If you don’t remember anything else after this sentence, remember this: when planning your Disney vacation in Orlando, it’s not about you.
Yes, you have great memories of riding Haunted Mansion and meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time, but those are your memories. All too often, parents get caught up in making lists of all the rides they loved as kids, in the hope that their kids will also hold a special place in their hearts for The Pirates of the Caribbean. But sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Instead of trying to force your memories onto your child, be the adult and help your kids have their own best Disney adventure yet.
If you’re willing to give in to that idea, you can have an entirely satisfying and yes, relaxing trip to Disney World. With that in mind, here are some tips:
- Know when to go: Picking the right time to visit just might be one of the most critical decisions you make. Picking an off-season week can drastically reduce lines at rides and difficulty in securing Advanced Dining Reservations for character meals and beyond. Of course, pulling the kids out of school might not be an option, but there are distinct advantages, from Free Dining programs to seasonal attractions like the Epcot Flower and Garden festival. There are disadvantages to going in winter, however, as Disney often uses that time to refurbish certain attractions. By checking crowd calendars for your desired travel period, you can forecast how long the lines will be before you book anything. And don’t forget Disney World is in Florida: if your family doesn’t handle humidity very well, avoid summer months.
- Finding the right place to stay is a very personal choice: Unlike other destinations, where online reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations carry a lot of water, picking the right Orlando hotel for your family should factor in your budget and child’s interests. If your daughter loves animals, Animal Kingdom Lodge is a terrific choice as she can see giraffes right outside her window. Or, if you’re like us and your son loves Lightning McQueen and Mater, then Disney’s Art of Animation resort is your spot. Parents with older kids might want to opt for Disney’s Yacht Club because it boasts one of the best on-site water parks and a location right next to Epcot (perfect for Epcot dining and catching the Illuminations fireworks). Staying off site is a great way to save money, but the trade off is being farther from the parks and most hotels are themed. Our bus went directly to and from the parks without any stops along the way. That’s not true for every resort.
- If you’re sticking to Disney resorts, you don’t need a car. If your toddler has never heard of Harry Potter, then it might not be worth it to drag him to Universal while you’re there (it will still be there when he’s older). But call ahead and find out if your resort bus will commute directly to the parks or make stops along the way. That decision alone could save you valuable time. Some parents have opted for monorail resorts like Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or the Contemporary Resort because it was easier to coerce their child out of the Magic Kingdom by pitching the monorail as the last ride of the day. If your toddler is anything like ours, he might actually get upset on the days you don’t ride the monorail.
- Snag character breakfasts early and, at times, inside the park you want to visit that day. By securing a 8:05 a.m. reservation at The Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh and his friends, your family can walk down Main Street when it’s practically empty (an ideal time for taking that unobstructed Cinderella Castle family photo). At Hollywood Studios, if your child is a fan of Disney Junior, get an early reservation at Hollywood & Vine. At Animal Kingdom, we walked right through the turnstile before the park opened, ate with Donald, Mickey and friends at Tusker House Restaurant and were the first in line for the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride when the park opened. The rest of the guests had to walk all the way to the back of Animal Kingdom to wait in line for the safaris, but we were already there. One last note about character breakfasts: some are buffets, while others are served family style. Lilo & Stitch’s Best Friends breakfast at Ohana is a family-style meal in which a waiter replenishes a bottomless platter of eggs, sausage, bacon, Hawaiian sweet bread, etc. You never have to leave your table and worry that you’ll miss a character visiting your little guy. Character breakfasts are an air-conditioned way to cross off your favorite encounters without having to wait in line in the hot sun.
- Don’t force it. There will be plenty of chances to meet Mickey or take that photo on Main Street. If your child is too tired (or let’s be honest, you are), take a break. Get some ice cream in an air-conditioned setting or go back to the resort for nap time or a pool break. Instead of obsessing about the FastPass+ time you missed, take a breath and remember why you’re there: to be together and have fun. One day, we pushed ourselves too far and saw three parks in one day. For us, that was like walking the Great Wall of China. Yeah, we saw what we wanted, but it was our least relaxing day by far. If our entire trip had been like that, I’m not sure we would have wanted to go back.
- Aim for rope drop: Second-tier attractions like It’s a Small World have seen an uptick in wait times with the introduction of FastPass+, the system in which you can reserve specific rides and a set one-hour window. But the advice still holds -- rope drop is the best time (other than late at night) to ride before the rest of the world arrives. A few notes: I tend to avoid Extra Magic Hours unless there’s a specific reason I need to be in that park. If your daughter loves the movie "Frozen," and you have a FastPass+ reserved for 2:15-3:15 p.m., then make arrangements to go to that park. But if you can visit that same park on a less-crowded day, switch your itinerary. Smaller parks like Hollywood Studios can get especially overwhelmed by Extra Magic Hours in the morning. In my world, I’m fine visiting a park on a Extra Magic Hour day as long as you plan on getting out there the second it gets too crowded and the wait times jump (usually around 1 p.m.).
- FastPass+ strategy isn’t just about the ride itself: If you’re visiting during a hot time of year, you can use your FastPass+ slots to avoid particularly uncomfortable lines. For instance, we used one of our FastPass+ slots for Tomorrowland Speedway to avoid that ride’s queue, where visitors are in the hot sun while ingesting propane fumes. Meanwhile, you’re given a pager at the Dumbo ride and while you wait, your child can play in a fun air-conditioned indoor playground. Our pager went off, and we asked if we could stay in the playground longer. I’ve heard people say, “Don’t waste a FastPass+ in the morning,” but for us, we used our FastPass+ slots in the mornings because we wanted to say to our toddler that we would at least see his top three rides/characters that morning. So if the rest of the day was a bust, we’d at least see his three favorite things on his wish list. Speaking of wish lists, I fired up YouTube well in advance of our vacation, sharing one ride per day with our toddler. That way, he could say whether he thought a ride looked great, scary or just plain dumb. I made a Wish List online on Disney’s terrific site. With that Wish List in hand, my wife, toddler and I avoided the worst sin at Disney: waiting in line for something you’ll not like (or will scare the pants off your toddler).
Most of all, give in to the fun of spending time with your family in an exciting, thrilling and magical place. Remember: Disney is a giant playground. You can either play well with others or go home crying. Your choice.