A Guide to Walt Disney World – Tickets and the Magic Kingdom

I wasn’t a big Disney buff until I met my wife.  She loves Disney, because, as she likes to remind me in that tone that only self-evident-truths-that-I-have somehow missed deserve, “It’s the happiest celebration on earth!”  At first, I got a kick out of going to Disney because she did, now we both enjoy going and usually manage 2-3 days a year.  This is our unofficial guide to the parks. Tickets Disney tickets are expensive, and it’s very difficult to get a good deal.  Your options are generally speaking the following:

  • Florida Residents: If you’re a Florida resident, you can purchase tickets at a discount with your valid Florida drivers license.  These are non transferable, and Disney fingerprints you to avoid the “have my Florida friend go one day then I’ll go”.  The discounts are very very attractive and if you pay attention they’ll run specials that have restrictions (certain days blacked out, etc.) which will let you get down to roughly 40 bucks a day if you buy a 3 or 4 day pass.  This is the best deal you’ll ever manage.  Note that most multi-day passes (but not all) can be upgraded within six months of your first visit to a year-long annual pass for the difference between what you paid and the annual pass rate.  This is another really good deal if you plan to go often.  Rule of thumb – if you’re going to go more than 5 days in a year, get the annual pass because it includes free parking, which saves you 10 bucks a day.
  • Out of Staters: You have a lot less options.  Generally speaking, you’re going to pay full price, unless you can wrangle some sort of amazing package deal, but beware, these tend to not be the greatest deals once you analyze it.

Scam Options: There are plenty of scam options available:

  • Timeshares: These involve sitting through a timeshare presentation (usually with two friends you’ve brought along) for 2 hours and result in theme park tickets and a room or two for a night.  This is OK if you’re sure you can say no, but they make us nervous because you usually have to prepay a hundred bucks or so that will get refunded upon viewing the presentation.
  • Tickets for some other presentation: See above. Same deal and same risks usually.
  • Get a Florida ID to unlock the Resident Discount: These services will help you get a Florida ID card, but are often defeated by the fingerprinting that Disney does and it’s illegal – a serious felony if you’re caught.

Legitimate Discount Options

  • Triple A (AAA) – They have a discount.  Use it.
  • Military Families – Another nice discount if you’re eligible.

The Bottom Line on Tickets

Disney is expensive, but here’s the thing – you’re going to spend as much money inside the park if you’re not careful as you did on tickets.  Seriously.  Many find that the ultimate costs of food, drinks, parking, souvenirs, aren’t closely scrutinized while they’re there and add up to being way more than the actual park entry fees.  Our advice would be to focus on cost control in those areas and just bite the bullet on the tickets.

Controlling Costs Inside

Disney allows you to bring food and beverages into the park.  I’m not sure about alcoholic beverages, but for sure you could sneak them in if that’s important to you.  We believe that eating as we walk around the park is one of the best things about Disney, but if you’re watching your diet and trying to cut your costs, bring sandwiches and some bottles for water is the way to go.  We see a lot of people with CamelBaks on throughout the park and if you stock it with enough ice, a Camelbak should last you most of the day. Don’t forget sunscreen – the stuff they sell inside the park is very expensive – $20 for a bottle, and you don’t have a choice on this item.

Hotels

We would advise not staying on property hotels.  They are really expensive compared to other options out there.  Hotwire and Priceline are your friend, but beware of the fact that there are a LOT of older hotels in the Orland/Disney area that are run down.  We recommend Priceline since you can read reviews on the properties you’re thinking about staying at before you pull the trigger, but we’ve had no real issues with Hotwire.  You can generally find accommodations that are decent in the 80 dollar per night range.  Many hotels have a resort fee or parking fee each day that’s tacked on so keep that in mind when you’re looking.  Many hotels also provide a shuttle which will save you the $10 a day parking fee at each park.

Times to Visit

We’ve been in the spring, summer, fall, and winter and even though we had a great visit in late April, it was a little skewed because it was during a weekday.  The Wife insists that January is the best time to go both for temperature and crowd control reasons, and of course, if it’s during the school year try to go on a weekday.

Fast Passes

The fast pass has revolutionized Disney and its infamous lines.  These are your life savers.  The way it works is each ticket gives you a token that lets you cut in line between a certain timeframe in the future.  This time increments throughout the day until about mid afternoon most fast pass machines shut off.  We recommend a strategy of hitting the popular rides early.  In other words, if you want to hit Space Mountain (one of the longest waits in the Magic Kingdom) immediately make a bee-line to that ride as soon as you enter the park, and get your fast pass.  That will give you a relatively early time say between noon and 1:30PM, then once you’re done you can Fast Pass your number two selection.  This will save you up to 2-3 hours of standing in line.

Line Monitoring Applications

You should also download an app for your phone that gives you wait times for each ride.  I use WDW waits and WDW maps – they’re free and seem to work OK.  They allow you to input wait times and see wait times reported by others across the park so you can monitor your hitlist during the day and “sneak” into rides that have their wait times temporarily drop.  We’ve used this to snipe a ride with “no wait” that was close to us several times and it’s remarkable how much wait times can fluctuate throughout the day.

The Magic Kingdom

This is the smallest of the parks, believe it or not, and also the busiest.  Expect the highest percentage of kids and stroller-jams.  We’ve found that even though most kids annoy us (we have no kids) one of the best things about the Magic Kingdom is to watch kids freaking out with excitement on the way into the park and during the day, and to spot meltdowns that occur when they get tired.  If you’re lucky, the parent will also melt down and we take sadistic pleasure in witnessing this.

Here are the absolute must-see rides:

  • Space Mountain – a fast, chaotic, clackety ride that’s world famous because it’s in the dark.  This is our first fast pass of the day always.
  • Monster’s Inc. Laugh Factory – this is probably the best, more underrated ride in the entire park.  I can’t say enough good things about this show.  Essentially, it’s a standup comedy routine performed by actors who voice and control the expressions of animated Monsters on the screen in front of you.  You can submit jokes, the audience participates, and no two shows are the same (jokes and gags differ).  This is an unbelievably creative ride and if you liked the movie, it’s a slam dunk.
  • Thunder Mountain Railroad – this may be a “kiddie coaster” but it’s a fun one with awesome theming.  The ride is fun and feels chaotic enough to be exciting.  Try to get a seat in the back cart.  This is always our second fast pass of the day.

Things we Enjoy

  • Tea Cups – This is another ostensibly kid ride that can be had in any park, but we attempt to spin as fast as possible and it’s a relatively short wait.  If you do this right, you can usually be so loopy you’re close to falling down at the end of the ride.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – this ride closed for an overhaul that lasted quite awhile but really only saw them insert a few Captain Jack Sparrow figures into the ride.  It’s the same as it ever was, and that’s generally a good thing.  It’s got a covered line which gets you out of the heat and we generally use this line to eat a snack since it moves pretty well (usually not more than 40 minutes).
  • Train Ride – we use the train to get around the park a lot since the Toon Town and Frontierland stations are well positioned to save you walking through the chaos of the middle of the park. Note – currently Disney is completely renovating/rebuilding/expanding the Fantasyland part of the park which means the Toon Town station is closed which really limits the train’s usefulness.  This should reopen in 2012.
  • Haunted Mansion – we like this ride because it seems to exemplify the old-school haunted house theme and has a very creatively themed line with funny tombstones, etc.  This is probably not a good idea for young kids.  Bonus – every time we’ve ever been on the ride it has paused or broken down for a few minutes and a voice comes on that advises you to stay inside your “Doom Buggy”.  For us, this is the best part.
  • The People Mover – a good way to rest your legs and relax.  Nothing earth shattering here.

Things We Hate

  • The Hall of Presidents – Yes, I get this is a classic, but it sucks.  Although it is air conditioned and the wait is short, the problem is you’ll be tempted to fall asleep during it if you pop in during the middle of your day.
  • The Lilo and Stitch Ride – Easily the worst ride in the park.  It’s a bizarre ride, but it makes a little more sense when we learned that it was originally an Aliens themed ride that got retooled.  It’s horrible horrible horrible.  A complete waste of time.
  • Small World – insane lines and that horrid song.
  • Country Bear Jamboree – we thought we liked it as we had fond memories of this line, then we recently went to it and it ruined the memories for all time.

Food Guide

  • Giant Smoked Turkey Leg – the single best food offering in the park.  These can be found in Frontier Land in a cart right by the river.  If you’re on a high protein diet / low carb diet, this is essentially your only option, but who cares?  The meat is actually not turkey but Emu and it’s awesome.  Make sure you bring dental floss if you’re going to eat one of these – the meat tends to get stuck in your teeth and you can’t buy it anywhere within the park.
  • Cotton Candy – The Wife loves this.  You can get it on Main Street and also in Frontierland.
  • Pineapple Soft Serve Float / Coke Float / Pineapple Ice Cream – my favorite dessert, can be found in Adventureland near the Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Taco Salad – find these in the food court opposite the Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Jelly Bellies – these are insanely expensive but they’re inside the general store in Frontierland along with the Cotton Candy and Aunt Selma’s massive cookies, which are really good.

Other Items We Enjoy

  • There is a glass blower shop on Main Street on the right side when the train station is at your back.  Inside there are artisans that are shaping glass items and we’ve also seen them blowing glass to make goblets and other large items.  This is a lot of fun to observe.
  • The camels in Adventure Land spit water on you when you walk by.
  • The parades are always entertaining to watch, and even more fun to watch kids freaking out as their favorite characters walk by.  Protip: monitor line times closely during parades to hit a few rides while the parade soaks up large crowds.

Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe

We were tipped off by a colleague that visiting Jungfraujoch would be an incredible destination while in Switzerland.  Words like “glacier” seemed sort of cool, but when other words like “cog railway”, “narrow gauge railway” and “UNESCO World Heritage Site” were used, I was hooked.Sara was skeptical at best, her last brush with a mountain being a bait-and-switch experience involving a promise of “no hiking” and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.  As we got closer to making plans and buying tickets, her confirmations became more frequent, until we were down to a “There’s going to be no hiking, right?” every 10 minutes, along with a complete thesaurus readout of alternate phrases: long walking, walking up a hill, trudging, stomping through snow, climbing, etc.As we bought our tickets, we didn’t really understand what we were in for on the trip over.  Swiss railways are nothing short of spectacular, the Zurich Hauptbahnhof being a prime exhibit with its 26+ tracks, two levels, 2,900 daily trains, and over 340,000 passenger per day.  For a point of comparison, Beijing’s new West Railway station serves roughly 150,000 passengers per day on average, and while this is one of three Beijing stations, you’re talking a comparison of a city of 22 million vs. a city of 365,000.  OK, enough stats.  The point is, I’m not sure there’s very many systems in the world, even in small countries, that can get you to where you want to go and back on a 10+ connection, 10 hour journey.  We missed one of our connections in Bern due to a misreading of the schedule, but there was another option 20 minutes after that one, and I’m not even sure it mattered towards the end result.The trip involved five different trains out and back, and our route was:

  • Zurich -> Bern (Intercity Express or ICE, double decker coaches)
  • Bern -> Interlaken Ost (Intercity Express single deck coaches)
  • Interlaken Ost -> Lauterbrunnen (Narrow Gauge on the Bernese Oberland Railways)
  • Lauterbrunnen -> Kleine Scheidegg (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Wengernalp Railway )
  • Kleine Scheidegg -> Jungfraujoch (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Jungfrau Railway)

From Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch, each of these segments included multiple stops (see the route maps I’ve linked to) as we wound our way up the mountain from Interlaken to an altitude of 11,388 feet which makes it the highest railway station in Europe.  In case your curious, the Qingzang railway to Tibet holds the record for the world.Riding up from Interlaken was a neat experience as the cogs permit a level of ascent that’s almost roller-coasterish in some places.  You pass by hundreds of small cottages, several small skiing and resort towns, and the train is carrying mostly skiers through the lower stations, complete with additional carts for baggage on the front of the train.  The railway is completely electrified, and though the equipment looks interchangeable, these are all separately operated railways with different uniforms, liveries, cars, and locomotives.  Typical of Swiss efficiency, the trains generate electricity for the line on the way down and can recover something like 40% of the power expended on the ascent.  As we progressed, we became a little worried that the top would be obscured by heavy fog that was blanketing the mountains, even though a train information official assured us it was clear on the top.The last two plus kilometers of the trips is at a very steep ascent rate and is completely within a tunnel with one stop for an observation point.  This last point is incredible, considering that this line was built in 1894 and 1912.We got a late start from Zurich as we caught the 10:32 AM train out of Zurich and the entire trip we witnessed frowns and mumbles about there not being enough time, and sure enough, when we got there we had 40 minutes until the last train, but for us it was enough.  We hustled through the station, rode a very fast elevator up, and emerged at the Sphinx Observatory whose very name leaves you unsurprised it has been used in a James Bond movie and as a setting for several novels.What a view!  We were high above the clouds, and in every direction there was snow, mountain peaks, and nothing else.  The lack of a visible rail line or road to the station due to the railway’s tunnel progression make it seem like you’re at some sort of Antarctic outpost having parachuted in, and the 12 degrees Fahrenheit temperature reinforce that impression.  We snapped off a ton of pictures, about froze to death, ran back down to the train, and were off!No hiking.Was it worth it?  I would say definitely yes.  If you’re a train buff, this is a can’t-miss experience despite the rather expensive cost.  For extreme environment junkies, I’d say yes as well.  There are hiking excusions you can take but those may only be available for the summer.  Our advice would be to go for a weekend or couple of days of skiing at one of the lower stations and head up for an hour as part of your larger experience.  An hour is all you need if you just want to see things, if you want to experience the restaurant or ice palace, maybe more time is warranted.