October 18, 2007

Vacation Planning 101

I must pause here and say a bit about the planning phase of this vacation. I was aided and abetted by The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, known around here as the Disney World Book. Perhaps you've heard of it.

I bought one when CB and I went 16 years ago (before kids) and much to the urging of friends, I bought one for this trip, too. The best $20 you'll ever spend.

The one I bought 16 years ago only had about 200 pages. The most recent one has around 800! 800 pages of pure Disney! It contains (almost) everything you need to know about The World from stroller rentals to rides to restaurants to touring plans. They even compare prices of common purchases at area grocery stores! Gotta love that kind of detail! It's a great read and I read almost all 800 pages of it!

Taking this vacation was a big step for us. Decisions had to be made as to when we would go, would we drive or fly, would MawMaw go with us. Once those decisions were made - and that took a while - this vacation was planned via telephone. I followed The Book's advice for the best rate and made Room Only reservations and ordered our tickets separately.

I lost count of how many times I called Disney. In fact, after a while I expected them to say, "You again?" The first few calls were just to get my feet wet - getting information about park hours, parade times - just to get the Lay of the Land. I wrote it all down in a notebook which became quite a source of important information.

Here's our vacation planning in five easy steps:

Step One: Order tickets. This could be done regardless of when we decided to go. The clock doesn't start on your Disney tickets until the first day you use them. And then you have two weeks.

Now purchasing tickets is, at first glance, a simple and straight forward task until you learn all of the options you can tack onto your ticket.

How many days will we visit the parks? Will we park hop? Do we want to go to the water parks? What about the No Expiration option?

In the Disney Book I learned there are significant discounts available to Annual Passholders. If we paid a couple of hundred dollars more for just one Annual Pass, we could save several hundred on our hotel. So HolyChow got the Annual Pass in case she came back within the year with one of my sisters and we got a great discount on our hotel.

Actual numbers work out to around $800 savings during Value Season on the hotel by spending an extra $200-$250. Around a $600 net on savings.

The decision was made to get five 6-day base tickets and one Annual Pass. All tickets were ordered and the confirmation numbers recorded in the official Disney notebook.

Soon thereafter we received five regular base tickets in the mail, but no Annual Pass. Another call to Mickey was in order.

They told me we would have to pick up our Annual Pass when we arrived. Any of the parks' Guest Relations could print it off for us.

Okay. No problem. That would be fun. We'd get to drive over to one of the parks the afternoon we arrived. The kids would like that.

Step Two: Where to stay? The on-property/off-property question was answered long ago. When CB and I went to WDW, lo, those many years ago, we stayed off-property in Kissimmee. Just over I-4 on 192 directly across from Celebration, Florida, a community formed by the Walt Disney Company.

Back in 1991, our Homewood Suites abode had a kitchen, living area, bedroom, vanity area with separate shower and tub. We enjoyed their continental breakfast, pool, and sauna. It was very nice, but I vowed that we'd stay in a Disney hotel next time. This being our first family vacation ever - we were staying on Disney property!

The cabins at Fort Wilderness looked fun. They were in a wooded area; the older two kiddos would get to sleep in bunk beds; and they had a porch with a bbq grill. How fun would that be?! But they only had one bathroom. With six people we needed certain amenities and two bathrooms was at the top of the list!

Second on the list of must-haves was a comfortable bed for everyone. All Disney hotels sleep four people easily. When you go to five or more people, it gets a bit more complicated if you want everyone to sleep comfortably - and we did! No trundles, sleeper sofas, or sleeper ottomans would suffice.

Yes, there are sleeper ottomans on Disney property. I say, "Beware!"

Personally, I wanted a king-sized bed. At the time, we slept in a queen at home. Quite frankly, I knew we'd be beyond tired at the end of the day and I knew I didn't want to encounter CeanBounter's elbow during the night or his "turning over routine". (You know how I love that, babe!) And I knew he'd want to be as far away from me as possible just in case I might possibly perhaps snore.....a little.....maybe.

CB narrowed the dates down to the third week of September. So back to the websites, the book, and calling Mickey.

I compared prices of booking two adjoining rooms against the Disney Vacation Club resorts. The DVC resorts were clearly the better option. Due to availability, our choices were Old Key West and Saratoga Springs. Saratoga Springs was new, but Old Key West looked much more roomy and unique. After a few days of looking at pictures online, we decided on Old Key West. Book it! Record confirmation number.

Step Three: Book the "stop-over" hotel coming and going. We wanted to limit our expenses here since we just needed a place to lay our heads for the night. Comfort Suites fit the bill as we could get all six of us in one room - two queens and a sleeper sofa.

Now, take a deep breath and say, "Whew!" The big decisions were made and paid for.

Step Four: Back to The Book to decide on dining options and call to make reservations. Based on where we planned to eat and how often we'd be dining out, we needed to determine if we should purchase Disney Dining Experience Card. With an Annual Pass the card would only cost $45 and we'd get a 20% discount at table service restaurants. In the end we opted not to purchase the dining card as we would practically break even.

Making the reservations, however, involved several more phone calls to Lake Buena Vista and an Excel spreadsheet.

Note: Disney reservations don't work like they do here in the real world. You don't call The Mouse and tell him when you want to eat; he tells you what reservations are available. Since you don't want to use up valuable park time getting from one restaurant to another it's good to book restaurants in the park you'll be in that day, when possible. Once you find out what reservations are available, then you can determine which park you'll be in on a particular day. So with a time and confirmation number for each reservation...well, hence the need for a spreadsheet.

Step Five: Call and request a balcony room with water view (not pool) on the first floor, knowing full well that this is just a "request".

I loved planning this vacation! Figuring out how it all worked and reading up on all of the ticket options and hotels and restaurants was great fun. HolyChow was calling me almost everyday to talk about it. She was just as excited as we were!

Recommended websites:
disneyworld.disney.go.com - fun to play around with, check availability, calculate cost. Make sure you register and log in everytime you visit. Sign up for newsletters. Go to My Disney Vacation above top bar and order the Vacation Planning DVD and customized maps. Disney will send you your very own personalized maps and a DVD to get the kids all hyped up about their upcoming vacation extravaganza! A fun keepsake!
touringplans.com - official website of the "unofficial book", aka The Disney Book
allearsnet.com - great and accurate pictures of the resorts, menus from restaurants, and much more
mousesavers.com - all kinds of Disney discounts and savings codes

October 17, 2007

Big Family Vacation

We finally got our act together and went on our first official family vacation. You know -- before the oldest is in college. The one where money is spent with abandon, like we pluck it off the money tree growing in our backyard.

That one.

We went to Disney World!

Day One And We're Off! - We decided to drive because it was cheaper than flying; it would create great family memories; and we could bring a bunch of stuff we wouldn't be able to bring if we flew.

Besides, a great road trip would be fun, right?

Oh, it was. We headed out about 8:30am Saturday morning. CB and I manning the front, MawMaw and the younger two in the back, and the big guy in the Way Back with the Igloo cooler.

We were all perky and excited about our destination. Until about 9pm Saturday night. More on that later.

Driving was tiring. 1000 miles, each way. The trip there was full of excited anticipation. The kids watched DVDs and listened to books on tape most of the way. I did Sudoku. CeanBounter drove. MawMaw entertained her backseat buddies.

About 2-1/2 hours into the trip we had to stop due to, "I think I'm going to throw up," coming from the back seat courtesy of FM#2. He was watching a movie and resting the DVD player on his lap. We think the motion of the screen made him car sick.

I grabbed a plastic grocery bag and told him to lean over it until we could get stopped. I brought a couple of bags for the trash we would accumulate as we mowed through chips, crackers, cookies, water bottles, soda bottles, and CapriSuns, not thinking it might have to double as a Barf Bag.

We exited the interstate and pulled into a gas station. He put his feet on terra firma, had a few sips of Sprite, and he was good to go. Bathroom breaks for everyone!

I will call this throw-up event our Magic Moment #1 because it was a blessing the Lord sprinkled into our vacation that we were very thankful for and will remember as something really neat or exceptional that happened to us along the way.

I remember how my legs felt after being in the car for so long and trying to get around to FM#2's side of the car as quickly as possible with noodle legs.

I remember the expression on everyone's face as they stretched their legs in the parking lot of the convenience store, how we were relieved by the not-so-great bathrooms, and that excited feeling of getting back in the car to get closer and closer to Disney World!

The kids settled back into their movies; we had cold beverages in hand, empty bladders, and no one threw up! See...Magic Moment!

The weather was good the whole way and we were accompanied by those black love bugs. Everytime we stopped for gas, CB would clean the windshield. It was covered in lovebug juice and smooshed carcasses.

Sometimes we had to stop for the sole purpose of cleaning the windshield because it would be hard for CB to see! And whenever we opened the car door we had to do it quickly so the love bugs wouldn't get in which they sometimes did anyway.

We would SPLAT! them or crack the window so they'd get sucked out at 80 mph.

Magic Moment #2. MawMaw cooked a roast before she left home and brought it down. We made roast beef sandwiches the night before we left and packed them in the cooler along with other goodies for on-the-road munching.

Instead of eating while driving, we needed to stretch our legs so we stopped at a little tourist center in Mississippi, or were we still in Louisiana? I think it was the west side of Mississippi.

This little tourist center was a modular building with a wood facade that made it look like a cabin. It had a porch around it. It must have been fairly new because you could still smell the stain. Apparently, they had left for lunch because even though the sign on the door said they were open, they were not.

I thought we'd have to hit the road again and look for another rest stop, but CB pulled around back where we discovered a picnic table under the covered porch. We enjoyed our roast beef sandwiches, chips, drinks, cookies, and lovebugs.

Yes, lovebugs. Only a few bothered us during our meal because the majority swirled around our car like a black cloud. We surmised they were attracted to the heat the car was giving off.

We cleaned up our picnic area, used the bathrooms which were quite clean, and somehow managed to get back in the car amid the swarm. We hit the road once more.

And now for the awards:
Worst Roads & Nastiest Bathrooms - Louisiana, a place we will be glad never to have to return to again.

What a Relief/Smoother Roads - Mississippi! We loved their visitors center. A beautiful southern plantation with FREE soda and a lunar module out front.

(From this picture can you tell who's doing the driving?)

Best Roads Overall - Florida, well-maintained roads and lots of trees! Besides, where else can you go through towns with weird names like Okahumpka?

Most Rest Areas - Florida received yet another award because it had more rest areas than I've ever seen and they were exceptionally nice. Many had a State Patrolman on duty. Saturday evening right before sunset, we stopped at one rest stop that had palm date trees. The fruit was ripe and had fallen off the trees. You could smell the sweetness in the air.

Coolest Bathroom and Magic Moment #3 goes to -- Whataburger in Somewhere, Florida. It was already dark when we stopped here and we were starting to get tired. CB wanted to keep truckin' so we decided to eat in the car, but we went inside to order so we could use their facilities. And what facilities they were! There was a flat screen TV in the men's bathroom!

This Whataburger also had one of the nicest girls working there. She was very patient with us (we were very road weary). She gave FM#3 crayons and a coloring page, made menu suggestions that would save us money - some of us weren't very hungry so a couple of meals were split. She was a delight! I wish I would've gotten her name and written a letter.

And last, but not least...

The Thank You for Sticking Out Just a Little 'Cause We're Almost to Florida Award goes to --Alabama where we crossed over a couple of bays, saw the USS Alabama, birds diving into the water, and we got to drive through a tunnel.

Are We There Yet? - And this came from the adults! I'd like to state for the record that Tallahassee is a loooong way from here! And let me just say that there are NO towns of significant size in Florida's panhandle.

After 12 hours on the road we were ready for the first leg of the trip to be over, yet we still had 3 hours to go! Because it was dark, I couldn't do Sudoku to keep myself awake and we were in the middle of nowhere so we couldn't get anything on the radio to hold our interest (or our eyes open).

Nothing but black night whizzed by as we raced toward our destination which at this point was a comfy bed and soft pillow. Brutal. Occasionally, I'd say something to CB to make sure he was awake, but mostly we quietly fought off sleep while our backseat passengers snoozed.

When we arrived in Tallahassee, we (and by "we", I mean, CB) had to unload all of the luggage from the roof of the car because we had a soft-sided luggage carrier and they don't lock like the hard-sided ones. He loaded it all, including the Igloo cooler, onto one of those bellhop carts. We were able to pile everything on it and make it up to the room in one trip.

While CB parked the car, me, MawMaw, and the FM's lugged our belongings up to our room.

Now, to make my point here, I must say that this luggage cart was seriously weighted down and very hard to push, pull, and steer. But FM#1 and I managed -- in and out of the elevator, around the corner, down the hall. There was just enough room in the elevator ("alligator" according to FM#3) for five people and a bellhop cart.

We got to our room and just as I was about to put the cardkey in, I heard voices coming from the other side of the door.

Laughing, talking, people having a good time.

In our room!

So back downstairs all five of us go - down the hall, around the corner, in and out of the alligator. I marched up to the clerk and announced that someone was in that particular room. He was unphased, gave us an obligatory "sorry about that", and reassigned us an empty room.

And so...

In and out of the elevator, around the corner, down the hall. Push, pull, push, pull. They don't call it LUGgage for nuttin'.

Day Two - Since we decided to forego the alarm clock, we got a late start the next morning. I was the first one up. Hey, don't laugh! I almost rolled over and went back to sleep, but I checked the clock. 10:00am. The hotel's breakfast ended at 10:30am so I threw on some clothes and went downstairs to gather sustenance for my weary traveling companions.

By the time I got back to the room, everyone was awake. We ate, dressed, and CB began the arduous task of putting all of the luggage back on the roof of the car.

When he paid the bill, they gave us a discount for our room snafu. That, coupled with MawMaw's AARP discount, was a nice little bonus.

And away we went. Clear blue skies. Crisp morning air.

After showering at the hotel we realized that the teeny weeny bars of hotel soap were not going to cut it for a group of six for a week. On our way out of town we stopped at Walgreen's to buy full-size bottles of body wash, thinking Disney would have the same miniature offerings as Comfort Suites.

As MawMaw and I jumped out of the car, FM#1 requested a bottle of Axe body wash. Snake Skin to be exact. I said he could share the body wash I would get because he had a brand new bottle of Axe back home. Once inside, MawMaw asked if she could get the Axe for him and I said yes. When he found out, he was very happy.

Florida was the prettiest of the states we went through. The morning light revealed trees that lined both sides of the interstate. I wondered if there was some huge state-sponsored tree planting because they were in neat rows.

We enjoyed the smooth ride on Florida's roads and commented on their call boxes that were placed at one mile intervals.

After putting several miles between us and Tallahassee, the skies grew gray and dreary. We stopped for lunch at Subway, gassed up, and got back on the road. Just a couple more hours til we're there!

However, a few miles down the road we slowed to a crawl due to an overturned RV. In the bumper to bumper traffic FM#1 spied this:

At some point along the Florida Turnpike, the skies cleared. With that worry aside, I decided to call Mickey Mouse and ask the following:

Question: Can we check into our hotel and receive the Annual Pass discount on our hotel without showing the Annual Pass?
Answer: No. You'll have to get the Annual Pass first which can be picked up at any of the parks' Guest Relations window.

Question: Will we have to pay for parking at the park?
Answer: Yes, ma'am. That will be $11.

Yuck. The rub here is that parking fees are waived for resort guests, but since we wouldn't be checked in yet, we wouldn't be resort guests yet.

What to do? We decided to go to the hotel first and see if they can work something out.

We zoomed over the exit ramp onto the Daniel Webster Toll Road.
Skies - clear.
Roads - new.
Sights - scenic with an occasional orange orchard.

Can You Hear Me Now? - An intermittent humming noise was coming from the luggage rack since Tallyhassy. CB determined that the load on top of the car was not as aerodynamic after he repacked it that morning. At top speed, the air rushing over our soft-sided luggage carrier made a gosh-awful hum that turned into a roar after we went through the last toll plaza. It was so loud we could feel the vibration on our seats which was nice for the first few miles, but after a while that just gets annoying.

We had to talk really loudly to hear each other. We even had to cover our ears it got so loud at one point! I couldn't concentrate on my Sudoku. The numbers were jumping around in front of my eyes because of the vibration! The roof of the car was vibrating so hard we were hoping the luggage rack didn't unscrew itself and fly off the top of the car.

Looking off to the east, we could see Disney World in the distance. We could also see dark, ominous clouds. No worries. Get the rain out now.

We exited the toll road and rounded the cloverloop. Due to our slower speed, that humming from the roof faded. Aaaaaaah, relief!

As we approached the welcome sign at Disney's Western Way entrance, the skies emptied.