Everyone knows I’m travel mad. I love love love planning holidays and with 17 years of travel industry experience, I like to think that I’m pretty good at it. And then my sister asked me to help her plan a holiday to Walt Disney World in Florida for her and her 2 kids. If you’ve never planned a Disney World holiday – wow! This was planning on a whole new level, even for me!
There’s tons of resources online to help with planning a trip to Disney World and one of my friends has been nearly 10 times, but the amount of information is overwhelming. This is a once in a lifetime holiday for my sister’s family and I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. Having been to Orlando before, me and the other half always knew we’d go again and the temptation to join this trip was massive. Fortunately, my sister was fine with the idea of us 2 tagging along!
Planning started over a year before the trip but really kicked off on Christmas Eve 2017 when I managed to bag 5 Premium seats with Virgin Atlantic between Manchester and Orlando. But, planning where to stay was tricky.
Me and the other half wanted our own room, we wanted a great location with easy access to the theme parks and it needed to be cost effective. To complicate things, Disney World gives Fastpass+ reservations 60 days before arrival to guests staying at a Disney World Resort hotel. Guests staying off Disney World property get access to Fastpass+ reservations 30 days before arrival and we knew from research that wasn’t going to be long enough to get Fastpasses for the rides we wanted, especially the 2 newest rides of Slinky Dog Dash and Avatar Flight of Passage.
Because of the Fastpass+ booking horizon, we knew we needed to stay at a Disney World Resort hotel. In the end, we decided to split the holiday in 2 and booked a Disney hotel for the first 5 nights and booked a different hotel on International Drive for the last 5 nights, which would cover our days at Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay.
There’s more than 25 hotels of varying standards and costs at Disney World and just like any other hotel, the price varies wildly depending on who you book through. As we were keeping a tight control of costs, we focused on Disney’s value hotels; the All Star Resorts. After searching many websites and speaking to several travel agents, the cheapest deal I found was at the All Star Sports Resort booked through Virgin Holidays. The nice bonus was the 2 Flying Club points per £1 spent in addition to the 4 points per £1 for paying with the Virgin Atlantic credit card. I did find a cheaper deal with Attraction Tickets Direct but by the time my sister had made a decision about staying in 2 different hotels, the price had gone up by nearly £250. Having said that, both Virgin and ATD were up to £1000 cheaper than other sites which really proves the value in shopping around.
If staying at a Disney World Resort hotel, they offer a free transfer bus from/to the airport called the Disney Magical Express. You can book the transfer online via the My Disney Experience website but, whilst free, this isn’t the fastest way of getting to the hotel. The bus stop felt like it was at the furthest end of the airport and once we’d made our way there, we had a good 30 minute wait for the bus to arrive. Luckily for us, All Star Sports was the first drop off so the journey was about another 30 minutes but it could be up to an hour if at one of the other hotels. At least they show classic Disney cartoons during the journey! Our bus called at all 3 All Star hotels. A taxi would have been about $50 so we made a good saving, but I’m not sure I’d use the service again.
Disney World on its own is huge! It’s about the same size as Leeds, or half the size of Birmingham. Whilst there’s free transport between the parks, it can take an hour or more to cross from one park to another. This ruled out park hopper tickets for us; we decided to focus on 1 park each day and save money as park hopper tickets are more expensive. Most UK ticket agents only sell multi-day park hopper tickets, but US sites do sell individual day tickets and I found the best prices on Undercover Tourist. They had a special offer for a 5 day ticket for the price of 4 days which gave us cover for all 4 theme parks plus a bonus day in case we wanted to visit one of the parks again. Remember that your bank or card provider might charge a fee for foreign currency transactions.
Disney gives 3 Fastpasses per person per day that can be booked in advance. In some parks, rides are split in to tiers with the number of rides per tier capped. Not every ride in the 4 theme parks is available for Fastpass reservation so deciding which rides to use your Fastpasses on takes serious thought. Only a spreadsheet would do!
As you’ll see, not everyone has to have the same Fastpass reservations but you do have to think strategically about which rides to book. For example, my sister and the kids wanted Na’vi River Journey as their Fastpass at Animal Kingdom, but I suggested Flight of Passage instead as Flight of Passage would be far more popular and Na’vi River Journey would be a good option to rope drop. Your Fastpasses shouldn’t necessarily be the rides you want to go on, but the rides that will have the longest waits. This will save you hours of time in the parks.
You should also try and get Fastpasses for rides that will be hardest to get Fastpasses for, in our case, Flight of Passage and Slinky Dog Dash as they were the newest rides at the time of our visit. If you plan for these rides to be on your last days in the parks, that will give you the furthest booking horizon and best chance of getting Fastpasses. As we didn’t have park hopper tickets, this strategy dictated which days were spent in each park.
As the Food & Wine Festival was taking place at Epcot, this gets very busy with Orlando locals at the weekend which again influenced the order in which we tackled the parks. Another point to consider is if staying at a Disney hotel, you can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours where you can enter the park earlier or stay later than other guests. Ironically, however, the parks with Extra Magic Hours tend to be busier so it can actually be better to avoid parks on days when they have Extra Magic Hours. I used the Crowd Calendars on Undercover Tourist and Touring Plans to help plan which days should be spent in which park. You can use these calendars to plan the time of year to go too as certain times are much busier than others, such as August and New Year.
I had to have all 5 of our tickets linked to my My Disney Experience account in order to be able to book everyone’s Fastpasses. Fastpass reservations open at 0700 EST i.e Orlando time, 60 (or 30) days before you check-in and you can book for the full duration of your Disney ticket. This works great for us in the UK or Europe due to the 5 hour time difference, 0700 in Orlando is midday in the UK. On Fastpass Day, I cleared my diary at work and put my phone on Do Not Disturb. All of my colleagues, including my boss, knew that my priority that lunchtime was booking our Fastpasses. I needed to get this right; the success of the holiday depended on getting these Fastpasses.
Man, it was stressful! You can book Fastpasses in the My Disney Experience app or on the website. I decided to use the website, which was slow and unresponsive! Everyone in the world is trying to book their Fastpasses at the same time and the website struggles with the traffic. Fortunately, the advance planning of linking tickets, deciding which days were being spent in which park and having a priority list of which rides to book first really helped to just focus on booking Fastpasses. There’s no need to book Fastpasses in one park at a time so I booked Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom first, Slinky Dog Dash in Hollywood Studios next and worked down the list.
The rides that you’ll rope drop (riding as soon as the park opens) should be rides that will also be the most popular but not attractive enough for you to use a Fastpass for. Again, you should think about this in advance so that you have a plan of action for when you arrive in the park.
The My Disney Experience app will be your best friend when in the parks. It was quite buggy and kept shutting down on me, but was mostly invaluable. Not only did it allow us to check for and book Fastpasses, it had real time wait times for all of the rides, attractions and shows. You can book tables and even preorder food at certain restaurants through the app! Using GPS, the app also gives you directions to rides, which is great if you’re not familiar with the parks.
I also recommend getting a Magic Band if one doesn’t come free with your park tickets. The wrist worn accessory can be used to enter the parks, check-in for your Fastpasses, unlock your hotel room door (if staying at a Disney hotel) and you can even link your credit card and make payments with it, so you don’t have to carry cash. I thought it was great and was a bit lost without it once we’d left Disney.
Day 1 for us was at Magic Kingdom. As we had to rope drop Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Peter Pan, this meant a very early start to be at the park gates for 8am. Travel time on Disney transport could be up to 40 minutes from our hotel and considering we’d only arrived the night before, I decided to book a Minni Van to whisk us straight from the hotel to the park. Minni Vans can only booked through the ride sharing app Lyft which I’d not used before but ended up hammering during the trip! Minni Van drivers are Disney World employees – known as Cast Members – and ours was full of hints and tips. He verified and complimented me on our Fastpass strategy which made all the hard work worthwhile! Our Minni Van journey cost $45 with tip which wasn’t cheap but worth it to save travel time, get some valuable insider info and for novelty value.
As soon as the park was opened, we power walked to our rope drop rides. Peter Pan was about 20 minute wait but Seven Dwarfs was already 60 minutes! I knew this Fastpass choice would come back to haunt me! Whilst our Peter Pan Fastpass allowed us to queue for just 10 minutes later in the day, the ride isn’t worth a Fastpass and I would quite happily skip the ride in future. It was ok, but showed its age.
Our Fastpass for Space Mountain had a wait time of less than 5 minutes and the ride was excellent! We all loved being thrown around in the dark! Likewise, Big Thunder Mountain was worth the Fastpass, despite the almost 15 minute wait. The ride had been closed earlier in the day and it was touch and go as to whether we would get on it at all.
The park was fairly busy but our longest wait was only 45 minutes for the Haunted Mansion. Luckily for us, the heavens opened whilst we were in line for this ride and we could watch the downpour from under (limited) cover! We’d just missed a previous downpour whilst in line for Pirates of the Caribbean so luck seemed to be on our side when it came to staying dry! We managed to snag a fourth Fastpass on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin which was a lot fun, especially for the other half who loves computer games.
We were shattered by 9pm as we waited for the famous fireworks to start, but the whole show and experience was magical; very Disney with snippets of songs and projections from films from across the decades. It was the perfect end to a perfect day and we were happy and tired as we made our way to the bus stop for the bus back to our hotel. We waited about 15 minutes for the bus and the journey took about 20 minutes, so I was glad again that we’d used the Minni Van in the morning.
Worst ride: Astro Orbiter
Day 2 was Epcot and we decided to get the bus there rather than using a Minni Van. The wait nor journey were long but we missed getting there for park opening, arriving about 0920 because my sister was running late. The plan to rope drop Soarin’ went out of the window and we headed for Frozen Ever After instead. We waited for 45 minutes and the ride was excellent. So good, that it took the spot of our favourite ride for a short while. We then headed to Test Track which was awesome! I wasn’t really in to the designing a car bit but the kids loved the competitive edge. The car designed by the other half and my niece was one of the ugliest things I’d ever seen but it performed quite well! I loved testing car and especially loved the speed! Even with Fastpass, our wait was around 20 minutes.
Although we’d now done our 3 Fastpasses, we couldn’t get any more for any decent rides and decided to join the 50 minute line for Soarin’. What a waste of time! It could be an excellent ride but again, it’s old. The screen was poor quality and the monuments were all bent at the top! Considering that I’d seen a high percentage of what was shown on screen in real life, I didn’t get very much from the experience.
We spent some time exploring the country zones dotted around the lake but it’s very food focused, especially during the festival and I couldn’t face eating or drinking anything else!
After that, we decided to get a Lyft to Disney Springs for an early dinner before heading back to Epcot for the evening fireworks show. Disney Springs has a decent choice of shops and restaurants and we bought clothes, accessories and my niece went crazy in Sephora. Finding somewhere for dinner that meets the needs of a family with different tastes wasn’t easy as most of the restaurants cater to a specialty such as steak or pizza or burgers. Planet Hollywood had the most eclectic menu so that’s where we ended up. The food was good, if a tad on the expensive side. My sister was shocked at the $12 gin & tonic!
We booked another Lyft to take us back to Epcot which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare! Seemingly, Lyft can only pick up from the west car park but we were at the east car park and had to try and run across the complex to meet our ride. Needless to say, we didn’t make it and our driver left, costing us a $5 cancellation charge! Our second attempt worked better although we still ended up running to find the car!
The fireworks at Epcot are more aggressive than Magic Kingdom and don’t quite have that magical Disney edge but are nonetheless enjoyable. We didn’t have a great spot and could only see part of the lake behind a giant lamppost which probably explains why we didn’t enjoy it as much.
We’d narrowly avoided a massive downpour of rain earlier in the day and as we were leaving the park, dark clouds came in and the wind picked up; trademark signs that it’s about to chuck it down! We decided to skip the bus back to the hotel and get a Lyft. We then had the joy of running to find the car as the map in the app hadn’t updated and was showing the old location of the car! We soon learned that the best way of using the app is to have a consistent internet connection, which isn’t easy using Disney WiFi!
Best ride: Mission Space
Worst ride: Soarin’
Day 3 took us to Hollywood Studios which is currently the smallest of the 4 parks at Disney World due to areas being cordoned off, one reason being the new Star Wars world being built.
The bus ride from our hotel took just 15 minutes and we were in the park for just after 9am. Lines were short everywhere except the new Toy Story Land so we skipped Toy Story Mania but managed to tick off Tower of Terror in 15 minutes without a Fastpass. And it blew my mind! Tower of Terror is my friend’s son’s favourite ride but I had no idea that it’d be so damn good! We all loved it so much that we decided to keep our Fastpass for later in the day and ride it again! Even the second time around, I still loved it and it took the spot of my favourite ride at Disney World. The Aerosmith rollercoaster was also excellent and we queued for less than 10 minutes with our Fastpasses which we were happy with.
Unfortunately, our luck in missing the downpours finally ran out and we got caught in a flood of rain trying to find a Lyft to Disney Springs. And of course, the umbrella and ponchos were back at the hotel! To say that we were wet is an understatement! We weren’t the only ones either! We sacked off getting a Lyft and headed for the bus back to the hotel. Everyone was soaked and the cold air conditioning on the bus was awful! It took several days for my trainers to dry! The rain cut in to my sister’s pool time but at least they avoided being soaked like me and the other half!
After a shower, the 5 of us got the bus to Disney Springs for dinner and the Star Wars VR experience. The VR game was incredible and not at all what I expected! It was $30 each and not quite worth that kind of money, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. After the VR, we headed to an Italian for dinner which had rather keen AC! My sister had learned from from the G&T experience at Planet Hollywood and snook in a few miniature bottles of gin stolen from the plane on the flight out, which she conspicuously added to lemonade!
Best ride: Tower of Terror
Worst ride: they were all excellent
For our last day at Disney World, it was all about Animal Kingdom. As the park nearest to our hotel, the bus ride took less than 10 minutes and we headed straight to Pandora, the land of Avatar.
Our rope drop strategy finally fell in to place and the wait for Na’vi River Journey was less than 5 minutes! Wow! The ride was absolutely incredible! The level of detail put in to this ride is just staggering and I was in awe the whole time! I had goosebumps and came off the ride speechless, I genuinely felt like I’d been to Pandora and had experienced something alien. It was awesome and the ride instantly took the top spot of my favourite rides at Disney World.
After exploring Pandora, we headed for our next Fastpass which were separate to what my sister and the kids had chosen. We walked straight on to the safari truck after walking around the gorilla trail. The safari was decent and I liked that the commentary encouraged sustainability and conservation. We saw a good range of animals from birds to hippo, black & white rhino, giraffe and lions. It’s obviously not as good as a real safari but it was enjoyable and it was great to sit down for 20 minutes straight!
Our second blast at Flight of Passage was just as awesome as the first, helped by seeing a different intro video and sitting in a different place on the ride. I actually enjoyed the second time more as I got more from the 4D effects than I did on the first ride.
We were then all able to get fifth Fastpasses for Primeval Whirl which, luckily, I’d swapped from my initial Fastpass selection after advice from a friend. It wasn’t the best ride, but I do like old-time theme park rides and it was what it was. We shared a car with a mum and little boy on their third consecutive ride, the little boy just loved it so much!
We were also able to squeeze in seeing a tribute show to the Lion King which had a medley of songs from the film which has us all, well, except my 17 year old nephew, singing along and clapping our hands.
Seeing the Tree of Life, Pandora and Na’vi River Journey was the perfect end to our Walt Disney World stay and I’m so glad that our last day finished in such a spectacular and memorable way. The feeling that we’d all shared something really special as a family will stay with me for a long time.
Worst ride: Primeval Whirl
We were all tired and sad to be saying goodbye to Disney World after an amazing 4 days. The intense planning and preparation was all worthwhile and we saw everything we set out to see, which is still only a small percentage of what’s on offer across the parks. A Disney holiday is damn expensive but we loved it and wouldn’t change it for the world. Well, we’d maybe have liked less rain!
The only thing getting us through the sadness was knowing that we’re not going home tomorrow, but just moving to another hotel for part 2 of our epic Orlando holiday. From tomorrow, it’s all about Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay!
Date of trip: October 2018
Price paid: £328.00pp for the 5 days for the price of 4 ticket to Walt Disney World booked through Undercover Tourist. £394.00 per room for 5 nights at the All Star Sports Resort booked through Virgin Holidays.
Points earned: 983 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Points for paying for the tickets on my Virgin Atlantic reward credit card. 2500 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Points for booking the hotel through Virgin Holidays and 1500 for paying for the hotel on my Virgin Atlantic reward credit card.