Figuring out a Disney World Vacation
I recently had a trifecta: I graduated from college, we celebrated Christmas, and I had a birthday. My awesome husband gave me 3 gifts: a car wash, a laptop, and a trip to Disney World. I've always wanted to go, but it had never seemed to work out. I got so excited just knowing it was finally going to happen! However, once I actually began doing the research, I realized just how confusing and convoluted the whole process was going to be: planning the vacation was going to be a job, from which I might need a vacation. I also started to become paranoid, thinking I was somehow going to get screwed out of thousands of dollars because I didn't do enough research or got so frustrated with the whole process that I just hit "Book this Vacation" without consideration for the consequences. Anytime I'd find something interesting or relevant and tell my husband about it, he'd say, "Sounds like a scam," which of course wasn't helping my vacation planning paranoia. If this sounds familiar and you are on the verge of a "I just give up" booking, read on. I would like to share a few things I learned over the course of my research, as well as the actual trip itself.
Planning and Research
Let me begin by saying that I was planning a trip for 2 adults, who were going to Disney to make some memories, but not spend a fortune. If you are looking for tips for a family of 5 on a budget, what I have to say may be helpful, but in my research I found that taking advice from families who had gone to DW didn't always apply to what we were looking for. Having said that, my first stop was, of course, the Disney website. At first it was really fun. Then annoying. Then insane. It was a good place to start as far as getting info on the resorts, the park, etc. but actually trying to price and book a vacation was a real misadventure. On different days, I'd get different prices for the same dates and resort! I tried some general web searches and realized that there was so much information out there that making heads or tails was going to be a problem. I decided to go to the experts: AAA.
If you are a AAA member, take advantage of the travel agent service. If you are not a member of AAA, I don't know what to tell you except: join up. The books, maps, and discount guides you get are great. The personal travel agent meeting is very helpful. Learning about the different resort levels, regular, peak, and summer season rates, and being able to ask questions and get a coherent immediate response (rather than a jumbled list of web results) is awesome. After meeting with our agent, my final question was, "What other questions should I be asking?" and she patiently accommodated. Now, we didn't book the trip with her right then, but we left feeling better about where our research was going and were assured that, as questions came up or if we wanted additional AAA rates, she was just an email away.
Back to the Web!
Ok. I'm a bit of a control freak and organize everything with color-coded labels, but let me tell you: for this research project, it sure helped. For us, the 3 big decisions to be made were: 1) where to stay; 2) when/where to buy our park tickets; and 3) do we get a dining plan or not. I therefore organized my notes, web pages, booklets, sticky notes, phone conversations, overheard conversations, and whatever else happened to help my research, according to these 3 categories. When to go may be a priority for some, but we only had a specific window of opportunity, so there was little flexibility there. However, do the research: 1 week earlier or later can make a difference between "value" season versus "regular" or "peak" season and the rates can be hundreds of dollars different for the same resort and room.
General tip: start a "Disney" folder in your web browser favorites and save EVERY page you think may be helpful. Even if you're not sure, if you spent a few minutes reading a page from a specific site, save it. You'll be pissed later when you read something else or talk about or hear something else and then can't remember where the first info was. I'll give a list of the sites I found most helpful at the end of this hub.
Where to Stay
Everyone we talked to said: stay on the property, in one of the Disney resorts. The convenience of being a quick bus trip to the different parks would far outweigh driving and parking at each park everyday. Next, decide how you want to experience your resort: with money in your pocket, living like a millionaire, or somewhere in between. We were an in-between couple, therefore the Disney Moderate Resorts were for us. Now, be sure to check each one out; rank them according to where you would want to stay the most. And don't assume that every moderate resort will have the same rates and rooms. This was part of the initial confusion; I thought that I could price one mod resort and that covered the category. Ehhhh! That's why getting to know each resort in this level was so important. Each hotel has a different theme with different kinds of rooms. Some have standard rooms with upgrades to water views or king-sized beds, but for an additional price. Others have upgrades that are no additional cost. And some have super-special themed rooms. Each resort has different restaurants and amenities. I could go on and on - basically, get to know each hotel in the resort level you're considering and go ahead and pick a favorite. Our rankings from favorite to least favorite, in the moderate resort category were: Coronado Springs, Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans - French Quarter, and Port Orleans - Riverside.
When/Where to Get Park Tickets
Here again, the path gets convoluted. Buy the tickets with your Disney Vacation package, buy them at the resort, buy them at AAA, buy them from some guy on the streets of Orlando who swears there's still 2 days left on this 7-day ticket. Ugh! What I found was: don't buy on eBay or Craig's list; if you're willing to spend 3 hours of your day visiting a vacation property, you'll get highly discounted or even free tickets; AAA didn't really seem to be the best route (for us, at least); be sure to check out random possibilities like military discounts, corporate discounts, etc.; don't be afraid to wait until you get to Florida - you may find something you didn't think to look for before. The best tip I read was to take a picture of the back of your ticket as soon as you get it; if you happen to lose it, Disney may give you a new one, although they are not obligated to. We decided to wait and buy the tickets once we arrived in Florida.
The Disney Dining Plans
This is the one we went back and forth on the most. Some say, "OMG, you have to get it!," while others think it's a total scam. The plans, when described on the Disney site, are not priced. How convenient. You have to do the calculations yourself to determine how much you're paying with the vacation package. Here are some of the things that helped us the most when making the decision:
- As of the date of this hub, you CAN bring in outside food and drinks (snacks, water, soda, etc.) in a backpack or other similar carrier
- Get to know each plan. Read the pdf on the Disney website that explains how they work. The most frequent negative comment I read was that it can get confusing as to what is eligible on the plan and that the table-service dining can get frustrating due to the reservation system and gratuities. The Disney site has a break down of all restaurants based on price and food type - read it!
- Be realistic about how you eat. That sounds dumb, I know, but one of the best comments I read was that with the plan, you eat according to what you are allowed on the plan, not necessarily according to how you regularly eat. If you eat at fancy-shmancy restaurants everyday at home, then maybe the plan is a good idea so you can take advantage of the many fancy/expensive eating places at Disney. If you eat burgers and fries, the plan may still work, but do the research. Eating to justify buying the plan does not mean it was the best option for you or saved you any money. For us, the biggest factor is that I'm a vegetarian. When we do eat out, I usually eat a salad and an appetizer or something along those lines. The dining plans did not seem as though they would be right for us because my eating habits are weird and generally downright picky. More than likely, something simple from a cafe and a few snacks from the backpack were probably going to be sufficient.
- Restaurant.com! We'd used this on other vacations and it worked for this one, too. You buy restaurant certificates for much less than their value and then use them like gift certificates. There are some restrictions (like how much you have to spend or ordering a certain number of entrees), so be sure to read the details for each restaurant. We got $25 certificates for $10 for restaurants in the Dolphin and Swan resorts.
- When checking out your rooms, check the "details" section for the room type. Some rooms have mini-fridges, some small fridges, and some have microwaves. This could be the difference between a $30 meal in the park and a soup and sandwich in your room.
Ultimately, we chose to skip the dining plans. I'll let you know after if it was the right way to go...
Some Possibly Helpful Books
Links/Sites I Found Useful
- Walt Disney World Resort
Welcome to Walt Disney World. Come and enjoy the magic of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL. Plan your family vacation and create memories for a lifetime.
- Walt Disney World Crowds and Travel Planning | TouringPlans.com
The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World has helped more than 2 million families plan their Walt Disney World vacations since 1986.
- Best Deals and Discounts on the Best Local Restaurants Save Money on Food with Restaurant.com
Saving money on dining out is easy with Restaurant.com gift certificates. Find restaurants in your area and get $25 restaurant gift certificates for only $10! Start saving today.