If you paid attention to the calendar screen shots in my post yesterday, you already know how I took advantage of my kids having no school last week because of Mardi Gras. My family headed to Disney World last week, and we had a great time. After my 2012 trip, I wrote about iPhone apps that you can use to improve your trip to the most magical place on Earth, so I wanted to write an updated post after this trip. Disney is a fun but tiring vacation, so I encourage you to take advantage of the available tools to get the most out of your trip. And quite has bit has changed when it comes to Disney and gadgets in just the last few months.
For example, Disney has a new FastPass+ system. A FastPass means that you can wait in a very short line for a ride, and with normal wait times of an hour or more for popular rides like Space Mountain and Peter Pan, you definitely want to take advantage of FastPasses when you go to Disney. With the new FastPass+ system, everyone in your family gets a wrist band with embedded RFID that you use to enter the parks, validate your identity for FastPasses, pay for meals and merchandise, etc. It works very well. Also, with the new system you can reserve FastPasses many months in advance of your trip, and you can change them whenever you want using the website or a special app described below. Unfortunately, unlike the old system, you are now limited to three FastPasses a day, only one of which can be on a major ride.
Here are the apps that I recommend that you use for a trip to Disney World.
My Disney Experience — Walt Disney World
This is the new official Disney World app, and it is free. You will want to get it, but I had a real love-hate relationship with this app.
On the plus side, this app contains lots of useful information about your trip. The main screen of the app shows you your FastPass selections, gives you the option to delete and add new FastPasses, and shows you your dining and entertainment reservations. And by tapping what many folks call the "hamburger icon" at the top left, you can gets lots of other useful information such as the park hours (including information on which parks open early or stay open late for guests who are staying at a Disney resort hotel), information on restaurants and rides, wait times for rides, maps, etc.
The app also does a pretty good job of showing you the current wait times for rides. Thus, for those times when you don't have a FastPass, you can decide if you want to go across the park to wait in line for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster or stay in Tommorowland for the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor with a much shorter wait.
In theory, this the one app that you need for your vacation.
In practice, however, this app has a lot of shortcomings. First, every time you open the app, you see this screen:
I hope that you like that screen because it stays there for a VERY long time. I've never used an iPhone app that takes this long to launch. I imagine it is talking to a server, but it does so in such a slow fashion that you can almost see each of the seven dwarfs walking, step by step, from Cinderella's Castle to your iPhone to load the information.
Once the app starts, even though the key advantage is that the app shows you your reservations, there are limitations. First, not all reservations show up in the app (or on the website). Second, changing reservations does not work very well. What you want to be able to do is see that you have a FastPass for a ride and then see what alternative times are available for that ride so that you can consider moving the FastPass to a different time. But the app doesn't let you do that. You have to first cancel your existing FastPass, and then the app lets you select a new one. And if the new times are even less convenient, then you have already lost the reservation that you originally had.
Third, the app falls flat when different people in your party have different reservations. The app associates your Disney user ID with a specific master reservation number, but then doesn't let any other user associate with that same reservation number. So if I go to the Disney website and say that all four members of my family want to have a Fast Pass for the Haunted Mansion, but then only my son and I want to go to Space Mountain while my wife and my daughter go to It's a Small World, the app on my iPhone only shows me what I am personally signed up for, and my wife cannot use her own iPhone to see the It's a Small World FastPass that is unique to her and my daughter. Disney needs to either (1) let more than one person associate a user ID with a master reservation or (2) let the single person who can access the reservations see all reservations for all people in the party so that a single person coordinates everyone's FastPass from a single iPhone. Option 1 would be better, but the app doesn't currently give you either option.
Hopefully, Disney can find a way to address these flaws because this really has the potential to be a fantastic app. Right now, however, it is just as likely to make you use words that would make even Captain Jack Sparrow blush.
Disney World Maps
I discussed the Disney World Maps app by VersaEdge back in 2012, and it remains a very useful app. I wrote this next paragraph back in 2012 and it remains true in 2014:
When you launch the app, you are instantly presented with an easy-to-read, full screen map that even takes advantage of the longer screen on the iPhone 5 [and 5s]. Attractions are clearly labeled in red along with the current wait time. Restaurants are clearly indicated in green. Bathrooms are clearly marked — essential information when you are with young children. I found this map much more useful than the map in the [official Disney] app. Dotted lines show the path of the frequent parades. And you can simply press the location services arrow at the bottom left to have the app instantly show you where you are on the map.
Last week, I used this app all the time. The maps are very easy to read, and the app quickly shows you the wait times for rides that are close to wherever you are located. Tap on any attraction or restaurant to see a picture of what it looks like from the front — useful in finding it — along with information on the attraction. The information is different from what is written in the official Disney app, and sometimes it is nice to get a different perspective on what a ride or restaurant is all about when you decide where to go next.
One very nice feature is that you can submit your own wait times (which are displayed at the front of every ride) while you are in the park, and then you can tap one button to see recent wait times submitted by users. If I see a ride that currently has a long wait time but I see that not too long ago the wait time was short, that is usually a good indication that if I wait a little longer, the line will be much shorter again.
There is also a free version of this app, but I recommend that you spent the $2.99 to get the paid version because it doesn't have banner ads, which take up screen space and cover up a part of the map.
Disney World Dining
Disney World Dining is another app by VersaEdge that I recommended in 2012, and it remains just as useful today. While the official Disney app includes a good description of all of the places that you can dine, and the Disney World Maps app also has a basic description, the Disney World Dining app gives you much more information on each restaurant, including virtually every single item on the menu and (unlike the official app) info on the items. For example, the official Disney app (the first picture below) will simply tell you that you the Chicken Breast Provencal is an item on the menu at the new (and popular) Be Our Guest Restaurant in Fantasyland, but the Disney World Dining app (the second picture below) explains that this dish is "Pan-seared and simmered in a rustic blend of Heirloom Tomatoes, Olives, White Wine, and fresh Herbs with Seasonal Vegetables and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes."
I used this app virtually every time we made a decision on where to go for lunch or dinner. And even for the times when we had a reservation so we knew where we were going, it was nice to be able to read the full menus before we got there.
Walt Disney World Secrets Gold
The last app that I will recommend is called Walt Disney World Secrets Gold. Although presented in an app format, it is really just a book with 250 tips and secrets for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. The tips range from obvious to arcane, and some are far more useful than others, but there is a lot of good information in there. For example, the app told me that just before the Magic Kingdom opens in the morning, Mickey, Minnie and lots of other Disney characters arrive on a train at the Main Street Railroad station, so if you get right in the center you can get some nice pictures in the morning. The app also told me that the Winnie the Pooh ride replaced the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, and gives you a tip to look out for a small picture in the ride of Mr. Toad handing over a deed for his attraction to Owl — a small item that brought a smile to my face when I looked for it and then found it in the ride because I used to love Mr. Toad's Wild Ride when I was a child.
Browsing through the chapters in this app doesn't take very long — I went through the entire app in less than an hour during my plane ride to Orlando — and it is similar to spending some time with a Disney World expert who gives you tips on what to do and see, the back-story on attractions, and info on things that might be right in front of your face (such as hidden Mickey outlines) but you might miss them if you didn't know that they were there. The app will definitely get in you a mood for your trip, and is also something to look at again while you are killing time waiting in line for a ride. This is a universal app so it works on all of your iOS devices, and I liked reading it cover-to-cover on my iPad while I was on the plane to Orlando, and then looking at specific sections of the app on my iPhone while I was at the park.
There are two versions of this app, the regular version for $1.99 the and Gold version for $3.99. For the extra $2 you get photos in the app, which are often helpful for finding the secrets, so I recommend that you get the Gold version.
Disney World is always a fun place to be, and I especially enjoyed being there during Mardi Gras week. Based on the number of Mardi Gras-themed shirts that we saw on others in the parks, it seemed like 25% of the folks at Disney last week were from the New Orleans area. But whatever time of year that you go, I recommend that you spend a few dollars on useful iPhone apps to make the most of your trip.