Applying Disney Vacation Strategies to Non-Disney Vacations

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If you’re a regular TouringPlans user and follower, chances are that you have your Disney vacation strategies on point, both for planning and touring. You plan in advance, you know where you like to stay, you know how to get the biggest bang for your buck, you know what to expect, and you make the most of your time. But … there’s a whole lot of world to explore outside of that World. So how can you make the jump from your tried and true Disney vacation to a different type of trip? My family recently returned from our first non-Disney trip since before the pandemic. (And that last before-times vacation was a Disney cruise, so even that doesn’t really count.) So this post is all about how to take those Disney vacation strategies and apply them to non-Disney vacations.

Two small kids, one with a spiderman hat and pumpkin dress, and the other with a purple hat and a ghost dress, stand in front of a large fish statue
Disney strategy number one? Matching outfits, sunglasses, and hats for pale children of course!

How Do My Disney Vacation Strategies Help Me Decide Where To Go?

Here’s one of the great things about Disney vacations. Once you’ve been a couple of times, you pretty much know what to expect on subsequent visits. And those experiences are even slightly transferable – you’re a WDW regular, but a trip to Disneyland or a DCL cruise “feels” pretty similar. Some things will change, but the overall feel is familiar. Today I’m going to lobby for another set of vacation spots where the “feel” is also pretty transferable – and that’s national parks.

A father helps his small daughter to stamp her national parks passport book
We “collect” stamps in our National Parks Passport books, for a free (after you purchase the book) reminder of where we’ve been – easily repeatable at every park.

I’ll admit from the start that I’m biased. I’ve been visiting national parks since I was a little kid. And our family has a goal to bring our girls (currently 5 and 3 years old) to every national park before they graduate high school – it’s a lofty goal, given that there are currently 61 of them. But even if I remove my bias, it’s true that national parks are a set of vacation spots that each bring something different to the table, but all follow a decently repeatable feel and experience.

We all know that a WDW vacation where you’re staying at Pop Century and rope-dropping and closing down parks every night is very different from a WDW vacation where you stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge and spend most of your time at the resort, relaxing or eating. In the same way, a quick visit to Gateway Arch National Park (one of the newest) is going to be very different than a week spent in Yellowstone.

Two small children point upward at the Gateway Arch
Since we live in STL, a trip to Gateway Arch National Park doesn’t take much planning. Still counts on our checklist though!

Even still, each national park has repeatable and reliable parts of the experience. There will be knowledgeable (and usually very passionate) park rangers. You’ll marvel at natural beauty and/or learn a lot about history. There will be a visitor center, usually with a museum. You can collect pressed pennies, or National Park Passport stamps. Your kids can become Junior Rangers – an excellent choice if they love participating in Wilderness Explorers. And you can probably take some sort of guided tour (or several).

Two small children hold up recently earned National Park Junior Ranger Badges
Our girls were VERY PROUD of earning Junior Ranger badges

On our most recent trip, we spent three different days in three different national parks that none of us had ever visited before. The first was Biscayne National Park – where something like 96% of the park is underwater. That’s totally different from our usual comfort zone. But I visited the website, figured out what there was to do, booked a boat tour (history-based since our young kids weren’t going to scuba/snorkel), and we were off. We had a great time seeing water, islands, and animals, as well as learning about the history of the park. My kids were the only children on the tour – and my husband and I were the next-youngest people participating, probably by quite a few years – but that didn’t diminish our experience at all. We knew what to expect, even though we hadn’t been before.

Two small children look at a lighthouse in the background
Looking from our boat toward the lighthouse at Boca Chita Key (which we also got to climb). The lighthouse was built to attract “party people” from Miami in the 1930s, and the actual light was only functional for four days before the Coast Guard removed it.

Our second park was Everglades National Park. Another new one for us, but one that I researched by visiting the website and by finding some travel blogs for families with young kids (also a good strategy for Disney planning). I knew that based on the layout and what was available, it’d be best for us to tour on our own, at our own pace. We scheduled a whole day for ourselves and I made a spreadsheet (have you met me? There’s obviously going to be a spreadsheet involved) of potential little trails/hikes/experiences that we could do based on location, duration, length of the trail, and what sights it offered. We ended up doing something like 7 different mini-hikes, visited three visitor centers, and got Junior Park Ranger badges for both of our girls.

A small child holds binoculars and looks out from a deck overlooking a swamp area covered with lily pads
If you like Animal Kingdom Park, the Everglades are for you. So many fun wildlife settings, and a beautiful landscape.

Our third park was the crown jewel of the trip – Dry Tortugas National Park. This is one where Disney vacation planning strategies were absolutely essential. Dry Tortugas is one of the parks that national park enthusiasts have to cross off their list, mostly because it’s so unique and it’s so difficult to get to. The only way to access Dry Tortugas is by a ferry or a private seaplane. The ferry typically runs at a 250 person capacity each day, and it takes all day – you check in at 7 am (or they give your seat away to standby visitors) and you don’t get back until close to 6 pm. You have to book it months in advance because the limited capacity means that it books up early almost every day of the year. This catches many non-Disney folks by surprise. And you have to go in with a strategy – you only have 4.5-5 hours in the park because of the 5+ hour (roundtrip) ferry ride. How do you prioritize that time? Tour the fort with a guide or your own? Beach it? Eat a leisurely lunch? Snorkel around? Junior Park Ranger activities? Go in with a plan that you know will fit your family the best – just like Disney.

Two small children play on a nearly empty beach, with an old fort in the background
Who needs Castaway Cay when you can have a pristine, almost-empty beach to yourselves at Dry Tortugas? Just kidding. We love both.

How Do My Disney Vacation Strategies Help Me Know How To Get Around?

This question is about to get more complicated for WDW visitors, thanks to the sunsetting of Magical Express. And it’s not trivial for other vacations either. Two tricks that I learned during frequent trips to WDW served me well on this non-Disney vacation.

Especially if you have small kids, book Southwest

Now, a caveat here is that Southwest has had some major operational issues in the past few weeks. Thankfully, we weren’t impacted. But there are two things that I love about flying Southwest:

  1. Family boarding! Family boarding is nearly essential on flights to/from Orlando because almost everyone on the plane is a family with young kids. If you board after family boarding, you’re stuck with middle seats. I still check in right at the 24-hour mark to try to get an A-group. But if not, family boarding for us!
  2. No change fees! Southwest isn’t particularly user-friendly when it comes to finding a deal on your flight. That being said, once you book, keep checking back on the same flight to see if the price changes. We originally had $79 flights down to Miami and $149 flights back up. By occasionally re-searching the same flights, I was able to find when the price dropped to $49 each way! Then all I had to do was “change” our flight to the exact same flight and I got refunded the difference, in the form of future credits. So now my family has $520 in credits for a future flight, just because I rechecked and rebooked.
The skyline of Miami, as seen from the window of a Southwest airplane
Here’s beautiful downtown Miami as seen from our excellent seats aboard our half-full Southwest flight that only cost us $49 per person, one-way.

If you’re renting a car, use AutoSlash

In the era of the pandemic, I’m a big fan of booking with Alamo. I’m an Alamo Insider (a free program), which means that I have no cancellation/rebooking fees, and I can skip the counter and just walk straight to a car of my choice (plus I save 5%). Car rentals have seen some absolutely crazy prices recently thanks to a resurgence of demand and lower supply of cars. So I booked early – about two months before my vacation. We have four humans, usually 3 suitcases, a cooler we’d be hauling around with us, some groceries, and 4 backpacks. Plus a car seat and a booster. That means we needed something decently big. I booked 7 days in a Midsize SUV for $447. Really, I thought that was a pretty good deal. I checked competing companies and none of the ones I’m comfortable renting from had a lower rate.

But the next step was key. I went to AutoSlash and plugged in my reservation number. Then I clicked a few buttons to configure when/how I wanted it to notify me if the price of my reservation dropped. Over the next 6 weeks, I ended up rebooking my reservation 7 different times. Sometimes a different vehicle class would drop (like a minivan) and I would switch to that. Eventually, about 2 weeks before our vacation, I got back to a midsize SUV, for a grand total of …. $287. After that, prices started going back up again and I stayed with that vehicle and price. We got a Toyota 4Runner and had a grand time. So, just by using AutoSlash and being willing to cancel and rebook without fees, I saved another $160 compared to booking it and forgetting it.

A view of water and an island from a bridge
Our trusty 4Runner got us all the way through the Keys, including over Seven Mile Bridge

How Do My Disney Vacation Strategies Help Me Know How To Tour?

Here’s the thing, I’m a total rope drop junkie when I’m at WDW. I get my kids up early, we rope drop, and we knock out the attractions that generate long lines. Then in the afternoon, we do shows, lower wait attractions, or we let the kids get some rest. In the evening we’re back at it.

Those same strategies play out in the real world too.

On our Dry Tortugas day, check in at the ferry started at 7am. We have two toddlers that were still adjusting to the time change – but I had specifically booked a room within 5 minutes of the ferry dock for the previous night so that we could wake them up at 6:15 (yikes!), load into the car, and drive over. We made it to the check-in line just after 7. As a result, we got boarding numbers 45-48 (out of ~175). We got an indoor table with a set of chairs on the ferry to ourselves. Once boarding number 70ish was called, there were no more tables left on the lower deck (important to those of us with sea sickness issues). And once boarding numbers 100+ were boarding, there were no groups of chairs/tables left at all. It was only outside in large group seating. “Rope dropping” that check-in was key.

A mom and two daughters stand in swimsuits on a moat wall by a fort in Dry Tortugas National Park
You, too, could have this beautiful moat wall to yourselves for family photos … if you rope drop the moat wall!

On our last full day, we spent almost all day at Aquarium Encounters, which was less than 10 minutes from our room for the last three nights of the vacation. Once again, we rope dropped right when it opened at 9 am. We were the only guests for the entire first half hour. Our kids got to feed animals, we got a lot of 1:1 attention from the staff and volunteers, our girls were the first ones to dig for the (free) shark teeth that day, and we could wander and experience touch tanks as much as we wanted. It was glorious. (For the record, I highly recommend this aquarium if you have young kids, no matter the crowds.) By 11 am, things had picked up. Lots of people roaming and listening to the presentations. So we drove back to our resort, made ourselves lunch in the room, and let the girls get a much needed afternoon rest. We were back at the aquarium by 3pm, and it was once again very close to a ghost town. There were a few other families, but we felt like we had our run of the place. We closed things down when the aquarium shut down at 5 pm and got to watch the staff “feed out” all of the tanks for the night. Yet again, rope drop is king.

A small redheaded child reaches into a tank to pet a sting ray
This kid would’ve stayed petting sting rays all day (once she got over her initial fear). Low crowds at the end of the day meant that she stayed in this spot to her heart’s content.

What Disney Vacation Strategies are Transferrable?

Lots of them! But the ones we covered here are:

  1. Go somewhere repeatable to help you get in the vacation groove. The Gandillon family recommends national parks!
  2. Book early (ideally by using the TouringPlans Travel Agents), and use tools that let you have flexible rates. If you book yourself, check back for better deals.
  3. Rope drop! Yes, that’s still a thing even when you’re not at Disney. Do something relaxing and non-crowded in the afternoon.
  4. Bonus tip: Plan your days in advance. We were fitting a lot into a one-week trip, so I had a spreadsheet of planned activities, accommodations, and drive times. Things shifted throughout the week, but it made sure that we didn’t feel rushed or like we were missing out on anything.
  5. Bonus tip 2: Keep those kids entertained. Each of our girls had their own backpack with just-for-vacation activities (homemade felt board, Color Wonder kit, an empty first aid kit filled with crayons and post-it notes, etc.). That’s something we have for lines at Disney, but it’s equally important for road trips or long ferry rides.
A small child in a mask works on a felt piece of art while waiting at an airport
Felt boards … and funny faces. Good for killing time at the airport.

What’s your favorite non-Disney vacation spot? And how do you use your Disney vacation strategies to help you plan non-Disney vacations? Let us know in the comments!

 

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Becky Gandillon

Becky Gandillon was trained in biomedical engineering, but is now a full-time data and analytics nerd. She loves problem solving and travelling. She and her husband, Jeff, live in St. Louis with their two daughters and they have Disney family movie night every Saturday. You can follow her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/becky-gandillon/ or instagram @raisingminniemes

13 thoughts on “Applying Disney Vacation Strategies to Non-Disney Vacations

  • November 11, 2021 at 12:50 pm
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    Really interesting and well- written article. I’d love to know more about your day at Dry Tortugas! It sounds like a really cool place to visit.

    Reply
    • November 11, 2021 at 2:19 pm
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      Oh Jillian. Don’t get me started.
      The Yankee Freedom Ferry is the cheapest (but not cheap) way to get there. You check in at 7, instructions for your day start at 7:30, and you board at 8. Breakfast is provided (bagels, fruit, yogurt) and there is water available on the ferry. They also have Dramamine available for purchase at a reasonable price. They were doing a brisk business on that. On the way to the island, you can read some information, watch an orientation video, get your kids started on Junior Ranger activities, sign waivers for snorkel gear (free to rent) or whatever else.
      Once you’re on the island, you can opt to participate in a 20 minute chat with Ranger, or a 1 hour-20 minute tour+chat with the boat guide and a ranger. We opted for neither because of small children with small attention spans. But we immediately got off the boat when we docked at 10:30 (we wore our swimsuits under clothes to start the day) and got stamps and explored the fort a little. We also walked some of the moat wall. Boxed lunches were available on the boat starting at 11, so we didn’t want the kids to get wet before that. We grabbed lunch as soon as it was open (sub sandwiches and chips and cookies, plus one soft drink/lemonade/water bottle) and we were the only ones eating. After eating, we went to South Beach. The kids then played for about 4 hours straight. My husband and I took turns going off to snorkel (him) or climb to the top of the fort (me). The very top of the fort overlooks the whole island and surrounding area, but there are NO guardrails and a straight drop. I wasn’t going to let my kids up there.
      The boat galley closes lunch at 1, and then reopens at 1:30 to sell alcoholic beverages. Everyone has to be back on the boat by 2:45 for a 3 pm departure. The line for drinks by 2:30 was INSANE. Rope drop that if necessary.
      Camping on the island is also an option (and sounds pretty incredible) – you just take the ferry in one day and back out the next day (or after several nights). But you have to pack in everything you might need.
      Tips we have: You have to bring your own towels, and if you want any food/snacks beyond the provided breakfast and lunch you should pack those with you too. If you get sea sick at all, Dramamine is a must. 2-3 foot waves are regular, and they often get bigger. There is a “dock house” for changing out of swimsuits at the end of the day, but it also gets really really crowded (there are only 2 stalls per gender) by around 2 pm.

      Reply
  • November 11, 2021 at 1:38 pm
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    Fascinating article! We are also National Parksters. Love these tips, and added a few destinations to our bucket list.

    Reply
    • November 11, 2021 at 2:05 pm
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      Yay, glad to hear that Tiffany! Which are your favorites? Zion has always been at the top of my list. Dry Tortugas came close to knocking it from that spot, but maybe it’s at number 2 for now.

      Reply
      • November 11, 2021 at 2:52 pm
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        Love Zion! And Bryce has arguably the most otherworldly hike of any National Park. But I think my favorite Natl Park is actually the Olympic Peninsula because you get three amazing habitats in one: Hoh rainforest, beaches full of tide pools and cool rock formations, and Hurricane ridge (where you can basically drive to the top of a mountain and hike around while taking in the wildlife, wild flowers, and spectacular views).

      • November 11, 2021 at 3:03 pm
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        Oh yeah. We visited Bryce when I was pregnant and totally winded by just … moving, so I didn’t get to do any cool hikes there – we need to revisit. And we haven’t made it to the very west coast or Northwest. Will put it on our list!

  • November 11, 2021 at 2:03 pm
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    We just rope-dropped the kids’ Covid vaccination clinic! Shot-in-arm and chillin for our 15 minutes before the posted 9am opening time. 🙂

    Reply
    • November 11, 2021 at 2:06 pm
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      I LOVE this, Jen! We have the first Walgreens appointment of the day for my 5-year-old this Saturday. She’s PUMPED.

      Reply
  • November 11, 2021 at 2:22 pm
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    Holy cow, I never realized that with Southwest! We’re going to Disney World over Thanksgiving week and flying Southwest. I gave the app a go and sure enough, our flight down was about $24 per person cheaper and the return flight was $90 cheaper, both for the same flights! So I “changed” our flights and saved about $570!

    Reply
    • November 11, 2021 at 2:28 pm
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      Yeah Dave!! Excellent! Glad I could share that money-saving trick.

      Reply
  • November 11, 2021 at 8:18 pm
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    Well hello fellow math enthusiast living in St. Louis and traveling to all the places. I’ve wanted to do Dry Tortugas for a loooong time but I have to save up the monies this year to hit the Star Wars hotel next year. Just did Zion though, and it really was quite amazing. Just…don’t go up the Narrows in November. I was frozen!
    Also wanted to say that although I don’t have kids and probably never will, I actually enjoyed reading your notes about them. It’s clear you’re a considerate mom to both your children’s needs and also the other guests who will be around your children, and I hope other parents follow that lead.

    Reply
    • November 12, 2021 at 11:40 am
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      Such a kind compliment, Maggie – I really appreciate it! Can’t blame you for saving all (and yeah, it takes all) the monies for the Starcruiser. I will be very jealous of you getting to experience that!

      I’ve only done the Narrows in the summer. Such a cool spot. But, noted, definitely won’t do it in the fall or winter 🙂

      Reply
  • November 13, 2021 at 7:15 pm
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    We do NOT appreciate Southwest allowing families to jump in line and leave the leftover seating to others who paid the same as you. Yes, we are parents. Yes, a child should sit with a parent. But families should not be seated before those with extra pay early boarding tickets. Oh, I have a family so I get to cut in line. NO! This may not be popular, but wait until your child is a teen. I still think a parent needs to sit with them. Even couples who have booked early, paid extra and checked in early deserve a chance to sit together. Every person should make the reservations and extra add on early reservations they need and wait their turn in line.

    Reply

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