Monday, March 2, 2015

The Disney First-Timer Class I Give to My Friends, Part 1

Cinderella Castle, first Disney vacation, Growing Up Disney

When one of my close friends, Jennifer, wanted to take her family on their first Walt Disney World vacation, she asked me to help her prepare. At first, I directed her to a few websites, including my own, of course. I'd ask Jennifer at preschool drop off if she had made any plans and she'd grin and say no. There was just too much to consider and as a busy, working mom, she just found it hard to get excited about facing the mountain of information available about Walt Disney World. It was simply overwhelming to her and she needed someone to condense it all. 

In hallway conversations at school, Jennifer told me they could budget time and money for three days in the Disney Parks. Based on her family and their interests, we decided she would be best served to plan on two days at Magic Kingdom and one day at Animal Kingdom. At the time of the trip, her children were 6 and not quite 3. As much as I thought Jennifer and her husband would enjoy Epcot, I felt it just didn't make the three-day cut for this trip. 

We didn't have to discuss accommodations, as they had decided to go with an off-site timeshare resort and this was set well in advance. But for the record, I like Port Orleans Riverside for first time guests. Follow the link if you'd like more information on the resort. We've stayed at many Walt Disney World resorts over the years, so let me know if you have questions on one you are considering.

I loaned Jennifer one of Tink's copies of Walt Disney World for Kids (yes, Tink owns multiple years) and told her to look over it. I suggested she peruse the attractions to make sure my park picks fit her family. Then we set aside one of our regular Friday night family dinners as Disney 101. First, you may wonder why I gave her the kids’ book? As much as I love the Unofficial Guide series, it's a bit like a sip from a fire hose. The books are really thick and are a terrific resource for someone gung-ho about planning but could be too much for those only ready for the highlights. But if you are ready for the nitty-gritty, click the link above and have one sent your way.

On the night of our Disney 101 class, Jennifer and I sat down and talked for a couple of hours about Disney; me with the notes that turned into the rest of this post and her with a notebook. After our talk, she felt ready to make some dining reservations and was excitedly looking forward to her vacation for the first time. 

Let's dive on in, shall we? Here is the first installment of things I wanted this special family to see/do/know, in no particular order. This turned into a really long post, so I'll be sharing it over several days. If we have written about the topic previously on Growing Up Disney, I may not elaborate much, but I will include a link if you need more information. And as always, leave a comment or send me an email if I can help you as you plan your vacation. 

There is also an attraction and dining component to the class, but it will have to wait for a separate set of posts. When I planned these notes for Jennifer, I wanted to familiarize her with the culture of the parks and to help her maneuver like a pro.

(If you are just beginning to research for your Walt Disney World vacation, please start with this post: First-Timer Planning Tips)

Park Hopping:  You'll see the term "Park Hopper" when you begin researching tickets.  This feature is an upgrade to the basic ticket and allows you to enter more than one park on a given day.  My family usually has annual passes which include hopping priviledges and we don't often visit more than one park per day.  We might get back to that more when the kids are older.  Please note that you cannot use an extra day on your ticket to enter a second park on the same day.   

FastPass+: This system allows you to reserve your place in line for more popular attractions. Simply go online and choose the attractions/experiences that are most important to your family. Select times that work for you and you're all set. On your day at the park, arrive at the attraction during your assigned window and ride with little wait. Like anything else with reservations, the really popular attractions fill up quickly so you may need to be flexible when choosing times online. Guests staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel can book FP+ 60 days in advance. Those staying off-site can make FP+ reservations 30 days out. Three advance FP+ are allowed per person per day. Once you have used those three, you can reserve more at a FastPass+ kiosk in the park. Note: you will need an online account and have park tickets tied to that account before you can reserve FP+.

Rider Switch: Jennifer's six year-old son would be able to ride some of the thrill rides that her preschool daughter was still too small to enjoy. To assist families like this, Disney has a program called "Rider Switch." To use the service, check with the Cast Member at the entrance to the attraction. The specific procedure depends on the location but essentially Dad and Son can ride while Mom and Daughter wait. Then Mom and Son can ride with little time in line while Dad takes care of Daughter. Jennifer said this worked perfectly for them, except for Everest. Her son was not up to taking on the yeti a second time. Rider Switch is available at most attractions with a height requirement. The Cast Member at the entrance to a given attraction will be happy to answer questions about Rider Switch at that location.

MagicBands: MagicBands are wristbands that serve all sorts of purposes: room key, park ticket, FastPass redemption, credit card substitute, PhotoPass link, and fashion statement.  If you have a Disney resort hotel reservation, you will receive these in the mail at no additional charge and you will have the option to personalize them a bit.  If you are staying off-property, you can buy a MagicBand for around $12 or just use your regular ticket for claiming FastPasses and such.

PhotoPass: Disney's PhotoPass Service has photographers stationed in good spots all over the theme parks.  Simply have them scan your MagicBand or ask for a PhotoPass card if you aren't using a MagicBand.  Then smile for your photo.  It's a great way to get the whole family in the shot and they will even take a set of photos with your camera too.  The service itself is free and you only pay if you buy photos or gifts customized with your photos.  You can also purchase Memory Maker prior to your trip and it will include all of your PhotoPass shots as well as those from attractions and dining locations.  I think it's really important to get photos of yourself with your kids and other traveling buddies.  Follow this link for "Get Yourself in the Photo."

Restaurant Reservations: Reservations (407-WDW-DINE or online) open up 180 days prior to your visit.  Some of the most popular restaurants book up on that first day.  So while it may seem crazy, if you have your heart set on dining at any particular location, reserve as early as you can.  A credit card is now required to hold your spot and you'll be charged a per person fee (usually $10) if you cancel within one day or no-show.  However, if someone is sick, call and speak to a Cast Member at the dining line.  They will help you if they can.

That's a good start for today.  Please come back for parts two and three of the series where I'll give all sorts of tips to help make your first or tenth Walt Disney World vacation a great one.
Link to Part 2  Link to Part 3

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