Friday, March 22, 2013

Where to sleep in Disney.... staying on property or off?

There are definitely no shortage of options to sleep in and around Disney world. 

Bay Lake Tower
The first decision to make is whether to stay on Disney property or off.  We have done both and while both have their advantages, we decided not long after we got married to buy into the Disney Vacation Club so that we can continue to be able to stay on property.  On property you can stay in accommodations ranging from value resorts to deluxe villas with kitchens and multiple bedrooms.  Off property the options are countless... tons of varying hotels, timeshares, and even private homes with their own swimming pools.   Disney provides their resort guests with several exclusive extras during their stay to entice you to stay with them. 

Advantages of staying on property:

1) Extra Magic Hours - each day one of the parks has extra magic hours.  What are extra magic hours? The park either opens 1 hour early or stays open up to 3 hours late only for Disney Resort guests to enjoy.  Although we haven't been taking advantage of the late magic hours since we had the kids (they usually run until midnight or 1am), we did take advantage of them quite a bit before kids.  You are able to get on so many rides in a short amount of time, which is especially beneficial at more crowded times of the year.  The early morning hours (which we definitely take advantage of more now with young kids) give you the advantage of getting a head start on the parks and getting fast passes for rides before they open to the rest of the public. 

2) Disney Dining Plan - this is a prepaid meal plan for Disney Resort guests that can be added to your room and park ticket package.  There are different plans for different appetites.  What we like about the dining plan is that it is prepaid ahead of our trip so we know exactly how much we are spending on food.  (Gratuity and extras are not included in the price of the plan.)  These plans are certainly not for everyone, but we do like the regular dining plan and usually get it for our stay.  This plan includes 1 Quick Service Meal, 1 Snack and 1 Table Service Meal per person, per night of your stay plus a refillable drink mug to use at your hotel (coffee, tea, soft drinks).  I would only recommend the plan if you are not planning to spend full days off Disney property as only Disney restaurants are included in the plan.  This is also probably not for you if you would prefer to bring your own food or not eat a large sitdown meal each day. 
Here is where the dining plan options are described along with which restaurants are included:
Here you can find up to date menus with actual prices to see what you'd actually be paying for the meals:
One more added benefit of dining if you are staying on property...  the general public can book dining reservations and other experiences up to 180 days ahead of time.  However, if you stay on property you are able to book for the entire length of your trip (up to 10 days) 180 days from your check-in date so you get a head start on your meal choices.  Because of the popularity of the dining plan it is really best to make reservations for any table service meals that you'd like to enjoy during your stay. 

3) Disney Transportation - Disney will provide you FREE transportation to and from the airport (Magical Express) and between your resort and the various parks just for staying on property!  This enables you to fly into Orlando and not need to rent a car if you so choose.  Or if you drive, you don't have to drive to the parks.  And since we've traveled with larger groups, even if you do have a car and drive into the parks... if someone decides they want to head back to the hotel early or stay late or even head to another park they can take Disney transportation. 

4) Proximity to the Parks - you really just can't stay closer to the parks by staying off property.  This means shorter travel times to the various parks, which especially when traveling with young ones... this is invaluable because let's face it, they are only happy for so many hours before they are ready to crash!

5) Disney Hospitality - Disney is the happiest place on earth!  And their staff go through some of the most sought after training in the world.  The "cast members" really go out of their way to make your vacation more memorable.  I really just can't say enough about them and just love when we drive through our resort gate and the security person says... "Welcome Home Mrs. Hazlett!"

6) Free Parking - If you do rent or bring a vehicle and decide to drive to the parks instead of taking the Disney transportation, you will receive a FREE parking pass.  This is a $14 per day savings!

7) Souvenir shipping - If you purchase souvenirs in the parks and don't want to lug them around all day and carry them back to your room.... NO PROBLEM.  You can fill out a form and have it shipped back to the gift shop at your hotel free of charge! 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Traveling to Disney.... Flying or Driving

We just booked our 15th trip (since 2002) to Disney World for September and I decided what better topic to do a blogging series on than planning and traveling to the happiest place on earth.  Of course I typically blog about what we do on our actual trip, but I thought it might be a good idea to discuss various decisions that I make in the planning phases of the trip and why I make them (and why you may choose differently).  In 2005, while planning our 6th trip... we decided to buy into the Disney Vacation Club, which is Disney's timeshare program.  We really love the flexibility that their point system gives us to travel at different times of the year and with different size groups, etc.  I will go more into it's benefits when I post on staying on property vs. off.  Today, I'm going to talk... getting to Disney.   

The majority of our trips were before kids and we quickly learned that what worked before kids doesn't necessarily work after kids (especially young kids)!  Before kids we swore we would NEVER drive to Florida!  Well guess what?? We have.  Twice in fact and we'll be driving again in September.  Here are some major considerations to make before deciding whether to drive or fly.  (Please know that I am not telling you what the right decision for you and your family is.  I'm telling you what I have learned and take into consideration when deciding what works best for my family and some of the lessons that I've learned along the way.)

In my opinion the biggest thing to consider when choosing your mode of transportation is COST! 

We've flown MANY times to Disney.  We've gotten some amazing deals on flights.  I believe we scored some $29 flights from Spirit and we've definitely scored plenty of $59-$79 flights through Southwest.  I recall stalking the airlines for when our travel date prices would be released to get the very best prices on flights especially since we sometimes traveled several times a year.  Multiply that by 2 adults, who can carry their own bags to the airline counter to be checked and who can walk themselves through the security line and remove their own shoes and jackets, etc and the price is not so bad. 

Fast forward to our most recent flight (1st flight with twin 20 month olds) in May 2010... We had to buy not only tickets on Spirit that were not $29 (luckily the kids were still young enough not to require their own tickets), then there was a fee to pick our seats together on the plane, a fee to check bags (and now there is even a fee for carry-ons that don't fit under the seat!).  Tonight I decided to price out just what kind of deal I could quickly find.  Using the $9 fare club, I was actually able to get a pretty good deal that would only be $690 for 2 adult and 2 child tickets (which required me spending $59 for the annual membership that saved me $240 on the tickets for my travel dates) + $80 ($20*4 bags) + $40 (approximately to pick our seats together) + $25 to have 1 larger carry-on = $835 not included airport parking if you choose to do that. 

Here is where I tell you that the first time we drove, we spent $150 for gas to drive 4 people to Disney World.  Now I will tell you that is probably not realistic for most people since we drove my Toyota Prius Hybrid that gets 45-50 MPG.  We drove straight through on the way down so no additional hotel room and did stop on the way back, but stayed at my aunt & uncle's house so again no hotel room cost. I can also tell you that driving a more realistic small SUV (RAV4) that it cost about $250, which is still a HUGE savings in my opinion. 

The next factor (which can also factor into the COST) is whether or not you will need a car while in Disney.  For many of our pre-children and our first post-children trips we did not have a car for our stay.  We were staying on Disney property and used their free transportation around the "world".  This is a great option if you fly to majorly cut down on the cost of renting a car.  You can get a magical express bus from the airport to your hotel.  They even send you these fabulous luggage tags to put on before you depart and then Disney claims your luggage for you!  Once at your hotel you have different transportation options depending on where you stay, but some combination of buses, boats and monorails.  We have LOVED these options for many years/trips.  However it was more of a struggle on our trip when the twins were 20 months as we stayed at Saratoga Springs which only has bus service to the parks.  This particular resort has 5 bus stops and since our room was at the first bus stop, we got dropped off first when getting back to the resort but we had to wait through 4 more stops (about 20 minutes) to get out of the resort and head to the parks.  This really wasn't a big deal when we didn't have small children, but when you have little kids that only have X amount of non-cranky hours.... taking 45 minutes to an hour to wait for and take the bus to a park is a big deal.  Also, you need to fold your stroller and carry it up the bus steps to take it on the bus.  Doing this and juggling multiple small chidren can prove a bit difficult.  Especially if you decide to split up and conquer the task on your own.  If you stay on property and have a vehicle (rented or your own) you receive a FREE parking pass to use at all of the parks ($14 a day savings).  If you rent a car, you also need to decide whether you will fly with your own carseats or rent them with your car.  I can really lend no advice here as I have never done either.  If you stay off property, you would probably need to rent a car unless wherever you stay provides transportation. 

The last major factor that I would include in your considerations is how much stuff do you need to take with you?  When it was just the two of us, we could easily get away with 1 or 2 suitcases and a carry-on for our trip.  Now with the kids there is more stuff to bring, which equals more suitcases which equals more money on most of the airlines.  By driving, we have been able to bring a whole case of diapers when needed without squeezing them in a suitcase.  We also have been bringing a case or so of water and snacks because you can bring a small cooler into the park and also to have in our room.  It's also not a big deal to throw some extra toys in the car for the kids to have to play with in our room.  We are also able to bring our own stroller without worrying whether or not the airline will break it (as I know several people that this has happened to).  The kids are now a little big for the pack n plays that our hotel will provide for us and with our own vehicle we are able to bring their toddler sized air mattress beds so that they are comfortable.  There are several companies in the Disney area that you can order groceries, etc from or if you rent a car you can go to a store and make similar purchases to what we choose to bring with us. 

I'm sure once the kids get older or on adult only trips to Disney we will reevaluate driving vs. flying, but for now we are pretty set on driving.  If it was our once in a lifetime trip I might also plan differently and be willing to spend the extra money.  However, since w go about once a year or every other year.... the savings really adds up from trip to trip.  Summer also has had some pretty severe issues with her ears and we've been advised that flying is probably not a good idea for her at this time.  Happy planning....

This is Summer passed out from screaming bloody murder for
half our flight... it was so bad that I almost cried too.

Next Disney topic will be staying on propery or off :)