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Walt Disney World Trip Planning, My Way

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I’m fortunate enough to be able to plan a trip to Walt Disney World for this spring. It’s been about 4 years since my last trip, and 2 years since my last Disneyland trip. The trips I’ve taken with my family and by myself have been memorable and completely satisfying.

There’s no right or wrong way to plan or enjoy a Disney vacation. But, for what it’s worth, here’s how I go about making sure that we all have a great time.

We’re Going to Disney World — So Get to Work

I have to admit that over the years, I’ve become a bit of a Disney planning fanatic. Normally, I’m not that focused control. I’m just as happy, in my career, and at home, to sometimes, let others lead and do my part. But, when it comes to a Disney theme park vacation, other imperatives come into play.

First, I am the acknowledged, resident Disney “expert”. I can’t match the expertise of those that visit the parks many times a year. But, in our family, I’ve spent the most time reading and keeping track of most things Disney. My family all love going, have their likes and dislikes, preferences and want to have a great time. But, they want and expect me to lead the planning. My wife and I do a lot of planning for other vacations (yes, we go places other than Mickey’s house). Half the fun of our vacations is the planning. It builds excitement. And for Disney vacations, it brings back many memories of past trips.

Second, even with any discounts I can find, and reasonably priced airfare from NY, a 5-7 day trip is still probably more expensive than other trips to non-Disney places have taken. So, I want to get my monies worth. For me, that means, limiting time on attraction lines, and getting reservations to restaurants where we want to eat, while building in some down time.

Planning a WDW Vacation has Changed

My 1997 WDW Itinerary

In the dark ages of Disney trip planning, twenty plus years ago, before many of the current web sites had matured, I used to build spreadsheets, with all of the information, including, ADR numbers (Advanced Dining Reservations), attraction dates and times, fastpass windows and everything else we would need to enjoy our trip. This was all neatly laid out in columns for the dates and rows for times of the day with rows for meals, parks breaks and plane info. I’d scour the various Disney community forums and even subscribe to rec.arts.disney.parks, a holdover from the text-based way of interacting with a community of Disney parks lovers.

These days, there are many websites that offer a ton of information to help plan our vacation. Many of the ones I lean on are listed on my Disney Web Sites I Like page. I still look for helpful hints and tips, especially for things that I haven’t experienced or for changes in the way Disney “helps” you arrange visits. Some things that have changed over the years and affect my planning are: Fastpass+, (more on that later) resort parking fees, ride services, dining plans, evening and daytime parades and shows, morning and evening magic hours, Downtown Disney/Disney Springs and of course new attractions/Lands. Other things haven’t changed much and I’ll get into those things in a bit.

Goals

As a technologist, I can’t help but approach trip planning in the same way I do any project — Start with goals and assumptions. Our Disney vacations involve a lot of decisions, compromises and a fair bit of hoping for a constant source of Pixie Dust. So, for this Disney trip, we hope to:

  • Make sure everyone has a great time
  • Experience long time favorites
  • Experience new things

Nothing unusual or earth shattering here. But, no project can be successful without being able to make decisions that are in line with what we’re trying to achieve.

Assumptions

Next, we look at some things that we decide are in our control and some which are not. As I thought about these, I was quite amazed at how many there really are. For this trip we assume:

  • All family members are adults and are ready to take on all kinds of experiences. Our son, who has a Cast Member friend, may join us part of the time.  Our son may not join my wife and I all the time, to spend time with his friend
  • We will stay at a moderate, Disney Resort for 5 nights and 6 days. We’ve done onsite and offsite hotels. Even though we end up with a few  less hotel amenities, having Disney all around us, the transportation options and convenience, and extra magic hours leads us to choose a Disney resort. Our time in the room is spent primarily sleeping or resting, and getting dressed.
  • A Cast Member friend will get us a significant discount on our resort room, so we will not be able to take advantage some extras offered in the Disney vacation packages
  • Our Cast Member, friend will be able to get us into one of the Parks for free on two of our vacation days. But, we will not know which days, until about 2 weeks before our vacation (more on this later)
  • Our flight from New York  will arrive early in the AM and leave late in the PM on the last day, all to maximize our time in the Parks.
  • Breakfast will always be at the Resort Quick Service restaurant
  • Most lunches will be quick service
  • We will try to build in an afternoon break into our daily activities, to rest before Dinner or time back in the Parks.
  • To save money, we will not be buying Park Hopper passes
  • We always want to minimize waiting on line for attractions, even if it means extra walking. (Good excuse for exploring the Park)
  • I’m going to use a TouringPlans subscription to keep track of everything. I’ve been using the Unofficial Guides since their earliest editions. I like their honest reviews (not everything in and around the Parks is great) and have found their touring plans to be helpful in maximizing our enjoyment of the Parks. Their website has a huge amount of information and with their Lines app, I no longer have to keep paper versions of our plans and can update things real time.
  • We want to experience Pandora and it’s 2 new attractions. We plan on spending 2 days in AK so we can do the headliner attractions there twice and still do other family favorites.
  • We’ll spend 2 days in MK and one day each in HS and EP

How We Plan

I don’t know if we do anything really unique, but here is how our our planning process works:

  1. Pick dates for the vacation. For this trip we decided to travel just before the big April school vacation dates and far enough away from our daughter’s June wedding.
  2. Pick a Resort. We’ve stayed at Deluxe resorts, Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Polynesian, moderates, The Caribbean, Port Orleans Riverside and Value, Pop Century. This trip we are being coat conscious. But can stretch because of some of the savings mentioned in my Assumptions section. We will stay at an old favorite, Port Orleans Riverside (We were there when it was the Dixie Landings).
    1. It’s close to Hollywood Studios and Epcot
    2. Good pools
    3. Many Disney bus stops
    4. Rooms are comfortable size with 2 sinks
    5. Good theming overall
  3. Select the least crowded parks for each day. We usually spend a few more days than this at WDW, so we will look for Extra Magic hours (EM) where we can get in early or stay late to take advantage of less crowds. I know there are those that say “stay away” from the park with EMH. I still think it helps. Here’s’ what we chose:
    1. MK on our travel in day
    2. HS (morning EMH)
    3. MK
    4. AK (morning EMH)
    5. AK (morning EMH)
    6. MK (evening EMH)
    7. EP on our travel out day (morning EMH)
  4. Restaurants. As we love to eat, (I discussed some of our favorite restaurants in A Foodie Travels in Disney World) our next decisions are for table service restaurants. This works out well since Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) can be made 180 days in advance. In some cases we are eating at a particular restaurant on the same day we visit the Park. Other trips we have purchased Hopper tickets and were not quite so limited. We’ve made the following choices:
    1. California Grill (Not been there since the 80s, so new for us)
    2. Hollywood Brown Derby (a family favorite)
    3. Sanaa (a lunch, new for us)
    4. Chefs de France (a lunch, new for us)
    5. Skipper Canteen (new for us)
      1. Quick service meal we planned include:
        1. Satu’li (new for us)
        2. Columbia Harbor House
  5. Choose our Fastpass+ attractions.
    But first, a word about Fastpasses (FPs). I understand the the current FP+ system is supposed to accomplish 2 things: Give everyone a shot at Fastpasses for popular attractions; Help to manage the crowds at those same attractions. I’m not a fan of the current system. I don’t want to spend my vacation waiting on line, if I can avoid it. I liked being able to get as many FPs as I could, until they ran out. I would build walking time into my daily plan to send someone to get FPs (The Unofficial Guide used to call them runners) when they were available. As a result, I almost never rode a popular attraction like Space Mountain without a FP and I often rode more than once a day. Now, not only am I limited, realistically, to 3 per day, I also have to deal with the tier system in 3 out of the 4 parks. The original FP wouldn’t have required me to choose between Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After. If I was smart, I could get both of them at least once a day. I often feel sorry for those that don’t take advantage of FPs, even today, and wait on interminable lines all day.
    Further complicating things for us this trip are the 2 free park pass days, which we won’t know about until 2 weeks before we travel. So we can select passes on our first available date later this month. But, there’s a chance that by the time we know which parks we will get into, we may not find FPs for the attractions we would like to experience. So we are having to make 2 sets of plans for each day in the parks. One with FPs and one without. I may have to wait on line more than I want. I’ll update this page later, when we’ve selected our first choices.
  6. Finalize a daily plan for attractions including our FP+ windows.

That’s where things stand for now. I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of stuff I do without really thinking about it. I’m still about 3 months away from the traveling. So, I’ll provide some updates as the dates get closer. One more thing. If you have a friend who’s a Cast Member, remember — It’s their job. It’s how they earn a living. Don’t abuse your friendship by making them feel as if they have to help you get a discount. Saving a few bucks on a Disney vacation isn’t worth jeopardizing your friendship.

How do you plan? What have I missed mentioning?

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The “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” Tour

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From my Collection

You can probably tell from my Blog’s mission statement and how I try to weave Walt into almost every post, that Walt Disney is someone I greatly admire as well as someone I have come to view as a role model. Growing up, I was too young to fully enjoy Sunday nights with Walt, but I watched the many versions of The Wonderful World of Disney. For many years I associated Walt with the Disney movies I saw as a child. It wasn’t until my childhood home began to fill up with Disneyana, (see my post Hooked on Collecting) that I began to see him as something more than the producer of films. I had no sense of Disney history and didn’t make my first visit to Walt Disney World until 1984 and Disneyland in 2005.

Embed from Getty ImagesThe more I explored the history of Disneyland and the early Disney animated films the more I came to respect Walt as more than just a very successful businessman or symbol of a successful company. He was someone with a keen sense of people’s need for entertainment. But rather than just do the minimum to create and produce his products he insisted on quality and attention to detail. His belief that if you give people a quality product they will come back for more. As a man I see someone who stuck to his principles, believed in himself, always surrounded himself with the best skilled, smartest people he could find, believed that people would rise to the challenge, listened to his instincts then took chances, wasn’t in it for the money but for the sheer joy of creation, solved problems and removed obstacles to his success. When I list things like this its hard to believe that was one person.

walk in footsteps meeting signIn an effort to get “closer” to the man, I recently took the Disneyland tour “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour. As I headed to City Hall to check in, I imagined all of the pictures I’ve seen of Walt walking the park during construction and after the park was open, when he could still maneuver without being mobbed by fans. After checking at cute Kiosk in a small courtyard just to the left of the City Hall doors, we met our tour guide, Aulani (yes that’s her name and she is from Hawaii) and confirmed our lunch order, which for the

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Aulani, our tour guide

afternoon tour would be ready when the tour ended. After brief introductions, an overview of the tour and a check on who was from where, Aulani handed out headsets so that we could hear her when things got noisy at different moments of the tour. The group was larger than I expected, maybe 25 people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I suppose I secretly harbored a hope that it would be a private tour. Even with the large group, Aulani did a great job of keeping us moving and together between stops, while staying cheery and friendly.

 

After checking that everyone’s headset worked, our first stop was right across the street to the flagpole in Town Square. Aulani played a recording of Walt’s opening day speech which is memorialized on a plaque under the flagpole. She added some more information about unexpected crowds on opening day. The story she told about the flagpole is one that I hadn’t heard before. It seems Disney designer Emil Kuri  found a broken light pole on Wilshire Blvd, hauled it back to the Disneyland construction site where it now sits as the bottom of the flagpole. We then moved through Main St. where Aulani pointed out some of the commemorative windows that are a hidden highlight for Disney history buffs. I had spent a good portion of my morning getting some pictures of the windows, including some down the less traveled side street areas.

Our next stop was at the Hub where we took in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and were told about the one gold turret that seems out of place in the overall building architecture. For turretthose of you haven’t heard the tale, once Walt approved the Castle design, he decided that he liked the look of a particular turret on another castle so he had the Imagineers add it, even though it didn’t match. He wanted to cover the turret in gold leaf, but Roy told him, “No way.” Not to be denied, when Roy went on a business trip, Walt had the gold leaf added anyway. I’m not sure how much of Walt’s dreams never would have happened if he had a different kind of partner. I’m sure stunts like this annoyed Roy. But, true to his loyalty to his brother, I he found ways to pay to make Walt’s dreams come true. I’m never sure whether Roy gets the credit he deserves.

We walked through Fantasyland with a stop in front of the Sleeping Beauty walk through for a quick description of the attraction’s. Passing by iconic features of Fantasyland like the Carousel, Dumbo, and the open mouth of Monstro, we moved to the front of the line for Alice in Wonderland. I took my first ride on a ride that has been part of the Disneyland landscape since 1958. While a ride on Splash Mountain might have been fun, the Alice ride kept me in the spirit of walking the park as if Walt was with us. The ride is colorful and more fun than I expected it to be. It took a bit of time to get the whole group through in pairs. While we waited, and throughout the tour, Aulani would ask us questions about things like our favorite rides, snacks and when we had visited Disneyland last. True to the title of Ambassador that Walt created in 1965, Aulani was cheery, polite and enthusiastic about her work.

IMG_5627Our next stop was Frontierland. We had reached mid afternoon by this time and, maybe appropriately, this was by far the hottest spot we spent time in. Our guide gave us some information about the Riverboat and the canal that it traverses. She told us that Disneyland’s designers had trouble keeping the River filled using a substance used in earth damns. One of the many design and construction problems the WED team encountered during construction. Then Aulani turned our attention the 5 ton piece of petrified wood that sits between the Golden Horseshoe and the Rivers of America. This piece of geologic history which Walt bought while on vacation with Lillian has a long and storied history. Walt bought it on a trip he took with Lillian to Colorado in 1956. Back then Disneyland wasn’t about thrill rides, pirates or ghosts. Walt saw another opportunity to add to the scenic and cinematic feel that he felt would transport people to different times and places in American life. He was also thinking of adding a natural history area to Frontierland. The rumor that he bought it as an anniversary present for Lillian, I think has been disproved. He had it shipped right to the Park where it still stands.

Next, we snaked our way through the crowds for a much needed rest stop in New Orleans Square. I had the chance to talk to some of my fellow tourers who were all very friendly. Some knew more about Walt and Disneyland than others. But, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Pressing on we stopped in front of It’s a Small World where Aulani provided some historical background on the attraction. This was the second and final attraction we were given a chance to ride. I know that reactions to the mention of Small World elicit responses from “It’s my Favorite and I never miss it” to “Never again. I can’t get that song out of my head for weeks.” I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m very fond of the song and I never get tired of the magical feeling I get coasting through all those little dolls. And, it is part of a dwindling list of attractions that Walt, himself, had an important part in designing. As someone who was lucky enough to ride it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair, it has been part of my life for a long time. (See my post Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and a D23 Gold Member NYC event  where we visited the original site of Small World). I will say, though, that if time is short and it’s a choice between Small World and some other attractions at Disneyland it might get bypassed.
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Our group was split on several boats so we took refuge from the heat, which now seemed hotter after the time in the air cooled building, in the small gift shop at the exit of the disneyland-story_primary1attraction. Our next stop was the building that houses Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Since Walt had spent so much time on the Lincoln animatronic, which also debuted at the World’s Fair, and, of course, changed the future of theme parks, it would have been nice to see the show. If you’ve passed by the theater on the way to the rest of the park, I recommend at least stopping in on your way out. Aside from the still amazing Lincoln show, the lobby is full of great Disney and Disneyland historical artifacts, including the model/map that Aulani spent time showing us. Here’s just a small sample of what you can find there.

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The last stop in the lobby was in front of the one of the last picture’s Walt in Disneyland. Near him are pictures of other Americans who, through the same spirit of imagination Walt embodied, have brought creativity, fun and joy to many people around the world. It was a fitting end to a great afternoon around the Park.

imagination pictures

For me the next and last part of the tour was the most impactful – a visit to the apartment Walt and Lillian used during the construction of Disneyland and after the opening of the park until Walt’s death. Our half of the group walked back to the tour meeting area where Cast Members had laid out our labeled lunches along with a special tour pin as a keepsake. Aulani stayed to make sure we were all happy with our meals and then was kind enough to stand for pictures.

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Finally, two docents took us for a look at the Firehouse area below the apartment where we could see the stables where the two horses, Bess and Jess, who pulled the wagon for many years on Main St. were housed.

IMG_5540There’s also a fire pole which is closed off now, but used to start in the upstairs apartment. The story they told was that it was closed off after a curious guest climbed the pole and surprised Walt in the apartment. After a look around at the Fire House antiques, the docents went over the rules – No touching and no photographs other than the one they would take for us.

We were led backstage to a set of metal stairs which lead to the second floor apartment. Down a narrow hallway, we were asked to hang coats and bags on a coat hanger. Against all of my instincts, I resisted taking pictures. So, some of following are not my photos.

The small space felt even smaller with all of us inside. The docent explained the apartment contents and the layout. It’s a very modest studio style room. There are fold out couches on either side where the Disney’s slept, a small kitchenette and a bathroom. An Edison gramophone sits on Walt’s side while Lillian’s sports a standing, antique music box. The kitchenette features a small electric grill where Walt would make grilled cheese sandwiches and a punch bowl and cups used to serve an eggnog type drink called Tom and Jerry. On the walls at the end of each couch used to be photos of each of their mothers. We were allowed to move around the room after the docent was finished. It took great will power not to pick things up, open drawers and have a seat on the chairs. I didn’t feel rushed to get out, but after all the pictures were taken, we were asked to collect our things and head back down the steps.

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Walt’s side of the room

I found myself quite choked up when I looked out the window Walt would have used to watch the crowds come into his Park. I’ve read that seeing all those smiling faces was more important to him than almost anything else he had accomplished.

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Walt’s view from his apartment

I expect that my future visits to Disneyland will be changed by the visit to that apartment. I will certainly not look at the light burning over the fire station the same way now that I know what’s behind it. As a fan of Mr. Disney, I found the apartment to be a very moving experience. Since they only do two tours a day, costing $109, and not every tour gets into the apartment, I feel lucky and privileged that I had the chance to do it. I would rate the tour well worth the cost and the time.

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Iconic photo with City Hall and the Fire House in the background

 

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