It’s come up several times—this subject I’m going to write about—and although it’s a wee bit trite and has nothing to do with Christmas, it’s a fun detour, at least for me. The topic? Disney World. More specifically, how to take your family without losing your mind and/or all of your money. As a self-confessed sucker for (almost) anything Disney, here’s my nickel’s worth (or fifty bucks if you heed #2) advice.
- One day at the Magic Kingdom may be perfect. Disney World has four parks: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, and while a four-day park-hopper tickets sound dandy, that’s not always realistic. Most would agree, Magic Kingdom is superior… especially if you have young kids. Sometimes attempting all four parks—plus everything else Disney has to offer—can prove overwhelming. Although I have enjoyed all four, the year our family stayed on property at on of the All Star Hotels but only did Magic Kingdom for one day remains one of my favorite vacations. Our schedule looked like this- Day one: swam in the pools and hung out at the hotel. Relaxed. Arcade. Goofy family stuff. Day two: Magic Kingdom from the crack of dawn till they kicked us out (more on that later) Day three: monorail/boat hotel lobby tour of The Grand Floridian, The Contemporary, The Polynesian, making lots of stops along the way. Free and so much fun. Gorgeous lobbies and better counter service restaurants than our All Star. Day four: Downtown Disney (Now Disney Springs) and more hang out time. Perfect.
- Say no to soda pop: Say, “Hey kids! Guess what? We’re going to Disney World! One tiny thing– NO pop.” If you ask for it, any Disney restaurant will happily give you water with your meal. Have each person bring his or her own water bottle into the parks and refill throughout the day. Disney resorts offer souvenir refill cups for around $17 but you can’t bring them into the parks and the math speaks for itself: 17 x a family of 4 = $68. We’re inching up to the price of a ticket. You’ll be walking a lot anyway so stick with water and promise the kiddos they can have their own 2 liter back at home.
- Also, food. Bring it. If staying on property, cram as much as you can into the refrigerator and do your best to live off of it. Take a small, insulated bag/backpack (instead of a purse) into the parks and load it with granola bars, fruit, candy, and sandwiches. You can’t bring in a huge cooler, but Disney does let you bring food. Snack throughout the day and eat meals at “off” times. The lines are longest at two in the afternoon so plan to have your big meal then. My favorite inexpensive/quick food places? Cosmic Rays Starlight Café in Tomorrow land (Magic Kingdom. You can get a half of a rotisserie chicken and 2 sides for around $10.) Captain Cook’s in Polynesian Hotel (you don’t have to stay there to eat there) and Earl of Sandwich in Disney Springs. Do the homework for yourself, but we never felt like the Disney Dining plan was worth it.
- This is controversial so first, a disclaimer: This is not for everyone. Spending habits, excessive debt, or personal convictions may preclude you from even considering this. So don’t. BUT. If you pay off your credit card balance every month, (or if you have a big, upcoming purchase) consider the Disney Visa Card. You get points for signing up and points for purchases all which translate into dollars to use for any thing Disney, including park tickets. Since park tickets never go on sale (at least not to my knowledge) this can be a very happy thing. One year we had enough points for four park tickets plus some leftover to go toward our hotel. For us, it’s been a built in vacation savings account of sorts, and an opportunity to teach the kids how to use a credit card responsibly.
- Arrive early, stay late: Give yourself plenty of time (it takes a while simply to get through the parking lot/monorail) to be in the park when the gates open and know exactly which ride to run to… which, if you’re smart, will be one of the more popular ones (Space Mountain, Seven Dwarves Mine, Splash Mountain) since opening is one of the least crowded times. And after the fireworks at night, don’t leave. Main Street (full of shops) is open an hour later than the rides so keep riding and do your souvenir shopping later! If you’re in line before the park closes, you’ll get on the ride. We usually end our day at the Magic Kingdom at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and ride 3 – 4 times with little to no wait time. The best. We laugh ourselves silly.
- Be smart with fast passes. They’re free with your ticket purchase. On crowded days they can save you from standing in line for everything. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience/fastpass-plus/
- Know the pros and cons of staying on property. Pros? You can use Disney’s bus transportation system (they even pick you up at the airport, so you don’t necessarily need to rent a car) and you don’t pay for parking. Staying on site allows you to completely immerse yourself in the whole “Disney Experience.” Make sure to take advantage of Disney’s hotel deals. You might have to dig for them on their website. When we stayed at one of the All Star hotels, one of their “budget” hotels but still super fun, we found a 30% off deal and paid less than $70 a night. Cons? Unless you’re able to stock up your mini-fridge before hand, you’ll be stuck with Disney prices for food. There is a McD’s on property but food is fairly expensive.
- Know when to take a break and do a “Slow Ride”. Examples at the Magic Kingdom: People Mover in Tomorrowland, It’s a Small World and Mickey’s PhilharMagic (we love this one) in Fantasyland, Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland. Since you’re planning to be there allllll day, take advantage of these typically short wait time rides that allow you to sit for a spell, maybe even take a nap, and still have fun.
- Go off-season. The Disney experience varies greatly if you’re standing in line for 2+ hours v. 20 minutes. Do everything in your power to avoid the crowds. Use this handy-dandy chart: http://wdwprepschool.com/disney-world-2016-crowd-calendar/
- Realistically, you may end up going at peak season anyway so Plan, Plan, Plan. Even if you’re there off-season, plan. The Magic Kingdom alone is gigantic, and when crowded, can be very stressful. The whole of Disney property in Florida is over 40 square miles! So do your homework and study the maps and make a plan. If you’re doing one day at the Magic Kingdom, plan your route well in advance because you don’t want to waste your time and energy ping ponging across the park. As beautiful as it is, it’s a maze and the rides are spaced out in a way that can make you batty. Know the plan before you walk through that gorgeous castle.
Disney does Disney well. The rides, the castle, the shows, the flowers, the music… even the talking garbage cans are interesting. Have fun planning as a family, but give yourself the freedom to stray from it when something strikes your fancy.
Did I miss a great tip? I’d love to hear it! Leave yours in the comments.