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

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