Walt Disney World: Who’s All Ears?

Obligatory WDW photo.

M-I-C…

…K-E-Y…

…all together now!

…M-O-U-S-E.

For many kids, a trip to Disney (either Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Orlando) is a rite of passage of sorts. In fact, almost 17 million people visited Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 2010 alone.

So, what if you have been toying with the idea of going to “The Happiest Place on Earth”? We recently returned from our second trip to Walt Disney World (the first being three years ago) and thanks to some Griswold-style planning and research*, our motley crew of one set of grandparents, two sets of parents and two girls and one boy ages 10, 7 and 6, respectively, had a blast. I am by no means an expert, but here are some of the things we learned:

You can use the Disney app to find out where characters are throughout the Parks. Do keep in mind that waiting in line for characters can mean you miss time at other attractions.

Disney isn’t your “average” theme park. I guess we knew this all along, but when you visit, you realize that Disney is really a cut above the rest. The park is super clean, the “cast members” are all super friendly and nice and the atmosphere does seem magical, somehow.

You don’t have to pay for tips…if you are willing to do the research. There are plenty of services out there which are subscription-based which offer advice on how to get the most out of your Disney vacation. Although our primary vacation researcher* used a fee-based site to help plan two trips (her family visited once before our first trip), you can find all the information you need for free. One site that was helpful was AllEars.Net (an independent site) and Disney has its own Moms Panel discussion board to answer questions.

If you would like to plan a dining “experience” (having lunch with the characters at a themed restaurant), you will need to plan that in advance. Far in advance. Many of the more popular venues within the Parks, such as Cinderella’s Royal Table and the Be Our Guest Restaurant, now take reservations up to 180 days in advance and are often booked months out.

Go when everyone else isn’t. Of course, missing school isn’t ideal, but if you want to go to Disney World when it’s the least crowded, try for January. Christmas and New Year’s are some of the busiest days at the Parks, partly because there are special events which coincide with the holidays. There is a marathon at Disney around MLK, Jr. Day, which means the Parks have extra traffic, so we opted to visit this last trip at the end of January, when my nieces had two teacher workdays. We bit the bullet and flew out on a Friday after school and returned the following Wednesday, so we missed three days of school.

As you might expect, Disney World is busier during federal holidays, and Presidents’ Day is the most crowded day since New Year’s Day and the day which kicks off the high tourist season. I would think that if you need to visit during a school holiday, Spring Break would be the best choice, since most of the rest of the country has Spring Break around Easter.

When I asked my 6-year-old what I should recommend for this article, one of the things he mentioned (apart from visiting gift shops) was the safari at Animal Kingdom.

If you are coming from Austin, JetBlue is a great way to get to Orlando. My husband had never flown JetBlue, but he was totally sold after our flight to and from Disney. The bag we packed for my almost-7-year-old was virtually untouched since he watched cartoons both ways (we did bring our own headphones to avoid paying for them). The free snacks were a huge hit, the flight was nonstop, the seats were comfortable, the legroom was decent and the fare was reasonably priced. Although I had flown JetBlue before, I joined my family a day later in Orlando, so I took an American flight there and the difference between the two airlines was significant (especially considering the price was exactly the same).

You don’t have to stay “on property”. There are many Disney-affiliated places to stay, and there are advantages of staying “on property”. Guests can take advantage of “magic hours” to visit Parks before or after regular hours, packages from gift shops may be able to be sent directly to your room, transportation may be taken care of (thanks to shuttles) and you may see some savings from buying a package which includes lodging and tickets. Both visits, we have stayed off property in a vacation home rental. We have all been able to stay together, we’ve been able to have meals at our house and we’ve had access to a pool and our own transportation. On the flip side, we had a drive to each Park, we’ve had to pay the $14 daily parking fee and you could argue we weren’t totally immersed in the Disney experience. So, there are benefits of either way you go. Either way, if you have nappers, you can easily head home for a break and return back to the Parks to enjoy the attractions once everyone has their second wind.

He’s especially good at expectorating…

Outside food and drink is allowed at Disney. Disney is not like Sea World, which restricts your food to snack sized bags and prohibits straws. At Disney, anything goes. Of course, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry your food around all day, but it is an option, especially for those looking to save money, for picky eaters or those with food allergies (see more on food allergies below). The first trip, we stored snacks in the stroller we brought into the park (which, conveniently, was from our vacation rental, so we didn’t have to pay for a stroller rental).

There’s an app for that. Similar to other attractions, Disney has its own app. Although you can use it for many purposes, we found it the most helpful to find nearby food options and to check wait times on the rides.

Skip the lines with the FASTPASS. Yes, we went during a “slow” time at Disney, but we also planned our days using the free FASTPASS system. The idea is that you can use your Disney ticket to cut your wait time significantly at the busiest attractions. Near the entrance of a ride, you can look for FASTPASS distribution, look at the digital clock to see when the passes will be valid, and if that works within your schedule, insert your admission ticket to receive a FASTPASS.

This is especially helpful if you have “extra” adults who can take everyone’s ticket and walk ahead to get passes for the most popular rides. When it’s your designated time to return to a ride, you can enter through the FASTPASS line, which is usually a fraction of the wait time. So make sure to hold onto your admission tickets!

It was interesting to notice that a similar system is in place at other parks (i.e., Universal), but for an extra fee.

We did a character lunch at the Crystal Palace. The kids were more into the characters three years ago, but they still had fun.

Disney accommodates guests with special needs. There is a page dedicated to guests with special needs. For those with dietary restrictions, we realized that when you book a reservation at one of the sit down restaurants, the chef will come out and advise you on what foods might contain ingredients you need to avoid.

Disney is great for parents and adults. Several times during the trip, I found myself wondering who was having more fun: the adults or the kids. There’s the nostalgia factor, of course and the enjoyment you get out of doing things with your kids you did when you were small, but there is more to it. It’s easy to get on the anti-Disney bandwagon, but there is also nothing like seeing three cousins, of different ages and interests, grinning ear to ear and talking about their favorite ride or meeting a favorite character, and talking about it for weeks afterwards. For the adults, the memories are also sweet.

Cue the nostalgia: My first trip to Disney, circa 1980.

If you can swing it, having extra adults along was great, since those of us who lasted longer than the kids were able to stay later at the Parks (this does require renting more than one car, but that might be better for convenience’s sake anyways). This also allowed us to go together on some of the more grown up attractions without feeling as though the rest of the group was waiting up for us. If you don’t have extra adults but still want to go on rides your kids don’t, you might want to check out Rider Switch, which is a pass on some rides which allows you to trade off while the adults go on an attraction that the kids cannot or do not want to go on.

Although I could probably write a (short) book about our experiences at Disney, those are just a few tips which I hope make planning a trip to Disney less formidable. Have fun!

*Disclosure: My sister-in-law deserves the most credit for the planning that went into our trip(s).

Have you been to Walt Disney World? What are your favorite resources for trip planning? Do you have any tips to share?

A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 6-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.