Posts Tagged ‘ Disney World ’

High to Low Orlando: Staying From $55 to $479 a Night

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

We split our recent Orlando vacation between bargain and pricey options. Here’s a breakdown of what we got (and didn’t get) at each price point.

Whippoorwill KOA from $55

The kids and I stayed here because it’s close to the airport and we needed to pick my husband up from a flight. But also, we love a KOA (short for Kampground of America), and this one has a pool, playground, pretty lake, and friendly geese. 

What’s to love A KOA cabin has a ship-like compactness. Though tiny, it fits a fullsize bed, bunk bed, desk and chair, television, and A/C. There are deluxe cabins with bathrooms, but we’re cheap and fine with sharing campground bathrooms. Whippoorwill is primarily a base for RVs, so we seemed to be the only customers in the bathrooms anyway. This particular KOA offers clean linens so we didn’t need to bring our own. We had a pizza delivered to our cabin for dinner and drove three miles to a Panera for breakfast. Our short stay felt like a taste of “real Florida” as opposed to “tourist Florida.”

But of course You have to enjoy camping to stay at a campground. Whippoorwill KOA is very close to the airport but not particularly close to the theme parks; the Orlando/Kissimmee KOA is a little closer to that action. Though you’ll spend far less on lodging here, you won’t get any park perks such as early admission and you’ll need to drive everywhere, plus pay for parking, tolls, and gas.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando from $134

This is Universal Orlando’s first moderate resort. Our family of four stayed in a Tower Suite which runs closer to $200 a night since there’s a sitting area plus a kitchenette. My mom stayed in a poolside room for about $150 a night; standard rooms lose the view but are bargains starting at $134.

What’s to love Universal went all-out with the retro theme of this hotel, and the kitsch is cute. My kids loved the pools and sand areas. A free bus pulls up to sweep guests over to Universal’s parks pretty much constantly, especially in the morning hours. And because you’re on Universal property, you can get into the parks an hour early most days.

But of course A stay at Cabana Bay does not get you the Universal Express Pass, useful for cutting wait time at rides. Guests at the pricier Loews Portofino Bay and Hard Rock Hotel do get Express Passes, worth up to $60 a person, so if you’ll be riding a lot during high season, paying more for one of those hotels may make sense. We, however, were only interested in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Express Passes are fairly useless there: Most Potter rides don’t accept them. If, like us, you’re going to Universal Orlando for Potter mania, Cabana Bay Beach is a fantastic option.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge from $289

There’s no other resort like this one in the country, where you are immersed in another culture and also in a wildlife park. We stayed in a villa in the Kidani Village, where rooms are spacious. By this point it was me and my kids, my mom, plus my brother and sister-in-law and baby niece. Our two-bedroom, three-bath with a full kitchen plus laundry (and a living room that became a third bedroom at bedtime) runs for $767 a night, more affordable (about $256 per family) than three separate rooms.

What’s to love Staying on Disney property means Extra Magic Hours, free transportation to and from the airport, free bus service all through the resort, and Magic Bands. We were not low-maintenence, between my newly hip-replaced mom’s scooter and my niece’s stroller, and a ground-floor room at Kidani turned out to be ideal. We pre-ordered breakfast groceries through and ate morning meals in our pajamas. Every room has a balcony for animal-watching, and tracking the creatures was a highlight of the trip for every one of us. The pools and restaurants are among our favorites too!
But of course This is one of Disney’s Deluxe Resort Hotels and hanging out with the giraffes isn’t cheap. But though it’s deluxe-priced, you can’t walk to any of the parks like you can from the deluxe Contemporary or Yacht Club Resort. (Then again, Animal Kingdom is the only hotel with a nightly drum circle!) If you want a Disney hotel but need to really slash lodging to more like $100 a night, check out Disney Value Resort Hotels. The grounds are not as lush, but you still get all the park perks.
This resort invited us in during their opening month and we couldn’t say no. It was back to me, my husband, and our two kids, and we’ve never stayed together somewhere this luxe.
What’s to love Uh…everything. I woke up from my deepest sleep in years in one of their comfy beds and was inspired to hit the fitness room and walk around the lake while my kids actually slept in. It would be easy to spend an entire day among the pools, lazy river, and water slides, where staff rush to supply you with ice water, sunscreen, and frozen fruit (all free!), or pretty much anything else you want (mostly for a price). There’s an on-site Disney concierge to help with park logistics, a tropical paradise of a kids’ center, and a spa. And you can see the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from here.
But of course You don’t stay at a Four Seasons unless you can spend. There’s no parking lot, only a valet (and valet charge). Our dinner, with a bottle of wine, went over $200. And that $479 price is not really for a family; using the Web site to try and book a room for four people, rates seem more uniformly about $700 a night. You’re living in a beautiful dream here, but it is Top. Of. The. Line.

This video nails all the reasons to go beyond the rides.

Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides
Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides
Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides

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Score Free Meals During a Stay in Disney World This Fall

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

* This is part of a series of special travel deals. Most families take at least one vacay during the year; we’ll help yours be one of them.

THE DESTINATION: Disney World Resort, in Florida

Fall is a great time to visit Disney World: lower temperatures, fewer crowds, holiday celebrations, and discounts, like this special deal that gets you free meals if you stay for six nights. If you’ve got young kids, grab this opportunity. For one thing, the older they get, the harder it is to take them out of school for that long! But also free meals takes a huge burden off you; whether your kids gobble half a buffet or turn all picky, you’re not shelling out money for food.

HERE’S THE SPECIAL! Purchase a non-discounted 6-night, 7-day Magic Your Way package, including a room and theme park tickets, and for each night you stay everyone in your family gets one quick-service meal, one table-service meal (go ahead and make reservations once you know when you’re going), and one snack per person. Read all the details and check availability. Or talk to a vacation planner by calling 407-939-7709. 

BOOK IT! Rates vary widely but we jumped online and saw that it would be about $2,000 for a family of four to visit the week of Labor Day at the All-Star Sports Resort (a value resort on the park’s bus line). It would be about $4,820 for them to stay at the Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort (one of the more posh properties, a walk from the Magic Kingdom). Note that this special is good for arrival August 31 to October 3, 2014; arrival October 26 to November 1, 2014; arrival November 9 to November 20, 2014; and finally arrival December 12 to December 23, 2014. All of travel must be booked by August 8, 2014.

New at Disney World: Magic Bands! Learn about this sanity-saver from our editor who recently visited.

Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands
Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands
Walt Disney World: Ease Your Trip With Magic Bands

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My Summer of (Not) Camping

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

I went into this summer intending to camp for reals. My family of four is very good at renting cabins. But tent-camping would save us a lot of cash, and the way we like to vacation, that is becoming necessary. Plus I feel like camping is a childhood rite of passage, something my kids should experience. 
FIRST HURDLE: BAD MEMORIES Two years ago we borrowed a friend’s tent. There was a thunderstorm, and my then-6-year-old was having tummy issues, so he needed to be walked or carried uphill through mud to the bathroom every hour. The memory is seared in my brain, so there is no getting over this hurdle. Just around it.
SECOND HURDLE: NO TENT This was not supposed to be a hurdle, because I bought a tent a year ago, thinking that last year would be our summer of camping. (Instead it was our summer of sheepishly upgrading, from bare KOA cabins to their deluxe models with a bathroom.) But  I can not find our tent. Where can a tent hide?! I’ve searched the basement and under beds. But tents are so small these days, like the size of my travel toiletries bag. Someday I will probably find it tucked under the bathroom sink but for now…I have no idea where it it.
THIRD HURDLE: I WILL SLEEP ANYWHERE BUT THE GROUND, APPARENTLY I just didn’t realize it until my first campout of this summer. My son and I joined a group that included about a dozen second-grade boys, one of whom was celebrating his birthday, plus the birthday boy’s parents. I was offered room in any of the many tents, including the grown-up one, but…I slept in the SUV I drove. And was pretty psyched to do it.
I thought I would redeem myself on our big family trip to Yellowstone National Park. We had a campground reservation. We had no tent, but I had a half-baked plan to buy one nearby. My husband thought the plan was dubious from the start. I think his exact words were “That’s f-ing crazy.” In the end, we coughed up about $180 for four of us in a no-frills hotel room in the park.
So yea, we didn’t camp there either. But we saw buffalo, and they were awesome!
FOURTH HURDLE: I LOVE ME A RESTAURANT We had our third chance to camp in Montana. But I wasn’t sure if the campground was in driving distance to a restaurant. ‘Cause oh yea, I don’t know how to cook on a campfire.  I mean, I can roast marshmallows. But our usual M.O. is to stay at a campground that’s an easy drive to someplace where people serve dinner to us while we talk about roasting marshmallows later. Outside our cabin. 
FINAL HURDLE: I MAY NOT BE A TENT GIRL My last hurrah of the summer was a trip to Disney World. Did you know they have an awesome campground where you can stay for like $54 a night? Of course, you need a tent, or an RV. As I pictured my weary, park-warrior, pool-swimming self coming home to a tent each night…well, it should be no surprise that I caved. I booked us into a Fort Wilderness Cabin.
So maybe I am never going to be a tent-camper. But my summer of not camping still included fire pits, glow sticks, drinking my morning tea under the trees,  animal sightings, stick collecting, and stargazing. It was fantastic. And maybe cabins are all the “camping” that my kids need. I will work on trimming our vacation expenses some other way. Like, maybe stopping the restaurant habit. Anyone have campfire recipes they want to share with me?
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Experiencing the Disney Magic

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Disney World MagicWalt Disney World in the August heat. With my two girls, ages 6 and 2, and a wife who is seven months pregnant.

Friends questioned our sanity.

It was a blast.

Sure, it was hot, and rained almost every afternoon. And we had our (normal, everyday) challenges, including occasionally sluggish kids, disagreements over what to do next, and increasingly frequent tantrums from the younger one. But watching my normally reserved 6-year-old light up in excitement at her first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle and my 2-year-old give bear hugs to every character we encountered, there was no doubt we’d chosen wisely for our vacation.

I’d visited Disney several times as a child, but wow, has the place grown since I last went 20+ years ago! We stayed at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort—one of the newest and the biggest of Disney World’s now-25 hotels (up from the two or three that existed back then). We had a large one-bedroom suite, three swimming pools to choose from, and many fun movie-themed elements all around. It was a full 20-minute drive to the Magic Kingdom, but regular bus service made the comuting easy. (Full disclosure: Our trip was partly paid for by Disney, for which I am extremely grateful.)

My memories of visiting Disney World as a kid are all about rides, more rides, and the occasional parade or encounter with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.  And those are all still there, many of the rides virtually unchanged since then. But in four days, we went on only a handful of rides, instead spending our time with that newer Disney obsession: princesses!

Although I’d heard that the place was now thoroughly infused with princesses, I was still surprised at how much the, um, princess-industrial complex defined our experience. And thankfully so, considering my kids were not so excited about many of the rides. For my older one especially, finding ever-more princesses—even ones like Mulan, who she hardly knew of beforehand—was one of the most exciting parts of the trip. Despite the often-long lines, she’s wait her turn, collect their autographs, and take photos with them. We went to a couple of princess-themed meals, and she even had a “princess makeover” at, yes, the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

Princess Makeiver at Disney WorldI was continually surprised and thrilled at my older daughter’s eagerness to buy into the fiction (what we called in high-school English “willing suspension of disbelief”). If you ask her, she will tell you outright that these are actresses dressing up as princesses, that Rapunzel’s flowing hair is a wig, and that the woman playing Cinderella sleeps in a regular home at night and not in that impressive castle at the end of Main Street USA in Disney World.

And yet, there she was, hugging them and posing for pictures, eager to find the next one and the next one. She, who is usually too shy to speak to adults, would ask them whether they remembered her from an earlier encounter, and at one point expressed hope that Cinderella would recognize her because she was wearing the same clothes as she was earlier in the day.

Between princesses, we did manage to catch some rides and encounter Disney more like the way I did as a kid. My little one loved “it’s a small world,” as you can see in the video below, while the older one took to the calm of the PeopleMover. I’d worried that Epcot would be too older-child focused for them, but they both loved the Journey Into Imagination ride, after which we visited different “countries” in Epcot’s World Showcase .

And me? I loved the Main Street Electrical Parade, the after-dark procession of brilliantly lit up floats and dancers, as brilliant and festive as I remember it. I took my older daughter twice, returning with her to the park after we put her younger sister to sleep to buy snacks and get a curbside seat.

With all the change coming up in our lives—new school year, new baby, even new sleeping arrangements at home—we felt our kids needed a period of extra attention and fun. At Disney, we let them call the shots (more or less!), and mission accomplished.

While there, the  cynic in me kept rolling my eyes at the inescapable, constant invocations of the “magic of Disney.” (When my wife called housekeeping after our younger daughter vomited all over the older one’s bed, the receptionist, following Disney protocol, wished her, “Have a magical evening.”) But seeing my kids’ reactions to all they experienced, it was hard not to use the “m” word.

Yes, it was magical.

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