Disney World: Downtime in the Sunshine State

oliver-and-minnie

Last week, I returned from the Most Magical Place on Earth. It was, characteristically…magical! From age 1 to about 14, I traveled to “Mickey’s House” once a year with my aunt and uncle. Since, then I’ve only been a couple times. My husband Jon had only been to Disney World once when he was 6, only went to Magic Kingdom and left after a half-day because it started raining (afternoon showers?–yes, it’s Florida!). The last trip my aunt, uncle and I took was in 2007, so back in August, we all agreed that it’s high time we plan our next trip!

We decided to visit the second week of December, since Jon will be on his holiday break from school and we hoped to beat the major crowds right around Christmas and New Year’s. We were eager to see all the Christmas decorations, as we had never been during this time of year!

Where the magic begins

disney-gate

Some Learnings from Our Last Trip: Disney Dining Plan & Restaurant Reservations

When we visited in 2007, we had opted to purchase the Disney Dining Plan as part of our vacation package. We quickly learned that we spent much of our days running around trying to use up all of our snacks and make reservations at restaurants. Doing so certainly didn’t ruin that trip by any means, but it did not make for a relaxing trip in that aspect. So, this time we unanimously agreed to just pay for our meals a la carte. (Full disclosure: I am fairly sure that Disney now offers a wider variety of dining plan types that may better meet our needs, but we did not explore those.)

Shortly after we booked our trip, I downloaded the Disney iPhone app to begin making reservations at the most popular restaurants at which we knew we wanted to eat, including:

  • Sci-fi Drive-in (Disney’s Hollywood Studios)
  • Planet Hollywood (Downtown Disney)
  • Rainforest Cafe (Downtown Disney)

We didn’t want to be stuck eating at very off times at second-choice restaurants, as happened in 2007 when we waited to make our meal reservations until we arrived at the resort. I continued to use the iPhone app during our trip to book Fastpasses–more about that later.

Shoving Off for Mickey’s House

We departed the Greater Cincinnati airport around 9:30 on the morning of Tuesday, December 9th. Our flight was uneventful and we arrived in Orlando and hustled over to the Disney Magical Express pickup area by just after noon. We were only a 40-minute charter bus ride away from being in our very favorite alternate reality!

Watching a Christmas parade on Mainstreet, USA

watching-MK-parade

After a drive past sprawling Orlando planned communities–each house with uniform screened-in back porch and swimming pool–we finally sighted the Welcome to Disney World gateway sign. I was so excited I could hardly stand it! Not soon after, our bus dropped us off at our resort, Port Orleans French Quarter. Over the years, we’ve stayed at many of the property resorts, including Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs and the Wilderness Lodge. We’ve decided that Port Orleans FQ is our favorite because of its location on the waterway (Riding the water taxi to Downtown Disney in the evenings is a tradition.) and its smaller size, compared to some of the other resorts.

Our Itinerary

Day One – Tuesday

  • Spent the remainder of the day leisurely strolling around Downtown Disney, shopping and having dinner
  • Decided to not go into a park so we could start fresh on Wednesday

Hands down, the most popular current Disney movie

frozen

Day Two – Wednesday

  • Headed into Magic Kingdom bright and early – always the first park we visit
  • Enjoyed Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, meeting Mickey the Magician on Mainstreet, climbing the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse (one of Jon’s only Disney memories), meeting Ariel in her grotto, It’s a Small World, the Tea Cups and much more
  • I was very disappointed that the Haunted Mansion was closed because the spirits were acting up
  • Dinner at Planet Hollywood at Downtown Disney, which wasn’t near as tasty as it used to be

Obligatory front entrance shot

MK-gate

The Big Cheese himself!

mickey-us

Everyone’s favorite mermaid

meeting-ariel

Day Three – Thursday

  • Visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios–or MGM, as we better know it
  • Had a ton of fun witnessing Jon’s first ride on the Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror, riding Star Tours, Aerosmith’s Rockin’ Rollercoaster and Toy Story Mania (the longest wait of our trip)
  • Saw several fun live shows, including Beauty and the Beast, Indiana Jones: Stunt Spectacular (Jon was chosen as an extra!) and Muppet Vision 3D
  • Enjoyed a very tasty lunch at the Sci-fi Drive-in — my Salmon BLT (minus the “B”) was my very favorite meal of the trip
  • At 6pm, we witnessed the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, which was an amazing experience — I doubt I’ll ever see that many Christmas lights in one place again

In line for the Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror

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Action shot from the Tower of Terror

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Action shot from Aerosmith’s Rockin’ Rollercoaster

rockin

Ready to ride Toy Story Mania

toy-story

Day Four – Friday

  • Explored EPCOT, my least favorite park which I begrudgingly visit just to say we’ve hit all the parks on our trip
  • Fittingly so, this was also the only dreary, cloudy day of our visit
  • Rode Soarin’ for the first time, which is now one of my favorite Disney rides — a 4D (including smell!) motion ride that carries riders over California on a parasail-like ride that’s basically the OMNIMAX on steroids
  • Strolled around the World Showcase and visited the shops
  • Ended the day with dinner at the House of Blues at Downtown Disney — by far the best restaurant at Downtown Disney in our opinion

Waiting for the gates to open at 9am sharp

spaceship-earth

Checking out France

france

Posing with Royalty in the pin shop at Downtown Disney

pin-shop

Day Five – Saturday

  • My roommate from when I lived in Florida and now one of my best friends, Kimberly, came to visit with her little boy, Jackson
  • She and Jon met for the first time and we got to meet Jackson, whom we’ve been stalking on Facebook since he was in the womb!
  • Ended the day with dinner at the Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney

On the Sassagoula Riverboat bound for Downtown

kimmielle-boat

 Christmas decorations with some of my favorite people

tree

This kid loves his Auntie Dee!

jackson

Day Six – Sunday

  • Visited our fourth and final park of the visit, Animal Kingdom
  • Enjoyed Kilimanjaro Safari, visiting with Mickey and Minnie (in their adorable holiday garb), Expedition Everest, A Bug’s Life show and more
  • Crowds were building, which made us appreciate the relatively sparse crowds we’d faced most of our trip
  • Departed our resort at 4:40pm via Disney Magical Express to head to the airport–and back to reality

The old crew back together again

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Giraffes on Kilimanjaro Safaris

giraffes

Just before leaving our resort…exhausted

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Learnings from This Trip: Disney Fastpass

Admittedly, I was skeptical of the Fastpass service before I really got into using it on the Disney app. I feared that “scheduling” our rides and attractions would make the trip feel too structured and not relaxing. What if our Fastpass came due at 2:30 and it was 2:10–not enough time to visit another attraction, so would we just be standing around, bored and waiting? That didn’t sound like fun to me.

Even still, I decided to give Fastpass reservations a whirl on our second day, while at Magic Kingdom. Tons of people were using the system, and breezing right onto rides while we waited for a half hour or more. I quickly realized that the system was going to work well because using a Fastpass provides you with a window of time (usually an hour) to visit the attraction. This avoided the dreaded standing-around-and-waiting-for-your-Fastpass-window scenario.

I used my Disney iPhone app to make our Fastpass selections, usually a day or two before we visited that park. Before the trip, I had linked all of our MagicBands to my Disney account, so I could make these selections for all four of us. Oh, MagicBands, you are awesome! My only complaint was that the app was often slow to load or wouldn’t load at all. I hope they can get this fixed before our next trip so I don’t encounter as many problems while trying to use the app in the park.

Mainstreet, USA on a perfect December day

mainstreet-usa

A Great Time Had By All

As always, it was a great trip to Disney World and we undoubtedly made memories to last a lifetime! It was great to relive so many of my favorite childhood memories with my aunt and uncle, while starting new Disney traditions with Jon that we plan to continue for decades to come. Jon became obsessed with scouring the place for “Hidden Mickeys,” so we plan to spend some time on our next trip to continue that search.

I realize that Disney isn’t for everyone. Some people just don’t “get” the magic–or simply don’t want to face the crowds. I’m quite impatient in day-to-day life and don’t generally enjoy crowds in the least, but that somehow all goes out the window when I’m under Mickey’s (Walt’s?) spell! Have you been to Disney World or Disneyland? Are you a convert, or not a big fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts and memories below.

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