Travel Tuesday: Harry Potter and the Prescription of Ass-kaban

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Now, I don’t want to blame Lance’s prescription for our less-than-stellar first visit to Universal Orlando’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

…but I am. [Editor’s note: Love ya, boo!]

I need to backtrack and provide a little context: Lance, per the usual, was having his Bi-monthly Health Crisis (seriously, he passed 30 and his body just began shutting down).  This time, Lance was experiencing (TMI warning!) a near-full-body rash.  We speculated for weeks as the rash grew more irritated and scaly: was it an allergic reaction? it was itching so bad, could it be bed bugs? and so on.

Finally, Lance got himself to a doctor, who couldn’t pinpoint the cause but figured it must be an allergy, and prescribed the steroid Prednisone to combat it. ¬†I didn’t know much about Prednisone except I was under the impression that prescription steroids were supposed to be heavy-hitters: take a few and whatever was ailing you would be knocked flat on its ass.

Well, according to Lance, a side effect of Prednisone is that it makes you a giant rage monster.

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So that’s how we ended up in this Chili’s. ¬†On the night of our arrival, we were to go to Artist Point, one of Walt Disney World’s signature restaurants in the achingly wonderful Wilderness Lodge (more on this in a future post). ¬†However, we were having one of those travel days where we were both on edge and snipping at each other. ¬†That, and Artist Point ain’t cheap, so I figured, “Why spend the money when we’re both miserable and certainly wouldn’t have a good time?”

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The rest of the trip was fraught with bickering, day in and day out. ¬†This isn’t all Lance’s fault; when traveling, especially when the trip is understood to be “mine,” I am very sensitive to Lance’s mood. ¬†Is he having a good time? I’ll worry. ¬†Is he mad? Is waiting in line for Revenge of the Mummy going to lead to divorce?? ¬†

Whenever I notice Lance being quiet or distant, I prod him. ¬†“Baby, what’s wrong?” ¬†And that leads to us fighting over who’s being too sensitive, who’s spending too much time buying luggage at the Tumi outlet when we should be at Universal or Islands of Adventure, etc…

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My pal Brian is a champion of the Universal Orlando Resort (which includes the second park, Islands of Adventure) and after a recent series of articles he wrote for Theme Park Tourist, I was very excited to re-visit after nearly a six year absence.

We somehow slept in fairly late (something I never do) on our first full day in Orlando, and in my anxiousness to get to the park in an attempt to avoid lines, I ended up rushing us out the door and making everything even more tense.

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When we arrived at the Universal resort, we headed straight for Islands of Adventure, where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is, tucked in the back. ¬†As we weaved through Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent, I was hit with a wave of disappointment. ¬†Beyond just the light crowds limiting the energy in the air, both areas were in need of some TLC. ¬†Seuss really needs a paint-job after its unique facade has faded in the Florida sun, and The Lost Continent (along with the Jurassic Park section) is stuffed with cheap carnival games. ¬†Was Universal not the theme park powerhouse aiming to knock Disney off its perch, as it’s portrayed online?

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But as we rounded the corner into Hogsmeade, it was obvious what had people excited about Universal: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is drop-dead gorgeous, the theming and immersiveness so spot-on to the film series that you can’t help but chugging down a butterbeer or perusing through Honeyduke’s.

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There are three rides in TWWoHP: the fairly standard kiddie-coaster Flight of the Hippogriff (really, go on this for the queue alone, which features and animatronic Buckbeak and a swell recreation of Hagrid’s hut), Dragon Challenge (a Goblet of Fire-overlay of the preexisting Dueling Dragons coaster), and the absolutely mind-blowing Hogwarts walkthrough/crazy ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. ¬†I was completely taken aback by the whole of …Forbidden Journey, an amazing experience through and through, with such a unique ride vehicle technology that you really feel like you’ve never seen anything like it. ¬†And the queue, which is more than half the fun! The “line” for the actual ride takes you through Hogwarts, up staircases lined with moving portraits, through Dumbledore’s headmaster office and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and past the Sorting Hat.

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TWWoHP is, I’m inclined to say, on par with Tokyo DisneySea as far as escapism is concerned. ¬†When you’re winding your way through the back alleys of Hogsmeade, or inside Ollivander’s watching somebody being paired with a wand, it’s truly incredible. ¬†(My only complaint while actually inside of TWWoHP was being able to see the warehouse-like showbuilding for …Forbidden Journey just past the Hogwarts facade.) The main downside is its size: TWWoHP doesn’t take up a lot of land, and therefore you feel like it’s over almost once it’s begun. ¬†The Diagon Alley expansion, due later this summer, will bring so much more depth and space to this really wonderful land.

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I’ll report back next week about the rest of our time at Universal, particularly the expansion of the Simpsons area, which is also terrifically swell. ¬†We honestly spent 90% of our time at Universal and Islands of Adventure in one of these two lands.

But, back to Lance, who was not only suffering from Rage Monster-itis, but also a side-effect of nausea. ¬†After a kind Universal team member let us into the express queue for …Forbidden Journey, Lance’s time with attractions was limited. ¬†Harry Potter, Transformers, Simpsons, and more all rely on similar-ish ride systems, where the guest is basically whipped around in front of IMAX-esque screens where the “action” is projected. ¬†Even though we took motion sickness meds before we set foot in the park, Lance couldn’t make it past Harry Potter. ¬†I rode alone for the rest of the day, which made us breeze through Marvel Super Hero Island and Universal Studios.

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Looking back, this trip was kinda a dud (except for the food, which I’ll address in a future post). ¬†Lance and I fought every day, even though we were both trying out best to keep things in perspective–I mean, it WAS the Prednisone, not either of us, that was causing a lot of the personality conflicts during this trip. ¬†And while it was disappointing to think about how much money we spent to have a less-than-stellar time, I also had to remind myself that we’ve been together for almost seven years and have made countless trips together–not every one is going to earn a gold star.

And heck, I was in Hogsmeade with a frozen butterbeer. Who am I to complain?

Travel Tuesday: Dollywood or Bust

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Like some sort of religious zealot, Lance must make an annual pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park. ¬†On our previous visit, we bought season passes, good from the holiday season of 2012 through the end of 2013; given that the season pass price was only ~$30 more than a 1-day ticket, we took a gamble, figuring we’d definitely be back in 2013.

Yet the close of 2013 was rapidly approaching, and we hadn’t once set foot on Wild Eagle OR Blazing Fury. Decisions had to be made.

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We again decided to visit Dollywood during the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas. ¬†The weather is cool in Tennessee that time of year and Dollywood is literally wrapped to the nines in Christmas lights. ¬†Dollywood, not surprisingly in a Southern state, also runs a fair split of Christian and secular holiday shows, which is kinda charming, if you don’t think too much of the “organized Christianity’s long history of discrimination against gays” thing.

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Now, Dollywood is a TREK from Philadelphia. ¬†It’s not really economical to fly (PHL-Knoxville is like $450 round-trip per person during this time of year), and while the drive is scenic, it takes 11+ hours. ¬†ELEVEN HOURS. ¬†Sweet lord. ¬†Driving that in a Ford Fiesta too, while great on gas mileage, will make you go stir crazy. No amount of Hardee’s Thickburgers can make it bearable. ¬†I was kinda hoping that this trip would get me out of having to visit Dollywood for at least another 18 months. ¬†It was just too much time in the car to ask of someone…

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We arrived in Pigeon Forge on Saturday night, with just a few hours left before the park closed for the night.  The place was jam-packed with thousands of locals there to catch the holiday parade; after spending a half-hour just getting from our parking spot to the gate, we shimmied our way to the back of the park for the terrific Mystery Mine and Wild Eagle coasters.

On Sundays during the holiday season, the park doesn’t open until 2:00pm. ¬†Still, we felt like seven hours in Dollywood justified the drive, so we spent the morning taking a scenic drive through the Smoky Mountain National Park, which we’d never done before.
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On the way up a mountain, we saw a bunch of pick-up trucks (of course) pulled over. ¬†City-slick gawkers that we are, we rubbernecked only to find…A BEAR. And not the kinda bears us urbanites are used to…HEY-O!

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Yup, just a cub hanging out in the trees near the side of the road. ¬†Lance and I both speculated that this could’ve been some elaborate trap by the bear family to lure in stupid tourists. We felt like we were in a good position, though, since most of the other spectators were significantly…larger and most likely slower than us. ¬†(This is what happens when you have dozens of pancake restaurants in your town.)

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Lance doing his best Rafiki.

Unfortunately, with the afternoon came rain, and right as we were in line waiting to be let in to Dollywood, it started to drizzle. ¬†And didn’t stop all afternoon.

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JAM-PACKED in Timber Canyon.

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6:00pm rolled around, just four hours into park operation for the day, and ropes started going up in front of ride queues. ¬†We were soaked, but we were committed to getting the most out of this season pass which we’d only used twice.

“Is the park closing?” I asked a Dollywood employee. ¬†It was supposed to stay open for another three hours.

“Yup, bad weather coming this way,” she said.

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So Dollywood management just decided to shut down the park early. ¬†We looked at the forecast, and the weather was not anticipated to get any worse than it had been all day. ¬†Lance and I figured that it was probably related to the very light crowd in the park all day–it wasn’t cost-effective to leave the park open for maybe 100 guests.

Lance was obviously disappointed–Dollywood is practically his second home (aside from Bath & Body Works…and Pei Wei…and Target…). ¬†I was disappointed because we’d spent 11 hours in the car the day before to get here and only got six total hours in the park. ¬†I was on the verge of breaking down into tears thinking that all that driving was for naught.

On the way out of the park, I made sure to visit Guest Relations. ¬†“They’re going to make this right, dammit!” I said, though I didn’t know how much of a case we’d have as season passholders who just happened not to have used their season passes all year.

“Well, we can offer you essentially a rain check pass to come back during the 2014 year,” the Guest Relationships rep told us. ¬†We took it.

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So now we basically HAVE to go back to Dollywood in 2014 in order to take advantage of our free passes (I’m not one to easily pass up a good deal.) ¬†Which means another 22+ hour roundtrip commute to eastern Tennessee.

GAH.

To The Park That Walt Built

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What could be Mecca for Disney fans but Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom, Disneyland?

I’d been discouraged from visiting Disneyland before. “It’s so small. You’ve been to Disney World; you won’t be impressed.” ¬†And there’s the never-ending East Coast/West Coast rivalry, trying fruitlessly (wait, wait, I’m setting up something good…) to compare the apples-versus-oranges natures of the Anaheim and Lake Buena Vista resorts.

After my Adult Disney Renaissance (a term I think is attributable to @macabresalad over at Food*Fitness*Fantasy), I read up a lot on the creation of the Disney parks, and I¬†kept feeling drawn toward California. ¬†Regardless of how much more expansive and operationally impressive Walt Disney World is, I became obsessed with seeing this little nugget of a park, the park that changed the amusement and entertainment industry forever, the park that’s rooted deep in the history of a corporate canon so engrained into my psyche.

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I was fortunate enough to sucker two of the best fellas and Disney parks companions a guy could ask for into attending our first Disneyland visit with us. The promise of a Club 33 reservation didn’t hurt none, I’m sure! (More on that in a future post.)

When Lance, Phil, Brian and I walked under the Disneyland railroad archways and through to Main Street, U.S.A., it was like we were escape artists pulling off our biggest trick, slipping out of reality. ¬†It was early December, and the park was dripping from head-to-toe in festive decorations, Christmas background music carrying through the air, characters greeting in Town Square in holiday garb…there was an energy in the air I’ve never experienced to such a degree before.

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I’ve been trying to put my thumb on it for awhile, and I’m sure my eventual conclusion is nothing new: there’s such an emotional investment in Disneyland by the majority of its guests, locals who have been attending since they were kids. Disneyland is their land. They have a special sense of ownership over it, and they treat it with respect. Disneyland is not a once-in-a- or few-times-a-lifetime experience for visitors like Walt Disney World is; it’s part of the community. ¬†Disneyland often meets the standards these return visitors expect. ¬†In the same vein, people who go to Disneyland, for the most part, go because they love it, not because they feel compelled to lug their kids to a big resort as part of the American Dream/Requirement.

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There are loads of live entertainment: jazz musicians in New Orleans Square; Mary Poppins, Bert and their big brass band in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle; the Mickey and the Magical Map stage show and the vaudevillian Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre productions; the bands under the tent of the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree.

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…and that’s not even counting Disney California Adventure!

Disneyland is chock-full of attractions, doubling(?) the number in Florida’s Magic Kingdom close to the point of claustrophobia, though I’d like to think of it as cozy.

That’s actually how I feel about the whole park. ¬†It feels cozy, like a warm blanket or a cherished stuffed animal from your childhood. ¬†It feels like a home away from home, a truly idealized mix of fantasy and nostalgia, both for Americana and the pop culture icons of my youth.

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I have so many other thoughts on Disneyland, on California Adventure, and our whole experience which I’ll elaborate on soon, but for this post, I just wanted to share how immensely enthralled I was by the whole park. ¬†Disney’s California operation is a park-based experience, unlike Florida, which is an all-encompassing resort experience once you get off the airplane. Now, I’m not saying one approach is better than the other; as mentioned above, it’s apples-versus-oranges, and which coast is better is based on your personal preferences.

What I want from a Disney park right now is the in-park experience, the attractions, the entertainment, the “show.” I was disappointed with our most recent trips to Walt Disney World, where we easily knocked out ¬†most of a park’s attractions in a half-day. ¬†I was concerned after our visit to Tokyo Disney Resort that the American Disney parks had just given up on the park experience by comparison in favor to finding new ways to milk their guests out of money.

I think about this inaugural Disneyland trip every day. Disneyland assuaged my fears and made me a believer again.

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Travel Tuesday: Hawai’i On The Cheap

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We weren’t even supposed to go on vacation this year. ¬†We were supposed to “be good,” save up some money, find enjoyment in everyday things instead of dashing off to Florida or Chicago or, well, Hawai’i.

But, when Lance employs his puppy dog eyes and dimples…well, how could you deny him a vacation?

Still, we had to find to a way to take a vacation cheap. ¬†I’d been slowly building up my reservoir of American Airlines frequent flier miles to redeem for a trip to Europe, but since we’d redeemed our last bulk of miles for a trip to Japan (my choice), I (somewhat begrudgingly) decided to bequeath my miles to Lance, and that’s how we’re flying to Hawaii for free.*

[*plus $5.00 per person transaction fee.]

The Flight(s)

There are lots of ways to build up your frequent flier miles balances, the easiest being signing up for an airline-branded credit card, but this kind of behavior makes me nervous because of the pings to your credit score and trying to manage that many extra cards (my brain just doesn’t work that way.) ¬†Still, one card sign up will probably net you enough sign-up bonus miles to get you to Hawai’i. ¬†Easy peasy macaroni cheesy.

Still, that game makes me a little uncomfortable, so I play a longer one (think Monopoly instead of Connect Four).  There are a lot of little, free ways to collect miles, usually through online promotions or through online survey sites like e-Rewards.  You can also keep up to date with the latest promotions via some useful blogs like Mommy Points, View from the Wing, and One Mile at a Time.  By using e-Rewards, earning miles for hotel stays and car rentals (for both work and personal travel)  and cashing out my hotel loyalty program points for airline miles, I was able to slowly grow my frequent flier mile balance to just what we needed for two roundtrip, off-peak tickets from Philadelphia to Honolulu (35,000 miles each.)

Later, when we decided to split our Hawai’i time between O’ahu and Kaua’i, I redeemed another 5,000 miles a person for one way tickets and had to pay $90 each for a ticket back to O’ahu since there weren’t any award seats available for the day we wanted to travel.

So now we’re at $190, for two roundtrip flights from the mainland to Hawai’i and two roundtrip inter-island flights.

The Hotels

The trouble when we booked our frequent flier mile trip from Philadelphia to Honolulu is that the frequent flyer award availability was limited; there were no flights that allowed us to stay for seven nights, so we’d either have to stay for four or five, or stay for ten or longer.

Of course, since this is Lance and Hawai’i is his ultimate favorite place, we chose to stay for ten.

This then posed a significant challenge to our “budget” trip to Hawai’i. ¬†Waikiki is not cheap, especially when you want to stay in a decent hotel (Waikiki is chock full of crummy, old, run down hotels that can charge an arm and a leg because it’s Waikiki).

Since I got a Hyatt-branded credit card last year (for the no-international service charge), I’ve been accumulating Hyatt points which can be redeemed at one of the two Hyatt properties in Waikiki. ¬†Our “target” hotel was the Hyatt Place Waikiki, since it’s newer and requires fewer points per night to redeem. ¬†Over the past year, through various bonus points promotions (spend $6000 on your card and get an extra 6000 points) and basically putting all of my expenses on the card (and, of course, paying them off immediately), we were able to get three nights for free.

Via the Hyatt Best Rate Guarantee, where Hyatt will match a lower price from a third-party website and give you another 20% off, I was able to get the rest of our nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki for $437.61 after tax for three paid nights.  I use hotel search aggregator sites like Room77, Kayak, HotelsCombined or Trivago to search for the lowest rates; these search sites pull rates from dozens of other booking websites, including Expedia, Priceline, and others.

Once we knew we were going to Kaua’i, I booked four nights at the Courtyard Kauai at Coconut Beach, part of the Marriott family of hotels. ¬†Marriott also has a Best Rate Guarantee, so I was able to get our four nights on Kaua’i down to $374.00 after tax.

Our hotel costs for ten nights, then, end up being $811.61, or about $81 a night, a steal on Hawai’i.

The Total

Between the flights and the hotels, we’re just over a thousand bucks for the two of us: $1001.61. ¬†That’s cheaper than the per person cost of our first trip to Hawaii back in 2010, when we only stayed for seven nights and only visited one island.

Granted, this total isn’t including rental cars or food, and we’ll need a little bit of both. ¬†And it doesn’t truly represent how free your trip to Hawaii could be, if you saved your hotel points up longer or played the game a little more intensely to rack up points faster. ¬†But to get a flight and hotel to Hawaii for around $500 a person is a pretty good deal in my book.

 

Travel Tuesday: The Cost of Magic

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I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about the importance of staying “on property” at a Disney Parks resort. ¬†For those not in the know, Disney owns and operates a ton of their own hotels at their resorts in the U.S.: three in California and, like, 45 or something down in Walt Disney World. ¬†The phrase “on property” means you’re staying at one of these hotels and not, say, the Best Western in Downtown Disney or the Holiday Inn in Kissimmee.

There are several tangible benefits to staying “on property,” including the very significant¬†free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport¬†and¬†Extra Magic Hours (where on-property guests have access to the Disney parks a few extra hours longer than off-property guests). ¬†The Mighty Men of Mouse podcast did a good job at boiling some of these costs down by the hour in one of their most recent episodes, demonstrating how much money you’re saving/losing with these features.

Disney resorts’ theming is also tangible (most off-site resorts are not going to have an extensive Pacific Northwest theme, for example), though not quite as quantifiable.

Now, before I continue, I want to preface by saying that this is my opinion, based on my own biases, budgets, and preferences. Lord knows I spend money on extravagance in different ways, so believe me, this is all about how I perceive the value of Disney resorts.

A lot of people prefer Disney resorts over off-site because of the above, quantifiable factors. ¬†Many people (just read TripAdvisor reviews) also believe that on-site, particularly Moderate- and Deluxe-tier Disney hotels, offer a level of service and dedication to theme that creates an enveloping sense of magic (not so quantifiable). ¬†And that’s great! ¬†Who wouldn’t want an experience, particularly with a company built on pixie dust, to feel magical?

But how much is that magic worth to you?¬† I personally struggle to justify spending $200+ a night for something as immeasurable as “magic.”

Full disclosure: the only time I’ve even stayed on Disney property was at the Boardwalk Inn, a wonderfully themed hotel and one of Disney’s deluxe resorts. ¬†We were able to stay there because of a very reasonable conference rate. ¬†Without that, we could never have afforded to spend the $450+/night a Standard View room goes for. ¬†The lobby was great, the music, the smells, the surrounding boardwalk area. ¬†Fantastic, don’t get me wrong. ¬†But, in my opinion, the room and the bathroom were small (and Lance and I are not big people). ¬†And, I’m just gonna lay this out there: regardless of how thematically appropriate it is, I want a standing (not tub) shower in a $450+ hotel room.

Effectively, Lance and I are shut out of the deluxe resorts for budget reasons. ¬†Even if we could afford $400+ night hotel rooms, I couldn’t justify the expense to myself. It’s not worth it to me.

Even the Moderates (your Port Orleans, your Coronado Springs and such) are often over $200 a night (and might drop down to around $150 with a discount at the right time of year), and these are for hotels that have exterior entrance to the rooms. ¬†Yes, these are basically well-themed motels. ¬†Granted, they have food courts and gift shops and many of the services you’d expect of a hotel, but if I can’t access my hotel room from an interior hallway, then it’s still a motel (this all goes for the Values as well, which are usually very reasonably priced at about $85-125 a night, but with a balanced dip in amenities/services). ¬†You can put lipstick on a pig…

Part of what I struggle with regarding Disney hotels is knowing that I can get more of what I’m looking for at off-site hotels for the same rate or cheaper. ¬†And¬†if I can’t get it for cheaper elsewhere, I can usually play the points/best rate guarantee games with chains like Hilton or Sheraton and get similar accommodations off-site for a much cheaper price. ¬†For example, if I were to book for this upcoming Saturday, Port Orleans–Riverside, a Disney Moderate hotel, would be $190 before tax. ¬†The Doubletree Lake Buena Vista, with the same TripAdvisor score, is $96 before tax (and if you use Priceline or Hotwire, you can get a rental car in Orlando for less than $50 a day). ¬†And with Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and more, I could save a significant amount more via their loyalty points programs. ¬†(And thankfully, I can redeem Sheraton’s Starwood Points for stays at the Swan or Dolphin hotels located on Disney property.)

Probably the only way to “play the game” to really get bang for your buck at Disney itself is by renting Disney Vacation Club points from a DVC member, meaning you can stay at the villas at some of the Disney Deluxe resorts for a great savings compared to the rack rates (say, $125 for an Animal Kingdom value room versus $200+). ¬†You can rent points through more established companies (usually at a higher price per point) or, if you know a DVC member, you might be able to negotiate a lower price. ¬†We’re looking into renting DVC points, even through a broker website, for a one-night stay on the tail-end of our Disney cruise next year, but the process is a little messy and it seems like you give up a lot of flexibility as a renter.

This all basically comes down to: how much am I willing to spend for that “magical” component, that Disney Difference? ¬†Each person has to answer that question for themselves. ¬†I’m not arguing for Disney to lower their prices–they’re a business, after all, and they can charge as much as they think the public is willing to spend (they aren’t gouging you if you agree to spend that amount, regardless of what my cartoon above suggests), but for me, as a Disney fan, the extra hours in the parks, the transportation, the theming, is not worth the extra hundreds of dollars per night. ¬†The magic of their hotels is not a make-or-break for me in visiting the parks.

So, that’s me. ¬†What about you? ¬†Am I crazy? ¬†If I really want the magic, should I just suck it up and stay at the Disney Value resorts I am willing to pay for, regardless of amenity disparity between those and off-site hotels for the same price? ¬†Am I really saving any money after rental car costs? ¬†Am I undervaluing immersive magic just for a standing shower? (This might be true.) ¬†Obviously, Disney fans are passionate and I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about the value of the Disney resorts.

If you’ve got thoughts, please share in the comments!

[Tip of the hat to Estelle from This Happy Place Blog for sharing her thoughts on this topic and post.]

Travel Tuesday: There And There And There And Back Again

Lance and Jeff on a plane!

**WARNING: Major first world problems discussed in this post.

As I alluded to yesterday, my upcoming plans for Disneyland were sorta dashed, oddly enough, by the high temperatures in Philly and our own indulgence in the absurd.

But Disneyland isn’t the only vacation I’m planning for the near future. ¬†In fact, Lance and I recently plotted out our vacations (we loosely define these as requiring at least 5 days off from work) and long weekends (4 or less days off) for the next two years. ¬†Eep!

Here are our travels, big and small, for the next two years:

  • Big Island, Hawaii, June 2013 (me alone,¬†business)
  • Michigan, July 2013 (me alone…again! ::sob!::)
  • O’ahu (and maybe Kaua’i?) Hawaii, August 2013
  • New York, New York, September 2013
  • San Diego and Los Angeles (and Disneyland!!!), December 2013
  • Orlando, Winter 2014
  • Las Vegas, Spring 2014
  • Western Caribbean on the Disney Cruise Line, October 2014
  • Paris, Spring 2015

We had meant to keep our traveling light this year (after it became a decent chunk of our expenses in 2012.)  Yet I have the itch and, try as I might, I lack the willpower not to scratch.

So then the challenge shifts from “resist going places!” to “how do you travel–and travel well!–and still make it affordable?”

Thankfully, most of our trips are fairly far off, which is good, because it gives me the time to shop around for the best hotel deals, wait for good airfares, save for certain activities. ¬†While the waiting and waiting for a trip can be a killer, there’s a satisfaction in having time to put together a well-thought-out itinerary and be confident you got a decent price.

Doing things cheap does mean making a sacrifice sometimes.  

For example, in order to save $200+ on airfare, I’m flying out of tiny-ass Trenton-Mercer Airport in New Jersey (which doesn’t even have a bathroom after the one metal detector in the terminal) instead of Philadelphia International to get home to Michigan. ¬†It’s an extra half-hour away by train, but the savings are worth it to me.

Doing things cheap also requires time for you to rack up loyalty program points.

For our August 2013 Hawaii trip, we booked the airline tickets with frequent flyer miles (free!) back in December 2012…which is good, because it gives us time to save up for the hotel, and BONUS!, we’re getting two nights for free because of Hyatt points I earn from my Hyatt credit card. So for this 10-night trip, we’re only paying for eight nights¬†and we didn’t have to pay for airfare.

Had we only 2-3 months to plan for the trip, we wouldn’t have been able to earn Hyatt points fast enough for any free rooms, and the availability for frequent flyer award seats (which are limited on most airlines to a handful per flight per day) would’ve been nonexistent.

The same vacation is going for over $1800/person right now; we’re going to end up paying around $500/person for a ten-night vacation in Hawaii.

Doing things cheap means being diligent…and a little crazy.

With our Disneyland plans thrown for a loop, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to go at all. ¬†I was banking on the frequent flyer miles from my business trip to Hawaii to be enough to put me over the top so I could redeem for free tickets to L.A., but that’s still a month out and frequent flyer award ticket availability could all be gone by then.

Since I’m crazy, I regularly stalk FlyerTalk.com’s message boards, where people much craftier than I post the airfare deals they find online. ¬†You have to know your airport codes to begin to decipher what they’re all talking about, but it’s worth it!

Just this past weekend, I found what I was looking for: early December flights from PHL (Philly, natch) to SAN (San Diego, not quite LA) for $175 round-trip on United. ¬†Virgin America it ain’t, but we’ll get to California for half the cost of a normal round-trip, and we’ll be able to spend a day in San Diego (where Lance has never been) before driving (rental cars are cheaper out of San Diego than LAX anyway) or Amtrak-in’ it up to Anaheim.

AND…I can keep my frequent flyer miles to redeem on flights to other places!

I hope that gives y’all a sense of what you can do with a little…well, yes, craziness.

Adventure is out there!

Travel Tuesday: From New York to Disneyland

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(Apologies for the random photos; my phone died midway through our day trip to New York, so all I got were some weird shots of Lance at Steak n’ Shake Express :-/)

There are not many Broadway shows that I have to drop everything to see. ¬†While I appreciate the skill, discipline, and talent involved in staging these often elaborate, mostly intensive shows, it’s not in my blood like Lance (who owns the cast recording of Sunset Boulevard in six or seven different languages.)

Still, we hadn’t been to NYC together in almost a year, and with spring in the air, Lance was itchin’ to visit the Great White Way. ¬†And this time, I was actually excited to see a show: the revival of Pippin, but ¬†my enthusiasm had nothing to do with the show itself.

Y’see, I’ve mentioned loyalty programs before; most of the time, your “loyalty” is rewarded with a hill of beans, but every so often, if you play your cards right, you can hit the jackpot. ¬†Today’s example: Audience Rewards.

Audience Rewards is the loyalty program for big-time theatre productions, mostly in New York.  Every time you see a show, you earn Audience Rewards points, the objective being to earn enough to redeem for free tickets to a stage show.

Well, like a lot of airline loyalty programs, Audience Rewards also couples with other loyalty programs, like Delta Airlines’ SkyMiles or Starwood hotel group’s Preferred Guest (SPG) program, where you can opt for your points from Broadway ticket purchases to go to one of these other programs instead. ¬†Sometimes, they even offer a bonus.

This is why I was so excited to go up to New York for the day and see Pippin¬†(and, with rush tickets, the fabulous off-Broadway production Peter and the Starcatcher). ¬†See, for every Pippin ticket you purchased, you got 5000 SPG points, so between the two of us, that’s…well, you can do the math.

That may not seem like a lot, until you look at what 10,000 SPG points will get you: three nights at the Sheraton Garden Grove near Disneyland in California, a hotel that goes for over $130 a night.

Since we were already thinking about going to California this fall, these bonus points from Pippin will end up saving us almost $400!

As with any of this loyalty program stuff, the trick is not spend any more (or significantly more!) than you would normally spend in the pursuit of points.  It just worked out that we were looking to see a show, and this promotion happened to sync up with that.

Disneyland, December 2013, baby!!