If you're looking for a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip, Walt Disney World probably isn't the best option. A tired five-year-old in tears because she just wants to meet her favorite mouse is enough to turn any civilized human being into Donald Duck. Unfortunately Disney's phone customer service isn't quite as magical as it's "quacked" up to be, and the Disney website isn't always reliable at peak times. With long lines and restaurants that are booked months in advance, the key to seeing and doing everything your family desires is to make a detailed plan in advance of your arrival date.
- When booking accommodations, Walt Disney World resorts include a range of options to fit most budgets. They also offer exclusive Magic Hours in the parks, as well as transportation and character breakfasts, making them a convenient choice for families.
- Purchase park tickets in advance. The Park Hopper Pass offers greater flexibility, as it allows families to visit multiple parks in the same day, though it is more expensive. If you're a member of AAA, check for discounts.
- Determine which days you'd like to devote to particular parks. If you're staying in a Disney resort, schedule the parks based on the days they'll be offering Magic Hours. (Note that if you're not staying in a Disney World resort or you're just not a family of early risers, it might be best to avoid Magic Hour days at each park, and instead arrive at non-Magic Hour parks at the regularly scheduled opening times.)
- Make a list of the rides, restaurants and attractions you'd like to visit. Walt Disney World offers a free FastPass+ program, which enables families to reserve times to ride their favorite attractions, meet their favorite characters and even save prime spots for viewing fireworks up to 30 days in advance of their arrival once park tickets have been purchased, and up to 60 days in advance when purchasing a Walt Disney World Resort vacation package. Dinner reservations may also be made online in advance of arrival.
- Consider planning a trip in the fall. October offers shorter lines and milder temperatures. Other added bonuses include Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, which is sure to please tiny visitors, and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which is great fun for moms and dads.
The early bird beats the crowd
- For the shortest lines and most comfortable temperatures, plan to arrive within a few minutes of park opening. It's a great opportunity to get that obligatory "Kids Standing in Front of Cinderella's Castle Grinning" photo, and for hardcore rollercoaster fans it's the perfect time to breeze past people taking photos to be first in line for popular attractions.
- Walt Disney World's transportation system includes monorails, buses and even boats, so map out your transportation route in advance, and if you plan to arrive when the gates open, be sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get there.
Never judge a line by its entrance
So you don't have a FastPass+, but the wait time for that ride doesn't look too bad from the entrance, right? Many attraction lines are indoors, which helps considerably reduce the amount of time kids stand out in the hot sun. Unfortunately it makes it difficult to gauge a line's length from the entrance.
- For a more accurate estimate of the wait time, check the wait time sign at the entrance to the ride, which is updated frequently.
- Measure kids in advance of the trip to determine whether they meet the minimum height requirement for the attraction (which is also posted on the Walt Disney World website with each attraction's description). There's nothing worse than waiting in line, only to discover your little one isn't quite tall enough to ride.
- Keep phones with you and charged at all times and have a few games and apps loaded and ready to play if boredom hits. One to try: Charades!, a free App available on iTunes. Choose the Disney category for added fun.
- Another fun way to pass the time: photography. Challenge tweens or teens to take interesting photos of what they see while waiting in line. With haunted crypts, mystic bookcases and talking tombstones, Disney World lines are unlike any other, and provide plenty of material for interesting photos.
Disney World offers numerous cafeteria-style counter service restaurants, but on busy days the lines can be long, the prices are a bit high and the burgers and hot dogs get old pretty fast. Though it costs a bit more, reserve a table at one of the many sit-down restaurants, which offer better food and great entertainment (as well as a much-needed break), and save money by ordering a soup, salad or appetizer as an entrée. A few top Walt Disney World dining experiences to try:
- Enjoy dinner next to an erupting volcano at the San Angel Inn Restaurante in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot.
- Dine inside a car while watching old science fiction movies on a drive-in movie screen at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater in Disney's Hollywood Studios.
- Be Our Guest, a new addition to Magic Kingdom, offers table service with royal flair. "Beauty and the Beast" fans will enjoy this themed restaurant, particularly the snow that seems to be falling outside the windows in the ballroom-inspired dining room.
- For a quick, inexpensive treat, the legendary Dole Whip at Aloha Isle at Adventureland in Magic Kingdom lives up to its reputation.
Surviving souvenir shops
Who doesn't remember being a kid and seeing those big bunches of colorful balloons, sparkly Minnie ears, cozy plush animals or light-up whirly gigs and thinking, "I WANT!!"? Discuss with kids in advance what their souvenir options will be. Helping them create a list of chores to earn money for a Disney souvenir fund can be a great opportunity to teach kids about saving money. Another budget saver is to purchase a few small, inexpensive Disney goodies at a discount store at home before the trip, pack them in a suitcase and give them out each day or at the end of the trip.
Quiet spots for tired tots
Whether your tots need a little break or you're looking for a place to wait while older kids ride the bigger attractions, there are several fun spots to rest and recharge. Tired kids (and moms and dads!) can cool off under the big top at Storybook Circus in the New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, which offers plenty of shade and comfortable chairs. If kids need to burn off a little energy after standing in lines, hit The Boneyard at Animal Kingdom and the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure in Disney's Hollywood Movie Studios. Note that both of these play areas offer tons of slides and tunnels, so keep a close eye on kids while visiting.
"Frozen" fun for the true fanatic
Though Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios offers the traditional sing-along fun for "Frozen" fans, for a truly special and memorable experience, visit the Stave Church Gallery at the Norway pavilion in Epcot, which houses a collection of authentic Norwegian artifacts that showcase how the country's culture inspired the movie "Frozen." As an added treat, stop at Kringla Bakeri Og Café next door for a Scandinavian sweet.
Hand wipes: Don't leave home without them
When you're trying to get through a vacation without getting sick, you become acutely aware of every cough, sniffle and sneeze happening around you, and the fact that many of those hands have probably just been on the ride safety bar your little one is now gripping. Pack germ-busting hand wipes or hand sanitizer (wipes come in handy when scrubbing Dole Whip off an eight-year-old). Also, it can be tempting to live on ice cream bars and shut the parks down each night, but sticking to a balanced diet and making sure children get a good night's sleep are worthwhile measures if they prevent you from missing part of the trip due to a virus. Sunscreen is another must.
Ideas for rainy day play
Rainy days are the scourge of any great vacation, but Downtown Disney offers plenty of fun ways to wait out the storm. Take in a show at Cirque du Soleil, grab a bite to eat at T-REX or the Rainforest Café, hit the lanes at Splitsville or go on an adventure at DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park.
Places articles represent the views and the research completed by St. Louis Sprout & About journalists and are not driven by advertising or requests by vendors or venues. Places articles do not imply an endorsement of a business or activity.