Category: disney

Disney Planning 2020

It’s been a while since we went to Disney World. Over three years, in fact. And that means that it’s time to go again! People sometime ask me for tips on Disney planning when they’re looking at a visit in their future. I have some general ones, but each time I go myself, it feels like there are tons of new decisions to make and things to figure out.

Take this time. I’ve said before that the most economical way to do Disney is just that: to do Disney and nothing else. That means no trips to Universal or Sea World or anywhere else. Disney gets its money out of you in the first few days. The cost for a one day park hopper plus ticket in June is $215. The The cost for a four day is $568. cost for a six day is $615. The cost for an eight day is $653. See a trend there? Each extra day you add at a Disney park beyond the first few just ends up tacking on $20 or so, but the first day will set you back $200+.

So if you just want Disney fun, stick to Disney World and go nowhere else. However, this time around, we had decided we wanted to add Universal to the mix. Yes, it’s a bad decision from a budgetary standpoint. But Muggles need to Muggle, and the only place you can do Harry Potter stuff is at Universal Studios. So it was time to dive into Universal planning.

In order to get the full Harry Potter experience, you need park-to-park passes at Universal. Since we haven’t been in well over a decade, I knew we’d want to do both parks anyway. But I didn’t really want to stay too long at Universal, because doing three or four days at Universal and three or four days at Disney would be the absolute most expensive way of approaching things. Two days at Universal and six at Disney would be cheaper-ish. But let’s be real: adding Universal threw the budget out the window. The new question wasn’t “how can I go do Disney as cheaply as possible,” but rather, “How can I fit in Disney and Universal, go on the rides I want to go on, and do that as economically as I can?”

It would take me forever to go through all the steps I took to find the answer to that, so I’ll just fast forward to the end result:

  • We’re starting off our trip staying on site at Universal. They’ve got a deal where you can stay at one of their nicer properties and get what amounts to a permanent fast pass at their theme parks, reducing all lines to something like 5-10 minutes. This way, we should be able to do everything we want to at both Universal parks and not have to worry about crowd sizes. Yes, the hotel costs more than what we’re paying for the rest of the trip, but I was able to buy it with Chase points, which gave me a 33% discount, and was essentially free, since I already have the points.
  • I also bought the Universal tickets with Chase points. Again, that gave me the 33% off deal. (This is because I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which lets my points count for 150% of their value when I buy through the Chase portal. Typically this isn’t a great deal, as you can find better discounts elsewhere, but in this case, it turned out to be pretty sweet. I was going to pay the money anyway, and my points turned out to be worth about 1.5 cents per point. Not the best value, but far from the worst.
  • For the Disney part, we bought six day park hopper plus tickets through Disney just raised their prices this week for these tickets, but you can still get them at the old reduced price through other dealers. (This is why I finally pulled the trigger on the tickets.) One of the days, we’re planning on doing a water park, but I still paid for the sixth day for actual theme park access. Why? Because of fast passes. My plan is to still go to one of the parks in the evening that day, and pick which park based on which fast passes I still want to use up. Going to Disney and waiting in lines is a huge no-no for me, and so I’m trying to use all the tricks I can to avoid it. Paying an extra $20 to be able to go on three of the best rides in a park? Seems like a deal to me.
  • We’ll be staying at the Doubletree Suites at Disney Springs, not on property. Why not on property? Because the Doubletree is twice as big for cheaper. It has a fridge, free breakfast (since I’m a Hilton Diamond member, it gives Denisa and me free breakfast, and we can each bring a kid for free. Maybe we’ll switch off for which kid doesn’t eat free each morning. Not sure.) But yay for a place to store leftovers, since we won’t be doing free disney dining this time. (Tragically, we could have gotten free dining if I’d been more on the ball and bought the trip at the beginning of January. Alas, I was not, and we missed out. I’m not too choked up about it, though. Free dining is a LOT of food, and we’d have had to pay about $1,200 more than what we’re paying for tickets and the hotel, which means “free dining” was actually “eat a ton of food at Disney for six days for $1,200.” That might still end up being a deal, but it depends on how much food we ended up eating . . .
  • Staying at the Doubletree also lets us get access to Fastpasses 60 days in advance, instead of the normal 30 day window you get just buy buying tickets. This increases the odds of getting the fastpasses of our choice, which is key to avoiding those pesky lines.
  • I’ve signed up for Touringplans, a service that shows you which parks are least busy which days, and suggests which rides to go on when–all in an effort to avoid the long ones. I’ve done Ridemax before, but in the intervening years, it seemed like Touringplans has upped their game, while Ridemax stayed stagnant. It was all of $15, so why not?
  • I got my tickets through Southwest, since there’s a direct route from Manchester, and Denisa still has the companion pass, meaning I get to fly for free. Yay for points!

All told, that means I paid out of pocket for the Disney hotel and the Disney tickets. The Universal tickets and hotel and airfare were all covered with points. If I had paid for the whole trip without points, it would have cost . . . around $9,000 plus food? That would have been a whole lot of money, and I would have felt quite bad for paying for all of it. By using points, I shaved $5,000 off that cost, which brings it to a much more manageable amount and makes me feel like all those hours figuring out which credit cards to use and get have paid off. (Even if it took almost all my Chase and Southwest points to do it . . .)

Anyway–that’s all I’ve got for you for now. If you have any questions on anything, I’m happy to answer them. I’ll let you know how the trip goes when I get back in July. The biggest questions I still have are how hot it’ll be, and how crowded it will get. It’s been a loooong time since I went to Orlando in summer. I’m hoping all my planning lets me avoid the worst of things, but you never know.

Wish me luck!


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Dealing with Disney at Busy Times

There are all sorts of sites out there that will tell you when to visit Disney World. What time of the year the park is least crowded. And that’s all fine and good if you have little kids who can miss a week of school and no one cares, but once your kids start getting older and school actually matters, much of that goes out the window. You’re locked into the same time periods everyone else in the country is stuck with: Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, summer vacation.

Sometimes you just have to go at a busy time if you’re going to be able to go at all.

I’ve just come back from a Disney trip that was by far the most crowded I’ve seen the park. I’ve been at spring break before. Magic Kingdom last Wednesday evening was pretty insane, for example. The park was just overflowing with people. Lines were 2 hours plus on the popular rides. Busy busy busy. And that was par for the course the whole time I was at Disney last week.

I looked at all those poor people, jammed in line as they went from one wait to the next, and I just felt bad for them. Not bad enough that I got into line with them, of course, but bad that they just must have thought that was the only way to do Disney.

The longest line I was in all trip? 25 minutes for Pirates of the Caribbean. And the only reason I waited in line all that time was that I’d just eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and I wanted to just sit around and chat for a while instead of doing something that would upset my already stretched stomach.

I wasn’t sure if my planning would pay off this time. I used Ridemax again, and I was disappointed that the interface hadn’t been updated in three years since I used it last. Maybe it wasn’t the way to go anymore. Touringplans was a new site I’d heard a lot about. Had I made a mistake?

But just as in previous years, the planning all worked like a charm. Ridemax has a dated interface, it’s true. But the plans it made for me were reliable and easy to use on a mobile device. My sister used Touringplans for her Universal trip the day before Disney, and the estimates were off by an hour at times. That’s some serious flaws.

I’ll admit I miss the old golden days of the original Fastpass system, where you could send runners off to the far reaches of the park to pick up Fastpasses as soon as possible, and then store them up and use them whenever you felt like. It was much easier to abuse that system than the current one. But even with Fastpass+, as long as you pick the right rides to reserve times for and pick the right times of the day to show up, you’re going to be fine with Ridemax on your side.

A few special bits of advice and experience from this trip:

  • Coming first thing in the morning is so important. We showed up at EPCOT 45 minutes before the park opened. As soon as we got through the gates, we headed to Frozen (in Norway), knowing the only way we’d avoid a 2 hour line was to get there first. We got to the ride 20 minutes before the park technically opened, and they were already letting people on (no doubt anticipating the long lines later). We practically walked on. Easy peasy.
  • When we showed up at Magic Kingdom early, the same thing happened: we were able to go on Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Little Mermaid, Barnstormer, Dumbo, the Carousel, the Tea Party, Small World, and Haunted Mansion in under 2 hours. If we’d waited an hour or two to start that, it would have taken 5 hours to get through them all.
  • With little kids, we’d show up for the park’s opening, go on rides, have lunch, and then go back to the hotel and take a nap. We’d then go back for dinner and more rides. This let us skip the busiest part of the day and still have some energy left in the tank for more rides and fun stuff at night.
  • With the new Fastpass+ system, if the ride you have a Fastpass for breaks down before you can use it, Disney gives you a replacement Fastpass that’s good almost anywhere else in that park, anytime that day. Yay! However, note that this does NOT work for Frozen in Norway. Trust me. I tried.

When Disney’s really busy, you basically have two choices: go without a plan, get on half as many rides, and spend most of your time in line OR go with a plan, get there early, go on everything you want, and skip most of the lines. Each of those options costs the same amount of money.

I know which one I’ll be sticking with.

Disney Food Reviews

You might not get much more out of me than Disney-related topics for the next few days, since that’s what I’ve been eating and breathing for vacation. So if you don’t care much for Disneyfied things, it might be better to head elsewhere. (Unless you happen to be interested in my health, in which case, read on to the end of this post.)

I’m back from Disney, and as I said on Facebook yesterday, my vacation was not kind to my diet. In fact, between stress eating over the election, followed by helping to run a statewide library conference, and topped off with a Thanksgiving vacation to Disney, my healthy goals tanked hard. I was not looking forward to getting on the scale this morning. Before I left on vacation, I knew I was already up to 191.2. Much higher than I’d hoped to be before my Disney food binge, and far too close to my line in the sand weight of 195. I debated (briefly) trying to watch the food intake some over the trip, but I ended up deciding against it. I was on vacation, dangit. I was going to have fun.

And fun is exactly what I had, especially when it came to food. One perk of going when we did was that we got the Disney dining plan for free. This means each day we each got 1 snack, 1 quick service meal (fast food), and 1 table service meal (sit down, nicer). It’s a veritable slew of calories. Here’s a rundown of all the damage:

  • San Angel Inn–Mexican restaurant inside the pyramid at EPCOT. Very good food, though the service took a while. I can’t honestly remember now what I ate, but I remember waddling out.
  • Marrakesh–Morrocan restaurant at EPCOT. A first for me. The food was very good, and there was a live dinner show. I had beef shish kebab and some sort of flaky dessert that I wasn’t too fond of. But fun to eat a cuisine I haven’t tasted before.
  • Tuskerhaus–African-themed all you can eat buffet in Animal Kingdom. Character meal with Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Daisy. Great food, with a lot of variety of things you just aren’t going to find every day. Plus, the jungle juice (guava, passionfruit, and orange) was divine (though I was also very thirsty). I’ve eaten here three times and loved each one.
  • Akershus–Disney princess dining with a Norweigan theme at EPCOT. I had meatballs and all three of the desserts (mousse, rice puddinng, and apple cake). Princesses were Belle, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, and Snow White. MC was ecstatic. The food was really good too.
  • Crystal Palace–We ate Thanksgiving dinner here (in Magic Kingdom) with Eeyore, Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger. Seeing Eeyore was fantastic (of course), but the meal did leave a bit to be desired. Good food, but probably the worst of the restaurants we ate at over the vacation. Just your standard American fare.
  • Ohana–I still love this Hawaiian-themed restaurant at the Polynesian Resort, but Denisa wasn’t crazy about it. Too much meat. (It’s essentially a Disney-fied Brazilian steakhouse.) All you can eat, delivered right to your table. Steak, chicken, pot stickers, wings, salad, and the best bread pudding I’ve ever had.
  • Raglan Road–Probably my favorite restaurant of the trip. It’s an Irish pub-theme in Disney Springs, complete with live music and a dance show. The food was excellent across the board, and we were seated right by the stage, so we had an excellent view of everything going on. I had shepherd’s pie and a dark chocolate mousse creation for dessert.
  • Be Our Guest–Really the only quick service meal worth mentioning, but it was very impressive. It’s at the Magic Kingdom. They let you get reservations ahead of time, and then you order at a counter and they deliver the food to your table. Delicious, but also expensive if you’re not on the plan. ($21/person, I believe.) The theming of the restaurant is great, though: straight out of Beauty and the Beast. I would go back here in a moment. I had the roast beef sandwich, fries, and a triple chocolate cupcake for dessert. All were delicious.

Would I do the Disney Dining Plan again? Only if it were free. It’s so. much. food. Left to my own devices, I think I’d pay for a few table meals at EPCOT and split a bunch of meals elsewhere. It would be pricey, but it still wouldn’t be as much as the dining plan when you pay for it. The food is great, but there’s just too much.

Add to that a bunch of snacks and other meals, and things weren’t looking too good for the home team when it came to the ol’ diet. But I had a great time, and I wouldn’t go back and change things. That said, I was very worried about the scale this morning.

Survey says?


I only gained 2 pounds! I was pretty stunned, to say the least. I think a large part of it is that I was walking a ton at Disney, paired with the fact that while I ate a lot each time I ate, there wasn’t too too much in the way of grazing. All those in-between nibbles can really add up.

That said, I’m still in detox mode for the next while. I want to avoid sugar for the next week or two at least, and give my body a bit of a break before I turn to fudge and eggnog and peppermint ice cream for a brief spell over the holidays.

If you’ve read this far, you’re either far too good of a friend, or way too interested in my health. Thanks for reading, either way!

Diving into Disney Planning

The Disney trip is fast approaching, and that means that (no matter what else I’ve got going on) I needed to get serious about planning what we were actually going to do. Why? Because it’s Disney at Thanksgiving, which means the parks are going to be filled to overflowing. As longtime readers know, I’ve been to Disney a fair bit over the years, and I remember the days growing up when I’d wait in line for an hour or more to be able to go on Big Thunder Mountain. Two hours wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So when I do Disney, I plan fairly extensively. There’s a service called Ridemax that I’ve used in the past, and I’m using it again this year. (Though this year I almost chose Touringplans, instead. And in hindsight, I’m wondering if that might have been a better option. They seem like they have a lot more resources at their disposal. I held off because they were new to me, and I’d rather go with the tried and true method that’s worked for me in the past.)

With Ridemax, you basically enter all the rides you’d like to go on each day, and it spits out a schedule for the order to go on those rides so that you have as little wait time as possible. I used it a spring break six years ago or so, and it worked wonders.

I know that some people would rather keep things open and free. Disney has an app that shows the current waiting times for all the different rides, and that certainly is an approach. But my problem/fear with that one is that it really only works for the lesser rides. The big ones (Big Thunder, Space Mountain, Seven Dwarves, Frozen, etc.) have long lines almost the whole time, so you need to have a gameplan for getting on those rides if you want to avoid sitting in line for hours on end.

The way I use Ridemax is to set up a plan and then give myself a bit of redundancy. Have a second time planned to go on favorite rides. Plan things out ahead of time so that I know I’ll be able to go on everything we want at least once, and then if I feel like going “off schedule,” I know the times in the schedule when that will work. In other words, skip a ride here or there if it isn’t vital or you know you’re going to come back to it later. Though honestly, my experience has almost always been that the schedule adds in padding time as it is. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and have extra time anyway.

Of course, a lot of a successful Disney gameplan during busy times boils down to a few principles:

  • Arrive first thing in the morning. Be there when the park opens. That way you can knock out some of those big rides when there hasn’t been a chance for a line to really materialize.
  • Stay late. People go back to their hotels at night, so you can just walk on rides that usually have long lines.
  • In light of this, you might want to head back to your hotel for a break in the middle of the day. That’s when lines are longest and crowds are biggest.
  • Book your restaurants ahead of time. Anyone thinking they’re going to walk up to a place that only takes reservations is in for a rude awakening.
  • Avoid parks with Extra Magic Hours. Sure, you can get into them early and go on a few rides fast, but as soon as those extra hours end, then the normal crowd shows up, and the majority of people don’t park hop. You end with a park that’s just jam packed for most of the day. No. Fun.

This time, since I’m going with my sister as well as my family, it required a bit of extra planning. We had a quick chat to make sure we were on the same page when it came to the rides we all wanted to go on. That’s why I’ll be going on Dumbo for the first time ever. (Her kids love it. Who knew?)

Disney takes a lot of planning my way. The day free dining opened, I was on the phone getting my hotel reservation. I didn’t get the place I wanted, so I kept checking back every day until I did. Then I checked plane flights for forever until I found something that worked in my budget. Next up was making dinner reservations 180 days out, followed by selecting FastPass+ 60 days out. Now I’m scheduling each day for which ride to go on when.

I know it seems strange to some people to plan things out so much in advance, and I can understand the argument that it takes away the spontaneity from a vacation. It’s a big pain to plan it all, true. But once you’ve got it all planned out, if you’ve done it right, then you don’t even really notice the plan that much.  Everything just works how its supposed to. To me, people who don’t plan a Disney trip are like people who decide to drive to California from Maine and just kind of wing it on the way when it comes to what to do and where to stay. I understand that it can be done that way, and that you can have a lot of fun doing.

It’s just not how I would approach it. Not with three kids who all want different things out of a trip, for one thing. Not while I’ve got to keep track of a budget. So I go the heavy planning route.

Thank goodness it’s almost done!

Taking a Five Year Old on the Tower of Terror

I’ve made plenty of questionable parenting decisions in my life. In my defense, they all seemed like a good idea at the time. (Remind me to tell you of the time I broke my son’s leg by going down a slide with him because I thought it would be safer than sending him down the slide alone.) But I’m the dad of the family, and that generally means (in my family) that I’m the one who’s there to push the boundaries. To see what the kids will really do.

To get the five year old to go on the Tower of Terror.

In our last trip to Disney, DC was tall enough to go on any ride she wanted, and young enough to not have the common sense to be scared of anything. Space Mountain? No problem. Expedition Everest? Seven times in a day. And so on the last day, when it was just me and the kids at Hollywood Studios, the subject of Tower of Terror came up. As in, “Do we want to go on it?”

TRC eyed the ride speculatively. A huge drop (more than one, really–and did you know it’s not technically a free fall? They actually have a motor that makes you fall faster than gravity, to increase the thrills), scary backstory, screams echoing across the park. He’d already faced his biggest fear (caused by our last trip to Disney, when I took a five year old on Dinosaur and possibly permanently scarred him for life. (Although on this return trip, he decided he wanted to go with me on that ride and thoroughly enjoyed himself.)) So he was thinking he could do anything by that point. “Sure,” he said.

Which left the matter with the five year old. She also gave the ride a once over. “Is it scary?” she asked.

I nodded. “It’s like the Haunted Mansion, but scarier. And then they drop you in an elevator multiple times.”

She hesitated.

“Sort of like when you and TRC try to jump in an elevator to make it feel like you’re weightless,” I added. Because that’s what dads do.

Her eyes lit up. “Okay!”

And there was no Denisa to say otherwise. She was back at the hotel, tending to a sick MC.

Off the the of us traipsed to see what terrors awaited us.


DC and TRC aren’t quite as enthusiastic ahead of this ride. I wonder why . . . 

At this point in time, I have a confession to make.

I’m scared of the Tower of Terror.

I don’t like enclosed spaces, and I don’t enjoy airplane turbulence at all–which is what the Tower of Terror and other free fall rides most remind me of. I didn’t really want to go on that ride at all, but if you think peer pressure’s bad, it doesn’t hold a floating candlestick to kid pressure. There was no way I was not going to let my kids go on a ride they wanted to go on.

If you’ve been on the Tower of Terror, you know they do their darnedest to up the thrills. In typical Disney fashion, the mood and ambience is just right, and the cast members are suitably creepy. TRC and DC both clearly started to have second thoughts as we waited in the short line. (Fastpass for the win, my friends.) Outside in the day, it had all seemed like lighthearted fun. Down in the basement of the Hollywood Tower hotel, with an introduction about how the place was haunted, and the lights constantly flickering?

Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all.

That’s when my Dad Instincts kicked in. No way were my two kids the ones who were going to turn tail and run from a ride. They’d decided to go on this ride, and by gum that’s just what we were going to do. Never mind the fact that all three of us now didn’t want to. I assured them all that it wasn’t really that scary, and we soldiered onward.

In some ways, however, I think kids are like dogs or horses. They can sense fear. And no matter how much I tried to portray otherwise, they could tell Dad wasn’t completely comfortable with the ride we had picked.

DC asked to hold my hand. She gripped it tightly. And I began to second guess my Dad Instincts. “Do you want to skip this ride?” I asked them both.

And that’s when peer pressure kicked in. (There was a lot of pressure in that line. I swear.) Neither of them wanted to admit they didn’t want to be on the ride, so they both said they wanted to go through with it.

The elevator door opened, and we took our seats. DC had my hand in a death grip. The girl’s got some strength in those tiny fingers. Through the Tower of Terror our ride went, twisting and turning its way to the inevitable free fall ahead of us. And TRC and DC both got more and more tense.

“Is this it?” TRC asked the first time we came to a pause, staring at a blank wall ahead of us.

“You’ll know it when it happens,” was all I said.

DC’s grip made me wonder if she spent her evenings doing hand exercises.

Up we went. And up and up. And with each rise, my kids on either side of me realized that meant we only had that much further to drop.

What goes up, must come down.

And down we came. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. It’s random, you know. So no one knows how many times you’ll fall. DC’s shoulders hunched in fear, and TRC kept wondering if it was over. My hand was crushed to a fine powder by the time the ride was done.

Silence for a few beats.

“Was that it?” DC asked.

“That’s it,” I said. “Want to go again?”

They both looked at me, then looked at each other. “I don’t think we need to,” TRC said.

“Yeah,” DC said. “Once was enough.”

But hey–there were no tears, and no breakdowns, and we all lived to tell the tale. I’m sure with some physical therapy, my hand will recover one day.

All part of a fun family trip to Disney World.


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