You may have heard Disneyland or Disney World described as the “happiest place on earth.” Well, I may not agree even 75% with that assessment but I have to say from the outset, their salute to our heroes (Military- Active, Reserve, Guard and military families) is phenomenal. Thanks, Disney, for saluting those serve – it makes going to Disney an affordable reality for many military families who otherwise could not go and experience this for their families.
This was our first family trip to Disney World in Orlando, FL and with that comes tons of excitement – well, mainly from the princesses or pirates in your home. Last time I was in Disney, I think I was in my teens with my parents – almost 20 years ago. I never understand why perfectly sane, educated adults or retirees go there especially the Magic Kingdom unless there are kids with them. I just do not get it- of course, I have friends who got married there and after re-visiting two weeks ago, again, I just do not see it. Ha! Maybe your comments will help me understand. I thought maybe I’d change my mind when I went this time… NOPE! No mind changing, nothing magical happened to me make me change my belief that Disney World is not just the most crowded, germ-infested place around but can literally suck you dry of any savings you have left. I thought I’d title this “Disney on a Dime” because honestly I do not think Disney can be done with anything less than $1000 – and that is the cheap, ghetto, one-day trip – i.e. complete with Motel $39 and everything. But it’s not all negative- in my codeine-stupor I still have some great tips to share with you first-timers venturing out there and I promise it’s not all negative so please read on.
The Passes & Parking:
We were lucky in one aspect because we were able to get Military Passes to Disney World which cost us $138 each for a four-day park hopper. Of course, with a 2 and 4 year old we weren’t do a whole lot of hopping since Magic Kingdom alone can take you the full four days to explore. Our trip was less than 2 days and with kids, you have to expect move slower, and stop for potty breaks and alas, the expensive food in the park. So… if you have high ambitions for what you as a parent want to do in Disney World, leave those at the ticket and transportation center or the parking lot and don’t look back! This trip is not about you, it’s about the kiddos so plan accordingly. Second, do not expect this trip to be a gentle stroll on the beach or relaxing- even with your mindset of “it’s okay, I do not need to see it all”, you will still not find anything about Disney relaxing- well, except for maybe once you reach your car in the giant parking lot.
TIP #1: Yes, PARKING is included with your military salute hopper pass – you just show your ID card and your Salute to Military Disney Card to the parking attendant and you will be saluted on in – you just saved $14.00 – CONGRATS and thanks to Disney for saluting its heroes. If parking is not included with your pass, here are some tips for that: If you are staying at the resorts, use the buses or monorails or boats available. If you are staying at a nearby hotel, most customers of Mousesavers.com above get free transportation included with their hotel. Ask your hotel re: shuttles. Some shuttles are as cheap as $5 per person round trip and kids are not included in this. Also, another option is to take buses from Downtown Disney. There is a lot which has no hourly limit. From there you walk to the downtown Disney transportation center where buses will take you directly to the turnstiles at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, etc. Honestly the parking at Magic Kingdom sucks because you park, then you take a boat or monorail and then you still have to enter through the turnstiles (it turns into a 1 hour trip to just get into DW). So, if you can take the transportation that is free from any of the resorts or Downtown Disney. But you just need to be careful of where you park – you can’t park just anywhere. Also if there are HUGE Crowds for the monorail, take the boat- it fits 200 people at once and the monorail fits half as many on a good day. So…. keep that in mind. Another short cut is to use the monorail to the resorts and then just get off at the tickets and transportation or The Polynesian Village stop.
TIP #2: (FOR MILITARY) These passes are great but expire Sept 30, 2012 and have some black out dates for Magic Kingdom so keep that in mind. You can get them at your local ITT office or at Shades of Green and on-site at Disney World but avoid the long lines and get them early. To activate them, try to show up one day AFTER 2pm and then, activate them. The morning lines can be daunting at the ticket booths. Also, these passes are personalized – meaning, if you are an adult, your fingerprint associates you with these passes. For parents who share custody, the finger print of one adult will be registered with the kids’ passes so if you plan on sending kiddo with the other parent next time, there will be a fingerprint issue if you are not with them. Keep this in mind!
TIP #3- If you are not military and are looking for good deals, check out these websites for some good rates on lodging and passes or do a timeshare 90-minute briefing and you can get $48/day passes for your family of up to 4.
(1) Mouseavers.com is a great website and if you subscribe to their newsletter you can get even more discounts. Do it today if you are going soon.
(2) Undercovertourist.com is another great site for non-military passes and discounts
(3) Trip Advisor and other sites also recommend getting them on site there if you wish from Wal-Mart even – check out this thread for even more suggestions:
Disney World is not cheap so if you do not have the military pass, try to go with someone who has one (yes your military friends can get up to 6 people including themselves) activated to enter the park – no familial relationship required. Try to plan a trip with your active, reserve, or Guard friends. And from what I hear, their cruise specials are great right now too. Way to salute our heroes, Disney!
TIP #4 (Stroller or no Stroller?) I would recommend a stroller for kids 7 and under. That’s right – 7 and under and I would take your own. Stroller rental is expensive- $20 for a single and $31 daily for a double. That’s right- you can save $31 per day if you just take your own. We did as you can see above and it worked out great for us. They were tired and passed out by the evenings’ rides back on the ferry boats and trust me, if I could have wheeled around DisneyWorld I would have done that. That being said, getting a stroller through certain areas is tougher than walking. There were a lot of handicapped access, parking areas for strollers and get this: in the parking areas, there were employees hired to move the strollers around, to organize the areas, and to keep your stroller out of the sun. How nice! So, when you come out of a ride and cannot find your stroller, fret not, it was probably just moved so look around for it. Yes, they can touch your strollers.
There is a lot to do at the Magic Kingdom itself, without even considering Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. First and foremost, print out a map or get one on-line and there are apps with maps too! The Magic Kingdom is easy to navigate and divided well: The Main Street/Entrance area, the Castle Area, To the right: Tomorrow Land which leads to Fantasyland, and to the left, Adventureland, and Frontierland, with Liberty Square tucked away left of the Castle and can lead you to back to Fantasyland. We completely missed Tomorrowland and did not have time to do a couple of other rides we want. Depending on the age and height of your kids, you can ride almost every ride at Magic Kingdom and most at Animal Kingdom but Epcot and Hollywood Studios may be better geared for the big kids and the big kid in you. As far as Magic Kingdom goes, it is always crowded and I do not think any time of the year is less crowded than another…. that being said, if you want to avoid Spring Break, Summer peak vacation times, and Labor Day weekend, it might be more pleasant. We went in what we considered an off-time but it was Mardi Gras so a lot of people from New Orleans came over to Disney. It’s interesting because I heard from my cousins who went to Epcot and Hollywood Studios that it was not crowded at all. I think everyone was at the Magic Kingdom- figures! It has the most to do for younger kids and the character meetings are a joy. Here are some tips for Magic Kingdom (whether busy or not):
TIP #5- Do try to get there first thing when it opens (some days are extended- for example, M through W right now are 8am through 1am (yikers that is a long day) but getting there first thing is less crowded and alternatively, come in the evenings- after 4pm – it is not crowded at all. So, you could do a 4pm to 1am jaunt if you so dare as well. If you do get there first thing in the morning, go straight to Fantasyland so the wait times for rides are less. Another time that wait times for rides are really little to none are after 8pm especially during the 9pm parade and 10pm fireworks. After the fireworks end though, watch out! We took some rides at night and there was no wait at all like Aladdin’s magic carpet ride was 40 minutes in the afternoon (and it was hot and annoying to wait) but at night, 2 minutes or less. Pirates of the Caribbean was a 65 plus minute wait during the day but they had fast pass but at dusk, we walked right in and it was a 1 minute wait. So, timing is everything when it comes to the rides.
TIP #6- If a ride offers fast pass, do it but be careful of when it tells you to return because you can do only one fast pass at a time. Now, here is the trick- you can do fast pass for everyone in your group or do it for two adults and then not for the kiddos. Then, for the kiddos using their entry pass, get fast passes elsewhere- it is gaming of the system a little but no entrance person will refuse to let you enter together as a family and fast pass is really fast – to the dismay of those who choose to wait in the regular line. We got the fast pass for the jungle cruise and showed up 5 mins early and the fast pass line was moving so fast, we were almost turned away because we got in line too quickly. So, just come back during the appointed time and here is another tip for fast pass: You get an hour window – most people come back right at the minute of their first appointed time. If you come at the end of your fast pass hour time, there is less waiting. Also some of the people at the fast pass entrance are just kind to people with kids and may or may not look at the times so worth a shot, right?
TIP #7- Dining is expensive whether you are at a resort for Disney or in the park. To feed a family of four lunch can cost you almost $50 and that includes drinks. So, we did something fun since it was my daughter’s birthday celebration – we did a character dining on our 2nd day there. We did 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian and I have to say I was impressed. Most character dining experiences except for one are usually at the resorts and do not require admission to the parks so if you time these right – ie. breakfast with characters or dinner; you can actually save a day on your park hopper, drive straight to the resort where the dining experience is and then save your full day for another day. The character dining is something you will truly remember and is a fun time to be with your family, sitting, eating, and laughing about your day. The buffet was spectacular and I didn’t need to eat again the rest of the day and if you have special dietary restrictions, they accommodate these in style! The chef will even walk with you and identify what you cannot eat and get this- he or she will bring out special dishes for you. Since I am vegetarian, we got tons of food and others were jealous of the extras I got. It is the lowest stress thing we did at Disney. And when Prince charming and Cinderella came to our table and danced with our girls- wow! Priceless! Character experience dining can be expensive so if you are going to eat at the resort and at Disney, go ahead and get the dining plans and you will get a discount.
TIP #8- This leads me to Tip #8, if you are going to go a lot between now and the time the kids leave the nest, go ahead and get the Disney Rewards VISA Card (there is one with a fee and one without) which can be used to purchase movies, etc. And the rewards add up so you can use them to get merchandise at the Disney Store, and use them at resorts to upgrade your status. You get bonus Disney gift cards for signing up and on anniversaries. It is worth it if you plan on going a lot.
TIP #9- Okay, now for some other tid bits- use shortcuts to Fantasyland- you can go through Frontierland especially during busy hours or when the fireworks or parades are going on at the castle. If you are on main street or the entrance, take the OLD train into Frontierland and walk a few blocks from there and find yourself in Fantasyland. Same goes for the electric parade. Main street is the most crowded and around the castle. So, go find a place behind a rope at Frontierland near the train and watch the electric parade from there in peace -without people jumping in front of you and the crowds… grab a snack at Pecos Bill’s outlet or the $6.00 popcorn and get a front row seat. Also, for the character parade at 3pm, a great place to sit and watch is smack dab in the center of Liberty Square across from the Hall of Presidents… it looks like an exclusive roped off area but it is not. And great circular views can be found there especially for little kids.
TIP #10- Another secret is meeting the characters. You can find out on a phone app. or through the daily events sheets where and when the characters are and if you really want to see them get fast pass for it or let this be the one line you suck up and stand in. But be judicious- we waited 45 mins for the fairies- Tinkerbell and some fairy dude and I gotta say it was a horrible waste of time at night. On the other hand, meeting Mickey and Minnie is easy at the parlor right as you enter on Main Street and the Princesses are there too – they change daily so check which ones are showing at which time. AND BONUS: At Main Street you can get Fast Pass for the princesses and for Mickey’s Magic Show. We were not so lucky with meeting Ariel at her Grotto (yes that is what it is called)- some characters only appear for an hour or two so, if you do not know times or location, you will miss out so just something to consider and if that (over rides) is the purpose of your trip, ask at the Information desk (on the left) as you enter through the main gates at MAIN STREET. This will help you plan your day!
FINAL TIP (SPENDING): You simply must set a budget for yourself and the kids- ie., hotel, transportation, food, and of course, souvenir shopping. You can seriously drop a lot of money in addition to the airfare, rental car, and lodging which are all just necessities. If your hotel has free transportation to/from everything, trust me- you do not need a car so save your money. But, food at Disneyworld is expensive. If you can pack some food, hats, parkas do so so you save on unnecessary expenses. But where most people fail is buying goods like crazy light sabers that glow, the souvenir bucket or cup, the mouse ears, and the apparel and merchandise. The vendors are pushing trolleys and inevitably on every street corner. So are the popcorn, popsicle, ice cream, and overpriced drink carts. It is easy to see how in a day you can easily spend over $250 just in goods, food and beverage, and impulse buys. Bring a water bottle for all of you and refill it – stay hydrated on free water. Bring snacks from Walgreens, Walmart, and other stores near to your hotel. In fact, set a limit for your kids: You can buy one souvenir at Disney World and the rest of trinkets for your friends/office-mates etc… we will get at Wal-Mart or Walgreens down the street or that nutty 4-story high Souvenir store on INTERNATIONAL DRIVE. you can get T-shirts, hats, umbrellas, mugs, magnets, light sabers, and everything you can get at Disney cheaper at a local store or a souvenir store off of International Drive- up to 50% or more!!!! So, that is a no brainer and hopefully will not wreck your budget either. After all, you want to return here sometime without a 3rd mortgage on your home right? That being said, set a reasonable budget and try to stick to it- I am not talking about depriving your kids of food and sustenance but you can be smarter of where you pick up that food and beverage or take things with you. They search your bags but not for food and drink – just for alcohol and weapons.
Overall, we did have fun and I have to say I felt like a kid again, but it was the most exhausting trip I have taken in sometime and definitely was not relaxing for me. I have a Type-A personality and I had to control myself and my anger many times. The employees at Disney are the nicest, most helpful people ever- it’s in their employment contracts after all, but the visitors are not always so nice and grumpy parents make for grumpy visitors and fellow line-mates. But then I also met some really sweet friendly visitors too. Even some Patriots fans so see, they are not so bad after all. I found the funniest to be when elderly retired people or couples there without kids were getting frustrated with kids. Hello! It’s the Magic Kingdom. If you want a quiet experience, perhaps this is not the place for you. All in all though, the girls are still talking about their trip and unlike us, ready to go back! And even while I cringe still, 2 weeks later when I look at the pictures, I know deep down, I had a blast too! These are the memories I will cherish for a lifetime – oh lord! Just like the commercial said…. HELP!!!
Have you been to Walt Disney World? Please share your experiences with the readers and your tips. Mine are the “tip” of the iceberg and we were only there for a limited time. Would love to read your comments and thoughts….