Harry Potter Is Not At Disney World, and Other Misconceptions Debunked

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I was chatting with another guest at Magic Kingdom on a recent trip to Walt Disney World that was telling me that he was going to take the bus over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to see Harry Potter. I did my best to politely advise him that Harry Potter is not at Disney to hopefully avoid any unpleasant surprises, but he was undeterred to the point of arguing with me about it, so I did my best Elsa and let it go. 

Hiya pal! No corporate synergy here.

While it would be easy for us theme park nerds to just kind of laugh this off, a surprising number of people think Harry Potter is at Disney, or even more broadly confuse Disney and Universal (or think they are one and the same). It can be a costly and/or heartbreaking mistake to make. I assure you, those folks received a rude awakening, either when showing up to Hollywood Studios and wondering where Hogwarts was, or when they showed up at Universal Orlando and realized their Disney tickets wouldn’t work, meaning they were going to have to fork out more cash if they wanted to see the boy wizard.

With that in mind, let me say this:

Harry Potter is not at Disney Wold. Harry Potter is at Universal Orlando. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are competitors.

(Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)

Please spread the word. Thank you.

Unfortunately, this Harry Potter – Disney connection is not the only misconception about Disney World out there. Between the internet, friends-of-friends, and the like, the reality is that there is a lot of bad or outdated information floating around that can really impact trip planning. Read on to make sure you avoid these traps when planning your next trip — and my apologies in advance for any dream crushing that unintentionally results.

Your Offsite Hotel Is Not Close to the Parks

One of Disney World’s “Maingates.” Note the absence of any theme parks in the area

On more than a few occasions, I’ve had people ask me about Walt Disney World accommodations that say that they are “close to the Maingate,” with the assumption being that this means that it’s a great location. In some cases, I’ve even seen this misinterpreted to mean that you can walk to the parks, like you can from some Disneyland hotels. At its core, this stems from people that are unaware that “Maingate” refers to the entrance to the resort property as a whole, not the gate to any particular park. Passing through the “gate” to Disney is always one of my favorite parts of a trip, but you’re still a few minutes’ car ride away from anywhere you might actually need to be at that point.

On a related note, many off-site hotels advertise that they run shuttles to Disney World, but the reliability, schedules, and usefulness of these shuttles varies wildly, and it would be tough to recommend relying upon any of them as your exclusive means of getting around. In most instances, you’re going to want to either have your own vehicle or take a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft to get to the parks. If the main reason for staying off site is cost, you could well find that the added cost of having a rental, parking, and so on eats into whatever savings you’re realizing by staying offsite.

To be clear, it’s not that off-site places that advertise themselves as being “close” to Disney World, like some in Kissimmee or in the larger “Attractions area” parts of Orange County, are in bad locations — indeed, as compared to places in other parts of the area, they ARE relatively close. The problem is the insinuation that their location makes them super convenient. They aren’t, and I often see families have to call an audible very early in a trip once they show up and realize where they are in relation to the parks.

Here’s what you need to know: if you don’t plan on having a vehicle, the Disney hotels are going to make it the easiest to get around without adding cost to your trip. You can take Disney’s Magical Express to and from the airport, and Disney transportation (buses, boats, and monorails) around the resort. If convenience and proximity to the parks are your primary concerns, a Disney hotel is likely going to be the best fit for you.

 

You Won’t Be Strolling Down Main Street, U.S.A., with a Character On Each Arm

Ever see those Disney World commercials where Mickey is skipping along, arm-in-arm with a family, or Goofy is riding along with a child on the Barnstormer? I have some bad news. Character interactions at Disney World these days generally are tightly scripted, and highly choreographed affairs. Typically, if you’d like to meet and interact with a character (as opposed to seeing one in a stage show or parade), you’re going to be going a designated location, standing in line, and meeting them in a very structured way. 

That is not to say, however, that Disney’s character meet and greets are bad — quite the contrary, in fact. The characters themselves tend to be fantastic, and some of my fondest Disney memories are at these meet and greets. They are not, however, spontaneous, and you need to set aside time in your day to do them if they are important to you. Stumbling upon characters in the park and interacting with them is by far the exception and is extremely rare.

 

The Monorail Doesn’t Go Everywhere

The monorail is an iconic part of Disney World, and perhaps for this reason, many guests assume that you can use it to travel all around the resort. This is another one where I think you can point to Disney’s marketing as the reason this belief persists, but regardless, it simply isn’t true. The monorail takes you from the Transportation and Ticket Center (i.e., the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot) to the entrance to the Magic Kingdom, and also services the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary resorts. Additionally, there is a monorail that will take you between the Magic Kingdom area (again, from the Transportation and Ticket Center and not Magic Kingdom itself, however) and Epcot. That’s it. Most other places are serviced by a combination of buses and (less frequently) boats. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort other than those mentioned, you might not have occasion to ride the monorail at all, because the Magic Kingdom buses drop you off right near the park entrance.

On a related note, those that have been led to believe the the monorail goes everywhere often underestimate the amount of time that is takes to get around the resort. I’ve made this point in several articles, but it bears repeating for first-timers planning trips: Disney World is huge, and is much more grand in scope and size than you’re probably expecting if you’ve never been. If you’re relying upon Disney transportation, you should budget in 45 minutes or so to travel between parks, or between parks and resorts. 

 

FastPass Doesn’t Cost a Ton (or Anything At All, Really)

FastPass+ is a system at Disney World that allows you to reserve attractions in advance and then experience them with minimal wait. In most instances, you’ll skip the regular standby line entirely — often while absorbing glares like daggers coming from those waiting in mammoth lines — and proceed directly to the boarding area. It feels like you have VIP status, and perhaps for this reason, many guests assume that those that use it are paying extra for the privilege of skipping the line.

Simply stated, they aren’t — ALL guests are entitled to take advantage of FastPass+, and using and understanding it is one of the best ways to save time in line at Disney World. Also, it is free for everyone to use — you are entitled to make up to three advance reservations per day (and you can get more once you’ve used those three), and it won’t cost you a dime. Make sure you read up on it before you go so you know what it is and how to best use it.

 

Free Dining Isn’t Free

There was a time when free dining was a boon for travelers — when you booked during certain times of the year, Disney threw in the Disney Dining Plan for free, and in most cases, it would save you a ton of money. Over the years, however, that has changed. Disney has made subtle tweaks to what the plan provides, and it changes the value analysis. Ultimately, free dining CAN save you money, but it won’t NECESSARILY do so. It clearly isn’t the windfall it once was, and in any event, it certainly isn’t “free.”

The reason for this is simple: while the Dining Plan may not add an additional line item cost to your bill, you pay for it by foregoing other discounts. To be eligible for free dining promotions, you have to pay full rack rate for your room. Almost invariably, however, any time Disney is running a free dining promotion, they are also offering other room-only or package discounts. Depending upon how you eat, those discounts may save you more money than taking advantage of Disney’s “free” dining.

Now, whether or not “free” dining will save you money is beyond the scope of this article — you really have to do the math and compare the discount you’re getting by forgoing free dining with the value of the dining plan. As this goes to press, the quick service plan (which is provided to guests at Value resorts for free dining) is $52.49/adult per day ($21.74/child), and the standard dining plan (which is provided to everyone else) is $75.59/adult ($25.75/child). It’s also a reasonable estimate for what you might pay for food for a day out of pocket. Compare that to other available discounts to get a sense for which discount is better for you.

You’re most likely to benefit from the dining plan if you do a bunch of character buffets or have more than 2 adults in a room, but at the end of the day, you really need to run some numbers to figure out if you have to give up too much in other discounts for your “free” dining to make sense. Also worth considering is whether the dining plan actually matches the way you eat — for example, if you wouldn’t get dessert or an alcoholic drink with every meal, it well could be that you’d spend less just paying for the food you want than relying on the dining plan anyway.

Those Super Cheap Park Tickets Are Bogus

Visiting Walt Disney World is expensive, and one of the most frequent questions I get is whether there’s a way to save on park tickets. The short answer is yes, there is — you can use our Ticket Price Comparison Tool for guidance on where you can find the best discount for the sort of tickets you need — but those discounts tend to be pretty modest, a few percentage points at best. Check out our page identifying the various ticket options, and legitimate vendors where you can get discounted tickets for more information.

What, then, of the tickets you find on the internet or in the Orlando area that purport to be free or steeply discounted from the gate price? One of two things is happening. Unless you are a Florida resident, the only way to legitimately get really cheap or even free Disney tickets is by agreeing to sit through a timeshare presentation. Invariably, the presentation will be high pressure, far longer than advertised, and unless you’re actually in the market for a timeshare, probably a bad use of your time.

The other possibility is that the tickets are bogus. It is the case that you can buy Florida resident tickets at kiosks or on gift card displays at major retailers, like Publix or Wawa in the Orlando area (currently $159 plus tax for 3-day passes or $179 plus tax for 4-day passes). Other deeply discounted Disney tickets sold at less established locations to the public at large are likely fake or have already been partially used by someone else and should be viewed with caution. Craigslist, eBay, random convenience stores around Orlando — you might see Disney World tickets advertised at any of these places, and chances are good that you’ll be buying tickets that have no value at all.

Simply stated, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Caveat emptor.

As always, we love having you in the discussion. Have you encountered any of these misconceptions or heard any horror stories? Know of any others that impact trip planning? Let us know in the comments!

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Jamie Rosemergy

When not planning for or traveling to Walt Disney World with his beautiful wife and impossibly adorable daughter, James practices law in St. Louis. He also really likes cheese -- and loathes kale. He can be found on twitter at @jrtoastyman.

31 thoughts on “Harry Potter Is Not At Disney World, and Other Misconceptions Debunked

  • February 20, 2018 at 11:45 am
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    I think you’re underestimating the value of free dining, even today. If you’re staying at a Value or Moderate, you’re almost always doing better to take free dining over a room discount:

    For the times free dining is offered, we’ll skew our estimate to prefer a room discount as much as possible and estimate $250/night with a 25% discount (that’s about POR’s Fall rack rate). Your discount is $62.50/night. One adult, one child is enough for free quick service dining to be a better deal. Any larger group—and most groups are going to have at least 2 adults—will make free dining the better deal. In a value resort, with a lower rack rate and a lower discount, the comparison won’t even be close.

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    • February 20, 2018 at 11:56 am
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      Well, you could very well be right, but the point is more that it’s not really “free,” you’re giving up other discounts to get it. For me, one of the biggest issues with the dining plan is that it doesn’t match the way I eat — it doesn’t cover things I would get (we often just split a few appetizers) and does cover things I don’t (like dessert) — so I have to change my eating habits to find value. It’s ultimately going to be an individualized determination, though…

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      • February 20, 2018 at 6:15 pm
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        You’re right that it’s not free, but I think the pendulum has swung too far against free dining in the Disney fan community. Amanda makes a good point re parkhopper below, but that’s $12-$14/day on a week-long trip, which isn’t much. The real problem with free dining is the extremely limited availability–it takes a lot of hassle to get what you want. But on a strict dollars basis, a family is almost always better off with free dining at a moderate or value than with the discount (unless that family otherwise would mostly use Prime Now or Garden Grocer).

    • February 20, 2018 at 12:23 pm
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      I have to agree with the article. Free dining had no value. One of the big reasons was park hopper. If you don’t buy park hopper – and I don’t. Then it is not a value. Especially when you add in the room discount (which I had) and the fact that we rarely eat dessert. My boyfriend is diabetic and vegetarian – so taking that into account – even with going to a couple of character meals – we still would have actually spent more money for ‘free’ dining

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    • February 21, 2018 at 9:31 am
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      This free dining topic is always hotly debated, but it always comes down to the individual. And that’s the main point the article is making. Our family’s first trip to WDW we got the free standard dining package. We ate our snacks, our quick service lunch and a full sit down dinner every day of our trip. It was great! We got to experience 6 different sit down restaurants. But it was WAY more food than we would normally eat. Our next trip we instead chose the room discount and that was the better choice for us. We only ate at three sit down restaurants and sometimes shared lunch plates instead of all four of us getting something. this was a much better amount of food for us. This is why every family has to compare which deal will be better for their own situation.

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  • February 20, 2018 at 12:14 pm
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    Great blog post! We have encountered the Harry Potter situation before.

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  • February 20, 2018 at 12:15 pm
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    Great blog post! We have encountered the Harry Potter situation before. Cast members have told us stories too!

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    • February 20, 2018 at 12:27 pm
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      Thank you! Yeah, those of us that go frequently forget that for a lot of folks, Orlando = Disney. “Going to Disney to see Harry Potter” is something I hear from a lot of people, especially when planning their first trips to Central Florida.

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  • February 20, 2018 at 12:17 pm
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    Let’s not forget that even with Free Dining you are responsible for tipping your server!

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  • February 20, 2018 at 12:21 pm
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    Similar to the monorail not going everywhere, neither do all boats connect to every place. You can’t take a boat from DS to MK to EP.

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    • February 20, 2018 at 12:29 pm
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      Yes, excellent point, and I also frequently talk to people that are under the impression that the parks are all walking distance from one another. I think many people just think of it as a more grand version of their local Six Flags…

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      • February 20, 2018 at 1:15 pm
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        Yep, things are not easily within walking distance (for the most part). Not many sidewalks along streets, either! I like to refer people to satellite view of Google maps for realistic image with scale, unlike many drawn maps.

  • February 20, 2018 at 12:51 pm
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    This posting is a worthy task. Good luck.

    I have always stayed offsite, for cost. I once got 7 nights at an offsite Hotel at only $110 more than the cost of the ticket alone through Travelocity or whatever service I was using. The cost savings can be significant, and you can often win a Priceline bid on a car rental for as little as $8/day.

    I had friends staying onsite in one of the value resorts, taking the Disney buses. I was able to open my hotel door, walk ten feet to my car, then drive to parking, take a tram, and be at the entrance of the theme park faster than they could at all parks *except* Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom required taking either the ferry boats or monorail, adding time, while the Disney buses could drop off directly at the entrance.

    I always get a car and a cheap offsite hotel — you can usually stay all week for the cost of one night at a “nice” Disney hotel… Which means more visits.

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    • February 20, 2018 at 1:14 pm
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      No doubt about it, if you have a car, it makes a dramatic difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with someone thinking they won’t need a car because they are expecting to walk from a “maingate” hotel, though. Sadly, it’s a thing.

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    • February 20, 2018 at 1:17 pm
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      This mirrors our experience exactly. We regularly stay in a 3br 3ba townhouse with our own private splash pool, full kitchen and living room. All for $100 -> $130/night depending on season. Never more than that. We always drive down, but even if we didn’t, there is no WAY the cost of a rental car would drive our costs above what it costs to stay on-site. And we have all that extra room to spread out in, the neighborhood is quite and gated, and we can get to all the parks (except MK, as Allen H noted above) *faster* than most people staying on-site and using Disney transport. Especially if they are staying in a Value.

      So for us, YES, our offsite room IS close to the Parks. And there are hotels that are closer AND cheaper than where we stay, although we prefer the townhome.

      TouringPlans has never adequately covered staying offsite. Even in a recent article about staying offsite, the author admits that she prefers to stay on-site so she’s in the magic “bubble”. If you’re going to cover staying offsite, get someone to write about it who’s actually done it and understands it. Otherwise, don’t bother, the results are more than incorrect, they are misleading in every single way due to the author’s preconceived notions about off-site stays.

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      • February 20, 2018 at 4:26 pm
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        I agree with this 100% – coming from the UK we take at least a 2 week trip and all the money on earth would not persuade me to live with my dear family of 4 for that time in 1 hotel room.

        Fortunately staying in a villa always works out cheaper than a hotel room anyway (even factoring in parking) and so we never have to do that maths.

        The only downside for us is that returning home during the day is quite tricky.

      • February 20, 2018 at 4:36 pm
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        In the past I have stayed in a time-share for around $130 a week, which has a full kitchen, etc. Which would mean renting a car also and paying for parking. That is still certainly cheaper than staying on-site. However, my last two trips I have stayed on-site anyway.
        When I went with other people – 4 adults & two children, that is what we did. Split the cost of that & the car, etc. Much cheaper than we could have stayed on-site especially since we went shopping, had some meals at the hotel & brought snacks to the parks.
        Last two times, just 2 adults and I don’t cook :). I hate driving in traffic & I really love getting dropped off so close to the gate at the park.
        I did price some off-site hotels for my last trip & factoring in the hotel, car & parking, I might have been able to save a little money, but I would have had to really work for it 🙂
        I did find that I just enjoyed staying on property more once I tried it, so it seems silly not to.
        That being said, my sisters went over the summer, drove down – 3 adults & 5 kids (15 through 4). They did the time-share, shopped & cooked. For that many people it wasn’t even a question – the savings off-site (with being able to do a time-share transfer to Orlando) made it possible for them to all go.

      • February 20, 2018 at 5:55 pm
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        What a great article! Thank you for reminding us of a perspective that we seasoned folk may not be familiar with often.

        IMHO, staying on-site and staying off-site are both “right” choices – but for different reasons, for us anyway. We like to stay in a big VRBO house with a private pool when we’re vacationing with extended family. Oppositely, the Disney resorts are perfect for shorter trips (when I don’t want to grocery shop, cook or clean up) especially when it’s just my husband, daughter and myself. Both good choices!

      • February 21, 2018 at 11:11 am
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        Bingo. There’s no wrong answer. The purpose of the trip, the traveling party, length of stay, and all kinds of other stuff can all impact which works best for a particular vacation. Even staying onsite, there are reasons to stay at different resorts for different types of trips. It’s all whatever checks your boxes best.

  • February 20, 2018 at 1:33 pm
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    Good article, James. Thank you. Question – are the Florida Resident tickets available at the grocery stores available to people who aren’t Florida Residents? I mean, I know “resident” is built into the title, but this non-resident can hope. 😉

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    • February 20, 2018 at 1:41 pm
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      Thanks! Sadly, I don’t believe so, at least not in the way you mean. I believe anyone is free to buy them, but to use them, you exchange the card that you buy at a ticket sales location at Disney World, and they are going to require a Florida ID to activate it. Sorry!

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      • February 20, 2018 at 2:32 pm
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        Correct–on the card that you buy at the store (in the case of those photos, at Publix), it says that you must show a Florida photo ID to redeem the pass.

      • February 20, 2018 at 4:18 pm
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        Thank you, James & Julia. I thought it sounded too good to be true.

      • February 26, 2018 at 12:21 am
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        Damn! There goes that hack. Great article anyway James!!!

  • February 20, 2018 at 2:16 pm
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    Nice job, Jamie! Don’t forget reminding people that both Harry Potter and Pandora are not full theme parks, just the lands inside them.

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    • February 20, 2018 at 2:55 pm
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      Thanks Dan! Definitely, that is another one that I’ve heard a lot since the opening of Pandora in particular.

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  • February 20, 2018 at 2:34 pm
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    Great article. I go to Disneyworld every other year. The other times I go to Disneyland. We always go between Thanksgiving and before Christmas Eve. Very short lines then, the parks are ramping up for the holidays, all the shows are running and nothing is being refurbished. As a retired military, I get the tickets from a military base (3 or 4 day Parkhoppers) which is usually the cost of a one day non-parkhopper. We always use the Magic Express from the airport (saves you from a $75 cab fare and they deliver your bags to your room while you are off having fun) and if you stay on property on your first and last day in Florida they take you back again ($150 savings right there). Transportation is easy. Plan for 45 minute travel. We stay at Pop Century if possible or at All Sports. 3 of the 4 parks are 15 minutes away. If you need a rental they pick you up and take you to the car rental place at Magic Kingdom and they will pick you up and transport you back to your hotel or a park. All for free. I get the Room discounts and buy the quick service meal plan. You get a huge amount of food at each meal whether quick service or full service. 2 people can eat on each quick service meal, so split a breakfast and a lunch and then have a nice dinner from the full service meal. You can also buy bread, milk and other items in the quick service meal area. No need to go off property for extra food. The best store is at Wilderness Camp ground where they sell a whole loaf of bread and lots of jams. We always rent a car midway during the vacation and drive over to Universal Orlando (about 14 miles away) and stay for 2 days. Get the park hopper there so you can ride the Hogwarts Express from the main park to Islands of Adventure and then you can get attacked by Dementors on your trip from Diagon Alley and Kings Cross Station. December thru February is when you can also take the rental across the width of the state to Crystal Springs and swim with the Manatees. (That drive is about 2 hours one way). This is a bucket list event. Dont cheat yourself outof it. However long you take on the vacation plan for the last night to be back on property for the Magic Express back to the airport. They take you back and your luggage is taken care of as well. The folks at Disneyworld have travelling down to an art. They really make it easy for you. Every night you stay on property is a meal plan day. My last trip with the Commander in Chief (my wonderful wife) was all of this. Minus airfare (used frequent flyer miles) The rooms and meals (on property and off ) $2100 and $570 for 6 days at both resorts. Car rental was for 3 days all over Florida only $300 counting gas. Manatees swimming was another $150 for both of us. We even went to Cape Canaveral and saw the Roseate Spoonbills and Herons while we were touring the Moon Rocket and having lunch with a real Astronaut. I even got to touch a moon rock. You can have a great time at Disneyworld. And you don’t have to sit on the curb eating corn out of a can on Main Street to afford it. Good luck on your planning.

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    • February 22, 2018 at 3:54 pm
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      William, can you explain your comments regarding the quick-service dining plan. It sounds like you purchase one quick-service plan for the two of you and then split the food you get at breakfast and lunch. But I thought that you had to purchase a plan for everyone in the party. Can you clarify for me? Also, do you just pay cash for the full-service meal at dinner? My wife and I don’t eat a lot, and your plan sounds great, but I’m not sure I understand it all. Thanks.

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  • February 20, 2018 at 6:39 pm
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    Good article – and so true. We actually allow an hour to get from place to place because there’s always something… I think the statistic I read that gave me the most perspective on size is that everything in Disneyland – Disneyland, DCA, Downtown Disney – can fit into just the parking lot of the Magic Kingdom. As a frequent Disneyland visitor, this gave me a clue about what I was in for before I went!

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    • February 20, 2018 at 8:21 pm
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      Disneyland and DCA can both fit into Epcot. The MK parking lot isn’t *quite* that big. 🙂

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  • February 21, 2018 at 1:44 pm
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    Thanks for this great post. I hope it becomes a series since there are many more myths that need debunked. Like, Disney characters don’t include Looney Toons characters and which are which, You can’t walk from the parking lot at MK into the park (or the real amount of time it takes from parking your car to walking through the turnstiles) The 2 pm (or 3 pm) parade might be 30 minutes before it gets to where you wanted to watch it. etc. This would be a great series of blogs!!

    Reply

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