Friday, July 26, 2013

The Auto Train

For the past two trips, we've taken the Auto Train down to Orlando. The Amtrak Auto Train runs directly from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL with essentially no stops. As the name implies, you get to bring your vehicle along. In fact, a vehicle is mandatory if you want to ride the Auto Train.

The way it works: you must arrive at the station by 2:00 to check in your vehicle, but it is a good idea to get in a bit earlier. Take your carry on bags, and leave the rest of your stuff in the car. While the Amtrak drivers load your car onto the carriers, you enter the station and check your party in at the counter. You will get your seat assignments and select your dinner seating. Yes, dinner is included in the price; more on that later. There are typically three seatings: 5, 7, and 9 pm. If you don't check in early, you may find that your preferred seating time is booked up.

After check-in, you wait. There is open WiFi in the station. Boarding will begin around 2:30, and the train will pull out at 4:00. If you have sleeping accommodations, the car attendant will ask you what time you would like your beds made up.

Between 4 and 5, there is a reception in the Lounge Car. In coach, there will be complementary snack mix and a variety of fruit available, as well as water, coffee, and hot tea. In Sleeper class, there is wine, a veggie tray, cheese and crackers as well.

Coach class dinner will include a roll, butter, wine (with free refills), water, ice tea, or Pepsi products, an entree, and dessert. Sleeper class dinner also includes a salad.

If this food is not to your liking, snacks and beverages (soft and adult) are available for purchase in the lounge car. There is also (secured) WiFi in the lounge, and a family friendly movie will be shown around 7 and again at 9-ish. We had Hotel Transylvania on the way down and Brave on the way back. They may put out popcorn or cookies at this time.

In coach, you can recline your seat and get some sleep. I find that the seats are more comfortable than airplanes, but the seat angle still puts my weight on odd points on my hip and lower back. I'm more likely to sit on my pillow than rest my head on it. While I'm on the topic, as of 1 August, Amtrak will no longer offer pillows in coach. Instead, they'll sell you a comfort pack including an inflatable pillow and blanket for $8. Or, you can just bring your own.

In the roomettes, the seats slide together to form the lower bunk, and the upper berth folds down. The upper berth is cramped; you can't sit up. Neither berth is long enough to stretch out if you are much taller than me.  There are safety straps to keep you from rolling off the upper berth.

In the morning there is a light continental breakfast with milk, juice, coffee or tea, a banana, bagels & cream cheese, corn muffins, and some Kelloggs cereals - Special K and Frosted Flakes, and also Raisin Bran in sleeper class. There are also blueberry muffins and coffee service in the lounge car if you don't want the whole breakfast. While you are at breakfast, the car attendant will make up your compartment for seating if you are in the sleeper car.

When you reach your destination, they will have to uncouple the auto carriers for unloading, then move the passenger cars for debarkation. After you disembark, you still have to wait for your car to unload. This process could take over an hour, depending on how crowded the train was.

Cost: For this trip, we spent $86 per adult, $43 per child, and $175 for the car (each direction);  and an extra $136 each for two roomettes on the trip back, for a total of $1180 for the trip. This price reflects a AAA discount, and was obtained by booking early. As you get closer to the departure date, the train books up and the prices rise sharply.

Other odds & ends:
Remember to bring enough cash for tips. Leave a tip at dinner and breakfast, and tip the lounge car attendant if you buy booze or snacks. Especially if she volunteers to pick the pepperoni off the frozen pizza before microwaving it, because they are out of cheese pizza and your son won't eat pepperoni. And finally something for the car attendant as well.
The Auto Train is Pepsi. Bring your own Coke.
The Auto Train is completely non-smoking. The train stops in Florence SC in each direction for water and refueling and crew change. Schedule permitting, they will let passengers out for a five minute smoke break.

Over all, we like the train better than flying. It is roomier and more relaxed. No Security Lines.  You can bring as much luggage as you can fit in your vehicle. And it is your vehicle; no problems learning the controls of an unfamiliar rental, or trying to find an unfamiliar car in a vast parking lot.

Got questions?  There's a comment section!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Tao of Disney

Ever since I named this blog, I've intended to post advice on visiting Walt Disney World.  Having just returned from our 2013 trip, I have a lot of ideas still fresh in my mind so I'll see how many I can type out before running out of steam.

I'll start with my Disney Park Philosophy. Your park ticket entitles you to be in the park(s) for 8-16 hours (depending on the park and time of year). Unless you are a teenager with infinite energy, you will only enjoy the first four hours or so before you wear out and need a break. Leave the park. Have a leisurely lunch. Take a nap. Go for a swim. If you recharge your batteries, you can go back into the parks for another 4 hours of fun.  Or, you can stay in the park the whole time and your last four hours will be complete misery. Especially if you are not using a touring plan and spend your time in one of those two hour lines.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

My Top Seven (Plus One) Disney Resources

I've been meaning to put up this list for years. Here are my favorite Disney Planning Resources.

 1. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World (Bob Sehlinger & Len Testa)

 The Unofficial Guide is written by a team of independent fans who try to give a "warts and all" view of the parks. It is full of excellent advice on squeezing the most out of a WDW vacation. The best part of the book are the park touring plans which are designed to get you through the most rides with the least amount of waiting.

 2. Passporter Guide to Walt Disney World (Jennifer Marx)

 I purchased this by accident - I actually wanted the Disney Cruise Line guide. The things that set this guide apart are the laminated park maps, and the great organizer (with pockets!) in the back of the book.

 3. The DIS Unplugged Podcast (

This fantastic podcast is put on by the staff at Dreams Unlimited Travel, an Orlando, FL based travel agency specializing in Disney vacations.

 4. WDW Today Podcast (

Len Testa, of the Unofficial Guide and, is a regular on this podcast. So, their recommendations on crowd levels and wait times are spot-on. Their other advice is hit-or-miss. Their sponsor is All-Star Vacation Homes.

 5. All Ears (

Great place to find park information: hours, closures, menus, prices, schedules, reviews and more. It is much easier to navigate this site than it is to find information on the official site.

 6. The DIS Boards Forum (

A huge discussion board for everything Disney. It is run and moderated by those Dreams Unlimited guys. You will find loads of first hand information from fellow Disney fans & "guests".

 7. Touring Plans (

Len Testa, the creator of the touring plans in the Unofficial Guide, runs this website. Here you can get updated touring plans or create your own customized touring plans. They publish crowd estimates and predict wait times. If you want to minimize your time in the lines, you must use this site.

 +1: The Walt Disney World website (

When it's time to buy tickets or make reservations, it's time to go to the source. (Unless you are using a travel agency. I should cover that in a future post...)