- Scheduling: Do not travel over any holiday periods if you can avoid it. If your kids are little pull them out of school and work out assignments with their teachers. I made my kids create flip shows of postcards or photos, and/or keep a journal about the “Best Part of Their Day” so they had some remembrance of school going on without them. As they get older and more involved in academics and/or sports, school absence comes at a higher cost, so skip school while the kids are young. The parks are less crowded and the rates for hotels and cars are lower in the off-season.
- Location: Stay “on property” so that you can use the Disney transportation network. This includes buses, boats and monorails. Mix it up so that the kids feel that traveling to the Parks is an adventure in itself. You can also have access to early morning/late evening Magic Hours, when parks stay open longer for resort guests only. Points at a non-Disney hotel? Save them for a different vacation (a second honeymoon perhaps?) You can thank me later.
- Get FAST Passes: Your days in the Parks must be planned in advance, one park per day, so that you can get fast passes on-line before you go. The fast pass window opens 60 days in advance of your trip, if you are a resort guest and you need a linked resort reservation for all the members of your party. Fast passes are like “virtual tickets” to a specific attraction at a specific time…so you don’t have to stand in line to get in.
- Get There Early: This is not negotiable. You can sleep on vacation when you go to your beach house or the mountain cabin. The parks are much easier to navigate just after opening when there are no lines at rides. Characters and animals (in Animal Kingdom) are out before the 11-2 p.m. heat sets in, and the opening ceremonies for each park are very, very festive. “Dropping the Ropes” is especially cool at Magic Kingdom. Everyone else is sleeping in, because they are “ON VACATION darn it!” So go, go, go now…. you can get 4-5 rides in before lunch if you get to the parks in the first hour.
Plan Your Day: IN ADVANCE (at least the night before), using a map of the attractions and Showtimes Guide. Do the most popular rides first (if you don’t have a fast pass) and then work your way around the parks by numbering your desired attractions… in ORDER. Do not criss cross the parks, or stand around trying to decipher maps and symbols while on the run… you will lose valuable time and energy without making any progress. Go counterclockwise, if you have no preference, since most people go to the right when they hit a fork in the road. (I’m making that up, but it sounded good…right?)
- Pack Lots of Snacks: In your backpack/stroller and bring water or juice. Security is diligent on bag checking, so since you have to stop, make it worth your while by filling the sack. I recommend eating a good breakfast in your hotel or suite, and then lots of finger food, fruit, crackers, munchies during the morning. Kids are like animals.. they get mean when hungry, so feed them healthy stuff and often. My routine was to eat lunch outside the park, which is much cheaper: on the boardwalk, Disney Springs, or even at another hotel’s cafe.
- Leave There Early: First in First Out… just like the accounting program. You will be back again, you will have a chance to revisit a park on your last day, if you have more than a four day vacation (four parks in four days is a lot..so put in a break day), and you will have a happier evening with your little ones if you let them swim and lounge at the hotel once the parks get crowded after lunch.
- Take Walt Disney World transportation: since it is easier, it is cheaper (like free), and it gets you closer than you could EVER, EVER park. Lines for parking and traffic build at each park as the day goes on, so the bus system is always a better bet to avoid gridlock. I promise that your kids will sleep on the bus on the way back to your hotel…giving you some much needed rest.
- Plan One Night Time Activity: Did you hear me ONE! That means dinner out, a parade, a fireworks show, a movie under the stars, a campfire sing-along, a walk around the lake for ice cream… ONE! Overstimulated, overtired, over-sugared children will have a hard time falling asleep, so I recommend trying to keep your evening routine as close as possible to what you do at home. Dinner, bath, stories, bedtime…. whatever you normally do, and at the same time. Then you and your spouse can collapse and rejuvenate for the next MAGICAL DAY!!! Don’t forget the wine!
- Your mantra should at all times be (cue Arnold in “Terminator”) “I’ll be BACK!” Most tantrums are a result of overtired kids who “JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE.” And it is the parents who plan the exhausting days, trying to get to Perhaps this is your first trip to Mickey land also. Don’t sweat, don’t try to do too much since Disney World and all its magic will be there for many, many years to come. Plan to come back next year, five years from now, or when your kids graduate from high school—doesn’t really matter. When you know you will be back, it gives you some freedom that you don’t have when you are on a ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME-VACATION.
***SIDEBAR: My family bought a piece of the kingdom with a membership in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). We knew that we would come more than once and the first time (7 days in a Fort Wilderness Cabin) was delightful, but expensive. So we bought in 20 years ago, and have used it nearly every year since, for family, for friends, for RUN Disney Weekends, and hotel stays during conventions held at different Orlando hotels. If you would like more information about the DVC, please let me know via email.