So, one of my bucket list dreams is going to come true.  I’m going to get to watch Tom battle his bff Mark (do men have bff’s?) at Buzz Lightyear in the Magic Kingdom.

There are two types of vacations that are difficult for me to plan:  (1) International trips with multiple stops; and (2) Disney World vacations. You wouldn’t think Disney would be so difficult, but consider the following:

1)  Are you going to drive or fly?

We’re flying, so all the airfare shopping stuff applies.  Should you travel on Tuesday or Saturday?  Should you book on Tuesday or Wednesday?  Complicated matters further was that we’re using frequent flier miles and companion certificates to lower our airfare costs (which, btw, cannot be used together).   Of course, this limits us to one airline… and so we have to decide whether we absolutely MUST have non-stop or whether we can handle a connection.  Oh… and we’re traveling in December, so because we’re in Minnesota, it’s vital to schedule an early morning flight out of Minneapolis and an extra day for our return.

2)  Are you going to stay on-resort or off-resort?

We’re staying in a Disney Resort.  Generally speaking, you can get much better deals off-property (a few years ago, we rented a two bedroom condo for $79 a night).  However, there are definitely advantages to staying in Disney Resort, including immersion into the Disney experience, guaranteed quality, free parking, and extra Magic-hours at the theme parks.   Convenience is questionable.  When we stayed off site, there was a shuttle to the parks that seemed to get us to and from our condo in about the same amount of time that guide books report.  I’ll let you know how our on-property stay is after the fact.

3)  Are you going to stay at a value, moderate, or deluxe resort, or are you going to rent Disney Vacation Club points?

We’re staying at the Port Orleans–Riverside resort.  A value resort runs about $75-99 a night, while a moderate resort costs about $140-160 a night.  The deluxe resorts were prohibitively expensive for yours truly (I never pay more than $3,000 for a vacation), at $300-500 a night.   For our purposes, a value resort would have been okay.  However, the pictures of the Pop-Century Resort, a value resort, brought to mind memories of spending afternoons at the community pool, shopping mall theaters, and MacDonald’s playrooms.   I’m not sure my 45-year old nerves could take it.  (The other value resorts have similar aesthetics).

According to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2012, some of the value resorts offer location advantages over their more expensive brother and sister resorts.  For example, Pop Century is close to Epcot, and has its own buses to the theme park (an important consideration). The All-Star Sports Resort is near Animal Kingdom, and is first on the bus route.  Also, the Unofficial Guide suggests that because the value resort rooms have exterior doors, they tend to be quieter than almost any other Disney Resorts.  Of course, the Unofficial Guide also suggests that the lighting in the value resorts is extremely substandard.  Value resorts do not have table-service restaurants, but the food courts are fine for most purposes.

Aesthetics and price were co-equal consideration in my resort choice.

We considered renting Disney Vacation Club points.  Disney operates a time-share (like) club.  People purchase vacation points which they can use for lodging at Disney Resort condo units.  If they can’t use their points for a year, they can rent them.  In our case, vacation points would have been a viable option.  The big advantage would have been that the condo units come with a kitchen which can help with the cost of food while on vacation.  For reasons stated below, it turned out that there was better value in going with a moderate resort.

4)  Which moderate resort are you going to stay at?

Disney has five moderate resorts:  The Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort; Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort; Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort; Disney’s Port Orleans Resort — French Quarter; and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort — Riverside.

The Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort was a little more expensive than the other resorts.  Additionally, the bus service is somewhat more complicated.  Therefore, although I have always wanted to stay there, it wasn’t a good choice for this trip.

Any of the other four resorts would have worked.  Ultimately, I just chose the one I liked best.  It might have been the hardest choice of my vacation planning.

5)  What kind of park tickets do you want?

If you are going to Disney World, you have to buy tickets to the park. There are a lot of other things going on in the Orlando area (Universal Studios, Sea World,  Wet ‘n Wild, Gatorland, Legoland, and Kennedy Space Center), and it’s about 90 minutes to the Atlantic and gulf coasts. Given unlimited resources, you could probably spend a month or two in the area and not get bored.

But you have seven days.  What are you going to do?  In our case, we’ve decided to focus on Disney, so we purchased seven day tickets.

But that’s just the beginning of the query.  Disney offers numerous options for its tickets:  (1) park-hopper; (2) water park; (3) no-expiration.   Park-hopper is the most purchased option, letting you visit more than one park in a day.  The water park option allows you to visit Disney’s water parks.  The no-expiration option allows you to use the unused portion of your tickets after you leave.

We’re traveling in December, so water parks are not going to be on our agenda (it’s usually warm enough in Orlando to swim, at least for Minnesotans, but… geez…).   You can purchase the no-expiration option at the park if you have unused days, so there is no reason to choose this option before you visit.  The park-hopper option is the most popular option, and it’s a good idea for shorter visits.

For us, none of the options made a lot of sense.  So, we just purchased the seven-day base tickets.

6)  Are you going to rent a car?

We still haven’t decided this one.  Disney offers complimentary transportation to and from the airport via the Magical Express.  There is also a fairly comprehensive internal transportation system using buses, boats and monorails.   But, the system is not perfect, and my sources tell me that driving can be more convenient, especially if you want to travel between resorts.  I’m intending on taking my camera to at least some of the other resorts, and I want to eat in at least one restaurant in another resort.   Additionally, if we decide to spend some time off resort, a car rental will be necessary.  Orlando is fairly spread out making taxi service expensive, and public transportation is minimal.  A car will cost about $150 a week.

I’ll keep you updated.

7)  Do you want to buy a Disney Dining Plan?

There are four Disney Dining Plans.  For our purposes, we considered purchasing a Quick Service Plan and the standard Dining Plan.  The Quick Service Plan gives you two counter service meals and one snack per day.  The regular Dining Plan gives you one table service meal, one counter service meal, and one snack per day.

Normally, neither plan makes financial sense, unless you are committed to eating at a table service restaurant every day, and you don’t mind eating dessert at lunch.   It is convenient.  And it’s nice that you can order any entree off the menu, regardless of cost.  That’s nice.

In our case, Disney is offering a deal:  With a moderate resort reservation, you get a free dining plan (book before October 29, 2011). I priced the vacation with this promotion and without, and it actually does result in a free dining plan!  Yippeeeee!

8)  Where do you want to eat?

Disney World has 139 restaurants, with 74 available for advance reservations.  About half of those require advance reservations far in advance (at least for dinner).  Whether or not you buy Park-Hopper tickets, the logistics of travel within Disney World require advance planning.

9)  What evening activities do you want to attend?

Magic Kingdom’s Wishes fireworks show is not offered nightly.  Epcot’s Illuminations and Disney Studio’s Fantasmic! is offered nightly.   You could spring for tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba (tickets begin at $73 each).

If you want to see Illuminations at Epcot, you may want reservations for dinner at a restaurant on the World Showcase Lagoon around the time Illuminations begins.  If you want to see Fantasmic!, you may want to get a Fantasmic! Dining Package for preferred seating.  Last time we went to Disney, we skipped this, and we did wait almost 90 minutes for showtime.  It was by far, the longest wait we experienced, and Space Mountain broke down while we were in line.

10)  What rides do you want to go on?

Disney is a nightmare for OCD travel enthusiasts.  There is so much to see, so many opportunities to be stuck in lines, and so many distractions that it lends itself to over-planning.  There are touring plans, mobile phone apps (ride times, park hours, restaurant reservations), and computer programs that will help you design the most efficient Disney experience.

The touring plans tend to go something like this:

“Take bus from resort A to Animal Kingdom at 7:30 a.m. to arrive 45 minutes before park opening.  When park opens, rush to Expedition Everest.  Grab a FASTpass.  Ride Kali River Rapids.  Go back to Expedition Everest and ride.  Grab a second Fast Pass if you like…”

You get the drift.

I have no doubt that these plans are necessary during the busiest times of the year.  We used a touring plan in March 2006, and discovered that we had a LOT of time to just hang out, even though we were only in the parks for three days.

Still, I’ll probably take a couple touring plans with us, and I’ll probably download a few apps.  It never hurts to be prepared.  However, I’m not traveling with friends who will tolerate over planning.  So, it’s likely that I’ll offer my resources and just go with the flow.

That’s right, your travel proceduralist is going to just go with the flow.

In the end, I hired a travel agent (Small World Vacations) to double check my work and book the vacation.  Now, I can focus on where we’re eating, and what we’re going to do while there.

Now, on to dining reservations…

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