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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Smarty Tips for Visiting Disney World

By Rachel H

We took our first family trip to Disney World this past October and I can honestly say it was the best week of 2009! My mom was recovering from chemotherapy, and this was exactly the “magical” experience she needed in her life. My children were six and four, which were great ages for our first trip. My father and sister also joined us. So, we had seven people on this vacation. My goal in today’s blog is to share with you what worked for us. Every family has different priorities when going on vacation, so some of you may have had a totally different experience. I can say that we did not encounter any problems on the trip and it was relaxed and enjoyable for everyone, so use what you can below and add thoughts of your own.

We chose to buy a six-day park-hopper pass. This means you can visit any of the four parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios as many times as you wish during those six days. You can also split days up and visit more than one park on any given day. This is also nice because you never know which park your family will like the best and where you may want to visit again...

#1 – I think the single most important factor when planning your Disney trip is deciding what time of the year to visit. We went the last week in October. We did not stand in long lines at all. One day we did stand in line for about 20 minutes for a ride that we just had to do one more time and unfortunately did not have a “Fast Pass” (I’ll explain more about those later). Other than that, we never waited much more than five minutes. The weather was in the 90’s all week, so we wore shorts and were able to swim in the pool at our rental home. You will need to factor in weather and crowds when deciding when to go, and decide what you can tolerate. According to a fabulous book titled PassPorter’s Walt Disney World that some friends gave me, the best times of year to visit are January and February (not including President’s week), the end of August (although temperatures are hot at this time), September, October, November and December (with the exception of any holiday weeks).

#2 – Stay on property or off? Again, there are pluses to both. When I went as a child, we stayed on the property, but with seven of us on this recent trip, we wanted to be able to all stay together and wanted plenty of room without spending a lot of money. We rented a home in the Windsor Palms neighborhood, which is a vacation resort in Kissimmee, Orlando . The house we rented was clean, had a well-stocked kitchen, and a pool. It took us five to ten minutes to drive to the park each morning. We were able to park very close and walk right in. The only park where you need to take a monorail is the Magic Kingdom. Another plus to staying in a house was that we came home for dinner every day but one. With the ages of my children, I knew they might not last all day. We would arrive as soon as the parks opened and then head home around 4pm. My dad cooked dinner for us every night. (Isn’t he the best?!?!) We saved a ton of money and did not have to deal with overly tired, cranky kids. One day we did do a marathon day at Magic Kingdom where we stayed from open to close and had a blast. We also had the option of going back in the evenings to see parades or shows.

If you do decide to stay on Disney property, be sure to read our blog about Martha Nichols, Disney Planner for Aladdin Travel. She can help you plan your entire Disney Vacation and receives her commission from Disney, so you do not pay anything out of pocket! This is a fabulous way to go, especially if you have never been to Disney World before.

#3 – Food – If staying on the Disney property, you can sign up for a meal plan, which many of my friends said worked out well for them. Since we were not on the property, we ate a quick breakfast at home each morning, and then packed a cooler with drinks and snacks. We bought lunch at the parks most days and did pack a lunch from home for a few days as well. The meals are definitely on the expensive side, so the more food you can bring with you, the better. I will admit that most of the lunches we had were just OK. Although, the dinner we had in Magic Kingdom was fantastic.

#4 – Character Meals – This is one where I am sure many people will disagree with me. We did two character meals – one was Donald’s Tusker House Breakfast in Animal Kingdom and the other was the Princess lunch in Epcot at Norway (this one was just for the girls in our group). Honestly, I probably would not do the character breakfast again. Here’s why – we saw Donald, Goofy, Mickey, etc. at the character breakfast and although it was a great start to our week, we ended up seeing all of those characters again throughout the rest of our week. The breakfasts are not cheap, and I would have rather used that money on something else. BUT, and this is a big but, if you are going to do the meal plan, the character meals are great. And another but – if you are going to be in Disney during a busy time of year, the character meals are a must because the lines you will have to wait in to actually get an autograph from the characters will be out of control. On the other hand, I definitely thought the Princess Lunch was worth the money because you will not see princess throughout the park and will not be able to get pictures of autographs unless you are at a princess lunch/breakfast.

#5 - Magic heights – 40, 44, and 48 inches. If your children are close to, but not quite at these heights yet, I personally would wait a little longer to book your trip. Again, just my advice, but my daughter was exactly 40 inches this year. She is four years old, and since she was 40 inches tall, she was able to ride every ride that she wanted without being turned away for being too short! My son was exactly 48 inches, and six years old. He likes the more dare-devilish rides, and he also was able to ride everything he wanted. (Shoes do make a difference if your child is close to the cut-off!)

#6 - Fast Pass – I did not understand this whole concept at first. I thought it was something you had to buy ahead of time. No, nothing like that – it is just plain and simple AWESOME. The Fast Pass is a way to kind of “save a spot in line” for some of the most popular rides. Let’s say you know that everyone in your group wants to ride Space Mountain, but when you get there, you see that it is a 20 minute wait. All you do is take your park ticket (which is like a credit card) and slide it through the Fast Past Kiosk. It will print a little ticket for you that tells you a time to return. Come back to Space Mountain during that time slot, and you will get to go through the Fast Pass line, which nine times out of ten means you walk right on the ride. How cool is that? One tip is to let one person be in charge of the Fast Passes and let them keep all your park tickets together. So, while you are headed to Small World and Dad doesn’t want to ride Small World, he can take all of your park tickets to Space Mountain, swipe them through, and get fast passes for the entire family. *Take note that you can only have a fast pass for one ride at a time!

Here are a few more quick tips that worked for my family:

•In order to avoid “the gimmies”, tell your children that they can have one souvenir/gift at the end of each day. Only one. They can keep their eyes open for their special gift and most of the time they end up choosing an inexpensive item and you have saved yourself telling them no all day long.
•Stroller – bring your own. It was no trouble at all to load it on the monorail. There are stroller parking zones by each ride, so you don’t have to worry about where to put it. You can store all your coolers, snacks, and ponchos in it, and you will never hear the kids whine about being tired! My six year old was way too old to be in a stroller, but we borrowed a double one from a friend of mine and I have no regrets about using it.
•Enter the park before opening time in order to get a great parking spot and to see the “Good Morning Song” that they do at many of the parks. The one at Magic Kingdom brought tears to my eyes because I was so excited that we were actually there and my kids were getting to see this magical place. I know, what a sap! It was great, and the characters all came riding in on the train, too!
•Upon entering the parks, go straight to most popular rides – you can ride them immediately or get a fast pass and then go back. If you get to the parks when they open, you can ride plenty of things with no lines at all, but may want to get a fast pass to ride them again later.
•Get a spot for all the parades by sitting down at least an hour early. The sidewalks fill up quickly. You can have one person hold your spot while others shop, or take a snack break. Be sure to watch for the shady side for the daytime parades. It can get really hot in the sun.
•Be sure to either take (or buy once you get there) autograph books and pens. It is a big deal to get autographs and pictures from all the characters.
•Photopass - this is where Disney gives you a card (looks like a credit card) and you can give it to any Disney photographer at any time. They will take your photo and all the photos will be accessible to you online in your own photo album! This is a great way to share the link with friends so they can see your photos. You do have to purchase the photos through the Photopass system though, and they are fairly expensive. We did end of buying a few and they were fantastic!

For more tips from a true Disney Connoisseur, be sure to read Martha Nichols’ tips included her blog. If you have read my tips today and still feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, Martha is a great help! I know I was so overwhelmed when I started planning, but even if you just show up at Disney with no planning, you are always going to have a magical experience!

And good news – stay tuned because next week I will have another Disney blog explaining all four theme parks and the rides & shows we think you shouldn’t miss! I’ll also have a few tips on how to plan your day of fun at each park.


Jen P. said...

Great, great tips! We went the week after Thanksgiving last year and it was still super busy. Fast Pass planning was K-E-Y, a very critical element to the success of the day. I agree with the character breakfast, they spend all of 2 minutes with you and each breakfast costs close to $20. Along these lines, I was extremely disappointed in how the character visits are these days. I grew up going to Disney World (lived only 2 hours away) and there was nothing cooler than Goofy sneaking up behind you and giving you a hug. Now, everything is so staged and a 30-minute wait for each character. We had a great trip but my hubby is just NOT a Disney guy! We got into our 2nd major fight in our 10-year marriage on our way in to Disney World. The end result - the next Disney trip we take when the twins are old enough - hubby is not invited. He has to fork over some major coin to put up me, my kids and my big sis and we're staying at the Grand Floridian (yah, right!)! But that's how we left it - he was that bad. His response - that will be worth every penny! So I guess he better start saving now - maybe we'll make it back before the kids go off to college!

Heather said...

Where did you get a character breakfast for $20? Ours were all at least $30 per person!

Jenna said...

Great blog Rachel! So glad you had a magical experience!

Naomi said...

Thanks for this. We've been thinking about Disney for awhile now, and have often wondered the best ages to take our kids. My daughter is 6 and son is 3, so we may wait another year. And I'll check how tall they are too!

Great post!!

Michelle W said...

You mentioned that you packed lunch a couple of days.... I have read a couple of different places that the park policies are that you can't bring in outside food. Did you have "sneak" the food in or did you just carry it on in?

I agree that in order not to stand in a long line to meet the characters the meals are very worth it, plus most of the ones I have been to have good food. I will say the characters will spend more time with you at the meals if you engage them and interact with them.

One of my fave sites for planning a Disney trip is
under the rate/review section you can read comments from people who were just there.

Carrie said...

We also went to Disney at the end of October with our three boys, ages 5, 3, and 9 months. It was great. Very hot, but great. We brought snacks, drinks, and lunch into the parks every day and had no problem. They search all your bags but no one ever said anything to us about the food. I totally agree about the characters and suggest you avoid them if you can. Unless your kids are really into getting autographs just skip the characters all together. They take up so much of your time waiting in line. Another life saver for us were the great playgrounds that are in each park now. When our kids would start to melt down we would take a break at one of the playgrounds, like the Boneyard in Animal Kingdom or Pooh's Playful Place in Magic Kingdom. The same kids who could barely walk a minute ago would run around and become revitalized for the rest of the day. On that note, bring a stroller for anyone under 7, it is a LOT of walking. Also AAA has a preferred parking pass that lets you park right up front, very nice to have.

Rachel H said...

To Michelle - we took food and drinks into all four theme parks and no one ever said anything. They check all bags upon entering, so I think if there was a problem, they would have let us know. So I think you are good to bring in any food or drink!

I did want to clarify that even though I don't think I would pay for a character breakfast again, I do think getting the autographs and photos was a lot of fun. My children really got into it and loved their autograph books. So, if the lines are not long, I do think most kids would enjoy it. And like I said - the Princess lunch at Norway was terrific and the food was yummy there, too!

Thanks for all the helpful comments thus far! Keep 'em coming!

Becca said...

We just went in November. This makes me want to go again! Fantastic advice!

Anonymous said...

I used to live in Tampa, so we've spent a lot of time at Disney.

We loved the Character Lunch at Hollywood & Vine at Hollywood Studios. They have a buffet only, so there are good food options for everyone (better than I expected). And, the characters come to your table which is nice (no waiting in line). They have breaks where the kids get up and dance with the characters, too. I'd highly recommend.

Also, I'd recommend having a plan but being flexible. The night before, have everyone go over the park map and pick a couple of "must do's" then plan a strategy. For example, have someone run ahead and get Jungle Crusie fast passes and then do Aladin, Pirates of the Carribean, Tiki Hut, etc. until Fast Pass time. With a plan, it's amazing how much you can "do" in a couple of hours.

Best advice - don't expect too much and enjoy every minute. I'm always amazed at all the miserable people at Disney.

Kelly G. said...

Even though it isn't part of the Disney park, I have to take a minute to recommend a trip to Sea World if you get tired of being at Disney (I know, impossible, right?). Although it's been ages since I went there, it was a blast, and great for any science-y kids in the family, or kids who love animals. You can pet dolphins and rays, feed some animals, and the shows are a great built-in rest time. Here's a tip—don't sit right down front at the shows. All of the whales and dolphins know how to splash water out of the tanks, and that water is about 50°.

Mom of Boys said...

To save $ on souvenirs, Dollar Stores have tons of Disney items. We did not tell our kids until the morning of our trip - best surprise ever! Here's a tip a friend shared with me before our trip. I spent about twenty bucks on souvenirs and treats and then the Disney Fairy left them a treat every night. It saved us a boatload at the actual park - and the neon necklaces were a huge hit the night we did the Laser Show at Epcot. No one whined about wanting stuff! It was a treat. I also went to the Disney Store site and purchased clearance Mickey Mouse shirts for $6 each. We also packed a meal daily for lunch - and the Tom Sawyer Island was the perfect place for a picnic. No crowds, park setting - highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

We are taking our first trip in April. Our children's ages are 10,7,and 4. I have heard that the Disney pin trading is SUPER fun for everyone. I have purchased lanyards and Disney Pins off of ebay at a fraction of the on site cost (so I hear). We too went to Disney store online and purchased quite a few t-shirts at 2.50-6.99 a piece. I have been rewarding the kids with "mom bucks" that can be spent at our disney store in the hotel room :) The store will include the t-shirts, more pins, some fun little disney things that you can purchase from the dollar store ahead of time. I plan on allowing them to pick out a souvenir everyday, but don't want to have to say no all day when they want little stuff. I am excited about the tips and can't wait to go!

Jill said...

This is way after the fact, but in case anyone re-looks at this post when planning their upcoming Disney trip, here are my thoughts (my girls are 4 and 7)...
1) cheapskate that I am, the Princess breakfast at Cinderella's Castle was nice - good food, my 4-year-old was giddy over the princesses, and if you book an early time you are in the park first thing (PS If you wait too long to book, try searching online and keep on trying - there are always cancellations; we reserved the time we wanted 2 weeks before our trip)
2) I got princess-themed "autograph" books for $1 at Michaels
3) I bought trading pins on Ebay for about $1 each so my kids had something to trade with from the start, which they both really enjoyed. Look for the heart-shaped princess pins - we were told by a Disney employee that they are employee-only pins and you can't buy them. (true?)
4) May was a GREAT time of year to go!!!
5) Epcot on a Sunday was EMPTY - we happened upon the characters (Mickey, Minnie, etc) soon after the park opened with no waiting. When we went back on Friday, it was very crowded.
6) Agree with the stroller - I would've never guessed my 7-year-old would have wanted to ride some too. Plus it's great for holding all your stuff.
7) If you've never been, don't expect rides like at Six Flags/Carowinds. There really are only a few "good" rides. There are fun rides, just not big-time thrills.
8) Take hats - there are a lot of shady places but you'll spend a lot of time in the sun, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rachel,
My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
I was looking for blog posts about Windsor Palms to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
Hope to hear from you :)

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