Disney World is alive and well with the opening of the exciting New Fantasyland and more (like a newly designed Dumbo the Elephant ride!). Certified Disney Travel Agent and local mom Jami Hill shares tips!
The first time we took our oldest son to Disney World I studied every book, article, message board, website and anything else I could lay my eyes on to feel prepared for what seemed the overwhelming process of having a successful Disney World trip. I am a planner by nature, so this was F-U-N for me. I spent a LOT of time on my research, and we had a fantastic trip. Since then, I’ve been back with anywhere from two to 20 people, family and friends ages infant to 85. I’ve gone at all seasons with all sorts of crowds and almost every type of weather you can imagine. Disney is my family’s happy place, and it can be that place full of happy memories for your family, too. So let’s walk through your Walt Disney World vacation, from initial planning to traveling, as I do when I travel there myself.
When Should We Go?
It’s the first question I’m always asked. My quick answer is to go when children are in school — I know! Principals probably hate me, but I encourage families with infants, toddlers and preschoolers to go while schools are in session because, like most resorts, the Disney property rates are divided into seasons based on popularity. So many families visit Disney during school vacations that these are typically the higher rate (peak) seasons. Disney has value and regular seasons, with the best rates of the year falling in late August/September, early December and January. These are also the optimal vacation times, with lowest crowds as a huge bonus.
Other lower-crowd-great rate times to go include October, February and mid-April to early June. To entice your family to visit the World, Disney also continues to offer a variety of resort and vacation package discounts throughout the year.
People ask me how far in advance they should book their vacation and are often surprised by the answer. I encourage families to reserve their vacation package or room-only reservation as soon as they know their vacation dates. Why should they do this six months to a year in advance? No one likes to be disappointed, and Disney’s 24 Resorts and Vacation Villa properties often sell out well before travel dates. A $200 deposit is required to hold any vacation package with the balance due 45 days before travel. For a room-only reservation, payment of one night’s stay will hold your room until you check in.
Any stay in an official Walt Disney World Hotel provides your family free ground transportation to and from Orlando International Airport, free transportation throughout Disney property, and all-important access to the Extra Magic Hours benefit available only to resort guests.
Disney Dining Plan
This is important: add your theme park tickets to a Disney Dining Plan to make your vacation seamless. For my family, the Disney Dining Plan has always made sense as we enjoy the variety of one table service meal, one quick service meal and one snack credit per person per night of our stay. It saves us money and we know what to expect before we leave home. (A vacation package will include your accommodations, theme park tickets and one of three Disney Dining Plans if you choose to include it for the length of your stay; everyone in a room must be on the same package.) For a room-only reservation, each component is separate but park tickets and the dining plan may be added.
Disney World has 24 of them — including eight Vacation Villa properties — for you to choose from. From 260-square-feet Value resort rooms that rent for as little as $85 per night during Value season to huge three bedroom Grand Villas and even luxurious two bedroom suites at Deluxe resorts for up to $3,000 per night during holiday weeks, Disney truly has something for everyone in on-property accommodations.
The newest option, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, features 864 standard alue guest rooms and 1,120 family suites that sleep up to six people. Disney is finally getting the hint that larger families on a budget need on-property accommodations, too!
For the ultimate in convenience, check out Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. These Vacation Villas are close to the Magic Kingdom and feature kitchens, washers and dryers, and up to three bedrooms.
Disney-themed rooms, pools, restaurants and quick park access provide even more reasons to stay in the middle of the magic. You’ve heard about those fun character meals? Well, you or your travel agent can make reservations for any of 13 meals with a variety of Disney classic characters, beloved princesses or preschooler favorites up to 180 days in advance. Believe it or not, many of these reservations fill up six months ahead of time! Therefore, as soon as you’ve chosen and booked your resort accommodations, make those dining reservations.
Theme Parks and the New Fantasyland
Now that you’re set to go, let’s talk about the real fun: the theme parks! Disney World has four major theme parks, two water parks and one nighttime shopping and entertainment complex, Downtown Disney.
The Magic Kingdom theme park is where it all began, and it’s just completed the biggest expansion in its 41-year history with the addition of New Fantasyland. New Fantasyland is home to two new sections of the park: Storybook Circus and The Enchanted Forest. Storybook Circus features a newly designed Dumbo the Flying Elephant with two circles of flying elephants, an interactive queue area and even FASTpass service (we’ll get to FASTpass in a minute). The Barnstormer and Casey Jr.’s Splash and Soak Station share the rest of Storybook Circus with Pete’s Silly Sideshow, a big-top tent where you’ll find your favorite Disney characters. You can also catch the Walt Disney World Railroad in Storybook Circus.
The centerpiece of New Fantasyland and the heart of the excitement at The Magic Kingdom is the Enchanted Forest. Belle and Beast have a new home in the impressive Beast’s Castle, which stands in the distance. Belle’s village is home to the enormous, breathtaking Be Our Guest restaurant, which offers quick service meals at lunch and becomes a table service restaurant in the evenings. Belle also has her own attraction — Enchanted Tales with Belle — where guests of all ages are invited to participate in a magical re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story. Gaston has his own tavern, too! Near Ariel’s castle, guests can board Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid for a ride through the Little Mermaid story. Meet Ariel, too, in her new grotto. She’s back in her fins!
The Magic Kingdom also boasts thriller attractions for older kids (Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), classics for everyone (The Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, It’s a Small World), precious starters for little ones (Dumbo’s the Flying Elephant, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin), popular characters (Mickey Mouse, Goofy) and plenty of Disney princesses.
Disney is smart enough to place attractions for all ages in each of its four parks so I have a hard time steering families to a specific park as age-appropriate. Let me just tell you a few tidbits that can help: Epcot is wonderful! Everyone except the very youngest visitor will marvel and the newly re-imagined Test Track where you get to design and test your own GM car! Disney’s Hollywood Studios brings movies to life from classics to Pixar. I’m often asked about my favorite Disney attraction, and it’s right here: Hollywood Tower of Terror! And Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a crowning jewel in Imagineering. The Tree of Life is an incredible icon of carved animals that showcase Disney’s passionate commitment to wildlife. The Kilimanjaro Safari, a 25-minute ride through a true African habitat is the park’s centerpiece.
FASTpass a Must
How will your family manage to see all of the attractions in this, or any, Disney theme park in one day? Well, I DO recommend you spend one day in each park plus an extra day in the Magic Kingdom (especially if you have little ones), but to maximize every moment, you’ve got to use FASTpass. FASTpass is Disney’s way of collecting return appointment times to many of the most popular attractions in each of the four parks. Here’s how we do it: Arrive at the park at least 15 minutes before it opens. Elect one adult in your group to be your FASTpass runner and give that person all of your park tickets. The runner will go to your favorite attraction, place your passes in a little machine and receive FASTpass tickets (a one-hour return window) for everyone in the group. The rest of you should meet the runner at another attraction and enjoy it together. As soon as your one-hour return window opens up, go to your FASTpass attraction and find that short line. Then have your runner FASTpass another attraction and so on throughout the day. It’s that simple.
I hope I’ve whet your appetite to take a trip to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Disney World truly has something for all ages and budgets, and I hope that your family, like mine did, will step in and see that magic is alive and well in central Florida.
Jami Hill is a local mom and Fairy TripMother. She is co-owner of FTM Travel, which has achieved the designation of Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At last count she had visited Walt Disney World 33 times.