Walt Disney World Guidebooks Reviewed

by Margie Binder, contributing writer
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Abundant online resources and entertainment related to Walt Disney World are just a click or two away, and offer benefits unmatched by print resources. Print media is not completely doomed, however—there's something about flipping through pages, tabbing favorites, and even scribbling notes in the margin that just can't be replaced by a smartphone.

I still remember the first time I purchased the mammoth Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, reading and rereading every detail about the magical world created by Walt and his Imagineers; a thrill unmatched by sliding a finger along a 2" by 3" screen, even when I can find real-time information or zoom in on the layout of my favorite Disney hotel.

The quality of Walt Disney World guidebooks varies widely and is often determined by the frequency of updates, and whether the publisher is a Disney-owned company. I have found the latter to be great for indiscriminating youngsters, but offering little more than extended advertising for more seasoned travelers. So what sets the top guidebooks apart from the rest? They are well-researched, fair, and balanced, as well as offering:

  • Amount of Information – the guidebook must, at minimum, discuss and review the parks, accommodations, and restaurants, as well as offer general trip-planning information and tips.
  • Quality of Information – the guidebook should present Information objectively, clearly distinguished facts from opinion, with additional credit if they offer several sources or are divided by groups, delivering additional details for all topics, and providing a unique voice.
  • Ease of Use – the guidebook should clearly identify sections, and make information easy to find.
  • Visual Appeal – the guidebook should offer a good quantity and quality of photographs, as well as use of color, charts, and other pictures.
  • Portability – the guidebook should offer tips for packing both for travel and for a day in the park.

With these criteria, here is a mostly unscientific look at my three favorite guidebooks. I gave each book a score in each of the five categories using a low-to-high scale of 0 to 10, with a total score.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2013 (864 pages)

Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa. Wiley, 2012.

Total
Score
Amount of
Information
Quality of
Information
Ease
of Use
Visual
Appeal
Portability
39 10 10 6 6 7

The holy grail of Disney guidebooks, I was initially shocked this didn't score as my favorite. A book of all things related to Walt Disney World, the Unofficial Guide includes detailed touring plans and ratings for everything imaginable in the resort area, plus information on Universal Studios and other offsite activities. While the Unofficial Guide is must for the Disney geek, the sheer volume and challenge of finding specific information may be overwhelming for the Disney theme park novice.

Another plus to investing in this guide is the supplementary resources by the Unofficial Guide team, including multiple smaller volumes designed to complement the parent guide, such as The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World Color Companion and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. The Unofficial Guide also has associated an website, Touringplans.com, which offers trip-planning and information, as well as fee-based content

Rationale for ratings

Thumb through this guide and you will instantly appreciate the volume of information, matched by the quality. The authors and their extensive crew of researchers continuously comb every nook and cranny of Walt Disney World to develop objective data for rides, attractions, restaurants, accommodations, and much more. Readers are encouraged to provide feedback on the guide and on all aspects of a Walt Disney World vacation.

One of the strengths of this guidebook is the unique voice created when hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse opinions are considered and documented.

Visually, the guide is pretty bland. There are no color photographs, and the only color variety is the shades of blue on maps and charts.

Overall opinion

At over 800 pages this is not a guide to tote through the parks, however single page listings of Unofficial Guide's famous touring plans are conveniently included in the back of the book to tear out and carry while visiting the parks. After more than two dozen trips in the past twenty years, most following a customized version of an Unofficial Guide touring plan, I can state unequivocally that their methods work exceptionally well for maximizing touring time in Walt Disney World parks.

[Editor's note: TouringPlans.com is a sponsor of MousePlanet.com.]

The Complete Walt Disney World 2012 (384 pages)

Julie Neal and Mike Neal. Coconut Press, 2011

Total
Score
Amount of
Information
Quality of
Information
Ease
of Use
Visual
Appeal
Portability
42 8 8 8 10 8

I discovered this guide about three years ago and was instantly hooked by the remarkable photography on every page. Author Julie Neal and her husband, photographer Mike Neal, have put together the total package—detailed information on all major aspects of planning a trip to Walt Disney World, fun facts and information, and gorgeous photography.

The guide is comprehensive and represents the best of Walt Disney World without the bias of being published by Disney, although Julie Neal was once a cast member. The introductory chapter, "Best Bets," is a great start to this guide. The snippets in this section are very subjective (they rate the best thrill ride as Space Mountain), but at least unbiased. The chapter introduces the Disney theme park beginner to the wide variety of entertainment, accommodations, and activities available in Walt Disney World while providing more experienced Disney travelers something to argue about. A final section contains a handy guide to Disney characters, including where you might find each character in Walt Disney World. In between is a gold mine of information presented creatively, yet logically.

Rationale for ratings

The Unofficial Guide sets the bar for amount and quality of information, but The Complete Walt Disney World is well-rounded, easy to use, and thorough enough for most travelers. At about 5" by 8" and 1" thick, the guide is portable, although I don't recommend carrying it in the parks unless you have a backpack or stroller.

If you choose to take it to the parks, young kids will love the pictures and older kids can share information from "fun facts" and "fun finds" segments while waiting in line. Guidebook sections are organized alphabetically and by color, and every attraction is given a two or three page spread with ample photographs and details such as the history behind the attraction, average wait times throughout the day, maximizing scores, and "family matters"—opinions on the appeal (or not) of the attraction to all ages.

The biggest black mark against this guide is the lack of comprehensive ratings. For example, the author marks her favorite attractions in each park with a check mark. Next to the 21 attractions in the Magic Kingdom list, 12are checked. Touring itineraries are also suggested, but I found the recommendations uneve. For example, on a World Showcase "Magical Day" itinerary, the Voices of Liberty and "O Canada" film were not included—two attractions most Disney travelers rate very highly.

Overall opinion

This guide is terrific, and a top pick for planning your trip.

Note: The 2013 guide is scheduled for publication on August 1, a curious delay when most guides publishing their editions in the fall will be releasing their 2014 editions. Also, Julie Neal has several shorter, around 100 pages, Disney in a Minute titles in pre-order on Amazon.

Passporter's Walt Disney World 2013: The Unique Travel Guide, Planner, Organizer, Journal, and Keepsake! (362 pages)

Jennifer Marx, Dave Marx, Allison Cerel Marx. Passporter Travel Press, 2013

Total
Score
Amount of
Information
Quality of
Information
Ease
of Use
Visual
Appeal
Portability
44 8 9 10 9 8

I purchased my first PassPorter in 2006, with two more since—and after reviewing the 2013 edition the authors are clearly dedicated to updating and making their product better with each edition. Updates from the previous year are clearly highlighted, and the continuous improvement in quality and content from seven years ago is remarkable.

The title says it all, and the convenience of keeping travel plans and paper keepsakes, as well as journaling memories all in one spot is very appealing. After opening with "Planning" and "Getting There" sections, the guide devotes large chapters to accommodations, parks, and restaurants, clearly color coded, logically ordered, and thoroughly reviewed. Like the Unofficial Guide crew, the PassPorter team maintains a comprehensive website and has published several complementary print and e-books.

Rationale for ratings

The PassPorter can't compete with the amount of information and quality of research of the Unofficial Guide, however, this guide is comprehensive enough for most travelers, and has a terrific rating system. For example, the authors review resorts by "Value" and "Magic" criteria, then further divide those categories by quality, accessibility, and affordability for Value, and theme, amenities, and fun factor for Magic.

Attractions are rated by both adult authors (Jennifer and Dave), as well as readers. Maps are large, two-page fold-outs, and there is a lengthy appendix of reader-contributed photographs.

With fewer pages but bulkier than The Complete Walt Disney World due to handy pocket dividers and journal sections for up to ten days in the back of the book, the PassPorter is designed to take on vacation, but not to tote in the parks. Kids will enjoy contributing to the journaling areas by answering daily questions about the weather, best thing, most magical moment, and many more.

Final thoughts

There are dozens of travel guides to Walt Disney World and a specialized guidebook may be more appropriate for your needs. Realistically, the score differential between the three listed books is not significant. For a comprehensive and fun all-purpose resource to plan a trip to Walt Disney World, pick any one of the three and you will be rewarded with a wealth of well-researched and unbiased information. Combined with online resources before, during, and after your trip and you will create terrific memories for you and your family.

What are your thoughts on these and other print guides? Do you agree with my ratings and ranking?

Comments

  1. By schnebs

    Good job on the reviews, Margie! I'm partial to the Unofficial Guide becuase I enjoy Bob and Len's writing style, but I remember picking up the Neals' book and the Marxs' PassPorter Guide to do a review several years ago, and I was thoroughly impressed by both. I also agree with your assessment of the Disney-published books - they're pretty, but not particularly useful. Hope to see a follow-up article with more guidebook reviews.

  2. By GoofyMomInMN

    Quote Originally Posted by schnebs View Post
    Good job on the reviews, Margie! I'm partial to the Unofficial Guide becuase I enjoy Bob and Len's writing style, but I remember picking up the Neals' book and the Marxs' PassPorter Guide to do a review several years ago, and I was thoroughly impressed by both. I also agree with your assessment of the Disney-published books - they're pretty, but not particularly useful. Hope to see a follow-up article with more guidebook reviews.

    I know most folks have their favorite Walt Disney World guidebook, but I think these three are the cream of the crop. Since there are so many more guides out there I may continue to write review articles, so thanks for the encouraging words!

  3. By Jimbo996

    The problem with guidebooks is they are tend to be personalized to the author. They are mainly the author's preferences, not yours. To independently evaluate something, you need to read reviews from internet websites like Trip Advisor. Each person has a different opinion and you can weigh those opinions with yourself. Instead of one review, you have several reviews.

    Nonetheless, I have good experiences with "The Unoffficial Guide" for background information, but I never take my guidebook once I leave for the airport. You should already have your trip planned with tickets purchased and restaurant reservations made. Anything not already planned for should be written down in an outline as an option.

    The present future is with Phone apps. This should be your next article. You can plan your day in the parks by knowing the wait times for the rides. This works well for me because I know which rides to hit early or later. I can also change my plans instantly when a show or parade time arrives. This past weekend at Disneyland, I was reminded of the parade at 4pm when I glanced at my iPhone. I quickly decided to see it.

  4. By Lani

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    The present future is with Phone apps. This should be your next article. You can plan your day in the parks by knowing the wait times for the rides. This works well for me because I know which rides to hit early or later. I can also change my plans instantly when a show or parade time arrives. This past weekend at Disneyland, I was reminded of the parade at 4pm when I glanced at my iPhone. I quickly decided to see it.

    In my opinion, the biggest problem with depending on smartphone apps right now is that those that require an Internet connection can be notoriously fussy in the parks. A ton of traffic, everything bottlenecked, or the buildings block reception.

  5. By Jimbo996

    Quote Originally Posted by Lani View Post
    In my opinion, the biggest problem with depending on smartphone apps right now is that those that require an Internet connection can be notoriously fussy in the parks. A ton of traffic, everything bottlenecked, or the buildings block reception.

    I only had a problem of not getting service when I was waiting in line for Soarin' at DCA. It could be the building material or being underground. I used 3G for internet, not wifi. Wifi tends to be more unreliable.

    The alternative is.... going to the hub to get your wait times information. This is low tech, but reliable.

  6. By stan4d_steph

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    The present future is with Phone apps. This should be your next article.

    Jimbo, we have reviewed some phone apps in previous articles. I agree that I am unlikely to carry a guidebook into the parks, but they are a great resource for pre-planning.

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