Trip Planning

New Disney’s Hollywood Studios Late Arrivals Touring Plan: A Field Test

by on April 28, 2016

Sunset Blvd (1)For decades, a truism of Walt Disney World touring was that you had to arrive before rope drop to efficiently experience everything in the park in one day. But what if a combination of attraction closures and FastPass+ reservations made it possible to sleep in and still experience everything of note at Disney’s Hollywood Studios — including most of the new Star Wars entertainment — before closing time? That was the theory behind Len’s new Disney’s Hollywood Studios One Day Touring Plan for Late Arrivals, and I put it to the test last Friday, April 22, a day that was predicted to be a 7 out of 10 on our Crowd Calendar.

For the TL;DR crowd, I’ll cut to the chase: with our new Late Arrival touring plan, and the proper FastPass+ reservations, it is now possible (even on a busy day) to arrive at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at noon and see every worthwhile attraction before the evening ends. This is great news for families who want to hit the snooze button after a late night in the Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom, once nighttime hours there begin.

 

Preparing to use the Disney’s Hollywood Studios Late Arrivals Touring Plan

There is a catch: you’ll need to do some preparation in My Disney Experience ahead of time. The key to this plan is to secure consecutive FastPasses for Toy Story Midway Mania, Star Tours, and Tower of Terror beginning as soon as possible after your noon arrival time. In my case, I booked Toy Story for 12:15 p.m.-1:15 p.m.; Star Tours for 1:15 p.m.-2:15pm; and Tower of Terror for 2:15 p.m.-3:15 p.m.

Late arrivals

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2016 Tokyo Disneyland Trip Planning Guide

by on April 26, 2016

18741086704_6694d4a43f_zYou want to go on another Disney vacation, but where do you go? You’ve been to Walt Disney World more times than you can count and you can recall every small detail of Disneyland because you’ve covered every square inch so many times that it makes your head spin. Next you think “Maybe a Disney Cruise?” Not happening, your brother-in-law wants you to wait until little Sally (your niece’s second cousin, twice removed) graduates from sixth grade so you can all go as a family. Disneyland Paris? No way, they’re in the middle of more refurbishments than there are blades of grass on Earth. Then it comes to you, Tokyo Disneyland. You remember your curiosity being piqued from seeing pictures of DisneySea online. “Doesn’t that place have a volcano?” Hell yes it has a volcano, and I’m here to tell you that it’s awesome. You’ve found your next Disney destination, and hopefully with this Tokyo Disneyland trip planning guide I will help you plan it.

Note: This is an updated version of the TDR trip planning guide I posted last year.

Step 1: When to visit Tokyo Disney Resort

Tokyo Disney Resort, or TDR, is always going to have huge crowds and high wait times, especially on the weekends. I’ve spent thousands of hours in the American Disney parks but have never seen anything like the crowds during a weekend in Tokyo Disneyland. With that being said there are a few times out of the year where crowds are smaller than they usually are, but this luxury may come at the cost of poor weather or multiple attraction closures due to refurbishments.

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Disney’s Magical Express FAQ

by on April 26, 2016

Disney’s Magical Express is a service that provides free bus transportation to and from Orlando International Airport and Disney’s resort hotels, for guests staying at those hotels. While the word “FREE” always sounds good, there may be some situations where using Magical Express does not make sense. There are also some tips and tricks that can make your Magical Express experience better if you do choose to use it. Here’s what you need to know.

Sign up for Magical Express when you make your room reservation.

Sign up for Magical Express when you make your room reservation.

Who can use Disney’s Magical Express?

Registered guests of Disney-owned hotels are eligible for Magical Express Service. These hotels are:

  • Art of Animation
  • All-Star Movies, Music, & Sports
  • Animal Kingdom Lodge & Villas, Jambo & Kidani
  • Beach Club & Villas
  • BoardWalk & Villas
  • Fort Wilderness Cabins & Campgrounds
  • Caribbean Beach
  • Contemporary & Bay Lake Tower Villas
  • Coronado Springs
  • Grand Floridian
  • Old Key West
  • Polynesian Village
  • Pop Century
  • Port Orleans French Quarter & Riverside
  • Saratoga Springs
  • Wilderness Lodge & Villas
  • Yacht Club

But I’m staying at the Swan! Isn’t that on Disney property? Don’t I qualify for Magical Express?

Sorry, no. While the Swan, Dolphin, Shades of Green, and a few Disney Springs area hotels are quite close to the action, only guests staying at the hotels actually owned by Disney qualify for free Magical Express transportation.

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Trivia Tuesday: Walt Disney World Moderate Resorts + Video

by on April 19, 2016

Pool (5)Welcome back to Trivia Tuesday!

Now that I’m back from maternity leave, I’m geared up with all new videos for you.

Starting things off, I’m spilling the beans on the Moderate Resorts at Walt Disney World.

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Why Make A Disney World Hotel Room Request?

by on April 18, 2016

For about a year now, Touring Plans has offered an nifty feature – automatic room requests. Just tell us what type of room you want, and we’ll contact your Disney World hotel for you to make the request. While request fulfillment is not guaranteed, we’ve had an amazing success rate at getting users the room location they want at WDW hotels.

So, since it’s easy and it works, everyone should make a room request, right? Well, as with most things Disney, the answer is, “It depends.”

A view like this might be great. Or it might not, if noisy kids are playing on the field.

A view like this might be great. Or it might not, if noisy kids are playing on the field.

Personally, I rarely make a room request. As a researcher of all things Disney, I like the experience of being placed in unfamiliar resort locations. I like seeing what the “bad” rooms are really like. To me, as a frequent short stay solo visitor, I have rarely encountered a room that made a significant negative impact on me. But if you’re an infrequent Disney visitor on site for an extended stay, your room location might have an outsized influence on your vacation enjoyment.

Here are some things to think about as you decide whether to submit a room request for your Disney World hotel stay.

How large is my hotel?

There is a wide variation in the physical footprint of the Disney World hotels. If you’re staying at the Contemporary, the very farthest Garden Wing room is just .16 miles from food at the main building, as the crow flies. If you’re bunking at the Caribbean Beach resort, the distance from the farthest room to food at the main building is about .47 miles as the crow flies, and unless you’re sporting a jetpack, your actual walking distance will be longer still.

A resort hike of any distance can seem too long if you’ve been on your feet in the parks for the past 10 hours. Compound that with 90+ degree temperatures when you’re carrying a 30 pound preschooler and you’ll understand that a third of a mile can be a substantial undertaking.

The larger the hotel, the more likely it is that you’ll want to make a room request.

No amount of room requesting will make the Princess Rooms at Port Orleans closer to the main entrance.

No amount of room requesting will make the Princess Rooms at Port Orleans closer to the main building.

What have I paid for?

Disney likes to find ways to charge a bit extra for little perks like a better view or shorter walk. For example at Disney’s Pop Century resort, a hotel with a relatively uncomplicated price structure, you can reserve a “standard” room, a “standard pool view” room, a “preferred” room, or a “preferred pool view” room, all offered at different price points. (You can see which rooms are which using our Room Finder Tool.)

Understand that making a request for a room type you haven’t paid for is likely to result in frustration. However, even within a particular category, there may be better or worse locations.

Also note that there may be few options with some categories of specialty rooms. For example, the Pirate themed rooms at Caribbean Beach are only located in the cluster of buildings most distant from the food court. No amount of requesting a Pirate room near the main reception center will make that happen.

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Washington DC – The Cherry Blossom Festival Experience

by on April 12, 2016

2016-04-03 at 11-59-08I did it. I finally mustered up the courage to bury myself into the crowds of Washington, D.C.’s busiest time: the National Cherry Blossom Festival. As you know by my frequent writings, I have visited Washington numerous times. I have also lived in one of its suburbs and worked for a federal government agency right in the heart of D.C. for a handful of years. Yet I had never been near the National Mall and Tidal Basin area during the Cherrry Blossom Festival. In fact, one of the first things you’re told when you become a local is to avoid it as much as you can.

Still, I did it. I did it for you, dear readers. During the weekend of April 1-3, 2016 I waited in line at the museums, avoided getting hit by a myriad of tour buses, and walked under the trees while tourists took selfies. It was amusing, tiring, and occasionally frustrating, but I believe I learned some things from it that I can pass along to you.

Festival Overview

In short, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is a month-long celebration centered around the trees that were gifted from Japan in 1912. The festival corresponds roughly with the blooming of the flowering trees, although the exact time of their peak bloom (when >70% are in full bloom) isn’t usually known until a few weeks (or days) before it happens. The peak bloom is important because the trees only flower for a few days, especially if there is a storm or high winds.

If you visit, however, don’t plan around the peak bloom date unless you can adjust your plans last-minute: the date is very mobile. This year, for instance, here is how the announcement of peak bloom went down:

  • March 2 — National Park Service announces peak bloom as occurring between March 31 and April 3
  • March 8 — due to warm weather, peak bloom is moved up to March 18-23
  • March 15 — because of a cold snap, peak bloom is expected to occur on either March 23 or 24
  • March 23 — National Park Service officially marks today, March 23, as a peak bloom

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Tusker House Dining Review

by on April 8, 2016

As we continue to wait patiently for all of the new nighttime offerings at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we also carry on in our look at dining options at the park. I recently reviewed many of the park’s popular quick service options, and today, we continue our dining adventure at Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s popular character meal at Tusker House Restaurant. I dropped in for late solo dinner a few days ago to see how the food compares to other dining options around the park and Walt Disney World, and was pleasantly surprised with the meal from start to finish.

First step: getting to the restaurant. If you’ve never been to Tusker House, it’s not super intuitive – the check-in desk is hidden just behind the covered seating area next to Dawa Bar, adjacent to the walkway to Festival of the Lion King, and just across from Tamu Tamu Refreshments in the Africa section of the park. Luckily, Disney has placed a few signs along the path to help guide you to the desk, where a cast member will greet and check you in, then give you a buzzer or take your phone number to text you once your table is ready. At that point, I was led to the outdoor waiting area just behind the desk, full of chairs and benches (and complimentary water to help cool you off on a hot day!). After a short wait, my phone alerted me that my table was ready, and I was led from the second check-in desk to the inside of the restaurant, where the seater acquainted me with the sprawling (and gorgeous) buffet area and led me to my table in a neighboring room. Both the Cast Member who seated me and my server helpfully explained from which direction the characters (Mickey, Daisy, Donald, and Goofy) would come and how they’d move around the room to reach my table, which was really great to know – I could better plan when it was safe to leave the table to grab a plate of food without missing anything.

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Animal Kingdom Late-Arrival Touring Plan

by on March 28, 2016

Discovery Island (4)A couple weeks ago I tested our computer-optimized touring plans in Walt Disney World. My first post was on how the touring plan software routed me around a bunch of ride breakdowns in the Magic Kingdom. Today’s post is how the software worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Just like the Magic Kingdom, I waited until the last minute to make my Animal Kingdom FastPass+ reservations – actually the night before we visited the park. But I was still able to get FastPass+ reservations for the most popular attractions:

Expedition Everest at 10:15 a.m.

Kilimanjaro Safaris at 2:05 p.m.

DINOSAUR at 3:20 p.m.

Kali River Rapids and Flights of Wonder were closed during my visit, so I didn’t have to worry about it.

Bonus Sleeping-In Possibilities!

I used the Unofficial Guide’s standard Animal Kingdom One-Day Touring Plan and plugged these FastPasses in. The first thing I realized was that the plan wasn’t going to take all day – not even close. So I switched my arrival time to 10 AM, which gave us an extra hour to sleep in. In fact, even with the new nighttime Kilimanjaro Safaris and Rivers of Light show, it looks like it’ll be possible to see practically everything in the park even if you arrive around 11 a.m.  That makes the Animal Kingdom a great park to visit after a late night at the Magic Kingdom or Epcot. (We’re also testing a late-arrival plan at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for an upcoming blog post.)

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Dining Review: Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe

by on March 25, 2016

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to the Walt Disney World landscape in recent months has been Disney Springs – new shops and restaurants galore, with many more still on the way. Recently, I dropped in for a meal at one of the mainstays of the West Side portion of Disney Springs, Wolfgang Puck Grand Café (located just across from the AMC theater and next to Bongo’s Cuban Cafe) to see if it was still worth a visit with all the new competition. This restaurant is divided into three portions – an outdoor Express location with a limited menu, the main downstairs area (the Grand Café itself), and the Dining Room upstairs. An easy way to think of these three portions: Express is like the quick service-y option, Grand Café is the standard table service (think of The Wave at Contemporary Resort), and Dining Room is a little like the signature table service – this should help understand the offerings (and prices) available at each. Conveniently, they place menus for each of the three outside the restaurant, so you can sneak a peek before committing to your chosen location.

Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe’s exterior draws in guests with a facade reminiscent of the 90s.

The Grand Café is 90s décor heavy, and looks much like the gaudy exterior on the inside – you’re definitely not here for the ambiance, though there are nice views of the water through the large window walls on the back side of the restaurant. My first impression of the restaurant upon being seated for my early dinner reservation was one of utility – based on the worn carpet and tables, it’s pretty clear this restaurant sees a lot of people every night. That made me pretty hopeful for great food. I was a little worried I’d never find out, though, as it took about ten minutes for a server to greet my table (odd, considering there was only one other table seated in the entire dining area – clearly not very busy at that time). Eventually, a very nice server came over to take my drink order and offer a few recommendations. I was pretty excited that she was clearly not just trying to sell the most expensive thing on the menu to me by suggesting it as her favorite dish, like you often see at other restaurants. I was selecting my meal from the dinner menu, which features moderately-priced, simplified American and Italian classics and sushi. I chose the Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf with mashed potatoes, crispy onion strings, & port wine sauce and one of their famous pizzas, Pepperoni Pomodoro with caramelized onions, basil, & parmesan. Pizzas are available all day (as well as at the Express portion of the restaurant), and the meatloaf dish makes an appearance on the lunch menu as a sandwich (and was recommended by my server), so these seemed to be pretty representative of the food most diners would get from this location.

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Not-So-Fancy Dining: A Review of Diamond Horseshoe

by on March 22, 2016

For the next few months (March 13-May 30), Magic Kingdom guests have a chance to dine once again inside the beautiful Diamond Horseshoe restaurant located in Liberty Square, just adjacent to Liberty Tree Tavern. This restaurant has operated seasonally over the last few years as a quick service dining location, but has added a new table service menu available for lunch and dinner for late spring this year. Signage outside indicated I was in for all-you-care-to-enjoy “fancy dining”, and while I certainly didn’t leave hungry, I’m not sure the experience could be described as all that “fancy”. I was greeted by a gaggle of friendly Cast Members in a fairly empty restaurant (not terribly surprising, given it’s a new offering), and promptly taken to a table where I got a gander at the menu for this “fancy” feast. Prices are exactly the same as Liberty Tree Tavern’s next door ($33 for adults, $19 for children; Disney Dining Plan and Tables in Wonderland discounts accepted), but here you’ll receive salad, choice of an entrée (more on that in a second), and choice of a dessert, along with a non-alcoholic beverage.

In reading the menu through before arriving at Magic Kingdom, I expected family-style entrees, like Liberty Tree’s dinner service, but every entrée actually comes in individual portions – I was, however, allowed and encouraged by my server to order seconds or a new entrée at any point. First up, though, came Frontier Salad – tossed greens, tomatoes, onions, roasted corn, and corn bread croutons with house-made chipotle ranch dressing, served alongside a few pieces of corn bread and honey butter. The salad was exactly as explained on the menu – typical salad greens and fixings tossed in a slightly spicy, creamy dressing. Most diners will find this salad just fine – not too spicy, hits all the bases to make you feel like you’re checking off the “vegetable” box in the meal, and it’s not overly heavy, either. The cornbread on the side was very similar to what you’ll find at Trail’s End or Boatwright’s – sweet, dense, and very cakey, served with an even-sweeter honey butter. Overall, I found the side of bread a nice compliment to the spice in the salad dressing, but a little too sweet for my taste at the beginning of the meal.

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