It’s the number one family vacation — and an awesome one! We went there on fall break and returned with insights, tips, great memories and (this is the real Disney magic) a desire to go back!
“Everyone’s been to Disney World except us!” my darling third-grade son, Tucker, confronted me with one afternoon. I tried contesting him, but his Mickey Mouse voice chimed in over my own. “No, Mom!” he argued. “Miss Scott asked my class who’s been to Disney World, and everyone raised their hand except me!” Case closed. Ah yes, to a third grader, the whole world is a third-grade classroom. But I have to admit, it DID feel like everyone had been to Disney World except us. I always steered clear of the big trip, claiming I didn’t want to take a child in diapers there. But since my youngest is now 5, and since Tucker’s claim that we were the world’s last hold-outs, I caved.
I have to admit I was scared. Scared to book the trip with only the knowledge of a novice. Thousands of stories have been written about Disney World, and many moms are Disney World experts, but not I. Clutching Walt Disney World with Kids 2008 (Fodors; $17.95) by Kim Wright Wiley, I was determined to plan a trip for my family of six myself and see how great it could be. Don’t laugh at me if you know all the tricks, bells and whistles of a Disney World stay. I now know a few of my own, and no matter what, the key to the entire thing is flexibility.
Like Peter Pan, you can fly, you can fly, you can fly or you can do like we did and you can drive, you can drive, you can drive. I filled our minivan with gas the night before we left, and my husband and I packed the car. We managed to get our excited kids to bed by 8 p.m., letting them sleep in their clothes and promising that “the sooner you sleep, the sooner we’ll be on our way.”
We left Nashville in the dark at 4:30 a.m. and drove until our IHOP breakfast at 8 a.m. Ten hours later, just after 6 p.m., we zoomed beneath the colorful entrance to Disney World that spans the width of the highway. We were suddenly reinvigorated to be on the fantastic side of life and we easily found our way to Downtown Disney thanks to excellent road markings along the way.
Downtown Disney was bustling and all a-glow. It was exciting to see The World of Disney Store, knowing that the morning meant the Magic Kingdom! We were tempted to stop in the different shops, but starved, we instead oohed and ahhed our way past The Lego Store (and outdoor gigantic Lego-sculptures of dogs, dinosaurs and a giant sea monster rising out of the water). While we had no reservations, the enormous Fulton Crab House had a table for us right away, and that’s something I learned would come in handy during our stay: Eating at “off” times rather than prime — you just might get a table without a reservation.
Up and At It
It’s worth an early rise-and-shine to get to your park of choice before the main entrance opens and in order to see “the ropes” drop. I got everyone up and to breakfast by 7:15, and we caught the 8 a.m. shuttle to the Magic Kingdom. Before long, we were on the ferry, cruising toward the park with Cinderella’s castle looming before us. Our eyes were huge.
My kids — even 5-year-old Thomas — wanted to do Space Mountain first, so after a quick pass through security and scans of our fingertips (an ingenious high-tech device for identifying park-goers), we were on our way.
First, we stopped to rent a locker so I could don my fanny pack and store a couple of items. Next, we rented a big wheeled double stroller with a nice, roomy pocket for brochures, sunscreen, etc. Now we were golden! Our feet whisked us up Main Street, passing shiny shops that we decided to save for later, and waving to the friendly “bakers” lining the curb, greeting the morning’s first arrivals.
Since I’d educated my husband about Disney’s Fastpass system (see “Tips if You Go”), as we approached the line for Space Mountain, he started chanting, “Get Fastpasses! Get Fastpasses!” But the sign at the front of the line told us it was less than a five minute wait, so it wasn’t necessary. (Fastpasses DO indeed become a beautiful thing when the park is busy, and you’ll want to master how to do it beforehand!) Children are permitted to ride based on height. Thomas was a shoe-in and, amazingly enough to us all, he loved the jerky roller coaster in the dark!
Next, we caught a performance of Mickey Mouse and his pals in front of the castle. All of the live entertainment is fantastic at Disney World. You may never see as many happy performers or immaculate character costumes again, so give into it and enjoy. Thomas was thrilled to finally see Mickey Mouse up close, as were the hundreds of other children beaming happily toward the stage before the castle. I found myself beaming, too.
The Fun Never Ends
Disney World has four theme parks in all: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios and the newest park, the Animal Kingdom. We had three days and “Hopper” passes — meaning the capability to bounce from park to park any time we wanted to — but we never made it to Epcot. See? We already have a reason to go back! We spent fun, jam-packed days at the other three parks and had a blast.
While for many families, rides are the main attraction, the Magic Kingdom is the spot for outstanding parades and special high-tech shows in addition to Disney’s classic rides including The Haunted Mansion (cool and ghostly), Pirates of the Caribbean (now including a few cameos by Captain Jack Sparrow), Splash Mountain (you WILL get wet) and to all of our delights, Peter Pan’s Magical Flight, in which you take your own pirate ship to fly over the wonderful story. We even enjoyed “It’s a Small World,” which was completely renovated in 2005.
For bigger ride action, you have to head to Disney’s MGM Studios. That’s where you can propel from 0 – 60 in a split second’s time in a stretch limousine on Rockin’ Roller Coaster, courtesy of Aerosmith. Or how about Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror? It’s an old, decrepit hotel where something terrible happened long ago — to the elevator, that is — and now you get to experience it for yourself. At MGM, the nightly live presentation of Fantasmic is simply fantastic with fireworks, a water show, characters on floats over the water and a full symphonic display that does not disappoint. MGM is also great for all of the art deco architecture harkening back to Hollywood’s golden era. It’s there that we ran smack-dab into some great pals of ours from Nashville and their kids! It IS small world after all, and all 12 of us had a blast enjoying the park for the rest of the night together — hooray for Fastpasses!
One morning bright and early, we headed straight to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and it was a good thing. Visitors arrive just to be the first to get to the Kilimanjaro Safari — which was my favorite. You ride in a Jeep over lush plains and savannahs and witness up-close-and-personally gorgeous animals in their natural habitats. It was as close as you can possibly get to the real deal. But that didn’t detract from Expedition Everest (a fantastic roller coaster that whips through the mountain dwelling of a snow monster then down, down, down again), or Dinosaur, based on the movie of the same name, which combines amazing a roller coaster and giant animatronics.
All About Details
Disney is the master of gorgeous scenery, perfect set dressings and imagination. At all of the parks, we were swept away by the attention to detail and remarkable friendliness that goes into every transaction you participate in.
One can’t say enough about all there is to see and do in Disney World. That’s why so many people go back year after year. In fact, when I was waiting in line at MGM for some salads with grilled chicken, I chatted with a nice mom who showed me her laminated itinerary. It was something she and her sister had been perfecting for years! So you see, it CAN be done!
Dining Reservations are a Must
If you go to Disney World without lunch or dinner reservations already made, you’ll be sorry. You just may find yourself famished in Fantasyland with only the option of Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café or Pinocchio’s Village Haus. That means you WILL have to fight for a table, and you WILL find yourself wandering around with a tray piled high with fries at some point. Do yourself a favor and study Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World Dining Guide (Disney Editions; $11.95). If you don’t have reservations and want to sit down to eat (you will!), then try eating at off-times. You may just get lucky.
Where to Stay
We chose the Hilton located just across the street from Downtown Disney since we planned to visit Universal Studios while in Orlando. The Hilton is not a Disney-owned hotel, but it did offer us perks like a complimentary breakfast (to get this, book the sixth floor executive suites), free round-trip shuttles to all of Disney’s parks, and passes to Disney’s Magic Hours (See “Tips if You Go”).
If you plan to visit just the Disney parks, then your best option is to book your family into one of the Disney Resort Hotels (Again, see “Tips if You Go”). These range in price; our friends enjoyed Disney’s All Star Sports Hotel.
Is it possible to go to Disney World and NOT spend money? No, so don’t even think about it. But there are ways you can save (i.e. cut the souvenirs, bring your own food, stay at a motel outside of Disney World), but you will still spend on meals, tickets and incidentals you don’t think of before they happen.
Do your research and study up as much as possible so that you will get the bang for your buck that you want. No matter what, Disney World will not disappoint. And even if you end up saying, “Oh, I wish I had …,” or, “Next time I would …,” that’s OK. That’s part of the Disney magic. There’s so many wonderful things to see and do, you’ll want to go back again. And that, my friends, is what happily ever after is all about.