First of all I wanted to provide a little background. I grew up in Southern California for the first 19 years of my life, so I was grateful that my parents took us six kids to Disneyland almost every summer. My father was a college professor and my mother was a stay-at-home mom, but at the time I didn’t really appreciate the sacrifice it must have taken to pay for 8 people to visit a Disney park. As a result of that sacrifice, memories were built that have carried with me throughout my life.
Even though I seem to recall two hour waits to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean (obviously pre-FastPass+ days), what I mainly remember is that each time I went, my family and I were transported into a world unlike the world I lived in the other 364 days of the year. It was truly “Magical.” When it comes to anything Disney, the word “Magical” can be overused, but when it is used in this very personal context, it’s the best word I can think of to describe what Disneyland was like to me as a child – for it had the ability to allow my mind to suspend all reality for one day and be transported into different, believable worlds.
Now, fast forward “several” years, I remember the first time my wife and I surprised our children with their first trip to Walt Disney World. I had just gotten out of college, so we were not well established financially. Because it was important to my parents that they took their children on a family vacation each year (whether it was to Disneyland, a camping trip or the long drive up to Grandma’s house), I wanted to carry on that same tradition with my own children so that they could also develop similar memories, whether it be at a Disney park or otherwise.
Our very first trip was definitely what I would call a “Wing-It” trip. At that time I would call a (407) telephone number (for which I was billed a long-distance charge for) and make a reservation. I couldn’t go online and find out about restaurants before making a reservation. If I wanted to see what certain rides were like, I couldn’t watch videos on YouTube, but instead I had to go to a friend’s house and watch their Disney World videos for several hours while I caught myself dozing off because it was now 11:00 o’clock at night.
If you really wanted to get a precursor to what you were going to experience, you had to walk into a travel agent office next to the grocery store (if you’re not old enough to remember those places, it was a small storefront where the inside walls and windows were full of posters depicting beautiful pictures of exotic lands and beaches) and hope that the agent sitting behind the desk was busy with a client, because if she was, you had the chance to wander over to the Disney section and grab some free brochures. At that time I actually thought you had to PAY a travel agent to book your trip! How foolish and naive I was back then.
Fortunately for my young family of four, we went with an experienced Disney couple who helped with the whole planning process. Because they didn’t have any kids, we never saw them again once we got there. But that was okay, our interests would have clashed with theirs anyways.
That was a GREAT trip!! The kids had a good time and their Disney memories were starting to be formed. We went again several years later, then again a couple years after that and then, eventually, we were actually going almost every year as Disney added a new park, as well as some really exciting attractions to the existing parks.
With all those trips now behind me (now reaching the 30 mark and half of those visits without kids), I have learned a few things from all of these visits that I would like to pass on to you:
LET THE KIDS HELP IN THE PLANNING
Early on I did 100% of the planning and let the family tag along. Too many times they would look at me and ask, “What are we going to do next?” I would get frustrated and wonder why they couldn’t come up with their own ideas. The reason is because I did 100% of the planning and the kids didn’t want to upset the apple cart. I think that we, as parents, often plan a vacation for our kids without consulting the very people we are trying to entertain. Let your kids get excited about the trip by letting them help decide what they are going to ride and where they are going to eat. This helps them to get excited about what they’re going to be doing when they get there.
WHEN IT COMES TO PLANNING, DON’T EVER “WING IT”
As I said earlier, during our first trip we were able to wing it, mostly because our kids’ school district tried the whole “year-round” schedule where they actually had two weeks off before Thanksgiving. But today, Disney World seems to be busy no matter what time of year you may go. Thanks largely to FastPass+, the My Disney Experience app and the ever-expanding size of the parks, gone are the days where Disney can be tackled without a plan. If you’re thinking, “We’ll just show up, get a map, and see what everybody feels like doing,” you’re likely to find yourself shut out of the best restaurants and most popular attractions by families who made advance reservations. This is especially true if you’re traveling during summer or over a major holiday. Trust me, I know. I took the kids between Christmas and New Year’s in 2014 and it was only because we did plan that we were able to do as much as we did.
DON’T EXPECT TO DO IT ALL
One of the fun facts of Walt Disney World is that the entire property is twice the size of Manhattan. With four theme parks, two water parks, a sporting complex, shopping, and dining options, it’s impossible to see everything in one trip to Disney World. Actually, that’s good because it gives you an excuse to come back again and again. Rather than going on a Disney vacation commando style, always consider the age and stamina of everyone in your party and prioritize accordingly. When it’s just my wife and I, I look forward to the evening park hours, not only because it’s cooler, but the crowds are greatly reduced. Because it’s just the two of us, we tour the parks in a more relaxed state, thus making it easy to “close out” the park and travel back to the resort without having to wait in long transportation lines. When I’m with the grand kids, I can’t wait to leave the park right after the fireworks. The kids are falling asleep and I’m exhausted from picking up the kids all day because they want “Papa” to hold them. Reading up on the parks in advance will give you a good sense of which attractions are “must-dos” for your family, which ones are nice if you have the time, and which are skippable. And by the way, you don’t have to do everything together: Grandma may not want to ride Space Mountain anymore than your three-year-old will want to sit still through The Hall of Presidents.
LET THE KIDS SLEEP-IN MIDWAY INTO YOUR VACATION
You definitely DO NOT want to sleep in everyday and arrive at the parks when it’s convenient. Especially during the busiest times of the year, the number one mistake first-time guests make is thinking they can arrive at the parks at 11 a.m. and see everything in a couple of hours. The park is least crowded during the first couple of hours after opening, so this is your best chance to get on the “Big” rides without long waits. And while I would tell myself that we will go back to our room in the afternoon and take a nap, I found that it seldom happened. About every three days, schedule your FastPasses later in the day, so this way you can sleep in, swim in the pool and then go to the park for the rest of the day. This will help reduce melt-downs caused by fatigue.
DON’T CONSIGN YOURSELF TO EAT NOTHING BUT FAST FOOD
I cringe at the thought of eating nothing but hamburgers and fries and drinking nothing more than soft drinks for lunch and dinner for an entire week. When you think of theme park food, that is what most will think of. Not many people associate Disney with culinary delights in fun, themed settings, but you really should! Disney has really done a good job in providing an excellent array of dining choices to its guests, with both variety and quality increasing steadily every year as new restaurants and menu choices are introduced. Even when you visit quick-service dining restaurants, there are many that offer baked chicken, ribs and plenty of vegetables. Do you get tired of drinking sodas every day? Ask the waiter for a glass of milk – it doesn’t cost anymore and you’ll feel better afterwards.
DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE TO KEEP THE FAMILY AND/OR FRIENDS TOGETHER 24/7
If the family is big enough with several adults, don’t feel like everyone has to leave their hotel room at the same time. Some families move at a different pace and if they do feel pressured, they will not only feel bad for holding everyone else up, but bad feelings may result and nobody wants that. It may seem counter-intuitive to split up – this is a family vacation, after all – but little breaks will make the time together better, so schedule time apart to explore or just to relax. Older kids can split off from the group to ride their favorite attraction multiple times, or one parent can take the younger kids to Fantasyland while the other experience the more thrilling rides with the older ones. Families with babies or older family members can go back to the room while the teens stay in the parks.
DON’T SUFFER FROM TUNNEL VISION
When you take the time to look around, you will notice amazing details that the Imagineers built into the Disney parks. For example, when you visit the Magic Kingdom, consider the whole park experience as being in a movie. As you pass under the tunnels of the railroad tracks, you will see posters of the attractions that you will experience during the day. Consider these as the previews you watch in a movie theater. While walking down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, look up to the store windows to find the names of people who have influenced the Disney Company. Consider these names at the credits to the movie. When you reach the last building and just as you turn the corner, you will find Walt Disney’s name in the last window facing Cinderella’s Castle. Since the director’s name is the last name listed just before the movie starts, Walt’s name listed last seems appropriate. In the Animal Kingdom, spend time studying the Tree of Life and its more than 300 animal carvings. Hollywood Studios has some of the best “Streetmosphere” performers – actors and actresses who walk around like they’re in 1920s Hollywood, interacting with guests and putting on small shows. When these actors are out, stop for about 10 minutes to enjoy the show. Not only will you be entertained, but your kids will love them as well. Epcot has shows going on on a regular basis around the World Showcase in the afternoon and many, like the young acrobats in China, are especially fun for kids.
DON’T HELP YOUR KIDS DEVELOP MICKEY-PHOBIA
When my first grandson was younger, Winnie the Pooh was the first character he met close up while “enjoying” his first character breakfast. Needless to say, it wasn’t a good experience. Being strapped in a high chair really didn’t help when Pooh approached him. Being trapped and unable to escape, all he could do was cry, panic and lean as far over as he could in an attempt to stay as far away from the approaching “Monster” as possible. If your kids seem overwhelmed when they get through the gates and find that Mickey is no longer small enough to fit in your TV screen, but is actually five feet tall, start them off slowly by meeting the face characters – characters like Aladdin or Cinderella who don’t wear a mask. And instead of forcing kids into the picture, allow them to watch the characters before approaching. Cast members have been trained to be sensitive around nervous children and are good at slowly inviting them to participate on their own terms. If you schedule a character meal, schedule it toward the end of your trip. By then, even the most cautious kids usually will have warmed up.
DON’T ASSUME ALL RIDES ARE APPROPRIATE FOR ALL AGES
When Walt Disney came up with the concept of Disneyland, he wanted to create an entertainment enterprise that both parents and their children could enjoy together. So, although Disney is for families, there are some attractions that can be terrifying to some. It’s easy to figure out that a ride called Tower of Terror might be terrifying, but keep in mind that Disney does have some attractions that look innocent on the outside, but they have scary elements on the inside that your kids may not be ready for. The Haunted Mansion, It’s Tough to be a Bug, Stitch’s Great Escape – all of these are tame rides with elements that might frighten some youngsters. When in doubt, let a parent ride first and come back with the verdict, or do a baby swap.
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- What I Have Learned From Visiting Walt Disney World - February 24, 2015