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!!