Editor’s Note: Please welcome to the blog Luke Hempenstall, a huge Disney fan who hails from Australia! Luke will be adding to our discussions about traveling to Disney as an international guest. This week, he introduces himself and his Disney experiences to us all! Please join me in welcoming Luke to the WDW Radio Blog Team.
by Luke Hempenstall
G’day! It is with great honour that I greet you…
My name is Luke and I’m from… well from my salutation, I suppose you can all guess. I come what we term here as the ‘Land Down Under’ – Australia. Like all of you reading this, I too am a Walt Disney World fanatic. Like many of you, I have had the pleasure of visiting Walt Disney World on a number of occasions over the years. Like many of you, I too have been touched by the magic of Walt Disney since childhood. However, unlike many of you, I live on the other side of the world. In fact, the antipodal point of where I live on the east coast of Australia is more or less a third of the way across the Atlantic from the European side… so not that far at all from Florida when considering this great globe of ours. It usually takes a solid 24 hours or so of traveling non-stop to get from the east coast of Australia to the east coast of the US; and Florida in particular.
With this in mind, I have been asked to share my experiences and insight into being an International Guest to WDW (to coin a phrase used by fellow International Guest, Emma Godbold) coming from somewhere a little more removed from ‘the World’ than our US, UK and European brethren.
So a little about me… without boring you to tears. Like many of you, I grew up with Disney as part of my childhood upbringing. My earliest memories of Disney as a child include watching the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights with the family, a Mickey Mouse watch (my first ever watch) together with a pair of mickey ears with my name monogrammed on them, bought for me by my grandparents on a trip they took to Disneyland in the early 80’s; and lastly a set of three Disney Story Books containing all of the usual Walt Disney stories illustrated using images from the equally famous animated films that Walt Disney produced.
Growing up and being aware of Disneyland was always something I remember. And like most kids, I too loved going to theme parks. Growing up, the theme park capital of Australia was the Gold Coast, itself Australia’s holiday playground. There were the likes of Dreamworld, Seaworld and Wet ‘n’ Wild to keep us amused and while we grew up further down south in Newcastle, every year, my Mum, Brother and I would travel up to Brisbane, just near the Gold Coast to spend Christmas and New Year with my Grandparents. And every year, my Brother and I would beg and beg and beg to be taken to one of the theme parks. So to me, Disneyland was not necessarily just another theme park to visit, but another theme park none-the-less. Just one that was a lot further away.
As is the case today, to most Australians, the theme parks of Disney, particularly Walt Disney World are somewhat of an enigma. Sure every Australian knows about Disneyland, even if they haven’t been there. This is primarily because it’s the most famous, it’s the original and it’s the closest to Australia and therefore the most accessible up until the various parks in Asia opened up. Walt Disney World however, is a different story. When I ask various Australians about Walt Disney World, I get varied responses such as, “You mean that one in California??”, “Is that the one in Europe somewhere??”, “What on Earth is Walt Disney World??”
The concept of Walt Disney World did not enter my consciousness until the mid-80’s. From vague recollection, I recall seeing a show on TV; possibly a travel show of some sort looking in depth into this place call ‘Walt Disney World’. Now, I can’t quite recall too much from this show but three things stand out in my mind:
- An image of the Geodesic Sphere, which I used to call the giant golf ball;
- The fact that you could stay in this place, at specially themed resorts like you were never leaving the parks; and
- It took days to go through the parks; not hours!!
This blew me away! It was around this time that my Mother mentioned that she and my Father had in fact visited Walt Disney World on a visit with some family from Texas in 1974 while pregnant with me; when there was little more than the Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort in existence.
While from then onward, I had always held a wish to visit WDW, the opportunity did not arise until 2001 when I married my beautiful wife. At the time, and for 7 years in total, I was a travel agent. And as such, part of planning our Honeymoon included a trip to WDW for the first time.
In time, and as a result of follow up trips to WDW, I soon became the Disney expert in our office and was forwarded all queries about traveling to WDW. I relished the opportunity to learn everything I could not only about being at WDW but getting to/from WDW for an International Guest.
For our Honeymoon trip, we planned only 4 days at WDW as we had a number of other things we also wanted to do on our first-ever trip to the US and despite advice from friends of ours, who had honeymooned at WDW 18 months earlier, we decided to stay off property.
The trip was amazing and exploring WDW for the first time was beyond words. We spend a day each in Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, and shared our last day between what was then MGM Studios and Downtown Disney. What came from our first trip to WDW were two very important lessons. The first and primary lesson we learned was that 4 days was nowhere near enough. Not for someone travelling so far to see WDW properly. Now, this may seem obvious to many of you, but for those of you reading this Blog having never been to WDW who are curious as to how much time to allow for WDW, and are living abroad, this is important to know.
Again, it comes down to the misconception of size versus Disneyland. WDW is not just Disneyland repeated, even though the Magic Kingdom largely replicates Disneyland Park. So if you’re traveling from afar to visit WDW, and you want time to see the four main parks and do them justice, at least one of the water parks, and Downtown Disney, then you should allow at least 8 days.
This is what my wife and I deduced after our first trip having fallen in love with WDW and wanting to spend some considerable time there really exploring. The eight days would be enough to allow two days each for Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, one for MGM Studios (now Disney Studios) and one for a water park (Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach). Downtown Disney could be enjoyed at night after the parks.
One needs to bear in mind however, and this is something my wife and I learned on our next trip to WDW, is that 8 days will afford you the time to see WDW properly but only if you’re willing to be on the go go go from early morning to late at night. There is little time for relaxation if you’re going to tour the parks in the manner stated above. However, I will go more into that in my next post.
The second lesson was to always stay on property. Now, I know times are tough and when considering a major overseas trip, especially with children in tow, taking advantage of cost savings every chance you get is important. But while the Disney Resorts traditionally cost a little more than those off property (depending on the grade), they offer a unique experience, service style and locational benefits that justify the cost. While I would agree that I-Drive is an eye opener, especially if you haven’t visited Orlando before, for us personally, we would not stay off property again given the dramas with a far-too-infrequent shuttle service and the travel times to and from WDW.
This can greatly depend on where you stay and admittedly, we stayed at what Americans affectionately refer to as the “HoJo’s”, so we weren’t setting ourselves up for a grand experience to begin with. And many of you will certainly be rolling your eyes about now thinking, “No wonder!” But again, for someone uninitiated into American Hotels, this is important to know. So with that in mind, when considering whether to stay on property or off, the convenience of free and very easy to use transportation back to your resort, a fully-immersive Disney experience with themed Resorts and well-versed cast members, and the proximity to the parks and other WDW recreational facilities really help cement the decision. And trust me, it is well worth it!
That was the first of 6 trips to WDW at various times and for various lengths, all of which I will go into in greater detail in following posts. What I hope to be able to do in following posts is share not only some of my WDW knowledge with you all about what I have learned visiting this gorgeous place, but also provide information and hopefully helpful advice about traveling a great distance to get to WDW. This will be particularly pertinent to anyone reading this from my homeland but I believe the information can be applied for travel from anywhere in the world. We’ve traveled to WDW from the east and from the west so have a reasonable grip on how to best manage travel fatigue and make the best use of your time.
As well as being a practical approach to travel to WDW, I will also share some of my favourite memories with you and sincerely hope you will with me. Reading so many of your stories and comments already, I feel a real affinity with this community and can easily grasp the sense of family contained within.
So that’s a little history on my exposure to Disney and my beginnings with WDW in a nutshell. With that, stay tuned for my next post and if you have any questions for me, particularly regarding traveling to WDW from afar and managing that process, please comment below and I will do my best to answer them.
Take care everyone! (o:3