10 More Steps to Winning at Disney World

October 16, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under General Insanity, Silliness and Rants

I was hanging out with my mom yesterday and we are now 80 days away from our 5th trip to Disney with our kids. (We go about every 3 years which is a great rhythm for us.)  So, she and I spent a lot of time looking over plans for our trip and it’s on my brain, and once a week I like to put something on my blog that I love that is fun and not so serious.  (Sorry, I take that back.  Winning at Disney World is quite serious)  If you missed the first 10, check them out here.  If you are planning a trip you definitely need to read that one first.

My Girls and the First Lady of Disney World

My Girls and the First Lady of Disney World

1) Stay on-site at a Disney Hotel if at all possible. I know that you can save some money staying off-site, but there are other money factors to consider.  You don’t have to pay for parking, and you won’t use any gas.  Their buses take you wherever you need to go.  You also will save a lot of time if you are trying to get there by rope drop (If you don’t know what that means, seriously read the other post).  You can walk out of your room, to the bus stop and the bus takes you close to the entrance.   You bypass paying for parking, and having to take the shuttle or monorail to the front gate.

Also, staying on-site immerses you in the Disney experience, which is part of the fun.  It feels like you are in a completely different world rather than at a tourist attraction in the middle of Orlando.  It enhances the magical experience for the kids (not me, the kids.  I’m a grown man.)

2) Eat at some character meals. A character meal is a meal at a Disney restaurant where some of the Disney characters walk around the restaurant and take pictures with you.  Not only is that just a super-fun concept in and of itself, but it also allows you to get your character pictures and autographs done while you are eating.  For every picture and autograph you get in a restaurant, that is one less line that you have to stand in at a park or one less FastPass+ that you have to get.  Meeting with characters in one of the prime attractions at Disney.  Now we get to walk past people standing in line for that and think about how much we are winning.

Some of our favorites:

Chef Mickey’s–buffet, decent food, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto.  Those are the main characters and they all come to your table while you eat.

Cinderella’s Royal Table–WARNING! Super-expensive.  Good food, you are eating at Cinderella’s castle the icon of the park, it’s Cinderella’s castle! You get to meet multiple princesses.  (A cheaper alternative is Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot.  Food not as good, different princesses. Cheaper)

Crystal Palace–has the characters from Pooh, buffet, ok food for lunch, we’ve heard great things about the breakfast, will let you know in 90 days.

3) Go when kids are traditionally in school if at all possible. Teachers, don’t rebuke me please, but pull your kids out of school if you can.  Look at your school calendar and see if there are any weeks where your kids are out of school for a few days that are non-traditional times (not Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Spring Break, etc.), pull them out the rest of the week.  You will find that the parks are much less crowded and the prices much lower.  Less people + Less money = More winning.

4) Get good advice about what park to go to on what day. There is a lot of great advice out there.  Touring Plans, EasyWDW, WDWPrepSchool.  They all have crowd calendars and rate which park to go to on each day.  They know the natural patterns and this way you can go to the least crowded park each day of your vacation.  Your lines are much shorter and you are much happier. You need a great coach to win.

5) Wait to book your vacation.  Disney offers discounts for almost every season, unless you are trying to go spring break, Thanksgiving, Christmas–the times where the parks are packed.  If you wait, you can get one of the discounts.  The downside is that you will be late at making dining reservations.  You can book dining reservations 6 months in advance, but you will be booking your trip 90-120 days in advance.  Some premium time slots for best restaurants will be gone, but you will be able to find some good ones still.  It’s a good trade off to save hundreds of dollars.  There’s that less money = winning formula again.

6) Consider the Disney Dining Plan (But only if they are offering it for “free” or discounted. Nothing is free. If they offer it for free, you are paying a little more for your hotel room.)  If you are staying onsite, it is a way to prepay for meals.  This is not always a value.  Here is a website to help you check.  What we have found when we have used it  is that it allows us to eat at nicer restaurants and order more expensive food than we would normally because you are paying for meal credits, regardless of the price of the meal.  It’s a little more complicated than that, but when you check into it there’s a lot of good explanation.  It saves the potential stress of having to say know to your kids (or you) getting a drink or a dessert at every meal to save money, because stuff like that is included.  Again, it’s not always a good financial deal.  Sometimes it would be better to pay out of pocket on-site.  Check the calculator.  It’s also a great way to consume a lot of calories in a week, another winning formula.

7) Amazon is your friend. We are shipping some snacks to the hotel via Amazon.  Unless, you are flying Southwest, you probably have noticed that paying for bags on airlines can add up.  We are using Allegiant and they charge for carry ons.  So, we are figuring out what snacks we want/need and ordering them off Amazon and having them shipped.  We are Prime members so the shipping is free.  Cheap way to get stuff there.  Cheap + more calories = X (solve for X)

8) Consider the pace of your day and your week. If you have read the first post or talked to me about this, you know that we get there early and go fast all morning.  We cover a lot of ground quickly.  However, you have to consider the pace of your day and week.  This will vary a lot depending on who all is in your party.  We will have a 4 year old and a pair of grandparents.  So, we are planning slower days after our busier days and late nights.  We try not to have 2 late nights in a row.  We also plan times, when those who need more rest or need to go slower can break from the pack.  If this sounds like a lot of planning, it is.  Disney World is way too crowded and complicated and overwhelming to just wing it.  Winging it = losing. Obsessively planning = winning.

9) Embrace the Value Hotels. These are the cheapest hotels on-site.  Some people might be put off by the word value and in your mind you get a Motel 6 vibe.  It’s not that.  It’s a nice hotel.  Probably as nice as the offsite hotel you are considering.  The pools are incredible, the amenities are good.  We are there to tour Disney parks not be at a hotel.  What we need at the hotel is a clean bed and clean bathroom.  The value resorts have both. Great way to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  We are so exhausted after a full day of winning, it doesn’t matter what the room likes like.  We only see our eyelids.

10) Figure out the technology of MyDisneyExperience and FastPass+ These are tools that Disney offers to help you with your touring and to get you on some rides at the front of the line.  (I may dedicate a whole post to this at some point, but probably after the trip)  It will help you stay out of lines and help tremendously in your planning for meals, characters, wait times, everything.  Don’t let technology intimidate you.  Don’t let that it just seems to be one more thing to complicate the trip hold you back.  Other people will be utilizing this and we just can’t let them win.

There’s a reason why there are countless blogs about how to tour Disney World–to do it well without waiting in a lot of lines is not simple.  You can’t just walk in there.  You can, but you will regret mid-afternoon day 1.  To make it work, will require work.  It’s a trade-off for sure, work hard in planning your trip pays off in a better more relaxing experience on the trip.  Do what we do, we turn the obsessive planning into fun anticipation for a great trip.  We rewatch the video that Disney will send you, we look at the websites, we brainstorm about restaurants.  The trip is much more than the week that we are gone, it is also weeks of excited shared planning and preparation.

Prepare to win. Enjoy the win. Celebrate the win.

10 Steps to Winning at Disney World (or Any Theme Park)

September 11, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under General Insanity, Silliness and Rants

You may be wondering what it means to win at Disney World or a theme park.  If you are as competitive as the Loften family, you know instinctively what it means.  For people who are nicer than us, I’ll explain.  There are two ways to win at a theme park.  The first is based solely on how you feel at the end of the day.  Some people walk away from a day at Disney and feel like all they did was wait in lines all day in huge crowds and accomplished nothing.  They lost.  You win when you feel like you rode what you wanted to and had a great time.  You may still be tired, but it’s a “wasn’t that fun?” tired and not a “I hate this” kind of tired. When you do that, you win.

That's a Group of Winners!

That's a Group of Winners!

There is a second way that you can win, and this makes theme park touring a competition. (Isn’t everything a competition?)  You win by doing Disney better than everyone else.  Example: we had just finished the day at Animal Kingdom, one of the parks at Disney World, and we were on the bus headed back to the hotel.  A mom starts talking to my wife Heidi.  She says that she got at the park at opening and was there all day and only rode 3 things.  She talked about how exhausted she was and how she “hated this.”  We, on the other hand, had been there since the park opening and had ridden the two main attractions 3 times each as well as riding about 10 other rides and we saw a couple of shows.  We win! This post is designed to help you WIN! Don’t you want to win? Of course, you do.  As you can probably guess, in addition to winning, we really love theme parks, especially Disney World.  We are planning another trip soon.  Also, a shout out to Silver Dollar City, which we visit about a dozen times a year–always winning.  These principles will be broad enough to be applied anywhere, but I will focus on Disney, because, you know, DISNEY!

1) Get to the park well before rope drop. What is rope drop you may ask?  It’s the time when they turn you loose in the park.  Most parks have a literal rope or chain or something that is holding you back from getting in.  When they drop the rope, it is time to go win!  Getting to the park before rope drop means that you have your ticket in hand ready to go before the park opens. Not buying a ticket, not in the parking lot, not “we’re pulling in.”  You are standing at the gate ready to go before they are letting people in. Depending on how busy/popular the park is, that may mean 10 minutes before or 40 minutes before.  I highly recommend 40 minutes for any park at Disney.  That may sound crazy but it is far and away the most important piece of advice.  You could stop reading now and win (not against us, but against most people).  If you get there 40 minutes early, you can be among the first 50 people in the park.  If you get there right when it opens, you could have 1000 people in front of you.  Get there what most people call early, within the first hour of opening, and you will have 1000’s of people ahead of you and you will wait in line behind them all day.  We wait once and that is for the park to open.  Fun Fact: we got to Animal Kingdom once at 7:15 when it opened at 8:00.  Saw many of the Cast Members (employees) show up to work.  We even beat them!  Win!

2) Go to the most popular attractions first. This is not the same as going to the attractions that you most want to ride first.  This means go to the rides that everyone else wants to ride first.  Go to where the crowds will ultimately be headed before the crowds get there.  You have some sense of what the most popular rides are, ride them first, then the next popular ones, etc.  Then rather than waiting with or behind the crowds, the crowds are chasing you all day.  You know what that feels like? Winning.

A Good Kind of Tired

A Good Kind of Tired

3) Go hard early. Rest later. Some of you are already thinking that this is sounding exhausting.  It’s not exhausting.  Exhausted is what you feel after waiting in lines for 5 hours total all day.  It’s a good kind of tired to get up early and have fun.  However, if you get up early, stay focused and hit all the rides you can early, then when the afternoon comes and the park is at its most crowded, you can rest.  Sit on a bench and taunt some people.  Go back to the hotel and take a nap.  Go see some of the shows where you are sitting for a while.  I promise if you get up early, work hard in the morning and then rest later, you will be significantly less tired than the people who are sleeping in and getting to the park at the worst time.  “But I want to sleep in on vacation!”  Great, go to the beach.  If you sleep in at Disney, you will walk away tired.  However, work hard in the morning and then take a well-deserved rest.  You’ve earned it, because, you know, you’re winning!

4) Bring a snack. Take water and a snack with you.  Not only will you save money but you will also save time by not going to their snack counters.  Both matter, especially at Disney World.  Furthermore, as you are moving quickly around the park, you will be glad you had a snack to help you keep your energy up.  Also, the best time to stop and eat is for a late lunch.  This way you are waiting less to get your food, and you are still riding when others stop to eat.  You are eating when the park is most crowded and its the hottest.  You could also consider eating energy gel packets that marathon runners use, to make yourself feel more like a winner.

5) Know the park. Don’t wait until you get there to get the map and figure out where the rides, bathrooms, restaurants, etc. are.  You need to at least have a general sense of where everything is.  You also need to know exactly where you are headed first and in what general direction you are going throughout the day.  If you need to look at a map to confirm some things, do that while you are waiting (every so briefly) to get on rides.  Don’t do this:  I was walking, read jogging, across Disney to get some Fastpasses, back when they used paper Fastpasses, and I saw a mom pushing a stroller.  In front was dad with his face in a map.  As a move past them, I hear her say, “You better figure this out, because this is ridiculous.”  That’s what we call not winning.

6) Take advantage of any special touring opportunities. Most parks have some sort of way to get you to the front of the line on certain rides.  At Disney World, it is called Fastpass+ and is available to everyone who has a ticket.  Research this and use it.  It can make a huge difference and lets you ride crowded rides during busy times with little wait.  It’s complicated, so don’t do it the night before.  Start looking into it as soon as you know you are going.  Do the research, it will pay off big.  At Silver Dollar City it is called Trailblazers Pass.  It costs money.  I don’t recommend it.  If you get there early and ride the big rides first, you will be fine.  We paid for the passes at Cedar Point because it was literally a once in a lifetime trip.  My Dad, Brother and I rode 20+ roller coasters in 6 hours.  Hmmm, what do you call that?  Hint: it starts with a w.

7) Have a plan, but make it flexible. I know that most people don’t want to plan vacation.  You want to rest.  We’ve covered that a little already, but planning ahead will make your vacation more restful when you are there.  What rides do we know we want to ride? How popular are they? Where are they? Where do we want to eat?  You don’t have to rigidly stick to the plan.  You may encounter something unexpected that looks fun, like an early parade that you weren’t aware of or a character roaming freely.  Have a plan but don’t be a slave to it.  However, there may come a point where your kid wants to do something now that would be better done later.  Make sure you don’t just say no.  Just tell them that we will be back there later.  “We can’t do that now.  We will do it after lunch.  Remember, we are winning.”

8 ) Research any touring plans. Google is your friend.  Type this “(name of park) touring plans.”  You will find some great information and websites from people who are even more psychotic about this than I am.  You will find multiple plans based on how old your kids are, interests, etc.  We found some before our trip to Cedar Point this summer.  It helped us know what the most crowded rides were and gave us a sense of the park.  It was a lot of help.  Someone else has done all the work.  They are offering it to you.  Learn from winners to be a winner.

9) Get everyone on board. If you are travelling with other people, you need to get everyone on board.  You don’t want to spend much of your day waiting for your friends and family to show up.  If some people are resistant, get them to try it with you the first day and if they don’t like it, they can do something else.  They will like it and you will be the hero.  You don’t want people complaining.  That sounds like losing.

Follow the red backpack! That's where the plan and the snacks are!

Follow the red backpack! That's where the plan and the snacks are!

10) Have the heart of a servant not a dictator. This will be the best way to get people on board.  You are not trying to dominate the vacation.  You are not in a competition with your family and friends.  You are in a competition with everyone else.  Your role in researching and planning is making sure everyone has a great time.  It is the greatest joy for me at Disney.  My reward is the looks on my girls’ faces when they get to see the character they want to meet, when they get to ride everything they want.  I will work as hard as I have to for that reward.  I want to love and serve them and for everyone to have a great time. That’s winning!

Caption My Favorite Family Photos

January 6, 2010 by cloften  
Filed under General Insanity, Silliness and Rants

The Fam Riding Rock 'n Roller Coaster at Disney Studios at Walt Disney World

The Fam Riding Rock 'n Roller Coaster at Disney Studios at Walt Disney World

This is one of those family photos that I like to say tells you just about everything that you need to know about my family if you look hard enough.  Caption this photo.  Give it a title or even better give “thought balloons” to each one of us.  Get your creative juices going.