Friday, November 29, 2013

Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families (Part 2 of 2)

Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families  (Part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of this article, you prepared and researched for your trip.  Now it's time to head to Anaheim!

Once you have arrived at Disneyland, you enter through the gates at the end of Downtown Disney.  There is no fee to enter Downtown Disney, but there are a hundred ways to spend your money there.  It is basically a large, outdoor mall of Disney-themed shops and non-themed restaurants.  The restaurants are all excellent and there is a great variety to choose from.  Be aware of shops that will draw your kids in that you may not be interested in them going to.  For example if your kids like to build teddy bears or RC cars, keep pointing at the other side of the street and asking if they see the Mickey logo.  They will eventually find one and you will have avoided another large expense.  Downtown Disney is also full of (somewhat expensive) activities that you may be interested in.  In the winter, there is an ice-skating rink (you can even get cute little training skates for beginners and kids).  There is a boutique shop where your child can get fitted in a custom princess dress and receive a full makeover to be made to look like their favorite princess character.  There is the obvious financial expense of going to these places but there is also a much larger hidden expense.  If you plan to do these activities, get there hours in advance and experience them when you are not paying to be in the park.  If you have already paid for your park ticket, don’t waste your time outside the park.  Consider instead doing these activities in the evening or even scheduling an additional hotel night so that you can spend the day at Downtown Disney.  Do not make the mistake of wasting your morning getting your child made into a princess so that you can then constantly remind them throughout the day to avoid not smearing their make-up or snagging their new and expensive dress.

I was once told that one of the most amazing experiences that a father can have is witnessing the look on the face of his children as they behold the spectacle that is entering Disneyland on their first time.  I prepared, ran ahead of my group and videotaped it so that I might experience it again.  After taking it all in, my family and I rushed to the back of the park and hopped on to Dumbo.  As I acknowledge earlier, not all families prepare as thoroughly as mine in advance of a trip like this.  I recognize that not everyone holds a family meeting, reviews which rides all family members need, want, accept or do not want to experience.  I also recognize that I went to extremes to purchase additional software to plan my day so that we could go on the most potential rides possible (accounting for foot speed, time of year, magic morning, eating, breaks and day of the week).  

If I learned nothing else from all of this planning, it is to get to Dumbo and the Submarine first.  These are two of the busiest rides in the park and also have the two worst line queuing systems.  Next, I recommend getting on to the Tea Cups if it is open.  This ride closes often for maintenance and hygiene reasons.  Finally, It’s a Small World is right in the vicinity, can get extensive lines and you may as well get the inevitability out of the way early.  This will also put you right outside of the princess show.  This is good to know if you are planning to (or not to) attend.  Likewise at California Adventure, the newer rides will fill up quickly.  For our family, this meant the new Carsland cars ride.  The other ride that fills up quickly is Souring Over California.

From here, the rest of the park is more or less a gamble.  Indiana Jones will have a long line at just about any time in the day.  It’s a good ride and everyone enjoys it, but there will be a line as a result.  There are two major ways to avoid standing in this line or others in the park without buying and preparing extensively.  First, your ticket is also your “fastpass.”  Fastpass is not available on all rides but when it is, it will give you a time window to return to the ride and use an express line.  For example, if it is 9am and your fastpass time window says “10am-11:30am,” swipe your ticket and go to another ride or two.  When 10am rolls around, you can go to the front of the line (often using a fastpass line.)  There may be a line of other fastpassers here as well, but it will be nowhere near as long as the standard line.  Additionally, I highly recommend one of the Disney line apps for your smartphone.  These can tell you (usually with accuracy) how long the lines are throughout the park.  I found the official Disney version of this app to be less helpful than independently-programmed apps, but this may eventually change.

Another tip for families and lines – you may need to temporarily split up the family.  If your group stood in line the entire time, even at a ride where your kids cannot go, you can let the gate attendant know that you want to split the group.  They will escort one parent and the kids to the side while the other parent rides ahead.  When they come back, the parent babysitting gets to trade in.  This way, everyone gets to ride and your children don’t go temporarily abandoned on Tom Sawyer Island.

If you have any money left in your account after all of this, consider one of several character breakfasts.  This is a large and somewhat expensive buffet whose food is not necessarily better than a buffet might be in your home town.  There is one very large difference that accounts for the difference in price: Disney characters.  It’s not every day that your kids get to eat French toast and then be interrupted by Aladdin.  If you go, schedule a reservation way in advance and plan to be there for a while.  I recommend doing this on your last day (on a day that you will not be in the park but right before you head out).  You have the option of going to the breakfast in the lobby of the original Disneyland Hotel for standard Disney characters like Donald at Goofy’s Kitchen.  Alternatively, the Grand Californian has the Storyteller’s CafĂ©, which is mostly filled with the woodland creatures or jungle creatures from your favorite Disney movies.  If you stay long enough, you may be encouraged to do a conga line with these characters.  Make sure that your camera is charged before going in as the characters expect a million pictures.  Doing this also frees you up not to chase down Mickey (and waste your time) in the park.  Unlike when we were younger, the characters do not roam the park with as much frequency.  There is a third character restaurant in California Adventure named “Ariel’s Grotto.”  You literally go underwater to get there – well themed.  Unfortunately because it is in the middle of the park, you must have a California Adventure ticket (and waste park time) to attend.  If you have a child that simply cannot be without a princess fix, there is no substitute.  Many of the princesses tour, talk to your kids and stop for pictures.  The food here is also quite good and served family-style instead of buffet.  Do not hesitate to ask for additional scones or honey butter after you have filled your face (and secretly your backpack) with the originals provided.

If you are staying at one of the Disneyland hotels, after a busy day in the park, and supposing that you are both in a position where money is no object and your children are over the age of 5, you have the option to drop your kids off at Pinnochio’s Workshop.  Inside, Gepetto will not teach them woodworking and toy-making.  Instead, perky staff members will serve as daycare and provide supervised TV, crafts and games.  Meanwhile, you and your spouse can slip away to the Grand Californian for a couples massage at the Mandara or a meal and glass of wine at the Napa Rose.  I have been told by friends that the more expensive wine can be purchased by the glass saving you from having to purchase the whole bottle.

Finally, you’re exhausted and ready to go home.  Before you leave, you may be reminded by a family member that you really never stopped for souvenirs.   This, after all, never made it into your master plan.  The good news is that there is a souvenir shop in Downtown Disney.  This shop has most (but not all) of the exact same items as in the parks.  If you have multi-day park hopper tickets, I recommend making a list of potential souvenirs as you see (or your kids grab) them.  Then, at night, hit up this store and see if it’s in here.  The price will be the same if it is here and you won’t have wasted any valuable park time.  You can even go after you put the kids down to sleep at night or on the way out of the park on the way back to your hotel.  Now you don’t have to carry that “Worlds Goofyest Dad” mug through the park.  Also consider checking your phone’s prices with your Amazon app if it’s something pricy.  You may find the exact same toy or item on Amazon for less expensive and have it shipped to your house ready for you when you get home.  If you need a toy or trinket while you’re staying there and have little ones, consider the bucket of army men or bucket of toy story aliens.  My kids are still playing with these years later and integrating them with play in other toys.  For under $10 a bucket, you could do a lot worse.

Though long and detailed, I hope that this article clears up any of the mystery for parents considering a trip to Disneyland, especially those traveling this holiday season.  While my tips may not apply to everyone, hopefully you learned something new and can gain some additional enjoyment from your trip.  After all of my research and effort, I was able to do a 3-day Disney trip for 5 for under $1000 all inclusive (with the Grand Californian and the concierge room).  I’m very interested in any other tips that you may have.  I recommend and applaud for all of the tips that they and their readers gave me in preparing for my visits! 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families (Part 1 of 2)

Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families  (Part 1 of 2)

A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on a first trip to Disneyland with his daughter.  As it turns out, I couldn't summarize my tips into a quick facebook post.  They needed a full article, like my Lego Land experience.  When I was in a similar position a few years back, I asked around and all of my friends seemed to think that the planning part wasn't a big deal.  If you have read any article of mine before, you will know that I’m a planner.  For as long as I can remember I have had the belief that if I think through, plan and prepare for an event or situation, I will be safer and somehow will have squeezed an ounce or more of entertainment.  One could argue that the ounce gained is not worth the pound of preparation.  While this may be a good point, I will still plan and prepare.  I can also then share for others in my position who might benefit from excessive planning.

If you haven’t been to Disneyland in the last few years, I can tell you that it has changed.  The former parking lot is gone.  In its place is another theme park also owned by Disneyland called California Adventure.  Disneyland could potentially have just extended its gate and expanded the existing park.  The gate to California Adventure is across a walkway from the gate to Disneyland.  Instead, they split it into two parks and require you to buy separate tickets.  I cannot remember a time when I thought that Disneyland tickets were affordable.  They continue to be quite pricey – and additionally they are more complicated.  Because there are now two parks, Disney encourages you to go to both.  For this reason, there are “Park Hopper” tickets.  Sure, you could just go to Disneyland itself for the day.  Many families do.  But for just a little more money, you can then go to both parks.  The hopper tickets allow for you to hop back and forth all day as many times as you would like.  If your ticket does not say “hopper” on it, you must stay in the park chosen.  It is completely normal not to buy a hopper ticket, but the way that Disney prices tickets, there is usually no financial advantage not to.

I cannot advise the best place to buy your ticket.  In my experience, the pricing on tickets changes so rapidly that I would need to dedicate the site to just doing this.  I can say that in checking, I went between a local Santa Barbara Axxess discount book, AAA, Google, Costco and Disney’s website itself.  Knowing these prices, I tried to talk down the lady at the reservation line when booking my hotel.  They simply wouldn’t budge.  What I found overall is that the prices do not vary excessively.  Once you have found a discount of some sort, you won’t likely save much with a different discount.  Like Apple products, the price you see won’t be different at different retail outlets.  I recommend, however, planning the trip first, then purchasing your tickets.  Like any major expense, it’s better not to look at the price until it’s too late.  If you want the full experience of four days with park hopping privileges, plan to get that and price it out from there.  I can assure you – regardless of which package or number of days or hopper passes you choose, you cannot afford them.

The one caveat to buying is deciding whether or not you will want and use the Magic Morning pass.  Magic Morning allows you into the park an hour earlier than other ticket holders.  If you are looking to maximize your experience, your eyes are probably widening as you read this.  Formerly one could only get a Magic Morning pass from Disneyland itself and only then if you stayed at the Disneyland Hotel.  This meant that the whole park was yours (and a few hundred others) for a solid hour with no lines or wait anywhere in the park!  To a certain extent, this still holds true.  In my opinion, Magic Morning is still a great deal, worth paying a premium for and still has nearly all the benefits of old.  One need not be a hotel guest at the Disneyland Hotel to get these passes anymore.  The exclusivity is gone, but still limited.  If you want to buy a Magic Morning pass, be on the lookout for it – you may have to buy it in a package deal such as a 3-day pass from AAA or with a room at an affiliated hotel from Costco Travel.  Wherever you get your ticket, if you’re in the hole far enough to buy the Disneyland experience anyway, you may as well look for and buy the Magic Morning as well.

Now that you have determined how long your stay will be and type of tickets that you want, you’re ready to start comparing prices of hotels.  Similar to the tickets, check around for pricing everywhere.  I found Costco Travel, MouseSavers, AAA and Disneyland’s website the most helpful.  If you don’t live in Southern California, I will do my best to explain your options in order of convenience (and reverse order of cost).  If you plan to stay for at least 2 days of park experience, you will need lodging of some sort.  You can choose from one of three Disney-owned hotels, dozens of affiliated hotels or alternative non-affiliated hotels.  I recommend researching and finding the best fit for you.

The Disneyland Hotels are easily the most convenient option that you have.  You certainly pay for the convenience, but you are also getting a great experience.  The quality of all three hotels is on par with a resort.  It goes beyond a regular hotel with multiple restaurants, shops, pools and other activities.  There are three hotels to choose from now: the original Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian and Paradise Pier.  The original hotel has been refurbished but still retains all of the charm of its glory days.  The one thing that this hotel is now missing is the pickup stop from the monorail.  The monorail picks up at the end of Downtown Disney just outside the exit of the three hotels now.  The Grand Californian has a woodsy cabin theme.  The Paradise Pier has the theme of surfing California.  All of them are very nice.  The cost of staying at these hotels may be high, but you get so much more than you might anywhere else.  Disneyland is known for their superb customer service – and this does not end with a pleasant smile when checking in.  They offer daytime and evening entertainment in the lobby for kids and adults alike.  During check-in, there may be a line, but your kids can park with a dozen others in front of a big TV to watch classic Disney cartoons.  The entertainment is varied: magic shows, banjo players, pianists, balloon artists, you name it. 

The Disneyland Hotels also offer a concierge package at an additional cost.  The first time that I stayed at the Grand Californian, the sales woman reviewing the package that I was purchasing over the phone offered the concierge package as an up-sell.  The price was not bad, but it was just one more thing that I was getting nickled and dimed on.  I nearly passed on it but am glad that I did not.  The concierge package starts with express check-in.  When you pull into your hotel, they have already spotted your car, run the plates in their database (you already provided the plates to them) and are waiting for you.  Your room isn’t “still being cleaned for you.”  Your room is ready and waiting.  They then take you and your frazzled family up to your room past the lobby check-in.  They check you in from an iPad, so no lines.  If you do this, do not let them hurry you to your room.  Take your time going through the lobby and walking around the hotel to take it all in.  Once you have checked in, you find your bags already there!  Apparently the bell boy has a separate and faster elevator than you do.  Overwhelmed?  Walk over to the special concierge room.  This rec room has snacks and beverages around the clock.  It has a bigscreen TV playing Disney and plenty of board games.  There are tables, couches and everything to get you comfortable.  While your kids are gouging themselves on goldfish crackers and raisins from the complimentary snack bar, you can order a beer or glass of wine from one of the room’s waiters (not complimentary).  These waiters are also constantly bringing out trays of delicious complimentary snacks including a full fruit buffet in the morning.  If you are unfamiliar, a tea sandwich is just a regular sandwich but cut into fours to be cute.  I must have eaten a couple of dozen of these.  In fact, because we had this room, we avoided many of the expensive meals and snacks in the park.  I may not have intended the snacks as a meal replacement, but buying a $6 pretzel seems nonsensical after you have gorged yourself on mini-empanadas just an hour earlier.  Doing the math, you may actually save money getting the concierge package once you multiply the quantity of uneaten pretzels.  The room is also open around the clock.  We found this especially fantastic when we had one child who napped in our room while the other was bouncing off the walls.   These rooms are also set up intentionally to show you the evening parades and fireworks – perfect for your kids to see and then rush to their beds down the hall.  The room is also staffed with an agent who can buy or change your tickets, make recommendations and even loan you a Disney DVD for the kids to watch in your room.   If you will be going to Disneyland for your children for the first time, these hotels are an excellent option and a sure thing.

If you simply cannot afford the luxury of the three Disneyland hotels, you aren't alone.  Thousands of guests each day stay at one of the many “affiliated” Disneyland hotels.  “Affiliated” typically means that they are nearby and allowed to use the mouse logo on their sheets and curtains.  These hotels may be able to offer things like discounts on tickets.  This is where the Disney-affiliation ends, though.  They are otherwise regular hotels.  Some are nicer, have restaurants and pools (or even a mini water park) while others are much simpler.  Last December, we stayed at the Carousel Inn and Suites.  While it wasn't nearly as nice as our stay at the Grand Californian, we were on more of a budget.  Our overall Disney experience was still very good.  The affiliated hotels have taken note of what Disneyland has done and try to compete, but on a budget.  For example, our hotel had a room with a nice panoramic view of the fireworks catered with hot chocolate and snacks where all the families went at night.  Expect to get what you pay for and expect pay for what you get with regard to these hotels.  Take note and pull up google maps when booking, though.  Determine how far your walk will be.  This will be key later, especially if you have young or elderly companions.  For our stay at the Carousel Inn, we found that it was directly across the street from the Disneyland shuttle drop – very convenient.

Alternative lodging is always an option.  Maybe you have an RV that you brought with you.  Maybe you rented a timeshare or house from VRBO.  If this is the case, you need to determine your entrance and parking strategy.  Many of the affiliated hotels will have extra parking and will sell you a spot for the day.  These may be closer than the Disney official parking spots (which all require a shuttle now) and may even be less expensive.  Determine a strategy in advance.  Note: there is no cheap parking anywhere.

Now that you have decided your length of stay and your potential lodging, you may have noticed that your schedule can drastically affect pricing.  If you are able to go mid-week, for example, you will pay significantly less than if you were to go for Friday through Sunday.  Likewise, Disneyland has a busy “season.”  I recommend seeking out the list of the blackout days – these are the busy times at Disneyland.  Really, February through April end up being the lighter “season” when prices go down a tad.  If you were hoping to see Disneyland at Christmas, you will pay a premium as this is their busiest time of the year (November through January).  Those decorations are beautiful and the parade is a lot of fun, but you will pay for it.