Archive for April, 2011

Ultimate Magic Kingdom Touring Plan Part 1 – Fairytale Garden Fail

by on April 28, 2011

As I hung up the phone I was instantly reminded of the Oliver Hardy line, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”  My great friend JL Knopp had just agreed to tackle the Ultimate Magic Kingdom Touring Plan with me.  We had already arranged a day to hang out in the parks together, but at the same time we had been discussing doing something new.  As I mentioned in my last article, “Preparing For An Ultimate Touring Plan”, I’d always wanted to do an Ultimate Touring Plan.  Suffice it to say, I was excited.

Anticipating the day, I immediately dove into planning, but I had a lot of questions.  So I started asking them to our resident Ultimate Touring Plan expert David Davies.  He immediately directed me to study up on the rules.  And he had some initial suggestions I incorporated into my notes right away: grab a FASTPASS for the new Town Square Theater meet & greet immediately, and do not arrive late to the Fairytale Garden.  I would later learn how very important that second suggestion was.

I covered a number of things about planning for an Ultimate Touring Plan last week, and much of that came out of my own planning and discussions with Dave and JL before our Tour.  The day we had picked out was April 9, 2011 which was to me a perfect day for it. Both the Crowd Calendar and the weather were looking to be on our side, and Magic Kingdom would be opened 16 hours (8am to 12am) that day.  I also checked both wait times and and showtimes.

Much of this research was incorporated into the notes I brought with me into the park that day.  Looking back, the planning phase of this was a lot of fun for me.  As much of my free time is spent at Walt Disney World already, planning isn’t something I need to do as much anymore because the parks have become more about being there for me.  I’m either already attending a planned set of events such as “Reunion”, or I’m doing ad-hoc planning using Lines.  This greatly fed my dormant commando touring side.

After a rough week at work, Saturday came – I was psyched and ready.  My wife, Cheryl, was away at a Hadassah conference, and knowing that I’d be gone for more than 16 hours that day, I’d chosen to board Jasper for the weekend.  This way I wouldn’t have to monitor him throughout the day.  I had packed my knapsack the night before so all I needed to do was head out the door and over to JL’s house and carpool over to the Magic Kingdom.

We parked in Minnie, roughly the 10th car there, and walked to the Transportation and Ticket Center.  The sun was first rising, it was a little chilly and we were still waking up.  We rode the Monorail over, and arrived at the main gate to Magic Kingdom at about 7:30am.  After settling on a place to wait for the Magic Kingdom Welcome, I grabbed a times guide and a map.  This, or at least a photograph of a times guide, is a must when doing an Ultimate Touring Plan.  That photo will need to be part of the pictures that you turn in to get credit in the Hall of Fame.

The Welcome started.  It was the first time I’d seen it with the new “Talking Mickey” – I still find it a little disconcerting to watch, but eventually I’m sure my brain will get over the “Uncanny Valley” aspect of it.  Otherwise the show hadn’t changed since the last time I saw it.  Once it was over we headed to the right archway, and as soon as the rope dropped we were moving.

The first stop was Dumbo, but on the way, as suggested, we grabbed FASTPASSes for Town Square Theater to see the Princesses. It’s important to note that according to the UMK Touring Plan as presented you’re supposed to get this FASTPASS later on.  However the entire plan is a series of suggestions.  If you limit yourself to just the one FASTPASS suggested you’re going to limit your chances of success.  And, as you’ll learn later on, you need to be prepared to adapt – judicious use of the FASTPASS system will help with that.

By 8:10am, even though it listed a 15 minute wait time,  we were off Dumbo.  And by the time it was 8:45am we had managed to breeze through Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Snow White, and the Astro Orbiter.  Even though Astro Orbiter is pretty much the same ride as Dumbo, I enjoy it more because the view up there is always spectacular – it’s just got one of the worst queue designs in all of Walt Disney World, so I don’t get up there as much as I’d like to.  If you’re afraid of heights, or don’t like being tilted as the ride vehicles are skewed a bit, you probably never go up there at all.

Had it been any other day where I was at the park that early, I probably would have considered knocking off the rest of Fantasyland as there was almost no one else present back there.  Snow White was a deviation from the UMK Touring Plan, but it was literally a walk on and it made complete sense to do at that time for 4 minutes of our time.  To me this is a testament to both the power and flexibility of Touring Plans.  And, much like the Force,  if you give yourself over to them they will guide your destiny and help you complete your goal.  Okay, maybe not the destiny part.

Probably my first mistake of the day, was that after getting off Astro Orbiter we should have gotten a FASTPASS for Space Mountain.  When all was said and done it wasn’t critical though.  We ended up having more FASTPASSes then we needed – and even one we couldn’t use.  Getting off of Snow White we were handed FASTPASSes for PhilharMagic by a castmember.  The rules for Ultimate Touring Plans specifically state that a FASTPASS “must be obtained by you, using your ticket, on the day that you complete the tour”.  Since they were handed to us, we could not use them.

Next, we rode the yellowish Main Street Vehicle from the Hub down to City Hall.  It was just us, and it was a lot of fun.  Getting off we managed to convince a family to hop in and ride to the Castle once we knew they were just headed to Fantasyland.  Walking back we had an excellent encounter with Mayor Weaver.  We even got to even check out his 20 year Disney service ring.  It was a very memorable moment.  We then headed up and through Cinderella Castle, stopping for a UMK required picture in front of one of the mosaic murals.

From there we headed to the Fairytale Garden to see Rapunzel and Flynn.  This one attraction pretty much defined the rest of the day for us.  You have to realize this attraction is a meet and greet with no fixed schedule.  It’s a core attraction for completing the UMK tours, so you can’t miss it.  However, due to it’s length (about 30-60 minutes) and that it has a daily capacity of about 400 to 500 guests, you need to arrive as early as possible to guarantee you’ll get in.  It fills up fast, so you shouldn’t pass it up just because the line is long or you will miss out and fail.

Your total time investment in the the Fairytale Garden is likely to be on the order of 1 to 2 hours.  Looking back, I can only say to plan for it.  I had never done this attraction before, and didn’t realize what a time sink it would be – I figured half as much time.  Not that we hated the meet and greet, we actually had a fun time with it – despite that for some reason they pipe in a hamburger smell.  Up until we arrived at the attraction we felt pretty good about our time, but 1 hour and 39 minutes later, we both knew our success was in jeopardy.

How did we fare? You’ll just have to wait until next week to find out.  Same TouringPlans.com time, same TouringPlans.com channel.

See other posts in this series:

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Adventure Abounds on the Wild Africa Trek

by on April 27, 2011

When my friends and I were planning our most recent trip to Walt Disney World, we realized we could take advantage of the introductory rates for a new backstage tour being offered called the Wild Africa Trek.  We were all really excited to participate since the tour started the month before with rave reviews from guests.  The trek is an experience guests may reserve for an added cost (depending on the season) which brings up to 12 people back stage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Before I get to all of the fun details about the tour, there are few things people should know about it.

Folks who are considering the tour should be forewarned there is quite a bit of walking on uneven pathways.  There is also a weight limit in order to ensure your safety using the harness equipment (the cast members will weigh you at the start of your tour).  If you have a fear of height, you may not want to sign up for the trek.  Everyone must walk across rope bridges along the way.  Once you have decided to sign up, make sure you dress properly with sturdy sneakers, sunscreen, and all that good stuff.  One last tidbit: there is no bathroom access for a couple of hours so watch your liquid intake that morning.  Now that we have all of those warnings out of the way, let me tell you all about my Wild Africa Trek.

Our tour began before the park opened for the day.  We had a car so we did not have to worry about the bus schedule.  If you opt to use Disney transportation to get to the park, you may consider taking a cab at that hour of the morning to eliminate any added hassle.  Since we arrived before park opening, a guide was waiting for us at the main gate to take our names and then escort us to the area where the trek begins.  This area includes lockers where guests can stow their stuff they won’t be taking on the actual tour.  You should know you are not permitted to take anything which you cannot attach to your body due to the psychical activity required (you may take your camera if you can clip it onto your provided vest or wear it around your neck).  Bulky items like backpacks will also not be allowed to come with you since they would get in the way of your harness equipment.

Preparing for our trek! Photo by Deanna Simmons

A group picture before we got started

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After stowing your belongings, you will be fitted with a harness for the first half of the trek.  It is not flattering, it isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but it is for your safety.  When you are all suited up in your harness, you will be asked to take a practice run on a small rope bridge.  Your guides will try to get to know you a bit at this point before you begin. One of these guides will have a camera and will photograph your group throughout your tour.  A great feature of the Wild Africa Trek is that guests are provided a code for a free photo pass CD with all of the photos the guide takes.

Photo by Neil Citro

Photo by Neil Citro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Deanna Simmons

The first portion of the tour is dedicated to the jungle.  Like most things at Disney World, there is a storyline for the tour.  If you are familiar with the  storylines associated with the Pagani Forest Exploration Trail and the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, the spiel given by your guides will sound familiar.  After walking through the African village of Harambe, guests are lead into the Pagani Trail to get a closer look at a few animals like gorillas before heading backstage.  Here there is a bit of a hike through a wooded area with a stop to look over the edge of a small cliff at the hippo habitat.  There is a bit more hiking until folks arrive at one of the highlights of the day: rope bridges over the hippos and Nile crocodiles.

 

Photo by Elisabeth O'Brien

There are two bridges guests must cross to continue on with their journey.  They are made of rope and wood planks which are designed to look weathered and worn.  Your guides will give you some safety instructions, assist you with attaching your harness to the safety equipment, and then you’re off!  The bridges give you a great view of the animals if you are brave enough to look down.  It was a blast to watch my friends cross the bridges, especially those who were a bit afraid.  With some encouraging words, everyone made it across!

Crocodile from the rope bridge. Photo by Neil Citro

After the second bridge, the jungle portion of the tour begins to wind down and eventually guests are led to a truck waiting to take them out into the savannah for the second portion of the tour.  We were able to get a great view of several animals on the savannah that day.  Our guide stopped on occasion so we could take pictures and ask questions.  There were also binoculars on board the truck for us to use to get a better look at some of the more reclusive residents of the Animal Kingdom.

 

Here are some pictures of my friends and I crossing the bridges:

 

Photo by Steven Bassett

 

Photos from our savannah vehicle:

Photo by Elisabeth O'Brien

Photo by Colin O'Brien

Photo by Deanna Simmons

Photo by Deanna Simmons

After cruising around the savannah for a while, we were brought to the Boma (an area to take a break, have some food, and use the rest room).  This structure offers fantastic views of the savannah!  We were able to relax for a while, enjoy some yummy food, and take in the beauty of our surroundings.  Our time here was really enjoyable, especially since we were lucky enough to have a gorgeous day.  Food brought in from the Tusker House restaurant is provided at the Boma.  The African inspired menu changes based on the time of day.  Since our tour started early in the morning we were given a selection of breakfast items.  While there were a few things that were not my favorite just based on personal taste, I thought the food was great!  If you are a light eater, you could probably make a meal out of the trek’s munchies, but others may find their stomachs grumbling a couple hours later.

 

 

 

 

 

After our snack we were able to hang out and enjoy the view of the savannah for a while longer before piling back in the truck, checking out a few more animals, and returning to the area where we started.  When we arrived back at the beginning, we were informed a donation to the Disney’s Wildlife Conservations Fund would be made on our behalf which I thought was a nice gesture.  After retrieving our belongings for the lockers, we took one last group shot before wrapping things up.

Our trek lasted about three hours when all was said and done.  I really loved this experience!  Our guides were fun, kind, and knowledgeable and they really added to our tour.  The opportunity to get a better look at some of the animals seen on the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction was a real treat.  Adding in the adventurous elements of hiking and tackling the rope bridges made this an unforgettable morning.  With all that being said, I’m not sure I would pay $249 charged during peak season.  If your travel plans are flexible enough, I think the regular $189 price tag is reasonable especially since a photo pass CD is included.

What about you?  Have you tried the Wild Africa Trek?  Dying to try it? Let me know what you think!

If you’d like to see more pictures of the Wild Africa Trek check out our blogger JL’s post about her experience!

Next week I’ll be back to discuss preparing for a trip to WDW since I’ll be in the midst of getting ready for my next one!

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The Great Stroller Conundrum

by on April 25, 2011

If you’re a parent taking a trip to Walt Disney World, you’ll be faced with a grave challenge, presuming your kids are still in their younger years.  What should you do about a stroller?  Disney features lots and lots of walking, and young children are not going to make it doing that sort of thing day after day. 

Strollers can keep this look on your child's face.

Disney rents strollers, so that should solve the problem, right?  Rent a stroller from them and you’ll be all set.  There’s one slight little problem, though.  Renting a stroller from Disney can be unbelievably expensive.  I have two children, and a double stroller costs $31 a day.  For comparison, I can get a midsize car rental for about $4 more per day. 

So what to do?  If you are flying, it’s difficult to bring your own stroller with you, and honestly, sometimes if you are driving there’s not enough room.  Presuming that it’s not feasible for you to bring your own stroller, here’s three options I have explored in the past, and what I thought of each one. 

Buy A Stroller – I know what you’re thinking.  “I thought we were trying to save money?”  Well, you will, if your trip is long enough.  Assuming that you rent a car, you can buy a nice umbrella stroller from Walmart or one of the other off property stores for around $20.  I’ve done this

If you buy a stroller, you know when this happens, you're all set.

three times over the years, then sold the stroller in a consignment sale at home for $10 a few months later.  

The advantage of this approach is that you can save a lot of money over renting a Disney stroller.  Consider that $18 a day for a week long trip, and you come up with $136 plus tax, versus only $20 for a brand new stroller.  The disadvantage, though, is that you have something you might not need, and isn’t what you’re used to at home.  The stroller may be too tall or short for you, and if you have more than one child, then it gets really tricky.  Plus, umbrella strollers are not going to have underseat storage, which is crucial at Disney.  Still, this is the option we have done the most. 

Rent A Stroller Offsite – You may have heard about some of the offsite stroller rental companies.  The one I investigated was Orlando Stroller Rental, but there are many others.  The basic idea is that you book your stroller in advance, then the rental company delivers it to your resort when you arrive.  Consider it Magical Stroller Express.  

The upside of this is that you don’t have to worry about taking your stroller on the plane, and you don’t have to rent one when you get into a park.  You have the stroller for the walk out to the buses or your car, and you are in control of your time, not Disney.  Plus, the strollers the rental companies give you are going to be more like what you are used to at home, and will have good storage. 

On the other hand, the cost savings are not quite as significant as buying a cheaper stroller.  A single stroller at Orlando Stroller Rental, for example, will run you $70 for a 4-7 night rental, which is still a savings over the Disney prices, but not quite as significant.  Still, the convenience of having the stroller dropped off and picked up from your resort can’t be overstated. 

Rent A Disney Stroller – I know, this is exactly what I said not to do, but hear me out.  The Disney strollers are different than what you’ll get in the store.  They are large, spacious and hard plastic.  While they may not be hugely comfortable for your children, they do provide good cover from the Florida heat, and have good storage space. 

I can never in good conscience recommend that anyone spend their money for these strollers every day.  But every few days, it might be worth it.  If your kids are a little older, and you don’t plan to go all out every single day, renting one of the Disney strollers every other day or less often is an option.   Save it for the days when you’re really trying to maximize your time in the parks. 

On our last trip, my 9 yr old son wandered off frequently and my 4 yr old daughter was getting tired.  Our plan was to meander through World Showcase that night, so we rented a double stroller.  It worked like a charm.  We kept the kids in one place, had some peace while we strolled, and although we spend the $31 for a double stroller, it was well worth it to us for the peace of mind. 

So that’s three of my stroller “hacks” to steal a Betamouse term.  What are yours?  How do you keep your costs down but still use a stroller at Disney World?

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Have Kids Help Plan Your Disney Family Vacation (Yes, You Read That Correctly)

by on April 25, 2011

So you’re taking a family trip to Disney World. You’ve been planning A) since your daughter was born B) for the last nine years, three months, and eight days C) since your oldest child could utter the phrase “When am I meeting Mickey Mouse?”

In any event, it’s a done deal, and you’re going. After you tell the kids, there will be a lot of shrieks and gasps of joy and amazement.

Oh, yes–your kids will be happy too.

But wait! To make the most of the trip, make the most of the planning (and believe me, there will be planning). Take our advice and involve your kids in the process. The trip is partly/mostly/sort of for them, right? Kids love to be involved and to feel like their opinion matters–which it does. And if you play your cards right, it can even take some of the planning, fun as it is, off you. Remember: The point of involving kids is to get their input and make them feel a part of things; and to keep them busy and thus minimize the number of times they will ask how long it will be until they’re on the Dumbo ride.

First, though, the adults in the party need to make a few decisions—budgeting being chief among them. Are you staying at a value, moderate, or deluxe resort? How long are you going for? Hammer out the non-negotiable details first.  Ready? Let’s begin.

Choosing your hotel
If you’re going to have kids help pick the hotel, that’s fine, but make sure ahead of time that you have several options in case your first one–or two—choices are booked. You need to do some of the legwork, looking at variables such as distance from the parks, whether you’re renting a car, and so forth.

Rule Number One: DO NOT GIVE KIDS TOO MANY CHOICES. Keep repeating that phrase to yourself. In the way of too many choices lies madness, and many migraines. This applies both to hotels as well as to everything else at Disney World and, quite frankly, in life. Offer two or three hotel choices, laying out the relevant features of each hotel. (Example: “I know these both look great. This hotel has a pool shaped like a piano and the other one has a pool shaped like a bowling pin.”)

One you’ve chosen and booked your hotel, it’s time to start thinking about meals, so on to…

Disney Dining
Unless you are a completely spontaneous type of family for whom food is not a priority, you’re probably going to want to book some meals. Dining reservations fill up quickly, and you can book 180 days ahead of time, so get ready. Figure out if you’re going to be on a dining plan (a good option that lets you take the worry out of paying for meals each time, and offers lots of flexibility), then get some feedback from kids. Have them flip through books and give you some ideas.

HOWEVER.

Bad idea: For your girl who’s obsessed with princesses: “Do you want to eat at Cinderella’s Castle?” (A hard ticket, if you haven’t heard.)

Better idea: “Would you like to have a character meal and meet some Disney characters? We have lots of choices, so tell me some of them and we’ll see what we can do.”

Have everyone familiarize themselves with some of the options, from fast food to sit-down meals. No, you can’t predict you’ll be standing in front of the Columbia Harbor House seafood restaurant at noon and it will be empty, but if you have a seafood allergic child, you and he might want to know of some other options. Appoint kids to find good hamburger places, ice-cream stops, and so forth.

Give everyone a job
Take into account kids’ interests and strengths. Food-loving pre-teens can start perusing the restaurant descriptions and making recommendations; tech-y teens can find appropriate cell-phone apps. Even younger kids can have jobs. That eight-year old with fabulous handwriting? Have her write out lists of supplies that you’ll be packing as you dictate. Your bizarrely neat 11-year old? He can help fold clothing and pack.

Everyone gets a secret mission
Put everyone in your family in charge of doing something nice for a friend or family member who is not going. For instance, Jimmy might be assigned to finding Donald Duck images for Cousin Frank; he can start doing research before you go. Little Amy might oversee things to put in a scrapbook for Grandma Grace–she can start thinking about good ideas and making a list.

Familiarize everyone with the Disney website and relevant books before you go
This won’t spoil the surprise; there will be endless surprises left. It will actually enhance everyone’s excitement and also quell some of their fears. (And yes, exciting though it is, kids–and adults–do have fears about going). It’s kind of like kids seeing a painting in a museum that they have only seen in books–kids are more excited that they recognize it, not less. Find out if there’s anything kids are worried about (Crowds? Getting lost?) and help find answers. Have them see if they can find out answers to specific questions ahead of time—anything from the Extra Magic Hours at the Magic Kingdom to what new stores are in Downtown Disney. The more information and familiarity they have, the more comfortable they will feel. Look at pictures of your hotel on the Disney website; put everyone in charge of researching something specific, whether it’s the hotel gift shop or a particular landmark in a park.

Have them help plan what you’ll be taking
Kids are often great at remembering things you might overlook; it’s always one of my kids who remembers the band-aids.
Give everyone their own small bag or section for a suitcase to pack, and have them choose a few small items that they want to bring, like a stuffed animal. But check it before you go. I let my daughter “add a few things” to the small rolling suitcase I had packed for Disney World one year. I didn’t have time to check it before we left; when we got to Florida I found she had unpacked everything and repacked it with her doll and the doll’s complete wardrobe. Luckily/unluckily it contained mostly bathing suits and flip flops and activity books, which, happily for her, meant a quick trip to the gift shop to replace everything.  Oh, and now I check.

Let kids choose a way to document the trip, and start before you leave
My daughter loves having small sketchbook and colored pencils in Disney World; other kids might want a diary or photo album. And everyone should have his or her own camera, disposable or otherwise.

Take kids’ personalities into account and help them choose activities that mesh with that
When my daughter was young, she didn’t like anything loud, dark or scary. That pretty much let out a lot of the big nighttime activities at Disney. Had I been better prepared, I would have found out a little more about some of the nighttime displays, like Illuminations (which is loud and in the dark), before taking her there. After that (short version: she was a few years away from what anyone would call enjoying that display), we started researching together and in some cases, picking alternatives. (Be prepared sometimes to break up your group, which may not only be necessary, but desirable.) For certain children, doing a quiet crafts activity at the hotel may be more appealing than venturing out into the Parks at night. Start looking at options ahead of time.

Let kids help make a calendar with things that need to get done each day
Everyone has to help out with one thing each day, whether it’s going with Dad to buy juice boxes or researching the hotel’s facilities. Included should be some Disney treats to get in the spirit–make Chip and Dale cupcakes; watch a favorite Disney movie.

As a family, set rules ahead of time
Some rules you might want to agree on ahead of time, rather than in the moment. For instance, you might plan a no-cell-phone-use at mealtime rule for your teens when you get down there; or no-carrying-Blankie-on-the-rides policy for the little ones. (Have kids help formulate a rule for everyone so no one feels picked on.)

Give each child a small hip pack to carry around each day. Help kids plan the items that go in these: little sticker books to do while waiting on lines, a small tube of sunscreen, maybe a pay-as-you-go cell phone, and oh, yes–money. Which brings us to…

Souvenirs. Important enough that one word will suffice
Face it: The one-souvenir rule probably won’t fly. Different families have different solutions, but one idea is to give each child a set amount of money and allow younger ones to carry a certain amount each day. They can “borrow” from the larger amount if they like, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. Discuss all this ahead of time. Also, give each child money to secretly buy a souvenir for someone else in your group to give them when you get back—it’s fun for them and will help make the letdown of leaving less acute.

Ask the kids what they want to do there
Really. Don’t assume you know everything they’re dreaming of doing. Yes, plans will change, but if you know your kids love hanging out by the pool, then make sure to plan some time for that. You might not want to buy a make-your-own light saber, but it could be the culmination of a life’s dream for your nine-year-old.

And finally…enjoy the planning
Anticipation is half the fun—even if it means packing all those pairs of socks, it’ll be more fun if your kids pitch in, too.

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Tables In Wonderland Card: Queen Of Hearts Or Tweedle Dum?

by on April 22, 2011

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Tables in Wonderland is a fairly deceiving name. Ostensibly, it seems pretty hokey. The kind of indeterminate name a marketing team would place on a product to give it extra allure to compensate for its substantive shortcomings. After all, that dreamy name does conjure up thoughts of sitting at a white-linen covered table between the White Rabbit and March Hare as you gingerly sip tea. But maybe that’s just me.

In actuality, the Tables in Wonderland card is hardly a marketing gimmick, even if the name is a lot more nonsensical than the card’s old name, the Disney Dining Experience. The Tables in Wonderland card offers a 20% discount off all food and beverage (including alcohol) for up to 10 people at most table-service Disney restaurants. While a charge of 18% gratuity is added to all Tables in Wonderland table service transactions, most parties are tipping at or around18% anyway, so it’s not merely a “2% discount” as some people claim.

Tables in Wonderland costs $75 for Annual Passholders and $100 for Florida residents. Unfortunately, the program is only open to Florida residents and Annual Passholders. So if you’re neither of these things, you really ought to move to Florida or become an AP holder. (If you’re moving to Florida, you probably want to become an AP holder, anyway!) Even if you don’t presently qualify for the Card, I encourage you to read on. You may find that it’s just so appealing that you just have to purchase an AP. And once you’re an AP, you inevitably will find yourself taking more trips!

Beaches & Cream - Kitchen Sink

Given these prices, a Florida resident breaks even with the card after spending $500 at Table Service restaurants, and an Annual Passholder breaks even at $375 spent. Given the ever-rising prices at Disney’s Table Service restaurants, a family of four may very well break even after using the Card for only a couple of meals!

At this point, you may wonder how the Tables in Wonderland card compares to the Disney Dining Plan. It seems like I find myself typing this in all of my blog posts, but, “it depends.” If the Disney Dining Plan (1 Table Service meal, 1 Counter Service meal, and 1 Snack per day) matches your eating style, that might very well be better for you. However, if you split Counter Service meals with a significant other for lunch, forgo snacks, and like to eat large Table Service dinners with appetizers and desserts at the Signature restaurants, Tables in Wonderland is likely better for you. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer as to which is better for your party, so doing the numbers based on your specific dining style is a must.

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Even if you’re a gung-ho Disney Dining Plan advocate, if you eat at Walt Disney World restaurants frequently, there still may be value in purchasing the Tables in Wonderland card. It can be used on alcohol and appetizers, so if would order these items with your Disney Dining Plan meals, and you eat enough appetizers or drink enough alcohol, you can come out ahead. Additionally, since it’s accepted some places where the Disney Dining Plan is not, you can benefit by using it in these locations.

This is exactly how my wife and I became self-professed “Wonderheads” (okay, so this name isn’t that catchy, but there definitely should be a nickname for the legions of loyal fans of the Tables in Wonderland card out there) on our honeymoon. We had already decided that we’d be adding on the Disney Dining Plan to our BoardWalk Villas – Disney Vacation Club reservation. We also wanted to experience Victoria & Albert’s and California Grill, but the former is not on the Dining Plan, and the latter is a bad value on the Dining Plan. Our work-around was breaking our trip into two reservations, with two days off of the Dining Plan. During those two days, we ate ate Victoria & Albert’s and California Grill, and also Beaches & Cream. The savings on our dinner at Victoria & Albert’s came close to paying for the card, with the savings at California Grill easily putting us “in the black” on Tables in Wonderland. We used the card again at Christmas, and saved substantially. On that trip, since we were on more of a budget, we utilized the card to eat at reasonably priced Table Service restaurants, such as (the highly overrated) Plaza Restaurant and the (highly underrated) The Wave. Because of the discount (and since we had already recouped the cost of the Card on our honeymoon), we were able to squeeze one additional Table Service meal into the budget.

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In addition to the discount, Tables in Wonderland cardholders are eligible to attend events throughout the year, such as the upcoming Indiana Jones Dinner. While the cost is high for these events and they’re not something for which most people would take a weekend jaunt down to Florida (unless they really like Indiana Jones, or are really fishing for an excuse to take a trip to Walt Disney World!), they are neat offerings for those who happen to have trips planned during the events, and for locals.

Of course, all of this overlooks the greatest strength of the Tables in Wonderland card: that it’s value increases the more you eat at Table Service restaurants! When you’re saving money on the Tables in Wonderland card, you can’t afford not to add on that nice meal at Jiko!

So what do you think? Is Tables in Wonderland worth a valuable alternative to the Disney Dining Plan, or something with which you wouldn’t bother? Let us know in the comments!

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Preparing For An Ultimate Touring Plan

by on April 21, 2011

Let’s face it, planning is a huge part of every trip we take to Walt Disney World. In many ways it defines our experience and ultimately our enjoyment of the trip because a well planned trip is generally a less stressful one.  And the last thing your vacation needs is to be is stressful,  right?  Well, sometimes that’s not the case for everyone.

Once upon a time, before I had ever even heard of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, I was a mad crazed commando when it came to touring WDW.  I’d have to be at the gate for park opening and had no plans to leave before it closed.  In the park, my hands were always full with a pen and a park map.  As each attraction or show was completed, it got checked off and numbered.  For me, knowing how much I’d done measured the success of my vacation.

Since I’ve moved down to Central Florida, things for me have changed quite a bit – as they do for most locals.  Eventually you stop counting how many times you’ve been on a given attraction, or have visited Magic Kingdom, etc.  More and more I find it’s about the experience of just being at Walt Disney World.  But oh so often, I crave the madness of my old ways.

Ever since learning about Ultimate Touring Plans a few years back, I’ve wanted to do one.  The concept of being able to go to a park and complete almost everything it has to offer in a single day is very satisfying to me.  But, I could always tell two things just looking over the tour for Magic Kingdom – Ultimate Tours require a lot of physical activity and a lot of knowledge of the park.  The latter is probably easy for most everyone reading this blog entry.  However that first part can be tricky.

For certain, you want to make sure you’re at least walking regularly for exercise before attempting this.  You will be moving constantly and criss-crossing the park numerous times.  There will be little downtime outside of the attractions themselves, and if you happen to find “free time” in the Tour, it’s best to use it to eat (quickly!) or visit the bathroom.  I just can’t stress how important this one part of being ready for an Ultimate Tour actually is.

Next up is picking a plan, and if this is your first time, your most likely inclination is the tour for Magic Kingdom.  It was my choice too.  There are a number of reasons for this, but overall I think it helps that if you check out the Hall of Fame, that you’ll see that it’s definitely the most popular.  From the looks of it, I don’t think anyone has completed the Epcot Tour.

Now that you’ve got your Ultimate Tour picked out, pick a date.  To do this I suggest heading over to our Crowd Calendar and start looking up some days your interested in.  Some things to look for that will help contribute to your success at the Tour are longer park hours and an indication that your park is predicted to be the best park on the day you visit.  These two choices alone will greatly contribute to your success or failure.

Once you’ve got your date its time to sit down and study up.  Familiarize yourself with the plan you’ve chosen.  Get a general idea of the flow into your head you don’t need to memorize it, but it helps to know how your day is going to lay out in advance – avoid surprises.  There are a number of timed events that you can’t miss due to them being core attractions, many of which may only have a single time on a given day: Celebrate A Dream Come True Parade, Flag Retreat, Wishes, Main Street Electrical Parade, etc.  These events will anchor your Ultimate Tour day.

There are also a number of minor attractions and shows that you can visit during your tour for bonus points.  These are best covered in any free time that you find throughout the day.  For most of these you need only view the show for 5 minutes.  The real advantage is that many of them are on Main Street and can be picked up while waiting for the parades that occur in this area.  You’ll definitely want to consult a list of showtimes to manage this.  Use of mobile wait time applications like Lines is permitted.

Next up are the rules.  Participating in an Ultimate Tour isn’t just running around and participating in attractions – there’s bookkeeping involved.  You’ll need a watch or other device so you can tell time.  When you visit an attraction – core or bonus – you’re going to need to do several things: record the current wait time, the current FASTPASS return time, the time you enter the queue, the time you board the attraction, and the time you leave the attraction.  There is a data sheet to help you with this.

You’ll also need to take a picture of yourself participating in the attraction.  Some rides this can be difficult.  For something like Space Mountain you may just want to snap a picture of your PhotoPass picture as you get off the ride.  Other things like Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor can be difficult because technically no photography is allowed.  All I can suggest is being creative and/or quick.

There are some key important rules that it helps to remember.  You must view a full show unless otherwise indicated – no matter how long it takes.  Parades can be fast tracked by capturing a picture of yourself with the first float and then walking to the end of the parade an taking a picture with the last float.  Street party’s are an exception to this rule.  When obtaining an autograph, you may not use the same character twice – no matter where they are in the park.  FASTPASS tickets must be obtained using your pass on the day of your tour.  You may not use any that are physically handed to you – even if by a castmember.

Finally decide if you’re doing this solo or with a team.  I wouldn’t pick too large a team, that is likely to slow you down.  Teams take some coordination: where do you meet in the morning, how do you get there, who’s bringing what, etc.  Plan in advance, don’t wait until the last minute.  Make sure you have plenty to eat along the way, you may want a change of clothes, etc.  Remember you won’t be going back to your car, and I wouldn’t recommend a locker either.  Plan to carry everything you’ll need – especially some snacks and water.

One key thing I did was set up a portfolio to take with me.  Something easy and light.  Inside I had a pad of paper and pen (plus several extra pens in my bag).  In the portfolio I used tape to affix the Touring Plan itself and my data sheet.  This way they wouldn’t fall out.  I also had in the sleeve the rules, a list of show times, a list of wait times, and the list of attractions.  Ahead of time I marked up the plan with a simple code so I’d know which attractions had special directions beyond “ride this”.  And I also clearly indicated my anchor show times so I could make sure that I didn’t miss these.  When entering the park I stored a times guide and park map in the sleve as well.

Once all your preparation is done, notify the TouringPlans.com staff by emailing ultimate@touringplans.com letting they know your team members and the date of your attempt.  And then enjoy your Ultimate Touring Plan day.

See other posts in this series:

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Have a Pint at the Rose and Crown

by on April 20, 2011

Photo by Betsy Bates

Photo by Betsy Bates

On my last trip to Walt Disney World some friends and I decided to have dinner at the Rose and Crown located in Epcot’s World Showcase.  Guests can make their way to the United Kingdom pavilion to find this recreation of a British pub and sample some of the UK’s favorite dishes.  I had been there once before, but it had been a long time so I was eager to try it again.

Photo by Betsy Bates

The atmosphere matches that of a pub that can be found on a UK street corner.  The large bar is a favorite watering hole for Epcot visitors and is decorated in the traditional British style.  The dining room is toward the rear of the building and looks out over World Showcase Lagoon.  Upon arriving, guests check in at a podium outside before being seated for their meal.  The rich wood walls help make the space feel cozy and inviting.

Since this is a pub, I’d lying if I didn’t say I was looking forward to a nice beer to go with my dinner.  The drink menu here at the Rose and Crown will not disappoint with several specialty beers and combinations of beers to try.  Do you prefer cocktails?  There are plenty of those to pick from along with more standard brews.  I opted to try one of the “pub blends” called the cider and black.  It was made from hard cider with a shot of black current juice.  It was tasty and sweet, but I think I preferred my friend’s snake bite which is also one of the blend options.

Photo by Betsy Bates

Photo by Betsy Bates

If you’d just like a drink you can always stop into the bar area rather than sitting for a full meal.  Here, the cast members will be happy to serve you a variety of British beers, ciders, and other specialties.  A light food menu is also available in the bar if you are feeling a bit hungry.

Some friends at the table opted to order the trio of United Kingdom cheeses to share as an appetizer.  It was a lovely looking plate with cheeses, grapes, and a few crackers and my friends enjoyed it quite a bit.  Other appetizer options include potato leek soup, mussels, and a scotch egg.  I thought about getting the soup, but decided to skip it this time; maybe next time I’ll try it out.

Bangers and Mash

Cardigan Bay Fisherman's Stew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since we had so many people at our table we had a variety of entrees brought to us so I have several photos to share!  I had a hard time picking between the traditional shepard’s pie, the Guiness stew, and the fisherman’s stew.  The Guiness stew was a beef stew made with the famous stout and served in a bread bowl.  A few of my friends selected this for their dinner and gave it glowing reviews.  The fisherman’s stew included cod, scallops, mussels, and prawns in a tomato based broth.  When it arrived at the table it looked really yummy with a ton of fish and a bit of crusty bread.  However, I ordered the shepard’s pie and really enjoyed it.  If you like lamb, you’ll like this comfort food dish.

Guiness Stew

Filet of Beef

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were all too stuffed to try dessert on this trip, but I’m sure we’ll be back.  Some items that look yummy include the sticky toffee pudding and the chocolate scotch cake.  This eatery also offers a selection of after dinner drinks.  How about a coffee spiked with Bailey’s Irish cream?  I thought it sounded good too.  If your seating is close to an Illuminations show time you may want to linger over dessert and coffee while you wait for it to begin.

Illuminations viewing area photo by Betsy Bates

As a bonus to a tasty dinner, the Rose and Crown offers a great spot for diners to watch Epcot’s fireworks show, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.  Folks who are lucky enough to snag one of the outside tables at show time can watch this beautiful display without moving.  For those seated inside, ask your server about watching the show when it gets close to starting.  After a bit of confusion, we figured out we could go to the side of the building to a small reserved area to watch.  This benefit was a lovely added perk to an already fun meal.

Overall, I had a really good time and a good meal at the Rose and Crown.  I wouldn’t call it the best dinner on Disney property, but it was certainly satisfying.  My sheperd’s pie really hit the spot and I definitely recommend giving it a try if you head this restaurant.  It was a fun place to eat with a group of friends since we could sample different unique drinks and enjoy each others’ company.  If you and your friends are family are into pub grub then you should give the Rose and Crown a shot.

What about you? Have you dined at the Rose and Crown? Let me know what you thought about it!

Next week I’ll be back to tell you all about the Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom!

 

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Grab A Quick Breakfast In the Parks, But Where?

by on April 18, 2011

If you’re on this site, I assume that you are a devotee of our touring plans. I know that I’ve been a lover of the plans and maximizing my park time for a long time, even before I started writing for the site. There’s only one drawback to the plans that I can see, and that’s the need to get up early and be at the park right away.

I can understand that, but as someone who loves breakfast, it causes a conundrum. How can I grab a great breakfast somewhere in the parks, and keep going? I was pondering this question this week when planning my upcoming trip. Here’s the options I came up with in each park.

Animal Kingdom

If you are looking for protein in your breakfast, you’re out of luck here. You are probably going to have to settle for coffee or tea and pastry, but you’ll have one good option for the pastry and one for the coffee.

A trick I’ve pulled many times is to head straight to Expedition Everest, then over to Kusafiri Bakery in Africa for a quick cup of coffee and either a cherry turnover or muffin. It’s on the way to the Kiliminjaro Safaris, the next step on the plan, and the pastries are great.

The only other real option in Animal Kingdom for a quick breakfast is Royal Anandapur Tea Company, which has much better coffee. The pastries there are not quite as good as at Kusafiri, since they’re the stock muffin and danish combo you find everywhere else at Disney World, but in a pinch, it will do.

Hollywood Studios

Same as Animal Kingdom, if you are looking for a grab and go breakfast, you have a few great options for pastry and coffee, but that about covers it. The best of these has to be Starring Rolls, right at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. The world famous Butterfinger cupcake is indeed worth it, but the muffins and other items here are worth snagging on your way back from Tower of Terror to Star Tours 2.

Another good option that’s a little off the touring plan path is the Writer’s Stop, right off of New York Street near the Sci Fi Dine In. The fabulous thing to eat here is the carrot cake cookie with a cup of coffee. It’s heaven. But if you’re a strict breakfast traditionalist, there are also great muffins and danish.

Even quicker is the coffee cart right outside the Tower of Terror exit, where you can grab some Nescafe and a muffin very quickly. I don’t recommend it, though, because the other two places are better options. In a pinch, though, it will do.

Epcot

There is a definite dearth of options in Epcot, simply because Future World is the only part of the park open. Per the touring plan, though, you are headed to the Land to either ride or Fastpass Soarin’, so your best bet is to get breakfast at Sunshine Seasons. The food court style eatery in the Land has eggs, bacon, oatmeal and breakfast sandwiches as well as pastries. It’s a fabulous option for you to grab something.

Other than that, your only choice seems to be the coffee cart near Universe of Energy, which offers similar choices to the Tower of Terror cart. However, it’s not usually crowded, and would be right near Mission Space and Test Trck.

Magic Kingdom

There is one choice here – the Main Street Bakery. The ham and cheese croissant there is only matched by the fabulous cinnamon roll. These are not grab and go foods, but they are quick. The issue is that the place is usually crawling by the first few minutes the park is open. If you can spare the time, though, it’s so worth it.

In looking at this information, it struck me that Disney doesn’t have more grab and go breakfast options in the parks. With a large number of Americans used to a fast food breakfast, it seems odd that there is not a biscuit, breakfast sandwich or other such option offered in a large number of locations. It seems like a lost revenue opportunity to me. But until Disney wises up, these are your best choices for a quick breakfast in the parks.

What about you? Where do you like to grab a quick breakfast in the parks?

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Disney World Park Recommendation FAQ Updated

by on April 17, 2011

Following the Disney World Park Recommendation tweaks we made in February, we’ve updated the Park Recommendations page to help answer some of the most frequently asked questions we’ve received since implementing the tweaks. If you’re asking yourself “should I follow the park recommendations or look at the park crowd levels?” — definitely go check out the changes. We’d love any feedback in the comments below. Happy planning!

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Disneyland “Water” Park

by on April 16, 2011

This is a guest post by Dave Breiland, host of the Mousetalgia Podcast, which covers Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and everything else Disney. Be sure to check out Mousetalgia if you’re planning a Disneyland trip, especially Episode 128, which features our very own Len Testa!

For many years, people have hoped that Disneyland Resort would add an additional park! Unfortunately, there still are no confirmed reports of a third “gate”, much less the park having an aquatic element to it. However, people don’t realize that Disneyland is already a “water” park! Many people don’t realize how important it is to drink a lot of water while they are enjoying their magical moments.

Even if people do know how important hydration is, it is easy to be swept-up in the excitement. By drinking water regularly during the day, you will increase your amount of energy and help reduce fatigue. It is not uncommon for Anaheim to have numerous hot days during the summer, making this all the more important. There is the old saying that you should have 8 glasses of water per day. The Mayo Clinic explains that it isn’t quite so cut-and-dry, but it is true that “Even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you tired. [1]” How much water do you think you are drinking in the parks?

How does one stay hydrated in Disneyland? There are several options, mostly depending on convenience. The cheapest option is using the free water available to all guests in the parks. I am sure your initial thought is using the drinking fountains. Oddly enough, you’ll find the water fountains to vary greatly in taste and temperature, but all are great options. However, you can also find nice cool water at the seating area of Rancho del Zocalo. Also, many people don’t realize that you can get a free cup of water at any counter-service restaurant, if you ask nicely!

If we are driving to the Disneyland Resort, then bringing bottled water with us is our preferred method. As crazy as it sounds, I’m pretty picky about the taste of my water and this is the cheapest way to control that! We typically bring at least a case of water, and just keep it in the hotel room. Whenever we visit the hotel room, we grab a couple more bottles to take back in the park. Disney has a pretty good recycling program, making me feel not quite as guilty about disposing of the bottles.

Perhaps the most obvious (or least obvious for some) option is to actually BUY your water from one of the carts! I’m sure you are all cost-conscious people who are laughing at the notion. Sure, you are paying a high convenience fee for the water, but it is ice cold whenever you want it. Additionally, you won’t need to carry around your stockpile of water in a bag for several hours. Considering how much you are probably paying for your overall vacation, this is a fairly minimal cost to add-in to your budget.

Overall, there is little reason to become dehydrated while touring, as you have plenty of ways to be sipping on water. If you are worried about forgetting, you can always write “WATER” on your Disneyland Touring Plan as a gentle reminder. You are likely to have more energy and a much more enjoyable adventure if you make every Disney park a “water park.”

[1] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water/NU00283

Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis and Darwin Bell

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