I enjoy dreaming about spring break and summer vacation when my fingers and toes are frozen solid like they were this morning at the bus stop. Now that they’ve thawed out enough so I can type, I’ll share what little I know about Walt Disney World in Orlando in case you’re considering a trip there soon. When people find out we went over New Year’s Eve, I get mixed reactions. A large number of parents look at me like they just got off the Tower of Terror, some are mystified that we made it back alive but most are enthusiastic and ask for advice.
Before I went, I asked for tips from friends who had gone recently. Most of them told me, “Don’t go.” My husband agreed. He wanted to visit the world’s most famous theme park–one that hosts 47 million visitors each year–kind like he wanted to get a spinal tap. I guilted him into the trip because I have fairy-tale memories from my visits there in the ’80s. I basically made him feel like a dead-beat dad until he agreed to go.
Pushing him paid off because he really fell for Disney World. It helped that I prepared beforehand–my OCD kicked in–so the trip would be fun for him. (It’s going to be a blast for the kids no matter what you do.) For example, I discovered the cruel reality that the Magic Kingdom–the busiest, most packed park at Disney–does not serve alcohol. I repeat: The Magic Kingdom does not serve alcohol. It is wise to head to Epcot around 5 p.m. each day where the margaritas will make you forget how long you stood in line to ride Peter Pan.
Here’s more of what made Disney World so fun for us:
- Wait until your youngest child is 4 years old or at least 40 inches tall before you go. We saw lots of new parents with babies and toddlers at Disney. They rarely smiled. Tiny kids aren’t allowed on most of the rides, and they also cry an awful lot.
- Buy the Park Hopper ticket so you can visit more than one park in a day. You’ll enjoy escaping to less crowded parts of Disney World after a full day of rides.
- Stay at a Disney hotel because you get Extended Magic Hours. You’ll be allowed to arrive at the park as early as 7 a.m.. Just suck it up, rise at 6:15 a.m., eat granola bars on the shuttle bus and hop right on the most popular rides while everyone else sleeps in. The sleepyheads will spend their day standing in line.
- While everyone else is waiting years to ride the rides you already rode, sit down and see the shows. We liked The Hall of Presidents at Disney and The Little Mermaid at Hollywood Studios. There are fun shows all day everywhere. Getting off our feet often helped the kids make it through their busy days with minimal whining.
- Read Walt Disney World: The Unofficial Guide by Len Testa. He tells you what time to arrive at each park, and then which rides to hit in what order. Sometimes his itinerary seems nuts–we zig-zagged from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland and back–but we never stood in line longer than 20 minutes during the three days we were there.
- Get Fast Passes (they’re free) for rides whenever you can as early as you can. These are little tickets that give you a specified time to go back and ride the ride. You especially need a Fast Pass to ride Toy Story Mania in Hollywood Studios, otherwise, you’ll wait 180 minutes for a four-minute ride. I can’t tell you what it’s like to wait in line for 180 minutes with three kids ages 6 and under. I refused to do it because I decided it was best for my kids if I didn’t kill myself.
- Go to Epcot early one day and run to the ride called Soarin’ to get a Fast Pass. It’s the best ride at Disney World. If you don’t rush there, you’ll stand in line at least 160 minutes.
- Epcot isn’t boring. My kids and I had a lot of fun there. The rides (except for Soarin’) are a little lame, but Disney characters are everywhere; the park isn’t as crowded; the food is actually good; and you can drink.
- Make lunch and dinner reservations as soon as you know you’re going on Disney’s website. Younger kids will love the character lunches–Winnie the Pooh or princesses or Special Agent Osso. But these lunches sell out fast–and they’re ridiculously overpriced ($200+ for those damn princesses for three kids and two adults). Disney restaurants are also overpriced, but they’re much better than the expensive counter service options. Make reservations using Testa’s book for suggestions. The Biergarten at Epcot was especially delicious.
- Buy an app for your iPhone or Droid called Lines. It costs $9.95, which made me vomit in my mouth. But it’s worth it. The same guy who wrote the unofficial guide designed this app that tells you the current wait times at all of the rides. The app also lists ride itineraries so you don’t have to carry around that heavy book. Plenty of people follow the advice, and you’ll keep running into them all over the parks.
- This is cheesy, but have the whole family wear the same color during the day. It not only helps you keep track of each other, but it also looks really cute in your pictures. (Wait, I can’t believe I just wrote that. I can’t believe I actually did that.)
- My final bit of advice is to take a cab to the nearby Wallmart the night you arrive, before you go into Disney World. (Or try the Disney Outlet at Bergen Town Center on Route 4 before you travel.) We bought Minnie Mouse shirts, mouse ear headbands, character plush toys and water bottles for like $5 a piece. These things cost $30 at the parks. We hid the toys from the kids as best we could, and they each got one new Disney present each day. Toys could come from Pluto for all our kids cared. We saved serious money on random loot, and they were psyched. It’s rare for a kid not to be psyched about Disney World.
Have you been, or are you planning to go? Feel free to list your tips and tricks in the comments below.