Before even setting foot on Main Street U.S.A., the savvy Tomorrowland family who wants to make the most of its day will visit one of the numerous Disney park fan websites to help them plan the trip.
If you have your sights on Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., you'll have to throw in airfare, hotels and even more theme park admissions.
"A vacation to Walt Disney World is a pretty expensive vacation, especially if you're bringing a family," said Deb Wills, founder and owner of the unofficial Disney fan site allearsnet.com. "If you want to get the most value out of your vacation, you need to prepare."
Wills traces her fascination with Disney theme parks to a visit to the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where as a child she was entranced by the "It's a Small World" exhibit. When Wills, a resident of suburban Washington, D.C., began a career of caring for disabled adults in the mid-1970s, the work included frequent trips to Walt Disney World. AllEarsnet.com grew out of several Disney park online newsgroups and was launched in 1999.
The site provides tips, reader reviews and recommendations, more than 4,000 photographs (including more than 100 from each of the resorts), and menus from every restaurant on Disney property in Orlando.
"We offer what we believe is an unbiased, objective view of Walt Disney World," Wills said. The site has clearly become popular: It has 4 million to 5 million page views and more than 500,000 unique visitors a month, she said. (A unique visitor is someone who may visit a website many times but is counted only once.) Its weekly e-mail newsletter has 56,000 subscribers. There is even a section of the site for travelers with special needs.
The depth of information on AllEarsnet.com far exceeds that on official Disney sites I visited. Getting to any useful information on Disney.com requires several clicks, and the site is not intuitive.
"The Disney.com website is a wonderful site, but it can be difficult to locate what you're looking for," said Alex Stroup, chief executive of mouseplanet.com, another unofficial site that features Disneyland and Disney World information.
MousePlanet.com offers ease of use, and some objectivity about rides, attractions and information that Disney.com doesn't necessarily provide, Stroup said.
"Some rides are better than other rides," said Stroup, who employs between 10 to 15 writers who report daily on developments in the parks. Though the writers are big Disney fans, they try to step back and offer some perspective. "We try to provide objective consumer-oriented views on everything," Stroup said.
Disney, known for closely protecting its trademarks, takes a hands-off approach to the unofficial sites. "We don't really comment on other people's websites," said Walt Disney World spokesman Charles Stovall.
There are several additional fan sites for both parks. For a listing of amusement park and official and unofficial Disney park websites, visit http://www.johnnyjet.com , click on "traveling with the family" under "more categories," then "Disney vacations."
Contact James Gilden at http://www.theinternettraveler.com .