Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Disneymoon Adventures: We are Totally Experts Now

some of the beautiful "Just Married" artwork on my car, snapped at a pit stop at Wendy's
Prior to this trip, I had been to Disney World exactly once- in the 9th grade on spring break with my family.  We spent 4 days in the parks, then took a 3-day Disney Cruise.  We stayed in the Polynesian Resort and saw each park once.  We left for the trip just after my baby sister's birthday, so we treated it as her "birthday week" and though she didn't have a button, we told every restaurant it was her "special day" and she got free cake with every meal.  I didn't have to pay a penny for anything, but I had a feeling it was the most expensive vacation we'd ever taken.

Mr. Geek had been to Disney World twice, with his parents- once at the age of 10, then again at age 13.  The first time they stayed off-property, the second time they stayed at the Dolphin hotel.  He remembers that the second trip was much less stressful, both because they stayed right next to Epcot and because they stayed for a longer period of time.

This was the first time either of us had ever fully funded our own Disney trip.  It was the first time we'd had to make decisions about where to stay, how to get there and back again*, what package to book, how much money to budget for souvenirs, which attractions to see first, which restaurants to eat at.

Clearly, this means we are experts in all things Disney World, and you should listen to our advice.**

I give you: The Geeks' Rules for Having an Awesome Time at Disney World as Childless Adults (and Probably Some of These Rules Apply to People With Kids, Too).

I am so good at titles.

1. Use an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.
I heard about Dreams Unlimited from a coworker who had a positive experience booking with them, but I'm sure there are countless other companies who work the same way- they are paid directly by Disney, so you're literally paying only for your trip without any additional fees for their services.  I raved about them briefly already, but I would also like to add one more thing- a travel agent does the homework for you.  This might seem obvious, but let me explain.  If, after you've booked your vacation (but before you've made your final payment), a new discount or special is released, you can call them up and ask to apply the discount to your trip (if it applies).  Of course, this means you have to constantly be on the lookout for these specials- which isn't hard, necessarily, as there are always TV commercials and, once you've visited the Disney parks website even once, you'll be inundated with Disney banner ads everywhere you go on the internet- and then research them to see if they apply to the package you've already booked.  Case in point: Disney very often runs a free meal plan special at various times of the year.  I saw a banner ad for this special once, and the fine print on the ad explained that they were offering a free basic meal plan with the purchase of at least 4 nights in a Value-level resort.  We had booked a Moderate-level resort and a Deluxe meal plan, so I wasn't sure if we were eligible for that discount, and I didn't have time to click through and read up on it (I was in the midst of wedding-planning things, you see.)  I made a mental note to email our agent, Kim, and see what she could do for us.  By the time I finally got around to logging into my email account later that night, there was a message from Kim saying she'd saved us $500 on our meal plan because of this special- that's 50% off!


2. Stay on property.
There are SO MANY perks to staying on property.  First of all, you park your car once and never have to see it again- Disney transportation really is quick and convenient.  Depending on where you stay, you might be able to use the monorail or boats to get to certain parks, which is way more fun than taking the bus, but the buses are clean and the drivers are always friendly.  If you do want to drive to any of the parks, you get a pass that allows you to park for free.  Besides the transportation perks, you also get to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours- times when the parks either open early or close late.  During these times, they ask to see your Key to the World- aka your room key with built-in ticket- at any ride or attraction you want to get on.  Finally, there are several little discount coupons that come with staying on property to entice you to play miniature golf or hang out in the arcade- we didn't use any of these, but we did use the free souvenir mugs so we could get free coffee every morning at the resort's food court (you can also fill them with soft drinks).  I realize you can just use the in-room coffee maker to have free coffee, but we really like having the souvenir mugs- we fill them with coffee to take to work every morning, and they're a fun little reminder of our awesome trip.



3.  Use a meal plan.
Was the deluxe plan ultimately too much food?  Yes.  Do I regret our decision to choose that plan anyway?  Nope!  The deluxe plan comes with 3 meals each for each day of your stay- meals which can be used at either quick-service or full-service restaurants, your choice- plus two snacks each per day.  As I talked about last time, if you prefer light breakfasts, like we do, you can use a snack credit to buy a cinnamon roll or muffin without having to spend a meal credit for a full breakfast, or you can use those snack credits on things like ice cream or bottled water during the day.  Some restaurants- like the character dining experiences- require two meal credits each, and the meal plan does not cover tips or alcoholic beverages.  (At one point, Disney was offering a wine package add-on that gave you one bottle of wine per night, with some wines requiring two wine credits, but apparently this wasn't economically feasible for them, as it is sadly no longer offered.)  I think next time we will still go for the deluxe plan- especially if we can swing the 50% discount like this time- and do more 2-credit dinners so that we're not necessarily eating two giant meals a day (and then 17 bottles of water on the last day to clear out our snack credits).  Without the meal plan, we would not have been able to enjoy some of the meals we ate, or even some of the restaurants themselves.  The deluxe plan is typically between $86 and $90 per person, per night, depending on the time of year, meaning each meal credit is less than $30 each (considering you also get 2 snack credits in that $90).  You definitely get your money's worth, as it were, by eating at full-service as opposed to quick-service restaurants- I'm not sure I'd ever spend $30 on a cup of coffee, a frittata, and some home fries like I had at Pizzafari, but I can see spending about that much on an appetizer, entree, dessert, and beverage at a restaurant of the caliber of Yak and Yeti.  Restaurants that are 2 credits each, like the Yachtsman Steakhouse, are generally the type where you'd expect to spend about $60 per head in "the outside world".  Is the deluxe plan right for everyone?  No- some people might prefer the basic package that offers just one quick-service and one full-service (plus 2 snacks) per day, or some might prefer the quick-service-only package.  We definitely think you should have a meal plan of some sort, though, to optimize your comfort level while in the park- the food is paid for already and you can pick from some of the pricier items that you might not go for if you're shelling out the cash right there.



4. Make Advanced Dining Reservations.
We had a reservation for pretty much every meal, aside from those snack credit breakfasts.  This meant we got a table quickly everywhere we went, and at some of the more popular restaurants, you literally cannot eat there without a reservation.  (Incidentally, this is also another good reason to use a travel agent- you give them the list of places and times you want to eat when you book, and they'll call Disney and make the reservations for you!)  An ADR does not reserve you a table at a restaurant; it just guarantees that you'll be seated during that specific time wave- it's like calling ahead to put your name on the list.  You have to check in with the hostess by a certain time, otherwise you lose your spot in line.  If you budget your time properly, however, you'll have basically no wait for a table- at most restaurants, we showed up and were seated well before people who had been waiting there for quite some time.  Yes, making ADRs requires you to plan out pretty much your entire eating schedule 6 months before you arrive, but if you make those decisions then, you won't have to spend ages debating with everyone about where to go eat when you're all hangry and tired and standing around in the hot afternoon sun.  This also means that in all likelihood, your entire Disney schedule will revolve around where you're eating your meals- in other words, it's a good idea to spend the afternoon in whichever park your dinner reservations are- but your schedule has to revolve around something, so it might as well be food!  Seriously though- you should have some sort of plan about where to spend each day before you arrive, based on extra magic hours or some such limiting factor, because if you show up planning to wing it, you might be a bit overwhelmed.

Look Ma- no people!
5. Go in November- before Thanksgiving week.
I know it's not technically the least-busy time of the year- or so sayeth The Unofficial Guide- but it was pretty damn slow while we were there.  The longest lines were to meet characters!  For rides like Expedition Everest, even though we didn't show up right at park opening, we walked up to the ride and got straight on with no wait whatsoever.  For some of the newer rides, this is almost a bad thing- Disney has mastered the art of the attraction queue so that standing in line is an attraction in and of itself, and Mr. Geek didn't like that I kept rushing him through the empty waiting areas to hop straight on the ride so he couldn't snap pictures of absolutely everything.  ("We'll ride it again!" I told him- a promise I only kept with Rock 'n' Roller Coaster because for all the others, we got distracted by other things the moment we got off the ride.)  Animal Kingdom is the least-busy of the 4 parks anyway, no matter what time of year it is, but in the morning, the dinosaur area was practically deserted.  Another advantage to going at this time of year is the weather- it was sunny and comfortable, sometimes even a bit chilly, which was fine by me, because I have a thing for sweaters and tights in the fall :)



6. Get into it!
 Whether you're there with kids or not, let go while you're in Disney World- let go of whatever it is about our society that makes us think that being an adult means no longer having fun or finding joy in the simplest things.  I mean, you're in Disney World for heaven's sake- if there's any place on earth where you're allowed to relive all the best parts of your childhood, it's here.  So if you run into a character as they're making their way to a greeting spot and they say something to you that is, well, in-character, play along- pretend, for a moment, that she is actually Alice and she really is following the White Rabbit, and point her in the direction you think you saw him last.  Or if you're on a dark ride and you figure out how a particular animatronic character works, don't explain it loudly to the person sitting next to you.  In other words, as an adult, you kind of need to do your part to help the cast members do theirs- keep the magic intact for the very young children who really do believe that she is Alice and that ghost is magically chasing them.  The positive side effect of this is that you're keeping the magic intact for yourself; if you suspend disbelief when you enter the park, much like you suspend disbelief when you open a book or turn on a movie, then the experience will be more enjoyable for you all-around.  Maybe posing with characters isn't your thing, and that's fine, but again, if there's any place in the world where you're allowed to feel a little giddy at the prospect of meeting Belle, your very favorite princess ever and first real role model, it's Disney World.  Feel giddy.  You're no less of a mature, responsible adult for feeling that way.  Along those lines...


7. Unplug for a bit!
Odds are, you're on this trip with your family or other people in your life who are important to you.  Use this vacation as a chance to connect with each other- not the internet.  Like I said, earlier, Disney has mastered the art of the queue experience, so there are constant distractions- talking robots, videos, incredibly detailed scenery, even interactive games- and it's nearly impossible to get bored while waiting in line.  If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in an hour-long wait and are currently in the outdoor portion of the queue where there are no such distractions, TALK TO EACH OTHER.  Share a bit of what's going on in your head with your companions instead of your Facebook friends; say something witty to them instead of your Twitter followers.  Mr. Geek's phone broke during the setting-up activities the night before the wedding, so we only had one phone at our disposal anyway, but it stayed in our backpack the entire time- we never even needed to use the Wait Times app (because there were no waits!)  In one of the few longer-than-20-minute queues- our third time on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, at the end of the week- I was saddened to see a family of four standing vaguely near each other, heads down, fingers swiping away on their smart phones, looking up only when the line moved ahead and not speaking to each other until it was time to sit down on the ride and they were literally forced to put their phones away.  You've come all this way and entered what otherwise feels like another world- so leave the outside world behind for a bit and enjoy yourself.  For that matter...


8. Actively be in a good mood.
Just as there are plenty of things to entertain you in Disney, there are plenty of things that could annoy you.  Long waits.  Temporarily closed attractions.  Over-priced food.  Screaming toddlers.  Sore feet.  If you let them, these annoying things could completely ruin your day, and you'll find yourself wondering why you decided to put yourself through this hell to begin with.  But you know what?  Getting pissed off is a choice; if something is annoying, you can choose to either let it anger you, or shrug it off.  Every morning when we got on the bus to head to the park, we looked at each other and said, "We are going to have a good time today."  (Okay fine, it's more like we were bouncing in our seats saying, "We're going to have so much fun today!!"  But you know what?  Being overwhelmed with happiness is so much more enjoyable than being overwhelmed with bitterness.)  I realize this was our honeymoon, so it's not like we had to try very hard to be happy, but we were both actually sick during the week- I had caught the cold that all four of our tiny attendants had at the wedding and by the end of the week I had passed it on to him.  Between stuffy heads, sore throats, and overall tiredness, it would have been very easy to let some little things overtake our mutual good mood- but we constantly found reasons to smile.  Looking through all million pictures of this trip, I honestly don't think you can tell that on Thursday night we both flopped into bed moaning "My head is going to explode!"  As we waited in line to see Belle, we stood behind a British couple and their son who was maybe 9 or 10 years old.  We were in the France pavilion at Epcot, and the father had just come back with a crepe.  He took one bite, grimaced, and handed it to his wife, who had the same reaction.  "What's that?" asked the little boy.  "It's a crepe," explained his mom.  "It's not a crepe, it's crap," corrected the father, who snatched it from her hands, marched to a trashcan, and threw it away.  He wandered off to a different pavilion, bought a different snack, and came back to share.  (Belle had gone on her break- I mean, to check on Beast- and we were waiting for her to return.)  This snack, too, did not live up to this man's high standards of quality, and this time he announced, rather loudly, "This tastes like shit!  All the food in this bloody park tastes like absolute shit."  The little boy looked confused for a moment, then tentatively took a bite from whatever it was that was so shitty.  His mom took a bite, too, and literally spit it out into the bushes.  The little boy chewed thoughtfully for a moment, appearing to enjoy it at first, but then glanced up at his parents' scowls.  "Yeah," he said finally, stomping his foot.  "Crap crepes!  Crap crap crap!"  You know, maybe the best rule to abide by to ensure you have a good time is...


9. Remember that you're not the only person there.
I'm not just talking about the members of your own party- there are other kids there, heck, other people there, too.  Don't feel so insistent on getting your way that you ruin it for everybody else.  The only thing that really bothered either of us the entire trip was when people didn't seem to understand the words NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY, or otherwise thought it couldn't possibly apply to them, though it was repeated multiple times in multiple languages at the attractions to which it applied.  In a theater setting, flash photography can screw with the actors' and dancers' vision; in a dark ride, illuminating what was meant to be hidden ruins the magic by exposing how the whole thing works.  You're using an iPhone or a crappy point-and-shoot; if you're too stupid to know how to turn off your flash, do you really think you're artistic enough to get a good shot of those dancing fish?  Put your camera down and watch the show.   Another example of this is if you don't have an ADR at a certain restaurant.  Like I said, with an ADR, you still have to sign in with the hostess, so unless another guest asks you directly, he doesn't necessarily know that you made an ADR for this restaurant.  Biergarten in Epcot opens for first seating at 12 noon; we arrived just before then and put in our names.  When they first started calling families to seat them, one gentleman got very, very angry when another family who had checked in after he did were called before he was.  He raised a fuss with the hostess and all the wait staff- "I've been waiting here for 20 minutes, they only just showed up!"- and they tried to calmly explain to him that that party had made a reservation and therefore their names were pushed to the top of the list.  This wasn't enough for him, though; he yelled louder and louder about how he'd been waiting for a whole twenty minutes and should have been seated first.  I kind of wanted to tell him that the other party had technically been waiting for 6 months, since they'd made a reservation, but I held my tongue.  The hostess scratched something out on her list and wrote something else closer to the top, and wouldn't you know it, Mr. Grumpy and his wife were called by the very next waiter- my suspicion is that she bumped them up the list to calm him down.  His sense of entitlement disrupted, if only by a dreadfully long twenty minutes, another family's lunch.

Well, I think that's all the advice we Expert Disney-Goers have to offer you this round.  There's one more post on Friday with a few last bits of "wisdom", and then after that, I promise it's the last you'll hear about our honeymoon for quite some time :)

How many times have you visited Disney?  What advice would you give to someone wanting to know the best way to make the most of their vacation?

Much love,
The Geeks

*...anyone?  Anyone?  Beuller?
**So I realize this footnote should really not be necessary but this is The Internet so apparently it is: I am obviously joking when I say that we are experts.  These "rules" are based on this ONE experience as grown-up Disney-goers, so what worked for us might not work for others, even in the exact same circumstances.  Any anecdotes about people we are suggesting you not mimic are merely told to say "These people appeared to not be having a very good time.  If you do the opposite of what they were doing, perhaps you'll have a better time."  But then again, perhaps not.  Your results may vary.  Please do share your results in the comments, however- did you make the same choices we did when planning your trip but have different results?  Do you disagree with any of our advice?  Let me (and your fellow readers!) know!

2 comments:

  1. Unplugging is a really good tip. We didn't do that this trip but did do it for our Disneymoon last year. We did have to use the Wait Times app quite a bit during the latter half of our week there.

    Wow to the deluxe plan - we had the basic dining and still thought that was too much food! But we aren't the type to have dessert with every meal and could have easily split several meals. We got the plan since it was free dining.

    Did you enjoy the Caribbean Beach Resort? That's where we stayed on our Disneymoon, it was a bit too big for us and we didn't like the long walk to the food court. This trip we stayed at the French Quarter - very nice, small and easy to walk around. I think it might be our home away from home!

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    1. Had it been any busier, we likely would've used the Wait Times app, but as it was so dead, we really didn't need it.

      The deluxe plan was definitely too much food but I really don't regret it- even though I felt slightly guilty for not finishing every bit of every meal, it was a great way to sample a large variety of super delicious, fancy food without breaking the bank (especially with the $500 off). I think next time I'm going to make a point to schedule as many 2-credit meals as possible.

      Caribbean Beach was beautiful and very quiet. The only times we went to the food court, we either drove the car (like on our way to HP World) or took the internal shuttle. I think being so spread out is what makes it so quiet- each "island" has its own pool (not that anyone was swimming in November) so the whole resort isn't congregating in one area. We definitely want to try French Quarter at some point as we're both big fans of the real New Orleans!

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