Thursday, May 10, 2018

Disney World 2018 (part I)

This is part I of a two-part blog about my recent visit to Disney World. Below is a general overview of our trip—part II will review the attractions and rides we saw! Click here to go straight to the photogallery.

During the period of about 2009-15, it was our family’s tradition to go to Disneyland in Anaheim, California for a single day visit over the Christmas holiday break. While we generally managed to avoid long wait times, the increasing popularity of the park and resulting shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at that time of year began making the experience less enjoyable, so we stopped going, usually replaced by a ski trip if there was snow in our local mountains.

Even though I know Disney World in Orlando, Florida is supposed to be better and larger, given our proximity to Disneyland, I nevertheless thought a trip to Disney World was superfluous. However, when we were planning our next big family trip and I floated some ideas by the family, it was clear the kids wanted Disney World—so Disney World it was.

Pre-Planning

As I’m sure anyone who has visited the resort (it’s actually a collection of resorts and theme parks, versus the two simple theme parks in Anaheim, Disneyland and California Adventures), planning for Disney World is like planning for battle. My initial online research was very confusing and overwhelming, given the number of choices, parks, resorts/hotels, options, etc. However, with the aid of a book a friend kindly purchased for me as a Christmas gift when he heard we were contemplating the trip, I was able to focus a bit and narrow down my planning. At the end, I did simply go through the Disney World reservation system—which included information on available deals and packages, as well as flights—since obviously it was a simple integrated all-in-one package. (I did independently compare flights and found the flights through Disney were the same I found on my own and at the same price.) And by the time I got to this point, I had done a little research and was a bit more knowledgeable about the whole process and system.

The main reason I found the process a bit overwhelming is because in addition to myriad options, you are also encouraged to book restaurants 180 days in advance and Fast Passes for attractions 60 days in advance. Apparently, those reservations disappear quickly. Indeed, I logged in 59 days before our trip and found that one of the most popular rides, the Avatar Flight of Passage Ride at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, had already sold out of Fast Passes. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to move our planned visit to that theme park to the last day, which did the trick. By that point, four months out, most of the restaurants were also booked.

Another option that required a bit of calculation was the dining plan where each person was allotted a couple of “quick service” meals, one “dining-service meal” and an allotment of snacks and drinks throughout the day (they are given as a total package, meaning they could be swapped and used up or reserved as needed among the members of your party during your visit). I initially signed up for it because it could still be cancelled later because it sounded like a good deal since our meals would all be paid for in advance. Of course, once I did the math, it turned out not to be such a bargain. When I broke it down, it came to nearly $120/person per day, keeping in mind that my party of five included a teen and a tween who are not big eaters. Given that the more expensive sit-down restaurants no longer had any availability on most of the days of our visit, it was clear we would be losing money if we committed to it, so I cancelled the plan. It turned out to be a good decision—I’m sure in some circumstances it can be a good deal—especially if you get reservations at a nice place each night—but if not, you’re likely to come out behind. As many pundits noted, Disney would hardly put together a plan like this if they weren’t making a profit.

Accommodations and General Impressions

Disney of course is renowned for its crowd/line management process, and this was on full display during the trip. Disney World, of course, has its own dedicated presence called Disney Express at the Orlando airport, so once we landed and checked in with them, we and our luggage were taken care of and whisked straight to the hotel.

We stayed at the Art of Animation Resort one of their largest, with room themes for the films Cars, Little Mermaid, and Lion King. Most rooms at Disney World are clearly intended for families of 4 or less, so one reason we booked at Art of Animation is because it has suites that can accommodate 6 (my brother accompanied us on this family trip). We partly chose a Cars themed room thinking it would be the least cheesy of the bunch. I can’t comment on the other themed rooms, but we were actually very pleased with the suite. The room was just large enough to accommodate our party of six without feeling cramped – plus, it had two full baths, a master bedroom (which my wife and I took), and a couch with a twin bed and a pullman bed that opened out over a small dining table. There was also a kitchenette, microwave and fridge.

I’ll talk about food in a bit, but I do want to mention that most of the hotel resorts also have food areas—the Art of Animation had a huge cafeteria style food court. While I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted to eat there every day, there was some variety in the options and Disney is especially smart to leave it open an hour past the time the parks close, meaning that you can still grab dinner—or even a nice dessert—when you get back. So even though we arrived at our hotel about 9:45 p.m., it was nice to be able to grab a relaxing dinner after a full day of traveling. On busy days like this, I tend to like a full breakfast in the morning, but in order to get an early start, we ended up buying croissants, orange juice and other pastries the night before and eating them on the run the next morning—I was surprised that this kept me plenty satisfied until lunchtime.

Aside from its sheer size, one significant difference between Disneyland and Disney World is the use of Magic Bands (see photo at right). Shipped to us prior to the trip, the Magic Bands electronically contained our reservations and Fast Passes, and even gave us access to our room--we didn’t even need to check in (Disney texted our room number right before we arrived). As a matter of convenience, if you link it to a credit card, you could even pay for all purchases at the parks with it, protected by a PIN code.

And, yes, Disney World is a lot larger than Disneyland. In addition to simply having more room (a LOT more room) to grow, the scale is a bit larger that made it feel a little less shoulder-to-shoulder/claustrophobic when it was crowded. (With that said, even though we were there during our kids’ spring break, the parks were not as crowded as I anticipated--lines were rarely at the full capacity they were clearly set up for.)

One interesting difference between the two Disney resorts, in my observation, was the makeup of the crowd. While of course we met and saw people from many different countries, particularly the U.K., France and Germany, it was fascinating to hear a variety of Southern accents, something I just don’t hear in California. Like Disneyland, given the crowds, for the most part everyone was happy to be there and lovely and courteous to others, very chill.

The Theme Parks (and Food!)

We were at the resort for four days and on consecutive days went to Magic Kingdom (classic Disneyland), Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom. In addition, since the flight on our final day didn’t depart until 8 p.m. in the evening we added a fifth day to go to Hollywood Studios, the fifth and final theme park at the resort. (There are other destinations at the resort like TK and TK.)

On our first day, of course, we got to the park bright and early. At our hotel (and presumably the others), there was a dedicated bus stop for each park. Although buses run at various intervals, usually about every 20 minutes at peak times, they actually ran buses fairly frequently to accommodate the crowds and keep people moving, with a bus sometimes pulling up just as as one departed. As I said, we found the lines and crowds to be nowhere near full capacity.

While on the map I could of course see that the Magic Kingdom was on the far side of the Disney World property from our hotel, it really sunk in on the bus ride: although we were within Disney World, the bus ride to the parks took anywhere from about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic and distance of the theme park—and this included going onto a local road, hopping on a freeway and traveling at highway speeds! We could see plenty of areas under construction and plenty of space to grow.

Of course, once we arrived at a park, a necessary inconvenience was the security check. Again, for the most part, these were quick and painless, again helped by the fact that it was nowhere near as crowded as I expected or it could have been.

After a first full day at Magic Kingdom, getting back to the hotel close to 11 p.m., we went to Epcot the next day and found ourselves fairly exhausted. While we did not curtail our trip to Epcot in any way, we actually ended up back at our hotel that second day by early evening and were in bed by 10 p.m. The third day, we slept in an hour later for our second visit to Magic Kingdom and happily found that this had no effect on our ability to get on rides in the morning and were never that tired again (in retrospect there may have been some jet lag involved as well.)

Disney World allows for a variety of experiences—what I mean by that is if one wants to spend time all day hitting rides and attractions you can do that; but there are also plenty of shows, parades (I joked, “There’s a damned parade every 5 minutes!”) and of course just the immersive environment of the park. And, of course, you can just chill at the hotels and hang out by the pool. It really is difficult to have all these experiences and enjoy all the attractions and shows in a day, so you have to make choices or decide to spend one day doing more of one activity or the other. (With that said, I don’t think I could spend more than the five days we spent there.)
As I mentioned earlier, because we planned our vacation relatively “late” (about 4 months out), we were unable to snag many restaurant reservations—on our first full night, we ate at the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen. It was fairly nice and I was surprised at how open and spread out the tables were. After a day of running around, it was a welcome respite to sit down and be served a nice meal.

It helped that my son, a Disney geek, already had a good lay of the land. In fact, armed with a waiting times app and an innate map of the parks in his head, he turned out to be our navigator and guide for much of the trip! Once we finished one activity, he would tell us what ride had a relatively short wait and, after we agreed, he would just lead us there! What a treat it was for me to be able to just sit back and enjoy. Of course there were times when we’d split up if people wanted to do different things or even just relax.

Speaking of food, aside from the restaurant mentioned above, we ate most meals at the “quick service” restaurants found everywhere. While food is still predominantly the fast food burger/hot dog/pizza type—which I really didn’t want for five straight days—with a little bit of looking you can find a little bit more variety. Epcot, with its focus on international fare, seemed to have the most options and, if not for the kids, my wife and I could have spent the day going from one food vendor to another. I had a scallops dish there and we shared some pretty good fish and chips. During our visit at Animal Kingdom, I found a good place that sold ribs and a rice/vegetable dish at an “African market” (during the day, I also bought a tasty grilled corn on the cob!). Other highlights included a very good roasted turkey leg that I shared with my son (which can also be found at Disneyland) and an empanada at Hollywood Studios that my wife texted me about.

In any case, it was a great trip, helped by great weather (we were in shorts the whole time, it was slightly humid a couple days and we had some light rain another couple times) and low crowds.

The Attractions

Below is a list of the attractions and activities we enjoyed during our visit. In the next part of this blog, coming soon, I’ll provide a review/overview of our trip!

Day 1/Magic Kingdom
Pirates of the Caribbean
Haunted Mansion
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Fast Pass)
Under the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid (Fast Pass)
People Mover
Carousel of Progress
Thunder Road Mountain
Hall of Presidents
Country Bear Jamboree
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Fast Pass)
Little Mermaid
3 parades
Dinner reservation: Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen
Seven Dwarfs (Fast Pass) 
Day 2/Epcot
Space Ship Earth
Test Track (Fast Pass)
Journey Into Imagination With Figment (Fast Pass)
Sides
Oh Canada Pavilion
China Pavilion
RELAUNCHED! Mission: Space (Fast Pass)
RELAUNCHED! Mission: Earth
Nemo Ride 
Day 3/Magic Kingdom
Haunted Mansion (Fast Pass)
Splash Mountain
Muppets
People Mover
Monster Laughs (show)
Tiki Room
Pirates of the Caribbean (Fast Pass)
Disney Rail
Carousel of Progress
Seven Dwarfs (Fast Pass) 
Day 4/Animal Kingdom
Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain (Fast Pass)
Kali River Rapids
It's Tough to Be a Bug
Avatar Flight of Passage (Fast Pass)
Navi River Journey
Dinosaur (Fast Pass) 
Day 5/Hollywood Studios
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Star Tours
Indiana Jones Stunt Show
March of the First Order Parade
Star Wars Launch Bay Theatre
Walt Disney Presdents
Star Tours

Click here to go straight to the photogallery.

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