Monday, March 14, 2016

Craft Room Redo: My Happy Place Right at Home

I didn't intend to take a long break from blogging.  I really didn't.  About a month ago, I decided to take on a little project of redoing my craft room closet.  And of course, like so many other things in my life, what started out as just a closet redo morphed into a much, much larger project that included the entire room, with the exception of painting the walls and replacing the flooring (both things I've dreamed about doing but it just wasn't in the budget).  And while I thought I would be able to get it done in about ten days, it ended up taking a full four weeks.  But I am so thrilled to say that it is DONE!  I've teased a lot about his project on Facebook, but now it's time for the total reveal.

First a little background, because that is just my style.  I've had my own craft room now about nine years, since we finished the basement at our previous house. I know I'm lucky. My current room is fairly large and I'm lucky again.  Most of the furniture in it came from other places in my house.  I have tried many, many different ways of organizing things over the years and since I am organizationally challenged, many of those ways have failed me terribly. I have figured out some things that work and have just stuck with them.  This is the time of year I always set out to make some changes.  I usually buy a few new containers and rearrange a few things and then run out of steam.  With this redo, I actually bought furniture specifically for my craft room and I pushed myself over the burn out phase to finally get it all done, exactly the way I wanted it to be.

Second, I am also a bit of a hoarder of craft supplies.  (I come from a long line of hoarders and I honestly try to fight it, but with craft supplies, I usually just give in).  I had boxes in the closet that had never been opened since our move to this house six years ago.  Inside those boxes were all the stuff I bought at the Making Memories warehouse sales and swaps from long ago Stampin' Up! Conventions.  It was a little embarrassing.  Especially when I found an envelope with swaps in it that had been looked at once and shoved in a box right before our move SIX YEARS AGO!  For the record, I donated a large box to the therapy center my boys go to and I have another box ready to go to them and another box ready for the DI.  And another box of class samples I need to find a home for besides my craft room.

Third, if supplies and tools are out of site, they are out of my mind and never touched.  That is why my new craft room does not look like a show place that you'll see on often on Pinterest.  I have a terrible habit if I can't find something I just buy a new one because that is easier than trying to dig through the mess to find it.  So I need most things to be visible and accessible and I need it to be easy to return the item to its home without too much fuss.

Also, I did 97% of the work myself. I was raised by a DIY Dad but my husband just doesn't even want to go there.  He's supportive and will help me move things around, but if I want something done, I pretty much have to do it myself. My drill is my BFF followed closely by a measuring tape and stud finder.  I do need to give a little credit to my thirteen year old son who did help me find studs and hang shelves when I needed an extra pair of hands.

And last, the lighting in my room is TERRIBLE!  It's the worst location in the entire house as far as lighting goes.  The room has one northeast window, but that window is under the deck so it's fairly useless.  When we first moved in, I had my cousin install some track lighting in the room and it does help, but it needs more (which I purchased and tried to install myself but apparently electrical is beyond my DIY ability).  So excuse the pictures.  I tried to Photoshop them the best I could to make them better.

So without further adieu, let's get started: 

First is my stamping table.  It sits in the far corner nearest the window.  This actually didn't change much in the redo.  Current Stampin' Up! stamps that I use the most sit at the back of my desk.  Along the walls, I have Bygel rails from IKEA that hold current Stampin' Up! punches and Bygel wire baskets that hold current Stampin' Up! Ribbon.  Those racks above my desk hold retired Stampin' Up! ribbon.  I also have baskets that hold Stampin' Up! embellishments that are on cards as well as another one that holds washi tape and thick baker's twine.  The table was one of the first pieces of furniture James and I bought when we first got married.  It's plenty sturdy and plenty beat up but it works very well for it's purpose.   And you'll notice my all time favorite paper cutter sitting prominently on my desk.  (There is even an extra one tucked into the closet in case something ever happens to this one).  This is the one paper crafting tool that will have to be pried from my cold dead hands.  I love it.  Tucked underneath the table are my garbage and recycling cans as well as my score boards and self-healing mats.

And the only truly new thing here is the pillow on my chair.  I used this tutorial to make a quick slipcover for a pillow form.  It really did only take me a few minutes (maybe closer to 15 since my ironing board is upstairs and my sewing machine had to be broken free from it's cage.


Working my way around the room from there, these sit right next to my table.  You can see I have my stamp pads in the Stampin' Up! Color Caddy and embellishments in the Stack & Store Caddies.  Current Designer Series Paper (and specialty paper) are in an Easy Access Paper Holder made by Cropper Hopper.  I buy these online from Joann and I absolutely love them for storing 12x12 printed paper.  Up above the window are pictures of some of my favorite people on the planet.  Many of them are people I've met through Stampin' Up! and it just makes me happy to see them smiling down on me.  And yes, these are the same Recollections craft cubes you buy at Michael's. I've managed to collect 14 of them over the years buying a few here and there when they are on sale. To dress them up, I used Mod Podge to apply paper to the front of them.  I just love how they turned out.  This is what they looked like before:

You can see that they got a bit beat up in our move so adding the paper to the front hides a lot of those scuff marks and gives them a lot more interest.  The paper is from a bunch of different places, but I found the easiest to use was the DCWV Project Stacks also at Joann because it was 11x17 (no seams). But I couldn't resist using other papers too just to give it more variety.


Next to that, I have this cabinet that holds even more ribbon. I love ribbon.  Can you tell?  We bought this cabinet and a matching armoire (which you'll see in a minute) for our family room in our old house and painted them red because it just seemed like the thing to do at the time.  I have been planning to repaint them since we moved to this house six years ago.  But I was never quite sure what I was actually going to do with them in this house until I moved them into my craft room.  They are the perfect addition to store all the things I've been hoarding.  I planned to paint them gray with an antique glaze.  Then my club gals came over and told me how much they loved the red.  Really?  So then I posted them on FB and asked for some crowd sourcing help.  The overwhelming response was to leave them red.  So I swapped out Calypso Coral for Cherry Cobbler in my color scheme and left them red.  It's kind of hard to tell in this picture, but I did spruce them up with an application of Antiquing Glaze.  And I swapped out the hardware for some I found at Hobby Lobby and painted to match the room with all-surface acrylic craft paint. Also hard to tell from this picture, behind all that ribbon, I hung a piece of fabric on the back of the cabinet using spray adhesive.  Just adds a touch of class to it.

Moving back towards the door, I have these Expedite shelves from IKEA (which are now called Kallax).  I've had the shorter set since I got my first craft room and added the second taller piece when we moved in to this house.  My room has a kind of odd shape to it.  These are actually in a narrow "hallway" that leads from the door into the main part of the room.  The space would be absolutely wasted in a bedroom.  But it works great for these shelves. I use them to store books, magazines, old catalogs, shipping supplies, and to display samples.  They don't look too neat and tidy, but this is a major improvement over the way they looked two weeks ago.  I promise.

Right across from those shelves is my "gallery wall."  And it was really hard to get a picture of this, but you get a general idea.  These are projects I made for blog hops, classes or received from other talented friends as swaps or gifts.  There is room to add even more should the need arise. Again, it makes me happy to see them all right here when I walk into my room.

Turning the corner back into the main part of the room is my stamp shelves and closet.  My stamps are stored on two Gnedby shelves from IKEA.  I actually acquired these from a neighbor who was getting rid of them a few years back when I was in the middle of one of my previous organizing endeavors.  They fit perfectly on that small section of wall between the closet and the hallway.  They were that lovely IKEA Brown Black (not that there is anything wrong with IKEA Brown Black, I have an entire library full of that color) that just didn't match the rest of the room, so I repainted them gray with Rustoleum Chalked Paint.  Took about three coats, but I am very happy with the way they turned out.

Now for the closet. The first thing I did was remove the doors.  They were constantly in the way of getting to the things inside.  I originally bought two ClosetMaid cabinets from the Home Depot to go in the closet, but they got reallocated to another project I'll show you in a minute.  So I found this customizable Besta unit at IKEA and I knew it was perfect.  This one has two of the shorter drawers on the top with two cupboards on the bottom.  I used the same painted hardware on them as on the red cabinets.  On top, I have more Easy Access Paper Holders and another shelf resting on them that holds these wire baskets from Target that I fell in love with (one holds vinyl, the other a mishmash of other rolls of stuff).  In those plastic drawers are basic sewing notions and such.  I just slipped some paper into the front of them to make them look a little fancier. I built the shelves on the side using the ClosetMaid system at Home Depot and had them cut sheets of melamine board to fit.  The containers came from Lowes and Home Goods.  I probably should have taken a before picture, but just picture a bunch of random boxes shoved in there that were basically inaccessible. And yes, I realized that center brace isn't centered.  That was already like that and no way was I going to move it.  I try not to think about it too much.
Turning the corner again, I added a peg board to the wall and another set of craft cubes.  I love the way this corner turned out.  I purchased the pegboard from Lowe's and painted it a shade lighter than Lost Lagoon.  To mount it to the wall, I used nuts to hold it away from the wall (although you can buy kits that included plastic spacers at Ace and Home Depot. I didn't discover that until after I mounted it to the wall).  In those frames on the pegboard are quotes about creativity.  The frames are thin unfinished wood that came from Hobby Lobby and I painted them gray.  The metal flowers also came from Hobby Lobby.  And I know it seems strange that I have a Christmas sign hanging from the middle of it, but I love that "Deck Everything" sign.  And I know what you're thinking.  Why would you put all of those tools way over there so far from your table.  Because remember those ClosetMaid cabinets I was telling you about before?

I think this might be the thing I am the very most excited about.  I have always wanted a counter-height workbench for the center of my craft room.  (If you follow me on Pinterest, you already knew that by the number of pins I have of such things).  For many years, I would frequently have a folding table right there anyway so it made sense to just build something a little more sturdy and permanent.  The idea is that this work bench is for wreath making and other general crafts to keep it separated from my stamping table (and my goal is to try to keep my stamping stuff from creeping over to this project workbench).  To make it, at each end is a ClosetMaid utility cabinets that I bought at Home Depot.  They are 24" wide and 36" tall, have a finished top and are designed to go in a garage or laundry room.  The table top is the 29-1/2" x 59"  Linnmon from IKEA.  To make it a little less permanent, the top is not actually attached to the cabinets.  Instead I used rug gripper strips applied to the ends of the table top to keep it from slipping around.  Inside this cabinet is my retired stamps and punches.  The other end houses paint supplies and a small hardware store.

The stools were upcycled from my kitchen.  Again, they were just basic saddle stools from IKEA (I don't know that they carry them anymore, but I've seen them all over the place).  I painted them gray and added padding and fabric to the top to cutify them.  (And yes, I made that word up.  Thanks for asking.)  I was inspired by this tutorial I found from Studio5.

Back to the wall. Next to the pegboard, I have this armoire.  It's kind of an odd size and in a lot of ways, it would work better if it were a few inches narrower.  Inside is my sewing machine and various floral decor supplies.  Again, I applied a coat of antiquing glaze to the cabinet and updated the hardware.  I just love how it turned out and I thought about moving it to a more prominent location in my house because it looks pretty darn amazing.  But really, I have no other space in my basement for it and James might leave me if I asked him to haul it up the stairs.  Haha!  The nice thing about how big it is: it's perfect for storing the long rolls of deco mesh:
Look!  There is even room for more!

Tucked back in the corner behind the armoire, I hung my stock of wreath forms and floral stems.  I used Variera Bag Holders from IKEA to hold the tall stems.  These come with foam tape on the back and throwing caution to the wind (and realizing that sooner or later the drywall in this room was going to need some repair), I taped them right to the wall.  The forms and other cans are hanging by Command hooks.

One final corner turn brings me to my card stock and Big Shot station.  I was fortunate enough to pick up this paper rack from Xpedx years ago when they were clearing out some of display items.  I store my 12x12 and over stock of 8-1/2" x 11 Stampin' Up card stock.  There is nothing worse than cutting for a class and discovering that you are out of a pack of paper.  So I try to keep one extra on hand, especially for the colors I use a lot.  And maybe two extras of Whisper White and Very Vanilla because I've been known to use more than one package to cut for a class before.  In the file box on top of the cabinet is where I store the open packages of current Stampin' Up! card stock organized by color families in hanging files.  I keep scraps in the same hanging file.  Otherwise, I would never use them.  Next to my Big Shot is a container to throw scraps in as I cut and go.  I'd like to think that I would simply put them back in the folders, but I know from experience that doesn't happen.  So to keep them from piling up on my desk, I slip them in there and then ever few weeks (months, ok, maybe years, eek!) I go through and file them.  Behind that is  plastic crate that holds current Big Shot dies, embossing folders, platforms and cutting plates.  I have the Thinlits and Framelits on magnet cards that I purchased from Stamp N Storage.  (I've made a few of my own too).  The cabinet itself was another recycled piece of furniture. My dad actually made this as a TV stand back when we still lived in an apartment.  I used mod podge to apply some paper to the front panels and painted the hardware to freshen it up.

On the inside doors of the cabinet are adhesive magnet sheets that hold the more basic Framelit shapes.  Inside the cabinet are more crates of retired Big Shot dies as well as the current Bigz L dies.  There is also room for my extra Big Shot to tuck away inside. 

So there you have it!  Right now, it makes me happy to just sit in there and do nothing.  It's almost too nice to actually use.  The real test will be to see if I can keep it clean (don't count on it, but it's a nice thought.) I probably should add a few more labels to things to help me along the way.  What do you think?

And while I'm still in project mode, I am moving right along to a quick redo of my guest room that is on the opposite side of the basement.  Hopefully that won't take me four weeks to finish since I have company coming sooner than that.  Stay tuned!


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Saving TIME on your Disney Vacation: Avoiding Lines and Keeping your Sanity

Maybe we could call this the prologue to my series on Saving Money on your Disney Vacations.  After all, time is money, right?  There is nothing worse that spending a small fortune on your vacation and then standing in line for most of it.

Unfortunately, going off season does not solve this.  I have seen surprisingly long lines at Disneyland and Walt Disney World when it was suppose to be off season.  One of the biggest reasons for this is that park isn't operating at full capacity on those off season days: roller coasters aren't running as many trains or a dual track ride is only operating one track. Disney also takes some of the most popular rides down for refurbishment in the off season, so lines for the remaining attractions are longer.  So these tips can help you anytime you go to a Disney park.

Several websites and books are dedicated to this topic.  I personally love the Unofficial Guide series brought to you by the same people who produce the Touring Plans website.  But I have also read several other good guide books to Disney parks.  I am not trying to replace those, but just give you a quick over view on some tricks and tips that have worked well for my family.

Arrive Early

I can hear you now.  "I'm on vacation! Why the heck would you want to get up early?"  Because arriving at the park at least 45 minutes prior to the stated opening time will put you ahead of all the rest of the vacationers who decided to sleep in.  I have arrived at the gates of Disneyland when it was still dark outside.   More than once.  And walking on to rides that generally have a 60 minute wait is worth it to me.

Let me give you an example from our last trip to Disneyland at the end of  July last year.  With the  60th anniversary celebration in full swing, it was very crowded.  And I really, really, really wanted to ride the newly enhanced Peter Pan ride.  So on Sunday morning, we got up bright and early and got to the park about 7:10 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. opening.  We were the second people in line at our gate.

Like most days at Disneyland, they opened the gates 15-20 minutes prior to the official park opening and but held the guests at the top of Main Street by ropes, (hence the name "rope drop.")  We were at the front of this group too.  At the official park opening time, a stampede of people headed straight for Peter Pan.  We didn't run (they ask you not) but we did walk briskly and got there somewhat near the front of the pack, but still had about a 15 minute wait for the ride.  But when I finished walking through the queue, this is what I saw behind me:

The ride literally went from 0-60 minute wait in the first two minutes the park was open.  I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it.

So get there early and then hustle around for those first couple of hours getting on rides as fast as you can.  Sure it's a little exhausting at first, but your can slow down once the crowds start to build and start using other strategies to avoid lines.

A word about Early Entry

At Disneyland, guests who stay at one of the Disney Resorts receive early entry each day of their stay and it switches between Disneyland and California Adventure each day.  Off site guests who have a 3-day or more Park Hopper also receive one early entry during their stay, but only on designated days at Disneyland (never California Adventure).

If you are an onsite guest, take advantage of the early entry mornings at California Adventure.  It's a great time to ride Toy Story Mania as many times in a row as possible.   However, the past several times we've done the Disneyland extra hour, it has been even more crowded than a regular rope drop day.  Especially because only a small section of the park (Tomorrowland and Fantasyland) are open to guests during that hour.  And the later that the extra hour is, the more crowded it will be.  More guests will get out of bed to make a 9 a.m. early entry than a 7 a.m. early entry. 

The best plan that we have found is to start our day at rope drop at the park that doesn't have early entry.  Then you really are among the first people in the park and can take advantage of shorter lines and less crowds.  This is especially true if you don't have access to early entry at all.  I would avoid the early entry park for the first hour or two the park is open at least.

Similarly at Walt Disney World, since a larger percentage of visitors stay onsite, often crowd trends follow the parks that have extra hours that day.  So you might be wise to start at a different park.

Have a Plan

Do you remember the vulture scene from the Jungle Book?  The one where they go back and forth asking each other "what we gonna do?"  "I dunno, what cha wanna do?"  It's a classic.  And I have heard it repeated so many times on a Disney vacation.  Meanwhile, the lines are just getting longer at the attractions everyone wants to do but no one will just decide what to do.  

No you don't have to plan out every second of your vacation and be so rigid about it that you can't change it midstream.  But for sanity's sake, make some kind plan to avoid looking like the vultures.  The best way to do this is to do a little research before you go to the park. Find out from your spouse and children what rides and attractions are their top priority.  If you've never been before, visit the Disneyland or Walt Disney World website and look at everything there is to do.  If you aren't sure if a ride is going to be too scary or intense for someone in your group, head over to YouTube and do a quick search for a ride video.


Your best bet is to start with the popular rides that don't offer FastPasses.  At Disneyland, these are Peter Pan, the Matterhorn and lately Alice in Wonderland (not the tea cups but the dark ride).  Dumbo is another one that is good to do early if it's on your list.  Fortunately, these are pretty close together. If the Fantasyland rides aren't on your list, then go straight to your favorite thrill ride: Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, Big Thunder Mountain, or Star Tours.  Even though these rides have FastPasses, if you goal is to ride them as many times as possible, get to them early.

At California Adventure, Toy Story Mania is the one ride that doesn't have FastPasses and frequently averages wait times over 45 minutes year round.  Other popular rides include Radiator Springs Racers (but like Peter Pan lines grows very quickly so FastPass is a better option), Tower or Terror, Soarin' and California Screamin', all of which offer FastPasses.

At Walt Disney World, FastPass+ changes things.  Focus on the popular rides for which you weren't able to get a FastPass+.  Then plug in other rides between your Fastpass+ reservations.

Don't want to come up with your own plan?  There are a few websites like Touring Plans and Ride Max that will do it for you with a paid subscription.

FastPasses

This is probably the single most effective tool to save time in the parks.  They are  essentially a reservation system for a specific time to return to go on a ride or see a show.  Everyone with a valid park ticket is eligible to use the system absolutely free.  And just to confuse things, the FastPass systems at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are completely different.

At Walt Disney World, they have FastPass+.  You reserve your ride times before you even get to the park, 60 days out for onsite guests and 30 days out for offsite guests.  In order to do so, you first must set up a My Disney Experience account on the Walt Disney World website and tie your tickets or magic bands to the account.   I think the system has it's merits, but it also really ties you down to deciding before hand where you are going to be on that day.  And while we used FastPass+ on our last trip to Walt Disney World, I feel like I still have a lot to learn about the system.

At Disneyland, FastPasses are distributed on a first come, first served basis for each ride each day when that ride is operational. To obtain a FastPass, visit the kiosks near the ride (except for Radiator Springs Racers which is near Tough to Be a Bug.)  If you aren't sure where to get a FastPass, just ask.  Insert your ticket into the machine and it will print out a ticket telling you when to return.  Be sure to get a FastPass for every member of your party who will be riding the ride.We find it easiest to have one person in our group hold all the tickets and be the FastPass runner.

Once you pull a FastPass, you cannot get another FastPass until your return time window opens up, or until two hours later, which ever comes first.  Your FastPass will say on the bottom what time you can obtain your next FastPass. However, you can only hold one FastPass for each ride at a time.  So if you pull a FastPass for Radiator Springs Racers at 9:05 with a 11:55-12:55 return time, you can pull a FastPass for another ride at 11:05, but not for Radiator Springs Racers again until 11:55.   However, if you pull a FastPass for Tower of Terror at 11:05 with a 12:30-1:30 return time.  You could pull another Fast Pass at 12:30.

Disneyland does enforce return times for FastPasses.  We have been able to use them 5 minutes before the official start time and I've heard there is a 10-15 grace period at the end, but that is totally at the discretion of the cast member.  You still might get turned away so better to be on time. However, if the ride went down during your window, you can return later in the day and use your FastPass.

If you have park hoppers, FastPass systems are disconnected from each other at the two parks.  So you could be at Disneyland and pull FastPasses for Space Mountain and then send one member of your party (with all the tickets) over to California Adventure to pull FastPasses for Radiator Springs Racers.  We frequently do this. It's a lot of walking, but think of how many more delicious Disney treats you can eat from burning off all those calories!  Also, FastPasses for the nighttime spectaculars, Fantasmic and World of Color are not connected to the ride system either and should be picked up early in the day.

So what should be your FastPast priority at each park?  At Disneyland, Space Mountain should be your top priority with Star Tours, Indiana Jones and Splash Mountain being the next most popular.  At California Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers should be your top priority.   Once Soarin' reopens, it will probably be very popular for the next couple of years so it should be near the top of your list too, followed by Tower of Terror and California Screamin'. If you are there when it's warm, Grizzly River Run should jump ahead of California Screamin' in priority.


Rider Switch Pass

Those darn height requirements can make it difficult for the taller people in your party to enjoy rides.  As one of the truly most family friendly places on the planet, Disney created a solution for this with the Rider Switch pass.  Most rides with a height requirement offers this option to keep your family from having to wait in line twice.  It's also a great way for the tallish people in your group to get on the ride multiple times in a row.   You can also use Rider Switch if you have children in your party who are tall enough to ride, but just don't want to for whatever reason.

To utilize this system, bring your entire party to the entrance to the ride and tell them that you need a Rider Switch pass.  Then one adult stays with those that aren't riding, and the other adult proceeds to the line with everyone else.  Then when the group gets off the ride, the adult that waited can take two additional people back with them on the ride (at Walt Disney World, I believe it's only one additional person).  Generally you join the FastPass line with your pass but a cast member can point you in the right direction.  The other nice thing about the Rider Switch pass is they don't expire until the end of the day so you can come back at any point and use it.

If you have a largish group with multiple small children, you can combine the FastPass and Rider Switch to get your more people on the ride multiple times.  When we went with my brother's family, we had 12 people in our group including two toddlers so we got 10 FastPasses for Radiator Springs Racers (no ticket for those under 3 means no FastPasses for them.  On rides with no height requirement, that doesn't matter.  They just go with your group).  We split into two groups and went to the cast member at the front with the toddlers, with each group asking for a Rider Switch pass. (If you go as one large group, they will only give you one Rider Switch Pass since it is good for three people).  Then eight people went on the ride using their FastPasses and two adults stayed behind with the toddlers.  When they returned, we still had 2 unused FastPasses, plus the Rider Switch Pass good for up to 3 people each.  So two adults stayed behind with the toddlers and everyone else got back on the ride with the ones that stayed behind the first time.
 
Single Rider Lines

Especially on the busiest days, Disney wants every seat on a ride occupied.  But parties with odd numbers make this harder.  So several of the most popular rides at Disney Parks offer a Single Rider option to keep the seats full. This is a great alternative if everyone in your group is over the age of 7.  (Disney policy states that a child under 7 must be accompanied by someone 14 or older while riding any attraction.  And yes, cast members do ask.  My smallish 10 year old constantly gets asked).

To take advantage of this, Just ask the cast member at the front of the ride for Single Rider slip and then jump in that line. Sometimes your group will still end up on the same ride vehicle, but you will not end up sitting together. Be sure to have a plan to reunite when you get off the ride.  And if you are doing it with children, it's nice if you have the option of having one adult go before everyone else and another adult as the last one so someone is always with the children.

Radiator Springs Racers is the most popular attraction for Single Riders, but other Disneyland Resort attractions include California Screamin', Goofy's Sky School, Grizzly River Run, Indiana Jones Adventure, Soarin' Over California, Matterhorn and Splash Mountain.  At Walt Disney World, only Test Track, Expedition Everest and Rockin' Roller Coaster offer this feature.

Take Breaks

No, taking breaks will not get you more time in the parks but they will help you make better use of your time in the park and save your sanity.  Once you've spent your morning running yourself raged, head back to your hotel and take a power nap or a dip in the pool or both.  It's amazing how much better your family will handle the late afternoon and evening crowds when you've taken a couple of hours away in the afternoon.

If your hotel isn't close enough to do this easily, you can do it without even leaving the park.  Take in a show where you will be off your feet and in the shade for a 30+ minutes (and maybe take a power nap).  Or you could visit one of the play areas like the Pirates Lair at Tom Sawyer Island or Redwood Creek challenge and sit on a bench and watch your children play.  The last time we went to Disneyland and didn't stay close enough for breaks, we spent a couple of hours in Downtown Disney eating lunch and just sitting and people watching.  Then we were refreshed enough to make it through to the fireworks show.

Feel the Magic

Sometimes Disney vacations feel like more work than fun.  If you start feeling like this, look around you and take in the magic.  Try to see the entire experience through the eyes of your children. If your own children aren't feeling it, look around at the others who are.  Strike up a conversation with the people in line in front of you. Take the time to truly thank a cast member.  Study the details of the park that are truly remarkable.  Get a Dole Whip and head for the Tiki Room.  Watch the fireworks and try not to cry.  (I dare you!)  These are the moments that make it worth every penny and sore feet.  I promise.  I'm crying just thinking about it.


I started this series of Disney Park posts because I have so many friends and family members constantly asking me questions about planning their Disney Vacations.  I don't mind that at all!  I love to share what I know because I want everyone to enjoy Disney the way I do.  (Or close to it anyway.)  Please let me know if you have other topics about Disney you want me to cover.  I'd love to help!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Saving Money on Your Disney Vacation Part 5: Dining


Let's make one thing perfectly clear: you will be hungry when you are at a Disney park.  I promise.  You may not be a munchy, snacky person in your normal day to day routine, but as soon as step onto Main Street USA, you might be overcome by an instant desire to eat everything in site. 

Some of it is just a natural function of your increased activity.  My all time record for steps in a day is 30k at Disneyland.  The rest is genius marketing on Disney's part.  I swear, they pipe delicious smells into the park so you are craving things you could normally pass up.  And Disney knows they have a captive audience in your children too.

And you'll pay a premium to satisfy those cravings and some how they almost always end up being extra tasty and leave you craving more.  It's almost ridiculous.  OK, not almost. You might even find yourself saying, "$4.25 for a churro?  That's a bargain!"  Yes, you can get a bigger churro at Costco for $1.  But I promise you the one at Disneyland just tastes better.  (Of course, it's been six months since I've been to Disneyland it's entirely possible those churros are $4.50 now.)

And then you should probably have a well-balanced meal at some point too.  You'll pay a premium for that as well.  So how do you save money, you ask?  Here's just a few ideas that are more geared toward Disneyland but could apply at Walt Disney World too:

Bring food with you: Yes, you do have to pass through at security check point to get into the park.  But they are NOT searching for food.  You can absolutely bring food into the parks with you.  The only restrictions are glass bottles.  We generally stock up on snack foods like the pouches of Nabisco cookies or cans of Pringles when they are on sale for $1, plus granola bars and fruit snacks and other things that are prepackaged and easy to carry.  Just some snacks to take the edge off when you are craving something sweet or salty. You could even bring your own lunch. Coolers larger than ones that would hold a six pack are not allowed in the park but according to the Disneyland website:
Guest can store coolers up to 18" wide x 25" high x 37" deep in rentable large lockers located outside the Disneyland Park Main Entrance. Lockers are not refrigerated and availability is limited.
Eat before you go to the Park: There are still a few hotels in the area that offer continental breakfast if that is your thing.  My personal opinion is they are not really worth it.  I am an impulse eater and can't pass up a doughnut or danish if they are in front of me, even if they are stale.  But I am perfectly satisfied by a bowl of cereal.  So we have started avoiding hotels with the breakfast and bringing our own cereal, milk, and fruit.  If you want a hot breakfast, there are several restaurants on Harbor across from the park that offer breakfast including a McDonalds and a Panera.  I promise you'll pay significantly less for an Egg McMuffin at Mickey D's than you will having breakfast with Mickey and Friends.

Eat one big meal a day: This worked better when our kids were small but it still sort of works now.  In general, we eat breakfast at the hotel and then a heavy snack around midday, a big meal around 3 or 4 p.m. and then another evening snack.   If we are going to a character breakfast, then we'll do it late in the morning and grab a corn dog or something smallish in the early evening. This is much more affordable than eating three sit down meals in the park.

Leave the park to eat: This definitely works better at Disneyland than Disney World.  One evening when we were at the park with my extended family, my kids were off riding Radiator Springs Racers with my cousin while I sat and ate dinner with my brother's family.  When my kids got off the ride, they told me they did not want to eat what was offered at that restaurant but wanted a hamburger.  We were pretty much done for the day so I took them to McDonalds instead.  They were happy and I saved some money.    Besides the McDonalds and Panera, there is a Mimi's, Tony Romas, IHOP, Pizza Press, Denny's and a non-chain buffet place (that I've never heard anything good about) just steps from the transportation plaza.  If you have a car, there are even more options down the road.   All will save you money over eating at he park. Also, most of the restaurants in Downtown Disney have a counter service option with decent prices.  And at Earl of Sandwich, also at Downtown Disney, nothing on the menu is over $7 and the food is good.

Share meals: Several not-to-miss dishes at Disneyland are larger than I could ever eat on my own.  Especially if an appetizer or dessert is in my plans.  For instance, we love the Monte Cristo sandwich at Cafe Orleans, but we also love the pomme frites and the beignets there.  So for our family of four, we order two Monte Cristos, an order of pomme frites and beignets and share among us.  Don't ask for a split plate because they will provide two sides and charge you extra.  Just ask for extra plates instead.  Another meal we love that can be shared is the famous fried chicken at the Plaza Inn.  Again, we order two plates of chicken and then a couple of extra side dishes and rolls to go with it.  Perfect for us. 

Check the menus before you go: several websites offer full menus of all eating establishments in the park including prices.  Touring Plans, Disboards, and All Ears are good places to start.  You can then review the menus before you even go so 1) you can pick the restaurants with food you and your family will actually like and 2) you can set a budget for the trip.  I have a confession to make.  We have never, ever eaten at The Blue Bayou or Carthay Circle, the two most iconic restaurants at Disneyland Resort  Want to know why?  Every time I look at the menus, I see nothing on them that really appeals to me and I know nothing would appeal to my kids either.  Are we missing out on an amazing dining experience?  Probably, but we have decided it isn't worth it.

Prioritize:  Yep, there is that word again.   It's OK to splurge on a big meal once or twice on your trip or even once a day if you have the budget.  Especially if you've been frugal the rest of the time.  If your children are young, take them to a character meal.  If they are a little older, try the Fantasmic or World of Color dining package.  Yes they are spendy, but you are on vacation and you deserve a splurge once in a while, again, if it's within your budget. 

Free Ice Water: When you consider it probably costs Disney about $.25 for that large soda for which it charges you nearly $4, maybe you can skip it.  However, a cup of ice water is absolutely free.  In fact, we've given up on packing water bottles around and have started to ask for cups of ice water at various snack establishments around the park instead.  

Think outside the box:  Have I mentioned how much I love churros?   But for not much more tan a single churro that you won't want to share, you can get an entire loaf of Boudin sour dough bread at the Pacific Wharf Cafe big enough for your entire group. My family loves to tear off hunks and eat it for a snack. 

Gift Cards: Don't forget the discounted gift card trick.   You can use Disney Gift Cards to pay for nearly everything at Disneyland, even food carts as long as they accept credit cards.  Then you can feel a little better about paying over $4 for a churro.

Walt Disney World Dining Plans: The conventional wisdom on Disney Dining plans has changed over the years.  When Disney first introduced these prepaid dining options at Walt Disney World, they were considered a great deal.  However, while there are still a few die-hard fans, most will admit they might not be the best value now unless you are getting them either free or discounted during a promotion.  And even then, not always. Why? Because sometimes the room only discount will save you more money.  I would suggest running the numbers for yourself and figuring out if it really is the best deal for you. When we went in January 2015, we took advantage of the Stay, Play and Dine package that included a regular dining plan consisting of one table service, one counter service and one snack credit for each of us over the five nights we stayed onsite.  I created a spread sheet before we booked to see how much money would spend on food if we weren't on the dining plan, guessing where we would eat and what we would order each day.  It came to about $600 which was approximately the difference between the Stay, Play and Dine package and the room only discount.  So for us it was worth adding the dining plan.  When I got home, I ran all the numbers and discovered we ate about $1000 worth of food that was covered by the dining plan.  Now we ate much differently on the dining plan than we would have without it: more table service meals, more soft drinks, and no meal sharing or taking into consideration the cost of a menu item before we ordered it. 

So what should you eat when you go to a Disney park?  I don't want to go into that today or this post will be WAY too long.  Of course I have my own opinions, but I would love to hear yours as well.  Post them in the comments below and I'll include them in my future post about Disney Park Food.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saving Money on your Disney Vacation Part 4: Disney Cruise Line

I honestly have been working on this post for almost a week.  But it's been a very busy week at our house so it's taken me this long to get it finished and posted.

From the time I was just a little girl watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings, I have always loved Disney.  But it wasn't until I went on my first Disney Cruise that I really began to appreciate just how amazing the Walt Disney Company really is.  I know, it's just a business, in it to make lots of money for its shareholders.   And lots of people will say it went away from Walt's original vision many, many years ago.  But this one quote by Walt Disney sums up everything I love about a Disney vacation: 
"Disneyland really began when my two daughters were very young. Saturday was always Daddy’s Day, and I would take them to the merry-go-round, and sit on a bench eating peanuts, while they rode. And sitting there alone, I felt there should be something built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together.”
And the Disney Cruise Line has followed this same vision.  It knows families.  It anticipates what families need and want and it caters to the entire family.  Kids clubs? They are spectacular! Adult only areas? Also amazing.  Worried about how your children might behave in the dinning room?  They won't be the only kids there, and the wait staff know how to keep them happy.  And I think my favorite part was not worrying about what content might be included in the evening entertainment:  all family friendly but still entertaining.

I knew we made the right choice within 30 minutes after we boarded our first Disney cruise.  Spencer has always been a very anxious child and getting on the ship freaked him out.  We had gone straight to the lunch buffet and he was getting himself very worked up about everything from his food allergy to the safety of the ship.  James happened upon a uniformed crew member and asked him if he would stop by our table.  He came over and introduced himself to Spencer, got right down at his level and talked to him about the ship and its crew.  Then he got on the phone and double checked that Spencer's allergy was noted on our reservation and he called our head waiter and told him to take extra special care of Spencer and his family.   He also told Spencer to be sure to come up and say hello to him when ever he saw him on board. Turns out this uniformed crew member was the officer in charge of food services for the entire ship.  That an officer, who must have had a million things to do right at that moment, would take the time to talk to an anxious child reaffirmed everything I love about Disney to me.  (And he did say hello to Spencer whenever he saw him on board and even called him by name.)  And that was just one magical moment of a very magical week on board the Disney Wonder.  And one year ago this week, we were aboard the Fantasy for an equally magical voyage.

I could write an entire post about how detailed and beautiful the ships are. They are masterpieces in Art Deco and Art Nouveau styling.  Disney has thought of everything and they never do anything half way.  And Disney also has it's own beautiful private island in the Bahamas that is not to be missed.
Castaway Cay
 But like everything Disney, you can pay a premium for the level of service and detail. Disney Cruise line is very small compared to all the other well known lines.  It only operates four ships: two smaller ships called the Magic and the Wonder and two larger ships called the Dream and the Fantasy. Compare this to Royal Caribbean and Carnival which both operate around two dozen ships.  A smaller line means that Disney can keep quality and the level of service very high but it also means it can keep prices high too.  And the price just keeps going up.  I don't blame Disney at all for that. Staterooms continue to sell out at those prices, so why should it stop raising prices? It is a business after all.

If you want to book a Disney Cruise, it might help to know how Disney allocates its ships. Historically, the Wonder spends the summer in Alaska, fall in California and Texas and winter and spring in Florida and Puerto Rico.  The Magic does European itineraries in the summer and generally sticks to Florida the rest of the year with a few special itineraries out of places like New York or Puerto Rico.  The larger ships sail out of Port Canaveral with the Dream handing short 3-4 day Bahamian itineraries and the Fantasy doing 7 day Caribbean itineraries.


It's easy to get sticker shock when you see the price of a Disney Cruise.  There is some value hidden in those numbers if you consider everything it includes: a well appointed (although small) state room; all the food you would ever care to eat, pretty much available whenever you want it (including pizza and ice cream for the young or young at heart); all the soda pop you can drink (most cruise lines charge you for this); first run movies, including premiers if you happen to be on board when a film from any of the Disney brands is released; family-friendly Broadway-style musicals; deck parties with fireworks on some sailings; extensive youth activity program for those 3-18; a water roller coaster on most of the ships; amazing personal service from your stateroom steward and wait staff; nonstop games and other family entertainment; etc. etc.

All the food you'd ever care to eat, including ice cream!
So what isn't included?  Gratuities, alcoholic and other specialty beverages, shore excursions, photos, bingo, specialty dining and a few other on board experiences like the spa, and child care for those under 3.  The only mandatory thing that isn't included in your base price is gratuities (and some travel agencies charge you for these up front anyway).  It is possible if you prepay those to not owe the cruise line another dime when you disembark.
 
So now, let's get down to the nitty gritty of saving a buck or two on your cruise.  I do have a few suggestions to consider:

Cruise Off Season

I mentioned this in my post about the basics, but it is even more true for a cruise than it is for the theme parks.  Because Disney caters to families, it knows it can charge more anytime that school is out of session. Expect to pay double for the same cruise itinerary on the same ship in July as in January.  For what it is worth, I recommend taking a cruise with your children when you can still easily pull them out of school to do it.  One of the reasons we don't have another cruise booked is because we have a junior high student on traditional schedule who doesn't do well making up work.

Book Early

Disney prices only go up, with one exception that I'll get to in a minute.  Opening day prices are almost always going to be the very cheapest rates you are going to pay for a Disney Cruise.  As staterooms are booked in a category, prices start to creep up.  Yes, this means you need to plan 14-19 months in advance.  The next batch of cruises that will be released will be Summer 2017. If history is any indication, that will happen sometime in the second half of March with the rest of the year coming in mid-May and the first part of 2018 released in early-October.  You can follow Disney Cruise Lines on Facebook to see these when they are announced or sites like the Disboards or DisneyCruiseLineBlog often will have the information a day or two ahead of the release date too.

Should you wait for a Kids Sail Free or other special to book?  No. Disney has not offered a Kids Sail Free promotion since early 2013 and that was limited to a few sailings out of Galveston.  Again, the staterooms are selling just fine without that kind of promotion so why should they offer it?  The only general, non-restricted specials I've seen in the past couple of years are for lower deposits.  So you are paying the same over all, you just have to put less down at the beginning.

However, if by some small chance the price of your sailing does decrease before the paid-in-full date, you can rebook at the lower rate.  Once your paid-in-full date happens, you will probably lose more in penalties than you'd save by booking any special last minute deals.   

Last Minute Bookings

And now for the exception.  For the past few years, the only discounted rates Disney has offered to the general public have come AFTER the paid-in-full date for that cruise has past.  Generally, they offer a special rate to military personal and Florida residents first and if there are still unsold state rooms, then to the general public.  So I would not book a flight to Florida months in advance hoping to catch one of these last minute rates on Disney because they may or may not come up.  I have also heard that frequently, you aren't saving much over those that booked on opening day, even with these rate, although that will vary depending on the time of year.  These rates are for general room categories (inside, ocean view, balcony) so you can't pick you stateroom or even the deck it will be on.  And you may not even have a stateroom assigned to you until right before you board.  You also run the risk of missing out on booking the more popular amenities like special dining opportunities or excursions since you are trying to book these after everyone else has had the chance. 

Travel Agency Perks

Unlike other cruise lines, Disney strictly controls the cost of their staterooms.  It also doesn't sell blocks of staterooms at a discount like some other cruise lines do. This means that you pay the same price if you book the cruise directly through Disney or through a travel agency.  However, different travel agencies offer different perks, mostly consisting of shipboard credits.  Some offer more than others.   Instead of a shipboard credit, Costco Travel offers a rebate in the form of a Costco Cash Card based on the price of your cruise.  It's between 7-8% of the cost of your cruise. I am not aware of any other travel agency's shipboard credit that comes even close to that. To me, it's the best deal going.  After our last cruise, we used the cash card towards a new TV that we'd been planing to  buy for a long time.

Fill Your State Room

Stateroom prices are based on two adults in the same stateroom.  If you cruise alone, you will pay the price of two adults (minus taxes and port fees on the second fare).  If you are the only adult in your stateroom traveling with children, one of the children will pay the full adult price.  Additional people traveling in the same stateroom are always charged less and if they are children ages 3-12, you are charged even a little less.  Most staterooms are designed for four people with a queen-sized bed, a couch that converts to a narrow single bed, and a bunk-type bed that pulls down from the ceiling.  There are a few rooms on each ship that only sleep three and a few other rooms that accommodate a fifth person in another fold down bed. 


Onboard Booking

Once you are on your cruise, you should seriously consider booking another cruise before getting off the ship.  Disney offers a 10% discount on cruise fares (with a few holiday and special sailings blocked out), a discount on your deposit and an shipboard credit of $100-200 depending on the length of the cruise.  Not sure when you want to cruise again?  Disney offers a "place holder" option for a $250 deposit.  This can be applied to any future cruise within 24 months of booking.   You can name your travel agency when you book to get whatever perks it offers as well.   And there is no penalty to cancel if you decide not to go on another cruise. Simply cancel for a full refund. 

Don't forget the Gift Card Trick

See, this is why I made that part one of this series about buying discounted Disney Gift Cards.   It really is the key to saving the most money.  You can pay for your entire cruise fare with discounted cards if you don't mind reading off all those numbers to your travel agent or cruise line representative.  You can also use the discounted gift cards to cover any extras in your shipboard account.  We generally put a set amount on our account when we first board the ship and then settle the account on the last day.  Just be sure to hang on to those gift cards. If there is anything left over in your account, they are credited back to the original card.


Do Your Research

There are several sites around the web that can help you pick the right Disney Cruise for you and your family.  Of course, the Disboards has a Disney Cruise Line information page and a discussion forum full of questions and answers.  However, I would start with these:

For general information, visit Disney Cruise Line Blog (not affiliated with Disney Cruise Line) for a plethora of details about each ship and itinerary.  I love that the site has menus and Personal Navigators (the ship's daily schedules of activities) from previous cruises so you can see what food and activities might be available on your cruise.

For information on pricing, visit Cruise Fish.  On the left side of the screen, you will see a list of Disney ships.  If you click on each ship, you will see the different itineraries that ship cruises.  Click on an itinerary and you'll see dates that ship is sailing it.  If you click on each of those, you'll see how much the price each category has increased since the first room was sold and how many of the stateroom categories are sold out (the percentages listed).


Our Disney cruises were by far my two favorite vacations we've ever taken.  I would highly recommend it to other families.  If you have questions, post them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them in a future blog post.

Disclosure: I am not affiliated with the Walt Disney Company or any of the other mentioned companies or websites in any way (other than memberships available to the public).  I receive nothing from these posts but the satisfaction of helping others enjoy the magic as much as I do.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Saving Money on Your Disney Vacation Part 3: Lodging and Tickets

I'm back with some more thoughts on saving money on your Disney vacation.  I originally planned to post this on Friday, but my life got in the way.  Sorry! We are in the middle of planning our epic summer road trip and it is taking a long time to plan.  But more on that another day.

Today I'm going to talk about lodging and tickets and whether you should book them together as a package or separately.  The easy answer (or not so easy as the case maybe) is it depends.   I know, that's not the answer you were looking for but read on and I'll try to explain. Over the years, we've booked packages with various travel agencies including AAA, Costco, GetAwayToday and another local travel agency.  We've also booked each piece individually on our own using online travel sites.  We've also stayed onsite and offsite at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.  Once again, I'm here to say there is no right or wrong way to do it.   But I'll share a bit about all our experiences and try to be as concise as possible.

Also, this post is just about theme park vacations.  I have much more experience with Disneyland than Walt Disney World but I'll share a bit about both.  I'm working on an entire post on Disney Cruise Line I'll share soon.

Lodging at Disneyland

In a perfect world, we would always stay at the Grand Californian (or even the Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier) at Disneyland.  Being fully immersed in the Disney bubble is awesome.  And you can't beat the location or the bonus extra hour perk for onsite guests.  But let's face it, the world is not perfect and if we spent that kind of money, we'd go a lot less.

For years, I feel like we've tried to find the perfect balance of location and cost for lodging at Disneyland.  I've tried to do it as cheap as possible (let's not talk about the terrible mattresses my friends and I could not fall asleep on one night when we got a great deal on Hotwire).  We've used Hilton Points to stay at Embassy Suites South which is just fine, but no where near the parks.  If you forgot your sweatshirt, you'll lose an hour of park time to go get it.

We finally came up with our preferred location: on Harbor between Manchester and Disney Way and as close to the crosswalk to the transportation plaza as you can possibly get.  We have friends who don't mind walking a little further and pick between Manchester and Katella.  I like to be as close as possible. And there are a dozen or so motels right there so you have some choices.  The one we have stayed at the most is the Tropicana Inn & Suites.  But Disneyland regulars all have their favorites.  Our family must have queen beds instead of doubles, so it limits our choices a bit.  Some motels right there even offer family suites that sleep up to 8 people if you need that.

To get the best deal, I will often start with a site like Kayak or Orbitz to get an idea which hotels have the best price.  Then I always visit the website for that hotel to make sure they aren't offering an even better rate.  For instance, the Tropicana Inn & Suites website often has the best deal for trips of five nights or more.  Orbitz with a promo code (often featured on its homepage) is often a better deal for a shorter trip. 

Lodging at Walt Disney World

Now Walt Disney World is another story completely. Walt Disney World is bigger than the city of San Francisco. I have also heard that the entire Disneyland Resort would fit into the Magic Kingdom parking lot.  That's a lot of real estate to cover without a car.  So for us, it boils down to staying off site and renting a car or staying on site and using the transportation system to get around.

The nice thing about onsite at Walt Disney World is you have a lot of options at many different price points.  The value resorts offer over-the-top themes and start around $100 a night for two double beds depending on when you go.  Some even have family suites, featuring a queen and two double pullouts.  Watch for seasonal discounts and promotions. In the off season, they can be as high as 30% off.  We chose the Port Orleans Riverside Resort last year because of the queen bed issue.  It's considered a Moderate resort and we would stay there again under the same circumstances.
If your Orlando plans call for visiting Universal Studios or one of the other non-Disney amusements,  then staying off site might make more sense.  There are hundreds of vacation rentals available in the greater Orlando area. everything from condos to large houses with pools.  And they are usually a very good deal compared to staying in a hotel, especially if you have a larger family or are traveling with a large group.  And how nice is it to have access to a kitchen and washer and dryer on vacation?

A Word about Disney Vacation Club

You might be wondering if we go to Disney parks so much, why aren't we Disney Vacation Club members?  We did sit through the sales pitch and even met with an agent who really tried to convince us that it was going to save us a lot of money in the long run.  If you go to Walt Disney World annually and always stay in a deluxe resort, then you will see savings by purchasing a Disney Vacation Club membership. Otherwise, to me, the math doesn't add up.

Since we primarily visit Disneyland and generally stay offsite, the annual maintenance fees are more than it would cost us to stay in our offsite hotel of choice.  Would it be nice to stay in a villa at the Grand Californian?  Sure, but it's not easy to book them since they are the only DVC property at Disneyland.

If you want to try it out, or even if you just have a larger group traveling who wants to stay onsite in a deluxe resort, you can rent points from an owner.  Just be sure you are doing it from a reputable site.  I don't have first hand experience with this so I'd recommend checking out one of the many threads on the Disboards if you want more information.

Tickets

What your mom always told you applies here double: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Do yourself a favor and never buy tickets off of Craigslist or eBay or any other classified site.  You have no way of knowing if these are real tickets until you are standing at the gates trying to use them.  If they don't work, you're out the money you paid for them, plus now you have to buy full price tickets at the park.


There are legitimate travel agents that sell discounted tickets to Disneyland and Walt Disney World.  In general, these discounts are going to be about 5-8%.  If the discount is more than that, be VERY skeptical.  You are likely dealing with an unauthorized seller or you are going to have to sit through a lengthy time share presentation before you actually get your tickets.

So where can you buy them? The last time we bought out tickets separately, we bought them from Velocity Tours.  I was a bit concerned because they were fairly new in the Disney ticket arena, but they are physically located in my county and that eased my mind a bit.They turned out to be totally legitimate and even called me to follow up on the tickets.  And when I had a question, I called them and they were very helpful.

Other popular sites include Orbitz, Way.com, Undercover Tourist, aRes and Getawaytoday. Each of these sites has different deals at different times and different availability of tickets.  I would check them each and see what they have and which has the best deal for when you are going.

But none of those deals can beat buying your tickets from Disney directly if you are using the discounted gift card trick. If you have time to accumulate enough gift cards to cover the price of your tickets and your spending money in the park, then you will save the most money that way.

Park Hoppers or One-Park-Per-Day

Again, it depends.  At Disneyland, we always get hoppers.  The parks are directly across a plaza from each other and it's so easy just to hop on over to the other park.  This is especially nice during peak times of the year when the parks are very busy.  Disneyland has very tight corridors and does not absorb crowds very well.  However, California Adventure was designed with crowds in mind.  When I start feeling claustrophobic at Disneyland, we just hop over to California Adventure. However, if you are going on a short trip and are on a budget, you can certainly choose to save a little money and just buy the one-park-per-day tickets.

At Walt Disney World, we've never purchased hoppers.  Again, remember how big the resort is.  It takes some serious time to get between the parks, especially if you are relying on Disney transportation.  If you are planning to be there for a full week, and have your own car, than hoppers might be a good idea.  Otherwise, save the money and just pick one park each day to visit.

Packages or Purchasing Separate

So now, we are finally getting somewhere.  I mentioned before that we've done it both ways.  So how do I decide for each trip? Spreadsheets.  I'm kind of a nerd this way.  Once I figure out when we're going, I decide which perks are really important to me and whether this is a budget trip, or a bit of a splurge.  Then I visit every website under the sun (really only four or five) to figure out the best deals and chart them all on a spreadsheet so I can see it all clearly.

Here is a peak at a spreadsheet for hypothetical trip to Disneyland over spring break, March 28-31, for my family of four, (who are all adults in Disney's eyes).  Three nights of hotel and four days of park hoppers.   Just for the fun of it, I ran the numbers for a standard room at the Paradise Pier Hotel which is onsite, the Anaheim Fairfield Inn and the Tropicana Inn and Suites, both offsite on Harbor across from the park. This really only took me about 30 minutes to do, so it isn't a huge amount of time to invest to save a buck or two. (Click on it it see it a bit bigger and clearer). 
Looks like booking separate pieces on my own would clearly save me the most money.  But keep in mind, if I book through Disney, or a Disney Travel affiliate (which includes Costco), I can use discounted Disney Gift Cards to pay for the total which could bring it down to the same price or even less than booking on your own.  Plus if I decide to stay at the Fairfield or Paradise Pier, Costco throws in a premium Character Meal and a $40 gift card as a bonus which could tip the scales.  (Costco does not book value packages, including the Tropicana Inn and Suites).

If however, you don't have enough time to use all those fuel points to realize the savings and a character meal is not up your alley, you can see that booking on your own is clearly saving you money.  And the Internet makes it so easy to do and is generally pretty quick.  Just print out your confirmation sheets or save them to your mobile device so you can keep track of your dates and numbers.

Hopefully you've found some useful information to help you plan your next Disney park vacation.  Check back for even more savings tips soon!