Monday, July 11, 2016

Planning a Disney Vacation

It is time.

Time to plan for next year's vacation!

I know, this summer is almost at its halfway point. Why rush it?

We went to the beach the week before July 4th and had a great time. Little Guy ended up loving it by the end of the week (though he wasn't so sure at the beginning). But next year A. and I are planning our last real "grown-ups only" vacation for a long time, because after this trip we want to start trying for another baby. And of course, we are planning to return to our favorite place, Disney World.

I do a lot of the planning on my own, but I will be very up front about the fact that we do book most of our arrangements through our wonderful AAA agent. She helped us plan our honeymoon and our trip last February.

Here is my general planning process:

1) Decide when to go. Duh, right? But it's not always cut-and-dry with a Disney vacation. Obviously we have to take our schedule into account, but we try to align it with Disney's crowd schedule. If you look up "Disney 2017" on Pinterest, you will find tons of crowd prediction calendars on the boards, mostly pinned from (which is a great website). Basically you know it's going to be really crowded in the summer and on holidays. As a teacher, my obvious vacation time is summer. The only "bummer" about that (because it's awesome not going to work every day in the summer, I won't deny it) is that it's also vacation time for a bajillion other teachers, students, and their families.

Last time we visited Disney, we went in February when the crowds were much smaller and I had more personal time accrued. Since my maternity leave, all of my personal time is pretty much gone, and I want to save what I have left for my next maternity leave. So for this trip we are planning for summer.

Also, I did go to Disney World last year when I was seven months pregnant. It is definitely doable, but I am looking forward to being able to ride whatever I want this time around... and not have my feet be the same size as my head! : )

2) Decide your budget. This might be flipped with #1 depending on your scenario, because Disney's crowd calendar kind of controls their "seasons" as far as pricing goes. If you can easily take off work any time of year, it's going to be cheaper for you to go during a value season *and* there won't be ginormous crowds. If you don't have much choice as to when you can go, that is going to control where you are staying, what kind of dining you are doing, and what kinds of tickets you will be getting. The two things we want on our trip are a dining plan and "park-hopper" tickets, where you can go from park to park on the same day. Things that are not as important to us are resort theming and waterparks, so we don't pick a certain resort based on its theme and we save money by not including the waterpark option on our tickets. That gives us more room for what kind of resort we want to stay in, which leads to number 3...

3) Where do you want to stay? Disney has three levels of resorts: value, moderate, and deluxe. They also have deluxe villas, Disney Vacation Club (DVC) shares, and a campground, which won't be discussed here. For most of my Disney visits, we've stayed at moderate resorts: either the Caribbean Beach Resort (CBR) with my family, or the Port Orleans: French Quarter resort (with my husband). For this upcoming trip, we are very excited about staying *at least* one night in a deluxe resort. The nice thing about staying on property at Disney is the transportation- there are buses (or monorails, or sometimes even boats) that can take you from your resort to a park or another resort. Or, you get a free parking pass if you have driven a car. Also, you are immersed in the Disney experience. I stayed off-property once with my family, which was fine for us because it was a short, two-day trip and we were not park-hopping, but I don't have much experience with planning an off-property stay.

4) What are you eating? Part 1 This might seem like a silly thing to think about, but food is going to be a big part of your budget, whether you are on a dining plan or not. A. and I have gotten the dining plan for both of our trips because it is what made sense for us. When I was growing up, we never had a dining plan or made dining reservations on our Disney trips. Consequently, we brought most of our own snacks into the park and ate mainly counter-service (fast-food type) meals. On our honeymoon, A. and I reserved a few "signature dining" meals that would have been very expensive on their own, so we got what was then called the Deluxe dining plan*** - three meals and two snack credits a day. That was a LOT. We had several credits left over at the end of the week despite exhaustive planning... it was really a lot of food. For our trip last year, we used the regular meal plan and only had to pay out of pocket for a few drinks and snacks. We are going to do that again next year.

Sometimes Disney offers free dining plans, but we haven't been able to snag one of those yet!

***Please note that on my DDP post from 2013, you still used your room key card for meals. Now EVERYTHING is through the Magic Band, which is super cool!

5) How are you getting there? Figure out your airline and airport (if you are flying). Decide whether you want a non-stop flight or if you can handle little layovers. What time of day you want to leave/arrive? Are you going to a park the same day you arrive or spending down time in your resort/hotel first? If you are flying into MCO, will you take the Magical Express (so easy, highly recommend) or rent a car? This is where we use my AAA agent the most - she takes care of most of these arrangements to help us get great deals and make it easier to get from point A to point B!

Those are the big questions to figure out from the start.

6) What are you eating? Part 2 Whether or not you are getting a dining plan, if you want to eat any sit-down meals, particularly in the more acclaimed restaurants (Cinderella's Royal Table, Be Our Guest, most restaurants in EPCOT), be sure to make your reservation 180 days out. I'm not getting. Get on the phone or the computer and make the reservation. The people on the reservation hotline are super friendly and helpful, from my experience, and it's not overly complicated to make a computer reservation. But make a plan of places you want to eat, and make your reservations. You can also make reservations for dinner-show packages, which is very helpful when you are looking for reserved seating at a show like Fantasmic.

I wouldn't recommend more than one meal reservation in a day, though. Your trip will start to get a little *too* planned, and you want to leave room for some spontaneous, magical moments!

Other links to my previous dining posts:
Table Service - 2013 (please note that Fulton's is no longer around... so sad)
Snacks and Quick-Service - 2015
Table Service - 2015

7) Which parks are you going on which days? When you get closer to your trip, sites like WDW Prep School are helpful because they can help you determine which days are the best on your trip to visit certain parks. Your dining reservations and park tickets are going to determine a lot of that, too. For example, if you have park hopper tickets, you can easily start your day at the Magic Kingdom and then go to EPCOT for dinner. However, if you have single-day tickets for a park, and you've made reservations for a dinner-Fantasmic package at Hollywood Studios, you will have to be at Hollywood Studios all day. You can't book a dinner in a park without a ticket for that park. That might sound like a "duh" thing, but it's really important when you're planning your trip.

8) What Fast Passes do you want? Once you've figured out which parks you're hitting on which days, you can reserve your fast passes, which are linked right to your Magic Band so that you can essentially skip the normal line on your favorite rides. You pick the rides and times (up to 3 a day) and when the time comes, you report to the Fast Pass time for that ride, scan your Magic Band, and have a much shorter wait before you are having fun on the ride! It's good stuff, so make sure you take advantage of it. You can also make Fast Pass reservations for character greetings, which is helpful when you have a little one who has to meet Anna and Elsa, or Mickey and Minnie, etc.

Once those big ticket items are taken care of, a lot of your trip can be planned closer to time... what to pack, designing your Magic Band, etc. etc. It seems like a lot of planning, but in my opinion it's fun planning, and totally worth it to make the trip smoother and so much more enjoyable!

Happy planning!