Friday, January 3, 2014

Disney Holiday Trip Report Part 1: Hotels, Magic Bands and FastPass+

Since so many of you are headed to Walt Disney World in a few days for marathon weekend, I thought it was the perfect time for a trip report on my most recent trip to the World.
The happiest sights to see after a long drive!

Today you'll find my review of where we stayed and my thoughts on the Magic Bands and FastPass+.

We started out our stay with a night in the Dolphin before heading to Bay Lake Towers. I had never been inside the Swan or Dolphin, and I was decidedly impressed.

The lobby was absolutely luxurious--a revolving door with small Christmas trees inside, a foyer with a lit up, starry ceiling, and a gigantic Christmas tree with a train encircling it in the center of the lobby. The lobby smelled like caramel the whole time we were there.



I was a little disappointed in the service at the hotel--it took us forever to check in, and after a 7 hour car ride that was very frustrating. Then when we got to our room, the bathroom hadn't been cleaned--someone else's dirty towels on the floor, yuck! I will say the staff was very quick to clean it up and very apologetic.

Outside of that snafu, the room was very nice. Even though it was a standard room, we had a great view: a straight show of the Magic Kingdom, far off in the distance, and we could see the Tree of Life off to the left. I imagine we would have had a great view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks if we had been in our room at that time.

The Dolphin isn't technically a Disney resort, and I missed the Disney magic within the resort. There was plenty to enjoy, though--when we arrived there was a "tropical" Santa wearing Bermuda shorts and sunglasses greeting children, and there were several activity stations for kids. While we were checking out the next day, we caught a light show timed to Christmas music, and it "snowed" in the lobby. My little man was very impressed.

My favorite thing about the resort was its location. You can walk to the Boardwalk from the Dolphin, so we spent the night walking around enjoying the lights and atmosphere of the Boardwalk and the surrounding resorts.

Haven't stayed here yet, but it is at the top of my list for our next trip.

The next day we checked into Bay Lake Towers, the Vacation Club resort attached to the Contemporary. We are not Disney Vacation Club members, although its on our wish list, and we booked through David's Vacation Club Rentals. It was very easy to book with them, and I would definitely recommend them. The price was great if you're prepared to pay the whole amount at booking.

I loved this monorail art work. I've been spending too much time with boys.
We chose Bay Lake Towers because of its proximity to the Magic Kingdom and the monorail--two essentials for Little Man. Since this was the first time we travelled without the dining plan and without making a lot of dining reservations, I was happy to have the mini kitchen. We loved the room, and the balcony--especially when we realized we had an amazing view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks, which we watched every night with the show music playing on our TV.

This beats crowds big time.

The grounds of Bay Lake Towers and The Contemporary are beautiful. We didn't spend a lot of time at the pool, but we did spend a warm afternoon at the "beach" playing in the sand. And we spent several evenings hanging out in the Community Center, where we found crafts, videos and games. You can also borrow DVDs from the Community Center. My favorite thing about Bay Lake Tower? You can't beat the views.

Is it time for our next trip yet?

And, of course, we got to use our Magic Bands.

Pink for Mommy, red for the boys. How cute is the kid sized band?!?

We used them for everything--our park tickets, room keys, charging at stores and in restaurants, and they were scanned whenever we returned from our resort in the car. I was told this was going to be the norm to start cracking down on people parking at resorts and walking or using other transportation to the parks. I really liked the Magic Bands, and my family had a great experience with them.

We had started using the My Disney Experience website before we left, but I hadn't made any FastPass+ reservations. I have a 3-year-old who may or may not nap these days and whose mood can change on any given day--that's why I didn't make many dining reservations this time around, and why I knew making ride reservations in advance would be a bad idea.

Once we were inside the Magic Kingdom, however, I easily made reservations for a character greeting. When I went to make them, I realized I had to make all of my FastPass+ reservations. I wasn't prepared to do that, so I made the reservations Disney "suggested" for me. They just happened to be other things we were interested in. Once you make the reservations, you can change them--but make sure you change them before they expire. Once they expire, they're gone for the day. I learned this the hard way.

People are so upset about the FastPass+ system, and I understand the frustration. From a planning point of view, its both a blessing and a curse. It is nice to snag a spot for your favorite ride months before you set foot in a park, but if you have a little one, or you're trying to make different reservations for each member of your party, it can be a headache. And the system splits the rides into tiers and only allows you so many choices from each tier. Since I'm not a ride junkie, this didn't bother me. But for those who like to hit up every thrill ride at least once, I can see the issue.

Just keep in mind that it is a new process, and hopefully Disney will eventually iron out all of the kinks and issues.

Tomorrow: trip recap part 2: what we did and where we ate (because we all know dining at Disney is an event in itself).

A penny for your thoughts: Where is your favorite place to stay on vacation? Are you a detailed planner or do you figure it out as you go along?


  1. Wow what a view! We stayed in the Swan one trip and I just LOVED it! WE had a corner room right across the street from Fantasmic and views of the Tree of Life and well if you leaned up against the window, Epcot's illuminations. The staff was great and you can't beat the location...though yes, its not Disney. I had such issues with MDE, I still need to link up stuff for PHM weekend.....I know I know its still in testing.... but I am remaining optimistic. :-) Nice post!

    1. Thanks Julie! I think one of the reasons things went so smoothly for us with the new stuff is that I didn't ask much of it. I hope all your PHM stuff links up smoothly! Nobody wants drama on a race weekend.

  2. I hear you on the toddler! It's hard to know how to plan these FP's! I'm planning on doing one in the morning and the rest late afternoon and praying we can still get a hard ticket card in March. We'll see how it goes! I'm trying to keep an open mind.

    My favorite place to stay? Is "on property" the right answer? So far I have stayed at Pop and AoA. We're staying at POR this next trip, so I'll vote after that trip.

    I am a fairly detailed planner, but only on the "big" things. I plan what days we're in which parks so I can plan our ADR's. We do TS breakfasts- when I know my girls are fully rested and happy and leave lunch and dinner to counter services and snacks. I don't create a touring plan, because if the kids want to ride Dumbo 3 times in a row, well… we're riding Dumbo 3 times in a row! ;)

    1. Right?! When Little Man was 2, I think we hit Dumbo 7 times in one afternoon. And on this trip he wanted to meet Tink, which I hadn't put on my list of "boy friendly" things, lol.
      I can't wait to hear what you think about POR--it is one of my faves.

  3. Great review! Staying at Bay Lake Towers is on my must do list. We just don't stay on property very often since we are so close. I have mixed feelings about the Magic Bands but won't give an opinion yet since I haven't experienced them myself. Pass holders are suppose to get them soon so I'll comment then.
    Looking forward to the rest of your trip report

    1. Thanks, Hildy! I hope you have a good experience with them when you try them!

  4. We are Starwood members so we stay at the Swan & Dolphin a lot, but we stayed at Fort. Wilderness over Thanksgiving instead. I had no idea they dressed the lobby up so wonderfully for Christmas! My 3 year old is obsessed with trains, so we'll definitely be visiting there next holiday season. Thanks for the photos. I loved the Magic Bands when they were combined with regular FP, they were wonderful. But, we are ride junkies and we're pretty good at navigating regular FP so we never have to wait in lines > 30 minutes, so getting rid of regular FP is not going to go well with us unless they make some significant changes to the FP+ system (park hopping, more than 3 per day, getting rid of the tiered system). Oh well, Disney is awesome no matter what and we rope drop, so we can usually get a lot of rides done early in the day with minimal wait even without the FP. Sorry for the novel, your post just made me think! :)

    1. My son LOVES trains as well. Be sure to check out the Wilderness Lodge Villas--they have a room dedicated to Walt and his trains and have a couple of model trains and some pics and photographs. We discovered it last holiday season. It was a big hit!

  5. Disney is on our bucket list!

    1. Your three little princesses will love it! :)