Trip Planning

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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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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