Thursday, September 24, 2015

Disney Trip Planning 101 – When to Go

Tact has never been my strong suit. I'm not being unfair to myself; anyone who knows me will tell you the same. I'm more of a “steam-roller over all objections because I know best” sort of person. It's not that I want to be rude; it's just that more often than not, I'm right. Never is this more true than when it comes to planning a Disney vacation.

A lot of people come to me for Disney trip planning advice. Unfortunately, although I can give people advice, I can't force them to utilize it. By putting it into a written, easily accessed format, however, I'm hoping that it can be a useful reference for those who choose to heed it.

The advice I'm about to give is not for the frequent or experienced Disney guest. If you visit often or know you'll be back soon, much of what I'm going to say you either already know or can tailor to fit your personal taste. But if you're a once-every-five-years visitor or a once-in-a-lifetime person, you really can't afford to ignore what I'm going to say. I've been there a couple of dozen times; I know what I'm talking about. So let's dive in! Today we tackle when to go.

Are you just starting to plan but intend to visit within the next six months? Then stop and start over. Many Disney experiences need to be booked at least six months in advance. Were you planning on having breakfast with the Disney Princesses inside Cinderella Castle or having dinner at Be Our Guest? That's not going to happen if you don't book those reservations 180 days in advance. So if it's September and you're just starting to plan your December trip, you're screwing up before you even get started. Go back to the beginning and start again, this time targeting a time that is more than six months away.

The big issue people discuss when deciding when to go to WDW (Walt Disney World) is whether or not to take children out of school. The math here is simple: everyone wants to go when school is out of session, so that's when the parks are the most crowded, and Disney charges the highest rates. Let me give you an example:

A trip for a family of three (two adults, one ten-year-old child) staying in a standard room at Disney's Port Orleans – French Quarter Resort from September 11-17, 2016 with seven-day Park Hopper tickets and the standard Disney Dining Plan will get a rack-rate (non-discounted) quote of $3698.32. That exact same trip will cost $4187.58 if taken from December 25-31, 2016. That's an extra $81.54 per night, just based on the time of year. And the odds are good that in September, you can get some great discounts – 20-30% off your room or Free Dining are two common examples. How good are those deals? If you took that same September trip but scored a Free Dining package, your cost would be around $2585.20. That's $1602.38 less than the December trip.

Crowds are another factor on deciding when to go. I mean, if you like not being able to move or breathe and want to wait in two hour lines for It's a Small World, be my guest. I'm personally not waiting more than 20 minutes for pretty much anything.

I realize that for some people, going while school is in session is simply not an option. Maybe your child absolutely cannot miss school, or perhaps there's a teacher in the family. In that case, there are still times that are better than others. To avoid high prices and insane crowds, do not go during Christmas Week, Spring Break, or July 4th. I'm serious; don't do it. Try the last two weeks in August or the first week of June. These aren't ideal, but they're probably your best bets.

There are some disadvantages to off-season touring, however. Park hours tend to be shorter and rides may be more likely to be closed for refurbishment.

Weather is something else to consider. Those non-peak weeks I recommended in August? Just think about it: Florida in August. Unless you're a mosquito, that kind of heat and humidity may not be your cup of tea. Weather is (as always) unpredictable, but you can count on plenty of heat and rain June – September and chilly temperatures December though February. Fall is nice, as is the spring – just in time for the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival!

(Shameless segue) In addition to the way traditional holidays and calendar events can effect WDW crowds, Disney has their own annual events that can factor into your planning. My absolutely favorite time to visit is in the fall during Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival. Forget Christmas; this is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Although actually, Christmas is pretty nice, too. Not Christmas Week of course – have you been paying attention?! But Disney starts putting their Christmas decorations up in November, so the first two weeks of December are traditionally festive times to visit.

Have we discussed construction? The good news is, Disney is (finally) making a push to bring a significant number of new experiences to WDW. While this means wonderful things for the future, in the short term it can mean most of the photos of your “once-in-a-lifetime trip” are of construction walls instead of castles. Here are the estimated completion dates of some upcoming projects that you may want to keep in mind:

Disney Springs – The Downtown Disney area is wrapping up its extensive transition into Disney Springs with new shops, restaurants, and more. This project began in April of 2013 and should be completed by mid-late 2016.

Magic Kingdom – Work is nearing completion on the hub area in front of Cinderella Castle, and that area should be completely open and construction-free any day, now.

Epcot – The Frozen: Ever After replacement of Norway's Maelstrom is scheduled for Spring 2016, and the revamped and expanded Soarin' Around the World is slated for a 2016 opening, as well.

Animal KingdomThe Rivers of Light Nighttime Show should debut in March, 2016 and Pandora: The World of Avatar has an estimated opening of Summer 2017.

Disney's Hollywood Studios – This is the big one. An estimated 2.8 billion dollar makeover is underway for this park, and it's going to be significantly revamped. When it's completed, it's going to be fantastic. In the meantime, it's going to be a mess. This 135 acre park is about to see more than 25 of those acres completely re-imagined. This means that many current attractions are going the way of the dodo, and construction will be the norm for quite a time to come. But eventually (I'm guessing 3-5 years from now) we're going to have Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land, so I for one am willing to be patient. (P.S. In addition to the park getting a new name, I really hope they come up with some cooler names for those new lands, as well.)

One final thought: Pick a time when you can devote a significant number of days to your trip. I simply do not understand the people who go all the way to WDW, and then spend one day there. WDW is over 43 square miles – twice the size of Manhattan. I've been there dozens of times and still haven't done everything Disney has to offer. What do you think you're going to accomplish in a day or two? Further, buying a one day pass is just bad math. Disney tries to entice you to stay longer by making subsequent days more affordable. For example, a one day pass to visit the Magic Kingdom is $111.83 (including tax), while a seven day ticket for all parks is $356.78 – that's $50.97 per day. So commit to giving Disney a large chunk of your time and money, settle in, and have fun!

Have you decided when you want to take your magical WDW vacation? Great! Up next we'll discuss where you should stay.

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