Walt Disney World. You can experience the "happiest place on earth" or a festering basement foot-scraping in the seventh circle of Hell. The choice is yours. There are plenty of thick books and online references that give practical guidance to surviving, and enjoying, a Disney vacation with children. But we've found there are a couple of key themes. First, center the holiday around your own adult vacation needs; the kid's pleasure will come along for the ride. It also helps to have a spouse that's organized and plans your vacation carefully. Thank her or him profusely, because planning is a central thread of our own dozen essential tips gleaned from two trips to Florida and one more to the Hong Kong site.
- Check the five-day forecast just before your vacation and pack for weather conditions. It isn't always warm and sunny in central Florida. The rain poncho you could have picked up at a Dollar store back home will cost you approximately $8 at the park. For a family needing five that's a lunch.
It's not always the Sunshine State,
- Unless you enjoy meltdowns, don't bring kids less than three if they don't have older siblings whose window of opportunity is closing. Disney is a sensory overload your small child didn't ask for. You're kidding yourself if you pretend to think it's "their" dream at the toddler age. They won't honestly remember the Magic Kingdom two months from now. If grandparents kindly offer to take your small tyke for the week, gratefully accept.
A sea of patrons who won't remember their "dream" vacation.
- If you're going to explore the wider region, rent a car GPS unit or bring your own. Classic map reading skills are invaluable in many corners of the world, but why try to simultaneously drive and navigate Orlando with hyper-stimulated kids in the back seat if you don't need to? Safety first.
- If you're sticking exclusively to Disney parks, stay at a site hotel or resort. It will save the cost of a rental car (the bus system between the airport, theme parks and centralized accommodations is quick, efficient and stress-free).
Disney World has a very efficient mass transit system between parks and resorts. If you are not going outside the Disney complex, don't bring a car.
- Bring good footwear. You will walk and stand a lot, unless you're a rolling guest.
- Bring packaged snacks and drinks in your checked luggage (or organize delivery of supplies by a local company to your hotel). Your own food and drink is permitted in the park, and a little backpack weight is worth the potentially hundreds of dollars you will save over a week's vacation. You'll have room for souvenirs on the way home as the stash empties, and carrying some food will burn a few extra calories. Health-conscious visitors will find the Disney menu--though improving--is heavily tilted towards carbohydrate-rich fast food, a reflection of why many people in point 5 are on scooters. You won't find they are given many truly healthy food choices.
Though Disney resorts are tailored to the younger crowd, scooters are almost as ubiquitous as strollers, and that's saying something. Disney World is the global center of gravity for morbidly-overweight vacationers.
- Take a midday recharge break by the pool or nap in your hotel room. The kids don't need to see every attraction immediately, and they won't miss it if you don't program them to covet every movie character's signature or to "need to go on the Peter Pan ride" (see point 2 about memory). They are less likely to act up past their normal bedtime with a quality mid-afternoon rest you build into the plan.
- Scheduled park parades and light shows are a great time to get on line for the top attractions with your well-rested kids. Afterwards is good too (at some parks); Magic Kingdom empties after the light parade and fireworks, for instance. At Epcot, however, attractions close with the light show.
- Plan your FastPasses online ahead of vacation. The FastPass kiosks on site can otherwise take as long as a ride wait on their own. Or, bring an iPod or iPhone to make changes yourself and avoid standing in line; you must have the My Disney Experience app downloaded first. You are only allowed three FastPasses per day now, so plan your day carefully, especially if you're hoping to park hop.
- Today's latest popular ride is tomorrow's old story. But for your kids it's all new unless you tell them otherwise. FastPass the hot new attraction, and also head for it right at park opening to ensure you get a couple rides at least. Spend the bulk of your time at the established rides or shows--they were all the latest thrill once, and lines are short.
- Your dreams aren't someone else's. Don't shove to get to your favorite ride or the best theater seat. It's contagious. Disney attractions are engineered so every view is good.
- Take care of yourself. See the attractions you want to see. The kids will be happy if you are happy.
Thanks to Stacey Orobona for contributing, and for planning our latest Disney vacation!