Best Theme Park Tips – Avoid Lines at Walt Disney World, Universal, etc.

January 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Posted in General (tips, etc.), Travel | Leave a comment

Having been to Walt Disney World and Disneyland several times, I’ve had fun doing all the research to avoid the long lines and make the most of our vacation. I got advice from a lot of people and free websites so I thought I would try to give back and summarize the most important tricks and tips I’ve learned.  It still never ceases to amaze me how the majority of park goers appear to be ill-prepared and spend the majority of their time in the parks waiting in much longer lines than they need to or waste time on bad attractions. This could have all been avoided and they could have made much more of their vacation time and money with some research and planning.

  • Go during low-season – Ideally you would want to take your kids out of school, gettomg much better value for your vacation dollar and have such a more enjoyable and more leisurely park experience if you don’t go to the parks during their most busiest times: a) Summer Break (it’s too hot anyway – yuk) and b) the week from Christmas through New Years. Also if possible avoid mid-February (Winter Break), late March through mid April (Spring Break), 2-4 days right before Christmas, and any holiday weekends (Memorial and Labor Day.)  Parks have had to stop admitting people the week after Christmas because they reached capacity!
  • Get your tickets in advance: Disney ticket prices are highly controlled so you won’t find any huge discounts but you can save a little money buying from a reseller other than Disney.  Try http://www.knowbeforeugo.com/ as they will beat anyone elsess advertised priced.
  • Make a park itinerary and make dining reservations in advance: This is the basis for putting all the tricks and tips into action.  I recommend storing all your notes on your phone if possible using synchronized notes or just create a calendar event each day with the notes for that day.  MAKE YOUR DINING RESERVATIONS IN ADVANCE FOR ANY OF THE DISNEY OPERATED RESTAURANTS! Some of the best Disney restaurants you will need to make reservations a couple months or more in advance.  It can be easily done online .  If you are unsure where and when you want to eat make more than one reservations for that meal (maybe an early and a late dinner reservation.)  There is no penalty for not showing up (although you should cancel if you know you can’t make it).
  • Use these Internet Resources to plan: The main strategy behind good park itinerary planning in my opinion is a) know what is worth your time and what isn’t – prioritize what you want to see/do, and b) know the patterns of the ‘herd’ (the majority of park goers that didn’t do their homework) and essentially plan around them and in most cases do the opposite of them.  My two top free resources are: Theme Park Insider (www.themeparkinsider.com) for a quick glance at what attractions and dining spots are the best for a given park.  DIS Discussion Boards (www.disboards.com) to ask specific questions to other park goers.  The two times I’ve gone to Walt Disney World I’ve paid the small price to get all the information from the Tour Guide Mike website (www.tourguidemike.com).  This website has so much information and tools, it can be a bit overwhelming, but this is the Holy Grain of WDW planning information.  ALSO – There are free  Smartphone (iPhone) apps you can download that will tell you in real-time the current wait times for all the rides – see VersaEdge Software (http://www.versaedge.com/)  For evaluating where to stay and eat outside the park I recommend using Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com)
  • The Early Bird Gets The Worm, but so does the Night Owl - By far the #1 most emphasized piece of advice you see stated all over is to get to the parks early (to the gates at least 20-30 min before opening.)  I mostly agree with this but based on my own experience it isn’t always critical to do this.  But if you can’t get to a park early, then my advice is to plan on staying late until the crowd thins out at night and do some of the most popular rides then. This works very well because a lot of the families with small children have to leave the park in the evening when the kids get tired (or the parents get tired dealing with the kids – lol.) In addition I think the parks are more magical at night anyway. Rides like the Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror, and Pirates of the Caribbean seem better to me at night.  Plus it is cooler at night (if you go when the weather is hot).

MY GOLDEN RULE OF THUMB TO AVOID LONG LINES IS: Don’t plan on using standby lines (only use FastPass) for the most popular rides between 1 hour after park opening and 1 hour before park closing (2 hours if the park is open later than 10 PM.) IN MY OPINION, IF YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF IN A LINE LONGER THAN 30 MIN THEN YOU DIDN’T PLAN RIGHT (or you didn’t execute your itinerary as planned.)

  • Early may still be best: I think first thing in the morning at opening will always have the shortest average wait times though. Plus, once you get into a pattern of staying at a park until very late, depending on the closing time that time of season, it can be difficult to do any early morning arrivals for the rest of the trip. You need to choose based on what works best for your situation. Also note, in the evenings (especially Fri & Sat) the local season pass holders like to frequent the parks (they are a great place to go on a date.) So avoid late evenings on Fri & Sat.Most people on a theme park vacation will NOT show up at the gates before the park opens so naturally those who get their first have a less crowded park and short lines.  Why doesn’t the majority get their early? After all they are paying big bucks to go to these parks why not get the most for your money?  It is pretty simple in my mind.  Do people want to get up at 6:30 or 7 AM while on their vacations?  Not really.  Some still do (the ones who hate long lines.)  Also, large families (or groups of people) and families with small children can have difficulty getting everyone moving early and in-sync in the morning so as they may have planned to get their early, the reality is they get their later than they had hoped.   But be warned: unless you are diligent about getting to bed early, you will be challenged to keep up the early mornings day after day, especially if you are dealing with a time change traveling from West to East.  And many of the parks have fireworks or other shows at night you will want to see.  It is highly unrealistic to think you will see that 10 PM fireworks show one night (getting back to your room after 11) and then be at the next park turnstiles at 7:30 or 8:30 AM the next morning. With proper planning, most any time of year, your wait will be 15 min or less for most attractions.  I know some people find that hard to believe.
  • Don’t Overplan, Be Realistic/Flexible, TAKE A BREAK! – Themepark vacations are very fun and rewarding but unlike a beach vacation to Hawaii, they can be very tiring at times.  It is okay to plan more in a day than you are able to do as long as you prioritize what you want to see/do and can live with ending the day without being able to check everything off your list.  If you do an early morning arrival, a mid-afternoon break is really a must if you plan to return to the park in the evening.  The only challenge with this is that this ‘break’ for kids turns into swimming at the pool which really isn’t a ‘rest’ or a ‘break’ but they manage.  In general, you have a choice of three general plans for the day:
  • Early/Long Day with BreakEarly morning arrival before park opening > late morning breakfast or snack > leave park (by 1 PM)  for lunch (or eat lunch there and stay a little later) > mid-afternoon break > return in evening after dinner
  • Sleep In/Long Day (best for late shows and when park hours go late – 10 PM or later – and when daytime temps are very hot)Late morning arrival (10 PM?) with early lunch (11:30) in park or early lunch outside park and arrival in park right after lunch > early dinner in park (5:30) > leave in evening
  • Short Day No Break – Either arrive early before opening and leave at lunch, or, arrive after lunch and stay until late in evening (the latter I do not recommend as mid-afternoon is the worst time to be in the park.)
  • Have a ‘backup’  (running late) plan: If you get to a park a lot later than you planned, it can totally through your itinerary as far as which rides in which order totally out of whack.  Be prepared to re-plan on the fly with your knowledge of what rides are least crowded at which times.  Or if you are a planning fanatic, better yet, have a primary plan/itinerary and have an abbreviated ‘backup plan’ each day that goes into effect if you can’t get to the park when you want to or spend as much time there as you planned.
  • Avoid a park when they have special Early Entry or Stay Late hours (unless you can take advantage of them)- If a park has Extra Hours for guests of their resort that day that you can’t take advantage of, try to avoid that park.  If you can’t avoid that park that day, if the extra hours are in the morning then make it a day where you arrive later and stay late into the evening.  If it is a day where the extra hours are in the evening, then make it an early morning and don’t return in the evening.
  • *** Get Fast Passes as quickly and as often as possible ***: This is my personal #1 most important piece of advice. Appoint someone in your group in advance to be the ‘Fast Pass Runner’  After your group goes through the turnstiles, have the Fast Pass Runner collect everyone’s park passes and immediately walk quickly to the most popular ride in the park you want to ride that day that has a Fast Pass option.  The rest of the group can follow if you arrive early and you can ride that ride twice that day, the first time just waiting in the short standby line, the second time using your fast pass.  If you arrive late, still get a Fast Pass for the most popular rides as soon as you can get them.  It will tell you on the Fast Pass at what time you can get the next pass.  Having a Fast Pass Runner means the entire group doesn’t have to keep heading across the park to get a Fast Pass with you every couple of hours.  Again get Fast Passes as quickly and as often as you can. (Runner: Be careful not to  lose the passes or leave one in the Fast Pass machine!)
  • Plan your day around eating meals during non-peak times: If eating inside the park, eat lunch at 11:30 or after 1:30.  Eat dinner at 5:30 or after 7:30.  Even if you have a reservation it is good to avoid eating lunch from 12:00 – 1:00 and dinner from 6:00-7:00 as a Disney Dining reservation doesn’t mean there will be a table open for you at that time.  It just means that you are guaranteed a spot in line to wait for an open table.  People without a reservation cannot even wait for an open table unless the restaurant is not busy. (Remember to make your dining reservations way in advance.)
  • When all else fails, use the Single Rider Line – Line super long? Got their late? No Fast Pass available? Traveling with older children or no children? Your limited how much time you have at the park and can’t return later? Must do/see attraction? Use the Single Rider line if it has one.  You may not all ride together but that is better than not riding at all.
  • Ride Water Rides with Caution – Hang out near a ride exit to see how wet people are getting. If it isn’t very warm that day and people are getting soaked a) skip the ride, or b) go later in the day when it is warm enough right before you leave the park, or c) bring cheap ponchos to wear.

NOTE: My park specific tips are NOT geared towards people with toddlers but people with older children or no children.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Advice (much of which also applies to Disneyland)

  • Get a Photopass from Disney photographers – they give you this when you have a picture taken and you can view and download them back home for 28 days.
  • Rides these rides early morning or late evening and/or get a Fast Pass for them ASAP: Peter Pan, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain
  • Best rides to ride when all the popular ones have long lines: Mickey’s Philharmagic, Hall of Presidents, Tomorrowland Transit Authority – these are all also good ones for resting your legs and the first two are good for getting out of the heat.
  • Most overrated rides for the wait time (my opinion): Buzz Lightyear, Space Mountain
  • Do Pirates, Big Thunder, and Haunted Mansion at night
  • Least crowded place to eat: Columbia Harbor House
  • If not during peak season, make a breakfast or lunch reservation at any restaurant at the Contemporary Resort (whether you end up using it or not) so you can park in their parking lot and walk to Magic Kingdom and take the Monorail back (faster and less crowded than parking at the transit center parking lot.)
  • Watch the fireworks from near the flagpole at the end of Main Street so you can easily exit the park when the show is over or time it so you are on the ferry back to the Transit Center when the fireworks are going off

EPCOT

  • Allow two full days if possible.  Do early entry for Future World side one day and late entry to do World Showcase on second day
  • Don’t bother taking the tram from the parking lot unless you get their late and have to park way far away. The walk to the entrance will most likely be short and easy if you get their early.
  • Ride and/or get Fast Pass ASAP: Soarin, Test Track
  • Eat at Sunshine Seasons Food Court
  • Mission SPACE: Avoid if you have motion sickness or claustrophobia
  • Do  Innoventions and Spaceship Earth very last if time permits
  • Buy passports for kids to take around World Show Case
  • Walk around World Showcase in counter clockwise direction
  • Watch Illuminations evening show at Epcot (not to be missed) from between little green buildings by water in front of  France, or, area to left of red torii in japan, or between Germany & Italy – make sure the  islands with trees don’t block view.  If you have small children try finding a spot right on the railing about 20-30 min early or find a bench on the other side of the walkway they can stand on.  Otherwise you may have to put them on your shoulders to see
  • World Show Case shows/attractions worth seeing: Waiter show in France, American Adventure, Chinese Acrobats, Malestrom in Norway (don’t wait more than 20 min or get Fast Pass)
  • Have a beer!  They have carts selling them all over the park!
  • Most overrated attraction: Turtle Talk with Crush (unless you have children under 8)
  • If you are in World Showcase when the time comes that you can get another Fast Pass,  have the Fast Pass Runner take the boat across and back  to get the FPs without having to do all that walking

Hollywood Studios Tips

  • Ride and/or get Fast Pass for Rockin Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror ASAP
  • If you get there at opening DO NOT go straight to Toy Story Mania to get a Fast Pass.  EVERYONE does that and there will be a 20+ min line JUST to get the Fast Pass!  Wait until an hour after opening to get a Fast Pass for Toy Story Mania
  • Rides to ride when the most popular ones have long lines: The Great Movie Ride, Walt Disney One Man’s Dream (to get out of eat and/or if you are a big Disney fan),
  • Ride at night: Tower of Terror
  • Fantasmic Show: Go to the later of the two shows and line up for it 30-40 min in advance.
  • Seen Fantasmic already? Opt for the last Indiana Jones Stunt show in the evening instead (especially if you have Indiana Jones fans in your group)
  • Don’t waste time with: Sounds Dangerous, American Idol

Animal Kingdom Tips

  • This is a good park for a short day and/or when you have other plans for the evening as it typically is not open past 6
  • Expedition Everest: Best ride in park.  If arriving early, ride it AND get a Fast Pass to ride it again later.
  • Kilimanjaro Safari: Second best attraction in park.  Worth a one hour wait or get Fast Pass ASAP after Expedition Everest
  • See Flights of Wonder and Festival of Lion King Show (arrive 30 min. early for Festival of Lion King)
  • For a splurge go have dinner at Animal Kingdom Lodge or at Sanaa at neighboring Kidani village for a little more reasonably priced dinner

Universal Orlando

  • Go to Universal Studios park (not Islands of Adventure) first thing in the morning and ride The Mummy, Men in Black, Terminator, & Twister. (Second tier to do if time available: Simpsons, JAWS, Horror Make Up Show, Beetlejuice, Wild West Stunt Show)
  • Do roller coasters in Islands of Adventure late morning after Studios
  • DO WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER LAST 1-2 HOURS PARK IS OPEN AT NIGHT. Only do Wizarding World of Harry Potter first thing in morning if you have early entry for staying at a Universal Resort.  WWOHP lines get long very fast in the morning unless you are going on a Mon-Thur during low season.
  • Roller Coaster Enthusiast: Dragon Challenge and Hulk  are awesome!
  • Most overrated attraction for lines: Spider Man (worth up to a 20 min wait), Olivanders Wand Shop in WWOHP (worth 20 min wait – only one kid gets chosen by a wand), Candy Shop in WWOHP (worth 10 min wait)
  • Don’t bother paying extra for preferred parking.  They have escalators and moving sidewalks.  If you are worried about walking for $5 more than preferred you can get Valet parking.
  • Have lunch or dinner at Three Broomsticks if you are a big Harry Potter fan but try to go early or late
  • Make advance reservations for Mythos if you want fine dining inside the park
  • Skip Poseidon’s Fury

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Orlando Day 7 – Epcot / Sea World

December 23, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

Since the World Showcase at Epcot doesn’t open until 11 AM it was a no-brainer to make this last day a later morning arrival.  We arrived at about 10:30 and initially I was going to head to get a FP for Test Track thinking Soarin FP was going to have a return time that was already too late for us.  But when I got to TT, the return time was only a couple hours out so I raced over to Soarin and got a FP with 4 PM return time which was about the time we planned to exit the park.

We bought the kids Passports in the gift shop right before Canada so they could visit each of the countries to get their passport stamped and the person wrote a message in it.  This kids though this was very cool. We were also going to do the Kim Possible thing but they wanted us to go to the opposite end of the park to start it so we just stuck with the Passports.

We worked our way around and had an early lunch in America because the receipt from the gift shop we visited earlier gave us a 30% discount.  Big mistake.  The food was crappy.  We spent the rest of the day wishing we would have eaten at any of the other countries.  Italy look particularly inviting with a nice pizza and red wine to go with it.  Obviously there was a reason Disney was trying to drive customers to certain restaurants with the 30% off offer.

We visited all the countries but only watched the waiter show in France outside the restaurant and the American Adventure in America.  Both are recommended.  We had also planned to see the Dragon Legend Acrobats rounding out the three top shows in World Showcase but didn’t get to China in time to see the last show.  Oh, we did go on the boat ride in Mexico even though I read it was cheezy but the group was curious.  It actually wasn’t that bad but I wouldn’t recommend it.  We did it only because there was just a 10 min wait.  Malestrom is much much better.

We stopped at Soarin on the way out of the park at 4:30 to ride one of our top rides for a great end to a nice leisurely day 2 at Epcot World Showcase.  This park really does need two full days to do as there were lots of (as I call them ‘second tier’) activities/attractions in Future World that would have been worth going to had we decided to eat dinner at Epcot.  Instead we grabbed Sushi outside the park.

At dinner on our last I commented how nice it was that everything went super smooth.  No injuries, sickness or other mishaps.  The kids and I were the only ones with enough energy to brave the cold low 50’s evening to return to Sea World again just to ride the Kraken and Manta roller coasters.  Unfortunately they had already closed the Kracken so we road the Manta 4 times with no wait, 2 time in the front row.  However it ends up we did push our luck.  On the very last ride of the very last night of the trip, the girl before us puked and it delayed us getting our 4th and final ride for a good 20 minutes.  After the ride, despite the fact I conciously zipped everything in my jacket pockets, one pocket the zipper came open on the ride – probably also the last ride.  Luckily my wallet didn’t fall out but the car keys did.  And luckily my Dad and managed to separate the two sets of keys a couple days earlier so we took a taxi back and I got the keys and retrieved the car.

I might also note we stayed at the Marriott Cypress Harbor for the trip.  It is a nice Marriott Vacation Club Timeshare but a little dated compared to their newer properties but the location was excellent and the property had a lot to offer.

All in all an excellent and very memorable trip.

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Orlando Day 6 – Discovery Cove & Sea World – Swim With Dolphins, Not

December 22, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

My Mom discovered Discovery Cove.  Simply put, it is a Aquatic/Beach Oasis across the street from Sea World.  I believe is is aslo owned by Annheuser Busch.  The unique thing about this park is that they don’t admit more than 1,000 people per day.  As a result, the place never seems crowded but you typically have to book your tickets a couple months (maybe more for very busy season days) in advance.

They have two admissions. The basic and one that includes a 30 min. Dolphin Encounter.  I’ve seen these Dolphin Encounters before at the Hilton on the Big Island of Hawaii, and in the Bahamas.  Calling it a “Swim with Dolphins” is a bit misleading as you don’t really spend time swimming with them but typically just stand or float in the water, get to pet them, see them do some tricks, and then take a few second ride holding their fin.  We went with the basic admission as we believe these Dolphin encounters are at their root exploitive no matter how the company tries to candy coat it as being educational (you learn about the same you could learn with about 5 minutes of reading on the Internet.)

The bottom line is that a lot of people (especially in the U.S. and Western World that can afford it) for some reason have a facination with being able to touch a Dolphin.  Maybe it stems from the show Flipper and/or that these creatures are billed as being so highly intelligent.  Or maybe because Dolphins are a common theme for toys, decor, clothes for little girls.  I’m really not sure.  But what I am sure of is that probably 90+ percent of the people opting for the Dolphin encounter had done no research as to what is really going on with these Dolphins. Why would you want to risk ruining your experience due to guilt?  We live in a society of wants and gratification.  These Dolphin Encounters are a poster child for amusements that have been created to fill the demand for more and more entertainment.

I WOULD participate in a Dolphin Watch on a boat to observe them in their natural habitat. These Dolphin Encounters though If you don’t believe me, I suggest actually learning about Dolphins and these encounters here:

http://www.wspa-usa.org/wspaswork/marinemammals/dolphinscaptivitymain.aspx

We got a great deal on admission using a special American Express discount promotion that got the price just under $100 if I recall.  Since that day the high was only going to be barely over 70, we didn’t arrive until late morning.  The provide full shorty wet suits for the cold wimps and thin vests for the more warm blooded.

The place really is an oasis in Orlando.  The landscaping is incredible and most of the place is covered with white sand like the beaches in Hawaii.  We opted to rent a private cabana.  They have a Manta Ray lagoon where you can wade with the Mantas and pet them.  A larger lagoon with giant Mantas and tons of tropical fish.  And another swimming lagoon and then the Dolphin area.  However my sons liked the Lazy River the best, partially because it was so warm.  Since there is no sea life in it, it is heated to what I would estimate the high 80’s!  Practically feels like a spa!

The place was very peaceful and very uncrowded.  We estimated it was probably full to about 50-60% capacity that day.  Even 100% would have seemed uncrowded due to the 1,000 guest per day limit.

The Aviary was really cool.  When went in it several times and birds will come sit on your arm or shoulder so you can feed them.

Another great thing about Discovery Cove is that it is all you can eat snacks, lunch, and drinks including beer (courtesy of Budweiser of course.)  The lunch food was pretty good with lots of variety and you can eat lunch from 11-3 so you can go back for more whenever you want.

We really like Discovery Cove.  It was a nice, well needed break from the Amusement Parks.  Interestingly in the few minutes I walked over to watch the people at the Dolphin Experience I watched one of the workers get knocked down and injured by an aggressive Dolphin because she was carrying food around the edge of the lagoon.  Think these Dolphins are hungry?  Obviously since withholding food is the primary method to be used as a reward to condition them to do the tricks/behaviors for the encounter.

Another great thing about Discover Cove is that it includes a 14-day admission to neighboring Sea World.  We went there that night just to ride the two roller coasters.  We were not interested in any of their corny shows, again, with captive sea animals.  It did seem like a nice clean park though and I imagine there are so attractions other than the roller coasters worth seeing.  But time was limited.

The park was open until 10 and we got there about 8:30 and it was chilly (about 55) and we were one of the only ones going in, everyone was going out.  We got to ride the Manta and the Kracken as many times as we wanted with no wait.  We rode each three times and then left the park.  They are definitely (along with Dragon Challenge at Universal) the best, most intense roller coasters I’ve ridden in my life so far.  The kids loved them.

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