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Guest Blog from Lainie Gutterman
Taking your family to Walt Disney World is like a rite of passage. My parents took me when I turned five. We went on a Disney cruise with my in-laws six years ago when my son was in preschool and we intended to go back when our daughter was at least five-years-old. Last week over New York City’s February break, our family of four traveled to Disney World for a five-day trip to “the happiest place on earth.”
Here are some of my top tips on surviving Disney World:
If you are staying on property at a Disney resort, book through a Disney travel agent
With modern technology, it’s super easy to plan your own vacation online. However, when it comes to Disney World, dining reservations open up at 180 days in advance, followed by Fast Passes 60 days out. The Walt Disney World Resort provides magical memories for families, but planning a visit can be extremely complicated for the first time visitor and even the seasoned veteran.
In order to ensure you get the vacation that your kids have been dreaming of, it really does take an expert who is willing to spend the time to explain and make personal recommendations which are most fitting for your own family. Make sure that the travel agent you choose not only has Disney training but has personally been there several times recently. The travel agent should not cost you any additional fees. In addition to securing dining reservations and fast passes, your travel agent can set up your reservations on Disney’s Magical Express Service (a bus which will shuttle you from the Orlando International Airport to your Disney World Resort and your luggage will magically arrive in your room separately). Two travel agents I can personally recommend are Beth Bahr of Disney with Children (who lives in the Orlando area with her tween daughter) and Tricia Scott of Visit Mickey.
Bring a stainless steel, insulated water bottle
While being on-the-go and walking non-stop, your family needs to stay hydrated in the heat of Florida. A 12-ounce bottle of Dasani (filtered water costs $5) and Smart Water is even more expensive. Each morning, I would fill up my Swell Bottle with ice cold water in the lobby of The Contemporary Hotel. At every restaurant, I would refill this bottle to cut down on the amount of $5 bottles of water I would need to purchase.
Skip Character Meals
The only character meal we did was The Ohana Character Breakfast with Lilo and Stitch because my nine-year-old son is obsessed with these two characters who unfortunately you can no longer meet anywhere else in the parks. Even though we had an 11 am reservation, there was a wait time of over 30 plus additional minutes. No professional photographers shoot during the meet and greet at your table.
The food was mediocre (which is being especially kind) and extremely overpriced, especially for what it was. My kids truthfully had a lot more fun meeting the characters in the parks without having to pay to do so. The Ohana breakfast was our first, last and only Disney character meal. My five-year-old daughter is still somewhat apprehensive of characters, but if she was into all the Princesses, we may have had to do another meal because we did not stumble across Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella or any other Princesses in any of the parks (but I didn’t do a formal search.)
Schedule a Rest Day
We all tend to want to do and see it all, especially when it’s your first time or a new attraction opens up. Instead of cramming it all in, I can’t encourage you highly enough to take a “rest day.” After walking non-stop, your whole family will probably be exhausted by the end of the day. You will enjoy everything much more if you take some time to relax and unwind.
We conquered Animal Kingdom within hours of landing in Orlando, hit Magic Kingdom early the next day and continued to Epcot on day three. On our fourth day, we had reservations for breakfast and then came back to our hotel and spent most of the day at the pool. That evening we did dinner at Disney Springs and then had fun at Hollywood Studios on our last full day. Which leads me to my next point….
My top priorities when on vacation is having fun, eating delicious foods, exploring and taking in all the sites. I enjoy checking out all the hotels in the area. Since our son is transportation obsessed, there was no question about staying at the Contemporary because we knew he’d go crazy seeing the monorail go through the building. The first night we ate dinner at California Grill (located in The Contemporary) and a prime spot for seeing the fireworks from The Magic Kingdom. Truthfully, we were too tired to enjoy dinner since we had been up since before the crack of dawn.
My research showed me that you do not go to the Magic Kingdom for gourmet food. So I made dinner reservations at Disney Springs. I highly recommend you do the same. There are 63 unlimited food options, ranging from casual, fast-food and an AMC Dine-in movie theater to mid-price and all the way up to STK Orlando and Morimoto Asia.
I was anxious to return to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort as I still vividly remember the luau dinner my parents took me to close to 40 years ago to celebrate my birthday. I already covered our breakfast at Ohana and while it was not a memorable meal, my family did enjoy checking out this property, especially the pool area.
I am thrilled that I booked our dinner reservation at Disney’s Boardwalk for Friday night. This property doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Our family would seriously consider staying here on a future trip. It is closer to Epcot and Hollywood Studios and does not run on the monorail. It is accessible to/from the parks by bus and ferry. The atmosphere was so idyllic. There’s a big patch of grass that kids can run around on.
The amusement park games are reminiscent of my summers at the Jersey shore. Just make sure to bring cash or a credit card if you do want to play any games on the boardwalk because these booths do not accept the magic bands. We splurged on pricey fine-dining at Flying Fish, which does offer a reasonable kids menu. There are plenty of other more affordable options, including the ESPN Restaurant for any sports fans. Wherever you eat, make sure to save room for ice cream for dessert at Ample Hills Creamery. (Trust me, your taste buds and tummy will thank me later)
On our last full day when we returned from Hollywood Studios, my son wanted to take one last monorail ride and go see Disneys Grand Floridian Resort. Once again, we explored the gift shops, peeked in the various restaurants and checked out the Alice & Wonderland themed kids pool area.
Don’t Over Plan
Don’t worry about planning every tiny detail. So many guests over plan their Disney trip by creating a down to the minute list of what attractions they want to ride and precisely at what time. To be quite honest, this strategy can lead to a ton of stress and you’ll likely miss out on the joys of “the little things” of Walt Disney World. Decide what days you’ll visit which park, so you can plan the big things (like the most popular rides and attractions you want to Fast Pass, such as Slinky Dog), as well as make dining reservations. Regardless of how much research you do, avoid planning down to the smallest detail so you don’t have an unrealistic schedule that you are racing to accomplish. You are at Disney after all. Make sure to relax and enjoy some pixie dust. You never know where you might discover something magical and unforgettable.
Pre-purchase Disney Apparel & Accessories
You’ll save money and be wearing much more original clothing than you can find in every gift shop and on people you walk by if you purchase off-property in the weeks leading up to your trip. My husband didn’t want me to waste money ordering us all matching custom Disney shirts on Etsy. Meanwhile, we lost count on how many compliments his “Most Expensive Day Ever” white tee received throughout the day. It kept making us smile and turned out to be a highlight of our day and many of our photos.
Along with the seven pieces of advice dispensed above, more importantly don’t forget to wear comfortable, already been broken-in shoes for walking long distances (I swore by my Birkenstocks while my kids were comfortable in their Natives and my husband wore his tried and true Nikes) Grab some Minnie ears, put a big smile on your face and remember you’re in the happiest place on Earth. Have fun, enjoy yourself and make some special memories to last a lifetime.
What tips do you have for enjoying a trip to Walt Disney World? Please share below!