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The 10 Best Disney Resorts at Disneyland or Disney World

by on July 20, 2012

Having spent more time in Disney parks and more time staying in Disney hotels then any non-Disney employed person really has the right to, I thought I’d list my favorite Disney theme park resorts in order. The Unofficial Guide does a wonderful job of comparing hotels by value, room size, and many other considerations. My list doesn’t take value or any scientific factors into account at all! This is simply the list of the 10 hotels that I most enjoy staying in when visiting a Disney park.

In some cases, only certain room types or views merit making the list. Paradise Pier, for example, made the list, but only a theme park view room. I wouldn’t put the standard rooms in my top 10 at all. Some other hotels didn’t make the list that I’m sure some of you will find questionable. I can hear it now, “What! The Grand Floridian Resort is Disney’s flagship resort on the East Coast!! How can it not be in the top 10?” The Grand Floridian, while beautiful and in a great location, is just too stuffy for me! I feel underdressed in shorts! Even in my own room!

So here it is. The 10 hotels that made MY list of best Disney park hotels.

1. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Grand Californian at Disneyland Resort is my favorite resort on either coast. I’ve stayed in both the villas and the hotel section and fell in love with both. It’s an absolutely stunning hotel. The lobby takes your breath away and the rooms don’t disappoint. The proximity to the parks and Downtown Disney District is unsurpassed by any Disney hotel on either coast. I have stayed in rooms with views of all types and wouldn’t turn my nose up at any of them. One of my favorite views actually isn’t even the theme park view which costs the most. For me it’s the Downtown Disney view. I absolutely love standing on my balcony and watching the people go by underneath. You can see the fireworks from several of those rooms and hear the live music below. I love it! I’m staying at the Grand Californian again in about 4 weeks, and I am counting the minutes!! Tip: Take time to go to an animation class in Hearthstone Lounge—it’s free and just a short walk from the parks.

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Staying at the Art of Animation Resort: Info for the Grown-Ups

by on June 7, 2012

Earlier in the week the lovely and talented Scarlett Litton shared her thoughts on staying at Disney’s new Art of Animation resort with children. I’m here to fill you in on all the pesky, facty, grown-upy stuff that she didn’t cover.

Art of Animation resort map. Click to enlarge.

Here goes:

Pricing

While Disney classifies the Art of Animation as a value-level resort, since most of the resort is suites, the rooms themselves have more in common with the deluxe one bedroom villas or the moderate Fort Wilderness cabins than they do with a regular All Star or Pop Century value room.

As with all WDW hotel rooms, the price at Art of Animation (AoA) varies seasonally, and discounts may apply. My suite, which is the standard room type, on June 2, 2012 was priced at $375. When I’ve told people this, they’ve gasped, “For a value room?” But let’s compare this to a Fort Wilderness cabin that was priced on the same day at a very similar $360 per night. Both the AoA suite and the FW cabins sleep six. The AoA suites are approximately 565 square feet, the FW cabins are approximately 500 square feet. The AoA suites have two full bathrooms, the FW cabins have one. The AoA suites have a kitchenette, the FW cabins have a full kitchen. The cabins have outdoor space, the suites do not. There is an elaborately themed pool at AoA, but a beach area at FW. Depending on your needs, there are pros and cons to each, but they do have a lot in common. And think about both these in comparison to a one bedroom villa at the Boardwalk, also with similar room amenities, for $565 a night, and the AoA suites are looking pretty good.

I stayed in the Mr. Ray building.

Of course, with any Disney room pricing, your milage may vary. Promotions, pin codes, or other discounts could materialize, making a stay at AoA more or less appealing depending on the circumstances.

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10 Things You Should Know About Disneyland Tickets

by on June 1, 2012

Disneyland tickets are a little tricky! Of course, Disney could have made things simpler by aligning its dining plans and ticket options on both coasts, but it didn’t. So, there’s no use crying over spilled milk! We’ll just try to understand both systems. This blog won’t focus on how to save money on Disneyland tickets; I covered that in a previous blog. Here are 10 things that may help when you’re deciding which tickets to buy.

1. Prices Just Went Up – In case you missed the uproar of the last few weeks, on May 13, 2012, Disneyland ticket prices went up. In some cases, they went up A LOT! Disneyland and Walt Disney World ticket prices go up every year, so the fact they went up was not a surprise. How much they went up, however, was a surprise. Disneyland Annual Passes had some of the biggest percentage increases we’ve seen in a while. If you are looking to save money, there are a few companies that buy large quantities of tickets to sell, and there’s a small chance you could still get some tickets at last year’s prices through these outlets. You do have to be careful that you’re buying from a reputable dealer. If you live in Southern California, I understand some of the grocery stores still have stock to sell. Another option to save money for a few more days is #5 below.

2. Park Hoppers vs. Non-Park Hoppers – We debate Park Hoppers every time we go to Walt Disney World. They are super convenient and give you so much flexibility. So what’s the debate? They’re expensive! They’re $55 extra (before tax) for each ticket if you have a 2- to 10-day ticket; that’s over $200 more for our family of four! Is going to another park for a few hours worth $200 to us? Not usually. At Disneyland, however, it’s a whole different discussion. First of all, Park Hopper tickets at Disneyland are cheaper than Park Hopper tickets at Disney World. On 2-day or longer tickets, they’re only $30 more. And we park hop at Disneyland all the time! There’s virtually no touring time loss involved in park hopping at Disneyland. At Disney World, you are probably looking at a minimum of 30 minutes to change parks. At Disneyland, you are most likely talking 5 minutes or less. When the other park is right next door, then yes I want to park hop, and yes I will pay an extra $30 per person to do so!

3. Unused Tickets Expire – A major difference between Disneyland and Disney World tickets is that unused Disneyland tickets expire, generally within a year from when you purchase them (e.g., a ticket purchased today might be valid until December 31, 2012). This is important to remember! At Disney World, sometimes even Annual Passholders will buy day tickets so they can qualify for a package special like the ever popular free dining. Unused Disney World tickets never expire, so Passholders can save the tickets until they don’t have Annual Passes, or they can even apply the value of the tickets to another Annual Pass if they are renewing or purchasing them in person. You can not do this at Disneyland: they tickets will expire.

4. No Expiration Option – At Disney World, you can pay for an add-on option called No Expiration. As the most astute of you may have guessed, when you purchase this option, your tickets will not expire! Disneyland does not offer this option. All activated tickets expire 13 days after the first use.

5. Passport Plus – There’s another ticket option that isn’t available online and is actually considered a package, believe it or not. It’s called Passport Plus. It’s essentially just a park hopper ticket of two days or more, but because this ticket is considered a package, you also get preferred seating at some of the shows in Disney California Adventure. Here’s a big tip for you: as of right now, the prices for 2012 have not gone up for the Passport Plus. They are scheduled to go up on June 11, 2012. You can save a good deal of money if you didn’t get tickets before May 13. There’s a $13 flat fee when purchasing these tickets, no matter how many you order.

6. You Can Buy Tickets that are Not Listed – Number 5 above is not the only ticket option that’s not listed online. If you look at the Disneyland site, you will see the most number of days on a ticket is 5, not including Annual Passes, of course. It was 6 until the ticket prices went up, and you can still get 6-day Passport Plus tickets. But you’re really not limited to 5 or 6. Once you get to Disneyland you can actually add days onto those tickets for just a few dollars a day. Just ask at Guest Services.

7. You Can Use Disney World Tickets at Disneyland – You cannot, however, use Disneyland tickets at Disney World. This is not a money saving venture since Disney World tickets cost more than Disneyland tickets (although that margin just got a lot narrower), but if you’ve got some Disney World day tickets (not Annual Passes or complimentary tickets!) that haven’t expired, you can use them to get into Disneyland. This has to be done at the front gate and could change, but it’s been working lately. Don’t bother calling Disneyland to confirm this; the odds are decent that the cast member you get on the phone will have no idea you can do this. It only works at the gate, and you can only exchange one day at a time. If you get a cast member who has never heard of this, ask for a supervisor.

8. Some Tickets are Mailed to You – At Disney World, whenever you book a package, your tickets will be given to you when you check in at your hotel. They’ll be on your room keys, a.k.a. Key to the World cards. At Disneyland, when you book a package at a Good Neighbor Hotel, Disney will actually mail your tickets to you (and I mean snail mail, not email). If you are getting close to departure time and you haven’t received them, you need to call and see where they are. Once you arrive at Disney, if you don’t have them you may be out of luck.

9. 3-Day Park Hoppers Get You Early Entry into Disneyland – Early entry at Disneyland is known as Extra Magic Hour or Magic Mornings (Disneyland can’t seem to settle on a name for this benefit). Unlike Disney World, you do not have to be staying on-site to get early entry privileges. Anyone with a 3-day or higher ticket can take advantage of Magic Mornings (this does not apply to Annual Passes, but see #10 below for the exception that proves the rule!). Disney just announced that starting June 18, 2012 (just a few days after Cars Land officially opens!), resort guests can also get early entry into Disney California Adventure on select days, and they’re calling that Extra Magic Hour. There are rumors that this privilege will extend to guests with 3-day or higher Park Hoppers soon after. The current schedule for Extra Magic Hour at Disneyland is Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. For California Adventure, it’s Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

10. Annual Pass Early Entry – See, I told you this was confusing! Annual Passholders can register online for Annual Pass Early Entry this summer from June 18-September 13. Annual Passholders pick dates for one early entry into each park. The entry day options are actually the opposite of the above. Disneyland is Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and California Adventure is Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. You can find the details here.

Even though the differences between Disneyland and Disney World tickets are confusing, don’t let them dissuade you from visiting Disneyland! It’s awesome! Now, do you have any questions? Does anybody else have any details we should know about Disneyland tickets?

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10 of the Best Offsite Hotels at Disneyland for Big Families

by on May 18, 2012

It’s always been a little difficult for big families to vacation with Disney without spending a lot of money. At Walt Disney World, only one of the four current value resorts have some rooms that allow more than four people (plus a child under 3), and those rooms cost more than twice what a standard room does. Three of the five moderate resorts don’t have any rooms that sleep more than four (plus a child under three). On the Disney Cruise Line, the classic cruise ships, the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, don’t have any inside or oceanview staterooms that sleep more than four. A family of five has to pay a good deal more for a larger verandah stateroom or get two staterooms in the less expensive categories.

At Disneyland, however, there are a lot of good options for larger families. First, all three of the Disneyland Resort hotels have standard rooms that will sleep five. If you are interested in staying on property, check out the blogs I’ve written on Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, the Disneyland Hotel, and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. Second, as I’ve said in a previous blog, there are many excellent offsite resorts at Disneyland as well. They are known as the Good Neighbor Hotels, and I’ll concentrate on these offsite options in this blog.

Because they are so awesomely close to Disneyland, I’ll stick to Harbor Boulevard(or just off Harbor) hotels for this list. I’m going to sort these by distance to the parks with number 1 being the closest. Some of the hotels are a little too far to walk so they either run their own shuttles or they participate in ART, otherwise known as the Anaheim Resort Transportation system, which provides transportation back and forth to Disneyland for just a few dollars a person. I also avoided hotels where you had to take a significant upgrade in price to get to a room that allows more than four guests.

Now some hotels are a little sneaky when they say a room accommodates five guests. You have to take that literally. They don’t have beds for five people, but they will allow five people. Your options are normally to pay a small additional fee for a rollaway bed, put an extra person in one of the beds, or put someone on the floor with extra pillows and blankets. I know some people would rather do that then pay more for a bigger room, so I included some of these hotels in the list. You’ll notice that at times I say a room will “allow” five people, and sometimes I say it will “sleep” five people. Take that literally.

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Stroller Rental Companies Near Walt Disney World

by on March 26, 2012

There are many options for parents who require strollers when coming to Walt Disney World. They can bring their stroller from home, rent one at the parks, or rent from an off site company. If they decide to rent off site, there are several companies to pick from, so which do they choose? Luckily, TouringPlans.com decided to rent strollers from four different companies and compare.

Our Guinea Pigs!

I was joined by Shelley Caran, a blogger at On The Go in MCO and icFlorida.com. We booked a room at All Star Sports (to have the strollers delivered to), grabbed our kids, my sons aged 3 and 18 months, and her 5 year old daughter, and ordered strollers from four different companies to take to Walt Disney World. I reserved all of our strollers the week before using the company’s websites. We rented from Kingdom Strollers, Magic Strollers, Orlando Stroller Rentals, and Baby Wheels Orlando. To keep things even, we ordered the same strollers (City Mini Single) and same accessories (a rain cover) from each company. When we checked in at noon, all of our strollers had arrived and we were ready to go to Walt Disney World!

Kingdom Strollers
Kingdom Strollers had a clean, easy to use website. They offered multiple types of strollers, and even rent full sized cribs. My biggest complaint with them was that they didn’t have very detailed instructions with the stroller. There were directions how to fold and open it, but that was all. If I had not had instructions provided by other companies, I would not have been able to figure out how to recline the seat. Another fairly superficial thing that I find important in a stroller, is a cup holder for me. When I am outside in the heat at Disney World, I almost always have a drink with me, and need a place to put it while I push. Kingdom Strollers was the only company to not provide a “parent console” that included a cup holder. Every other company offered it either by default, or upon request. Kingdom was the only company to send a follow up email. It just said thank you, and they hope to see us again, but it was a nice gesture. The stroller itself was in good condition, except that we did not receive our rain cover we requested.

I called Kingdom Strollers and spoke with Matt, who said that sometimes they run out of covers, so they just short people. I asked him do double check that I was one of the people who was shorted that day. I did not want it to have gotten lost in the luggage holding area, and then be charged for it. He said he did not have the list in front of him, but he would make a note of it. I asked for a return phone call, just to confirm, and he refused and said it was unnecessary since he already made a note and everything would be fine. I found it frustrating that they shorted us the rain cover, without any notice. If it had been rainy season at Walt Disney World, that would have been enough reason for me to use a different company.

Carry bag from Magic Strollers

Magic Strollers
Magic Strollers is the newest offering from Owner’s Locker. Their strollers come in a nice, black, carry bag; you have to attach the wheels yourself, which is not difficult, but a bit annoying. They sent us a text when our stroller was dropped off, which was reassuring. It was good to know our stroller was ready and waiting when we got to the resort. Magic was the most strict on drop off and pick up times. Strollers are dropped off at 10am and picked up at 2pm. If you need your stroller for earlier than 10, they recommend you have it dropped off the day before; if you need it later than 2, then they ask you to pay for an additional day. This stroller also came with few instructions, but did include a certificate from the company that cleaned and sanitized the stroller. This stroller was also in good condition, although the wheels could have used a bit of WD-40.

Orlando Stroller Rentals
Orlando Stroller Rentals is probably the most well known of the rental companies. However, it was one of the more expensive companies we rented from, and the only company that made us pay for a rain cover if we wanted one. Their website was easy to use, although they had fewer add-on options than the other companies. The stroller we received was mechanically in good condition, but the fabric was torn and worn out in several places, and had a couple of stains. On the day we returned the stroller, I got a phone call at 4:15pm, 15 minutes after the designated pick up time, and a very terse voice mail telling me my stroller should already have been returned to bell services. I called the company and informed them the stroller had been handed over to Walt Disney World Bell Services at 10 that morning, and there seemed to be some mistake. About 40 minutes later, I received a call saying there had been a mistake. I understand mistakes happen, but the original voice mail was rude, and accusatory, which was uncalled for, especially since it was not my mistake.

Baby Wheels Orlando
If I ever need to rent a stroller in Orlando again, I would rent from Baby Wheels Orlando. They had, by far, the most detailed instructions, they were incredibly flexible with pick up and drop off times, and they had the best selections of add-ons, many for free. They were not the cheapest company, nor were they the most expensive. They sent a text the morning we checked in confirming our stroller was there, and were extremely helpful when I needed them.

Remember how Kingdom Strollers did not include my rain cover? Well, when you order identical strollers from four different companies, things can get confusing. I originally thought it was the Baby Wheels rain cover that had been forgotten. I called and spoke with Keith, who assured me cover had been delivered, told me exactly where it should be, and asked me to check again. I told him it was most definitely not there. Less than 15 minutes later, Keith called me from bell services at All Star Sports. He drove all the way there to talk with Bell Services and find out what was going on. We quickly figured out that it was my mistake, but I was impressed that Keith went out of his way to make sure that we all knew what had gone wrong. Also, he could not have been nicer about my mistake, even though it caused him to go out of his way.

Have you rented a stroller for a Disney World vacation? Who did you use? What did you think?

Stroller Prices

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Frequently Asked Questions About Tipping At Walt Disney World

by on March 21, 2012

One of the most frequent areas of confusion for Disney guests is the topic of tipping. International guests may be unfamiliar with American tipping in general. There are some Disney travel situations where guests tip differently than at other travel destinations. And some folks are just plain miffed that they have to tip at all.

With an aim at reducing anxiety, here are some frequently asked questions about tipping at Walt Disney World.

TRANSPORTATION

I’ve arrived at Orlando International airport, do I have to tip anyone here?

At the airport, and throughout your trip, you should tip anyone who handles your luggage for you in your presence. The rule of thumb is that you tip about a dollar per bag, or two dollars if the bag is extra heavy. If you’re claiming your bags yourself and taking them to a cab, rental car agency, limo service, or Magical Express bus on you own, then you won’t need to tip anyone while you’re in the airport. If you use a porter to assist you with moving your bags from the luggage carousel to ground transportation, then you tip the porter.

No need to tip your inter-park bus driver.

I’m taking Magical Express to my Disney resort, do I have to tip the driver?

You’ll see a sign at the front of the bus telling you that driver will accept tips. If you’re just hopping off and on the bus, you shouldn’t feel obligated. However, if the driver is helping your store luggage under the bus, go by the dollar per bag rule.

Did you notice that I said you should tip anyone who handles your bags “in your presence”? If you’ve used the yellow Magical Express luggage tags and had Disney take your bags directly to the hotel for you, then you won’t see the person who’s doing your luggage transport. In this situation, you’re off the hook for tipping.

I’m taking a shuttle to an off-site hotel. Do I tip the driver?

It’s the same situation as Magical Express. If the driver helps with your bags, offer about a dollar a bag.

What do you mean “about” a dollar a bag?

Assuming that you have normal weight bags, aim to tip a dollar a bag. However, it’s good manners to round up, and poor form to ask a bellman or porter for change. This means that if your family has three or four suitcases and all you have a five dollar bill in your wallet, give the porter the fiver.

I’m renting a car. Do I have to tip anyone?

Not at the airport, but maybe later.

I’m taking a limo service or town car to my hotel. Do I tip the driver?

Depending on the agency you’re using, the tip may be included in the price. Be sure to ask this when you set up your booking. In general, plan to tip about 15% of the fare. If the driver has done something extraordinary for you, such as making an extra stop or assisting with car seats or colossal amounts of luggage, tip more.

I’m taking a taxi to my hotel. Do I tip the driver?

Yes. Taxi drivers also get about 15% of the fare. Again, if the cabbie does something above-and-beyond, tip more.

Does the taxi tip level remain the same for shorter trips?

Generally, yes. For shorter trips on WDW property you may end up with a ride that costs seven or eight dollars. In a situation like this, it’s often easier for both you and the driver if you round up to ten dollars. It’s considered poor form to tip the driver in coins. Always round to the next higher dollar in your tip.

Taxis are one situation where asking for change for the tip is OK. For example, if your cab ride is $11 and you have a twenty in your wallet, it’s perfectly acceptable to say to the driver, “Here’s a twenty, can I have six back, please.” This tells the driver that you’re paying the fare and giving him a $3.00 tip.

What was that “maybe later” you said earlier with the rental car tipping?

All the Disney resorts have self-parking which is free for guests. No need to tip anyone if all you’re doing is self-parking your own car or a rental car.

The deluxe resorts also have valet parking available for a fee. If you use the valet parking service, in addition to paying the daily rate (currently $14), you’ll need to tip the attendant each time you get your car. A dollar or two will suffice.

Do I have to tip the bus/boat/monorail driver who takes me from my Disney hotel to the theme parks?

Nope. This is a no-tip situation, but a smile and a cheery “thank you” would be nice.

Is there anyone special I need to tip when I’m leaving Walt Disney World?

If you use the Resort Airline Check-In service at your Disney resort, you should tip the agent who tags your bags. These folks are not Disney employees. Consider them in the same way you would porters at the airport and give them about a dollar a bag. Remember, Resort Airline Check-In is responsible for getting your luggage onto your plane. It’s better if they’re happy.

You do tip the folks at Resort Airline Check-In.

AT THE HOTEL

Ta da! I’m at the hotel. Who needs a tip first?

Much of the tipping at your hotel is centered around luggage assistance. Yet again, if someone touches your bag, they should be tipped about a dollar a bag. If a bellman not only takes your bags to your room for you, but also provides additional information about the hotel or the workings of your room, then a bit more may be in order.

You’ll also give a dollar a bag to the bellman who helps you with luggage when you’re leaving the hotel.

All this tipping for moving my bags is really adding up. How can I economize?

You can avoid a lot of tipping if you transport your bags yourself. This may not be feasible for guests with medical challenges, copious amounts of luggage, more small children than adults, or owners of non-wheeled luggage. However, if you’re able-bodied and each member of your party can handle their own rolling bag, then by all means deal with your own luggage and circumvent the tip stream.

What’s this I hear about tipping mousekeeper housekeepers?

Yes, this is a thing.

It’s polite to leave about a dollar per day, per person in your party, as a tip for the cast members that make up your room. If you’re a family of five, this means a five dollar tip for your housekeeper each day. You’re supposed to leave the tip separately each day, rather than at the end of your stay, because there likely will be different cast cleaning your room over the course of your visit. You’re also supposed to leave the tip in an envelope with a nice note that says “thank you.” This makes it clear to the housekeeper that the tip is indeed for her, and not just a bit of cash that you forgot you left on the dresser.

Many guests make fun projects for their kids based around decorating the housekeeper tip envelopes. A quick Google of “Mousekeeping Tip Envelopes” will give you lots of links to people who are more creative and patient than I am.

Now it’s time for Erin’s true confessions: I rarely tip the housekeepers. If the housekeeper does something special like make towel animals or arrange my kids’ stuffed animals in a Mickey-centric Last Supper tableau, then yes, I’ll leave a few bucks in appreciation. Also, if my kids have been super messy (um, the sand was supposed to be wiped off your feet before you got to the room), I’ll leave some cash to assuage my guilt. But otherwise, I usually don’t.

Clearly this is some glitch in my programming because I go absolutely insane with rage when people undertip at restaurants. A housekeeper is clearly working just as hard in a service job as a waiter. Do as I say, people, not as I do.

Even if your Jungle Cruise driver is so good he makes you cry, he still doesn’t get a tip.

Do I tip those random helpful people at the hotel?

Generally not. Disney has greeters and random helpful, cheerful souls all over the place. They don’t expect to be tipped for answering simple questions, opening doors, or pointing you in the right direction.

Are there exceptions to this?

If someone actually does something for you, offer a tip. For example, if you call down to housekeeping for more pillows or towels, give the person who brings them a few dollars. If a bell desk cast member calls a taxi for you, give them a dollar or two.

What about the concierge?

Every Walt Disney World hotel has a concierge desk where you can ask directions, pick up tickets, get assistance with dining reservations, etc. For basic requests, there’s no need to tip. If you find a concierge particularly helpful or if they make multiple meal or recreation reservations or solve a thorny problem for you, offer a tip of $5-10. Most likely this will be firmly, but politely, declined, but it’s kind to offer.

If you’re staying at an off site hotel and a concierge there provides you with assistance, you should tip $5-10 for simple requests, and $20 or more for complicated requests. This most assuredly will not be declined.

DINING

Is there anyone I’m supposed to tip at a counter service restaurant?

No. There’s no need for tipping at counter service venues.

Restaurant tipping information is provided in several languages.

How much am I supposed to tip at table service restaurants?

I’m just going to say it: You should be tipping 18-20% at table service restaurants, possibly more if you’ve had truly exceptional service or have lingered at a signature restaurant.

Eighteen to twenty percent? Really? I though I was being generous by tipping fifteen percent.

Yes, really. The 15% thing is just so 1990s. No flames, please.

I super-double-plus promise you that I’m not making this up. 18-20% is now the tipping norm in U.S. metro areas (of which Orlando is one).

To keep everyone on the same page, Disney restaurants often place a little card about tipping in the bill presentation folder. The card says: “We are often asked about gratuities. No gratuity has been added to your bill. Quality service is customarily acknowledged by a gratuity of 18% to 20%. Thank you.”

Many of the questions we receive on the Walt Disney World Moms Panel are related to tipping. To keep myself educated on the topic I’ve been collecting articles about tipping for the past four years. I have sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the most recent edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette that will back me up: you really should be tipping at least 18% at table service restaurants.

In all cases, remember that you’re tipping on the bill, not the bill plus tax.

OK, that’s what I should do, but is it what I absolutely have to do?

Of course it’s really up to you to decide how much you want to tip. If you’ve taken root in the land of 15% tippers, then it’s up to you to decide if that’s where you want to stay.

There are, however, a few situations where the 18% tip is mandated. These are:

  • Parties of six or more. The 18% gratuity will be assessed regardless of the age of the guests (babies are included) and regardless of whether the bill is broken up into separate sub-checks.
  • Guests dining at prepaid restaurants and dinner shows including: Cinderella’s Royal Table, Hoop Dee Doo Review, Spirit of Aloha Luau, and Mickey’s Backyard BBQ.
  • Guests using the Tables in Wonderland discount card or Cast Member discount.

If you fall into one of these categories, take extra care to look over your bill. You’re certainly welcome to add more to your tip if you received exceptional service, but you don’t want to inadvertently double tip.

I’m eating a buffet. Do I have to tip the same amount as at a regular table service restaurant?

In my experience, the servers at Disney’s buffets work just as hard, if not harder, than those at traditional table service restaurants. There’s a lot more clearing and refilling than at other meals. However, if you feel that buffets are in a different category of dining, then it’s up to you to decide your tip level. But remember, if you’re a party of six or more, an 18% gratuity will be automatically added to your bill.

Most Disney restaurant bills include suggested tip amounts.

Do I have to tip if I’m using the Disney Dining Plan?

Yes, you do. Many years ago, the tip was included with the Dining Plan. It’s not any more.

If I’m paying with Dining Plan credits, how do I know how much to tip?

If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, your bill will include a notation about how much you would have paid had you been paying cash. Tip based on that amount.

If you’re a big eater on the Dining Plan, your tips over the course of a vacation can end up being quite substantial. Be sure to factor this into your budget.

Do I have to pay my restaurant tip in cash?

No. You can use any acceptable form of payment at Disney World to pay your tip. Cash, credit card, debit card, room charge and Disney gift cards all work well.

What happens if I have really bad service? Can I stiff the waiter?

Personally, I have never had truly horrendous service at Walt Disney World and have only had semi-bad service a handful of times in upwards of a thousand dining experiences. The likelihood of you having a horrible server is minimal.

However, if you do encounter service that’s sub-standard, the best thing to do is speak to a manager at the restaurant. They can work with you to rectify any negative issues. It’s better to get the problem fixed than to walk away angry.

Also, remember that your tip is related to your service, not to the food. If you’re unsatisfied with your food, speak to the manager, don’t take it out on the waiter.

Only a few dining experiences have the tip included in the price of the meal.

I’m having a night-cap. What do I tip the bartender?

If you’re just having drinks, one to two dollars per drink is the right amount. If you’re also getting food, go with 18-20%.

I’ve had looong day in the parks. We’ve decided to get room service. What do I tip?

The In-Room Dining menus state, “A $3.00 delivery charge, applicable sales tax, and an 18% service charge will be added to all orders.”

It’s not obligatory, but if the server who brings your food to your room is extra nice or helpful, you could hand him $3-5 to be extra nice back.

IN THE PARKS

I’m a mover and a shaker. Can I tip the cast member at Soarin’ a sawbuck to sneak me into the FastPass line?

Um, no. But you get points for creativity. Cast members doing their regular job in the parks are not allowed to accept tips/bribes/grift/etc. If they are seen accepting tips, this is grounds for dismissal.

A cast member has completely made my day. She (pick one or more) helped my child find her favorite character, got me a new ice cream cone after I dropped mine, let me drive the Jungle Cruise boat, told me about the high-value Toy Story Mania targets. Can I tip her as a thank you?

You’ve got your heart in the right place, but still, no tipping for regular parks cast.

But I reeeeaaally want to thank them properly.

Some super sweet guests carry a small bag of thank you cards or tiny treats from their home town when they go to the parks. They’ll offer these to cast members who have shown them a special courtesy. Cast are allow to accept these de minimus tokens.

While giving a kind cast member a Statue of Liberty pencil sharpener is nice, what’s even better is giving the cast member some documented props. Guest comments weigh heavily in cast member performance evaluations. Your positive remarks can help good cast members get promoted into better jobs. To make an official comment, pick up a comment card at the Guest Services office at the parks. If you’d rather wait until you get home, you can send comments to:

Walt Disney World Guest Communications
PO Box 10040
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040

The e-mail address for Guest Communications is: wdw.guest.communications@disneyworld.com.

Be sure to include the cast member’s name and hometown (both noted on their name tag), as well as a description of the cast member’s good deed and approximately where/when it happened.

Is there really no one at the parks to tip?

There are a few small exceptions to the “no tipping in the parks” rule.

You can tip cast involved in your personal beautification at the Harmony Barber Shop, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, or Pirates League. For the Barber Shop, tip about 15% of your bill. At one point tipping at the BBB had been prohibited, but in recent years this rule seems to have been relaxed. If you feel so inclined, you may offer a 15% tip to the Fairy Godmothers in Training or the Pirate tutors.

What about tour guides? Do I tip them?

Not the Walt Disney World tour guides. They’re not allowed to take your tip. If you’re with a private tour group, a tip very well may be expected. Speak with your tour carrier for guidelines.

ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD BE THINKING OF?

Outside of the parks there are plenty of relaxation and recreation opportunities. These activities are often outsourced to contractors. For example, Nikki Bryan Spas runs the spa services at the Grand Floridian and Saratoga Springs resorts and Sammy Duvall runs the water sports centers. Contractors generally are allowed to accept tips.

We’re treating ourselves to a massage. Do I tip the masseusse

Plan on tipping 15-20% of the bill for any personal care or grooming service. Massages, manicures, haircuts, facials, and those poolside hair wraps all merit a tip of at least 15%.

I’m taking my beloved out on the town and we’re leaving the kids behind. Do I tip the sitter?

The cast at the Disney childcare centers (Neverland Club, etc.) will not be expecting a tip. If you’re using Disney’s in-room sitting subcontractors such as Kids Nite Out, then a tip should be offered. This could range from rounding up the bill by a few dollars to an extra $100 or more if the real-world version of Mary Poppins has tamed your unruly mob. For a normal, competent sitter, a tip of $10-20 is a nice gesture.

I’m going water skiing at the Contemporary. Do I tip the boat driver?

Offer a tip of at least 15% for any specialty recreation. This includes boat drivers, waterski instructors, parasailing guides, tennis instructors, and the like. For golf instructors and caddies, use standard golf club etiquette on tipping.

Tips for your water sports guide are welcome.

I’m still lost, what do I do?

When in doubt, ask other guests, or ask at the Guest Services offices in the parks. They’ll give you the scoop on tipping norms.

If you had one piece of advice to give me overall, what would it be?

Carry a lot of singles.

That’s it?

When in doubt about tipping, remember the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words if you, or your parent, or child, or best friend were in a service role, how would you want them to be treated. Tip accordingly.

And at the risk of getting all soapboxy here for a sec, if you’re traveling with kids, think about the example that you’re setting for them. Do you want to teach your kids that it’s OK to stiff the waiter?

With that in mind, you heard it here first, I vow that from now on I will leave a tip for the housekeepers and will teach my kids to do the same.

I’m bizarrely intrigued by all this. What were some of those resources you mentioned about tipping?

Ask and ye shall receive. Here are some places to learn more about tipping:

So fellow travelers, what are your thoughts on tipping? Do international guests think we Americans are crazy? Have you made any tipping gaffes that are keeping you up at night? Let us know in the comments below.

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Free Stuff at Disney World

by on January 17, 2012

Free and Disney are not normally words that you think of going together. Yet despite the generally pricey nature of Disney travel, there are plenty of free things to be had at Walt Disney World. Here’s a list of no-cost items both large and small that can enhance your Disney vacation experience.

Food

    • Sweets. More than 50% of the time I that I visit the Main Street Confectionery, there is cast member walking around with a tray full of samples for guest to try. I’ve tasted Krispie treats, cookies, bits of cake, and even cotton candy. Plus, there is almost always a tray of fudge samples sitting on top of the main display case. You won’t be able to fill up here like you might at your local Costco, but if you’re looking for just a bit of sweet to satisfy your palate after your meal, the Confectionery is the place for you.

Cotton candy samples at the Main Street Confectionary

    • Soda. Stop by Club Cool at Epcot and drink your fill of eight flavors of Coke products from around the world. These range from the sweet Smart Watermelon from China to the bitter and, in my opinion, totally yummy, Beverly from Italy. The Club Cool drink stations are supplied with tasting-size cups, but you’re welcome to stay and taste as much as you want for as long as you want. I’ve even heard rumors about guests filling empty water bottles and taking their soda to go.
    • Water. The water bottles sold throughout the parks cost about $2.50 each. If you want to hydrate for free, simply walk up to any counter service restaurant and ask for a cup of ice water. They’ll hand it over at no charge. Add a lid and a straw to your cup, and you’ve got almost the same level of portability as a bottle.
    • Ice. When answering questions for the Walt Disney World Moms Panel, I have often seen questions from international guests asking if ice is available at the Disney hotels and how much it costs. They can rest assured that there are free ice machines at all the Walt Disney World resorts.
    • Meals for infants and toddlers. Children under the age of three will not be charged for food at Disney’s buffet and family-style table service restaurants when dining with their families.

It’s a “toppings bar,” right?

  • Salad. Several of the Disney World counter service restaurants feature a “toppings” bar with lovely fixin’s for your purchased burger: lettuce, tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, shredded cheese, and more. I’m not putting my personal stamp of approval on this one, but it is common knowledge in some circles that you can make yourself a substantial, and free, side dish for your meal from this quasi-salad-bar.
  • Dining. Disney often uses free dining plan offers as lure to entice guests to visit during historically low-crowd times. If 2012 follows the pattern, it will be fairly easy to travel to Walt Disney World and receive free dining from mid-August through early October. However, there is a definite caveat emptor with this. Depending on your eating habits and where you stay, free dining might end up costing you. Check out Tom Bricker’s excellent analysis of whether free dining really makes sense.
  • A cupcake. You say it’s your birthday? Yes, it’s your birthday (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Tell your server at any table service restaurant and there’s a decent chance that she’ll gift you with a complimentary cupcake. No guarantees, but worth a shot.

Memorabilia

    • Celebration buttons. If you’re celebrating, be it a birthday, anniversary, first visit, family reunion, or anything else really, stop by the Guest Relations office at any of the theme parks and they’ll give you a free button with which to publicly proclaim your celebratory status.

If you’re celebrating, then you’re getting a free button.

  • Stickers. If you spend a day a Disney World, a cast member will hand you a sticker, or possibly many stickers, white, round, and emblazoned with the smiling mug of Mickey Mouse. It’s just something that happens.
  • Maps. You’re saying, “Yeah, so?” Well, park maps are a resource you shouldn’t overlook. Save them for your scrapbook. Frame them for playroom decor. Use them for small-item gift wrap. Turn foreign-language maps into a great teaching tool for your child’s school language lessons.

Entertainment

  • Fireworks. You want to see the evening fireworks, but you don’t want to pony up for park admission? No problem, just head over to a nearby resort and watch from there. Great spots for Magic Kingdom fireworks viewing include the beach at the Polynesian and the bridge at the Contemporary between the main building and Bay Lake Tower. For Epcot fireworks, try the beach at the Beach Club or Boardwalk.
  • Electrical Water Pageant. If you’re watching the fireworks outdoors at a Magic Kingdom area resort, stay after to watch the charming electric water pageant. This series of barges shows a sweet and simple light display synchronized to music while cruising around Bay Lake. Disney true confession time: This is one of my favorite attractions in all of Walt Disney World.
  • Street performers. Weather permitting, you can find magicians, musicians, jugglers and more performing on the Boardwalk. Park yourself on a bench and enjoy the show.
  • Campfire and movies. Again weather permitting, many resorts show free movies in the evening, often outdoors on the beach or by the pool. All are welcome, just give a call to your favorite resort and ask what’s playing. The most elaborate of these free movies is the nightly Chip & Dale campfire sing-along at Fort Wilderness. The chipmunks and a guitar-playing friend greet guests before the film.

Free movies at many resorts.

  • Holiday decor. From mid-November through early January, Disney is dressed in its holiday finest. Much of the best holiday decor is located in the resorts: a life-sized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian, a train display at the Yacht Club, a tree decorated with African ornaments at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and more. You’re welcome to stop and admire them with no charge.
  • Play time. Do you have a Lego lover in your house? Stop by the Lego store at Downtown Disney. You can stay as long as you like, playing with unique Lego shapes and racing Lego cars.
  • Animal viewing. If your kid is interested in animals, stop by the Animal Kingdom Lodge. There are many viewing stations where you can observe giraffes, zebras, and other exotic species for as long as you like. Come in the evening and you may be able to borrow night-vision goggles for viewing creatures in the dark.
  • Park admission for preschoolers. The best reason ever to bring your two-year-old on vacation, kids under the age of three are allowed in the theme parks at no charge.

Services

    • Transportation to Walt Disney World. If you’re flying into Orlando International and staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, Disney’s Magical Express service is included with your room. This free shuttle to and from the airport offers a savings of about $75 over taking a cab to the World, each way.

The Lego store is a great free play space.

  • Transportation within Walt Disney World. Anyone who is partaking of any part of Walt Disney World is welcome to use any of the free on-property transportation, including, boats, monorails, and buses. You don’t have to be staying at a Disney hotel to qualify, you don’t even have to be visiting a theme park.
  • Parking. Guests staying at Disney hotels can park for free at the theme parks. Off-site guests will pay $14 per day. Self-parking is free at all the Disney hotels and Downtown Disney.
  • Photography. The PhotoPass photographers in the parks will take pictures with their cameras at no charge, but it will cost you big to actually buy the photos. Bypass this charge by asking the PhotoPass photographers to use your camera to take your picture. They’re happy to do it and most of them are pretty good at composing a shot; they do it all day long.
  • Wi-Fi. This is a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE new development. There is now free in-room and public space wireless Internet service at the deluxe and convention center hotels. If your hotel hasn’t been upgraded to free Wi-Fi yet, feel free to camp out with your laptop or iPad in the lobby of any of the deluxe hotels. It’s a comfy place to get some work done.
  • Package delivery. If you’ve taken the decidedly not-free step of buying merchandise in the parks, Disney will gladly take it off your hands so you can enjoy the rides, and more shopping, unencumbered. Packages can be sent for free to either a pick-up area at the front of the park, or even to your Disney hotel.
  • Luggage storage. Check-out is at 11:00 a.m., but your flight’s not til 7:00 p.m.? No problem. Just drop your bags at the hotel Bell Services desk. They’ll hold your luggage in a secure location until your departure, at no charge.
  • Luggage transfer. If you’re switching between two Disney hotels mid-trip, Bell Services will move your luggage between locales for you, for free.

So what am I missing? What have you found that’s consistently or surprisingly free at Walt Disney World? Let us know in the comments below.

UPDATE: We’ve complied an all new list of MORE free things at Walt Disney World. Check it out!

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Trip Planning 101: Packing for Your Walt Disney World Vacation

by on October 26, 2011

You’re going to Walt Disney World! You’ve chosen your travel dates and made you reservations, but what should you bring with you? To help you with this issue, we’ve created a handy downloadable TOURINGPLANS PACKING CHECKLIST.

The checklist includes it all, but the rationale for many of the checklist items is broken down here. Packing for a Walt Disney World vacation involves gathering five types of basic items:

  • Clothing
  • Toiletries
  • Documents/Money
  • Electronics
  • and Miscellaneous.

CLOTHING

My biggest suggestion when assessing your clothing needs is to check the Orlando weather forecast 2-3 days prior to your trip, particularly if you’re traveling at any time other than mid-summer. I have been to Walt Disney World in the winter when temperature lows were in the 20s (F). That means you’ll need jeans, sweaters, jackets, and gloves, not shorts and tank tops. Also winter trips tend to have greater temperature fluctuations. Bring layers that you can take on/off throughout the day.

All WDW resort hotels have laundry rooms for guest use.

I’m not a fan of chores while I’m on vacation, so I usually skip doing laundry on my trips, but you should know that coin-operated guest laundry rooms are available at every Walt Disney World resort hotel. This can come in handy if you have an accident-prone child or are trying to take a long trip with only carry-on luggage. If I won’t be doing laundry on my trip, I tend to pack at least one or two extra shirts and changes of underwear and socks for each person in my family. It’s amazing how much better fresh clothes can make you feel after a sweaty day in the parks.

If you’re checking bags, keep one change of clothing in a carry-on in case of delayed or lost luggage. I also recommend bringing clothing in a carry-on for your return flight. Don’t even get me started about the nine hour delay I had at Orlando International with a sick child, no stores open, and no extra clothes.

Shoes are big topic in Walt Disney World planning circles. The only footwear restrictions I’m aware of at Walt Disney World are that you must be wearing shoes in the theme parks and that Heelies (or similar) cannot be used in their wheeled form. I’ve seen guests sporting flipflops, sneakers, Crocs, sandals, boots, Uggs, ballet flats, and even stiletto heels while touring the parks. You should wear whatever makes you most comfortable. Be aware that you will be walking for MILES during your trip; blisters are a common complaint in the parks. This is not the time to try something new. If you’re traveling during the summer months, you may want to bring a second pair of walking shoes in case your feet get soaked in one of the frequent Florida downpours. Trekking in wet shoes can be quite unpleasant.

TOILETRIES

As I noted in the post Your Walt Disney World Hotel Gift Shop: What Did You Forget? Chances Are They Have It, the Walt Disney World resort gift shops are well stocked with any personal care items you may have forgotten. However, prices will be more than you’d pay at home, and you may not find the exact brand you’re looking for.

I’m going to give a quick shout-out to a favorite website of mine, minimus.biz. Minimus is a great source for travel-size items of all sorts including toiletries, baby care items, snacks, and even toys. As always, double check the TSA website for current carry-on rules.

Bring more prescription medication than you think you’ll need. Delays happen.

Several members of my family take daily prescription medications. Twice in the past year, we’ve had Disney-related vacations unexpectedly extended by several days due to weather issues. I had packed extra meds, but just barely enough. If there are any must-take prescriptions needed by your family, I encourage you to bring at least 3-4 days more than you think you’ll need. Having copies of your prescriptions can facilitate getting replacements if your travels are delayed even further. And of course, prescription medications should never be placed in checked luggage.

DOCUMENTS/MONEY

When I’m home, my wallet contains a few dozen items: grocery cards, frequent buyer cards, department store credit cards, etc. When I travel, I leave all that behind and just take the basics: driver’s license, basic credit cards, and health insurance ID cards. It’s easier to carry fewer items and it’s easier to replace fewer items if they become lost or stolen. If something unfortunate does occur, your recovery time will be much quicker if you have photocopies of each of the items you have with you.

It also truly pays to make copies of your Walt Disney World park tickets. On my most recent trip to the parks, my 12-year-old daughter’s ticket fell out of her bag – lost. Disaster (and a big replacement cost) was avoided because I had taken a cell phone photo of the ticket’s bar code. As soon as we realized the ticket was gone, I brought the photo to guest relations and the ticket was reissued within minutes.

For easy replacement, copy the back of your tickets.

I also encourage you to take your ID and health insurance cards with you into the Walt Disney World theme parks. ID is required to verify resort room charges over $50. Insurance cards may be necessary if you have the unfortunate circumstance of having to travel directly from a park to a medical care situation. (Yes, it’s happened to my family. Hey, if you visit enough, things are bound to happen.) There is a school of thought that suggests you can spend a day at Walt Disney World with only your ticket-encoded room key on your person. I strongly discourage this.

You won’t need large amounts of cash at Walt Disney World. Credit cards and room charges are accepted at almost all on-site locations. However keeping some on hand is always advisable. You may need to pay a taxi driver or tip your bellman. If you’re driving from the airport, there are several tolls along the way. Having dollar bills can speed your journey. There are ATMs in the Disney theme parks and resorts.

ELECTRONICS

Between phones, iPads, iPods, cameras, and computers, my five person family travels with a minimum of a dozen electronic gadgets. Before you leave home, make sure that you have all the required power cords and chargers. I routinely pack a power strip to facilitate the charging of all these items – much easier than tripping on cords all over the room or worrying whether your phone charging in the bathroom is in danger of falling into the sink. And needless to say, never pack eletronics or their chargers in checked luggage. There’s nothing more frustrating that having your flight delayed for hours and having no way to recharge your dying cellphone.

I’ve also become a big fan of portable external device chargers. I use a Mophie case for my iPhone, but there are similar, and less expensive, options for other devices. I find that when I’m in the parks, I’m checking Lines for ride updates, calling my kids, playing Where’s My Water (addictive, trust me) during waits, and taking photos of characters; a single battery charge barely makes it through the day.

Sleep-specific headphones can help keep the peace.

Speaking of cameras, there are PhotoPass photographers in the parks that will take shots of your family at some locations. However, the photographers are not everywhere and the PhotoPass prints/CDs get expensive quickly. I strongly encourage you to bring some sort of photographic equipment with you into the parks. I’m a sucker for Goofy and kids with big Goofy grins.

Two other plug-in items I like having are a booklight and sleep-specific headphones. The odds of a family all falling asleep at the same time in a hotel room is minimal, these items can help make everyone more comfortable.

MISCELLANEOUS

Here a few notes about “everything else:”

  • Gum – They don’t sell it in the Disney parks or resorts. And they don’t sell it at the Orlando airport. If you need gum to help with ear-popping on your flight, be sure to pack enough for your return trip as well.
  • Zip-top bags – The travel uses for these are endless: Save your child’s unfinished snack for later. Keep your wet bathing suit contained in your luggage. Contain your collectible pin collection. Throw a few in your bag and you’ll thank me later.
  • Ponchos or umbrellas – Rain showers are common in central Florida. The parks sell rain gear, but it’s much more expensive than what you’ll find at home.
  • Laundry bag – When I travel with the family, I pack a mesh laundry bag. This gives the kids a specific place to corral their sweaty duds at the end of the day.

Additionally, if you fall into one of the categories below, you’re going to need bring some additional gear:

  • Guests with babies/toddlers
  • Guests with elementary age children
  • Athletes
  • Guests traveling during special seasons
  • Guests with upscale dining plans
  • Pin/Vinylmation traders
  • Guests planning to eat in their hotel room
  • Guests driving to Walt Disney World

GUESTS WITH BABIES/TODDLERS

Walt Disney World hosts many, many thousands of pint-sized guests each year. The parks are well equipped for children. But they may not be well-equipped for YOUR child. When my kids were small, they had VERY specific preferences for things like pacifier and baby food brands. If your kids are choosy, bring supplies from home.

Disney rental strollers can be uncomfortable for small kids.

Diapers and related supplies are available at Walt Disney World, but they may not have exactly what you need. For the complete run-down, take a look at the post Disney and the Diaper: Managing Diaper and Potty-Training Issues at Walt Disney World.

Stroller-related questions are hot topic in Disney circles. Just check out the comments on Ryan Kilpatrick’s post The Great Stroller Conundrum. I personally always recommend that you bring your own when you’re traveling with babies or toddlers. Your mileage may vary.

TRAVEL WITH ELEMENTARY AGE CHILDREN

Costumes are NOT required for character meals, but many children (particularly girls) don’t feel like they’ve had the full Disney experience until they’ve had a meal at the parks in costume. Be aware that the most basic Disney princess dress sold in the parks costs nearly $70.00. Bring a $12.95 Wal-Mart dress with you and no-one will be the wiser.

ATHLETES

There are numerous sporting activities available at Walt Disney World. If you’re interested in working off the Dole Whip and churros you consume in the parks, then don’t forget your running shoes or tennis racket.

SEASONAL CONSIDERATIONS

If you’re visiting Walt Disney World in September or October, you might want to pack a costume for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Costumes are not required, but they can add a bit of festive flair to your experience.

Winter trips can be chilly if you’re not prepared. Some Walt Disney World visits in January and February are much more pleasant if you’re prepared with hats and gloves.

UPSCALE DINING

A few of Disney’s signature dining experiences have a minimal dress code. Or, if you’ll be dining at the posh Victoria & Albert’s in the Grand Floridian, you’ll need posh attire. Check the Walt Disney World website for current requirements.

TRADING

Pin trading and Vinylmation trading (my personal vice) are great ways to personalize your park experience and facilitate interaction with cast members. If trading is your thing, then don’t forget to bring your supplies with you.

Don’t forget your Vinylmation or pin traders.

BRING YOUR OWN FOOD

If you’re trying to economize, bringing breakfast items and snacks from home is a great way to keep on budget. Cereal boxes, granola bars, and nuts are easy to transport. Guests can bring food items into the parks (alcohol and glass containers are not permitted), but large coolers are not allowed. Bring a small soft-sided cooler with you if you’d have food items you’d like to keep cold.

DRIVING TO WALT DISNEY WORLD

If you’re driving to the parks, you have a bit more leeway in what you can bring. Don’t forget items to make the drive more comfortable for the kiddos, particularly if it’s a long one. Beach towels can be a great thing to have if you’re going to the water parks, and as an added bonus, they can do double duty as drive-time blankets.

WHAT TO ACTUALLY BRING INTO THE PARKS?

So you’ve hauled all your stuff to Orlando, but what do you actually bring into the parks with you? If you’re just traveling with adults, you may be able to get away with just pocket items: your cards and tickets, your phone, and a small tube of sunscreen. (Consult the checklist for necessary paperwork.)

If, like me, you’re more of a “be prepared” person, then a small backpack works perfectly for park touring. In addition to the above items, use the backpack to tote: your camera, first aid supplies, snacks, a water bottle, rain gear (umbrella or folded ponchos), a light sweater (chilly air-conditioned restaurants), tissues, Purell, and more sunscreen.

Contents of my in-park emergency pouch.

The first-aid stations in the parks do stock pretty much everything you’d need for minor scrapes or illness, but I find it MUCH more convenient to have these things with me. I have a four inch square fabric pouch that I always carry in the parks. It contains: 2 Purell wipes packs, 3 or 4 doses of Tylenol, single-use dental floss packs, 3-4 hair bands, Benedryl Quick Dissolve strips, 4-5 Band-Aids, 2 doses of Immodium or Pepto Bismol, safety pins, a folded zip-top bag, and an emergency panty liner. All this weighs only a few ounces, but something in the pouch has come into use nearly every time I’ve traveled to Walt Disney World. Your contents may be slightly different depending on your family’s needs.

Guests traveling with young children will need to tote even more gear into the parks. In addition to the pocket and backpack items I’ve noted, you’ll also need diapers, wipes, baby food, bottles, bibs, and a host of other childcare paraphernalia. My family liked to use our stroller as a “home base.” We packed the diaper bag with all the essentials for the day and left it in the stroller. When we went off on rides, we just took a smaller bag with us that contained valuables, 1 or 2 diapers and wipes, and some basic snacks. As we went back to the stroller, we replenished our “go bag” as needed. Obviously you’ll need to assess your own comfort level with leaving anything unattended in your stroller, as there is the very small possibility here of loss/theft. However, this is extremely rare, and if you make sure to take your camera/wallet with you, the potential damage is limited.

Emergency pouch packed up. My phone, in its Mophie charger case, for size reference.

Let me add that with small children, the amount of “stuff” you can convince yourself you need is nearly unlimited. (The downside of the “be prepared” syndrome.) Yes, you can bring a plastic stroller cover in case of rain and an extra stroller blanket in case of a chill. Or you can improvise with a poncho and towel. It’s impossible to plan for every situation; try to have a MacGyver attitude and enjoy the adventure.

My last tip is that I always pre-pack the bag that I’ll be bringing into the parks and place it into my main luggage. For me that usually means that I load up a backpack with the items listed above (minus liquids, which I add later) and drop it into my regular suitcase. I typically arrive at my Walt Disney World hotel mid-morning, before my room is ready. With a touring bag pre-packed for the parks, I can just pull it out of the suitcase, drop my luggage at bell services, and be on my way to the parks in minutes. No searching for the camera, ponchos, and sunglasses; it’s all right there, ready to go.

So folks, what are your packing strategies? What have I forgotten? What have you forgotten on your Disney trips? What’s missing from the checklist? Let us know in the comments below.

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Trip Planning 101: Deciding When to Visit Walt Disney World

by on October 5, 2011

This is the first article in our Trip Planning 101 series. We hope you find it and our worksheet helpful. Please give us feedback in the comments section to help us make our tools even better.

The first step in planning a visit to Walt Disney World is deciding when to take your trip. This basic decision can have a big influence on the pace, mood, and cost of your vacation. Here’s a quick guide on how to choose the best timetable for your Walt Disney World experience.

Gather Your Tools

Before you sit down to plan, you’ll need to gather the following items:

  • A blank calendar. I like having one where I can see whole year in front of me, such as this one for 2012.
  • Your school district calendar (if applicable).
  • Work schedules.
  • Calendars for your family’s activities: sports, church groups, dance recitals, etc.
  • Your personal appointment calendar.
  • The TouringPlans.com Crowd Calendar.
  • The Walt Disney World attraction closures schedule.
  • Access information about Disney’s special events each month. There’s a great section about this in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.
  • Access to your favorite weather website, such as weather.com.
  • Access to your favorite airline website or an agregator app such as Kayak.
  • Access to your favorite Disney discounts web site, like MouseSavers.com.
  • Several colored pencils or markers.

Brainstorm Planning-Related Information

Before you sit down with the calendar, you’ll need to ask yourself some basic questions.

  • Are travel dates limited to school vacation dates? Or are you willing to take the kids out of school for a few days, or more?
  • Are there work-related dates that prevent travel? For example, you’re an accountant who can’t travel during tax season.
  • Are there family-related commitments that prevent travel? For example, your sister’s wedding is in August so you can’t go to Walt Disney World then.
  • Are there religious observances that prevent travel? For example, you need to be home during Easter.
  • Are there specific events at Walt Disney World that you’d like to experience? For example, Food & Wine Festival, Flower & Garden Festival, or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
  • Does weather play a factor in your vacation enjoyment? For example, you don’t consider it a vacation unless it’s warm enough to swim. Or you’re uncomfortable carrying your toddler when it’s more than 80 degrees out.
  • Are there medical reasons not to travel at certain times of year? For example, your allergies flare during the spring. Or you become short of breath at temperatures above 85 degrees.
  • Do you have any absolutely 100% must-do attractions? For example, your son is obsessed with Star Wars. His (and thus your) vacation will be ruined if he doesn’t experience the Star Tours attraction.
  • Are there other people’s schedules to consider? For example, your dog walker is unavailable in the summer. Or your mother-in-law is traveling with you and must be consulted.
  • How important are low crowd levels to you?
  • How important is low cost to you?
  • Are there any habits of my traveling party to consider? For example, your teenagers refuse to wake up early on vacation, so you’d prefer travel when the parks are open late.
  • Are there special celebrations to consider? For example, your daughter has always wanted to be at Walt Disney World on her birthday.

To make it easy, we’ve created a handy VACATION DATE PLANNING WORKSHEET, a downloadable PDF for helping you organize your dates.

Narrow it Down

If the reason that you’re visiting Walt Disney World is for a specific event, perhaps to run in the Walt Disney World Marathon, then selecting your travel dates is going to be easy. But most folks will have some more challenging choices to make. For example, while I personally make three or four annual research trips on my own, my family also likes to take one long trip to WDW each year (a full week), plus a long weekend bonus trip.

Let me walk you through my family’s planning situation for 2012 as an example to show you how you might tackle your task.

Here were my family’s considerations:

    • My oldest daughter is enrolled in a challenging high school curriculum. We did occasionally pull the kids out of school for travel when they were younger, but falling behind in high school is not an option. Thus, we will not travel when school is in session. I’ll cross off the dates school is in session in red.

    • Our younger daughters attend a sleepaway camp for much of the summer. This is a priority for them. Thus, we will not travel when camp is in session. I’ll cross off the dates camp is in session.

    • We can’t travel when I have personal volunteer commitments (several Sundays in the winter), when my daughter has pre-season practice for her debate team (last week of August), or when we have a family commitment on the West Coast (February break). Let’s cross off those dates as well.

Visualize What Your Options Are

As you can see, I’ve pared down our options quite a bit. I then marked the dates when we actually could visit Walt Disney World in yellow.

It’s easy to see that for a week-long WDW trip, our options are April break, mid/late August, and Christmas. Here’s where you need prioritize the vacation characteristics that are most important to you: weather, crowd level, price, attraction closures, availability of activities, and so on.

Let’s look at how these items change during our possible travel weeks.

    • Weather. I pull the monthly averages for Orlando on weather.com and see that the average high/lows for early April are about 80/60 (nice!), for mid August are about 92/74 (ouch), and for late December are 73/52 (fine, but possibly chilly if temperatures are lower than normal). For us, this round goes to April.
    • Crowd Level. Here I need the TouringPlans Crowd Calendar. The first week of April scores at the 9 and 10 level (extremely crowded). Our mid-August dates show mostly 8 and 9 level crowds the first week (a bit more manageable) and at the 5 to 7 level during the second week (really not too bad). Christmas week predictions for 2012 are not posted yet, but the 2011 numbers show flat out 10s across the board (as crowded as crowded can be). The second week of August wins this round.
    • Cost. There are many items that factor into the cost of your vacation, but one of the largest is the price of your hotel. To get a rough gauge on hotel price, I went to the Walt Disney World website and looked for the cost of a night at the deluxe-level Polynesian resort. I chose the Polynesian because we are a family of five, and the deluxe resorts allow five guests in one room. For the date of April 4, 2012, the website shows the rate as $590 per night. For the date of August 22, the rate is $405 per night. For the date of December 26, the rate is $655 per night. While these are not necessarily exactly what your costs would be (particularly in August you might be able to find a better deal through a travel agent or a service like Expedia), they do give you a ballpark expenditure for your trip. August wins on price.
    • Attraction closures. We love almost everything at Walt Disney World, but there are a few rides that are must-dos on every trip (I’m talking to you Soarin’). I want to make sure that our favorite rides will be available during our vacation. I give a quick glance at the Attraction Refurbishment Schedule and see no notifications of significant closures during our possible travel dates. This round is a draw.
    • Activities. These are the intangibles that can change the feel of your trip. My family will take into consideration that we love the water parks, which are best experienced in warmer weather. Win one for August. I am also enthralled by the holiday decorations at the parks. Nothing puts me in my happy place like the Osborne Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Big points for December, with the caveat that we have seen the lights several times in the past few years. Another point for December is the possibility that some of the new Fantasyland expansion will be open then, and we always love to see what’s new in the parks.

The Decision

With all the information in front of you and your priorities sorted out, it’s decision time. Some households may go by parental fiat, and others will take a poll and give everyone a vote. We hashed it out in a family conversation and decided December was too pricey this year (and we know will be back to see the Fantasyland additions in 2013), August is too hot for my husband, so we came up with April as our vacation time of choice.

Fine Tuning

Once you know your time frame, it may pay to tinker with exact travel dates a bit. We travel to Walt Disney World by air. I plugged some different date combinations into Kayak, the airline price finder app, and found that flights from my area to Orlando vary by about 50 dollars a ticket during the week we’re looking at. If we leave New York on March 31 instead of April 1, we’ll save enough on airfare for a signature meal and some rockin’ souvenirs. Before you nail down your exact dates, it may pay to fine tune them with a bit of more in-depth research.

Look for Hidden Opportunities

I mentioned earlier that, in addition to a week-long Disney trip, we also like to take a long-weekend-sized trip to the World each year. Glancing back at the calendar, the possible long weekend options are in January, May, September, October, and November. The September and November choices give us the possibility of a four-day trip instead of a three-day trip, so those are particularly attractive. Of these options, November is Thanksgiving weekend, which is known for peak pricing, whereas September is generally much less expensive. We’ll definitely want to travel then.

The four-day September opportunity presents itself to us because I happen to live in a community with a large Jewish population. School is closed then for the High Holy Days, making it a great getaway time for those not observing Yom Kippur. When hunting for travel dates, look for these hidden opportunities. For example, New Jersey residents can often capitalize on a lengthy teacher conference in November (Jersey Week), Massachusetts residents may have a Patriot’s Day bonus, or Louisiana citizens may get free time around Mardi Gras. Keep an eye out for confluences of stealth time off. It may be possible to cobble together an entire week of vacation while only missing a day or two of school.

Ta Da!

In green, are the dates when it works best for our entire family to be together at Walt Disney World next year. Once we laid everything out, it really wasn’t difficult to see what made the most sense for us.

While this process-of-elimination tactic can work for anyone, other guests will have different approaches. For example, my parents, a retired couple, have far fewer constraints on travel dates than I do. Their priority is to not encounter large crowds when they travel. For them, the first stop in their planning would be the Crowd Calendar. They might choose to redline any dates with a crowd level greater than five or six. Similarly, a family with medical issues exacerbated by heat might check the weather and then first redline the months of May through September, consulting their personal schedules from there.

What techniques do you use when planning your travel dates? What type of system works for you? Let us know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for our next article in the Trip Planning 101 series, How to Pick Your Hotel, coming this week!

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Best Day of the Week to Visit Universal Orlando Resort

by on July 24, 2011

We at TouringPlans.com have long been fans of the Universal Orlando Resort. The entertainment value of the attractions at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure is on par with that of Walt Disney World, although some feel that the Universal parks lack the attention to detail that gives Mickey’s Kingdom that Disney Magic. Still, many of our readers venture off Disney property to experience the Universal attractions, especially since the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When they do, they look to us for advice about when to go and how to beat the crowds.

Which days of the week are best for Universal Studios?

1. Sunday

According to Visit Orlando (Formerly the Orlando Visitors and Convention Bureau) Saturday is the most popular day of arrival for an Orlando vacation, which makes Sunday the first day in the parks for most visitors. The biggest draw for the first day is Orlando’s flagship theme park, Magic Kingdom. This is corroborated by the fact that Magic Kingdom has long been the park to host Evening Extra Magic Hours on Sundays. What this all means for Universal visitors is that Sunday is, by far, the best day to visit. Wait times are lowest on Sunday by a margin of 10-15%.

2. Monday

For the same reason that Sunday is a good choice for visiting Universal, Monday is your next best choice. Wait times will generally be lower on Mondays when compared to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

3. Saturday

Surprisingly, Saturdays are a relatively good choice for visiting Universal as well. Wait times on Saturdays are 5% lower than average. So a general rule of thumb for crowds at Universal Orlando is that weekends are a good time to visit.

Which days of the week are most crowded at Universal?

1. Thursday

With four parks to visit at the Walt Disney World Resort and with the most popular arrival day being Saturday I suppose it makes sense that the fifth day of the average trip, Thursday, is the most popular day to visit Universal. Wait times are significantly higher (15%) on average on Thursday. If you can avoid going on a Thursday, we certainly recommend doing so and picking another day.

2. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday

There is no discernible difference between the wait times on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. In general, wait times on these days will be about average.  If you cannot go to Universal on a Sunday, Monday or Saturday any of these three days will do.

These recommendations are based on wait times collected at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure since 2006. The recommendations are identical for both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. These recommendations are generalized over all days of data collected although the crowds may vary during any given day.

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