From the July 2019 issue

Insider Family Vacation Tips From The Disney Whisperer of Metro Detroit

It's a dream vacation for kids – but planning it can feel out of budget or plain overwhelming. One local mom with 11 Disney trips under her belt spills advice on making the magic happen.

Disney Whisperer Rana Makki and her family on vacation
Photo courtesy of Rana Makki

Which vacation destination makes you feel giddy? Not just excited, but giddy – grinning from ear to ear, everything is right with the world and your heart could leap out of your chest from happiness?

For my family and I, seasoned travelers who live in Dearborn Heights, that’s a Disney vacation.

It’s not just the “Disney magic” we love so much, although Walt did an amazing job bringing it to life. It’s because Disney vacations are designed around two factors: fun and family – a place to play and bask in the fairy dust of that time together.

Where else can an adult be a kid again except on a Disney trip? Which is why our kids love it so much, too: We’re right on the playground sliding with them. Yup, that Walt, he nailed it.

Our family – Jenna, 6, Mira, 4, my husband and me – have taken four trips to Disney World, one to Disneyland and six Disney Cruises (our favorite!). We even have another trip to Disney World scheduled this summer.

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In my circle, I’m known as the “Disney Whisperer” – the go-to source when you have no idea whether to rent a car or use Disney’s public transportation.

I’m not a travel agent, nor a representative of the Disney company. I’m just a metro Detroit mom with a pen wanting to share her personal tips during this busy travel season.

So whether traveling by car, plane, magic carpet, across the ocean, or just around the riverbend … I’ve got you covered.

Firworks at the Disney Castle
Photo courtesy of Disney

Save some serious cash

Without promotions, I find the least expensive times to go on a Disney vacation, whether a theme park or cruise, to be times of the year without school breaks or holidays.

During winter break, for example, a Disney Cruise Line (DCL) trip or hotel in Disney World could cost double (or triple!) what’s paid three weeks later in January.

If traveling during school breaks, book as early as possible. If I know that next year we plan on taking a Disney Cruise during spring break, I book one year in advance.

There’s no penalty for booking far in advance and refunds are available (check for date exclusions).

Another advantage to booking early is better pricing on limited rooms and suites. Booking early, and therefore finding a great deal, has allowed us to stay in a Concierge Suite – DCL’s most luxurious accommodations – three times.

Disney rarely offers discounts on park tickets, though some are available for veterans and Florida residents. As Michigan residents, we’re eligible for some discounts through Costco Travel, AAA (although small), Disney Visa and other company promotions.

On its website, Disney World currently has a promotion for a 25 percent discount on select resort hotels, as well as a “Summer One World Ticket” offer for park tickets – both running till the end of August.

Kid dressed as a princess at a Disney Park
Photo courtesy of Rana Makki

DCL also recently had a promotion for a 20 percent savings if sailing within certain dates.

Disney Cruise Line also offers a promotion for booking a future cruise while still onboard your current trip, which we always do. When you book onboard, you save 10 percent off the total price, as well as earn an onboard credit for your next cruise.

We don’t always know what future dates we want to sail, so we book a “placeholder,” which is a $250 payment to secure a future cruise and you have two years to use it.

The $250 is used towards the deposit, and we still earn all the benefits of rebooking onboard. If we change our minds and choose not to take a cruise within two years, we are automatically refunded the money. Therefore, if ever on a Disney Cruise, there’s no excuse not to book a placeholder. (And you will be taking another Disney Cruise; they’re that good.)

To save money in other ways we bring our own water bottles, as well as our own snacks and candy, which Disney does allow. This is especially great on a Disney Cruise at the show or movie theater (which plays first-run Disney movies!). DCL will also take your case of water to your stateroom along with your luggage.

In the parks, we put frozen water bottles (which thaw by mid-day) into our bags/strollers or bring a small cooler pack. Amazon can also deliver any groceries/necessities you may need to your hotel.

To save money on souvenirs and gifts, I buy a Disney gift card for each kid with a set monetary amount. They know they can only make purchases from that card, so they are forced to be choosier – and I’m not fighting with them in every gift shop. Bonus points if you purchase the gift card from Target with your REDcard, as you’re still eligible for a 5 percent savings on it.

Slinky Dog Roller Coaster at Disney
Photo courtesy of Disney

Hotels and transportation

Staying at a hotel on Disney World property saves commute time. There are many hotels that are either Disney or privately owned. We’ve stayed in both and generally find privately owned hotels to be a better value. The same price can be paid for a 3-star Disney-owned property as a 4-star privately owned property.

I always read reviews on travel sites before booking a new hotel and watch YouTube videos showcasing the property (search the name of the hotel).

The benefits of staying at Disney-owned properties, however, include the easy departures, as most will check you and your luggage in to the airport (anything worry-free with kids is priceless); free access to MagicBands for all transactions; booking FastPass and dining reservations 180 days in advance; and “extra magic hours” – Disney opens and closes its parks earlier/later for resort guests.

For a Disney cruise, we always fly in a day before embarkation, as we live in the motherland of unpredictable weather – Michigan. The worst thing would be a blizzard that cancels or delays a flight the day of the cruise; that ship is still leaving with or without you.

At each embarkation port around the United States, DCL offers transportation to and from the ship from either the airport or a hotel, but it must be booked ahead of time. In Orlando/Port Canaveral, DCL shuttles passengers to and from all Disney World hotels.

This is also a great way to book a combined land-and-sea vacation, which we do often.

There are other transportation options, too, like renting a car or taking an Uber. An easy option I always recommend, if sailing out of Port Canaveral, is to stay at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando International Airport.

Kid with Tinkerbell
Photo courtesy of Rana Makki

You can walk right from your flight to your hotel room in the same building, and the next morning, DCL will pick you up from there. The Hyatt also transfers your luggage to the port so you don’t have to worry about it – again, priceless with kids.

Disney World offers free transportation on its property; however it’s only available for guests staying at Disney hotels (and some affiliate hotels).

Aptly named “The Magical Express,” it can take you from the airport to your hotel and back again on the day you depart.

Once at your hotel, the transportation system takes you to any Disney property within its grounds. This saves car rental, gas and parking fees. However, it’s a public route – and you’re not the only one on it. So it stops wherever your fellow passengers are also going, as well as sometimes switching multiple routes to get you to certain locations.

We’ve used Disney’s transportation multiple times but always find the convenience and safety of renting a car better for us. My kids are in car seats and we have the freedom to commute as we please.

Both options are good; it ultimately comes down to what works best for your family.

Disney train
Photo courtesy of Disney

Avoiding crowds and lines

For any Disney trip, download the corresponding app. Familiarize yourself with the map and book your FastPasses –which allow you to skip lines for three rides at a time.

Newer attractions always have higher demand, so the sooner you book FastPasses, the better. This applies to restaurants and activities, too, such as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

In the parks, avoiding peak times of the day during early afternoon and late evening can limit exposure to crowds and lines, too.

On Disney Cruises, the sooner you book everything online, the better.

Crowds and lines will be at character greetings, deck parties (such as the fireworks on Pirate Night) and at elevators. We arrive 10 minutes before a character is scheduled and 15 minutes before a deck party.

To avoid lines at elevators, when possible we take the stairs, and book a room close to or on decks we frequent so we can walk there.

Special accommodations

Both Disney Parks and DCL make any necessary accommodations your family may need, such as handicap accommodations. They also take dietary needs into account, such as allergies, and offer vegan, kosher and halal meals when available.

Fireworks at Disney
Photo courtesy of Disney

For babies I’ve requested bottle warmers, cribs, Diaper Genies and fresh mashed food on our cruises – all at no additional cost.

They also love helping plan celebrations (sometimes for an additional cost). On cruises, we’ve celebrated two birthdays with our stateroom fully decorated.

Adventure is out there

I hope these tips help you feel more excited and less stressed about trying my family’s favorite vacation. With a spoonful of planning, a Disney vacation can leave you with goofy grins and magical memories (hence the constant repeat customers like our family!).

Consider me your own personal genie, granting your wish to explore a whole new world.

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