Disney World Part I: Where We Stayed, Some Practical Info, and Hei Hei

Here’s my first in what I hope will be a long line of travel-related posts! After launching the site, I rewarded myself by going to Disney World. (OK, it was planned months ago and my launch was strategically rushed so I could fit in these here blog posts.) I’ll admit that my family and I are pretty big Disney fans. Our house had the movies and songs on repeat, and we had the fortune of making a trip to a Disney park nearly every year. Until Shanghai Disneyland opened up last year, I had been to every Disney park in the world.

This was my first trip back to Disney World since 2009 and a lot had changed since that last visit — the new Fantasyland expansion, introduction of both Fastpass+ and Magic Bands, a whole lot more Star Wars stuff, just to name a few. I went with family members spanning three generations, and it was really great to have that spectrum of Disney experiences. It was especially great to see the younger generations’ reaction and think back on my earlier trips.

A 7-day blow-by-blow probably isn’t very interesting, so I’ll keep my posts to highlights. There are countless, more extensive Disney blogs and sites out there, too, and I have no intention to try to compete with them in terms of content.

Where We Stayed — Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort

We happen to be Disney Vacation Club members, and Bay Lake Tower is our “home” resort. The Contemporary has always been pretty cool — a very distinct building that also had the Monorail going through it. Bay Lake Tower is a relatively new addition specifically for Vacation Club Members. Its cylindrical shape is quite the contrast to the pyramid shape of the main building, and the interior seems more updated than the main building as well. It also has a members-only rooftop lounge called Top of the World, which was a great place to cap our first night after a long day of flying.

I didn’t get any good pictures of our room, unfortunately, but it was a great place to come “home” to, especially after long days of walking in the park. We had a 2-bedroom villa, equipped with a kitchen and washer/dryer which help stretch both our food budget and our wardrobes. And we had a great view of the Seven Seas Lagoon where you could see the nightly water parade — an old favorite of mine from when I was a kid.

The Contemporary has a number of dining/recreation options and other amenities too. A stay at the Contemporary wouldn’t have been complete without a character breakfast buffet at Chef Mickey’s, and the Contempo Cafe was great for days when we wanted a hearty but quick breakfast. (More about food in Part 2) To work off said breakfast, there is a 1-mile running trail that goes around the grounds (and can be very nice around sun-up) and a fitness center. The Fitness Center is small but it has cardio machines and free weights which you can get a pretty decent workout from, and I doubt that you want a workout that’s too rigorous while you’re on vacation anyway.

A couple of the best benefits of the Contemporary? Walking distance to Magic Kingdom and easy access to the Monorail. The Monorail only goes in one direction and, starting with the Contemporary, it takes you to The Transportation and Ticket Center, The Grand Floridian, the Polynesian, the Magic Kingdom, and back to the Contemporary. It’s a quintessential Disney experience and we kicked off our first park day with a slow steady ride around the Seven Seas Lagoon. However, if you’re trying to get to Magic Kingdom quickly, you’re better off walking. It’s only about 10 minutes and you avoid all the crowds waiting for buses and the Monorail.

MagicBands, Fastpass+, and the My Disney Experience App

All new to me since my last Disney World trip: MagicBands, Fastpass+, and the My Disney Experience app. I’ve gotta say I was pretty impressed with all of it, but I had to do a fair amount of prep. (Well, I have issues with Fastpass+ which I’ll get to later.)

The MagicBands were super convenient and enabled some pretty neat ride enhancements. It was almost enough to make me forget that they were basically weird Disney tracking devices. For those not familiar with them, they are wristbands that act as your hotel key and hold your Fastpasses and credit card (if you are so inclined). One wristband to rule them all means you can travel around the parks really lightly. Farewell, days of fanny packs and key card lanyards! On the flipside, they hold a lot of data, which can be unnerving and stressful in the event that you lose it.

MagicBands also have a ton of enhancements. For example, on the Haunted Mansion, the hitchhiking ghost who chose my doom buggy held up a sign that said “California, here I come!” On It’s a Small World, signs flashed with “goodbye” in various languages and my party’s names. On newer rides, it also tracked where your picture was taken. Older rides require you to touch your Magicband to a PhotoPass station, and it’s quite a stretch from the old days where you had to remember a number and tell that number to a human being.

Fastpass+ was convenient too but I definitely haven’t figured the system out, and part of me is still weirded out by the fact that I can know exactly when I’ll be riding Dumbo over a month in advance. With Fastpass+ you can book 3 attractions per day up to 60 days in advance of your arrival. After you’ve used your first 3 Fastpasses, you can get more at kiosks or through the app. I don’t think I booked far ahead enough (couldn’t get a Fastpass for the newly opened Seven Dwarves Mine Train or Frozen Ever After), and I don’t know if I picked the right strategy. It seems you can either a) optimize for favorite rides at any time of day or b) pick any available rides early in the day so you can get more Fastpasses as the day goes on. I went with a) for the most part.

For the longest time, I relied on MouseWait for my Disney trips. But My Disney Experience gives you ride and show times, and does so much more. In the same way Apple gets you hooked on all its products by connecting them all together, Disney linked MagicBands, PhotoPass, and Fastpass+ all to one app for easy management.

Hei Hei

My new favorite Disney sidekick is Hei Hei from Moana. (Probably because I keep chickens, myself.) In keeping with the Disney spirit, I found Hei Hei in Adventureland and carried him around in my Fjallraven backpack throughout the trip for all the Disney adventures. He was quite a hit! Even Mulan stopped and talked to me about him. So, if you’re looking for a conversation starter at the parks or just want a new travel companion, try carrying him around with you!

Continue reading about my Disney trip in Part 2 which covers the parks.

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