Home Away from Home

We have always been die hard fans of staying on property for our WDW vacations. This year we started to look at options for our pre cruise stay and since the plan was to see more of Orlando than just WDW (gasp) we decided to look off site.

This was somewhat anxiety provoking for me. As someone who feels pretty confident about my knowledge of Disney this was a whole new experience. This led to the Trip Advisor obsession through much of the month of May. Not kidding I looked at reviews for at least 200 + hotels in the Orlando/Kissimmee area.

I stumbled across a thread on my favourite Disney info site disboards.com talking about house and condo rentals. Soon someone on my cruise group also started talking about their condo stay. I was intrigued, but not convinced. I mean I was already looking at an off property hotel, but this was still a vacation and a vacation to me means someone makes my bed and brings me new towels, doing my own chores and laundry just didn’t hold any appeal for me.

I finally agreed to take a look. This is what I found

Image

 

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a vacation destination to me.

I started to do some research. This gated community is called Windsor Hills, it is one of many house/condo communities where the majority of owners rent their properties through out the year.

To make a rental inquire you can either contact an owner directly or inquire through some property management websites. I did a bit of both and started to get back some quotes.

I decided on a 3 bedroom condo. I liked it because it was one of the few places that wouldn’t charge an $80 cleaning fee for a stay of less than 7 days, the price was good approx $400 plus tax for 5 nights and the condo had been purchased and redone in the last year.

I started to look at the website for this condo, for anyone who wants to check it out the site is http://www.disneycondoforrent.com

A few things stood out for me; not only could I put the kids to bed and then stay up with a glass of wine, I could put them to sleep in separate bedrooms where they wouldn’t try to kill each other. I could do laundry not because I have to, but so that I didn’t have to pack dirty clothes for the cruise.

We’d have access to a great pool and clubhouse and while we didn’t have to cook or grocery shop we did have the option for quick breakfasts or snacks.

I have to say that this hotel girl has been converted.

My communication with the owner has been great, he is also Canadian and the 3 bedroom condo in priced on par with most of the hotels we were looking at. This reformed hotel girl is super excited for her home away from home this vacation.

Advertisements

Dole Whips and cup cakes and Turkey Legs oh my

It seems fitting that shortly after posting tips on how to score the best WDW reservations I would publish a blog on how to stay healthy at Disney

Going on vacation may mean different things for your vacation. For some, it means staying on track completely, some prepare for a week of moderation and others see vacation as well, vacation where nothing is off limits. Whatever your health or dietary needs Disney has you covered.

Healthy Eating Tips

1. The menus for all Disney restaurants can be found online and you can use this as a guide to either plan your reservations or pre plan your meals. I typically use the menus posted at Allears

2. Healthy Snacks can be found if you look for the. There is lots of fruit available both at the parks and the resorts, still worried. Disney allows you to bring your own food into the parks.

3. While at sit down restaurants adults are required to order from the adult menu, but at counter service restaurants feel free to order a kids portion if that size is more appropriate for you. Kids meals do not come with fries or soda unless you ask so you are likely to receive grapes and apple sauce with your chicken fingers unless you specify otherwise.

4. Meals can be large at Disney restaurants. Sharing is also an option or both sit down and counter service restaurants.

Dietary Needs

Vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, kosher and food allergies are no problem at Disney. Have guest services note the Dietary need on your reservation and make sure to notify your server at each restaurant.

There are some great blogs about Disney Food. I recommend googling Disney food along with the specific dietary need and you will see a plethora of photos and reviews along with recommendations for the best restaurants to meet your individual needs.

Exercise

You will burn calories walking the parks each day, but if you are looking for more fitness options:

* Many deluxe resorts (and Coronado Springs) offer a fitness centre for guests of that resort
* There are large pools at each of the resorts
* The resorts are large which are great for walking. Many like Coronado Springs circle a lake which provides a great running/walking track

The food at WDW is wonderful, but with moderation and some pre planning your WDW vacation does not have to be a vacation from your healthy eating plans.

Disney Boot Camp: Surviving the Parks

Image

 

As with many aspects of Disney planning, the theme parks can be very overwhelming. There are 4 theme parks and 2 water parks on Disney Property and trying to decide what order to see the parks, how many days to spend in each park and what not to miss in the parks can be a challenge. First of all remember that you are on vacation and vacations are not meant to be stressful. There are many that will attack theme park planning with military precision complete with touring plans and a timed schedule. This is not my personal preference. My goal is to come home from Disney feeling that yes I had a busy vacation, but I still had a vacation. I prefer to listen to my body’s cues, my children’s cues, the weather and the crowds than to follow a plan that I have written down, but there are many that swear by touring plans so definitely to each his/her own.

Step 1: Planning for the parks

There are 4 major parks so if you are visiting WDW for 4 days or more I would recommend visiting each park at least 1 day. If you are visiting less than 4 days I would recommend that you pick the 2-3 parks that interest you the most rather than trying to fit multiple parks in 1 day. If you have only 2-3 days in the parks I wouldn’t recommend using up parts of that time travelling between the parks you will get the most out of your time by focusing on an individual park each day.

If you are visiting more than 4 days and have the opportunity to spend more than one day at each park here are my recommendations.

Epcot can easily take 2 days. I like to spend 1 day in Future World and a second day with a later start touring World Showcase.

Magic Kingdom is also a 2 day park. I would spend day arriving at rope drop (or earlier if you have breakfast in the park, more on that later) doing as many rides as possible during the day. A second day can either be late start day or a day with a mid day break where you would stay until park closure and watch the night time parade and the fireworks.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom can both be done in a day, if you have an extra day I would leave it open and then use it go back and visit which ever of these parks you liked best.

What order should you visit the Parks?

I have read recommendations that when touring with kids you should save Magic Kingdom for last because none of the other parks can duplicate the same level of magic. This is precisely why I like to visit Magic Kingdom the first day. It is the centre of all Magic and the sight of Cinderella’s Castle is the official start to our Disney vacation.

I do not have an order of preference for visiting the parks. I plan my day around 2 variables. Park hours and dining.

Park hours and dining reservations are both posted 6 months in advance. I will look at the park hours note any early closures for special events, what days late events light Fantasmic at DHS is playing and what nights each park features Extra Magic Hours for those staying on site. The park hours will generally give me a good idea of what day is best to visit each park. I will then schedule my sit down dinners and make adjustments to my park schedule based on the availability of reservations for these restaurants.

How to get the most out of park hours?

Eat breakfast in the parks before they even open. I spoke about this in my dining blog, but it is worth repeating. Rope drop at each park is near the front of the park, but restaurants and located through out. If the parks opens at 9am and you reserve an 8am breakfast you are now located centrally in the park at the same time that others are just being allowed in. The morning we did breakfast at Cinderella’s castle we rode most of the rides in Fantasyland before most people had even reached this area of the park.

Look for Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours can be both a benefit and a curse. These extra park hours are offered to anyone staying at a WDW resort. You will have to show your room key in order to be allowed into park to remain in the park after closing. The down side of EMH is that the park can be busier the day of EMH, particularly for am EMH. One tip is that if you have a park hopper ticket just go to the park for the EMH and visit another park for the remainder of the day.

Here are some general tips for the parks

  • travel light, there is a lot of walking in the parks and walking with a large back pack can be uncomfortable and often not practical for riding rides.
  • Make the most of the rides with child swap – This perk allows parents and older children to take turns on rides where the little ones don’t yet reach the height requirements. Often the family can stay together until getting on the ride or you get the flexibility to go on another ride until your party is ready to swap.
  • When possible take breaks mid day – it can be both the busiest and the hottest park of the day. Particularly if you are at a park with late hours or even better EMHs you can come back to the park later to enjoy the rides with less crowds and cooler weather.
  • Evaluate if you need Park Hoppers – After purchasing Park Hoppers for the last 4 vacations I have started to realize that they are not necessarily needed if you plan properly. This can be a good cost savings for your family.
  • Watch the WDW Planning DVD – it can be ordered for free from the Disney Website. It gives a great overview of each park and will give you an idea of what attractions you most want to see.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Every Florida Vacation Enthusiast has their favourite mode to transportation
to get to Florida. Those who love to drive wouldn’t have it any other way. Many air travellers couldn’t dream of taking 24-72 hours to get to their destination. I have not personally driven to Florida since I was 10 years old and travelled with my parents.

As an adult traveler our first trips to Florida were specific Disney trips. We had no plans to travel outside of Walt Disney World and could easily find reasonably priced flights so there was never a question of should we drive or fly.

Last year was the first year when the price of flights made us seriously question of our mode of transportation. It became harder to justify as prices for a family of 4 crept towards $1250 for a flight from Buffalo to Orlando. We live outside of Toronto, but it is always cheaper for us to fly out of the US when travelling to the US.

As I began the long process of trying to convince my husband that driving to Florida would not result in divorce I learned of an alternative method of travel from two of my colleagues. Have you ever heard of the auto train? They asked. I had some vague knowledge of a train that transported both you and your car. I had read about it in one of my many Disney Travel books, but had never given it much thought.

Here are the basics.

There is a train that runs daily from Lorton Virginia to Suburban Orlando Florida (technically 2 trains as they run each way every day) The trains carry both passengers and vehicles.

When you check in your car is taken and you don’t see it again until your destination. Passengers with their carry-on luggage are taken to their assigned seat. Trains depart at approximately 4pm and arrive the next morning at their destination at approximately 8am.

What do you do during the train ride?

Dinner is included and provided in the dining car
The lounge car offers bar service as well as a nightly movie
The seats recline and offer a foot rest so you can sleep during the over-night right.

There are actual rooms available, however I have found that the price of booking a room significantly increases the cost of the trip.

Prices vary depending on the season and how far in advance you book. As the train fills up the prices increase. I recently booked a return trip for 2 adults, 2 children and a minivan for $890, booking 5 months in advance. A friend priced the same trip for a trip 2 months in advance and the price was close to $1500 so it pays to book ahead.

Why would I take the auto train vs flying.

You need access to a vehicle. This trip is a combined Orlando/cruise vacation. We are staying off site, visiting a variety of theme parks and then traveling to Cape Canaveral for our cruise. Having a vehicle is a must and for us taking the train makes more sense (and costs less) than flying and renting a car for 2 weeks.

You want to shop. Most airlines are now charging for luggage. If part of your vacation to Orlando includes the ability to shop the outlets, this might be an idea for you. Last year we saved hundreds of dollars by purchasing an above range microwave in Florida compared to prices at home

You are an over packer. I am an over packer, I acknowledge this and admit that I may need help. Our upcoming vacation and most recent vacation have both been longer than 10 days and I struggle with the ability to pack for a family of 4 for this duration of time while sticking with the luggage requirements for airlines. I have been known to do some laundry while on vacation, but I prefer not to have to rely on it.

You hate driving to Florida, but want your car. This is probably the best example of who the Auto train is right for. This is really my family. I love my min van, it has great features, DVD players for the kids and I love having access to it on vacation, but the idea of driving to Florida (for us a 24 hour total drive) is just not for us.

The auto train is not for everyone. For starters you need to be within a reasonable driving distance of Lorton Virginia. For us it is about an 9 hour drive. Last year we drove through the night and it worked well as the kids slept the entire time. The train may not offer a huge savings compared to flying if you are staying on Disney Property and do not require a vehicle, but it is an option that many people may not be aware of so I thought I would share it. For my family it was a hit, so much so that the kids voted for the train over flying this year.

20130403-160131.jpg

Yes I Did make Disney Dining Reservations at 180 Days from my Maternity Ward Hospital Bed

The one thing that seems to surprise people the most when researching or planning their Disney World Vacation is that a) you need reservations – I mean come on, it’s a theme park and b) that people make reservations for dining 6 months in advance – who knows where they want to eat 180 days from now.

Disney’s current reservation system does allow for dining reservations to be made 180 days in advance. A few years ago they switched their system to 90 days, but switched back in a relatively short period of time.

Does this mean that you should start to panic if you are travelling to WDW in less than 180 days and have not yet made any reservations? The short answer is No. It is quite possible to go to WDW with few or no reservations and have a great time, but like most things Disney a little bit of pre planning can go a long way in maximizing your fun and your dollar.

Characters

One of the favorite activities of many kids (and adults) is seeing the characters and collecting autographs. The line up to see characters can often be as long if not longer than many rides (I once lined up with my daughter for over an hour to see the fairies). Disney offers a number of character dining experiences where 3-4 characters will come right to your table to sign autographs and photo opportunities. These character dining opportunities are very popular and this is one area where I would recommend getting reservations as soon as possible.

Dining Plan

Disney offers a variety of dining plans. We have both purchased the plan and have received it free as part of the promotion. The regular dining plan and the deluxe dining plan provide credits for daily sit down meals so if purchasing the dining plan (or getting it for free) it is best to make reservations

Early Entry into the park

Want to avoid the crowds at Rope drop. Schedule a breakfast inside the park before the park actually opens. One of our favorites is to have breakfast at the Tusker House in Animal Kingdom at 8am when the park opens at 9:00am. At 9:00am not only are we done breakfast and are in the park, but since Tusker House is situated in the Africa section of the park we are ready to jump on all the rides before everyone else makes it there.

Hidden treasures

Did you know that reservations at Askerhus and Cinderella’s Royal table come with a photo package? This is particularly a great deal at Askerhus since when using the dining plan the meal is only 1 Table Service Credit.

Advance Dining Reservation Tips

Book reservations at 180 Days if possible. You will get the best selection of dining times and restaurant availability.

If you don’t get the restaurant you want check back frequently. Cancellations happen daily and don’t forget to check the day before or day of since many restaurants require 24 hour notice to avoid a cancellation charge on your credit card.

Not sure how to figure out where you are going to want to eat every day. Start by looking at the park hours and plan which park to visit each day. Then plan your reservations around where you will be.

The Great On Site, Off Site Debate

Many seasoned Walt Disney travellers fall into one of two categories: On Site or Off Site. On site travellers will boast about the benefits of staying at a Walt Disney World Hotel such as extra magic hours, free transportation and being “right in the magic”. Off site travellers will talk about the value of off site hotels, full kitchens and an opportunity to visit restaurants and stores outside of Walt Disney World.

For the most part my family has been an onsite family. We enjoy being able to arrive at Orlando Airport and be swept away by Disney to the Happiest Place on Earth. We are happy to use Disney’s Dining plan to eat all of our meals on site and to remain on Disney Property until it is time to leave for the airport.

There are also many benefits to staying off site. For the price we pay to stay at a Deluxe resort another family could rent a larger room or suite off site visit the Disney parks every other day and stay twice as long for roughly the same price and since they make many of their meals in the full kitchen provided in their condo staying a second week doesn’t increase their food costs.

So which is best?

Like many things with Disney it is really up to you and your family. For me vacationing means not having to do many of the chores and responsibilities of home so I prefer to eat at restaurants during my vacation rather than cooking my own meals.

When we travel to Disney World we enjoy immersing ourselves in the magic for 7-8 days and are happy to remain on property that entire time. We enjoy allowing Disney to transport us everywhere we need to go, we take advantage of the extra magic hours and planning restaurants for our meals can be part of the fun.

Last year we had our first opportunity to travel to Disney with our vehicle which opened our eyes to many of the experiences staying off site has to offer. While we were staying on site at All Star Music, we were not visiting the parks every day so for the first time we ventured outside the gates of Walt Disney World. Here is what we found.

Starbucks – Now this point will be moot by summer 2013 when the First Starbucks will open at WDW, but travelling off site gave us the opportunity to experience coffee other than the Nescafe slug that WDW tries to pass off as coffee.

Some of the hotels outside of WDW are beautiful. Last year was the first time in 5 visits that we had ventured off property and we were pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful many of the offsite resorts are and how close they are to the WDW gates.

Parking at WDW is not that bad. We decided to take our van to the Magic Kingdom rather than waiting for Disney Transportation. Having never parked at the Magic Kingdom we were pleasantly surprised at how easy the process was.

This year we are again traveling to Orlando and are staying 6 nights before our Disney Cruise. Given our experiences last year we have decided to stay off site for the first time ever.

Comparison of on site/ off site by price – Late August 2013

OnsitePop Century $100 per night

  • Standard room – 2 double beds
  • 3 pools
  • Food court
  • Free parking
  • Free Wifi
  • Fridge in room
  • No resort fee
  • Transportation included to all WDW parks

Image

Image

Caribe Royale – $97 per night

  • 2 Queen bed suite with separate bedrooms
  • Pool with waterfall and slide
  • Gym
  • 3 restaurants
  • Fridge and microwave in room
  • Free parking
  • No resort fees
  • WIFI available, but fee applies
  • Transportation available, but best to use your own car

Image

Image

This is a comparison of 2 hotels prices approximately the same price – one inside Disney World and one just outside of Disney Property. It is no means an exhaustive comparison of onsite vs. offsite.