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  • Say My Name, E.T. Say My Name!E.T. is greeting riders by name again at Universal Orlando. But for how long?
  • Gifts for Theme Park FansGet ready for your next trip like a Theme Park Insider
  • Latest News on Star Wars LandDisney's CEO talks about plans to bring the new movies to the parks
  • The Top 10 Theme Parks You Wish to VisitOur editor offers his wish-list of parks to visit, and invites you to share yours
Say My Name, E.T. Say My Name! Gifts for Theme Park Fans Latest News on Star Wars Land The Top 10 Theme Parks You Wish to Visit
Robert Niles

Vote of the Week: When Do You Start Planning a Vacation?

Published: December 19, 2014 at 4:13 PM

When's the right time to start planning a theme park vacation?

I suspect that many Theme Park Insider readers would answer "anytime!" So let's change the question a bit: How far in advance should you start planning your vacation to ensure that you will find the best deal at the place you really want to visit?

Buena Vista Street for the holidays
The view at Disney California Adventure this week. When did you start planning this year's holiday travel?

On our travel tips page, we quote some industry studies that suggest travelers should book their airline tickets 50-60 days before departure to get the best deal on U.S. domestic tickets, and about 150 days (five months!) before departure for the best prices on trips between the U.S. and Europe. But Walt Disney World starts accepting Fastpass+ reservations for its hotel guests 60 days before the start of a trip, and the resort takes dining reservations six months in advance. So if your dream trip includes a meal at hard-to-book WDW restaurants such as Be Our Guest or Cinderella's Royal Table, you'll want to have your plans in place before that six-month window opens, as those restaurants often "sell out" the day that their reservations become available.

But you don't have to plan that far in advance to enjoy a great theme park getaway. Many fans have taken a spur-of-the-moment roadtrip to visit a theme park, with no reservations in hand, and ended up having a wonderful time. When my (then-future) wife and I were in graduate school, we were sitting in the cafeteria on a Friday afternoon with no plans for a rare homework-free weekend. What should we do? Being a couple of former cast members with some leftover free tickets, we answered "Let's go to Disney World!"

Twenty minutes later, we were in my car and on the road from Bloomington, Indiana to Orlando for the 14-hour drive to my parents' house near Walt Disney World. By 8am the next morning, we were riding on the ferryboat from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom. Later that day, over at Epcot, we ran into one of Laurie's former sorority sisters from Northwestern, who'd jumped on a last-minute discount airfare (remember those?) from Chicago to visit Disney World on a whim that weekend, too.

Obviously, having some free tickets and a place to stay makes last-minute theme park visits quite a bit more affordable. But with apps helping people book same-day discount hotel rooms, gas prices dropping, and many regional parks offering discounts to fans via their Twitter and Facebook accounts, fans can find ways to make spur-of-the-moment trips possible.

So how do you do it? Even if you're always thinking about your next theme park visit (and for that, we thank you!), how far before the trip do you start "getting serious" and move into more active trip planning?

Thanks for voting! In the comments, we'd love to hear about any unusual paths you've taken to a theme park visit, from last-minute trips to epic group-planning efforts. As always, thank you for joining us here in the Theme Park Insider community and we wish you a very merry Christmas week!

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Robert Niles

Disney's Star Wars vs. Universal's Harry Potter, in One Photo

Published: December 19, 2014 at 1:30 PM

If you'd like to see the differences between Disney and Universal's treatment of the most popular film franchises in their theme parks, illustrated in one photo, here you go:

Can you imagine a Universal Studios T-shirt depicting Voldemort on the Caro-Seuss-el? Or Minions in wizard robes? It's impossible to imagine J.K. Rowling allowing such trivialization of the Wizarding World and its inhabitants.

But George Lucas long has shown a great acceptance of irreverence toward his Star Wars characters. After all, you can't greenlight the Star Wars Holiday Special if you're taking your characters too seriously. Let's not forget other examples of Lucas and his team poking fun, or at least allowing others to poke fun, at the Star Wars universe: the Stand Up to Cancer spoof, Death Star PR, Spaceballs, and possibly the most irreverent officially-blessed Star Wars take-off ever, Disney's Hyperspace Hoopla. There's some great stuff about Lucas' tolerance, and even enthusiasm, for spoofs in the new book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, and author Chris Taylor talked in an interview with The New Yorker about how a desire to be more serious in the prequels weighed down the "effervescent giddiness" of the original films.

In contrast, perhaps the closest that J.K. Rowling, with her drier British wit, has come to satirizing her creation was a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" that made fun of her fans more than her works. Sure, there's abundant humor in the Harry Potter world, but even when a gag takes you out of that world (hello, "spell-o-tape," a joke that about 1 in 100 Americans gets), it's never reduces the Wizarding World to tropes like putting Darth Vader in a Space Mountain rocket.

The irony, of course, is that traditionally it's been Universal that's been known for abundant irreverence and sarcasm in its theme park attractions while Disney has treated its properties with much more earnest respect. If there were any doubt that we're living in a moment when franchises dominate the theme park industry, let's consider these examples of Star Wars and Harry Potter — franchises so powerful that they made Disney irreverent and Universal take something seriously.

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Amanda Jenkins

Where to Eat: Dinner at Be Our Guest Restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Published: December 18, 2014 at 9:13 PM

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Robert Niles

Say My Name, E.T. Say My Name!

Published: December 17, 2014 at 6:59 PM

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Robert Niles

Trattoria al Forno Opens Tomorrow; STK Comes to Disney Springs

Published: December 17, 2014 at 11:32 AM

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Robert Niles

Monday Top 10: The Theme Parks You Dream of Visiting Someday

Published: December 15, 2014 at 11:34 AM

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