We stayed at a hotel in Kissimmee - all six of us shared one room. My memory is failing in my pre-golden years so I can only remember bits and pieces of our vacation. I remember riding Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain (scary), and the railroad train. There were only two parks - Magic Kingdom and Epcot - and I don't remember any crowds. Characters roamed around freely - no long lines or queues. Epcot was a touch boring for a teen.
I didn't step foot in Orlando again until January 2006 when Rich ran the Disney marathon. I was halfway through my pregnancy with Abigail and in the midst of attempting to wean myself off of Zofran. We flew out of Providence with several members of Rich's family, who were joining us for the marathon fun. We were only there for a long weekend and we stayed at a Marriott timeshare (through my SIL) on or off of International Drive. (I think. Again, failing memory.)
Rich and I had a wonderful weekend. The weather was beautiful and although we decided to not visit the parks, we discussed returning when the baby was older. We even joked about how we could tell the baby that he/she had met Donald and Daisy after Daddy ran the marathon. (Even after all this time, it still stings to think about that.)
Who: Us + Grammy for a total of 6 (which means that a gratuity of 18% will automatically be added to our restaurant bills.)
When: I don't like to divulge when I won't be home on the internet (even though my brother, who is in law enforcement and has a big German Shepard named Sasha, will be staying at our house for most of our vacation) so I'll just say that it's going to be hotter than hell for our trip and we do have free dining.
Where: We will be staying at Disney's Beach Club Resort. Two, hopefully, connecting rooms.
How: We will be driving again. (That's 1,300 miles each way.)
So here's the deal - you don't need to stay on Disney property to have a completely enjoyable vacation. Many folks consider it to be a requirement because they don't have a vehicle and use Disney transportation and/or they feel that staying onsite adds to the Disney experience. I know folks who have rented houses in Orlando and still had a great vacation. Staying offsite can often cost less. I can be a bit cynical so I'm not expecting to think that I've been transported back in time to an east coast beachside resort by staying at Beach Club. Just like I knew I was in Orlando and not New Orleans when we stayed at Port Orleans.
There are a few reasons why we decided to stay onsite. Rich and I commute and sit in traffic all the time and I really don't want that to be a part of our vacation. Especially not after driving 1,300 miles to get there. Two co-workers of mine stayed at Beach Club last year and after hearing their reviews and doing some research of my own, I really wanted to stay there. Plus, we don't vacation very often so we've decided to live it up. (I did almost change plans to stay at a less expensive resort after Rich lost his job but we had already budgeted for Beach Club and because we will be going when it's hotter than hell, we plan to take full advantage of the pools.) Beach Club is also appealing to us because we can walk to both Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios and there's a table service restaurant with a character meal at the resort.
I want to mention that when it comes to Disney resorts, you really do get what you pay for. The resorts are categorized as Value, Moderate or Deluxe. All have some type of counter (or quick) service dining available. As you move up in category, there are more options. Moderate resorts have table service restaurants and Deluxe resorts offer table service and character dining. Deluxe resorts are situated next to parks and therefore, offer walking or monorail access.
Make dining reservations: We learned this lesson the hard way during our first trip with the girls. I didn't make any dining reservations even though we were on the dining plan because I didn't know what our schedule would be and it's really hard to determine in advance how your vacation is going to play out with three 3.5 year olds. After a few days in the parks and seeing first hand how impossible it was to get into certain restaurants without reservations, Rich spent some time on the phone one night and was able to secure a few reservations but that's not something I want to do again.
For this trip, we currently have dining reservations for:
Akershus Royal Banquet Hall
Cape May Cafe
The Crystal Palace
Cinderella's Royal Table
Park hopper passes: These cost more than your standard park passes but allow you to visit more than one park a day. If you have small children, visiting more than one park in one day may not be realistic. We did not purchase hoppers for this trip because I found them to be a waste the first time around.
Disney rewards credit card: Yes, we have it. (I don't exactly want to promote credit cards but we pay our balance off each month.) So far we have accumulated 500 points, which equates to $500 Disney dollars to be used at the parks and restaurants as cash. Grammy has around 300 points. Tips are not included in the dining plan so we plan to use our Disney dollars to pay for that and souvenirs. Hopefully, we shouldn't have any out of pocket expenses once we enter Disney.
(Note that we received some points as a bonus for signing up for the credit card.)
Which days to tour the parks: Parks with Extra Magic Hours (aka EMH) tend to be busier than parks without. With three young children, we don't plan to take advantage of EMH this time around so we will be touring the parks on days when they don't have EMH. It is also rumored that Magic Kingdom is busier at the beginning of the week as most families arrive over the weekend and visit that park first. We actually witnessed this first hand during our last vacation.
www.easywdw.com has a lot of good (free) info regarding timing and calendars.