PopSpiracy is back from the most amazing Disney birthday celebration humanly possible, and I’m going to share the ins and outs and how-to’s with all of you. I have always had the good fortune of living within an hour and a half of both Walt Disney World (Florida) and Disneyland (California) all my life. I’ve been more times than I can count, having been an annual passholder multiple times over. During my many trips, I’ve learned quite a bit, but I’ve also found that with Disney, there is always more to see and know than you ever thought possible. The following applies specifically to Walt Disney World in Florida as it is much larger, but much of it can be applied to Disneyland or major theme parks in general.
Recessions are tough and scrounging up the amount of money necessary for a Disney vacation might seem very difficult, but now is actually the best time to go. There are plenty of deals (package promotions and otherwise) trying to lure people to the parks during this dwindling season, and if you are lucky enough to be a Florida or California resident, more options are available to you. Even if you are from the UK or abroad, you might find special deals specifically for you. While Disney will probably say their park attendance hasn’t dropped that much, I can tell you that I just went during peak season, and the crowds literally seeemed about 30% lighter. Not to mention, low season is coming up in August and no doubt more deals are on their way (though there are rumors of a price increase next month, which given the timing, seems hideous).
Less people means shorter lines and more time to see what you want to in a shorter period of time. Disney package deals are set up so that the more time you spend at the parks, the cheaper it is. However, I suggest that four days is about the right amount to see the parks if you plan it appropriately (a day and a half for Epcot and Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios in ½ days.) I also had a fairly relaxed trip, believe it or not, and still managed to see all I wanted to. Tricks of the trade below.
(This mentions tons of very affordable tips. Understand that I am fairly young and as economically challenged as most young people, so in order for me to make the trip, I had to find the best bargains possible and I did. And, it turns out I had the best trip I ever had! So bear in mind, this schedule and advice is especially for those looking for the best experience possible at the best value, which is easy to do if you do your homework).
The affordable path to the House of Mouse:
1) Plan, plan, and plan. I’ll admit, I’ve never been into intense planning, and the idea of mapping everything out before going to a theme park seemed somehow like it would detract from the spontaneity and magic of it all. However, trying it this time, I found the opposite to be true - and I saw things I’d never seen in all my travels!
There are plenty of books and websites that can help you find deals, tips, hidden mickeys (i.e. hidden Mickey Mouse silhouettes hidden around the parks), etc., if you want more than my article and it certainly doesn’t help to have more than one source. I will try to cover a lot of the basics. Good websites to check out are www.mousesavers.com and www.allears.net. Touringplans.com (and/or it’s accompanying book “The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World”) or tourguidemike.com will also help you plan your vacation, you can even print out customizable travel plans and "cheat sheets" at Touringplans.com. If you have the book, Touringplans.com special features are free, otherwise you pay a small fee. I used the 2009 edition (Amazon.com is a beautiful thing).
Many Disney restaurants take reservations, and the recommended time to make them is anywhere from 3-6 months in advance, particularly if you are going during peak season. If you call the Disney reservation line and can’t find an open reservation for your desired time, call back as the days get closer (visitors at times cancel) or, if absolutely desperate, increase the number of your party. For example, if you are a party of two, make reservations for a party of four and see if you have better luck. The way the Disney system is set up, it only takes into account the number of people in your party when connecting you to a specific time. When at the restaurant, they can make the change and accommodate the number of your party on the spot, though you may have to wait an additional few minutes.
2) Obviously your length of stay is up to you, and with Disney offering enticing deals for you to stay longer, you can draw out the ocassion to your liking. I found four days to be sufficient, any more might have been overkill, and I’m a HUGE Disney park fan. Your body can only take so much, and in the four days if you plan properly, you can get sufficient R&R. This plan includes the four main WDW parks (not the water parks). Your body does acclimate to the intensive workout (the first day will be rough and you’ll probably wake up sore if you aren’t accustomed to it). If you want to throw in a fifth day you can though you can still do all of this and get rest, in four days. If you want to visit the water parks, you can add in additional time. Though again, a Disney trip is exhausting as an adult, and even kids are falling asleep all over the parks.
3) Take advantage of the 2009 birthday special! If you haven’t celebrated your birthday yet this year and have one prior to the beginning of the new year (or someone in your party does), Disney has a promotion for the birthday folk that enable them to come to the park for free on their birthday. They can upgrade that ticket to multiple days for a smaller fee or you can exchange it the day of your birthday for a $75 gift card to use in the Disney shops or for Fastpasses (more on them later). You can sign up for the promotion online, and submitting your e-mail address to Disney sites can enable them to send you other discounts that can save you money on accomodations. If you don’t have a birthday, submit your e-mail address with the official Disney site for updates regardless.
4) There are three types of Disney resorts: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe (varied by price). Don’t mistake value resorts for being unfit to stay in, if you look at pictures of the rooms for all three resorts, there often isn’t a large difference. It’s mostly the décor of the buildings, fancy lobbies and possible views you might be paying more for, and ultimately even the value resorts offer some pretty amazing sights. I haven’t stayed in them all as I am a Florida resident at present and often don’t need the accommodations, but I can vouch for the Pop Century Resort which I have stayed in, and it was an amazing experience. The Pop Century can be compared to a Best Western with fancy flair, only the additions are so fun it makes a sincere difference. Pop Century is themed in pop culture (of course I would stay there), and you can request stays in buildings themed for the 50s-90s. The pools are shaped like a giant bowling pin, flower, and computer screen, and 24/7 they will be occupied. I heard not to get a room by the pool for noise (preferred rooms are located by the pool, standard rooms aren’t and are generally cheaper), however for my birthday I was upgraded to a preferred room on the first floor right next to the pool and found the sound proofing to be impressive in the room and barely heard the commotion outside. The beds and pillows were super comfortable and it was so fun exploring all the hidden knick-knacks all over the property (aside from the pop culture resort, there are value resorts themed for sports, music, and movie fans as well).
There are obviously other options besides staying on Disney property, however there are advantages to staying at Disney resorts. Chief among them are transportation to the parks (I believe they can pick you up at the airport, too) as well as not having to pay for parking at the theme parks if you have a car (each park racks up $12 per car so right there you save almost fifty bucks, and you have access to Extra Magic Hours (hours before and after the parks open and close reserved solely for resort guests - a great way to see all the parks in a shorter period of time).
5) If staying on Disney property, make sure to check out the Extra Magic Hours of the park for the dates you are thinking about going if they are already available (each park has different extra magic hours and the hours do change depending on the date). I wouldn’t recommend jumping to use extra magic hours in the morning as whatever park is offering that option tends to be busier, however take advantage of the nighttime extra magic hours - many more people are willing to get up an hour earlier than stay up until 3am at the Magic Kingdom). If you can schedule a vacation that includes a day when Magic Kingdom is open from midnight to 3am, I would advise you plan around that (more on this later).
6) Have an itinerary printed out of any reservations you’ve made (you will receive reservation numbers though you most likely won’t need them when at the particular location) as well as any notes for yourself, including weather forecasts for each day. Make sure you have with you a list of which parks are open at what times and what the magic hours are for those parks. I would recommend adding the park hopper option, which gives you increased flexibility and allows you to go from park to park in any given day. There is an extra fee for this, however it’s nice to have an option (or a few) at your disposal. You can still alter a good plan and be successful. When you get to the park, make sure you get a map and a Times Guide for all the showtimes. Bring a pen with you, don’t be afraid to scratch up and mark your itinerary and map, when jumbled together it can get confusing to remember what you went on already and what you can get to next the fastest.
7) There are values at Disney if you look, and this can apply to meals. While most Disney food is standard (and somewhat bland fare), there are some notable exceptions. When talking about Disney dining, it doesn’t get better than dining in the countries at Epcot (Epcot is divided into two sections: Future World (dedicated to technological innovation) and World Showcase (featuring 11 countries built around the World Showcase Lagoon). If you don’t dine in the countries, you are missing out on a big part of what Epcot has to offer. And you can dine at great restaurants for good value here if you know how to do it. My two best value suggestions are lunch at the Akershus in Norway and the Biergarten in Germany. Akershus provides guests with professional photo prints with a character Princess (you get an 8x10 plus four smaller copies of the same photo, included in the package) plus opportunities to meet other princess characters. They have an incredible buffet (above average), then a fixed course meal you can choose, then multiple deserts per table, all for about thirty dollars a person. I’m not into the princesses, but even I have to admit the whole thing was fun, and the food was great. In Germany’s Biergarten, you can have an above average buffet with great live entertainment (you share tables with other guests as this is part of the German tradition, and if you get stuck next to cool people, this can be an amazing experience) for about twenty dollars a person. I had more fun in these two restaurants than I can tell you, and if it’s your birthday, even better. You will receive a birthday button pin if you are staying at a resort, I recommend you wear it as it is the only way anyone knows it is your birthday and the restaurants and other spots at the resorts might throw in a cool treat for you or give you preference with accommodations. By the way, don’t fake any of this birthday stuff. It’s not kosher!
At Epcot, Le Cellier (the steakhouse in Canada) is a hard restaurant to get reservations to, so plan in advance if you’d like to eat there. The Garden Grill revolves and features character dinners as well as a revolving floor and features some items grown at the nearby greenhouse. In Magic Kingdom, eating at Cinderella’s castle is also difficult to get reservations at so do so in advance if desired. Cosmic Ray’s is a fun inexpensive cafeteria at Magic Kingdom. Get there the first or last hour they are open and listen to the amazing Sonny Eclipse (whose name I mistakenly first saw as ‘Sonny Oedipus’ - let’s not read into that one too much). Sonny is an alien animatronic on a keyboard who provides lounge entertainment, and he is absolutely mesmerizing and far more entertaining than the majority of lounge performers I’ve seen. It’s fun things like Sonny that you randomly stumble upon at Disney that make it so surprising.
Hollywood Studios has the 50s café and Sci Fi Diner feature average food but fun themes, and the Brown Derby is very tasty. Downtown Disney (outside the parks) also offers great food selections and, naturally, a McDonalds.
Like most things on Disney property, even the McDonalds has loads of little details that provide pointless amusement, like the Happy Meals traveling on conveyer belts.
If your food bill starts racking up, you can always leave the park and get a bite to eat or chose to eat before or after park hopping. Pastries at the Patisserie in France are great and you can find some great shopping deals in the gift shops of Italy, China, and others if you browse. Shop smart, it adds up fast.
Avoid any buffet or place that has toppings or salad bars out in the open during the last hour(s) of park operation. I got sick after my Disney trip, and I have suspicions it was from using the Toppings bar prior to park closing, though in all honesty, there are germs a-plenty at Disney. Bring hand sanitizer and use it (I wish I'd done this more). If you feel sick any day of the park, stay at the hotel. Trust me, going to a park when you feel sick is the last thing you can do with all the energy and lights and motion constantly prevalent.
8) There are many tours you can take, often quite pricey and mostly very time consuming. An inexpensive tour is the ‘Behind The Seeds’ tour at Epcot, located at The Land which takes you through the Epcot greenhouse (which produces 30 tons of food for Epcot a year). The greenhouse is actually a fascinating place which has always utilized advanced growing technologies and has many solutions for the future of our food. I’ve never been a green thumb or interested in agriculture, but I found the tour to be really interesting and educational (it’s about $15 a person). However, our tour lasted a half hour longer than expected, so go in there knowing that they might go overboard with time. Even so, it didn’t set back the schedule much, but it was toasty in the greenhouse and thus somewhat exhausting to stand there when the tour went on overdrive. I had a great time though and proceeds go to further research at the greenhouse which is always a good thing.
9) Be aware of the weather. In Florida, it tends to rain during the summer often. Usually the storms pass fairly quickly and you can always duck into a pavilion or shop to kill some time. Bring an umbrella or a poncho and you’ll be fine. Make sure to check out weather forecasts for the time you will be in town so you can dress appropriately.
10) Be in shape. Disney parks take about 11-13 miles a day to travel. If you aren’t accustomed to exercising, this is not the place you want to be. Work up to it and hit the gym leading up to your trip and build up your muscles. Using my four day schedule, I still had time to take it easy when I needed to and head back to the hotel and rest for an hour or two and then return to the parks when necessary. I highly recommend you take a break when you need it. Bring a cooling fan (O2 Cool blue misting fans are great - you can get these at WalMart and they are stronger and more inexpensive than what you could find at Disney. They are often in the sporting section though they may be sprinkled about the store. They require two AA batteries and are AMAZING, especially in Florida heat.)
11) No matter how planned your itinerary is, don’t be afraid to take breaks when you need to and to EXPLORE. There are so many details all over Disney that you never know what you’ll find, and despite the countless times I have been there, I take a wrong turn and find something magical (such as the wishing well near Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom). Exercise caution, if you are a single female I wouldn’t recommend disappearing into dark paths or crevices at night, no matter how safe Disney claims to be.
12) Check out live shows. Particularly those in the countries at Epcot, they are lots of fun (Can you guess which park is my favorite?). A Beatles cover band appears in the Gazebo in the United Kingdom and you can always stop for a drink at the Rose and Crown UK pub. Voices of Liberty in America give tear-inducing patriotic acapella, and the film presentations the countries host are absolutely beautiful, especially the circle vision films of China and Canada. France's presentation is also gorgeous.
13) Recommended items to bring: poncho or umbrella, sandals (to change into in case it rains), extra socks - get socks that mention ‘dry’ on the packaging or that say ‘moisture-wick’. These will absorb sweat or rain and help prevent any blisters. Buy moleskin (not made from real moles!!!) in the foot section of the pharmacy at Walmart or elsewhere and a pair of scissors so you can cut it to your specifications - if you have any blister forming, slap this stuff on and keep on walking. Buy a box of Hefty OneZip jumbo multi-purpose bags (2 ½ gallon), I can’t tell you the number of uses these things have. Stuff several of them in your light backpack (travel as light as possible - a small locker costs $10!). You can use these bags for everything from sitting on the ground to an instant ice pack to - heaven forbid - the dreaded barfbag - to storing candies to your itinerary to storing your other bags in the event of rain and half a billion other things you can use them for. They are relatively large but perfect for any unexpected scenario and completely lightweight. I recommend you find the lightest backpack possible and stick to the bear minimum. Also, bring a portable water bottle (with a clip) as park bottled water will add up quickly and on a really hot day you can go through several of these. Fill up with ice and bottled water before you arrive at a park and fill it up at fountains throughout the day (which may not taste the greatest so if there’s some sort of flavoring you’d like to add, feel free to bring it). You are allowed to bring water bottles and snacks to the park. Wear comfortable sneakers (make sure you’ve tried and tested these as much as possible). Bring spray-on sunscreen, it’s so much easier to deal with than lotion.
14) Do what the Disney folks tell you to do! I can’t believe the number of people who get ancy if a ride temporarily breaks down for a minute or two. It’s always the folks who try to step out when they aren’t supposed to or stand up on a rollercoaster or swim across the lagoon that end up becoming true urban legends. The rules are there for a reason - and you can't find a more organized place than Walt Disney World. Given some of the things I've seen, that's a good thing.
15) Listen to your body. If you are sick or in pain, go to the hotel and heal. And, for the sake of all that is dear in the world, listen to your kids! I can’t tell you how many parents I saw literally forcing their children onto rides they were terrified of. The whole objective of going to Disney is to have fun. If you are going to pay that kind of money, you might as well have as much fun as possible where and when possible. Not everyone has the same idea of a good time, and I am still at a loss to explain the parents and their terrified children. If a kid is obviously rattled, don’t force them. There are plenty of rides at all the parks for every age group. I think some parents feel that the rides are somehow symbolic of life, that if you make your kids face your fears at a theme park, you’ll build stronger children. I don’t believe that AT ALL, even if the ride is less scary than your kid thinks it is, and all the crying and screaming isn’t fun for them and it certainly ruins the ‘magic’ for those people around you. Take it from someone that used to be one of those kids. As a general rule of thumb, don't go to Disney if you are not the type of person who can take it for what it is and have a good time. Grouchy and rude adults abound at the park. If you'd rather be chilling in a vineyard or exploring the polar ice caps, spare us all and do so. Disney is about imagination, fun, creativity, and exploration. If you can't get into that mind frame, don't make the trek.
16) Tips to see as much as possible in four days:
FASTPASS, fastpass, and more fastpass. Every park has a select number of rides (usually the most popular) that offer the Fastpass option. Know which rides offer Fastpass in advance and plan accordingly. Next to each Fastpass ride, you will find a set of kiosks. Insert your ticket into one and it will pop out a Fastpass for you, which indicates the time you can return to that ride without having to wait in a line (or at least a long one). In all my days at Disney, I barely waited in lines at all, and the longest one I waited in was less than half an hour. Compare that to the two hours it takes to ride some attractions during this peak season. Planning literally pays, and if you plan appropriately, you can save about four hours each day.
Arrive at the parks 30-40 minutes before they open. Sometimes they open earlier on peak season, and if not, you’ll be one of the first people in the park (most folks arrive towards the afternoon). I’m not a morning person AT ALL, but it is absolutely pivotal for a wait-free Disney experience. The lines are generally super short. The idea of doing as much as possible in four days can only be achieved if you arrive to the park early, fastpass wisely, plan carefully, and take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. Again, this will all save you time and allow you to be mellow at the parks, take breaks when necessary, and even return to your hotel room for an hour or two to rest and still keep with the schedule.
The parks are huge, but most of the time spent there can easily be spent standing in long lines. During the opening of the park or when using and obtaining Fastpasses, the idea is to knock out the most popular rides first and as fast as possible. Then you can break and take it easy. You can pick up a Fastpass in one spot then go to another popular ride and so on and use your Fastpass when the time is indicated later. Each person in the group will need their own Fastpass. Don’t use it if the line is less than half an hour or if it’s a theater show, those can usually hold large amounts of people and you can only get one Fastpass at a time. Also, go on rides during parades as the rides tend to empty out. If you have Extra Magic Hours at night, be sure to locate which rides are open for those parks during those extra hours and go on all the popular attractions then. For example, using the park hopper pass addition, I was able to spend the day at Epcot, go back to the hotel and rest for a few hours, then use my ticket to hop over to the Magic Kingdom from 12-3am and go on all the major rides during Extra Magic Hours. The next day I slept in and woke up when my body was ready to, went to the Magic Kingdom, and finished out all the rides and explored the park in a day. Bear in mind that all the walking will tire you out so be sure to get in some naps when attempting this schedule. Again, to see all you want to, Epcot and Magic Kindom generally take a day and a half (possible through early rises, fast passes, and extra magic hours) and then Animal Kingdom can generally be seen rather quickly if you get there when the park opens and stay until about 3pm (the animals end up being fed around 4pm and tend to disappear so it’s more of a daytime park) and then you can go to MGM and see as many rides and attractions as possible. You night not be able to see everything there depending on crowds and how well you've planned or at what time you arrive, so know what it is you want to see in advance and go on that first. If you get there in good time, you should see quite a bit. Eating out of the parks or bringing food will save you good time as will bringing a car and avoiding other transportation. Don’t park hop to more than two parks in a day as that can be time consuming.
17) Brief park crowd descriptions: Epcot is personally my favorite (!!!), but I’m biased. I lovingly call it “The PBS of theme parks”. If you love Discovery, History, and PBS channels, this is your park. Walt Disney believed education could be fun, and the park was built in this spirit, along with his visions of future communities (EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It isn’t exactly note for note Walt’s vision as it was originally intended to be living community - but he would have been proud. Probably not of the prices though, I’m sure Disney originally envisioned his parks to be a place for everyone, not those who had wads of dough. If you want to see more of a realistic version of Walt’s community vision, drive through Celebration - the living community near Disney World). Epcot is less about rides and more about learning. Some may find it a tad boring, I think it's exceptional.
I recommend you buy some books on the parks so you can get an idea of the history and ideas surrounding these parks and attractions, it will give you a greater appreciation for them. Epcot tends to be more of an adult park, but I was always fascinated by it as a child. Though a brief rant - Epcot Center (the earlier version) was far better, and avoided the kind of product placement now found throughout the park. Poor Figment (from Journey Into Imagination) has been relegated to a run-down attraction not befitting of his awesomeness, and I remember when the Mexican boat ride used to be about Mexico, not Donald Duck… I digress. If you go to the Living Seas, check out the dolphin training exhibit and experience Turtle Talk with Crush theater experience. I don't have any children, but I found it to be true magic to see the technology at work here in providing kids with an experience to actually talk to an animated screen character (This secret technology is also visible at the Monsters Inc. comedy club at Magic Kingdom.)
Magic Kingdom is definitely the park for little kids, so beware and watch where you are stepping! Hollywood Studios is more of a teen crowd and Animal Kingdom which is basically a zoo with Disney flair is more for everyone.
18) Extra tips:
Disney rides love to smartly empty out into themed gift shops. After that kind of product placement, your kids will be dying to buy one of everything. A fun affordable souvenir for them is to bring quarters and pennies. Many sections of the parks (such as Epcot’s countries and attractions) include booths that allow for pressed pennies highlighting the attraction or section. (Each costs $50 cents plus a penny). It’s a fun distraction and neat collectible.
Again, feel free to explore. See if you can find the water fountain that shoots in reverse, the talking trashcan, or the talking water fountain (Take a wild guess which park these are in!).
There are tons of photo opportunities available, including inside the gift shops. They are incredibly understanding about posing with the merchandise. Why do I have the distinct feeling I just made a Disney employee's life hell?! Be respectful and put everything back!
On a final note, I will say that Disney is indeed “magic”. The park means something different for everyone. I was truly touched by the couple I sat at the table with at the Biergarten who talked about how they worked in hospice care and the parks offered them an opportunity to see people LIVE and love and had a beautiful time. This escape was so necessary for them they literally went every week. For me, the place brings back fond memories and childhood experiences, but also the opportunity to create new memories, and ones that were just as magical if not better than the ones I’d had before. As a non-planner, I can verify to you that the preparation involved in planning my trip was a thousand percent worth it. If you get to go, best of luck and enjoy! And, do send us an e-mail and let us know how we did.
P.S. The only thing I went on that I hated at Disney was Country Bear Jamboree at Magic Kingdom. I could stand the Enchanted Tiki Room just fine next to that thing. If you want to see bears older than I am that look like they are about to keel over and go to animatronic hell and horrid southern stereotypes, look no further.
P.P.S. Sit in the back of the theater so you can run right out without disturbing everyone if you insist on taking a peek just to prove me right.