Yes, this is Disney!
Not everything is about princesses.
I never thought I’d become a “Disney Fanatic”, but it only took one visit in 2005 and I was hooked. This happens a lot to first timers. Even so, it’s not uncommon for me to hear friends say Disney is the last place they’d want to go on vacation. Where else are you surrounded by gaggles of snot filled children, furries and never ending lines of people, some holding turkey legs? In reality though, many of these reluctant travelers have never been to the park. Their pre-conceived notions preventing them from truly experiencing, “The Happiest Place on Earth”.
Disney is hard to understand until you’ve actually been there. Without proper planning and an understanding of how Disney works, it can be anything but a happy experience. The first year I visited, it was much more stressful than the years following. Simple things like making our dinner reservations before arriving made a significant difference. The amount of planning required will vary based on how busy the parks are. Getting last minute reservations on a random Wednesday in January is a whole different story than that same reservation the week after Easter.
After a dozen visits over the past 10 years, I am considered a Disney expert by many of my friends. I was recently asked for a hotel recommendation and I realized I have much more to offer than that. Which brings me to today’s blog,
First, here are the abbreviations I’ll be using:
- WDW- Walt Disney World
- AK- Animal Kingdom Park
- EP- Epcot
- MK- Magic Kingdom
- HS- Hollywood Studios
- DVC- Disney Vacation Club
Now I bring you to the questions I am most often asked:
Q: What age is too young or too old to visit?
My first adult visit to Disney was in 2005, when my kids were 2 and 4. Although I noticed many families traveling with infants, 2 years of age was the youngest I’d wanted to travel with. Toddlers cannot walk the entire distance required each day, so thankfully there are single and double-stroller rentals available at each park entrance.
By waiting until my son was 2, I didn’t have to worry about keeping formula cool or impromptu diaper changes. While there are baby care centers in each park, you may have quite a walk to get there. Unless you’ve been to the WDW, it’s hard to imagine the distance between rides and the amount of walking you will be doing. Therefore, even though there is 1 baby care center in each park, the necessary travel distance may be significant. Don’t’ worry, if you can’t walk long distances there are scooter rentals also available for a fee. If you are traveling with an infant it is do-able, it just isn’t as stress-free.
The magic of character greetings lasted many years, well beyond what I expected. My kids were convinced they were meeting the real Mickey Mouse and Princesses. After we purchased autograph books from guest services, my kids made it their goal to get as many signatures as possible. This often meant waiting in line for longer than I cared to, but their smiles made it well worth doing. This is the time dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table in MK is well worth the price. There is an effort to involve the boys in your party as well. Just make sure you book early, since tables can fill up well in advance.
As the kids got older, their interest in obtaining autographs waned, but then they transitioned into lanyards full of Disney pins.
Tip: EBay is a fabulous source of Disney Pins. You can buy an entire collection for a fraction of the price of buying the pins individually at the park. This is a great way to engage your children more in the experience, since they can ask other park visitors or Disney employees to trade pins.
Don’t think after your kids enter middle-school it’s time to pack up. The best part of Disney is how it evolves with your group. The selection of rides and shows is varied enough that as your kid’s become less interested in one section of the park, another will peak their interest. There are also areas of Disney outside the parks, such as Disney Quest, which provides an interactive experience. A preview of what’s available can be found here:
You will find the park full of grandparents, having as much fun as the kids. There is really no point where Disney is “too young” for anyone.
Q: Do I need to rent a car? How do I travel between my hotel and the parks?
You do not need to rent a car if you are staying on WDW property. You will be able to make arrangements to ride the Disney Magical Express, which is a free tour bus that takes you from the airport to your hotel. You will also have the option to tag your luggage, which will allow Disney to pick it up from the carousal and deliver it to your hotel. This service isn’t available with all airlines and may delay receipt of your bags. If you know you’d like to change clothes as soon as you arrive, I suggest picking up your own bags at the airport.
If you want groceries, there are services that deliver to WDW hotels for a reasonable service charge. I’ve always had a refrigerator in my room, sometimes by request. Call ahead and make sure one is included in your stay. The small shops within each Disney deluxe hotel includes groceries that can replace up to one meal per day. I can’t speak for non-deluxe hotels, but I imagine on property each one includes a similar shop.
Throughout your stay and when departing for the airport, Disney transportation will continue to be available to you. Bus and water taxi service will get you to each park. These options are free to all Disney hotel guests. Depending where you are staying or going, you may also have the option of walking to your destination or taking a water taxi.
Even if you want to venture off to Universal Studio’s or Sea World, MERS offers transportation options that are priced reasonably.
Many hotels off-property provide shuttle service to/from the park several times per day. There are disadvantages to this though, which I will talk about later.
Q: What is the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) and how can I benefit if I am not a member?
This is a timeshare opportunity that allows you to stay at Disney premium resorts at a reduced rate. It is one of the few timeshares that holds value on the secondary market. It is for a fixed period, 30 years if buying direct from Disney. If you buy it second hand, you will have the remainder of the term left on the original owner’s contract. Disney must approve the sale, which prevents time shares being sold for below market value. The advantage to buying second hand is that you can select the resort you are most interested in. If you buy from Disney, you can only buy into the resort they are currently selling. This will be whatever was most recently built. You have the exclusive ability to book the DVC section of the resort 6-9 months in advance. Once your stay is within 6 months, other DVC resort owners can also make reservations.
When you become a DVC member, you are essentially paying for your hotel room years in advance. However, the amount you pay is known to you and there won’t be any unwelcome surprises in the future. You are also not locked into a certain week. You purchase a set amount of points. How many points your stay costs will depend on the resort and room selected, time of year, and day of the week you are visiting. You can also roll over unused points to the next year and purchase additional points (through other owners) as needed. You will also pay an annual maintenance fees to Disney which increase each year. This amount will vary based on the points purchased, but think in terms of $700 +.
If you go every year and know you will stay at deluxe resorts, DVC membership is for you. You will also receive a discount on annual passes and in various Disney stores. We usually time our visits so they are 11.5 months apart. This saves us money over buying 5-day passes on 2 different occasions. Once you have the annual pass, you can also purchase “Tables of Wonderland” which is an alternative to the Disney food plan. We’ll talk more about that later.
Even if you don’t think you’d invest in DVC membership, you can benefit from this program by renting points from an owner. I’ll explain how in a future blog.
Q: Why Disney’s Boardwalk area is the place to stay.
In my opinion, the best hotels are in Disney’s Boardwalk area. These include Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, and the Swan and Dolphin resorts. These are all considered deluxe resorts and each is well worth the splurge. Why?
- You will not lose the illusion of Disney by traveling off property.
- From any of the Boardwalk area hotels, you can take the boat to Hollywood Studio’s or walk to it. You are also in walking distance to Epcot and from there, an easy monorail ride to Magic Kingdom.
- The Board Walk area of Disney is next to Epcot’s World Showcase, which is likely where you’ll want to hang out in the evening.
- The Boardwalk area does not become overcrowded, even when the parks do.
- The Boardwalk is home to a sandy beach, ample seating and free movie nights.
- There is shopping, restaurants. a dance hall, dueling piano bar and street performers reminiscent of Atlantic City.
- You will need a bus, when traveling to Animal Kingdom; however, this is true of any hotel, including Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Disney’s transportation: It may seem confusing at first, but after one visit it will become second nature. There are always ample Disney hotel employees available to answer your questions. You will also find that Disney Hotels have closer drop off/pick up locations to the park entrance, than off-property hotels. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney provides estimates of travel time from various hotels and between each park. However, much will depend on when you walk out of your hotel and whether the bus just left or is about to arrive. This is why the Boardwalk hotels have an advantage. You are riding the bus much less often than you otherwise would.
Which hotel in the Boardwalk area are your favorite?
Beach Club is my favorite Boardwalk area hotel. There is a beautiful pool area this is unsurpassed by any other I’ve been to. You can visit the pools at other Disney hotels as a guest (subject to black-out dates), but this sharing program is not available for Beach Club. Yacht Club guests share the same pool. Swan and Dolphin are less Disney like, since they are operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Walking through, I longed for the Disney atmosphere, which was lacking from their lobbies. Boardwalk Hotel is another excellent choice, but the pool area is more whimsical, smaller and carnival like. Aside from the pool, the hotel is equally as appealing to Beach Club.
What about Animal Kingdom Lodge?
Animal Kingdom Lodge provides a wonderful experience, but the lodge’s distance from the parks is an issue. If you are staying in the DVC portion of the hotel (Animal Kingdom Lodge Villas), you will have a bus ride to get to the main hotel, where the restaurants, main lobby and larger pool are located. When I stayed there last, there were some DVC rooms in the main hotel but the majority are in the villas. While this is common for DVC properties, the distance between the villas and the main hotel is further than it is elsewhere. For these reasons, I suggest staying 1-2 days at the lodge, rather than your entire stay. Being able to see animals out of your hotel room or common areas (which means you don’t have to book a Savannah View) is worth the visit. But the distance to other parks makes a short stay a better option. In January, a friend stay at AK Lodge a week, with a Savannah view from her room. She remarked the animals she saw outside her room remained the same throughout her week-long visit. At first, it’s exciting to see a giraffe hanging out nearby. After day 5 of the same giraffe, it’s not nearly as thrilling.
Disney will seamlessly transfer your luggage from one hotel to another free of charge. Therefore, there is truly no disadvantage to changing hotels mid-stay, other than the need to pack up your room.
What about the Monorail hotels?
When we first visited, we thought these hotels (Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and Polynesian) were the only good option. While this is a good choice for toddlers, it is only the best choice if you plan to spend most your time at MK. Otherwise, you will be spending additional time traveling to the other parks. Another hotel to consider, which is especially beautiful at Christmas, is Fort Wilderness Lodge. From the lodge, you are able to arrive at MK by taking a relaxing boat ride. You also have easy access to dining options at any of the Monorail hotels and the Fort Wilderness Campground area, which includes the Hoop-De-Du review. This is a comedic dinner show that my kids have insisted on going to year after year. The food is pretty good too. It is worth booking premium seating and the sooner you do it, the closer your table will be to the front stage.
What if $$$ is an issue?
If you don’t have the budget to stay at a deluxe resort, I still recommend staying at Disney and not off-property. Your transportation time will be less and your buss will likely come more often. You will also keep the atmosphere you had while visiting the parks. Tripadvisor.com and the Unofficial Guide to Disney will help you select the best option for you, but don’t forget to look at a WDW map and consider which park you are most likely to spend time at. The proximity of your hotel to that location should be the deciding vote. If you decide to stay off-property, keep in mind you won’t be able to experience “extra magic hours” at the park and can’t obtain fastpass +, which secures your place in line 60 days in advance, at 3 attractions per day. This means you won’t have access to the park when it’s less crowded and the wait for your favorite ride will be longer than it has to be.
Want to know more?
Coming soon, part 2 of my Disney blog:
- Best web site to use when planning your dining reservations and my favorite restaurants on property.
- How to stay current on all things WDW.
- Special Christmas events at WDW.
- More on how fastpass + works.
- How to make the most of your time at the park.