Disney on a Budget!

Kwin Mosby, Travel Channel

If you think a Disney World vacation is out of your reach, maybe you should think again. Travel Channel has a few helpful tips on how to save money on lodging, tickets, food and airport transportation that can make your Disney dream trip become a reality.

A Moderate Resort
You can book a vacation package for a 2-night, 3-day stay at 1 of Disney World’s moderate resorts. The Port Orleans Resort offers a discount package that includes 2 nights of lodging and 3 1-day park-hopper.

Magical Express
Disney’s Magical Express is like having the combination of a car service and luggage valet all wrapped up in 1. All you have to do is check your bags at the airport, and they are magically waiting for you when you arrive at your Disney hotel. Be sure to request your Magical Express luggage tags when you make your reservations. Don’t worry about transportation to the hotel; a bus will pick you up at the airport and take you right there.

Disney Value Seasons
You and your family can head to Walt Disney World during the off-season when lines are shorter, the weather is more comfortable and the prices are lower. The rates are usually lower from January to February; for a few weeks in April and May; mid-August through September; and between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Magic Your Way
Sign up on the Disney World website to receive announcements of special offers. Magic Your Way is a new program that offers visitors options a la carte. You can choose to add what you wish instead of buying a package that might include elements that you don’t really want.

Three Pricing Categories
Disney offers 3 pricing categories for hotel accommodations. The Pop Century Resort offers some of the lowest rates in Disney World, while the Coronado Springs Resort is in the intermediate price range. Disney also has more exclusive hotels, like the Grand Floridian Hotel, and other high-end accommodations, like extended-stay condominiums with their own kitchens and living rooms.

Rider Swap Tickets
These tickets allow parents to take turns accompanying older children on the rides without having to wait in line again. Systems in place at Disney World like the Rider Swap program provide ways to get more entertainment in less time, which equals more bang for your buck!

Extra Magic Hours
Another great way to maximize your family time at Disney World is to beat the crowds by arriving early (or staying late). Guests of Disney resorts can enjoy extended Magic Hours at the Magic Kingdom, offered both before the park opens to the general public and after it closes.

Park-Hopper Tickets
For an additional charge per ticket, Park-Hopper tickets allows you to visit multiple parks in the same day. The charge is only applied once and the more days you stay, the less it costs per day.

Free Transportation
Disney not only has complimentary transportation to and from the airport, but they also provide transportation between all their resorts and parks. A system of monorails, buses and even boats can take you from park to park at Disney World.

Fast Pass
Don’t feel like waiting in lines? Put your park ticket in the designated Fast Pass machine, and out comes a Fast Pass ticket that tells you to come back at a specific time (for example, 2:30-3:30). The ticket acts as a placeholder, which is great for families who don’t want to spend hours waiting in line at a popular attraction. However, you can only get 1 Fast Pass ticket every 2 hours and popular rides can run out of Fast Passes, so try to get one early.

Lower Cost Activities
Another way to save money when vacationing in Disney World is to take advantage of the lower-cost recreational activities. For example, a family of 5 can book a Magic Your Way package that includes a 4-day, 3-night stay in a cabin at Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Campground. By choosing a 3-day theme-park admission with the Water Park Fun and More option, families can enjoy 5 days of fun for slightly more than the cost of 3. So check for the special deals and packages for extra savings.

Free Admission
There are all kinds of things to do at Downtown Disney that don’t require a park ticket. When staying at 1 of the Disney resorts, you and your kids can head to DesignQuest Interactive Theme Park and experience a digital nirvana, free of charge. On a hot Florida day, Disney World’s water parks, such as Typhoon Lagoon, can be just the ticket to keep the kids cool. A ticket here costs about half of what a theme-park ticket costs.

Hotel Pools
The water parks cost less than the theme parks, but the pool at your hotel is free. Of course, your kids would probably love the crazy slides at the water parks, but they might be just as happy playing Marco Polo near your hotel room.

Disney Dining Plan
Families can take advantage of some of the counter-service buffets that are generally all-you-can-eat. If you’re really into food and you’re a big eater, then definitely go with the Disney Dining Plan. A family of four can save up to 30 percent on this plan.

Budget for Children
It’s recommended to give older children a budget for the length of the vacation. Not only will it keep parents’ budgets in check, but it’s also a great lesson for them on how to spend their time and money wisely.

Room Key Purchases
This perk allows Disney resort guests to purchase items with their room key and have the delivered directly to your room. No credit card. No ID. Just plain convenience.

Photo Pass
A service is more of a memory saver than a money saver. This is a great feature for families that don’t have a free hand to take pictures. Ask any Disney photographer for the pass and carry it with you throughout the day. When you’re ready to leave the park, you can get your pictures printed out, or select the ones you want online and have them sent to you.

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

Photo of Hogwarts Castle, ©  Teresa Plowright.J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal book series has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, the movies based on the books have grossed billions — and now Muggles who love to immerse themselves in the books and films can go one step further. Since June 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter “theme park within a theme park” has welcomed visitors to Hogwarts and Hogsmeade.

Where is it? Orlando, of course…

Location
Islands of Adventure is one of two theme parks at Universal Orlando, and previously had five themed “islands”. It now has a 20-acre Harry Potter “theme park within a theme park”‘, with two main areas,Hogwarts Castle and the village of Hogsmeade. The Wizarding World took over some areas of The Lost Continent, and two existing attractions were adapted to the Harry Potter theme.

The Harry Potter Theme Park Experience
From its earliest announcement, the aim of this Harry Potter theme park has been to create an “immersive experience”, that allows fans to really feel they’ve entered the world of Gryffindor and Ollivanders and owl posts. Academy Award-winning production designer Stuart Craig — who worked on all the Harry Potter films — headed up creative design.

How well has it turned out? Our About.com Guide for Theme Parks says it’s “one of the–if not the–most richly detailed, immersive environments ever presented at a theme park. It takes the art of park storytelling to new and breathtaking levels.” Or as another review put it: “If God is in the details, then Wizarding World is the holiest place on Earth.”

The authenticity — if we can use the term for a fantasy world– even extends to the merchandise offered. There’s no sunscreen for sale, or popcorn… You can however, buy a Nimbus 2000 broomstick, and drink plenty of butterbeer.

It’s a delight to stroll past the quaint shop-fronts in Hogsmeade, with suitably odd angles and quirky details, and to shop in Honeydukes and Dervish and Banges…

Be warned, though, that you’ll be strolling with plenty of company: the Wizarding World is hugely popular. Check tips about visiting the Harry Potter theme park: advice for beating the crowds; tips about Ollivanders Wand Shop, and butterbeer, and the best time of day to feel a bit of magic in Hogsmeade.

Hogwarts Castle
The iconic Hogwarts Castle towers in the theme park, and inside is the new state-of-the-art attraction “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” – more on that, below. As visitors line up for the ride, they wend their way through Hogwarts: past talking portraits, through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse… Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione make appearances. Hogwarts in itself is a wonderful attraction.

The Rides
But of course, a theme park also needs a thrilling ride or two. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the marquee attraction, and our Guide for Theme Parks loves it: “The signature Potter attraction uses advanced robotics to send guests on a wild journey alongside Harry, Hermione, and Ron where they experience many iconic scenes from the films. It is the most advanced, stunning park ride anywhere.”

(I found the journey whizzed too fast by dementors, whomping willow, quidditch pitch, etc.; but to each his own, people love the ride; and feel free to share your own opinion below.)

The two other rides existed previously and have been re-purposed: the former Dueling Dragons double roller coaster is now the Dragon Challenge, pitting the The Hungarian Horntail against the Chinese Fireball. Both are wild, inverted rides; the Fireball is faster and higher than the Horntail.

Less intense for guests is a training flight on the Flight of the Hippogriff coaster ride (formerly the Flying Unicorn): a very short ride, but fun, and offers a good glimpse of Hagrid’s hut and of a baby Hippogriff in its nest.

There are just these three rides in the Wizarding World; much of the appeal is the “immersive experience”. Guests can dine in the Three Broomsticks, quaff a drink in Hog’s Head, shop in Zonko’s joke store, find a wand in Ollivanders, try exploding sweets, mail letters from the Owl Post…

It can probably be said that never was a theme park under such pressure to “get it right”: the legions of Harry Potter fans have strong feelings about all things Wizard and all things Harry. Early on the President of Universal Orlando promised: “We’re going to be true to the books and the films, and make sure that when people come here they’re going to be very, very happy with what they see.”

Tips for a Fun Family Vacation

  • Bring along a kit with heavy paper, scissors, and stickers. At the end of each day have the kids make themselves a page with memories collected from that day to put into a scrapbook at the end of the trip.
  • A vacation does not have to be to distant locales. My family spent great summers never leaving the state by taking mini-trips around the state throughout the vacation months. Take advantage of historical sites, national parks and other places of interest close to home.
  • If you find that the kids are getting restless don’t hesitate to stop early and save whatever activity you missed for another time. Sometimes just getting to the hotel room and maybe taking a dip in the pool is all that is needed to get everyone in the mood for continued site-seeing the next day.
  • When brainstorming and planning activities, each family member has to be honest in their opinions but also open-minded to the opinions of the rest of the group.
  • If you are traveling with two or more families with children, you can “tag team” some activities so someone is not stuck with all of the children under age five. Usually, half of each couple stayed behind to help in the babysitting effort while the other half went off. Other times you can split the groups up differently so couples could go together.
  • If you are staying in a condo with a kitchen, you can plan alternate eating meals out and in. After four or five days often people become tired of eating out all the time. Pre-planning when to eat out and what meals to prepare when eating in (and who will prepare them) will help you figure out before the trip which meals you can prepare quickly and what everyone wants to eat.
  • If you are flying, it’s important to know before you leave the total number of pieces of luggage you have. That includes check through, carry-on and unique sized (like car seats or strollers). You should also know the breakdown of numbers for pieces checking through, carry-on and extras like car seats. Luggage check-in can be crazy. Knowing how many and which pieces ahead of time keeps the chaos to a minimum.

How to Plan a Universal Studios Vacation in Orlando

by Barb Nefer, Demand Media

The Universal Studios Orlando theme park is part of the Universal Orlando Resort, which also includes three hotels, the CityWalk entertainment district, and a second theme park, Islands of Adventure. You can easily spend two or more days exploring the parks and CityWalk, especially when special events are happening. You will get the most out of your visit if you plan thoroughly.

Step 1

Choose the dates of your Universal Studios vacation. You may be locked into certain dates because of your personal schedule. Otherwise, you can choose based on factors like low crowds or special events. For example, Universal has several events each year such as Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights. Both theme parks tend to be more crowded during those periods, but many people plan their dates to be able to attend them. If your plan is to avoid the crowds, you may wish to visit just before school starts or just before it lets out for the year, as the crowds are lowest at those times. January also tends to be slow.

Step 2

Choose between an on-site or off-site hotel. Off-site accommodations are cheaper, but on-site properties have several advantages. You won’t have to drive to the theme parks and pay for parking or rely on a shuttle; the Universal hotels provide guests with boat transportation and walking paths. On-site hotel guests also have unlimited access to an express line for most rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, which can be very useful if you’re visiting in the summer or during a special event.

Step 3

Compare package deals before purchasing your transportation, hotel and tickets separately. Universal offers a variety of package deals, some of which are centered around the resort’s special events. Work with a travel agent if you don’t want to do the research yourself. Using an agent will not cost any more than making the booking yourself because agents are paid through a commission provided by Universal.

Step 4

Create a priority list for the attractions at Universal Studios. This will help you use your time efficiently. If you plan to ride the most popular thrill rides, like the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, Revenge of the Mummy or the Simpsons ride, plan to hit them early in the day. This will not be as critical if you are staying at an on-site hotel and have unlimited express line access. Universal Studios also lets on-site guests enter early on certain days.

Step 5

Plan to spend time at CityWalk after Universal Studio closes or to take a mid-day break. CityWalk offers a change of pace from rushing around the crowded theme park. You can browse in the shops, have a meal or see a movie.

Tips & Warnings

  • Use the Universal Studios Meal Deal if your family members eat a lot and you want to plan your meal budget. The Meal Deal allows each person to eat all day at select locations in the theme park for a set price.