Chinh Chinh, you just turned 30, what are you going to do next? I’m going to Disney World!
If you’ve never been to Disney World, or maybe even if you have but don’t know a lot of the ins and outs, this post is for you. I’m going to go through some tips and share my own park experiences and how I planned out my 30th birthday celebration in Disney.
I was actually fortunate enough to vacation in Orlando a few times with my family when I was a kid, I just didn’t realize it at the time. My dad was able to afford it but on a really strict budget for a family of 6-7(the baby sis came along later). I really appreciate now that my dad had tried so hard to give us a normal life despite being poor. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of those trips other than having to wait so long on lines and the sandwiches my dad would pack from special priced clearance deli meat instead of splurging on park food because feeding 4-5 kids in Disney is highway robbery. I also wasn’t as in love with it back then as I am now. When I was told we’re going to Disney, I never got excited or went “Whoopee!” despite being a Disney kid growing up on all their movies and loved going to the Disney store all the time to look at toys and dresses we could never afford. One year I was actually upset because it meant I would be away from my boyfriend for a week. (What was wrong with me?) But being on vacation with your family when you’re a kid is much different compared to when you’re all grown up. Personally I enjoy it more as an adult, even though some people think it’s for kids.
For other people my age, getting white girl wasted every Saturday night is a good time. But that’s not my cup of tea. I found in recent years, my favorite place to celebrate my favorite holiday is Disney. So I keep going back every year. I’m also lucky in the fact that my birthday is in the same time frame so I get to celebrate a few occasions in the same week.
So where did this start? I didn’t travel before I got married. During college, I barely had any money so I rarely went anywhere. I was living paycheck to paycheck and all my money went to school bills. On my honeymoon, my cruise stopped at Port Canaveral and I booked a Disney excursion for me and my husband. We had a good solid 5-6 hours in the park and it was enough to get some beautiful sites in and a few rides. I returned the next year on a spontaneous trip with my best friend and had a blast being able to spend even more time in the parks. Later that same year, I visited California with my friends and experienced Disneyland. The rest is history. I even went so far to have a stopover in Shanghai so I could experience Shanghai Disneyland, while on my way to Japan, where I would also visit their Disneyland and DisneySea. And then this past year, of course I stopped in at Disneyland Paris on my Paris trip. The last Disney on my bucket list is Hong Kong. I’m hoping to stopover there whenever I decide to go back to Vietnam with my family to visit.
The parks are certainly all different in their own way and there are aspects about each that I love over others. Hopefully one day when I finally visit Hong Kong, I can write a special post comparing all the parks.
Anyway, enough digressing! Let’s get into it!
Travel Agent vs Self-planning
I’ve done both and there are different aspects about both so it all really depends on what you want. Disney is very easy to self-plan, they even send you free videos if you request them, and there are tons of resources on the internet showing you “how to Disney.” That being said, I do support using a travel agent as well, especially after my birthday trip and no, I am not being endorsed or paid to say any of this, it’s all from my own experience.
You can very easily plan your own Disney vacation right off their site. You can build and compare vacation package quotes, view special deals from certain dates, different hotel price points, park tickets with or without park hopper options, add on dining, flights and transportation. I love Disney for the fact that planning a vacation with them, everything is pretty much included. If you’ve ever planned your own vacation, you know how much of a headache it can be trying to figure out lodging, car rentals or budgeting for taxis/ubers, finding local restaurants and making reservations (sometimes in a different language), etc. Well, when you stay with Disney, you’re literally in what I call, “the Disney bubble.” Disney takes care of everything and you can do it all from their website and a lot on their app as well. From flights, airport to hotel transportation and back, to your meals, to even your photos.
Using a travel agent, they take care of all this for you. Instead of plugging it all in online (which you can also easily do), you basically tell your travel agent exactly what you want and they’ll tell you what’s possible/not possible and make whatever is possible, happen. It saves you a little bit of a headache figuring out the logistics and all you have to do is pay. My travel agent was honest with me and told me the quotes would be the same regardless if I booked it myself or through their company. But if you look online, most Disney travel agents provide their services for free, so why not take advantage? You don’t pay them; they get paid by Disney and the price is the same regardless of you booking it for them booking it for you. So what’s the difference? The difference is, since these agents work for Disney, they have access to the ins and outs and are able to hook you up with the best seat in the house. They are able to create the magical extras and make your vacation that much more special. My agent was a text away and able to answer all my questions, and even be my personal shopper, locating limited edition merchandise and its availability throughout the parks.
So how did I find my travel agent? I saw a family member recently use one and I asked her about it, considering how fabulous her vacation looked on Facebook. She referred me to Jill Kuritz of Never Grow Up Vacations. I texted Jill and told her basically everything I wanted for my birthday and she texted me back that she could make it all happen. I was sold! I basically wished for a room overlooking Cinderella’s castle so I could wake up to and fall asleep to the castle every morning and night and my room filled with birthday balloons. Sounds silly but this was my birthday wish. I wanted a magical birthday. And I can confirm, she DID make everything happen, along with a fabulous Mickey surprise birthday cake at one of my dining reservations! All I had to do was show up! With a travel agent, you don’t have to worry about any of the planning and where things are, when they’re going to show up, etc. They do all the surprises for you and make sure it’s extra special.
Think about it, had I planned my vacation on my own, I would’ve had a “theme park view” room, yes, as per my online selection, but when you book a room, you don’t know what room you’ll get til you get there. So you don’t know if you have a room on the far end or the closer end or whatever. My travel agent made sure ahead of time my exact room had the best view, closest to facing the castle and the park in general. It was beautiful. She definitely hooked it up. I also came back to my room on the first night with a wonderful birthday surprise, with my room filled with 30 pink star balloons! I mean, does it get more magical?
And if you’re a control freak like me and want to oversee every aspect of your vacation, fear not! You can still use a travel agent and oversee all the details easily on your Disney account. I still booked all my dining reservations and snagged fast passes on my account myself. Your travel agent can easily do that for you too if you prefer though. Everything is the same as self-planning, just a little easier and more peace of mind since your agent is dedicated to make sure your vacation is magical and perfect to your liking to ensure your happiness and of course, wanting to come back and use their services again and recommend them to your friends and family.
Another aspect! I did say the prices are the same regardless of a travel agent or not, but once you book something yourself, your price is locked in. The agent can find deals later on, even after you booked and they work to apply those discounts for you. I know this because I have another trip planned for February for the Disney Princess Half Marathon and she did exactly that for me when she found a discount.
Staying on Disney Property vs non-Disney hotels
I’ve done both so I can also attest to the pros and cons of both. It can be more expensive to stay on property. But from my experience, I do find it much more convenient. Disney has their own transportation system of buses, monorails, and boats, all of which are free to use if you’re staying on Disney property (or even if you’re not since the buses will still shuttle you to and from Disney Springs and other resorts if you have a dining reservation there or just want to visit to check out the area for its aesthetics like the Art of Animation and Pop Century). There is no bus pass needed to use the Disney buses, you just hop on. BUT it is definitely still affordable to stay on property. Disney has many different hotels, at different price points depending on your budget. Of course, the higher priced ones are closer to the parks and have more luxury and accommodations but that’s what you pay for when you pay for more. The price of being in the “Disney bubble.” Makes sense because all the extra costs factored in.
The pros of staying off property is not only price point though. Sometimes those properties are closer to other venues, like Disney Springs. I stayed at Delta Hotels a few years back, which I highly recommend for how clean and modern and beautiful it was, as well as affordable. It was a 3 min ride away from Disney Springs or a 20 min walk. It was also right next to a bunch of quick and easy eateries like IHOP, Olive Garden and Burger King. We ubered to the parks from here but in Orlando, all the ubers are pretty cheap so considering that along with the cost of the hotel, we were still saving a decent amount of money staying off property. Other offsite hotels also provide their own bus transportation to the theme parks, depending on your hotel. Their schedules are obviously limited compared to the Disney shuttles, but still convenient for being complimentary nonetheless. You just have to be mindful of planning your day to leave on time to catch the bus.
Although with staying on Disney property, there are comparisons between the different Disney hotels as well! Not all hotels are created equal obviously, and I’m not talking about just price point. There are different benefits to staying at each. You definitely want to research them before you choose. Depending on your resort, your hotel could consist of many buildings and your actual room might be far from the central entrance to check in and the bus stops. I discovered this while staying at the Disney Caribbean Beach resort a few years back. The resort was definitely a good price point and affordable, but everything was really far to get to. Even the dining hall was a bit of a walk, which isn’t terrible but when it’s late at night and you just want a quick bite and to get back to your room after a long day in the parks, you might want to reconsider these trade-offs. Every hotel has different transportation options as well. Most have buses, but the Grand Floridian, Contemporary and the Polynesian are all on the monorail, which run to and from Magic Kingdom with a connecting monorail transfer to Epcot. This is pretty convenient if Magic Kingdom is your priority and you want to hit the parks early before it gets crowded for that quintessential Cinderella’s castle pic, or if you want to get back to your hotel room early after a long day. I’ve done both the rope drop and the kiss goodnight and both make for a very convenient stay if you’re looking to experience either of these.
During this particular stay, I finally bit the bullet and went with the Contemporary, considered one of the “deluxe” tiers and let’s just say, there’s no going back after bathing in luxury. We were really spoiled being steps away from Magic Kingdom when the monorails were crowded with long waits at closing time. We were able to simply walk back over to our hotel instead of having to wait on line. I loved the proximity of the hotel to my favorite park. It also was just one hotel so I didn’t have to venture far to find transportation, dining, and shops as it was all in the same building. The rooms are also really spacious with a balcony view. The Contemporary isn’t as cute as the Art of Animation or Pop Century though when it comes to decor and display. It’s more like a business like hotel than it is a fun looking resort, in my opinion, as it lives up to its name - “The Contemporary.” Everything was very sleek and modern.
Cali Halloween vs Orlando Halloween (both MNSSHP and HHN)
I attended both Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and the Halloween Horror Nights in California back in 2015 and 2017. This was my first year in Orlando for Halloween. Comparing the two, I would have to say California actually wins this round.
In Disneyland, you’re able to get into the park an hour earlier than Disney World (3pm vs 4pm) and same goes for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. In California, you have the option to purchase an early bird ticket that allows you entrance into the park at 2pm which is great if you want to ride some of the rides before it shifts over to the Halloween event. In Orlando, this was not an option.
At Universal I’ve always purchased the front of the line add-on as well, which I would highly recommend. Some of the attractions for the Halloween event sometimes have waits as long as 2-3 hours. I couldn’t imagine waiting all night just to walk through a maze. With the front of the line pass, you can possibly do them all. Well, at least in California. In Orlando, I found that their “front of the line” pass is a scam. It’s really a “meet in the middle and merge you into the regular line,” so it was better than a regular line but for the price you pay, it’s a scam as you still have to wait and I ended up being too tired to continue walking around and finishing the other mazes. Although the one con about California I would have to say is that the mazes are very far apart and sometimes it is a really long trek to get to them as the path takes you behind the park and way beyond where the entrance line is. We were walking behind warehouses and where employees go half the time to get to the destination of where the maze was set up. And the escalators in California are a trek in itself to get from one part of the park to another. At least in Orlando, the Halloween event is just in one park and not both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The walking is kept to a slighter minimum than California.
Another comparison I have to note is the treat lines at Disney World were surprisingly not up to par with Disneyland. In Disneyland, they set up a treat trail so once you enter you go through 4-5 different stations to fill up your bag. In Disney World, I walked through one line for one station, to just get two meager pieces of candy. The effort wasn’t worth it. I ended up forgoing the treat lines till the end of the night. I reshifted my strategy to do the rides since those lines were actually 5-10 min waits for once or even a walk on ride. I watched the parade, had dinner and then watched fireworks before finally starting my treat trail which worked out well in the end. Towards the end of the night, they were more generous with filling bags as they wanted to start getting rid of it all.
My other disappointment with Disney World is that their Haunted Mansion stays the same. In Disneyland, the ride gets a makeover to the Nightmare Before Christmas. My favorite is the room with the gingerbread scented cookies and the graveyard with Sally’s big eyes peering up at you from the tombstone.
Disney World’s one redemption I’d have to note, would be the Tangled lantern photo op. This is only available at Disney World and it made for a great photo for Halloween as I was dressed as Rapunzel and my husband bounded as Flynn. Though I do hope one day Disneyland builds their own area for Tangled and does it more justice than just a restroom area.
I do have to note though, I did see a lot more photo opportunities available at Disney World’s event compared to Disneyland. There are a lot of characters out that you don’t normally see on a regular park day (especially the villains) and a few of the regular characters are even dressed in Halloween gear (Winnie the Pooh had on a bee costume! How cute!). I don’t remember seeing as many characters around in Disneyland but I could be mistaken as I wasn’t particularly looking for them. I just noticed them more in Disney World as I walked around.
Disneyland does seem to have more exclusive treats and merchandise for the Halloween event as compared to Disney World ironically. You’d think the World would have more than the Land but this is not the case every year. Every year, Disneyland gets the more creative goods.
Disney vs Universal & the Differences Between the Parks
I actually can not compare the two parks as they are very different in my opinion. There’s definitely something for everyone in both but I would still visit both. Disney is more family friendly fun though and Universal has more “thrill” type rides and coasters. Disney’s rides are good for all ages, while Universal has height and age limits for some. If you have any type of condition, I would recommend Disney over Universal, as Disney is more “tame” of the parks.
There are also differences between the parks within themselves. Like Universal Studios vs Islands of Adventure. They’re both owned by Universal but the rides differ in each one as well so it’s best to look up the rides and map ahead of time to plan out your day. I always do the park hopper in Universal so it’s best to have a plan of attack on what rides you want to do first before heading over to the other park. It’s also definitely possible to do both of these parks in the same day if you plan your day out well enough with great time management on a low wait time day.
Disney parks are also not created equal either. Magic Kingdom has the bulk of the Disney movie themed rides and is more family friendly oriented in terms of activities for the day, while Epcot is more of an adult park with food and different countries. You can also “drink around the world” in Epcot, trying different foods as well as beverages from each. Hollywood Studios only has a few main attractions in terms of rides and the rest are all shows you sit in a theater and watch. Animal Kingdom, simplified is a big zoo with animals found everywhere, even through the entrance as you walk through to get to the other “worlds.”
Affordability of a Disney vacation
An Orlando vacation is actually more affordable than most people think. When you sit down and actually plan it out, you just have to budget and figure out what you is a must do and what is something you can forgo. Do you care about how nice your hotel is or is it just s place to come back to and sleep before moving onto the next day? Do you want to do all the parks or only certain ones? Do you want to park hop or spend all day in one park per day? Is quick service dining more to your liking and taste or do you prefer table dining and more than just burgers and sandwiches? There is a way to do it all. It’s also a lot cheaper if you do a package with 3 other people and split it 4 ways. I’ve done this with friends in the past and my total cost for Disney has ranged from as low as $600 per person for an entire week (airfare and food and everything included) to $900 per person, which is pretty good for all inclusive (That’s $85-128 per day! Some people spend that much money on food a day.)
When it comes to dining, I’ll say this. It’s still theme park food, so don’t expect top of the line 5 star restaurant food. But it’s not bad either. There are some hit and misses everywhere but for the most part, I’ve found it to be pretty decent. It’s just overpriced because, well, theme park. I’ve dined at a lot of different restaurants and these are my notable favorites in each park.
Magic Kingdom: Be Our Guest, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Cyrstal Palace (all 3 are character themed and reservation required but you might be able to get away with a walk in for Be Our Guest depending on what time you try to get a table - usually at the later end of the night, they’ll accomodate. All 3 are also beautiful interior and for the experience. Food I found decent at all 3.) Another notable favorite is the Liberty Tree Tavern. It’s not character dining but it’s all you can eat Thanksgiving food which I can’t turn down.
Epcot: Akershus, Le Cellier, Chefs de France and Tokyo Dining (Akershus is another princess dining, with a great unlimited appetizer bar of fruit, cheese, cold cuts, seafood and varied salads.)
Hollywood Studios: 50s Prime Time Cafe, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater (I actually spend the least amount of time in this park as there’s not much to do in my opinion so I always save this park as my last day before I head to the airport. I’ve never actually stayed to watch Fantasmic)
Universal: The Three Broomsticks. Every Time. I always eat here every time I go. I don’t think I eat anything else.
Disney Perks (buttons)
This is a freebie from Disney that you should never not take advantage of! It’s free and it helps to unlock extra magic during your visit. You can grab one at the Chamber of Commerce at the front of the park in Magic Kingdom or ask any shop or restaurant for one. They usually have them based on availability. They have First Visit pins, Birthday pins, I’m Celebrating (fill in your blank with new job or whatever achievement), and Wedding/Anniversary celebration pins for couples. No matter the occasion, I highly recommend picking up a pin and wearing it proudly. I wore the birthday pin for my visit this year and I got free dessert at every restaurant I dined at. Cast members were also super accommodating in making sure everything was perfect. I rushed out of my restaurant on one occasion to watch fireworks and the cast member who spotted me helped lead me to a better view. Sometimes it’s little things but it makes a difference during your stay.
Best photo spots / Disney photo pass
Have you ever tried to do the Disney walls? In past trips, I’ve always done the basic Disney photos like the castle and such, but in this trip, I tried to find as many of the famous Instagrammable walls as possible along with the iconic regular spots.
Magic Kingdom is my favorite for photo spots.
You have the most obvious, the castle. From any angle this is always a classic and a beauty. From the front, the back, even the sides glowing at night is just breathtaking. Up close, far away, from Main St, from any distance, the castle always looks good.
Right next to the castle, a little hidden on the right side is Cinderella’s wishing well. This is beautiful during the daytime.
The purple wall is found on the right as you walk towards Tomorrowland.
One of my favorites is also the entrance to Pooh’s ride.
Gaston’s fountain in front of his tavern
The carriage in front of the Haunted Mansion line
The Tangled bathrooms has the Tangled wall both inside and outside the bathroom, as well as the lantern photopass that happens after the sun goes down.
Main St is always the hardest to nail because it’s always so busy but I promise one day I will get a photo of myself in an empty Main St!
The balloons are my favorite and it’s a luck of the draw if you can find a kind cast member to let you hold the balloons in your photo.
Epcot is my second favorite for photo spots.
Spaceship Earth is simply iconic both in the daytime and at night. I love the globe.
There’s the bubblegum wall and the blueberry wall. I only looked for the bubblegum wall this trip and forgot all about the blueberry.
Basically any of the countries in the World showcase. There are tons of great walls and backdrops for photos in each area. China is actually one of my favorites with that beautiful pagoda, bridge, and water. The fountain in front of France is beautiful too but always busy so it’s hard to get a nice photo. I also love Morocco for how it’s built. This is where Jasmine can be found for meet and greets, and it really feels a little like Agrabah as you explore through the shops.
The current star of Hollywood Studios is the new Toy Story Land, which is filled with great photo spots and meet and greets.
The popsicle wall and the checkerboard wall is hidden behind the Pixar ball as it’s part of the exit of the Toy Story Mania ride. If you’re sneaky, you can quickly run back there to grab this cute photo of the wall as well as other cute Toy Story displays back there like the barrel of monkeys.
The obvious Pixar ball.
The Toy Story bathroom entrance is really cute if you can get a good shot of the blocks without people walking in and out.
The Buzz Lightyear statue near the alien ride and the Woody statue by the entrance to Toy Story Land.
The street leading up to the Tower of Terror with it in the background is always a great shot but I always forget to do this as there are always a lot of people walking through.
This was my first time in Animal Kingdom and although a cute park, it’s on the same level as Hollywood for me. Not enough to keep me there the whole day. BUT there were still some pretty good photo spots.
The Tree of Life
Harambe Market in Africa has all the Instagrammable walls hidden and not so hidden here. These were fun to find and finally see for myself.
The Photo Pass! I have never purchased it except for this trip. Not because I wanted to go all out but I discovered that it was the only way for me to get my Tangled lantern photo since our phone cameras don’t capture it as clearly. Unfortunately with Disney it’s all or nothing. You can’t buy just one photo, you have to buy the whole photo pass. I should’ve known better and purchased it before my trip (if you purchase before your vacation starts, it’s $30 cheaper.) Once I had it though, I started taking advantage of all the photo pass photographers in all the parks to take my photos for me. Granted they will not be as good as my personal photoshoots but for vacation and basic group photos, they’re decent. I’m just extra and prefer my photos to look more professional and magical. The good thing is, once you purchase this, it’s good for 30 days and for anyone linked to your account. So if a friend or family member is visiting before or after your trip, they reap the benefits of this too. One of my sisters was there a few weeks before my trip and so she was finally able to download all her ride photos. Another friend visited a few weeks after my trip and her photos are also available for download without having to make a separate purchase for the photopass. So it’s an expensive one time purchase, but if you have a group of people, it ends up being worth it later on, split amongst the group. And it’s good for an unlimited amount of photos. You can visit as many photo pass spots as you like and ask them to take as many photos as you’d like (pending the line behind you).
I also had contacted a local photographer in the area with an annual Disney pass, for a personal photo shoot. I found this photographer through networking with other Disney accounts I follow on Instagram. I asked The Pinup Doll for recommendations and she recommended me a few accounts. I looked through each and found that I loved Lauren Erwin Photography’s style the most. I contacted her for a quote, found that she fit my budget and the rest is history. She was available for the date I was interested in, and we met in the park for a quick fun shoot before my actual itinerary of activities in the park. She was easy to work with and I LOVE LOVE LOVE the photos that were returned to me very promptly after our shoot. If you’re looking for a cute family session, couple session or even just cute photos of yourself, I highly recommend her. I can’t wait to work with her again next time I’m in Orlando. My whole shoot with her can be found here.
I tried to touch upon as many useful topics as possible that I could think of from planning and experiencing this vacation. If there’s anything I didn’t touch upon, definitely leave me a comment as I would love to address it or clarify anything needed. Disney is what I consider my home away from home and no matter how many times I go, I never tire of it. At least not yet.
My next trip is in February for the Disney Princess Half Marathon and I can’t wait! I’ve actually had to slow down on my training though due to some pain in my right knee that pops up when I run lately so I have to wait to get it checked out by a specialist before I can start training again. But I’m still determined to make this happen and finish the race. Until then, I’m getting my cardio in on the elliptical, as it’s easier on my knees for now and the pain doesn’t seem to pop up there. Fingers crossed whatever is wrong is fixable and I can make it to the race and pass with flying colors!
If you plan a Disney trip, let me know if you have any questions! Or if you used any of my tips and if they helped you at all. I hope you have a magical time in my favorite place.