Trip Planning

Speed Planning A First Trip To Universal Orlando

by on September 21, 2014

Outside Universal

Outside Universal

By nature, we’re crazy planners. We like to look over the scenery, plan our day, and then return to the plan to tweak it. Last year, we planned a Walt Disney World trip in a month – and thought we’d never do anything crazier.

This year, we planned a first trip to Universal Orlando in ten days. Let’s take a ride.

Live blogging our trip to Universal

July 21, 2014

We’ve got this weird set of credits on Southwest that have to be used by May of next year, and, being teachers, we can’t really see an opportunity to use them. So my wife, Christy, keeps looking at flights and attempting to see what will work. We’ve looked at other locations, quick trips in the near future, and essentially come to the conclusion to just hold on to them. We actually look at Universal, but reservations aren’t available for our dates, August 2 to August 6. So, we put it on hold.

July 22, 2014

We resolved to wait, but I checked the website. And inputted the dates. And something strange happened. I asked my wife again which hotel it was. Frankly, I still have no idea which hotels are which. Except Cabana Bay. That sticks out in my brain. “Loews Royal Pacific,” she retorts. Which shows up on the list. For our departure in ten days. After a quick look back and forth, we go to work.

iPad in her hands and computer in mine, we are assembling. I’ve inputted the dates into the Universal site, and quickly updated that to show the Harry Potter package and reservations for breakfasts on two days. Christy has the Southwest site. And it’s giving major headaches. It turns out that each reservation can only use four methods of payment per reservation, and we have five people in our party. After contacting Southwest, I decide to plan our trip in three chunks – including one adult and one young child in each reservation. I’m starting to stress that once I book one reservation, and the other spots will become unavailable or more expensive. It means sacrificing the smallest credits, but we should all be able to book. I’ve got two browsers open on the computer, and the iPad working, and I’m able to reserve all of the spots! I turn to the computer and prepare to pay. For the reservation that no longer exists. I’ve been logged out.

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Disney World Planning Challenges: Tough-to-Get Reservations—From FastPass+ to Dining

by on September 17, 2014

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Sign. Photo by Katie McNair

Photo by Katie McNair

Even with lots of research, some aspects of a Walt Disney World vacation are—let’s just say—resistant to planning. In fact, they can seem like downright mysteries to first-time vacationers and expert Disney World planners alike. A major challenge when planning a Disney World vacation is successfully reserving tough-to-get experiences that become available for booking at unpredictable times initially, book up extremely quickly, or both. Although there is no surefire way to snag these reservations, there are some ways to improve your chances.

First, though, it can be helpful for you to have a bit of background on the experiences that have given or are currently giving planners the most difficulty.

Hard-to-Get Reservations

Photo by Sarah Graffam

Photo by Sarah Graffam

Currently topping the list of difficult-to-get reservations are FastPass+ reservations for Meet Anna and Elsa at Princess Fairytale Hall and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom. In addition, obtaining reservations at Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest Restaurant can be a real challenge.

Experiences that have proven difficult for guests to book in the past and that can still present a challenge in some cases include FastPass+ for popular rides like Epcot’s Soarin’ and Test Track as well as Toy Story Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, FastPass+ for parades and nighttime shows, FastPass+ for shows at special events such as Star Wars Weekends, reservations for the Frozen Summer Fun Premium Package, reservations at Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party, and, the original most-difficult-to-get reservation, dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table restaurant.

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Disney Princess Dress (and other Costume) FAQ

by on September 17, 2014

t_logo_fbWith Halloween just around the corner, it’s time to take another look at the Disney Princess Dress situation. This is an update of my 2012 article on the state of the princess dress, with new photos, pricing, resources, and details on the all important FROZEN dress situation. So put on your tiara and polish your crystal plastic shoes, ’cause here we gooooo.

Do most girls wear princess dresses at Walt Disney World?

When you’re just walking around the park, you’ll see just a small percentage of girls ages about 3 to 8 wearing princess costumes, maybe 5%. However, there are some places at the parks where the percentage of girls in princess attire will be much higher. My non-scientific, personal observation is that something along the lines of 50-60% of the preschool and elementary age girls at the princess-themed character meals will be wearing princess dresses. Note that this also means that 40-50% of the girls there will NOT be wearing gowns. Very few girls older than age 8 or 9 will be wearing princess dresses at meals, or anywhere else.

Something on the order of 80% of the girls getting makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB) will be sporting some form of princess attire. Similarly, something on the order of 80-90% of the children attending Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party will be wearing costumes. These might be princess gowns, but could just as easily be something else entirely.

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Offsite Options: Rope Drop Rules

by on September 16, 2014

As avid Disney fans know, the Unofficial Guide recommends arriving at the gate of Walt Disney World’s theme parks 30–40 minutes before park opening during mid-summer months, and 45–60 minutes before park opening during the holiday season. The introduction of FastPass+ into touring strategies, however, may lead some to question whether arriving this early, i.e., for rope drop, is as important as it used to be. After all, if you can make your attraction selections in advance, why go through the “hassle” of arriving at the crack of dawn?

Though I would argue getting to the parks early is important for all guests, this article will examine why it is especially important for offsite guests. I’ll identify some of the benefits to “rope-dropping” as an offsite guest, and encourage you to at least give rope drop a try during your next Walt Disney World experience.

First!

First! – © John Kivus, 2013

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Putt Putting Around the World (Walt Disney World, That Is!)

by on September 10, 2014

2014-05-22 15.47.28

On our last trip to Disney World we decided to utilize one of our Magic Your Way perks: the free round of miniature golf. There are two mini golf courses on Disney property: Fantasia Gardens near the Swan Resort and Winter Summerland near Blizzard Beach water park. We opted for Winter Summerland since last year we gave Fantasia Gardens a whirl.

Mini Golf at a Glance

Price: The costs for one round are $14.00 per adult and $12.00 per child (aged 3 to 9). Vouchers for play are included in some Magic Your Way vacation packages, and Annual Passholders and DVC members are eligible for discounts. There is often a discount for replaying. The price is slightly less than at Hollywood Drive-In Mini Golf at Universal Orlando’s CityWalk, but, to be fair, that course is much newer (and nicer).

Hours: 10:00 AM to 11:00 PM daily

Transportation: Free parking is available if you choose to drive yourself. For Disney transportation, take a bus to Blizzard Beach for Winter Summerland. For Fantasia Gardens, take a bus to the Walt Disney World Swan; Fantasia Gardens is located across Epcot Resorts Boulevard from the Swan, near the tennis courts shared by the Swan and Dolphin hotels. Note that Blizzard Beach closes for maintenance for most of January, February, and March, so bus service will not be available then. Ask at your hotel if there are options for arriving by Disney Transportation.

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Touringplans #Everywhere – Cruising for Larger Families and Families With Special Needs

by on September 9, 2014

We’ll take seats for five please

I’m excited to announce that our assignment is the 7-night Western Caribbean Cruise aboard Disney’s ship, Fantasy. The mission: to plan the trip and write about it to help others plan their own Disney Cruise Line adventures and learn from our mistakes. You’ve seen my colleagues write about their trips to Disney destinations in California, Tokyo, and everywhere in between, so I will write about the aspects of our trip that make it unique.

The world was built for a family of four – especially when you travel

My brother-in-law used to say this, having experienced life with a wife and three kids. Cars, hotels, and restaurants are designed for parties of 4. He was right. The Hazelton/Brazeau group is a party of five, so one of our first struggles in the planning process was to pick a stateroom that would accommodate us. The group includes me (Fred), my two sons Bram (age 13) and Alec (age 11), my wife Chantale (age censored), and her son, Matice (age 9). The most economical of Disney’s stateroom options for a family of five are the Deluxe Family Oceanview Staterooms that sleep 5 (category 8) or two adjoining Standard Inside Staterooms that sleep 4 (category 11). Although a Deluxe Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah was a hundred dollars less than two adjoining inside staterooms, we chose to get the two rooms. Our feeling was that with the age of the kids, the negligible cost difference and having the second bathroom made it the smarter choice for us. Plus, if the kids need an escape from us or we need an escape from them, having the second stateroom provides a nice separator.

Alec (left) and Matice

Alec (left) and Matice

Alec was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and, although ambulatory, does have some mobility issues. We are interested to see how easy or difficult it will be for him to manoeuvre around the ship, especially if the seas are rough. Our choices of Port Adventures may be limited, as well, to those that don’t involve a lot of walking. Beach days, Jeep tours, and boat excursions will be a lot better for us than climbing ruins or walking tours. He’s an easygoing kid, though, so he will likely be just as happy to spend the week alternating between the buffet and the Edge Club.

 

Stay tuned for more about our trip and the other Touringplans #Everywhere trips, the planning, the during and the aftermath.

[Our cruise departs on October 11, 2014, from Port Canaveral. If you happen to be sailing on that cruise with us, please let us know.]

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Packing It All In: How to Fit a Week of Disney Fun into Two Suitcases (With a Family of Four!)

by on September 5, 2014

Do you remember the carefree days of air travel, when each member of your party would board the aircraft with large pieces of luggage, plus carry-on and personal item? Travelers had so much room in their baggage, they had the luxury of packing for every contingency, as well as all of the comforts of home. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Fast forward to today, where airlines have started charging a la carte for everything from snacks and seat upgrades to baggage. Most airlines are currently charging $25 and up for a checked bag (and some are even charging for carry-on baggage, too). Unless you don’t plan to bring any of your items home with you, those fees are doubled for round-trip. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend that money on Mickey Ice Cream Bars and Vinylmation figurines on my Disney vacation.

So how can you limit the amount of baggage (and fees) for a family of four heading to a 7-night trip to Disney World? I will show step by step how my family managed to pack it all in to two checked bags and four carry-ons.

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SeaWorld Tours: Beluga Interaction and Wild Arctic

by on September 4, 2014

Today we’ll explore a couple of SeaWorld Orlando’s remarkable behind-the-scenes tours: the Beluga Interaction Program and the Wild Arctic Tour. These are two of the many tours SeaWorld offers which include animal interactions.

SeaWorld beluga whale Aurek and guest during the Beluga Interaction Tour. Photo by Thomas Cook

SeaWorld beluga whale Aurek and guest during the Beluga Interaction Tour. Photo by Thomas Cook

It’s pretty obvious that meeting beluga whales, seals, and walruses up-close in the wild is nearly impossible, especially since they mostly live the north of the Arctic Circle. Even getting to their habitat is a remarkable journey.

SeaWorld Orlando’s Wild Arctic attraction will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2015, but it remains an interesting and popular venue. It offers an exciting flight-simulator helicopter ride to the Arctic that drops guests off at Station Wild Arctic, designed to appear like a 19th century wooden sailing ship that was stranded and crushed by sea ice. Inside the ruins of the ship are places to view belugas and walruses both above and below the water line.

The two tours take place in Wild Arctic, and both are excellent for children, adults and families. Both are very different in nature, however.

The Beluga Interaction Program is about as immersive as you can get when it comes to a theme park tour. Often mistakenly called dolphins, belugas are from a different family in the sub order of toothed whales. They share their family with narwhals, another remarkable Arctic species.

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Universal Orlando Early Park Admission Changes Starting September 2 [UPDATED 8/30/14]

by on August 30, 2014

Early Park Admission Sign

Big changes are coming in September to Universal Orlando’s Early Park Admission perk (Photo by Seth Kubersky)

As the summer season comes to a close, we’ve gotten word of some upcoming changes to Universal Orlando Early Park Admission policies that are scheduled to go into effect early next month.

While no details have been officially announced, we’ve confirmed this information with guest service leads at both parks, and we believe the following modifications will be made to Universal Orlando’s early park admission perk (otherwise known as “early entry” or “early admission”) offered to guests at the resort’s four on-site hotels.

We will be on hand to report on the new procedures, and we will update the information on our Early Park Admission page as policy changes develop.

[Note: Universal Orlando has recently confirmed an update to the off-season early entry, see below for bolded changes]

Early Park Admission General Information

Universal Orlando offers admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas at Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) and/or Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley) one hour before regular park opening. This perk is given for free to all guests staying at a Universal Resort Hotel. Guests with certain types of “vacation packages” (most commonly sold by Universal Parks & Resorts Vacations and involving both accommodations at a Universal partner hotel and theme park admission) are also allowed in early.

The turnstiles to the park(s) participating in early entry should open approximately 90 minutes before the official opening time. Both hotel and day guests will be admitted to the park, and each eligible guest will need to show his or her own room key to pass beyond the park’s entry plaza during the early admission hour. Guests not eligible for early admission will be held in an alternative area to await the official opening time.

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Animal Kingdom Touring: How a Touring Plan Can Help

by on August 27, 2014

I have grown to love all of the parks at Disney World, but the one that took me the longest to befriend was Animal Kingdom. It’s not that I don’t love the theme (what’s not to love about animals?). It’s not that I don’t love the attractions (Kilimanjaro Safaris and Finding Nemo the Musical are two of the best things at any park, in my opinion.) It’s that I’m always feeling the pressure of the time schedule.

Pangani Forest Exploration Trail

I just love the gorillas along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, one of my favorite YOPAs.

Animal Kingdom is made up of three types of attractions. The first (and most prevalent) is Your Own Pace Attractions (let’s call these YOPA, just for fun). These are experiences that take varied amounts of time, depending on your pace and interest level. The YOPA list is long:

 

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