This trip’s “hacking” largely involved four things:
- Using credit card signups to get airline miles saving us $1000 in flight
- Bringing as much food and snacks as we could
- Using my wife’s active duty status for discounted tickets
- Using my wife’s active duty status to stay at the military hotel, which is an exceptional value.
(I know the later two items don’t apply to most readers here so I’ll leave all that military stuff towards the end of the article.)
Despite all the discounts and attempts at saving money, we probably still spend close to $4000 for the 5 days we were there. This is a lot of money, especially for someone who has gone on record as not even liking Disney that much. I like to think that this blog has a good dose of frugality in it, but it’s hard for me make that claim when our 4 and 5 year olds have been to Disney World twice.
In my defense, both trips had extenuating circumstances. The first trip to Disney was planned because we had traveling there and we had an expiring week of a timeshare. It all timed up with the kids’ preschool spring break. On this trip, my wife had to be at the University of Florida to fulfill a distance learning requirement and the timing with that was also with the kids’ preschool spring break. The timing also worked out such that she could continue to her annual pharmacy convention while I returned with the kids.
Obviously we weren’t “forced” to go to Disney, but things fell into place. I think we’ll always want to do something during this spring break, because two weeks of staying around the house is a lot. If you have any suggestions of things to do in the New England area (we’d prefer to drive to save money), let me know in the comments. So far the leading candidate is to go skiing in New Hampshire or Vermont, which is less than ideal for me who doesn’t ski.
If it were summer, we’d do our Hershey and Crayola Experience trip in Pennsylvania, but Hershey is closed in mid March. It’s unfortunate, as that trip probably costs only 35-40% of what Disney World costs between cheaper hotels, tickets, and driveability. (Driveability is now a word if it wasn’t before!)
I think we’ll probably take a few years off of going to Disney . This will give us some time to save more money and perhaps bring the kids when they’d remember more and be able to go traumatized for life by Space Mountain like their dad.
In the meantime though, here’s our Disney review (with some bonus University of Florida coverage).
We started off our vacation with a bang… literally. About two minutes after leaving the Orlando airport in our rental car, we were rear-ended. I had been stopped in traffic for about 10 seconds, so it was quite the surprise. Everyone was shaken up quite a bit and most everyone reported some achy backs, except for me. Maybe the steering wheel helped. The person who hit us didn’t speak any English and tried to call 1-1-9 for the police. I called the police myself. After quite some time, maybe an hour, we had the nicest police officer in the world and he took our report. By this time, everyone was feeling a little better and less achy.
He cited her for being at fault. There was miraculously no damage to our car as the bumper did it’s job. I can’t say the same for her car as there were paint chips on our bumper. She told the police officer that her car was already like that which was fine with me.
By this time, we just wanted to get to Gainsville. It was way past the kids’ bed times. Everyone was tired and hungry from the flight and the accident didn’t make things any better.
We got to the hotel, a TownePlace Suite in Gainsville. My wife went to check-in while I got the luggage out of the car. I came in the middle of the conversation, but it was essentially Jerry Seinfeld when he was told they didn’t have a car reservation. They didn’t have the room with two queen beds as we had requested and only had a king bed. This is less than ideal for a family of four.
We were so unhappy with the situation that it took a bit for her explanation that there was a pull-out couch available. Our kids love “transformer beds” and we had plenty of room with the suite. One could say that it worked out better, because the king size bed gave us more room.
Gainsville: Saturday and Sunday
With my wife at her class, I had the kids. Fortunately, my wife left me with a plan. The Florida Museum of Natural History was perfect for kids 4-5. They even had an exhibit called the Scoop on Poop, which explained how people and animals all use poop differently. Most of the museum was free, but the poop thing cost some money. I’m not sure it was worth the $17 for the three of us. If it subsidizes some of the free exhibits though, it is a fine price to pay. The kids were entertained for hours with amazing things like a T-Rex skeleton, but also with many hands-on exhibits.
The rest of Saturday was spent catching up on things like calling insurance companies about the accident and catching up on sleep.
Sunday, we got off to a slow start as well. That’s the nature of the beast with 4 and 5 year olds. My wife once again came through with two tips of things to do. The first, go see the football stadium, should have been obvious. We gave that a shot, but it was closed on Sunday. We got some pictures outside the stadium with a Gator and, of course, Tim Tebow’s and Danny Wuerffel’s statues. I didn’t see a statue of Emmitt Smith, which would have been more impressive for me personally. Then again, I follow the NFL and not college sports.
The other suggestion my wife had was, “buy pants.” She checked the weather and saw that it was going to be colder than expected at Disney. For the most part, the high temperature was 68 with it typically being in the 56-62 range. I was the only one who brought pants. The kids and I went to WalMart and stocked up on whatever I could find on the clearance rack in their size. I found quite a bit for $3-4, but at the register they often rang up as just $1. I got my wife some leggings for $5. It got the job done and saved us from having to pay Disney prices for clothing.
Soon after the shopping we packed up everything and went back to Orlando where we returned our rental and took a car service to Disney. The service allowed us a 20 minute shopping grocery trip, which was very important to saving money while we were on the Disney property. We ended up using only 10 minutes, which was used to get milk, cereal, apple juice, soda, bagels, cream cheese, deli meats, bread, some kid-friendly snacks, some fruit, quite a few Lunchables, and some wine. For a few days our nutritional choices were… less than optimal.
We moved on to Shades of Green which is the military hotel on the property at Disney World. I’d post a picture, but immediately we all trashed the room by throwing our stuff everywhere. For our $155 (cheaper for most military ranks) we got a room big enough for 3 queen beds all next to each other, plus a separate area for the bathroom and closet. The room had two queen beds next to each other and a little dining nook with a place for one more adult to sleep a couch that opens into a single bed.
Disney World: Monday through Friday
We bought 4 day park-hopper pass. If we had more time, we would have gotten a 5th day. However, with Typhoon Lagoon closed for renovations there was nothing else we wanted to do. We also thought that taking a day off would help us get the most out of the other 4 days. If we go back again for a week, we might get the 5 day pass and take two days off.
Monday was Epcot day. There was no great plan to it… that’s just when most of the FastPass+ were available. (This may have been because Tuesday is a lighter traffic day at the Magic Kingdom and we had better options on that day. By default, Epcot, which had many FastPass+, got moved to Monday.)
The first day at Disney World usually takes some getting used to. We had tickets from the military base, but they needed to be converted to usable Disney cards. That means a bit of a line at the ticketing center, which meant that we had to take a couple of modes of transportation from our hotel to eventually get to Epcot. It was about an hour, but that’s much better than the 3 hours it took us a couple of years ago when we stayed off the property. If you have any advice on streamlining this process, I’d be forever grateful if you’d leave a comment.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Epcot is our favorite place at Disney. Because our kids are younger, they take very well Nemo-type of slow ride followed by a huge aquarium. They love being launched into space. They are even interested in learning how plants grow for sustainability. The kids favorite ride had to be “Mission: SPACE” as they got to pretend they were on a real space mission. Best of all, the lines are very short for almost every one of these types of rides.
I would have liked to do the new Soarin’ ride, but the waits were often more than 90 minutes long. The good news that I’m sure it will be around for a few years.
There’s something for parents too. On the other side of Epcot there are various countries to visit with food and drink to sample. I think Maria from The Money Principle would have delighted seeing us dance to the “British Invasion” band with a Pimm’s in our hand. The biggest disappointment here is that you couldn’t get real poutine in “Canada.” Even the Disney employee seemed ashamed of the cheese sauce they passed for gravy at one of the stands.
Magic Kingdom: Tuesday and Friday
The Magic Kingdom is bigger than the other parks. The lines are longer too. Because of this we decided to give it two days.
Our kids are too young for Space Mountain so we didn’t have to worry about the long lines there. We could have walked onto Splash Mountain, probably because everyone had the same idea as us… who wants to be soaking wet when it is 55 degrees outside?
By devoting two days to the Magic Kingdom we didn’t feel rushed. We actually left each day fairly early and fit in all the rides that we really wanted to do.
There were two personal highlights for me. One was being called out at on the Monsters, Inc Laugh Floor. It’s a quick comedy that does an amazing job of being improv and having the cartoons mouths move perfectly with the on-the-spot jokes. I had made myself an easy target by putting my littlest one on my lap. We were a “two-headed monster”, so that got attention. Lots of Rhode Island jokes naturally ensued when they found out where we were from.
The other highlight was our trip on the Dumbo ride. There was a full camera crew there which felt a little odd. We thought it was a celebrity family, so we were trying to figure out who it was. This girl, her mother, and her grandmother rode the Dumbo before us and stayed on when it was our turn. Afterwards the camera crew asked me to stick around for a minute. (“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”) It turns out that they might have gotten my elbow or something in the shot and wanted me to sign a release. I told them it was no problem, but I wanted to know what they were filming. They said it was a commercial to run on their blog. (I haven’t been able to find it, but if you three generations of blondes on a Dumbo ride, let me know so I can look for my elbow.)
There are probably a million Magic Kingdom reviews that are more informed than I am, so I won’t take up too much space here. One thing I can suggest is that the new mobile ordering system is fantastic. We’d order food on the way to a place and have it ready when we got there. It really cut down on the waiting.
The other cool thing that Disney is testing is a playground where kids can play instead of waiting in line. When it gets close to their time, they get paged to get back in line. This was listed as being tested at the Dumbo ride, but it wasn’t open because our lines were short.
Finally, because we were staying on the Disney property (and met certain requirements), we got Extra Magic hours on Friday morning. They are the best thing ever invented as it allowed us to fill in the gaps on all the popular rides that we would have missed because we were very late booking our FastPass+. We were able to do Peter Pan when it was a 20 minute wait until of 90 minutes after the park opened.
I want to share one tip on Extra Magic Hours. They only open some rides during the Magic Hours. Fortunately, they are some of the most popular. If you are looking to do another ride that isn’t open, but does get popular (the Haunted Mansion in the morning for example), it’s best to go as soon as the park opens to the general public. The park will still be mostly empty as it takes a couple of hours for everyone to fill into the park. We hit so many rides that by around 1:30PM on Friday the kids just wanted to go back to the hotel and swim.
Wednesday: The “Off-Day”
We wanted to have one day that wasn’t planned. That way we’d be free to enjoy a vacation of relaxing rather than, “I… must… do… every… ride!” My friend Ryan at The Military Wallet said that Shades of Green had plenty to do without going to the parks. He was correct as there were a few heated pools and the best playground I have ever seen. The kids had so fun on that playground that Disney World itself was boring in comparison. (That really hurt to hear, but sometimes the truth hurts.)
The off day was a lot of that until our reservations for Sanaa in an Animal Kingdom hotel. The “hook” of Sanaa (besides authentic African food) was that you could see the wild animals roam while you eat. Given the option of seeing a Zebra while I eat or not seeing one, I’ll take seeing one every time. We had reservations for 6PM, so we got ready at 4:15 to have extra time with the animals or just to explore the hotel.
Unfortunately, we were given bad information about the buses leaving every 20 minutes and they left only hour. We just missed the 4:30 bus by the time we got there. Sanaa is really out of the way. We probably could have called Disney’s Lyft-partnership thing, but it seems very expensive. We took our chances with the 5:30 bus, which only takes you to Animal Kingdom. From there you have to catch another bus to get to the hotel. It turned out to be nearly a 2-hour door-to-door trip.
The good news is that the food at Sanaa was amazing. Everything was great. We didn’t get a good view of the animals from our location in the dining room though. We were more in the middle of the restaurant instead of near the windows. We finished up dinner around 7 or 7:15, but by that time most of the animals had decided to go back to sleep. We caught our two buses back and got back and I remember thinking that it was a 5-hour trip for dinner. The math doesn’t add up as I’m recalling it now, but it isn’t something we’ll be repeating.
One of the reasons why we went to Sanaa in the first place was that it was one of the few places with reservations available. It seems the rest of the world knew that you need to book dinner reservations at Disney. I think someone told my wife this about 10 days before the trip, so we grabbed what we could. Sanaa seems to have a lot of availability because it is so difficult for most people to get to.
Next time we’ll focus on planning our food and FastPass+ rides faster. We learn something new everytime.
Thursday: Animal Kingdom
We probably should have just slept with the zebras. However at least we learned the important lesson that the buses only run once an hour. We were able to get extra magic hours in the morning. We rushed to the Safari, which is a highlight of the park. Most of the people were rushing to the new Avatar rides. Unfortunately, it wasn’t opening until half of the Magic Hours were over, and the line was already 30 minutes long. We had a FastPass+ for it at 6PM, but if we can get it done earlier, we could cancel it and reschedule another FastPass+ in it’s place. (We also wouldn’t need to stay for 10+ hours.)
I was disappointed that the Safari wasn’t going to work and a Disney employee overheard me and gave us a FastPass+ card for us on any non-Avatar ride. I wasn’t even complaining and here I was getting something for free? Wow, that’s different. We took our card and went off to the Dinosaur Land. The most popular ride there, Dinosaur (appropriate, right?), was only a 5 minute wait. It was my favorite ride in perhaps all of Disney, but my wife didn’t like it. My older child was a little scared, but the younger one wasn’t. We finished out Dinosaur land while everyone was at the Safari and Avatar rides.
By the time the park opened up, the Safari ride was a very short wait, so we practically walked right on. We were able to reschedule FastPass for the Nemo or Lion King show. The card that the employee gave us got us into the other one. We ended the day with the Na’vi River Journey FastPass+ we had. I would have been really disappointed to have waited more than 2 hours for it. The Avatar Flight of Passage is the signature ride, but our youngest was too small, so we’ll save that for next time. We had some petting zoo activities that was more appropriate for our age family anyway.
Disney World: Conclusion
I already mentioned this above, but it seems the three core things to plan are groceries (if you can manage it), restaurant bookings, and FastPass+ bookings. We didn’t wait in any line that was longer than 20 minutes.
With a little advanced planning (and if we knew when the Extra Magic Hours were going to be in advance, which doesn’t seem possible), we might be able to trim the Magic Kingdom to one day. That would give us time to do something like Hollywood Studios. We skipped it this time because last time there wasn’t too much for kids our age.
One thing we know for sure, each time we visit Disney we learn a few new tricks.
Shades of Green: Military Hotel Review
I gave most of the important highlights about Shares of Green above. It’s relatively cheap, very big, and has some great amenities for kids. There was one splash-pad area for younger kids who don’t swim (in addition to the two heated pools). However, it was too cold for the splash-pad to be fun. In the warmer months (or even a normal March), I think the kids would have loved it.
We were staying right near the kids playground which gave us quick access to Evergreen’s which has very reasonably priced pub-food and drinks. For dinners we mostly went to Garden Gallery despite the excellent reviews I read for Mangino’s. The reason: Our kids are very picky eaters and the Garden Gallery’s buffet-style service was ideal in making sure they found plenty of things they’d eat. I believe all the food was tax-free as it is a military property.
There was a small base exchange. The prices were probably not as cheap as a typical exchange, but they were certainly better than a typical convenience store.
One day we had a couple of turkeys outside on our patio area. Another day we had a peacock. We didn’t see any alligators fortunately.
There were a lot of places of Shades of Green that I simply didn’t get to. However, that’s a good thing… I was looking to just save as much money as possible and have a comfortable place to stay.
One of the key advantages to Shades of Green is being on the property and access to the Extra Magic Hours. However, the secret bonus to Shades of Green is that it is a 10 minute walk to monorail at the Polynesian, which means very quick access to the park. We breezed through security, which meant more time for the park. The kids loved the monorail too.
There is a small fridge (think college size) in the standard rooms, but no microwave. While I had heard there’s an area with a communal microwave in the laundry room, we never had a need for it.
After we got back, we learned that other Disney properties honored the military rate for the area. Next time we might look into that as a way to stay at a different place to experience some new things. However, it will be really difficult to beat the value at Shades of Green.