Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Walt Disney World Tips: Memory Maker - Worth the Money?

Have you ever dreamed of having a photographer follow you around on your Walt Disney World vacation to take photos of you and your family so that everyone can be a part of your magical memories? Well, the Disney Memory Maker package isn't quite that -- but it's pretty close.

What is Disney Memory Maker?
If you've been to Walt Disney World, you have probably seen the photographers for Disney PhotoPass around the parks. Disney PhotoPass is a free service where photographers are there to take pictures for you (using both their camera and yours) at the most popular locations throughout the parks and resorts. Once you are done posing and getting the perfect shot, they simply scan your pictures to a Disney PhotoPass card that you can then use to view and purchase the photos via the My Disney Experience website

How did the good fairy get in this magic photo?
The Disney PhotoPass team uses high quality equipment, knows all the best angles, and can even take "magic photos" (photos that magically add Tinkerbell, Stitch, and other characters to your photos as shown to the right) to enhance your visit. Plus, it saves you from lugging a camera around all day and can even be tied to your Disney MagicBand. Disney PhotoPass is a great service, but anyone that's used it in the past knows that it can be a bit pricey (about $15 per photo).
Therefore, Disney has introduced a new offering, the Memory Maker package. The Memory Maker package allows you to get digital copies of any Disney PhotoPass photo as well as all photos taken on the various attractions that sell ride photos, for one price. And if you buy in advance, there's a pretty good discount (sometimes it's even included in your vacation package), but you can also buy it while at the parks too.

Does Disney Memory Maker Make Sense?
To me, it was a no brainer. When we go to Walt Disney World, I want to capture all of our magical memories, but when either my wife or I are not in almost every photo, it takes away a little bit of the magic. Plus, while we have a decent camera, it's far from top-of-the-line, so knowing that a professional photographer using professional equipment is taking the picture, adds a lot of value.

It also makes sense if you're the kind of Walt Disney World visitor that likes to buy a lot of the ride photos on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and the other big attractions. Because those are included in the Disney Memory Maker product, we ended up coming home with copies of multiple pictures from each of the rides. And because it was was the first time on some of the bigger rides for our youngest, knowing that we could print out those photos for her without paying $25 - $50 each was well worth it.

But for me, I've saved the best part for last. Nothing makes your magical memories better than enhancing your photos with Disney graphics, borders, and more. It really does make your magical memories, even more magical!

It doesn't get much more magical than this.
After each of our Walt Disney World visits, I like to make each child their own photo book so that they can remember all of the magical memories from their visit. And it's worked -- because of the photo books, my children remember things they did there when they were two or three years old. But my point is that being able to add some extra magic to the photos is certain to make this year's edition the best yet.

If you're not the kind of person that's going to take a bunch of pictures, Disney Memory Maker probably isn't for you. But for our visit, we had about 175 pictures taken, which works out to less than $1 per photo, so I'm pretty good with that. And because we bought it in advance, we found ourselves wanting to take more pictures, which can't be a bad thing.

I think Disney got this one right and I'm confident you won't regret buying the Memory Maker package on your next visit to the Walt Disney World resort.

I hope that this has been helpful. If you have a Disney question, I’m happy to help. Feel free to shoot me your question on Twitter (I’m @jonmkee) or via email (jonmkee at gmail dot com). Have a magical day!

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Your Disney World Vacation -- To Stay On or Off Disney Property

One of the most important decisions you’re faced with when planning your Walt Disney World vacation is to decide whether to stay on or off Disney property. Having done both over the years, we’ve uncovered some Disney World tips that can help you decide which is right for you. 

Your Disney World Vacation -- Staying Off Disney Property
Orlando is such a popular tourist destination that you can find everything from basic hotel rooms to villas, suites and full houses for rent, helping to ensure that you can easily find something that's perfect for your stay. The sheer quantity of available options alone makes staying off property attractive, but some of the other advantages include:
  • Lower costs.
  • More room / space.
  • Less of a “commitment to Disney” (many people I’ve talked to feel like if they stay on property, that’s all they should do – but with Universal Studios, Sea World and a bevy of other attractions in Orlando, staying off property allows you to feel less inclined to commit only to “the Mouse”).
On the flip side, you lose a lot of the perks that make staying on property worthwhile (noted below). In addition, you end up having to deal with things like:
  • Additional costs for rental car / parking / etc…
  • Dealing with the hassle of getting into and out of the parks each day.
  • Not being able to setup your Disney Fastpass+ ahead of time.
  • More time spent traveling -- time is your most precious resource on vacation, treasure it.
People often forget about these other costs associated with staying off property, so one of my favorite Disney World tips is to calculate whether these costs make up the delta between what staying on property would cost. Obviously this varies with each scenario, but is an important consideration to keep in mind.

Your Disney World Vacation -- Staying On Disney Property
The past few years, we’ve opted to stay exclusively on property. In fact, this year, we spent our entire Disney World vacation on property (in years past, we've taken a few days to venture off property, but my kids just love the Magic Kingdom so much, we ended up there most days*). With young children, not having to deal with rental cars and being able to come and go as we please to allow for naps and other breaks proved to be a big selling point for us. But beyond that, there are a ton of advantages to staying on Disney property, including:
  • Free transportation and luggage service (including in-room luggage delivery) to and from the airport via Disney’s Magical Express (if you’re traveling with kids, the value of this service can’t be understated).
  • Access to Disney’s Extra Magic Hours, hours that the parks are only open for guests staying on property (another of our Disney World tips is this: while it tends to be super crowded because most people on the property feel the need to take advantage of it, the lines are still shorter than during normal hours).
  • No driving / parking / etc., it’s all handled via the Disney Transportation System (DTS).
  • The ability to configure FastPass+ attractions in advance (it helps guarantee you can ride the rides you want, when you want to, and don’t have to spend the first chunk of your day setting up your FastPasses).
  • The ability to stay at some of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) properties, which are generally very nice.
  • More of an “all-inclusive” feel, even though it’s not technically “all-inclusive”.
If you’re looking to remove some of the stress from your Disney World vacation (and who isn’t, really), staying on property helps with that quite a bit too. Plus, it’s more affordable than you think. Sure, if you want to stay at the higher end resorts and villas near Epcot and Magic Kingdom, you’re going to pay for that, but if you can get by with a standard hotel room, you can stay on property for about $100 a night – that’s not bad. As for the downsides:
  • Generally, you are paying a premium for these benefits and depending on where you stay, those premiums will be higher or lower.
  • Like everything else in the world of real estate, it’s all about location. We prefer to stay near
    the Magic Kingdom, but my brother prefers to stay near Epcot. Knowing which hotels best meet your needs and how to get from one to the next will save you a lot of time.
  • While the Magic Hours and Transportation System are benefits, if you’re not going to use them, or find them cumbersome to use (DTS works better for certain properties), the additional cost might not make sense (another of our Disney World tips: If you can stay on the monorail, you'll have a better chance of staying on whatever schedule you've planned -- they run on a much tighter schedule that the bus system).
So, which do you prefer? I don’t think you can go wrong either way, and while we prefer to stay on property now, that might change when our kids get older (their favorite park is the Magic Kingdom, but they might like the bigger rides at Hollywood Studios as they get older). I hope that this has been helpful. If you have a Disney question, I’m happy to help. Feel free to shoot me your question on Twitter (I’m @jonmkee) or via email (jonmkee at gmail dot com). Have a magical day!

 * - One of my favorite Disney World Tips for those with young kids is to visit one park in the morning, go back to the hotel for naps/rest during the afternoon when the parks are most crowded, then head back later. Kids don't need to ride every ride a dozen times to have a magical experience.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Disney World Tips: 5 Tips for Your Trip to Disney World in 2014

Those that know me know that I’m a bit of a Disney nut, but never was this made more clear than on our recent trip to Disney World this April. And while I thought I knew quite a bit about how to maximize the Disney World experience, I also learned a few things. 
So, here are some Disney World tips I picked up to help you get the most of out of your visit to Disney World in 2014:
Understanding Disney's Fastpass+ is crucial towards having a great Disney World vacation.
  1. Master Fastpass+ – If you’ve done any research on Disney lately, you’re certainly familiar with the Fastpass+ technology. And while the technology continues to evolve (which will render much of what’s written here outdated soon enough), understanding which rides have the longest wait times and when, will allow you to get the most out of your visit. Rides like Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain are generally the longest waits from about 10 am to 7 pm, so if you want to hit those rides, you should fastpass those during the busy times. Other popular rides like Peter Pan, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean offer wait times of less than 15 minutes early and late in the day, so hit them then, and save your fast passes for the big rides. Another of my favorite Disney World tips is to keep track of the various parade times because they are popular, and even sought after rides like Splash Mountain will see wait times drop significantly during those times.
  2. Plan your days efficiently – One thing that stuck out to me on our most recent trip is that being at the park between 1 pm and 5 pm is not very efficient. It’s obviously the most popular time of the day, so all of the ride times are inflated, but it’s also generally pretty hot, so you end up spending more time waiting in line and more money on water/snacks/etc… What we found was taking advantage of Disney’s transportation system, we could head back to the hotel and swim (or just relax), then head back to the parks at night when the lines were shorter (and the weather was more pleasant). For those with little ones like us, it served as a great way to keep them fresh.
  3. Take time to experience the “other” attractions – Of course the big rides are a primary reason to visit WDW, but this is maybe the favorite of my recent Disney World tips in that we really tried to focus on some of the other experiences during this visit. Take time to stroll through the World Showcase and Innoventions at Epcot, or take in some of the stunt shows at Disney’s Hollywood Studios – you never know how much you’re going to enjoy them until you try em. In fact, three of our kids favorite rides from this visit were the Carousel of Progress, Spaceship Earth, and the Hall of Presidents – who
    Disney Vacation Tips: When it's hot, check out indoor attractions like Disney's Hall of Presidents.
  4. Meet the characters – Being the father of two young girls, meeting the characters (especially the Princesses) is a must, but there various ways to do this. If you can afford it, the best way is to do one of the many character meals that allows you to meet several characters at one time (all while getting a decent meal!). Though it’s a bit pricey, it does allow you to save a lot of time (which is really your most valuable commodity on vacation) versus waiting to meet each one individually, and really has an impact on the overall experience. Disney has done a great job of minimizing character wait times by allowing you to use Fastpass+ to see the more popular characters too, so even if you don't dine with them, don’t miss out on seeing Mickey, Cinderella and all the rest during your next visit.
  5. The fireworks are great, but what comes first is better – Disney World’s fireworks are among the best in the world, but for me, the Celebrate the Magic show that precedes them is even better. Leveraging some pretty sophisticated projection technologies, imagineers turn Cinderella’s Castle into the movie screen and project popular movie scenes onto it. Combined with the songs your kids know and love, it’s a great way to prepare for the fireworks and has something for everyone. You can see fireworks anywhere, but this is something uniquely Disney.

So hopefully these Disney World tips help you get more out of your vacation and I’m working on upcoming posts about how to make your visit even more magical, whether it makes sense to say on or off property, and more. 
If you have a Disney question, I’m happy to help. Feel free to shoot me your question on Twitter (I’m @jonmkee) or via email (jonmkee at gmail dot com). Have a magical day!