Did you know that Budgettravel.com listed Walt Disney World (henceforth abbreviated WDW for efficiency) as one of the top fifteen places every kid should see? (See list here) Several commenters to the blog post were outraged that The Happiest Place On Earth would qualify for such a prestigious placement. Some people labeled it a “tourist trap” and “a rip off”. Others argued that it was “hugely expensive”. A few self-important dissenters felt that because they’d never been to WDW and didn’t feel like they were missing anything, it couldn’t possibly be worthy of any must-see list. One mother argued that it was “too crowded” and “activities were booked up”. And finally, someone lamented that it had “no educational value”.
Forgive me, but my first reaction to these very emotional responses was bewildered disbelief. No Disney on a list of must-see places for kids? Seriously?? Most kids I know would put Disney at the tippy-top. And, while I’m not a kid (at least not by age), I wholeheartedly agree that kids should experience Disney, if it is meaningful to them. It’s a tangible, intricately detailed world of make-believe that joyfully celebrates well-known and well-loved stories and characters. Also, whether people want to admit it or not, the creative genius of Walt Disney is a part of the cultural fabric of America. From the introduction of Steamboat Willie in 1928 to the present day Disney empire that encompasses radio, TV, and motion pictures, Walt Disney has been touching the lives of generations of people. Is it so wrong to indulge the rich imagination of childhood and celebrate America’s popular cultural history? I think not.
I am not a Disney expert. And I don’t travel to Orlando several times a year. But, after planning and thoroughly enjoying two trips in the last seven years, I know enough about WDW to state with confidence that it is only a “tourist trap” and a “rip off” if you allow it to be. While certain Disney expenses cannot be altered, there are many, many cost-conscious options that can keep the experience from becoming “hugely expensive”. Poor planning will definitely result in experiencing parks that are “too crowded” and “activities that are booked”. As far as the “educational value” of WDW, it’s there if you want it – especially at EPCOT and Animal Kingdom. However, I can honestly say that educational value has never been the determining factor for the Whimsey clan when we choose a travel destination. We learn and experience many things when we travel together, but it happens in the context of doing what interests us, not because we are purposefully seeking to be educated.
To set the record straight for all those Disney haters out there and to encourage anyone who is considering a trip to see The Mouse and all his friends, I’d like to share some thoughts and ideas about travel to the wonderful World of Walt Disney.
- Do your research and make a plan. By now, it’s probably pretty clear how important I think planning is to any successful travel experience. When I say WDW is just too big and too expensive to trust to chance, I mean it. There are four major theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney Studios, and Animal Kingdom), two water parks, two mini-golf courses, and Downtown Disney. Each park has several restaurants, many with characters that require six month advanced reservations, numerous shows, parades, and street performers. On property, there are about 26 different types of accommodations ranging from campgrounds to villas. Several of the restaurants at these properties are worth a visit as well. You will miss out on some things if you don’t do your homework. If nothing else, find out when the parks open and close, what days are early openings for resort guests, and get the schedules for shows and parades – especially the ones that only happen only a few times a week. These websites are a fantastic source of information: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/ http://allears.net/index.html http://www.disboards.com/ http://www.mouseplanet.com/ I also found The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger and others to be worth it’s weight in gold. It’s a storehouse of information with comments and tips from families who’ve happily survived the Disney World experience. It also contains touring plans of the parks that are field tested to allow vacationers to see the most possible in the time they have at the parks. And finally, for those uber-planners out there, please take a look at https://www.tourguidemike.com/. There is a fee but consider it an investment in a great vacation. Mike was a VIP touring guide at Disney before he began his website. I’ve used his information to plan our last trip and it is very accurate and helpful. I owe our practically empty day at Magic Kingdom where we rode Space Mountain over and over again entirely to him. In my opinion, $21.95 was money well spent.
- If you want to save money, don’t stay on property. Period. It just isn’t a good value, even considering all the “Disney magic” vacationers are bathed in 24-7. And, if a family consists of more the four people, most likely they’ll be required to purchase two rooms or upgrade to a more expensive suite. Why not stay in one of the many less expensive and comparable quality hotels outside of Disney? Better yet, consider renting a condo or house. Many rental units are minutes from Disney and sometimes come with pools and game rooms. For my family, a kitchen and multiple bedrooms and bathrooms trumps one or two small hotel/motel rooms every time. Some people complain about having to leave the Disney magic. We Whimseys like a break from the craziness and enjoy the peace and quiet. For an idea of what is available, take a look at these sites: http://www.allstarvacationhomes.com/ http://www.windsorhillsbest.com/ http://www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/usa/florida/central-disney-orlando/kissimmee Check out tripadvisor.com too, for the best hotels and resorts in the area surrounding WDW.
- If you want to save money, and this is your first or second time to the parks, skip the park hopper option on the ticket. Everyone will try to talk you into it. Don’t give in! First of all, it adds a significant cost to your tickets. Secondly, you will spend valuable time that you paid for to be in the parks traveling between the parks. (The parks are not close together like they are at the neighboring Universal Resort). Finally, for newbies, there is more than enough to do in each park to fill an entire day and then some. So, don’t buy the park hopper. Do your research and decide which park you want to go to each day. Go to that park and wring the fun out of it. Do another park the next day and do the same thing. Even if you are there from opening to close, you will never be able to see and do everything. I promise.
- If at all possible, travel off-season. Take your kids out of school and go during the off-season. It’s cooler, there are significantly less crowds, and accommodations are often cheaper. If you must go over the summer or holidays, it’s absolutely vital that you have a plan and understand that there will be A LOT of people. The summer will be extremely hot and humid, too, so get to the park as early as possible and leave when it begins to get too hot and crowded. Take a swim or rest in the air-conditioning and then head back to the parks in the late afternoon. To get the most out of your experience, stay as late as you can, which in the summer could be midnight. For emphasis, I’m just going to state it again – please go during the off-season.
- For ideas on other money-saving schemes check out these sites: mousesavers.com themouseforless.com
- Get to the parks at opening. The first two hours in the parks are golden opportunities to hit the rides that generate long lines later in the day. If you are staying on-site at Disney, take advantage of the early entry perk given to resort guests. If you are staying off-site, go to any of the parks that aren’t offering early entry. Again, have a plan. For instance, at Disney Studios we would arrive at park opening and immediately ride Tower of Terror, Rockin’ Roller Coaster, and Toy Story Mania with little to no waiting in line. The big rides would be done at least once and we could have a leisurely rest of the day. Some of the parks have characters and mini-shows at park openings which are fun to see. Yes, I know this is vacation and sleeping in is an earned right. Just trust me when I say the benefits of dragging butts out of bed for the park opening are well worth the price of lost vacation sleep.
- Never be without a Fastpass. Fastpass is a ticket system that allows people to occasionally bypass the regular waiting line. It is available to everyone but has some limitations. A complete explanation is beyond the scope of this little blog so check this out. Fastpass is your friend. Use it to your strategic advantage and even crowded days will be more bearable.
- Take advantage of character meals if characters are an important part of the experience for your family. Standing in the lines in the parks for character meet and greets sucks up hours of precious park time. By reserving a meal with the characters of your choice (the princesses, Winnie-the-Pooh characters, Mickey and friends, etc.) you can get autographs from several characters at once and slip a meal in at the same time. Just know that these meals fill up fast. This is where planning and research really pays off. Instead of feeling frustrated because you can’t get any reservations for character meals once you get to WDW, you’ll have that all taken care of months before you get there. Disney dining reservations.
- Allow for serendipitous moments. Just because I emphasize doing research and planning doesn’t mean I believe touring the parks has to be a military training exercise. I admit that my family is pretty hardcore when it comes to amusement parks, arriving when the parks open and staying until they close. We do not rush from ride to ride like crazy people, though. Some of our best experiences in WDW were completely unplanned. In Disney Studios, my kids and my nieces were asked to walk behind the afternoon parade with Pluto, holding a long rope to keep people from walking through the celebration. They took pictures with him afterward. He was wonderful. In Magic Kingdom, we sat on Main Street after the official closing of the park, eating ice cream cones and talking to the night shift cast member manager while her staff transformed the park into a Christmas Wonderland. Don’t be so focused on The Plan that you miss those small unexpected moments that add so much meaning to travel. Relax and enjoy being at The Happiest Place on Earth.
- Plan rest times. If little ones are involved, do your very best to maintain their schedules. They will be happier and so will you. Our little ones were past napping when we went so we chose to do a few full days of touring, a rest day of swimming and napping, and then a few more days of touring. Do whatever works for you, but definitely take the time to revitalize. Doing WDW well will wear you out – especially if you go during the hot summer months. If you don’t schedule in some R&R, you’ll be sailing some pretty rough waters by the end of the trip.
There is so much more I could say about WDW. The customer service is exceptional, especially when it comes to children with special needs. The theming is half the fun of the rides. Taking photographs is a pleasure. Look for hidden Mickeys – they are everywhere. Don’t miss IllumiNations or Wishes. I could go on and on. My kids always list Walt Disney World as one of their favorite travel memories. In the end, that is all I need to know about the magic of the place and its validity as one of the top 15 places to travel to with kids. If you decide to go WDW, I hope the experience surpasses your loftiest expectations. And if you have any suggestions to add to this list, please do.
(I also apologize to Whimseypie followers who received a short nonsensical post a few days ago. I was working on the rough draft for another blog post when the screen blinked and then congratulated me on my latest post. The post was not intended for publication yet. Sorry for the confusion.)