Once we’d recovered a little from the Ftf Rally (though honestly, had we been to a rally before, we would have left more recovery time) it was finally time for Disney World. To thoroughly write about our week at Disney would take at least a half-dozen posts, but I’m going to see what I can do with two or three.
The first thing I learned as we started planning our Disney World vacation is just how much there is to learn. There’s a whole bunch of people making a full-time income from blogging about Disney planning, and with good reason. It is truly its own world with its own language, customs, transportation system, currencies, traditions and rules. I will leave the explanation of these things to the people who get paid for it. They do a great job and I can’t imagine planning all of this without them.
It was relatively easy to settle on our dates. We knew we wanted to visit this year, when our older kids are 7 and 5 – the perfect ages to experience the magic of Disney for the first time. We were already planning to be in Florida in February, which is also when the weather tends to be pleasant, and at Disney both the crowds and prices are lower. All things considered, we think we did pretty well there.
Let’s talk for a second about money and get that out of the way. The budget was one of our earliest decisions. Our week at Disney cost more than our usual budget for a month. This was a conscious decision and we know that it is possible to “do Disney” for a lot less than we spent. It’s also possible to spend a lot more. We are not aiming to visit Disney World every year, or every other year. For us it was basically a one-time deal (except we will go back in about 5 years for Micah’s sake). As such, we chose to splurge and have the full Disney experience. So while we certainly didn’t add every bell and whistle Disney offers, we didn’t scrimp and save everywhere we could either. This is not a “Disney on a dime” kind of post.
We booked a package deal, staying on Disney property at the Fort Wilderness campground for 5 nights, with a corresponding 5-day Disney dining plan, and a 6-day park pass. We did not choose a park hopper pass, but stuck to one park per day.
While it sounded good at first – 6 days, 5 nights – as we got closer and thought through some logistics, we adjusted our plans a bit. Arriving by car, with a camper in tow, is different than arriving by plane. When you fly into the Orlando airport, you can take Disney transit directly to a park and your luggage will be in your hotel room at the end of the day. You can do the same thing in reverse when you’re leaving so your arrival and departure days can be nearly full days in a park.
We could have left our camper in the storage lot at Fort Wilderness at early as 7am on the first day, spent the day in a park and come back to set camp in the evening. And we could have checked out of our site that early on the last day and left the camper in that same storage lot, then picked it up and moved it after spending the day in the park. But we realized that after a full day of excitement, it would be nice to have beds ready to tuck ourselves into, and setting camp late at night when we were exhausted would not be setting ourselves up for a good vacation.
Disney passes can be used anytime within two weeks of first use and we had already planned to stay at the Thousand Trails Orlando campground (TTO) after we left Fort Wilderness. So we decided to save two park days and not attempt the parks on our arrival and departure days. There is enough to do in the Disney resorts and the surrounding area so we slowed down the pace slightly on those days and we were glad we did. Our first night we booked a character dining experience at one of the other resorts and on our departure day, we hung out at the Fort Wilderness pool area and used up our remaining meal plan credits before heading to TTO.
This was smart for several reasons, not the least of which being that six straight days in the Disney parks is just too much… for kids, for parents, for anybody. Taking a break was a good idea. It also gave us the chance to compare the experience of staying on Disney property with staying elsewhere and driving in to the parks.
So our week looked like this:
Saturday: Arrival at Fort Wilderness. Cinderella character dinner buffet at the Grand Floridian hotel
Sunday: Magic Kingdom
Monday: Epcot Center, starting the day with a princess character breakfast buffet
Tuesday: Animal Kingdom, including a character dinner buffet with Mickey, Goofy, Donald and Daisy
Wednesday: Hollywood Studios, starting the day with a Disney Jr character breakfast buffet
Thursday: check out of Fort Wilderness, move to TTO
Friday: return to Magic Kingdom
Saturday: return to Epcot Center
Reasons to Stay on Disney Property
Fort Wilderness is not on the Disney monorail system. The Magic Kingdom can be reached by boat directly from Fort Wilderness while the other parks are reached by bus. From our campsite, the boat launch was within reasonable walking distance but we had to take the campground bus to get to the main bus terminal. When we went to the Grand Floridian, we took the boat to Magic Kingdom and then rode the monorail. All of this seemed somewhat complicated until we had something to compare it to.
The day we drove to Magic Kingdom from off-property, for example, it took more than 2 hours before we were through the gate, though the campground was about 30 minutes away. First you drive, then park, then take the parking tram, then wait in line for the boat, then ride the boat, then wait in line to enter the park. Taking Disney transit directly to the gate saved a lot more time than we’d realized. It’s nice not to use up all your patience for waiting in lines before you even enter the park.
Magic Kingdom is probably the worst example because needing a boat requires an extra step, but it does save a lot of time and frustration to let someone else do the driving and be dropped off and picked up right by the gate. You can also count the cost of gas and $20 per day for parking against the money you save by staying off site.
Disney Dining Plan
The dining plan was probably our biggest reason for choosing to be on property. Yes, the dining plan is expensive and probably more than we’d spend on food per day if we packed our own snacks and chose cheaper restaurants. But we never would have chosen to spend $100+ on a character dining experience let alone the 4 different experiences we chose. It’s largely a psychological thing I think, but once the money was spent we could relax and enjoy the experience without thinking about how much it cost. We could say yes to ice cream and popcorn and soft pretzels shaped like Mickey Mouse without swiping our credit card each time. Not having to think about it was part of the vacation.
Magic Bands/Fast Passes
When you stay on Disney property you get to customize your Magic Bands and have them sent to you ahead of time. Everyone had a personalized bracelet in his or her favorite color. Again, not necessary, but it added to the experience. It’s so convenient to be able to wear the Magic Band and use it to pay for meals, use your Fast Passes on rides, not to mention entering the parks, linking photos and other ride features. It truly is a great system and it was nice not to have to keep track of tickets and fast pass cards, or worry about them getting wet in your pocket on a ride. You can purchase a Magic Band if you’re not staying on property, but they were surprisingly expensive, and again, I’m not sure if we’d have spent the money.
Another added bonus is being able to book your Fast Passes longer in advance. I imagine this would make even more difference if you were going during peak season when lines are much longer and Fast Passes for the major attractions are much more difficult to get.
If we were to do it again we would either have chosen a 4-day park pass or at least spread out our 6 days over more than a week. Since there are 4 Disney parks, it was nice to have a day in each and a chance to return to our favorite 2 for another day. This took some of the pressure off of trying to do it all the first time. But next time we would space out our days much more and hopefully enjoy the experience even more for being better rested and less overwhelmed. Spreading it out this way would also mean we could limit our visits to weekdays, when it was noticeably less crowded, and spend less of our time waiting in lines.
I’m glad, though, that we planned several consecutive days when we stayed on Disney property and used the meal plan. There are undeniably more efficient and cost effective ways to experience Disney World, and in the future we may need to be on a stricter budget than we were this time. But I’m thankful that we had the luxury of leaving our car parked and our credit cards in our wallets to immerse ourselves in a world where we paid for things with a bracelet and were “chauffeured” by bus drivers who called our daughter princess. It’s a part of the experience that, in my opinion, is worth it if you can afford it.
It was an exhausting week, but long after the tiredness is forgotten we will have the memories… of holding small hands that were literally shaking with excitement, the look in a little girl’s eyes when Prince Charming kissed her hand, or the smile of a little boy who just got a hug from Jake. I hope they will remember the time Mamma couldn’t stop laughing on the teacups or how securely Pappa held them when the ride was a little scary.
On our last day, Emelie wanted to bring her bug catching jar with her into the park. She said she wanted to catch some air in it so she could take the magic of Disney World home with her forever. We told her she could store the magic in her heart, where she can never lose it.
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