In August 2014, we spent two weeks in Florida, spending two days in Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center, four days at the Universal theme parks in Orlando, and eight days at the various Disney World theme parks. You know what that means – it’s that time again! That time when Graeme uses his blog to capture a ton of vacation information that you, dear reader, probably don’t care about. But to be honest, it’s not you I’m writing this for, it’s me. I’ve done this in the past for other vacations, and I find it’s a pretty good way of capturing all of the minutiae of the trip that we’d otherwise forget. I find it fun to read them over again a couple of years later. That said, if you don’t happen to be me, I hope you enjoy it too.
This was a pretty long vacation with no “down” days, so there’s a lot of information here. I’ve broken it up into a number of different articles: the first (this one) talks about the planning of the trip, the second covers Titusville and Universal, the third covers Disney World, the fourth contains some stats about our trip, and the fifth is a comparison of the Universal and Disney experiences (i.e. stuff other than rides).
We began by booking the flights and hotels back in about April. Once we booked Disney, we were given access to a web site called My Disney Experience, where we could look over our information and bookings as well as do things like book lunch and dinner reservations (and in some cases, even order our food in advance), and even book Fast Passes for rides. Gail had fun doing this, but there was one other web site that she frequented in preparation: touringplans.com. This is a site that allows you to pick the rides you want to go on at a particular park (it covers all of the Disney and Universal parks) and it will tell you what order to do them in so that you’re not spending half the day waiting in line. There are iOS and Android apps so you can see your plans and even update them on the fly, as well as checking out the current wait times for each and every ride. If it sounds like it’s regimenting your day, it kind of is, but in a good way. Plus these are of course only guidelines so if you want to shuffle things around or skip a ride or do one twice because the line is short or whatever, you can. There were some days where we followed the plan reasonably well and others where for one reason or another we ended up doing our own thing, though having the app really helped. Gail really liked that app – to the point where she was checking ride wait times weeks before we even left. “Look, 158 minutes for Gringotts!” “That’s great, dear, but we don’t leave for another month.”
The cheapest flights we could find were out of Buffalo rather than Toronto. We’d never flown out of Buffalo before but lots of our friends have and the flights were far cheaper than out of Toronto. Buffalo is about an hour from home but our flight was at 8:25am so we elected to book a hotel room and use their shuttle service to get to the airport. Most hotels near the airport also offer shuttles as well as parking services, which were generally cheaper than the $50/week that parking at the airport would have been. We chose the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport which included 2 weeks of parking, a hot breakfast, and a shuttle to and from the airport for about $89.
We flew on Southwest, which was unusual compared to other airlines for two reasons: (1) Each of us could check up to 2 bags for free, and (2) there are no assigned seats; instead, you check in online 24 hours in advance and you are assigned a “booking order” (A1-A60, B1-B60, or C1-C60). When the flight starts boarding, the A’s go first in numerical order, then the B’s, then the C’s. When it’s time for you to board, you get on the plane and pick whatever available seat you want. Obviously if you’re C20, you’ll have less to choose from than if you’re A10. We couldn’t get a direct flight on the way down (or didn’t want to pay extra for it), so we flew to Baltimore and then to Orlando an hour later. Our return flight was direct to Buffalo.
At Disney, we originally booked the Port Orleans Riverside resort, based on price as well as recommendations from friends. But after we had booked (and paid), Gail heard from her hairdresser (who heard from her cousin) that Disney sometimes offers a free dining plan, and we should check into that. We did, and the free dining plan offer was only good if you arrived after August 31, so it didn’t apply to us. But we kept checking and after a couple of weeks, they moved the date back to before we arrived, so Gail called them. The deal didn’t apply to our hotel, but they said that if we didn’t mind switching hotels, they could give it to us. We said yes immediately, and chose Coronado Springs, since it was on our original short list anyway. The total cost actually ended up about $80 cheaper, and we now had the free dining plan. This was huge and it sounds weird but words cannot express how excited Gail and I were about this.
The dining plan consisted of one “counter service” meal, one “table service” meal, and one “snack” per person, per day. The meals consisted of an entree, a non-alcoholic drink, and a dessert. So basically, other than breakfast and a couple of appetizers and alcoholic drinks, all of our food at Disney was free. We didn’t do the math (since some of the restaurant bills consisted entirely of $0’s) but we figured this saved us close to $1500. This applied to any restaurant (there may have been restrictions, but we never ran into any) in all four theme parks, Downtown Disney, and all of the resorts. Not only did this save us a bunch of money, but it gave us some freedom as well – if Ryan wanted to order the $29.95 salmon, go for it. We ate at an African buffet for one meal, which we may not have otherwise. We didn’t have to order the $16.95 chicken when we really wanted the $28.95 steak. In many cases, we were too full from dinner to get dessert but since it was free anyway, we got it to go and then ate it for breakfast the next day. That way, breakfast ended up being free as well. Of course, having cheesecake or key lime pie for breakfast isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice but hey, we’re on vacation. And really, is it that much worse than a chocolate chip muffin or waffles with syrup?
In the next article, I’ll cover the first week of our trip.