Walt Disney World and an iPhone

For the past couple of years, my family has taken a week-long vacation to the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) in Orlando, Florida. We go in late January because the crowds are small, the prices are reasonable, and the weather is comfortable (70's, sunny, low humidity). This Christmas, Santa tucked a pair of black 16GB iPhone 3GSs under the tree for me and my wife. Talk about making the nice list! I'll freely (and my wife will begrudgingly) admit that we've been coveting the iPhone since they hit the market. Call it what you will— honeymoon period, new device infatuation, seriously crushing on my iPhone, etc., but it seemed this handy device and the many applications available for it had, in the few short weeks after Christmas, made our lives a bit better than life before our iPhones. I thought I would put this claim to the test during our upcoming WDW trip. Would pairing the world's most popular mobile computing platform with one of the world's most popular vacation destinations accentuate or detract from the vacation experience? I was more than willing to find out.

Vacations of the past

Planning a week-long family vacation requires a good deal of preparation and organization. It also comes with an unforgiving amount of paperwork. Keeping track of airline confirmations, rental car arrangements, and resort accommodations alone requires a file folder full of "vacation stuff" that needs to be culled together in advance and carried with you throughout your vacation. Disney vacations especially excel at producing additional streams of confirmations numbers for everything from your meals to getting your young ones joined up with the crew at The Pirates League or adorned in princess regalia at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

Another aspect of family vacations that encumber many is the sheer number of electronic devices you lug around. From the GPS you got from the car rental company, to the still and video cameras you bring along to "capture the magic," it easily results in a backpack worth of gear that you have to schlep around the parks. I don't know about you, but when I'm in the Animal Kingdom, I want to ride Expedition Everest, not carry around enough gear to actually climb Mt. Everest.

Being a brand new iPhone owner but experienced WDW vacationer, I felt like the biggest upfront win would be to make our annoying folder of paperwork disappear. I also wanted to find apps or out-of-the box iPhone features to help me leave behind the many devices that have accompanied me on previous trips. In order to toss that pile of paperwork in the recycling bin and just rely on the mother of all convergence devices, I had to find out if there truly was, "…an app for that."

I broke my search of apps down into three categories: apps to assist in traveling between destinations, WDW-specific apps to help with trip planning and enhance my theme park experience, and the standard apps that came with the iPhone. I know there are many Web sites out there to review various iPhone apps (this magazine's Web site included), but I limited my search to iTunes and let the app descriptions, app sellers' sites, and customer feedback influence me (or not).

Travel apps

My family was flying down to Orlando, renting a vehicle, vacationing for the week, and flying home. I wanted to try and find airport and road travel apps that were relevant for me and my family. The travel apps I purchased were GateGuru (free; gateguruapp.com) and AAA Roadside (free; aaa.com).

GateGuruGateGuru allows you to search, rank, and review various food, shopping, and service venues in terminals of major airports. While geared for the business traveler, any family managing an unanticipated delay may find the app useful. On the way home, I used it in the Orlando airport to inform my wife about what was available to eat in the center hub of Terminal 4 versus walking the airport aimlessly searching for our kids' pre-flight meal. AAAThe AAA Roadside app appealed to my inner Boy Scout who always reminds me to be prepared. It is intended for AAA members to make quick roadside assistance requests. The set-up is simple and the Spartan feature set is exactly what you'd expect. One surprising feature: it generates an AAA Card on screen that suffices for roadside assistance verification and AAA's "Show Your Card & Save" programs. The iPhone is not quite a digital wallet (yet!), but I'll gladly have one less card in my physical wallet.

GateGuru(left) allows you to search, rank, and review various food, shopping, and service venues in terminals of major airports. The AAA app (right) displays your AAA Card on screen, which suffices for roadside assistance verification and AAA's "Show Your Card & Save"

Walt Disney World apps

There are numerous titles in the App Store claiming to help you with your WDW vacation. I narrowed my search for WDW-oriented planning and "in the park" apps to five. The apps I purchased were:

The eTicket WDW and Mouse Memo apps each bill themselves as all-in-one packages, while the offerings from Versa Edge Software, LLC and Laughing Place Communications serve very niche needs. I found that each one of these apps excelled in one or two particular areas, but there was no one end-to-end solution that covered all of the WDW bases.

The best interface for entering flight, car rental, and hotel information proved to be the Mouse Memo app. It advertised itself in the App Store as letting you, "…leave that bulky binder in the hotel room" and mostly lived up to its claim. This appealed to me as my primary goal was to ditch the paper. Mouse Memo also had a section for entertainment reservations that proved useful for non-dining appointments that had confirmation numbers (e.g. our appointment at "The Pirate League").

MouseMemoBefore entering dining reservations in Mouse Memo, I tried out WDW Dining and was won over by their intuitive interface and integrated menu information, ultimately choosing it for dining reservations over Mouse Memo (which simply displays the menu information from the AllEars.net Web site). WDW Dining app also provides an easily accessible "Email My Dining Schedule" button that allowed me to e-mail our week's worth of reservations to my wife. She then easily imported our schedule into her iPhone via a link in the generated e-mail.

Mouse Memo Shines in entering travel information; WDW Dining's intuitive interface for dining schedules.

WDW DiningWhile not directly associated with my goal of shedding my folder of paperwork, the other WDW apps were extremely useful once we settled in at the resort. The absolute best part of the eTicket WDW app is its impressively detailed Google map overlay of the WDW Resort. According to the description on its website there are over 3000 points of interest overlaid on the map portion of the application. Each point of interest can be clicked for information and then clicked again for a detailed view of the POI. The map screen also contains a "find me" button that will display your current location. It is very helpful when your 4-year-old asserts that it's potty time…right now!

eTicketThe eTicket WDW app is powered by WDWinfo.com and DISboards.com . These websites support the largest unofficial Disney community on the Internet. Access to the DISboards forums is embedded in eTicket WDW for easy access to post a comment or write a review about a particular point of interest. I do not suggest using the Itinerary feature in the app as its interface and data entry screens are not as good as Mouse Memo.

eTicket WDW Map displays locations with pushpins (left) and a corresponding Details page.

eTicketThe WDW resort has a vast network of buses, boats, and monorails to get you around the grounds. For first-time visitors staying on WDW resort property, I recommend the Transportation Wizard app from Laughing Place Communications. It provides a clean, uncluttered interface, prompting the user to select a starting point and ending point then providing a list of various options of transport. It also provides helpful hints to assist you in the decision making process.

WaitTimesThe Disney World Wait Times app provides a list of all rides in all four theme parks. It also allows users to submit updated ride times to improve wait time accuracy. It helped maximize our ride time and encouraged us to get Fast Passes when necessary. Fast Pass is Disney's version of an electronic ‘reservation' for popular rides. You get a ticket with a return time, allowing you to avoid waiting in long lines.

Of all the apps I used, I kept going back to the map in eTicket WDW and the Wait Times app.

Wait Times helps minimize delays and maximize the number of attractions you'll experience.

The built-in apps

With the help of the aforementioned apps, I successfully achieved the goal of being paperless, but I still had lots of gear to unload.

Walt Disney World resort employs legions of PhotoPass photographers (disneyphotopass.com), who are clad in beige vests and tote high-end digital cameras and barcode scanning devices. With the press of a button and scan of your PhotoPass card, you and your family can accumulate quality vacation images with minimum fuss. Given the quality of the pictures and availability of photographers, I only used my iPhone camera to snap pictures and video when the professionals weren't around. It actually proved a very capable camera. (The geo-tagging was a bit off, but was good enough for this trip.) To view a sample of pictures taken during my trip, please visit my MobileMe gallery (gallery.me.com/bob.berardino/100033).

I used the iPhone's turn-by-turn directions and pushpin tracking when driving back and forth to the airport. It proved an acceptable replacement for my Garmin Nuvi, but only because I had my sister-in-law riding shotgun, reading the directions to me. Without spoken turn-by-turn directions, the iPhone alone is not enough.

Other tips

MDisneyworldEven though Disney Parks is marketing its alliance with Verizon and their Mobile Magic app, Disney is also pushing adoption of their mobile Web site (m.disneyworld.com) on all mobile platforms. I bookmarked this in Safari and gave it a test drive during my visit. It contains attraction and dining information, park hours, character information, and entertainment schedules. It seems to provide some of the information in eTicket WDW and Wait Times, but the Wait Times app gives users up-to-the-minute precision while the Disney site only lists an attraction's wait time in relative terms (e.g. moderate wait, etc.)

Alliance with Verizon notwithstanding, Disney wants your mobile browser to point its way.

Long days in the park actually take its toll on battery life. The WDW resort has to be one of the most access point saturated areas on the planet. Because the iPhone wants to use Wi-Fi first, unless you turn off the "Ask to Join Networks" setting you will be constantly harassed by the access point dialogs and, in turn, unnecessarily bleed the battery. Do the following to turn this feature off— go to Settings> Wi-Fi> Ask to Join Networks and set to OFF. The other option is to simply turn off Wi-Fi altogether in Settings. Once turned off, you will be surfing the 3G network (of which there is plenty of coverage in WDW to go around).

Challenge met…vacation success!

Even though there is no clear comprehensive solution provided by one vendor, the few apps I used seem committed to the travel market segment and are continuously being improved. Maybe by the time of your trip, one will have won the market. By using a combination of three apps, I was able to enjoy a vacation free of my file folder of "vacation stuff".

In addition, by using the Maps, Compass, Camera, and Video capabilities of the iPhone 3GS, I was able to significantly lighten my load this trip, leaving four physical devices at home.

While in the parks, I frequently utilized the highly detailed map in eTicket WDW which provided me with more information than the official Disney printed theme park maps. In addition, I often perused the attraction wait times with the Wait Times app. Both apps provided me information when I needed it, making my overall theme park experience greatly enhanced.

I feel very comfortable saying this year's trip was greatly improved as a result of my new traveling companion. It definitely earned its mouse ears throughout the trip.

How my new iPhone 3GS made our vacation at "The Happiest Place on Earth" even happier.
Summer 2010
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