Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hook

Speak to any Disney Fan and you will eventually find the story.  The one about how they became a fan, where they became hooked. 

The interesting thing is that many of these stories don’t involve grand gestures or indescribably excitement.  Many times it’s a subtle, little moment that grabs them.  That’s mine.

In 2001, I received a 3 night hotel stay as a gift from my employer.  You could go anywhere you wanted with the voucher; you just needed to get there.  I wanted to take my 4 year old Son to Disney World but was talked into believing he was too young for Disney.  So I went elsewhere and had a nice trip, but the decision still bothered me.  Not knowing when or if I could afford another trip, I felt I might have missed an opportunity for my son to see Disney World

A few months later, a sales contest ensued at work.  The prize?  Another 3 night hotel stay.  It was as if someone was telling me “You blew it last time boy, here is your second chance.” Our office won the contest, and I was presented with a second chance to take the trip I knew I should have.   I didn’t hesitate and booked a room in Orlando to see Mickey Labor Day weekend.  

There is the setup, now the hook.

My son’s Grandparents did what Grandparents do best, spoil him.  The fact that they were not going on this trip was irrelevant, they wanted to ensure the young man was properly taken care of and loaded him up with some Disney Dollars for the trip.   He was told to spend the money on something he wanted and we were instructed to make sure he did.

While I had not been to Disney in 16 years, I was quite sure that young Sam would have no problem finding a place to spend those magical Disney dollars.  As we all know, there is no shortage of Disney colossal cash grabs…err…gift shops on property.   

We arrived at the Magic Kingdom on a hot sweaty late August morning, Sam ready to be separated from his wallet.  Exiting the air conditioned comfort of Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin, he spotted it – the gift kiosk with the LGM characters on top.  They seemed to be calling to him “buy heeeere..oooo.”  Sam surveyed the offerings and found the object of his desire, a shiny Buzz Lighyear toy that could squirt water.  Perfect, his favorite character and he could use it for his favorite pass time, making a mess.

Sam looked at me for approval and I relented and pointed him to the cast member at the kiosk saying “let’s go pay.”  Sam approached the cast member and handed him his chosen toy and with pride reached into his pocket to pay.  I began to say “here, give me your wallet” when I was interrupted by the cast member.  “Dad, we can take care of this transaction if that’s OK” he said.  I smiled and stepped back.

Over the next few moments, the cast member worked with my five year old on his purchase.  They spoke about the toy and how much he liked Buzz Lightyear, where he was from (Sam not Buzz although that probably came up as well) and how much fun he was having.  He kneeled down to meet Sam’s level but never spoke down to him, never hurried him and treated him with the same respect and friendliness any full sized guest would receive.

Sam was sold and eager to pay.  The price of “Water Buzz” was given and the concept of sales tax was even discussed.  This guy was better than some of the Economics professors I had in college at explaining this.  The cast member proceeded to help Sam count his Disney Dollars out, adding them up and asking “do you think this is enough?”  When they agreed on the amount of Mouse bucks to be handed over, the cast member counted back the change, doing it like a math problem, all with a smile.  The purchase was bagged and Sam was thanked and told what a great job he did counting. 

Sam beamed.  He just purchased the toy he picked out with his money (the fact that the money had a Mouse on it rather than a President matters not)all by himself.  He made the small talk, he did the counting, this was now his toy.  He was so proud but not nearly as proud as I was.

“Water Buzz” stayed with us for years and became Sam’s favorite bath toy.  And the story of how he purchased him became that subtle little moment for me.

Ten years and some twenty Disney trips later, I still think of that cast member each time I see the neon green glow of the LGMs peering over the top of that kiosk.  I always make a point to stop and browse at it each trip to remember how on at sticky Friday morning, one Cast Member, suited in  Tomorrowland grey,  made my kid’s day and had me grab the Mouse’s bait, hook and all.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


“We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway, yay”
-Carly Simon “Anticipation”

Waiting for a flight to Disney at the Buffalo-Niagara Airport, May 2005

 The planning is done, all that’s left is the anticipation.  What will this trip bring?  What new things will we discover and what old stand byes we will relax into?  And the food, can’t wait to Visit Via Napoli again and try some new things as well.  Can’t we just leave already and find out?

Anticipating your trip is the last step before departure, yet it seems like it’s the longest one.  For the obsessive planner (like me), there are no more crowd calendars to go over, dining reservations to make or flight prices to double check.  The hotel is booked and waiting, and now so are you.

It’s an anxious time.  Will it be too hot?  Too crowded?  How much will it rain?  Will the bus be on time at the airport?  What if my flight is delayed? 

Then, you think of seeing the welcome arch over World Drive and the anxiety melts away to excitement.  You can’t wait to grab the Mickey Bar or Dole Whip (or both!) and hop on Space Mountain, different now, but still very reminiscent of the first time you rode it with your brother over 25 years ago.  You want to see what towel animals the mousekeeping staff leaves for you each day.  You look forward to what you know and love and to new adventures you haven’t yet tried.  You can’t wait to share with your kids this place and watch their smiles and laughs fill your vacation.

That mix of looking forward and looking back, excitement and nervousness gets you going through the day.  Then the alarm goes off.

You are ready.  Grab your bags, it’s time to go.

“These are the good old days”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Top 7 Tips - How to Beat the Heat

90, 92, 92, 90.

No, these numbers not my yearly high school GPA.  Although they are an approximation of how old I feel after Taekwondo classes, its not what I am getting at.  They are not the scores my Celtics failed to get to beat the Miami Heat.  They are temperatures, the average high temperatures for June, July August and September at Disney World to be exact, the warmest months of the year.

Combining the warmest months of the year with crowded summer parks can spell a disaster for your Disney World vacation.  This does not need to be the case.  I have visited Disney World several times during August and find that with some planning and a healthy dose of common sense, you can beat the heat at Disney World. 

So, in classic Stacey style (if you have visited Disney World in the last 7 years or so, you know who I speak of) today we will look at my top 7 ways to keep your cool in the Florida heat.

Early June through mid-September feature average highs 90 or above and it is H-U-M-I-D.  Even if you don’t plan on visiting during the summer you should know that 90+ temps are not isolated to those months.  It is not uncommon to see 90 or above in April, May and even October.  We experienced temperatures in the high 90s during our visit to the Food and Wine Festival in mid-October, 2009.

TIP 1: Dress for Success.

Sure I love to wear my black “I’m Surrounded by Idiots” t-shirt at the parks and my new cowboy boots  are kind of cool, but unless I want to feel what it’s like inside an oven at Via Napoli, I know I need to make better choices.  Light colored, lose fighting clothing is the best choice.  Wear comfortable shoes that breathe – you will be walking a bunch, in the heat and a good chance in the rain, remember that when choosing your shoes.

Bad hat Choice
Good Hat Choice
Wear a hat.  Much to Patrick’s (from Soarin’) dismay, those beauties, the classic black Mickey ears, don’t count here.  Neither does the oven for your head that is the Mickey Groom’s hat.  Use some common sense, keep the sun off your dome and try to avoid the darker colors here as well.

Don’t forget the sunscreen.  While it won’t cool you off, it will help prevent that nasty sunburn which is never pleasant in the summer heat.  I never fail in seeing at least a few people each day doing their best Lobster impressions walking through the parks. 

TIP 2: Drinking is encouraged.

Water, that is.  Between the heat and the amount of walking you are doing, you will be losing body fluids quicker than you think.  Make sure you stay hydrated consistently during the day.  Bottled water is sold everywhere in the parks but isn’t cheap ($2.50-$3.00).  Don’t let that stop you from keeping hydrated.  You can bring in your own bottled water or a refillable bottle and there are plenty of drinking fountains available as well. 

There is also free (yes, free) ice water available in the parks - Just stop by a counter service restaurant and ask for a cup of ice water.  If they have it, they will give it to you.  This little known fact is a life saver If you are like me and don’t like to carry around bottles or are not a fan of drinking fountain.

TIP 3: Timing is (almost) everything.

It’s really not very magical to be crowded together with a few hundred of your sweaty new friends and neighbors in an attraction cue when the temperature out is starting to melt plastics.  So, arrive early, at park opening.  You will hear this bit of advice many times when trying to avoid wait times, but it also applies to the heat.  Arriving at park opening allows you to tour the parks efficiently, with lower wait times and crowds before the heat (and population) peaks in the afternoon.  When the crowds start building and the sun starts scorching around lunch time, escape back to your resort.  Relax, take a nap or a swim (or both) and head back to the parks in the evening as the temperatures and crowd levels subside.  You will see just as much (if not more) doing this than by pushing through the afternoon and will also avoid the hottest part of the day. 

TIP 4: AC is your friend.

No, not the guy driving the white Bronco, but Air Conditioning.  When the heat kicks up, head for indoor attractions that are air conditioned.  This is a great time to enjoy inside attractions, shows and movies such as Mickey’s Philharmagic or The Carousel of Progress at the Magic Kingdom, Ellen’s Energy Adventure or the American Adventure at Epcot, Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom or Adventures of the Little Mermaid of Muppet 3D at Disney Studios. 

Grab lunch indoors or take a break to walk through a gift shop or three (I don’t think you will have problems finding them.)  Downtown Disney is great for this with its wide variety of shops and places to eat.  Working these “air cooled” gems into your touring plan makes a long, hot day much easier to survive.

TIP 5: Go Get Wet.

Take a swim at the resort, head to a water park or enjoy a park attraction offering a splash of fun.  Many times, because most people are in the parks during the day, the resort pools are relatively empty mid-day, so take that mid-afternoon break from the parks and take a dip.

The water parks are fun and a great place to cool off, but they are expensive (unless you have them added to your park ticket already) and can get crowded in the summer.  Get there early to grab a “home base” in the shade and make sure you slather on the sun screen.  Grab a ride Splash Mountain for a chance to get a soaking, or hop on Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom for a near guarantee of getting wet during your ride. 

Also in the parks you will find mister stations that can give you a brief (but welcome) source of relief.  At Magic Kingdom, head to Tomorrowland and find the Cool Scanner misters by Star Traders gift shop or find the misting (and more) Tikis in Adventureland.  In Epcot, look for the Cool Wash mister stations in Future World near Test Track or the misters near Ellen’s Energy Adventure.  While at Disney Hollywood Studios, look for the misting Coke bottles near the Backlot Express.  Animal Kingdom has misters located here and there with the largest ones residing near Tamu Tamu refreshments.

Additionally, look for the fountains in Asia at Animal Kingdom, the spitting Camels at Alladin’s Magic Carpets in the Magic Kingdom, the Singing in The Rain Gene Kelly statue in the Studios and the sidewalk fountains at Epcot for a quick splash of refreshment.

TIP 6: Cool Treats.

You know I have to work food into this somewhere, and Disney World has plenty of great cool treats to help you beat the heat.  From the classic Mickey Bar to a Grand Marnier Slush (aka “adult slushy”) in Epcot, an ice cream on Main Street to classic lemonade, you can cool off just about anywhere in the parks.

Ice cream novelty carts (where you will find the Mickey Bar and if you are lucky, the completely under-rated frozen banana) are usually only a few steps away and you can find a frozen coke fairly easily too.  If you want my personal favorite cool treat, head to Aloha Isle in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom for a Dole Whip.  This wonderful concoction is a soft serve pineapple sorbet that can be served as is or as a float with pineapple juice (they also have orange and vanilla available If you wish, but the pineapple is the best, trust me).  Its cold, tasty, refreshing and cost less than $5, no matter what your choice.

Another top pick for a sweet treat to cool down is Club Cool at Epcot.  Club Cool and, its predecessor Ice Station Cool, offer free samples of sodas from around the world in an air conditioned Coca-Cola gift shop.  The sodas are self-service and spending 10 minutes trying the different flavors in the cool air really can recharge your batteries on a hot August day.  Don’t forget to try the Beverly from Italy!

TIP 7: Mother Nature

Lastly, don’t forget about Mother Nature for to remedy the heat as well.  Along with being the warmest months of the year, June July, August and September are also the rainiest months of year with each month averaging over 6 inches of rainfall, August at 7.3 inches.  Almost like clockwork, there is a mid-afternoon thundershower nearly each afternoon in the summer.  Take advantage of this to throw some rain gear on (or not if you don’t mind wet shorts) and keep touring.  It will be cooler and the crowds nearly instantly thin out.

There are many shady spots under trees than can give you a break from the sun and don’t forget, when that sun does set, Disney Parks stay open, especially with longer summer park hours.  Head out under the moonlight and enjoy the cooler temperatures.

As you can see there is no reason to avoid traveling to Disney in the summer months.  While most of the summer is quite busy, starting in Mid-August, crowd levels drop off significantly making a late august-September visit quite enjoyable.  Just remember to be smart about the heat and sun, pace yourself and enjoy.

What are some of your favorite tips for visiting in the summer heat?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Adults Only

Taking time to relax on the TTA/People Mover 
No, this is not a review of late night Cinemax programming, but rather a look at traveling to Disney World without kids: couples, friends, siblings and even solo travelers.  I have been traveling to Disney with and without kids since 2005 and can attest that Disney World without kids is a fun and relaxing way to spend a vacation.

Why would you consider a trip to Disney without the kids, or even one by yourself? 

When you travel with your kids, no matter what you may think, they are in charge.  You may decide to get up early and arrive at opening, but they will dictate your pace: bathroom breaks, meltdowns, naps, snacks, mickey ears, etc.   Parents know this (even though some try and ignore it at Disney hence the famous mid-afternoon meltdowns in the cue for Dumbo) and know they have to adjust their pace to the kids.  With no kids, it’s up to you, your pace.

Faster or slower, it was up to me and my wife (or just me on solo trips).  We could go commando and do every attraction we wanted to, having fun seeing how many we could get in.  We could leisurely stroll through the parks, stopping for hidden Mickeys, drinking in the landscaping (have you done this, if not you are missing out) and reading signs and windows, not concerned about how much we checked off, but enjoying finding new things to check off. 
Finding Hidden Mickeys are a fun way to spend time during a leisurely day at Disney World

Combine the pace with a more grown up eye and you will start to enjoy some of those gems at Disney that you whisked past before on your way to It’s a Small World or Playhouse Disney.  The Behind the Seeds tour, an Illuminations cruise, a performance by Off Kilter or the (unnamed) British band in Epcot, walking the Pagani Forest Trail and finding the key left by the Muppets are just a handful of examples.  Did you know you can even play a game of checkers at the Magic Kingdom?  There are boards waiting for you in Frontierland in front of the shooting gallery and on Main Street USA by the confection shop.

On your way to enjoying the gems of Disney World, don’t forget those attractions that the kids either won’t or can’t go on.  No need to skip out on Tower of Terror (I had to do that for a while until making my first solo trip) or Expedition Everest…jump right on.  How about a show that young kids might not make it through or big kids might find boring?  No problem, take your time to enjoy the likes of Beauty and the Beast.

I have a hard time talking or writing about Disney World without bringing up food.  Once again, your options become your own when you travel without kids.  That does not mean you can’t eat with Mickey or Winnie the Pooh and Pals, if you want to do that (and I have without kids), do it!  Of course other options open up for you as well, signatures dining such as Jiko or the California Grill are wonderful.  While children are certainly welcome there, it is nice to have a nice meal, a glass (or three) of wine and not have to worry about bedtimes, spilled milk and the often mention meltdown.  You can relax and enjoy your meal.

Or, take your meal on the run, eat on your schedule, stop along the world showcase and enjoy the different wines, beers and cocktails. This is much easier to do and with much less guilt if you don’t have the kids in tow. 

Traveling with that someone special is terrific at Disney World. Believe it or not, this place can be very romantic.  Watch Wishes from the beach at the Polynesian, a carriage ride at Fort Wilderness, stroll along the World Showcase after dark (very romantic), enjoy a special meal together or a couples massage at the Grand Floridian.  You may even find that special place to “pop the question” (I may or may not have some experience with that.  Romance at Disney is only limited by your imagination.

Never forget, Walt Disney World is part Neverland, so take some time to be a kid.  Skip through fantasyland or dance to the afternoon parade.  Get competitive on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and have an ice cream before dinner.  Put on your Mickey ears and watch the fireworks.
Epcot's Food and WIne Festival is a great time for an Adult Trip.

Options and pace are the terms I probably used most here with good reason.  Traveling as adults only (or adult only) simply provides you with the most options to experience at your own pace.  My personal favorite time to visit without the kids is during the Food and Wine Festival.  I love to spend time in the World Showcase, strolling slowly which does not always appeal to the teenager or the toddler in the family.  However when it’s just the wife and me, we could spend nearly our whole visit there, sampling the wines and food, talking to cast members from around the world, enjoying the music and shopping and taking our time to be us.

The bottom line is that Travel to Disney World doesn’t always mean packing up the ol’ family truckster with the whole tribe.  It is a place that can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter who they are traveling with, or who they are traveling without.  Don’t be shy about visiting alone either, this is the ultimate for making your own pace and itinerary and you may just meet a couple magical friends along the way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is the Dining Plan Worth It, Pt 2 - Quick Service Plan

Last week I took a look at the worth of the traditional Disney Dining Plan.  Today, my focus turns to the more economical version of the Disney Dining Plan, the Quick Service Plan and if it is worth considering for your Disney World vacation.
Great Quick Service Meal from Morocco's Tangerine Cafe in Epcot 

What Is the Quick Service Plan?

The Magic Your Way with Quick Service Dining Plan is a vacation package you can purchase from Disney that includes your accommodations at a Walt Disney World Resort, Magic Your Way park tickets and a meal plan that includes quick service meals and snacks.  On the dining side, your package includes two quick service meals and two snacks per person per night of your package as well as a refillable mug for each person on the reservation.

The quick service meals can be used at most quick service (fast food type) restaurants at the Walt Disney World Resort – theme parks, resorts and downtown Disney.  Each meal includes an entrée or complete combo meal, a desert (at lunch and dinner) or juice (breakfast) and one single non-alcoholic drink.  Snacks are wide ranging and what is considered a snack changes frequently, but, generally includes items such as single serve popcorn or snacks, ice cream novelties, single pieces of fruit, 20oz bottles of soft drinks or water, fountain drinks, single serving packages of milk or juice,  and 12 oz coffee.  Other items such as baked goods (brownies, cookies, etc) may also be considered snacks depending on the location where it is offered.

The refillable mug is good for unlimited fountain drink and coffee refills at the resort you are staying at for the length of your stay.  They also make a nice souvenir to bring home.

Currently, the dining portion of this package costs $34.99 per adult per night and $11.99 per child (ages 3-9) per night of your package.  All meal and snack credits must be used by midnight of the day you checkout or else be forfeited. 

Advantages and Downsides

This plan may be for you if:
  • You enjoy the peace of mind of having your vacation completely prepaid, including dining.
  • You do not plan to eat at any table service restaurants, including character meals.
  • You plan on eating desert twice day and utilizing two snack credits per day.
  • You want the freedom to eat your meals when you want without the need for advanced dining reservations.
  • You do not plan your days in advance and go to the parks that suit your desire that day (no need to go to a specific park because of a dining reservation).
  • You plan to spend time at your resort where you can utilize the refillable mug to its best value.

This plan may not be of value to you if:
  • You are an annual pass holder (or plan to purchase one) as you are required to purchase Magic Your Way tickets as part of your package.
  • You enjoy eating at Table Service restaurants, even only once or twice on your trip.
  • You are not a big eater or prefer to snack your way through the day.
  • You want more varied options for deserts, drinks (such as an adult beverage or two).
  • You do not think you will utilize two snack credits per night of your trip.
  • You can obtain bigger discount by booking your vacation components separately (room only reservation discounts are typically better than packages) – room, tickets, meals.

 Is it Worth It?

On the surface, $35 sounds like a bunch of money for eating nothing but fast food each day, and that is right, it most places.  Remember, however, you are a captive audience at a vacation resort, the prices will be higher.  Also, we are not just talking burgers and fries (although there are some good options for that), there are actually some very tasty, varied options at Disney quick service restaurants (such as my favorite, the Tangerine Café in the Morocco pavilion of Epcot).  The kids get the short end of the stick at many places as their options are very limited and repetitious.

First, lets compare what the plan costs over a vacation stay vs. purchasing the same meals, snacks and a mug out of pocket.  This is how Disney will show you the value of the plan and it is a fair place to start.  Once again, our favorite Disney Travel Dude Family, the Generics will be our test subjects.  As a refresher, the Generics are a family of four with two adults (Mom and Dad) and two kids (Bobby age 5 and Cindy age 8).  They hail from Normal, IL and are staying at Disney’s Pop Century resort for their six night visit.
School Bread from the Norway Pavilion at Epcot

Utilizing the menus posted at, I took the liberty of picking the restaurants and menu choices for the Generics for their stay.  They pick up  the tab, however.   I'll save from posting the details of each meal and keep it at the total tab less tax for each one.  For snacks, I used a $3 average per snack credit.

Day 1
Lunch at Pecos Bill’s : $38.12
Dinner at Sunshine Seasons: $40.92
Snacks: $24

Day 2:
Lunch at Flametree BBQ: $40.52
Dinner at Pop Century: $38.91
Snacks: $24

Day 3:
Breakfast at Pop Century: $33.72
Dinner at ABC Commissary: $39.32
Snacks: $24

Day 4:
Lunch at Columbia Harbor House: $37.92
Dinner at Earl of Sandwich: $32.92
Snacks: $24

Day 5:
Lunch at Pizzasafari: $39.32
Dinner at Back lot Express: $39.12
Snacks: $24

Day 6:
Lunch at La Cantina de San Angel: $48.33
Dinner at Tangerine Café: $47.22
Snacks: $24

Add in Four Resort Refillable Mugs at $13.99 each

The Total Out of Pocket Dining for Generics is :$676.32

Cost of the Quick Service Dining Plan
Two adults at $34.99 per night and two children at $11.99 per night: $563.76

In this example, the Quick Service Meal Plan saves our beloved Generic family $112.56, or $18.76 a day.

$112.56 is a nice savings, so it should be a no-brainer to book this package, right?


To realize the savings, the Generics need to eat (all quick service, 2 deserts a day, two snacks)like this for their trip and utilize all their credits.  If they prefer a bit more flexibility, a bit more choice and do not plan to eat quite this much, it may not be the best choice for the family.

As mentioned earlier, while some quick service locations have nice desert locations (except for the kids who are pretty much stuck with cookies or brownies), some have very generic selections such as pre-packaged cake in a cup or a brownie while others, like the Tangerine Café only give you once choice (baklava – very good, but that is all you have).  You can’t decide to have desert elsewhere unless you plan to pay out of pocket or use a snack credit if applicable.

You may plan to use a snack credit for breakfast and save one for later.  So, you grab a muffin and a coffee, that two credits (leaving none for later)or one credit and paying for one item (adding to your out of pocket expense).  As you go along in your trip and the calories build up, you may not want that muffin or mickey bar later in the day.  In my experience, Snack credits tend to build up on your trip, especially when you have more than one a day.  You regularly see guests stocking up on rice krispie treats and Mickey pretzles to fill their suitcases up so the credits don’t go to waste. 
Pop Century's Quick Service Options are varied and tasty.

The refillable mugs always seem like a great deal.  I have a nice collection of them from trips past in the cupboard.  Considering a fountain drink is roughly $2.50, it pays for itself fast.  However, the mugs can only be used at your resort and only for the length of your stay (yes, I know this rule is commonly broken, but here, we and specifically the Generics are law abiding folk).  If you plan on spending most of your day, if not all of it, and considering your meals come with a soft drink, you may find that you do not use the mugs as much as you think.  Add in the fact that you have to walk to the food court to use them, maybe even less so.  You may be better off buying a few tow liter bottles of soda for your room, even at Disney prices, it will save you money.

Lets now take a look at a more scaled back dining adventure for the Generics, one that may seem a bit more, well, generic or normal.   What if they ate the same meals but eliminated one desert a day and one snack every other day (half the days enjoying one snack, the other half indulging in two) what would happen to the out of pocket cost?

The out of pocket cost goes down to $595.95, still a bit more expensive that the full plan ($32.19).  Removing the refillable mugs brings further the cost down to $539.98, now less than the plan, even if you add in $12 for some tow liter bottles of soda for your room, the out of pocket expense is less.

Also, what if the Generic parents decide to give in to the kids and manage to sneak in for a character meal, or decide they want to relax with a nice table service meal?  That would be paid out of pocket (figure in the neighborhood of $100) and then you have an extra meal credit to use later in the trip.  That extra cost starts to negate the savings of buying the quick service plan.

Lastly, to purchase this plan it must be a part of a Magic Your Way package with park tickets and room.  This limits the ability to obtain discounts on your vacation cost.  There are generally more discounts (and usually for more savings) on room only reservations, savings that can add up to more than what the Quick Service plan saves you.

What’s the bottom line?

The above breakdowns only speak to the dollar cost of the plan, not necessarily the value.  Value is a bit harder to quantify as it will vary from person to person, family to family.  If you are on a tight budget or there is a better discount for booking a room only reservation then this really is not be the best option for you.  Additionally, if you are an Annual Pass Holder or plan on purchasing one (even just for the discounts – see my previous Disney Dining Plan Part 1 post for more on that), this plan simply does not make sense as you are required to purchase park tickets with it.

If you like the convenience of having things prepaid , plan on eating all that comes with the plan and do not desire any table service meals (or making advanced dining reservations), and spend more time at the resort where you can use your mug more often,  then it could be a good value for you.

Personally, I have a hard time finding the value in the plan for the way I vacation.   I enjoy having a sit down meal or three while visiting and know I can generally save more money with an Annual Pass holder discounted room only reservation. 

The best way to determine the value for you is to examine how you plan to eat and spend your time while on vacation, research all available discounts and add up the pluses and minuses and see where you stand.  A good travel agent who specializes in Disney will be able to help you with making this choice, I highly recommend using one. 

What do you think?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Is The Disney Dining Plan Worth It, Part 1

Is the Disney Dining Plan worth the price and is the a better plan out there?

Kouzzina on Disney's Boardwalk is one of the many Table Service Options on the Disney Ding Plan

Ever since its inception, this question may be the most asked of Disney trip planners.  After all, Disney says it can save you a bunch of dough if you purchase this plan.  So it must be a no-brianer, right?  Well, not quite.

There are actually five different levels of the Disney Dining Plan offered; the Quick Service Plan, Disney Dining Plan (referred here to as Standard), the Deluxe Dining Plan, Platinum Plan and Premium Plan.  A summary chart of all plans is at the end of this post for your comparison.  Today, we are going to utilize the Standard Disney Dining Plan in our examples.  In future posts we will look at the Quick Service and Deluxe Dining plans. 

As for the Platinum and Premium plans, their cost are such that relatively few travelers will consider them.    That does not mean they are not worth it, if you have the means to afford it, it could very well be worth looking in to.  . 

Disney Dining Plan.

First we will take a look at what the plan is, how much it costs and who can purchase it.  Then we will compare its value to another discount plan and let you decide if it this plan works for you.

The Disney Dining Plan is essentially a pre-paid dining program that can be added on for guests staying at a Disney World resort on a Magic Your Way Package.  This package will include your resort room, dining and theme park tickets.  All people traveling on the itinerary must have the same plan and ticket.  The only place to purchase this is through Disney World (of course a travel agent will also be able to book this through Disney for you.)  Disney Vacation Club Members utilizing points for their stay may also purchase the plan. 

What does the Plan Cover and how much does it cost?
The Famous Mickey Bar counts a snack credit.
The Disney Dining Plan provides each person in your itinerary with one counter service (fast food type) meal, one table service meal and one snack per resort night of your stay.  You can use the credits in any way you wish (for example, 2 table service meals one day, none the next, saving all your snack credits for the last day, etc.) until they have either all been used or expire (the credits all expire at midnight on the day you depart from your stay.)  Each table service meal consists of an entrée, desert, non alcoholic/non-specialty drink (soda, ice tea, water, etc) or one complete buffet.  The counter service meal covers an entrée with a side or combo meal, dessert and non-alcoholic/non specialty drink.  Children ages 3-9 must order from the Child’s menu when available.  Children under 3 can eat off a parent’s plate for free or you may purchase a meal for them if you wish at an additional cost.

There are no refunds for unused credits and they cannot be carried over to a future visits or given to other guests.  Additionally, you can utilize two table service credits to eat at a signature restaurant or for a dinner show such as the Hoop De Doo Review.  Gratuities are not included and alcoholic beverages cannot be purchased with the plan (although your cash is accepted for these items, it is Disney after all, cash is always good.)

Currently, the plan costs $47.99 per adult per day and $12.99 per child per day during peak season.  During off peak times, the cost is $45.99 per adult per day and $11.99 per child per day.  Prices are subject to sales tax and are subject to change.

What are the advantages of the plan?

  • It can save you money, depending on how you eat and how you utilize the plan (more on that coming up). 
  • Allows for pre-payment of your dining, (less gratuity).   For some people , not having to worry about how much dinner will cost and bringing cash or facing a large bill upon checkout  is very valuable.    It also can be very valuable for budgeting purposes. 
  • You will be more apt to try items or restaurants that you would not normally because of cost or type of cuisine than while paying cash.  Having it already paid for allows some to be more adventurous.

There are downsides to consider as well:

  • Loss of flexibility.  Package purchases are less flexible, requiring final payment to be made 45 days before arrival and are generally not discounted.  Room only reservations can be canceled with no fee 5 days in advance (6 days if booked online) while packages must be canceled 45 days before arrival for full refund.  If cancelled 7-44 days out, there is a $100 penalty, and less than 7 days incurs a $200 penalty. 
  • No substitutions, you get what the plan covers.  If you would rather have an appetizer than a desert, you will have to pay for the appetizer out of pocket, whether you have desert or not.
  • The Plan can be cumbersome to use as each restaurant has different rules for what is allowed under the plan.  Sometimes certain entrees (lobster for example) or deserts may be excluded.  It is necessary to ask before ordering to be sure what is covered.    You will also receive two bills, one to sign for the plan and another to pay for the gratuity or anything you purchased not covered by the plan.
So, Can it Save Me Money?

Short answer is yes, the Disney Dining Plan can save you money, depending on how you eat.  It may not provide you with the best value however (more on that in a bit.)   If you typically would have a table service meal a day with desert and a soft drink on your vacation you can end up ahead. 

I think the best way to examine the plan closer is to use an example.  Meet the Generics, a family of four: Mom, Dad and two kids, Bobby and Cindy ages 5 and 8 who are visiting Disney World this week.  Let’s spend some time with the Generics and see what they eat at Disney and if this plan is best for them.  Prices used are current to the best of my knowledge.

Dinner at Chefs De France
Here is what the Generics ordered for dinner:
Dad: Filet de boeuf grille $34.95, Creme Brulee $7.25, Soda $2.95.  
Mom: Lasagnes de legumes $19.95 (an excellent choice), Crepe $7.25, Iced Tea $2.95
Bobby: Blanc de Poulet Aux Nouilles $7.00, Choix de Glace ou Sorbet $3.00, Soda (included in kids meal).
Cindy: Croquette de Boeuf en Brioche $8.00, Chocolate Chip Cookie $2.5, Milk (included in kids meal)

Total Cost (before tax and gratuity)for Dinner at Chef's DeFrance for the Generics $95.80.
Cost of the Dining Plan for this family per day (off peak): $115.96, (peak): $121.96

That means if the Generics  spend anything more than $20-$25 on a quick service lunch or breakfast and one snack per person, (and they will…easily.  Remember the mouse shakes your hand with one hand and your wallet with the other) they will be saving money with the Disney Dining Plan.
Chef Mickey himself.

Example #2 A Character Buffet
Here, our the Generics  visit Mickey for Breakfast at the famous Chef Mickey’s.  Chef Mickey’s is an all you can eat buffet and this will count as the table service credit for the day.

Cost Per Adult:  $26.62 (x2) Total: $53.24
Cost Per Kid: $13.99 (x2) Total: $27.98
Total for Family: $81.22

This leaves approximately $35 to spend on 4 snacks (one per person) and a quick service meal for the family.  Again, they should make out a bit ahead (even more so if they use this credit for Dinner at Chef Mickey’s which costs more).

Again, this assumes the family wishes to eat like this each day of their trip.  For example, if the family prefers to eat their table service at Breakfast or Lunch, the value of the plan is less.  Or, if the family is more apt to eat a couple counter service meals or does not have desert with each meal, then they are paying for a plan that is providing them with more than they need and therefore, not truly a value.

Even if our family of four does want to eat the way our examples are shown each day, the Disney Dining Plan still may not be the best value for them.  Depending on the length of stay and weather mom and dad like to enjoy an adult beverage now and then, there may be a better option for the Generics, the  Tables in Wonderland Card.

Tables in Wonderland.

What is Tables in Wonderland (Other than an awkward goofy sounding name)
Tables in Wonderland (Formally called the Disney Dining Experience – I like the former name better too, but what can ya do), provides card holders with a 20% discount  on food and beverage (including alcohol) at participating Walt Disney World Resort and Theme Park Restaurants and Lounges. Generally, this discount will apply to Table Service Restaurants (along with various lounges on property).   The discount applies to parties of 10 or less and an 18% gratuity will be included to each check.

The Tables in Wonderland Card can only be purchased by Pass Holders or Florida Residents and is good for one year and is non-transferrable.  The cost of the card is $75 for pass holders (seasonal or annual) and $100 for Florida residents.  This makes the break even point in dollars to be $375 (for pass holders) spent using the card.  Anything over that amount, represents a savings.  This works out well for those who make longer visits or visit more than once a year and it does not require a Disney Travel Package or even a room, just an annual pass (or being a florida resident).

As mentioned, unless you are a Florida resident, you must have an annual pass (or seasonal pass) to be able to purchase the Tables in Wonderland card.  You may think this kills the value for many people, specifically the majority those who do not plan on visiting more than once in a year.  However, an Annual Pass can be of tremendous value even if you are only making that one visit.  Not only does it provide the holder the ability to purchase the Tables in Wonderland Card, but also provides other valuable discounts that can add up to more than the price differential paid for an annual pass vs. a Magic Your Way Ticket.   Resort Discounts (up to 45% depending on season and resort), dining discounts (at some locations that do not accept Tables in Wonderland), Free Parking for those not staying at a Disney Resort this can add up fast with parking rates now at $14 per day for cars), and various merchandise and tours and activity discounts.

So, how does this help our beloved Generics on their vacation? 
Let’s assume they are staying for a 6 night off peak visit. We will compare the out of pocket costs for dining with the Disney Dining Plan, Tables in Wonderland or Paying Cash (or credit, after all, the Mouse likes his plastic too).  We will assume they eat the same no matter what plan they are on for ease of comparison.

Disney Dining Plan
Cost of Plan: $695.46
Gratuities:  $95 (using an 18% tip with an average bill of $88.50 for table service meals)
Total Cost:  $790.46

Tables In Wonderland
Cost of Card: $75
Additional Cost for one Annual Pass: $214.38 (over purchasing a 7 day park hopper ticket)
Table Service Meals: $501.27 (discounted price, plus gratuities using the $88,50 average ticket)
Snacks (1 per day per person): $72 (average of $3 per snack used)
Quick Service Meals: 241.30 (I picked typical meals from 6 popular quick service locations for this price)
Total Cost: 1103.95

No Discount Plans:
Table Service Meals: $531.00
Gratuities: $95
Snacks: $72
Quick Service Meals: $241.30
Total: 939.30

Using the above assumptions, the Disney Dining Plan is the best value for this family, with Tables in Wonderland being the worst.  However, this does not include any additional discounts, specifically room discounts, the Annual Pass could provide. 

If the Generics was staying this week (first of May) at a moderate resort (Caribbean Beach),  the rack rate (list price) for a standard view room would be $1065.  There is an annual pass holder discount of 30% for moderate resorts during this time period.  So Dad Assuming the discount was available when the family booked and Dad Generic purchased the pass, the savings on the room would be $319.50.  This savings brings the total vacation cost below that of buying the magic your way package with Disney Dining plan, unless a special discount program for the package is available, which is not common.

Additionally, having the Tables in Wonderland would allow for more flexibility in your dining plans.  If you don’t want desert, don’t order it.  If you want an appetizer or a glass of wine, no problem, it will be discounted.  You only pay for what you want, with the Dining Plan you pay for what it covers, whether you use it or not (again, there are no refunds for unused credits or meals).  If you want all of your meals to be table service ones, you can do that with each of them being discounted.

Lastly, the Disney Dining plan is a whole bunch of food and if you are not typically a big eater, you may find it to be more than you really want.  (And lets not even bring up the Deluxe Dining Plan, aka, the glutton man special.)  Some people may want two deserts a day, but many will not.
Deserts from Biergarten in Epcot

Personally, I have traveled on the Dining Plan (both standard and Deluxe) and also have a Tables in Wonderland Card.  While I  enjoy the convenience of having meals pre-paid and finding  ways to maximize the value of the plan (what to order, etc.),  at the end of the day, I generally find Tables in Wonderland to a better value for me.   Tables in Wonderland with it’s additional flexibility and discounts on alcohol (we enjoy wine with dinner), combined with the dining plan having so much food makes this our choice.  You may think different and be right as well.

Bottom line on the value of the Dining Plan really varies from person to person and how they use it.  On paper, it can represent a nice savings, but that requires you to take full advantage of it, eating all of the meals and snacks and having the appetite to do so.  There is a value, however, to many travelers to having their dining paid for before arriving.  These travelers like the peace of mind that comes with having the bill (less gratuities) already paid for and for those who like to budget ahead of time and not leave with a credit card bill the size of Montana to hit them when they get home, the Dining Plan adds value that is hard to quantify.

Price Adult
Price Child
Table Svc
Quick Svc
Quick Service
Includes Refillable Mug.
Standard DDP
45.99 OP
47.99 P
TS includes 1 Ent, 1 Des.  Tip Not Incl., Signature= 2 TS CR
Deluxe DD Plan
TS Includes 1 App, 1 Ent, 1 Des. TS Credits can be used at QS.  No Tip, Signature = 2 TS.  Includes 1 Resort Mug
Platinum DDP
All of premium PLUS Richard Petty Experience, Spa Treatment, Room Service, Victoria & Alberts, Pre Arrival Planning, Fireworks Cruise, Fantastic Seating
Premium DDP
TS Credits can be used at QS.  TS Includes App, Entre and Desert.  No Tip,  Includes 1 Resort Mug, Preferred fireworks viewing,  Unlimited golf, water sports, boat rentals fishing, horseback riding, admission to Cirq De Soli, Unlimited Tours, Child Activities, Photo Session