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The Top Five Reasons a Disney Cruise Should be Your Next Vacation.

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The Disney Magic in Norway.

I just visited Norway on the Disney Magic and it was simply perfect. Everything  Disney does, they do well, but they really exceed expectations on Disney Cruise Line.  Still, I’ve found it’s very difficult to get my clients on a Disney ship–they’d simply rather go to the parks, and I don’t blame them!  Still, there are some good reasons to cruise. Here are a few of my favorite:

5. No surprise costs.

A lot of cruise lines charge extra for (non-alcoholic) drink packages, childcare, crafts, and games.  With Disney, nearly everything is covered.  Expect to pay extra for shore excursions, alcohol, infant childcare, spa treatments, and of course, tips at the end of your cruise, which are a nice way to thank your servers. Otherwise, your wallet can take a rest.

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4.  A private island.

Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, may very well be your favorite part of the trip. With immaculate beaches, excellent food (which is included), and plenty of (no cost to you) activities, you can’t beat this experience.  Because it’s Disney’s beach, you’ll find plenty of space for everyone to relax and play and there’s even an adults-only beach.

3.  It’s more “adult” than you think.

Sure,  DCL is great for kids, but lots of couples and singles sail with Disney as well. Each ship has nightclubs and grown up shows, plus a private pool and spa area for adults. There’s also two adult-only dining experiences, Palo (on all four ships) and Remy (on the Fantasy and the Dream) for a small upcharge ($30 and $80 respectively).

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We were encouraged to get up early each morning to see the fjords as we went into each port, a process that could take a couple of hours. Each time, this was before the dining rooms were open but cast members were up too, passing out breakfast sandwiches and coffee.

2. Excellent food, pristine ships, wonderful service.

I’m a foodie and I’m picky about what I eat: I figure if I’m going to be eating a lot of calories (which is part of the fun of a cruise), I might as well eat something that’s worth it. DCL has great food, from the never ending buffet, to the dining rooms in your rotation, to say nothing of Remy and Palo, where you’ll receive unbelievable food and great service.  And personally, I can’t stay away from the poolside ice cream machines that run day and night. It’s like that dream you had when you were a kid, except it’s real and not only do they have chocolate and vanilla, but you can get it swirled too. And no grown ups to tell you when to stop!

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Okay, I just got away from myself.  But it’s not just the food, of course.  The staterooms are designed to maximize space, so there’s plenty of room to store your things (including a handy space under the bed for your luggage).  The bathrooms are split, so you have a separate toilet/sink combo and a separate tub/shower and sink in the other room.  This is super handy when you have a bigger family getting ready in the morning.  You’ll have a television in the room so you can relax at night and a fridge–although to be honest, you’re not going to spend that much time in your room. But when do, you’ll sink into a comfortable queen-sized bed. Heavenly.

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Hot chocolate awaits you after a chilly excursion off the ship.

And the service?  Your servers will move with you to each dining location, so you get to know them and they get to know you, your likes and dislikes.  Our kids loved the impromptu table side “entertainment” that our servers provided, with trivia and magic tricks. And you’ll find that same attitude everywhere on the ship, right down to your room steward.

1. It’s the easiest vacation you’ll ever take.

We traveled to Norway with four adults and six young children between us. And you know what little kids don’t like? Europe. Okay, I’m being silly here, but the reality is that most kids will tire pretty quickly of castles and battlefields and all the great stuff adults can’t get enough of.  And you know what? That’s okay. Because you can do some quick touring with them in the morning and then they can enjoy the kids’ clubs, which you’ll have a hard time keeping them out of.

But it’s not just the kids clubs that make it an easy trip. I loved lounging by the pool with the kids, swimming, eating great dinners with my family and our friends. It was just so . . . well, it was so easy  on so many levels.  And when you’re not constantly checking your phone or bothered by something absolutely fascinating on Facebook that needs your immediate attention, well, you can unplug and relax. And in the end that’s what a vacation should be. And that’s what it’s all about on DCL.

I know the price can be steep and I know that it most likely means not seeing the Mouse at Walt Disney World that year, but think about DCL for your next Disney trip. Chances are good you’ll absolutely love it.

Thinking about a Disney cruise? Please email me for a no-obligation quote at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com.  In addition to excellent service and years of experience, I offer substantial onboard credits as my gift to you.

Breakfast at Be Our Guest

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Disney began serving breakfast at Be Our Guest this Spring as part of a pilot program currently scheduled to  run through this summer.  At around $20 per person,  including your drink, it’s pretty steep for a quick-service breakfast, but guests have been packing this popular Disney dining destination since it opened on March 20th.  As part of the program, you can make your reservations online but just be aware that those, like those for dinner and lunch, can be pretty scarce. But it is worth it?

I’ll get right to the meat and potatoes (excuse me) of this post:  It was delicious. Our group sampled every entree and there wasn’t a dud in the mix. While you’re going to be temped to order the fried  donut croissant with caramel, bananas, and pastry cream, skip it; you’ll get plenty of pastries at your table regardless of what you order, so you’ll definitely satisfy your sweet tooth.  These pastries are brought to your table and are essentially “all you can eat.  Think mini chocolate croissants and danishes.

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Since you’re already going to be flirting with diabetes after all those pastries, try the creamy eggs Florentine, with just the right amount of spinach, served in a puff pastry square.  For something completely unexpected for American palates, try the cured meat and cheese platter, which ended up being the star of our table.

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Cheesy Croque Madame with bechemal sauce was another standout, though it was very heavy; I might skip it in really hot weather.   The only thing I would not order again was the open faced bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato on a baguette. Yes, it had brie cheese, one of my favorites, and it was good. But you need a chainsaw to get through the bread. You’re better off with more traditional breakfast fare.

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Kids can get bacon and eggs or even cereal, but you won’t find any Mickey waffles on the menu. You’ll also find French toast, crepes filled with yogurt and fruit, and oatmeal. Each kids meal is $11.99.

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Finally, adults who prefer a lighter meal can order scrambled egg whites, chicken sausage, roasted tomatoes and fruit.

Be Our Guest can be impossible to get into, so this is a nice opportunity for those who’ve been unable to get lunch or dinner reservations a chance to experience the gorgeous interior of the Beast’s Castle.   This delicious breakfast, while expensive, is a welcome addition in a park with few quick-service breakfast options. I loved trying this “higher-end,” French inspired breakfast. I’ll definitely be back.

Be Our Guest restaurant participates in the Disney Dining Plan. You’ll pay one quick-service credit for your meal. Tables in Wonderland cards are not accepted.

Peter Pan’s Flight Interactive Queue.

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Peter Pan’s flight is one of the most popular rides in the Magic Kingdom; in fact, it’s probably one of the top ten rides in all of Walt Disney World if wait times are any indication.  Why, you ask, would such a low-tech ride be so popular after all these years? Well one reason is that it’s a ride the entire family can enjoy. Excluding a serious fear of heights, it’s a ride that’s accessible to nearly everyone.  And then there’s the nostalgia factor.  Maybe you remember going on it as a small child? Well guess what: It’s pretty much the same was it was then.  Part of what Disney sells is warm memories and Peter Pan’s Magic Flight accomplishes that like few rides do.

The downside of its lasting popularity is, of course, the long lines. Disney introduced fastpasses to Peter Pan years ago and of course now, you can reserve a time with Fastpass+. But you only get three fastpasses a day, at this time, so you have to be choosey. What if you don’t want to “waste” one on Peter Pan when you’ve got the Mountains–Space, Splash, and Big Thunder– as well as Anna and Elsa and the Mine Train with potentially longer lines?

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I’ve got an even better reason to skip the Peter Pan fastpass+ now:  It’s got a new interactive queue that adds depth to the story of Peter Pan.  Disney has done this to several attractions at Walt Disney World in the last few years, most notably the Haunted Mansion. Not only do interactive queues entertain guests during long waits, they also explain the story even more fully, adding to your overall enjoyment of the attraction.

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In this case, you’re invited into the Darling household, where you’ll see paintings of the family as well as that of Peter Pan and Hook. Next, you’ll go into the main queue, which is the nursery, where you’ll see where the children sleep. Wendy’s pink canopy bed looks so inviting you’ll want to crawl up in it yourself. Toys are scattered here and there just like every kid’s room. But don’t miss the lighted effects on the walls, as Tinkerbell and Peter Pan make their presence in the room known. There’s so much detail in this space that you’ll probably won’t mind the wait too much.

I apologize for the lack of photos in this post, but it’s very dark in the queue. It’s also very cool–which is fantastic on a hot day in the park. Enjoy!

The Future of Free Dining at Disney World.

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You can’t predict a lot of things in life: I can’t tell you with any certainty if it will rain next week or who’s going to win the next presidential election. But since 2005, Disney fans could almost guarantee one thing: That Disney World would offer free dining in the fall.  And it wasn’t just travel agents who were looking at past dates and playing Nostradamus.  You could go to any Disney message board and see thread after thread about free dining rumors, speculation about dates, and what resorts it would cover.  The great thing was, they were almost always right. Sure they might be off by a day or two and maybe we would get a surprise about a certain resort being excluded, but you could plan your trip around it and budget accordingly.

For the last few years however, Disney has been saying they’re going to end free dining. It wasn’t just the occasional cast member you’d talk to while you were booking your room. No less than Tom Staggs, the COO of Walt Disney Resorts, said four years ago that Disney was going to do away with deep discounts and free dining in particular.  But then the next fall, it was back again and just as good as it had always been.

We didn’t see the first cracks until 2013. As a travel agent, if you’re lucky you book hundreds of rooms, but you quote ten times that number, if not more. And when you do a lot of quotes, you see patterns.  The thing we were seeing is that beyond outright exclusions of resorts like villas located on the monorail and the Little Mermaid rooms at Art of Animation, even some of the resorts that were offered lacked any real availability. This was particularly true with Port Orleans Riverside.  In 2013 I couldn’t get this resort for most of my clients, which puts families of five or more with nowhere to stay at the moderate level,  but when I made a reservation for a spur of the moment day trip thanksgiving week–literally the day I checked in–I had my choice of all room categories. I’ve seen this at the Little Mermaid rooms as well.  During free dining last year in December, the Little Mermaid section of Art of Animation was a ghost town.  Anecdotally, it appears to me that these rooms aren’t filled when they aren’t discounted. Obviously I don’t have access to Disney’s actual occupancy numbers, but it also seems that Disney is okay with it, at least to an extent.

Last year,  Disney offered free dining for the fall, much as it always had, save for the fact that they offered it for the entire fall period, which resulted in massive hold times on the phone and daily system outages for a week.  In addition to the usual resort exclusions, Port Orleans was basically off the table. Still, most people were able to get what they wanted if they were willing to switch resorts or play a little bit with their dates.

Free dining for fall 2015 has been an entirely different experience thus far.  Both the consumer and travel agent online systems were down and again, people spent hours and hours spent on hold waiting to talk to a Disney agent. But the worst of it was that there was simply no availability. While the usual resorts were excluded, and we expected that, the fact that I couldn’t get Pop Century, a resort I could usually book under a promotion right up until the day that promo closed, twelve hours after the discount was announced means they simply did not offer many rooms. Even at the value resorts, usually our go-to option for families.

And ultimately that’s fine. I mean, no one was promised a discount.  At least I don’t know any agents who did. And Disney certainly doesn’t.  But the problem with announcing a discount is that people’s expectations are, particularly given past experiences, pretty high. Instead, what guests found was a “black Friday” type of situation that none of them ever signed up for, where they camped out all night outside of their local Walmart, only to find that there were only three televisions available under the offer and those TVs were actually several times more expensive than the television they were actually going to buy. If that’s too oblique, what I mean is, the guest who booked a moderate room hoping for free dining could get free dining, if they moved their dates and upgraded to a concierge-level room at the Grand Floridian.

A brief word about how all of this works is probably called for. Free dining, just like any discount, is based in part on both actual and projected bookings. Think of each resort as a separate entity. That resort provides Disney’s bean counters with what they think their occupancy is going to look like for a certain time period. These bean counters weigh that information against a number of other less concrete factors, like the economy and consumer confidence, along with school holidays and last year’s projected numbers.   This is why free dining dates vary slightly from year to year and why certain resorts may be excluded. For example, villas at Bay Lake Tower. Disney knows, or at least hopes, that they can fill them at full price. Why offer a discount?

So did Disney offer considerably fewer rooms because bookings are up? I don’t think so.  I think Disney is willing to take a hit on occupancy this year. If that hit becomes too dramatic, I think they’ll offer another discount, sometime during the summer. I also think that Disney is moving toward “Stay Play & Dine” type of offers, which are almost as good as free dining, depending on where you stay and the configuration of your group.  Perhaps more interestingly, I think we will also see offers which don’t cost Disney actual money.

Offers that don’t cost Disney any money are brilliant.  Yes, the guest is still getting something tangible, but think about the park hopper that you had to add to get free dining this year:  a lot of guests don’t bother with the hopper, because at 70 per ticket, it’s just too much money on top of everything else.   When Disney gives a guest free dining, Disney is still shelling out money for food and services.  But when I require that same average family to purchase a park hopper just to get free dining, I just recouped almost $300. And I didn’t give them anything. In fact, just sent them to another park, extending their day, which equals more money for the Mouse. If you think that Fastpass+ is just a nice way for guests to organize their day, well that’s a lovely way to live. But it’s also an effective way to keep you in the parks. So is park hopping.

There’s a definite possibility that without free dining, guests wont’ stay on property or will cancel their vacations. And when guests don’t fill up rooms, they do more than just leave resort rooms unoccupied. They find out that there’s really good, cheap food off property. They head over to the outlet malls and shop there. And think about this: each person’s vacation time is finite. I’ve only got so many hours of the day that I can spend in a Disney park. But if I’m “commuting” back and forth from a hotel on 192, some of that precious vacation time–and the money I would otherwise spend–is being spent in a car.  Finally, if restaurants aren’t at capacity, what happens to Disney’s well-trained staff? Sure, Chef Mickey’s is always going to be full, but what about restaurants like the Wave or San Angel Inn, restaurants that already seem to struggle?  Does Disney shutter them during the traditionally slower fall months or reduce cast member hours?  It’s all interconnected and the effects are property-wide, not just at the resorts.

It’s far too bold to say that free dining is dead and in fact, I don’t think it is.  What I do think is that this is probably the start of some major changes made with regard to this particular discount. Going forward, I think any guest traveling in the fall with the expectation of free dining is not being entirely realistic.  Free dining is great, but the happiest clients I had on Monday night were the ones who viewed free dining as an nice bonus, not a given.  And I would suggest that for anyone reading here as well.

What are your thoughts? Did this latest promotion change how you felt about fall travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on the Facebook page.

Should I Get a Park Hopper?

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This is a question I get a lot: Should I get a parkhopper? After all, it adds an extra $70 per ticket to your family vacation. That can really add up.  Still, a hopper can add much needed flexibility to a trip that’s undoubtedly tightly scheduled already and make planning your trip a lot easier: No need to make sure your fastpasses and your dining are in the same park. It also extends your day. Spent the day in Animal Kingdom?  Feel free to hop over to the Magic Kingdom and close out the night.  Sometimes, that extra $70 gives you a lot of value, but if you don’t use it, it’s a huge waste. And I’ll be honest, I frequently hear from clients that they didn’t use it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t suggest adding it. So who should get a hopper? Here are some guidelines.

Don’t get a hopper if:

  • You’re traveling in a large, multi-generational group, particularly if your group has different physical abilities.  Hopping can be physically taxing, especially during summer.
  • You don’t like spending valuable park time going from one park to the other.
  • You’re on a tight budget–your money can be spend elsewhere.
  • You’re a first-timer.  First-timers have the luxury of everything being new. You won’t see everything you want to see on this first trip anyway. No need to rush from one park to the other.

Get a park hopper if:

  • You’re not a planner and you prefer to stick to a more flexible schedule.
  • You are having difficulty meshing your dining reservations with your fastpass+ reservations. This can be an issue if you book your vacation closer to travel or make changes to an existing reservation after your fastpass+ window opens.
  • You want as much time in the parks as possible.
  • You like to leave the park you’re in if it gets too crowded and go to a less busy park or one that handles crowds better (say, for example Epcot).  This is especially useful during busy holiday periods.
  • You’re staying at a resort within walking distance of the parks (Epcot or Magic Kingdom). This is more of a personal one, but I find it really difficult if I’m staying at the Contemporary Resort, for example, on a night when Magic Kingdom is open late and not being able to walk over and hang out, even if I’ve spent the entire day in another park.

Unless a client is sure that they want to hop, I usually recommend waiting until you get on property just to see how your trip is going. After all, every trip is different, and a visit you take with a couple of toddlers where you wouldn’t consider hopping, might be different with a couple of kids in grade school. So play it by ear.

Another option, and I like this one a lot,  is to add it for just some members of your party. For example, I just told a client to consider adding the hopper for just him and his wife. They have three small children who will likely be in bed early. One parent is going to have to stay with the kids. But why should the other parent not enjoy a little bit of grown up park time? And the beauty of that is they can switch off, so each one gets a little free time (and a chance to ride the Haunted Mansion without scaring toddlers!).  If you do this, just do it at the parks. You can’t upgrade one ticket at your resort without upgrading all of them due to the different way each computer system (park vs. resort) views your tickets.

What’s your take on park hopping? Is it a must do or do you just skip it? I’d love to hear in the comments.

 

Should You Visit Universal Orlando on Your Next Disney Vacation?

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Hogsmeade in Island’s of Adventure

Is it a good idea to visit Universal Studios Orlando on a Disney World Vacation?

Maybe it seems a little decadent,  sneaking over to Universal Orlando on your next trip, still wearing your MagicBand, the faint smell of Mickey waffles on your lips. Is it worth it? Probably. But it’s expensive. Universal Orlando, with the acquisition of the Harry Potter franchise,  is a first-class theme park. Add to that more “thrill” rides than you’ll find over at Disney World and first class hotels, and USO is fast becoming a draw for guests who might otherwise spend all their time on Disney property.  If you’ve got older kids, you may have considered it, but didn’t take the plunge?  Here’s why it may–or my not–be worth it. Continue reading

How the Disney World Price Increase Affects You.

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Now that Disney has raised their ticket prices, you may be wondering how those of you already holding tickets, whether separately or as part of a package,  are affected.  Here’s everything you need to know:

  • Tickets attached to a package CURRENTLY booked will not change EXCEPT if you add a discount later. This means that if you’re booked now and you get free dining in the fall, you will pay the new ticket prices.  Most people don’t even notice because they get such a great discount, but price increases can be as high as $25 per ticket. That’s an extra $100 for the average family.
  • Tickets purchased prior to the increase are equal to the new ticket price. In other words, if you bought a ticket for $320 one day and the next day the ticket price goes up to $350, your ticket is worth $350, the value of the day you use it. This is true even if you use it ten years from now.
  • Annual passes purchased prior to the increase and kept as vouchers will be assessed at the value when you activate the pass, not the lower rate.

Even after ticket prices go up, some wholesale sites (there are only a few that are authorized by Disney to sell tickets, so be careful) will continue to honor the old prices for a few days.

How to Save an Extra 5% on Every Disney Vacation.

DisneyGiftCardI get so many questions from clients about this, I decided to write a quick post to give you all the details.  Its easy to save an extra 5% on your next Disney vacation, whether it’s Disney World, Disneyland, or Disney Cruise Lines.  Here’s what you do:

Sign up for a Target Red Card. This is basically a debit card that’s attached to your financial institution and if you shop at Target already (and honestly, do you know someone in North America who doesn’t?), you should have one. Why? Because you’ll save 5% on just about everything you buy in the store. And that includes Disney gift cards.  I tell my clients to buy one every time they go to Target and just stash them away and make payments when they’re ready.  Five percent off of a $3500 trip is a nice big of cash back to you.

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What to Expect during Gay Days at Walt Disney World

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Gay Days at Disney World is the subject of some debate, so much so that I’ve written and re-written this post several times over the years and never published it.  In my job, it can be difficult to broach the subject. Do you tell a client that there will be same sex couples and run the risk that they’ll freak out and not go?  Do you bring up the subject and chance that they’ll think you’re a bigot because you even bothered to talk about it at all?  What if you avoid it altogether and a client comes back and trashes you all over the internet because you failed to “warn” them about something they felt strongly against?  It’s a fine line, one that my co-workers and I often lament not really knowing how to straddle.

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Can You Survive Disney during Christmas Week?

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Do you even want to?  Christmas week is the busiest week of the year, with parks often closing to capacity several times between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.  Added to that, prices are at their highest and the weather is often chilly, so you can’t even take a pool day.  Having just spent Christmas week in Disney, I can personally attest to the extraordinary lines and the abundance of flaring tempers, from the mom yelling at her kids in line for the bus, to the man standing in the middle of Main Street screaming obscenities into his phone.  The reason is simple: people spend a great deal of money to visit and they have images in their heads that don’t necessarily line up with reality.  When that happens, it’s not pretty. So why do people do it?

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