Reunions and Group Gatherings at Walt Disney World
by Dave Marx, Author of PassPorter
Wow! What could be better than a family reunion
at Walt Disney World? After all, everyone wants to go there, right? Think of all the
memories and magic you can share! Perhaps just as important, the Orlando area offers
accommodations to suit nearly every budget, and inexpensive airfares are fairly easy to
find. It seems like a natural, slam-dunk decision.
Before you volunteer to organize what will undoubtedly be a memorable
family occasion, take a few moments to think about it. Consider how difficult it can be to
plan and keep just your immediate family on your intended itinerary. Now multiply that by
the number of nuclear families attending the reunion, and multiply again by 10, just for
good measure. Next, it's time to think about budgets, hotel accommodations, touring and
social schedules, dining plans, and special magic. Someone will have to take the lead
during the gathering, too -- phoning the various hotel rooms to make sure everyone's awake,
counting heads to be sure nobody is lost, keeping an eagle eye on the clock, and playing
Drill Sergeant when the group turns into an undisciplined, amorphous blob. And that
someone will almost undoubtedly be you. Are you up to it? Somebody will always be late,
someone else will have a "better idea" or *know* they can get a better price,
and two somebodies will always wander off without notice.
Can it be done? Yes. Can the results be wonderful? Yes! Will all your
efforts be appreciated? Probably. Is it rewarding? Absolutely! Just imagine the pleasure
you'll have at watching 30 close family members "ooh!" and "ah!"
We organized such an event; a 50th Anniversary celebration
for Dave's parents, with over 30 guests in attendance. The party was (fortunately) a
rousing success, exceeding everyone's expectations (in some cases by a wide margin). That
was lucky for us, considering the hundreds of hours we put into planning, organizing and
running the show. Despite our experience with these things we still had several close
calls, and at one point it took a few hours to unravel a complex room reservations issue
during check-in. One child in our party came down with a stomach virus, which put a real
crimp in his parent's (and grandparent's) enjoyment, and another member of our party made
a brief visit to the hospital on our last evening for what (fortunately) turned out to be
just a case of bronchitis. And with all that, when it came time to part everyone had had a
wonderful, memorable experience. Hugs and kisses all around!
Over the years we've planned many group events at Walt Disney World --
family groups of up to 10, a "team" event for 35 business associates, and
numerous community gatherings, including the huge MouseFest Event
which attractions thousands each December. (Dave is MouseFest Chairman; Jennifer is a Co-Chair.) We've learned a
few things, but we still have lots to learn.
You can't communicate enough! If everyone's online, try creating an AOL
Group, or Yahoo Group to
facilitate communications. Make a web page if you're so inclined. Send out frequent e-mail
(and/or snail mail) updates and newsletters, and be prepared to lead. Most people will
defer to your judgment, leaving you with no idea of what they really want. Be sure to
elicit at least one "More than anything else, I really want to...." from every
participant. You may not be able to incorporate all those desires, but it'll sure help you
find a way to accomplish the vast majority of them. Play your cards right and group
excitement will build as the big day approaches. Also, be sure every nuclear family unit
shares their plans with you -- itinerary, airline, arrival/departure dates/times and
accommodations info (if making their own arrangements).
Try to limit whole-group activities to one or two activities daily, such as
a Park-of-the-Day and one meal. There are many diverse interests within a group, so allow
plenty of flexibility so they can pursue their interests and not miss-out on too many
group activities. Encourage folks to share their individual plans with the rest of the
group so others may join in.
Although you can spend lots of social time touring the parks, the real
quality time will probably take place at
your resort. Choose a base of operations that you already know well, with public spaces
you can freely use for group socializing. A buffet restaurant or food court on premises is
a plus, as it'll facilitate group dining for routine meals. Consider booking the group
into several villas or suites, as you'll have built-in, private socializing space.
You'll have to book 16 rooms at a Disney resort to qualify for a discounted
rate, or 8 staterooms on
the Disney Cruise Line. Can it be done? Yes, but it'll be hard to get everyone to agree on
the style of accommodations and the price, and you must promptly put down deposits to
cover all those rooms. What about theme park admission? There are no group discounts
available for this sort of gathering (although there is a special deal for youth and
Other Lodging Discounts
You may be tempted to obtain Annual Pass room discounts for as much of your
group as possible. You will encounter some limits on how many rooms you can book using
your discount, and you'll become responsible for collecting room deposits and
"splitting" the reservations when you arrive so each family can pay its own
bills. We've done this with generally good success for smaller groups, but we don't
recommend it for larger groups or when you don't have close relations to other members of
the group. If you have a good working relationship with a Disney Specialist travel agent,
see what your agent can do to simplify your tasks.
Do you want everyone seated together in the same restaurant? This can be
difficult. Priority Seating arrangements are typically limited to around 8 - 10 guests at
Disney's full-service restaurants. That number can go has high as 20 or more at the buffet
restaurants, 'Ohana, the Polynesian Luau, Hoop De Doo Revue and the Backyard Barbecue. You
can also make several separate Priority Seating reservations, but there's no promise that
the tables will be nearby. Once your needs exceed a restaurant's regular Priority Seating
limits you'll be referred to Disney's Group Dining department. Group Dining can often make
the larger reservations you crave, but there may be a price to pay -- you may be required
to make a firm reservation and put down a deposit to guarantee the arrangement, and you
may have to forfeit that deposit if some or all of your group doesn't arrive in a timely
manner. This will depend on the restaurant and how many seats you need. You may not have
to put down a deposit at some of the buffets, but your choice of meal times may be limited
-- Disney prefers to accommodate large groups before 6:00 pm and after 9:00 pm. Your bill
will also include an automatic service charge (tip) of between 15% and 18%.
Catered and Special Events
Another alternative is a catered event. Several of the resorts and most of
the theme parks have private dining rooms, outdoor pavilions, or they'll even erect a tent
(for a price). You can also book special events at the various nightspots at Pleasure
Island, arrange a special dessert buffet at a private terrace to view IllumiNations at
Epcot, or even book an entire theme park (including a fireworks display). Typically,
there's a minimum per-person charge, and a "food and beverage minimum." Let's
say, for example, that the private dining room you have in mind has a per-person minimum
of $50, and a food and beverage minimum of $3,000. This means you'd need 60 guests, each
costing $50, to reach the minimum charge for
the room (or 40 guests each costing $75 for a more lavish meal). In addition to those
minimums you must also pay a mandatory gratuity and sales tax (which are not included in
the minimums). The folks at Disney's Group Dining department (407-939-7707) will put you
in contact with the appropriate Catering manager for your needs.
Touring the Parks as a Group
The bigger the group, the slower it moves, and the harder it is to get it to
change direction. Restroom breaks alone can bring you to a grinding halt for a half-hour
or more. So, divide and conquer. Once you've gathered at a predetermined meeting place try
to split the group up into smaller, more manageable groups, and assign several meeting
times and places throughout the day when you can all reconnect. It's still a small world,
so even when you're divvied up into the "thrill seekers," "midday
nappers," "show-lovers," "slow strollers," and "store
browsers" you'll still keep running into each other as you crisscross the parks.
The event will be far more memorable if everyone has a souvenir or two that
is special to your
event. You could collect a "registration fee" from all parties, deduct some fair
amount for your out-of-pocket
expenses, and spend the rest on custom-made T-shirts that can be worn during your
gathering or 5x7 prints of a group photo (if everyone is together when entering a park you
can usually find a Disney photographer to take the group shot, which will be available
later in the day in whatever quantity you please).
And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
You won't be surprised to learn that we sent a PassPorter to every person
attending our family gathering. We hoped that at least some folks would use their
PassPorter (and make our job easier). And sure enough, some fell absolutely in love with
their PassPorters, bless their souls! At several points during our week together we asked
folks to fill-in the "Memories of Our Journey" section and share them with the
rest of the group. This was an enjoyable family activity. Should you want to follow our
suit and order a bunch of PassPorters, write to us -- we can give you a deal!
And Above All...
Relax! Smile! Don't stress-out! Be sure to do some things *you* want to do.
You can lead a horse to water.... Everyone will have a good time, even if you don't
micromanage every moment of their days. Isn't that why you chose Walt Disney World in the
Things To Do: Everyone in the PassPorter "family" (readers
and friends alike) is invited to our a special group gathering in December! Your PassPorter
authors, message board guides, and fellow fans will be there for lots of fun events!
To learn more and register, visit: http://www.mousefest.org
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