As a follow-up to my “Best Guidebooks for a Disney Vacation”, here are some recommended apps and websites for your trip.

Apps I plan to use:

  • My Disney Experience– the official Disney app- good for tracking reservations for restaurants and rides, maps, show times and photo packages.
  • Universal Studios official App
  • Undercover Tourist Orlando– touring plans for Disney, Universal, and Sea World, ride wait times, maps.
  • Find My iPhone find friends.  Built in to your iPhone, if you accept friend requests you can track their location and show your location to them- hopefully this will help my daughter find us when we split up.
  • Pokemon GoPlants Vs. Zombies HeroesTetris– for waiting in lines for my very wriggly son.
  • Overdrive digital library.  I can bring a bunch of ebooks and audiobooks on my iPad, checked out from the public library.  I also plan to use the digital magazines on Flipster.
  • Google Photos– automatically upload photos to storage. (note, after I got it all set up, hubby switched us to Amazon Prime photos, so now we are doubling our backups!)

Websites:

If you have an app or website that helped you on a previous trip, put it in the comments!

 

April 1, 2017

A Guide to the Orlando Guidebooks

If you are considering a trip to Disney World, you should know that a little bit of planning and advanced preparation can make your vacation much better.  You should not read every single book out there about the trip, it will make you bonkers.  I have read them for you.  You’re welcome.

I like anticipating and planning, I find it enjoyable, especially when the snow won’t go away, the sky is gray, news is depressing and work is stifling.

I’m not paid for my opinion (but if you are interested in giving me money, I’m listening!).  I suggest you read over these reviews, figure out what book is right for you, then get it out of the library.  Bring the book along in your suitcase, sure, but don’t lug them around the park.  Use apps and the park’s map.  At the end of my reviews I’ll list the  books I plan on using on my trip.  Check back to see another blog on recommended websites and Apps I plan to use.

Frommer’s Easy Guide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2017 by Jason Cochran.

A comprehensive book that includes all the latest updates, but some of the descriptions of the rides and shows are as cynical and unappealing as the ones from the food critic in Rattatouie.  It is for a reluctant tourist who has been dragged into an Orlando experience, and mentions gritting your teeth through parades and skipping rides because they’re dated.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have kids, because height requirements are not listed, and he suggests preschool activities whenever he mentions “kids”.  The descriptions of food are also a bit snobbish.  He recommends jamming two parks into one day because there’s “not enough to do”.  He’s not all doom and gloom, he encourages people to talk with the experts, the craftspeople and the imported people of different countries who are there to share their culture.  He  says what each shops sells (besides the usual). The descriptions of the tours given by Disney World are detailed and clear, and include prices.  The book includes a full sized folded map of the area.

Birnbaum’s 2017 Walt Disney World

This is the officially authorized book, and it shows.  It has the licensed characters through-out,  and the descriptions can be described as “gushing”.  Magic bands are “technological wonders” and Extra Magic Hours are “a great value”.  I don’t know how all the volunteers are paid, if they are at all.  It would be cool to be one of their testers, if it meant free passes or hotel stays.  Because it is official, it has all the phone numbers, up-to-date details and lists of what characters are at what restaurants.  The book is designed to be used up, to rip out pages, write in the back.  What is noticeably missing is any mention of anything non-disney.  The 8 day planner only has spaces for Disney related activities like what fast-passes will be used, what park you are going to and so on.  The book has coupons in the back.  The only one that was tempting to me was the one for Basin (but this is a library book).  The book suggested both full day and half-day itineraries.  Some of the choices were a bit odd (see the safari in the afternoon, go to all the shows).  I would recommend this book to people who want to get hyped up and don’t plan on moving East of Route 4.  It adds in cruise information.  Were you planning on taking a cruise while in Orlando?  No?  Well, why not?  Now you have all the information!

The Unofficial to Disney World with Kids 2017

Here’s real people telling you real stuff, people who love going to Disney, but aren’t in Disney’s official pocket.  This version of the book is more than a list of rides and restaurants, it reads like a parenting manual, self-help guide and Yelp review.  A group of testers try everything and rate it based on interest and age.  Quotes from real people pepper the book. To give one example, they rented strollers from different vendors to see which ones had the best service, and talked about the advantages and disadvantages of having your own stroller.

They remind parents that their children will not suddenly turn into angels because you are on a special trip, give advice on handling meltdowns, following through with consequences and how to childproof a hotel room.  They cover the “take the kids out of school” controversy as well as the “off property/on property” debate.  What if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding? Should your child bring a friend?  Can grandparents survive taking the kids without the parents? They have suggested strategies for avoiding losing children (tattoos, anyone?). They rank rides based on small child fright potentials, discuss where to find characters in the parks, list restaurants and what they offer, and emphasize, over and over- DON’T SKIP THE NAP.  (I never heed the advice to go back to our hotel, but we do take a rest after my husband insists).  There is a brief chapter in the back about Universal Studios, Seaworld and everything else, but they do suggest readers get a more comprehensive book that they happen to sell.  They have touring plans for different scenarios, like parents with toddlers or teens splitting up from parents.  There are 6 itineraries for Magic Kingdom, and 4 each for Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios.  They mention several times that you can have a subscription to their website/app to get more individualized, up to the minute plans.  That would be my only complaint, but they need to make money just like the rest of us.

Complete Walt Disney World 2016 by Julie and Mike Neal

Did I say Frommer’s Guide was snarky?  It is positively mild compared to the blaring opinions in this guide.  At first I thought it would be another “aw gosh” praise of all things Disney, since the Orlando locals said they were the only guidebook “honored by the Disney Company.”  But I got a hint of their free spirit when they called magic bands “dorky”.  Then they did not hold back on either praise or disgust as they rated rides and restaurants.  They give a 1-5

star rating and think of it like a movie critic rating- it’s not the budget or the hype, it’s the viewer’s experience that counts.  They gave the little Mermaid ride one star, but the carousel five.  They selected the “best of” in different categories in the first chapter.

The book emphasizes its photos, and there are some great ones.  Even the packing list has pictures.  The map of the entire Disney domain is odd, in that the two page spread puts North on the right.  This guide is wordy, a good pick for armchair readers who want history, factoids, behind the scenes details and just details in general.  Each ride has at least a page dedicated to it, and at the bottom of the page they list average wait times on a daily timeline.  The Animal Kingdom chapter has an extensive animal guide and where to find each species.  The A-Z chapter goes all over the place, and would not be the format I would use to provide quick information.  I noticed quite a few typos and strong opinions not necessarily shared by the average tourist.  One of the testing things they did was stay all day for a week at a value hotel during spring break to see if it was filled with carousing college kids (spoiler- no, not really).  No mention was made of anything West of Route 4- if an alien read this book they would think that there was just untouched wilderness beyond the borders of the realm of Disney.

MouseJunkies by Bill Burke

This book is hilarious, it makes me want to be friends with this guy.  Unfortunately, it was published in 2011, and his website doesn’t look like it’s been updated since 2014.  Still, this book is entertaining enough to read anyway.  Bill Burke and his fellow “mousejunkies”, people who have become addicted to Disney magic, describe the highs and lows of their hobby.

There is no mention of anything but Disney, and no option but to stay on Disney property.  Bill compares staying off property to walking on broken glass, and professes his fear of Orlando jumping snakes (no, not a real thing). Rides and shows are mentioned, including a funny description of two huge guys happily going on the Peter Pan ride, but the bulk of this book is a poetical love letter to the food and service.  He describes meals in heartfelt detail, including his quest for the best Bloody Mary, the careful treatment of guests with allergies, his inability to stop eating at the Spirit of Aloha dinner show, and a loving ode to Raglan Road.  His description of Dole whips made me give them a try, even though I don’t like pineapple (now a fan). For service, he talks with the tv host Stacy,  who gives (gave?) little segments on hotel tvs and vacation planning videos.  He covers basic information, but also his favorite benches at each park (“My name is Bill and I’m a benchaholic”). He describes an experiment with “drinking around the world”, where you have a drink at each country in the world showcase, cautioning you to not get stupid, abusive or sick.  He and his mousejunkie friends talk about non-park recreation like fishing, golf and spas.  They discuss the Disney Vacation Club points system. Serious addicts, they get their fix 2-3 times a year, with a few even moving to Florida to make trips easier.  He talks about the difference between going as an non-parent and as a parent, and commiserated about the misfortune of getting sick on your vacation.   He invents new words, like “Epcrotch”- the horrendous skin chafing you can get from the wrong clothing and excessive heat.  To top it off he shares many people’s “Lightning Bolt Moments”, the moment they fell head over heels in love with Disney.  I think my lightning bolt moment was when I went with my grandparents, and while everyone else was watching a parade, my grandpa and I  went on Big Thunder Mountain twice, feeling like we got away with something.

I want a new edition!

So what books will I bring?

I will bring the Unofficial Guide to Disney World 2017, Eyewitness Travel Florida, the Birnbaum Disney World guide for kids, and possibly a Harry Potter book (we are currently reading the Chamber of Secrets illustrated edition).

Maybe I should write my own guidebook.  I have a few weeks to do more research.  I want to know if I can tour the Be Our Guest restaurant if I don’t have a reservation, the best place to have a quiet time (low stimulation) in Universal Studios and Island of Adventure, where exactly is the best place to stake out for viewing the river lights in Animal Kingdom, and how to avoid being domineering over my family and instead make sure they do what they want.

 

April 27, 2014

Review of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Universal Orlando

 

We went to Universal Orlando the week before Easter.  It was ridiculously crowded.  My first piece of advice is, if you can avoid school holidays (because you don’t have kids, homeschool your kids or are willing to pull them out during school days) do so.  Ride waits for everything ranged from 45 minutes to 120 minutes.

We did have a great time and have some great memories.  Universal is trying really hard to please their guests.  In my opinion, they are struggling with some design flaws that cause them major headaches, and lack the certain extra magic that Disney provides.  Still, I rate their parks much higher than any 6 Flags establishment I’ve been to.  For example, they provide free lockers for rides that do not allow bags.  6 Flags charges for their lockers.

construction signHogsmead bathroom

I think the crowd that was at the parks those two days might have dispersed in a Disney park.  The design flaw I mentioned earlier is that the park was not really designed for crowd dispersal, especially at Islands of Adventure.  Instead, crowds are funneled into a circle.  They MUST walk in the circle to get anywhere. Audiences leaving shows empty out into the circle. There is no transportation in the park to cross the park (one thing our local 6 flags does better). I am really glad to hear they are getting transportation between the two parks, because that was very frustrating.

wait signSeuss line

On an average crowd day, I could have seen all I wanted to see in one day if I was by myself.  For families, I recommend taking two days and having the 2 park pass.  Unless you have children 6 or younger, in which I recommend just going to Islands of Adventure for a day. Seuss Landing is wonderful and has real rides. Studios has great playgrounds and splash areas, but that was not why we were there.  There are a lot of rides that were too much for my five year old to handle, including the Spiderman ride.  He became terrified of the Transformers after seeing a “live” meet and greet.  He loved the MIB ride until it started spinning too much.  He liked the Hippogriff ride until the middle of the ride, when he started yelling “I didn’t want to go on this ride!”

Bring a guidebook with you to get better descriptions of the rides.  The map descriptions are almost intentionally vague.  I thought the Despicable Me attraction was a ride, not a movie, for example.

Of course the big draw of the park is the Harry Potter experience.  The tiny area is swamped with crowds most of the day.  We were not able to get in early in the morning because of planning issues.  If you want to do that, stay at a Universal hotel for extra early hours or come to the gates 30 minutes before opening.  Remember that you have to park and then get through security and then walk through City Walk, which can add up to 30 minutes right there.  We found that dinner time (after 6 PM) was a good time to go.  We were able to shop, have dinner at the Three Broomsticks and ride the rides.  The wait for Forbidden Journey was still long.  If you have little kids, definitely take advantage of parent swap, where they have one parent wait with the child while the other parent rides.  That way my daughter got to ride twice!  The waiting room was nice, with wooden benches and a TV playing Sorceror’s Stone.

Continuing a silly tradition of rating bathrooms after visiting them too often (last year the Rapunzel bathroom won), the best bathroom in the parks was the one at Hogsmead, which was hosted by the voice of Moaning Myrtle.  It would have been cooler if she was actually projected into one of the mirrors, but I can see why that would have been a bad idea.

At the end of the two days, our feet ached and we were ready to go back to the grandparents for a quiet day in their pool.  Our IPhone said we walked about 22 miles. I carried my son about half of that, so consider using a stroller if it is an option.  I would have loved a Segway, myself. My husband has declared that he doesn’t need to go back any time soon, perhaps in five years.

Favorite rides: Forbidden Journey, Spiderman, MIB, Revenge of the Mummy,  and Flight of the Hippogriff.  Favorite 3D motion movies- Shrek and Despicable Me.

chocolate frogbutterbeer

Advice:

  • wear sunscreen
  • sit down with your family and agree ahead of time what you don’t want to miss
  • have a plan for where you are going, but be willing to adjust for variables
  • pack snacks and a water bottle
  • Buy Butterbeer in the pub, not in the street
  • If you hate getting wet, bring a poncho for water rides, if you don’t mind, plan quick dry clothes
  • make sure your children are acquainted with the movies and books represented.
  • bring a smartphone packed with games and ebooks
  • take the castle tour at Hogwarts, you might miss parts if you are in the line for the ride
  • Plan an afternoon break, but be aware that leaving the park is very time-consuming.
  • pay attention to the needs of everyone in your group
  • know your child- think about what they can handle, how long they will wait
  • if you split up, plan to meet in a restaurant or shop, not outside a ride
  • wait until the end of the day to buy souvenirs, even the Harry Potter ones can be found in the big store at the front of the park.

Hogwartstall balloon twisters at UniversalHogsmead from moat

April 12, 2014

shrek gateuniversal

When I looked for pictures I realized I had not been there since 2004!

Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando

Last year we had a Disney adventure.  This year we plan a Universal adventure.  Since my kids are 5 and 14, this is a little tricky.  Add into that my distaste for wet rides!  So to make it a pleasant trip I’m doing some research.

Universal will be making a Harry Potter expansion in “Summer 2014”.  When exactly?  I still haven’t found out, one blogger’s speculation was July.  It could be anywhere between the first week of June and the last week of August!  What they are doing is putting in Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, then adding a train that runs from that park to the other park (thus encouraging people to buy a 2-park ticket!).  Whenever this opens, the crowds will be ridiculous.

universal mythos

Research resources for Universal Orlando trip:

When reading blogs on travel tips, be aware that some bloggers are paid or compensated to blog about destinations.  (I am not).

A Disney World Freak’s guide to Universal Orlando– WDW prep school. This woman was obviously not paid by the park.  Freaking hilarious. It looks like it was written June 2013, and is very thorough, with an itinerary, ride descriptions and more.

A lot of Disney World guidebooks have a chapter in the back of the book for “other parks.”

Visit Orlando– the official visitor center for Orlando.

Yahoo Travel– crowdsourcing at its finest.

Wikitravel– Orlando

Theme Park Insider– History of the park, crowdsourced ratings on the rides, and an ad for his book.

Fodors– a trusted publisher of guide books.

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Book: Universal Orlando 2014 by Kelly Monaghan.  I haven’t read this, but it seems the most up to date guidebook on the subject.

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