Monday, August 10, 2015

Disney 2015 Pre-Trip Planning Tips...

WAHOO - we're headed back to Disney World in just a few short days.  You would think that having just traveled there last April that there would be little pre-planning or organization needed for this follow-up trip.  NOT TRUE!  Since this is our second trip to Disney World in less than 16 months, I didn't have to put in quite as much research and planning into this trip as I did the first, but I still had to put in some time to ensure a successful visit!

Not sure where to start with planning for your trip?  Here are my top pre-planning tips when headed to Walt Disney World in Florida.  Do you have to do all of these or any of these to have an amazing time?  NOPE, absolutely not.  However, I think any level of pre-planning can result in avoiding long lines, saving money, and making packing easier and more efficient for you and your family.

Log onto the Disney website
If you are going to do ANY pre-planning before your departure, this is my #1 tip.  Make sure you create an account on the Disney website (link HERE).  You make all your reservations through this website including dining, FastPass+ reservations, picture package, etc.  The park hours are also available on the site, as well as parade times, show times, and fireworks schedules.  It tells you where and when the character meet/greets occur, as well.  I make sure to go and look at the park hours for when we will be there and start a Word document containing all the information that pertains to us and our trip (including Magic Hours).  

Personally, we build our vacation around Magic Hours, so we can hammer out the popular rides and character visits during quiet times in the park and not stand in endless lines with a cranky and whiny preschooler.  We are NOT morning people, but it works for us.

Also, download the My Disney Experience app so that you have easy access to all the information on your mobile device.  We make lots of changes to our FastPass+ reservations while we are in the park depending upon lines, when we eat, if we're running early/late, etc.  The app allows you the ability to make quick changes while on the go and also tells you the current wait times for all the rides.  

Pay attention to the calendar
30 days, 60 days, 180 days, etc. - they all mean something these days when booking FastPass+ reservations, dining reservations, and even when ordering lunch at some restaurants ahead of your arrival.  A lot of these dates also depend on whether you are staying on Disney property or not.  I counted out all the days that pertained to us and marked everything in my iPhone calendar so I would receive reminders about what I needed to do and when I needed to do it.  

Since we stay at Shades of Green (not considered a Disney property, but still benefits from Disney transportation and Magic Hours), we were only allowed to book our Fastpass+ 30 days in advance.   However, I was able to book all of our dining reservations 180 days in advance.  In fact, you don't even need to have a hotel confirmation and tickets to start booking your dining.  So, if you're even thinking about going to Disney, go ahead and book your dining first since favorite restaurants and popular time slots fill up quickly.  For our last trip, we hadn't even booked airline tickets, but I had our dining reservations all set. 

Mini-tip ---- If at first you don't get the dining reservations that you really want (aka - dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table or lunch at Be Our Guest) - Don't fear.  Keep trying!  I was amazed at the number of reservations that opened up as people change their mind and move around their dining reservations.  We were able to score reservations to both restaurants listed above within weeks of our trip after initially not finding anything available early on during our planning.  In fact, I just cancelled a popular restaurant reservation for later next week because our departing flight is now leaving earlier and I didn't want to cut it that close.

Just hanging out with her new BFF, Snow White, at Cinderella's Royal Table dinner

Mini-tip ---- If you can't find a reservation at your "typical dining time" (aka - dinner at 5pm), go ahead and book something earlier or later.  You can easily work your day around that reservation and have a big snack a few hours before/after you eat.  You're also (possibly) getting up earlier than normal and going to bed later, so you'd be amazed that eating a late lunch or an early dinner doesn't seem so strange after a long day, a long nap, etc.  Don't forget how many calories you're burning running around these parks - you'll be hungry!  

In my opinion, FastPass+ is a fabulous organizational tool to help you manage your day in the parks.  HOWEVER, with that being said, you will find website after website of people complaining about it.  In a way, it does take away some of the spontaneity of your vacation, so I understand why some people don't like the system.  You have to plan where and when you are going to do popular rides well in advance.  As I stated above, we were constantly changing out FastPass+ reservations, so they are not set in stone.  

Yes, people stay up until midnight on the night before they can start making FP+ reservations!  Don't be surprised if you log on well ahead of time and see lots of popular attraction time slots are already gone.  As I also stated above with dining reservations, keep logging in to see what time slots open up.  You'd be surprised to see what becomes available as your trip approaches or on the day that you are in the park.

Mini--tip ---- If you are traveling with a child under the age of 3,  they do not need a separate FP+ reservation.  You only have to make FP+ reservations for children over the age of 3 and all the adults in your group.  You can use this to your advantage!  When we traveled last year and Georgia was only 2 years old, we were able to use Mimi's unused FP+ (she doesn't do wild rides or spinning attractions) to get Georgia some bonus opportunities.  We were able to use her FP+ to get VIP access to the parade at Magic Kingdom, to meet characters at Epcot, and so on.  Nick and I still got to ride the big rides like Space Mountain using our FP+, but were able to make reservations for Mimi to do separate activities and Georgia could accompany her since she was too short to go on the big coasters with Mom and Dad.

Georgia visiting Mickey while Nick and I rode Soarin' at Epcot

Mini-tip ---- If you're struggling to get your whole group into a popular ride time slot or character meet/greet, split up your group.  I could not get the popular Anna/Elsa character meet for a party of 4.  But, I was able to get Mimi into a 3:00pm-4:00pm time slot by herself.  I was then able to move Georgia into a 3:30pm-4:30pm time slot.  So, at 3:30pm, they can bypass the long line together to meet her favorite "Frozen" characters while Nick and I wait outside or grab a quick snack.

Mini-tip --- Do NOT use your FastPass+ reservation if you get to the ride and there is no line.  Quickly log into your app, cancel the reservation and change it to something else!  You do not want to waste a valuable FP+ on a ride that you can walk right onto without waiting in a line (or just a short wait).

Mini-tip --- Do NOT make your FastPass+ reservations for early morning.  Save them for later in the day when the parks get more crowded.  We noticed a huge influx of people around 10am when we were visiting during a peak week in the spring.  We were easily able to ride several major attractions in all the parks just by being there right when the park opened early in the morning.  You can also ride major attractions during parade times and during the fireworks since most people will go to those events and not be in lines at the time.  Think outside the box, especially if you are going to be in the same park for multiple days.  If you saw the parade on day #1 and know that you aren't going to see it again the following day, plan to hit some big attractions during that time slot.

Empty Dumbo ride in the early morning hours!

Time Considerations
A few things to keep in mind when booking dining reservations and FastPass+.... Disney World is a huge and vast place.  Each theme park is massive and has a ton of acreage.  Even the resort hotels can take 10+ minutes to walk from one end to another.  Take time into consideration when booking dining, rides, character meet/greets and so on.  You cannot get across the Magic Kingdom in less than 5 minutes, especially during a busy time, such as after the fireworks or when a parade has shut down some major access routes in the park.  At times, you just have to wait and shuffle along with the crowd (aka - it took us 30+ minutes to exit the park from Main Street after the fireworks).  We practically ran out of our Be Our Guest dinner last year in order to make our FastPass+ reservation for Dumbo.  Don't do it - it just adds stress to your day.  Factor in the time it will take for you to eat (and possibly running late).  

Plan ahead to figure out how long it will take to get from/to your resort from the theme parks.  The monorail and buses run non-stop, but sometimes there isn't room on the first one and you have to wait.  Take into consideration that they are going to be packed right before and after fireworks, parades and other busy times of day.  Give yourself lots of spare time to get from one place to another.  

Heading to dinner last year via monorail 

Know the bus schedules and double-check with the drivers - they are super friendly and very helpful.  Yes, you will miss buses too.  We casually walked out of the Animal Kingdom last year thinking we had plenty of time to make the bus back to our resort.  Well, we emerged from the park and apparently the bus left a few minutes early.  Oooops.  So, we could wait for another hour for the next bus or improvise.  We took the next shuttle back to the Magic Kingdom and grabbed the monorail from there.  Did it save time?  Probably not, but we were in air conditioning 90% of the time and got to see some sights while sitting vs standing in a barren and hot parking lot waiting for an hour.

Mini-tip --- Don't forget your best walking sneakers!  Forget about fashion and go for comfort.  We were logging 25,000+ steps per day during our last visit!  Disney is huge and it takes a lot of walking to make it from Point A to Point B!  DO NOT buy new sneakers for the trip - make sure they are comfortable and broken in before your trip.  I wore my most comfortable sneakers last year  - the ones that I run races in and have special comfort inserts - and my feet were still sore at the end of the day.  Pack band-aids!

Note the sneakers... and the exhausted child!

Mini-tip --- Bring your flip flops with you so that you can jump on rides where you might get wet (ex. Splash Mountain, Kali River Rapids, etc.) so that your sneakers don't get soaking wet and give you blisters!  I also like to throw on my flip flops for the last walk of the night - usually from the monorail or bus to the hotel.  At that point in the day, my feet need to breathe and after being in sneakers all day long, it feels good to walk in something a little different.

Mini-tip ---- Bring your best stroller!  Even if your child hasn't ridden in their stroller for a good year or so, bring it.  Georgia is not a stroller type of kid, but at the end of the day, she happily climbed in there for the long walk back to the hotel.  Plus, a stroller is a great place to store some extra stuff - ponchos, flip flops, some sunscreen, and so on.  Bring a spare poncho for your stroller.  If you are headed to a ride and the skies are darkening - you don't want to come out and find your stroller soaking wet, so throw the poncho over it.  Yes, there will be a million strollers that look just like yours and Disney has magical helpers that are always moving around the strollers in the parking areas, so tie a bright balloon or ribbon to your stroller so you can spot it easily.  

My passed out kid in her stroller.... while reading a map!

Mini-tip ---- Disney is a little bit like planes, trains, and automobiles.  Explore the different options available to get to/from your resort from the parks.  We took a great boat ride from the Magic Kingdom to the Polynesian last year instead of taking the monorail.  It was a beautiful night and riding a boat was fun and a change of scenery.  Plus, there was no line for the boat and the monorail line was several hundred people deep after the fireworks.

Memory Maker
Memory Maker is expensive ($169), but well worth it.  If you buy it before you get to Disney, you save $30 (but make sure to purchase it at least 3 days before you depart for Florida).  Disney photographers are everywhere and it's nice to have whole group shots of your party.  Bottom line - their photographers take much better pictures than your camera (even your fancy one!) or iPhone.  All of the photos upload automatically to your Disney account and you can crop, edit, add fun details, etc. to the pictures.  It's well worth it, especially if you have dining reservations where they take your picture before the meal (ex. Chef Mickey's, Cinderella's Royal Table, Akershus, etc.), on rides where they snap pictures of you during big drops (ex. Expedition Everest, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, etc.), and at the character meet/greets.

Mini-tip --- Don't be afraid to approach the photographers and ask them to take your picture!  We walked past many photographers without quite knowing what they were doing until we saw other people getting their pictures snapped!  

One of the pictures from our 2014 trip... with some added whimsy editing

Garden Grocer
Are you a fan of Giant's Peapod or Harris Teeter's pick-up grocery service?  If so, check out Garden Grocer.  We did not use it when we went last year, but I've already placed my order for this trip.  I can't wait to NOT have to pack a gazillion snacks in our suitcases.  I ordered snacks, water, soda, etc.  You can order sunscreen, beauty product, diapers, and even beer/wine!  The prices are slightly higher than grocery store prices, but the convenience is unbeatable.  You can double-check to see if your resort accepts the delivery right on the website.  I called our resort to confirm and they stated that the bellhop accepts the delivery and then buzzes your room to let you know that it has arrived.  If you are not at the resort yet, they will hold the groceries for you until you arrive (memo - you have to be present to show your identification if you're ordering beer or wine!).  Well worth the price to me, especially knowing how much Disney charges for snacks on their property.  As a family with food allergies, it's also important for me to have lots of safe and proven snacks ready.  My personal motto - Nothing cures a cranky kid faster than a few hundred calories and a sugar rush!!

Mini-tip ---- If you place your order 15 days in advance, you get a 5% savings.  30 days = 7% off.  60 days = 10% off.  You also can edit and add additional items to your order after you place your initial order.

Dollar Store Shopping
Before our trip last year, I made it a point to check out several of our local dollar stores, as well as the $1 spot in Target.  Both were key to saving major money at the parks at night.  Both carry light-up toys, bracelets, necklaces, etc.  I've already stopped and picked up gear for our next trip.  Another great idea is to bring previously bought light up toys with you.  We've been to enough Disney on Ice shows and spent our $27/toy, so we're bringing a few with us.  Last year, Georgia was so entertained by the gadgets and gizmos we handed her from home that she NEVER asked for something from one of the many vendors who are out and about during the nightly fireworks.  

Mini-tip ---- I also purchased sharpie markers and a small notebook for character signatures at Target before our trip and plan to do so again this year.  You can buy small notebooks all over the parks, but the mark-up price is ridiculous when you can get one for $1 before the trip!

Last year, Mimi brought some small stuffed animals with her that she purchased before the trip.  She surprised Georgia with one each day and they were HUGE hits!  We allowed her one purchase during the trip (using a gift card she had gotten before the trip) and she selected a gigantic Dumbo pillow that barely made the flight home, but she loved it!

My last piece of pre-shopping advice... if you have a daughter under the age of 10 and you think she may want to dress like a princess, buy and bring the dress with you!  We were 100% convinced that Georgia would NEVER want to dress up in the parks, but as soon as she spotted the princesses and the other kids all dressed up, she begged for her dress daily!  Again, the mark-up for the dresses in the parks is shocking.  Mimi had bought her a Sofia dress ahead of time and we're so grateful because she wore it two nights and never wanted to take it off!

Dressed like a princess while hugging Belle at Akershus in Epcot

Food Allergy Prep
Like millions of other families, we deal with living with food allergies everyday.  Traveling can be stressful since we're exposed to new people, new food, and being trapped for several hours on a plane with people eating peanuts.

Disney is the gold standard for food allergy management, so I don't worry too much about our meals.  However, mistakes do happen.  Do your research about where you want to eat.  Are you comfortable with buffets?  Would you prefer a nut-free kitchen?  What are safe snacks in the parks?  Be sure to email Disney special diets before your trip and they will send you a list of safe foods and where to find them in the parks.

I highly recommend joining the Facebook group, Disney Chefs Rock Food Allergies.  The woman who created and runs the site is amazing and extremely knowledgeable.  Other food allergy parents report on their meals and experiences and share tips from their trips.  There is also a service to request food allergy cards, which I ordered several months ago.  These cards can be handed to managers/chefs/waiters so the food allergies at your table are clearly indicated.  I printed off about 30 and laminated them for our upcoming trip.

Phew... I think we're officially ready for the trip!  I'll be sure to update with any new tips after we return.

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