Trip Planning

Our Trip Planning Robot Overlords

by on March 21, 2016

Magic-Kingdom-Touring-Planjpg

A Magic Kingdom touring plan,
created by a machine

While I was testing our touring plan software in Walt Disney World last week, a computer named AlphaGo was beating one of the world’s best players of a game called Go. What made it remarkable is that Go is an enormously complicated game – there are something like 10^170 possible moves (that’s a 1 followed by 170 0’s).  And that gave me the idea to express, in terms of games, how complicated it is to create an efficient theme park touring plan, and why we think computers can help.

The chart below shows some common games, an estimate of how many different ways there are to play that game, and what that complexity is similar to in terms of Magic Kingdom rides. For example, there are just under 32,000 ways to play the game tic-tac-toe. That’s in the same ballpark as the 40,320 ways to ride 8 attractions in the Magic Kingdom.

Game Ways to Play Like a Touring Plan with
Tic-Tac-Toe 31,896 8 attractions
Connect 4 4.5 x 10^12 15-16 attractions
Checkers 5 x 10^20 21-22 attractions
Chess 10^40 to 10^50 35-42 attractions
Go 10^170 106 attractions

 

For comparison, our 1-Day Magic Kingdom Touring Plan for Adults has 26 steps, including lunch and dinner. Finding a good touring plan for that is “only” about 370,000 times more complicated than finding a good way to play checkers. I’ve helped write a fair number of books about getting the most out of your day at a theme park. But no book, no matter how good, can give you enough tips, tricks, and rules to sort through that kind of complexity. Put another way: Do I think I could beat a computer at checkers after reading one book on it? No. I might not make some common, rookie mistakes, but I won’t do well.

You’re probably thinking: Sure, there are a bajillion possible combinations of Magic Kingdom rides, but I can eliminate most of them pretty easily – don’t visit Country Bear Jamboree first, for example. But that’s misleading for a few reasons. For one thing, there plenty of scenarios – like touring plans that begin around noon – in which visiting Country Bear Jamboree would probably be a good idea.

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The Basics: Planning A Trip to Universal Orlando for Disney Veterans

by on March 18, 2016

gringotts dragonThis is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to see our other Basics posts.

Even the most ardent Disney fans have become aware that there exists ANOTHER theme park complex in Central Florida that people visit from time to time, and some of you have probably even considered popping over there for a bit to see what it’s all about. Gatorland aside, however, let me tell you about Universal Orlando, which is yet another top notch theme park experience that you should consider. This article will hopefully provide you with some guidance as a first timer to help you get the most out of the experience.

Let me get this out there at the outset: I realize that there exists this whole “Disney vs. Universal” rivalry that exists in the fan community. I’m not really trying to steer anyone towards one park or the other, I’m just trying to provide enough objective information to help Disney fans that are considering going to Universal make an informed decision and plan for the best trip possible. Because I am writing this for those that are familiar with Disney, however, some comparison of the two is a useful way to go about it, as it provides some context. I’m sure some of the more passionate folks on either end of the issue will take some of these thoughts as a shot across the bow. Just know that I’m a fan of both places, I have annual passes at both places, and I’m honestly doing my best to be as fair as possible. Please keep that in mind before you fire off your scathing email or comment! So, without further ado, let’s jump in!

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Key to Vacation Happiness: Realistic Expectations

by on March 17, 2016

Take a vacation to Walt Disney World and you’ll inevitably see a family having an experience that doesn’t quite live up to “the happiest place on Earth.”

Kids crying, parents grumbling through gritted teeth, “do you know how much I paid for this vacation?” It’s a far cry from the image of kids embracing a character in front of Cinderella’s Castle in a virtually empty Magic Kingdom that is portrayed in the commercials for Walt Disney World. But crowds, confusion and chaos can diminish a Disney vacation that a family has built up as the trip of a lifetime.

What's missing from this picture? Oh yeah, people. (Disney photo)

What’s missing from this picture? Oh yeah, people. (Disney photo)

So how do you make sure that your trip to the happiest place on Earth is just that? A recent study posits that the key to happiness is low expectations. Dr. Robb Rutledge, the senior research associate at University College London (UCL) who led the study, stated, “Lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness.”

It makes some sense, except that no one visiting the Disney parks, should have low expectations. A better way to look at it is that someone planning their first Disney vacation should have realistic expectations. If you know exactly what you’re getting into, you’re much more likely to see your trip meet or exceed expectations. And if you’re reading a blog like this, you’re probably way ahead of most visitors.

When I first brought my family to Walt Disney World in 2009, I figured it would be our one and only Disney trip. So I wanted to do it right. That meant reading everything I could get my hands on – books, blogs and message boards; listening to the advice on Disney podcasts; and making smart use of a touring plan. Was the trip a success? The fact that I’ve returned five more times since then should make the answer clear.

Read on to learn more about how to keep your expectations realistic and your vacation happy.

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Spring Dapper Day at Walt Disney World

by on March 15, 2016

Let me start by saying that I am a Tom-girl, a country girl, or a self identified frump.  I like wearing jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and tennis shoes.  You won’t often find me in a dress or skirt; and if you do it is probably for a wedding or a funeral.  I don’t do make-up and my hair skills are very limited.  A quick run through with my fingers or a ponytail suits me just fine.  That being said, even this Tom-girl has day dreams of a softer side.  I dream of breaking the mold I have built for myself; wearing cute little skirts, having a perfectly curled up-do, and being able to create magic with eye shadow and mascara.  I dream of being dapper.

Being dapper is defined as having a neat and trim appearance or being very spruce and stylish.  Both men and women can be dapper.  It usually describes clothing that is attractive and of high quality.  It makes me think of years gone by when men and women were sharply dressed anytime they left their house.  I romanticize of a more innocent world where men were gentlemanly and women had that air of innocence and mystery.  I think of Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino.  Even Walt Disney has appeared quite dapper in several old photos I have seen.

In the everyday world I live in there is not much room for being dapper.  Leaving the house usually entails work clothes of some sort, not fashion.  It simply is not normal in my neck of the woods.  So, I am a product of my surroundings, left to merely dream of the day I can be more.  And more I will be.  This coming April 16th at the Magic Kingdom, I will get my chance to be stylish and sophisticated.  I will fit right in at Dapper Day.

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Where To Eat At Disney’s Animal Kingdom

by on March 14, 2016

Disney's Animal KingdomIf you’re like me, you’re probably really excited about all of the new offerings on the way at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (nighttime Kilimanjaro Safaris? Rivers of Light? Count me in.). We’ll finally get the chance to see this park come to life after dark every night, spending a whole day exploring new and old attractions alike. Along with that extra exploring, though, comes a few practical considerations – mainly, where to eat. I’ve certainly enjoyed some great meals in Animal Kingdom over the years, but now I, like many of you, am faced with deciding where to eat multiple meals in one longer touring day at this park. To help tackle this problem, I recently dined with a few friends at the big three quick service locations in the park – Pizzafari, Flame Tree Barbecue, and Restaurantosaurus. Here, you’ll find a quick overview and dining review of all three locations (including some of the recent menu changes), and then a look at how the three compare to each other and the park’s various dining offerings to help you best decide where to head on your next trip.

First, I’ll address the elephant in the room – why only these three restaurants? It’s pretty simple: they’re the most popular, centrally-located, and accessible (menu- and price-wise) eateries in the park. I love the current table service offerings at Animal Kingdom, and really enjoy snacking my way around the park. More than likely, though, you’re going to find yourself looking to grab a quick and relatively cheap meal before taking in the park’s upcoming nighttime entertainment. Dining at these three restaurants doesn’t require a lot of pre-planning and they cover a pretty wide variety of cuisines suitable for palates of all levels of adventurousness. I’m skipping Harambe Market in this review, as it’s been pretty widely covered recently, and is located a bit further back in the park. Same for Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafe – it’s pretty remote, featuring Asian cuisine not unlike what you’d find at Lotus Blossom Cafe at Epcot. That’s not to say either of these aren’t great options for you to consider, but if you’re looking for food in a pinch (as you arrive to the park for the evening, or running between attractions on a longer touring day), the three restaurants outlined here are your most likely options.

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Disney World Stroller FAQ: Do I Need A Stroller? Why?

by on March 14, 2016

You’ve got kids. You’ve got kid stuff. And you’re taking it all to Walt Disney World for a magical fun-filled vacation. Sounds great, but how do you maneuver all those kids and all that stuff all over four gigantic theme parks, your hotel, and maybe an airport or two? With a stroller, of course. Here’s the complete stroller scoop to get you started on your planning.

Typical Disney World single stroller rental

Typical Disney World single stroller rental

Do I really need to use a stroller at Walt Disney World?

If you’ve got a child age six or under, chances are you’re going to want access to a stroller at some point during your Disney vacation. Your seven or eight year old might even find himself asking for some stroller time.

But my child hasn’t used a stroller at home in years, why would he need one at Disney World?

Many guests have worn pedometers during their Disney vacations. Factoring in theme parks, resorts, and entertainment areas, they typically find that they’ve walked somewhere between seven and twelve miles EVERY DAY of their Disney vacation. Just one lap around the World Showcase area of Epcot about a mile. Do that several days in a row and you’re going to end up tired. Now imagine walking that much with the tiny legs of a kindergartener, in 90 degree heat.

Another reason to consider using a stroller is the safety factor. Let’s face it, Walt Disney World can be a crowded place, particularly during high intensity times like park closing or during the fireworks. Even if you’re holding a child’s hand, it’s quite possible to lose him in the melee. To avoid separation, or having your child get accidentally stepped on by another guest, it may be easier to keep him in the confines of a stroller where you’re in charge of the direction and pace of movement.

Additionally, some children simply become overwhelmed by the constant stimulation at Disney World. A stroller can be a safe haven – a contained environment where a child can go to temporarily regroup and decompress.

Should I bring my own stroller or rent one at Disney World?

This is a personal decision, and I’ll talk you through some of the factors you may want to consider, but in general I recommend that guests bring their own strollers rather than rent from Walt Disney World.

Typical Disney World double rental stroller

Typical double Disney rental stroller

Why’s that?

The first factor is pricing. The Walt Disney World rental strollers currently (spring 2016) cost:
$15 for a single day, single stroller rental
$31 for a single day, double stroller rental
$13 per day for a length of stay (multi-day) single stroller rental
$27 per day for a length of stay (multi-day) double stroller rental

Do the math and you’ll find that renting a double stroller for a week will cost $189.00. Run a quick search on Amazon.com for “double umbrella stroller” and you’ll find dozens of models for sale for less than half that price. Even if you leave the stroller at Walt Disney World and never use it again, you’re still coming out ahead financially.

How does length-of-stay pricing work?

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The Basics: Meeting Characters at Hollywood Studios

by on March 14, 2016

Character meet

Hollywood Studios has a pretty solid line-up of Character Meet and Greets, including some great Character Meals.

This is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to see our other Basics posts.

We’re back again with another installment on Character Meet and Greets at Walt Disney World! We’ve already headed back to the basics with meeting characters at Epcot, and then we traipsed over to the Animal Kingdom. Today it is time for [insert dramatic pause] Hollywood Studios! (You’d never have guessed that from the title, right? And yes, I’m intentionally saving Magic Kingdom for the end.)

Character meet and greets can be magical for both adults and children alike, so even if you’re traveling without kiddos in tow, give some consideration to making time to meet the many characters who live in Hollywood Studios. (Expect maybe for the Disney Junior characters. That might be weird.)

Hollywood Studios offers some interesting characters, but it is worth noting that right now the park is under quite a bit of construction, which means that there could be more changes to character meet and greet offerings and locations than one might expect. For example, although you can meet Mike and Sulley from Monster’s Inc. at the moment, that character meet is scheduled to be closed on April 2, 2016. Just remember to double-check the character schedules right before your trip so you’re not taken unaware in the event any last-minute shuffling is done.

One of the major themes that seem to be occurring with my character meet and greet articles is that Disney has decided that right now is the best time to shuffle characters around! (I’m not kidding – the Epcot article was written and scheduled and the day before it was published Disney removed THREE of Epcot’s meets. Sigh.) Anyway, as I’m penning this particular article another announcement has come forth about adding new characters at Hollywood Studios. Check out this Touring Plans article for details about the new Olaf and Mickey and Minnie meets, which are coming soon.

Before I start with the details on who you can meet where in Hollywood Studios, I’m going to review the basic meet and greet tips I provided in the first two articles of the character meet series. Feel free to scroll past this section if you’ve already experienced it! (Or re-read it and see if you can spot the tiny adjustments I made to each version. And before you even ask, OF COURSE I’m providing new photos!)

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Disney Hacks #3: FastPass+ Hacks & Advanced Tips

by on March 8, 2016

disney hacksOK, so you know what FastPass+ is, you know how to use it, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how to get the most out of it? Now you’re looking to crank it up to 11 and take this ninja level, right?  

First of all, full disclosure, the glory days of being able to hoard multiple FastPasses and then use them at the end of the day in a headliner free-for-all are unfortunately behind us, and there’s nothing in here that reaches that level of awesomeness. Moreover, everything here falls squarely within Disney’s rules and practices. With that said, information is power, and knowing what it will and will not let you do can help you make the most of it, and hopefully do some things you hadn’t considered. 

Split Your Party to Get Hard-to-Get FastPass+ Reservations

Sometimes, you’ll try to make a FastPass+ reservation for an attraction for your group and there’s simply nothing available (this is probably most frequent when trying to make reservations on relatively short notice for in-demand attractions). Before you relegate yourself to waiting in the regular line like a plebeian, you might try splitting your group into smaller groups to see if that changes the availability.

©Disney

©Disney

For example, let’s say that you have a party of 4, and you want to experience the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but the FastPass+ system is telling you that there’s no availability. It could be that they don’t have an hour of time for a party of four, but they might for two groups of two, or even four single reservations. Accordingly, try breaking your party down into smaller groups and see if that changes the availability. Moreover, those time blocks for the smaller groups might overlap, such that you could still experience the attraction together (e.g., if one window starts at 1 pm and the other starts at 1:30, there is a 50 minute window, including the grace periods, where both groups could ride at the same time).

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The Basics: A Timeline for Your Disney World Trip

by on March 7, 2016

Castle (6)This is a continuation of our Back to Basics Series. Scroll to the bottom to see our other Basics posts.

My previous article in the TouringPlans blog Back to Basics series focused on using the TouringPlans Crowd Calendar to decide when to go to Disney World. Once you’ve made that all-important decision, it’s time to start planning the details of your trip. Using a timeline is an excellent way to keep your trip planning on track. It’s also a fun way to ratchet up the excitement as you count down the days to your vacation.

This article starts with a chart showing essential milestones in a Disney World planning timeline, followed by an example of a timeline used by a family preparing for their trip. Plus, learn how TouringPlans.com subscribers can receive personalized alerts and use their own Dashboard on TouringPlans.com to ensure they don’t miss the crucial dates in their timeline.

© Sarah Graffam

Use a Disney World Trip Planning Timeline to Keep You on Track for Making FastPass+ Reservations and More

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Tips on Tipping at Walt Disney World: Transportation, Restaurants, Hotels, and More

by on March 4, 2016

IMG_9618-1-300x200-300x200A frequent area 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. Nonetheless, gratuities are a part of life when you travel in the United States.

To answer all your Disney World tipping questions in one place, here’s an overview of all the situations where you have to tip, and where you don’t have to tip, on your Disney vacation.

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Disney table service restaurants provide information about tipping.

Disney table service restaurants provide information about tipping.

SITUATIONS WHERE YOU NEED TO LEAVE A TIP

  • Luggage Handling: At the airport, at your hotel, 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. Round up, and don’t ask the porter or valet for change. If you’re claiming your bags yourself at the airport carousel 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. If you’re at a Disney hotel and using their Resort Airline Check-In service, tip the luggage handler their just as you would a porter at the airport. If hotel bellman assists with bringing your bags to/from your room, tip a dollar or two per bag. If a hotel bellman also provides you with a resort tour or other help, tip a bit extra. If you’re looking to 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. This is an easy way to save cash.
  • Transportation, Magical Express Drivers: 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. 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.
  • Transportation, Limo or Town Car Drivers: 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.

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