You’d think that it’d be pretty hard to screw up a vacation to a resort with its very own Magic Kingdom, right? And yet every year, many of the folks journeying to Orlando, Florida’s Walt Disney World find ways to do exactly that… often by making rookie mistakes that more seasoned park goers know to avoid.
But if you’re planning your vacation to the second happiest place on earth (California’s Disneyland holds the official title), you might want to hit “print” right now, because this tip-filled guide is going to offer you all kinds of helpful advice from someone who’s been there (over 20 times), rode that (including the kiddie rides). So slip on your Mickey ears and comfy shoes (’cause while the song may claim that it’s a small world, this is one sprawling resort!), and let’s get this party started!
Walt Disney World is comprised of four huge parks, two water parks, dozens of hotels, hundreds of restaurants… you get the picture. So while it is theoretically possible to simply show up and have a great time, this is definitely the kind of trip where a little pre-planning will have a major impact on how much you are able to see and do.
Going in, the one thing to know is that unless you plan on spending about a month at the parks, there is simply no way you will be able to see and do everything. But how to decide what to put atop your “must-do” list? Turn to the expert. And chances are, they’re a lot closer than you think…
FRIENDS & FAMILY
There’s a really good chance that someone in your immediately circle of family and friends is a Disney freak. It’s okay, I can use that term, because I happen to be one. Folks like me tend to visit Disney World more often than we do the dentist, and we love nothing more than helping others plan their trips. Because if we can’t be there, the next best thing is thinking about being there. I’ll bet as soon as you read this paragraph, someone immediately came to mind. Why? Because Disney freaks tend not to be shy about the object of their obsession. And while that may sometimes annoy folks who don’t share our affinity, it also makes us the most valuable weapon in your vacation-planning arsenal. Heck, if you’ve realized who yours is, you can pretty much stop reading right now. Trust me… they’ll take good care of you. Everyone else? Read on…
Obviously, the first decision to be made is when to go. Not surprisingly, the times when it would be most convenient — school breaks if you have kids, holiday periods when you don’t have to work — are also the very worst periods in terms of both cost and crowds. You don’t truly know the definition of hell on earth until you’ve gone to Walt Disney World in the middle of July, when every child on the planet is on break and the average daily temperature is in about 92 degrees. A great resource for checking crowd levels during any particular time of year can be found at http://www.touringplans.com. For a low fee that’s well worth the price of admission, you can peruse to your hearts content information about the crowd levels you can expect on any given day.
The next decision is where to stay, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Disney freak who doesn’t recommend staying on property. And while you’ll pay a small fortune in order to bask in the luxury of such resorts as the Grand Floridian or Wilderness Lodge resorts, there are also several budget-friendly hotels on property, some of which can be had for as low as $79 a night, and all of which still offer that “Disney” magic. More importantly, they offer both access to the World’s transportation system and a perk called “Extra Magic Hours.” The latter allows guests staying in a WDW resort to enter parks early or stay in them late on various days of the week.
The other bonus to staying on property is how easy it makes nap time. And trust me, everyone in your party — from the tiniest toddler to the elder statesperson — will enjoy heading back to the hotel for a poolside siesta before heading back to the parks for the evening!
Your next decision involves ticketing. This essentially boils down to whether you want to do one park each day or whether you want to, say, visit the Magic Kingdom in the morning and then, after taking a mid-day break, head to Epcot for dinner and fireworks. In that case, you’ll need what is called a “park-hopper” pass. You can also purchase “add-ons” such as the Water Parks & More feature. In figuring out what option works best for your family, keep this in mind: Ticket prices actually drop the longer you are staying. For example, one-day, one-park tickets cost between $88 and $99 a pop. However, a 7-day ticket averages around $350 per person. Want the park-hopper option? Add another $60 or so. Or you can go for the most expensive option, allowing park hopping plus the Water Parks & More feature and your total, per adult, will be around $460.
Hey, nobody said the trip of a lifetime would be cheap!
Now that we’ve nailed down the details, it’s time to shift our attention to the fun stuff. Finally, we get to think about things like rides and restaurants and even meeting Mickey Mouse!
As I said before, you could just show up at Walt Disney World, pick a random park and go from there… but even if you’re fortunate enough (or a good enough planner) to be attending during the off-peak season, you could still find yourself standing in long lines or turned away at the restaurant you hoped to eat at. But in an effort to keep guests as happy as possible (while also managing the flow of human traffic to the best of their ability), Disney has come up with a system utilizing snazzy technology and the good ol’ interwebs to make planning your trip a little easier. Scratch that… a lot easier.
The Web site is called MyDisneyExperience.com, and it allows you to do everything from book a resort or restaurant reservation to picking a day and time at which you want to enjoy a specific attraction and, in essence, skip the line. (This particular service is called Fastpass, and if utilized correctly, it’ll become your bestest friend in the whole wide world.)
This is the part of the planning that can be, as they say, “fun for the whole family.” There are so many restaurants at Walt Disney World that if there’s not one featuring a menu that excites you, there’s a very good chance you’re dead. (In which case, you could probably apply for residency in the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion, where there’s a perpetual birthday feast taking place in the ballroom!) While there are plenty of fast-food options (generally referred to as “counter service”), there are also plenty of great sit-down restaurants featuring everything from interaction with Winnie The Pooh & Friends (the Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace) to an opportunity to meet some of the most popular princesses in all the lands (at EPCOT’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall).
Utilize not only the MyDisneyExperience site, but also such resources as AllEars.net or WDWinfo.com. Got questions about a particular restaurant, ride or experience? Register on WDWinfo.com’s message boards, where thousands of folks leave questions and get answers every day.
It’s all starting to sound a little overwhelming, isn’t it?
Well, it can be… if you let it. After all, there are literally books — with hundreds of pages — written on the topic of planning your Walt Disney World vacation!
But remember, your trip can be as planned or as spontaneous as you want it to be. The key is that it’s a vacation, and you want to have the best time possible. It’s also something of an investment, given how much money your average guest will spend during a trip to the House of Mouse, so it makes sense to do everything in your power to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible!
TOP 10 TIPS FOR SURVIVING DISNEY WORLD
So as Sweatpants & Coffee’s resident Disney expert, I’m going to offers up some of my most valuable advice, boiled down into bite-size nuggets that can be easily digested. If you take nothing else away from the time we’ve spent together, remember these things:
1) Don’t over plan. Sure, that seems like strange advice given what we’re here to discuss — not to mention everything that’s come before! But the worst thing one can possibly do is try and regiment every moment of your vacation… and this is true no matter where you’re going! But at Walt Disney World, it’s truer than almost anywhere else. Why? Because there’s so much to do that you need to be prepared for the best laid plans to be thrown off by the unexpected appearance of mice (or at least the famous mouse whose house this is) and men (just try and tell your kid that there’s no time in the schedule to have their picture taken with Aladdin!). In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff… and because you’re at Walt Disney World and not slaving away at your job, it’s all small stuff, right?
2) Take a break. If you’re spending a week at Walt Disney World, plan to spend one of those days — preferably, smack-dab in the middle of your stay — either at your resort or one of the two water parks on property. The last thing you want to do is burn out, which is really easy to do given how much there is to see and how huge the parks are. (The average guest will walk anywhere from 5 to 10 miles a day at Walt Disney World!) Every on-property resort has a great pool, and many have pool bars! At least twice during any given visit, you’ll find me lounging at Trout Pass, the Wilderness Lodge’s creek-side pool bar!
3) Let kids be kids. A Disney trip with children is completely different than one without kids, and it’s important to remember which type of vacation you’re on. When traveling with small children, the best thing you can possibly do is let them dictate the day’s flow. If while walking through Epcot, your kid becomes fascinated by — and wants to play in — one of the many interactive fountains, let them. (Sidenote: It’s always wise to have extra clothes in a backpack for when this happens!) I’ve seen more than one family’s vacation crumble because Mom and Dad are determined to drag their child to the Country Bear Jamboree when all said child really wants to do is try on each and every different type of Mickey Ears in the gift shop.
4) Factor in a little “me” time. Sure, you’re on this family vacation to have an awesome time with your loved ones. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making sure that the plan to “get away from it all” includes getting away from them all. Maybe schedule a spa treatment at one of the on-property resorts, or just take 30 minutes to sit in a quiet spot (believe it or not, plenty can be found!) and recharge your batteries. Couples should make time for themselves, too. Traveling with kids? Do something as simple as stepping outside the hotel room to sit on your balcony and hold hands after putting them to bed. It’ll do you both a world of good.
5) Hydrate. It seems such a silly, simple thing, but you’d be amazed how many people get so caught up in dashing about that they forget they’re often doing so on a hot day in Central Florida.
6) Unplug. Don’t be the person checking your e-mail every five minutes. And definitely don’t be the person chatting away on their cellphone while others are trying to enjoy whatever ride you happen to be on at the moment. Why interrupt your fantastic vacation (not to mention that of those around you) just to tell everyone back home about your fantastic vacation? You can make them jealous when you get back.
7) Let yourself have fun. You can take yourself as seriously as you want in the real world, but if you don’t get your picture taken with Goofy or strike a funny pose in front of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers vehicle (as my sister and her hubby did here), you’re missing out!
8) Know what you’re selling. Before getting the kids all excited about going on Space Mountain, make sure they’re tall enough to actually enjoy the ride. Just because they think they’re ready to tackle the awesome Expedition Everest coaster over in the Animal Kingdom doesn’t mean the fine folks at Disney will let them on! Likewise, know your child’s limitations. You can tell them the Haunted Mansion isn’t really scary until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean they’ll believe you. Taking them on a ride they’re simply not ready for could turn into a terrifying experience for both of you.
9) Capture the moment. While admiring the gorgeous gardens at Epcot, don’t just stop to smell the roses… take pictures of them. In this age of digital photography, there’s no such thing as too many photographs. Take advantage of the numerous photographers you’ll find stationed around the parks. Although they will snap pictures with their cameras so you may buy them later, most will also gladly take a pic with your camera. Consider buying one of the packages — available for purchase months in advance — which allow you to receive a disc with all of the pictures these photographers snap of your party during the week. You can also arrange for the pics snapped on various rides to be put on the disc. And you know you’re gonna want to buy the pic of Aunt Selena screaming her head off on Splash Mountain!
10) Embrace the madness. No matter how much or how little planning you do, there are going to be times when Walt Disney World goes from the happiest place on earth to the must frustrating. When every single Magic Kingdom guest tries to exit the park at the same time following the night’s fireworks display, things are going to get hectic. There will be lines. Heck, the longest lines you stand in all week may be the ones to get out of the park at closing time! You can shove and push and grouse, or you can meander, taking in the sites, stop in a few shops… in other words, enjoy every moment, not just the “magical” ones. In the long run, this approach will make you (and everyone in your party) a far happier camper.