Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Disney World Planning Tips: Resorts, Itineraries, Fast Pass+, MemoryMaker & Magic Bands

*UPDATED May 2017
Your savings is bursting & you're ready to spend it at Disney?! 



1. Choose your week.
Consult crowd-trend calendars (like this one). Peak & Off-peak times contribute not only to crowds, but affect resort pricing as well. Generally, when children are in school, the crowds will be lower. Conversely, holidays, like Easter & Christmas & Summer break draw the masses. Sept. & Oct. offer lower crowds, likely discounted rooms or dining plans as well as wonderful weather. Jan & Feb offer low crowds, potentially coolest temps. Consult closings and construction info on Disney parks blog to be sure your plans aren't affected.
If you're looking for Room Rate discounts or Free Dining (often offered in April for the Fall-Winter, for example), be advised: as long as your trip begins on a date during the time of the offer, your entire trip will qualify for the discount. Check Mousesavers for the dates discounts have been offered in recent years.
2. Transportation. 
Flying: Booking a nonstop flight limits delays & stress. Book the earliest departure & latest return, to condition your party for an early wake ups throughout your trip & maximize your time in the World.
A note on driving:
You do not need a car (or car seat) if you stay at a WDW resort (FREE transportation is available everywhere you need to go within WDW, including to/from the airport.) 

3. Stay "INSIDE" at one of the WDW Resorts for these perks:
  • Book FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days prior to your arrival online-for the entire week. (Non-resort guests can book up to 30 days before each park day.) This perk, if you haven't yet visited, is big; especially for high volume attractions that others wait hours to enjoy. More on FastPass+ below.
  • Magical Express: FREE transportation to/from the airport,along with FREE baggage delivery to your room. NO visit to baggage claim or rental car necessary. It’s smooth & hassle-free. You can even check-in& check your bags from your resort for returning home, if you wish. (you’ll receive bag tags from Magical Express, if you choose this option, prior to your trip to identify your bags along with instructions). Your Magical Express voucher is now linked to your Magic Bands (more on Magic Bands below)
  • FREE transportation to/from parks &resorts during your stay. Buses, ferries, and monorails are FREE, run regularly, early &late each day. A welcome break from the independence of a car, considering cost& crowds affiliated with parking. NO CAR SEAT necessary.
  • Dining Plan. Resort guests only. Saved us money & stress. Plenty of food. Easy & convenient to use. You will not be hungry. (More on Dining here)
  • Dining Reservations 180 days prior to date of arrival for the entire trip. This gives you a better chance at scoring the hard-to-get reservations, even if they are planned for the end of your stay.
  • Extra Magic Hours (EMH) certain parks,daily, open either before or after regular park hours for resort guests. EMH are published in advance. Consult calendars before planning your itinerary & making dining reservations.
  • FREE souvenir delivery to your resort room from the parks. Go ahead & buy that breakable or cumbersome item. If there's enough time before you are checking out, they'll deliver it.
  • Entertainment. Nightly outdoor movies & pool activity coordinators during the day make breaks from the park highly entertaining. Some even have campfires nightly. A weekly schedule is available at the front desk.
  • FREE Refillable mug. Soft drinks, coffee,hot chocolate. Refillable at your resort only. Very nice for morning coffee and for days spent at the resort.
Choosing a WDW Resort: (*Skip to #4, if you are staying offsite*)
Budget. Categories include: Value, Moderate,& Deluxe (Campground & Deluxe villas also) 
Party Size matters. Click here for resorts with rooms accommodating a party of 5 & more.
Transportation. Certain hotels are on the monorail (quick & easy access to MK & Epcot) some are accessibly by ferry, and many by bus. They are all accessible from every park and you can get anywhere within the World using FREE transport, but some are more direct routes than others. Consult your plans, consider how important convenience is to your party (disabilities, children in tow, etc.) We had no trouble using buses, with a stroller & kids.

I found this website to be an excellent resource for summarizing the resorts.
You can find virtual tours on YouTube also.

A few things of note on lodging:
  • From what I’ve gathered, the Standard Rooms are pretty similar regardless of the classification of the resort. While size increases they’re all relatively no frills, yet sufficient, considering room-time is limited.
  • Not all resorts have elevators, so if this is a concern, request a bottom floor.
  • Resort Dining: This is a major distinguishing factor between resort levels. The Deluxe have the best of dining options, including character dining at many. Moderates have a table service (except PO French Quarter). Values have only cafeteria-style quick service dining. Guests are welcome to dine at and can use Disney transportation to get to any resort for dining.
  • The Value hotels do not have water slides or hot tubs in their pools as the rest do. For the most part, these feel like motels rather than resorts. (*I'd choose a value resort, if it was all I could afford, in order to stay on-site & reap the benefits.)
  • Moderates are spread out & some complain about the extra walking & extra waiting for the bus. Didn't bother our family of 5 (including little ones.)
  • If Deluxe is in the budget, it's worth it. For convenience, dining, and luxurious amenities. 
  •  My Deluxe Pick: Polynesian. Aloha! Delicious dining choices (incl. Mickey at breakfast, cult-favorite: Ohana & a terrific steak at Kona Grill, plus Dole Whip for dessert at Captain Cooks), monorail access (to MK & Epcot & other resorts on the monorail), new splash playground & sandy beach with nightly campfire and views of the castle. One can even view the castle fireworks from the beach. The Neverland Club: themed kids activity center for a night in Disney without kiddos. This is a great choice for parties of all sorts from Honeymooners to Families with youngsters. Monorail transportation makes this a convenient home-base.
  • Another Deluxe favorite: Beach Club Resort. New England seaside themed. Standard rooms accommodate up to 5, (suites: up to 7) Tasty dining options (including Mickey & friends at breakfast),(Beaches & Cream for outstanding ice cream desserts & very good steak at Yachtsman) Sandy-bottomed pools, relaxing & pretty resort with The Sandcastle Club activity center for a night out with out kids. Easy access to Epcot & Hollywood Studios. via boat or walkways.
  • My Moderate Pick: Port Orleans Riverside (full review here). Lush grounds, nice pools make walking around feel similar to a deluxe resort. Affordable rooms can accommodate a party of 5 (using a murphy bed for a small guest). Royal Rooms (party of 4 or less) have fiber-optic princess headboards! Guests rave about Yehaa Bob's piano entertainment. Bus Transportation everywhere and Boat transport to Disney Springs & FQ resort.
  • We've also enjoyed staying at Caribbean Beach Resort; the Fort pool is most fun for our kids. Hammocks in the sand is a nice touch. Currently (2017) this resort is undergoing construction on their main food area and gift shop. We have chosen this resort repeatedly because of the bargain during Free Dining Promo for our family of 5. 
  • Value Resort Pick: Art of Animation. No departure from Disney themes here! For some extra cash (more like Deluxe room prices) Family Suites are decked out in beloved characters & allow you to spread out a bit. The big blue pool is the largest of all resorts & under water you can hear characters voices! It's zero-entry at one end, with a splash pad nearby. The standard rooms (Mermaid) book quickly, fit a party of 4, and are Value-priced. These rooms are often excluded from the Free Dining & other discount promotions. (If Value budget is your goal & AoA is booked, try Pop Century.) Bus transportation.
  • ALSO worth mentioning: Animal Kingdom Lodge. It is a magnificent resort, with extraordinary dining options, and animal-watching opportunities. It is a Deluxe resort. Though, because it's located over by Animal Kingdom (farthest removed), it doesn't have the convenience of monorail or boat access but you're paying Deluxe prices. It offers bus transportation only. 
4. Draft a MUST DO Attraction List.
First, research park rides & attractions. Read descriptions, reviews, watch YouTube videos of rides & attractions. Consult height requirements. 
If you have under 36" kids in your party, do you know about Rider Switch Pass?
*Note FastPass+ availability. FP+ availability is indicated on each attraction here

This will help you to determine how much time you'll need in each park & how many park admission days you'll need to buy. I have an ENTIRE post devoted to TOURING PLANS: How many days in which parks? Which rides to choose Fastpass+

5. Consider Dining options: Reservations for Table Service meals, (including character dining) start booking up to 180 days in advance. They book up more quickly than you’d imagine.
Depending on how far in advance you are planning, you may wish to secure reservations and plan around what is available. Certainly book the hardest-to-get reservation 1st, even if it's planned for the end of the trip. (Be our Guest, Cinderella's Castle, Chef Mickey's, Ohana, etc.) Complete post on Dining here.

If you're buying the Disney Dining Plan (which I recommend, if you're staying at a WDW resort) make full use of your $ spent. Character dining is included, mostly requiring 1 TS credit, and is a super way to meet characters without spending precious park time. 

6. Draft an itinerary
Click here to read this complete post devoted to Itinerary planning. How many days? Which parks?
Based on your must-do list, your dining picks, roughly designate your days to parks. You do not have to do this "officially" when you book through WDW, you'll buy a certain # of days pass & use it as you wish when you arrive. You will need an itinerary to book dining & FP+.
Generally, parks with Extra Magic Hours (EMH) have higher volume crowds. I choose a park that had EMH the day prior, because it will generally have lower attendance that day. Google "Disney World Crowd Calendar + year" for calendars to consult-some break it down by park, per day. Special events draw crowds too.

*With kids: what do they want to do more than anything? Consider doing it first to avoid a recurring soundtrack of "when are we gonna _____?" until it happens.

7. Reserve rides with FastPass+ 
Complete FastPass+ details here
  • Fastpass+ is available for FREE to all guests. Up to 60 days prior to date of arrival, WDW guests can reserve FP+ through My Disney Experience (MDE) website. (offsite guests can begin up to 30 days prior by linking tickets to MDE account). There are kiosks in the parks available and a MDE smartphone app you can use to make changes.
  • You're allowed 3 per day, in one park, initially. Bonus FP+ become available after you've used your 3. Currently you can book bonus FP+ in the park at kiosks or using the APP. You may hop to another park & use your bonus FP+. You get a 4th after your 3rd is used, and a 5th after your 4th is used, and so on.
  • Certain FP+ are high-priority & risk being unavailable very quickly. Some parks have a tiering system, where you can choose 1 of the most-popular attractions and the other 2 from a separate tier (including the lesser popular).
  • Consult the park map prior to choosing FP+ to avoid walking from one side of the park completely to another & plan sufficient time for dining & other attractions nearby.
  • Book FP+ for 11am-2pm (when the park is crowded & the sun is hot). If you get in the park at opening, you'll do plenty with little-to-no waiting & won't need to waste the FP+.
  • For more complete details on Fast Pass+ & a few tricks that have helped me get FP+ for Frozen, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Toy Story Mania, Soarin' & Test Track. Click here for my Fastpass + tricks

9. Schedule Sufficient Downtime
One day in the parks, and one day out, and so on is ideal with kids especially. Try 2 parks back-to-back & a day off in the middle, if you're staying 6 nights. If you choose to visit parks each of your days, plan for the one with the least appealing attractions to your party mid-week. If you have children in your party, I highly recommend quality over quantity. Disney, of course, does a great job of spreading out the attractions between parks, so you'll find something for every one in each, but consider skipping 1 altogether or spending more time in a favorite and leaving 1 out. Be flexible if you notice your party is over-stimulated & exhausted.

On a no-park day, take the time to recover so you'll be energized for the next park day. Skip a wake-up call and resist cramming in all the non-park activities (& there are plenty). Enjoy your resort pool & the activities they provide for the kids. Dine at one of the Deluxe resorts' restaurants (Hoop de doo Musical Revue and Ohana are among our family's favorites. Narcooses & California Grill can be booked with a view of the fireworks at MK & are more formal), or book experience-type dining at one of the resorts-all accessible by WDW transportation and a fun way to see other resorts.

Disney Springs is an obvious choice for non-park days at WDW. It's accessible by bus and by boat. The largest Disney Store is there, the Lego store-with free play, is a favorite for families. An ADR at T-Rex restaurant is hard to come by, so book it right away if loud & prehistoric spectacles are your thing!  Snack credits are well used at Goofy's Candy Co. & everything at Wolfgang Puck's cafe is a delicious use of QS credits. Raglan Road with Irish Pub entertainment is a big hit for our family.
For the adults, there's loads of appeal when the sun goes down with live music by the water & plenty of ways to have fun.

Date of departure: you can swim, shop, & use up the Dining Credits you’ve been hoarding away if book your flight out as late as possible the last day. *Magic Express transportation will likely pick up 3-4 hours before flight departure. 

10. Character Meet & Greet
Characters are highly accessible, and meeting them is handled in an orderly fashion, whether you meet them in the park or at your table. Consult WDW site, under Character Experiences to locate your favorites. FastPass+ now includes many character greetings.
Meet & greet times are listed on the map & updated regularly on the MDE app. Some have a permanent, indoor meeting area and meeting them is treated as an attraction. Some characters, lesser popular ones in particular, can be met out on the streets of the park-always handled by a castmember & in an orderly fashion-these times & locations are listed on the APP & on park map.

Skip lines for meeting characters like we do & get your magical moment with your favorites through Character Dining Experiences (included in the Disney Dining Plan)

Tips for meeting Characters:
1. Character meals (using your TS Dining Plan credits)! Note: all but, Cinderella's Royal Table (meet princesses inside THE castle) require 1 TS credit. (Much more on Character meals here)
2. Epcot! The World Showcase is chock full of characters. The Storybook Princess breakfast (held in Norway) is a jackpot. We had one-on-one time with Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White, & Sleeping Beauty at this meal. Meet Mickey & Minnie at the Character Spot. Alice, Mary Poppins, Mulan, Jasmine & Aladdin & many princesses are available for meet & greet.
3. Princess Fairytale Hall: Rapunzel & Cinderella & Elena. Fastpass+ is available for them separately.  
4. Meet Anna & Elsa in Norway at Epcot. They are visible in the Festival of Fantasy parade at Magic Kingdom and briefly in the stage show at Hollywood Studios, but this is the only place to meet them.
5. Mickey can be met at Town Square Theater in MK, Fastpass+ offered. Mickey & Minnie (in Safari clothes) are at Adventurers Outpost in Animal Kingdom, Fastpass+ offered. In Epcot as mentioned in #2. There are many meals in & out of the parks where you can meet them.
5. Hollywood Studios: Pixar Place (Woody & Buzz), More Pixar characters are inside the Animation Building. 
6. Woody & Jessie are in the Splash Mt. exit area at MK.

11. Photos.  
Bring the "big" camera or just use your phone?
With 3 kids in tow, I streamline what I need to bring into the park. I brought both DSLR & iPhone & used both. You'll want video clips too so consider this when making your choice. 
Clear your photo storage on your phone prior to your trip & bring an extra SD card or two. If you're primarily using your phone, consider downloading DropBox or other online storage app, and clear up storage on your phone each night. WiFi is free in the parks and at WDW resorts.  
*Note: The Disney photographers I encountered were happy to take a photo using my camera too. Some even went out of their way to get a great shot without request.

What's the deal with Memory Maker? (replacement for Photo Pass)
Memory Maker has replaced Photo Pass, with a few key changes:
1. access to all digital photos included, no more individual purchasing necessary
2. $149 if bought in advance otherwise, $169
3. Your photos will be linked to your Magic Band. Or you may receive a card with barcode for retrieving them.
*Smile pretty even if you aren't planning to buy it, because after your trip, you may decide to purchase it for $169.

Disney photographers, situated at most prime locations in the park (incl. some meals, character greetings, and attractions. ) take your photo and link it to your Magic Band (by tapping) or card. Memory Maker includes photos & video clips on certain rides. 
If purchasing at advanced rate, any photos taken within 3 days of purchase will NOT BE INCLUDED. So be sure to book further in advance.

I wouldn't rely exclusively on park photographers & Memory Maker, as there are many personal moments to capture when there aren't photographers nearby.

12. What are Magic Bands?
Magic Bands replace Magic Your Way cards, using RF technology for convenient access to:
  • Magical Express voucher (Pack it in carry-on luggage)
  • Room Key
  • Dining Plan access
  • Park ticket
  • FastPass+ (click here for more on FastPass+)
  • Credit card (you may select this option on certain bands and will set a PIN # at check-in, required for every purchase. you may also select a charge limit.)
  • Memory Maker (photo pass replacement)
They are automatically included for WDW resort guests & can be customized (colors and name imprinted on the inside) through My Disney Experience website. They are shipped to your house prior to your trip. They can be purchased and linked to your MDE account if you are not a WDW guest.
Magic Bands work by tapping on the Mickey sensor at registers, attractions, and room doors.

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