Friday, September 20, 2013

Planning Our Disney World Vacation

Since it may be another week or more before we get iPhoto working again and can load all our Disney World pictures, I'll take some time to share a bit about how this trip came about and what we did to prepare and pack!  Maybe I can add some photos at some point.

I went to Disney World twice as a child around middle school age.  Once was a fun trip with my family, and the other was a trip for a national dance competition with my family and also my dance team.  It was a magical experience both times, and I always hoped to go back one day.  As a teen, young adult, and now a mother, I've enjoyed the Disney movies of the past 20 years like Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, and Finding Nemo.  It's fun that these are all major attractions and shows in Disney World today!  I found myself singing along to many of the songs, and reminiscing about fun high school summers watching Lion King with my friends!

In the summer of 2010, while pregnant with Thomas (#4), we were able to take a family vacation to San Diego, California where my brother's family lives.  We took a side trip overnight to Anaheim for a day at Disneyland.  We had a lovely day there, and although the kids were still small (2, 5, and 7) and not quite ready for the thrill rides, we all loved Disneyland and started to think about one day visiting the big Disney World in Florida.

Free Dining Deal! A couple years back, I heard that some homeschooling friends were able to take a special family vacation to Disney World in the off-season and got a great deal that included a Free Dining package.  This sounded absolutely dreamy to me.  For the most part, I dislike cooking (and cleaning), so getting to go to a nice hotel, an amazing theme park, and choosing whatever food we wanted sounded like the best vacation ever!

Last year, I started researching the possibility of taking this kind of vacation to see if it might fit in the budget.  But at the time we were already planning a big beach week with Steven's family and were also looking at the possibility of buying a house here in our new city.  It just wasn't going to work out in 2012, so I kept my sights set on 2013!

In February and March of this year, I started reading the Disney message boards and checking into the Free Dining package.  Many predicted it would be offered for September and later months of 2013.  September would be perfect for us because as homeschoolers we aren't tied to a school schedule and can travel at more low-crowd times.  My friends who had taken the trip before recommended a Disney Travel Agent, who ended up doing all of the booking for our hotel, park tickets, and meal reservations.  She let me know when the Free Dining Deal for September would be going "live" (in early May), and was able to secure our trip reservations that first day.  Disney Agents are payed through Disney, so they are pretty much free for us to use them.  It was nice to have the advice of an experienced agent and to know that she was securing all our reservations.  I also appreciated times when she told me it would be cheaper to do something through our resort than using her services.  I'd definitely recommend using a Disney Agent on a trip to Disney World.

Choosing our Resort and Park tickets.  The resort choice ended up being a no-brainer for us.  We knew we wanted to stay at a Disney resort to get the package deal and the free dining.  Our youngest child was 2yrs old (nearly 3!), and so on this trip he didn't "count" for either park tickets or a room.  This allowed us to stay in one 5-person room that had a small Murphy bed that came out from the wall.  The only resort that offered this was the one we chose, the Port Orleans Riverside, a Moderate Resort.  The next (more expensive) option would be getting 2 rooms at a Value resort.  But we would have paid several hundred more, and for the free dining plan, at a Value Resort we would have only gotten the "Quick Service dining" which doesn't include any table service meals.  There may have been Deluxe Resorts that accommodated 5 people, and I know there are some places like the Wilderness Lodge that offer suites with small kitchenettes, but the hotel we chose was by far the most economical for our family.

Steven initially only wanted to spend 3 days at the Disney Parks.  He's more of a nature lover than a theme-park fan, but somehow I got him to agree to a 4th day.  I figured since at that point we were planning on 4 days of driving, we had to at least stay at Disney for 4 days!  After deciding to fly to Florida, we opted to stay an extra night because of the late flight and then take Sunday off from visiting the parks and just go to church, swim at the hotel, and visit Downtown Disney.  But in the end, we opted to add that 5th day of park tickets so that we could go to Hollywood Studios on Sunday evening.  I wanted Tommy to see the Disney Jr. characters and there were a few other rides and the Fantasmic show that sounded like a lot of fun.

We opted against the "Park Hopper" tickets, because one park a day seems like quite enough for a family with small children.  Plus, with a package deal you have to get all park-hoppers or no park-hoppers, and the price was a few hundred more for the park-hoppers.  I think that was a good decision.  After taking our trip, I think 6 park days would be ideal.  We could have used an extra day at Epcot, but Hollywood and Animal Kingdom can definitely be seen in a day.  I think a perfect trip would be about 9 or 10 days in all, with the 6 park days and some free days for enjoying the resort, going to Downtown Disney, and maybe even visiting another local attraction.  I've heard that there are $8 tickets for homeschoolers at Legoland!

Pregnant moms and small kids at Disney World.  Both of our Disney trips were planned months in advance, before we were expecting.  Now we've been saying it should be a tradition...whenever I have to undergo another pregnancy, I win a trip to Disney!  I followed most of the advice for rides, which included no roller coasters or rough thrill rides (like race cars that crash or virtual rides with lots of bumps and drops).  Although I loved roller coasters as a child and young adult, I haven't felt a huge void by missing out on these, and of course I always have some child with me who can't or doesn't want to ride the scary rides!

I made sure to drink a lot of water on the trip.  I was worried about all the walking since I haven't exercised since June, but being off of my hormone supplement and in the 2nd trimester, and of course being at the "happiest place on earth" must have given me a new spark, because I was always the first one awake and hardly napped at all on the trip!  I did sit down a lot and we took breaks throughout the day, as I will discuss below in planning our days.

As for the ages of the kids, this seemed like a great time to visit Disney.  Their ages were 2, 5, 8, and 10.  The oldest 3 were old enough to enjoy the thrill rides and young enough to really experience the "Disney Magic!"  Of course Thomas won't remember the trip, but he was old enough to go on a lot of the rides, watch the shows, and he wasn't even afraid of the fireworks!  The fact that he was just able to squeeze in as a 2yr old before his birthday made the trip much more economical than it would have been a few weeks later.  We would have had to get a bigger room (or even two rooms) and buy park tickets for him, which would have added at least $500 to our trip!

Flights and restaurants.  The summer was spent researching restaurants and making reservations for our table service meals.  We also ended up finding a good deal on flights from Southwest Airlines, and we booked those in late July.  Although we had to drive nearly 4 hours to the airport for the discounted flights, we were able to eliminate the 4 days of driving from South Texas to Florida and back.  It still took almost a whole day of travel each time with driving to the airport, waiting, then a 2.5hr flight, and then waiting for luggage and the Disney Express Bus service, and then the reverse on the way home.  It would have been nice to fly from our own city.  But we were definitely grateful that we didn't spend 40 hours in the car that week!

The sit-down restaurants we ended up choosing were the following:
-Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom for the character breakfast buffet
-Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge, changed to 50s Prime Time Cafe when we added Hollywood Studios, which was canceled due to a late lunch
-'Ohana at the Polynesian Resort for dinner
-Via Napoli and Chefs de France in Epcot
-Cinderella's Royal Table in Magic Kingdom (Cinderella's Castle, a 2-credit meal)

I'll share some reviews of these when I share the pictures of each day at the parks.   But overall, we're not sure if we'd go the Free Dining route for a future trip.  The sit-down meals ate up a lot of time, and we weren't overly impressed with any of the food.  Our kids don't eat very much, so we usually had way more food and desserts than we could eat.  The quick service meals worked better because they could share meals and we didn't have a lot of food leftover.  Plus they were quick!  There are discounted room offers if you don't choose the free dining option, and I think that might be a better choice for us in the future.  The experiences were fun for our first big Disney trip, though!

Magic Bands and Rides.  About a week before our trip, we received an offer to be a part of the trial of Disney's new Magic Bands, which are bracelets worn by Disney guests that contain all the information, tickets, reservations, and even FastPasses for rides.  So we could make reservations for Disney rides and attractions on the internet from home, from the hotel, the bus, or while at the park.  They scanned our bracelets to get into the parks, to keep track of our meal and snack credits, to use our FastPasses, and you could also choose to attach a credit card for easy shopping with just a touch of the bracelet to their scanning device and typing in a 4-digit pin code (my frugal husband did NOT choose that option!).  It was fun to choose the color bracelets beforehand and have the names printed inside the bracelets.  We all felt very cool wearing these new Magic Bands!

The week or two before our trip I spent researching rides and schedule plans for our days at Disney.  I used some different websites and blogs, as well as a borrowed Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World book.  I reserved some of our FastPasses for the rides and attractions that we knew might be crowded.  I had been collecting lists of Disney favorites from Facebook posts and emails from my friends who are big Disney travelers.  All of this was helpful in making sure we planned our days well and got to go on all the rides and shows that were important to us.

Day planning and resting.  With small children and a pregnant mama, I knew we couldn't go from park opening to closing without having a major meltdown from one of us.  The toddler did sleep in the stroller at the parks every day.  I planned out our days to either start late or end early, or to take a mid-day break from the parks.  Here's what we did during our 5 days there:

Day 1-Magic Kingdom.  It closed at 7pm with no evening show that day.  We arrived before opening for our breakfast reservation at 8:20am, and left around 2:00pm.  We went back to the hotel for a rest, while it was raining, and then we rode a boat over to Downtown Disney for dinner.
Day 2-Hollywood Studios.  We added this park to our agenda at the last minute.  I just couldn't pass up visiting that last park for only $52 for the entire family!  We took a taxi to a nearby 7:30am Mass and back to the hotel.  We went swimming and then went to Hollywood Studios around 3pm and stayed for their Fantasmic show at 8:30pm.
Day 3-Animal Kingdom.  We arrived around 9am opening and stayed until 4pm.  We rode to another hotel for our 5pm dinner and then got back to the hotel before it was too late.
Day 4-Epcot.  We arrived a little after the Extra Magic Hours 8am opening (for Disney resort guests), and left around 2pm for a short rest in our dark hotel room.  We returned around 5pm and rode a few rides before our 6:30pm dinner and the 9pm firework show.  We did miss a lot of sightseeing in the World Showcase due to this break and our two sit-down meals that day.
Day 5-Magic Kingdom.  We arrived around 9am and left for a break at our hotel from about 1-4pm, including a short dip in the pool for Daddy and the 3 big kids.  We returned for our 6pm castle dinner and then watched the fireworks at 9pm.

Packing and laundry.  Packing for a trip for a family of six is a big undertaking!  We have had to do it quite a bit since moving a few hours away from family.  We are usually traveling around once a month, so we have a good method.  The kids each have their own rolling suitcase, which are all the same size, from Target.  I usually take our biggest rolling suitcase and pack the toiletries along with the diapers in my luggage.  And of course Steven has his smaller rolling suitcase.  We always bring a large canvas laundry bag, and this time we ended up checking it as baggage on the way home since it was full of dirty clothes!

The girls (ages 8 and 10) each brought an American Girl doll in their carrying backpacks and their Rainbow Loom bracelet crafting case.  Steven Joseph (age 5) also brought his Rainbow Loom and a backpack, and we had one big backpack that came to the parks with us for supplies and diapers.   We also had my small camera case with a 2nd lens stuffed in there (bad idea, I never used that lens and may have broken it).  And I had my new Vera Bradley hipster purse which is a perfect small purse to carry cross-body that can hold quite a bit (phone, keys, large wallet, a couple diapers, iPhone, etc).

We've learned that it's very important to keep up with laundry while traveling with a big family.  When visiting family in-state, I usually do a load of our laundry every day.  This time I planned to wash the clothes halfway through our trip, but we ended up washing clothes on both Sunday and Tuesday afternoons (we arrived late Friday night and departed early Thursday morning).  It cost $2/load for the washer and the dryer and $1 for a pack of powdered detergent at the hotel.  And each cycle was about 30 minutes so it took around an hour to wash and dry the loads.

Aside from basic traveling needs (toiletries, undergarments, etc), here are a few other important things we packed or should've packed!
-4 summer outfits for each person
-Good shoes for each person (Keen sandals for 4 of us, Stride Rite tennis shoes for the boys)
-Clothes for Sunday Mass (not overly formal, but girls wore skirts and boys wore collared shirts)
-Flip Flops for the pool
-Other pool items (cover-up, goggles, a few toys would've been fun...Tommy played with a leaf for about an hour!)
-Sweater or sweatshirt (we forgot this and it would've been nice for the flights and cold airports)
-A few throw blankets (we brought one fleece blanket and everyone fought over it)
-2 sets of PJs per person
-Rain ponchos (dollar store)
-Sunscreen
-Hats
-Water spray fan (this cost us $17 at the park!)
-Our electronic devices and camera and chargers
-Paperwork for flights and Disney accommodations
-Band-aids, other medicines like Motrin, and essential oils
-Snacks (fruit, applesauce pouches, granola bars, crackers, gum/candy for flight, etc)
-Glow bands from the Dollar Store for the firework shows (The bracelets were a huge hit with Thomas who made chains with them for about an hour before and during the firework show and on the plane.  The connectors are choking hazards for little ones though.)
-Lanyard necklaces ($1 each at Party City) and Disney Trading Pins (we bought a lot off ebay).  The kids loved trading pins with the Disney Cast Members!

Stroller and carseat concerns.  We brought our small Maclaren single stroller that I found on Craigslist before going to Disneyland 3 years ago.  It was perfect for traveling, but we really could've used a double stroller.  Even though our youngest two kids were nearly 3yrs old and 5.5yrs old, they both wanted to be in a stroller all the time.  The 5yr old was exhausted and whiny with all the walking.  There are a lot of local companies in Orlando that rent out nice strollers for good prices (I saw one quoted at $7/day whereas the plastic double strollers at the parks were $31/day), and they even deliver the stroller to your hotel!  The double stroller that most of them were renting is the Baby Jogger City Mini, which looks like a great high-end stroller with smooth wheels, reclining seats, and great canopies.  I would totally go this route next time if we don't own a comparable double stroller!

We opted not to bring a carseat or booster seat to Walt Disney World, even though our youngest two kids still sit in a 5-pt harness carseat and the 8yr old usually sits in a booster seat. I'm a pretty hard-core carseat promoter, but my husband researched it and said that most people suggested that if you were overly concerned about this, you might just want to rent a car or take taxis to all the parks. I found this line of thinking to be true. Each day we went on about 4 bus rides and none offered seatbelts (besides the Magical Express airport shuttle, which doesn't allow carseats anyway) or any possibility of children riding in a carseat. Many required adults or children to stand during the rides; sometimes children sat in parents' laps or even on the floor.  So I personally felt like carseat safety was one of those parent concerns that we needed to let go of during this trip. We did ride in a taxi to mass on Sunday morning and the drive there was in a large shuttle van taxi, but the drive back was in a minivan taxi, so they had a carseat for our toddler to use on that trip (taxi prices from our hotel to the Shrine were about $17 each way). 

Busy Buses.  Of course it is so nice to have free bus transportation from and back to the airport and also to all the Disney parks and hotels.  But it does come with a slight price in time and crowd considerations.  We had to wait about 20 minutes in line for the Magical Express to take us from the airport to our hotel, and we were the last hotel on the route, so we arrived around 9:30pm (plane landed at 7:10) after being on the bus about an hour.  We ate dinner after 10pm that first night!  They also require you to be ready to leave your hotel 3 hours before your departing flight, which meant 5:30am for us!  We actually missed that bus because we were waiting for a golf cart ride to the front of the hotel (our room was a 10-minute walk to the lobby/restaurant area).  We made the 6am bus and got to the gate just a few minutes before boarding.

The buses to and from the resorts ran pretty consistently.  We usually waited 0-15 minutes for a bus, EXCEPT at park closing.  That was a total zoo, and our busy hotel (Port Orleans Riverside with 2000+ rooms) always had a huge line that could last up to 30 minutes.  The bus would also be packed to the gills, with half the people standing up, many kids dozing off, for a dark 10-20 minute drive.  It was a bit frustrating since we never waited more than 10 minutes for a ride during this low crowd time for Disney World, so the bus lines were longer than the lines for the rides!  Also, many people (elderly, disabled, overweight, pregnant) rent electric scooters, and those get priority on the buses and require the bus to be lowered and a ramp put out, with their friends and family entering first, which adds a few extra minutes to the trip.  Strollers must all be folded down, which is something to consider when planning what stroller to take with you and how you load it up with gear!

So the buses are an important part of the planning out the days of your Disney vacation.  Depending on your hotel, it could take an hour or more for transport during busy times.  Leaving for the parks early in the morning before opening would usually allow for shorter lines and quicker transport.  If you're at one of those busy resorts, it might be best to wander around the parks for awhile at night after the firework shows and browse in the stores and let the kids trade pins with the workers, while you wait for the bus lines to die down a little bit.  During the daytime it was sometimes fun to strike up conversations with other guests during a busy bus ride, but at night everyone was just exhausted and ready for bed!  Another option would be to splurge for one of the deluxe resorts on the Monorail line that travels to both Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

~~~

Planning for a Disney trip is an important part of the fun!  It gets everyone excited, and it helps to know what attractions everyone is interested in ahead of time.  Steven and I enjoyed perusing websites with information on the restaurants and menus as we were making dining reservations this past summer.  We also watched the free Disney planning video several times, including once just a few days before our trip.  I've listed a lot of information here, and I hope some of it might be helpful for other families planning a trip like this.  I know I really gained a lot from reading blogs, websites, and message boards discussing the different aspects of Disney World.  Hopefully one day I can look back if we plan another vacation here some day.  It truly felt like the Happiest Place on Earth, and I know that taking the time to plan well helped it all run smoothly so that we could all enjoy this special family vacation. 

4 comments:

Hani said...

This is a treasure trove of information! Thanks for sharing it all. One question: did you take car seats with you? I'm just wondering because we've never been able to get to Mass from the parks since we don't rent a car. I hadn't thought of a taxi. Someone could make a lot of money running Mass shuttle buses to the resorts!

Ingrid said...

Thanks for all the info! It helps to see all the components of the trip.

Villas Orlando said...

Nice information..thanks for share!

Kelly Gutierrez said...

For big vacation plans like this, planning is really the best solution. It’s a good thing you knew exactly what to prioritize and consider when planning for a vacation: accommodation; free dining packages; and even having a tour guide, which is very helpful in my opinion since Disneyland is a big place. The planning part may sound exhausting, but it’s all worth it. #Kelly @ HomeBasedTravelAgents.org

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