Is It Worth the Cost and Time?

Week 2 Map:

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Arrival

Hollywood Studios officially operates from 8am – 10pm on Star Wars Weekend dates except over Memorial Day Weekend, when it closes at 11pm.  Despite the official 8am opening, cast members  will begin letting guests inside the Park between 7:15am and 7:45am.  There are two sets of bag checks.  The two on the far right are designated for those seeking celebrity autographs.  However, anyone can use these bag check lines if they’re shorter.  If you don’t want an autograph, you can simply duck under the ropes. [click to continue reading..]

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easyWDW Food and Wine Festival 2013 PDF

by josh on October 16, 2013

Friend-of-the-site Steve Milz put together this PDF file of all the website’s Food and Wine Festival reviews, pictures and menus. It might be handy to put on your phone or just to keep around if your trip isn’t for another couple weeks. Certainly your opinions will vary from mine, but the pictures and descriptions should be a good starting point:

Download or view here: http://www.easywdw.com/reports10/easywdw_food_wine.pdf.

You can view the original pictures and reviews here: http://www.easywdw.com/uncategorized/epcot-food-and-wine-festival-menus-and-reviews-greece-hawaii-scotland-craft-beers-updates-on-a-few-skipped-items/. That post has links back to the previous reviews at the top of the page.

This post can be found in the future on the menu column on the right under “Is It Worth It?”

Example from the PDF:

Eating WDW at http://www.eatingwdw.com also has great coverage of the Festival and it would be wise to look over their pictures and descriptions for a second opinion.

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Updated December 10, 2012.

What is FASTPASS?

First introduced in 1999, FASTPASS is a “virtual queuing system” offered at many of Disney’s most popular attractions.  Unlike other theme parks that charge for “front of the line access,” FASTPASS is completely free for all ticket holders.  All a person needs to take advantage of FASTPASS is the ticket they used to gain entrance to the Park.

FASTPASS is similar to the “take a number” system you may be familiar with at your local Department of Motor Vehicles.  Each FASTPASS-enabled attraction has a bank of machines near its queue entrance.  Visitors may obtain a FASTPASS by inserting their Park ticket into one of these machines, which will scan and return the ticket along with a small piece of paper known as a FASTPASS.  Instead of having to wait for a number to be called, each FASTPASS has a return time printed on it for some time in the future, allowing the user to “save” their spot in line and tour the Park freely while they wait.  Once the time stated on the FASTPASS arrives, the FASTPASS user can return to the attraction and enter the FASTPASS queue, which is designed to have a wait of ten minutes or less.  This arrangement is beneficial to both theme park guests and Disney.  Just one use of FASTPASS can save a visitor more than an hour in line, allowing them to explore the Park and see additional attractions.  Disney benefits because a person that isn’t stuck in a long line is more likely to spend money at a store, kiosk, or restaurant.

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Edit: DINOSAUR is back on the FASTPASS system, meaning they work there just as they do at other attractions.  I’m not sure what was going on at the beginning of April – either a fluke or they were trying to send more people than usual to DINOSAUR.

It’s been about two months since Disney began enforcing FASTPASS return times and we now have a clearer understanding of what that means.  On March 7th, Disney began enforcing FASTPASS return times.  Before that, you could enter the FASTPASS return line with your FASTPASS at any time after the return window opened.  For example, if you were holding a Space Mountain FASTPASS with a return window of 1:15pm to 2:15pm, you could return any time after 1:15pm.  That means you could ride at 9pm with your 1:15pm FASTPASS.  That’s no longer true.  Currently, you must return within your FASTPASS window with a 15 minute grace period attached at the end.  In our example above, you would need to return to Space Mountain between 1:15pm and 2:30pm.

Let’s take a look at how to maximize your FASTPASS strategy so that you can still tour efficiently, eliminate walking/backtracking as much as possible, and return within the FASTPASS windows at each theme park.

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May 2 Update: Updated for 2013.

See my detailed overview of the 2013 event here: http://www.easywdw.com/uncategorized/mickeys-not-so-scary-halloween-party-2013-overview-touring-strategy-character-locations-and-strategy-buying-tickets-more/

What is Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party?

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (often abbreviated to MNSSHP) is an after-hours “hard ticket” event held at the Magic Kingdom on select dates during September, October, and the 1st of November.  When I say “hard ticket,” I mean that you will need to purchase an additional ticket to attend (prices below).  Magic Your Way Tickets, Annual Passes, etc. will not get you into the Party.  The Party runs from 7pm through 12am.  The Magic Kingdom does not completely close prior to the event.  Instead, visitors who have tickets will trade them for a wristband that indicates they are attending the Party.  Those without tickets will be asked to leave and there will be attendants checking wristbands throughout the evening, including at each of the ride entrances.

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Updated January 6, 2012.

The proper name of “Fantasmic” is “Fantasmic!” with the exclamation point.  I tossed and turned over removing the exclamation point, simply in order to make punctuation easier and make it seem like I’m not yelling!!!! at you every other sentence.  However, after taking time to read up on other people’s definitions of proper punctuation and not wanting to lessen the show’s impact, I have decided to keep Fantasmic!’s proper name throughout this article.  Enjoy and sorry for yelling!

What is Fantasmic!

Fantasmic! is a nighttime spectacular featuring a wide assortment of Disney characters, fireworks, water screens, laser beams, a 40-foot-tall-fire-breathing-dragon, a classic orchestral score, and Mickey Mouse as Sorcerer Mickey.  Housed inside of the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at Hollywood Studios, Fantasmic! is set on top of a 50-foot tall man-made mountain surrounded by water.  Nearly 50 performers take part in the production, which is routinely “sold out,” despite a theater capacity approaching 10,000 people.   Fantasmic! is a blend of live-action performances and animated sequences that are projected onto “screens” made entirely of mist.  Most of the live-action appears directly on the mountain and several scenes occur on the water surrounding it.

Fantasmic! invites guests into Mickey’s imagination, where the forces of good and evil clash in a battle of epic proportions.  Characters from just about every classic Disney film are present, including Belle, Beast, Cinderella, Prince Charming, Snow White, Aladdin, Jasmine, Ursula, Pocahontas, Captain Hook, Jafar, Scar, The Queen of Hearts, Maleficient, and a host of others.  As is common in dreams, the exact plot of Fantasmic! is somewhat muddled as the story jumps from scene to scene.  Viewers are likely to grasp the fact that the good guys are fighting the bad guys, but I wouldn’t concern myself too much with the storyline.  It is pretty clear that Disney wants to get out as many fan favorite characters as possible during the 25-minute show, which isn’t possible without drastic scene changes.

Scary Factor

Fantasmic! is not downright frightening and it’s unlikely to upset anyone over the age of ten.  Nonetheless, younger children may find the show scary because it is dark and there are a slew of Disney villains threatening Mickey and the other protagonists.  Fantasmic!’s climax features a 40-foot-tall-fire-breathing-dragon that may overwhelm young kids.  If your children have a history of being upset at loud, dark, and potentially scary shows, you may want to skip Fantasmic! or sit near the back of the theater where you can make a quick and easy escape if it becomes too much.  The great majority of kids don’t have any problem with it because the action is a ways off on stage and nothing particularly bad happens to any of the characters.

The Change From Performances On “Select Nights” to Performances “Most Every Night”

From January 2009 through June 2011, Fantasmic! was only offered on “select nights.”  Most weeks, guests visiting Disney World would only have two or three nights where they could visit Hollywood Studios and enjoy Fantasmic!  That changed abruptly in July 2011, when Disney began scheduled the show nearly every night.  As we move through 2012, Fantasmic! is scheduled every night where Hollywood Studios doesn’t close early for a private event of one variety or another.  These events are rare and Fantasmic is usually scheduled 28 or 29 days a month in 2012.

This change has “helped” standardize crowds at the Studios over the course of the week.  Previously, Hollywood Studios was at its busiest when it hosted Fantasmic!  Crowds on days with Fantasmic! even eclipsed days with morning or evening Extra Magic Hours.  With Fantasmic scheduled every night, we don’t see the giant drop off in crowds from one day to the next.  The Studios is still busier when it’s hosting Extra Magic Hours, it’s later in the week, or when Magic Kingdom isn’t offering evening entertainment, but Fantasmic! and similar operating hours keep crowds relatively steady.  Fantasmic! also keeps people around in the evening.  When Fantasmic! isn’t scheduled, people tend to leave shortly after the 3pm Parade and few people Park Hop over to the Studios because the restaurants aren’t particularly good and the 7pm or 8pm close isn’t anything special.  Fantasmic! gives people a reason to stay and keeps crowd levels heavier and waits longer into the evening.

Weather, Cancellations, Technical Difficulties, and Scheduling

Besides having to deal with larger crowds throughout the day, there are a number of other potential frustrations one might encounter when trying to see Fantasmic!  The most common is weather.  Specifically, rain and lightning.  The great majority of Disney’s shows, attractions, parades, fireworks, and rides are not closed due to inclement weather.  Fantasmic! is one that does close due to weather.  Neither the stage nor the seating sections are covered at Fantasmic! and the show does get canceled if it’s raining hard enough or if there is a chance of lightning.  Heavy rain makes the stage unsafe for the actors to perform and lightning is dangerous due to the chance of electrocution.  What’s most aggravating is the fact that Disney will not announce that Fantasmic! is canceled until right before the show is scheduled to begin in most cases.  The show usually begins as scheduled during periods of “light rain” as long as lightning isn’t in the area.  However, it is always possible that the show will be canceled midway through if it does become too wet.

The second, less common problem, is technical difficulties.  In particular, Maleficent as the 40-foot-tall-dragon occasionally isn’t ready for prime time.  The show goes on without the Mistress of All Evil’s transformation into the dragon and it’s highly unlikely Disney will announce the dragon will not be making an appearance.  The show can also be shortened or stunts left out if there are technical difficulties or because of weather.  If you’re not familiar with the show, chances are you won’t even notice.

If Fantasmic! is canceled and you have purchased the Fantasmic! Dining Package, the official line is that Disney does not need to reimburse you or provide tickets to see another show.  This is due to the fact that there is limited seating in the reserved section, which will likely be full to capacity for the next show, and the fact that you did get to enjoy your meal.  However, you may be able to go to Guest Relations at the front of Hollywood Studios and ask for tickets to another show or make other arrangements.  You may be able to get additional FASTPASSes for one of the Parks or tickets to another Fantasmic! show.  It is very unlikely you will receive any sort of refund, but you may be able to get something that doesn’t cost Disney much, but will be advantageous to you.  Be as nice and understanding as possible; it is much more likely they will help you out if they like you and feel sorry for you.  Tell them that Fantasmic! was what you were looking forward to the most on your vacation and you are devastated that you won’t be able to see it.

The Wait

Hollywood Hills Amphitheater seats about 7,000 people with additional standing room for 2,000 to 3,000 more.  On average, about 25,000 people visit the Hollywood Studios each day or about 150,000 people each week.  Not everyone who enters the turnstiles wants to see Fantasmic!, but a lot of them do.  While the fact that Fantasmic! is now shown nightly helps lower crowds at any particular show, the first show of each evening usually reaches capacity.  To guarantee decent seats together, you’re looking at a 60 minute wait for the first Fantasmic! show.  If a second Fantasmic! is scheduled, you can usually secure good seats together if you arrive at least 30 minutes early.  When crowds are particularly low and a second Fantasmic! is scheduled, you may be able to arrive just five or ten minutes early and secure seats, but that’s always a gamble.  If the overall crowd level is a 7 or above and Hollywood Studios isn’t recommended, consider lining up for the first Fantasmic! 90 minutes early or for the second Fantasmic! at least 50 minutes early.  While those numbers may sound high, they aren’t an exaggeration.

Disney opens the “doors” to Fantasmic! about 90 minutes before the first show is scheduled to start and people may enter the Amphitheater and find their seats.  Before that, people line up in a queue outside the Amphitheater’s entrance on Sunset Boulevard.   The bad news (other than the length of the wait) is that there is very little preshow entertainment and the seating is on uncomfortable metal bleachers without backs.  You will probably want something to keep you occupied, whether it be an iPhone, Nintendo DS, old-fashioned book, or whatever else.  Time does not typically go by quickly while waiting for Fantasmic! because there is very little to see or do and the seats are so uncomfortable.

If you need to leave the Amphitheater, a cast member will issue you a ticket for reentry on your way out.  Make sure you obtain one of these tickets before exiting because you may not be admitted to the Theater if it fills to capacity.  The ticket is only necessary if you’re planning to exit the entire Theater complex and head back down Sunset Boulevard.  It is advisable to either eat a quick service or table service meal before you get in line or bring the counter service food with you.  There is  a concession stand inside the theater that offers theme park staples like hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, pretzels, and soft drinks.  It isn’t an extensive menu and the food is what you would expect from the various pushcarts and small kiosks around the theme parks.  It’s a long walk up hill from Sunset Boulevard to the Theater.  Keep that in mind if you’re planning to carry a lot of food from another location in the Studios.  Bathrooms are also located at the top of the seating area.

The First Show or the Second Show of the Night?

Throughout most of the year, Disney originally schedules one Fantasmic! show on nights when Fantasmic! will be available.  About two weeks before the start of the next month, Disney may add a second Fantasmic! 90 minutes after the first show is scheduled to start on select nights.  For example, let’s say Fantasmic! is currently scheduled at 7:30pm every night in October.    On or around September 17th, Disney will update the operating schedule for October.  At that time, they may add a second Fantasmic! on certain nights.  In our example above, Fantasmic! would now begin at 7:30pm and 9pm.  A second Fantasmic! is usually added because Disney is expecting additional demand on those nights.  A second Fantasmic is more common when the overall crowd level is high or the Studios is hosting morning or evening Extra Magic Hours.

When two shows are scheduled, the second show is almost always less crowded than the first show.  Families with young kids will naturally head to the earlier show in order to get back to their resort at a reasonable time.  The Fantasmic! Dining Package is also only valid on the first show, which means just about everyone who paid for the Dining Package (explained below) will be at the first show.  If evening Extra Magic Hours are scheduled at another Park or another Park is open late, anyone wanting to Park Hop to a different Park will be at the first show.  All of this makes the second show significantly less crowded than the first.

If there is a second show scheduled and you’re not using the Fantasmic! Dining Package, I would strongly recommend visiting the second show if you’re able.  Don’t be alarmed if it seems like the line goes on forever or there is a huge mob of people waiting to enter the Amphitheater.  It takes a lot of time to clean the seating area after the first show concludes and Disney doesn’t allow anyone to enter the stadium until it’s clean.  For the second show, it’s not uncommon for Disney to let everyone enter the theater at once, unlike the more orderly procession of the first show.  Don’t be too concerned; there will be plenty of room for everyone to get a good seat.

Fantasmic! Starts After the Park Closes?  Can Everyone See It?

If Hollywood Studios’ hours are 9am to 7:30pm, Fantasmic! will usually start at 7:30pm.  If there are two shows scheduled and Hollywood Studios’ hours are 9am to 10pm, the first show will usually start at 8:30pm and the second show will begin at 10pm.  This means Fantasmic! will end after the rest of the Park closes.  It is a common misconception that the Parks shut down right when the Park Hours indicate that they close.  In reality, it is very common for the theme parks to accept dining reservations right up to the official closing time, meaning diners will finish their meals well after the theme park is “closed.”

In addition, many of the shops will remain open for 30 minutes to an hour after the official Park close to accommodate late shoppers.  Ride operators are also supposed to allow guests to enter the queue right up until the official close.  Anyone who is allowed to enter the line will be allowed to ride, even if the wait is 45 minutes right before the Park closes.  This means that everyone is welcome to stay for Fantasmic!, even when it’s scheduled to start right when the Studios is scheduled to close or even after it’s scheduled to close.  Occasionally, Fantasmic! will start at 10:30pm when the posted hours state Hollywood Studios closes at 10pm.  Even then, everyone is welcome to stay and enjoy the show.  This is also true if the Fantasmic show begins during evening Extra Magic Hours.  Off-site visitors are welcome to stay for those shows as well.  Disney runs buses for about 120 minutes after the Parks officially close to accommodate all those with late dining reservations and they are quite aware of the Fantasmic! crowds and how many additional buses will be required to transport the 10,000 people leaving Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at the end of the night.

The Best Seats

There are no intrinsically bad seats inside of Hollywood Hills Amphitheater, thanks to the fact that the action takes place on a 50-foot-tall mountain in the middle of a gigantic stage.  Of course, seats in the middle section afford the best, most direct view of the action.  I recommend sitting at least a third of the way up the bleachers because it can be difficult to see the boats traveling along the water if you sit in the first few rows.  In addition, it’s not uncommon for people in the bottom-third-section to get wet during the performance.  If you do end up in the first few rows, you may want to put on your poncho and protect your belongings by putting them in a bag or covering them with something.  If you are poncho-less, consider moving elsewhere in the stadium, even if it seems like the view won’t be as good.

As you enter, you may find that Disney employees are systematically filling up the Amphitheater section by section, rather than letting people sit wherever they want.  This may result in your group being seated somewhere that you don’t want to be.  If you notice that they’re seating people in an inopportune place, you can step to the side and let people go by until they start seating guests in a better section or row.  Or, you can sit in your original seats for a minute and then get up and find other seats in a more desirable section.

What to Do After the Show is Over

After the show concludes, most people will hop up, gather their things, and try to cram through the exit on their way to Disney transportation or the parking lot.  If it’s the first show of the night and the Park remains open for an extended amount of time, many people will head to nearby rides like the Tower of Terror and Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster.  If you saw the last show of the night and the Studios is “closed,” I would recommend holding back and letting the hordes exit first.  After the Amphitheater clears out, head to the stores along Hollywood Boulevard (the main drag).  Most of the stores will remain open for at least a half hour after Fantasmic! concludes.

“After hours” shopping is the best because you won’t be wasting precious Park time looking for the perfect coffee mug for grandma and the shops will be mostly empty.  After about 30 minutes have passed, head out to the bus stop or parking tram, where you should find that most of the people will be long gone and the lines will be short.  This will result in a less stressful end to the night and shopping is more enjoyable than waiting in line outside, even if you don’t plan to purchase anything.

What is the Fantasmic! Dining Package?  What is Included?  How Much Does The Fantasmic! Dining Package Cost?

The popularity of Fantasmic! has spurred Disney to offer a “Fantasmic! Dining Package” similar to the popular Candlelight Processional Dinner Package available at Epcot over the holidays.  With the limited availability of Fantasmic! and popularity of the Meal Package, Disney added lunchtime reservations and changed the name from the “Fantasmic! Dinner Package” to the “Fantasmic! Dining Package.”  The Fantasmic! Dining Package can be booked by calling Disney Dining directly at 1-407-939-3463 up to 180 days in advance of the reservation date or it can be booked online (Disney added online booking for the Fantasmic! Dining Package on December 17, 2010).  A regular reservation at a participating restaurant will not increase your chances of getting a Fantasmic! Dining Package reservation and it is not possible to convert a regular dining reservation to the Fantasmic! Dining Package if the Package is sold out.

The package is very popular and often “sells out” soon after it becomes available.  Similar to the way Disney now handles Character Dining and Signature Restaurants, the Fantasmic! Dining Package requires that you put a credit card on file.  You will not be charged until you consume your meal, but there is a $10 fee per person if you do not show up to the reservation and do not cancel at least 48 hours before the reservation time.  You may cancel up to 48 hours before the reservation time with no penalty.  If you call and the Package is sold out, you may have success if you keep calling.  People often cancel and availability may reopen closer to the date of the show.  You’ll have the most success booking the Fantasmic! Dining Package if you book exactly 180 days from the date you’d like to use the Package.  If you’re staying at a Disney-owned resort, you can also make reservations for an additional ten days after your check-in date.  Check http://www.pscalculator.net/pscalc.php to find out when it’s 180 days away from your check-in date.

Unlike the Candlelight Processional Dining Package that is available at most of Epcot’s restaurants, the Fantasmic! Dining Package is only available at three restaurants – Hollywood Brown Derby, Mama Melrose’s Risorante Italiano, and Hollywood & Vine.  From my Best Table Service Restaurants at Hollywood Studios review, you would know that Hollywood Studios isn’t known for its fine dining.  However, you should have an enjoyable meal regardless of which restaurant you choose.  I wouldn’t recommend Hollywood & Vine, but it would suffice if you’re not expecting much in the way of quality food.

Pricing is different for each of the three restaurants and looks like this:

All prices include tax, but do not include gratuity

Hollywood Brown Derby Lunch and Dinner

Two Table Service Credits on Disney Dining Plan

Adults (anyone over the age of 9): $50.05 or $58.57

Kids (ages 3-9): $12.77 or $18.11

Hollywood & Vine Lunch
Not available

Hollywood & Vine Dinner (no characters)

One Table Service Credit on Disney Dining Plan

Adults (anyone over the age of 9): $28.75 or $40.46

Kids (ages 3-9): $14.90 or $23.42

Mama Melrose’s Risotrante Italiano Lunch and Dinner

One Table Service Credit on Disney Dining Plan

Adults (anyone over the age of 9): $35.14 or $38.33

Kids (ages 3-9): $12.77 (same price for regular and peak seasons)

The price difference is due to the fact that the Fantasmic! Dining Package is more expensive during certain dates.  The first price is for “Value and Regular Seasons.”  The second price is during “Peak Seasons.”   In 2012, the following dates have Peak Season pricing: February 16 – February 25; March 9 – April 14; June 1 – August 4; December 21 – December 31.  Pricing can always change; make sure to verify the cost at time of booking.

The Fantasmic! Dining Package includes the meal and a seat in the reserved section of the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater for the first showing of Fantasmic! for everyone on the reservation.  At Hollywood & Vine, the meal includes the full buffet just as it would if you were paying for it without the Dining Package.  At Mama Melrose and Hollywood Brown Derby, the Package includes appetizer, entree, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverage.   The appetizer is included even when you book with the Disney Dining Plan.  This is a nice bonus because appetizers are not usually included on the Dining Plan.  If you are considering Mama Melrose, you may want to try to book the Fantasmic! Dining Package even if you have no intention of using the reserved-section tickets in order to get a “free” appetizer.  No one will check to see if you actually use the tickets and you can either give them to someone else who wants to see the show or discard them.

While two sections are reserved for Fantasmic! Dining Package guests, there are no assigned seats.  The Package is only available on days when Fantasmic! is scheduled and the tickets are only valid on the first show of the same night as the reservation.  It is not possible to book the dining reservation on a Sunday and get tickets to see Fantasmic! on Thursday.  You will receive your tickets at the end of your meal.

Is the Fantasmic! Dining Package Worth the Cost?

If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan and want to eat at Mama Melrose, Brown Derby, or Hollywood & Vine, you should book the Fantasmic! Dining Package if it’s available.  The credit cost is the same as eating at the restaurant without the Package.  The menu at lunch and dinner is the same at Mama Melrose and Hollywood Brown Derby, so it doesn’t matter if you book lunch or dinner as far as food selection are concerned.  You can order anything you like.  Your experience at Hollywood & Vine will be exactly the same whether you use the Fantasmic! Dining Package or not.

However, there are a few caveats to take into consideration when thinking about whether or not the Fantasmic! Dining Package makes sense, especially when paying out of pocket.  First, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater and 50’s Prime Time Café are not available with the Fantasmic! Dining Package.  It’s a shame, because both of these restaurants have more to offer than either Mama Melrose or Hollywood & Vine, both in terms of food quality and service.

Second, the assigned meal times are much earlier than most people would like.  The latest possible dinner reservation with the Fantasmic! Dining Package is 5:00pm, regardless of when Fantasmic! is scheduled to start.  While this gives people plenty of time to eat and get over to the Amphitheater, most people would prefer to eat dinner later.  Since 5:00pm is the most popular time to book, many reservations are even earlier in the day.  You might consider a lunch reservation instead – the menu and price will be the same and it’s more convenient to eat lunch at 12pm rather than eat “dinner” at 3:30pm and try to change your meal schedule around for the rest of the day.

Third, you will still need to arrive at the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at least 25 minutes before Fantasmic is scheduled to start.  Disney routinely opens the reserved seating section up to everyone about 20 minutes before Fantasmic! is scheduled to begin.  If you aren’t there before that happens, you won’t be guaranteed a seat and will probably find yourself in the standing-only section.  Disney doesn’t make this fact particularly clear, probably because the main selling point of the Fantasmic! Dining Package is the ability to see the show “without a wait.”  While it’s likely your wait will be less than if you were sitting with the general public, you will still be waiting at least 30 minutes.

Fourth, the cost of the Fantasmic! Dining Package is a fixed price, regardless of what you order or how much you eat.  While you can “get your money’s worth” if you order one of the more expensive items, it is also very possible you won’t “come out ahead” if you choose one of the less expensive options.  Many of the entrees at Mama Melrose are in the $12-$18 range and the cheaper flatbread pizzas are usually prepared better than the more expensive steak.  Like with the Dining Plan, a fixed price meal may make you feel like you need to order the more expensive items in order to “get your money’s worth” even though you would prefer to order less expensive items that you would potentially enjoy more.

Finally, the seats in the two reserved sections do not offer the best vantage point.  As stated earlier, there really aren’t any bad seats inside of the theater thanks to the elevated stage, but the reserved sections are the two furthest away from the center.  Once you enter the reserved section with your tickets, you may leave and find a seat in the general admission section if you see better seats.  Be careful, because it may be a hassle to be readmitted to the reserved section if you leave.

The reserved seating section is pictured below:

Fantasmic Reserved Seat Section

Map overlays courtesy of Robo, frequent poster on the disboards.com

Even with the various detractions, the Fantasmic Dining Package can save you time.  It will allow you to see Fantasmic! with a 30 minute wait, rather than the 60+ minute wait required in the stand-by line.  The Dining Package is especially advantageous if you were planning to eat at Mama Melrose, Brown Derby, or Hollywood & Vine anyway or plan to use the Disney Dining Plan.

The Package also presents value if you’re a big eater or were planning on purchasing the more expensive items anyway,.  The menu for Mama Melrose is the same for lunch and dinner and is available at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/mama-melroses-ristorante-italiano/.  The menu for Hollywood Brown Derby is also the same for lunch and dinner and is available at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/hollywood-brown-derby/.  Look to the right of the page and you’ll see blue links that will take you to the various .PDF file menus.  Currently, you could put together a meal that costs about $50 at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano.  With the Fantasmic! fixed price being just $35-$38, the Package can present additional value above and beyond the Fantasmic tickets.

Just like with the Candlelight Processional, you will be able to see Fantasmic! without the Dining Package, as long as you’re willing to wait.  If the menus at the participating restaurants don’t appeal to you, you may be better off booking at another restaurant and waiting the 20 or so additional minutes required to get a seat in the general admission section.  Should a second Fantasmic be scheduled, you’ll be able to attend that show with a wait similar or shorter than you’re looking at with the Dining Package for the first show.

There’s a reason Disney offers the Fantasmic! Dining Package at the restaurants and times it does – they would not be that popular otherwise.  Still, you should have a very pleasant meal at either Mama Melrose’s or Hollywood Brown Derby and it’s very possible to get your money’s worth under the right circumstances.

Let Me Reiterate Fantasmic! is Truly Awesome

This review is a bit on the negative side, which is unfortunate because Fantasmic! is an amazing show, featuring mesmerizing special effects and an ensemble of classic Disney characters entertaining in a way you won’t find anywhere else in the world (other than Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea which also feature Fantasmic! shows).  The problem is not the 25-minute show in and of itself – it’s the struggle that is often necessary in order to see it.

What is the Best Way to See Fantasmic!?

If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, I would strongly recommend considering the Fantasmic! Dining Package.  Out of pocket, it can be a great value if time is of the essence and you plan to order and eat expensive entrees.  If the Fantasmic! Dining Package is completely booked or you’re apprehensive about the restaurants, remember that you’ll still be able to see Fantasmic! with just a slightly longer wait.  If a second show is offered, do your best to attend it.  It will be considerably less crowded and will require a shorter wait.  Enjoy and remember to bring something fun to do while you wait.

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Updated January 27, 2012 with an updated list of open attractions.

Updated January 4, 2012 with a clearer discussion of how to make the most of Extra Magic Hours and new information on current crowd tendencies.

What Are Extra Magic Hours?

Extra Magic Hours are a perk that guests staying at select resorts on Disney property receive.  Everyone staying at a Disney owned resort in the Value, Moderate, Deluxe, Deluxe Villa, and Disney Vacation Club levels receive access to Extra Magic Hours and all guests staying at the Swan, Dolphin, Shades of Green, and Hilton at Downtown Disney are also Extra Magic Hours eligible.  There is no additional charge for Extra Magic Hours – the program is included in the cost of the resort room.

Extra Magic Hours are scheduled at one, two, or three theme parks each day.  Other than the summer months (June, July August) and the weeks around holidays, Extra Magic Hours are generally scheduled at just one Park each day, other than one day each week when they are scheduled at one Park in the morning and a different Park in the evening.  Most often, we see a morning Extra Magic Hour at Animal Kingdom and evening Extra Magic Hours at Hollywood Studios on Mondays, but the schedule changes throughout the year.

There are two types of Extra Magic Hours – morning Extra Magic Hour and evening Extra Magic Hours.  Morning Extra Magic Hour is one hour long and occurs before the Park opens to the general public.  In most cases, morning Extra Magic Hour is from 8:00am to 9:00am.  If the theme park is opening at 8am to the general public, the morning Extra Magic Hour will be scheduled for 7am to 8am.  Evening Extra Magic Hours are three hours long and start immediately after the Park closes to the general public.  For example, Epcot usually closes at 9:00pm.  When it has evening Extra Magic Hours, it will be open from 9:00pm to 12:00am for those with access to Extra Magic Hours.

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Updated August 27 with 2013/2014 pricing

Introduction

Along with lodging, theme park tickets, and transportation, food is one of the biggest potential costs associated with any Disney World vacation.  In fact, food purchases may very well be the largest overall expensive.  In an effort to help vacationers budget food expenses (and guarantee most of your dining dollars go right back into Disney’s pocket), Disney offers several pre-paid Dining Plans to guests staying at Disney-owned resorts.  If you are staying “off-site,” at one of the Downtown Disney hotels, at the Swan, Dolphin, or Shades of Green, or any other resort/hotel/motel/tent/etc., you will not be eligible to purchase the Dining Plan.  You must be staying at a Disney Value, Moderate, Deluxe, or Deluxe Villa that qualifies.  In addition, the Disney Dining Plan must be purchased as part of a package that includes at least a One Day Magic Your Way Base Ticket for everyone on the reservation or you must be an Annual Passholder, Disney Vacation Club owner or renter, or add a Dining Plan as part of a land/sea cruise package.

Furthermore, everyone on the same reservation must purchase the same Dining Plan for the entire length of the stay.  For example, it’s not possible to book a room for four adults and purchase a Dining Plan for less than four people or purchase different Dining Plans for each person.  The Dining Plans can be added to your package up to 72 hours before your check-in date, so you have some time to consider your options, even after you make an initial reservation.  There is no benefit to adding the Dining Plan when you book your package, other than it will save you a phone call sometime in the future.  There is no discount for paying for it early and you don’t run the risk of them selling out of Dining Plans.  It’s also much easier to add the Dining Plan than it is to remove it and you don’t run the risk of any fees or charges for removing the Dining Plan too close to your check-in date.   Once you qualify for the Dining Plan, you can begin to figure out if one of them “makes sense,” both in terms of potential savings and convenience.

There are three common Disney Dining Plan “tiers” available.  A Premium and Platinum Dining Plan are also available, but they include a lot of other recreational activities, spa treatments, and other goodies and those will have to wait for a different article.  They also cost $189 per adult per night for the Premium Plan and $239 per adult per night for the Platinum Plan.  This article will take a look at the Quick Service Dining Plan, “Regular” Dining Plan, and Deluxe Dining Plan.

How Much Do The Dining Plans Cost (all prices include tax)?

Quick Service Dining Plan

  • Adults: (Ages 10+) $40.00 per night
  • Children (Ages 3-9): $15.25 per night

“Regular” Dining Plan

  • Adults (Ages 10+): $59.20 per night during regular season or $60.65 during peak season
  • Children (Ages 3-9): $18.28 per night during regular season or $19.35 during peak season

Deluxe Dining Plan

  • Adults (Ages 10+): $106.47 per night during regular season or $108.92 per night during peak season
  • Children (Ages 3-9): $28.59 per night during regular season or $30.79 per night during peak season

For all Dining Plans, kids age two and younger do not qualify.  They can either eat some of someone else’s food, you can purchase a separate item from the menu for them (and pay for it separately), or you can bring food for them to eat.

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Updated August 27 2013 with 2014 information.

Now that we have an idea about what we’re getting ourselves into with each of the three Disney Dining Plans, we can begin to consider whether or not one of them “makes sense” in different circumstances.

The Dining Plan is (Potentially) a Lot of Food

The first thing I recommend doing is sizing up the members of your group.  How much food does each person normally eat?  Would everyone be happy eating McDonalds for lunch followed by Applebee’s for dinner (Regular Dining Plan)?  Burger King for Lunch followed by Taco Bell for dinner (Quick Service Dining Plan)?  Olive Garden for Lunch followed by Chili’s for dinner (Regular or Deluxe Dining Plan)?  IHOP for breakfast, followed by Red Lobster for lunch, followed by Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for dinner (Deluxe Dining Plan)?

The Dining Plan comes with dessert at every meal other than breakfast.  Do you plan to eat cake, cookies, ice cream, or a similar item at every meal?  Can everyone eat that much?  There won’t be a lot of “doggy bags” or taking food home for later, unless you want to walk it around the theme parks with you or take the time to drop it off in a car/locker.  Consider what you would normally order at a restaurant or quick service location.  Check out the various menus at Allears and ask people in your group what they might order at several restaurants you’re considering.

With the rising cost of the Dining Plans, you can no longer assume that they will save you money.  The Dining Plan originally included the gratuity and one appetizer per person at table service meals.  It no longer includes either.  The Quick Service Dining Plan used to include two snacks per night, but now includes one.  On the other hand, all Dining Plans now include a refillable mug and most items as expensive as $5.49 are included as snacks.  It was only two years ago when the refillable mugs were not included and an item needed to be $3.99 or less to be included as a snack credit.  While the cost of the Dining Plan is going up,  it’s important to take into consideration that the cost of dining around Disney World is also increasing.  If you’ve used the Dining Plan in the past couple of years and were pleased with the value, chances are that they will continue to “make sense.”  If the cost is becoming prohibitive and you plan to share more meals, skip desserts, eat off-site, bring more food with you, etc. then paying out of pocket for meals may make more fiscal sense, even if out of pocket prices seem daunting.

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Off to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

Let’s go over the evening and see what we can do to minimize frustration and maximize the experience. Unfortunately, because it’s dark out from the beginning of the event, a lot of these pictures are garbage.  Nonetheless, they should help further the narrative.  Hopefully http://www.disneyphotographyblog.com will get over there to capture some images where we can all see what’s going on and say, “Wow, that is gorgeous!”  You’re just going to have to take my word for it on some of these.

As in past years, you can enter Magic Kingdom with your Mickey’s Christmas Party ticket as early as 4pm, even though the event doesn’t officially begin at 7pm.  Should you purchase your tickets online and select the “Will Call” option, you can print your paper certificate and take it to any ticket window to pick up the plastic tickets that you’ll use at the turnstile to enter the Magic Kingdom.  This includes guest services at any of the theme parks, your Disney resort concierge desk, and the Ticket/Transportation Center.  For more information on purchasing and picking up your ticket, see the first three sections of my Mickey’s Halloween Party Review here.

Disney has additional bag check lines nearest the buses to expedite the security check process.

Once you (hopefully) make it through security, you’ll see Guest Services ahead of you on the far right of the turnstiles (before you enter the Magic Kingdom) and a Will Call window behind you.  This is important if you still need to exchange your Will Call certificate for the plastic tickets or need to purchase tickets for the event.  Otherwise, continue to the turnstiles.

If you are entering Magic Kingdom with your Mickey’s Party Ticket, you’ll be directed to use the turnstiles on the far right side nearest to Guest Services.  The turnstiles say “event entrance” above them.  Just inside the turnstiles, you’ll see cast members dressed up in festive outfits handing out wristbands.  Present your ticket and they will fit you with a wristband. For some reason these people on the left are in a line even though there is no one in either of the two turnstiles to the right.  If you previously entered the Magic Kingdom with a different kind of ticket (Magic Your Way, Annual, Complimentary, etc.) you can either head back to the front of the Park to pick up your wristband or head over to the Stitch’s Great Escape FASTPASS machines in Tomorrowland to pick up your wristband.

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