03/22/2012 12:51 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

There's an App for That... My Family Trip to Disney World and Universal Studios

Now that my leg muscles have recovered from trekking my kids around Disney World in a double stroller for five days, pushing 100 pounds about 10 miles each day, I thought it would be worthwhile to write about my trip. One of the interesting changes to the Disney trip of yore is how technology has impacted the experience. This can be seen in the rides, where 3-D technology is taking over. It can also be seen in how you plan your days and navigate the parks -- thanks to mobile apps.

Before our trip, I downloaded three Disney/Universal apps to my iPhone -- the two free official apps for the parks and a third unofficial app called WDW Lines. I checked out the apps before leaving and was able to set up a great game plan. Thanks to the WDW Lines app, included as part of a one-year membership to their website, I was able to get projected crowd numbers for every Disney park throughout my stay. I could then pre-plan which days to attend which parks. I had my plan for the week set: Day one at Magic Kingdom, day two at Animal Kingdom, day three at Hollywood Studios, day four at Universal and day five at Epcot.

Additionally, thanks to the same great app, I was able to have strategic plans for navigating the parks at my fingertips, optimized for the ages of my kids and including wait times and projected show and parade schedules. These plans were invaluable -- they probably saved me a good two to three hours a day of line waiting. For instance, at the beginning of the day at Hollywood Studios, there was no wait at Star Tours, per the advice of WDW Lines. The app also recommended using the first Disney FASTPASS of the day on Toy Story Mania. We picked up the FASTPASS 30 minutes after opening and by 11 a.m. they were sold out of FASTPASSes altogether. When we arrived, during our window to go on the ride, there was a two hour wait in the regular line! The FASTPASS line took five minutes. A 10-minute walk to pick up the FASTPASS first thing in the morning saved nearly two hours, all thanks to the advice of an app.

Unfortunately, the official Disney app, Disney Parks, was not as helpful for planning ahead. For a reason I cannot figure out, Disney does not allow access to park information, apart from a map and some videos on the app, until GPS locates the user within the actual park. One would think Disney would want to make available information for popular shows like Fantasmic. Additionally, if people knew before arrival which rides tend to run out of FASTPASSes first, they would be able to plan a strategic FASTPASS approach beforehand.

Once in Magic Kingdom, with full access to the Disney Parks app, I actually found myself relying more on WDW Lines than Disney Parks for information on ride wait times and FASTPASS time windows. WDW Lines uses crowdsourcing to give to-the-minute wait estimates and tells you when the estimate was last reported, whereas Disney Parks used arbitrary adjectives to describe wait times, like "moderate wait." What is a moderate wait? And if the sign outside the ride can have a number estimate, why doesn't the app? It would seem a simple software program could connect the two and it is a fix Disney should look to implement.

One thing I wish I did have, but needed to use the web to access, was an app for both menu and reservation availability for restaurants inside Disney. This is something Disney could easily do, as Open Table has, and would be very helpful for planning meals on the fly.

On day two, I discovered the main problem with pre-planning: the weather. Unfortunately, the apps had nothing in the way of rainy day advice. A quick search on my mobile browser made it clear that on rainy days, Epcot was better than Animal Kingdom. Thus, we moved Animal Kingdom to day five. Crowds at Epcot were light due to the rain, so I found myself less dependent on the apps, beyond FASTPASS advice from WDW Lines to immediately get a FASTPASS for Soarin' (which was fabulous advice). When we picked up our passes at 11:30 a.m., they were already nearly out, subjecting park goers to 90-minute waits.

Day three at Hollywood Studios was great. The only piece of advice the apps were missing, which a friend actually gave to us, was to get the kids signed up early for Jedi training. We did, and I now have a picture of my 4-year-old son battling Darth Vader with a light saber, which will be framed in my office.

Day four at Universal is where the app love stops. Universal's official park app was awful and WDW Lines did not work in Universal. No wait time estimates. No menus for restaurants. No advice. While the roundabout interface of the Universal app was aesthetically cool, it was a nightmare to use. Universal needs to fix the interface and the information available.

Back in the Disney-run parks, day five at Animal Kingdom was another the apps improved. We successfully used three FASTPASSes based on the WDW Lines suggestions and crowd-sourced return time windows. As a result of this information, we experienced no wait for the Safari and Everest roller coasters and Rapids ride. All three rides had more than one hour wait times without FASTPASS.

Overall, the apps made park navigation easier and the trip more successful. During a peak traffic week, we were able to do something once thought to be impossible -- navigate the four Disney parks in one day apiece. However, I think there is huge room for growth with the apps, and hopefully Disney and Universal will upgrade their official apps to make future visits easier and more enjoyable.