Our 2015 Walt Disney World Vacation – Part 1: MagicBands, Memory Maker, park days and downtown days

Disclosure:  I attended the 2015 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration at Walt Disney World. I paid for my and my family’s transportation and conference admission, which included lodging at Disney’s Yacht Club resort, discounted park tickets, some meals and many special events. We chose to extend our 4-day conference trip for three more days after the conference ended for a total of seven days in Disney. We paid for all expenses on the post-conference portion of the trip, and this post details our vacation experiences. 

Olaf
As I’ve previously blogged about, my family and I were privileged to attend Disney’s 2015 Social Media Moms Celebration just a few weeks ago. Disney’s annual conference event for bloggers and their families was outstanding, and you can read all about our adventures here. This post is about the rest of our trip — the vacation part!

Our four-day conference admissions included 7-day park hopper passes to the four Walt Disney World resort parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We had not been to Walt Disney World since 2010 (our most recent Disney trip prior to this one was to Disneyland) so we decided to extend our trip for another three days and spend a week at Walt Disney World.

How could I turn down using those extra three days? I kept thinking of them as “free” days! Technically, we did pay for our passes, but the rate was reduced for the 4-day conference, so again, in my head, these were three “free” bonus days beyond the four days allotted for the conference events. Use ‘em or lose ‘em? We used ‘em!

Here’s some of what we did, where we ate (yum!) and more details about our Disney vacation:

Disney's MagicBand

Disney’s MagicBands: So much has changed since our previous stay at Walt Disney World five years ago! One of the biggest changes has been to the ticketing, FastPass+ and resort rooms, all of which are now tied to Disney MagicBands. These bands contain an RFID chip. Your park tickets are tied to the band. Your Magical Express transportation is tied to the band.  The band is your room key at all on-property Disney resorts – touch it to the panel near your door, and your door unlocks. Attach a credit card to the band while you’re staying at a Disney resort, and you can use it to pay for food, drinks, and shopping at the resorts and in the parks. You get the idea.

I have to confess that I wasn’t initially on board with this. As much as I love technology, prior to the trip I was a little weirded out by the idea of being tracked around the resort. (And yes, I realize anyone with a wifi-enabled cellphone is already being tracked by a variety of companies no matter where you go these days.) I also wasn’t too keen about wearing a plastic wristband 24-7 in hot, humid and sticky Florida weather. I’m happy to report that the bands are pretty comfortable and didn’t irritate anyone’s skin –even my son who’s allergic to polyester. The bands have grooves on the back to allow air to circulate too, so they aren’t sticking to your skin all day. We made a point of switching wrists each day though so we wouldn’t end up with MagicBand tan lines!

When you make reservations at a Disney resort, your MagicBands are free. (If you’re staying offsite, you can buy the bands for $12.95 each.) Disney will ship the bands to your home prior to leaving for your vacation. They arrive in the mail inside a cute Disney Incredibles-themed box that’s guaranteed to thrill your children and get them fired up about heading to Florida.

Your ride and attraction FastPasses are also tied to these bands. (FastPass+ is Disney’s system for boarding rides without waiting in line — you make a reservation for the time of day you wish to visit rides, and they’re loaded to your FastPass+ account.) Stay on Disney property, and you can set up your Fastpasses for attractions 60 days before you leave for your trip via My Disney Experience. If you’re staying off-site, you can set your Fastpasses up 30 days in advance.

FastPass+

There are fewer FastPass+ kiosks in the park compared to the old FastPass days, and they don’t dispense the paper tickets of the past either. You can add or change FastPasses from the kiosks, but a faster and easier way to monitor your passes is to simply install and use the free My Disney Experience app on your phone or tablet.

We packed our MagicBands in our carry-on luggage, as we knew we’d need them to board Disney’s Magical Express buses at the airport to take us to our resort. Indeed, as we disembarked our plane, we saw dozens of other people wearing their bands on the plane in preparation for getting to their resorts.

Fastpass at Magical Express

 Holding the band against one of the Mickey touch points allows the system to read the RFID chip inside and allow you access to the system. It’s how you board the Magical Express bus to the resorts (shown here.) It’s how you enter the parks. It’s how you use a Fastpass. It’s how you enter your hotel room, pay for whatever you’re buying and so on.

We really liked the MagicBands on days we went to the pool. No more playing “who’s got the room key” or wearing a water wallet to carry a keycard and some cash around for milkshakes by the pool. (I’m a sucker for milkshakes by the pool.) The bands are waterproof and can be worn non-stop throughout your entire stay – which is good when your children somehow wander through Disney’s Hollywood Studios straight to Brooklyn and get squirted by an open fire hydrant:

Disney's Hollywood Studios

When I really became a believer though? The day I returned to our room toting several bulky bags of conference gear and didn’t have to dig in my wallet or purse for a key card:

If you’re wearing your MagicBand in the parks, don’t be surprised if cast members greet you by name — they can see your first name on a screen when you enter the FastPass queue for an attraction and touch your band to a Mickey touch point. When we selected the names for our bands, we all made up fun ones (mine was “SuperJill.”) However, the name stamped inside your band is not what the cast members see — they see your real name. This somewhat disappointed my youngest son, who was looking forward to someone calling him by the name of one of his favorite cartoon characters.

Cataldo family at Walt Disney World

Memory Maker: As a benefit of the conference I attended, we were invited to try out Disney’s Memory Maker on this trip. Memory Maker is a PhotoPass photography service designed to get the entire family in your vacation photos. It too is tied to your MagicBand. Any time you see a Disney photographer in the park (and there are many!) you can stop and pose for a photo. The photographer will scan your MagicBand, and that photo is transferred into your PhotoPass account to download.

Cataldo family at Walt Disney World

There is no limit to the number of photographs that you can take.  Memory Maker works throughout the park, whether you’re posing for a family picture in front of Cinderella’s castle or getting a hug from Mickey Mouse at one of the character events.

Rock and Roller Coaster

Memory Maker also includes all of the on-ride photographs that are snapped on attractions. You no longer have to decide whether you want to spring for the picture of everyone screaming on Splash Mountain or the one of your family zooming in a futuristic Chevrolet on Test Track – they’re all yours. Some rides even include on-ride video of you and your family with Memory Maker! Check out this video of our family in the front car of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster:

Here’s another video of us riding the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – we’re in the top left corner of the elevator. I’m in a yellow tank top with my youngest son clinging tightly to my arm…

Splash Mountain

While each end-of-ride photo station has Mickey touch points to scan your photos, the rides also know exactly what you rode and where you were based on the MagicBand’s RFID technology. We saw on-ride photos popping up in our My Disney Experience account throughout the day based on what we’d been riding.

PhotoPass

If you opt not to use a MagicBand at Disney, you can utilize a plastic Memory Maker card with a shorter-range RFID chip that must be touched to these round Mickey-head touch points to save your on-ride photos.

Duffy

We even spotted some in-action photos in our account. When the boys went to meet Duffy, the Disney Bear, Duffy greeted them with hugs – then reached out to hug my amused husband as well! The entire sequence was captured by one of Disney’s photographers and added to our account:

Duffy

We also found another fun moment captured in our account — we learned that Goofy is also a closet KISS fan. He spotted my husband’s KISS tee and began rocking out and throwing the “metal horns” hand gesture. Who knew?

Goofy rocks

Memory Maker comes at a price – it’s $199 for your entire trip. Pre-purchase it prior to your vacation though, and the price drops to $169. As we were invited to try it out for this trip, try it out we did – we ended up with nearly 100 wonderful family photos in our account over the course of a week. I do love that we have such great images of our entire family together, as past trips’ photo albums have had a “where’s Mom – oh, she’s taking the picture” feel to them at times.

We also learned that Disney’s professional photographers are hard at work snapping pictures of what’s going on in the parks too, and these photos will also be added to your PhotoPass account if you participate in Memory Maker. I really liked the topiary pictures we received from the Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot – some of them were better than the ones I took with our camera, like this one:

Lightning McQueen

We also saw photos appear in our account showing Disney characters “following us” on the various rides and attractions we’d visited that day:

Goofy and Donald

Goofy and Donald

If you love photos like these, and your budget allows it, Memory Maker can be a fun addition to your Disney vacation. At nearly every gift shop we stopped at in the park, we saw people buying these Memory Maker cards to utilize the photo service. If you want it too, you’ll save $30 if you purchase it ahead of time.

Memory Maker

The attractions and the parks…

Cinderella

Epcot Center:

Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival was taking place during our trip, and the park just looked glorious! Floral displays and topiaries filled the park. It was fun to spot characters in unexpected places too – here’s Peter Pan atop a building in England:

Peter Pan

There were many character topiaries, floral displays and special play areas set up for kids. And the food! Food stands and carts offering taste-sized portions of foods and beverages from around the world dotted Epcot’s word showcase and had us stopping to try a variety of delicious treats. Most were in the $3-$5 range, so eating one’s way around the World didn’t break the bank.

Test Track

Epcot’s Test Track is one of my favorite attractions in the park, and it’s been completely revamped since the last time we rode. Now, a pre-ride area invites guests to design their own Chevrolet, then take it for a ride on the Test Track. Of course, you’re still riding six to a car, but screens along the indoor portion of the ride show you whose car is ranking highest for the elements being tested. (It, of course, knows whose cars are “on” the Test Track at any given time by tying them to your MagicBands.)

Test Track

As you can see, I designed my vehicle to be as fuel-inefficient as possible, receiving the lowest rating in our entire group – 4 points out of 100! It was a monster on the track though, and my Chevy scored high marks in everything except, well, miles per gallon.

Phineas and Ferb

Phineas and Ferb fans will love taking part in Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure in Epcot too. Kids are invited to pick up a F.O.N.E. communication device and help Agent P defeat Dr. Doofenschmirtz in one of the Epcot countries in a fun secret-agent scavenger hunt type of game. The F.O.N.E. (which is actually a Nokia phone!) gives them clues and directions for tasks to perform.

Phineas and Ferb

Each mission sends kids to a different country to look for clues and activate measures to drive the evil Dr. Doofenschmirtz out of hiding. In the above photos, my agents were directed to hide in a place that would “avoid suspicion” to receive their next clue (they chose to go under a tree!) Kids love that their phone controls things going on in the park. In Japan, they controlled the waterfall in this koi pond with their F.O.N.E!

Japan koi pond

In Mexico, they blasted Doofenschmirtz out of a volcano. Great fun!

Disney's Mexico

Disney does a great job of hiding the clues for these adventures in plain sight, but if you’re not using one of the game devices to locate them, you’ll likely never notice them.

On our previous trip, this game was themed as a Kim Possible challenge, which we also enjoyed. Times have changed, of course, and the Phineas and Ferb theming is fantastic and really gets kids involved in exploring the various countries too.

Club Cool

No trip to Epcot is complete without a visit to Club Cool. This is Coca-Cola’s pavilion where you can taste-test cups of beverages from around the world. Not only is it a great destination for free beverages when you’re thirsty, it’s also a fun place to people-watch. We’ve been coming here for years (back when this pavilion was previously known as Ice Station Cool!) and we can’t remember a time when Beverly, an Italian aperitif, wasn’t on the soda fountain:

Beverly

Beverly is an incredibly bitter drink and a wild counterpart to the other fruity or candy-flavored sodas on the fountains. My boys had great fun loudly proclaiming “Try the Beverly – it’s the best!” to each other, then watching for unsuspecting victims. (Seriously — Googling “Disney Beverly photos” is actually a thing, and it will show you just what we mean..!)

Of course, the last time we were here, my youngest son was 3 years old, and we couldn’t possibly have forced him to try the Beverly on that trip. But this time? He’s older, wiser, and it was time for his initiation to Beverly:

Beverly

“That’s terrible,” he said. Then, he loudly said “Beverly is great!” and waited for others to try it. He’s one of us now.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom:

Expedition Everest

Expedition Everest is an enormous roller coaster that features both forward and backward-rolling thrills as you search for the Yeti. My boys couldn’t get enough, and we rode it three times over the course of our trip. The last time we were here, neither one of them was tall enough to enjoy its thrills!

Our boys barely remember visiting this area. In fact, when we walked into the park, they saw this enormous mountain and said “How can there be snow in Florida?” Yes, it looks that real — but this mountain is Imagineer-made and houses the coaster. 

No day at the Animal Kingdom is complete without taking in the Festival of the Lion King show either – I truly believe it’s the best show in any of the parks. If you like dance, acrobatics, aerobatics and trampoline tricks, while singing along to your favorite Lion King tunes, this one’s for you:

 

A video posted by Jill Cataldo (@supercouponing) on

There’s a lot of construction going on at the Animal Kingdom for the launch of both the new Avatar-themed land and a new Discovery River attraction too. Of course, the biggest draw here are the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which take you out where the animals roam freely. We loved seeing elephants, giraffes, hippos zebras and more up close and without visible fences.

Elephants

Magic Kingdom:

Tom Sawyer's Island

One of the luxuries of having so many days on our passes was that we had time for some of the “downtime” areas of the parks. In the past, we usually spend 3-4 days in the parks over the course of a week – we build in days to spend at the resorts, pools, waterparks and in the Downtown area too. As we had seven-day park passes, we spent seven consecutive days in the parks – a first for us.

 

A video posted by Jill Cataldo (@supercouponing) on

Our boys absolutely loved exploring Tom Sawyer’s Island in the Magic Kingdom, a classic that’s been here and has remained virtually unchanged since the park opened in 1971. They ran over rope bridges, hid in the caves, and manned fort gunposts to defend the island from invisible attackers.

Gaston

The New Fantasyland area was so much fun to explore too – it too is completely new since our last visit. There’s a new Little Mermaid ride in this area, as well as two new castles – the Beast’s castle (home to the very popular “Be Our Guest” restaurant) and Prince Eric’s castle.  If you’re a fan of Beauty and the Beast, you must check out the Gaston’s Tavern area. The detail given to theming this around Gaston’s lofty, chauvinistic view of himself are outstanding – and hilarious:

Gaston plaque

You can even order up a brew at the tavern and keep your eyes open for Gaston himself – who will loudly and proudly proclaim that any women in the area should get in the kitchen and make him a sandwich.  

Downtown Disney area:

The Downtown Disney area is currently being renovated into Disney Springs, which is launching in stages. There’s so much to do in this area – it’s a great place to build in a non-park day to your trip as there is no admission to enter. There are many shops, restaurants, and attractions in this area worth checking out.

Aerophile

On this trip, I was excited about surprising my children with a ride in the Aerophile balloon over Downtown Disney! This large balloon ride can hold 29 people in the basket for a 10-minute ride at a height of 400 feet. The balloon is tethered, so you don’t travel too much in any direction.  I had picked up discount tickets for this on Groupon prior to our trip, and I planned to surprise the kids with them. We headed downtown, and as they saw what we were approaching (hey, that enormous balloon is impossible to miss) the boys cowered and said “No, no.” I was shocked – I figured they’d be THRILLED to go up, but they were a little more than hesitant.

Aerophile

Aerophile

Aerophile

Aerophile

After some discussion, they agreed to go for a balloon ride. Having never been in a hot air or helium balloon, I have to admit the initial ascent was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. One moment you’re on the ground, and the next – you’re floating! The rise from the ground is much faster than I anticipated it being. It was really a fun experience though – well worth what we paid. Look at the center of the above photo — the silver ball in the center is the Epcot geosphere  off in the distance.

If you’re traveling with children and they spot the Once Upon a Toy store downtown, be prepared to stay awhile while your kids explore exhibits where they can build their own Mr. Potato head, lightsaber or droid:

Once Upon a Toy

 

Dining: Disney is just as much a dining destination as it is a vacation destination. We’ve always tried to balance our dining budget, because while we like to save on food, taking quick breakfasts or lunches on some days, we also like to indulge and enjoy some of our favorite treats, meals, and restaurants in Disney.

Marrakesh

We absolutely love eating at Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco at Epcot Center – the food is outstanding, and we go at lunchtime to keep it a little more budget-friendly. Everyone in the family will enjoy the musicians and the belly dancer who accompanies your meal.

Marrakesh

Our favorite things to eat here are the Chicken Bastilla (thin layers of pastry filled with chicken and almonds baked with cinnamon and powdered sugar) and the Beef Brewat rolls (fried pastries filled with beef and egg, also sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.)

Trattoria al Forno

On another night, we ate at the Trattoria al Forno at Disney’s Boardwalk resort – it’s a new Italian place on the boardwalk. My husband’s cousin’s family and his aunt joined us for dinner too, and it was such a memorable evening dining at the water’s edge, eating delicious food and watching the sun go down. 

Trattoria al Forno

The boardwalk is a fun place for kids too, as there are magicians and street artists performing up and down the boardwalk – another great option for free fun!

Disney's Yacht Club resort

Speaking of resorts, I can’t wait to tell you about the two resorts we stayed at on this trip, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (shown above) and the Downtown Disney Hilton. (This was the first time in my life I’ve ever “cheated on Disney” and stayed off-site for part of my Walt Disney World vacation… but I had a valid reason for doing so.)  I’ve got a great tip for saving on Disney souvenirs too!

Continue reading Part 2: Staying on-site, staying off-site, and tips for buying Disney souvenirs up to 70% off

Disclosure:  I attended the 2015 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration at Walt Disney World. I paid for my and my family’s transportation and conference admission, which included lodging at Disney’s Yacht Club resort, discounted park tickets, some meals and many special events. We chose to extend our 4-day conference trip for three more days after the conference ended for a total of seven days in Disney. We paid for all expenses on the post-conference portion of the trip, and this post details our vacation experiences.

Comments

  1. Sandra says

    Oh does your trip look lovely! I love reading your reviews of places. I get so many ideas . We are planning a Disney trip this fall for the Food & Wine Festival, looks like we will need to budget for Memory Maker. I would really like that. We always stay on site too so I am off to read part 2!

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