Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Luigi's Flying Tires Flies Away from DCA

Yesterday marked the final day of operations for Luigi's Flying Tires in Disney California Adventure and the Disneyland Resort in California. Sadly, the ride met the same fate as the Flying Saucers ride that inspired it, closing after a relatively short run in the park. I only had a chance to ride the tires once, so I'll share my pictures from that day when I had the chance to visit DCA with some friends from the +Disneyana Fan Club.

I'm not sure how well the Luigi's tire hats sold, but they were hard to miss!

The queue for the attraction was cleverly themed.

I never did find anyplace that actually served these drinks.

A visiting celebrity left his mark.

The attraction seemed to be most entertaining when there were other people you knew, so you had someone to run into, and you never know who you would run into on the ride.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Animal Kingdom is a Half-Day Park

Let's start by saying the notion of whether or not Animal Kingdom is a "half-day", "full-day", or even "two-day" park is nonsense, but since people seem to persist in discussing this topic I feel justified in weighing in (with knowledge that things will completely change in 2017 when the new nighttime enhancements and Avatar land are fully operational). So, why is this nonsense? The number of days one spends in a particular Walt Disney World theme park is directly related to the number of days that one is away on vacation. If you are staying at a Disney resort (or nearby) for two weeks, then you're bound to spend at least one full day at each park (and likely, more than one), whereas, if you're only in town for a three-day weekend, then you're not likely to spend an entire day, and certainly not two full days, in Disney's Animal Kingdom. So, the question isn't whether there is enough to do in the park to fill up a day if you had to (there's more than enough in any Disney park to do that), but rather how much of your limited vacation time you wish to spend in Animal Kingdom versus elsewhere on property (since I'm assuming you can't magically make the time or money for an extra vacation day appear).

For the purposes of this discussion, let's work under the assumption for now that you have five full days in the Disney parks. That means you won't see everything in every park and thus, you will have to make some difficult decisions about where to spend your time. If you want to take an evening to see Hoop Dee Doo Review or La Nouba, to explore Downtown Disney, to play miniature golf, to tour some of the resorts, or to spend a morning in one of the water parks, then that time comes at the expense of some other potentially enjoyable activity. Most Disney World visitors are limited in the time they can devote to their visits and the money they can spend, so adding another day just because there are things they could do to fill it is not an option. Thus, if you wish to see more of Disney World than just the theme parks, then you have to carve out park time somewhere. As for those five days, let's start with a full day in each park and let's devote a second full day to the Magic Kingdom. Now, where are we going to find time for those extra activities? My suggestion is that Animal Kingdom is the first place to start. Here's why.

Outside of a couple attractive views Disney's Animal Kingdom is not at its best in the evening. Couple that with early closings and it's easy to justify using your Animal Kingdom day as one where you spend your night elsewhere on property. Some of what makes Animal Kingdom most interesting - the safari, the animal trails, and the little details carved into the Tree of Life and elsewhere on property - are not visible (or hardly visible) after the sun goes down. So, while parts of the park are dramatically lit and rather impressive looking at night, most visitors eventually want to find something to do. It's not much fun to walk along an animal viewing trail when it's too dark to see the animals and it's not a very natural environment to put spotlights on those creatures just for our enjoyment. The lack of a nighttime show hurts too, as I'm more likely to want to end my day in Epcot or the Magic Kingdom because I enjoy Illuminations and Wishes (I don't feel as strongly about Fantasmic! at the Studios, but that is a draw for many). Disney has acknowledged this as they are developing a river light show for Animal Kingdom, which is likely the first step in transforming the park into a true full-day destination.

Animal Kingdom is also lacking must-do dinner options, which bring me back to the other parks at night. Dining in Epcot is a big reason that I like park-hopping. There are so many great dining options there, both counter and table service, that I can't fit in everything I want to eat merely around the attractions in Epcot, so I'll often "hop" there for dinner after visiting another park in the morning. Were I to spend a full day in Animal Kingdom I could make do with decent dining options in the park, but I would be happier eating in Epcot. So, what if you're not a park-hopper? I'm also a big fan of dining at the resorts and there are enough restaurants within a short monorail or boat ride of the Magic Kingdom that I could fill my whole vacation eating dinner at favorite places there, and I don't have to use a park admission day to access any of those locations. When I have traveled to Animal Kingdom with friends who don't "hop", we've often used the Animal Kingdom evening for dining near the Magic Kingdom, then watching fireworks from one of the resorts. I've also visited in December, when we used Animal Kingdom evening to see Christmas decorations around the Magic Kingdom resorts. I enjoy Flights of Wonder and the Finding Nemo musical, but if it means skipping one or both of those shows to see the Grand Floridian and/or Wilderness Lodge Christmas trees, dine at 'Ohana, and watch Holiday Wishes, then I'm choosing the latter every time.

So, let's say you're with me so far, but why not sacrifice time in Disney's Hollywood Studios instead of Animal Kingdom? That's a fair question, particularly as construction walls become the biggest attraction in that park for the next few years. The answer is that I will often limit my Hollywood Studios time to one or two mornings, so I wouldn't argue if you also described that destination as it stands today as a "half-day park". There are several differences, however, starting with re-rideability. Star Tours, Rock n Roller Coaster, and Tower of Terror are all attractions that I'm happy to ride more than once in the same day, and I'd say the same thing about Toy Story Midway Mania were it practical to do so without obscenely long lines. In Animal Kingdom, I could say the same about Everest, but that's about it. The Safari could be interesting at different times of day, but it's a lot of time to devote to the hope that you may catch the rare time when the lions aren't sleeping. Next is dining, where the table service options at the Studios offer a little better quality and are a little more distinctively Disney. Brown Derby offers better food that anything in Animal Kingdom, while 50's Prime Time Café and the Sci-Fi Dine In Theater offer unique dining experiences. In addition to attractions and dining, the Studios also has the edge in nighttime activity, particularly in the wintertime. With Fantasmic! running every night and the Osborne Lights, there are more reasons to return to the Studios in the evenings than there are to visit Animal Kingdom. Add to that special events, like Star Wars Weekends or holiday fireworks and there are often even more evening activities. All that considered, if I have to choose between the two parks, then I'm more likely to spend a full day at Disney's Hollywood Studios than the Animal Kingdom, but I'm not averse to spending a half-day in both parks during my Disney World visits.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is a great theme park and zoo to visit (it also IS a zoo, by the way, which perhaps I'll cover another time), but given anything but a very long vacation there will likely be other activities in your Disney World vacation that will take priority over spending a full day exploring the park. Like every Disney theme park, there are details that are only appreciated after many visits and there is always more to see each time you return, but since your vacation time is fixed it is hard to justify devoting more than a portion of a day to the Animal Kingdom. The park hours are too short, there are fewer must-do dining options than in Epcot or around the Magic Kingdom, and there (as of now) no nighttime entertainment to cap off your day. It's pretty clear to me why Animal Kingdom as it stands today remains a half-day park for most Disney World guests.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Long Does it Take? - Orlando Airport to Walt Disney World

Have you ever seen the guy on vacation constantly scribbling away in his little notebook? Ever wonder why he's going through the trouble to do that? Well, I'm that guy. No, not "That Guy" from the Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor, but rather the guy who doesn't rely merely on recall to relive the events of his vacation, but rather on actual facts. Does it really matter that much? I'll leave that to others to judge, but for me I like having access to a reliable list of what I've done, when I've done it, and if anything noteworthy happened that I might want to remember later. It's great for remembering amusing moments or writing trip reports and it also provides me with data that help me make better decisions while planning and during future vacations.

One of the most common questions people ask when planning a Disney vacation is "How long does it take to __________?" This is the first in a series of articles in which I will share how long it takes me to do different things on my Disney vacations. In doing so, I will endeavor to answer that question of how long different activities will take. Getting from the airport to the Disney property seems like a good place to start.

So, how long does it take to get from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World? Well, that depends. First let's make clear what we're measuring, then I'll note a couple different scenarios, and finally I'll share my experiences. If you aren't interested in my detailed explanations (the "long answer") and want to cut to the chase, then skip to the "Summing it Up" section at the end of the article.

I've measured travel time from the moment I step off the airplane until I park the car (or get dropped off by bus, cab, or shuttle) at my hotel (on Disney property). Alternatively, you could measure the time from the moment the plane touches down or arrives at the gate. You could also measure how much time until you set foot in your hotel room, until you bring all of your luggage into the room, or until you are ready to leave the room for your first activity after arrival, but I think that would measure more than just travel time from the airport (ie: how fast your plane gets to the gate, efficiency of baggage claim and rental car or shuttle pickup, or the speed of the hotel check-in process), so I've kept my measure simple. I'll talk about the time it has taken me from when I am first standing in the airport until I arrive at my hotel to check-in. I've completed that journey in as little as 1 hour 7 minutes and as long as 4 hours 45 minutes (though that involved a brieft trip to Tampa before checking in).


Since I've started renting cars and not traveling by Disney's Magical Express (more on that below), my average time in the airport has been just over 45 minutes. My times have ranged from 30 minutes to 1 hour 18 minutes. The longest of those times stands out as an anomaly, as it included one of my longer waits at baggage claim and a lengthy delay while Avis ran out of rental cars and I had to wait until they found one for me. The only two other times I have needed more than 50 minutes to get through the airport involved a twenty minute wait to get to the rental car desk at Thrifty and a series of minor delays that added up to a long stay during a June trip.

Getting to baggage claim typically takes me ten to fifteen minutes, including the tram ride and a trip to the bathroom. I walk purposefully and relatively quickly, so the same trip took nineteen minutes when I recently traveled with my sister and her then nine month old son, however, part of this time was waiting for the gate-checked stroller after leaving the plane. Once arriving at baggage claim, there seems to be very little middle ground when it comes to my wait times. I seem to either get my bag within a minute or two or wait ten to fifteen minutes. I've never had a moderate wait (and fortunately, have not yet had a bag "delayed" or lost when traveling to Orlando).


Since rental car delays have been my biggest potential bottleneck, I'm a big advocate of rental car "express" programs that let you go right to the garage where a car is waiting for you. This doesn't always work flawlessly, but it cuts out waiting in line at a rental car desk and also lets you walk straight out to the rental car garage (which can save several minutes in Orlando's airport).

If you are taking Disney's Magical Express and do not require stopping at baggage claim, then I've spent as little as 30 minutes and as long as one hour in the airport. During the longer waits, the delay was either waiting in line to be sent to a bus or waiting on the bus for it to actually leave. I don't have enough experience to predict which scenario will occur, so I suggest making plans for the worst case scenario and being pleasantly surprised when you arrive sooner than you planned.

Even more unpredictable with Magical Express is when you will actually arrive at your resort. I've been the fourth stop and the first stop and that can make a big difference in your total travel time. When I was the first stop, my time from stepping off the plane until arriving at my resort was 1 hour 10 minutes. However, in other instances it has taken 26 - 32 minutes from when the bus stopped at the first resort until it arrived where I was staying. That has led to total travel times from getting off the plane to arrival at my resort ranging from 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 51 minutes. Planning for an hour and a half seems reasonable, but two hours is a safer worst case scenario.


When driving, the speed you travel will have some effect on travel time, as more than half of your journey will be on the highway. If you wish to measure your driving speed against mine, then suffice it to say that I'm likely to neither be the fastest nor the slowest car on the highway, though I have, on occasion been known to violate the posted speed limit. You will also pay tolls along the way, so a Florida SunPass or E-Pass lets you pay those tolls without stopping. I have neither of those devices, but I do bring an ample supply of quarters to be ready with exact change. You also have the choice of two different routes from Orlando airport to Disney World. I've had my shortest trip to the parks taking the North Exit and using Interstate 4, arriving at Coronado Springs 27 minutes after leaving the airport. The I-4 route also saves a little money on tolls, but I've also had some of my worst travel times (more so returning from the parks) using this route, so I'm now wary of using the North exit when traveling near rush hour. My times have been more consistent when using the South exit and SR-417, generally a little over 30 minutes. SR-417 has exact change only lanes at its toll plazas and I'll usually zip through these, even when there is a substantial line of cars waiting for the other paid lanes. Also beware that the Osceola Parkway exit from SR-417 requires exact change (or a SunPass/E-Pass) for the 75-cent toll. Your GPS won't warn you about this.

Lately, my travel times have been longer as I generally stop for groceries on the way to my hotel. Having food for breakfast and snacks saves time and money and I like to save more time by stopping for food while I'm already "out" from my resort. If you choose to do this, then plan where you want to stop and familiarize yourself with the route before you leave home. Some of my longest trips from the airport have been when I decided I would figure out where to stop along the way, and then ended up taking unnecessarily circuitous routes to my destination. I now usually stop at the same SuperTarget right next to the highway, since I know how to get there, know where things are inside the store, and don't have to stray very far off course to make this stop. In the past, all of those factors have slowed me down. Now, on recent trips I've taken as little as 51 minutes to get from the airport to All-Star Music, even with a stop at Target. During my earlier visits when I wasn't sure where I wanted to stop, didn't know the layout of the store, and didn't have a shopping list (knowing ahead of time what you want to buy is a big time saver) my trips from the airport to resort ranged from just over an hour to 1 hour 32 minutes.


So what's the answer to the, "how long does it take to get from the airport to Disney World?" question? If you're taking Disney's Magical Express, then expect about 1 hour 30 minutes (though be prepared for a two hour journey). If you're driving, then 35 minutes is a safe estimate or 1 hour 30 minutes if you plan to stop for supplies along the way. However, you can shave at least twenty minutes, if not more, off that time if you pre-select somewhere along the way to stop and prepare your shopping list ahead of time. Having quarters for exact change may also save a minute or two during busy travel times, and selecting the right route during rush hour (usually SR-417) can be even more important.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What to Bring? My Packing List

When it comes to traveling I'm neither a minimalist nor a packrat. I'm not saying I've found the ideal choices of what to bring when away from home, but I have found a balance that works for me between having what I need while on the road and being able to carry those items around. Traveling to Disney World can be a little different for those who use Disney's Magical Express transportation, because you can check your luggage all the way to your hotel, meaning you don't have to carry your bags through the airport in Orlando or even to your hotel room. For some, this could be a license to over-pack. Others prefer to bring only the essentials for their vacation, buying extra items along the way as needed.  For me, the time and money spent on buying items I can easily transport is not worthwhile, but I usually rent a car (no Magical Express), so I have to be able to easily carry everything that I bring. It should be noted that I generally fly on Southwest Airlines, which does not currently charge for checked luggage.

Below is my standard packing list. Clothing will vary slightly depending on the weather for the upcoming trip, but most items stay the same from trip to trip. I carry three different bags, including a backpack for most of my photography gear, a 20" duffle bag for the plane, and a 22" rolling suitcase that I check. I'll save the photography discussion for later, since only applies to a small subset of readers, but will list what I bring in the other bags now.

Suitcase (22")

  • portable sunshade
  • poncho
  • sunscreen
  • shoes (1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of waterproof sneakers)
  • plastic bags (for storing leftover food, laundry, wet bathing suits)
  • extra tripod
  • food (oatmeal raisin bars and cereal bars, often replaced by souvenirs on the way home)
  • charging stations (there are never enough power outlets in hotel rooms)
  • packing cubes
  • underwear (fast drying to deal with the Orlando heat and thunderstorms)
  • socks
  • polo shirts
  • soccer jerseys
  • t-shirts
  • belts
  • long pants
  • shorts
  • bathing suits
  • sweatpants
  • shaver
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, shampoo, comb, Swiss army knife, nail clippers, floss, Airborne, ibuprofen, Visine, Neosporin, Band-Aids, Q-tips, melatonin, lip balm)

Carry on (20")

  • packing list
  • printed reservation confirmations
  • loose change
  • Tide pen
  • pens, pencils
  • lip balm
  • USB flash drive
  • maps
  • glasses case
  • comb
  • gum
  • Disney cards (MagicBands, Annual Pass Discount Card, Tables in Wonderland)
  • notebook
  • watch
  • headphones
  • books
  • deck of cards
  • camera chargers
  • camera connecting cables
  • cell phone charger
  • cell phone car charger
  • portable cell phone charger
  • laptop
  • laptop charger
  • water bottle (empty until through security)
  • sandwich (frozen the night before) + snacks
  • apple
  • jacket
  • Disney DVDs
  • stuffed monkey