Magic Doesn’t Just Happen

In November 2010, our family took our first major vacation.  We embarked on a Quest for Magic to Walt Disney World.  Since then, I’ve been asked for advice on planning a Disney trip by a few people. But somehow, I manage to lose the information I emailed to the last person before I get asked again and end up recreating everything each time.  So, with the most recent request, I decided to put what I’ve got here.

Magic doesn’t just happen, regardless of what Disney would have you believe.  Planning a Disney vacation is work–albeit fun work–but the end result will be worth it.  I’m going to divide the info into sections as best I can because there is going to be a lot of stuff.  Don’t panic.  There are a lot of great resources to help sort everything out.

 

Background

I’m going to give you some brief biographical info to help you understand what I was working with as far as family members and our goals to give you a frame of reference as you read.  This will help you take what you can use and leave what might not apply to your situation.

Travelers:

  • 2 adults
  • 3 children ages 10, 8, and 5.75 years old
The 5.75 year old was (and still is) small for her age.  At 5.75 years old she was probably the size of a 4 year old.  This is important to consider because height can limit ride choices.  She barely met the 42″ height limit for Test Track at EPCOT.

Time Frame:

Vacation – 1 week (8 days)

Budget:

$5,000

Geographical Origin:

South Dakota

Goals:

MagicKingdom
Epcot
Animal Kingdom
SeaWorld
Kennedy Space Center
Atlantic Ocean

Planning

The Unofficial Walt Disney World Guide and TouringPlans.com

The fist thing I did was ask my friends what their experiences were and what they would recommend for planning and info.  My friends live in various places around the U.S. and Canada, including central Florida.  That led me to this book The Unofficial Walt Disney World Guide.
I used this book to help determine what time of year to visit Disney, what parks to see, what days to visit each park, and compare pros and cons for various options like the Park Hopper option on the Disney tickets and Disney Dining Plans.  It was also helpful for ratings of both on-Disney and off-Disney hotels.  The book has checklists of how far out you should be doing things like making airline and hotel reservations and purchasing tickets.
The book’s related website touringplans.com came in handy for deciding what parks to visit when and creating custom plans for our days.  Disney has 4 parks, 2 water parks, and other attractions such as ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, so each family is going to be different in what their goals are, what parks they want to visit, and how comfortable they are with crowds and waiting.  I would highly recommend getting a subscription to touringplans.com for the year prior to your visit to take advantage of all their planning tools.  It is totally worth it!
As someone who does not have “backyard” access to a major US airport, making airline reservations so far out was not easy. The discount carrier from our regional airport only scheduled flights 4 months out and only had service to the Orlando area two days a week.  Since it was recommended to make airline reservations a year in advance, this became a problem.  We waited until 6 months out and then decided to fly in/out of the nearest major airport, which also added a 4 hour drive on each end of the trip and a night in a hotel when we left.  However, the extra expense was worth it to have a guarantee that we’d actually have a flight to/from Orlando rather than waiting for the discount carrier to get their act together.  They could have very well decided to cancel service to that airport, and then we’d have ended up paying astronomical fees to get “last minute” flights out of the larger airport anyway.  If you have more ready access to a major airport (like within a 2 hour drive), you’ll have more options.

Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World for Kids

We splurged and purchased one of these books for each of our kids.  We gave them to the girls about a year before our trip and told them to study them.  At a family meeting a couple months later, each child got to report on what parks she wanted to visit and three particular rides they wanted to go on.  This enabled me to what they wanted to do in our planning so everyone got to do at least some of the stuff they wanted to do.
I took the girls’ lists and what DH and I were interested in and compiled a schedule for our trip.  We planned to visit one park or attraction each day and then listed the “must dos” for each day.  TouringPlans.com then let me customize our days to know when to do certain popular rides to help avoid wait times.  Our main schedule looked like this:
Day 1 – travel to Florida
Day 2 – Epcot
Day 3 – Kennedy Space Center/Cocoa Beach
Day 4 – SeaWorld
Day 5 – Magic Kingdom
Day 6 – Downtown Disney
Day 7 – Animal Kingdom
Day 8 – travel home
Pace yourself.  You could easily spend 2 days each at EPCOT, Magic Kingdom, and SeaWorld.  Unless you have 2 full weeks, you likely won’t be able to see and do everything you would like.  I should have planned two days for Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach and rented a hotel for a night in Cocoa Beach.  We didn’t get to spend nearly enough time at the ocean.
I purchased a poly multiple pocket folder like this and each day of the trip was a pocket.
I put all the printouts and info for that day in the pocket.  It went with us on the trip and before we left the hotel for the day I took what we needed for that day from the folder and put it in my shoulder bag.  This bag was big enough to hold my camera, credit card wallet holding credit cards and park tickets, Dramamine, and folded papers needed for the day (basically just our touring plan printout).  I could wear is diagonally and for all but a few rides I could keep it on and fasten the safety system (belt or bar) over the shoulder strap while still wearing it to prevent it from flying around.

Park and Attraction Tickets

Disney tickets are complicated, IMHO, and offer more options than a Swiss Army Knife.  Read carefully to make sure you don’t select (and pay for) things you don’t need/won’t use and that you have the stuff you do need.  This chart helps break down the prices fairly well.  Warning:  You may end up spending more on park/attraction tickets than you do on airfare to get there or hotel for the entire trip.  Just want to give you a heads up so you’re not too shocked.

We didn’t get Park Hopper because we knew we’d not do more than one park per day.  We also didn’t get the Water Park & More option because 1) we were going to be there in November and 70 degrees isn’t warm enough for even South Dakotans to visit to an outdoor water park and 2) our schedule was FULL.  We did purchase a ticket for one more day than we were planning on being at Disney parks.  We needed 3 days but purchased a 4-day ticket. For the extra $25 or so per person it gave us the option to do one more Disney in case something else didn’t work out.

Special Events, Character Dining, and Character Meetings

We didn’t do any Disney character dining or special events, but I’m told that to get character dining reservations you need to call at the absolute first day reservations are allowed for your selected date (180 days prior, if I remember correctly) and then pray that the phase of the moon is right and that you’re in the favor of the Disney gods.  Princess dining is especially hard to get.

Our special event for the vacation was a luau (meal and show) at SeaWorld and a Behind the Scenes tour of the sea lions.  The reservations were easier to make, and they were more reasonably priced than Disney–but still not cheap.  I think we had just as good of time, if not better, than we would have had at a Disney event.

It is insanely easy to meet the characters at the parks to get autographs.  We managed to meet most of the princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Aurora), Mickey and Minnie, Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Daisy Duck, Donald Duck, Stitch, Marie from Aristocats and Goofy–and we weren’t even trying.

Hotel and Dining Plans and Auto Rentals…Oh My!

Our time was roughly spent half in Disney parks and half at non-Disney stuff in the Orlando area.  Because we were spending significant amounts of time at non-Disney venues, we rented a vehicle and opted for a non-Disney hotel at Marriott Village.  If you’re only doing Disney stuff, you can save the car rental expense by staying at a Disney hotel and using their transportation to/from the parks and airport.  However, make sure the extra cost of a Disney hotel will be less than doing non-Disney and renting a car.
This is also the logic we applied to the Disney Dining Plan.  We opted to not do the dining plan because half our days wouldn’t even be at Disney parks so we’d still have to pay for the food on those days.  However, our neighbors, who have 5 children, swear by the Disney Dining Plan because they do mostly Disney stuff while there.
A general dining warning: I know I’m in the minority on this because I have what I call “reverse picky” kids when it comes to eating (i.e. they WANT to eat veggies and fruit and have something with flavor), but the kids menus, at not only Disney venues but everywhere, sucked.  If your kids want something other than cheese pizza, chicken nuggets, or mac and cheese to eat they are going to have to order off the “adult” menu at most places.
A key site to check out for discounts on many things for Disney vacations is MouseSavers.  They offer discount codes for everything from park tickets to hotels and rental cars.  Some discounts, like the Undercover Tourist for discount tickets, require you to sign up for their newsletter (free).  This is worth the one email newsletter you’ll get per month.
Another place to look for discounts on hotels and rental cars is AAA if you’re a member.

Auto Travel Tips

Check out the seat belt/child car seat laws for any states you’ll be traveling through (FL for sure and any other states you may pass through if you are driving to Florida rather than flying).
Current (Jan. 2013) FL law is pretty slack on child passenger safety.  Only children 3 and under are required to be in a car seat or booster seat.  However, as a parent you should be thinking of safety first and the laws of physics have been shown in crash test after crash test to be quite harsh to children under 4’9″ and 80-90# who use only an adult seat belt.  Have a look.
If you are renting a car in FL, make sure to take a low-back booster seat for children 5-8 yo and a car seat for children under 4 yo.  DO NOT rent a car seat or booster seat from the car rental agency.  You do not know the history or age of the seat, and cleanliness is not guaranteed. I’ve heard reports of severely dated seats (i.e. 10+ years old; most seats are considered expired after 7 years) that are big on the eeeeeewwwwww factor being rented out.
Check out cell phone/texting laws for any states you’ll be traveling through (FL for sure and any other states you may pass through if you are driving to Florida rather than flying).

Other Miscellaneous Tips

Use your “smart” phone to your advantage

  • Take a “mugshot” photo of your child/children each day when you arrive at your first destination.  This will be a big help if you should become separated from your child as it will be the most current photo you have of him/her and he/she will be in the clothes that you’ll be looking for or need to describe.
  • Take pictures of other important things too.  Like the row marker in parking lots.  Our kids and I still remember where we parked in the airport parking garage because we made a point of taking a picture of it.
  • Consider purchasing cheap pre-paid cell phone(s) for older children to carry.  Even if the kids have their own regular cell phones they use at home.  Better to leave the expensive or everyday ones at home and use a temporary one on the trip than risk the “real” one getting lost/stolen.  This will give you a way to stay in touch with older children if separated (by chance or by choice).

If you have multiple children, consider a family “uniform”, especially if you have young-ish children (under 10).  We purchased inexpensive t-shirts for the girls in bright colors.  They all wore the same color on the same day.  That way I knew at a glance which kids were mine.  It sounds silly but is very handy.  Also, if one wanders off, you can tell those helping to look for him/her that he/she is wearing a shirt exactly like this (while pointing to one of your other children).  It also helps the kids know what to look for.  They can keep an eye out for the same color to find someone they know (i.e. a sibling).

If you have a child under the age of 6, I would strongly suggest renting a stroller.  Disney strollers are HUGE, and even if you don’t use it for a child, they come in handy for tossing purchases and tote bags in.  If you have a child less than 4 yo, I’d look into Magic Strollers through the Mouse Savers website as they look to be more comfy for a child that will be spending a good deal of time in it.

We gave each of the kids a souvenir allowance.  They had a set amount they could spend.  I got some play money and put that amount in an envelope for each of them.  When they wanted to buy something they had to take the amount out of their envelope (I paid for the actual purchase with a credit card).  It helped them budget their money and avoided me buying a ton of stuff and going over budget without the risk of carrying around real money.

Keep a travel blog or written journal.  It doesn’t have to be public (in the case of a blog) or fancy (a spiral notebook will do).  Write notes in it each night about what you did that day and funny things that happened.  I scrapbook so this was valuable when I went back to make a book about the trip (I’m still not done with that book now, over two years later).  Even if you don’t do anything as formal as a scrapbook, it will be a treasure from your trip.

Summary Website Listing

Here are links to all the sites I referenced above (and some I didn’t).
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