Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010

We're just back from a great trip to Orlando.  We flew JetBlue, and rented a car from Hertz.  We took our 2 boys (ages 5 and 2.5 for this trip) and joined Deanna's mom in Orlando at the Marriott Grand Vista Resort in a 3 bedroom timeshare unit.  We visited 4 Disney parks and Sea World in 5 days in late January 2010.

When we arrived, we consulted "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010".  This blog entry is a book review and adjacently, a summary of our trip.  Whenever I've seen books like this I've thought to myself "What kind of moron can't figure out Disney World?"  Well, my previous experience with Disney parks was mostly as a kid exploring Disneyland with my older brother.  We knew Disneyland like the back of our hands.  But that knowledge doesn't exactly translate directly to all that Walt Disney World has to offer- especially in the context of exploring the parks with our little animals lambs.

As soon as you open the book, you're greeted with photos of Fantasyland at 9am, 11am, and 1pm.  The headline: "The importance of arriving early."  This sets the tone for the book which is serves as both a tactical playbook for efficiently navigating the parks, and a reference for making decisions about all things Disney World.

One of the book's strengths is the way chapter subheadings are well-matched to decisions you'll need to make while visiting the parks.  The night before we visited our first park we consulted "Which park to see first?"  When traveling with kids, it advises avoiding the instinct to make a beeline for the Magic Kingdom on the first day and instead visiting the parks in this order:
  1. Epcot
  2. Animal Kingdom
  3. Disney's Hollywood Studios
  4. Magic Kingdom
Sticking their necks out and giving concise advice like this was another strength of the book, especially because supporting and dissenting opinions from readers are included.  This made many sections of the book perfect dinner-time conversation starters.  I read the book's opinion to the group, we discussed it, and we were all on the same page as to what we were doing next.

One of our favorite chapters was "Walt Disney World with Kids: The Ecstasy and the Agony".  It reminds parents to check their heads prior to visiting the parks and considering whether visiting Disney World is their kids' dream or their own?  It pinpoints an emotion that I could relate to in a small way at several points during our vacation.  Specifically, that "We paid all this money to come to this special place and you don't want to see this attraction?  You'd rather push around this stroller that you should instead be riding in, banging into trash cans and picnic tables?  You'd rather drive monster trucks at Shamu's Happy Harbor than see the real Shamu jump out of the pool at the Believe show that only happens twice a day?"

To help improve this situation, little tips like building naps and rests into the itinerary proved invaluable.  The book described parents dealing with these situations in childish ways and reminded us to be the adults.  Sure enough, the first day we visited the Magic Kingdom I witnessed a dad shouting at his kids: "You're going home. WE'RE ALL GOING HOME!"  Didn't read the book, did you friend? :)

One of the things I find most fascinating about the parks is Walt Disney's incredible vision.  He created something so amazing, so unique- how did he do it?  Why did he do it?  In thinking of the fundamental question of whether the trip was for us or for the kids, I had a look at the Wikipedia entry for Disneyland.  Fascinating stuff:

"The concept for Disneyland began one Sunday, when Walt Disney was visiting Griffith Park with his daughters Diane and Sharon. While watching his daughters ride the Merry-Go-Round he came up with the idea of a place where adults and their children could go and have fun together."

So I'm not the first parent who wants to have a good time along with my kids!  Have you ever been to a kids play area inside of a shopping mall?  Or even a playground for that matter?  It's constant chasing, and very little fun for adults.  That's what's great about Disney parks- everyone can have fun.  You just have to be careful not to get too carried away.

The "Small-Child Fright-Potential Chart" is another useful inclusion.  We were a little surprised how scary the Epcot attraction TestTrack was to our 5 year old.  Although he was tall enough (and loves cars) the loud cars whipping around the attraction at 60+ mph scared him to the point that he would not go on the ride.  It took some building up, but later in the week he'd go on The Jungle Cruise and Pirates of The Carribean.  In deciding whether they'd like some of the seemingly-kid-friendly attractions, the Fright-Potential Chart was invaluable.  Good to know that Snow White's Scary Adventures in Fantasyland was a "Moderately intense spook-house-genre attraction with some grim characters.  Absolutely terrifies many preschoolers" and that The Enchanted Tiki Room in Adventureland included "A thunderstorm, loud volume level, and simulated explosions that frighten some preschoolers."

The Dining Guides were infinitely more helpful than the park maps.  It quickly characterized counter-service restaurants to give you a feel for the fare at otherwise-ambiguous restaurants.  It was hard to tell quickly when the kids were getting hungry whether "Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe" -or- "The Pinocchio Village Haus" would be a better play?  The guide efficiently pointed out that there were some healthier options served up at Pecos Bill (chicken wraps) and recommended the burger fixin' station for consideration.  The guide was similarly useful in distinguishing sit-down vs. counter-service dining on a per-park basis when planning out our day.

The independent nature in which they evaluate the parks was appreciated.  Although they're not seeking to cast a negative light on Disney, they're not shills and their team of researchers pay their own way.  The assessments of attractions, restaurants and hotels are well-written but I also appreciated the concise "Reader Survey Responses" for things like restaurants.  For example, the Mexican restaurant in EPCOT (San Angel In) gets 72% thumbs up, 28% thumbs down.  I like that- easy to understand.

The dining guides were also helpful on a couple of other occasions.  For example, I wanted to have dinner at the French restaurant in EPCOT with Deanna.  I didn't realize that there are actually 2 restaurants- Les Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris upstairs.  Judging from the names alone I wouldn't have guessed that the one with the name bistro was the fancier of the two so the book was quite helpful in that respect.

One area of the book I felt could be improved was the section on Character Dining.  We wanted to have a breakfast one morning to celebrate Sam's 5th birthday, and the search for a restaurant that offers character dining is one of the more complex things to navigate because you're looking across 4 parks and multiple Disney resorts.  Although the book contained details like "Character-to-Guest" ratio and insider tips for getting reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table, I found it easier to call 1(407)WDW-DINE.  The agent quickly guided me to 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian (Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary was sold out well in advance) which provided an acceptable (if zoo-like) character dining experience.

Perhaps the heart of the book is the Touring Plans.  They outline itineraries for conquering the parks for various personality types and family situations.  "Magic Kingdom Dumbo-or-Die-in-a-Day for Parents with Young Children" -or- "Magic Kingdom Two-day Touring Plan For Adults".  Take your pick.  We used their suggestions as a useful reference (ie, ride Dumbo early in the day) and didn't get too hung up on following itineraries.  We might not have been able to get away with this approach during a more crowded time of year.

They have a Twitter account that you can hit up for suggestions and to provide feedback: @TouringPlans  I started to wonder- were there other people at the parks who read the book?  What if we were all tweeting back and forth with @TouringPlans or if there was a Twitter hashtag we could follow for sharing information about wait times at attractions?  Now that would be an insider move!  Turns out- they're on it.  And in a pretty sophisticated way with their Lines application- check it out HERE.

At the end of our trip, we decided to go sub-optimal and add a one-day visit to Sea World to our itinerary.  It would have cost $3 to see an additional Disney park (and we hadn't seen Animal Kingdom yet) but we decided to buck-up and see Shamu.  We I love Sea World and I'm glad we visited their Orlando property while we had the chance.  In the end, that's what it's all about- having a great time on vacation with your family.

The book is filled with useful nuggets of information like the ones I've included here as examples.  It's not the kind of book that you sit down and read from cover to cover (indeed, doing so would stress you out I think).  It's a great quick-reference that can make your trip to an amazing place even more special.

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