Everything upcoming at Disney parks
Darren Grant was on a mission.
The Stuarts Draft man climbed in his silver Kia Niro just before 3 p.m. on May 30 and, along with his daughter, Emma, and girlfriend, Lee Anna Ralston, hit the road.
There were a few stops, all quick ones, for food and gas. And there were four stops for tradition.
Three hours into the trip they stopped at the North Carolina Welcome Center. Emma jumped out of the car and posed for a photo in front of a Welcome to North Carolina sign. Then her dad posted it on Facebook, just like he does every year. They repeated the drill at the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida borders.
“Florida’s got the best vending machine coffee you can get,” Grant said.
He’d know. Since 2012, shortly after school is out for the summer, father and daughter — she was 6 that first trip — have made the same annual pilgrimage. This year, Ralston joined them.
Just over 14 hours and 812 miles after starting, at 5:05 a.m. on May 31, the trio reached their destination — Walt Disney World.
And within two hours of arriving they were waiting outside of their hotel room for a bus bound for the Magic Kingdom. They wouldn’t return to their hotel until almost midnight. By 8 the next morning they were already in another theme park. Same for the next day. And the next.
Sleep, apparently, is for wimps. These annual summer trips have been dubbed “Disney Boot Camp” by Mark Nester, one of Grant’s friends. Up early, out late, miles and miles of walking. Seven days of that in the Florida heat.
But Grant wouldn't change a thing, When he's at Disney World there's not another care in the world, or at least he can place those cares aside for a few days. The people who work at the theme parks — Disney calls them cast members — are a big part of the reason why.
"They just really know how to cater to everyone," Grant said. "And they're so patient it just makes you forget. It just makes you forget about everything. It's almost indescribable."
Two years ago, with his mom in a nursing home and just a couple of months after his father passed away, Grant was struggling to deal with everything. But for a week in June he was able to escape his responsibilities in the most magical place on earth.
"Even with everything you have going on in your life, when you're there it doesn't feel like it's that big of a deal," he said. "It feels like all the pressure is off of you."
Emma is now 12. At the end of a long Disney day, she’s not complaining about the chance to go back to the hotel and take a dip in the pool, but she’s not complaining about the long days either.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, so I’m used to it,” she said. “After a while you get used to the walking and going from one place to another.”
After all, that’s what her family calls vacation.
How to Plan for a Disney Trip
Vacation is hardly the word most people would use to describe a trip to Disney. Forget rest. One of the more popular travel books about the theme parks, “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” even has a chapter titled “The Vacation that Fights Back.”
“It’s not like any other vacation, man,” said Len Testa, a co-author of the travel book that breaks down in detail all things Disney World. “It’s not like going to the beach. It’s not like going to New York or Washington D.C. or Las Vegas. It’s super competitive.”
So competitive that Testa also runs the Disney-oriented website TouringPlans.com offering step-by-step instructions on how to approach — some may say attack —Disney World.
Testa provided a sample plan for Hollywood Studios, one of four theme parks on Disney World property. It’s a schedule for Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. The plan has you arriving at your first ride, Slinky Dog Dash, at 9:12 a.m. Yep, down to the minute arrival times. But it doesn’t stop there.
The plans tell you how long you’ll wait in line, how long you’ll be on each ride and the amount of time it will take you to walk to the next attraction. Subscribers to the site can download custom made plans or personalize their own.
If down-to-the-minute scheduling doesn’t sound like a vacation to you, Testa understands.
In fact, the Grants don’t use step-by-step plans once in the park. After seven trips, they know what they want to experience and have a fairly good sense of what time of day to experience them.
“If you go every year, you’ve been on every ride, you’ve seen everything, that’s not really our core audience,” Testa said. “We can still help them for new rides.”
Testa points to Toy Story Land, a brand new section of Hollywood Studios that just opened. Because the Grants didn’t experience this on their most recent trip, they may have questions next summer about which of the new rides to experience first.
“That’s something that the plan would help with,” Testa said. “That would be difficult to figure out on your own.”
After all, planning, at least to some extent, is almost necessary for a successful trip. Most Disney experts would tell you that.
The most popular restaurants in the parks are sold out six months in advance. People can start scheduling their Fastpasses — think of them as ride reservations — two months before their trip. If you simply show up at Disney World with no advance planning and are hoping to ride everything and eat at the best restaurants, good luck.
"We have this great quote in the book,” Testa said. “It’s like childbirth. You won’t understand it until you go through it the first time.”
Disney World: Always Busy
Disney World is located in Bay Lake, Florida, just outside of Kissimmee and about 20 miles from Orlando. It includes, most famously, four theme parks, but also has a pair of water parks, a shopping complex, golf courses, hotels, restaurants and more.
The theme parks — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — were visited by nearly 56 million people in 2017 per figures from the Themed Entertainment Association. That made up four of the top nine most attended theme parks in the world and four of the top five in the United States (Disneyland Park in California is the other one on that U.S. list).
That number could increase in 2018 with the opening of Toy Story Land. In 2017, the brand new Pandora: The World of Avatar drove attendance at Animal Kingdom up 15 percent to 12.5 million people.
And, in late 2019, the highly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is scheduled to open at Hollywood Studios. So the crowds in the parks will only be increasing.
Testa is a statistician. He came up with the idea that led to TouringPlans.com on a trip to Disney. He didn’t like long lines and figured there was a better way.
“For a park like the Magic Kingdom, an average day for them is around 57,000 people,” Testa said. “But if you look at the capacity of the most popular rides and the most popular restaurants, they can only serve a very tiny fraction of those people on any given day.”
For instance, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is one of the most popular rides. Testa said it can handle maybe 1,400 people an hour.
“There’s tremendous competition to get into those things,” he said. “And frankly, most of those people in the park won’t be able to experience them.”
Two years ago on his first trip to Disney World, Brad Monger was overwhelmed, mainly by the amount of walking. There are a lot of circumstances that impact it, but a visitor in the parks could easily walk more than 10 miles a day.
“Definitely you want to be prepared for 20,000 steps a day,” said Brad’s wife, Crissy Monger. The Mt. Sidney couple, along with daughters Savanna, 10, and Emmalyn, 5, returned from their second trip to Disney World as a family in May.
The Mongers say a plan, even if it’s not step-by-step and more a general guide, can at least reduce some unnecessary walking. Crissy Monger left most of the planning to her husband, saying it was too overwhelming for her.
“You’ve really got to plan what you do,” said Brad Monger. “If you’re trying to do all the parks, I think it’s a must.”
How detailed of a plan?
“Every second,” Crissy Monger said. “Every second was planned.”
But it worked. The family got to ride almost everything they wanted. They ate at the restaurants they wanted. And they all agreed it was less stressful than their first trip two years ago that didn't include nearly as much planning.
While some people swear by arriving at the parks when they open — “rope drop” in Disney terms — others aren’t willing to sacrifice sleep for shorter lines.
“We weren’t real early birds,” Brad Monger said. “I don’t think we were getting there any earlier than 9 o’clock. But we never left the park. We stayed there all day.”
It also helped that they went in May. Time of year definitely affects crowd levels. Summer time and major holidays — especially Christmas — bring the highest number of people to Disney World.
To make a plan or not is hardly the only decision to make when heading to Disney World. Do you stay at a Disney-owned hotel or off Disney property? How many days will you spend in the theme parks? Do you want to visit more than one park a day? Where will you eat? Will you fly or drive?
On top of that, Disney occasionally changes its operating hours weeks or days in advance, opening earlier at one park or staying open later at another. And there are deals being offered that, unless you are constantly monitoring Disney’s website, you won’t know about.
That’s where someone like Beth Elcox can help. The Staunton woman first went to Disney World when she was 12. Her family went about every other year after that. She’s continued that with her own kids. Even upped the game. Her oldest daughter, Alexis, is now 19. Since she was 3, the family has made 14 trips to Disney.
“It’s like it’s own little world there,” Elcox said. “You’re kind of able to escape the outside. It’s like you’re at home when you get there.”
A little over a year ago, Elcox joined Coasters & Castles Travel as a travel agent specializing in Disney. She can help her clients not only with Walt Disney World, but anything Disney related, including cruises, Disney’s guided travel groups and any of the Disney theme parks around the world.
Elcox started as an agent so she could help others experience the place she loves so much. She helps with everything from explaining what there is to do and see at the parks to setting up fastpasses to getting dining reservations.
She also helps with managing the expense of Disney, including watching for discounts that are available.
“I’m a firm believer that most people can go to Disney, it’s just how you plan to go about it,” Elcox said. “It depends on what your budget is, we can get you there, we can figure it out.”
How Much Money?
Costs vary so much. According to the 2018 edition of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World,” the price for Disney-owned resorts (“on property” in Disney terms) starts at around $100 per night at the value resorts, the lowest of the three tiers Disney assigns to its resorts. That price is for a weeknight during the off season.
Prices can go as high as $1,600 a night at the Disney deluxe resorts during the holidays. That’s rack room costs, meaning there are deals available, something Elcox and other travel agents can help with.
Allison Stein has made the trip to Disney World many times with her husband and their 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter. On the most recent trip, their children flew down and met them. Most of the time the family, who lives near Dooms, stays at Port Orleans, which Disney considers a moderate resort.
“It’s just really a great relief to just park your car there and you didn’t get in your car again for your whole vacation,” Stein said. “You just kind of enjoyed yourself once you got there.”
But on a recent trip they did stay at one of the deluxe resorts, Disney’s Polynesian Village.
“It definitely was much more themed, more of a higher-end resort,” she said. “But for us, we don’t spend a lot of time at the resort. So that really was not the best option for us. But it’s really great if you’re going to spend all day at the resort and in the pool, doing the resort activities.”
One advantage for the Polynesian, like many of the deluxe resorts, is proximity to the theme parks. The Polynesian is one of three resorts with monorail access. You can walk outside of the hotel, get right on the monorail and ride to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot. There’s also boat service available to the Magic Kingdom.
Off-site hotels are less expensive, but don’t come with many of the perks that staying at the Disney-owned resorts have. Those perks include free bus transportation to and from the theme parks; earlier access to Fastpass reservations; and Extra Magic Hours, which provide guests with additional time in the parks.
And there are other costs associated with Disney.
“The most money we usually spend is food and tickets,” Elcox said. “So anywhere you can cut back on your food the more you can spend on your tickets.”
That’s another tradeoff. If you want the experience of dining wth characters, you’ll pay for it. The Mongers ate at the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot. There you can meet princesses, including Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Snow White, among others, while you eat.
“That was good,” Brad Monger said. “But it was also about the most expensive. It was like 300 bucks just for the meal.”
The Mongers also did a character breakfast at Ohana’s in Polynesian Village. It runs about $34 per person for adults, a little less expensive for children.
“They had little games that you could do and they did parades,” said 10-year-old Savanna Monger, who called it her favorite of the meals. “And then Stitch came around.”
But the family also tried to limit themselves to one big meal per day in the parks. The rest of the time they ate snacks that they brought into the parks, something that Disney surprisingly allows. That helped save some money.
Darren Grant, on the other hand, goes with Disney’s dining plan. He estimated it runs about $15 per person and, on the most recent trip, they didn’t do any meals other than what Disney calls quick service, essentially fast food in the parks. You lose the atmosphere, and maybe some quality, but you make up for it in time and money saved.
Elcox estimated a family that drove to Disney, stayed off site, limited the amount they ate in the parks and spent maybe three days in the parks, could do it for around $1,500. Of course, adding to any of that drives the prices up, sometimes way up.
For some families, a trip to Disney is a one-time deal. But for many others, return trips are a must, especially for those who want to experience as much as they can of what Disney has to offer.
Stein was there a year ago for two weeks. With a young grandchild, that meant moving at a slower pace and taking some days off.
“I think one of the reasons why you would go back more than once is because you really can’t see everything,” she said. “And it’s our vacation. We want to relax. We don’t want to run around the whole time.”
That hasn’t always been the case. When they were younger, Stein said they’d spend morning to night at the parks.
“To me it’s much more enjoyable to take it at a leisurely pace,” she said.
Darren Grant might disagree. Leisurely is not in his vocabulary while at Disney. And not only is he in the parks every day of his trip from morning to night, but he’s documenting most of it on Facebook. He posted nearly 500 photos on his most recent trip. And he used Facebook Live to broadcast the nighttime firework shows and a trip down Splash Mountain and the afternoon parades at the Magic Kingdom.
“I’m fortunate to have a good enough job to do what I do,” Grant said. “It’s not as expensive as everybody thinks, but that’s all relatively speaking. [Facebook] is my way of sharing with other people who can’t make it. That’s why I do it.”
And he’ll do it again next year. From the crazy overnight drive to Florida to the non-stop park visits while he’s there to the constant posting to social media. People ask him if he will ever get tired of going to Disney. Maybe his daughter has the best answer.
“I can easily say that going to Disney every year doesn’t get old,” said Emma Grant. “Because it seems like every year is a new adventure.”
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