A very Happy New Year. We've been on the road again. Traveling with my children always reminds me of how much I want to give them an extraordinary childhood; and each year, as they grow older and become more acutely aware of the treasures that travel bestows upon them, their desire grows as well. Whether that be an unconventional road trip across the Untied States to explore new flavors and landscapes, or a more conventional trip to the world's greatest amusement park - their passion and desire for adventure seems to know no bounds... I hope that fire remains in their little bellies always.
In late December we made our way back to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a chilly, but restorative week on the beach. Then... we made our way South. To Walt Disney World. A trip to Disney is not something I ever thought I would write about in detail - but followers on Instagram and Twitter alike began asking questions about our trip - and I thought I could share some insight here.
I grew up spending every summer at Disneyland in California - and I adore it. Those memories are tightly linked to sunshine, what seemed like eternal youth and a giddy happiness. It was a feeling that I wanted my own children to experience. It's not about buying the plastic toys... it's about just witnessing joy. I swear they must pump pixie dust into the air there... everyone (it seems) is just so damn happy. We've been lucky enough to take the girls to both parks in California and Florida... here are some things that I've discovered that made our trips easier...
- I still remember my first trip to Disney when I was 3. I don't think that age is an issue - if you are going for yourself as much as your children! Adie first visited when she was 14 months and though she does not remember the trip, we do - and the joy she experienced when riding the Pooh Bear ride and burying herself in stuffed Pooh Bears. Ari does not remember her first trip at 2 - or at 4, but this year (almost 6) she will remember it always - and she's obsessed.
- This was the first year that we did not bring or rent a stroller. Our girls are (almost) 9, (almost) 7 and 5. I think we could have used one as we were on our feet all day for six days in the parks, but they only asked once and then realized they had more freedom on foot. For ages any younger - with that much walking - a stroller really is a must. The parks are extremely stroller friendly with every ride offering stroller parking and all doorways accommodating even the most cumbersome double strollers. But do take breaks. Those little feet can only go so long. At Magic Kingdom in Florida, there are sidewalks around the outskirts of the park (still within the park itself) - they can cut walking time down considerably and it’s so nice to avoid the heavy crowds of the late afternoon.
- In Florida, avoid Magic Kingdom on Mondays. It seems like a perfect day to go after the weekend rush, but people take long weekends at the park and Mondays are historically busy. We try to visit one of the other parks (Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom or Epcot) on Mondays. There are some great crowd-sourced apps out there that estimate and reflect park crowd levels as well as ride wait times. We used Undercover Tourist and found it to be very reliable.
- FAST PASS! The Fast Pass is a ticketing system that helps you avoid waiting in lines for rides at the parks. At the Magic Kingdom they are offered on the most popular rides - one of them being Peter Pan. It's a classic and wildly popular - as is Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in California. You wouldn't expect people to stand in line for hours for "kiddy" rides - but they do. We try and ride these first thing in the morning while the wait is minimal or get a Fast Pass for them to use later in the afternoon. The Fast Pass system does take a bit of strategic planning on your part, however. While the ideal would be to run around the park and collect Fast Passes for the day, they system will only allow you to take one pass out per person at a time. For example, if you arrive at Peter Pan at 10:00am and there is a 50 minute wait, you can get a Fast Pass ticket that will tell you to return anytime between 12:10pm and 1:10pm (for example) where you can walk right onto the ride (you may have a 5 minute wait for other Fast Pass users). However, you can't get another Fast Pass for another ride until 12:10pm. Our general rule is we don't wait for more than 20 minutes for a ride - that is sort of the breaking point for patience with the girls in terms of standing in line. If the ride wait is more than that - it's Fast Pass time.
- Hit it hard in the morning! If you arrive at the park just as it opens, it's a great time to knock out the most popular rides without having to worry about wait times. We also will ride something more than once if there is no wait and the girls love it - knowing that we'll likely have a long wait later in the afternoon. If you don't mind missing the parades, another time to take advantage of some of the more popular rides is during parade times as more than half of the park attendees are crowded on Main Street. Additionally, there are only two rides that warrant a wait at Epcot, Soarin' and Test Track. Both are worth the wait but if you arrive at the park as soon as it opens, get a Fast Pass for one and go ride the other during slow morning traffic - you're set. At Hollywood Studios, Toy Story Mania is the one you'll wait for. So popular in fact that the day we were there they shut down the Fast Pass machines just after 1pm. Luckily we snuck on just before the park closed.
- We prefer to stay on property. There are definitely two camps of thought here. By staying off property, you save money on both accommodations (and most area hotels do offer shuttle service to the parks) and on dining - especially if you have your own kitchen. But I am a slave to convenience. I love getting up, hopping right onto the Monorail and being in the park early. It also makes leaving the parks in the evening pretty painless. Long lines and waits for the Monorail and trams to take people to parking lots are not my ideal way to end an evening with exhausted children. The transportation to the on-property hotels is quick, efficient and rarely crowded (that said, we usually go off-season!) Another advantage of staying at one of the park hotels is the “Magic Hours” – guests of the hotels can access the parks (on specific days) an hour earlier than anyone else and stay an extra hour at night. One more reason – it makes breaking up the day easy. Getting to the parks early to avoid the heavy crowds allows you to come back to the hotel for swimming and naps – then return to the park in the evening for slower crowds, parades and fireworks.
- If you stay on property, consider the Disney Dining Plan. We've used it twice now and it's incredibly convenient. It is a pre-paid plan that allows each member of your party a Table Service (this is at a sit-down restaurant with a waiter), a Quick Service (fast-food style where you order at the counter) and a Snack a day. I loved the fact that it was paid for months before arrival and I didn't have to worry about setting X number of dollars aside for meals that week. What I do not love is that the meal choices for children really cater to the unfortunate average palate of an American child. For those of you who - like us - have children with a bit more refined taste - there will be disappointment as they are asked everyday whether they rather have the mac n' cheese or the hamburger. My other issue with the plan is that I found it a little confining. Den and I rarely eat dessert when we eat out - we prefer starters if we eat anything in addition to our entree. The plan does not offer the flexibility of creating your own menu - it's an entree, a dessert and a drink. Period. When I broke down the pricing, we did save a little money going with the Dining Plan, but I'm afraid the more worldly desires of our children will keep us from doing this again in the future.
- Any sort of rare crashing moment always came down to the fact the girls were hungry. Those little bodies burn a lot of calories running around the park gushing with excitement. Carry lots of snacks and bottles of water – both are really overpriced at the park. We sat down for a break and nourishment about every 90 minutes – made a huge difference.
- Another note on food... make reservations! Even in the off-season the Table Service restaurants fill up months ahead of time. While there is usually room for walk-ins, you will likely have to wait about an hour for a table. Not fun with children. I can't recommend reservations enough. Our favorites in Florida include Yak & Yeti in Animal Kingdom; Fulton's Crab House in Downtown Disney; Mama Melrose in Hollywood Studios (kids and pasta? win!) and Be Our Guest in the Magic Kingdom.
- We do give the girls spending money on these trips. And we've found a way to limit the shopping a bit. While we do buy a t-shirt or trading pin (whole other world on that subject) for each of them - if they want souvenirs or toys, they buy them. We give each of them a Disney gift card for a certain dollar amount (if they've saved birthday money from grandparents, etc. for the trip we will add that as well) and that's their spending money for the trip. It's been a great lesson for them as well about decision making and budgeting.
- Lastly, I just wanted to mention something I saw on our last day there. While our girls would take a creepy haunted house over a lunch with a princess – most kids are not so inclined. While standing in the Haunted House ride, a family came in with their (assuming) 8-year old daughter – and she was screaming bloody murder. She was utterly terrified. Her parents were trying to laugh it off – but my heart was breaking – her fear was all consuming. If there is anything your children don’t seem remotely comfortable with – do not make them do it. It’s really not worth scarring their vacation memories – Disney is not the place for those kinds of lessons. If there are rides that your children are either not tall enough to ride or they are too scared to ride, the line workers will allow one parent to ride while the other watches the kids, then the other parent can go without having to wait in line all over again.
I know many of you have made this trip with your own children – I would love to hear your tips and thoughts as well. We’re already planning a surprise trip to Disneyland California for Ari’s 6th Birthday this summer… I told you… she’s obsessed.