Orlando 2015: Planning and Prep

This post is the second in a series about our 2015 family vacation to Orlando. The series includes these posts:

When it comes to travel, I am a planner. Sure, I enjoy the occasional unscripted vacation excursion but when we are on a family trip, I prefer to make sure we are organized enough that we don’t burn daylight trying to figure out where to go or how to get there. I don’t want to be that family standing at the entrance of a theme park wondering what there is to do. And I definitely don’t want to be the family standing 2 hours in line for a popular attraction because we didn’t know enough to visit early in the day or get a FastPass. So, as you can imagine, I put a fair amount of prep into planning out each day of our visit to Orlando.

I feel compelled to note that I am not a Disney park fanatic. I love rollercoaster parks but the fun-for-all-ages nature of Disney doesn’t quite scratch that thrill ride itch. So while I enjoyed our trip and it did make me nostalgic for Sunday evenings watching Wonderful World of Disney, I don’t plan to be a recurring visitor. So in planning the trip I wanted to make sure we hit all the relevant highlights because I wasn’t planning another big Disney trip. That being said, I must admit that I am now very conflicted about that stance with the announcement of a Star Wars themed area in the works.

Princess Leia

New Best Disney Princess

My planning process started with the crowd calendars at Undercover Tourist. Before we picked dates for the trip, I compared our available windows with the projected crowds. Turns out that school in Orlando starts in August so we were able to select dates in late August with low crowds, meaning shorter lines, better FastPass+ choices, and more dining options. I also used the crowd calendars to pick which park to visit each day. Even though we were staying onsite, we avoided the morning Extra Magic Hours at Disney because the EMH parks tend to be busier and it wasn’t super likely we’d actually get out the door early enough to take advantage of the early access. We did, remarkably, manage to use the early Hogsmeade admission for onsite guests at Universal.

Next came the podcasts and the blogs. I read trip reports and tip sites, looking to glean whatever tidbits of advice I could find. And I listened to podcasts at a voracious rate for a few weeks. I listened while I drove, while I did housework, and while I got ready each morning. I was in search of any planning secret or on-the-ground tip for ultimate vacation success. I picked up a few small tips but mostly I was flabbergasted by the level of obsession these folks have for Disney and its parks. At times it made me almost uncomfortable. The blogs and podcasts did help us tremendously in identifying which restaurants we wanted to visit.

If you are new to planning a Disney trip, some of the online resources I found helpful were:

I borrowed the Unofficial Guide to Disney World 2015 from @wightman. I did not read it cover to cover but used it for the overviews of each park, some general planning tips, and to rule out some of the attractions that did not sound like good fits for our family. We took the book with us to Orlando but we didn’t use it much once we left home; your mileage might vary depending on how much upfront planning you do. The book is a worthwhile purchase and something to be studied over many sessions.

Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World

Great resource for Disney first-timers

My most important planning tool was touringplans.com and the accompanying Lines app for iOS. Created by the same folks who do the Unofficial Guide to Disney World, these web and mobile apps are available by paid subscription (with a discount available if you’ve purchased the book). The site offers a plethora of prebuilt touring plans for each Disney and Universal park to suit the needs of different types of visitors (small kids, parents with tweens, adults only, seniors, etc.). I used the plans for parents with tweens as a starting point and tweaked for things like extra rides on the highest rated attractions. When customizing a touring plan, you enter your reservation times for restaurants and any FastPass+ times. The app will then re-optimize your schedule around those fixed times and places. The site factors in walking time, attraction duration, and the expected wait times based on projected crowd levels. It is a marvelous technology.

The Lines iOS app puts the power of touringplans.com on your phone. It lets you adjust your schedule in situ and adjusts for the actual wait times in the park based on reports by other Lines user. I posted some wait times myself and felt a little guilty that I wasn’t posting more. I didn’t see anyone else posting times but there must have been a healthy number of other users because the data from the app was quite good. The app was a boon for modifying plans on-the-fly. We made changes every day as we went but still managed to make good use of our FastPass+ options and hit all our dining reservations on time.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the My Disney Experience site and the Disney iOS app that let you manage dining and FastPass+ reservations. I toggled between the FastPass+ screens and touringplans.com trying different options for FastPass+ attraction times looking for opportunities to cut down our wait times. Apparently, if you are really dedicated, you can keep checking for new FastPass+ options to open up as other users tweak their own reservations. I didn’t do that – I got ours worked out in one evening and left them alone until we were in the park.

You could fill all your spare time planning for a Disney + Universal trip. I definitely overdid it a bit, but our trip had very few hiccups as a result. With three tweens keen on thrill rides and a wife who hates them, I don’t regret putting in that effort to balance the itinerary so that everyone had plenty of fun. And we still had lots of slack in the schedule for some spontaneity, which is super important. The schedule should guide the trip, not constrain it.

Check out the other posts in this series for how we planned our trip, where we stayed, how we got around, what we ate, and what our favourite experiences were. Hope it’s useful to you:



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