It took me 40 years to get to Disney World.
Late in September, our family of six headed to Orlando for my belated 40th birthday celebration. The trip was the culmination of years of anticipation. Having four children, my husband and I knew we would visit Disney eventually. We just weren't convinced it would turn out to be "the happiest place on earth."
So with our oldest kids just hitting their teens, we decided to take the financial plunge. Here's what we learned along the way.
A trip to Disney World is unlike any other vacation. Spontaneity is not a virtue here, it's a curse. You cannot just book a hotel, get a flight, read the guidebook on the plane and expect to have a great time. Begin planning up to a year ahead if you can.
There are two routes to planning this great escape: resolve to sort out the details yourself or surrender immediately and book through a travel agent.
I happen to enjoy researching a trip almost as much as the actual vacation, so about a year before our trip, I took to the Internet and checked out a guidebook at the library. I also talked with everyone I knew about their Disney experiences, including which hotels they enjoyed, what to see at the parks and when they visited.
Those who don't have the time to research the vast hotels and restaurants should consult a travel agent. There are many online, but if you want to speak to someone locally, try the AAA office. A friend of mine had her whole trip planned and left with tickets in hand after one meeting.
Hotel concierges are also trained to help clients plan their stays and are a wealth of information on restaurants, transportation and activities.
Make a Plan
The most important decision I made was the first one: when to travel to Disney. Understandably, national holidays and summer months are the busiest times at Disney. And many people don't let the crowds deter them, but keep in mind that the time of the year you visit affects every other part of your trip. Many websites and books describe the least and most crowded times of year at the parks. More people mean longer lines, and waiting in the summer heat makes for some grumpy kids (and adults). If you must visit during a holiday, make a list of must-see attractions and visit those first.
Choose your hotel or condo wisely. We didn't want to rent a car (you have to factor in daily Disney parking and hotel parking), so we chose a hotel with complimentary park transportation. Our hotel also allowed children under 12 to eat for free at all meals, so that reduced our dining costs. Finally, the hotel had two excellent pools that were open late, which was another necessity for us. Decide what you need from your hotel before you book it.
Create a flexible daily schedule. We arrived at the parks early each day, except for one when we were out late the night before. We also took a daily break to swim and eat lunch at our hotel when the sun was its hottest. That way we could ride the most important attractions in the morning, refuel and cool off at the hotel, then return and visit some more shows and rides in the evening.
Prepare for the Parks
One of the most important words at the parks is "Fastpass." Fastpass is a ticket system located near some of the popular rides that gives guests a printed time to return and cut in the regular line. Read the Fastpass section carefully in your guidebook so you understand how it works and can maximize your ride time. We used Fastpass for every ride possible and never had to wait in line more than 15 minutes, even when the wait time was more than an hour for those without Fastpass. Each ride has its wait time posted at the entrance, and those accepting Fastpass will have a Fastpass return time listed as well.
Another key to our daily enjoyment was water. Water can cost up to $3.50 per bottle inside the parks, which surprised us the first day. Bring your own water bottle and refill it at the water fountains. Heat plus walking equal thirsty kids. Only three of us had small bags, but next time I will give each child a drawstring backpack to carry their own water, as well as maps and cameras.
And don't forget snacks. Food is expensive in the parks. We only had one dinner at the parks, choosing to buy snacks in between meals and eat off-site. An initial investment in fruit, granola bars and nuts could save you a bundle in the long run.
There is a multitude of information that can make your time at Disney World go smoothly. Check out these links for more details, including character meals, advanced dining reservations, hotel discounts, dining and lodging reviews, and a variety of other advice. Also, travel forums, such as on TripAdvisor, are a great way to contact travel "pros" who can answer your specific questions.
- Official Disney Dining Reservations
- Tour Guide Mike - Pay one fee for a year of access to this insider's info
- TripAdvisor Forum
- Disney's Mom Panel
After all that planning (and spending), I can honestly say that for those four days, Disney World was the happiest place on earth.
These are the tips that worked for our family. What has worked for you? Let us know in the comments.