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It is no secret that I love to travel! I love to travel anywhere, anytime (unfortunately, the budget doesn’t always allow it)! Because of the age span of my kids (teen to tot), Disney is one of our favorite vacations…there is something there for everyone, no matter their age! Janet did a post about a year ago with some Walt Disney World (WDW) travel tips, but on our most recent DisneyLAND (DL) trip, I found myself wishing I would have known _________________ (fill-in-the-blank), so I thought I would seek out some other pass holders (and my go-to-Disney-vacation-planner, Kim) to give us some more tips for planning our Disney vacations (to the World AND the Land).
This is a long post and meant to be a resource…so go ahead and skim and take in what you want and come back for more later. Or, if you are planning a trip to the Land or the World, you will probably want to read it all. Whatever works for you, works for us! 🙂
Let’s first head to Walt Disney World in Florida…
To say our family are DisneyWorld “regulars” would be a bit of an understatement. Our family was actually created at DisneyWorld. My husband and I were married there, on the lawn at the Polynesian Resort overlooking the lake and the Magic Kingdom, in 1993.
At the time of our marriage, we lived in Michigan, but in 2000, we moved to Florida. We started using the Florida Residents Seasonal Pass. It’s a discounted annual pass that is sold only to Florida residents, and which is “blacked out” for two weeks at Christmas & Easter, and for several months over the summer. We call it “Uncle Walt’s way of telling us when we wouldn’t want to go anyway”, since those are the most miserable times to go to the parks (either the most insanely crowded or unbearably hot).
First it was just the two of us making regular trips to the parks, and then in 2003 our daughter was born and joined the DisneyWorld expeditions. She made her first trip to the parks at 4 months old. Sometimes we take day trips and sometimes we stay overnight to extend the fun. By taking advantage of discounts offered to Florida residents, we’ve tried almost every one of the DisneyWorld resort hotels at one time or another.
In 2005, our daughter was diagnosed with autism and we learned our favorite thing about DisneyWorld: It is a wonderful place for children with autism. The mouse goes out of their way to accommodate children with the disorder. They will issue families visiting with an autistic child one of their handicapped “guest assistance” passes, which allows families to enter attractions through alternate entrances and avoid the trauma and meltdowns of long waits in line in confined line areas.
Disney’s in-park baby and medical centers have been incredibly helpful when we’ve had unusual situations. One time, a Cast Member even used the behind-the-scenes pathway system to get milk for us from another area of the park when everything in the area we were in that served it, had closed for the night. We weren’t even charged for it! (Bridget refuses to drink anything but milk, not even water.)
Disney characters are great with autistic kids, too. It is amazing to watch them totally shift gears once you clue them in to the child’s disorder. They change their conversational style, or tone down their antics to be less intimidating Bridget tends to be very timid around people she doesn’t know, but they make her so comfortable that she will literally throw herself at characters.
So, my top tip DisneyWorld tip is: If you have a special needs child, DisneyWorld is a wonderful and accommodating place to take them.
A lot of our other favorite tips are already mentioned in a previous Daily Digi article about DisneyWorld tips, but there are plenty more things that we’ve learned over the years too.
Ponchos are your friend. Most people just leave the park when it rains. But rain, especially hard rain, doesn’t usually last long in Florida, and if you leave the park with everyone else then you are just stuck waiting in line for transportation to your resort or car with the crush of wet people. But if you just seek shelter in a restaurant or attraction (or even just brave out the rain and tolerate getting a little wet), the payoff will be having the park all to yourself. Lines for attractions will be shorter and you won’t have to fight crowds to do everything.
Disney, of course, wants to keep you in park so you’ll keep spending money. Because of this, they offer a secret weapon that is one of the few things resembling a bargain at DisneyWorld. As soon as it starts to rain, piles of Disney ponchos appear next to virtually every cash register on Disney property. For around $6 you can buy a really good quality poncho, and keep right on having fun while everyone else goes home. We used ponchos to get through an afternoon downpour on a visit a few weeks ago. We were able to stay in the park, and ended up having a wonderful evening as a result. And if the rainy time happens to be the only time you can come, like it was for my friends and I during CHA Summer last year, it can save your entire visit.
Another tip for dealing with rain: Use a weather app on your mobile phone to monitor the weather. If it starts to look gray, a look at the radar can tell you if it is going to rain and how soon. It can also tell you if the rain will be short-lived or not, and how heavy it will be. On one visit last year, monitoring the radar on our iPhones told us it was time to head for the exits before the rain actually started. We arrived back in our room at Wilderness Lodge, comfy and dry, moments before the rain started (and before the long line started to form on the dock for the boat as everyone fled the park).
If you know you aren’t going to leave the park when it starts raining, take a look at your park map and sketch out ahead of time where some good shelters are: long indoor attractions, shopping, or restaurants. Then you’ll have a plan and can execute it while everyone else is frantically trying to figure out what to do!
Use Disney’s Photopass photographers. At many locations in the park, you will see cast members in khaki safari vests carrying huge cameras. You’ll find these photographers especially near the park icons like Cinderella Castle and Spaceship Earth, and with the characters. These are called Photopass photographers.
They will take your picture (for free, no sales pitch, nothing except a smile) and scan an ID card with a barcode and give it to you. Then you can give that card to any other Photopass photographer to scan and take your picture, too. You can even use multiple cards in your family if you are splitting up to do different character meetings or activities.
At the end of your trip, or even during it, you can visit a Photopass counter in the parks or some resorts, or use your computer to log onto Disney’s Photopass and claim your pictures using the card’s ID code. They will stay on your online account for 30 days so you can decide if you want to order them or not. For scrapbookers, Disney now offers a wonderful option: Instead of buying prints, you can buy a download of the photo file via the Photopass website.
Photopass photographers are stationed in the best places to take pictures, and they have the best equipment set up perfectly for shooting that particular shot. Even if you are taking your own pictures, having Photopass pictures taken is a great way to ensure that you go home with the perfect shot. It’s also a great way to get everyone in your family in some pictures together.
If you think you’ll want more than 10 pictures from your vacation, purchasing the Disney’s Photopass CD is the most cost-effective way to go. For $149, you get a CD with every picture in your Photopass account on it. After a week at Disney, that could easily be dozens of pictures – a real bargain. The pictures (and downloaded files, as well) come with a release that gives permission for personal printing so you won’t get hassled making prints. (a note from Steph: take a picture of your photopass number with your own camera the minute you get it, so if you lose your pass – like we always do – you can still get the photos from it)
Don’t leave after the fireworks. Remember how I said that you shouldn’t leave when it starts to rain because you’ll just get stuck in a huge crush of people trying to get out of the park? The same thing is true of after a parade or fireworks. Unless you are in position to be the first person out the door of the park after the last firework explodes (which is unlikely), don’t head for the exit right away. Especially if the park is going to be open for awhile after the fireworks (which is common at the Magic Kingdom), wait a little while before leaving. Sit on a bench and enjoy the view. Do your shopping then so you don’t have to carry that mug around all day. Or have a snack at someplace that is still open near the entrance. Then, after the worst of the crowds have cleared, you can walk right out of the park with barely any line for transportation to resorts or parking.
Use the Extra Magic Hours. If you are a Disney Resort guest, which I highly recommend for good value on quality rooms, then you are eligible to take part in Extra Magic hours. Several times a week, one of the parks will open early or stay open extra late only for resort guests who show resort ID to ride the rides. Lines are much shorter, especially for popular rides, and it is a great way to avoid the crowds.
Take advantage of special events. There are many special events that take place at DisneyWorld. Some of the best are at Epcot, the annual Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals, but there are other fun events like Star Wars Weekends and ESPN The Weekend that involve other DisneyWorld parks and venues. Christmas starts in early to mid-November at the parks, and like everything Disney, is an oversized magical production.
Research before you go. Before you leave home, get a good idea of what you can do while you are there. Know what days are Extra Magic Hours for which parks, find out which rides are closed for refurbishment, and read restaurant menus to get an idea of where you might want to eat during your stay. You can even get a look at the inside of resorts (including the rooms) and read the reviews of other guests who’ve stayed at them before you make a reservation by visiting sites like All Ears Net (www.allearsnet.com) and MouseSavers (www.mousesavers.com). Being spontaneous may sound like more fun than planning your trip to death, but in reality, educating yourself about the parks will give you the knowledge to make decisions while there that will lead to the most fun.
Consider Club Level. If you are planning on staying at a resort that offers Club Level rooms (what Disney calls its concierge level), you should do the math on whether it would ultimately save you money to pay for the upgrade. Disney’s Club Levels serve a lot of food in their lounges: full continental breakfasts, hearty afternoon snacks, appetizers and desserts in the evenings. If you plan on being at the hotel for some of these meal times, the Club Level can save a lot of money on food for your family. You may find that after factoring in the food savings (especially breakfast) that you can enjoy the Club Level experience for less than you think.
Now, let’s head to “The Land” in California….
When to go: CA schools aren’t all on same vacation plans – so no way to work around that except here’s my suggestion: Stay 7 days or more AWAY from any holiday or 3-day weekend. That way you’re more likely to avoid big crowds. Jan – March, Mid Sept – Mid December are the times we go most. Look at Disneyland’s annual pass blocked dates for the locals on weekends – because weekends that locals CAN use their passes are PACKED! The other “when” tip that I have is to do a bit of leg work and look up any conventions or major happenings in Anaheim. For example, you don’t want to be there the week a major cheerleading or sporting event is happening, or when a big convention (that’d have lots of families) is in town. Weather is nice year-round in Anaheim with some random rain and cooler temps through winter. In all the times we’ve gone it’s only rained twice – and both times were just 1 day.
Make some plans – we like to do a “up till lunch” and then a “rest of day” plan while eating lunch. We’re flexible, but making a general game plan ensures that we get to see and do more things that we want to because instead of aimless wandering or asking each other what we should do next we’ve got a lovely plan. Likewise, if you’d like to do dining experiences keep in mind you should book ahead of time to ensure you get a good time – and in! This site has all kinds of interesting and useful info. for planning.
Spend some time on-line or in books getting to know the parks before you get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you arrive either! We prefer to stay on Disney property for the ultimate experience, but any local hotels will have information and should be knowledgeable about park basics.
Don’t forget the camera- and don’t be shy in asking others to photograph your group! Some spots I love to get our family photo at include: near Splash Mountain, in New Orleans Square, in front of the Castle from the Snow White fountain area, with Mickey, in Toontown in front of Goofy’s garden, and by Pixie Hollow. In California Adventure I love to get us in Bug’s Land, with Paradise Pier behind us, and in the Grizzly River Run area. I like to do bursts of photography, then put camera away for a while. Then I’m sure to come home with plenty to scrap but don’t feel like I had the camera on all day.
Characters are a tricky bunch! Keep in mind that the princesses and fairies (as well as other characters in pre-determined areas) work in 30-40 minute increments, so the characters you see while in line might not be the ones greeting you when you get to the front. Sometimes a helpful cast member will tell you about what time they switch, but don’t expect to get a promise on what time they’ll be there – unless it is Mickey Mouse or some other key character promised at all times.
Being a foodie, here are some treats I suggest you don’t miss: Beignets at the Jazz Kitchen (downtown Disney), Corndog (from truck on Main Street), Meat Skewers (Bengal BBQ in Adventure Land), Iced Mocha (New Orleans Square), Fish & Chips (Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland), Pineapple juice or spear from the Tiki Juice Bar, Root Beer float (Paradise Pier in CA Adv), and really I could go on all day! There are a lot of good eats to be had at the Disneyland Resort. If you’ve got little ones watch for the ‘toddler meals’ and ‘kid snack packs’ available some places. They were perfect for our girls many a meal. Here’s a great link to “unofficial” Disneyland menus.
(note from Steph: We found on this last trip that eating at The Carnation Cafe and Cafe Orleans was less expensive than counter service. My teenage daughter and I shared meals and had plenty of food. It was much better food and better for us. Eating at The Carnation Cafe during the parade was especially fun.)
Make an “autograph book” for your kids (or just kids at heart) to get all the favorite characters signatures. I suggest white paper so that when you get home you can either add in your photos on pages opposite the signatures, or scan the autographs if you’re a digi scrapper – the white paper will make it easier to customize & change as needed.
Ask some people who’ve been there often for their favorites and don’t miss attractions, but be sure to make the vacation your own. Whether you want to see all the characters, ride every ride, or see some of the shows and other attractions – relax and enjoy!!
RESORT STAY~any of the Disneyland Resort Hotels, but personal choice is Grand Cailfornian. It has two openings: one into Downtown Disney & the other into California Adventure Park. (This is really handy for drink refills good at the resort hotel when leaving California Adventure and passing the resort into Disneyland park).
DINING~Early scheduled breakfasts before park opening allows for “people-less photos” in the parks on your way to the restaurant. Favorite restaurants: Plaza Inn & Blue Bayoou Plaza Inn is great for character greetings & Blue Bayou has a great menu and a nice view of the Pirates of Carribean ride.
TICKETS~park hopper tickets allow you to move between the parks…..California Adventure has hours that let it open later and close earlier than Disneyland Park….A good tip is starting at Disneyland park early in the morning and leaving & going to California Adventure Park when Disneyland starts to get crowded….then when California Adventure closes, going back over to Disneyland Park for dinner, night time rides, & fireworks. It is a good use of park hours.
PHOTOGRAPHY~Use of a “Nifty Fifty” (50mm) lens for dark rides helps you capture your memories of the inside of rides. Other lenses are great, but the Nifty fifty is awesome on dark rides. A tri-pod helps capture firework shots. The Sun Wheel in Paradise Pier is great for photos above the park when ride is in motion. At Disneyland, Tarzans Treehouse allows for photographing above the park. Arrive early at opening and stay late….for the people-less photos of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Sun Plaza, Main Street, etc. Plan costumes for children to take photos with matching character.
FAVORITES~Fantasyland….4 more rides at DL than WDW. Fantastic landscaping around the rides. Street shows. Weekdays are far less crowded than weekends. This is THE PARK that Walt built….he liked to stand at the family apartment inside Disneyland located in the gallery and watch all the families enjoy “his park”….and for that I am grateful for the experience he share with my family.
Now we’ll get some tips on both WDW and DL from Kim, who is my go-to-Disney-vacation-planning-resource! She really has some of the best ideas and helped my family’s trip to WDW (and my baby’s first Disney trip) become one of our best vacations!
Walt Disney World…
Have groceries delivered to your hotel. Try www.gardengrocer.com. We use this to stock up on bottled water, soda, juice, pop tarts, etc. They also have diapers and baby supplies if you need those.
Have Mickey and Minnie bring little surprises to your children to make it extra special. The Disney florist will deliver baskets (www.disneyflorist.com) or you can pick up little trinkets at Target, the dollar store and/or the Disney store. I’ve heard that some do a “Tinkerbell” gift every night, so that children wake up to a surprise every single morning of the trip. I’ve always just done a basket in the room that magically appears while we’re out swimming or eating.
Plan, plan, plan. You can’t plan enough, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for planning. My favorite planning website is TourGuideMike (www.tourguidemike.com). It’s a lot of reading, but it can make a trip go so smoothly.
(a note from Steph: One of the tips Kim gave me on my planning for WDW was to make a breakfast reservation for the first seating at one of the restaurants inside the Magic Kingdom. This will allow you entrance before anyone else and allow you to get that photo with your family in front of the castle (without other people in it).
Pack an extra suitcase. We ended up buying 2 huge duffel bags from the hotel gift shop at a premium price on our last trip. Now we always pack those same duffels, laid flat on the bottom of a larger suitcase, just in case.
Take your good camera. Last trip, I took my little pocket camera as well as my advanced point and shoot. I hated wearing the bigger camera, so I used my pocket camera. While I took many, many pictures, I hate the quality of those pocket camera photos. So my advice is to suck it up and take the big one. I bought a hip length strap for my bigger camera at Phat Straps (www.phatstraps.com) and it was a life saver. The hip length straps also work on dSLRs.
Now, tips for Disneyland from Kim…Just because it’s only two parks doesn’t mean you don’t need to allow plenty of time for touring. We actually spent 8 full days in Disneyland and California Adventures in 2009. It allowed us so much time to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere. Usually at Walt Disney World, we are so busy packing in all 4 parks and getting to the parks at opening to beat the crowds that we don’t really get to do much of the nightly entertainment. At Disneyland, we were able to be there in the morning, go back and have a nice long break in our room, and then go back for the evening. It was so much fun.
Bring a jacket. It was downright chilly in June last year. If we had been back home, we never would have gone swimming in 65 degree weather, but in California, we did. Or at least, the kids did. As soon as the sun went down, it was cold enough for a hoodie. When we’d go back to the parks in the evening, I’d take a big bag with all our hoodies in it. By the end of the night, I’d be carrying an empty bag, but we were warm.
Look at the Good Neighbor hotels. At Walt Disney World, I’ll always stay on property if we can. It’s just so nice to have the bus transportation at that huge resort. At Disneyland, we walked everywhere. I’ll give a shout out to HoJo Anaheim (www.hojoanaheim.com) which was an amazing hotel, and within easy walking distance for my family of teens. We started walking a couple of miles per day about two months before we left to get in shape. If you have smaller children, look for a place right across the street from Disneyland, or bring a stroller. The Disneyland hotels are amazing, too, but they are not as essential to the experience as they are in Florida.
(a note from Steph: take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours while staying at a Good Neighbor Hotel. During these times, pass holders cannot get into the parks. We happend to be at DL during a school break and these magic hours were the only reason we were able to ride any rides at all. When May said DL is packed on days off school and weekends by pass holders, she was not exaggerating! During the magic hours, get as many Fast Passes as you can and use the ride swap if you can!)Check with your hotel about gift baskets. Our hotel was able to provide a cake and balloons in our hotel room for my son’s 15th birthday. Your hotel may be able to refer you to someone if they don’t do it themselves.
Look for celebrities. This was the funnest one for us. In one night, my kids saw Mitchell Musso and Selena Gomez, while my husband and I saw Slash of Guns’n’Roses fame. Christina Aguilera was also at the parks when we were. It’s the land of Hollywood. You may just run into some while you’re there.
I (Steph) also found these apps to be very helpful:
MouseWait – best wait times app
DLP Walkee – lots of historical information, didn’t like it as well for finding my way around the parks.
GotPlans Disney – my favorite Dis app because you can search for things by category, on the map, by ratings, by age, etc. Wait times were not very accurate.
GotPlans CAAdventure – same as above.
After reading all of that, who’s ready to go to Disney? I know I am….always!
P.S. numbers on the tip tags were created using paper from Amanda Heimann’s Magical Vacation and Elise font.
P.S.S. the random winners for the “From the Files Challenge” were Pam and Meg. They won $10 gift cards from one of our current sponsors. Check your email! 🙂