Thursday, April 19, 2012

Walt Disney World trip planning for races

With two weeks to go, I finished the last piece of planning for my trip to Walt Disney World by buying my park tickets. Now all that's left is figuring out what to pack for hot and humid Florida weather.

I know there are tons of WDW trip planning resources out there, but since I don't have much else to blog about at the moment, I'll share a few of my tips and preferences for traveling to WDW for a destination race. Note that this post doesn't apply to marathon weekend in January. Since 2008 I've been to WDW seven times for races but never for the marathon yet.

At WDW for the inaugural Expedition
Everest Challenge in 2008

The first step for me is always picking my dates. I've taken trips ranging from three to 11 days. In general, I prefer to plan my dates with the race falling in the middle of trip. That gives me enough time to get acclimated to the weather and be there for the first day of packet pick-up. I also like to leave at least a day after the race to eat whatever I want and enjoy the parks without worrying about tiring out my legs or getting back to hotel early enough for a good night's sleep.

The next step is usually the hotel. I've never actually encountered a situation where the hotel I wanted sold out, but I still want to get a reservation secured just in case. Since I always fly to WDW, I prefer to stay "on-property" and use Disney transportation rather than "off-property" where I'd have to rent a car. From my past experiences, there are at least three Disney-owned hotels that have been designated as "host hotels". The reason to stay at a host hotel is because there will be buses to take you to and from the expo and race. If you're not at a host hotel then you're on your own as far as transportation. I was at a non-host hotel once and took a taxi to the race. It wasn't too expensive (maybe $15-$20), but overall I just find it more convenient to be at a host hotel.

All Star Sports is usually a host hotel

There are special rates at the host hotels for race participants, however sometimes you can find better deals that are open to the general public. It all depends on your dates and length of stay. For example, with my upcoming trip if I was to stay only Friday and Saturday night then it would be best to go with the race rate of $95/night versus the $101.60/night that I'd get if booking under the Spring Room Only Offer that Disney was running. However, since I'm staying five nights I can get a better deal of $85.60/night for three of the nights. Doing the math shows that with the race rate it would be $475 ($95 x 5), but with the Spring Room Only Offer it would be $460 ($85.60 x 3 + $101.60 x 2). Sure it's only a $15 difference, but every penny counts.

Getting To and From Orlando
Like I mentioned above, my only experience has been flying into Orlando. I'm not going to get into finding the best airfare since that's not specifically Disney-related. But whether you're flying or driving it's good to think about what time you'll be arriving and leaving because it'll help determine how many days of park tickets to buy.

Most of the time I don't bother to enter the parks on my arrival and departure days. If the timing works out, I may go to the Expo that first day. Otherwise there are plenty of other things to do at WDW outside the parks. Some of my favorites include going to the monorail resort area for dinner at the Polynesian Resort, a viewing of the electrical water pageant, and a walk along the beach; going to the Boardwalk area for breakfast at Kouzzina or lunch at Beaches & Cream; shopping at Downtown Disney; or playing a round of mini golf.

The electrical water pageant from the beach
at the Polynesian Resort.

I guess one other thing I should mention is that when you fly into Orlando and are staying on-property, Disney offers free transportation to and from the airport. It does take a little longer but I like the convenience of not having to get a rental car or arrange transportation through another company.

Park Tickets
Another perk for race participants (and family and friends) is discounted park tickets. The only time I haven't found the discounted park tickets to be the best deal was during my 11 day trip when I went with my family and we took advantage of a special vacation package offer. After registering for the race, the confirmation email includes a code that you'll need to enter the online ticket store. I haven't asked recently, but I think you can purchase the discounted tickets up until something like a week before the race.

One thing to note is that in addition to being non-refundable, the discounted tickets are also non-upgradable. What this means is that you can't make any changes to the tickets after they're purchased so it requires a little more planning. That's why they're usually the last thing I buy. Unlike regular tickets, you have to decide ahead of time exactly how many days you need and whether you want to add on any options for park hopping or visits to the water parks.

When you purchase the tickets there's an extra fee to have them mailed to you in advance. I'm cheap so I always go with the free "will call" option instead. Plus that way I don't have to worry about losing them. In the fine print, it states that you have to go to one of the theme parks to pick up your tickets. But unless this has changed recently, you can also get your tickets from the Customer Service location in Downtown Disney. If you're planning to go to Downtown Disney anyway on your first night, this is a good way to save some time rather than waiting in line the next morning.

Race Registration
I probably should have included this earlier up in the post, but oh well. Even when I've made up my mind to run a race, I still like to hang on to my money as long as possible before registering. If you're like me, then there are a couple dates that you'll want to keep in mind. First, Disney uses a tiered pricing scheme for their key races so you'll probably want to register before the first price increase. Second, if you've already passed the window for the lowest registration fee, or if you're looking at the family fun runs which don't change in price, then make note of the last day you can register and still receive a personalized race bib.

Basically Disney has two types of restaurants - table service and counter service. Table service restaurants (which include buffets) are usually either better quality food or offer a unique experience that goes beyond just the food. If you have your mind set on going to a specific restaurant then you'll need to make a reservation in advance. That's not to say that you can't get into a table service restaurant without a reservation, but there's no guarantee. The good thing is that races are held during non-peak times of year so if you're flexible there should be something available except at the most popular restaurants.

Sushi at Tokyo Dining in Epcot

This time around I haven't made any dining reservations because I didn't feel like doing all the advance planning. Plus it's cheaper to stick with counter service, and there are a lot of good options around WDW, especially at Epcot. A tip that I just learned recently is that at counter service restaurants you can order menu items without sides for a slightly lower price. For example, if the menu shows a sandwich and chips for $10, you can ask for just the sandwich and it'll be something like $8 instead. I'm definitely going to be trying this because most meal combos are too much food for me and I'd rather save room for dessert!

Another good tip, especially for runners since it's important to stay hydrated, is that you can walk up to any location that has fountain drinks and ask for a cup of water. I like this better than carrying a water bottle around all day. Disney is also really good about having a lot of water fountains around the parks so if you do carry a watter bottle it's easy to fill up throughout the day.

Most recent trip to WDW for the
Expedition Everest Challenge in May 2011

So this was just an overview of some of the things I've learned over the past four years. If you're thinking about doing a Disney race or planning a Disney trip and have questions, let me know and I'll do my best to help!


  1. I love Disney!! You're going to have so much fun :) Hey have you ever considered their meal plans? I used one last time and it saved a lot of money!

  2. The website is looking bit flashy and it catches the visitors eyes. Design is pretty simple and a good user friendly interface. the fountains resort orlando