Our Summer of Vacations is almost over. The AAAD family just returned from a long weekend at Disney World.
First things first - if you're going to Disney World, you need the "My Disney Experience" app.
Period. Full stop.
We were able to see and do essentially everything at all 4 Disney parks, in 4 days - almost SOLELY due to the real-time updates we were getting through the Disney app.
Here's a recap of our Disney Experience - and how the iOS app dramatically improved our experience.
Choosing (and Getting To) Your Hotel
We decided to stay at a Disney hotel. While there were certainly cheaper rooms off-property, there are some substantial advantages to staying on-property, especially if you're making a quick trip to Disney World.
1. Disney Hotels have a great cancellation policy
You can pretty much book your Disney hotel stay months in advance, without thinking twice -- if a conflict arises, or if the price drops later, you can cancel and re-book up to 5 days prior to check-in.
We relied on Expedia here, and booked the Coronado Springs Resort - a very large, "moderate" priced resort, on the south end of the property. It was $139/room/night.
(I had my eye on the Wilderness Lodge, a "deluxe" resort closer to the Magic Kingdom, and would have cancelled/switched if the price dropped a bit. It never got within $500 for the 4 nights, so we stuck with CSR.)
CSR was a good value. It's a massive hotel - it's used as a convention center - but the rooms were better than I'd expected.
(And you don't have to make the 10 minute walk to the front desk very often - there are 4 bus stops around the perimeter.)
2. Staying On-Property provides access to Disney Transportation
This was an underrated bonus. We never had to rent a car - Disney's fleet of buses got us everywhere we needed to be.
Disney's Magic Express - Airport Transfer
This was a huge money and time-saver. Transfers from Orlando's airport were going to run $45/person -- Disney's Magic Express bus transfer was included in our hotel cost.
And this wasn't just a bus to and from the airport - Magic Express provides luggage tags, so you don't even have to wait at baggage claim. Check your bags, forget about them, and you'll see them at your hotel room.
And when you're leaving, there's an airport skycap at your hotel - check your bags, and pick them up when you get back home.
You're probably familiar with Disney's iconic monorails. They run between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, with stops at the Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian hotels (next time, that bonus may push us to one of those properties.)
But Disney's bus system is equally impressive.
Buses picked us up at one of CSR's 4 bus stops, and only had 1 destination. (i.e., if you are going to Epcot, there isn't a stop at Hollywood Studios on the way.)
And at the end of the day, each hotel has a dedicated bus - people headed to CSR get on the CSR bus and go directly there. No stopping at 5 different hotels on the way.
3. Staying On-Property = Disney Dining Plan
We didn't take advantage of this option -- and we wound up spending less on food than we would have if we'd used the Dining Plan.
But next time, we'll be on the Dining Plan.
It doesn't (necessarily) make sense financially. You aren't going to beat Disney at this game - they price the Dining plan awfully close to what you'd spend on a take-out, a sit-down, and a snack every day (Right now, about $55/person/day)... and you'll have some no-time-for-food days with $10 lunches and $10 dinners.
But it makes sense psychologically - and that's a big consideration. People on the Dining Plan can treat the Disney Parks almost like an all-inclusive.
You pay for alcohol, you pay for tips - and you can go where you want, without considering the tab you're running on food.
And that's worth something. You don't worry about the $38 character breakfast, or have to choose the ala carte Mexican over the fixed-cost German pavilion because it's $10/person cheaper. You can stay in the "Disney bubble" mindset, instead of doing math on your vacation.
4. Staying On-Property = Extra Magic Hours
If you're staying at a Disney hotel, you also have access to Disney Extra Magic hours - each day, one or more parks will be opening early, or closing late - but only for on-property guests.
Your Disney iPhone app includes all Extra Magic hours, months in advance.
The Disney iOS Advantage
We arrived on Friday, and waited at CSR's (very nice) pool area for the rest of our party to arrive.
By 4 PM, we were walking into the Magic Kingdom. And almost immediately, the (free) My Disney Experience app started paying dividends.
1. Wait Times
This is absolutely huge. The Disney app is constantly, and accurately, updating the wait times (and currently available FastPass times) for every ride and attraction in Disney World.
We didn't have a full day at the Magic Kingdom on Friday, and at every moment, there were rides with 120+ minute waits.
With the app, we were able to avoid those lines and hit major attractions - by 8 PM, we'd seen Pirates of the Carribean, taken the Jungle Cruise, explored the Haunted Mansion, rode the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and defeated Zerg on the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger attraction.
All that, and we even stopped in the Enchanted Tiki Room during a rainstorm.... fired some rounds in the Shooting Gallery, and bought a pair of mouse ears. Our 7-year-old even had time to complete the "Pirates' Adventure" scavenger hunt.
And at 8, it was time for our dinner reservation.
2. Dining Reservations
The My Disney Experience app has a full OpenTable-style dining reservation function. You can search by type of cuisine, location, price and availability.
On Friday night, we had an 8 PM reservation at Tony's Town Square Italian restaurant, in the Main Street USA area. (It's kinda-sorta themed after the Italian restaurant in "Lady and the Tramp".)
The food was better than I'd expected, and reasonably priced. But the real advantage of eating at Tony's, at 8, is the prime vantage point for the 9 PM Electrical Parade.
I also used the app to get reservations for Saturday morning breakfast at Chef Mickey - which was probably the highlight of the entire trip. (Book WAY in advance - it fills up quickly.)
My son was able to get pictures and autographs with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto, all during breakfast. Speaking of which....
3. Character Appearances
When I was a kid at Disney, interactions with characters was a hit-and-miss affair. If you happened across a character - ANY character - it was a lucky break.
My own "Disney Autograph Book" had one entry. "First Mate Smee". I'm still not exactly sure who that was... he worked for Captain Hook or something. The idea of actually meeting Mickey Mouse was too much to contemplate.
With the iOS app, you can meet multiple characters - (heck, multiple Mickeys, if you want) every day.
(Shhh! Don't tell the kids about the "multiple Mickeys" thing... but we met Goofy at breakfast, took the monorail to Epcot, and were immediately greeted by.... Goofy. "How did he GET here?" my kid wondered.)
Each day, your app gets an updated list with the characters appearing at each park, their precise location, and their appearance time. By Day 4, my son's autograph/photo book was completely filled.
A "Magical" App
Disney's app is definitely ambitious. It's trying to do an awful lot. Frankly, they could have made the "zoomable map" function alone and called it a day.
But they went WAY beyond the bare minimum, and succeeded on almost every level.
Bottom line - A trip to Disney World is a sizable investment, both in terms of time and money. And this app helps you to maximize that investment.