I was vaguely aware of some disagreement in the Disney fan community over the Unofficial Guide. Reading some message boards, it seemed that some saw it as too "anti-Disney" while others swore by the book as an honest guide to handling the massive Walt Disney World properties. I bought a copy to see what all the fuss was about, and hoping that it might bring me up to speed on anything that had changed since our last visit in October of 2010. After wading through almost all of the book's 854 pages, I can see both sides of the argument. A friend asked me about the book as a way to get excited about a future trip to Disney World and that made me think about just how I would recommend it. In short, I think anyone headed to Walt Disney World will find some very useful information in the Unofficial Guide, but I wouldn't want it to be a first time visitor's only resource to prepare for a trip.
The Unofficial Guide is two things first and foremost -- it is thorough and it is honest. The authors, Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa, know the parks inside and out and make use of a whole team of researchers as well as comments from past editions' readers. The reader comments are featured in blue italics and offer some of the most entertaining reading you'll find anywhere. The authors have done a great job of offering a variety of opinions, and on many Disney subjects, opinions vary wildly. It's not only the huge variety of offerings inside Disney's property that are covered in this book, also covered are outside accommodations (including rental homes), area restaurants and also Universal Studios and Sea World (although not in as much detail). Inside Walt Disney World Resort, every attraction, lodging, restaurant and golf course is reviewed. The book is very much an instruction manual for getting the most for your time and money. It has no photographs, but does have maps (46 to be exact) and charts.
Oh boy, do Len and Bob love them some charts! Want to know which rides scare which age of child, based on survey results? There's a chart. Want to know which resorts have what amenities and room sizes? How long it will take you from any resort to the entrance of any park by car or Disney transportation, with and without heavy traffic? Ticket pricing? Price of an average day? Crowd levels? Wait times? Climate? Len and Bob have a chart for you. They like charts and maps. They like a plan. Actually, their website is called http://touringplans.com/. They have used surveys, personal experience and mathematical crowd tracking algorithms (for real) to figure out how to see the most attractions in each park in the least amount of time. According to readers, they work, although they require a lot of discipline and a willingness to trek back and forth across the park quite a bit.
This is where my reluctance to recommend this book to first timers comes into play. If you look at a Disney vacation as a mathematical exercise, trying to wring the most experience and least cost out of every minute, you will miss the magic. Walt Disney World is the unique destination it is because it is an immersive experience. Disney is more than a collection of rides and shows and restaurants and hotels. I'm sure you could save money staying off-property and driving in every day, or leaving each afternoon to eat in Orlando or Kissimmee, but you'd be missing out on the reason for going to Disney in the first place. For me and my family, and others who "get it", Disney offers escape from the hassles of the real world. It's worth it to us to spend more to not have to leave the magic while we are there, it's ok if we have to wait in a line. We even like the buses. I think a first time visitor would gain useful knowledge from the Unofficial Guide, but should also keep an open mind about what to allow themselves to experience.
With that said, I'm going to address a few common "debates" concerning a Disney vacation in my next few posts. I'll cover staying on-site vs. off, using your own car vs. Disney transportation and the Dining Plan vs. no Dining Plan. My answers won't fit everyone, but I think they may at least give you food for thought.