Wednesday, August 7, 2013

7 Ways Disney World is Better than Disneyland

A "Tail" of Two Disney's

I love Disneyland--love it.  I can't wait to see the new Cars land with my 4-year-old boy.  I love how intimate and compact Disneyland and California Adventures are and the number of kid rides in Fantasyland, Toon Town, and throughout the DCA park.  I like the weather in California and the less crowded, more laid back atmosphere.

But Disney World is quite different.  It offers four main parks to California's two.  It covers significantly more acreage and is practically it's own city with multiple resorts and a ginormous Downtown Disney, not to mention two water parks.  Disney World is grandeur.  Not everything at Disney World is bigger and better than it's Californian brother (or sister?), but some things definitely are.

#1--Epcot--really this should be reasons 1-3.  If Disneyland had Epcot, I would never travel to Florida again (at least not for Disney parks).  Epcot has two innoventions where families can explore and create all sorts of technology including designing and then riding their own roller coaster.  It offers rides/shows on imagination, hydroponic farming (my husband was so inspired he experiments in our backyard as seen at geekgreens), energy, space (you might want to ride Mission: Space before lunch), and history.  There are plenty of hidden, interactive playgrounds (anyone want to try their hand at virtual surgery?) largely found at the end of major rides. The rest of the park exhibits countries from around the world including native street vendors and acts demonstrating each culture. Not to mention the sheer number of characters including Mexico Donald Duck (our 8-year-old's favorite). Our family loved eating our way around the countries--cheese and bread in France, sushi in Japan, dumplings in China, and don't forget you can try FREE soda flavors from these countries at Club Cool located in the West Pavilion.  On our trip, we spent two days at Epcot and still didn't see everything.  One note: many blogs rave about the passport stamps little ones can collect from the Epcot countries. We did not see the fun in that as it was just a cardboard bear with stamps and was just another thing to carry around.

#2--Water Parks--My children's favorite part is usually the motel swimming pool.  And frankly, after a few days in the parks, I'm ready for a day of swimming and relaxing pool side.  The Water Parks offer the relaxing experience and so much more.  Typhoon Lagoon has an incredible kiddie area and monster wave pool, not to mention the shark snorkel tank for older kids/adults and endless sand for the younger crowd.  Blizzard Beach is an older elementary child's dream with plenty of slides, a ski lift, a family raft ride, and a long lazy river.  Add to that the bucket of ice cream (large enough to feed an entire family) and you have the perfect break.

#3--Hollywood Studios--For movie buffs, this is a must and combines some of the best of Disneyland and DCA.  Rides include the famous Rock n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Pixar rides, and hollywood movie making shows and rides.  The Car Stunt Show is legendary and breathtaking.  The evening show, Fantasmics, is my personal favorite.  Plus they have Star Wars weekends in May which is one of the few times adults are allowed to come in costume to the park.  The good (and bad) of this park is the shows are amazing so your plans revolve around show times with rides and character greets as secondary.  Another hidden gem is the Bug's Life playground which encourages exploration and is a needed break from sitting through shows or waiting in lines.

#4--Surrounding Parks--both Southern California and Central Florida boast an extensive list of non-Disney parks (some are at both locations some are at only one) including Sea World, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farms, Legoland, Busch Gardens, San Diego Zoo, Kennedy Space Center, etc.  For many families (especially those with animal lovers or teens) will want to spend some time at these other locations.  Why does Florida win this round?  Primarily because of Universal's Islands of Adventures (Harry Potter World and Marvel Island), Sea World's Discovery Cove, and the Kennedy Space Center (though pricey is unlike anything in California).

#5--Dining--My biggest complaint about Disneyland is that it does not have a dining plan.  It also has vastly fewer dining options that Disney World.  Disney World's dining plan (which is often free in September) takes a lot of the hassle out of eating in an expensive amusement park.  Instead of sweating the cost of a character dining (14 options in Florida compared to 5 in California), the table service dining plan covers it as well as a plethora of other options.  The real highlight is dining inside the iconic castle with all the princesses!  Setting aside the dining plan, the options at Disney World are incredible.  Epcot in particular features food from around the world and a large food court called Sunshine Seasons (one of our favorite spots).  Tusker House at Animal Kingdom (which is not well rated but our family enjoyed it) offered a mix of American food and African specialties. However, for those who like to eat off property, Disneyland's smaller size and proximity to Anaheim restaurants make it easier to dine elsewhere especially since a large number of motels offer a complimentary breakfast (mediocre food but good on a budget).

#6--Character Experiences--My biggest surprise at Disney World compared to Disneyland was the sheer number of characters signing autographs and posing for pictures.  Our family places rides and shows (and even shopping) above meeting characters, so our son only had a couple of autographs outside of a character dining at Disneyland.  However, he collected several signatures with little effort at Disney World.  Aside from Star Wars characters we saw on Star Wars weekend, our favorite was Balloo and King Louie from the Jungle Book found at Animal Kingdom.

#7--Shows--Part of the magic of Disney is that they are more than just rides, they have plenty of excellent shows.  While at Disneyland, we enjoyed the afternoon parade and evening show and Jedi Training.  There were also a couple of other shows that we passed on. But at Disney World, we had to schedule some of our days around the shows, especially Hollywood Studios, because the quality and number of shows were too amazing to pass up.  My personal favorite was the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom (think circus acts).  Hollywood Studios is know for the Car Stunt Show, Indiana Jones Stunt Show, a broadway style play--Beauty and the Beast when we visited, and Fantasmics at night (not including two parades and an evening Star Wars dance show).  The other parks were similarly filled with show options that had to be weighed against dining options, rides, shopping, pin trading, and bathroom breaks.

Even for those who live on the west coast, a trip to Florida is well worth it especially when Disney World is offering deeply discounted rates.  Just don't make the mistake of comparing Magic Kingdom to Disneyland. The real magic in Florida (compared to California) is found in the other parks.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Unofficial Guide to Disney World and Disneyland--A Review

Any serious Disney vacation requires planning and there is no better place than the Unofficial Guides series.  Don't let the size of these books scare you (close to 400 pages for Disneyland and over 800 for Disney World).  Instead, let their size inspire you.  They provide a comprehensive look at every ride, show, restaurant, shop, and more in amazing detail.  The first chapters include powerful insights on when to take a vacation (beat the crowds and the heat), how to prepare (start walking now), and how to make your vacation enjoyable (so everyone's not crying at the parks).  Later chapters explain how to plan your touring schedule (i.e. your rides, parades, and shows) to maximize your time and minimize your line waits and provides exhaustive detail about each ride to help you determine if you should add it or skip it on your family's itinerary (including reasons why you might want to skip the Snow White ride).  And because these books are unofficial, they have no agenda in promoting a specific part of Disney.  They even include chapters on the competition.  

When I planned my family vacations, I heavily skimmed these books, but did not read every word (I'm not even crazy enough to read 800 pages).  The obvious boast of the books is the touring plans that help you avoid crowds so you go on far more rides than the average line-waiting tourists.  Even for those who have been to Disney before, these touring plans will change the way you look at the parks.  They offer quick maps with the order of rides easily listed as well as long explanations in the chapters on how they created their tours and ways to adapt them.  Because they offer more than one touring plan, it is easy to find one that works for your family.  They even have a late start plan for Disney World for those of us who suffer from the time zone (its impossible to wake up earlier than the European vacationers but easy to stay up later).  

The touring plans alone are worth the read but are really only half the value of the book.  The tips on food, motels, and time of the year can significantly change the outcome of a Disney vacation.  Many of my friends see Disney as an overpriced, overstressed vacation because they go mid-Summer with no plan for rides which means long lines, hot and tired children, constant arguments over the map as to where to go next, and poor motel accommodations or dining options. A simple read of this book would avoid most if not all of those problems. Especially for those who go to Disney World on the Dining Plan, you need to read through your meal options and make at least some reservations, especially character dining.  Otherwise, you will miss some of the best experiences the parks have to offer.  

The authors also include candid complaints about their books from readers.  The most common is that families with small children cannot possibly follow the touring plans--too many bathroom breaks and the time required to parent swap which means going on large rides twice. I found the complaints to be helpful in my own planning as I saw how real people felt about different parts of the advice and then better decide what would work for my family.  Also, they recognize that not everyone can take advantage of their ideas and try to offer tips on how to still have an enjoyable vacation.

And you must get the latest edition!  I cannot stress this point enough.  Disney is constantly changing with new rides and new rules--especially for fastpass.  That means last year's book is already outdated and will only give you a general idea of how to navigate the park better than your fellow mouse enthusiasts.    Frankly, with the addition of a new Fantasy Land at Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Cars Land at Disneyland's California Adventures, the latest edition is more necessary than ever.

Finally, this series does more than merely cover the parks themselves.  They also provide incredible insight into the surrounding area.  For Disneyland, most guests stay off property, so the chapter comparing and reviewing motels is significant.  Once again, the latest edition will best guide you in what motels are under new management or have undergone a remodel in the last year.  For Disney World, the surrounding parks (including Universal) are covered extensively.  For my family, Universal's Islands of Adventures (think Harry Potter World) was more important than Disney properties and I found this Unofficial Guide to be invaluable.  

You cannot beat this book in planning your next Disney vacation.  Even if you only grab one the night before and look at the map with the rides in a suggested order you will have a more enjoyable vacation. But to plan a successful Disney trip, grab a book a few months in advance and enjoy reading it while you plan and anticipate your upcoming trip.