Children fall into two categories: those who have been to Disney World and those who want desperately to go there. Even if they don’t yet know they want to go, they want to go.
Parents, it is best to accept this law of nature early – maybe even before parenthood - lest be caught unaware by the pleading gibberish of your cherubic 2-year-old in the Disney Store. What they mean can be loosely translated into “This is not enough. I need to meet Mickey Mouse and hug him at the expense of my college fund.”
Prepare now for the delicate balance of money hemorrhaging, tantrum thwarting, sunburn prevention and, admittedly, timeless fun.
While parents are groomed to think ahead, some humble advice comes only after propelling a double stroller over the hallowed ground and living to tell the tale...
Take advantage of military discounts, if applicable. Don’t just plan a trip online. Call Disney and inform a representative that you are military. Most Disney resort rates will plummet upon receipt of this information. Shades of Green is a Disney hotel specifically for military with rates based on rank, but is often at capacity. If you opt to stay off Disney grounds, many unaffiliated hotels have a government rate for military, so ask. Finally, buy park tickets through MWR for a fraction of Disney’s price. Call 910.396.8747 or visit Bldg 4-2171 (the AAFES Mini Mall) on Reilly Road.
If non-military, carefully consider whether your children have the stamina for the “park hopper” ticket option. This is a hefty extra fee per ticket that allows patrons to visit multiple parks in the same day. Small children may become overstimulated after only several hours, so spending the morning in one park and the afternoon in another park can be difficult. Sometimes, the only reward for tenacity will be exhausted kids who need to sleep late the next morning. Which brings us to…
Take advantage of the Magic Hours. Disney hotel guests are allowed into the parks one hour before and one hour after park hours. There are minimal, if any, lines for rides as the stifling hoards have yet to roll out of bed. Take this opportunity to ride all of the rides that have traditionally long wait times in the middle of the day.
Pack convenience items. Think of all of the items you and your children realistically use over the course of several days. It may feel excessive to devote an entire bag to sunscreen, pain reliever, children’s shampoo, children’s pain reliever, triple antibiotic ointment, bandages, plastic rain ponchos, bottled water and hand sanitizer. Sure, you can buy these items in your hotel’s shop, but they will come at a hair-raising markup.
Carefully consider your family’s eating habits and which (if any!) Disney meal plan will be cost-effective. For some families with small children, the cost makes little sense. Expecting tired children to sit down and eat a full meal in a restaurant is sometimes difficult at home – never mind the distractions of vacation. It may behoove your family to pack a bag (and/or cooler) of items your children love and with which they are familiar. There is no shame in prepackaged oatmeal in the hotel room each morning and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, especially if that is what your children really want, anyway.
Adjust all expectations. It will be hot or unseasonably cold. It will be crowded. Inescapable fatigue will settle over your entire bloodline with a denseness of Florida’s humidity. The line to meet Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” will be four hours long. Adopt a mantra when you feel yourself pressured to rush from one attraction to the next, like, “This is not a race.” Ironically, if approached any differently, you, as a parent, will lose out. Focus on the unadulterated wonderment in the eyes of your children. They are impressed by deafeningly loud parades, Goofy-shaped topiary and mouse-shaped ice cream. Revel in it.
Set a daily budget for “stuff.” From the moment you enter the park until you take that final, weary step into your hotel room in the evening, you will be inundated with opportunities to purchase memorabilia. Even adults may – no, WILL – be bamboozled by Disney’s superb marketing tactics. Would they make adult-sized mouse ears if adults didn’t buy them?
Download the Disney app and familiarize yourself with the features before travel. Gone are the days of navigating a paper map, even though they still have those, too. The app is amazingly user-friendly. With one touch, you have access to maps, wait times for rides, character sightings and restaurants.
Personalize Magic Bands well before your trip and know how to use them. It’s your room key, park ticket, meal plan, credit card, Memory Maker and Fast Pass.
Make reservations in advance. For everything. Some restaurants don’t even take same-day reservations. By the time you are hungry, wait times may eclipse three hours for popular restaurants at Downtown Disney and in the parks. It goes without saying that character dining experiences and personalized attractions like Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique should be booked as soon as travel plans are solidified.
Purchase Memory Makers three days in advance of your trip for a discounted rate of $149, or $200 any time after. At each character meet-and-greet and hundreds of picturesque locations around the parks, Disney photographers are poised to snap your family’s picture*. With Memory Maker, you can download all of the professional pictures for a flat fee. If you don’t purchase Memory Maker, you can still purchase these pictures individually, but it will be at a premium (think $15 per picture). *Disney photographers will also use your camera to take pictures, if you ask them. If you don’t buy Memory Maker, this is a great way to get everyone in the picture for free.
Make time to meet characters. Depending on the age of your children, you may spend a notable portion of your day standing in line to meet characters. You’ll begrudge the wait until the character spends five minutes talking with your child as if they are the only child on Earth. Each highly trained character is accompanied by a photographer, so if you take advantage of Memory Maker, you can stand back and watch your child have an otherworldly experience.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and eat. At best, a mildly dehydrated and hungry child is an irritable child. With so many external stimuli, hunger and thirst are often forgotten until the occurrence of a woebegone sob fest. Frequent drinks and snacks are an easy way to help them (and you!) have more fun.
Allow for travel to and from parks. Even staying on the grounds of Disney, it can take upwards of an hour to travel from the door of your hotel room to a park entrance. Don’t wait until your children are tearfully exhausted to leave for the day as there may be a boat ride, bus ride and long walk (yes, all three!) ahead.
Clean your home before you leave for vacation. Disney withdrawal and subsequent recovery are uniquely harsh. Depending on how aggressively your children seek the Mouse and all of his trappings, it can take days to catch up on rest and laundry. Upon walking in the door, you need a calm, organized space to throw your suitcases and stare at them for a week.