February 2015 at Walt Disney World

February is a great month to visit Walt Disney World. The weather is starting to improve, crowds remain low most of the month, hotels are offering discounts and off-season pricing, and it’s a great time to see the parks in their “normal” states. All of this makes February a pretty solid time to visit Walt Disney World.

While I stated that I’m not much of a fan of January at Walt Disney World, February is totally different. The big thing for me is that it lacks that holiday hangover–that awkward time in mid-January when you’re “over” Christmas and there isn’t any seasonal entertainment, but the decorations are still oddly up and Christmas music is still playing. I’m a huge fan of Christmas, but I don’t enjoy seeing its remnants in the middle of January. Then, it’s just sort of like the Christmas tree in your house that you wish weren’t there, but you’re too lazy to take down. Additionally, February has better weather than January and pretty similar crowds.

Speaking of crowds, February really is a tale of two months. The first half of the month and last half of the month are both pretty slow, with low to moderate crowds most days. Then there’s President’s Day week. For most people, President’s Day isn’t a weeklong holiday, but in terms of crowds at Walt Disney World, it absolutely is. A lot of people visit for the long weekend, with some staying the rest of the week, but that’s not the only reason it’s busy. At the end of this week, it’s the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend. With the President’s Day holiday and the Princess Half Marathon effectively “bookending” the week, the crowds are really bad throughout the entire week, and it’s actually now one of the busier weeks of the year.

You can really see the difference in crowds reflected in the Because of this, expect February Walt Disney World Park Hours. On days that aren’t going to be all that busy, the Magic Kingdom closes at 9 pm or 10 pm. On days that are going to be busy, you’ll see midnight and even 1 am closings for the Magic Kingdom. For those wondering about crowds for any particular day (any day of the year, not just February) park hours are a pretty good proxy for crowds. Walt Disney World bases its operating hours on its crowd level forecasts (and it’s pretty good at forecasting crowds based on hotel bookings and historical data), and shorter hours mean lower anticipated crowds, whereas later operating hours mean higher crowds. For more tips on what times of year might be good for visiting, check out our When To Visit Walt Disney World post for the best and worst months of the year.

Let’s take a look at the other upsides and downsides to visiting Walt Disney World in February… (more…)

Best IllumiNations Viewing Spots

epcot-fireworks-map copy

This post highlights the best viewing spots for the IllumiNations fireworks at Epcot in Walt Disney World. Here we will provide some general tips about the best locations, and point out the best of these on a map of World Showcase. I’ve watched and photographed IllumiNations way too many times (actually, you can never see IllumiNations too many times–it’s by far the best nighttime spectacular at Walt Disney World) and can say that not all viewing spots for Illuminations were created equally.

Unfortunately, unlike my Best Magic Kingdom Fireworks Viewing Spots post which contained an easy to follow map with color coded areas of good, bad, and okay spots from which to watch Wishes!, the same really isn’t possible for Epcot. This is because within a span of 10 feet, you might have both an awesome and awful viewing spot, due to trees, food carts, or other obstructions.

Instead of a color-coded map that won’t really be helpful, for this post I’m going to instead highlight my 5 favorite spots, along with some alternatives to those spots, and general discussions about choosing a spot for watching IllumiNations. Choosing a prime location for IllumiNations is actually easier said than done, as certain variables, such as the direction of the wind and where there might be IllumiNations dessert parties or private events that eliminate potential viewings areas as options for regular park guests change often.

Before choosing a spot for IllumiNations on a particular day, determine which way the wind is blowing. There are all sorts of scientific ways for doing this (and there’s probably an app for it), but it should be as simple feeling the wind blow on you. If it’s intense enough that you can feel the wind, you will want to avoid anywhere that will be down-wind of the center of the fireworks in the middle of World Showcase Lagoon. The show can produce a lot of smoke, and if you’re down-wind of that, you may not see much of the second half of the show. Most nights it’s not windy enough for this to be a problem, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

The first thing you should do when arriving at any potential viewing spot is to survey the area above and around you to see if there are any torches, light poles, or trees blocking your view of the Lagoon. If so, and you still have the time to find a different spot, do so.

If you didn't blink for 103 seconds, this is what Illuminations would look like to you. I don't recommend not blinking for 103 seconds. This fireworks photo was shot with a neutral density filter.More on neutral density filters: http://www.disneytouristblog.com/neutral-density-filter-reviews-buying-guide/

Along the same lines, but easier said than done, look towards the middle of World Showcase Lagoon to determine whether you can see to the middle, or if your view is blocked by a little island of trees. There are a couple of these that can impact views of the Earth Globe barge during the show.

The good news is that, obstructions and weather aside, since IllumiNations takes place in the center of World Showcase Lagoon, if you pick a spot that can see the center of the Lagoon, you will be able to see IllumiNations. It isn’t like Wishes in this regard, as some spots that have good views of Cinderella Castle actually are poor views of the fireworks due to perspective distortion. There’s no perspective distortion here. The bad news is that IllumiNations doesn’t just take place high in the air…it also has low-level fireworks and a globe display, meaning you really will want a “front row” spot along the rails around World Showcase Lagoon.

That pretty much covers the basics, now let’s take a look at my favorite specific spots… (more…)

Guide to FastPass+ at Disney World

This guide to FastPass+ at Walt Disney World is a primer for using the new ride reservation system, the best FastPass+ selection, and tips on what to get for minimizing wait times, and a whole host of other things. As FastPass+ has been available in its current form for over a year now, this guide has been a long time in the making, but now that the dust has finally settled, so to speak, and FastPass+ and the rest of MyMagic+ (see our MyMagic+ FAQ post to fully understand this large Walt Disney World vacation planning program) is out of test-mode and is finished with its early growing pains, we felt it was time to finally offer a detailed guide for using FastPass+ at Walt Disney World.

To start, a bit of background is probably in order. FastPass+ is the second generation of FastPass at Walt Disney World, with paper FastPass ride reservations (or a virtual queueing system, whatever you want to call it) first came on the scene in the late 1990s for popular attractions. The idea then was to get people out of lines and allow them to do other things while waiting for their ride reservation window (read: spending money). The original FastPass system had its strengths and weaknesses, all of which were argued ad nauseum in various corners of the internet, but it undeniably worked to the advantage of uber Disney fans who figured out various ways to leverage the system, obtaining stashes of FastPasses over the course of the day and efficiently touring the parks.

There was hence some trepidation about FastPass+ when it first went into test mode and was officially rolled out in early 2014, as those who had spent years mastering the old system would have to learn a new system, and discover ways to use it to their advantage. To add to the ire of these guests, the initial roll-out was rocky (actually, rocky would be an understatement), with many Disney fans considering FastPass+ and the whole MyMagic+ endeavor to be one of Walt Disney World’s greatest, and costliest, blunders. The purpose of this post isn’t to debate the merits of this billion-dollar plus Disney project or discuss its sordid history. Suffice to say, FastPass+ had a really rough start.

Fortunately for you (and anyone willing to expend a little effort planning), the FastPass+ system now operates smoothly for the most part, and can leveraged by guests who understand it much like the previous system could. While FastPass+ can’t be taken advantage of to the same degree as regular paper FastPass, guests who are “in the know” can still make it work to their advantage. All it takes is a little patience and spending the time to understand how FastPass+ works.

While we can’t grant you patience, we will help you understand the system in this post… (more…)

1-Day Disney’s Hollywood Studios “Daily Trip Blueprint”

If we were going to spend a “perfect” day in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, these are the attractions we would do, the restaurants at which we’d dine, the shows we’d see, and the details we’d try to enjoy. This post continues our series of 1-day park itineraries designed to answer the frequently asked question, “what would you do if you only had one day in ____ Disney park?” We call this series our “Daily Trip Blueprints,” or DTBs for short.

Frankly, “perfect day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios” in 2015 is sort of a misnomer. If I wanted to have a perfect day at Walt Disney World, that day would involve not going to Disney’s Hollywood Studios this year. This is because Disney closed a slew of attractions at Hollywood Studios around the start of the fiscal year, with the rumored reasoning being to save operating costs as expensive construction began to totally overhaul the park.

This overhaul is rumored to contain a massive “Pixar Place” expansion (that may or may not include elements of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure and almost certainly will include attractions akin to Toy Story Playland in Hong Kong Disneyland) and a huge Star Wars Land. Again, this is rumor, but construction is expected to begin at some point in 2015 with an announcement being made at the upcoming D23 Expo. The expansion will also include placemaking and other cosmetic and thematic changes to the park, the first of which is occurring with the removal of the giant Mickey Mouse Sorcerer’s Hat at the front of the park.

All of this, unfortunately, means that Disney’s Hollywood Studios is in sort of sad shape right now, and likely only get worse later this year and into next (and beyond) as the park becomes a sea of construction walls. If you’re planning a once in a lifetime trip and are dead-set on doing every park at Walt Disney World, by all means, go. You’ll still have a good time. However, if I were going to skip any park this year or thinking about devoting a day to Universal Orlando, well, Disney’s Hollywood Studios would probably get skipped. It’s not high on my “List of Places to Visit” for 2015.

With all of that said, this post assumes moderate crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on the day of your visit; actual crowds and park hours vary. Consult our When to Visit Walt Disney World post to determine how bad crowds might actually be, or to plan your visit. If you’re looking for something more comprehensive to plan every aspect of your Walt Disney World vacation, from where to purchase discount tickets to transportation to what to pack and more, read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide.

FastPass+ is somewhat important for Disney’s Hollywood Studios (read more about FastPass+ in our MyMagic+ FAQ), especially if you want to do Toy Story Mania. The Studios uses a tiered system for FastPass+, and my top picks for each tier are as follows: Toy Story Mania (Tier A) plus Tower of Terror and Star Tours (Tier B). For the plan, we’ll assume you are able to make the recommended FastPass+ selections. At other parks, you want to make FastPass+ reservations for earlier in the day so you can get more FastPass+, but it doesn’t really matter here, as the other FastPass+ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (besides Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster) are sort of worthless.

We’re also going to arbitrarily assume that you want to stay in a hotel that’s most convenient to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which is also a hotel convenient to Epcot, as the hotels in the Crescent Lake Resort Area are within walking distance of both parks. If you’re spending several nights at Walt Disney World, this area may not be your priority, but if Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios are your “most important” parks, and you might want a hotel in this area. My top picks here are BoardWalk Inn or Beach Club. While these are a bit pricey, the good news is that you can save money at them by Renting Disney Vacation Club Points. The Swan & Dolphin are also good options if you don’t need to use Disney’s Magical Express.

Once you wake up from wherever it is that you are sleeping, here’s what to do…


Disneyland Paris 2015 Trip Planning Guide

Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland Paris. Hundreds of Disneyland Paris photos in our trip report! http://www.disneytouristblog.com/disneyland-paris-2012-trip-report/

Disneyland Resort Paris is an amazing place, with several hotels, two parks, and more. This guide will cover what you need to know before heading to Disneyland Paris, along with some general travel tips for heading to Europe. It contains the most up-to-date information and advice, updated for 2015 after my most recent trip to Disneyland Paris over the Christmas season, following the opening of the popular new Ratatouille mini-land at Disneyland Resort Paris. Whether you are planning a trip to Europe and are considering a day at Disneyland Paris since it’s one of the most popular tourist destination in Europe, or if you’re a huge Disney fan who is planning an international trip solely (or mostly) for Disneyland Paris, this guide has you covered.

To start, as touched upon Disneyland Resort Paris (this refers to the entire complex, but the “Resort” is often dropped from the name. Disneyland Paris, the park, is known as both Parc Disneyland and Disneyland Paris, with most official materials dropping “Resort” from the complex’s name recently, also making it Disneyland Paris. Confusing, we know) consists of 7 official Disney-themed hotels, several partner hotels, the Disney Village entertainment and shopping district, and the two parks: Parc Disneyland and the Walt Disney Studios Park. Disneyland Paris is unquestionably a place that Disney fans should visit, probably for multiple days. In our conversations, there are generally two schools of thought with regard to Disneyland Paris, and why people don’t go. The first group doesn’t go because it would mean forfeiting a trip to Walt Disney World. We’ve previously implored this group of people to visit Disneyland Resort in California, and many who have made the trek to California have reported it exceeding their expectations.

Disneyland Resort Paris is similar to Disneyland Resort in that it is not nearly as large as Walt Disney World. There simply is not as much to do at Disneyland Resort Paris as there is in Walt Disney World, so it’s a tough sell as a bona fide vacation destination in itself. The upside is that Parc Disneyland in the Paris Resort is an absolutely amazing park, much like the original Disneyland, and a park that many Disney fans could spend days exploring. In fact, in my recent Disney Theme Park Rankings post, Parc Disneyland was #5, ahead of popular parks like Disney California Adventure and Epcot, and it mostly scored so high because of its beauty.

I would rate Disneyland Paris as the most beautiful Disney theme park I’ve experienced, and while the overall resort is not as nice as the US resorts or Tokyo Disney Resort, it is a great experience. The other upside is that Paris itself is only a 30 minute train ride from Disneyland Paris, and is a place every human should experience. The city of Paris also serves as justification for those who balk at a trip to Disneyland Resort Paris for the second reason: cost.

A trip to Europe is certainly expensive, but it’s a potentially once-in-a-lifetime trip that leaves an indelible mark on a person, and a trip that’s worth saving to experience. Even Disney realizes that Paris is a selling point–whereas Walt Disney World does not encourage people to visit other places in Orlando, this year’s official Disneyland Paris trip planning video implores people that “you can’t visit Disneyland Paris without visiting Paris!

If this has you tempted to travel to Europe to see Disneyland Paris and other lasting cultural experiences, or if you were already planning a visit and want more info and tips, let’s start planning!  (more…)

Disney World 2015 Trip Planning Guide

Planning your 2015 Walt Disney World trip can be intimidating, especially for first-time visitors. This guide will give you tips to save money, time, and make the most of Walt Disney World, navigating its four theme parks, dozens of hotels, hundreds of restaurants, and a variety of additional entertainment activities and options that can make for really complicate planning. Walt Disney World is a busy place, so determining when to visit and how to tour the parks to avoid crowds is a critical step in the process. Add to that trying to save money on park tickets and hotels, and planning can be daunting, especially for first-time or infrequent guests who want to plan a memorable trip.

If you’re feeling yourself being sucked into the rabbit hole that is Walt Disney World vacation planning, our updated-for-2015 Walt Disney World trip planning guide is here to help…or perhaps drag you deeper into the rabbit hole. Think of it as Walt Disney World Trip Planning 101, organized into the 10 most important aspects of Walt Disney World vacation planning. As complicated as the process might seem right now, it’s really not that bad, and the ultimate payoff will be huge. You’re also a bit fortunate that you’re being sucked into the rabbit hole now, as many first-time visitors don’t realize Walt Disney World planning can be so complicated until they arrive, and are then overwhelmed. The commercials make it look like a carefree world where everyone runs around holding hands with Mickey Mouse while laughing and riding all of their favorite attractions without any problems…but that’s definitely not the reality.

Even after dozens and dozens of trips to Walt Disney World, we still don’t know everything there is to know about the place, but this post contains most of what we do know (most stuff, at least…not the nitty-gritty details like which drinking fountains are coldest!). We wouldn’t visit so much if we didn’t like it, so our opinions are colored by the fact that we are Disney fans. That said, we don’t see the world through rose colored glasses, and we try to stay as objective as possible here, sharing the good and the bad. If that’s not for you, there are plenty of other planning sites that offer only positive or only negative spins on Disney.

This vacation planning guide applies to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. That might seem silly to point out if you’re a seasoned Disney fan, but a lot of people don’t know. (You did see the episode of The Middle where they made that mistake, right? All TV is obviously based on real life!) World=Florida, land=California. If you are visiting California, please consult our Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Guide. If you’re trying to determine which coast is right for you, read our Walt Disney World v. Disneyland post.

This page is a jumping off point to give you some background information on each aspect of your trip, with links to other blog posts that offer much more detailed information. Each post opens in a new tab, so click away as you read and prepare to waste the better part of a day or more reading all this.

We promise that the payoff will be worth it, so let’s get started! (more…)