Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What’s in a Plan – Preparing for a Great Disney Vacation

By Todd Shrader – vacation planner
Welcome to this series on why and how to plan for a Disney World vacation.  This first article will cover the importance of planning a few things, even for you non-planners.  After that, we will examine an actual plan that was made for my family and then what actually happened to see if we can learn anything…

So you’re going on vacation to Disney World.  Do you really need to make a plan?  Really?  I mean, it is vacation, after all.  You just want to chill out and have fun right?  You don’t need a plan, right?  Ummm…  Well…  If you do want to chill out and have fun, you really should make a plan.

Now hold on.  Before you go crazy on me that you just like to wing it and that will be fine, let me explain what you need to plan and why.  It isn’t too much so don’t be scared.

A good plan can be simple and short.  You just need to have a few basics worked out.  First and most important, which park(s) should you go to on which day.  Why is this important? 
On a recent trip to the Magic Kingdom, two days apart the average waiting on one day for Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was 45 minutes and fastpasses were hours in the future.  The other day posted wait times were 15 minutes or less and fastpasses were for less than an hour in the future.  The crowd level on the busy day was “oh my gosh now I know what sardines feel like” while on the other day meandering the parks was a spacious joy.  And all of this was in the offseason.  Double or triple the crowds for busy season and think about it.

The reality is the biggest deterrent from a great trip for almost everyone is the crowds.  Imagine how great it would be if you could have the park all to yourself.  Of course, we can’t do that, but we can plan to get you closer to that.  There are resources out there that can help you with this.   
Simply choosing the correct day during your trip to go each park will mean the difference between a great relaxing time meandering freely or a stressful rushing time trying to crisscross the parks for fastpasses, cramming in queues and rushing to get to the next queue.  A good Disney travel agent and planner can help you with this (and more) and are usually free to you (they are paid on the back end by Disney).

Now, some of the crowd you are going to meet is dependent on the time of year you are going, not just the day.  There are busy times like holidays and summer and less busy times when kids are back in school.  If you have flexibility, picking a less busy time should be part of your plan.  Plus, you can usually get better prices and special deals during these off times.  Again, research the internet or consult a good Disney travel professional for help.

Okay, we’ve covered the most important part of planning, when to go and which days to go to which parks.  Basic stuff, right?  You can handle that, can’t you?  Great!  Now hold my hand.  I’m going to take you just a little bit further.

There are two more things we need to plan.  First is dining.  As most Disney fanatics will tell you, the proliferation of the Disney Dining Plan, especially in off seasons when the dining plan is offered for free, has made the popular restaurants nearly impossible to get into without a reservation.  So decide which dining experiences you want.  

If there is something you really want to do, make a reservation. (A search of the internet, a consultation with a good planner, or staying tuned here for future articles will give you a good idea which restaurants you need reservations for.)  Reservations are always cancellable if your plans change, though some restaurants do require a 24 hour notice on a cancellation to avoid charges.

Finally, here’s the last thing I want you to do to make sure you love your Disney vacation.  Plan the start of each day.  I’m not going to say you have to, but I recommend being at the gates as the park opens.  This is the least busy part of the day and you can get more attractions done before the crowds build.  (Peak seasons offerering late hours have equally less busy times at night, but sometimes fewer rides are open at night.)  If possible have a late breakfast after a few hours in the park or grab something real quick in your room before heading out. 

Then, it’s time to hit the park with a starting plan.  It doesn’t have to be big and grand.   Three or four steps are enough.  Those steps should be which fastpass to get first (it’s always good to pick a responsible energetic person to get all fastpasses for your group or someone who does not want to ride the first ride you are going to go on), which ride to go on first, and which ride to go on next, and perhaps your second fastpass.  (If you are among the first to the fastpass booth that day, your fastpass will be for less than an hour in the future, meaning you can get another fastpass fairly soon - as soon as the last fastpass’s window opens.)  That simple three or four step plan will make you productive when the crowds are still lighter and get fastpasses for and go on rides that otherwise will have prohibitive waits as the day gets going.

Congratulations.  You’ve done enough to tip the scales in favor of you having a great trip.  Now, if you are someone that enjoys the planning process almost as much as the trip like I do, feel free to plan more.  However, a word of caution:  unless you are traveling alone or with a very agreeable person, your plans are likely to change on the fly.  It’s okay.  Just go with the flow and remember – we were able to get the non-planners to make a basic plan, perhaps we planners can learn to go in an opposite direction and go with the flow a little bit, to paraphrase a turtle friend of mine.  The best times at Disney are often the surprises that can’t be planned such as stumbling across an unexpected character.  Enjoy these!

One more thing that will help everyone is knowledge.  You don’t need to have a plan, but knowing in advance where everything is and what is likely to be busy will help you navigate the parks and “wing it” with knowledge.  So if you want to do more, have scenarios set aside in your head, tucked right next to the show times for the shows you want to see and the best path from The Tiki Room to the Haunted Mansion.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you to do a small bit of planning before your next trip to Disney World.  I am sure that just these few small steps will greatly enhance your experience at the parks and reduce your frustration and walking.

Tune in next time as we examine the plan I had for my family’s trip I just completed.  Then we’ll follow that with a look at what actually happened and see if we can learn something.

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