Trip Planning FAQsby Steve Russo, staff writer
Last June I had the great fortune to have dinner while seated next to a Walt Disney World Imagineer. As you can guess, I used that opportunity to ask many questions of my captive guest. I tried to be sensitive to our surroundings, the very lovely Jiko – The Cooking Place at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and not turn a very nice dinner into an inquisition. Nevertheless, I expected that, when faced with a social gathering that includes a few members of the Disney media, an Imagineer would anticipate a certain level of questioning.
What I had not foreseen was the Imagineer turning the tables on me. During the latter portion of our dinner, she turned and asked, "So what kinds of questions do you get from your readers?" My mind did a few summersaults as I tried to recall some of the email I receive on a semi-regular basis. I could recall a few specific questions and began to blurt out queries I had received about Hyperion Wharf (what happened to that one, eh?) and a few specific questions about resort amenities.
As others from our table joined in, I was able to collect my thoughts a bit and realized that most of the reader questions I receive center on four specific areas: park passes, Disney's resorts, transportation, and dining. I thought it might be appropriate, and possibly a bit proactive, to share a few of the more common questions with you here. It may provide some answers for you or provide a stimulus for some follow-up discussion.
Rather than list the specific questions and answers, I thought it might be better to summarize the topics from the majority of the queries I receive. Ready? Here goes…
I receive a steady stream of questions that all culminate with some variation of "What passes and options should we purchase?" The folks asking the question will typically provide the information on their traveling group/family and the individual ages but rarely do they include their touring habits, preferences, budget, etc. All those items—and more—are required to make an informed decision.
In February 2010 I wrote an article on Park Passes. I've reviewed that article and (surprisingly?) it's still valid for anyone with questions on what type of pass to purchase. It will walk you through the length of the ticket as well as the various options (Park Hopping, No Expiration, Water Park Fun and More, etc.).
At its core, the ticket decision is a fairly easy one—a spreadsheet decision, if you will. You can produce a calculation of the costs involved and play the various "What if?" games. How much extra will it cost if we add Park Hopping? Water Parks? You get the idea. I've provided this service for more than few emailers and have sent replies with the costs broken out.
That's the easy part. The more difficult decision comes with Annual Passes as in, "When is an Annual Pass financially justified?" That answer can be much more complex. It's an easy calculation if your only criteria are the number of park days planned over the next year. The Annual Pass, however, also carries with it some discounts that warrant consideration. There are dining and shopping discounts available to Annual Passholders but their value can only be determined by the individual attempting to estimate what that will mean to a specific group or family. Personally, I wouldn't make an Annual Pass decision based upon these discounts.
What makes this decision even more complex are the resort room discounts often available to Passholders. The discounts available here can be significant, particularly if you're planning to stay at one of Disney World's Deluxe resorts. As an example, if you can grab a 30% discount at the Polynesian Resort for a 7-night stay, the savings might well be enough to justify purchasing a single Annual Pass for one person in your party—even if there are no additional trips planned within a year.
Why does this make more sense at the Deluxe resorts (and possibly the Moderates) than the Values? It's simple math. The cost of a room at a Deluxe resort is significantly higher than a Value so the discount will yield a much greater dollar value.
A number of people write and ask about the ticket length, often asking what to do on departure day—knowing they'll only have four or five hours available to them. Again, this is not a straightforward answer. Many have written about the myriad non-park activities available to you at the World. My approach is a bit different—simply look at the difference in price between your pass and a pass that is one day longer. If you're holding a six-day pass, the cost to add the seventh day is approximately $10. Is it worth $10 to spend your last few hours at Epcot or Magic Kingdom? Only you can answer that.
Questions about resorts also come in regularly and usually take the form of "We're considering staying at All Star Movies but is it worth it to upgrade to a Moderate resort?" Or the same question is asked about upgrading from a Moderate to a Deluxe. Again, I authored two articles on where to stay (Part 1 and Part 2).
Those columns deal with a lot of the decision-making criteria. If you're having difficulty deciding, I'd urge you to start reading there.
This issue is quite possibly the most difficult one to advise people on because it's so personal. Everyone has his or her own likes and dislikes. The elaborate theming of Pop Century is "whimsical and fun" to many—and "garish and tacky" to others. Some are extremely interested in a resort's amenities while others view the resort as little more than a place to sleep and shower.
The other obvious consideration is cost. The Walt Disney World resorts are not inexpensive and everyone has a budget they must operate within.
For all those reasons I try to avoid making any recommendations for a specific resort. I've stayed at more than a few and I'm happy to share my experiences along with my likes and dislikes. Just keep in mind, they are my opinions—and we all know what they're worth.
Questions on transportation tend to run from the very easy ("What's the best way to get to the Magic Kingdom from the Beach Club?") to the very difficult ("Should I rent a car or use Disney's Magical Express?") If that's your question, begin with a past column on the Magical Express Debate.
However, I do have some general transportation advice. If you need to determine the most efficient method of traveling between two points, don't assume a Cast Member is your best choice. I don't want to offend any Cast Members out there but I've seen too many instances of guests sent roundabout routes when much simpler ones are available. The fact is, not all Cast Members spend a lot of time with Disney transportation. I do… and I'm sure many of you do as well. That's why my advice is usually to rely on other guests—but only the seasoned veterans. How do you do that? Ask your questions on Disney forums like MousePlanet's MousePad. The chances are that several people there have done what you'd like to do and are more than willing to share what works and what doesn't.
I do have a few "Rules of Thumb" regarding Disney Transportation. They don't hold true 100% of the time, but over the years they've served me well:
- Driving a personal vehicle from resort to park is usually faster than Disney's transportation, except for the Magic Kingdom.
- Driving a personal vehicle from resort to resort is almost always faster than Disney's transportation.
- Unless your resort is on the Monorail line, always take a bus from your resort to the Magic Kingdom. Driving will only get you to the Transportation and Ticket Center and you'll need to transfer to a boat or monorail.
- When traveling from resort to resort (and without a personal vehicle), don't heed the advice to use Downtown Disney as a bus transfer point. Use the closest theme park instead (unless it's at or later than park closing time or the destination is Saratoga Springs.)
- Remember: if you're not pressed for time, boat or monorail transportation can be an attraction unto itself.
One last word on transportation—and this responds to frequent queries I receive asking for ways to beat Disney's parking fees. People write and ask if it's worthwhile to park at Downtown Disney or a resort and use Disney transportation to get to and from the parks. My stance is to discourage this practice. Theme park parking is free for resort guests, Disney Vacation Club members and Annual Passholders. If you don't fit into one of those groups, pay the fee, Yes, you can park at Downtown Disney...but you'll be "stealing" a parking spot from someone that legitimately wants to shop there. You will also have to take a minimum of two buses each way because there is no direct service from Downtown Disney to a theme park.
Parking at a resort is a bit trickier. Yes, you can park at a monorail resort and take the monorail to the Magic Kingdom (or Epcot) with a transfer. You can also park at one of the Crescent Lake resorts and take advantage of the proximity to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. However, when you do this without a legitimate reason such as dining at the resort, you're taking a parking spot that could/should be used by a resort guest—namely me.
The most common dining question I receive is a variation on "Do I really have to make dining reservations six months in advance?" My response is always, "Of course not—unless you want to guarantee dining in your restaurant of choice."
If you've read my columns for any length of time, you know I blame the Dining Plans. The fact is that many people purchase the Plans and make their reservations early. A lot of them wrestle, as we all do, with predicting where they'll be six months in advance. To compensate, they'll make multiple reservations for the same time window. I don't like that and I wish it didn't happen—but it does and we need to deal with it. My advice is to make your dining reservations as early as possible. Six months might be needed for the most popular spots but certainly not for all.
Other frequent questions surround the Dining Plans themselves, as in "Should we?" I'm not a fan of the Dining Plans primarily because I believe they force you to dine differently than you would normally and will make you a slave to your dining reservation schedule. However, that's just me and others love, love, love the Dining Plans—especially when they're offered "free" (just keep in mind that nothing is truly "free" at Disney). If you would like some advice on the plans, read Disney's Dining Plan (Part 1 and Part 2). Beyond that advice, you're on your own. Truth be told, I avoid answering dining questions that center on specific restaurants. I really like 'Ohana, Jiko, Narcoossee's and the Chefs de France… but you may not. For the past several years, I've gone on record many times saying that Le Cellier is overrated—and I'm sure that's offended many of you that absolutely love Le Cellier.
My point is that dining preferences are truly individual ones. If you ask, I will offer my preferences and experiences but I will not proffer a recommendation. Sorry.
Keep Them Coming
So… as someone once said, keep your cards and letters coming. I try to respond to each email I receive and I'm more than happy to offer advice where I feel I have some expertise. At the very least, I'll try to offer you some direction that will help answer your questions.
In next month's column, I'm planning the annual release of my inner curmudgeon with another Park Peeves article. If you have suggestions for that, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And… as always, thanks for reading.