LIV­ING THE DREAM

15 hacks for the ul­ti­mate Amer­i­can theme park ex­pe­ri­ence

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE - MARINA KAY

Did you know that about 55,000 peo­ple visit Walt Dis­ney World’s Magic King­dom a day? That’s 20 mil­lion a year, just a few short of Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion – and rea­son enough to start plan­ning your theme park itin­er­ary months ahead of time.

Vis­it­ing a Dis­ney Park is viewed as a rite of pas­sage by Amer­i­can va­ca­tion­ers. To en­sure your trip is the hap­pi­est on earth, we’ve rounded up top tips that’ll help get the most out of your time, and dol­lars, in Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar theme parks.

LAY OF THE LAND

Amer­ica’s top theme parks are lo­cated in Cal­i­for­nia and Florida:

Walt Dis­ney’s orig­i­nal theme park, Dis­ney­land, lo­cated about an hour’s drive from Los An­ge­les in Ana­heim, is made up of Dis­ney Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture theme park, Down­town Dis­ney Dis­trict, three Dis­ney ho­tels, plus shop­ping and din­ing.

Walt Dis­ney World (WDW) in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, is the world’s num­ber 1 theme park, home to Magic King­dom, Ep­cot, Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios, An­i­mal King­dom fea­tur­ing Pan­dora – The World of Avatar, Dis­ney Springs (for­merly Down­town Dis­ney), Dis­ney’s Board­walk, and two ma­jor wa­ter parks: Ty­phoon La­goon (wave pool) and Bl­iz­zard Beach (slides).

Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood, Los An­ge­les, fea­tures the all-new year­round Walk­ing Dead At­trac­tion, The Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter, Spring­field USA, along­side plenty more movie at­trac­tions.

And Uni­ver­sal Or­lando com­prises Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios and Is­lands of Ad­ven­ture (The Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter fea­tures across both), and the new Vol­cano Bay wa­ter park.

WHEN TO GO 1 BYE-BYE CROWDS

No pa­tience for crowds? Then you’d best avoid Dis­ney­land on Mon­days, Satur­days, sum­mer and hol­i­day Sun­days, the weeks around Easter Sun­day, Thanks­giv­ing week­end, and the weeks lead­ing up to Christ­mas through the first week of Jan­uary.

2 RAIN, RAIN … YAY!

Jan­uary is a good time to visit Or­lando, as is Septem­ber through Novem­ber, though the chance of thun­der­storms is high. That said, rainy days call for shorter lines, so pack a rain­coat and brave the show­ers – they’re usu­ally short-lived.

3 MEGA FAN­DOM

Crowds aside, spe­cial events and themed hol­i­days at­tract hard­core fans. Those in the know book Dis­ney­land’s Mickey’s Hal­loween Party way ahead of time. At Uni­ver­sal Hol­ly­wood, there’s “Grinch­mas”, and start­ing this year, an all-new “Christ­mas in The Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter” ex­pe­ri­ence that’ll trans­form Hog­wart­sTM cas­tle into a light­show spec­tac­u­lar. Choose your events wisely though: WDW’s Ep­cot In­ter­na­tional Food & Wine Fes­ti­val is more for fun-lov­ing food­ies than fam­i­lies with lit­tle kids.

TOP TICK­ETS 4 PARK HOPPER

To jump from Dis­ney park to Dis­ney park over the course of a few days, a park hopper ticket is your best bet – it works out less ex­pen­sive than buy­ing sin­gle park tick­ets. Buy them in ad­vance and on­line be­cause buy­ing at the theme park, WDW for ex­am­ple, can tack on a sur­charge. Note: the sin­gle-day park ad­mis­sion

TO JUMP FROM DIS­NEY PARK TO DIS­NEY PARK OVER A FEW DAYS, A PARK HOPPER TICKET IS YOUR BEST BET

price to any one of WDW’s four theme parks is sub­ject to sea­sonal de­mand­based pric­ing (Peak, Reg­u­lar, or Value), though the multi-day ticket is not. Check the Dis­ney Parks web­site for prices based on your ex­act dates of vis­it­ing.

Once you’ve pur­chased your Dis­ney tick­ets, link them to your My Dis­ney Ex­pe­ri­ence ac­count AND print them out to ex­change for a Magic Band or Key to the World Card at the park’s guest ser­vices counter. Easy!

At Uni­ver­sal Or­lando, an Un­lim­ited Ex­press park-to-park ticket is a good op­tion, es­pe­cially for Harry Pot­ter fans be­cause it al­lows ad­mis­sion to both theme parks and pri­or­ity ac­cess to un­lim­ited rides.

5 AHEAD OF THE LINE

At WDW, too much down time is a drag, but too lit­tle can make for chaos. Pri­ori­tise those rides you want to go on by book­ing them in ad­vance (if avail­able) via the FastPass rider-es­er­va­tion sys­tem. This saves wait­ing in lines for pop­u­lar rides such as Splash Moun­tain in Magic King­dom and Toy Story Ma­nia in Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios. WDW re­sort guests can make FastPass reser­va­tions 60 days be­fore the trip and off­site ho­tel guests 30 days prior. Mak­ing day-of reser­va­tions will likely re­sult in dis­ap­point­ment as only a cer­tain num­ber of rides are re­served per hour. But you can get lucky with last-minute can­cel­la­tions.

So keep re­fresh­ing those time slots on your MyEx­pe­ri­ence App to get lucky!

A new fea­ture is the MaxPass. Un­like the FastPass, it isn’t free, but for $10 you have a bet­ter chance of scor­ing a FastPass reser­va­tion and will re­ceive un­lim­ited down­loads of Pho­toPass im­ages (pho­tos taken by Dis­ney cast mem­bers).

DIN­ING TRICKS 6 MEAL TIMES

At slower times of the year, usu­ally in au­tumn and win­ter, Dis­ney of­fers “free din­ing” plans. For that you will have to buy a nondis­counted Walt Dis­ney World Re­sort ho­tel and park hopper ticket pack­age. Value and Mod­er­ate re­sorts re­ceive the Quick-Ser­vice Din­ing Plan, and Deluxe and Deluxe Villa re­sorts the Free Dis­ney plan. If you’re keen for the lat­ter, ask whether your Quick-Ser­vice plan can be up­graded. In­for­ma­tion on 2018 avail­abil­ity is up­dated on wd­winfo.com as this of­fer is not al­ways a sure bet.

7 RESER­VA­TIONS & CHAR­AC­TER DIN­ING

At WDW you can make din­ing reser­va­tions 180 days be­fore your ar­rival (dis­ney­world.dis­ney.go.com/ din­ing) and it is a good idea to do so, es­pe­cially if the restau­rant hosts char­ac­ter din­ing – like The Crys­tal Palace Restau­rant with its Win­nie the Pooh meet-n-greet, or Cin­derella’s Royal Ta­ble, where Cin­derella wel­comes guests in the cas­tle lobby prior to seat­ing.

Her Fairy­tale Break­fast is one of the hard­est reser­va­tions to score (along with break­fast or din­ner at Magic King­dom’s Be Our Guest Restau­rant), be­cause it ac­com­mo­dates only 130 din­ers at a time. Walk-ins are rarely ac­com­mo­dated any­where, so make reser­va­tions. Check out un­of­fi­cial tour­ing­plans.com/walt-dis­ney­world/char­ac­ter-din­ing for a full char­ac­ter din­ing list.

At Uni­ver­sal Or­lando, char­ac­ters from Scooby Doo, Shrek, and The

Simp­sons will visit three re­sort ho­tels on Wed­nes­day, Fri­day, and Satur­day nights.

8 BYO SNACKS

Bring nuts and gra­nola bars, per­haps a pic­nic, to keep en­ergy lev­els up and food costs down. In­su­lated wa­ter bot­tles can be re­filled with iced wa­ter for free at Dis­ney con­ces­sion stands. Cool off by ad­ding a one-day wa­ter park ticket. At WDW you’ll save with a Ticket with Block­out Dates if not trav­el­ling over sum­mer and peak pe­ri­ods. (For 2017 this was May 27-Au­gust 27).

SOUVENIR TAKE­AWAYS

PRI­ORI­TISE THOSE RIDES YOU WANT TO GO ON BY BOOK­ING THEM IN AD­VANCE

9 FREE­BIES

If cel­e­brat­ing your birth­day, an­niver­sary, or other spe­cial event, tell guest re­la­tions and restau­rants ahead of time – you never know what bonuses will come your way. At Dis­ney­land, head to the City Hall to re­ceive a free cel­e­bra­tory badge, or as Amer­i­cans call it, a “but­ton.” 10 DIS­COUNTS

Check your re­ceipts for dis­counts and of­fers. They could be stated in fine print.

MISCELLANEOUS 11 SQUEEZE IN MORE TIME

Stave off long lines by ar­riv­ing at the park 30 min­utes ear­lier and mak­ing a bee­line for rides with­out pri­or­ity ac­cess. Want to meet Mickey Mouse? Head to Dis­ney­land’s Toon­town House as soon as pos­si­ble.

Dur­ing pa­rades and lunch hour, 11am to 2pm, the crowds de­scend on

restau­rants and other ar­eas of the park, mean­ing lines at cer­tain at­trac­tions will be shorter. Opt for a later lunch and take ad­van­tage!

Conserve your en­ergy by get­ting to the parks ear­lier, napping or swim­ming in the af­ter­noon, and re­turn­ing for the evening’s fes­tiv­i­ties. Make sure to get your hand stamped upon exit as some parks may re­quire this as iden­ti­fi­ca­tion upon same-day re-en­try.

12 BAT­TER­IES NEED CHARG­ING?

Don’t for­get to bring your cam­era or phone charger. On-site photo shops should al­low you to recharge bat­ter­ies that are run­ning low.

WHERE TO STAY 13 DIS­NEY RE­SORTS

Perks of stay­ing at an on-site Dis­ney re­sort are many: prox­im­ity to parks, free shut­tle ser­vice from/to the air­port and theme parks, early park ac­cess, pre­ferred ad­mis­sion if the park is at ca­pac­ity, charg­ing pur­chases to the room, and free pack­age de­liv­ery from theme park to ho­tel (good for souvenir shop­ping as it saves you lug­ging bags and boxes).

Save costs but max­imise your ex­pe­ri­ence by book­ing the least ex­pen­sive room and re­quest­ing an up­grade upon check-in.

Also: Ask in ad­vance about on-site park­ing costs as these might be ex­tra (and might de­ter­mine whether you even need to rent a car).

Those WDW ho­tels lo­cated on the mono­rail line and with boat ac­cess are most con­ve­nient.

14 UNI­VER­SAL OR­LANDO RE­SORTS PERK

The Uni­ver­sal Ex­press ticket op­tion comes com­pli­men­tary with guests booked into these Or­lando re­sorts: Loews Portofino Bay Ho­tel, Loews Hard Rock Ho­tel, and Loews Royal Pa­cific Ho­tel. This means you’ll save some bucks!

PLAN­NING TOOLS 15 DIG­I­TAL LOW-DOWN

@Dis­ney­landTo­day is the of­fi­cial in-park Twit­ter feed for Dis­ney­land, Dis­ney­land Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture, Down­town Dis­ney and Re­sort Ho­tels, and is most re­spon­sive with live park up­dates and re­sponses be­tween 8am and 10pm. Ditto for Walt Dis­ney World, @WDWTo­day, a Twit­ter feed re­spon­sive be­tween 5.30am to 5pm lo­cal time.

Check out Dis­ney Park’s of­fi­cial web­site, dis­ney­parks.dis­ney.go.com, for of­fers and dis­counts on Dis­ney­land Re­sort Ho­tel rooms.

A rep­utable third-party site for dis­counted Cal­i­for­nia- and Or­lan­dobased tick­ets, char­ac­ter din­ing, and theme park va­ca­tion pack­ages is get­away­to­day.com.

Look out for the Bun­dle & Save Dis­ney­land® Re­sort & Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood Combo passes.

Down­load the Dis­ney Ex­pe­ri­ence App to plan your Dis­ney Parks trip – you’ll need it for FastPass+ ride se­lec­tions (dis­ney­world.dis­ney .go.com/plan/my-dis­ney­ex­pe­ri­ence).

Wd­w­magic.com is an un­of­fi­cial WDW fan site – good for news and fo­rums. Al­lears.net is also an un­of­fi­cial plan­ning site with help­ful blogs, news­let­ters, and ho­tel and din­ing re­views.

Check mous­esavers.com for handy tips, such as where NOT to buy cheap Or­lando theme park tick­ets, such as eBay. The Or­lando Sen­tinel pub­lishes daily col­umns on what’s hap­pen­ing at WDW, Uni­ver­sal Or­lando, and SeaWorld (or­lan­dosen­tinel.com/ travel/at­trac­tions/theme-parkrangers-blog).

And down­load The Of­fi­cial Uni­ver­sal Or­lando Re­sort App to see the lat­est on ride wait times, maps, and more.

CONSERVE EN­ERGY BY GET­TING TO PARKS EAR­LIER, NAPPING OR SWIM­MING IN THE AF­TER­NOON, AND RE­TURN­ING FOR THE EVENING’S FES­TIV­I­TIES

PIC­TURES: UNI­VER­SAL OR­LANDO, PAUL HIFFMEYER/DIS­NEY, UNI­VER­SAL STU­DIOS HOL­LY­WOOD, SUP­PLIED

Whether you’re into Hal­loween, TV and movie char­ac­ters such as The Simp­sons, Harry Pot­ter or Mickey Mouse him­self, ex­hil­a­rat­ing rides or be­ing taken to your din­ing ta­ble by Cin­derella, there are many ways to get the best ex­pe­ri­ence at Dis­ney parks.

FLIGHT OF THE HIPPOGRIFF

HOGWARTS EX­PRESS

MICKEY’S FUN WHEEL

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