Family US Holiday – Day 8 – Disney, here we are

Today was intended to be fairly uneventful, with only dinner booked and even that at the Grand Floridian Resort as opposed to a theme park. However, it turned out to be fairly tiring with a trip over to Magic Kingdom for the light and fireworks shows.

We started the day out late – around 11am starts all round. We headed up to the main area of the resort we’re staying at – Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa where we grabbed our first lunch on the Dining Plan, found out a few bits of information we needed and bought our Magic Your Way passes so we could start doing theme parks.

While we were up there we found out that Disney are selling Disney Vacation Club points for their latest development over at Animal Kingdom Lodge and started thinking that it might be something we could look at. We were starting to think that the 200 points we already have is not quite enough so we figured another 100 might really help. So, we went and had a look at the mock up apartments and to be honest, they’re incredible. So much room, you wouldn’t want to leave. After we left, we started thinking that we might do it but had to talk through the cost.

Before we came over we’d reserved seating at various dinner options, particularly those that are known to book up early. Tonight was a feast with Cinderella and Prince Charming at the Grand Floridian. We weren’t totally sure how to get there and ended up jumping on an Epcot bus.

I should segue here and mention how good transportation is. There is a fleet of something like 600 buses covering the entire Disney World complex (that was the number I heard last time we were here, it could have gone up since then). Anyhow, these buses take guests from every resort to all four theme parks, the two water parks, and the Downtown Disney area. You just go to the nearest bus stop (the Saratoga Springs resort has a total of 5 bus stops alone) and wait ’til the bus with the appropriate signage turns up. Coming home is a similar process. As you leave the particular park or area, you’ll see signs pointing to the right bus stop.

The only time you’ll ever need to really wait is after closing time at the parks when you might need to wait for a few busloads – a little bit of patience and you’ll be right.

In addition to the buses, different resorts have other means of transportation. For Saratoga Springs, there is a boat that takes you from the main building to Downtown Disney. Other resorts are close enough to specific theme parks that they can have ferries or the monorail.

Case in point is the Grand Floridian which is one of three "Magic Kingdom" resorts meaning that it’s on a monorail route with Magic Kingdom. So, anyhow, we ignored the original advice and got on the Epcot bus. Epcot is the closest park to Saratoga Springs and it only took 5-10 minutes to get there. We then jumped on the monorail that joins Epcot to Magic Kingdom, changed at the central monorail station and grabbed the monorail to the resorts.

We first passed the Polynesian and then the wedding chapel island, an amazing area for people wanting to tie the knot, elegant Disney style.

The main wedding chapel

Next stop was the Grand Floridian which is huge, elegant and Glenda fell in love with it immediately. We wandered around for a while, taking a look at the private beaches, pools and various areas in the complex, while we waited for our time to be seated.

 

The Grand Floridian – looks nice, eh? 

Our first character dining experience is, I am betting, going to be quite representative of the rest of our stay. Ashleigh all excited, Jacob doing the "I’m not excited but secretly I am" jiggle, and Glenda and I struggling to get them to eat through that excitement. 🙂

The food was great and a good example of why we do the Dining Plan when we come here. The highlight was the bread pudding with vanilla sauce. The guy at the table next to us said he comes here every year just for that pudding, and I can understand why. It’s awesome, melt in your mouth, delectableness.

Character-wise, both Cinderella and her Prince Charming were there, two of the mice that help her get to the ball, and for some reason, Princess Aurora. Glenda mentioned that someone she knew had complained of never meeting any characters when they went to Disney. Well, I don’t know where they went, but here we are, after only one night, meeting five. And last time we were here, we easily met dozens of characters. I’m expecting the same this time around.

 

 A few of the character photos from dinner

Glenda had the bright idea that we could head over to Magic Kingdom for the light show and fireworks after dinner. Since it was a very short monorail ride over to this theme park, it would be easy to do so we thought we’d go for it.

It turned out to be perfect timing, we didn’t get the best vantage point for the kids – Ashleigh ended up sitting on my shoulders for the whole light show, but as you can see by the photos, we were close enough to experience it pretty well. It was a little different to the last time we experienced it – either that or my memory is failing me worse than I thought – but it’s still a great light parade and the kids loved it.

We didn’t get a lot of great photos, but here are some that didn’t turn out too bad

Once the light show was done, quite a few park guests left – I guess they didn’t know the fireworks would be on in half an hour, or didn’t care. Regardless, it meant that we could move up into the central area in front of Cinderella’s castle which we figured would be a good spot for fireworks viewing. While we waited I took a few snaps of the castle under various lighting: 

Cinderella’s Castle – a few of the colour transformations

The fireworks were spectacular, just like they were last time. When you see fireworks that burst into five pointed star shapes, or love heart shapes, it’s hard not to go "ah". The show runs about 12-13 minutes and is non-stop full of both high in the sky and lower ball shots. Rather than trying to take photos and fail miserably, I videotaped the whole experience which turned out better than I hoped.

 

A couple of frame captures from the video 

Last thing to do before bed was decide on the Animal Kingdom DVC points. In the end, we decided that while the extra 100 might be good, we didn’t need them and we need to reduce our mortgage more, so it’s a no for us.

A few things:

Disney Dining Plan

We discovered this last time we came to Disney and it’s SO worth it. You pay a set amount per person per day (slightly lower price for kids under 10) and get a number of meals in return. The meals break down to:

  • One sit-down table service meal, including entree, main, dessert and drink.
  • One "counter service" meal, including main, drink and either entree or dessert.
  • One snack, which can be a piece of fruit, bottle of soft drink, popcorn or ice cream (or similar thing).

One of the nice things is that the Dining Plan automatically includes a 15% tip in the money received by the server/restaurant. This gives them great incentive to give you good service and relieves us of a great worry to make sure we tip the right amount. Add to this the fact that often the prices of the meals you receive being far above the daily rate you pay, and combine it with the freedom to choose from the menu without worrying about specific menu item prices, and you end up with quite an enjoyable experience.

Here’s an example:

  1. The total Dining Plan for us is $1279.60. I’m too tired to figure out what the difference is for Ashleigh as a child, so let’s just divide by 4 people and then divide by 10 nights. That works out to $31.99 per person, per night.
  2. Today, we "bought" 4 snacks of a bottle of water, two bottles of OJ and one bottle of apple juice. These were all the 600ml bottles, and would normally cost $2-3. Let’s go the cheap end – that’s $8.
  3. Today, we "bought" 4 counter service meals at the Artist’s Palette – mac’n’cheese with grapes and apple sauce and apple juice for Ashleigh, chicken strips, chips, giant cookie and bottle of water for Jacob, big chilli hot dog and chips, cookie and coke for me, turkey and brie roll, chips and coke for Glenda. The total came to around $40 (the receipt we get is all zero’d out so operating from memory here). As a counter service meal, it’s equivalent to McD’s – i.e. no need for tips.
  4. Tonight, we "bought" 4 character dining experiences at the Grand Floridian. This consisted of entrees such as spicy shrimp or tomato soup, mains such as prime rib and slow roasted pork, and a shared dessert platter of pastries and the nicest bread pudding I have ever had. We also had various bottomless drinks to go with it. These came to a base price of around $140. You would normally add 15% tip here, so that brings the total to $161. To be fair to the comparison, I would normally round the total, so in this case would probably end up with $160.

A quick addition brings the total for the day to $208 compared to what we actually paid for today which is $128 – a saving of $80 as well as the other benefits I mentioned above. Not all days work out as favourably as this, but it’s pretty consistent that you’ll be saving money, expanding your menu horizons and enjoying stress-free meals.

Last time we hit it pretty spot on with only a few snack credits left over. However, we didn’t really work that one right, so we’re expecting to do a lot better this time.

Magic Your Way Pass

These passes allow you flexibility in how you do the various theme parks and extras at Disney World. You pay for a certain number of days and the pass is valid for 14 days after first use (unless you get the No Expiration option). So, if you came to Disney World and stayed for 2 weeks, you could buy a 9 day Magic Your Way Pass and be able to visit the four major theme parks any 9 days out of the 14. Add an option to do Park Hopping and you can visit multiple parks on the one day. Add an option to do Water Parks and more and you have just as many visits to the two water parks, DisneyQuest Indoor Theme Park and others. 

Definitely a much better option than paying for each park as you go.

DVC

"Disney’s best kept secret" – You can think of Disney Vacation Club as a souped up time sharing membership. You buy a small fraction of real estate in one of the Member Resorts (ours is Saratoga Springs), and in return for that purchase price and a reasonable annual dues fee, you get a set number of points per year that you can use to stay at either Disney or several hundred other hotels and resorts.

For us, we ended up with 200 points per year. You can bank one year’s worth to use in the following year, and you can borrow ahead from a future year to use in the current year, so the theoretical maximum for us is 600 points for a single holiday. However, we discovered a nice little gotcha in the system, that allowed us to bank 2005-2006 to use in the 2006-2007 year, then we banked 2006-2007’s points to use in 2007-2008, used those in conjunction with the real 2007-2008 points and borrowed from 2008-2009 to end up with a total of 800 points we could use. This only works if you holiday over the boundary of your membership year which is why we’re here in August-September. 🙂

To give you an idea of what they’re worth, for 750 points (we have 50 left over), we are doing this whole holiday:

  • 7 nights in Las Vegas at the Tahiti Resort – one bedroom suite (yes, separate bedroom to the lounge room).
  • 10 nights in Saratoga Springs here at Disney World – studio apartment.
  • 7 night Disney Cruise around the Caribbean.
  • 4 nights in Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World – studio apartment.

For the lazy, that’s a total of 28 nights. (and add to that all of our flights from Sydney to Las Vegas, our internal flights from Vegas to Orlando, and Glenda/Jacob/Ashleigh’s flights home to Sydney from Orlando were all paid for on Frequent Flyer Points – the only paid for flight was my flight home, we have one of the most affordable holidays we’ve ever done and it’s for a MONTH!)

Other members of our family are talking about doing a big family holiday to Disney in 2011, so we’ll start working out the points for that and be able to take advantage of it again by the time that rolls around.

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