"The World" Through a Different Lens / by Matt Merlino

LOTMPodcast-Season2-Blog-TwitterThumbnail.jpg

FastPass+, ADR, Rope Drop, Magical Express, Extra Magic Hours, My Disney Experience, Pandora… As a Walt Disney World Annual Passholder and die-hard Disney fan, these are all phrases that are ingrained in my brain, but I typically tend to throw around somewhat carelessly without taking into consideration who I am speaking with. I never realized how often I was doing this until I began planning our most recent Disney trip, because this time around the dynamic was a little bit different. Typically I plan trips for just Tori and I, but my brother, Mark, and his girlfriend, Mariah, decided to join us for our most recent trek to Florida.

Tori has learned all of the terminology just from the sheer amount that I talk about all of this with her; and that this trip would be our fourth trip together. She is a Disney veteran at this point. My brother and his girlfriend… not so much….

Growing up I was always the nerdy sibling. I loved movies, cartoons, drawing, reading, and was just an overall angel child. My brother was the polar opposite: popular, athletic, and more of a troublemaker. This doesn’t pertain to the story really, I just always like to make that part known.

When we were in elementary school I would always ask what his favorite TV show was, hoping he’d say something that we could bond over, but ultimately get so infuriated when he would say SportsCenter. Every. Single. Time.

Since then I have expanded my horizons and become a crazy big sports fan as well, but for the sake of the story that is besides the point.

Sadly it would be impossible to recreate this photo from our first trip in 2005.

Sadly it would be impossible to recreate this photo from our first trip in 2005.

So when our parents took us to Magic Kingdom for the first time in 2005 you can easily make out who was more excited. We only visited Magic Kingdom on that trip, but I have been hooked on the Disney Parks ever since.

Fast forward to 2019 and this will be my seventh trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth. I had tried to convince my parents to plan a Disney vacation for quite some time, and then got the idea for a couples trip with my brother and his girlfriend now that we are all functioning adults in society. I was honestly surprised when he was totally on board.

He had not returned to any Disney Park since that single day in 2005, and when I’d ask, all that he remembered from that trip was “The Buzz Lightyear Ride, Jaws, The Mummy, and Men in Black” (we also went to Universal for a day). From the minute I knew we would be going back, I made it my goal to make the most magical trip possible.

Walt Disney World has undergone a crazy transformation since that 2005 trip, but I was anxious to see if he experienced any callbacks once he stepped foot in the park for the second time. It’s crazy how Disney can have that effect on people who may not even be that big of fans.

People always say that Disney trips are a different experience if you’ve gone previously and are able to experience the parks for the first time through somebody else’s eyes. I can speak first hand to this, as my first trip with Tori was absolutely magical. The idea that those same feelings could come back traveling with both Mark and Mariah, who visited Disneyland as a kid, but has never been to Walt Disney World, had me so insanely excited.

My brother has never been a huge Disney fan when it came to the classic movies. He’s watched some, but mainly because that’s what I was watching as a kid, or more recently because Mariah put something on.

So once everyone agreed to venture to Florida my brain began running wild. I absolutely love everything that goes into planning a Walt Disney World trip. (I had a countdown going from over 70 days out - Sorry, Tori!) So for me, the anticipation is always half the fun!

Planning this trip was different... But definitely not in a bad way! Previously I’ve tailored a lot of the planning to fit what I wanted. This time around I wanted to make sure that I was tailoring our plans to everyone else’s interests. Which can be a bit tricky when factoring in four totally different personalities. It’s a ton of work to plan a Disney trip, more than a lot of people realize, but it was extremely important to me that I planned the best damn trip possible.

My first thought once the trip was confirmed was to begin planning for food, or in Disney terms, Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs). I didn’t want to run into scenarios where we were stuck waiting an eternity for food, because Tori and I have been in that situation before and I know she will agree that the hour-plus wait in the Harambe Market on our first trip to Animal Kingdom was agonizing.

I knew I wasn’t going to get much out of anyone when it came to pre-planning, so I simply asked Mariah what her three favorite Disney movies were. I also told Tori to send me three different restaurants that she would like to try so that we could have a nice date together at least once during the trip.

Mariah gave me a lot of movies to choose from, but the easiest choice was to book a pre-park open breakfast reservation at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. I’d eaten breakfast at BOG before park opening previously, and speaking from experience, it’s absolutely crazy how much this helps to elude the rope drop crowds in the morning.

Tori’s three options were very interesting: Sci-Fi Dine-In at Hollywood Studios, The Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom (which was eliminated due to the Be Our Guest reservation), and Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was shocked to see Sanaa on the list, but bought it would be the perfect spot for a nice date lunch, so I snagged a reservation for the two of us on our last day of the trip.

When planning for the resort, we all agreed that we wanted convenience and to try to keep it only the relatively cheaper side. With a group of four I knew it would be extremely difficult to get great Fastpass selections at the 30-day point, so when we were booking a resort, values were the way to go. The Magical Express and free bus transportation all over Disney property also helped to sway the decision to stay on property.

The value resorts tend to get a bad reputation, but I absolutely love them, especially when 3 of our 5 days would be spent in the Parks. Tori and I stayed at Art of Animation last June, and I stayed at All-Star Sports on my solo trip last September. Both trips were fantastic and exactly what we were looking for in a resort without completely breaking the bank.

Rooms were available for the dates we wanted at Pop Century, All-Star Movies, and All-Star Sports when we were booking. Although the rooms are nicer at Pop since everything has been refurbished, we narrowed it down to a preferred room at one of the All-Stars, again due to the price point. Though the big selling point was the fact that Tori and I loathed our walk back to the Little Mermaid Standard Rooms at AoA after a long day in the parks last summer.

The baseball diamond pool at All-StarSports Resort.

The baseball diamond pool at All-StarSports Resort.

I knew Mark’s vote before I even showed anything to the group any of the resort features, but ultimately left the two options open for debate. There was intrigue for Movies based on the Uber-outdated Mighty Ducks themed section, but once Mark saw the diamond-shaped baseball pool at Sports there was no turning back. As someone who played baseball from age 5 all the way through college, he was sold. I’m convinced that if our family had ever taken another trip to Disney World when we were younger, and we had stayed at All-Star Sports, Mark would have wanted to go back every single year.

With the resort officially booked, that meant we were able to plan our Fastpasses 60 Days before the trip. I consulted with Tori briefly beforehand, but ultimately knew exactly what I wanted. I needed to get as many thrill rides as possible. My main goal was to maximize our time in the parks and significantly reduce our wait times, which is something I have been very successful with in the past.

Our first park day would be spent at Epcot. I figured Frozen would be the best option to book from tier one because it still gets pretty hefty wait times, and didn’t want anyone to be underwhelmed if we were stuck waiting for that ride in particular. At least if we waited for Test Track or Soarin’ there would still be the thrill element to redeem the ride and make the wait worthwhile. I figured the two additional Fastpasses were flexible because nothing else in Epcot was really worth a Fastpass besides the tier one attractions, at least at this point. Spaceship Earth and Nemo? Sure, let’s go with that.

We weren’t too concerned about the rides at Epcot, as all of us wanted to experience the Flower and Garden Festival and the copious amounts of food and alcohol that was being served, and we definitely wanted to leave some time to drink our way around the world.

At Magic Kingdom Tori and I ran into a 3 hour wait for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train a few years back and absolutely hated it, so that was a must have Fastpass to plan for. I figured any of the Mountains (Space, Splash, Big Thunder) would be suitable choices to fill out the two other selections.

For Animal Kingdom it was easy: Flight of Passage was the number one priority. If we couldn’t get that, I’d snag one for Na’Vi River Journey. Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safari were the additional choices that I knew wouldn’t be an issue.

When Fastpass Day finally rolled around I was waiting at my computer at 6:55 a.m., eager to see what was available. This was actually the first time that I was able to book Fastpasses 60 days in advance, as the previous times I have stayed on Disney property were rather spur of the moment, though I was, and am, obviously not a stranger to the Fastpass+ system.

The clock hit 7 and I immediately went for Animal Kingdom. Flight of Passage at 11:30 a.m. the day we would be at the park. SCORE! From there we got every Fastpass that I had hoped for, which at that point honestly came as no surprise.

It is so tough committing to one Magic Band color for an entire trip, and this time I chose to rock the orange!

It is so tough committing to one Magic Band color for an entire trip, and this time I chose to rock the orange!

I will say that those 60 days fortunately seemed to fly by. Each text, each piece of mail, and especially the package containing our Magic Bands, made the excitement grow every single day.

Tori and I eagerly arrived at my parents’ house the night before our trip. We threw our new Magic Bands into our backpacks, placed the yellow Magical Express bag tags onto our luggage, and it finally meant that the trip was real. Sure, I knew for a long time that we’d be going, but every time I visit Walt Disney World, no matter how many times it has been, the night before I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.

Soon enough, the day had finally arrived! We were up at 4:30 a.m. and ready to head to the airport for our trip. Thankfully our flight was quick, and we were in Orlando by 9:30 a.m..

Mariah wasted no time soaking in the Disney Spirit, as she purchased a pair of Minnie Ears in the first Disney airport gift shop that we passed, and headed for the Magical Express.

As cheesy and outdated as those Magical Express videos are, they always put the biggest smile on my face, and the same could be said for the rest of our group as well. I could already tell that they were immersed.

Once we arrived at the resort, I stopped at the front desk to pick up a few special buttons, and we headed to our room to drop off our backpacks. The rest of our day would be spent exploring Epcot!

Our bus parked in the loading area, and Spaceship Earth was finally in sight. I looked back at Mark and Mariah as they were trailing behind Tori and I. They both were smiling from ear to ear.

Epcot welcomes you to the 2019 International Flower and Garden Festival.

Epcot welcomes you to the 2019 International Flower and Garden Festival.

“Woah. That’s so much bigger than it looks! That’s amazing!”

That’s what she said. (I didn’t actually say that at the time, but for the sake of the reference I just couldn’t pass it up)

At that moment, I knew all of the work I had put into planning the trip was worth every minute. Seeing their reactions as they experienced the Magic of Disney for the first time was absolutely amazing.

I didn’t stop smiling the remainder of the trip. I had made it back home, and I had some of my best friends there with me. That is what Disney is all about.

Until next time, we’ll see you real soon!

From left to right: Mark, Mariah, Tori, Matt

From left to right: Mark, Mariah, Tori, Matt

Our show is brought to you by Destinations with Character Travel, an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner!

For all of your Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Aulani, and Disney Cruise Line vacations, look no further than the awesome team at Destinations with Character Travel as they look to make dreams come true every single day! Take advantage of their teams’ expert knowledge of the Parks and Resorts, let them do the research and planning for you, and enjoy a hassle and stress free vacation.

Their services come at no additional charge, so make sure to check them out at traveldestinationswithcharacter.com when booking your next Disney trip.