In this week’s installment of the Affording Disney series, I’m talking to Erin Benge of Adventures with Pixie Dust and Destinations in Florida. Erin helped me plan my family’s Return to Disney trip, and when I added up how much she saved us – $750! – I knew I had to feature her  in this series. I’ve asked a ton of questions, and Erin will be stopping by to answer your questions and comments as well, so be sure to hit the comments section and say hello!

Erin Benge

Erin Benge

Erin, thanks for joining me today! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in Disney travel?

I fell in love with Disney on a whim. When we were planning our honeymoon, we planned on a cruise, but the dates didn’t line up with when my husband could get off work. A commercial came on for Walt Disney World and jokingly I told him we should go there and he agreed, and that was the beginning of it all. We traveled the next the 5 years, until I became pregnant with my daughter (remember the old Disney commercial with the little boy in the elevator and his little sister his parents call a Disney souvenir? lol) Then when my son was 9 months old we started back up again. I have been 10 times in 11 years.

I do remember that commercial – in fact, with 4 kids, my husband and I have a running  joke every time we travel: “No little souvenirs!”

For many of us, a Disney vacation is a luxury we only enjoy once every few years. As much as we might wish otherwise, we can’t just hop on a plane to Orlando on a Friday afternoon after a long week. What are some of the things you recommend to your clients who want to get the most value and enjoyment out of their Disney vacation?

Layaway and Target. Honestly, since Disney normally releases vacation dates at least 6 months (or more) in advance, you can put your vacation on layaway. Right now you can book up until the middle of November for 2014, so that gives you almost 14 months to pay it off. Disney requires a $200 deposit to hold a package reservation (resort room and tickets, or you can add the Disney Dining Plan as well) and it must be paid off within 45 days of the first day of travel. You can make monthly payments or pay it off all at once. So in essence, almost like layaway. You can also use Disney Gift Cards to pay it off and those can be bought at Target, with your Target Redcard you can 5% on each one. On a $5000 package that’s a savings of $250 dollars, just by using the Disney Gift Cards you bought there.

I had no idea you could get the 5% Target discount on Disney gift cards! I looked into it, and technically, they are Disney Entertainment Cards, so they don’t fall into the exclusion for buying gift cards. You can even buy them on the Target website! For our family, this one tip is going to save us another $300 on top of what Erin already shaved off our budget.

When it came to planning my family’s 2014 Disney vacation, I wasn’t sure I really needed the help of a travel agent. After all, I planned our first vacation on my own, and I’ve been writing about Disney travel for several years! In the end, I decided to work with a travel agent for the convenience of it. Aside from making the actual Disney reservations, what else do you do to add value to your clients’ vacations – especially those who don’t necessarily need the basics explained?

I honestly thought the same thing, after all I booked all my vacations in the past, til I found this agency and booked with them last year. I loved the service they offered and the little things that I didn’t have to do that they did for me. As you can see, I loved it so much, I became an agent for them. My main goal as an agent is to become a personal travel assistant. Not only do I handle the main things, like booking the resort, the dining and tickets, there are lots of little things that I take care of you so you don’t have to.

I create personal itineraries to help you navigate the parks on the least busiest days. I have traveled as a honeymooner, a repeater, a mom with an infant and a mom with a toddler and older sibling teenagers, and multi-generational since my dad goes with us every year as well. There are different things you can do with each of those to make it the most enjoyable for everyone and since I have personally traveled those ways, I know what to do and definitely what NOT to do. We own DVC and have an AP, so I am pretty familiar with those aspects as well.

Plus the added bonus of working for this agency, we have someone in Disney 365 days a year. So if there is an issue, I can contact a colleague that is there and can help. I will also tell you the truth. If you call Disney Dining and want to book La Hacienda in Epcot, they will say okay and thank you very much. They are not supposed to give “opinions”, which I can do. I will tell you, “I have eaten there, and the ambiance is great, but since you are from Texas you may not like the food. Its more of a toned down Mexican food than we are used to.” That’s one of the main things, I can tell you whether it will be a waste of time or money, or one of the best experiences in your life. If I don’t know or haven’t eaten there, there are many agents that I work with that have.

I can definitely attest to this – and the fact that Erin listened to what was important to our family before she gave her opinion on what she thought we would like, especially when it came to one of my favorite topics: Disney Dining!

So Erin, you know the restaurants I picked. What is your favorite “undiscovered gem” when it comes to Disney restaurants?

Disney is known for its food. There are so many wonderful restaurants to eat at and some of the more popular or “famous” ones aren’t always the best. One of my favorite quick service spots is the Pepper Jack Grill at Coronado Springs. Sounds silly, I know, but they have one the best quick service breakfast areas I have ever eaten at.

1900 Park Faire is another. EVERYONE goes to Akershus or Cinderella’s Royal Table to meet the princesses, but the interaction here is so much better. The food is really good and the entertainment even better. You get to meet the step-sisters, Lady Tremain, the Fairy Godmother and even Prince Charming. If you want to appease your sweet tooth, The Kitchen Sink at Beach Club resort is a monster and the Tomorrowland Fireworks Dessert party. You can buy limited tickets to the Tomorrowland Terrace where you have an assigned table to watch the fireworks over the castle and a huge dessert bar to munch on while waiting.

Those all sound amazing! 

I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about Disney PIN codes. I’ve never gotten one. Can you explain how those work, when you book your vacation through a travel agent?

PIN codes are the great mystery of Disney. lol. There is no rhyme or reason on why some people get 3 or 4 and some get none. They are a special code that Disney will send out that will help you save money on a package, like free dining or resort room discount. They are normally for a limited time and can only be used by the person that received them. Agents can book a package for you with PIN, they just need the code and the address and name of the person it was sent to. Disney just likes to verify it is the owner. PIN codes are a great way to save even more on the vacation with an agent, like me. I normally offer incentives and goody bags for the kiddos, so when you add a PIN code to that, it’s even better.

I’ve heard that sometimes people have PIN codes and don’t know about them unless they happen to call Disney and ask. In your experience, does this happen very often?

It has happened, but it is not very common. It never hurts to call and ask, but don’t think that just because you do call you will receive a PIN.

In each of the Disney resort categories (Value, Moderate, Deluxe), which ones do you most often recommend for families?

Value – Art of Animation, not just because it’s the newest, there are lot of characteristics about it that I like. That being said, I don’t necessarily feel that cost is in “line” with the rest of the Value resorts. It does have it’s own bus (All-Stars share a bus), the pool is awesome (you can hear music underwater and even hear Nemo and his friends playing Marco Polo). If you want a “true” value resort, then All-Star Movies. It really makes you feel like you are in Disney with all the wonderful movie themes.

Moderate – Port Orleans Riverside. It has the charm and beauty of a southern plantation, you have the option of getting 5 in room (Alligator Bayou rooms have a trundle bed), and it’s smaller than Coronado and Caribbean. They are both beautiful resorts, but very large. POR seems to be smaller (not much, but the feel is there) and there are few more options like the Royal Suites, fishing, and boat access.

Deluxe – Animal Kingdom Lodge. That is our home away from home. Beach Club and Yacht Club are gorgeous (they are all) and has the best pool, but there is something about AKL to us. You walk into the lobby and it’s just an overwhelming feeling of ahhh. The decor is amazing and of course the staff exceptional, but there is just something there that we haven’t felt in another resort. I am sure there are other resorts that do for other people, but in my opinion this is “the one”. The pool is a little hidden gem, they have fire pits to sit around and even if you don’t have a savanna view, there are a ton of ways to see the animals, including night vision binoculars.

We’re really excited to be able to take advantage of in-room childcare this time around, and sneak off for an adults-only date night. In your opinion, what’s the most romantic restaurant on Disney property? The best place for a moonlight stroll? When we have a date night, we always try to do things we couldn’t do with the kids. Is there anything else we shouldn’t miss?

Most people think that Victoria and Alberts is a very romantic place. I think everyone’s idea of romance is different, which makes Walt Disney World one of the best places for romance. Cuddled up in front of the castle watching Wishes, holding hands in the French Bakery at Epcot or a moonlit stroll across the beach at the Polynesian, there are a ton of things to do bring out, or bring the romance to your life. We took a horse drawn carriage through the woods at Fort Wilderness and that was so sweet, a memory I will never forget.

Disney is testing a lot of new technology right now – the My Disney Experience website and mobile app, FastPass+, Magic Bands. Have you been able to try out any of the new toys yet, or had feedback from clients? Do these new systems make a Disney vacation all that much more magical, or do they fall short of the hype?

I have been able to try out the My Disney Experience. As an agent I set up all my clients reservations on an MDE account if they don’t already have one, if they do I link into it for them., MDE has potential to be a great benefit to traveling, since you can pull it all up on your smart phone while at the parks. It does still have some bugs in it, but they are working on getting those out. I am a bit old school in a way, though. I have lots of apps that connect my computer to my smart phone, I can access my clients itineraries from anywhere (in case they need something and I am not in the office), but I do prefer a good ole piece of paper in my hand. So I make and print “hard copies” for everyone, it’s nice to be able to just pull it out if your smart phone decided to not be so smart. lol.

I haven’t been able to try out the Magic Bands, yet. I do know they have had some of our guests try them and they are releasing them more and more. I think it can be a good idea, if you have an option of the RFID card as well. I can’t see my 3 year old keeping his on, but my 7 year old daughter would love to have a bracelet that she can accessorize, lol. So in my opinion it is a good idea, but I think they need to make sure parents can choose which one.

FastPass+ plus, I am sorry to say I am not a fan of this. When making the itineraries for my guests I don’t micromanage the day. I suggest which park on which day, the times of the parades and the ADR’s, other than that, I let them wander around the park at will. I can’t see “enter the park, turn left and start at Swiss Family Treehouse.” It’s too much, you have to be able to explore and maybe not follow the crowd. Planning what time I want to ride a ride 180 days away from my vacation seems a bit much to me, but that being said there are people that will use it and love it. We will have to see how they do it once it comes out of Beta testing.

If you could give one piece of advice to a family considering a trip to a Disney park, what would it be?

Use an agent. Seriously, I am not trying to boost my business, I have learned the hard way. When I planned our trips there were moments I missed because I was trying to figure out when parades were, or what park had the extra magic hours, and so forth. I almost missed the look on my daughter’s face when she saw Cinderella’s castle for the first time, and even 3 years later the look of pure joy and enchantment brings goose bumps to my arms and tears to my eyes. Those are the moments you don’t get back. I hate to see people miss them because they are trying to “not miss a thing”, and then they do, and it’s one you can’t get back.

I know you asked for you one, but a second piece of advice is slow down. There is so much to do and see, sometimes you end up rushing from ride to ride or attraction to parade and go, go, go because you don’t “want to miss a thing”. For most people this is a once in a lifetime trip and, yes you don’t want to miss a thing, but if you spend the whole trip rushing to “get it all done” you do miss a lot. I have personally done that as well. I spent my whole trip worried because it was taking longer to get from ride to attraction to ADRs with my 2 kids and my dad, then it used to take when it was just the two of us, sometimes I forgot the fun of just “being at Walt Disney World”.

Great tips, Erin! Thank you for being here today. Now I’ll open it up to the readers. What would  you like to know about getting the most value for your Disney dollars?