Published: October 18, 2014 at 4:49 PM
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).
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!