Let’s turn back time to 2006 to our first trip to Walt Disney World. I recall us taking a 5 night trip, stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort with a multi-day Park Hopper ticket and the Disney Dining Plan (it included tip and appetizer then!). The boy was four years old and we had a stroller. I remember that we paid full price for that trip—no discounts, no sales. The planning for that trip compared to how we plan a trip now is VERY different. Some of the changes are due to technology like Fastpass+ and MagicBands. Some of the changes are due to personal preference and experience.
Transportation to Orlando: One thing that hasn’t changed is that we fly. How we purchase airfare has changed. No longer do I feel like we need to purchase round trip airfare up front or even fly the same air carrier both directions. What is important is that we start and end our trip at the same airport! Technology has helped us get great deals on airfare—using websites such as Kayak.com and Hipmunk.com that regularly check fares and update me when there are changes via either daily or weekly emails—depending on my preference. I find that once we have a firm arrival date either because we’ve got a great airfare date or due to work/school restrictions, we then purchase air TO Orlando. I may wait weeks, even months before purchasing return flights. And, while this can make some people nervous (and it would have made me nervous at one point too), waiting has made for some great fares and money savings!
I’m pickier about flight times, too. Knowing that Disney’s Magical Express picks up guests 3 hours before a flight, I’m less inclined to select that 6:00 am or 7:00 am return flight. Those flight times also make it impossible to use Resort Airline Check-in, as it doesn’t open until 5:00 am, and I want Disney to handle my luggage as much as possible, rather than me toting it to the airport and schlepping it through the airline counter check-in queue. I prefer stepping onto Disney’s Magical Express with my carry-on bag and boarding pass in hand!
Resort stays: One thing that hasn’t changed is that we stay on Disney property at a Walt Disney World Resort. That first trip, we stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach. Other stays include Port Orleans Riverside, Port Orleans French Quarter, Coronado Springs, and most recently Pop Century. Disney veterans will recognize that all of those resorts but Pop Century are considered “moderate” resorts, while Pop Century is a “value” resort. And, while we wouldn’t rule out another stay at a value resort—click here to read moreabout our stay at Pop Century—it has become evident that moderates better fit our staying style. So, next trip, we return to Coronado Springs.
Park Tickets: Over the history of thirteen different trip to Walt Disney World, we have had multi-day hopper tickets, multi-day non hopper tickets, and even a stay with a one-day one park ticket. Note: we wanted the Dining Plan and had to have at least a one-day ticket in order to add the Dining Plan to our package. Disney has since changed the park ticket requirement allowing resort only stays to add on Dining Plans. Now, we have Annual Passes that allow for park hopping. Some trips we have added the “water parks and more” to our tickets allowing for entry into both Disney water parks, DisneyQuest, and access to miniature golf. Now, our Annual Passes include entry into the water parks, and discounted miniature golf. When prospective guests ask me about what type of ticket they need, it really comes down to a few questions and priorities for their trip to determine their specific park ticket and/or package needs.
Dining Plan: Yeah, we tried to go without it one trip, but added the plan to our package three weeks before our departure date. Our preference is the “basic” dining plan which includes one table service, one counter service, and one snack credit per person per night of stay along with a refillable mug. There are other Dining Plans—Deluxe and Quick Service that guests could consider. There are even wine packages that can be added—this is Disney after all and they DO think of everything.
What hasn’t changed is that we make Advanced Dining Reservations for table service meals. And, yes, we typically know where and when we want to dine 180 days in advance. I will share that on our most recent trip, I made changes to our dining plans a couple of weeks before our trip—something I had never done before. And, since we’re less than three months from our next trip, I still needed to make a couple of ADR’s and took care of them just recently. It may be notable that we still have a table service credit that isn’t allocated as of yet. I’m waiting for a new restaurant to open up before our trip. . . a new adventure!
It is also not uncommon for us to now make more dining reservations than we have table service credits for and pay out of pocket for some meals. On our last trip, we paid for two of our table service meals out of pocket. On the trip that we are currently planning for there will be one meal we pay for out of pocket.
Another note could be made that in addition to various park tickets and Dining Plans that are available, there are also several package plans that guests can select that not only include Dining, but tour access, show access, and even golf access.
Park Touring: During our early trips, our park touring style would have been described as just shy of commando. We arrived at the parks at rope drop and stayed until late in the day and sometimes park closing without leaving for a break. Morning Extra Magic Hours were a resort amenities we took advantage of. We would collect our Fastpasses and spend the day using them—as this was before Disney enforced return times. When Fastpass return times were enforced, we adjusted accordingly, still using the morning to collect our paper Fastpasses. During longer stays, we would build in “break days” where we enjoyed resort amenities and ventured to Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs.
When we went to Disneyland in the summer of 2015, we did take afternoon breaks from the parks. I think it had to do with the time difference making early mornings easy but nighttime spectaculars hard along with the proximity of the resorts to the parks.
Now, with Fastpass+ we have adjusted our park touring, still preferring to be at rope drop at certain parks and do spend entire days—open to close—also at certain parks. Our ideal day at Walt Disney World, especially during warmer months, would be to enjoy a great breakfast either at our resort or another resort, spend the morning and early afternoon at a water park, return to our resort to clean-up, and then make our way to a theme park to enjoy the evening with Fastpass+’s already selected and dining reservations already made.
Photo packages: It took until trip number 2 or 3 before I got hooked on Photopass and Photopass packages. Now, I can’t imagine a trip to Walt Disney World without some sort of photo package. Thank goodness for Memory Maker and discounts for pre-purchasing. I remember watching a family get their daughter’s picture taken in the Photopass studio at (then) Downtown Disney after her appointment at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and the mother agonizing over a photo purchase. The Photopass Cast Member missed an opportunity to sell the package as this was the family’s arrival day to Walt Disney World (yes, I was eves dropping) and the mother walked away with making a purchase. I was in pain for her! Given the number of photos that were taken in that studio combined with what photos could be taken over the coming days, they would have come out ahead with a photo package. I so regret not speaking up at that moment. Alas, now that we have Annual Passes, we have unlimited downloads of photos taken on our Photopass/Memory Maker account!
Packing: This planning category has NOT changed. I still over pack. I mostly pack ahead of time, although the “ahead of time” is getting closer and closer to departure dates. And, we have a list of needed park items that stay in the suitcase from one trip to the next—park touring bag/backpack, pocket seats, umbrella, ponchos, etc. Also, I used to pack a power strip but now I pack a multi-port USB charger along with a portable charger to take with us to use during the day.
I’m curious about what Disney vacation planning changes we will make over the coming years. One thing I’m pretty certain about is that Disney vacations will continue to be a priority for our family.