My Disney Top 5 -Walt Disney World Absolutesby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. I hope you are all doing well out there. To quote Alice Cooper - and I can't believe I'm saying those words on MousePlanet, "School's out for summer!" That's right, as of the day I'm writing this article, school is indeed out for summer. Today was my last day at work for a while and, as anyone would imagine, I'm quite beside myself happy right now. I won't be lying around all summer long. I've got some work lined up, as most of us do on our break. This summer I have a Disney trip to look forward to! I haven't been able to utter that sentence since summer of 2018! Fall of 2019, my boys and I escaped for a quick weekend down there before the world shut down a few months later. But this summer…I'm in countdown mode until we're finally back in August!
At this point, I'm making sure I have the right dining reservations, the right park reservations, plane tickets, comfortable sneakers, functioning magic bands (I'm not giving up my magic band yet!) and all of those little odds and ends that I'll need when we're storming the parks for a week. As I've just gone through the final planning stages for this trip, I started to think about the things I think that are most important to me when I'm headed to Walt Disney World. What are the things that I must do? What's non-negotiable? As with any Disney fan, I have some things that are just not up for discussion. What are they? Let's check out my Top 5 Walt Disney World Absolutes.
5 - No Dining Plan
Here's the thing with the Disney Dining Plan. In our lives, the way we choose to eat and travel, it's just not necessary. Years ago when the Dining Plan was a newer thing, we booked a 10-day trip at Port Orleans Riverside. Yes. 10 days! If you haven't taken a 10-day trip to Disney, trust me, it's that much more magical. With 10 days, you can truly relax, slow down and really experience the place. It was fantastic. We also got lucky because they were offering a free dining plan with every vacation package. So we weren't going to turn down free food for 10 days, that's for sure. We couldn't deny the savings. But what we soon came to realize is that we simply don't want to book our Disney trips around dining reservations. And despite the fact that it was all free, we didn't like the idea that we had to stick to it and get the most out of it…all the time. We kind of felt like the trip was revolving around food and dining.
When we're down at Disney we certainly have restaurants that are special to us like breakfast at the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom, or the San Angel Inn in Mexico at Epcot. We have had some truly amazing meals down there. My wife's 40th birthday at the California Grill was one of the best meals I've ever had anywhere. My 50th birthday dinner at the old Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge for 24 people was extraordinary. However, my dinner at the pool at the Yacht Club that one night, which was a last minute decision to cancel dinner plans and hang at the resort, was just as magical if not more. The pizza at the Caribbean Beach pool while watching Lilo and Stitch on the inflatable screen with my sons was one of my best Disney memories of all and that was also a night that we canceled plans. My point is, I don't want to be tied down to dinner reservations all the time. We didn't pay for the Dining Plan on that trip, so we could cancel whatever we wanted. We didn't though. We felt like we were getting it for free so let's take advantage. In the end, we all agreed that we would never pay for the plan and make our whole trip so scheduled around food. That, and it was really upsetting how many wasted carrot cakes were in our little Riverside fridge at the end of the week! It just seems like too much food for us and too much scheduling as well.
4 - Magic Kingdom on Day One
This upcoming Wednesday August 17th we will spend the first morning of our trip at the same place we spend every first morning of every trip, the Magic Kingdom. To all of us, this is a no-brainer and it's non-negotiable. We adore Epcot and Animal Kingdom and, since the addition of Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land, have started to love the Studios. But the Magic Kingdom is the heart of Walt Disney World. I love how it feels like that much more of a journey getting up to that corner of the property. I know exactly when I can get that first glimpse of Cinderella Castle and Space Mountain from the resort buses and the anticipation builds once we get closer and closer. Once I'm there, I feel like I've actually returned. It happens as soon as I enter Town Square.
I can remember my wife on one trip looking over at me as we walked through the square, and she said, "You are so happy right now…aren't you?" Yes, of course I was. It was the first park we went to on our first trip there as a family and it's been the first one we've gone to on every trip I've ever taken. It's an absolute. We haven't arrived at Walt Disney World until I'm in the Magic Kingdom and therefore, that's where we've always started out, and we always will.
3 - No Car
This is an easy one for me. I'm not driving down there. Not going to happen. It's not that I hate to drive. I'm a Deadhead and a skier. Tomorrow, I'm about to drive two hours back and forth to see a show by one of the members of the Grateful Dead and then Saturday, I'm probably going to drive another three and a half hours in a different direction to see the rest of them do another show. I love to drive. As a skier living on an island, I have to drive a least two to three hours or more to get to some good mountains. No problem. Load up the car and let's go. But once I'm on Disney property, something different happens to me. I reject everything that makes me feel like I'm at home. I remember when the Deluxe resorts used to leave a USA Today at your door in the morning. No thanks. No reminders of the outside world please. One time at the Yacht Club, my daughter had heard that there was a good coffee shop over in either the Swan or the Dolphin. She wasn't too enchanted with Disney's coffee at the time, so I agreed to take a walk over with her and check it out. As soon as we got to the lobby, there was a TV near the coffee shop playing CNN. No. No. Absolutely not. Get me back to the Yacht Club where the TV in the lobby plays classic Disney shorts please.
I feel the same way about driving on Disney property. It might be more convenient and easier to get to some places, but I still don't want to get behind the wheel and drive anywhere. It pops my Disney bubble. And before you say it, I actually have driven while at Disney once. My cousin who lives nearby came to Animal Kingdom Lodge to stay and hang with us for a few days while we were on one of our Riverside vacations. We left a park and went back with him to check out the grounds and the animals and his room. We were all curious to see the place. Once we there, our kids wanted to swim, but we had no suits. My cousin offered me the keys to his car, so I could run back and get bathing suits. Yes, it was convenient. I was there and back in no time and I know I couldn't do that on Disney transportation. That said, it still felt wrong to me and I hated it. I drive every day of my life here in New York. When I'm there, I'm trying to escape. As long as there's a fleet of Disney boats, buses and monorails, I'm not driving.
2 - Park Hoppers
I've had people tell me I'm crazy to simply rely on Disney transportation all the time, but here on MousePlanet and in conversations with friends. I always offer the argument above. I've had the same debates over Park Hopping. I can't tell you how many times I've had the argument thrown at me, "You're wasting your money buying Park Hoppers." "Park Hopping is a Disney scam to get more money out of you, you don't need them." To each his own. Me? I've park hopped since day one and I always will.
As much as I adore the Walt Disney World parks, I thoroughly enjoy leaving them behind for a while in the middle of the day and heading back to our amazing resort. Knowing that our options are open for the afternoon and evening is all part of the joy of being able to park hop. As a rule, we are almost always at a park before it opens that day. Most people are not. That gives us some quality time in the park of our choice that morning. Then, when the temps are up and the crowds are at their peak, we leave and go back to our resort for some pool or AC time. Then we could sit there, poolside with a drink in our hands, and decide where we are going that evening. Sometimes we'll have a dinner reservation booked, and we'll have a plan, but other times we'll make a group decision and go where we want. Walt Disney World trips are so scheduled nowadays, we'll always add on the park hoppers just to relieve us of some of that and keep our options open.
1 - Staying On Disney Property
No, Disney hotels and resorts aren't cheap. Yes, I imagine you can find a chain hotel outside of the gates that is cheaper. Without sounding too brash here…I don't really care. I've heard the argument before, "I'm just going there to sleep. I'm in the parks all day. Why should I stay on property to sleep?" I have never even considered the fact that I'm just going to my hotel to sleep. This Saturday night, after driving 3-4 hours and then reveling in another 3 hours of Grateful Dead music, yeah…I'm going to just need a place to sleep before i drive home the next day. But at Disney, the resorts are totally a part of the whole experience. I need to be in the bubble. I didn't even like going into the lobby of the Swan or Dolphin to get a cup of coffee with my daughter because of that one TV with CNN. I'm not leaving the gates, passing the Walgreens and the Targets and the Exxon stations on my way to my hotel. Bubble popped. I'm not happy.
Disney's resorts are beautifully themed and immaculately kept. There's great food options, some truly remarkable pool complexes, free transportation back and forth to all the parks, boats, monorails, horse and buggy rides, bike rentals, fishing, boat rentals, bonfires, movie nights, awesome gift shops, tennis, gyms, food courts and so much more and it's all wrapped up in that special Disney magic that you just can't find anywhere else. I've stayed plenty of places. I've been in some truly stunning resorts in the Caribbean, some spectacular ski resorts, classy inner city hotels, quaint bed and breakfasts and everything in between. Still, there's nothing quite like staying at a Disney resort, on their property, engulfed in the atmosphere and safely tucked away in the bubble. This is the top non-negotiable, absolute on my list.
Now listen, these are my things. If you're thrilled staying at a chain hotel off property and having the time of your life in the parks all day, just to go back and crash into your pillow at some Holiday Inn or a Courtyard by Marriott, then more power to you. I've had friends get the Disney Dining Plan that comes with two, count 'em…two sit down meals each day, and they love it. My way isn't your way. These 5 things are the things that I have suggested over the years to friends, family and readers as to what I personally think make for the best Walt Disney World experience for me. You might absolutely agree that staying on property is the way to go, but only if you bring your car or rent one. Once again, whatever makes you have the best and most magical experience at Disney is what's right for you. But these are my absolute, must-have, non-negotiable things on my list for living my best life when I'm in one of my favorite places anywhere in the world. In less than two months, I'll be living that dream, staying on property, going to the Magic Kingdom first on a Disney bus without a Dining Plan with a Park Hopper ticket on my magic band and I'll be grinning from ear to ear and I can't wait!
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts on this list. Stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.