Craving Dole Whip

Disney & museum obsessed, homeschooling mom of 3, parenting to focus on experiences, not possessions. Sharing Disney tips, educational adventures and 'been-there-done-that' reviews. Constantly craving Dole Whip.


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Morian Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

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Ranked as one of the most-visited museums in North America, The Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) showcases a plethora of traveling educational exhibits and features an impressive assembly of permanent collections, worthy of topping any must-see lists for Houston, Texas.

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Permanent exhibitions include a comprehensive Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, an extraordinary Hall of Ancient Egypt and the stunning Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, just to name a few.

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With 30,000 square feet of modern, clean lines, chalky white alcoves and chronological classifications, The Morian Hall of Paleontology houses the extraordinary and one of the most monumental permanent collections found inside the HMNS.

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World-renowned paleontologist and author, Robert T. Bakker, Ph.D., curates the substantial exhibit.  The collection walks visitors through prehistoric eras and human evolution, presenting predators and prey in active, natural poses.

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450 exquisite fossils and authentic replicas narrate the story of the flora and fauna that dominated our Earth for 200 million years.

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Descriptive and informative labels, comprehensive explanations and epoch timelines guide museum visitors through thought-provoking and educational displays.

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Several realistic-looking representations portray early humanoids and Neanderthals.

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The Morian Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science presents a thorough and breathtaking view into a prehistoric and extinct world brimming with unusual biology, enormous dinosaurs, massive tress and an ever-changing environment.

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Put this museum and specifically, the Morian Hall of Paleontology, on your “Things to do in Houston” list.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science is located at 5555 Hermann Park Drive, Houston, Texas, 77030.

Hours of operation:

Monday-Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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Ticket pricing for all permanent exhibits and collections:

Adults–$25

Children ages 3-11–$15

Seniors ages 62+–$15

College students with ID–$15

Military with ID–$8

Members are always free.

Parking is available in the museum parking garage.

Parking for non-members–$20

Parking for members–$5

Discounts, Groupons and CityPass cards are sometimes available.

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Dining options while at the museum:

McDonald’s is in the museum’s Grand Entry Hall and several restaurants exist within walking distance.  I recommend the MFA Café, located inside the Museum of Fine Arts, just a few blocks from the Museum of Natural Science.

Visit www.hmns.org or call 713-639-4629 to purchase tickets and for more information.

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Do you love museums?

Click here to read about my favorite museum in Oklahoma.

Click here to read about the Salvador Dali museum in Florida.

Traveling to Houston soon?  Check out Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios, currently performing in Houston, Texas.  Click here to read a full review of the amazing show!

 

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Kurios–Cirque du Soleil’s Cabinet of Curiosities Experience

In Renaissance Europe, cabinets of curiosities or ‘cabinets of wonder’ were collections of uncategorized, unusual, interesting and rather odd objects.  Curiosities could include anything from undefined bones, seashells, taxidermy, and pebbles to crystals, egg shells, dried leaves, flowers, insect specimens, trinkets, artifacts and art.  (Sounds like my youngest daughter’s bedroom)

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Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios is a dream-like cabinet of wonder, brimming with steampunk-themed objects, puzzling characters, marvelous performances and breathtaking environments, all brought to life by the hands of a brilliant inventor.

This is a review of our entire Kurios Cabinet Des Curiosites experience.

My daughters and I attended the Kurios performance in Houston, Texas, at the Sam Houston Race Park on April 9, 2017, at 1:30 p.m.  It was our first time to see a Cirque du Soleil show.

Several days before the performance, I received a very detailed email from Cirque du Soleil with information about the venue and directions. (Thank you Cirque du Soleil!)

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Parking was $12.00, which I felt was too high, and only cash was accepted, though there was an ATM outside the parking lot.  Three parking lot attendants collected parking fees and several other attendants directed traffic to control the flow to the parking spaces.  The process was quick and organized.

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The Grand Chapiteau

 

 

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We walked from the car to the main entrance and went through the bag check security point.  The officers checked my bag and my daughter’s purse.  I always appreciate extra security and safety.

 

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Our first Cirque du Soleil show!

The energy and intrigue began as soon as we stepped inside the yellow and blue striped big top tents.

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Concessions selling popcorn, bottled water and snacks were on the right and Cirque Du Soleil merchandise booths were on our left.

A few props and photo opportunities were placed throughout the main tent.  Stringed lights lit the area, but the layout was very confusing and crowded.

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We walked through the main tent and back out into the blazing sun and walked into a second tent marked with the numbers of the even sections.

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A few portable bathrooms labeled for men, women, unisex and families were posted between the other yellow and blue striped tents.  The bathrooms were clean, though tiny.  The sinks provided non-potable water, soap and paper towels for hand washing.  There was a wheelchair accessible ramp on one of the units.

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After we used the restroom, we were directed to go into the tent entrance with the door number from our tickets, which was 8.

Each numbered door had an entrance that looked like the below picture, with outdoor benches and trash cans.  The doors were clearly marked.

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A friendly usher helped us find our seats, which were in section 104, row D, seats 24, 25 and 26.  I paid $136.00 total for each ticket.

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There was a bridge traversing the stage that guests could walk across before the show began and my youngest daughter was thrilled to go across and catch a glimpse of some backstage props.  While the seats were filling up, several performers entertained the early birds with quick skits and shenanigans.

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Once the lights dimmed, photography and video recording was not allowed.

 

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This is the last picture I took before the show began.

Kurios was approximately 2 hours long, with a 25 minute intermission.

The mesmerizing experience started with a show defining vignette–a grey-haired man in a white lab coat appeared to be laboriously working to accomplish something very important.  Several unusual mechanical robots and wacky inventions were littered across the stage.

At first, I could not figure out if the man was a frustrated science professor, evil genius, or brilliant inventor. I kept looking around for clues.

Centered in the middle of the stage, the inventor worked diligently and with urgency to tether and link an enormous chair to poles.  Simulated sounds of electricity traveling through the cables made it clear that something was about to happen.

Immediately, everything transformed into a surrealist perspective of reality and the captivating performances began.

Full of energy, surprise, intrigue and amazement, each segment took the traditional expectation of a ‘circus’ and injected hypnotic, thought-provoking shock and wonder scenes, creating a memorable and extraordinary experience.

A gigantic mechanical hand formed the base for a beautifully fluid contortion act, where the women’s interesting costumes resembled blue-ringed octopi and electric eels.

Rola Bola’s baffling aviator-themed balancing act was breathtaking and fearless.

 

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A precise and skilled violin master played music while a talented woman sang beautifully during the entire show.

Multiple inventive and ingenious acrobatic performances captivated my daughters.

Our favorite was the trampoline AcroNet acrobats, which tumbled, flipped, flew and spun through the air as if they were aquatic creatures gliding through the tranquil ocean.

A woman gracefully sailed above the stage, while performing dazzling maneuvers around a bicycle.  Two talented men used large straps to swoop and zoom high above the awestruck audience.

The most marvelous and almost confusing moment was when we realized there was an actual dinner party with an elaborately set table, food and guests, mirrored in a parallel universe high above the stage and sinking down from the ceiling.  The spellbinding moment still repeats over and over again in my mind’s eye.

The actors filmed a bizarre and unconventional ‘movie’ using only their hands as the main characters.  I loved it!

A traveling steam train transporting passengers parked right in the middle of the stage, unloading all kinds of unexpected, Victorian-era characters.  The constant movement and captivating interactions between the actors produced a multi-sensory experience.

During the entire Kurios show, I was reminded of the puzzling and bewildered feeling one experiences when attending a Blue Man Group performance.  My daughters and I took what we saw on stage and processed the images for several days.  I appreciate a puzzling experience that challenges perception and forces unconscious thoughts about existence and reality.

We missed about 40% of one act because our view was blocked by stage props and the performance solely faced the centermost seats.  However, it was a quick scene with a man pretending to be a cat on a couch.  Though frustrating, we did not allow it to erase any magic from the entire experience.

Our biggest complaint was the actual ‘big top’ venue–it was so very hot during the entire performance, I actually saw an audience member collapse.  People were sweating profusely and constantly fanning themselves.  It was absolutely miserable.  Unfortunately, the heat was distracting and certainly aggravating.

After the performance, my daughters and I went to dinner and drank an obscene amount of ice water.

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Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios was an alluring, steampunk-inspired, dazzling show with gripping and entertaining performances by amazingly talented people.  It is family-friendly and completely appropriate for all ages.

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Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios experience can be seen in Houston, Texas, until May 21, 2017.

Shows are held inside the Grand Chapiteau at the Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West, Houston, Texas, 77064.

Tickets can be purchased online here.

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Interested in other amazing surrealism experiences?  Click here to read all about the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Are you curious about homeschooling?  Click here to read 5 reasons why we chose to homeschool our profoundly gifted daughters.


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Amazing Glass Blowing Experience At The Hot Shop Glass Studio

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The Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, is a modern art gallery, open to the public and free of charge.  It showcases the work of local artists and craftsmen while offering interesting and creative classes.  Across the street is the Chihuly Collection, a structure built specifically to display the amazing glass work of American artist, Dale Chihuly.  Read a review of the museum here.

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Housed behind the Morean Arts Center facility and located in the hip and upcoming Central Arts District of downtown, the Hot Shop is a covered, outdoor art studio dedicated to the unique and exciting art of glass blowing.  Live glass blowing demonstrations take place daily and bleachers are available for spectators, as long as a ticket to the Chihuly collection has been purchased.

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On New Year’s Eve of 2016, my daughters each participated in the individual glass blowing experience offered at the Hot Shop.  The 30 minute experience cost $75 per person.  I purchased the tickets and made reservations online several months in advance (and gave it to my girls as a Christmas gift).

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Each daughter got 30 minutes of one-on-one attention and instruction from a knowledgeable and patient glass blowing expert.  They learned the fundamentals of glass blowing, the history and the process, while receiving step-by-step instructions to create their own pieces of art.

First, participants choose which project to create from a few sample pieces.  Individual color choices are made next.

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With the help of the professional glass blower, participants heat up the glass and gather colored crystals while swirling the molten glass on the tip of a rod.

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Some movements are made tandem-style for safety reasons, but most of the work is completed by participants with clear and concise directions coming from the artist.

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Once the colored piece is heated properly, the process of shaping begins with twisting and turning.   Forged tools are used for pulling and stretching and additional heat sources (which my youngest daughter loved!) help to keep the glass malleable.

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Once the piece is completed, the master glass blower removes it from the rod and places it inside a safe container for cooling.  The unusual art pieces are ready for pick up the next day because it takes time to properly cool the glass.  If participants can not return the next day, the artwork can be shipped home for a small fee.

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The personal glass blowing experience was amazing and very interesting.  My husband and I both wish we had bought 2 additional reservations for ourselves to participate.  But, we loved having a front seat to watch our girls create their own unique glass pieces, and that was super cool!

The professional artist was friendly and more than willing to answer all of the questions my daughters threw his way.  This was a great experience and we learned not only the process of making glass art but also gained an appreciation for the time, talent and effort put into the creation of glass pieces.

 

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Quick little side tidbit:

My daughter’s experiences were reserved for 10:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.  We arrived early and were delighted to find a cozy, modern coffee shop right next door to the Morean Arts Center.

The Banyan Café and Catering, Central location, offers super yummy, fresh breakfast sandwiches, burritos, waffles, fruit, granola and pastries.  Made with local ingredients, the inventive and unique menu changes often.  Breakfast and lunch are both served daily.  A weekend brunch is also served and there are several delightful tables providing indoor and outdoor seating.

The address is 701 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida and phone number is 727-896-6600.  Check out their daily menu at www.banyancoffee.com.

Hours of operation:

Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.


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The Morean Arts Center is located at 719 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida, 33701.

The main website is www.moreanartscenter.org

For more information, call 727-822-7872.

The art center is free and open to the public.

Monday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

Sunday 12:00 noon-5:00 p.m.


You need to know:

The personal glass blowing experience is $75 per person for 30 minutes.

The minimum age requirement is 11 years old.

Participants need to wear closed-toed shoes, cotton clothing and no dangling jewelry, rings or bracelets.


After the personal glass blowing experience, we spent several hours viewing the Chihuly Collection across the street.  Read a review of the Chihuly Collection here.

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We leisurely walked Central Avenue for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying a quiet, delicious lunch at the Iberian Rooster, ice cream treats and perusing many local shops in the Central Arts District.

I recommend spending an entire day (or 2!) enjoying this eccentric and eclectic area of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Going to Oklahoma soon?  Check out my review the best history museum in OK here.

Read my top 5 reasons for homeschooling our daughters here.


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Chihuly Collection At The Morean Arts Center

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Dale Chihuly is a world -renowned, American glass blowing artist.  Born on September 20, 1941, in Tacoma, Washington, Chihuly’s large scale, contemporary creations are unique and inventive.  His breathtaking environmental art and gravity defying installations create a sense of wonder and amazement.

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Within the Central Arts District of downtown St. Petersburg, the Morean Arts Center includes a building designed specifically to display a permanent collection of Dale Chihuly’s glass creations.

We visited this amazing exhibit in December of 2016.

The Morean Arts Center is free to the public and showcases the work of local artists.  Across Central Avenue is the spectacular building containing the Chihuly permanent collection.  To view the Chihuly collection, buy tickets online or inside the Chihuly building.  Tickets are $19.95.

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As a pioneer in the artistic glass movement, Dale Chihuly is creating stunning, fragile artwork completely made using different glass blowing techniques.  His sculptures range from enormous, complex outdoor installations to ornate and breathtaking colorful bowls.

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Because this is a permanent exhibit, the architecture of the building and the glass pieces were designed to work in harmony, creating an unique visual journey and a peaceful experience for visitors.  The intricate and very deliberate placement of lighting showcases and highlights the dancing colors and delicate artwork.  It is purely breathtaking.

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We spent at least 2 hours enjoying the collection and near the exit, we found a Dale Chihuly biographical movie playing in a small theater with benches for seating.  The film was a little long, but very informative and worth the extra time.  My daughters studied Chihuly several months before our vacation, but learned quite a bit more from the movie at the museum.

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My family and I were completely mesmerized by the glass work of Dale Chihuly.  If you find yourself near St. Petersburg, put this museum on your “Must-Do” itinerary.

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The Morean Arts Center is located at 719 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida, 33701.

It is free and open to the public.

Monday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

Sunday 12:00 noon-5:00 p.m.

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The Chihuly Collection is located at 720 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida, 33701.  The main website is www.moreanartscenter.org  For more information, call 727-822-7872.

Ticket prices are $19.95 per adult and include entry into the Chihuly Collection, The Morean Arts Center, live glass blowing demonstrations at the Hot Shop and docent lead tours Monday-Friday.

Senior, military and student discounts are available.

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If you love the beautiful glass work created by Dale Chihuly, check out this post to find out how you can experience glass blowing and make your own piece of artwork, right across the street from the Chihuly Collection!


Click here to read about the Dali Museum is St. Petersburg, Florida.


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What’s Coming Next?

Hello my little Dole Whip Craving Friends!  Happy Thursday to all of you!

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As my tagline states, I planned this blog to include not only awesome Disney tips, but also education adventures and museum reviews.

But, I have only written a ton about Disney!  Oops!  I get excited and a little carried away when it comes to Disney World.

Well…I plan to deliver on my full promise over the next few days, so be on the look out for some cool museum reviews.

I obviously do other things besides vacation at Walt Disney World.  (I am not allowed to live in the castle.)  Gotta fill that time with something equally awesome!

No worries, I still have plenty to say about Disney, too!

I’ll let you all know when the first museum post is complete.

Meanwhile, read these cool Disney posts:

Love exotic food?  Click here.

Free things to do at Disney?  Yes, please!  Click here.

Why are garbage bags on my Disney packing list?  Click here.

My favorite Disney resort?  Click here.


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How To Plan A Walt Disney World Vacation Like A Pro

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Planning a Walt Disney World vacation is a BIG DEAL, especially if you are going for the first time!  So many resorts AND restaurants AND rides AND experiences AND princesses AND character meals–soooooo many options can make the beginning of the journey daunting and overwhelming.

Not to mention, most families save for a long time in order to afford a Disney vacation and if you spend the big bucks, you want a magical experience. Sometimes, looking online just makes things worse–who in the world makes dining reservations 180 days out and what do all of those acronyms (TTC, ADR, BOG, MK) represent?!?

It is so alarming and confusing!  I get it.

No worries…I’m here to help.

Let’s think of all of this like registering for college classes or buying a new car.  Technically, you CAN just show up on the first day of college and hopefully you MIGHT get 1 or 2 classes, but it certainly will not be what you need, every class will be at the wrong time and the classes won’t even apply towards your degree plan, making it a total waste of your time and money.

You CAN just show up at a car dealership and buy whatever car is available. It might not have enough seats for your family and it might lack the bells and whistles you desire.

Likewise, you CAN just arrive at Disney and buy a ticket and walk in to a theme park. Disney will not send you away.  (Unless it’s Christmas Day and the park reaches maximum capacity.)  LOL  (Funny, but not really…)

BUT, if you spend a little time planning your college classes each semester and you register in advance, it greatly increases the chance of you getting the classes that you need at the times you want–saving you money and time and making you smarter!

Same with the car–a little research and effort goes a long way.

So, instead of dreading the planning process of a Walt Disney World vacation, consider it a time to learn.  Yes!  Planning a Disney trip makes you smarter!

It is BEST to plan and get the experience you want–And pay for!

This is a vacation, after all.

No regrets.

A no regrets vacation.

I wrote 2 posts that will help you get started.

  1.  Click here to read the most important thing you need to know about Walt Disney World.
  2. Click here to learn the top 10 things you need to ask yourself before planning a Walt Disney World vacation.

 

Once you read BOTH blog posts, you can continue reading this one.  No, really…you have to go read those two things.  It will only take a few minutes.

Really.  I mean it.

 

Go read them.

No, I am not going to tell you what it says.

You have to read it for yourself.

Did you read BOTH?

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Ok…I am continuing under the assumption that you are an honest person and follow directions.

Now that you know the most important thing about Walt Disney World AND you have answered all of those questions, the simple, easy and fun stuff is up next!  You don’t need me anymore!

I am just teasing.  I promise to walk you step-by-step through the process and show you exactly how I plan my Disney trips.  (Mostly because I am pretty sure only 1/10 of my readers took the time to read those 2 links.  LOL)

Keep in mind that every Disney trip looks different.  Every family has different priorities and even my own Disney vacations evolve as my children change and mature.

So, this is how I plan my Disney trips.  Take notes, my friends.

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I always start the planning of a new Disney trip by buying a spiral notebook (or stealing one from my homeschooling stash.)  It helps me keep track of notes, park days, dining reservations, Fast Pass+, packing lists, outfit planning and so much more!

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Then, I purchase the Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World for the year that we plan to travel.  Yes, the book changes and yes, everyone needs the book for the specific year of the vacation.  Disney changes every day…and the writers do an amazing job of updating the book each year.

Click here to purchase the 2017 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

Click here to purchase the 2018 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

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Sometimes, the new book for my travel year is not yet available.

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The new editions are typically released around August of the previous year.  I pre-order as needed.  For example, for my upcoming 2018 trip, I pre-ordered the 2018 version on February 17, 2017 (as soon as I knew we would be traveling in 2018).  It should arrive sometime in August 2017, from Amazon.

To pre-order the 2018 version, click here.

While I am waiting for the new edition, I start thinking about the big questions.

***This is where reading those posts I mentioned above MIGHT come in handy: when to travel, who is going, what’s the budget, how are we getting there, and how long are we staying, etc.

The book can help answer those questions, too.

Here is my thought process:

When can we travel to Florida?  Do we have the time to drive from Texas or do we need to fly?  Who is going?

I should probably start a savings account.  LOL

We are a homeschooling family, but my daughters take several classes that require attendance.  Depending on the semester, schedule and rigors of the classes, our planning might be constrained or quite free.  It just depends.

When the children were younger, we planned vacations around my husband’s work schedule.  Right now, my husband can’t always sneak away from his commitments.

I also have an adult son that graduated from college and moved to a different state.  When he was in elementary school and junior high, we never hesitated to pull him from public school for family vacations.  Once he entered high school and college, he chose not to travel for lengthy times.  But, now he can go if life allows!  Yipppeeeee!

 

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Me and my 3 babies.  Photo Pass Pic.  Epcot.  January.   2017

So, “who is going” is a necessary and logistical question for my people and the answer is always evolving, just like my family.

Our vacation dates are most likely determined by who is traveling with me, school schedules and work schedules.

I don’t want this to frighten you, but here is what I currently deal with:

For our 2017 trip, my husband, 2 daughters and I took several days and drove to Tampa, FL.  We stayed in Tampa and enjoyed experiences there for 4 days and then my son flew from Chicago to Tampa.  Once he arrived, we all drove to Orlando together and checked in at the Caribbean Beach Resort.  (Room sleeps 5).  We enjoyed Disney together for 5 days and then my husband flew back to Texas.  My 3 kids and I enjoyed Epcot and then the next morning, my son flew back to Illinois.  The girls and I checked out of Caribbean Beach Resort and checked in to Animal Kingdom Lodge for 2 nights (Room sleeps 4).  Then, the girls and I took 2 days and drove back to Texas. (YIKES!)

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Do you understand why I use a spiral notebook?

Hopefully, your planning won’t be as complicated.  It was super fun, though!!!  LOL

If your planning is equally nutty, make it work people.  Time with your family is the most important thing and it deserves all of your effort.

So, let’s pretend my new Unofficial Guide book has arrived and I have a general idea of when I want to travel and who is going with me!  YIPPPEEE!

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The authors of the Unofficial Guide have an awesome website called Touring Plans.  A discount code for an one-year membership is offered with the purchase of the book.  Once I have the book in my hand, I renew my online membership at Touring Plans.  The yearly membership is $14.95.  With the discount, it is $9.72.  It gives me all-access to the website and the app, it does not renew automatically and they do not spam to death.  It is delightful and a very important part of my planning process.

Planning Note:  While reading the Unofficial Guide, take notes on anything new, interesting, and noteworthy in the handy little spiral.  There are restaurant reviews, tips and secrets, and plans on how to tour the parks and cut down wait times.  It is an invaluable piece of the planning process.

So, let me do a quick recap.

Spiral notebook.  Loose, fluid or constrained travel dates.  List of travelers.  Unofficial Guide for vacation year.  Membership on Touring Plans website.  Add Touring Plans app to my phone.

Now the FUN really begins.

How do I nail down travel dates?

Traveling to Disney and how we actually get to Florida will be determined by my timeline.  We will fly if we need to get there quickly, but we honestly prefer to drive and sightsee along the way.  I do my best to make the latter option a reality.

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As for the actual theme park dates, I use the Touring Plans website.  With my membership, I have access to the magical crowd calendar.  I.  Love.  The.  Crowd.  Calendar.

The Crowd Calendar gives a crowd level rating to each park for each day for an entire year.  If my travel dates allow the freedom to choose, I search for a week that has levels less than 5.  Less than 5 is always my goal.  It does not always work out that way, but it is always preferred.  Of course, we have totally enjoyed crowd level 10 days, too!  Just have to be a little more flexible when the crowds are that high.

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I like to create a page of dates in my notebook, typically spanning 3 or 4 weeks.  I jot down all of the projected crowd levels, days of the weeks, etc.  Then, I look and find the “sweet spot”–a cluster of days that are crowd level rated 5 or less.  Those dates become our travel dates.  **If there is a high crowd day (8+) stuck in the middle of my sweet spot, then that day becomes our rest day!

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Planning Note:  There are many crowd calendars available online.  Just Google “Disney World crowd calendar”.  Make sure you are looking at Disney World, not Disneyland.  I have found that most of the calendars are similar, but I rely on the experts at Touring Plans.  The crowd levels are projected, of course.  No one can see the future.  (If you can, please contact me immediately!  Thank you!)

How do I choose which theme parks to visit?

At this point, we have the 4 main parks memorized and I know which ones we need several days to enjoy and which ones we can skip or tour in a half of a day.

We love, love, love the Magic Kingdom.

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We always spend most of our vacation enjoying the Magic Kingdom theme park.  As my children got older, we added more days to our tours of Epcot (2-3 days).  Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are both 1 day parks for us and we have even skipped Animal Kingdom several times.  It honestly depends on the ages of your children, your interests and your timeline.

The four Walt Disney World parks are the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

Each park has it’s own personality and different rides, shows, restaurants and experiences to appeal to the masses.

Planning Note:  Choose which parks you want to visit based on the ages and interests of your traveling party.  Hollywood Studios has the most thrill rides.  Magic Kingdom is the best park for toddlers.  Epcot is perfect for an adult only trip and Animal Kingdom is a must-see for animal lovers.

But, each Disney park has something for everyone!

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How do I choose a resort?

My family and I have stayed on Disney property and off property and if our budget allows, we 100% prefer a deluxe Disney on-property resort.  Sometimes, we can make that happen and sometimes…well…life.

There are several perks offered to Disney resort guests, like extra magic hours (extra time in the parks), free transportation, Fast Pass+ booking at 60 days, complimentary parking at the parks, dining plan options, etc.  Plus, when we vacation at Disney, we want full Disney immersion.  We are junkies, remember?

While reading the Unofficial Guide, I research resorts to see what fits the needs of my family and whittle down the list of places that can accommodate my people.

Planning Note:  Some Disney resort rooms only accommodate 4 people, some rooms sleep 5 and of course, there are suites and villas that hold more.  I recommend you read the entire accommodations section in the Unofficial Guide.  It describes in length each Disney resort and several off-property resorts.

This is where budget comes into play BIG TIME.

Disney divides their resorts into 3 main categories:  deluxe, moderate and value.  I can post in more detail about that later.  My current budget will determine which level of resorts I research and my travel party size determines the room.  Budget.  Budget.  Budget.  Blah.

I consider the location of the resort, which will directly affect transportation to and from parks (Is the resort on the monorail system?  Are ferry boats available?  Only buses?)

Resort food and dining options are also important to me.

I compare resorts in the Unofficial Guide book and on the actual Disney website and then I pick the winner.

Click here to read a review of my favorite Disney resort.

So, assuming I know my travelers, the travel dates and now the resort, I book my vacation on the Disney website.  Booking online is pretty straight forward, unless the dates I want have not yet opened.  For example, I am writing this post on March 20, 2017.  The Disney website has the option to book vacations until December 31, 2017.  Sometimes dates during the upcoming year open in June, sometimes it is August.

Planning Note:  Do not fret!  Just call 407-939-1936 and book over the phone if your dates are not listed online yet.

Disney only requires a $200 deposit to hold a reservation.  Payments can be made at anytime and the remaining balance is usually required within 60 days of the check-in date.  That time frame can vary, so be mindful of your specific date and don’t forget to make payments!

When I book the resort online, I also make decisions on theme park tickets, water parks, park hopper, dining plan and memory maker.

If time allows, my family needs to take a rest day in the middle of our Disney vacations.  We usually don’t go to a theme park on the day we check in and sometimes, we don’t go to a park on our check out day, either.  If we are staying at the resort for 7 nights, we don’t necessarily need park tickets for 7 days.  I choose tickets based on how many days we will be going to the parks, not how many days we are at the resort.

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My people need a rest day.

Planning Note:  The number of nights that you stay at a Disney resort do NOT have to match the number of days of theme park tickets.  You can stay at a resort and never buy tickets, if you like.

For a list of 10 FREE things to do on your rest day, click here.

For a list of 10 (not free) things to do on your rest day, click here.

My daughters have shown no interest in the waterparks, so I skip that section.

Historically, I also skipped the Park Hopper section, too.  We ALWAYS just spent an entire day inside one park at a time.  But, we used Park Hopper for the first time during our 2017 vacation and we LOVED it!  My kids are older now–ages 24, 13 and 11–so going to more than one park a day is easier than it would have been when they were toddlers. I can write a more in depth post about Park Hopper at a later date.

Memory Maker is a must for us.  Memory Maker is $149 in advance, $169 if you decide to add it later.  It allows for unlimited downloads of every Photo Pass picture taken of you and your family during your vacation. Our 2017 vacation generated 718 Photo Pass pictures.  I don’t know about your family, but we NEVER get a full family pic because I am the only one taking pictures!

Get Memory Maker.

Family pictures are so important.

Plus, the ride photos are hilarious!

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Seriously, how awesome are these pictures?  All Photo Pass pics–I downloaded each one to our computer and I can print them, put them on a coffee mug or make a super cool wrap for my car!  Whatever I want.  (As long as I don’t sell and make money.) Whenever I want.  Forever.

Next, I decide if we need the dining plan.  And if we do, which dining plan will work best for my travel people.  Click here to learn everything about the 2017 Disney dining plan.

For now, I will just say that we used the dining plan and saved a ton of money when my kids were younger than 10.  We used every table service credit to eat at buffets and character meals and we saved quite a bit of money.  Plus, knowing that our meals were essentially pre-paid helped quite a bit with “sticker shock”.

Planning Note:  10 is the magical age that children become adults in Disney’s eyes.  Ticket prices and dining plan prices are higher for adults, ages 10 and up.

Planning Note:  At the time of this post, if you want the dining plan, Disney requires you to pay for the plan for every night of your resort stay.  There is no option for anything less and your entire traveling party (in your resort room) must be on the dining plan.  The dining plan is only available for Disney resort guests.

I make all of these decisions and choose accordingly online.  By the time I am done “checking out” online, I have chosen my travel dates, travel party, resort, number of days for theme park tickets, park hopper (yes or no), waterpark option (yes or no), memory maker (yes or no), and dining plan (yes or no).  I pay the $200 deposit.

If we plan to fly to Orlando, I start researching flights once everything at Disney is booked.  If we are driving, we start planning our route and possible interesting stops along the way.

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How do I plan dining?

I try VERY, VERY, VERY hard to plan our Walt Disney World vacations more than 180 day out.  That is always my goal.  But, you know…life.

If I book our vacation and it is less than 180 days to our check-in date, I immediately book dining reservations the instant I complete the online booking of our trip.

Either way, I book dining as soon as I am possibly allowed.  With a Disney resort reservation, guests can book advanced dining reservations (ADR) 180 days before check-in date, plus 10 days.  This confuses people and I will write a post dedicated to dining asap.  But, let me quickly explain.

If my check-in date is June 6th, let’s assume 180 days before that is January 6th.  I am not going to pull out a calendar and do that math, so let’s just all agree it is 180 days.

On January 6th, I can made advanced dining reservations for any available dining June 6th-June 16th.  Essentially, it allows guests to make reservations for their entire vacation (as long as it is 10 days long or less), instead of having to book 1 dining reservation today, book 1 tomorrow, 1 the next day, etc.

Does that make sense?  The 180 days, plus 10 days is only available for Disney resort guest.  Guest staying off property get the 180 days and will need to book 1 reservation a day (unless you are less than 180 days out).

I hope I didn’t make it more confusing.

For this little post (LOL–it’s getting sooooo long!), I am going to pretend I have more than 180 days until my check-in date.

While I am waiting for my 180 day mark, I read about new restaurants, character meals and look at menus in my Unofficial Guide and online.  The Disney website shows the most recent menus for each restaurant and I add the My Disney Experience App to my phone.

Planning Note:  Add the My Disney Experience app to your phone and get familiar with the lay out long before you arrive at Disney.  Use this app to keep track of dining reservations and Fast Passes while in the theme parks.

I ask my kids and husband what restaurants they want to visit, if I need to book any character meals, and I create a very loose plan in my magical spiral notebook.

Planning Note:  Book the most important restaurant first, even if it’s on the 3rd day of your vacation.  Then, go back and book dining for the 1st and 2nd day.

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Planning Note:  For a list of all character meals at Walt Disney World, click here.

Once my 180 mark comes, I book all of my dining online or on the My Disney Experience (MDE) app.  I typically get the dining reservations we want because I am a little flexible with days AND I book at 180 days out.

Non-Disney people think that is nuts.  But, let’s all remember my college registration and car buying analogies.

Planning Note:  If you do not have park hopper, you can only go inside one theme park a day.  You can come and go from that one park 100 times in that one day, but you can not enter another park.  That means, all of your dining reservations need to be inside that one park or at a resort for that day.  Dining at a restaurant inside a theme park requires guests to have a theme park ticket.

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So, if I can’t get a reservation for a restaurant on a day we are in a specific park, I will alter my little notebook plans to accommodate the dining reservation.  Priorities, my friends.

For a list of the best breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner at Magic Kingdom, click here.

Booking dining 180 days out (as crazy as it sounds) gives guests the best chance to get the desired restaurants at the right times.  I HIGHLY recommend making ADR for every table service restaurant and for the quick service meals offered at Be Our Guest.

For a full review of Be Our Guest, click here.

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If I can’t get a reservation for a must-see restaurant, I check my MDE app several times every day.  People cancel dining reservations all of the time and I want to snag it!

Once dining is all booked, the plans for each day are pretty much set in stone.

Next, I decide on dinner shows, tours, or additional experiences and book those.

One of our family Disney rules is to try at least 1 new restaurant and 1 new experience during each vacation.

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The Spirt of Aloha is a fabulous dinner show at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.  Reservations are required.

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3 of my people during the Aqua Seas Tour at Epcot

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Bibbidi  Bobbidi Boutique and Pirates League though the years.

At this point, the resort, dining and extra experiences are all booked.

Planning Note:  Don’t forget to continue to make payments on your vacation through your My Disney Experience account!

Around the 180 day mark, or about 6 months before check-in, my family starts to “train” for Disney.  I am so serious and people laugh about this one, but Disney requires a TON of walking and we don’t want to stop the Disney fun because of a lack of conditioning!  So, we start walking as a family–further, longer and more often than normal–and we use that uninterrupted time to discuss Disney things, of course!

Now it is time for matching T-shirt planning!!!!

OMG!  (Jumping up and down!)

My Favorite part of a Disney vacation!

Ok…maybe not my favorite…but I really, really like it.

I plan our theme park outfits based on parks, rides, characters or dining each day.

My youngest daughter LOVES the People Mover.  Obviously, we will wear our People Mover shirts to Magic Kingdom, where the People Mover lives.  Matching Star Wars shirts are for Hollywood Studios because of Launch Bay…Frozen T-shirts for Epcot when my daughters met Elsa and Anna.  It’s all planned.  I know you are shocked.

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Baymax beanie on the day she met Baymax–another great Photo Pass pic!

 

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My bedroom floor–planning outfits for Disney 2016

 

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Matching t-shirts with your mommy?  Creepy!  Matching t-shirts with your awesome mommy at Disney?  Super cool!

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I start ordering shirts and outfits as soon as I have the resort and dining booked.  Custom shirts can take several weeks, especially around the holidays.

Click here for a list of the best places to find super cool matching family Disney shirts.

I also start gathering tiny trinkets for what I call ‘The Disney Fairy’.

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Quick explanation:

When my girls were very young, I started placing Disney themed items near the sinks at our resort each night as a surprise for the next morning.  (little things from the dollar store)

It helped cut down on the “I wants” as we toured the parks.  It became a tradition and I still love surprising them!

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As my daughters have gotten older, the trinkets have evolved, of course.  If I get the chance to sneak away and shop while at Disney, I might even pick up something I saw them eyeing earlier.  It’s kind of like the Santa thing…they never ask about the Disney Fairy…they believe so they receive.

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How do I book Fast Pass+?

Guests staying at a Disney resort can book Fast Pass+ starting at 60 days out from the check-in date.  Fast Passes are free–3 per person per day and after the 3rd one is used, an additional Fast Pass can be added, and so on until the park closes or until there are no more Fast Passes.  I can write a post dedicated to Fast Passes later.

Leading up to my 60 day window, I discuss rides with my family.  Are there any new rides?  What are the must-do rides for each person?  If there are any concerns (height requirements, drops, scary scenes, darkness, etc.), I look up the rides on YouTube and read the attractions section in the Unofficial Guide.

Guest staying off property can book Fast Passes at 30 days out.

At my 60 days window, I book my Fast Passes for each day we are in the theme parks.  Fast Passes can be booked online or on the MDE app.  My family and I are firm believers in arriving at the theme parks at rope drop, which is just a fancy way of saying, “when the parks open.”  Because we get there early, we ride important rides first and use our Fast Passes later in the day when the traditional lines are typically longer.

Planning Note:  Be mindful when booking Fast Pass times.  Make sure the ride times do not conflict with dining reservations or parades that you want to attend.

Planning Note:  Book Fast Passes for lunchtime and mid-day, when the parks are at their peak crowd levels.  Get to the theme parks early, ride important attractions first and then use your Fast Passes later.

Planning Note:  Fast Passes can also be used to meet characters.

 

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Reserve a Fast Pass for Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios

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Once the Fast Passes are in place, planning is complete!  WOW!  I never thought I would get to this part of this post.  YIIIPPPEEEE!  Finally!

 

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These Disney fireworks represent my celebration (and probably yours, too!)

 

Magic Bands will arrive about 3 weeks before departure.  Historically, they arrive in an unmarked box, so be on the lookout.

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I start packing about 3 weeks before we plan to leave.  I create a huge packing list in my handy dandy notebook and I make enormous piles on the floor of my bedroom.

Click here to see a not-so-obvious Disney packing list.

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I tag the outfit piles with the date and theme park or restaurant.  I pack the piles with the sticky notes on top so I can organize once we arrive at our Disney resort.  Some *might* call that crazy (like my husband) but I like to call it GENIUS.

 

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Outfits tagged with the date, theme park or restaurant.  Genius.

3 weeks before check in is a great time for last minute things, like autograph books (which my daughters outgrew, unfortunately).

Planning Note:  Online resort check-in is available through the My Disney Experience account, too!

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I also buy my beloved rain ponchos.

Click here to read why you MUST pack rain ponchos for your Disney vacation!

And garbage bags.  For real.

Click here to read why garbage bags will save your life at Disney!

A few weeks out is also when I plan travel activities–plane, train or automobile.

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And finalize the budget for souvenirs and snacks.

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Mickey Ice Cream bars are super yummy!

 

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Buying an oyster with a pearl

 

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I have to budget a lot of $$$ for Dole Whips.

 

 

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Sugar rush anyone?

 

 

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Lots of snack options in Epcot!

Decisions about strollers need to be made before a Disney vacation, too. This does not apply to my family any longer, but over the years, we took 1 stroller, 2 separate strollers and we have also rented a double stroller from Disney.  Lots of options.  Lots to consider.

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The double stroller we rented from Disney

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Disney’s double stroller

WOW–my brain is FRIED!  How about yours?!?

I hope this helped a little and didn’t make things worse.  Once I recover, I will write some more.

Let me know if you have any questions.  I am always happy to help!

And I can talk Disney all day.

DUH.

A quick reference guide summary of this marathon-long post can be found here.

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Top 10 FREE Things To Do At Disney (when you don’t have a theme park ticket)

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I LOVE Walt Disney World!  And, HEY!  Guess what?!?

There are FREEEE things to do at Disney!

Below, you will find a list of super awesome things to do at your resort or on property–and they are all FREEEE!  You are welcome.

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What can you do for FREEEEE?!?

Check out this list below of the top 10 super awesome and FREE things to do that do not require a theme park ticket. And, click here to see a list of 10 MORE super cool things that do not require a theme park ticket, but cost a little $$$.

  1. Pool Day At Your Resort!  Disney resorts have some pretty amazing pools and a day of swimming, lounging and relaxation just might be what the Mouse ordered.  2 tiny things you MUST know: (a.) All Disney pools are heated, so you can swim year-round. YIPPEEE! (b.) Disney resort pools are for the enjoyment of resort guests.  You can visit any resort, but you can only swim in the pool at your resort.  And yes, they scan your bands.  And, yes that is true.  Please follow the rules, my friends.

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Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort

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Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

2.  Take everyone to check out Disney Springs!  All Disney resorts have free transportation to Disney Springs (DS), which is an outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment marketplace.  The complex sits next to the peaceful Sassagoula River and has four main areas:  The Landing, Marketplace, Town Center and West Side.

Check out the open-area splash pad (bring a towel!) and the Lego Imagination Center, an outdoor play spot with bins full of Legos–totally FREEEEEE!

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3.  Head on over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort!  There are several public viewing areas that overlook the African-inspired savannas, full of interesting wildlife and birds.  Visit at night and use the complimentary night-vision binoculars to see what the animals are up to after the sun goes down!  Oh…and did I mention…it’s FREEEE!

At the time of this post, Disney does not offer direct transportation from resorts to other resorts.  However, you can still travel between resorts on Disney complimentary transportation.  To get to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, just ride a bus to the Animal Kingdom theme park, get off that bus and then board a bus going to the resort!  Easy and FREEEE!

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Zebras on the savanna

4.  Go exploring at your own resort!  Disney resorts have some super awesome hidden treasures!  Find out if your resort has a playground, splash pad, arcade, ping pong tables, hammocks, volleyball courts, benches or walking trails.  Get outside and just go exploring!  You never know what you might find.

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5.  Skip on over to the front desk or concierge at your resort and ask for a calendar of resort activities, which might include super awesome things–outdoor movies, cookie and cake decorating, educational lectures, game night, roasting marshmallows and pool parties–all for FREEEEEE!

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6.  Exercise!  Many Disney resorts have fitness centers, walking paths and running trails.  Burn off some of those theme park calories (excessive intake of Dole Whips anyone?!?) and make your heart happy in the process.  I don’t have a picture for this suggestion because I have never done this.  LOL  It sounds like a good option, though, right?!?  No excuses!  Get out there and sweat!

7.  If exercising on vacation isn’t your cup of tea (or even if it is), I have just ONE word:  MONORAIL!  (See what I did there?  The prefix “mono” means “one”.  LOL  I am so clever.)  Anyway, all Disney resorts offer free transportation to the Magic Kingdom (MK).  Once you get to the Magic Kingdom theme park, walk to the monorail boarding station and hop on!  You can ride all day long if that makes you happy.  You can even get off at the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC) and transfer to the Epcot monorail and ride that one, too!  No ticket required and totally FREEEEEEE!

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8.  Visit other Disney resorts!  At the time of this post, Disney does not offer direct resort-to-resort transportation.  However, that tiny challenge is quite easy to remedy. While you are jet setting around the Disney property on the super awesome monorail system, disembark and check out one of the deluxe hotels near the Magic Kingdom (MK).  You can also ride a Disney bus (or boat, if available) to a theme park and then transfer to a bus going to ANY resort you want to scope out.

Each resort has an unique theme and super cool things to see!  You do not have to be a resort guest to look around!  Just ask a cast member or concierge what is the quickest way to get where you want to go.

My recommendations, you ask?  I already mentioned the cool things to do at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.  But, I also recommend:  Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (CBR), Wilderness Lodge (WL), the Grand Floridian (GF) and the Polynesian Village Resort (Poly).  You can even walk from the Poly to the GF.

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9.  Ride some ferry boats!  Disney resorts have multiple forms of transportation:  bus, monorail and/or boat.  There are boats that stop at multiple resorts, theme parks and even Disney Springs.  Hop aboard one of these and see where it takes you!  Some of the ferry boat routes to enjoy:  Magic Kingdom to Fort Wilderness to Magic Kingdom.  Magic Kingdom to the Grand Floridian to the Polynesian Village to Magic Kingdom.  Disney Springs to Saratoga Springs to Old Key West to Disney Springs.  Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Boardwalk Inn and Villas to Beach Club Resort, to Yacht Club to the Swan to Dolphin back to Hollywood Studios.

Disney transportation changes often, so ask a cast member or the concierge to share the best way to get to a boat dock.  Feel free get on and get off at your leisure–the ferries run approximately every 45 min-1 hour, depending on route, crowd level and weather, of course.

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10.  Fireworks!  Fireworks!  Fireworks!  You don’t have to be inside the Magic Kingdom theme park to enjoy a spectacular nighttime fireworks show.  Head on over to any of the resorts serviced by the monorail (Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower, Polynesian Village and the Grand Floridian).

I recommend the Polynesian because it is directly across Seven Seas Lagoon from the Magic Kingdom.  Find a cozy bench and wait for the magic to happen!  This is also a great option for people who want to enjoy the show without the loud noises, explosions and booms.

Extra Hint:  You might get the added bonus of experiencing the Electrical Water Pageant, which appears on Seven Seas Lagoon at varying show times throughout the year.

All. For.  Free.

Yep.

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BONUS:

11.  Eat a Pineapple Dole Whip!  (Or 2 or 3–no one is counting)  Ok…so, this isn’t actually free…unless you can get someone else to pay for it.  But, it is my favorite thing to do.  So, to make this a money-free splurge, I suggest you make a friend and celebrate that new friendship by allowing said friend to purchase you a tasty treat!  Or Plan B–Eat someone else’s Dole Whip when they are distracted by a camera!

***There is only one place outside of the theme parks to find Dole Whip and that Heaven-on-Earth location is Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.  Make a friend.  Be a friend.

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I hope you enjoy some FREEEE fun at Disney!

Click here to read about 10 Not Free Things to do at Disney that don’t require a theme park ticket !

Click here to read a complete list of every character and princess meal at Disney World!

Click here to read 12 reasons you need to pack garbage bags for your next Disney vacation!