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Monday Top 10: The World's Best Theme Park Castles

By Robert Niles
Published: October 20, 2014 at 3:19 PM
What are the world's best theme park castles? Castles provide the iconic centerpiece for many of the world's most popular theme parks. The home of kings and queens in so many fairy tales, castles evoke memories of grand storytelling, setting an inspiring scene for people entering a theme park.

But which castles do the best job of inspiring those theme park visitors? Let's set a couple of criteria to judge these landmarks: 1. How much do you want to take a picture of it? And, 2. What can you do in it?

For previous Monday Top 10 posts, we've relied on Theme Park Insider reader ratings to determine the honorees. However, we haven't collected ratings for castles per se — simply for the attractions and restaurants that might be located within them. So for this post, your editor is using those ratings as a guide, then just picking the ones he believes best satisfy the two questions above. So let's get to it! Here are the Theme Park Insider editor's picks for the Top 10 Theme Park Castles in the World:

10. DarKastle
Busch Gardens Williamsburg


The home of the mad King Ludwig, DarKastle hosts Busch Gardens' 3D motion-base ride, The Curse of DarKastle. While this castle wins points for hosting such an ambitious ride, the facade itself is tucked away in a corner of a park and hasn't earned the same iconic status as other castles on this list.

9. Sleeping Beauty's Castle
Hong Kong Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty's Castle Hong Kong

Located in the traditional place of honor at the far side of Main Street, Hong Kong Disneyland's castle is of the same design as the Disneyland original, but it lacks that park's walk-through attraction, making this Disney castle, essentially, just one, somewhat impressive facade.

8. King Harold's Castle
Universal Studios Singapore

King Harold's Castle

The centerpiece of the Shrek-themed "Far, Far Away" land, King Harold's Castle houses the park's "Shrek 4D" show. While the castle earns well-deserved points for housing an attraction, it loses some for not even being the top photo op in its own park, an honor that instead falls to the jaw-dropping Revenge of the Mummy facade next door.

7. Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Sleeping Beauty's Castle Disneyland

The original theme park castle (okay, maybe not the original... keep reading!), lands at the number seven spot in our rankings. Surpassed by more visually impressive castles in the Disney kingdom, Disneyland's original Sleeping Beauty's Castle still gets credit for its charming walk-through attraction, intimate surroundings, and the lovely photo op with the Matterhorn next door.

6. Cinderella's Castle
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Cinderella's Castle Disney World

Okay, we can hear the complaints from Disney fans: "Cindy's Castle isn't even in the top five?!?" It's not that we don't love the most-visited theme park castle in the world, it's just that we love the ones ahead of it on this list even more. Remember our criteria? While Florida's Cinderella's Castle wins huge points as a photogenic icon, there's just not much to do in it — no attraction and a restaurant with limited capacity. Disney even cuts off the access from the hub during forecourt stage shows. Disney World's castle is like an elusive Hollywood star — thrilling to see, but most often appreciated at a distance.

5. Cinderella's Castle
Tokyo Disneyland

The Tokyo Disneyland version earns the spot ahead of its Orlando twin for the "Cinderella's Fairy Tale Hall" walk-through that opens the castle to thousands more guests each day.

4. The Fortress Explorations Citadel
Tokyo DisneySea

Fortress Explorations Citadel

Does a citadel count as a castle if no king or queen lives there? Okay, maybe we are pushing the definition of "castle" by including this landmark on our list. But the home of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers offers one of the world's best walk-through attractions and one of the world's best theme park best restaurants. It looks fabulous in pictures and it's a delight to visit for hours on end. That's good enough for us to put the citadel on our list.

3. The Towers
Alton Towers

The Towers at Alton Towers

The Towers wins huge points from us for being the only theme park castle that actually is a castle! Built in the early 1800s, the former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury stands on grounds that had been in the hands of the family for more than 700 years, making this the true original theme park castle. (Totally selfish note: One line of my ancestors — the Snows — traces back to Staffordshire and the land near the Alton Towers, making this my family's neighborhood theme park. Well, sort of.) Today, the towers not only provide an iconic focal point for the park, they are the home of the park's "Hex - The Legend of the Tower" ride.

2. Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant
Disneyland Paris

Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant

Disney's best theme park castle not only offers its most fanciful design and a crowd-eating walk through attraction, but Paris' version of Sleeping Beauty Castle also would beat its siblings in Magic Kingdoms around the world for no other than it has a dragon in its dungeons!

1. Hogwarts Castle
Universal's Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando

Stunning, photogenic icon? Check. World-class walk-through attraction inside? Check. But when you consider that walk-through tour of Hogwarts is simply the queue for one of the top 10 rides in the world, Hogwarts has to move to the top of our list.

What is your favorite theme park castle?

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Disney Rebrands 'Glow with the Show' and Introduces Its Own Interactive Magic Wands

By Robert Niles
Published: October 20, 2014 at 10:13 AM
Disney announced today that it will rebrand its "Glow with the Show" ears as "Made with Magic"... and expand the product line-up to include light-up Mickey hands, a Minnie headband, and (yes, Universal!) an interactive magic wand.

Made with Magic items
Photo courtesy Disney

The psychedelic Mousekeeter ears will remain on sale and continue to work in synch with selected Disney nighttime shows and indoor attractions. The hands and headband will operate in the same way as the ears. The magic wands, however, also will have the ability to trigger changes in the light patterns on the other items. (When they aren't overruled during a show by the set lighting program, that is.)

It appears that the wands will take on some of the functionality of the light-up paint brushes that Hong Kong Disneyland has been selling in support of its new Paint the Night parade. Another version of that parade is tipped to come to Disneyland in Anaheim, California next week for that park's 60th anniversary celebration. And, of course, there's this other theme park resort that's been selling its own interactive magic wands lately, too. So now Disney's got something to compete directly with that. ;^)

The headband should be on sale within the next few weeks, while the gloves and wands should hit stores in late November or early December. All items will sell for $25 each.


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Review: Midnight Syndicate Live! Legacy of Shadows, at Cedar Point

By James Koehl
Published: October 20, 2014 at 9:46 AM
I heard someone state that "if Midnight Syndicate ever stopped producing music, Halloween would have to be cancelled." I thought that comment was a bit over the top until I saw them perform at Cedar Point in their first live stage show, "Legacy of Shadows" at the Ghoul Time Theatre (Good Time Theatre the rest of the season, still known by many as the Cedar Point Cinema). HalloWeekends at Cedar Point will never be quite the same for me.

Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka are the current members of this remarkably talented, uniquely creative musical duo. The darkly gothic instrumental sounds they create with a few keyboards have, in little more than a decade, become the music that means "Halloween" for films, haunted houses, and now amusement and theme parks across the country. Cedar Point has scored a coup in bringing Midnight Syndicate to perform live on stage for the first time for the thousands of guests who each fall weekend brave the often cold, windy and (while we were there) drizzly Cedar Point site.

The huge stage of the Ghoul Time Theatre is filled with an appropriately creepy set reminiscent of an abandoned mausoleum, with crumbing tombstones, evilly-lit stained glass windows, forbidding mist and a full moon that rises up behind the structure as the show begins. Large video screens flank each side of the stage and are used throughout the performance, including before it starts as a video technician projects a live feed of the guests as they arrive in the theatre, with an occasional technical "glitch" that foreshadows much of the performance to come.

Midnight Syndicate
Midnight Syndicate Live! Legacy of Shadows, performing at HalloWeekends in October 2014. Photo courtesy the artists.

The performance itself lasts about 25 minutes, and while there is not a true plot to it, there is a progression of a theme that carries the audience from being mere observers of the talented Edward and Gavin on stage to being subtly involved in a theatrical experience that soon involves both the audience and the entire Cedar Point park outside the theatre. The use of films and live video feeds projected onto the screens flanking the stage, special effects using fog and lasers, a talented female singer who would appear and add her beautiful but appropriately sinister voice to the music, and the omnipresent darkly-gothic music that is Midnight Syndicate made the performance one of the most memorable Halloween events I have ever seen. I won't spoil the surprises, and there were many surprise moments that had the audience jump a bit, but suffice it to say that few if anybody left "Legacy of Shadows" feeling that they had not gotten a good dose of Halloween scares.

Edward and Gavin were waiting outside of the theatre in a "meet and greet" area, where guests could purchase CDs, posters and other Midnight Syndicate merchandise along with meeting the musicians. I found that these two talented performers, -- whose on-stage personas were creepy bordering on evil -- were charming, friendly and loved to pose for pictures with audience members, a complete difference from what I had expected. They are truly talented performers.

I hope that Cedar Point and Midnight Syndicate have many more years of working together, creating unique theatrical experiences that stand out at Cedar Point and make HalloWeekends one of the premier Halloween events in the amusement park world.

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How to Plan an Orlando Vacation: Part Two

By Russell Meyer
Published: October 18, 2014 at 4:49 PM
Previously: Part One

When it comes to theme park tickets, deals are harder and harder to come by these days. There are some sites that offer modest (5%) discounts, but beware of websites that offer more significant discounts. The last thing you want to do is to show up at the Magic Kingdom with your kids and get turned away at the gate with an invalid ticket. You may also be able to get a deal through your employer — it never hurts to ask! Deals on tickets are usually found by carefully selecting the type of ticket you purchase. The more days you purchase, the lower the per-day cost becomes. However, if you purchase more days than you can use and don’t purchase the non-expiring option (still available from Disney, but can only be purchased over the phone or at a ticket gate), you lose the savings of purchasing the extra days. Then there’s the conundrum of purchasing the Park Hopper and/or Waterparks and More options. Perhaps we’ve been brainwashed, but we always get the Park Hopper option on our WDW tickets. We don’t know how to do anything else, because we are always trying to get the most out of our days at the parks, which can sometimes mean changing our strategy based on real time crowd levels and attraction availability. However, for some purchasing the Park Hopper option may be an empty proposition. Park hopping does take time out of the day, but if there’s a parade, show, or event that you want to see on a day when you’re not planning on being in that park, then it’s a must. The Park Hopper option is a flat cost regardless of how many days you have on your pass, so it becomes a cheaper per-day cost the more days you have on your pass.


The Waterparks and More option sounds great at first, but requires closer examination. In order to make it worthwhile, you need to spend at least 2 days at a Disney waterpark, Disney Quest, and/or Wide World of Sports. If you are only spending 5 days at WDW, and only expect to spend 1 day at Typhoon Lagoon, then you’re better off buying a single day admission from the gate rather than getting the Waterpark and More option. However, if you are getting non-expiring tickets on a 7 to 10-day pass, the option could be valuable.

Universal tickets are much simpler, but they do tend to run a lot of ticket specials that can make 3 or 4-day passes the same price as a 2-day pass. There’s also the conundrum of adding the Park-to-Park option, which is required to ride the Hogwarts Express attraction. Again, it’s nice to have the flexibility to go between the parks based on real-time crowd levels, and with the parks within walking distance of each other, park hopping is far less of a time sink than at WDW. Also, for Harry Potter fans, experiencing the Hogwarts Express is a must, so there’s no decision to make.

Other Central Florida parks offer deals and sales throughout the year, but in general it’s always cheaper (and faster!) to purchase your tickets ahead of time instead of at the gate. Additionally, Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa offer a combined ticket (Orlando Flex ticket) that provides access to all six parks (including Wet and Wild and Aquatica), which may be a significant savings for guests taking longer trips to the area.

So now you know when you’re going, what parks you’re visiting, where you’re staying, and you have your tickets. Now it’s time to start deciding what you want to do when you’re there. Depending on when you’ve made your hotel reservation, and what restaurants you want to eat at, you may want to start making Advanced Dining Reservations, or ADRs, at WDW. ADRs become available 180 days in advance, and up to 190 days in advance for guests with onsite hotel reservations (onsite guests can start making ADRs for the first 10 days of their stay, 180 days in advance of check-in). Certain ADRs book very quickly because of popularity (California Grill during Wishes, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest, Hoop De Doo Review, Spirit of Aloha Luau, and more), while others book quickly because there simply aren’t many reservations available (Victoria & Albert’s Chef’s Table).


If you want one of the more coveted reservations, you need to do it online with the reservation system opening at 6 AM each morning. You can still make reservations over the phone starting at 7 AM, but by the time you’ve gotten through to a person to make a reservation, it’s likely that someone online has already nabbed the ADR that you wanted. If you think it’s crazy to make a dining reservation six months before you eat, or simply don’t care about having one of the more coveted reservations, it’s still a good idea to make an ADR for your table service meals at least a month or more in advance. There are few spaces available for walk up guests, and now that ADRs require a credit card deposit to hold reservations, no-shows are rare. Some less-popular sit-down restaurants may have walk up availability because they’re not fully booked, but there’s usually a reason that the place has tables available, especially during peak attendance days (hint, the place might not be that good). The exceptions are the restaurants around the World Showcase at EPCOT due to the high saturation of sit-down restaurants in the park. While you have to provide your credit card to make an ADR, you’re not charged the deposit until you no-show, and generally you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance (some reservations may require more notice) without charge, so there’s nothing wrong with making multiple reservations and making changes as your daily itinerary becomes clearer. On the other hand, guests who miss out on desired reservations should realize that others may reserve ADRs that will ultimately be cancelled, so checking for desired ADRs all the way up to the day you arrive can yield a coveted reservation. Dining reservations are typically not needed more than a few days in advance for sit down restaurants at Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens Tampa. I recently discovered that in-park sit down restaurants like Mythos, Finnegans, and Lombard’s can be made through Open Table, which is great since you can do that very easily with a smart phone. Mythos used to only allow call-in or walk up reservations the day you wanted to eat.

Other advanced reservations should also be made as far in advance as possible. Certain Disney tours and special events fill up very quickly. Many EPCOT Food and Wine Festival signature meals and tasting events can sell out within minutes of becoming available, but it can be highly unpredictable and variable from year to year. Special hard-ticket events at WDW also require advance reservations and do sell out (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party on October 31st has been sold out for a while now), and most do not offer refunds, so it’s critical to be decisive when making these reservations. Behind the scenes tours at Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld require advanced reservations, but you can usually get a spot within a few weeks of the desired date depending upon the time of year.

If you’ve booked an on-site hotel package at WDW, you have access to the FastPass+ reservation system 60 days before your vacation starts. If you’re not staying onsite, you can start accessing the Fastpass+ system 30 days in advance with a valid admission in hand. Unlike ADRs, FP+ reservations open at midnight, and add yet another level of detail to the planning of a WDW vacation. Many people simply don’t want to plan out every minute of their day, but unfortunately, if guests want to experience the most popular attractions, using the FP+ system has become a necessary evil. The system works very much like the online ADR system allowing guests to choose a day, a park, and attraction followed by a list of times that a FP+ reservation can be made. Once you select the time, your reservation is made, but can be changed at any time. Just like the old FastPass system, the times are given in one-hour return windows, and subsequent FP+ reservations cannot overlap. Guests can make up to three FP+ reservations per day, which must all be in the same park even you if have a Park Hopper. Guests can even make FP+ reservations for preferred parade and fireworks viewing. You should make reservations for the three attractions that you most want to experience during your visit. There are a number of different strategies that seem to change by the day, but I think as long as you make 3 FP+ reservations for attractions that you want to experience that typically have longer lines, you can’t go wrong. Based on the recent test, making a FP+ reservation for Toy Story Midway Mania is practically a must, unless you really really like Rock 'n' Roller coaster (the FP+ system prohibits you from reserving both in the same day as part of the first three FP+ reservations).

FLA 136

Another important thing to remember is that once you’ve used your first three FP+ reservations, you can get more, but only one at a time, and only via the in-park kiosks. This means it makes sense to front-load your FP+ reservations earlier in the day unless it’s really important to have preferred viewing areas for afternoon/evening parades and fireworks. However, if you’re not a morning person, and don’t plan on getting to the park until after lunch, it doesn’t do any good to have a FP+ reservation at 10-11 AM.

Also, it’s probably valuable to try to get your FP+ return times to coalesce. Again, this requires you to intricately plan out your day more than most people want to, but considering how you are going to walk around the park can keep you from having to backtrack. For instance, if you select a 10-11 AM FP+ reservation for Big Thunder Mountain, followed by a 11 AM -12 PM FP+ reservation for Space Mountain followed by a 12-1 PM reservation for Splash Mountain, that’s going to be a lot of walking back and forth with little time to ride anything in between. The online system allows you to pull up a map so you can see where things are located throughout the parks, so you can see how close things are. This is our first trip to WDW using the FP+ system, and it seemed pretty easy to get what we wanted as onsite guests (reserving at midnight 60+ days in advance, but still couldn’t get Anna and Elsa), but I’m curious to see how the system actually works in the parks, and how successful we will be at getting additional reservations later in the day. Just like ADRs, it’s worth continuously checking the system to see if some FP+ reservation times become available as others tweak their itinerary. Also, don’t forget to cross check your FP+ times with your dining reservations — you don’t want to miss a ride because you’re eating or vice versa. The MyMagic+ system allows you to view each day’s itinerary in calendar form to make sure there aren’t any conflicts. You can even add your own personal notes into the system like meeting with friends or family or something non-Disney related in your schedule.


For the rest of the Central Florida theme parks, there’s very little else you need to do in advance, aside from deciding what you’d like to do. It might be valuable to check current show times at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa a few days in advance, and if you’re going on an extremely busy day, you might want to consider purchasing Universal Express or Quick Queue (BGT/SW) to limit line waiting at those parks.


My wife and I have been planning trips to Central Florida for years now, and it’s never been more complicated than it has been this year (having a four-year-old has had something to do with that). While the FP+ system seems to be easy to use, the increased level of detail required in planning is disturbing, and has completely changed the way we used to tour the Disney parks, as we used to consider ourselves FastPass power users. We leave this weekend for Orlando, and I’m still not 100% confident that the system will work seamlessly all the time and I doubt that it will in any way increase the efficiency at which we used to tour the parks. I guess we’ll just wait and see — wish us luck!

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Vote of the Week: What is Your Theme Park Dream Job?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 17, 2014 at 2:39 PM
Have you ever dreamed about working in a theme park? Many of us here on Theme Park Insider have worked in the parks, as the site's name suggests. (I even wrote a book about my experiences working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.) But many theme park fans who've only visited harbor dreams about one day quitting their job up north (or wherever) to stay and make going to the park their full-time job instead.

Theme parks offer a wide variety of jobs — from waiters and servers and store cashiers to ride attendants to monorail drivers to musical and character performers to just about every "back of house" job you can imagine. Work in auto-repair shop? You could get a job maintaining fleet and ride vehicles for a theme park. Do accounting? Yeah, theme parks need to keep track of their money, too. Work in health care? Theme parks not only have first-aid stations for guests, some of them now even operate health clinics for their employees, too. Heck, several former senior Disney Imagineers have talked about all the former defense industry workers that Disney hired to help design attractions after the big layoffs among defense contractors in the Los Angeles area after the end of the Cold War.

Theme park musician
How about being a theme park violinist?

Ultimately, though, it's the pay that keeps many theme park fans from chasing their dreams. Few front-line, in-park jobs pay more than $10 per hour. Plenty of back of house employees earn enough to make a career, but in-park attraction, cashier, server, and entertainment positions typically see high turnover rates, as employees/cast members/team members either move on to school, other careers, or better-paying jobs elsewhere in the company.

Still, wouldn't some of these jobs be fun? Some people do find ways to be able to afford to stay in low-paying jobs. When I worked at Disney World, I saw many positions held by retirees who relied on their pensions for their livelihood and came out to work in the parks just for the joy and satisfaction of it. I even encountered a few younger employees who never seemed to be short of cash, despite their job's low pay. Former lottery winner? Trust-fund baby? Graduate of the Walter White School of Supplementary Income? I never knew.

So let's set aside financial concerns for a moment to ask... if you didn't have to worry about money and could work any job in a theme park, what would that job be?

To make this our Vote of the Week, we'll offer the choice of five categories:

  • Attractions: Including ride operators, show ushers, audience crowd control workers, and tour guides
  • Entertainment: Including show performers, musicians, face characters, and the people inside the cartoon character suits
  • Food or Merchandise: Including bartenders, waiters, chefs, bakers, and boutique hosts, as well as those ubiquitous cashiers and cart workers
  • Transportation: The people who drive the monorails, trains, buses, trams, and boats that get you around and between the parks
  • Back of House: Everyone else whom you do not see, including the office and maintenance workers, promotions and publicity people, and ride designers.

Let's put it to a vote! Please pick the category that includes your particular dream job.

In the comments, tell us the specifics of your theme park dream job. Or, if you do work or have worked in a theme park, tell us about that experience.

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How to Plan an Orlando Vacation: Part One

By Russell Meyer
Published: October 17, 2014 at 10:18 AM
Theme Park Insider has a number of great tools for getting the most out of a theme park-centric trip to Central Florida. It offers reviews of parks, attractions, restaurants, hotels, and much more. It also offers some general travel tips to the region and other theme park regions around the world. However, the process of planning a family vacation to Central Florida can be very complex, especially with the ever-changing FastPass+ system and the other continually expanding options beyond the gates of Walt Disney World. My family has just completed most of that planning process as we prepare for our 12-day Central Florida vacation beginning this weekend. This is by no mean our first trip (I think it's the 10th since my wife and I began dating nearly 18 years ago), but the advent of the My Magic+ system has dramatically changed the way we have planned our trip this time around.


First, let’s start from the beginning. Most visitors planning a trip typically plan their vacation around a certain time of year. For some, children’s school schedules are a consideration, while others plan trips around holidays or special events (birthdays, anniversaries, etc…). Guests should always consider the ramifications of the time of year that you choose to visit WDW and the theme parks of Central Florida. If you are a crowd-adverse person, traveling during the peak summer or holiday months (Christmas/New Year or Spring Break) could result in a disappointing trip with extensive line waiting, shoulder to shoulder crowds, and daily frustration. Even minor holidays like MLK Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, and Veteran’s Day have become more popular over the years with heavier crowds and increased wait times (this week’s Columbus Day saw wait times for popular attractions like Escape from Gringotts and Toy Story Midway Mania exceed two hours).


However, the downside of avoiding the peak attendance days is that parks tend to gear their maintenance schedules around the expected crowds, and also tailor their park hours to past attendance trends. This means that while guests can tour the Magic Kingdom from 8 AM until 1 AM or later during the summer months, with virtually every possible attraction running at peak capacity, visitors during off-peak months can see park hours trimmed significantly with some attractions running less frequently or closed altogether. We have typically planned trips around less crowded times of year, typically in October/early November, and have usually been pleased with the crowd levels and wait times. This time of year has the advantages of seeing the parks decorated for the season (Halloween and sometimes Christmas in early November), special events (Howl-O-Scream at BGT, Shamu’s Spooktacular at Sea World, HHN at Universal, Food and Wine Festival at EPCOT, and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at MK), and generally cheaper hotel rates along with special room promotions.



Once you’ve decided when you want to go, it’s now time to start the serious planning. In the past, my wife and I started the initial planning process 4-6 months in advance, but with the advent of My Magic+, we started planning our upcoming trip nearly 8 months ago. Planning should start with the amount of time you want to spend on vacation, which can vary greatly depending upon your individual circumstances. We like to go for at least a full week, and our upcoming trip will be our longest ever.

Once you’ve figured out how many days you can spend on your vacation, you need to determine how you’re going to get there. For those of us on the east coast, the decision is more complicated, while those west of the Mississippi are probably flying. My wife and I have traditionally taken the drive down I-95 from the Washington, DC region, which is about a 12-hour trip that is accomplished in a straight shot. This strategy is not something I would recommend to everyone, but if you can do it, especially overnight with kids sleeping in the back seat, it can maximize time spent having fun while saving the costs of plane tickets and rental car. Some may prefer to make it more of a road trip with stops along the way, including at the infamous South of the Border, but no matter how you do it, the drive down I-95 to Florida still is a rite of passage for many in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States. Travelers along the I-95 corridor also have the option of the Amtrak Auto-train, but the cost can be prohibitive ($380 just for the car with passenger fares ranging from $100 to $250 each way).

For everyone else who takes a plane, there are still choices to be made. In addition to choosing which airline to fly, visitors can also choose from a number of different airports. Some may find cheaper fares and better flights into Tampa, Daytona, or other Florida airports. The obvious advantage to flying into Orlando (MCO) is the ability to take advantage of the Disney's Magical Express and numerous other hotel shuttles, which can take the need for a rental car completely out of the equation. We have never taken advantage of Magical Express, but have heard decent reviews of the system, which essentially is a free ride to and from the airport to Walt Disney World for guests who have onsite resort reservations. The obvious negative of Magical Express is that guests are stuck with all Disney all the time while they’re onsite, but there’s nothing stopping someone from splitting their vacation between multiple resorts/hotels. Many people simply spend the first half of their trip at WDW, catch a ride back to the airport, where they then rent a car for the second half of their vacation, or simply take a taxi or shuttle to a Universal-area hotel. The advantage is that you really don’t need a car while you’re onsite at WDW with its robust transportation network, and many people are perfectly happy spending a week or more without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

Now that you know how you’re getting there, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do while you’re in Central Florida, and where you want to stay. This is another very personal decision, and there’s really no right answer. Whether you want to spend 7 days at WDW or 5 days at WDW and 2 days at Universal, it’s something that you should try to determine early in the planning stages. For us, our trips to Central Florida almost always include at least a day at Sea World and another at Busch Gardens Tampa to make use of our BG Platinum passes.


We also considered a day at Legoland, but since our son has not yet crossed the 42” threshold, we decided to defer our visit to Florida’s newest theme park until our next trip. For us, the allocation of the remaining days of our trip came down to value based on the various park ticketing options. For others, allocation of days may come down to simple preference, or which parks are offering new attractions since your last visit. Even if you’re not a first-time visitor, a good rule of thumb is to assume that it will take at least a full day to experience each park. Depending upon when you’re visiting, you may want to also experience a special event, exclusive meal, or spend part of a day relaxing at the resort or one of the many waterparks.


With 4 days remaining to plan after allocating a day at each of the 4 WDW parks and 2 Universal parks, we chose to spend a split day between Aquatica and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, 2 extra days for Universal Orlando (primarily to allow extra time for Diagon Alley and new attractions that our son is now tall enough to ride like Spiderman, Simpsons, and Transformers) including an evening at Halloween Horror Nights for me, and one extra day for WDW.


Some people may want to have a complete rest day or extra days to visit Kennedy Space Center, other local attractions, a day at the beach, or a visit with family. The only thing that’s important is to have a rough idea where you need to be during each part of your vacation.


Once you have a basic plan as to what parks you want to visit and how many days you’re spending in each park, it’s time to look around for hotels and buy tickets. This process should be done together (at least at first) since both WDW and Universal offer deals based upon purchasing hotel and tickets as a package. If you already have tickets from a previous trip (really old WDW tickets or tickets purchased with the non-expiring option) or have an annual pass, you may not need to purchase a package. However, even if you already have tickets or annual pass, it may be valuable to purchase a package to take advantage of deals like room discounts (typically 30%) or the free dining promotion, which Disney runs frequently during non-peak seasons. You can even choose to reserve a room simply as a placeholder, and go back and add tickets later to take advantage of a promotion. For example, we reserved a hotel for our upcoming trip back in March, but Disney offered a free dining promotion during our travel window in May. In order to take advantage of the promotion, buying tickets along with the hotel was required (we already had 10-day non-expiring park hoppers from a previous trip, but would have needed to buy tickets for our son anyway), so we cancelled our existing reservation and rebooked a package to get the free dining. Universal doesn’t typically do Disney-style hotel promotions, but onsite hotel prices typically begin increasing about 2-4 months ahead of the reservation, and the same goes for off-site hotels. However, most hotel reservations can be cancelled without penalty (unless you’re reserving through on a pre-purchase discounted rate), so there’s nothing wrong with continuing to look at rates all the way up to the day you depart to see if a deal pops up. Always remember the advantages and disadvantages of staying at an onsite resort versus off-site, and don’t forget about rental properties that can be great for larger families or extended stays. WDW resort guests have access to their resort’s amenities along with a 30-day head start on making FastPass+ reservations (more on that later). Resort guests also receive Magic Bands as part of their package, which replace the “Keys to the Kingdom”. The Magic Bands also act as room keys, allow guests to charge items to the credit card associated with the room with a simple tap, and integrate into the Photo Pass system, which now includes access to on-ride photos and videos. Disney resort guests also receive access to Magic Hours at the theme parks, which allow exclusive additional time for onsite guests to enjoy a selected park each day.

Along with that, WDW resort guests receive free parking at all of the theme parks, a cost that is often overlooked when comparing onsite and off-site resort rates. On-site guests at Universal receive early entry to the theme parks. For those staying at the Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, and Portofino Bay, guests also receive Universal Express, which allows guests to bypass the standby lines at many attractions, a perk that is considered one of the best in the industry. However, all onsite Universal guests are still required to pay for parking. Many nearby off-site hotels offer shuttles or have partnerships with the parks, but you should always check with the hotel if something seems too good to be true. Most hotels that offer shuttles do not run them like a taxi service, meaning that you are subject to their schedule. Some hotel shuttles do not get guests to the park before park opening, and do not operate after park closing, so if you want to be at the gate 15 minutes before rope drop and leave after the nighttime show, which ends 10 minutes after park closing, the shuttles may be totally worthless. Make sure to call the hotel to verify how the shuttle operates, and the times that it runs.

Tomorrow: Part Two, with advice on tickets, and dining and ride reservations, including Fastpass+

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When Should You Buy a Disney Annual Pass?

By Robert Niles
Published: October 16, 2014 at 2:16 PM
When does it makes sense for a theme park fan to stop buying individual or multi-day tickets, and instead invest in an annual pass?

If you are thinking about buying an annual pass to a theme park, you will want to make sure that you will be visiting the park enough times that the price-per-day you end up paying for the annual pass is less than the price-per-day you would end up paying with some other type of ticket. But how many days do you need to visit to "break even" or come out ahead by buying an annual pass?

Obviously, that depends upon the price of the annual pass and the other tickets available, and varies from park to park across the country. Today, we will look at the Disney theme parks to determine the "break even" point for annual passes at the Walt Disney World and the Disneyland Resorts.

Note that the prices listed below do not include local taxes. Nor are we including 10%-20% discounts on food and merchandise that annual pass holders get in the parks. In-park spending varies wildly, so let's consider what we have here as the "worst case" scenario for buying an annual pass. If you spend a lot inside the parks, you could make an annual pass a better deal for you on fewer visits.

Disney World

For Walt Disney World

One-day tickets at Walt Disney World cost $99 for the Magic Kingdom and $94 for the other three parks (Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom.) But you can get the per-day cost of visiting Walt Disney World down to $41.40 per day if you buy a 10-day ticket. (We are adding the cost of the Park Hopper option to all multi-day tickets for this analysis, as park-hopping is included on all Disney annual passes. You should also know that all days on a multi-day ticket must be used within 14 days of the ticket's first use, otherwise they expire.)

An annual passport to the Walt Disney World Resort costs $634, which is $220 more than $414 cost of the 10-day ticket, the longest sold on the website. So if you're visit Disney World just once during a 12-month period, you're probably better off sticking with a multi-day ticket for that visit instead of buying an annual pass. An annual pass provides you with free parking, but that doesn't save you anything if you are staying at a Disney hotel and using Disney transportation instead of parking in the theme park lots. Even if you do pay the $17 a day for parking, that's an extra $170 for the whole family over 10 days, still less than the cost of upgrading to the annual pass, even if you go by yourself.

But what if you are planning to visit the resort more than once during a 12-month period?

You would need to make seven separate one-day visits to Disney World in a year (one day at least 14 days apart) to make the annual pass a better deal for you. (Six times if you are visiting by yourself and paying for parking each time.) And that's assuming that you don't park-hop on one-day visits. If you do want to park-hop on one day visits, please just go ahead and visit often enough to justify buying some form of annual pass, because paying $134 for a one-day park-hopper (plus another $17 for parking) is just insane.

What if you visit the parks more often than once in a 14-day period each time you come down to Florida? If you visit the parks for just two days within a 14-day period when visiting Disney World, and park hop those days, buy the annual pass if you'll be visiting three or more times per year. The WDW annual pass becomes a better deal than multi-day tickets of you visit the resort just twice a year and visit the parks three days within 14 days each time you come down to Florida.

You don't need to visit as often to make the annual pass a good deal if you are a resident of Florida, which is nice, considering the parks likely will be more convenient for you then, anyway. Florida residents can buy a Disney World annual pass for $517. That means you'd need to make at least six separate one-day visits to the resort to be ahead with the annual pass. Florida residents can get discounted three-day tickets for $179, and four-day tickets for $199. So if you live in Florida and are thinking about Disney World just as a long weekend getaway once or twice a year, those discounted multi-day tickets would be better deals for you than an annual pass. Three times or more? Get the annual pass.

Let us throw a couple more options at you — ones that apply for people who have the flexibility to visit outside the traditional "high seasons" around summer, spring break and the Christmas holiday. Disney offers a Seasonal Pass to Floridians for $340 and a Weekday Select Pass for $233. The seasonal pass is blocked out for the spring break, summer and Christmas holiday seasons, while the weekday pass basically is valid only on weekdays during the school year. But if you are flexible about when you visit, those annual passes can be a better deal than one-day tickets after just four one-day visits on the seasonal pass and just three one-day visits with the weekday pass.

It's not listed on the website anymore, but Walt Disney World does offer the ability to add a "no expiration" option to multi-day tickets, which removes the 14-day limit on using all the days on your multi-day ticket. This option raises the prices of a 10-day park-hopper ticket from $414 to $776, so it's not cheap. At a cost of $77.60 per day, the 10-day no-expiration pass doesn't provide much of a hedge against future price increases anymore. This option only really makes sense for people who visit the parks fewer than three days at a time, and who aren't going to visit enough in one year to make the annual pass worth the cost, and who will visit often enough eventually to use all 10 of those days.


For Disneyland

At the Disneyland Resort, a one-day/one-park ticket costs $96, while an unrestricted annual pass goes for $699. That's right, an annual pass at Disneyland (with two parks) costs $65 more than an annual pass for Walt Disney World (with four parks). And there's no discount for locals on the Disneyland annual pass, as there is for Floridians buying an annual pass to Walt Disney World. (Disneyland does offer its own version of the weekdays-only pass to locals, which we will get to in a bit.)

You would have to visit Disneyland eight times in a year to make the annual pass a better deal than buying one-day tickets. (Seven times if you visit by yourself and pay for parking.) But what if you wanted to spend more than one day at Disneyland or California Adventure during any given 14-day period? The Disneyland annual pass is a better deal than buying four $217 two-day park-hopper tickets, or buying three park-hoppers of three-, four-, or five-days.

What about that weekdays-only pass, the SoCal Select Pass? That's just $289, which makes the price just about even with buying three one-day passes. This pass does not include parking, but Disney sells a "free parking" add-on to the pass for $159, so you'd need to visit the park at least 10 times over the year to make that option a better deal than paying $17 per day to park.

Finally, what if you want to visit both Walt Disney World and Disneyland within a year? Disney sells a Premier Passport that's good at both resorts. The Premier Passport cost $1,029 dollars and gives you all the benefits of the $699 Disneyland annual pass and the $754 Premium annual passport at Walt Disney World, which includes the water parks, DisneyQuest, and the Oak Trail golf course. The $330 price difference between the Premier Passport and the Disneyland AP makes moving up to the Premier a good deal for a Disneyland annual passholder who is planning to visit Walt Disney World once during the year and staying for three days or more at Disney World.

For Disney World passholders, moving up to the Premier costs $275 more than the full-price WDW Premium passport, $395 more than the full-price regular AP, and $512 more than the WDW AP with a Florida resident discount. Upgrading to the Premier from the Premium WDW pass is a better deal than buying a $289 Disneyland four-day park-hopper or the $305 park-hopper on top of the WDW Premium pass. Otherwise, a WDW passholder would need to visit Disneyland at least twice during the year to make the Premier upgrade a better deal than just buying a multi-day Disneyland ticket in addition to a WDW annual pass.

To summarize: (The TL;DR)

Stick with multi-day tickets at Walt Disney World if you're visiting only once in a 12-month period.

If you are visiting Florida more than once in a year, buy a Walt Disney World annual pass if you will make:

  • 7 one-day visits (six if you are a Florida resident or go by yourself and pay for parking), or
  • 3 two-day visits, or
  • 2 three-or-more-day visits
in a year.

Buy a Disneyland annual pass if you will make:

  • 8 one-day visits (7 if you visit by yourself and pay for parking), or
  • 4 two-day visits, or
  • 3 three-day-or-more visits
in a year.

If you can visit on weekdays during the school year and live in Florida or Southern California, consider buying a Weekday Select Pass or a SoCal Select Pass instead if you are planning to visit three or more weekdays a year and don't plan to visit on weekends or during busy vacation periods.

You might be able to justify buying an annual pass with fewer visits if you spend enough money in the parks to get significant additional savings from the passes' 10-20% food and merchandise discounts.

Upgrade to a Premier Pass if you are a Disneyland AP holder who will visit WDW once during the year for at least three days. If you are a Disney World passholder, upgrade to Premier only if you are visiting Disneyland twice or more during the year.

That's it! What kind of theme park ticket do you buy when you visit Disney? Tell us your ticket-buying stories, in the comments.

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