Okay, some back story on this post:
Danny and I celebrated 15 years of marriage on February 7th of this year. Disney has always been a huge part of our lives. In 2002, my sisters and I had a family trip planned with our parents. I was almost 19, Heidi was 17, Elisia 14 and Danielle 10. Danny and I had been dating just over a year, and Heidi had been dating Josh for about the same. Funny story… Josh and Danny were best friends in high school, so when I started dating Danny, Heidi met Josh, and well, the rest is history! True story. ANYWAY, we went on a road trip to Disneyland that year, and basically, that solidified our love for Disney in a big way. Since then, we’ve been on a LOT of trips. But in all of those trips, it occurred to us this year, we had never been just the two of us! Not even once.
We knew we wanted to do something “big” for our 15th anniversary this year, so in the summer we started looking at options. We knew Hawaii or an all-inclusive trip wasn’t going to be financially feasible this year, because we are also saving for WDW 2020 with the whole family (23 of us this time) and for a Paris trip around my 40th birthday. We knew we wanted to go somewhere hot-ish. When I started looking, I was shocked to find that at the time of our anniversary, Orlando is/was cheaper than Palm Desert, Las Vegas, or even Anaheim. So we began to look at some options for us to head over to Orlando.
We waited until the first week of January for our finances to be in order. This is smart for a lot of reasons, but when it comes to Disney, four weeks turnaround time just isn’t a lot. We needed to keep this trip reasonably priced, so we knew that as much as we wanted to stay on site, the only option within budget was going to be to stay off site. We LOVED staying at All Star Music last time… but I was interested to see how everything works offsite.
To start, here are some things I learned (that I likely already knew) but had forgotten:
Use an Incognito Window
Always always ALWAYS, when booking through sites like Expedia, Travelocity, etc, use an incognito window in your web browser. We didn’t at first and every time we checked, the hotel went up, and the flights went up. We had some serious issues trying to book the first few days, and I wish we had just done the incognito window to start.
Know what you want, and don’t rush or settle. This is really not my personality. I want to book right away and have peace of mind, and my husband totally balances me in the best way. We started looking on a Thursday night, exactly five weeks from when we wanted to leave. We had a budget of $1600 Canadian in mind for nine nights, including flights and hotel. We had three important criteria: no resort fees, free theme park shuttle, and free breakfast.
No resort fees was an important distinction for us: any hotel with a water slide had fees, and about half of the other ones we looked at did as well (even without slides). So the price you are getting isn’t the price they are advertising… when you get there, you had to add anywhere from $7 to $20 extra per night to your bill. This really adds up when you’re looking at going for nine nights!
Free theme park shuttle was the next criteria… this, we knew from Heidi, is actually not as important as you think, because the hours are usually quite frustrating. To get back to their hotel when they went, they had to leave before the fireworks in Magic Kingdom. Who wants to leave before the fireworks? Plus, at one of the hotels (can’t remember which one) a reviewer said the free shuttle to Universal Studios picked up before the breakfast was open. This is definitely frustrating.
Regarding transportation, we knew we would be looking at public buses, and Uber/Lyft. I already had a code to get my first ride “free” (up to $15) with Uber, which basically covers the cost of hotel to WDW one time. (To get your own code, search “Uber first ride free 2019” online.) From the airport, the estimated Uber cost was $30, but the cheapest airport shuttle we found was going to be $100. So these are all things to think about. Also, on our non-park days we planned to walk halfway to our destinations in order to save money, since we had the time. If we could walk an hour and save $10 on Uber, we do it.
The last criteria was free breakfast… this is a must for us. We like to pack peanut butter for extra protein, and if they have cereal, milk, oatmeal, bread and hard boiled eggs we fill up well and save significant money.
When searching for a hotel, we take our time. We read the reviews. We check everything against our criteria. Especially when staying at more budget hotels, we find patience and research to be super important.
Booking Flights and Hotels
On the Thursday night we found the flights and hotel we wanted, we chose not to book right away but to sleep on it first. This does drive me a bit crazy… but again, there is something to say about being sure.
We had a horrible time trying to book all day Friday. I’m talking HORRIBLE. Like eight hours, and nothing booked. Oh wait, something booked… but they booked me to fly out of TORONTO instead of Vancouver, and it was crazy to get the refund.
One thing I’m an advocate of is asking for compensation for your time when they mess up. So I got us a $100 travel voucher for Travelocity on Friday. Saturday morning, we tried to book again, and this time it worked… PLUS the hotel and flights combined were $150 less than the day before. It came to $1650 Canadian, minus the $100 voucher, which put us in under budget!
Update: Since writing this, I have become a Travel Agent specializing in Disney and Universal! If you’d like me to do all of this leg work for you for FREE (free quote and NO booking fee) click here.
Now that the bones were in place, it was time to look for Park Tickets.
Universal has a deal where you buy 2 days, get 2 days… but did we really need four days in Universal? The cost for ONE day, with access to both parks, was going to be $169 USD… EACH. This seemed crazy high, but we decided to do it as it also got us on the Hogwarts Express as well, and just have one really amazing day knowing that we won’t have time to see everything. We decided to hold off on buying our Universal tickets until we got to Orlando… the plan was to check for local deals and see if Costco had a deal. (You will have to wait and find out how that worked out in our follow up post 😉 )
For Disney, we settled on 3 days. One day Magic Kingdom, one day Epcot, and one day park hopping between Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. This way, we get to see all 4 parks. If you’ve never been before, more days is definitely preferable, but since this was just a trip for the two of us, and we’ve been for 8 days before and we are going back next year, this was a good amount of time for us to look forward to.
Booking Reservations and FastPass
Make sure to download the Walt Disney World app before you book any FastPass or reservations. I find the WDW app both wonderful and the most frustrating thing in the entire world.
What I love: You can link your credit card, your whole party, make reservations and book your FastPasses. I like that you can see everything at one glance.
What I don’t love: It’s hard to navigate. I don’t love that some things aren’t super clear. Also, being Canadian I have to rely on wi-fi in the parks and it can be spotty.
Because we are on a budget, we just aren’t able to eat at as many places as we want. I really wanted to book into “Ohana” at Disney’s Polynesian Resort because we honeymooned in Kauai, and it holds a special place in our hearts. I had been trying since OCTOBER to get us reservations. (Quick note: if you are staying on Disney property, you can make reservations 180 days in advance. That is insane!!!!!) For some of the more popular restaurants, it can prove to be very difficult to book a reservation. My husband and I were just planning to show up and camp out at 3 pm for opening, hoping someone would cancel so we could get in. I had been checking back, and checking back to see if anything had opened up. Well, on the Sunday after we booked our flights and hotel, I checked for the day we wanted to eat at Ohana and VOILA! There was a seating available for us on the exact day we wanted, at the perfect time for us (4:50 pm). This will be our “anniversary” dinner.
Then, I kept hearing about the Bread Service at Sanaa (at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge). I was confused about the allure, so I had Danny check it out online. Basically it’s five types of flat bread with nine DIFFERENT SAUCES. And everyone always raves about it. And it’s at Animal Kingdom lodge, where you can see the animals roam the savannah outside the restaurant. So, we made a reservation for lunch there on Valentines Day! So fun!
For both of our reservations, I had to give a credit card number to hold the spot, and you have 24 hours to cancel or they could charge you.
Some things I had forgotten about FastPass in WDW: They “tier” them. Which means you can only choose so many “big” rides. For Epcot, we had to choose between Test Track, Frozen Ever After, and Soarin’ Around the World; once we selected one of those attractions, we could choose some of the “smaller” rides. You can select up to three FastPasses per day. If you stay ON SITE at any of the 19 Disney properties you can book your FastPasses 60 days ahead. If you are off site, you can only book them 30 days in advance.
I also learned that FastPass selection at 30 days out starts at 7 am… which is 4 am our time. I woke up at 4 am to select FastPasses for the day we were going to be at Animal Kindgom and Hollywood Studios and quickly learned that without being on site, we weren’t going to get the FastPasses we wanted. We wanted either Slinky Dog Dash at HS or Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom, and even with waking up at 4 am, they were both totally gone. We settled for Kilimanjaro Safaris, DINOSAUR, and Expedition Everest. I did book all of our FastPasses for the morning (done by 12:30 pm), so once they are used we will try and snag new FastPasses at HS (hopefully Tower of Terror or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster)… but that’s definitely one thing I don’t like.
The hard thing about booking a last minute trip to Walt Disney World is that you will mostly likely not be able to get FastPasses for the bigger attractions. Sadly, they do go very quickly, so if you don’t have the 60 day advantage of booking if you stay on site, be prepared. The other thing I find a little frustrating is that with the FastPasses, you have to commit to what days you will be in the parks. So if you have FastPasses for a park on a certain day and there is bad weather, or you aren’t feeling well, and decide not to go you forfeit your FastPasses.
The other thing I learned is you are allowed to book three FastPasses (which I knew) but you CANNOT book for two different parks on the same day. Once I booked a FastPass for Animal Kingdom, I couldn’t book any for Hollywood Studios. This was a bit of a concern and worry but it ended up working out ok in the end… more about that in our upcoming trip report posts.
I can’t wait to tell you more about our trip!
If you’d like more detailed info on booking, you can hear all of our thoughts in A first-timers guide to planning a Walt Disney World Vacation: Part One.
Thanks for stopping by and have a magical day!