Thursday, April 30, 2015

Reflections on Solo Trips to Walt Disney World

Over the years I've heard many people express a reluctance to travel on their own. Somehow we've been conditioned to think that we must be accompanied by others anytime we venture away from home. While there are certainly benefits to traveling with friends and loved ones, there are also advantages to going somewhere by yourself. Disney World has long been known as a great place for children, but more and more people are realizing that it also makes a great destination for adult travel, so if your adult friends don't believe that or can't join you, then don't let that stop you from visiting the Disney parks. A solo trip even offers opportunities that aren't otherwise available.

Following my third solo trip to Disney World in March, 2014 I decided to share some of the benefits of traveling alone.

You do what you want, when you want
Sure, it's great that when you travel with family and friends that you always put their interests ahead of yours. Someday they'll erect a statue in your honor when you win Father of the Decade, but in the meantime it's ok to consider your own needs from time to time. Actually, it's unhealthy not to do that. It even makes vacations with others easier when you've already checked off items from your personal Must Do list ahead of time. So, ride the Carousel of Progress three times and skip Small World. Stop to watch some of the street performers. Eat wherever you want, whenever you want. Wake up as early or as late as you want, take breaks when you want, and sleep when you want. It'll make you even more noble when you're traveling with a group.

For me, photography is important, but when I'm part of a group it's not fair to stop whenever I see a moment I wish to capture on digital media or to wait for just the right time to press the shutter button. I may stand in the same spot before crowds part, wait for a monorail to arrive, or for a character to look in just the right direction. If it's nighttime, then one shot may require a minute long exposure, and that's after setting up my tripod and framing the shot. My friends will be polite and say, "Take your time", but I'm really taking their vacation time and I don't operate effectively when I feel rushed. Traveling alone offers me the freedom to shoot at my own pace, and then zip across the park to my next destination as soon as I'm ready to go.

During my solo trips to Disney World, I've scheduled a few backstage tours. Ever since I realized that actual people build and operate theme parks I've been interested in how they work and Disney offers several opportunities to peak behind the curtain and see a little of what it takes to entertain their guests every day. Few of my friends and family share my curiosity about park operations, and of those who do, fewer are willing to spend the money or sacrifice the park time that these tours require. Additionally, the tours that I've chosen haven't allowed young children, which further limits the field of friends who might join me. I could wait years until finally cajoling someone into joining me or just sign myself up for a tour.  I chose to sign up when I could, and with no one else's schedule to coordinate with, I chose the tours I wanted on any days that I wished, and have had great experiences in doing so.

Notice things
You don't need to do on a formal tour of the Disney parks to appreciate the details that set the parks apart from any others, but it's often difficult to spot many of those special touches when other special moments are competing for your attention. It's wonderful to see the smile on a child's face when they experience a Disney marvel for the first time, so when I'm traveling with children, I often find myself watching them during shows to see how they react. I'll also be watching those children as they move through crowds or during meals to make sure they don't wander too far from their flock. The same thing happens when I travel with groups of adults, too. Since not everyone walks at the same speed, I usually position myself between the tortoises and the hares in an effort to keep the group together (probably a latent tendency from years of chaperoning school trips). However, that takes my eyes away from the most interesting places to look in the Disney parks. Everything from the flowers and grasses to the trashcans has been thoughtfully crafted and cleverly placed somewhere to tell a story. When freed from the bounds of human-herding, I can read the small print on a sign, listen when the music changes while I walk from one "land" to another or look closely at the footprints etched into the pavement. I may have moments when I can do this on other trips, but traveling solo is the only way to focus on these details without being interrupted by other responsibilities.

Talk to strangers
Wait, as a child I was told never to talk to strangers? That's right, but you're an adult now, so it's ok. Actually, it's better than ok, it makes us more well-rounded and well-informed, plus we might make new friends. But, I can't talk to strangers because I'm shy. Nonsense, I'm probably shyer than you are and I manage. Starting conversations is not a strength of mine, but once engaged in a discussion I enjoy speaking with people from different geographical and cultural backgrounds. That happens quite often in the Disney parks, since we're bound to run into people with something in common. After all, we've all chosen to be in Walt Disney World.

Disney cast members are often hired because of their outgoing personalities, and some will go out of their way to speak with those traveling alone. While dining with my sister at the Trail's End Restaurant at Fort Wilderness I witnessed a gregarious waiter sit down with a person dining alone and start a conversation that carried through the whole meal. I've also had lengthy discussions with cast members after seeing their nametags indicate they lived somewhere near my home town or because we shared some other common interest, but it's not just Disney employees taking pity on a poor solo traveler that create conversation.

There are so many different reasons people visit the Disney parks and nearly every guest has a different experience, but you'll likely never hear most of those stories. When we're in a group we tend to converse only with the other members of our traveling party, but when you're on your own you don't have this restriction. On my last trip I was encouraged to finally begin posting photographs to Instagram by a new friend in Epcot while we were taking pictures of the Flower & Garden Festival in Epcot in the evening, and also had a lengthy conversation with a man who had traveled the world and worked in airport security in London when that city hosted the Olympics. These conversations never would have begun had I been immersed in my own group. When I'm alone I'll also sometimes find myself offering advice to people next to me in line after overhearing part of their conversation. I've also had some wonderful experiences before and after fireworks, while standing with people who are seeing the shows for the first time. Last December before the holiday version of Illuminations I chatted with an older family with an even older relative in a wheelchair, some of whom were watching the Epcot fireworks and lasers for their first (and perhaps only) time. Even though I had seen the show and knew what was coming, hearing the amazement and appreciation of those who aren't regular park visitors often reminds me what is so special about these evening spectacles

 A series of even more poignant moments occurred a few years earlier while I was recording video and photographing Wishes from a location near the Crystal Palace. Shortly before the show started a family arrived and asked if they would be in my way if they watched the show from the railing next to my camera. I moved back a little and encouraged the children to slide up to the railing, where they could have an unobstructed view and their dad huddled behind them. The family was very polite and thanked me several times before and after the show for making room for them and it was clear that they enjoyed the fireworks, but I didn't realize how much until I listened to the audio that my camera captured. The video I shot wasn't spectacular, but when I hear the father say "cool," near the beginning of the show and then "we're watching fireworks in Disney," followed by wows and whoas from his children, it was hard not to appreciate how much Wishes meant to this family. Then, listening to one of the children repeat how "incredible" the show was and then realize "that's lighting up the whole sky" was one of the most special and unexpected experiences that I've had as an adult in a Disney park. I was fortunate to share in this family's moment and would never have done so had I not been traveling alone at that time.

Food tastes just as good when it's not shared
A common concern for those considering a solo trip is, "I don't want to eat alone." While it's wonderful that our society values sharing meals with others it does not mean that ALL meals must be shared at ALL times. We are physically capable of eating when there isn't another person on the other side of the table, so the idea that eating alone would keep us from spending time in an enjoyable vacation destination is all in our head. But, won't everyone be starting at me, judging the strange solo diner in a kids vacation destination? No. First, most people won't even notice you. They'll be busy enough gathering extra napkins to clean up whatever just spilled at their table, while imploring their children to finish their meal and stop crawling under the table. At least, that's what the few people whose noses aren't buried in their cell phones will be doing. In the odd event that someone does take the time to observe your eating habits and judge you as a horrible person for traveling alone, who cares? You don't know that person, they certainly don't know you, and it's unlikely you'll ever see them again. They're not calling your friends back home or your employer to report your antisocial behavior, so why are you paying attention to them anyway? Eat the food that YOU wanted and appreciate each bite. It's rare that we actually have time to think about the taste of the food we are eating and really savor a meal. That's good for us to do from time to time.

You're never really alone
With social media, you're capable of sharing images from your vacation with folks back home right away. As my network of Disney friends grows and as Disney parks are constantly changing, there are many people who are interested in hearing and seeing what is going on in the parks. On a solo trip, I'm free to share those experiences by typing away on my phone or laptop without taking time away from my traveling companions. When I'm home I enjoy seeing pictures of my favorite vacation destinations, so it's great to do my part to offer my friends a chance to do the same while they're stuck at home.

In addition to virtual connections with friends, the more times you visit, the more likely it is that you'll get to know people who live in Central Florida. Solo trips afford the opportunity to connect with those friends without having to take time away from your traveling party. If you're a regular participant in Disney social media forums, then there's also a pretty good chance that someone you've conversed with online will be in the parks at the same time as you are and solo trips are often the best time to actually meet those people. More than likely the people you would be traveling with won't know who your cyber-friends are or why you're so excited to meet them, never mind all the inside jokes from the message board that you'll be telling, so, save your friends and family the bemused and bewildered looks on their faces as and take a solo trip to meet your online friends in person.

In conclusion
Traveling with others offers many opportunities that aren't afforded to solo travelers. I have traveled with friends and family on many occasions and I am fortunate to have shared many memorable experiences. There are moments when "you had to be there" when I was glad someone else was there, and times that will always bring a smile to my face when we reminisce about these trips. However, my solo travel has also brought wonderful memories and a deeper understanding of some of my favorite vacation destinations, while allowing me to satisfy my own curiosity and desires, and I could do so without asking anyone else to compromise their valuable vacation time. I return from solo travel feeling refreshed (even when I've run myself ragged for days), intellectually stimulated, and full of stories to tell my friends and family when I get back home. If you're shying away from your own solo trip, then now you know what you're missing.

What are your thoughts on solo travel to Disney World?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reflections from an Off-Site Stay - March, 2015

I've traveled to Disney World many times since my first visit to Central Florida in 1979 and have been fortunate that most of those trips included a hotel stay on Disney property. In the early years and even with some trips in adulthood lodging was chosen by my parents (who also covered the costs). In recent years, as the cost of Disney vacations continues to outpace inflation by a considerable margin (and I've had to pay for my own rooms) I've chosen to look at how to save money on what have become frequent visits to the park. I've also become fond of driving during my stays, as a way to save time and avoid getting stuck standing on Disney buses at the end of a long night. Thus, when planning a Disney World visit in March it seemed like the right time to venture off of the Disney property for my lodging.

If you don't count a three year stretch when my family stayed at different resorts in the Disney Village Hotel Plaza (on-property, though not Disney-owned resorts) the last time I stayed off-site when visiting Disney World coincided with the time when President Reagan was shot, so it's been quite a while. As a child, I enjoyed my two stays at the Howard Johnson's Main Gate, which was located on US 192, just outside the Disney property line, but being a child I didn't take copious notes on those trips. I remember spending a lot of time in the swimming pool, using the putting green, and ending most days in the game room. As a kid, you couldn't ask for much more. As an adult, things like safety, efficiency, quiet, cost, and comfort become more important. I put those to the test with a three night stay at the Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista early in March, 2015.

My off-site stay was a success and will probably have an impact on my future Florida vacation planning. You can read my more detailed review of the Clarion, but for less than half the price I would have paid to stay at Disney's cheapest hotel (one of the All-Star Resorts) during the same time period I got a larger, more comfortable room, with better amenities, including a microwave and coffee maker. Internet access was not as fast as I've grown accustomed to in recent Disney visits (which has improved considerably in the last year or two) and noise reduction was downright poor, but after the first night I was so tired that I probably could've slept in the middle of the highway, so that turned out not to be a problem. The pool area wasn't as well-themed as any Disney value resort, but it also wasn't as crowded during the day. Service certainly wasn't Disney-caliber, but beyond checking in I had no direct dealing with the staff, so that didn't affect my stay. Overall, I'd consider my hotel experience to be a slight upgrade over a Disney value resort at a considerably lower cost.

You do lose out of a number of conveniences when staying away from Disney property, namely:
No Disney's Magical Express transportation to and from the airport
No Disney Resort Airline Check-In / Bag Check
No 60 Day Window to Make FastPass+ Reservations
No Extra 10 Days to Make Dining Reservations
No Free Parking on Disney property
Limited Bus Transportation to/from the Parks
No Access to Extra Magic Hours
No Additional MagicBands
No Room Charge or Package Delivery to Resort with Disney Purchases
No Priority Access to the Parks on Peak Days (only applies around Christmas, New Year's, and Independence Day)

In the case of my March trip, I didn't miss any of these perks to staying on property. I mentioned in my introduction that I prefer to rent a car when visiting the parks, so other than trips to the Magic Kingdom I seldom rely on Disney transportation. That means not having Magical Express and the less than ideal bus transportation that my off-site hotel provided had a negligible effect on my travel plans. During my three nights at the Clarion I drove to the Magic Kingdom (TTC) twice, Epcot twice, and Animal Kingdom once and my travel times to all those locations were almost identical to what I experienced driving or using Disney transportation when staying on-site. The exception was a considerably longer trip to Animal Kingdom, though that is mostly because many of my recent on-site stays have been at Disney's All-Star Resorts, which are located only a few minutes from Animal Kingdom. In this case, staying on-site would have saved me a couple minutes in travel time, but not enough to make a meaningful difference for comparison purposes.

I realize not everyone enjoys driving while on vacation, so if that's you, then transportation challenges associated with an off-site stay may be significant. For me, since I would be renting a car and driving anyway and travel times are similar to staying on-site, I would be quite content to stay off-site again, feeling confident that I could get where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. My hotel was located near the Crossroads shopping center, minutes from Downtown Disney, so if you chose to stay somewhere farther away from Disney World, then your travel times could be higher. However, since a wide variety of reasonably priced accommodations at nearly all quality levels exist on the periphery of Disney property I think the travel time comparison with the Clarion would be comparable. Another possible concern for some would be paying for parking. Disney charges $17 per day for automobiles (and slightly more if you're driving a camper, bus, or tractor trailer), which could eat into your savings when staying off-site. I have an Annual Pass, which includes free parking, so this wasn't an issue for me, but is an important consideration for most visitors.

Other Disney resort perks, such as the extra time to have FastPass+ and dining reservations, have been a factor for some trips, but that has seldom been the case for me. In December, when traveling with a friend's family, which included his five year old Frozen-obsessed daughter, the extra window to make FastPass+ reservations ensured that all five people in the traveling party could get FastPass+ to meet Anna and Elsa at the same time. However, with no one in my traveling party that wanted that coveted FastPass (I was traveling solo) I was still able to reserve ride times for every attraction I wanted, including Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Wishes, and Illuminations when I my FastPass+ window opened. As far as dining reservations, I seldom seek out pre-rope drop breakfasts or other high-demand dining locations, and for this trip I was planning to eat most of my meals in Epcot to sample the Flower & Garden Festival Outdoor Kitchens, so dining reservations weren't a priority. Additionally, I booked this trip on relatively short notice, so I was well inside the 180 day window when anyone could make dining reservations, so the extra ten days resort guest have to make their ADRs would not have mattered.

For some having a MagicBand may be of measurable value. I already have one in each color that Disney offers hotel guests, so another band wasn't very important to me. Having stayed on site a number of times over the last year, it was a minor inconvenience to have to reach into my wallet for the hotel key, rather than just tapping my wrist against the door, but given the choice I'm not sure I'd pay more than a few dollars a night for that feature. What I did miss a little bit were the room charging privileges that come with the MagicBand when staying on-site. Since I planned to pay for most of my Disney purchases with Disney gift cards, and those cards were in $50 increments, I had to carry around my stash of cards and keep track of how much money was left on the one I was actively using. Had I been staying on-site I would have charged all of my purchases to the room and could have brought my gift cards to the Front Desk and paid in one long transaction. Another potentially useful plus to staying on-site, though one I've hardly ever used, is the ability to have purchases in the parks delivered to your resort (so you don't have to carry things around the parks). Not having that didn't bother me, but not being able to charge items to my room was a slight inconvenience, though it is another thing for which I wouldn't pay more than a couple dollars a day.

Yes. There are certainly circumstances that make an on-property stay a reasonable value for me, including my next trip, which will be during Star Wars Weekends, when early access to FastPass+ may be valuable, as will Disney transportation during a time when the odds of getting stuck in the remote recesses of the Hollywood Studios parking lot are higher than normal. However, having experienced the considerable cost savings of an off-site stay, with minimal increases in transportation time, I can see many instances where I will be content to spend my nights at a nearby off-property hotel. The money I save will allow me to pay for more upscale dining, additional entertainment like backstage tours, or just to allow more frequent visits to the park, all of which outweigh what I might lose out when staying off-property. There are some advantages to staying off-site, too, including larger hotel rooms and more in-room amenities than you would have on property. Additionally, the ease of access to off-site dining can provide even more cost savings. For those who prefer to stay in the Disney "bubble" that may not sound appealing, but for others, eating some meals away from the Disney property (and Disney prices) may be the best way to make a trip economically feasible. Of course, off-site stays also work best when you are willing to drive and require a cursory knowledge of the local roads (or a close relationship with your GPS), so for some that may be more of a hassle than they want on their vacations. For me, I'll be excited to return to the All-Star Resorts for my next on-property stay, but I'm also looking forward to trying out some more hotels close to the Disney property. They were good enough for my first visits to Disney World and it appears off-site lodging will also be part of my future travels.

Monday, April 13, 2015

2015 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival - World Showcase

2015 marked the fourth year in a row that I've visited Epcot during its annual International Flower & Garden Festival. Much of the Festival remained the same as in previous years, with topiary and other floral displays decorating the park and Outdoor Kitchens bringing a taste of spring to the park.

This year, I've broken my photos up into two separate posts, so this one will feature photographs from World Showcase. I will include Future World photos in a separate post. I also detailed my food selections in yet another Flower & Garden post.

New to this year's Festival were Anna and Elsa from Frozen, greeting guests and they entered World Showcase Plaza.

Something was missing from the Norway pavilion, as this spot had been troll country in previous years.

A topiary celebrating the Year of the Sheep appears alongside the China pavilion.

Lion King topiaries decorate the African Outpost area of World Showcase.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, again among the more attractive topiary, were found outside the German pavilion.

The German garden railway also celebrates the Flower & Garden Festival.

Lady and the Tramp are never far from an Italian restaurant, so they naturally appear in the Italy pavilion.

Ms. Piggy appears between the Italy and United States pavilions, representing the entire Muppets franchise.

Woody was alone outside The Smokehouse in the United States pavilion, with no other Toy Story characters present this year.

Characters from Beauty and the Beast are present throughout the France pavilion.

Cinderella and Prince Charming also moved in the France pavilion, from their previous spot in between France and the U.K., where other pairs of princes and princesses were left out of this year's Festival.

Even thought the Outdoor Kitchen has been removed from the U.K. pavilion, the area is still well decorated during the Festival. Pooh appears this year without and "friends", there is an English Tea Garden, and Captain Hook appears with his two nemeses.

Bambi and friends returned to the Canada pavilion this year.