My amateur planning journey: From Disney hesitant to Disney bound
When Mike and I first became parents, I had virtually no desire to ever plan a family vacation to Walt Disney World. I had been there as a child, and I honestly didn’t remember it that fondly. My childhood memories of Disney are few, but they include riding Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and walking through restaurants and gift shops to get out of the heat or rain. My most vivid Disney memories involve being at Epcot on New Year’s Eve, dancing through every country in the World Showcase. About 20 years later, it is quite possibly still the best party I’ve ever attended, and that’s saying a lot because I generally hate parties.
When I was in high school, I went to Disney again with the marching band. Sadly, even though I was older, I have even fewer memories from that trip. I remember eating breakfast in our fancy, albeit off-site, hotel, and I vaguely recall being in the backstage area after the parade we marched in. When I was telling my mom about my intention to write this piece, she informed me that I bought her a mug during the high school Disney trip. You know what’s funny? The words on the mug read, “Remember the magic.” Apparently, the trip wasn’t magical enough to remember.
I believe one of the main reasons I was unimpressed with Disney as a kid was because, in my family, we are roller coaster people. Like serious, you-better-put-your-hands-up roller coaster junkies. I grew up going to Cedar Point, which has real roller coasters that are hundreds of feet tall. It was not unusual to wait two or three hours to ride them, and we never really batted an eye. If you are a roller coaster enthusiast, it’s just what you do. So as a youngster, when we went to Disney, I was like, “Where are all the roller coasters?” As I mentioned, Space Mountain and Big Thunder were there, but compared to Cedar Point coasters, they were “Meh.”
Given that history, I was not pining to take Elliot, back when he was our only child, to Disney. Plus, I am just not the type of person who’s all about magic. I mean, I am the mom who almost didn’t do Santa Claus and who certainly does not have an Elf on the Shelf. I guess I am a realist, and I see things for what they are. I know the characters are actors, and I just don’t remember ever feeling any sort of Disney magic when I was there.
Anyway, in 2014, Mike and I started thinking more about the future and allowing ourselves to dream. We encouraged 7-year-old Elliot and 2-year-old Cecilia to dream as well. As a second-grader, Elliot wrote a short essay about a place he would like to go, and what did he choose? Disney World, of course. Mike and I had turned our refrigerator into a dream board, so I reluctantly hung that essay on the fridge. About that time, Mike began rooting for a Disney World vacation because he had a little girl who loved princesses.
Well, our 2014 mindset change had also included plans to get out of debt. We promised ourselves we would not go on a family vacation until we were debt free. Just shy of two years later, we achieved that goal. I was still hesitant, but it only took a few months before Mike encouraged the start of a Disney fund. Originally, we thought we would go to Disney in the fall or winter of 2017, but after we learned baby number three would arrive in the same timeframe, we decided to wait until 2018.
There I was after years of resisting. And just like every newbie Disney mom, I was completely clueless. Although I had technically been to Disney before, I considered myself a first-timer because we were going as a family. And as all parents know, doing anything with children is a completely different story.
So where does one start? For many families, the first step is budget, and that is a wise choice. Now, if you’re looking for cost-cutting measures and saving tips, good for you. There are hundreds of books, blogs, websites, e-newsletters, podcasts and other resources out there for you. I’m not one of them. Mike and I decided on our price point and worked within it. I simply was not interested in researching and applying extensive money-saving strategies. That seemed tedious and too time consuming. I don’t mean to imply that I am against saving money; I just felt that Disney planning was hard enough, and I didn’t want that added layer.
The next step was talking to other Disney-goers. We asked questions like, “Where did you stay? What restaurants were your favorites? What are the best choices for FastPasses?” We also purchased Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2018, which I highly recommend. (Affiliate link is to the current 2019 version.) If you’re looking at the book title and thinking you don’t like it because it’s “unofficial,” try not to worry about that. Unofficial is awesome because it gives honest, non-biased feedback. Written by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa, the book is associated with the Touring Plans website and Lines app. More on those a little later.
At some point during my Disney planning, I remember talking to my hairdresser, Sam, about our trip, and she had some very specific advice: Avoid going down the Disney mom blog rabbit hole. Isn’t that funny – seeing as how I am a mom who is now blogging about Disney. I didn’t really comprehend what she meant, but I certainly understood being overwhelmed by too many opinions. Just as life would have it, the next person I talked to about Disney was my friend Katin, who is a big fan of Disney and a believer in its magic. She immediately recommended that I join a Facebook group for moms who are planning a Disney trip. I heard Sam’s voice in my ear, but I found myself agreeing to Katin’s invitation.
Something I realized right away is that Disney is its own little universe. There is a mentality and even a language specific to Disney. For example, do you know what it means to rope drop SDD or FOP? Or do you have your ADRs for CRT and BOG? No? It’s OK, I didn’t get it either. For those who are curious, to “rope drop” is to enter a park first thing in the morning when the cast members (employees) drop the rope and walk very quickly to a popular attraction. Watch out for stroller wheels! Also, Disney moms love acronyms. The Facebook group was full of alphabet soup. SDD is Slinky Dog Dash, and FOP stands for Flight of Passage. An ADR is an advanced dining reservation, and Cinderella’s Royal Table (CRT) and Be Our Guest (BOG) are two popular restaurants in Magic Kingdom, or MK for short. Be sure to book those as soon as you can: 180 days before your arrival date. Are you confused yet?
Initially, I had planned to just study Unofficial Guide, subscribe to the Touring Plans website and watch Touring Plans’ YouTube videos as preparation for our trip. However, after Katin and I talked and I began reading posts on the Smart Moms Planning Disney Facebook group, I was glad I had that as a resource. Because I had already booked our resort, dining reservations and C.C.’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB) appointment, I mostly relied on the Facebook group for advice on FastPasses and packing. It was extremely helpful in those areas.
Since I am mentioning resorts, dining reservations and FastPasses, now would would be a good time to tell you a little bit more about Touring Plans. The Touring Plans website has many wonderful features. To use it to the fullest extent, however, it is worth buying the yearlong subscription in my opinion. Three of the highlights for me were:
- The dining reservation finder. Did you book your trip after the 180-mark? Did you change your mind about a particular restaurant and decide to make a different reservation? Did you switch your park days, thus necessitating a change in dining? In these cases, chances are, when you search Disney’s website, there is nothing available for the super popular restaurants. Well, the Touring Plan’s reservation finder is your answer. You choose the date, time and restaurant you want, and its system searches the Disney site for you. When a reservation opens up, you can get a text, an email or both. It is awesome. Be warned, though – if you don’t click on the opening right away and book it immediately, it’ll be gone within a few minutes.
- Resort information, including views from almost every room, and faxed room request. The Touring Plans team has assembled massive amounts of non-biased information about all of the Disney resorts. There is also a feature where you can click on a room and see a photo of the view from its window. This is helpful because some of Disney’s room view descriptions are theme park and garden. With Touring Plans, you can actually see if your view of Cinderella’s Castle is blocked by a huge tree, and some are. Also, once you find a view you like, you can select that room and, five days before your arrival, Touring Plans will fax a request to the Disney resort. We did this and, while we did not get the exact room we chose, it was in the same hallway and just a few doors down from our request. And it was pretty darn close to the view we saw in the picture.
- Touring plans. Before I read Unofficial Guide, I had no idea what a touring plan was. I learned it is basically a guide for park days. The Touring Plans website offers already curated plans for families with small children, parents with older kids, couples and large groups. There are also choices for late arrivals, one day and two days. Despite the book’s adamant suggestion to follow one of the already created touring plans, I customized my own from scratch. We didn’t end up following the touring plans exactly, as I’ll explain in my next post, but I did find it useful to build them. They were especially helpful when selecting FastPasses. In addition, the Lines app is essentially the mobile version of the Touring Plans website, so that meant I had my touring plans stored on my phone. As the name implies, the Lines app gives updated crowd predictions and wait times for park attractions.
While my mom didn’t quite understand all the planning, she kindly listened to my whining about how stressful it was. “Can’t you just show up and have fun? That’s what we did when we took you and your brother to Disney,” she said. Yes, actually, you can wing a Disney trip, and I’ve seen moms post in the Facebook group that they have, especially if they plan a last-minute adventure. But, for the most part, a Disney vacation requires many months – or a year or more – of preparation.
In those terms, I started planning a bit on the late side. Less than a year out. Thinking back, I was lucky to find a Garden Wing room at the Contemporary Resort about seven months before we planned to arrive. We chose the Contemporary for its location. It is the only Disney resort that has a walkway to and from Magic Kingdom, and, since the monorail runs through the hotel, it is fairly easy to get to and from Epcot.
After booking the hotel, I had about a month to research restaurants and decide on dining reservations before the 180-day mark. Warning: The rest of this paragraph will be in Disney language. I apologize, but please feel free to comment if you have questions. I knew we wanted some character dining, so I booked Chef Mickey’s for Vincent’s first birthday dinner. I also coordinated C.C.’s BBB makeover with our lunch reservation at CRT. What better way to meet a bunch of Disney princesses than while dressed as a princess yourself? In the end, I also booked the Bon Voyage character breakfast at Trattoria al Forno – thanks to the Touring Plans reservation finder – and the Disney Junior Play ‘n Dine character breakfast at Hollywood and Vine. Breakfast at Be Our Guest and dinner at Via Napoli rounded out my choices.
During the planning, Katin told me about Orlando for Families, a company that rents out strollers, among other things. I hadn’t thought about renting a stroller; I figured we would just take ours. But after reading some Disney mom Facebook comments, I began to fear that our stroller would get tossed around on the airplane, possibly damaging it. Plus, I liked the idea of wearing Vincent in the airport, rather than pushing him in a stroller. We did end up renting from Orlando for Families, which provided a free case of water and a rain cover. We also purchased the insurance and rented a small, battery-powered fan that hooked onto the stroller. The kind I chose was a a quasi-double stroller called a sit-and-stand. I picked it because it would allow C.C. to sit or stand if she wanted.
Anyone who’s been to Disney in recent years knows about FastPasses. For those who are unfamiliar, a FastPass is basically a reservation for an attraction. And attraction is Disney speak for anything you might do at a Disney park; it can be a ride, a character meet or a show, for example. FastPasses allow you to choose a one-hour block of time that you plan to go to the chosen attraction. You get in the FastPass line and bypass standby, which is essentially the regular line for anyone who does not have a FastPass. In general, FastPasses mean you wait 15-20 minutes. If you’re riding something that has, say, a 90-minute standby wait, FastPasses are awesome. There are some rules and nuances that pertain to FastPasses, but I’m not going to go into great detail here. What I will say is that choosing FastPasses was one of the most involved steps in planning our trip. To be quite honest, I hated it, and it was during this annoyance that I wished I had used a travel agent.
Speaking of travel agents, I would like to expand on that topic. If I could change one thing about planning our trip, hiring a travel agent would be it. I rather enjoy handing off tasks to others, so I would’ve happily delegated trip planning to a travel agent. In fact, in the past few months, I have learned of two Disney vacation planners who live in my area. I love the idea of partnering with one of them because I think I would prefer to sit down, in person, with my travel agent. For anyone who’s curious, booking with a Disney vacation planner is free because Disney pays the commission. It feels like a win-win. I get to pick the brain of someone who knows way more about Disney than I do, and she gets to use the commission to support her family. In addition, travel agents will get up early and book dining reservations and FastPasses, and they are in the know when it comes to resort discounts and other promotions.
Finally, I thought it would make sense to end my blog about Disney prep with some tips for packing. Historically, I am an over-packer, and I tend to wait until the night before to conquer the packing. Meaning I stay up all night. Which I do frequently anyway because I have a baby who hates sleeping. Anyway, with Disney, I don’t think it’s wise, even for me, to wait until the night before. So I am going to give you a quick rundown of some of the things I packed for Disney. Here we go.
- Ponchos. It rains in Florida. Almost every day. I liked this yellow one for Elliot. C.C.’s was pink. (Affiliate links)
- Sunscreen. It’s hot in Florida. Really hot and sunny.
- Food. I had originally intended to take some dry goods and then order cold groceries to be delivered to our room. There are several services that offer this in the Orlando area now. But after packing the non-perishables, I decided to forgo the grocery order. Because my kids don’t really need milk and orange juice. I will tell you my packed food included several special items that I don’t normally buy or allow my kids to eat. But I decided to splurge a little because, hello, Disney. Here’s what we took: Breakfast bars, Pop-Tarts, crackers, yogurt bites, Gogurt (frozen and surrounded by flexible ice packs so they could stay cold during travel time), fruit snacks, Fruit Roll-Ups and energy drinks.
- Glow sticks, necklaces and bracelets. I figured if I didn’t take them, I’d end up spending triple the amount to buy them in the parks.
- Bubble wands. These are very hot items among kids of all ages at Disney. I was able to find wands with Mickey Mouse and Ariel themes at Target for $10 each, so I avoided paying $25 per wand in the parks. Don’t forget batteries and extra bubbles.
- Autograph book and markers/pens. That is, if your children want to get characters’ signatures at restaurants and meet-and-greets. If you’re planning to use Disney’s luggage delivery service and you will be meeting characters soon after you arrive, perhaps at a character meal, pack the autograph book and markers in a carry-on bag. I know this one from experience. I had them in checked luggage, none of which arrived to our room until after we were done at Chef Mickey’s.
- First aid supplies. I packed a small box with regular band-aids, blister band-aids, Neosporin, saline, Body Glide, Gold Bond powder and ibuprofen (for infants, children and adults).
- Clothes. Obviously, right? Thanks to the Disney mom Facebook group, I learned a fabulous strategy for packing them – gallon storage bags. I wrote the name and date on each bag, making it a breeze for everyone to get dressed each morning.
- Costumes. Girls and boys like to dress up as their favorite Disney characters, especially when they meet them. Again, gallon storage bags. I labeled them and filled each with a costume and any pertinent accessories, as you can see in the photo. I allowed C.C. to choose one or two costumes that she wanted to take into the park each day. They easily go over regular clothes.
So, how did it all shake out? Stay tuned for my next post about the execution of my amateur Disney planning.
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