An Insider's Guide to Walt Disney World
Everything from booking the best flights to the keeping your sanity after hours in line at the park.
Maybe you’ve been to Disney a time or two already, or maybe this is the year the kids see fireworks over Cinderella’s castle for the very first time. Whether you’re a newbie or an old hat, these tips will help you save a ton of money and time, not to mention your sanity.
Save on Flights
Your usual move might be to look for flights out of one of the larger airports like Newark, New York or Philly, but don’t leave Trenton out of your search. Airlines like Frontier run regular routes down to Mickey Town, and that means saving big bucks on what’s going to be an expensive part of your trip. Even if you have to drive an hour or two to get to Trenton, it can be worth it depending on how much you save.
The Resort Advantage
Whether your budget is small or big, staying somewhere on property is often the best deal when you factor in the perks. Freebies include “magic hours,” which get you into specified parks before and after closing (this is when you’ll get to ride “Star Tours” five times in a row and finally get to be the rebel spy), and transportation to and from your hotel by monorail, bus or boat. All Disney resorts offer those benefits, including the “value” hotels (which are still so nice) like Pop Century, All-Star Sports and Art of Animation.
Consider the Map
Think about how much you want to pay for park proximity. Do you have a little guy who needs to conk out back at the hotel a couple times a day? Then it might be worth it to stay within walking distance of Magic Kingdom at the Contemporary, or on the monorail line at the Polynesian. Both are more expensive, but super close options.
Plan Your Days
Want to save big money? Skip the parks one day and still have a blast (park passes are going to be your biggest trip expense). You know that ridiculously fun pool you keep walking by exhausted on your way to your room every night? You’re paying for it—use it! Pick a day in the middle of your trip and plan for some aquatic downtime. Sleep in, get breakfast at your hotel and lounge by the water all day so the kids (and you) can recharge. Most resorts have incredible pools, but some of the best are at Art of Animation, whose “Big Blue Pool” is the largest at Disney, and the Yacht and Beach Clubs pool, with the sandy bottom lagoon and life-sized shipwreck. They all offer free deckside activities run by staffers, like trivia games and arts and crafts.
Don’t Miss Animal Kingdom
If you’ve skipped Animal Kingdom in the past, starting this spring, you shouldn’t. Thanks to some recent remodeling, the park will now be open after dark, which means nighttime “Kilimanjaro Safaris,” street parties and an amazing new show called “Rivers of Light.” If you’re planning your visit for 2017, you’ll be lucky enough to experience the Avatar-themed “Pandora.”
Use the “Memory Maker”
Disney’s photo program is worth taking advantage of, if only because you don’t have to buy anything until you see the results. While you’re in the parks, get the professional photographers (posted on virtually every corner) to take your family’s picture constantly. Kid got an ice cream face? Snap a pic. About to rain and the light just got gorgeous? Strike a pose. Then just tap your MagicBand or park ticket to the photographer’s and the pictures are automatically loaded into your profile (you can see it instantaneously on the Disney app). And all those mid-ride screams and ear-to-ear smiles? Those are magically uploaded too. At the end of the trip you have 30 days to choose to buy, or you can purchase the whole lot for $169. Buy it more than three days in advance and it drops to $149.
Just For Baby
Got an infant in tow? Hang out in the Baby Care Centers! No need to sit on a steaming Florida bench and attempt to nurse a fussy eater. Instead, seek out one of the air-conditioned, rocking-chair-equipped, fully-stocked facilities in each park, where parents of infants and toddlers can feed, nurse and change their little ones. Stock up on snacks, diapers or sunscreen (available for purchase), get away from the crowds and be generally amazed that Disney knew exactly what you needed.
For preschoolers, it’s all about the characters. You may be super excited to do the rides (see “Grown-Up Time”), but kids under five are going to be wowed when they meet their favorite friends in real life. Waiting in line to see the princesses at “Fairytale Hall” is worth it, especially if you Fastpass it—and so is splurging on a character breakfast to meet Handy Manny and Doc McStuffins if they’re big fans. There are also fantastic (free with park admission) shows like Finding Nemo: The Musical, and Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom, and For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Singalong at Hollywood Studios that are right up your kids’ alley.
Do an Epcot date night! Got little ones who will fall asleep in the stroller? Lucky you. Go out for a family dinner somewhere in Epcot’s “World Showcase” and then tuck them into the stroller (bring yours from home—don’t forget any required binkies and lovies), close the hood and bam! You’re on an amazing date night. Share a spectacular bowl of bouillabaisse de fruits de mer in France and a gloriously crisp pint of Hefeweizen in Germany, then catch the fireworks over the lagoon. It’s not really Europe, but with great beers on tap and natives from each country manning the shops and bistros, you can squint and pretend.
Or Get a Babysitter
Another option: Leave the kids at the hotel. Call “Kids Nite Out” at 407-828-0920 and arrange for a babysitter to come watch your clan in the room. She’ll bring a bag of toys (yes, just like Mary Poppins—this is Disney) and will be CPR-certified. Or you can bring potty-trained kids three and up to “Lilo’s Playhouse” at the Polynesian, where they can do art projects and science experiments. Pro tip: Skip the four-star restaurant reservation (they’re good, but you can do that at home), put on yoga pants and a sweatshirt and have an old-school, high school date night! Ride “Space Mountain,” do “Mission Space: Orange,” scream your head off on “Expedition Everest”—basically everything having the kids in tow prevented you from doing during the day.
Be prepared for epic tantrums. Disney is the happiest place on Earth, yes, but it’s also home to the most spectacular, jaw-dropping, blush-inducing, my-kid-has-never-done-this-before meltdowns you’ve ever seen. Combine too much sugar with too little sleep, a ton of walking and stimulus overload (not to mention parents who may be pushing the kids too much) and no one should be surprised by the consequences. The good news? You will never, ever be in more understanding company than among the other parents at Disney. “Been there!” an empathic passerby has said on more than one occasion, throwing a smile my way.
The goal here is to have a strategy. There’s no one right way, and maybe yours is to let the kids get whatever they want, but be warned that it’s going to be “can we get this?” from start to finish. So knowing where you stand and communicating it to the kids in advance will save you stress. Some parents choose to buy Disney items inexpensively at home first and then distribute them at key moments throughout the trip (check Dollar Stores and Marshalls/TJ Maxx toy departments). Our strategy was always to let the kids have one thing. They could browse the stores throughout our park time to pick their item, and then on the last day it was theirs. Whatever’s right for you, decide up-front.
Kids With Special Needs
Disney is very accommodating to families with special needs issues—so know what’s available before you visit. Look into qualifying for a Disability Access Service Pass (or DAS), which grants guests who aren’t able to stand in lines due to physical or cognitive issues a shorter wait time. Also, pay attention to the Attraction Guides at the entrance to all the rides—they “explain” what’s in store, including any loud noises, bright lights or dark spaces. You can get detailed descriptions of attractions, that include duration, type of restraint used, and any mid-ride surprises at disneyworld.com.
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