Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Walt Disney World Wednesday--The Ten Basic Pieces of Disney Advice

Last week, I was talking to a good friend, who, like me, participated in the Walt Disney World College Program, and who is actually doing the program again right now as a grad student. In last go 'round he had a job where he had much less face to face guest interaction, but this time his guest interaction is pretty much constant, so the other day, we were talking about the unbelievably hilarious questions one is asked as a Disney Cast Member. It's the first time he's experiencing these questions in bulk and the job he has, which is the same one I had on my second College Program is one where you have TONS of questions asked of you. We were laughing because, as he said, "so many of them are doing it WRONG." (Said opinion created when someone asked him "So, how long does it take to do this?" "This" being an entire theme park.) We kind of joked about how we should write a book, but then when I started really thinking about it, I realized HOW MUCH Disney vacation advice I give--I've already helped two people this week!--and I realized that I'm spending an awful lot of time on Facebook messaging saying the same basics over and over.

I've also realized that the best way to insure that I write in my blog is to give myself specific, scheduled tasks. Thus, henceforth, in these parts, Wednesdays are Walt Disney World Wednesdays. You've got two dedicated advice-givers and LOTS of others who are planning on chiming in from time to time. We don't promise that we know EVERYTHING. But we'll do our best to find things out if we don't. We have tons of practical experience and suggestions. And we're pretty funny. So there's always that. To start out, I decided that I'm going to give the ten basic pieces of overall advice that I think are the most important. (We'll get to specifics on resorts, restaurants, attractions, etc. later, although if you have a question about any of that, feel free to ask in the comments and we'll hook you up real nice).

#1 Stay On Property: This means staying at one of the Disney resorts within the confines of the 27 square miles or property that make up Walt Disney World. The Hilton on Hotel Plaza Boulevard counts in a pinch because its guests get Magic Hours privileges (but not the others I'm going to mention). Why stay at one of the Disney resorts, rather than in Kissimmee where you might find something a little cheaper? Well, it's easy, for one thing. And if you're paying for parking every day, it might turn out that staying at Disney is cheaper. It doesn't have to be terribly pricey (although it certainly can be, if you want it!). You can take part in Extra Magic Hours, in which select Disney parks are open an hour early or two hours late for Disney resort guests, and you can take part in the Disney Dining Plan (more on that later). Did I mention that it's easy? Disney transportation is a wonder. Sure, there are the occasional glitches, but as my friend, Justin, said while we were having dinner the other night, "You 10 ten minutes for a bus. MAYBE 15." There's also the Magical Express, so if you're flying into Orlando International, they take you to your resort and then back to the airport. All of this transportation? Free. Excellent guest services at your fingertips. Fabulous pools with great activities for the kids (like movie nights!) and plenty of places that have meals or snacks or adult libations. I can probably counter pretty much any argument someone comes up with as to why they should stay off-property. Of all the advice I have, this may be the most hard and fast rule.

#2 Get the Park Hopper Upgrade--This upgrade (currently,on a 7-day ticket it ups it from about $355 to $408, on a 5-day from $323 to $387, just for examples) means that you can change theme parks during the day and it won't use another day's admission. I have a friend who just told me that her family didn't get it for their upcoming trip because of the way Fast Passes are working now that MyMagic+ is fully integrated. I thought about what she said and it still doesn't change MY mind. Her thought was that with only three FPs per day, all within one park, there's no point in changing parks. My thought is that my worst nightmare is being stuck in a park that unexpectedly is slammed (it happens, no matter what those projected crowd websites tell you). It also means that every single day must be planned to accommodate your scheduled FPs AND in-park ADR (Advance Dining Reservations), so if you make your ADR 6 months out and then you can get the much-coveted Be Our Guest dinner reservation on a day when the MK is, for whatever reason, packed to the gills, it means that you can't go to Epcot until 4 and then head to the MK. It's at the upper end, 10 dollars a day per ticket and I can almost guarantee that at one point in your visit, it will be worth the entire $50 or so you spent on it.

#3 At Least Consider the Dining Plan--I've heard people say that they don't do it because they have a picky eater off-spring. Or they don't want to be "controlled" by having dining reservations while they're there. Or they don't really want to waste time on full service meals. All valid points. That said, if you have ONE picky eater amongst your kids, then I'm pretty sure that what the adults in the party get for what they're paying makes up for what you lose on the kid. Also, Disney restaurants are pretty good about accommodating (I knew someone who's 4 year old ate buttered pasta at every restaurant in WDW). If you don't want to feel trapped into being at a certain place at a certain time by restaurant reservations or waste park time eating, there's a meal plan that covers just counter service restaurants. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it's worth running some numbers on it.

#4 Get A Guidebook--The various Birnbaum's are great and I get a new one every couple of years. Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids is good, too. But the absolute gold standard of Disney guidebooks, is, in my opinion, Bob Sehlinger's Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. I have never gotten a new one and not found out something I didn't know about WDW. It's an entertaining read, to boot. In any event, get a book. It helps you orient yourself at the very least.

#5 Make Some Plans...--I like to at least sketch out a plan. I've done this tons of times and could probably navigate it going in cold. That said, when I know the dates of my trip I make a chart of the Magic Hours during those dates so I can get an idea of how to approach dining reservations, which you can make 180 days in advance (+10 more for resort guests so you can make all of your reservations at once and not have to call 180 days from each of your days). You can also check pretty far out to see what's going to be closed for rehab. You can check crowd predictor calendars on any number of websites (just Google "Disney Crowd Predictor" and you'll get a bunch) which can help you plan where you want to go. If there's a reservation you couldn't get, a good day to call is 45 out from your trip--reservations must be paid in full by then so if someone's booked a vacation and changed plans, their reservations might turn up then!)

#6 …But Be Flexible--Don't make some elaborate schedule and then make yourself miserable trying to follow it. If the place you planned to be is too crowded and it won't interfere with your dining or FastPass? Go to another park! If there's some restaurant you're DYING to go to and you couldn't get a reservation? Go up to the podium and ask on the day you're at that park! (And then if you're on a dining plan, you can cancel one of your later reservations as long as you do it 24 hours out.) If you're absolutely wiped out, go back to the hotel and take a one hour power nap…you may lose a total of three hours in transit and nap and getting yourself back together, but you'll feel better and navigate the parks more easily and you'll just enjoy it more! Also…you've probably planned for it to be 75 degrees and sunny. It won't be. It will rain at least once and as everyone pours out of the park, you stay, because punking out because of rain is for wusses. And the lines will be short!

#7 Get There Early--If the park opens at 8 (with Magic Hours), get there at 7:45. That means you want to be at the bus stop at your hotel by 7:15. There will be a lot of people there right at opening, but it's nothing like peak entry hour which is almost always between 11 and noon. The other bonus is that you're there for the rope drop which is fun to watch and at the Magic Kingdom there's the opening show which is just adorable and fun.

#8 Do All The Night Stuff--That means you need to see The Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes at The Magic Kingdom, the Electrical Water Pageant which you can see from the beaches at all three monorail hotels, Disney's Wilderness Lodge and Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, Illuminations at Epcot, and Fantasmic at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And here's the thing…Main Street at the Magic Kingdom stays open an hour past park closing, so if you stay until the end, you can hang out there for a while so that the bus/monorail crowds die down.

#9 Travel Light--This is for both the stuff you take with you there and the stuff you take with you into the park when you get there. I'm getting better about not taking too many clothes, and last time I took in a small purse that held my phone (used it as my only camera) room key and credit cards and a little cash. It was sublime. As for the things you take on the trip--a rain jacket and comfortable shoes are your friend--at least two pairs in case one gets wet--but a lot of the things you think you MUST have with you…probably you don't.

#10 Be Nice--To other guests. To Cast Members. Just…be nice. Talk to people. Make friends. By the time I got on WDW property via Magical Express last time, I had made friends with half the bus. Other guests sometimes have good stories. And talk to the Cast Members. You'll make their day and maybe get some good tips or perks. Being nice is a good idea all the time, but it's the BEST idea when you're there. And if there's some problem or something's going wrong…tell a Cast Member! Politely tell them, but tell them. They want you to have the BEST time and will do everything they can to make it happen!!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Middle of February Resolutions

I think I've figured something out, guys. You see, if you watch the various morning shows--Hoda and Kathie Lee, The View, etc.--during the week between Christmas and the new year, then at some point you're going to see a segment on New Year's resolutions. And how most of them fail. And they'll tell you that they fail because people make these grandiose plans that they're NEVER gonna be able to follow through on and then they'll tell you that by the end of January, gym attendance (or whatever) is back to normal, and all of that.

Now, to some extent, I think that they are right. A New Year's resolution is kind of like Lent and one very important thing I learned about Lent came from The Story of the Trapp Family Singers which is the book on which The Sound of Music was based and that is this: Maria tells the story of the approach of one Lenten season where one of the many children has this ENORMOUS list of Lenten promises and sacrifices, but she explains to the child that while it's a noble goal, it's really better to make ONE goal that really means something and stick to it. But while I do think that making a million part New Year's resolution with hard and fast goals is a problem when it comes to sticking to your guns, I also think that there's the issue of timing. At least for me. I mean, think about it…obviously, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of the busiest months in most peoples' year. Even if you're not traditionally celebrating the holidays, it's still a pretty good bet that there are parties and events to which you're invited by those who are celebrating. And then there's work. First of all, in most jobs, you can expect to miss at least a day or two of normal work to the holiday, so you're playing catch up after the holidays or working more than usual to try to get everything end before the end of the year. Or you're in retail or some other service industry so you're working twice as much as usual. The point is, that there are very few jobs out there where the holidays or the immediate aftermath are ideal for making any kind of plan that involves extra work, extra time, or really, extra ANYTHING. And so what do most of us do? Well, right as we're coming back to work with everything swinging back into full steam ahead, we heap upon ourselves a whole new set of goals.

Take me for example: Look, if there was ever a time that made me realize that John Lennon was 100% correct when he said "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.", it was the span of time between Thanksgiving and now. By the weekend after Thanksgiving, which was exceptionally late this year, thus making holiday shopping and prep more fraught than usual, I was on the final weekend of performances of the second of what were essentially back-to-back shows. That lead into to holiday parties and then, going to my parents' for Christmas several days earlier than usual to be in a friend's wedding. Then there were the holiday commitments--with my parents, with the other parts of the family, with friends. Tragically, this was combined with the funerals of two family friends who happened to pass away while I was home and then, I got stuck in Alabama for two extra days because of the weather and ended up only getting back to New Jersey because I was willing to take a 5 a.m. flight. Back here it's been auditions, first rehearsal and costume work for Shrek which goes up in May--that's right, I'm performing AND helping with costumes. Production work for Master Class, of which I'm the producer and which opens in two days. All of this, of course, has been coupled with THE WORST weather I've ever seen in my nine winters in the north, including I don't know how many days of snow, three of which had the added bonus of no power.

Seriously, I had a day when I looked down at the date in the tool bar of my computer and realized that we were a day out from my mom's birthday and thought, "Wait…how the HELL did we get to February??!?!" I know that the old adage is that time that seems to creep when you're a child suddenly starts to fly when you're an adult, and not have the last couple of years made me believe it. Which is why I decided that the date I would set for my resolutions, while not necessarily arbitrary, would certainly not be this year, and if I have my way, never again be, January 1. I picked Valentine's Day because it's easy enough to remember. Also because in a normal year when there's not some sort of The Day After Tomorrow winter apocalypse going down, it's time enough to let the insanity settle and me to be able to focus. I also decided that, although I'm putting ten things on my list, none of them are "I will do Task X on Day X at Time X and I WILL NEVER EVER MISS." Instead, I'm using these more as "Get my shit together" guidelines. Hence:

1. I will be consciously kind. Meaning that instead of being visibly and constantly aggravated by slow old people in a grocery store, or little kids barreling into me as I walk through the mall, or stupid questions, or messing up my order at the drive-thru, I will remember that someday I'll be an old person, and I used to be a kid--so there's a better than fair chance that I will either be that person or have been that person and will do or have done the same things. I will remember that I have definitely asked a stupid question (yes, there ARE stupid questions) because I wasn't paying attention or just didn't understand. I will remember that I once worked in a really high stress food service environment and that it's harder than it looks and no one gets it right all the time. In other words, I will try to be understanding and patient.

2. I will stop trying to find excuses as to why I can't do things. And by "things" I mean social and fun things as well as responsibility things. Like theater board meetings--of which I'm two for two so far. Instead of thinking about how I'm really tired and just want to put on PJs and read a book and send an email saying I feel like crap, I will take a 30 minute nap and get my butt out the door. If someone asks me to go to a party or dinner with friends or brunch in the city, instead of thinking of all the reasons I can't do it, I'll think about how I can rearrange things so I CAN.

3. I will remember that I used to do things on my own rather than letting things pass by me because no one was available to do them with me. I realized when the Oscar noms happened that I had seen exactly NONE of the films nominated for Best Picture. A quick perusal of the lists back through the years made me see that this was the first time since 1986 that I hadn't seen ANY of them. And the reason I hadn't? Well, I never have anyone to got with me to the movies. What is THAT? I used to LOVE going alone. Especially to the first matinee on a Saturday morning. I can go to art museums and Tour of Homes and plays and the symphony. And here's the thing…I can do them by myself.

4. In a related goal, I won't feel like I HAVE to do everything. While I'm pretty terrible about making excuses when there's a social thing ("Hey let's all go grab drinks after Event X" and all I can think is how I can get home to my couch), I have become this person who absolutely feels compelled to go see every friend in every show, concert, musical performance, etc. that they ever do. I have a really good friend who told me that he and his wife, also a really good friend, had once been told by ANOTHER mutual friend that you reach a point where you realize that if you see every friend you know who's ever in a show, that will turn out to be all that you ever do. You spend every Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in a theater watching shows which are often shows that you don't even want to see. I understand when people can't come to see me in something, so it's reasonable to assume the reverse. I will make sure I give them every best wish and good vibe and if it's something I want to see and I can, I will do it.

5. I will try to exercise three times a week, even if that means I do the "10 Minute Ab" DVD on three days. I WANT to do more involved work outs, but if I can't, then 10 minutes it is.

6. I WON'T diet. But I will attempt to be conscious of what I eat and will try to make good choices. Sometimes life makes eating right hard. And I have to accept that and not think that since I had to eat a sandwich at 10 p.m., I might as well throw all the good work away and eat what I want for the next three days before starting over.

7. I will dress in regular, human clothes five days a week, barring unforeseen circumstances. I don't care which five I choose to do it, but it's gonna happen (hey--I'm already two clothed days on the books and it's only Tuesday). I've gotten into the WORST habit of throwing on yoga pants most days. And I have WAY too many cute clothes for that to happen.

8. I will read something at least once a week. I will write something at least once a week, even if it's a paragraph no one ever sees.

9. I hope pick at least one "project"--a closet organizing, a shelf clean out, a furniture painting--a week and I will check off that box. If I'm in the middle of a busy week, then it's okay for it to be cleaning out one bathroom drawer. But I will get something done.

10. I will try to do new things. I sit around and think of all the cool things I want to do--I want to go hiking/camping. I want to run a 5K. I want to take a pastry class.--and I end up doing nothing. I want to make myself do the things I dream about. And I have some BIG dreams. But really, if I'm too scared or lazy to do the small ones, how can I expect the big ones to ever happen? I'm on it.

Okay, so there it is. I won't freak out if I mess them up. Because let's be real--I'm gonna mess this shit up all over the place. But I've written it down. It's real. And I'm doing my damnedest to make it happen.