Monday, 16 May 2016

Thirty Days at Disney World on a Budget

Our family is crazy for Disney so when we decided to take a nice long vacation this year, Walt Disney World was a natural choice. Spending this much time at the Parks allows us to be flexible with our days. We can do our schoolwork in the morning and spend the remainder of the day at a Park or we can hit the Parks early in the morning and make it a shorter day so we can move the schoolwork to the late afternoon. We don't feel bad about not spending the entire day there since we have annual passes and know we are getting value out of them. We've found that if we'll be spending 10 to 14 days at Disney Parks, buying an annual pass is worth it,  especially considering parking, food and merchandise discounts, and now free Photopass downloads. We've used that feature quite a lot.

Photpass picture of EJ fighting Darth Vader at the Jedi Training Academy

How can we manage to stick to a budget during our vacation? Well, the largest expense for us, after passes, is accommodation.  With careful management of points, signing up for all bonus offers, and having a Marriott Rewards Visa card, we were able to book the entire 30-day stay on Marriott Rewards points! It helps that they offer the fifth night free with every four points redemption night as well. We're staying at an area Residence Inn where we have free breakfast daily and three nights a week they offer social evening (Residence Inn Mixes) that offer a variety of food items plus beer and wine. More help for our budget.

Nothing like being greeted with a freshly barbecued burger
and an ice cold beer after a hot sunny day at the beach

Eating at the Parks, or just eating out, in general, can really add up. By booking an extended stay property like the Residence, we have the advantage of a kitchen where we can make our own meals and prepare picnic lunches. Since we're on a road trip I was able to pack my crock pot. What can be more inviting than knowing our dinner will be ready when we get back to our suite after a day at the Parks or a local beach. That's not to say we don't eat out, we just manage it and choose our favorites (including character experiences.) We also pack a small K-cup style brewer for special coffees and teas plus hot chocolate. Rather than stopping on the way back to the hotel after a long day, one of us will make us drinks while the other gets our grandson ready for bed. This way he can have his favorite cup of hot cocoa before nodding off.

Our Residence Inn has coffee, tea, and hot cocoa (including whipped cream)
available all day in the lobby. A very nice touch.

There are lots of free things to do for kids at the Parks. Right now, during Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival, there are even more. A big hit this year is Butterflies on the Go. It fits right in with our life-cycle unit (a plus for me.) We watched a butterfly emerge from its cocoon on one of our visits. Not something you get to do every day. In addition to the butterflies, kids will enjoy other nature inspired activities including inspiration on how you can create your own wildlife-friendly habitat at home.

Watching butterflies emerge from their cocoons

One of the new fun spaces for children is the Music Garden Melodies Playground where they can run off some steam on the net climbers and get creative with drums, chimes, and xylophones. Parents can take a break and watch their kids play from the comfort of park benches or the Adirondack-inspired chairs that furnish a glamping style tent.

Burning off some energy in the Music Garden Melodies Playground

One of the fun things for kids to do at Epcot any time of the year is Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Your child will receive a special "secret agent" FONE (or you can use your own smartphone if you prefer)  that directs them to various spots in each country to help defeat the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Our grandson is a fan of Phineas and Ferb and happily followed clues and searched out secret spots as we made our way around the lagoon.

Signing up for Agent P's World Showcase Adventure

We love to find 'bonus' activities like this when we visit Disney Parks. Another one that we can get started at Epcot is collecting the Transportation Collector Cards. You can get these cards by asking for them from bus and monorail drivers and boat captains plus cast members who work in the transportation areas. Not all cast members carry them but even if they don't we've found them friendly and helpful in directing us to someone who just might have some in their pockets. There are 27 cards in the current series (four) so you will likely have to do a lot of asking to get the entire set.

Some of EJs Transportation Collector cards.
 Each has a picture on the front and information on the back

Another activity that involves collector cards is Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. All you need to do is stop by the Firehall when you enter the park gates (to the right) and register. They will give you a map and a pack of cards and send you on your way. It is up to you to follow the clues and battle Hades henchmen as you work your way through a series of Magic Portals helping Merlin keep the park safe from these evil doers. At the final portal, Merlin will appear and welcome you to the ranks of "Master Sorcerer." You can go back to the Firehall each visit and receive a new set of collector cards.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom map and spell cards

If your kids like the idea of a quest, there is also the Pirate's Adventure where they follow maps (and Captain Jack Sparrow's clues) to find hidden treasures while fending off enemies like Captain Barbossa. There are five missions in total that take about 20 to 30 minutes each. Just enough time for mama to take a break while papa joins EJ in his quest.

One of EJ's favorites is to be Guest Skipper on the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom. Again, not all of the skippers will say yes when you ask but being polite (and sitting near the front of the boat) increases your chances from what we have found. The kids have a lot of fun steering the boat through the jungles and receive a Guest Skipper card at the end of the trip.

Someone was very excited to receive his Guest Skipper license from the Jungle Cruise

We found another nautical opportunity for EJ this visit. He was fortunate enough to pilot the Liberty Belle riverboat on the Rivers of America. This is a great treat for a nine-year-old who loves anything to do with transportation and driving. At the end of the trip, he received a license (signed by Mickey himself no less) that he is licensed to act as a pilot at the Magic Kingdom for one year. I like that each of these activities provides EJ with a special souvenir to take home.

Liberty Belle Pilot certification

There are a number of other fun 'bonus' activities at Walt Disney World, including the Jedi Training Academy at Hollywood Studios. This one requires an early arrival at the park and a long line-up as you (hopefully) get to sign up for one of the limited spots throughout the day. Trust me, it's worth it when you see the excitement on your child's face as they battle Darth Vader with their light saber as the crowd cheers them on. If your little one likes Star Wars (uh...ok that was a silly question) they can head over to the Launch Bay where they can see a bunch of stuff from the movies, meet Kylo Ren and Chewbacca AND have the opportunity to try their hand at trading with the Jawas. EJ had some luck trading a 2015 Disney eraser with one of them for a droid part. A great deal for him especially since we had picked up the erasers at the Disney Character Outlet at the mall. A great place to pick up pins for the kids to trade as well.

I almost forgot to mention our bonus free souvenir fun learning activity for Disney's Animal Kingdom. Their Wilderness Explorers program allows kids to earn 'badge (stickers) by completing activities in the Wilderness Explorers Handbook. The badges include things like African Culture, Conservation, and Animal Nutrition to name just a few. Kids can pick up their handbook from any Tropp Leaders around the park (they'll be wearing a uniform.) There are a lot of activities for this one so it will likely take you more than one visit.

EJ's well worn Wilderness Explorer Handbook.
Must remember NOT to put it in the backpack with the water bottles next time.

As you can see we've kept ourselves busy during our stay and managed to stay on budget by planning ahead and being organized. We still have another week before we head home and we're already collecting ideas for our next vacation.

My travel journal/organizer/collecting spot for great travel ideas