Trip Planning 2014by Steve Russo, staff writer
When it comes to planning trips to Walt Disney World, I wrote the book. OK… I didn’t write the book but I did write a book. (For those keeping score, that’s Shameless Plug #127. The link is at the bottom of this article. Please support the Steve Russo Retirement Fund and buy one. Heck, buy two or three. They make great stocking stuffers, doorstops, hamster cage lining or fire pit kindling.)
Where was I? Oh, yes… trip planning. As I mentioned, I did write a book that broke down the planning of Walt Disney World trips into its major components: i.e. When to Go, Where to Stay, How to Get There, etc. I certainly don’t consider myself the ultimate authority but, having planned a few dozen trips over 30+ years, I do think I have some insights to share. What has come to my attention recently, however, is that trip planning in 2014 bears very little resemblance to the trips I planned in the 1980s, 1990s or even the earlier 2000s. This isn’t your father’s trip planning any longer. Let me explain…
I recently planned an impromptu, last-minute trip to Walt Disney World. Now, in the real world, an impromptu trip is one that’s hatched on a Thursday night for the coming weekend. You make a decision, spend a few minutes online searching out hotel rooms and discounts and… you’re done. Not so with Walt Disney World. This trip was planned just a little over 30 days prior to check-in. I can hear you gasping in surprise. How could I, a world-renowned Disney World trip planner, commit the cardinal sin of waiting so long before beginning the planning process?
It’s long story that involves an airline that shall remain nameless (but rhymes with “South-best”) some unused funds and a bit of misinformation given by a telephone agent. The result was the need to cancel a planned reservation in October, during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival. Needless to say, the ol’ ball and chain and I weren’t ecstatic about that. I decided, however, that I couldn’t just give up. We have Annual Passes that expire in October and it’s always our goal to maximize their value with multiple trips. So far, we’ve had two trips on these passes and a third would go a long way toward increasing their value so… off I went into Trip Planning Mode where I soon realized just how much things have changed. In keeping with the sequence of decisions in my book (and there’s Shameless Plug #128), I first needed to decide…
When to Go?
This was in late August and the only criteria I had was we needed to complete the trip by October 26, the date our Annual Passes would expire. Couldn’t we just renew them? Sure, but we have good reasons to let these expire and purchase new ones next year. Again, based upon our plans, we’re trying to schedule our Passes so we can get a minimum of three trips.
The only other item I was concerned about was the weather. I hoped to go as late as I could, knowing that September is almost summer-like in Orlando (i.e. – hot, humid and thunderstorms) and begins the “real” hurricane season.
I soon learned that my choice of dates would not be dictated by my desires but by the availability of rooms and reasonable airfare. I learned this when I began to look at…
Where to Stay?
Not all the changes are bad. There are some new online tools that really help with the trip planning process. If you reserve your rooms by using the Walt Disney World website then you’re likely familiar with this picture:
You can plug in your dates, the number in your travel party, and filter a bit by the resort name or type of resort (Value, Moderate, etc.) and the system will return a list of available rooms and rates. As you can see from the image, you can also filter the results by Price Range, Resort Location, Category or Characteristics. I did this using my login so the system knew I was an Annual Passholder and applied that discount when and where it was applicable. It would also factor any current promotions available. As you see from that screen image, the pickings were slim… and expensive. A one-bedroom villa at Animal Kingdom Lodge for $1,500 per night was not what I was looking for.
As a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member, I have access to that website and its new Resort Availability Tool. Similar to the regular website, this tool allows DVC members to specify the dates, accommodation type (Deluxe Studio, 1-Bedroom Villa, 2-Bedroom Villa or the Grand Villa) and the DVC resorts to include. You can see that in the image, below, which also depicts the results of the search—there were slim pickings indeed.
No resort had complete availability for my dates but several had “Limited Availability” and you can click on those to get the specifics. Unfortunately, as you can see from the image below, my options still weren’t very good.
I was able to piece together a day or two at three different resorts to come up with a reasonable stay. However, moving three times for a six-day stay was not something I relished. In the meantime, I also dealt with…
How to Get There
When choosing the dates, I not only had to deal with the limited availability of hotel rooms, I was also finding it difficult locating affordable airfare. Flying from Albany, NY to Orlando, the only non-stop flights are available on the aforementioned airline that rhymes with “South-best”. The fares I found were double and triple what I normally pay for this trip. I tried other airlines but found only modest fare savings and those involved multiple stops and plane changes.
I was arriving at the conclusion that we may have to forego our Fall trip this year but, if nothing else, I am persistent. I learned that, similar to rental cars, airfares would fluctuate on a daily basis. I even found fares that moved up and down multiple times per day.
While watching the airfare, I also found rooms at Kidani Village that would have us moving only once during our stay (from a Standard to a Savanna view room). Done!
After another day or two, I was able to grab reasonable airfare for the same dates. It certainly wasn’t what we normally pay for airfare but it was at least close. As luck would have it, I checked yet again and was able to book a room at Kidani Village that would require no moves during the week. The trip was planned and I was done! Right? Not so fast…
As we all know, if you want to eat anything at Walt Disney World during your stay, you require Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) at many/most resort or theme park restaurants. I quickly jumped online and began searching for the availability of a few of our favorite dining establishments. Did I mention we’d be going during a time when Disney offered “Free Dining”? For the uninitiated, Disney will sometimes offer its guests a free Disney Dining Plan for stays during the least crowded times of the year—September being one of these. There are caveats to this, such as non-discounted rooms but, overall, it’s a pretty good deal. What it does, however, is suck up every ADR on property for the duration.
I found most restaurants had either very limited availability or none at all. The best I could do was a late afternoon lunch/dinner reservation at the Plaza Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. I could find nothing else we wanted so we resigned ourselves to counter service establishments and dumpster diving for this trip. Seriously, folks… I know many malign the counter service establishments at Walt Disney World but, if you’ve been a few times, you’re likely aware that there are a number of these places that are actually quite good. The bottom line was I figured between getting table service as a walk-up (it can be done) and counter service restaurants, we certainly wouldn’t go hungry. If all else fails, I’d invoke the Russo Rule and we’d hit Ghirardelli’s for ice cream. So… now I’m done, right? Again… not so fast.
As I mentioned, this isn’t your father’s trip planning. Nor is it the trip planning from last year. The proliferation of FastPass+ all but mandates that you make a few of these “attraction reservations” in advance, for each day of your stay. While this did add an additional step in the trip planning process, it really didn’t take me more than 20-30 minutes to complete.
Unfortunately, because I was making these FastPass+ reservations with less than 30 days to go, many of the popular attractions were limited. As an example, I could not score a FastPass for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride any earlier than 7:30 pm. While that’s not ideal, I’m certain we can adjust our park touring to accommodate that time.
Reluctantly, I decided 30 days in advance which parks we’d visit on each day of your trip. I say “reluctantly” because I would much rather be spontaneous—choosing a park each day on a whim or even playing “bus roulette” where you agree to hop on the first theme park bus to arrive. Alas, those days are long gone.
The Bottom Line
Now… I’ve told you all that so I could tell you this: planning a trip to Walt Disney World today is different - much different. It’s different than it was last year and VERY different than it was five or ten years ago.
As a DVC member, I’m finding that if I don’t reserve rooms close to the 11 month window allowed at my home resort, the chances of getting that resort decrease with each passing day. Trying to reserve rooms inside of 90-120 days means having to settle for what might be available rather than your desired resort. Trying to reserve rooms inside of 30-60 days will likely mean piecing together a trip staying at multiple resorts—or finding no availability at all.
For a while, we’ve dealt with the need to predict where we’ll be and what we’ll feel like having for dinner as much as six months in advance. I’ve never liked this but it’s become critical in trip planning. If you absolutely have to have breakfast at Chef Mickey’s, book it as close to six months out as you can or risk not getting it. The same is true for many of Disney World’s more popular restaurants (and even a few that aren’t so popular).
The newest wrinkle in the planning process is making FastPass+ reservations 60-days out. I like FastPass+—I really do. I’ve mentioned how nice it is to walk into Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the morning knowing you don’t need to quick-step back to Toy Story Midway Mania because you already have a FastPass+ reservation for 10:00am. You can ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster and/or stop at Starring Rolls for a coffee and a danish—without the fear of missing out on the ride.
The process has changed and I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide if it’s better or worse for your own specific planning needs. For me, it’s certainly a change and it’s made the planning for a last-minute, impromptu trip a real challenge. I’ll let you know how it works out. As you read this, I’m packing my bags and getting ready to head to the airport.
As always, thanks for reading.