

source: Samantha Decker

Lets face it, if you’re off to Walt Disney World one of the things on your ‘to do’ list whether your travelling with or without children will be to snag some photos with some of your favourite characters. Sure, you can check the in park schedules, spend some time over at Character Connection in Epcot and get some really great photo-pass shots but, if you’re looking for a little more one – to – one interaction then a character dining experience is going to be your best bet, especially if you’re travelling with your kiddies! And it helps if the food is not half bad either!

Here’s a super quick guide to…

Top 5 Character Dining in and around Magic Kingdom!

  1. Chef Mickeys @ Contemporary Resort *DT*
This was my first ever Disney dining experience at WDW so it will always hold a special place in my heart.  It’s a lively, loud atmosphere where kids and grown ups alike are encouraged to get involved, waving napkins around and joining in the fun. It’s a great way to start any holiday.  Self serve buffet style, here you can meet the Fab 5, along with Chip n Dale, and all dressed up in their aprons and chefs hats. Be sure to get your official photo on the way in, the magnets make great keepsakes!

  1. O’Hanas @ Polynesian *DT*
It can be a little hit or miss depending on where you are seated, but if you time it just right, you can dine and watch Wishes at the same time! Served family style, which means all the offerings are brought to your table on a large skillet which is refilled upon request by your server. As you will only be seated one party to a table you won’t have to worry about sharing your skillet with strangers. Characters include the Fab 5, Lilo and Stitch in their Hawaiian shirts. 

  1. Cinderellas’ Royal Table @ Magic Kingdom **DT**
Inside.The.Castle! Need I say any more? Served plated to your table. Characters include; Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora, Belle, Ariel and Jasmine. Look up in the rafters and see if you can spot the smallest of Cindrella’s friends!

  1. Crystal Palace @ Magic Kingdom *DT*
If you’re looking for breathtaking castle views then this is the place to go! Go left at the end of Main Street USA and you will find the opulent grand conservatory that is Crystal Palace. Very light and spacious inside, the buffet has some fantastic offerings! Characters include Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger. Be sure to encourage the kids to take part in the parade around the dining room!

  1. 1900 Park Fare @ Grand Floridian Resort *DT*
A more pocket friendly way to dine with Cinderella, Prince Charming and the Ugly sisters (who are hilarious!), the evening buffet is delicious! I highly recommend breakfast too with Alice, Mad Hatter, Mary Poppins, Pooh and friends, buffet style. The place is much bigger than it looks upon entering with a similar feel to Crystal Palace.

Remember to keep those cameras charged as there won’t be any photo-pass photographers at the locations to snap shots around your table. The Cast Members who assist the characters as they go around will be happy to take some group shots on your own camera with the characters.

As eager as the kids (and even you might be too!) to get a hug off Mickey – stay seated! They will come to your table and greet you in your seat! If someone in your party misses the character coming round (too busy piling their plate at the buffet I’ll bet!) then let a Cast Member know and they should be able to come back over to your table!

*DT* indicates this location is on the Disney dining plan and uses one table service dining credit.
**DT** indicates the location is on the Disney Dining plan and uses two table service dining credits.

Have you tried any of the above? Which is your favourite?

Until next time,

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Plan of attack!

We are due to go on holiday in a few short weeks now and feel as if I have a mountain to climb before I close the door and jump in the taxi on my way to fun, fun, fun. How do you deal with the sorting, packing, shopping and the big clean (so the burglars don't think you're a slob!)  
I am sure there has to be a better way than running round like an idiot in the last 3 days whilst my head is too excited to think straight! 
Do you have a plan of attack?? source

I’ll admit it; those last few days before jetting off are probably the most exciting next to booking a trip and arriving! I love packing my suitcase, making those last minute checks, reservations and checks again, and you know me – I have a few traditions thrown in there too!

It gets all kinds of crazy around the house before we head off into the magic and the last thing you want to do is head off without your head! I always find the best plan of attack is to make a list – in fact feel free to make several! I generally keep the list in my notebook that goes everywhere with me, but I will keep a copy on my phone too – one or the other is always to hand! These tend to be to-do lists, mixed in amongst my packing, hand luggage, documents check off etc!

Plan of attack!

Day 3

Washing, ironing and packing! Keep your packing list to hand, checking off as you go – anything you don’t have by now you still have time to go and get OR simply make a note of to buy once you reach your destination. If you’re a toiletries Queen like me then your bound to have a few bits and bobs that can’t go in until the last minute but don’t panic! Just pack everything you know you are not going to need until you reach the other side. I also start putting my hand luggage at this stage too!

Day 2

It’s time for the big clean up! Pop those pre packed suitcases in a corner and get those rubber gloves on. Give everything a good scrub, catch up on any non-holiday clothes washing and make some space in your Sky+ by watching your programs as your iron and dust. It’s hard balancing all of this whilst working too so if, like me, you’re limited to post 9am – 5pm hours then you might not want to go on a full out spring cleaning endeavor! Tidy round, straighten up and put those valuables in a safe place!

Day 1

Aha the night before departure! Now’s the time to get those last minute bits into the suitcase, check and re-check the important documents and passports and keep them all in the head of the party’s hand luggage. For me this is also when all the beds get stripped and fresh bedding put on – there’s just something really nice about coming home to clean linen on the beds! It can be a pain to get all those sheets washed and dried so treat yourself by not bothering with the ironing and leave it until you get home! This is also when you’re going to want to plug in all your chargers for any electrical items you’re taking with you. I pack all of my chargers in the suitcase but put my phone charger in the hand luggage just incase I encounter a long delay!

With everything packed, cleaned and good to go there should in theory be little room for stress to creep in and spoil your pre holiday mood. Working through my lists for the tasks to be completed each day really do make it easier – and there is something super satisfying about seeing each task crossed off and the to-do list get smaller and smaller – it’s the best anti-stress method pre-holiday!

But the best way to keep your head on it’s shoulders before you step out the front door is to just breathe! As long as you have the passports, tickets, money and small ones in tow then anything else you need you will be able to get at your dream destination! Don’t panic if you have to leave a few damp socks on the clothes ring – just hand it up in the cupboard!

Give yourself the chance to let the excitement wash over you – remember where you’re about to spend the next couple of weeks!