When I say Busy Bumble and I are busy, I mean we are so busy the only time we have for cross-country travel is the rare three-day weekend. Here’s how I usually plan out my rapid-fire trips.
Look up the three-day weekends available to you. Luckily Busy Bumble and I don’t have kids or many responsibilities outside of work so we can count on three day weekends as a go. This year we do have three day weekends on Labor Day, Thanksgiving (technically a four-day weekend), and Christmas (we work in health care so we go straight back to work on Boxing Day).
Be prepared to have those weekends be more expensive. They’re holidays.
Check if you have vacation days you can use. Busy Bumble has a very flexible employer. Busy Bee does not. But there are chances to request days and I have been lucky just two weeks ago to get a Friday off.
Budget out how much you’re willing to spend on this trip. If you’re not a details person, don’t stress. Give yourself an idea of how much you could be staring at on your bank statement. Busy Bumble and I start with food, since we love Disney’s food and it can add up. Is there a festival going on at Epcot? Those usually have fun booths with small bites, but we’re looking at $10-15 each stop, without alcoholic beverages. Let’s say we want to aim for $100 tops for big meals each full day of the trip. So how much are we willing to spend on snacks and smaller meals? Also I love to shop. Disney basically owns my paychecks. How much am I willing to spend on trinkets or specialty items? Could I order them from the Disney Store or Disney Parks app later? At least have an idea of what you’ll be spending and how you’ll be able to pay for it. It does no good to say, “Let’s blow the bank and stay at the Grand Floridian, take VIP tours every day, and eat at the California Grill every meal,” if you’re going to need to cash out your retirement savings when you get home.
As soon as you know you’ll be going, start shopping around for air, hotel, and ground transit. WDW is actually pretty good cost-wise when it comes to hotels and ground transport. If you plan well enough in advance you can score some good deals. As Passholders we also get emailed deals frequently. We’re not taking advantage of it this year, but in February we got an email that could get us a room at the All Star Sports Resort for at most $80 per night. As far as airfare, know how much time you’re willing to spend shopping around versus knowing you have a ticket. Busy Bumble is more finicky than Busy Bee about seats on the plane, so when it comes to airfare if I find something that matches her needs and looks comparatively good I’ll just take it, even if it means something better shows up later. I just like having the security of tickets being squared away. I also prefer direct flights to get to Orlando, which is more expensive and more rare these days. I just don’t like the room layovers leave for delays and other problems.
For maximum time I prefer red-eye flights out of the West Coast, so we can arrive in Florida in the morning. If you book a Disney property hotel you can request an early arrival time. We’ve done that twice with early flights and been accommodated both times. You can either leave your bags with bell services or in your rental car and go off to enjoy the parks or the Orlando area if your room isn’t ready. We like to pick a fun place to eat breakfast, preferably somewhere we haven’t tried before, then off to the parks.
If you purchase through Disney make sure you have all your particulars straight because the booking process will go through it all. Do you know if you want park tickets? Do you know which park, because prices are different between Magic Kingdom and the others? Do you want fries with that rental car? If you’re going with your family make sure everyone is on the same page as far as booking decisions. I’ve been told you can change things later, but it becomes a hassle, especially the closer you get to your travel dates.
Disney properties can only be booked through limited means: through Disney, through a travel agent, through Expedia, and through Costco. Each have pros and cons. I’ve found that as far as a discount package goes Costco is hard to beat, but you have to be willing to adhere to the package. If you find that rooms aren’t available through Disney, try Expedia. They use the exact same pool of rooms, but they have their own set aside for their “stock.” Don’t count on them being cheaper; they’re usually the same price as Disney quotes. If you really want a tailored vacation, try a travel agent. Disney even has their own agency with a physical office in Downtown Disney in Anaheim (around the corner from Earl of Sandwich and the AMC Cinemas). They can create an itinerary that fits your goals.
You’ve got the plane tickets, the room, the car/bus. Now make sure you can make it to the airport to leave and you can make it home once you come back. For those of you flying out of LAX these days be aware of the crazy terminal changes because of Delta’s construction project and take that into consideration when traveling to and from the airport (can’t wait for the Metro construction to finally link LAX to the LA public transit system). If you live in the SF Bay Area and take BART to SFO make sure you either have someone to drop you off/pick you up from your local BART station or that you pre-order Long Term Airport Parking. You can do this online: go to BART.gov and find the link through Parking. Not every station does Airport Parking and even for the stations that do there is only a limited number of spaces. For major holiday weekends you can expect stations to sell out. The nice thing about weekend parking with BART is that it is free. You just need the permit to let you park in the parking lot closest to the station and the cover you on weekdays.
If you booked a Disney property keep an eye out for emails telling you when to expect your travel documents and, most importantly, your Magic Bands. You’ll get an email ahead of time letting you know when you can make dining reservations, FastPass+ reservations, and Online Check-In changes. Take advantage of Online Check-In. Doing so will allow you to make requests for your room (ground floor, close to transportation, connecting rooms, etc) and request early room availability. You can opt in to be text alerted when your room is ready, which will also send you a nifty map of the resort so you can find your way around. You’ll also be able to link your Magic Band to a credit or debit card for easy payments at WDW. Each party member will be asked to pick a PIN number for security. If you don’t like the idea of financial information on your Magic Band, you can opt for an RFID embedded card which uses short-range frequencies and is less likely to be skimmed. I’ve never heard of a case of Magic Band information getting skimmed, but be aware that financial information is stored on the band.
Right before you go make sure you’re all packed, have all your documents on hand, and have looked at a map of Orlando and WDW. Back in 2012 when we went back to WDW for the first time in decades I made sure to take a look at an actual map (thanks Google Maps but you’re assistance isn’t needed here). You want to be able to orient yourself, especially if you haven’t been to Central Florida before. Know where WDW is in relation to the airport (MCO or Sanford), where the major cities are (Orlando, Kissimmee, etc), and where the major locations are within WDW. The resort is literally the size of San Francisco. Granted San Francisco is only 49 square miles (7×7), but that’s still plenty of room to get lost. Know where the toll booths are on highways and within the resort (I sucks to realize you’ve made a wrong turn and now you’re headed straight for Epcot’s parking lot. Do I pay just to head back out because I had no intention of actually parking?)Disney does a fair job of making sure there are signs, but it helps to already have a clue about what’s close to you. Are you staying at the Art of Animation Resort? You’re close to the Pop Century Resort and ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. If you see signs for those places you’re probably headed in that direction to get to your hotel.
Travel day: try to rest on your flight, drink plenty of fluids, and get up at least once. Wear compression socks because Deep Vein Thrombosis is not the souvenir you want.
Arriving in Orlando: MCO has a central building with automated trains heading out to substations with the actual gates. Trains usually arrive every five minutes or so, but there are exceptions if there’s construction or you’re really early/late. The train will take you into the main building where you can find baggage claim and ground transportation out. If you’re taking Disney’s Magical Express you’ll see signs directing you to the check in and loading area. If you are picking up a rental car you’ll note that there’s a side A and a side B to the building. There are rental car counters for each company on either side, so it doesn’t matter.
If I’m driving I prefer to take 417 to WDW. This is the toll highway, but it is much faster than going through the city. Follow the signs out of the airport and once you’re on 417 stay to your right, as the manned toll booths are always on the right. The lanes on the left are for SunPass vehicles with a reader and toll account. You could get this with your car rental if you plan on driving quite a bit, but if you’re only headed to WDW don’t bother. Tolls are $1.50 at each major station and vary if you get a booth when you exit. If you take the International Drive exit, which turns into Epcot Center Drive, there’s no exit toll! But if you take just the next exit, Osceola Parkway, there is an exit toll. You’ll need a SunPass reader or exact coin change to exit. I’ve been here when the machine doesn’t work and it is a little scary thinking I’m going to be hit with a Florida traffic ticket for failing to pay a $0.75 toll (in that case I called the number on the machine to let them know it was broken and they said I was good to go).
You’ve arrived at WDW! Now comes something just as hard: acknowledging the fact you are only here for the weekend and you can’t do everything. Our philosophy when it comes to not just weekend trips, but any Disney trip is to pick the three things you want to do on the trip and aim for those. Maybe you want to ride Tower of Terror, have lunch at the Sci-Fi Drive In, and meet the Jawas to trade with. That’s doable and in fact two of those things you can schedule in advance! Now everything else that comes is frosting on your cake. We’ve found that rather than focusing on what we couldn’t do, finding ways to add-on to a to-do list was better for us mentally and physically. We weren’t running around stressed and tired because we needed, needed, needed to get to those rides/shows/reservations. The most fun we’ve had at WDW have been the unexpected moments that we didn’t plan for.
Before you go home: do you have enough room in your luggage? Let’s be honest: we bought too much stuff. You’ve got some options: use Disney’s mailing service to send a package home (there is a fee), return the goods (never!), or buy another bag (I’m ashamed to say we’ve done this, but I don’t regret it).
Some Disney resorts have airline check in services available for certain airlines. You can check with the front desk to see which airlines they cover and if it’s available. They’ll check you in and even check your bags to be loaded onto your plane. If you’re airline doesn’t participate you can either use the business center at your resort to check in and print a boarding pass or just do it at the airport. If we don’t have any checked bags (which tends to be our weekend default) I just check in using my smart phone and have the boarding pass emailed or added to an app. This is nice if your 24 hour window opens up when you’re in the parks or elsewhere and you don’t have access to a printer and want to make sure you’re checked in.
Going home: rest as much as you can, drink fluids, and remember you have to go back to work the next day so playtime is over for now.
This is pretty much how we do it. How do you plan your trips, short or long? Sound off in the comments!