Reader Grab Bag


by on December 27, 2011

We’ve coded and tested and tested and coded. And you’ve tried out more than a few optimized touring plans yourselves (68,314 as of this moment). You have questions. And we need to revise our FAQ. So bring on your questions. Send them to

Reader Grab Bag – Stars Wars Weekend Edition….and Harry Potter!

by on December 21, 2011

This week the questions were about two subjects I know next to nothing about – Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Let’s learn some new stuff together!

First – “K” from the UK writes:

Your website is awesome! (Note to readers – this tactic works WAY better than “Your web site ruined our vacation! You suck!” Also, thanks, “K!”)


Next year we are heading over for the Star Wars Weekends. Our dates are from 14/05/2012 till 28/05/2012 so it will be the first 2 of the Star Wars Weekends. Do you have any specific recommendation how can we see every parade/show (recommended viewing place, how long before start should we go there)? I checked the crowd level it will be 9-10. In this case does it mean long lines for the rides or very very crowded park?  Do you have any advice how should we manage this crowd? We don’t care about the rides during these days … only the Star Wars happenings count.

Touring Plans for Star Wars Weekends? Yes, we have those in the Miscellaneous DHS plans section. Does it mean long lines or a very crowded park? Yes. Crowd level numbers correspond to wait times. AND many people will be there just for the Star Wars events. I have attended two Star Wars Weekends – once as a tourist and last year in the Great Star Tours Live Attraction and Cast Member Stalking. As long as you’re mentally prepared, the crowds for SWW can be great fun. People are in costume. The parade is fun. My one piece of advice is that unless there’s some limited edition piece of merchandise you REALLY want, avoid the queues in the sales areas. It’s a huge time waster and not a pleasant experience at all. Know ahead of time what events you want to experience, arrive early or get a FASTPASS for autograph or other celebrity sessions and ENJOY.

Another reader:

This will be our first Star Wars Weekend. I am traveling with a almost 4 yr old and a 9 yr old. They are both fans with me and my husband. My primary goal is to get them signed up for Jedi Academy where is the sign up and how soon before rope drop should I be there. Will the new optimized touring plans work for this weekend?

We have an attraction page for Jedi Training Academy that tells about the sign up process. Since Jedi is your priority, both kids should accompany an adult to the sign up area at park opening. If it were me, I’d send the other adult over to Toy Story Mania to get FASTPASSes for that attraction while the Jedis sign up. We talked about this in last week’s article.

Optimized plans will work, but don’t try to make one now. As we’ve mentioned before, we need show times for the plans to work, and those aren’t out yet for SWW yet.

What else should you know about SWW before 2012 coverage starts? Well, last year’s blog articles are a good place to start:

And, finally, the place you really should look – Studios Central’s Star Wars Weekends page.

Who’s planning to go to Star Wars Weekends? Share your tips in the comments!

And the reader who won a three month subscription to Walt Disney World and Disneyland confides:

First of all – thank you so much for all your detailed hard work.

I challenged my 9 yr old with reading the Harry Potter books, and since he is close to completion, I now have to take him to Universal’s Island of Adventure to see the ‘real thing’.  We have a 1 night stay at the Hard Rock prior to going over to Beach Club for the rest of the week.   Essentially we have 1 day in the Universal park(s).   Since I will have the Universal Fast pass is it worth going to just Islands Adventure for the day, or would you suggest trying to go to both parks for a best of tour?   Is there a touring plan for the Best of Universal & IOA, or Islands in one day?

I’m sure many parents are challenged going to Hogwarts these days, we’re just to embarrassed to talk about it.

Readers, you may have noticed that we really don’t cover Universal on our site. It’s an afterthought in the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World because it’s covered in depth in the UG’s Beyond Disney publication. While we do have plans to increase our Universal coverage, this is best thrown out to the readers. So help our parent out here. What do you think of IoA? Have you gotten your inner Potter on?  Accio comments!

The team will be back in the Magic Kingdom for New Year’s this year. Say hi if you see us! Next article coming in 2012. Send your questions to and we’ll try our best to answer them or let you know when we can’t.

Reader Question Round-up – Send Your Questions!

by on December 19, 2011

Send us your questions....or suffer our displeasure.

Hi, folks. This week’s question grab bag looks like it’s going to concentrate on Star Wars Weekends – so send your questions to Non-Star Wars Weekends questions are welcome too!

As promised last week, the most entertaining question gets a free 3 month subscription or extension to Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Reader Question Round-Up: Crowd Calendar, Crowds, Best Times to Visit, and…Oh…Jedi Training

by on December 14, 2011

Welcome back to our semi-regular feature answering reader questions! Here’s a link to last week’s article if you’re feeling sentimental.

It must be something in the air, because there were many questions about crowds this week. Maybe it’s because we’re coming into the very busiest week of the year at the parks. Or maybe you’re looking forward to Spring Break…. I don’t know, but let’s jump in:

“K.” writes about changes to the crowd calendar for her chosen dates (edited for length):

We’re planning a trip to DW …. But a week or so ago, the crowd calendars went up from 4’s and 5’s during our stay to 7’s and 8’s – which is almost as hefty as spring break!

I’m starting to panic about whether or not we need to study harder on the touring plans.  We used them very successfully when we went in 2009 during spring break – and we certainly can use them again.  …. I know a 7 isn’t a 9, but having never been there in January, I can only imagine that it’s not nearly as wonderful as the 2’s and 3’s I’m seeing for early February.

Do you have any tips for late January traveling that would reassure me that we have, indeed, chosen the right time of year to go?  Or are the crowd levels just going to keep rising as we get closer to the dates of travel?

There’s a lot to take in here! One thing to remember is that our crowd levels are based on a distribution model as opposed to absolute values. An “8” isn’t twice a crowded as a “4” on our scale. Our Master Statistician, Fred, tackled this subject and others in a blog post in October. It’s a lot to read, but incredibly valuable for understanding our rankings.

Reader, you’re on the right track – arrive early, follow a touring plan. The truth is, there are no more super slow times. Ask the folks who were at Reunion last week who had attended Mousefest in the past how early December crowds have increased in the last few years. Disney wants to fill rooms and they will use special events, promos (free dining, anyone?) and anything else they can think of to do it. It’s just good business for them and it works.

How about the rest of you guys? Any words of assurance for “K?”

“S” and “J” are remarkably simpatico this week:

How are crowd levels changing year-to-year?  Is Disney packing in more guests over time?  Can you really “see” what’s happening in the economy at large when you look at crowds?  Or are overall crowd levels mostly flat over time?  Disneyland is my park, but I’m interested in the World as well.


Why do crowd levels change more at WDW than at DL? Is it because DL attracts more locals and isn’t prone to wild fluctuations due to holidays, “free” dining, etc?

Crowd levels are going up. No question. Disney doesn’t report its attendance but we have wait times that show this. We believe the increases have been in the single digits of percentage in recent years. As for Disney and the economy, the Mouse has been more resistant to hard times than many other types of entertainment, but despite everything Bob Iger has said in the past, the discounts are still coming regularly. One interesting thing to note is that families are planning their vacation far less in advance than they used to. Like 4-6 weeks out. This makes it very hard for Disney to predict its staffing needs and nail down park hours (which makes predicting crowds none too easy either). Also, as a result of the economy, families are spending less money in the parks while they are here. Just looking at the median cost of a souvenir over the past few years shows how the merchandise department is reacting to this. There are far fewer expensive (yeah, we know that’s relative) souvenirs in the shops and more cheaper items that you can buy with less guilt.

The answer to the second question is easier: Yes.

Planners, how has the economy affected your Disney vacationing style?

And, finally, a question that isn’t about the Crowd Calendar:

How should I tweak my Easter week touring plan for Hollywood Studios to accommodate a Jedi Trainee?  We have enough adults in our party so one group can get Toy Story Mania FPs while another group signs up our two rebel spies to participate in the Jedi Training Academy show.  But then what?  Do you have any tips (other than repeated texting) for making sure that the assigned show time and FP time don’t conflict?  Also, since we will probably want to start out the day on the left side of the park because of the show, and all the touring plans start on the right, which left-side attractions are most important to squeeze in during the morning?

Padawan, resist the force of the FASTPASS. If it conflicts with your assigned Jedi time, go to TSM later than the window. The cast member won’t make you choose between Jedi Training and 3D virtual gaming like a showdown between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. (Yes, I do know the “light” side of the Force is simply “the Force.” Put down your light sabers, kids.)

Any parents out there have advice for our family on Jedi Training now that it is by sign-up and not randomly picked from the crowd?

That’s it for this week. Keep your questions coming to The question that entertains me the most between now and the next column gets a free 3 month subscription or extension to Walt Disney World AND Disneyland.

Question Grab Bag

by on December 6, 2011

Hello Readers! We asked and you answered. Here is a sampling of some of the questions that have been submitted by travelers like you in the last week and a half:

Do meals taste better with life-sized stuffed animals?

A father of three is concerned about character meal overload:

My wife and I will be taking our 3 children a 6 year-old daughter, a 3 year-old son, and a 1 year-old daughter to the World in January for four days.  As of right now, we have one sit down meal each day- Crystal Palace breakfast, Chef Mickey’s supper, Le Cellier lunch, and a 1900 Park Fare supper.  Are we overdoing the character meals?  If we were to drop one, it would probably be 1900 Park Fare, just because it’s an unknown for us.  Can you have too many characters on a Walt Disney World vacation?  The older two children are multi-trip veterans, so we’re not all that worried about character fright.  Any advice would be appreciated!

The Advisor’s first thought was “yeah, that’s a lot of character meals!,” but looking at the ages of his group, he is in a sweet spot – one free (the 1-year-old), and two kids under the “adult” cut-off of 9 years old. Character meals will never be this inexpensive for his group again. But why drop the one meal you’ve yet to experience, Dad? 1900 Park Fare scores higher than Chef Mickey’s though lower than Crystal Palace with Unofficial Guide readers. What says the crowd? Help out Pops by weighing in on dining with the characters in the comments section.

All rentals are not created equal

Another reader has questions about the Official Unofficial Stance and Decree on the Subject of Rental Cars:

So, I hear you often suggest that while Disney Transportation is fine, nothing beats renting a car to get around.  My question for you is…Are they any Disney hotels where that rule of thumb does not really apply?  (Poly? Contemporary?) Or one that you REALLY should take notice and rent the car (maybe Caribbean Beach?). I’m interested in your thoughts on when and where a rental car is a must have vs not so much.

Our thoughts are fine. I mean I like my thoughts – but how about the thoughts of 1000s of other readers? We have transportation ratings for every onsite hotel. You should also think about where you want to go. The monorail resorts are great for getting to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, but share buses for trips to Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Downtown Disney. Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, and the Port Orleans resorts have buses to all the parks, but boats to Downtown Disney.

My take is that a rental never a must have, but often a “sure is nice to have.” If renting a car means staying at a lower level resort than you would, or not staying as long, hop on Magical Express by all means. How about the rest of you? Are the any circumstances in which having a rental car is non-negotiable? Share your thoughts below!

Many readers ask (paraphrased):

What’s up with the Crowd Calendar? Where do you get your data? How about your entertainment times? Are you just making this up?

I asked Fred, and he assures me we’re not just making this up. Which is good, because otherwise the joke is on me for standing in all those lines timing my waits. In all seriousness, we put more resources than most of you would believe into getting our crowd predictions and wait time models right. Moreover, when we make changes to the Crowd Calendar we tend to blog about it to explain the reasoning. We track occupancy estimates, school schedules for the entire country, special events….you get the picture.

Any other questions about how we make the sausage here at Mail them and all your other trip planning queries to

Until next time, readers, Happy Planning!