It had been a few years since we had been to Disney World, and the kids had been reminding me that they needed a Disney fix. So we surprised them at Christmas with a “we’re going to Disney World” present. Of course in kid years, 5 months is a looooong time to wait for your present, but they made it. An intervening trip to Hawaii wasn’t a bad way to pass the time.
Getting There: We flew from BWI to Orlando direct on Southwest, departing Thursday night. Although we have in the past utilized the free Magical Express to get to the hotel, and then Disney’s own transportation system to get around, on our last trip we had also visited other places in Orlando and had a rental car which made us realize we enjoyed having our own car much better. I was able to rent a car relatively cheaply through National, so that’s what we did.
Accommodations: For this trip, we chose Disney’s newest hotel, the Art of Animation. This is a Value level Disney hotel that is comprised primarily of Family Suites. I cannot believe it took Disney this long to come up with this idea. Considering it is a family destination, its hotel offerings are generally not that good for families larger than four people. Anyway, the Family Suite consisted of a bedroom with queen bed and its own bathroom and a living area with a sofa bed, a murphy bed/dining table combination unit, and a second bathroom. It also had a small area with a microwave, mini fridge, and sink. We utilized the mini fridge to keep bottled water (which we purchased on the way from the airport), but that was about it for using the kitchen. We brought along the air mattress so the kids wouldn’t have to share beds (the horror!). In all honesty, I don’t think it would have been too comfortable for 2 kids in either the Murphy bed or the sofa bed, which were both fairly small beds. This is probably ok for very small kids, but not really for teens/tweens.
I booked this hotel through Orbitz when there was a 15% off Disney hotels online code available in October. Yes, we paid cash (the horror!), but I did have $80 in Orbucks in my account that we were able to apply and I paid with the Chase Sapphire Preferred to earn double points for a hotel stay. The Family Suite priced out at almost the exact same cost as 2 standard rooms at one of the other Value resorts, so we went with the Family Suite to see how it compared.
The verdict? We really liked the Art of Animation. We have previously stayed at Disney’s other two value resort areas, the Pop Century and the All-Stars (at both All Star Movies and All Star Music). They are all perfectly good choices, but I thought the theming was best at the Art of Animation. We stayed in the “Cars” section, and the life-sized replicas of the characters and overal theming at the pool was great. There was a time when my kids were really into “Cars” and would have been starry-eyed here, but those days, sadly, are gone. They nicely posed for pictures for me, anyway. Small kids would absolutely love it here.
Another difference between Art of Animation and the other Value resorts is that the buildings at Art of Animation are set up with interior corridors, while Pop Century and All-Stars all have exterior doors, a little more “motel” like. All three have large pools and food courts. Our building was pretty close to a parking area, so we didn’t see a lot of the resort, but we took a quick look around and all of the sections seemed nicely themed (there is also a Lion King section and a Little Mermaid section).
Although I would absolutely stay here again, I wouldn’t necessarily pay more for a Family Suite than for 2 adjoining rooms. And I think my boys would be more comfortable in real beds. So it will all depend on the price.
Tickets: We purchased our tickets ahead of time from Undercover Tourist, an authorized dealer that typically has better prices than Disney itself. Since we are seasoned Disney veterans and don’t feel like we have to see everything on every trip, the plan was to spend Friday at Magic Kingdom, Saturday at EPCOT, Sunday at Hollywood Studios, and Monday at Blizzard Beach before flying home Monday night. We opted for Blizzard Beach instead of a day at Animal Kingdom because we hadn’t been to Blizzard Beach since Son1 was very small, the other two had never been there, and the kids really wanted to go to a Disney water park. To add the water park, we had a few options. We could purchase a 4-day ticket with the water park option, which would allow us to visit 4 parks PLUS a water park every day, or a 3-day parks only ticket and a 1-day water park ticket. The second option priced a little bit cheaper, but I ultimately decided that the 4-day ticket would give us the most flexibility in case it rained on the last day and we weren’t able to go to the water park after all. I’m so glad I did this because we made a last-minute change of plans that wouldn’t have been possible without the 4-day ticket.
Dining/FastPass Reservations: This was our first trip to Disney World under the new Magic Bands system. If you aren’t familiar, Magic Bands are worn on your wrist, and contain everything from your room key, to park tickets, to FastPasses. You are now able to book FastPass times for rides ahead of time, rather than getting them from machines in the parks. While I love the idea of this, I do not love that you are limited to 3 FastPasses. Under the old system, as soon as you used a FastPass you could get a new one. We were very good at this, and were typically able to visit all the attractions we wanted without ever waiting in any real lines. Under the new system, you can only get a new FastPass once you use all three of your FastPasses. And as we discovered that by the time you use all three, there are none left (or at least none that you want) for the day. Waiting in lines significantly diminishes our enjoyment of Disney, so I would say we are NOT fans of this new system.
What We Did: Under the new system, you can book your FastPass times online 60 days ahead of your visit. When I went to do this, I realized that the Friday before Memorial Day is considered the Summer Kick Off at Disney World, and the Magic Kingdom park is open from 6:00 am Friday until Saturday at 6:00 am! Well there is no way we would spend 24 hours in the park, but I viewed this as a great opportunity for beating the crowds and heat. So even though we didn’t check in to our room until late on Thursday evening, we set our alarm for 4:30 am and were up and at the gates to the Magic Kingdom by 6:00 am!
I wondered how many people would also be at the gates at opening. The answer: more than you would expect, but not so many that it made the park crowded. We headed straight to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the only new attraction we had never visited. Although I had been able to get a FastPass for this, it wasn’t until 3:00 and I knew we would be back at the hotel taking a nap at that point. Well, I’m pretty sure everyone else headed there, too. We walked directly there, and the sign already showed a 40 minute wait! We figured it wouldn’t get any better later in the day, so we got in the line. Fortunately, it moved fairly quickly and within 20 minutes we were seated on the ride. It was good, but pretty tame for a roller coaster and very short. After, we hit our favorites in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland without any waits, riding Space Mountain several times in a row.
We have a long-standing tradition of eating lunch at Cinderella’s Castle. I think the food is very good, and I like the atmosphere. However, the pricing has gotten so high I can’t justify it anymore, especially with my family of teen/tween boys who don’t care one bit about meeting Cinderella. So, we had a reservation for lunch at Be Our Guest, located in Disney’s newest castle. By chance, my mother and her boyfriend had been to Disney World during this same week, and our first day was their last day. We had planned to have lunch together, so we met them at the restaurant. Be Our Guest was a new experience for us. It is combination of a quick-service and sit-down restaurant. You order at a kiosk then find a table and someone brings out your food. I found the atmosphere a little chaotic and it took some searching to find an empty table, but we did like the food. I wouldn’t feel the need to return to this restaurant, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it either. After saying goodbye to my mother, we headed back to the hotel for a nice afternoon nap. By this point, it was creeping into the high 90’s, and we were all pretty tired.
We headed back to the Magic Kingdom just in time for dinner at Tony’s Town Square, then hit Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and all of our other favorite Adventureland, Frontierland, and Liberty Square favorites. By about 9:00, we were ready to call it a night. We stayed to watch the fireworks, and then headed back to the hotel.
Saturday, we headed to EPCOT. We employed a similar strategy of being at the gates for opening, leaving after lunch, then returning for dinner. We had lunch at Chefs de France and dinner at Le Cellier, which is one of our all-time favorite Disney restaurants.
Sunday was an early-entry day at Hollywood Studios, and again we were at the gates for opening. Lunch was at the Sci-Fi Café, a restaurant we had never tried before. We gave it a thumbs up. For dinner we had Italian at Mama Melrose’s, one of our usuals. We found this day one of the most crowded, probably because this park is the smallest and always feels crowded. We really felt the loss of unlimited FastPasses here, and only got to go on Rock n Rollercoaster twice because even the single-rider line was long. I suggested going to Typhoon Lagoon in the afternoon instead of returning for the evening. My husband is not a fan of water parks, and really enjoys an afternoon rest when at Disney, so he opted to stay in the room and I took the boys to Typhoon Lagoon. The afternoon crowds were heavy, but not too bad and we went on several slides. We decided to snorkel at Shark Reef. This was a ridiculous waste of time. Not only did we have to wait a really long time for our turn, but it was a mass of people in the very cold water when it was finally our turn, and we couldn’t wait to just get to the other side and get out. Not something to ever do again. We enjoyed our time at Typhoon Lagoon and I was glad I had purchased the tickets with water park option so we could do this.
Monday was the day we were supposed to go to Blizzard Beach. Although everyone wanted to stick to this plan, there was definitely disappointment that we weren’t going to Animal Kingdom, as the kids love Expedition Everest. I noticed, though, that Blizzard Beach didn’t open until 10:00 and Animal Kingdom opened at 8:00 am. So we decided to be at Animal Kingdom for opening at 8:00, then head to Blizzard Beach at 10:00. This change wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t bought the 4-day tickets! We headed directly to Expedition Everest and the kids rode 5 times in a row with no waiting! My husband and I do not go on this one. Riding backwards on a rollercoaster makes both of us feel sick, but they love it. We then hit Kali River Rapids, where we got absolutely soaked, but didn’t care as we were on our way to a water park anyway. We also stopped by Dino Land and rode that roller coaster and the Dinosaur ride on the way out. We got to Blizzard Beach around 10:30 and easily found some chairs. The kids immediately went off to Summit Plummet, which they had been looking forward to for years (too much time watching Extreme Waterparks on Travel Channel). My husband and I had ridden this before, and just found it too painful so we waited for them. Guess what? The kids agreed! Their backs were torn up and red and they didn’t want to ride it again. So off we went and hit the tube rides and other slides. Just when we were getting ready to break for lunch, a huge storm came through. There are not too many places to take cover at a water park! Fortunately, it blew over fairly quickly. Just about when we were getting tired, it was time to head to the airport for our 5:30 flight.
I was worried that Memorial Day weekend would be too hot and too crowded to enjoy ourselves. It was hot and it was crowded, but going to the parks early and late and resting mid-day really helped. We had such a good time that we’ve already decided to head back for Memorial Day weekend 2016.