Going to Disney World is full of stresses: listening to your kids complain, corralling little ones, dealing with crowds, waiting in endless lines and walking for miles and miles. That said, it can be the most magical, charming vacation you will take with your kids.
My family enjoyed our first visit last month. During the nighttime electrical parade at the Magic Kingdom, I looked down and saw my boys (ages 4 and 6), eyes wide with amazement, mouths agape in wonder. I teared up, experiencing the magic through them. Every penny we paid was worth that moment.
Disney is certainly not without challenges (or expense). But there are ways to make sure you aren't that family screaming at each other in the middle of Fantasyland.
The Disney World complex covers 46 square miles in Orlando. It has more than 20 resort hotels on site and four main parks: Magic Kingdom, the original park with the most rides and princesses; Epcot, an ode to technology and other cultures; Hollywood Studios, formerly MGM studios, a smaller park with more shows and a movie-studio feel; and Animal Kingdom, which is much more than a glorified zoo. There are also two large water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. The area called Downtown Disney offers shopping, dining and a large Lego store where kids can play for free. We only had four days to spend on our trip to Disney (next time it will be longer), so we opted for the best fits for our boys: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom, with a visit to Downtown Disney on our first day.
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1. Plan ahead
Your first and most important decision is which time of year to visit. Check out touringplans.com (there's a small membership fee) for crowd levels at various times of the year. Obviously, the summer months are going to be packed. If your family doesn't deal well with crowds, don't go then. Opt for nicer weather in the late fall or spring, but beware spring break. The website even recommends which days to visit each park.
2. But don't plan too much
Planning every single thing you are going to do every single minute leads to disappointment. Plans don't go as expected, especially if you have little ones. Be flexible. If your kids don't want to ride something, it's OK. If everyone wants to call it a night before the fireworks, it's OK.
You might want to consider building some rest time into your schedule. If your hotel is close, head back in the middle of the afternoon for naps or pool time. Or plan one whole day at your resort (some have fun kids' activities, boating, horseback riding).
Realize you are not going to see it all, but be sure to enjoy what you do.
3. Stay on-site
Everyone gets stressed driving in an unfamiliar city, dealing with traffic and trying to find parking. Staying on-site eliminates all that. Buses run every 15 to 20 minutes from the resorts to the parks, and some resorts use boats or the monorails. Disney's Magical Express is a free shuttle that picks you up and takes you to the airport. That alone (plus the expense saved from not renting a car) is worth the higher prices on the resorts - though you can get a room for as little as $82.
Staying on-site also allows you to take advantage of extra hours some days at some parks and a nifty service that allows your purchases at Disney stores to be delivered to your room.
If you think you'll spend more than a day at one park, consider booking a resort near it to cut down on travel time. Also, Disney offers suites and villas so your family can spread out. That way kids can stay on their regular sleep schedule and you won't get on one another's nerves. We stayed in a large two-bedroom villa at the Old Key West resort.
4. Familiarize yourself with the rides and shows
Read guide books, websites and talk to friends about which rides and shows are most appropriate for your family. This could help you avoid waiting 30 minutes for a show no one in your family wants to see or taking your 4-year-old on a terrifying ride. Also, look at height restrictions. Nothing is more disappointing than having to tell your child he can't go on a ride because he is too little.
We went into each park with three or four must-dos each day. I figured as long as we did those, everything else was icing on the cake.
5. Use the Fast Pass wisely
A Fast Pass ticket (distributed in kiosks in front of the ride) allows you to obtain a pass at a certain time (within an hour) when you can bypass the line to the ride. But make sure you will use it. Rides are spaced quite far apart, so make sure it's something on your must-do list.
Also, be aware that some Fast Passes run out early. On our trip, the Fast Passes to Toy Story Midway Mania at Hollywood Studios ran out an hour after the park opened.
6. Pack wisely
You are allowed to bring backpacks and coolers into the park. Take advantage and bring food and drinks with you to save money and stop the screams of "I'm thirsty now."
We froze bottles of water the night before so they were thawed yet still cold by the time we needed them.
Also pack sunscreen and bandages. One day, my 4-year-old need three adhesive strips before noon.
7. Make dining plans
Plan your meals long before you go on the trip. Many restaurants, especially meals where you meet the characters, book six months in advance. You can book online at disneyworld.com or by calling 407-439-3463.
Disney also offers several meal plans (during some promotions, you can get them free with your stay) in which you present your diner card for meals at most restaurants and quick-service stops.
8. Prepare for safety
Discuss safety, stranger danger and the need to not wander off. Take a photo on your cell phone of your kids each day in case they get lost, so you can show people exactly what they look like. I also dress my kids in the same bright color, so I can scan a crowd and find them quickly.
You could also consider a stroller (they are available for rental at each park, but they're pricey). It's a good way to corral the kids. My boys refused them until the last day, when they both wanted one. It was certainly easier on me and my husband that day to not have to look for them every five seconds.