The real magic at the Magic Kingdom happens after dark.
The real magic at the Magic Kingdom happens after dark. Scott Cameron/NPR
Some of the hottest times to visit Disney World come when the rest of the country is freezing cold. Christmas and New Year's are both wildly popular. So is Thanksgiving. And Presidents Day.
Disclaimer: There are any number of experts on Disney World. I won't pretend to be one of them. My wife and I took our 3-year-old son for the first time in August. He rode Dumbo, the tea cups and the Peter Pan ride (3 or 4 times), hugged Mickey, Goofy, Pooh, Tinkerbell, Minnie and a handful of other characters. He passed out from exhaustion several times. In other words, the trip was a success.
We did some things right (buy the PhotoPass option in advance — it's cheaper and you have dozens of great pictures waiting online when you get home) and some things wrong (reserve a table months in advance if you hope to avoid an hour-long wait for dinner with a tired, hungry toddler). While the books and blogs and Disney FAQs were immeasurably helpful, inevitably some relatively minor issues often fell through the cracks.
So, here are 10 things I learned from our Disney vacation:
If you plan to go, plan ahead
The average American wedding takes 8-12 months to prepare. That's a reasonable baseline for researching, booking and preparing for a Disney trip, in my limited experience. And take advantage of the information that's available. We found the MouseSavers site and Disney's "Moms Panel" invaluable for tips, cautionary tales and ideas. Birnbaum's Walt Disney World guidebook filled in a lot of other gaps. A number of web sites offer pre-trip packing lists, day-of to-do lists and other helpful guides.
The real magic at the Magic Kingdom comes after dark
Be flexible on bedtimes. Orlando by day is hot and humid, but once night fell temperatures dropped, the mood changed and the magic happened. Disney after dark isn't without its risks. Wrangling an overtired, overstimulated toddler can feel as fruitless — and rewarding — as trying to bottle a small nuclear explosion, but the payoff was worth it. On our second night, fireworks colored the sky and boomed so loud our teeth rattled. An enormous light show turned the castle in front of us into a 17-story movie screen. A real, live Tinkerbell flew over our heads. And electric light parades lit up the streets of the main square and the waters of the lagoon. After a long, hot day, we got our fairy tale ending. And the show goes on twice every night.
Many kids won't drink the tap water at Disney World because of its taste and smell. Bring packets of lemonade or Kool-Aid to avoid buying drinks all day.
Flavor your water and carry your snacks
Tap water at Disney World smells and tastes awful (some say "different," not awful). To avoid a fight over staying hydrated — and to save money — we carried reusable water bottles and packed a handful of packets with sugar-free lemonade mix. There are water fountains all over the parks to refill your bottles, free. We also carried a small bag of snacks to avoid lines and the added expense of snack shops. We bought our share of giant cookies, Mickey Mouse ice cream bars and elephant ears, but we satisfied regular cravings and long-line hunger pangs with individual servings of apple sauce, fruit twists and granola bars.
Buy the meal plans
I'm a skeptic. So, when my wife asked if we wanted the dining plan my initial response was, "no thanks." Then, we did the math. The standard dining plan gave each of us one fast-food meal, one sit-down meal and one snack per day. Each meal includes an entree, a dessert and a drink. Snacks can be ice cream, popcorn, fruit, drinks or bottled water. If my math is right, we paid less than $30 per day, per person. At some restaurants, you can pay more than that for a single sit-down meal. And we found that many restaurants were willing to negotiate. If I didn't want a dessert at lunch, I could trade for an appetizer. Just watch out at some of the candy shops. I found that a $2 chocolate might be part of the dining plan, but the $3 chocolate next to it may not be.
Leave the photos to Disney
I sat down at our computer when we got home and clicked through dozens of photos from the trip. None of which we'd taken ourselves. Too many of our past vacation pictures only include two-thirds of our family. Someone always has to snap the picture. Disney let us put the "family" back in our family photos with what they call the PhotoPass option. It's pricey: We paid $100 in advance for a CD of as many photos as we chose, edited and styled any way that we wanted. But if you have the choice, we found it was worth the cost. Disney photographers stand ready to click near every photo opportunity in the parks, just hand them your card to scan. When we got home, we logged into our account and found pictures from Cinderella's Castle, the Epcot ball, meetings with individual characters and breakfast with Chef Mickey, among others. We picked our favorite photos (in our case, all of them), added fun Disney borders and effects to many, and ordered a CD with a couple hundred pictures.
Call the resort a few days before your trip with any special requests — including a view of the Magic Kingdom and the nightly fireworks display.
We stayed at the Polynesian Resort and knew we wanted a room overlooking the lagoon with a view of the Magic Kingdom. Those rooms have a clear view of Cinderella's Castle and offer an incredible seat for the nightly fireworks show and boat parade. For obvious reasons, the best rooms are often reserved for those in the vacation club or paying more for fancier trips and what Disney calls concierge level service. One of the Disney "cast members" we called for information suggested calling the hotel 3-5 days before our arrival with any special requests. I can't say how often that works, but we followed the advice and when we checked in, our room opened onto the calm waters of the lagoon with the castle poking out of the trees in the distance. No extra charge. A similar strategy got us a tank-side seat next to the giant turtles, sharks and fish at the Coral Reef restaurant in Epcot. We stopped by 30 minutes before our scheduled reservation to request a table by the tank, and 15 minutes later a server guided us to the front.
Let someone else carry your bags
We weren't in the Magic Kingdom for 2 minutes before we bought our first souvenir: A classic mouse ears hat for our son. One of the early lessons we learned was that, at Disney, you'll spend more than you plan. So, with tight budgets it helps to save money where you can. One pleasant surprise was the free luggage service and bus ride to and from the airport. We chose the option for Mickey's Magical Express service and once we landed in Orlando we never carried our bags. We followed the signs to the buses, were greeted by a friendly staff (many in over-sized Mickey Mouse gloves) who guided us to our bus and whisked us to our hotel. Our bags arrived in our room shortly after we did. With plenty of memories of Disney trips we'd taken as kids, our expectations were high. We wanted magic. While it's a relatively small perk, Disney made us feel like VIPS from the moment we landed. And if it's your first visit, don't be shy about telling people. Disney World offers buttons for first-timers and anyone celebrating a special occasion. We didn't get to cut in line or eat for free, but everyone working in the park singled out our son and asked how were enjoying the trip. For our 3-year-old, it made him feel like royalty. You'll find buttons at City Hall in the Magic Kingdom and in many of the shops.
Rain showers wash away the crowds
We've been to Florida enough to know that every afternoon the clouds roll in and rain sends everyone running for cover for an hour or two. This trip was different. Storm clouds gathered every morning, and on some days never left. We bought our requisite Mickey ponchos and were generally annoyed until we noticed the wait times on many rides dropped dramatically. Apparently, all-day rains drove people from the park. On sunny days, we couldn't get on Peter Pan and other popular rides, but when the storms moved in we rode two or three times in a row. It helped that we had a rain hood for our stroller. Most "stroller parking" areas are uncovered. One quick tip: FastPass is your friend! The option didn't exist when I last visited Disney, but for crowded rides you can now get a ticket with a set time range for you to ride and avoid the long lines.
This was our biggest mistake, and my one big complaint about Disney World. With nearly 20 million hungry tourists wandering the Magic Kingdom every year, the restaurants are often crowded and the tables full. At midday in any fast food place in the park, expect to eat standing up or to race other exhausted parents for tables as they open. Most travel web sites recommend advance reservations for sit-down dining (read: Months in advance). We took that advice, with one glaring exception. We left our last night open, figuring we could get a reservation once we arrived and checked out our options first-hand. Instead, every nearby was table booked. Thanks to a computer error, we faced a roughly 75-minute wait for a table at our hotel (with a cranky, hungry 3-year-old). To their credit, the staff kept us well informed of the wait time, and made sure a TV was playing cartoons to keep the kids busy, if not happy. The table crunch is a wider issue, though. Guests pay thousands of dollars to stay at a Disney resort and visit the parks. In return, they should expect to find an open table in a reasonable amount of time.
Don't try to do it all
We saved for more than a year for 5 days at Disney World. To get our money's worth, we wanted to do everything we possibly could. It just didn't happen. You can push yourselves to see it all, or you can enjoy the trip. We found that we couldn't do both. Maybe in a few years we'll save enough to pick things up where we left off — starting with a visit to the Animal Kingdom!