Oh . . . Disney World.
For some people, those two words evoke fear and a white-knuckled clutching of the wallet. For others, the words instantly add a little pep to their step and a noticeable sparkle to their eyes. So what’s the difference? After taking my two sons, ages 11 and 13, to Disney World for the first time with my brother (a Disney pro) and his family, I think I know. Those who love it know the ins and the outs, and those who don’t love it have visited Disney World while flying blind. There is SO MUCH to research before visiting Disney, but the more you know, the more you will enjoy the Disney magic. Let me help!
- Plan far in advance. Like really far in advance. A Disney vacation is magical, but the magic doesn’t happen by accident. Disney veterans book hotel rooms and restaurant reservations and fast passes months in advance, so a Disney vacation is a good fit for parents who enjoy the journey as much as the destination. If you don’t like to plan, you might consider using a travel agent. Or going somewhere else. Or adopting my brother, who revels in the planning as much as he enjoys the actual trip. (Yes, Scott, I said something nice about you . . . Publicly . . . Soak it up! Love you, and thanks for all of your planning!)
- Consider staying on Disney property. Many families rule out staying on property before considering the perks or looking for promotions that cut the cost. Among other benefits, families who stay on Disney property can book fast passes earlier and can choose from a variety of free transportation options to get from one park or hotel to another. At least think about it.
- Don’t be afraid of the word “value.” Value resorts are less expensive than the moderate and deluxe resorts at Disney World, but “value” does not mean low quality. We stayed at All-Star Sports, and it was clean and comfortable with themed buildings, fun designs, and good food. Since we enjoyed the parks from early morning until dark almost every day, the time we spent at our hotel was minimal. It probably would have been a waste for us to invest in a higher-end resort, and the sports theme was perfect for our four active boys.
- Research meal plans and watch for promotions. Disney sometimes offers promotions that provide your family with some free Disney meals. We booked during a promotion that provided one quick service meal (basically fast food) at any Disney park or hotel for each person each day. It was heavenly to be able to scan our magic bands for one meal a day without cringing at the prices on the menu. Paying in advance for additional meals through a meal plan is tempting, but we were rarely hungry enough to eat three full meals a day, so buying a full meal plan would not be cost effective for us. My kids were often satisfied with a simple snack or two while they were riding roller coasters in the heat of the day between breakfast and dinner, and we treated ourselves to a few sit-down dinners throughout the week, like pizza at Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria.
- Check out all of your transportation options. During our stay, we used the Disney buses at some point every day, but we also hopped on the monorail a couple of times, which I remember being so exciting when I visited Disney World for the first time at five-years-old. My kids loved it, too. One of the highlights of our trip was the night we caught a free boat ride (water taxi) from the Polynesian Village Resort, where we had attended a luau (a gift from my brother for my birthday), to the Magic Kingdom. It was a magical experience since we could see the fireworks above and the light parade on the water and since we were the only people on the boat. And this experience cost nothing extra and wasn’t even a part of the theme parks! Not all transportation options are available at every Disney location, so check in advance and try the ones that you can.
- Expect that food will cost more than you think. I was prepared for the typical (and ridiculous) amusement park food prices at Disney, but I found the Disney prices to be even higher than I expected. Of course, my sons eat like adults now, so I was buying for three “grownups.” Breakfasts averaged $20-30 for the three of us. Lunches averaged $40-55 (except these were covered by our promotional meal plan – hallelujah). Dinners at sit-down restaurants were WAY expensive, around $75 or more for the three of us, so we did not splurge on this often. Plus, we could easily spend $8-10 on a snack and a drink for one person in the parks during the day. You are permitted to pack snacks and water bottles, which we did, and we have some generous grandmas and aunts and uncles who sponsored a few meals because they are so sweet (thank you!), but I will warn you that those Disney people are smart, and their treats are cute and tempting and delicious. I would say that the cost of food was the most overwhelming expense, but I can also say that we did not have a bad meal anywhere, at any price level. Disney food is tasty!
- Consider purchasing the Memory Maker Photo Pass. This is not inexpensive, but my brother and his wife decided to buy it, and we all appreciated their investment very much. There are Disney photographers all over the theme parks, often stationed in front of landmarks like the EPCOT ball or Cinderella’s castle. With the Memory Maker Photo Pass, you can ask any of these photographers to take your family’s photo as often as you want throughout the week. Disney also snaps your photograph on most of the thrill rides, and these pictures are hilarious. At the end of the week, you can download all of the photos to your own computer. Our best photos from our trip are the Photo Pass photographs.
- Don’t miss opportunities to “rider swap.” Since we were traveling with a three-year-old, the older kids and adults could never ride a thrill ride as one group because someone always needed to stay with the littlest person. Rider swap allowed the adult who was waiting plus a couple additional family members to ride immediately after the others finished so that the family did not have to stand in the same long line twice just so that everyone could ride. This is a very cool and very family-friendly benefit, and many people don’t realize it’s available.
- Fast passes are amazing, but do your research. Fast passes allow you to book several ride times in advance for each day so that you do not have to wait in long lines for every ride. For those of us who visited Disney many years ago, this gives us yet another opportunity to tell our children just how spoiled they are! Seriously, though, the fast passes allow you to see so much more of the parks in a day because you aren’t wasting ridiculous amounts of time in line. However, we often saw people using fast passes on rides that don’t typically have a long wait anyway, and you can’t book more fast passes until you have used your first ones, so make sure that you carefully research to see which rides typically have the longest lines.
- Load the “My Disney Experience” app to keep an eye on wait times in real time. Again, kids these days have no idea what life was like without instant gratification! Now, using this app on your phone, you can easily see which areas of each park are busy and which are not at any given time. We often found rides with waits of 5-15 minutes and dashed to those to avoid waiting in long lines. Sweeeeet. Truthfully, with the fast passes and this app, we spent very little time waiting around.
- If you are traveling with a multi-generational group, plan to meet the needs of everyone. There are experiences at Disney World for people of all ages and for families that have a wide variety of interests, and many of the rides and shows are entertaining for almost everyone. Young children are able to ride most of the rides, and the classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean are fun to enjoy together. But there may be times when dividing and conquering makes more sense, so think ahead about who loves roller coasters and who doesn’t and what each person absolutely does not want to leave Disney World without seeing.
- Enjoy that visiting Disney World is a truly global experience. I had not visited Disney World for over twenty years, so I had forgotten that people from ALL OVER THE WORLD see our Disney World as an exciting vacation destination. I have never heard so many languages spoken in one place! Even our “neighbors” at our hotel were visiting from England. Disney employees wear nametags that share where they are from (which is a detail that I LOVE), and those employees represent countries from all around the world. This is especially apparent at EPCOT where the employees are often from the countries that they staff in the World Showcase. Even with this global influence, however, we realized just how small the world really is. (Cue the “It’s a Small World” music!) We met a Disney employee from our own town in Ohio, saw a family wearing t-shirts from another local high school, and attracted Ohioans like moths to a flame by wearing Ohio State shirts. Pack a shirt that represents something local to you and see if you meet anyone new as a result!
- Pack your patience. We didn’t wait long for rides most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t do our fair share of waiting. We waited for the bus. We waited for the monorail. We waited to have our bags checked by security each morning. We waited in line for food. But we were on vacation, and we weren’t going to allow a bit of waiting to ruin our fun. Bring your patience and be nice. Or stay home.
- Expect to make new friends – because Disney World can be crowded. At some point, you will be waiting in line for a ride, and you will feel just a little claustrophobic. At some time, you will be standing on a Disney bus because there is nowhere left to sit. At some moment, you will find yourself caught in an undertow of people because you just happen to be in the busiest part of the park at that minute. I was actually surprised that the parks weren’t as busy as I expected them to be in June, but, again, bring your patience or stay home.
- Disney “hunts” can add another layer of fun to your visit. My kids and their cousins enjoyed collecting smashed pennies across the parks. Penny smashers (machines that heat a penny and then smash and imprint it with a commemorative image for 50 cents per penny) can be found all over each of the parks and even at the resorts. You can buy penny collection books in the gift shops, and my boys especially enjoyed documenting their favorite rides with smashed pennies and finding penny smashers in every country in the World Showcase in EPCOT. Another more expensive option is to buy and trade Disney pins across the parks. If you are going this route and want to save some cash, check Ebay or similar sites for lanyards and pins before your trip. And there are free options, as well, like searching for “hidden Mickeys,” images of Mickey that are hidden in the designs and architecture across the parks, or playing interactive games throughout the parks like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom.
- Trust that Disney World will provide a clean, comfortable environment for you. Disney World prides itself in being the happiest place on earth – and this is not a joke to them. The employees are, for the most part, exceptionally kind and helpful, and it is easy to find what you need there, including restrooms, which are abundant. In addition, everything is exceptionally clean. We were surprised to see employees clearing standing water from sidewalks and using squeegees to dry any wet surface after a rain, including clearing water droplets from the tops of the trash cans. There are places to rest in the shade when you need a break. No matter what your personal concerns, Disney World will try to provide the best experience that they possibly can.
- Watch for the magical moments. Disney prides itself in “magical moments,” unexpected small joys that visitors may experience at any time. For example, one afternoon we just happened to walk by a snack stand at Magic Kingdom where we were handed $6 Mickey pretzels – my older son’s favorite treat – for free. All of us! I’m not sure why this happened, but it did, and it brought big smiles to our family and several others. On my birthday, I received unexpected birthday greetings from Disney employees who brightened my day. While watching the Festival of Fantasy parade, the Little Mermaid, sitting high on a float, singled out my three-year-old nephew to show him that his red hair matches hers. He was thrilled by the attention. The Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor featured a joke that my younger son submitted while we waited in line, and my eight-year-old nephew had an awesome encounter with a Storm Trooper who asked him if he was a member of the First Order. In another special moment, a Disney cast member played rock, paper, scissors with our kids through a window, entertaining them while we waited for the Country Bear Jamboree. It was such a simple gesture, but it was surprisingly special. If you visit Disney, please slow down and enjoy the magic!
- If you really want to be Disney trendy, consider creating unique family t-shirts or “Disney bounding.” Family t-shirts may sound cheesy, but trust me when I say that some families had designed some really cool, professional-looking styles with clever plays on words. Disney bounding is all about assembling fashionable, modern outfits that are inspired by Disney characters. Check it out online; it’s much cooler than it sounds! I am thankful to all of the people who go the extra mile to do these things because watching for them brought some extra joy to our trip!
- Soak up the amazing Disney details! Before we went to Disney World, my kids imagined that the Disney parks would be like the amusement parks they had visited before, and I couldn’t really explain to them why Disney is different. But once we entered the Magic Kingdom, I remembered that the difference, which is significant, is all about the details. As a whole, the details at Disney create an atmosphere that feels like a fantasy, but the experience is richer when you take the time to truly appreciate the details of every Disney experience. Notice the circus peanuts embedded in the concrete that leads to the Dumbo ride. Notice how the Mary Poppins cast member looks and acts just like Mary Poppins would, correcting children and corralling rambunctious little ones for a picture using her umbrella. Notice the exquisite costumes and meticulous makeup in the Festival of Fantasy parade. Notice that the change you receive after each purchase is shiny and new. Notice the witch at the door of Snow White’s house as you finish riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Notice the creative designs of the snacks in The Confectionary. Notice the amazing details that make you feel like you shrunk in the Toy Story Mania ride at Hollywood Studios and the incredible environment all around you in the new Pandora section of Animal Kingdom. The details are incredible. Notice them.
- Know that, sadly, you can’t do it all, even in a week. We spent five and a half days in Disney parks. That is a long Disney World vacation. Five of those days, we arrived at the parks around the time that they opened. Five of those days, we left the parks after dark. We used fast passes and checked wait times to make the most of our time and took advantage of every moment. Still, we hardly watched any of the live shows at any of the parks. We never sat in one place long enough to watch an entire display of fireworks. There were rides that we had hoped to revisit, but we ran out of time. We didn’t have a chance to explore Disney Springs or to enjoy our resort pool very much or to go mini-golfing on Disney property. Even in a week, you can’t do it all. There is so, so much that you can do!
So if you decide to splurge on a Disney vacation, do your research and invest in the planning so that you can enjoy the experience as much as we did. My boys really want to go back . . . but we have a lot of saving to do until then! But that’s okay. Disney reminded us that there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow waiting at the end of every day, whether you are at a Disney park or just enjoying life with a Disney World mindset at home!