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MouseChat Podcasters Share 13 Insider Tips for Planning Your Disney Vacation

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Disney World’s Magic Kingdom attracted a staggering 20.5 million visitors last year, making it the world’s most popular theme park. Disneyland, Epcot, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom weren’t far behind, which begs the question: Just how can one rise above the crowds and get the most out of a Disney vacation these days?

Ever since 2010, the popular MouseChat podcast has been offering some answers. Hosted by five Disney-obsessed travel agents at Pixie Vacations, the show has explored topics ranging from new attractions to Disney weddings to, well, “How to Do Disney World with Disney Haters.”

“We just see a lot of people go into Disney with a very blind eye and end up not having a great experience, so we try to provide all the tips and tricks that make a Disney vacation really magical,” says West Virginia-based co-host Chris Sharps. “We give our very honest assessment of what the experience is like; if we wouldn’t spend our money and do it again, we tell them.”

Below, Sharps and Atlanta-based co-host Lisa Griswold offer a few tips for new or veteran Disney vacationers:

1. START PLANNING SUPER-EARLY.

Disney resort reservations can be made 180 days in advance, but Griswold says visitors should start planning even earlier. “Talk about what resorts sound interesting to you, the restaurants you want to experience,” she says. “[Planning early] also encourages people to start saving.”

2. CONSIDER ALL EXPENSES.

“A lot of times people are looking to go to Walt Disney World in the least expensive way possible,” Sharps says. “But the least expensive way [to them] is oftentimes one of the most expensive.” Case in point: He says many folks stay off-site in hopes of saving money, without factoring in parking fees or other costs that can quickly add up.

3. WORK WITH A VACATION PLANNER.

Obviously, the MouseChat hosts are pro-agent, but they do make a solid case. First, it often doesn’t cost extra money to work with a planner. And second, they know the destination inside and out. Sharps says, “Every item of Disney news that comes across the board, we read it, we know it, we know how to best help a family plan their trip. We’re Disney-crazy.”

4. SEEK OUT "SECRET" PERKS.

If you can dream it, there’s probably a way Disney can make it happen. “You can have a private balcony in Italy to view the IllumiNations nighttime spectacular,” Griswold says. “You can get a private boat and watch the fireworks from the middle of the Seven Seas Lagoon. You can take your daughter to get her dressed up as a princess. … There are lots of additional things that people can do when they go to Disney, and I don’t think most of these are known.”

5. DELVE INTO DISNEY HISTORY.

OK, so you’re a grown-ass adult who doesn’t care for The Little Mermaid. Sharps says that’s only a facet of the Disney appeal, and a little Googling might enhance one’s experience. “Walt Disney was the quintessential American risk-taker,” he says. “Learning the business behind Disney is really what helped me develop my passion.”

6. ARRIVE AT "ROPE DROP."

That’s slang for the beginning of the day. “The park is not as crowded,” Griswold notes. “You can get a lot done before 10 a.m.”

7. LOOSELY PLAN YOUR DAY.

“Don’t plan it down to the minute, but plan a general theme for the day,” Sharps suggests. Set a time for lunch, and drop everything when it arrives. Grab a schedule and map at the entrance, and take 10 minutes to become familiar with things like performance times and the almighty restroom locations.

8. TAKE NOTE OF NEW STUFF.

Disney parks unveil new things each year, making no two trips the same. Some upcoming highlights: a new Frozen attraction at Epcot, Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and the highly anticipated Star Wars Land. “It’s not the same old attractions over and over again,” Sharps says.

9. GO BEHIND THE SCENES.

Need a break from rides? Sharps says to consider a behind-the-scenes tour, like Keys to the Kingdom or Backstage Magic, which “takes guests through the entire experience of what it is that makes the magic happen each day, from the horticultural services facility all the way up to the safety inspectors that do the rides.”

10. COMBAT LINE FATIGUE.

While lines are unavoidable at a Disney park, there are many ways to make the kids’ wait a bit more enjoyable. “They have interactive queues with lots of things for kids to do, to touch, to feel, to interact with,” Griswold says. “And get a ‘hidden Mickey’ book,” she adds. “Every ride has hidden Mickeys, and [finding them] turns waiting in line into an attraction in itself.”

11. TAKE BREAKS.

There’s no shame in a midday snooze during a Disney vacation; in fact, it’ll probably make the trip more fun. “Don’t plan on being at the park from sunup to sundown,” Sharps says.

12. CONSIDER A HALLOWEEN OR HOLIDAY TRIP INSTEAD.

Disney visits don’t have to happen in summertime. Sharps advises travelers to be open to, say, Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival in the fall, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, or even the decked-out holiday season.

13. HAVE FUN.

Seriously. “Remember, it’s a vacation,” Griswold says. “Don’t let the details stress you out and ruin it. … Also, realize that there’s gonna be a couple hiccups along the way. Take ‘em in stride. There’s no way you can get everything done in a week that Disney World has to offer."

For more podcast interviews and recommendations, head to the archive.

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Here Are the Best and Worst Days for Christmas Travel
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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Flight delays are always a hassle, but the holidays add an extra layer of stress. No one wants to be stuck at the airport while their family is digging into Christmas dinner. And even if you fly long before the holiday itself, airports are always more hectic during the holiday season. Between the high volume of travelers and the whims of winter weather, getting off the ground doesn’t necessarily feel like a given when you leave for the airport.

But not all airports and days are equally prone to flight issues, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation data from the last five years, as analyzed by the electric supply company Elite Fixtures, which previously analyzed the worst airports for Thanksgiving travel.

A green chart lists travel delays and flight cancellation statistics by date.
Elite Fixtures

On average, you’re less likely to be delayed if you’re traveling the week before Christmas or on the holiday itself, the data shows. December 25 has actually had the lowest percentage (18 percent) of delayed flights over the last five years, giving you a good excuse if you want to flee to the airport directly after your family’s holiday meal. Traveling December 18 and 19 is also a good idea, since only 26 percent of flights are typically delayed on those days.

A red chart details travel delay and cancellation statistics by date.
Elite Fixtures

Beware the 22nd and 23rd of December, though. On those days, an average of 32 percent and 34 percent of flights get delayed, respectively. The few days after Christmas are also likely to stick you with an annoying delay—33 and 34 percent of flights are delayed on the 26th and 27th.

A green-and-gray U.S. map highlights the 10 best airports for holiday travel with plane icons.
Elite Fixtures

Airlines don’t encounter flight difficulties in equal measure across all airports, though. If you’re flying through one of the airports above, congratulations! The likelihood of getting delayed is less than at the Houston or Oakland airports, both hubs with the highest rates of holiday flight delays in the U.S.

Unfortunately, no matter what day you fly and where you fly from, there's no way to really predict whether your flight will leave on time. You'll just have to hope that Santa brings you the seamless holiday travel experience you put on your Christmas list.

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4 Festive Holiday Road Trips To Take in December
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Road trips are often reserved for the freedom of summer vacation, but if you miss the open road, there’s no reason you can't find holiday-inspired adventure along the highway during the winter. Work these festival stops into a trip back to grandmother's house, or follow the trail for a merry and bright day trip.

1. PORTLAND, OREGON TO SALEM, OREGON

Oregon holiday road map
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Christmas Festival of Lights in Portland

If you can't get enough of belting out "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls" with family and friends, take the music of the season one step further at Portland's Christmas Festival of Lights. This month-long festival runs through December 30 and features more than 160 indoor holiday concerts. The 2017 festival marks 30 years of holiday performances at what organizers consider to be the world’s largest choral festival. And if your road trip companions aren't feeling the music, there's always a lighted pathway, puppet shows, and a petting zoo complete with baby camel cuddles.

Stop 2: Oregon Garden in Silverton

Heading one hour south from Portland, swing into Oregon Garden, an 80-acre botanical garden that becomes a German-inspired Christmas wonderland. Open most days in December, the Christmas in the Garden event has drawn in thousands of visitors (peaking at 35,000 attendees in 2016) thanks to its Christmas market, ice skating rink, biergarten, and never-ending glühwein—a spiced, mulled wine popular in Deutschland. There’s also snowless tubing, two restaurants, and more than 600,000 Christmas lights hung throughout the botanical garden for a festive and glowing holiday adventure.

Stop 3: Christmas Tree Hunting Near Salem

The nearby Salem area is home to nearly 20 Christmas tree farms, making it a great stop for picking up the family tree before wrapping up a road trip. While that may seem like market saturation to non-Oregonians, the number of tree farms throughout the state isn't at all surprising, considering Oregon is the top Christmas tree-producing state in the nation, harvesting an estimated 5.2 million trees in 2016. Douglas and Noble firs are easiest to find, since the two varieties make up a combined 86 percent of the state's Christmas tree population. With 42,000 acres of tree farms throughout the state, it shouldn't take too long to find the perfect fir to take home.

2. ROCHESTER, NEW YORK TO ITHACA, NEW YORK

New York holiday road map.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: George Eastman Museum in Rochester

Even if you snap a selfie with a cell phone instead of using a point-and-shoot, it's worth swinging through Rochester to thank George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, for his impact on the photography industry. The George Eastman Museum is housed in Eastman's former residence, and has collected and preserved photography and cinema history since 1949. During the winter holidays, the museum is also host to Sweet Creations, a gingerbread house display that features more than 50 edible structures. Running through December 13, visitors can view the tiny homes among other exhibits. But unlike most of the museum’s artifacts, these displays are auctioned mid-month with funds used towards museum restoration projects.

Stop 2: It's A Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls

From December 8 through 10, the 9000 residents of Seneca Falls celebrate the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The town claims to be the inspiration behind Bedford Falls, the fictional setting for the 1946 Christmas film, and even has the evidence: Director Frank Capra visited in the 1940s, exploring the town and getting a haircut. Now, Seneca Falls celebrates with a three-day festival featuring a gingerbread contest, soup cook-offs, and several panels about the meaning of life. But even if you miss the fest, Seneca Falls is a lovely drive down memory lane, thanks to its classic, 1940s style.

Stop 3: Ithaca Ice Festival in Ithaca

If you've ever wanted to see just how a giant ice luge or fancy ice sculpture is made, Ithaca's annual Ice Fest is the place to go. Ice carvers from around the country compete for the chance to win cash prizes in three rounds of carving competitions. From December 7 to 9, ice carvers compete based on how quickly and impressively they can transform blocks of ice into art, while crowds watch from the ice bar or sample more than 20 different kinds of chowder during the fest's adjacent annual chowder cook-off. If that seems too chilly, don't worry—there’s also a litany of fire demonstrations and a silent disco to warm you up.

3. DEARBORN, MICHIGAN TO HOLLY, MICHIGAN

Michigan holiday road map.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, in Dearborn

Christmas past blends with Christmas present in Dearborn, Michigan, where weekends in December play host to the Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village festival. Throughout the month, Charles Dickens reigns supreme, with mid- to late-1800s carolers, reenactors, and performers milling about the town to spread history-based cheer. But, that's not the only era represented; visitors can take a spin on a 1913 carousel or visit a Civil War encampment. Model T rides are available, as well as ice skating, historic home tours, and live reindeer. It's almost too much Christmas history for any one town.

Stop 2: Christmas Markets in Detroit

Detroit is home to a variety of Christmas celebrations, but holiday market lovers will enjoy browsing through various local vendors at the city's Christmas Markets. Through Christmas Eve, the market spreads through eight spots in the city, including Cadillac Square and Capitol Park, and takes its German inspiration seriously with dance bands, glühwein, and accordion and polka performances. There are also heated tents, an ice rink, and the city's 60-foot Christmas tree to enjoy.

Stop 3: Holly Dickens Festival in Holly

If you haven't had enough Dickens adventures on this trip, stop into Holly, Michigan, where the town hosts the longest-running Dickens festival in the country. Running for 44 years, the three weekends after Thanksgiving (through Dec. 10 this year) are filled with performances of A Christmas Carol, horse-drawn carriage rides, vintage photos, museum tours, tea parties, and shopping. If that wasn't enough, couples can renew their vows with the help of Queen Victoria while attending the festival.

4. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA TO BREVARD, NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina holiday road map
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Christmas At The Biltmore in Asheville

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is known for being a romantic getaway for couples and a perfect Christmas town. It's also home to The Biltmore, the largest private home in the U.S. The Vanderbilt mansion has historically accepted guests for Christmas since 1895, and it still opens for the holiday season each year. Visitors get an upper class taste of Christmas throughout December, which includes 55 decorated trees, more than 1000 poinsettias, "miles of ribbon," and other opulent décor. Christmas at the Biltmore also includes a gingerbread house tea, candlelight tours, carriage rides, and garden and grounds decorated for winter. Go on and pretend it's all yours.

Stop 2: Santa on the Chimney at Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park, about an hour's drive south of Asheville, is home to a 535-million-year-old rock face—aptly called Chimney Rock—that you can climb. But on December 9, you can also see how Santa takes on chimneys of all sizes. The big guy with the presents rappels the 315-foot rock as park-goers and Christmas enthusiasts watch. Visitors also get to snack on holiday treats and hang out with live critters that call the park home.

Stop 3: Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum in Brevard

"Jingle Bell Rock" turns 60 years old this season (it debuted in 1957), and in Brevard, you can jump right back to that time. The Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum (called ATOM) hosts the country's only known display of aluminum Christmas trees—most dating to the 1950s, when the tinsel-colored trees were mass produced by the millions. Decades-old ornaments bedazzle the restored trees (which are given pseudo-scientific names, like Silvercus pinii holidaeus), and retro-inspired musical guests perform original Christmas carols through December 23. This blast from the past might wrap up a road trip through North Carolina, but it is sure to create plenty of modern memories. And after all, isn't that the best part about holiday adventures?

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