By Gunes Hopson
I’m a world traveler. So, why have I been to Walt Disney World three times in the last 14 months??? Simple answer: I have the most highly energetic, loud, insane, maniacal five-year old boy on this planet, so what better place on earth is there for a fantastic family vacation? Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s crowded. And, yes, it (both the Disney parks and my son) completely exhausts you. But, as trite as it may sound, it truly is a magical place…you really will feel like a kid again, and your kid(s) will declare that you must book a return trip to the park stat (meaning, you better be planning your next trip literally right after you unlock your front door when you return back home).
I’m not the foremost Disney expert by any means, but I feel that I owe it to my fellow wahoos to provide a top 10 list of Disney do’s and don’ts, just in case you have any inkling to venture down to that mecca of Mickey they call Orlando.
- Book a Disney cruise rather than a trip to the parks. OK, I know I just contradicted myself by saying you should book a Disney cruise, since you probably just want to live it up in Cinderella’s Castle. That being said, we ventured on our first Disney cruise last December, and it was the BEST. TRIP. EVER. (Except perhaps for that little time that I honeymooned in Italy…) Sooooo, maybe it’s not the best trip ever, but it was the best trip we have ever taken with our son. Four days and nights of sheer pampering, fun, and sun in the Bahamas, including a stop at the amazing Castaway Cay (Disney’s own private island), made this a pretty jam-packed vacation. Disney cruises are very expensive but for good reason. They know darn well how to entertain and make you feel special. Plus, booking a concierge level cabin and the best frickin’ beach cabana known to humankind (on said Disney private island) will make you feel extra special (and extra broke). Of course, I didn’t learn my lesson regarding the broke part, so we’re booked to go back on our second Disney cruise this December!
- If you disregard my expert advice in #10, then make sure to book any and every Disney vacation you take through an official Disney travel agent. “Pray tell, why?,” you may ask. Well, if you’re going to stay at the Walt Disney World Resort (or, if you smarten up, and decide to follow my brilliant advice in #10), then you want to get the most perks available to you. Many of you know that it is next to nearly impossible to procure discounted (and non-fraudulent) Disney park tickets. The same is true with anything relating to their hotels (or cruise ships). Disney doesn’t do discounts. Zilch. Nada. But, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Disney DOES have a cadre of officially sanctioned travel agents who will get you deals on hotel rooms (and provide you with sizeable onboard ship credits). I’ve always used Small World Vacations (yes, it’s their real name!).
- Visit any time but the summer. If you’ve never been to Orlando in the summer, then consider yourself lucky. The entire state of Florida (actually any place below the Mason-Dixon line) is monstrously HOT and so humid that you will sweat just thinking about the humidity as you sit in your air-conditioned hotel room. If you’ve ever been to Disney, you know that there are crowds – LOTS OF PEOPLE EVERYWHERE (ack!!!). So, why would you spend half your retirement fund (see #9 above) to wait in line AND sweat like a pig?!? If you’re going to wait in line, it might as well be when the weather is absolutely gorgeous in Florida (meaning, below 90 degrees and 50% humidity). Avoid the months of May through September like the plague. I don’t care if the kids are out of school for the summer and it’s just that much easier to take a vacay – nope! Not worth your time and money. Do your research and go when the weather is somewhat humanly bearable.
- Once you’ve booked your Disney vacation, download the Disney World mobile app. The Disney World app is an app-lovers app. You will eat this thing up like a TGIFriday’s endless app! I kid you not – this app will completely change how you’ve ever experienced the Disney parks. It’s one-stop shopping for your Fast Passes (more on that later), hotel and dining reservations, real-time ride wait times, park maps (with geo-location while you’re in the parks), Photo Pass photos, and anything else that your Disney heart may desire. It’s also extremely user-friendly, although it is annoying that the app has a tendency to keep logging me out of my Disney account (you’ll need to create an account to use it). If Disney can fix that glitch, then we officially will have the perfect app.
- Buy your Disney park tickets as soon as humanly possible so that you can FastPass every major attraction out there. The sooner you get these puppies, the better, as you can book your FastPasses 30 days in advance (or 60 days, if you stay at a Disney resort). It’s extremely simple to book your tickets online through Disney’s website. And, as soon as you book, you need to start canvassing the Disney app to figure out which FastPasses you’ll need. Of course, there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to telling you which attractions are worth FastPassing and which ones are not, so I’ll let the great Internet guide you in that regard.
- Make an advance reservation for character dining and/or dining packages that include nighttime entertainment. Like FastPasses, primo venues for character dining fill up like Michelin-starred restaurants (French Laundry, anyone?). No, said venues will NOT have the level of fine-dining to which you may be accustomed as a current or former Charlottesville resident; however, said venues WILL keep your child(ren) mesmerized (and CALM) during the ENTIRE meal with the prospect of seeing/touching/feeling/licking Mickey/Minnie/Goofy/Donald and “Friends”. Disney also offers so-called dining package reservations, whereby you can dine at a fancy Disney restaurant and get tickets for reserved seating at special nighttime events (e.g., Animal Kingdom’s new Rivers of Light). To wit, we booked a lunchtime reservation at Animal Kingdom’s Tusker House, which allowed us to: (1) enjoy a pretty darn good African-themed buffet, (2) see Mickey, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy in their safari gear as we dined (Tusker House is Animal Kingdom’s only character dining restaurant), and (3) score tickets for Rivers of Light preferred seating. You cannot beat this trifecta of happiness for a five-year-old (although we paid about as much money for this dining package as an evening at the French Laundry…).
- Wear every single ridiculous Disney themed outfit, t-shirt, or costume you have ever owned while you are in Orlando (or on a Disney cruise). Actually, you should start that party when you hop onto the airplane or get in your car for the drive down. Bust out the Mickey ears, princess dresses, and Darth Vader masks (yes, Star Wars is owned by Disney: duh!) – anything and everything you may have stashed in the attic from your childhood (or that you currently wear as a highly stylin’ and profilin’ adult). If you don’t own a single Disney-themed item (do you actually live in America????), then beg your neighbors/family/friends/co-workers/local Uber driver for something you can borrow for the trip. Better yet, go scour Etsy for a custom-made Straight Outta Disney t-shirt and order enough for the entire family to wear every single day at the parks, just like we did!
- Recognize that you will experience Disney Fatigue. That is fatigue with a capital “F”! If you visit more than one Disney park, then you will get sick of it. Sick of the crowds (see #8). Sick of the rip-off lunches (see #10). Sick of your kid(s)/traveling companion(s)/that smirking Disney cast member scanning your FastPass (see #6). Sick of Mickey (Psych! No one EVER gets sick of Mickey!). There is no way to get around it: that magical place sometimes feels like hell on earth, especially when it is 5:17 pm, and your little one is demanding that you find 15 paper maps of the Magic Kingdom so that his grubby hands can open every single one and analyze the locations of all the restrooms while he nibbles (and then proceeds to throw on the floor) a $15 chicken nugget. True story.
- To ward off Disney Fatigue, alternate days between the parks and your hotel. Whether you’re staying at the Walt Disney World Resort or some $50/night Days Inn fifty miles away from town, take a break from Disney!!! OK, maybe you still can do something related to Disney (see, how they suck me back in?). Go to Disney Springs! Formerly known as Downtown Disney, the new and improved Disney Springs is a fabulous place to “relax” while NOT HAVING TO PAY A SINGLE DIME. OK, maybe you have to spend a few dimes, like $17 for a margarita at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Cocina restaurant (another true story). BUT, at least you’re not paying at least $100/head admission to get into Disney Springs! In all seriousness, it’s probably one of the nicest upscale outdoor malls in the country with some excellent dining and shopping options, including the biggest Disney store you ever will experience in your lifetime. And, if you’re lugging the kid(s) with you, it won’t hurt if you grab some grub at Rainforest Café or T-REX. Each of these restaurants are the equivalent of character dining in the parks: free entertainment for the kids! Yes! Live dinosaur and/or jungle animal action right next to you while you eat (just scour YouTube for the videos)! Now that is priceless and worth the cost of Disney Springs’ free admission.
- Don’t worry if you miss something…there’s always next year! Walt Disney World is ginormous. There is no viable way to ride every ride, meet every princess, see every performance, or come close to visiting every nook and cranny of the 1,100 acres of the four parks (if #3 doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will). Your kid(s) will never know the difference if you don’t go on the new “Frozen Ever After” ride in Epcot – just kidding! Yes, they will. But, they really, really won’t ever know if you skip a few things here and there, just as long as you promise that you will be back next year. And, because you forever will abide by the Honor Code, you won’t ever break that promise!
Gunes Hopson graduated from the College in 1997 and the Law School in 2001 (yup – she’ s a double ‘hoo!). She is a lawyer by day and a photographer when she feels like it. You can check out her photography at www.fotogenicrichmond.com or follow her on Instagram (@fotogenicrichmond).
The author’s shadow in Animal Kingdom. Note her pack-mule tendencies, as she hauls 15 bags and 30 bottles of water for her parched family, while still managing to sport Mickey ears (see #4)!
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