Trip Planning 2014

by Steve Russo, staff writer
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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:


Walt Disney World Room Availability. Image by Steve Russo.

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.


DVC Resort Availability Tool. Image by Steve Russo.

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.


Specific Resort Availability. Image by Steve Russo.

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…

Dining

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.

FastPass+

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.

 

Comments

  1. By swrdfghtr

    There's definitely a proliferation of opinions on FastPass+. We tend to prefer a more off-the-cuff touring style, and tend to not make FP+ a huge priority. We're a little opportunistic... "oh, here's a short-ish line. Let's jump in." Or, "oh, Toy Story's up to two hours. Meh, we'll queue and play trivia games while we wait." As fairly frequent visitors, there's not a huge pressure on us to ride everything, every time.

    But... whenever folks discuss FP+, it seems like there are two options: Use it, or don't ride anything. That is, there seems to be a feeling that, if you can't get your FP+ reservations, then you're just screwed. At least for us, we're still able to do what theme park-goers have done since the beginning of theme parks: wait in line. FP+ hasn't seemed to make lines appreciably longer (at least from our perspective). We waited in lines before FP(old) arrived, we waited in lines when FP(old) existed, and we wait in lines now that FP+ exists. That's kinda part of the deal with going to a theme park. You queue. Disney's recently been making an effort to inject some lightweight fun into the queues, which is much appreciated... but we've always waited in those lines regardless.

    So we've never felt, "argh, last-minute trip and all the FP+'s are taken!" We just... waited in line.

    Maybe Disney's changed the expectation, at least with experienced guests, that if you play the system right you won't ever have to wait in lines... but that's perhaps the guest buying into that frame of mind. We certainly expect to wait in a line or two... or more. Yes, it's certainly nice when you can skip them... but queuing is an intrinsic part of the park-going experience. Always has been... and none of the FP* has ever really eliminated that.

  2. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by swrdfghtr View Post
    There's definitely a proliferation of opinions on FastPass+. We tend to prefer a more off-the-cuff touring style, and tend to not make FP+ a huge priority. We're a little opportunistic... "oh, here's a short-ish line. Let's jump in." Or, "oh, Toy Story's up to two hours. Meh, we'll queue and play trivia games while we wait." As fairly frequent visitors, there's not a huge pressure on us to ride everything, every time.

    But... whenever folks discuss FP+, it seems like there are two options: Use it, or don't ride anything. That is, there seems to be a feeling that, if you can't get your FP+ reservations, then you're just screwed. At least for us, we're still able to do what theme park-goers have done since the beginning of theme parks: wait in line. FP+ hasn't seemed to make lines appreciably longer (at least from our perspective). We waited in lines before FP(old) arrived, we waited in lines when FP(old) existed, and we wait in lines now that FP+ exists. That's kinda part of the deal with going to a theme park. You queue. Disney's recently been making an effort to inject some lightweight fun into the queues, which is much appreciated... but we've always waited in those lines regardless.

    So we've never felt, "argh, last-minute trip and all the FP+'s are taken!" We just... waited in line.

    Maybe Disney's changed the expectation, at least with experienced guests, that if you play the system right you won't ever have to wait in lines... but that's perhaps the guest buying into that frame of mind. We certainly expect to wait in a line or two... or more. Yes, it's certainly nice when you can skip them... but queuing is an intrinsic part of the park-going experience. Always has been... and none of the FP* has ever really eliminated that.

    That's an interesting insight and I agree - at least partially. I will make FP+ reservations just to have them but, like you, I'm OK with a queue or two (or more). Where I differ is that I would never wait two hours in line for anything. If a queue is longer than 20-30 minutes, we'll bypass it to come back later (or possibly not at all). Like you, we have the benefit of frequent visits so we can always get it next time. Not so for the one-time-trip or infrequent visitor. For them, FastPass+ is a must.

  3. By tloach

    As DVC members who have done a couple of last-minute trips this year (planning much less than 30 days out) we didn't find it as bad as you seem to have. One hint is that if you can't get a full stay at any DVC resort you can call up guest services and see if they can get you a discount at a value paying cash. We've managed to get rates around $80/night twice that way.

    I think we're less shocked by the airfare because we normally fly 3-5 people down, and our last minute trips are always solo or 1 parent 1 child. The number doesn't look as bad even though the price per seat is worse.

    I've also found FP+ to be more spontaneous. Sure I'll have one or two reservations that I don't want to change, but everything else can be changed day-of in the park on the MDE app or mobile website. If I have a FP+ for splash mountain, show up and see a 10 minute stand-by wait I'll do the stand-by and switch that FP+ to something else while I wait. With the old FP you were stuck if you had an FP for something with no wait.

    As far as restaurants go I've found last-minute trips a fun way to try restaurants I probably wouldn't consider for a fully-planned trip. If you're at MK and the sit-downs there are booked walk over to Contemporary and try The Wave. If you're at Epcot and everything is booked you're lying because Restaurant Marrakesh is never fully booked. From HS head towards the boardwalk and try one of the restaurants there. AK is harder, but has some good counter service.

    Overall I've found the best way to do a last-minute trip is to be spontaneous. Get whatever FP+ I can when I book then change day-of depending on how I'm feeling that day. Don't bother with ADRs unless I can get something unexpected, which does happen sometimes as other guests cancel theirs or restaurants extend their hours. Make ADRs day-of, or not. The only change the next gen has really made for me for spontaneous trips is that now I can plan for the current day from my phone while in the park. Which is incredibly convenient.

  4. By Jimbo996

    I found it funny that you didn't keep to the same dates because you stuck to your original airline. Is that correct? Otherwise, I would have booked with any airline with the same dates, but lowest airfare.

    Spontaneous trips are fine, but I do think WDW deserves long-term planning. Since I am a timeshare owner of a non-Disney company, I am able to trade my floating points for a Disney resort at 9 months out. Only after I accomplished this can I make the airline reservation. I found the sweet spot for airline reservations is 5 to 7 months out despite some studies that say 3 to 4 months is the best time for the lowest airfare. Thus, 6 months is the time that you can make ADR reservations at the same time, and 60 days is for making Fastpass+ reservations. Note that this is applicable for a once a year trip. Multiple trips means even more advanced planning especially since my timeshare points is likely depleted if I don't plan properly by breaking up the points for multiple shorter trips, smaller accomodations that require less points, and omission of weekends.

    To keep in mind that you're taking a spontaneous trip, maybe you shouldn't default to staying at the Disney resort. You can achieve substantial savings by staying off-site and visiting some other attractions such as Universal's new Diagon Alley. This is such a opportunity.

    You need to use FP+ strategically if you desire spontaneity. I brought my tablet and quickly made changes the night before especially when Orlando has inclement weather. You should also call ADR regularly to make last minute dining reservations. I was able to obtain a last minute reservation at Sci-Fi Dine-In at 11am the night before. I was also able to get a "Be My Guest" reservation 30 days out by checking regularly at MyDisneyExperience.

  5. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    I found it funny that you didn't keep to the same dates because you stuck to your original airline. Is that correct? Otherwise, I would have booked with any airline with the same dates, but lowest airfare.

    Using another airline was not an option. As I mentioned, Southwest has the only direct flights. While other airlines were less expensive, they were still higher than I consider reasonable and all involved multiple stops and plane changes.

  6. By davidgra

    We are also DVC members and rarely do "last-minute" trip planning, but we've done two trips on short notice before. Both times were planned within 30 days, including one late last year after the introduction of FP+, and both were done using DVC points from trips that were canceled at the last minute (the points go into a holding account if you have to cancel immediately before a trip).

    We found that traveling in the off-season makes it very easy to plan at the last minute. One trip we did in the middle of September, and last year's trip was right after Thanksgiving.

    The key is not to set your expectations unreasonably high.

    We couldn't get our first, second, or third choice of DVC resort. On one of the trips, we had to book half our stay at one resort, and the other half at a different resort. You know what? It was fine. The Boardwalk for a few days followed by Saratoga Springs for a few days was a nice combination. Sure, we'd have preferred the Beach Club for the whole trip, or even Animal Kingdom Lodge, but we enjoyed our stays.

    We also couldn't get reservations at every restaurant we would have liked. That was OK, too. We ate at some restaurants we haven't been to in years. We also ate at a few favorites that had available reservations. On our December trip, we found that we could even make same-day reservations for some restaurants. That's the beauty of the off-season.

    As for FP+, it was really easy to use. Of course, we didn't end up using our FP+ reservations every day, because lines were so short for everything that we often just used standby lines for whatever was nearby, rather than trying to plan our day around which part of the park we needed to be in at any given time. FP+ also works fine when it's busy in the parks (we were there this spring during a much busier time of year), but it's not like there's a penalty for not using it.

    We always book our DVC room first, since that's usually the hardest part of planning any WDW vacation -- last minute or otherwise. We then book our airline seats, either American or Southwest, as we get free checked bags with either and often have enough frequent flyer miles for free airfare. Again, when it's off-peak season for WDW, it's off-peak season for travel to Orlando, so airline tickets are always cheaper and easier to get at those times.

    Once that's done, I make restaurant reservations, then FP+ reservations based around which park we'll be eating in and what time we're eating (I tend to group FP+ reservations around our dining times, so we're free to hop to a different park at a different time of day). Yes, at the last minute, you might not get the exact time or attraction you want with your FP+, but we don't worry about that.

    I wouldn't want to plan a last-minute trip during the peak seasons, but I also know that I probably wouldn't be ABLE to do that, as there would be no DVC properties available. We don't want to be there when it's packed to capacity, and the kids very much enjoy getting to miss school for a Disney trip, so it's a win-win for us every time.

  7. By currence

    One of my friends called me last night for "last minute trip planning advise" I asked them when they were going and they let me know that they had just checked into their hotel

    At that point the best advice I could give them was "go at your kids pace, don't plan on seeing everything, and skip the first Fastpass+ station in the park in favor of a hopefully less crowded second or third station."

  8. By baylakebeliever

    Hi Steve!
    Hope you are having a great time. If you are unable to find an ADR when visiting the MK , see if The Wave at the Contemporary has availability. Our home resort is BLT and we enjoy breakfast here. They serve a full breakfast menu as well as a buffet and pretty reasonable on the price Last month we had supper there for the first time and not only was the meal superb but the service was the best we have every had WDW!

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