Work/Life Balance - Disney World 2016

This is normally a blog about tech, but as I'm slowly but surely learning; work/life balance is key to longevity in a successful career. So for a moment I've decided to take a departure from tech (mostly) and blog about our recent family trip to Disney World in Florida. Our trip took place February 2016 during the 'slow' time at Disney.

About Us

Our traveling party included myself, my wife, my seven year old son, my three and one year old daughters. Coming with us were my mother and father-in-law along with my brother-in-law, his wife and their two small children. My teenager decided to opt out of this trip as he had recently had gone without me.

Mode of Travel

We pondered flying for a nanosecond before settling on driving from Indiana to Florida. It was less about cost and more about the fact that we needed to travel with a pack-n-play and strollers for the small children and wanted to stock our room with groceries and have the freedom to eat off Disney property in the evening. Each way for us was about 1100 miles and we took three vehicles traveling on separate itineraries. Some decided to stay somewhere halfway through the trip while we decided to team-drive and drive thru the night. Traveling at night made for light traffic and sleeping children. I'd recommend a similar plan in the future.

Accommodations

My wife was in charge of arranging where we stayed. She found a great deal on AirBnB that allowed us to stay on Disney property at Wyndham Bonnet Creek. The room was fabulous and it had two bedrooms, a full kitchen, a washer/dryer (in the room) and a living room. I was worried about getting there and having some sort of glitch with AirBnB and we'd have no room. Fortunately we had no issues and we were able to check in as soon as we arrived around 3:00 local time.

Food at the Hotel

Since our room had a full kitchen, we went to the local Walmart the first night and stocked up on groceries and snacks. This saved us a lot of money. The kitchen had a full array of dishes, silverware, a toaster, an oven, a large refrigerator and a dishwasher. We ended up taking paper plates and plastic cups as we didn't know about the dishes. Trash was the only concern as there was no great way to get the trash out of the room. I'd recommend taking some paper towels and some all-purpose spray to keep things tidy.

Tickets and Magic Bands

My wife was also in charge of getting tickets to the parks. She used TicketsAtWork.com to purchase them. Along the way we discovered Magic Bands were now the standard for tickets as opposed to the old 'cards' that everyone needed. Magic Bands were implemented in 2013 and they really make the experience much better at the parks. Visitors will use their Magic Band to gain park entry, link photos, make purchases and interact with various kiosks. We purchased our Magic Bands online and after we purchased our tickets separately, we linked each band to individuals. We had seven day tickets but left for home after only four days in the park.

The App

Disney has a mobile app called My Disney Experience that is fully integrated with the Magic Bands. The app allows visitors to reserve fast passes for free (3/day/visitor), see the wait-time for rides in real-time and find things like places to eat, characters and attractions. If you have a smartphone, you NEED to use this app. The app is really well done and will make your experience that much better once you get into the parks. One of the coolest features of the app is the photos that Disney will take of your party. For instance they will take your picture in front of Cinderella's castle and it will show up in your app. All you have to do is have the photographer scan your Magic Band afterwards.

Transportation to the Parks

One drawback to staying where we did is the fact that Disney transportation will not take us to the parks for free. As a result we had to pay $20/day when we drove and parked. We walked or rode trams from the parking lot to the front gate of each park. Since we had some small children, we packed a couple strollers. We could have taken an Uber ride or something similar, but it became too pricey so we just paid the parking fee. The good news is that if you pay for parking at one park, the receipt will get you in to any of the other parks the same day at no additional charge. Be sure your tickets have the 'park hopper' option if you decided to do this.

Food at the Parks

Food at the park is expensive. There are three basic ways to feed the family while at the parks:

  • Simple snacks at a vendor: Ice cream, popcorn, cotton candy, etc
  • Sit down full-service dining
  • Express dining

The sit down full-service style dining is the most expensive (~$40/adult), has the least wait and we never used this option. We did buy some ice cream/popcorn/Starbucks at small shops/kiosks but we did our major damage at the express dining. Express dining is ~$15/adult and is a self-serve style of dining. Seating at the express eateries is limited and we had to split into teams of food-getters and seat-getters.

Disney allows you to bring food into the park and we did — just not enough. We budgeted about $100/day for our family (all three meals) but I wish we would have made some sandwiches and brought them into the park each day. There were plenty of places to sit and eat at closed eateries but we were forced to get into the long lines for junk food. The food was good just not very healthy.

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom is by far the most popular and polished of the four parks Disney has in Florida. This park is perfect for kids under 10 and the parents of said children. Cinderella's castle is amazing to see and take pictures of and there are countless classic rides to ride on. Make sure you sign up for Fast Passes the night before (or sooner) so you can skip the long lines. If I were to do it over again, I would try to get my passes close together. We found ourselves running across the park to make it to our Fast Pass time and then having to double back to go to another ride (without a Fast Pass).

One of the interesting things to note in this park is the free sorcerer's game that kids can play. The signup area is in Main Street USA but the secret spots to find are in every 'land'. We didn't discover this until the last day of our trip but the game will pickup where we left off when we return in a few years.

There are parades during the day and night at this park. If you want to see the light parade, plan on claiming a spot around 7:30pm for the 9:00 show.

We spent 2 1/2 days at this park but we could have easily spent more.

Epcot

Epcot is more science and technology when compared to the magic theme of the Magic Kingdom. The best ride is the Test Track which allows riders to create a car profile via touch screens and then test them by loading the configuration into a car. Younger kids will likely not find this park as appealing since it's more cultural and technological oriented. Around the lake at Epcot are various mini-countries that are offer food and shopping selections.

There is also a mini-game at Epcot like the sorcerers game at Magic Kingdom. It's called the Phineas and Ferb World Showcase. We didn't know about this one until we left the park so I thought I'd share.

Epcot does a fireworks show at night from a barge in the middle of the lake. 

I would only plan for one day at this park.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom is a zoo for the most part. The kids can attempt to earn a 'badge' from different spots in the park after they learn a little bit of knowledge about animals. The dinosaur part was the biggest hit with our kids along with the safari ride. While the park is beautiful and well done, we lost interest after lunch and decided to hop back to Magic Kingdom for the rest of the day.

I would either skip this park or only plan for a 1/2 day at this park.

Hollywood Studios

Hollywood studios isn't very large but as the name implies, it's all about movie-making. If you'd like your child to participate in the Star Wars Jedi experience, you'll need to get to the park as soon as it opens and run to the Indiana Jones ride for registration. If you're lucky enough to make it in time, your child will get to face off against a villain (Darth Vader/Darth Maul) in front of a crowd. We didn't know about this in time or we would have tried.

The signature ride at this park is the Toy Story ride which can have wait times of up to 145 minutes. If you can get a Fast Pass for this ride, you should. There are some good shows for the little kids, but in general the best rides are for the 7+ age range. In the evening Mickey does a light show with fountains of water.

I would plan on one day at this park.

Regrets and Lessons Learned

Overall we had a great time. The mobile app was critical and I'm glad we discovered it beforehand. The hotel was amazing but I had wished we brought some of the food with us into the park to offset some of the pain of the express eateries. Since we stayed at a non-Disney resort we couldn't purchase the meal plan at the parks. Had we made our own food, it would have been a really good idea though we offset some cost by making breakfast each morning on the cheap. We bought the 'park hopper' option but only used it on the day we went to Animal Kingdom. As a result we'll probably skip that option and Animal Kingdom altogether.

We had seven day tickets, but only spent four days in the parks. We're likely only to get five day passes in the future. One of my daughters had an appointment for the Bippity Boppity Boutique in Disney Springs the day we arrived in Florida. Had we done it again we'd not pick that day as we were very tired from driving. We also learned you should book that appointment about six months out for max flexibility.

We'll be even more informed and ready when we return in a couple years.

Disclaimer: Disney in no way endorsed this blog or gave us any compensation of any kind.