iPlanning

by Steve Russo, staff writer
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I’m baaaaaaack.

Yes, the folks at MousePlanet, in what can only be described as a very fragile moment, have allowed me back in to grace these pages on a more regular basis. I’m still a bit apprehensive about finding the necessary time to turn out my usual quantity of drivel so I’ll be appearing on a monthly basis… at least for now. If my faithful readers storm MousePlanet headquarters with pitchforks and blazing torches, maybe we can get it back to bi-weekly… or yearly—depending on your preference.

I’m planning something a bit different for my column this time around. Rest easy; I’ll still be offering a steady stream of off-the-wall opinions about all things related to Walt Disney World. However, I’d also like to focus a bit more on the trip planning process and, in each article, include a bit of Q&A with the readers. I have a fair amount in the backlog and still receive a number of trip planning questions on a regular basis. I thought it might be fun, and educational for us all, to answer some questions and get your feedback as well. I encourage you to send me your trip planning questions, tips, tricks and insights via our email form. I promise to include a few of the more interesting missives with each article.

Enough with the reintroduction; on with the show.


A few weeks ago, we returned from a trip to Walt Disney World. In the days and weeks leading up to that trip, I came to the realization that the techniques I use to plan these trips have changed rather significantly over the years. More specifically, the tools that I use for trip planning are light-years ahead of those used just a few years ago.

How did we do it? I have little recollection of planning a Walt Disney World vacation back in the old days. By “old days” I, of course, refer to the dark ages before Al Gore invented the World Wide Interweb (just having some fun – don’t write me.)

In those early days, I relied solely on Birnbaum’s Guide to Walt Disney World. I still have several editions of those “official” guide books and they’re fun to review now and then. It’s particularly interesting to view some of the resort room rates from the early 1990s – they make today’s wallet hurt. However, these guides can’t hold a candle to the wealth of information available to us today across the Internet. There’s no doubt that planning a Disney World vacation today requires visiting a number of sites to research airfare, ground transportation, resorts, dining, etc.

My time-honored process, dating back to the 1990s, was to build a spreadsheet with all the pertinent information we’d need on a trip. I began by laying out a grid with the park hours (including Extra Magic Hours, Surprise Mornings or whatever was in place back then).

Then I’d lay out a rough touring schedule; nothing detailed but an identification of which parks we would hit each morning, afternoon or evening. This was just to ensure we didn’t miss out on the only evening available for Wishes… or Fantasmic!… you get the idea.

Once I knew which parks we'd be in, I could take our desired restaurants and make a few Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs)—off course, back in those days they were called Priority Seatings. In any case, these would also be added to the spreadsheet. I love having all my information in one place.

Next, I’d add the pertinent information for our flights, rental car, and resort reservations. Yes, my spreadsheet was a bit busy but it held all the info I needed. I printed off a few copies (backups, don’tcha know?) and spread them around—one in the luggage, one in the carry-on, one in my camera bag, etc. Anal? Uh huh. OCD? Possibly. Prepared? You betcha.

How has all this changed in the new millennium? There’s a single, but extremely significant, item that many of us now have with us at all times – the smart phone. Whether it’s an iPhone, Droid, iPod Touch… it really doesn’t matter. There are a number of applications (apps) for these devices that can really make your life, and trip planning, easier. Let me demonstrate.…

I still begin the process with the age-old spreadsheet. In my opinion, there’s still nothing better than laying out a grid of park hours to begin the process. It will help you take advantage of, or avoid, Extra Magic Hours. It will also identify those nights offering hard ticket events, such as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, so you won’t be shut out on your last night when you still haven’t see Spectromagic.

The spreadsheet will be completed, and modified, over time, but here’s the big difference…

The Dropbox App

Assuming I’m working on my desktop computer, I’ll save the spreadsheet to “the cloud” via an app called Dropbox. Almost immediately, that spreadsheet is available to my other devices that also have the Dropbox app installed – in my case that’s my iPod Touch and the laptop I bring with me when traveling. The iPod Touch is almost always in my pocket so I’ve eliminated the need for printing multiple sheets and saved a few trees. This ensures the contents of my spreadsheet, all the pertinent information, is only a few taps away at all times. When I make a change to the sheet, I simply re-save to the Dropbox and everything is in sync.


A part of my spreadsheet visible in Dropbox. Image by Steve Russo.

Neat, huh? Wait… there’s more.

D Point

If you’re a DVC member, you may already be familiar with this app. If not, feel free to skip to the next section.

D Point is an app that allows me to select the DVC resort I desire, the type of room I’m looking for, and the dates I want to travel. It then produces for me the number of DVC points needed for this stay. I can then easily adjust the resort, room type or dates to see different results before making my choice. As a DVC member, I consider this an invaluable tool and one I wish Disney/DVC offered.

Additionally, D Point also has a means of saving the reservation so you can refer back to it later. Lastly, it offers screens to help you track your DVC points from Use Year to Use Year, tracking those points borrowed or banked as well. All in all, it’s a very useful tool.


A great tool to compare point usage for different resorts. Image by Steve Russo.


D Point can also be used to track your membership contracts. Image by Steve Russo.

WDW Dining

This app provides the ability to research the menus and prices for every restaurant on property. And by “restaurant,” I mean all table service, counter service and kiosk-type establishments. Is it handy? You bet.

We use it a lot when planning a trip, particularly one with the entire family. Someone will suggest a restaurant prompting someone else to ask about the menu before agreeing. This app allows you to search the restaurants by theme park or resort. It also offers two very neat features:

  1. Near Me will locate the restaurants based on their proximity to your current location (I have lots of fun with this when I’m sitting in my family room and realize Pinocchio Village Haus is the closest restaurant to me at 1,074 miles);
  2. Food Finder will allow you to find the nearest place offering your choice of specific items such as popcorn, ice cream, churros, pretzels, pizza, etc.


WDW Dining can find any menu on property. Image by Steve Russo.


The dinner menu from Les Chefs de France. Image by Steve Russo.

Both of those features are fun from home but, as you can see, could be very handy in the parks. This app also has a means of storing your Advance Dining Reservations, complete with reservation number but I prefer to use…

Tripit

This app, like Dropbox, is not specific for Walt Disney World travel but it certainly is useful. Assuming you’re like me and you do most of your planning online, you probably receive a confirmation email from each source: resort reservation, airline, rental car, and even your ADRs.

Rather than re-entering this data somewhere (your spreadsheet?) or beginning a never-ending copy / paste exercise, use Tripit. Once you set it up so it recognizes your email address, all you need do is forward each of these confirmations to Tripit. It will then organize your information, by trip, and enable it all to magically appear on your smart phone.

It’s a comfort to know that all the dates, times and reservation numbers are a few taps away, and in my pocket, at all times. And the amount of work needed for this is negligible at best.


A convenient way to store all pertinent information on your upcoming trips. Image by Steve Russo.

Other Apps

There are apps that advertise they will provide up to the minute wait times for Walt Disney World attractions. With my iPod Touch, I rely on Wi-Fi connectivity so these hold little value for me – but they might be attractive to you and your smart phone. Undercover Tourist offers an app with wait times and other information (dining, tickets, crowd levels) as well. The folks at Touringplans.com offer the popular Crowd Calendar along with an app called Lines that will deliver current and future in-the-park wait times.

The bottom line is that there are a number of handy tools available for planning your next Walt Disney World trip – or helping you stay on top of things while there. Which do you use? Let me know by sending an email via our handy-dandy form.

Now, as promised, on to your email.


Dear Steve,

My husband and I want to plan a trip to WDW in Orlando. We live in Illinois have a 6 year old and would probably drive there. I need to know everything. I read the dining plans and think we would use it, because I get hungry. OK, How can I get a good deal? Is 7 days really worth it or will we be burnt out by 4? There are so many things we need to know but can you start off with the most important you think I should know? Thank you. Btw I want to plan this for July.

Melisa

Hi Melisa,

Where to begin? Seven days is definitely not too long and I think four would not be enough for you and a first trip. You have a lot of planning to do and, frankly, not much time. I'd suggest you start reading. Take a look at some of my columns (Steve's Column List) - I'd suggest looking at those that discuss staying on or off-site, what type of tickets to purchase and the description of the Dining Plans. Order Disney's (free) planning DVD and I'd suggest you pick up a good Guide Book (there are many and your local library would be a good source.)

After you've done some reading, email with your specific questions or head over to the MousePad forums. There are lots of experienced WDW visitors there that like nothing more than sharing their wisdom and helping you plan.

I hope that helps.


Hello--my husband and I are considering purchasing DVC membership and need some help. Currently we travel to WDW once per year, typically stay in a value resort, and typically travel when WDW is offering some sort of promotion such as free dining, etc. We usually stay at least 8 days. We are a family of 4 with (2 adults, 2 kids ages 6 and 7).

We would love to join DVC but are finding it hard to make clear cut calculations that may (or may not) show us financial feasibility for a DVC purchase. We don't want to turn our backs on the decision to purchase as we LOVE WDW, but we need some help with "showing" us how it could or could not work and be beneficial for us. Can you help us?

Thanks so very much!!
Anna

Hi Anna,

It's a difficult and very personal decision. A DVC membership is not right for everyone. Here's a link to an article I wrote explaining how DVC works.

That column also contains links to Disney's site and an excellent financial analysis done by MousePlanet’s Tony Phoenix. Tony’s analysis should assist you in making your financial decision. Good luck.


Mr. Russo:

Just discovered your articles here on MousePlanet. Wow, you provide so much information. It is almost too much to digest at once.

We are planning our first family trip to WDW. We will be going in the nice "cool" time in Florida&hellip July 2012… anyway. We are members of RCI and we exchanged into the Animal Kingdom Lodge and we are looking forward to a great trip. My question deals with the meal plans.

I like the write-up you did comparing the snack plan, that has given my wife and I a lot to think about. Was curious to know if you have done anything recently regarding the dining plus meal plan that provides the one sit down meal? We would like to have something more than the quick meals while we are there and the convenience of not having to worry about cooking after a day in the park sounds really nice to both my wife and I… just not sure if it is worth the extra money it would cost us. Thanks so much for any help you would be willing to give.

Vince

Hi Vince,

You've made a great choice with the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you can get a Savanna view it's really special.

I'm not a fan of the Dining Plans but some people love them. To determine if they have value for you requires some math. Try to estimate what you would spend out of pocket for your meals each day. You can find menus online to help approximate the costs. Compare that to the Dining Plan cost.

The Plan will always save you money when compared to paying cash for the same items consumed under the Plan but (and it’s a big “but”) would you order the same items if you were dining and paying out of pocket? That’s why a comparison of the Plan’s cost versus what you would have spent is important. The facts are that you would probably dine differently if NOT on the Plan.

I hope that makes sense. Have a great trip.


Once again, if you have questions or tips/tricks you’d like to share, send them to me via our email form and, as always, thanks for reading.

 

Comments

  1. By Pammer

    Welcome back, Steve! I'm a big fan of your writings, be it columns or trip reports, so I'm very glad to be able to read your 'drivel' on a regular basis again.

    I'm one of the few without a smart phone; I am just too frugal to invest and the only time I seem to wish to have one is on a vacation to the Disney theme parks! I use a plain ol' AT&T Go-Phone, which only costs me about $25 for 3 months of airtime; I rarely use my phone so it works fine for me.

    I am also an avid planner of these trips and still pretty much follow the system you described for your earlier trips (before technology became advanced!) with the spreadsheet, etc. It's still a great process, IMHO!

    Looking forward to more columns in the future!

  2. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Pammer View Post
    Welcome back, Steve! I'm a big fan of your writings, be it columns or trip reports, so I'm very glad to be able to read your 'drivel' on a regular basis again.

    I'm one of the few without a smart phone; I am just too frugal to invest and the only time I seem to wish to have one is on a vacation to the Disney theme parks! I use a plain ol' AT&T Go-Phone, which only costs me about $25 for 3 months of airtime; I rarely use my phone so it works fine for me.

    I am also an avid planner of these trips and still pretty much follow the system you described for your earlier trips (before technology became advanced!) with the spreadsheet, etc. It's still a great process, IMHO!

    Looking forward to more columns in the future!

    Thanks, Pam. It's good to be back.

    Like you, I don't seem to have much use for a cell phone. I have one but use it infrequently so I opted for a TracFone which winds up costing me about $100 per year.

    I do, however, have an iPod Touch that I wouldn't be without. It contains almost all my music (the important stuff anyway - over 1,000 songs) and lots of podcasts (I favor Disney podcasts, sports and politics). I listen in the car and anywhere else I'm held captive (any waiting room). It also lets me check email, surf the web, the MousePad forums, track my workouts, check the weather (local and, of course, WDW), stock market updates, sports scores, TV listings... you name it. It also lets me text or Face Time with my kids. Anyway, I'm a big believer and that's where I use the planning apps mentioned in the article.

  3. By Pammer

    Gotcha! We did invest in a Coby tablet before our WDW trip but since it only works on Wi-Fi we don't get to use it TOO much yet (plus we keep forgetting to bring it with us on trips to town ~ LOL!).

    Thanks again!

  4. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Pammer View Post
    Gotcha! We did invest in a Coby tablet before our WDW trip but since it only works on Wi-Fi we don't get to use it TOO much yet (plus we keep forgetting to bring it with us on trips to town ~ LOL!).

    Thanks again!

    There you go... and there's a lot more Wi-Fi at the WDW resorts now. It's still hard to find in the parks though.

  5. By FortWilderness IsHome

    Steve,

    So, so HAPPY that your baaaaaaack!!!!! I absolutely love your articles. I would rather you do them weekly, then monthly, but I'll take what I can get!! Welcome back!!!
    Heidi Commerford

  6. By jms1969

    Steve, I wanted to join the others who have welcomed you back. Your take on WDW is always insightful and fun to read, and was much missed. Count me in for reading whatever articles you are able to write!

    Much like Pammer above, we're still "old school" when it comes to trip planning, and your spreadsheet sounds mighty familiar. My wife and I certainly remember our trip a couple years ago where her beautifully prepared spreadsheet, which had been reduced to fit in a pocket sized notebook and almost required a magnifying glass to read as a result only made it as far as our home airport. Our "homemade low-tech I-phone" was left on a table there, never to be seen again. I like to think that someone flying out the same day had a great vacation with all the planning that went into it! We're stubborn though - the lesson we learned from that wasn't to go electronic, it was to bring extra copies of the spreadsheet!

  7. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by FortWilderness IsHome View Post
    Steve,

    So, so HAPPY that your baaaaaaack!!!!! I absolutely love your articles. I would rather you do them weekly, then monthly, but I'll take what I can get!! Welcome back!!!
    Heidi Commerford

    Awwww. Thanks, Heidi.

  8. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by jms1969 View Post
    Steve, I wanted to join the others who have welcomed you back. Your take on WDW is always insightful and fun to read, and was much missed. Count me in for reading whatever articles you are able to write!

    Much like Pammer above, we're still "old school" when it comes to trip planning, and your spreadsheet sounds mighty familiar. My wife and I certainly remember our trip a couple years ago where her beautifully prepared spreadsheet, which had been reduced to fit in a pocket sized notebook and almost required a magnifying glass to read as a result only made it as far as our home airport. Our "homemade low-tech I-phone" was left on a table there, never to be seen again. I like to think that someone flying out the same day had a great vacation with all the planning that went into it! We're stubborn though - the lesson we learned from that wasn't to go electronic, it was to bring extra copies of the spreadsheet!

    Thanks so much.

  9. By LesliePR

    hey all
    I bought a PEEL from Virginmobile for my IPOD touch just for WDW in December 2012...I love all the apps for WDW that I have loaded on there and was boggled trying to figure out how i was going to use them. i stumbled onto the PEEL because our family uses virginmobile.

    I will be testing this in a week or so when I go visit my mom in NMB and if it works out, will let you know...

    this peel only works with the older IPOD touches, not the newest generation...

  10. By howlongtillsummer

    It is really wonderful to see you back writing. Thank you very much for taking the time to entertain us. Much appreciated.

  11. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by howlongtillsummer View Post
    It is really wonderful to see you back writing. Thank you very much for taking the time to entertain us. Much appreciated.

    Thank you.

  12. By danyoung

    While I enjoyed all of the points you made about iPlanning, I had to tell you that I was completely FLOORED by the pic of your spreadsheet. If you looked at MY spreadsheet and yours side by side, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Great minds!!!

  13. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    While I enjoyed all of the points you made about iPlanning, I had to tell you that I was completely FLOORED by the pic of your spreadsheet. If you looked at MY spreadsheet and yours side by side, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Great minds!!!

    "Great" minds, Dan? LOL... maybe mediocre.

    I began using the spreadsheet in the late 1990s and it's morphed into what it is today - sort of a single source for park hours, ADRs, reservation #s, crowd levels, etc. To be honest, I find myself referring to it infrequently once we're there but we use it a lot in the planning stages.

  14. By danyoung

    I tried something new on my last trip a month ago. I did the spreadsheet, but then I transferred it into my Android phone. It really was a cool thing to have all that info with me at all times. I've always been worried that I'd show up to a dining rez and have them NOT have me in there. Now with the rez numbers with me I don't have that worry any more.

    And I'm sticking with "great"!!!

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