I won't lie - this is going to be the most boring post of the series - so stick with me. So much of trying to make for a stress-free trip once you arrive is having most of the planning & logistics set up before you leave home.
Stop. Do not pass go until you download the My Disney Experience app onto your smartphone - it will come in handy as we dig into these details!
Buckle up folks - let's push through the logistics to the fun stuff!
When is the best time to go to WDW?
Whenever you can take vacation! Seriously though, summer is my least favorite time because it's so hot & crowded, but you can tell the recession is over because even in the 'off-season' it's so much more crowded than even a few years ago. I love the park decorations around Christmas, so my preference is to go in early November or January/February.
Where you do you buy tickets?
I usually buy my tickets straight from Disney. There are "discount" ticket sellers, but there's usually a catch in having to listen to a talk, etc and I don't think it's worth the extra time/effort. I'd rather price out a trip with various packages or discounts to get the best deal & then I can have the trip planned ahead of time. FYI - the only authorized reseller for tickets is Undercover Tourist.
PS - If you wait to buy tickets once you arrive, then you can't make Fastpass+ reservations until you do, which means you may end up having to wait in the longest of lines for the most popular rides...just another reason to pay ahead for tickets - then your MagicBand is already set up & ready to go (see below).
What is a Magic Band?
Magic Bands are FREE *if you stay on Disney property* rubber colored bracelets that each person wears during the trip (the exception being the Swan & Dolphin hotels). Think of it as a wearable wallet. The chip in them is loaded with your whole itinerary - your park tickets, hotel room key access, dining reservations, Fastpass+ reservations (see below), & a credit card (if you so desire). Basically you scan into the parks, your room, checkout, and wherever else. Each band can be made to fit a child or adult & if you book ahead with Disney you can customize the color & name that's printed on your band & receive them in the mail before you go. There are numerous locations where you can "upgrade" to bands that have characters or rides featured on them in the parks - but thats a waste of money in my mind. Save your souvenir dollars for something better. If you are staying off-property or just buy a single-ticket, you can buy a band if you want one or just want to fit in with the crowd.
Is a package worth it?
Depends. Most commonly packages are either room-only discounts or the elusive free-dining plan. You can watch for various upcoming deals on Disney's website, but frequently there are a lot of black out dates (around holidays especially), and often include minimum length of stays, and only include certain hotels. If you know how have a flexible timeline for traveling then you can usually get a better deal waiting for a discount. If you decide to book a package, you will get a coupon book with deals like a free round of mini-golf, discount on boat rentals, and free arcade tokens. Keep in mind that packages for the next calendar year are usually be released during the summer before (example: 2017 packages will probably be released summer of 2016).
Should we buy the dining plan?
It really depends. I've done it both ways & here again is another reason to have a general idea of what & where you want to spend your time. If you plan to do sit-down meals, they take time & in the midst of a park day you may not want to spend 2+ hours at a meal. Additionally, reservations at sit-down restaurants really need to be made in advance because they will book up - especially the most popular ones. Frankly, I like some flexibility in my vacations, especially now that there's a kiddo in our party. Plus I don't always want a bigger meal, but I will say that some of my favorite places to eat were discovered when we tested them out while on the dining plan. Depending on how you plan to eat, it may not be cost-effective to use the dining plan for your family. Do you want dessert at every meal? Do you want soda at every meal? If you normally wouldn't do both of those, it could be more expensive to go with the plan, but there certainly is convenience in knowing its all paid in advance. If you plan to eat at the most expensive of places & order the most expensive meals, then you could end up saving. Check out Disney Food Blog if you are having a hard time deciding, they are a great resource.
Wait? What's a dining plan?
There are a few different options if you choose to effectively pre-pay most of your meals, but the two most common are the Quick-Service Dining Plan & the Disney Dining Plan. (I'd skip the more "premium" options). Now for details of the 2016 plans:
****EDITED JUNE 20, 2016: Details of the 2017 dining plans were just released and some big changes were made: Quick-service meals will no longer include a dessert, but you will get an extra snack each day. Be sure to check Disney's site for details & pricing as these as these & other details can change at any time*****
- Quick-service = meals ordered from the counter (not table side service)
- Included: entree, dessert, drink (lunch & dinner); entree, drink (breakfast)
- Table-service = sit-down meal (reservations recommended)
- Included: entree, dessert, drink (lunch & dinner); entree, drink (breakfast)
- Kids 3-9 MUST eat off the kids meal (no adult entrees for big eaters), but adults can order the kids meal
- Kids <3 can eat for free at buffets (aka some table-service meals)
- Includes 2 quick-service meals & 1 snack for each person, per night of the room reservation
- Includes a refillable mug for each person for drinks in the hotel food court for the length of your stay
- Pros: Flexibility in planning your days/trip; potentially smaller meals
- Cons: Have to pay out of pocket for any must-do sit-down meals
Disney Dining Plan:
- Includes 1 quick-service meal, 1 table service meal, & 1 snack for each person, per night
- Includes a refillable mug for each person for drinks in the hotel food court
- Pros: Get the best of both worlds - flexibility in some meals but also you're guaranteed to hit some awesome dining locations
How do you make dining reservations?
Here's where the My Disney Experience App comes in handy! Be sure you set up a log in & link your reservation & then you are good to go! Once you are 180 days from checking in, you can start making dining reservations online starting at 6am EST (or 7am via phone). Click on the 'Dining' tab at the top, search for or find the restaurant you have in mind, then click 'Find a Table'. There you can set the date, time, and number in your party & you will see the available options, which you can then reserve. These are then saved in the app for you so you don't have to remember a thing. You can also make reservations via phone or on Disney's website, but the app is SO MUCH EASIER. Plus if you decide not to do the dining plan & want to go somewhere on the fly, you can pull up the app while on property and see what places have had cancellations & sometimes you can find a good one!
What age do you have to start paying for kids?
THREE! (Cue the crying......) I get it, I mean lots of the parks are focused on kids, but still. My wallet wishes the world worked differently (hence why we are traveling more often while the kiddo is less than 3 to get our money worth while we can).
Are ticket prices the same year-round?
Yes and no. If you buy multi-day tickets for your trip this won't affect you as much. Just know that the more days you buy (aka 2 days vs 7 days), the cheaper the cost per day becomes - if this is your 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip, then purchasing a multi-day ticket gives you the chance to come & go from the theme parks to be sure you don't miss any must-do. But if you are like me & plan to only do 1 or 2 parks during your stay, then Disney has made it a bit more complicated. Check out their website for specific pricing (aka it will probably change before I publish this post). One-day tickets are priced differently for Magic Kingdom than the other parks. Additionally, they have divided the calendar into three "seasons": Peak, Regular, & Value. Value is the most "affordable" ticket (I use that term loosely) and currently that is only if you visit in the last week of August, September, January, or February. All other times you are looking at a more expensive ticket.
What is Fastpass+?
Fastpass+ is a system that allows a certain number of guests during each hour to have access to the most popular attractions in order to limit your wait time. You are assigned a certain time window (1 hour) to arrive at the special line for the specific ride & you should have a limited wait (or even better walk right on)! You do need to make these reservations ASAP because there are a limited number each day for each ride & once they are gone they are gone & you will relegated to the regular line.
Starting at 7am EST 60 days before you check-in (or 30 days if you stay off-property), you can Fastpass+ reservations for each theme park day for your entire trip. You can choose 3 attractions/shows in a day, but they have to be at the same park, even if you plan to park-hop. You can add a 4th Fastpass+ once you have used the original three or the times for all three have expired. The fourth one can be at a different park - which is good news! Once again, the My Disney Experience App let's you see & make fast pass reservations from your phone. If you have your whole party linked in your app, then you can make Fastpass changes for everyone all at once. Keep in mind, at EPCOT & Hollywood Studios fastpasses for rides are split into Tier 1 (most popular) & Tier 2 (not as popular). You can choose one attraction from Tier 1 & two from Tier 2 when you are picking your fast passes for the day.
I don't know about you but this is the most stressful part of pulling together a vacation - picking the date, deciding how many parks, and what our must-dos & must-eat's are in order to get all the reservations planned in advance. Starting tomorrow we'll dive into some fun - no more money talk!
*The included information is accurate as of the time of writing, but Disney does make policy & pricing changes through the year - I recommend you confirm before you book!